“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The masons are in retreat

It seems like a good day to recall Pius IX.

Pio Nono, it is said, was a great favorite of the present Pope’s (present, as of today). This is no doubt why, in 2000, his beatification was set in motion. Commonweal at the time published an article (“No No Pio Nono” ) that began straightforwardly enough:

“Is Pope Pius IX, who occupied the throne of Peter from 1846 to 1878, with God? We certainly hope so. But is this author of the notorious "Syllabus of Errors" (1864), diehard defender of the papacy's temporal rule, unyielding foe of freedom of conscience, speech, thought, and religion, of Protestantism, ecumenism, and the separation of church and state, a figure to be singled out for public veneration by the Catholic church? Is this a man whose life and character should be celebrated and held up for imitation? And should he be yoked, in memory and honor, with Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, in part, to heal the wounds that Pius spent much of his pontificate inflicting on the church and European society?”

In the same year, the Massachusetts Review published an article on the continuity between Pius IX and John Paul II: :A Nineteenth-Century Church for the New Millennium: The Legacy of Pius IX and John Paul II” by Bob Swacker and Brian Deimling. Pius IX was elected Pope two years before the appearance of the Communist Manifesto. He was, supposedly, a liberal. He turned out to be the most recalcitrant of reactionaries, and in nothing so reactionary as in his clinging to temporal power in Rome, however shrunken the territory. It was Pius IX who made the doctrine of papal infallibility official, thus setting up a paradox of performativity that even Austin could not untangle.

Here’s a nice summary of Pius IX’s work:

“Pius's great work was the Vatican Council he convened in 1870. Here was his chance to do battle with Voltaire, Locke, Marx, Mazzini, Darwin and all the others whose perfidious beliefs and theories challenged his worldview. He spent his entire papacy with the council's planning, building up the papacy to set this council apart from the counciliar tradition m which the bishops discussed and debated doctrinal questions. The Vatican Council would be completely dominated by the Bishop of Rome.

Pius had backed out on Mazzini in the 1848 nationalist attempt to unify Italy. A dozen years later he stood against Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and Victor Emmanuel when a united Italy was proclaimed, because it included the Papal States and had its eyes on Rome. When King Victor Emmanuel's popular plebiscite on the incorporation of Rome into Italy as the new capital (since 1862 it had been Florence) won 153,681 to 1,507 Pius petulantly retreated to the 108.7-acre Vatican enclave as a "prisoner." He lashed out, calling on Italians to boycott the new Italian government. (Neither he nor his successors left the grounds until the 1929 Lateran Accord with Mussolini "liberated" them and gave the Catholic Church educational access to the Italian public school system and Vatican control over public morals m Rome, as well as a significant indemnity. The price was a begrudging papal acceptance of the political reality of Italy.)

Always a supporter of religious freedom for Catholics, Pius signed an 1851 Concordat with Isabella II of Spain and a similar agreement in 1855 with Austria's Franz Josef opposing religious rights for anyone except Catholics. His opposition to democracy and republicanism provoked reaction in Western Europe where democratic impulses were gaining ground, and also in the United States where his opposition to public schools and the social work of Protestant benevolent associations intensified Nativist sentiments and anti-immigrant hostility. Needless to say, the pope opposed socialism and trade unionism.”

John Paul II obviously saw his own reflection in this predecessor, but the unfortunate constraints of modernity have kept the Church from pursuing the goal of religious and moral monopoly with quite Piux IX’s vigor.

When Andre Gide wrote the Cellars of the Vatican, he infused into it the pantomime conspiracy of Masons against Catholics – a conspiracy that was, nevertheless, firmly believed by Catholics in the nineteenth century. For Americans, who think of Masons as, vaguely, Shriners without the funny hats, or at best as the inspiration for the Magic Flute, this is preposterous – it is like supposing a conventicle of the Optimist Society pulled the strings to bring about the Cold War. But Pius IX’s supporters – his name rallies the anti-modernist faction in the Church – is still wary of those Masons.

And of course, Pius IX did have a problem with the Jews…

Piux IX died in 1878. Dead, he could be moved from the Vatican. When, however, his body was being transferred in a coffin on July 12, 1881, the procession was attacked by a Roman mob bent on tossing the late pontiff’s remains into the Tiber. They were repelled, eventually, which is why the remains could remain perfectly sweet, according to a report made to his beatification committee in 2000, as is befitting a saint.

