James C. Banks

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

I Have Returned (To Blogging and from New York)

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2011 at 3:15 am

It feels good to be back.  My week+ without the internet brought on moments when I felt as though I might be, through fasting, on the verge of some new enlightenment or revelation and I found more time for reading of a substantial nature. However, I’m glad to be hitting the news links and even more glad to be blogging again.

The latter of these two activities was postponed still further by my prolonged weekend in New York City.  Unlike most of my friends, I never set a foot in any of the five Burroughs until I was in my early twenties and prepared to start attending graduate school (that was Round One–in upstate New York; Round Two in the same place is coming soon).  Since my first visit (in the late summer of 2009), I have generally met my goal to make it to the city at least once a year.

Not the least of reasons for this is to visit cousins in Brooklyn–always extremely humid during the summer months.  But I additionally have a love for the counterculture of the city itself.  Even people who have no knowledge of New York know it to be a city of “yang” (or “action”) rather than “yin” (that is, more or less, Washington, my hometown).  Unlike Washington, New York does not have the feel of a city adapted for its inhabitants. Rather its inhabitants seem to have adapted to it.

Very little in Washington goes beyond the basic requirement that the city serve as a functional capital.  The monuments are impressive (and, as my bus got in late last night, I can assert that they are absolutely stunning in silence at 4:oo AM.) But the manhole covers are only manhole covers. It is difficult to imagine a manhole cover in Washington that is also a sculpture of an pinstripe-suited alligator devouring a child with the head of a money-bag. Yet there is no need to imagine it in New York, for it can be seen in the subway.

The irony is that this somewhat odd and seemingly arbitrary sculpture betrays a tinge of moral-ism. When I saw it, I wondered at all of the Wall Street bankers who have seen it and must have taken a momentary–but nonetheless real–forewarning from the sculpture which serves a similar purpose as the medieval tapestries depicting the mitered souls burning in hell.

New York–unlike Washington–is a city defined by myriad acts of microanarchy.  Though the MTA workers probably would just assume everything run according to plan, the signs on the subway train car doors specifying that passengers should absolutely NOT travel between cars are not obeyed by any New Yorker.  In Washington, no one ever trangresses this directive (if someone did, he or she would probably be tazered as a suspected terrorist.)

Living in Washington is like living in a marriage of convenience; the relationship is rarely passionate, but it keeps you in a community which is well-worth the trouble.  If this is the case though, New York makes for an ideal place–or almost personal entity–to visit on the side.  It wears its visitors down, but, sometimes, being worn down is precisely what this Washington visitor needs.

Administrative Trouble

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Tragically, due to technical difficulty, I have been unable to access internet from home during the past few days and do not use my office computer for blogging.  Therefore, dear readers, “Gulliver’s Dispatch” will be suspended until further notice. However, for those of you whom I know, I will send you an e-mail when it is up and running again.  Until then, stay interested in ideas and hope to see me again soon.

The Social Cost of Social Media

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2011 at 2:56 am

If you’re worried that social media might be slowing chipping away at your humanity, you can find an interesting debate on the topic between Roger Scruton and Tyler Cowen here.  Scruton argues that, by making the duties of relationships more easily fulfilled, social media actually ends up depreciating the value of these relationships and substituting virtual friendships for real friendships. Cowen counter-argues that there is no evidence that people who use social media are less engaged in the real world and that there is not only anecdotal evidence but statistics to back this claim up.

Generally, I think that Scruton has the more convincing argument, though he does not package it as well. To say, as Cowen, does that individuals who use social media are more engaged in civic activity than other individuals does not actually establish that social media encourages individuals to engage in civic activity, only that individuals who are more naturally inclined to engage in civic activity are more likely to use social media.

Scruton starts making this point, but never fully articulates it which is a pity since this simple point calls into question the entire framework of Cowen’s argument from statistics. While Facebook users are probably more communally engaged than non-Facebook users, it is also true that social media applications have led to a decline in traditionally civic activities like church-going.  People no longer congregate to intermingle, but electronic communion is only theoretically—and not in practice—a substitute for actual, face-to-face interaction.

Almost as interesting as the debate itself were the conversations that followed from it in the wine-and-cheese reception which followed.  I had a number of people tell me that, in some ways, they leaned toward Scruton’s position, but, of course, they qualified this partial approval by saying that the opportunity or threat of social media “was all in the way that we used it.”  This assessment misses the point entirely: no one intends to allow the virtual plasma which is social media envelope their actual lives; but this does not mean that social media has no tendency to do so.

