Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Revolution Comes to Wash Av

My introduction to Crooked Timber has been so far so good. In this academic blog, however, this link is by far the cutest thing I've seen.

Friday, March 30, 2007

German Ideologies

Spiegel Online's Claus Christian Malzahn may be on to something when he says that there's a certain hypocritical element involved when you say Bush is Hitler, tickets to America! People opposed to fascism in the 1930s presumably weren't honoring Berlin with their physical and monetary involvement. On the other hand, there's not much to like about this article. The author performs a bizarre rhetorical sleight-of-hand whereby Germans are made to look foolish about everything, ergo they're wrong about America (more specifically, President Bush). Many straw men and appeals to authority are dragged in along the way. (E.g. "There are some Germans who will never forgive the Americans for VE Day, when they defeated Hitler" [??], and insinuating that anyone criticizing America's plan for a missile shield in Europe has "an almost unbelievable lack of knowledge." Cuz a NATO general said so!)

The author's starting point is a poll conducted by Stern magazine which found that 48 percent of Germans think that "the US is more dangerous than Iran." The author also construes this result as saying that the US is "a greater threat to world peace," but considering the fact that world peace doesn't currently exist, this is a forward-looking assessment, whereas the claim that the US is "more dangerous" is a present-day assessment. I'm not sure which the poll actually asked for, but in terms of present-day circumstances it's an undeniable fact that the U.S. is more dangerous than Iran. Even if we factor in the support by Iran for Hezbollah during last summer's war, the damage and killing inflicted by Hezbollah do not come close to matching the deaths in Iraq. That is an empirical fact, and (I would hope) not subject to ideological debate. Even if someone wants to dress Iraq up in the language of a "noble but tragic" enterprise, that doesn't mean doodly to those who have effectively seen America invade another nation, occupy it, and preside over what can only be called a humanitarian crisis (one that has a lot to do with sectarian violence within Iraq, obviously, but, I think, would not exist today otherwise).

Here's the thing: If Germans are actually saying that they believe, in the long run and outside of the fact of the Bush presidency, that the United States, one of the world's oldest, stablest democracies in its over 200 years of existence, is inherently a greater threat to "world peace" than the mullahcracy of Iran, then they are, indeed, a bit loopy. But pace Mr. Malzahn, I don't think this is what's being asked, or said. People are instead assessing the situation as it actually exists, and finding, rather obviously, that America is currently the more "dangerous" of the two. Is this so surprising? We are, after all, as Mr. Kagan says, a "dangerous nation." We just happen to be on the Side of the Good, usually.

Anti-Americanism qua "ugly Americans" is a stupid pasttime and deserves all the abuse it can get, just as the slandering of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and of Muslims as "inherently violent people" is a practice of the dumb. I accept wholeheartedly the idea that much of such thinking is "envy" of one sort or another on the part of "Old Europe." However, if anti-Americanism is opposition to the Bush presidency, then many people in the U.S. itself are as anti-American as they come. That's what Mr. Malzahn, and many in Europe who see America as a homogeneous block, and not as a nation that might actually (gasp) differ in its policies from one president to another, don't seem to understand. Bush is verging on being "objectively" (insofar as it is accepted by almost all with the exclusion of a few extreme ideologues) a "bad president," if he's not there already. The sooner Mr. Malzahn and others realize that opposition to Bush is an almost global phenomenon, encompassing a majority within the U.S. itself, the sooner they will drop their rah-rah'ing of Bush & co. as the Only Way of defeating terrorism, if, of course, they are capable of critical thinking. I happen to believe that Iran is in many ways "dangerous" and should be dealt with, but I don't trust this President to carry out the task. Nor should anyone else with a speck of sense, if you ask me.

Everything I'm saying is decidedly marked off from a certain strand of thinking that views all American actions as inveterately dangerous, simply by virtue of their being actions of an "imperialist" nation that works in the interests of its capitalist ruling class. I don't doubt for a second that certain, if not most, foreign policy decisions of the United States can be predicted by the very nature of the "regime" in America. Here we get more or less into the realm of social and political science and predictability for all states in the context of their particular power and resources. Analysis at this level is largely uninteresting, though, because the general trends are accepted by everyone; the difference is that some approve of the trends while some disapprove. I find the case of the current administration unique in that a number of prominent voices from both sides of the debate consider the Bush presidency "deviant" in some way. This suggests that the problem is identifiable at a non-ideological level and is something that more or less "everyone" can be opposed to (in a principled, hands-across-the-water Andrew Sullivan kind of way).

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Twin Peaks

Here's a project waiting to happen: an in-depth comparison of Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988). I've just finished watching the latter, having at my disposal during the holiday the University's massive DVD collection, and half-way through the movie it suddenly dawned on me that I'd seen much of what was happening on screen before. Dead Ringers tells the story of twin gynecologists, Ellie and Bev Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), who slowly become psychologically unraveled as they both engage in an affair with an actress (creepily, one whom they meet at their clinic). Irons does a fantastic job giving the two characters fully developed personalities, and the taut script and plot move things along nicely. Unlike some of Cronenberg's more famous gross-out films, like The Fly and Scanners, Dead Ringers is slow, subtle, and less overtly disgusting. (That's not a rip on the other two, however.) As usual, Cronenberg fulfils his obsessions with flesh, metal/human organics, and, let's be honest, vaginas (anyone seen eXistenZ?).

