“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, November 12, 2005

oompa loompa liberalism

Funding note: this week LI’s funding drive netted one hundred dollars. This is excellent. When we started this drive, our goal was one thousand dollars. Now our goal is a more reasonable six hundred dollars. We are only two hundred dollars away from the goal. Is that cool or what? Please think about contributing to LI, check out the shirts and stuff via the handy Dopamine Cowboy button, and take the bread out of the mouths of orphans and widows and instead send it to LI. What did those orphans and widows ever do for you, anyway?????



Easeful sleep is not easy for LI. Somehow, our consciousness has transformed, over the years, from the good and faithful servant of the body to a tenacious monster out of some James Whale flick, a combination Igor and Old man of the Sea, clutching at our neck and turning the volume up in our brain with breathy chuckles as the night grinds on. For some people, three o’clock in the morning is an abstraction. For us, it is a stage in the journey to despair. Yesterday, as you might have noticed, our post was not, shall we say, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. That’s because we were falling asleep as we wrote it. Just as we were falling asleep doing almost everything we did yesterday: pissing, eating breakfast, riding the bike.

Today I am a product of, if not a great deal of sleep, at least a concentrated dose of it. For which, I will sacrifice a goat to Morpheus in good time.



The mighty, mighty Nurses of California – a group that has reconciled me to Nurse Ratchet – enjoyed the fruits of victory yesterday as Schwarzenegger dropped his “I kick their butt” objection to the law mandating a ratio of one nurse to every five patients at hospitals. Schwarzenegger had objected because his bottom was pinched by the medical industry, but lo and behold! now that the ratio is taking effect, turns out the medical industry has become all lamblike and amenable:

Jim Lott, executive vice president at the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said the governor's action in ending his appeal of the staffing rules "will have no impact on what hospitals do because they are already attempting to staff at the more stringent levels."

Last March, Lott had warned that the rules might lead to the closure of hospitals "on the cusp of closing because of financial burdens."

Kaiser Permanente and University of California hospitals have stated they have adopted the new ratios. Lockhart said Catholic Healthcare West, the state's largest nonprofit chain, recently agreed to comply.”

It would be nice if the Mighty Mighty nurses next knocked down the anti-capitalistic guild provisions that restrict the labor market in medical care – that’s right, I’m talking about the State-Doctor nexus that both limits the powers of medical care-givers who aren’t doctors and that culls the number of doctors who are put into the system each year – all, of course, in the name of quality. Medical technology has long made it the case that qualified nurses could take over much of the powers invested in your average GP – and at a much cheaper cost. Home visits by doctors are actually common in France – imagine that. In the U.S., home visits by doctors went out with the fifties sit com. But home visits are an economical way of cutting down health care costs, since they are a mighty mighty preventive weapon. A whole class of medical technician could easily fill that role if it were subvented by the state.

Such a proposal would, of course, lead to an uproar among doctors. They have a very keen sense of the role artificial scarcity plays in maintaining high medical costs. And they are very big contributors to political campaigns. Hence, the buffoonery of knocking down “frivolous lawsuits”, on the one hand, and of doing nothing to make medical care provision more efficient, on the other. If medical malpractice suits were more difficult to mount because medical care was being vastly expanded at a cheaper rate, that would make some sense. But medical malpractice suits are being attacked at the same time medical care is being tied every more closely to inefficiencies in the guild tradition of monopoly – which is a variant of the P.T. Barnum version of Capitalism preferred by the political establishment.

The Mighty Mighty nurses goals for next year? Oh, I love these people!

“The fight with Schwarzenegger has politicized the 65,000-member nurses union, which previously had not been one of Sacramento's major players. The nurses said they plan to continue to pressure the state's leaders by lobbying next year for a single-payer healthcare system that would abolish private insurers and for comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

Friday, November 11, 2005

Scorcese made the brilliant decision, in Goodfellas, to impose the action of the movie against the signs of the sixties and seventies, using the music, the décor, the sex, the clothes, the drugs, everything, and simply eliminating the politics. Not one mention of the Vietnam war, for instance. This gives the viewer two feelings. One is the feeling that this Mafia enclave is truly living in its own world, even as it receives its inputs from the outside. And the second is that the American imperium is truly vast, because the Mafia is living like average Americans.

So: I go out to breakfast, typical Austin joint, migas for me, tables around buzzing, here’s two guys talking about their kids and the marvels of speech their kids are inventing out of the stitching of neurons and the world, here’s a table around which construction chiefs have gathered as the GC lays out the plans for building a number of restaurants in Texas, from bonding agent to the architectural drawing to the specs, and over here two women are having an animated discussion about the passage of Amendment 2 this Tuesday, and how one of them voted against it, and the people who are against it are going to wake up. Etc. Another day in America.

