Saturday, December 31, 2005

When my family got together for vacation last month, my niece implied that she found her uncles – me and my brothers – were so darkly sarcastic at times, so pessimistic, that we were real bummers. I could see her point of view. This is true, this is a bad trait. I resolved to be a little less negative. But I keep falling into old habits, since there are so many temptations...

So when I read the NY Observer profile of Fareed Zakaria, I tried really hard. I tried not to laugh with that hollow laugh that signifies something that is so not funny that it is really funny, like an ICBM falling right on your head. I tried not to produce that self defeating, shit always rises to the top laugh, even as the details of l’enfance de la neo-con leaned out at me, begging to be throttled, begging for me to go into one of those sessions a la James Cagney in White Heat: manic potshots, delusion, the cops boiling up the ladder to take you down. Yes, I read this account of the asskissing, the jetsetting, the patriotism in the limousine, and tried, really, to hold myself in.

So I suppressed my laughter here:

While Mr. Zakaria is very focused on broadening his media platform—expanding his “reach,” as he likes to call it—he is also busy navigating the social one, the dinners, speeches and charity events through which he cultivates powerful mentors and allies. His patrons include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who invites him over for eclectic dinner parties, and Pete Peterson, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose journal Foreign Affairs provided Mr. Zakaria with his first publishing job.

“I look up to people who really make you think seriously about the big issues that are going on, that confront the world, either historically or today,” said Mr. Zakaria. “What I like are ‘idea’ books and ‘idea’ people.”

His affinity for such people revealed itself early on. As an undergraduate at Yale, where he took hold of the college’s political union, he brought in outside speakers such as William Buckley, George McGovern, Bob Shrum and Caspar Weinberger for debates and discussions with students. They would often leave as future Friends of Fareed.”

I tried hard not to take those debates and discussions with idea people, those dinners with Henry Kissinger, as marks that Mr. Zakaria had sold his soul to the devil even before he was an undergraduate at Yale. The eclectic dinner parties – I thought, how sweet for him. I thought this through gritted teeth.

And then, of course, there was this, out of Bouvard et Pecuchet, by way of the Weekly Standard:

“I’m not a reporter—I never have been. I don’t come out of that tradition at all, and I have a lot of respect for it,” Mr. Zakaria said. “I do a kind of analytic journalism—you know, public-intellectual kind of work—and what I like about the journalism part of it is, I’m trying to raise issues. I’m trying to do stuff with a purpose.”

Trying to lie, or do stuff, rather, with a purpose. I wish I had thought of that. I bet you that the respect, the deep, deep respect, for the journalism that Mr. Zakaria is willing to boldly proclaim is repaid, in kind, by the Cokies, the Howies, the Chrises, the Broders – all of that clique which we all admire for their indepth - can I call it indepth? – coverage of the p.o.v. of various Men in Full. So I did shuck off that dark sarcasm and I was really getting into the People target audience mode. And in that mode, I felt, reading the next passage, like… well, like someone who admires and cherishes, deeply, both Brad and Jennifer in this moment of crisis:

“Optimistic” is one word that could be used to characterize Mr. Zakaria’s positions on many subjects. For example, he said that concerns about a crisis in the news media are unfounded. “I think that in the world as I view it, journalism by and large is better today than it’s ever been,” Mr. Zakaria said. “Let’s be honest: The New York Times made plenty of mistakes 30 years ago. What’s different now is that people constantly catch them at it and correct them on it. I think the nostalgia for the good old days is completely overblown.”

Similarly, Mr. Zakaria doesn’t fault the press for its erroneous reporting during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. “We were wrong, the media was wrong, but I guess I don’t see it as a symptom of a kind of bad journalism, or journalism that was insufficiently skeptical or questioning of the administration,” Mr. Zakaria said. “Maybe there wasn’t enough debate about the war—that I might concede. But that’s a different issue.”

The “we” there made me feel so included! And yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that that we didn’t include, well, silly people who protested and such, but people who were important and had the brains of ostriches while reciting propaganda that wouldn’t fool a child of ten. But wait: these were people who counted. People who are optimistic. People at Sally Quinn’s parties, for instance. People who are go to people. People on tv. People who might even make the cut, when they write some simply fabulous thing, for having their stuff be selected by Laura to hand to George. Which is simply heaven.

