“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

Friday, November 25, 2005

notes about atlanta: 1

Revisiting Atlanta, for LI, has an oddly metaphysical impact on the old system: I automatically start feeling like a haunt, except of course that I am not revisiting the scene of any crime greater than adolescence. The stuff I used to know when long ago I lived here is so long past in Atlanta time that the only remaining landmarks in the place that the returning native can be sure of are the strip clubs, monuments to Atlanta’s deepest cultural instincts: the Tops n Tails, the Cheetah Lounge, the Pink Pony. It is an oddity among cities in that it is a great Black metropolis surrounded by perhaps the most conservative white suburbs in the country (although I should say that great black suburbs now span Dekalb county and are reaching into Gwinnett – a county that years ago voted down the Metropolitan Atlanta Transit system out of the oldest segregationist fears ever advanced by a Southern politician. Which is a lesson for me: progress always has the same ragged line as defeat, advances chaotically and partially and with many intervals of retreat and stagnation). It is no surprise that both TLC and Newt Gingrich emerged from the great debris field of this highway system in search of buildings to knock down, or that high tech companies are busily engineering software in counties that are tireless in trying to sneak prayer and creationism into the schools.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

stupification or prevarication?

LI is an easily bored fella. So, looking for angles to freshen up the perpetual debate about whether Bush lied and people died or whether Bush was merely stupefied and people died, it has occurred to us that the roots of the debate might not lie solely in the low character of Executive Branch personages, who act, admittedly, like the substandard issue of some horrible merger between Animal House and the Cosa Nostra. Perhaps the root of the crisis that has crept upon this fine little war lies in the very notion of preemptive war.

That doctrine had its fifteen minutes post 9/11, but it isn’t much discussed any more. Yet it still seems to be the undead heart of the Bush doctrine, pulsing the dark blood through creatures of the night, such as Cheney. Like most such foreign policy doctrines, the one thing that is not discussed when it is discussed is how it is embedded in American domestic politics. That’s because D.C. has the ignorant idea that it conducts wars on its own. War, however, is a matter of domestic politics. Wars are dependent on the spirit of legitimacy – the political aspect of morale. When the legitimacy of a war falls apart, the war itself will fall apart. Given American military power, the military machine can keep running long after the legitimacy of its mission has been called into question. That of course has happened.

The chance for a war losing its legitimacy is significantly raised by the doctrine of preemption. Why? Because it gives the President two partly contradictory roles. On the one hand, the President traditionally has the role of an honest broker in relation to foreign policy. Foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, has a much smaller constituency. How many people really know about France, or Canada, or Sri Lanka? And how many people care? The President is theoretically the best informed person in the U.S. with regard to the military and political status of foreign countries vis-à-vis U.S. interests. Or, to put this less risibly, he represents the ideal point of maximum information. Of course, this is a modern role that has become more significant as America has become more imperial.

On the other hand, with preemptive war, the President is really playing the role of advocate. Because the ability to make war is not an instantaneous power vested with the President, because making war is a highly distributed function of the state, war is usually taken to be an extreme measure that requires the impetus attack. The instant of attack collapses the potential contradiction between presidential roles. It makes it much easier for the honest broker to be an advocate. But in a case in which the U.S. is the aggressor, the stimulus is of a different nature. It being a convention that a nation’s aggressive actions have to be disguised in a certain way – even Nazi Germany staged an attack from Poland before Hitler attacked Poland -- it is hard for the President to come right out say, look, I want the U.S. to act like an international mugger, and to simply take down nation x because we have the power and we want nation x’s wealth. While Cheney often talks like the hoodlums in an action movie, taking sadistic pleasure in the power to maim itself, he is a rare character. Cheney’s are usually found in maximum security cells. This one just happens to be the Vice President.

This sets up the kind of situation that preceded the invasion of Iraq. Bush attempted to act like both the honest broker, who did not want to go to war, and the advocate, who did. In retrospect, it should have been easy to predict that such a war would relatively quickly fall apart, as the gap between the two positions operated like some traumatic incident that the body politic could not get over. Actually, not just in retrospect – LI likes to think that we predicted this in the run up to the war. But our prediction was wholly based on the character of the warmongers. In this, we were intellectually timid.

It is hard enough to manage a war in which the U.S. is attacked – the supposedly attack in the Gulf of Tonkin being a good example of a cause of war that simply did not have the magnitude to justify the U.S. response. George Bush I, whatever one thought of the First Gulf War, did have an aggressive action that justified his advocacy of the war: an attack on an ally. I have no nostalgia for that disgusting old man’s presidency, but he did not suffer from being a dishonest broker.

This isn’t to say that a stake has been put through the preemptive war doctrine. That is the ne plus ultra of D.C. thinking, and it will have a long and sour career, surely, chewing up lives. But, happily the Iraq war has been shedding even the shabby reasons for continuing the American participation in it, and with the call at the end of the Arab League meeting for a timetable of withdrawal (a position behind the overwhelming popularity of withdrawing American troops from Iraq among Iraqis, according to the British military – whose poll on the subject is the most reliable, having been done for no propagandistic purpose), perhaps we will actually see the reluctant dislodgment of the American imperialistS from Mesopotamia.


