Saturday, October 29, 2005

turning thoreau on his head

LI likes to find out things that challenge what we thought we knew – especially if the challenge comes from the direction of what we think makes the most sense. Lately, there has been a lot of bustle made about Jared Diamond’s theories of the biological and material constraints on civilization. For those interested in such things, we’d urge you to pick up Charles Mann’s 1491. Mann is a journalist who has worked for Science and other magazines. His book is a great sweeping up of the new Americanist school that has emerged since the late fifties. This school takes its bearings from a demographic theory: the American continents were much, much more populous than the early 20th century anthropologists ever thought. The corollary is that the continents were de-populated. While the Americanist estimates of just how many people existed in the world Christopher Columbus bumped into, the old estimate of 10 million tops has long been trashed, and the new controversy is really about where to put the population between 40 and one hundred million. In other words, the New World was more populous than Europe.

This change in demographic perspective has been accompanied by a lot of archaeological, bio-historical and other work, all of it progressing in a sort of gamut of academic fire, as sides pepper each other with counter-evidence and withering put-downs of competence, ideology and the like.

The chapter that truly fascinated us in Mann’s book was about the Amazon. It presents a picture of the Amazon so different to what we are accustomed to that we had to check it out.

Mann presents the thesis held by more and more researchers that, far from being a thinly populated wilderness, the Amazon jungle is, in many ways, the result of human “terraforming.” That is, the composition of the jungle, and the odd emergence of a soil type that occurs nowhere else – terra preta – testifies to massive and continuous human ‘interference.” The Amazonian primitives, the slash and burn tribes – these are cultures that formed after the great dying. Far from being a people without history, the Yanomami, for instance, are a people who fled from the history bearing down on them, and adopted a nomadic life in the seventeenth and eighteenth century partly because their old agricultural lifestyle was no longer an option, and partly because the introduction of metal chopping implements meant that the forest would be used in a different way.

In a recent article by Raffles and Winkler-Prins, “FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON AMAZONIAN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY: Transformations of Rivers and Streams,”in the Latin American Research Review (2003) there is a nice summary of the point Mann presents at length in his book:

In this research report, we present both new and previously published material on the manipulation of Amazonian landscapes by local populations. We understand these data as contributing to an emergent body of work in Amazonianist social scientific scholarship that rejects the notion of a pristine rain forest and the associated ineffectuality of local populations, and instead proposes a more hybrid conception of a "natural-cultural" regional landscape (e.g., Balee 1989, 1998; Denevan 1992, 2001, n.d.; Hecht and Posey 1989; Raffles 1999, 2002; Roosevelt 1980, 1991; Smith 1995; cf. Demerritt 1994; Haraway 1997; Latour 1993). Part
of this argument is the claim that nature is socially constructed as a discursive practice and that the contemporary opposition between nature and culture is historically and culturally specific to post-Enlighterunent European thought (Latour 1993; Strathem 1981; Williams 1980). More
specifically, however, this body of research insists on the biophysical materiality of Amazonian nature, arguing for the recogrution of these landscapes as cultural in an older sense of embodying social labor, of being worked and transformed by humans (cf. Sauer [1925] 1963; Williams
1973; Doolittle 1984). It is this realist aspect of the argument that we build on and expand in this paper.
Recent empirical research suggests that the forests of the Amazon basin have undergone substantial manipulation and management since long before modem development of the region and, indeed, prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Researchers have documented
in detail the long-term manipulation of forest composition and species density (e.g., Balee 1994; Moran 1996; Roosevelt 1999,2000), with Balee, AMAZONIAN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY 167
for example, estimating that 12 percent of Amazonian forest is currently of "biocultural" origin (Balee 1989,14). In building a convincing account of region-wide, landscape-scale manipulation and transformation, scholars point to anthropogenic forests managed for the extraction of particular tree crops (Balee 1994), to trails planted with useful foods by traveling or semi-nomadic people (Hecht and Posey 1989; Posey 1985), to managed forest islands amidst a dominant savannah landscape (Posey1985,1992), and to the long-term use of what were once thought to be abandoned swiddens (Denevan and Padoch 1987; Irvine 1989). In addition,
studies of the anthropogenic origins of the extensive areas of black or dark earth soils known as terra preta do indio have revealed a sigruficant human contribution to pedogenesis (Smith 1980; Woods and McCann 1999; McCann, Woods, and Meyer 2001; Glaser et al. 2001; Petersen, Neves, and Heckenberger 2001) and researchers have also identified other types of soil management, including concentric ring agriculture and in-field burning (Hecht and Posey 1989), sediment trapping in the floodplain (Padoch and Pinedo-Vasquez 1999), and organic matter
harvesting (WinklerPrins).”

It is interesting, to us, that Derrida’s first challenge to what he called logocentrism is an analysis of the “writing lesson” in Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques that occurred in an Amazon Indian village. Levi-Strauss was certainly the mid-century’s representative of the idea that the Indians were people without history – instead, they were the people of structured myth. Myths being autonomous things, in Levi-Strauss’ ethnography, the search for historical linkage between myths and the historic existence of Amerindian cultures was one of those fatal quests, like looking for the Fountain of Youth, in which the researcher would simply get lost. Keeping nature and culture conceptually separate provided the basis for understanding culture itself – or rather, culture was the infinite task of making that separation. Mann’s mindblowing idea is that the wilderness was not just an “ideological” formation justifying the European conquest – it was, rather, a partial vision of the ecological reality left behind when a keystone species is knocked out of the system. The species, in this case, was the Indian, debilitated in a culturally annihilating way by sickness and mortality. The accounts of early settlers on the Eastern Seabord all pointed out that the land that they were settling seemed parklike – rather than overgrown forest, they encountered forests that had obviously been maintained, through culling fires, and cultivated farmland on the milpas principle of planting maize, beans and squash. But these early accounts were discounted as the decades went by, and the myth of the nomadic, hunter gatherer Indian was formed. Not so much a myth, one should say – rather, the hunter gatherer social form was a logical retraction to an economically efficient form of living in a landscape in which you are suddenly and horribly shrunk. Living like a remnant.

