Saturday, September 02, 2006

the old English magicians and ours

William Lilly, the English astrologer and the last of the great English magicians, was called before a Committee of the House of Commons in 1666. It had been noticed that the eighth plate of his book, Monarchy or No Monarchy, published in 1651, “represented persons digging graves, with coffins and other emblems of mortality, and the thirteenth a city in flames. Hence it was inferred that he must have had something to do with the Great Fire which had destroyed so large a part of London, if not with the Plague, which had almost depopulated it.”

In response to a question from the chairman of the committee, Lilly explained that he had written the book after Charles I was beheaded, and sought to depict the future of England, as revealed to him by his stellar sources.

“At last, having satisfied myself as well as I could, and perfected my judgment therein, I thought it most convenient to signify my intentions and conceptions thereof in Forms, Shapes, Types, Hieroglyphics, etc., without any commentary, that so my judgment might by concealed from the vulgar, and made manifest only unto the wise. I herein imitating the examples of many wise philosophers who had done the like.” Today, of course, wise philosophers have refined and perfected this method to adapt it to our more sophisticated civilization: hence the cornucopia of highly placed sources, defense experts, and a White House aids that lead us into depressions, wars, and all the wonderful ways we have invented for gulling the poor, polluting the planet, and stuffing miraculous amounts of money into the pockets of the rich.

Lilly added something that no doubt inflated the price for his expertise, and in our day would have had him writing op eds and lending his eminence to Heritage Foundation sponsored debates:

“Having found, sir,” continued Lilly, “that the city of London should be sadly afflicted with a great plague, and not long after with an exorbitant Fire, I framed those two hieroglyphics as represented in the book, which in effect have proved very true.”
I take these quote from the very useful account in W.H. Davenport’s Historical Sketches of Magic and Witchcraft in England and Scotland. Lilly, in his autobiography, marks his testimony as the last event of note in his life, thereby marking himself down as an ass.

Any of our terrorist experts, our equivalent of the old English magicians, only without the superfluous culture, (cultivation of knowledge being, as is well known, the hobby of the losers) would have taken the opportunity to produce a book, gotten in many a spot on talk radio, and eventually reached the heaven of Fox News, CNN, and Good Morning America. Admittedly, the American magicians seem less kin to the great Faust than to the sad and greasy Elmer Gantry, but seen correctly, this is a great advance, a progress in our march to the Rapture. Lilly’s testimony up to that point seems so promising that it is with great sadness that we see him, next, admitting that he didn’t know, exactly, what sinister enemy caused the plague and set the fire. The sense of get up and go, of opportunity, is still born in the old magicians – there’s no getting around the fact that they aren’t, well, Americans. Surely he should have consulted with some young aide to one of the committeemen and read off of some sheet strongly implicating England’s enemies, devils all, internal and external. He could have denounced the appeasers once and for all, admitted their patriotism but strongly implied that torturing them would not, after all, be the worst thing that could happen. He could have used the arts that we see used, every day, in our lovely country. Instead, he merely and mildly told the committee men that the finger of God uses instruments.

Today’s American magicians, whether Michael Ledeen writing for the National Review, Stephen Emerson writing for the New Republic, or the thousands of terrorism experts freshly back from confronting the hordes of Belzebuub in night visions, may have a justified contempt for the simple naivete of the old style magician, seemingly hemmed in by those tiny scruples deriving from the ninth commandment and somehow keeping him from testifying about his certain knowledge that it was Jews, Catholics and Dutchmen that did the dirty deeds – groups who think, in the immortal words of the Rebel in Chief, “the opposite of the way we do.” However, our contemporary thaumaturges should keep in mind the relatively low level of culture prevalent in the 17th century. Bearing false witness, which in the days before democracy was hardly a science at all, has now developed into a major and blessed industry, and we are surrounded by the fruits of those who toil in its vineyards - the political magazines, the newspapers with the stimulating editorials urging us onward to ever more wars, the tv. True, with education has come great progress in creating gullibility. At least half the electorate will actually believe almost anything. They will believe they were abducted by UFOS. They will believe Iraq had tremendous stocks of WMDs, even though they don’t exactly know why certain weapons are WMDs and certain ones aren’t. They will believe that the Rebel in Chief is the toughest hombre since John Wayne quit chewing rocks. In fact, the only thing they won’t believe is that humans come from monkeys, or that the world existed earlier than 10,000 years ago. This is why we are the greatest people in the world.

