Monday, December 25, 2006

I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!

As a resident Person Who Used to be a Christian, I guess it's my duty to wish everyone at the Huffy Crew a very Merry Christmas! And just for this post, I'll turn down the bile hose and try to stop salivating pure cynicism. Instead, a lovely holiday to you all and a hearty "Valete!" And remember (because although I'm being nice in this message, it doesn't mean I can't be blasphemous):

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The stars have really aligned this week

Here's an article from the Economist which combines Foucault, Hayek, and YouTube all in one disastrously written "special report" on shopping and post-modernism. As usually happens when some journalist decides to throw "pomos" at a wall and see what sticks, there are sloppy bald assertions, elided distinctions, and just plain wrong use of terminology. Horkheimer and Adorno become the "founders" of postmodernism, and the author moves us swiftly along to the idea that their point was that we must "deconstruct" "meta-narratives," a gross amalgamation of separate thinkers. We are to understand that all postmodernists "wanted to destroy capitalism," which of course is a fundamental mistake, confusing modernism (marxism) with postmodernism (localized politics, resignation, or whatever).

I suppose every philosophical movement, if you can even call postmodernism a unified movement, gets the short end of the stick from the press. The utilitarians were pleasure-loving swine, Sartre had a notorious time explaining that existentialism was more than black turtlenecks and despair, and marxism continues to be "an evil ideological religion." All share the distinction of being the pariah of conservative society, at least until the useable bits can be incorporated into advertising and pop-culture referencing. (As we've seen this week, YouTube has allowed us to "seize the reins of the new global media," it's a veritable "democratic revolution.") What's never questioned is the "naturalness" of capitalism, its role as a firm, stable rock against which so many quirky philosophical waves impotently crash. The author(s) of the Economist piece seem to view things that way: Aren't these postmodernists interesting? Didn't they, in their leftist folly, predict what wonderful twists and turns marketing and advertising would take? I guess they were good for something!

I think one of the most important things I learned in the past year was that we have to get out of our easy modes of thinking. This means more than just learning about "alternative" views: it means understanding that your views are also alternatives and that all views tend to construct a naturalized edifice for themselves, one that makes them appear to themselves as the center of the universe. This means ceasing to take for granted the various theodices of the status quo we have been taught, especially since we are all basically well-off Americans. This is not a call to rampant relativism, but, I think, to the truth, or some important bundles of truths. For my own part, this sort of questioning has led me to realize that certain political positions deemed "radical" in the United States really aren't so, especially considering how widely they are accepted and even taken for granted abroad. (Of course, sheer numbers can never justify a position; the quality of the people holding the position is foremost. That being said, is it so bad then to subscribe to "socialism," when the governments of Spain and Great Britain are part of the Socialist International? Well, Great Britain might give us pause... Also, not to forget there are people in those very countries who are probably sick to death of the socialism they've been raised on.) My speechifying is beginning to run wild here, so I will wind this down, but I thought it important to share with you all the incredible sense of newness I felt this year, one which I suppose I was supposed to feel all my life while learning new things, but which has just new truly descended on me. Perhaps I'll change so much that I'll come to the truly impossible: a John McCain sticker in '08.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What Remains Unexplained

Over at Slate, Explainer lists some of the questions that they didn't answer during the year. Readers can email and one lucky question will be picked and explained.

Out of the hundred or so listed, five really stick out in my mind as demanding answers.
(If you're unfamiliar with Explainer, it tends to answer pressing questions that occur to people about things in the news.)

  • What's likely to happen to people, or what might they feel, when they're killed instantly?
  • How clean is bar soap in a public bathroom? Is it "self-cleaning," since it's soap? It seems like a health hazard to me.
  • I have noticed that a lot of mainstream movies feature men peeing. Are the actors really peeing?
  • yea i have my own 620 gang and i dont know how to run it to make not look like a little bitch gang joke it is just me and my friend how do i run it?
  • I met a 40-year-old stripper back in February of this year. We had a special connection. Yet, she was homeless, going through a divorce and bankruptcy. She has three kids who live in Alabama and she pays $500 a month in child support. Moreover, she used cocaine. At one point, she was arrested for forgery. She spent a month in jail but was released under the condition that she become a narc for the police department. She gave the names of her dealers and would wear wires when drug deals were going down. I let her stay at my place and kept food in the refrigerator. This past Monday she took all her clothes, my money, and left. The night before, she hung out with some friends. I called her, and she said I was too good for her. She said she had never been treated so well. She said she would drag me down and she couldn't bear to handle that. I told her my hopes and dreams the night before. I wonder if I scared her off. I don't know what to make of it. I don't know if she met someone else the night before and doesn't want to tell me. It's killing me inside. I cried for her. I really cared for her. Can you give me some advice?

Seriously, though. The soap question is one I think about quite often.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sucker of the Year: Us

As you probably already know, Time magazine has unveiled its "Person of the Year" award, and you're in luck: You've won! Yes, we've all won, all we good, digital-code-mainlining Americans, and the magazine's gauche corporate logo tie-in cover, complete with YouTube font, is here to let us know.

Time rarely strays from the Important White Man selection, and well they shouldn't: The award is for whoever or whatever has most influenced the events of the preceding year, and whitey is normally that person, although sometimes you'll get a Gandhi or a Mohammed Mossadegh (two years before we took his ass out). Occasionally we've seen groups or abstract individuals represented (Hungarian Freedom Fighter in '56, U.S. Scientists in '60, the Middle Americans in '69, American Women in '75) and The Computer won in 1982 (all 64k of it).

It's easy to scoff at the feel-good propaganda and thumb-twiddling, awkwardly-late zeitgeist pronunciations that pass for the POTY. It's also interesting to note how much more mild-mannered it's become since the days of pronouncing Hitler, Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini POTYs, albeit super-evil nefarious ones whose asses we ultimately kicked (well, maybe not Khomeini's).

Yet I think that the POTY can tell us something important about the collective American psyche, if such a thing exists. Especially since the Iraq War began, the award has taken on an increasingly revealing character, one which up until this point had expressed a sort of Holy Trinity, a triptych, of American power and the latent, subconscious, demotic flipside to that power. In 2003, for instance, we had The American Soldier, which in itself displayed the power of the U.S. military and in its selection was a possible attempt to mitigate the fact of sending our troops to die for nothing. 2004's pick, Bush, was, along with the trend of selecting the Presidential election-year winner, a declaration of our central domestic power, the Leader, and in its strategy a sublimation of our shame in re-electing this blatant simp. In 2005, when the war was really beginning to go badly, Katrina had laid us to waste, and no amount of POTY awards could obviate the fact that we'd chosen a band of morally bankrupt imbeciles to lead our country, we found refuge in the Good Samaritans, those do-gooder capitalists who could right all the wrongs of the world with their millions and billions. 2003-2005 thus gave us an absurdly accurate portrait of the powers--military, political, corporate--that matter in America.

