"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."
- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)
"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."
- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"
Thursday, 12 February 2004
Topic: Bush Advice to the Sun King
Sire: For thirty years your ministers have violated all the ancient laws of the state so as to enhance you power. They have increased you revenues and expenditures to the infinite and have impoverished all of France for the luxury of your court. They have made you name odious.
For twenty years they have made the French nation intolerable to its neighbors by bloody wars. We have no allies because wanted only slaves. Meanwhile, your people are starving. Sedition is spreading and you are reduced to either letting it spread unpunished or resorting to massacring the people that you have driven to desperation.
- F?nelon to Louis XIV (c. 1694)
Just something I came across reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence : 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, Perennial (May 15, 2001), 912 pages, ISBN: 0060928832 (page 298)
Thirty Years? Twenty years? George Bush only needed three years.
My grand philosophical conclusion at the end of the day is that humanity does not divide into the rich and the poor, the privileged and the unprivileged, the clever and the stupid, the lucky and the unlucky or even into the happy and the unhappy. It divides into the nasty and the nice. Nasty people are humourless, bitter, self-pitying, resentful and mean. They are also, of course, invariably miserable. Saints may worry about them and even try to turn their sour natures, but those who do not aspire to saintliness are best advised to avoid them whenever possible, and give their aggression a good run for its money whenever it becomes unavoidable.
Topic: Bush Getting to the heart of matters - recommended reading...Steve Erickson has written about politics for The New York Times ("The End of Cynicism," 1992), the Los Angeles Times Magazine ("American Weimar," 1995) and Rolling Stone ("A Nation of Nomads," 1995), as well as two books about American politics and culture. As an editor at the L.A. Weekly from 1989 until 1993, he covered such stories as Bill Clinton's first inauguration ("The Last-Chance President," January 1993). He's the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming Our Ecstatic Days from Simon and Schuster, and is also the film critic for Los Angeles magazine and the editor of Black Clock, a literary journal published by CalArts - out north in Valencia, where he teaches writing.
Today he has a column in L.A. Weekly that's pretty long, but worth the time. It goes to the core of what has happened here. It's about doubt and certainty, and who we choose to lead us.
Whether it's Christian or Islamic, an uncompromising religious vision can't recognize the legitimacy of democracy without betraying itself. Democracy insists on a pluralism that entertains the possibility that one's religious beliefs might be wrong and another's might be right, and that all religious beliefs may be varying degrees of wrong or right - what traditionalists despise as "relativism." Almost by definition, democracy is at least a little bit blasphemous. It's a breach of rigorous spiritual discipline, and its mechanisms are among the human works of the modern age, which itself is viewed by fundamentalism as an abomination. Doubt is a critical component of both democracy and its leadership. In the eyes of democracy, doubt is not just moral but necessary; the psychology of democracy must allow for doubt about the rightness of any given political position, because otherwise the position can never be questioned. The Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular are monuments to the right to doubt, and to the right of one person to doubt the rightness of 200 million. In contrast, the psychology of theocracy not only denies doubt but views it as a cancer on the congregation, prideful temerity in the face of divine righteousness as it's communicated by God to the leaders of the state.
Nothing about Bush or his presidency makes sense without taking into account the theocratic psyche. Only once you consider the possibility that his administration means to "repeal the Enlightenment," in the words of Greil Marcus, do Bush's presidency and his conception of power, their ends and their means, become comprehensible. Doubt is personally abhorrent to Bush; otherwise he couldn't have assumed the presidency in the manner he did, with decisions and policies that from the first dismissed out of hand the controversy that surrounded his very election. This isn't to suggest that his presidency is invalid, or to dispute the constitutional and legal process that produced it. It is to try and explain how on the second day of his presidency - in what was his first major act as president - in such draconian fashion he could cut off money to any federally funded family-planning clinic that merely advised women that the option of abortion exists. This was more than just a message to the president's evangelical constituency that he was undeterred by what happened in Florida in November and December 2000. It was more than just a message to the rest of the country of the president's contempt for it (which in part accounts for so many people's intensity of feeling about him). It was, from the second day of the Bush presidency, a frontal assault on doubt.
And that's just part of it.
Here he is on the business with outing a CIA agent to get revenge - and on the war in general:
To secularists, including those who believe in God and attend church or synagogue or mosque on a more or less regular basis, the revelation of a CIA operative's identity by someone in the government as a form of political retribution seems beyond the pale, particularly in an era of terror. It's a deliberate violation of national security for partisan purposes. But in the theocratic view of power, national security and political self-interest are inseparable when both are factors in a presidential power that's in the service of Divine Will. From the vantage point of the theocratic psyche, a divinely interpreted national interest overwhelms narrow ideas of security as held by secularists whose insight lacks a divine scope. The theocratic rationale for the Iraq war and the United States' subsequent presence in Iraq exists far above petty secular anxieties about justifying either. If the president could barely conceal his impatience on last Sunday's Meet the Press with distinctions between Iraq actually having weapons or having the capacity to make weapons, between imminent threats or threats that might become imminent, it's because such distinctions couldn't be more beside the point. It was never a matter of reasons justifying the war. Rather, the war justifies the reasoning. Some might suggest that the president's case for the war was made in bad faith, but there is no "bad" in the president's perception of faith, there's only true faith that sometimes is confronted with hard tests posed by divine destiny, the hardest of which is whether the president can work his will on God's behalf, however it must be done. That Iraq had nothing to do with those who attacked America almost two and a half years ago is only a distracting detour in moral reasoning, fine print for those whom God hasn't called.
