Saturday, April 23, 2005

wring the necks of the dying swans

The Washington Post published an almost perfect parody of the upper class voice in Mexico today. Rossana Fuentes Berain writes about Lopez Obrador as she would about an errant maid who had misplaced her best undies. Truly, this is undying dying prose:

“Where a Lopez Obrador presidency could really be a problem is in the matter of unfinished structural reforms -- in energy, labor and fiscal affairs. His political shortsightedness could stall long-overdue action in these areas, with unfortunate effects on Mexico's competitiveness with China and other countries.

"In a perfect world, this and Lopez Obrador's disregard for the law, as shown in the current case against him, would be enough for the electorate to reject him. In the real world, where there is deep discontent in many parts of the population, he must be regarded as a serious candidate. These are difficult times. We need to weather them and to keep our eyes on the main prize: a long-term North American compact.”

The “current case against him” is a PAN meme that will be kept upfront for the American audience, which is uninterested in, say, the work of the Mexican congress last week in granting immunity to a member who was accused of siphoning millions from PEMEX for the PRI electoral campaign, or the never dealt with accusations that Vincente Fox benefited from massive illegal contributions to his presidential run in 2000.

However, it is the utter contempt for the betail – you know, the campesinos and their stupid little hovels – that rings through these two sentences: “In a perfect world, this and Lopez Obrador's disregard for the law, as shown in the current case against him, would be enough for the electorate to reject him. In the real world, where there is deep discontent in many parts of the population, he must be regarded as a serious candidate.”

There is a world in those sentences. It was in that world that every counter-insurgency in the twentieth century in Latin American proceeded by slaughtering peasants. It is in that world that the rich in Venezuela, in the 1980s and 1990s, succeeded in looting a perfectly fine economy and nearly sinking it. In that world, Pinochet’s use of stadiums, while unfortunate, reflect the less than perfect world we live in. In that world, the ‘reforms’ of Menem in Argentina (the massive looting of public infrastructure by private investors) are necessary to ‘emerge’ into the first world – an emergence signaled by trips to LA and NYC, to Las Vegas and Washington D.C., for clothing, apartments, cars, yachts and such. In that world, Salinas’ economic “reforms” were long overdue, and the consequence of them was an unlucky accident. In that world, spending billions of public dollars to support the malfeasance of Mexican billionaires who looted their own banks is just good business. In that world, no questions should be asked about the provenance of the money that is used to buy the telephone company, or the cement plant, or the ranch. It comes from… well, somewhere. In that world, no need to worry about the fact that Mexico’s top businesses are now firmly in the hands of non-Mexican businesses. No need to worrry about the dinosaur tread of the PRI, coming to a border town near you. No need to worry about what the Fox regime seems to have been -- a clumsy interlude sponsored, towards the end, by the right wing of the PRI.

Friday, April 22, 2005

the soldiers in the trenches

The anti-Japanese riots in China – however they might have been instigated by the government for its own purposes – demonstrate the attraction of historical traumas. Attraction, that is, as a site for ceremonies of memory, for obsession, for re-enactment, for anxiety, and for that element of forgetting that goes into what one chooses, at any particular moment, to imbue with the energy of recollection. Memory has an opportunity cost.

There’s a review, in History and Theory (Winter, 2005) of UNDERSTANDING THE GREAT WAR, by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker. According to the author of the review, Ann Louis Shapiro, who teaches at the New School, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have taken it upon themselves to “demolish” the historiography of World War I. Underneath the rhetorical heat, that means two things: a., expanding the focus of the war to the civilian populations that were entrained in it – not as spectators but as participants; and b., understanding how the soldier in the trench became the ‘protagonist’ of the war.

