“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

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Remora.

The addict returns to the needle. The pyromaniac returns to the flame. And LI returns, every Saturday, to Edward Rothstein's column in the Times -- a column in which erudition and ignorance perpetually arm-wrestle, with ignorance, in the end, generally getting the best of it.

So it is with his column, today, which makes a self-referential detour through his column of September 22, 01. In that column, Rothstein, deciding that 9/11 was unprecedented in the whole wide world and seeking to bring this to the attention of the educated public, used the attack as a stick to attack post-modernism and relativism. Relativists, apparently, had never heard of Bosnia, Rwanda, the slaughter of millions in Sudan, Bangla Desh, the Iran-Iraqi war, Eritrea, Biafra, Cambodia, the Great Leap forward, South Africa, the dirty war in Argentina, the military takeover of Brazil, El Salvador, and other of the various blots of the last thirty years. But the destruction of 3,000 lives in the World Trade Center, maybe they would look up from their relativizing and remark on that. Is generally the idea, I guess. So, seeing an opening, the ever eager Stanley Fish jumped to the defense of postmodernism. In all the venues, lately, from NYT Op Eds to Atlantic magazine. Prompting Rothstein to go back to the topic.

LI watches with the usual mixture of awe and abhorrence as Rothstein�s fashions his points. Rothstein is not the man to go to for an account of 20th century philosophy, since he is apparently ignorant of the debate over truth in the 20th century that enlisted such figures as Carnap and Tarski. That this debate long preceeded post-modernism also seems unclear to the guy. The problem, as Rothstein puts it in one of his ursine phrases -- watching the man struggle with philosophical concepts is like watching a bear juggle fireworks -- is that postmodernists don't believe in the "existence" of objective truth.

Now, this view of truth as an existent was challenged a little earlier than 1966. It was, for instance, challenged by Kant. It was challenged when Aristotle objected to Platonic forms. And the objections have generally carried the day. Truth, as the logical positivists like to put it, was a function of the truth table. There isn't a further thing, "truth," which mixes in with a statement like "Roses are red" to make roses red. If this is really Rothenstein's position, he is welcome to it -- but I don't believe he has the philosophical tools to defend it, and I don�t believe he knows how much ground has been covered since Socrates was a pup.

What he means, no doubt, is that "Roses really are red." His opponent, the relativist, is an unclear beast in Rothstein's eyes, but Rothstein thinks that's the guy who says, you only think Roses are red. But X thinks roses are blue. And there's no way of deciding between the two of you. So can�t we all just get along?

Rothstein immediately ties this together with the idea that there is a transcendental ethical point of view. In other words, the truth is not only an existent, in his view, but is morally buttressed. Well, this is a possible point of view, but it seems to deviate from the usage of truth in such cases as �Roses are red is true.� Just as that usage doesn�t make the truth horticultural, there�s no reason to think that �thou shalt not commit adultery is true� makes the truth moral. Rather, it asserts a true claim for a moral judgment. Perhaps Rothstein is thinking that the moral judgment, you should tell the truth, makes the truth some part of his transcendental ethical point of view. Now, being more generous to the guy, I could see how you could make the case that between saying, there is such a thing as objective truth and saying, there is such a thing as transcendental ethical values value, this is a community of vision, a world view, if you will. Being a relativist myself, however, I think that what Rothstein really should want to do is preserve truth from being a moral value, period. Otherwise, I think we can generate what I�d call a vulgar relativistic world view. I won�t do that here, but it would involve taking the collapse of ought statements into is statements as a basis for saying that, since we find a plurality of ought statements on the ground, this should mean that in culture X, we can generate Roses aren�t red, and thus roses aren�t really red. To make �roses are red� logically dependent on such statements as �homosexuality is wrong� is the high road to vulgar relativism: when we decide that �homosexuality isn�t wrong,� that is definitely going to effect our gardening. There is a reason, after all, why positivists have striven so hard to adopt a functional neutrality as their default position. See Max Weber for details.

