Saturday, October 13, 2001

Today we have some comments on my post Friday by Alan. There's a NYT article by Robert Worth
The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror which I'd also like to juxtapose to Alan's reply.

Alan replies to yesterday's post! At last, dialogue! I'll make a comment on this comment later. I've also included some further links at the end.


I think you missed the boat on this one.

"It also seems to be true . . . the putting down of Pure Land

--Yes, but these aren't religions of the Book. They do have
their sacred texts -- scads of them -- but those texts aren't
nearly as central to those religious traditions as their
respective scriptures are to the Big Three monotheisms.
-- The religious traditions of East Asia that you mention do have
blood on their hands, but much less of it than do the religions
of Europe/North Africa/Central Asia.
-- You haven't shown that such violence as they have committed is
in any way tied to the content of their sacred texts, which is
RDC's charge against Islam; to my knowledge their is no such
relationship (and very little violence in those texts).

"Fundamentalism, as a literal and nonhistoric approach to
religious scripture . . . Wow. The man seems to have misplaced
1400-1800 some years of Western history. I guess he feels like
the fundamentalism thing gets him off the hook[.]"

RDC's case here would be stronger if he elaborated on the
extension of the term fundamentalism as he defines it here.
Nonetheless, he's basically on the mark: fundamentalism, as
scholars use the term, is a phenomenon that began in the late
19th century. A "nonhistoric approach to religious scripture"
can only be formulated after fully historical approaches to
religious scripture have been developed -- source criticism and
form criticism and that sort of thing. Fundamentalism was and
is, among other things, a reaction to these trends. You may
consider this too narrow a definition of fundamentalism, and
certainly there were fundamentalist-like tendencies earlier in
church history. However, it was not and could not have been
there from the beginning. It requires, for example, fairly
widespread lay literacy. When you extend the notion of
fundamentalism to Islam, the picture is complicated further; but
the point is that fundamentalism is not simply a synonym for
primitive or dogmatic religion, or for religious bigotry.

So yes, I think the fundamentalism thing does get 1400-1800 years
of Western history off on a techicality, only it's a more
important technicality than you realize.

"And surely the extermination of almost all native peoples, as a
program of the European-Native encounter, justified throughout
its history with multitudinous reference to scripture, was a mere
flyspeck on the vision of the Weltgeist, surely."

The conquistadores were not reading their marching orders
straight out of the Old Testament. As you know, the theological
justification for the Roman Catholic part in the
conquista/conversion/genocide came from a complex mix of
scholastic theology, canon law, and whatnot; and at times there
were interventions on the side of the indigenous peoples (cf.
Bartolome de Las Casas.) Fundamentalism that wasn't. The term
is, arguably, more applicable to, e.g., our genocidal antepasados
here in Texas; but I'll deal with that point after I've discussed
the nature of the Qur'an as divine revelation.

". . . perhaps we should look at the gentle texts from the
"quasihistorical Age of the Patriarchs". Our reading today will
be from selected old Testament books. "

A pedantic quibble here: The Age of the Patriarchs extends only
to the time of the Covenant with Moses at Sinai, recounted in the
Book of Exodus, and hence none of the texts you cite are,
strictly speaking, from the Age of the Patriarchs.

But more important: One thing that immediately strikes the
Western reader (i.e., me) about the Qur'an is that, unlike the
Christian Bible, it's all of a piece. What happened is that
Mohammed would go out into the desert to meditate. One day he
started hearing voices. He came back into Mecca and told people
what he was hearing. They said, "It's the voice of God." He
kept on listening, and telling people what he heard. They
remembered it, and wrote it down. God was pretty direct and to
the point. This is the way things are. Do this, and you'll be
happy. Don't do this, or you'll be sorry.

And that's the Qur'an. It's not a miscellany of every
conceivable kind of document produced over a thousand-year
period. No archaic histories emerging out of oral tradition. No
long passages of "Jehosaphat begat Jedadiah". No Songs of
Solomon that snuck in past the censors to embarrass future
generations of prudes. No
None of the ravings of a John of Patmos.