But having seen A Zed and Two Noughts already, I was a bit disappointed by the movie's psychology. The concept of twins is a goldmine for exploration. Not that real-life twins necessarily exhibit any of these qualities, but in the movies we expect some sort of probing of the relationship between twins' genetic identity (meaning, of course, bodily identity as well), self-awareness, and sexuality (both towards each other--they shared a womb, after all--and towards women, usually with some recursive reference to the mother). In psychoanalytical parlance, the figure of the Father seems to be absent from the twin relationship, probably because it is displaced from the beginning by the presence of the other twin, starting with antagonism in utero. If anyone knows if the classic psychoanalysis literature has anything to say about twins, I'd be interested.

Greenaway is one of my all-time favorite directors, and it's not for nothing that he's a faculty member at the uber-theoretical European Graduate School. (God, it's a sickening faculty list--Agamben, Badiou, Butler, Zizek, to name a few.) Whereas Cronenberg's films often set their weirdness against a straightforwardly realistic backdrop, Greenaway let's you know from the beginning that he's taking you into a different reality altogether. The sets, costumes, and symbols are extremely prominent and often disorienting, but the viewer comes to make sense of the intricate world Greenaway's created in short time. If anyone's seen it, Brazil might be a good example. The best thing about Greenaway's movies, to me, is the fact that the players in them tend to act normally, as if nothing were particularly odd about their surroundings, but are actually part of a larger scheme of complex designs and metaphors. Thus, in Drowning by Numbers for example, a little girl skips rope and calls out the names of the constellations, which she's apparently learned by heart. Nothing could be more mundane, but in a Greenaway film nothing could be more loaded with meaning. Similarly, in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, the dishboy in the kitchen of the restaurant sings while working, which could be considered usual, but in a bizarre choirboy-esque fashion, and in the context of a highly stylized, artificial-looking set. It's completely offputing, but in the best way possible.

Greenaway brings this sense of the surreal to A Zed and Two Noughts in spades. The story is again about twin brothers, this time zoologists, played in this case by actual twins. At the opening of the movie, one of the brother's wife is killed in a car wreck. The brothers take in the surviving driver (whose legs are both eventually amputated), and, as in Dead Ringers, they both develop a relationship with her, but this time openly. Much weirdness ensues, wherein one brother makes time-lapse videos of various plants and animals decaying. Again as in Dead Ringers, the brothers eventually come to face together sex, identity, and death. I'm pulling this all from memory and so I can't remember all the details of the movie, but even if I were fully informed I couldn't do justice to all the great instances of twinning and wordplay. For example, the brothers are named Oliver and Oswald Deuce (two noughts, for a start), and they're of course ZOOologists (there's the Zed).

What's odd is that Cronenberg never mentions Greenaway's earlier film in his director's commentary, even when he brings up the fact that he's doing the "twin" motif in a different way. He either hadn't seen the movie or he's just been dishonest, but that's all right because his movie isn't as good. Still, it's worth seeing and, as I originally said, comparing with Greenaway. The whole point of this pretentious, long-winded post is WATCH THE MOVIES. As for me, I'm going to enjoy an everything bagel and watch The Cook, The Thief, etc. again.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Not So Happy Ending to Communism

I'm often reminded that Communism doesn't have to be such a serious discussion topic all of the time. One of the better aspects of such a genuinely serious ideology -- I don't care what anyone says, Engels and Bertolt Brecht just weren't funny at all -- is that it often produces wonderful humor, particularly amongst its dissidents. The Czechoslovakian dissident movement, led by Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe, was proof alone that collectivization and suppression can easily go along with laughter.

Two noteworthy examples. The first comes from Havel's famous essay "The Power of the Powerless," which begins with the story of a greengrocer living in a Communist country, who habitually "places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: Works of the world, unite!" [Suggestion: don't read the essay. It sort of kills the joke, if you know what I mean]

Much along the same lines -- dissidents weren't immune to formulaic humor, either -- though funny nonetheless, is one from Slavoj Zizek [Beware of link: long lecture]. Back in Communist Slovenia, whenever there were "free elections" (in the Balkans, apparently, candidates would only win by 80% instead of the typical 99% in the Soviet Union), Zizek and his friends would lead their dissident newspaper with the headline, "Latest News: Surprise! Communists Poised to Remain in Power."

One of the problems of living in a non-totalitarian country which doesn't oppress its citizens all that much is that such humorous avenues are closed off. Are there any good American dissident jokes people can think of? My only rather lame and derivative idea would be something like an inverse of Havel's: An immigrant who supports herself by giving happy endings places a sign on her corner that reads, "In this, as in many other cases, you will be led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of your intention...."

Monday, March 26, 2007

My Grandfather Was Not a Member of the International Brigades. But If He Was, He Would Be Pissed I Think.

What is happening to the legacy of the International Brigades? In Poland, as part of the larger anti-Communist-past "Lustration" project, the ruling Kaczynski twins have initiated a series of reforms intended to eliminate the International Brigades from Polish history. They are now referred to as "criminals and traitors" by the government. If the Kaczynski's law is passed, International Brigade veterans, many of whom also fought in WWII, will no longer receive special government pensions. All references to the Spanish Civil War will be stricken from street signs and school names. [For a good introduction to just how generally awful and anachronistic the current Polish regime is, see here and here.]