How could Time possibly top this triad? Quite easily, it turns out. All they had to do was to show us our place in this whole schema, and in the most unintentionally insulting manner possible. This article has to be read in its entirety just to glean its full vapidity and almost fascistic sense of ethical resignation.
The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.
I simply cannot wait to find out how that theory took a serious beating this year, a year (see the NSA scandal, the Military Commissions Act, the continued, intransigent direction of the war) in which I would have found it more likely that my own father turn into a giant sprig of parsley than someone declare it an exception to the Great Men of History thesis.
To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.

...Oh, excuse me, I was just having a laughing fit over that PS3 remark, coming so tactfully as it did right after the references to three wars and the hundreds of thousands of corpses that come along with them, many of them children's. Now, wait for the "but," wait for the "but"...
But look at 2006 through a different lens [read: complete cretinism] and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes [this clause is meaningless].
You'll note the first instance of the language of "democratic revolution" in that "many wresting power away from the few" remark. Jesus Christ...
The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It's not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.
World-changing (and changing-world-changing?) revolutions that have to be explained to you really are revolutions, we swear.
And we are so ready for it. We're ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.
Interestingly, both YouTube and network television are considered better ways to "learn more about how Americans live" than, say, meeting and interacting with fellow Americans. It seems that you're going to be learning from a screen no matter what, but at least now it's an exciting new screen!
And we didn't just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.
Homeless man: I haven't found work in a year. Can you spare some change?

Man at coffee shop on laptop: Jesus, can't you see I'm working like crazy? I'm making "The Final Countdown" by Europe the background music to my MySpace profile. If I can work so hard, why can't you?
America loves its solitary geniuses—its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses—but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux. We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.
I've spent ten minutes trying to think of something to say about this paragraph, which means writer Lev Grossman must have spent two, although he might have received help from Thomas Friedman on that last sentence.
Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?
At this point I'm beginning to question this whole exercise. Is this a joke year? Or have we really elevated the mundane to the level of earth-shaking? Both? Even if they've one-upped their critics by being both, does their hip irony make them any less stupid? Or have they caught me in a bind: I'm blogging my state of mind, therefore entangling myself in their whole twisted system? Can we even think ourselves outside of Web 2.0 anymore? Or has it become the very ground of and sole possibility for critique? The situation screams out for Baudrillard. Or, like, finishing this shitty article.
The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
I doubt if the Bolsheviks ever came up with a more congratulatory speech to the Russian proletariat after they seized the means of production. And all we had to do was forsake television in order to videotape our pet, all the while ignoring the daily atrocities of 21st century life. Dude, YouTube is fucking sweet. Plus, I totally Tivo'd Lost, anyway.
Sure, it's a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary. Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.
The ontology of the crowd is an amazing thing. First, it was (rightly, or at least accurately) depicted as an angry group of people, most likely threatening to the powers that be. An entire literature of tropes has sprung up in this respect concerning the "ignorance of the multitude." Now thousands of solitary Americans, furiously pecking away at their keyboards in their middle-class homes, can still be conceptualized as a "crowd," and are still considered in need of a good, anti-ochlocratic harangue now and then. Will we still be giving lectures about the stupidity of the crowd when people live their entire lives in front of a screen? When they never leave their homes? When stupidity is firmly entrenched and crowds are inconceivable? Is this the greatest achievement of Web 2.0, a success which other totalitarianisms could only dream of: Groupthink without the group?
But that's what makes all this interesting. Web 2.0 is a massive social experiment, and like any experiment worth trying, it could fail. There's no road map for how an organism that's not a bacterium lives and works together on this planet in numbers in excess of 6 billion. But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person. It's a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who's out there looking back at them. Go on. Tell us you're not just a little bit curious.
Take the third to last sentence. Now subtract everything after the word "screen": "It's a chance for people to look at a computer screen." Yup. See, we have discussed Web 2.0 before (complete with sweet Fishstix/Kushakov exchange). The internet is an opportunity, no doubt about it. But unless it is your means of livelihood, it is simply a mere means. If you meet your spouse on the internet, or organize a meeting on the internet, or stay in touch with your friends on the internet, there's nothing disrespectable about that. But the end is your spouse, the meeting, and your friends. Hypostasizing the mere act of looking at a computer screen as the most heroic thing one can do amounts to nothing; it is a weird hagiography of everyday life, a bit like congratulating Americans for buying automobiles at the turn of the century (certainly a "revolution" in itself) or moving to the suburbs in the '50s. Yet Time wants to tout the internet as something more than consumption, although I can guarantee that probably 99% of all Web 2.0 "usage" is consumptive. We are making the solitudinous internet the alibi (literally "elsewhere") of politics, art, and friendship--the interactive spheres of human existence--at a time when the world despises us for the very narcissism Time extols. And in our haste to discuss everything and do nothing, we leave our most despicable traits intact. If President Bush had been more tech-savvy, and perhaps more politically astute, rather than encourage us after the September 11 attacks to go out and "buy," he should have told us to blog about it.

Friday, December 15, 2006


The oldest person alive lived in Memphis?? Well I'll be. Perhaps barbecue, endemic racism, and putrid riverwater aren't bad for your health after all.
Put away all sharp objects before watching this

This will either make you want to hang yourself or perpetrate very illegal acts on barefoot people.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Conservatives in academe; plus, the Use and Abuse of Foucault

Here's an interesting article that's been linked to both on A&L Daily and PTDR: "How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking," by Mark Bauerlein. It's ostensibly a review of books by Andrew Sullivan, Michael Berube, and Dinesh D'Souza, but the author takes time to lament the general lack of respect for conservative thought in academe. In particular, Bauerlein criticizes the line of thought that views contemporary conservative thinkers as mere "tentacles," to use Lewis Lapham's phrase, of billion-dollar reactionary state apparatuses (the government proper, think tanks, magazines, etc).

This is a very good article with strong arguments. Personally, I think we all received a healthy dose of "classical" conservative thought (Burke, de Tocqueville, Strauss, i.e. the very people Bauerlein mentions at one point). I would have enjoyed more engagement with contemporary conservatives like Oakeshott, however, and I agree that modern philosophy and social thought courses are very focused on radical Continental intellectuals, mostly French.

