“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, March 11, 2006

false friends

Every student of French or German is familiar with the phrase “false friends.” False friends are those words one comes across that look enough like some English word that the unwise student will assume that they mean the same thing. For instance, ‘aire’ – which, of course, means area in French.

LI sometimes thinks that this is the era of false friends in the political and moral sphere. If there is one thing that the neo-conservative movement has implanted like a bad seed in the sphere of political discourse, it is this parasitic creeping into figures and ideas that are good, liberal and humane, and the distorting of them for ends that are violent, oppressive, and exploitative.

Case in point: there is a heartening portrait, in the NYT today, of a woman who is subjecting Islam to a withering Enlightenment critique.

“Three weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims.

Today, thanks to an unusually blunt and provocative interview on Al Jazeera television on Feb. 21, she is an international sensation, hailed as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.”
Sultan’s journey into sanity began with her experience in Syria:

“Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.

But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.

"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."”

A rational human being! or at least one whose search for another god begins in the right moral circumstances.

Yet I fear that Sultan is going to be adopted, lock stock and barrel, by those who have no real desire to criticize religion and every desire to promote and old and decayed colonial project: the breaking of a culture by dissolving its glue, so to speak. The difference should be clear – it is the difference between therapy and kidnapping. Alas, the school of kidnappers – the false friends – are all around us. So one can foresee, with a sinking heart, that her smart remarks comparing the reaction to oppression by the Jews and by the Muslims will probably not lead to an auto-critique by either group:

“Perhaps her most provocative words on Al Jazeera were those comparing how the Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking of the Holocaust, she said, "The Jews have come from the tragedy and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling."

She went on, "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people."

Her views caught the ear of the American Jewish Congress, which has invited her to speak in May at a conference in Israel. "We have been discussing with her the importance of her message and trying to devise the right venue for her to address Jewish leaders," said Neil B. Goldstein, executive director of the organization.”

Hopefully, the AJC will hear her golden words on apartheid and the ridiculous sops
thrown to the theocratic party in Israel – for instance, the administration of the marriage laws by Orthodox rabbis, or the enforcement of Sabbath shutdowns of business, etc., etc. But why is it that we doubt that this will be the brunt of the message? It should be. We like Sultan’s title for her upcoming book, in any case: "The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster." And we know how these things work. The thugs are already calling her up and threatening her. The liberals (moi, for instance) will point out that, indeed, the Moslem world does seem to be under assault by Western powers (Chechnya, Iraq). A divide will grow as absolute loyalty is demanded, even as the enlightenment moment is one of radical relativism. Etc. It is all so predictable.

Anyway, we wonder whether Sultan's book bears a title that will be bought in Kentucky, where the governor, your usual corrupt GOP autocrat, has decided to lift his popularity by pushing through a law mandating the display of the ten commandments in all state offices – hell, soon it will be tattooed on his kids’ faces. So, in the spirit of being a true friend to the assault on those religions that promote the idea of a personal God, there is another book that is, surprisingly, lodged in the best seller lists: "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."
Last week WAPO profiled Bart Ehrman, the author of that little treatise. Once a fundy, Ehrman journeyed into the light by studying his Bible. In truth, we don’t actually believe his conclusion – that Jesus was a legend. Or, rather, legend and biography, in the ancient Meditteranean world, are interconnected in more complicated ways than are allowed by the American mind. Jesus’s legend is much like the legend of Tino Riini, the capo di capo in Sicily, in the 80s – testimony about what Riini did and when is scrambled, and would be even if Riini’s men didn’t help the process along by breaking the legs and torturing to death the testifiers.
“"Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord," he tells a packed auditorium here at the University of North Carolina, where he chairs the department of religious studies. "But there could be a fourth option -- legend."
Ehrman's latest book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year. A slender book of textual criticism, currently at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list, it casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well, gospel.

Example: A crowd readies itself to stone an adulterous woman to death. Jesus leans down, doodles in the dust. Says, let the one without sin cast the first stone. The crowd melts away. It's one of the most famous stories in the Bible.
And it's most likely fiction, says Ehrman, seconding other scholars who say scribes added the episode to the biblical canon centuries after the life of Christ.”

Ehrman obviously doesn’t like fiction. Ourselves, we remember Oscar Wilde’s remark – or rather, the remark he attributes to a fictitious interlocutor – that he has never gotten over the death of Lucien de Rubempre. Unfortunately, in the current state of these United States, Ingersoll’s village atheism is more relevant than Wildean aestheticism.

Friday, March 10, 2006

the mission party, 03 -- a kegger!

We’ve spent three years watching a comatose anti-war movement spend its time begging Democrats to “lead an opposition.” This shows a fundamental misconception about the war.

[divertimento time]

Many think that the war is a foreign policy issue. Those people are always worried about the purpose of the war. Well, we long ago figured out that this was not a foreign policy issue, and we know the purpose of the war.

To explain this, some background.

When Bush was coming up through the sons-of-millionaire ranks, he landed, lucratively, on a sports franchise. But he wouldn’t be a Texas trust funder if he wasn’t aware that as he was making baby bucks with his franchise, his peers were bringing home double and triple that, leaving him, status wise, in the dust. Well, Bush took the higher road, of public sacrifice and shit, but it still burned a little bit, these CEOs and their money and perks.

So when Bush was elevated to the CC’s chair, he did what a CEO president does, and he amply rewarded the investor class. And just like a CEO – for instance, Dennis Kozlowski, after a busy couple of years making spurious profits, demands a little perk for himself, so did Bush. Kozlowski threw himself a two million dollar bash. Or actually, because he is a good, kind caring type, he threw it for one of his wives. And it was Roman themed, because Kozlowski, though an owner of an off shore company, had hung around NYC enough to meet uptown chicks who told him he had a roman profile and such, as he was stuffing hundreds in their panties. Actually, he has a classic fascist profile, but what is the diff?

