“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, September 28, 2001


The news that Excite@home filed for bankruptcy should surprise nobody who watched them in the late nineties, taking on debt as if they were a real company. But it struck a nostalgic chord in my heart, so I went back to the ante-diluvian era and dug up this article on VC star John Doerr. Those who rely on biz journalism to tell a straight story should check it out:

Forbes.com: The Best VCs
Especially pause and linger on these two grafs, balancing the usual flattery of the wealthy with, in the next paragraph, that devastating list of companies. Each one either gone belly up or seriously damaged by the way they were initially financed:

"It is no longer possible to write simply about this veteran venture capitalist named John Doerr, so wrapped is he now in the mantle of myth and fable. He has become both the sign and the signifier of high tech venture capitalism, a metaphor for success, the synecdoche of the entire e-commerce era. That's a lot of freight to carry to the office in your PalmPilot each morning. Megalomaniacs are made from a lot less. But it is to Doerr's credit that he hasn't become a grotesque or a hectoring Mother Hubbard (though, with time, all his Democratic political work bears that risk).

The list of Doerr wins is itself a touchstone, like DiMaggio's major league record hitting streak--Compaq, Cypress, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Lotus, Amazon.com, Healtheon, Intuit, Excite@Home. Even Doerr's failures, like pen computing, have an epic, Homeric quality to them."

It's ... it's an Ozymandias moment, folks.

A story in the Times Biz section today piqued my interest. Headlined Cellular Pioneer Puts Up 'For Sale' Signs and written by GERALDINE FABRIKANT and the ever insightful GRETCHEN MORGENSON, the article inventoried strange doings in the Craig McCaw kingdom -- the guy is selling his wine collection, his island, and his planes, no less.

Second and third graf:

"A believer in telecommunications who has been called a visionary, Mr. McCaw continued to invest heavily in the industry even after he sold his cellular network, McCaw Cellular Communications, to AT&T in 1994.

For a while the strategy worked. When technology stocks peaked in March of last year, Mr. McCaw's biggest investments in two public companies, Nextel Communications Inc. (news/quote) and XO Communications Inc. (news/quote), were worth $8.8 billion. Today, after selling some stock, his holdings are worth about $1 billion. Mr. McCaw declined to be interviewed about his sales. But his spokesman, Robert Ratliffe, maintained that Mr. McCaw was selling properties to raise cash to buy telecommunications assets on the cheap. "

Well, the story took me back to last year, when I was writing book reviews for Green Magazine. One of those reviews was of an exercise in bootlicking abject even by the standards of the CEO bio -- a genre in which little men in suits who have exercised the greed, caution, backstabbing, and fake friendship necessary to rise in management circles consisting of similar souls are celebrated in terms that would make Alexander the Great blush. Because Green is no more, and my reviews have been pulled, I'm gonna reprint this one, for what it is worth. I'd like to say that the skeptical tone throughout shows a certain clairvoyance on my part, in light of recent developments -- but that would be false. I was just ticked off by the guy who wrote the book.

Money From Thin Air: the story of Craig McCaw, the visionary who invented the cell phone and his next billion dollar idea

Inventions are to Americans what ballads were to Highland Scotts - a romantic expression of the popular will. Like ballads, it is hard to trace many inventions to a single author, and the geneology becomes even more confusing when we enter into the epoch of late 20th century R & D. . Who knows the names of the inventors of such everyday items as the tv, the cell phone and the Internet?

What we do know are the great diffusers: the Henry Fords and Bill Gates of the world, those who take some instrument designed to satisfy inchoate desires and put it in everybody's reach. Desire, at a certain saturation point, will take care of itself. Diffusion has become so intermingled with invention that Corr's phrase, 'the visionary who invented the cell phone industry," makes a kind of sense.

Unfortunately, visionary, when applied to a business-man, often trails hints of snake oil. This biography does have a fascinating subject - Craig McCaw, the founder of McCaw Communications, who, in the 80s, gradually cornered the market on cell phone service. That's an honorable enough thing to have accomplished, but Corr's continual genuflecting before McCaw's "brilliance" is tiresome enough to arouse the skepticism of a saint, much less yours truly. The book is filled with hagiographic passages like this one:

"An aide once walked in to find the chief executive resting his chin on his hands as he stared at Lake Washington. The aide got the feeling McCaw had been staring for a long time - perhaps working through a strategy."

Or perhaps he was daydreaming about Pamela Lee Anderson. Who knows? In any case, Corr doesn't compensate for his adulatory instinct with footwork. Although McCaw has been in business since the seventies, and has gone through a high profile, very public divorce (his first wife, Wendy, eventually received 500 million dollars in the settlement), Corr hasn't done much to follow the paper trail inevitably attendant upon so public life. Instead, Corr devotes an inordinate amount of space to quoting from an inspirational talk McCaw gave on the occasion of winning notice from the American Academy of Achievement (whatever that is). Using as a source once might be acceptable, but using it in ten different chapters is inexcusable. Award ceremony speeches are not exactly my idea of a fundamental source. Corr's excuse is that McCaw grew "bored"with being interviewed.

