“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
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Friday, December 11, 2015
I 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
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
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
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.
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.