Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Shorter the Skirt, The Shorter the Shorter the Relationship

Another insight from my friend Mark Mallman, to join the earlier field sociology note on what high heels reveal.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Intellectuals Seek the Plot of Life

What I like best about Steve Fuller's The Intellectual is that he thinks intellectuals are those best seeking the meaning of life. Mere academics are content to speak accurately within the limits of their methods. Philosophers of all kinds have become content to make distinctions that might help us speak accurately. The intellectual, though, is after not just the truth, but the whole truth. When we reach the limits of where method can take us, the intellectual is not afraid to use imagination. Intellectuals are as critical as any other thinker -- maybe more -- but they are willing to risk a judgment about what is true.

Fuller offers no account of why intellectuals believe life is meaningful. And surely there are thoughtful materialists and nihilists who would appear to be both intellectuals and believers that life is meaningless. Indeed, though Fuller describes himself as a secular leftist and accepts Darwinian materialism as science, he rejects it as the whole truth: “The true intellectual fights hard against this dissipation of meaning in life.”

I strive to be an intellectual who uses all sorts of knowledge to understand the plot and meaning of existence. For that reason I gravitate to most of Fuller's account of the intellectual. But on intellectual grounds, I don't think he fully makes the case that my quest, and his, define the intellectual's task.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Intellectual Vigilant

The ice storm has suspended normal business in Kentucky, so I am improving the time by thinking about Steve Fuller's The Intellectual.

Fuller's book carries this interesting second title on its cover: "The positive power of negative thinking." He argues that intellectuals seek truth by the path of criticism of all established ideas, including a ruthless self-criticism. Intellectuals make their special contribution to society by taking seriously the charge usually attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Intellectuals see the evil consequences that can, willy-nilly, come from the normal working of the status quo. The more we know, and the more we think through how social systems work, the more responsibility we have for the outcome. This is why intellectuals are not just scholars, but engaged in shaping public life.

To be an intellectual, Fuller argues, is to vigilant. And what we are to be most vigilant about are the effects of ideas on social life. Intellectuals have to believe in the power of people working together to enact ideas. This is why they also have a tendency to be a bit paranoid, and even to accept conspiracy theories. People working together to make the world better is a kind of good conspiracy. People working together to make their lives better at the expense of the world is a bad conspiracy. And people working together with unintended consequences for the world is what intellectuals train themselves to see.

Intellectuals are vigilant about the power of ideas to shape the world, and in eternal argument with other intellectuals about what those consequences might be.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sibling Rivalry Among Britain's Children

This is the last of my posts about the course on Australian National Identity, and the most tentative.

I have been thinking about the relations among the four or five nations of the "white commonwealth" as a sibling rivalry. In Sulloway's theory, siblings are competing for parental attention. First-born gets first choice. First-born usually takes the path of being most like the parents, leaving other ways of being distinctive to the later-borns, and the path of exceptionalism to the last. However, if the first chooses not to be like the parents, then that role is available for the laters, especially the second.

The USA is eldest. We chose to rebel. Canada, the second, is the most dutiful. Australia, the third, yearns to be like the eldest, but is not so rebellious. New Zealand, the fourth, is defined as the dutiful in relation to the third, whose attention it is always trying to get. South Africa is the wild child.

Let me take this speculation to a further length. The Hanover kings were famous for their terrible relations with their fathers, the previous king. Each of the Georges rebelled against the previous George.

USA rebelling against England :: George IV rebelling against George III.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

9289 Down, 75 To Go

We made it from Sydney to Louisville. We have been stopped, however, by an ice storm. We have to hole up for the night, hoping that we can complete the last 75 miles of our journey tomorrow. If it melts.

The Longest Monday

Through the miracle of time zones, this was the week with two Mondays. We started off in Sydney Monday morning, left Fiji Monday night -- and an hour later started Monday morning again. We got to Los Angeles by midday Monday, at which point the class scattered. My son and I stopped for the night in Los Angeles, hoping to come in the Kentucky at a sensible time.

Which may be eaten by an ice storm.

Still, a week with two Mondays starts off with challenges.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Australia Day Reflections

As we are packing up to go back to the States, Australians are preparing for Australia Day. Australians are ambivalent about Australia Day. It is hard not to see this ambivalence as a metaphor for Australian national identity as a whole.

On January 26, 1788 the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour. These were the convicts and their keepers who started Australia. These were the Europeans who displaced the Aborigines.

For a long time, Australians were ambivalent about the "convict stain" and thus reluctant to treat the First Fleet as the founders of the nation. As I read it, this ambivalence about the convict past lasted exactly as long as Australia thought of itself as primarily British -- that is, until the mid-1960s. Since then, multi-generation Aussies are proud to claim a convict ancestor -- and are not likely to think of themselves as British in the same measure. Australia Day has grown as a national holiday in conjunction with this change in sentiment about national origins.

For aboriginal rights activists (of whatever ethnic origin) January 26 is "invasion day." Just yesterday Mick Dodson, an aboriginal activist, was named Australian of the Year, an announcement timed to coincide with Australia Day. Dodson said he was pleased with the honor, and proud to be an Australian -- but he objected to Australia Day as a holiday.

Australia Day is most popular, I think, as the long weekend holiday that ends summer. There is a commercial on television now. A concerned teacher meets with a boy and his father. The teacher reads from the boy's essay on what Australia Day means: "Australia Day means more time for cricket." The boy smiles, hopefully. The teacher frowns at the boy, then looks meaningfully at the father, as if to say "teach him the true meaning of our national holiday." The father nods, knowing his duty. As they leave the school, the father says to the son "You should have mentioned the tennis, too."

I think Australia Day will be revamped, over the coming generation, as a patriotic holiday. ANZAC Day will remain the core ceremony of the civil religion here for the foreseeable future. But Australia also needs a forward-looking, celebratory national holiday in its civil religion calendar, to balance the somber, sacrifice-honoring holiday of the ANZACs. The key problem, I think, will be figuring out how to include Aborigines -- which, as I have previously remarked, is only the touchiest issue of all in Australian national identity. Still, the nation needs its holidays if it is to be a nation as an imagined community. And Australia Day is an excellent foundation for a national holiday.

Besides, it is a great time to have an end-of-summer celebration.