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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I was reading William Everdell’s superb book, the First Moderns, the other day, and came across an unfamiliar name: Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau. Everdell’s book explores the emergence of the “vortices” of modernism by tracking the various conjunctions of theory and practice not only in the obvious places, the big metropoles, but on the periphery. And, indeed, even in the metropoles modernism was a negotiation between outliers and the establishment. One of the monuments of modernism, Everdell claims, was invented by Weyler y Nicolau: the concentration camp. Or campos de reconcentraciòn, as he named them.

It is an interesting story. According to Everdell, Weyler y Nicolau, fighting against the Cuban insurgents in 1897, decided to experiment with an American invention, barbed wire. Why not string barbed wire around areas that were insurgent strongholds? Since insurgents weren’t formally organized, it seemed like a good way to contain them, a sort of cordon sanitaire. No sooner thought of then done. Soon camps sprang up, thousands of potential insurgents were surrounded by good, healthy barbed wire, and the dying started. The U.S. decided to protest the inhumanity, sending a note to Spain on June 24, 1897. The Spanish reply was interesting: the Spanish government noted that the cruelty of the camps was not different from the cruelty exercized by Sherman on his march to the Sea in 1864. Everdell digs up a clever conjunction of names, here:

“But Secretary Sherman [John Sherman, the man who had penned the American protest to Spain] probably knew better than any Spanish journalist how "cruel" Weyler's policies were, for he was the brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, the general who had become famous by marching from Atlanta to the sea and becoming the first to treat civilians as combatants in a modern war. The Spanish knew it, too. With a fine sense of irony, Madrid replied to Secretary Sherman's protest against what Spain was doing in Cuba by calling attention to what the Secretary's brother had done in Georgia and Carolina thirty years before.

We don't know who in the Spanish foreign ministry put that reminiscence in the note, but the odds favor Weyler himself. At the time of the March to the Sea, the future Captain-General of Cuba had been twenty-five, serving as the Spanish military attaché in Washington, and writing home about how impressed he had been by General Sherman's remarkable new interpretation of the laws of war.”

We like Benjamin’s image of human history as a multiplying pile of ruins observed by an appalled but impotent angel, but in many cases history seems more like a frightened monkey making its way over the trapeze equipment hanging from the ceiling of some big top, a matter of hairy leaps and enormous swings.

Weyler’s invention soon caught the eye of the British, who tried it out in South Africa; soon that caught the eye of the Americans, who were fighting a pesky war against the Filipinos.

“As near as we can tell, the first American concentration camps were built for the Filipinos in that month of November 1900, which means that the British were just ahead of the Americans in adapting Weyler's invention. By December 20, when General Order Number 100 on the treatment of civilian "war rebels" was issued by General MacArthur (this was Arthur MacArthur, whose son Douglas was to follow in his and Weyler's footsteps as proconsul of the Philippines), the ''reconcentration camps" were there to receive them.”

And so one aspect of modernism was launched. An aspect that has been with us persistently ever since, although Americans don’t like to notice their own use of reconcentration camp – how much more comforting to read, for instance, about nasty Lenin and his proto-gulag than to contemplate the fact that William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were responsible for more deaths in a lager than Lenin ever was. Bringing us, of course, to present day Falluja and the new American notion of the high tech reconcentration camp, all about getting your pass, plucking out genetic information, and in general treating the non-American human being like a hog prepared for slaughter.

Talking about which -- the Americans are up to their old tricks again. Another election looming. Another series of military actions, based in Anbar province, motivated by little more than the desire to prevent Sunnis from going to the polls. Last year, the game was to reconcile the Shi'ites to the American tote in Iraq, Allawi, by showing that Allawi was willing to slaughter Sunnis without compunction. This time the game has changed. The Americans have given up the idea of a minority ruling the Shi'ites, and are being used as tools by the present government. Having no choice, the Americans are embracing an obviously dubious bunch, hoping that allies like Chalabi will emerge to rescue the plan to steal the oil and make Iraq an American military platform. But we think the last named are yesterday's options -- they aren't going to happen.

For comic relief, the AEI publishes a ripe load of garbage by Ur-neocon, Fred Kagan, that is a joy to read. This is how these people talk to each other. It is a little weird reading this article in a publication that proclaimed, just six months ago, that the war was over and America had won -- apparently this is the afterimage of Mission Accomplished, the part of the trip where we slaughter -- or 'clean and hold' merrily merrily merrily. It is thinkers like Kagan that have made D.C. what it is today -- a rat's nest of second-raters.

