“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, December 04, 2004

According to Charles Beard, George Bancroft was the historian who was to blame for the theory that the U.S. was founded as a particularly religious nation.. Bancroft, who studied under Schleiermacher in Germany in the 1820s, wrote a history of the formation of the U.S. Constitution in his dotage, the 1880s, in which he attributed the outline of it to the busybodyiness of the divine mind. Apparently, the divine mind couldn’t resist sticking its nose into the affairs of a bunch of provincial planters and middlemen in the rum tradde. By the 1880s, such an interpretation was congenial to the respectable classes, and they swallowed it down with the alacrity that their ancestors imbibed the aforesaid rum.. Beard, writing in the 1930s, attributed the Constitution to more mundane forces, i.e. economics. Although Beard is not popular at the moment, his hypothesis seems much more sensible, even if not sufficient.

At about the time Bancroft was injecting a mendacious and nauseating piety in the National story, Josiah Royce was starting his career. Royce is probably the most original religious philosopher ever to be hatched in these states. Unlike the man who had been blinded by the perfumed pettifogeries of romantic Protestantism when a mere pup, Royce had to struggle with tougher philosophical currents – pragmatism, Darwinism and the like – which disinclined him to merely, patriotically, dribble. In his clear eyed sense of the intellectual life of the eighteenth century (and the U.S. was nothing if it wasn’t a quintessential product of that century) what stand outs is the loss of the inner life: In this passage, he compares the century of the philosophes to that of Spinoza:

“When I undertake to describe such a time, 1 therefore feel in its spirit a strong contrast to that curious but profound sort of piety which we were describing in the last lecture in the case of Spinoza. Spinoza, indeed, was in respect of his piety a man of marked limitations. His world bad but one sublime feature in it, one element of religious significance, namely, the perfection of the divine substance. But then this one element was enough, from his point of view, to insure an elevated and untroubled repose of faith and love, which justified us in drawing a parallel between his religious consciousness and that of the author of the "Imitation of Christ." This sort of piety almost disappears from the popular philosophy of the early eighteenth century. What the people of that time want is more light and fewer unproved assumptions. As against the earlier seventeenth-century thinkers, who, as you remember, also abhorred the occult, and trusted in reason, the thinkers of this new age are characterized by the fact that on the whole they have a great and increasing suspicion of even that rigid mathematical method of research itself upon which men like Spinoza bad relied. In other words, whereas the men of the middle of the seventeenth century had trusted to reason Alone, the men of the subsequent period began, first hesitatingly, and then more and more seriously, to distrust even human reason itself. After all, can you spin a world, as Spinoza did, out of a few axioms? Can you permanently revere a divine order that is perhaps the mere creature of the assumptions with which your system happened to start ? The men of the new age are not ready to answer " Yes " to such questions. They must reflect, they must peer into reason itself. They must ask, Whence arise these axioms, how come we by our knowledge, of what account are our mathematical demonstrations, and of what, after all, does our limited human nature permit us to be sure ? Once started upon this career, the thought of the time is driven more and more, as we have already said, to the study of human nature, as opposed to the exclusive study of the physical universe. The whole range of human passion, so far as the eighteenth century knew about it, is criticised, but for a good while in a cautious, analytical, cruelly scrutinizing way, as if it were all something suspicious, misleading, superstitious. The coldness of the seventeenth century is still in the air ; but Spinoza's sense of sublimity is gone.”

From the enlightenment point of view, of course, it all looks quite different. It looks like the re-discovery of happiness – and if sublimity is lost in the exchange, good riddance. Actually, though, sublimity, within the bounds of pleasure, wasn’t so much expelled as given a sort of reservation, composed of artfully arranged grottos and Pirenesi perspectives and, among certain chateaux, Sadean orgies. The eighteenth century made possible the respectable society of the nineteenth centiury. The nineteenth century returned the favor by systematically distoriting, censoring, and being shocked at their forebears.

The discovery of happinesss was cast as a“rediscovery”, given the Enlightenment obsession with the (mostly fictitious) pre-suppositions of the ancients. The Enlightenment thinkers needed this legitimating fiction, this alter image against which they could judge Christianity. This is why the figure of the fanatic was so important for the philosophes. Diderot condensces the Enlightenment thematic to its essential elements when he remarks, ‘however difficult it is to discern the limits that separate the empire of faith from that of reason, the philosopher does not confound the objects; without aspiring to the chimeric honor of conciliating them, as a good citizen, he has for them both attachment and respect. From philosophy to impiety, it is as far as from religion to fanaticism. But from fanaticism to barbarism, there is only a step.”