Bush wanted his party, which is where Iraq came in. That was the party. And a great party it was. Everybody liked it.

Now, just as Kozlowski cast himself as a roman, Bush has a secret soldier side to him that is sort of cute. The purpose of the party was revealed on May 2, 2003. The purpose was so that Bush could say, Mission accomplished,.

Our CEO president loves to say mission. We won’t speculate overmuch about his love life, but let’s just say that we bet mission impossible has a place in it.

Everything was groovy. And the investors got another taste of sweetness, another huge theft of public resources in the form of a tax cut. The party was officially for the Iraqis, and this is where the trouble started. As Bremer has pointed out, Bush was pretty p.o.-ed that the people he threw his party for were not thanking him. And that was just the beginning of it. The natives are supposed to love parties – I mean, what else are they doing, herding sheep and shit? Bartending pays way more. But the Iraqis started getting in the way of the guests, started wolfing down the canapés and, frankly, setting fire to the tablecloths and shit.

This is where the Dems come in. Like any swank party, you have to have a pliable police force. That force is supposed to stifle calls from irate neighbors. The dems were perfect. Oh sure, like all cops, they made faces and rolled their eyes, especially when some of the guests poured white phosphorus on a major city, attacked its hospital, and scattered its people, all 200,000 of them, across the desert, and generally shot up the place, killing thousands. However, the cops were too thrilled with the people in that city anyway.

Actually, this is why Murtha was a big deal – as you will have noticed, he looks like a cop. He’s the weary, about to retire cop, and he says, enough is enough. This party has to end, and we have to go to Kuwait and only send out our planes on special occasions to drop bombs on wedding parties and shit. And everybody is like, Murtha is the chief but he’s getting old.

However, the good time is wearing down. Just as with Kozlowski, Bush must notice that his peers are suddenly, eerily silent. Not only that, but there are all these spitballs from respected conservative figures. Drop the ideological label – I think the last conservative in the U.S. died in 1948. But these guys are innovators, little lures cast out by the investing class. And as the investing class pulls the plug on the party, the tom toms beating in the press for what a great party it is, and how we have to do it for the next ten years or so, are going to go silent.

All of which means that if – if Bush really does have to stop his party in Iraq – the Mission party, man, you can just hear him moaning. I deserved that party! … well, if he has to wrap it up, first sign will be Rumsfeld resigning. And here is the prediction from our fearless party planning consultant –watch for the M word. That will come out of Bush’s mouth as he speechifies his undying gratitude to Rumsfeld for sure.

[back to our sponsor time]

Oh, here's our ps. Bush might feel bad about like nobody liking his party. But the upside is, he has raised the bar on parties. That is so for sure. Hilary, who is a status sniffer if there ever was one, is sure to throw herself a party if she gets elected. Not in Iran – she’s not nuts – but some little place where we can go in, liberate, kill a couple thousand and get out. Maybe Bolivia – a total party opportunity, and I believe we own their army!

party poopers on the Titanic

It is entertaining to see D.C.’s international thinkin’ set run like the three blind mice this morning, groaning about the Dubai port deal. It isn’t that the Friedmanites are wrong per se – it is just that this part of the deal – the deal in which the U.S. liquidates its manufacturing status, borrows money indefinitely to maintain the world’s largest consumer market, and adopts for domestic purposes your standard third world distribution of wealth – was supposed to go down a little smoother.

Stephen Pearlstein at WAPO, in four paragraphs, lays it out like an exasperated boiler room jack who has plugged your money into a black hole and is trying to tell you that th-th-th-that’s all, folks:

“Maybe it was possible to get away with this noxious blend of arrogance and ignorance when the United States was the world's only economic superpower. But now that we've become the biggest debtor nation in the history of civilization, we might want to give a bit more thought to whom we tell to buzz off.

It was more than a bit ironic that on the very day that Dubai Ports World threw in the towel and agreed to sell off its U.S. operations, the Commerce Department announced yet another record monthly trade deficit for January, putting us on course to exceed last year's record deficit of $724 billion. At this rate, we are adding to our debt to the rest of the world at the rate of $2,500 a year for every man, woman and child in America.

Where do you think that $724 billion comes from? Let me tell you: It comes from the people who have the dollars. And in case you hadn't noticed, tops on that list are the Japanese who are selling us all those cars, Arabs selling us all that expensive oil, and the Chinese selling us the shirts on our backs, the athletic shoes on our feet and all those computers and flat-screen TVs in front of our noses.

If these folks suddenly get the idea that we don't really trust them enough to do business with them, and begin acting the way human beings do when they get poked in the eye, you could be looking at 8 percent mortgage rates, 6 percent unemployment, $4 gasoline, a $1.50 euro and a 9000 Dow.”

Gee, Dad. Are you saying we can’t afford the war?

But of course, Americans, dummies that they are, don’t get the program. They don’t get that, as they are stripped of all the good things they used to get under the old social welfare regime that taxed, actually taxed, the wealthy and shit (the horror!), they are also stripped of the right to say peep about who in particular owns them. Unfortunately, the notices haven’t yet gone out in the mail. So the American people look at the joke called Homeland Security and go charging against scarecrows, and it is tut tut time for the think tankers. David Ignatius, who has been toured around the UAE by pro-American types just eager to use the sea of money coming in from oil revenues to do everything the pro-American way, can’t get over the ingratitude of the American people. And it is a little puzzling.

