Saturday, September 23, 2006

the heroism of flattery

“I will be as ready as a chessman to be wherever your Majesty’s royal hand shall set me. -- Bacon

Francis Bacon would have immediately understood the how the CEO of Hewlett Packard, Patricia Dunn, got kicked bumpety bump down the winding staircase up which she had advanced, since he, too,
fell in the aftermath of a rather shady scandal that began when, as attorney general, he vetted an application for a patent of monopoly concerning the manufacture of silver and gold thread for a brother and a cousin of the King’s favorite, Buckingham. Ever since Macaulay made the abuse of this patent (by Giles Mompesson, among others, a splendid example of a 17th century buck, unscrupulous, mean, the model for Massinger’s Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts) the centerpiece of his accusing essay about Bacon, Baconites have rushed to the man’s defense.

And one of these days, LI will dawdle over a post about the whole thing – but – yesterday, when we were looking for scholarly work on flattery (of which there is surprisingly little) we came across a passage in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in which the master says much that we want to say, except with his own vocabulary. Hegel is rather a big, black yawning cavern, and his terms are the stalactites and stalagmites of that cavern – those large, impressive accumulations of what exists, in much simpler, particulate form, in the little drops of water out of which they were formed. You have to be a good spelunker to get anywhere with H. And the Phenomenology is a little like the Anatomy of Melancholy – or, actually, Gravity’s Rainbow – in that it tries to contain everything. So you never know what you will find there.

Hegel’s passage about the transition from ‘heroic service” to “heroic flattery” is found in the sixth chapter, on the self-alienated spirit. To which I will go in my next post. At the moment, my work load has suddenly gotten heavy (thank you, God, Allah, and the million names of Shiva!) So I have to do these things in little bits.

Friday, September 22, 2006

All rising to great place is by a winding star; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man's self, whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed. – Francis Bacon

LI’s dao is sarcasm. First comes the irony, then comes the insight. So, yesterday, we appended a ps to our post on Iran, recommending that the best way to influence policy at the moment is through insinuation and flattery at the Bush court. Thus, strategically, those who want to avoid bombing Iran in this country should try to find ways to make this seem like Bush’s own thought, the logical conclusion of his perfectly brilliant Middle Eastern policy. We meant this satirically – for there is nothing that still awakens the latent Puritan in the American character as flattery, and we have a Puritan in the woodpile as well as anybody else. But as soon as we had written it, a piece of the puzzle, as it were, dropped in place. For if – as we think is true – in shedding the Constitution (the torture debates being only one moment in the long process of creating a monarchical and hateful executive, for which all succeeding generations will, of course, view us, each and every one of us, as some of the vilest creatures who ever crawled upon the face of the earth), the Federal government has become more and more like a court society, then one should expect that the manners of a court society will emerge. And court societies are run far more than historians like to admit on flattery.

Since flattery is so inimical to republican virtue, or to a political culture that is, at least formally, constituted by vote, that it is only viewed from the angle of the moralist. That angle suggests that flattery is a character fault, or two character faults: servility, on the part of the flatterer, and gullibility or vanity, on the part of the flattered. This character analysis has loomed so large that there is not, properly, a functionalist account of flattery. Flattery doesn’t have a chapter in books on political science, or “theology.” However, I suspect that this severely underestimates flattery. As the U.S. becomes your usual bloated and debt ridden empire, with a Fortune 500 of billionaire knaves lording it over a mass of ignorant and credulous peasants with credit cards, Godfearing Snopeses who drink away their Sundays (while newspapers love to report on how 99 percent of Americans love God and Jesus Christ and believe the world was created 10,000 years ago, they report much less on the fact that only about a third of Americans attend church every Sunday), the republican virtue of “choosing” our representatives slowly transforms into something else – the democratization of flattery (to speak in the cant of Thomas Friedman). We are given the pleasant role of flattering those who are going to rule us anyway. As election time draws near, you can pretend to be your favorite tv pundit and “support” a candidate. It is like being near greatness!