Pius IX has good reason to smell sweet in 2005. The rise of anti-semitism is going along swimmingly. In Russia, an attack on an art exhibit that the Orthodox Church viewed as blasphemous has resulted in a fine – given to the artists. The United States, so influenced, at one time, by democracy, is settling down in a mix of oligarchy and theocracy, and has embarked on a crusade in the Middle East with very Christian overtones. Everywhere, the enemies of the church – Voltairism, tolerance, science – are in retreat. The Masons are fleeing.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Trying to make my comments section work on both Mozilla and IE6, LI inadvertantly erased all the comments. It has been a blogger hell morning. Sorry. The comments section should work, however, on all browsers.
A couple of days ago, LI took our inner Mencken out for a stroll over a conservative blog, Right Reason. One of the guys who produces Right Reason, Max Goss, actually noticed -- which pleases our vanity, we must admit, even as it has become a bit of a bemusement how, properly, to respond. Goss makes four points about our post, but doesn't address the central issue in it, re the contemporary conservative drift from the central theme of conservatism. We think that there is one justified complaint running through all of Goss's objections, which is that we used a disproportionately defamatory tone when writing about the weblog, without really quoting from it. As he says,

4. "Right Reason is the perfect blog for the era of big government conservatives: it is bold, brassy, and speaks in talk radio vulgate for the vulgar." Here I am simply at a loss. Which posts resemble the speech of, say, Michael Savage?"

That said, we think Goss doesn't quite get LI's objection to what we have labeled the "factionalism" on display at RR. We don't object to a conservative analysis of, say, central elements in analytic philosophy -- or to simply making observations about analytic philosophy. Between that, however, and the question, "is analytic philosophy conservative?", there is a world of difference. The later question thrusts politics -- and identity politics, at that -- into a pre-eminence in a domain properly defined outside the political sphere that violates the precepts of the whole conservative tradition, which is about preserving the separation of politics and other domains of culture.

Once you make the move towards creating an identity politics out of conservatism, the voice will follow. No, not the voice of Michael Savage, the writers of RR surely are smarter than that, but certainly the tiresome voice of academic identity politics which filters down to the Savage level.

What instigated pouring out the vials of opprobrium on RR? It was a post entitled High Culture and Conservatism, which began:

"American political conservatives enjoy an uneasy relationship with high culture.

There are, of course, those who define their conservatism precisely in terms of high culture - of the preservation and transmission from past to future generations of "the best that has been thought and written."
But economic and religious conservatives might wonder what's in it for them. For it is far from obvious that the canonical works of literature, music and visual art are much help, on the whole, when it comes to defending the free market or the altar and hearth. It would be one thing if the canon consisted primarily in the holy scriptures of democratic capitalism and Christianity. But these days it is liable to incorporate Marx alongside Adam Smith and Nietzsche alongside the Bible.

Moreover, the present-day heirs of Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot who man the high cultural battlements, notably in the pages of The New Criterion, seem to have welcomed the whole of modernism into the keep. But, for better or worse, the average American political conservative has probably never even quite swallowed The Wasteland or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. So is he at all likely to get much more out of the works of, say, Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning than he does out of Piss Christ or the chocolate-covered Karen Finley? Perhaps he may be forgiven for wondering whether he has much at stake in the struggle to defend traditions that culminate in the likes of abstract expressionism and serialism against the assaults of the postmodernist wreckers. Better, perhaps, to abolish the National Endowments altogether, defund college humanities divisions that seem to do nothing useful anyway, and head down to the NASCAR track, put on a Garth Brooks album, or take in a movie. After all, while Mel Gibson may not have the highest of brows, at least he can be counted on to fight the good fight for God and country, and to keep you awake while doing so."

This hairsplitting -- the economic conservatives, the political conservatives, and the conservatives that drive Candy Red Trans Ams - is very much what LI was talking about. And the idea that we dicker about High Culture with people who have no education in it, on the principle that, I suppose, education is unnecessary for an opinion in these things, was once labelled, by some conservative, the ideology of "trousered apes."

