Friday, October 17, 2003


LI likes to consider that we are a moral shrew � that we prod against the dead mass of atrocity in this world, to the extent that a Lilliputian can prod against a leviathan; that we unhesitatingly criticize our own country knowing that the only moral force that has ever moved America is that force which is unafraid to confront the crimes of the powerful and label them as crimes; that we are, in a word, militantly informed.

Such BS.

Well, we�ve been writing for two years, and we haven�t even delved into Chechnya. We haven�t said word one about the perhaps two million who have disappeared in the great ten years war in Central Africa. As a moral shrew, you�d have to say that LI is a very parochial moral shrew.

So let�s repair a bit of this. We have been trying to catch up with Chechnya, lately, reading the reports of Anna Politskovskaya, a Russian journalist who courageously went into the country in 99, during the course of the second great battle of the post Soviet state against the Checchnyian people. Or against the people in that territory on the map labeled Chechnya. We were horrified. Just the photographs from Grozny are like nothing we�ve seen in the post World War II era. A city of about half a million has been wiped out in the last decade. Wiped out more completely than Sarajevo. Bombed into a state of Hobbesian nature � that nature which comes after civilization has invented the instruments to express its discontent, that nature in which the beast becomes the brute, and the brute is drafted, armed, and considered dangerous. Nature plus kidnapping � that�s Chechnya.

To repair our lack of information, here, we�ve searched the web. There is an amazing site, sponsored by the conservative Hoover Institute (sponsored, the site will tell you, by the Jamestown institute, but a closer reading of the fine print makes it clear that this is Hoover�s baby). A simply scathing article entitled �RUSSIA HAS LOST THE WAR IN CHECHNYA by Andrei Piontkovsky is today�s must read. It compares, in clarity and despair, with the articles Pasolini wrote just before he was assassinated. It is a good place to start understanding the Chechnyan war. That war is linked, as though following some secret and subterrean influence to what happened in Bosnia, to what happened on 9/11, to what is happening in Afghanistan, and to Iraq. There are very good reasons Bush looked into the eyes of Putin and saw a soul mate. Putin�s election, based on selling an ill thought out war on terrorism, in 99, looks like it was copied by the Bush campaign people for the midyear election in 2002.

Piontkovsky fronts his article with three grafs of enormous polemical power:

�Russia has lost this war forever precisely because of the mass bombings of cities and shellings of villages, and the "zachistki" security sweeps and extortions of bribes and ransoms. The overwhelming majority of Chechens now hate us--and that includes those who are forced to collaborate with us. Our army, to which we assigned tasks unsuitable to its very nature, is now dissolving before our eyes as it is drawn ever more deeply into shady transactions with oil, with federal "reconstruction" subsidies--and with the kidnapping and selling of hostages.
Did we enter Chechnya in order to end the ransoming of slaves, or in order to go into that business ourselves? If the latter, what is the difference between the Russian military and the bandits? According to human rights advocates, more than a thousand Russian citizens have been kidnapped by members of our security agencies in the course of "zachistki." Either they have disappeared without a trace, or their corpses, mutilated by torture, have been sold to their families. But our authorities deny such findings. In April the procurator of the Chechen Republic stated that only a few hundred citizens of Russia had been kidnapped by our servicemen. "Only" a few hundred--this of course is mass terror against one's own countrymen.

Especially striking was one particular point in President Vladimir Putin's appeal to the Chechen people just before the March constitutional referendum. Our president expressed his wish that the Chechens' fears of nighttime knocks on the door would disappear forever, that they would see a complete end to "zachistki" and to robbery at checkpoints. Excuse me, but the president of the Russian Federation is not Mother Teresa or a UN official. The president of Russia is commander in chief of those very same troops who are kidnapping and robbing. Is our commander in chief unable to stop our death squads--or does he just not want to? I don't know which answer is the more frightening. �

We take a ghoulish interest in that evaluation of life by the gross � the �only a few hundred citizens of Russia had been kidnapped by our servicemen.� This is the mindset of incompetent despotism, Definitely, it is here. This is the happy happy happy mood of the conservative commentariat vis a vis Iraq. The bone underneath the clown's mask was revealed by a Republican congressman in Washington who recently said that the "the story of what we've done in the postwar period is remarkable," adding, "it is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day." Or as Piontkovsky writes, quoting Macbeth:
I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