There is an excellent text for exploring the way flattery works in court society: Francis Bacon’s letters. Bacon crawled on his stomach of his own free will so much that it was almost like he had snake genes. But he was, also, a genius. And occasionally sparks of that genius irked his betters. The man he dedicated the Essays to, Lord Buckingham, was a favorite of King James and of his son, Charles. And a more arrogant man never walked England’s green and pleasant land. Sometimes, Bacon would get caught between Buckingham and James on some issue that Bacon thought was relievingly foreign to their concerns – something where he could make his own judgment. Rather like some EPA peon thinking he could get away with actually enforcing a law against some heinous pollutant. “Surely,” the peon thinks, “Dick Cheney won’t come down on me if I send this letter to X company asking them, in the politest terms, to please, please refrain from pouring mercury into the drinking water of Los Angeles.” Or some such naïve, twittish gesture. Down comes the iron fist, and out goes our peon, to be re-educated on K street in the wiles of the D.C. court and to return, perhaps under a blessed Democrat, to advance further, by scrapping and corruption, up the ladder until someday he can retire into some businessy sinecure.

More on Bacon, Coke, and the business of gold and silver thread in a further post.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

in other news from the idiot front -- William Bennett!

LI is going to get to our pacifism post this weekend, we hope.

In the meantime, readers are urged to peruse, rapidly, holding their noses, the noxious op ed by William Bennett and Rod Paige, urging – as is the wont of big government conservatives – the takeover of local educational standards by a D.C. corps of test-centric whackos. For Bennett, the man responsible for increasing the tempo of drug related crimes in the U.S. in the 80s, this is standard stuff. Just as he had no clue about how markets work, and so, making the black markets more violent in the 80s, mistook that violence as a sign that he should continue a truly brainless drug policy, so, here, he takes the unmistakable signs that the No Child Left Behind act is a farce, turning American schools into test taking factories, and draws… the wrong conclusions:

“But there's a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act -- which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly. A new Fordham Foundation report shows that most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems.

Take Tennessee, for example. It reports to its residents that a whopping 87 percent of its fourth-graders are "proficient" in reading. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that the number is more like 27 percent. That's a big difference. Or consider Oklahoma. In one year the number of schools on its "needs improvement" list dropped by 85 percent -- not because they improved or their students learned more but because a bureaucrat in the state education department changed the way Oklahoma calculates "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.”

So – a law that produces unexpected and terrible results just needs to be tightened even more. Federalized even more. This kind of thinking has crept over conservatism like poison ivy taking over a barren back yard – which is why the right now simply produces sound and fury, going through either an intellectual decline or an actual extinction event. Has the right had an actual idea in the last twenty five years? I mean a real one, not a fake generated to support Exxon Mobile's oil business.

LI has a simple educational cure-all: abolish the test culture. Burn the national tests. Or – since rationality must be mixed with superstition in order to become policy – change standardized testing so a large part of it is collaborative. That’s right. Kids not only should get info from other kids, but the ways of getting info should be taught and tested. The last time it was necessary to equip an individual with a world of information for himself alone as he headed out for the territories was probably around 1800. Most people at the moment do not work in monk like solitude. LI does, of course, so that you don’t have to! The real reason we individuate tests and etc is not to educate children, but to sort them – so that we can give a leg up to the richest, and call it a meritocracy. That is the sole and only function of the test system.
Now, the test superstition, via Bennett and Bush, is an evangelical meme. Just as Evangelicals are attached to the literal words in the good book, they are attached to another image from another book – Robinson Crusoe. They want their kids educated like it was 1799.
It ain’t. Get over it. Overthrow pedagogical idiocy. And wonder about a media that gives a forum to such disasters as Bennett.

Meanwhile, talking about the meritocracy, we meant to link to Michael Wolff's astonishing review of a book "investigating" Harvard in the NYT Book review section Sunday. We loved it. And noticed that it got very little comment around the blogosphere. I suppose that is because Wolff dispatches sacred cows with a little too much casualness. The blogs just don't know how to deal with that kind of thing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

tarrying with pacifism

Since LI is dedicated to the destruction of Mars – which is like the mouse that fucked the elephant, n’est-ce pas? – the question arises: Mistah LI, are you a pacifist?

No. LI is not a pacifist. But – borrowing language from the world’s greatest vendor of snakeoil, Mr. G. Hegel his own self – I do want to preserve the resistant and always crushed negation of the pacifistic moment.

The true insanity of Mars is not that Mars is in perpetual war, but that peace and war are secondary to the war structure. Pacifism is premised on the fact – a fact acknowledged by all the sane - that states are the primary political actors in the international order, and that wars are things that they engage in or do not. But this is not what the insane, the underground man, or the mouse that fucks the elephant, sees. No sir. We see that it is war and its structures that govern states. We see Mars, looming all around us. We see that we live in a Republic in which people can calmly claim that, for instance, we have been at war with Iran for the last thirty years, and they could be right! After all, war is no longer declared anymore. It creeps in on little cats feet. It was what everybody who was anybody knew yesterday, when they denied that they knew it and derided those who claimed that they knew it. War, which at one point in the development of liberal democracies were ritualized to the point that they were actually declared, according to some book of rules, never really were declarable things, perhaps – Mars arose from the capitalist turn like Dracula coming out of his coffin when the time was ripe.

