“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, February 01, 2002


There's a weblog of the plutocrats ball in NYC. It has links to what's going on and how it is reported. The weblogger, Lance Knobel, seems mildly shocked by conspicuous consumption of the type reported by Alex KUCZYNSKI with her typical dry cocktail style -- mix champagne and battery acid, stir. We, of course, love it:

"Heidi Klum, the blond supermodel perhaps best known for her ability to display the charms of the Victoria's Secret Miracle Bra, stood in a crowd of bankers, diplomats, Nobel Prize winners and executives at Brasserie on Wednesday night, marveling at the roster of parties accompanying this year's World Economic Forum, held for the first time in New York.

There are so many, she said, some so exclusive that even she might not be invited, like the private Elton John concert for 200 guests sponsored by Lehman Brothers tonight at the Four Seasons restaurant.

Ms. Klum turned to her publicist, Desiree Gruber, and asked: "Well, are we going or not?"

"No," Ms. Gruber said, her mouth set in grim resignation. "We haven't been invited."

Ms. Kuczynski goes on to reveal that Sir Elton is playing his cheese for a cool million dished out by Lehman brothers. And you thought there was no reason for those mass layoffs on Wall Street, didn't you?

We put up our hot little relativism post [1/30/02] in much the same spirit that the Duke nailed up his posters for the Royal Nonesuch, with its final line: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED: "if that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!" Alas, our line didn't fetch em. Lately there has been a royal falling off of site hits. Proof, perhaps, that our obsessions are not those of the zeitgeist. Or proof that Limited Inc. should sprinkle our posts with "girles" or "tits" to fetch that crowd (peculiarly concentrated in Saudi Arabia for some reason) looking for a combo of both. But no, no, this is how far our head is up our ass: we figure to draw the multitudes with relativism.

So we wrote to one of our readers, Alan, who has previously figured on this site before as our in-house critic. We asked why our post didn't fetch him. Here's his reply:

One reason I didn't respond was I wasn't real sure what you were trying to
say, and so my response would have taken the form of indefinite expansion
("Your claim could be interpreted as A, B, or C. If A, then ...; if B, then
...,). But, since you goad me, I guess I'll have to jump into this one, so
here goes with an analytic-philosopher type question:

You say that

(1)Cultural diversity is unavoidable; cultures arise and form themselves
with regard to their differences.

I have a problem here; I don't see that there is anything conceptually
impossible about the notion of a hermetically sealed and isolated culture.
Can't we imagine a group of people who have, in the robust sense, a "way of
life", with religious and political institutions etc., while being
completely unaware of the existence of any other human groups. Empirically,
we don't find any such groups in the world, but that's another matter.

You say later on that

(2)[My relativism comes out of the idea that] Any point of view is formed by
struggle against other points of view -- it isn't given to us, ab nihilo.

Could we cite as an example here the Freudian view that the ego arises out
the conflict between the desires and mental representations of parental
authority? (Eschewing Teutonic jargon. If so, I see what you're getting at,
but then I don't see how anything about specifically cultural diversity
follows from it.

So . . . could you elaborate (1) in sufficiently determinate form so that I
can see how (2) is supposed to be a consequence thereof?


And here is our reply:

Cool, I got you to bite.

Anyway, I would say that the crucial point is whether your idea of the hermetically sealed and isolated culture could be true. Your point is that one can imagine such a culture. But I don't really think one can imagine such a culture. That doesn't mean that there aren't Pitcairn islands where maroons, whether voluntary or not, do make themselves into a "culture," but even there they start to evolve. And of course they come from elsewhere -- not Adam and Eve, and but other cultures. To my mind, imagining a sealed and hermetic culture is like imagining a sealed and hermetic species -- this isn't just empirically non-existent, it couldn't be existent if evolutionary theory makes a true claim about speciation. Reversing your empirical/theoretical split, I'd say that no culture would long remain sealed and hermetic without producing cultural variants that would, in the long run, turn it into 2+ cultures.

That is my strong claim. Now, the question is, how can I back it up. And this would involve claiming a dialectical view of culture -- that the thing we call a culture, with its indistinct boundaries, is not just peripherally engaged in struggles with other cultures, but that struggle is how it builds as a culture. In other words, I hold to a thoroughly dialectical view of how cultures are.

