“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, March 08, 2002

Remora

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.


That was, indeed, a curious incident, for those who have ears to hear (that there is nothing to hear) and eyes to see (that there is nothing to see). Well, campers, consider the curious incidents that await us in today's newspaper. One headline says, The surprise recovery is here. America is in great shape, happy days are here again, and Bushiepoo has avoided the curse of the house of Bush, which, before, has always gloomily exuded recession around its slimy walls. But what is this, Watson? Chap says Japan in deep recession, make that depression, with an incredible 4.5 percent drop in GDP. Curious. The stats the Financial Times packs into its first graf are heart stoppers:


"Japan's economy shrank in the fourth quarter of last year on falling exports and a plunge in capital spending, nudging the country into its longest recession since 1993, official data showed on Friday. Gross domestic product contracted 1.2 per cent in real terms between October and December compared with the previous quarter, and 4.5 per cent on an annualised basis. A 12 per cent drop in business investment undermined the benefits of an increase in consumer spending. "

On to today's mystery theater: why don't Japan's numbers bug us?

Perhaps, and here I am flying blind, it has to do with our decades long failure to pierce the Japanese market. This long deplored situation, in which the Japanese craftily avoid our meaty, beaty American products, stimulates periodic choler among our politicos, and the news story about some fantastically expensive thing in Japan that is cheap as water in Omaha and that we could be providing them with if only they didn't protect their farmers, retailers, industry, whatever. And this is a continuing scandal and a stumbling block to free traders. What free traders don't say, however, is that when the global economy is inter-connected, economic contagion is necessarily provided with routes to spread faster than if the global economy is, well, less inter-connected. Clearly, if the US economy depended on exporting to Japan, we would be in deep trouble. And we might well be in trouble with this recovery anyway. And -- to continue backpedalling - if we simulate an economy in which trade barriers with Japan had fallen, and the US was happily trading away with the Japanese, perhaps this kind of activity would re-compose our economy in such a way that its present state would be so different from its current state as to be unpredictible. All clever hypotheses, Watson. But the fact remains, Japan's troubles, so far, have left the U.S. relatively untouched. Given the extent of Japanese investment in this country, and given the size of the Japanese economy, the fact that Japan is doing a Titanic without sucking us into its wake is a mystery. I don't see any of the free traders out there, or the globalists, explaining it.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Remora

The Enlightenment was a great age for sympathy. The whole Scottish school, from Hume to Adam Smith, had spotted sympathy floating about in the culture and gone -- aha! Because the cultural sea, according to the best authorities, consisted of self interest -- wave after wave of the stuff -- so the question was, why was there morality at all? Sympathy was a respectable escape from self interest, without wholly being an escape. Besides, there is, in this idea, an agreeable dependence on some kind of narration. In fact, this moral elevation of sympathy surely fed into the later nineteenth century fascination with stories. First comes the moralist, then the novelist.

Hume, for instance, in his treatise on Human Nature, has this to say:

"We may begin with considering a-new the nature and force of sympathy. The minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations, nor can any one be actuated by any affection, of which all others are not, in some degree, susceptible. As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget correspondent movements in every human creature. When I see the effects of passion in the voice and gesture of any person, my mind immediately passes from these effects to their causes, and forms such a lively idea of the passion, as is presently converted into the passion itself. In like manner, when I perceive the causes of any emotion, my mind is convey�d to the effects, and is actuated with a like emotion. Were I present at any of the more terrible operations of surgery, �tis certain, that even before it begun, the preparation of the instruments, the laying of the bandages in order, the heating of the irons, with all the signs of anxiety and concern in the patient and assistants, wou�d have a great effect upon my mind, and excite the strongest sentiments of pity and terror. No passion of another discovers itself immediately to the mind. We are only sensible of its causes or effects. From these we infer the passions: And consequently these give rise to our sympathy."