Since the fifth anniversary of 9/11 will unleash such a flood of baloney that it might have turned the fires that day into a gigantic weenie roast, LI figures to get in with his own post now, and beat the rush. We will flip it out tomorrow.

Friday, September 01, 2006

more fun boy-boy girl-girl boy-girl action in Iraq!

If the Dems are serious about censuring Rumsfeld (something that should have been done, oh, on September 12, 2001), then they might well want to get their list of offences from Robert Looney’s article in Strategic Insights, the journal of the Naval Postgraduate School. Discard Looney’s major new idea in the article, another fixer upper suggestion that begs the entire question of means – Looney would like to see Iraq adopt an Alaska style distribution of oil wealth to every member of the population. That’s fine and dandy, and perhaps Looney might consider running on that platform in Basra – except, of course, that if he landed in Basra, he would literally be running for his life. Like others of the ‘reformer-bots’ that have sprung up in the last twenty five years, Looney comes ready programmed with the neo-liberal default settings, which is the plug and play standard in D.C. (we must be brave and wise/and always, always privatize!) as they intone in their mass think tanker meetings.

On the other hand, his article is a quick survey of the collapse of Rumsfeld’s Mesopotamian protectorate. He has conveniently bullet pointed the ‘goals’, the ‘achievements’ and the, uh, failures of the occupation’s first phase – up to January, 2005. Here they are:

“Scope of the Problem

Many reconstruction challenges confronted the coalition after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some of these were met successfully, while others have presented on-going difficulties and are still present today. In addition new ones have arisen. Of the initial tasks several stand out:[12]
· Restoring government economic functions after looting and state collapse;
· Preventing currency collapse, hyperinflation and economic chaos;
· Rebuilding infrastructure ravaged by war, sanctions, looting and neglect;
· Rehabilitating a health care system cut off from medical advances for two decades;
· Dismantling corrupt, dysfunctional state economic controls; and
· Stimulating the growth of a private sector that had been stunted by government interference.

A number of major successes did occur, especially under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Major successes under the
CPA included:
· Re-established nationwide food-ration system;
· Introduced a new currency and stabilized the exchange rate;
· Liberated most prices without igniting inflation;
· Rebuild the government’s economic ministries;
· Promulgated market-oriented banking, taxation, foreign trade, investment, and business regulations;
· Rehabilitated several thousand schools, health clinics, and hospitals;
· Provided public services to populations that had been deprived under Saddam;
· Increased electrical generation and output;
· Funded small projects across Iraq to meet critical community needs.

Still the Coalition’s economic accomplishments were overshadowed by its unfulfilled promises. During the occupation the CPA failed or was unable to:
· Prevent rampant looting or infrastructure and production facilities;
· Attract foreign investment;
· Implement its newly enacted economic regulations;
· Restructure state-owned industries.
· Fulfill promises of substantial job creation;
· Meet targets for electricity production (despite increases)
· Restore oil output to prewar levels;
· Eliminate costly distorting energy and food subsidies;
· Combat corruption in reconstruction projects;
· Spend more than a fraction of the $18.4 billion the U.S. Congress allocated for Iraq’s reconstruction.

"Patterns of Success and Failure

Following Henderson,[13] several patterns emerge. Most importantly, the Coalition’s success stores shared some essential elements. Its less successful ventures had their own set of distinctive characteristics. Specifically, successful initiatives appear to have imposed no major costs or sacrifices on the population at large.”

