“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, September 18, 2004

Bollettino

The second term

LI would like to think that the defeat of George Bush is still a good bet. But we can’t trick our gut feeling. That our worst president – vacuous, dishonest, corrupt – is going to really win, instead of fake win, this election fills us with political despair. It is as though we’d been condemned to eke out the rest of our life on a diet of nothing but potato chips. Endless non-nutrition.

However, the polls record the obvious. Kerry’s strategy for defeating Bush has been a series of unbelievable miscalculations. It has not only eroded Kerry’s own image as a “leader” – those questions about leading the country can go up or down – but it has locked in an image of him as a loser. The worst numbers for Kerry are not in the for or against categories – they are in the question about who is going to win. This is a measurement of the sense of the race. The only way to dislodge an incumbent is to make the incumbent seem vulnerable. Here are the latest NYT numbers:

“The poll found that 61 percent of respondents expected Mr. Bush to win the election this fall; in March, shortly after Mr. Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination, just 44 percent thought Mr. Bush would win.”

The last election left a widespread taste of coup in the mouth. Coups work not so much because the coup’s leadership is popular as because the coup projects an image of inevitability. The image of force, of there being no alternative, has the effect of keeping people who oppose established power below the threshold where that dissatisfaction magically transforms itself from an intellectual mood into social action.

One wonders: what was the thinking behind making Kerry a Vietnam hero? The man’s credentials spring not from what he did to gain his medals, but from his coming home and articulating the reasons the Vietnam war was evil. And, in fact, his Senate career was not a mindless jog. Kerry’s book about terrorism, which he put out in the nineties, should have been the center of portraying the man as a leader against terrorism, and should have been contrasted with Bush's own record at every turn. He could well have pointed to it, and pointed to the inability of the present administration to constrain Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist network, and hammered Bush at every appearance with the demand that Al Qaeda be taken care of. Apparently, the Dems are so paralyzed by the idea of an October surprise that they have colluded, out of fear, in keeping Osama bin Laden's name out of this race.

The coulda beens pile up. He could have made the 9/11 commission’s report into what it actually was – a searing indictment of Bush. He could have turned around the rightwing meme about law enforcement as a mamby pamby way of “warring” against terrorism by showing that the real criteria in judging the war against terrorism is whether it works or not – not whether it is tough enough or not. As Kerry should know – I get this from his own book – terrorist organizations of the Al Qaeda variety rely on the same cell structure that the Mafia relied on. The victories over the Mafia in the nineties were achieved by international cooperation between law enforcement groups in Italy, Brazil, the UK, the USA, and other countries. They pooled information, for one thing, coordinated trials, coordinated investigations, and eventually rooted out the patrons of the Mafia. His book could have put real flesh on the hollowness of Kerry's line about internationalizing Iraq. By not foregrounding the criticism of Iraq in the larger criticism of the war on terror, Kerry essentially handed the issue to Bush.


Instead of playing to his strength, Kerry played to his weakness – his desire to pander. Pandering to the testosterone charged veteran constituency of Bush’s was never going to pick them off – it was simply going to get them talk radio riled against the anti-war protestor.

All of which means – it is time for lefties to start thinking about the landscape of Bush’s second administration. We’ll consider this in some posts next week.

PS -- there's a nice discussion of this over at Pierrot's Folly.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Bollettino

As many of LI’s readers know, the House refused to renew the ban on automatic weapons. We can now – or soon – buy as many Uzis as we want to.

The ban, we know, was largely symbolic, and contained enough hedges and exceptions that any gun dealer worth his bullets could find his way around them. It is doubtful that gun bans led to the decrease in the murder rate in the 90s. LI’s skepticism about gun control is such that we don’t care, one way or another, about the end of this provision of the Brady law.

