Friday, July 08, 2005

more froth for your buck

To sum it up: Tony Blair took a non-threat to the U.K., Saddam Hussein, implanted a continuing British presence in the Middle East, and for the return on the British investment got 50 some deaths, 700 some casualties, and the disruption of all of London.

Steven Coll, whose Ghost Wars is the best book I’ve read about the Reagan era financed adventure in creating the jihadi movement in Afghanistan, has a good article in the WP. Here are two grafs:

“Yet al Qaeda's chief ideologues -- bin Laden, his lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri and, more recently, the Internet-fluent Abu Musab Zarqawi -- have been able to communicate freely to their followers, even while in hiding. In the past 18 months, they have persuaded dozens of like-minded young men, operating independently of the core al Qaeda leadership, to assemble and deliver suicide or conventional bombs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Spain, Egypt and now apparently London.
As in the Madrid bombings, these looser adherents sometimes copy al Qaeda's signature method of simultaneous explosions against symbolic or economic targets, an approach repeatedly advocated by bin Laden in his recent recorded speeches.

"No more 9/11, but lots of 3/11, especially in Europe," declared the final slide in a PowerPoint presentation about al Qaeda's evolution presented at numerous U.S. government forums this year by terrorism specialist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman, a clinical psychologist who has recently studied al Qaeda's European cells.”

Terrorism on tap – it is evolving nicely in the direction of a constant structure. The war on terrorism, enacted with the incompetence at which the governing class is especially good, to create a continually mobilizable base of support; the occasional real explosions, to instantiate a strong psychological restraint on dissent; and the filtering of all discussion through an endlessly growing network of anti-terrorism experts, whose ideas, a junk shop of reactionary ideological clichés that would have bored a John Bircher meeting in the 60s, will be presented with suitable worshipfulness every time an incident happens. It is rather like interviewing the head of the Nuclear Energy lobby every time there is a Chernobyl.

The end of the Coll story is a nice example of this blindsided mindset:

“Even the relatively unsophisticated nature of the attacks in London has generated soul-searching about whether effective countermeasures exist against an Islamic extremist movement that appears able to "self-generate" new terrorists, as a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official put it. "The impact of it is significant. It shows they have been able to overcome a well-developed security architecture in London," the former official said. "It shows that al Qaeda and associated groups and fellow travelers still have the ability to conduct an effective operation."

A number of themes come out in this graf.

a. The self exculpation of the experts. Since the main fact, here, is that the U.S. spectacularly blew it both by encouraging Al Qaeda at the outset and renting out to a former Al Qaeda collaborator the job of handling Bin Laden, the main goal is to disguise this fact. Soul searching indeed. The job is just so complicated, it is just so intricate, it just requires so many brain cells, that we might need whole offices and bureaucracies to do it, and certainly many, many terrorism experts. It isn’t as simple as: removing the structure and removing the cause – taking down bin Laden and ceasing to occupy significant parts of the Middle East and blowing up Moslems every day on the tv in the name of … well, something. The job couldn’t have to do with exploiting the torture facilities of our ally states in the Middle East while loudly proclaiming our commitment to compassion. No, that is way too simple. The discontent of those young Moslems are because they hate us. They have hate in their hearts. We have compassion.

b. Then, of course, there is the absence, in that soul searching, of a pretty simple solution for the U.K. – withdraw from Iraq. Hey, it worked for Spain. And perhaps, oh just perhaps, a war that is opposed by the majority of the population shouldn’t be pursued by an isolated, arrogant elite – perhaps that was one of the reasons, in the eighteenth century, that the aristocratic/monarchic form of governance was either overthrown or reformed away.

c. Which is why we need a cover story. The “self-generation” one is nice. We know, to a t the kind of landscape that ‘self-generates’ terrorism, since we gleefully exploited that landscape in Afghanistan against the Soviets. And we’ve faithfully copied that landscape in Iraq, with the U.S. this time starring as the U.S.S.R., and with co-stars the Badr Brigade and Sciri imposing shari’a law in those areas ‘democratized’ by the British occupation, such as Basra, while our opponents, yesteryear’s freedom fighters, are showing what good pupils the CIA had back in the golden days.