RDC is correct when he says (in the complete article), "The Quran
is a notoriously difficult text to understand in some ways. For
one thing, it lacks almost any sense of context: Verses are
addressed to mysterious Yous and Theys from an equally mysterious
We." This remark highlights one of its differences from the Old
Testament, where the context within a historical narrative is
generally very clear. Now, I suggest that when an utterance is
made in the second person directed to a nonspecific You, when the
content of that utterance makes it possible to take the utterance
to be of universal applicability, (applicable to all people in
all places and at all times, or at all times subsequent to the
time of the utterance), that is a natural way to interpret the
utterance. And so those utterances have been interpreted in the
Islamic tradition. On the other hand, when an utterance is
reported in the third person, in the course of a narrative of
events quite remote in time and space, it takes a good bit of
contortion to interpret that utterance as of universal

The relevance of all this to our discussion? Two things. First,
when you ask,

"I mean, who takes Judges literally?"

Let's consider again the hypothetical Anglo in Texas in the
1800's opening his Bible and reading "Now go and smite Amalek,
and spare them not; but slay both men and women," and deciding
that Jehovah's instructions to the Israelites a few millenia ago
were directly applicable his own relations with his Kiowa
neighbors. How someone can read it that way, as I suppose has
been done all too frequently, is beyond my imagination; but you
can't call it a "literal" reading. Even if you ignore the
context in a historical narrative, there's that pesky word
"Amalek," which is a proper noun, denoting a particular group of
persons who ain't around any more. It takes quite a bit of
sophisticated hermeneutics to conclude that anything that God may
have said about them should be applied to the Kiowas. (Unless,
of course, you already know what conclusion you want to come

But the Qur'an isn't like that. Not only does the context-free,
second-person form of its injunctions give them every appearance
of being intended as universal commandments, but there are no
bothersome questions about whether the Kiowas ought to be treated
like the Amalekites were treated. The word is "infidels", which
clearly includes you and me, and all those who reject God's
revelation to his Prophet Mohammed.

Second, and more important: I suggest that your attempt to refute
RDC's claim about the centrality of war in the Qur'an with these
citations from the Old Testament fails, because, given the nature
of the Qur'anic revelation, the entire Qur'an is central to Islam
in a way that (no one in her right mind thinks that) everything
in the Bible is central to Christianity. Imagine a Christian
being handed a Bible asked, "OK, where's the meat? If I've only
got time to read a small part of this thing to get the most
important ideas, what should I read?" The Christian might
recommend the Sermon on the Mount, the Passion of Christ, perhaps
some of the letters of Paul; but no one, I venture to say, would
point to Judges 21 or 1st Samuel. Whereas it's quite plausible
for the Muslim to say, "All of the Qur'an is equally important;
it's all the Word of God." So matching quotation for quotation
misses the point.

"This development of the religious community outside of the halls
of political power gives both Judaism and Christianity the
flexibility to adapt to the secular concept of the separation of
church and state[.]"

I agree that RDC is on very shaky ground here. In the Christian
case, I'd attribute the alleged flexibility (although there's
probably a better word) more to the fact that neither of the men
you might call the founders of the religion, Jesus and St. Paul,
founded political states, whereas Mohammed did.

Re Judaism, about which neither of us have said very much (in my
case because I don't know very much): I think RDC is right about
the nonpolitical nature of Diaspora (rabbinical) Judaism. Temple
Judaism is another matter, and to the extend that certain
Orthodox sects may be attempting to reinstate it in Jerusalem,
they're clearly a destructive force in contemporary Palestine.
But I don't know what I'm talking about here.

BTW, apparently James Carroll makes the counterargument to RDC's
in Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: " Carroll
proceeds according to a straightforward thesis: In the aftermath
of Constantine's conversion (AD 312), the church became an organ
of the Roman state, and as a consequence, its integrity was
irreversibly compromised." (Erik Tarloff, writing in Slate last

" Briefly, the question of how tolerance . . . Christianity as a
political force."

The question will depend to a degree on how you define
"tolerance": I would argue that there are important differences
between, say, the view currently hegemonic in the West that
religious beliefs are entirely a matter of private conviction,
and the quite different view, found at many times in European
history, that belief cannot be compelled. The former is, as you
indicate, the aftermath of Europe's exhaustion from its
fratricidal religious wars. But the point is that, after
Protestants and Catholics had killed each other in sufficient
numbers for enough centuries that they got good and sick of it,
there was enough doctrinal room in Christianity for them to work
out a modus vivendi, a new understanding of the relationship
between secular and religious authority, between the public and
the private, so that they no longer felt a need to kill each
other, and yet they still considered themselves believers. By
extension, this new-found tolerance caused them to lose the urge
to kill, or ( in many, but still too few, cases) even to convert
nonChristians. It's not the place of a nonMuslim to say whether
or not similar room exists in the Islamic tradition, but I take
RDC's point to be (and I say this in the light of my own
preliminary and uninformed reading) it's hard to see where it
could be found.

