“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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

strike, NFL players! And let the owners play the game

In my opinion, if the tubby little billionaire owners of football teams in the NFL want to control what the players think, the players should just let the owners play the game. Lets see how many stadiums are filled as Jerry Jones gets tackled by Zygi Wilf. Of course, what I'm expecting is for this to go to court, and for the Trump court to vote down the right to express an opinion as a minor and dispensible thing - in comparison with the enormous right to bear concealed arms at a college campus. 
Strike, players, strike!

by the book

Back before the NYT destroyed, or blandified, its Book section, it used to have a regular feature called By The Book. This consisted of questions like: What books are currently on your night stand? Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today? Do you have a favorite genre? Any literary guilty pleasures?

Etc. These questions form a sort of program: the writer – the novelist – is part of a profession, and spends his or her time reading and judging texts, which are also part of the profession. Even social time is professionalized: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?”
The limits of this set of questions imply an image of what the writer – and here, I am mostly talking about the writer of fiction, or poems, or essays, or memoirs – does as a laborer. The NYT is traditionally for management, so the questions are never about the means of production, as in, what do publishing  houses do correctly or not, what do you think about your book’s publicity, etc. Nor about the interaction between reader and writer.

Nor, going a bit further, is the writer contextualized in a broader culture. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever read anybody ask about oral storytellers.

I consider this a bit odd. I know that myself, I used to like to go into Panera in Santa Monica, get a coffee, and listen to the old codgers bitch and brag to each other, sounds which fed into certain parts of my novel. But more than that, I am sure the stories I listened to when I was a wee little pea and my parents were giants gave me a total, preliminary sense of narrative possibilities. Not that I am special in this respect – you can hear narrative patterns passed along, generation to generation, from family member to family member. And you can hear characteristics that belong to vocation.

 My pop was an air conditioning man – he did the range of things, from working in a research laboratory (which he hated with all his heart) to repairing or installing hvac systems in businesses and institutions, to selling the machinery. It was the repairing and installing part that formed the heart of stories that usually had the motif: pops vs. idiot. The idiot could be the local repairman, the person running the business or institution, or the backup in the company, but most definitely the adventure of putting in hvac required an idiot to make the story juicy. Not that the stories were always so juicy by Hollywood standards. They often involved descriptions of working in impossible spaces in impossible conditions – small places in steamy hot weather, crawl spaces filled with toads and bugs, etc.
One of the formally interesting things about these stories is that they were sorta diagrammed: that is, repair work requires a pretty clear beginning, middle and ending. You begin with the problem (usually the result of some idiot making unbelievable mistakes installing some unit), you advance towards the solution (usually involving some hazardous or bizarre repair that might require doing certain things no normal man would do, such as dealing with electricity in a flooded, dark basement), and the solution comes about because of your action. Epic, really.

My Dad didn’t do certain things in his stories. For instance, I can’t recall him ever imitating anybody’s voice. I myself love to imitate accents. I like this not so much to mock those accents but to expand my musical range, although of course I know the usual thing about imitating accents is to mock their departure from some pre-supposed norm – everyday racism, innit?

My Mother’s stories were more complicated. This is because she worked as a school secretary, which  involved the more sinuous lines and complexities of human behavior, on various scales. There were many less idiots in her adventures, but many kids acting out, teachers having fits, and parents with many woes, which of course they told Mom. If the structure of my Dad’s stories had a classic cast not so distant from the old Writing Program dictate of showing and not telling, my Mom’s were closer to the underground of gossip and rumor, where telling is all and showing is a matter of glimpses and interpretation.
Of course, these are extreme paraphrases of my parent’s styles – but they certainly connect the act of writing to the natural life of language. I do think, like an old Commie, that you have to baptize the book in the stream of life of the people. That doesn’t mean making the book dumber – oh contrah, as they say around here. Ulysses is my notion of a novel that successfully takes its orientation from oral culture and the oldest of bookish traditions. It is ultimately a DIY novel, the best kind.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

against debating

Most intellectuals don’t have fans. They are lucky to have respondents to pieces they publish in small academic journals. But there are some intellectuals who do have fans. Especially among rightwing intellectuals who achieve a certain name recognition (Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, etc.) you will find an odd romanticism about “debate”. The fans are always lauding the debating skills of their idols.

I was a member of the debate club in high school – as I suspect few of the fans were – and the one thing you learn about debate is that it is not an instrument for truth. Rather, it is an instrument for winning an argument. The mark of the good debater is to win both as a supporter of “x” and as an opponent of “x”.

The dispute about the meaning and methods of debate are ancient. Around 500 BC, sophists – to give them a slightly anachronistic name – discovered and developed the techniques of argument and rhetoric. Discovered, here, means simply brought into consciousness styles of argument that no doubt pre-existed the sophists. You can see what argument looks like without these styles, or consciousness of these styles, in the book of Job, where Job’s friends make a mess of his excuses, but without any convention whereby Job would be convinced that his friends were right. In fact, Job’s friends provoke God’s wrath: which shows you how much one needs debating skills.

Plato was worried about the sophist’s art – worried that it was an art that obscured, rather than revealed, the truth. The truth, that is, about being. Plato wrote dialogues, so it wasn’t as if he were worried about argument per se. He was worried that debate was oriented towards winning. The idea that one should win at all costs sacrificed the very goal that the argument was meant to inch us towards.

I suspect that creating a sport out of intellectual work is at the heart of the rare phenomenon of the intellectual with fans. And it is a bit too snooty to think that brainwork and entertainment are separated by rigid ethical and veridical lines. I see no reason to believe that. But I also see no reason to jettison Plato’s worry: that debate debases the very truths it seeks to capture by making them secondary to the impulse to win.

Debates, in other words, are an inferior intellectual tool. And when they take center stage, you know that something shifty is going on.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

the lesson of Martin Amis

Martin Amis has led one of the most puzzling careers in the contemporary novel business.

He started out of the gate with some obvious advantages. He had a good ear for speech, and an even better ear for caricaturing speech. He could create recognizable types – especially the aspiring Yob – in the great tradition of English comic novelists. And he had a believable misanthropy going for him – like his Dad, and like Evelyn Waugh.

These are great strengths. I tried to re-read Money a year ago, and didn’t get far, cause I wasn’t in the mood. But I could still see what a piece of work, in the good sense, it was.

With all of these qualities, Amis should have gone from strength to strength in Blairite GB. Instead, he jumped the track, and started producing these novels about Stalin’s Gulag and Hitler's concentration camps.

