Saturday, August 14, 2021

Think tanker alert

 "Afghanistan’s rapid unraveling is already raising grumblings about American credibility, compounding the wounds of the Trump years and reinforcing the idea that America’s backing for its allies is not unlimited." - NYT

Apparently, this paragraph has spread panic in think tank world. Thousands of boltons and kagans have climbed out high windows and are threatening to jump. There's a neo-con and humanitarian intervention watch on for these poor figures. In other news, Christopher Hitchens is turning in his grave. His friends are perplexed as to whether this is simple contrarianism, or whether he has decided God is Great.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

epidemic terror


“But though the nation be exempt from real evils, it is not more happy on this account than others. The people are afflicted, it is true, with neither famine nor pestilence; but there is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them; it spreads with pestilential rapidity, and infects almost every rank of people; what is still more strange, the natives have no name for this peculiar malady, though well known to foreign physicians by the appellation of Epidemic Terror.”

-I cull this quotation from Oliver Goldsmith’s essay, which appeared in his zine, the Citizen of the world, as letter LXIX. Commentators have confessed that the rabies panic Goldsmith described has few other witnesses – and Goldsmith was a bit of a fabulist. One of Goldsmith’s most noted poems was entitled Elegy to a Mad Dog, and perhaps in the fervor of composition he projected a panic.


And in that town a dog was found,

As many dogs there be,

Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound,

And curs of low degree.


The dog and man at first were friends;

But when a pique began,

The dog, to gain some private ends,

Went mad, and bit the man.


According to the sociologists, Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic”. Cohen studied the media attention that was devoted, in the 1960s, to the Mods and Rockers. His problem was that Mod violence was not, rationally considered, one of Britain’s great problems, or even more than a three day sensation. But it grew with the attention it received.

In a sense, what he was doing, with a different vocabulary, was what Oliver Goldsmith had done two hundred years before, in his essay on Mad Dogs. Since I don’t believe Goldsmith’s essay has ever been referred to by those who have written about the history of moral panic, I thought I’d compare Goldsmith’s Epidemic Terror with Cohen’s moral panic – and in particular, the way in which Goldsmith used the epidemic image to medicalize an older image of rumor.

Here’s how Cohen defines his term:  “Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A

condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as athreat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited
experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.(1972:9)

The Epidemic Terror of Goldsmith’s essay is exactly of Cohen’s type-of thing-that-suddenly-becomes-visible, even though it has been in existence a long time: mad dogs.

Goldsmith, of course, is writing in a tradition about rumor and ignorance that goes back to Virgil's goddess of Rumor, who perches on the walls of the city. What is interesting about his essay is the direction he takes. It would be easy to employ the old routines that targeted ignorance and the mob. The term “mob” came into existence in the 18th century – it was a shortened form of mobile vulgarum, common people in movement. And Goldsmith, as well as any 18th century intellectual, wasn’t averse to tossing around a little abuse of the mob. However, he is more interested in mechanism than typology – he is after the dynamic of his “epidemic terror”. And to understand that, you have to pose some non-traditional questions that concern the about-ness of ignorance – questions that latter led Freud and Canetti to their (different) conclusions about crowd behavior.

Goldsmith begins with examples to show that epidemic terrors are both chronic and structurally similar:

“One year it issues from a baker’s shop in the form of a sixpenny loaf; the next, it takes the appearance of a comet with a fiery tail; the third, it threatens like a flatbottomed boat; and the fourth, it carries consternation in the bite of a mad dog.”

In all of the cases, the risk is disproportionate to the terror it spreads. However, the element I want to underline is that Goldsmith isn't showing that the disproportion is irrational -- he is trying to show how it is rationalized. Hence, my reference to Freud. The essay was probably penned sometime in the 1750s or 1760s. Goldsmith, as I have said, was himself a purveyor of a rumor about a rumor, in that England was perhaps not so swept with various epidemics of what surgeon John Hunter, who wrote about it in the 1780s, called canine madness, as Goldsmith implies. However that may be – and I trust that there was some objective correlate to Goldsmith’s essay – he intentionally parallels two forms of madness – one is spread by a mad dog’s bite, which has a pathology and a physical cause; while the other is a psychopathology, with lines of infection that are traceable not by the effort of the physiologist but rather by the observer of social mores – the philosophe. In both cases, though, the contagion model applies. The individual madness of the hyrophobe is paralleled by the collective madness of the crowd.

Goldsmith, as a good doctor, describes the outward symptoms of the ‘disease” of fearing mad dogs – people “sally from their houses with that circumspection which is prudent in such as expect a mad dog at every turning;” “a few of unusual bravery arm themselves with boots and buff gloves, in order to face the enemy…” In short, a city operates as though it were suddenly under imminent threat.