Craig McCaw was born to Marion and J. Elroy McCaw. Elroy sounds like a classic American figure - a glib speaker who parlayed a canny ability to float his debt into a radio station mini-empire. Elroy was also an early adapter of cable TV, which is the legacy he passed to his son. Unfortunately, by 1969, when Craig found his father dead in the master bedroom of their immense mansion in The Highlands, a suburb of Seattle, Elroy had overextended himself badly. The family fortunes did not collapse into poverty - the year after Elroy's death, his widow was still spending 7,000 dollars a month on household expenses, which, in 1970, was considerable wampum - but it was a severe and shocking setback nonetheless. Craig, a shy eighteen year old who struggled with dyslexia, was a student at Stanford. He ran one of his father's remaining businesses, a cable tv company in Centralia, Washington, out of his dorm room. After graduating he continued with it, growing it with a lot of smarts and hard work in the seventies. At the time, cable regulations were very local, requiring grassroots effort in one podunk Northwestern town after the other.

The experience with cable, which grew from a marginal to a major industry, taught McCaw a lot. He saw how seemingly peripheral industries, in communications, have a way of transforming quickly into major industries. Just as network TV lead into cable, so it seemed that wired telephones were going to lead into cell phones. Bell Labs improved its cell phone technology enough to start offering the service in 1974. The costs at first were high, but it was obvious that service cost would quickly cheapen. The major obstacle was regulatory. The phone required use of the UHF bandwidth, which was controlled by the FCC.. In 1979, McCaw attended a conference on cell phones and saw right away the marketability of the thing.

In the eighties, the cell phone industry was dominated by the quest to gain bandwidth. In 1983, the FCC stopped holding comparative hearings on the licenses, and decided to simply hold lotteries, in which every applicant would have a chit. This added a circus like dimension to the business, similar to frenzy about dot com names in the late nineties. Most of the applicants weren't serious, but merely wanted the license for a particular area's bandwidth in order to resell it. Among those who tried this strategy was the then governor of Arkansas, William Clinton.

To raise money, McCaw did three things. He sold his cable business in 1984, which earned him $755 million. He went public in 1987 with his company, McCaw Communications. And he went into serious debt. The debt was expedited, initially, by Michael Milken, who raised $225 million for McCaw. The money went to getting licenses for markets. Notably, McCaw bought out MCI's licenses for $120 million in 1985, and bought LIN Broadcasting, in 1989, as well as buying out myriad smaller fry. By 1990, McCaw was no longer merely a Northwest millionaire - he was the owner of the largest cellular phone service in the country. The down side was the amount of debt that the company had to take on to achieve this position, not counting the future costs of building all those cell phone services. In 1992, McCaw sold a third of his company to AT& T, and the next year AT&T bought out the entire McCaw family interest in a one to one trade of stock.

Given this story, is it fair to say that McCaw "invented" the cell phone industry?

It is interesting to compare McCaw to an earlier telecommunications giant, David Sarnoff. Sarnoff, who was the head of RCA from the thirties through the sixties, can indeed be said to have invented the radio and tv industry. He first proposed using radio commercially, back in the twenties, and put 50 million dollars into electric tv research during the depression, even though he knew that he wouldn't earn that money back any time soon. Sarnoff singlehandedly spun RCA off from GE and Westinghouse, and then created NBC. With his big cigar, his immigrant beginnings in a Russian shtetl, and his shameless self advertisement, Sarnoff was in the line of the great capitalist impresarios, like his comperes who ran the movie business.

McCaw, on the other hand, didn't contribute to the development of the cellular phone in quite the same way. It was, rather, his confidence that the technology and demand would converge which distinguishes his achievement. Like other 70s generation entrepreneurs, McCaw had no sympathy for the old bluff "captain of industry". With his dyslexia, his personal diffidence, his futurism, his fascination with gadgets, McCaw is the "hacker"as capitalist. Like the early phone hackers (Captain Crunch, "Mark Bernay," and the teenage Steve Jobs), the kick is in playing with the communication system, not having something to communicate over it. Getting in the medium is the message. The key to McCaw is probably in a remark he made to his FCC lawyer, in 1986, that "his dream was to someday acquire AT&T." It's his hacker side that so puzzles the straight businessmen with whom he has dealings. But the characters in Ron Rosenbaum's classic article on phone phreaking, " Secrets of the Little Blue Box," would immediately recognize McCaw's dream.

Lionel Tiger is one of the pioneers of evolutionary psychology. You know evolutionary psychology, don't you? (he said in his best Henny Youngman voice.) That's the science where you imagine a theory and then walk your fingers through any sort of evidence or analogy or just things you make up on the spot to prove it. It's much like, well, being a presidential speechwriter.

Anyway, today in Slate he used the WCT assault to support his imperial male theory, which he has kicked around for years without ever making it very convincing. Lionel's theory, in a nutshell, takes various old wives' tales about male aggression, peppers them with his own over-emphasis on sexual selection in evolutionary theory, and matches them to mix and match facts culled from cultures Tiger knows very little about.

Osama Bin Laden's Man Trouble - Why his young men in groups are so scary. by Lionel Tiger

Here's a paragraph indicative of Tiger's usual insanity:

Their comfort [ the their refers, rather murkily, to terrorist males] in an all-male world begins with the high sex segregation of many of the Muslim communities from which the terrorists draw. While there are great variations among Islamic communities, the sharp tendency is toward sexually segregated societies. Contact between the sexes is tightly restricted by draconian moral codes. Not only are women's faces veiled, so is their behavior. This means that men and women have relatively little to do with people of the opposite sex. Therefore, they develop a great deal of reliance on those of their own.

Most men in most societies marry, or try to. This is more difficult than usual in polygamous societies in which powerful men may have as many as four wives, leaving three potential husbands without a date for Saturday night�or any night.'

