Saturday, October 30, 2004


Rand, Rand, Rand

When I was sixteen, my humanities teacher assigned me some huge, indigestible novel by Ayn Rand to do a ‘report’ on. I’m pretty sure it was Atlas Shrugged. Now, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was holding in my hands an aesthetic nullity. By then, I had read enough – Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert – to know what it meant for a novel to be an aesthetic success, and this stuff wasn’t even in the horserace. I was a snobbish teen – I now know that the novel is a capacious form, containing multitudes – art, tracts, comic books, etc. However, my dim memory of the novel was that it went from bad to worse quickly, and that reading it was comparable to staring at water going down the drain for hours at a stretch.

Thousands of high school teachers once took it as their task to obliterate the taste for literature from the souls of their charges by assigning either tract novels – Walden Two and Rand’s Fountainhead – or allegories – Brave New World, Animal Farm. There is a simple institutional reason for this – it is supremely easy to devise tests for these novels. What does Emma Bovary represent? Who knows? But there isn’t a single character in a Rand novel who doesn’t represent something Capitalizable.

She was, I recall, that kind of writer.

This season’s Salmagundi publishes a large essay on the writer who Gore Vidal describes as the only writer whom everyone in Congress has actually read: ” Who Was Ayn Rand? by Gene Bell-Villada. It is an unfortunate growth. He flatfoots himself right away, I think, by comparing La Rand to Nabokov, on the thin ground that both were Russian emigrants. Both had two nostrils, too, but the similarities are uninstructive. Surely as a phenomenon of the fifties and sixties, Rand should be seen in the perspective of other pop authors, and in particular those who tend towards the didactic. These writers cluster on the sci fi shelves. Rands capitalist utopia was another form of science fiction. Certainly it was like no economic system in actual existence anywhere on planet earth. While capitalism saved itself in the postwar world by embracing consumerism and creating unprecedented credit markets, Rand was fantasizing a capitalism consisting entirely of captains of industry a la Jay Gould or the union busters of the 1890s. Adam Smith, wisely, knew that self-interest needed the guidance of the invisible hand – the ameliorating society of the market – in order to create a connected system that would actually ‘go of itself.” For Smith, sympathy was the glue in the order of the free market. Rand, who began as a screen-writer and never, as far as I know, ran even a lemonade stand, thought of capitalism as a both a metaphysics and a blood n sand film, starring, inevitably, Gary Cooper.

Bell-Villada is obviously repulsed by Rand’s fantasies, even as he thinks that they do represent some core truth about capitalism:

“But Randianism also exists as a consistent and rather simple set of beliefs, a theology one readily grasps and absorbs after spending some time with its scriptures. "Objectivism" is how the founder dubbed her system. At its core is the idea that selfishness is good, greed is admirable, and altruism is evil. (The Virtue of Selfishness is the pointed title of one of her essay collections.) Unfettered capitalism is the only true moral system in history. The successful businessman is the ideal hero of our time. The sign of the dollar is an icon to be worshiped and flaunted. On the other hand, generosity and compassion have no place in the world according to Rand. In a letter from the 1940s she singles out competence as "the only thing I love or admire in people. I don't give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues." Or, as Dominique Francon, the gorgeous and cold-hearted heroine-cum-bitch of Rand's Fountainhead reflects at one point with lofty sarcasm, "Compassion is a wonderful thing. It's what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar."

What this captures is not how capitalism works – it would immediately collapse if it really embraced such premises – but how the average CEO pumps himself up, in his head, into a captain of industry. This requires such howlingly absurd scenarios as surely as, in the past, knobby kneed Sultans required Spanish fly in the harem. One can imagine that the upper management at Enron inhaled this stuff. Or one of the many execs who’ve been hauled into the dock after that most Randian run-up in the stock market in the late nineties. Of course, all of these “captains of industry” are disasters for the owners of their companies, which consist, contra Randian fiction, of anonymous and dispersed investors. The era of absentee ownership long ago drove out the Jay Gould types, and not creepy crawly liberalism.

Bell-Villada is on firmer ground in tracing Rand’s route to greatness. It is rather funny thinking of her as a history student at Leningrad University, but so she became. She got out of the Soviet Union in 1926. One wonders what she would have made of the cult of Stalin. Aesthetically, it would no doubt have exerted a strong appeal. But she didn’t have to wrestle with Stalin. Instead, she met Cecil B. Demille in Hollywood.

