Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net

Saturday, September 27, 2003
 
For everyone who knows me in real life

My cellphone got stolen today in Brussels, so if you're one of the people with my GSM number, it won't work anymore. Just use my landline number, and if you don't have it, e-mail me to get it.
 

Friday, September 26, 2003
 
The Scar

I finished reading China Miéville's last book The Scar the other day. I'm really beginning to like Miéville's books. But, ever since the dialogue in Perdido Street Station about the Torque bomb, I've wondered if we're going to find out that Bas-Lag is some kind of post-weird-holocaust Earth. Now that I've finished The Scar, it seems almost obvious. Anybody else had these thoughts?
 

 
The 80's are finally over

For those of you who count yourselves among the first MTV generation (hint: Who was Martha Quinn? If you don't know the answer, you don't count), the following is tragic news indeed:

Robert Palmer dies in Paris

PARIS (Reuters) - British rock singer Robert Palmer has died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 54, French media say.

Palmer was best known for his 1985 hit "Addicted to Love" and its accompanying video, which featured laconic models with slicked-back hair and electric guitars.

The singer was on holiday in Paris with his companion Mary Ambrose when he suffered the heart attack, the reports said on Friday.

No further details were immediately available.




Robert Palmer - inventor of the now obscure reference "Robert Palmer girls" - was something of an icon of the 80's, right up there with Don Johnson. Always looking good in formalwear that a mere few years earlier might have been eschewed as "square", Palmer was always at the forefront of men's fashion. In a stark reflection of the Reagan-era rejection of social progress, women in the Palmerverse were empty, near identical, interchangeable vessels, who served as little more than backdrop scenery. Easy to look at and impossible to tell apart, they were mere simulcra of women, there only to play guitars and shimmy on stage.



Palmer's music career reached its peak in the mid 80's, with his 1985 and '86 hit singles "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistable", both far more widely known for the sterility with which the simultaneously released music videos portray the female form than for their artistic value as music. He was also the front man for the Robert Palmer-Duran Duran hybrid "Power Station", the one-hit-wonder responsible for the lyrically unimpressive hit "Get it on (Bang a gong)" in 1985.

With Palmer's death, my dear readers, the 1980's are finally over. Unstructured blazers and pink shirts will never be fashionable again. Can I also presume that the end of the 1980's means we can now stop fighting the war on drugs, political correctness, welfare queens and Middle-Eastern extremism?
 

Thursday, September 25, 2003
 
For the World's A B C's, He Makes 1's and 0's

Good article on Michael Everson and Unicode at the NY Times. Also, the front page has an obit for Edward Saïd, who passed away today.

Oh, and the archives are functional again. Blogger blew up for a few days and a lot of the archives were missing or incomplete. But it should be okay again.

I've been busy with Chinese and Russian the last couple of days. My language classes are all in Dutch, so this is sort of Dutch immersion Russian and Chinese. It's a new experience, but it is doing my Dutch a fair amount of good.
 

Tuesday, September 23, 2003
 
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Cosma's asked me not to post anything too "insightful" about methodological individualism until he's had a chance to respond. Since I have the same kinds of problems getting the time for more in-depth arguments, I sympathise.

I just want to say one thing before we go too much further, and I'm hoping that it isn't too insightful: It was a something of a mistake for me to go into arguments against methodological individualism in general rather than going straight to the Barbie example, because the second is much important to the case I'm trying to make. In order to really take advantage of arguments that attribute phenomena to populations that don't fit my criteria for a collective - like the speakers of a language - I have to develop a whole different area of theory. Doing this would be helpful for other purposes as well, like developing a theory of class. I've got some notions about where to go to do that, but it won't happen today.

Besides, I am trying to offer a normative theory. I want to show just how, and under just what conditions, we can assert a collective responsibility. My answer is that we can only do so when we can assert that a collective possesses both a capacity for collective action and collective cognition. Something else - for example, women in Heath's example - may have a capacity for collective action. They individually buy cosmetics and collectively support the cosmetics industry, but they possess no capacity for collective cognition. Women do not all get together and decide, as a group, to buy cosmetics. Their collective action is attached to no collective cognition. Therefore, we can't blame women for the cosmetics industry. We can't assert that whatever damage cosmetics do to the lives of women, that it is their own fault.

