Self-Defence, Democracy, and Moral Equivalence

Written By: J.Noonan - Jul• 23•14

As with the past two Gaza invasions, supporters of Israel have relied upon three central arguments to justify the destruction of Palestinians’ lives and means of life.   None are sound and all need to be publically contested.

The first and most widely deployed argument is that Israel is simply exercising its right to self defence.  This is the most common argument because it is the most plausible, seems to conform to international laws and norms, and involves the fewest number of odious moral implications.  Here is the argument:  Hamas is using Gaza as a base to launch  rockets at Israel.  Israeli cities and civilians are endangered by the rockets.  As a sovereign nation Israel has the right to self-defence.  The right to self-defence includes the right to decide the most efficacious means of self-defence.  Only a ground invasion can ensure the safety of Israeli civilians from Hamas rocket fire.  Therefore, a ground invasion is necessary.

A corollary of this argument relates to the civilian casualties in Gaza.  The corollary asserts that Hamas is responsible for all Palestinian deaths, because Hamas started the conflict.

This argument appears sound because there is in fact a right to self-defence under international law.  There are also norms concerning proportionality, however, which the scope and violence of Israeli operations arguably violate.  However, arguing about the finer points of international law is not the most effective line of criticism, because, as history proves, international law in effect means whatever those with the power to enforce it decide it means.  Hence, we need to expose the problematic assumptions that underlie the right to self-defence argument.

The first assumption is that Hamas is the cause of the conflict.  Hamas is not the cause of the conflict; they are not initiating military operations, they are reacting to an embargo on life goods and the imprisoning of an entire people by Israel.  They have said that their goal is to end the siege of their life space.  No people could reasonably be expected not to resist conditions such as Israel has imposed upon the people of Gaza.  One can debate both the wisdom and the legality of rocket fire into the territory of a militarily superior nation, but it is not possible to plausibly deny that the cause of the rocket fire is the inhuman conditions of life that the Israeli blockade imposes on Gazans.   People are safest when they give their neighbours no cause for violence.  I am much less likely to fight with my neighbour if I do not barricade his driveway.  If I barricade his driveway, beat him up the first time he asks me to remove the blockade, reinforce the blockade with concrete the second time he asks me to remove it, and burn his house down the third time, I could hardly pretend to not be responsible if he should, the fourth time, decide to respond more forcefully towards me.  I might plead self-defence, but really, I am defending myself from the predictable consequences of my own actions.  Hence, because the blockade is the real cause of the violence, and Israeli’s have built and maintained the blockade, they bear ultimate responsibility for the state of war between Gaza and Israel, the self-defence argument fails.  If the blockade were ended (and a comprehensive peace agreement reached) Gazans and all Palestinians could get on with building intrinsically valuable lives in which the energy used to sustain historical enmities and hatreds is sublimated.  Israeli’s too, for that matter.

The second argument is far more problematic, but much loved of Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird.  Baird often argues that Israel  should never be criticized, whether for its military incursions, its apartheid wall, its collective punishments, its detentions, or any other indignity or abuse it decides to heap upon the Palestinians, because it is a democracy.  This argument rests on a category mistake. The category mistake is that Baird uses a political structure as moral justification for life-destructive outcomes (the death of Palestinian children) that would otherwise be judged immoral and criminal.   Democracy is nothing but a form of government, a structure of rule, a way of taking collectively binding decisions.  It is not, in and of itself, a justification for the outcomes of the decisions it takes.  If the mere fact that a decision were taken democratically were sufficient justification for its outcomes, then nothing that a majority supported could ever be morally wrong.   But the justification of political decisions, their moral legitimacy, depends upon the life outcomes for the people affected.  A decision to bomb and shell densely populated areas in full knowledge that there will be innocent civilian casualties is wrong because it knowingly and necessarily destroys innocent life.  That it has popular support does not make it morally correct.  Democracy is a political form, whether it is good or bad depends upon the degree to which those affected by its decisions are enable to lead good human lives.

