Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tamir Rice and a justice that only knows victims

When I was four or five, my dad took some spare lumber and lathed me a toy rifle. I look back and can’t quite fix memory’s eye on the thing, but my hand remembers that the stock was comfortable and I do remember looking down the wooden barrel and shooting imaginary bullets. The bullets hit people, dogs, the house, passing cars, trees, birds. I went pow.
Later, my parents did not buy us kids lots of toy guns. They were noisy. We did get water pistols, and I remember a pistol cap gun with a holster. But in comparison with our friends in the suburbs of Atlanta, we were not well stocked with toy arms. We played with theirs.
And then stopped. At no point did my parents talk with us about the real possibility that, with a toy pistol in our toy holster, we might be mistaken by the cops for a real killa and given a split second to prove that wasn’t the case before we were beaded with pistol shot – the real stuff this time. No, that didn’t come up.
What does that show? It shows that the I is white who is telling you this stuff.
We are told, by a prosecutor who did his best to defend the policeman who, in a well run police department, would have flunked out of the force before he entered it – Officer Loehmann, the killer, scored a 46 out of 100 on the exam that was supposed to test his police potential – that Tamir Rice died due to a perfect storm. The radio dispatcher forgot to mention that he was a juvenile and the gun he brandished was most likely a toy. Or, at least, the officers on the scene did not know this. This is the foundation for the prosecutor’s non-prosecutorial case. And he was so big! Indeed, criminal growth spurts are the justification for shooting black teens in so many of the headline cases. Tamir was 5 foot 8, which is almost a crime in itself, him being black. Michael Brown was a giant, who was so powerful that the policeman shooting him in Ferguson decided that, as in a movie, he was getting more powerful with each bullet he received. And Trayvon Martin was not only criminally big, but was wearing a hoodie. I was wearing a hoodie yesterday, too, but luckily all my growth spurts have been in a white body, so I am innocent, on the I is white principle.
The perfect storm is a better metaphor than the non-prosecuting prosecutor, a gentleman named Timothy McGinty, knew. He was part of that storm, the storm we are within, the storm that allows 12 year olds to be shot in a split second when they reach for their toy weapons.
The Police Union is happy, of course. In actuality, the police union just put its members in further danger. I can read the stats. I know the number of policemen being killed each year is rising. And I know that the number the police are killing have friends, relatives, and spectators, who can get guns. If we don’t get justice in the courts – and the prosecutor made sure that the case would never come to court, a little favor for the boys – justice will be enacted in the streets, a mathematical, leveling justice that only knows victims.

How long have we been here? 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

from ignorant aggression to aggressive ignorance

The latest political joke is that 30 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats in a recent survey by Public Policy Polling agreed that they would like to see Agrabah bombed. Agrabah, it turns out, is the capital city in Disney’s Aladdin. Nicely done, PPP – what better way to show how blind is the American imperial use of power, and how easily accepted. Dems are making mock of Republicans, but I’m sure that if the question had asked if they supported Obama droning Jafar of Agrabah, there would have been close to thirty percent, maybe more. Jafar was Aladdin’s nemesis in the movie.
There is the politics of ignorant aggression, and then there is the politics of aggressive ignorance. The latter is being pursued by the Governor and Legislator of Florida. Having staked out positions that climate change is a fraud, the governing principles of Florida are having a hard time coping with the fact that the sea level is indeed rising and South Florida has every chance of being the 21st century Atlantis, as Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the current New Yorker. Florida, unlikely Louisiana, can’t really turn to the traditional levee and dike system, because under the swamps and cities and beaches of Southern Florida, there is limestone. Limestone is porous. You can put a levee on top of it, but the water will just flow under the levee, through the limestone. Kolbert reports that Miami Beach is becoming more and more like Venice, Italy, save for the fact that the inhabitants have cars, and wait for the periodic flood waters to abate to get around.
As for what the press laughingly calls the “adults”, the political elite in Florida”
“Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior senator, who has been running third in Republican primary polls, grew up not far from Shorecrest, in West Miami, which sounds like it’s a neighborhood but is actually its own city. For several years, he served in Florida’s House of Representatives, and his district included Miami’s flood-vulnerable airport. Appearing this past spring on “Face the Nation,” Rubio was asked to explain a statement he had made about climate change. He offered the following: “What I said is, humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe, for the following reason: I believe that climate is changing because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing.”
Around the same time, it was revealed that aides to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, also a Republican, had instructed state workers not to discuss climate change, or even to use the term. The Scott administration, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, also tried to ban talk of sea-level rise; state employees were supposed to speak, instead, of “nuisance flooding.” Scott denied having imposed any such Orwellian restrictions, but I met several people who told me they’d bumped up against them. One was Hammer [Kolbert’s interviewee, an environmental-studies researcher who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists]who, a few years ago, worked on a report to the state about threats to Florida’s transportation system. She said that she was instructed to remove all climate-change references from it. “In some places, it was impossible,” she recalled. “Like when we talked about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has ‘climate change’ in the title.”
We are in the hands of the kind of bozos who used to populate the cartoon The Far Side. It isn’t pretty.

Friday, December 18, 2015

the subculture of those who could care less about Star Wars

This month, I have felt very much my sub-culture status. Or, to put it another way, the media is making me feel as lonely as Eleanor Rigby.
 I am one of the members of a group that is completely and absolutely and infinitely indifferent to Star Wars.
When the series first arrived on the scene, I did not hurry out to see it. In fact, I have only once had the pleasure of viewing one of the infinite sequels or prequels – someone dragged me to it. My memory is not at all of the movie, but of the headache that I felt as I watched amateurish muppet like creatures cavort across the screen, and heard much dialogic bombast.  If only it had really been a Muppets movie!
Of course, where I heard bombast, others, millions of them, heard the siren’s song. Such is life.
I am not hostile to the franchise, as I am to, say, the James Bond franchise, which I consider a pernicious machine for spreading racism, imperialism, sexism and all the rest of the rotten isms that are like facets of our national psychosis. It’s the James Bond cancer, and its coming our way in your local multiplex plus as American foreign policy, dudes!
It is almost impossible to be a fully subscribed member of the American media hookup without absorbing mucho Star Wars lore. Darth Vader is perhaps the most famous fictional devil figure in modern culture. But I don’t know whether the Empire is good or bad, or exactly what it is. And the details of George Lucas’s creation, which are debated with connoisseurial froth on twitter, facebook, Slate, Salon, etc. make my eyes glaze over. A non-fan in a world of fans is in a curiously embarrassing position, like a non-involved person witnessing a domestic squabble: one has the sense of being de trop, of  being put, by sheer accident, in the position of a voyeur.