Iraq is not Chechnya � or at least not yet. Although the U.S. press has so played down Iraqi casualties that, in essence, the dead vanish (a word that was a favorite, when I was a kid, to describe the massacre of Indians on the North American continent � the Cherokees, the Mohawks, the Creeks, they would �vanish� as the frontier was settled), one of the things about the war, so far, has been the remarkable control of America�s WMD. If you do the war math, you get about 15 thousand Iraqi deaths � I take that figure from the reports I�ve read. Remarkably, among all the op ed writing that the war has unleashed, every one brushs past those numbers. It is as if we fought a ghost army. How is it possible to analyze a human situation in which certain deaths make less sound than feathers falling in the void? I throw that question out just to demonstrate my own naivete and stupidity. Obviously, the media has done a brilliant job of airbrushing those corpses from recent history. In this, the Russian media is the American model. Piontkovsky, again, about Putin:

�Chechnya is our collective neurosis, our collective diagnosis. Vladimir Putin is simply one of us.

After this obscure bureaucrat was made prime minister and heir to Boris Yeltsin, the political technicians of "the family" used their financial and propaganda resources to sell us a heroic myth: The energetic officer of our special services, who, with his precise, laconic orders, was thrusting our regiments into the heart of the Caucasus, bringing fear and death to our enemies. The female heart of Russia, yearning for a powerful commander, was captivated by the heroic young lover.

Three years passed. The more the authorities controlled, the more we began to sense that they were behaving in a strangely unauthoritative way. They were not succeeding in actually solving any of the country's serious economic or social problems, including those related to Chechnya. A growing number of people were calling for negotiations and an end to the war. The legend of Putin the hero was dissolving, and some of our oligarchs were beginning to develop an alternative myth: That of the young, energetic nickel-industry manager, a man so rich that he would not even need to do any further thieving. Putin's re-election in 2004--or, to be more precise, his re-appointment--began for the first time to seem less than certain. But then once again, as if by accident, a tragic event took place that breathed new life into the apparently exhausted Putin myth: Chechen guerrillas seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater. From the standpoint of Putin's political interests, that episode ended brilliantly.�

And again: �On this issue he is a man of passions. See how his face is transformed and his eyes enflamed whenever the topic of Chechnya comes up, how his emotions break through his usual restraints to express themselves in the coarse slang of criminals.�

Bush is another type of leader. The stylistic quirk of reverting to cowboy language has been much remarked on � but our feeling is that this is merely show business. This is the coached Bush, the apt pupil, the Andover Texan. Who, with an idiot's mimicy, pantomimes those gestures his Dad was no good at. It turns out, Bush jr. is good at them. The real Bush is, here, the anti-Putin � a man whose grand emotions amount to the petty peevishness of a man driving an expensive car in a traffic jam: why don�t all the lesser cars get out of his way? Bush�s emotions are saved to be spent on himself alone. When Iraq looked like a way to political gain, he was engaged. Now that it looks like the sure way to political death, he is disengaged. After all, he has already pronounced the war done and had his party on the carrier. The rest is dross, something to be done by subordinates. This accounts for the tonelessness of the 87 billion dollar speech � we think that tonelessness is a truer gauge of Bush�s personality than the dead or alive language that so roiled up the Europeans. The truth about Bush is that he is a vacuum. Inanity propped up by fanaticism � that�s the hallmark of this presidency.

We'll do more weaving between Chechnya and Iraq next week.

Thursday, October 16, 2003


Tom Friedman is up to his old tricks again. At the moment, he is sounding much like Dick Nixon. At least Nixon had some reason to speak about a 'silent majority" of Americans in the 1970s. Friedman's grotesque parody of the Nixonian moment is to talk about the silent majority of Iraqis. You will be unsurprised that Friedman, equipped with superspecial ESP, has tapped into the libido of this group. Yes, Virginia, there is a silent majority of Iraqis stolidly husking the corn out there, and Friedman is their prophet. Much as the tailors in the Hans Christian Andersen tale demonstrated their skill with invisible thread, Friedman, having given his views this mass status, is free to represent the Iraqi man in the street. And why not? After all, it looks like the constitution, which will make Iraq a find and dandy permanent representative of the Republican party, is a bit off in the future -- say ten to twenty years -- so at present, the governing symbols of Iraq are up for grabs. Friedman, like Chalabi, knows a power vacuum when he sees one.