Now if this dialectical view is right, a mono-culture, so to speak, will suffer a fall into diversity as surely as a mono-language will evolve dialects, because no culture has the instruments to arrest variation. I suppose I can imagine a culture of clones, but there is a rate of mutation in copying that simply can't be gotten around.

So, now: let's say cultural relativism makes some sense. It would seem that, to get off the ground, it has to claim that there are always going to be more than one cultures. Now this claim doesn't mean that there is more than one valuable culture, but I'd like to make that claim for the variant of relativism I am after -- one that actually can explain why cultural diversity is good. The difficulty here is much like the difficulty laissez faire people have with competition -- if you claim that competition is good, and you spot a tendency to monopoly, what do you do about it? I'd claim that human rights principles are going to function as a sort of anti-trust law, limiting the encroachment of mono-culture.

So there you have it: sizzling discussion, man. Is this a get down site or what? And remember: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.

Thursday, January 31, 2002


The terrorists are the ones eating mango mousse.

Two reports in the Village Voice today on the plutocrat's ball, otherwise known as the World Economic Forum. Usually this enclave of the disgustingly wealthy and unintelligently powerful meets at Davos. Unfortunately, we live in a world where loopholes in environmental regulations sometimes allow the importation of alien species -- the tiger mussel has invaded the Great Lakes Ecosystem, and the WEF has migrated to NYC. Anarcho protesters are going to try to make the place hot for them -- mais alors, there is the problem that in the USA, right now, dissent is automatically equated to terrorism. Prepare to read about anarchos vandalizing Starbucks and such; the word vandalize won't be used about the police use of water cannons and nightsticks on the fragile skeletal structure of protestors, since presumably one skeletal structure can be replaced with another, while the destruction of a Starbucks is an attack on a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

An article entitled, appropriately, Schmooze operator, contains a report by one Sasha Frere-Jones about attending the Davos confab, and fab it was to the participants:

"Accompanying my wife (invited by the WEF to attend because of her work to level the playing field for women in corporate America), I attended Davos in January of 2001. For a week, the approximately 2000 assembled players participated in panel discussions and schmoozed over mango mousse. Attendees were issued "smart" name tags and wireless iPaq computers. African nationals often outnumbered Americans in the conference hall lobby, English was not the default language for small talk, and people were unfailingly warm.

The point of being there, if you average out the participant testimonials and official press releases, is to be Somebody With a Good Idea for the World, Somebody With Money, or both."

It must be nice to be leveling the playing field and playing in a field so manifestly unlevel -- but of course, you have to be inside the establishment to change it, as the Clinton era liberal would say. But Limited Inc locks onto the mango mousse. Yes indeed, reader, here, here we surely have stumbled upon the master-sign, much as jungle explorers, in some old Tarzan flick, immediately recognize the shed panties on the forest floor and look up in anguish, exclaiming Jane!. Coding third world fruit and first world cuisine, but hedging against a too exotic third world culinary vernacular (termite mousse would have been, I suppose, outre, and Sperm Whale mousse would have given away, well, the fact that these are the inheritors of the biggest killers on the planet... and they still are) and, at the same time, against anything too, well, ancien regime for the American pups -- this is where the anarcho element really starts. People throwing mango mousse have bankrupted Argentina, contrived a system of derivatives trading that will eventually blow up national economies, as it is now blowing up corporations, and systematically promote an economic system in which they are awarded in such disproportion as to make the slave owners of the ancient world blush.

So, who do you think we are going to arrest? Well, another VV article reports on the expected cop crackdown on the protestors:

"In the post-9-11 world of law enforcement, cops see these brick throwers and car burners as almost Al Qaeda-like, down to their transnational wandering, their leaders' wealthy backgrounds, and their fundamentalist message. The anti-globalization movement objects to the unfettered migration of capital in search of the best deal on labor, and holds the not-unreasonable paranoia of a global corporate oligarchy.

