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December 22, 2008


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This is for Phil:

Despite my complaints about the TED talks-- I really liked this one recommended by Shunya and Usha on the human imagination and cultural diversity. He makes the point (which I was attempting to make...) regarding progression in terms of history. It is recommended.

Chris and I are also cooking up another book reading (next on one of my all-time favorite novels, The Master and Margarita) If you are interested, that is. And, I will be changing my name to Margarita for the duration!

Thanks for the recommendation, Peony. I like his enthusiasm, but I'm afraid this stuff leaves me a bit cold. Pretty pictures, but it's all a bit surface. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to take seriously a man who invites us to wonder at a Buddhist nun who remained in a single room for 55 years, and then in the next breath says, "And then I flew to the arctic because of Al Gore's film..." The contrast is a bit too stark, you know?

Plus, did you notice the slightly Margaret Mead moment where in his first TED talk he claimed that the "Older Brothers" of Peru were shut in a hut for 15 years, only to find out when he actually gets there that it's not a hut, it's a compound - a village, essentially. Perhaps these are inevitable errors in the discovery process, but they don't help skeptics like me to overcome our amusement at the Bill & Ted style "woah! Other cultures!" rhetoric.

As to his message... yeah, we should all stop forcing indigenous peoples off their land, and we should help them to maintain their languages. I agree. I donate.

I'm afraid you guys are too speedy for me. My copy of Bell hasn't even got here yet. I'd very much like to read something Russian, but I kind of need to do an English-language cold turkey next month, because my Chinese just isn't as good as it needs to be. So I will probably give it a pass. If I get too frustrated, I'll take sneaky peeks at what you're writing, though.

Hi Phil,

I am so happy you checked in! You know, I agreed with your comments about the video-- in that, yeah, from Tibet to the Arctic-- how could anyone even process such a "trip"? And, his point about cultures, I guess I feel the same (though I don't think it is merely a matter of donating money by any means)...at the same time, that isn't why I was interested in this video. What interested me-- and the reason why I wanted to recommend it to you-- is the journalist's understanding of culture as a product of human imagination; such that different cultural understandings stand as different ontological "options"-- Hence, as expressions of different understandings of being (that are concerned with those gray areas of human existence that stand beyond everyday matters of survival) they are not "developing" or progressing... in his words, "It is not as if the Victorian model is somehow standing at the apex" and all other cultures are moving in that direction as they develop.

To me this is the fundamental issue at why Demo would believe that while the right to free speech is inalienable he would turn a blind eye to the right to medical care and food-- it all comes down, in my opinion, to cultural blindspots. And, to repeat I do completely agree that one should not negate the other (as in EU speak).

I cannot believe your copy of Bell is still not there!!

Well, check in with Bulgakov, ok? It'll be fun to chat (even if you don't read it). I really want to fit this story in first (that I highly recommend) by Tanizaki called Captain Shigemoto's Mother Have you ever read it?

On the topic of English cold turkey. I understand. Until I started this blog about 5 months ago, I have been basically really totally immersed in Japanese for the past 10 years I guess(I read more in that language and communicate almost exclusively in it at home in japan). The result has been that my english has really, really suffered. Not all tha long ago a total supercilious (ie, a jerk) translator said, "Well, it's not your Japanese I am worried about"... so in that sense this blog has been soooooo good for me as I am thinking in English and writing what I am thinking... (as of course in translation you get so hung up on the source language).

BTW, I have a bunch of posts related to translation here if you ever feel like it.

So, that's all I guess. Getting ready to return to Japan in a few days-- expecting cold weather.

I just don't get it. I don't understand why you - or anyone - keep bringing up this thing of, if Demo works on a particular area of human rights, e.g. free speech, it means he "turns a blind eye" to other important development issues. It's specialization, secret of the modern industrial world. Demo doesn't work for Oxfam, he works for an HR NGO.
And I'm glad you agree that HR "should not negate" living standards; but I'm arguing it's more than that. HR *do not ever* negate living standards. I mean, honestly, have you ever heard of a case? We've agreed that in rich countries there's no trade off. But what about developing countries? Have you heard of an occasion on which people had to make a choice between material development and free speech?
Honestly, for me this is an empirical thing: I have never ever heard of a case in which rights development was negatively linked to economic development. So every time I see a comment like your "why Demo would believe that while the right to free speech is inalienable he would turn a blind eye to the right to medical care and food," it comes at me out of left field. It's like you said, "why does Demo keep going on about free speech and ignore the Whitesox' losing streak?" It's that weird a link.