The ancient equivalent of the automatic weapon was the polybolos. There’s an interesting rundown on military weaponry, and Archimedes inventions of clever weapons to outwit the Romans, in David Frye’s contribution to the October issue of Military history. He gives a nice survey of the situation in the Mediterranean in 200 BC, when the Romans encountered the resistance of Carthage to their empire building.

“Archimedes was a product of an age like none other in the history of the ancient world. He was born into the Hellenistic era, when Hellenistic culture was spreading rapidly across the Western world. It was an extraordinary period, an age of boundless ambition and audacity, when politicians, artists, writers, philosophers and even mathematicians refused to be held back by the conventions of the past. It was an era, too, of astonishing growth in military technology.

Hellenistic engineers inherited from earlier times a form of the catapult that resembled a large crossbow. They would not remain satisfied with that design for long. Like Hellenistic-era thinkers in every other field, they felt that they should not merely copy but improve the traditional form of things. Recognizing the limitations of the old design, they replaced the bow with two arms that were propelled by springs of twisted rope. Over time, their experimentation with new materials enabled them to fire heavier bolts, and eventually stone balls, over longer distances. Animal sinews and even human hair were pressed into service.

Hellenistic ingenuity was not limited to the search for better torsion springs, however. The Alexandrian inventor Ktesibios developed radically new catapults, one of which was powered by bronze springs, the other by pneumatic pistons. But even his efforts seem primitive compared to the designs of Dionysius of Rhodes. In an effort to improve the rate of artillery fire, Dionysius actually automated several steps (including the locking of the bowstring, the placing of the missile in the groove and the pulling of the trigger) in catapult operation. Those tasks that he did not fully automate he at least speeded up by adding a chain drive. Dionysius' new design was called the polybolos, or multishooter. It was arguably history's first automatic weapon.”

We’ve always found Archimedes a fascinating figure, and the conjunction of Roman expansion and Late Hellenistic culture one of the more unfortunate of history’s coincidences. Rome, with its genius for practicality, rather stifled the flowering of Greek thinking that was built upon a tradition that the West, since the Renaissance, has been trying to restore -- the two centuries after Aristotle. Stoic logic was a victim of the Roman hegemony. And Archimedes, himself, comes down to us as a piecemeal figure, half magus, half the familiar absent minded professor.

Plutarch (who must, bien sur, be read in Sir Thomas North’s translation) gives this account of Archimedes peculiarities:
“For all that he hath written, are geometricall proposicions, which are without comparison of any other writings whatsoever: bicause the subject whereof they treate, doeth appeare by demonstracion, the matter giving them the grace and the greatnes, and the demonstracion proving it so exquisitely, with wonderfull reason and facilitie, as it is not repugnable. For in all Geometry are not to be founde more profounde and difficulte matters wrytten, in more plaine and simple tearmes, and by more easie principles, then those which he hath invented. Now some do impute this to the sharpnes of his wit and understanding, which was a naturall gift in him: other do referre it to the extreame paines he tooke, which made these things come so easily from him, that they seemed as if they had bene no trouble to him at all. For no man livinge of him selfe can devise the demonstracion of his propositions, what paine soever he take to seeke it: and yet straight so soone as he commeth to declare and open it, every man then imagineth with him selfe he could have found it out well enough, he can then so plainly make demonstracion of the thing he meaneth to shew. And therfore that me thinks is like enough to be true, which they write of him: that he was so ravished and dronke with the swete intysements of this Sirene, which as it were lay continually with him, as he forgate his meate and drinke and was careles otherwise of him selfe, that oftentimes his servants got him against his will to the bathes, to washe and annoynt him: and yet being there, he would ever be drawing out of the Geometricall figures, even in the very imbers of the chimney.”

The sweet enticements of the Siren has been many a man's downfall.

Archimedes death is as symbolically significant as Socrates. War, theory and instruments -- the dark matrix out of which capitalism would arise -- are prefigured in this small butchery.