Of course, that same migrating capital�as with arms maker Krupp, explosives king Nobel, and yellow-journalism baron Hearst�is what fuels its yang. By 1996, one of the movement's funding organizations had banked more than $34 million to fuel its agenda, according to Internet versions of a Left Business Observer essay. The publication goes on to report that the founder of this group has an Ivy League M.B.A., a track record at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and money provided by well-heeled parents from the retail trade. "

Life, baby. Sometimes I can't stand it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2002


My friend was, indeed, dissatisfied with yesterday's post (and if you don't know what I mean, lunkhead, see yesterday's post). Limited Inc, like Coolidge's secretary of state, Henry Stimson, believes that gentlemen don't open other gentleman's mail -- so we aren't going to quote our friend's animadversions about our post, except to sum them up as the observation that we ramble on entertainingly, but to little point. However, we we will quote our own email reply:

"... I have a pretty straightforward view that the Middle East is not that exotic, or incomprehensible, vis a vis the West; and that the necessary framework for a civil society is missing in most Middle Eastern countries because of the convergence of two seemingly opposing interests: on the one hand, the theocratic, and on the other hand, the Western. While the theocratic impulse gets its strength, I think, from a false sense of nostalgia that becomes politically powerful when both the rural class and the educated, urban middle feel disempowered, the Western influence is directed, pretty consistently, at one goal: keep the oil flowing cheaply. This simple rule entails a complex politics, because sometimes it seems like the West is willing to forego cheap oil -- such as the petro from Iraq -- for more urgent political reasons. But I think the Iraq business basically stems from a fear that the Saudis will be displaced by an expansionist state, not by any feeling for the oppression of the Iraqis by the mad megalo Hussein. So that the pretence, which was floating about when the Gulf War was fought, that the Western alliance wanted democracy was a surface excuse that lost its force when the West achieved its real objective of making Iraq less threatening.
Does this mean I think the West is evil? No. The West is composed of opposing forces, too, temporary alliances, ephemeral idealisms. Certainly I hope I am a small part of the force that is secular, democratic, egalitarian, liberty loving. And that force basically thinks that a just society requires that the force of the rulers be modified by the power of the ruled to replace them; that minorities be protected systematically -- which means guaranteeing rights, and generating an independent judiciary to enforce those rights; that the political economy not be wholly controlled by an elite. Etc. These are pretty simple things to me. The logical mistake, I think, that is often made by Westerners is to think, okay, we encourage the secular, humanist state and then all of our interests are coordinated. That's simply false. If the Sauds, or the Iraqis, became democratic in the deep sense tomorrow, their interests would still not correspond to the interests of, say, America. Some of the interests would be similar, some dissimilar. I think the advantage of civil society is that, in the end, diverging interests don't require mortal hostility. In that sense, American idealists, since Wilson (who opposed the French and British plan to carve up the Middle East into protectorates with odd, stupid territories with absurd names like Iraq) are almost always right in the long run."

Now, those who know and love Limited Inc (alas, how few!) know that we are ultra relativists. And so they may want to know how we reconcile our relativism with the seemingly universal claims we are making here for human rights.

This doesn't really seem problematic to me. It is simply a part of saying, if there is a state, there needs to be human rights in order to limit that state. If there is governance of another sort, such as tribal governance, that, too, produces limits. Those limits will be attached weakly to the rights accorded to all. You have no right to say what you will in your average Pentecostal church -- meaning that you can kicked out of that church without recourse. Limiting the ability of the church, or the state, to punish you is allowing the process of relativism to work -- because relativism necessarily needs differences to relativize. Does this mean that human rights discourse is universal? No, it means that a progressive politics attachs it to cultures and states, if and when they exist. In fact, if relativism has anything substantial to say about culture and human beings, it consists in this: 1. that cultural diversity is unavoidable, an essential part of what culture is -- cultures arise and form themselves with regard to their differences; 2. the value of culture, and of the human beings who become bearers of culture, can't be abstracted from the formation of culture and human beings as culture bearers. 3. These insights are bound to perspectives that we have in this age and space and culture. This doesn't mean that we have to respect other perspectives in this age and culture -- such as one that would say there is no human right to speech attaching to state dominance. Relativism isn't the same as tolerance for any position. It is odd that this jump is commonly made, as if that were self-evident. Relativisms can come in different types, from those that counsel tolerance like some Buddhist monk sunk in an ultimate trance to those that promote a robust struggle for survival among different points of view, like some Nietzsche freak. Count me among the Nietzsche freaks. My relativism comes out of the idea that any point of view is formed by struggle against other points of view -- it isn't given to us, ab nihilo.