Friday, December 09, 2005

action movie principalities

LI urges our readers to pick up the 11/28 issue of the New Yorker and read Tom Reiss’ quite instructive essay on the literature of invasion, “IMAGINING THE WORST.”

What we found most interesting about the essay was the knitting together of literature and surveillance. At the same time that Yeats’ was worried about choosing life or art, much lesser writers in England were worried about the lack of a security state, and they set about destroying the liberal English nonchalance that was decried, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, by the Russian attaché who frightens Verloc.

Reiss’ essay begins with the first modern invasion fantasy, “The Battle of Dorking”, by a military man writing for Blackwood’s Magazine – that most tory and clubbable of Victorian magazines. The military man, Lieutenant-Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, had recently returned from India (ah, the imperial effect – see my little read and apparently tedious posts about which) in May, 1871, when the story was published. Just about the time that James Fitzjames Stephen was returning from India, too. A year after the battle of Dorking, Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – his plea for a combination of laissez faire economics and a coercive, militarist state – was serialized in the Pall Mall Gazette. Indeed, conservatism in the modern sense was hatching in the 1870s.

Reiss claims that Chesney was worried that the Prussian victory over France foreshadowed the end of British supremacy if the state did not wake up, smell the coffee, organize its people and spy on them in the huts and mansions to the fullest extent.

“The story's author, Lieutenant-Colonel George Tomkyns Chesney, a British officer who had recently returned from India, was not motivated by literary ambition. Like many British observers, he was alarmed by Prussia's successful invasion of France in 1870-the French Army, Europe's largest, had been taken prisoner en masse in less than two months--and he worried that his country could suffer a similar fate. Blackwood's was read by many government officials, and Chesney, who had previously contributed articles on military matters, suggested to the editor, John Blackwood, that "a useful way of bringing home to the country the necessity for thorough reorganization [of the army] might be a tale." "The Battle of Dorking" was intended not to entertain but to shock, yet reaction to it showed that to the reading public the two sensations were intertwined. Chesney had accidentally invented the thriller.
Blackwood's reprinted its May issue six times. Then it published Chesney's story as an expensive pamphlet, which sold even faster: a hundred and ten thousand copies by July, continuing at a rate of approximately twenty thousand copies a week through the rest of the summer. Soon "The Battle of Dorking" was available throughout the British Empire, and in most European languages.”

Chesney’s literary inheritors have gone on to imagine attacks and fantastic salvation from the muscular, the wise, the espionage agent, the submarine captain, and the paranoid jack in the corridors of the Pentagon ever since. We found it rather fascinating that the two British secret services, MI5 and MI6, were prepared for by much literary softening up by the ineffable William Le Queux, a sort of Michael Ledeen of the Edwardian era. Le Queux was used by Lord Northcliffe, the press baron, to both pump up papers and to move the British polity away from its regard for privacy and its distaste for standing armies. In much the way James Bond functioned, for JFK, as a wet dream figure joining absolute power to the swinger (that ultimate rentier of sex), so, too, Le Queux used his sinister power to create, in literary patriots and unbelievably evil traitors, a desire for surveillance that had to find its institutional form, a symbol in search of matter. Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser in 1909 led to an outcry, as Le Queux claimed, under the coy disguise of fiction, that there was a vast fifth column working to undermine Britain for Germany’s benefit.

“That March, the Secretary of State for War, R. B. Haldane, convened a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to investigate the problem of foreign spies on English soil. What was known about the sixty-six thousand German agents scattered in the Home Counties? Was it true that they maintained a secret arms dump near Charing Cross Station? What about the strangers who had been seen sketching the neighborhood of Epping for the past two years? These rumors had originated with Le Queux. The subcommittee's chief witness was James Edmonds, a British Army colonel and friend of Le Queux, who oversaw a small "counter-espionage" effort in the War Office devoted to collecting news about spies and invasion plots, most of which came from novels and newspaper reports-and, of course, from his lunches with Le Queux. The novelist supplied Edmonds with the "information" he needed to argue before the subcommittee about the need for a domestic intelligence service. (Many of the alleged encounters with spies described in the subcommittee's notes are attributed to "a well-known author.") Three months later, the subcommittee authorized the creation of the British Secret Service.

The Army was given responsibility for domestic intelligence, which became MI5; the Navy was put in charge of a new foreign espionage service, which became MI6. (This is why James Bond is sometimes referred to as Commander Bond and occasionally wears a naval uniform.) However, the new Secret Service devoted its resources not to pursuing spies but, rather, to establishing a vast, J. Edgar Hoover-like card-file register of "suspicious reports"--essentially the institutionalization of Le Queux's publicity stunts. Over the next several years, Scotland Yard's Special Branch investigated more than eight thousand suspicious aliens, but in September, 1914, the agency issued a report declaring that it had found no evidence of bomb plots or "of any kind of military organization" in Britain. By 1917, MI5 held dossiers on more than thirty-eight thousand individuals, and at the end of the war it employed a staff of three hundred and twenty-five clerks, simply to maintain the card-filing system.”

