Monday, May 29, 2006

Crimes against baseball

Records, they say, are made to be broken. Arguably, however, some records are made not to be broken. It seems unlikely that anyone will ever break Wayne Gretzky's NHL single-season goal record of 92, or his career record of 894. If someone comes along who does, the sky won't fall. But when, in 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, it was as if he had committed sacrilege. The fact that the 61st homer was hit on the last day of the season, and that the season was eight games longer than in 1927, meant that Maris's feat went into the record books with that legendary asterisk. That the asterisk was non-existent on paper did not make it any less real in the public's mind. An upstart like Maris could not be allowed to tarnish the image of the Sultan of Swat.

Baseball is preeminently a sport of tradition. A game may last for three hours, but during most of that time next to nothing happens on the field. The pitcher throws to the catcher. The fielders stand motionless, at the ready. Then a long space. Then the pitcher throws to the catcher. The fielders stand motionless, at the ready. Then a long space. But in the spaces comes the commentary: the statistics, the replays, the stories of other games and other seasons. "That's only the third time since 1942 that a left-hand- hitting Cubs' shortstop batting in the number two position has been called out on the infield-fly rule in the bottom of the seventh inning." Baseball is a story told across the generations. What this story requires is a level playing field, so that Nolan Ryan can be measured against Walter Johnson or Roy Campanella against Pudge Rodriguez. Without the level playing field, the story degenerates into incoherence.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both smashed Maris's record in the same year, 1998, hitting 70 and 66 homes runs respectively, then hit 65 and 63 the next year, and when Barry Bonds then hit 73 home runs in 2001, you knew something had to be wrong. This was not coincidence. The playing field wasn't level any more. Now Bonds has surpassed Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs, and is headed for Hank Aaron's all-time mark of 755. Aaron had to endure racist taunts when he broke Ruth's 714 mark, but no one could reasonably deny that he had become the greatest home-run hitter ever. His 755 means something because it stands against Ruth's 714, just as Roger Maris's 61* was right up there with Ruth's 60. But what do those other numbers mean: 70, 66, 65, 63, 73, 715-and-counting? Not much, in my books.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Euston Manifesto: not a capital idea

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Tony Blair. Indeed, the Euston Manifesto, which has the left wing of the blogosphere mildly abuzz, could have been written by the British Prime Minister. The Manifesto is presented to us as a bold reassertion of progressive political values, intended to reinvigorate an enervated left that has lost its way. What we get instead is a laundry list of things we should all be against (like evil dictators, racism, and suicide bombers) and things we should all be in favour of (like democracy, human rights, and, uh, open-source software).

The authors of the Euston Manifesto are clearly irritated by the descent in recent years of at least part of the left into post-modernist, politically-correct, namby-pamby relativism: the unwillingness to stand up and fight for universal humanist values, if need be with a rocket launcher. But they set up a straw man. An inordinate amount of the Manifesto is given over to denouncing unspecified leftists who allegedly are so blinded by anti-Americanism that they are prepared to apologize for the Saddam Husseins of the world. Many of those behind the Manifesto are supporters of the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, and have clearly been stung by criticism aimed at them by former comrades. Their response is to reiterate the idea that since Saddam was a monster, it was incumbent on all who respect human rights to support his overthrow and that Iraq is better off without him. What they conveniently fail to add to that last bit is "all things being equal". But all things were not and are not equal. The invasion of Iraq was not a crusade to liberate the Iraqi people, after all else had failed. It was a major push for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and involved abruptly cutting short the massive U.N. inspection effort already under way at the time. The invasion has undermined the fragile framework of international law and arguably made the world an even more dangerous place. (But we are warned that to talk of imperialism is "simplistic".)

The fundamental failing of the Euston Manifesto is implicit in a word that is nowhere to be found in the document. That word is capitalism. We live in the era of the global triumph of capitalism. It is the economic system that rules the world and shapes the lives of everyone and the politics of all nations. As a system based on the need for never-ending growth, it is in the process of eating the planet alive. One does not have to be a Marxist or to believe that capitalism is incapable of being reformed (that's an open question, and a crucial one) in order to recognize that we must confront the workings of this global system. Yes, the Manifesto mentions globalization and economic inequalities, but the failure to speak directly of capitalism indicates a willful blindness. It is also symptomatic of the fact that the document is a call to arms without a coherent understanding of the problem, and with little in the way of a plan for achieving its goals.

Scott McLemee has an essay with the nice title "Euston.... We Have a Problem".

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Family values

In a famous exchange at Oxford in 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is said to have sarcastically asked Thomas Huxley, who became known as "Darwin's Bulldog", whether he claimed descent from an ape on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side. There was no clear winner of the debate at the time, though the Darwinists have subsequently carried the day in the scientific world and among most educated people.

Now comes news that will further discomfit creationists and advocates of human exceptionalism. It seems that we may be not merely related to chimpanzees, but actually descended from them. We may be the result of matings between earlier humans and chimpanzees. This casts new light on the meaning of "family values". That bonobo behind the bars in the zoo may be your aunt or uncle.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hunting for real men

Jim Martel, a hunter from Idaho, has shot a “grizlar” in Nunavut. A grizlar is a cross between a grizzly and a polar bear. This is how men like Mr. Martel imagine that they prove their manhood: by killing animals for sport.

