Thursday, February 12, 2004


It was bound to happen eventually…

The George Bush who won the electoral college in 2000 had run as a rather wealthy, rather conservative suburban dad. While he wasn’t exactly approving of gays and feminists, he was tolerant. He had African-American buddies – not in the neighborhood, but at work. Sure, like any suburban dad, he harbored a few crackpot theories – his were about evolution and economics – but these seemed harmless. With his Texas accent and Crawford ranch, Bush seemed not so much like John Wayne as like a guy who had purchased the complete John Wayne video library and stacked them up on the video shelf, there to accumulate the dust of non-use.

9/11 changed that. Three years later, 9/11 doesn’t seem like the Battle of Hastings or Stalingrad – a historical turning point. It is a much referred to event, but that reference is a substitute for memory, since real memory is still too painful. Read Gail Sheehy’s remarkable report on the evidence that has accumulated for what happened that day, and the visceral panic pain comes back.

9/11 might not have changed everything, but it did change Bush, in two stages. Sheehy’s article reminds us of the first stage. For a crucial twelve hours, Bush pretty much lost control.

This isn’t to disparage him in particular. Karl Weick, a well known psychologist, has made a study of disasters. In a famous paper about a fire that killed several firefighters in Montana, he tracked the unfolding disarray that led to their deaths, and gave it a name: the collapse of sensemaking. Those routines by which we usually organize and manage events (the official procedures, the instruments, the tacit knowledge, the interpersonal trust) all seem to fall apart simultaneously. When Atta’s group took over the plane in the first twenty minutes out of Boston, the effect of that information seems to have produced a rapidly transmitted and magnified shock all along the system that connects the power establishment with the instruments of control. One has only to notice Bush’s response to the first crash, registered by Sheehy through one of her witnesses, the wife of one of the pilots: "I can’t get over what Bush said when he was called about the first plane hitting the tower: ‘That’s some bad pilot.’" Like any other mook that day, Bush didn't know what to make of the information.

The response to the infliction of such trauma on a system of power can move in several ways. It can produce surrender, resistance, regroupment, etc. etc. In Bush’s case, it became of crucial importance to overcome the initial evidence of panic. He did that, in the next week, by acting with a fortified coolness. The power system regrouped. The attack, while symbolically painful, actually changed nothing about the real balance of power. In order to overcome that moment of weakness we all saw on 9/11, Bush and his constituency – the whole nation, at the time – colluded in a little pretence that it hadn’t happened. We re-edited the past. Bush, in the meantime, reached some compact with his inner John Wayne to get himself – and us – over the hump.

This worked all too well to satisfy two desires – the public’s, for a narrative that included a hero to get us out of this horrible situation, and Bush’s, to measure up to the man he wanted to be. As Bush metamorphosed into John Wayne, he erased his earlier fumbles; as he erased those fumbles, he gained popularity; as he gained popularity, he armed himself against those – the press, the opposition – who might have a motive to point to those fumbles. And, as importantly, the D.C. court system began to exert its influence on him, stroking his vanity with the flattery he obviously craved -- that he actually was some avatar of the Duke.

In 2000, nobody, including Bush, would have bought that story. There has always been a vagueness in Bush’s background, and it has always been connected to the sometimes inappropriate fervor with which he publicly embraces Jesus. Sophisticates who think of that as political gesturing are not sophisticated enough – Bush’s need for salvation is palpably real. William James called it the Will to Believe. George Bush would certainly have gone down the road so shoddily essayed by his brother Neal, of Silverado S and L fame, if he hadn’t, as A.A. puts it, accepted a higher power. The need to do so wasn’t held against him by the electorate in 2000. Who among us, after all, hasn’t felt that need? And who can really make a virtue out of resisting it? Rather, the resistance turns on finding substitutes for it – higher powers, after all, can be history, can be art, can be all the Godheads in the pantheon. Atheistic monkeys haven’t yet evolved.

Unfortunately for Bush and his political advisors, they have forgotten this. They have sold themselves on the John Wayne persona. The Bush who once needed Jesus has reversed that formula : now Jesus needs him. Even discounting as exaggerated reports that Bush has talked about himself as some important figure in God’s plan for the world, something did click in his head after 9/11 that corresponds with that kind of arrogance. Why? Let me suggest that the weakness he showed on 9/11 was all too reminiscent, to Bush himself, of certain inglorious episodes in his past. His subsequent arrogance fills in the blanks that Bush has willed into his own biography.