One gets the feeling that nobody there is particularly eager to bath in Iraqi blood.

So: Condeleeza Rice feels she must meet with Chalabi, the embezzler who is also the target of an FBI investigation who is also the great Iraqi patriot feted by the same AEI that proclaimed, in its journal last May, that the war was over and we won – news of course that keeps on being new to corpse after Iraqi and American corpse. The Rice flies to Iraq in a surprise visit to Mosul to tell us that our strategy against the insurgents is working. It is working like gangbusters. And the NYT files its report saying, first graf:

“MOSUL, Iraq, Friday, Nov. 11 - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise stop on Friday in this violent, Sunni-dominated city in northern Iraq , declaring that it had recently become a success story for the strategy of using Iraqi forces to quell the insurgency.”

This turns out to be a lie, as the story goes on to report that she did not make a stop in the city at all:

“But the visit also reflected the delicate situation in Mosul as Ms. Rice - making her second trip to Iraq as secretary of state and her first trip to a Sunni-dominated area outside Baghdad - flew from Bahrain directly to a heavily fortified military base north of the Tigris River, surrounding an old palace of Saddam Hussein's on the city's northern outskirts. The area is now known as Camp Courage.

A month ago, four State Department security officers were killed in Mosul by a roadside bomb, and the city, Iraq's third largest, was not deemed safe enough for her to visit.”

The Bush strategy and the NYT strategy on the whole truth vs. lie thing are, as so often, in tandem. As a measure of the trendline for Mosul and our great adventure there, the story gives us a canned history – the invasion, the relative peacefulness of the first year of the occupation, the explosion as the U.S. committed atrocities on a Chechnyan scale in Falluja, the impossibility since for any American unaccompanied by armed guard to hustle down the Mosul streets. Your usual win win situation.

So: The same Washington Post story that gingerly prodded the return of Iraq’s odd choice of a convicted criminal for minister of oil mentioned the meeting between another of America’s Iraqi sweethearts, Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's vice president, and Donald Rumsfeld, conferring over the ever denied and now undeniable desire of the U.S. to put a big fat military presence in Iraq forever:
“In an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, the economist said a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops would leave a "very dangerous" vacuum. In talks with Rumsfeld, Mahdi said he had made clear he is "not averse" to a permanent base for U.S. troops in Iraq.”

Bob Dreyfus at Tom Paine, whose reporting about Iraq should be taken with a big dose of salt, mentions something interesting about this week’s spate of Chalabi redux: a lot of money seems to be going into Chalabi’s campaign for the December 15th election. To find out the sources of Chalabi money always requires a spelunking expedition down a rathole: did he get his pockets stuffed by the Americans or the Iranian or is this money he stole from the Oil Ministry, from the CIA, from the bank in Jordan, or from kidnapping and burglary in Iraq itself?

No doubt a big reason Chalabi is in D.C. and Rice is/isn’t in Mosul is that the Arab League is inviting all sides to a conference in Egypt. The U.S. has a great fear of all sides reaching some agreement behind our back, one that might well be “averse” to a permanent base for U.S. troops in Iraq.

So: The spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, Fareed Sabri, gives an interview in the Asian Times. The IIP, as the Asian Times reporter explains, is essentially an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood. Since the Moslem Brotherhood and the Ba’athists have been blood enemies for decades, the IIP is in the strange position in this insurgency of cooperating with its enemy, insofar as Ba’athists are involved in the resistance to the occupation, or cooperating with its Shi’ite enemies, DAWA and SCIRI. The IIP solution to the first horn of the dilemma is to indignantly deny it is happening. That is, that Ba’ath members are at all involved in the resistance. As for the future:

“MA [the Asian Times reporter]: Is the insurgency creating a new form of political identity, namely an Iraqi nationalist-Islamic identity?

FS: Yes, and this predates the occupation. It goes back to the early 1990s when the former Iraqi government launched Hamla Imaniyah, or Faith Campaign. But the resistance is adding flesh to that legacy and in the process is not only creating a new political identity, but a new Iraq as well. I can tell you that many people in the resistance are looking beyond the occupation and are anxious to implement true Islam in Iraq.

MA: Do you think this new ideology can be a suitable replacement for Ba'athism, insofar as ensuring Iraqi unity is concerned?

FS: It is difficult to say at the moment. But as far as the Iraqi Islamic Party is concerned, we call people to Islam through dialogue. And at this point in time we strive to promote democracy and an atmosphere of toleration inside the country. It is too early to be talking about an Islamic state. We need to gradually prepare the people for this.”

Right.

Interestingly, the IIP is looking beyond the occupation. But they are not seeing, as Chalabi is, American oil companies as far as the eye can see, and the infinite chances for graft therein. They are seeing an economic community, like the Europeans, between Turkey and Iraq and Iran.