PS -- We have one more post on the figure of the fanatic in Voltaire, and a letter from our correspondent T. For a fascinating discussion of the migration of the vocabulary of enthusiasm to literary criticism in the 18th century, see this essay by Jon Mee. We can't resist excerpting a paragraph:

"Geoffrey Hartman has traced the origins of modern literary criticism in English to a tradition of "civility" designed as a defense against what he calls "enthusiasm, religious or secular, private or collective" (177). Using Addison and Steele's essays for the Spectator as his primary example, he suggests that "literature" came into being at the turn of the eighteenth century as a category defined against the intemperate ranting and preaching of hacks and evangelists. Hartman's primary concern is to defend the literary essay as such against the incursions of latter-day hacks and evangelists among whom, I fear, he would number myself. For what I do in this essay is to treat Hartman's historical claims about the relationship between enthusiasm and literature seriously and examine their significance for a later period as a form of cultural control. By 1735, the Gentleman's Magazine could publish a definition of enthusiasm in terms of "any exorbitant monstrous Appetite of the human Mind" (Grubstreet Journal 203). The secularization with which Irlam is concerned can be witnessed in such definitions, but it is not a transformation that makes the term safe. Rather, the term retains the association with the vulgar passions of the crowd, and the confusions of appetites with profound feeling. Two years later, the same magazine reported a parliamentary speech confirming that "the lowest Class of People [...] have, generally speaking a turn to Enthusiasm, and so strong is the Influence, such is the force of Delusion, that they can work themselves up to a firm Persuasion and thorough belief that any Mischief they are able to do, is not only lawful but laudable" ("An Account" 458). For the Romantic period, whether in its religious or secular forms, enthusiasm remained dangerously intertwined with the idea of the being transported into the amorphous and unstable hyper-sociability of the crowd."

Embedding 'enthusiasm' in class conflict works, to an extent, for England. But it doesn't for France. What's missing in France are the class "go betweens' -- the dissenting ministers. In the place of England's Richard Prices, in France you get Denis Diderots.

And -- on the topic of using religion to legitimate a configuration of state power -- LI suggests that the reader go to the Constitution site and compare such English declarations as that of Charles II renouncing the intention of prosecuting puritans, or the declaration of the Lords Temporal and Spiritual that defended the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England, and the rejection of James II. If you want to know what a real specific religious reference looks like, look at a phrase like "Whereas the late King James the Second, by the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom..."

Jefferson's "nature's God" is, by comparison, a relatively benign gaseous substance, with the same relationship to the Protestant God as Mr. Priestly's recently discovered Oxygen had to Phlogistan.
The Bush era is a strange amalgam of conservative beliefs that have their roots in Latin American juntas rather than British toryism. One of the beliefs that is sadly lacking is the belief in a free market. If the Bush people actually believed that currencies are subject to market pressure, they would be trembling in their beds. Why? Reading the NYT story, today, about the Japanese and Chinese position in American dollars explains why.


Intro grafs:

“As Americans embark on another season of debt-supported holiday spending, they might want to give thanks that Masatsugu Asakawa is still buying in America, too.
Mr. Asakawa, 46, is the top official at the Finance Ministry here responsible for managing the largest portfolio of United States government securities in the world, worth a staggering $720 billion. As the dollar has slumped this fall, many investors have started to worry that Mr. Asakawa and his counterparts elsewhere in Asia will be tempted to pare their holdings, perhaps causing the currency to plunge much further and setting off a round of interest rate increases in the United States that could send the global economy into a tailspin.”

Basically, America has been playing a con game with Japan. There’s a tradition here. Supposedly, in the early nineties, when an investment bank wanted to make a quick killing, it would devise some truly gross financial instrument – some derivative Frankenstein compounded of options on a peso-baht ratio or other equally mad bets – and stuff them down the throats of Japanese bankers. What did Japanese bankers get out of it? They were able to disguise their enormous losses, the result of the collapse of the Japanese bubble, through shifting the figures, by way of options, so that they didn’t appear on the accounting ledgers as such. However, you can only disguise reality for so long.

Con game might not actually capture the flavor of this. I'm reminded of the scene in Goodfellas where the owner of a restaurant goes to see a capo about receiving protection for his place. The owner's idea is that the capo should get a piece of the restaurant -- a tribute, out of respect. The owner takes it -- his men start ripping off the restaurant big time -- the owner can't pay his legitimate bills -- and the wiseguys end up torching the place for the insurance.

That, in abbreviated form, is Bush's fiscal policy.


