Monday, March 25, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T and the war

I’ve been pondering Ezra Klein’s apology for supporting the invasion of Iraq. It contains a sentence that I bump up against with incomprehension, like a goldfish trying to understand an aquarium.

“I thought that if U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair all thought it was necessary, then that was because they had intelligence proving as much.”
What I don’t understand is a personality type that actually respects our political leaders – for this sentence could only come out of such respect. There is a chasm like divide between those people who consider that, generally, anybody who has power is a scoundrel most of the time, and those people who consider that, generally, anybody who has power is a responsible and intelligent figure worthy of trust. I am in the former camp. I believe that our leaders should fear the people, and that they operate best when they fear the people. Mostly, they don’t fear the people, and they operate to maximize the interests of predators and plutocrats, and to incrementally make the lives of the masses worse. This is just SOP, in my opinion.
I take it that Klein is expressing his respect, because I can’t believe he is that dumb. The idea that there is some super secret intelligence shared by the leaders – in the wake of such vivid disproofs as 9.11 and the inability of the Bush’s keystone cops to advance step one on the anthrax caper - should have been knocked out of his head. It is as if he was incapable of grasping the events that were happening around him.  And of course one glance at Iraq’s recent history in 2002 – a history in which Saddam Hussein had essentially ceded control of a vast chunk of his territory in Northern Iraq – should have squashed the idea that, though he was unable to attack the fearsome Kurdish state, he was just about to casually nuke NYC.  There was no excuse for believing the intelligence canard.
Klein’s career afterwards is a case study in R-E-S-P-E-C-T and advancement – you don’t get to be a dealer in D.C. memes if you don’t, in your heart, believe incredible crap about politicos and presidents. You have to be a mook. This is a matter of deep character, perhaps. A real sceptic simply couldn’t believe, is constitutionally unable to believe, a fact because a world leader pronounces it on television. Facts are stupid things – they are only intelligence once they are part of a larger set – which is why even when leaders are not lying, they are lying. Clinton, Bush, Obama, who really cares – this is the sceptic’s assumption. Unmoved by state of the union speeches or Inauguration pageantry, the sceptic is looking for the black spot with which the leader damns whole peoples. The drone on the one side, prison on the other – this is American leadership in a nutshell. The Kleins, on the other hand, are actually moved by the pageantry, oratory, and leadership – by the faux history of it all. My own view of leadership comes from the gospel: he who is first shall be last. Jesus, here, is just compressing into a nifty, Dylan-esque piece of poetry an insight of folk wisdom that Machiavelli laid out more extensively in the Prince: in the moral order, the leaders are shit, and the benefits that accrue to the state from their shittiness are definitely not the result of their better qualities, their ideals. Outcomes that benefit the masses are either side effects of leadership or compromises that spring from the leader’s fear of being overthrown.
Respect your dog, respect your friends, respect your lovers, respect your children – but never respect leaders. They don’t deserve it.    

