On April 27th, I wrote the following, and emailed it to Willie Osterweil after a conversation on twitter about Battlestar Galactica. It was the start of a post that I never quite finished; it just kept getting bigger and longer, and there was no hurry to complete it –we’ve all forgotten about BSG, haven’t we? — so I never quite did. When my laptop was stolen on Saturday, it was up to about 3000 words, I think, even though it was only about half as long as I eventually wanted it to be. Sigh.

Let us mourn for the essay never to be! Let its sacrifice never be forgotten! So say we all!

Battlestar Galactica is nakedly referential to the post-9/11 psycho-situation of the United States, the war on terror, and the scurity state. It wears the directness of this address on its shirt sleeve, and everyone understands that it does. From the occupation in season three – complete with Bush-era cliché’s like “shock and awe” and “Welcome us with open arms” – to the montage of 9/11 visual cues that opens each episode, this is something we are never confrimed in understanding, and never need to be.

But 9/11 was not a genocidal first strike; it was terrorism. And the substance of that distiction is relevent to assessing the substance of the allegory that Battlestar Galactica performs: it makes us think about the US after 9/11 as if it were the human race after a genocidal first strike by a robotic alien other, instead of this simply being (more or less) the lie that our leaders tell us.

After all, the interesting thing the show does is blur the distinctions between cylons and humans. If you had made the cylons into [insert Muslim Terrorist stereotype here] and the humans into [insert Virtuous American War Hero stereotype], it would be seen as blatant propaganda. It would be understood to be making a claim about the rightness or wrongness of the war on terror, and – as its politics became clear – we would bracket it off, inoculate ourselves from its message. So the entire point of the show – everything that makes it interesting – is the way those distinctions fall apart in practice, the ambiguity of a human race that isn’t nearly as good as we expect them to be or a cylon race that isn’t as bad as we expect. This problem is given maximum tangibility by the steady suggestion – occasionally give real substance – that while the cylon attack might not have been justified in the form that it took, it was mounted in response to a real grievance.

And yet, everyone knows that the cylons are the Terrorists. Everyone knows that the humans are the United States. The structure of the allegory – the extent to which it refers to post-9/11 USA – depends on this being the case. And by the same token, while the remnants of the human race inBattlestar Galactica really are facing the constant prospect of continual annihilation – which makes arguments for things like martial law, torture, recourse to extralegality massively more sympathetic – the most important fact about the post-9/11 USA has been the absence of the kind of existential conflict upon which so many of the state’s actions and transformations have depended. The show lets us forget that absence.

“You know, you’re a really good driver.”

I went to visit my grandparents the summer when my grandfather was in the later  stages of Alzheimer’s. He had been angry, through much of the experience, irritable in the way that feeling your memory and identity slip out from underneath you will cause you to be. But when I went to see him, that was all over. He was calm, relaxed, easy-going. He had no idea who I was, of course, or most of his children, and when I was picking raspberrries and weeding with him, he was curious as a child about the plants in his garden that he had spent his life tending. “What do you think this is?” he would say, holding up the plant he had pulled up, instead of the weeds we had been instructed by my grandmother to pull. He had no idea, and was tickled at the discovery. A life long Wisconsin farmer, he couldn’t remember the difference between a weed and a vegetable.

My grandfather was always perfectly kind, and he had a coarse joviality, but he was also never very demonstrative or expressive. That was his wife, my grandmother, who would fill our every minute of every day with activity, useful or just fun. He could also be stern, but mainly he was just busy, busy and self-contained. As a child, growing up, I liked him, but also had never really connected with him. He liked children, perfectly well, just didn’t have much to say to them, and there were always a lot of them; they were a good catholics, you might say, and had eight kids and thus quite a few grandkids (whose visits we always tried to overlap with). Before he came down with Alzheimer’s — when I was in my teens and later — he had opened up a bit, slowed down a little, but when I was a child, my main interaction with him was through the gadgets he would make, everything from little wooden rubber band shooting pistols to the giant swingset he had constructed in the back yard.

As I drove them to the truckstop diner that grandma had picked out to eat, later that day, he asked perhaps fifteen times where we were going, and who I was. This was normal, and we answered patiently. Then, suddenly, he looked at me and said, “You know, you’re a really good driver.” And he patted my hand affectionately. I had tears in my eyes.