"There is an . . . ignorance armed with a diploma."

First, I agree that "Why do they hate us?" is a stupid question.
There are a whole lot of "they"s who hate us for a whole lot of
different reasons (not to mention the problems with the referent
of the "us"). But to the point: RDC teaches history of
religion. I suggest that your gripe is not with him or with the
way he teaches his subject, as with the discipline itself; you
think that he would present a more accurate picture of history if
he taught not History of Religion but History of Everything Ever
Justified in the Name of Religion. The conquistadores, Cromwell,
and the Croatian bishops were all mass murderers, but if you
think that their crimes deserve a central place in the history of
the particular human phenomenon known as "religion" -- well,
let's just say I think the burden of the argument is on you.

Love & peace,


For a modern justification of those Judge's quotes, see the Rationalchristianity site.

A good link to a Net argument about the posting of John Chrysostom Homilies Against the Jews (or Judaizers), in which the conversation twists around the context of apparently anti-semitic language. There's a website devoted to the golden tongued John - .

A good link to a Southern Baptist dissenter from the Southern Baptist Convention's most recent pronouncement on the cosmic place of women.

Here's a nice link to the relationship of the Ottomans and the Jews, from the 14th century up to the 1881, when the Sultan officially pronounced against the blood libel story -- that Jews killed little Christian boys and used their blood in some satanic ceremony. A story, by the way, that the Russian Czar believed and the Pope, at that time, was unwilling to condemn.

Finally, here's a link to a book by Bat Ye'or on Islam and non-Islamic people. . There is also a preface to the book, online, from Jacques Ellul. I haven't read the book, but the intro makes it pretty evident that this book is going to deal harshly with Islam. Bat Ye'or interprets dhimmi, or the Islamic pact with non-Islamic people, in the light of the obligation to fight -- jihad. Also, the Serbian-Bosnian conflict is obviously in the background of Ellul's essay.

Friday, October 12, 2001


A friend sent me this article from Salon. Since I don't pay for the premium articles, I was unaware of it. But reading it has made me feel, for a moment, positively Voltarian:

Islam: Religion of the sword?
Unlike Christianity or Judaism, Islam's religious history is inseparable from its conquests -- which is why the concept of holy war lives on today.

A certain Richard D. Connerney wrote it. He is credited with teaching religion at Iona College. What can one say? His students are obviously being fed a mixture of bigotry and error, poor guys. Connerney has an at best vague acquaintance with the history of religion. But he is eager to show it off, nonetheless.

The point of his article seems to be that Islam, being a religion of the book, is tied to the violent message within that book. That seems fair enough. It also seems to be true of almost all religions that have achieved political status. I don't know enough about the internicene disputes between the Daoists and the Buddhists in Imperial China, but I have no doubt I would find monks and advisors to one emperor or the other legitimating persecution, torture, expropriation of property, and murder. You can find this, also, in Japanese history, especially in the putting down of Pure Land Buddhism.
But this doesn't worry Mister Connerney. In fact, after pointing out how often the Qu'ran uses the word war, he gives us this astonishing piece of information:

"Fundamentalism, as a literal and nonhistoric approach to religious scripture, exists in every tradition, but only in Islam does it go hand in hand with widespread violence. Yes, Southern preachers occassionally get carried away, and yes, Hindu fundamentalists cause intermittent communal violence in the Deccan subcontinent. Neither of these two fundamentalisms, however, has produced the same types of problems as Islam. It is not Hindu fundamentalists or Southern Baptists that generally become international terrorists. What is the difference then between Islam and other wo! rld faiths? Is there something inherent in the history and texts of the religion that lead to this behavior? I think that there is."

Wow. The man seems to have misplaced 1400-1800 some years of Western history. I guess he feels like the fundamentalism thing gets him off the hook -- after all, if the Croatian bishopry, in World War II, felt it could bless the extermination of some 500,000 Serbians because they were Eastern Orthodox, that isn't exactly Southern Baptist fundamentalism. That Southern Baptists are "Southern" because of a certain unpleasant racial thing (you know, slavery and all) seems also to have escaped his attention. And surely the extermination of almost all native peoples, as a program of the European-Native encounter, justified throughout its history with multitudinous ireference to scripture, was a mere flyspeck on the vision of the Weltgeist, surely. I mean, who takes Judges literally?

