Saturday, October 20, 2001


We at Limited Inc are not vindicative people. Some readers have asked us why we have never given a whole spot to Berlusconi, especially since we derided his comment about the superiority of Western Civilization to Islam. But at the moment, it is very hard to take umbrage at a man who finds himself playing a bit part, a swab, an Igor, to world historic events. There's a story about him in today's NYT, and these two grafs say it all.

"After Mr. Berlusconi, who is Italy's richest man, was not invited to a meeting of French, British and German leaders just before today's summit meeting, he showed how much he minded. At a news conference, he said he could not have fit the meeting into his schedule anyway, because he had a previous engagement with center-right leaders from Spain, Austria, and Luxembourg.

Of that group, he boasted that he was "the leader of the most important country."

More important than Austria? More important than Luxemborg? The heart swells. As for what Spain thought about Berlusconi claiming that to be king of the tree house, Lord only knows.

One of the odder characteristics of Braggart B. is how much he operates like a throwback to an earlier era. Weber, in Politics as a Vocation, an essay I am drawn to, lately, makes the point that politicians, just like artists, were invented in the Enlightenment, although of course they have their roots in the humanists of the Renaissance. And, like artists, politicians became autonomous as they separated themselves from patronage. That is, as they learned to live on the fruits of office, rather than having the office bought for them, or using it as a lookout from which to spy venues of pillage. A slow process, of course, which hasn't yet made its appearance here in Texas, but I trust in Weber -- modernity is a-comin'. Berlusconi, from all accounts, has made use of his own fortune and properties in order to run the prime ministers office -- in everything from holding meetings at his own villa in Rome to reimbursing certain of his deputies out of his own pocket. He operates, in other words, like a Medici. And that is very unusual.

Perhaps those who say the nation is disappearing are right, however. In which case all kinds of primitive political formations should start to appear.

Friday, October 19, 2001

I had drinks with Alan a couple of nights ago. I was celebrating keeping this site going for threee months, and writing, almost every day, five hundred words on various topics. We talked a bit about what I was trying to do with this site: attract an audience? What kind of audience? In self-critical mode, I said I realized that sometimes I can't get off of a topic. For instance, the war, maybe I keep returning to it, maybe I am getting boring about it. And Alan said, oh, well, I don't usually read the posts that aren't about the war.

Whoah. Okay, Limited Inc. does go on an occasional esoteric bender, and maybe we should just keep doing war stuff. But screw it -- we never promised you a rose garden, reader. Sometimes the itch to talk about Plutarch or Ernst Junger gets to be too much. So yesterday I thought I'd push the envelope and post a complicated discussion of Gabriel Tarde.

Unfortunately, midway through the post, I looked at what I had written and thought -- this sounds like academic philosophy.
Do I want to do academic philosophy? No, clearly no.

So I decided to write about Bruno Latour instead.

The Connection is this: on his site, which is wonderfully stocked with essays, Latour has an essay, in English, entitled Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social.

In this essay, Latour discusses Tarde's turn to Leibnitz. What interests me is what attracts Latour to Tarde. I think the answer is Deleuzian: for Tarde, what metaphysics does best, its function in the culture, is lay out the combinations in which reality will come this time. That is, it forges categories as a way of creating schematic space, and then populates that space with concepts. It isn't that these categories aren't founded in reality -- how could they not be? it isn't that the categories are subjective -- on the level of their creation, subjectivity hasn't, itself, been created, been conceptually molded, so to put the discourse in terms of subjectivity and objectivity is a form of philosophical anachronism; but what metaphysics does well is carve out schematic spaces. The hidden relationship of metaphysics and politics is found in the list -- that ur-text of state power.

That's my intro to this quote from Latour :

"Agency plus influence and imitation, is exactly what has been called... an actor-network. [limitedinc note - ANT, actor network theory, was a sociological school associated with Latour and John Law in the 90s.] The link of the two ideas is essential to understand his theory : it is because he is a reductionist �even of a strange sort� that he does not respect any border between nature and society, and because he does not stop at the border between physics, biology and sociology that he does not believe in explaining the lower levels by the higher levels. Such is the key difficulty : human societies are not specific in the sense that they would be symbolic, or made of individual, or due to the existence of a macro organisations. They seem specific to us for no other reasons that, first, we see them from the inside and, second, that they are composed of few elements compared to any of the other societies we grasp only from the outside.

Let�s get slowly here : to begin with, we have to understand that �society� is a word that can be attributed to any association :

" But this means that every thing is a society and that all things are societies. And it is quite remarkable that science, by a logical sequence of its earlier movements, tend to strangely generalise the notion of society. It speaks of cellular societies, why not of atomic societies ? not to mention societies of stars, solar systems. All of the sciences seem fated to become branches of sociology.��p.58.