LI’s crow side can’t but revel in certain of the bullet points – we particularly liked the achievement of unilaterally restructuring Iraq into a neo-con paradise of de-regulation, and, on the other side of the ledger, the failure “to implement its newly enacted economic regulations.” Yeah, that implementation – the Heritage foundation crowd leaves that for others. No excitement there, baby! While the cowed, second amendment supporting American, his bumper sticker reading “You’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers from my trigger”, passively watches as the entire manufacturing base of the country is shipped off to parts unknown and the structural elements of inequality are put in place so that his kids will go to junior college and serve up fresh fries to the children of the upper 1 percent, busy talking on their oh so splendidly outfitted cell phones (we just love the new program that allows you to launch nuclear weapons while driving your hummer!), the addled Iraqi masses did not greet the reforms as the second coming of the ten commandments. Funny, that. Looney quotes a survey that hasn’t quite garnered attention, as in any, in the media:

“A UNDP[14] household survey documents the impact the slow pace of reconstruction is having on the average Iraqi household:
1. The UNDP survey suggests the poorest 20 percent of the population earns 7 percent of the income, while the top 20 percent earns 44 percent.
2. Iraq’s median household income of 144 dollars has dropped from a post-war high of 255 dollars in 2003.
3. One-third of Iraqis canvassed by UNDP described themselves as being among the poor.
4. One-sixth of interviewees met all or most of the criteria suggesting that they lived beneath the poverty line.”

For those familiar with the disease, this is a shock therapy portrait. Plummeting incomes following an initial surge, a top level that aggrandizes its wealth as it builds in ever more indifference to the consequences of that wealth – it could be Russia in the 90s, n’est-ce pas? A situation that Americans might have wanted to examine a bit more closely, since we are surely going to get there by and by, reform-bot by reform-bot.
And that, of course, is the real constraint on Democratic opposition to the Iraq war. The opposition centers on that failure of implementation. Oh, how DLC-ers ache to manfully shoulder that job! They would make sure that flexible job markets and strong private sectors would make Iraq a happy little beehive. The drones would go back to what drones do, instead of devising those nasty IEDs.

Two other one shots from Looney, and then the crow will take wing:
Under the sententious heading, redolent of business inspiration books,

“High hopes and lofty promises are no substitute for sound planning and prudent expectations:”

“As we receive clearer accounts of the functioning of the CPA it is shocking to find how little planning went into the effort.”

And, our favorite sentences in Looney’s article:
“In part, the loss in reconstruction momentum stemmed from the CPA’s assumption that market forces and a surge in private investment would follow the initial reconstruction efforts. Ideological blinders and the lack of a contingency plan made it difficult to overcome these errors when confronted with the effects of increased violence and uncertainty.”

Ideological blinders? I doubt it. You don't put blinders on the blind.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

an experiment in mercenary war - Iraq

This is how Emir de Vatel, the eighteenth century military writer, defines mercenaries: “Mercenary soldiers are foreigners voluntarily engaging to serve the state for money, or a stipulated pay. As they owe no serve to a sovereign whose subject they are not, the advantages he offers them are their solve motive. By enlisting they incur the obligation to serve him; and the prince on his part promises them certain conditions which are settled in the articles of enlistment.”

In Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns, Janice Thompson describes the conditions that gave rise to the great use of mercenaries by the European kingdoms:

“Scholars agree that feudalism’s constraints on military service wre a major inducement for monarchs to turn to mercenaries. Whatever its other drawbacks, the feudal military system was based on the principle of defense. Knights were duty-bound to serve only a very limited amount of time – something like forty days a year – but, more importantly, were not obligated to serve abroad. Thus, feudal military rights and obligations presented a barrier to launching offensive military campaigns.”

Posthegemony has a very nice summing up of Thompson’s position:

"Janice Thomson's Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (discussed also in the Laboratorium) is about the constitution of sovereignty not (as is customarily stressed) so much by imposition of order within national territories, but by the delegitimation and suppression of extraterritorial violence wielded by non-state actors. In her words, she asks:

How did the state achieve a monopoly on violence beyond its borders that emanates from its territory? What explains the elimination of nonstate violence from global politics? (3; my emphasis)
For, as Thomson recounts at some length, until remarkably recently--the mid nineteenth-century at least--global violence was if anything dominated by non-state rather than state actors. Moreover, this non-state domination of extraterritorial force was for the most part accepted and even sanctioned by states themselves. Why, Thomson asks, should states desire to end this long tradition, especially in so far as it entailed numerous benefits to states both strong and weak?”

