Saturday, April 01, 2006

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up with Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator. – Charles Olson

The writer no more creates writing than the electrician creates electricity. Invisible currents move at their own speed, out there, among unknown elements – and the writer merely captures a bit of that invisible world in the poor conductors available to him, and measures it and deludes others – though not himself – that he made the conductor, the current, the speeds and fluctuations.

New, yes, to our science, but not to that invisible world itself. Nothing is new or old, there.

So … I received a salutary shock, much like that given to Franklin by the key tied on the wet kite string, from a paragraph I wrote today about ghost stories. Making a plebian précis of Machen’s glorious image of Grimaldi the clown pursuing the spectre of his brother through the London streets, always a minute or two behind him at every house, I wrote:

“That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.”

Well,I looked at that graf with a little amazement, because – although not precisely worded, I should have been a little less gnomic about the kingdom of heaven, or being on time, and pandemonium, or being late -- I should have pointed to the root of meritocracy in the schedule, the saint's luck of always being on time -- I should have pointed out how its negation, being late, is not precisely its negation but a sort of parody, a shadow of being on time that infects its victim even when he is on time, so that his on-timeness is always slightly addled, unlucky –anyway, all of this somehow met in that paragraph, and it seemed to be the missing piece I was looking for, or at least one of them, in my project of understanding success and failure in America. In fact, the psychoanalysis of the meritocracy should definitely accord a large place to the uncanny. Anyone who has read Freud’s essay On the Uncanny will see a parallel in Grimaldi’s hopeless bummel.

And thinking of this, I also thought of a line from Olson’s Maximus poem. A line about failure. I’d stored that line up, put it in some notebook, but I couldn’t find it. I looked for it and stumbled across Olson’s essay on Melville.

I decided to put up the first part of it, Call Me Ishmael – also the name of the whole book. The essay has the spaced intensity of poetry. Olson is an essayist along the same lines as Emerson, or Nietzsche –the pendulum is always swinging between the vatic and the vapid. It is a prose that makes large bets. This excites adolescents, and gives those who have outlived all avatars, moderate souls dessicating their way towards retirement, something to jeer at

What I like best about Olson was how intensely he felt about failure and success in America – how he knew some bone truths about this gristle hearted country. Of course, poets in the fifties and sixties, like novelists, could be successes. Not in the way they are successes now, with the soft shoe act on NPR, the terrible kindergarten readings, all so educated in not dramatizing a line it is funny, the last horrible debris of modernism combined with the complete eclipse, in America, of oratory – an art that only survives, heavily disguised, in hip hop. Successes nevertheless, in the fifties -- Robert Lowell got his face on the cover of a Time magazine. Meanwhile, Olson taught, delivered the mail, and watched the Organization Man, the tranquilized behemoth, bestride the suburbs.

Anyway, Olson’s essay on Melville gets the elements right away:

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration."

He also gets a basic fact about the culture, one so disguised that you can only see it historically, at a distance, it so goes against the grain of what you are supposed to feel in this place:

“Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.”

And Olson gets the polarity right. It also gets the mythic names right. The polarity is Melville and Poe:

“He had the tradition in him, deep, in his brain, his words, the salt beat of his blood. He had the sea of himself in a vigorous, stricken way, as Poe the street. It enabled him to draw up from Shakespeare. It made Noah, and Moses, contemporary to him. History was ritual and repetition when Melville's imagination was at its own proper beat.”

The names are strewn through the text (John Henry, for instance, is there) like so much phosphorescence. Here’s an instance of it:

“This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, LaSalle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass.”

That the polarity and the names are all of the peculiar dialectic of success and failure – the way failure searches through the street for its lost other, is killed on the Texas coast and cannibalized in the Sierra Nevada and comes out of that innocent (I’ve always loved that one of the survivors of the Donner Party opened a restaurant in Sacremento – the most American of stories!) – is where you have to begin to look at the whole odd structure of petrified luck and its worship in these here States.

"Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope. Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people's wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root."

Friday, March 31, 2006

the unlucky world part two

(See previous post)

Or so I would think. But Jo Bath and John Newton’s Sensible Proof of Spirits essay makes the story much less straightforward. Bath and Newton show how the ghost became a disputed site in seventeenth century England, taken up by intellectuals like Glanvill and More as part of a larger defense of Christian belief. But it is a mistake to infer that Glanvill and More were defending tradition – for B & N make clear, an old, unsystematic belief in ghosts was changed by their use in the intellectual “game” of defending a Christian order against a perceived threat.

“By the early seventeenth century there were signs that the confessional divide upon this issue was becoming increasingly blurred as scholars and clerics, “reluctant to discard visible spirits altogether,” admitted the possibility of ghostly visitation (Thomas 1971, 705). John Aubrey records that as early as the 1590s, “when [William Twisse] was a School-boy atWinchester, [he] saw the Phantoˆme of a School fellow of his deceased . . . who said to him, I am damn’d. This was the occasion of Dr. Twisse’s Conversion, who had been before that time . . . a very wicked Boy” (Aubrey 1696, 73). Thus he became a puritan divine following the sighting of a ghost, a somewhat unique event on two counts: firstly, as the spirit was the agent of conversion; and, secondly, because it was an encounter with a damned soul. The surety of demonic theories, which had been stated with such force by protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, began to be questioned in the reign of Charles I. Oxford dons discussed “whether spirits really and substantially appeare, i.e. the ghosts of the deceased”—and these speculations were to provide a foretaste of the intellectual debates that were to follow (Crosfield 1935, 17).