Thus Tiger insinuates the shabby, empirically discredited, but still ticking Chagnon thesis that male violence stems from sexual competition among males. Off to the races with his favorite obsession, he doesn't let some pokey thing like actual knowledge of Arabic culture get in his way. Later on, for instance, he writes:

"The United Arab Emirates, not normally considered forerunners of the progressive movement, have taken an inventive action that reflects how difficult it is for men and women to mate in a traditional manner. To marry a local woman, men in that nation must provide gifts, feasts, and ritual performances that may cost as much as $40,000�an impossible accumulation for all but a few. Many would choose a foreign wife instead, which is unattractive to the government. So now when a man marries a local woman, the government supplies a grant sufficient for his ceremonial obligations."

Seemingly Tiger has no idea of how the oil money raked in by the various states in the Arabic peninsula has been distributed. And notice how he gets his figure of $40,000 - the marriage feast and trimmings "may" cost that much, which then becomes our assumed standard cost -- "an impossible accumulation for all but a few." Using figures like that, I could prove that nobody in the US ever receives medical care -- I just quote the most expensive medical care figure, say medical care "may" cost that much, and the rest is coasting.

What can you say? The man's a tenured prof at Rutgers.
This is a blank entry

Thursday, September 27, 2001

Okay. Forward to our next tableau.

�The earthquake began at 9:30 on November 1st, 1755, and was centered in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km WSW of Cape St. Vincent.� Geologists call it a slip � there was a slip between two tectonic plates. It might have been the greatest earthquake in recorded history. Immanuel Kant, writing about it latter, believed that atmospheric phenomena prophesied that something was up:

I look upon the prelude of the subterranean inflammation, that after-
wards grew so amazing, to be the atmospheric phenomenon which was
perceived at Locarno in Switzerland on the 14th October last year at 8
o'clock in the morning. A warm vapour, as if coming out of an oven, dif-
fused itself and in two hours turned into a red fog, which towards evening
occasioned a rain red as blood, that, when it was caught, deposited 1/9 of a
reddish gluey sediment. The snow six feet deep was likewise tinged red.
This purple rain was perceived [at] 40 hours, [to extend] about
20 German miles in quadratum, yes, even to Schwaben. On this atmo-
spheric phenomenon followed unnatural downpours, that in three
days gave 23 inches of water,39 which is more than falls throughout the
whole year in a country of a moderately damp nature. This rain continued
over 14 days, though not always with the same violence. The rivers in
Lombardy that have their source in the mountains of Switzerland, as also
the Rhone, swelled with water and overflowed their banks. From this time
prevailed in the air frightful hurricanes, which raged everywhere furiously.
In the middle of November such a purple rain still fell in Ulm, and the
disorder in the atmosphere, the whirlwinds in Italy, [and] the extremely wet
weather continued.

Readers are begged to notice the reference to purple rain. Bet you didn�t know Prince was an ardent fan of Immanuel Kant�s, did you?

Three earthwaves radiated out, the first one hitting Lisbon about 10, and pretty much destroying the lower part of the city. Since it was a feast day, a good part of the population was in church. Marion Kaplan, in her book on Portugal, quotes the contemporary (and, I must say, unlikely sounding) report of a nun: � Itt began like the rattleing of Coaches� I look about me and see the Walls a-shaking and a falling down, then I up and took to my heells, with Jesus in my mouth.�

The third wave hit the upper part of Lisbon, the wealthier neighborhoods, around 12. By this time the devastation in the lower part of the city had been added to by the conflagration that was probably the result of the candles burning in Lisbon�s several churches that day � that was the speculation of contemporaries. To complete the charmed circle of cursed elements, the survivors from the first two shocks had, instinctively, rushed to the harbor, only to find themselves scrambling with human speed to escape the tsunami that came in, it is estimated, at about 6 meters.

�Immediately after the earthquake, many inhabitants of Lisbon looked for safety on the sea by boarding ships moored on the river. But about 30 minutes after the quake, a large wave swamped the area near Bugie Tower on the mouth of the Tagus. The area between Junqueria and Alcantara in the western part of the city was the most heavily damaged by the wave, but further destruction occurred upstream. The Cais de Pedra at Rerreiro do Paco and part of the nearby custom house were flattened.
�A total of three waves struck the shore, each dragging people and debris out to sea and leaving exposed large stretches of the river bottom. In front of the Terreiro do Paco, the maximum height of the waves was estimated at 6 meters. Boats overcrowded with refugees capsized and sank. In the town Cascais, some 30 km west of Lisbon, the waves wrecked several boats and when the water withdrew, large stretches of sea bottom were left uncovered. In coastal areas such as Peniche, situated about 80 km north of Lisbon, many people were killed by the tsunami. In Setubal, 30 km south of Lisbon, the water reached the first floor of buildings. �

One of the remarkable things about the Lisbon quake is that there are still disputes about how much damage it actually did. Here�s an account, appended to a book about the San Francisco earthquake, that gives one estimate of the quake�s magnitude:

�The most distinguishing peculiarities of this earthquake were the
swallowing up of the mole, and the vast extent of the earth's
surface over which the shocks were felt. Several of the highest
mountains in Portugal were violently shaken, and rent at their
summits; huge masses falling from them into the neighboring
valleys. These great fractures gave rise to immense volumes of
dust, which at a distance were mistaken for smoke by those who
beheld them. Flames were also said to have been observed: but if
there were any such, they were probably electrical flashes produced
by the sudden rupture of the rocks.