It is funny how the thriller and it cousin, the Action movie, have legitimized the militarization and coercion dreamt of by Stephen and other of the bureaucrats who managed India. With an action movie figure as the governor of California and a man whose only military experience is playing a soldier in the Mission Accomplished Infomercial pretending to be our commander in chief, art has joined with life all too well. Politics has turned into an action movie which each of us dreams in a different way – which is partly why it is so disgusting. Of course, this isn’t quite the art Yeats meant. In Ego Dominus Tuum, there is a nice (elitist) passage about art and life, and I’ll close with it:

“For those that love the world serve it in action,
Grow rich, popular, and full of influence;
And should they paint or write still is it action,
The struggle of the fly in marmalade.
The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.
What portion in the world can the artist have,
Who has awakened from the common dream,
But dissipation and despair?”

Thursday, December 08, 2005

notes of a non-native son

The codex of everyday life is lost. The epiphanies of Babylonian woodchoppers, Sea Island cotton pickers, line order cooks and leasing agents have been scattered irretrievably in the ethereal babble that hugs the glob, a smog of unknowing. Long ago I vowed this wouldn’t happen to me. I’d take a toehold in life and battle death. It is the only reason I give a shit about politics, philosophy, art, or any of the grander vistas. So far I haven’t kept my promise. Defeat after defeat, you know. But I’m still here, and I still might.



My old man made his money in temperature modification. He started out as a farmer, switched to carpentry, and then discovered his real road to wealth as an HVAC man. At one point he deviated, trying to make an endrun around his fate by becoming the ice mogul of metro Atlanta, which is why I spent my youth, like Dickens, in a factory. Charlie put labels on boot polish, I believe. I bagged ice: ten and fifty pound bags and the treacherous twelve pound blocks – treacherous because you had to take the metal canisters that contained the blocks out of the coolant with cold hands and try to get them to slip out of there. It was easy to get cut. However, in the wake of the oil crises of the seventies, my old man’s dreams folded – the price of gas for the van skyrocketed, as did the price of the plastic bags for the ice, as did the coolant, which used some petro derivative. The coolant was your ultimate enviro unfriendly, and could be met with in nature only on the surface of Jupiter. So the old man brooded, and then went back to HVAC.

My brothers followed in that path, or at least in the path of mechanical aptitude, carpentry, and the ability to fix heating and air conditioning. They are now jack-of-all-trades in Atlanta, where the real estate boom has made such knowledge as good as gold. Which brings me to yesterday.

All through my post college life I have dabbled with extreme poverty. At the lowest points, my bros have intervened, often hiring me as a tote. I didn’t inherit the old man’s aptitudes. I nail a crooked nail, need a diagram to jump start a car, and my idea of temperature modification is sleeping naked under the sheets. However, what with the cost of the vacation and my lack of editing work, I’m ready for any job at the moment. So yesterday I was out there with my bros, replacing one and one and a half ton a/c units at a property in the North part of Dekalb county.

A “property”… That word. Geologists, by examining pebbles and soils in a given area, can reconstruct its long history. The same thing can be done, in human terms, by listening to the terms and phrases and nicknames that occur and reoccur among a given set of persons. The group is bound together by ties not only as public as family and region, but also by ties so hidden that the group’s members are unaware of them. Exiles can die for lack of these hidden ties, and the misbegotten from too much of them, from being suffocated by the words you hear casually exchanged at a dinner table. Property is a word that comes up frequently in the conversations of my brothers, and it has a particularly ring. To me, it means parking lots at ten in the morning, pittus porum or juniper, porches, the grill area and the car wash area, the leasing office. My brothers started out as apartment maintenance men and they have in their heads the long histories of the various Gables, Arbors, Traces, and Smoke Rises that have appeared in the metro Atlanta area since the early eighties. How many times have I myself paced a property, checked the levels in the pool room, laid down pea gravel drains, cleaned trash from the common areas and leaves from the gutters? Yesterday’s task was a simple one: I had merely to cut the a/c units out of their boxes, put the serial numbers in the packets that came with each box, dolly them into position, and dolly out the junkers.

