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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Legitimation crisis....

It is often -- actually frequently -- the case that my reading in philosophy (which I did too little of as a student) coincides with something relevant going on in the news. Since I am reading about theories of moral and causal responsibility, this comes as no surprise. Such issues are typically near the surface in almost any news story, but the government's response to Katrina and Rita have made the obscure philosophical discussions really quite relevant.

A key point here is that the usual link between causal and moral responsibility, while rational and neat on the formal level, is in fact irrelevant to dynamics of governance today. It turns out that in the real world of accountable governance, it matters not one iota whether one is causally responsible for something; rather it matters whether you are held "morally" responsible.

(The scare quotes around morally reflects my rather loose approach to what is moral, for I believe that something rises to the level of being moral if it is subject to a sense of indignation...).

As FEMA, the White House and various other governmental entities and agents have discovered, it doesn't matter whether you are actually responsible for an event; what matters is whether you are held responsible either officially or informally -- that is, whether you are perceived as blameworthy (even though you might not be in fact blamable) or liable (under real or imagined conditions of law) or answerable (again, whether reflecting some formal or imagined sense of answerable), or just being indentified with some stigmatizable group (e.g., bureaucrats, politicians, etc.).

Operating in the context of hyper-accountability (which is our current condition) essentially and effectively renders any governmental agent or agency "damned if you do and damned if you don't". Under the hyped attention of the mass media, public officials are more like to opt for the "damned if you do".

Case in point: the panic-driven evacuations in the face of Hurricane Rita. It is interesting that folks are starting to talk of the "Katrina effect" to explain why the things went so wrong, the result being a tendency to "blame the victims" of this media-driven and government supported panic. The question that has to be asked is what caused the media and government to behave so inappropriately in the face of a hurricane that should have been treated as just that -- just another hurricane, no more exceptional than other hurricanes that visit the Gulf at this time almost every year. The answer is to be found in a "culture of governance" that is no longer tethered to a belief in the competence of public sector institutions -- a belief undermined by the very institutions (electoral politics, media freedom, etc.) that are central to that competence.

Perhaps it is time to revisit Habermas' Legitimation Crisis....

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Give us a break....

There is no doubt that the folks in New Orleans and environs lived through a true disaster earlier this month. Like the floods of 1927 that devastated the Mississippi River basin, and the famous Galveston hurricane of 1900 (now known as "Issac's storm") that literally destroyed that thriving port, the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans was a true catastrophic disaster. And tonight's flooding of the 9th Ward of New Orleans as a result of Rita is an extension of that tragedy.

That said, what is taking place at the moment as Hurricane Rita approaches Texas is a disaster of a different sort -- it is nothing short of a tragic
political storm where lives are being lost and put at risk unnecessarily as a result of a panic perpetrated for the sake of repairing the damaged reputation and image of the Bush Administration. The media is having a ball -- it is a disaster movie scenario, and the entire episode would be laughable were it not for the loss of lives and economic damage being done for the sake of impression management and media hype.

Don't get me wrong -- Rita looks like a terrible storm, and it should no doubt have been treated as a dangerous threat. But the evacuation of millions? Give me a break -- this is not New Orleans, where the danger and potential damage was of a different nature given the condition of the levees and the city's location below sea level. Surely coastal areas needed to be evacuated, and perhaps other areas with historically high levels of damage due to such storms. But someone pushed the panic button and turned this into a disaster movie.

I have been in my share of hurricanes as a kid, and most recently while visiting my mother in Florida several years ago. The childhood storms stand out for me. I recall that when I was growing up in New York, hurricanes were pretty common (and exciting) events. I looked up the most infamous of those storms (the ones that have their names 'retired'), and sure enough, in 1954 and 1955 there were several pretty nasty ones hitting land from North Carolina to New England -- and even up to Canada. Today we rarely hear of tropical storms pounding into that region -- when hurricanes get to the New England area in recent years, they are usually the weakened remnants of storms coming from the south. But in the mid 1950s they were more direct hits from the southeast, often making landfall somewhere in the northeast. (See the list of major storms of the 1950s and after here.) These storms were killers, and they often did considerable economic damage. But while I recall pictures of shore areas being boarded up and tied down for the storms, I don't recall mass evacuations of cities. And why we would revert to that now is beyond me.