There will be those who do not recognize, in what I'm saying, the relativism they heard attacked in Philosophy 101. Sorry. Limited Inc.'s relativism can accomodate Lord Acton's definition:

"By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The state is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its own immediate sphere." The question of whether this liberty is too individualistic doesn't seem sociologically relevant to us. Most men and women will only do their duty as custom and opinion, authority and majorities, defines it. To form other authorities, majorities, customs and opinions -- to have, in other words, an openess to difference - is the very use and function of human rights. And this is where we stand, so help us deity - or non-deity, or nature, or as you like it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2002


Unwisely, Limited Inc pledged to write about Bernard Lewis yesterday. A friend sent us a Paul Kennedy's review of B.L.'s latest book. This friend remarked on the last graf of that review, which reads:

"What, then, is to be done? At the end of the day, Lewis
argues, the answer lies within the Muslim world itself.
Either its societies, especially those in the Middle East,
will continue in ''a downward spiral of hate and spite,
rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression,'' with all that
implies for a horrible and troubled future; or ''they can
abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences
and join their talents, energies and resources in a common
creative endeavor'' to the benefit of themselves and the
rest of our planet. Perhaps the outside world can help a
bit, though probably not much. ''For the time being, the
choice is their own.'' With this final sentence, and all
that precedes it, Lewis has done us all -- Muslim and
non-Muslim alike -- a remarkable service."

Well, there seems to be two choices outlined here -- things can get worse, or things can get better. To which Limited Inc would add, things can stay the same. This pretty much completes the futures open to all God's creatures. What is interesting is the crash of all that nineties globalization confidence. Remember, the end of history, and the iron path to capitalist nirvana? Seemingly, that has hit the dustbin. Now we have whole regions that can only influence themselves. Still, Limited Inc, with our youthful infatuation with Marxist internationalism, thinks that the globalist slant shouldn't be thrown out entirely. Surely the idea that the outside world can "help a bit" significantly underplays the position of the "outside world" -- which is the world, presumably, that uses oil and is lubricated regularly with Arabic money, invested in the intricate business of equities, bonds and derivatives. Where else are Pakistani generals going to hide their mega-bucks? Mr. Kennedy's seems to think that the Middle East can be wholly disconnected from the outside world -- but if the last two centuries have shown us anything, they've shown us that the outside world definitely wants things from the Middle East, and means to get them come hell or high water.

Okay, okay, Kennedy's teeter-totter ending is not Lewis' fault. Hell, Limited Inc has ended many a review in a platitudinous antithesis -- it is a remarkable fact about reviewing that one almost invariably runs out of things to say at the end of a review. Or, to put it more truthfully, things to say that sound like closure -- usually, there are plenty of things to say that would overleap the bounds of the review, but inspiration has to be reigned in if you are going to get a check in the mail from your publication.

So here is a better example of Lewis's over-generalizing. It comes from a New Yorker article entitled, typically, the Rage of Islam. In Lewis' world, Islam is a uniform thing that is always as splenetic as a crack addled gangbuster. The essay lifts off with this analysis of one of bin Laden's Unplugged vids:

"In his pronouncements, bin Laden makes frequent references to history. One of the most dramatic was his mention, in the October 7th videotape, of the "humiliation and disgrace" that Islam has suffered for "more than eighty years." Most American�and, no doubt, European�observers of the Middle Eastern scene began an anxious search for something that had happened "more than eighty years" ago, and came up with various answers. We can be fairly sure that bin Laden's Muslim listeners�the people he was addressing�picked up the allusion immediately and appreciated its significance. In 1918, the Ottoman sultanate, the last of the great Muslim empires, was finally defeated�its capital, Constantinople, occupied, its sovereign held captive, and much of its territory partitioned between the victorious British and French Empires. The Turks eventually succeeded in liberating their homeland, but they did so not in the name of Islam but through a secular nationalist movement."

Lewis' confidence that Pakistani and Egyptian and Iraqi listeners were signifying along with bin L. is odd. Personally, I doubt that there is a lot of moping in Pakistan about the fate of Mehmet VI. And there is something really wierd about the phrase "bin Laden's Muslim listeners" -- so odd that Lewis adds the opaque modifier, the people he was addressing. Because the implication, one congenial to Lewis' mindset, is that all Muslims were grooving on this kind of message. Lewis, however, knows he would be in trouble if he let that cat out of the bag. That bin L.'s intended audience was Muslim, as opposed to Buddhist, Hindu, or Satanist seems certain. Jim Jones' audience, in long ago Guyana, was Christian. Point is, the difference between set and subset, here, is considerable. Now, one might make the argument that it is in the extremes that we see the hidden essence. Sometimes Limited Inc is up for that kind of argument. But it has to be made in order to be made plausible. It is never made by Bernard L.