So: that's the bone we have to pick. Still, Max, who was nice enough to reply to us, was right to point out that, with the time and effort that goes into putting up a collective weblog, we were much too hasty in generalizing about it, and that it has more potential than we gave it credit for in our post -- we were attacking it as a stalking horse for all the sins of contemporary conservatism. Sorry, Max.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

"clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences, at all."

LI recommends William Logan’s article on Whitman in this season’s Virginia Quarterly Review: Prisoner, Fancy-Man, Rowdy, Lawyer, Physician, Priest: Whitman's Brags. (inexplicably, they don’t have the toc up on their site).

A brag comes, Logan claims, from the Scot’s practice of flyting:

"Whitman's poetry treated American English—I mean the English that Americans spoke—as more than a dialect, not tbe literary English of literary men. Literary English was a censored language, but not all America was censored. Listen:

I'm a Salt River roarer! I'm a ring-tailed squealer! I'm a reg'lar screamer from
the ol' Massassip'i WHOOP! . . . I'm half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o' me is crooked snags an' red-hot snappin' turkle. I can hit like fourth-proof lightnin' an' every lick I make in the woods lets in an acre o' sunshine. I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an' out-fight,
rough-an'-tumble, no holts barred, ary man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an' back ag'in to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics, an' see how tough I am to chaw!

“Come on you flatters, you bargers, you milk-white mechanics. Tbat's Wbitman's talk. But it's not Wbitman; it's a brag reputedly by Mike Fink, tales of whom were current wben Wbitman was a boy. (The rest o' me is crooked snags—that might bave been Wbitman's motto.) The Americans sometimes called such boasting a brag; but Scottisb poets in the sixteenth and later centuries knew it as a flyting, a bout of cursing or poetic invective, a slanging match between two poets who swaggered or slandered as they chose. The brag echoed Homeric vaunts before battle, the boasts of Beowulf, the bowls of the sagas. Such word battles must bave reached tbe American binterland early, possibly with Scotcb-Irish settlers who drew upon their literary tradition or the tavern duels on wbich their poets once had eavesdropped.”

I wonder about the “echoing of Homeric vaunts”, here. I imagine it is more likely that the brag comes from the same source – the warrior end of society, its ethos refined among those for whom language is always there, the song on the tongue. American Indians no doubt had their own tradition of the brag, and certainly it overflows in hip hop; and struggles, obscurely, in advertisement, porno, and among salesmen. From Mike Finn to Bush’s “bring it on,” it is both central to the American self perception and the alienated child of twentieth century suburbia, a partaker in American good and evil, the Hiroshima locked inside the Statue of Liberty.

Logan isn’t giving us a radically new look at Whitman in his essay, but he nicely sees that the vulgar tongue is not free of genre – far from it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The freak show ideology of big government conservatism

My friend Paul wrote me a while ago to recommend that I visit Right Reason. He said that it was a site aiming at becoming a sort of rightwing version of Common Timber. So I visited the site, but was shocked to find that I knew some of the writers. In fact, I had T.A.-ed for one in the long ago.

My acquaintance entailed strong and negative extra-ideological opinions. However, I do believe the writers there that I know are highly intelligent. All the more reason to find the site rather shocking. If you compare an average week of posting on Right Reason with, say, an issue of National Review from 1966, you will find a catastrophic lowering of the intellectual level. In the age of big government conservatism, the freak show faction, which has always played a large role in practical conservative politics, has taken over the brain. Gangrene has set in.

What happened? American conservatism in 1966 was embedded in a struggle with world wide communism – as it saw it – and that struggle gae the movement and its thinkers an aura of some nobility, gave its scope some grandeur, even if you suspected that much of the struggle was delusive. There were reasons to be Manichean, in 1966. Besides which, European and American intellectuals who had been forged in the leftist culture of the thirties and forties and then converted, by way of anti-communism, to some version of Burkean conservatism, infused the movement with an intellectual vigor and scrupulousness that made the National Review, in its heyday, one of the great American journals.

This is all, apparently, gone. In its place, the writers at Right Reason spend their time tirelessly debating such questions as: is analytic philosophy conservative? or high culture? Or Stilton Cheese…

A real conservative would recognize this style for what it is – the kind of factionalism that, from the conservative point of view, inevitably marks the decline of a culture when, as Burke said, the ‘theorists’ gain power. The condemnation of factions runs from Swift to Burke to Disraeli as a constant in conservative thinking; it is a constant derived from the central theme and the central problem of modern conservatism.