Bell-Villada has an unfortunate tendency to get all snipey going over the events in Rand’s life. This is a typical graf:

“ Weeks into her L.A. phase, Rand got involved with a handsome young movie extra, of Ohio working-class origins, named Frank O'Connor. Meanwhile she kept renewing her visa, and just as the extensions were about to run out, she married Frank the same month of her scheduled return to Russia. Without exception friends of the groom--by all accounts a passive, easy-going, nice-guy type--saw Frank as doing his sweetheart the favor of resolving her immigrant status. For the next fifty years Frank put up with Rand's many manias and caprices--with disquieting results. In the 1950s and '60s, when the couple were living in Manhattan, Ayn--now a famous author and cult figure--conducted a lengthy amour with her right-hand man, Nathaniel Branden. The other respective spouses grimly accepted the twice-weekly trysts at Ayn and Frank's apartment as a rational choice between two superior beings. Nathaniel's wife Barbara did live to include this bizarre tale in her authoritative life of the priestess, but the affair contributed to Frank's slow destruction, driving him to drink. He died a broken man in 1979, still married to a Rand he no longer much liked.”

This kind of thing makes even LI, whose views of Rand are much like those of Dominque Francon in re squished caterpillars, leap to Rand’s defense. The lazy victimizing of Frank O’Connor, who apparently had no friend to tell him about this wonderful invention called divorce, and who was living with a woman who was raking in the bucks, is distasteful. One of the healthier effects of acquaintance with Rand is to mitigate the lazy sentimentalism of liberal culture. We do like the notion that Rand’s copulatory energies were so violent that we are to imagine that Barbara Branden, who ‘did live” to record them, suffered some narrow escape from the rank mouth of a tiger. Perhaps it is impossible to write about so melodramatic a writer without falling into the tropes oneself.

Bell-Villada usefully reminds us that Atlas Shrugged revolves around a general strike – albeit of the captains of industry. Still, a general strike is a general strike. Alas, in the fifties, a decade that saw the mamby pamby New Deal ideology replace the hardcore CIO thirties ideology of war to the death against capital (where the Randian hero functioned as the useful villain, Mr. Moneybags, as translators of Marx’s Capital would have it), the general strike idea couldn’t take root. But who knows – perhaps it contributed, in some small way, to the New Left’s tactics in the sixties, particularly the burning of draft cards and the Moratorium of 1967. All good tactics to remember for today’s anti-war movement. In order to stop the war in Iraq, remember John Galt!

Unfortunately, Bell-Villada has no sense of dialectical irony, so he does not bark up this tree, instead pursuing that old canard, Rand’s Nietzsche-ism. Has Max Stirner actually become that dead? Anybody who reads Marx – as, presumably, poor Ayn was forced to in the Leningrad years – eventually comes upon Marx’s most tedious work, the German Ideology. The good thing about this work is that it preserved in the amber of intellectual history those curious species, Feuerbach and Maxie Stirner. Stirner is the man who pretty much invented the philosophy of egoism Rand later made her own.

Anyway, what Bell-Villada’s essay proves is that literary culture still doesn’t get Ayn Rand, partly because literary culture is often populated by people whose sense of capitalism is as screwy as Rand’s. If someday someone wants to understand the Rand effect, the books to read would start with Galbraith’s New Industrial State, which delineated the technostructure that dominated the postwar corporation, and Organizational Man, Whyte’s account of the conformist culture of big business. And do get out of poor Nietzsche. Here’s a link to Max Stirner.

PS -- Funniest fact in Bell-Villada's essay: Michael Millikan supposedly took sixteen copies of Atlas Shrugged with him to prison. I guess, if you divided by four, that would make a nice support for a low table, perfect for learning how to give those Japanese tea ceremonies that can enrich the life of the lonely prisoner, along with other useful and reconstructive activities, in the weary hours in the hoosgow.

Friday, October 29, 2004


Most confused story of the week goes to this WP article, which says:
1. The explosives probably were looted from Al Qaqaa;
2. That huge amounts of explosives and ammunition have been looted from unguarded sites throughout Iraq in amounts;
3. so, the explosives looted from Al Caca are unimportant.

Say what? the media simply neglects to report on how the insurgents acquire the explosives that they use to kill 1,100 American soldiers for a year, and so – when they finally get around to reporting on one looted site – the story is already old hat.

The parallel between the way the American press reports things and the way the Bush administration does things is pretty striking. Both are sloppy, ideologically skewed, and buttressed by self-consuming excuses and intermittent aggression.

Beginning graf:

“The 377 tons of Iraqi explosives whose reported disappearance has dominated the past few days of presidential campaigning represent only a tiny fraction of the vast quantities of other munitions unaccounted for since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government 18 months ago.”

Which leads to: “The Bush administration cited official figures this week showing about 400,000 tons destroyed or in the process of being eliminated. That leaves the whereabouts of more than 250,000 tons unknown.”

Which, by the logical path only known to that special group known as spinners, leads to this:

“Against that background, this week's assertions by Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign about the few hundred tons said to have vanished from Iraq's Qaqaa facility have struck some defense experts as exaggerated.”