LI has been trying to weaken the idea that states are the fundamental units of political order, in favor of the (quite insane) idea that wars are. One of the results of supposing the fundamental status of war is that one looks at armies not as things mounted by a unitary thing called the state which then engage in wars, but instead, as organizations operating to define contests between powers shaping themselves in terms of either past, ongoing, or future wars, in which the state operates as one site of that struggle. If the state transcends war to the extent that it has an independent nature outside of war – and who would deny that? - that transcendence is precarious.

Our perspective does not dissolve states irretrievably into these contesting powers, since obviously states do have a unity and an effect – or some states do, at some times. However, we don’t assume a seamless unity of interest or identity between the sovereign and the people in states. And without that seamless identity, we look at the raising, maintaining and command of armies as perpetually subject to the temptation of the mercenary form even when a nation’s army is composed of citizens of the nation. The mercenary form is defined by how the army is maintained, who utilizes it, and how deviant its status is from that defined by the formal rules of law – from the constitution.

I keep calling Iraq a vanity war. I don’t mean that merely to be sarcastic. It really is a vanity war, and it really is being fought by the exploitation, by the sovereign, of armies that are no longer constrained by the formal rules for their employment, raising, and operation, but instead are being wholly subordinated to the whims of the executive. That the sovereign, here, is an American president, and that the troops are, for the most part, American citizens doesn’t make too much of a difference.

In fact, the warmongers are very eager to push at the boundaries of the mercenary form. A couple of years ago, Max Boot proposed that the U.S. hire illegal immigrants to fight in the army, with the reward being a path to citizenship.

“With combat dragging on in Iraq and plenty of jobs available at home, there aren't enough volunteers. So far, a real crisis has been averted only because the Army has exceeded its retention goals and kept some troops in uniform past their discharge dates, but it will only get tougher to keep volunteers in uniform if troops are constantly deployed overseas.

"There are two obvious, and obviously wrongheaded, solutions to this problem: Pull out of Iraq now or institute a draft. The former would hand a victory to terrorists and undo everything that more than 1,700 Americans have given their lives to achieve. The latter option, aside from being a political non-starter, would also dilute the high quality of the all-volunteer force.

"Having reviewed all the other possibilities and found them wanting, I return to the solution I proposed on this page in February: Broaden the recruiting base beyond U.S. citizens and permanent, legal residents. Legislation has been drafted to make a modest start in that direction.

"The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act is targeted at children of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. for more than five years but not born here. They would get legal status and become eligible for citizenship if they graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and either attend college for two years or serve two years in the armed forces. This bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), drew 48 cosponsors in the Senate last year but failed to get a floor vote. It is likely to be reintroduced soon.

"The DREAM Act is a great idea, but I would go further and offer citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in the U.S. military.”

(I particularly like that it is called the Dream act. In my graphic novel, the U.S. is led by the Nightmare Party – and this is just the kind of thing the Nightmare party does)

Boot’s article casually calls it the U.S. military, as if it is self evident that a military that is trying to enlist non-U.S. citizens in a war that the citizenry itself doesn’t want to fight is still a U.S. entity. It is as American as a ship that registers in Liberia is Liberian – it is a cover for the usurpation of a particular collective of interests.

Boot, of course, is not the only DREAMer – the Pentagon has high hopes for a fully mechanized army, which would be the mercenary principle on batteries. The objective correlative of the return of the mercenary form – the sovereign’s response to the political upheaval caused by mass mobilization – is the mysteriousness of military funding. There was a New Yorker piece about this a few weeks ago by James Surowiecki.

“Over the past five years, we’ve heard a lot about the rise of what Donald Rumsfeld likes to call “asymmetric warfare,” and about the need to equip our military to fight “nontraditional” enemies. But a look at the defense budget shows that we’re building a new military while still paying for the old one. Money is going into Special Operations and intelligence, but far more is being spent on high-tech weapons systems designed to fight enemies (like the Soviet Union) that no longer exist—eighty billion dollars on attack submarines, three billion apiece on new destroyers, and hundreds of billions on two different new models of jet fighter. Advocates insist that we need to be able to contest any “near peer” rival. But the U.S. has no near-peers—or, indeed, any distant peers, as we now spend more on defense than the rest of the world put together.