However, I would take the conversation in a different direction than Bauerlein does. First, I don't see how he can deny that people like the Kristols are in a very important (some might say "damning") way "complicit" with government power and influence. With the death of Augusto Pinochet, we are also reminded of the involvement of Chicago-trained economists (students of Friedman and perhaps Hayek) in a dictatorial state. Rather than wish these examples away, or try to find a "pure" conservative philosopher, untainted by shady associations, why not examine the ways in which liberal academics are involved in public policy? Rather than accept the criticism that conservatives have "undermined" themselves by working with the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute, why not examine how members of the Brookings Institute mirror these practices? (Of course, right now the Hoover and AEI have the Iraq disaster hanging directly over their heads, so they might be at a "disadvantage," although totally deserved.) Furthermore, why assume that the marketplace and the government are corrupted, but that academe is not? Many people might be uncomfortable with the idea that the University has effects other than those of "pure knowledge," but it's worth pursuing the thought.

I'd also like to point out a glaring mistake on Bauerlein's part. Read this portion:

Consider a curricular example. Decades ago a thinker who'd witnessed oppression firsthand embarked upon a multibook investigation into the operations of society and power. Mingling philosophical analysis and historical observation, he produced an interpretation of modern life that traced its origins to the Enlightenment and came down to a fundamental opposition: the diverse energies of individuals versus the regulatory acts of the state and its rationalizing experts. Those latter were social scientists, a caste of 18th- and 19th-century theorists whose extension of scientific method to social relations, the thinker concluded, produced some of the great catastrophes of modern times.

Here's the rub: I don't mean Michel Foucault. The description fits him, but it also fits someone less hallowed in academe today: Friedrich A. von Hayek, the economist and social philosopher. Before and after World War II, Hayek battled the cardinal policy sin of the time, central planning and the socialist regimes that embraced it. He remains a key figure in conservative thought, an authority on free enterprise, individual liberty, and centralized power.

This is just plain wrong. The whole point of Foucault's analysis is that "state and its rationalizing experts" are not the only source of authority in society. Indeed, what's shocking about Foucault's thought is that former strongholds of independent thought and critical resistance (revolutionaries, the sexual liberation movement, et al) contain their own normativizing power and oppression. And not even oppression, but merely subject formation--that's the other crucial point: whereas Hayek was concerned with the enforcement of power by the state, Foucault showed how power flowed freely, unquestioningly, often secretly between people. That's why Foucault and other post-whatever-you-want-to-call-it thinkers are unappealing to traditional radicals: they leave no vantage point from whence one can make an enlightened critique of society. Bad news for marxists, not conservatives like Hayek.

I've seen Foucault played fast and loose like this before. What must always be kept in mind about him is that the novelty of his thought is NOT found in some vague analysis about power and the state: this I take to be a totally mundane point and well covered by a variety of commentators (conservatives opposed to the rise of the bourgeois state, Marx, Mill, Weber, C. Wright Mills, Galbraith, the Frankfurt School, Hayek and Friedman, Nozick, et al--a wide swath of conservatives, liberals, and radicals). If you want to read denunciations of the bureaucratic state, Rosa Luxemburg is as good as Friedrich Hayek. And both are different from Foucault.

The irony of Bauerlein's deployment is in having us believe that Hayek's "reputation" is in the balance. (Hat tip to the Sheriff for reminding me of this wonderful sentence.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

It's the most listiest time of the year...

December ain't just about the War on Christmas: it's also a battle of music nerds! So, before my judgment is skewed by the 638 "top 10 of 2006" lists I'll be reading in the next few weeks, here are my own humble submissions, in no particular order:

Cat Power, The Greatest. This edges out You are Free in my mind. Maybe I'm biased because of the inclusion of the Memphis Rhythm Band (Al Green's backing band!). Luckily, right before Chan Marshall went sober, she gave us a picture of her as a really fun (and sexy) drunk.

Six Organs of Admittance, The Sun Awakens. Six Organs is the moniker of Ben Chasny, a truly freaky California guitar player. He also plays with Comets on Fire (see below)! The Sun Awakens is a very slow, droney, dry record--"taking drugs in the desert" music, although of course in my naivete I don't actually know what that means. A lot of people hated the 24-minute final track, "River of Transfiguration," but I think it's one of the most relaxing things I've ever heard. Many fine hours were spent in the Memphis Public Library this summer listening to this album on headphones.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Letting Go. Well, yeah.

Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies. I think I'm in good company with this one.

Junior Boys, So this is Goodbye. I missed out on the JB's first major stateside release, Last Exit, and this one has apparently suffered in the press for "sophomore slump." However, I think it's wonderful--very minimal but melodic "intelligent dance music," very "3 am in a neon city" (or, you know, "8 pm in the Classics library"). I'm a big dork for wimpy electronic music like New Order, Depeche Mode and Scritti Politti, though.

River City Tanlines, All the 7 inches Plus 2 More. The Tanlines are my obligatory Memphis inclusion. Lead singer Alicja Trout is always up in some fine Memphis rock--Mouserocket, Black Sunday, the Lost Sounds--but I think the Tanlines is her best project. Dirty, shameless, sexed up punk rock, with tendencies towards the Stooges and even Queens of the Stone Age. Plus, there's a Love cover, "Bummer in the Summer." They've got a new album out--can't wait. Check out their Myspace page!

Charalambides, A Vintage Burden. More freaky hippie stuff. Just a guy and girl duo, with lots of overdubbed guitars by freak folk scene king Tom Carter. Hmm, I'm noticing a lot of late night/laid back records on this list...I guess it was that kind of year.

Comets on Fire, Avatar. This is one of my favorite bands currently making music. They are an out of control psychedelic rock group, with super-distorted guitars and vocals, a drummer with at least 6 arms, and an Echoplex machine. Unfortunately, Avatar isn't as good as 2004's Blue Cathedral, not by a long shot. Still, I wore this record out trying to figure out the band's new direction. The sound is a lot cleaner, and the vocals now sound less "pissed off Robert Plant," more "dude from Widespread Panic." Ewww. There's also a few "light" songs that are just a bunch of hippy-dippy Grateful Dead nonsense. No, worse--bad Jefferson Airplane. More amphetamines, less pot next time, please.