In America, meanwhile, a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called "Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War" is stirring additional controversy surrounding the very same issue. The museum displays, chiefly, the history of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteer unit of the International Brigades that went to Spain and fought on the side of the Republic against Franco. Writing in The New York Times, the art critic Edward Rothstein recently excoriated the exhibit for what he sees as its "attempt to rehabilitate the Communist left;" for its failure to deviate much from "what would have once been called the party line;" for its efforts "to re-establish the civil war as a morality tale;" and for its uncritical lionization of a Lincoln Brigade that was "blind — or worse" to the threats of Soviet Communism, the relative tameness of Franco's ambitions, and lastly, the freedom-spreading Roosevelt government. Rothstein ends his piece with a rather odd and poorly substantiated claim that after the Civil War ended in '39 many in the Lincoln Brigade had deemed it necessary to take up the fight against the fascists at home rather than Germany. These men were not the heroes we desperately want them to be, he concludes. It seems, then, that Rothstein too would be partial to the Kaczynskis' interpretation that the International Brigades were more or less traitors and criminals.

I have too many problems with Rothstein's essay to expound in this post. That said, even having never seen the exhibit, I still don't think it would be fair to criticize Rothstein's general thesis that the works on display give an unfortunately naive account to a complicated event. I am concerned, though, that these kinds of eviscerations of the International Brigades are applying to much "presentism" to the past. One needn't be a living breathing Communist to reserve some sympathy for the men who went to Spain in '36. One must always remember the context.

As the members of the Bridage themselves recount in the 1984 documentary "The Good Fight," the 1930s were desperate times to be a working-class American. The international capitalist order seemed broken for good. Fascism was on the march in Europe, and was far from invisible in New York City. When the Spanish Civil War began with a right-wing coup against a problematic though democratically elected government, many Americans of all classes waited to see if fascism would continue to spread in the European continent. When Germany and Italy entered the war on behalf of the fascists, many of these same Americans watched in horror at the democracies' silence, their neutrality -- and in some cases tacit support -- which so obviously was resulting in giving the upper-hand to the fascists. With no prospects at home, many members of the working class went to Spain to fight what they truly believed was The Good Fight. They were driven by ideology and the hope that their efforts would help produce an end to the horrors of fascism, and the desperation of life under capitalism.

In a complicated war which pitted Spanish extremists of left and right, Soviet Communists, German Nazis, and Italian Fascists, one could argue that the International Brigadists were the most selfless and purely motivated contingent of all of the combatants. Their judgments may be deemed excessively, or even dangerously, "naive" by historians seventy years later, but the general decency of these men was and is clear. Heroes? Maybe, maybe not. Traitors and criminals? Fools and knaves? If Spain itself had the last word, the debate would be over.
Last week, the Spanish senate unanimously supported a motion of solidarity with the Polish members of the International Brigades against their government's attempt to expunge their legacy.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


A frequent reader asks:
Are you going to eat that?

Yes--by way of justification, please see below:

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On violence

I missed a day, but I had a good reason: they put those funky dilating eye drops in at my eye doctor's, so I had to do things besides look at a computer screen. Weird. Anyway, a frequent reader asks:

Austin, why do people hurt each other? Are human beings naturally violent, or is it something that movies and video games have taught us?

I think that the empirical evidence shows that human beings are naturally violent, but that society plays a large role in determining how violently people will behave. As this wikipedia article discusses, culture, economic factors, and the media can all affect rates of violent behavior in human beings. To focus on the media issue, I think the empirical results thus far demonstrate that our society's violent films and music increase the amount of violence present among us. But what does this mean for policy-makers, lovers of pop culture, and parents?
Not a whole lot, methinks. Parents should continue to raise their kids and teach them non-violence by example. Policy-makers should remember that the Constitution constrains their actions, but also that attempts at social engineering of this sort can do more harm than good by convincing people that they are not responsible for their own actions. Growing up around a lot of violence should be an opportunity to learn how costly it is to the individuals that perpetrate it, its victims, and the surrounding community, not an excuse to continue a harmful cycle. Creators of films and music should continue to create art that depicts their understanding of the world. I think many critics of violence in film, books and so forth don't realize that such depictions are themselves often subtly critical of the violence we see all around us. The campaign against American Psycho comes to mind: anyone who reads this book or watches the movie should see that it is not glorifying the disgusting protagonist that it portrays but showing how sick and meaningless his life is.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Time side whose on?

A frequent reader asks:
"Time is on whose side - yours or mine?"

You're asking the wrong question. After Einstein, it became "Time-Space." After Lyotard and Foucault, it became "Time-Space-Power-Knowledges." Your question demonstrates insecurity in this matter; I suspect that means that things are going my way, at least for now.

There is no Story Here *UPDATE*

I Just Drew this.

Enjoy. A better scan leads to greater bear Pathos

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

A frequent reader has asked, "Is it possible both to be intelligent and to like Little Miss Sunshine? Explain."
My answer depends on the definition of "like." Yes, this is a bit Clintonesque, but bear with me. We all have a desire to enjoy ourselves, please friends, and be nice to others. Movies like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine take advantage of this fact by making it easy to enjoy the experience of watching a movie with others: they make it clear when we are supposed to feel bad for a character, when we are supposed to laugh at them, and when we should turn to one another and smile.
Like a sitcom with canned laughter, this can be good at times and horrible at others. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, things get a little to manipulative. It's clear to everyone in the movie theater that we're supposed to laugh (but also cry) when the fat, ugly little girl does her silly little dance at the end, but, I, for one, had had enough of knowing exactly how I should feel before I felt it by this time in the movie.
The directors of LMS, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, are famous for their music videos and commercials. I think this shows in the movie. Commercials and, to a lesser extent, music videos should be direct and make a clear point about what they're trying to say. There's simply not enough time for subtlety or contradictions. But a full-length movie should be a bit more sophisticated. There's room for subtlety and tension. It was obvious in the first five minutes of Little Miss Sunshine (as soon as Greg Kinnear opened his idiot mouth) that the message would be something about "success not meaning everything." But in addition to the failures of Kinnear's character, we have the ridiculous spectacle of Steve Carrell and his gay lover, the all-too predictable tragedy of the misunderstood, Nietzsche-reading, Air Force-aspiring high school student, the wailings of a wife who is trying hard but failing, and so on.
In summary, Little Miss Sunshine can be seen as an extremely lengthy commercial for understanding, caring, and treating each other and ourselves with compassion. Some people go into a movie theater looking for precisely this kind of film: something they can just watch passively and at which they can laugh along with others. In fact, I can imagine enjoying this kind of film in the company of small children or elderly people. If this is what you mean by saying that someone "likes" LMS, then I guess the answer is that they are not necessarily stupid. But let's not pretend that this movie is profound or artful. It doesn't say anything unique, and it doesn't convey its message particularly well.

