“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, September 09, 2006

the final exciting episode in the ongoing series, I married a tomato!

In perhaps my favorite Wodehouse novel, Heavy Weather, there is a scene in which the unscrupulous and ultimately unlucky detective, Pilbeam, is manipulating Lord Emsworth, (who is, as always, ridden by the nightmare vision of his pig, the Empress, being poisoned). Pilbeam is maneuvering to get Monty Bodkin, Lord Emsworth’s secretary, fired – for reasons too complex to go into here. Of course, in lieu of conversing, Lord Em is pottering about verbally, tossing out of of those stream of association sequences, as is his wont. This provokes one of those wonderful, casual paragraphs from the master that crushes the heart of any true writer – for how can you top this?

“Pilbeam had not had the pleasure of the nineth Earl’s acquaintance long, but he had had it long enough to know that, unless firmly braked, he was capable of trickling along like this indefinitely.”

And so it is, too, with LI. We’ve been trickling along about the tomatoes, now, for a couple of posts, what? And perhaps it is time we got down to brass tacks.

So, to sum up what we have learned so far: we have an industry that is not centered on California, and that is heavily reliant on manual labor, in the 1940s. Then we have the agricultural department at the University of California putting their heads together and coming up with a solution to the farmer’s labor problem: a mechanical tomato harvester. The machine is perfect, except for the squiffy nature of the tomato itself. So, into the laboratory we go, and out we come with a more content filled tomato, designed specifically for the machine that harvests it. This results in, one, a concentration in the tomato farming field, as “by virtue of their very size and cost of more than $50,000 each, the machines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing.” We have a reorganization of the labor force – it is thinned out, its functions are re-distributed, the unions that represent it are slashed, and it is less costly. And we have – although this fact isn’t in Winner’s essay, but comes from the invaluable Pritchard and Burch – a shift in the center of the tomato industry to California. And of course, remember that the majority of tomatoes are being processed for pastes and ketchup – ah, the golden age of ketchup, that Cold War fixture. As Lee Reich points out in Gourmet Vegetables, the deal with tomatoes is that ‘determinate varieties’ have been designed to resist all the many perils that nature strews in the path of the tomato, but at the cost of becoming, at best, insipid.

Reich is especially keen to extirpate the myth that garden grown tomatoes of themselves are tasty little fruits, because the seeds that are usually bought to grow them are (cue the music from Jaws) of the determinate variety. Which is no surprise, as the seventies experienced a burst of gourmandise in the seed industry, with big agri-businesses eating little seed companies. With Heinz owning something like 90 percent of the tomato seed stockpile, we are, it seems, condemned to ketchup. Ketchup, ketchup everywhere.

Okay, LI is trickling on once again. What is the point of this? Oh, yes. The point is that one made so often and so loudly by the ideologues of the free market. It is that the freemarket extends preferences, and thus, those people who enjoy free markets are freer themselves. Little determinate varieties of liberty, those people.

And yet, it is easy to see that something is wrong with this picture of preferences. The idea seems to be that you are given preferences, just as you are given a menu. But back in the back room, back in the kitchen, who is cooking up the varieties of preferences? And as they cook it up, redesign the tomato, buy the seed stocks, and in general make life better for all of us ketchup swillers, isn’t there a silent moment when the flavor of the tomato exits, stage right? And without any tomato gourmands having a sayso in the matter. Indeed, is the taste of the tomato a public good, or a private one? These, as you can see, are the questions that arise from all this tomato throwing.

To which, at some point, we will return to weary the poor Pilbeams out there.

Friday, September 08, 2006

bjorn lomborg

LI is going to interrupt our tomato laden series of posts to point our readers to the latest effusion from Bjorn Lomborg. It is rather like his last effusion, and the one before that – Lomborg is an endlessly content to produce the same thing: an article that will, one, deny some scientific truth about environmental degradation by happily cherrypicking among instances, and two, offer up some vague, charitable counter-program – the idea being to either wean the liberal from his environmentalist idols by shaking a little guilt making reference to the poor in front of him, or at least to point to the hypocrisy of the liberal, convicted of shamefully ignoring the poor by worrying about them broiling to death.