So: the manic investigation of how we got into Iraq seems to have taken the air out of the question, what is our goal in Iraq? The short answer is that we still hope to treat Iraq as we once treated, say, Guatamala, finding figureheads that would cover massive American pilfering. This is what stay the course is about. Or as Powell's aide de camp, Wilkerson, put it:

“The other thing that no one ever likes to talk about is SUVs and oil and consumption,” the retired Army colonel said in a speech on Oct. 19.

While bemoaning the administration’s incompetence in implementing the war strategy, Wilkerson said the U.S. government now had no choice but to succeed in Iraq or face the necessity of conquering the Middle East within the next 10 years to ensure access to the region’s oil supplies.

“We had a discussion in (the State Department’s Office of) Policy Planning about actually mounting an operation to take the oilfields of the Middle East, internationalize them, put them under some sort of U.N. trusteeship and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly,” Wilkerson said. “That’s how serious we thought about it.”

Now that is a planning session whose minutes should be leaked.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Off to prison she must go

LI opposes the death penalty. But LI also believes that Saddam Hussein should have been shot on the day he was captured.
We reconcile these two positions dialectically – which is a fancy word for weaseling around seemingly irreconcilable positions.
Clive Foss has produced a nice overview of the dispatching of tyrants in November’s History Today.

Foss does a very English job of maintaining an armed innocence about the whole issue of violence and the state. That is the crux issue for us, and the reason we believe that a gap opens up in the very notion of law itself when a tyrant is overthrown.

Foss’s article ends with the current decorous human rights point of view:

“In modern times, a consensus has emerged that tyrants should not get way with their crimes against humanity but must face a fair trial, not so much for revenge as for catharsis, to bring closure to the survivors of their actions, and as a warning to future would-be tyrants. Yet fairness can itself bring problems. If Saddam's tribunal decides to exercise due legal process, the case could drag on for years and could prove embarrassing for the powers who supported him in the past. Delayed justice brings real dangers: Tyrants can start to look better in retrospect, especially if the succeeding regime fails to offer security or prosperity; the population might get exasperated waiting for closure; and the ex-tyrant could serve as a rallying point for opposition. On the other hand, swift or arbitrary justice could undermine the rule of law that a country like Iraq is so determined to achieve. Much will be heard about these precedents and the complications they evoke.”

The rule of law that Iraq is so determined to achieve is a little neocon poppycock. The rule of law is, on the contrary, what the government has been running over roughshod, tearing up the rules, for instance, on making its constitution in order to produce a document to fit the American schedule. Etc.

But ignoring that, Foss’ introduction of the notion of deterrence is a way of normalizing the trial of the tyrant. Like any other trial, it points to its predecessors, and it points to that whole strain of mimicry which exerts a concentrating force on the social whole. In this way, Foss papers over the uniqueness of the founding situation. If Foss is correct, revolution has no status whatsoever in politics.

This is why Foss is evidently embarrassed by the trial of King Charles I:

“The first trial of modern times, in England, illustrates problems that still challenge equitable solution. King Charles I, not everyone's idea of a tyrant, had fought and lost a civil war, and wound up the prisoner of enemies who were determined to punish him. By then, the government was in the hands of a small minority of a House of Commons purged of any who might be sympathetic to the king. What remained of the Lords refused to cooperate, so the trial was conducted by a 'High Court of Justice for the Trying and Judging of Charles Smart', claiming to represent the will of the people of England. From the beginning, the verdict was never in doubt: the trial was a cover to justify executing the 'tyrant'. The indictment stated that Charles had conspired to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people, had levied war against parliament and was guilty of all treasons, murders, burnings and damages committed in the wars. He was accused of being a tyrant, a public and implacable enemy of the commonwealth of England.
The King, who was allowed no counsel, faced his accusers alone. To their chagrin, he ran circles around them. Instead of replying to the charges, he attacked the authority of the court. He claimed that the tribunal was illegitimate, unrepresentative of the people or parliament, and that it had no right to try him. To accept the legality of the court, he claimed, would in itself be a violation of the laws. Charles turned the table on his accusers by maintaining that he was himself defending the liberties of the English people by resisting arbitrary power. Although the judges had no ready answers, the king was found guilty and executed, all in the course of ten days in January 1649.”

The execution of the king was the root out of which the liberal order in England formed, with all its contradictions, cruelties, and advantages. It is rather like the nursery rhyme, London Bridge is falling down.

London Bridge has fallen down, fallen down, fallen down,
London Bridge has fallen down, my fair lady!
Build it up with lime and stone ...
Stone and lime would wash away ...
Build it up with iron bars ...
Iron bars would bend and break ...
Get a watch to watch all night ...
Suppose the watch should fall asleep? ...
Get a dog to bark all night ...
Suppose the dog should get a bone? ...
Get a cock to crow all night ...
Suppose the cock should fly away? ...
What has this poor prisoner done? ...
Off to prison she must go.
My fair lady!

