“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 31, 2004

Bollettino

There is an aspect about the argument over the causes of the invasion of Iraq that bugs LI. The arguments, pro and con, over the Bush administrations justifications for the war systematically ignore the larger context of the war. In the rush to subject the minutia of justification to microscopic analysis, the connection of these minutia to the overall schema, as well as the outlines of that schema, are silently forgotten.

To my mind, the standard can’t just be: Iraq presented a gathering threat. It has to be closer to what Bush has said himself: in the post 9/11 world, we need to evaluate these threats differently. If we use that standard, then we have to ask: were all the claims to justify the invasion consistent with the larger context of winning the war against the particular network of terrorists that attacked us on 9/11? If, in fact, the time and circumstances of the war in Iraq were separate from, or even diversionary from, the larger context, than the growing threat justification is not only annulled, but we have grounds for thinking that the invasion was actually an invidious thing, the untimely intrusion of an ideological scam that has deteriorated the real and only reason the U.S. should be using its military power, and an ontological failure symptomatic of an ossified foreign policy world view that is disastrously out of synch with the reality that -- 9/11 happened. To put a Heideggerian spin on it, the Bush adminsitration has, in one and complete gesture, memorialized and forgotten 9/11.

Of course, the gesture of memorializing and forgetting is central to the News. That is what News is. However, even if something is News, it doesn't necessarily exclude the fact that something happens. That is the problem with the news -- distinguishing true events from false ones. Which is why Being and Time should be on the syllabus for Journalism students... but I digress.

For this reason, it strikes me that the major reason for going into Iraq has to have been that Saddam Hussein had ties with Al Qaeda that were significant enough to pose a threat to the U.S. In other words, that the ties to Al Qaeda were major, supportive, and continuing.

That is the importance of the Bush claim, in his Cincinnatti speech in 2002, that "we've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases." And Powell’s reiteration of that claim before the UN in 2003.


The NYT has mapped, for the last couple of months, the rise and collapse of that claim. Their very informative little article, today, on the retracting of that claim by the one Al Qaeda operative who made it, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, shows both how weak the original claim was and how the press failed to press for details in their original coverage of the Bush case.

We draw, however, a larger moral from this story. The real question posed by the invasion of Iraq goes back to 9/11. To put it one way: how did 9/11 happen? For the Bush administration – especially the Pentagon crew – there is a fundamental, but unspoken assumption at work in everything they have done since: that 9/11, however much it serves as a pretext for policy, was an aberration. In other words, Al Qaeda and various networked terrorist groups aren’t important. Their withering will be a collateral effect of following a foreign policy that was devised without them in mind, and that will proceed in spite of them. For Wolfowitz, et al, terrorists aren’t even players. In other words, for these people, Bush’s contention – that the post 9/11 landscape is different – isn’t true. They are still where they were on 9/10. They still believe that a mature foreign policy should not be disturbed by the actions of subordinate, extra-state players. They still don’t get it.

We think that the pre 9/11 Bush adminsitration and the post 9/11 is, contrary to surface appearance, pretty consistent with itself. The way the Pentagon underestimated the resistance in Iraq was predictable from the way it underestimated terrorism in August, 2001. The same mechanism is at work. It is top down thinking. It is quintessentially bureaucratic thinking. I think we see, here, the difference between traditional conservatism, with its Burkean respect for social order, and the neo-conservatives, with their contempt for any social order except the ones upon which they have put their stamp of approval. With that contempt comes an under-estimation of the resistance that the social order in Iraq – and indeed, throughout the Arabic world – is able to mount. This has proven fatal to Bush’s Middle Eastern policy. It is why it has not only delivered a chaotic Iraq on the verge of becoming, once again, a Military Security State, but has, in addition, allowed the threat of terrorism throughout the Middle East to metastasize.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Bollettino

The man who isn’t there

There’s an article by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker about the bombings in Madrid that dilates into an examination of the current state of play in the terrorist world. Here’s a clip from it:

“On April 15th, the voice of Osama bin Laden spoke again. “This is a message to our neighbors north of the Mediterranean, containing a reconciliation initiative as a response to their positive reactions,” bin Laden said on the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. Now it was the Al Qaeda leader who cast himself in the role of a rational political actor. “It is in both sides’ interest to curb the plans of those who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang.” He proposed a European committee to study “the justice” of the Islamic causes, especially Palestine.