Of course, LI’s criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East shouldn’t overlook the good things we’ve done. For instance, we are cleverly bedeviling the ghost of Khomenei with irony. The man, from all accounts, did not take to irony. But what is his ghost to make of the fact that the U.S. has succeeded, where he failed, in spreading his revolution? This graf from the NYT is a juicy one, buried at the bottom of an Iraq story:

“While the United States has pressed hard for friendly Arab nations to upgrade their ties here, it has been wary of the new government's ties with another neighbor, Iran, and American diplomats and military commanders said on Thursday that they were still weighing an announcement that Iraq and Iran had reached agreement in Tehran on a military cooperation pact that will include Iranian training for Iraqi military units.

Iraq's defense minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as having told reporters after the signing ceremony, "Nobody can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries."”

PS – we’ve been very displeased, lately, to see one meme among liberal bloggers: that of getting young Republicans to sign up to go to Iraq. This is another example of rhetoric surmounting common sense. If you want the US to withdraw from Iraq, or set a timetable, don’t encourage, even as a sport, giving the War department more toys to play with. The principle of the strike is pretty simple. Discourage recruitment. Discourage enlistment. I was happy to hear, from my brother, that in Atlanta, the quakers have been active in some of the high schools, passing out anti-recruitment literature. The joke of encouraging Young Republicans to sign up is ultimately on the recruits that are over there right now, and on the Iraqis. It is a sick and sorry joke.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

the csa and terror

The rituals begin. The comments sections are flooded with “our prayers and thoughts are with you.” The leaders condemn the attack. They are against terrorist attacks. The Pope, too, is against terrorist attacks. Not a single leader thinks that London commuters should be blown to bits by a network winding back to a very alive and not very dead and certain not captured Osama Bin Laden.

These are the grooves we are stuck in. LI has an idea that the model for the half-security state – the state that leaves obvious gaps in its defenses while it goes about putting people’s library book checkout records under the magnifying glass – is Russia. Yeltsin, with Western encouragement, made himself briefly popular by playing the terrorist card and invading Chechnya. Putin has infinitely refined on the Yeltsin prototype. That the Bush culture is at once as tough as testosterone and as supine as a newly born lamb when it comes to demanding the taking down of the paramilitary networks from their supposedly tough leaders is a peculiar psychological complex that often accompanies junta politics. I especially love the rightwing meme that you can’t use “police” methods against terrorists. In point of fact, that is all you can use – the method of hunting down and destroying dispersed cellular groups that are armed and exist on a black money dole is the only method for destroying them. Because the perpetual war economy is about an elaborate welfare system for defense department engineers, it is understandable that this element thinks that terrorism is an excuse to get more of the gravy. If Boeing and Halliburtan don't make a profit on it, it can't be security. Cold war days are happy days. In the meantime, of course, there is also the solution of throwing bureaucracies and money at the security problem and making immigrants go through purposeless knots as though this was really sorting out the good, the bad and the ugly, instead of bottlenecking the good. However, one has to admire the emergence of a rich Homeland security welfare system that puts money into bungholes in Wyoming and Mississippi and takes money out of NYC, in the time honored, free riding fashion of Red State politics. Sweet.

In the week after Bush was re-elected, LI rethought a lot of what we used to assume about politics. The ascendancy of the Confederacy means, we think, that progressives must create enclaves and networks outside of D.C. – hence, they must invert their reflex support of centralizing power in the national government and work for the serious devolution of that power. But there is a fly even in this ointment: there is no alternative to endowing the central government with military power. This is a real problem: the D.C. Pentagon crowd, and their international clientele, are simply clueless. The evolution has been to the dumbest, which is why this is the Rumsfeld era in the ministries of war, technosmart and logistics dumb, full of strategic visions and tactical collapse. They cannot protect us, but they can certainly lie to us -- as the Bush and Blair governments did systematically in the run up to the war. They were the Code Orange Bobsey twins of misleading statements.

Meanwhile, the basic, security-making feature of government, which is equivalent to a membrane for a cell, is in hands that have proven themselves utterly unable to cope from day one.