Rothstein's assumption, here, is that relativism entails a sort of wierd communal solipsism. This assumption, I think, rests on one of the tacit premises of American newspaper and academic culture � that there can be perfectly isolated standards, cultures, and subjects, and that respect for them means not engaging in dispute with them. Relativism, however, doesn�t necessarily entail anything like that suburban ethos. The form of relativism I embrace is not that criteria of truth, ex nihilo, exist, but that the construction and destruction of criteria of truth is much like speciation � a process of conflict, provisional collaborations, extinctions, and arm races. It is, in other words, a modification of the Dewey position. And far from being a defense of Western values, the kind of absolute truths Rothstein holds to be self-evident are just those the U.S., in its formative phase, rejected � for the idea that there are two realms, one in which the form of truths are preserved, has historically gone along with a politics of truth preservers that is allergic to the Open Society. Far from being in the American grain, Rothstein�s is an import from Leo Strauss-land � the Eurogrumbling cohort that arose on the right after WWI, but distinguished itself from the vulgarity of fascism as well as the eschatology of leftism. The American grain runs through Emerson and Whitman, rather than Xenophanes and Machiavelli.

Rothstein attack on post-modernism is rather far from the original core idea of post-modernism, which was the claim that the culture � Western culture, if you will, or the culture of globalization � was undergoing a crisis of meta-narratives. Postmodernism started out not as a position to take, but an observation about what was happening in the culture itself. True, it has become a position to take. Rothstein takes it, however, as simply an ideological special interest, one that could be corrected by a few thwacks in the NYT.

LI believes that, contra R., what 9/11 and the current Enronitis indicate is that another meta-narrative � call it globalization � is breaking up. The idea that there is no alternative, which was grooving and moving in the high nineties, looks to be in pretty bad shape, currently. We can distinguish that, as an observation, from the idea that all the alternatives to globo are to be commended. And we can even say, we don�t need a foundation in the absolute for our moral claims, or our truth claims. Wow. In fact, going with the Dewey theme for a second, we�d further claim that the one position left blank in the relativism we advocate is the null set � the idea that we can make no claims about truth or value.

Friday, July 12, 2002

Dope

It is late. I've eaten (pork tenderloin, potatoes, veggie). I've drunk (Shiner Bock). I'm listening to Sari Odalar, which begins with a solitary trumpet, an emblematic jazz flourish calling up every dive from the great Spion days in Istanbul, 42, 52, the Germans, wasn't Ribbentrop the Nazi ambassador there, or was it Franz von Pappen? the Americans, Kim Philby himself for a while, the coupling of that tango culture which was imported in the thirties and notes from way away, black New York, cool jazz of California, those unimaginable shores --and then the trumpet breaks off, Sezen Aksu's voice swells, those marvelous, hypnotic vocals, gramaphone nostalgia for that mythic scene becoming, as she goes on, sad with its own irony, as real and unreal as Turkey was, historically, a marginal site on the border of all that great apocalyptic dread, those slaughterhouse movements of peoples, weapons, wealth. Istambul, where the wires crossed, where the man in silk pajamas in Room no. 8, just down the dark hall, smoked a cigarette and extracted the pieces of a listening device from his battered traveller's bag.

And I'm ready -- Limited Inc is ready -- to return to the ultra-tedious issue of regulation.

In, was it Monday's post? -- one of those posts, we outlined a way of thinking of drugs, guns, murder, washing the car and other goods and services as potential market acts - acts that comprise formal and informal markets. This is of course not the only aspect of them that counts, but for LI, this aspect is the way that liberal democracy hooks into society, so to speak. This is not to buy into the myth that free markets produce liberal democracy -- market economies can coexist with monarchies, dictatorships, and even official Communism -- but liberal democracy has, so far, required markets.