People who have inherited the gains of past generations have an understandable temptation to blur the process by which those gains were made. But one thinks that a professor of religion would have poked around, perhaps, in the history of the religion. Connerney's potted history is really quite amusing to read:

"This [Islamic bellicosity] is in distinction from Judaism and Christianity, in which the religious community both predates and postdates the existence of a Jewish or Christian political state. Judaism already exists as a faith in the quasihistorical Age of the Patriarchs (circa 2000-1300 B.C.) before the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, and Judaism continues to exist and develop as a religious community after the Babylonian Captivity, the Roman occupation, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and throughout the Diaspora up to the year 1948. In a similar way Christianity, self-consciously apolitical in its origin, exists for centuries in a Roman/pagan context until the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. This development of the religious community outside of the halls of political power gives both Judaism and Christianity the flexibility to adapt to the secular concept of the separation of church and state that come out of the Enlightenment, and to embrace ideas of modernity and sec! ular civil society. Put simply, neither faith requires the existence of a theocratic state to function fully as a religion because both their origins and endpoints exist above and beyond concerns of statehood. Not so with Islam."

Since Connerney devotes some part of his article to explicating the centrality of war in the Qu'ran, perhaps we should look at the gentle texts from the "quasihistorical Age of the Patriarchs". Our reading today will be from selected old Testament books.

The tone is set in Joshua, but I'm not going to be tedious. Here's a typical bit of the Lord's advice in Judges 21.

"For the people were numbered, and, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Ja'besh�gil'e-ad there.

10 And the congregation sent thither twelve thousand men of the valiantest, and commanded them, saying, Go and smite the inhabitants of Ja'besh�gil'e-ad with the edge of the sword, with the women and the children.

11 And this is the thing that ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man.

And here the Lord is, again, in 1 Samuel:
2. "Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Am'alek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Ex. 17.8-14 � Deut. 25.17-19

3 Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
Now the Lord's advice here - which is reminiscent, is it not, of Eichmann? Or your average Einsatzkommando unit commander - folds into an interesting story. For the Lord here is talking to Saul. Saul, unfortunately, fails the Lord. He fails, that is, to commit genocide.

9. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.

10 � Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,

11 It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.

The Lord's complaint has echoed down the centuries. How many soldiers have been commanded to utterly destroy a people and a place and have been miserably bought off with the best of the sheep, so to speak? This is known as not looking at the mission as a whole. This is known as not having focus. Because the mission is to extinguish a people. This was pretty clear to the quasi-historical Samuel, the Lord's prophet. And guess what? As this book shed its benificent influence through the Christian world, the message was taken up by many a Christian captain. Need I mention the Lord's work Cromwell did in Ireland? Or the Lord's broom, sweeping away the Tasmanian natives -- there's a very interesting chapter on this in David Quammen's Song of the Dodo. There good Christians, inspired by this most beautiful of religions, in contradistinction from nasty, nasty Islam, actually formed a small army and proposed, rather like beaters in a hunt, to spread from one end of the island to the other and advance, killing "every man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." They nearly succeeded -- a nice, jolly English slaughter, that. Their descendents, of course, prosperous New Agers and so on, can then make up simulacrum of native 'spirituality' and enjoy the healthiness of these past creatures, er, people, without the muss and fuss of actually having to confront them in the flesh.

But I'm forgetting! The WTC attack! It changed everything! -- apparently even history. Ah, the retrospective glow one feels over the West's benignant behavior, inspired by that coexistence "for centuries in a Roman/pagan context until the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. This development of the religious community outside of the halls of political power gives both Judaism and Christianity the flexibility to adapt to the secular concept of the separation of church and state that come out of the Enlightenment." What though the Enlightenment comes 1400 years afterwards? And notice that we sort of skip, oh, skip lightly, over the effect of Christianity's adoption as the religion of the empire. Notice that the Roman/pagan context sort of, well, vanished? Think this was due to the sweet fluting of Bishop Athanasius? Or perhaps the dreams of Augustine, laid out in the City of God, that manual for ghettoizing the non-Christian?
This is an issue that deserves more than one post. Briefly, the question of how tolerance happens is one that is ill understood, and is, perhaps, connected to different causes in different societies. I'd argue, though, that Western tolerance did not arise from some proto-type in Christian organizations, but rather arose out of the exhaustion experienced by Europeans in the 17th and 18th century for Christianity as a political force. Or, to be fully dialectical about it - TOLERANCE AROSE OUT OF CHRISTIAN INTOLERANCE. I'll make that argument in another post.