Well, the NYT reports today on the terrible operations of modeling, and it is a nice little parable of the arousal of passion followed by its diminishment -- the limits of sympathy are the limits of my bank account, might be the moral. This week, as my trendy readers will surely know, is a great week for fashion in Milan -- one of the supreme rites, one of the ceremonies that holds together the universe. Guy Trebay, the NYT reporter, filed this account of an incident they should teach in intro to ethics:

"Midway through the Gucci show on Saturday, a young British model, Michelle DeSwarte, made her first exit, as entrances at fashion shows are called. She got about two-thirds of the way down the runway and staggered dramatically on a pair of four-inch heels before her ankles gave way."

The stumble created Humean gasps in the audience. We presume that a lot of mass infering was going on. It was the infering of an inference, if embarrassment be considered not a first level pain, but a second level pain -- a sort of sympathy with oneself. So it was already an intellectual effort, rather like reading a postmodern novel.

Hume was a man of abridged expectations. He did not expect the best from the human beast, and he was rarely disappointed. The effort of sympathy, its prolongation, is rather like reading to the end of a tedious story -- something we might do with some effort, once we have begun, but that very few will do if the tedium mounts too high (excepting us poor reviewers, who then attack -- our sympathy beyond eroded, actually transformed into malignancy). Well, our stumbling model stumbled again:

"Bret Easton Ellis pointed out in his novel "Glamorama" that, in objective terms, a model's job is not all that complicated. You have to look good and have the capacity to walk. Slick floors, fur rugs and weird and ill-fitting shoes are standard occupational hazards. All the same, people understand that things can go wrong. The reaction when Ms. DeSwarte fell the first time was mainly sympathetic. When she made a second exit and again crumpled to the runway, there was a widespread assumption among the spectators that they were watching a professional suicide."

Don't let it happen to you twice. The general sentiment from an audience a good third of whom have surely been treated, somewhere along the way, for addiction to one or another of our favorite candies. Isn't this, isn't this ... beautiful? The state of play of class relations emblematized in the stumble of a model in four inch heels. That is a lot of heel. Limited Inc is moved.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Remora

WP does the "on the one hand, on the other hand" kinda story (the tergiversations of moderation, as the late Barry Goldwater might have said) about the proposed drilling of the Arctic Refuge. The environmentalists and the Oil Reich, the message is, are both pulling fast ones. Under the headline, Some Facts Clear In the War of Spin Over Arctic Refuge,

Michael Grunwald plays the honest referee, whistle a-blowin'. But the article turns out to be spin for that most dangerous of media vices -- Middle-ism. The media loves to think the truth is in the middle. Sometimes, as with donuts, this is a big mistake -- since the middle is approximately nothing. A big zip. And the more you stand for the big zip, the further from reality you are.

Here's the truth. It is simple. The Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, has spent her whole life working to moderate, or decimate, environmental laws and regulations. She has never shown any park management skills. She has never demonstrated even an aesthetic appreciation for Nature. The spirit of the Interior department is foreign to her. There was no strong opposition to her because the Clinton era had a fatal, relaxing effect upon Democratic spine. Since she was appointed, she has dedicated her time to shilling for the Oil Reich. This is what you get when you have a man who was was appointed to his post - GWB, the Supreme Court President -- appointing career environmental hoodlums to environmentally sensitive posts. But this isn't the way the WP frames the issue:

"Ultimately, most Americans don't know the details of this intricate debate; they've just seen a few pretty pictures of the refuge. And even those pictures, as Klee suggested last spring, can be misleading. They often show ANWR's majestic Brooks Range, which will be preserved as wilderness regardless of the Senate's decision. They often show the refuge in springtime, when the landscape is lush but drilling would be forbidden.

So last Wednesday, Norton mailed the nation's network and cable news anchors a videotape � supplied by Arctic Power, a pro-drilling lobbying group in Alaska � showing the coastal plain in wintertime, with no polar bears or caribou running around.It looks white. It looks blustery. It looks flat.It looks kind of ugly."

