Saturday, January 21, 2006

the shame of the press

Imagine that the entertainment sections of the NYT, the Washington Post, and the LA Times had all devoted most of their coverage to the choice of Jessica Simpson as best actress in the run up to the Oscars. Suppose that they did this in spite of the fact that there was abundant evidence that Jessica Simpson was not considered even an outlying candidate for best actress by insiders. Suppose that she got not a single vote.

If this had happened, it would be a major media scandal. There would be questions about the honesty of the critics involved, and whether there had been some kind of quid pro quo with Simpson’s PR people, or some studio. Certainly there would be, at least, some comment to explain the bizarre behavior of the critics.

Now consider the Iraqi elections. Again. The results are now, semi-officially, in. In the run up to the election, did we have American papers running big profiles of, say, Abdul Aziz Hakim? He is the head of SCIRI. Or how about Ibrahim Jaafari? The head of Dawa. No. As has been the case for three years, the overwhelming amount of media in this country went to … Ahmed Chalabi. A man whose party did not earn enough votes to even give him a seat in the Iraqi parliament. Enter Chalabi’s name in the Factiva database, and you get 27, 925 entries. Enter Hakim’s name in the database, you get 1232 entries. The 27 to 1 disproportion between the man who couldn’t even gain a seat with the votes of the exiles and the man who the Washington Post calls “the most powerful Shiite politician” is an accurate reflection of the delusiveness of the media, which not only bought the Bush administration’s illusions and lies at the beginning of the war but has added to it their own so that Americans trying to understand what is happening in Iraq have as much chance of getting good information from, say, the U.S. Defense department – which is, remember, run by the worst and most mendacious Secretary of Defense in our history, and staffed with his appointees -- as from the NYT.

Let’s take a look, for comedy’s sake, at Dexter Filkins, the NYT’s Iraq reporter who is bad enough to surely merit some kindly nickname by our prez. Here, before the elections, is a typical Filkins lede. On December 12, 2005, under the headline, Boys of Baghdad College Vie for Prime Minister, Filkins wrote:

“The three Iraqi political leaders considered most likely to end up as prime minister after nationwide elections this week -- Ayad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi and Adel Abdul Mahdi -- were schoolmates at the all-boys English-language school in the late 1950's, fortunate members of the Baghdad elite that governed Iraq until successive waves of revolution and terror swept it away.”

Imagine someone including, in a story about the three most likely Democratic presidential candidates, the name Dennis Kucenich. You get the picture. Filkins is the clown prince of the Iraqi reporting team for the NYT. Edward Wong is a better reporter – one doesn’t feel like he takes massive doses of acid before he files his stories. But his story before the election, with the headline Iraq’s Powerful Shiite Coalition shows Signs of Stress before the Election (9 December) goes on for ten grafs before we get the inevitable:

“This time, though, the rivalries have grown more heated and the potential for an irreparable split is greater, Iraqi and Western officials say. Many coalition members have broken away and started their own parties, and there has been a palpable drop in support among moderate voters and the leading ayatollahs, who are disenchanted with the performance of the current Shiite government.

“A fracturing of the conservative coalition could set the conditions for a realignment of Iraq's political spectrum, creating an opening for a more secular Shiite candidate like the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, or even Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite, to assemble enough allies to claim the top spot in the new government.”

On November 30, 2005, ABC’s Nightline did its duty to inform its audience of the impending election in Iraq by doing a whole show entitled: “THE POWER BROKER A LOOK AT AHMED CHALABI.” Of course, the advantage of this is you don’t have to hire a translator – translating is so boring on TV, and it might give the viewing audience the idea that Iraqis don’t normally speak English.

Here is a typical snippet from that show:
(OC) Terry, you've been spending lots of time with one of the more controversial and powerful figures in Iraq. And you have his story tonight.
(OC) Ahmed Chalabi, Cynthia. He is quite a character. He was in exile from this country for more than 40 years. Saddam Hussein's archenemy. He's now a candidate. It is election season here. You sense it in the air. People talk about it in cafes. There's posters and banners. And Chalabi wants to run the country he left for 40 years. No matter what you think of him, he's a man to be reckoned with.
(VO) There is no one else in Iraq like him. And that may be a good thing. Ahmed Chalabi is the canniest, wiliest, most effective, most elusive political player in the new Iraq. And he just might be the man best-positioned to help the US achieve its goal of a stable, secular, democratic government here. Or maybe not. You never know what Ahmed Chalabi could do next.”

Actually, to give a little credit where credit is due, John Burns, the pro-war NYT correspondent, did appear and say reasonable things on the Charlie Rose show – things that were entirely unreflected in the coverage of the election by his paper:

“CHARLIE ROSE: How does the election look today, and how do you measure that this new parliament or assembly, whatever they`re going to call it, might elect Chalabi?
JOHN BURNS: No, I don`t think. Personally, I don`t think that there`s the remotest chance of that. Mr. Chalabi`s party, I would think, would be lucky to get two seats.
What he will do with those two seats and with his own good self after that I don`t know. He envisages himself as a compromise candidate for prime minister. I think that`s probably beyond the reach of even so canny a politician as Mr. Chalabi.
I think that this election is likely to produce an unsurprising result. I think we`ve seen it before.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, focused on an unlikely pro-Israel candidate running in Basra (wow, how about that for giving us a feeling about the country) and unleashed their no. 1 Iraqi expert and all around Middle Eastern savant – I am talking, of course, about the ever repugnant Sally Quinn – to do a 2000+ word profile of Chalabi on November 17, 2005. Quinn famously did a profile of Chalabi in 2003 in which he the varieties of his silky genius were highlighted, and contrasted, comically, with the boobish Iraqi pols that he brought with them – many didn’t speak English or possess table manners! And the grease in their hair! My how we laughed. 30-50, 000 Iraqi deaths later, we return to this always risible subject.

This is Quinn, speaking with the collective wisdom of D.C.:

“Spending time with Ahmed Chalabi is like disappearing down the rabbit hole. People are either throwing him tea parties or crying "off with his head."

Normally in Washington, people ask not to be identified when they have something negative to say about a person in the news. With Chalabi, it's the opposite. On the heels of his week-long visit to the United States, few want to be quoted by name saying anything positive. Yet suddenly many have positive things to say.
It was only a year and a half ago that his Baghdad office and home were raided and trashed by U.S. and Iraqi forces. He had gone from being the darling of the neo-cons to a pariah. Many thought he was dead politically.

But today he is a strong contender for prime minister in next month's elections, and highly placed sources say he has become the choice of many U.S. officials to lead the country. He has managed to resurrect himself because he is seen as the one person who can get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and Washington is pragmatic enough to recognize that.”