I think this episode unfolding now with Rita will in fact turn out to be a disaster, but of the political rather than natural sort -- for when the winds die down and the flood water in the street recede, people will come to realize that it was all hyped up out of proportion, and as a result there will further undermining of the public's attitude toward government.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fair weather fiends....

While the weather in Belfast was always a sore point with me during my stay, I can hardly argue against the value of the rainy and miserable days they have had of late. As friend McGrathy notes in his post of two days ago, the rain has put a damper on violence prone crowd in the area. And by the looks of things from friend Ciaran's perch, the overcast scene is aesthetically pleasing as well....

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

View from the Belfast-Stranraer ferry....

It has been awhile since I posted one of Randi's images, and the reason was mainly technical in part (I had problem uploading and little time to deal with the issue). But it looks like I am back on track, and I chose to post this wonderful shot she took on the ferry from Belfast to Stranraer last year.

The occasion was a trip to Scotland that was timed to get out of Belfast during the height of the Orange Order marching season in that city -- usually the second week in July. This year, however, the tensions and problems surrounding the OO's marching fetish extended to last weekend, and Belfast went through a terrible time unlike any I witnessed during my two years there. I am scheduled to visit next month, and I know that things will be back to normal by then. But it is really quite sad to see these pointless eruptions of violence and the damage they are causing -- not merely physical, but to the outlook for the future as Northern Ireland's "Troubled" reputation reemerges in the world media...

Picture from RandiArt

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Strange sounds....

I don't know how I missed it -- it is such a strange and refreshing sound -- the sound of focused and critical commentary by the mainstream media in the US. We are use to -- and personally turned off by -- the self-righteous ranting of the Fox News folks and their colleagues both left and right. But it wasmore than refreshing -- actually it is startling -- to listen to the editorial blast presented by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on September 5; for video/audio see here. It has been more than a week since he delivered that blast, but as time goes on more and more folks seem to be talking about it....

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A personal perspective on the devastation....

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina came a little closer to the faculty and staff at my institution today. We had a student in our MPA program from the affected region, and he came by a week ago to temporarily withdraw so he could help his family. At the time he was especially concerned about two younger cousins who had not been heard from. His email to a staff member here provides some insight into what is still a difficult situation....


I wanted to let you know that my family received word from the two cousins. They had signed up to take a bus to Dallas but ended up taking a bus to Atlanta. I have an Uncle who resides outside of Atlanta, so the boys decided to head towards the nearest family member. My mother and Aunt are driving to pick them up and get out of this chaos for awhile. After driving around shelters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, my Uncle and I headed back to the Mississippi coast and are now working with the Red Cross and National Guard. It seems that there are a[m]ple supplies flying every day, but no way to get them out the the remaining coastal residents. We have loaded a large flat bed and are delivering supplies to families in less populated areas.
There is so much destruction and lack of communication. Volunteers are only staying a few days before they give up and go home. Yesterday my Uncle found two young girls who sought refuge in a large freezer, but had not survived. The smell is the worst deterring factor, it is nauseating.
We are signed up to deliver supplies as long as they need us. I have met so many people battered and frustrated that no one came to help after the storm. Some residents who lived outside major cities are furious that help has still not arrived. We are doing [our] best.
Thank-you for all your help.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

A view from the heights....

Friend Ciarán has a wonderful view of Belfast from his apartment perched ten stories or so above the otherwise low-skylined city, but his reactions to what took place yesterday reflects heartfelt and reasoned insights as well as the physical view. It is all too clear that stronger steps need to be taken to prevent this regression to an earlier time.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Worrisome news from Belfast....

The news out of my home-away-from-home is quite worrisome -- disturbances at flashpoints in Belfast seem to be reaching higher than usual levels. It is nearing the end of the parade season for the Orange Order, and during my two Septembers (2003 and 2004) there was not much more than the usual drum noises and traffic tie-ups as the season came to an end. But it looks like a delayed parade from the summer has carried the tension over from July and August to this past week, and there are signs that much of this turmoil might have been planned.

