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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Introducing Khalid

by John MacBeath Watkins

For the next few months, the Ballard Twice Sold Tales will have an intern. Khalid Mohammed, 20, will
be learning the business, serving customers and cataloging books.

Khalid was born in Ethiopia, a member of the Oromo people. He speaks Oromo and English, and is studying French. He is interested in international business studies, quigong, meditating, reading, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality.

He is learning rapidly, and we believe our customers will like him as well as we do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The cage of addiction: Filling the emptiness with oblivion

by John MacBeath Watkins

The first time I met my cousin Mark, he tried to hit me with a truck.

It was a Tonka, so he wasn't driving it. He was about five, I was a little older

His family visited years later, when I was 13. He attacked me, we wrestled, and I demonstrated that being wiry and understanding leverage is better than being a bit bigger. He seemed to want to establish dominance rather than build a connection each time we met.

Mark went on to become a commercial fisherman who drank so heavily that his liver was a smoking ruin by the time he was in his 40s. My extended family has not been touched much by addiction, so Mark's difficulties are some of the little personal contact with addiction I have. Mark grew up in a loving family, and no others in that family have had this problem. But I wonder, in retrospect, if his aggression was part of a difficulty in connecting to people. That may have been the real problem.

A team of researchers at Simon Frasier University started exploring this problem in 1977. I was living in Seattle at the time, Mark was living in Alaska, and the research was happening in the Canadian space between us. The classic research on addiction had been done with an experiment involving rats in cages.

Rats were set up with a self-injection system and taught to use it to administer heroin to themselves. Placed in a cage with access to food, water, and heroin, most rats would administer heroin to the exclusion of eating and drinking until they died. This was the basis for the drug war, a version of addiction that said the cause of addiction is the drugs, so we can only avoid the problem of addiction by interdicting the drugs, or keeping drug addicts away from drugs.

Canadians James Olds and Peter Milner in 1954 even demonstrated that rats would do this to get electric stimulation of their brain's pleasure centers until death overtook them.

But in 1977 lead investigator Bruce Alexander at Simon Frasier wondered if he'd do the same in solitary confinement with only the heroin/cocaine/electrode-in-his-brain as solace. So the Simon Frasier team tried it a different way. First, they got the rats addicted by using the now familiar form of the experiment, placing them in standard mesh cages, unable to see or touch other rats, with a choice of plain water or water laced with morphine. After 57 days, the rats were well and truly hooked.

Then, they moved half of them to Rat Park, a 95-square-foot facility with things to play with, space to mate and raise litters, and a generally pleasant environment with the company of 16-20 other rats.

Almost all the rats shunned the morphine water and chose to live the sort of social life rats in nature live.

This echos the experience of troops returning from Viet Nam. Something like 20% of soldiers who served in Viet Nam used heroin. When they came home, about 95% of them never used it again. No special programs, all we did was take them out of a terrifying dystopia and put them in a supportive and normal environment, surrounded by family and friends.

Which makes me wonder. I have no difficulty connecting with Mark's parents or his sisters, but I never felt I could connect with him at all. We look at the wreckage of peoples' lives associated with addiction, and we assume that correlation means causation, that addiction has brought about the wreckage. But what if it simply has the same cause as the wreckage? Mark got married, had a lovely wife and children, who in the end left him. Was the problem that alcohol wrecked the marriage, or was it that the same demons that made Mark unable to sustain the marriage were what drove him to drink?

When people get into a 12-step program, one thing it does is give them a group of people to connect to. I wonder now, looking back at the tragedy of Mark's life, if that is not the most important part of the cure. Sometimes I think of a couple who were alcoholics, and of how little comfort they seemed to take in each other or in their children, seeking dominance rather than comfort in their relationships. They were living in Rat Park, but they had built themselves a cage, and filled the emptiness of the void with oblivion.

So, if we catch an addicts with their drugs, what do we do with them? We put them in a cage, a panopticon dystopia, separated from anyone they love.

Good luck with that.

We have a huge system built to enforce our erroneous assumptions about the nature of addiction. The system itself blights lives, and does not solve the problem. We need to find a better way.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the war machine: Why the clash of civilizations is a lousy way to frame the problem

image alt text
 Illustration by al-Bīrūnī of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-tafhim. Source: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival, 1976. An illustration of the flowering of intellectual inquiry in the 10th century.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The massacre of a dozen cartoonists, staff, and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7 has awakened an old debate about how we should respond to terrorism.