Two brief addenda.  It is questionable whether Israel can be both a “Jewish state”  and a liberal democracy, at the very least religio-ethnic exclusivity is in tension with the liberal ideal of equal citizenship.  Arab citizens have the same formal rights as Jewish citizens, but how can they be equal in a state that identifies itself as essentially Jewish?   The issue is complex and I leave it to others and to a different time to resolve.  My point is only that the issue of Israeli democracy is more problematic than it might appear.  If the question of Israeli democracy is more complex than it first appears, then the question of Hamas’ political illegitimacy is even moreso.  The Western media typically play down the fact that Hamas was democratically elected in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian parliament.  So maybe it is not true, for either or both of these reasons, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

The final, and by far the most odious and dangerous argument in support of Israel asserts that there is “no moral equivalence” between Israeli deaths from Hamas rocket fire and Palestinian deaths from Israeli  fire.  The only way this argument could be true is if Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives.  Equivalence implies equality of value.  By definition, then, inequivalence (which is what “no moral equivalence” entails) means inequality of value.  Inequality of value means that one of the two poles of comparison is worth more than the other.  If there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli deaths,  then Israeli deaths are worth more, i.e., are morally worse than, Palestinian deaths.  If death is bad because life is good, and some deaths are worse than others,  then, by implication, some lives are better than others.  If the living and the dead are sorted into reified groups  (‘Israeli,’ ‘Palestinian’) and this sorting is mapped onto to the inequivalent valuation, then the conclusion is that Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives.  And that is, quite simply, a repetition of the most odious and inhuman racism that has periodically infected human history.

Let us now put all three arguments together and see the hell to which it leads.  If we accept that a)  Israel has an unlimited right to self-defence, b) whose exercise is legitimated by its being a democracy, and c) is therefore entitled to kill Palestinians whose lives are worth less than Israeli lives, then we are led, logically, to the conclusion that if a majority of Israeli’s so agreed, their right to self-defence would entail the right to destroy the entire Palestinian people (their lives are not worth as much as the lives of Israelis they might kill, the right to self-determination is not constrained by extraneous factors but only the democratic decision of the people of Israel).

Sadly, political discourse in Israel is degenerating towards such conclusion.  An Israeli news outlet reported that Knesset member Ayelet Shaked: “a well-known Israeli politician and parliament member, recently said mothers of all Palestinians should also be killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza. She called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.””

If, as I hope, you reject the exterminist logic implied in Shaked’s comment, or openly asserted in a ruling of Rabbi Dov Lior, reported in Haaretz, that ” “deterrent measures to exterminate the enemy” were allowed by Jewish religious law, then you need to rethink the soundness (should you have been tempted by them) of the 3 arguments above that open the door to it.

Politics. Ambivalence.

Written By: J.Noonan - Jul• 18•14

Even by the standards of real politik it is extraordinarily cynical to use the nightmarish crash of a passenger plane as cover for an invasion.  Yet it happened:  as the world watched in astonished horror the burning wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, aflame in a field in Eastern Ukraine, Israel launched its anticipated ground assault on Gaza.   In reaction, Hamas turned to its well-worn repertoire of promises to “exact a heavy price”  from Israel, but we all know how this will end.  The smaller man sees that there is no avoiding the fight now, so he resists with the only weapon he has left– his mouth.  But it will not save him from having his teeth knocked out.

Perhaps it is time to abandon tough guy politics.  The tough guys in eastern Ukraine have now, probably inadvertently, (but what is the difference?)  killed 295 people on a 777.  The tough guys of Hamas have gotten themselves into another war with Israel that they cannot win.  The tough guys of Israel have killed over 200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, all the while claiming not to be tough guys but forced into the fight by the mouthy little guy they regularly beat up.  The tough guy Putin scrambles for excuses–  had there not been a war in Ukraine, the plane would not have been shot down, which is rather like saying that if a person did not need to breathe, they would not have drowned.  True, but rather too abstract as an explanation.  Punch, counter-punch, counter-counter-punch…

It is quite the show, and a good thing too, since the World Cup just ended.  Those with a front row seat are enjoying it most.  While the world is told by the Western media that all of Israel is cowering from the rockets of the mighty Hamas, CNN cameras infelicitously caught a large group of Israelis sitting on a hill, only a few miles from Gaza, cheering the show as Israeli guided missiles lazily glided towards their targets (there is no rush when there are no defenses to skirt).