Tarrying is the term Zizek scooped out of the preface to Mr. Hegel’s Rotten Bottom Cabinet of Potions, also known as the Phenomenology of Spirit. Now, Zizek, what do we know about Zizek? LI’s far flung correspondent in NYC, Mr. T., knows more about the man than we can even imagine. But I want to quote both the translation from the Preface of the P.d.G quoted at the beginning of Z’s book and a passage in which Zizek uses the phrase in his own way, which turns out to be a passage appropriate to the anxieties of elephant fucking mice and underground men.

Here’s the passage from Hegel:

Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that coverts it into being. – Hegel, Preface (stolen from marginal comments written on a found copy of the libretto of Zauberfloete, obviously).

And here’s Zizek:

‘The crucial, hitherto underestimated ideological impact of the coming ecological crisis will be precisely to make the ‘collapse of the big Other” part of our everyday experience, i.e., to sap this unconscious belief in the ‘big Other’ of power: already the Chernobyl catastrophe made ridiculously obsolete such notions as “national sovereignty”, exposing the power’s ultimate impotence. Our “spontaneous ideological reaction to it, of course, is to have recourse to the fake premodern forms of reliance on the “big Other” (“New Age consciousness”: the balanced circuit of Nature, etc.). Perhaps, however, our very physical survival hinges on our ability to consummate the act of assuming fully the “nonexistence of the Other,” of tarrying with the negative.”

Such banging of the chords! But we hear certain things we like, there. Well, this post is actually about a 2001 article in Peace and Change by Michael Clinton entitled, Coming to Terms with Pacifism: the French case, 1900-1918. But I’ll reserve that for my next post.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Let's not attack Iran

LI has maintained, since 2004, that the U.S. won’t invade Iran. However, we wonder, in the light of recent news about U.S. naval deployments in the Gulf, whether the Bush administration is really planning to attack Iran. The proxy war against Hezbollah was a major disaster, and as we know, this administration has never met a disaster it hasn’t wanted to repeat. It is like being ruled by brain addled drivers from the demolition derby.

Fred Kaplan’s analysis in Slate is worth reading, even if it is larded with the usual U.S. propaganda about how much the people of Iran hate their gov. LI thinks the theocratic structure of the Iranian government is despicable, but I am not sure that I represent the feeling of the majority of Iranians. Somehow, an awful lot of them voted for their president – a fact easily wiped away from the board by the fact that Iran has a truly undemocratic system. Why, unlike in the U.S., for instance, the deciding factor in who is elected president is the majority of the vote. Shocking – no electoral college! As you can see, we are dealing with a bunch of undemocratic yahoos.

I was struck by this paragraph:

“More than that, the Iranian people—who, by all accounts, hate their government and like much about the United States—would regard the attack as an act of terror, a violation of sovereignty, a far more destructive replay of the nightmare of 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow the democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah. Even if the attack somehow unseated the present regime, the new one might be no less anti-American, no less intent on acquiring nuclear weapons—an ambition that the attack would set back by only a few years in any case.”

The Iranian people, if Kaplan’s first sentence is true, share their sentiments with the American people, who by all accounts also hate their government and like much about the United States.

On Mars, as we know, the mission of the media is basically war fluffing – the dissemination of stories about the potential targets of aggression in which the target is so darkly colored that the essential fact – that Mars is the non-provoked aggressor – is hidden by a load of bilge.

In this respect, the media has been doing a fine job. Still, we don’t see how the war with Iran is going to come off. The lack of manpower we have already stressed. There is, also, the fact that the one hope the Bushies have for the upcoming election is that gas prices don’t skyrocket.

On the other hand, we believe the political savvy of the White House is vastly overrated. Like a heavyweight champion in a dull period in boxing, the GOP has simply not faced a worthy opponent. So maybe they would, actually, risk the spike in gas prices for their principle – the principle of perpetual profit for the war machine.

ps -- there is a nice piece by Hirsch at Newsweek on the diplomatic option -- Bush taking a leaf out of Nixon's China book.