Continued belief that the dead could return is notable in the fact that it was considered worth attempting to make a pact with a friend—that whoever died first should report back from the afterlife. This is notable not only for its view of ghosts as souls of the dead and not demons in human form, but also for the underlying notion that such experiential data might verify post-mortem existence. Aubrey records the appearance of Lord Bacconi to Lord Middleton while he was in the Tower after his capture at Worcester during the Civil War. Such pacts continued after the Restoration, and Joseph Glanvill, among others, recounts how Captain William Dyke was disappointed when his friend, Major George Sydenham, failed to make an arranged rendezvous in Dyke’s garden three nights after his death. Sydenham appeared to Dyke soon afterwards, however, and apologised that he was unable to keep his earlier appointment, thus vindicating the former’s arguments for the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, which they had vigorously debated while both were living. Not all pacts were fulfilled, however: the failure of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s friend, Montague, to manifest after death was “a great snare to him during his life” (Burnet 1787, 27).”

Of course, the Earl of Rochester, who wrote the finest poems on fucking in the English language, was a notorious skeptic. But why would skepticism about ghosts lead to skepticism about God? Partly this was due to Glanvill’s chain argument:

“The denial of the existence of spirits was seen as the thin end of a wedge that led ultimately to atheism, an idea that found forceful expression in More’s dictum “No Spirits, No God” (More 1653, 64). This argument was taken up even by moderate Anglicans—Benjamin Camfield wrote that denying the existence of spirits had dangerous consequences: “’tis to be observed, among our modern Atheists and Sadducees especially, that their antipathy and aversion, as to the notion and being of Spirits universally, hath carried them on (and naturally doth so) to the dethroning of God, the Supreme Spirit and the Father of Spirits”(Camfield 1678, 172).

Glanvil similarly spoke of a “chain of connexion,” where disbelief in ghosts and witches—as the lowest and most tangible section of the supernatural chain— ultimately resulted in disbelief in the resurrection and the immortality of the soul. (Glanvill 1681, part IV, 4).”

LI is the more fascinated by this – probably more than the poor reader of this site – as we have just finished reviewing James Morrow’s excellent novel, The Last Witchfinder, for the News and Observer – we hope that PZ has published the review by now – which is one of those alternative history novels a la Neal Stephenson about the legal end of witchcraft. Morrow doesn’t view the burning of witches as an anachronistic and rather charming habit, but as a crime involving flesh, fire and faggots. It has a very sweet and limited energy, unlike, we should say, Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, which was wedding cake on top of wedding cake.

Well, we poor players have long overstayed our welcome. I’m going to split this up into two posts, Ad Majorum Brevitas Gloriam.

the unlucky world

According to an essay by Arthur Machen (the English ghost story writer who fascinates Javier Marias, the great Spanish novelist), Grimaldi, the most famous clown of Regency England, was performing one night in 1803 in a play called “A Bold Stroke for a Wife” when he was told that there were two men waiting to see him at the stage door that led from the back of the theatre into the street. Grimaldi went to see what they wanted, and confronted two apparent strangers. One was in a white waistcoat, and had evidently been living in the tropics, such was the complexion of his skin. He greeted Grimaldi familiarly. Grimaldi was at a loss as to who this person was until the man unbuttoned his shirt and showed the clown a scar. The man was Grimaldi’s brother John. This was pretty amazing – John had supposedly gone down on a Naval ship years before.

Grimaldi, of course, was overjoyed, and invited the men in. John’s companion demurred – and John, after giving him instructions on when they would meet again in the morning, mounted the stairs with Grimaldi and came into the Green room while his companion disappeared into the London night. Grimaldi still had to complete his part in the play, so he left his brother with another man, a Mr. Wroughten, while he went to do his stage business. John showed Mr. Wroughten that his duffel bag was full of coins, and bragged about his various successes. Grimaldi was in and out of the green room according to his entrances and exits. His idea was that John should come with him, after the play, to see their mother. John asked for her address, which Grimaldi gave, but then he said that they should go together, and that he merely had to change out of his costume in the dressing room.

To quote Machen: “And then the strangeness of it all came with a sudden onset on Grimaldi. "The agitation of his feelings, the suddenness of his brother's return, the good fortune which had attended him in his
absence, the gentility of his appearance, and his possession of so
much money; all together confused him so that he could scarcely use
his hands." He seems to have fallen into the state which the Scots
call a "dwam," a manner of waking vision, in which actualities are
taken for dreams and the man wonders when he will awake and recognise
that he has been amongst the shadows of the night.” It was in this state that Grimaldi returned to the Green room, only to find that his brother had left.