The reality of a neighbour’s house exploding or bodies falling on my patio from the sky are too impossible to imagine.  Across the street, some kids are joking in the late afternoon sunshine.  I think– “but don’t they know what happened?”  But even as I think that another voice is saying “if they do know, that is no reason to not enjoy the evening.”  I look into the garden.  The gently fading sunlight has dulled the green of leaves and creeping charley and brightened the reds, yellows, and purples of the crocosmia, lilies, and echinacia.  I can sip my beer and ponder the miseries of the world at leisure.  I think back (more than twenty years) to a poster on the wall of my old comrade Peter’s basement apartment on Lansdowne Ave.  It was a quotation from Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, remarking on the pleasure he felt looking into the garden, through the window his wife Natasha just opened.  I only remember the final line:  “Life is beautiful.  May future generations enjoy it to the fullest.”

Ever the revolutionary, he speaks of the future, but he enjoyed his present in Coyoacan as well.  He enjoyed his garden, and he enjoyed the even more beautiful garden of Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, (not to mention Kahlo herself), only a few blocks away.  The only justification for struggle is to enable everyone to enjoy the beauty of life, but the means of struggle must be such that the inner capacity to value life and beauty are not destroyed. (I think Trotsky, former commander of the Red Army and proponent of the politics of ‘liquidating the class enemy,’ once on the run from Stalin’s homicidal mania, came to understand this truth).  Whether true or not of Trotsky, the principle does emphasize what might be the worst, cruelest irony of all-  the more intransigent the opponents of justice, the more violence they are willing to use, the more those fighting for their humanity are forced to adopt inhuman means, killing in themselves that for which they struggle-  liberation of the capacity to fully enjoy the beauty of life.

The comfortable can wish for the democratic mass movement that can conquer oppression through solidarity, commitment, and militant but non-violent struggle.  Perhaps they think back to their support for the struggle against apartheid, but their recollections probably pass over Umkhonto we Sizwe.  Nevertheless, there is a lesson:  there was armed struggle against apartheid, but the ultimate victory was secured by political power, not military maneuvering.  It was the political wing of the ANC, in combination with the Communist Party of South Africa and the millions of militant workers of the Congress of South African  Trade Unions that brought white rule to an end.  The Pan African Congress and its slogan “One settler, one bullet” have been forgotten.  The socio-economic problems that beset apartheid South Africa remain, but so too millions of black workers alive to continue the fight.

I know that no one has the map we need to find our way out of the morass we are in, but there is no excuse, at this point in history, for persisting in means of struggle that we know not to work.  Shooting down aircraft, plowing them into buildings, lobbing rockets in the hope of killing someone, anyone, accomplishes nothing, save giving your oppressors the excuse they need to step on your throat all the harder.  Others have to help remove the boot, which is why, I suppose, those not in immediate danger shouldn’t laugh or enjoy the lazy summer twilight.  But that does not mean that the laughter and light are not beautiful.

The Value and Contradictions of Self-Determination

Written By: J.Noonan - Jul• 14•14

If you imprison and humiliate an entire people, let them live (at your discretion) but not make the sort of living that human beings are capable of making for themselves when they control their means of life, they will, eventually, fight back.  If you humiliate them deeply enough, if you build roadblocks in the way of every political solution, if you pontificate whilst raining death at will, the humiliated will lash out in anger and call for your destruction, even though they and you both know that will never happen.  If you also control the means of communication, if you can get journalists to tell a ‘balanced’ story by focussing  on ‘rockets’ in abstraction from historical realities like colonization and inhuman blockades of life-necessities;  if you can prevent the obvious question from being asked:  what group of human beings would not fight back under these conditions (if they did not fight back, they would not be human), then you can make yourself appear the victim, you can get everyone to sing same from the same hymn-book of the ‘right to self-defence.’   Better, you can kill and destroy just enough that there will be a bit left over to justify the next year’s bombing mission or invasion, to sob that you have ‘no partner for peace,’ to hypocritically moan that the people you torment and abuse and humiliate do not recognise your ‘right to exist’ (while openly announcing that you will never accept the one thing that might bring peace, a Palestinian state).  And so it goes on (forever?), Israel, the world’s last colonial power, claiming the right to determine its collective future by denying the same right to others.