The central theme, in conservative thought, is order. And the central problem is progress.

That there is progress in human affairs conservatives do not deny. Rather, they specify its temporal limits. Progress is what happens on a secondary cultural level – the level, for instance, of science, or of opulence. The conservative, having firmly in mind the difference between the real of human nature and the realm of social processes, is always looking for ways to subordinate progress in society – or, rather, limit it to its proper sphere. This is the reason that the ‘classic’ is of peculiar importance for the conservative. The classic takes the immediate struggles which mark the sphere of social process – the sphere in which progress has its mythical justifications – and endows it with that perspective (regardless of the artist’s particular technique) that hints at a higher order which no social process can overturn.

But at Right Reason, such conservatism is dross. This is a conservatism uniquely dedicated to having no standards at all, on the principle that my opinion is as good as your opinion. This is why the posts on “high culture’ are particularly without merit – odd, on a site that includes, as a writer, Roger Kimball.

Perhaps it is appropriate that today’s conservatives are busy erecting a large tombstone over yesterday’s conservatives – in fact, destroying themselves from within. The theology of the visceral, preached by evangelicals, is the dead opposite of conservative – the kind of emotional orgy that has haunted the conservative imagination throughout its history. The embrace of the revivalist meeting is the end of real conservatism, period. Only its zombie like corpse remains.

This doesn’t mean conservatism is really dead – it is simply dead at the top. Right Reason is the perfect blog for the era of big government conservatives: it is bold, brassy, and speaks in talk radio vulgate for the vulgar. Like Emerson (who was, at one time, a litmus test for old line conservatives – the instinctive dislike of Emerson was a sort of party badge of American conservatism), LI believes conservatism is as perennial as the temperament that gives rise to it. The way ideological space has been divvied out during the Bush years, however, it is obvious that the conservative temperament is and will be for the foreseeable future more at home on the left than on the right.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Another fine colonial war you've got us into, Stanley!

“Keep the dogs hungry and they will follow you.” That, according to journalist Chris Kutschera, was the motto of Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled Oman and Muscat, as it was called, from 1932 to 1970. Kutschera’s color piece tells a lot about Oman at the time.

“There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours. But one day the dogs got too hungry, and they tore the Sultan almost to death.”

The politics of the Arabian Peninsula in the fifties and through the sixties were shaped by a number of rivalries: that between the Saudis and Nassar; that between the Americans and the Russians; and that latent and silent struggle between the declining colonial power of Britain and the Americans. It was part of the last named rivalry that Britain took the side of Oman in its border dispute with Saudi Arabia – which regarded Oman much the way Saddam Hussein regarded Kuwait. Sultan Taimur was an anglophile. Although foreigners, including Brits, were not welcomed to roam the country, British military men provided the real security advice and structure in Oman. It was the British who helped Taimur put down various revolts against his power. What the British couldn’t quench, immediately, was a revolt that sprang up in Dhofar, that region of Oman that bordered The Democratic Republic ofYemen. The original insurgency was simply that of the aggrieved, but it evolved into that third world special, Marxist revolutionaries. The two division of what eventually became known as the “Popular Front for the Liberation of the occupied Arabian Gulf” were named after Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara – names that are a little hoary, now, but that, in the sixties, had enormous magical power. The Marxists wanted to secularize, provide health care and education for women, etc., etc. – all of the things that Western policy in the Middle East was dead against for fifty years. So naturally the British had to do something. What they did was “loan” Oman use of the SAS, and build the Sultan (who had forbidden the use of glasses as an intolerable modern affront) an air force. There’s a nice, Kipling-esque account of the war on this Small Wars site. It would probably be accurate to call the Dhofar war the last classic colonial struggle undertaken by the British.

The impediment to stopping communist subversion in the Persian gulf, it turned out, was the incorrigibly backwards Taimur. So he was overthrown in a coup that is surrounded by the usual Cold War murk – the Brits most likely pulling the strings, but no chain of evidence leading directly to any order. Thus they elevating his British educated son, the present Sultan, Qaboos, and kicked the war into higher gear.

