June 02, 2008
Can't Post... Reading
(And not what I should be reading, neither.)
Democracy and deference*, by Mark Slouka, in Harper's:
In general, the Brits act as though the government is their business and they have every right to meddle in it. Americans, by and large, display no such self-assurance. To the contrary, we seem to believe, deep in our hearts, that the business of government is beyond our provenance. What accounts for the difference? My wife, whose family hails in part from England, has a theory: unlike us, the Brits don’t confuse their royalty with their civil servants, because they have both, clearly labeled. Acknowledging the universal desire to defer, they channel that desire, wisely, into the place where it can do the least harm, a kind of political sump.The only sensible argument for monarchy I have ever read.
[* Not sure if that link works. Harper's appears to be down but it might be temporary.]
(Only recently noticed) A Reader's Manifesto, by B. R. Myers, in the Atlantic Monthly:
The flat, laborious wordiness signals that this is avant-garde stuff, to miss the point of which would put us on the level of the morons who booed Le Sacre du Printemps. But what is the point? Is the passage meant to be banal, in order to trap philistines into complaining about it, thereby leaving the cognoscenti to relish the irony on some postmodern level? Or is there really some hidden significance to all this time-zone business? The point, as Auster's fans will tell you, is that there can be no clear answers to such questions; fiction like City of Glass urges us to embrace the intriguing ambiguities that fall outside the framework of the conventional novel. All interpretations of the above passage are allowed, even encouraged—except, of course, for the most obvious one: that Auster is simply wasting our time.What Else is New?, by Steven Shapin, in The New Yorker, a review of, among others, The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton:
The tendency to exaggerate the impact of technological innovation follows from an artifact of historical consciousness. When we cannot conceive what life would be like without e-mail, say, we correctly note the pervasiveness of the new technology, but we may incorrectly assume that the things we now do through e-mail could not have been done in other ways... The Library in the New Age, by Robert Darnton, in The New York Review of Books:
In 1897, to move mail around the city, Manhattan started to equip itself with an island-wide system of underground pneumatic tubes, which soon extended from 125th Street as far as the Brooklyn General Post Office. Through the nineteenth century, the pneumatic tube had developed roughly in step with the telegraph and then the telephone. For a long time, indeed, pneumatic tubes seemed promising—perhaps they could shunt people around as well as mail—although, ultimately, it was the telegraph and the telephone that flourished, becoming the ancestors of the electronic communication systems we use today. Yet, had there been a century of continuous improvement, who knows what benefits a dense and speedy system of message tubes might have brought? A man working on Eighty-sixth Street could send a scribbled note, chocolates, and a pair of earrings to his girlfriend on Wall Street. To have left your wallet at home could be a mistake remedied in seconds. It’s a safe guess, anyway, that, while aware of a distant past containing such figures as postmen and delivery boys, we would be unable to imagine life without the pneumatic tube.
A study of news during the American Revolution by a graduate student of mine, Will Slauter, provides an example. Will followed accounts of Washington's defeat at the Battle of Brandywine as it was refracted in the American and European press. In the eighteenth century, news normally took the form of isolated paragraphs rather than "stories" as we know them now, and newspapers lifted most of their paragraphs from each other, adding new material picked up from gossips in coffeehouses or ship captains returning from voyages. A loyalist New York newspaper printed the first news of Brandywine with a letter from Washington informing Congress that he had been forced to retreat before the British forces under General William Howe...Rehabilitating Rachel Carson, by John Quiggin and Tim Lambert, in Prospect Magazine (my extract probably comes from the longer version):
Londoners had learned to mistrust their newspapers, which frequently distorted the news as they lifted paragraphs from each other. That the original paragraph came from a loyalist American paper made it suspect to the reading public. Its roundabout route made it look even more doubtful, for why would Washington announce his own defeat, while Howe had not yet claimed victory in a dispatch sent directly from Philadelphia, near the scene of the action?...
Le Courrier de l'Europe, a French newspaper produced in London, printed a translated digest of the English reports with a note warning that they probably were false. This version of the event passed through a dozen French papers produced in the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Switzerland, and France itself. By the time it arrived in Versailles, the news of Washington's defeat had been completely discounted. The comte de Vergennes, France's foreign minister, therefore continued to favor military intervention on the side of the Americans.