Such is the contradiction the universalization of the right to self-determination causes.  If the ‘self’ refers to  singular peoples each struggling as ethno-national wholes for exclusive control over the same territory, then the result can never be self-determination for each, but either war or subordination of the weaker to the stronger. It is impossible to satisfy the geographical conditions of self-determination for each group, since that over which exclusive jurisdiction is demanded as a fundamental condition of self-determination cannot be shared.

One way of resolving this contradiction is to argue that ethno-national groups (or their sectarian-religious analogues) are anachronistic, not to mention atavistic, xenophobic, and chauvinistic.  Even at their least violent (as in Scotland or Quebec) they seem, at best, a faint echo of a now impossible (and unattractive?) Romantic idea of the nation as the expression of a unique popular culture.  Since there is no avoiding the danger that struggles for self-determination focus only on the well-being of one group at the expense of the other;  the goal of territorial security should be abandoned as an artefact of the ‘tribal’ past.

At the same time, however, as the case of the Palestinians proves, the struggles of particular nationals selves for self-determination  remains of universal value.  Stateless people are profoundly vulnerable because they are denied control over even the most basic elements of being alive– accessing water supplies, having secure access to agricultural land.  We are not in the age of  Deleuzian ‘de-territorialized flows.’  Resources and money flow from one territory to another territory, and controlling those flows are named entities– Israel, America, the European Union, the “global North.”  In opposition are not Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitudes,” but again, people with names:  Palestinian, Uighur, Kurd. People still name themselves and the places they live, and assign preponderant political value to protecting both, not necessarily on chauvinistic grounds, but as a basic condition of life-security.  Life grows from the ground up.  If you do not control that ground, you live only at the pleasure of the group that does.  That is not a situation in which human life can flourish.

The problem with cosmopolitan alternatives (liberal or socialist) to the ethno-nationalist form of struggles for self-determination is that people must live someplace rather than another.  Even nomads stop their journeys and camp for a night, a week, a season, and their wanderings are limited to a territory that they regard as their own.  No one can live everywhere; a cosmopolis, a world city, is, as Kant stressed, an ideal to regulate the intercourse of strangers (welcome everyone everywhere in shared humanity)  but  it is not a home or a possible political structure in which its citizens collectively determine their lives.  Yes, all states are situated on planet earth, and yes, we do have shared concerns as human beings, but day to day politics needs to regulate day to day life, and day to day life plays out in a locality.  Humanity is a concrete, not an abstract, universal.  We are human in virtue of the actual identities we build for ourselves.  Localities have boundaries that not only separate life spaces from one another, they define the familiar and the shared (and of course all the problems intrinsic to human societies).  These boundaries should be porous and people should cross frontiers, intra-national problems are not solved by nationalist means, but the historical reality is that when a people does not control its own basic conditions of life some other people does, and has used this power to make the dependent their servants, not to mention objects to be destroyed when the subordinate insist upon their humanity and thus their right to self-determination.   Behind the demand for ethno-nationalist self-determination is the truly universal demand to control life-requirements for the sake of living as free human beings.

People do in fact identify themselves by a name they share with some but not with others.  Yes, the communities in relation to which these identities are forged are largely imaginary (Benedict Anderson), but the imaginary is made real by political commitment and history.   Part of what motivates political commitment to an imaginary community is the very real material violence that indigenous and non-European identities have suffered over the past three or four hundred years at the hands of colonising, imperialist forces and their regional allies.  Not only has nationalist struggle been the primary form of opposition to imperialism, it has also bound different people together across borders in a shared, international struggle.  Victory in those struggles is protective of the local identities out of which creative hybrids are built.  Struggles for secure territory are not necessarily chauvinistic and violently exclusionary, they can be the starting point for new, multicultural constructions.