Instead of saying, like Durkheim, that we ��should treat social facts as a thing��, Tarde says that ��all things are society��, and any phenomenon is a social fact."

Now that last sentence might set off warning flares for the group that thinks the humanists are pulling some fast and loose stuff with the sciences. This group, led by Paul Gross, is especially worried about the phrase 'social construction'. As in the slogan, social construction of reality. Is Latour a social constructionist, as Gross has accused him of being?

Lingua Franca, in 1994, published a profile of Latour BY David Berreby. It is still a handy guide to a sometimes infuriating thinker. I found these three paragraphs particularly enlightening:

"For instance, the Louis Pasteur who emerges in Latour's The Pasteurization of France (Harvard, 1988) -- a study of how Pasteur succeeded in winning over France to his germ theory of disease -- is a thinker-politician, a skilled manipulator of the g overnment and the press as well as a great researcher. All of his skills are important. "Pasteur went to blind wine tastings to demonstrate his theory of fermentation," Latour says. "That's not just showmanship. That's why he's such a good scientis t."

This egalitarianism is reflected in a favorite Latourian word: "symmetry." To understand symmetry, consider, again, The Pasteurization of France. To say that Pasteur succeeded because his discovery was true about nature, for instance, suggests that "nature," a realm neatly separated from society, can be used to explain the causes of activities within society -- that once some discovery about "nature" is shown to be true, society rearranges itself to conform to this truth. According to Latour, this is asymmetrical, because it suggests that an understanding of nature is somehow more powerful, more dispositive, more fundamental, than an understanding of society. On the other hand, one might discard the idea of truth entirely and argue that Pasteur's s uccess can be explained entirely through the lens of "society" -- that, say, the hygienic regulations that stemmed from Pasteur's work were in fact enacted in order to give those in power a new way to control the lower classes. This explanation, Latour ar gues, is a mirror image of the first. Instead of saying that the truth of nature determines social arrangements, it says that social arrangements determine what is construed as nature's truth.

Both views are equally na�ve, Latour says, because both proceed from the assumption that "nature" and "society" are somehow divisible. The symmetrical way to see Pasteur, Latour argues, is to see the split between nature and society as false. Thus, p art of Pasteur's success was his alliance, in the social world, with hygienists, for whom he provided a good explanation of the diseases they fought. But part of his success was also his alliance, in the natural world, with the microbes themselves, for wh om he became spokesman and interpreter. In other words, Latour rejects neither insight: not the insight into society nor the insight into nature. He simply claims that neither should be used to explain the other. It is a position of radical humility: poi nting out an asymmetry does not require the pointer to stand on some higher theoretical ground. It's a gesture not unlike pointing out that a painting in a hallway is hanging crooked."

In other words, Latour's point is not the social constructionist point, with their wierd intersubjective idealism. His point is that the era of the nature/culture divide is over. This is, indeed, the collapse of an enduring meta-narrative, but not one post-modernists envisioned sapping. What is happening in Latour, what connects his with the thinkers Deleuze first connected together, in a sort of geneology of disjunction, is that they see the exhaustion in the heart of dialectics since Hegel - that exhaustion of the subject and the object. Even at the time, it was a reactionary division, created as a sort of degenerate theology, an endrun around natural science in order to produce some secular version of redemption. Since then, it has become an impediment to thinking. And its last, ridiculous embodiment, in the naive realism of certain physicists, and the narcissism of social constructionists, signals the dialectics collapse. It is a ponzi scheme, now, and the concepts populating it are all greater fool ideas - they can have value only if you can sell them to greater fools, ie, students (for the academically entrenched social constructionists) and taxpayers (for the physicists, with their billion dollar plus laboratories).
Our eyes have turned to the NYT Story in the biz section today
Canada Overrides Patent for Cipro to Treat Anthrax
by Amy Harmon and Robert Fear.
Lede graf:
"Canada, taking an unusual step that the United States has resisted, said yesterday that it had overridden Bayer's patent for Cipro, an antibiotic to treat anthrax, and ordered a million tablets of a generic version from a Canadian company."

This rings a bell. In August, Brazil decided to put the screws to Roche, the Swiss drug manufacturer. It declared a national emergency to break the patent on nelfinavir, an AIDS drug. The US reaction to Brazil's patent policies in general has been aggressive, as in this WP story:

"Last February, the United States filed a claim against Brazil with the World Trade Organization over Brazil's intention to produce generic versions of patented AIDS drugs. The United States later withdrew its complaint under heavy international criticism.

But Washington's complaint had mainly centered on a more controversial Brazilian law that allowed Brazil to to produce generic drugs -- including those not related to AIDS -- if companies did not begin producing the drugs in Brazil within three years of patent. Though that law remains on Brazil's books, the action announced today is being taken under different legislation that permits domestic production of internationally patented drugs during national emergencies."