We were trying to get a point across. Before we contemplate bannings, as of guns or heroin or euthanasia, for that matter, we have to understand how the market in these things works. The way the good or service is integrated into a sector of the economy (for instance, is it a good, like asbestos, with mainly industrial uses?), the amount of the good that is potentially available (is it feathers from an endangered bird? or an easily grown plant?), the composition of the market for the good in terms of supply (do suppliers have an incentive to comply with the banning? is the banning such that the suppliers can sell the good to a certain market -- for instance, alcohol to adults -- or sell substitutes? Is there a large demand for the good? Is there a hardcore group within that demand pool who will take extraordinary risks to procure the good?) and finally, whether the enforcement of the banning is going to fall on the police.

It is the last named factor which strikes LI as the most neglected of all in the study of regulation. How good are the police as regulators? How good are they at enforcing bannings?

LI's contention is that they are very bad. There are reasons for this that are classically rooted in the literature on regulation. One of the objections to regulation of an industry on the part of the state is that the agents of the industry have more knowledge of their business than are available to the state. While this knowledge assymetry argument has some holes in it, there is also something to it. In the case of the police, we obviously don't want the police to be good at organizing murder -- but this outside status is going to work against their efficiency in enforcing the ban on murder. We accept a large margin of inefficiency here because the harm of murder outweighs the harm of the inefficiency -- the injury, for instance, to the civil rights of innocent citizens that often ensues in the course of a murder investigation. So if the police are our regulators of last resort, we don't want to abolish them all together. It does mean that before we want to ban a good or service, we should consider whether the police, if the onus of enforcement falls upon the police, are going to be good or bad at doing this regulatory task. And if they are going to be bad at it, whether that harm might not multiply harms in such a way that we are worse off than we were before the ban.
LI claims that this is the case of the total banning of a popular product like marijuana or handguns. And we will at some point attempt to prove our case --well, no, we will merely attempt to make our case plausible. But for tonight, this is enough.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Remora

There is not a single bon-mot, a single sentence in Cobbett that has ever been quoted again. If any thing is ever quoted from him, it is an epithet of abuse or a nickname. He is an excellent hand at invention in that way, and has 'damnable iteration in him.' What could be better than his pestering Erskine year after year with his second title of Baron Clackmarman? -- William Hazlitt

Alan, to whose website, the Gadfly's Buzz, we have referred in a previous post, recently published extracts from another weblogger, Jane Galt, which admonished webloggers to embrace a form of controversial decorum based on reason, not rhetoric. Galt's advice is couched in an irritating, faux motherly tone, like Diamond Li'l collecting charity for out of work girls in a saloon. We object both to the tone and to the advice. Moderation in defense of liberty is no virtue, as Barry Goldwater (or Stephen Hess, his ghostwriter) once said, and we are definitely with Barry on this one. Vituperation, insult, maligning reputations, demagoguery, insinuation, and other of the arts of politics should not be abandoned because they often fall into the hands of amateurs. A.J. Liebling, in his book Earl of Louisiana, was right to prefer Earl Long to his opponents because old Earl was a master of derogation; and right, also, to bemoan the decay of that art. When Earl eviscerated his opponent for being a high dresser and then said, can you imagine those expensive clothes on Uncle Earl? Why, it'd be like puttin' silk socks on a rooster -- we know we are close to the very heart of American politics. Mildness and meakness, reasonableness and politeness, well, this may be the kind of thing that most un-Greek of Greeks, Socrates, went in for, and maybe Walter Lippman too -- but Limited Inc has always been firmly on the side of the rhetors, the sophists, the dealers in paradox, the franc-tireurs of slander, and we see no reason to change sides now.

