“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, April 17, 2004


Part II

LI should have posted a few more links to Danielle Allen in our last post. The London Review of her book on punishment in Athens is particularly rich. Reviewers must tread a path between overreach and mere description. This reviewer maxes out on over-reach, barely getting to Allen’s book at all. Still, it is full of interesting explanations of the Athenian system of punishment -- suggesting, bizarrely, that Athens was less like Jefferson's Virginia than like Mao's China.

Allen's book – The World Of Prometheus – was published by Princeton University Press, which has an excellent policy of publishing chapters from their books on the web. Go here to the first chapter of Allen’s book. We love this intro paragraph:

“One of the most important but least acknowledged features of the modern world is that individuals no longer punish for themselves. By this I do not suggest, as so many have, that over time a dark Dionysiac and ancient age of mad blood vengeance has ceded to an era of rational, legally based state punishment and Apolline brightness. I refer rather to the quite specific fact that the modern age has produced the public prosecutor to replace the lay prosecutor as the person responsible for seeing that wrongdoing is dealt with. In the ancient world the victims of wrongs had to enter into judicial processes in order to prosecute their own cases. The modern age has produced the state representative who acts on behalf of wronged individuals and who is supposed to prosecute impartially, disinterestedly, and dispassionately. The invention of the public prosecutor is a small historical detail--small enough to slip out of most history books--but its consequences have been great and systematic.”

Now, to get back to Allen’s essay.

According to Allen, there is a structural problem in any democracy. While democratic government claims to represent all of the people, governance necessarily involves actions which are to the advantage of some, and to the disadvantage of other, people. The task of governance is to assure the latter group that its specific disadvantages will be so assimilated into greater long term advantages that its sacrifices will not have been in vain. This sets the problem of sacrifice before the disadvantaged group.

For the last hundred and fifty years, sacrifice has been a central anthropological theme, since it seems to indicate that the political economy existed even among peoples with no institutionalized market or state. In one of the most cited and moving passages in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, sacrifice is linked both to the Freudian notion of sublimation and the Marxist problem of how the exploited can be complicit in their own exploitation. For A and H., the image of sacrifice – and the implacable logic that makes every particular sacrifice insufficient – can be glossed from that passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus is lashed to the mast in order to hear the song of the sirens. The song of the sirens, “who know all things that have happened on earth,” embodies the longing for the irretrievable – for what has been surrended in the very constitution of time, which divides itself, for the subject, into the past, present and future. The economy of sacrifice, according to this scenario, pervades our sense of the continuity of the self in time. This is why mourning is that most peculiar of pains – the pain of remembered pleasure. Mourning is the mode through which the sacrificial element in time (conceived as the total connection of the self with itself) is, to use the old Hegelian term, sublated – that is, this is how loss is preserved. A. and H. wrote their book in 1947, as mourners at Europe's funeral. These keeners at the grave have sharp eyes. Here is how they describe the crucial scene in which the ship passes the Sirens:

Its [Civilization’s] way was that of obedience and work, over which shines sensual fulfillment as a semblence, as disenfranchised beauty. Odysseus’ thought, hostile alike to his own death and his own happiness, knows this. He knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to the sailors. He has them stop their ears with wax; they must row forward using their bodily strength. He who wishes to survive must not be susceptible to the temptation of the irrevocable; he can endure it only by not being able to hear it. Society takes care of that. The workers, fresh and concentrated, must look only forward and leave what lies by the side. The compulsion that leads to diversion from the task must be grimly sublimated in the progressive order of striving. It is in this way they become practical. Odysseus, as the Master who has others work for him, chooses the other possibility. He does listen, but bound, impotently, to the mast. The greater the seductive power of the song, the stronger he is bound – in the same way, since, the bourgeois man also stubbornly avoids his happiness.”

(LI’s translation,)

We think Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is (perhaps indirectly) one of those in the background of Allen’s reading. It helps tremendously that, as a classical scholar, Allen is very aware of the civic construction of sacrifice. Ellison’s awareness was less scholarly, and more dramatic.