Some conservatives want to revive the frame of the conflict between the West and Islam as being a "clash of civilizations," a term popularized by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, he wrote:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.[2]

Neoconservatives writers have taken this in a way Huntington did not intend, as a call to arms for Christian nations against Islam. Huntington was not advocating such a clash, just describing what he saw.

What he saw was two civilizations based on evangelizing religions that insisted that only they were right, forced into interactions by increasing globalization of the world economy.

Now, we get people like George Friedman arguing that by adopting secular governments, we have disarmed ourselves. He recently wrote:

If no one but the gunmen and their immediate supporters are responsible for the action, and all others who share their faith are guiltless, you have made a defensible moral judgment. But as a practical matter, you have paralyzed your ability to defend yourselves. It is impossible to defend against random violence and impermissible to impose collective responsibility. As Europe has been for so long, its moral complexity has posed for it a problem it cannot easily solve. Not all Muslims - not even most Muslims - are responsible for this.
(Emphasis added.)

Collective responsibility, however, is exactly the response the gunmen were hoping for. They claimed to represent Islam. To impose collective punishment is to promote them to the status of speaking for all Muslims, or as many as you punish. The idea of the murders was to radicalize more Muslims by provoking a reaction against all Muslims.

To treat them in this way, adopting the 'clash of civilizations' frame for their acts, is to dignify them as warriors for their faith. To treat them as the sordid murderers they were is to degrade them as mere criminals. The idea is to somehow get an outcome in which the West and the Middle East are not at war. Yet Friedman goes back to the Muslim occupation of the Iberian peninsula and the battles against the expansionist Ottoman Turks to claim that we've always been at war with Eastasia the Muslim world, or at least for a thousand years.

This framework is an invitation to another thousand years of struggle. The notion that one side can defeat the other through warfare, and bend it to its will, reflects a lack of understanding of the limits of violence as a means of persuasion.

Europe went through a reformation because Christians in the north began to feel the Catholic Church had become corrupt at the same time as northern European monarchs were chafing at the restraints the Church placed on their power. Islam had a sort of reformation, in two steps.

First, we should remember that the Muslim world was once a center of learning and science. In the 11th century, an intellectual cataclysm occurred.

His name was Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, and he lived from 1059 to 1111. He used the tools of philosophy to undermine the use of philosophy to find truth, favoring instead the expertise of those who studied the Koran. His ideas fell on fertile soil, in an Arab world where political factionalism caused large-scale irrigation networks to collapse and the Crusades and Mongol invasions showed the limits of Muslim power. In a world where Muslims felt set upon, a doctrine of the Koran's infallibility offered greater comfort than the Greek rationalism that had informed Arab philosophy.

This was also a doctrine of intolerance when compared to the earlier flowering of Arab rationality. But the conversion was not sudden, nor was it universal. The Ottomans gained a great deal of power and respected at least the scholarship of the clerics. The next step down the road to intolerance was another sort of reformation.

A reformer named Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, who lived from 1703 to 1792, accused the Ottoman sultan and his traditionalist scholars of corruption, materialism, and decadence, rejecting their tradition-based and rather moderate system of jurisprudence with a version of law that was more radical in its punishments and less discriminating in the evidence required. al-Wahhab had difficulties in his religious studies because he was arrogant and defiant, and when he began preaching, his arrogance got him into trouble.

You see, al-Wahhab denigrated certain practices as not sufficiently pure Muslim practice. Citing passages in the Koran prohibiting grave worship, he had a political ally level the grave of a companion of Mohammed, Zayd ibn al-Khattab. Then he had a sacred grove cut down. This created enough trouble that he had to leave town, and seek sanctuary with a rebel named Muhammad bin Saud. He gave religious legitimacy to Saud's rebel kingdom, now known as Saudi Arabia. This is the sort of doctrine that came to have great influence in the Sunni Muslim world.

The problem, then, is that while the West moved from religious legitimacy to a social contract concept of government, the Arab world never did. Instead, it moved to increasingly severe versions of Islam, from an open, rational system of thought where skepticism and doubt had a role in defining truth to an increasingly closed system in which doubt and skepticism were punishable by imprisonment, flogging, and death.

The West used to have blasphemy laws about as severe as the Wahhabist ones. In 1697, just six years before al-Wahhab was born, a Scot named Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy (he expressed atheist sentiments.)  The two civilizations have been going in opposite directions for centuries..

One reason for this is that government backed by religion pretty much destroyed its own legitimacy through conflicts such as the 30-Years War and the English Civil War. How could you rule by divine right, if some large percentage of the country thought you were an apostate?