As many an excavation of old bridges have shown (and as Frazier made a point of in The Golden Bough) a victim – a poor prisoner – was often entombed in the bridge’s foundation to appease the river god. That’s as good an image as any for the state. In the revolutionary moment, there is, properly, no state, a fact that has been pointed out by every tyrant ever tried, from good Charles I to bad Nicolas Ceausescu. Was it Deleuze who speaks of the making of the state as a lightning like act? The state begins with a dazzling suddenness. And its post-revolutionary structural stability depends upon having sacrificed the right victims to the people: those tyrannical bodies entombed in the foundation. This is why a trial should be swift, if trial there is to be. Foss’ mention of trials that linger on and on – he uses the example of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian dictator who eventually escaped his trial.
What does it mean when the lightning like moment doesn’t happen? Foss’ model, which would make the trial of the tyrant like any other, would make this situation like any other in which a murder is unsolved. But if the state’s legitimacy is bound up in the death of the tyrant, then it is not simply a question of precedent – it is a question of the state’s own history. In essence, the moment of the non-trial is the moment in which the state embraces its earlier form. At that moment, the regime of abuse begins to contaminate the state’s own claimed renewal. There’s nothing inevitable about this. Chile may well continue to exist as a democracy without putting Pinochet to death. But there is something extremely hazardous about this. The collapse of Argentina in 2000 is linked not only to the incautious embrace of the bogus dictates of neo-liberalism, but the thousand uncut ties to the military regime that preceded Menem.

Now, LI does try to avoid the bloodless bloody rhetoric that comes up wherever politics is talked about – the glee in jailing people, cutting off their heads, raping them, which fills the comments of blogs on both the left and the right. Politics is and always will be partly entertainment – and glee is one of the emotions that part of it is supposed to arouse. But glee is a dangerous, lynch-y thing, and I am as afraid of it as any person with common sense. So I am not quite comfortable about the ideas I’ve traced above. Yet I do not think that the revolutionary moment is merely a figment of the overheated student libido. It has a real historical existence. That the American Revolution did not require George III’s head was a matter of contingency – the spatial separation of America and England – rather than any principle. In principle, the founding fathers would no doubt have had to execute him, if George III had incautiously ensconced himself on these shores.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

giddy nurses for us

The moronic inferno won in my state yesterday. The sick breath of bigotry had been condensed into an amendment to the constitution that defined marriage as “between a consenting cock and a consenting pussy.” The amendment also noted, “cocks with other cocks or assholes and pussies among each other are just too God damned scary.” The yahoos, of course, went for it like a prize ticket to a mudwrestling match. Next year we are going to vote on whether dinner is defined as “that meal with a hunk of scorched cow flesh in it and only with the aforesaid flesh.”

This would be merely funny if the anti-gay amendment didn’t include vaguely threatening language that seemed to threaten the finances of gay couples, and their ability to raise kids.

All of my votes – the vote against the prison bond issue, the vote against the road bond issue, etc. – lost. Wait a minute… I think the park bond issue passed. Oh, and supposedly “liberal” Austin went for the fear of cock with cock and pussy with pussy by 60 percent to 40 percent. So much for keep Austin weird. There’s no perversion quite like the perversion of normality – the Einsaetzgruppe of perversions. It was on the rampage last night.

I note, in other elections, that Bloomberg won spectacularly in NYC. If the man would come out against the Iraq war, he’d be my perfect G.O.P. candidate for the presidency. I’d definitely vote for him over Hillary, in spite of the anti-smoking penchant. Unfortunately, as we’ve said and said, liberal Republicans have fallen into a state between hibernation and death, the zombie Bushites form that solid block of unreconstructed fantasists determining the party’s course into ever wilder realms of unreal rhetoric, and liberal Dems piss all over themselves celebrating the election of moderate to conservative Dems. So it goes….

I meant to write an obituary of John Fowles today. But I will put that in another, friendlier post.

PS – my gloominess about Texas was lightened, a little bit, by the story of the defeat of Schwartzenegger’s proposals in California. We loved this little Oompa-Loompa bit:

“On a Beverly Hills stage Tuesday night next to his wife, Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger pledged "to find common ground" with his Democratic adversaries in Sacramento.

"The people of California are sick and tired of all the fighting, and they are sick and tired of all the negative TV ads," he told supporters at the Beverly Hilton. He did not concede, saying instead that "in a couple of days the victories or the losses will be behind us."

Dogging the governor, as it has for months, was the California Nurses Assn., which organized a luau at the Trader Vic's in the same hotel. As Schwarzenegger's defeats mounted, giddy nurses formed a conga line and danced around the room, singing, "We're the mighty, mighty nurses."