Can one love enough that last sentence? I don’t think so. Quinn is a rare human being: she is the local genius of the Washington Post, the very distillation of its editorial and journalistic attitude. Shameless, hubristic, triumphantly bigoted, privileged, and convinced that insider knowledge = real knowledge. Of course, insider knowledge is really a pack of the delusions and panics that make the governing class at this particular point in time a thing for the angels to both weep and laugh over.

Now, here’s LI’s bet. Our bet is that not once, not once in the next week or month will there be any discussion whatsoever of the curiously distorted coverage of the Iraqi election going into it, and the more than curious inflation of stories about a man whose main achievement seems to be to have gotten to know American journalists. Nobody will ask, why is it that there are not 2,000 word portraits of Hakim in the WP style section? Why isn’t there a series in the NYT, the men who run Iraq? The obvious answer is that the American public can’t bear too much reality – at least, that is what our guardians think. So much better to make up the country of Iraq lock stock and barrel and present it, a steaming pile of horseshit, to the American citizenry – just so we don’t get too worried about what we are sending Americans to die for, or to be head injured for, or to be legless for, or to have their spines broken for, or to be permanently traumatized for.

PS -- LI's correspondent, Mr. T, wrote a note about the above graf:

"I sense from your post that you already read this, but a few free-styled comments:

'Corporal Poole has no memory of the explosion or even the days before it, although he has a recurring dream of being in Iraq and seeing the sky suddenly turn red.'

"He is not competitively employable."

'...people with a brain injury have increased odds of sustaining another one'

I remember a weekend afternoon in late 2003 sitting around drinking with a friend of mine and his brother-in-law - the bro-in-law, F., is a fine guy and very talented doctor who was (still is?) working at a VA hospital as a part of "paying-off" his loans for med school. I flippantly asked how he was doing taking care of our men in uniforms; he quietly said only "So many head injuries." Immediately I felt a vacuous fool; I apologized for my ignorant bluster and asked him what he meant. He meant exactly what he said, elaborating only that he was somewhat troubled (when he had a chance to think about it) by his capacity to retain somatic life: were all of the elaborate and sophisticated capacities that he and his peers had at their disposal really worth it?

We then, with a few more cups in us, started to talk about how lives are lived longer, soldiers who "should" be dead try to live their lives after extreme trauma, manipulation of the genome......this good doctor said this: with every dead patient he feels a failure, but he knows that the ways to die are incalculable; his fear is that he might "interfere" with death at the wrong time."

Friday, January 20, 2006

the press corps on the couch

I had lunch with an editing client yesterday – yes, I’m still editing, so remember that, reader! – and we started talking about gender and the reporting of conversations. I brought up one of the things that struck me as remarkable about the transcripts released by Ken Starr back in the impeachment days – the way in which Monica Lewinsky’s telephone conversations with Linda Tripp often included, as a helpful stage direction, the sigh. The whole bizarreness of the Starr crusade was summed up for me in the sighs of Monica. Sighs were never included, that I could see, in the Watergate transcripts. Sighs weren’t part of the Iran-Contra controversy. But sighs, for a person like Starr, go with women. Women sigh. Women don’t like sex. Women are forced to have sex when they have sex – unless of course they are really, really in love. And so on.

The sexual subtext of what comes out of D.C. in reporting for the last six years has been quite comic, and quite unremarked. I wrote something a few weeks ago – did I post it? – about Jon Anderson’s New Yorker profile of the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad . There was a lie in that piece that struck me, since I don’t think it is the usual kind of lying that is pointed to when we criticize the press. Anderson describes Khalilzad as having the lope of a basketball player – or ex basketball player. Now, that is obviously not true. From his description, Khalilzad never played basketball, particularly – and he is described as wearing expensive suits and presumably expensive shoes, and his ecological niche involves much footing over hard marble flooring down many a corridor. And he is in his mid fifties. There is no way he has that lope.

But the lie was part of the lie that the press is partly there to produce and preserve. As we all know, powerful men evoke powerful homoerotic feelings from the people who cover them. The male D.C. reporters are continually trying to get us to feel how powerful the men they are reporting on actually are. Now, LI is a sex friendly site – we are totally happy with homoeroticism. But as is well known, homo-eroticism in a homophobic atmosphere generally turns ugly.

In the U.S., the upper class, Ivy league educated male has one ideal form in which to sublimate his homo-eroticism: fandom. Fans are, as is well known, always on the sexual edge with regard to the heroes they admire, those tough men with the taut pecs. There is a problem, however, with powerful execs, politicians, etc. They aren’t tough at all. How could they be? They might exercise, but generally they don’t’ have time for the sportif. So the lie that the presscorps sets itself is to convey their own infatuation. Thus, the overwhelming reference to sports when one reads profiles of CEOS. One always feels that with a little more prodding we’d get a description of the big fat cocks they possess – they must possess. God forbid that some CEO isn’t ballsy. Doesn’t have a full foot.

The hilarious thing about the lie with the Bush administration is that here, we have a man who we all know was sportif in a certain way. He was a cheerleader. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, if Hillary Clinton had been a cheerleader, there would be a mention of it almost every week. But with GWB, cheerleader is a hole. Nobody credits him with being a good cheerleader, or mentions the word. No, he is bold. He is a cowboy. He is sooooo fit. He is Mr. Mission Accomplished.

The homo-erotic subtext controls the way in which our leaders will be leaders. They will be bold. Even though anybody watching Bush knows that he is spastic, not bold, that is something that has to be suppressed, like cheerleading. Sometimes this is riotously funny. Slate’ Political correspondent, at the moment, is a stooge named John Dickerson. His takedown of Fred Barnes' new bio of Bush -- his ‘love letter” to the President -- is a little scene of homoerotic transformations and rivalries. Dickerson is disturbed that Barnes gushes too much over this manly, this bold, this commanding figure. Dickerson begins by defending the professional sycophants, the White house press corps, from the charge that they have been unfair to the President.

“The White House press corps has flaws: a herd mentality, a fixation on who's ahead politically, and difficulty engaging deeply with policy issues. I know, I was one of them. But Barnes has his boot on the scale, inflating the foolishness of the press to make Bush look better. Perhaps with so many books offering cartoon images of Bush as dumb and evil, the shelves need to be balanced out by one that errs in the opposite direction. But Rebel-in-Chief is such a love note that it fails to counteract the negative myths.”

The love note fails! This is heartbreaking for a guy like Dickerson. Maybe his own love notes will be more successful.

I should note that the homoerotic impulse functions in the lefty discourse too, where much time is spent making up images of fellatio and anal sex as signs of submission -- the press being on its knees, or in some indelicate way bending over, etc., etc. Again, this is also a lie – the lie being that one has overcome our homophobic culture while borrowing homophobic tropes. It is what makes comments so often unpleasant from both sides, as if the struggle, the deeper struggle, were about what male body was the most desirable.