Perhaps, as we watch the other legacies of WWII being destroyed under Bush – social security, education loans, the whole system of entitlements that have made life better in America for three generations – the irony is that we can afford to do it because of the most lasting WWII legacy – Japan’s semi-colonized status. Even Italy, at the end of the Cold War, experienced a profound shift in its governing structure. But Japan is still ruled by the same old oligarchy that the Americans vetted during the occupation, and that oligarchy has the same principles it did in 1950: please the Americans in order to stay in power.

Supporting the Americans is one thing, but markets are another. There is no way that this is going to continue:

“For all the interest in the other players, currency markets remain focused on Japan, which has aggressively bought dollars, doubling its investment in Treasuries over the last two years. During a 15-month period that ended in March, the Japanese government bought $340 billion of dollar-denominated securities with its yen. The buying spree so stunned speculators that Japan has not had to intervene in the markets since.
But now with Japan's huge stake in the dollar losing value, the question is, What will Tokyo do next?
The problem for Japan is that it is in so deep that to a large degree it is chained to its American debtor.
"Imagine that tomorrow people hear, 'Hey, Japan has decided to divert from U.S. dollars to euros,' " Mr. Asakawa said. "That would create a hugely undesirable impact on the U.S. Treasury market, and we have no intention at all to make an unfortunate impact on the U.S. Treasury market."
This is the kind of situation set up for currency traders to bet against. As the dollar falls and the Bush people pay no attention (military adventurism gets you attention in D.C., not dealing with the government’s debt), the horde of the Nibelungen storesd in Japanese banks will be turning so obviously into fool’s gold that no hocus pocus or chorus of Valkyrie will disguise it.
In this climate, the Bushies want to privatize social security, which could cost, in terms of borrowing to pay out current obligations, as much as the ill fated pill bill – 500 billion?
We’ll see. At least the Bush foreign policy is coherent on both the military and economic front: unmitigated piracy. LI’s suggestion: a truth in flags law that would replace the stars and bars with the skull and crossbones.

PS -- For those interested in things Derridian, LI posted this response to Leiter's attack on Derrida at Butterflies and Wheels.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Our friend Paul has been on LI’s back for some time about upgrading this site. Putting in, for instance, the standard roll of links.

We resisted. LI has been around for three years and some fraction. During this time, we have done an admirable amount of linking from our posts. We admire it, at least. Most of that linking, the diligent reader will discover, is not to other blogs. This doesn’t reflect the fact that we don’t go to other blogs – we do. But, in LI’s view, the blogocentric viewpoint of the Web taken by all too many bloggers actually impoverishes the ‘surfin’ experience’. Blogs, journals, pix, stories, texts – there is an incredible diversity out there. The flora and fauna are as outlandish as were the plants and animals of the New World to the first European travelers.

However, it is time to surrender to the debile Zeitgeist. LI is going to be making some changes and trying to become more popular. There is one reason for this: November 2. LI originally wanted this site to be as caviar to hoi polloi – not to everybody’s taste. Snobbishness, for us, is not just an attitude – it’s an aesthetic imperative. But the election has left us with a sense of ulcerated alienation that has made us crave popularity the way a psycho gunman on a tower craves more moving targets.

Beyond the psychopathology, however, LI still aims to serve. So our list of links is not going to include links you probably have. If you are reading this and you don’t go to Crooked Timber, for instance, you should. It is the best blog on the web, in our opinion. Not the best written, or even the most creative, but the most consistently interesting, the one blog that we can think of that can compete with a magazine like Slate. Nor did we include the Online Library at UPenn on our list, since we presume that you know about it. Black Mask, however, which, along with a for profit download part, essentially hijacks texts from around the Net and conveniently puts them into various readable formats, is perhaps less known. We could have linked to our archive of articles at the Austin Chronicle, but that somehow didn’t appeal to us. Does any reader of LI really want MORE Roger G.?

If you have a link you want us to put in, send it to us. Use the comments section, or send it to rgathman@netzero.net.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

While idling through the blogs, yesterday, I came upon a rightwing blog that referred (disapprovingly) to a news story from Alabama.
The story goes like this:


“A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda."

There were further entertaining touches in the story, including Allen’s suggestion that Tennessee Williams plays be banned and his idea that, since “novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed,” the thing to do would be to “dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them.”

So, I copied the article and pasted it into an email and made a few sarcastic comments and was about to send it off to a friend when I thought – what am I doing?
This is a story of a type that Mencken liked to collect for the Smart Set: cretinous Americana. Both the right and the left, on the web, love to find stories that report some aberrant act or another and pass them around. It is a genre that has, as yet, not found its Barthes.

There are several things that are interesting about this type of story.