One gets the feeling that "most Americans" doesn't include the ever sly Michael Grunwald. So why is it that we aren't treated to his personal experience of the Alaska coast? Well, for a reporter who is slicing and dicing the spin baloney, nothing in the piece indicates that his own two eyes have been laid, like in temps vecu, upon the controversial shores. His piece rightly accords to the greens a correct estimate of the amount of oil to be gotten from the Refuge -- not the 10.3 billion barrels estimated by the Oil R.'s minions, but 3.6 -- and points out that that is 60 billion dollars worth of oil. So what? The enviro point is that 3.6 billion gallons aren't going to make the U.S. energy independent, the justification for drilling in the Arctic Refuge -- and on that point there's no spin. The "facts' are clear. Grunwald doesn't go for the point, doing a little spin himself about the modern, efficient oil biz, not at all like that clunky infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay. And then there comes this wee kicker:

"Still, there will be impacts. Oil infrastructure damages tundra and vegetation even when it doesn't spill; and at Prudhoe Bay, there has been an average of a spill a day, mostly small, but totaling 1.5 million gallons of toxic materials since 1995. In the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Anchorage, the Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether 350 toxic spills from oil fields have contributed to an abnormal number of deformed frogs."

Limited Inc likes the diminuendo at the end of the graf. The deformed frogs. Because here we have another issue entirely, we have another eco-system entirely, and the Enviro point is about the entire system. So Grunwald's graf is itself spinning for the Middle, until it spins right over the facts that are clear in the case. Instead of asking the obvious question: where does that 1.5 million gallons of toxic materials in 6 years go?

Michael Grunwald won a prize last year from a conservation outfit. Maybe his rather misleading spin article (his point about the environmentalists boil down to, they are telling the truth, but they are interpreting the truth environmentally -- that's spin?) is D.C. payback.

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

Remora

"The soul, being eternal, after death is like a caged bird that has been released. If it has been a long time in the body, and has become tame by many affairs and long habit, the soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world. The worst thing about old age is that the soul's memory of the other world grows dim, while at the same time its attachment to things of this world becomes so strong that the soul tends to retain the form that it had in the body. But that soul which remains only a short time within a body, until liberated by the higher powers, quickly recovers its fire and goes on to higher things."

This is from one of Plutarch's letters. We're thinking about Plutarch this morning. The consolatory vision expressed in that letter casts a different light on biography as a genre. If one soul can exist, serially, in a number of bodies, life's accidents among the troubles of this world becomes representative of something behind the life, some one prolonged thing. The biographical seismograph charts, within its variations and seeming contingencies, the wanderings of a spirit for whom variations and contingencies are distinctly secondary, through a comic throng of masks. By producing parallel lives of the Greeks and the Romans, Plutarch is looking for hints, cries and whispers, the secret joke, the code of that rare stuff, that metaphysical Puck, the Great One and Oneness, in its two main falls into history.

Well, Limited Inc is not the Platonist Plutarch was. However, we do like the idea that lives give us points of orientation for the spirit of the age. We were reminded of this today when reading an interview with Dr. Callum Roberts in the NYT (No, really, incredulous reader, we were. Plutarch is always on our mind, just like Georgia's on Ray Charles' mind. We don't know why).

Roberts is a marine biologist who has become, as he says, the kind of scientist that didn't exist when he was a young man: a conservation biologist. As such, he works to conserve fish and the environment of fish. Well, that's hard work, especially given the attitude of fish em all and let God sort em out that prevailed in the 90s. He makes that point in the interview:

"The history of the problem is this: in the 1970's and 1980's as shallow- water fish got into trouble from overexploitation, the fishing industry worldwide began looking to the deep sea as virgin territory to work. By going to sea mounts (undersea elevations) and canyons that had never been trawled before, people were able to take huge catches � thousands of pounds in only a few minutes.Then, in the 1990's, after the cold war ended, military technology developed for underwater spying and sea floor imaging became available for civilian use. Thanks to multibeam sonars, sea floor mapping, and positioning systems, fishermen could suddenly exploit deep underwater terrains that previously had been unknown."

