“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, February 26, 2005

The gorgeous

LI has high esteem for the ‘Gorgias.’ True, it isn’t as deep as the Parmenides, nor rich in images, like the Republic, nor sublime, like the Timaeus. But the dramatic form of the dialogue – the sense one gets of real people talking – fills the Gorgias as, perhaps, it fills no other dialogue – for there are always those moments when Plato is all too obviously pulling the strings.

It is in the Gorgias that Socrates unpacks his most radical ethical idea. It is an idea with a long career, but one that was, ultimately, indigestible to the Christian tradition that took so much from Plato: the idea that each man wills the good.

This struck the Athenians as a truly insane proposition. There’s a wonderful bit in the Gorgias where Socrates and Polus (whose contempt for Socrates comes through in the dialogue like an animal scent) go around about power. Ostensibly, the dialogue is about rhetoric and its wonders, but Socrates piercing of the aura with which rhetoricians surrounded their art is busy with sharp thrusts, until we get to the core of his objection: rhetoric promotes a kind of sickness. That sickness attacks the mental vision.

Polus doesn’t understand what Socrates is talking about:

“POLUS: What do you mean? do you think that rhetoric is flattery?

SOCRATES: Nay, I said a part of flattery; if at your age, Polus, you
cannot remember, what will you do by-and-by, when you get older?

POLUS: And are the good rhetoricians meanly regarded in states, under the
idea that they are flatterers?

SOCRATES: Is that a question or the beginning of a speech?

POLUS: I am asking a question.

SOCRATES: Then my answer is, that they are not regarded at all.

POLUS: How not regarded? Have they not very great power in states?

SOCRATES: Not if you mean to say that power is a good to the possessor.

POLUS: And that is what I do mean to say.

SOCRATES: Then, if so, I think that they have the least power of all the citizens.

POLUS: What! are they not like tyrants? They kill and despoil and exile any one whom they please.”

The notion that power is the ability to do what one pleases gives Socrates his opening. He proceeds by the usual method, until Polus has agreed that to do what one pleases, one needs an object of what is pleasing, and to gain that object requires a sort of practical wisdom in the calculation and carrying out of one’s acts.


SOCRATES: And did we not admit that in doing something for the sake of
something else, we do not will those things which we do, but that other
thing for the sake of which we do them?

POLUS: Most true.

SOCRATES: Then we do not will simply to kill a man or to exile him or to despoil him of his goods, but we will to do that which conduces to our good, and if the act is not conducive to our good we do not will it; for we will, as you say, that which is our good, but that which is neither good nor evil, or simply evil, we do not will. Why are you silent, Polus? Am I not right?

POLUS: You are right.

SOCRATES: Hence we may infer, that if any one, whether he be a tyrant or a rhetorician, kills another or exiles another or deprives him of his property, under the idea that the act is for his own interests when really not for his own interests, he may be said to do what seems best to him?”

Socrates idea, back then, was unpopular. It is still unpopular. If I were to say, offhand, what separates an intellectual from a non-intellectual, it wouldn’t be reading, it wouldn’t necessarily be an extraordinary ability to reason – it would be the having of deeply considered, in some form, this Socratic belief. This is a quiet moment in which something split, irreparably, in Western civilization. The idea both that power is simply the ability to do cruel things, and that man does will evil, eventually becomes the central moral view of Christianity; the view that “we will as you say, that which is our good, but that which is neither good nor evil, or simply evil, we do not will,” is developed into the counter-intellectual tradition. It developed into humanism and even remains the core of the anti-humanistic revolt, which is a refusal to let delight be sacrificed to calculation, but is still based upon this vision of delight.

Why are we bringing this up? Because we have always been puzzled about how moral discourse, in the U.S., has transformed the holocaust into its moral touchstone of evil. We find this puzzling not because the Holocaust isn’t evil – it surely is – but because it is so easily dis-ownable, and so easily manipulated to make it seem, uniquely, a refutation of the Socratic insight.

By dis-ownable, we mean that the exclusive concentration on the holocaust disguises a more pertinent history of evils in the New World – evils that were a large part of a past that provides the ground for American wealth and greatness. It is enough to note, perhaps, that those of the founding fathers from the South who we, justly, admire, were also complicit in actions which, nowadays, we would punish by life sentences in maximum security prisons. If I went out and separated parentS and their children, keeping, say, the children for myself so that they could work for me, under threat of beating, and selling the parents to strangers in a distant state, I would be considered a monster – but Robert E. Lee’s parents, relatives of George Washington, did just that. Similarly, Andrew Jackson, for the ethnic cleansing of the Indians, would certainly be considered much like Milosovic today. And of course American apartheid went on and on – if your parents bought houses in the suburbs in the fifties or sixties, there’s a good chance they signed clauses not to sell their house to blacks.