I think we can date exactly when the John Wayne schtick started to fall apart: May 1, 2003. The famous, or infamous, Mission Accomplished speech marked, I think, a fatal moment for Bush, when image began to diverge too far from reality to be recuperable. To understand that, one has to understand how the John Wayne persona acted to legitimate the War against Iraq.

That Bush lied and hyped about the threat Saddam presented is, I think, undeniable. However, I think that Bush’s defenders are right to point out that we didn’t go to war to counter an imminent threat. Rather, we went to war because we trusted the John Wayne persona. We went to war on faith. And, I think, so did Bush. He was gulled by his advisors, who wanted this war, he used the build-up to it for political ends against the Dems. But, ultimately, there has always been something a little irrational about this war. It isn’t that there aren’t motives for it a-plenty – it is that none of those motives quite fit the reason we went to war – or even the reason that Bush wanted to go to war. That is because the reason was, in a way, the change in Bush wrought by 9/11. We went to war because Bush decided to trust his instincts. The irony is that those instincts are implants, Bush’s own psychological Botox. We saw the naked man on 9/11. We saw the instincts in action. Stripped down to fight or flight, Bush flew and flew until the fight came reassuringly back. His new instincts were virtual ones – the instincts of the movie Wayne. But the old instincts were still there – the old Bush was still lurking.

Reality has a way of undoing confidence men, even confidence men who trick themselves. When Bush announced Mission Accomplished on May 1, you could see his John Wayne persona being sucked back into the old Bush. This is always the way Bush did business – from Harkin to the tax cuts. Once you’ve won one or two small bets, bet everything.

And always, in these cases, Bush has misread the data. Always he has misplaced the Will to Believe from where it works – as a personal remedy for overcoming bad habits – to where it doesn’t – which is the dimension of reality itself, that big resistant Other that will always, sooner or later, undermine our fondest wish, which is that we not die. The wish that the iron laws of probability will, this one time, yield to our libido.

Think, for a moment, of the Mission that was accomplished:

The war wasn’t paid for;
The enemy we ostensibly fought (Saddam) was unaccounted for;
The territory we occupied was much bigger, and more populous, than the strength of the forces we had to occupy it could manage on anybody's account;
The man we had favored to head Iraq – Chalabi – had gained no traction since we injected him into the area;
The weapons with which to attack American forces were not even partially in our control;

In the John Wayne narrative, the fadeout comes before civilization arrives. The town might be cleansed of bad men, but then comes the work of paying for the police and building the jail. The best Wayne pictures don’t show him as a leader, but as an outlier – an unaccountable force, as in the Searchers. Wayne doesn’t play the Commander in Chief for good reasons – he has no talent for the patient building, dickering and dealing that goes with maintaining leadership.

Between the Mission Accomplished speech and the Bring It on speech, the persona that Bush had crafted in 2002 came unglued. Surely the last year must seem, to Bush, uncannily like other bad years in his life. Like the year that he and his Harkin friends tried to exploit the opportunities supposedly opened up after the Gulf War I. Or the year his father lost the presidency. All those times in which Bush, who is a terrible businessman, refused to hedge his bets – only to have to hedge them hastily and unprofitably at the last moment. This is always the moment when someone else has to help him out. Bush has a talent for not, immediately, being humiliated by this. Baker, for instance, getting him out of a jam in Florida must have, must have made Bush feel small. And there must have been some satisfaction to lending his ear, in the fall of 2002, to those people who talked his Dad’s men down. 2002 was the election W. won on his own. However, it couldn’t last. Bizarrely, the cowboy persona that Bush and his advisors have crafted out of sheer rhetoric is the one that his political operatives are banking on to get him re-elected. For this reason, we think the capture of Osama now looms as Bush’s great chance in this election. It is a chance to reconnect with his own Will to Believe – which has, on the evidence of the MTP interview, degenerated into longwinded, and exculpatory, clichés. This in itself must be a little humiliating. Bush is just not the Ahab type – he’d rather forget the Great White Whale. We don’t really believe that Bush took Saddam so personally that the war was a get even crusade – after all, the one person with whom the war really got even was Bush’s dad. And he has rubbed that in, with talk about lost opportunities and democracy, ever since. But now that Saddam is captured, he has to go out there and manage to get Osama, who he would just as soon forget. Bush hates to be reminded of the past like this, just hates it. The past is so hard to shape to the way he'd like it to be.