1. It aims at a visceral response. My response to it is pre-set: well, here’s another example of what Bush America is about. Actually, I know that if Bush America was really just about bozos like Allen, it would be very easily disposed of. I also know that the sour gastric juices that constitute the Allen Politik do have a use-value for the Politik of Karl Rove. It has use-value in two ways -- first, that it exists pleases many of the Bush constituency -- and that it is put down pleases even more of the Bush constituency. One gains an advantage just by ingeniously depending on one's opponent to do the job of putting down these kinds of efforts.

2. Being visceral, the response blanks out the circumstances. In truth, Allen has proposed other anti-gay legislation, and it has failed – as the story points out. So Allen doesn’t represent the Alabama essence. He does probably represent poor, benighted Cottonville. Allen’s sensual image of burying gay books in a hole is such an obvious substitute for his own ill concealed s/m fantasies that the unconscious, here, is operating carelessly on the surface. He is going down a well travelled route, one that has been trod by many an evangelical preacher before him. It all ends up with some tawdry, blurry snapshots from some tawdry blurry hotel room featuring his naked butt and and somebody else’s. It is all so meaningless. Furthermore, part of me knows this.

3. But it is also all so mean, this sending of stories, broadcasting of stories, commenting on stories. The point of these stories is, in a sense, the opposite of the sociological sample – we know that the story doesn’t really illuminate some normal disposition of affairs, but it does light up our fantasy version of affairs – our fantasy, on the left, that Bush is really like Hitler, or the fantasy on the Right, which makes much greater use of these kinds of stories, that Liberals are really the disciples of the Marquis de Sade. When reality is used specifically to assume a substitute role, we know, we Freudians, that we are in the realm of the fetish. In the realm of the fetish, another logic rules. In this logic, the verbal is subservient to its intensity. You can see this happening in comments sections on certain blogs – the intensity of anger mounts in the counterpointing of comments in a very sexual way. It is a sort of anger jerk off.

What isn’t remarked upon enough is how important the anger jerk off is to our present state of politics. In fact, it is why American politics seems to be in a state of permanent after-burn. Where’s the old Village Voice when you need it? Where’s Norman Mailer? These are the sexual politics we just aren't talking about.

What, the question should be asked, is being substituted for what in the political logic we are tracing? It is not as evident as it first appears. For the desire I have, in the case of Allen, is that Allen’s desire be acknowledged to be the true desire of the Right. In other words, the fantasy, on my part, is that the truth about the Right is the fantasy entertained by the Right, which in turn is denied by the Right. My fantasy is about their fantasy – my desire is that they should show their desire – their differing of that desire – their denial that it is their desire – arouses a response of anger (finding its verbal equivalent in the ‘accusation’). That anger is that my desire to see the Other’s desire is thwarted by the Other – and that thwarting I take to be the strategy by which the Other intends to achieve its real desire. And what is that strategy? Seduction. And who is the seduced? Ah, the seduced is the Other’s other – not me, who sees through the false desire to the real one, but some innocent outside of me, lacking my knowledge.

When that other outside of me falls – when the other outside of me takes the bait, so to speak – my own latent identity with that other becomes a possible channel of pollution.

4. Fanaticism. I referred, in a previous post, to the essential dialectical role of the fanatic for Enlightenment thinkers. This will require another post. Which I promise I will write.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Perhaps I do not go too far when I say that, next to the introduction of Christianity among mankind, the American revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of improvement. It is an event which may produce a general diffusion of the principles of humanity, and become the means of setting free mankind from the shackles of superstition and tyranny, by leading them to see and know 'that nothing is fundamental but impartial enquiry, an honest mind, and virtuous practice, that state policy ought not to be applied to the support of speculative opinions and formularies of faith'. 'That the members of a civil community are confederates not subjects, and their rulers, servants not masters. And that all legitimate government consists in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent, that is, in the dominion of men over themselves, and not in the dominion of communities over communities, or of any men over other men.' – Richard Price, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and The Means of making it a Benefit to the World, 1785


Perhaps nothing is as comic, in Bush America, than the idea that the United States was founded on religious principles.

Only among a people who have been taught nothing about their own history, and are proudly ignorant of anybody else’s, could an idea like this be paraded around like a circus geek, performing its astonishing feats in the outlying provinces (Alabama, Mississippi, etc.)

In fact, it is easy to see how this molding of rank prejudice into factual claims could only happen in a state like Alabama, which officially voted, in the last election, that the State has no obligation to provide an education for its citizenry, and which would certainly vote down any politician who possessed the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Benjamin Franklin “right quick.” As in so many of the Red states, the preservation of the yahoo like fantasies of the average citizen is considered to be the first duty of the government. The reality principle, whether it consists of evolution or the fact that eventually, a government has to pay for its services through taxation, is devoutly to be skirted, or even derided.