According to Shapiro:

The architecture of this narrative, with its iconic anecdotes and mythologized references, was laid in place early in the postwar period. In part, the rapid embrace of a relatively codified narrative was the result of the popularity and authority of war novels that provided canonical understanding of chaotic and unprecedented, even unassimilable, events. In France, Le Feu by Henri Barbusse, published in 1916, and Les Croix de bois by Roland Dorgelès, published in 1918, provided templates for interpreting the war for soldiers and civilians alike. Le Feu was read aloud in military hospitals and in the trenches (apparently even
among German soldiers), and soldiers wrote to Barbusse to tell him that his book had helped them “to see anew and feel more clearly their own memories,” noting that it was the novel that allowed them to see the war fully,3 while a mother whose sons were at the front wrote to say that “it seemed as if her child’s very
life had been made to pass before her eyes.”4 Perhaps most telling, the military doctor/novelist Georges Duhamel noted in 1933 that “if his former patients were to read today their own stories, they would rarely recognize them,” having deliberately adapted their memories to conform to the version presented by Duhamel in his war fiction: “If one is offered a good mirror,” wrote Duhamel, “one will not refuse.”5 Such war novels, including Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, were, in effect, fiction/memoirs, testimonies of former soldiers that served both as personal exorcisms and documents that ostensibly might provide a corrective to discredited official accounts. They reflect, collectively, a pervasive belief that only eyewitnesses could apprehend and convey the reality of a war that was, in its details, ineffable and beyond words—a reality that emerged exclusively from “that great confessional” of the trenches.”

Of course, there is something a little confused about a process that is labeled postwar and that begins in 1916 – which is midwar. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the image of the “mirror” does have a distorting effect upon memory – a mirror registers images, while memory seeks to grasp sequences. Or at least sequences are given to memory to grasp. That the sequences have no particular pre-determined aspect is what must be overthrown by art and politics and societal norm, which all reject that degree of freedom.

What is interesting, here, is what one discovers if the soldier in the trench isn’t the protagonist – if he is a part of a larger collective that is not primally divided between soldier and civilian. This is where the war was experienced as “the matrix event of the twentieth century”, to quote Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker. So far, so good. However, we wonder whether we really require a demolition job to achieve this end. We especially find the introduction of dubious categories from therapy suspicious:

“Because of what was effectively a “hyperamnesia” with regard to the trench soldiers and a “general amnesia” with regard to everyone else, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker argue, historians have been unable to move past persistent blind spots that have occluded understanding of the causes of the war, its duration, and its cultural/historical consequences.”

This sounds all to much like repressed memory syndrome, about which the best one can say is that it gave various therapists a chance to release their own nightmares upon the already scribbled upon tabula of their various unfortunate patients.

We are on firmer ground when, dispensing with the amnesia vocabulary, we get to the positive acts and excitements of the war:

“The approach of Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker is synthetic, drawing upon research mostly from the past ten years, organizing and reassembling it so as to demonstrate the consequences of the particular kind of warfare that emerged in the Great War. More specifically, they argue that the most significant effects of
the war are revealed when the experiences of civilians are fully restored to the narrative in all their detail. By examining the varied experiences of civilian populations, they seek to draw new meanings from a familiar history and reassess the ways in which the war bled in to the history of succeeding decades. They
divide their study into three sections—violence, crusade, mourning—the topics most notably underexamined in the dominant narrative of soldiering. Foregrounding these themes, they draw several large conclusions: that the radical extension of violence to civilians and others—in short the brutalization of behavior during the war—set the template for succeeding totalitarian regimes; that soldiers
and civilians shared, with religious fervor, a culture of war that presaged its outbreak and caused whole populations to acquiesce for years in a pointless slaughter; and that the scale of death and suffering produced a pervasive but unacknowledged experience of “interminable mourning” that was transmitted
across generations, with (only vaguely specified) effects into the postwar period, especially among the defeated nations.”

This schema (save the interminable mourning, a controvertible unit of analysis) could very well be extended to modern Chinese history. The imbrication of civilian and soldier was institutionalized in China, via the Communist party, to a degree that was matched only by Nazi Germany. But in the case of China, the war with Japan was never, psychologically, dealt with – it was merely abruptly replaced by a devouring class war, and Mao’s ferocious attempt to preserve a peasant-socialist autarky.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Jesus’ politics.