After all, the American people have been so grateful to Exxon that not a word in anger has been spoken as the company gouged out the biggest profit ever made by an American corporation – and in fact, the American people felt so grateful to oil companies that even as the oil giants have been cutting back on oil exploration and R and D -- you know, the alternative fuels that will either have to get up and running in the next ten years or bye bye Americans remaining wealth, plus the health of the planet - and, instead, raining money down to its stock holders -- even while this was going on, the American people, through the Gov, was larding these companies with 7 billion dollars in handouts The Minnesota Star Tribune interviewed an petroleum hack who produced some beautiful prose on this issue:

“Profits are soaring, and that's part of the reason the U.S. oil industry has encountered slippery times. Congress is investigating the Interior Department's decision to grant oil and gas companies a $7 billion windfall - reducing required royalty payments for drilling on government land. Meanwhile, the New York Times estimated that natural gas companies have shortchanged taxpayers by $700 million in royalties.

In an interview Thursday, Sara Banaszak, senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute, said tales of royalty windfalls and oversized oil profits present a distorted picture of an industry that needs huge amounts of capital to capture energy that's getting harder to find.

Q: Why can't natural gas companies pay royalties in full when you and I have to pay our taxes in full?
A: Many companies are disputing what's owed under a number of different royalty programs. I'm not an expert on the details on this, but it's complex. The idea of royalties is you get producers to produce where they might not produce or to keep a well open where they might otherwise shut down.
If you are a large company and managing a lot of exploration risk - trying to decide where to invest - you need to manage your income over the life of the program. A single offshore well will [cost] $1 billion. You're trying to decide where you're going to drill and not going to drill. If you decide to drill into an area, based on royalty relief, [and] then it's removed, it's changing the economics.
Q: Do you think the industry's behavior is inviting more regulation by slipping through loopholes?
A: Where's the loophole? That's my point. If the New York Times reporter's "loophole" is [what the industry sees as] the rules being changed on them, it's not a $7 billion loophole. It's a $7 billion royalty relief program.”

Royalty relief is relief for our royalty. So apt!

Never have so few pinheads in so little time pissed away so much – surely this will be on the tombstone of the American empire.

But now that LI has pissed to his heart’s content on the think tankers, let’s put in a good word for Bush. Lately, we are trying to be less ulcerous about the gang in the White House. And there is more good news today. Due to John Bolton’s single minded, and simple minded, crusade to keep Americans from ever being subject to an international court, the U.S. Military is having to abridge its traditional ties with Latin American militaries. Whenever a country signs on with the International Criminal Court, the official Bush policy is to ask that country to exempt the U.S. If they don’t officially do that, the U.S. cuts military aid. This policy brought forth a great deal of handwringing from Jackson Diehl, the WAPO’s uberhawk, in a column entitled A Losing Latin American Policy. According to deal, U.S. military aid to Chile is going to be terminated next month. In fact, “12 of 21 nations in Latin America have been suspended from U.S. military training and aid programs because of the ICC rule, including Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay.”

This is the best news of the day. Keep John Bolton – this is LI’s new cause. The U.S. military has been the biggest misery-maker in Latin America since Pizarro made a deadfall on the Peruvian coast. To think that the Americans are going to discontinue their deadly subversion of Latin American independence due to the pique of a noxious neo-con gives LI an unusual feeling of joy and peace. Unfortunately, the military is trying to water down the Bolton amendment to our military aid covenants. Don’t let them! Call the State Department (Condi’s number there is: 202-647-5291) and stand four square behind Bolton’s ultra American American ultraism. Are we going to abandon our Rebel in Chief now, at his hour of greatest danger? Hell no.

Ps -- another LI band pick for SXSW. Check out this Black Angels track, black grease. The chorus expresses LI's feeling post the Rumsfeld hearings: But I kill kill kill kill/I kill what I can, dear

oh oh

That Rice, trying to impose a liberal scheme on these here United States! Why, you can hear the wind whistle mightily in the nostrils of any number of C.S.A. Senators:

“SANTIAGO, Chile, March 11 — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated Saturday that the United States would look for ways to resume military assistance to Latin American nations cut off from aid programs because of their refusal to shield Americans from the International Criminal Court.”

This story does have a comic side, however:

“Officials traveling with Ms. Rice said that in meeting with President Evo Morales of Bolivia, she had emphasized the importance of cooperating on efforts to combat drugs despite his vow to end coca plant eradication programs. The newly installed Bolivian leader favors the legal cultivation of coca, the plant used to manufacture cocaine, but says he opposes cocaine and has agreed to let American antidrug officials remain in the country.

In a friendly but pointed gesture, he gave Ms. Rice a small guitar decorated on the front with real leaves from a coca plant in lacquer. Ms. Rice, perhaps not realizing that the decoration was from the plant that the United States has sought to eradicate, then smiled and strummed the guitar for television cameras. American officials said Bolivian leader was clearly trying to show how growing the plant that is made into cocaine is a part of his nation's culture.”

Like Bush, Rice clearly can’t resist a guitar.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My kingdom for BET

“… I left that working world for the altogether different working world of shaping the future, raising, rearing my girls to be citizens of the world and to make a difference, tough when our culture deifies Lil Kim.” – interview with the blogger for Atlas Shrugged.