To pay this guy a lot of attention is, perhaps, a mistake. But we are still attracted to Lomborg’s bait.

His latest trick has been to wave around a sum – 75 billion dollars – which Lomborg has extracted from some UN report: “According to UN estimates, for $75 billion a year - half the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol - we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education to every single human being on Earth. Shouldn't that be a higher priority?”

Anybody who believes 75 billion a year would come close to providing clean drinking water for ever person on earth, let alone the rest of his list, is truly out of his mind. There are of course no specs on a project like this. Yet it is, in a way, a perfect conservative project, in the tradition hatched by Grandpa Reagan. Reagan faced a huge puzzle as a president – while popular as a slogan, nobody really wants small government. But he did want to cut back any government leftovers for those he was hostile to – the poor, blacks, environmentalists, etc. The solution, which came to him in a vision (with Edward Teller playing the part of the Virgin), was to create programs that would uniquely benefit his base. Thus was born Star wars, the prototype of conservative big government ever since. It is an almost perfect program: it has a vague or non-existent goal, there are no criteria to measure its success, and even as the need for it collapses, the rhetoric for it gets ever more heated. A trillion dollars later, it is still chugging along, producing endless streams of revenue to war industries and putting dinner on the table for thousands of engineers, economists and managers across the country. Who, reliably, are strong national security voters.

75 billion a year for drinking water means, of course … endless futile water projects. And he who says water projects says Scandinavian engineering firms. The very idea makes such as Lomborg all dreamy.

There isn’t a chance in hell that that sum would be enough to guarantee drinking water to the Indian subcontinent, let alone the whole world. Nor is the 120 billion dollar cost Lomborg quotes as derivative from the Kyoto protocols exactly honest. A regulatory regime that tilted the field to the greener company has always, in the past, resulted in more efficiency, greener technologies, and disturbances of big monopolies – in fact, it results in new companies, the breaking of old monopolies, and new sources of wealth. If the theory of free trade is correct, the kind of low tech manufacturing that naturally devolves to cheaper sites does so in order to give way to higher quality manufacturing – and green technology certainly qualifies as that. The Kyoto protocols are actually part and parcel of the kind of third way neo-liberalism so embraced by the Economist in the nineties. That, for LI, is a definite problem, but – saving our objections for another time – it is a sign of how quickly the neo-liberal credo has degenerated into the cannibalism that was always under the surface that it no longer recognizes its children. But perhaps the truth is, that credo could only go as far as a certain sector in the economy – the petro-war industry sector – allowed it to go.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

you say tomato/ and I say/ oppression

Langdon Winner’s essay, Do Artifacts have Politics, in 1986, makes the following thematic point about the relationship between technology and politics:

“[There are] … two ways in which artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community. Seen in the proper light, examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily under stood. Second are cases of what can be called "inherently political technologies," man-made systems that appear to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships. Arguments about cases of this kind are much more troublesome and closer to the heart of the matter. By the term "politics" I mean arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements.”

Winner gives a number of examples of politically conditioned artifacts. One is the height of the overpasses over Long Island parkways, which are set at a default nine feet. Winner claims that the long bridges are in accordance with the intention of the man who devised the Parkway system in the twenties, Robert Moses. Moses did not want blacks from New York City to get out to Long Island by way of his Parkways. Since New York City blacks were, disproportionately, bus users, the discouragement of buses, which were two high for the underpasses, discouraged blacks from getting on the Parkways.