Wayne, of course, is always forced, at a certain moment in his movies, to pardon himself – usually to some woman. Bush differs from a lot of conservatives in being quite comfortable with women, just because (in the one trait he actually does share with Wayne) he trusts women to forgive him. This, by the way, is a little but real victory of Bush over his circumstances, if stories of Barbara Bush are true, since one would think that the upbringing by such a harridan would have exactly the opposite effect. But here there are no forgiving women, no Laura's, to bring him home. It is symbolic in more than one way that Bush, at the moment, is calling on his ex girlfriends to remember that he really did go to Guard training in Alabama. After all, he said so...

The public and private images that have been at play over the past three years have a dream logic. No psychoanalyst would be surprised that Bush is now being hit simultaneously with two things: the Kay report and the AWOL charges. Both operate as factors in one complex, one delusion. And both are dangerous to Bush because both are about who he really is. If we went to war on John Wayne’s sayso, Wayne can’t, as the going gets tough, dissolve into a wealthy suburban dad. The superhero’s agon must go on, and on, until we understand what we have always already understood -- there really aren’t any superheros. Caught in the toils of the image that he had to assume in order to go on, we are watching the mask come off, and the skin come with it. The Guard service is a trivial issue, but it resonates not so much because of Kerry’s medals – although those help – but because of the central weakness of trying to run a man on a character that has been fabricated out of an historical instance’s need. We’d still lay odds that Bush, the incumbent, will win this election, but the Democrats have a secret weapon that just might do the trick for them: the real George Bush. If the voters remember the man they didn’t elect in 2000, Bush will be the victim of an odd backlash, based on a deceit that he has talked himself and a great part of the nation into believing. While he richly deserves to fall there is something classically pitiful in the way he has, like a flawed hero in a Thomas Hardy novel, so amply and thoughtlessly contrived the means of his own downfall.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


The Next Klondike

“George Sigalos, a Halliburton executive, recently gave a speech at a conference in Washington for businesspeople who hoped to obtain government contracts in Iraq. Many in the crowd had paid nearly four hundred dollars to attend, drawn by descriptions of Iraq as “the next Klondike,” as James Clad, an official with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency, put it.”

LI urges readers to link on over to Jane Meyer’s article about Halliburton in the New Yorker. As any anti-war obsessive knows, the old American strictures against war profiteering have entirely vanished under the beneficent regard of the Bush administration, which seems to have rediscovered the old time-y virtues of Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome. However, one is a little surprised by the gleeful rubbing of hands among the mafia of corrupt players. They all find the very idea of contributing to Republican causes in order to ensnare government contracts to be a normal, and even a patriotic, method for transforming war into profit. At one time, the decencies were adhered to – the State was not considered a rube to be duped in public at least; the gentlemen from Morgan and Dupont would, when hauled before committees, usually make some statements indicating one’s patriotic duty and the like. That was before the Rand-ian revolution in D.C., where the selfish interests of the millionaire are considered justification in itself for any action, from mindless tax cutting to bombing Middle Eastern countries and stealing their oil. We live in the age of bald faced robbers, and none is balder, or has more face, than Cheney. Mayer traces his present behavior back in his career – from his time as Defense Secretary, where he targeted Defense cuts that would solely effect Democratic districts, to his free and easy days under Donald Rumsfeld under Nixon, where he dispensed with the bureaucracy at the Office of Economic Opportunity and outsourced business to his cronies. Ah, and before that, he was a little spy on campuses, working for some anti-communist nut – a delightful tidbit in a wholly despicable resume. One funny note – quail hunting seems to have been very very good to Cheney. He was elevated to the lucrative CEO post at Halliburton after going quail hunting with the directors. Currently, he has a suit pending before a Supreme Court that includes Anthony Scalia, with whom – you guessed it – he recently went quail hunting. The suit is to decide whether the documents relating to Cheney’s energy policy task force – basically, a pollute and profit venture – should be made available to the public.

There is some justification for engaging private companies in taking over services previously done by the government. That justification rests on the idea that competition, which is the vehicle through which the private sector theoretically operates, will bring down costs and create efficiencies.

