Saturday, October 02, 2004


(Sorry in advance to everybody out there who is bored stiff with political posts. LI is, at the moment, swept up in the mad estrus of this campaign)

Mining the debate transcript for gold – or, in Bush’s case, fool’s gold – is easy.

From what we have read, little attention has been paid, so far, to this incredibly revealing exchange:

“LEHRER: New question, Mr. President, two minutes. You have said there was a "miscalculation" of what the conditions would be in postwar Iraq. What was the miscalculation, and how did it happen?

BUSH: No, what I said was that, because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam loyalists were around. I mean, we thought we'd whip more of them going in.

But because [Gen.] Tommy Franks did such a great job in planning the operation, we moved rapidly, and a lot of the Baathists and Saddam loyalists laid down their arms and disappeared. I thought they would stay and fight, but they didn't.”

“I thought they would stay and fight”? Could this possibly be correct? Could Bush really have thought that an enemy force, exposed to the withering technological superiority that made any battle like stand against the Americans suicidal, would cheerfully fall into bowling pin formation and wait for us to knock them over? Apparently, yes. Apparently, the “bring em on” remark stems not from callousness but from a deep seated cluelessness about the nature of warfare. The only thing sillier than that remark – and it is one of the silliest remarks ever uttered by an American president – is the little lie in it about laying down their arms. This makes it seems like the American force was big enough to have received a traditional surrender. Of course, it wasn’t and they didn’t. The arms were kept, the soldiers didn’t ‘disappear” – they were never captured to begin with – the arms dumps from which the insurgents resourced their violence were unguarded, and are, basically still, and the situation, ripe for guerilla fighting, is now such that the American military is doing something no invading force has ever done before: bombing the cities that they occupy.

This says everything about Bush’s confusion between cheerleading, at which he is very good, and leading. LI is extremely dubious about the business literature re leading – actually, about all biz literature tout court, which we have, at one point in our life, had to review, discovering the seven efficient joys of management babble – but there is one principle that seems pretty well tested. While one hopes for the best case scenario, one plans to avoid the worst.

However, Bush’s administration has only one way to deal with the worst case scenario: denial. Optimism and denial seem to be the hallmarks of their failure in almost every department. Which isn’t odd – optimism and denial seem to be the hallmarks of Bush’s career up to the governorship. The leadership style that doomed his first company, and that doomed his Harkin oil role, is the same style, amplified, that has doomed his Iraq project.

The mindset of blind optimism was written all over Bush’s performance. For instance, he repeated, to a question about the future in the case that Kerry was elected, that he planned on being elected himself. Period. Well, the weave of American history through the numerous duds and dudes that have been our presidents has had one unifying note: every president who was succeeded by a candidate from the opposite party has made way, however ungracefully, for that candidate. There have been no scorched earth presidencies. Until now. How appropriate: a president who came in on a coup is basically running on a coup platform. Any military junta worth its salt guards its position by threatening to destroy the mechanisms of the state if it is overthrown.

As we have said before, the best way to look at the Bush presidency is not to find parallels with past American presidencies, but parallels with coups in third world states. That's the pattern of his patter.

Friday, October 01, 2004


LI, being a superstitious type, takes some credit for Kerry’s victory in the debate yesterday. We’ve noticed that Kerry is better when LI isn’t observing him. Here’s a mystery for quantum political mechanics.

We did briefly turn on the radio, and heard Bush extensively hum and then haw. We also heard him actually have to say the name Osama bin Laden, which he characteristically botched – surely Bush’s bad conscience, like Macbeth’s, reveals itself in such telling verbal cues and phantoms:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,/
The handle toward my hand? Come , let me clutch thee:/
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still./
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible/
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but/
a dagger of the mind…/

Ah, the Osama of the mind – is that a beret moustache ensemble he is sporting, or a beard and a long white robe? At least we know one thing: Bush could well say, I have thee not and yet I see thee still.

In any case, we are happy. It isn’t so much a Kerry victory we want – although we do want that – as to make the inevitable avoidable. We want to expand the flaw in the glacier, the gaps in the avalanche, the thing that springs up in the masses and says: things don’t have to be like this.

It is a beginning.

