Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nostromo I

I have attempted and failed to penetrate past the first chapters of Nostromo at least four times. The scene painting was too suffocating, and Nostromo himself seemed to be an operatic puppet way too empty to thrust a crowded, long narrative upon. Recently, however, as I am writing fiction again, I resolved to  past the coastline of the novel, knowing that it is one of the rare English English novels of the twentieth century that has actually effected writers in other literatures (Gadda, Garcia Marquez, etc.). The English English novel – as compared to the Irish and American English novel – lacks the cosmopolitan air, the epic sloppiness, as it busied itself tucking in corners and marking the chasms opened up by the minute violation of the decorum based on class distinctions. This, at least, is the reputation – which isn’t quite fair, but does represent a distinct trend. Going back to Henry Green or Elizabeth Bowen, one sees how those chasms, explored with a high intelligence, intersect with the underground territory of the great Continental novels. Still, there was an obscure, amputating moment in the English novel – for instance, in the rejection of Joyce – that did real damage to a writer like Rebecca West, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of British 20th century writers who could not quite shake off provincialism in her fiction. Instead, she turned to another form, the travel narrative, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon to write the only English prose equivalent to Magic Mountain –  just to be George Steinerish for a second here. And a parallel move occurred in British philosophy, which became obsessed with how we know – or rather, how we say we know. The conjunction of a language philosophy that was born in the breakdown of the liberal Austrian-Hungarian empire and the traditional English concern with understanding resulted in something rather amazing: a diminished philosophy, a philosophy of endless contraction, and endless, inbred justification of that contraction against all foreigners.
But returning to Conrad: V.S. Pritchett, in the fifties, commented that it could easily have been written last year. It still has that air. In fact, Nostromo is an eerily appropriate book to read on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, since it involves the same elements: the diabolical greed which haunts economies that are premised on the extraction of primary products (in Nostromo, silver, in Iraq, oil) (which contrasts with the prudent self-advancement that is the more negotiable spirit of manufacturing and the service economy); the weird amalgam of liberal idealism and the cruelest power plays of colonialism; and the alliances of convenience that traverse societies in which political structures are merely the translation of clashing charismatic claims – that is, political structures that are not structures at all.       

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

George Packer discovers, again, how nice he is and all...

George Packer, who was, alas, the New Yorker’s point man on Iraq during the occupation, wrote a piece in 2004 that is worth revisiting in order to plumb the depth of delusion and narcissism that characterizes our pundit class.  In it, he had this to say: 

The Iraq war, from its inception in Washington think tanks to its botched execution on the ground, has always been a war of ideas—some of them very bad ones. There’s the idea of preëmptive war, America’s divine right of intervention; the idea of tyrannies falling like dominoes in a strategically realigned Middle East; the idea that American power is worse than the worst dictatorship. Facts have reduced most of these to rubble—notably, the argument that this was a war of urgent national security (although facts can be less stubborn than officials in the grip of ideological truth). Only two serious, and competing, versions of the Iraq war’s meaning are left standing: one, that this is a war against tyranny and for democracy; the other, that this is a war of American domination.

This gets the entire war about as wrong as you can get a war. It was no war of ideas at all, and on the ground in 2004 in Iraq, even a slightly retarded child could have analyzed the war more accurately than Packer. The war of ideas existed solely in D.C., and it was a war of cocktail parties.  Packer, evidently, never understood the critique of American power – which was that it actually created the dictatorships for its own reasons historically, just as it created the jihadi network used so efficiently by Al Qaeda after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, just as it created the idea that hitting a superpower within its borders – hitting the Soviet Union through sabotage in Central Asia, for instance – was an “idea” that was conceived and distrusted by the CIA handlers of the Afghani “resistance” – etc., etc.  In other words, American power was not about ideas, but about American interests, which in turn reflected different factions within the American compact – corporations, for instance. And in turn, these interests were not consistent one with another – they compete.  So much, then, in two sentences, for the critique of American power. But such a critique went right over his narcissistic liberal head – since Packer evidently understood the entire war as nice people like him vs. not nice people. Who wanted “tyranny”. You will notice that this précis of what the “war” is about doesn’t even mention Shi’a or Sunni – such is the cluelessness of thinking that he could press the cookie  cutter of the stimulating ideas he had garnered from attending a party chez Hitchens on the reality of Iraq. 

I looked this up after reading Packer’s envoi to the Iraq war (tenth anniversary edition!), which was revealing – but not in the way that Packer meant it to be, I think. Apparently, Packer lost contact with his Iraqi friends – i.e., the English speaking Iraqis through which he seems to have funneled his entire understanding of Iraqi history and politics – and so got a little bored with the whole war thing. The war of ideas moves on, don’tcha know. 