Yet somewhere along the way, this justification gets lost. Halliburton has won the majority of its very, very profitable contracts because, the Pentagon claims, nobody else can do what Halliburton does. Even the Army Corps of Engineering – which claimed to have made its decision to reward Halliburton with contracts that are misleadingly said to be worth 1.2 billion dollars, since the contracts will ramify into other contracts – has lately backtracked:

“WASHINGTON — Faced with price-gouging allegations involving Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, the Army Corps of Engineers now acknowledges it acted alone in awarding Halliburton new business.
The corps initially suggested that experts from other U.S. agencies played an important role.
The Army Corps of Engineers told The Associated Press that the corps — not an evaluation team cited on its Internet site — chose Halliburton for a contract worth up to $1.2 billion. The corps is refusing to release records showing on what merits it made the decision.”

So the justification for outsourcing matters that used to be done by the Pentagon to private firms is that, being competitive, these firms will be more efficient; and the justification for selecting certain specific firms – like Halliburton – is that there is no competition for what they do. Wonderful. This, in a nutshell, is a new branch of logic in the field of justification – Bush logic. In other words, this is outsourcing without competition. Another word for this is developing a machinery to reward those in power now with the profits of the decisions they make, supposedly for the public, by ensuring their future recycling in private ventures – which will use their connected status to continue the parasitizing of Government monies. One of Mayer’s sources aptly sums up what is going on. After detailing the (sad, to me) profiteering done by Jack Kemp (a man who LI used to think was, at least, a morally decent sort) by creating a jack off company to consult about Iraq and oil – as if Jack Kemp knows jack all about either subject – and showing how former General Franks is now profiting from having headed U.S. forces in Iraq in April (apparently, Franks thinks of war as a sport –with himself, now, as an athlete out for commercial endorsements), Mayer writes:
“Franks’s lawyer, Marty Edelman, confirmed his client’s participation: “That is correct. But it is my understanding that he won’t be dealing with Iraq or the military for a year” (to comply with government ethics rules). Asked how Kemp and Franks had joined forces, Edelman said, “It seems like everyone on that level knows each other.” Edelman himself is now on the advisory board of Free Market Global.
Kemp’s second project, in which he said he would play an advisory role, is something called al-Ruba’yia. He describes it as a two-hundred-million-dollar fund to be invested in various ventures in Iraq, from energy to education. He is trying to attract American investors. Kemp is well positioned for this task: his political organization, Empower America, counts among its supporters some of the current Bush Administration’s top figures. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, is a former board member. “It’s like Russia,” the businessman said. “This is how corruption is done these days. It’s not about bribes. You just help your friends to get access. Cheney doesn’t call the Defense Department and tell them, ‘Pick Halliburton.’ It’s just having dinner with the right people.”

These people are so, so depressingly obvious that LI runs out of words to deal with them. The hand faulters -- the letters dissolve into their individual and irreducible sounds . How to build the right word, the one that will rid us of this beast?

PS -- also see the WP story about Cheney and Scalia's hunting expedition. It does contain one truly hilarious graf. After giving space to Scalia's reasons for not recusing himself from the case in which Cheney is asking the court to shut down requests to see what happened at the Energy policy group he formed, the paper says:

"Scalia's view may have described ethical norms in a clubbier Washington. But in today's climate, his off-court activities with Cheney were denounced by legal ethicists and editorial writers. "

A clubbier Washington? And when, pray tell, was that? The present era is about as clubby as D.C. has ever been.

Sunday, February 08, 2004


“But though the nation be exempt from real evils, it is not more happy on this account than others. The people are afflicted, it is true, with neither famine nor pestilence; but there is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them; it spreads with pestilential rapidity, and infects almost every rank of people; what is still more strange, the natives have no name for this peculiar malady, though well known to foreign physicians by the appellation of Epidemic Terror.”

According to the sociologists, Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” to talk about the sweeping fears that will suddenly go through all levels of a society. Cohen studied Mods and Rockers to find out, among other things, why sensational stories about Mod violence and deviance became, briefly, a staple of the British media. Cohen examined the mechanism of this sensation, from incident to report to response. In a sense, what he was doing, with a different vocabulary, was what Oliver Goldsmith had done two hundred years before, in his essay on Mad Dogs. Since I don’t believe Goldsmith’s essay has ever been referred to by those who have written about the history of moral panic, I thought I’d compare Goldsmith’s Epidemic Terror with Cohen’s moral panic – and in particular, the way in which Goldsmith used the epidemic image to medicalize an older image of rumor.

