52B/52W, Week 10: Irak La Machine Infernale

December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Irak la machine infernale – Samir al-Khalil

Remember Derriennic from my second post? This book is his fault. As a matter of fact, many books I own are his fault: I went absolutely nuts one night with his reading list for his Middle East class, and bought something like 200$ of books on Amazon, many of them used. I feel I kinda jumped the gun too soon on some of them… I don’t think I have the mental fortitude yet to attack a 1000 page brick on the history of zionism… however this one was a very concise read that I feel is generally useful for both general culture and as a part of my studies. As with the book on Lebanon, this post isn’t going to be a summary of the content of the book, but rather a wider reflection on what I found interesting during my read. As a factual piece, I don’t feel that this book was necessarily the best intro to late 20th century Irak mostly because of it’s publishing dates back to 1991 (although most of it sounds like it was written before the end of the Iran-Irak war). This book, while passé, was an excellent read.

One thing struck me throughout is how everything I  was reading sounded so alien. It was the same kind of feeling that I had when I read that book on Khomeini I have: I had not prior knowledge of what I was reading, nothing for the new material to link up to and to construct sense. That in itself is not surprising, there are probably a lot of things that I ignore everything about. What was surprising is about this book is that it was about Irak, the super-villain from the axis of evil, the country against which the US ground the blade of it’s post-Cold War foreign policy, that country that served as a theatre for what was probably the biggest war ever to happen during my teenage years. Saddam and his pitilessness, the Ba’ath and it’s violence, the gassing of the Kurdes, the country’s military weight, I thought I knew a couple of things on Irak. Turns out I didn’t know much, because what I knew was based on events that mostly all took place post-Gulf War. I forgot, probably like others, that before the Gulf War, Irak was still a thing, albeit pale in comparison to other important countries and events at the time, most probably related to the Cold War.

This book didn’t build on the prior knowledge of the Gulf War, because it hadn’t happen yet. This book treats the Iran-Irak war as the end-all moment of the Irakis, and thus builds up the analysis from a much earlier historical experience than just the Ba’ath->Saddam->Iran-Irak->1st Gulf->2nd Gulfe series of events to which I was exposed in classes and books.  This deepening of the historical analysis for one is very helpful, and the insight on the relatively little known operation of the Iraki Ba’ath from an insider’s perspective makes for a very interesting read.

From a distance, the historical root causes of phenomenon always appears simpler: you don’t NEED to understand the Ba’ath and the founding of the Iraki regime to understand that the US kicked their asses. To understand that Saddam is a ruthless, cunning and bellicose is enough. When a subject is deemed interesting, scholarly analysis is often overabundant, but when events shrinks to insignificance and are noted in the history books, very often it is poor and historically tainted. Researchers in the field of terrorism for example seem to agree that academia is going totally nuts over the phenomenon, making complete mastery of the field a difficult task because of the sheer number of studies based on it. The sad thing about this field is that a few years from now, it is most likely that an infinitely small fraction of all that content will be considered relevant. This book was an excellent reminder that history, while in appearance based on  objective facts, is in practice subject to change.

Also interesting is the fact that the link between the Iraki Ba’ath and socialism is explored in more detailed, giving an interesting insight in how the arabs, and in a larger frame the third-world, deployed it’s own brand of socialism. My curiosity has been piqued by both the theory of Franz Fanon’s third-worldism and the pratical application of third-world socialism by Nyerere in Tanzania, and in that respect it was interesting to get the arab perspective on these matters. Expect more books relating to this.

Bottom line, this is very good, westerner-friendly primer to pre-90′s Iraq. Tons of stuff helpful to a wider understanding of the Middle East at large is mentioned, with references mix 50/50 between arabic and english publications, which is a nice balance of stuff you can read for yourself and helpful bits cited and translated from Arabic that you’d probably never have read otherwise. It’s available in french or english.