David Thomas Broughton, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency. Another solo guitar player, this time on the folk side of things. I think I once pushed Robot in this direction, but I don't know if I was successful. Simply put, this album is sublime. Beautiful, mysterious, and a bit frightening. Broughton doesn't have a great voice, but it's effective, much like Will Oldham or Bill Callahan from Smog. Those are the best points of comparison lyrics-wise, as well. Broughton has a certain timeless quality to him, especially since one song, "Unmarked Grave," is a dead soldier's lament. The weirdest moment is definitely "Execution," the only lyric of which is "I wouldn't take her to an execution, I wouldn't take her to a live sex show / I wouldn't piss or shit on her would I / Because I love her so." Not exactly James Taylor, but maybe Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen.

God, look at that list. I'm such an indie hipster douche...

Ahem, honorable mentions include: Broken Social Scene, Ghostface Killah, TV on the Radio, Yo La Tengo, the Knife, Boris

And, 2005 record I keep coming back to: Maximo Park, A Certain Trigger. I have now discovered the second half of the album. And their b-sides collection, Missing Songs. Still, lots of Britishness plus lyrics about thwarted romantic attempts: coincidence...?

I'd like to hear everyone else's picks, or just what's been in your CD player/iPod rotation lately. Please, don't let the annoying obscurity of my selections inhibit you.

Liberal peace without change--an infantile disorder?

I set before you two very different analyses of American military power and foreign policy: the first by Matt Yglesias, the second by Robert Kagan. The former we might describe as "naive but well-intentioned," the latter as "fully self-aware and complicit." Basically, Yglesias, in response to an argument for "Truman Democrats" contra the "isolationist left," says that the obvious middle path is some form of "liberal" internationalism, in which the United States, rather than asserting its "leadership" position unilaterally, comply with international standards and institutions like the ICC and the UN. In his own words:

To take a specific example, for the United States to join the International Criminal Court would be neither an isolationist policy nor a hegemonic one, but rather a liberal policy in which we submit to an egalitarian framework of rules and cooperate with others in the effort the enforce those rules.
This sort of thinking I take to be in line with those who say that the Iraq War has been an "aberration," and that America has strayed from the path of diplomacy and multilateralism which has in the past and can in the future earn us respect. Yglesias suggests as much:

Truman did not seek to simply implement American domination. Rather, he constructed an alternative vision of a liberal community of nations featuring complex forms of cooperation between states within the framework of liberal institutions like NATO and the EU. The collapse of the Soviet Union creates, in essence, a fork in the road. The United States can either seek to fill the void with unipolar hegemony, or else it can seek to expand the scope of the miniature liberal order created during the Cold War.
To which Kagan responds, quite directly, that the idea of an "aberration" is an illusion: "Since the cold war, America has launched more military interventions than all other great powers combined. The interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were wars of choice, waged for moral and humanitarian ends, not strategic or economic necessity, just as realist critics protested at the time." Attempts to refashion the era before the Iraq War as one of peaceful internationalism are flawed and dishonest: "There is a yearning, even among the self-proclaimed realists, for a return to an imagined past innocence, to the mythical 'traditional approach', to a virtuous time that never existed, not even at the glorious birth of the republic." The real constant has been that America is "an ambitious, ideological, revolutionary nation with a belief in its own world-transforming powers and a historical record of enough success to sustain that belief." In other words: Don't try to talk away Iraq, because wars of choice are in our blood.

My simplest response to this "argument" between the two, as I've constructed it, is both a yes and no, on several levels. On the one hand, I agree with Yglesias that his vision is (roughly) what American foreign policy should look like. On the other hand, I think that Kagan is the more perceptive of the two concerning historical trends and the facts on the ground. However, I would also disagree with Kagan that Iraq is like every other instance of American military intervention: in this instance we decidedly went it alone (much like Vietnam), we planned very, very, inconceivably poorly, and the government went to much more extraordinary measures (again, comparable to Vietnam) to deceive the populace about the casus belli. None of which, of course, excuses the war in Iraq, or makes other instances of American military intervention less suspect. Even if the war had gone swimmingly, it still would have been illegal, unjust, and disastrous (from the point of view of the civilians initially killed), which is something that no one in Washington seems willing to admit. (Furthermore, supposing that sectarian strife in Iraq was a given from the beginning, we might ask what "success" in Iraq would have to look like today: Probably it would entail control by a new form of dictatorship, this time pro-American, in the hands of Chalabi or other exiled bureaucrats. Or could the American occupying forces have prevented the current civil war in time to implement a real, functioning democracy? I'd like to know everyone's input on this question.)

My overall answer is to criticize both Yglesias for his naivete and Kagan for his embrace of barbarism. Kagan says that "Americans do pursue their selfish interests and ambitions, sometimes brutally, as other nations have throughout history," and, "This enduring tradition has led Americans into some disasters where they have done more harm than good," while obviously approving of the historical trend on the whole. I don't think that one can justify such statements while remaining committed to true worldwide liberalism (i.e. the right of self-determination for nations, the doctrine of waging war only in self-defense).

Yglesias has the nobler idea, but I really don't see how it will ever materialize so long as the American system, both political and economic, remains the way it is. Kagan might say that we have invaded countries for purely "humanitarian" reasons, irrespective of "strategic or economic necessity," but here I think he is either willfully dissembling or somehow actually convinced of his own ideology. To say that there was no "strategic" element to the interventions he lists ("strategy" being ultimately reducible to, among other things, economic interests) is patently wrong. Moreover, many of the conflicts he conspicuously leaves out, such as our gross Latin American meddling and our overthrow of the Iranian government in the 50s, were definitely traceable to capital (United Fruit Company in the case of Guatemala, British Petroleum in Iran). Today, in the new Guilded Age of corporate influence, these disturbing problems are even more pressing. Even when centrist Democrats are elected, as in the case of Clinton, the power of big business and public impotence vis-a-vis the corporations continues to grow. Although I am in league with Yglesias' spirit, I don't see how it will happen unless a number of measures take place, such as publicly funded elections, free of influence, higher corporate taxation and regulation, the rise of a new Progressivism, et cetera. I don't want to deny that social democracies also go to war (hypothetically, at least), or offer a vulgar materialist account of the reasons for every American war. However, I think it's undeniable that bucking Big Trends (which Kagan correctly documents) will require Big Changes.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Stupider than Fiction Roundup

First off, this is not a good post. This is a post that will do anything for a cheap laugh, and therefore not likely to get anything. It is a couple news stories I've greatly "enjoyed" over the past few days. (All links courtesy of Her Majesty the Queen's British Broadcasting Service)

The new Fijian government (post-coup) politely suggests that dissenters shut the hell up and pour themselves another Mai Thai.