He came to these subjects with heavy handicaps. Amis’s great strength was, as I have said, aural. You could hear a lot of Money. But he has no sense whatsoever for spoken German or Russian. This immediately carves out about two thirds of what he has to work with. And then, who is the competition, here? Well, Russian and German (and Hungarian and Dutch and French) writers who had a very good sense of what the worlds they described sounded like. The competition, in other words, was already at the finish line while Amis was huffing along, getting all his notes in order. 

The novels become those notes: oh, here’s the part derived from Anthony Beevor. Here’s the Annie Applebaum part. And so on.
I do not understand this jumping of the tracks. Was it because he sought an American market, one that had only a vague idea of yob culture? I think that might be part of it. I remember a howler of a review in the New Republic when the book section was run by Leon Wieseltier that went on and on about Amis achieving true greatness with the novel about the Gulag. It was as if the novel were a surgical bomb that had hit its target. The Wieseltierish crowd was, of course, not going to be so excited about a novel like Money, cause it wasn’t “serious”. Plus, of course, being anti-Stalin was, for this crowd, an act of political courage.
It is a weird crowd.
But my complaint isn’t political. Amis’s rightwing politics don’t bother me as drivers of fiction – a novel is like a truck, and the drivers are various in their viewpoints, but the point is to drive it well. What I don’t get is the idea that to move into making a SERIOUS novel about ATROCITIES, Amis had to remove himself to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. He could easily have turned to, say, the war in Kenya, or the starvation in Bengal, or Northern Ireland, or any number of theaters where he could both hear the culture and write about it. He could definitely have gotten his anti-Communist jones on by writing about British lefties in the 60s.
It is frustrating to see a good novelist take on subjects that are manifestly not going to pay off, and do it time after time. It reminds me, oddly enough, of the decay of the novel under Stalin, where writers who had avant garde impulses and brilliance were forced to write in a straightjacketed socialist realism mode.
I suppose there is a lesson in here somewhere about one’s convictions and the creation of that enterprise of othering and daydreaming, the novel. Sometimes, you just need to write an essay to give the first driver some road space.

Monday, May 21, 2018

negative externalities, y'all.

It is a semi-holiday here in France. I guess I should include the marker, pre-Uber France. Macronists everywhere despair about these holidays. So it is time to: reference an article by Stefano Bartolini that deals with growth using a Polanyi-style scheme of analysis. Naturally. You know I was a-goin’ there. It bears the rebarbative title (by which I mean a title fit for a cannibal's barbecue) “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.”
The abstract, however, hearteningly poses questions that economists have generally ruled out according to the icky rule: if it shows that capitalism is icky, forget it.
“The traditional explanation of growth based on the primum and secundum movens of accumulation and technical progress, faces two major empirical anomalies. Why do people work so much i.e. why do they strive so much for money? The growth literature provides no answer to these question, nor to the further and very important one of why people are so unhappy. Moreover, finding a joint answer to the two questions seems particularly puzzling. Why do people strive so much for money if money cannot buy happiness? I argue that the solution to this 'paradox of happiness' can be provided by including in the theory a tertium movens of growth: negative externalities. These externalities can be of two kinds. The first are positional externalities, i.e. those due the fact that individuals may be interested in relative not absolute position. The second kind of negative externalities are those which reduce free goods. Some recent models, both evolutionary or with optimising agents, show the role of these externalities as an engine of growth. This approach emphasises that the growth process generates extensive negative externalities which reduce the capacity of the social and natural environment to furnish free goods. In these models individuals have increasingly to rely on private goods in order to prevent a reduction in their well-being or in their productive capacity due to decline in social and natural capital. This generates an increase in output which feeds back into the negative externalities, giving rise to a self-reinforcing mechanism whereby growth generates negative externalities and negative externalities generate growth. According to these models, growth appears to be a substitution process whereby free final (or intermediate) goods are progressively replaced with costly goods in the consumption (or production) patterns of individuals. From the point of view of this GASP (Growth As Substitution Process) models the two anomalies of growth theory are two sides of the same coin. People strive so much for money because they have to defend themselves against negative externalities: they work so much in order to substitute free goods with costly ones. But an increase in income does not improve their happiness because it involves a process of substitution of free goods costly ones. Some implications for environmental economics are drawn.”
Perhaps the implications don’t leap out at you. But they do in their way in everyday life. Moving to L.A.? Well, you best get you a car. Why? Cause the town is criss crossed with insurmountable barriers to walking or biking through it. And the mass transit system is slow, and subject to the massive traffic slowdown that provide the punctuation to the rhythm of the place. And those traffic slowdowns penetrate your sleep, because you best get used to getting up early in order to, perhaps, miss the traffic in the morning going to work. And if you have kids, you best have either a partner who can take them to school, a babysitter, or a relative on whom you can throw off the problem of what to do with them. Of course, having kids means you need more money, so put in that overtime, or lengthen that commute. You can play with them on the weekend!
On and on the merry-go-round goes, and luckily, we have wonderful anti-depressants for you!
One more quote.
“In short, the result of perpetual growth seems rather vulnerable to inclusion of a work/leisure choice in models. The plausible mechanisms emphasised by endogenous growth models which ensure a non-decreasing marginal productivity of capital over the long period are insufficient to generate perpetual growth. In order to generate it, individuals must work and accumulate i. e. must be interested in money, more than endogenous growth models predict. According to these models, in fact, individuals react to a long-period increase in labor productivity by enjoying life more than is necessary to ensure perpetual growth. This is as regards the theoretical problems.”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

let Dimitrios Pagourtzis go

The NYT has an editorial headlined, Congress has dithered on gun control. That isn't right. The correct headline should be: congress has abetted the mass killers of children. And they are proud of it.
Cause of course that it what the "failure" to enact gun control comes down to. We all know the consequences by now. Gun control advocates, who are often Dems, have become crackers of jokes and rather cynical users of the gun issue, when it is hot, to accuse the GOP - while of course abetting centrist Dem candidates who, we are assured, are winning back white voters by opposing gun control laws. Like, in fact, the current Democrat running for Ohio governorship.
And then there is the Governor of Texas, the lieutenant governor, the senators, the representatives, who were as much a part of Pagourtzis squeezing the trigger as he was. He killed ten. They've killed hundreds. And they will keep on doing so.
So, if the decision is the blood of school children is no big deal, something we will headline about for a day and forget, let's let Pagourtzis go. He only did what Americans apparently don't mind him doing.
Can a country come down with a sickness unto death? I guess that is the question we are all wrestling with every day.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Dem legitimacy problem

I feel that there is an important aspect of the Obama era that is slipping away, being forgotten; and in so being, laying the groundwork for a similar mistake.

Let’s go back to the year 2009, when the O. administration decided to go with the most conservative plan for national healthcare, the one made up by the Heritage Foundation and promoted by Newt Gingrich in the 90s.