As the few who have actually read the Gospels know, Jesus said relatively little about sex. For him, it was a thing that occurred in the structure of families. Jesus didn’t much like families. He was only half joking when he said that he had no patience for him who didn’t hate his mother. He thought if you entered into a marriage, that was the end of it – no divorce for you. Of course, marriage, back in Jesus' day, wasn't the love match it is today, but an exchange between parents and clans in which the individuals exchanged had little say. So this is a hard saying to understand -- was it a way of warning men not to desert their wives and children?

In any case, he looked upon the marriage and family racket as hopelessly perverting -- there'd be no giving and taking of wives and husbands in the Kingdom of Heaven.

On the other hand, Jesus had numerous opinions about wealth. He unequivocally thought that the wealthy would not be in the kingdom of heaven. He thought that they were scanty in their sacrifices, and pushy in their lives, and in general a diabolical nuisance. Just getting wealthy, Jesus thought, probably entailed doing things that would send you to Hell. He had no hesitation about saying so. When a rich man came to him who had sacrificed much of his wealth, Jesus famously said that it was harder for the rich to get to heaven than for the camel to get through the eye of a needle. This saying is one that the most literal American fundamentalist suddenly gets all liberal about. But the meaning is made clear by what Jesus did before he made that comment – he clearly thought that the rich man hadn’t given enough. He hadn’t really destroyed his wealth.

While there is, currently, a great deal of kowtowing to a bunch of pissants who call themselves Christian in contemporary American culture, one can be confident that, if Jesus is within the ballpark of being right, most of the Christian right, from George Bush to Pat Robertson, are going straight to hell. It isn’t really even a close call. All are wealthy. All retain their wealth in the face of a world in which masses starve. All have let these people starve during the whole course of their lives. Some, such as Pat Robertson, have acquired their wealth through such bloody associations that they are obviously immoral. But Jesus really didn’t make a lot of distinctions here. Gays are never condemned by Jesus. The wealthy are, time and time again. As for the clergy that coddles the wealthy and themselves become rich, they are what Jesus called Whited Sepulcres, filthy on the inside. Among the certainly and for sure damned, one can spot some easy prey: the creators of the Left Behind series (sin against the holy ghost, wealth), Dr. James Dobson (wealth, refusal to visit those in prison, definitely on the left side of the Son when he judges the quick and the dead), Newt Gingrich (are you kidding me) and many others who are going to go where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is, of course, Limited Inc’s burden that, as an atheist, we are probably ending up spending the afterlife with a bunch of yahoo evangelical leaders. Just our luck. Many of these men are under the misapprehension that Jesus gives his unconditional approval to heterosexuality, confusing viagra with virtue. Jesus made know his contempt for the family whenever he got a chance; his contempt for the mere industriousness that leads to wealth (behold the lilies of the field), his contempt for profiteers on the poor (you have made my father’s house into a den of thieves), etc. As for the collectivity of Congress, they have as little chance of making it to heaven as a vampire bat has of winning best in show at your local kennel club. If there is one crowd that has beast written on their foreheads, it is this one. Hopeless, from the divine point of view.

However, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out long ago, hardly anybody believes Jesus anymore, especially Christians. Shaw said that Christians are, almost to a man, followers of Barabbas: worshippers of ostentatious power, self-pitying about their cruelties, absolutely unable to sympathize with those lower than them if they aren’t allowed, at the same time, to strip those lower than them of all dignity – in other words, cannibals and freaks and the usual good booboisie you see buying steaks in the grocery store. Shaw thought certain of Jesus’ communistic ideas might work in today’s society. We don’t. That is, as a majoritarian stance, what Jesus taught leads to chaos and cruelty. The Grand Inquisitor is right about that. But as a minority stance, here and there, it is an experiment well worth doing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sympathy for a bitter old man

The pope crap keeps on coming. The media are intent on thrusting the doings of the Vatican in our faces for … forever, it seems. Or at least as long as it took to get O.J. to get out of that white car he was in. Remember, in the long ago, the golden days of Good King Clinton?