As readers of LI know, we are happy to promote L’il Kim as a bad role model for Atlas Shrugged’s daughter, and anybody else’s. The woman makes me go smoky at the knees, and soon I’m pulling out my copy of the sonnets:

“When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
that she might think me some untutored youth
unlearned in the world’s false subtilties…”

Our correspondent in NYC, Tom, sent us a notice from the Washington Post

Our queen has condescended to star in a real life tv series on BET, risking the freakishness of the sheer voyeurism attaching to watching the pratfalls of the rich and famous – because she can. There’s a nobility that even the greedy, beady camera can’t degrade. It kills me not to have cable. Please, some reader more fortunate, watch it and report back to LI.

the war will not be pre-owned

First, a shout out to reader M.E., who sent a grad student our way for editing work. Remember friends (he said in dulcet tones), rwg communications does heavy editing, proofing, research, and other writing tasks. As the deadlines get closer for turning in dissertations, those wanting quick, thorough editing should definitely contact us. Write us at rgathman@netzero.net

Second… well, this is difficult. In 2003 and 2004, there was one belligeranti we loved to kick around above all others: Christopher Hitchens. Gradually, we lost interest, however – Hitchens as a propagandist ate into Hitchens as an essayist until the writing was all hollowed out. Mental corruption is as bad for a certain sort of writer as termites are for a wood framed house.

But we do have to recommend the article in Slate, since it represents the position on Iran (détente) that we have advocated at this little blog since we started. It even shows an admirable awareness that there actually is such a thing as a future. LI’s position is that the American irrelevance in Iraq -- a situation over which it has long had no control, – is ultimately dangerous, insofar as America is a very aggressive superpower. While the disconnect between real American powerlessness and the delusion that America is doing the moving and shaking in the Gulf has so far been papered over by the almost supernatural blindness of D.C., reality has a way of biting you in the ass in these situations. Our opinion is that the immediate withdrawal of American troops must be coupled with broader, radical changes in Middle Eastern policy. The one most necessary is to accept reality. The regional position of Iran as the strongest of the Shiite powers now stretching from Iran to Lebanon is reality. Another reality is that U.S. policy has systematically and perversely aided the Islamic revolutionary parties in Iran.

We were pleasantly surprised that Hitchens ends his article about Iran with this image:

“So, picture if you will the landing of Air Force One at Imam Khomeini International Airport. The president emerges, reclaims the U.S. Embassy in return for an equivalent in Washington and the un-freezing of Iran's financial assets, and announces that sanctions have been a waste of time and have mainly hurt Iranian civilians. (He need not add that they have also given some clerics monopoly positions in various black markets; the populace already knows this.) A new era is possible, he goes on to say. America and the Shiite world have a common enemy in al-Qaida, just as they had in Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and the Iraqi Baathists. America is home to a large and talented Iranian community. Let the exchange of trade and people and ideas begin! There might perhaps even be a ticklish-to-write paragraph, saying that America is not proud of everything it is has done in the past—most notably Jimmy Carter's criminal decision to permit Saddam to invade Iran.
The aging mullahs might claim this as a capitulation, which would be hard to bear. But how right would they be? The pressure for a new constitution and genuine elections is already building. Within less than a decade, we might be negotiating with a whole new generation of Iranians. Iran would have less incentive to disrupt progress in Iraq (and we should not forget that it has been generally not unhelpful in Afghanistan). Eventually, Iran might have a domestic nuclear program (to which it is fully entitled and which would decrease its oil-dependency) and be ready to sign a nonproliferation agreement with enforceable and verifiable provisions. American technical help would be available for this, since it was we who (in a wonderful moment of Kissingerian "realism") helped them build the Bushehr reactor in the first place.”

While this fantasy of Bush doing the rational thing is unlikely (and the rapid rewiring of zombie brains, if this ever really happened, might lead to thousands of fatalities in the U.S.), it points to what should happen in the Gulf. The U.S. has taken a position – that Iran basically isn’t there, and that a fantasy Iran of our making is a-comin’ round the corner – that is a non-position. It is a classic instance of neuroses on the mass scale. And so, to go back to reality – to surrender – the U.S. will have to weave around it another fantasy. But it can very easily be done (as the promoter who nearly fell on the floor says in Highway 61). Nixon’s surrender in going to China is the great model.

And – just to get the taste of an approving link to Hitchens out of the LI mouth – we’d also recommend going to Jefferson Morley’s article about the Iranian media group, Rooz Online. We hope our friend Brooding Persian writes about this soon.

And finally, re the current climate of tension -- LI believes that the way in which to understand the Bush administration is to follow the lack of sacrifice. This is why we don't much believe the idea that the U.S. is invading, or even bombing, any time soon. To think that Americans are going to welcome another war, and a hike in the price of their gas by at least a dollar a gallon, even as the hurricane season this summer plays dice with more American cities -- well, we think the odds are against it. And while the Rebel-in-Chief is delusional, about the need for no sacrifice he is very realistic. If he can find some way to pre-own the war, to mount it without any immediate sacrifice, even if it means borrowing another trillion bucks -- he'd do it then in a heartbeat. But I don't think this war will be pre-owned.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

hegelian approaches to tinkering

The most dangerous man the world has ever known was not Attila the Hun or Mao Zedong. He was not Adolf Hitler. In fact, the most dangerous man the world has ever known died without having an inkling that he was the most dangerous man the world has ever known. He wasn’t a politician, or a general, or a bandit, and the most publicity he ever received was when he was elected president of the American Chemical Association in 1944. His name was Tom Midgley. He was a tinkerer.

I know about tinkerers. LI’s old man was a tinkerer until he retired to the mountains of North Georgia (and, incidentally, cut off all relations with LI. But that is another story altogether). Who knows, he might have known Willis Carrier, since he worked for Carrier Air Conditioning, and Willis certainly knew Tom Midgley. In which case, yours truly has three degrees of separation from the most dangerous man the world has ever known. Gives me goosebumps.


Although elected president of the American Chemical Association, Midgley was not really a chemist. He was a mechanical engineer. However, his work for Dupont and GM – GM was, for all practical purposes, owned by the Duponts back in the 20s – resulted in two chemical/mechanical inventions.

