Thinking about an American Imperium

Somewhere in The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso offered the observation that one day the United States woke up and discovered that it was an empire, but it didn’t know what an empire was. So it ran its empire like a giant corporation. I don’t think that’s true, but the question–what, if anything, is the American empire–is one that a lot of people grapple with.

Tony Judt reviews some recent attempts and offers some things to ponder.

“The challenge facing American voters in the coming elections is not to find a president who can convince the world that the US isn’t an empire—or else, if it is an empire, that its intentions are honorable. That argument has been lost and is now beside the point. Nor is it even a question of choosing between being loved and being feared. Thanks to America’s performance in Iraq—and our evident inability to plan one war at a time, much less two—we are neither loved nor feared. We have shocked the world, yes; but few now hold us in awe.

. . . we should not be surprised that America has ceased to be an example to the world. The real tragedy is that we are no longer an example to ourselves. America’s born-again president insists that we are engaged in the war of Good against Evil, that American values ‘are right and true for every person in every society.’ Perhaps. But the time has come to set aside the Book of Revelation and recall the admonition of the Gospels: For what shall it profit a country if it gain the whole world but lose its own soul?”

How some public figures are intending to vote

Speaking of evolutionary psychology, Reasononline surveyed some noted journalists, thinkers, and public figures on how they plan to vote. Some responses:

“Steven Pinker . . .

2004 vote: Kerry. The reason is reason: Bush uses too little of it. In the war on terror, his administration stints on loose-nuke surveillance while confiscating nail clippers and issuing color-coded duct tape advisories. His restrictions on stem cell research are incoherent, his dismissal of possible climate change inexcusable.”

The one that surprised me:

[Supply-side guru] “Jude Wanniski . . .

2004 vote: Bush does not deserve to be re-elected, and Kerry does not deserve to be elected — Bush because of Iraq and Kerry because his economics are dreadful. I’m leaning toward Kerry because I prefer recession to imperialist war . . .”

How quickly it all boils down to debates on evolutionary psychology

Quite often, I’m amazed how discussions of some topic become discussions of evolutionary psychology and (d)evolve into soci-odicy vs bi-odicy. Being Millian on these things, I think that these fights are by and large good, save the ad hominem attacks that spring up regularly.

Kieran Healy over at Crooked Timber has a post on explanations of why one is more likely to find older and richer men married to younger women than older rich women married to younger men and on evolutionary psychology. The post evolved, so to speak, from a back and forth with David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy on gender and stereotypes.

“Relations between the sexes provide the most fertile soil for the proliferation of the MSU [Make Shit Up] branch of EP [evolutionary psychology]. Gender roles are deeply institutionalized — that is, they are highly scripted and chronically reproduced — and we like nothing better than to think of our institutions as inevitable or natural. I can see how very widespread trends — such as men being slightly older than women at first marriage, for instance — might be traced back to very ancient social arrangements, though even here there’s enough variation to make it a difficult sell. Neither am I opposed to the idea that there are very basic drives or predispositions that go back very far which might reliably generate patterns of social organization or culture. But it also seems obvious to me that ideas about the appropriate relations between the sexes — or races, classes, nations, or whatever you like — thrive best if they appear to be emanations from the mind of God or the structure of DNA.”

Read the whole thing, threads included.

At heart I think is the periodic reconsideration of something else, the reductionism (of values and value terms to physical properties) that G.E. Moore sought to refute (by the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ argument). (Yes, I’m reading into all this my own thought and interest on intellectual, cultural zeitgeists.) Now seems to be such a moment; for example, Abbas, to out him on this, thinks that the naturalistic fallacy is itself wrong, at least globally on various stability criteria. (I’m skeptical.) In either case, the very open question nature of these positions make them reoccuring.

But read around back to the original piece, and you’ll get a sense of how far EP has come in the popular consciousness.