52B/52W, Week 9: Comment mettre la droite K.-O. en 15 arguments

December 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Comment mettre la droite K.-O. en 15 arguments – Jean-Francois Lisée

I’m back from an almost semester-long hiatus! The reading hasn’t stopped… however, most of the reading I have done during this period was school stuff that may or may not have been relevant to blog about. Not to mention that working upwards of 30 hours, going to school full time and participating in extra-curricular stuff had the best of me. But that’s all behind now, and I plan on doing some catch-up during the Christmas break. 

Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, said the following: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.” I read this book to know my enemy. Enemy might look like a strong word, but if politics is a civilized and institutionalized struggle between forces competing for power as I believe it is, then the usage of the word would be exact. Jean-Francois Lisée is pretty much a polar opposite in terms of political alignment: separatist and Parti Quebecois bigwig, leans left of center, union sympathiser, you get the idea, not exactly my kind of stuff.  Seeing as this book sold quite a lot and that I have heard it been used as reference before in friendly arguments, I thought I’d better read it myself; if the likes of him and the likes of me are ever going to debate something, I’d better be prepared.

The gist of the book is that it is a response to criticisms often levelled against Quebec and what is called the “Quebecois model”, our welfare states system which has a heavy hand in things like employment, culture, health, social issues and business. Most of these criticisms are presented by think-tank-ish organisations like Chambers of Commerce and various institutes centered around business, and are more often than not centered around statistical data. In this book, Lisée attempts to fight fire with fire by responding with different interpretations of statistical data, either by putting things in perspective to delegitimize claims which he (and the left, mostly) believe are blown out of proportion, or by showing that numbers don’t necessarily reflect reality. In certain cases, he cites statistics from other sources and pits them against what is usually presented, showing potential biais.

The effort is noble, but the method is flawed. The left, specially in Quebec, when confronted with empirical evidence about the failure of their model, often offer qualitative responses citing collective choices (“choix de societé”, referring to some type of social contract that never was) or ideals which are to be attained, regardless of the costs. While I generally disagree with the left, I can appreciate any politic choice made on solid philosophical grounds… which is why any argument I have with political opponents generally ends up with a discussion on the traditional philosophical problems like the nature of freedom. I hate arguing with statistics; they are the tools of technocrats and pencil pushers, veils with which true political issues are hidden away from sight. I hate to see statistics make policy; the pursuit of goals in the form of numbers alienates humanity, replaces the debate on the ends of human existence with a endless debate on the means of attaining a superficial goal. Governance through statistics is one of the hypermodern heads of the hydra that modernity created, a beast which is killing it’s maker. But I digress, more on that on an other post maybe. 

This book presents statistical data, which like all statistical data, has to be interpreted to make any sense. What Lisée considers the right has presented interpretations, Lisée responds with another. Often, while underlining errors in interpretation, he commits the same in his rebuttle: using small-N surveys as proof, rehashing numbers to include this or that factor, and when all else fails, the falling back on those “choices” we made as a society. Here’s an oft-discussed example: fiscal burden. The right argues: fiscal burden is horrendously high. Lisée’s answers: not so when the services are considered, when an arbitrary evaluation of the cost of services is included in the calculation, the fiscal burden is actually negative! This is flawed in two ways: first of all, a negative average fiscal burden means that we are receiving more than we can buy… which means we are collectively buying it on credit. Secondly, the total fiscal burden after services point is moot: the issue is not what you’re getting for your money, it’s that you don’t have a choice over what you’re getting. By discussing the issue of tax burden through numbers, Lisée offers a quantitative indicator of how well our system works, which totally ignoring both the root problem, and problems highlight within his own demonstration. That’s hardly a constructive effort. 

All 15 arguments presented are discussed in this way, each touching on different socio-economic indicators. The conclusion is the one you’d expect from a PQ hard-liner: hurray Quebec, we’re the best, vive le Quebec libre, etc etc. Did Lisée’s book definitively address the socio-economic problems of our province and create unshakeable consensus by definitely pinning down every opinion right of center as it’s title implies? The answer is no, of course. It’s just another instance of the dick-showing through statistics that’s been going for ages. Doctrinal hard-liners like Lisée don’t adresse problems: they show you how the problems don’t actually exist according to their vision of things. I would have better liked a book on solutions. 