In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written, there existed no state in Europe that did not claim the sanction of being a Christian commonwealth. From the Calvinists of Geneva to the Bourbons in Paris, the legitimacy of state power was expressly dependent upon an official belief in divine history.

This is what is unique about the Declaration’s God. “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The trumpet flourish of Nature’s God makes it clear from the outset that this is not the God of the fathers – this is not, in fact, God the Father at all. This is God as the ultimate variable. Freeing the populace to fill in that variable had the meaning that Richard Price, the dissenting minister we quoted above, recognized and welcomed.

Price, you will recall, was the immediate stimulus to Burke’s Considerations on the French Revolution. Under that gorgeous onslaught, Price rather disappeared, into footnote status. But during his lifetime he was connected with a network of English radicals, including Joseph Priestly, who recognized, in the features of the American Revolution, the great emergence of a secular civil society.

The break, of course, though large, retained some of the oppressive legacy of the past – notably the notion that there were such things as nature’s laws. One must remember that the Declaration faces two ways. One way is the official separation from a Christian commonwealth, Great Britain. The other way is to the official sanction on a society that imported slaves and held its territory in the very blood of the Indians it slaughtered. Here, the sanction of Nature’s Law was, a flimsy disguise for the arbitrary exercize of power.

Yet the beauty of the Declaration is the tension between the two functions it assumes. By granting human events an autonomous history, Jefferson actually losens the iron and oppressive grip of natural law. It is a breach that will only get wider as human events sweep us into an ever more human world, one from which we chase even the last God – Natura. Rather than a brooding, protective spirit, Nature can well become, as happens in the next century with Darwin, an infinite series of games.

In fact, there were hints that this was so even in 1776. Remember, that date marks not only the writing of the Declaration, but also the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which rediscovered, seventeen hundred years after St. Paul, the unknown God. This one consists of only one attribute : an invisible hand.


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

LI question of the day: what country harbors terrorists who openly threaten, on tv broadcasts, to kill the leader of a democratic country? What country was involved in a failed coup attempt against that country? And finally, what country benefited from the assassination of the prosecutor looking into how that coup attempt was put together?

No – this isn’t Russia and the Ukraine. This is the U.S. and Venezuela.

Christopher Hitchens, who has to keep a shred of lefty credibility in order to be included in the dreary lists of “liberal” hawks – and to get those juicy tv appearances – recently wrote, once again, about Kissinger and Chile. Apparently, Hitchens still thinks it is a bad thing for the U.S. to sponsor military coups in Latin America. Hitchens also wrote a laughable column for the Mirror about the smart guys – his buddies – around Bush. The intent of the latter column was to scoff at the famous Mirror post-election headline, “how could 53 million Americans be so dumb?” Hitchens conjures up a nightmarish vision of himself, Wolfowitz and Karl Rove, smarties all, chuckling about their Iraq caper. No doubt the cigars and brandies flowed freely. One wonders if he haa thought to ask his buddy Karl or Paul, hey, how about that coup in Caracas two years ago?

In a hit that had the old history of the twentieth century wrapped around it: Danilo Anderson, the prosecutor looking into who was behind the 2002 coup (and in particular a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Endowment for Democracy that promotes democracy (defined as government by rich people who pay international lenders back by stealing from poor people) around the world, was blown up with a bit of plastique in his car last Thursday. Funny, American papers didn’t devote the headlines to it that they have devoted to the situation in the Ukraine. Can’t imagine why.

Here’s the AP story:




“Anderson was investigating 400 people who backed an interim government that took power during the brief April 2002 coup against Chavez, who quickly returned to power. Previously, Anderson investigated an opposition mayor, eight policemen for shootings during an opposition march, and 59 dissident military officers.
Chacon asked the United States to support Venezuela's efforts against terrorism, after Chavez announced a new "Anti-Terror Plan" Saturday.
Venezuela has asked the United States to extradite three dissident military officers blamed by a Venezuelan court for bombings in early 2003 against Spanish and Colombian diplomatic missions in Caracas.”
Now, what are the chances that the U.S. is going to extradite these guys? Remember, the Bush doctrine is that a lesser power – say, Syria – that hosted a group that was televising threats to, say, assassinate Allawi would render itself therefore worthy of corrective incursion. In this country, however, according to this Newsday report, Miami tv broadcasts some wonderful stuff:

CARACAS, Venezuela - The tone was light, but the dapper comedian's words were sobering as he outlined his vision for regime change in leftist Venezuela.