In any case, it struck me that, aside from the general vileness of the new Pope’s principles, he might be one of the sadder people in public life. To reach out one’s arthritic, clawlike fingers and snatch the office one wanted – one earned, one deserved! – at a much younger age – now, now when the juice has been squeezed out of the grape, it seems so pitiful. And it isn’t like Ratzinger has had a life. Your ordinary churchman can chuck it all and get a beer and talk with buddies if he wants – he’s living, after all, in some urban crush, the bishop of someplace like New York or Chicago or the like. He can have some female companionship, even if he doesn’t make it sexual. He can go to the movies.

But Ratzinger has spent the finer hours of his life in the Vatican hothouse. Ixnay on the female companionship – or even on having lunch with your favorite Mafia don. It is all brushing surplices with flocks of the inbred Vatican-ites, a bunch of pious poodles who are barely house trained. And in the meanwhile, years of brownnosing the boss. The backlog of resentment must be hard to bear. And then to go on, when the old man finally dies, and make him out to be a saint – when of course you were there for the acidic mood changes, and for all the body betraying the guy with its smells and bruises, you were there to see how he fucked up majorly in this or that way, how you could have done better, how he never resigned and gave you a chance when you were still young enough to enjoy things, how you had to hear years of his praises, his great intellectual capacity, his loving qualities, when how about yours, no, you didn't have a showy philosophy but your grades were generally excellent and it isn't like rising up to judge the faith of the faithful is some job anybody can do, and sure it is easy to display loving qualities when you have your Beria, your Himmler by your side to do the dirty work, sure, you were always there, the convenient dump, the excuse, the man not in the popemobile, and the desire for it rots but it doesn't go away, it is like the fruit of knowledge lodged within you that infinitely browns and wrinkles and ferments but never dissolves, somehow, until all you have is that fruit – it has to create a massive internal corrosion of one’s very capacity to pity, it has to reach out and soil every part of one's life, one can't take a shit without being shrouded in the ceaseless bitterness. All this to get an office in an organization ostensibly dedicated to the God of Love. When they put the funny hat on the guy, he can look around at all the faces and see not one that loves him – mother and father long dead, and no doubt – if he has grandnieces and nephews – those long alien to him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the embarrassment in the family, he makes good and they might even drop his name now, a celebrity, and as a connection, something one can brag about in a business so that you make deals that you wouldn't otherwise have the chance to, sure, he's of some use, but funny uncle Benny, as they will have to call him now, and trust him to take a name as ungainly and dumb as that one. One imagines it to be one of those Thomas Bernhard Austrian families – ossified neurotics, museum quality ignoramuses, such as are displayed and splayed and spayed in Bernhard’s Ausloeschung. If you want to understand the level of cretinism, and its breathless spiritual vacuums now on display in the Vatican, go to that novel.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The people

LI’s friend, H., writes from Teheran to congratulate us. Apparently, this blog is being blocked on some Iranian servers. As H. rightly says, what does it say about a state that is afraid of LI? There’s a little pinch in that remark – H. knows how vain we are – but it is also true that LI does not exactly aim to get people out in the streets throwing bombs, or even pies. We aim for more, shall we say, multi-dimensional refusals, little glitches in the smooth operation of society here and there, question marks proliferating, comic strip fashion, above the head, punk rips in the veil of Maya.

Texas is much on our minds, recently, because our novel, which is meant to suck in the juices that make this state work, is starting to hum along. Any reader of this thing who is interested in being a guinea pig reader for this thing should drop us an email. In our quest for the genuine Texas, we’ve been reading T.R. Fehrenbach’s marvelous Comanches: Destruction of a People.

Fehrenbach is a columnist for the San Antonio paper. From what I have gathered about him on the Net, he seems to be a sort of Texas version of a Walker Percy character – educated up North, at Princeton, enormously versed in the unfashionable great books, and a ranger outside the walls of academe. His Comanche history bears the impress of both the virtues of education plus disdain for the merely pedagogical and the vices. Chief of those vices is lack of footnotes The reader must make due with the sources listed in the back, and guess from what source sprang, for instance, this paragraph:

‘They did not harm the children further. But the two adult women were stripped naked and subjected to more torture. Hoever, this torment was not so much sadistic as part of a rite of total humiliation, which was important to the Amerindians. The two women were not seriously injured, for the warriors had no intention of killing them. They were to be slaves. Captive women who were frightened with torture and threats of torture made less trouble and quiclkly learned to perform on command. In the final act, both women were raped through the night in full view of the bound children.’