This example has spawned a little subset of pro and contra pieces. There are two points that are disputed here. One is the general political point. As Latour has pointed out, designed objects have what Donald Norman calls affordances – that is, multiple uses. Some of them are unexpected, revealing themselves over time. According to Latour, then, the prevailing intention when a design is introduced shouldn’t be analyzed as if it were equivalent to the function the design really plays:

“That designers use detours through material objects to enforce types of behaviour, everyone who has been made to slow down near a school because of the silent presence of a speed trap (also called a 'sleeping policeman') would readily agree. Yes, we are made to do things we would not have done otherwise every time we enter into contact with an artifact: when we want to boil water for our morning coffee, lock a door behind us, fasten our seat belt before our car engine starts, and so on about two hundred times a day. This doesn't mean however that only oppression and discrimination are expressed through those humble and devious techniques. We are also, thanks to them, 'allowed', 'permitted', 'enabled', 'authorised' to do things.
Thus, to say that our ordinary course of action is intermingled with artifacts does not mean that they have politics —at least, not yet. Does politics begin when the irreversible built in techniques are taken into account? Architects are well aware of the heavy weight bequeathed to them by their predecessors. My own Haussmanian building in Paris, has the perverse tendency to force the students inhabiting its coveted 'chambre de bonnes' to climb six stories through a steep and narrow staircase, while the happy owners of the flats are allowed to glide through a comfortable lift inserted inside a wide staircase. Are the students ‘discriminated’ against? Undoubtedly, but the reason is that during the Belle Epoque it was unthinkable to have the servants and valets take the same stairs as the Zolaesque bourgeois for whom those buildings had been designed. In the meantime, though, servants have disappeared, students have come in and the discriminating power of two incompatible stairs has remained: it is now, literally, cast in concrete. To undo Hausmann's political bigotry would mean destroying my house, stone by stone... Does it mean, however, that buildings in the Latin Quarter ‘have’ politics?”

Although I usually like Latour, I admit that this is an unusually sloppy response. Winner is certainly not equating politics with oppression, although that can be an aspect of politics – it is the most striking aspect, so it makes for the most striking example. And that the social scene around an artifact changes doesn’t mean that the Latin Quarter buildings don’t ‘have’ politics. To use an example Winner uses in another essay, the American constitution is an imminently designed program. Yet, over time, the program has meant different things, and been used in different ways. Does that mean that the constitution doesn’t ‘have’ politics?

A more disturbing response to Winner was given by one of Latour’s pupils, Woolgar, who claimed in “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses' Bridges, Winner's Bridges and Other Urban Legends in S&TS” that the whole story of Moses’ decisionmaking rests on mythical grounds – buses, back in the twenties, weren’t twelve feet high; the assistant who attributed the decisions about the Parkways to racism was simply one source in Caro’s biography of Moses; and other highway structures in NYC are also nine feet high – lower than the national standard.

This should put us on our guard about the stories that collect around artifacts. However, Winner’s other examples haven’t been so disputed – Cyrus McCormick’s pneumatic molding machines, which did a less efficient job of molding metal for his threshers, but which kicked the skilled workmen, who were largely union supporters, out of his factories; and .. the reason for this post … the tomato picker.

Tomatoes, it turns out, are a much studied subject. If you want the very scoop of the long saga of tomato ‘improvement’, you could turn to the fascinations, such as they are, that stock every page of Bill Pritchard and David Burch’s Agri-Food Globalization in Perspective: International Restructuring in the Global Tomato Processing Industry. For those of you with a train to catch, however, I will quote a long excerpt from Winner’s essay:

“The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by researchers at the University of California from the late 1940s to the present offers an illustrative tale. The machine is able to harvest tomatoes in a single pass through a row, cutting the plants from the ground, shaking the fruit loose, and (in the newest models) sorting the tomatoes electronically into large plastic gondolas that hold up to twenty-five tons of produce headed for canning factories. To accommodate the rough motion of these harvesters in the field, agricultural researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and less tasty than those previously grown. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking in which crews of farm workers would pass through the fields three or four times, putting ripe tomatoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest.9 Studies in California indicate that the use of the machine reduces costs by approximately five to seven dollars per ton as compared to hand harvesting. 10 But the benefits are by no means equally divided in the agricultural economy. In fact, the machine in the garden has in this instance been the occasion for a thorough re shaping of social relationships involved in tomato production in rural California.
“By virtue of their very size and cost of more than $50,000 each, the machines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing. With the introduction of this new method of harvesting, the number of tomato growers declined from approximately 4,000 in the early 1960s to about 600 in 1973, and yet there was a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes produced. By the late 1970s an estimated 32,000 jobs in the tomato industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization. 11 Thus, a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at the sacrifice of other rural agricultural communities.
“The University of California's research on and development of agricultural machines such as the tomato harvester eventually became the subject of a lawsuit filed by attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization representing a group of farm workers and other interested parties. The suit charged that university officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a handful of private interests to the detriment of farm workers, small farmers, consumers, and rural California generally and asks for a court injunction to stop the practice. The university denied these charges, arguing that to accept them "would require elimination of all research with any potential practical application." 12
“As far as I know, no one argued that the development of the tomato harvester was the result of a plot. Two students of the controversy, William Friedland and Amy Barton, specifically exonerate the original developers of the machine and the hard tomato from any desire to facilitate economic concentration in that industry.13 What we see here instead is an ongoing social process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns, patterns that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural research and development in U.S. land-grant colleges and universities has tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns.14 It is in the face of such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations such as the tomato harvester are made to seem "antitechnology" or "antiprogress." For the harvester is not merely the symbol of a social order that rewards some while punishing others; it is in a true sense an embodiment of that order.”

Ohoho – as Peter Pan used to cry, before he engaged with Captain Hook. I spy something going on here. About which I will write in my next post.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

whose taste is it?

Last week, LI ran a series of posts about menus. Our point was that menus, which seem like innocent things, actually encode and enact important social attitudes and arrangements. Our more specific point was that menus came out of the great houses -- where they were used as a means of communication between the cooks and the owners (aristocrats or the great bourgeois families) into the public sphere as one of the components in the making of restaurants.

My point in sketching that history was to question the division between the private and the public -- and to point to the way the division is made absolute in liberal myth.

When I use the word myth, I don't mean a thing that has no social effect -- a mere illusion. There's a charming story, in Sydney Smith's Lectures on Moral Philosophy, that is the perfect illustration of myth:

"Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained after his time but mind; which experienced a similar fate from the hands of Mr. Hume in 1737; so that with all the tendency to destroy, there remains nothing left for destruction: but I would fain ask if there be any one human being, from the days of Protagoras the Aderite to this present hour, who was ever for a single instant a convert to these sublte and ingenious follies? … Pyrrho said there was no such thing as pain; and he saw no proof that there were such things as carts and wagons; and he refused to get out of their way: but Pyrrho had, fortunately for him, three or four stout slaves, who followed their master without following his doctrine, and whenver they saw one of these ideal machines approaching, took him up by the arms and legs, and without attempting to controvert his arguments, put him down in a place of safety."

Whereever you see myth, you see slaves. They are the necessary concomittant of the ideal. And just as Pyrrho's slaves paid for Pyrrho's myth, so, too, we pay for the myth of the absolute distinction of the private and the public every day, rescuing the system that dedicates itself to the myth in every newspaper and tv show by giving it our absolute belief while spending the brute and best part of ourselves, in everyday life, negotiating its unworkablity. And so we are gnawed at, year in and year out. The system actually wears a hole in us, a black hole of existential exhaustion, which becomes the malign center into which we toss every fucking thing we love, letting it all disappear in order to save the shaky, self-contradictory structure for one more day.

The terms public and private have never been so flung about as during the last two decades -- the age of 'privatization.' LI's notion is that the private and public spheres have been redefined, both in reality and in myth, in tandem with the disembedding of the forces of production - to use Polanyi’s phrase for the assumption of systematic autonomy on the part of the economic system, and the bending of the social to fit its necessities. In capitalism, this long event was accompanied and justified by a notion of freedom, which in turn was entangled in a notion of the separation of the private and public spheres from one another. Socialism derives its own notions about the system of production from the capitalist event. LI, ever the Derridian, maintains that the separation of the private and the public sphere is forever undecidable. It simply cannot sustain the strain of being elevated to an absolute.