The project he became famous for was getting the knocking out of the internal combustion engine. First, he pinpointed the source of the knocking. It was in the nature of the way the gas burned. Second, he experimented with additions to gasoline, until he came up with the perfect mix, tetraethyl lead. Called ethyl, you simply added it to gas and presto chango, no knock. Of course, that meant that you were adding lead to a liquid that burned and that left an exhaust. Necessarily, you increased ambient lead in the environment. And not just any environment, but that which surrounded roads. The heavily human environment. The government actually got concerned about this in the twenties, although there was no EPA back then, and in fact little regulation of even industrial safety. Still, headlines had been made when the news got out that a number of Dupont employees had gone clinically insane and died due to lead poisoning while researching tetraethyl lead. The news leaked out even though Dupont nearly buried the news, since Dupont owned the lab the men got sick in, the town the men lived in, the hospitals the men were sent to, and the cemetery where the men were buried. In other words, in something like a libertarian dream, the state’s role was taken over entirely by a private corporation. Unfortunately for Dupont, one of the happy beneficiaries of this arrangement escaped the embrace of Dupont and got to a non-Dupont owned hospital in Pennsylvania.

This meant that ethyl had to be defended. A Yale professor, Yandell Henderson, became the additive’s chief defamer. Now, Henderson was the kind of guy that, through the ages, tinkerers just hate – a smarty pants, a nosy parker, a pink professor, a nanny stater, an alarmist, practically a woman (In a review of Silent Spring published in 1963 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the reviewer concluded his dismissal of the book by writing that “Silent Spring, which I read word for word with some trauma, kept reminding me of trying to win an argument with a woman. It can not be done.”). But at the conference that, essentially, rubberstamped the use of ethyl, Henderson made a pretty good shot at summing up the social side of the issue: “The men engaged in industry, chemists and engineers, take it as a matter of course that a little thing like industrial poisoning should not be allowed to stand in the way of a great industrial advance.”

By this time, Midgley had moved on to his next project. He’d been called upon to devise a safe refrigerant. At the time, GM/Dupont owned Frigidaire, the largest refrigerator maker. Unfortunately, there was a dirty little secret about the refrigerators they sold – they used methyl chloride. In 1929, in a Cleveland hospital, the fumes of methyl chloride had diffused through the duct system after an explosion in the x ray room, and it killed 125 people – one of those extensively unremembered industrial accidents. Midgley set to work and eventually discovered a whole family of refrigerants: the chloroflorocarbons.

LI takes these facts from Cagan and Dray’s invaluable history, “Between Earth and Sky”.


Now, here is where LI’s private history grazes against the elephantine hide of public history. The great freon scare of the late eighties was played out, in miniature, at the LI family dinner table. Since the public discussion of global warming has followed, as though by the numbers, the public health/environmental discussions of yore – the same resistance to facts and theories, the same industrial coalitions finding “skeptics” of “junk science,” the same inevitable gathering of real events propelling the discussion from stage one, denial, to stage two, re-visioning benefits, to stage three, expenses and convenience – with the same stage managers, the state and big business, plying the lies – I figure a look back is useful not only to recognize the patterns, but to uncover the dialectical figures that emerge from the patterns. Surely the tinkerer is as worthy of philosophical attention as the master and the slave. In a future post, LI will try to draw his philosophical lineaments.

PS PS – Speaking of industrial accidents nobody has heard of, the Prudhoe Bay leak (via brickburner) has gotten zip attention. Largest spill since 1989. And figures for how much was spilled are still coming in. See here. And here, for a description of the state of the art monitoring of leaks – this one was heard gurgling by an oil field worker. There you go – the money those oil companies spend to be green and greener! It just makes the whole board of the AEI terribly sad.

Monday, March 06, 2006

the Rosemary’s Baby of American conservatism.

Every day, LI says bad things about the Bush administration. Today, we are going to say something good about the administration. Good, that is, from the point of view of philosophical clarification. For it has struck us more and more strongly that the Bush administration is the Rosemary’s Baby of American conservatism. This is what it was all always about, all the ritual, all the preparation.

For sixty years, American politics, on the ideological level, has been a rigged fight between frauds. The right wing fraud went under the mask of wanting “smaller government.” The left wing fraud went under the mask of supporting “working families.” In actuality, there was no side that wasn’t for big government. The argument was really about the bonds between big government and its partners. For the most part, the right’s preferred partners were in the petro-chemical industry. Both sides fought for the defense industry, and the left wing laid dibs on the unions and information technologies. There is a small, vocal sector in the public who actually wants small government (although usually, when given a taste of it, they quickly vote back in the pork), but they are so negligible that their only real purpose is to make one side of the big government-big business combination respectable. Similarly, there is a small, vocal sector standing up for working people, but their purpose was to operate as plausible defenders of the various free trade pacts that liquidated American manufacturing.

LI has been reminded, reading about the attacks launched on Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, that the first property one "owns" is one’s body. Because it is inconvenient to the petro-chemical sector, this property has not only been routinely trespassed upon, but the sense that you have some right not to be a lodging place for untested chemicals that leach out from agribusinesses, chemical factories, and a thousand and one household products has had to be dulled in the average citizen. Not to speak of the average citizen’s exchangeable property – his land, for instance. The first suits filed against DDT were filed against government sponsored flights dumping oil and DDT mixtures on private land in the name of fighting various insects. And the most ardent supporters of this kind of state activity were conservatives – in fact, Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Benson, assured Eisenhower that Carson was a communist – and he was in a way right. Communism became opposing the state coalition with big business.