500 Posts, yippee! Taking questions

Blogger says that we have 500 posts. In celebration I'm taking questions from readers (like Tyler Cowen, on Marginal Revolution). Post them in the comments. I'll answer at least one a day for the next three days.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

From The Economist...

In addition to an excellent review of a book written by the uncle of a dear friend of mine, The Economist gives us an absolutely horrifying glimpse of the future: the George W. Bush Presidential Library. You thought we would be done with this man after 2008? Think again:
Housing the George W. Bush presidential library and museum will bring SMU money and attention. But Mr Bush's plans for managing his legacy have ignited a fierce debate about what SMU may have to sacrifice in return. The president hopes to raise $500m for the project. This would make it the most expensive presidential library ever, $335m more costly than Bill Clinton's in Little Rock. For Mr Bush wants to build, alongside the library and museum, an institute devoted to promoting his policies and ideas.

Some members of the faculty think this a bit dodgy. In an op-ed article in the Daily Campus last November, two professors at SMU's Perkins School of Theology wondered bitterly whether housing the library would force the school into a queasy alliance with “a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency.”

It may;...
There's much to admire in this otherwise vomitous article, from the SMU professors' up-yours, to The Economist's lovely -- for once -- editorializing in a "news" article. While it's a great tribute to our capitalist system that anyone who can scrounge together twice as much money as you see here can start a think tank that propagates his or her ideas, it's an even greater aspect of capitalism that we the consumers don't have to put up with it if we don't want to. At this point, anyone who cares for the safety of their children would prefer a world where George Bush's "policies and "ideas" die out with his presidency. I imagine SMU could kindly turn down his offer to build such an institute. Anything that can be done to pressure them into such a move would, in my mind, be commendable.

Middle-Eastern matters

The current issue of Harper's (purchase-only) has a fascinating and well-written cover story by Ken Silverstein about Islamic democracy movements in the Middle East--primarily the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah. When writing about the latter, Silverstein uses interviews and material gathered in a piece he originally wrote but never published in November 2006. As he explains:
After submitting my story, though, I ran up against insurmountable editorial obstacles. It was clear that I was deemed to have written a story that was too favorable to Hezbollah, even though any article seeking to examine its popularity would, by necessity, require some focus on the group's more attractive aspects. [...] The primary problem, it soon became clear, was fear of offending supporters of Israel. At one point I was told that editorial changes were needed to "inoculate" the newspaper from criticism, and although who the critics might be was never spelled out, the answer seemed fairly obvious. I was also told in one memo that "we should avoid taking sides," which apparently meant omitting inconvenient historical facts. [...] "Perspective is everything," I replied in an email to the editors. "If my name was Mostafa Naser and I grew up in the southern suburbs of Beirut, I seriously doubt I would be an ardent Zionist. If we can't even acknowledge that Arabs have a legitimate point of view -- and acknowledge what the numbers show -- we caricature them as nothing more than a bunch of irrational Jew haters." [...] After days of unfruitful negotiations, and a final edit that in my view gutted the story, I decided to pull the piece rather than "inoculate" it to the point of dishonesty.
Silverstein doesn't say anything about the editorial process of his current piece, or why it did not require the same "inoculation," but the whole sequence is striking and disheartening. If an independent, progressive magazine like Harper's self-censors itself to such a degree, think of the news that most Americans receive on a daily basis from the major media. Despite the bleatings from right-wing outlets (not to mention their calls for internment for "treasonous" journalists), the American media is profoundly biased against Arabs--at best they are simply dismissive or know-nothing when it comes to a group like Hezbollah, at worst just a mouthpiece for the Administration's war on terror rhetoric. Thus when Beirut Daily Star editor Rami Khouri spoke at the University earlier this year, he had to speak to us basically as "Buddhist mental retards," to use a recent phrase, in explaining Hezbollah's social and political context, as if it might be difficult for us to wrap our fragile American minds around the idea that Hezbollah is not just a terrorist group. (Silverstein gives props to Khouri in his Washington Babylon blog and links to a piece by Khouri about this year's US-Islamic World Forum at the Doha talks, where Khouri again dresses down American politicians for being the simple-minded babies they are.)