This is my favorite part of the story. Grimaldi found an actor named Powell in the Green room, and asked if he’d seen John.

"I saw him," he replied, "but a moment ago; he is waiting for you on
the stage. I won't detain you, for he complains that you have been
longer away now than you said you would be."

So Grimaldi hurried to the stage area. John wasn’t there. Another actor was there named Bannister. Bannister asked who Grimaldi was looking for, and after Grimaldi told him he was looking for John, Bannister said:

"Well, and I saw and spoke to him not a minute ago," said Bannister.
"When he left me, he went in that direction (pointing towards the
passage that led towards the stage-door). I should think he had left
the theatre."

So the clown went out of the theater, but he didn’t spot John. The doorkeeper said he’d gone out just a minute before. Grimaldi, out in the street, decided that John had, perhaps, decided to visit an old friend of his who lived close to the theater, Bowley. So he rushed to the Bowley house and knocked, even though it was rather late. Bowley came to the door:

“Mr. Bowley himself opened the door, and was evidently greatly

"I have, indeed, seen your brother," said he. "Good God! I was never
so amazed in all my life."

"Is he here now?" was the anxious inquiry.

"No; but he has not been gone a minute; he cannot have gone many

"Which way?"

"That way--towards Duke Street."”

The clown rushed onwards, then, thinking that his brother was going to see another friend there, a Mr. Bailey. He rattled the door of the house, which was dark, rousing the girl, who spoke to Grimaldi from the window:

“"I tell you again, he is not at home."

"What are you talking about? Who is not at home?"

"Why, Mr. Bailey. I told you so before. What do you keep on knocking
for at this time of night?"

In great bewilderment, Grimaldi begged the girl to come downstairs, as
he wanted to speak to her, telling her his name. She came down after a
short interval.

"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," said the maid. "But there was a
gentleman here knocking and ringing very violently not a minute before
you came. I told him Mr. Bailey was not at home; and when I heard you
at the door I thought It was him, and that he would not go away."

Then Grimaldi asked the girl if she had seen the gentleman's face. She
had not; she had looked out of the upper-window, and all that she
noticed was that the gentleman had a white waistcoat, whence she
inferred that he might have come to take her master out to a party.

Back went the amazed and frightened actor to the theatre. There
nothing had been seen of the lost brother; and then Grimaldi began a
sort of mad midnight tour of the houses of old friends round the Lane,
knocking and ringing people out of their beds and enquiring after his
brother. Some of the people thought Grimaldi was mad; and said so. His
manner was wild, and nobody had heard of John Grimaldi for fourteen
years. They had long given him up as dead.”

And so Grimaldi finally lost the trail of his brother. He went home. He told his mother. She fainted. The next day, and the next, no sign of John. And no sign ever again. Grimaldi pulled some strings to see if John hadn’t been impressed into the Navy that night. He talked to the London police. But never a hide nor hair of the man was discovered. It was as if he’d never been.

This is what Machen says:

“It is an extraordinary tale. It may be true in every particular. But
there are strange circumstances in the history. For example: why
should John knock up his old friend, Mr. Bowley, only to dart away
from his door in a minute's time? Note that minute in advance all
through the chase. It persisted up to Mr. Bailey's house. The
servant-girl there said, "there was a gentleman here knocking and
ringing very violently not a minute before you came." I do not quite
know why; but this fixed period of a minute inspires me with distrust.”

But it is, of course, the minute that makes the tale. That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.

We return to this in our second post.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

defending the enlightenment from its defenders

Madeleine Bunting is a columnist for the Guardian who is against the war (yeah!) but is also soft on religion – so that she often goes after people who are against the war, like Richard Dawkins (not so yeah!). LI has been pretty amused, however, by the reaction to her recent thumbsucking piece about the Enlightenment. The piece goes in a rather predictable way for someone who wants to combine a general leftward leaningness with spirituality – Bunting is generally not happy with the Enlightenment. This has caused various pro-war people (here ) and anti-religious people (here ) to the projecting of thunderous batteries of spitballs at her.

Actually, Bunting’s column comes at the enlightenment from a refreshingly unique angle, at least for a newspaper columnist:

“Then I began bumping into the subject with Muslim intellectuals who were acutely aware of how this legacy was being used (implicitly or explicitly) against Islam. It was as if the debate had shifted from the Reformation - why hasn't Islam had one? (it dawned on such questioners that a)the Christian Reformation led to several centuries of appalling bloodshed and b)there's a good argument that Wahabi Islam is precisely Islam's reformation) - to another tack: why hasn't Islam had an Enlightenment?)

These Muslims then argue that the Enlightenment was a process of European definition in the face of the Ottoman Empire; it was shaped in opposition to Islam and hence has an inbuilt anti-Islamic bias. Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters' is a good example of this.”