Much infighting on various progressive blogs ensued. The progressive blog conclusion – expressed most forcefully, I believe, by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein – was that those who wanted a more radical form of healthcare were politically unrealistic. By this phrase, “politically unrealistic,” they meant – well, they seemed to mean that other legislation couldn’t get passed.
As we now know, if you are in majority, you can change the rules and pass what you like. The GOP suffers from no problems with political realism in that sense. Back in 2009, there was many a valiant single-payer who dashed up to the walls with the same slogan: abolish filibuster, abolish the barriers to passing progressive legislation! And was forced back, as such was the horror of our great institutions that no majority would dare, would ever dare, to touch the sacrosanct rules, which had lent a bipartisan aura to everything from the Fugitive Slave Act to the Great War on Terror.
I sensed, then, and still sense that there was something more behind the political realism slogan. That more was, I felt, a sort of shared but unspoken mood, among both Republicans and Democrats, that Democratic politicians were, to an extent, illegitimate. The legitimate ruling party of the U.S.A. was the GOP. Hence, to legitimate any piece of legislation, you had to get Daddy GOP to sign up for it, or at least one of the “stars” of the party.

This sense of legitimacy is one of the great inheritances of the Reagan era. It haunts Dems. The so-called moderate wing of the Democratic party does pretty much buy the neo-liberal ideal – the era of big gov being over, you gots to pay for your college education, boys and girls, we can’t afford Medicare for all, everything can’t be free free free – but I think that they have been sold this bill of goods under the soothing notion that the old, McGovernite Dems were the ruin of everything, and that we all have to adopt to the idea that the Republicans really represent the establishment, and we want to be part of the establishment in the end, don't we?

If we keep an eye on this sense of latent illegitimacy, we can sort of see what was going on in that fight in 2009. Two politically realistic dimensions seemed, then, to have quite disappeared. The one is that the most politically unrealistic thing you can do is deflate your followers with half-hearted results after promising them something as absolute and sexy as Hope. From birthday parties to elections, this is the recipe for a downer. And if you lose the election, your calculations about political realism go out the door: you will just spend your time in a defensive crouch.
The other dimension concerns acceptance. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue to exist because, although they came out of the Democratic Party, they so quickly became part of the social knitting that the GOP couldn’t get rid of them. Political realism, then, consists of making policy that similarly becomes the new normal.

Unfortunately, the Dem strategy from 2009-2016 was based on bipartisanship and executive action. Since there was no bipartisanship, after 2010, Obama’s politics were peculiarly top down. But the major act of the administration, Obamacare, had huge problems politically. It depended for its continuance on a complex mechanism that required legislative input. Social security didn’t fundamentally change until the 1980s – it had a good forty year run – and it changed much for the worse in the 80s, but it is still there. Obamacare, though, unlike, say, Medicare for all, is very much subject to malign neglect. If the Congress can’t get rid of it, they can quickly make it odious to the people it is meant to help by simply not repairing it – and this is what is happening. So, not only did the call for political realism in 2009 not result in a bipartisan vote for the ACA – it resulted in a wounded half system that is very vulnerable to GOP shutdown, in ways that Medicare and the Social Security system is not.

What is funny about the whole 2009 debate is that the “political realist” commentariat were very very smug about what was “realistic” and what was not. It was like they knew all the answers. In fact, they generated that odor of certainty that hung around the Bushites in 2003 about the Iraq invasion – you’d have to be crazy to oppose a cakewalk and the obvious competence of an occupying force directed by the likes of Rumsfeld – who at the time was feted as a reforming genius at the Pentagon. Similarly, Obama’s administration was playing multi-dimensional chess on the ACA thing, and us carping mortals just didn’t understand.

Well, we understood. And if, as might happen, the Dems take over the House, I hope they understand that political realism is not pre-compromising your campaign promises – it is making the other side swallow them. The Ds of 1940, 1950 and 1965 understood this very well.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Overthrowing the CEO mystique: the robot boss

I’m a strong believer that the CEO space – that expensive, padded space that costs fortune 500 companies hundreds of millions per year – could be radically altered and made much less expensive by replacing CEOs with expert systems.
However, my faith in this program isn’t just based on the fact that generally, CEOs don’t provide much of an advantage to the firm – research consistently shows that CEOs who outperform do so in ways that undermine long term performance, and that the company often experiences crises and shock in the wake of CEO hotdogging, as the president of the company leaps to another post in another company. My faith is based in the improvement of expert systems.

A good study of the history of expert systems in law was published last year by Phillip Leith, who in the 90s was a strong critic of basing legal expert systems on Logical programming, under the ideological influence of Hart’s notion that the law can be reduced to rule-based behavior. It is a fascinating read. (The Rise and Fall of the Legal Expert System, in International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 2016 Vol. 30, No. 3 – for those who want to look it up), and not just because Hart’s theories were put to an unexpected empirical test – not something that often happens in philosophy. It is also because the problem in setting up an expert system in law – how to represent “contextual” knowledge – is also at stake in building a management expert system.

Leith has a nice ability to compress an argument down to its essentials. His summary of what was happening in the 80s and 90s in AI is very deft:

“A relatively simple idea underpins the notion of a legal expert system: that one can take rules of law, mould them into a computer-based formal system, and advice will come out the other end. It was not uncommon to hear funders of research projects in the 1980s assert that to build a legal expert system, one had two basic and essentially simple options:
translate legislation (‘the law’) into some formalism and add a software interpreting mechanism as a front end for the user;
take a group of experts off for a few days and get them to lay out the relevant rules of law which can then be moulded into a formalism by a non-expert and, once again, add the interpreting user interface.
It is as if Occam’s Razor has been applied to the whole confusing business of ‘what is law’ and we are left with an elegant core notion which can be implemented by technicians. The model is thus of a core of rules, and a logical interpreter which parallels legal advice giving. This, I argue, was partly hubristic but is also a relatively accurate description of the non-critical perspectives around law schools during that decade. In fact, such a perspective still demonstrates its attraction to the technician and research funder (The European JURIX community has continued to publish in this research spirit). The promise being made in the 1980s was that cheap, good quality advice would allow us to discard the need for expensive experts or leverage their productivity further than could the traditional ‘fee earner’ basis.”

Leith’s story is, in part, the story of the hyped futurism of the 90s. However, artificial intelligence and expert systems have certainly moved on, tackling just the procedural and representational problems he is talking about. No rule based computer system will take over the upper management position. The recent speech by the head of Alibabi in China, Jack Ma, who predicted that robots would take over from CEOs because they have no emotions, is precisely wrong. Jack Ma’s speech is, in fact, a back to the future creed that must have made AI folks groan.