The Financial Times, in Patent Nonsense, an editorial published at the time of the Brazil contratemps, spills the beans on what is at stake:

"In richer countries it is broadly accepted that the high cost of drugs includes the price of progress. But a general erosion of patent rights could jeopardise that consensus. "

Yes, what is at stake is monopoly power and the concept of "fair return," which has been turned into a cash cow by pharmaceutical companies, software companies, and any company that wants to fork over a satisfactory level of campaign contribution in order to get its patents "extended." Canada's action is probably not going to have the immediate repercussion of putting the patent monopoly system into question, but it is going to add to pressure in this country, surely.

One sign of that pressure. There's a public letter from Nader to Tommy Thompson that should take all the hair off Thompson's body, if he were pervious to shame. Of course, he isn't. Thompson claimed that he had no authority to have a generic version of Cipro made in the US. Nader reminds him that, in fact, he does have that authority. Here's a nice bite sized graf:

"In the absence of adequate government stockpiles, families who cannot afford the hundreds of dollars per month per family member for ciprofloxacin risk not having access to this product, should the need arise. This is an unethical and unnecessary form of rationing. Some government officials and those who can afford the high prices have secure supplies of ciprofloxacin. It is your duty to see that all taxpayers and especially those who are less affluent are protected, and are protected as soon as is possible, not as soon as it is possible for one firm, Bayer, to supply the market. And it would make sense to have redundant sources of supply, for all of the obvious reasons. "

Thursday, October 18, 2001


Not to brag, but, uh... well, to brag. LimitedInc, if you go back to October 6th, was all about the terrorist-pirate analogy. It has since been picked up (probably, we suspect, because IMPORTANT MEDIA PEOPLE are secretly reading this weblog for pointers -- you know who you are!) all over the place. Latest is Chris Mooney's piece in the American Prospect, which is a little more specific about America's war with the Barbary pirates. Nobody has yet picked up on our point that piracy required sponsoring nations, at first, and actually contributed to nation-building. Somebody will inevitably get to that, though.

Tomorrow, I am going to cut the throat of my popularity -- look, I've had as many as ten people visit this site in one day! -- and do a little foray into the philosophy of Gabriel Tarde. Since I mentioned Tarde in a review I wrote for Green Magazine last year - June, I believe it was -- of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, I'm going to paste the review here, for reference. Steve Johnson, the very handsome Steve Johnson whose Feed, alas, seems to be no more, interviewed Gladwell about that book at this link. .

As I said in some earlier post, right now I have a peculiar interest in the ruins and monuments of the 90s. Gladwell's work at the New Yorker wove a little filagree of old psychological experiments and new sounding science around the New Economy mantra. The first article of his I remember reading and going, wow, (and isn't that the quintessential, trend-driven, hyperinfantile response that people report as though it meant something? which I could have said bitchin, or I could have said, right on, or I could have said, great, and the way I packaged the awe would tell you where and when I am ) was the one on the Coolhunt. A lot of people picked up on that article. Luckily, it is in his archive.

I have to include Gladwell's intro graf, so that you get a feel for the man. If you haven't read him.

"Baysie Wightman met DeeDee Gordon, appropriately enough, on a coolhunt. It was 1992. Baysie was a big shot for Converse, and DeeDee, who was barely twenty-one, was running a very cool boutique called Placid Planet, on Newbury Street in Boston. Baysie came in with a camera crew-one she often used when she was coolhunting-and said, "I've been watching your store, I've seen you, I've heard you know what's up," because it was Baysie's job at Converse to find people who knew what was up and she thought DeeDee was one of those people. DeeDee says that she responded with reserve-that "I was like, 'Whatever' "-but Baysie said that if DeeDee ever wanted to come and work at Converse she should just call, and nine months later DeeDee called. This was about the time the cool kids had decided they didn't want the hundred-and-twenty- five-dollar basketball sneaker with seventeen different kinds of high-technology materials and colors and air-cushioned heels anymore. They wanted simplicity and authenticity, and Baysie picked up on that. She brought back the Converse One Star, which was a vulcanized, su�de, low-top classic old-school sneaker from the nineteen-seventies, and, sure enough, the One Star quickly became the signature shoe of the retro era. Remember what Kurt Cobain was wearing in the famous picture of him lying dead on the ground after committing suicide? Black Converse One Stars."

Okay, now for my review of his book.

The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference by Malcolm Gladwell Little Brown, $24.95

reviewed by Roger Gathman

At the end of the nineteenth century, an idiosyncratic Frenchman named Garbriel Tarde wrote a series of book in which he hypothesized that human history could be understood in terms of two principals: imitation and opposition. Writing in the wake of Pasteur�s discovery of the germ theory, Tarde envisioned "imitation waves" which propogated themselves limitlessly through human space until they met some countervailing force.