However, the ideological masks have, at last, left American politics a wilderness of blunderers. Interestingly, this comes at a time when two threats to the U.S. are converging. One is the increased dependence on foreign sources for oil, and one is the looming threat from global warming and the acidification of the oceans. The convergence of those threats have been met with the orgy of irrelevance that makes up most of the newspaper headlines, and all of this administration’s policy.

In the next couple of days, we are going to concentrate on Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker series, The Climate of Man, which is going into her book, to be released this month, Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

To give some sense of the material in the book, here’s a passage about the rapidly thawing permafrost zone:
“When you walk around in the Arctic, you are stepping not on permafrost but on something called the "active layer." The active layer, which can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet deep, freezes in the winter but thaws over the summer, and it is what supports the growth of plants - large spruce trees in places where conditions are favorable enough and, where they aren't, shrubs and, finally, just lichen. Life in the active layer proceeds much as it does in more temperate regions, with one critical difference. Temperatures are so low that when trees and grasses die they do not fully decompose. New plants grow out of the half-rotted old ones, and when these plants die the same thing happens all over again. Eventually, through a process known as cryoturbation, organic matter is pushed down beneath the active layer into the permafrost, where it can sit for thousands of years in a botanical version of suspended animation. (In Fairbanks, grass that is still green has been found in permafrost dating back to the middle of the last ice age.) In this way, much like a peat bog or, for that matter, a coal deposit, permafrost acts as a storage unit for accumulated carbon.

One of the risks of rising temperatures is that this storage process can start to run in reverse. Under the right conditions, organic material that has been frozen for millennia will break down, giving off carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas. In parts of the Arctic, this is already happening. Researchers in Sweden, for example, have been measuring the methane output of a bog known as the Stordalen mire, near the town of Abisko, for almost thirty-five years. As the permafrost in the area has warmed, methane releases have increased, in some spots by up to sixty per cent. Thawing permafrost could make the active layer more hospitable to plants, which are a sink for carbon. Even this, though, probably wouldn't offset the release of greenhouse gases. No one knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the world's permafrost, but estimates run as high as four hundred and fifty billion metric tons.”

the archaeology of zombie talk

LI is fascinated by zombie talk. It is an idiolect of the hypnotized, a rare and precious thing.

Now, there are many patterns in zombie talk to choose from. We've written about the bogus analogies. We've written about the false claims. But --if we were to choose just one word to prospect out of the madness and moil of the last three years, the word would be “desperate.” This word pops up every time the weld between Iraq’s reality and the American description of it is jarred.

Here's a little travelogue for ya:

Back in June, 2003, when the first roadside bombs were killing American soldiers, Bremer said:

"Those who refuse to embrace the new Iraq are clearly panicking, they are turning their sights on Iraqis themselves," L. Paul Bremer said. "Today they have killed innocent Iraqis with the same disdain toward their own people they showed for 35 years."

Then, in August, as bombs hit Najaf, Rumsfeld, who back then was happy, as chief clown, to hog the spotlight on Iraq, said:

“As success during this period of transition continues to mount, the opponents of success and of a free Iraq may continue their desperate acts. But the outcome is not in doubt: Those who committed this act and who support violence in Iraq will fail.”

By October, 2003, Bush had, somehow, dropped the mission accomplished rhetoric. But mission was about to be accomplished soon, as in this description of those deadenders who by this time had mounted a quite extensive bombing campaign:

“Their desperate attacks on innocent civilians will not intimidate us or the brave Iraqis and Afghans who are joining in their own defense and who are moving toward self-government. Coalition forces, aided by Afghan and Iraqi police and military, are striking the enemy with force and precision. Our coalition is growing in members and growing in strength. Our purpose is clear and certain. Iraq and Afghanistan will be stable, independent nations, and their people will live in freedom.”

By then, desperation had become a normal White House response to any attack. This is from the Christian Science Monitor, 29 October, 2003, reporting on car bombings in Fallujah and the killing of the deputy mayor of Baghdad:

“This week's string of deadly attacks in some areas of Iraq has rocked Washington policymakers back on their heels and led to calls for a reassessment of the US military effort.
On Tuesday unknown assailants struck again in Baghdad, assassinating a deputy mayor in a hit-and-run shooting. A car bomb exploded in the tense city of Fallujah, killing at least four.
White House officials said the attacks showed that anti-US elements were desperate to stop steady progress towards Iraqi normalization. But they also admitted that the ferocity of resistance to the US occupation has taken them by surprise.”

In the Weekly Standard, on 25 November 2003, a summary of after mission accomplished Iraq stated: “Over the summer, as we were continuously assured by the administration that the bad guys were desperate and on the run, we could not turn on our television sets without hearing that "the noose is tightening." (Whether around Saddam's neck, or ours--nobody seemed to specify).”
By 12 February, 2004 Tom Friedman, a columnist who absolutely loves desperate as the word to describe the “terrorists” in Iraq, wrote:
The situation in Iraq is fast approaching the tipping point. The terrorists know that if they can wreak enough havoc, kill enough Iraqis waiting in line to join their own police force, they can prevent the U.N. from coming up with a plan for elections and a stable transfer of U.S. authority to an Iraqi government. Once authority is in Iraqi hands, the Baathists and Islamists have a real problem: They can't even pretend to be fighting the U.S. anymore. It will be clear to all Arabs and Muslims that they are fighting against the freedom and independence of Iraq and for their own lunatic ideologies. Which is why they are desperate to prevent us from reaching that tipping point. Their strategy is to sow chaos, defeat President Bush and hope that his Democratic successor will pull out.”
That desperation. Those terrorists, always working on a deadline, as the calm but implacable American machine swept them out of Iraq, and put in their place the Iraqi entrepreneur!
Friedman’s column came after the capture of Saddam Hussein, which signaled the complete and final victory of the Americans in Iraq. The military was on board with the desperate meme, too. This is from January 22, 2004, a dispatch by Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commanding general, 4th Infantry Division –

“Capturing Saddam was a major operational and psychological defeat for the enemy. But a more important result of his capture is the increase in accurate information brought forward by Iraqis allowing us to conduct numerous precise raids to kill or capture financiers, IED-makers, and mid-level leaders of the former regime. These groups are still a threat, but a fractured, sporadic threat with the leadership destabilized, finances interdicted and no hope of the Ba'athists' return to power.

