“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, July 15, 2006

"Life goes on"

This is a dark week. LI is trying to find what inspiration we can. So imagine our joy when we came across a story in the WSJ today about a class that we sometimes too carelessly insult – I’m talking about the upper management of Fortune 500 corporations.

The story, “Executive Pay: The 9/11 Factor, by Charles Forelle, James Bandler and Mark Maremont” is about the sheer patriotism of that group – its belief in America, even when times are down. Take 9/11. Stocks plummeted in the wake of 9/11. But… well, here’s the inspiring story:

“ON SEPT. 21, 2001, rescuers dug through the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. Across town, families buried two firefighters found a week earlier. At Fort Drum, on the edge of New York's Adirondacks, soldiers readied for deployment halfway across the world.

"Boards of directors of scores of American companies were also busy that day. They handed out millions of bargain-priced stock options to their top executives.
The terrorist attack shut the U.S. stock market for days. When it reopened Sept. 17, stocks skidded more than 14% over five days, in the worst full week for the Dow Jones Industrial Average since Germany invaded France in May 1940. But for recipients of options, the lower their company's stock price when options are awarded the better, since the options grant a right to buy shares at that price for years to come. The grants set recipients up for millions of dollars in profit if the shares recovered.

"A Wall Street Journal analysis shows how some companies rushed, amid the post-9/11 stock-market decline, to give executives especially valuable options. A review of Standard & Poor's ExecuComp data for 1,800 leading companies indicates that from Sept. 17, 2001, through the end of the month, 511 top executives at 186 of these companies got stock-option grants. The number who received grants was 2.6 times as many as in the same stretch of September in 2000, and more than twice as many as in the like period in any other year between 1999 and 2003.

"Ninety-one companies that didn't regularly grant stock options in September did so in the first two weeks of trading after the terror attack. Their grants were concentrated around Sept. 21, when the market reached its post-attack low. They were worth about $325 million when granted, based on a standard method of valuing stock options. “

Faith in America – and faith in gouging Americans. They go together like chocolate and peanut butter, or Halliburton and Cheney. Even as they were weeping for compatriots lost, these company boards knew that a smash and grab opportunity like this doesn’t come around twice in a lifetime. There is a saying about the amoral opportunist that he would dance on his grandmother’s grave – but what a waste of grandmother that is! Especially when you can rent her dead body out to necrophiles and make a little of the ready.

Ah, this is a true story of the people Bush calls his base. And base, oh so base, they are, the most debased mob of knaves and thieves ever to have afflicted this country. A white collar riot, in which the rioters aren’t going to be taking cheesy tv sets and shit – that is so below par when you can rack up the extra million here and there and you are guaranteed tax advantages by a president who came in via coup. Sweet! Robber barons did many things, but one thing they did supremely: build. In contrast, this is the crowd that has utterly reduced the American manufacturing base and stands in the way of creating a green economy, in spite of the overwhelming long range necessity of it. The are a parasitical crew of pirates, more than willing to sink this country for a dime and a percentage point. And they are winning, every day. Can't you feel it, reader, in your shoulders and neck?

“The 91 companies included such corporate icons as Home Depot Inc., Black & Decker Corp. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. It included two companies directly touched by the tragedy. Merrill Lynch & Co., across the street from the Twin Towers, lost three employees. On Sept. 24, Merrill granted its president options to buy more than 750,000 shares, at a price 15% below the pre-attack level. At Teradyne Inc. in Boston, an employee delayed a business trip until Sept. 11 to attend a son's soccer game and died on American Flight 11. Teradyne that month gave its CEO more than 600,000 options at a price enabling him to buy stock at 24% below its pre-attack level.

At Stryker Corp., a Michigan maker of orthopedic products, onetime stock-option-committee member John Lillard said he didn't regret the decision to award options nine days after the attack. "If you believe the company is going to do well, and here is an external event that is affecting the market and you've made a decision to reward executives, you go ahead with it," Mr. Lillard said. "Life goes on."”

Friday, July 14, 2006

the agendas: Israel vs. Hezbollah or how the mouse trap caught the cat

Yesterday’s Kagan op ed, it appears, is only the first in a flood of wargasm rhetoric in the WAPO – with today’s op ed page hosting Krauthammer and a fellow at a conservative think tank in Jerusalem, Michael Oren, as well as David Ignatius (a man for whom LI has some residual personal respect – we interviewed him, years ago, and formed a favorable judgment about him in spite of his pro-war beliefs).