In fact, unemotional robots would make suck CEOs. That is because emotions are not separate from intelligence, but integral to it – which is the reason that context based AI no longer seeks a Spock like program that “sees through” emotion. Let’s not go into the ethnography of emotions right now – that is a whole other chapter. The fact is that computers are very good at storing cases, segmenting case units according to some principle, surveying large numbers of cases, and establishing patterns. This is essential to representing context – which is not a matter of “logic” so much as a matter of structure. Emotion is great at structure. Realizing that the firm is a unit in which exchanges have to do with status seeking, emotional gratification or its delay, etc., is the necessary preliminary to replacing the CEO with the expert system.

There are a lot of researchers out there working on this. Yet, you read very few academic business profs writing about it. I wonder why? Could it be, uh, $$$$? The inflated status of the CEO was due to many things – the usual Marxist predicted decline of profit in the 70s, the new de-regulating atmosphere of the 80s, the success in overthrowing standards that had been built around the principle-agent problem, etc. But in order to gain public acceptance, business profs played an essential role in shilling for upper management, down to shilling for the absurd takeoff of upper management salaries. The justifications were byzantine, baroque, and resistant to reality. And the culture that this left behind, among economists and business profs, still remains with us, with the incentives really piling up for apologetic academic work – post facto justifications for enormous rent-seeking activities.
Thus, don’t expect IBM to put on-line some CEO Big Blue any time soon. But the theoretical ability to do so is already out there.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The birth of public opinion out of the death of the Little Tradition

In Engel’s introduction to his The Situation of Labor in England, he gives a brief history of the displacement of the old, ‘detached’ rural farming and artisan system brought about by the new system of industrial production:

“The felt comfortable in their quiet plant life, and would never, save for the Industrial revolution, have been taken out of this clearly very romantic-cosy, but yet, for humans, unworthy existence. They were not humans, but simply working machines in the service of the few aristocrats, which up until now have lead history. The Industrial Revolution has thus only carried through the consequence of this when it made the laborers completely into a mere machines and took away the last remnant of independent activity from under their hands; but in doing so drove them to thinking and to the claims of a human situation. What politics effected in France, in England was effected by industry and the movement of bourgeois society overall; it pulled the last classes to be mired in the apathy against universal human interests into the vortex of history.”

Engels had already explained to his readers in the foreword what he means by the bourgeois: 

“…I always used the word Middle Class in the sense of the English middle-class (or as it is almost always said, middle classes) where it means the same as with the French bourgeoisie the possessing class – the class, which in France and England directly, and in Germany as “public opinion” indirectly is in possession of state power.” 

That is a pretty fascinating definition of class, linking it both to economic power and the power of the state even if – in backwards Germany – that power is possessed not by representatives, but by ‘public opinion’. The latter – the power of public opinion – is what fascinates me about the conflicts between ‘freedom’ and ‘the emancipation of the working class’. What, after all, does it mean for the workers to be uprooted from shameful apathy and thrown into the ‘vortex of history’ where they could think about the claims of the human situation except that the working class would have, among other things, an opinion? 

This is the question that became very real to the generation of 1848 after the revolution failed. Herzen’s whole life has often been seen from the perspective of a before and after 1848 – he himself often wrote in those terms. Isaiah Berlin has noted that Herzen’s skepticism – about the people, and especially about progress – preceded the events of 1848. It is a shame that Berlin never really grappled with Lenin’s essay on Herzen, because Lenin makes an acute historical point:

Herzen's spiritual shipwreck, the profound scepticism and pessimism to which he fell prey after 1848, was the shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen's spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionariness of the bourgeois democracy was already passing away (in Europe), and the revolutionariness of the socialist proletariat had not yet ripened. This is something the Russian liberal knights of verbal incontinence, who are now trying to cover up their own counter-revolutionariness by florid phrases about Herzen's scepticism, have not understood and cannot understand. With these knights, who betrayed the Russian Revolution of 1905, and have even forgotten to think of the great calling of a revolutionary, scepticism is a form of transition from democracy to liberalism to that servile, vile, infamous and brutal liberalism which shot down the workers in 1848, restored shattered thrones, applauded Napoleon III and which Herzen cursed, unable to understand its class nature.

Lenin’s notion was that bourgeois skepticism targeted the supposed incapacity of the working class to enjoy the cultural gains of progress. Ripped from their apathy, as Engels puts it, their minds were concentrated by their conditions on the material facts of life, making them great sniffers out of the web of self interest that underlies the industrial system, but contemptuous of the culture of the rentiers of that system. In Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, this is exactly how Herzen is portrayed:

“Being proved wrong has made them [the revolutionaries] cocky. They’re more certain than ever that the people are natural republicans waiting to be lead out of bondage. But the people are more interested in potatoes than freedom. The people think equality means everyone should be oppressed equally. They love authority. They’re suspicious of talent. They want a government to govern for them and not against them. To govern themselves doesn’t enter their heads. We thought we could educate the people like a horse doctor blowing a pill into a horse. We thought we could set the pace for social change. The emperors did more than keep their thrones, they pushed our faces into the wreck of our belief in the revolutionary instincts of the people.”

The luster and luxury of disillusionment – it has a standing, in the cold war mythology, with the metanoia of Saul in sacred history, except that it is conversion to the God that failed. There is an impulse in Herzen, embodied especially in the middle dialog in From the other shore, between a doctor and his lady companion before the house in which Rousseau wrote... something, which is full of phrases about the precarious civilization of people such as him and her, in the face of the inscrutable masses. Yet Stoppard, oddly for a dramatist, misses the form that Herzen has chosen - dialogue. Of course, there are dialogues in which one viewpoint is clearly the right one, dialogues in which the other is a projection of an obstacle more than a point of view. But Herzen didn't write one of those. He wrote dialog not because he wanted to represent himself in one speaker who cleverly undoes another, but because he felt the clash in himself of views. This, actually, is the liberal intellectual’s highest form of skepticism – the refusal to pretend that the clash has an easy resolution. Like Engels and Marx, Herzen was definitely one of the Ultras in 1848 – and like those two, he wasn’t stupid about it. But he didn’t quite have Marx’s moderation – for Marx was strongly of the opinion that the task at hand was democratic government, at least in Germany and Austria. 

Stoppard’s picture of Herzen the sceptic is, as has been mentioned in many reviews, a bit too reliant on Berlin's picture of Herzen as the disenchanted liberal, kin to John Stuart Mill. Herzen doesn't see some elite, some cultured margin, as separate from and higher than the people and their potatoes. In reality, he was shrewder than this. In his letters to an old comrade [Bakunin] which have been used to make the case that Herzen turned to the right at the end - they were written in the late 1860s - he writes this:

“It is this pattern that the past, which we want now to leave behind, has followed. The forms, aspects, and rites have changed but the essence has remained the same. He who bowed his head before a Capuchin friar bearing a cross is no different from the man who bows his head to a court decision no matter how absurd it is.”