"Not only are we buying stuff we don’t need; we’re buying it badly. Astonishing budget overruns are routine. The Future Combat System, for instance—designed to remake the battlefield with robot vehicles and networked communications systems—began as a ninety-billion-dollar project, then became a hundred-and-sixty-billion-dollar project, and, a recent Pentagon estimate suggests, will eventually cost three hundred billion dollars. Such inefficiency is seldom punished—the Pentagon often hands out bonuses even when companies fail to meet their targets—and is tolerated by regulators. Although government agencies have been required to produce an annual audit of their operations since the late nineties, the Defense Department’s operations are so confused that it has never been able to produce a successful audit. A few years ago, the Pentagon’s own Inspector General found that more than a trillion dollars in spending simply couldn’t be explained.”

As you would expect, a trillion dollars going missing elicits a big ho hum from the press – who are much more eager to pursue the homicidal fantasies of disturbed expatriate teachers in Thai prisons. Now, there’s some news we can use as we doze in our cheese like fats and watch the parade of the celebrity monsters on tv, the life force in us turning to dustballs and desolation. But LI, eccentric in all things, sorta wonders about that trillion dollar black hole. Maybe, huh, maybe that isn’t a good thing – not to be unpatriotic, and not to doubt the total validity of what our secretary of Defense so aptly terms our war against 12,000 Islamofascists and some of their mothers, too – a world war that of immense proportions such as has never been seen before or since. But I am thinking that a country that calmly allows the military to disappear that much money is well on its way to a sovereign whose control over a mercenary armed force is just the kind of tyranny that, well, this country was founded to escape. And that a people so supine as to let this happen in front of their eyes, a people that batten like maggots on the war industry and believe every tittle and jot of the warmonger rants they are fed on that bordello of shit called the tv news deserve all the many and staggering blows that they are inevitably storing up for themselves. The wrath to come is forged in the short attention spans of today's spectators, ADD DREAMers all.

Such, at least, are the disenchanted reflections of one inhabitant of DREAM act America.

casualty rates in Iraq -- what is that about?

There has been a rather disappointing discussion going on at Crooked Timber about a Washington Post article by Samuel H. Preston and Emily Buzzell about the casualty rate in Iraq. Kieran Healy attacks them, I think justly, for this passage:

“Between March 21, 2003, when the first military death was recorded in Iraq, and March 31, 2006, there were 2,321 deaths among American troops in Iraq. Seventy-nine percent were a result of action by hostile forces. Troops spent a total of 592,002 “person-years” in Iraq during this period. The ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq. … One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003, more than twice that for military personnel in Iraq.

"The comparison is imperfect, of course, because a much higher fraction of the American population is elderly and subject to higher death rates from degenerative diseases. The death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000—39 percent of that of troops in Iraq.

"But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq. Slightly more than half the Philadelphia deaths were homicides.”

As Healy points out,

“… it’s a well-known fact about the sociology of combat that even in a real, live, shooting war, only a comparatively small number of troops in an army ever see direct, front-line duty—if only because the number of people it takes to sustain those who do go out to the front line, or its equivalent, is very large. (Don’t get me wrong: many of those in support roles will face real dangers, too, and their lives will be very far from normal—it’s just that we’re talking about death rates here.) In fact, even amongst the front-line troops, exposure is more focused and limited than you might think. A similar thing is true of bombing campaigns in built-up areas, such as the recent one in the Lebanon. An awful lot of bombs can be dropped and an awful lot of buildings destroyed, and the deaths will be fewer than you might think. But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, or completely dysfunctional. Who would think to say, “Hey, a bunch of buildings were destroyed by the bombing and hundreds died, but that’s fewer people per capita than will die of heart disease this quarter”?

This is why comparisons to death rates in civilian settings—even comparatively violent ones—are misguided. Anyone who thinks that someone walking around Philly is more likely to be violently attacked than a marine out on patrol in Baghdad is out of their mind.”

In other words, you aren't going to find "something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil" in Philly. The comments section than took off in the usual direction – was the comparison valid, was it invalid, etc., etc.