The fact that bin Laden was addressing nations as an equal showed a new confidence in Al Qaeda’s ability to manipulate the political future. Exploiting this power will depend, in part, on convincing the West that Al Qaeda and bin Laden remain in control of the worldwide Islamist jihad. As long as Al Qaeda is seen as being an irrational, unyielding death cult, the only response is to destroy it. But if Al Qaeda—amorphous as that entity has become—has evolved into something like a virtual Islamist state that is trying to find a permanent place for itself in the actual world, then the prospect of future negotiations is not out of the question, however unlikely or repellent that may sound to Americans. After all, the Spanish government has brokered truces with ETA, which has killed four times as many people in Spain as Al Qaeda has, and the accelerated withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq following the train bombings has already set a precedent for accommodation, which was quickly followed by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Last year, Germany paid a six-million-dollar ransom to Algerian terrorists, and the Philippines recently pulled its fifty troops out of Iraq in order to save a hostage from being beheaded.”

It has been almost three years, now, since Osama bin Laden successfully planned an attack on the U.S. and got away with it. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, his name was in the mouth of every politician in America. Contrast this to 2004. I’ve listened, off and on, to speeches at the Democratic Convention, which is an indulgence in an uncharacteristic masochism on my part.  So far, no mention of the man. And so we ape the CoC, who, since “winning” in Afghanistan in 2002, took the low and dirty route of  letting Osama bin Laden's escape go unresponded to, diverting money from the Afghanistan operation to Iraq in a maneuver of dubious legality and imbecilic strategy, and tacitly handing over the “problem” of Osama to Pakistan. In Bushworld, if it isn't spoken, it doesn't exist; if it is spoken, it hyper-exists. Thus the fight for democracy in Iraq consists of saying the fight is for democracy in Iraq, which satisfies the Federalist's requirements on the matter as far the administration is concerned. On the other side of the ledger, the victory over Al Qaeda is signalled by crossing out the name Osama whenever it occurs in the drafts of the prez's speechwriters. A terrorism that is so utterly vulnerable to liguistic fiat takes on the strange proportions of a kind of spirit, Bush's own Harvey; for this reason, he can make up stories about his imaginary friend and expect us to give them our complete belief -- as in the administration's contention that the  heart of the battle of terrorism is Iraq. Of course, that doesn't make sense. There were no Iraqis on those four flights. There was no connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. There is no reason to think that even if the U.S., by some miracle, "wins" against terrorism in Iraq, that this will have any effect on Al Qaeda whatsoever. In American politics, only Howard Dean has shown any encouraging skepticism about this claim, and even Howard Dean, last night, seemed more than willing to give a speech that was simply a feel good speech about voting – a rah rah speech that was all about the process and the ego, and not at all about the goal and the problem.

So let’s state the obvious, shall we? As I count the stats on the “war on terrorism”, I find them depressing: Osama bin Laden survived Tora Bora; his organization successfully regrouped in Pakistan; affiliates of his organization staged more attacks in 2003 than they did in the whole period between the embassy bombings and the attack on the Cole; the range of the attacks broadened, from the Moslem world all the way to Spain. Our own Homeland Security Department thinks that the organization or its affiliates could be planning something along the lines of 9/11 even now, with agents in the U.S.

The Dems are petrified that Bush will somehow ‘get’ Osama for an October surprise. Who knows, he might. The point is, the point that should be driven home with a sharpened wooden stake and a mallet, Bush doesn’t ‘get” terrorism at all – he seems, three years after the 9/11 attack, to be still as clueless as he was before the attack, a man perpetually reading a children's book to a class that, uncomfortably enough, has grown to include the country.  He is heading (astonishingly) the third administration that has mistaken moving Al Qaeda for destroying it.  This is why the Dems, rather than hoping Americans have forgotten Al Qaeda, should be shouting the name from the rooftops. There was a window of opportunity in 2002. There was the real possibility of taking the fight to Al Qaeda, of creating a symbolic defeat that could have been followed by real political defeats. That window closed. We now know just how ignominiously the players played their parts. We now know there is no "marshall plan" for Afghanistan, which has sunk into warlordism and opium traffic. We now know that there is no serious effort even to coordinate with our allies about terrorist suspects. We now know that Rumsfeld didn't like the war in Afghanistan because he couldn't find "targets" -- it is a mountainous country, after all, and our billion dollar toys work best in desert landscapes.