The number of enemy attacks against our forces has been declining since a peak in November during Ramadan. And now their desperate attacks are targeting civilians; terrorist car bombs have killed innocent civilians and Iraqi police; ambushes attacked civilian supply convoys and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers, demonstrating the enemy's disdain for peace and prosperity in Iraq and for Iraqis. The enemy is focused solely on indiscriminate murder and promoting their own cause.”

You can tell – like a yoyo in a vacuum at the end of its string, Iraq was now calming down. Imagine, the enemy is focused on its own cause. No more ups and downs! As the AEI discovered a year later, we’d already won the war. Among the odd couplings in this war, none is odder than the embrace of the Baudrillardian view of reality by the hardcore right.

So time and our triumph marched on. Of course, people who are desperate are desperate for something. Fox news figured it out: the terrorists were desperate to derail democracy. The sabotage against the big democracy train has become very popular, and if a spokesman says desperate today, likely that derailing will occur in the next paragraph or so. In December, 2004, when the non-war, which we had won, seemed to be going on – like a play with no audience, really, except perhaps for the Iraqis, who persistently keep trying to edge into the American narrative, Scott McLellan put it best:
This [election] is an important first step in their future. And certainly, the security situation is an issue that we continue to address. There are challenges that remain, but the terrorists and the Saddam loyalists are being defeated and they will be defeated in the end. They're growing more desperate because we're getting closer and closer to a free and democratic Iraq.”
Desperation piled on desperation – obviously, those terrorists were not only using weapons obviously smuggled in from Iran, but prozac, probably from the same terrorist source. Bomb those prozac factories and the terrorists will have to face up to reality.

Desperation did take a curtain call for a while in 2005, while people in the know told us all about the amazing progress being made in Iraq. As for derailing democracy – keeping a majority who had voted in a free election from choosing their leader – why, that was now the job of our U.S. ambassador to Iraq. However, it wasn’t exactly “derailing” – call it more like jerking on a leash.

But the winds of freedom sweeping Iraq still hadn’t quite swept away the one or two terrorists left in the country yet. In a bold meeting of clichés, we have it on the word of
U.S Brigadier General Alston, (AP, 13 January 2006):

“He said the recent attacks, blamed mostly on extremists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq, were part of an "attempt to discredit and derail the progress of the Iraqi people."

Alston has discovered the definition war – he should definitely rush back to the Pentagon to announce the results of his startling research. The enemy, he could tell them, actually opposes us. Imagine that! They must be desperate.

All of which gets us to the best use of desperate yet – General Pace’s interview on Tim Russert’s show, yesterday.

LI simply can’t get over the abyss revealed in Pace’s remarks – the abyss, that is, of sheer mindlessness in the Pentagon. In Rumsfeld’s search for the perfect lackey, he should have included some other job qualifications – for instance, not being a total redneck:

“MR. RUSSERT: What’s going on in Iraq?
GEN. PACE: Well, what happened in Iraq was you have the extremists who see that the Iraqi people are going to the polls and voting for their own freely elected government. The terrorists are becoming more desperate—so desperate that they destroy one of their own most sacred shrines in an attempt to cause civil war and strife.”

So, the shrine in Samara was the terrorist’s own shrine. Hmm, could it be that the military sees every Iraqi as a terrorist? Perhaps that explains their ‘desperate” air strike policy, unquestioned by the U.S. press, and a sign of desperation by deadending Americans if I ever saw one.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

LI's taste in murder

Denis Donoghue, has penned a nice review of Denise Gigante’s book, “Taste: A Literary History,” in February’s Harpers. Donoghue considers the concrete sense, first – a sense that lies the tongue which is, as he felicitously puts it, “like a kingdom divided into principalities according to sensory talent” – for our bitter and sweet, our sour and salty are found in different areas of the tongue, the chemistry of the alien bodies we put in the mouth turned into its synaptic commentary by means of differently grouped sensors.

Gigante begins, too, with a primal scene of appetite and taste, this one taken from Paradise Lost:

“Gigante's point of departure is Milton's Paradise Lost. In Book 5, God sends the archangel Raphael to warn Adam that Satan is on the loose and determined to harm God's new creation, the human race. Adam doesn't seem especially perturbed; he is more interested in learning from Raphael what it's like to be an angel. He invites him to sit and share the sumptuous meal that Eve has prepared. Raphael accepts the invitation. This leads him to talk about food and to describe the angelic state. There is no reference to excretion; instead of evacuation, the angelic form of life has expression and eloquence. Raphael distinguishes angels from men and women, but he nonetheless says that a "time may come when men/With Angels may participate" and find

Later on, Raphael tells Adam that angels "live throughout/Vital in every part, not as frail man/In Entrails, Heart or Head, Liver or Reins." This suggests that angels are not dependent on mouths, tongues, and kidneys, even though they can assume human senses and choose whatever size, shape, and color they like.

Gigante notes that these passages in Paradise Lost were in the minds of the eighteenth-century philosophers of Taste and were constantly alluded to. After the divisiveness of the British Civil War, the end of the Stuart monarchy, the Bill of Rights (1689), and the Act of Settlement (1701), it was widely felt in Britain that soothing images of national unity were needed. The first of these was the True-Born Englishman, who might be Whig or Tory but was ultimately an Englishman. Another image, companionable to the first, was the Man of Taste, an exemplar of moderation, politeness, and refinement.”