In fact, this dispute about modes of dispute, and their political effects, is found at the beginning of the modern era of politics. In an ill-written but beautifully informative article published in Studies in Romanticism, Cobbett, Coleridge and the Queen Caroline affair, Tim Fulford (who later integrated this article into a book on masculinity and romanticism) shows how Coleridge and Cobbett, between them, politicized the very styles of argument in the affair of King George IV's divorce. Cobbett had the genius idea of yoking his radical ideas to a Burkean sympathy for Queen Caroline, George IV's poor, put upon wife. Coleridge, however, considered himself the heir to the Burkean rhetorical tradition. In Fulford's view, the contrasting styles reflected authorial decisions about both the referential reach of the audiences that received their writings (in Cobbett's case, massively; in Coleridge's case, punily -- Coleridge was continually stumbling over the hard fact that nobody really wanted to read his Friend, his Lay Sermons, his criticism, they all went tramping back to that damned Ancient Mariner) and the presumed passional composition of the audience --with Cobbett's poorer readers, artisans and the types that liked to throw stones at the windows of Parliment, presumably moved by the "cheap sensationalism" of his writing, and the obviousness and obnoxiousness of his insults; Coleridge's more reasonable high minded audience pondering his quotations of the Greeks in the original Greek -- never mind that the average establishment backbencher was much more likely to appreciate tag end Latin as applied to animal husbandry and underground porn, what, than he was likely to be able to decipher passages from Sophocles over his mulled cider.

But first, long suffering reader -- what is all this about George IV's divorce? Well, George III's heir was a randy bastard. As Fulford explains, "Prince George had married Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, despite having previously married Mrs. Fitzherbert in a private ceremony. After less than a year, he separated from Caroline and never lived with her again. In I 806 he had his wife's sexual propriety examined in what became known as the "delicate investigation." Caroline was cleared by a secret tribunal and their report, despite George's attempts to suppress it, was pirated in "the Book"-to the embarrassment of ministry and Regent."

As always, the British establishment simply bucked its embarrassment and went on it way -- in this case, given the need for the Regent (Prince George was regent due to the madness of his father) to support the war against Napoleon, the establishment tried to get forget that Caroline and her daughter existed. In 1814, she left England. She returned in 1820:

"When George III died... Caroline decided to return to England to claim [her] rights and privileges. Refusing government offers of L50,000 to remain abroad and give up her claim, Caroline landed to popular demonstrations of support. Determined not to allow her access to his coronation or the title "Queen," George had her name removed from the litany of the Church of England. He then caused a reluctant ministry to have Caroline "tried," seeking both to deprive her of her rights as Queen and to divorce her. A jury trial was impossible: George as an adulterer himself had no chance of obtaining a divorce and the country had been outraged when the ministry's offer of :50,000 to the woman they suggested was guilty was published in the press by her supporters. A Bill of Pains and Penalties was brought in the Lords on 5 July, to examine the evidence contained in green bags, supplied by the ministry. The bags contained evidence, gathered by the government's spies, of Caroline's infidelity and immorality. The ministry's case against Caroline hinged upon her supposed "adulterous intercourse" with her courier, Bartolomeo Bergami, to whom she had awarded the title of Knight of the Bath."

Fulford, who is hot on the trail of masculinism and not to be deterred, lets us know, in an aside, that Caroline did not exactly pine chastely for her erring hubbie. The point here, however, is that Cobbett, in a burst of genius, realized that Caroline, scorned, could do for the radical cause what Marie Antoinette, suitably wept over by Burke, did for the anti-Jacobin cause -- it could forge a sentiment to a political scheme. Cobbett, who was a bundle of energy, used his self written weekly paper, the Political Register, to build support for this Regency Princess Diana. He wrote letters in her name to her hubbie, which were published. He organized demonstrations in her favor. He roused up the folk. And he did it by way of scurrilous libels, vile nicknames, and all the tricks of the rhetors trade.

Alas, Cobbett is singularly unrepresented on the Net. To get a taste of him, anyway, you have to accept a lot of Hazlitt's damned iteration -- he makes himself stick by never letting up. The child's trick of repeating his opponents words, making fun of his looks and name, and impugning his parents, are, magnified by Cobbett's command of the English tongue, his principle tools -- weapons against what he called the System. The System was the thing that killed the workers at Peterloo, refused to reinstate habeus corpus (annulled for the duration of the European war), oppressed with onerous taxes the poor landholder and the small businessman, and was always doing vicious things. Cobbett, we should emphasize, is no model liberal -- he was anti-Semitic, he had prejudices against Quakers that are more than a little over the top, and his insults sometimes seem, even now, closer to Eninem than Burke.