As the article continues, the reader is in for a treat. The NY Observer reporter, who must have felt much like someone witnessing, say, Coleridge and Wordsworth, or Goethe and Schilling coming together, witnessed true history in action when she got to see Zakaria interviewing Tom Friedman, a very close, personal friend, for his show, Foreign Exchange, a show of bullshit and propaganda touting a delusional imperialist… um, well, that is what my dark, pessimistic side might say. It might go on to meditate on how a show can actually be broadcast on PBS with these two clowns in it and PBS keep its supposedly liberal audience. But my brighter side, the one that would love to sip some wine with idea people exchanging ideas, thought no. No, this is an informative, fact filled show on PBS that indicates how far Public Broadcasting has moved into the mainstream, with mainstream shows that count for mainstream audiences that matter. I would obviously have been thrilled, and perhaps peed in my pants, to just be part of this entourage:

“In many ways, Mr. Zakaria’s immigrant success story shapes his worldview. A few minutes later, in the town car on the way from Reagan National Airport to the studio, he said: “I basically am a big fan of this country and its potential.”

That day, Mr. Zakaria was taping two back-to-back episodes of Foreign Exchange, something he does to minimize his trips to D.C. The concept of the show is to have Mr. Zakaria interview only foreigners in order to introduce Americans to the outside world (although the Americans that Mr. Zakaria likes also seem to creep in). The result is that there are a lot of people with unfamiliar accents on the screen. The first segment was a roundtable discussion with three foreign journalists—Katty Kay, the BBC News correspondent; Hisham Melham, a Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper Annahar; and Nayan Chanda, the editor of YaleGlobal Online. After that, there would be a wonk-off: a full-episode one-on-one interview with friend and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.”

Nothing says in depth like your sign off line. Like Naomi Campbell, who not only did not have time to write her recent hot and trendy book, Swan, but also confessed that she didn’t even have time to read it, Mr. Zakaria is a little too busy, as a public intellectual engaged in analytic journalism, to do what he so very much likes to do:

“I’ve never had five-year plans or 10-year plans,” Mr. Zakaria continued. “I don’t at all mean to be immodest, but I feel like I’ve achieved some level of success, and now I’m sort of asking myself, ‘So what do I do with this now? What messages do I want to get across?’ I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing or write to become famous …. ”
When asked why he does so much if it isn’t due to some sort of motivation, Mr. Zakaria said, “No, it is a drive. But I guess what I mean is … I probably have a restless side to me where I move forward, but I don’t have a goal. I’m not trying to get to a place.

“The thing I miss most is the ability to read books,” he said.”

I betcha….

Thursday, December 29, 2005

no pardon for gang leaders

This was, what, in 1988? Around then. I was biking home, home being at that time Newning street in South Austin, and I passed a group of demonstrators around the bank building just before the Congress street bridge. I naturally stopped and joined them, since at this time in my life I was always psyched to protest something. The something I was protesting, I learned from one of the demonstrators, was the destruction of the Barton Creek Watershed that was currently being supported by a consortium of developers under the leadership of Freeport McMoRan.

At that time, Austin knew all about James R. Moffett and the notorious corporate gang that he headed. As is the way with all rich thugs, his name eventually was plastered to a college building – in fact, a building at U.T. I believe his name and an ex wife’s are still chiseled into the side of some building on that campus.

Unlike other gang/corporations, however, Freeport McMoRan is not just a danger to its employees pension fund and its investors. It is a true gang, much more dangerous than, for instance, the Crips. While the founder of that gang recently had the plugged pulled on him by the State, Jim Bob Moffett has enjoyed all the usages and accoutrements that come to those who contribute heavily to political parties. He will not be damned in this life. Meanwhile, his gang has committed perhaps the greatest environmental crime ever committed against the earth by a private entity.

The NYT, who we often knock, did a great job of scratching at the surface of that crime in its article of the other day by Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner. The crime has been carried out since the eighties in Indonesia, on Papua. It is there that the Freeport-McMoRan gang landed, under the regime of the man Wolfowitz praised as a truly great leader, President Suharto, in the sixties. This was just after Suharto was cleaning up the blood of the later half of the 20th century's third largest state sponsored massacre, which killed, according to the CIA, about 500,000 people. The CIA should know – after all, they were sponsoring the guy. Freeport McMoRan adapted its best practices to those promulgated by Wolfowitz’ buddy, so as the years rolled by Suharto’s family showed up on the payroll, another jet set family of kleptocrats. Meanwhile, FM was digging the world’s biggest hole, with no environmental protection in place, in Papua. A paradise was turned into a hell by a bunch of American neandrathals so wired for greed and so lacking in morals that if you cut them, they bled sewage, tailings and hundred dollar bills.