 Those who support the war in Iraq were the first to accuse Spain of retreating after the Madrid bombing – which means, logically, that those who support the war in Iraq have to explain the strategy of allowing a freerange terrorist group to make a flanking movement that knocks out an American ally. Since these are the same people who routinely suggested that Osama's continuing existence was no big deal, that he was a spent force, perhaps they should explain why they were terribly wrong, once again, to underestimate Al Qaeda. In fact, their underestimation is almost a compulsive repetition of the mindset pre 9/11, as we have had it detailed by the Commission. It is as if they are hardwired not to get it. This has to be laid at the foot of the arrogant and incompetent pumphouse Pentagon crew, urged on by an intellectual whose main previous accomplishment was to serve as an apologist for one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, Suharto -- Paul Wolfowitz, come on down please! It has to be laid at the feet of exactly the kind of thing that Bush, in one of those moments of extreme disconnect that should disqualify him as a serious choice for president to anyone who pays attention, said he was opposed to: civilians second guessing the military in a war. Bush was referring, in his interview on Meet the Press, to Vietnam. It was one of those moments, frequent under this administration, when astonishment, indignation, and frustration mesh together in a perfect rush: never, never has there been a war in which the civilian command at the Pentagon so countered any serious input from the military high command as the war in Iraq. Never, never has there been a war that was so interrupted for political, rather than military reasons as the war against Al Qaeda. Never has there been a president who so joins together ignorance and unctuousness as Bush. He beats Warren Harding hands down.

 

The upshot is: the opportunity of spring, 2002, is gone. This president failed in the elementary duty of defending the U.S. against an enemy that was minor but vicious. His failure was not innocent – rather, it was part of a political strategy that year to capitalize on his “triumph” after Tora Bora to promote another war, one that had nothing to do with the immediate American interest in dispersing our real enemy. This president turned a blind eye to the metastasizing of that enemy. This president set us up to fail in the Middle East, with consequences that we can count in lives and explosives in Istanbul, Casablanca, Riyadh, and Madrid. This president has shifted the duty that should fall on the shoulders of the 400 billion dollar plus US military to the billion dollar minus Paki military. This president has shown no interest in the intersections between Kashmir jihadis, Al Qaeda, and various affiliates around the Mediterranean.

So for us, here is the challenge to Kerry. If, following Bush, he takes the child’s way out – banishing Osama’s name from his speeches as a magical placebo for thwarting Al Qaeda – we think he will miss a golden opportunity himself. And it is that kind of thing which can really bring him down this election.  No -- scratch that. Bring on the thunder. It is more than the loss or gain of an election that is at stake. This is about shame, dignity, the dim knowledge that the culture is at risk, the ability to resist the sly insinuations of a class of pimps -- political consultants (who would serve the commonwealth better as real pimps, every blackhearted one of em) and to listen to the unpopular murmurs of his heart -- which has to be there somewhere, in the middle distance, even after the cheesy senatorial life. This is not some cutrate tv sitcom, this is fullblown shakesperian tragedy. Kerry's challenge is to recognize that.

 



Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Bollettino

When LI ruminated this joint into being, we decided that we were not going to spend our time exclusively referring people to other blogs. Our idea was that the Internet is so incredibly big that we could wander through it the way a Borges character might wander through the Library of Babel, randomly pulling out sites, spilling contents, going on eccentric and timewasting tangents. In this library, there is definitely a place for blogs (and for porno, and for pictures of cats, and for listservs, etc., etc.) and we try to sneak in links to those blogs we like or those that have caught our interest for some reason; but the blogosphere is so intensely inward looking that we felt that we couldn’t compete with those bloggers who do this much better.  For this reason, we’ve never constructed a permanent list of links, since the goal was, and is, to embed the shock of recognition contained by the link in the post.  LI has been re-thinking that of late. Should we surrender to the common format? Readers, tell us what you think.