I thought Margaret Thatcher was dead...But no, here she is deeply mourning the loss of Augusto Pinochet. I suppose that she won't be going to his place for tea anymore, which is a shame considering the new flat-panel HDTV he was about to buy. At least we know the General's legacy is still living on.

Two "Hollywood Chimps" are retired to a nice family farm after allegations of abuse by their trainers. Chimpanzees are found in greatest numbers in Côte d'Ivoire, with smaller populations in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Here reports of people getting abused by electric shock sticks, punched, taunted, and intimidated hardly warrant a second thought nowadays. I suppose there are advantages to starring in Bruce Almighty after all. On another note, there are unconfirmed rumours that the chimp's trainer, Sid Yost, has fled to Liberia and is planning on leading a repressive military coup replete with shock sticks and routine intimidation.

And, with props to Robot, the BBC's most read story and proof that they can slip that dry humour (remember, British links) even in the news- Indian condoms are too big Subtlety! This is what you get for winning independence! The joke was fifty years in the making but BOOYA. EAT IT INDIA. But perhaps the Indians have the last laugh as one of their Drs. manages a crushingly witty Alexander Pope reference in regard to the issue. Next week in the beeb, bras imported to Australia are far, far too large?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

More Baseless Accusations, Tonight at 11

"Jimmy Carter Accused of Distorting History," we're told by CNN. What's this news clip about? According to Emory professor Ken Stein, Carter, along with his new book, has gotten the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wrong for two reasons: 1) He's a former president, not a historian; and 2) He's making an argument about an emotionally charged topic.

So be it, I would usually say. In Israeli-Palestinian-debate-world, it's quite permissible to accuse presidents who make history of being unqualified to jot down a few words about it. Better leave that to the real historians, I think is the general opinion. Equally permissible is to criticize someone's argument for ... their making an argument, where instead, perhaps, they should be doing something like saying nothing, or saying something egregiously wrong, or doing more of that fun, supportable, democracy-promotion stuff like election monitoring, or writing novels about the Revolutionary War, or histories about Europe.

But I think, ultimately, this news piece goes a bit too far off the loony-tunes end. In addition to the bit outlined above, the second half of the news clip is about a map that appears on p. 148 of Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, which may or may not have been derived from a different source, which may or may not have been knowingly used by Carter -- who was using a source from an Israeli research institute -- without attribution. Phew! Pretty confusing, eh? Too soon, perhaps to assign blame to anyway.

But wait! We're told that Stein "suggests Carter took material [from this other source] without attribution. In other words, that he committed the very definition of plagiarism, right? (In the sense, you know, that plagiarism basically means "taking material from another source without attribution.")

But no! Not in bizarro-world CNN story, which tells us that "Stein is clear: he's not accusing Carter of plagiarism." Huh?

This is just the worst news clip I've ever seen. A terrible combination, it seems, of atrocious editing, silly statements by interviewees, and this absolute garbage about a stupid map. And who really cares?

Well, one thing no one seems to care about is Jimmy Carter's actual argument. While necessarily grounded in history, it's nonetheless about something happening right now -- which is exactly his point. Forget the history. Anyone with a conscience who visits the West Bank will be horrified by what they see, he reminds us. Period. If we can't agree on the history, or the maps, can't we at least use this -- innocent human suffering -- as a basic starting point for discussion? Or is this just simplifying the many complexities of History and Cartography?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Nobel Blogging

Grameen Bank is one of the most wonderful success stories of the last decade. The Bangladeshi microcredit institution has been responsbile for loans to 6.61 million borrowers (97% of which are women). Most strikingly, these borrowers own 94% of the total equity of the bank. It's a bank, in some sense, for and by the poor. Loan recover rate is close to 98%, and as Wikipedia notes, "more than half of Grameen borrowers in Bangladesh (close to 50 million) have risen out of acute poverty thanks to their loan, as measured by such standards as having all children of school age in school, all household members eating three meals a day, a sanitary toilet, a rainproof house, clean drinking water and the ability to repay a 300 taka-a-week (8 USD) loan."

So, in the wake of Grameen Bank and microcredit founder Mohammed Yunus's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance this Sunday, the New Republic has published an article that congratulates Yunus for his "deserve[d]" Prize, but has one rather significant criticism ... that Grameen, as a corporation, just doesn't extract enough profit. I'm no expert on these matters, but from I know, almost everything in this article is both flat-out wrong, and outright offensive.

The premise of the article is somewhat correct. Grameen Bank, just about like most things in this world, cannot be shy about making profits if they desire to an effective institution. "If small-scale financial services are to be a long-term solution to the problem of poverty, they need to embrace profit," the author, Andrew Curry, writes.

Fair enough, but what does this have to do with Grameen exactly? Here's where things truly fall apart. According to Curry, "
Yunus is firmly anti-profit." It's his "philosophy" (read: anticapitalist), we're told, that's the problem. And what is the philosophy of this heavily accomplished and innovative Nobel Peace Prize Winner? Curry thinks he captures it in a short paragraph:
The problem isn't Grameen's size or its borrowers, but its philosophy: Yunus is firmly anti-profit. "Maybe banks can make a profit from [loaning money to the poor]. ... But this is what loan sharks do," Yunus said after his Nobel win was announced in October. "We have enough enterprises generating money for profit. I would rather think that the rich can set up social enterprises." Yunus even objects to the term "microfinance," preferring the profit-neutral "microcredit."
Besides one reference later on to Grameen's low interest rates they charge (gasp!), Curry offers not a single statistic about Grameen, nor another quotation from Yunus. Instead, we get lots of statistics about microfinance (stick it to 'em, Andrew!) banks in Serbia and Bolivia, which by virtue of their being mentioned alongside "numbers" are somehow supposed to make them more appealing to toughminded, manly, realist men -- not those Gandhian types who think non-violence, or non-profit-driven banking, or whatever, is a real strategy.

The reason that so little actual statistics appear in reference to Grameen is that, at least when it comes to profit, Curry is dead wrong. Join me as we listen to arch-profit hater Yunus answer a question (about halfway through, around the 30th minute) about profits. Or, if you don't want to listen, I'll do a play by play:

Questioner: One of the comments made by participants particularly in the financial industry is that the cost to provide these loans ... is often too high. This doesn't seem to be an issue for Grameen, but maybe you can provide some insights to the larger financial...
Yunus: That's a trade secret! We don't have to give it up! You'll be competing with me."
[Audience laughs, as Yunus is clearly joking. Oh, that silly anticapitalist who doesn't take competition seriously. But wait! An answer!]
Yunus: We cover all our costs with the revenue that we generate. We make a surplus. Last year we had about $7 million of net profit. This year we're looking forward to some $20 million plus dollars in profit.... We're expanding, our profit is increasing, and people are happy.