New Nigerian Fiction – Adichie

“The secret of Adichie’s style is simplicity, rhythm and balance. She writes a poet’s sentences. On the cashew tree outside the bedroom window, ‘the bell-shaped yellow fruits hung lazily, drawing buzzing bees that bumped against my window’s netting.’ There is no wilful exoticism: no playing to the gallery of Western expectation; but surprising and elegant juxtapositions keep the reader’s attention poised: ‘Dust-laden winds of harmattan came with December. They brought the scent of the Sahara and Christmas.’ She works through delicate insights and half-glimpses; despite the tough and intractable material, and her rigour in confronting it, the final impression of the novel is of gentleness, gravity and grace.”

From “I have washed my feet out of it,” Hillary Mantel’s essay on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the LRB.

Iraq’s intellectuals as targets

Iraq’s descent into chaos is leading its best and brightest to leave, as academics become targets of kidnappers and murderers.

“Since the war ended 18 months ago, at least 28 university teachers and administrators have been killed, while 13 professors were kidnapped and released on payments of ransom, according to the Association of University Lecturers. Many others have received death threats.

The result: an exodus of academics and other intellectuals, who are urgently needed by a shattered society, from their schools and often the country, joining an earlier generation of exiles who fled the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

I have two reactions to this. First is frustration with the US for not providing stabilty and security for a population living under its administration. Second is a sense of belwiderment at the Left for seeing these mafia types and theocrats as carrying the torch of Iraqi liberation.

Americans, er, respond to letters from The Guardian and its readers

A few days ago, I posted lettters published in The Guardian from John Le Carre, Antonia Fraser, and Richard Dawkins to American voters about the upcoming election, urging them to vote against Bush. The Guardian had also lauched a project named “Operation Clark County”. British readers would write letters to undecided voters in Clark County, Ohio and urge them to vote for Kerry (or to get Bush out of office.) I wondered whether these would have no impact whatsoever or would simply provoke a backlash.

Now the U.S. writes back in response to both.

Shame on you for using the people of Ohio like this. The US presidental election isn’t just about foreign policy, it’s about healthcare, taxes, education, transportation, natural resources and all manner of issues with little to no impact on the people of Britain.

We live in a globalised, interconnected world. If China shuts its borders to US imports, you better believe American companies, shareholders and workers are affected. Should US citizens therefore have a direct say in Chinese policies? No – Americans should demand that their own elected leaders address the issues with their Chinese counterparts. The British have a similar voice in US policies – through your own elected representatives who have any number of diplomatic, economic and military tools at their disposal. You vote for your leaders and we’ll vote for ours. Your problem is with your leaders, not ours.
Washington DC

Real Americans aren’t interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions. If you want to save the world, begin with your own worthless corner of it.
Texas, USA

I enjoy reading your paper and agree with your politics, but this is really too much.Your plan, if carried out, will hurt the Bush opposition TERRIBLY. We cannot afford to have this associated with John Kerry or anyone else. It will be; the press is going in for a kill, days before the election.
United States

Dear British friends,
I think you have an interesting idea to encourage international grassroots efforts, but I sincerely doubt most Springfielders are going to be influenced by letters from a country they probably can’t even point to on a map. I wish you luck with your campaign, but I warn you that you’re not likely to accomplish much.
Dayton, Ohio

Read the rest.

John Stewart on Crossfire, for those of you who haven’t seen it

John Stewart’s skewering of the media and especially Crossfire on Crossfire has made its way around the net and media, so why post it here? It’s so good and feels like a collective outcry about a media that’s become a joke that it deserves to be posted all over. Watch it here; or read the transcript here (scroll down half way).

STEWART: . . .And I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.


BEGALA: We have noticed.

STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.


CARLSON: But in its defense…


STEWART: So I wanted to come here today and say…


STEWART: Here’s just what I wanted to tell you guys.




STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.



STEWART: And come work for us, because we, as the people…

CARLSON: How do you pay?

STEWART: The people — not well.


BEGALA: Better than CNN, I’m sure.

STEWART: But you can sleep at night.