Mann uses two examples to make his case that the North American wilderness experienced by colonizers in the 17th and 18th century was a very different place from the one encountered by De Soto in the 16th century. One is the bison. When Lasalle came into the Southern Mississippi in the late 17th century, he recorded immense herds of Bison. Indeed, the Buffalo was reported from New York to Georgia in 17th and 18th century accounts.

This is in odd contrast to the chronicle of the Spanish explorers in the 16th century, particularly De Soto. In the same area that Lasalle found, one hundred years later, to be practically empty of humans and full of bison, De Soto found just the reverse. There were Indian villages all over the place, but his chronicler mentions not one bison, although he mentions other animals.

Similarly, in the 18th century, we have plenty of accounts of passenger pigeons. The passenger pigeons seem dominant, and incredibly plentiful. Yet in archaelogical digs in Illinois and in Ohio that turn up plenty of bird bones in settlements in the 14th and 15th century – bones of birds that were eaten – there are relatively few passenger pigeon bones. Mann speculates that the bison and the passenger pigeon populations exploded as the Indian population crashed. This would turn the way we think of the 18th century upside down – the settlement of the colonies was coincident with the growth of the wilderness, not vice versa.

This, to LI’s mind, is definitely a mindblowing thing. It would definitely turn that notion of pristine America, which we get from Thoreau, on its head.

Friday, October 28, 2005

post coital, after the press conference post

Fitzgerald’s interview was a pretty impressive performance.

With the spotlight on Cheney’s office, we hope some reporters will take a look at the Oil-for-food investigation that wrapped up this week. The headlines, of course, packaged the report in terms of nationalities – the dirty French, the dirty Russians. But that kind of packaging is a joke. Corporations involved in selling oil related equipment or buying oil from Iraq are necessarily of the scale to be multinationals. Our interest, really, is in the subsidiaries of Haliburton. We already know that, contrary to what Cheney claimed in the 2000 campaign, Haliburton companies Dresser-Rand and Ingersoll Pump did business with Iraq. And we know that after the Clinton administration blocked Haliburton from dealing with Iraq from its American base, Haliburton did an end run through France. The dirty officials in France have never properly suffered, but the corporations involved in propping up Saddam haven’t either.

According to a WSJ summary in the April 28, 2004 edition:

“Halliburton, which has won business in the Gulf country since the war, did tens of millions of dollars of business with Iraq in the late 1990s, when it still was led by the current U.S. vice president, Dick Cheney. Much of that business was done through French units.
Halliburton won more than $30 million of deals with Mr. Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s, U.N. documents show.
The largest part came when Mr. Cheney led the company from 1996 to 2000. Mr. Cheney said during the 2000 election campaign that Halliburton had a policy against trading with Iraq. The Halliburton contracts mentioned in the U.N. documents involved units and joint ventures that came with the purchase of Dresser Inc. in 1998. Those units were sold from December 1999 to April 2001. "Contracts were initiated prior to the merger," a spokeswoman for Halliburton said.
At least one French unit, Dresser-Rand SA, part of a joint venture in which Halliburton had a 51% stake, registered $6 million of oil spare-parts sales with the U.N. oil-for-food program from 1998 to 2000, after Halliburton acquired Dresser, U.N. documents show.
Ingersoll Dresser Pump Co., the French unit of another joint venture, signed about $25 million of Iraqi contracts at a time when Halliburton owned 49%, documents show.”
The article also makes the point that French companies, blocked by the Bush’s for bidding on Iraqi contracts, simply use their U.S. subsidiaries to do the bidding.
What is weird about the Halliburton business is that Cheney felt so comfortable simply lying about it in the 2000 election. Lying is Cheney hallmark – not the statement that can later be parsed apart into some miserable combination of half truths. Often, Bush’s statements come down to that – or come down to reneging on promises. This is the bottled water of politics – politicians are always experimenting with the unique relationship between the promise and the truth, that no man’s land of the performative. Cheney will actually make categorical statements that are simply untrue, bald as a baby lies. In this, he is a unique D.C. figure. And we hope that his being called to testify in the Libby trial, which seems inevitable, will up the ante on that unpleasant character trait.

PS – the best background story on the Fitzgerald investigation, we think, is Chris Lehman’s at the NY Obs. He quotes the right people (Bramford, Powers) who preserve a sense of the intelligence communities' histories. This is a traditional Republican scandal. They always have to do with some covert military aggression. They always have to do with erasing the boundary between intelligence and politics. And they are always peopled with brain dead enthusiasts and pipesmokers – the supposed gray eminences who are keeping control of things, the John Mitchells, the Poindexters, the Cheneys. I don’t think the article is yet online, more’s the pity

Douglas Feith looks more and more like the man who filled Oliver North’s shoes:
“The C.I.A. kept looking and saying, ‘We’re not finding any evidence,’” said James Bamford, the author of A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. “And the Pentagon was angry that this was coming out of the agency. And so that’s why they had this special unit. That’s why [David] Wurmser was in there—to become the anti-C.I.A.”
Mr. Wurmser, Vice President Cheney’s Middle East advisor, was recruited by Under Secretary for Defense Policy Douglas Feith to create the Office of Special Plans, a policy group in the Pentagon formed to cherry-pick information that would provide the casus belli for invading Iraq. Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, famously referred to the unit’s handiwork as “a Chinese menu,” offering a readymade connoisseur’s choice of reasons to topple the Hussein regime in Iraq.
“It started within Feith’s Special Plans group,” said a former senior White House official who requested not to be named. “That’s where you first see this business of taking one’s animosity toward Langley and the agency and finding intelligence that would support one’s own position.”
This is so déjà vu, to those with the eyes to see it. And the background of these people have brushed against Republican scandals before. Remember, Cheney was Ford’s staffer advising on intelligence during the Church commission.
“The Plame leak is in itself evidence of how Bush administration officials failed to apprehend the most basic operations of intelligence. “I’ve talked with a number of people who knew [Valerie Plame Wilson] and worked with her,” said Burton Hersh, the author of The Old Boys, the groundbreaking study of the C.I.A.’s Cold War career. “And the whole idea that she [or] her undercover status was not that important is ridiculous. She was key to the effort to contain nuclear proliferation in the Third World. Once she’s taken out, her whole network of people can be exposed. That shows you a disconnect across the board. This was a network trying to keep jihadists from acquiring nuclear weapons …. You know, it’s hard enough to keep these people undercover. To lift that cover for short-term political advantage—that’s indefensible. And to punish Joe Wilson like this—it’s suicidal.”