It is this kind of sloppy extapolating, this hanky panky with generalizations, that drives Bernard L.'s opponent (in heaven and hell and the New York Review of Books), Edward Said, fairly batty. Said counters with a sometimes ineffectual nominalism, saying that Islam isn't one thing. That seems obvious. The deeper problem is that Bernard L.'s generalizations seem to go down so well with his Christian/neo-liberal listeners -- the people he is addressing. So they tranquilly swallow things like this:

"In current American usage, the phrase "that's history" is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns, and, despite an immense investment in the teaching and writing of history, the general level of historical knowledge in our society is abysmally low. The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it. In the nineteen-eighties, during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, both sides waged massive propaganda campaigns that frequently evoked events and personalities dating back as far as the seventh century. These were not detailed narratives but rapid, incomplete allusions, and yet both sides employed them in the secure knowledge that they would be understood by their target audiences�even by the large proportion of that audience that was illiterate. Middle Easterners' perception of history is nourished from the pulpit, by the schools, and by the media, and, although it may be�indeed, often is�slanted and inaccurate, it is nevertheless vivid and powerfully resonant."

Now, Bernie L. might be so far out of the petit bourgeois lifestyle (the one in which Limited Inc was nourished) that he's never gone to church, but if he had, he'd be amazed that Americans are continually refering to things that happened 2000 years ago. Worse, the one trope that Americans recognize from history, that can be used by every evangelist with confidence, has to do with the fall of the Roman empire -- which happened before the seventh century. It is referred to in rapid, incomplete allusions, but the empire is always thought to have fallen because of some special depravity of the Romans that the Americans are repeating. You don't, however, hear a lot of American commentators making much of our vivid and revanchist sense of this history, and what it says about our culture. In the same way that these thinkers don't often allude to the anti-scientific attitude that consistently shows up in polls -- only a minority of Americans believe in evolution, and stadiums full of them believe we all arrived on this planet six thousand years ago. If we took our survey of what America was like from your average AM radio sunday sermon, it would be a misconceived image indeed. Cultures contain contradictions. Lewis, however, thrives off describing Islam as if it were all one thing -- one horrid consistency, slice through it how you will. And this is what makes me rather avoid the man.

Well, I imagine the friend who asked for this post will not be happy with it. Limited Inc does try to please, but so often we simply... fail.

Fame and consequences

Limited Inc doesn't understand celebrity, but we suspect that celebrity culture and modern forms of tyranny -- the personality cult, the panopticon corporation, the junta with the franchise torture chambers -- are related to each other in numerous unmentionable ways, joined in dark hallways and needle strewn toilet stalls. Obviously, at this site we are doing our best to remain obscure, so that we don't have this problem.

The Observer, Sunday, had a series of articles about modern celebrity. Some were trite -- for instance, this idea that Lord Byron was the first modern celebrity, which gets bandied about like a truism, just doesn't seem to be true. Marie Antoinette, who figured as a woman of capacious orifices and voracious sexual appetite in innumerable little street pamphlets in the 1780s, was a celebrity of the Britney Spears type. And what about Werther? Although a fictional character, he was a celebrity of the Harry Potter type -- that is, becoming known for being known. I've never read, and will never read, a Harry Potter book, yet I recognize the little boy face and the glasses instantly.

But to get to the dirty, Stalinistic heart of the star maker machinery, read this piece in the Observer by Lynn Barber.

Here are a couple grafs:

"The commonest demand is for copy approval - which means they want to see the article before publication and delete anything they don't like. In other words, power of censorship. Then there is picture approval - same idea, where the celebs get to choose which photos can be published and which can't. Robert Redford's press office used to put out 'instructions to picture editors' about where his photographs should be retouched - 'the wrinkled area between his lower lip and chin', 'the veins on his nose', 'the area around the throat and neck'.

Then there is 'writer approval' - the chosen weapon of top Hollywood PR Pat Kingsley. She simply bans any writers who ever write anything nasty about one of her clients from ever interviewing any of her clients again. I got the black spot from Kingsley years ago when I interviewed Nick Nolte for Vanity Fair. He didn't like the tone of my questions and Kingsley pulled the plug, before I'd even written a word. Of course, Vanity Fair could have defied her and published my interview anyway - but then where would it have got its future cover stars? (Kingsley's power increased further still last year when her company PMK merged with Huvane Baum Halls, previously a rival outfit in entertainment publicity. The resulting merger now means that one firm controls access to many of the A-list in Hollywood and Britain, including Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.)"