Since he died, now a few years ago, I think back to that moment as maybe the only time when he ever did anything like that, at least with me. He wasn’t an affectionate man, by nature, and across the generations, I always squinted dimly to see him. But in that one moment, when he had forgotten how old he was or who I was, when it didn’t matter, he looked at me and patted my hand in a memory I still cherish, for reasons I can’t fully articulate. But it’s what I remember when I think of him.

* * *

When I heard the news that Gabriel García Márquez was in the beginning stages of dementia, I wrote a piece over at The New Inquiry on García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, a longish essay I called “Autumn of the Patriarch, Forgetting to Live.” But I was also thinking of my grandfather.


I wasn’t bullied a lot in high school, but I remember what it was like when I was. Being violated makes you into a different person, a person who cannot control, cannot be sure, cannot feel safe. Again, this didn’t happen to me very much, but I remember what it was like. And I remember just as vividly what it was like when a guy on the high school basketball team, a popular person, told the guy who was picking on me, in gym class of all the cliched places, that I was “cool.” It was in a stairwell. “Bady’s cool,” he said. “You’re not.” That was the day the bullying stopped, because it had stopped being “funny.”

The point of Judith Butler’s argument about “grievable life” is actually pretty simple: when violence happens against some kinds of living beings, it’s a big fucking deal. When it happens against other kinds, it isn’t. She has examples. You can come up with your own. New Yorkers on 9/11. Pakistani males “of military age” who happen to be somewhere where they might get hit by a drone, like Pakistan. Palestinian children and Israeli children. One kind of death matters a lot, another kind somehow seems to not matter so much. I don’t need to tell you which is which. The only question worth asking is this one: what makes some kinds of life more grievable than others?

You might say that Judith Butler is theorizing a kind of marketplace, or a stock market: the value of some lives rises, while that of others falls. Between 1970 and 1990, the value of prison life fell, as mass culture became less and less interested in “correcting” and rehabilitating, and more and more interested in punishing. Today, we make jokes about people getting raped in jail, in “pound-you-in-the-ass” prison. It’s a way to not think about the kinds of violence people condemned to that life have to endure. If it’s funny that people get raped in jail, after all, then you don’t have to think about them as people, you don’t have to take their pain into consideration. They’re nothing to you. Their degradation makes you laugh.

The phrase “rape culture” describes the way people don’t get too upset at the thought of a woman being raped. They might even laugh at it. It might seem funny, such a funny word. But nothing about this is just a joke. It’s about devaluing the sanctity of certain people’s security in their person, about refusing to feel bad about it, about taking a pride in it, even. Saying “wouldn’t it be funny if a violent act happened to this person” is almost the definition of how that works. If a terrible thing happened to a person, you say, I would not grieve. I would laugh. Their pain is not worth my empathy, or yours. Their pain makes me stronger, bigger, more important. Their pain is worth nothing.


verbatim caption, CA Corrections’ facebook page: 

“Happy Independence Day from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation! (Photo: A female inmate works on an American flag while working in the Prison Industries Authority Fabrics program at the Central California Women’s Facility on Thursday, April 5, 2012 in Chowchilla, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle / SF)”

Sunday Reading

Is now fully located here, at the New Inquiry. I decided I’m not going to cross post it both places, because, you know, laziness. Also, they have cool side-margins over there. But mainly it’s the lazy.

Another Question

Dear Thomas Jefferson,

I get that, but the thing is, you know, Classics don’t pay the bills.That’s just reality. So why should the taxpayers of the state of Virginia pay for people to learn stuff that doesn’t pay off? You know? I’m thinking that either students should pay for it, or we should just let the market make those decisions.

Helen Dragas, Rector


Dear Helen Dragas,

Some good men, and even of respectable information, consider the learned sciences as useless acquirements; some think that they do not better the condition of man; and others that education, like private and individual concerns, should be left to private individual effort; not reflecting that an establishment embracing all the sciences which may be useful and even necessary in the various vocations of life, with the buildings and apparatus belonging to each, are far beyond the reach of individual means, and must either derive existence from public patronage, or not exist at all. This would leave us, then, without those callings which depend on education, or send us to other countries to seek the instruction they require.


Since you asked

Dear Thomas Jefferson,

I was thinking of getting rid of the University of Virginia’s classical department. You cool with that?