LI has long ago fallen from aus der Engel Ordnungen, and is no longer really a man of taste or a true born American – which might explain why we got such a cruel kick from this article in the Washington Post. Like any other People or Vanity Fair reader, we do love a good murder. Besides which, we used to play tennis almost every day in the old, dead teen years, and so witnessed the phenomenon of the brow beating tennis parent, the one with the little kids who were being taught to play a fun game with the ruthlessness with which you teach a puppy to pee on the paper. In the person of Christophe Fauviau this apparently found its logical conclusion:

“Christophe Fauviau, a self-described obsessive tennis dad, was a fixture at amateur matches throughout France in which his son and daughter competed. He often appeared at the start of sets with bottled water or cups of Coca-Cola for his children, as well as their rivals.

Sometimes those rivals became ill during the match. They complained they were seeing double; some passed out or collapsed. One fell asleep at the wheel of his car on the way home from a match he had forfeited to Fauviau's son because of sickness.”
Christophe, it appears, is a true narcissist for our time. A duly medicated French yuppie – tranqs follow income as surely as magnets attract iron – it was Fauviau’s habit to give his darling Valentine and Maxime that foot up by doping the waterbottles of their opponents with Temesta. Here’s what the trick felt like, to one of Maxime’s opponents:

“During the match, he suddenly began feeling dizzy. "I was seeing two balls coming at me," he recalled. He said Maxime's father asked him if his head was okay. After the game, Tauziede said, he collapsed in the shower. His parents took him to a hospital where he remained for two days. Doctors were unable to diagnose his illness, he said.”

All of which led to this:

“Fauviau's undoing began in 2003. On July 3 that year, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher, Alexandre Lagardere, played Maxime Fauviau in what was considered a friendly local match. The prize was a ham. Lagardere fell ill while they were playing and dropped out. He drove to a friend's house and went to sleep on a couch, abandoning plans for a night out.

Two hours later he awoke and tried to drive home. He crashed his car when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel and died of his injuries. An autopsy found traces of Temesta in his system. Fauviau became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing him fiddling with Lagardere's water bottle just before the match.”

Once caught, however, our hero knew exactly what to do: blame his actions on his virtues. The virtue currently most worshipped in the world – ask our Rebel in Chief –is a high opinion of oneself. Given enough of this high opinion, you even have some to spend on other people. Yes, love love love – that is, of oneself, through other people:

“Fauviau, a slightly built man with a receding hairline and a pinched-looking face, testified in court, "When my children were playing, I was suffering. It was as if I were playing myself. I felt I was my child. I felt something crying inside me."
He said he arrived at his plan "little by little -- it was not sudden."”

Fauviau, after serving some tiresome sentence, should surely take his message to CEO retreats and think tanks, for there is an aching message there, a universal message… I think we can all sympathize with his agonies.

Which brings me back around to the man of taste. Surely it was this straw figure that De Quincey was mocking in the best essay ever written about homicide, Murder considered as one of the fine arts. It consists of a rather wild and wooly address given to a typical tasteful club: “The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.” Actually, Fauviau’s crime might be sneered at by De Quincey, since it lacks some of the characteristics of the great murders:

“People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed--a knife--a purse--and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”

I for one would stick up for the poetry and sentiment, but it must be admitted that the grouping and design are rather poor.

De Quincey’s lecturer is given to great digressions that are so satiric that they almost don’t seem satiric, like a stain that fades into a fabric of the same color. So, of course, first he has to establish the moral boundaries, here:

Before I begin, let me say a word or two to certain prigs, who affect to speak of our society as if it were in some degree immoral in its tendency. Immoral! God bless my soul, gentlemen, what is it that people mean? I am for morality, and always shall be, and for virtue and all that; and I do affirm, and always shall, (let what will come of it,) that murder is an improper line of conduct, highly improper; and I do not stick to assert, that any man who deals in murder, must have very incorrect ways of thinking, and truly inaccurate principles; and so far from aiding and abetting him by pointing out his victim's hiding-place, as a great moralist[1] of Germany declared it to be every good man's duty to do, I would subscribe one shilling and sixpense to have him apprehended, which is more by eighteen-pence than the most eminent moralists have subscribed for that purpose. But what then? Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and _that_, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated _æsthetically_, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.”

After more of this, our lecturer gets down to brass tacks, and as with any connoisseur, glances over the progress made by homicide over the ages, from the crude artistry of Cain to the more ingenious murders and assassinations of Christian times. Assassinations of statesmen and kings are rather boring, but there is a more delicate prey, and here De Quincey’s lecturer fixes, so to speak, his monocle:

But there is another class of assassinations, which has prevailed from an early period of the seventeenth century, that really _does_ surprise me; I mean the assassination of philosophers. For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him; and against Locke's philosophy in particular, I think it an unanswerable objection (if we needed any), that, although he carried his throat about with him in this world for seventy-two years, no man ever condescended to cut it. As these cases of philosophers are not much known, and are generally good and well composed in their circumstances, I shall here read an excursus on that subject, chiefly by way of showing my own learning.”

Truly, I can’t plead that my murderer, Fauviau, is a philosopher – but certainly I can claim that he is a murderer for the age of therapy, and a damn good one too.

Anyway, I could quote De Quincey's essay for ever -- it is one of my favorite pieces. If you haven't read it, dear reader, do.

PS -- A shout out to my readers in the Chicago area. If you aren't sick of my longwindedness yet, you can catch me in today's Sunday Chicago Sun Times book section opining about Kevin Brockmeier's new novel.