In the 1990s, however the situation changed radically, first for tobacco and then for DDT. The tobacco industry was faced with the prospect of bans on smoking in public places driven primarily by concerns about the health effects of passive smoking. Realising that such restrictions would prompt large numbers of smokers to quit, the industry sought, once again, to cast doubt on the scientific research. Given its bad, and well-deserved reputation, it was evident that a campaign focused on tobacco alone was doomed to failure. So the industry tried a different tack, an across-the-board attack on what it called “junk science” about environmental and health hazards. Its primary vehicle was The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a body set up by PR firm APCO in the early 1990s and secretly funded by Philip Morris...Killing by the numbers, by Mark Benjamin & Chris Weaver, in Salon:
TASSC had an advisory board ... but the real work was done by an activist named Steven Milloy... TASSC and its website junkscience.com attacked the environmental movement across the board, on everything from food safety to the risks of asbestos. The result was that advocacy pieces dismissing the scientific evidence on the health dangers of passive smoking, for which Phillip Morris was paying, appeared to be just part of the general campaign against “junk science”.
One of the issues Milloy took up with a good deal of vigor was DDT, where he teamed up with J. Gordon Edwards... Edwards' attacks on Rachel Carson moved from the LaRouchite fringes of the political spectrum to become part of the orthodoxy of mainstream Republicanism. By the late 1990s, the tobacco industry's fight against restrictions on passive smoking was clearly headed for failure. Milloy switched his primary focus to climate change. He collected money from Exxon and other fossil fuel companies. This switch only made DDT more useful as a rhetorical stick with which to beat environmentalists.
At worst, the rules explicitly allowed the killing of unarmed Iraqis under certain circumstances, a particularly dicey concept given an enemy that does not wear a uniform and hides among civilians. Specifically, the snipers were allowed to shoot unarmed people running away from explosions or firefights. The chain of command was particularly frustrated by insurgents fleeing after attacks from roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices. The notes from Army agents who later investigated the shootings said the battalion leaders, Balcavage and Knight, worried that the snipers had "let a lot of guys go after IED explosions." The snipers called these fleeing, sometimes unarmed Iraqis "squirters." Of course, it's not unusual for innocent people to run from explosions.Selling the War with Iran, by Nir Rosen, in The Washington Note:
The truth is, most allegations about Iran's role in Iraq and the region are unfounded or dishonest. Iran was responsible for ending the recent fighting in Basra and calming the situation after Iraqi parliamentarians who backed Prime Minister Maliki approached it. The Iranians, never close to Muqtada or his family, were so annoyed with Muqtada and his presence that they reportedly ordered him out of Iran where he had been living in virtual house arrest anyway since arriving six months earlier. Iranian officials and the state media clearly supported Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi government against what they described as "illegal armed groups" in the recent conflict in Basra, which is not surprising given that their main proxy in Iraq, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council dominates the Iraqi state and is Maliki's main backer.In the Guardian, With friends like these - David Edgar on professional turncoatery:
Hard enough to be fooled by the party; even harder to accept that you deluded yourself into believing that the poor are, by virtue of their poverty, uniquely saintly or strong. No surprise that this realisation turns into a sense of personal betrayal, which turns outwards into blame. One obvious result of this is the tendency of ex-radicals to become very conservative indeed, a tendency satirised by Edmund Wilson in his quip about John Dos Passos: "On account of Soviet knavery / He favours restoring slavery". Dos Passos was not the only American Marxist to pole-vault the cold-war liberal centre and land in the arms of William F Buckley's high conservative National Review. Initially claiming that he still believed in the end of working-class emancipation, former Trotskyite Max Eastman quickly turned on "mush-headed liberals" who "bellyache" about civil rights; for former beat critic and latter neoconservative Podhoretz, homosexuality was a death wish and feminism a plague.See also this glorious beatdown on Mamet from Michael J. Smith at the usual suspects:
Above all, the reality that neocons felt mugged by was the moral inadequacy of the poor. Kristol's manifesto On the Democratic Idea in America blamed the free market for encouraging unreasonable appetites in the working class; as Robert Nesbit put it, "to allay every fresh discontent, to assuage every social pain, and to gratify every fresh expectation".