First, though, let’s talk a bit about Cohen’s terms. A good paper applying Cohen and Hall’s work to panics about language is on this site:

I get this quote from the site. Here’s how Cohen defines his term:

“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A
condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a
threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and
stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by
editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited
experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or
(more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten,
except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.(1972:9)

The Epidemic Terror of Goldsmith’s essay is exactly of Cohen’s type-of thing-that-suddenly-becomes-visible, even though it has been in existence a long time: mad dogs.

Goldsmith, of course, is writing in a tradition about rumor and ignorance that goes back to Virgil's goddess of Rumor, who perches on the walls of the city. What is interesting about his essay is the direction he takes. It would be easy to employ the old routines that targeted ignorance and the mob. The term “mob” came into existence in the 18th century – it was a shortened form of mobile vulgarum, common people in movement. And Goldsmith, as well as any 18th century intellectual, wasn’t averse to tossing around a little abuse of the mob. However, he is more interested in mechanism than typology – he is after the dynamic of his “epidemic terror”. And to understand that, you have to pose some non-traditional questions that concern the about-ness of ignorance – questions that latter led Freud and Canetti to their (different) conclusions about crowd behavior.

Goldsmith begins with examples to show that epidemic terrors are both chronic and structurally similar:

“One year it issues from a baker’s shop in the form of a sixpenny loaf; the next, it takes the appearance of a comet with a fiery tail; the third, it threatens like a flatbottomed boat; and the fourth, it carries consternation in the bite of a mad dog.”

In all of the cases, the risk is disproportionate to the terror it spreads. However, the element I want to underline is that Goldsmith isn't showing that the disproportion is irrational -- he is trying to show how it is rationalized. Hence, my reference to Freud. The essay was probably penned sometime in the 1750s or 1760s. Supposedly England was swept with various epidemics of what surgeon John Hunter, who wrote about it in the 1780s, called canine madness. Goldsmith intentionally parallels two forms of madness – one is spread by a mad dog’s bite, while the other’s lines of infection are at first, mysterious. In both cases, though, the contagion model applies. The individual madness of the hyrophobe is paralleled by the collective madness of the crowd.

Goldsmith, as a good doctor, describes the outward symptoms of the ‘disease” of fearing mad dogs – people “sally from their houses with that circumspection which is prudent in such as expect a mad dog at every turning;” “a few of unusual bravery arm themselves with boots and buff gloves, in order to face the enemy…” In short, a city operates as though it were suddenly under imminent threat.

And what of that threat? Goldsmith observes how the discovery of whether a dog is mad or not resembles the old trial of dunking witches – if she floats, she’s a witch, if she drowns, she is innocent. Since the symptoms of being a mad dog are biting, or running away, crowds gather around dogs, jab or stone them, and then are either attacked – proof that the dog is mad – or escaped from – proof, again, that the dog is mad. Out comes the halter and the dog is hung.

“When epidemic terror is once excited, every morning comes loaded with some new disaster.” Goldsmith anticipates Cohen once again. In Cohen’s model, the menace has to be repeated over and over. In the age of the copy machine, tv, and radio (Cohen’s book dealt with the pre-Net age), the vector of transmission runs through these vast news machines. In Goldsmith’s day, the vector of transmission was still as much oral as it was print. What is interesting is that there will suddenly be a wave of information about the menace that runs through oral space – much like today’s “watercooler talk.” ‘As in stories of ghosts, each loves to hear the account, though it only serves to make him uneasy.” Goldsmith imagines a story beginning in some outlying area, where a woman is frightened by a dog. As the story is retold – and as it spreads towards more densely populated areas – the story’s characteristics change, until they assume the shape of the usual terror: a mad dog, a sudden attack, a highly placed woman who is suddenly transformed into a foaming hydrophobic on all fours.

Goldsmith’s epidemic terror includes all three elements of Cohen’s moral panic: exaggeration, the prediction that such things are inevitable, and symbolization. In Cohen’s case, the symbolization congealed around the image of the “Mod;” in Goldsmith’s case, around the image of the dog. The dog isn’t simply diseased, but mad – a disturbance of the rational faculties, a lowering of the censure between the Id and the ego – to use an anachronistic way to describe it.

We especially like the end of Goldsmith’s essay, because he goes to the heart of the terror – to the dog itself – and makes a little plaidoyer for the dog: “in him alone, fawning is not flattery.” “How unkind then to torture this animal that has left the forest to claim the protection of man! How ungrateful a return to the trusty animal for all its services!”

We could find many contemporary applications, n’est-ce pas?

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...