Matt Yglesias very justly criticizes Hirsch for indulging in another Bush fantasy - everything about Hirsch's piece is right, except that there is no way our Rebel in Chief would do it. But I think that one thing became obvious in the run up to the Bush vanity war -- one has to play the politics of fantasy in America. This is true in all court societies, actually. Courts evolve flatterers and flattery evolves policy because it is the very nature of Courts to do so. Since the remnant of democracy in America gives voters a chance to flatter (and not, heavens no, to decide anything about policy issues - leave that to the Joe O'Beirnes of the world), there is hope that flattery can be used in a populist way. To move the Rebel in Chief to become the Nixonian diplomat, one has to work at making that scenario, with all the loathsome syncophancy of Bush, work as a flattery scenario that Bush cannot resist without chipping his imago among the crowd of zombies who think he is God's appointed.

I'm not sure how to successful wage such a policy via flattery myself, but the first thing to do is to recognize that vanity and money, alone, drive politics in this country. Crows such as myself, alas, don't make good flatterers.

Monday, September 18, 2006

a little appeal

LI went to the mailbox today, thinking that a certain little synaptic gap in our total finances was about to shrink, due to some overdue checks coming in --but no such luck. It is one of those moments when the trapeze bar isn't there, and the trapezist looks down to check the net. Yikes!

All of which is to say -- those of you readers who have thought of contributing to LI's continued well being (and not readers who have contributed, abundantly, in the past) -- might want to click our little pay pal button.

mars 2

A few home truths. LI is neither opposed to the state, nor to capitalism, nor, if it comes to it, to socialism. This puts LI out of the running as far as political philosophy is concerned. As far as LI is concerned, political philosophy is as strange a thing as, say, a philosophy of poker that only recognized two cards: the Ace and the deuce. A poker philosopher with that idea would be uniquely un-equipped to recognize a poker game. Often when I read the crowd of libertarians, conservatives and lefties expound on the public and private sectors, I feel like I am reading my fictitious poker philosopher trying to figure out the name of this god damned card game they keep showing on ESPN2.

Myself, I have my eye on Mars. It isn’t that I think of Mars as wholly bad, an absolute evil – I have too great a dialectical sense of the conditions of my own existence, and that of everyone, literally, who I know or have ever known, and too little suicide in my veins, to utterly damn Mars – as much as I think the Martian dialectic is running out. We are approaching a limit in which the Martian negative moment – that moment that was glimpsed in the 1940s, in the erection of the missiles in the fifties and sixties, at Chernobyl, in the discovery of the ozone hole – is expanding to absorb and annihilate all previous positive moments. Mars, of course, has such a cancerous grip on our brains, its tendril have run into our innards to such an extent, that it is hard to find any way to confront that coming moment. That is, hard to find any way to simply cut the shit and say what is happening.

All of which is an intro to today’s translation exercise – from Minima Moralia:
It is hard enough just to tell what the truth is; but we should not be terrorized from doing so in our interactions with other people. There are criteria here that will do for the present. One of the most reliable is when it is objected against you that an expression is ‘too subjective.’ If that objection is made decisively, and with that indignation in which you can hear the angry harmony of all reasonable folks faintly chiming in, you have reason to be, briefly, satisfied with yourself. The concepts of subjective and objective have completely reversed. Objective now means the uncontroversial side of phenomena, its unquestioned, absorbed impression, the fassade glued together out of pre-classified data, and thus: the subjective; and subjective denotes whatever breaks through this, what emerges in the specific experience of things, what injures the pre-judged convenus and requires relationship to the object itself instead of the majority opinion about it. The latter can’t even see it, not to speak of thinking it. Thus, the objective. How full of hot air the formal objection of subjective relativity really is shows itself in its proper field, that of aesthetic judgments. Whoever, from the force of his precise reaction, submits himself seriously to the discipline of an artwork, its immanent laws of form, the coercion inherent in its construction, will find the prejudices of the simple subjectivity of his experience collapse like a miserable semblance, and every step that he takes by means of his extreme subjective inervation in the thing has an incomparably greater objective force than the encompassing and the well established conceptual structures of, for instance, ‘style’, whose scientific claims come at the price of the above described experience. This is doubly true in the era of positivism and the culture industry, where objectivity is calculated according to the dictates of an organized subject. In the face of this, reason has completely, and without windows, fled into idiosyncrasies, which are reproached with their arbitrary whims by the arbitrary whim of established power, because it aims at weakening subjects out of fear of the objectivity that can be annulled by these subjects alone.