Since the Dem and Republican conventions invited bunches of political bloggers to report on them, there has been another run of “what are blogs”” article in the press, and another run of blog triumphalism in the sphere. I’m rather sick of that. In the meantime, go to this link:  the Bureau of Public secrets  

BOPS is a website run by some old situationalist – or perhaps by some young fan of the situationalists. Lately, they have been doing something very very cool – they have been putting up Kenneth Rexroth’s poems and essays semi-officially, after contacting New Directions. We read Rexroth’s fascinating essay on D.H. Lawrence’s poetry last night,  and have been mulling over this paragraph. It comes after Rexroth makes the obvious comparison of Lawrence to Hardy, with particular reference to one of Lawrence’s early poems, ‘The Hymn to Priapus’:

“Hardy was a major poet. Lawrence was a minor prophet. Like Blake and Yeats, his is the greater tradition. If Hardy ever had a girl in the hay, tipsy on cider, on the night of Boxing Day, he kept quiet about it. He may have thought that it had something to do with “the stream of his life in the darkness deathward set,” but he never let on, except indirectly.”

This led me, following that Library of Babel riff, on a search for Lawrence’s poems. Go in particular to this crazy Danish site, which throws copyright law to the wind and publishes six collections of Lawrence’s poetry (including his worst – the Pansies collection).
Here’s one of the poems that torches a whole lyrical tradition. This is the kind of prophetic anger Rexroth is after, in which a vast, over-reaching cultural despair is poured into a situation so stylized by the love lyric as to have become numb. Lawrence's great idea is to pull out the pliers and work on the numb until he hits a shrieking nerve.  So he progresses from a poor first stanza, with its waxy flower/sunshine image, to heap up images of default, of natural and supernatural catastrophe, until one balked moment -- a moment of impotence -- becomes a blinding stroke of lightning in which the annihilating power of the system of enlightenment -- that butcher's power that systematically strips the animal from the man -- is revealed as a hideous commonplace -- as the implacably cruel intention behind the seeming kindness, the seeming morality, of the civilizing process.  

Last Words to Miriam

 

 

Yours is the sullen sorrow,

       The disgrace is also mine;

Your love was intense and thorough,

Mine was the love of a growing flower
5
       For the sunshine.

 

You had the power to explore me,

       Blossom me stalk by stalk;

You woke my spirit, you bore me

To consciousness, you gave me the dour
10
       Awareness — then I suffered a balk.

 

Body to body I could not

       Love you, although I would.

We kissed, we kissed though we should not.

You yielded, we threw the last cast,
15
       And it was no good.

 

You only endured, and it broke

       My craftsman's nerve.

No flesh responded to my stroke;

So I failed to give you the last
20
       Fine torture you did deserve.

 

You are shapely, you are adorned

       But opaque and null in the flesh;

Who, had I but pierced with the thorned

Full anguish, perhaps had been cast
25
       In a lovely illumined mesh

 

Like a painted window; the best

       Fire passed through your flesh,

Undrossed it, and left it blest

In clean new awareness. But now
30
       Who shall take you afresh?

 

Now who will burn you free

       From your body's deadness and dross?

Since the fire has failed in me,

What man will stoop in your flesh to plough
35
       The shrieking cross?

 

A mute, nearly beautiful thing

       Is your face, that fills me with shame

As I see it hardening;

I should have been cruel enough to bring
40
       You through the flame.

 

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Bollettino

My God! Somebody gets it!

Last week, the NEA issued a report, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America." The report lamented the decline of the reading of novels and poetry and such in America. The reports about the report lamented the same thing. Party line about reading is that it is always a good thing in itself.

Carlin Romano’s column in the Chronicle of Higher C. examined the report, and found some of the statistics not so dire. That is interesting, but what rivets yours truly, a book reviewer who desperately wants out of the trade, is the end of Romano’s article. I could hardly believe it. They are almost word for word what I have been telling people forever – in fact, what I told the book editor at the Austin Chronicle just last week. 
 