As for the "proof" that evil exists, thanks to the Holocaust -- this is moral idiocy. For the 20,000 years Homo sapiens have lived with some primitive communication ability they were all wandering around without any "proof" of evil? This annexation of the Holocaust for ethical pointmaking makes some sense. Nobody could deny that the extermination camp is a major moral fact about Western civilization. But the ritual of denouncing the camps does not, as the years go by, increase the denouncers moral awareness of their own histories. By this, I mean those histories that have happened even in our lifetimes. Shall we list the genocides? Shall we set, alongside that list, where the weapons for them came from? And who made the money? Who benefited from the Mobutus, or from the various Pakistan generals? Who sold the Argentinians the helicopters with which to throw living humans into the sea, or who loaned the Argentinian junta the money to carry on with, and is still receiving an interest on it? As the Holocaust example has become a touchstone of evil, a museum, a cliche, instead of a real event, so, too, the connection between it and another form of state sponsored mass murder -- war -- also recedes into the mist. The Christian legacy to moral thinking -- evil -- is the great facilitator of these easy souvenirs and amnesias.

Anyway, lately, we’ve been reading a history of the glorious Haitian revolt against the French. Tomorrow we want to consider a few facts from that revolt and ask – why are these not part of the pool of our moral examples?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Spraying the Bates fly

There’s a wonderful post on a science blog about the irrational right’s fondness for DDT. As a corollary to that love of the toxin, the Right has always cultivated a nice flame of hatred for one of LI’s heroines, Rachel Carson, to whom we owe the continuing existence of the bluebird and the osprey on the East Coast of North America. Few Americans have left behind anything that valuable. LI likes the way that the aura of Rachel Carson still retains her power to drive the Right wild – for Carson marked the end of that happy stage of corporate capitalism when the social cost of production could be shoved off without remark onto third parties (this is politely termed externality by economists. Bank robbers more honestly call it a stick up). In any case, the banning of DDT was symbolically as well as environmentally important. DDT had been promoted as the cure all for malaria. In fact, it worked well, for a limited time, against the anopheles mosquito which carry p. falciparum, the malaria pathogen.

Unfortunately, the evolutionary theory that the Right wants to ban from schools is a cruel reality that rules both inside and outside the classroom. Mosquitos have a much higher rates of reproduction than birds. Thus, the natural selection that would promote the spread of a DDT resistant variant of mosquito works faster across mosquito populations than in, say, ospreys. Hence, ospreys go down to the extinction point while mosquito populations that bear malaria recover from DDT quite handily. Of course, that means developing another insect spray, since you’ve wiped out the natural predators of the mosquito – isn’t that special? Environmental damage can be good for your stockholders. Luckily, capitalism needn’t be that evil – unlike consumer goods, like guns and drugs, insecticides are rather easy to ban.

The evolutionary story is the not unexpected lesson from the great spraying of the late fifties and early sixties. That spraying was justified only as a temporary expedient, while the first world resourced the search for a malaria cure. But – there was no such resourcing. Big Pharma went on to puzzle over male pattern baldness in CEOs, for which there was a big market in pseudo-drugs. In terms of the third world, the only thought in the heads of the drug makers was squeezing as much IP profit as possible from sucker countries that signed up to American sponsored trade agreements that installed vile American IP standards in these countries – which, of course, would have destroyed the nineteenth century American economy when it was developing. It is called colonialism, and – mockingly – free trade, by which the Right means the granting of monopoly power to businesses by the state. Ah, there is something the state does superbly, it turns out.

Tim Lamber at his blog, Deltoid, sprays the arguments that are being advanced Tech Central’s anti-enviro shill, one Roger Bate, that use of DDT in Sri Lanka is the best means to ward off potential post tsunami malaria . Bate apparently thinks that DDT carries with it some disturbance to the mosquitos organism such that even if it doesn’t kill the mosquito, it acts as like OFF to ward off mosquitoes – and thus should be sprayed within houses.

Of course, Bate is pulling these facts out of his … well funded career as a front man for various industry lobbies.

The Deltoid blog has a very nice run down of the numerous errors being spread by anopheles Bate-ius, here.

And – we are late in this – we urge readers to check out Krugman’s NYRB article about social security. Most lefty economists, when they start talking about social security, end up sounding like musicologists talking about rock and roll – the point is lost in the analytic clutter. Krugman, however, is perfectly clear about the spuriousness of the argument against social security. The Economist, not long ago, wrote an analysis of Bush’s proposals showing that they were disastrous, but still supported privatizing Socia Security because “it is wrong for the government to guarantee retirement.” This, in essence, is the motive for the whole hub-bub – an ideological one, an absolutist anti-state-ism, and not an economic one. There’s no economic argument against Social Security that isn’t an argument against any private pension fund.