"It has to start with the physical disappearance of the top dog, at a minimum," Orlando Urdaneta opined in reference to Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chávez. Asked who would do the disappearing, he replied: "Men with rifles and telescopic sights who do not miss."

Chavez’s government is airing Urdaneta's comments, made in an October interview on a Miami television station, to underscore its claim that Venezuelan exiles in Miami may have played a role in the car-bombing assassination Thursday night of a prosecutor probing 400 suspects in the coup that briefly unseated Chávez in 2002.

Government officials here contend the exiles are working with Cuban commando groups who in the past have launched attacks against their country in an effort to oust Chávez's mentor, Fidel Castro. They demanded a U.S. investigation of the expatriates.

Though the Venezuelan exiles often call for Chávez's ouster, and some have even claimed to have trained with Cuban militants in the Florida Everglades, U.S. officials and many political analysts say there is no hard evidence of subversion. Moreover, they note, the exiles' comments aren't necessarily more inflammatory than those made by some U.S. citizens against President George W. Bush.”



There are a number of anti-Chavez sites on the Net. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are not of the usual Latin American right, with its racism, calls for violence, and an ideology built solely around securing riches for the rich. But on none of those sites does one hear the criticism of Chavez put into the context of Venezuala’s recent history. For that, go to this Public Integrity site.


Chavez’s opposition keeps failing not because of Chavez’s oppressions, but because they keep promising the same outrageous policies as were pursued, to the country’s detriment, in the past. The same blind urge to privatize, the same economic policies which only worsen the vast inequalities that have been built into the system, instead of seeking to close them. The voice of the opposition is the voice of an oligarchy in exile. They definitely don’t like the exile. But until they learn to stop speaking as though they were ordering the maid back to work, we can’t see them toppling Chavez. The problem is, their frustration provides the Bush administration with a supply of coup material. And the Bush administration intends, obviously, to use it.
LI apologizes in advance for today’s post. Usually we stick to the non-fiction side of our oeuvre in these parts. However, we’ve been having fun writing the following story. Usually, when we write a story, we shop around for some small journal to send it to. Or, if we throw in a lot of sex, some adult mag to send it to. But this story seems appropriate for a weblog.

Don’t worry. We aren’t publishing the whole thing in one post. We will publish bits of it, though. For readers who come here looking for LI to whack something, we will be back to that in our next post.

Working title of this thing is: Dostoevsky translates Henry James

…here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some half-understood moral purpose? – Thomas Pynchon, V

Abstract: Dostoevsky scholarship has largely ignored Dostoevsky’s translation of Henry James’ Altar of the House of the Dead. In this paper, we both reprint the translation and attempt to chart the hitherto unremarked influence of James on Dostoevsky. James, at the time Dostoevsky encountered his work in Paris, was almost unknown in the English speaking world, although this was a fate that he shared with most of the great Russian writers of the time. It wasn’t until Constance Garnett translated James’ work at the turn of the century that he became known, first to the British, and then to the American, public. Dostoevsky’s translation was superceded by Garnett’s superior version. We argue that James’ passionate struggle to mold an image of Christ in terms of Russia’s unique redemptive role profoundly effected Dostoevsky’s conception of his own fundamental task, which was, as he put it, “ to disclose the abjured figure, the wrecked aboriginal, the buried Caliban, in the great American carpet.”


Dostoevsky purposely so dissolved the boundary between his fiction, his “lying muse” and his biography that the formalist tenet of the impersonality of art, besides being pertinent more to a mode of art of which he was the conscious, and uneasy, precuror than to his own aims or methods, simply must throw up its hands in despair at a case so hard as to be virtually uncrackable.. Thus, to understand how Dostoevsky came not only to read the Altar in the House of the Dead sitting in a Parisian café with a “brand new copy” of L’Observateur de Deux Mondes in 1870, but to understand further how the necessitous grip of the story was of such a degree that it interrupted the flow of his own work on the novel that eventually became The Possessed (1876), we must adduce the ‘personality of the artist,’ and, indeed, horror of horrors, his very historical circumstances, which were, after all, the stock of newspaper headlines. Although the translation acted as an interruption, one which other commentators have overlooked as so much not to the point, we see both sides of the coin, here: the other side was a release “devoutly to be wished,” upon the completion of which Dostoevsky embarked upon a series of novels and stories that were of a markedly different quality – indeed, his own quality, the ‘Dostoevsky’ who became, along with his beloved Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, the abiding American novelist – than the comparitive hack work he had done before.