The ultimate implication of the demand for self-determination is the expansion of the ‘self’ beyond national identity to new forms of global sharing of life-space and life-resources.  But the historical reality of the world is distinction into stateless and citizens, colonisers and colonised, rulers and ruled.  Palestinians, Israelis, Iranians, Americans all have the same fundamental conditions of being alive and acting freely, but not the same power to procure the resources that would satisfy those conditions.  In the given historical moment, a national state is an essential step in the direction of the universal sharing that would finally solve the problem of subordinate peoples, because the achievement of a national state presupposes a political victory over the forces of domination.

Still, when the struggle for territory occurs between two groups who both claim the same territory, as in Israel-Palestine, the conflict can very quickly lose all connection to the struggle for the material conditions of self-determination and appear as an irreconcilable conflict fuelled by fictional histories purified of the truth of contradiction and complexity the existence of the other interconnected history necessarily introduces.   The starting point to resolving the contradiction of competing struggles for self-determination is to acknowledge the existence of the other self and that there is no singular history, but that the history of the one identity is bound up with the other and vice versa. How far the world can develop beyond borders is an open question, but the importance of establishing them in cases  where peoples have historically been subordinated to the rule of other peoples (as still today in Palestine), seems indisputable.




Windsor, WUFA, and Hard Bargaining: A Lament From Up Close for the Decline of Campus Democracy:

Written By: J.Noonan - Jul• 04•14

Collective bargaining is a difficult process.  At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer.  Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power.  Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

That does not stop employers from playing the victim card.  Ontario has just come through an election campaign in which the leader of  the Conservative Party tried to spook Ontarians with takes of the nefarious deeds of phantom “union bosses”  holding the province hostage.  Fortunately, Ontarians saw through this nonsense and sent him packing.   One would hope that thoughtful people would draw the appropriate lesson:  one should try to convince by argument and not by demonizing threat.  Sadly, my employer, the University of Windsor, seems determined to try to resolve the on-going round of collective bargaining with my union, the Windsor University Faculty Association, by the time honoured tactic of union blaming.

In a letter to the Faculty dated July 3rd, 2014, President Alan Wildeman wrote: “It is now more than five months since my January 28th public address when I expressed to the campus community the desire going forward to have new collective agreements in place at the time the existing ones expire. This was done with the goal of breaking the persistent pattern of negotiations carrying on through the summer, and bargaining groups either threatening or taking strike action in the fall. This is a pattern that causes tremendous anxiety for students, their families and the greater community. While this pattern may represent the tried and true tradition of collective bargaining and forcing an employer’s hand, and unions might think it appropriate to threaten strike action at a time when it puts the most pressure on the employer, it is a pattern that the University cannot continue to quietly accept.”

I suppose we should be proud that the administration, by threatening (but so far not acting upon the threat) to lock us out at the earliest possible moment is copying our purported tactics.  For of course, the summer is when they have greatest leverage. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.   Still, while it is in fact the case that bargaining has often stretched from May until October, it has never been the explicit strategy of WUFA to back administration into a corner.  We have been on strike exactly twice in 50 years and we have never gone into bargaining with a strike mandate in hand.  We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall?  The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.  It is of course true that any academic uni0n is in a more powerful position in the Fall, when a full slate of classes is running, than in the summer, when many members are away from campus and fewer classes are offered.  Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle  (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority).  Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged.  You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout). 

It would seem that President Wildeman is working hard to push us in that direction.  While the lockout date has come and gone and the university’s doors are still open to WUFA members,  his letter of July 3rd threatens changes to the conditions of employment if WUFA does not acquiesce to administration demands by Monday, July 7th.  Specifically, it warns that:

“The University will no longer make employer contributions to the Money Purchase Plan component of the Faculty Pension Plan (Article D of collective agreement);

ii) The University will cease to pay the premiums for all health insurance benefit coverages for WUFA members described in Article F of the collective agreement, including the Green Shield Supplemental Hospitalization Benefit Plan and Green Shield Extended Health Benefit Plan;

iii) The Grievance and Arbitration provisions in Article 39 of the collective agreement will no longer be in effect;

iv) The University will cease to honour requests for reimbursement of Professional Development and Membership Dues described in Article I of the collective agreement;

v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”

Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout.  What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening.  Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day.  The assumption  amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.