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Hephaestus, from Ida on Libby and Rove

When Clytemnestra announces the news that the city of Troy has been sacked to the chorus, who have been waiting uneasily for news, the chorus, a bunch of codgers, wants to know the source of her information. Was it a dream? These vieux garcons are a distrustful bunch, and obviously the intelligence systems have more than once spit out misleading omens and instructions. Then of course, there is the old festering scandal of the event that occurred right before the invasion of Troy, the sacrifice of Iphegenia, engineered by a technician of the divine, an early think tanker. Clytemnestra, like many a leader of many a coalition of the willing since, has obviously crucified her credibility on the power of back channel chatter and the self dealing of her hard to read heart.

Here’s the Q and A between the Chorus and Clytamnestra:

But at what time was the city destroyed?

In the night, I say, that has but now given birth to this day here.

And what messenger could reach here with such speed?

“Hephaestus, from Ida speeding forth his brilliant blaze. Beacon passed beacon on to us by courier-flame: Ida, to the Hermaean crag in Lemnos; to the mighty blaze upon the island succeeded, third, the summit of Athos sacred to Zeus; and, soaring high aloft so as to leap across the sea, the flame, travelling joyously onward in its strength the pinewood torch, its golden-beamed light, as another sun, passing the message on to the watchtowers of Macistus. He, delaying not nor carelessly overcome by sleep, did not neglect his part as messenger. Far over Euripus' stream came the beacon-light and signalled to the watchmen on Messapion. They, kindling a heap of withered heather, lit up their answering blaze and sped the message on. The flame, now gathering strength and in no way dimmed, like a radiant moon overleaped the plain of Asopus to Cithaeron's ridges, and roused another relay of missive fire. [300] Nor did the warders there disdain the far-flung light, but made a blaze higher than their commands. Across Gorgopus' water shot the light, reached the mount of Aegiplanctus, and urged the ordinance of fire to make no delay. Kindling high with unstinted force a mighty beard of flame, they sped it forward so that, as it blazed, it passed even the headland that looks upon the Saronic gulf; until it swooped down when it reached the lookout, near to our city, upon the peak of Arachnaeus; and next upon this roof of the Atreidae it leapt, this very fire not undescended from the Idaean flame.”

All state of the art, this homeland security system of pyre on mountain-top. The vision of flames lit one after the other was in my head this morning when I woke up, since similar signals were flicking on in my own body. The equivalent of the Idean flame was passing from node to node in the immune system as the body reacted to the Austin air, laden with pollens and mold this crisp October morning, the hints of cedar on the outlying hills, of dust, of sun soaked motes. Those tiny chemical fires I could imagine being reflected in the red of my blood stream, sadly low on anti-histamines, and even in those streams the struggle continued. And so the news was finally flashed to my nose, where one messenger and then another took up their places to coordinate that first, that preliminary and preemptive sneeze, which gathered terrific force and… there I was, awake and thinking: “benadryll”.

My second thought was, of course: Fitzmas Day! Yesterday in my post, I realized from a comment by Brian, seemed to delineate such a broad vision of politics and secrecy that I excluded fun. Any time fun is excluded from politics, you know that the analysis is screwed. Entertainment is a goodly part of politics. I don’t question this. Moralists limber up by denouncing gawkers, tabloids, curiosity mongers, and the destroyers of the monuments when it comes to politics, as if politics had some serious, innocent essence stumbling towards the marble city on the hill. I cordially detest that seriousness. Much of politics is entertainment. It is simply a question of who is organizing the entertainment, and who is being lead in chains in the triumph. Eager to see if the fires from mountain to mountain had signaled “Rove” (oh let it be Rove!), I went to the computer and checked out the Times.

As the Chorus puts it: “But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.”

Harsh indeed, as it looks like the knives are going to spare Rove this morning. Of course, this is not going to keep me from raising a vodka martini, tonight, at the Elephant Lounge to the indictment of Libby; still, we wished for a more complete smash.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

peak cynicism

Back in the glossy days when LI was a grad student, we wrote a master’s report in philosophy that made various approaches to Derrida. The first part of this report posed the question: why has eavesdropping never incited any philosophical interest? Contrast that to voyeurism, for instance – huge swathes of Sartre are devoted to peering at the voyeur who is peering at you. Anyway, we took up the task of eavesdropping, but – in keeping with the worst habit in our nature – we simply made a few fragmentary suggestions and moved on. Our idea was that foreclosing the possibility of eavesdropping is the central task of logocentrism – but don’t worry, we have no intention of plopping that down and going through all those dirty socks here. In any case, our report was gravid with suggestions that we never worked out. As my former roommate M. used to observe, LI always leaves food on our plate and always leaves some last dish or fork in the sink when we are cleaning the dishes. There is a sloth that seizes a man just as he nears the end of a project, a penultimate laziness, that is really from the devil…

But enough about our bad habits. We’ve been reading a very good book about the Department of War’s system of eavesdropping, Chatter, by (oh, the heartburn and envy of it!) Patrick R. Keefe, who hasn’t even graduated from Yale, yet, according to his back flap bio. Is this fair, is this right? And it is a good book, one that fashionably combines the narrative of the travel book and an inherently abstract subject. Or perhaps I should say, its subject, the NSA, Echelon, and the whole damn eavesdropping system, attempts to screen itself in abstractions reduced to acronyms: GCHQ, CHALET, RHYOLITE, etc. Keefe is a very plausible writer, and he operates much like a “packet sniffer”, going to abandoned sigint sites, or operational ones, interviewing people in the secrets business, and coming up with a fair share of skewed anecdotes, like the one about the British sigint guy who confessed to being a child molester AND a communist spy – a rare twofer.