Of course, this is all silly, right, mein Herr? Except that if you look around you, you will find that newspapers and magazines are full of this stuff -- these celeb stories -- which are admittedly censored. And this censoring is one small part of the culture machinery. To find out why movies mostly stink, check out how they are publicized, and who owns the media of publicity. Check out how Time advertises -- by "reporting' -- entertainment that AOL-Time-Warner-Godzilla owns. Monopoly debases, PR cretinizes. The implication for the way we live our lives is dire. Every time Gwyneth Paltrow is interviewed in Vanity Fair, every time Tom Hanks pronounces mindlessly on World War II for an HBO behind the scenes special, a little part of all of us dies. Our only hope is in stalkers and madmen.

Monday, January 28, 2002


According to a NYT article today, Cayman Island hosts more than 400 banks and 47,000 partnerships.

Not to fear, however, upscale reader. The NYT is infinitely understanding of the necessity, in the hot to trot global economy, of such multitudinous activity:

"Although Enron's multitude of partnerships have raised suspicions, officials and executives here said such companies are legitimately used by major corporations to defer taxes, maximize profits or provide a tax-neutral setting for deals involving businesses in two countries with different tax rates. Aircraft deals have become popular here, for example, because the island's stability is acceptable to manufacturers and insurers who worry about the political climate or legal protections of some Third World clients."

Ah, we understand now. If it is about Maximizing profits -- words that issue in thunder from the American exec's lips -- and we must, as the Nine Inch Nails song advises, bow down. One imagines the NYT about building the pyramids: Although Pharaoh Khufu's importation of slaves has raised suspicions of depopulating the Sudan, officials and executives here said that the Sudan was legitimately resourced in order to defer divine wrath, maximize the ruler's ability to proceed efficiently into the afterlife, and provide a working force capability for dangerous tasks unsuited to the court's own, more highly trained servants.

As though to emphasize the essential toothlessness of the criticism of Enron (mustn't let this spill over into criticizing deregulation itself, my god. The mantra must be defended), there's a story on the business page in which many a former consultant for Enron is quoted as to the essential soundness of the Enron business model

"According to experts who consulted for Enron in the field of finance, the company did not necessarily come up with a lot of powerful new ideas. Its strength was in synthesizing existing ideas, which sometimes led to innovative methods.

"They took a lot of finance theory and applied it in the context of their business," said Ramesh K. S. Rao, a professor of finance at the University of Texas who once consulted for Enron. "There was no magic to what they were doing."

Robert L. McDonald, a professor of finance at Northwestern, advised Enron on the use of derivatives from 1993 to 1995. He said the company needed advanced financial tools to price its derivatives, which specified energy products to be delivered at various times and sites while demand was uncertain. "That's a hard problem, so they were probably breaking some new ground trying to deal with that," he said. "It's the kind of thing that's easy to describe and may be hard to do."

Now, Limited Inc is a simple yokel, but isn't the question of expertise rather begged, here? Perhaps the experts that consulted for Enron displayed, in their spectacular bad judgment about what constitutes a good corporation, something like, well, in-expertise. It is a little like quoting professors of Marxist-Leninism who 'consulted' for the Soviet Union. And perhaps the interest of this group in maintaining an unregulated derivatives market should, uh, make us wonder whether this is the group of experts we want to turn to about Enron. The old excuse for the absense of oversight with regard to derivatives, hedge funds, and the like, is that these are games played by the rich exclusively for the rich. Why regulate, the story goes, when we are talking about multi-millionaires, who can take care of themselves? The problem with that argument is that it makes a bogus assumption: the money of the super-rich does not effect the rest of us. Well, it does. When the hedge fund of the super-rich borrows money from a bank, it automatically effects the clientele of the bank. When a trading company engages in rash energy derivatives trading that, for a brief time, brings about sharp increases in energy prices (California), it effects all the end users of energy. The excuse that somehow, high risk derivatives are separate from the rest of the economy, is threadbare. My brother told me that he listened to some Frontline last year, in which Kenny Boy Lay was interviewed, and that his impression was that Enron was pure evil. Limited Inc mentions this because we've talked to a person who works in the business school at UT who essentially said the same thing about listening to a talk given by some Enron exec about 'commodifying' water. These visceral responses register something important about the violation of a communal sense of decency -- a violation that expert consultants encourage, numb to this communal sense, which they dismiss as Luddite, or as out-group primitivism. Well, Limited Inc takes its stand with the hold-outs, the last adapters, the ones who resist. So there.