However, it is here that one wonders about her own acquaintanceship with Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters.” In fact, a writer much more involved with the creation of the colonialist mindset, Johnny Mill’s father, James Mill, had, in 1810, a much different idea of Montesquieu. He complains that Montesquieu (among other 18th century writers) romanticized Moslem culture, and Asian culture in general. In fact, I’d buy Mill’s version over Madeleine’s – that is, I’d say that far from being anti-Muslim, Montesquieu’s work, along with William Jones’ work on Sanskrit antiquities, was the beginning of an attitude of cultural relativism that Bunting can simply assume today, so much has it rooted in the conventional wisdom.

Here’s what Mill wrote about William Jones – a pretty pure product of the philosophe culture:

“Sir W. finds proofs of a pure theism as easily among the Persians as among the Arabs. "The primeval religion of Iran," he says, "if we rely on the authorities adduced by Mohsani Fani, was that which Newton calls the oldest (and it may be justly called the noblest) of all religions: A firm belief that one supreme God made the world by his power, and continually governed it by his providence; a pious fear, love, and adoration of him; a due reverence for parents and aged persons; a fraternal affection for the whole human race, and a compassionate tenderness even for the brute creation."

I could quote endlessly from Mill’s entertaining Chapter X, Book 2, an attack on the European softheadedness of according the Asians, Persians and Hindoos the least color of civilization.

In fact, that kind of praise for Islam – which, shed of the scandalous worship of a magician, Jesus, seemed, to those who were admittedly not experts in Islam, a religion much closer to their own deism than Christianity – is not uncommon in the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, in the Spirit of the Laws, did take oriental despotism (which Voltaire criticized as a fiction) as a model with which to obliquely criticize the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. But your average Enlightenment figure, from Leibniz up to Diderot, was much more apt to view the Other as distinctly embodying a history and a corpus of tradition that was not automatically subordinate to the West. True, the Oriental other was fictionalized to provide a model against which to criticize or praise features of French or British, or in general Christian civilization. Still, Bunting’s idea of the relation between the Orient and Europe (not that she should be held to some high scholarly standard -- she is merely writing an ephemeral piece) seriously misjudges the Enlightenment’s disposition. Plus, of course, the idea that the Enlightenment sprang up solely in response to the threat of the Ottoman empire is entirely too reductive. After all, the French allied with the Ottomans, and in the nineteenth century the British and the French often found themselves on the Ottoman side – but who would say that this was evidence of pro-Islamic feeling? The whole issue of the Arabic reception of early modern science and the perception, among both the Ottomans and the North African Arabic polities, that the European powers were gaining advantage – is not so simple.

But … this brings us to the subject of ghosts. LI is just using the Bunting piece as a bridge to commenting on “Sensible Proof of Spirits”: Ghost Belief during the Later Seventeenth Century by Jo Bath and John Newton in the April issue of Folklore. Which will be tomorrow’s post.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

... ending with a fable

Les anecdotes les plus utiles et les plus précieuses sont les écrits secrets que laissent les grands princes, quand la candeur de leur âme se manifeste dans ces monuments – Voltaire

Well, LI has no access to the secret history of Ibrahim Jafari – we are definitely lacking the crucial anecdotes. But we thought, what the hell, we’d trail the semi-invisible man through Factiva. Surely some major newspaper or magazine profiled the man who was the first Interim Council president and has been the prime minister for a year and a half. But … though you can find profiles of Chalabi and Allawi galore, though you can find all kinds of pics and interviews with Kenan Makiya, you will find Jafari quoted, entering the newstory picture, sometimes referenced (especially by Jim Hoagland, Chalabi’s agent on the Washington Post), a full profile of him, even some account of what he was doing in London for twenty years as the head of the Da’wa branch there is simply impossible to find. However, one thing is clear – Jafari is used to feeding pablum to a patron. For twenty years, the pablum was fed to Iran, but the strategy was not to be a total Iranian pawn. Feeding pablum to the U.S. is much easier. These grafs in the Washington Post essay by Jafari, My Vision for Iraq, are to be washed down with warm koolaid at the next Heritage foundation meeting:

“The other major challenge my government will face is reviving Iraq's economy. Iraq has been drowned by decades of Baathist socialist policies that have made millions reliant on government handouts. We must encourage entrepreneurship and enterprise, while establishing adequate safety nets for the less privileged.
Economic rehabilitation also requires some tough and unpopular changes, such as the reduction in government subsidies for gasoline that my administration began a few months ago. Such steps can be made only by a popular government that has the trust of the people. My administration has the political capital to be able to bring about these necessary changes.”

Political capital – hmm, an old and venerated Arabic term. LI has been trying to figure out how to make this point in a simple manner. Because criticism of the media is so often about the bias in the reporting of this or that story, instead of the accumulative omissions around which a mass of stories are built, to point to a blind spot, a gap, a motivated absence, sets up a different critical dynamic -- one that is vaguely psychoanalytical. That is always the hardest of criticisms to explain.