What are they doing there? Mining:

“At one point last year, a ministry scientist wrote that the mine's production was so huge, and regulatory tools so weak, that it was like "painting on clouds" to persuade Freeport to comply with the ministry's requests to reduce environmental damage.
That frustration stems from an operation that, by Freeport's own estimates, will generate an estimated six billion tons of waste before it is through - more than twice as much earth as was excavated for the Panama Canal.
Much of that waste has already been dumped in the mountains surrounding the mine or down a system of rivers that descends steeply onto the island's low-lying wetlands, close to Lorentz National Park, a pristine rain forest that has been granted special status by the United Nations.”

You can’t go to see what they are doing, of course. In the globalized, transparent, free trade and free people world, the restrictions come from the truly sacred sources – the plutocrats and the military – and we must bow down.

“Freeport says it strives to mitigate the environmental effect of its mine, while also maximizing the benefits to its shareholders. The Times made repeated requests to Freeport and to the Indonesian government to visit the mine and its surrounding area, which requires special permission for journalists. All were turned down.”

The article does a little panning for sleeze in the various FM operations – the bribery of the military, the secret surveillance of environmental groups, the ‘administration of its own security force” – Yes, these are the new Lord Jim Bobs. Perhaps, though, the reference should be to that other Conrad novel, Victory, with its three villains, Mr. Jones, Pedro, and Ricardo who come to a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago to rob, steal and kill.

“In the middle, Mr. Jones, a starved spectre turned into a banker, faced Ricardo, a rather nasty, slow-moving cat turned into a croupier. By contrast, the other faces round that table, anything between twenty and thirty, must have looked like collected samples of intensely artless, helpless humanity -- pathetic in their innocent watch for the small turns of luck which indeed might have been serious enough for them. They had no notice to spare for the hairy Pedro, carrying a tray with the clumsiness of a creature caught in the woods and taught to walk on its hind legs.”

The analogy doesn’t work completely, however. Jim Bob seems more like Pedro than a starved spectre. Literature has its limits.

“An Australian anthropologist, Chris Ballard, who worked for Freeport, and Abigail Abrash, an American human rights campaigner, estimated that 160 people had been killed by the military between 1975 and 1997 in the mine area and its surroundings.”

LI is not going to summarize the amazing charges in the article, but you should – the evidence of bribing the military should be enough to get dormant American regulators to fine the company, but remember – we live under the Bush Regime, where the crimes of the oligarchs rapidly become state policy…

Eventually, destroying the Papuan cultures and leaving behind a landscape like some Martian disaster, FM will leave. One can only hope that the investors in the company choke to death on their gold.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Touchatout, c'est moi

Continuing from yesterday:

Berenice’s Gardens begins with the narrator, Philippe, a thinly disguised version of Maurice Barres, overhearing a conversation between Renan and Charles Chincholle. Chincholle is an obscure personage who supported General Boulanger, the rightist leader who was trying to overthrow the French Republic. Philippe hears them speak after the ‘celebrated election of General Boulanger in Paris’.

Renan, of course, is the author of The life of Jesus and a man who, at that time, had a reputation as the purest French stylist. He much impressed Henry James, for instance – although not Nietzsche, who found him vapid and saccharine.

Chincholle begins by asking the cher maitre if he is pro or anti Boulanger. Renan’s answer anticipates Chou Enlai’s famous comment about the French Revolution: that it is too early to tell what to think about it. This is what Renan says:

"Have you leafed thorugh Sorel, Thureau-Dangin, my eminent friend M. Taine? At the bottom of each page you will find thousands of small notes. Ah! According to recent methods there are so many sources to consult, so many contradictory documents, to do history! You have to gather together all the testimonies and then subject them to your critique. I haven’t undertaken that considerable task. I can’t claim to have a clear and documented idea of the revisionist party… The Jews, my dear monsieur, didn’t have universal suffrage, which gives to each his opinion, nor the printing press that receives everything, and yet I am having a devil of a time untangling their quarrels, which I have studied each morning for the past ten years. Would M. Reinach [an anti-boulangist] himself want to turn me away from the monument I am erecting to his ancestors? and where I am at least a little competent, and collaborate on his politics, where I would bear scruples to which he would have no answer?”

Then Renan makes a little point about being a boulangist or an anti-boulangist:

”It is the faith that I lack. That a true priest could have himself impaled in order to prove to the Chinese watching about him the truth of the catholic rudiments, this only half astonishes me. He is sustained by his great knowledge of roman martyrology: ‘so may pious confessors, he might tell himself, since 33 A.D. could not have suffered such varied torments for a vain cause. I might have a few reservations about the logic of the saintly gentleman (and I’d gladly discuss them with you one of these mornings) but in the end it is very human. I understand the martyr of today; the astonishing thing is that there was a first martyr.”