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Nostromo II

“They beat me, a sick sixty six year old man. They laid me face down on the floor and beat the soles of my feet and my back with a rubber truncheon. When I was seated on a chair they used the same truncheon to beat my legs from above with great force, from my knees to the upper parts of my legs. And in the days that followed, whem my legs were bleeding from internal haemorrhaging, they used the rubber truncheon to beat me on the red, blue and yellow bruises…
Lying face down on the floor, I discovered the capacity to cringe, writhe and howl like a dog being whipped by its master.”
This is an extract from the last letter written by Vsevolod Meyerhold, who is certainly one of the most important theater directors of the twentieth century. The letter was among the documents released in 1989 from the files of the KGB. The releases of KGB files have revealed that, contrary to the romantic hopes of Western intellectuals, the writers and artists purged by Stalin all broke. It was no surprise. Meyerhold was not made to endure torture, any more than I am, or any more than any human is.
The stupidest mind may invent a rankling phrase or brand the innocent with a cruel aspersion. A piece of string and a ramrod; a few muskets in combination with a length of hide rope; or even a simple mallet of heavy, hard wood applied with a swing to human fingers or to the joints of a human body is enough for the infliction of the most exquisite torture. The doctor had been a very stubborn prisoner, and, as a natural consequence of that "bad disposition" (so Father Beron called it), his subjugation had been very crushing and very complete. That is why the limp in his walk, the twist of his shoulders, the scars on his cheeks were so pronounced. His confessions, when they came at last, were very complete, too.” 
 The citation above is from one of the most startling passages in Nostromo – especially surprising in the context of the English novel, circa 1904, which did not discuss, with such coolness, the political uses of pain. Even though by 1904 the term “concentration camp” had been added to the English language. In the just ended Boer war, the English had used them extensively. For instance, there was Camp Irene, which housed Boer women and children, witnessing the death, it was estimated at the end of the war, of 4000 of the former and 23,000 of the latter by the time it was closed in 1902. The Africans who died there were not counted.
These things, however, were matter for Irish journalists, not novelists. Conrad’s friend, Henry James, for instance, allowed a great deal of pain into his novels, but never in the crude and childish form that results from whacking a sixty six year old man, tied down to a chair, on his open soars. This does not happen in Daisy Miller, or the Turn of the Screw, or the Ambassadors, or any of his novels: in fact, the whole force of James’ work, the faith that underlies it, is that such things are incompatible with late nineteenth century and early twentieth century civilization. Such things are over.
The reason Conrad’s novel seems so contemporary is, in part, the far reaching knowledge that such things are far from over. The brief description of the breaking of Dr. Monygham comes out of the book and bites the reader for exactly that reason. This could be the dirty war in Argentina, circa 1979. This could be the dirty war in El Salvador, circa 1983. This could be the dirty war in Iraq, circa 2004. And in Dr. Monygham, whose intelligence is, in these circumstances, his great vulnerability, Conrad briefly sweeps through the entire century. It is not simply the stupidity of the torture, but what is transmitted by torture: the deadness of the torturer. Dr. Monygham is tortured under the supervision of a priest, Father Beron, who is working for the dictator of Costaguana, Guzman Bento. After confessing to everything, Monygham is put in solitary and has great hopes of starving to death, but to his dismay, he is liberated at Bento’s death, and hobbles out of the prison using a walking stick that is a little thinner than he is. He hobbles into an afterlife in which he bears his own certainties:
“And he could not forget Father Beron with his monotonous phrase, "Will you confess now?" reaching him in an awful iteration and lucidity of meaning through the delirious incoherence of unbearable pain. He could not forget. But that was not the worst. Had he met Father Beron in the street after all these years Dr. Monygham was sure he would have quailed before him. This contingency was not to be feared now. Father Beron was dead; but the sickening certitude prevented Dr. Monygham from looking anybody in the face.
Conrad is too wise, in the novel, to allow Dr. Monygham’s disillusionment to anchor the novel in at least some fundamental level of moral certainty. Monygham’s cynicism is as fallible an attitude as any other to predict and understand the events that unfold in the civil war/revolution that engulfs Costaguana. Torture, which gives a certain self-knowledge, does not stamp its victim with any greater perception of the order of things. It doesn’t even do that. Conrad’s restraint, here, his refusal to surrender to the romanticism of victimhood, made the novel difficult for readers as acute as Forster or Pritchett. The absence of sentimentality was too explicit, and was promptly labeled obscurity.     
Monygham is paired with another “disbeliever”: the French journalist Martin Decoud. Both are on the same side – the side of the “Gould concession”, or, in other words, the side of the liberal European and American exploiters of the silver mines. Monygham is simply concerned that Mrs. Gould not fall into the hands of the ‘democratic’ revolutionaries. Decoud, however, sees the revolution in large enough terms to disbelieve that the exploiters represent some higher stage, some kind of progress, for Costaguanans. The liberal ideals are wrapped around a core of money; without the money, the liberal idealists wouldn’t even be in Costaguana. Decoud, in other words, grasps cause and effect, which is something that is always being deflected and differed by the colonizers, even as they celebrate their ‘science’, the larger discoveries of cause and effect that have given them their technological edge.
Which is as far as I want to go today.


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