I'll continue this post tomorrow.


Monday, July 08, 2002

Remora

Casus Belly-flop

Yes, so far the drums of war, about Iraq, have lacked one of those petty, European features -- namely, a cause. A reason that the U.S. should, at this moment, as Al Qaeda people are oozing between the Pakistani-Afghan border, decide to invade Iraq. The best the Bushite right can do is contained in this op-ed piece by Richard Brookhiser. Brookhiser's argument consists of this:
1. Al Qaeda, by itself, couldn't organize 19 hijackers in the U.S.
2. Thus, another entity organized those hijackers.
3. What entity hates the U.S.
4. Iraq
5. So, the U.S. is quite justified in attacking Iraq.

Wow. The incoherence of this argument makes me dizzy. If, indeed, Al Qaeda couldn't organize the 19 hijackers (organize, here, doesn't mean, well, train these guys in flying. It doesn't even mean any intensive training time. It means getting the hijackers the money to take flying lessons in the U.S., and then getting them to take boxcutters past airport security. That is what it means. Period), then, uh, why did we attack Afghanistan? Or was it the moral support offered by Iraq that gives us cause to make the invasion, and the attack on Afghanistan was a decoy? Brookhiser's explanations of this have to achieve two goals in the Bush apologetic. It has to explain, one, why Bush has so far shown an almost criminal negligence in going after the man, Osama bin Laden (who, according to our peerless leader, isn't, after all, that important. Tell that to the casualties of the WTC. Are these people for real? at least we didn't elect this chucklehead. that's about the best I can say). And then it has to explain why we should sacrifice American casualties going after Saddam Hussein. Here is Brookhiser's fantasy -- a fantasy shared, apparently, by the GOP leadership:

"But all the talk of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda will probably turn out to be a polite fiction. The notion that a fanatical son of a Saudi construction magnate could run a worldwide terror enterprise from Afghanistan or the Sudan, completely unassisted by professionals, is fantastic, isn�t it? If Donald Trump had a bloodthirsty crusader nephew, could he set himself up in the Yukon and successfully plot to destroy the most impressive buildings in Riyadh, if there are any? To be less whimsical: Could the Irish Republican Army blow up Big Ben? Are the Ulster Protestant terrorists capable of torching the Vatican?

Osama bin Laden has imagination and charisma, if you find dream interpretation and Koranic midrash charismatic. But isn�t it likely that he and his network have profited from the help of a government�and not the dirt-poor kakistocrats of Khartoum and Kabul? Who is the obvious candidate, in terms of both resources and grudges? Our intelligence agents have dismissed the report that hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, but the Czechs have not backed down from it. At home, we are looking for a rogue American scientist as the source of last fall�s anthrax letters. But then came the story that one of the 9/11 hijackers checked into a hospital emergency room with lesions that the attending physician now says were consistent with exposure to anthrax. If that is true, where then did Osama bin Laden get his stash? If Saddam Hussein had been living a monk�s life, he would still be a danger, because he�s manufacturing nukes and germs to incinerate and poison Israelis and whoever else displeases him. But his vows of peace may already have been broken."

This is the type of logic used by people who think that Israel was behind the WTC attack. It amazes me that Brookhiser thinks he can get away with, well, this much distortion - this complete distortion -- of everything we have so far assembled about Mohammed Atta and his unmerry men. I'm amazed, I'm amazed... Will Bush' s incompetence in the end-game really be put across with this sham of a narrative? If so, we will certainly pay for it when that silly Osama guy, who it turns out we don't care about any way (uh, yes Mr. President!) or another grass-roots terrorist organization, decides to strike.