That does it. Fuck the party system, it is the mighty mighty nurses for LI! And one question: is Schwartzenegger insane? How long do you have to be in Hollywood before you realize that giddy nurses rhumba-ing is a winner? You want to be with the nurses, not against them. Elementary rule.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

the nobility of parchment goes down

“… il est plus important qu'on ne pense en politique d'extirper cette diversité d'idiomes grossiers qui prolongent l'enfance de la raison et la vieillesse des préjugés.” (... in politics, it is more important than you might imagine to extirpate that diversity of vulgar idioms which prolongs the infancy of reason and the senility of prejudices." – Abbe Gregoire.

When LI was a young lad hitching around France, we once hitched to Brittany. We were hitching with a young lass, which made the hitching a lot more fun. And both of us were associated with CODOFIL, an France-Louisiane friendship society. Well, the town that we hitched to was quiet enough that our appearance there, plus Codofil, got us an invite to dinner with the mayor and a picture in the local newspaper. While some of the local muckety mucks were shaking each others hands and exchanging jokes, the photographer sidled over to us and began to explain that he was a member of an independence group. The group had turned its face against the intolerable oppression of Brittany and its Celtic culture.

Well, there is little chance of Brittany becoming independent in the near future, but I was reminded of that incident in the last couple of days, reading references to 1968 in the stories about the riots in France. A better date, if you ask me, is 1792, the year of the Vendée.

By this I don’t mean to imply that the massive autos de fe, so to speak, is on the same level as the thousands slaughtered in the war between the royalists and the revolutionaries in Brittany. Rather, what is being shaken right now is the historical result of that war: an official France that enforces itself, by a long performative act, on the territory of France. When Abbe Gregoire presented his inquiry into the languages of France to the Commission on Public Safety in 1794, he called it: "On the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalize the french language.”

A friend from Paris wrote me that I should understand a little verlan to understand the rioters. I had not even heard the term verlan – so far out of the loop am I – but quickly caught on that this is the hip hop street slang, and that this slang is a marker – it is a marker of what needs to be annihilated. But our feeling is that the old and successful system, Gregoire’s France, is on an unsustainable course of confrontation with French reality. That reality is about an enclaved population that is desperate for representation – for power. As well it should be. My friend told me about listening to Jospin on the radio last night. He has written a memoir, and is out on the book trail. He was asked about the rioting and told a story about some immigrant rugby player who made it into the political elite. It was a pointless story, from the point of view of the street. But from the point of view of Gregoire’s France, it made total sense – it was exactly the kind of myth Barthes wrote about.

To draw a practical consequence from these riots, from the point of view of the Greens, communists, and socialists is going to be difficult. My correspondent tells me that Sarkozy’s removal is not only an obsession of Humanité’s, but is demanded by the rioters themselves. Our point is: if Sarkozy disappeared tomorrow, the social motives for rioting would still exist. And the inevitable riot aftermath – the reaction – is not going to be blocked by a politics that can’t reach beyond persons.

To end on a dialectical note: while Abbe Gregoire’s thesis about language might be taken as a sort of ultranationalism, one has to remember that historical categories are contingent and precarious. Actually, Abbe Gregoire was one of the Assembly’s fiercest defenders of the Haitian revolution, a political position beyond the political limits of mere abolitionism. An unpopular position to take. So, in fairness to Abbe Gregoire, two further quotes:

“De toutes parts on y parle de droits, de devoirs, de constitutions, de représentation nationale; partout resplendissent les emblèmes de la liberté, l’esclave les voit; partout se font entendre les chants de la liberté, l’esclave les entend. Croyez-vous que ces étincelles électriques n’atteignent pas son coeur?”( Everywhere one speaks of rights, of duties, of constitutins, of national representation; everywhere the songs of liberty are making themselves heard, the slaves hear them. Do you really believe that these electic sparks will not penetrate their hearts?)

“La noblesse de la peau subira le même sort que celle des parchemins.” (The nobility of skin will submit to the same fate as that of parchment)

Monday, November 07, 2005

notes

Notes

LI apologizes for the length of yesterday’s post. I don’t know what came over me. The fascination of the topic, the two Thai sticks, what... Anyway, I’m not going to go on at such tyrannical lengths again – without breaking it up into two posts.

Also, an email from a reader reminds us that we should have linked to the Colombia Journal site a post or two ago. LI especially recommends Eric Fichtl’s August article, which goes probing into Colombia’s recent history from the odd vector formed by media and grafitti.

LI is hoping that the peak donation period hasn’t passed. The first week of our drive we collected 200 dollars. The second week we collected 100 dollars, I believe. This is the third week. We’d really like to collect seven hundred more dollars, but more realistically, two hundred more is our goal. Please donate to us.