So, take a look at Edward Wong's interview with Jafari in the NYTtoday. Again, we get a very sketchy sense of who Jafari is or where he comes from. In fact, in a desperate attempt to keep your NYT reader on the page, Wong feels compelled to mention an Iraqi we have heard of:

"In the first two years of the war, Mr. Jaafari emerged as one of the most popular politicians in Iraq, especially compared with other exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite. A doctor by training and well-versed in the Koran, Mr. Jaafari comes from a prominent family in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. But since taking power last spring, Mr. Jaafari has come under widespread criticism for failing to stamp out the insurgency and promoting hard-line pro-Shiite policies."

Yes, we hang onto that former Pentagon (not to mention NYT foreign correspondent) favorite, just so we know where we are. And so the fogmachines of war keep blasting out their product -- cooled hot air.

Oh well. I planned to provide such a nice two poster of info about Da’wa, and I’m afraid I was underestimating how little there is in English out there. So instead, here is a fable.

I found this nice Kurdish fable while hunting for information about Jafari. I came upon Incoherent Thoughts, a blog I’d recommend. Sandrine Alexie, the blogger, translated it into French, and I’m going to translate it into English.

“They say that when Belkîs [the queen of Sheba] came to visit the prophet Solomon, she wished for bird feathers in order to make a bed. The prophet Solomon called together all the birds and told them: you have to tear out your feathers to make a bed for the Queen of Sheba! When the bat understood what was going on, it quickly tore out all its feathers and fled. But the birds did not follow this command and said: prophet Solomon, what a sin it is to ask us to strip ourselves of plumage for your wife! Without a feather, how will we pass the winter? These feathers protect our lives from the cold.

The prophet Solomon recognized the justice of these words and let them go. But the bat had plucked itself: since that time, it blushes to come out in the daylight, in the midst of its friends, and only comes out at night.”
Osman Sabrî in Recueil de textes kourmandji, publié par Stig Wikander, 1959.

I can think of several political applications for this tale ... but I prefer to remain artistically silent about them.

first part: the story of da'wa

Distance posses spatial, temporal, cultural and even personal modes. The anthropologist Edward Hall, working in the vein of ecological epistemology that had its origin in studies done for the air force on air fighter and bomber crew reactions, even suggested a science of the near and far: proxemics. Newspapers and tv deal in various degrees of false proximity, which in itself is not a bad thing: after all, illusion surrounds even our most personal acquaintanceship with people and events Like the lovers in Max Ernst’s version of the kiss who wear bags over their heads, even at our closest we never quite know how far away we are.

But …as LI has pointed out with the tedious industry of a woodpecker tearing through the bark of a tree at 5 a.m. outside your window – the problem with the Media coverage in Iraq is less about the good news and the bad news as it is about dealing in a self-created false proximity, omitting major parts of the news that simply don’t fit the American worldview – or at least that worldview shared by the NYT, Fox News, and your local banker. In that worldview, American-like political figures are always important in whatever country they inhabit, and are always movin’ on up. The ordinary people of Iraq are to be sought out and interviewed, occasionally, and even polled: this much is true. But what they say and do is never to be considered in the background of how they actually view things. It is, rather, a phantasmagoria of isolated man in the street stories that occupies a decent interval between interviews with American experts and properly vetted Iraqis.

So it isn’t surprising that the American media has been completely blindsided by the power accrued by the Shi’ite Islamicist parties, and they have still not told us, almost a year and a half after the first elections in Iraq, who these people are or where they come from. For instance, the NYT regularly tells us that Muqtada Al-Sadr is a big supporter of the current Iraqi prime minister, Jafaari. What it doesn’t tell you is that the very party through which Ibrahim Jafari came to power, the Dawa party, that was founded by one of Sadr’s cousins back in the fifties. Three years into the war, and I doubt one American in twenty five has even heard of the Dawa party. Every day you read and hear amazing stories about Islamofascists, or Islamicists, and it has become a wearisome commonplace among the belligeranti to bemoan the alliance of the left and Islamic radicals; meanwhile, the big success story in the Islamic radical world has been propelled by U.S. troops and U.S. money beyond the dreams of any Marin County hippie scion. The very party that seeded Hezbollah in Lebanon is the party that U.S. soldiers defend, today. The often expressed idea that the “good news” in Iraq is that violence only embroils a central region is silent about the causes of the southern regions peacefulness: the biggest takeover of territory by a Islamic fundamentalist group since the taking of Afghanistan by the Taliban has occurred there. From the point of view of LI, the comedy of the situation – the Tartufferie of the belligerents, the stirring up of American nativists about Iran (of all places) as we support with might and main the extension of a moderated version of Khomenei’s dream – is predictable. Ignorant armies clashing by night is our definition of slapstick. In articles about American foreign policy, you will always stumble over elevated references to Wilson or Kissinger. Forget them. Think Three Stooges.

LI is, of course, a public service kind of place, so in this post we thought we’d give our readers a timeline of the Dawa party, militants of which the U.S. has been attacking in the vain hope that they can call back the forces that we have unleashed. As LI has often said, the status of the Americans in Iraq has been one of increasing irrelevance since the battle of Najaf in 2004 – since then, the Americans have been used as a tool by various sides, and coddled in their illusion that they have control of a situation they have neither the means nor the intelligence to manage.