Our other clue that Bush must have truly fallen flat is the media treatment of the debate, which echoes the treatment of the State of the Union address, or the interview with Tim Russert. It is at these times that the public glimpses the child prince who leads us, who is, above all else, childish. The media just hates the glimpse behind the curtain, and does what it can to mitigate our reasonable disgust. The cause, we think, lies not with the prejudices of the characters who make up the media elite. It is curious that journalists, by the bias inherent in their training and culture, tend to be liberal, but the current commentariat skews heavily to the right. We think that the reason for this is found not in the ideological commitments of the press per se – it makes sense to us that the dressage of journalism would skew to the left, just as the dressage of the oil executive would skew to the right, personal taste and ties being the largest sociological factor in ideological worldview -- but in its function. The media assumes a function in democracies that the court used to hold in monarchies. Since the legitimacy talk in democracies is oriented towards the value of truth, rather than the value of order, the press and tv news, etc., front the truth function – but in reality, they exist to support order. Since Reagan’s presidency, the new order has triumphed. It is the order of a radical inequality in wealth between classes, and a corresponding destruction of the New Deal view of government as a force that countervails corporate power. Clinton accepted the force of things, but sustained, in a minor key, the countervailing ethos.

Interestingly, the press frenzy about Clinton was basically a courtier’s frenzy. The glimpse behind the curtain showed us a bit of plebian sex. The reflex courtier’s action to this was to expel the king in order to preserve the court. Bush, on the other hand, is such a creation of the court that the press’s courtier heart can’t help but love him. Thus, the absurd mismatch between describing him as a swaggerer, as a tough hombre, and his real appearance, which has an effect of anything but. He is of a type quite common in Texas, a man whose trust fund operated to permanently arrest his emotional development. LI has been around these types for twenty some years, and we like them. They are great partiers. They are the heirs who become Buddhists, or goldbugs, or potsmoking evangelicals, etc., etc. They have no sense that intellectual consistency is a constraint, because they have no sense that the intellect has any real autonomy. Their instinct echoes Hume’s famous phrase. For them, reason truly is a slave to the passions. Hume thought this was good – he had no tolerance for the proto-liberal project of theory. He was a thorough going Tory. But Hume might be unpleasantly surprised at the culture of feelings his protest has spawned. The hibernation of reason has produced the illusion that the world of feelings corresponds to the world as it is – a position Hume was careful to skirt. By an ironic dialectical twist, theory now has its revenge, as the proof of its rightness or wrongness becomes dependent on the strength of the good feelings it summons. Our child prince is not so much a compassionate conservative as a sentimental one, thus combining the worst of all possible worlds.

Let others analyse the debates. LI is much too fearful to watch them – or listen on the radio. One reaches a point of saturation with the maunderings of Bush. Lately, Kerry has been on a roll. We hope that he continues to press the attack in this debate. But we are afraid of the timing – it is late to have to press the attack. The time for that was, properly, during and after the convention…

Well, no bitching, now. We cross our fingers.

And on to … Madame Bovary.

There is nothing better than reviewing the translation of an old classic. First, it allows the translator to discretely reveal his or her own incredible erudition. Second, one can pick at the text – curiously, few reviewers of novels really seem to care about close reading the things. Close reading your average novel, admittedly, is like trying to find a plot in the clothes going around in a drier. It isn’t worth it. But when it is worth it, it is worth it all the way – or so we have found. We are never happier than with a good or great novel to review, and an angle – a way of reading it that we want to bring out in the review.

The Atlantic this month offers Clive James on a new translation of Madame B. We have a few points to pick with him.

One of those points is about cliché.

“Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made.”