I wonder if Adam will someday want to see these movies? And I wonder if they will seem less irrating to me as an old man than they seemed to me as a young sprout? I’m prepared, I think. Adam, like Andy Warhol, is a proponent of the school that says that the essence of art is not uniqueness but repetition. Thus, there is a version of the GingerBread man (“I want the one with the old woman in it”) that I have now heard a good twenty times. So if I am forced to actually watch Star Wars, so be it. I plan, though, to enjoy to the full my subculture until then.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The outsider candidate

"I’d have to work at learning the job every hour of the day,” he said. “It would not be easy for me to learn, because I hacve a head that is bombed out by marijuana. I cannot remember names. I cannot remember numbers.  I don’t have a particularly good reputation in this city. I don’t have a political machine. So if I get elected it seems people want my ideas.  And if I get elected, this town will be more alive thanit has been in fifty years.”

This was Norman Mailer in 1969, running for mayor, and explaining himself to a bunch of no doubt puzzled high schoolers.
Mailer’s big idea in that campaign was to make NYC the fifty first state. It is still an ace idea.  It would bring a little more democracy to the Senate, and shake up the House. It would make politics on the national level – which leans to the Dems – mirror politics on the off year, state level – when a lesser percent of the voters lean strongly GOP.
In the sixties, there were a number of outsider candidates. Most of them were on the left – although Mailer called himself a left conservative. Some were on the right – Buckley, in the election cycle of 1965, had also run for mayor.
In 1969, the traditional political machines had broken down, and the new media based political technologies were in their infancy. Joe McGuinness wrote a book about how Richard Nixon was packaged and sold like cigarettes or pop, and this was considered some kind of indictment. Today, this is what the elites expect and want. The odd tone of melancholy around the failure of Jeb Bush’s campaign, for instance, has to do, primarily, with how beautifully machined it all was. The money! The advertisements! The meaningless endorsements! It is the rocket that gets the awe – the astronaut inside, in this case Bush, is a sort of afterthought.
Mailer’s idea were fruity, and yet rather nice. For instance, Sweet Sunday – once a month all vehicular traffic, including planes, would be banned, and New Yorkers would experience the city’s birdlife. On crime, Mailer leaned to a solution grounded in Renaissance Florence – the creation of autonomous neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, urban anonymity – which Mailer thought was at the root of crime – would be dispelled. Of course, he presented it more floridly than that, claiming that some neighborhoods might allow fucking on car hoods and some might keep fucking private.
The outsider candidate is now in a sad state. From Mailer to Trump is not the arc that leads to greater enlightenment. This is what I truly find depressing about Trump, for in terms of form – dispensing with the pr technology, getting on the news constantly, becoming an issue of conversation – is what I would like to see. I wanted it to be Bernie Sander’s gig. I think, in a way, Sanders will last longer, but Trump has put a very ugly cast into this election, and into a national mood that is characterized by the self-evidence of the slogan, Black Lives Matter, in a society where the powers that be show – that old Jim Crow state - this isn’t true every day.
There’s a long, submerged connnection between the two vocational types: artist and politician. Both began to take shape in the 14th and 15th century, within a system of patronage generated by the court and Church. Both have followed a historical logic in which the struggle for autonomy has defined the language and inner experience of both types. And both are exhausted.  Just as the Party has drained out its differentiating substance at the same time that it is the defining reference for the politician, so, too, the various schools and trends that define the artist seem, at the moment, both pointless and indispensable – we can’t talk about the artist except by way of that grid. We, or at least I, long for the outsider, the disrupter, the amateur, as a way of kicking to the curb this dead form. But the dead form seems to be overwhelming, it seems to be everywhere, and the outside that, at least, I long for, has no footing, no note it can seize and join the chorus.

Friday, December 11, 2015

why trump is going to be a problem for the GOP even if he loses

 don't think the GOP will nominate Trump. But in a sense, that doesn't matter. Trump on the sidelines is not going to be like other GOP losers, who gracefully make way for the winner and fall in line. Trump represents ideas - genuinely idiotic ideas. And whoever wins will either have to gingerly embrace them while denying them or simply deny them. In that case, Trump will be drumming for his ideas right there on the sidelines. So this man is a genuine problem for the GOP whether he wins or doesn't.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

bogus numbers in the press: swallow your propaganda like a good liberal, children!

Trump has been commendably criticized for citing bogus figures on everything from Moslem terrorists to the number of crimes committed by african americans.  This criticism has been performed by the press, which takes great bride in shooting down certain false figures.
But there are other false figures, or dubious ones, that the liberal press revel in. One that I have seen reported a lot, as though it settled the case, is the figure, coming, vaguely, from the “non-partisan” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that Assad’s regime is responsible for an amazing 95 percent of civilian Syrian deaths.  We have it on the word of Glen Newby, for instance, writing for London Review of Books, who is an otherwise sensible man:
“After meeting Hollande, Sarkozy, with an eye on returning to the Elysée in 2017, called for a tilt (‘une inflexion’) in French foreign policy towards Syria and Russia in order to smash Isis, even though Assad has caused around 95 per cent of civilian deaths in the civil war. Putin has run rings round occidental policy-makers in Syria, but a bilateral French tilt to Damascus is never going to fly, not least because French foreign policy needs to keep on the right side of the US and Turkey.
The obvious reply is that Daech has been responsible for 100 percent of French casualties. Which of course might be of concern to the president of France. But the idea that Assad’s forces, in a civil war involving multiple paramilitaries, including an outfit of Al Qaeda and Daech, are responsible for 95 percent of civilian deaths, should be subjected to a smell test. Because it seems incompatible with everything we know about the war.
Now, the first thing that is of importance is the link that Newby uses to support his figures. It is to a supposedly  “non-partisan” outfit, the SNHR, led by a man named Fahdi Abdul Ghani. How non-partisan is Ghani? Well, in 2013, he was calling for the US to bomb Assad. This seems like less than non-partisan behavior. He also seemed less than worried about the civilian casualties that would result from bombing Damascus.
In fact, the SNHR regularly sends out notices that are, let us say, a bit fantastic. For  instance, they have noted that 65 some churches have been attacked in Syria, attributing 64 of those attacks to the regime, and one to al Nusra. So we are meant to believe that the secularist regime of Assad, whose supporters are alawi and christians, went on a church attack rampage, while the paramilitary jihadists ignored the churches entirely in the spirit of ecumenism. Counter evidence is easy to find. Apparently, for instance, the Christians of Idlib have no idea that Assad is a big enemy of Christianity – in fact, some are “praying” for Assad to liberate them from al-Nusra. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/culture/2015/04/syria-idlib-christians-jabhat-alnusra-.html. In Tel Nasri, Daech blew up the Assyrian Church. http://www.albawaba.com/news/daesh-bombs-assyrian-church-northeastern-syria-678594. I could casualy google and find other instances, but I won’t. The point is that announcements like this one about who is damaging churches are evidently conceived in the spirit of propaganda.
However, the main reason one has to question the figure that 95 percent of the civilian casualties in Syria are caused by Assad’s forces is to look at the casualty rate that the Syrian groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, attribute to Assad’s forces. The estimated figure, in spring of this year, was 78, 186. If the SNHR are to be believed, in a war that is basically an insurgency, in fighting that is taking place in various towns and cities, these soldiers are struck down with barely any collateral civilian casualties, whereas every battle in which Assad’s soldiers are involved creates vast collateral casualties. If the figure of 39,848 casualties on the rebel side, which is claimed by the Observatory, is true, and only 5 percent of the civilian casualties can be blamed on the rebels, that would mean that of the 104,629 civilian casualties,  99397 can be attributed to the side which has taken twice the casualties.  If this is true, it would make Syria a remarkable exception to what we know about civil war, or war in general.
I think it isn’t true.

