Thursday, July 01, 2004


One of LI’s brothers has always been pretty core pacifist. So we were surprised, talking with him a few days ago, when he said he didn’t understand why they were trying Saddam. “Why din’t they just kill him when they captured him?”

An interesting idea. LI is generally opposed to the death penalty. When the Marquis de Sade was briefly made a judge during the French Revolution, he distinguished himself by opposing all death sentences. This was entirely consonant with Sade’s philosophy, which held that since the state institutionalized joylessness, there could be no pleasure in a state sponsored killing. The Sadeian moralist approves of private homicides because they are pleasurable to the murderer, but disapproves strongly of those killings that result from duty, because – and on this Sade agrees with Kant – it isn’t.

Sade’s too-cruel-to-be-kindness obviously lost the ideological battle during the revolution. New regimes, as de Maistre and Michel Foucault knew, must plant themselves on the murdered corpses of old regimes. Freud might have been wrong, historically, about the primal horde, but he was right to sense that the legitimacy of power depends on the crucial transgression of that moral imperative: thou shalt not kill. The question is, what serves that purpose best – the predetermined trial and execution, or the more summary butchery.

Take the case of the Romanovs. Much cold war weeping was shed over their squalid fates. This weeping had the political motivation of hanging a mark of illegitimacy around the Soviets. It had the more practical effect of disguising the Romanov reign of crime: the massacres of 1905 and the criminal prosecution of the war, for example. If any pair of monarchs deserved the guillotine, it was this terrible twosome. It was telling and typical that one of the books discovered upon Alexandria’s bedroom table after she was shot was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – no doubt this was not her first reading. In her husband’s diary, he records turning to it for solace in the first weeks after his deposing.

Trotsky, apparently, pushed for a trial for the Romanovs, to be broadcast over the radio. Yes, that is right, Trotsky is the godfather of Courtroom TV, Cops, and Judge Judy.

However, as the White Counter-revolution mounted a real threat to the Bolsheviks, the fate of the Romanovs came together out of improvisation, haste, and incompetence.
For all of Trotsky’s attempt to find parallels between the French Revolution and the 1918 revolution, the end of the Romanov family was more like the archly villainous path to power forged by Shakespeare’s Richard III than the people’s theatre he envisioned.

Here’s the account from the regicide who managed the butchery:

“In April of 1918, the family and some of their entourage were moved from Siberia to Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. On July 17, after midnight, the family was woken up and led to a basement room along with four aides. Aleksei and Alexandra were given chairs. A group of armed men entered the room, and a local commander announced that, by order of the regional soviet committee, they were all to be shot.

Yakov Yurovsky, the commander, later wrote: "The others then made a few incoherent exclamations.... Then the shooting started." The tsar was killed instantly by the first bullet; Alexandra died next. The rest were shot in the following two or three minutes. Aleksei and three of his sisters were not killed instantly and "had to be shot again." The last daughter was still not dead after the second round of bullets. "When they tried to finish off one of the girls with bayonets, the bayonet could not pierce the corset. Thanks to all this, the entire procedure ... took around 20 minutes."
Apparently, Yurovsky never got over that night. He had the further misfortune of having to supervise the disposal of the bodies himself. The daughters, it turned out, had sewn diamonds into their corsets and had little lockets with Rasputin’s picture around their necks.

Here’s what Trotsky said about Nicholas:

"He did not know how to wish: that was his chief trait of character," says a reactionary French historian of Louis. Those words might have been written of Nicholas: neither of them knew how to wish, but both knew how to not wish. But what really could be "wished" by the last representatives of a hopelessly lost historic cause? " Usually he listened, smiled, and rarely decided upon anything. His first word was usually No.” Of whom is that written? Again of Capet. But if this is so, the manners of Nicholas were an absolute plagiarism. They both go toward the abyss "with the crown pushed down over their eyes.” But would it after all be easier to go to an abyss, which you cannot escape anyway, with your eyes open? What difference would it have made, as a matter of fact, if they had pushed the crown way back on their heads?”

Trotsky’s point is that Russian history had reached a juncture in which the impossibility of cazrist governance was structural, not personal.

In 1998, Yeltsin supervised a farcical ceremony commemorating the reburial of the royal corpses, and wept tears that were some combination of crocodile and vodka before getting back to the serious business of pilfering Russia and massacring Chechnyians.