This is of course exactly wrong. Flaubert’s love/hatred of bêtise would never stoop to italicizing a cliché – indeed, that would be doubling the howler. James has obviously forgotten that the clichés in Flaubert come, so often, in conversation, or in the reproduction of somebody else’s writing. To italicize, here, would ruin the whole texture of the thing. Cliches are very much like in jokes – to hear them as clichés requires that you have educated your hearing in a certain way. This has now become a little flattened -- any tv writer worth his subscription to teen People can create a "like" hobbled debutante for cheap giggles. But Flaubert, like Swift, felt cliches the way other people feel a toothache, or some other shooting body pain that somehow has to be compulsively played with -- they are both hilarious and deadly – a p.o.v. not unsimilar to Bloy’s. Leon Bloy, you will recall (no you won’t – as I pointed out above, vigorously exercising one’s erudition in some subject or other is one of the joys of reviewing the translations of the classics. Hey, James goes on about the texture of Turgenev’s prose in Russian, so I have an excuse) thought of clichés as encoding a deadly, satanic wisdom by which the bourgeoisie was drawing down upon its head the divine condemnation it so richly deserved. Flaubert had a more resigned, secular view of the bourgeoisie – he just thought of them as ending civilization and inaugurating a thousand year Reich of banality, or something like that.

This is why Flaubert’s richest use of the cliché is just in contexts in which he does not, grossly, underline it. The italics would ruin the whole thing. Funny that James doesn’t see that.

Then there is the matter of translation. James, I think justly, court-martials certain choices of the newest translator, Margaret Mauldon. Here he pops off, rather deliciously, with some needed pendantic intervention, as the AA people put it:

“Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page 178, on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well. Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid."

Just to be certain that Rodolphe never spoke like a Hollywood agent, we can take a look at the same line in the original: "Et, d'ailleurs, les embarras, la dépense ... Ah! non, non, mille fois non! Cela eût été trop bête!" The perfectly ordinary, time-tested English idiom "No, no, a thousand times no!" would have fitted exactly.”

So far, he has Mauldon in a corner and she is going down under the assault of the furious fisticuffs, or something like that. But then James refers to the previous Oxford translation, from the fifties. And here, we think, he isn’t using his ear:

“In Alan Russell's translation of Madame Bovary, first published by Penguin in 1950, there is no "No way!" Probably the phrase did not yet exist, but almost certainly Russell would not have used it even if it had. What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no!" Not quite as good as "a thousand times no!" perhaps, but certainly better than "No way!": better because more neutral, in the sense of being less tied to the present time.”

To my ear, that “heaven’s no” is just so fake British toff-ish. Is Rodolphe an equivalent of a fake British toff? No, we imagine him to be much more in the vein of a provincial Musset – without the poetic genius. Often, Musset himself seems to forget the poetic genius, using it as an excuse for being a leach, letch and toady. No, the “heavens” comes, faintly but distinctly, from a whole other realm – it is something that a much more naïve, much more egocentric and less self-reflective man would say. Something, in short, that we can imagine in Trollope, but not in Flaubert. Not, we hasten to say, in this context, with this character – surely the cieux! exclamation is in Flaubert somewhere, perhaps in Salambo.

There. We’ve forgotten the debates. We’ve almost forgotten the current bêtise. But not quite.

Thursday, September 30, 2004


The wonderful thing about money

George Packer’s article about the ethnic discontents in Kirkuk is a study in what happens when justice is conceived of as the restoration of the past. Kirkuk was Arabized under Saddam. The program Saddam followed doesn’t seem too different from the programs by which the Israelis displaced the Palestinians, or the way American city planners, in the fifties, displaced blacks in urban centers. Of course, neither the Israelis nor the Americans, in the end, used poison gas -- one should always remember that the degree of violence, here, makes all the difference. But one should also remember that the degree of violence doesn't transform anything basic about the relation between the exploiters and the exploited.

Packer's article is all a tissue of miseries, and of injustice piled on injustice. Kirkuk is now claimed by the Kurds and the Turkomen, while at the same time it is nominally under the control of the Iraqi state.

Packer mentions, in passing, a British woman, Emma Sky, who exists in the narrative as a counter-narrator. Her story is not the grim one in which Packer evidently believes, but a liberal story.

“The first representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk, and the most influential advocate for the city with Paul Bremer, the head of the C.P.A., was Emma Sky, a slim, brown-eyed, thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman. Sky speaks some Arabic and once worked with Palestinians in the West Bank; though she opposed the invasion of Iraq, she volunteered to join the occupation authority. Upon arriving in Kirkuk, she saw that the most urgent task was to reassure alienated Arabs and Turkomans that the triumphant attitude of their Kurdish neighbors did not mean there was no future for them here. As Sky travelled around the province, her prestige among Arabs soared. Ismail Hadidi, the deputy governor and an original Arab, gave her his highest praise: “We deal with her as if she’s a man, not a woman.”