My own sense is that this avoids a more interesting question: what is the comparison supposed to prove? And why are comparisons like this common on pro-war sites?

I made a comment myself, which is about what the figures actually show us about the war:

"The obvious question posed by the stats of American military deaths is whether there is connection between the comparative lack of American military fatalities and the way the Iraq war has been lost by the Americans. I’d argue there is.

"The American way of fighting is to protect, with the massive advantages given by American technology, the American fighting man. This is a good strategy to win a conventional battle. But it is a bad strategy to win a guerilla war. Since the goal of the war was to occupy Iraq until the nation had reformed as an American ally, the tactics of the war had to be brought into line with that strategy. And that would mean minimizing collateral Iraqi casualties – that is, individuating Iraqi insurgents and killing or capturing them out of the general civilian population. But individuating those insurgents would significantly raise the level of hazard for American soldiers. The American military has opted, generally, not to do that – instead adopting a strategy like that revealed by the investigation of the Haditha murders. The American infliction of casualties on Iraqis is broadly permitted in order to protect every American soldier from harm; a policy that leads to re-inforcing the insurgency as more and more Iraqis have an incentive, given this policy, to join them or at least tacitly give them support. Add to this that the infliction of iraqi casualties by the Americans has no effect on the infliction of iraqi casualties by the insurgents, and you get a picture of why Americans have lost the war. It is like the police coming into a high crime neighborhood and killing random people in the neighborhood without ever lowering the crime rate.

"I think Americans have essentially been irrelevant in Iraq – a sort of mercenary ethnic cleansing unit – since Najaf in 2004. It is interesting to see how they got to that point so quickly. The stats give us a paradox that is at the center of Amrican foreign policy: the Americans are at once the most aggressive nation in the world and the one with the lowest tolerance for American deaths. Hence, they are more apt to get into wars (severely underestimating the costs) that they then mismanage (trying to remain below a threshhold of casualties that divides their tactical means from their strategic ends). This goes a long way back in American history— Grant and McClellan still fight for the soul of the military, with the compromise being a McClellan like delicacy about American deaths combined with a Grant like ferocity in inflicting massive deaths on the enemy—and identifying the latter as victory. Of course, that isn’t victory at all."

This is a point I've flogged all too often at this site.

But there is a broader issue still. As I keep repeating ad nauseum, the motivations for the Iraq war have to be found in the war culture itself – it is not just Iraq that is in question, but the past sixty years in which war has not only overturned elementary principles of democracy, but has so shaped the attitude of an influential segment in not only the U.S., but in every prosperous nation, that war has become a goal, weapon production has become a manufacturing mainstay, and a low level, constant belligerence has become the temperamental default for the ‘discourse’ about the interactions between states.

In my next post, I want to get to the immediate political root of the Iraq war, which I think transcends the grab bag of the war supporters motives. This is, among other things, an experimental war – a new expression of creating a military force that is solely at the discretion of the executive branch, and using it aggressively with no need to respond in any fashion to any legal or social constraint. To roll out this model of war, you need war lite – you need a volunteer army that you can claim has an acceptable number of casualties in order for that army to, so to speak, operate outside the field of attention – of all except, of course, the unfortunates they operate on. The return of the mercenary form, although not labeled as such, is what we are seeing.

Monday, August 28, 2006

late breaking news

The World Wide News breaks the story first. The New York Times and The Washington Post both have egg on their faces, although of course the NYT have now assigned the crack team of Adam Nagourney and Elizabeth Bumiller to find the gypsy and ask her if her spells are the reason that, every time they are around the President, he just seems so big, strong, and competent.