To illustrate these things, I'm going to pursue a related question, which is: what kind of property is taste? In particular, the taste of the tomato. I'm choosing the tomato because that fruit has, it turns out, been the object of an awful lot of literature. So first I am going to look at Langdon Winner's famous essay, Do Artifacts have Politics. In the next post.

The Inestimable Mistah Scruggs sent me a link to a website we can all rally around. The site is dedicated to a policeman who is riding a one eyed horse across America, preaching the gospel of DECRIMINALIZING DRUGS. Sanity, in the current moronic inferno, can only be heard above the talk radio roar by dressing itself up in motley. Hurray for the legions of King Lear's Fools out there - our last fuckin hope, buckos!

Monday, September 04, 2006

the ballad of haditha

By way of the Sweet Nothing site, LI was alerted to a budding neo-con Wallace Stevens, one Lynn Chu, whose poem entitled “Why I Continue to Believe in the War in Iraq” would make even a man sitting in an electric chair laugh. The opening lines possess the sublime beauty of, say, a drunk’s missed piss:

“Because to depose a murderous despot is a good thing.
Because the UN resolved to do something a dozen times and didn't.
Because we are the only nation in the world with the decency and strength to do it.
Because we did so with a minimum of human loss.
Because other nations, rueing their past glory, are envious.
Because I believe in nationbuilding. “

It goes on. And then it goes on.

According to the Sweet Nothing site, Lynn Chu is a literary agent.

On a pro-war site called the Democracy Project, there is an indication that Chu’s verse, like the Battle Hymn of the Republic, is putting starch into the souls of the drooping.

“Lynn Chu holds a J.D from the University of Chicago Law School, is admitted to the New York Bar, and is a very successful literary agent. Midge Decter emailed me a first draft of a poem Chu wrote. Chu may not give up her day job for poetry, as she admits. It’s a long read, but a good creed. Pay special attention to the last line.”

“It’s a long read, but a good creed.” Is that a line for the remake of the Dukes of Hazard or what? It was born to be spoken late at night, in some truckstop parking lot, by two all Americans. What they do next in that parking lot should be left to our all American imagination.

All of which reminded me of a passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter Thompson and his attorney have finally pursuaded the hotel people to let them have a room. They’ve sorted out their chemical situation. Hunter is feeling better – no more lizard men in the halls, which had been bugging him. Naturally, in the hotel room, he flicks on the tube:

“The TV news was about the Laos Invasion—a series of horrifying disasters: explosions and twisted wreckage, men fleeing in terror, Pentagon generals babbling insane lies. “Turn that shit off!” screamed my attorney “Let’s get out of here!” A wise move.

"Moments after we picked up the car my attorney went into a drug coma and ran a red light on Main Street before I could bring us under control. I propped him up in the passenger seat and took the wheel myself...feeling fine, extremely sharp. All around me in traffic I could see people talking and I wanted to hear what they were saying. All of them. But the shotgun mike was in the trunk and I decided to leave it there. Las Vegas is not the kind of town where you want to drive down Main Street aiming a black bazooka-looking instrument at people. Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah yes. This is what it’s all about. Total control now. Tooling along the main drag on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, two good old boys in a fireapple—red convertible...stoned, ripped, twisted...Good People.

Great God! What is this terrible music?

“The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley”:

“...as we go marching on When I reach my final campground, in that land beyond the sun, and the Great Commander asks me...” (What did he ask you, Rusty?) “Did you fight or did you run?” (and what did you tell him, Rusty?) “...We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had...”

No! I can’t be hearing this! It must be the drug. I glanced over at my attorney, but he was staring up at the sky, and I could see that his brain had gone off to that campground beyond the sun. Thank christ he can’t hear this music, I thought. It would drive him into a racist frenzy.”