"Sky believes passionately that Kirkuk can be a model for an ethnically diverse Iraq. “People have to move away from this zero-sum thinking,” she told me in Baghdad. “Kirkuk is where it all meets. It all comes together there. Yes, you can have a country of separate regions, where people don’t have to deal with other groups. But can you have a country where people are happy with each other, where people are at ease with each other? I think Kirkuk is going to tell you what kind of country Iraq is going to be.” Compared with the problems in Israel and Palestine, Sky said, Kirkuk’s can be solved relatively easily. “Kirkuk you can win. Kirkuk doesn’t have irreconcilable differences—yet.”

We don’t know if Packer, who evidently believes the situation in Kirkuk is tending unstoppably towards a mini-civil war, or Sky is right. But we do know that the Kirkuks of the world are monuments to a world before money. That’s a very attractive world to the romantic consciousness. Myself, having little or no money most of the time, I often rage against filthy lucre. But it does embody one great and peaceable characteristic: by abstracting the possessors of it into the pure subjects beloved by Kantian idealism, it uproots this whole world of hatreds.

Surely a similar thought (minus the crack about Kantian idealism) must have occurred to Adam Smith, given the similar history of Scotland. The Scottish highlands were being decimated by the English in Saddam-ist style in the eighteenth century, since the highlanders language, customs and loyalties were suspect to London. This, of course, motivated (to use a bland word for having a bayonet thrust in your ass) the great Highlands immigrations to America. The breaking up of the clans, and the re-structuring of property claims, left a huge impress even now on Scotland.

“Scotland has the most unequal distribution of land in western Europe and it is even more unequal than Brazil which is well-known for its land injustices. In a country of over 19 million acres, over 16 million acres is privately owned rural land. Two-thirds of this land is owned by 1252 landowners, (0.025% of the population). And these estates are extremely large. One quarter of the privately owned rural land is in estates of 30,700 acres and larger, owned by just 66 landowners (Wightman: 1999).”

Smith may not have sympathized with the Highland clans, and certainly, as an ideologist, he was ready to do a death dance over the complicated feudal system of land ownership. However, chapter 4 of The Wealth of Nations is still one of the great analyses of the kinds of civilization that are defined by their internal structures of production and their external chances for exchange – it is the kind of analysis that we now call Marxist – and in that chapter Smith says much that is relevant to the current situation in Kirkuk. To quote a little of this chapter here would mean choosing not to quote it all – and it is all quotable. Smith takes for granted that vanity is as great a mover of human history as sympathy, and he shows the stages by which the great landed proprietors essentially gave away their power over their retainers, a power that rested upon a certain socially necessary generosity, in order to divert wealth to their own individual satisfactions. In order for this to be accomplished, there had to be a market that would supply such luxuries and goods as would be worth spending money on. The culture of consumerism, once it got a foothold, inevitably decayed the culture of feudal power, without central authority having to lift a finger.

We think this model is full of exceptions, but it is still a wonderfully organized vision of social change. Here Smith comes to the end of the process he is describing. He pulls back, and extends his gaze to other, pre-capitalist societies around the world:

“The tenants having in this manner become independent, and the retainers being dismissed, the great proprietors were no longer capable of interrupting the regular execution of justice, or of disturbing the peace of the country. Having sold their birth-right, not like Esau, for a mess of pottage in time of hunger and necessity, but, in the wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the playthings of children than the serious pursuits of men, they became as insignificant as any substantial burgher or tradesmen in a city. A regular government was established in the country as well as in the city, nobody having sufficient power to disturb
its operations in the one, any more than in the other.