And yeah, I got the bit from Wade about how all cultures are equal. But again, just no. His Victorian England straw man was almost predictable. Other cultures are different from ours; there are wonderful things in them worth preserving. Great. But Wade is a tourist peddling native eco-myths about how in balance with the world the natives are, man. And we're, like, the destroyers. We should learn to be peaceful, like the indians. It's a hippie myth, and I see it as a slightly destructive one. Indigenous people were never protectors of the environment. They altered environments significantly; the only reason they never did much as much damage as we do now is that there were insufficient numbers of them.

So, like I say, I donate - which I presume has some practical effect in preserving dying languages. But don't ask me to subscribe to this misty-eyed romanticization of "the native".

Hi Phil,

I also wanted to recommended this great radio interview with Martha Nussbaum, which explores the political philosophy of justice, rights and entitlements. Her exploration of animal rights really raises some interesting points-- you might enjoy her points about India, though you might just say that one of America's greatest philosophers is just romanticizing other species...???

Regarding "romanticizing the natives," the Chinese in their recent moves in Tibet to develop the region have said much the same thing- that traditional Tibetan culture was not a romantic ideal and that there were very ignorant and less than civilized practices in Tibet. The Chinese have repeatedly stated that they were doing their part to bring civilization to one of their little brothers. So, it isn't just America.

And keeping with the Chinese theme, wasn't there a case when an American diplomatic was talking to a Chinese leader about civil rights in China and the Chinese leader responded by saying: "why don't we talk about the human rights of those in your inner city"--
The Chinese official was linking the two because of course, different cultures will stress or prioritize different rights accordingly (I gave you examples from Japan)

If I was trying to engage you in how to raise your kid, let's say about the types of toys you buy, while at the same time I was feeding my kid mac and cheese (do you know what that is??) everyday, wouldn't you think I was rather a hypocrit? But then if I said-- but these things are not linked. What would you think? Whether they are linked or not depends on you define things, right?

I really preferred the second part-- but recommend both (note what she says about the judeo-christian tradition)

Part 1

Part 2


I like several of the things she says: the imbalance between animals' ability to suffer and their lack of ability to be moral beings. That's important (and shows up part of the problem with rights, which I don't believe in philosophically at all). Also important was her stress on empirical knowledge. We need to know more about what animals actually do perceive and feel and think - not just what some philosopher's idea of them does.

I disagree with her on the the idea that it's acceptable to end an animal's life painlessly. It's clearly in an animal's interest to be alive, even if they haven't thought about it (just like it's in Chinese people's interest to have a vote, even though I'm sure many millions of them have never thought about it). I'm surprised that Peter Singer would go along with that argument.

What's good about Nussbaum as opposed to Wade is precisely that she doesn't romanticize the animals. She notes that they are incapable of being moral beings. The subtext of Wade's talks was all, these natives are better than us because they're in tune with nature, they understand the sea and the plants and we don't. Nussbaum doesn't think animals are better than us; she sees clearly that they are not as capable as us, and that forms the crux of the moral problem for her.

I feel like I'm leading myself down a dangerous path here... am I going to end up saying that indigenous peoples are not as capable as us? Politically it's true: they don't have as much political power as the forces of modernity. But you'd have to be very careful with ideas like that. It'd be very easy to slip into a kind of superiority complex. So I think I'd take a firm line at this point and say, indigenous, disadvantaged groups have all the same capabilities as rich white men; and the challenge is to allow them to express and develop those capabilities.

Macaroni cheese? If you're feeding Adonis macaroni cheese, he should be very grateful, and if there's any leftovers I'll be right there to help.

If I were an American diplomat faced with that question, I'd say, sure, let's talk the American inner cities. Because let's remember, people who grow up in poor black areas of the US still have much higher standards of living and greater opportunities than, what 90% of the Chinese population? I don't see why an American would have anything to fear on that question. The Chinese can stress all the economic rights they want, if they ever provide them to their citizens.

And did you expect me as a human rights advocator to be all strong on the Tibet issue? I really don't think much of the place, or its crackpot religion. I don't buy the stories peddled by either side - it hasn't "always been part of China", nor is it an amazing unique culture that needs protecting from the nasty commies. It's just a place China invaded. They gutted it in the 60s and 70s, when they gutted the rest of the country. These days they're pouring money in. Basically, I can't get any more worked up about the rights of Tibetans than I can about the rights of the Shanghainese. If their culture is changing under Chinese pressure, well, that's just the way of things.