Tarde, by all accounts, was a contrarian fellow, and he died young. His work, ironically, did not spawn any great imitator. Instead, sociologists followed Durkheim, or Weber. Tarde�s weighty tomes were shuffled to the dustier regions of the library, where they sit today, mostly unread. But his insight into "imitation waves" has been revived, even if the current crop of pop philosophers are seemingly unfamiliar with Tarde�s name. The current fad for crossing the old idea of mimesis with information theory goes back to Richard Dawkins, the famed neo-Darwinist, who coined the term "meme" for a particle of content that leaps from mind to mind. The inevitable analogy with genes is invoked to give this idea a semi-scientific status. The term "meme" itself has leaped, at least, from the pages of one glossy magazine to another.

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer, has gone back to the analogy with contagion that fascinated Tarde. In his new book, he offers a theory of collective human behavior defined as one vast, multi-tiered map of routes of exposure. The content of that exposure can be syphillis, or it can be the Hush Puppie, those brushed suede shoes that suddenly became fashionable in 1995. Gladwell wants to show us how, like germs, certain ideas, fads, or products can suddenly take off. The tipping point is the threshold between a linear increase in quantity and an epidemic increase. It is that moment when the purely numerical is lifted to a whole other order, transforming random incidences into a whole system.

A disease, according to Gladwell, needs three factors in order to become an epidemic.

First, it needs a core group of carriers. We think of disease as a linear process: I have a cold, I give it to x, who gives it to y, and so on. But an epidemic radiates these linear routes of infection off a small core group of intensely connected people. These are typhoid Mary figures, whose inclinations have lead them into professions or pursuits which involve numerous human relationships across a broad range of social clusters. Extrapolating from disease to any fashion, we have Gladwell�s "rule of the few:" a few people, who are connectors, expose a broad range of people to some contagious content, be it a message, a product, a style or an illness. These connectors alone aren�t sufficient, however. Among the few, we also have mavens, informal information collectors who are disposed to teach other people what they know, and pursuaders, or salesmen.

The second factor in epidemics is degree of contagiousness. Gladwell uses the marketer�s term, "stickiness." A sticky content can be explained by some intrinsic structure of the content, such as the highly infectious nature of the bug that carried the Spanish influenza, but it can also be designed. Gladwell spends a good part of the book talking about certain big features of human psychology to explain how we are peculiarly vulnerable to some contents, and how marketers, or persuaders of any kind, can use those vulnerabilities to produce "tipping points." Gladwell shows how the diffusion of a successful innovation shows a regular and predictable pattern: first it becomes popular among a core group of innovators, who spread it to a larger, but still relatively small, group of early adopters, who spread it out into a much larger group researchers have labeled the "late majority."

Even with the connectors in place and a "sticky" content, however, we also require favoring circumstances. Gladwell calls this the power of context. He uses the context of New York City in the eighties and nineties to highlight the difference between the spike in crimes which occurred in the eighties and the sudden, decisive drop which occurred in the nineties. The spike, Gladwells says, had to do with a general neglect of small features of the urban landscape. Here, Gladwell is picking up on the "broken windows" theory of crime, which predicts that the negligent enforcement of laws against quality of life crimes, like littering and vandalism, will nourish larger, more serious crimes, like robbery and murder.

Gladwell is one of those writers who can actually capture you in the very rhythm of his thought. When I finished The Tipping Point, I briefly became a Gladwell "maven," pressing the book upon my friends with missionary fervor.

But there also exists a cooler, critical spirit inside of me - otherwise I wouldn�t be a book reviewer, n�est-ce pas? That spirit spotted two flaws in Gladwell�s encompassing thesis.

One is that Gladwell sometimes willfully reduces conditions to causes. It is a condition of successfully lighting a kitchen match that it not be wet, but the effective cause of the flame that results when I scratch one across the side of the matchbox is bracketed within a much narrower band of factors. Although this might seem like metaphysical niggling, when Gladwell writes, for instance, summing up his New York crime example: "Clean up graffiti and all of a sudden people who would otherwise commit crimes suddenly don�t," he�s magnified my niggling into a valid objection. In this instance, we know that the crime drop wasn�t confined to New York City. It has happened, for instance, in Washington D.C., where nothing like the Broken Windows program was instituted. What we want is some means of filtering out those conditions which are necessary, but not sufficient, from those which are both. Gladwell is simply too sloppy about this.