That's a question I want to decide for myself.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

plausible vs. miracle counterfactuals

Richard Lebow has written with Philip Tetlock, whose new book on what is wrong with experts we have referred to in LI before, and he wrote this wonderfully clarifying piece – a real Draino of a scholarly article – for World Politics. What’s so different about a counterfactual is a review of the use of counterfactuals in political science and history, with Lebow’s target being Niall Ferguson. Frankly, we aren’t convinced that all of Lebow’s objections to The Pity of War are valid. But we are convinced that Lebow does everybody a service by clearly laying out the protocols of counterfactual use.

What does this mean? For one thing, it demystifies the prediction business. It also helps us understand the blind use of analogies and patterns to explain historical instances – one remembers the nutty use of the occupation of Japan as a template for the occupation of Iraq, which targeted occupation as if all occupations are alike. Perhaps, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy occupations are alike, and all unhappy ones are different.

Lebow summarizes his goals in his paper like this:

“I begin my essay with the proposition that the difference between so-called factual and counterfactual arguments is greatly exaggerated; it is one of degree, not of kind. I go on to discuss three generic uses of counterfactual arguments and thought experiments. In the process, I distinguish between “miracle” and “plausible” world counterfactuals and identify the uses to which each is suited. I critique two recent historical works that make extensive use of counterfactuals and contend that they are seriously deficient in method and argument. I then review the criteria for counterfactual experimentation proposed by social scientists who
have addressed this problem and find many of their criteria unrealistic and overly restrictive. The methods of counterfactual experimentation need to be commensurate with the purposes for which they are used,and I conclude by proposing eight criteria I believe appropriate to plausible-world counterfactuals.

Counterfactuals are “what if” statements, usually about the past. Counterfactual experiments vary attributes of context or the presence or value of variables and analyze how these changes would have affected outcomes. In history and political science these outcomes are always
uncertain because we can neither predict the future nor rerun the tape of history.”

As an example of counterfactual use in policy-making, he uses an example beloved by conservatives: the notion that the appeasement of Hitler taught us all a lesson about the proper use of force in foreign policy:

“The controversy surrounding the strategy of deterrence provides an example of the use of counterfactuals in international relations. One of the principal policy lessons of the 1930s was that appeasement whets the appetites of dictators while military capability and resolve restrains them. The failure of Anglo-French efforts to appease Hitler is well established, but the putative efficacy of deterrence rests on the counterfactual that Hitler could have been restrained if France and Britain had demonstrated willingness to go to war in defense of the European territorial status quo. German documents make this an eminently researchable question, and historians have used these documents to try to determine at what point Hitler could no longer be deterred.”

As Lebow points out later, the appeasement model played a large role in Kennedy’s decision-making process concerning Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy felt like Khruschev was encouraged to try that gamble because Kennedy had been too weak at the Bay of Pigs and in Berlin. But, as Lebow points out, “Evidence from Soviet and American archives and interviews with former officials make it possible to explore the validity of most of these counterfactuals and thus to evaluate the choices of Soviet and American leaders and the
subsequent scholarly analyses of the crisis.” The evidence points to the fact that Khruschev’s play was motivated not by the perception of Kennedy’s weakness, but by fear of American aggression:

“After Cuba, former Kennedy administration officials and many scholars maintained that
Khrushchev would not have deployed missiles in Cuba if Kennedy had been more decisive at the Bay of Pigs, at the Vienna summit, and in Berlin. There was no evidence to support this interpretation, but it became the conventional wisdom and helped to shape a host of subsequent policy decisions, including the disastrous intervention in Vietnam. The evidence that came to light in the Gorbachev era suggested, to the contrary, that Khrushchev decided to send missiles se cretly to Cuba because he overestimated Kennedy’s resolve. He feared
that Kennedy, preparing to invade Cuba, would send the American navy to stop any ships carrying missiles to Cuba to deter that invasion.”

If there is a lesson in counterfactuals, here, for the current situation with Iran, it might be that the U.S. should make public its lack of interest in acting aggressively against Iran. After all, the nuclear power program has been going on for thirty years in Iran, but it became a priority only after Bush, favoring the usual clueless adolescent phrase that thrills his followers and endangers the rest of us, labeled Iran part of the axis of evil. So much for Iran’s help during the Afghanistan war.

But to return to affairs sub specie aeternitatus. Lebow’s examination of counterfactuals covers not only the logic of their use by would-be policy-makers and historians, but the beliefs about counterfactual that animate policymakers. One should always remember that the average brilliant D.C. thinktanker is usually as ignorant as a drunk on a moonless night when it comes to having any feeling about the nations he advises on and worse than ignorant about counterfactuals. In other words, you could get better advice from a machine into which he slotted quarters than you can from your Wolfowitz types, who are harmless when put in well paying cages in, say, Johns Hopkins, but are armed and should be considered dangerous when appointed to any position of responsibility. Given that simple rule makes parsing what comes out of the Wizard of Oz voices in the media much easier – it will mostly be bullshit leavened with a heaping helping of psychosis.

Here is Lebow, with his much less aggressive summary of the case:

“International relations theorists seek to understand the driving forces behind events; they usually do so after the fact, when the outcome is known. The process of backward reasoning tends to privilege theories that rely on a few key variables to account for the forces allegedly responsible for the outcomes in question. For the sake of theoretical parsimony, the discipline generally favors independent variables that are structural in nature (for example, balance of power, state structure, size and nature of a coalition). The theory-building endeavor has a strong bias toward deterministic explanations and on the whole downplays understandings of outcomes as the products of complex, conjunctional causality.
A recent survey of international relations specialists revealed that those scholars who were most inclined to accept the validity of theories (for example, power transition, nuclear deterrence) and theory building as a scholarly goal were the most emphatically dismissive of
plausible-world counterfactuals. They were also most likely to invoke second-order counterfactuals to get developments diverted by counterfactuals back on the track.
In retrospect, almost any outcome can be squared with any theory unless the theory is rigorously specified. The latter requirement is rarely met in the field of international relations, and its deleterious effect is readily observed in the ongoing debate over the end of the cold war. Various scholars, none of whose theories predicted a peaceful end to that conflict, now assert that this was a nearly inevitable corollary of their respective theories.”

The smooth workings of vanity fingered in the last graf can be seen among the liberal hawks today, who are re-engineering their support so that, of course, they had simply not factored in George Bush. My, if Al or Hillary had been in power, how wonderfully our occupation would have gone! Just like occupations and wars supervised by Democrats in the past…

And so the examples pile up. But this is the part I really wanted to quote: Lebow’s theory of counterfactual benchmarks.