Assad is a secular tyrant who is up to his neck in blood. But undoubtedly, the most basic civil liberties of different ethnic and religious groups, and women, are better secured by Assad than by any plausible successor among the Saudi led rebel groups. It is for this reason that Kurdish groups in the North have made their peace with Assad and have rolled back Daech – the only regional militias to do so. Newby’s endorsement of  a fairy tale of numbers is a bad sign, since if the LRB, which prides itself on going outside of the mainstream media narrative, can produce such nonsense, we can only expect worse from the media in the mainstream. Those who continue to maintain a fragile memory capability – memory is the last resistor – will recall the propaganda about Saddam Hussein leading into the first Gulf war. That propaganda was successful in that it too, with Gulf funding, set up “non-partisan” groups to rubberstamp its figures. In a more sceptical atmosphere, the 95 percent figure would be a step too far – but anything is now believed once we have identified this year’s Hitler.  

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

on unlikeable heroes in novels and their social meaning

How are we to explain the eeriness of the novel, or its social function within novel cultures? Or, to put this in a narrower way, to speak of a certain species of novel that emerged in the 19th century – from an ancestry in the criminal picaresque: why would anybody want to read about the actions, thoughts and words of a hero one dislikes? Why would you do this for fun?

The line in lit crit, which was cemented in mid twentieth century, was that the modernists invented the novel in which the anti-hero is the dark eminence, and true prince of our sensibilities. This, however, really isn’t the case. Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairytales, Daoist anecdotes are all seeded with mildly or strikingly dislikeable personages. Aristotle, in a sense, is asking a similar question in the Poetics about tragedy. We can admire Antigone, we can even admire Achilles, but we don’t – we are intended to – befriend them. For Aristotle, plausibility is a sort of meta-rule of narrative production. Plausibility is not reality, but rather, reality as seen by a certain credentialed set. It inscribes class into the very heart of aesthetics. Plausibility is not just continuity and logistics, but it gives us our sense of what typifies a character – what they would do in character. This is not a neutral judgment about norms – it is an imposition of a certain class’s norms upon narrative. And, always, the artist has squirmed under that imposition. The slave’s impulse – irony –counters the demands of plausibility even in fairy tales. When La Fontaine portrays the ant and the grasshopper, for instance, we know, from the point of view of plausibility, that the ant is right Mention, say, welfare at a dinner party in the suburbs and you will hear a chorus of ants. But La Fontaine surely makes the reader uncomfortable with this judgment. We see the cruelty of ants, and the beauty of the grasshoppers.

Plausibility and likeability get us to reflect on what these narratives do in the culture. And I think that this is what really happened with the novel in the 19th century in a Europe that was still largely peasant and ancient regime: the novel was a tool for encountering the Other. The Other outside the bourgeois norms, as orphan or ax murderer, as adulteress or unhappy wife.  This is where the anti-hero collects within his unlikeability the collective unconsciousness, and opens up the dreamlike possibility that the plausibility-ruled reader is, perhaps, Other. The novel hymns what Foucault calls the experience-limit – the limit in which you test to see whether you are a human or a monster. How much of a monster can you be? And so far, in the sweep of the imperialist eras, the genocide, the famines, the wars, we find that often, dizzyingly, the likeable is the monstrous, systematically liquidating the dislikeable, which it has previously created in its anti-image. Its negative, that appallingly chilling word for the photographic process by which the original film shows the reverse of the colors or tones of the final photograph – black or darker for white or lighter, and so on.  John Herschel, who coined the terms in a paper in 1840, wrote about them within the framework of an assumed theory of the original and the real: “To avoid much circumlocution, it may be allowed me to employ the terms positive and negative to express respectively pictures in which the lights and shades are as in nature, or as in the original model, and in which they are the opposite, i.e. light representing shade and shade light.” Nature and its substitute, the original model, produce, of course, a system of representation. In the novel, the original model is not only reversed in the negative character, but retrospectively shaken out of its originality. As in photography itself, the negative precedes, in time, the representation of the original model, the positive. Upon this complex of reverses, our canonical novel – and play, and movie, and ballad -rests. 

Monday, December 07, 2015

Why the West won't defeat Daech, or the next Daech, or the next one after that...