Globalization debate, round II: David Held responds to his critics

Following up on an earlier post on the perennial globalization debate, David Held responds to his critics, both right and left.

“But the polemical stances of some contributors – notably Jagdish Bhagwati, Meghnad Desai and Martin Wolf – make me uneasy. In the search for what they take to be enemies of economic globalisation, they too often misconstrue, mischaracterise and mislead. If they were my students they would be lucky to have a pass; I would probably send them back to the original source and ask them to reread it!

Worse, I fear that they wilfully refuse to take on board the fact that those of us who are critics of the present form and character of economic globalisation do so from a positive point of view. We recognise the material advances the global economy has achieved, but cannot accept the high costs to many communities and the environment. I strongly support international trade, but argue that it needs good, strong government to achieve its full potential. Bhagwati, Desai and Wolf misrepresent my argument and too often project it as a form of opposition to globalisation in general.

The most important argument today, in my view, is over how globalisation can and should be governed.”

The Evolution of Cooperation and an end to the 20 year reign of “tit-for-tat”

This is the 20th anniversary of Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, which showed how cooperation could emerge from egoistic maximizers through a prisioner’s dilemma tournament. The tournament’s winning strategy “Tit-for-tat”, submitted by Anatol Rapaport, illuminated phenomenon as diverse as salmon mating habits and spontaneous cease-fires in World War I. The tournament, held in 1980, long preceded the book, and the findings, along with their implications for biology, had been publish in Science in 1981. (Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, “The evolution of cooperation.” Science 211:1390-6, 1981)

Ever since the tournament, new strategies for maximizing payoffs in an iterated prisioners’ dilemma are developed all the time, but “tit-for-tat” has consistently outperformed all challengers . . . until now.

“[T]he Southampton [University in England] team submitted 60 programs. These, Jennings explained, were all slight variations on a theme and were designed to execute a known series of five to 10 moves by which they could recognize each other. Once two Southampton players recognized each other, they were designed to immediately assume ‘master and slave’ roles — one would sacrifice itself so the other could win repeatedly.

If the program recognized that another player was not a Southampton entry, it would immediately defect to act as a spoiler for the non-Southampton player. The result is that Southampton had the top three performers — but also a load of utter failures at the bottom of the table who sacrificed themselves for the good of the team.”

UPDATE: Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth is skeptical and makes somes good points.

The clever thing the Southampton group did was to engineer a situation that TFT couldn’t cope with, namely collusion among the competing players. If, indeed, one agent is willing to be stomped on, forever, to the greater glory of another, without getting anything out of it, then its master will indeed get all the benefits that the dilemma is capable of providing. (At this point, you can add your own allusions to Hegel, or “safe, sane and consensual” jokes, as you prefer.) This does not seem to me at all an evolutionarily stable situation, however, since the slave agents have, by construction, exactly no incentive to participate in the arrangement. In fact, a mutant which used the coding scheme to recognize supposed masters and always defected against them, but played TFT with everyone else, should do better than a slave, and without slaves the master-type agents are not going to do well. (I will leave it to others [Bill? Gary? Tim?] to draw the obvious morals.) So I strongly doubt that in the wild, e.g., in actual social dilemmas, we will ever see Southampton-type strategies, which means that TFT should still be robust, and strong reciprocity is saved for another day.

(For the really hard core people. I can’t begin to imagine Southampton strategies appearing in biological evolution. Case 1: slaves are not related to masters. Then slaves obviously go extinct, after which masters are not long for this world. If memory serves, Darwin, in the Origin, gives basically this case as an example of an observation which would refute evolution by natural selection. Case 2: slaves are related to masters. Then we’ve got the usual kin selection case of, e.g., sterile castes in eusocial insects. Since the pay-off function has to be inclusive fitness, we don’t really have the Prisoners’ Dilemma at all!)

I guess we’ll watch this unfold.