The man who bows his head to the court decision is, of course, the establishment liberal par excellence. He is bowing his head to his own system. It is only in seeing Herzen’s criticisms as total, directed not just at the people but at European society in general, that one understands how the sceptic and the revolutionary were joined.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Our dreams in Iraq come true!

The victory of Sadr's coalition in Iraq reminds me of, well, countless blogposts I writ with my own hand here during the reign of dumb and dumber that was Bush (now we have the re-run, evil and eviler, but it is on the same IQ level).

So I thought I'd just reprint a post from February 23, 2007. Cause it contains a bit of that old prophecy.
good news (again) in Iraq
As LI has said before, there is something curiously hollow about the Bush administration’s policy stated aim of victory in Iraq. On the one hand, we already won – you will remember the Saddam Hussein hanging. On the other hand, we are still there, fighting for something. Often, that something is simply conflated with “defeating Al Qaeda.” It is an interesting policy – one perhaps stemming from Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable - that seeks to protect the Iraqis from Al Qaeda while allowing Al Qaeda to regroup and party in Pakistan. Is this due to the saintliness of our president? Bravely trying to wrestle the control of the White House plane away from the pilot on 9/11/2001 so he could go mano a mano with the terrorist fiends, did Bush’s thoughts drift to the potential danger to the Iraqis – in Kirkuk, Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and all of those cities he had difficulty finding on a map – from an Al Qaeda that didn’t exactly exist in Iraq, but could, if America didn’t challenge them by inviting them in and then fighting them interminably.
Well, that’s our president. Even when he was knee high to a grasshopper, he was always in a sweat about Iraqis. Were they happy? Was their burning yearning for liberty being satisfied? Were there enough of them happily vacationing (in that funny way Iraqis vacation – they bring all their money, as many possessions as they can, and their families) in Jordan and Syria? Even then, he knew that when he grew up, he would protect them against the terrorists that he invited into their country and win a big victory and go down in history as one of our great presidents, like George Washington – except with better teeth.
Now that the British have started to withdraw from Basra, our Vice President has remarked that this is good news. This is all about success in Iraq. So now, at least, we can catch a glimpse of what victory means – what the Iraq of our dreams is going to look like. That’s why readers should go to Patrick Cockburn’s report in the Independent. It is a heady thing, victory, and this is what we are fighting for:
The British forces had a lesson in the dangers of provoking the heavily armed local population when six British military police were killed in Majar al-Kabir on 24 June 2003. During the uprising of Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004, British units were victorious in several bloody clashes in Amara, the capital of Maysan province.
But in the elections in January 2005, lauded by Mr Blair this week, Sciri became the largest party in Basra followed by Fadhila, followers of the Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada al-Sadr. The lat-ter’s supporters became the largest party in Maysan.
Mr Cordesman says the British suffered political defeat in the provincial elections of 2005, and lost at the military level in autumn of the same year when increased attacks meant they they could operate only through armoured patrols. Much-lauded military operations, such as “Corrode” in May 2006, did not alter the balance of forces.
Mr Cordesman’s gloomy conclusions about British defeat are confirmed by a study called “The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq” by Michael Knights and Ed Williams, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Comparing the original British ambitions with present reality the paper concludes that “instead of a stable, united, law-abiding region with a representative government and police primacy, the deep south is unstable, factionalised, lawless, ruled as a kleptocracy and subject to militia primacy”.
Local militias are often not only out of control of the Iraqi government, but of their supposed leaders in Baghdad. The big money earner for local factions is the diversion of oil and oil products, with the profits a continual source of rivalry and a cause of armed clashes. Mr Knights and Mr Williams say that control in the south is with a “well-armed political-criminal Mafiosi [who] have locked both the central government and the people out of power”.
The war’s supporters, of course, have reason to feel smug. Our long nightmare is over. As a people, Americans – rich and poor, black and white – have, for over a decade, been clamoring for an Iraq ruled by Sciri and Sadr. It is all that we talk about. Sometimes we entertain ourselves with a few celebrity deaths or haircuts, but here in the States – I’m writing this down so that readers overseas get a feel for the American reality – conversations about money, sex, jobs invariably drift to that dreamy moment when your average American says, I don’t care how much money it takes or how much blood, I want to see an Shi’a fundamentalism take control in Mesopotamia – it is a long held childhood dream, actually! Then Americans get all misty eyed, thinking about how they can die happy if only things go the right way in Kirkuk.
One thing you have to say about this country – we are willing to sacrifice any amount of Iraqi blood to make our dreams come true. It is the way we are. Morally superior to the rest of the world. Which is why GOD has promised us victory, damn it, and we are going to reach for it!