In the Middle East, the solution was for one side to beat the other and subjugate such followers of the beaten sect that remained in the conquered territory, such as the Shia Muslims in Iraq,. who long lived under Sunni rule.

In the West, the solution was a new basis for the legitimacy of governments. The concept that you needed a government to keep the peace and allow people to live their lives and build their fortunes must have seemed transparently obvious to people in places like Germany, where the population was about 2/3 as large after the 30-Years War as before it. If the sovereign ruled because the people needed a ruler, that sovereign was working for the people, not for God, which meant neither side had to win for order to be restored. But the logic of a ruler who was a servant of the people implied that rule should be by the consent of the people as well, which in turn required some means for the people to show their preference.

That required freedom to debate the matter and put it to a vote. But we have seen that when we put the question of who should rule to a vote in the Middle East, the tendency is for the winner to act as though their side had won, and the other side should be subjugated as if they had been defeated in battle. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt as though no other group's priorities mattered, Nouri al-Maliki  ruled Iraq as if the priorities of the quite substantial Sunni minority didn't matter, as if they should accept being subjugated by his own Shia group. Each wanted their own group to control all aspects of government, and each failed for that reason.

The ideals of liberal democracy have considerable appeal, as we've seen in the Arab Spring, but as we saw when the optimism of that movement faded, its lessons are hard to apply where religious leaders still have great legitimacy. I fear that they must either undermine themselves through abuse of power, or find a way to represent the will of the people without subjugating those who don't agree with them.

Ali Eteraz, in an essay in The Guardian in 2007, noted that:
There is universal consensus that Muslim dictatorships, supported by the west, are the root of evil. They destroy political culture, kill extra-judicially and their repression foments violence.

The primary opponents of these dictators are the populist Islamists. They want to vote; except after voting they want to appoint an extra-constitutional body of clerics to strike down legislation they do not approve of.
And, one might add, they are not in favor of allowing people to vote for candidates who might change such arrangements.

The question is, do we help or hinder the cause of the social contract and the ideals of the liberal democracy by treating outrages like the Charlie Hebdo murders as a clash of civilizations? I suggest that to do so is to deny that there are factions within Islam, and that cultures do change. If you treat the murderers as warriors for Islam, and insist upon "collective responsibility," you cut down any green shoots of a return to rationality and freedom in the Arab world.

The Muslim world can return to its former glory by returning to those values, and we know they are compatible with Islam because they were practiced before the decline of the Muslim world. But people very often act as they think you expect them to act. Defining our interactions with Muslim culture as a clash of civilizations rather than a dialogue between them only invites more conflict.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Greetings from an obsolescent profession

by Jamie Lutton

Reflecting on Christmas presents:

It has been a few weeks, but I am still recovering from Christmas.

One problem for the used book seller is giving presents to family members. Rarely do they like books as much as you do, and so they weary of getting something cool that they know you paid 50 cents for.
My solution is to give new and used DVD's as presents. You usually know the target person's taste in movies, and so can guess at what they would like. And became there are so many good old movies and documentaries out there, there are lots to pick from, especially for young people who are not familiar with classics.

I give comedies, usually. After the crash of 2008, I gave everyone a gloomy documentary about the corruption in the stock market, called Inside Job, but I don't think a single one of the recipients  watched it.
This year I was wiser, and stuck to comedies or action-dramas that fit the person who got them.

The problem with a DVD as a gift is that it will not with handling fall open one scene or another to tempt someone to play the thing. It has to sell itself on the packaging alone. A way to improve DVDS would be that they would play when you handled them, some blurb perhaps, to tempt you to put it in the machine.  For example, I gave How to Tame Your Dragon, a children's fantasy movie,   to my big brother this year. If the thing started talking in a Scottish accent, or roared, , it would charm the casual handler of the thing to play it. Or show the face of the Black Dragon in the movie, which was drawn and animated to strongly suggest a giant black cat with green eyes. But the gaudy packaging and the reviews are all it has to sell itself on it's own (if the recipient does not Google it).

I suppose this feature will be added to physical DVD's in a few generations of design. I do hope that film makers do not rely totally on the cloud for storing movies, because some very good films will be forgotten, if there are not physical copies around.