LI doesn’t fully understand the motives behind Israel’s decision to go full tilt, lately, into Gaza and now into Lebanon, in response to Hamas and Hezbollah. We suspect that Michael Oren’s op ed reflects the thinking of Israel’s government:

“By eliminating the terrorist leaderships in Gaza and southern Lebanon and deterring Syria and Iran from prodding their proxies to war, Israel can restore a reasonable level of security to its citizens. Such measures will also be implicitly welcomed by Israel's Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors, who are similarly threatened by these same terrorist groups. Only by establishing a new and more stable status quo along Israel's borders can Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proceed with his plan of redrawing those borders permanently, either unilaterally or in cooperation with a nonviolent Palestinian partner.”

This is magic thinking, however. Israel has never “eliminated” terrorist leadership anywhere (and let’s not be distracted by the word ‘terrorist’ into a long detour about who is really the terrorist – LI doesn’t really care). In fact, the restoration of a “reasonable level of security” for Israel’s citizens is a curious goal, given that the insecurity they suffer from stems from Israel’s attempt to impose – unilaterally – a plan for redrawing boundaries.

By discarding graduated response, Israel is putting the U.S. in a very awkward position. After all, Hezbollah and the Dawa party running Iraq are joined by a long history of common bonds. Ignatius and Oren and Robert Fiske and other Middle Eastern reporters have developed a shorthand for talking about the Middle East in which there are the main players and the proxies. Hezbollah, for instance, is a client of Iran, or operates as Syria’s proxy. But this is very misleading. Because one party in a situation is weaker economically and politically doesn’t mean that the flow of power is unilateral from the stronger to the weaker. Israel is weaker than the U.S. by far, and has built itself up with massive amounts of U.S. aid. But it is not just a U.S. proxy. Discard the so often invoked idea of the head and the tail – the image of the beast is just that – an image.

In LI’s uninformed opinion, Hezbollah, in the late nineties, was an instrument used by reactionary forces in Iran to work against the moderates in Teheran. And the relationship between Israel and Iran, which seems to be the latent cause of Israel’s new found aggressiveness, has been determined by elements quite different from opposition to Islamic ‘radicalism.’ Trita Parsi, in an article in the June, 2005 Iranian Studies journal, “Israel-Iranian Relations Assessed: Strategic Competition from the Power Cycle Perspective”, showed that Israel supported Khomenei in the most radical phase of the Iranian revolution, operating to supply Iran with arms in its war with Iraq and only shifting to an anti-Iranian posture after the first Gulf war. If Israel were simply responding to Hezbollah’s threats, this is a curious pattern of engagement and disengagement. Parsi, however, contents that Israel is playing for dominance in the region. It is not responding to threats so much as responding from an ideology that simply sees Israel as permanently threatened as long as it does not dominate in the Middle East. In a footnote to that article, there’s a very interesting comment from a high ranking Israeli military man:

“Interview with Israeli ministry of defense official, Tel Aviv, October 18, 2004. “There is definitely a tendency in Israel [to think the worst]. . .. Today, the prevailing culture or I would say the mindset of the intelligence industry is to attribute to the enemy almost infinite power and completely underestimate what our strength means to them.”

Parsi sums up the change in Israeli policy by looking at what Rabin and Peres were saying and doing in the 80s and then in the 90s:

“The two Israeli leaders that in the early 1990s initiated a very aggressive Iran
policy pursued a diametrically opposite policy only a few years earlier. In 1987, Yitzhak Rabin argued that Iran remained an ally geo-politically.40 Shimon Peres, who sought a “broader strategic relationship with Iran,” urged President Reagan to seek a dialogue with Tehran.

"This was at the center of the “Iran-Contra” affair, in which Israel pressured the
U.S. to improve relations with Iran and sell advanced American arms to the Khomeini
regime.42 The affair was initiated by Amiram Nir, a close aid to Shimon Peres, who floated the idea of selling arms to Iran in Washington in the mid- 1980s. The idea was rejected by the State Department and the Pentagon, but it found support in National Security Council operatives Oliver North and Michael Ledeen.43 (Ledeen, a personal acquaintance of Peres, was convinced by
the Israelis to pursue a U.S. opening to Iran.44 Today, he is one of the most vocal opponents of U.S.-Iran talks and advocates a policy of regime-change in Tehran on the grounds that Iran opposes Israel’s right to exist.) Israel’s key argument was that Iran would once again become an explicit ally of the two if moderate elements in Tehran were strengthened.

This stands in stark contrast to Israel’s policy after 1992, driven again by Peres and Rabin, in which Tel Aviv rejected the very concept of “Iranian moderates” and opposed any rapprochement between the Unites States and Iran.46 Indeed, one of the questions that arose from the Iran-Contra affair was Israel’s seemingly paradoxical role in strengthening a regime that opposed Israel’s existence and Iran’s collaboration with a state that it officially sought to destroy.”