Monday, May 14, 2018

on shock

“The intentional correlate of living experience has not remained the same. In the nineteenth century it as “the adventure”.In our days it appears as Fate. In fate is hidden the concept of the ‘total living experience’ that is completely mortal. War is its unsurpassed prefiguration. (That I was born German, then I must die for it – the trauma of birth contains already the shock that is mortal. This coincidence defines Fate.”
“That which is “always the same thing” is not the event, but what is new in it, the shock that pertains to it.”
“Empathy comes about through a declic, a kind of gear shift. With it, the interior life erects a pendent to the shock of sense perception. (Empathy is alignment in the intimate sense).” [My own translations]
I take these three comments about shock from Benjamin’s Arcades book. Like so many of Benjamin’s sentences and phrases, they carry a systematic hint, although the system into which they would fit was never constructed. To that extent, they also carry a certain glamour, the glamour of fragments that indicate some fuller but lost revelation. Like the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, one wants to remove the eclipse, find the complete transcript, read the denser text out of which they were seemingly scooped. But in Benjamin’s case, the fragment reproves the desire that everything can be told, that there be some total confession that correlates to the total systems that were in play as he wrote, that the denser text is anything other than an excuse fit for conformists by which is lulled to sleep our sense of an ongoing emergency. As we know, one of those total systems drove him to suicide. Which is another way of eternalizing the fragment.
The Arcades work does not develop the notion of shock the way it develops other themes, such as fashion. Yet, in a sense, it was at the center of these themes, for at the center of the project was Baudelaire, who, Benjamin claimed, based his aesthetic practice on shock. Or based his modernity, his modernism, on shock, and in so doing incorporated it into the genetic structure of modernism. That shock comes up in different disciplines, and constitutes an image in different ways in modernity was to an extent oddly neglected in the Arcades work, which otherwise has a very shrewd dialectical-materialist take on lighting, clothing, urban planning, etc., all passages to the burrow, or rather, passages that make up the burrow of the poetry.
In as much as Benjamin’s view of shock encodes an inability to decide between mechanical movement and animal stimulus, it bears the impress of a certain pre-modern disposition. That is, it bears the element of the invasion of haptic space by the first mass medias. It reflects the Productivist regime of the first half of the 19th, when life crossed with electricity and the crowd was the physical infrastructure of industry and the revolution. But if we take our cue from Gabriel Tarde, the French sociologist of the late 19th century, shock, in the second half of the nineteenth century, is a second degree phenomenon. The crowd becomes merely one extension of the larger public (it is remembered as a sort of phantom limb), and that public receives its shock through the ever more penetrating environment of the visual and press medias. Shock emerges from mechanical collision into the regime of stimulus, which is the way it forms the modern moment, or present. Shock was not only a poetic tool, but a tabloid style. The speed graphic camera of the 1930s, the blinding flare of which became an icon for the sensational story, the shocking event, is an exteriorization of the kind of shock that joined together the animal crowd and the sensation ‘seeking’ public (which is actually sought out, rather than seeking – this is the trick of the media), haptic space and the wired in multitude:
“The flash does far more than merely aid in exposing the negative. Intruding into the cover provided by night or darkness, its scorching light transforms both the space and figures trapped in its glare. Subject matter is vignetted and figures and ground are flattened and abstracted. While flashed compositions have the stark look of a woodcut, it is the faces of the photographer’s subjects that are most affected by the bulb’s blaze. With skin flashed to white as if powdered, mouths locked into grimaces and eyes both black as troughs and glinting like glass, subjects suffer a loss of humanity: faces freeze into crystal masks and individuals metamorphose into freakish ghouls.” [Hauptman, 1998]
Weegee’s flashbulb is the equivalent of the rapid sketching, or caricature, in which Baudelaire saw the lineaments of heroism in modern life. Speed frozen – such is the temporal coordinate towards which the simultaneity of life under capitalism directed itself

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Bad action stems from blinding the imagination: the case of American foreign policy

What would American history look like if the Republican party had been banned in the U.S. in the 1970s, its leaders jailed, or hunted down by the police? What would it look like if certain of them had been tortured or died?
Well, it would look a hell of a lot different.
This is why events like military seizures of power, or CIA supported coups, have had such a devastating effect on the histories of multititudinous countries. The suppression of a political party, or the banning of an ideology, can have major effects. Even after “democratic” procedures are re-applied, the swerve taken by a country, what is allowable, contains a limit, an internal place that can’t be trespassed.
I was catching up with the NYRBs lately – too much to read, the info just floods in! – and I came across a review of a Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Countryhttps://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=thneyoreofbo-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0374280045. Hansen expatriated to Turkey in the 00s, leaving Bush’s country behind. Gradually she began to see that American foreign policy had left a lot of damage around, for instance in Turkey. For the NYTR critic, a little of this was too much  - it was like “heavy-handed” Noam Chomsky – and he thinks he has a killer argument:
“A more pervasive problem concerns the way Hansen presents people living under American influence in countries such as Turkey. They are not as victimized as Hansen wants us to believe. In every free election held in Turkey since 1950, Turks have elected the party that offers an American-style modernizing agenda that combines capitalist and religious freedoms, even though they are well aware of American intervention during the cold war. Turkey’s Communists and Marxists (many of whom were jailed and killed in the 1970s and 1980s) may have the moral high ground in their critiques of American imperialism, but there is little popular support for them, at least at the ballot box.
The pervasive problem with this paragraph is, of course, that you don’t hold a free election now and then and think, wow, we’ve really surveyed the popular will! If Ronald Reagan had been jailed and killed in the 1970s, to use my example above, he would certainly not have been the people’s choice in 1980. (I’m not going into whether the modernizing agenda chosen by Turkey was American-style or Kemalist – the description of what the ruling parties did in Turkey is at some variance with what we know about the pressure exerted on Turkey after the cold war to privatize and induce what Naomi Klein justly calls the “Shock Doctrine”).
This paragraph, to me, has a value that exceeds its place in a passing review: it really represents the blind spot of the foreign policy consensus in America, the contradiction between the imperialist enterprise and the democratic claim. It is one of the reasons that the #resistance to Trump has fallen back on the most absurd Cold War rhetoric: the “sides” in American foreign policy are all about how America should express its aggression, not whether it should express its aggression.
That can’t go on forever.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

let's all piss on 'craft'

Back in the 1920s, the avant gardes, radicalized by the Russian revolution, explored the concept of the author as producer. This was a response to varied changes in the cultural industrial landscape, from the growth of newspapers and magazines to the coming of radio and film, in the light of a somewhat Marxist theory of economic development. Brecht, for instance, began to explore writing theater collectively. The surrealists briefly explored automatic writing. Skhlovsky and the Russian formalists became interested in skaz, or orality in the story.

And then there was England, and a guy named Percy Lubbock. Who was not at all interested in writing as a product manufactured  under the framework of capitalism. He was, in a gesture that referenced the 19th century reaction to industrialism, interested in “craft”.  The writer as the proprietor of an atelier, not as a worker in the factory of language – that is the image.

Lubbock’s book, The Craft of Fiction, gifted us with that image and sign of this ye olde tweediness. Actually, I don’t want to be too hard on Lubbock – it isn’t a bad book. But it is a book that utterly skips modernism. All of which is encoded in that horrible word, “craft”.

We live in a vast world of bogus words – we train people up to create and distribute them, and we call them marketers. Marketers play a valuable Keynesian function, getting us all to purchase things we don’t need and might not even want, in a constant flow of purchase, work, and credit. The word craft applied to fiction, or to beer, or to cheese, etc., bears the marketer’s impress: it is a bogus descriptor from the topimus to the bottomus.  That writers take up the cross of that bogosity and actually write about the “craft” of fiction, or poetry, or whatever, always makes my heart sink, since we begin by stripping away the critical moment and retire into Hobbitland, from whence we make up “rules” and have ourselves a very good, ye olde time. Marketing, manufacture, production on different scales, all these are ways of getting to the social causes and effects of literature, or cheese, and lead us much more interestingly to the existential substructure.