You bet those italics are mine. Quite an answer from this anti-profit man whose actions are set to "Doom Microfinance." Yunus continues to answer this question by describing that they make a profit in spite of low loans, scholarships, housing subsidies, 0% interest student loans, etc. For a look at how the bank's profit has steadily grown and is now fastly increasing since 1976, you can find some statistics here.

I'm willing to hear arguments, based on empirical evidence, about whether Grameen and its followers in other countries should seek to raise interest rates in order to maximize their services. However, to be told that "Grameen is glorified philanthropy, not banking," and that this anti-profit slickster is about to drive the institution he created into the ground, is just a sick slap in the face to evidence, reason, and decorum. For the love of God, Mr. Curry, let's not take a successful banking organization that brings millions out of poverty and criticize it in the name of some anticapitalist bogeyman.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I read the news today, oh boy

Examining the various analyses which have been posted today concerning the findings of the Iraq Study Group, one can easily see that there are two camps, with the second camp breaking into two very distinct groups. The first camp, made up of people like the Washington Post's David Broder, are collectively orgasming over the idea of a "consensus" view in the age of "polarized" politics. Broder's column today, "A Study in Comity," sags like a tired old man's waddle under the weight of words like "bipartisanship," "example," "civility," "coming together," "goodwill," and, of course, "consensus" (3 times). In what is basically the same article but presented as news analysis, three Post staff writers concur, although I can't figure out if their piece is more consensus circle-jerking or one of the greatest exercises in stealth snarkiness I've ever seen. The language is so hyperbolic as to be irony: an "all-star" panel, assembled for what would be "one of the most anticipated study groups in modern times" (says a lot...), traversed the world and consulted hundreds of sources, even putting their lives in danger "in bulletproof vests and helmets...avoid[ing] enemy rockets," in order to deliver a 96-page report in which "every line was carefully debated." (Well, I should hope. Imagine if they snuck in a throwaway line--"Edwin Meese sniffs butts!") Then, for some reason, the writers give us an image of the self-congratulatory Group members dining on "crab cakes, beef and souffle." The most telling bit, however, comes right after one particularly autoerotic "circle of friends" moment:

"Whether the end result will prove meaningful is another question."

Oh yeah, that's right: the point of this exercise was not for a bunch of septuagenarians to play Secret fucking Santa with each other, but to find a way to manage America's Massive Bloodbath, a.k.a Iraq. I know Broder has been waiting to use the word "bipartisanship" since the good old days when Democrats and Republicans could agree on Core Values (probably something to do with pinkos and queers), but unity means nothing when the by-product is worthless. I'm sure any ten of us, despite our preferences, could ultimately decide on a consensus dog turd. ("I rather like the shape of that one." "I'll never vote for that turd!" "Guys, look--here's a piece of shit we can all agree on!") But it's still a dog turd.

That brings us to the second camp: those who recognize that the counsels of this high and mighty team of know-nothings amount to sound and fury--well, more like wheezing and chiding--signifying nothing. These are almost too limitless to list, but see The Weekly Standard, The National Review, three articles at Slate, The Nation, The American Prospect, and countless pundits and bloggers--John Podhoretz, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias, and Charles Krauthammer, to name a few. What you'll notice about this camp is that its members come from extreme ideological opposites--the first camp's nightmare. Their language is often similar, especially in its contempt. Here is hardcore neoconservative Podhoretz:

"Its members also reached a consensus view that Depends is a really fine brand of adult diaper, and that they love reruns of 'Murder, She Wrote.'"

And here's Rolling Stone's own anarchist, Taibbi:

"It's important, when you nominate your panel, to dig up the oldest, saggiest, rubberiest, most used-up political whores on the Eastern seaboard to take up your cause...Baker-Hamilton was a classic whore-panel in every sense."

Both groups say the ISG report doesn't break any new ground, and that its language is vague enough to please everyone but solve nothing. Well, there are a few particularly rabid conservatives who say that the Baker-Hamilton commission "emboldened our enemies abroad" or some bullshit, and they're bristling that the report would dare advise us to talk to Iran and Syria or engage in the "Palestinian question." Their biggest complaint, of course, is that the ISG says nothing about "more troops," which is the zombie-like mantra they keep repeating these days for lack of any other ideas.

Liberals, while perhaps enjoying a moment of schadenfreude as Bush is confronted with something he would rather avoid (and this happens so very rarely), complain that the language of the report is sufficiently vague enough to lend itself to whatever plan Bush decides to pursue. They also decry the lack of a definitive timetable for withdrawal. The report merely says, "By the first quarter of 2008 … all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq." (2008--HMM, AN ELECTION YEAR.) Atrios agrees with Senator Russ Feingold that the commission is made up entirely of people who supported the war and consulted virtually no one who opposed it from the start. The main point of the liberal side seems to be that despite the fact that the Bush agenda has been struck a minor blow, everyone not living in Dodoland has known for months, even years, what the commission report says, and yet there is no substantial plan to address this common knowledge.

So, I think we can safely say that the first camp, despite this momentary victory, really has nothing to celebrate, while the latter camp has more force behind their arguments but are at complete odds on how to remedy the situation. Are we left, then, with nothing but power politics, with no "right" answer to be found, only ideological positions?

Well, no. There is a very clear difference between the conservatives and the liberals, and it has to do with realism. (I don't mean realism in the realpolitik sense; merely the everyday definition of "the empirical facts of the world as they stand.") The Broderite first camp is what we might call a-realistic. In a sense this is the most reckless and solipsistic camp, because they don't care a whit for the facts on the ground, only that Ten True Americans get together and diddle each other and call it progress. They possess an odd conception of "pragmatism" in which the goal is not to actually get anything done, but rather simply to reify the term "consensus" to the point where agreement, even on the most mundane and worthless details, is an end in itself.