Remember, from our last post, that the issue of sacrifice rises to the surface of the text in the Invisible Man’s confrontation with Hambro, the spokesman for the brotherhood. Hambro has instructed the I.M. that the party is sacrificing action in Harlem for other actions. The I.M. questions both the interest of the decisionmakers who have ordered this sacrifice, and the very nature of sacrifice itself:

“I.M. articulates one last criterion for determining the legitimacy of particular sacrifices: sacrifice becomes illegitimate when one person or group regularly sacrifices for the rest. Instead, sacrifices must be reciprocated. The weak have been incorporated into the democratic polity only when they are in an equal position to request sacrifice from others…”

This, of course, begs the question of how one defines the weak. Isn’t the demand for equality of sacrifice really the demand for transcending weakness itself? And is that possible? If democratic governance really and necessarily proceeds through acts which always comport some sacrifice by some group, then some group must, in that instance, be the weak. But it seems to us that governance, if it is rational and not arbitrary – if it is, in other words, the concrete project of the governors – is never going to wholly make up to the weak specified by the previous sacrifice with the next one. Moreover, real weakness is not re-defined in every instance of sacrifice, but by the skew evidenced over a series of sacrifices. Where does this skew emerge from? It emerges from the perceptions and biases of the Grundherr, as Adorno and H. call Odysseus.

In order to restore some necessary element of the accidental to the logic of sacrifice, then, what must be done? The answer is written in the whole fabric of the left: resistance.

We’ve gone a long way from Iraq, but we can now apply some of our musings about sacrifice to the paradox of occupation in Iraq: the CPA, in order to really “install” democracy in Iraq, must create its own resistance. Or, more specifically, the logic for its own resistance. Only a real resistance will supplant the armed resistance that crystallized around a Ba’athist remnant, and is now spreading to other parts of Iraqi society. The CPA has, however, no notion of this whatsoever. They operate in high denial mode, claiming that the only sacrifices that are being made burden the Americans. The claim to sacrifice is the claim to weakness – insofar as one has made the sacrifice. But if the pattern of sacrifice shows that those who claim this weakness are actually the powerful – if it shows that their sacrifices are more in the nature of investments, from which they seek a return, while the sacrifices of others are in the nature of permanent losses – we have a situation ripe for the kind of bad faith that characterizes all authoritarian societies, in which the strong engross the claims of weakness, using them to justify more and more intense acts of oppression against the weak. It is a bad faith that arises, first, in the discourse, and then creeps into power. The newspapers cry for the policemen, and the policemen eventually answer the cry – by shutting down newspapers.

Is there a way out of this impasse?

Thursday, April 15, 2004


Part I

Danielle Allen is one of those U. of Chicago prof who has swept the MacArthur genius circuit. She is a scholar of classics and of African American literature, a pretty rare and cool combo. LI read her essay on Ralph Ellison in this season’s Raritan with an eye on what is happening in Iraq. The essay, “Ralph Ellison on the Tragicomedy of Citizenship”, speaks to – or is it for? an occupied population – and one occupied by people who claim, by some perpetually unfolding mystery, to speak for the occupied, even as they evacuate the place in the discourse where the occupied could, possibly, have a voice.

But to Allen’s fascinating essay. She begins by pointing out, as all scholars of Ellison have done before her, the key political disagreement between one important critic of the book, Irving Howe, and Ellison himself. Howe objected to the de-politicization of race in the novel -- and what he took to be Ellison's acceding to a liberal and conformist ethos that avoided the politics of race. Allen shrewdly understands that a great book’s critics say things that are already forecast in the book itself – in fact, great novels are prophetic to the extent that they contain characters, asides and symbols that already stage the argument with their future critics. In this case, Allan claims that Ellison’s often stated interest in ritual, especially rituals of humiliation, should serve us as a guide to just that political subtext of the novel that its critics claimed it lacked. Its critics weren’t reading hard enough.