People Are Human-Bacteria Hybrid

“Most of the cells in your body are not your own, nor are they even human. They are bacterial. From the invisible strands of fungi waiting to sprout between our toes, to the kilogram of bacterial matter in our guts, we are best viewed as walking “superorganisms,” highly complex conglomerations of human, fungal, bacterial and viral cells. “

More here from Wired News. (Thanks to Anthony Porter.)

A couple of poems by Wendy Susan Walters

In case you haven’t seen it, our friend Wendy has a couple of poems over at Nth Position. I’ve always liked Wendy’s poetry. And on the likely chance you will as well, here’s a snippet of one to whet your aesthetic appetite and a link to the poems.

Serving several purposes

Because the sky was black with duck. Why we laugh
at them when they can not help but to fall in love with us
because we are so damn beautiful. . .

(Read the whole thing, and “Lips” as well here.)

KITP Future of Physics conference, now online

The lectures from the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics’ conference on The Future of Physics are available online. Among the speakers were David Gross, Steven Weinberg, Frank Wilczek, and Edward Witten. Panels participants included Juan Maldacena, Roger Penrose, and Leonard Susskind.

“The conference opened with a review of all the exciting developments in theoretical physics in the last 25 years and closed with a special session in which the participants were asked to predict what exciting developments will occur in physics in the next 25 years.”

Le Carré, Fraser, and Dawkins offer advice and pleas on the US elections

John Le Carré, Antonia Fraser, and Richard Dawkins offer some thoughts on the US elections in the form of letters to Americans . . . unsurprisingly encouraging us to support Kerry.

Le Carré: “Probably no American president in all history has been so universally hated abroad as George W Bush: for his bullying unilateralism, his dismissal of international treaties, his reckless indifference to the aspirations of other nations and cultures, his contempt for institutions of world government, and above all for misusing the cause of anti-terrorism in order to unleash an illegal war – and now anarchy – upon a country that like too many others around the world was suffering under a hideous dictatorship, but had no hand in 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction, and no record of terrorism except as an ally of the US in a dirty war against Iran.”

Fraser: “First of all, if you back Kerry, you will be voting against a savage militaristic foreign policy of pre-emptive killing which has stained the great name of the US so hideously in recent times. A policy that Bush and his gang are set to continue – if they get the opportunity.”

Dawkins: “In the service of his long-planned war (with its catastrophically unplanned aftermath), Bush not only lied about Iraq being the ‘enemy’ who had attacked the twin towers. With the connivance of the toadying Tony Blair and the spineless Colin Powell, he lied to Congress and the world about weapons of mass destruction. He is now brazenly lying to the American electorate about how ‘well’ things are going under the puppet government. By comparison with this cynical mendacity, the worst that can be said about John Kerry is that he sometimes changes his mind. Well, wouldn’t you change your mind if you discovered that the major premise on which you had been persuaded to vote for war was a big fat lie?”

I don’t know if these things backfire (at the margins of course) or have no effect whatsoever.

Gehry Is Selected as Architect of Ground Zero Theater Center

“Frank Gehry, admired for his voluptuous buildings of undulating titanium and steel, is to be the architect of a new performing arts center at ground zero, his first major cultural project in Manhattan, the development corporation in charge of rebuilding the site said yesterday.

The selection of Mr. Gehry for the arts center – which is to include the Joyce Theater and the Signature Theater – brings to Lower Manhattan a celebrity architect who has been notably absent from perhaps the most closely watched architectural site in the world.”

More here by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times.

Stats on your city and neighborhood, with just a few clicks

My sense of my neighborhood and social spaces are imprecise and vague, based on a general feeling about how fun or wealthy or diverse they happens to be. I suspect that this is true for most people. More importantly, I’m skeptical whether quantifying these things adds to any of my experiences of them.