If there is a lesson in this tale of blood and kitsch, it is that the primal horde best take care to murder the father openly, and with ceremony. The Soviets managed to make a regicide that would have won the hearty approval of Oliver Cromwell into a matter of shame.

One wonders where the balance of shame will be in the trial of Hussein. It is bad news that the IGC, in one of its last paroxysms of bad policy, left the direction of the trial to Ahmed Chalabi’s nephew. The NYT reports that the Bush administration views the trial as a possible model for developing some other than international system of jurisprudence to try crimes against humanity. In the typical hamhanded fashion of the CPA, Hussein is being charged with the crime of invading Kuwait, but not Iran, thereby sending the message that if you are going to wage a war of disastrous aggression and kill 500,000 people, be sure to buy your arms from approved Western dealers.

It is the Kuwait charge that makes us think that the trial of Saddam is supposed to be doubly legitimizing. But there is an inherent contradiction between the needs of the Americans to once again point to Kuwait and the need of the Iraqis for a universal condemnation of the total sum of Hussein’s acts. Given the intransigence of the Kuwaitis and the Saudis, lately, about the war reparations they want to extract from the current government, we think that this might be yet another major CPA misjudgment. Out of such cultural clashes grow the armed variety.

Monday, June 28, 2004


The last issue of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy contained a number of articles about democratic theory and pragmatism. John Dryzek, who has written extensively about what he calls, after Habermas, the ‘deliberative public’ – of which such things as the blogosphere would be subsets – poses an interesting question in his article, Pragmatism and Democracy:

“On one interpretation of pragmatism, which can appeal to Dewey as well as to Peirce, the idea would be to make the public as it confronts social problems much more like a scientific community in terms of its commitment to the pursuit of truth. The real world of politics does of course feature plenty in the way of partisanship, inequality, self-interest, ideology, strategizing, deceit, and the raw exercise of power. So would a pragmatist program for public deliberation have to involve an attack on these pervasive yet deeply problematic aspects of politics?”

Dryzek’s article is couched as a reply to another article in the journal by Cheryl Misak, who “believes that truth in the sense of indefeasible collective judgments is a proper aspiration in politics, such that there are right answers if only we deliberate long enough and well enough about a particular problem.”

Dryzek has a deep objection to this way of thinking:

“Without the preparedness to give up a belief in the face of decisive counterarguments, Misak says we will get "the degradation of belief to mere opinion." But in politics, opinion is not mere. What we mean by "public opinion" can be more or less distorted, more or less defensible. But do we really want to convert "public opinion" into "public belief"? The problem is that under any realistic time constraints, opinion cannot be eliminated. But even without such constraints, there would, as Hannah Arendt (1958) has argued, be something very peculiar about a politics that sought to exchange opinion for truth. Implicit in a situation where moral truth is sought is an incipient danger of the eventual silencing of the differing opinions that are the very grist of politics, especially if, as Misak puts it, "disagreement implies a mistake on somebody's part." A pragmatic defense against silencing here would be that all individuals should accept that they are as likely to be in error as their opponent in an argument. But opinions are not like truth claims in science, and here the pragmatist's view of continuity between science and democratic politics starts to look suspect. Opinions differ in large part because experiences and thus identities differ, and experiences may never be fully accessible to those who have not shared them. Such a view can find support in Rorty's pluralistic interpretation of pragmatism, which highlights linguistically-constituted variety. Asking an identity to be provisional and capable of being discarded if an argument is lost means the identity is not a core part of being—it is not an identity at all.”

LI thinks that Dryzek instinct is correct, here, but his analysis is deficient. His instinct is that opinion must be defended against the old Platonic ideal of the Republic. However screwed up Popper’s analysis of Hegel and Marx is, Popper was right to see a common thread in all political theories that seek to create a polity that emulates some kind of scientific, or truth-centric, ideal. Silencing the false, under this perspective, is the very goal of the policy maker. Dryzek is also right, to an extent, to see that the problem with this goal is that it conflicts with identity – with the heterogenous array of positions over social space. The social is the anti-universal, to put it in the briefest possible space. But his analysis falls short when it comes to living fact of identity, insofar as he emphasizes identity as a given, rather than as a struggle over time. In this way he makes identity into an untouchable – it becomes a Disneyland of difference. This, we think, expresses the deep desire of a certain form of East Coast liberalism, which is the latest stage in an ideology that goes back in American history to the early nineteenth century, and the establishment of a certain sense of decorum as a means by which the elite preserved their status positions both economically and culturally. This liberalism has a horror of depth, because depth is where the struggle goes on. Although we don’t, in the end, think Melville was fair to Emerson, we think that he sensed, in the Emerson of cliché, something of this same horror, and this same ossificiation of the plural. Here is a passage from one of the great letters:

“I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store -- that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. -- To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain. -- Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”


My friend S., who turned me on to Complex Adaptive Systems theory, is presently bringing to a close her magnum opus and dissertation in one last pageheavy burst of scribbling. Although I know she will never read these words – S. has better things to do than look at the sad evidences of my graphomania – still, I dedicate this post to her.