Sunday, January 27, 2002


"There is a sense in which, if you chafe at the present complacently 'liberal' consensus, the reputation of Isaiah Berlin stands like a lion in your path," wrote Christopher Hitchens in an almost perfect takedown of that reputation a couple of years ago in The London Review. Sadly, the essay is unavailable on the Net, so I am quoting from Ignatieff's refutation in the Guardian. There's a recent demonstration of Berlin's general mediocrity in the New Republic -- a letter to George Kennan, no less, mandarin to mandarin communication, which we acolytes and students tremble in our boots to hear. Words of the mighty, man. Shall I excerpt, reader? Here is an example of country and western music masquerading as philosophy:

"...you say (and I am not quoting) that every man possesses a point of weakness, an Achilles' heel, and by exploiting this a man may be made a hero or a martyr or a rag. Again, if I understand you correctly, you think that Western civilisation has rested upon the principle that, whatever else was permitted or forbidden, the one heinous act which would destroy the world was to do precisely this--the deliberate act of tampering with human beings so as to make them behave in a way which, if they knew what they were doing, or what its consequences were likely to be, would make them recoil with horror and disgust. The whole of the Kantian morality (and I don't know about Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims and high-minded atheists believe it) lies in this; the mysterious phrase about men being "ends in themselves," to which much lip-service has been paid, with not much attempt to explain it, seems to lie in this: that every human being is assumed to possess the capacity to choose what to do, and what to be, however narrow the limits within which his choice may lie, however hemmed in by circumstances beyond his control; that all human love and respect rests upon the attribution of conscious motives in this sense; that all the categories, the concepts, in terms of which we think about and act towards one another--goodness, badness, integrity and lack of it, the attribution of dignity or honour to others which we must not insult or exploit, the entire cluster of ideas such as honesty, purity of motive, courage, sense of truth, sensibility, compassion, justice; and, on the other side, brutality, falseness, wickedness, ruthlessness, lack of scruple, corruption, lack of feelings, emptiness--all these notions in terms of which we think of others and ourselves, in terms of which conduct is assessed, purposes adopted--all this becomes meaningless unless we think of human beings as capable of pursuing ends for their own sakes by deliberate acts of choice--which alone makes nobility noble and sacrifices sacrifices. "

This sounds better on the jukebox than as an argument. The capacity to choose what to do, followed by the modifying "however narrow the limits within which his choice may lie," has that nice yodeling affect, like the honking of a truck going down the foggy road, leaving a diner. But if you are the coldhearted type (stick a thermometer in Limited Inc's heart and register that 32 degrees fahrenheit, baby), you might wonder what on earth this is supposed to mean. Where are those limits coming from, for one thing? Other choices? and the phrase about all human love and respect -- really? Love seems to me to be, to say the least, a problematic emotion to link to the capacity for choice -- are determinists really bad lovers? in fact, in the vocabulary of love, fate has featured for a long time, at least since the Troubadors, as a figure, an intensifier appropriate to the headiness of the sensual flow. Love obviously has a broader definition than is encompassed by describing Abelard's passion for Heloise - there's love of country, there's love of one's kids, etc. Still, Berlin's phrase has that coercive aura -- not a truth, but whatever it is, don't disagree with it, at the risk of being considered a bastard.

But Berlin gets more lachrymose, and more incoherent, as he goes on. Here he is commenting on Hegel and Marx:

"All this [the praise of our choicemaking volk] may seem an enormous platitude, but, if it is true, this is, of course, what ultimately refutes utilitarianism and what makes Hegel and Marx such monstrous traitors to our civilisation. When, in the famous passage, Ivan Karamazov rejects the worlds upon worlds of happiness which may be bought at the price of the torture to death of one innocent child, what can utilitarians, even the most civilised and humane, say to him? After all, it is in a sense unreasonable to throw away so much human bliss purchased at so small a price as one--only one--innocent victim, done to death however horribly--what after all is one soul against the happiness of so many? Nevertheless, when Ivan says he would rather return the ticket, no reader of Dostoevsky thinks this cold-hearted or mad or irresponsible; and although a long course of Bentham or Hegel might turn one into a supporter of the Grand Inquisitor, qualms remain."