Helen Dragas, Rector


Dear Helen Dragas,

You ask my opinion on the extent to which classical learning should be carried in our country. A sickly condition permits me to think, and a rheumatic hand to write too briefly on this litigated question. The utilities we derive from the remains of the Greek and Latin languages are, first, as models of pure taste in writing. To these we are certainly indebted for the national and chaste style of modern composition which so much distinguishes the nations to whom these languages ae familiar. Without these models we should probably have continued the inflated style of our northern ancestors, or the hyperbolical and vague one of the east. Second. Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the luxury of reading the Greek and Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals. And why should not this innocent and elegant luxury take its preeminent stand ahead of all those addressed merely to the senses? I think myself more indebted to my father for this than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach; and more now than when younger, and more susceptible of delights from other sources. When the decays of age have enfeebled the useful energies of the mind, the classic pages fill up the vacuum of ennui, and become sweet composers to that rest of the grave into which we are all sooner or later to descend. Third. A third value is in the stores of real science deposited and transmitted us in these languages, to-wit: in history, ethics, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, natural history, &c.

But to whom are these things useful? Certainly not to all men. There are conditions of life to which they must be forever estranged, and there are epochs of life too, after which the endeavor to attain them would be a great misemployment of time. Their acquisition should be the occupation of our early years only, when the memory is susceptible of deep and lasting impressions, and reason and judgment not yet strong enough for abstract speculations. To the moralist they are valuable, because they furnish ethical writings highly and justly esteemed: although in my own opinion, the moderns are far advanced beyond them in this line of science, the divine finds in the Greek language a translation of his primary code, of more importance to him than the original because better understood; and, in the same language, the newer code, with the doctrines of the earliest fathers, who lived and wrote before the simple precepts of the founder of this most benign and pure of all systems of morality became frittered into subtleties and mysteries, and hidden under jargons incomprehensible to the human mind. To these original sources he must now, therefore, return, to recover the virgin purity of his religion. The lawyer finds in the Latin language the system of civil law most conformable with the principles of justice of any which has ever yet been established among men, and from which much has been incorporated into our own. The physician as good a code of his art as has been given us to this day. Theories and systems of medicine, indeed, have been in perpetual change from the days of the good Hippocrates to the days of the good Rush, but which of them is the true one? the present, to be sure, as long as it is the present, but to yield its place in turn to the next novelty, which is then to become the true system, and is to mark the vast advance of medicine since the days of Hippocrates. Our situation is certainly benefited by the discovery of some new and very valuable medicines; and substituting those for some of his with the treasure of facts, and of sound observations recorded by him (mixed to be sure with anilities of his day) and we shall have nearly the present sum of the healing art. The statesman will find in these languages history, politics, mathematics, ethics, eloquence, love of country, to which he must add the sciences of his own day, for which of them should be unknown to him? And all the sciences must recur to the classical languages for the etymon, and sound understanding of their fundamental terms. For the merchant I should not say that the languages are a necessary. Ethics, mathematics, geography, political economy, history, seem to constitute the immediate foundations of his calling. The agriculturist needs ethics, mathematics, chemistry and natural philosophy. The mechanic the same. To them the languages are but ornament and comfort. I know it is often said there have been shining examples of men of great abilities in all the businesses of life, without any other science than what they had gathered from conversations and intercourse with the world. But who can say what these men would not have been had they started in the science on the shoulders of a Demosthenes or Cicero, of a a Locke, a Bacon, or a Newton? To sum the whole, therefore, it may truly be said that the classical languages are a solid basis for most, and an ornament to all the sciences.

I am warned by my aching fingers to close this hasty sketch, and to place here my last and fondest wishes for the advancement of our country in the useful sciences and arts, and my assurances of respect and esteem for the Reviewer of the Memoir on modern Greek.


“the good order of a school”

On Friday, a group of parents, teachers, and community members began a sit-in to protest Oakland Unified School District’s decision to close down Lakeview Elementary school (along with four other schools deemed to be unsustainable). You can read their argument and demands here, at their petition of support. In a nutshell:

[School Superintendent] Tony Smith and the school board have offered no plan to facilitate safe transportation to and from the new schools. Children will be put on public buses to make complex cross-town journeys alone, in many cases returning from afterschool programs after dark. Closing the schools will separate children from beloved teachers, breaking lines of continuity that, in some cases, stretch back three generations. It will destroy community networks, threatening the bonds between neighboring families who meet every day at school. It will further destabilize communities already suffering from high levels of violence and poverty. It will impact attendance, criminalizing children who can’t make it to school, who can then be arrested by truancy officers. Closing schools will demoralize the children, making them feel worthless and unwanted.