So this is my plea to writers out there: let’s all piss on craft.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

jordan peterson and other tinpot gurus of the Trump age

Wendy Kaminer’s 1993 book, I’m dysfunctional You’re dysfunctional, pointed to the way that the “personal development” movement was inherently political. She was not just following through on the feminist slogan, the personal is the political, but she was anchoring it in a long American tradition.
“(My first working subtitle was "Self-Help and the Selling of Authority.") While American mythology celebrates the common sense of Frank Capra's common man, the  American reality, reflected in the perversely named self-help industry is marked by a tendency to put our faith in experts. What sells self-help books, tapes, and workshops is the willingness to believe that there are experts who can help us achieve the good life, however it is defined at the moment; existential problems are reduced to merely technical ones, which can be solved by expert techniques.”
Shrewdly, she saw how this drew people – I would guess, mainly men – to Ross Perot in 1992. The persona he crafted was, in hindsight, something that was bound to find another figure eventually. This figure was, of course, Donald Trump. I actually don’t think Perot was disgusting, the way Trump is, but both Perot and Trump were fundamentally salesmen. Salesmen are not experts, but they use expertise as a gimmick. Hence, Trump’s famous relationship to “deals”, even though there is little evidence that he is actually very good at deals.
During the George Bush years, masculine self-help was monopolized by Straussians, who, whilst having a firm view of what men were (they were fighter pilots like George Bush!), didn’t really grasp the self-help market. Perhaps the most typical of the reactionary semi-self-help books from that decade was one that pretended to be a kind of philosophy – Harvey Mansfield’s ‘Manliness’ – and one that presented Bush as the John Wayne of our time – Fred Barnes’ ‘Rebel in Chief’.  Ten years on, a sort of synthesis has been manufactured by Jordan Peterson, the rather cracked guru of Alt-right lost boys. Strauss has lost his flair, or whatever flair he had, and the new flavour is Jung, with a dash of racism and mucho misogyny.
I ran into some of Peterson’s lost boys on twitter. One recommended that I listen to Peterson’s videos. I was a little dumbstruck by that – the man said Peterson had “turned his life around”, and what he meant is that he watched YouTube? I mean, read a book. But then I thought that this is something very much in what James C. Scott calls the little tradition – the resistance to literacy, and to the centralizing administrators of the big tradition, for whom literacy is power. The lost boys no doubt went to school, learned to read, and even learned to twitter, but in doing so they lost the anchor of the masculine voice – and it is the male voice as much as the penis that has psychoanalytical value here. The authority of that voice is crucial to the transference that is both sought and feared, since it seems to suddenly cast into recognizable form the random features of drifting lives in late capitalism.

Wendy Kaminer, by the way, has moved onward and rightward herself. In her critique of victimization she has forgotten that to say that there are no victims is as crazy as saying we are all victims. Her recent essay on why Monica Lewinsky is no victim, but is a prime case of #metoo overkill, works within the framework of methodological individualism to concentrate everything on whether Lewinsky gave her consent to sex or not. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you can just bracket the institution, the rules of the organization, and the power those rules express, victims disappear. Once you re-introduce, say, common sense, you then have to deal with the consequences of an office in which the most powerful person – the president – likes quite visibly to ogle women, has an affair with an intern twenty some years older than him, and has people who want to make trouble about that – for instance, the fiendish Linda Tripp – transferred. In this office atmosphere, women are disadvantaged in all the classical ways. That means that, as a class, they are discriminated against. Which is why even consensual “hanky panky” can soon poison the office atmosphere. Kaminer’s failure to see this, or rather, her willingness to impose a framework in which this is rendered invisible, is why she ends up being quoted with approval by ginks like Jonathan Chait.

“Responsibility” quickly becomes an establishment copout. It is the way the establishment keeps itself going. It sucks.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Marx and the Amazon Hooligans

Myself, I decided to read Marx’s lesser read journalism on the Paris commune. Although innumerable rightwing tweets have gone after Marx for Stalin, in reality, Stalin was born after Marx was dead. Marx made a very clear political record for himself. That record is a record of responses to the horrors of the 19th century. Those are horrors that Cold War liberalism (of which conservatism is a variant) did not want to examine. Instead, the Cold Warriors approved a history in which native peoples “vanished”, and in which the pomp and panoply of the British Raj became the scene for many a BBC and PBS series – while the eleven million people who had starved to death in India, by 1911 (quoting the 10th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica), were ushered off stage. Too bad! If you want to know what preceded Dachau, you should look in Mike Davis’s Victorian Holocaust. Imagine a famine in which hundreds of thousands are dying, and the government response is to send troops out to the countryside to collect their taxes. This happened. Imagine a labor camp where the daily release of food contained as many calories as … well, at Dachau. This happened. We know what Marx thought about labor camps, slavery, and the “vanishing” native people because he actually wrote about them. He was, let us say, against it.

In any case, on to the Commune, about which I am reading. Here’s another witness: Camille Mendés, a sensitive sort, a poet, who remained in Paris during the Commune and wrote a book about his experience there, entitled: Les 73 journées de la Commune. I can’t believe the echo of Sade is wholly absent from that book. 

Anyway, Camille was able to observe that thing which shocked the respectable in the 1870s, the amazons-voyous – amazon hoodlums. Women from the working class armed themselves and fought alongside another communard. Mendés compares them to the famouse tricoteuses – the women who knitted while the guillotines fell. Except these were cantinieres – cafeteria workers. Waitresses, you might say. Never underestimate the waitresses!

‘There was not enough men with holes poked in them by bullets or cut up by the machine gun. A strange enthusiasm took hold of the women in their turn, and thus they fell on the field of battle as well, victims of an execrable heroism. Who were these extraordinary beings, who abandoned the household broom and the working woman’s needle for the cartridge? who abandoned their children to go to be killed by the side of their lovers or husbands? Amazon hoodlums magnificent and abject, they held their own with Penthesilia or Theroigne de Mericourt. One saw them pass, carrying canteens, amongst those going into combat; the men are furious, the women are ferocious, nothing moves them, nothing discourages them. A Neuilly, a food and drink seller, wounded in the head, had her wound bandaged and returned to take up her combat post. Another, of the 61st bataillon, bragged of having killed a score of police and three guardians of the peace. At Chatillon, a woman, remaining with a group of national guardsmen, charged her rifle, fired and recharged without ceasing; she was the last to retreat, turning around at every instant to return fire. The woman who dispensed food in the 68th bataillon fell, killed by a mortar blast which broke her ladle and projected it in pieces into her stomach. … Thus, what is the furor that has carried off these furies? Do they know what they are doing, do they understand why they are dying? Yesterday, in a boutique, rue de Montreuil, a woman enters, rifle on her shoulder, blood on the bayonet – shouldn’t you be home cleaning the faces of your brats? said a peaceful bourgeois. A furious altercation broke out; the virago was so carried away that she leaped on her adversary, bit him violently on the neck, then, falling back a few paces, grasped her rifle and was going to fire when suddenly she grew horribly pale, let fall her arm, and collapsed; she was dead, the anger had caused an aneurism to rupture. Such are, at this hour, the women of the people.”