Robert has helped create fish sanctuaries, and has recently made the claim that virtue is not only its own reward, but rewards unworthy others, as far as fish are concerned:


"The research [Robert's research] into this controversial area is published in the journal Science (today, 30 November 2001), and examines the evidence that marine reserves, in which fish species are conserved, improve fish stocks in neighbouring areas. The research, centred on marine reserves in St Lucia and Florida, suggests not only that more fish appear in reserves following protection, but that they are also larger. They produce more offspring than exploited populations, and those offspring are exported to fishing grounds by ocean currents. There is also a spillover of adult fish migrating from the reserves as protected stocks build.
"

Robert's interview in the NYT won't change the minds of many regarding the cuter qualities of fish -- he seems to find the critters adorable -- since to experience fish as Robert experiences fish, you have to don your wetsuit and dive miles and miles from shore.

Our parallel to Roberts is an oily pseudo-conservationist, one Thor Lassen. Mr. Lassen has become the Whole Food's favorite conservationist, because Mr. Lassen's group eases Whole Food's conscience about shrimp, salmon, and the dripping edibles that Whole Food would like to purvey to your upper middle class consumer. Mr. Lassen is the alpha and omega of an organization called Ocean Trust. According to an admiring portrait of the man in Sea Food Business, Ocean Trust arose from some loose change flung at Lassen by the seafood companies:

"Ocean Trust�s annual budget in 1999 was $253,000, raised through donations from seafood companies, grants and marketing partnerships. In the day-to-day work of running a business, it�s difficult to keep on top of scientific reports about where the problems are and what should be done about them. That�s what Lassen does. "

Before becoming a conservationist as a result of such munificence, Lassen was a lobbyist. Lassen's character became, briefly, the focus of a fire fight between Whole Foods and Earth Island Institute in 1999. That year, the CEO of Whole Foods talked down EII because he claimed that Earth Island Instititute was guilty of negativism regarding shrimp. Yes, the folks at EII had the gall to consider boycotting shrimp harvests that endangered the habitats of the Sea Turtle in the Caribbean. So Whole Foods shopped around for a more compliant conservation group that would label its shrimp eco-friendly. Here's a rather hostile portrait of the Lassen, Whole Food's eventual choice for eco-friendly arbiteur, from Earth Island Journal:

"NFI [National Fisheries Institute] also founded Ocean Trust, a faux-green group run by Thor Lassen, a former NFI lobbyist. The group's stated mission is to "enhance the productivity of the marine environment as a source of food." Its biggest donor is the Long John Silver's seafood chain.Most frontline environmental workers have never worked with Ocean Trust, yet the group representing itself as having expertise in sea turtle conservation. Ocean Trust distributes expensive educational materials and videos that shift blame for sea turtle deaths away from the shrimp industry (although the US National Academy of Sciences identifies the industry is the primary human-related cause of these deaths). Ocean Trust's website links directly to NFI's web page and many NFI press releases quote Lassen.Ocean Trust is focusing on US/Mexican efforts to save the critically endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico near Rancho Nuevo. Based on a very recent infusion of aid - a minute fraction of industry profits - the seafood industry is taking credit for more than 30 years of conservation work."

Ocean Trust's website is a "rich and strange" product of the sea. Its banners proclaim a happy green message about protecting the Sea Turtle, but it wastes no time getting to the main subject: nasty enviro exaggeration about the world state of fisheries. To make its points, it employs the pitiful jargon of the industry, along with industry statistics. Lassen's prose brings back the Vietnam era, in which the Military in Saigon was always proclaiming victory through better body counts. Here's the man on Sea floor damage:

"Much of the recent reports from environmental groups have focused on the impacts of fishing on the environment. The continued productivity productivity of sea clams and scallops harvested with dredges and shrimp, flatfish and other bottom species caught with trawls casts legitimate concern of the highly inflamed claims of ocean floor damage from fishing. We are just starting to learn whether gear has harmful or beneficial impacts like nutrient resuspension."