In other words, Kerry is exaggerating – what he should be doing is expanding his charges to include the 250,000 tons. He is exaggerating by minimizing, being that type. A flip flopper. Unlike the brave and true WP, which ra ra-ed the entry into war, reported on it with a lack of standards and the proper embedded spirit of servility that would have done the old journalists at Pravda proud, and reports, now, 14 months into the occupation, with the election coming in a week, that, oh, by the way, the occupation forces haven’t guarded a quarter of the arms and explosives left in the country by Saddam, so let’s not sweat the little stuff. Which of course we haven’t bothered to investigate at all. Because it is all in a no-go area.

There are good reporters at the WP. They have done a better job of reporting the campaign than the Times – although it is hard to see how they could have done worse than the Times. But this kind of reporting is disgusting on every level. It is hypocritical, illogical, and aims consciously to deceive – that is, to muddle the information that it conveys. There’s no excuse for it at all. Kerry has taken up a story that originated in a report by the Iraqi government that exposed a small part of the vast system of malfeasance. Far from exaggerating, he has hit closer to the truth than the WP has for – well, the last time they reported on where the insurgents get their weapons. When was that?

Speaking of silly media, the NYT has mounted an odd crusade to preserve the sensitivities of their political reporter, Adam Nagourney. First it was Daniel Oken's odd outing of some email bitch to Nagourney. Nagourney attracts criticism because he is, of the group of bad political reporters at the Times, primum inter imbicillis. At best, Timesmen wear their arrogance like a club tie. I've met a few attending SXSW conferences, and I've always been impressed with their inflated ideas of their own self worth. Lately, they've gotten much worse. In particular, the political reporters (Bushmiller, Wilgoran, Seelye) are vain, shallow, and never losing an opportunity to lean over backwards to include the latest GOP hitline. Nagourney, however, stands out. His stories have a very depressing content to gas ratio. You could read all of Nagourney’s stories about this campaign and still know zip about what Bush proposes to do in the next four years, and what Kerry proposes to do in the next four years. The purpose of the presidency is bracketed, as if beneath the dignity of the writer. The purpose, after all, is wonkish. It is boring. It is so unlike a tv show. For Nagourney, the presidential race is like Survivor, a reality show that exists either to amuse him or to be flipped away from. Unfortunately, us victims of D.C. misrule can’t, it turns out, change the channel so easily. If, by some quirk of Time travel, you could go back and erase all of N.'s stories, beginning in January, you would not block out a single bit of news.

In a stroke of minor ‘internets’ genius, someone put up a parody site, Adam Nagourney’s Diary, which captures the high school cliquishness of the national reporting pool – the empty pompadour set – by importing into it a stylistic correlative: the high school weblog. The entries read exactly like LiveJournal dramas: the sobs, the heartthrobs, the I rule! the “everybody is so mean to me. This is exactly the right: Adam Nagourney is a high school phenomena, writing on an eighth grade level.

Here’s the first entry, under I am the hero:
“Man, I have been getting major props for my reporting lately. First I am praised for choosing to avoid the spin room and now Mark Halperin is hailing me as the hero of journalism. I danced around calling Bush a liar in my latest article but resisted so I wouldn’t see a decrease in Christmas cards. Plus, “pushes limit on the facts” makes it sound like he’s working hard.

I expect to see a spike in party invites as a result of my ever-increasing credibility. Speaking of party invitations, I reorganized my collection from being indexed by political affiliation to favorite hobby.
Watched Caddyshack I and II tonight. Why doesn’t Chevy Chase make movies anymore?”

The Times dispatched Jim Rutenberg to defend the media’s honor, and Nagourney’s, in one of the more bizarre self defending articles the Times has ever published. Rutenberg pitches in with an intro that sounds like something from the blond valedictorian in Election – preening, superior, sneering and self-pitying, all at once:

“Practicing cheap and dirty politics, playing fast and loose with the facts and even lying: Accusations like these, and worse, have been slung nonstop this year.
The accused in this case are not the candidates, but the mainstream news media. And the accusers are an ever-growing army of Internet writers, many of them partisans, who reach hundreds of thousands of people a day.

Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way, though others worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect.”

Bully them? It turns out bullying is the key theme. Journalists, in Rutenberg’s view, are heroic professionals. And those who criticize them are bullies. Makes for a simple chemistry, and fits right in with the high school theme.

“But the most personal critiques originate among the political blogs - especially from the left - run by individuals who use news media reports for their often-heated discussions.”

Rutenberg is particularly incensed that some of those political blogs make comments about the personal appearance and sex lives of media personalities. Something, of course, that the media never does about politicians. You’ll remember how Gore’s choice of brown suits was a minor detail in the NYT’s relentless focusing on his Social Security and Medicare proposals back in 2000. And, of course, the meme of George Bush’s ‘likeability” and Kerry’s ‘lack of charisma” has never been transmitted, like a sexual disease, through the organs of the press.

It is when he gets to the criticism of (gasp!) the Times that Rutenberg turns up the pilot light and really starts sniffing the gas.