When the aging Karl Kraus, the spring of whose mockery was the endlessly mocked up world presented by the press, confronted the horror of Hitler, he wrote that, on this topic, “nothing occurred to him”. It is not often enough noted, by those interested in Kraus, that this gesture reproduces the aggressive-passive silence which he maintained at the outbreak of World War 1 for some time. World War I and Hitler were symptoms of the larger dissolution of the European order, cheered on by everything Kraus loathed – the patriotic poets, the xenophobic or liberally patriotic press, the amazingly incompetent political establishment, and the façade of humanism (now called “Western values” by our contemporary belligeranti) which was poured in abundant, syrop like dollops over the real, blood jelloes created on the Western and the Eastern front. 
Le Pen is no Adolph Hitler, but the Kraus reference is still a good place to start. Le Pen is a standard issue fascist politician, a species that has infested France since Louis Napoleon invented the type. Just as World War I and Naziism represented, in their different ways, the deep corruption of the liberal order, so, too, Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the US represent the deep corruption at the heart of the post-liberal order, or, as I prefer to call it, the fucked-up order. They emerge in a political context in which large swathes of the population of developed countries have, literally, no reason to vote for anybody.  This era, in which the government privatizes services that should, by any theory of the role of  monopoly in capitalism, remain nationalized; which stints on welfare for the neediest and opens its purse, for trillions of dollars, to support the greediest, seems intent on demonstrating what happens when capitalism confronts no resistance. There are many ways for the capitalist system to collapse – apparently, we are chosing the one where capitalism succeeds absolutely, invades every space, and undermines the non-capitalist ethos on which it unconsciously depends.
I am tired of autopsies of the left. Let the dead bury their own dead is my current position. But nevertheless, there are ironies to note. When the head of France’s socialist party calls for an alliance of the Socialists and the Left, there is, as some twittering commentor noted, an enormous unspoken confession resting on the shoulders of that “and” – it is an ideologically overdetermined copula, a conjunction/disjunction, that sums up the politics we’ve swallowed for the last twenty years.
So instead of thinking about Le Pen, I’ve been thinking about perhaps the last rational European politician, Jeremy Corbyn. Recently, to the hossanahs of the press, the Commons voted to support Cameron’s proposal to bomb Syria. Corbyn was widely derided for questioning this piece of bold policy. The pacifist! Unworthy to lick the shoes of Winston Churchill! and so on.
Of course, here is what the press doesn’t say. Bombing Daech in Syria will lead to Daech striking back in the UK. As Daech has shown, just because it doesn’t possess drones and planes doesn’t mean it is powerless to attack the bombers. Cameron has increased to a large degree the possibility that some mass murder event, between San Bernadino size and Paris size, will occur.
This being the case, one should ask, as Corbyn has, why Cameron is proposing to put the UK on the frontline. To what end? What interest is served by the policies being pursued by the US and its allies in Syria?
It isn’t that the allies are the friends of liberty and humanity. Quite the contrary. The totalitarian Gulf states which have both put down democratic demonstrations and shown a startling willingness to behead “witches”,  the starvation and strafing of Yemen, the authoritarian government in Egypt, are all phenomena abetted, at the very least, by the West. Nor is the battle being fought to bring peace to Syria or Iraq: there is no non-laughable scenario by which Assad is replaced in Syria by a multi-cultural, democratic government. The militias the West supports are very clear about massively expelling or killing Alawites and other non-believers. No, the bottom line is that Syria and Iraq will continue to be blood puddings.
Finally, and most damningly, though, is the fact that the war against Daech is a phony war. We’ve had a lot of time to see this show, and it is a bust. Phony wars not only spawn massive casualties that we are indifferent to – Syrian and Iraqi civilians, for instance – but they produce ever more blowback casualties.
The Western leaders all concluded, at the end of the Yugoslavian wars, that they had a magic technology that would enable a country to wage war and never wake up its own people. But the Yugoslavian wars, it is now clear, were an exception, not the rule. Yes, you can help topple a Saddam Hussein or a Qaddafi, but you can’t control the vacuum that results. The vacuum in Libya, which has brought about massive flights of refugees to Europe, amplifying the presence and power of rightwing movements, should have taught the ‘liberal’ intervenors something. It didn’t. Instead, we’ve seen them double down on the incompetence of liberal intervention, producing wonderful moral harangues about the duty to accept refugees while never mentioning at any point their own complicity in creating the horrific conditions from which those refugees are fleeing.
If, indeed, this cycle is going to end, then the luxury of phony war will have to end. You can’t fight a world war as a hobby. If any Western leader really wants to stop Daech, the answer is simple. First, it will require more troops than can be maintained from a voluntary system. World Wars are expensive. They require compulsory service.  Second, the “allies” of the West – Turkey and the Gulf states – will have to be confronted. And thirdly, occupation in force for a long period of time will most likely be necessary.
The phony warriors with their tough talk are, actually, paper mache warriors. Below their monster act, they are not going to reintroduce elements into the social whole that will lead to the massive questioning of our current establishment’s governance.  They will continue to advocate what Obama has labeled “stupid stuff.” It will, of course, continue not to work.
The phony warriors will turn to drones instead, and to bombing, and to expressions of shock when Daech inspired or trained terrorists kill a trainload of people here, an office meeting there. Meanwhile, the wars will go on, and on. We don’t lose wars anymore, because that would be too embarrassing for everyone: instead, they just continue for decades. Look at Afghanistan. The Taliban, which has been supported by our ally Pakistan for years, is not only still in the hills –they are coming down into the cities as the troops are withdrawn. When Afghanistan was first invaded, lo these many many years ago, those who alluded to the Soviet experience were laughed at heartily in the press. What losers! We swept in their and won the whole game by 2002. Except somehow the war kept going in 2002, and 3, and 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9, and 10, and 11, and 12, and 13, and 14, and 15. Here’s some recent news reported by the Australian, in a story that we are really much too indifferent to care about:
Demoralised Afghan forces were on the verge of collapse across swathes of the key southern province of Helmand in recent weeks, and only the return of foreign troops and air strikes prevented a Taliban rout.
A year after the last British soldiers left Helmand, handing over security for the province to Afghan forces, many of the areas they fought for are back in the hands of the insurgents, with local units barely able to defend themselves, let alone recapture lost territory.”
The war is endless because the people waging it from the technologically superior end aren’t even tough enough to admit to themselves that they fucked it up, that they don’t know what they are doing, that all the brilliant technology is not worth a piss if you don’t have massive manpower to back it up. As it was in the beginning – a fuck up – so it shall be at the ending – another fuck up.  
But the phony warriors learn nothing. It still amazes me that the Western response to Daech, after Daech forces, last year, decisively defeated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers who’d been trained at great expense and equipped with billions of dollars in military equipment, is to propose shipping millions of dollars of weapons to a bunch of ill assorted Syrian militias and a supply of books entitled, How To Win Against Shock Troops for Dummies.  Even Pavlov’s dogs, after a course of electric shocks, learned something. Or maybe I’m not getting the establishment’s strength, here: it consists of firmly shutting their collective eyes to reality. They firmly shut their eyes to the spike in unsustainable private debt in the 00s. They firmly shut their eyes to the malign effects of austerity, which not only increases unemployment but explodes public debt. And now they are firmly shutting  their eyes to the fact that they are exposing their civilian populations to terrorist attack while doing nothing, really, that is going to impede Daech.
And thus I begin my 58th year. I hope that I can flip the channel and shut my eyes, too.  It would be nice.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