Ah, we are just starting to learn about the wonderful effects of littering the ocean with those one hundred yard trawler nets! Nutrient resuspension is a term that would turn one of Georgie Porgie Bush's speechwriter's green with envy. Redescribing litter in this way has a poetry, a fairy tale charm, all its own.

This is starting out to be Lassen's decade. Surely it is time to launch the phrase, compassionate environmentalist, meaning compassion should extend to fishery companies and their many employees. Surely we are going to hear that phrase echo from the Bush Administration. Nutrient resuspension will follow, soon after.

Life and rhetoric, folks. That's what we are all about.

Monday, March 04, 2002

Remora
The Colombia business.

Colombia seems especially cursed by fantasy. The Spanish, the English, all its earlier explorers and ravishers, were pressed forward by a crazy vision of El Dorado -- that story came from reports of Indians in Colombia. El Dorado is not defunct. It has simply changed to something you smoke or put up your nose -- our fantasy, their product, and our fantasy of protecting ourself against their product. There are many logics to the drug war, but they are all oddly divorced from the ostensible purpose of it. For thirty years the US has fought against the statistical norm of drug use within a population able to afford its tastes, and every year (surprise!) it loses. However, in war, loss is sometimes gain. The structure that fights the war, now, exerts a considerable economic pull, from the prison industry out there in the hinterlands, employing former dairy farmers, to the exciting world of rent-a-cops.

The war in Colombia is multi-purpose, and the politics of left and right have long ago been hollowed out by bloodlust, revenge, power plays, and fantasies more reminiscent of the night-battles recorded by Italian historian Ginzberg than anything else in modern politics. Ginzberg's book shows how the inquisition took a group of Friulian peasants who thought of themselves as supernatural witch fighters, appointed to leave their sleeping bodies and engage in battles with evil spirits during certain ritually significant times, and slowly cast them in the role of supporters of the devil, until they actually changed the self image of these people - the benandati.

The night battles in Colombia have undergone a similar dialectical alchemy. Every drug-dealer eventually becomes a populist, and every policeman eventually becomes a drug dealer. The government acts like pirates, and the pirates act like the government. This has long ceased to be a country, and become Walpurgisnacht.

So here's a sad piece in the LA Times about it:


"Soldiers and military police were already a part of life here. They inspected bags and purses at bus stations, stood guard at bridges and overpasses and patrolled street corners. Violence, too, was a fact of life. One night late last fall, I arrived at a party where the guests were abuzz. Just before my arrival, the building's night watchman had rushed into the apartment of the party's hostess and started shooting from her window at a suspicious looking man who had just stolen a gun from him. The guests dropped to the floor until the shooting ended, then resumed their conversations. But until last week, the danger and the military presence were part of the background. The culture had learned to live with a constant, low-level hum of violence. Now the volume of the conflict is once again a piercing cry.

As I sat and watched the tanks and then the truckloads of soldiers pass on the street below early on the morning of Feb. 21, I thought of my father. Fifty years earlier he watched as the very street I was looking at became a battleground. The violence that time around flared up after a charismatic political leader was killed outside his office in downtown Bogota. His murder plunged the country into a bloody war between conservatives and liberals that later became known simply as La Violencia. Some 200,000 died and many of those who remained behind became actors in the wars to come."

Limited Inc's first sympathies are with rebels. But we can apply to the rebels of Colombia a phrase used by da Silva and Gall in an essay on police abuse in Brazil: the rebels suffer from perverse incentives.

"We define perverse incentives as the devices of law and custom rewarding behavior that undermines the stated purpose of institutions. Perverse incentives divert resources and motivation from local police responsibilities for preventing crime into bloated bureaucracies and swollen units of shock troops inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties."

The institutionalization of rebellion in Colombia has turned the liberating impulse into a territorial one. Territory is now defined by terror -- one side or the other wins by terrorizing a significant section of the population.

Point is: down, down, down we go. This is not a country to which we should dispatch a billion dollars in military "aid" without, uh, thinking about it. But of course the U.S. has never allowed the irrationality and sheer cruelty of its programs to impede their implementation in the South.