Rather than contribute constructively to the talks, the President’s letter accuses the union of distorting the University’s finances and ignoring the economic realities of the province of Ontario:

“We continue to be advised by WUFA’s bargaining team that it is their steadfast view that the university does not face a financial challenge, and that they should not have to do as all other employees have done. In contrast to the position of WUFA’s bargaining team, our fiscal challenge, as evidenced by $43M of realignments over the past six years and reductions in faculty and staff numbers, is real. It is a challenge being felt across the provincial and national postsecondary system, and it is a challenge clearly articulated in the provincial policy on differentiation across the university and college sector.”

I will not get into the specifics of WUFA’s analysis of the University’s finances here, save to note that the same university that has cut 43 million dollars from its operating budget (which is what “realignment” means)  has embarked on an ambitious building program that will cost well in excess of 100 million dollars by the time it is complete.  One can argue, as the President does, that this money was specifically earmarked for capital improvements and is thus not money taken from the Operating Budget.  Even if one accepts that argument as a matter of accounting practices, the fact remains that money is being found for construction at a time when the university has not been hiring at a pace to keep up with retirements.  As a consequence,  faculty student ratios are increasing even though overall enrolment increases have been modest.  The real issue is priorities, not accounting tables.

As for the provincial situation, the President is correct to argue that all post-secondary institutions across the province are facing real challenges to their finances.  Yet, these challenges have nothing to do with purportedly unreasonable faculty salary demands and everything to do with:  a) decades of inappropriate taxation policy which has redistributed income to the richest Ontarians while starving vital public institutions of needed funds and b) a provincial post-secondary education policy which has put universities in competition with colleges and universities in competition with each other to attract students.  These provincial  policies, made worse by the long inadequacy of federal transfer payments in support of essential public institutions, explain whatever financial challenges we face, and should, if everyone is committed to the university’s intellectual and pedagogical missions, be ground for common cause.  

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire.  Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits.  Instead, all members of the institution–  faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.  If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

Collegial self-governance should be the goal, but we all know from experience that it is increasingly distant from reality.  At the University of Windsor, as at other universities across the country, the norm is too often imperious, top-down imposition of senior administration’s plans.  True, we are sometimes “consulted,”  but consultation is the prerogative of monarchs.  Engaged discussion, argument, and collective decision-making by all with a stake in the outcome ought to be the practice of democratic public institutions (as well as the organizing principle of collective bargaining).

Sadly, (because I am thankful every day that this university allows me to teach, to have felt the joy of helping thousands of students to pursue truth rather than expediency, and to be a philosopher), I do not see much evidence of commitment at senior levels to this principle.  I have no doubt that senior administration is sincere in its commitment to what it considers the institution to be, but the university is not a name, a ‘brand,’ or a collection of buildings.  It is the work of teaching, learning, and research.  Everything else, including administration, is a support function, important, yes, but support, not the raison d’ etre.

Spanish-Moroccan Hours and Seasons

Written By: J.Noonan - Jun• 25•14

An Overheard Riff

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This is the best thing– to be, unexpectedly, and only for a moment, in the presence of great but nameless talent sharing its art for the fun and joy of it, and thus being, ‘though uninvited, part of the fun and joy.

Arriving in Africa

…and bricks in piles; everything seemingly inside out, the finished looking unfinished and the unfinished finished, all openness to the air and sea and light; life in non-stop motion of donkey carts and trucks and motorized tricycles and on dangerous foot darting everywhere back and forth across the road smooth lean boys to and from the beach but no girls;  road side shacks of tourist craft commerce but melons and tangerines and vegetables too; hugging the coast road feeling a little further off the beaten track than expected …

At the Prado (How an Atheist Can Be Moved by Christian Art)

The universality is hardly in the narrative content, which is as particular (and ludicrous) as can be imagined, but in the faces- especially the anguished faces, Christ on the cross, his followers witnessing his suffering– and in the light (the mark of mastery is to make the paint seem illuminated from within).  Even if you do not believe in its divinity, it speaks life.