It does not, perhaps, relate to the present subject, but I cannot help remarking it, that very old families, such as have possessed some considerable estate from father to son for many successive generations, are very rare in commercial countries. In countries which have little commerce, on the contrary, such as Wales, or the Highlands of Scotland, they are very
common. The Arabian histories seem to be all full of genealogies; and there is a history written by a Tartar Khan, which has been translated into several European languages, and which contains scarce any thing else; a proof that ancient families are very common among those nations. In countries where a rich man can spend his revenue in no other way than by
maintaining as many people as it can maintain, he is apt to run out, and his benevolence, it seems, is seldom so violent as to attempt to maintain more than he can afford. But where he can spend the greatest revenue upon his own person, he frequently has no bounds to his expense, because he frequently has no bounds to his vanity, or to his affection for his own person. In
commercial countries, therefore, riches, in spite of the most violent regulations of law to prevent their dissipation, very seldom remain long in the same family. Among simple nations, on the contrary, they frequently do, without any regulations of law ; for among nations of shepherds, such as the Tartars and Arabs, the consumable nature of their property necessarily
renders all such regulations impossible.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

"No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless. – Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, 1862

The reference to other nations is by no means incidental to Lincoln's understanding of what was at stake in America's conflict. In history's ongoing struggle between despotism and self-government, he was prepared to believe that America was earth's "last best hope"-not as the world's economic colossus or imperial hegemon but as an exemplar of what politics, with all its limitations, can accomplish. – Jean Bethke Elshtain

My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice; and there, I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his client's neck, in a desperate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny. Party bias may help to make it appear so; but with all the allowance I can make for such bias, it still does appear to me, that just such, and from just such necessity, is the President's struggle in this case. – Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the War with Mexico, 1848

LI was reading James Chace’s review of John Gaddis’ brief for Bush’s foreign policy in the NYRB yesterday, when we came across the “last best hope of the earth” quotation, and realized something: we'd been seeing that phrase a lot. The more we thought about it, the more we thought that the use and misuse of this phrase tells us a lot about the neo-con use and misuse of history. The neo-cons, it seems, have gotten into Lincoln’s phrase like termites getting into a house. Elshtain is typical of the lot. The quote above is from the exile Clinton years, where the longing for a grand purpose -- in other words, Machtlust -- was in the air.

Notice how Elshtain uses it to defend an imperialist view of America’s destiny. Notice, too, that the spiritual heirs of Jeff Davis, having taken over the present GOP, have decided to take over its past, too. In the context of Lincoln’s message to Congress, it is hard to see the message that Elshtain implies: that of considering America eschatologically justified in pursuing a messianic foreign policy. One recalls that the Abraham Lincoln Elshtain is remaking in the image of an anti-communist stalwart was, in reality, the Congressman who lost his seat by strongly and stoutly opposing the Mexican war.

The Mexican war is, in fact, a much better analogy to the imperialist adventure in Iraq than the Civil War. One should recall that the original Texas revolt against Mexico was motivated, in part, by a genuine desire to throw off the yoke of Mexico’s tyrant, Santa Ana, and, in part, by a genuine desire to throw off the yoke of that Mexican law that forbade slavery. The Truth goes marching on.

In any case, if we took Elshtain’s distortion of Lincoln’s words at face value, we ought to ask: how true are they? Is America the earth’s last best hope?

The short answer is no. Not the last – many hopes have arisen since the civil war. Gandhi, for instance, not only provided a definite hope for mankind, but turned – not to Abraham Lincoln, but to Tolstoy and Ruskin. And Gandhi’s example, in turn, became the great hope of – the Civil Rights movement in the heart of the last great hope itself, America, which was toiling in the maze of official apartheid up through the sixties.