Lebow divides his theory of counterfactual use between plausible and miracle counterfactuals, each of which has its uses. Plausible counterfactuals must be embedded in what is possible in the circumstances in which it is inserted. So, for instance, one can’t simply make the analogy from the occupation of Spain by Napoleon to the occupation of Iraq by the Americans (a favorite LI example) without taking into account the lesser level of military technology in 1809, for example, or the information flow that goes both ways, immediately, in the Iraq war. What Lebow calls “miracle” counterfactuals posit something that would require a miracle – for instance, Napoleon returning from St. Helena in 1850 – when he was long dead. Hitler returning from Brazil, to which he never fled to in the first place. ”Miracle counterfactuals are particularly useful in evaluating existing interpretations,” as Lebow points out. They aren’t so much planning or prediction devices as ways to shake out hidden assumptions in a narrative.

Then there is this second benchmark: “Plausible counterfactuals must meet a second test: they must have a real probability of leading to the outcome the researcher intends to bring about.” This, again, allows us to sort through the steps that lead from one thing to another in the counterfactual. Which brings us to the common problems of counterfactuals, the awareness of which could constitute another benchmark.

3. The second benchmark naturally leads to criteria for real possibilities. “There is no consensus about what constitutes a good counterfactual, but there is a common recognition that it is extraordinarily difficult to construct a robust counterfactual—one whose antecedent we can assert with confidence could have led to the hypothesized consequent.There are three reasons for this well-warranted pessimism: the statistical improbability of multistep counterfactuals, the intercon- nectedness of events, and the unpredictable effects of second-order counterfactuals.”

It is extraordinary how often these problems are simply ignored. The pisspoor planning for the war in Iraq – a war the end of which the planners, apparently, falsely conceptualized – came about partly from ignoring these three reasons. Lebow provides an exemplary explanation of this:

“The probability of a consequent is a multiple of the probability of each counterfactual linking the hypothesized antecedent to it. Suppose I contend that neither world war nor the Holocaust would have occurred if Mozart had lived to the age of sixty-five.

Having pushed classical form as far as it could go in the Jupiter Symphony, his last three operas,and the requiem, Mozart’s next dramatic works would have been the precursors of a new, “postclassicist” style. He would have created a viable alternative to romanticism that would have been widely imitated by composers, writers, and artists. Postclassicism would have kept the political ideas of the Enlightenment alive and held romanticism in check. Nationalism would have been more restrained, and thus Austria-Hungary and Germany would have undergone very different political evolution. This alternative and vastly preferable world has at least five counterfactual steps linking antecedent to consequent: Mozart must survive to old age and develop a new style of artistic expression;subsequent composers, artists, and writers must imitate and elaborate it; romanticism must become to some degree marginalized; and artistic developments must have important political ramifications. This last counterfactual presupposes numerous other enabling counterfactuals
about the nature of the political changes that will lead to the hypothesized consequent (for example, internal reforms that resolve or reduce the threat of internal dissolution of Austria-Hungary, German unification under different terms, or at least a Germany satisfied with the status quo, no First World War, no Hitler and no Holocaust without Germany’s defeat in World War I). Even if every one of this long string of counterfactuals had a probability of at least 50 percent, the overall probability of the consequent would be a mere .03 for five steps and a frighteningly low .003 for eight steps. This particular counterfactual may appear far-fetched, but most interesting counterfactuals are no less improbable statistically. They may start with a tiny and plausible alteration of the real world but then infer numerous follow-on developments to end up with a major change in reality.”

As Lebow points out, scholars often cheat by simply assuming one change in a historial scenario and preserving the facts as we know them in the rest of the scenario. To solve the problem – that is, to keep from looking like total idiots – scholars have proposed various ways of restricting counterfactual use:

Recognition that counterfactual arguments often have indeterminate consequences has prompted scholars to impose restrictive criteria on their use. Fearon proposes a proximity criterion. We should consider only those counterfactuals in which the antecedent appears likely to bring about the intended consequent and little else. Counterfactuals, he suggests, must be limited to cases where “the proposed causes are temporally and, in some sense, spatially quite close to the consequents.” However, this seems to me mere wishful thinking, the wish being that events line up in a linear way in history. But it is easy to see how small changes could cause big ones. If a particular rifle company had manufactured rifles with a defect in them in 1960 and if one gunman had had his gun blow up in his hand in 1963, history would certainly have been different in many and unpredictable ways.

Another problem is, of course, that theories which test themselves against counterfactuals often only consider confirming counterfactuals.

“Based on an examination of the American literature on Iran, Herrmann and Fischerkeller conclude that “too often in world politics what is taken as a base rate for a generalization about the motives of another country is too much an ideological conviction and too
little a product of deductive and empirical behavioral science.”

Lebow and Stein have documented the same phenomenon with respect to deterrence; data sets used to test the strategy of deterrence were patently ideological in the cases they recognized as deterrence encounters and coded as successes for the West.”

A good example of this is the curious American idea that bombing or other forms of violence that are inflicted against Americans will justly cause a hostile response – but inflicted by Americans against other peoples, will cause the other peoples to fall in love with Americans, just as Krazy Kat would heart Ignatz after he bopped her with a brick. The mistake of thinking that the love foreigners hold for Americans only deepens when we kill their children derives, perhaps, from the post-war occupations of Japan and Germany. It rather ignores the circumstance that made those occupations possible: fear of the Soviet Union.

This brief survey of Lebow’s remarkable article doesn’t do it justice, but I hope it puts in perspective any “predictions” LI makes. We are going to be wrong about quite a bit, but some things we will be right about just because we are aware of the counterfactual traps.
Imagine that Clinton, fearing what Bush’s presidency might bring, shipped all American ICBMs to China. That might raise a few hackles, don’t you think?

Which brings LI to the weirdest story we have read in some time. It is stories like these that explain why the left is winning in Latin America. The right is composed, to be plain, of people who will betray their country for a box of Wheaties – and the assurance that the U.S. Military will always love them.
“The outgoing interim president, Eduardo Rodriguez, said he had accepted the resignation of Defense Minister Gonzalo Mendez, and fired Gen. Marcelo Antezana over apparent irregularities in the destruction in the United States of a batch of Chinese-made missiles in October.

"I have relieved the commander of the army of his duties and accepted the defense minister's resignation," Rodriguez told reporters after a cabinet meeting Tuesday.

At the height of campaigning for last month's presidential elections, Morales denounced the destruction of the 28 to 30 Chinese HN-5 shoulder-fired missiles, the only arms of their kind in the military's arsenal.
Antezana, the army chief, told reporters that Washington initiated the drive to destroy the missiles because it feared Morales would win the presidency of the South American country.”

Wow. Vote for the right, and let the U.S. take over your country. Sounds like a great deal.