It is childish to think men with bombs can be absolutely stopped. In fact, the benefit of an open society overwhelms the risk of terror. But a international order led by men who unwittingly open up new venues for terror, who brag about fighting wars that train terrorists, who intentionally create situations in which constituencies for terrorism are born, is rather like a hospital managed by doctors and nurses who refuse to obey the simple rules of hygiene. They become deadly to the rest of us. Our leaders have become very good at condemning the barbarity of killing commuters, which is a good thing. Because every policy they have pursued and every opportunity they have punted increases the possibility that we will see much more of it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

not dead yet front

PS -- re my states rights and liberals post. Somebody gets it! Amazing. The Tapped crew does express certain electrical impulses in the D.C. Democratic brain. Maybe these will actually bloom into a thought.

science as culture

There is nothing some scientists hate more than to have their activities scrutinized by a certain kind of sociologist. Somebody, for instance, like Bruno Latour, who they suspect is saying, in obscure language, that science is a dream, a highly wrought bubble composed of countless work-arounds and displayed before the credulous, who haven’t the training to see through the trick, as a seamless miracle. That is not, really, what Latour is saying, although he does, at critical points, suspend the question of the truth of what a particular scientist or a collection of scientists is maintaining in order to aim at what the scientists are doing. For the scientists, their motivations come from the nature of things; for Latour, their motivations come from the nature of scientists.

To do this kind of work, one must be extremely clever. But often, one isn’t. Which brings me to the Spring 2004 issue of Science as Culture magazine. Jon Turney has written just the kind of article that would seem to back up the scientists’ suspicions: “THE ABSTRACT SUBLIME: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten.” Turney turns his gaze on the genre of the popular science book. A little hurray for that – we are great devourers of popular science books ourselves. The poetics of the genre has been much neglected. Turney, however, isn’t interested in being extensive. Rather, he uses only one popular science book, Adrian Woolfson’s Life Without Genes. He does, it is true, make an allusion to one of Carl Sagan’s. But that is it. This is typical of Turney’s m.o. – generalization with too few examples. The article is an amalgam: Turney borrows Burke’s notion of the sublime to categorize the aesthetic appeal of popular science book, thus applying literary theory to science (of a type). The idea is good, but the follow through is lousy. His explanation of Burke is canned – he throws in some remarks about how people in the Middle Ages feared mountains and people in the eighteenth century started to revere them, which is such a stale insight, has been repeated so often as a cultural fact marking the borderline between the medieval and the early modern, that we are beginning to think it must be untrue. We look forward to some brave soul resurrecting a whole lost culture of medieval mountain climbers.

Turney likes Burke saying:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Surely Turney is right that some feeling that mingles terror and beauty is the expected response that shapes certain passages in certain popular science books. But he really should have gone to Kant for further information. Kant’s idea that sublimity is about the overcoming of some natural disproportion through the intellect is much closer to the modern sublime. The modern sublime is engineering and special effects. To understand the aesthetic impulse, as it relates to popular science books, you have to see its relation to curiosity – which, as problem-solving, has become the basis of our idea of intelligence. I say “our” – not LI’s idea of intelligence, I should add.

Fortified with his idea of sublimity, Turney then takes a crack at biology. Here things get much worse.

By any measure, biology is an incomplete science. Any sampling of the literature on biodiversity, for example, quickly shows that we have little idea how many different kinds of organisms currently exist on Earth, let alone how many may have existed in the past. Electronic databases contain records of a few complete genomes, but there are many more to analyse. And there are many aspects of intracellular or neuronal interaction which are poorly understood, to say the least.

Yet from one point of view, it is possible to imagine a biology which takes complete inventory of all these things. If you begin with the conviction that, in principle, all that is known can be represented as information, then what is not yet known is simply extra information. Conceptually it is equivalent to more of the same. One can then move imaginatively from, say, a DNA database containing the decoded genomes of a few species whose hereditary information has been processed through mass sequencing to a complete database of all species, or even all existing individual organisms. Expand to
include all the organisms that ever have existed and you are still nearer completion. All that remains is to include all the organisms which ever could exist.”

This is biology as Linneaus imagined it – infinite taxonomy. Turney’s unlikely idea that biology is data base making takes him to his even more unlikely idea that biology has now embraced, across the discipline, information as a sort of father son and holy ghost:

There is more to the state of any living organism than its genes, Woolfson acknowledges, but all the other features of its development, organization and experience can nevertheless be considered as simply additional information. In fact at this level of abstraction, the universe of all possible organisms is simply an awfully large subset of the set of all possible states of anything at all. The awesome extent of the Information Sea stems from the fact that ‘all possible bits of information are housed within an information
space … which accommodates every element of an infinitely detailed description of the state of the world at any moment in the past, present or future’ (p. 77).

Indeed, it contains all possible histories—for, again, The Information Sea is [thus] the space of all possible mathematical spaces, a hypothetical information space which contains the complete collection of all the infinite libraries of description that document every possible state of the universe to the highest degree of resolution.