I’m not sure if I quite captured the complicated dance at the end of this passage. Or understand it. Reason flees into idiosyncrasy, that seemingly heightened state of the arbitrary, based on will alone, because of the arbitrary will of the Gewalthaber, those who hold power, who have created the world in which subjective and objective inverse themselves in order to fatally weaken the subject’s ability to gain, by experience of things themselves, that objectivity annulling the subjective’s bondage to prejudice. The latter of which, I think, would then annul the objective conditions of the inversion. At least that is how I trace those steps.

In the standard translation it reads: "reason has retreated entirely behind a windowless wall of idiosyncracies, which the holders of power arbitrarily repraoch with arbritariness, since they want subjects impotent, for fear of the objectivity that is preserved in these subjects alone."

Preserved isn't right. Annulled, my choice, isn't right either. We are back the dreaded aufheben of Hegelian fame. I'd retouch it as - suspended - that is held in suspension in these subjects alone.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jim O'Beirne's war

There are those who think Limited Inc is kidding about Iraq being Bush’s Vanity war. This article should clear up that contentious issue. The Iraq war was the first war in this nation’s history fought entirely to give a political party a leg up in the elections, and as a Romper room for its language challenged children. Iraq was a Club Med for the Heritage Foundation set. Something we pointed out when this story first appeared, about two years ago, but worth pointing out again, given this fuller account:

“After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans -- restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.

To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.

O'Beirne's staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade .”

The article is riotously funny, actually. A completely corrupt mindset – conservative Republicans, circa 2003 – goes to Iraq for ideological fun and games. Comic capers, plus IEDs, ensue. Fun for the whole family! I particularly liked the anti-abortion advocate who takes charge of the Iraq Health system and sees, with his eagle eye, right into the heart of Iraq’s problems: they are all about smoking! And so he makes that his first priority. You can’t make this stuff up – the idiocy comes straight from the heartland.

Imagine translating the bar talk of some particularly louche frat bar into official U.S. policy, and voila -- you have the Coalition Provisional Authority.

This was all happening under the nose of the D.C. press corps. )Indeed, the political appointee, O'Beirne, who was stocking the CPA with Bush nomenklatura is married to a celeb media person, Katie O'Beirne). One might wonder, what is it that motivates that corps? Why is it so ghastly, so incompetent, so craven and at the same time so pompous?

David Broder, the mentor of so many a budding centrist and Pappa of pomposity, explained his beliefs this week in an interesting Q and A:
Washington, D.C.: Mr Broder, if you feel Karl Rove is owed an apology from the pundits and writers over Valerie Plame, did you also call for an apology to the Clintons after Ken Starr, the Whitewater investigation and the failed attempt to impeach President Clinton? If not, why not?

David S. Broder: As best, I can recall,I did not call for such an apology. My view, for whatever it is worth long after the dust has settled on Monica, was that when President Clinton admitted he had lied to his Cabinet and his closest assoc, to say nothing of the public, that the honorable thing was for him to have resigned and turned over the office to Vice President Gore. I think history would have been very different had he done that.

Ottawa, Canada: I am curious about your statement regarding Mr. Clinton:"..that the honorable thing was for him to have resigned..." This resignation would have been because of private misconduct that he lied about. How sir, would you judge a president that overstated the facts and got the country into a war?

David S. Broder: I would judge that president harshly, as the majority of the voters in this country and in many other parts of the world has done. But I make a distinction between a terrible misjudgment and a deliberate lie. Do you?
Reston, Va.: We return a second time to President Clinton. What bothered me greatly about his actions was not what he said to his lawyers but what he told the Cabinet, his White House staff--You can go out and defend me because this did not happen. And he told the same lie to the American people. When a president loses his credibility, he loses an important tool for governing--and that is why I thought he should step down.

And so, in your opinion, the current president, vice president, secretary of defense, etc., have never lied to other government officials or the public and have lost no credibility?

David S. Broder: A classic have you stopped beating your wife question. How do I know whether they have ever lied to other government officials? The people in this administration are responsible for the decision that have led to the current miserable situation in Iraq, and Afghanistan and the worldwide damage to the standing of the United States. I think the American people know that and will hold them accountable--in this election and the next.”

So nice to know that lying about blow jobs is a national emergency, but the conduct of the Iraq war is a terrible and enigmatic thing. The are the values of a court society, in which breaches of decorum resonate far more than the pilfering of the national treasury, the usurpation of the nation’s army for personal ends, or the squalid incompetence that leads to the drowning of one of the Republic’s major cities. As long as the King is in his counting house, stealing all the money, the Broders of the world are sound asleep, and their children are running the Iraq treasury.

Ah, as the cornpone Kingdom runs out of gas and falls on the rest of us, at least this crow will have plenty to laugh at!


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