american despair and mass murder

Who remembers James Oliver Hubert? That was the McDonald’s Massacre, 21 killed, July 18, 1984. He screamed as he shot, I’ve killed thousands. How about Patrick Sherril, post office worker, who killed 15 in the Edmond Oklahoma, post office, August 20, 1986? How about William Bryan  Cruse? That was the Publix in Palm Bay Florida, 6 killed, 13 wounded, April 23, 1987. Cruse was 60 years old. Then there was Joseph Wesbecker, who, in spite of his mental health issues, was able to purchase the AK 47 that he used to kill seven of his former co-workers at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky, September 15, 1989. How about James Edward Pough? That was ten people, the GMAC office, Jacksonville Florida, 1990. How about John T. Miller? Five people, Social Services office, Watkin Glens, New York, October 15, 1992. How about George Hennard, the doctor’s son, in the Luby’s in Kileen Texas, 23 killed, October 16, 1991? The papers at the time said it was America’s greatest mass shooting. This may or may not be true.  Then, showing that an armed camp is not necessarily a safe camp, there was Dean A. Mellberg, who went onto the hospital at the Fairchild Airforce Base in Spokane Washington and killed 4, wounded 21, and was killed himself on June 20, 1994. Remember Dean? Mental problems. AK 47. AK 47s are one of the arms of choice. For instance, drifter Patrick Edward Purdy was able to acquire one, although he had difficulty acquiring employment, and used it to kill five and injure 30 at the Cleveland Elementary school in Stockton, California, January 17, 1989. His victims ranged in age from 6 to 10 years old. William D. Baker used an AK 47 to kill four at the International Truck and Engine Core plant in Melrose Park, Illinois, on February 5, 2001. Funny thing, but the 66 year old Baker was about to go to prison. Unfortunately, nobody had taken away his extensive arm collection before the date he was to turn himself in. Doug Williams, in Meridian Mississippi, killed his victims – four blacks, as he avowedly hated blacks, and one white, besides himself – with a semi-automatic rifle at the Lockheed Martin plant where he worked on June 8, 2003. Newspapers noted that the event was the worst  work-site mass killing in 2 and ½ years – a record of peace and calm! Perhaps the benchmark they were using was the slaying  of seven in Wakefield, Massachussetts, on December 26, 2000. Michael McDermott, who worked at Edgewater Technology, came to work toting a semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic pistol, and a twelve gauge shotgun. How about church mass murders? Do you remember Matthew Murray, who killed five and wounded five at two churches in Colorado, on December 10, 2007? Or the two monks killed in a monastery in Conception, Missouri, on June 10, 2002. The killer was a 71 year old farmer, Lloyd Robert Jeffress. Remember Lloyd? The seven killed by Larry Ashbrook at the youth service in Fort Worth Wedgewood Baptist, and wounded 7. This was on September 15, 1999.  And lest we seem to be highlighting Christians, there’s the 9 Buddhist monks slain at the Promkunaram Wat temple outside of Phoenix, on August 10, 1991. Eventually, the killers were found. They used rifles, Alessandro Garcia and Jonathan Doody. They were 16 and 17 years old. Of course, churches and schoolyards are not the only sites that gunmen descend on in America. Carl Drega, a former nuclear plant worker, 67, killed four and wounded four before killing himself in Columbia, New Hampshire, because of court disputes. One of the dead was, in fact, a judge. This was on August 19, 1997. He used a rifle. “Authorities found hundreds of pounds of explosives and an elaborate system of tunnels” on his property.  A lawyer, Richard S. Baumhammers, decided to express his ideas about the supremecy of the white Christian race by killing his Jewish neighbor, an Indian, two Chinese and a black man in Mckees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on April 28, 2000. Surely you remember Richard? That was after a black man in Pennsylvania, Ronald Taylor, in Wilkensburg, shot and killed three. The landlord never fixed the door in Taylor’s apartment. Taylor sought out whites. Then there are the family issues. We all have probably forgotten retired Air Force sergeant Gene Simmons. He killed 16 in Russellville, Arkansas, on Christmas Eve in 1987. Fourteen were family members who’d come to the Simmons house for a Christmas party. They ranged from the 20 month old to the 46 year old wife. Firepower included two 38 caliber pistols. These killings, it is said, inspired another family Christmas massacre, as Robert Dressman shot and killed six people eating at the table in Algona, Iowa, two days after Simmons capture. Dressman killed himself, too.  Do you remember David McGowan, 44, an investigator for the Riverside D.A.’s department? He used his duty pistol to slay his wife, his mother, and his three kids before shooting himself, on May 11, 2005.
Mass slaying is as American as apple pie. It goes back. In Norwalk, Iowa, for instance, the Forsyth family slaying, in which the estranged husband killed his wife, his two children, and two childen she was babysitting (June 14, 1993) succeeds, by some fifty four years,  the slaying of five of the seven McCanich children by the mother, who shot them and then shot herself (October 31, 1937). It is claimed, in an article in the October issue of The Smithsonian  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-first-mass-murder-us-history-180956927/?no-ist that Howard Unruh, who, after a bad day, took his German Lugar pistol and walked around Camden New Jersey killing people at random on Labor Day, 1949, performed the first modern mass murder in this country. But how about Gilbert Twigg, who opened fire on a concert crowd in Winfield Kansas and killed six on August 13, 1904? Patrick Sauer identifies Unruh as the first due to two things: the randomness of the killing and the rapid fire of the technology. Twigg used a double barreled 12 gauge shot gun. But he was able, with this weapon, to inflict enormous damage, wounding 25 men and one woman.
The question is why. Lately, every massacre becomes a political insult match. Ah, the right wing fascist! Oh, the liberal protected Muslim! But one can pretty much predict that persons, mostly male, from every walk of life in America will be the perpetrators of the next one and the next and the next. What, for instance, produces the school killer? This isn’t a recent phenom. Verlin Spencer was a South Pasadena principle who, on May 6, 1940, killed five colleagues in the classic manner – stalking through  an institutional space, the school district headquarters, and systematically killing. In perhaps the most horrific school murder in US history, Andrew Kehoe, who was a., disgruntled, b., male, and c., 55 – it is surprising how many mass murderers are older – blew up a school in Bath Michigan, killing 44 and wounding 90. This was in 1927. In Grant Duwe’s history of mass murder in the US, he claims that there was a mass murder wave between 1900 and 1939, a trough in the 1940 to 1965 period, and a second mass murder wave which extends to 1999. Duwe, though, is rather captious about his definitions. Spree murders are not mass murders by his definition. This strikes me as a not very well motivated division. His definition is of that a mass murder mmust occur within a 24 hour period and include at least four victims. In my opinion, the intent to kill might not result in murder in many cases, but is nonetheless the operant motive.
In any case, Duwe’s explanation is that the 1940 to 1965 period was conformist, religious, affluent, and did not witness a mass black market in drugs. Yet, there were still mass murders going on.
It isn’t as though mass murder were confined to the US. If we look at European history, and we distinguish the violence of war from that of individual violence (which I consider a dubious division, but so be it), we can find many mass murders, but no consistent, monthly tendency to mass murder as we find in the US. True, American civilians own an astonishing amount of firepower – 88 guns per 100 people. Compare that with Spain, where the number is 11 guns per 100 persons. In France, which is pretty much at the EU norm, it is 31. That is still a lot of guns. Many Americans mistakenly believe that Europeans do not own guns. What is true is that gun ownership is more regulated and overseen, generally. Not everywhere, however. In Italy, for instance, the figure is around 12 per 100, but this disguises the fact that the law allows the individual to own a number of weapons with loose regulatory supervision.
However, it seems to me that the regulation of guns is a surface phenomenon, a reflection of the degree to which a society on all its levels is willing symbolically to submit to the dictates of the state. I don’t think that American history is explained by rugged individualism – in fact, to a degree, Americans fear non-conformity and are generally willing to obey the rules, whether the one about stopping at stop lights or the one about lining up in a straight line, in striking contrast to other countries. At some level, however, Americans despair of what Isaiah Berlin calls positive liberty – or what I would call the provision of elementary subsistence by the state. Often, what is striking about mass murder is the fact that its motive seems so trivial – a property dispute, a bad date. It is as if the killer’s patience snaps, and the only choice is between the landlord agreeing to repair the door and killing a number of strangers. How that choice forms in the mind of a person points to something about the American condition that ought to be made much more a part of the argument about gun violence in this country.  We have to accommodate this discourse to the level of despair out there. How much evidence do we need?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