According to our prophet, then, what's been up with that silent majority? Why, they've been oohing and awwwing over the Bush�s program for their country. Today�s column, after lambasting Cheney, very properly, for getting out to infrequently � the poor guy suffers from ideological auto-intoxication � Friedman gets down to brass tacks:

�Thankfully, there is one group of people the Bush team is listening to: Iraq's silent majority. Ironically, Iraq is the one place in the world where the Bush team has chosen not to become obsessed with terrorists, not to focus exclusively on them and their noise, but to just keep on building a better Iraq for Iraqis � the only way to counter terrorism in the long run � despite the bombs bursting in air.�

Now, listening to a silent majority must be something like listening to the sound of one hand clapping � a mystical experience for the initiated. Those of us who are uninitiated wonder about the patronizing tone of building a better Iraq for the Iraqis. Better? That�s the kind of bland talk that dispenses with such problems as who defines better, who pays for it, who does it, who profits from it. In actuality, better is being defined in D.C. instead of Baghdad � it is being defined by the free market types who can�t pursuade the U.S. to swallow the minimal state, maximal corporation policy, but think a supine Iraq might be just the place to try it out. Better is defined by people who are colluding in the continuing slide of Azerbaijan into a semi-monarchical despotism � where�s the talk about democracy there? There was a story in the Times yesterday about � remember? � the democratic wave in the former Soviet Union. Friedman was an enthusiast back then, plugging in with his magic ability to access the silent majorities of various cultures whose languages he doesn�t speak and whose day to day customs he doesn�t know. Here�s a snippet that revisits this past triumph of capital and civil society for all:

�It is a discouraging spectacle for those who proclaimed victory for democracy when Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe more than a decade ago � and who speak of that event today as a model for what they envisage as a democratic transformation in Iraq and the Middle East.
"There is no consolidated liberal democracy in the former Soviet Union except for the Baltic states," said Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University. "There is the legacy of the state just dominating politics. It's not a level playing field, and Azerbaijan is an absurd example of that."

And so, today, we have a new prez in Azerbaijan who looks like the old prez -- cause he's his son! And not a peep from our present creators of Middle Eastern Democracy on the run.

As I recall it, one thing those places all had in common was � yes! � shock therapy economics. The imposition of wild west capitalism by all means necessary. And so -- to get back to the issue of betterness for all -- what's better for the Iraqis than more of the same. So lately, phase two of the occupation, the Bush-ites are pouring down the wide open maws of the Iraqi silent majority an economic policy that is conceded to have the probable effect of increasing unemployment. Just the thing for a place with a 60% unemployment rate. Luckily, there are some voices that are timidly saying, we prefer not to. They are even on the Council.

Now, the Council, having only nominal power and not having a hot-line to the silent majority of Iraqis, only counts when it rubberstamps the better-ness we are spreading all over Iraq. So we just won�t listen to, say, advice from the Finance minister:
�We suffered through the economic theories of socialism, Marxism and then cronyism," the official, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, said in an interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's East Asia Economic Summit meeting here. "Now we face the prospect of free-market fundamentalism."

Our advice to Friedman -- since he feels free to offer his advice to us -- is to turn his bat like ears to voices like this. Because what the Occupation is planning for Iraq is beginning to seem, best case scenario, like a mitigated version of Azerbaijan. A sort of Chalabi's Azerbaijan. We don't think that is worth 87 billion dollars.


I�ve just reviewed one of those annual best of anthologies that picks poems, fiction, and that whore, creative non-fiction from the leading journals and tosses em up, in a huge, indigestible salad. There were maybe fifteen poems in the anthology. And here�s the thing: the poems weren�t even there enough to pronounce them as bad. They were a turned off tv in the room � a blank, blind gaze.

Why is poetry so bad right now?

There are maybe ten novelists and short story writers who broke into prominence in the nineties. At least five of them could be identified by any medium reader. You might not have read Infinite Jest, but you will recognize David Foster Wallace�s. You might not have read Secret History, but you will recognize Donna Tartt�s name. The same test would turn up approximately zero British or American poets.

This isn�t because of some great scandalous overthrow of technique. The make it new credo lasted, I�d say, about through Olson. I�m an eclectic kind of poetaster. Give me Lowell, give me the Black Mountain poets, give me George Oppen or Marianne Moore, and I can work with them. I know when I�m beat, I know when the poet�s demand that I learn how to read the poem is compelling, and when it isn�t. Today�s poets don�t really need to invent new forms, but I�d be happy to follow along if they did. In fact, they are very expert with forms. It�s just they have nothing to say. If they have something to say, usually, I guess, they move into fiction. Or creative �f., the aforesaid happy hooker. So instead, you get the dullest lines, ephemeral feelings that, in the catching, have no power to move even the prime feeler of them, and a quasi surrealistic jumble that moves the poem along, much as the janitor moves detritus down the hall with a big fat red cloth broom.. The poems all read like bad translations of themselves. There�s less logic in them, and less continuity, than you�d find in a Hollywood B movie. They are even more instantly forgettable than those movies, too.