My general endorsement of Scruton’s overarching theme does not mean that I am an infrequent user of social media—and I am grateful for the many friendships that it has allowed me to keep intact.  Nor do I think that social media is the only—or even the most—formidable cause of civic deterioration.  Social media may make us hold friendship cheaper, but medical technology which lengthens our lives beyond natural limits (for which I am, nonetheless, also grateful) might cause us to jettison a virtue like courage altogether as we come to gauge it as too expensive. Social media will not be the leviathan that casts our civilization to Gehenna with a bang; more likely, it is just another whimper which punctuates another world’s end.

Victory: Rejoice, Therefore

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 at 12:35 am

When I heard that Osama bin Laden was dead, I was too tired to join the revelers in the streets and had already returned home to the Virginia suburbs anyway, but I did crack a beer to punctuate the moment (which was recent enough so that I am still drinking beers from the same case).  There have been a number of voices, ranging from thoughtful to ludicrous, arguing that someone’s death is not something to be taken lightly, and that celebrating the death of a mass murderer makes us emulators of his supporters in the Middle East.

Such arguments, though, assume that Osama bin Laden was no more than a person. While there is no doubt in my mind that he was human (all too human, really), he was, more than that, a symbol of a conflict that wasn’t going to end as long as he was in corpus.  His death last week demonstrated to America that the trauma of September 11th could really end; that the conflict wasn’t a permanent conflict; that mass murderers are mortal. 

While this will not end the War on Terror tomorrow and someone (hopefully lacking bin Laden’s charisma) will probably take bin Laden’s place, bin Laden was the last enemy from the War on Terror whose life simply had to be taken.  America no longer needs to think of how it should keep fighting, but rather how it can wind down a ten-year battle.  Since bin Laden’s death was the main objective of the War in Afghanistan, we have attained victory (if at a high cost). 

General Eisenhower famously said that the Allies would accept full victory and nothing less.  Last week, the United States saw this was still possible in the War on Terror. We’re ready to start beating our swords into ploughshares again. This is definitely something worth celebrating.

Osama’s Death: Obama Deserves Credit, but Is Credit Enough?

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2011 at 12:28 am

President Obama, President Bush and their military and intelligence advisors are the only individuals we will ever know who deserve credit for the dispatching Osama bin Laden. They are not the only individuals who deserve credit itself; numerous unknown individuals—from the sources who gave us bin Laden’s whereabouts, to the Central Intelligence Agents who processed this information, to the SEALs and paramilitary operatives who brought bin Laden down—deserve the most credit for this feat.  But they embody quintessentially American modes of heroism: They are courageous but anonymous.

However, President Obama deserves his share of credit for continuing to wage the War on Terror and, if his statement on the death of bin Laden is to be trusted, for reinvigorating the manhunt for bin Laden. It is unfortunate that, already, speculation has arisen as to whether it might guarantee his reelection. If anything merits bipartisan support, it should be the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and whatever popularity President Obama musters from this accomplishment is well-deserved.  

Ultimately, though I find it doubtful that the death of bin Laden will make a significant difference for the president’s reelection prospects.  After all, it has not made an enormous difference in the past.  As may be recalled, Saddam Hussein was captured as late as December, 2003, less than a year before the 2004 election. Yes, Bush won reelection, but by November, 2004,  the issue of Saddam Hussein’s capture had sunk enough in public consciousness that it never materialized into a major accomplishment during the campaign.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden is a much more important target symbolically than Saddam Hussein ever was. Saddam Hussein had some significance as a vicious dictator with whom we had a score—from a decade earlier—to settle, but this fact did not even approach the horror caused by Osama bin Laden’s September 11th Attacks. 

Even so, Hussein’s capture had the potential to materialize into a major issue for reasons unrelated to his relative unimportance: Because he was captured rather than killed, this accomplishment of the Bush Administration had legs. News of Hussein’s trial was frequently printed on the front pages of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal as a constant reminder that America had brought a tyrant to justice. Bin Laden’s death will not be forgotten, but its significance will fade after the newspapers stop reporting on the nuances and details of the operation. A year from now, no newspaper will be reporting on “a new report confirming bin Laden’s death.”

The only entity who will be constantly reminding the public of bin Laden’s death will be the Obama Administration.  Since killing bin Laden is a formidable accomplishment, they should have every right to do so, but it is not clear to me that this will be to their advantage come 2012. If they keep it on the front-burner too long while better conditions fail to develop in Libya or Afghanistan, the administration will come to resemble that decrepit drunk at the bar who turns out to be a former child star. The president has won a great victory for America, but he will have to follow up with even greater successes abroad if he wants to win another victory for himself.