Here’s how Plutarch reports it:

“Syracusa beinge taken, nothinge greved Marcellus more than the losse of Archimedes. Who beinge in his studie when the citie was taken, busily seekinge out by him selfe the demonstracion of some Geometricall proposition which he hadde drawen in figure, and so earnestly occupied therein, as he neither sawe nor hearde any noyse of enemies that ranne uppe and downe the citie, and much lesse knewe it was taken: He wondered when he sawe a souldier by him, that had him go with him to Marcellus. Notwithstandinge, he spake to the souldier, and bad him tary untill he had done his conclusion, and brought it to demonstracion: but the souldier being angry with his aunswer, drew out his sword, and killed him.

Others say, that the Romaine souldier when he came, offered the swords poynt to him, to kill him: and that Archimedes when he saw him, prayed him to hold his hand a litle, that he might not leave the matter he looked for unperfect, without demonstracion. But the souldier makinge no reckening of his speculation, killed him presently. It is reported a third way also, sayinge, that certeine souldiers met him in the streetes going to Marcellus, carying certeine Mathematicall instrumentes in a litle pretie coffer, as dialles for the sunne, Sphaeres and Angles, wherewith they measure the greatnesse of the body of the sunne by viewe: and they supposing he hadde caried some golde or silver or other pretious Juells in that litle coffer, slue him for it. But it is most true, that Marcellus was marvelous sorie for his death, and ever after hated the villen that slue him, as a cursed and execrable persone: and howe he made also marvelous much afterwards of Archimedes kinsemen for his sake.”





Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Bollettino

"It is difficult to set any limit upon the capacity of men to deceive themselves as to the relative strength and worth of the motives which affect them: politicians, in particular, acquire so strong a habit of setting their projects in the most favourable light that they soon convince themselves that the finest result which they think may conceivably accrue from any policy is the actual motive of that policy. As for the public, it is only natural that it should be deceived. All the purer and more elevated adjuncts of Imperialism are kept to the fore by religious and philanthropic agencies: patriotism appeals to the general lust of power within a people by suggestions of nobler uses, adopting the forms of self-sacrifice to cover domination and the love of adventure. So Christianity becomes "imperialist" to the Archbishop of Canterbury, a "going out to all the world to preach the gospel"; trade becomes "imperialist" in the eyes of merchants seeking a world market.

It is precisely in this falsification of the real import of motives that the gravest vice and the most signal peril of Imperialism reside. When, out of a medley of mixed motives, the least potent is selected for public prominence because it is the most presentable, when issues of a policy which was not present at all to the minds of those who formed this policy are treated as chief causes, the moral currency of the nation is debased."
- Hobson, Imperialism

Hobson’s Imperialism is the last, fine fruit – well, not last: more like an autumn crabapple -- of a liberal, anti-imperialist tradition that goes back to Cobden and to the Burke of the bold, endangering speeches for the American colonists. Hobson saves his most sardonic comments for the rhetoric of imperialism, which by the end of the Boer war had come off the instruments of death it served. The mass murders of white descendents of Europeans in British Concentration Camps concentrated the European mind as the robbery of India, the robbery of Africa, and the robbery of China had not. It had even penetrated the notoriously unconcentrate-able British one.

In Hobson’s spirit, we thought we would ponder the wonderful value that has been squeezed from the little verb ‘give’ in this, our New Crusading époque. A verb of many uses, a fundamental verb. In German, es gibt means “there is” – and there is nothing more fundamental than there is, right? To give is to engage in a transaction. There is a school of anthropology which has investigated gift giving at length. Marcel Mauss saw the key to the gift, its dialectical endpoint, in the potlatch ceremony among the Kwaikutl, a feasting occasion that results in the seeming impoverishment of the richest Kwaikutl, who give their things away, even down to acts of pure destruction, such as burning canoes. All are losses which, according to Mauss, are recuperated by the accompanying gain of prestige.