The portion of the earth's surface convulsed by this earthquake is
estimated by Humboldt to have been four times greater than the
whole extent of Europe. The shocks were felt not only over the
Spanish peninsula, but in Morocco and Algeria they were nearly as
violent. At a place about twenty-four miles from the city of
Morocco, there is said to have occurred a catastrophe much
resembling what took place at the Lisbon mole. A great fissure
opened in the earth, and an entire village, with all its
inhabitants, upwards of 8,000 in number, were precipitated into the
gulf, which immediately closed over its prey.�

Reverand Charles Davy wrote a fine firsthand account of the quake. It is at the much to lauded Fordham history site:

Upon this I threw down my pen---and started upon my feet, remaining a moment in suspense, whether I should stay in the apartment or run into the street, as the danger in both places seemed equal; and still flattering myself that this tremor might produce no other effects than such inconsiderable ones as had been felt at Madeira; but in a moment I was roused from my dream, being instantly stunned with a most horrid crash, as if every edifice in the city had tumbled down at once. The house I was in shook with such violence, that the upper stories immediately fell; and though my apartment (which was the first floor) did not then share the same fate, yet everything was thrown out of its place in such a manner that it was with no small difficulty I kept my feet, and expected nothing less than to be soon crushed to death, as the walls continued rocking to and fro in the frightfulest manner, opening in several places; large stones falling down on every side from the cracks, and the ends of most of the rafters starting out from the roof. To add to this terrifying scene, the sky in a moment became so gloomy that I could now distinguish no particular object; it was an Egyptian darkness indeed, such as might be felt; owing, no doubt, to the prodigious clouds of dust and lime raised from so violent a concussion, and, as some reported, to sulphureous exhalations, but this I cannot affirm; however, it is certain I found myself almost choked for near ten minutes.
I hastened out of the house and through the narrow streets, where the buildings either were down or were continually falling, and climbed over the ruins of St. Paul's Church to get to the river's side, where I thought I might find safety. Here I found a prodigious concourse of people of both sexes, and of all ranks and conditions, among whom I observed some of the principal canons of the patriarchal church, in their purple robes and rochets, as these all go in the habit of bishops; several priests who had run from the altars in their sacerdotal vestments in the midst of their celebrating Mass; ladies half dressed, and some without shoes; all these, whom their mutual dangers had here assembled as to a place of safety, were on their knees at prayers, with the terrors of death in their countenances, every one striking his breast and crying out incessantly, Miserecordia meu Dios! . . . In the midst of our devotions, the second great shock came on, little less violent than the first, and completed the ruin of those buildings which had been already much shattered."

In the aftermath of the quake, there was a brief period of anarchy. With the flames consuming half the town�s goods, the other half became fair game for the prisoners who had escaped from their cells, due to the collapse of the penitentiary. The king�s prime minister, the Marques de Pombal, a figure of xemplary Englightenment views, solved the problem of pillage by erecting gallows in a circle around the shattered hulk of Lisbon and hanging as many thieves as his soldiers could catch. He solved the problem of moral, which was deepened by the fervent call to repentence of several priests, by kicking the Jesuits out of Portugal. Both instances of public policy were applauded by the philosophes.

Finally, here�s a letter, sent by Voltaire to the M. Tronchin on Novemeber 24th, 1755:

Les D�lices, November 24, 1755
This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds-- where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath d�bris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants -- Swiss, like yourself -- swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.

Enough for one day.


For those of you worried that I am neglecting my promised, straggly essay on the Earthquake in Lisbon and its effects on the Enlightenment - a hot button issue, right? Hollywood fodder -- well, I'm not. My plan, on this site, is to experiment with free form essays - ex cathedra riffs that are visibly assembled out of the lumber in my head. So if that lumber doesn't feel like getting up and making itself into an essay, I'm not going to make it. But I do remember my promises, and will try to get around to my original intentions.

-- The Randalls Grocery store I go to has a large red white and blue ribbon stuck to the stuccoed pillar in front of the entrance; the Goodwill store on 5th and Lamar has tacked up a goodly sized flag, maybe two and a half feet by five, on the side of their building; the GSD and M advertising agency on 6th has a huge flag on a pole and a banner stretched out on their front lawn area which contains some pithy patriotic apothegm; ny neighbor has a small flag on a shishkabab sized stick waving outside her door. I am living, right now, in a flurry of patriotic colors. It stirs memories of 1980, the hostage crisis, the frustratingly ineffectual Jimmy Carter, the songs of hillbilly defiance on the radio. I lived in Shreveport then, and Shreveport's white population responded to the occupation of the "nest of spies" in Teheran by demanding, and receiving, round the clock playing of Kenny Rodger's "Coward of the County." I was a redneck, but I wasn't stupid -- I turned to black fm and listened to Grand Master Flash invent hip-hop.

And so it goes, and so it goes.

Readers, I've been reading Robert Lacey's gossipy account of the Saud royal family, published in the backwash of the hostage crisis (1981), and I've been surprised by the assumptions in that book -- surprised, that is, by the way perception was so totally shaped by the Cold War. Surprised, for instance, that the US sponsored King Faisal's pan-Islamic ideas to counter Nasser's russophile socialism. Surprised by the immediacy of the oil price shock in those days. Surprised, mostly, by how much of this I have forgotten. Yes, the importance of forgetting in history is always underrated: historians have a natural fondness for memory, for archeology and continuing structures and civilization. But it is forgetting that melts the structures of hegemony, and that operates so openly, ingenuously, and ruthlessly in the minds of men. All that is solid melts into air, somebody once said. And what melts it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2001


'Smokin em out' - the definition.

We don't know what the Bush's international coon hunt is going to look like - neither does he. But for a combat ready wet dream, look to this interview with Rear Admiral Stephen Baker, who is creaking in his joints with excitement.