“By July 1970, the province of Dhofar in western Oman was almost entirely in the hands of Communist-backed rebels belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The Sultan of Oman had failed to recognise the danger and had done little to gain support among the indigenous people of Dhofar. The province was ideal guerrilla country, being dominated by a range of mountains in which the Sultan's Armed Forces found it difficult to operate. On 23rd July, the Sultan's son Qaboos bin Said, seized power in a palace coup to try and save his inheritance. He immediately introduced policies based on British counter-insurgency operations (COIN) and new government agencies were set up, designed to modernize Oman and persuade the ordinary people that the Sultan was worth supporting. Elements of 22 SAS were sent to help the expanded SAF defeat the PFLOAG.”

However, the British ability and willingness to sustain a war in the Arabian peninsula in the seventies was dependent on the rotten financial situation of the British economy, as well as emergencies closer to home, as in Northern Ireland. So Sultan Qaboos turned elsewhere – namely, to the Shah of Iran. Not only was a generation of British military men trained in the Dhofar war – by the end, it became an exercise field for the planes the Americans had sold the Shah .

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Dhofar War

LI’s memory was pinged, recently, when we read a jolly, he’s-a-mercenary-so-he’s-okay interview by Thomas Catan with the head of an agency of hired killers, Alistair Morrison, in the Financial Times. Here’s how the article starts:

“As a waiter leads me to the table where Alastair Morrison is sitting, I brace myself for a bone-crushing military hand grip and a sergeant-major greeting.

I needn't have worried. For a former SAS hardman - famous for storming a Lufthansa airliner in 1970s Mogadishu and liquidating the hijackers onboard - he has a pleasant, soft-spoken way about him. Immaculately dressed in a dark blazer and tie, he sits in a neat, self-contained manner, his back against the wall. I find myself leaning nearly halfway across the table to hear what he is saying.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Morrison pioneered the modern- day private military industry (a term he dislikes), which has since burgeoned into a multi-billion pound global business. "I never envisaged the market growing to this size," he says, shaking his head.”

There are buzzards, which are ugly, carrion eating birds with scrawny necks; and there are buzzard flatterers, which are completely off the scale, zoologically speaking.

Morrison, it turns out, “has been a continuous presence in the industry and a force behind many of the companies now operating in Iraq: Erinys, Hart Group, ArmorGroup and Kroll.” It would take us a little off course to link to articles about each and every one of these companies. Suffice it to say that, of ArmorGroup, the American division now wholly independent and providing our troops in Iraq with their famous armor, with which the troops are unpatriotically dissatisfied, and in England, they are even more tentacularly busy -- this is from the Scotsman:

”A PRIVATE security company headed by former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind is making millions from a contract to protect Foreign Office staff working in Iraq, it emerged last night.

ArmorGroup, the biggest ‘mercenary’ security firm working in Iraq, is one of two companies that have raked in a total of £15m between them for providing round-the-clock cover in the treacherous environment of post-war Iraq during the past year.

Rifkind, the Tory candidate in Kensington and Chelsea, sparked protests from political opponents last month when he took over the chairmanship of ArmorGroup, which has 700 employees in Iraq.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has admitted they are paying the company - along with Control Risks - £50,000 every day to protect its bureaucrats stationed in Iraq, amid mounting concerns about the safety of civilians in the war-torn country.”

However, that Morrison is a white devil and that Catan never posed any questions about the questionable influence of his companies in the government isn’t the point, here. We were intrigued, instead, by this sentence: “He fought in the Dhofar war to defeat communist rebels in Oman, then served in Northern Ireland. He turned his hand to counterterrorism in the mid-1970s, when airline hijackings were almost as prevalent as beige and bell-bottoms.”

What Dhofar war? So we decided to research it, and we found a surprising lack of information about the war. Yet it appears that the war was a first blood experience for many Brits – the present Air Force Chief (who bears a name out of Evelyn Waugh -- Sir Jock Stirrup) served, according to his official bio, “on loan with the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force, operating Strikemasters in the Dhofar War.”

So what was this war against “communist insurgents,” and how did it serve the cause of freedom, justice, and democracy in the Middle East? We will leave that to our next post.