This reading of Hegel is ludicrous, and derives more from Bertrand Russell's caricature of the guy in his History of Philosophy than any coming to grips with the passages re Antigone in the Phenomenology of Mind. And a closer reading of Ivan would rather complicate Berlin's scenario, since Ivan in the end simply holds the ticket, so to speak, chosing not to act when Karamazov pere is murdered. Of course, the father is no innocent, and that for the Berlin type, always transmitting sentimentality into necessity and the law of human nature, makes all the difference. It shouldn't for grown-ups.

Campaign finance reform. Lives there a man with heart so dead, that to himself he has not said, I don't give a good goddamn about campaign reform? It is the kind of issue favored by newspaper editors, and the H.L. Mencken part of my heart already finds that suspicious or, what is worse, laughable. On the other hand, my hero, Ralph Nader, loves it. So why does Limited Inc feel mal de mer every time the subject comes around?

It isn't that we think campaigns can't be regulated. Politics is a market, and markets are necessarily subject to regulation of one kind or another, as previous posts have abundantly announced. Our idea is that, before we talk about amounts of money, we talk transparency. Transparency is a condition for understanding just how the market works -- and that primitive condition is still not met in politics. We think that disclosure laws that would force politicians who vote for, say, softening laws on tax havens, to list those contributors to their campaigns who might benefit from such votes would be a nice start. This is easier to do now than every before -- computers could easily match lists of contributors to votes which effect contributors. The kind of accounting Enron encouraged is the kind that goes on in D.C. every day -- with lobbyists acting as secret partners, and the trades being in bill writing, an art that exists at one remove from pick pocketing.

And another thing. There should definitely be firewalls between working for the guv and working for lobbying groups. That Wendy Gramm could quit heading the Commodity futures trade commission and blithely skip to a job at Enron should, obviously, be illegal. Corporations do this all the time -- they hire their head management honchos with clauses in their contracts specifying that the person hired is not allowed to work for a competitor for a certain period if the person quits. Government contracts for people who have the power that Ms. Gramm had should simply have the same wording.

But as for thinking that campaign finance reform will produce less bribed executive, legislative and judicial branches -- the politics of bribery begins with the composition of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. These folks have been ideologically bribed long before they fill their pockets with lucre. Who do they know? Who do they talk to? They know and talk to the most privileged. Most politicos, in their mothers' wombs, were already stewing in the greed, the overbearing self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, the slickness, that makes them what they are to mankind -- a species of Cain somehow come among us to rule over us with cliches, windiness, and that vile slogan in their hearts, am I my brother's keeper?

Okay, Limited Inc is going too far. Invective is one vector into fascism, and we have noted that, lately, we have tended to the intemperate. A-and we certainly prefer yahoos to Houyhnhnms when it comes to picking masters. But the point is: in politics as in any other area of life, rules are no substitute for content. The alienation of the great middle mass of Americans, struggling with credit cards, love, family, hope, labor and all the rest of it, has been built up from over two decades of the state's relentless war against its weakest members, and to do something about that, we need, well, the politics of content, not the politics of process.

That said, there is comic potential in the upcoming house fight about campaign reform. Common Cause, a sturdy soldier in this endless war, has published a nice survey of upcoming legislative follies. Here, for instance, is an addendum to the campaign finance bill sponsored by some Ohio republican named Ney:

The Ney bill purports to cap, rather than ban, soft money at $75,000 per corporate, union, or individual donor per party committee per year. Because both of the political parties have three national committees, a single donor could give $225,000 in soft money to the party of their choice each year. The same donor could, as many donors do, decide to give to both parties - and Ney-Wynn would allow one donor to give $450,000 if they spread their contributions around in $75,000 increments to the six national party committees. In a two-year cycle then, any corporation, labor union, or wealthy individual could give $900,000 in soft money in an election cycle.

But the Ney bill only proposes this so-called "cap" for the national party committees, and would encourage donors to give unlimited amounts of soft money to state party committees which would be free, under Ney, to launder this money into any federal election.

Under Ney-Wynn bill, a single donor could give $900,000 to the parties in an election cycle, and then give unlimited amounts to a state party committees if allowed by state law. By encouraging donors to steer excess soft money to state party committees, Ney-Wynn has the added negative effect of making it harder to have full disclosure of exactly who is funding a particular candidate's campaign. And unlike Shays-Meehan, the Ney bill would let federal officials - like the President, Vice President, or any Member of Congress - solicit any of this soft money personally."