Q & A with Rear Adm. (Ret.) Stephen H. Baker, USN, Senior Fellow, CDI - Terrorism Project - Center for Defense Information

Most frightening exchange is this one:

"Q. Will this "war on terrorism" be just focused only on Afghanistan?
A. No, but the initial focus is to bring to justice the individual terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and all current leads point to those regions. The Taliban regime and all the leaders and cells of al Qaeda are definitely on the hit list. It will not end there, however. The campaign being planned is global, and it will be a long, many-tiered, world-wide effort. The terrorist training camps that we know of in Lebanon, for example, most likely are being looked at right now. More than 60 countries have known terrorist problems, and it seems clear that there will be multiple ongoing operations at every level of U.S. counter-terrorism capabilities for quite some time."

Not Lebanon again! Not content to repeat the mistakes of his father, Bush 2 is reaching all the way back to repeat the mistakes of the monumental Reagan. If the US is going after Hezbollah again, we really have lost our minds. As for Baker's last sentence, god knows what that means translated out of Pentagon-speak -- I suspect it merely indicates a military wishlist, as the military likes nothing better than to throw money against a newly discovered threat. You can hear them salivating in offices from General Dynamics to The Raytheon Company. It isn't pleasant to hear that much salivating, reader -- it makes me a bit ill.
Talking about folly and evil -- here's a story from the NYT:
Bush Urges Afghans to Rid Their Country of Taliban

in which Bush 2 has apparently decided to make the same mistakes as Bush 1. You'll remember -- or you won't -- that Bush 1 urged the people of Iraq to "take matters into their own hands -- to force Saddam Hussein the dictator aside..." back in the heady Gulf War days. The Iraqui people, unluckily for them, actually took Bush 1 at his word, and were promptly abandoned by the American military, who calmly watched them being slaughtered by the 'dictator Saddam Hussein's" Republican guard.
Bush 2's people have learned nothing. Once again the president makes an appeal that is promptly denied by his spokesman, Ari Fleischer. Once again a mass of refugees who would like nothing better than to be rid of the Taliban are being given televised assurances by the President of the US that we will support a rebellion, and once again this is, to put it bluntly, a lie. If we do support a rebellion, we've done a piss poor job of aiding it so far. This is the kind of thing that makes one into a pacifist -- vide my earlier post today.
First graf of story:
WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 � President Bush came close to telling the Afghan people today to overthrow the Taliban government, encouraging them to rid Afghanistan of what he called "an incredibly repressive" administration.

Mike Kelly's column in the WP is, as usual, as stuffed with nonsense as my mama's pecan pie used to be stuffed with nuts (hey, I'm practicing making homegrown comparisons, in an effort to show my Americanism):

. . . Pacifist Claptrap (washingtonpost.com)

The column considers pacifism and, in the concluding graf, concludes it is evil. What Kelly means by evil, I think, is that it is bad. Kelly goes to Orwell's controversy with pacifists in World War II. At that time, Orwell contended, the pacifists were objectively pro-fascist. Kelly wants to transfer this logic to today's pacifists, and say they are objectively pro-terrorist. Here, for what it is worth, is his argument graf. He begins with reasons for engaging with pacifists at all. I'll skip his first reason and go to the second:

"Second, it is worth it because the reactionary left-liberal crowd in America and in Europe has already staked out its ground here: What happened to America is America's fault, the fruits of foolish arrogance and greedy imperialism, racism, colonialism, etc., etc. From this rises an argument that the resulting war is also an exercise in arrogance and imperialism, etc., and not deserving of support. This argument will be made with greater fearlessness as the first memories of the 7,000 murdered recede. Third, it is worth it because the American foreign policy establishment has all the heart for war of a titmouse, and not one of your braver titmice. The first faint, let-us-be-reasonable bleats can even now be heard: Yes, we must do something, but is an escalation of aggression really the right thing? Mightn't it just make matters ever so much worse?"

Here we have a masterful case of muddying your colors, and the invocation of Orwell isn't going to help him out. Pacifism is not the same thing as deciding not to use violence for one or another reason. The idea that America's foreign policy establishment is pacifist is ludicrous in the extreme. If they have hearts like titmice, that has more to do with not wanting to provoke controversy in what is now officially "the homeland." And why not provoke controversy? Because foreign policy is conducted, now, by a very small group, with little attention paid to it by the mass of Americans. Foreign policy people like it like that. If the mass of Americans must stick their noses into foreign policy, the foreign policy establishment would prefer that it happen in the shape of ticker tape parades for returning soldiers and 90% support for whatever inane ass sits in the Oval Office.

As for Kelly's thoughts re the liberal-lefties -- well, again, we aren't dealing with pacifism here. Among some, certainly, that might be the case. Kneejerk anti-war sentiment isn't a bad vice; but it is true, I think, that it is a vice. Meaning that the argument that there is no virtue in using violence for political ends ignores the structure of political injustice. Nor is Kelly very perceptive about American foreign policy in the Middle East, which has been, to say the least, unwise, driven by hasty impulses, political panics, and the overriding need for a stable supply of oil uncoupled from any concentrated national policy to promote, with all our wealth, alternatives to oil energy. I know, sounds way rationalistic, right?