So, for the happy few: The history of the Dawa party as I’ve been able to gather it from various sources, with especial mention going to Rodger Shanahan.

1. Founded in 1957 – although since it was founded at a time of intense nationalistic fervor and coups and counter-coups, it isn’t altogether clear that it didn’t exist before 1957. The Da’wa group - Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyya – is, at the time of its founding, a group whose coordinates mesh with the general American Middle Eastern policy, which is all about a paralyzing fear of communism, and the mistaken idea that Nasserite Arabic nationalism is simply the puppet manipulated by the Russian spymasters. This meant that the Da’wa strongly supported the massacre of the so called communists, as well as the real ones, after the overthrow of the great Iraqi leader, al-Qasim – a man who could have lead Iraq to the kind of neutral stance India took. Alas, his coziness with the communists put the black spot on him. Anyway, to use Rodger Shanahan’s three phase schema, the first phase of the Da’wa party lasted until 1968. They grew under Iraq’s leader, Abd al-Salam 'Arif.
2. When the Ba’athists came into power in 68, the party developed a politics that built on the former military government’s statist economic policies, but turned against compromising with Islamicist groups. Of course, this was in the aftermath of the 67 war, which saw the failure of the Nasser model, but had still not seen the eruption in Iran. In fact, it is easy to see that the policies Americans favored in Iran, under the Shah, were being paralleled in Iraq, under the Ba’athists. From Shanahan:

“During the 1970s, the Shi'a journal Risalat al-Islam was shut down, a number of religious educational institutions were closed, and a law was enacted that obligated Iraqi students of the hawza to undertake national military service. The Ba'thists then began specifically targeting al-Da'wa members, arresting and imprisoning them from 1972 onwards. In 1973, the alleged head of al-Da'wa's Baghdad branch was killed in prison, and one year later, 75 al-Da'wa members were arrested and sentenced to death by the Ba'thist revolutionary court.(14) In 1975, the government canceled the annual procession from Najaf to Karbala (known as marad al-ras).”

Since the world exists to be made into an operetta, it should be noted that those who are most anxious to see the Shah’s descendents return to power Iran are most adamant about the U.S. support for the government of Iraq, which is led by those who, in spirit, were persecuted by the Pahlavis. Ah, musical chairs, musical chairs.

3. When finally, in 1980, Saddam Hussein proscribed the party, the leaders of the Da’wa went to various places – Iran, Syria, Lebanon – and met various allies and fates, all shaped by Da’wa’s fundamental Islamic politics. So three members of Da’wa were part of the founding of the Lebanese Hizbollah party. The indispensable Shanahan:
“The attraction of many members to Khomeini's concept of wilayat al-faqih, along with the desire to support the nascent Iranian revolution in the face of invasion by Iraq had repercussions for al-Da'wa. In Lebanon, the increasingly secular outlook of Amal after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in Libya, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Amal leader Nabih Berri's participation in the 1982 National Salvation Committee, all conspired to force many Lebanese al-Da'wa members to seek more activist Shi'a political models. This is reflected in the fact that three of the nine delegates that founded Hizballah in 1982 were members of al-Da'wa.(30) In addition Shaykh Ibrahim al-Amin, Amal's representative in post-revolutionary Iran (and an al-Da'wa member from his Najaf days) returned to Lebanon and recruited many al-Da'wa members into Hizballah.”
4. In the period of the Da’wa diaspora, the major events are: the gravitational effect of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war on the party, which caused some members to split off and go to SCIRI, and that still causes divisions within the party between those with varying degrees of loyalty to the supreme judgment of the clerics. It should be noted that, from an American perspective, in one way this doesn’t matter at all: the economic aspects of Islamicist philosophy have long shed the first, fine puritanical indignation at the devilish workings of money in the modern economic system. As the NYT approvingly notes, the head of SCIRI is a first water privatizer, and would be as eager to sell Iraqi oilfields to Exxon for a minimum cut of the loot as any American pawn globalizing in some Latin American country, to the glory and honor of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of profit, Citibank without end, amen. Yes, these people are people we can deal with – they will impoverish the millions in order to ship money to the U.S. to support our very Christian way of life – supersized, obese, and obscene as that may be – but the problem is that America is the world’s most neurotic country. It will insist on ignoring, for decades, some concrete reality – as, for instance, the reality of Iran – in the hopes that they can make policy around it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

praising galbraith

LI has been re-reading Galbraith’s The Affluent Society lately. It is part of our re-reading of a number of thinkers – Carson, Kapp, Karl Polanyi – who developed institutional economics into the premier tool of liberal thought. The ideas of these thinkers make contact with much of the “complexity” science stuff that the Santa Fe Institute investigates. Galbraith’s theme, in The Affluent Society, was to show how private affluence and public poverty – a poverty of the regulatory infrastructure, a poverty resulting from spreading pollution over the environment, a poverty within the healthcare and educational systems – coexisted in the United States. The United States was unique, at the time in which Galbraith wrote (1957) for its economic power and wealth, so it made a good test case for seeing how economics, embedded as the dominant value system within a society, grotesquely distorts that society. The worship of wealth itself, which has become the lingua franca of American society (and which causes the observer to be afflicted, at times, with pure disgust), was still not the pernicious factor in 1957 that it has become now. Although, in fairness, the opposition to the crimes of the corporate dominated state had fallen into desuetude in 1957 too – a point far removed from the heroic period of the thirties, in which social democracy was still a viable alternatives to the gospel of the wealthy.