We wonder if there isn't some submodality of the gift presiding over our fundamental giving relationship with the hapless Other lately. The pontificators favorite verb is "give": giving freedom to, giving independence to, giving democracy to – these are all gifts that are showered, like so much litter thrown out of speeding SUV's, on the fortunate third world every day by generous editorial writers, columnists, and politicians of the first (most important) world.

To instance this wonderful generosity, I could skim the blogosphere and come away, like the grinch, with multitudinous gifts. Bloggers are always giving something – from independence to Kurds to land on the west bank to Israelis. Oddly enough, there’s no mention of selling – it is always giving. This indicates the natural goodness, one supposes, of Western man. Alas, the conclusion to be drawn from this hollow charity -- the absurdity of the writer's position -- is very rarely drawn by the spirited weblogger. That we write from the nervous breakdown of weakness, from an insistent impotence, that we thrust ourselves into a sterile, exhausted discourse designed, basically, by thieves and madmen -- is, finally, the only good we -- us writers -- produce. Somehow, however, this escapes the swarms of givers. They give and give, and nothing is given -- and they give and they give, and no gratitude is given back. Or as Jesus, in one of his more Shakespearian moments, once put it: "They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept."

With all that unreciprocated giving, it is predictable that a subtheme would start to grow. We give the Iraqis democracy, and they try to blow up our soldiers. So it is only right and fair that we bomb their cities, destroy their mosques, and in general make Iraq a better place for all.

However, the blogosphere is too easy, so I decided to skim the higher reaches of doxa. Here, for instance, is Mark Steyn talking about Palestine:

“For 10 years, the world has been trying to give a state to the Palestinians and the Palestinians keep tossing obstacles in their path.”

Here the giving transaction has the overtones of some didactic tale for Victorian children. How perverse of those Palestinians not to accept such a nice gift! Over those ten years, they have not only tossed obstacles in the path – refusing, for instance, to set up the old Christmas tree and sing the old carols – but they have had to be put down, in their ingratitude, to the extent of 6,000 some deaths. This is a case of giving, you will notice, in which there is an active subject – the world – doing the giving. That the world has a state in its capacious bag is an interesting proposition. Where is that state? Surely this is one of those present giving occassions in which the embarrassed receiver, upon tearing off the gift wrapping, notices marks of use. For instance, there seems to be a fence running through this state. There seem to be settlements on it – in fact, a lot more settlements than there were ten years ago! It is at these moments that the Palestinians probably wish they could write Miss Manners a letter: ‘Recently, we received a state in a big box. Upon opening it, however, we were shocked that it was obviously a little used! Not only that, but the big lug who gave it to us keeps closing his eyes whenever 10 or fifteen of us are murdered in the street by a bomb! Now, we don’t want to seem ungrateful, but is this really proper? Signed, puzzled in Hebron.”

However, Steyn’s 'world' is not usually the giver. Usually, as I said above, the giver is a ‘we’ – a secret sharer, the collective shadow cast upon the world by, well, some alter us. This is from an interview last year with Colin Powell.

“We want to turn Iraq over to the Iraqi people," he said. "But we want to give the people of Iraq a government that they can trust." He said this must be a representative form of government, and one that supports a nation that is living in peace with its neighbors and is free of weapons of mass destruction.”

Well, at least we got our last wish! Apparently we’ve searched up and down, and there’s no weapons of mass destruction there. We hope they are grateful for that, at least. In the meantime, the gift giving here is a little sticky. For instance, we did give the Iraqis a wonderful government that they can trust. But the Iraqis haven’t deserved the gift – they’ve displayed inordinate distrust of the government. Of course, as every parent knows, you promise a gift with such and such a feature, and you go looking for it in the store – but it turns out to be too expensive! Similarly, we were going to give this representative government to the Iraqis, when someone said, hold on there! Will it be representative of the Iraqis? Which made us all think, hmm, if we can’t trust the Iraqis cause they don’t trust the government we gave them, than a representative government would be one that we couldn’t trust. What a brain twister! Which is why we took off the shelf a second rate autocrat and dusted him off. He ought to be just the thing to, well, put down the untrustworthy Iraqis.