Anyway, let's sum up this exercise in Ecrasez l'infame. There is an explanation for the commonly posed question, Why do they hate us? (although, as I have explained in an earlier post, I think this question is fundamentally stupid). It is because we are not only not taught history, we have such as Connerney teaching history. A man who can lightly skip over most of history in his pursuit of it, and who conveys an abbreviated and nonsensical melange of half fact to his students, can only be thought of as that worst of menaces, ignorance armed with a diploma.

Thursday, October 11, 2001


I know -- the few readers I have, my friends, do they want another post about boring economics? How about some fun stuff? I was thinking of doing a post about Buffon's proto-pragmatism, knowing that there is overwhelming interest, right now, second only to that in Bond's home run record, in the first book of Buffon's Histoire naturelle and its aggressively anti-Cartesian stance -- but noooooooo - I think I will do this instead.

There's a NYT story today, and a Nation article by the always elegant William Greider, which should be read in conjunction. So that those among us who are opposed to the rule by economist - the decisions of a bunch of pointy headed bureaucrats in the WTO and other assorted international organizations - get a sense of the extent of that rule, right now.

First, the NYT article:
U.S. Will Appeal Tax Ruling After Talks With Europe Fail
essential graf:
The office of the United States trade representative said today that it would appeal a World Trade Organization decision against a tax law that permits American multinational companies to avoid taxes on foreign profits. The law saves companies like Boeing (news/quote) and Microsoft (news/quote) a total of about $4 billion a year.

Then the Nation article The Right and US Trade Law: Invalidating the 20th Century
which takes a look at the unfortunately little known school of Takings theory slithering out of that noxious pit of intellectual error, the University of Chicago, like a snake out of a snake charmer's basket in some old b grade horror movie. The theory, in short, says that government regulation is a form of seizing property, and as such, must be compensated. This is from the same school that encourages limiting liability claims individuals can make on corporations. In other words, it is the school that would allow corporations to make unlimited transfers of cost to third parties. That regulation is justified by social cost is denied completely by this school. It is libertarian theory run mad.

These people, you probably think, are harmless nuts. Unfortunately, as Greider points out, they have quietly influenced the wording of the NAFTA agreement so that it actually embodies takings theory. Why not, since you could never do this democratically. And now, Bush wants to expand his power to make similarly invidious trade agreements. Will the Dems roll over for this? Hard to tell. If anti-WTO organizers are smart, they will definitely try to get the California case Greider mentions - Methanex v. United States - into the spotlight, like in some nice hyped 60 minutes segment. Otherwise, the quiet reaction will proceed apace.
I'm a little sick today. Sore throat, feverish, and all day I've been trying and failing to complete a review that I should have done, I really should have done as a good person and upright citizen, two weeks ago. I'm having trouble framing it -- I'm having trouble restraining myself from inelegantly ladling the tons of research I did, all the things I found out about the Ottoman empire, about Persian miniaturists, and about Vasari, all over the thing (some more gravy, dear?).
Also, Johanna, who I thought was coming to visit from Denmark, e-mailed me that it's a no-go.

So, you're expecting the same old same old rant about the war. But no - no, today the Nobel Prize went to three economists, one of whom, Joseph Stiglitz, is rather famous. He's famous for having resigned from the World Bank as a dissenter from the World Bank IMF approach to global economic policy. He is, by a fluke of history, on the side of the kids, or some of the kids, in the anti-WTO rank and file. So of course I'm happy for about the prize. The prize usually goes to prize stinkers -- it is has become a smoke signal from the Swedish upper class that they want lower taxes and the luxuries of other of the world's upper classes. But lately they have taken out their teeth, voting squishy -- last year for Sen, now for Stiglitz. Who knows, maybe Galbraith (fils) has a chance.
I wonder how the Times is going to handle old Stiglitz getting the prize. Seeing how they have a faith in neo-liberalism much bigger than a mustard seed -- in fact, so big they have no room for any other dissenting opinion.
On Stiglitz, well, you have to read his piece,

The Insider
by Joseph Stiglitz

Two really really nice grafs -- but read the article:

"The IMF likes to go about its business without outsiders asking too many questions. In theory, the fund supports democratic institutions in the nations it assists. In practice, it undermines the democratic process by imposing policies. Officially, of course, the IMF doesn't "impose" anything. It "negotiates" the conditions for receiving aid. But all the power in the negotiations is on one side--the IMF's--and the fund rarely allows sufficient time for broad consensus-building or even widespread consultations with either parliaments or civil society. Sometimes the IMF dispenses with the pretense of openness altogether and negotiates secret covenants.