What happened? I mean, through the seventies there was always some strong figure. Merrill, Plath, Thom Gunn. Even Anne Sexton, for Christ�s sake. I think the seventies is the last decade that I could name ten active American poets that I respected.

I know, the inevitable fallow periods. But this one is more fallow than most. You have to go back to the 1780s, perhaps, to find a decade where the poets are generally of such a low caliber. Even then, you had Crabbe. Perhaps it is that gathering the poets into huge poet reservations on campuses has denied them the kind of knock about experience they need. I mean, today�s Baudelaire has to get up early to photocopy his syllabus for the kiddies. While this isn�t really death to novelists, it seems to have killed poets. Poets need some roughing up. They need, well, some love for the English language � something that is sorely lacking in the poems I read. This isn�t HTML code, people. A little paste and copy and there you are -- but it is not something I'd want to do anything with, except maybe wipe my ass. Here's an old essay in the Atlantic Monthly that genteely dips into these waters. Alas, Goia has written the essay looking over her shoulder -- better not hurt anyone's feelings! -- which rather blunts the incisiveness of the thing. When she writes:

"Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture" -- you get the feeling of a seriously pulled punch. If great poetry is being written, it will eventualy find its place. The deal is, dude -- no great poetry is coming through. None. Nada. In any sense that I recognize as great poetry, viz, for instance, wanting to read it. Quoting it. Having it recur to me at odd intervals in my daily life. Having a sense that it is never fully plumbed. Etc.

Poetry magazine recently received something like a hundred million dollars � some fantastic sum. It is now a foundation. They should hire some researchers and figure this out.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


In this country, the drug war is shaped by a cycle as inexplicable as the Mayan million year year. Every decade or so, a celebrity overdoses or generally gets in trouble with a drug. In the eighties, Len Bias, a basketball star, and -- it turned out - an avid tooter, suffered a heart attack, died, and was discovered to have traces of cocaine in his blood stream. Congress went bonkers, and built him their sweetest little memorial, all made out of millions of people�s lives, ticking away, 5- 15 years at a shot. Prison populations, you embrace multitudes, the Congress cried, faintly echoing Whitman. The thing was called the Drug Abuse act of 1986. The thing is with us still.

Unexpectedly, Rush Limbaugh, who one would imagine to have more trouble with bourbon than with heroin, is the celebrity for this year�s cycle. I�m not really interested in Rush Limbaugh as a person or as a controversialist, and I think it is rather funny that we are being treated to various snippets of what he had to say about the drug wars. Liberals dredge up his most neandrathalish pronuniciamentos and rightwingers counter with his occasional stabs at compassionate conservativism. Which certainly begs the question: is it true that the crimes committed by the upper class are excused if they aren't hypocritical? Is this the new rule? I didn't know. I thought that suborning your maid, apparently, to score meds for your stash was a black mark even in the account books of the wealthy.

More interesting than the verbiage, because more symptomatic of the cussed wrongheadedness of the drug war, is the idea that creeps into this discourse on little cat feet, viz, that a person is somehow less responsible for drug use if the use is to relieve pain. Rush, it seems, hurt his back. To relieve the pain, he used those habit forming prescribed meds. He found, like others have, that they were wonderfully soothing. Soon he wanted them around him. He wanted them available. He wanted a stash. Now, if he had just been a sixty year old with the hots for Florida party life, poontang, and medical heroine, that would have been terrible, and there'd be no question of him taking a break from an ongoing investigation so he can retire into a rehab center. No, that wouldn't have been right. Or so the discourse goes. Or so the implications underneath the discourse go. But wait: for the same action � soliciting quantities of prescription heroin illegally � there are two attitudes. One, which takes a grip on the fact that the drug abuse is about simply relieving pain (don't even think that the buzz that accompanies that is in any way a high, or in any way pleasurable), finds the full force and panoply of tragedy in it. The other, which gestures towards the fact that the drug is about frankly grooving on a high until the high grabs you like a devil and it grooves on you -- that is found to be disgusting and incarcerable. We�ve read more than a few comments that approximate that line of thought thrown at l�affaire Rush.