Well, that explains the fifty percent Morales got.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

when I predict an event, it stays predicted

Henry Maine starts out his classic anti-democracy treatise, Popular Government (one of the great books in the Burkean tradition) by considering the predictability of the French Revolution:

“THE blindness of the privileged classes in France to the Revolution which was about to overwhelm them furnishes 'some of the' best-worn commonplaces of modern history. There was no doubt much in it to surprise us. What King, Noble, and Priest could not see, had been easily visible to the foreign observer. ‘In short," runs the famous passage in Chesterfield's letter of December 25,1753, “all the symptoms which I ever met with in history previous to great changes and revolutions in government now exist and daily increase in France." A large number of writers of our day, manifesting the wisdom which comes after the event, have pointed out that the sips of a terrible time ought not to have been mistaken. The Court,
the Aristocracy, and the Clergy should have understood that, in face of the irreligion which was daily becoming more fashionable, the belief in privilege conferred by birth could not be long maintained.”

Yet, as Maine points out, the backward glance that sees all the signs pointing to the Revolution ignores the fact that the natives of that time were, after all, as well or even better informed than we are, and many of the most brilliant of them did not see the signs – in fact, quite the reverse. David Hume, “a careful observer of France,” and indisputably a more brilliant man than Chesterfield, wrote in 1742 that France was the most perfect model of monarchy, about which he wrote: “But though all kinds of government be improved in modern times, yet monarchical government seems to have made the greatest advances towards perfection. It may now be affirmed of civilized monarchies, what was formerly said in praise of republics alone, that they are a government of Laws, not of Men. They are found susceptible of order, method, and constancy, to a surprizing degree. Property is there secure; industry encouraged; the arts flourish; and the prince lives secure among his subjects, like a father among his children.”

Prediction, upon which the scientist and the fortune-teller both pride themselves, presents a demonic temptation to the pundit, or to anyone pronouncing on public affairs. Public affairs are so multifarious, so crammed with events and their ghosts, that predicting the future is much like a man at the back of a crowd trying to guess the face of a man in the front of a crowd. Even if you can fill in the broad features with happy guesses – skin color and sex, for instance – the particulars are probably going to be much different. Recent comments by Paul and Patrick to a post of mine about Iran – a post in which I deliver, with the kind of suitable modesty that makes for later denials, my own predictions about the upcoming war, or lack of it, between Iran and the U.S. – made me think of one particular hazard of soothsaying – ignorance about the very nature of counterfactuals.

The source of the discussion between Paul and me arises, partly, from our differing judgments about Niall Ferguson’s article in the Telegraph – and, happily, Niall Ferguson is an entirely appropriate figure to haunt any post about counterfactuals, since Ferguson is well known for believing that historians have a duty to introduce them into their histories. Ferguson’s article in the Telegraph isn’t a history, of course – it uses his reputation as a historian to present a florid and alarmist picture of Iran and Israel starting a nuclear war that quickly spreads throughout the world. Given Ferguson’s prominence in the field of alternative histories, the neo-con vision he unrolls is recognizably the heir of his more professional concerns, which have in turn been treated pretty severely by a school of thought that I tend to, by temperament: the more nominalistically inclined school of limited counterfactual use. The latter tends towards a Hayekian suspicion of the human ability to calculate future events according to their probabilities with any great accuracy. In other words, this school takes seriously the work of ‘economic psychologists’ such as Tversky and Kahneman. As readers of Limited Inc know, the probability turn is one I am crazy about, since it overturns our intuition about how right our intuitions are. Among this schools leaders is Richard Lebow, who just happened to write one of the best papers on counterfactuals and history (What’s so different about a counterfactual) – a review essay, as it happens, of Ferguson’s The Pity of War and Alternative Histories. This is a paper that every person who sets himself up, Humpty Dumpty like, to pronounce upon public affairs should read, at one time or another. In fact, in the short list, this public spirited H.D. should also read Gigerenzer and some of Tversky and Kahneman's output.

Which paper I will discuss tomorrow.

ps -- for the best commentary on the Iranian "crisis" and real steps to defuse it, read this article in the Huffington Post by Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Sahimi. The bulk of what they say LI agrees with. And if there is really a hawkish move to attack Iran, the points they suggest should be the center of the counter-movement -- unlike the anti-war movement before the invasion, lets home the anti war with Iran movement thinks about alternatives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

hijincks of America's favorite frat boy

Those unhappy few who care that much of what appears in the American papers about Iraq is composed of half truths or outright lies might be interested in the Washington Post’s account of the death of Army Spec. Jesse Buryj. The article goes through the death and the reporting of the death chronologically, so that one can see how one lie is succeeded by another. And in the middle of this is the frat boy whose science project in Iraq – how much pointless blood can one ersatz hero-president spill – got him the majority of votes from a grateful electorate in 2004.

First, the death. Nobody yet knows who shot Jesse Buryj on the night of May 4, 2004. What is known is that he was on night patrol in Karbala. His unit and a unit of Polish troops were coordinated the effort to stifle Sadr’s revolt there.

“Buryj was in the turret of an armored Humvee with a trailer on the east side of the circle, while Polish and U.S. units manned several entrances to the checkpoint.
At 1 a.m. on May 5, a dump truck approached the circle from the south and slowed, as if to stop.

"It just sat there for a few seconds, hesitated, and then it just plowed through," Sgt. Chris DeCloud, a member of Buryj's unit, said in a recent interview. "The engine revved and boom, it was coming through the checkpoint. The Poles were lighting it up from all sides. We lit it up."

The tires blew, and the truck veered to the right but did not slow. Its windshield cracked into a ragged spider web, and the driver slumped, dead. Buryj, seeing the truck coming directly at him, fired several rounds from his M249 machine gun. The truck rammed his vehicle, sending it up on its passenger-side wheels and tossing Buryj to the ground.

"We thought this truck was going to blow up, this is the end. We all did," DeCloud said, adding that he didn't think his unit was taking fire from the Poles. "I thought we were the only ones shooting" when the truck hit the Humvee.”
Buryj broke his back. As he was being choppered back to Baghdad, they discovered a puncture wound in his lower back. He died en route.

The truck? In the official death report, the military described the truck as hostile enemy activity. It was actually a truck filled with sand, and the two Iraqis in it, both shot to death, had no weapons. So much for the hostile.

But the lie of who we are killing in Iraq is old news, and who gives a shit about that. As for the much supported American soldier, well, supposedly the Army has some interest in and loyalty to him or her, so much so that it becomes a matter of interest who, exactly, shot Buryj. But in this case, given that the man could have been shot by our Polish allies – who were nervous and triggerhappy – the Army decided not to stir the pot. The Poles did complete their report, and claimed that, due to Buryj’s position, he was likely killed by an American bullet.

“The Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Forest Park, Ga., could have cleared up the mystery. It reported that the bullet and fragments recovered from Buryj's body provided "sufficient individual characteristics for comparison purposes" and suggested collecting all suspect weapons for analysis.
But that didn't happen. DeCloud said the unit offered to turn over its weapons for testing but "they never got back to us."”

The Buryj family wanted to know exactly what happened. Being ardent Ohio Republicans, Mrs. Buryj even got to see the President, along with other mothers and wives of the dead, in 2004. She asked him to find out what happened to her son. He promised to look into it.