Anyway, for those who haven’t read the book, the first couple grafs from the first chapter.

“Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive. But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn't enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well-observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish.

As with individuals so with nations. And the experience of nations with well-being is exceedingly brief. Nearly all, throughout all history, have been very poor. …

The ideas by which the people of this favored part of the world interpret their existence, and in measure guide their behavior, were not forged in a world of wealth. These ideas were the product of a world in which poverty had always been man's normal lot and any other state was in degree unimaginable. This poverty was not the elegant torture of the spirit which comes from contemplating another man's more spacious possessions. It was the unedifying mortification of the flesh—from hunger, sickness and cold. Those who might be freed temporarily from such burden could not know when it would strike again, for at best hunger yielded only perilously to privation. It is improbable that the poverty of the masses of the people was made greatly more bearable by the fact that a very few—those upon whose movements nearly all recorded history centers—were very rich.”

Monday, March 27, 2006

regulation and you -- LI only slightly bores its readers

LI has been reading about the immigration issue, and looking at the pics of the amazing demonstrations. And it occurred to us that, as a public service, we should pull out the patented LI-THEORY-OF-REGULATION to make sense of it all. (thank you, thank you, people in the back row, but that last tomato you hurled up here is not appreciated!)

If you will remember, regulation is bounded by two ideal poles. One is an ideal of absolute unregulation (an impossibility, by the way, but conceptually necessary) and the other is banning. As the equilibrium of the regulation of a product or a service shifts towards the banning pole, certain questions must be asked – the most important of which is the ‘cost of banning.” A cost is an indicator of possibility – if a product or service costs so much to ban that it successfully would destroy or seriously damage the political system doing the regulating, this should make us re-consider banning. It is for this reason that LI has previously advocated lifting the bans on illegal drugs like marijuana and heroine, and is disapproving of moving from gun licensing to gun bans. I should note, in passing, that regulation is ALWAYS going to impinge on any good or service – the question is going to be, who regulates it. A gang eliminating another gang in order to sell heroin in a certain area is simply regulating action-movie style. That gang will control purity, cost, availability, etc. The public/private divide is secondary, or derivative, to regulation, libertarians to the contrary.

How to analyze those costs? Well, there are a number of factors, here, but major ones have to do with: the capability of producing the product or service (is it an extensive resource or a strictly limited one?); its place in the economy (is it a direct consumer good or service, or is it an industrial good or service?); and, finally, the cost and nature of the regulating of the good or service (is the regulation going to fall on the police, or on a special bureaucracy? is it going to involve extensive searching? are there perverse incentives that encourage police intervention beyond a certain norm?).

Well, putting our little machine to work about immigrant labor is an interesting task. Surveying the fascist suggestions by the Colorado Nazi – uh, oops, that sounds soooo unneutral. Let me start over. Surveying the interestingly authoritarian law advocated by this Tancredo character, one wonders, beyond the moral sickness of outlawing a sterling moral impulse, about its effect. Let’s say we succeed in throwing eleven million Mexican workers back into Mexico, shutting off one of the major, if not the major, cash flows into that country. How long before Mexico explodes? One month? Two? Anyone who thinks that explosion will be seamlessly closed in by a bogus wall along the border, manned by crazy eyed, potbellied white guys with duck hunting gear should… well, should get a job in the Iraq planning room at the Pentagon. One of the numerous idiocies of the NAFTA setup is that, for a short term gain, Mexico essentially allowed itself to be caught at a permanent subaltern level of production on the world market -- instead of leveraging its labor union structure to extract much more from the macquilladora and use it to finance a true social welfare structure. Hence, you get low cost labor reproducing even lower cost labor, instead of low cost labor accumulating the resources to be used by higher quality labor. But I'm this is an aside.

Of course, this assumes that Tancredo's law would really use the police to satisfactorily purge the country of illegal labor. I would put the chances of that happening at around, what, 1 percent? An eleven million person roundup, undertaken by a disparate, less than million member police department, could only succeed if every other policing task is dropped. In fact, the whole point of the legislation is not to succeed – but to make a vicious, pointyheaded moral point. This is the mark of vicious legislation, as any conservative from the era when there were really such things – the 19th century – could tell you. American conservatives are, of course, no such things – they love nothing better than passing symbolic laws, with all the cave man’s belief that the drawing of the bison with the spear in its side means that the next bison will be magically killed at just that spot.