The beast that comes into focus through these various blind gropes and feels is a pretty hairy thing. Yet the beast is actually bigger and stronger than any human organization that could manage it. Perhaps not the greatest comfort, but one nevertheless.

Still, we are always interested in people who take government by the people and for the people to mean just that – originalists, if you like – and who reveal as many government secrets as they can, in the hope of diminishing the secrecy advantage the intelligent agencies and the government holds over the mere private citizen – the idiot, if you will, to lean upon the old Greek origin of that word. Keefe interviews one of them, Steven Aftergood (wonderfully Bunyanesque name) whose link is here. In this age in which liberals have taken up the cudgels of secrecy, LI, not getting the message, is still back in the seventies with Senator Frank Church. We are all about privacy. It is funny that Church, the Gipper’s bete noire, is being ouija-ed by the rightwing talking heads on the eve of Fitzmas. The same talking heads who thought the Patriot act was just the ticket in the post 9/11 environment (an act the provisions of which would have done absolutely nothing to prevent the hijacking of the four planes). It is peak cynicism. I am looking forward to the pundit casuistry in the days ahead.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

foreign policy, cheap

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Returning you now to your regularly scheduled program.

Brent Scowcroft’s interview with Paul Goldberger in the New Yorker has been going the rounds in the anti-war sphere. And in one way, that’s a good thing – LI believes that the anti-war movement has foolishly excluded its natural adherents, Republicans with their state at home instincts, partly because anti-war organizers are as naturally attuned to the Democratic party as bats are to their echolocation systems. Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that the Democratic party leadership was opposed to invading Iraq. The main difference is that the Democratic party leadership thinks it could have occupied Iraq in a gentler, friendlier fashion. We think the Democratic party leadership is a load of piffle.

But so, too, is it a load of piffle to welcome Scowcroft, the man who was on board operation Just Cause in Panama, the first post Cold War Intervention, into the anti-war camp as a long lost prophet.

The day Gulf War one erupted into troop movements, LI was out there with other marchers protesting it, chanting that eternal leftist joke, the people united will never be defeated. It was not a war America should ever have constructed. But our opposition to the war changed with the war. Opposing the start of the war, we also opposed the end of the war. If there was ever a time to occupy Iraq, it was, of course, at the end of Gulf War One. The call for an uprising among the Shi’a and the refusal to do anything to help as Saddam Hussein cut them down in their thousands was a great and brainless crime. Once the war was commenced, ending it halfway and then trying to preserve the patient etherized upon the table indefinitely was obviously a blunder. Or rather, there was a brain behind this – a brain that construed realism as the fantasy that the U.S. could pretend that Iran could be preserved cryogenically outside of the Middle Eastern system, and that looked at the whole area as an American opportunity for dominance. That fantasy required a Saddam Hussein to fill multiple roles. There was also another thought in that reptilian brain: any attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, at that time, would have been made by a real coalition. Hence, the Americans wouldn’t be able to treat the country like a playground for the stupider American ideologists. The dreaded French would have had a say in how things were run there. Scowcroft and Bush I are not only Cold Warriors, but Monroe Doctrine warriors – they much prefer unilateral action with proxy death squads in countries that can’t protect themselves South of the Border.

Although I haven’t yet read the article, just the excerpts that have been making the rounds, it does seem that Goldberger asked no questions about Bush’s infamous call to revolt:

“A principal reason that the Bush Administration gave no thought to unseating Saddam was that Brent Scowcroft gave no thought to it. An American occupation of Iraq would be politically and militarily untenable, Scowcroft told Bush. And though the President had employed the rhetoric of moral necessity to make the case for war, Scowcroft said, he would not let his feelings about good and evil dictate the advice he gave the President.

It would have been no problem for America's military to reach Baghdad, he said. The problems would have arisen when the Army entered the Iraqi capital. "At the minimum, we'd be an occupier in a hostile land," he said. "Our forces would be sniped at by guerrillas, and, once we were there, how would we get out? What would be the rationale for leaving? I don't like the term 'exit strategy' -- but what do you do with Iraq once you own it?"”

This all too neatly superimposes one war over the other, while begging the too easy question of ownership. As we have pointed out ad nauseam, Northern Iraq, carved out by dint of bombing campaigns, was not occupied by the US, went through a bloody civil war, and self organized into what is, by all accounts, the most functionally competent part of Iraq’s slowly dissolving state. The new fantasy being sold by the war defenders is that, without U.S. troops in Iraq, the whole place will be taken over by Al Qaeda. In reality, the U.S. is afraid that the whole place will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.

To our mind, the antiwar movement will have failed even if the pressure to withdraw proves irresistible in the next five months – pressure that will certainly be helped by the higher heating bills coming, and the money going out to Iraq (where it fills the pockets of American contracting companies) – if it doesn’t pose questions about the relevance of the U.S. in the Middle East. Without a debate about that, America is condemned to compulsive, bloody interventionism. This is not a debate about realism -- this is a debate about the pattern of America's foreign policy, and its future, and how to embed it more securely in a general politics that loosens the grip of the corporate class. Begin by understanding that America is not an empire of liberty, spreading the spores of the bill of rights, but a powerful nation with material interests, among which we count the management of the smooth flow of petroleum, that unique primary product export, and ideological interests, among which we count the preservation of Israel and a tendency to favor democracy only if that can be accorded with the U.S.’s corporate interests. Because, naturally, the interests of no two nations correspond at all points, every total intervention by the United States will work against democracy, giving that term more than a watered down meaning. Lessening the grip of those corporate interests would necessarily impact on foreign policy; but you cannot serve two masters, as Bob Dylan and Jesus said. You cannot adopt a realistic foreign policy that is baked by corporate shills like Scowcroft and at the same time lessen the corporate grip on the country.