“On a Web site named after Adam Nagourney, The Times's chief political correspondent, contributors mix crude personal insults with accusations that Mr. Nagourney and other Washington-based reporters are too easy on Mr. Bush.

Bob Somerby, a comedian who runs a Web site called The Daily Howler that often accuses the news media of being shallow, lazy, bullied by Republicans and unfairly critical of Democrats, said a more genteel approach would not be effective. (He has referred to this reporter on his Web site as "dumb" and in "over his head" for being blind or turning a blind eye to Republican spin.)”

Bullying and being bullied worry Rutenberg. After all, the Timesmen have a 92.3 grad point average and their extracurricular activities in Debate, Archery, and Volleyball aren’t to be disparaged, either!

Thursday, October 28, 2004


Shortly after 9/11, LI interviewed Peter Galbraith for the Austin Statesman (which has recently endorsed Bush, in payback for a piece of legislation the Cox family dearly appreciated – the rollback of the inheritance tax).

Galbraith’s brother, James, the economist, lives in Austin. We later interviewed him in connection with another article. James, as an economist, gets tons of respect in this corner, but as an interviewee he sucks – surly, unclear, etc. In contrast, Peter was a joy to talk to.

Of the people who supported the war in Iraq, Peter was both the one we respected most and the one who has consistently operated to criticize the occupation from the standpoint of the original reasons he chose to support the invasion. In our opinion, due to his work with the Kurds in the late 80s and his witnessing of the afteraffects of Saddam’s mass murders, he has made a fatal unconscious jump from sympathy for the victim to apologist for Kurdistan. That has prevented him from confronting the reality of the history of Northern Iraq, which is not a tale of increasing freedom, but a tale of sporadic fighting between two warlord groups, interspersed with a subplot of increasing freedom.

If one can imagine an intelligent pro-war intellectual – a sort of Hitchens with brains – then it is Galbraith.

His recent survey, in the NYRB, of the landscape of occupation mistakes was, we think, the most devastating indictment of the occupation to be found outside the pages of … well, this site. For that reason, we strongly recommend his op ed piece in the Boston Globe, which concludes that the war has made Iraq better off, but then lets this last graf drop:

“It is my own country that is worse off -- 1,100 dead soldiers, billions added to the deficit, and the enmity of much of the world. Someone out there has nuclear bomb-making equipment, and they may not be well disposed toward the United States. Much of this could have been avoided with a competent postwar strategy.”

The article intros thusly:

“IN 2003 I went to tell Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz what I had seen in Baghdad in the days following Saddam Hussein's overthrow. For nearly an hour, I described the catastrophic aftermath of the invasion -- the unchecked looting of every public institution in Baghdad, the devastation of Iraq's cultural heritage, the anger of ordinary Iraqis who couldn't understand why the world's only superpower was letting this happen.”

Alas for Galbraith – he still doesn’t understand the chain of command in Iraq. He should have been talking to the head of Raytheon, which the Bush administration tapped to take care of minor things like looting. Ray Bonner’s article back on October 14, 03 about the Al Musaiyib dump and the wonderful pickings there obviously passed quickly into the unconsciousness that absorbs all news out-of-the-narrative from Iraq. In that article it was revealed that the Pentagon pump house gang, on top of the situation as usual, had sportingly decided not to deprive guerrillas of hand held missile launchers or such stuff for a certain period – a sort of hunting season. But they had signed a contract with Raytheon to start actually guarding the dumps in December. So from May to December, it was the Pentagon position that Iraqis, overwhelmed with joy at their liberation, were simply rifling the munitions dumps to decorate their living rooms.

“BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 13 - The two most recent suicide
bombings here and virtually every other attack on American
soldiers and Iraqis were carried out with explosives and
matériel taken from Saddam Hussein's former weapons dumps,
which are much larger than previously estimated and remain,
for the most part, unguarded by American troops, allied
officials said Monday.

The problem of uncounted and unguarded weapons sites is
considerably greater than has previously been stated, a
senior allied official said.

The American military now says that Iraq's army had nearly
one million tons of weapons and ammunition, which is half
again as much as the 650,000 tons that Gen. John P.
Abizaid, the senior American commander in the Persian Gulf
region, estimated only two weeks ago.

In separate interviews, the officials, civilian and
military and from different countries, expressed concern
about the potential of attackers with access to the weapons
dumps to nurture violence and insecurity.

There are not enough American soldiers here to do the job
of finding the weapons and securing them until they can be
destroyed, the officials said. A private American company,
Raytheon, has been awarded a contract to destroy the
weapons, but it will not begin work until December, one
official said.”

In the let it bleed war, however, such things are insignificant. String out your soldiers, let them occupy a territory for an undetermined number of years, use the war to your political advantage but never wage it in any but a frivolous way, and there you have a foolproof (and foolmade) policy. At least, though, it doesn’t have to pass a Global Test.