I've already had my say about this in earlier posts, but to reiterate: the era since the Cold and the Gulf War ended has not been a glorious one for American foreign policy. The dual containment of Iran and Iraq ignored the reality of change in Iran, and enforced a horrendously immoral -- let's even use Kelly's word, evil -- policy in Iraq, to wit, the refusal to aid or countenance a democratically oriented overthrow of Saddam Hussein for fear that such an overthrow would destroy the country and expand the sphere of Iranian influence, and the consequent turn to the compromise of sanctions, which was premised on the insane proposition that an unarmed populace could be prodded into overthrowing a heavily armed, violent dictator by being systematically starved. With, of course, the codicil that even if the population, by some miracle, was able to successfully bring some tyrannicide to fruition, that it would allow the political fruit of its courage to be wrenched away from it, leaving the structure of the regime alone. Exchanging, in other words, one tyranny for another, in a nightmarish succession of Ba'athist strongmen.
Yeah, let's see, what were the terms Kelly used? "Foolish arrogance and greedy imperialism, racism, colonialism"? I think I could throw a few more insults on that pile, but that will do for starters.

Tuesday, September 25, 2001


In 1725, Voltaire was thirty one years old. He'd established himself at the great houses by this time, where the Names could enjoy the dangerous turn of his epigrams. His wildly successful plays were thought to be the successor of Racine's (although now they are considered the last clunk of classic theater, heading for the garbage chute). He had, it was true, spent time in the Bastille in 1717 for writing verses that satirized the Regent. It was also true that he was the prematurely wizened child of a conseiller de roi, a bourgeois, and that his father did not count his poet son among his worldly successes - in the Arouet family the ornament was the older son, Armand, a lawyer like papa.

Voltaire, however, considered himself the peer of his titled friends -- ennobled, so to speak, by his brain.

It is a sign of the times that Voltaire could so easily allow himself this presumption. In the seventeenth century, a Moliere could see a king, but couldn't sup with a prince. Voltaire, however, felt himself fully entitled to break bread with princes -- or, more usually, princesses. The habits of Louis XIV's regime, in which a conscious effort was made to codify, and so stabilize, the hierarchy in order to control the nobility, so inclined in the first half of the seventeenth century to frightening Frondes, had been swept away during the Regency. In particular, the Mississippi bubble, John Law's attempt to take a seventeenth century society into the age of floating currencies and stock options, had turned life upside down, bankrupting old houses and enriching outsiders, until it all came down with a crash. Law's paper currency was a real, if unintended, assault on the feudalist order, and succeeded in weakening that order even if it did not succeed in floating France's debt.

In December, 1725, Voltaire had an altercation with the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot (the link has another version of this story) in the dressing room of an actress. Rohan-Chabot made a cutting remark, Voltaire replied in kind, the Chevalier raised his can, Voltaire raised his sword, friends intervened, and the broil was brought to a close.

A few days later Voltaire was at the table in the Duc de Sully's hotel, with the family, when a servant came in and told him he was wanted outside. In the street stood two closed carriages, to one of which Voltaire advanced. He was grabbed, thrust inside, and assaulted with sticks and fists. From the second carriage, the Chevalier de Rohan's voice was heard: "don't hurt his head, something good may come out of it." After being beaten, Voltaire was thrown back out into the street.

He made his way upstairs to the Duc de Sully's table, disheveled and presumably bleeding Let me quote from Jean Orieux's biography: "He called on them [the dinner guests] to help him -- first of all the Duc de Sully, whose guest he was, and on whose doorstep he had been assaulted. He begged Sully to go with him to lodge a complaint; his assailants had tried to murder him. But the duc calmly refused. The faces of all present were impassive; everyone was silent. Voltaire realized then that no one was going to aid him..."

I love this story. I, too, have seen those faces -- the face the established order shows the outsider. I saw it when I was a young man in Shreveport, Louisiana. In a way, it was a rare privilege. This story could have happened yesterday in any number of places: Russia, the Philippines, Indonesia... and Louisiana. It could happen anywhere, in other words, where the roots of civil society are weak; where clans are strong; where the monopoly of violence is not entirely conceded to the state, and where the state recognizes, in its daily working, the de facto right of groups to enforce extra-legal punishments. What Votaire saw, sealed in the impassivity of the circle of faces that confronted him, was the naked substructure of the very society he moved in. Rohan's henchmen woke him up. Voltaire made a leap in place that moment. He became the Voltaire we know, realizing, beyond his vanity, what the point was: the great target, really, of the whole Enlightenment project in the first half of the 18th century. The traditional order, the rule of authority rather than reason, was based on just this moment when the face closes. He realized that he could expect no quarter from these people. He'd have to forge his arms himself.

So he did. He operated under the aegis of satire, the downstairs weapon. Scapin's revenge. (actually, the denouement of this story does have a Scapin-esque feel - Voltaire made it known that he was consorting with underworld thugs, learning fencing, and Rohan, a notorious coward, prevailed on the king to issue a lettre de cachet, putting Voltaire in the Bastille again. A sign of the regime's essential weakness is that Voltaire was soon released -- there was a certain shame about what Rohan had done. Follow the shame - it is always a clue). To implant a sense of the judicial equality of persons in a society that doesn't, in its social tissues, feel that equality, requires more toxic methods than the arguments of rationality. It required all the tactics of ridicule, imprudence and pointed analogy that the philosophes inherited from the ancients, and from the kindred spirits of the century before: Montaigne and the libertine circle around St. - Evremond. Even in this early stage of modernity, shock was the weapon of choice, because the other weapons -- the closed carriages and the cudgels -- were all held by the other side. As we will see in my third tableaux -- you see, I am thinking of my posts about this subject as pictures in a triptych -- this ingrained habit of satire stood between Voltaire and Rousseau, making it impossible for either party to understand the other one. Satire, in other word, has its great historic moment in the 18th century. It is the dark star twinned with optimism in the Enlightenment program. That relationship contains in itself the seed of its own dialectical destruction.
Blogger wasn't working for me this morning. So I posted the same entry twice. Look to the entry below this one, please
I recommend reading the Far Eastern Economic Review this week -- a lot of the articles are on line, and the magazine, which is owned by Dow Jones, is pretty on spot about Asian issues. And the war or non-war or shadow war or whatever thing looming and lurching towards us like the as yet unseen serial killer in a teen slasher flick is definitely a classic, Kipling style East of the Suez deal.