Did the US bring hope to Central and South America since the time of Lincoln? No. It has brought tyranny, mass murder, and mass exploitation. The record of US imperialism in Central America is comparable to Stalin’s record of “liberation” in Eastern Europe – a dismal chronicle of small killings and large thefts. And that policy has left behind the same impoverishment. Did the US bring hope to Europe? Yes. In World War I and II, the U.S., both from policy and from the domestic renewal of the democratic temperament, used its force against the worst of the earth’s forces. The Cold War is a much more mixed story. The struggle between superpower’s tempered the American tendency to obnoxiousness (see Central and South America, above). From force of circumstance, America favored global policies that were certainly to the advantage of Europe.
Our reference to struggle brings out another point lost in the messianic drool of such as Elshtain. To talk of America as the bearer of moral, or universal, interests is much like talking about some tech company as the bearer of scientific advances. It is a misunderstanding of the role of competition in the whole system. We understand that companies work best when they compete, and work worst when they monopolize. Likewise, when the U.S. monopolizes, as it has done in South and Central America, it rapidly degenerates into an oppressor. Like other imperial oppressors, it justifies its extortions and the blind triumph of its advantage by an appeal to universal, or moral, values. In reality, those values only serve particular national interest. Conservatives, who are skeptical of the Gnostic elevation of the state to the status of some mystical representative of reason, do characteristically tread a dialectical circuit that brings them, in pursuit of their own sense of order, to their own form of gnosticism – a patriotism that assumes exactly the same role as that accorded the state by liberal thinkers. You can see this happening with Burke, as he moves from opposition to the French Revolution to support for Pitt’s ideological war against the French Revolution. The principles that cause Burke to decry the power grab of the ‘theorizers” in the Reflections fall to the rhetoric of a crusade that can only be justified on the grounds of “theory” – and so Burke undermined his own position, and supported acts of the state which brought to an end the traditional English order for which he fought.

The moral frivolousness of the war in Iraq requires two delusions. One is the delusion that America is a moral, instead of a political, entity. The other, and dependent delusion is that America thus represents the desire, or the hopes, of the Iraqi people. And so Americans shield themselves from the emotional and political results of slaughtering masses of Iraqi civilians in pursuit of a goals that are, really, of no business to this country – for instance, the war against the ‘thuggish’ Sadr on behalf of the ‘thuggish’ Allawi. In his wildest dreams, Lincoln couldn’t have imagined that the last best hope on earth would leave the scorching mark of its inspiration on the town of Najaf, located in a far away Ottoman province. The triumph of the filibusters in the GOP is one of the sadder signs of our political degeneracy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


Last week we wrote a review of Capote’s Letters for the Chicago Sun-Times. Lately, there’s been a significant dip in the quantity of LI’s review-writing. This is a good thing – writing reviews is generally a stinky business, unappreciated, underpaid, taking up a huge amount of time, in terms of reading and research and getting the first damn paragraph down, for comparatively little payback in terms of even the most miserly of nature’s rewards, the writer’s self satisfaction at a thing finally and forthrightly said.

In the course of our research, we read Plimpton’s Capote. It is one of those have recorder, will transcribe kind of books. Like Edie. Norman Mailer told an anecdote about meeting Capote in Brooklyn. Mailer at the time was renting a studio in a working class part of Brooklyn. Capote came over, and the two decided to get a drink, so they went to the neighborhood bar, ‘down on Montague Street near Court – a big Irish bar with a long brass rail at which were lined up fifty reasonably disgruntled Irishmen drinking at three thirty in the afternoon.” So Mailer and Capote went there, Capote wearing a gaberdine cape. “He strolled in looking like a beautiful faggot prince. It suddenly came over me. My God, what have I done? I walked behind him as though I had very little to do with him. And Truman just floated through. As he did, the eyes – it was like a movie shot – every eye turned automatically to look at him with a big Irish “I’ve seen everything now”. … It took me half an hour for the adrenaline to come down. I figured people would get rude and I’d get into a fight.”

That, to my mind, is what the fifties was about. Drinking, fighting in bars. There is an image of the fifties as a peaceful time that is based on crime statistics. You can clean out the toilet with those figures – the wifebeating, the kids beating the hell out of each other on street corners, the gaybaiting, little Southern town pinchings and lynchings of blacks, none of that was going to be picked up by the cops, or put into some lousy copbook.

In the summer issue of the Gettysburg Review, this came home for us in a really wonderfully understated essay, Learning to Fight, by a former basketball player, James McKean,. author of a book of essayes entitled Home Stand: A Memoir of Growing Up. Here’s the intro graf:

“Five paragraphs into Richard Ford's New Yorker essay "In the Face," I realized it had taken me years to recognize such men and even longer to stay the hell away from them. Analyzing his own penchant for confrontation and physical violence, Ford explains how he grew up in the fifties in Mississippi and Arkansas, where hitting someone in the face "meant something." It meant you were brave, experienced, impulsive, dangerous, and moving toward "adulthood, the place we were all headed-a step in the right direction." Oh no, I thought, here we go again. By the end of the essay, where he says that he himself is a man "who could be willing to hit you in the face" in response to "some enmity, some affront, some inequity or malfeasance," I wanted to find an Exit sign.”