Readers, I am going on vacation for two weeks. Posts will be sporadic. But I will occasionally throw in my two cents worth, although not to the absurd lengths of the usual LI post.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Arcana Imperii

In the early 80s, a popular Scottish historian, Angus Calder, published a marvelous book about the foundation of the British Empire : Revolutionary Empire. What made this book different from the usual procession of imperial icons that storyboard the empire as a series of adventures was Calder's total grasp of the ebbs and flows of the imperial world. For Calder, the colonial models have to be seen in terms of their first instantiation in the British isles themselves –in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Raleigh, for instance, not only founded the first, shortlived colony on the Eastern seaboard, but he was also planning on colonizing Ireland. He drew up a frankly genocidal plan for getting rid of the Irish, which, while not unleashed (at least in that form) upon the Irish, certainly was unleashed, later, on the Iroquois, the Cherokee, the Algonquin, etc. Calder's point is that imperialism and the history of England, and by extension the Western countries, is not such that one can segregate the forces at work in the colony from those at work in the mother country. Instead, there was a constant exchange of models between the periphery and the center – the periphery being forged in the center, and vice versa. The experience of the "factory" in Jamaica -- the way in which sugar cane was cultivated, harvested and milled by slaves -- was imported to the factory models in England. The clearing of the Highlands, that fight against a tenacious, clan based mountain people, preludes struggles in India. In my rather floundering posts on the modern construction of liberalism and conservatism, I’ve been calling this the imperial effect.

As I said in those posts, the devaluation of the imperial effect as a driver of politics in the modern West is motivated. The motivation stems from the heart of the cold war controversies over both communism and the adoption of Keynesian economics, which had provoked a rearguard battle associated with conservative economists like Hayek, Friedman and Mises. Put this way, we are talking about a standard Heideggerian trope: forgetting as a social act. Heidegger writes about the forgetting of being, by which he means.. well, I’m not going to go into everything he means, which would get me way off track. My interest is really in the model itself.

Thinking about these matters, LI was pleased to stumble over an article in this Winter’s History and Theory by Anthony Pagden (FELLOW CITIZENS AND IMPERIAL SUBJECTS:
CONQUEST AND SOVEREIGNTY IN EUROPE’S OVERSEAS EMPIRES) that relates asymptotically, so to speak, to our own view.

Pagden wants to make a claim about a shift in the conception of empire that occurred between 1776 and 1830:

“I would like to suggest that the theoretical history of the modern European overseas empires (which excludes the Carolingian, the Holy Roman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian empires as well as such short-lived imperial projects as the Third Reich, the USSR, Mussolini’s Abyssinian empire, or, the “empire” of the United States) can be divided into two distinct phases. There has long been a disputed division between Europe’s “first” empires—mainly those in the Americas, which all came to an end between 1776 and 1830, and the “second” empires, which began in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century and continued until the middle of the twentieth.4 Against any such neat periodization, it has been pointed out that the British incursions into Asia and Africa had already begun by the early seventeenth century; that although Spain had lost most of her American possessions by 1830, she retained the Philippines and still clings to outposts of the north-African coast; that as soon as the Treaty of Paris of 1763
had stripped France of most of her possessions in America and India, she began searching for new opportunities, first in the Pacific and then in north Africa. It seems obvious that there was indeed a continuous imperial, expansionist ambition shared by all the major European powers during the whole period from the mid-fifteenth century until the late-nineteenth century. My claim that the early empires in America were significantly different from the empires that overlapped and finally succeeded them is based not on organization, social type, objectives, or economic performance. It is based, instead, on the central conception of sovereignty.

For one thing that all empires, no matter how distinct they may be in size or type—and there is a bewildering variety—share is that they involve the exercise of a sovereign authority that has usually been acquired, at least in the first instance, by force. Since the occupation of lands to which the occupier could make no prior claim on grounds of autochthony, spurious or no, necessarily involved some kind of violation, empires were inescapably lands of conquest. Moreover, in view of the fact that most European peoples did generally hold that that domination is—or at least should be—a spontaneous expression of the nature of society, conquest presented a considerable challenge to most notions of sovereign authority.”

Pagden’s thesis is consistent with the anomaly of empire that bedeviled the early Victorians. If I am broadly right about the imperial effect, Pagden’s framework would have to accommodate a series of changes within the central European states themselves – changes wrought, in England, by the successive revolutions of the seventeenth century, and in France, by changes that began, as Tocqueville noted, under the Ancien regime and accelerated dramatically under the Revolution. These changes in the system of “acquired property” did have the effect of calling into question sovereignty, using the elements that Pagden highlights – geographic region and population. It is my guess that the imperial effect on the breakup of the brief classical liberal hegemony was such that it created a new division of political modes that, in a sense, drew their lesson from the government of the periphery to the government of the center. On the conservative side, the lesson was one of combining a government of moral coercion with one that incited the transformation of property into acquirable property – a process that still goes on, in, for instance, the privatization of public goods (like ideas, texts, mechanical processes, etc. – all of the IP stuff). On the liberal side, the lesson was of the success of central planning.