The distinction between recreational drug use and �medical� drug use is even inscribed in law. The habit forming drugs are legal, shooting out from BigPharma. The narcotics are illegal, shipped in by Big Mafia. So some go to jail for selling a couple of bags of spliff, and some have diplomas and dispense painkillers to the multitudes. Well, this is what we think. We think it�s the last rotten gasp of an old and honorable ascetic tradition. We think the division between recreational and non-recreational use, however helpful it might be in diagnosing the causes of behavior, shouldn�t be inscribed in the law at all.

If Rush had been using the drugs for pleasure, his use of it might actually have been easier to monitor and control. The pop image of recreational drug taking as an orgiastic enterprise is not generally true. However, it is true that shameful drug taking can lead to solitary excess, and the kind of seedy behavior that apparently went on in the Limbaugh household with the maid. Why? Because, as the social control of the drug is taken from the hands of the doctor to the hands of the solitary user, the kind of feedback that would spot problems, or that would ritualize the drug use in some way, is subverted. An interesting article from the eighties is all about this: Drug, Set, and Setting by Norman E. Zinberg. Zinberg cites the case of a bourgeois heroin user from South Africa. The first sentence is meant to be provocative: �Carl is an occasional heroin user.� Zinberg�s study was released before the Len Bias death, but it didn�t have much of an effect anyway. In the eighties, the old, Carter era liberalism was giving way to the new, Bennett era moralism. William Bennett, Bush I�s drug czar, famously said that drugs weren�t a medical problem, but a moral problem. He meant morale problem -- as in boosting the morale of the Republican electorate. By vastly accelerating the rate of incarceration for drug users, the Fed�s probably did untold damage to the eco-system of occasional drug use. Drug abuse is aggravated by drug crimalization insofar as the drug setting becomes an outlaw site � or it becomes the solitary mansion of a sixty some year old man in Palm Beach, Florida.

Zinberg was having none of it, back there in the eighties: �The new interest in the comparative study of patterns of drug use and abuse is attributable to at least two factors. The first is that in spite of the enormous growth of marihuana consumption, most of the old concerns about health hazards have proved to be unfounded. Also, most marihuana use has been found to be occasional and moderate rather than intensive and chronic.�

That, of course, is old stuff among hempheads. But Zinberg�s essay is not about the chemical concomitants of addiction or non-addiction, but the social forms that filter the addicted, the part time user, and the abstainer. This, to me, is the heart of the matter. Here are two grafs that lay out Zinser�s central contention:

�Of course, the application of social controls, particularly in the case of illicit drugs, does not always lead to moderate use. And yet it is the reigning cultural belief that drug use should always be moderate and that behavior should always be socially acceptable. Such an expectation, which does not take into account variations in use or the experimentation that is inevitable in learning about control, is the chief reason that the power of the social setting to regulate intoxicant use has not been more fully recognized and exploited. This cultural expectation of decorum stems from the moralistic attitudes that pervade our culture and are almost as marked in the case of licit as in that of illicit drugs. Only on special occasions, such as a wedding celebration or an adolescent's first experiment with drunkenness, is less decorous behavior culturally acceptable. Although such incidents do not necessarily signify a breakdown of overall control, they have led the abstinence-minded to believe that when it comes to drug use, there are only two alternatives�total abstinence or unchecked excess leading to addiction. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, many people remain unshaken in this conviction.
This stolid attitude inhibits the development of a rational understanding of controlled use and ignores the fact that even the most severely affected alcoholics and addicts, who may be grouped at one end of the spectrum of drug use, exhibit some control in that they actually use less of the intoxicating substance than they could. Moreover, as our interviews with ordinary citizens have shown, the highly controlled users and even the abstainers at the other end of the spectrum express much more interest in the use of intoxicants than is generally acknowledged. Whether to use, when, with whom, how much, how to explain why one does not use�these concerns occupy an important place in the emotional life of almost every citizen. Yet, hidden in the American culture lies a deep-seated aversion to acknowledging this preoccupation. As a result, our culture plays down the importance of the many social mores�sanctions and rituals�that enhance our capacity to control use. Both the existence of a modicum of control on the part of the most compulsive users and the general preoccupation with drug use on the part of the most controlled users are ignored. Hence our society is left longing for that utopia in which no one would ever want drugs either for their pleasant or their unpleasant effects, for relaxation and good fellowship, or for escape and oblivion.�

Exactly. Here's one way to show our sympathy with the poor addicted talk radio host: reform the Len Bias laws now.

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...