For anyone interested in how it all looked from inside the area, see the exchange posted at Slugger O'Toole here and here.....

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Slated Podcasting...

I have never really paid much attention to Slate until it started a daily "Podcast". Podcasting (see here for Apple PR piece) itself is something I have now become somewhat addicted to since it provides me with a reprieve from the blather on the radio (even my cherished NPR -- especially during fund-raising season) as I do my 50 minute commute to work each morning. Generally the Podcast offerings are pretty much 'crap', with Slate being the major exception. Except for a few seconds devoted to some car commercial, the 5 to 7 minute reading of a recent column or article from Slate is terrific stuff.

This has been especially true over the past week or so. Just before Katrina hit the US, there were two wonderful readings of excerpts from a series of pieces by Seth Stevenson on "Should I Move to Amsterdam?" (see here for written article; here and here for MP3 versions of the podcasts).

Since Katrina the quality of Slate's offerings has been even more impressive. Podcast-wise, the two released thus far ("Department of Homeland Screw-Up" on Friday and "Why New Orleans Was Built in a Bowl" on Thursday) are terrific, and I don't envy the Slate podcast editor's task of selecting among all the great pieces coming out. I hope they give some thought to doing two or three a day -- at least for now. But then there is the option to just go to the site and read....

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Wittgenstein's Poker....

Just completed (after many months of consuming it in bits and pieces) Wittgenstein's Poker, which is, as its subtitle indicates "The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers." Verdict: interesting, but in the end a missed opportunity -- and therefore somewhat of a waste of time.

At best the specific subject matter (the poker incident in room H3) was worthy of a magazine article, but the two authors, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, took the "opportunity" to delve into the background and lives of the two main characters as well as the opinions and lives of others present, especially Betrand Russell. These biographical elaborations were interesting and worth the read, but rarely were they untethered from the ultimately trivial issue of what took place in H3 and whether Popper "lied" in his autobiographical rendition of the confrontation. The same can be said of the authors all too brief explanation of the issues at the center of the Wittgenstein-Popper "debate". Eventually both the biographical and philosophical aspects of the story faded as the focus shifted back to dealing with the petty questions of whether Popper "lied", whether Wittgenstein stormed out before or after Popper's poker comment (a key question in the supposed lie), the role of Russell in all this, and what ever became of the poke itself....

Adding to my negative assessment of the book is the final judgment made on the influence of both philosophers, for they use as their standard the contemporary reputation of the two among philosophers -- and here Wittgenstein emerges the victor while Popper comes off as a rather second level figure. Not only is this a silly measure, but it has proven to be a fleeting judgment at best. Events of recent years have suddenly made Popper's critiques of closed societies and advocacy of the falsificaiton standard in science (vis-a-vis the reemergence of the debate over evolution) quite relevant, and belies the view of him as a philosopher of fading importance among scholars. (Ironically, this book has helped draw attention to him....)

As someone who espouses explicitly Popperian views in my field while relying on Wittgensteinian logics to do so, I see complementarity where the authors of Wittgenstein's Poker saw division. At the level of the question "What is the nature and role of philosophy?" -- does it deal with real problems or merely engage in solving linguistic puzzles -- there probably was (and remains) a major debate among those who care about such. But in facing the challenges of doing our work as scholars and educators, the contributions of both Popper and Wittgenstein are relevant and necessary.

(This seems to be the theme in a more recent work, Beyond Wittgenstein's Poker, authored by Peter Munz who was not only present at H3, but was the only known student of both men. I look forward to reading it....)

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Rising Tide....

For those interested in reading an informative and insightful analysis of the last time New Orleans and the Delta faced catastrophe, don't pass up John M. Barry's RISING TIDE: THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI FLOOD OF 1927 AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA (New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1997). If history is an indication, the events of this week could prove to be transformative for US politics as well as the economy....

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