  • Stop handing over our schools and our students to charter schools!
  • Put student needs above the administration’s needs!
  • We demand the school board fire OUSD’s biggest charter school proponent – Superintendent Tony Smith

Until today, they were camping in the back area behind the school, reportedly playing a lot of basketball. This morning, as planned (and after a brief press conference), they entered into the school building proper, to began the first day of what they are calling “The People’s School for Public Education.”

The police were already present when they opened the doors; as the @LakeviewSitIn twitter account dramatically tweeted: “The building is full of cops.” But the police left shortly, after informing everyone that they were trespassing and handing out this beautiful piece of rationalization:

Let’s linger over those words. If there is a poetry to privatization (and I’m starting to think that there is), this is a wonderful example of it, the words that don’t quite, can’t quite, say what they really mean, and yet somehow still do. The command to NOTICE, the commanded attention that carries with it the fact that you — yes, YOU — have just been transformed into a criminal trespasser as a function of having read those words handed to you, that you’ve just been served with a legal stay-away order commanding you to stay away, for thirty days, from the place you’re not allowed to be in at all, and the strange assertion that you — yes, YOU — are “interfering with the good order and peaceful conduct of a school” which is and is supposed to be utterly empty of anything to interfere with. This is order: the absence that signifies control and exclusion. Not to make too much of this, but this is how you convert a public good into a piece of property, what it means to make a school into a piece of institutional capital. It ceases to be an open space, a public space where parents and community members are welcome and where children are taught to be citizens. It becomes a place which is owned by the men with the keys and their police. And it must be emptied of students so that it can become administrative offices. Safe, healthy and supportive schools require good order and peaceful conduct. 

There will be a rally at 4.

Sunday Reading

Frank Pasquale:

  • Technocracy as bankocracy as hypocrisy.
  • 13 ways of looking at American decline.
  • Rotten elites (PS: the book is brilliant till the last chapter).
  • How does PersonicX classify you?
  • The mustache will take your questions now.
  • Columbia U and finance: Take 1Take 2.
  • “If you can imagine it, you can see it here,” said a Broward Crime Stopper. “This is South Florida. I’m not that surprised.”
  • Ludic pharma: play with data.
  • The Jonah Lehrer take-down you’ve all been waiting for.
  • Big Elsie: “us or the stone age.”
  • Change you can barely believe, trade edition.  And “US government sides with Shell over victims of crimes against humanity.”
  • Outrage: “the servicers will get credit on the same loans they got taxpayer-funded checks for”
  • Plausible deniability for the imperial CEO at JPM; Apple edition; Sarbox angle; “The CEO ‘I’m in charge and I know nothing’ defense is alive and well because it has proven to be so successful.”
  • “Executive prerogative is to not be quantified, to mandate the quantification of others”
  • Lecture by Richard Bronk: Hayek “attempted a restatement of the central problem for economists and economic agents alike.” Hayekians must face up to the possibility that “free market ideology and deregulation itself may destroy the very institutions that market participants use to access dispersed and contextual information, and that it may lead to a dangerous analytical monoculture that corrodes the pluralistic underpinnings of the wisdom of prices.” Excellent on “data” in Hayek as well.

Bint Battuta:

Jane Hu:


Egypt’s “Coup by Proxy”:

Sunday Reading

Enter Jane Hu, stage left:

Boring old me:

ReclaimUC, defiantly debting as usual, but also enjoying an organic, locally produced burrito:

According to a report from the National Consumer Law Center, “The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) relies on an increasing number of private contractors to collect the approximately $67 billion in defaulted federal student loan debt.” Moreover, not only is the government on the hook for an increasing number of student loan defaults, but it is paying outside collection agencies huge sums of money to collect these debts: “The Department paid contractors almost $1 billion in commissions in 2011.” Thus instead of providing free public higher education, the federal government is lending students huge amounts of money that they can never pay back, and the result is that the feds have to hire expensive private contractors to collect the cash.

When Bint Battuta and Frank Pasquale are on vacation, I shamelessly steal from Gerry Canavan:


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