Realism about American foreign policy is really this: foreign policy is the most easily captured area in the States, since the vast majority of Americans really have little knowledge or desire for knowledge about it. I mean most easily in the sense of cheapest. Constituency building, here, is easy, given the relative paucity of players, and so it is also easy, given the right circumstances, for a clique to exert power here – as it is not on, say, health care policy. By that I don't mean that, for instance, Big Pharma doesn’t have a lock on health care policy. I do mean that that lock has to be expensively maintained, and that it must yield to counter interests at certain points. But on, say, Syria, one oppositionist in academia can actually make a difference relatively cheaply. Chalabi bought an invasion for peanuts, really. This is why court society in D.C. loves foreign policy -- it is naturally a monarchical enterprise.

Since we think the D.C. Dems are not the secret dissenters so fondly imagined by the liberal sphere, but firm interventionists who are all about “owning” other countries and see Iraq as a fixer upper that is being ruined by a bungling interior designer, seizing the funding of Iraq as a forum to begin withdrawal is probably not in the cards. If the Dems stab their own constituency in the back this way, it will take a some of heart out of Democratic grassroots activists, which will be construed, by the disastrous “centrist” spokespeople as all in all a good thing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

buchi della verita of edna, texas

A couple days ago, LI was perusing the collected radio speeches of Ronald Reagan, circa 1976-1979. Research, doncha know, for my novel. In any case, they were impressive, and happily distant from the ape-like norm that now rules the air waves on the right. The Gipper extolled Scottsdale, Arizona, for instance, for having a private fire fighting department. The Gipper said that this was part of trimming the government’s extension into sphere where they didn’t belong and functioned below par. The Gipper pointed out that the Labour government in Great Britain was turning, in desperation, away from the statist model and towards free enterprise. The Gipper pointed out that the Socialist party in Sweden had lost to the Conservatives, and this was because Sweden, in desperation, was turning away from the statist model and towards free enterprise. The Gipper went to Japan and was impressed with the work ethic, which he attributed to free enterprise. So, when I came upon the radio address about California lessening the offense of possessing marijuana to a misdemeanor (oh those dear seventies days!), I expected to read some hurray from the Gipper, as here was a primo, obvious improvement in a problem that could surely be solved, better, by the private sphere. But no. Instead, the Gipper quoted Daryl Gates, who made it clear that making marijuana into a misdemeanor would mean kids (KIDS!) would be getting hold of marijuana. Oddly, the fact that, say, kids would be breathing in toxic fumes from polluting factories didn’t seem to stir the Gipper to the bottom of his soul, but that kids might be getting jolts of THC definitely did.

Why the discrepancy? Well, let’s put it in six letters: B-L-A-C-K-S. The scourge of drug prohibition begins and ends with race in this country. To put not to fine a point about it, the country went into mourning, in the sixties, as its handicraft, its precious tradition of Jim Crow laws was slowly taken away from it. And the country hasn’t come out of that mourning yet.

A case in point is this article by Austin’s best journalist, Jordan Smith. It isn’t only the quality of her work (generally, I read the Chronicle, where I used to contribute, for two things: Smith and the movie schedules). I once talked to a man in the D.A.’s department, and he complained that Smith was the worst reporter he knew of, distorting everything. Which told me that Smith was that rare reporter who wasn’t a law and order shill.

Smith’s article is about another Tulia: Edna, Texas. This time, the bigot who is intent, under cover of law, on imprisoning blacks, the oldest of the Jim Crow moves in the post-bellum South, is a D.A. named Bell. One hopes that Smith’s article will spotlight Bell, and bring some attention to this town from the National press. Otherwise, Jim Crow is certainly going to be victorious once again.