Allen concentrates on three encounters that mark the Invisible Man’s career. The first of them is the famous Battle Royal, which remains in the memory of even the most casual reader of the book. Here’s a brief synopsis.

The narrator’s school speech about humility has won such praise in the community that a white group proposes to give him a scholarship, requiring only that he read the speech to them. He arrives to find the whites surly and drunk. A stripper comes in, and barely makes it through a few moves before she has to escape this crowd. Then a battle is staged between ten black boys who are blindfolded. The Invisible Man is, of course, thrown into the battle too.

This is what Allen says:

“Bloodied and debased, I.M. [Allen’s initials for the narrator] is finally allowed to speak and begins, among yells and laughter, in this context of humiliation, his paen to, of all things, humility. As the context for his speech has been shifted, however, so too his memory has been jolted out of place, for instead of pledging, in accord with his written text, that he will devote himself to ‘social responsibility,’I M resoundingly commits himself to social equality. Ellison writes: ‘the laughter hung in sudden stillness. I opened my eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room…’Say that slowly, son!” Realizing his mistake, I.M. feels a flutter of fear before retracting his desire for ‘equality’, affirming his commitment to social responsibility, and finding himself rewarded.”

This is the Governing Council’s own situation. The social responsibility we want from the Iraqis shouldn’t encroach on our hierarchical edge over them – shouldn’t, in other words, presume on an equality so radical as to equate an Iraqi death – an invisible thing, something that Iraqis can, of course, mourn in private, but that can’t be allowed to intrude in any gross manner on the American public space – with an American death – a tremendous thing, something that must be revenged to the second and third generation. And the GC, after going through the Battle Royal of affirming every one of Bremer’s wishes, of rubberstamping even their own mock elevation to a power that is only an attenuated form of powerlessness, the power of Roman senators in the era of Caligula, are required, now, to rubberstamp Bremer’s closure of Sadr’s newspaper, and Bremer’s use of a corrupt court’s murder warrant, and the U.S. high command’s destruction of Falluja. This is a long crawl on the belly, and it has obviously hurt some of the Council. Most, mere lechers and bagmen, have proven themselves classically indifferent to everything but their own skins – or, in the case of Chalabi, have used the occasion to float various power-grabbing ideas through a bunch of D.C. proxies (see Jim Hoagland’s op ed piece in the Post yesterday for an especially greasy hint that now would be a good time for the U.S. to officially recognize Chalabi’s militia – a sort of 'bring on the death squads and freedom fighters, boys" to round out Bush's Reagan parody). Others, however, have steered a course between responsibility and abjection.

Well, do you trade a certain number of deaths for being cycled through the upward mobility promised by the system? Certainly that has to be on Iraqi minds. On the one hand, they are watching the U.S reward Israel’s conquests in the West bank, and on the other hand, they are having to endure an occupation that grows out of the U.S. claim that conquest – Saddam’s conquest of Kuwait – is such an ultimate evil that it justifies a decade of war and sanctions, crowned by an invasion. They have to stitch together the consistency here, which is wholly racial – the justice or injustice of a land grab depending on the ethnicity of the land grabber -- just as it is with the Invisible Man.

As Allen points out – with regard to the Invisible Man – humiliation, sacrifice, and acceptance have political aspects:

‘By presenting the I.M’s in terms of such categories as sacrifice, agreement and responsibility, Ellison lays bare how politics structures ordinary life and psychic experience. He names the rituals that give human life its meaning and that undergird our common actions. His writing is an X ray machine that reveals the skeleton of democratic life. The skeleton is made of what Ellison called rituals.”