Unfortunately, George Bush is, uh, right about this. Unfortunately, since Bush’s support for a position is usually a sign that something is fucked. But alas, life is full of chances, and one of those chances is that, out of every million neural firings in the Bush brain, one or two of them will be correct. The guest worker idea is probably not going to work – but Bush’s attitude, which is that the free market in labor has helped the U.S., is essentially correct. To descend to the impressionistic, for a second – since the eighties, the roofing trade in Atlanta has been almost exclusively Mexican/Salvadoran. This is something I knew a bit about, having often worked around apartment complexes and condominiums in the Atlanta area for my brothers. The savings from using a vast, cheaper labor force did not accrue exclusively, or even mostly, to the Mexicans/Salavadorans – it went, instead, to the builders and the homeowners. This is no little thing – one of the mysteries of the U.S. economy for the past thirty years is how a middle strata that is essentially dependent, now, on two earner households, remains prosperous. A large part of that is due to efficiencies in the system that the middle capitalizes on – homebuilding being a perfect example.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

whew is that pesky wabbit?

Sometimes, LI has to laugh at the NYT Magazine. We just loved this précis of the main article: “The Hunter-Gatherer: Seeking a better understanding of his place in nature and in the food chain, the author entered the woods of Northern California — with a gun.”

With a gun! Imagine that. And I thought hunting had been extinct for the last four thousand years!

No wonder the editors mistake Bush for a bold cowboy.

But enough of that. The article to go to on this leisurely Sunday is Nancy Scheper-Hughes piece in Nacla on the modern art of body (part) snatching. In anthropological circles, and even a bit outside of them, Scheper-Hughes is famous for her books on violence: Death without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil and Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland . Her book on the illicit organ trade is coming out from Farrar Strauss – at least according to her site. If I were the editor of the NYT Mag, I would curse the fact that I’d let go the article in NACLA – it is perfect NYT Mag fare.

Here’s a graf to lure you into the piece:

“The Berkeley Organs Watch project had its origins in bizarre rumors of body snatching and organ theft that circulated wildly in the urban shantytowns of Brazil in the mid-1980s. The residents of Alto do Cruzeiro, site of my long-term anthropological research in Northeast Brazil, reported yellow vans scouring poor neighborhoods looking for street kids and other social marginals whose bodies would not be missed. The drivers were described as U.S. or Japanese medical agents working for large hospitals abroad. The abducted bodies, they said, would appear later on the sides of country roads or in hospital dumpsters missing vital parts, especially eyes, kidneys, hearts and livers. “You may think this is nonsense,” my ordinarily trustworthy field assistant Irene da Silva said, “but we have seen things with our own eyes in public hospitals and in police morgues, and we know better.” Irene’s neighbor, Beatrice, agreed: “In these days, when the rich look at us, they are eyeing us greedily as a reservoir of spare parts.” Edite Cosmos added: “So many of the rich are having transplants and plastic surgeries today we hardly know anymore to whose body we are talking. Where do you think they are getting all those body parts?” “

Come on – you have to admit, that it much catchier than: Elmer Fudd goes huntin’ in Northern California.

The trade Scheper-Hughes’ group uncovered is mostly, as of yet, about yanking the body parts out of the dead and selling them for a profit. But he who says profit says incentive, as anybody who has read those two Scots, Adam Smith and Robert Louis Stevenson would know.

“The director of an experimental research unit of a large public medical school in South Africa showed me official documents allowing the transfer of human heart valves taken without consent from the bodies of poor blacks in the local police mortuary and shipped for “handling costs” to medical centers in Germany and Austria. These allowable “handling” fees helped support the unit’s research program in the face of austerities and the downsizing of advanced medical research facilities in the new South Africa. Although one can understand the frustration of the cash-strapped South African research scientists, the leeway afforded to them contributed to widespread corruption in the country.

In 2002 I contacted the South African Ministry of Health to report a scheme originating at a national tissue bank involving the transfer of hundreds of Achilles tendons that were removed without consent from the bodies of the victims of township violence and shipped by the director of the tissues bank to a corrupt U.S. businessman who paid $200 for each tendon. The tendons, used in sports medicine procedures, were shipped to the United States via South Korea, arriving at the free trade zone of the Tampa international airport where the South African tissues were repackaged as U.S. products. The tendons were then sold internationally and domestically to private medical firms and biotech companies for $1,200 each, generating a tidy profit for every party concerned, except for the poor chaps and their families who were the unsuspecting donors.”

It is interesting that one of the great justifications for colonialist expansion was that the natives were cannibals. I’m reading a history of Texas at the moment that makes this point about various Indian tribes in Texas – supposedly putting a stick in the eye of the Politically correct. I don’t really see the stick in the eye – the Comanches roasted and ate their enemies, the settlers brought black manpower in chain and whipped them into their fields to work, and none of this addresses the fact that expansion was theft, clear and simple. However, LI finds the organ trade rather interesting, insofar as the notion of eating the dead and the notion of just recycling their organs seems to be put in different corners of the mind.

Anyway, so much for our suggestion of the day.

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 ...