Marx of course supported the Amazon hooligans.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

the myth of strong leadership

The ghosts of my tv watching youth drift through Youtube (downloaded by an ever nostalgic cohort of boomers) and are channeled through Adam’s video preferences. Thus, Charlie Brown tv specials have suddenly resurrected themselves in my life’s path, the catchy tune, the World War I flying ace, the security blanket, those voices – Lucy’s spectrum between cattily flirtatious to Charlie Brown’s clear as tapwater voice of reasoning and despair.
In one of these things, Charlie Brown goes to summer camp. He lists his hopes for summer camp, and they include “learning leadership skills”.

Ah, leadership! The ethos of my cub scout troop, the unexamined virtue we were all taught to revere: there was no merit badge for dissent, that’s for sure. Leadership skills were amply rewarded, or at least verbally praised.
In today’s Le Monde there is an interview with a political philosopher, who was asked to comment about a recent speech by Sarkozy in which he remarked that democracy destroys leadership. The response was along the lines of democracy is good! But – to quote a Flannery O’Connor character – that don’t satisfy me none. It is not that Sarkozy is making a deep point – he is a shallow man, and his points will always be shallow. This one just expresses that long longing for a strong tinpot dictator that has always moved the French right, whether for Boulanger in the 1880s or Poujade in the 1950s.
But the point can be deepened. The argument would go like this: when the foundations of democracy were laid, in the 18th century, the model was the ancient Roman Republic. That Republic was a colonialist, warmongering and slaveholding polity, and its most characteristic leaders were military men. This model of Republican virtue was translated into the early democratic view of leadership. The leader was strong. He – always he – unified the nation in the way a general unifies an army. In this view, then, the voice of the governed was really about finding that strong leader, and following.
Yet the idea that the governed rule, in some way, does come into conflict with the idea of the strong leader. There is a tension there that has not been resolved; instead, it has been sublimated or wished away. Meanwhile, the cultural life of this proto-fascist vision of leadership is all around us, from cub scouts to business inspirational meetings. Division and dissent is bad. Bipartisanship, meaning conformity to some leadership policy, is a virtue.
If one discards this model, what is left? What would a real democratic form of leadership look like?
This is a good question to ask now, as the democratic moment – which I would define as that moment that gathered force with women’s suffrage, pulsed through the fifties and sixties with various civil rights movements and class based organizations, and started going into decline in the 80s – wanes. I suspect the demi-democracies before the mid-twentieth century and the plutocracies that have been thrust on us now relied on a notion of leadership that was, really, counter to the democratic impulse – that was connected, very much, with the subordination of women, class hierarchy, racism, and homophobia. And in spite of the achievements of dismantling these counter-democratic patterns, we still have a Pavlovian response to “strong leadership”.
I never got a merit badge in leadership. But I was always a smartass, anyway.
In other words: learn to dissent, Charlie Brown!

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Remember remember

There is a tendency among historians to think that “great” presidents are those who succeeded and who influenced their successors. What they don’t consider is the possibility of a president with enormous influence who also enormously failed. This is because historians believe that American history has an auto-correct embedded in it.
The twenty-first century is upending these assumptions. Surely the most influential president of this century was George Bush. And surely he was the most miserable, rotten, corrupt, lying, failure we have yet seen in the presidency, and I am including the present sexual assaulter.
In fact, although few people seem to have noticed, the Trump administration is modeled almost pathetically on the Bush administration. When the Bushes came in, what was the first order of business? To undo everything that the Clintons had done. This included, by the way, the information and practice of anti-terrorism, which had concentrated on Al Qaeda. Of course, Al Qaeda wasn’t on the headlines of the ever lagging press – if you look back at the debate between Bush and Gore on foreign policy in 2000, you will notice not one question about Al qaeda, which had at that point blown up a U.S. embassy and been ineffectually bombed by Clinton. But inside the White House, from all accounts, remnants of the Clinton era were trying to alert Bush appointees to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda. Those appointees turned a big thumbs down on this business. It was a combination of disdain for anything Clinton and love for anything Saudi. As we know, when the CIA told Bush that al qaeda was planning a big attack on the U.S. in August of 2001, Bush told the CIA to suck eggs. He was that kind of nincompoop.
Second order of business for the Bushies was getting rid of Clinton’s taxes on the wealthy. To do this, the Bush’s cut taxes enormously for the wealthy and hardly at all for the non-wealthy.
Then, of course, everything fell to hell for Bush when the CIA’s prediction came true. He was rescued by the press, which rolled out the usual imperial excuses, and the Democrats, who felt it was their patriotic duty to make sure that the nation continued to be run by an incompetent. I mean, otherwise, there would be investigations, partisanship and who knows what divides in the country’s fabric! The Dems were happy anyway: they’d help abolish regulations on the financial industry under Clinton, they’d reformed welfare to make sure that in downturns, poor people would starve, and they’d messed up single payer health care so badly that it wasn’t even an issue.
After 9/11, of course, there was the commencement of a war in Afghanistan that still hasn’t stopped, pursued with exemplary incompetence. There was the escape of Osama bin Laden on a pony to our ally, Pakistan (who’d been financing him), which we pretended not to see – Osama turned out to be a very valuable threat, an election ploy, but not somebody we wanted to offend the Saudis and Pakistanis by actually “getting”. There were the lies that led to Iraq being occupied. There were the lies that led to Cheney’s office basically attacking the CIA. There was the second mortgage boom, the zero interest mortgage boom, the boom boom boom of credit profiles that made it the case that the average household owed more than its assets by 2007, there was the systematic slimery of the 2002 election, and there was the final boom of the economy as Bush stood by, in his usual suppressed panic mode. Oh, I forgot New Orleans drowning. And of course the day to day mendacity, racism, fundamentalism, and use of lying and stupidity.
If ever the policies of a president deserved to be overturned, it was Bush’s policies. But alas, he was opposed by Democrats. So when Obama came into office, mildness and bi-partisanship became the keywords. It suddenly became all important to have Republicans sign on for any policy that was to be passed. Obama became prematurely concerned with a deficit that was faulty only because it wasn’t big enough to bring the U.S. out of its slump in a faster fashion, with more drippings for the majority of peeps, and less drippings for the uber-wealthy. We all became more unequal, the justice system continued to rot, and the U.S. out of the badness of its heart involved itself in Libya, Yemen and Syria, all to no good end.
Bushism, in other word, endured.
Trump is a nightmare, but he is much too lazy to be anyway near as bad, as malign, as George Bush. But forgive and forget, right? Now polls show even Dems, always on the lookout for a good Daddy GOP-er, have favorable opinions about Bush.
No memory, no future. That seems to be the 21st century’s big motto.