"When the IMF decides to assist a country, it dispatches a "mission" of economists. These economists frequently lack extensive experience in the country; they are more likely to have firsthand knowledge of its five-star hotels than of the villages that dot its countryside. They work hard, poring over numbers deep into the night. But their task is impossible. ... The mathematical models the IMF uses are frequently flawed or out-of-date. Critics accuse the institution of taking a cookie-cutter approach to economics, and they're right. Country teams have been known to compose draft reports before visiting. I heard stories of one unfortunate incident when team members copied large parts of the text for one country's report and transferred them wholesale to another. They might have gotten away with it, except the "search and replace" function on the word processor didn't work properly, leaving the original country's name in a few places. Oops."

I shouldn't give the impression Stiglitz is a radical. He has the same fondness for trade agreements of most mainstream economists. He thinks NAFTA is nifty. I don't. But he actually has a sense that economics is embodied in the Lebenswelt, a truly unusual perspective. Most economists have a way of thinking of culture, of manners, of extra-economic values, as being so much dead zone, a set of collateral and irrelevant information. It is the singing of the numbers they sit and listen to, those siren models.

Also on the World Bank contretemps, this article from Salon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

The War on Terrorism spawns curtailment of rights by paniced legislators should be the headline. We are lucky that the kooky right has an unwavering committment to at least one of the first ten amendments. And Russ Feingold gets high marks (he had, in Limited Inc's book, low, low marks for his Ashcroft vote) for standing up to the madness.
Time's story, and two grafs
Not So Fast, Senator Says, as Terror Bill Gains Ground
"Both the House and the Senate are expected to consider legislation this week that would expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to investigate and punish suspected terrorists and those who support them. Leaders in both chambers are trying to push the legislation through with expedited procedures but face several hurdles.

The legislation in the House differs significantly from the bill pending in the Senate, most notably because it puts a two-year limit, known as a sunset provision, on some of the new powers. There is no such provision in the Senate version. Leaders are talking of a potential compromise, perhaps a three- or five-year sunset provision."
Barney Frank is right - without the sunset provision, this legislation is poison.
Blank entry. Read below.

Tuesday, October 09, 2001


About twenty years ago, when I was an emotional young man - mine was a generation of emotional young men, the seventies guys, always breaking down and retiring to mental hospitals or moving back home -- I resolved to toughen up, to become a much less emotional man. There is a french word I love - desinvolture - which has the sense of lucid, disinterested, and leans towards cynical. I was attracted to writers and thinkers who valued the disinvolte above everything else -- the Tallyrandian ideal, above the fray and participating on one side or the other with the private proviso that such alliances were temporary.

Well, sometimes I think desinvolture comes close to callousness. Yesterday's post is a case in point. Discussing war as if casualties were mere logs on the pyre is a bad thing to do, especially when it is my bombs and cruise missiles that, right now, are hurting and killing real people. And of course real people in those airplanes are themselves targets, although targets of a regime that is ill equipped and incapable of supplying itself with weapons of its own manufacture.

But my point was not callous. In this century, there has been a dominant theory of war. One of the thinkers of this theory, Ernst Junger, called it totale Mobilmachung -- total mobilization. He wrote in the thirties, and in some ways he, along with Schumpeter (to whom I devoted a post a couple of days ago) and other conservatives, tried to come to terms with two historical events: World War I and modern industry. In World War I, the usual feedbacks failed. That is, when both sides started experiencing outrageous casualties, they did not sit down and negotiate -- instead, they extended the theater of conflict, and they applied technology to it. In the end, all sides were, in Junger's term, totally mobilized.

Well, this idea has an intuitive appeal, and a lot of theoreticians of war took it as the model of what 20th century war was all about. But if we look at Junger's model and we apply it to the second World War, we'll find a discrepency between theory and practice.

What, after all, happened at the end of World War I? The powers that were completely mobilized in the West -- France and Russia -- suffered a near revolution and a real revolution. Germany also suffered an internal collapse. The information provided by the casualty count was undisguisable, and eventually a saturation point was reached among the civilian population.
What happened at the end of World War II? Something a little odd, really. There was no internal revolt in either Germany or Japan against the war to the very end. If the populations were really totally mobilized, you would think that the World War I scenario would happen again.