McKean strings together a number of incidents around the fact that his height has, all through his life, flashed out a mysterious insult that seems to stop a certain type of man in his path – it is as if his physically towering there had been taken as just the kind of affront or inequity that this kind of man must take care of, Richard Ford style, by striking out. McKean grew up in Washington state – where my friend D. currently lives. I know from D’s stories about the life in his little town that Washington is a good state to live in if you want to get in a brawl with a drunk. It isn’t all sobersided living there, reader. McKean grew up there in the fifties, and sixties, and he well describes an aspect of the world that I remember from boyhood, a world in which there were other boys around who would actually hit you. Girls too. A world in which it was possible that you would be dragged off your bike by some larger kid and have to decide where to kick, bite or gouge the said kid. A fist could materialize suddenly from out of nowhere, or a spitball, or a stone, it could come out of the universe and upside your head. Myself, I can't say that I was beat up as a boy. I had my defensive wiles. But I was keenly aware of those lower down the food chain, the perpetually bullied. My fighting was confined to the house, where I battled my brothers. Luckily for them, and for me, my brothers are twins. My ability as an older brother to bully them was limited by the alliance between them that made them two bodies instead of one. And of course there is the fact that they became fairly physically strong, and I'm still the same old skinny shit with a wet paperbag punch.

I probably wouldn't have been good with just one younger male body to boss around. A rough sense of justice gets knocked into you by fair fights. Odd, that world. It is a struggle to concretely realize those chemicals, those aggressions and fears, in an imaginative sense when you have shuffled off that larval stage. Probably if LI were a dad, it would be easier. But being childless, we don’t have tons of contact with boys, and boy’s life. I have my doubts that it is as rough for your average middle class son as it used to be. The civilizing process, and the traumatic circle the wagons style of living popular in the suburbs, has probably doused a lot of the adrenaline raising moments. Or has it?

McKean’s essay makes it clear that being a shade under seven feet has its disadvantages. For one thing, short aggressive guys feel called upon to take you on, or even to suddenly pop you – which is how McKean lost a front tooth.

Here’s another graf and a half

“What I never developed, however, was a lightning bolt right hand. Growing straight up, I had too much else to learn. I remember being sixteen, carefree for a moment in the summer, listening to "Duke of Earl" as I strode through my mother's kitchen, heedless and head bobbing, only to crack my forehead on the top of the dining room door. My eyes crossed. The house shook. Ears ringing and lights popping, I had discovered the edge of the world at last. The standard world, that is, for all manufactured things are measured to a norm. As I kept growing, the world stuck out its knees and elbows. Nothing fit. Not dothes, not cars, not the desks at school. All the tables for measuring height and weight stopped before I stopped. When I sat down in the movie theater, the people behind me groaned and moved five seats over. …

No sleeping bags or backpacks. No spelunking. No basements. No cabin cruisers. No airplane seats. No slow dancing cheek to cheek. No calm and carefree moments while navigating the world, for there were lamps and tables and chairs and glassware balanced everywhere-a panorama of traps. My reach far exceeded my grasp, and bless the poor wreckage in between.”

LI highly recommends searching out this essay.

Monday, September 27, 2004


Here’s an item that hasn’t gotten much American press. From Jacques Follorou in Le Monde:

The Brother of Osama bin Laden issued summons by French court.

Yselam Bin Laden, the half brother of Osama, residing in Switzerland, has been issued a warrant to appear as a witness in a court in Paris Monday, September 27, by Prosecuting Judge, Renaud Van Rymbeke, in regard to his financial ties with the leader of the 9/11 attacks.

… Yeslam Bin Laden, who has already appeared before a magistrate, has indicated that he has not had contact with his half brother for twenty years. In a letter to Le Monde, he has claimed that the activity of his firm was limited to a pool by subscription of investments recommended by well known, established banks.