Last year, too, the Brits were in a gift giving mood. This is from a communique by British foreign minister Jack Straw:


“The dead and the missing are both the most painful reminder of Saddam’s dictatorship and the greatest symbol of our determination to give Iraq the future its people so richly deserve. I do not underestimate the scale of our task.”

Listening to that last year, I bet you the Iraqis didn’t know that the future we were going to give them looks like, well, yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. However, as Straw promised, this is the future they deserve – which is what they get for not trusting the government that we gave them to trust in the first place. You know, getting a present comes with some responsibilities, too. For instance, wouldn't it be nice if the Iraqis, out of gratitude, offered us military bases so we could give the gift of democracy to Iran? Wouldn't that be decent? It means an awful lot to the guys in the White House who've been giving and giving to the Iraqis.


Finally, in this sweepstakes of giving, having gone down memory lane for our other examples to 2003, when we were all Richard the Lionhearts -- bliss it was then to be crusading for freedom -- you must remember this. Having taken Iraq under our tender loving care, there was much discussion of dividing the booty. However, we are not an immoral people. Whenever we do something immoral, we immediately find a moral reason for it. Our big idea back then was to give the Iraqis a share in the profits we’d make from their oil. Remember those days?


Josh Marshall, back in 2003, jumped whole heartedly on a plan to “give the oil back to the Iraqi people,” as the headline writer for one of his Hill piece aptly put it. Some called it the Alaska plan, because the citizens of Alaska get a share in the profits from the oil pumped up there. Marshall slipped in a phrase in his piece that makes one dream – or at least consider that it all has been a dream, these last terrible four years.. “…a Zogby poll reported that 59 percent of Americans support some form of the Alaska model for Iraq.” Wow! I wonder if the American people had been informed of Hague conventions regarding the constraints on the ability of occupying armies to make fundamental changes in a nation's economic relations? Apparently, that question wasn’t asked. But I think the poll shows us something about the generosity deep in the heart of the Western We – we have always been willing to go to new territories, to take the raw materials from those territories, and to, well, help the natives of those new territories out of their old fashioned ways. And once again we were as willing to do this. One wonders why nobody speaks of it anymore?

Monday, September 13, 2004

Bollettino

We are late linking to the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Bulletin for Spring, 2004. However, we would urge our readers to check out the article on McCarthy and McCarthyism. Nathan Glazer and Anthony Lewis contribute two not very rocking speeches in commemoration of the McCarthy-Army hearings, fifty years ago – but Sam Tannenhaus, one of the right’s best up and coming intellectuals, contributes a pretty sterling piece, especially considering that it remains under the 2,000 word mark.

For Tannenhaus, the problem posed by McCarthy is a part of a larger historical conundrum: how did the American right move from isolationist in the thirties to the interventionist anti-communism of the Cold War era?


“One of the mysteries to me, as I write about American conservatism, is how quickly and seamlessly the American Right moved from an isolationist, anti-interventionist position leading up to Pearl Harbor to an extreme interventionist position afterwards, particularly when it came to the Soviet Union. Why was it that, suddenly, conservatives wanted to fght the “great war” they hadn’t wanted to fght before?The answer is that most of them didn’t. Robert Taft and Joe McCarthy both opposed the Korean War initially. Yet some of us remember that when Douglas MacArthur wanted to take the war to China, Harry Truman fired him, and MacArthur became a martyr to the Right. In fact, the American conservative movement opposed almost all those interventions early on, and McCarthy identifed the perfect surrogate enemy. McCarthy’s approach was, in its
crude way, a very clever formulation. Basically, he said, “Why send American soldiers to die in Korea when all the Communists we have to fear are here at home? If we can get Dean Acheson and George Marshall and all the other bad guys out of the State Department, they won’t lure us into these death traps overseas.”
In other words, isolationism never really went away; it remained one of the submerged themes in American foreign policy that is still evident today. Isolationism was reborn as unilateralism. In fact, the two consort fairly easily. In the years leading up to World War II, the antiwar argument from the Right was that we did not want to involve ourselves in European wars. It actually doesn’t take a great leap from that to say we, alone, will fight the Cold War: We’ll oppose nato and the Marshall Plan as, again, the conservatives did and we’ll make it our single crusade against the enemy. And we are seeing this again in the war in Iraq.”