For the resident, an apartment complex is a hive of different living quarters. For the maintenance man, it is so many puzzles and problems. Is there a trip rise problem with the concrete slabs that comprise the walk in the back? Are the a/c units hidden for maximum invisibility behind the shrubs in front, or down some flight of stairs? Is there a dog in apartment X? And can you take a leak out behind the maintenance man’s shop?

The work went surprisingly fast. This is, for my bros, absolute crème. In my family, the movie hero we all respond to is the rebel a/c man in Brazil: get in, work fast, get out. On the other hand, if you aren’t used to toting units, the end of the day comes with a muscle crash. Yours truly felt that crash today, winging back to Austin.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

birthday greetings

It is LI’s birthday today. I am going out to some Gwinnett county restaurant to celebrate. The telegrams, of course, have been pouring in: “Little Father of the Revolutionary Movement! We pledge to die for you!” is typical. Others (Comrade Commandante!” and “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart that waters all Living Beings” also seem to be popular salutations) have been highly complimentary. What can we say? We’ve already written several poems to ourselves, comparing ourselves to the Sun, the demiurge, the snake with no name, and Br’er Rabbit.

Presents, too, abound. Last week, the White House gave us a special present by revealing that Bush’s current Iraq speeches are being penned by a man named Feaver. And then there was this NYT story that Weicker just might challenge Lieberman. Oh bliss indeed, to see Joe Lieberman forcibly retire to some million plus a year job pushing accounting “reform” for some major lobbying group of business thugs! Weicker, however, is an old man and predicts that he would lose his bout – but says something important:

Mr. Weicker, who discussed his willingness to run against Mr. Lieberman in response to questions from reporters after he spoke to the Hartford Rotary Club on Monday, emphasized in an interview later that he was not making plans to run. If he did run, however, he said he would run as an independent and oppose Mr. Lieberman solely on the war.
"Out!" he said, summarizing his position on what the United States strategy should be in Iraq. "We'd get out of Iraq. I'm not going to tell you it should be on Feb. 16 or something, but six months to a year, we're out. Otherwise you get all these mealy statements."
Mr. Weicker, noting that he had lost to Mr. Lieberman once, said his prospects in a rematch were "probably pretty poor."
"I'm not somebody who wants to put his track record on the line for some quixotic pursuit," he said, "but how do you bring the issue of the war to the country otherwise?"

And then, to put icing on my cake, the Business section of the Times had a beautifully brief report on Mr. Scrushy. Scrushy is the the excrutiating crook from Health South who finagled his way into an innocent verdict (a case that, heavens, didn’t cause the white riot that ensued after the OJ Simpson case, even though Scrushy essentially used the same racial tactics, palling up, suddenly, to black churches and the like to influence a black dominated jury – but somehow white millionaires getting off from charges of murder, fraud, or whathaveyou never really sends white America into a froth – hell, Tom Delay is using a lawyer who essentially freed a white millionaire who cut his next door neighbor into little pieces, and who really gives a shit?). And these words make us melt into a sort of masochistic glee, a (dangerous) bittersweet butter, so indicative are they of the moral blindness of those figures generated by the business culture:

“But Scrushy, who has talked about returning to HealthSouth and regularly criticizes the current management, also conceded he will not return to the Birmingham-based medical services company, which he often refers to as one of his children.

''I recognize that I will not be part of the board or the management team of HealthSouth,'' he said. ''Still, I built the company and remain a major shareholder of the company and regardless of what anyone says, I want the best for HealthSouth.''

Scrushy said he also wants the company to pay his legal bills, a claim the company said amounts to some $25 million.

HealthSouth spokesman Andy Brimmer called Scrushy's resignation from the board ''long overdue.''

Ah, to expect the company you defrauded to pay for your legal expenses – it is too delicious! It is Bush culture in overdrive! Give this man a job in the Pentagon. And on my b-day, too.

Betting is on, by the way, on whether Scrushy gets his 25 million or not, with the odds being, I would imagine, in favor of a more limited, negotiated 10 million dollar deal.