Read it, don’t read it, whatever. If you learn anything, it’s going to be numbers, abstractions derived from empirical data which can be shaped into pretty much anything, and therefor useless in the grand scheme of things. 

52B/52W, Week 8: Simulacre et simulation

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Simulacres et simulation – Jean Baudrillard

I had one more week to read something not related to my university work, and I decided to go hard in the proverbial paint. I’ve been wanting to read this since I’ve heard about it on a documentary showing off the philosophical content of the Matrix trilogy, and as it turns out it was a very pertinent read that I will probably cite and use in my 20th Century Political Ideas course. I think I’ve talked about French intellectuals and their tendency to write non-linear, elusive works much harder to digest than their english counterparts, and Baudrillard definitely fits right into this phenomenon. The theme central to the book is the constant cultural contact of modern westerners with “hyperreality”, an augmented reality where the latter is transformed through emulation or replaced by simulacrum, the copy of an original which never existed. This theme is faint throughout the book, and addressed by demonstrating the presence of the phenomenon of hyperreality in various aspects of life, socialization, arts, politics, etc.

As with any critical work, it is important that the reader take some and leave some when reading: Baudrillard goes to great lengths to interpreting many things in his chapters, and sometimes, you’ve gotta wonder what the hell this guy was smoking. Most of the analyses seems honest and grounded, but some of it definitely smell like conspiracy theory in certain parts. Mentions of “the system” are repeated over and over in many chapters, which at times evokes Kafka-esque uncoordinated systemic oppression, other times just sounding like the leftist conspiracy theorist. At some point, the author discusses how the attempted murder of figures of power confirms their power (that much I get), and goes and to say that Kennedy HAD to die, because he incarnated real power which is proscribed in the world of simulacrum in which we live; as if all events were to be blamed on this system of simulacrum, bar none. Forcing events to coincide with theory a posteriori is too easy, and Baudrillard does it throughout his essay. You have to stay on guard for the nonesense, yet with open-minded enough to read between the lines; this is exactly what makes it a pretty difficult read.

This book seems to be generally regarded as quite left-field even in it’s genre, since the university classified it in a code reserved for general literature, and not with the other works on philosophy. It’s real merit is it’s originality, predating Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (which I will not doubt be reading very soon) and other serious works on media imperialism by a couple of years, but also it’s audacity in pushing the logic hyperreality to the furthest it can go. Some of the passages on mass culture and reality TV are even eerily prochronistic, perfectly applicable to the media environment of today with it’s social media and user-powered (inspired?) web.

Bottom line, if you can find a copy, definitely read it. It’s the kind of book you that you can grab when you reek of scotch at the of the night and want to talk metaphysical nonsense with a lady friend. It’s that book you mention right after you can use to say “meh, I’ve read worst” after going through something particularly stiff. It’s also great bookshelf fodder. But buy it used… prices are getting a little bit insane, as reprints probably haven’t been done in a while.

52B/52W, Week 7: Ethique à l’usage de mon fils

August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Ethique à l’usage de mon fils – Fernando Savater

Another CEGEP read from my flat-mate’s bookshelf… the next book to be review is a quite rough read, so I had to read something lighter. While I didn’t learn much from this book, I’m still glad I got my hands on it.

As it’s title implies, this book is a treaty on ethics, from a father to his son. This implies many things: first and foremost, the tone is quite different from other works of philosophy, as you’d expect. First off, it’s terribly cheesy: maybe it’s the fact that this book was written in the 90′s, or the way is was translated, but some passages are totally cringe-worthy. We’ve all been through “serious” talks with out parents: were babies come from, why you shouldn’t smoke, money and how to spend it; that kind of awkward. Secondly, examples are abundant, and more often than not are very personal: Savater Jr. probably was really big into motorcycles, because that definitely came up a lot. Thirdly, the book cites occasionally, but generally refrains from laying down statements as if they were facts. As a descendant to existentialism with regards to the notion of freedom that the book exposes, Savater presents his content more as guidelines and pointers rather than rules, being obviously sensible to giving his progeny a free mind, one that through reason and experience  can come to it’s own truth, and forge it’s own ideas.