In 1870, Dostoevsky was thirty years old. Five of those years he’d spent in prison in California for attempting to assassinate the governor. As he wrote of the narrator in his autobiographical novella, In the Cage:

I had hoped, in visiting Paris again, to commune with the young man I had been, as I was assured by others if not, wholly, by the direct proofs and confidences of my own memory, at nineteen. But the lesson I learned was, perhaps, as old as Achilles, who though knowing that his invulnerability extended only to cover the majority of his public person, and not his very all, never in spite of this returned to douse himself, with a final completeness, in the holy water of the River Styx, no doubt instructed by the oldest of human instincts that tells us that fate transacts its business all at once, with the immediate brightness and crash of a lightning bolt, and that no dickering, no returning, no excuses, no, as it were, satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, counted with that covert power. So too, douse as I would in the mellow air of that incomparable thing, a Paris Spring, I could never, as it were, touch bottom – so that, indeed, there were mornings of a grimness in my room at the Jockey when, in a fantastic mental rush, I was returned to hopeless days sitting in much less promising quarters, the smell of my own extruded necessity assaulting my nostrils. There was something in the memory that deprived me of breath, something that seemed to disclose a darkness as of a deep, an endless well, narrowly constructed, in which I fell further and further from the pale glare of the light that signalled the mouth and possible, or impossible, exit to the architecture. What had happened to me once could happen to me again – nay, could happen to any man. It was hard, then, to see the complacent paletot, the bourgeois opera hat, the bustle around some extraordinary product of the hour’s chef, without envisioning it all collapsing in a like darkness. I was, in a word, bad company

Monday, November 29, 2004

During the last fifty years, the U.S. has hunted four related but distinct devils in the Middle East. In an issue of Journal of Small Wars and Insurgencies from last year, Ghada Hashem Talhami, in Muslims Islamists and the Cold War, gives us a small, corrective counter-history to the usual American myth-making in this area. LI recommends reading the whole article. Talhami nowhere employs the language of demonology – but to LI, with our little faith in the ultimate rationality of American policymakers, the whole thing exudes a whiff of sulphur and brimstone.

Primo devil was communism. In the post war period, this devil was best fought by alliances with the regions various militaries. This was distinctive: while the U.S. had trained militaries in Central and Latin America before World War II, the spread of American influence through global militaries is still obscured by the by the historian’s preference for seeing the state as one unified entity, with military organizations identified with and subordinate to some governing organization. In LI’s opinion, America’s love affair with men in foreign uniforms had to do with the command and control mindset that dominated the postwar period. In places like Iraq and Iran, the military seemed to be the only command and control structure available. States were anything but; businesses played by puzzling local rules, and were, anyway, either too small or were being nationalized, which is what we were fighting against. The military seemed the best vector through which America could access these countries. An unexpected result of that was that the military often took over the state in these countries – but really, this wasn’t America’s problem. Thus, America could re-activate a cadre of pro-Nazi officers in Iran while at the same time quietly supporting Egypt’s nationalist officers, all in the same great cause: anti-communism.

Secundo devil sprang up from that same corps of Egyptian officers: Nasser. Nassaer was the cleverest of all the Middle Eastern Satans. At first, he seemed to promise to accomplish both he overt American goal [stopping communism] as well as our latent goal [diminishing the British influence in the Middle East]. But after 57, Nasser revealed the scaly tail. His nationalism became a threat to all we held near and dear, or at least to our allies – the King of Iraq, the House of Saud, Israel, etc. – in the region. Like all devils, he flew through the air – like all modern devils, he did this by way of the airwaves – and tunneled through that invisible territory, the hearts of the Arab masses. Suddenly, there was no King in Baghdad. Suddenly, there was OPEC. Suddenly, various oil rich countries started trying to extort the profits from pumping their oil. Suddenly, and most unforgiveably, Nassar started subverting the House of Saud.

As always, the devil is too clever by half. Nasser held out the promise of a secular nationalism, a brotherhood of Arabs. The counter-move was obvious. The Saudis had been suggesting it, to American indifference, all along: revive the religious sensibility of the Islamic world. Suddenly, that seemed like an awful good idea. And so it was that the Saudis started printing Qor’ans and building mosques and the Americans started aiding the Moslem brotherhood in Egypt. Nothing pleases Americans more than religion. In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYT’s favorite American Marxist, Paul Berman, published a little tract in which he traced the ‘intellectual history’ of “Islamofascism” without once mentioning that, from 1957 to 2001, America loved and nurtured Islamofascism. But then again, Berman is what Marxists used to call a lackey – he exists to be pointed to by reactionaries on any topic in which the U.S. is proposing some small ethnic cleansing, some subvention of a death squad despot, in order to add catholicity to the project.