The second objection is to Gladwell�s subtitle: "how little things can make a big difference." Basically, Gladwell often performs a sort of analytic hocus-pocus to make us think that there is one little thing which is the tipping point for his "epidemics." Take his example of the epidemic of STD�s in Baltimore in the nineties. He quotes three people with three different explanations of why it occurred, and he points out that, in all of the explanations, the precipitating factor was relatively minor. However, he soft pedals the fact that there are, after all, three different explanations. In almost all his examples, in fact, he relies on one dimension and the small changes within it to forward his thesis, when the important thing is that a complex order emerges from the interrelation of a number of small factors. This is why a person using Gladwell�s book to design, say, a marketing scheme is bound to be frustrated. Although minor changes in initial conditions can cause major systematic shifts, those conditions usually extend through temporal, causal, and physically specific dimensions - what the ecologists call an "adoptive landscape" - which limit the determinateness with which one can predict those shifts.

What do these objections add up to? Really, I am only reiterating the old saw that the devil�s in the details - and that Gladwell hasn�t quite caught that devil yet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Nick Cohen makes some very nice points in this Guardian article (which I went to by way of this weblog -- abrightcolddayinapril-- some nice bits on it, too)

First graf of Cohen's article:

"The bombing of Afghanistan must stop. To say so isn't to appease mass murderers by pretending they are misunderstood fighters against imperialism. You can think, as I do, that the sum of human happiness would inflate exponentially if the Taliban and their Arab allies were driven from power. You can believe that the atrocities of 11 September changed the world and made hitherto unthinkable expedients necessary. You can even fall in love with Tony Blair's mythical America which stood 'side by side with us' in the Blitz of 1940, rather than staying out of the Second World War until 1941, and was 'born out of the defeat of slavery', rather than a declaration of independence by, among others, slave owners. "

That's a bracing return to reality. I think the bombing must stop pretty soon, too, Cohen is right that there is a crisis looming here. It sounds all too much like Somalia redux. Warlords, famine, troops, terrorism. There is a book by David Halberstam out right now, re Clinton and the generals, War in a Time of Peace, which traces, in that inimitably smarmy Halberstam style, the rise of TAC - tactical air command -- over SAC in the nineties. Halberstam gets the insiders to tell about who conceived the convergence of smart tech and rapid response air power and how it changed the whole mindset in the Pentagon. (for a review of this book, see this Slate exchange.) But TAC has limitations, and we are going to see them, I think, in Afghanistan. The more the military tries to make this a replay of Kosovo, the less bang for the buck, or buck for the bang, we are going to get. Unless you can get the men in the training camps that we are really trying to stop to line up -- say, post some convincing announcement re Calisthenics and anthrax training at 0900 h -- air power is going to have to be subordinate, eventually, to more traditional military strikes. This is the nightmare that Bush, understandably, wants to avoid.

But I am putting Cohen's message in a narrow context. In the larger context of this war, in the way it is being turned, at least for now, in the Arab world into a war where American blood is precious, and our blood is water -- as some Egyptian housewife interviewed by the Times put it, I thought rather snappily -- the bombing has to cease pretty soon, and the attention to famine has to be put first.

Peter Hitchens is Christopher Hitchens brother. In England, he is a famous Thatcherite, waxing scornful at the leftist tide undermining civilization and stealing the family silver. To read a truly, truly bonkers article, you must take this link . The It is hilarious. I particularly liked the line about the European Union being a smiley faced USSR. "Take me to your balaikas ringing out, Mr. Schroder," type of thing.
Of course, being a Tory of the old school -- I mean very old school, I mean I am pretty sure the guy is still pissed at the frogs for that Willian the Conquerer chap -- Hitchens doesn't content himself with knocking the usual left suspects -- no no no, the meat of the piece, rare and juicy, is dedicated to the proposition that Bush has gotten wobbly. In short, he's operating like the Manchurian candidate. Surely the smileyfaced KGB have been waving cards in front of his face. I'm not joking. An attack on Bush for being a lefty -- will wonders never cease! Here's a beautiful graf:

"This war is easy for the Left to like. By limiting his offensive to �terrorism with a global reach�, President Bush has specifically excluded the IRA from his wrath, robbing the campaign of its alleged founding principle and disillusioning those who fooled themselves into thinking that recent events in Colombia might have weakened American support for Sinn Fein."

Soft on the IRA, and next thing you know the commissars are boarding soldiers in your bedroom.
I can tell that Peter Hitchens is going to be my guiding star through this war. I've always had an unfortunate weakness for lunacy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2001


For Christmas in 1914, the Kaiser sent every German soldier on the Western front a box with 10 cigars. Facing them, the Tommies were being flooded with Christmas parcels containing plum cake -- apparently parents and wives at home were properly alarmed at what their boys would be eating over there in France -- all those sauces, you know. The soldiers on both sides declared an informal ceasefire, and traded cigars for plum cake, and sampled each others beers. On January 1, the Germans initiated a barrage, but the Tommies soon noticed they were firing in the air. The British replied, shooting high in the air. A good enough time was had by all. The high commands on both sides were furious, and sent strict orders down to the lower level officers that any fraternizing with the enemy in the future would be severely punished.