There's a piece by Enzio von Pfeil which inadvertantly shows how tightly superstition and art are intertwined in economics:
THE 5TH COLUMN -- September 27, 2001

Economics, for the past two weeks, has publicly put on its consolatory face, while underneath the investors, the electronic herd once lauded by Tom Friedman, have been running off various cliffs. Like almost all post-Keynsian econ-masters, von Pfeil actually seems to believe in the hoary chestnuts of monetary theory, and retails such bogus analogies as the following:

"Policy mixes involve monetary and fiscal measures. On the monetary front, the world's leading central banks have been injecting more liquidity into the system, intensifying an existing excess supply of money. In the United States, the Federal Reserve pre-emptively slashed rates ahead of the stockmarket reopening. This was expected, and already had resulted earlier in even firmer bond prices, driving down yields. Lower yields mean even lower mortgage rates--and so, eventually, up go housing starts and with them, consumption. True, in the near term, people won't be spending. But once the dust settles, lower rates will fuel consumption. Looking back at the U.S. on its entry into World War II, we see that though consumption fell 2% in the first full year following, it accelerated each year after until 1945, by 2.6%, 3.6% and 7%, respectively. Slowing consumption will be a temporary setback. Like in World War II, people will adjust."
Anybody who believes the logic here is chemical -- just add element X to Element Y and get compund Z - should take a glance at Von Pfeil's proof. The WWII analogy is, to say the least, bizarre. In the US, the necessary gross expansion of military industrial output to meet the needs of the war in the 40-45 period was extraordinary. To think that the pattern of consumption had to do with the hypodermic of Fed policy -- the trickle trickle into the bloodstream of easy money -- is close to insane. And to think that the shadow war is going to cause the Government to rev up its old warplane factories in Washington State is so off the mark that one wonders if von Pfeil wrote this passage in his sleep. There is a kind of analogical desperation behind this -- one selects one's historical comparisons after one has one's theory down, rather like the alchemists used to do to prove that at some point in the past, some esoteric master did, after all, transform base metals into gold.

For a more reasonable analogy, look at what Japan's central bank did in the nineties -- an unprecedented amount of pump priming. That did no good -- and the reason? The Japanese consumer wasn't prepared to take on the kind of debts the American consumer doesn't even give a second thought to. The recession, if we have one, is not going to be managed by a Central Bank.

Monday, September 24, 2001

Since the market Humpty-Dumptied last week, I thought readers might like a cheerful article from 1998 about the Asian collapse by Murray Sayle, a veteran journalist now settling into his bungalow years in Japan. It is from a Japanese English mag.
OutsideR Online -Nonember 1998
Sample grafs:

"Can it possibly be 1929 again, out East? Where are the suiciding stockbrokers, the criminal scandals uncovered by the falling markets? Well, six officials connected with the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Japan have hanged themselves (traditional swords having become scarce and expensive, like most Japanese objets de vertu) and so has a Japanese MP of Korean origin, not a good thing to be in Japan when trouble strikes. Two small-fry finance officials are out on bail for allowing themselves to be entertained by overlent bankers at something called a No Pants shabu-shabu, a raunchy restaurant whose waitresses serve at table
minus underwear (in the Shoguns days, silk-robed officials met with favour-beseeching merchants in brothels, hence the Japanese euphemism for a bribe, sodenoshita, a little something in the sleeve. So what else is new?) But it all does rather fit, no?"
The US has finally decided to abandon the extremely dumb position it took last week. You'll remember, when the Taliban demanded evidence that bin Laden was involved in the assault on the WTC, the administration refused, saying it 'wasn't going to negotiate.' The refusal was puzzling and stupid. Puzzling, because presumably it wouldn't be hard to provide evidence linking bin Laden to terrorism. Stupid, because, once again, an American government was treating a non-European people like second class humans. If France or Germany or Lithuania had demanded evidence before turning over a wanted individual, the US would have done it unhesitatingly. That is what extradition procedures are all about. Since if we attack Afghanistan, whether to extract bin Laden from his camp or to overrun the country extensively, we are going to have to rely on Pakistan, this was not a good way to start that kind of tricky operation. Back in America, where any mindless display of defiance is now greeted with cheers, the administration might be looking good, but this is a ploy that will ultimately cost American lives.
Hey Presto: Condoleeza R. and Colin Powell, who between them hold the brainpower of the entire tBush administration, woke up. A little too late, but let's not bitch.
NYT has the story:
U.S. to Publish Terror Evidence on bin Laden

lede graf: "WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 � The Bush administration plans to make public evidence linking Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda network to the terror attacks on the United States in an effort to persuade the world, and particularly Muslim nations, that a military response is justified.
The evidence will embrace new information gathered by law enforcement and intelligence agents on the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as material used in indictments against Mr. bin Laden in the bombing of American Embassies in East Africa in 1998, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today."