Interestingly, the U.S., before it decided that looting at Al Musayyib was just good sport, had featured the plant as the big bad reason we had to go right into Iraq. It was a prominent part of Colin Powell’s slideshow for the UN. Many people have commented on the reasons for the increase in violence in Iraq from about last fall until now. LI has adduced a sort of social psychology of resentment of the occupiers to explain it. But who knows -- the more mundane reason might simply be that the guerrillas were stocking up on their weaponry, while the CPA watched and waited for Raytheon. This would be a very Tolstoyian reason -- the immediate contingencies of the material nexus of war, as Tolstoy observes in War and Peace, being of a much greater influence than the strategies of the generals.

LI’s friend, T.S., is astonished that we went out and voted straight ticket Democrat. What happened? We understand the shock. It is a bit like Thersites pitching in to help Achilles skewer those damn Trojans. Where is the cultivated bitterness, the years – the strata – of hatred for every betrayal organized by the Dems – the trail of tears that leads from the betrayal of the poor in 96, with the signing of the welfare ‘reform’ bill, to the rollover and scratch my belly votes for the credit card companies, in 99, to the Patriot Act herd behavior in 2001?

In the 2000 election, LI was confident that we understood Bush. This, in retrospect, was stupid. We saw Gore, the most conservative Democrat since they trumped up somebody to run against Calvin Coolidge; we saw the business culture that Clinton had purposely cultivated in the late nineties, and we suspected that every snake in the grass who called itself a CEO was rolling in wealth pressed out of the very skin of the poor; and we saw Bush as a class clown, a pawn president. It wasn’t until Clinton had stepped down that we realized, looking at the figures, that – setting aside the welfare debacle – the Clinton years had actually been good for the working class. And it wasn’t until Bush showed himself serious about doing two things; spending like a drunken sailor, and at the same time piping money to his upper income buddies in a redistribution of wealth worthy of one of the pharaohs, that it began to sink in: this was not an amiable mediocrity from Texas, with the same relationship to the hardcore Republicans that Hogan’s heroes’ Nazis had to the S.S., but a whole other animal. Still, in August, 2001, I doubt that LI knew the name of the Secretary of Defense – who cared?

In fact, after the attack (and extending a certain human charity to the obviously scared Bush, having his handlers fly him from place to place in Middle America, while his spokesman assured us that, in actuality, he wanted to bare his breast to incoming), I felt like he was not bad. I certainly appreciated the expressions of tolerance about Muslims. After all, George had been growing up around Muslims since he was knee high to a grasshopper. To fast forward a bit, I felt later that one of the uglier parts of Michael Moore’s movie, was its harping on the racist image of the darkskinned Saudi in costume.

It soon became apparent that Bush was determined to reduce his office to the midget stature he felt comfortable with. He began treating the war in Afghanistan as he treated his many failed oil ventures, pulling out, with invariable bad luck, when he should have stayed in. This man didn’t have the cerebellum to make a good decision, nor to understand how he was being bamboozled by those he’d appointed to make good decisions. Worse, once he had adopted the stance suggested by some self-interested subordinate, he grew organically attached to that stance. I had expected a class clown, but I had not expected a class clown who thought he was a homecoming queen.

2002 was an agony. After starting out promising a Marshall plan in Afghanistan and promptly allocating zero dollars for it, and after evidently deciding that Pakistan, of all states, would welcome the chance to bag Osama, he turned his attention to the economy and – incredibly – once against thrust the money from Clinton’s raised tax rates on those people who are technically savers – the investors in currency transactions and bonds. Nobody, at this point, was using equities to raise capital in order to expand, but this didn’t seem to phase the guy. What can you say? The spoiled scion of a Machiavellian numbskull, Bush just didn’t seem to notice that this economic policy was worse than pernicious. It was Keynsianism for dummies.

And then of course, there is his war. Here is a man who would fumble an order for pizza delivery, making the big decision to go to war in Iraq. Decision, in Bush’s case, is always about whether he is for it or against it. It has nothing to do with facts, figures, strategies, history – in fact, any of the rational elements that go into decision making. Now, if the man had been a veteran of many such decisions, one might label this dependence on his gut ‘tacit knowledge” – but we aren’t talking Eisenhower here. This is a guy who sensibly kept away from anything that smelt even vaguely of killing, and whose idea of leading is leading a cheer.

The mistakes cascade. In the aftermath of a terror attack, when one expects a certain prudence in financial matters (after all, there could be another attack), the man shovels money in the direction of the least worthy. At the same time, having zero idea of what to expect in Iraq, having zero feeling for the area, or for the middle east – having intentionally kept out of it, unlike his poisonous pa – suddenly he is an expert.