on yelling

Yestrday night, Adam said, don’t be rude to me, Daddy.
This set me back on my heels. How had I been rude to him?
Well, parenting alternates between the pole of cuddling and the pole of yelling. Yelling is one of the great sounds in the bourgeois domestic lair. The enlightenment has, thankfully, softened our moeurs, so that the whipping routinely meted out to children in, say, the eighteenth century astonishes us. The raised hand, the belt, the paddle, these are the malevolent spirits that haunted the great rebels and novelists of the 19th century. Max Ernst’s picture of the Virgin Mary whaling the tar out of the little baby Jesus is not only a monument to surrealism, but holds a (mostly unacknowledged) place in the history of parenting in the twentieth century. Reading between the lines, Marcel was surely so punished by the father that he can never quite forgive as he traversess the thousand some pages of In search of lost time.
But yelling… Who among us doesn’t? In actual fact, I’m extremely suspicious of non-yellers. I figure that they are substituting coldness and silence for noise, and that is the devil’s substitute. And no, it is hard for me to imagine the person who can summon up sweet reason in an instant when discovering their angel scribbling with a pen on the dining room wall.
Of course, I yell with a guilty conscience. I’m never wholly into it – I’m always conscious of the yelling as a role. Among my talents, I lack the natural bellow – and I do have a smart mouth, which over the decades I think I’ve tamed. Sometimes, though, my tongue remembers its old tricks.Thus, when yelling, I’m always a bit histrionic. Adam has the three year old’s ability to zero in on the histrionic and the phony. What I want is, well, an acknowledgment of fault and sincere repentence – as in, okay, I will wear the clothes that you have laid out for me, instead of demanding to wear the dirty clothes I wore yesterday. What I get, though, is stubborness (I don’t want to!) and something halfway to a smile playing about his mouth, as though Daddy yelling was as one with Daddy hooting like a scary owl in the story of Angus, the lost dog.
Yelling is both an indispensible speech act – as in when Adam runs heedlessly down the sidewalk – and a cuyriously ineffectual one. Ineffectual on both sides – it makes me feel, as the yelller, as though I’m in a false position, and it makes Adam feel, as the yelled at, that the best way to get something you really want is yelling. Of course, I yell at him about his yelling…
Kafka, as usual, is all over this like white on rice. In The Judgment, the roles seem to be reversed. The protagonist’s father is decrepit and like a child – look, he’s even soiled his clothes! He needs to be tucked into bed and hushed. When, all of a sudden, he pops up and in an instant assumes his terrible authority. In Roman law, the father had the formal right to condemn his children to death. This is what the figure in The Judgment does. Kafka felt that the story was his first success. In his diary, in a passage emulously conned by every budding writer, he records the bliss of staying up all night writing it. Maybe it was because Kafka had now opened up one of his great themes, a theme perhaps central to his work. That is, the bourgeois order, the order of the yell, was centrally out of balance. The yell, that exercise of power, by its excess revealed an almost unbearable powerlessness.

This is a hard lesson to learn, people. I am not Josephine the Mouse singer, nor was I meant to be.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

the weather of modernism

Kathryn Schultz, in her clever essay on weather and literaturemisses, I think, an opportunity. Her notion is a good one – that a change occurs in the uses of weather between the Victorians and the modernists.  But she confines this insight to the narrow range of Anglo writers. To my mind, the difference in uses – the difference, that is, in what one might calll the cognitive temperament, the mood around what one knows – is exemplified by the opening of Bleak House (to which Schultz makes reference) and the opening of Man Without Qualities (to which she doesn’t). If ever there was a book that was in dialogue with the conventions of the Victorian novel, it is Musil’s book.  Famously, Dickens begins Bleak House with a prose poem about the London fog:
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”
The booming foghorn like repetition of fog, provides the real punctuation here for sentences that themselves become foggy, that tend to end either before the verb and object arrive, or to creep along embracing descriptively bits of geography. The sentences extend so much that they seem to go down the reader’s throat, much as the fog gets into the breathing of Londoners – and as the passage relies heavily on sentences as units of breath, the effect is enhanced, feeds back into itself.  
Here, by contrast, is the way Musil begins Man without Qualities:
“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination  to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising  and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”
Like Dickens, Musil starts out on a note of humor, bringing together the forces of weather – which have been mathematized – and the city. However, the contrasts here are different.As Schultz points out:
“Yet the weather in “Bleak House” is unmistakably symbolic: the mud is that of a hopelessly sullied culture, the fog that of an opaque and unnavigable legal system. As in earlier, religious stories, meteorology here is morality, and the prevailing conditions leave everything hidden, murky, and stained.”
Musil’s dialectical point will be, eventually, that mathematization is not a value neutral application of science to the world – but on the contrary, is full of moral quandries. For instance, how are we to live with it? Just as the Viennese circle failed, ultimately, to create a language of self evidence in which truth would be a grammatical function fully encompassed in the language’s semantics, Ulrich, the hero of the man without qualities, will fail to not have qualities – that is, to live precisely. In Musil’s binary, precision cannot do without soul. And yet, it creates a world that seems to have chased away all the spirits – even if, in a final moment, it must return to the subject that created it.
These are both moments in the larger event of capitalism, I would say. Or, more accurately, in the development of an industrial system of production under capitalism.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The anti-Muslim/saudi impunity paradox