The conservatives are anti-realistic. They do care about "reality," but it is a reality they have almost entirely constructed themselves. Some concede that the war is unwinnable, or at least that our current strategy is. But we simply cannot lose, because this would mean caving to our enemies, emboldening terrorists, what have you. This is the stubborn pride motive. The thymos motive, if you will. A small number think that the war is going just fine, but that some insidious subgroup has sabotaged the effort: usually the media, sometimes Democrats, sometimes the American people themselves (we're too squeamish, don't you know). As Bill Kristol humorously says, unintentionally of course: "Unfortunately, and dangerously, the president appears to have largely lost their confidence." Yet just a few sentences later he admits that the war has followed an "ineffective strategy." How, then, are we supposed to remain confident in Bush? Pure propaganda? Outright lying about the situation? I doubt Kristol has too many scruples with these tactics. He has a completely slavish and fetishistic attitude towards Bush. The picture he paints is one in which Bush can do no wrong, but that he has been misled by the Pentagon and the military. Now, if you ask me, this war has been nothing but a giant sundae in Bush's lap, open to no one except himself and a few close advisers, with the media and the opposition party largely conceding him that power until recently. The call for all power to be placed in the hands of the Supreme Leader is just a cultish reemphasis on what has been the trend all along. Again, anti-realistic. And then there's the big push for "more troops," which simply cannot be done. This is one of the more humorous (if the situation weren't so grim) parts of that Post article about the ISG:

"Robb was especially interested in sending more U.S. forces, according to one participant, and the panel considered proposals to deploy 100,000 to 200,000 additional troops. Ultimately, though, the panel discovered that there might be only 20,000 available, prompting vigorous discussion that led members to conclude that a substantial surge was unworkable."
Frederick Kagan has a long article in the Weekly Standard that tries to work with this low number. Basically, all he can recommend is sending inexperienced reserve troops and extending others' tours of duty. In other words, throwing undertrained, scared, and weary soldiers into a fight for a Grand and Noble Idea, when all experience shows us that this will not work. I guess you've got to admire Kagan's "patriotism," though... At best this tack is blind zeal, even delusion, at worst clinical insanity. In short, a world of anti-reality.

Liberals have reason to be angry. Their most basic proposals about timetables, which conform completely to the thinking of most Iraqis and now most Americans, simply will not be heard. Furthermore, those who have opposed the war from the start, or even those who have not but have consistently criticized its direction, and have been utterly vindicated since, are still considered personae non gratae. The make-up of the ISG reflects this. The wishywashyness of many Democrats, afraid to look like wimps because "Republicans are so strong on national defense," shows the pernicious side effects of this Washington-think. With the publication of this report, people like Hillary Clinton will wave it in the Administration's face while effectively doing nothing. According to Harry Reid's website, he has no timetable plan either. Nor Patrick Leahy. Nor Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nor Carl Levin. Nor Barack Obama. Russ Feingold does, as does John Kerry, but these are our most "liberal," in many other places "unelectable" Senators. They will need much help and support, and our other politicians will need much badgering, if reality is to get its proper due.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gauging demagoguery

British historian Niall Ferguson wrote a revealing and flawed piece about demagoguery for yesterday's Washington Post. As per usual when mainstream commentators talk about this topic, Ferguson seems to mean by "demagogues" "those popular leaders who are enemies of the United States." He names (also as per usual) Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah, linking all these political figures together with ominous references to historical nightmares like Hitler. No attempt is made to analyze allies of the U.S. who might rightly be considered demagogues (does the popular, free press-curbing, xenophobic-towards-Georgia Putin not come close to counting?), and he certainly doesn't consider the question of whether America's leaders are "demagogic" in any way. (Yet when this does come up in political debate, the finger is almost always pointed at John Edwards, seemingly because he dares to talk about poor people and inequality. See here, here, here, here, and most recently here. This will be pertinent later.)

There are further problems with Ferguson's argument besides omission, the foremost being that he never sufficiently defines what exactly "demagoguery" is. We are to understand that demagogues (a) "demonize the arch-enemy," (b) "yell slogans," are (c) "messianic," (d) are "maverick speechmakers," and (e) "promise radical measures." In order that we might distinguish demagogues from your everyday politician, I think we should eliminate (a), (b), (c), and (d) since they are either common to all politicos, are vague, or are simply meaningless. (Is Evo Morales really "messianic"? How could we measure this quality?) That leaves us then with (e). And honestly, I think this really is the factor that has historically pinned political leaders with the "demagogue" label. In other words, the accusation of "demagogue" is a pointedly class-based strategy. The catch, of course, is that the ruling elite rarely frames the matter in such explicit terms, but instead appeals to the status quo as the "best for society as a whole." Those who would dare to disturb the political universe by favoring the poor are "factional," "reckless," or "appealing to the baser impulses of the public." (This last formulation is Ferguson's. For "baser impulses," as they have manifested themselves throughout history, we should understand, I suppose, "not starving," "being able to vote," "receiving an education," "freedom to organize," and "living on more than $2 a day." Isn't it just scandalous what the plebs are asking for this week?)

This trend goes back to antiquity, specifically Thucydides, although he rarely uses the term "demagogos" explicitly. The whole matter is actually quite confusing, because there is in the first place a distinction to be made between "popular" leaders and "aristocratic" leaders. In the first camp we might place Cleisthenes, the chief institutor of the Athenian democracy in 508 BCE, Ephialtes, who was assassinated, and Pericles. In the latter camp belong the general Kimon, Thucydides the politician (not the same as the author), and later on the members of the oligarchic coup known as the Thirty Tyrants, Plato's relatives Critias and Charmides among them. However, a second meaning also develops, according to which those popular leaders who "flatter" the demos are the true (pejorative) demagogues. This is Thucydides' portrait of the orator Cleon, and Plato's depiction of just about anyone who is not a philosopher. We can pretty confidently dismiss most of Plato's charges as simple aristocratic bias, but Thucydides complicates things greatly, mostly because he tends to praise one "demagogue," Pericles, while condemning another, Cleon, even though there was probably not much difference between them in policy, only in skill. (This prejudice has plagued Cleon's reputation, and that of almost every popular leader after Pericles, throughout the history of classical scholarship.)

To get back to Ferguson, it's interesting that he should choose Alcibiades as the "best known" Greek demagogue, citing his enthusiasm for the disastrous Sicilian expedition. In fact, Alcibiades' strategy broke with that of Pericles, the quintessential popular leader, who had advised the Athenians before his death not to expand their empire during the Peloponnesian War. In addition, once the expedition was launched, Alcibiades was charged in absentia for the mutilation of the herms, which was seen as an act of symbolic violence by an aristocrat against the demos. So Alcibiades' status as a "demagogue" remains totally unclear. Pericles is the more obvious candidate, but again historical prejudice tends to prevent us from besmirching his record.

In Roman times, there were similarly class-based political distinctions, namely between the optimates (the "best"--the aristocracy) and the populares. Here our historical record is even more tilted in favor of the elite. We are supposed to understand that populares such as the Gracchi brothers were vicious rabble-rousers, when in fact they simply proposed redistributive land measures (there are those "radical measures" again). For this they were murdered. In this instance, Ferguson is just absolutely wrong in describing Cicero as a demagogue. Although Cicero did not come from a patrician family, he was a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat. He sometimes played the part of the popularis when delivering public speeches, but when push came to shove he strongly favored the elite.