"Eight of the defendants were located at one time in a bar in Edna. Four more were gathered up that same night," breathlessly reported the Edna Herald on Nov. 20. "The bottom line is that this type of conduct will not be tolerated here in Jackson County," sheriff Kelly R. Janica told the paper at the time. "We are going to do our job to keep drugs from infecting our streets." (And as this story was in preparation, it appears the job was far from completed – see "'Crackdown' Becomes 'Shutdown,'" below.)
But, in what has become an all-too-typical tale of rogue criminal justice in rural Texas – epitomized by the infamous 1999 Tulia drug sting – it appears that the Edna "crackdown" had much less to do with eradicating drugs than it did with institutionalized, small-town racism. Under the guise of removing drugs (specifically, crack cocaine) from the streets, local lawmen may have themselves broken state law, primarily by relying on a local crack addict as their sole informant to send 28 of the 29 defendants to prison for sentences from one to 20 years. Only two of the defendants, including Patterson, dared to challenge the charges in court; the rest accepted plea bargains offered by longtime Jackson Co. District Attorney Bobby Bell. They did so, it seems certain, in large part out of fear of challenging Bell's authority and thus receiving even heavier sentences. (Charges were dismissed in one case.)
One white Edna resident who requested anonymity, fearing retaliation, said bluntly that Bell's attitude is "'I'll break you, I'll take everything you've got; so take the plea [or] I'll make sure you go to jail.' He does as he pleases."
What happens when you are a successful black man in Edna, as Rick Patterson was, is that the spirit of Jim Crow comes to get you. And that spirit comes in the form of … drug enforcement. Smith article involves the heartbreaking imprisonment of a man who did nothing but – incautiously – pleaded innocent. A plea that was backed up by the inconvenient fact that there was no evidence against him. However, that there is no physical evidence that Rick Patterson has ever even touched cocaine did not prevent Rick Patterson from being sent to jail for ten years (no doubt, keeping kids in L.A. just that hair breadth away from getting crack themselves – the spirit of the Gipper must be pleased). What sent him down? The usual. First, the cops create the crime. Second, they use an informant who is a criminal. Third, they sorta direct the criminal to the right (black) neighborhood. Fourth, they rely on the criminal’s word, and take that before a white judge and a mostly white jury. Case closed, legal pogram completed, next black man to be processed through the hell hole.
Right, this is all about the children.
Actually, this is all about an empire in which, slowly, the population has grown to accept the very idea that the police can generate crimes, and that this is acceptable. LI has a few questions. Leading questions, of course.
Q: How many movies have shown, with maximum satisfaction, ‘sting’ operations?
A: Go to your local video store’s action movie section and start counting. Multiply by one thousand.
Q: How many movies have shown any, any objection to the abhorrent, criminal, libertystripping, tyrannical idea that one should ever allow a police force this kind of power?
A: Approximately none.
Q: What are “sting” operations connected to, most of the time?
A: Drug enforcement. The DEA spent almost its entire institutional life sending police out, undercover, to make drug deals so as to arrest people who we involved in them. This has gone on, unquestioned, day after day, as the prison population in this country has been jumped a bit behind China, a country with three times our population. This, in a country that is supposedly free by all the indexes of all the heritage like think tanks. Oh, and of course countries are also regularly judged on corruption, too. Bad Egypt. Bad Chad. Funny, the most rampant and dangerous form of corruption there is – allowing a police force to generate the crimes it then punishes – somehow doesn’t get on the index. Could it be that the indexers figure that such fates only befall their maids?
Ah, but such questions reveal an envious, a class biased, and most of all a resentful turn of mind on the part of LI. Heavens, drug prohibition as a weapon of racism? As a way of stripping the meaning from the Bill of Rights? surely it is all about the children. Surely LI hasn’t gotten the message that racism was overcome in the U.S. It happened fast – in fact, it happened on January 7, 1971, at 3 a.m. The non-racism fairy came and waved her wand, and that was that. Since then, talk of racism is just outré. Couldn’t happen. Not in the big, compassionate heart of the American dream. Not in East Texas.

Read Smith’s article. And distribute where you can.
p.s. -- just to be clear about race inflected bannings -- I suspect the same complex of motives is often behind banning handguns. Handgun laws invariably lead to processing more black men through the prison system. Putting gun laws in the hands of the cops is not a good idea.

Monday, October 24, 2005

begging, second week

Some Begging

Those who pledged last week – and those who want to pledge to keep this site alive! (to use the overheated sales technique of public radio) can now look at the Café press site. The link is café

Please contribute – we have items for the top of your list of bric a brac and the bottom. Eventually, I will be putting a little book up in the shop – LI according to topics. That is, if there is any demand for such a thing. Café press can apparently print up texts, glue covers to em, and send them out. Just the thing to give a friend, an enemy, or someone who needs that special five inches of support to fit under a wobbly table.

And … in one way or another … who doesn’t need a special five inches?

the messianic timetable

The spirit of the common place book is about one of those facts in the reader’s natural history: suddenly there will loom, out of one’s loose and general reading, some phrase or anecdote that seems mysteriously to signal one – a wink in the suddenly lighted up dark. The darkness descends again, the wink is registered. The reader continues, spending a portion of his life in one book or another. LI received one of those winks from the beyond while reading this in Mark Mazower’s Salonica:

“In 1524, a mysterious Jewish adventurer called David Reuben arrived in Venice and presented himself as prince of one of the lost tribes of Israel. He gained an audience with the Pople and told the Holy Roman Emperor to arm the Jews so that they might regain Palestine. Crossing his path was an even less modest figure – a Portugese New Christian called Diego Pires. After rediscoving his Jewish roots and changing his name to Solomon Molcho, he studied the Kabbalah in Salonica with some of the city’s most eminent Rabbis and gradually made the transition to messianic prophet. He predicted the sack of Rome – which occurred at the hands of the imperial troops in 1527 – and then declared himself to be the Messiah, and went to Rome itself, in accordance with the apocalyptic programme, where he sat for thirty days in rags by the city gates praying for its destruction. Before being burned at stake, Molcho saw the future: the Tiber was flooding over, and Turkish troops were bursting into the seat of the Papacy. The truly striking thing about Molcho is how many people believed in him and preserved and reinterpreted his messianic timetables.”

The wink I received from this story was about my own liberalism, for it is a liberalism derived from drifting away from the Marxist oriented left, and its main characteristic is that it has weaned itself away from the apocalypse. It is not, then, an ideology for every situation – during the late forties, Zoltas, the Hungarian Jewish writer, made bitter fun of the community leaders who simply refused to believe reports about Auschwitz. My instincts would certainly be with those community leaders. I resist believing that my enemies are enemies on that scale. That they can be points to the very limits of liberalism, its vacancy in the face of certain existential crises. But – liberal to the end – I don’t believe in one ideology for all seasons.

This, at least, is LI’s position for the moment. But as I say, I recognize, in the pull of Marxism, the pull of a more passionate worldview, and one from which I still extract a considerable stock of critical insights. So I could see myself as a potential candidate for belief in the divine appointment of Solomon Molcho. I just can’t see myself reinterpreting the messianic timetables after his untimely auto de fe.

All of which is by way of sliding into a subject I know little about: Slavoj Zizek. My friend T. sent me a Zizek essay to help me get a better grasp on this guy, but he warned me that, probably, Zizek is not someone who would make a good subject for an LI post. Probably he is right. However, after reading this interview with Zizek in the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, I am… well, confounded. In the interview, Zizek takes up the religious turn that appeared in Lacan’s writings in the seventies, and has continued in Badiou. In particular, Zizek comments on the special place Badiou accords St. Paul.