If we are to climb to the true heights of the belligeranti aesthetic in our current dire moment (a summit once or twice approached by Christopher Hitchens Mirror pieces) when so many have lost confidence in the Rebel in Chief, we need someone to write us the Ballad of Haditha. Imagine it! The way in which the press has leaped on the marines already for doing nothing more than splattering a number of Iraqi kids to kingdom come, which will teach their type not to plant IEDs again, does boil the blood. Clint Black, perhaps, could sing it. Chu is God’s appointed lyricist for this divine mission, but she has to get some kinks out of her infected brain first. She is never going to be raptured if she keeps trying to impress the liberals with that godawful imitation of Jubilate Agno. Honey, come on down to the racetrack, where the meth flows like wine and everyone is a good red stater, full of Christian impulses but never, never the Coward of the County – especially when it comes to taking shit from dark skinned pissants, bellyaching about the freedom we have brought to their shitkicker’s hell. “Did you fight or did you run?” That sums up our creed, and it is a good read. However, even the lowliest sadsack down at the race track knows that the actual fighting should be left to the final fucker on the end of the great national daisy chain - the young, dumb, full of cum pussy married too early and with the talons of the credit card companies in him, which talons, looked at from the Rapture perspective, represent the American bald eagle its own self.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord – and gosh, it looks just like Vice President Cheney with a boner!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

LI provides the baloney early - remembering 9/11

In the 1960s, you could always get a laugh by referring to the John Birch crusade against fluoridation. It was so obviously bogus. And yet, the bogus does live cheek by jowl, in America, with the deepest and darkest anxieties and realities. Fluoridation might not lead to a weak kneed surrender to communism, but the channelization and pollution of America’s streams and rivers, cheerfully commanding bipartisan assent from the social engineers who know what is good for us, was a sign of something seriously out of whack with the system. The Birchers were advocates for an even more extreme out of whackness, but sometimes you have to crystallize your anxieties by going to the far end of the masochistic spectrum.

The best horse laugh to come out of 9/11, an event that hasn’t exactly given rise to a lot of comedy, is in the idea circulating among some parts of the left – parts that have spent years, decades upping the rhetorical ante in denouncing the sundry crimes of Amerika and competing with declarations of fidelity to one Amerikan enemy or another – that 9/11 was an inside job. And so it is that the comfortable lefties take one look at the most successful guerilla act in recent times and immediately attribute it… to the CIA.

However, the bogus, here, sits next to a myth that both the left and right are very comfortable with. The myth is of America’s overwhelming military power. The myth simply ignores the fact that most instances of the extended expression of American military power in the last fifty years have blown up in America’s face.

To illustrate what this means re 9/11, let me tell relate a heartwarming fable.

Say you have a fly, a pesky stinging fly, buzzing around your room.
For the sake of the fable, let’s say you have two instruments to deal with the fly.
One of those instruments is an old flyswatter. It consists of a perforated rubber pad mounted on a rickety wire handle.
The other of these instruments consists of an expensive hammer. Not a hammer with a wooden shaft, either – one with a nice metal, graphite core shaft.
Now, the hammer could truly pound the rickety wire handle of the fly swatter into an unuseable mass. The hammer is mightier than the fly swatter. The fly swatter, too, has a tendency to grossly palp the fly into jelly, whereas the image, at least, of the fly under the hammer is that the jelly would be atomized. Oh, that will hurt the fly!

However, in the face of that pesky stinging fly, it is a bad idea to use the hammer. The reason is this. You will punch holes in the wall. You will break plates and glass. You will break the window. And you might, in some swing, bring the hammer into contact with your leg, which will definitely make you forget about the fly.

Al Qaeda – I’m talking here of the military end, not the popular video subsidiary that has just put out its groovy “Convert to Islam” vid for the American party market – has been rather brilliant. For instance, take the fact that the 20 hijackers came to America to learn how to fly airliners. Now, it is undoubtedly true that there are other places in the world to learn the pilot’s trade, or what they had to know of the pilot’s trade. But to boldly emplace the 20 who are going to attack the U.S. in the U.S. was a small piece of genius. It was the genius of being able to think like the fly. Of course, genius is nothing without luck, and it appears that Al Qaeda was very lucky to get Atta. The man seemed to understand how to organize a project. In fact, from what we know about the project, he operated like most software companies operate when getting guys together for a project – allowing a little social time in which everybody could relax with each other in Vegas, for instance. After the event, much time was spent debating whether Atta was a coward or not. This was a great debate, insofar as it shifted the terms to an emotional plane we can all understand – much like the terms in which we can all take sides on whether Brad should have left Jen or not. Little time or effort was spared for looking at how well Atta organized his group. To do that would make us, well, uncomfortable with our assumption that hammers are all purpose tools, and the bigger the hammer, the more flies you kill.