Parellel with Israel’s underground alliance with Iran, Hezbollah seems to have been in contact with Al Qaeda in the 90s, in spite of the fact that Al Qaeda acted as an occasional Einsatzgruppe against Shiites in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same period, organizing and participating in anti-Shi’a pograms that prefigure those going on in Iraq today. LI puts the “seems” in, since all information about Hezbollah and al Qaeda has to be finely sifted, as the amount of sheer propaganda written about Al qaeda in the last five years makes it hard to get any hard facts. Still, I trust Douglas Farah’s reporting on this issue, in spite of Farah’s biases. Unfortunately, the agenda-blind never explain seeming contradictions. How could Hezbollah cooperate with al qaeda, for instance, at the same time that al qaeda was the guest of a government that massacred Shiites in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, in the Shamali region around 1999, around Taloquan in 2000, and in Bamiyan in 2001 – regions of Afghanistan that were of great concern to Iran, supposedly Hezbollah’s patron, all during this time? Farah, as far as I know, never discusses these facts -- which is where his Maronite sympathies betray him. On the other hand, how could the U.S. be sponsoring an Iraqi government headed by the party with the close ties to Hezbollah, too?

The LA Times has the one dissenting analysis of Hezbollah’s actions in the past week – the rest of the press is towing the Bush line, as per usual.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

kagan/sade

LI was pleased to see that the Washington Post is doing something about an issue that effects us all – the erotic dreamlife of neo-cons. Rather than let daydreams of violence, torture, and death end up as the private incentives towards some covert ejaculation, the WAPO has manfully published Robert Kagan’s wet dream on its op ed page.

It begins with a “Let’s imagine,” and ends with “It’s just a theory,”- clueing us into the daydreaming nature of the column. In between there is a rich and colorful mix of those puzzling features that make up the neo-con underlife – the homo-erotic fascination with George Bush, of all people, as Superman; the ardent desire to burn brown skin, which one sees in old postcards of lynchings, and of which Kagan is the heavy breathing inheritor; and judgments about the Clinton administration that are so absurd as to be more than mildly deranged – they are definitely symptoms of the erotic role played by Clinton in the neo-con mind.

Erotic daydreaming is heavily ritualized. One returns again and again to a formula. Sade actually made the ritualization itself pornographic, in the 120 days of Sodom:

“Singulièrement mécontents de la maladresse de toutes ces petites filles dans l'art de la masturbation, impatientés de ce qu'on avait éprouvé sur cela la veille, Durcet proposa d'établir une heure dans la matinée où on leur donnerait des leçons sur cet objet, et que tour à tour un d'eux se lèverait une heure plus matin, ce moment d'exercice étant établi depuis neuf jusqu'à dix, se lèverait, dis-je, à neuf heures pour aller se prêter à cet exercice. On décida que celui qui remplirait cette fonction s'assiérait tranquillement au milieu du sérail, dans un fauteuil, et que chaque petite fille, conduite et guidée par la Duclos, la meilleure branleuse que le château renfermât, viendrait s'essayer sur lui, que la Duclos dirigerait leur main, leur mouvement, qu'elle leur apprendrait le plus ou le moins de vitesse qu'il fallait donner à leurs secousses en raison de l'état du patient, qu'elle prescrirait leurs attitudes, leurs postures pendant l'opération, et qu'on établirait des punitions réglées pour celle qui, au bout de la première quinzaine, ne réussirait point parfaitement dans cet art sans avoir plus besoin de leçons.”

Kagan, discontented by the supposed maladresse of a President who has refused to use even a petite tactical nuclear weapon on Iran, comforts himself first by recalling the dark days – yes, the Clinton days:

“Let's imagine, and this is purely hypothetical, that President Bush has already decided that he will not leave office in January 2009 without a satisfactory resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem. Let's imagine that he has already determined that if he cannot obtain Iran's agreement to dismantle its nuclear weapons program voluntarily and verifiably, then he will order some form of military action to destroy as much of that program as possible before he leaves. Let's imagine that he has resolved not to end his two terms in office the way Bill Clinton ended his, by leaving every major international crisis -- from Iraq to Iran to North Korea to al-Qaeda -- for his successor.”