And then Renan says something very cute, which is why I am translating this. He says that in himself, as in his dear interlocutor, General Boulanger inspires curiosity. He links that curiosity (and it is curiosity to see not only if the General will succeed, but obviously, what can be done by an intellectual, a think tanker, with access to such power) to scholarship and says:
“Curiosity! It is the source of the world, it continually creates it: from curiosity is born both science and love… I have seen with some displeasure a children’s book where curiosity is disparaged: maybe you know this vividly illustrated opuscule called “The Misadventures of Touchatout? [Touchatout – touch everything]. It is the most dangerous of libels, a veritable pamphlet against the superior human spirit. But such is the force of a true idea that the author of that culpable text makes us see, on the last page, Touchatout tasting yeast and floating away out of his father’s window! Let the vulgar laugh – it is an exaggerated but striking image: Touchatout floating above the world. Touchatout is Goethe; Touchatout is Leonardo de Vinci; Touchatout is you, too, monsieur!”

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

the elegant protofascist

“The generation of 1890, however, only took from Nietzsche the elements it wanted and needed. 'All this modernity is what I am fighting against, modernity as defined by Nietzsche ...', said Maurice Barrès , the chief intellectual leader of French nationalism, the father of the French political novel, and one of the most intelligent founders of the fascist synthesis. His entire opus is devoted to the struggle against the 'rationalist idea', which he considered 'antagonistic to life and its spontaneous forms', and he berated Rousseau for sterilizing life by attempting to rationalize it. For a quarter of a century, Barrès waged a Nietzschean struggle against the French Enlightenment, Cartesian rationalism, the Kantian categorical imperative, the rights of man, humanism, liberal democracy, the idea of progress and democratic education. But where Nietzsche favoured an extreme individualism, Barrès advocated the complete subordination of the individual to the community; where Nietzsche declared his horror of the masses and extolled an aristocracy of thought and will, the primacy of culture, intellectual independence and nonconformism, Barrès took the side of the multitude, the sole depository of great collective values. Nothing could be more foreign to Nietzsche than the historical, cultural and racial determinism of Barrès , his tribal nationalism, his cult of a strong state. Nothing was more agreeable to the nationalists of the generation of 1890, than a national, Catholic, Proudhonian, xenophobic, authoritarian and often anti-semitic state." – Zeev Sternhall, “Fascism: reflections on the fate of ideas in twentieth century history.”

One thing sticks out in French literature, distinguishing it at first glance from English literature: French literature is illuminated by its shits. First rate authors, but shits. The French have Baudelaire, the English have Swinburne. The English have Kipling, the French have Maurice Barrès.

Barrès isn’t well known in America. At most, he is known from his fake trial staged by Breton in 1921. For the hotheaded young men, Barrès represented a certain strain in the French culture – revanchist, ultra-nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan – that had buried so many poilu in so many trenches. At that trial, he was defended by Aragon, who later – in the 1940s, of all times – once said: S’il faut choisir, je me dirais barrésien. » Talk about emptying your revolver into a crowd.

In the eighties, Barrès became a sort of intellectual football in a political backlash against the Foucaultians of 68 among historians. Led by Zeev Sternhall, the “new” idea was that fascism originated not on the right, but on the left – that it emerged from populist Proudhon socialism, and that the anti-semitism that one could easily find on the left became concentrated in the kind of ‘nationalist socialism’ represented by Barrès -- who actually used the phrase when he was running for the French parliament in the 1890s. This debate, which became rancorous, was, to our mind, too narrowly focused on France – a glance at what was happening in Britain, where the liberal hegemony fragmented at the same time – and ignores the imperial effect. However, it did revive interest in Barrès. Aragon was quite right to see him as the inventor of the political novel – the modern political novel.

Which brings me to La Jardin de Bérénice. LI has been reading Le jardin de Bérénice this week. The novel is one in a series that Barres named le culte de moi. Barres politics was limited by his expressed sense that politics was the form in which he was shaping his ego, which had as much to do with his anti-Dreyfusardism, his nationalism, his loyalty to France’s pantomime of a pantomime of Napoleon, General Boulanger, who was promoted by various financial interests in the 1890s as a possible French dictator – his campaign was endowed with some of the same kinds of resentments and hopes that went into Perot’s presidential campaign in 1992.

The beginning of Le Jardin de Berenice presents a dialogue between Renan, who Barres was considering as his master (an odd compliment, since, in the perspective of the Barresian ego, the discipline here very clearly has the ultimate say so about mastership) and a friend. I’m going to translate a bit of that in my next post, as … well, an exercise in translation.

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

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