One of the great paradoxes of the last two decades has been the simultaneous demonization of Islam in the West, and, at the same time, the impunity of one of the central Islamic states, Saudi Arabia. The attacks in Paris have revived the former, while depending on the latter. So far, so good. But why is this not, at least in the media, a hot issue?
To find some answers, I’d urge the curious to turn to the home page of a financial entity with the impressively ominous name, Kingdom Holding. 
The grandson of two of the Arab world’s most celebrated figures – King Abdul-Aziz Alsaud, founder and first ruler of Saudi Arabia and HE. Riad El Solh, iconic statesman in Lebanon’s drive for independence – Prince Alwaleed has always been inspired by the uncommon achievements of his family line.”
What we are being told, here, is that Abdul-Aziz Alsaud is essentially a representative, or a member of, the Saudi government.
As such, it is a little surprising that the Kingdom Holding company hasn’t provoked a few questions. According to the New York Times, the Kingdom Holding company, from around 1999 until 2014, held a six percent stake in News corporation. Alsaud used the stake to vote with Murdoch, even as, due to the scandals in Britain, Murdoch’s management came under some stress.

In other words, the company that owns Fox news was partly owned by the Kingdom.
In 2014, there was a reorganization of Murdoch’s company, and the Kingdom moved its investment to the entertainment arm of Fox.
But not to fear! It was also making a strong play for Times Warner stock. The Kingdom site is proud of the relationship:
KHC’s interest in Time Warner results from a 1997 USD 145m market purchase of a 5% interest in the pioneering Internet company Netscape. Netscape was subsequently sold to AOL which then merged with Time Warner. KHC had identified home and business Internet services as an area of extraordinary opportunity, and the Netscape position was KHC’s first entry into the technology sector, long before Internet-based stocks became unsustainably overvalued.
Within the first sixteen months of the initial investment, Netscape yielded an extraordinary internal rate of return of 90.6% per annum, with the company’s shares skyrocketing in value due to the surging demand for Internet stocks and announcement of AOL’s proposed bid. KHC deepened its relationship with Time Warner in 2001 and 2002 with the purchase of additional share holdings. AOL and Time Warner separated in 2009.
The relationship between KHC and Time Warner remains extremely strong, with the management of Time Warner believing that potential exists for KHC to act as the company’s regional investment partner for the Middle East.”
So, our original paradox can be restated. How is it that media – and Fox and Times Warner between them own a large part of the media that reports news and opinion to American – can host shows that are so overtly anti-Moslem? Take Bill Maher. The man has made a minor career of Islam-dissing. He loves nothing better than to knock down experts in Islam – like, uh, Ben Affleck – with his broad knowledge of the subject.
And how is it that, at the same time, it is not controversial for the US government to, say, sell a billion dollars of bombs, as they did this week, to Saudi Arabia, when Saudi Arabia has been on a campaign of both starving the Yemen population  with a blockade and bombing the cities, with an untold number of civilian casualties? Untold, of course, because you won’t be told this on Bill Maher’s show, or on Fox news, for two.
My theory is: the anti-Moslem rhetoric in the US really effects Moslems who, in Saudi Arabia, would be in prison anyway. In the US, Arabic women, for instance, drive cars, vote, have a civil life, drink, have sex, and in general participate in the life of women in the US. The effect of Maher’s rhetoric means, merely, that a few mosques will be bombed, Arabic kids will be beat up at schools, etc. – the usual hegemonic cruelties. Given that the Saudis have engaged in war almost exclusively against other Moslems – in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria – it is not surprising that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdul-Aziz has never taken his good friend Rupert Murdoch aside and said, can the anti-Moslem crap.
Nor is it curious that opinion riots against the evils of Putin periodically break out in the Western media, with tons of tears shed over the jailing of dissident billionaire Khodorovsky, whereas the occasional execution by beheading of a sorceressin Saudi Arabia – which is what happened toAmina bint Abdel Halim Nassar in 2011 – produces a yawn. You would think that the elevation of the Saudi delegate to the head of the Human Rights commission at the UN this year would provoke a media storm, given the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia. But it didn’t. Here was the Obama administration’s response, via the press conference of State Department spokesman Mark Toner:
“Asked whether he thought it was “appropriate for them to have a leadership position,” Toner said, “We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. You know, as to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to, you know, to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”
“But you said that you welcome them in this position,” another reporter said. “Is it based on improved record? I mean, can you show or point to anything where there is you know, a sort of stark improvement in their human rights record?”
“I mean, we have an ongoing discussion with them about all these human rights issues, like we do with every country,” Toner said. “We make our concerns clear when we do have concerns, but that dialogue continues. But I don’t have anything to point to in terms of progress.””

Frankly, Toner’s last remark surely earned him some reproach. Look at the fantastic progress Saudi Arabia is making in terms of ridding itself of witches!

In any case, and this is the point of this post, I’d like to start a campaign to pressure Maher into inviting the head of the Kingdom to debate Islam with him on his show. Of course, Maher is just foam on foam, a show that doesn’t even rise to the level of intellectual masturbation, but it would be fun to see him confronted with a little consequence for his views. Because, as Maher well knows, he can do what he wants on his HBO show (HBO is owned by Times Warner), but he probably doesn’t want to travel the career path of Glenn Beck. Yes to controversy that is as thin as yesterday’s bigotry, but no to endangering a “warm, valued, and long-term relationship.”

And hey, I’m wondering what Congress or the media would make of the idea of a Chinese company,or an Iranian one, owning a six percent stake in a major news network. Hmm, they might kick!

Monday, November 16, 2015

France isn't at war with radical Islam. It is allied to radical Islam. It is at war with Daech.

I should read soothing things before I go to bed. Alas, instead, I glanced at an opinion piece in Marianne. It starts out with the obvious: France is at war. Then it immediately goes off the tracks. France isn't at war with Daech. No, France, according to this genius, is at war with "radical Islam."
This would come as surrprising news to French corporations, who've had a boom year selling to the heart of radical Islam, Saudi Arabia, or to the French government, which has supported radical islam in the war in Yemen.
The difference between the ideologies and domestic policies of Daech and the Saudis depend on the fact that Daech is trying to become a real geopolitical power and the Saudis already are one. Otherwise, both are ruled by a particular interpretation of Shari'a, both behead, both make crimes out of such things as sorcery, both absolutely deny civil rights to women, etc., etc.
Ideological fog machines are a standard part of war. But we've been living with this fog for too long. It is poisonous. If a major paper publishes a piece that misrepresents the most obvious fact about political reality right now, it bodes ill for what comes next. We saw this in 9.11. What is true is that the West, in the interest of combatting Arab nationalism and communism, allowed and even encouraged the Saudis to spend money founding mosques worldwide, which have grown into the cheering section for jihadists. Daech, piggybacking on this network, has recruited thousands of supporters. This isn't surprising. France, and the US, and the West in general, are always trying to recruit supporters from their networks in the Middle East.
What protects Daech is pronouncements such as that in Marianne. If you can't identify your enemy, your war is fucked from the get go.
Where did the French planes that bombed Raqaa take off? From fields in the Gulf states. Meanwhile, other figures in the Gulf states gave Daech its startup money and are continuing to fund Daech.
France is allied with radical Islam, and fighting a group that is held together, ideologically, by a variant of radical Islam. These are the facts. Look em in the face, or continue this bumbling through the mindfield that simply leads to endlessly more war and terrorist attacks.
All of which is not something I wanted to think about last night. I wanted to think about the thriller I was reading.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Yes, it is war