Similarly, little attention was paid to the evidence that came out at the 9/11 hearings about the military response to the hijacked planes. The day of the attack, we had what Karl Weick has called a collapse of sensemaking. This kind of thing is endemic to disasters involving rapid response organizations – firefighters, jet fighter pilots, nuclear power plant technicians. As Weick has shown, it is not so much from misapplying the rules, or even using the wrong rules, but the collapse in the faith in rules per se that occurs in the heart of the panic. Our air force has, since 1947, been trained to respond immediately to attack – but when the attack finally came, the picture was of scrambled orders and jetfighters heading off in a classic front to protect the U.S. from incoming. The exercises were never designed to protect the U.S. from its own airliners. Again, Al Qaeda’s strategy – to think like a fly – worked. Who sees flies enter a room? But of course, if you see a fly, your response might well be to close the door. That gives the fly its brief opportunity.

It should be said, in one way we are all alive because rapid response organizations are not fail-safe. In the fifties, that crazy fuck, Eisenhower, had a series of sortees mounted by SAC that penetrated Soviet air space and deliberately mimicked the profile of a first strike. The point was to see how rapidly the Soviets responded – and the lesson was that, just as in 1941, the Soviets were not great responders. Their strength was in holding on.

Now, about that fly swatter. John Kerry, in the nineties, wrote, or had written, a nifty little book about terrorism. In it, he makes the observation that terrorist groups are structured like mafia groups, and so are most effectively dealt with by law enforcement – a suggestion he furiously backpedaled from in 2004 (poor Kerry evidently shot the whole wad of his courage in 1971). Kerry was right then and he is right now. Al Qaeda is not the National Liberation Front. The NLF succeeded, as Francis Fitzgerald showed in The Fire in The Lake, because they depended on the Vietnamese villagers. This was something that didn’t compute to the Americans in Vietnam – they were so determined to see the NLF as a terrorist group, coercing cooperation by violence, that they didn’t listen to their informants, who explained that the NLF could not operate that way. They really needed the cooperation of the villagers, hence, they actually talked to them, asked them for advice, etc. When, in the late 60s, the Americans started sending in South Vietnamese cadre to operate on the NLF model, it never worked – as soon as the SV cadre would get to the villages, they would start acting impolite. They would march around like cocks of the walk. The NLF strategy worked not because the NLF recruited nice people – far from it – but because the NLF got the people to see that the NLF was operating from necessity. Maybe they wanted to shove around the village bosses, but they couldn’t afford to.

So, if one were going to grade a Q, you’d have to give them an A for strategy, and F for governance, and a B for home video manufacturing. As for the American faith in hammers – well, I remember shortly after Tora Bora, a friend of mine, a Bush supporter, told me with the utmost confidence that we would pick him up. He named several pieces of ultrafine spying equipment we had aloft. It was just a matter of getting our special forces in their ultrafast helicopters and giving them the OK. This idea was believed on the left too – how many scenarios about the October surprise in 2004 were about Bush casually reaching out the God like hand and grasping our pesky wabbit with the turban. It turned out the October surprise was how many Americans live in a bubble of complete illusion about the world. One fed by a press that can’t mention Osama Bin without giving him the Homeric epithet, on the run. On the run Osama. He’s been so on the run he must have a pretty good heart – and that is the kind of thing our bicycling Rebel in Chief can appreciate! It is funny how all these on the run folks keep running back. In the meantime, one does wonder if the strategy of the fly is exhausted. Myself, I think that depends on the quality of the middle managers. Besides, there really is no need to attack the U.S. here when the U.S. is making itself so available for attack elsewhere.