The erotic lives of others are easy to laugh at. Of course, the idea that Bush, who has started an unwinnable war and has said, publicly, that he is leaving that war for his successor, won’t be like Clinton – who left Bush with a number of officials who explained Al Qaeda to him, even as Bush was eager to do some cedar choppin’ on his ranch – is obviously an erotic pretext. The famous remark about not being part of the reality based community was all about the mixture of sexual disposition and policy at the D.C. court. To succeed dans cet art, combining the right amount of friction and mental picturing, requires that one return again and again to some primal, vulnerable scene. This is the tableau of the baby and the mean mother.

Having set himself up in this way, Kagan can then imagine the seduction. The powerful, powerful rebel in chief, in this episode, is operating in a curiously non-muscular way. Is superman really a drag queen? Or is this, oh bliss, is this really superman in a new role – a man/woman, a seducer? Surely it is the latter! This is the cross dressing tableau.

“Bush would be sincere, and convincingly so. For his ideal outcome really would be a diplomatic solution in which Iran voluntarily and verifiably abandoned its program. He would know that such an outcome, in addition to benefiting the world, could completely reshape his image and ensure his legacy as a successful leader. He would also know that the military solution is fraught with danger and, indeed, could end badly. He would genuinely like to avoid it if at all possible. It really would be a last resort, to be used only when diplomacy failed. Therefore, Bush would send his diplomats out and want them to succeed. He would not be bothered by press reports that he had abandoned "cowboy diplomacy" and given in to the "realists" at the State Department.”

Superman is like that, sometimes. His member, as iron strong as always, is disguised – and not just disguised but mocked! But it is a mistake to take this as a moment of erotic depression. Rather, in the routine, this is as highly charged a moment as any other. Here one is the victim, one is beaten, one experiences the peculiar delight of a masochism that will end in mastery. As Sade knew, seduction is in and of itself a reason for discharge:

"Il y avait eu quelques changements dans la maison de Mme Guérin, [the keeper of a brothel] ... Deux très jolies filles venaient de trouver des dupes qui les entretinrent et qu'elles trompèrent comme nous faisons toutes. Pour remplacer cette perte, notre chère maman avait jeté les yeux sur la fille d'un cabaretier de la rue Saint-Denis, âgée de treize ans et l'une des plus jolies créatures qu'il fût possible de voir. Mais la petite personne, aussi sage que pieuse, résistait à toutes ses séductions, lorsque la Guérin, après s'être servie d'un moyen très adroit pour l'attirer un jour chez elle, la mit aussitôt entre les mains du personnage singulier dont je vais vous décrire la manie. C'était un ecclésiastique de cinquante-cinq à cinquante-six ans, mais frais et vigoureux et auquel on n'en aurait pas donné quarante. Aucun être dans 1e monde n'avait un talent plus singulier que cet homme pour entraîner des jeunes filles dans le vice, et comme c'était son art le plus sublime, il en fait aussi son seul et son unique plaisir. Toute sa volupté consistait à déraciner les préjugés de l'enfance, à faire mépriser la vertu et à parer le vice des plus belles couleurs. Rien n'y était négligé: tableaux séduisants, promesses f1atteuses, exemples délicieux, tout était mis en oeuvre, tout était adroitement ménagé, tout artistement proportionné à l'âge, à l'espèce d'esprit de l'enfant, et jamais il ne manquait son coup. En deux seules heures de conversation, il était sûr de faire une putain de la petite fille la plus sage et la plus raisonnable, et depuis trente ans qu'il exerçait ce métier-là dans Paris, il avait avoué à Mme Guérin, l'une de ses meilleures amies, qu'il avait sur son catalogue plus de dix mille jeunes filles séduites et jetées par lui dans le libertinage.”

The power to seduce is the power to debase. The powerful, in Kagan’s mind, are in fact defined by the debasement that they can effect. Thus the cowboy Bush is being maligned, pushed around by the press, told that his vit is no longer gonflé. He’s a girl, he’s a girlie-man. The persecutors must be punished for this. And what better punishment than to deposit just the most precious little Bush turd on the constitution! Yes, let the president defy law itself – let him use his strong, strong penis to press the buttons and make his supermen squad of bombers discharge on Iran, burning, beautifully burning into a nice crisp those frightening brown skins, and at the same time wipe his ass with the constitution, thus fulfilling the Sadean trajectory that goes from seduction to blasphemy. And in this way we get to the high point of Kagan’s dream. It is, actually, as a high point, rather pedestrian – the usual Clancy fantasy of bombs killing and killing and killing, ripping off the skins of brown men, making sure they suffer. Brown women too, of course. The absence of napalm in the current war is obviously a deep wound to the erotic charge it could have for the neo-cons. Torture has made up for it, in the various prisons, but still, bombing Iran – that would be special, that would make up for everything.

As I said, this is garden variety porn. What is special is that WAPO is where neo-con porno seems to find its natural venue.