It is all so … lowrate. How many Texan trust funders have made, on a lower scale, the same kind of mistakes – the coddled ignorance and family luck being mistaken for a divine blessing? And that, in turn, being transformed into some conduit to God. Usually, more harmlessly, these things end up as investment in the perpetual motion machine, or a new way of extracting old oil from exhausted fields. Bush is just the type of rich guy to commit some fraud or crime that Texas Monthly will weave a tale around.

But really, he isn’t, now. The presidency, like Hollywood, has a certain democratic magic: the girl at the soda fountain or the guy from the alcoholic family making it upstream on sheer guts and awareness, sex and bribery, compromises like treerings in the bone. Nixon, Clinton, even Reagan. But Bush was not part of that narrative. The best analogy for him in the literature is Temple Drake’s fatal date in Faulkner’s Sanctuary – that ole Miss boy who measures his virility in the amount that he can drink, and who leaves poor Temple to the tender mercies of a redneck rapist.

So, LI has learned something. We’ve learned that the drama of living under a coup is like watching a wet firecracker fail to light. No, it isn’t about drama and resistance, it is about the universal debasement of choices.

So we voted. And we’re damn proud of it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


My brother was in Florida on a quick a/c job – go in, clean the units, go out, 25 bucks per. He took it basically for the trip, and enjoyed himself the way my brother enjoys himself – taking photos of everything. Well, that and the occasional bar with his ever bar-trending partner on the job. Anyway, he told me, he went to an alligator “preserve” somewhere south of Jacksonville, paid his 5 bucks at the gate, and found a rather fetid place, the air alive with the odor of alligator shit, and to entertain the kiddies a man giving lectures on the savage alligator while bugging some poor chosen specimen. The man got the gator to yawn, fed the creature, scared some kids, and my bro, getting bored with an operation that was, basically, throw a fence around a wallow and charge people to enter, left.

The best thing in today’s Times is Natalie Angier’s article about the whole family of crocodilia.

Angier is a cute writer. Cute journalism is usually lousy writing, and Angier has her detractors from the science side – among them, the redoubtable Helen Cronin -- but I like reading her.

“To the casual observer, an adult alligator afloat in an algae-dappled pond, its six-foot body motionless save for the sporadic darting of its devilish amber eyes, might conjure up any number of images, none of them fuzzy-wuzzy. A souvenir dinosaur. A log with teeth. A handbag waiting to happen.”

The handbag, of course, is a stand-up set-up, three beats. I’m rather partial to three beat material myself. The more important things in the article are:

a. the discovery that the Alligator possesses a sort of proprioceptive sense: “ … the mysterious little bumps found around the jaws of some crocodile species and across the entire bodies of others, which naturalists had long observed but never before understood, are sensory organs exquisitely suited to the demands of a semisubmerged ambush predator.
The pigmented nodules encase bundles of nerve fibers that respond to the slightest disturbance in surface water and thus allow a crocodile to detect the signature of a potential meal - an approaching fish, a bathing heron, a luckless fawn enjoying its last lick of water.”
b. the discovery that Nile crocs are actually two species;
and c., the construction of a family tree including crocs and birds that is part of the continuing revolution in classification effected by cladistics and chromosomal research.
“Crocodiles also hark back to another cast of beloved goliaths, the real ones called dinosaurs. The resemblance is not circumstantial. Through recent taxonomic analysis, scientists have concluded that dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds should be classified together on one branch of the great polylimbed Sequoia of Life.
"Crocodiles really are the closest things we have to living dinosaurs," said Dr. Thorbjarnarson. They are also much more like birds than they are like snakes, iguanas or other reptiles. For example, whereas most snakes and lizards have hearts with only three chambers, and a consequent mixing of oxygen-rich and oxygen-depleted blood supplies, crocodiles and birds have a similarly elaborate cardiac layout, in which four chambers and valves keep oxygenated and unoxygenated blood flows separate. (Mammals independently evolved a four-chambered heart.) That capacity lends the animals significant metabolic flexibility and improves the performance of their brains.”


A recent article in Psychiatry by Felix Strumwasser has an unexpected resonance in this election year. It begins:

“Using puppets, they showed children the following scenario: One puppet, Maxi, puts some chocolate in a box and goes out to play. While he is out, and unknown to him, his puppet mother takes the chocolate out of the box and puts it in the cupboard. The children were then asked where Maxi would look for his chocolate when he comes back into the house. Older children (usually five years and older) answered correctly that Maxi would look in the box (where he had put the chocolate and falsely believes that it still is). But the threeand four-year-oUt answered that he would look in the cupboard (where they know that the chocolate actually is).
-Suzanne Cunningham (2000), describing experiments by Wimmer and Perner (1983) on false beliefs

"THE preceding description of an experiment on children is just one of many that illustrates how the human mind is developing. By 3 years old, children have surpassed the "language" abilities of our nearest living relatives, the great apes, in particular, chimpanzees.”