One doesn’t have to read far, in analyses of the Iraq situation, to find people talking about how the Iraqis feel humiliated by the war, and of the psychological aftereffects of this. But there is an odd silence about the other side of that humiliation: is it such an accident that the Iraqis feel humiliated? Wasn’t humiliation written into the script, one of the great unconscious motives in this war? Didn't we want to humiliate them? Where there is an effect, as any Freudian can tell you, there is unconscious desire. The denial of the U.S. desire to humiliate is part of the greater discursive pattern, in which the Americans present themselves not as representatives of a state with appetites and interests, but rather as radiant spacemen of virtue, riding in on attack helicopters. As long as Americans treat their country as a moral force, rather than as a nation, they will have a debased and juvenilized foreign policy.

More on Allan's essay tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Yet Lucian, a rhetorician also, in a treatise entitled, How a history ought to be written, saith thus: 'that a writer of history ought, in his writings, to be a foreigner, without country, living under his own law only, subject to no king, nor caring what any man will like or dislike, but laying out the matter as it is.' – Hobbes in the introduction to his translation of Thucydides

LI recommends the Sy Hersch story on Afghanistan in the current Nyorker. It should be read in conjunction with the stories that are coming out concerning both the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 readiness to counter terrorist activity and its post 9/11 actions in so doing, or not. It has been our contention, all along, that the heart of the case against Bush is summed up by what happened not before 9/11, but in response to it -- that is, a massive and willful blindness to the reality of an attack by a nomadic, well entrenched jihadist group, with roots in the mujahdeen movement the U.S. not so covertly supported in the 80s in Afghanistan. The willfulness of this blindness was in thinking that any terrorist group is ultimately anchored in some state’s policy. Thus, the U.S. fought Osama bin Laden with one hand tied behind its back in the winter of 2001-2002, and ultimately satisfied itself with the collapsing of the precarious shell of Taliban governance in Afghanistan, as if the Taliban had been anything more than a bribed provider of a hideaway for Al Q. The Bush administration then took up its pre 9/11 obsession with Saddam Hussein, with the consequences we all know. LI thinks that it is completely odd that some of those consequences have received absolutely zero attention from the American press or public, since they include the flourishing of the Al Qaeda organization – in spite of the less than convincing statements of Bush concerning the killing or taking hostage of 2/3rds of the Al Qaeda leadership. Surely this radically misunderstands Osama bin Laden’s role as a symbol of recruitment, the network between the jihadist fighters in Central Asia (as in Chechnya) and Al Qaeda, and its ability to plug into local jihadist groups.

LI has written about this with the obsessiveness of Richard Dreyfuss piling the mashed potatoes on his plate in Close Enconters. Were we nuts? Well, it is nice to have the confirmation of a study by the Pentagon, which is being reported in the Nyorker article. Here’s a money shot graf. Hersch discusses Clarke’s larger and more interesting criticism of the Bush administration (that the diversion into Iraq subverted the war against terrorism), and then writes:

“Clarke's view of what went wrong was buttressed by an internal military analysis of the Afghanistan war that was completed last winter. In late 2002, the Defense Department's office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (solic) asked retired Army Colonel Hy Rothstein, a leading military expert in unconventional warfare, to examine the planning and execution of the war in Afghanistan, with an understanding that he would focus on Special Forces. As part of his research, Rothstein travelled to Afghanistan and interviewed many senior military officers, in both Special Forces and regular units. He also talked to dozens of junior Special Forces officers and enlisted men who fought there. His report was a devastating critique of the Administration's strategy. He wrote that the bombing campaign was not the best way to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership, and that there was a failure to translate early tactical successes into strategic victory. In fact, he wrote, the victory in Afghanistan was not, in the long run, a victory at all.”

Don’t expect the papers to touch this gingerly topic anytime soon, since they have gone along with the script.

LI has been conducting an interesting knock about with a certain Rajeev over at Crooked Timber, in the comments section. Rajeev, flatteringly enough, has actually read this endless series of graphomanic posts, or some of them, and has even spotted LI’s big themes about Iraq. He’s nailed us, in short. Rajeev disagrees with our viewpoint, but his main criticism is with our framing distance. He asks, reasonably, how LI can talk about the ‘Americans” in Iraq, as if LI himself weren’t a born and bred Yankee.