I think it didn't because the partisans of total mobilisation missed something. When you read Speer about Hitler, or general histories of the war, one of the striking things about his leadership of the war was that he tried to cushion total mobilisation. Again and again he refuses to ration a product or do something to disturb the domestic German population even though, theoretically, this is the most logical military thing to do.
Perhaps the reason is the Nazi leadership did not want to make the mistake the German high command made in World War I - they did not want to totally mobilize the masses. Instead, they wanted to preserve a buffer zone of everydayness, so that majority of the population could live at some plausible disconnect from the war. Of course, the population really couldn't, not with the bombardment of the cities, but Hitler's gesture, here, should not be dismissed. The history of the West since World War II shows, if anything, a tendency to segmented mobilization. This is, of course, partly because of the parameters of the Cold War -- the two sides were defined by their production of nation-destroying armaments . But it is also because the legitimacy of any nation that conducts war under conditions of total mobilisation, or risks appearing to the population as willing to pursue that course, is placed in hazard. The Vietnam war, with its draft and its increasingly visible effect on the US economy, is a case in point.
We have, at the beginning of the 21st century, achieved a convergence of technological distance and segmented mobilisation that has brought about this situtation: the US, and other modern economic powers -- France, Britain -- can conduct wars without even disturbing domestic everydayness. Although nineteenth century powers experimented with this kind of war -- it was, in fact, the heart of the colonial adventure -- the World War I example has weighed so heavily in the mindset of military thinkers that the regime of segmented mobilisation -- the ability of a nation to seem perfectly at peace, to preserve its Alltaglichkeit without flaw - while making war - has grown up pretty much theoretically unperceived.

This puts other less advanced powers in a quandary. A state like Libya, for example, that challenges the United States can be so disabled that it will not be able to sustain its challenge, and might be reduced in the way it sustains its everydayness. A state like Afghanistan is really in the same position.

But... state's like Afghanistan, that are run more like criminal enterprises than like states -- with an adhoc collection of armed bands -- have one paradoxical advantage. They can hook up with those organizations that can risk attacking the everydayness of the great powers. They can even melt into them. This happened in Somalia. The attack on the WTC, whatever else it was, felt, and was perceived to be, warlike. There are those that argue that it was criminal, but perhaps Mary Kaldor is correct to suppose that the line between criminality and war has to be re-drawn in the era of New Wars.

Anyway, I should have taken off the mask of desinvolture yesterday. Sorry.


Lag time.

Let history show that while the bombs and cruise missiles were falling on Kabul, I, Roger Gathman, was doing the two step with a friend to the music of B.B. King at the Ausin Blues Festival.

The crowd at the festival, when we got there in the afternoon, was subdued. I hadn't listened to the radio or read the newspapers that morning, deciding, in a fit of absent minded good will, to make a lemon pound cake instead. Lemon pound cake, alas, was verboten - the fascists at the entrance sniffed it out like I was smuggling in cocaine, and quickly scotched my gesture as the shabby anti-capitalist ploy it was. The order of the day was, get your food at the booths for a considerable markup, or else. Who was I to think that somehow, at a blues concert, we could have a brief glimmer of coolness? So the whole cake had to go briskly into the trash. The musicians -- including Stevie Ray Vaughn's old group, Double Trouble - played to a field that was weirdly divided between seats and blankets -- with the seats a higher price. Although this probably paid for the lineup, it had the disadvantage of collecting the most geriatric and mute section of the audience in the key position right before the stage. It was as if the music had to traverse an acre of vacuum before hitting the groovers in the blanket section. By nightfall, however, we had all agluttinated into one throbbing mass, and even the geriatrics made a show of rushing the stage for Buddy Guy, throwing caution to the wind.

I heard about the attack from one of our party, but our discussion of it was truncated. Who wanted to discuss it?

And I still find myself in an odd position, at least for me: I have nothing to say.