My sources tell me that the gypsy has been thinking of placing a curse on UFOBreakfast. Don't be suprised if the tone, there, radically shifts to one of squirrel-o-philia. Rumor has it that Mr. Scruggs is writing a sonnet sequence to a certain H.C., beginning, "Like a man struggling vainly in a pillory/so is my heart bound to you, oh my Hilary."

a request

Our filmic friend at CoolSeason gave us some very valuable comments on the first 25 panels of our graphic novel. If any other member of the LI community (somehow, I started laughing when I wrote that phrase. Okay, the LI cult, sect, cell, cenacle, salon, militia – the LI al qaeda, our own base so help us Lucifer), please email me, and I will email them to you. I am fighting my way, in the GN, towards a clearer storyline, but it must ultimately sustain the load of anger and end-of-time angst that is supposed to detonate in the reader’s head, heart, and bowels. D., my illustrator, and me want to launch a virus that will end the war, bring down the military, return the country to the old time constitutional division of powers, and reverse the fatal trajectory towards destroying the planet's atmosphere and fresh water supply. Baby steps, really.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Come on, fuck that NYT Magazine article this morning. Trust me – don’t you trust me? Read this article by Rebecca Solnit in Orion magazine instead.
Let’s begin with one of the statistics:

“The California Gold Rush clawed out of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada considerable gold—93 tons or 2.7 million troy ounces in the peak year of 1853 alone, an estimated 973 tons or 28.4 million troy ounces by 1858, more than 3,634 tons or 106 million troy ounces to date.”

My brothers used to be in apartment maintenance. Now, standard practice calls for a quick clean up, laying new carpet and a possible paint job once your resident has vacated his place. If the resident was a smoker, inevitably the paint job followed, since the smoke would stain the walls. This is the literal materialization of human aura, but it isn’t just your renter and his Camels. No, we leave our indelible imprint on the landscape long after we have tidily tucked away the event. In human time, measured by the fingernail and hair growth, tumescence and the brief flurry of orgasm, the fleeting memory that flairs up in the night like a ghost of what the angle looked from a height that was just up to mom’s knee or thigh and is gone before you can complete the memory, organize that field of view, events are inevitably more fleeting, more bound to the attention span – but of course, in organic time, measured by proteins and fats, this isn’t so. An event can last a long time. Hence the interest in Solnit’s gold rush story. It is the quintessential Wild West story, the one the American dream life immediately focused upon – the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill, the arrival of hundreds and then thousands come to stake a claim, the settling of California.

But Solnit brings out other pieces of the rush. For instance, by our manifest luck, we just happened to fight a war with Mexico that gave us both the Sacramento River and the means to exploit the gold we found there. That means was mercury:

“In the northwesternmost corner of old Mexico, in 1845, a staggeringly rich mercury lode was discovered by one Captain Don Andres Castillero. Located near San Jose at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, the New Almaden Mine was well within the territory seized by the United States by the time it was developed. And only days before the February 2, 1848, treaty giving Mexico $15 million for its northern half was signed, gold was also discovered in California. Thus began the celebrated Gold Rush, which far fewer know was also a mercury rush, or that the two were deeply intertwined.”

Mercury combines with gold, making it much easier to extract from water or earth. Of course, there is the little problem that mercury is extremely poisonous, a neurotoxin that keeps on tickin’.

“During the California Gold Rush, an estimated 7,600 tons or 15,200,000 pounds of mercury were thus deposited into the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that placer, or stream-based, mining alone put ten million pounds of the neurotoxin into the environment, while hard-rock mining accounted for another three million pounds. Much of it is still there—a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist once told me that he and his peers sometimes find globules the size of a man's fist in pristine-looking Sierra Nevada streams—but the rest of it ended up lining the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. Some of it is still traveling: the San Jose Mercury News (named after the old mercury mines there) reports that one thousand pounds of the stuff comes out of gold-mining country and into the bay every year, and another two hundred pounds comes from a single mercury mine at the south end of the bay annually. Some of this mercury ends up in the fish, and as you move up the food chain, the mercury accumulates.

"According to the San Francisco Estuary Institute, "Fish at the top of the food web can harbor mercury concentrations in their tissues over one million times the mercury concentration in the water in which they swim." All around the edges of the bay, warning signs are posted, sometimes in Spanish, Tagalog, and Cantonese, as well as English, but people fish, particularly poor and immigrant people, and some eat their catch. They are paying for the Gold Rush too.