But mad as he is at the Times, and NPR, Mamet is mostly mad at the Jews. All around him, his landsmen, being intelligent people, are marrying the girls and guys they like, without regard to race or religion. And more and more often, they are declining to buy literal or figurative Israel bonds. They are coming to be Jews in much the same way their neighbors are Unitarians or yogis or yachtsmen. That is to say, their Jewishness belongs to the personal sphere. It is not a sign of radical demarcation from the world around them. They have for the most part no interest in being Hebrew-speaking Amish. And this drives Mamet crazy.Storming Heaven - Tariq Ali on 1968:
The Jews Mamet depicts in his book are downright anti-Semites, full of self-hate and slavishly eager to please Gentiles. But unless Mamet knows a very different class of Jews from those I know, this is sheer fantasy. Why is Mamet indulging in it?
If David Mamet were an institution, it would be easier to understand. Shtetl institutions wouldn't exist without the shtetl, and so those institutions, and the people who staff them, have an interest in keeping the shtetl walls high and strong.
France finally exploded in May-June of that year, making it an uncommonly memorable and beautiful summer. We were preparing the first issue of The Black Dwarf as Paris erupted on 10 May. Jean-Jaques Lebel, our tear-gassed Paris correspondent was ringing in reports every few hours. He told us:The BBC also has a nice story on official paranoia surrounding the October 1968 demonstration in London. Papers on the March demonstration are, forty years later, too sensitive to release, ho ho.
'A well-known French football commentator is sent to the Latin Quarter to cover the nights events and reported: "Now the CRS [riot police] are charging, they're storming the barricade - oh my God! There's a battle raging. The students are counter-attacking, you can hear the noise - the CRS are retreating. Now they're regrouping, getting ready to charge again. The inhabitants are throwing things from their windows at the CRS - oh! The police are retaliating, shooting grenades into the windows of apartments…" The producer interrupts: "This can't be true, the CRS don't do things like that!"
"I'm telling you what I'm seeing.." his voice goes dead. They have cut him off.'
The police fail to take back the Latin Quarter now renamed the Heroic Vietnam Quarter. Three days later a million people occupied the streets of Paris demanding an end to rottenness and plastering the walls with slogans: Defend the Collective Imagination, Beneath the Cobblestones the Beach, When the finger points at the moon the IDIOT looks at the finger, Commodities are the Opium of the People, Revolution is the Ecstasy of History.
The Dark Knight - The Rise of the "Real" Barack Obama, by Wajahat Ali (one piece amongst the ream of stuff I've waded through about "Bittergate" and the Reverend Wright press-fiasco. Are white people fucked in the head or what?*):
When Obama refused to passionately and angrily distance himself from Wright, CNN commentators labeled him soft, passive, and unassertive. During the Pennsylvania primaries, when Obama took the offensive and ignited the critical, and many say "negative," campaigning against Clinton, he was accused of losing his "Cool Hand Luke" aura and Zen calm and was instead "lashing out" under the strain of critical inquiry after failing to deliver the decisive "knockout blow" during the crucial final stretch. When Obama talked about "transcendence" and "moving forward" as a means of bridging the racial divide, his authentic Blackness came under review by doubting spectators because he sounded too conciliatory. However, as of this week, due to Wright's most recent comments, Obama was urged to abandon reconciliation, and instead "passionately denounce" his former Pastor as to not appear both too soft or too radical.Chalmers Johnson reviews Soldiers of Reason - The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire by Alex Abella:
In 1951, there were a total of 32 SAC bases in Europe and Asia, all located close to the borders of the Soviet Union. Wohlstetter's team discovered that they were, for all intents and purposes, undefended - the bombers parked out in the open, without fortified hangars - and that SAC's radar defenses could easily be circumvented by low-flying Soviet bombers. RAND calculated that the USSR would need "only" 120 tactical nuclear bombs of 40 kilotons each to destroy up to 85% of SAC's European-based fleet. LeMay, who had long favored a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union, claimed he did not care. He reasoned that the loss of his bombers would only mean that - even in the wake of a devastating nuclear attack - they could be replaced with newer, more modern aircraft. He also believed that the appropriate retaliatory strategy for the United States involved what he called a "Sunday punch," massive retaliation using all available American nuclear weapons. According to Abella, SAC planners proposed annihilating three-quarters of the population in each of 188 Russian cities. Total casualties would be in excess of 77 million people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe alone.Woohoo! Thomas Frank got a regular gig! [Don't you love the way the WSJ's online site is apparently designed to crash Firefox? It's the product placement of the future!]:
But suppose we read on, and we find the news item about the hedge fund managers who made $2 billion and $3 billion last year, or the story about the vaporizing of our home equity. Suppose we become a little . . . bitter about this. What do our pundits and politicians tell us then?Cf Joe Bageant and Dave Lindorff.