Not only has Ferguson fudged these historical allusions, but he can't even stick to what is apparently his working definition of a demagogue, a leader who favors the poor with "radical measures." For example, his most frightening example, Hitler, was primarily opposed by German Social Democrats and Communists, who are about as "demagogic" as you can get according to a class-based definition. Also, it's ironic that he should peg fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini with the label, but then blatantly ignore Franco, who was supported by the landed elite, the clergy, and all the most reactionary elements of Spanish society. I also see no way in which one can claim both Hitler and Trotsky as demagogues using the same criteria. Right after he mentions Trotsky, Ferguson says, "Success meant power for the demagogue, and persecution for his targets." Trotsky, the perpetual exile, would probably be amused by a portrait that so inaccurately conforms to historical reality.

There are further complications. Ferguson would like to make Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad parallel, but it's difficult to blow off Nasrallah's anti-Israeli rhetoric as mere bloviating since Israel, you know, occupied his country for 18 years. And when the United States is supplying Israel with the weaponry to attack Lebanon, is he supposed to just play nice towards us? This does not excuse the extreme anti-Semitism that flows from Hezbollah, but it does place their opposition in some historical context outside of mere demagoguery.

Ferguson is also unable to talk away the strength of leftist politics, try as he might. Going back to the class-based presumptions about demagoguery, time and time again Ferguson says things like "[poor people] are more likely to lose confidence in the political status quo [read: capitalism]," "personal freedom [read: capitalism] is all too often the demagogue's first victim," and "as the boom years of the industrial age gave way to deflation and depression, demagogues turned against liberalism [read: capitalism]." Fortunately, Ferguson wants to say, the poor tend to return to the fold when their leaders can't live up to their promises: "They often find it harder to deliver on election pledges than to deliver election speeches." However, he then admits that Evo Morales was just last week able to push through a "radical land reform bill." And if leftist/demagogic leaders quickly fall out of favor, then why does Chavez keep getting elected (by landslides) in free and fair elections?

These are just a few of the problems involved in Ferguson's analysis. It's obviously class-based, yet it wants to subsume all morally detestable views under its purview (I guess this is what the Marxists mean when they talk about the material basis of ideology). It very noticeably refuses to turn the knife on itself, in Nietzsche's phrase. And it ultimately explains nothing about very disconnected political movements. Do I think that we have much to be wary of concerning Ahmadinejad? Absolutely. Do I feel the same about Chavez, especially with reference to some tenuous "demagogic" connection between the two? Absolutely not. Chavez might win elections in part because of scapegoating of the United States, but this isn't the only reason for his popularity. Meanwhile, Republicans kept control of the U.S. government for the past five years thanks to fearful gesturing towards some vague "terrorist" enemy, which it turns out is whomever we happen not to like, in addition to the grossest sort of reactionary attitude towards gays and God. And if populist leftists like Chavez and Morales are "demagogues," then I guess that makes us "plousiogogues," flatterers of the most obscenely wealthy. But of course, a word like "plousiogogue" doesn't exist, because control of society by the wealthy has been so commonplace throughout human history as to be taken for granted.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Forces of Darkness vs. Angels of Light

The final confrontation between lame republicans and humurous liberals will be fought in the Supreme Court soon, and it will not be over abortion. Instead, it's about free speech: can a high school student be punished for unfurling a pro-drug banner at an off-campus event? What if that message is one of the most hilarious sentences of the 21st century--"Bong hits 4 Jesus"? As an added bonus, Ken Starr is representing the school. When will this guy get the crow bar out of his ass?
Also, in an unrelated but equally tragic assault on the freedom of high-schoolers, a young man was shot yesterday for throwing eggs at someone's car. I normally don't care much about tragedies, but this is a kid I can really empathize with. Sad-pants.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Apollo the Sun-Mother

This video of a sunspot forming got me thinking. With our knowledge of how the Sun works, it seems more apparent than ever that, if the Sun is sexed (not gendered, we're talking anatomy), it must be female. Looking at pictures of it just reminds one of a wet, throbbing vagina, sucking everything into it with its enormous gravity.

About Schmitt (Updated)

Did anyone else notice Andrew Sullivan referring to NRO blogger Mark Levin as "Schmittian"? This would be the second time in two days I've seen Carl Schmitt's name pop up in popular political discourse. The other instance was Diane McWhorter's Slate article, which I have already described as "ridiculous" in these "pages." McWhorter links to a Chronicle article, but see also this post by Scott Horton at the excellent Balkinization blog and this article on Counterpunch. Oh, and also here on Crooked Timber. It seems that everyone's favorite fascist legal theorist is the poster boy for describing Bush's imperial presidency. Giorgio Agamben is certainly not afraid to raise the Schmittian spectre, and his research and theorizing seem to have ushered in the current explosion of Schmitt-talk. (In this area I have benefited greatly from my reading of State of Exception, a gift most generously bestowed upon me by the Sheriff.) Chantal Mouffe (one half of the Laclau-Mouffe team) has also been pivotal in resurrecting the old Nazi, as in her Challenge of Carl Schmitt.

(UPDATE: After much soul searching, I realized that no one does or should give a shit about what I think about Carl Schmitt and Plato. Please read on.)

Although Schmitt's idea of decisionism invites comparisons to Bush's declaration of his being "the decider," I think we ought to be careful with such parallels. Nazism and fascism are not charges to be dispersed glibly. Just as I think it is pernicious to describe jihadism as "Islamofascism" (because doing so implies that we are heroic warriors in the vein of Churchill, we can't be Neville Chamberlains, and the only solution is to bomb every Middle Eastern country in sight, "before it's too late"), so also describing the situation at home as fascistic, as McWhorter does, is largely useless because a) it's just not true that we're in the same state as Nazi Germany or Italy, b) there's no obvious answer to what you do in the face of fascism (overthrow the government?), and c) most people will simply scoff at you, when in fact you can make a much more forceful case for the abhorrent nature of this Administration without employing the term "fascist."

On the other hand, although Schmitt was a Nazi, we can't let that obscure all of his legal theory, which continues to remain important. When and if Schmitt's name can be sufficiently detached from fascism, we shouldn't shrink from exploring his influence upon the legal philosophy of John Yoo, David Addington, and Unitary Executive Theory, which is part of a much larger discourse of executive power.