Four months later, in April, the Germans tried to break through the front at Ypres using a new weapon. Cannisters were exploded in a salient in front of an Indian-Pakistani battalian. A yellow cloud appeared, and was moved forward gently by the wind. It killed trees, birds, rats, and people. The gas was chlorine. The troops arrayed before it had no knowledge of gas, and no protection from it. Chlorine, breathed in, will either choke you to death immediately or have these effects: you spit up masses of bloody mucuous, your lungs expand to almost twice their normal size, they fill with water, you die. If in 1914, it seemed natural that the troops would fraternize at Christmas, the appearance of the gas -- which was used, by the end of the year, by the British - signalled that this was, indeed, another kind of war altogether. The old 19th century codes were gone.

I'm thinking about this because of an article in the WP Style section Sunday by
Joel Garreau.

Here's the intro grafs:

"Hinges in history -- 1914, 1929, 1945, 1963, 1981, and maybe the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

These are pivots on which our lives move from one world to another.

After we swing past them, it's hard to remember what the previous world felt like, or what sense it made. (Why did '50s fraternity boys compete to see how many people they could stuff into a telephone booth? What was a telephone booth?)"

I am not sure 9/11 is in that company, but as it becomes obvious that the US is still vulnerable to a terrorist strike - that indeed, we can expect it, if the letter writing anthrax campaign isn't part of it - perhaps something has turned.

There's a lot of criticism of the way the Left has protested this war. Marc Cooper has an article in the LA Times which lays out the problem -- although I don't know what to make of Cooper's mild flag fixation. It isn't the alienation from American symbols that characterizes the Left's wierdness right now -- it is the alienation from reality. Reality is that we might have to look seriously at how we do the future - we might have to leap out of the practico-inert, to use Sartre's wonderful term -- and the left should have some idea of what that means.

Here is what I would like to see as a kind of left-sympathetic guy.

I would like to see some more serious response to the various policy disasters in the Middle East than the "why do they hate us" mantra. Which means making difficult decisions. If it is true that the US sanctions against Iraq and the bombing are immoral, it is also true that the regime of Saddam Hussein is a horror, perpetrated against a people who have never had a chance to decide their fate for themselves. They are locked in a prisonhouse created at the end of WWI and called Iraq. By quitting the bombing, we would accomplish one thing. We would stop pursuing an immoral and also an irrational policy. But what then? Simply leave SH free to continue killing and torturing on the usual scale?

The 'solution' to this, I feel instinctively, is democracy. US foreign policy, famously, is split between a realistic and a Wilsonian, or idealistic, school. The problem isn't really that the idealists are wrong -- it is that they continually underestimate the difficulty of pursuading the American public to follow through on the type of committments that would underwrite idealism, beginning with the failure to join the League of Nations and going all the way up to the ridiculous control Jesse Helms exerted over foreign policy in the Clinton years.

An idealist would have to say -- it is impossible to pursue foreign policy in a properly democratic way without building support for it domestically. Unfortunately, even when the US has promoted democracy, it has done so inconsistently, with wide leaway left for America's material interests. Jimmy Carter would lecture Argentine generals about human rights, but not Saudi sheiks. And when it got down to promoting democracy, the end result has been mere voting. Voting is the last part of democracy -- without separation of powers, without guarantees of rights, there is no democracy, period, whether the state's leadership has been elected or appointed itself over the barrel of a gun.
But given that stronger notion of democracy, can the left really credibly promote democracy? Only if it is willing to say that democracy might not be good, in the short run, for the West -- I imagine real democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be plenty bad for the Western oil interests, and let's face it, that is our interest. Our standard of living depends materially on the availability and cheapness of oil.

Which gets us to the second serious contribution the left can bring to the table (while tucking in its napkin and asking for a little more wine, garcon): power is a political issue. The refusal to recognize or go with the Kyoto accords isn't just a disaster for the environment, but it is a lost political opportunity. The Federal government underwrote our oil economy - from a foreign policy that was calibrated to keeping the price of a barrel of oil as low as it could go in the fifties and sixties to the socialization of the road system. The left has to make the case for the Federal government underwriting a new power economy -- that means everything from fuel cells which use natural gas to solar and wind power to conservation. This is the most powerful part of a lefty program, and it has been oddly muted since 9/11.
It shouldn't be.

