Another election campaign, another scandal involving young candidates. In the last provincial campagne in Quebec just barely over a year ago, a candidate for the Coalition Avenir Quebec was publicly shamed for pictures posted on Facebook which showed him nude, but which were PG-13 by anyone’s standards. In the 2011 federal elections, paper candidates who sailed on party’s popularity made a brutal entry in politics; journalists and pundits had a field day going through their social media, trying to spark whatever controversy they could. This time, more than a month from the elections, it’s a young LPC candidate that is targeted over tweets she posted at age 16. It’s about time we talked about having digital natives running for office entails, because the phenomenon isn’t about to stop.
Uber dérange: il dérange au même titre que le VHS, Napster, le iPod a dérangé. Face aux dérangement, l’État fait la seule chose qu’elle est capable de faire: réprimer les gens et les innovateurs qui brisent le statu quo. Dans la dernière année, les autorités ont cru bon réprimer les chauffeurs Uber, et, comble de l’audace, les gens qui font du covoiturage. C’est d’un absurdité totale: le marché et l’initiative populaire vainquent un monopole, et l’État s’empresse de sévir pour le défendre.
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.
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.
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.