Sunday, September 23, 2001

Alan recommends this link to the New Republic today, with this comment:

I have no sympathy with this guy's attack on "the left and its candlelight
vigils," or for the jingoism that the New Republic has displayed in the last
couple of issues. Robert Fisk is a journalist who has my particular
admiration for having once picked up the pieces of an exploded shell that
had killed two Palestinian women, noting the serial number and
manufacturer's name, and taking it back to the engineer who had designed it.
I'm just curious about what you guys think about what he has to say about
the embargo on Iraq & its effects on the civilian population thereof. What
he says sounds plausible to someone like me who is shamefully uninformed
about the issue.
BTW, Roger, great post today.

Lorin wrote, re the tears post:

"That is wonderful. You know Jean Starobinski has a big chapter on Rousseau and
the political meaning of tears in HmmHmm and Transparency?"

Which I didn't. Google search reveals that to be Transparency and Obstruction (Chicago, 1988).

I'm planning, this week, to do two or three posts on The Earthquake of Lisbon, with references to the Current Crisis. I thought I'd prepare my faithful readers.

Now, my thoughts have been straying to the literature about the Lisbon earthquake ever since the collapse of the WTC. Some might say that comparing the two situations is unsound -- the Lisbon quake was a natural event, the WTC assault was thoroughly man-made. What I am hunting for, though, is not an exact comparison of the events themselves, but of their effects on the cultural mood.

The Enlightenment was a definite cultural mood -- a mix of sentiment and intellectual habits self-consciously promoted by an amorphous group with definite self-selecting initiatory practices and habits. One of its most salient features was the optimism that came from the at first muted, and then more self-confident, announcement of modernity -- modernity as a virtue, modernity that dared to speak its name. This was the kind of thing savaged by Swift in Tale of the Tub, with passages like this one:

"When I consider how exceedingly our illustrious moderns have eclipsed the weak glimmering lights of the ancients, and turned them out of the road of all fashionable commerce, to a degree, that our choice town wits,[1] of most refined accomplishments, are in grave dispute, whether there have been ever any ancients or no in which point we are like to receive wonderful satisfaction from the most useful labours and lucubrations of that worthy modern, Dr. Bentley: I say, when I consider all this, I cannot but bewail, that no famous modern hath ever yet attempted an universal system in a small portable volume of all things that are to be known, or believed, or imagined, or practised in life."

Swift's satire predicts an enterprise he would have heartily disapproved of -- The Encyclopedia. What was happening in Swift's time, and Montesquieu's, and Voltaire's, was a distinct change in Time-sentiment. The past, with its source, literally, in paradise, was slowly losing its position as the ultimate arbitor of legitimacy. The belief in the Garden at the beginning of the world was wilting. This transformation entailed a further transformation in the perception of the modern -- it became not the unfolding of the fall, but an interval within an inevitable progress. An interval that had to anchor its organization in something beyond precedent. This something, of course, was reason.

Although a culture is greater than the people who write the books and attend court functions, it is this change in time-sentiment and the definite set of assumptions, the overriding mood of optimism, which concerns me -- or will, for the next couple of posts. From such events as the Battle of the Books (to which Swift refers -- a controversy that started in France, with the querelle des anciens et des modernes that whirled around Perrault's address to the Acadamie Francais in 1670, but which truly found a language and an attitude around 1720, and began to be attacked around 1760. The Lisbon Earthquake happened on November 1, 1755. It isn't too far fetched to connect the change in mood with the event.

While the 90s certainly do not form an epoch, the optimism of the 90s, at least from 96 on, was also unmistakeable. Granted, cultural moods are hard to define, hard to test, and easy to get wrong. They are supremely soft objects -- fuzzy parameters. But anybody who trolls through an internet search on Google can find the ruins and monuments of that time, from the 30,000 Dow people to the bleached bones of biztech zines featuring teen millionaires. If the phrase, "America is changed forever," is being repeated like a zombie mantra by every perky pundit within hearing distance of a tv mike, that doesn't mean the phrase is wholly wrong (although I am always reminded, when I use a cliche, of what Leon Bloy said in Exegese des lieux communs -- cliches are only true when you read them through a mirror, darkly). There's a change in the air, though, we all know it, even if everything isn't changed, changed utterly. The optimism is gone. While it is too soon to call this pessimism, it feels ominous, like an alcoholic's thirst for the next binge. We have gone back to sucking down the biles and salts of the Reagan era, the stupid prejudices and kneejerk patriotism, even though we know, in the back of our minds, that this is not a good idea. Yes, it isn't a good idea, people. The modish word in the 90s was smart -- smart business, smart tech, smart people, etc., ad nauseum. Think: when was the last time you heard someone use smart like that? It is a small thing, but when a term disappears from the population of buzz words, there's usually a reason.

This story is going to come out in pieces, and the alert reader will have to do the cut and paste. The intelligence failure that allowed the successful hijacking of four planes has a backstory, but we haven't heard it yet. So like some jigsaw puzzle, we will have to look around for the odd news item to piece it together. This article.
FBI Knew Terrorists Were Using Flight Schools (washingtonpost.com) in the WP is extremely noteworthy. Graf two:
"Three days after the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III described reports that several of the hijackers had received flight training in the United States as "news, quite obviously," adding, "If we had understood that to be the case, we would have -- perhaps one could have averted this."

Graf three:
"A senior government official yesterday acknowledged law enforcement officials were aware that fewer than a dozen people with links to bin Laden had attended U.S. flight schools. However, the official said there was no information to indicate the flight students had been planning suicide hijacking attacks."

The last sentence has more than the whiff of deniability. Oh, so there might have been indications that they were planning plain vanilla hijackings?