The connection is pretty clear between the alienation of bin Laden's supporters, both active and passive, and the failing government in Saudi Arabia, which is authoritarian, corrupt, and unintelligent. America is so fixated on the Palestine-Israel drama that it doesn't even see what is evident in the Middle East -- that America's other great ally, Saudi Arabia, has squandered its wealth and inscribed itself in the global economic system to the extent that its oil simply doesn't count anymore. It can't afford gestures like the 1973 oil boycott. It can't afford the infrastructure it so stupidly built. It shouldn't have built it anyway. And who profited from it but American weapons manufacturers, American construction companies, and etc. When you think about the importance of SA to the Arabic world, this is the elephant in the room.

So - there are things the left, or at least a lefty leaning guy like me, can suggest about the future.

Monday, October 15, 2001

Renata Adler and Joan Didion - can I name four things I like about them? I like the way in which these two women stay resolutely out of the loop. I like the unblinking gaze they cast upon the loop. I like the way dates are important to them, documents are important to them, rhetorical impasses are important to them. The way they proceed by looking, rather than feeling. A hard thing to do, because it can addict you to the disconnect, to an automatic blankness of response, as if blankness were somehow more objective. However, in a political culture that has debased outrage and routinized indignation (indignation is the default mode on MSNBC, the cheap standard, news talk shows look more and more like bad marriages, we watch a man bellow and wonder how high his voice can get, how much face he can put in another person's face, and we know, hey, this is an act), we go to the slow take for the sake of, well, beauty. A balance, a classicicm. So it is nice that Renata Adler is interviewed extensively here -- even if, to appreciate the interview, you have to have an sense of the stakes, which are admittedly pretty rarified stakes (I'll have mine well done, please). Briefly, the New York Times has made it its business, over the past year, to cut Adler down. The beef if that Adler won't get with the program about Watergate. She insists that John Sirica, far from being a Watergate hero, was a rather stupid man with a shady past. Now, sometimes I disagree with Adler violently. I think her defense of Westmoreland, who sued 60 minutes, was wrongheaded. But she is a fascinating writer. There are writers who dig carefully, have an archeologist's concern for levels, damage, evidence. You don't get sloppy with your artifacts, you are intensely concerned with where and when they appear, you are intensely concerned with context.

Joan Didion is a greater writer, which makes it all the more unfortunate that she was interviewed by one Tom Christie for the LA Weekly. This indigestible melange is how he segues into the interview.

"THERE'S SOMETHING UNSETTLING ABOUT JOAN DIDION. Perhaps it's the body of work, and the fact that she's one of few living writers whose name can be shaped unapologetically into an adjective: Didionesque. Or perhaps it's the clean, calm, almost soporific style with which she eviscerates the likes of Bob Woodward and Michael Isikoff and Cokie Roberts in her new book, Political Fictions (Knopf), a collection of eight lengthy essays on the American political process."

A calm, almost soporfic style, that also slices and dices? She writes like a sleepy surgeon, or is it a drugged Ronco announcer? Or perhaps a fishmonger with insomnia? This is writing that throws out the words and lets the sense come creeping after it. The encounter between this cerebrally dormant style and Didion is like the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an ironing board, as Lautreamont once said. Or maybe it isn't -- what the heck, just ink it in. The motto, I guess, of the LA Weekly.

In other news -- Alan has gotten a fan letter for his rebuttal of my Friday post -- but hey, I got a fan letter too. So score is one to one.

Sunday, October 14, 2001

A little late to announce this -- but Jacques Derrida, to whom we at Limited Inc are constantly alluding (unless we take our regular meds packet), won the Theodor Adorno prize, worth around 100,000 bucks. Yes, I'd never heard of it either. Seems that Godard and Boulez are past winners. Der Spiegel has a nice photo of Jacques looking tough to go with the story.

Oh, and Jurgen Habermas won a peace prize in Germany. He took the occasion to call for (what else? ) dialogue with Islam.
Yesterday Alan wrote an extensive reply to my Friday post. You'll remember, that Post was a harsh appraisal of an article in Salon. Here's my reply to Alan, who I must thank for livening up my site this weekend.

I'll concede your point about Buddhism, because you know what you are talking about, and I don't. I will admit that, childishly, I wrote those jibes against Buddhism partly to rouse you to write something. Sorry -- but it worked.

There's three more serious points you make, and that I'd like to take up.


Connerney's point about fundamentalism is, I think, folded into a larger argument which claims that fundamentalist Islam, although only one part of Islam, correctly gives weight to an Islamic principle - jihad. And given that principle, Connerney can compare Islam in general with Judaism and Christianity in general. The argument is a little assymetrical, because Connerney doesn't make the same point about fundamentalist Christianity -- that is, he doesn't make the point that fundamentalist Christianity gets some part of Christianity right. He gets sidetracked into a sociological comparison between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. As I said in my previous post, I think he's simply wrong, here. But there is something depressing and dumb about simply tallying up the atrocities on both sides -- fundamentalist Islam generates apartheid against women, fundamentalist Christianity generates apartheid against blacks in South Africa, and so on. Your point is well taken that fundamentalism can "only be formulated after fully historical approaches to religious scripture have been developed -- source criticism and form criticism and that sort of thing." But in terms of the larger argument Connerney is mounting, I'm not sure if this isn't a red herring. I'll concede that the Croatian priesthood that blessed the execution of the Serbs might very well have been well versed in source criticism, but what I am after, and what I think Connerney's article is after, is how the religion institutionalizes behaviors. In other words, is there any common thread that runs through fundamentalist Christianity, Catholicism, and other forms of Protestantism so that I can say that my little list of atrocities is consistently motivated?