This is the first work on ethics that I have read cover to cover, having only read bits and pieces of Aristotle, Epicurus and the likes. Because of it’s intent, I don’t feel like I have learnt too much; the flipside of the expository nature of this book is that the basics are brought back, important things like the different between ethics and moral, their place in the wider spectrum of philosophy and the implications of elaborating one’s ethical code. In both form and content, it is an excellent primer the philosophy of our time, with it’s implied agnosticism and tendency towards concepts relating to secular humanism; the perfect book to spark interest in philosophy in the heart of a young adult.

Really hoping I can steal this book off my buddy. I’m of the opinion that a general grasp of philosophy is essential for any cultured individual, and I’d love to give this to my own son some day.

52B/52W, Week 6: A History of Modern Lebanon

August 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

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A History of Modern Lebanon – Fawwaz Traboulsi

This is a book on historical facts about Lebanon, hence very hard to review since I am far from being an expert on Lebanon. As such, this post will not be a review, but rather a discussion on a contradiction that the history of this still nascent and politically unconsolidated country highlighted for me: the delicate balance of freedom and political power in it’s weberian sense.

Lebanon’s history, at least in what this book covers, starting from the early 16th century, is a story of colonialism. External powers have had a heavy hand with Lebanese internal affairs, from the Ottoman empire to European nations, to part of the Nasser-era Arab world and the Israelis, lots of nations have instrumentalized this strategic country. Mid millennia, technology didn’t allow  political power to consolidate and centralize, so saying that Mount Lebanon was subject to meddling from external parties would be a bit of an anachronism; feudalism and/or tribalism and/or sectarianism was the norm. The problem is that where other countries politically matured and organized their power, Lebanon remained stuck between what was becoming numerous increasingly hard places (no need for the proverbial rock). Even when an arbitrary decision by European nations gave it fixed borders, it was never really able to assume them fully and get a firm grip on it’s internal affairs; the number of unrequested military interventions on it’s territory alone is a testament to the state’s fragility. This power-vacuum made Lebanon a wild west of the middle east, fertile ground for armed militias to flourish, which they did and still do today to a lesser extent.

Which brings me to my dilemma. What defines a strong state is it’s capacity to firmly control it’s sovereignty, in matters of territory (non-violation of it’s accepted borders) and policy (law and it’s application).  In this sense, Lebanon was a weak state. Instinctively throughout my read, I kept thinking to myself that all the uncomfortable situations in which Lebanon put itself could have been avoided with one thing: a strong government. Had any faction truly dominated the country, these incidents would probably never had happened; political dominance of one sect, say, Maronites, would most likely have prevented the repeated Syrian incursions in the country, and further degradation of inter-sectarian relations from the  cycle of swings in the balance of power. The separation of power amongst sects is surely a source of the country’s problems, and I don’t believe that a strong uni-sectarian executive would have solved that, at least not pacifically. Nation-building in an environment where social domination or homogeneity is unclear leads to bloodshed: in that sense, I don’t think that Lebanon could have come about without a minimum of violence. Closing the ethno-religious pressure-cooker with firm control over it’s territory could probably have been a catalyst to national unity though, at the  almost assured cost of violence from minority sects.

Between a strong yet oppressive state  and the incapable patchwork of political power that was (still is?) Lebanon, what is to be preferred? The rickety institutions of Lebanon at least get some credit for trying to fix sectarian tensions, but trying visibly wasn’t enough. Anarchic freedom resulted in years of bloody conflicts; could the constriction of this freedom in the hands of authoritative power have minimized suffering? The current state of affairs in Egypt seems to argue against this: authoritative rule has been unable to build a truly strong nation. How are we to reconcile freedom and power? Definitely not the topic for this blog post.

I’ll sleep on it.

Laïcité, liberticide et opportunisme

August 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Je ne voulait pas en venir à ça. Le sujet m’emmerde profondément, parce que sous sa forme actuelle il s’agit plus de shit-disturbing de souverainiste plus qu’un enjeux véritable. Je doit tout de même l’adresser parce que l’ampleur du débat (ou plutôt du bruit produit de part et autres) l’exige: la charte de la laïcité de PQ.