That special place, one would think, for a Marxist would be in the invention of conversion. The ritual of conversion, the movement from God to God, was commonplace in Paul’s Hellenic Eastern Meditteranean. But that movement did not signal a change in world view, so to speak. In fact, world views qua world views didn’t exist, as far as I can see, in that world – using Heidegger’s sense of World, which he explicitly ties to Christianity. Rather, there were views of fate. All of which I won’t batter on about. But according to Badiou, apparently, St. Paul was the inventor of something far different. And that different thing is not something I like at all, although Zizek does. When the interviewer asks Zizek about the significance of St. Paul, he gives a long answer. Part of it goes like this:

“I think the reason that Badiou does not deploy this, as I tried to develop in the long chapter on Badiou and St. Paul in The Ticklish Subject , the key question for me is negativity in the sense of death. For him, in Badiou's reading of St. Paul, the death of Christ, as he puts it, has no inherent meaning whatsoever—it's just to prepare the site for the event. All that matters is resurrection life. This is connected with a very complex philosophical-theological topic . . . you may have noticed if you read Badiou, Badiou has some kind of natural, gut-feeling resistance toward the topic of death and finitude. For him, death and finitude, animality and so on, being-towards-death, death-drive—he uses the term sometimes in a purely non-conceptual way, "death drive, decadence" as if we were reading some kind of naïve Marxist liberal optimist from the early 20th century. This is all somehow for me interconnected. Although I am also taking St. Paul as a model, a formal structure which can then be applied to revolutionary emancipatory collectivities, and so on, nonetheless I try to ground it in a specific Christian content, which again for me focuses precisely on Christ's death, [his] death and resurrection. I am trying even to identify the two. The idea that resurrection follows death, the idea that these are two narrative events, this is at the narrative level of what Hegel would have called vorstellungen , representations. Actually, the two of them are even united. That is to say that Christ's death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.
What interests me is how precisely to distinguish Christ's death from this old boring topic—and all the old materialist critics of Christianity like to point this out: what's the big news, don't you have this sacrificial death of God in all pagan religions? Ah ah! You don't. The structure is totally different if you read it closely: already at the most superficial level, after Christ's death what you get is Holy Spirit, which is something totally different than in previous societies. All this about Isis, and so on, this rather boring circular myth, where basically god dies . . . you know, it's like, people are disordered, things go bad, but then there is the phoenix, everything is good again—no wonder this version is so popular, like even in The Lion King, where you have a kind of Hamlet-version where king dies, son redeems, there is a new king and so on . . . Christianity precisely is not this.”

I am for the popular version here, the Lion King versus the death of Jesus, if those are the terms. But I can’t help wonder: if those are the terms, isn’t something wrong with the choices in this game? Which is why, at the very threshold, I have trouble with the religious turn. Give me material ecstasies and agonies, and less imperial tortures on hilltops. More specifically -- I simply don't see why one would chose St. Paul over Solomon Molcho. I don't, I guess, see the specialness of Christianity at a point in history where, in Europe, the Christian myths are dying, and in America, the Christian myths are being replaced by the American Jesus, a relatively new godhead. There is something that vaguely repulses me, here, in this dabbling in a language that embraces the old Cold war idea of Communism as a religion. To embrace the God that failed as the God that fails, and whose revolutionary project is to fail every time, is a sort of messianic nightmare to me.

All of which probably means: I don't understand what Zizek wants.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

chronicle of a war crime foretold

In Dexter Filkin’s depressing NYT Magazine piece about the murder of Zaydoon Fadhil – which thinks it is a depressing NYT Magazine piece about the downfall of Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman – there are several “admissions” about the way the war is being conducted in Iraq that are especially strange coming from a paper that routinely reports on the death of Iraqis just as the Pentagon labels them. If the Pentagon blows away 100 people on the Syrian border, then 100 insurgents are killed, and that is that. No hint of such things as this:

“On a mission in January 2004, a group of Sassaman's soldiers came to the house of an Iraqi man suspected of hijacking trucks. He wasn't there, but his wife and two other women answered the door. "You have 15 minutes to get your furniture out," First Sgt. Ghaleb Mikel said. The women wailed and shouted but ultimately complied, dragging their bed and couch and television set out the front door. Mikel's men then fired four antitank missiles into their house, blowing it to pieces and setting it afire. The women were left holding their belongings.
"It's called the 'leave no refuge' policy," Mikel later explained to Johan Spanner, a photographer working for The New York Times.

That same winter in Samarra, Sassaman's men moved through a hospital and pulled a suspected insurgent from his bed. When a doctor told the Americans to leave, a soldier spat in his face. Another time, an officer told Spanner, one of Sassaman's soldiers threw a wounded man into a cell and threatened to withhold treatment unless he told them everything he knew. "We've told him he's not getting medical attention unless he starts to talk," Capt. Karl Pfuetze told Spanner. The man's fate was unknown. (Pfuetze now denies the withholding of treatment. Sassaman insists he never condoned beatings or denial of medical treatment.)”

Filkins article actually surfaces some rare truths about guerilla warfare that have been pretty much sieved out of Times stories about Iraq. These truths have been obvious for some time – in fact, were obvious in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
From Filkins:

“But as a consequence of its overwhelming power and prowess, the American Army is not likely to face an enemy similar to itself. It is more likely to face guerrillas. Guerrilla wars typically begin when a smaller army is confronted by a larger one, forcing it to turn to the advantages it has: its ability to hide amid the population, its knowledge of the local terrain, its ability to mount quick and surprising attacks and then melt away before the larger army can strike back. This is more or less the case in Iraq, as it was in Vietnam, yet the leadership of the American Army is still wary of preparing the bulk of its troops to fight a guerrilla war. Most American soldiers are trained to use maximum force to destroy an easily identifiable enemy. Waging a counterinsurgency campaign, by contrast, often requires a soldier to do what might appear to be counterproductive: use the minimum amount of force, not the maximum, so as to reduce the risk of killing civilians or destroying property. Co-opt an enemy rather than kill him. If necessary, expose soldiers to higher risk. In the American Army, that sort of training is mostly relegated to forces like the Green Berets, who account for a small percentage of the Army's manpower.