Now George Bush, as we know from a constant stream of the guy, is ever fratboyish, irresponsible, ignorant, criminally neglectful commander in chief, and his promise was a joke. If Buryj had been a pioneer, or in any way wealthy, the story would be different. But if Buryj had been a pioneer, or in any way wealthy, he wouldn't be doing trash time in Iraq, would he? Of course not. He'd be busy looting a corporation, like a good Bush associate. However, this isn't the tale of a broken promise. One has to remember that the Bush culture is all about pushing the limits of bad taste. So the Buryj family did sorta hear back from George Bush:

“In July 2004, two months after their son died, Steve and Peggy Buryj met Bush after a rally at the Canton Civic Center and passed him a letter asking for the truth. "I asked him to do what he could," Peggy said. "He appeared concerned and was very sincere. He said that sometimes all it takes is a call from the president."
Nothing happened, and Peggy Buryj doesn't know whether he made that call. In early October, she said, she received a call from the Bush campaign in Ohio. She said Darrin Klinger, then executive director of the Bush-Cheney Ohio campaign, asked her if she would be interested in appearing in a campaign commercial as a grieving mother who was sticking by her president. (Klinger, reached at his office in Columbus, Ohio, said he is familiar with the Buryj family but does not recall that conversation.) She said she refused. "I told them that if he finds out what happened to my son, I'll win him an Academy Award," she said. "I voted for Bush, I was a supporter. But I was just getting strung along, and I knew it at that point.”

At times like these, it is hard to remember that Bush himself, as a young man, voluntarily put himself in harm’s way by defending Alabama from potential communist aggression. One would think that he might have learned something from his hour of peril. But apparently he didn’t. And the Washington Post might be interested that simply taking dictation from the army about “insurgent” casualties might not exactly be the equivalent of conveying the truth – in fact, it could be simply a pack of lies upon more lies. But that would be to expect way too much from D.C.’s proud standardbearer.

Monday, January 16, 2006

the fool vs. the fool of fools -- the mother of all foolishness

In 2004, LI made some predictions (hedged by the disclaimer that they were merely extrapolations from present circumstance) about what would happen if George Bush were re – scratch that re, will you – were elected in 2004. In other words, if the 2004 election legitimized the Bush coup of 2000.

One of the predictions we made – it was made here, on September 19, 2004 – reads like this:

“One thing this [the election of Bush] will certainly mean, given the characteristic bloodthirstiness of this group, is a lot more Iraqi deaths. The Vietnam comparisons are always to the number of Americans killed – not to the number of Iraqis killed. But with the re-installation of an ultra-hawkish wing in D.C. (who will justly take the election as a legitimation of their methods) surely we will see an acceleration of Rumsfeld’s kind of warfare – the terror bombing of Fallujah, the pillage of Najaf, that kind of thing. The Bush people have been pushing a re-definition of the aim in Iraq as ‘working democracy” – which means that they will skew what election process they allow, in January, to put in an American puppet. Allawi is the candidate right now, and he does have one essential quality – he will rubber stamp any terror tactics the U.S. forces take against the Iraqi population. But it is hard to see how an election, no matter how corrupt, could be won by Allawi. Without opposition in Washington, however, there might be no pressure to hold elections at all. Postponing the elections next year would surely be on the Pump house wish list.

What are the constraining factors here? We think the major constraint is the Bush fear of having to resource its war. It has been obvious for some time, in Iraq, that the distance between what Bush says is the goal in Iraq and Iraqi reality could have only been bridged if Iraq were treated as a serious occupation. That would require about two to three times the manpower that is there right now. Instead, this war is being fought like a child playing with the puddles from its bottle of milk on the high chair – American soldiers go into an area, ”pacify” it, then withdraw. Then the insurgents return. Going to war with Iran and/or Syria is going to require a lot more military manpower. We think the fear of that will drive the Bush administration to make threats, and to maybe use its airpower, but not to invade. The worst case scenario would be: seeing that we need a proxy in the Middle East, Wolfowitz et al encourage an Israeli attack on Syria.”

We were, of course, on the money about the use of terror tactics, which came into play majorly after the election in the weeks of U.S. war crimes committed against Fallujah. On the other hand, we grossly underestimated the pump house gang’s own consumption of its kool-aid. They actually thought they would win the elections, via Allawi, after the destruction of a major Sunni city. But even then we were suspicious of the meme that the U.S. was going to attack Iran.

We still think that the U.S. will not attack Iran, and that if an attack comes, it will be a proxy attack via Israel – which, we will be assured, operated on its own, completely and utterly free from American intervention. Right.

However, the interesting thing at the moment is the way that the same forces that got us into Iraq are aligning in the same ways to get us into Iran. Niall Ferguson, who is a very good historian and a very poor pundit, pulls out one of his alternative history tricks and gives us the history of the “nuclear exchanges” between Israel and Iran in 2007 – all of which could have been prevented by a couple of good old surgical strikes in 2006. Riiigght. Sure. That there is no evidence that Iran is even working on nuclear weaponry at the moment is of course irrelevant to this scenario. Similarly, the NYT quotes a Newsweek interview with In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy, which will be quoted to mean that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is a few months from achieving its goal if

“… Iran was possibly pursuing a nuclear weapons program in secret.
"If they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far - a few months - from a weapon," he said. "We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals and locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program."

Now, this is really a strange sentence. The claim is that there is a possibility of nuclear material and a possibility of weaponization. And then there is a statement of fact. Something is either wrong with El Baradei’s conditionals or wrong with the way Newsweek quoted him.

So what is ahead? The Washington Post has long been eager to visit Iran with U.S. bombers, and we expect the op ed page and the editorial section to be full of the usual meat driven, gloating cannibal ideology, by the same cannibals who have gorged largely on American and Iraqi blood in the last two years and find themselves craving more – serial war mongering being one of the D.C. clique’s more adorable traits. We especially like it when Krauthammer imitates Hector Lector. And then the hawk Dems will have to start marching, starting with the inexorable Hillary and her to be expected comments about giving serious consideration to a military response. But … we think (putting on our fortuneteller cap) that the D.C. clique won’t get that far, that hawk Dems will stretch their talons in vain, and that this will become an issue over which the EU, the UN, the U.S., Russia and China flutter for the next couple of years. Iran’s contracts with India and China are going to figure largely in keeping the negotiations peaceful, we think. Although who knows – the wild cared is whether the U.S. decides to use Israel.