I'll listen to the interviews, I've heard of Nussbaum. I'm basically a Singer man when it comes to animals, so I'll be interested to hear what she has to say.

As long as you *know* you are leading down a dangerous logical path, Phil... I mean, where do I start? the Tibetans and their "crackpot religion" or the Americans in the inner cities and all their economic opportunities... I know, I will start with mac and cheese-- have you ever actually eaten mac and cheese the comes out of a box? Adonis' papa would say it is the end of civilization but when Adonis was 3 I ordered mac and cheese for him in a restaurant because I figured it would be made from scratch... well, out comes this concocotion in a revolting bright yellow-orange color. After the waitress plopped it down in front of Adonis, he turns to me and whispers, "mama, is this food?" Needless to say, he wouldn't go near the stuff!

Tibet-- I take the opposite approach, no one is saying it has always been part of China but maybe just that it has been part of China longer than California has been part of the union-- and yes, I do think they have a unique culture... and yes, I agree that wades was romanticizing the natives,,,however, don't forget I didn't recommend that video for the natives, but for his take on imagination and history (imagination being part of one of my elaborate theories that I haven't sprung on you yet).

Speaking of Tibet, did you ever read Vikram Seth's book, Heavenlake, where he travels to Tibet and then back to his home in India via Nepal? Well, toward the end of the book, Seth asks the question of whether he would rather be an Indian with their beloved democracy (but with all the poverty) or a Chinese with all the restrictions on freedom. He answers with the rather predictable answer that if he was born wealthy than he would rather be an Indian-- but if he had not been born wealthy than a Chinese for no matter how poor a person is in China, he says, you don't not see the conditions (disease and misery) there that you do in India-- this was way back in the early 80s too. If I were posed the same question, I would have to really think about it-- but the last time I was in downtown LA (not even in the inner city but down by USC) I saw something so disturbing that I still have not really mentally processed it.

Finally, regarding animals, I think it is true that to be alive is better than to be dead; however Nussbaum gives reason for not categorically dismissing the killing of animals for food, in that they do not seem to have the same sense of future (and she also says that we need to keep doing research though and base our moral claims of the accurate information of animals) I was listening to this interview with Barbara Kingsolver who wanted to live for a year on food that she and her family grew or obtained locally... she makes a very similar point about turkeys-- if you are interested!!

There are also some other links in this rather inane post I wrote last summer when I first put the blog online.

OK, Phil, have a good one- and here's the Kingsolver program


Hi Folks,

It's always so odd to join into a conversation at this point, halfway through. You feel like you are interrupting.

I like Peony's point about different ontological "frameworks" provided by culture. At the same time, Phil's point about not romanticizing the natives makes sense as well.

In a way, the two points take up opposite poles. I could be wrong here (I'm sure Phil will correct me in that event!) -- Phil's points seem to harbor some kind of developmental model. Animals and Chinese have interests, even if they don't recognize them; some are better than others at actualizing their interests, and so on. As a result, some cultures are simply better than others. Peony's point is so much more starkly existentialist -- there are no interests at all in this way, such that two cultures could be compared in a developmental way. Outside of human constructions of interests, I suppose Peony might say, there are no interests at all (God is dead?).

I harbor strong intuitions in both directions. Perhaps, in part, it's a desire to maintain some sort of pluralism but without the pernicious relativist connotation. You need some sort of standard to pull the two apart, though. I think Bell has some "standards" to pull these apart, most of them internal to culture, but perhaps -- perhaps? -- a few very thin ones that aren't internal (though I could be wrong here).

Before saying more, though, I'm curious: Phil, what interests do you think we have, specifically?

I also wonder: are the TED talks available on iTunes for podcast?


By the way, sorry our discussion of the a priori got cut off at my place (the Holiday came on the scene!). I'm thinking of another post on this, citing Mill and Ayer, specifically with reference to their different ways of talking about the origin and justification of propositions and how this informs the Bell discussion. If you are bored and clicking away while at work, check to see if anything is up on it at my place.

By the way: no book yet? The slow boat to China for sure!

Briefly-- I'm still packing for our morning flight-- yeah, I do not believe in the development model and I never spell history with a capital H. That is the sole reason I pointed to that TED talk (and I have nothing to say about the natives either) btw, I did listen on my ipod-- there is a buttom for downloading to your ipod somewhere!

More soon at chris' place...