“The likely failure of diplomacy would not deter Bush from pursuing it, however. If and when it failed, he would be able to choose the military course, and no fair person could accuse him of not having tried to bring the world along to do what had to be done. At least he would know in his own mind that he had sincerely given diplomacy a chance. And when he ordered the strike on Iran, he would know that, whatever else could be said about him, he would not go down in history as the man who let the mullahs have the bomb.

It's just a theory.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the riddler and the imperial turn

One of LI’s favorite scholars is Carlo Ginzburg. We were in the University library a couple of days ago, looking up references for The Basho of Economics, the book we are translating. Going through the stacks, we came upon Wooden Eyes, a collection of Ginzburg pieces from the nineties. We were particularly struck by the first essay, “Making it Strange: the Prehistory of a literary device.” Ginzburg’s essays are hard essays to paraphrase because the joy in them is in the way they wander. Seemingly, one goes from point to random point, but the joy of the thing, for the reader, is that every point seems mysteriously charged with some as yet unexplained meaning. Until, as in fairy tale journeys, one arrives and makes the journey itself into a riddle – rather than a thesis, as is usual in scholarship.

My comparison is taken from the essay, which traces the Russian formalist notion of de-familiarization (“making it strange”) back, first, to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and then to the lore of the folk riddle. Aurelius, it turns out, was one of Tolstoy’s favorite writers. And Tolstoy’s novels were the occasion for Shklovsky, the most adroit Russian formalist, to explain description in the novel as depending on the technique of de-familiarization. Shklovsky claims that art, in general, is our counterfoil to the automatization of everyday life:

“And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us into the knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “estranging’ objects and complicating forms, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.”

Ginzburg compares this notion to the stoic exercise of clearing what Epictetus called the phantasia from our impressions. [there is, by the way, a stupid typo in Ginzburg’s introduction of M.A.’s meditations – the Columbia Press translation has it that Marcus Aurelius wrote his autobiography in the second century B.C., rather than A.D. That’s an embarrassing mistake.]

“Wipe away the impress of imagination. Stay the impulse which is drawing you like a puppet. Define the time which is present. Recognize what is happening to yourself or another.”

Ginzburg follows the publication history of the Meditations, which, unsurprisingly, includes much forged or dubious material. Every ancient text, in either the medieval or Renaissance period, seems to have accrued a number of counterfeits. But what interested LI was the unexpected coincidence of those counterfeits with a tradition that we are very interested in: the imperial inflection in Europe. Normally, histories of Europe talk about colonialism in terms of a mother country, or center, and a periphery. But in actuality, the periphery was located in Europe itself. It was located in Europe’s peasantry. Colonialism and the agricultural revolution in Europe are parts of the same process – the process that gave us capitalism and, more generally, the process of production that has become the norm, either achieved or striven for, across ideologies, for the last century.

This coincidence happens under the aegis of a forgery. The Meditations were translated in the sixteenth century by a monk named Antonio de Guevara. However, the translation wasn’t true – there were many forged sections attributed to M.A. Among them was a section, inspired by Tacitus’ descriptions of the German tribes, that gives us a speech by one Milenus, defending the freedom of the barbarians against the rule of Rome, which begins:

“So greedy have you been for the goods of others, and so great has been your arrogance in seeking to rule over foreign lands, that the sea with all its deeps has not sufficed you and the land with its broad fields has not satisfied you.”

In essence, Guevara is using a German peasant, or savage, from Roman times, to speak about the Spanish empire of his own times, and criticize the conquest of the Indians. This doubling of the European and the American savage is the secret heart of the noble savage myth. While conventional histories attribute the noble savage idea, wrongly, to Rousseau, and attribute the savagery solely to the Indians, in actuality the topos was as much about the European peasant. The peasant was always considered a savage by the city intellectual – Engels called them simply stupid, and in Vienna, around 1900, intellectuals would say things like Vienna lives in the 20th century while Galician peasants live in the fifteenth.

I will return to this essay soon, I hope.

the really big money

LI is in the midst of doing some serious work – or seriously procrastinating doing some serious work. Thus, the post we planned on Carlos Ginzburg’s essay on the ‘prehistory of making it strange’, which we have been reading in the collection, Wooden Eyes, is just going to have to wait.

In the meantime, before it sinks below the horizon, we noticed this article in the Sunday NYT business section: Pentagon struggles with cost overruns and delays.

LI is for a reasonable amount of military spending – on par with China, for instance. About 40 to 80 billion per year. Cutting down to that level would mean avoiding things like this:

“In recent Congressional hearings and reports from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, the Pentagon has been portrayed as so mired in bureaucracy and so enamored of the latest high-tech gadgetry that multi-billion-dollar weapon systems are running years behind in development and are dangerously over budget.