LI’s position about Iran has taken a battering in the last couple of years. It was obvious that Clinton’s biggest foreign policy fuckup was not establishing détente with Iran when he had the chance. With the election – and it was an election, and it was even one in which the person with the most votes won, unlike, uh, the elections in some countries – of the fool of fools, Ahmadinejad , we can’t imagine that Iran and the U.S. will take the small steps to secure a Middle East peace, much less strengthen the party of sanity in Iran.

the magnetized age

In his entertaining Conducting the Vital Fluid: The Politics and Poetics of Mesmerism in the 1790s, Timothy Fulford writes:

BY DECEMBER 1795 PRIME MINISTER WILLIAM PITT WAS WELL ON THE way to crushing political dissent in Britain. he had tried reformers for treason, passed laws restricting the right of association and suspended habeas corpus, all without an outcry from British people about their loss of freedom. To one radical, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the people's quietude was an uncanny sign of a new malaise coursing through the body politic:

WILLIAM PITT, the great political Animal Magnetist, ... has most foully worked on the diseased fancy of Englishmen . . . thrown the nation into a feverish slumber, and is now bringing it to a crisis which may convulse mortality!'

Coleridge was not alone in seeing Pitt as an animal magnetist, mesmerizing his countrymen into a trance to be followed by the convulsions of war. According to James Tilly Matthews, returning to London in 1796 after imprisonment by the Jacobins, the Prime Minister had been "actuated" by "magnetic spies" sent from revolutionary France.2 Now controlled "like a mere puppet by the expert-magnetists," Pitt was himself a traitor, part of a Jacobin conspiracy to mesmerize the nation towards its destruction.

Puppet or not, Pitt acted decisively when Matthews repeated his allegations from the gallery of the House of Commons. he had Matthews locked up in Bedlam madhouse. On the ministry's reading, it was Matthews, and not the Prime Minister, whose mind had been "possessed"-Matthews had himself been an enthusiast of mesmerism, and had now been hypnotized by the practice he had gone to France to study.”

In a reactionary time, it does seem to a dissenter like society has fallen into some magnetic sleep. LI has also used the notion of zombies to explain the hypnotized followers of Bush – which is not to imply that the intelligence and character of Bush and Cheney find their natural counterparts in the set of British Prime ministers, like William Pitt. Rather, comparison should be made to the cast of the Dukes of Hazard. Let’s value our own times (die so grossen war) and our governing class with the contempt that both deserve, shall we? But the war of magnetic spies seems somehow appropriate, seems to call up images, that might be useful for looking at the war of drones and mirrors.

I am referencing Fulford’s essay to give us a fuller sense of the scientific image of mesmerism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which was blurred, so to speak, across such disciplines as medicine and physics. We pay too little attention to this kind of thing when looking at philosophers – LI’s argument about Schopenhauer is that too great a preoccupation with establishing Schopenhauer’s relation to Kant and Hegel ignores other sources and models of the Will, that eminently 19th century category.

For instance, this anecdote, from Fulford, was just the kind of information that Schopenhauer would seize upon:

It was in this inchoate and contested medical context [of an insufficiently institutionalized medical culture] that Franz Anton Mesmer's therapy proved popular. It did so, in part, because the latest experiments suggested that it might be possible, by an act of will, to detect and transmit to others an imponderable life- giving fluid. When the anatomist John Hunter published his dissections of the torpedo and gymnotus fish (in 1773 and 1775), the anatomical organs for transmitting electricity were laid open. They revealed, Hunter concluded, "that the will of the animal does absolutely control the electric powers of its body; which must depend on the energy of its nerves."6 Joseph Priestley soon incorporated Hunter's demonstration into his theories7-if electricity could be transmitted at a distance through water, perhaps that was formed by a combination of electricity with other vital principles. The power of the fish, the medium through which it passed and the body receiving the shock must all be akin. Hunter noted that the "oscillation" produced by the gymnotus:

may be so strong, as not only to check and overpower those in the part which touches the fish, but also to propagate themselves along the skin and up the nerves, to the brachial ganglion, and even to the spinal marrow and brain; whence the person would first feel the stupefaction ascend along the arm to the shoulder, and then fall into a giddiness.

The very terms, here, are echoed in Schopehauer’s essay, which makes use of the phrase action at a distance in the same way – using it, further, as a scientific basis upon which to combat materialism. Similarly, when Marina Warner, considering the effects of the magic lantern slide show upon Western sensibilities, cites early 19th century classifications of the sleep cycle, we see this so distinctly echoed in Schopenhauer’s text that we can be confident of some influence:

In l825, Samuel Hibbert published a foldout chart about dream states, which he called a ‘Formula of the various comparative Degrees of Faintness, Vividness, or Intensity, supposed to subsist between Sensations and Ideas…’ With scientific method, he tabulated eight transitions in his full cycle, ranging from Perfect Sleep to Somnambulism by way of ‘the common state of Watchfulness’ to ‘the tranquil state’ to ‘extreme mental excitement’, and he graded no less than fifteen different phases in each of them. They start from ‘Degree of vividness at which consciousness begins,’ where it is still possible to impose the will on vision, to ‘Intense excitements of the mind necessary for the production of spectres.’”
Not to brag, but I would guess that LI is the first to point out this similarity – showing how badly the history of philosophy needs to expand its focus of study.
Which brings us to the issue that we started with: ghosts. The specter that has haunted the specter in this essay finally manifests itself in the one passage from the essay that has been extensively quoted – in anthologies of Ghost literature. At least, the first sentence is quoted. I’m translating the whole passage, and that will be the end of LI’s sermons on the Master Grouch of Philosophy. Still, it bears noticing that Schopenhauer seems to treat the Kantian Ding an sich, here, as a ghost. Something which would, of course, flutter the dovecoats if it were suggested in one of Derrida’s essays.

"To explain this explanation, the following general remark may serve. The ghost belief is innate among people. It is found in all times and all places, and perhaps not a single person is completely free of it. The great pile and the people, really of all lands and times, distinguish the natural from the supernatural as two fundamentally different yet equally present to hand orders of things. They prescribe miracles, omens, ghosts and magic unthinking to the supernatural, but also allow that in general nothing is thoroughly, down to its root, natural, but nature itself rests on the supernatural. Therefore the people understand themselves very well when the question is posed, “does that occur naturally or not?” Essentially, this distinction is in synch with the Kantian one between appearance and the thing in itself; only that the affair is treated more precisely and correctly in that the natural and supernatural aren’t two divided and split apart kinds of essences, but one and the same, which taken as it is in itself should be named supernatural, because only then it first appears – that is, enters upon the perception of our intellect and therefore goes into its forms, in which nature represents itself, whose phenomenal lawfulness is just what one understands by “the Natural”. I for my part, to repeat, have only clarified Kant’s expression when I named “Appearance” “Representation”. And if you still take heed that, many times, in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomenon, Kant’s thing in itself only emerges just a bit from out of the darkness in which he keeps it suspended, and lets us know it as the faculty of moral calculation in us, thus as the will – so you will also gain the insight, through referring to the Will as the Thing in Itself, how much I have simply clarified and completed Kant’s thought."