Turney is very impressed by this. LI is less so. What makes information valuable isn’t captured, here, at all – for all possible histories includes false ones. The information that I leaped off the roof and flew for several miles is only separated from the information that I didn’t by the fact that one is a true statement and the other isn’t – not something information can specify. Although, to be sure, in specifying, I am providing information. As for the particular dynamism that provides us with our information about organisms – descent with modification – well, that sort of sinks to the bottom, here, doesn’t it? Turney’s paper has just that aggressive tendency to exaggeration that should make the science-as-culture people cringe. This isn’t, after all, the English department. So that I doubt very much Turney’s point:

As I have stressed, this may seem an unexpected space to explore in a book about the potential and limits of biology. But it is a logical product of the development of biological thinking in the last halfcentury, and of the ascendancy of computational and cybernetic metaphors. As Lily Kay and others have documented in detail, the
development of the idea of the genetic code indicated that biology was becoming an information science.”

In fact, biology is a vast array of different sub-disciplines. Molecular biology certainly uses the information archetypes – which, in turn, are parasitic on 19th century thermodynamics. But the key to biology is that it explains histories – organic development – and the information archetype is always oriented to this explanation. As Turney should have known from reading, well, popular science books, genes are not blueprints. If you skip survival in your tour of biology, you skip, well, biology itself.

Monday, July 04, 2005

santayana, the fourth

It is Santayana’s luck that he is not tarred, as Heidegger is, with sympathy for fascism, even though Santayana abundantly exhibited same. But the other side of that luck is that Santayana has sunk into relative and undeserved neglect.Undeserved on a number of levels. Simply on the level of sheer delight, Santayana ranks high as a writer. Here, for instance, is his criticism of Bertrand Russell’s politics: Russell's "mind and conscience" are "those of a rebel or reformer. He feels no loyalty to dominant things but enthusiasm for possible ideal contrary things. . . . Nothing can be established in this world merely because it is ideally possible: it must flow from what precedes, it must be derivable from physical forces actually afoot." We take that phrase from the review of Santayana’s letters in the Winter 2005 Sewanee Review, which – should you bump into an issue – you should read. Or, again, here is Santayana on myth and science – elucidating a point which, frankly, LI has some disagreement with, but elucidating it beautifully:

The laws formulated by science—the transitive figments describing the relation between fact and fact—possess only a Platonic sort of reality. They are more real, if you will, than the facts themselves, because they are more permanent, trustworthy, and pervasive; but at the same time they are, if you will, not real at all, because they are incompatible with immediacy and alien to brute existence. In declaring what is true of existences they altogether renounce existence on their own behalf. This situation has made no end of trouble in ill-balanced minds, not docile to the diversities and free complexity of things, but bent on treating everything by a single method. They have asked themselves persistently the confusing question whether the matter or the form of things is the reality; whereas, of course, both elements are needed, each with its incommensurable kind of being. The material element alone is existent, while the ideal element is the sum of all those propositions which are true of what exists materially. Anybody's knowledge of the truth, being a complex and fleeting feeling, is of course but a moment of existence or material being, which whether found in God or man is as far as possible from being that truth itself which it may succeed in knowing.

The true contrast between science and myth is more nearly touched when we say that science alone is capable of verification. Some ambiguity, however, lurks in this phrase, since verification comes to a method only vicariously, when the particulars it prophesies are realised in sense. To verify a theory as if it were not a method but a divination of occult existences would be to turn the theory into a myth and then to discover that what the myth pictured had, by a miracle, an actual existence also. There is accordingly a sense in which myth admits substantiation of a kind that science excludes. The Olympic hierarchy might conceivably exist bodily; but gravitation and natural selection, being schemes of relation, can never exist substantially and on their own behoof. Nevertheless, the Olympic hierarchy, even if it happened to exist, could not be proved to do so unless it were a part of the natural world open to sense; while gravitation and natural selection, without being existences, can be verified at every moment by concrete events occurring as those principles require. A hypothesis, being a discursive device, gains its utmost possible validity when its discursive value is established. It is not, it merely applies; and every situation in which it is found to apply is a proof of its truth.