This, we think, is a fairly profound thesis. And Tannenhaus adds to it the fact that McCarthyism captured a very anti-elitist populism that was, in the 30s, the property of the left. In fact, Glazer and Lewis unconsciously underline Tannanhaus’ point: their speeches are larded with “respected” figures, like the President of GE and Walter Lippman, who opposed McCarthy. That opposition isn’t contemptible – far from it, we should all be grateful to the Liberal elite that tore McCarthy down -- but its language is revealing. The liberal elite had forged a culture that was quite comfortable with the state of affairs in the country, the balance between public and private power, because they dominated both spheres. It is interesting – as we have noted before – that conservative movements have depended so heavily on oil money. Much of that money comes from an entirely different sphere than that moved in by the president of GE, or by Eisenhower.

That sphere, we think, was and is caught up with Iraq as an intervention of another kind – one that brings democracy, one that builds a Marshall Plan. This rhetorical dressing is almost irresistible to the John Kerrys of the world – even though the Kerrys know, in their gut, that oil wealth doesn’t mean it when they say, Marshall Plan, or democracy. But the meaninglessness of these phrases is hard to get across in a campaing that is all phrases. And – discouragingly – that credibility gap will not disturb their constituencies at all. Nobody on the Right has even for a moment objected to the fact that the Bush administration’s announcement of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan was followed by (unbelievably enough) a budget that proposed zero dollars for the country. Do people in Waycross, Georgia, planting their Bush signs in their front lawns really want to put their tax dollars towards a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan? Hell no. But they do like the ring of the idea. Similarly, the war party in the media is compulsively scornful of those people who “would have left Saddam Hussein in power” in Iraq, instead of supporting democracy – but they are absolutely uninterested in whether, indeed, the mechanisms of democracy are really being set up in Iraq. Tannenhaus throws a little light on the roots of this schizoid response.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Bollettino
Our friend T., in Nyc, wrote us a nice email about our last post. This is it.
Dear LI,

Thank you for stating my every fear in a solemn and muted post.

Amongst all those things that the unalayzed members of this current (and yet to be) regime do not admit is Zizek's observation that three widely-touted examples of democracy, touted each in their own particular and peculiar time, Taiwan, South Korea and Argentina were, each in their time, military dictatorships: this fact will NEVER be acknowledged, although it ought to be for it could save lives. But who is it that has had enough analysis to analyze this precedent?

A reminder, a quote that I sent to you about this time last year [the last clause I know for September 11 is a necessary point of reference for me, like any anniversary of a (literally) meaningful event; it is a period of extremely private sadness; it is, of course, something that I will not give-up, it is a Thing that permits me relief from every other concern or anxiety; nevertheless, it is a unique Thing that, pondering it, forces me to think therefrom to every other concern or anxiety] from The Emperor - there, then, at the end of Selasssie-I's reign, summer '74: "Mediocrity is dangerous: when it feels itself threatened it becomes ruthless... [F]ear and hatred bind them, and the barest forces prod them to action: meanness, fierce egotism, fear of losing their privileges and being condemned. Dialogue with such people is impossible, senseless." All of which, as you state so well and clearly, has nothing to do with Strauss or democracy. Yes, these are mediocre, ruthless, hateful, neurotically fierce, hysterically fearful, and, stylelessly, black on black; 'denial' is not a rich enough term."