This about targets the age level to which the Bush campaign would prefer to reduce its supporters. A puppet named Maxi takes a whole lot of weapons from a puppet named Flopsy. Flopsy keeps it a secret from Mommy in order to keep it a secret from Maxi. Silly Maxi! Where would you look for the weapons, boys and girls? In the hands of the insurgents that are killing all the funny stuffed puppets around Flopsy? No. The correct answer is: You would look for them up your ass! Then you’d say a funny thing about the puppet that criticized you. He used the word global! He used the word sensitive! he must be a secret homosexual French puppet.

Although the media, in their quest to be as subservient as possible to Rove’s strategy of making Bush seem inevitable (a tried and true method by which the national security states in many Latin American countries have tamped down dissent and extended their vampiric reigns) have pulled out fuzzy poll stat after poll stat to make it look like Bush is making vast inroads on the ever incompetent opponent (Judi Wilgoren at the NYT has become a past master of the factoid in this respect), LI was struck by a factoid in Kerry’s favor that slipped out via the LA Times: college educated white males, a demographic Bush owned last election, are leaning to Kerry:
“Strikingly, Bush leads Kerry in the poll among lower- and middle-income white voters, but trails his rival among whites earning at least $100,000 per year.

Bush also runs best among voters without college degrees, whereas Kerry leads not only among college-educated women (a traditional Democratic constituency), but among college-educated men — usually one of the electorate's most reliably Republican groups in the electorate.”

Could it be that economic interest is being trumped by pure shame? After all, infantilization to the degree that Bush demands from his supporters is, above all things, shaming. It is shameful, for instance, to believe that Bush had nothing to do with the deficits, but should be credited with the tax cuts. It is shameful to believe that, after two inquiries by the U.S. government, there were WMD in Iraq (although, as LI likes to point out, WMD is a totally bogus category of armament, allowing Western arms manufacturers to sell with impunity to whoever has the money to buy their wares). Here is the official explanation of why the Bush people kept secret the amount of weaponry that the American military has let slip into the hands of the enemy it is fighting (an issue that LI highlighted continually back in October, 03): they didn’t want to reveal this information to the enemy. To believe that requires a regression to that golden age when animals and humans communicated, and Mommy couldn’t hide the chocolate from Maxi. No sir..

“Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." In this case, a very little child indeed. But what things can be found in the kingdom, once entered! Every day, excuses to injure other little children in the Middle East without consequence and for their own good; the bliss of obeying the divine injunction, to those who have it shall be given, to the extent of 600 to 800 billion bucks; the bliss of borrowing unsupportable sums from the heathen Chinese, in order to support the worst of compromises between the Grover Norquists and the New Deal entrenchment of the middle class ever conceived.

Oh well. LI voted today, and – a first – we used the straight ticket option. Not that it will do too much good in our district, one of those that Tom Delay stole from Austin. This pretty Democratic city now has been so cookie cut that barely a fifth of the population will enjoy an ideologically compatible congressman. I’m to be represented by some Republican idiot named Smith, apparently. We all can’t wait.

Monday, October 25, 2004


It is easy to think that our present Bush is the worst Bush who has ever ruled over us. The citizens of Rome, whenever Nero committed some new jape, no doubt cast their eyes back longingly to the good old days of Caligula. Whenever we find out about Bush’s newest low – from the vacations of August, 2001, while the hijackers were asking directions to the nearest airport, to the Spring of 2002, when political intervention cut off the main American chance to deal a stunning military blow to Al Qaeda, to the mass thefts on behalf of the greediest and worst that are bankrupting the state, to, of course, the web of war crimes and lies that compose the entirety of his current foreign policy – we are tempted to sigh, as many liberals do, that this is the worst president of our lifetime.

Yesterday, we picked up a real crime book – Blue Thunder: how the mafia owned and finally murdered Cigarette boat king Donald Aronow, by Thomas Burdick. The book was written in the late eighties. There are amusing period touches – at one point, a DEA agent explains how they spot drug dealers at Julio Iglesias concerts: who else brings a portable phone to a concert? Indeed. Aronow was a Miami business and sportsman, famous in motorboat circles both for the designs of his boats and the records he set racing them. In 1984, he impressed his good friend, Vice President George Bush, by taking him around Miami bay in a prototype speedboat that Bush enjoyed so enormously that, in his (bizarre) position as head of a South Florida drug task force, he recommended ordering grosses of them for the DEA. The boats, named Blue Thunders, were produced by Aronow, apparently, and bought, given this recommendation, by the DEA.

Aronow was gunned down in a mob hit. Burdick, investigating the murder, was puzzled by rumors he heard about the Blue Thunders. The DEA had apparently failed to interdict even one drug craft with the boats. The design of the boats was so bad that the agents using them had to be more alert for engine explosions than for the chugging of speedy boats full of drug smugglers. The enigma was explained when he uncovered the fact that Aronow’s company was secretly owned by Jack and Ben Kramer. Jack and Ben were names in the boat industry – but they were more famous when they were hauled into court and charges with running the largest marijuana smuggling operation in the U.S.