It is true – I like to maintain a pretence of distance between myself and what ‘we’ - the ‘americans’- are doing in Iraq. As my little quote from Hobbes indicates, I think that the intellectual gain from that distance, the ability to see in terms of sharp outlines, is worth the emotional loss – the loss of being cut off from a ‘we’. However, I am not totally happy with the accounting, here. The mask of allegiance is woven out of passions that are incomprehensible – at least in their force and connection – to the outside observer. This makes the supposedly clear vision that I bring to what is happening in Iraq inadequate – beyond the inadequacy of pure ignorance. It isn’t just that I have no personal acquaintance with how Iraqis think, I have cut myself off from the personal acquaintance with how Americans think.

The gain, here, is to see the encounter of different projects and their adaptation to each other and circumstances without thinking that I am watching a morality play between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The loss is that the CPA., in particular, is incomprehensible to me in its more extreme moments. In moving against both Sunni paramilitary groups and the Sadr Shiites, the CPA shows that it is more, well, conceited than even I gave it credit for. Only behind the mask would one be able to understand the thousand and one impulses that feed into that conceit.

However, I am not so cut off from the “we Americans’ that I don’t recognize who is running the CPA. And I think this is part of the difficulty. People like Bremer and the people around him have shaped their careers in the least democratic organizations in America – big business and the lobbying bureaucracies. It is all either command and control or spin. Furthermore, they are heirs to the forces that have always seen democracy as something to be brought before a judge and fined. If the CPA really wants to promote democracy in Iraq, why not translate Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals into Arabic? Why not import organizers of demonstrations, anti-globalization activists – all those who like to activate peaceful transformative change. If anything, Iraq needs a King or a Gandhi, not a Sadr or a Chalabi.

Monday, April 12, 2004


The man who wasn't there

John Kerry has decided to run a unique campaign. So far, he is running as either “None of the Above” or “Me too, and double it!”

Here we have a perfect Kodak moment: Bush, receiving a warning that any sane executive would take seriously, retiring to his ranch to rest on his tax cutting laurels in August, 2001. Did the man even alert his own secretary of treasury that the FBI suspected hijackers were present in the U.S.? No, he didn’t. There is a comfortable myth that is starting to fall apart, which says that nineteen hijackers succeeding in three different venues is one of those ‘can’t stop it’ kind of things. That it is an unusual, indeed, unique act of terrorism is swept under the rug. The most startling thing about the hijacking is less the first plane that slammed into the WTC. It is that the second plane did. The second plane screamed – system-wide collapse.

Kerry’s response to this has been: no comment.

Kerry’s response to Iraq is even worse. It is to “internationalize’ the situation and send in more U.S. troops. And he wants me to vote for this? Kerry hasn’t commented about the vital element in the whole Iraq fiasco – the Iraqis. As in, he has never criticized the reliance on Chalabi, he has never said that we should work more with al Sistani, he’s made no comment about our surprising, or sinister, hesitation in really putting in place representative institutions, he’s said nothing about the rather criminal use of the criminal courts to blackmail Sadr that we know was undertaken by the CPA (which, incidentally, discredits the one thing that is truly necessary for democracy in Iraq – an independent judiciary. One that is wholly subservient to executive power is one that is wholly corrupt. Martial law operates not only to exert direct pressure on the percieved enemies of the state, but to preserve the integrity of the court. A court that issues murder warrants selectively for an occupying power is doomed to Iraqi contempt). His view of Iraq, if he is serious, will get us ever deeper into an impossible situation. Kerry battle cry is that of a man who has served on way too many committees – process, and more process. Meanwhile, the world ends.

John Kennedy once wrote a book, Why England Slept, about the period before WWII. We are experiencing something unique – a whole nation is sleeping during the war. Call it: Why America can’t wake up. And if Kerry keeps sleepwalking through this election, he will surely lose people like me.