Tofu eating revealed to be immoral

The front page article in The New York Times Magazine this week is a long and self-indulgent intellectualization of the killing and eating of animals, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer". If you cut away all the fat, it comes down to this:
there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris. Ortega suggests that there is an immorality in failing to look clearly at reality, or in believing the force of human will can somehow overcome it.
I have some sympathy for the moral imperative to be honest about reality. Yet I'm at an utter loss as to how a desire to change the systematic brutality of that reality can thereby be dismissed with the wave of a hand. Or as to how the author, after extensive and dramatically rehearsed expressions of disgust and shame at his killing of a wild pig, can resolve all this in a few lines of confused pseudo-philosophy.


Progressive reformers inside a colonial puppet state

This is a political fable from a book I'm reading called Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism by Louise Young (1998).

I didn't know much about Japanese imperialism in Manchuria before reading this book, so I was pretty surprised to learn that Japanese leftists were very supportive of 满洲国/Manzhouguo (usually rendered in English as Manchukuo - the puppet state created by the Japanese military in today's 东北/Dongbei, northeast China). Not only that, leftist intellectuals in droves actually took up jobs in the Manzhouguo colonial administration and, despite their deep skepticism of imperialism, enthusiastically took part in the Manzhouguo enterprise.

Young cites two main reasons for the bizarre alliance between Japan's most progressive intellectuals and its most right-wing force, the military. First, public intellectual space in Japan was rapidly closing down as the climate of repression and compulsory nationalism forced many leftist intellectuals out of their previous safe haven in the universities. At the same time, ideological space in Manzhouguo was suprisingly open as the military tolerated - until the early 1940s at least - liberal and leftist academics because it needed their cooperation in gathering key information to form policy and suppress opposition. Excluded and facing persecution at home, leftists surged into the many research, administration, and policymaking jobs in Manzhouguo.

Second, leftists genuinely believed that they could make a revolution in Manzhouguo. Disappointed by the failure of their dreams on the home islands, they turned to Japan's newest colony. Yet they came not in desperation or weariness, but with great optimism. The absolute power of the colonial state to crush local opposition to progressive reform - which had been frustrated time and again inside Japan by intransigent landowners and businessmen - made the leftists believe that their dreams could be achieved. This time, working from the inside would succeed.

How valid these hopes actually were is captured in this vignette:

Mantetsu's [the state-controlled enterprise that had a vast research arm responsible for supplying much of the information needed by the military puppet regime] researchers and Sinologists...tried to provide analyses that took account of the force of Chinese nationalism and advised that military aggression would just make the problems worse. The "Investigation of the Resistance Capacity of the Chinese"..., one of the enormous "integrated" research projects undertaken by Mantetsu at the close of the decade, aimed to convince the army of this point as forcefully as possible.... Under the general editorship of Japanese Communist Party operative Nakanishi Kō, the report submitted to the Kwantung Army [hanyu pinyin: Guandong Army, the Japanese military force running Manzhouguo] in 1940...asserted that Japan could not win the war with China militarily. But when Nakanishi presented the research team's findings with the recommendation that Japan end the war politically to general staff headquarters in Tokyo, he was greeted with silence and finally one question from a young staff officer: "So, then, what sites would it be best for us bomb?" (p. 280-281)

There's two lessons we can take away from this. First, the Chomskian analysis that judges all progressive rhetoric surrounding imperialism as nothing more than cynical manipulation is too simple. Many imperialists deeply believe that what they're doing will forge a more just, more equal world. Of course, the Chomskian skepticism of such claims is, at least in this case, borne out.

Second, "working from within" to accomplish change is a questionable proposition. I wouldn't say it's inappropriate under all circumstances. Yet it does take a nearly willful naïveté to think you can turn institutions in which ultimate power is held by fundamentally right-wing or reactionary forces toward progressive ends. A current example that springs immediately to mind is those progressives who championed the invasion of Iraq as an instance of humanitarian intervention despite the overwhelming evidence that the institutions actually planning the invasion had far different purposes in mind.

More broadly, it's worth questioning whether working from within the state or any corporation is more likely to promote reform or merely provide the information that the leaders of these organizations need to execute their assuredly anti-progressive policies. People are remarkably agile in the rationalizations they perform to justify taking secure or lucrative jobs, but I suspect that "working from within" is almost never useful except when those "working from the outside" are particularly strong.


letter to the editor, re: Iran and disarmament

To the editors:
Accepting a nuclear-armed Iran, which is acting primarily because sworn nuclear-armed enemies (the US and Israel) surround it, is certainly preferable to the current course (The New York Times, "Suppose We Just Let Iran Have the Bomb", 2006 March 19). But a better option is to discuss a different "unthinkable" - worldwide nuclear disarmament.