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, author of Meditations on Hunting, argued that sport hunting is a spiritual activity, a kind of religious rite, that reconnects men with their palaeolithic ancestors. The hunter temporarily leaves the effete world of civilization and becomes a predator animal himself, immersed in the natural world. Ortega’s claim was that “one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” Killing is not the ultimate point of hunting, but killing is necessary for the spiritual experience of hunting.

But let’s face it: these days hunting is hardly a test of manhood. Airplanes, guides, snowmobiles, high-powered rifles with telescopic lenses: not very palaeolithic. So I have a seriously immodest proposal (though I'm not the first). Let’s have a level playing field. Let’s have these guys who want to prove their manhood hunt each other. Let’s make it all legal, with government licences. Let the TV networks in on it for the greatest reality shows ever: Manhunt, Natural Killers, Ultimate Survivor. With big prize money. Think of the ratings and the advertising revenue! Think of the spin-off shows, with women swooning over these real men (the ones who survive): Bachelor Killer, for instance.

Some writers of an eco-feminist mind have argued that sport hunting is akin to rape, with the animal substituting for the rapist’s victim. Matt Cartmill, author of A View to a Death in the Morning, a history of hunting, finds disturbing the repeated equation by hunt apologists of hunting with reverence for the victim, an attitude that Cartmill refers to as “murderous amorousness”. Spoilsports, I say.

Back in the 1950s, Robert Sheckley, the great writer of science-fiction short stories, published “Seventh Victim”, which depicted a future where people could sign up to hunt and kill other humans, under strict rules. For every time you were a Hunter, you had to (if you survived) be a Victim (the hunted), though Victims were equally at liberty to kill Hunters. The story was later made into the movie Tenth Victim, for which Sheckley wrote the accompanying novel. Isn’t it about time to make the fiction reality – for the sake of all the real men out there?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Marx is 188

Karl Marx was born 188 years ago today. Most people have only a vague and inaccurate notion of what his ideas were. Here’s my handy little one-page introduction.
Marx in a Nutshell

According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), the key factor in determining the structure and development of any society is the way it interacts with nature in order to sustain itself – that is, its mode of production. The mode of production comprises (a) the forces of production (society’s technology and resources), (b) the relations of production (society’s economic structure).

The economic structure determines (sets limits to) the political, legal, and ideological “superstructure” of society, which in turn reinforces the economic structure. The economic structure also enables the development of technology. But eventually technology outgrows its economic framework. It is this “contradiction” between the forces and relations of production that is the principal engine of historical change. When the tension between them becomes too great, there is social revolution: the economic structure is changed to make it compatible with the more developed forces of production; and society’s political and legal institutions and its ideology undergo a corresponding change. The historical evolution of society thus reflects the growth of human productive power.

The development of society is possible because human beings can generally produce more than they require for bare subsistence. The division of society into classes reflects the unequal distribution of this surplus product. Those who control the means of production are in a position to appropriate the surplus. When individuals are prevented from controlling their own productive activity, their creative human potential is frustrated. This is alienation.

The capitalist mode of production has given enormous impetus to the development of the productive forces. This has included turning the production process into a tightly connected network of individuals performing specialized functions. Yet at the same time society has become increasingly polarized between two classes: those who control the means of production and the mass of working people, who have only their labour-power to sell. This contradiction between the increasingly cooperative nature of the production process and the undemocratic nature of the economic structure gives rise to class struggle that will eventually lead to the downfall of capitalism. It should then be possible to establish a classless, democratic society.

Marx’s theory of history is called historical materialism. “Materialism” in this sense refers neither to material possessiveness nor to the relation between mind and matter, but rather to the thesis that human society is to be understood fundamentally in terms of productive activity: the interaction between society and nature. Marx viewed social processes in terms of system, development, and transformation (revolution). These are essential features of what is called his dialectical method. Dialectical materialism represents an attempt, deriving mainly from Engels and Lenin, to apply the dialectical viewpoint to nature at large. Whether dialectical materialism is a legitimate extension of Marx’s historical materialism is debatable.

Marx’s work, then, includes (1) a theory of history in terms of modes of production, (2) an analysis of the capitalist mode of production, (3) a vision of a classless society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (to quote The Communist Manifesto).

A final note of caution: On hearing about some of his self-styled followers, Marx wrote, “What I know is that I am not a Marxist.”
Did the fall of “communism” in 1989 and the 1990s disprove Marx’s theory of history? Hardly. If anything, it corroborated his thesis that the economic structure most likely to flourish will be that which best promotes the further development society’s productive powers. For most of the twentieth century it was not clear whether capitalism or state socialism did the job better. Once it became clear that capitalism was a more effective generator of technological progress, the collapse of state-socialist regimes and their replacement with capitalist regimes was rapid. Even China , which remains nominally “communist”, has an essentially capitalist economy today. Economically, state socialism was always (just) an alternative form of industrialism: the organization of society in the interest of maximizing production and consumption. A true post-industrial society would be one that transcended not only state socialism but also capitalism, the exemplar of industrialism.

Besides being overly optimistic about the likelihood of a liberating end to capitalism, one that would see the emergence of a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, Marx can be criticized for not being materialist enough. That is, although his view of history is predicated on the key role of modes of production, or what he called society’s “metabolism with nature”, in his writings he paid too little attention to the ways in which biology, geography, and energy resources shape the emergence and development of modes of production.

But, hey, it’s his birthday. Let’s give the man some credit.