The thing to note especially as a mature, rational adult is that to understand Hezbollah is not therefore to endorse them. Aside from their undeniable courage in not allowing Lebanon to be completely destroyed over the years (and I do not mean just in the summer 2006 conflict with Israel), Hezbollah has little or nothing to be admired in their domestic political program. They are a reactionary religious group, the complete political dominance of which, while perhaps allowing some economic reforms, would in all likelihood roll back social, intellectual, and religious freedoms. So they are not part of the "global left," whatever Judith Butler says. However, neither are they simply "terrorists," which is all the government wants us to know about them. Furthermore, they really do represent the interests of much of Lebanon's Shiite population, and they are legitimate members of Parliament. To seek to destroy them (as we similarly do with Hamas) reveals a profound inconsistency between the theory and actual practice of the "Bush Doctrine" of spreading democracy. Silverstein's piece does an excellent job of explaining such phenomena.

The only other thing I will say is that despite all the accusations from the right (not to mention the "decent" left!) that leftists don't pay attention to human rights violations when they are committed by reactionary Islamic regimes, no one raises complaints about political prisoners in Middle Eastern countries, especially ones that belong to Islamic movements. Thus, much clamor has justly arisen in the blogosphere about the imprisonment of the Egyptian blogger Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman, but nobody says much about the over 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood imprisoned by Mubarak's police state. I urge everyone to sign the online petition that is circulating about Suleiman, but do note that these sorts of double standards are practiced all the time. Moreover, far from revealing hypocrisy, pressure on the United States government from the left to reform its own policies and press for reforms in Israel and Egypt makes perfect sense because these are nations that the U.S. actually talks to and includes among its allies, whereas we have basically no leverage on the policies of, to take a very relevant example, Iran. Sometimes I am simply astounded at the bad faith accusations and hairshirt-wearing apologetics of "leftists" like the Euston Manifesto signees, who mobilize the rhetoric of women's and homosexuals' rights and general "Enlightenment" chest-beating to argue for war in Iraq and Iran. Whereas I would think that campaigning in your own back yard, against your government's policies, which are supposed to represent your interests, would be the best and most effective place to start. Sheesh.

Edit: Speaking of the whole "Why do you criticize America and Israel more than Islamic terrorism?" song and dance, I just now remembered that we recently saw this tactic from that fink Joe Lieberman, who said at an AIPAC conference:
There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism. There is something profoundly wrong when there is so much distrust of our intelligence community that some Americans doubt the plain and ominous facts about the threat to us posed by Iran. And there is something profoundly wrong when, in the face of attacks by radical Islam, we think we can find safety and stability by pulling back, by talking to and accommodating our enemies, and abandoning our friends and allies. Some of this wrong-headed thinking about the world is happening because we're in a political climate where, for many people, when George Bush says 'yes,' their reflex reaction is to say 'no.' That is unacceptable.
John Podhoretz at the National Review Corner blog said "this is why they hate Joe Lieberman," referring to his liberal critics, but then Ramesh Ponnuru of all people made just the point I made above: "One could make another defense of liberalism here: that liberal denunciations of our government's policies are more likely to change that policy than liberal denunciations of our enemies will change their behavior." A thousand times yes.

Who knows what stupidity lurks in the minds of Presidental luncheon-goers? Irwin Stelzer knows.

I was going to write about this mindblowing piece by Irwin Stelzer from the Weekly Standard, but I see that Glenn Greenwald and now lenin at Lenin's Tomb have said all that needs to be said. Stelzer relates an "intellectual" gathering he attended with George Bush along with such luminaries as Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the WSJ's editorial page, and others. The guest of honor was Andrew Roberts, a conservative British historian. In addition to the usual pandering on the part of the Geheimraten and the Prez's simpleminded religious pronouncements, Stelzer shows us point-blank the delusional foreign policy positions that these people actually seem to believe. For example, in an answer to the question "Why is Bush so unpopular?", Roberts and Stelzer proffered the following:
The causes of rampant anti-Americanism do indeed include dislike of Bush. But there are others: the war in Iraq; anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiment, laced with some covert anti-Semitism; and resentment of American power. Roberts urged the president not to concern himself with these anti-American feelings, since in a unipolar world the lone superpower cannot be loved. His advice: "Get your policies right and history will prove a kind muse."
And then Roberts presented five "lessons from history":
First: Do not set a deadline for withdrawal. That led to the slaughter of 700,000 to 1 million people in India, with the killing beginning one minute after the midnight deadline.

Second lesson: Will trumps wealth. The Romans, the tsars, and other rich world powers fell to poorer ones because they lacked the will to fight and survive.

Third lesson: Don't hesitate to intern our enemies for long, indefinite periods of time.

Lesson four: Cling to the alliance of the English-speaking peoples.

Fifth lesson: We are fighting an enemy that cannot be appeased.
This was all of course very pleasing to the President's royal ears. The whole piece is utterly insane and necessary reading for people interested in the inner workings of this regime. Read Stelzer's bit and the two blogger responses; they're high quality.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Situationist International contra Buddhist Mental retard

Lifted from a friend's facebook page for your amused approval:

"Inventing and apportioning insults was a favourite activity of the SI. Amongst its most popular were: cretin, hypocrite, idiot, pimp, scoundrel, necrophage, confusionist, reformist, Trotskyist, Bourbuibist, sub-Leninist, stalino-surrealist, coagulated undertaker's mute, and monogamous police hound. John Cage was a 'Buddhist Mental retard' and Sartre 'a moneygrubbing commodity and mangy dead dog'." for more see L'Internationale situationniste: chronologie, bibliographie, protagonistes (avec un index des noms insultés)"

Monday, March 12, 2007

It's a family affair

Political marriages and familial alliances among the Roman ruling class bordered on the absurd. Just look at this family tree of the Gracchi and the Scipiones. Not only did Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus have a son who was later adopted by the Scipiones and became Scipio Aemilianus, but Macedonicus' sister Aemilia married Scipio Africanus Major whose son was the very Scipio who adopted Aemilianus. And Aemilianus married Sempronia, daughter of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia Africana, daughter of Africanus. So try to figure out who was whose son-in-law/nephew/grandson simultaneously and get back to me. Although this marrying free-for-all seems to us a bit excessive and inbred, it was a powerful political tool; indeed, that was the main reason for its continuance.