Faded Paint 

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Fresh paint speaks of decoration, an invitation that says– this is for you, buy something.  Faded paint on plaster speaks of home, not for your looking but someone else’s living.  An architecture of poverty, perhaps, but the weathering is beautiful, surface, yes, but real.

De Tanger a Fes par Grand Taxi (or, Possibilities of Violence Unrealized) 

Barrel chested men on the crumbling sidewalk speak rapidly to each other in Arabic — Fes, 1500 dirhams– and we’re off, hard on the gas all the way, around the corners and over every hill, honking at donkeys and bikes, scrapping by with an inch to spare, the old Mercedes with no seat belts and cardboard for a rear window, the pleasing memory of how free it felt to ride unrestrained compromised by the image of both of us being launched through the front window into the main street of a rough Berber village, or dismembered amongst the pointillist field of plastic bags (the ubiquitous mark of ‘civilization’).   But no, we evade every on-rushing truck and old Massey-Ferguson tractor (built on King Street, maybe, in the factory I watched being knocked down so many years ago?).  Around the bend the mountain road is now a highway,  a nameless and mostly toothless man on a motorbike promising to lead us to the Riad.

It would have been too cliché to think of “A Distant Episode” all the way, but if money really were everything, why not just kill us, string us up like the goats hanging in front of the cafes or dump us on the hillside somewhere, rejecting the negotiated price in favour of the expediency of  taking everything we have?  A deeper bond must rule, at least sometimes.


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Structure, replicating itself at ever decreasing scales, de-materializing into pure space.

Goya and Violence

Saturn must negate his divinity and become animal, devouring his own sons to hold the throne he will lose anyway; the May second rebels victorious lose on the 3rd.  The condemned throws his arms up in protest, in despair, and in disbelief at the pointlessness of it all.  But this truth must be forgotten (or must it?)  for if there is no resistance, the worst win out (but do they not in any case?).

The Bandaged Whore of Tangier

The observer in me says-  I would love to see you throw the fuckin rock that you are brandishing in your bandaged, bleeding hand, to watch it fly along the vector traced by those angry, angry eyes, to strike your tormenter, or, perhaps even better, the plate glass window of this sleazy port-side bar and hear the tremendous crash of glass and curses that would follow.  But then the me in me says– perhaps it is a generalized anger that screams out from beneath the dusty skirt you have just hiked up to show the world your dimpled, wrinkled arse and braining one man (me) would be just as good as some specific abuser (From all appearances, you would seemed justified in that position).  There is humanity in your capacity to stay defiant.

John The Baptist, Hustler

spain-morocco 097

Whose gaze, cousin of God, your cloak so seductively draped, are you trying to attract?

On Seeing Isabella and Ferdinand’s Tomb

Only one thought– that you both might have discovered the humility that contented you with this pedestrian crypt before you had unleashed the rampages that loosed the blood that fed these golden monstrosities, the altars at which people still pray to a god who told his disciples to discard their worldly goods and follow him.








Concluding Unmathematical Postscript

Written By: J.Noonan - Jun• 03•14

On May 30th, 2014 the Joint Agency Coordination Centre in Australia concluded definitively that the area of the South Indian Ocean they had been searching did not contain the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 .  They had been led to search this area by a mathematical analysis of satellite data which, when first released, had, (I recall), the British media gushing about  “powerful new maths.”  The failure thus far to find even a bolt or seat cover from the plane should remind us:  mathematics is not magic; material reality retains an independence from numbers that must be respected.

I am not being skeptical about mathematical truths, or denying that mathematics can reveal patterns in nature to which we would otherwise be blind, or dismissing the efficacy of statistical modelling, or the importance of measurement.  It is important, as they say, “to get the numbers right.” Innumeracy is as significant a problem as illiteracy.