This is about one of the most famous hostage stories in Texas history, the taking of Elizabeth Kellog and Rachel Plummer from the raid on Parker’s fort.

Fehrenbach pulls no punches on the racial or sexual violence that was woven into the frontier story, and censored out of it when it became a myth for children. He is a little less satisfying about the rapes of Indian women committed by the Rangers – although this was not a sanctioned, or ritualized part of Indian warfare, it is a good bet that it occurred pretty frequently. But he does make this comment, which casts an ironic spanner into any attempt to make the American culture somehow superior to the Comanche one on the moral level.

Rachel Plummer was eventually ransomed from the Comanches:

"The position of a returned female captive, however, was always anomalous on the nineteenth century American frontier. The frontier’s puritanical views and rigid racial and sexual shibboleths made it impossible for such unfortunate women to be accepted gracefully back into their communities. They were objects of sincere pity, but they were also considered dirty and disgraced, for they had been the playthings of creatures the Americans regarded as animals. They were embarrassments to their families. Some husbands would not receive them or live with them again. Ironically, most returned women suffered more real shame and huiliation among their own people than among the Comanches. If they came back with half-breed children, their position, and that of the unhappy children, was even more unfortunate… Rachel Plummer died within less than a year after her ransom and return to civilization.”

LI has been fascinated by the Nermernuh, the People, for some time. One of the great passages in American literature is Cormac McCarthy’s account of a Comanche attack in Blood Meridian. We first read that sitting on a porch in Pecos, New Mexico, facing the fading eastern sky and the Pecos River – which ran by the land we were renting – and in that setting, it was awfully scary. And it should be. As Fehrenbach points out, the Comanches, for about a hundred years, pretty much ruled the area east of Santa Fe and west of San Antonio. the Kiowa, who were accepted among them and accompanied them on raids into Mexico, went as far as the Yucatan. The towns and rancherias of northern Mexico were simply devastated by Comanche raids, and the first white Anglo settlers were repeatedly struck by them – and if they hadn’t been supplied by a superior technological force in their rear, viz, Eastern liberal makers of Colts and such, the white Anglo settlers would have been wiped out. Establishing the parasitic relationship between Texas and the Northeast that has endured ever since – Texans despising the North even as they have been unable to create an economy viable enough to stand on its own (as witness the march of money down South to support Texas in the late eighties) or a culture of any innovation beyond the making of colorful new knots in the ropes used to lasso steers.

Monday, April 18, 2005

For the last week, LI has been bothered by phone calls from Rome offering us the popeship. You’ve probably received the same phone call on your recorder: a voice says, Frankly, we’re surprised you haven’t called us back. You can now get credit card rates as low as 6 percent, as well as become the pontiff of the Holy Catholic Church, with a world wide congregation of over one billion, if you act now. If you aren’t a woman, have no problem condemning the use of condoms in AIDs infected areas of Africa, and have low credit or even no credit, you can still qualify for our program.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a credit card.

In other news… Kenneth Emmond notes further gross abuses of the law by Fox’s PAN, as well as, of course, the PRI, even as the American press continues to report, without context, Fox’s contention that no man is above the law in Mexico.

“A recent example of a successful application of the fuero is that of Morelos Governor Sergio Estrada Cajigal. Congress voted in favour of a desafuero, based on evidence suggesting he colluded with narco-criminals in his state, but the Supreme Court overturned it on a technicality and he remains governor.”

Emmond further notes the quid pro quo around the case of “PRI Senator Ricardo Aldana, who is a suspect in the billion-peso Pemexgate scandal.” Oh, and the journalist who was murdered last week was one who was reporting on a local oil smuggling scandal.