And finally: we are not really puzzled by the news from France. This emeute has been building for some time. In the U.S., there is a sort of laughable view of France – as there is of much of the rest of the world – in which the country exists only in strobic moments in which it interacts with or can be compared to the U.S. It is rather like the old disco days, when the multitudinous flicker of the house's special blacklights would reveal a world of dancers seemingly caught in some film strip of elaborate but obscure martyrdoms, disconnected naked poses bared to eyes that would seek in vain for the old instinctive continuities. All very dramatic, especially if you added coke or poppers to your dance card, but when the beautiful people went home or to the bathrooms or to fuck in the car, they still had to trundle the old daily carcass, that unglittering young thing as material as any mop, enduring all the ersatz hiatuses, with them to do it. So, too – to escape this ungainly metaphor – the French problem with its band of outsiders in the banlieus is not especially understood from the U.S. perspective. Much of the coverage in France has been disappointing, centering around Sarkozy’s Lepennian slip – calling the poor scum, saying he was going to ‘vacuum clean” the suburban slums, etc. Sarkozy is in an uncomfortable position, since his toughness was supposed to make the car burning insurrection impossible. But L’humanite, for instance, concentrating on Sarkozy as a cause of the insurrection is simply political bs.

From the U.S. pov, if we must have one, Sarkozy not only has moved to embody a sort of Nixon/George Wallace position in France, but he also – like Nixon – favors affirmative action. Affirmative action will go against so many French inclinations that it will be interesting to see where, if anywhere, such proposals go.

However, instead of analyzing the riots, we thought it would be more helpful just to translate a news account. Which we will do in an upcoming post – the one we thought we’d translate, we can’t find. It should be noted that the state of emergency declared by Villepen today originated with Le Pen’s party. We aren’t necessarily going to see a drift to the ultra right, but we certainly will see it if the Greens and Communists stick to the chorus that these riots are about Sarkozy. This is the time to really get into who is getting educated, who is getting the jobs, who is getting the health care, who is getting the infrastructure, who is getting the policing in France.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

rabbit's politics

Christopher Lehmann’s essay with the provocative title (Why Americans can’t write Political Fiction) in the Washington Monthly, much mentioned this week among the political blogs, has an honorable intention at heart. Like many political junkies, Lehman thinks that The Gay Place, the novel by LBJ’s one time assistant, Billy Lee Brammer, is the great American political novel. Unfortunately, instead of simply sending a valentine, Lehman takes the big picture approach. The short cut Toynbee approach. This involves him, at the outset, in an unequal struggle with language. Language gets the best of it, the way the boa got the best of the Laocoon boys. Here’s Lehman’s second graf:

“In the ever-accelerating information age, journalism has taken on the role of chronicling both the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation's political imagination. But technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues—reflection and depth of character chief among them—that our political fiction should be delivering.”

William Hazlitt he ain’t. That ever-accelerating information age is powered, we are pretty sure, by the hot air generated by a million New Economy conferences. As for those political events, we wonder if they marched, tubas and baton twirlers and the lot, into the mysterious programming demands, and if it was covered live, on the news at five, and if anybody was hurt. We imagine that Lehman was envisioning, vaguely, programs on tv, point counterpoint stuff, roundtable stuff, and not computer programmers a-coding. But it is hard to know what he was saying: we only know that, whatever it was, this graf didn’t say it. This is pretty bad for your second graf.

Lehmann goes on to make the following argument (we think): a person who is engaged in some political job has a better chance at representing the march of political events, sugarcoated with literary virtues, than a person who is, say, a proctologist. Lehman uses Orwell as an example.

“[1984’s] continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell's imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.”

There you go. There is nothing like being a propagandist for awakening your dormant reverences. It has happened to so many. In actual fact, Orwell worked to propagandize the British colonies in the Far East, which was guaranteed to reawaken his repulsions about the manifold hypocrisy of British imperial culture. But to hell with it, Lehman’s idea of that famous comedy team, cause and effect, is that they must work if you throw enough clichés at them. And that makes arguing with his thesis difficult – you have to help him to find it, first.



Since I am writing a novel that uses, among other things, politics, I’ve been thinking about the use of politics in fiction myself. Lehmann thinks that political fiction is fiction with a politician in it, just as a wedding cake is a cake topped with little bride and groom figurines. But that’s a narrow view of politics and cakes. In fact, it is a typically D.C., top down view of politics. A broader view would take in, say, Bellows, or Updike’s Rabbit novels.

Which brings us to what we really want to write about.