PS -- Our friend Paul objected to that last sentence -- see his comment. Upon thinking about it, it might misrepresent Krugman's point. That point is that an aging, health care spending population is going to affect all institutions in the U.S. But Krugman's article doesn't specifically talk about the problems that are being encountered, right now, by private pension plans. My mix up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The birth of the spirit of the American military

My friend Paul at Fragmenta Philosophica pinned me, the other day, for willful exaggeration. I had written a War Crime alert about Ramadi – but as I had to admit to Paul, I don’t honestly think the U.S. is going to do to Ramadi what it did to Falluja.

However, there was a deeper level to our debate on his site. The deeper level had to do with what kind of war is happening in Iraq. LI often tries to penetrate the American veil of ignorance and discover an Iraqi perspective to the war, since it is mainly an Iraqi war. This post will be dedicated to another task: what kind of war is it from the American perspective?

Before the war began, back in 2002, we wrote a post about the spirit of the American military. Our idea back then was this: the American military style emerged from two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, there is the Grant style of fullscale assault. On the other hand, there is the McClellan style, of the maximum preservation of American life. The Grant style is especially adapted to assaultive wars. These wars are characterized by the fact that the enemy is large and, roughly, technologically equivalent to the U.S., and the American losses are politically acceptable. World War I and II are classic instances of this. Usually, though, American aggressions fall outside of this orbit. In order to poetically conciliate both the spirits of Grant and McClellan, the U.S. has developed its incredible military technology – to which it has devoted an extraordinary amount of resources. (The poetry of the state, you might say, is war. Which is why LI prefers the prose of the state – which is social welfare). It might be that the American imperium will be known, long after it disappears, for its weapons mania, a thing that, like the Great Wall of China, will puzzle succeeding generations.

A good example of the conciliation of Grant and McClellan was the dropping of the atom bomb, which is regularly defended as a way of saving American lives. We won’t get into that controversy now, except to say that other military regimes – say Napoleon’s – did not put such a premium on saving the lives of their soldiers.

So much for assaultive wars. Unfortunately for the American foreign policy elite, most American wars are not assaultive. And the war in Iraq is no exception to that rule.

What happens when a guerilla war is fought with assualtive methods?

In another period, the peak of the colonial/racist era in 1900, the Philippines war was fought in exactly that manner, with the rounding up and internment of the native population, random massacres of Filipinos, etc., etc., all in order to produce a direct protectorate in the Philippines. Even so, it was an unpopular war in the U.S. More popular have been the countless interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, the scale of which has been minimized due to the fact that a native praetorian force is on hand to take over necessary repressive tasks.

Iraq, in contrast to the Philippines, is an almost perfect example of the misapplication of assaultive methods in a guerrilla war. The political principle behind the war has been simple: a non-sacrificial jingoism. The Bush administration calculated that war would be politically advantageous as long as the spirit of McClellan was honored, as it was in Desert Storm. That calculation was right, domestically. Although the public is always saying it supports its troops, there is a range of casualties that the public will simply forget. If three to five soldiers die per day in Iraq, the public won’t wink – it won’t even care if the army those soldiers fight in gets its medical benefits cut, or is grossly chiseled by military contractors, etc., etc. But this calculation also hems in the range of military strategies deployable in Iraq. This means that, in effect, any counter-insurgency strategy that dramatically increases the number of American deaths will be politically aborted, even if this turns out to be the only strategy that will ‘win” the war.

So much, then, for background. Now, Falluja. The battle in Falluja was fought as though Falluja were Stalingrad, except that the Americans had that technological domination of the air, and that firepower, to truly decimate the enemy and preserve their own. One problem, though: when the enemy is so mixed in with the civilian population, decimating the enemy means creating vast number of collateral casualties. Vast numbers of collateral casualties –by which I mean refugees as well as injured and killed – supply an insurgent force with exactly what it needs to remain viable – a large, mobile, hostile group that scales across the country, which can support its daily operation and supply its manpower.

If Falluja had been fought in such a way as to lower the collateral casualties – if Falluja, in other words, hadn’t been knocked down – the Americans could have killed as many insurgents, but they would have had to pay a very high price in their own ranks. Ironically, however, they would truly, then, have achieved something closer to a strategic victory. The residents of Falluja wouldn’t, then, have been dispersed. The scenes coming from Falluja would have been of fighters dying, on both sides, rather than of fighters and babies and old men dying, on one side. In our opinion, the spike in violence after Falluja, and the collapse of the election throughout the Sunni areas of Iraq, could well have been avoided if the U.S. had abandoned both Grant and McClellan and fought the guerillas without their usual maximal regard for American life.