The hidden theatrical scene here, the thing-in-itself that dare not take its position on the stage – I could go on about how connected this is to the early nineteenth century entertainment of the Phantasmagoria, which in turn was connected to the theater of the magnetic sleepwalker. Kant, in this scenario, plays the master of the sonambule -- and Schopenhauer plays the master of Kant. I told you this would end in a wild Caligarian chase, as all the philosophers lure you to the madhouse, strap you down, and mutter, now I know the source of the disease!

Ah, but don’t worry – I’m not going to bore you with this any more! Also Sprach LI.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

there are no accidents

LI was thinking of taking the day off from Schopenhauer’s essay and writing about the J.T. LeRoy hoax that is currently unraveling around a couple of San Francisco situationalists, Laura Albert and her husband, who made up and animated this faux HIV infected, trans-sexual naïf. And, from the accounts of the hoaxed – Susie Bright, Denis Cooper, etc. – it looks like the hook eventually settled in Laura’s mouth, as late night obsessive phone calls to the famous and titillated started growing their own personality.

But then we thought, fuck that. Let others talk literary scandal, at this blog we are all about the bucks and the popularity and the kind of pop stuff that Shirley Mansen and/or Winona Ryder and/or Carrie Fisher just goes crazy for: for instance, the deep probing of Schopenhauer’s more obscure essays .

Let’s put this post under a quote from The World as Will and Representation:

“Thus, although every particular action, under the presupposition of the definite character, necessarily ensues with the presented motive, and although growth, the process of nourishment, and all the changes in the animal body take place according to necessarily lasting causes (stimuli), the whole series of actions, and consequently every individual act and likewise its condition, namely the whole body itself which performs it, and therefore also the process through which and in which the body exists, are nothing but the phenomenal appearance of the will, its becoming visible, the objectivity of the will. On this rests the perfect suitability of the human and animal body to the human and animal will in general, resembling, but far surpassing, the suitability of a purposely made instrument to the will of its maker, and on this account appearing as fitness or appropriateness, i.e., the teleological accountability of the body. Therefore the parts of the body must correspond completely to the chief demands and desires by which the will manifests itself; they must be the visible expression of these desires. Teeth, gullet, and intestinal canal are objectified hunger; the genitals are objectified sexual impulse; grasping hands and nimble feet correspond to the more indirect strivings of the will which they represent. Just as the general human form corresponds to the general human will, so to the individually modified will, namely the character of the individual, there corresponds the individual bodily structure, which is therefore as a whole and in all its parts characteristic and full of expression.”

Schopenhauer’s Spirit Seer essay, in all its eccentric embrace of magnetic somnambulism, clairvoyance, mesmeric healing and its explanation of ghosts, is logically derived from Schopenhauer’s central philosophical positions, and in particular two principles: a., the application of his Will as a sort of general solvent into which all matter dissolves and b., the Satz von Grund, the principle of sufficient reason. Since “Over the implications of spirit seeing” is too long for us to simply cull quotes to mark our breadcrumb trail through it, let’s drastically summarize the argument and get to the stranger bits about dreams.

This is how Schopenhauer procedes:

1. First, he gives us perhaps the first respectable physiological account of dreams. Schopenhauer sticks with the standard empirical account of sense impressions – intrinsic to the sensing of objects is that they be sensed outside the subject, which means mostly outside the body, or at most located in the body but outside of the terminus of the sense mechanism – the brain. However, dreams present us with the puzzle of sense images that are not derived from outside the body. Schopenhauer’s idea, taken from the physiology of the time, is that the bodies sensing system – its nerves and secretions – fall into two channels, one of which fits the standard empiricist account, and the other of which is interior. This former channel provides us, while we are awake, with a constant “noise” or screen of sensations that effectually mask the inner sensations. However, sleep, by suspending the activities of the senses, allows the ‘echo of the organism’s workshops” to be heard. The brain, then, can now receive, without interference, these weaker signals. But since the brain is oriented to the receiving of outward stimuli, it translates these weaker signals into the language of the senses. Schopenhauer’s theory was revived – without reference, of course, to Schopenhauer – by James Watson in the 90s. LI enjoyed Schopenhauer’s comparison:

“Because at all times it [the brain] will only speak its own speech; and so, into this, it interprets these weak impulses, stemming from the inside, that reach it during sleep, just as the strong and specific ones come from the outside via regular routes during waking. Thus the brain is given the matter to make images completely like those which arise from outer excitements, even though there is hardly a similarity between both kinds of impressions. Their relationship can be compared to that of a deaf person who, from the vocables that reach his ear, composes false phrases, or even with a madman, who brings his own wild, fixed ideas, corresponding to phantasies, to accidentally employed words.”

2. Unlike James Watson, though, Schopenhauer doesn’t take the physiological theory to mean that dreams are as meaningless as the sounds you might get by dropping stuff on a piano keyboard. Dreams weave together into apprehensions and meaningful messages, depending on the dreams origin in one or another part of the dream cycle. Schopenhauer spends a lot of time distinguishing one phase of sleep from another, and then investigating “magnetic somnambulism,” or hypnosis, which he takes to be parallel to sleep. Schopenhauer was very impressed with research into mesmerism, just as Balzac was, and many of the Victorians. Because 19th century philosophy is taught will little reference to 19th century psychology, we tend to miss this kind of thing. This is one of the reasons that this essay of Schopenhauer’s has been studiously avoided. If you stripped Freud and Skinner out of the history of twentieth century philosophy, you would have some puzzling patterns on your hand.

3. Schopenhauer has the idea that the dexterity of magnetized sonambules shows that the “dream organ” has a curiously instinctive sense of the world. If we recall that the world is the objectified will, and that our information about it, via our waking senses, is about surface phenomena – in a sense, is an ornament produced by the experience’s instinctive forms, time and space, which have merely the interactive reality that comes from experience – Schopenhauer has philosophical reasons to justify believing that dreams tell the truth – or foretell the truth. In fact, he “proves” this with a story from his own experience. One day, while writing, he absent mindedly reached out his hand to sprinkle sand on the page he had just penned, but accidently dipped his hand in ink and scattered it on the page and on the floor. One of his maids came in and cleaned it up, and she remarked that she had dreamed that this would happen the night before. Schopenhauer questioned her, and she claimed that she had mentioned this to the other maid earlier in the morning. Schopenhauer being Schopenhauer, he immediately rang for the other maid and demanded to know if she had been told anything by the first maid that morning. Upon the story being confirmed, Schopenhauer drew various satisfying conclusions. Firstly, the seeming accident of scattering ink was foreseen, which meant that it was not an accident. Schopenhauer’s philosophy had already, of course, shown this – everything that happens happens by necessity! One imagines he imparted this important message to the maids. And the second conclusion was that the unitary force of experience was weakened during sleep, so that time’s secondary structure of past, present and future was, in a sense, dissolved.

Okay, one more post and then I’ll have this thing done. We all have our obsessions. What can I say?


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...