Santayana was a curious cat. Perhaps because he is a cat with only one life in the public consciousness (revolving around that damned quotation – those who forget to read any of Santayana’s books seemed doomed to repeat his one famous quotation), he’s been immune from the fingerpointing that has attached to Heidegger’s Nazi loyalties. It is, one supposes, Santayana’s luck. Like Pound, Santayana spent WWII in Italy. Like Pound, Santayana was a fascist sympathizer. Like Pound, Santayana harbored a dislike for Jews that peppered his correspondence. But unlike Pound, he didn’t feel called upon to diffuse his views over the radio waves. Instead, he lived in a convent during the war.Nevertheless, we think that Santayana is a philosopher one should read. American political philosophy is pretty bare: there is Rawls, edifying and inedible; there is Strauss; there is Thoreau. Santayana is the only conservative philosopher who can be compared to Ortega y Gasset or Coleridge or Constant. Being captured by the conservative movement – and having his name put in the sub-title of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative mind – has not done Santayana a lot of good, since his concept of order is radically independent of the Burkean tradition. Partly this is because Santayana absorbed so richly the idealistic currents of the 19th century that he couldn’t imagine that the human vocabulary or mind could do anything but distort the facts of nature – for him, too, nature is behind the veil of Maya. This freed him, in a curious way, to propose a naturalism neutered of its anti-traditional import. Santayana, like Stephen Jay Gould, saw no reason that the acceptance, on the one hand, of a scientific narrative that put humans wholly in nature as animals that had evolved, should lead to the rejection, on the other hand, of that magisterial, as Gould puts it, that encodes the mythical. LI will talk about this in a later post.

Meanwhile, it is the fourth of July. For this fourth, the Observer has a very special report on the American financed resurrection of Saddam Hussein’s prison system, a state of things for which we are sending men and women to kill for. And to die for. Shall we mark the fifth year of the Bush elevation with mournful silence -- or just curse him out loud, up and down, sideways and backwards, inside out and through every back entrance? Every insult chased with a good goddamn. We recommend the later. Set off a firecracker and curse the Republican darkness.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

the last post on this subject, I hope

LI finds the whole festuche of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings to be so much depressing filler. We expect the D.C. Dems to charge out of their trenches once again into withering fire, having, like the English officer corps on the Sommes in 1915, understood nothing and remembered everything.

It is quite simple. Progressive politics on the national level are dead. D.C. is now the heart of big government conservatism. The party can’t adapt to this because it has concentrated its throw weight and vanity in D.C., producing the pompous puffer culture that is the snide voice which replies to Bush’s weekly radio speeches.

So – one needs a strong states rights justice or two. That should be the biggest criteria for liberals – and please, no Roe! if Roe goes down on the national level, it will just be catching up with reality, since in large stretches of Snopes country, abortion went back to the coathanger era in the nineties.

Advice that is futile, of course. The Dem consultants and media hangers-on and all the pathetic political hive continue to hum along as if they are about to retake D.C. any day now. In 1932, the shift to the national level was tactically brilliant. And up until the seventies, it was still a historic necessity. Breaking apartheid in the South, and, to a certain extent, in the North was a great moral victory. But the center didn’t feed the periphery. Snopes states were generally able to retain their anti-labor laws and their legally enshrined feudal customs, partly because it was to the advantage of those Northeastern investors who started putting serious money in the Sunbelt in the sixties. The Sunbelt, in turn, has interiorized the dependent mindset to the degree that the monstrous hybrid of big government and Bama-thought was inevitable: Bush is simply the freerider king, which is why it is popular in households in Mobile and Albany,Georgia and other of the bright lights of civilization to think that he talks directly to Jesus. Faith, after all, is just freeloading gone cosmic.

Adapting to this situation requires waking up. The medical marijuana case was the latest in a long line of examples. Those forms created by the progressives to enforce civility on a restless and depraved rural population have been seized by that civilization, and they are in payback mode. What does that mean? This is the part of the Widescreen space drama where the invaders are seizing the ship’s working mechanisms, and the captain has to press the autodestruct button, while the crew looks on anxiously. The carefully crafted national system has to be taken down. Otherwise, it is easy to predict the passage of a law outlawing abortion nationally in coordination with the redneck court, and a series of other eviscerating judgments -- for instance, the spread of anti-labor legislation on a national level. Etc., etc. The 2000 court decision that gave Bush the presidency (making the recent election of the president of Iran a model of democracy, by comparison – just think, the person with the most votes won!) indicates how far that court will go to enable the crushing power of reaction.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...