That there is no place for such sentiment in the Party of the People. That "bitterness" is an ugly and inadmissible emotion. That "divisiveness" is a thing to be shunned at all costs.
Conservatism, on the other hand, has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement's job is to "organize discontent." And organize they have. They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial. There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry.
Various historical pieces: Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq by Chris Calder; Churchill for Dummies by Michael Lind; The origins of shock and awe by Preethi Sirimanne von den Driesch; an article on The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, see positive reviews and negative; Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen on the bombing of Cambodia; Richard J. Evans reviews Gotz Aly's Hitler's Beneficiaries; and Gustav Seibt's obituary for Raul Hilberg:
Hilberg understood that murdering a swathe of the population consisting of several millions of people scattered over an entire continent required not a group of demoniacal sadists but an army of bureaucrats on the staff of administrative bodies, registrars to control identification, police for segregation, railway officials for transport and paramilitary organisations to whom groups of victims would eventually be assigned for the actual business of extermination. And so to begin with, Hilberg did not study the memoirs of the few survivors, but turned his attentions to the copious amounts of material on the perpetrators. Hilberg famously interpretated a piece of writing which is familiar to everyone: the train timetable. Here the word Jew never once appears, only an ominous 'L' which signalised that the transport carriages that were so tightly packed on the outward journey would be 'leer' or empty on returning. This 'L' contains the precise amount of explicitness allowed - and guaranteed - by the bureaucratic form of expression.I was in Dymocks flipping through Andrew Roberts' A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 recently, disturbing other browsers with my dark laughter, so I might as well link to Johann Hari's savaging of that other neo-imperialist unhistorian Niall Ferguson, Britain's answer to Keith Windschuttle**, which I read, possible reread, a few weeks ago, though it goes back a few years.
Or look at how Ferguson describes the British Empire's conscious policy of mass starvation of Indians in the 1870s and 1890s. In reality, severe natural climate disruption hit India, and there was massive crop failure. The British viceroy - Lord Lytton, appointed because he was Queen Victoria's favourite poet - declared that grain shipments to London must continue, by force if necessary. The institutions that Ferguson presents as Britain's glorious gift to India - the railways and telegraph lines - were in fact used more efficiently to steal and ship out India's food, so Londoners could enjoy them over breakfast. Some gift.And the follow-ups from Hari and Andrew Murray.
And even this was not enough. Lytton went further and declared all relief efforts illegal. The result? One journalist noted that the train lines of India were strewn with "bony remnants of human beings" begging for grain. "Their very eyeballs were gone ... Their fleshless jaws and skulls were supported on necks like those of plucked chickens. Their bodies - they had none; only the framework was left." Some 29 million innocent people died, a crime worthy of Stalin and Mao.
But where does this figure on Ferguson's balance sheet? He dedicates a few dry lines to it. To give some sense of perspective, he gives almost as much space to describing a statue of the Prince of Wales that was made out of butter. He then minimises the crime, chiding anybody who compares it to Nazism ("the intention was not murderous") and demanding to know "would Indians have been better off under the Moghuls?" (Yes, actually.)
Etc, etc, and reams of stuff on Iran, Iraq, the sub-prime crisis and the rest of the ongoing fiasco we call current events. This winds me back to the last occasion I attempted to write an actual post, a deconstructing of Obama's ludicrously overpraised "race" speech, which I abandoned under the usual delusion that the zeitgeist would have moved on to more sensible things before I finished. Ha bloody ha.
Edit: Dang. I completely forgot this extraordinary piece from 2001 by Chris Hedges, "A Gaza Diary", also originally from Harper's.
Before we leave, we visit the office of Dr. Mahmoud al-Madhoun, the hospital's director. He hands us plastic bags filled with bullet fragments he has taken out of his patients. All have the dates, the types of wounds, and the names of the victims printed neatly on the outside. Of the 1,206 killed and wounded, he says, 655 were under the age of eighteen. He cannot understand why soldiers would fire at children.I like his old stuff better than his new stuff.
"In thirty years of practice," he says, "I have never treated a patient who died after being hit by a rock."
* I myself am not so much white as glow-in-the-dark.
** Australia's answer to David Irving