On September 6, an expert collaborating with Swiss authorities, Jean-Charles Brisard, communicated to Van Rymbeke some facts which seem to contradict this story. According to him, the Swiss authorities have obtained from UBS bank in Geneva, in the course of their own investigation, documents showing that Yeslam and Osama deposited a sum in that establishment as part of a common account between 1990 and 1997.

Opened on August 17, 1990, this account figured among 54 others created to protect the funds of the Bin Laden family according to Brisard, who is working for a lawyer representing 9/11 victims. According to him, UBS documents indicate that Omar and Haider bin Laden, two other brothers of Osama, confirmed its opening. On August 17, 1990, a first deposit of 450,000 dollars was made, and Yeslam and Osama were the sole authorized signatories for it. Finally, UBS confirmed to a general commission in Berne that Osama bin Laden was the unique “economic beneficiary.”

One of the more comic aspects of the brouhaha that arose around Fahrenheit 9/11 was the often repeated comment that the Saudis who were airlifted out of the country in the week after the attack had been thoroughly questioned by the FBI. This killer factoid was solemnly brandished, a gun still smokin’ by the cohort of the usual talking heads. They went about their 'factchecking" with all the asinine assurance that marks the mulish stupidity of the D.C. commentariat, moving mechanically from one talking point to the next. .

UBS, you will recall, is the financial giant which currently boasts former Senator Gramm of Texas on its roster of employees. They scored that coup after they swallowed Enron’s electronic energy marketing division, which was put on the market after Enron, which boasted Wendy Gramm, the Senator's wife, on its board of directors, went belly up. Apocalypse is a party where everybody knows everybody else's money.


LI has been trying, and failing, to say something with some reach, some truly novelistic depth, about the symbiotic relationship between the fantasies of Bush’s supporters and the essential falsity of Bush’s vision of Iraq – a falsity that can be summed up as the large, enduring and apparently insurmountable incongruity between means and ends in Iraq.

We thought we were on to something by thinking about alibis. We thought about how alibis, used by defendants in court, have to be contoured not only to assume the shape of truth, but to assume that shape of truth that one presumes the jury would find truthful. Hence, the overlapping of sometimes contradictory or incompatible accounts. So we rummaged through a bunch of Greek texts from Lysias to Antiphon, looking at defense speeches.

Finally, though, we couldn’t make this post cohere.

So we dropped it. And wheeling about on the web, we came face to face with Perry Anderson’s second article about French intellectual culture, in the LRB. So we thought, as Francophiles, that here was a natural sighting for our put upon readers.

Anderson’s casts the usual saturnine Marxist glance, but there is something a bit too kneejerk about that disenchantment and its garage sale metaphors. He does present us with a nice problem. How is it that France, in the aftermath of 68, tended not to the left, but to the vaguely right? How is it that Francois Furet’s drumming for the French tradition of liberalism, of all things, climbed to play a dominant role in French intellectual politics of the Mitterand era and after?

We don’t care much for Anderson’s hurried dismissal of the 19th century’s liberal thinkers as a group of villainous intellectual pygmies, Constant, Guizot and Tocqueville. It would be nice to see Tocqueville treated without the breathless and inane admiration that he receives from American writers, who overestimate him and never place him in the context of his life’s work. But Anderson’s drive-by knock, that Tocqueville is the hangman of the Roman Republic, is too trifling for words. Similarly, his complaint that Constant colluded to elevate Napoleon to the leadership. He did, but he also put up a pretty gutsy howl against the wars of conquest Napoleon proceeded on – with a better sense of the injury that such militarism does to culture than Marx, who coming a generation later, sighed that Napoleon didn’t occupy Germany long enough.

That remark has had untold pernicious consequences.

We did like Anderson pointing to a fact that is routinely ignored by establishment media like the NYT and the Economist. France has, for the last thirty years, found itself saddled with a governing class who, whether socialist or conservative, ends up trying to institute the neo-liberal project. And for thirty years, the population has refused. Every government that has tried it has been voted out of office, or fallen due to some strike.

That’s rather admirable. Surely if the people of France hadn’t taken the power into their own hands, the French medical system would have become the mess it is in other places in the world – like the U.S. and the U.K. Ditto with the great shift towards privatizing retirement.

So – a nice combination of gossip and a little soupcon of mental nourishment. Check out the article.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...