Now, although Americans just loved the idea, in the sixties, of colorful imams and veiled women (portrayed, in the movies, as invariably sex starved creatures) ruling various Middle Eastern places, the project of reviving Islam wasn’t really ‘believed in” by the American advisors. They still believed, ultimately, in command and control structures – Islamism was a psy ops. Ultimately, when American foreign policy isn’t oppressive, in the Middle East, it is frivolous. So yes, Americans will sponsor one eyed Sheik Omar as he trips around the world preaching jihad, and yes, under George Bush I, we will even let him settle in New Jersey (where he can plot the first assault on the World Trade Center), but we can never take him seriously. The attitude is: let the wogs have their little magical ceremonies.

Which is why we were so surprised by the third devil: Khomenei. As Reagan’s cake and bible bearing envoys might have put it: aren’t we on the same page? Well, it turned out we weren’t. Americans loved Iran’s shah – so colorful, such a relic from the past! But the ayatollah – a new word – it made us belatedly discover the virtues of the separation of church and state.

As so often, when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window.Just as we had a new devil to contend with, the old devil made his move – into Afghanistan. And then occurred one of those Reagan era miracles, where everything just seems magically to coalesce. In other words, there was an absolute synergy between exorcists. The Saudis can refine their Islamism into an anti-Shi’ism; the Americans can indirectly fight the Russians; the Pakistanis can leverage several needed billions of dollars, build a nuclear bomb (with Reagan lobbying Congress not to punish them for it); and there’s no down side. Well, not unless one is extraordinarily sensitive to the million or so dead that are added up at the end of the Afghan conflict; not unless one is a crybaby about the destruction of Sufi culture, which in Afghanistan, as later in Chechnya, is singled out by Salafid heretic hunters. Devil three is as much on the mind of the exorcists as Devil one – so the ISI and the Saudi al-Istikhbarat al Ammah, their internal security police, can get together on promoting a Sunni Islamism that nourishes itself on anti-Shi’ite pogroms. In Reagan’s golden day, the Americans weren’t so grossed out about beheadings – after all, we watched the Saudis put down a revolt in 1979 with the massive use of beheadings of the rebels without a qualm or quiver.

So between the ISI, the Cia, and the Saudis, a terrible beauty is born.

The devil’s tricks, however, are infinite. When Devil no. 1 surrenders, the cartel of Exorcists International implodes.

But this is mere background noise in 91, when the last devil pops up: Saddam Hussein. Hunted down in his spider hole by forces under the command of the same guy who intermediated his mustard gas-n-charge war against Devil no. 3 almost twenty years before, the war against Devil 4 proves nothing so much as that demonology is a murky world. You don’t always know who you are fighting, or why. Americans have one infallible resource that has made them the world’s premier fighter of devils, however – purity of heart. They must have it – they proclaim it so often. Purity of heart means knowing that you are Right and Good. Knowing you are Right and Good means that you will prevail. That you will prevail means that only the picky, or the devil’s agents, will examine the means by which you prevail. To be a member of the Right and the Good means recognizing that, in the order of creation, the pure heart precedes any possible action that could define or confute it.

This is not a time for questioning or irony, but a time to free Iraqis. Freeing them, it turns out, has been the secret desire of ordinary Americans for decades. They only want to free them. Freedom and more freedom must be heaped upont them.

However, joyful as is the task of liberating our Iraqi brothers, Americans are too old in the devil hunting business not to smell something suspicious in the air. Is there a devil no. 5 emerging? Consider: we know that Osama bin Laden is only a mask for Saddam Hussein. Yet somehow, after the man under the mask was arrested, the mask still survives, and even makes mocking videos! How can this be? Unless… isn’t there something supernatural here? Cue the eery music.

Perhaps the new devil turns out to be the Sunnis. Perhaps our happy cooperation in the killing of Shiites back in the eighties – the way we watched the Saudis hunt their own Shi’ite population, and just found it adorable how they’d use those old fashioned simitar like things to behead radical leaders of same – perhaps that was a trick of this new devil. But our contemporary devil hunter confronts a daunting task – on the one hand, shoring up a President, in Pakistan, who sprang from the same milieu that materially supported Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers, on the other hand, razing to the ground Sunni strongholds in Iraq and dispersing their inhabitants, without a tent or a bottle of water, to the four winds. The last is not a war crime – by definition, Americans can’t commit war crimes. And then there is our most reliable ally in the Middle East, the Saudis. They must be startled by the new American policy of killing Sunnis. It is going to be harder and harder to explain that one.

Nobody ever said devil hunting was easy. We have to rely, once again, on our good intentions. God will provide the rest.