I say this because I keep seeing a certain surname concerning anything having to do with our glorious surge plan: Kagan. As in Frederick Kagan, chief architect of the plan. And then there's Kimberly Kagan, his wife, who has begun a lovely little propaganda exercise called (rather boringly) "The Iraq Report" in the Weekly Standard. She was also a contributor to the plan itself. The Standard being the lover of truth and transparency it is, it has neglected to point out this connection. And finally, there's Robert Kagan, Fred's brother, whom I have blogged about before, who has a rosy assessment in today's Washington Post entitled "The 'Surge' is Succeeding." Again, the Post must not think much of the whole blood ties thing, because it also keeps mum about Fred 'n' Bobby havin' the same daddy and all. This silence about the Kagan connection has the conspicuous characteristic of being silent over and over again.

Not only is this whole nepotistic enterprise shabbily concealed, in (R) Kagan's case its just badly argued. In his piece, in which he fails to quote even the lowliest, least reliable, anonymous military source or to cite one bit of statistical data, he relies almost entirely on the writings of the brothers Omar and Mohammed Fadhil, of the blog "Iraq the Model." Don't look now, but the blogs are revolutionizing the MSM! It just so happens that the bloggers in question are resolutely pro-war, have written for the Wall Street Journal (again using only assertions, not evidence), and have met personally with President Bush. Kagan's other source is NBC news anchor Brian Williams, definitely the most reliable barometer about the success of our military strategy. This, as we say in highly technical journalistic language, is a goddamn joke.

Friday, March 09, 2007

In which I say "racism" more times than I have in my entire life combined

I noticed recently during my masochistic visits to Marty Peretz's Spine blog that he keeps bringing up Mass. Governor Deval Patrick. As a matter of fact, he seems positively obsessed with Patrick's wealth. Somehow Patrick's purchase of a mansion in the Berkshires merited special consideration, even though Peretz admits that Romney, Kerry, and Kennedy ain't exactly living hand to mouth, and even though buying a mansion would not seem out of place for a man who was once the executive vice president of Coca-Cola. Then there came the news that Patrick had bought himself a new $46,000 Cadillac DTS. This was too much for Peretz, who joined a chorus of people in condemning Patrick for his lavish lifestyle. "In fact, Deval Patrick seems to be like very big cars, fancy cars, in fact [sic]." Peretz's next post about Patrick screams "MO' MONEY MO' PROBLEMS" in the tagline and says that Patrick has a "strange strain for luxury in his character."

Now, during this whole weird enterprise Peretz has continually voiced his support for Patrick. He voted for the man, and I guess he still doesn't regret it. But let's be honest: Peretz's obsession with Patrick's wealth and spending habits and his uncharacteristic quoting of rap lyrics are part of a greater racist discourse about black people. Patrick may have squandered taxpayer money, and it's not as though he should be insulated from criticism because of his skin color. But the way much of the media is framing the issue is beyond doubt racist. A Feb. 16 article from the Boston Herald titled "Cadillac Deval: When non heli-commuting gov rides in style" calls Patrick's Cadillac "tricked out," "a sleek new ride." A Boston Globe op-ed by Jeff Jacoby says Patrick wanted a "flashy" car, betraying a certain "grasping, gotta-get-mine streak," and similarly uses the name "Cadillac Deval." Even NPR, liberal beacon that it is, says "Mass. Gov's ride criticized." As you can imagine, some of the blogs are taking these innuendos to truly racist levels.

Of course, one could ask, what if these comments had been made about a white politician? It wouldn't be racist then, would it? What if Joe Lieberman bought himself a "tricked out ride"? Well actually, it wouldn't matter one bit if the politician was white, because it would still be an obvious instance of mining black culture for a negative stereotype. We all know how irresponsible blacks become pimps and hustlers, and how they invest in flashy external glitz like fancy cars rather than settle for the "staid" Crown Victoria like our responsible white politician Mitt Romney. And so when the politician in question is in fact black, the link becomes undeniable. The GOP did the exact same thing before the November 2006 elections with Harold Ford Jr., setting up a website called "Fancy Ford" (with bright purple background) showing all of Ford's "extravagant" tastes. Combine this with the bimbo "Harold, call me" TV ad and you have a very simple formula of "Harold Ford = Pimp." I submit that the same thing is quite blatantly being done with Deval Patrick.

What really disgusted me looking through much of the material on Patrick was that blog commentors threw around the phrase "race pimp" as if they had proved something by this term other than their own racism. Supposedly people like Deval Patrick, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson are "race pimps" because they care about civil rights. The charge might be brought against these individuals that have engaged in race-baiting in the past. But "race pimp" is simply a bigoted term masquerading as some sort of rhetorical trump card. You'll notice white people are never race pimps. Only black people. Peretz himself has said "In any case, he [Barack Obama] is not a four-flusher and hustler like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton." Real subtle, Marty.