Chris, while I may be a stark existentialist, I would never say god is dead... for the same reason as Heidegger wouldn't, right?

"Phil, what interests do you think we have, specifically?"

Well don't hold back, if you want to ask the big questions just go ahead and ask them!

I can't say my thinking on this point is anything like mature. Generally I just scrape by on a mishmosh of ideas from human rights. But I would say I have a few themes that I work under. Firstly, I distinguish negative interests from positive interests. So I think it's in our interest to avoid misery, pain and death (negative interests). Then there are two kinds of positive interests I think about: I think humans are social animals, so it's in our interest to be part of a society, and I'd probably go further and say to be a good part of a good society. And we need freedom of some kind on the individual level within that society.

And these interests hold to some extent for animals. I guess I'd argue that they're based on a conception of what human beings are like, and the extent to which they're shared by animals is based on what the animals are like. Sharks, for example, probably have no interest in being in a society; and it's not obvious they have an interest in freedom - but it's not obvious they don't, either. We just don't know enough about them.

Chris, you suggest that I could conclude that some cultures are simply better than others. You're right. I think our modern democracies are better than slave-owning cultures. (I was reading a while ago about an anthropologist who identified a culture as wholly bad: The Mountain People? Would love to read that.) However, I also think that historical accidents have been very important in the development of all cultures, so there are many cultural things we shouldn't class as "progress" or improvement. Plus, you can often distinguish Culture from individual cultural practices. So I would be very very hesitant about applying judgments to the vast majority of the extant world cultures.

My book isn't here, but I have got an ebook text of Bell now, so when I have time I'll give it a bit more of a close reading.

Peony - Seth book: 1980s maybe, 1960s, not so much. I'd love to know more about India, but at the moment all I get here in China is a barrage of propaganda: India's great, if only it would ditch the democracy, it'd be brilliant! I need to get past that before I can enter into any sensible discussion.

Hi Phil,

I am a big fan of Vikram Seth. A surprisingly critical view of India compared with China was by another Indian-born man Parag Khanna-- I highly recommend his book.

Also in this post on India I linked to a different view by one of India's 1st fluent Mandarin-speaking journalists. She has a book out that I would really like to read and I think (like I said) her take is quite different regarding China (but I've only read the article).

Phil, I have also been struggling with the same issue regarding distinguishing cultures versus cultural practices. And, it cannot be stated enough that even if one doesn't believe in a teleological view of history or a development model etc. that does not mean that culture is not constantly in flux.

More soon...


I'm curious here -- wouldn't you claim here that human beings do indeed have properties that "make them human" and that we can use to secure human rights with? If what makes X human is (partly) a societal framework, then a positive right could be secured to provide for the that, if partly it is the claim that humans are "free" then a negative right can be provided to protect individuals from attempts to rob the person of freedom, etc.

Perhaps, as you might suppose, these properties are discovered empirically (perhaps), but it seems that we would then discover that all persons of these types would have them, and thus human rights would not just be a matter of negotiation. People would have them, regardless of whether we agree that they do because they always have those interests/properties.

Er, what you're proposing there sounds a bit weird. If I say humans are defined as free, then couldn't someone take away my humanity by locking me up?

So it seems that you're interested in when and how I would make the jump from descriptive to normative. I think I wouldn't want to make it in the place you're suggesting, in the definition of humans. I clearly do believe in some properties that apply pretty much universally and uniquely to humans (with the usual problematic exceptions); but I'm not sure I'd be happy using these as the basis for normative statements. I think the reason is that I'm not sure there is any moral value to simply being human.

I prefer to move to normativity from human desires, happiness and unhappiness (and secondarily from those of animals).

All of which obviously relates to the question we brought up on your post on rights for the dead... And even though you're right, politically my view doesn't play, I still just can't do it. I've sat and thought about it and I just can't imagine what sort of thing a right might be or how it might exist. If you've got the time to point me toward some good writings on the subject, or even give me some of the arguments in outline, I'd be grateful.

That's it, I said January and January is here. Happy New Year, everyone. I'm attempting a complete cold turkey on English, cos I need to do lots of reading in Chinese. So I'm going to have to leave this debate for a while. I'll be back, and I'll probably write some blog entries in Chinese, which I'll come and link for you. It's been a pleasure! Phil

In your main post above, you posed a bold question that has both irked and challenged me: under what authority is "the right to gather or the right of free speech ... more fundamental ... than say the right for clean water and nutritious food"? I have attempted an answer on my own blog. Check it out!

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