This isn't just emotional exhaustion. I have nothing to say, partly, because we really dont know what the engagement in Afghanistan is like. If this war is anything like our two previous military outings, in Kosovo and Iraq, what we have to say now will form around erroneous perceptions and half understood information. After all, can any of my readers really envision Kabul? There's a lag time in modern war - while the weapons have become technically much more real time, benefiting tremendously from computer systems that have revolutionized the dart game between the world, always a vast target, and the shooters, the long distant manipulation of war means that, in a real political sense, we - and I include here Washington decision-makers - know less about what is going on than we did before. When damage is a relationship between the oh too weak and yielding flesh and the de-humanized system of delivery, a vital feedback is cut out of the system. That vital feedback is -- traditional military casualties. It is hard to imagine that this war will not be fought by infantry, in the end, rather than navy cannon tenders and bombadiers, so this might not be true. But we are learning that old style war, with its piles of battlefield bodies, evolved a feedback system that is lacking in newstyle war. Those bodies were markers of committment by both sides, and the feedback was about just how strong the committment was. Old style war contained, in other words, a system of internal limits. Newstyle war contains different limits. The lag time I am talking about is more intense. Those decisions that limit and shape aggression, when concentrated utterly on targetting rather than mobilization, make us spectators instead of participants. That this war might have its greatest effect in Indonesia, as the Washington Post reported this morning, is something that, as spectators and decision-makers, we don't expect or understand. In other words, the limits of war, on one side, have been pushed out, but on the other side, the side of the less technologically advanced recievers of our glorious weaponry, the response has been to make war viral -- to spread it by low tech means in many places.

All of which means -- I have nothing to say.

Check out, however, what John Lloyd has to say about Berlusconi's famous remark about Western Civilization being superior to Islam. Ah, Western civilization is such a good idea that we should try it some time, as Oscar Wilde or Mohatma Gandhi said. I'll say more about the Italian Prez, the current Orlando Furioso of Western Civ later.

New Statesman - Focus

Sunday, October 07, 2001


Gretchen Morgenstern, how do I love thee?

In the nineties, I used to read Tom Byron's articles in the New York Observer as my guide to what was going on in the world of Money. He was wry, he was sardonic, he was on top of bullshit, he was having a great time, as the bubble inflated, pecking away at some of the peculiar intellectual corruption that creeps into eras of enthusiasm.

Let me count the ways...

And then, for a while, I was writing for Ken Kurson's Green magazine on business. Reviewing books that were, broadly, business oriented. So I immersed myself in business journalism, and I discovered -- not shockingly -- that business journalism is mostly bad. On a daily basis, the most erroneous news and views can be found on your local business section. The reaason is simple. Whereas reporters covering politicians are allowed to have a healthy dislike for politicians, no such critical distance is allowed between biz reporters and your neighborhood confidence men. So biz reporting becomes mainly rolling out the conventional wisdom.

I love thee to the heights, and depths...

Looking around for models, I was struck by the much higher quality of British reporting and reporters. My favorite book during this time was Devil Take The Hindmost, by Edward Chancellor, the Financial Times journalist -- still a scorching look at the Efficient Markets Theory which is behind most legislation on banking and investment. I also fell in love with Frozen Desire, John Buchan's extended meditation on money. Unfortunately, as a columnist and reporter, Buchan isn't as good. I know -- several biz books I reviewed, he also reviewed. And my reviews were deeper. It isn't that I'm an egotist -- actually, I found that surprising. Buchan knows a lot more than me about how markets work. He is just not willing to go all out on an occasional piece.

.... and breadths my soul can reach....

Now, the reporter to read, oh, not just read, to fall head over heels for, is Gretchen Morgenstern. She is the NYT's shining star -- although I wonder how many people have noticed that? She's been consistently on the money for the past two years. Her Sunday pieces are so fine, so fine -- the bleak vision in the background, but never too bleak, never black on black, the contrarian mistake of such as James Grant, and, surpremely, with the consciousness, the full knowledge, of who she is quoting in the foreground. Most biz reporting goes wrong by going to all the usual suspects -- quoting the hot guru or the available analyst of the moment. And these people have an agenda, mes freres. With Gretchen, you know that she knows. She is so SMART.

Another thing -- biz reporters are encouraged to be lazy -- the positive spin has no downside, I guess that's the management idea. So they often put together information like a committee of the blind weaving a quilt --patches go in no particular pattern. But oh my brothers and sisters, read today's column by G.M. and watch how beautifully she does numbers. Numbers are the bane and wonder of biz reporting. If you don't know how to put them together, it is like listening toa child play chopsticks -- a painful experience. But G.M, the beauteous G.M., knows that the numbers aren't bullshit -- a too hasty nominalistic view. Rather, you have to know something about your categories, and your context, before the numbers start to sing. Some people simply figure that out. God bless the old crook, it was Michael Milken's genius, in the seventies, to figure out the numbers on high risk bonds. He was right, although this doesn't mean he didn't abuse his power, and that he got off easy for what he did to the economy.

So, this is my song of love -- which shows those skeptics out there that I do have a heart. And Gretchen rules it.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...