Curry King recently brought up George Will's deceptive and misleading language, and I called for general patience about the matter. People disagree about fundamental values, and so union bashing, in Will's case, doesn't necessarily entail bad faith. This sort of thing, though, seems to me to be unmistakably wrong. People who say there is no race problem in America are either deluded or lying, and trying to one-up civil rights leaders by calling them "race pimps" or "hustlers" itself betrays a racist mindset. Maybe this is all obvious. But people forget that far from being isolated incidents, these things are largely methodical and part of a greater strategy. It pays not to forgot what Republican strategist Lee Atwater said (in anonymity) in 1981:
You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'
Atwater is also credited with coining the term "welfare queen," perhaps Rush Limbaugh's favorite phrase. Luckily, it's not like anyone listens to him.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


I flipped through Wash U professor Howard Brick's new book Transcending Capitalism today at Border's. Listed in the acknowledgments was none other than Ethan Arpi, beneficiary of our generous "links" column. (Who knows how many untold thousands of hits he has received as a result of the rerouting capacities of the Huffy Crew.) That brings to "two" the total number of Huffy Crew members and extended family listed in published scholarship, Austin-5000 being the standard bearer. Please let me know if I've left anyone else out.

Here's the question, as a bit of academic dorkiness: If you could be thanked in any writer's book, whose would it be and what for? For example, Justice Stephen Breyer, in his future volume Risky Business: 2, 4, 6, 8, Who We Gonna Regulate?, could potentially thank "Austin-5000 for his impeccable fact-checking and steady supply of prunes and fish oil tablets." Alain Badiou, in Meta-, para-, epi-, ana-, sympolitics, will thank "the Sheriff for the massages and the Revolution." The possibilities are endless.

As a side note, I don't know if anyone caught this bit from the Onion, which picks up on one of our favorite themes. God, medieval people were so dirty!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jean Baudrillard's Death Did Not Take Place

...Well, unfortunately for him, it actually did. All snarkery aside, I have actually experienced a twinge of Baudrillard appreciation recently, as the Sheriff will know (from our super-secret Marxist-theoretical correspondence). I read Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings by Mark Poster, and I found Baudrillard's earlier material, particularly the selections from The System of Objects, Consumer Society (where he addresses Galbraith!), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, and The Mirror of Production, quite approachable and interesting. Judging from Poster's introduction, this seems to be the typical response from those who appreciate more traditional social theory but have reservations about postmodernism. Still, I think Baudrillard is an excellent case study of just that, i.e. the transition from Marxism to postmodernism for many late 20th century leftists. One can almost literally feel his growing disillusion with socialism in his post-'68 writings. The intrigue and nihilism presented by modern mass communication and the "new media" is palpable. From there it's a hop, skip, and a jump to saying there's no form of resistance left against "hyperreality." Anyone tracing the intellectual history of 20th century Europe will have to look to this man, for better or for worse.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dangerous conservative bullshit

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The ideal adversary

We should be grateful to George Will. Throughout this presidency, which has been a study in folly, ill will, and mendacity from the beginning, Will has remained a polite, well-spoken conservative. David Broder gets flak for being a "can't-we-all-just-get-along" Beltway hack, but there's a crucial difference between him and Will: Whereas Broder's criterion for success and goodness seems always to be compromise, even if the outcome is crap, Will actually has convictions. He's just not rude about them. (At least, by comparison with most Bush administration officials and conservative media personalities, which isn't necessarily saying much.) This makes Will a rare case: he's a synthesis of the best qualities of the nice-guy types who are either ideologically vapid or just mendacious (Broder, Joe Klein, Friedman) and those who possess deeply held political convictions but can't be bothered to be polite (I think many of the wonks on the blogosphere fall into this category).

In short, there might be plenty you could say in disagreement with Will, but he's pretty much the ideal adversary. This presidency has been an invitation to laziness for some political commentators, since you can always make fun of Bush's stupidity or, on a more serious level, harangue the White House about Iraq and Katrina. The idea then creeps in that if only Bush and co. weren't so fucking dumb, maybe we could all live in peace and harmony. People wonder where the vital center went and lament the polarization of America. Talk of a Unity '08 ticket arises. If anything, this is a formula for delivering ourselves into the hands of some monolithic party (insofar as the Republicans and Democrats are different) that can't possibly represent all of our divergent interests.

I say all this because Will has a column in Tuesday's Washington Post about the Employee Free Choice Act, which passed in the House on Thursday 241-185. I agree with almost nothing in his column, but that's the point: These sorts of purely ideological disagreements, untainted by rudeness and bullying, do and should exist. Will's bonhommie is not a hindrance to, but is actually felicitous for, arguing seriously about these issues.

That said, he's a scab and a blackleg!

Joe Klein's Loyalty Oath

Time blogger Joe Klein gives his list of "left-wing extremist attributes." Here are some of the weirder ones.

--believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.

Hm, I guess we still drive the world economy and produce a large number of the best medicines, but would it be so bad to say that we're at an, ahem, low point right now? What if the bad outweighed the good 51%-49%? Can you invade countries and kill hundreds of thousands of people and be a "fundamentally" positive force? I'm not even going to trot out the Aristotelian distinctions between potential and actual.

--believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America’s fundamental imperialistic nature.

This is a strange "not/but." What if I don't believe it was an "individual case"? What if, however, I don't believe there's a "fundamental imperialistic nature"? How can I be a patriot, Joe?! Help me!!

--doesn’t believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.

Um, and if it's the second best...? It's odd that welfare-statism beats out, say, individual rights or the separation of public and private. Also, I hate to break it to Mr. Klein, but there are quite a few libertarians who now fall into the "left-wing extremist" category, since they don't believe in progressive taxation. Hell, much of the Democratic Party doesn't believe in progressive taxation.

--believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).

What is this man talking about? I take it that most people live comfortably (probably too comfortably) with the fact that much of American society is unfair. Fairness would mean that neither one's class nor one's racial background would count against the chance of success. Does Klein really think these things can be "improved" away? By another, stronger, definition of fairness, one's natural endowments wouldn't count against you, either, since you didn't choose them. Only your effort would count. I take this to be the stance of many mainstream liberal thinkers, including Rawls and Dworkin. Indeed, in Rawls' case, the whole point of introducing the difference principle in A Theory of Justice is to correct for chance and good fortune, which he finds so morally arbitrary. I can't fault Klein for not having read Rawls, but I don't doubt that Rawls and many of his disciples would readily call American society "fundamentally unfair" as it stands now. Didn't Joe Klein's mother ever tell him life isn't fair?

--believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the [sic] primarily the fault of society.

It's distinctly odd that unfairness is an "aspect to be improved," while crime and poverty are "eternal problems." What does it mean for these things to be "primarily" the "fault" of "society"? Would Klein prefer we say that they are "primarily" the fault of individuals? Does anyone really say that crime would disappear under a different social structure? Don't they say, rather, that it would be reduced? Can anyone really doubt this? Can anyone really doubt that we could eliminate poverty if we wanted to?

--believes that America isn’t really a democracy.

No one would actually have this disagreement with Joe Klein. They would agree with him that America exhibits the form of democracy he desires (representative republicanism), and he would agree with them that America doesn't exhibit the sort of democracy they desire.

--believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.

Jebus, this man likes the word "fundamental." Here's my syllogism:

1. All corporations are fundamentally profit-making.
2. Untempered profit-making can lead to evil results.
3. ??? (All corporations fundamentally have the potential to be evil? All corporations have the fundamental potential to be evil? All corporations have the potential to be fundamentally evil?)

The most important thing to acknowledge, however, is that corporations definitely are "fundamentally" something: they are fundamentally profit-driven. Couldn't someone reasonably make the claim that having profit-making as your raison d'etre at the expense of other considerations is at least not good? Wouldn't even some Christians call this evil?

The most disturbing thing about this otherwise silly list is that Klein seems to be striking the pose that it doesn't matter if the things he lists are factually true or not; what matters is that you know how to respond appropriately to them. Imagine a list put out by a Fars news columnist that tells you how to point out an "anti-revolutionary extremist":

--believes that Iran is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
--believes that Iranian extremism is the primary cause of Western imperialism.
--doesn't believe that the Iranian Revolution is the best idea in human history.
--believes Iranian society is fundamentally unfair.

...etc. America may beat out Iran on every single one of the items posted, but all this "fundamental"/"primary" talk points to a more bizarre, propagandistic angle. You can read more about Klein's loyalty oath from Scott Lemieux and Ezra Klein.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hillary Clinton and senior theses ... who is safe?

Apparently Hillary Rodham's senior thesis, written in 1969 at Wellesley, is kind of a big deal. She interviewed Saul Alinsky, the famous socialist community organizer, WHICH OF COURSE PROVES SHE'S A COMMUNIST, blah blah blah. The Swift Boat Vets are already getting moist at the idea of trolling the sucker for pro-Red sympathies or something. (Nevermind that Hillary Clinton is the least Communist candidate [or politician in general] out there. Her entire life has been an exercise in scrubbing everything but the most digestible, smiley-faced pablum from her record. Rudy Giuliani is probably more Communist than Clinton. I mean, he grew up in Brooklyn in the 40s with immigrant parents so he probably knew more Reds than Hillary could hope to read about in a textbook. Dick Cheney is, of course, Stalin reincarnate, so there's no contest there. Meanwhile, Sam Brownback is personally in touch with Jesus H. Christ, a well-known subversive.) The Clintons stupidly put Hillary's thesis under lock-and-key during Bill's presidency in some sort of face-saving maneuver, so it's gained notoriety over the years.

Here's the thing, though--could your own thesis do you any political damage if it came down to it? Mine's pretty airtight, as I hadn't started ranting about local politics or receiving emails from Barbara Ehrenreich as part of the "Young Democratic Socialists Update" at that point. Plus, my interest in Plato speaks to "timeless values." Robot, I think, is good for a Democratic party nomination. Everyone likes education. Austin-5000 would be elected President on the spot. (That's if they don't find the naked gun-toting photos, of course.) The Sheriff, dchan, and Kushakov need to suppress their pinko artsy psychobabble like, now if they hope to stand a chance. I don't know if Sebonde wrote a senior thesis, but he actually, you know, believes in stuff, so he wouldn't be welcome in Washington. I think the closest we could hope for in the 2038 election would be Curry/Robot vs. Austin/Scantron in a centrist-take-all battle royale. (An obscure law of probability guarantees that I will have embraced the free market by then.) Josh the Hippie Killer will blog the event on his Fortune 500 website, D'Mardree will lament the ascension of gargoyles and psychics to the White House.

The Future

In the preface to his The Cold War: A History, John Lewis Gaddis writes "No one today worries about a new global war, or a total triumph of dictators, or the prospect that civilization itself might end. That was not the case when the Cold War began" (xi). I strongly believe that there will not be a new global war, etc., but I'm not sure that I agree that no one believes the opposite.
In fact, I think much of our current foreign policy is based on the radical idea that we are threatened with global war or that terrorism threatens "civilization," however that concept is construed. Gaddis wrote this preface in 2005--is it still accurate?