This truth was brought home by Tim Hudak’s incapacity to tell the difference between 1 and 8 x 1.  The central plank in his election platform– the so-called Million Jobs Plan for Ontario– confuses, as three economists recently pointed out in The Globe and Mail– jobs with person years of employment.  The promise to create one million jobs over the next eight years, it turns out, is really a promise to create one million person years of employment (1 person year of employment equals one person working one job for one year.  Over eight years, a single job worked by one person equals eight person years of employment).  Despite the fact that this confusion was publicly exposed, such that, “getting the numbers right”  means that Hudak’s plan is a plan to create 1 000 000/8=  125 000 jobs (far less than even very modest economic growth on its own would produce) he told The Globe he was “sticking by his numbers.”  If so, he clearly does not understand what his numbers really mean.

Mathematics, measurement, and quantitative information are all important elements of understanding and evaluation.  If Ontarians can “get the numbers right”  they will see through Hudak’s sham for what it is– further re-distribution of income upwards through cuts to corporate tax rates with no mandated guarantee that tax savings will be re-invested in productive enterprises that put Ontarians to work creating things we actually need.

While thus acknowledging their power, we also must remind ourselves that mathematical analyses, models, and projections cannot capture the whole truth of material reality.  As Aristotle’s solution to Zeno’s paradox of motion reminds us, material and mathematical reality are distinct.  A mathematical proof that a quantity is infinitely divisible does not entail the actual infinite divisibility of a material thing (Physics, 206a15).  Mathematics might be the foundational science, but material reality is multi-layered; comprehensive understanding requires the synthesis of different sciences.

But even a comprehensive science would leave the most important aspect of material reality uncomprehended.  Material reality is not just forces and elements, it involves, on earth anyway,  human beings.  We are not just a complex organic system, but active, engaged, feeling, valuing social agents.  Human reality cannot be understood without normative, evaluative, and qualitative terms (good, awful, true, funny, magnificent, horrific) which are not translatable without loss into quantitative terms.

When extended beyond its appropriate sphere of application and treated as if it were an omni-competent method of decision making, mathematical reasoning  blinds us to the reality of the  non-quantifiable dimensions of the humanly real.  As I reflect upon the past year’s post its strikes me that I often found myself compelled to criticise the mathematical over-reach of politicians and bureaucrats promising to improve the quality of some human activity by imposing new ways of measuring what its practioners do. (All this past year’s posts are collected in  Thinkings Three and available for download above).   Again, my objection is not to measuring that which is measurable, but to the implications of the very different belief that the value of an institution or practice is reducible to some one measurable dimension (generally, its money-value to the economy).

We are reminded incessantly– we live in the Age of Big Data.  There are patterns everywhere which numerical analysis can disclose and which will teach us who we are.  The underlying message is– you do not understand your own tastes, your own values, your own goals; the truth of you is not the evaluative judgements you make on the basis of on-going reflective appropriation of your life history, but the patterns in which your decisions enmesh you.  You do not know yourself, Google’s algorithms do, so obey the patterns they have determined apply to you.

But whatever patterns we might be enmeshed in, because we are capable of making decisions on the basis of our own evaluations of the context, we can always break free of them.  The danger is not that numbers actually determine us, but that enough people come to believe that they do, surrender their power to decide differently, and turn their lives over to their search engines.  Amazon does not really know your tastes on the basis of the past purchases you have made; their suggestions are not mandatory.  But if you convince yourself of the impossible– that an algorithm knows something about you– and act as its authors would have you act, you become little more than an algorithm.

So, I disagree– this is not the Age of Big Data, it is the age of the machinification of taste and thought (which means, since machines have no taste and do not think) the negation of both.  Patterns are abstractions that filter out the noise of material complexity and human evaluative judgement.  I aim to keep the blog noisy and (in this respect) resolutely behind the times in the next year.



Written By: J.Noonan - Jun• 26•11

Welcome to my site.   My aim in creating it is to establish a forum for the philosophical discussion of contemporary social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics, as well as to provide a platform for the dissemination of occasional essays and creative forms of exploring ideas and experiences.   New content will be added regularly, so please check in often and contribue to the discussion by leaving comments and suggesting links.

The header image is a detail (the Seven Deadly Sins) from a mural in the Chapter Chamber of the Holy Church Cathedral in Toledo, Spain.