 
"Almost nothing in our culture," the distinguished New York book editor Elisabeth Sifton memorably observed in a Harper's symposium years ago, "encourages the private moment of reading."I love that line. I also believe in its ironic, absurdist corollary: "Almost nothing in the modern American newspaper and magazine encourages the private moment of reading." Owners slash space for book reviews and coverage at the same time that they bemoan their own loss of readers. Then they order the remaining readers to do anything -- ANYTHING -- but read in their spare time. True, the three highest-circulation seven-day-a-week newspapers in America are also the three with the most powerful book coverage. But the NEA isn't worried in "Reading at Risk" about beneficiaries of the enlightened managers of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.So we're left with a general media environment in which the readerly commit a kind of cultural suicide in pursuit of the less readerly. In magazine and newspaper offices across the country, well-educated editors stuff their publications with pieces about trash movies, hip-hop hotties, reality-TV spinoffs, and ingénue profiles -- then go home and read a book. As print people drive their hordes toward nonprint media, TV folks -- supposedly a dimmer breed -- cleverly ignore the competition, rarely acknowledging what's in the local papers and almost never devoting a minute to a nonpresidential book.”

LI wrote something similar to the book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Romano works, a few years ago. That editor had written us a very depressing letter about the state of book reviewing – based on the cuts he had to make in the section’s size – and we wrote back:

“That is sad, X… The ice age is all around us, I'm afraid. I hope that after this terrible quarter is over and advertising resumes at some reasonable level, papers will resume running their cultural sections. I don't think that is just optimism -- I mean, books are not only a 20 billion dollar industry in themselves, but they generate movies, music, the public discourse -- they have incalculable benefits. Ironically, just as corporations are discovering intangible assets, i.e. the intricate web of know how among their employees -- newspapers are doing their best to pretend that books, which are the body and substance of that know-how, are a minor part of the whole, dispensable extras. They are cutting their own throats. Those people who don't read books will stop reading newspapers. That's a Q.E.D. To encourage a lively book page is to seed the newspaper readers of the future.”
  
Michael Dirda’s piece on the report in the WP today is less thought provoking.  
  
Dirda says some smart things in the piece, and some stupid things. The smart thing he says is that the literate person can’t just read today’s best sellers. Reading a book that was published this year, without having any knowledge of books that have been written over the centuries, is like examining an ice cube without any knowledge of water. The dumb thing he says is that the Internet is hogging reading time with its daily plethora of boring, trivial matter. Weblogs and such. He makes this charge in spite of the fact that he confesses to not using the Web much.

If he did use the web, then he would discover that, in fact, the Internet has reanimated literary life in ways the survey is designed not to show. When I lived in Gwinnett County Georgia a few years ago I discovered that if I went to the County’s main library and looked for, say, Mill on the Floss, I was shit out of luck – as my pap used to say. The books on display dealt with astrology, investing in real estate, the romances  of Princess Di, and how Jesus could save you from perversion, alcoholism, and bad teeth. The one thing that was systematically absent from the shelves were books (saving the Bible) that had been written earlier than say 1980.

So I went home and looked it up on the web. Sure enough, I found a copy of Mill on the Floss on a Princeton U. site. There is now a national library – in fact, there are several. There is Gutenberg. There is Black Mask. There is the Liberty Library. There is Constitution.org. There are Athena, ABU, Gallica, Les Classiques des sciences socials, etc. etc. Dirda instances his recent reading of Clarissa to show how important it is to read in depth – but where are you going to get a copy of Clarissa in Dothan, Alabama? in Niles, Michigan? In Nederland, Texas? You will get it here

The instrumental interpretations of the report are interesting, as far as they go. But LI has long been interested in the fate of reading literature in a modernity characterized by a systematic hostility to ritual. If one uses Victor Turner’s definition of ritual - "prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers" – it describes at least one aspect, a very important one, of reading novels and poems. And it also helps one get a grip upon the ambivalent triumph of the novel over the poem in the in the West – in France, Britain, and the U.S. –  that makes Americans, provincially, believe that poetry is some romantic remnant form. That isn’t true – if you ever talk to Russians, or Bulgarians, or Turks, or Arabs, you soon realize that cultures differ in their preferred literary form, with some cultures being poetry cultures (Turkey, for instance), some novel cultures (the U.S.) and some mixed (Russia). We think that the decline in reading has to be thought of in conjunction with what reading does. Romano points out that there is really a shift in the place of reading, with the survey’s exclusion of reading in the classroom and at work being, perhaps, an overlooked factor in the overt decline in non-leisure reading.  We will do another post about reading and ritual soon.