Le phénomène est un peu surprenant, compte tenu l’attitude du PQ après la bévue de Parizeau en ’95. Après des années a chanter la chanson du nationalisme civique pour sauver les meubles, a promouvoir le rassemblement autour des “valeurs québécoises”, voila qu’on cherche maintenant à les redéfinir, une fois la poussière retombée. D’ou le recyclage du terme dans l’appellation de la charte proposée. Dans une mesure qui pue le nationalisme de fond de rang, on pense régler un “problème de société” qui en fait n’en est pas un, créant du coup de nouveaux problèmes, réels ceux-ci.

Le premier problème avec la charte proposé est qu’elle est assez clairement à deux vitesses. Son nom en soit évite d’implémenter la laïcité d’état comme il se doit, soit totalement et sans exception. D’où l’entêtement de Drainville a ne pas accepter la sobriquet que la presse a donner à l’initiative, qui ne renvoi seulement qu’à ce concept. Habile manoeuvre de la part des péquistes qui leur permet de ne pas avoir a faire oublier la ligne de partie des 18 dernières années, c’est aussi leur première erreur. J’ai bien hâte de voir par quelle gymnastique linguistique ils vont réussir a intégrer le patrimoine religieux québécois sans annoncer une religion d’état, ce qui n’aura que pour effet de créer des dissidents. Rappelons que des partis ont été crées pour moins que cela, et ceux qui veulent fuir ce nationalisme réactionnaire ont plusieurs camps où faire défection, des places où l’agenda progressiste ne permet pas autre-chose que la laïcité pure. Le crucifix à l’Assemblé Nationale est symbole de la prépondérance de la chrétienté québécoise, mais aussi du “pur-lainsime” qui fait l’attrait de l’initiative auprès des xénophobes politiquement mous qui n’en ont rien a battre de la religion ou du patrimoine. En ce sens, on peut s’attendre a ce que le PQ se battent bec et ongle pour lui, malgré qu’il soit en profonde contradiction avec l’essence du projet.

Le deuxième problème, plus grave celui-ci, est que la mesure d’une charte des valeurs québécoise est en une qui (encore une fois) ingère dans le social, en érigent des valeurs dictées par un parti minoritaire en ce qui se veut un intouchable morceau de législation. C’est une Charte des droits des pauvres que les péquistes les plus rêveurs se voient probablement déjà enchâsser à une constitution québécoise. C’est comme si l’on n’avait rien appris de l’histoire: quand les moeurs deviennent lois et que la pluralité est supprimée, la liberté souffre. La laïcité institutionnalisée sera à Marois ce que le clergé institutionnalisée à été a Duplessis. Certains dénoncerons ma paranoïa, avec raison peut-être, mais chaque initiative du genre me fait craindre une escalade de l’institutionnalisation des moeurs. On connait l’inertie du politique: si on en viens a imaginer des couvres-feu pour les jeunes automobilistes quand on vise le bilan routier sans décès, qu’arrivera t’il si l’on se mets la main dans le tordeur avec la question de la laïcité? Ceux qui me lisent connaissent mon opinion défavorable à la culture subventionné, un carcan inacceptable dans une société supposément libre; ajouter à cela des moeurs prescrits par la loi, c’est achever d’imposer le moule de la culture d’état a toute une population.

Le problème des accommodements raisonnables n’a jamais été un enjeux digne de mesures législatives.  Je m’étonne qu’on me demande encore des stupidités administratives comme de posséder une carte d’hôpital malgré la gratuité de nos services de santé, mais qu’on soit incapable d’expliquer a un sihk qu’il ne peut pas porter un turban sur sa photo de permis de conduire. La bureaucratie a comme désavantage d’être froide et impersonnelle: pour une fois qu’on pourrait utilisé cette froideur procédurale à bonne escient, on passe complètement a coté. Les justifications nécessaires pour dire non à un accommodement déraisonnable existent déjà, le soucie pour la sécurité publique éliminant déjà la majorité des cas problèmes. Pour le reste des incidents anecdotiques que les médias généralistes ont polémisés a coeur-joie, par exemple les vitres givrées de la YMCA, la plupart de ces incidents impliquent des mollesses d’administrateurs  privés qui ne sont absolument pas du ressort du gouvernement. Ces mineurs accrocs du vivre-ensemble n’ont jamais été plus que du fourre-page pour les journaux médiocres. Les tempêtes de verre d’eau que se crée les médias pour faire couler l’encre ne s’arrêterons pas, charte ou pas.