The Pentagon reported last April, in response to questions from lawmakers, that 36 of its major next-generation weapon systems are over budget, some by as much as 50 percent.

The G.A.O. estimated that cost overruns on 23 weapon systems it studied in April came to $23 billion. In addition, there were delays of at least a year in delivering these weapons, with some programs running as much as four years late, like the Army’s $130 billion Future Combat Systems to provide soldiers new computerized ground equipment.”

When the prototype of the war culture was set up, after WWII, southern senators, like Johnson and Richard Russell of Georgia, made sure that the military seeded the South. That meant putting bases in the South, but it also meant bringing military tech companies to the South, to provide a manufacturing base that the South sorely needed. In effect, the funds the Europeans put into developing the economies of Spain and Greece were paralleled by the money the U.S. – mainly the investor North – put into Dixie.

Unfortunately, those decisions have created a war machine that continues to expand through thick and thin, linked to the fortunes of the most conservative part of the country. In this part of the country, opposition to big government, which is not so secretly opposition to any government program that might advantage blacks, is linked by bonds as tight as any that connected Chang and Eng to support for the war culture that is a threat to every human on the planet.

Here is a rundown of Pentagon costs. Or, put otherwise: here is an indictment of the American government for crimes against humanity:

“The G.A.O. found that financial sloppiness went beyond weapon systems. For instance, at a time when the Pentagon was buying new chemical suits for use in Iraq for $200 each, it was also selling them on the Internet for $3 each after some military units misidentified the suits as surplus. And about $1.2 billion in supplies that were shipped to Iraq never arrived — or were never found — because of logistical problems.

"But the really big money is in weapons. New weapons are expected to cost at least $1.4 trillion from now to 2009, with $800 billion of those expenditures yet to be made, according to the Pentagon. Weapons systems are one of the largest purchases made by the federal government, and the Pentagon’s weapons-buying program has doubled from $700 billion before 9/11.

"Since 9/11, the Pentagon budget and supplemental spending on Iraq have grown to over $500 billion a year. This compares with a Pentagon budget of $291 billion before 9/11. (If measured in today’s dollars, pre-9/11 spending would come to $330 billion, according to the Pentagon.)”

Withdrawing from Iraq, as LI has often maintained, is just one in a mix of policy changes to stabilize and soften the American presence in the Middle East – a place, by the way, in which there is no need for a single U.S. military base. Another part of that mix is figuring out how to destroy the military-industrial alien that has become America’s child. Military goods are not just hazards to humans, of course – the military is the greatest polluter in the world. Among other things, the U.S. military has so polluted various wildernesses in the West – with radioactive materials – that some areas will not recover for thousands of years. Literally.
What kind of civilization does that? What kind spends 500 billion a year on the military without any discussion whatsoever?

Monday, July 10, 2006

fuck the poor

I was corresponding with one of my best friends, M., who lives in Polanco. We were talking about the elections in Mexico, and M. mentioned that the absenteeism of the poor had doomed Obrador’s campaign.

I replied that, as for the poor, I have one opinion: fuck the poor.

It is a sign of the unhealthiness of liberal-left culture that the working class has been discarded as a pragmatic political category. I hated Obrador’s slogan, the poor first. What poor? We are talking here about the producers of wealth in any society whatsoever. This isn’t a simple linguistic matter – this is all about a very pernicious shift in attitudes. Once one decides to let class definitions sift out of politics – and that is something that leftists are pretty comfortable with, since there is nothing they are more uncomfortable with than, say, blue collar white guys –why, then they can pursue a fake politics of slogans and demos and endless defeat to their hearts content.

The poor, those bugeyed people with bugeyed kids thrusting out their hands create a satisfying catalytic response in many a lefty, who are able to take a sufficiently broad minded, charitable view that they are all ‘for’ the poor. Usually, this view begins by stripping these ‘poor’ of all autonomy. I have been to a lot of blog sites to see what has been said about the elections in Mexico, and there is one response that is just infuriating to me. It is that Obrador had to have been cheated since the poor would never vote PAN. Obrador was cheated, but the evidence for it is not in someone's superior view of how the poor voted. This is usually stated with smug confidence by people who are, I am sure, making above 20 thou a year and would be insulted to be told that they should be voting for tax breaks and Republicans. No, these people have a higher mindset – unlike the poor, whom they love so much, they can actually decide things for themselves. They can show some agency. But not those loveable, loveable poor people.