Over time my interestin the place came down to the people I met, and as Iraqis whom I knew became engulfed in horror, I wanted it to be mitigated and the worst averted. That meant wanting America to succeed, or at least not completely fail—whatever that might be. Though I knew that the whole effort was very likely doomed, it was emotionally impossible to write it off. Even foreigners who had nothing but contempt for American officials and officers couldn’t bring themselves to that point. The only alternatives were Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shiite extremists. The stupidities of American policy, the mistakes and—in some cases—crimes of American forces, made it harder and harder to sustain this attitude, but if you turned completely against the U.S., you were consigning a lot of people you knew to a terrible fate. It became their fate anyway—that was the real tragedy for Iraqis.
By the fall of 2007, my last remaining Iraqi friend in Baghdad had left. Once he was gone, my connection to the country and the war began to thin, even as the terror diminished.”

This is the war as a videogame fantasy. I especially like the alternatives – since of course the alternatives were not Al Qaeda and Iranian backed Shiite extremists. To think so was to embed yourself so deep in the asshole of the American military mindset as to have no light at all to throw on the subject. Any Shiite party or faction, as an observer such as myself, thousands of miles from the conflict, knew well simply by reading the paper and the BBC Middle East dispatches every day, would have to be Iran backed. Extremists meant, uh, nothing in this context. Nor was there a chance in hell that Al qaeda, being used as a catspaw by Sunni political groups in Iraq, were going to take over. They were the yeast, however, in a resistance movement that is going to be here for a long time.

In a strong sense, Packer’s reporting from Iraq gave New Yorker readers a completely distorted picture of Iraq. Unlike New Yorker’s reporters in Vietnam – like say Robert Shaplen, who I naively thought Packer was going to reincarnate when I started reading him in 2003 – Packer cretinized his readership, making them less able to understand or predict what was going on and would be going on in Iraq.

I'm sourly amused by how many liberal hawks, like George Packer, have taken the tenth anniversary as an opportunity to attribute being wrong about Iraq to their being too nice and noble – and then end up adding, well, we got rid of Saddam, and to that all must bow. Now, if cancer had gotten rid of Saddam, it would not make cancer a beneficial organic condition. So I am unsure what is being argued for here. But, just as one should resist arguments about alternatives to Bush’s action based on the idea that the 9.11 attack was an immutable historic fact which no president could have avoided – which I think is total nonsense – one should also avoid the trap of thinking that the only policy option before the U.S. post 9.11 was either to get rid of Saddam through invasion or not. Actually, the U.S. could have – and should have – trashed its Persian gulf policy and leaned heavily towards Iran if it really wanted to get rid of Saddam without war. A combination of recognizing Iran and strengthening economic relations with that country, and pouring money into Northern Iraq to bring Kurdistan into a new level of development would have had large and devastating consequences for Saddam even within the Baathist structure, which was supported partly by the fact that the U.S. kept both Iran and Iraq on the shitlist.

But of course nobody in D.C., that nest of conventional wisdom, corruption, and subgenius, even mentioned other options, even though such options had been enacted before – a notably precedent was Nixon’s detente with China. This, it turned out, actually benefited Taiwan in the long run, destroying the Nationalist illusion that cemented that party’s tyrannical grip on the island.

The reaction to the 10 year anniversary by the liberal hawks, who are much more powerful in O.’s administration than the liberal doves, shows, depressingly, that they have learned nothing. SOP in D.C. circles is to attribute one’s mistakes to one’s exemplary character and inability to recognize that other people just aren’t as good, smart, and nice as oneself. This is the liberal vice that has pretty much destroyed liberal policy. Liberals have taken to excusing their defeats and missteps by reference to their superior intelligence and excellent ethical sensibilities, which tea party yahoos just don’t’ have, bigots all. This is of course entirely bogus. Liberal missteps come from the contradictions in the liberal position – on the one hand, the instinct to preserve the elite, gated community where a certain type of social liberal flourishes, and on the other hand, a certain guilty conscience arising from the fact that liberalism used to be about securing a good deal for the wage class, which has now been abandoned to the market and grand bargainish cuts in “entitlement”.
I mock. Meanwhile, the Packers of the pundit class still drive the Democratic party Bush lite foreign policy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

10 years after our excellent adventure in Iraq!

Ah, the tenth anniversary of our brave, brave, brave liberation of Iraq! There's a private monument to that in my own little monkey heart - I think it marked the beginning of my awareness of just how lost I was in an American culture I no longer recognized at all. Of course, it also marked a symbolic change under which the U.S. still blunders. The age of Bush continues, unabated in the minor epoch of the supposedly 'liberal' O., he of the grand bargain, the dispenser of unparelleld welfare to Wall Street and unparalleled non-prosecution by his justice department of any and all bank enacted frauds, the dronemaster whose Defense department, by all accounts, worked as hard as it could to retain troops in Iraq - just like we all used to accuse Bush of planning. This recent story in the NYT about sums up the age of the souring of the American promise:

The NYT title is bland on bland, but the import is clear: the gross and pernicious inequality of wealth combined with patching the lack of wage increases for a generation with greater access to credit is producing a much poorer generation. And this massive social fact bores all parties in D.C. to tears.

My raven's croak, here, will not budge the night. Which makes me increasingly weary of croaking.

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 ...