As the world's leading nuclear power, and the national security threat prompting both Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear arsenals, only the United States could lead such a campaign. Yet the US government instead pursues the rank hypocrisy of designating which countries are "responsible" and thus allowed to proliferate.

Iran's violations of the NPT have been the focus of much public discussion. Yet the US is also breaking its word on the NPT - it and the other nuclear-armed powers solemnly agreed to pursue disarmament. When will we Americans feel the same outrage against our own treaty violations as against those of others?


There are poor people in São Paulo?

I feel like it's a good idea to read articles in The New York Times travel section every now and then so we can renew our disgust against the moneyed classes. This Sunday's article on visiting São Paulo (The New São Paulo) proved especially effective. The author spent three days in São Paulo visiting expensive boutique stores, eating at expensive restaurants, and staying in expensive hotels. To give a taste of this:
My room at the Emiliano was soothing and sybaritic: white Egyptian cotton sheets and six pillows of different firmness; an Eames lounge chair upholstered in an oatmeal fabric; a wall of honey-colored wood that hid closets and two Sub-Zero drawer refrigerators stocked with drinks; and a large bathroom with a view of neighboring penthouses. As the guest services manager tried to teach me how to work all the lighting controls (which I never mastered), she told me she could send a butler to unpack my bags.
And the shopping?
Clube Chocolate is so chic that it has no display windows and is so exclusive that security guards flank the heavy wooden door that hides the glorious, airy interior. How would you know that inside there's a bright, three-story atrium with floor-to-ceiling palm trees and a sandy beach that you reach by descending a polished steel circular staircase?
Not once does the author mention that next door to this opulence lives an enormous slum population nearing 1 million people. The tiny percentage of Paulistas who have access to the city's luxuries, and who use private helicopters to commute between their high-security enclaves and jobs in the business districts, rests atop a working class of some 7 million, not to mention the absolute squalor of the under class. Perhaps the security guards that form a motif unnoticed by the author in his piece might have something to do with all this?

But to mention this would be bad form - it might be upsetting for rich New Yorkers to contemplate that the hotel charges for their weekend in São Paulo amount to far more than the yearly earnings of many hundreds of thousands of residents in the city.


It's taken a long time, but we'll get back to eugenics yet

Remember the good old days when we could rely on genetics to explain the undeniable cultural and psychological differences between nations? The holocaust did a number on that, and then insidious Communist ideas like the influence of the economy over culture and bothersome notions of the fluidity of identity just made things worse.

Fortunately we finally seem to be escaping those dark days. For the last 25 years we've seen the rise of a new Social Darwinism, known as sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. (This corresponds with a broad reorientation of capitalism leading to skyrocketing inequality and the dismantling of the liberal welfare project - but only a Communist would see a link between the two.) Up to now sociobiology has been used in the popular arena primarily to attack feminist theories of how gender is socially constructed, plus a few crude forays into racism.

An article in The New York Times Week in Review signals a new and richer approach: culture is a product of biological evolution. (The Twists and Turns of History, and of DNA) "Humans have continued to evolve throughout prehistory and perhaps to the present day, according to a new analysis of the genome reported last week by Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago. So human nature may have evolved as well." Therefore, "[e]volutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures."

The reporter, Nicholas Wade, makes a bit of leap from genetic differences in "taste, smell or digestion" to the conclusion that "the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless". Or from the fact that "Oxytocin [a chemical that in some experiments is associated with a higher degree of trust] levels are known to be under genetic control in other mammals like voles" to the conclusion that trust is a biological trait that can come to characterize a society. But, as the author points out, a biological basis for culture explains why Amerindians are fierce and Jews are smart, so we seem to be on the right path.

(I guess I know why my girlfriend's smart, but it's still unclear how the evolutionary pressures on my farming forebears in Germany, Ireland, Wisconsin, and Iowa caused me to be smart. Further research will clarify this, I'm sure.)

The writer also implies that Jews and East Asians are smart because of genetic similarities - "Dr. Pritchard's team detected strong selection among East Asians in the region of the gene that causes Gaucher's disease, one of the variant genes common among Ashkenazim". And he very quietly hints at why black people and Latinos might be dumb: "a demand for greater cognitive skills...might well have arisen among the first settled societies where people had to deal with the quite novel concepts of surpluses, property, value and quantification."

The "first settled societies" emerged in Iraq, Egypt, northern China, and northern India/Pakistan, but don't be too surprised if people who take up this line of thinking use it to explain why whites and East Asians are the smartest people. Indeed, the process seems to already be under way. In Wade's news article on the story ("Still Evolving, Human Genes Tell New Story"), he writes, "Many of these instances of selection may reflect the pressures that came to bear as people abandoned their hunting and gathering way of life for settlement and agriculture, a transition well under way in Europe and East Asia some 5,000 years ago."