"It's a chronic problem that runs deep in the DNA of the Army," says John Waghelstein, a retired colonel in the Special Forces who helped to conduct the American-backed counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador. "The Army has never taken counterinsurgency seriously. The Army's doctrine hasn't changed since the 1840's." At the Army's Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., attended by all American officers hoping to rise above the rank of major, students must pass a rigorous program consisting of roughly 700 hours of instruction. Of that, not a single required course focuses on how to fight guerrilla wars.”

From LI, on Feb 13, 2003 – before the invasion:

“This American pattern is often ignored by American policy makers. The latest example is the kind of ambitious policy in the Middle East being promoted by the circle around Paul Wolfowitz. According to this circle, America is, in reality, an empire. So using that imperial power, we can remake social and political situations that we don't like in our image. The language of empire now fills our foreign policy journals, as well as conservative weeklies. The opposition to the Bush administration's aggressive plans in the Middle East has concentrated mainly on the cost of war in the narrow sense -- the cost, that is, of invading and defeating Iraq. However, the real question is about the cost of the war in the larger sense -- the cost of exposing an occupying force to the constant attrition of a guerilla war, and to the unexpected violence of factional conflict. This is where the imperial model has failed in the recent past, from Saigon to Somalia. Empires require some legitimation that goes beyond the mere aggrandizement of power. Americans have never accepted any legitimation, over the long run, except national defense. Neither glory nor ideology have garnered American support for a war.

To explain the paradox of American power -- that combination of a high level of military spending with a low level of acceptable risk -- I believe this, it is useful to use McClellan and Grant to represent the two poles of the American dialectic. Both McClellan and Grant started from the same premise: the prerequisite to fighting a war was amassing a force disproportionately greater than the enemy's. However, while the strategic premise was the same, the tactics were much different. McClellan Civil War career has become infamous for the chances he refused to take. He was tender for the lives of his men. It was a this caution that doomed his Virginia campaign of 1862. As one private wrote, "We are at a loss to imagine whether this is strategy or defeat." (Gallagher)

Grant's tactics were very different. He used the advantage of a more numerous army to raise the level of casualties he would accept. This made it possible to continue inflicting casualties on the enemy in a more prolonged way than was ever seen before, in the campaign. The general stress broke the army of Northern Virginia. It is easy to forget that Grant's ultimate success was preceded by general shock at the the bloodletting he was prepared to countenance -- a shock that so shook the Union side that Lincoln, in the middle of the election campaign of 1864, thought he was going to lose. Grant's position was made plain in a telegram Sherman, with whom he was in perfect agreement, sent to Halleck, one of the incompetent Union commanders, after Vicksburg:

``War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction; the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be `pure and simple' as applied to the belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it....

This is the kind of language spoken by legendary American commanders, like Sherman, Grant, Patton and Macarthur. The words are stirring. We shouldn't be deluded, however, into thinking that the feelings are typical. McClellan's caution has never been submerged by Grant's boldness in the mix of American foreign policy and military strategy. In fact, it is the McClellan pole that drives the fundamental US military strategy of the moment: replacing the manpower of battle with military technology. The goal is to achieve Grant's objective with McClellan's tenderness for American life. This works in the case of those military engagements that can be decided solely by weaponry. However, occupation is, by definition, not one of those strategies. In fact, by raising the optimistic vision of a bloodless (at least for our side) war, it prepares the guerillas advantage -- blows struck against the occupying forces will be illogically magnified because they are judged against the background of a military technical utopia.

The best argument against the imperial design of the Wolfowitzes is to appeal to the reality of this American pattern, in which the cost of an enterprise is judged rigidly against the benefit it brings. The benefit brought by regime change in Iraq is obvious -- but the benefit wrought by invading and occupying Iraq is not. The landscape, as it appears to D.C. foreign policy honchos, is one of overwhelming American power. But the landscape since 9/11 has changed. Guerillas may not possess nuclear missiles, but they can forge the weapons of mass destruction out of boxcutters and American airliners. in treating Iraq as though it were merely a problem amenable to a Grant-like solution, we are putting ourselves into a situation in which all alternatives are impalatable. Assuming that 9/11, and the suicide bombers in Israel, are omens of things to come, the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq will be subject to the constant low attrition of guerilla warfare, with its morale breaking concomitants: a desire to strike blows against a dispersed enemy driving general dispersed acts of mayhem against the native population, which in turn creates mutual distrust between American forces and the native population, which in turn creates a gap between the ostensible reasons for the American presence (that they somehow 'represent' the aspirations of the native people) and the reality of it. Bush is edging into a situation in which the choices will be an unacceptable withdrawal from Iraq, and an unacceptable occupation of Iraq.

This situation should look familiar. It is Vietnam.”

But there is another reason American commanders shy from using violence on civilians: the effects it has on their own men. Pittard, the American commander in Baquba, says that he was careful not to give his men too much leeway in using nonlethal force. It wasn't just that he regarded harsh tactics as self-defeating. He feared his men could get out of control. "We were not into reprisals," Pittard says. "It's a fine line. If you are not careful, your discipline will break down."

In most of the 20th century's guerrilla wars, the armies of the countries battling the insurgents have suffered serious breakdowns in discipline. This was true of the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Martin van Creveld, a historian at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that soldiers in the dominant army often became demoralized by the frustrations of trying to defeat guerrillas. Nearly every major counterinsurgency in the 20th century failed. "The soldiers fighting the insurgents became demoralized because they were the strong fighting the weak," van Creveld says. "Everything they did seemed to be wrong. If they let the weaker army kill them, they were idiots. If they attacked the smaller army, they were seen as killers. The effect, in nearly every case, is demoralization and breakdowns of discipline."

We will end this long, long post with the suggestion that you LI’s post on The Making of the Enemy.

Southern California Death Trip

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