That is why SCARECROW VIDEO in the University District is so good. It has 120,000 + videos, and you can go around and LOOK at the packages, all arranged in a library form, for rental. Sorry for the plug, but this place is the very best place I have found for locating obscure films, and is the closest thing to the feel of a used bookstore, or library, just for movies.
No other place is open anymore, anyway; Broadway Video was a close second, but it is gone now, due to lack of support, as is the video store on 15th on Capitol HIll.I went in to SCARECROW  six months ago to try and find a movie I saw once when I was 13 or so, on broadcast TV, that scared the crap out of me.
I only remembered a few scenes, and the plot. That it was about a piece of the Earth being torn away - by accident, by a Scientific Experiment Gone Wrong.  And one scene where the Hero and Heroine are fleeing up from under ground in an elevator, and a big timber crashes through the elevator, almost killing them. I gave a vague description to one of the guys at SCARECROW, and he thought for a moment, and told me to look at the end of the world section of the disaster movie room, and I would find it there.  I look at a few packages and found the movie, rented it, and it was as good as I remembered.

Crack in the World, made in 1965, is the name: it had very good special effects for the time, (dubbed in video of Hawaiian volcanic eruptions, etc) and good writing for this sort of film.  I recalled the terror I felt seeing it as a kid. This film and The Birds by Hitchcock gave me a taste for well written science fiction films, which I still have today.

The video rental industry is vanishing like book stores, because 70% of all films are easy to get on NetFlix, and you can order the rest on Amazon. The trick is, and this is a big trick, what if you don't know what to rent, or read?

Many young people have never heard of many great films. They will look at you blankly when you recommend The President's Analyst (1966 comedy), or even To Have and to Have Not (Adaption of a Hemingway book - a Bogart film where he met Lauren Bacall, and they light up the film ). Any film made before 1977 is The Dark Ages to most people, and not visited, even on bored Saturday afternoons when channel surfing on Cable.  It takes a good video store employee to suggest watching one of these old movies, or a rabid movie buff who can then take you to a (still existing) video store to rent a given old movie.

 This is the same problem booksellers have. Amazon will get you Where'd you go, Bernadette  or I Feel Bad About my Neck, recent best sellers, but it takes a bookseller to suggest you read Down and Out in Paris and London or To my Niece on First Reading Jane Austen, The first title is George Orwell's 'breakout' book, the second, a brilliant book,  by an otherwise mediocre writer Fay Weldon.  To know about these old titles, and to stock them and hold them for the months they take to sell takes patience and knowledge, and not selling books like they were quarts of milk, interchangeable.

Supporting places that stock these older titles, and even more, staff that have read books other than the current best sellers and who can tell you about them, is vanishing rapidly.

Places like NetFlix and Amazon take our customers, by stripping out the 'bestseller' sales, which support the sales of these lesser known books.  This is a real pity. We are living in the platinum age of writing. More people are literate than ever before, more people are writing, yet we have fewer and fewer readers.  And it is the same for film.  The number of films made is growing rapidly, but fewer and fewer older films are being watched and enjoyed. Maybe 50 films made before 1977 are known to the general public, but that number is dwindling.

Most people age 25 have not seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, let alone most of them. Or a Kathrine Hepburn movie, or a Cary Grant movie. Or going even further back, a Frank Capra movie, a Hitchcock movie or a Kurosawa film.  Same with older writers.

Even the incredibly well known authors suffer this. Few people read any book by Herman Melville except Moby Dick: when I mention The White Jacket by him, a book was not only popular in his lifetime, but caused such a scandal that it stopped sadistic flogging in the American Navy (a good generation before it stopped in the British one).

My supernal favorite in books are the nonfiction titles, which are particularity neglected. A best seller in nonfiction such as history from 10 years ago will be so common on the market that Amazon sells it for a penny; making it very hard to stock and sell. What with the iPhone technology, I can hold such a book up and try to sell it, and my 'wise' customer will find that it is a penny online, decide that it 'cant be any good at that price' or just buy it online, leaving my copy behind.

One problem I have that SCARECROW VIDEO does not have (?) is that I am 'showroomed' more than they are. My wise customers go around my shop taking photos of books they like, so that they can go home and order them on Amazon Prime, and ''save a few dollars."

This is very discouraging. If I quit this being a bookseller, it will be because of that practice. The insanity of using my shop to make lists to buy online, really discourages me.

I would be better off just having a shop where every book is over $20, and not carry the exciting $5 to $10 books, if that is the future of my business.  And restrict my sales to online sales, to avoid the public altogether.

I want to ask the people who come into my shop to 'showroom' me about how they can live with themselves, but I suppose these are the same people who take cellphone calls while I am ringing them up. In other words, moral idiots.   Well, I will let the marketplace decide, and if it 'decides' I am obsolete,  I will have been driven out of the 'open shop' side of the used book trade.