Domestically, however, that would have been impossible. If a thousand Americans had died in retaking Falluja, Bush would not be having a jolly time asset stripping social security; he would be trying to find another secretary of defense. A thousand American deaths would have been considered a disaster in this country.

This is the push-pull that leads the Americans to fight the way they do, and leads, in turn, to the idea, on the Arab ‘street’, that America is as criminal as Al Qaeda. It is also why Americans should get out of Iraq now, with a set date, period.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"I return to hell."

Remember the narrative of the nineties? The Olive Tree and the Lexus narrative? The inevitable march of capital over the sullen bodies of obstetric leftists? The final, historic turn to private enterprise all over the third world? Latin America was the happy, happy example for NYT shills of the process like Thomas Friedman, who has turned his supernatural talent for bad advice to Iraq these days – appropriately enough. The war in Iraq can considered, in some ways, the logical extension of the globalization ideology – if you don’t like private enterprise, we’ll kill you.

Two items today should be noted.

One is an old item, from the Guardian, Feb. 12. Go to it. It is a review of a unique document, the diary of a Brazilian woman, Carolina Maria de Jesus, who spent her life in the “insoluble hell” of a Sao Paulo shanty town – Beyond all pity. Maria de Jesus’s money life – our Siamese twin/devil in this life – was spent gathering junk to sell. Especially papers, waste papers, according to the author of the article, Felipe Fortuna:

“De Jesus wrote out of her poverty. By day and by night, waste paper and writing paper were the materials from which she built her life: by day, she made money by gathering and sorting paper, but at night, when she could, she would confront the blank pages of her notebook.

'The diary is not, by definition, a controlled creative process, nor is it a fictional work: it is a text bound by dates, which develops chronologically, without the need for climaxes. Nevertheless, the diary of De Jesus always records her life in the shanty town as an experience of overcoming, to which the succession of days and nights is crucial. All of a sudden, she will record how she doesn't know what the next day will bring, whether there will be any paper to sort, and therefore any food. She is in a constant state of precariousness, like someone who for years experiences work in a hospital, prison or mental asylum. And the life of De Jesus is as surprising as her text, both to her and her readers.”

Maria de Jesus saw the shantytown as the eternal impress of an active degradation which was dragging her to the bottom, and which would drag her children to the bottom, a perspective that might make some purveyors of identity politics nervous. Ourselves, we understand the irritation – living on the edge of your nerves sensitizes you to the trivial, to the neighbors’ disgusting behavior, to the law that rules out all generous gestures as suicidal. Here’s an example of an entry:

“The birthday of my daughter Vera Eunice. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realising our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living. I found a pair of shoes in the garbage, washed them, and patched them for her to wear.

I didn't have one cent to buy bread. So I washed three bottles and traded them to Arnaldo. He kept the bottles and gave me bread. Then I went to sell my paper. I received 65 cruzeiros. I spent 20 cruzeiros for meat. I got one kilo of ham and one kilo of sugar and spent six cruzeiros on cheese. And the money was gone.

I was ill all day. I thought I had a cold. At night my chest pained me. I started to cough. I decided not to go out at night to look for paper. I searched for my son Joao. He was at Felisberto de Carvalho Street near the market. A bus had knocked a boy into the sidewalk and a crowd gathered. Joao was in the middle of it all. I poked him a couple of times and within five minutes he was home.”

Another piece of more ephemeral news comes to us via today’s NYT, which reports, unsurprisingly, that privatization is dead in Latin America.
“El Alto, Bolivia -- Piped water, like the runoff from the glaciers above this city, runs tantalizingly close to Remedios Cuyuña's home. But with no way to pay the $450 hookup fee charged by the French-run waterworks, she washes her clothes and bathes her three children in frigid well water beside a fetid creek.

So in January, when legions of angry residents rose up against the company, she eagerly joined in. The fragile government of President Carlos Mesa, hoping to avert the same kind of uprising that toppled his predecessor in 2003, then took a step that proved popular but shook foreign investors to their core. It canceled the contract of Aguas del Illimani, a subsidiary of the $53 billion French giant Suez, effectively tossing it out of the country and leaving the state responsible.”

The swing back is going to be interesting – especially as the ideologues attempt to explain the conjunction of economic recovery and that horrid state, interfering in the economy:

“No companies have been more buffeted than those running public utilities offering water, electrical and telephone services, or those that extract minerals and hydrocarbons, which, like water, are seen as part of a nation's patrimony.