There is a wonderful instance of the perils of politics for the novelist in Rabbit Redux, Updike’s reckoning with the sixties. Or, rather, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s reckoning with the sixties. It is interesting to me that the overtly political things in that novel – for instance, Rabbit’s argument with his wife Janice’s lover about Vietnam – are oddly clunky, while the social stuff, the medium in which politics lives, is done in a thousand-fold scatter of brilliant nuances. Here is Harry in typical pro-war mode about Vietnam, arguing with his wife’s lover, Stavros:

“We’d turn it into another Japan if they’d let us. That’s all we want to do, make a happy rich country full of highways and gas stations. Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Union if they’d just stop throwing bombs. We’re begging them to rig up some election, any elections, and they’d rather throw bombs. What more can we do? We’re trying to give ourselves away, really, that’s all our foreign policy is, is trying to give ourselves away to make little yellow people happy, and guys like you sit around in restaurants moaning, ‘Jesus, we’re rotten.’
“I thought it was us and not them throwing the bombs.”
“We stopped, we stopped like all you liberals were marching for and what did it get us?” He leans forward to pronounce the answer clearly. “Not shit.”

Eventually, Stavros pronounces his opinion that Harry is “a good hearted imperialist racist.” Stavros, mind you, is a small town, middle aged car dealer. Updike needs a foil for Harry, and Stavros, such as he is, is it.

Granted, this was a hot decade. We’ve discovered a nice library of books about the politics and drugs of the old counterculture era which we are going to put on our links list. If you scan through them, you find a much different vocabulary in place, a rather astonishing one. Here, for instance, is the beginning of the third "communication" from the Weather underground:

"This is the third communication from the Weatherman underground.

With other revolutionaries all over the planet, Weatherman is celebrating the 11th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Today we attack with rocks, riots and bombs the greatest killer‑pig ever known to man—Amerikan imperialism.

Everywhere we see the growth of revolutionary culture and the ways in which every move of the monster‑state tightens the noose around its own neck."

And this is from Kirkpatrick Sale's book on the SDS,from 1970:

"Nothing if not diverse, and even contradictory, but they went to East Lansing [for the 1969 SDS conference] out of the pervading sense that SDS, coming off a triumphant year (its deficiencies unknown or overlooked after the success of Columbia), was the likely organization to be the cutting edge of the second American revolution.

In the year and a half since Greg Calvert first put forth the tentative notion of "revolutionary consciousness" at that Princeton conference, SDS—and with it much of the white Movement—had been heading inexorably toward thinking of itself, and feeling itself, revolutionary. By the middle of 1968 there were many thousands of people who could, with no sense of hyperbole, agree with the SDS convention paper which argued that "our movement is an element of the revolutionary vanguard painfully forming from the innards of America."

By no means a majority of the young shared this attitude, of course, not even all of the politicized young. What is remarkable is that so many did, and many more would come to in the course of the next two years: university students, yes, but dropouts and nonstudents, too, and academics and community organizers, the denizens of the youth ghettos and hippies, kids still in high school and in the community colleges, and Movement alumni and adults along the left as well. The numbers are impossible to reckon, really, though one cautious survey in the fall of 1968 found approximately 368,000 people enrolled in colleges who considered themselves revolutionaries and another in the fall of 1970 counted no fewer than 1,170,000—which suggests, given the character of the left at the time, that there must have been something like twice that many again who thought of themselves as revolutionaries and were to be found not in the colleges but in the Movement organizations, high schools, and the streets."

With 1,170,000 revolutionaries running about on their summer breaks, maybe one ended up a car dealer in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Still, there is a fraudulence about Stavros, a pretence on Updike's part that one makes one feel, beyond the fiction itself, the upsurge of a preemptive need that goes beyond the rules of novel's game. This is not something we feel about his other characters.

Updike is always technically aware of what he is doing. So it is a fair question to ask if the clunkiness of the overt political parts is intentional. In Self-Consciousness, Updike writes about his own obsession with Vietnam (vide this letter, in 1967, to the New York Times, which is echoed in Harry's speeches). The war and the protests against the war made him feel excluded from the club of writers, the majority of whom took an anti-Vietnam war tilt. On Updike’s account, he would go to parties and dominate discussions with defenses of the war. It wasn’t that he planned to dominate the discussion, or knew he was doing it – he simply couldn’t shut up, and he couldn’t sense, while he was speaking, time going by or attention being strained. I’ve known that feeling myself. His wife would point this out to him. Philip Roth once pointed this out to him. But Updike kept doing it.