La charte que l’on propose est donc qu’un mesure purement opportuniste. Qui est gagnant si cette charte passe à l’assemblé nationale? Je ne voit que deux groupes possibles; les premiers, des nationalistes qui acceptent encore qu’une composante ethnique fasse partie des critères déterminants de la patrie, affiliées ou non au PQ, et qui voit dans cette mesure une occasion de crée (enfin) une majorité référendaire ralliée au oui. Les Bock-Côtés de se monde, qui savent ce qu’ils veulent et qui sont prêts a faire ce qu’il faut pour l’obtenir. Ceux qui savent que si on doit constituer une majorité pour le Oui, il faudra nécessairement créer une minorité du reste, et que  la division ethnique est une ligne de coupe valable, qu’il faut exploiter avant qu’elle ne tombe hors de notre faveur. Bref, des caribous machiavéliques. Les autres, les membres et dirigeants du PQ, qui veulent manifestement une majorité, pour faire ou non la souveraineté, selon ce que les bonzes péquistes et son intelligentsia subventionnée déciderons.

La laïcité de l’état, c’est un chose; ça, on l’a atteint il y a longtemps en réquisitionnant au clergé ces prérogatives sociales, en éducations et en santé. La laïcité fonctionnelle dans la fonction publique, à la limite ça passe, par soucie d’équité et d’efficacité. Mais la laïcisation symbolique, par caprice collectif  servant à pallier à notre incapacité a s’affirmer une identité, c’est inacceptable. Vivement des élections.

52B/52W, Week 5: Discours de la Méthode

August 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Discours de la méthode – René Descartes

The low end of higher education is frustrating because you are told plenty of very interesting things which were thought up by very interesting people, but usually totally out of their original context, thrown at you to understand and memorize; exam fodder basically. In my CEGEP philosophy classes, one of the authors used as such was Descartes. Rich and concise from the hundreds of years of criticism, analysis and interpretation, the ideas of the “father of modernity” were presented to us as revolutionary in their context, and beautifully crafted quotes were compared to the bleak general ambiance of pre-enlightenment Europe. How we marvelled: this guy’s a genius!

A genius, that he was. Some say that no one man has given more to science than Descartes, and while I am in no position to proclaim this true, I am certainly inclined to believe it. Pertinent in today’s philosophy however, that is a whole other thing. My reading of Discours de la méthode was a disappointment in this respect, because I felt that I was tricked by the artifices of CEGEP into believing that this read would change my life.

This book was intended as an introduction to more technical works, and as such, it is a much more of a methodological guide than a philosophical work. The greatest philosophers, to me, are the ones who had a unitary and internally coherent vision of the mechanics of existence, from ontology to the preferred government, with a conception of freedom and ethics to match. Descartes himself states that a system with only one author is always more coherent, yet he exposes his ideas on ontology as a prelude to his method without filling in the rest of the blanks. Epistemologically, his appeal for pure reason is interesting and absolutely pertinent; in the larger context of philosophy though, it is hardly consistent enough to be satisfying. The format of this books shows how little there is to be understood from Descartes directly: the edition I have read is a bit under 50% actual transcriptions of the original work, and the rest is contextualization and analysis of it by various authors, citing more heirs of Descartes than the man himself. It’s the extrapolation of Descartes by others that makes him interesting. As a consequence, I really cannot recommend this book to anyone who has previously had Descartes explained elsewhere.

Don’t give yourself the trouble of decoding old french and suffering through  a 350 year old description of the functioning of the human heart; you can get a much better idea of what Descartes is about, much quicker and more pleasurably,  elsewhere.

Lesson learned: not everything is meant to be read. Sometimes, quotes and class notes ARE good enough.

 

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