The anxiety underneath these lessons remained has long co-existed with imperial power. In fact, in Pagden’s first period, he traces a legal pattern that preludes the manner in which the legitimacy of empire was reformulated in his second period:

“By the early seventeenth century most European governments had resolved the problem by the simple expedient of denying its existence. The French hardly ever employed the term “conquest” in Canada. The Dutch, although happy to speak of conquest when the conquerors in question were the Spanish or the Portuguese, avoided the term when describing their own activities in Asia and America; the English, despite the fact that all their colonies in America were legally held to be “lands of conquest” and had been so ever since Henry VII’s letters patent to John Cabot of 1496, tended to agree with John Locke’s condemnation of conquest as “far from setting up any government, as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place.”10 “The Sea,” declared the Scottish political theorist and soldier of fortune Andrew Fletcher in 1698, “is the only Empire which can naturally belong to us. Conquest is not our Interest.”11 Even the Spanish, whose American empire was so obviously based on conquest, and who boasted a rich imaginative literature to prove it, banned all official use of the word in 1680.”

Reminiscent of the recent career of the term “occupation,” no?

Anyway, readers are urged to flock to Theory and History and check out Pagden’s provocative, and even brilliant, essay. The passages on Henry Maine are themselves worth the trifling price of a little effort. Maine wrestled with the legal status of principalities in India that had the power to tax and judge, but were denied any power to make foreign policy. And he concluded that liberal ideas of dominion had to cede to a new idea of dominion, or sovereignty. Maine’s discussion could be about Iraq at the present moment. Pagden places Maine’s discussion in conjunction with Burke’s tortured notion of the legitimacy of the British project in India and concludes:

This [position of subservient sovereign states] had been precisely Burke’s complaint, since in the context in which sovereignty was divided between conqueror and conquered the outcome could only be what Maine himself recognized as “the virtually despotic government of a dependency by a free people.”

The virtually despotic government of a dependency by a free people. Hmm, sounds like the D.C. plan for Iraq.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bob Woodward, the high government official said

LI has had a wonderful time watching the fall of the tinhorn journalist, Bob Woodward. If the D.C. clique of insiders carried cards, Woodward’s would certainly be platinum. As the much linked to opinion piece by Tim Rutten in the LA Times noted:

“There is something singularly appropriate about the fact that the Plame affair should involve Woodward, whose skillful and courageous use of the ur-voice among confidential sources virtually created a whole genre of Washington reporting. It's a journalistic strategy style dependent on the cultivation of access to well-placed officials greased by promises of "confidentiality." It's a way of doing journalism that still serves its practitioners' career interests, but less and less often their readers or viewers because it's a game the powerful and well-connected have learned to play to their own advantage.

Whatever its self-righteous pretensions, it's a style of journalism whose signature sound is less the blowing of whistles than it is the spinning of tops.”

Rutten’s own paper, on the day they published his article, published several routine articles that are sprinkled with anonymous sources. For instance, Ron Brownstein’s thumbsucker, “Democrats' War Opposition Not a United Front,” includes such winking-leading-the-blind passages as:
Although Democrats may be split on Murtha's specific proposal, his call for a clear break from Bush's policy is likely to strengthen those who want the party to offer concrete alternatives, many observers believe.

Many Republicans also see last week as a turning point. Bush allies believe that Murtha's declaration — following Senate Democrats' call for estimated timetables — will identify Democrats with a policy of "cut and run."

"I don't think the country has any doubt there are two positions: One is to stay and fight and the other is to leave," said one Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking.”

The proliferation of such fictitious cutouts has contributed mightily to the odd war over the truth about Iraq. If one cut out all unnamed sources from the runup to the War in Iraq, we would have had a much more informed debate about the War. It would have been about Iraq, for one thing, rather than about D.C. pocket pool, who said what to whom. Woodward’s style of journalism has lead to disaster after disaster, since it is used mostly for two things: to distort foreign policy choices, about which there is much exploitable ignorance in the American hinterlands (as in any nation -- no nation consists of people who are highly informed about geographic entities that impinge very little on them); and to destroy D.C. reputations. There’s no defense of citing a “Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking” to lay down such a howlingly obvious talking point. Enclosing the source in the heavy armature of description lends the source's words a spurious significance: we are supposed to take this as coming from the horse’s mouth, when it obviously comes from the orifice on the opposite end. If Brownstein’s promise of non-disclosure generates nothing more than political fortune cookie talk, why does he make it? Why does he quote it? What does it do to the credibility of a newspaper that prints these kinds of items day after day?