In Peru, despite major economic growth, foreign investment fell to $1.3 billion last year from $2.1 billion in 2002. Ecuador has also seen investments sag, as oil companies that once saw the country as a rosy destination have faced the increasingly determined opposition of Indian tribes and environmental groups.

Argentina, which has taken a decidedly leftist path in the economic recovery following its 2001 collapse, has recouped only a fraction of the investments it attracted just a few years ago.”

Investment from the outside – the dulcet, rustling sounds of dollars coming into a country – was accompanied, throughout the eighties and nineties, by another sound – the sucking sound of capital leaving the country to pay for both an unsustainable boom in imported consumer items and the mausoleum like piles of monstrous, useless debt. We will see if Latin American left leaning governments – even those, like Brazil’s, pursuing right leaning economic policy – start to understand that investment from the outside should come from Latin American countries themselves.

Monday, February 21, 2005

War crimes alert

John Burns, the NYT reporter who is to the American army what the legendary guinea pig is to the legendary S.F. polysexual, breathlessly informs us that the same tactics that were used against Falluja are now being turned against Ramadi.

“Between August and November, the strategy drove Shiite rebels out of the holy city of Najaf, forced a standdown by the same group in Baghdad's Sadr City district, and ended Sunni insurgents' stranglehold on Falluja, a major staging post for attacks.
The Falluja offensive ended with much of the city reduced to rubble, and insurgent groups still capable, weeks later, of mounting attacks from isolated pockets of resistance.

But American commanders acknowledged a more compelling reason that the offensive had proved less decisive than they had hoped. Many rebels fled ahead of the offensive, some north to Mosul, some southeast toward Sunni strongholds south of Baghdad, and others to Ramadi, 40 miles to the west, where insurgents last year took a measure of control almost on a par with their takeover of Falluja.”

Hey, how’s this for a compelling counter-narrative: a foreign army comes in, destroys hospitals, the majority of houses and small businesses, commits acts of terrorism both from the air and on the ground against a civilian population, and disperses it with maximum cruelty across the countryside – and population retaliates? Of course, I’m merely joking: surely the civilian population rejoiced at having its children shot at, its homes leveled, its religion desecrated, and it refugees treated to repeated humiliation by the Americans, because they knew that really, in our hearts, we are freedom lovin’ band. Rat Pack nation under God, just swingin’ in old Mesopotamia.

So, in the hall of shame, where the Sand Creek massacre stands next to My Lae and Falluja, we will soon be inscribe the name Ramadi. We can look forward to a lot of pics of kids burned to the gills, young men gutted, and the like, in the next few weeks. Discomforting, but just think what it feels like to the Iraqis.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

In the NYT Magazine, there is a small piece by Jim Holt about intelligent design. The point Holt is making is of the traditional burlesque variety - the often incredible “sloppiness” of design of creatures in nature that so often renders them so unfit that they go extinct argues, at the very least, that the intelligence doing the designing is of a low order. However, Holt’s piece includes a paragraph we can’t let go by:

“From a scientific perspective, one of the most frustrating things about intelligent design is that (unlike Darwinism) it is virtually impossible to test. Old-fashioned biblical creationism at least risked making some hard factual claims -- that the earth was created before the sun, for example. Intelligent design, by contrast, leaves the purposes of the designer wholly mysterious. Presumably any pattern of data in the natural world is consistent with his/her/its existence.”

This is wrong, and it is the wrong way to go to overthrow ID. A testable proposition usually means one in which observations can be hooked to quantities of some kind. Those quantities are what make possible predictions – and, in fact, it is often the quantitative effect one is watching. ID, like any theory, tells us enough about the world that we can look around and see whether what it says relates to what we find. So, the old burlesque principle (did Adam have a navel, yuck, yuck) is not going to cut it.

What should we look for if ID is true? Our post here gives you the background. To cut to the chase: where there’s a watch, there’s a watch factory. The increasing complexity of design entails a parallel increase in material evidence for that design. Thus, ID is as testable as any other theory – if that material evidence is spotty, then ID would be disputable. That the material evidence, so far, is completely and seamlessly non-existence makes it a good bet that ID is less likely to be true than, say, medical astrology. That its advocates have never lifted a finger to find the material trail that leads to ID events shows pretty much that we are dealing with buncombe artists – which do seem to infest the ranks of the evangelical set.

Unfortunately, those who argue against ID are so convinced that it is nonsense (understandably) that they don’t take it seriously enough to ask about its consequences. If they treated it more seriously as a theory, its gross inaccuracies would more quickly expose it as nonsense.