Now, on to other stuff. The comments to the third post have some good stuff that I never did respond to. Zizka thinks I should write a book - which, along with the other positive responses I've gotten to this series have expanded my ego to the point where it is becoming a health hazard.

Tom T., however, makes some good counterpoints:

Your post is thought-provoking and very smoothly written. Also, the critique of capitalism would indeed be very interesting, and I hope you get around to writing it. I find myself running up against a fundamental issue, however, but it may be that I am either reading too much or too little into your post.

I have a hard time seeing how the principle of self-development, as you've described it thus far, differs the U.S. Constitution's principle of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It seems to me that both are open-ended aspirational goals that are hard to argue against in principle but provide little guidance in themselves for day-to-day policy-making.

You say that education is important to the freedom of self-development. That may be true, but the principle of self-development, in an of itself, doesn't seem to help us decide how much money to spend on public schools, or what tuition (if any) to charge for college or grad school, or whether to permit vouchers. Does self-development alone provide a means for getting past the doctrine of "separate-but-equal"?

The same holds true in other areas as well, I think. Self-development may embrace a right to transportation, and again that may be so. At what level, though, should bus and subway fares be set; what percent of costs should be covered by fares and what percent by taxes? Is Amtrak service justifiable? Should the government offer low-interest loans on cars to the needy?

Affirmative action also strikes me as a more difficult issue than you present. Certainly, American history can be seen as giving rise to racial and other systemic injustices that persist to this day. Nonetheless, under your own theory (in my opinion, of course), using affirmative action to further the self-development of a member of a protected group necessarily impinges upon the self-development of the member of the unprotected group who would otherwise have gotten that spot in the college class, or that job, etc. There may be just and worthy reasons for favoring one person (or class of persons) over another, but I think that self-development in this context is a wash.

It seems to me that it is impossible for a policymaker to maximize every person's self-development. Every dollar that you or I pay in taxes is a dollar that could otherwise have gone to our personal self-development. Again, there may be excellent reasons for imposing such taxes, but I think one has to look beyond simply the principle of self-development in order to reach those reasons. And if that's true, then what does the principle of self-development add to the process?

First, I would say that what I am putting forward is certainly compatible with Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is true that it is an aspiational goal, but so are almost all normative political principles. I don't forsee the development of a detailed calculus which enables us to say that action A leads to X units of self-development and action B leads to Y units, so if X > Y, we do action A. However, I think it is at least as reasonable a principle to advance as the utilitarian goal of the greatest good to the greatest number.

This is not a decision procedure, but rather a set of terms in which to make an argument. People might well legitimately disagree what specific action will do the most to advance self-development, and no ready mechanism exists for measuring it. There is still a need to balance interests against each other. The idea, instead, is that using these categories to make these judgements is useful because it explicitly rejects certain kinds of arguments that I find damaging.

For example, my system lends itself well to arguments for a progressive income tax - the very rich loose very little capacity for self-development by paying high taxes, while the poor lose a great deal. It does not, however, tell you what level of taxation will optimise the capacity for individual self-development. Indeed, you can still make a case against high progressive income taxes on the grounds that self-development is more enhanced by the investment activities of wealthy people than by taxing their money and using it for more specifically targetted activities. I don't happen to think that is a very good argument, but it is a possible one in this framework. What I am rejecting is the idea that progressive income taxes are wrong because they are unequal or because of some moral notion of what's mine is mine.

In the case of affirmative action, I made a different argument, one based on historical injustice rather than one based on optimisation of self-development in the present. In Canada, we tend to recognise a sense of "collective rights" which we attribute based on very ad hoc notions of identity - "francophone", "aboriginal", "visible minority", etc - and we do this especially when we recognise historical injustices. I have always been bothered by this sort of thing, and this is my alternative.
 

Monday, September 22, 2003
 
An example for Cosma

In the comments to the post below Marc-Antoine Parent points me towards Joseph Heath, who has an interesting paper up on his website called Ideology, Irrationality and Collectively Self-Destructive Behaviour. It is an expansion of the "prisoner's dilemma" type problem so frequently found in choice theory to explain a wider variety of phenomena that are frequently - and particularly within Marxist discourse - attributed to ideology. It lends itself well to a methodologically individualist analysis. He points out that American women spend some $20 billion a year on cosmetics, even though many of them realise quite acutely how collectively damaging that spending is to women as a whole, and offers a good reason why.