LI was thinking of this when we saw a movie last night: Harlan County, USA. Wonderful documentary that was directed by one of the Winter Soldier filmmakers, Barbara Koppel. The film was made in 1973-1974, and it showed a very aggressive working culture that wasn’t going to take gun thugs and state sponsored police oppression – and would buy its own guns if necessary to defend itself. The people in the movie had a firm sense of themselves as makers of wealth, living at the bottom of the economic spectrum. And Koppel had the good sense not to see these people as the poor – they would have handed her her ass if she had displayed that attitude. So, LI’s recommend today, a companion piece to recent events, is Michael Yates autobiographical essay, “Class: a personal story” in the Monthly Review. Yates was born in the forties, and benefited from the social mobility of the fifties. He can look back and see the costs and motives of what was happening to him and his family.

Here are some good grafs:

“The factory town [where his parents moved] also had a range of small businesses, and a worker could aim for the petty bourgeoisie. My uncle once opened a small restaurant with a fellow worker in an effort to escape the factory and be his own boss. My father had hopes of becoming a radio repairman and later took a correspondence school course to learn drafting. This kind of thinking and acting, while easy to understand, also sapped class consciousness.

As with the miners, the Second World War profoundly affected the ways in which workers thought and acted. On the one hand, the factory men came home from the war unwilling to tolerate the corporate despotism their fathers had suffered before unionization. They struck and filed grievances and won more control over what went on at work than they ever could have imagined before the war. I well remember the two summers I worked in the plant. My grandfather, a time-study engineer, got me a summer job while I was in college. I did mostly clerical work, cataloging accidents and analyzing accident reports to see where and when they were most likely to occur. Many children of workers got such jobs, and the company found this a good way to recruit local college kids into management (as with the miners, parents had mixed feelings about this but in general were proud to help their children to get out of the working class). My job was housed in the fire department—the factory was large enough to have its own. The firemen were typically on-call and often had few regular daytime duties. So they spent a lot of time drinking coffee and talking. The atmosphere was casual, and the supervisors never, while I was there, told the men to do anything. The union officers, themselves full-time union staffers (drawing pay from the company), stopped everyday for coffee. The firemen moved around the plant freely and were good sources of gossip that might be useful to the union. The union president was a gruff man with one arm; he had lost the other to a grinding machine. The vicepresident was a dapper man, a superlative bowler and pool player and
a chronic gambler. Conversation ranged freely from football pools to ongoing disputes with management. I was impressed with the degree of freedom the workers and the union officers had, the product of long years of class struggle after the war most of them had fought in. Without using the word in a sexist way, I would say that the war had made them “men,” and they demanded to be treated as such.

On the other hand, the war and its aftermath locked most of these workers into mainstream America. Wars are always about getting people in one country to hate those in another. If this can be done once, it can be done again; all that is needed is for the state to declare a new enemy. After the war, the new enemy was the Soviet Union and by implication, all radical thinking and acting. It was no accident that the labor movement was held up as an entity infiltrated by communists and that, further, workers would have to repudiate the reds in their unions if they were to maintain membership in U.S. society. War gets people used to obeying orders issued by the state, and this habit of mind worked to good advantage from the employers’ perspective after the war when they strove to regain the power they had lost during the heyday of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). Workers who insisted
on trying to deepen what the CIO had achieved before and during the war—greater control by workers of their workplaces, a weakening of racism, solidarity with workers in other countries, the beginnings of a social welfare state—were simply declared enemies of the state, on a par with the Germans and Japanese just defeated in the war. The workers in my hometown, never especially radical to begin with and deeply influenced by the war and by the Catholic Church, bought into the new patriotism of anticommunism wholeheartedly...

"To help workers embrace the Cold War, the government initiated a variety of programs aimed at giving them a greater material stake in U.S. society. The most important of these was the subsidization of home mortgages. Millions of working-class families bought homes on the cheap, usually away from the cities and towns in the new and more isolated and diffuse suburbs. Home ownership came to define the “good life” for workers, and the constant care and worry that had to be devoted to home ownership left workers with little time for anything else, except perhaps to sit around the television every night to live through the characters on the various drama and comedy shows. An enormous amount of propaganda was devoted (and still is) to the wonders of owning a house and the satisfaction to be gained by living in one with a family whose members were devoted to one another. This and the array of consumer goods needed to maintain a home were all that workers needed to be happy.”

Sunday, July 09, 2006

driving

Kein Atemholen bleibt der Kultur und am Ende liegt eine tote Menschheit neber ihren Werken, die zu erfinden ihr so viel Geist gekostet had, dass ihr keiner mehr uebrig blieb, sie zu nuetzen.
Wir waren kopliziert genug, die Maschine zu bauen, and wir sind zu pimitiv, uns von ihr bedienen zu lassen. Wir treiben einen Weltverkehr auf schmalspurigen Gehirnbahnen.