Iraq. We haven’t written anything in this space for a while about Iraq. The refusal of the newly cobbled together government to take up the issue of the timetable for the American withdrawal continues to be a stake in the heart of democracy – this is, after all, what they were elected to do: end the occupation. Sadr’s move, as we predicted, will be to squat on this issue until it squeaks. The American media has decided that the narrative is about things getting better in Iraq. It is about Iraqis liking us. And so hotel room bound reporters collate voices from their stringers that are pro-American, and push them through the pipeline.

It would truly be piling tragedy on farce if Sadr ends up as the most respectable voice of Iraqi nationalism, but such is the direction of the situational slope. The hibernating American conscience only wakes up when the American casualty total spikes for a day. Occupation watch published a piece by Jim McGovern (Congressman from Massachusetts) that ends:


LI readers should immediately stop reading this fumbling attempt at a post and go to the TLS review (by Thomas Keymor) of Henry Hitchings book on Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. Johnson is, along with Hazlett and Orwell, every freelancer’s hero. But the Dictionary sets him apart, in that space reserved for the more inscrutable sons of God, mysterious in their energies and inimitable in their successes:

“The body of the Dictionary performs the troubled themes of the preface with striking virtuosity. This great work does its primary job as a standard dictionary with constant assurance, and of course part of Johnson’s achievement is to have produced, in less than a decade and with only routine assistance from six amanuenses, a feat that would not be superseded until the OED at last came to fruition in 1928, after the labours of huge teams over seventy-one years.”

It is as if one man built one of the cathedrals. Keymor emphasizes Johnson’s shifting sense of the object of the dictionary – at the beginning, it was to fix the pronunciation and meanings of words in English, but it evolved into a record of the meanings and pronunciations, with an enlarged sense of the sheer ephemerality of the inside of a language – the multitudinous and contingent transformations of its units – that, by some miracle, did not effect the outward unity of the language. Keymor again:

"Johnson’s reputation is that of a bossy prescriptivist, and these are the terms in which his enterprise began. In The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, issued in 1747 to drum up patronage and subscriptions, he writes serenely of the language as an entity amenable to scientific description, and thus, by extension, regulation. His work in progress is one “by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed . . . by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened”. Yet even in this inaugural document there lurks a countervailing sense of language as recalcitrant and wild, or as human and fallen, the work “of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived”. The overall confidence of the Plan has much to do with the predispositions of the person to whom it was addressed, Lord Chesterfield, whom Hitchings rightly calls a “linguistic conservative”, and whose casual exploitation of Johnson’s efforts led in time to one of the Dictionary’s most famously perverse definitions. Here a patron is “a wretch who supports with insolence”, and Johnson sharpened the barb in a personal letter: “Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?”. In the preface to the Dictionary, written on the eve of publication, Johnson’s pose is that of the sadder and wiser man. As Hitchings makes clear, practical difficulties of implementation had conditioned his now jaundiced, indeed tragic, sense of the inherent limits of his endeavour, but one should not underestimate the artful ironic patterning at work in the path he traces from innocence to experience. As the Plan quietly intimates, he had always sensed the blocks and binds that he now comprehends to the full, and in the preface he articulates this sense with the piercing lucidity of a mind honed by years of struggle with fine distinctions of meaning. Language is boundless, disorderly, perplexed, uncertain and, above all, “variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it”. No feature of language can be rendered marmoreal, and in this sense even the most extensive and rigorous effort of lexicography can get no further than heroic defeat – a perception beautifully crystallized when Johnson writes (reworking his verse account, from The Vanity of Human Wishes, of the helpless rage of Xerxes at the Hellespont) that “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths”. The lexicographer reverts to poetry here, for the most part with grim insistence on corruption and decadence, but not without a counterstrain of relish, a sense that instability can equally be imagined as cornucopian energy and teeming life. When he adds that “no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away”, the sense of rising sap is no less important than the autumnal decay. Amidst the unflinching gloom, one of Johnson’s favourite terms for language and meaning is “exuberant”: “growing with superfluous shoots; overabundant; superfluously plenteous; luxuriant”.

LI thinks we will do another post on Johnson, just for the hell of it.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...