Salut, S.!!!

In the last post, LI laid out the problems, as we see them, with consequences, and consequently with consequentialism. If you will remember, we wrote that the problem, as we saw it, started with counting over the consequences of actions. This is the robust, quantitative approach to the problem, approved of by all analytic philosophers. We further said that the problem had a superficial aspect – that of giving good reasons for containing consequences – and a deeper, structural aspect – that of giving an account of actions such that consequences are considered a necessary effect of actions.

The example we gave, here, to illustrate what we meant by the containment problem derives from Morehead’s book on the Gallipoli campaign. In that book, we are told that Churchill, on August 3, 1914, decided to impound two Turkish battleships that were being built in British shipyards. We traced a plausible chain of consequences from this action to the events of October, 1914, when the Allies delivered an ultimatum to the Turks, which was refused. That refusal effectively aligned the Turks with the Germans.

Our chain included some peculiar items. For instance, the Germans supplied the Turks with two ships and crews immediately after Churchill announced his decision. Was this really a consequence of Churchill’s decision? Isn’t it possible that the Germans would have acted in the same way even if Churchill hadn’t made this decision? And finally, a question that always pops up in these kinds of discussions, how could Churchill know that the Germans would act as they did once he had acted as he did?

I’m afraid we haven’t done with the superficial problem of containment. As is hinted at by my last question, we like to divide consequences into intended and unintended. This division implies that there exists some rough means that justifies attaching the two labels to consequences of, at times, the same act.

I am not going to claim that the label has no usefulness in certain situations. But there is a limit to its meaningfulness. Take, for instance, our second question. The Germans “saw” what Churchill did. Social action is rarely such that it occurs only between a Crusoe agent and some indigenous Friday singelton. Rather, the social matrix within which actions occur is such that the consequences of the action, insofar as those consequences are attendant upon the perception of the action, can ramify rapidly. The social agent knows this – in fact, we often consider that, in certain situations, part of his responsibility is communicative. Every lovers quarrel eventually hinges on such things. In Churchill’s case, he certainly knew that the Germans were perceiving his act. Their subsequent actions in response to that act, then, must be prefigured in the motives for the act, to some degree. That prefiguring is, largely, guesswork. The intention that an act have a certain consequence, which seems so clear, gets muddier as we seek to embed the action in the social matrix. The edge between intention and the unintended is not, really, a clear and distinct thing at all times. And, in principle, this lack of clarity is possible for any act. Intentions can always be argued about. Although there “must have been a mistake,” Joseph K. can be arrested at any time, because no Joseph K. can ever give an account of his actions such that we know precisely the limits of his intention.

The moral fact that the containment of consequences is indeterminable forms the basis for one of the principle themes of the mystic. When Blake says that the hot needle that pokes out the eye of the songbird darkens the stars, he is merely alluding to the infinite ramification of consequences that, in a drier tone, is considered by Donald Davidson in the Essays on Actions and Events. When Jesus of Nazareth claims that God knows even the fall of the smallest sparrow, he is saying either: a, that all events in one unified throb surge up against the divine, or, b., that all events are distributed to their place and function by the infinitely fine consciousness of our Heavenly Father.

Counting consequences, a dry topic for analytic philosophers to rattle about in their small journals, is also the cry of the messiahs and the lyric poets. LI might be a dry rattler, but at least this topic puts us in good company.

Next post – or some post next week – we will return to the deeper structural problems, and try to show how the original, petty stimulus for this wildly expanding topic – Hitchens supposition that he can strip consequences from acts as he goes backwards to make pronouncements about the moral/political errors of Michael Moore – shows that Hitchens has abandoned one view of history, that of struggle, associated with Marxism, for a very vulgar Whig view. And, in so showing, points out certain questions about democracy itself. Fun, fun, fun.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...