Culture cannot catch its breath; in the end, a dead humanity lies next to its works, which cost it so much mental energy to discover that it had none left to use it.
We were complicated enough to build machines, and are too primitive, to use them. We maintain the traffic of the world on narrow gauge brain rails. – Karl Kraus

In the terrible winter of ‘93, LI made one in a series of bad decisions and bought what turned out to be his last car.

I bought a 76 AMC Matador with a V-8 engine. It was an absolute and total lemon. I bought it because I was suddenly seized with 0-60 fantasies of roaring down country roads in New Mexico, one hand on the wheel, one hand on a tall boy. It is a comment on my mental state that I even got the notion that my character was malleable enough to accommodate a V-8 engine. I thought I was made of quicksilver, but I turned out to be just another shitkicking redneck. Oh well.

Since then, my days of driving cars have been reduced to various unpredictable occasions. Usually, a friend wants to be driven to the airport, and I get the friend’s car for a couple of days or a week. This happened Friday: I took S. and her family to the airport, and now have some wheels.

In this way, I have sampled, over the last fifteen years, the traffic system in this country – in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Texas, at least – and I think I can safely say: it is a lot less fun to drive now than it used to be.

I used to love driving, when I had a chance. I can’t think of a pleasanter way of emptying my mind than listening to something loud and fast while I zip down a country road doing 80, watching the fields and trees and shacks and cows and horses and people stream away in the rear view mirror, both windows open. In Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays, there is a famous passage about Maria, the heroine, who dopes herself on the LA freeway system:

“Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.”

Certain long lone trips – the time I contracted to drive this guy’s Cherokee from Salt Lake City to Austin, for instance – still have a strong mental presence for me – I can go back to that trip. I can go back to Santa Fe to Albuquerque. I can definitely go back to Pecos. I can do Atlanta to New Orleans without a problem.

But in the real world, there is a carrying problem. There is only so much road. And on that road, every year, there are more cars. The car drivers want ever more road, but the truth is, mostly, the places where people want to drive are already connected. The way to drive from my place to downtown Austin, for instance, is filled – there are no virtual routes left.

I’ve noticed this more in Atlanta, a city in which I have a long history of driving, than in Austin, where I rarely drive. For instance, right now, to drive on Briarcliff Road in Dekalb county (a street I have a good forty years of memory of, from the time I was a kid in a passenger seat until now) means basically joining a traffic jam – save for a few hours from 1 p.m. until around 3, and from 9 p.m. until the morning. When I was nineteen, working for my J., a former brother in law, doing roof work, Briarcliff was easy – we would zoom around the Virginia Highlands, Inman Park area in a loaded down truck, going for supplies, or to look at a house, or for lunch, and there was not five cars at every stop sign. Now you cannot take your little pickup and make that circuit mostly in fourth. What that means is that driving is much more segmented than it used to be. When I walk or bicycle, my forward motion is rarely stopped because of anything in front of me. But in a car, the very embodiment of forward motion, I seem to be stopping all of the time. The living tension between expectation and reality makes me oddly impatient. It is odd because I am really moving much faster than I normally move. There’s nothing to be impatient about. Yet the constant queuing diminishes the pleasure I get in the power of the car – in the continual flow that I want from the thing, the becoming-liquid. Liquids go with cars – the gas, the ‘flow’ of traffic. Drinking and driving, the great taboo, is also obviously a great temptation, since driving a car is already a form of getting high.

I try to reduce my impatience by really seeing what other drivers are doing. They are doing amazing things, actually. It is an amazing talent, simply to change lanes at sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour on a narrow patch of asphalt where other monstrous metal boxes are also going sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour. This is not the kind of experience our bodies are built for.

I don’t think the car will last – I do think that it will be looked back upon, at some point, as a dream. The highways will be as puzzling as the heads on Easter Island. As evidences of a civilization that couldn’t have happened. Already, though, there are differences in the experience of car history. Quantity does transform quality – I sometimes wonder if the cars aren’t bigger and bulkier as a way of recapturing a time when the roads were less crowded – as if you could carry that less crowded space with you.

My strategy, now, is to drive like an old man, deliberately keeping to the speed limit and pissing off any unfortunate sod with the bad luck to be behind me. But I am thinking of changing strategies this time. And I’m definitely thinking I want to drive up to Lake Buchanan, just to see that country. I think I’ll do that this afternoon.