The headline of Le parisien saddens me: cette fois, c’est la guerre. It saddens me because it implies that France has not been at war. While, in fact, you cannot bomb territories and your foreign minister cannot keep saying we are at war with DAECH or ISIS without being at war. This is what war looks like.

You can be for the war or against the war, but it has been war for a while, indisputably. As so often , the wars have been  fought according to the old presumption of colonial war: the front is over there in the distance. But this simply isn’t true any more.   Drone some Yemen wedding, bomb Isis, but don’t think that the forces who’ve been armed to the max by the worldwide flow of arms – none of which are of Middle eastern manufacture - are powerless to respond on your home territory.  This isn’t about moral equivalency, it is simply about the way wars are fought.  The irresponsibility of populations who finance huge war machines and let their presidents play with them, play with military forces that are not longer even drafted, leads to an indifference that will blow up in our faces as we dine at a café
I truly, naively believe that if populations connected to the elites that have monopolized and made foreign policy irresponsive to the popular will – if, in fact, the popular will was sending its sons and daughters into the military, and sacrificing their lifestyles to war – there would be less hobby wars. Wars that are the hobby of this or that engaged group.
This time is, really, only the successor of a long time in which war has been going on. So wealthy is France, or any of the developed countries, that wars have become things waged in the peripheral vision. But this is the path that leads to an uncontrollable influx of armed men from those distant theaters, or trained there, into the major metropoles to kill as many people as possible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

the myths of the labor "market"

 John Quiggin, the Australian economist, haswritten a post about the business cycle over at Crooked Timber, and in it herings my chimes – or he makes me mount on my hobbyhorse, to use an older cliché.Specifically, he defines recessions in terms of unemployment, mostly, which I think is a good thing – but he defines employment, implicitly, in terms of a labour market analysis, which is a normal thing, but I think is fundamentally misleading. In a footnote, this is how he defines full employment:
Full employment doesn’t mean zero unemployment, since some people are always changing jobs, or are in the process of leaving the labor market. Roughly speaking, the employment is at full employment in the sense required here when any additional job creation in one sector of the economy is feasible only by attracting workers away from other sectors.”
Implicitly, what is happening here is a vision of laborers as sovereign consumers in a market place, chosing this or that place to work. Or, in times of lesser employment, consumers without the full freedoms that endow the sovereign consumer. Of course, at the same time, these choosers are also vendors. The neo-classical model allows for this double aspect, but doesn’t ask any questions about it that would lead to some nasty dialectical thinking. That way lies madness and Marxism!
Myself, though, I think that this is a way of looking at the labor force that dissolves extremely pertinent sociological and economic distinctions. For instance, we know that around 30 percent of American workers – to stick with America – work in credentialed, or guild like, professions. Not just doctors and lawyers, but accountants, nurses, plumbers and air conditioning men – given this fact, it does seem like the definition of full employment here is, to say the least, not comprehensive.
Interestingly, when the “market” was first being conceptualized, in the 18th century, it was conceptualized as a ‘natural’ phenomenon against an artificial phenomenon – state sponsored or regulated activity. There is a famous and defining text, Turgot’s entry in the Encyclopedie on the Foire, or fair, that provides an exemplary instance of a discourse we have all become familiar with, in which the workings of the market are ‘distorted’ or “interfered with” by non-market, and hence, vicious, factors. Turgot used this distinction to analyse fairs as opposed to markets:
“Fair and a marketare therefore both a gathering of merchants and customers at a set time andplace. But in the case of markets the merchants and buyers are brought together by the mutual interest they have in seeking each other, while in the case of fairs it is the desire to enjoy certain privileges — from which it follows that this gathering is inevitably much more numerous and solemn at fairs. Although the natural course of commerce is sufficient to establish markets, as a result of the unfortunate principle which in nearly all governments has infected the administration of commerce — I mean, the mania of directing all, regulating all, and of never relying on the self-interest of man — it has happened, in order to establish markets, that the police1 has been made to interfere; that the number of markets has been limited on the pretext of preventing them from becoming harmful to each other; that the sale of certain goods has been prohibited except at certain appointed places, either for the convenience of the clerks charged with receiving the duty with which they are burdened, or because the goods were required to be subjected to the formalities of testing and marking…”
Given Turgot’s definition, one should speak, then, of the labor “market” as, actually, a hybrid of a market and a fair, for certainly many, if not most of those jobs we associate with the upper middle class are fair-like in their composition.
But there is more to the picture than that. I think Quiggens might be more aware than most economists that governments also employ people. But still, it seems to me that he underestimates  employment by the state. In other words, full employment is supposed to be something sustained by private enterprise in which the state plays only a marketmaker role, by using its powers to tax, borrow, and raise and lower interest rates to create optimum conditions of demand in the private sector.. But – to use the US as an example – full employment in the sense of the private sector absorbing all but a small portion of the working population has never been the case since the great depression. Since WWII, the government has gone from employing about 13 percent of the workforce to close to 17 percent. In 2009, for instance, according to the Bureau of Labor, there are around 22 million Americans employed by local, state and federal governments.
This means, at first glance, that the private sector employs on average about 82-84 percent of the work force. In actuality, given a very rough average of unemployment of 5 percent, which is really generous, the private sector ends up employing closer to 78 to 80 percent of the work force.
You can look elsewhere in the developed world and find similar statistics. The OECD has published a comparison across countries of the percentage of the work force employed in the public sector. The scandinavian countries rank high – in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, over 30 percent of the workforce works in the public sector. The UK is 21.5 percent in 2015. In Australia, the public sector grew in the past four years – an exception to the OECD norm – to 18.9 percent of the employed population.

So the first thing one can safely say about full employment, even before brandishing the market metaphor,  is that under modern capitalism, it doesn’t ever happen if we rely solely on the private sector. In a sense, the unemployed mass of the Great Depression was dissolved into the state, and has remained there ever since.