I don't have any particular problem with his explanation. Women are not, to my way of thinking, a collective. However, while it may be a good explanation of why the opinions of women seem to have virtually no impact at all on the cosmetics industry, it is not a complete explanation. It explains why women buy cosmetics, but it doesn't explain why they make and sell them. Women also work at cosmetics firms and they work at banks that make loans to cosmetics firms. They, the ones who would have the power to do something about the cosmetics industry, are also doing nothing about it.

Many years ago, I worked for a small firm that did some contract work for Mattel, back in the old days before they merged with Tyco. I had enough exposure to middle level management at Mattel to realise that the women who make and sell Barbie - and they were mostly middle-aged women - largely hated "the little plastic slut" and everything that she stood for, and sold her anyway. Why? Heath's reasoning applies quite well to them - no Barbie means no job. They hated Barbie, but they hated unemployment even more. How can it be that a whole firm - or something fairly close to it - can promote and sell a product that most of the individual employees, including the top managers, individually hated?

I claim that it is because the firm does not hate Barbie. It has motivations quite different from those of its individual members. For the firm, Barbie is life or death. Mattel makes a number of products besides Barbie, but none is nearly as big, as profitable or as emblematic of the firm as Barbie. The risks and choices available to individual Mattel employees may very well explain why Mattel continues to function and why the parts of the firm continue to work in their context, but all that shows is that a theory of individual choice can be compatible with a theory of collective cognition and behaviour. The behaviour of the firm itself is better explained in terms of the firm as a single entity making choices as a whole, choices that are only rational in terms of the firm's position in a market for which the firm acts as a single player.

We can't actually attribute full responsibility for Barbie - and all that she entials - to any real person at Mattel. I am inclined to be sympathetic to someone who works in a job that entails doing things they don't personally like, since, like most people, I've been in those kinds of jobs. Whatever ills we believe Barbie to cause, we can only honestly attribute them to the whole firm and to its - possibly - rational choices in a context even larger than itself.
 

 
Confessions of a negligent blogger

I realise I've not been blogging as much as I used to. For example, it's been two months since I last put up a post from Grandpa's memoirs, and I haven't looked terribly hard at the comments on the posts on language rights that have now dropped off the main page into the archives.

I have been a little busy.

However, I am especially embarassed since last night, when I got a call from my mother wondering how it could be that she had commented on one of my posts a week ago and I had said nothing about it.

So, hi Mom!

Anyway, since I know that my Mom (and my ego-surfing little brother who found this blog) will be reading this page, I cleaned up the broken images in the archives, which have been down for a while now because Quasitown.com went from being a free site to a pay site. And now, I'm going to put up a set of links to some of the key posts that I think she's going to want to read (and, of course, any other readers I still have after such a long period of slow blogging who haven't read them are welcome to click through too):

Grandpa's autobiography:

Nestor Makhno and me
Das Alter Buch
Out of Friesia
One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Down and out in Siberia
Winnipeg emm Kjalla
Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows
Beastly Murder
Tina Rennt...
Liebesbriefen von Ru├čland
Apanlee
The Apanlee Park
Faith put to the test

Then, there are the posts on language rights that are the current focus of discussion here at Pedantry:

Language Rights and Political Theory - Chapter Summaries and Specific Criticisms
A different kind of language policy
Mediation, Collectivism, Self-Development and Political Theory
Language, Culture and Reality

And:

French Immersion
A Link from An Unenviable Situation
Another latecomer to the debate on language rights
Methodological Individualism and Actor-Network Theory

I'm going to respond to some of the comments on the language rights posts as soon as possible. I just have a little code to fix up first.

Update: At Ikram Saeed's request, I'm also adding a link to the post on Israel and the Palestinians that first invoked some of these notions:

Why Israel and Palestine are not morally equivalent

Further Update: Fixed the links again. @$%^ Blogger keeps changing where my posts are in the archive. Still hunting for the post on education that I think must be the one Donald Jobson is looking for.

Still Further Update:

I think the post Donald is looking for is this one:

     We don't need no education

And the follow-up:

     Smokin' In The Boys' Room