But first, let's consider what you say about the Qu'ran and the Bible. Your suggestion that " when an utterance is made in the second person [as it is in the Qu'ran] 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." That sounds right to me. But the upshot, surely, should be that that the Qu'ran limits the variety of Islams, not that it eliminates them. Sufis and Dervishes make out of those imperatives a mystical sense -- orthodox Sunni Muslims make something else.
And you are right about the Bible -- it is a madman's attic.
However, I think you are wrong to diss my quotes from the bloodier chapters of the Old Testament. If one Christian reads the Bible and resolves to love his neighbor as himself, and another resolves not to suffer a witch to live, I wouldn't say the latter doesn't understand the Bible -- I would say he doesn't understand what parts of the Bible we don't take seriously in 2001. And that shift isn't in the Bible, but outside of it, in the world. In other words, I think you overestimate the power of texts in these religions, and underestimate the power of the organized body of interpreters. Perhaps I think this because I don't have a stake in thinking that the Bible (or the Qu'ran) is true in any spiritual sense. Still, what's important to me is your larger point, about the centrality of war or struggle in Islam. This gets us to our most important point.

The Fatal Comparison
When Berlusconi announced that Western Civilization was superior to Eastern, he was opening the floodgates. The superiority of the West used to be relatively undisputed in the West, but since the end of the colonial era, the creed has been rather battered. Only Samuel Huntington and a few sour Straussians bothered to man the ramparts any more. The triumphalist conviction has come galumphing back in the wake of September 11th. Connerney's article is definitely in that vein. Now I think you, Alan, think that I was sort of harsh to Connerney - vitriolic, unfair, and wrongheaded. But I still contend the guy is either ignorant of sophistical when he compares Christianity and Islam. This isn't because I am particularly prejudiced against Christianity. I make no bones about being an atheist, but I can see the attraction of religion, and I understand people who take Jesus as their savior. I come from those people. Nor do I think Islam should be understood on some sliding scale - the usual relativist, multi-culty mumbo-jumbo. No, my problem is that Connerney can't mount a fair comparison when the comparison is obvious. It is between the centrality of jihad and the centrality of conversion.

I said that I wanted to find a thread connecting the various forms of Christianity. Christianity never presented itself as a philosophy, of which one can be persuaded. It presented itself as a means of salvation, to which one can be converted. To ignore conversion, as Connerney does, is to bowdlerize Christianity - to make it historically inexplicable.

You present a hypothetical: 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?" Now, your own reply to your hypothetical shows that you and I went to different churches when we were kids. Because I went to a Southern Baptist church, and I can answer that question even now, from memory: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life." To say that as we used to in Sunday school, put hyphens between the words, and say it like you are running downstairs. Your own response to your hypothetical is nice, it emphasizes the ethical and aesthetic sides of Christianity, but historically, all of that was secondary. If belief in Jesus is so important that non-belief can be punished by eternal flames, than recommendations that you be nice to your local Samaritan sort of go by the by. In fact, this is where a conversion based religion with a salvationist creed is truly insidious -- it posits a judgment of people outside of ethics, based on what their 'heart' -- that organ so favored by our current Prez - contains. It is this that explains the ability of an organized religion that is based on belief in a God who tells us to love one another to calmly organize auto de fes, harbor a rancid, and intermittently deadly, prejudice against Jews, and to commit numberless atrocities (of which I could make a Homeric catalogue, but won't) against its own set of unbelievers. Connerney might feel there are ameliorating circumstances, but the terminuses of his comparison are obvious. Not filling in the Christian end -- ignoring conversion - is cheating. He confesses, after all, to teaching religious studies, so he should have some familiarity with the subject. That he skews the article the way he does makes me pity with tears in my eyes - well, okay, not that much -- the poor kids of Iona.

And one last note about Judaism. There isn't a conversion function that I know of in Judaism, which distinguishes it in a major way from the two other religions. Furthermore, Judaism, for about 1900 years, had to survive in a hostile environment, in which it was always on the verge of persecution. Therefore, as an organized body, it has built in limits to the damage it can do. Spinoza might be expelled from the synagogue, but they weren't going to go after Descartes with torches.

There it is.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...