“Overall, approximately ten times more mercury was put into the California ecosystem than gold was taken out of it. There is something fabulous about this, or at least fablelike. Gold and mercury are brothers and opposites, positioned next to each other, elements 79 and 80, in the Periodic Table of the Elements. And they also often coexist in the same underground deposits. Gold has been prized in part because it does not rust, change, or decay, while mercury is the only metal that is liquid at ordinary temperatures, and that liquid is, for those who remember breaking old thermometers to play with the globules, something strange, congealing into a trembling mass or breaking into tiny spheres that roll in all directions, ready to change, to amalgamate with other metals, to work its way into the bodies of living organisms.”

In the tv series westerns, nobody ever complains about mercury fumes. In real life, the landscape after gold mining is laced with poisons, the sources of the water are diverted and fouled, and of course vegetation, which likes mercury no more than the human body, dies off:

“The volume of mercury-tainted soil washed into the Yuba was three times that excavated during construction of the Panama Canal, and the riverbed rose by as much as eighty feet in some places. So much of California was turned into slurry and sent downstream that major waterways filled their own beds and carved new routes in the elevated sludge again and again, rising higher and higher above the surrounding landscape and turning ordinary Central Valley farmlands and towns into something akin to modern-day New Orleans: places below water level extremely vulnerable to flooding. Hydraulic mining washed downstream 1.5 billion cubic yards of rock and earth altogether. "Nature here reminds one of a princess fallen into the hands of robbers who cut off her fingers for the jewels she wears," said one onlooker at a hydraulic mine. “

Well, what is good for the nineteenth century is good for the 21st, especially in the Bush culture of infinite waste for the betterment of the upper 1 percent income bracket. Nevada is now the place to go to watch humans poison the earth and the sources of water (in a state that is developing million plus cities, without any visible means of water in, say, fifteen years) because, well, the sacred and wondrous effects of private property are what brought down the communist menace. Notice how it all leads to the kingdom of God, who has a funded position at the Cato Institute.

“The current gold rush in northeastern Nevada, which produces gold on a monstrous scale—seven million ounces in 2004 alone—is also dispersing dangerous quantities of mercury. This time it's airborne. The forty-mile-long Carlin Trend on which the gigantic open-pit gold mines are situated is a region of "microscopic gold"; dispersed in the soil and rock far underground, imperceptible to the human eye, unaffordable to mine with yesteryear's technology. To extract the gold, huge chunks of the landscape are excavated, pulverized, piled up, and plied with a cyanide solution that draws out the gold. The process, known as cyanide heap-leach mining, releases large amounts of mercury into the biosphere. Wind and water meet the materials at each stage and create windblown dust and seepage, and thus the mercury and other heavy metals begin to travel.

“As the Ban Mercury Working Group reports, "Though cumulatively coal fired power plants are the predominant source of atmospheric mercury emissions, the three largest point sources for mercury emissions in the United States are the three largest gold mines there." The Great Salt Lake, when tested in 2004, turned out to have astonishingly high mercury levels, as did wild waterways in Idaho, and Nevada's gold mines seem to be the culprit. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that year, "The scope of mercury pollution associated with Nevada's gold mining industry wasn't discovered until the EPA changed rules in 1998 to add mercury to the list of toxic discharges required to be reported. When the first numbers were released in 2000, Nevada mines reported the release of 13,576 pounds in 1998. Those numbers have since been revised upward to an estimated 21,098 pounds, or more than 10 tons, to make Nevada the nation's No. 1 source of mercury emissions at the time." Glen Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, estimates that since 1985, the eighteen major gold mines in the state released between 70 and 200 tons of mercury into the environment.”

Don’t you love it? The Western states, with their large GOP populations, are also the ones suffering from the various poisonings they bring down on themselves. In the AEC dialectic that has dominated the West since 1945, the low use population is hooked on the conditions that make it a low use population. The embrace of a rabid individualism that masks the grab of the corporate collectives is the route traveled by mercury into the brain, an ideological analogue of the actual route from the air and water via the pores, mouth and tongue to the internal organs, the weaving nerve tissue and up ever heavenward to the brain. In comic book terms, at least, this is no disadvantage -- far from it! As the low use human product gets literally stupider with mercury poisoning, it gets more apt to believe anything.

... And they wonder where that 35 percent of hardcore Bush supporters come from.


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