Yes, this happened. The war on drugs had many farcical moments, but this has to be one of the funniest. Bush, it goes without saying, cut his ties of compassion to Widow Aronow, and went on, as President, to intensify the War against drugs to the point that the misery inflicted on one to two million Americans, imprisoned under his draconian regime, and the laws and procedures he introduced that were, with exemplary cowardice, left undisturbed by Clinton, do dwarf the misery inflicted by the current Bush whelp. Although to give him his fair share of abuse, the current Bush, ravening for Iraqi blood, is well on his way to surpassing his pa in terms of sheer feebleness.

Incidentally, Burdick includes a little aside that hints at how, well, lucky the Bushes are in Florida. When Ben Kramer was arrested, apparently original copies of the primary speeches given by Gary Hart were found in his safe. Kramer and Aronow belonged to a ‘swinging” club, Turnberry Isle. It was from Turnberry Isle that Gary Hart extracted his temporary honey, Donna Rice, who was photographed with him on a boat in the Miami harbor. How did the press find out about this? An apparently anonymous tip from another Turnberry hostess. This isn’t to say that the Bush organization, using its dirty connections in Florida, culled the Democratic field in order to organize the elevation of Bush to the presidency. To believe that would be to believe, well, that the Bushes would do anything to retain power, including corrupting an election…

All of which reminded LI of the last time we voted for a Democratic candidate for president: 1992.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

LI recommends Thomas de Waal’s article about the Charge of the Light Brigade in Friday’s Financial Times. According to Waal, the Charge went down in history when William Howard Russell, the London Times war correspondent, wrote it up 150 years ago. Russell decided to cast it as a magnificent spectacle of civilization, brought to nought by the barbarity of the enemy.

At the time, the vocabulary of propaganda didn’t include the term “terrorist” so beloved of the embedded American reporter. But like your average NYT or WP reporter today, Russell realized that his first job was to lie for the governing classes. That was also priority number 2 and 3. And like his modern day counterparts, he was so steeped in the mendacity and delusion of the governing class himself that he barely recognized his lies as lies.

Here’s how Russell described the Charge:

"A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls."

Thus began the myth of the charge of the Light Brigade. Russell not only gave a passionately dramatic description of what happened, he gave it an inspiring spin, beginning his dispatch, "If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected lustre on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy."

One is reminded of the mindnumbing dumbness of the early coverage of the war in Iraq – the stupid confidence that the war’s end was determined by the Bush administration’s desire, rather than its actions – the empty headed repetition of the pathetic lies that preceded it, that invested its operation during the first phase, and that covered up the wholesale looting of the country – by Bush connected corporations – during the wild ride of proconsul Bremer.
Russell’s account of a charge that was, actually, insignificant, inspired Tennyson’s poem. But Tennyson was too much of a poet not to be more penetrative than Russell – Tennyson did realize that ‘someone had blundered.” Russell took it as his job to obscure just who that someone was. As de Waal puts it:

“Russell also ducked what should surely have been a journalist's main aim in reporting this fiasco, to investigate the chain of command that led to the disaster and apportion blame. His account signally lets off the hook the British commander Lord Raglan, who issued the fatally ambiguous order. Raglan, who was on friendly terms with Russell, was never held to account for losing the Light Brigade.”

The Lord Raglans of the Rumsfeld gang – the Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchezes – have, if anything, been even more coddled by the press, which does love a man in uniform, and since getting their fingers burned in the Vietnam war have reliably laid down a covering fire of delusions for the U.S. government as it has supported death squad democracy in Central America and, now, Iraq. It is rather embarrassing for the newspapers to have to confront the obvious screwups of our politicized and incompetent high command – Franks inability to hurt Al Qaeda when it was concentrated in Afghanistan, and Sanchez’s mindblowing underestimation of the insurgency last fall – so the reporters prefer to do in depth reports on these things a year or two after they have happened. News may upset the bourgeois reader, but never his prejudices. And so the world is cut out for us on a paperdoll pattern.

De Waal is not uniformly critical of Russell: “His reports on the failures of the army supply system and the lack of nursing care for the wounded shocked British public opinion and helped bring down Lord Aberdeen's government. After the war they helped lead to a public inquiry held in Chelsea Hospital. It was the Hutton inquiry of its day - many witnesses were called but no one took the blame at the end of it.”

Interestingly, while the British were wallowing in their mock chivalry, the French were winning the war. As de Waal points out, the French army, under Pierre Bosquet, took Sevastopol. Russell, who shared with his British readers the kind of gallophobia that so infects Fox News today, skewed his reports, as much as possible, to exclude the French.

What's the other phrase about that? Plus ça change...

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...