And what of that threat? Goldsmith observes how the discovery of whether a dog is mad or not resembles the old trial of dunking witches – if she floats, she’s a witch, if she drowns, she is innocent. Since the symptoms of being a mad dog are biting, or running away, crowds gather around dogs, jab or stone them, and then are either attacked – proof that the dog is mad – or escaped from – proof, again, that the dog is mad. Out comes the halter and the dog is hung. It is an interesting parallel. Myself, I have long felt that the form of trial that the courts used for witches has never really gone away, and is applied now to “drug dealers”, now to “terrorists”. The connection between rumor, panic and the judiciary is close.

“When epidemic terror is once excited, every morning comes loaded with some new disaster.” Goldsmith anticipates Cohen once again. In Cohen’s model, the menace has to be repeated over and over. In the age of the copy machine, tv, and radio (Cohen’s book dealt with the pre-Net age), the vector of transmission runs through these vast news machines. In Goldsmith’s day, the vector of transmission was still as much oral as it was print. What is interesting is that there will suddenly be a wave of information about the menace that runs through oral space – much like today’s “watercooler talk.” ‘As in stories of ghosts, each loves to hear the account, though it only serves to make him uneasy.” Goldsmith imagines a story beginning in some outlying area, where a woman is frightened by a dog. As the story is retold – and as it spreads towards more densely populated areas – the story’s characteristics change, until they assume the shape of the usual terror: a mad dog, a sudden attack, a highly placed woman who is suddenly transformed into a foaming hydrophobic on all fours.

Goldsmith’s epidemic terror includes all three elements of Cohen’s moral panic: exaggeration, the prediction that such things are inevitable, and symbolization. In Cohen’s case, the symbolization congealed around the image of the “Mod;” in Goldsmith’s case, around the image of the dog. The dog isn’t simply diseased, but mad – a disturbance of the rational faculties, a lowering of the censure between the Id and the ego – to use an anachronistic vocabulary to poke at what Goldsmith is describing.

We especially like the end of Goldsmith’s essay, because he goes to the heart of the terror – to the dog itself – and makes a little plaidoyer for the dog: “in him alone, fawning is not flattery. …  “How unkind then to torture this animal that has left the forest to claim the protection of man! How ungrateful a return to the trusty animal for all its services!”

It is interesting that the moral panics of our day have a certain inverted nature – they are moral panics of claiming that real diseases don’t exist, or exist but are harmless, or were invented in a lab and spread by devils – and of course the panic is of a similar nature with regard to the vaccine. That the formerly “free world” is so subject to these panics and inverted panics should tell us a lot about the way the “free world” fought the Cold War.  


Monday, August 09, 2021

The worst president - envelope please


I’m a structure man, not an agent man. I’m instinctively suspicious of lists – the most overrated movies, the hundred best novels, etc. Of course, I’m a sucker, like any good American, for such lists, and the arguments that result in comparing one’s opinion. But I argue in some bad faith.

That said – shoving aside my theoretical objections – I do have an opinion on the perennially sweet topic of bad presidents, as in, was Trump the worst?

This summer’s news is more proof that the answer is no. The answer is George W. Bush.

There are a heap of bad, criminal, insane things the Bush administration did. The retreat from Afghanistan recognizes, distantly, one of them. But one must judge in a harder category: what didn’t the president do? Negligence is an easy thing to overlook, except when, as in the case of Trump’s response to covid, it is an aggressive negligence. Thus, that Bush neglected to heed the numerous warnings in the summer of 2001 of an upcoming attack has always been pushed to the rear of our historical consciousness – because it wasn’t known except to a few for years after that attack happened. If Bush had called a news conference in August, 2001, and said the CIA was trying to protect its ass by predicting an attack by this guy, Omama bin Sodom, we would have as strong a sense of incompetence before disaster as we have from Trump’s “joke” about inoculating yourself with detergent.

But the most massive negligence, which now looms like a giant tsunami over the world, is the eight years, during a crucial climate window, of doing nothing about climate change. Of doubting it, encouraging the ever higher level of exhaust, of cementing into the twentieth century system the nineteenth century dependence on carbon based energy. That, more than “democracy”, might become America’s real contribution to world history.

It didn’t have to be like this. George H.W. Bush, accepting the science, led the effort to close the ozone hole with a series of international accords and model like domestic policies. If he’d been like his son, we would be in a very perilous position today. George W. Bush is merely a name for a whole host of interests and agents, but – I can’t kick against the naming convention.

So, I say again: George W. Bush was the worst president America has ever birthed. Lord, have mercy on our souls.


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