Updike felt that there was a connection between defending the war and his very language – or rather, the way he spoke. The way he stuttered. The helplessness of knowing he was right and not being able to convince people he was right, not even his wife, reproduced the more intimate feeling of not being able to speak because speech itself is the obstacle. To lie there in the dark coffin, one’s tongue paralyzed, is the writer’s nightmare, maybe the nightmare out of which a certain kind of writer emerges. And we all know that out of this dilemma of being right, of being obviously right, and being surrounded by people who are obviously wrong, and who preen themselves on their erroneous opinions, there arises a familiar pattern: first the feeling of righteousness is coupled with the feeling of impotence, then the feeling that one is being held back, unfairly, generates an image of those enemies all around whose fault it is that one is being unfairly held back, then a politics that is fueled by denunciation of those who are unfairly holding one back becomes wholly shaped by denunciation until denunciation is self-justifying – all of which leads to talk radio politics. Rabbit’s speech about Vietnam, the defensiveness of it, the use of caricatures of the kind of speech he feels is being attributed to him by opponents unknown, those ghost quotes that clog his speech, the talk of the enemy, the snobbishness of the enemy, it eerily echoes the kind of talk radio style that appeared, fifteen years latter. Updike catches a genuine something in the air. The genealogy of this style would take us through Rabbit, through Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh, through the thrombosis of that rotten egg laid by the new left, Identity politics, all the way up to the default political blogger style of perpetual mutually armed destruction, nuclear exchanges every day.

There is a way of talking about fiction that assumes that fiction is just about getting a reflection, that it does not intervene on reality, that it exists in an oddly self-erased space. Myself, I like to think of a comment of Proust’s to the effect that Balzac’s nobility, unreal when he created it, was realized after Balzac died – the sum total of his Human Comedy was to create the template upon which the Second Empire’s nobility modeled itself. Style, in other words, has an effect on history. This is why you have to break the mirror writing fiction, shift the joys of mimesis, realize that description is an act. And a particularly prideful act, too – boosting your world upon the world. Updike is famous for rendering and noticing the stuff that surrounds us. He likes to get things right, he likes to know about the light, about the way eyes shift in a face, about the way a man leans on a bar to drink a beer and how the beer comes out of the can and how blunt fingers can peel off the label while the man struggles with the usual territorial barriers to saying something intimate, about what the obsolescence of a technology does to an industry that makes that technology and the people who work in that industry who make the technology – in the case of Rabbit Redux, the technology is printing, and the obsolescence is in the use of the eye to make printing adjustments, something Harry does expertly, as he once played baseball. And something we know Harry won’t be able to do for much longere. Rather, Harry is going to have to move into the talentless economy of service, of auto sales, to switch positions with Stavros. Harry’s resistance to this makes him conservative, although his actual political position is a product of the culture of the New Deal, the hegemony of the Democratic economy of the fifties and sixties; his real conservatism, though he doesn’t exactly know it, has been bypassed by all sides, including the conservative side. There’s a quiet moment in the novel when Harry is talking with his father-in-law. The guy owns a car lot. He sells cars for a living. And Harry thinks: “How timid, really, people who live by people must be. Earl Angstrom was right about that at least: better make your deals with things.”

Don’t trade the alienation you do know for the one you don’t know. Well, it is already too late in 1969. Harry’s fierce, instinctive loyalty is to Earl’s America, but that country is slipping out from under him. That country was entering the phase of making its deals with deals, making the art of the deal the national pastime and obsession. The politics of making deals with things isn’t just conservative; it is the recipe for downward mobility.

Updike’s problems as a novelist with what to do about politics are interesting because he is torn between the most common solution – the author inserts his own politics in the fiction, devises a hero to represent his opinion, and devises villains to represent the opposite – and the more indirect solutions that respond to, well, the history of the novel as a vehicle for intelligence since James. I’ve reviewed enough of the first solution, and generally dread reading it. I usually share the usually lefty opinions of the author, but I usually do not share the idea that a novel is a clumsy megaphone through which to trumpet irredeemably crude opinions, attaching them to laughably virtuous heroes and heroines.. The most dreadful of this kind of novel usually goes back in time on a life guard’s mission to save this or that character from history, showering the chosen object with a bunch of contemporary biases and feelings: ah, the feminist heroine of the Revolutionary war! The gay black scientist working in New Orleans, circa 1865! In order to give their characters potentia – the ability to act – these novels inevitably operate in a reactionary way, by distorting the real system of production. You can’t have lefty politics, history, and a Hollywood happy end without producing utter pap. I once had to reject the offer to review a novel of this. It was a feminist novel called Ahab’s Wife. It committed every sin: that of attaching itself to a much better work – Moby Dick – as if it was doing that work a favor; that of clearcutting a spot in history for the impossibly virtuous heroine, see above sentences; and that of breathing down the reader’s neck about every fucking event as it showed a woman who fed herself well in the bloody-capitalist-and-slavery system rejoicing in her moral superiority to it. It was the type of novel that made me feel closer to Harry Angstrom. Except that really, it was a hoot, just the sort of novel Updike’s Stavros would approve of, a caricature of a caricature by a caricature, a wet dream as a moral parable.