Monday, December 05, 2005

leaving south carolina

As I was leaving the Charleston area, the headline of the Sunday Courier and Post proclaimed 110, 000, which it turns out is the number of new housing starts projected in the area for 2006. Now, I have no sympathy with Southern Gentry and Dixie leaves me cold, but that headline gave me a distinctly Gentry shock. From Charleston to Beaufort, you see an area that is irrevocably changing, as it hasn’t changed since the end of the Civil War – a massive act of Schumpeterian creative destruction. That dogeared phrase disguises the creativity in what is being destroyed, of course, the human face beneath the Gucci heel. A liberal such as myself has to make a rather complicated distinction, here, since it is so easy to be invaded by a reactionary nostalgia in these dire days of the Bush disorder. There is the desire for a past system, on the one hand, and a desire to reawaken past opportunities that opposed that system, on the other. The conservative element in my makeup consists of taking seriously those old, busted opportunities, and doesn't countenance some hazy longing for a system of scarcity in which, somehow, I’d be in the upper tier. That the Gullah people are now memorialized in Gullah tours for the PC educated instead of being genuinely oppressed, hemmed in by the full force of Dixie apartheid, is a good thing – far better tackiness than rickets, and Adorno be damned. On the other hand, the imposition of a savage order of inequality that scatters the Gullah community across the landscape to worse residences while providing the glittering few with vacuous, homogenized high end shops and enormous copycat houses on private beach fronts – an economy in which the mass of us can serve the upper twenty percent its carefully blackened foods and wipe its babies’ asses – is a lesser creative choice.

Charleston did trouble my opinions about the present state of things. While I know, as a general rule, that we are getting richer and richer, being brought up against just how rich in a place of South Carolina is scarifyingly edifyin’. I remembered the place from childhood as a hopeless backwater. Now, my prejudice is that this wealth creation is fucked at the source – that a society that persists in creating a huge debt, de-industrializing, creating paper wealth from real estate exchanges, and shortchanging its infrastructure while pumping up its military, is a society bearing the classic marks of decline and fall. This has happened to other empires. But America has no center, and it isn’t clear to me that any lessons of the past apply blindly. And let’s admit it – Americans have generated a labor intensive, consumerist lifestyle that, while utterly repulsive to me, seems to meet their economic difficulties, even if it fails their cultural ones. Going through Charleston’s ornate Customs House is a lesson in how hard it is to make predictions about big systems. The place has the many columned, marble look of Early Republican virtue (though it was built in 1870) and it is completely useless. Surely its builders would have been astonished to see Charleston export more cars than cotton one hundred years later – even more astonished that more cotton is grown in California than in South Carolina. To separate your preference for what happens from your awareness of the trend of what is happening is difficult.

And so it is that we wrestle manfully with the reality principle here at LI.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

patriot's point

We went to Patriot’s point and toured a sub and the U.S.S. Yorktown yesterday. And today, I read the revealing column by Robert Kagan in the WP, which probably reflects the type of tough bar talk that gets up on its hind legs and presents itself as foreign policymaking in D.C., where any idiot with a belligerent enough world view can rise to the top of somebody’s vanity project for massacring the natives and inflicting unnecessary injuries and death upon America’s military men.

This is our favorite part of Kagan’s column. Rather like an epicurean cannibal explaining the delicate tints of his favorite repast, Kagan simply oozes disdain about lesser meats in his poetic evocation of years and years of war crimes in Mesopotamia, thinly disguised with a peek-a-boo rhetoric of democratization, his like, botched and boiled in think tanks, eternally pulling the strings:

“Talk of reductions and withdrawal is as unhelpful as it almost certainly is ephemeral. For 2 1/2 years, despite the endless promise of reductions, despite election battles, scandals and shifting political fortunes, the United States has maintained a steady force of 130,000 to 150,000 troops in Iraq. You can bet that the numbers will not be dramatically smaller a year from now or even two years from now. Wouldn't we be better off, wouldn't our prospects for success be greater, if we just admitted it? Better still, the administration could explain why it is so important to keep these troops in place so that the public understands the long road ahead. It could start taking steps to increase the overall size of the U.S. military so that the sustained deployment doesn't "break" the Army. And it could stop making false promises of reductions that cannot and should not occur until Iraq is indeed secure and stable.”

That graf stands for itself, the internal, ulcerous chatter of the D.C. clique, with its illusions as to its own powers, both intellectual and political, and its ability to inflict these illusions on an international scale. Touring the Yorktown is a reminder of where that delusive mindset came from, as today’s epigones imitate yesterday’s giants. The Yorktown I toured was the second Yorktown – the first went down at Midway. The second was online in less than a year – which is an example of what happens when you attack a country with the largest manufacturing base in the world, as Japan (with something like ¼ the American economic reach) did in 1941. Yorktown’s history tracks the history of Pax Americana since, and one gets a 900 foot slice of it, from the radar room to the hospital quarters, when one tours the ship – sending a ping of military pride through even such an unlikely tourist as yours truly. And sixty odd years later, the healthy part of that American manufacturing base is oriented to the production of military wares for cheap imperialist visionaries, a sort of deathgrip of the death industries, while the unhealthy part dies in the Rustbelt or is sent to cheaper labor markets elsewhere.