In any case, this web site, (via preposterous universe), provides a host of statistical information on cities and neighborhoods in the United States. Surfing around it is fun. To compare my old neighborhood, in the East Village (zip code 10009), with my new one in Boerum Hill (zip code 11217):

Old neighborhood:

Population (2000): 58,595

Housing units: 30,199

White population: 35169
Black population: 6136
American Indian population: 310
Asian population: 5925
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander population: 33
Some other race population: 8323
Two or more races population: 2699

Median age: 36.0

Average household size: 1.98
Median household income (1999): $40176

Population by age and gender


New neighborhood:

Population (2000): 35,353

Housing units: 16,474

White population: 16925
Black population: 11160
American Indian population: 198
Asian population: 1363
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander population: 22
Some other race population: 3932
Two or more races population: 1753

Median age: 33.8

Average household size: 2.15
Median household income (1999): $49567

Population by age and gender


The return of the Chinese juggernaut

The war on terrorism occupies the bulk of our attention in the international arena, as wars usually do. There are, however, some profound secular shifts underway, most notable among them, the development of China and, to a lesser degree at least for now, of India. This piece in Le Monde Diplomatique puts the issue in historical perspective.

“An article in the New York Times this year asked whether the 21st century would be a ‘Chinese century’. This may be overstating the case: the Chinese transition is under way but is far from complete. None the less, assuming that the growth dynamic is maintained without major social or political disruption, China will indisputably become a dominant player in the international economic and financial system this century.

This represents a huge tectonic shift. Its distant origins are to be found in the position that Asia occupied in the world system before the North-South divide and the creation of third world countries . . . – a divide brought about by the European industrial revolution and colonialism. In a long-term perspective China, like Asia as a whole, can be seen to be resuming its precolonial history and gradually reclaiming the place that it occupied before 1800, when it was one of the main centres of the world economy and the world’s principal manufacturing power.”

How inequality will shape the biotech revolution, and vice versa

Among the concerns ushered in by the approaching revolutions in genetics and biotechnology is the issue of what they will mean for the distribution of health and, indeed, genetic traits themselves.

On the former, some worry about development of a “health genomics gap” between the rich North and poor South and suggest that genomics should be included into the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the UN in 2000.

But it is the latter issue that raises sharper and more dire concerns. Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution raised the spectre that a revolution in genetic engineering will undo the by and large natural, genetic equality upon which equal humans rights and liberty are (ostensibly) predicated. (Here’s a review of the book.) In the extreme, he fears, speciation among us will create uncomfortable issues for politics and ethics. Some opponents of restrictions on genetic engineering and Fukuyama debate the issues here.

Jerry Fodor reviews a new book on Saul Kripke’s contributions to philosophy

In the latest London Review of Book, Jerry Fodor reviews a new book on Saul Kripke by Christopher Hughes, entitled Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity.

“By pretty general consent, Kripke’s writings (including, especially, Naming and Necessity) have had more influence on philosophy in the US and the UK than any others since the death of Wittgenstein. Ask an expert whether there have been any philosophical geniuses in the last while, and you’ll find that Kripke and Wittgenstein are the only candidates. Again, as far as I can tell, Hughes’s exposition is accurate and sophisticated, and his coverage is more than adequate. Unless you are yourself a practitioner, this is all the Kripke that you need to know about.”

A Curtain of Cold, Primordial Hydrogen

“Detailed analyses of mankind’s deepest optical view of the universe, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), by several expert teams have at last identified what may turn out to be some of the earliest star-forming galaxies. Astronomers are now debating whether the hottest stars in these early galaxies may have provided enough radiation to ‘lift a curtain’ of cold, primordial hydrogen that cooled after the big bang. This is a problem that has perplexed astronomers over the past decade, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has at last glimpsed what could be the ‘end of the opening act’ of galaxy formation. These faint sources illustrate how astronomers can begin to explore when the first galaxies formed and what their properties might be.”

More on Hubble’s recent exploits, with jaw-dropping pictures, here at the Hubblesite and here at NASA. Or skip right to the page for the most recently released images.

And here at Space-Talk, devotees have an ongoing forum for conversations all about space, space, space.