Family net worth in 2001 was at an average $395,500, up from $230,500 (in 2001 dollars) in 1992. Median net worth didn't jump quite as much, but still rose to $86,100 from an inflation-adjusted $61,300.
And we gave some of it away. In 2000, we gave an average of $1,623 to charity, about 3.2 percent of household income. That was up from 2.2 percent in 1991 and 1995.
And this odd thing - Dogs lived in 36 percent of households, where families owned an average 1.6 canines. Just under 32 percent of Americans had cats, but 2.1 cats lived in the typical cat lover's home. Which means my cat Harriet should really have a friend. I guess she's lonely.
And this: We picked up $485 billion in food to eat at home, and $415 billion to eat away from home. That included 6.9 billion pounds of citrus fruit and 20.6 billion pounds of other fruit, 48 billion pounds of vegetables and 12.8 billion pounds of potatoes.
And we consumed $59.2 billion in packaged beer, wine and liquor and spent another $53.2 billion drinking in bars and restaurants.
In parallel drug stores sold $182.7 billion worth of prescription drugs in 2002, more than double the $72.2 billion spent in 1995.
And America had 23,900 supermarkets in 2001, about 600 fewer than in 1990. But the number of "superstores" grew to 8,900, and the percentage of markets offering delis (80 percent), bakeries (72), seafood (43) and pharmacies (34) all grew significantly. The number of convenience stores shrank to 56,200 from 93,000 in 1990.
Alaska's shopping centers were the most profitable, at $344 in sales per square foot; Nevada's were the least, at $148.
Sex? Utah was by far the most fertile state, with 21.8 births per 1,000 people, followed by Texas, at 17.6. Birth wards were a bit quieter in Vermont (10.6) and Maine (10.9).
Sanctioned sex? The chapels in Nevada averaged more than 75 weddings per 1,000 residents. Hawaii came in a distant second, with just over 20. Nevada also led the nation with 6.8 divorces per 1,000 people, followed by Wyoming's 6.6. (Not all states reported divorce statistics.)
Cars? Sales of new cars and trucks grew to $680 billion in 2002 from $316 billion in 1990. Car registrations grew to 230 million, up from 189 million. And that happened despite having fewer car lots: We had 21,725 franchise dealerships in 2002, down from 24,825 in 1990.
Being bored in cars? In Los Angeles we spent an extra 62 hours per year our cars due to traffic delays. In San Francisco it was 41 hours. But if you were in Bakersfield, or Boulder, Colorado or in Buffalo, New York - or in Spokane for some reason - you spent five hours or less in traffic during the whole year.
We live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things. Albert Camus? Meet Paul Wolfowitz. Last Saturday this was published in The New York Times - a discussion of Albert Camus and his relationship to the American neoconservative movement that brought us the startlingly new US doctrine of our inherent right to preemptive unilateral war against any nation we felt might in the future be some sort of threat. They could be trouble down the road? We then have the right to overthrow that government and occupy that territory and run that country - until we force them to form a government more to our liking. Thus the business in Iraq. We had to do it. It was the only prudent thing to do.
Think of it this way. You're a punchy middle-aged white man walking down the street. You see a young black man, dressed in ways you think you have read about - droopy pants and something you remember about gang colors from a magazine article a month or two ago. But you really do follow the news - you know about crime statistics and the odds that this young man, rather than a young white fellow in a GAP outfit, is some sort of low-life criminal who means you harm. Let him pass? Ignore him? Your decision. So you pull out your handgun - you are constitutionally permitted to carry one after all - and you shoot him dead. You had to do it. It was the only prudent thing to do.
Same sort of thing.
If you wait to know if this young black man is going to kill you, you could be real dead. That's dumb. And with Iraq? If we only reacted to an actual terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction then tens of thousands would be dead. Can't have that. We have the duty to get ahead of the curve. You've heard the arguments.
What does this have to do with Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher who died in the fifties? Not much. But we live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things.
First you must accept the idea that matters these days, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, parallel how things stood at the end of WWII -
Consider the period just after the Second World War, when another tyranny had just collapsed. It seemed as if the Allies had, through their trials, learned something about totalitarianism and democracy. Could those concepts be used to understand the Soviet Union, the West's erstwhile partner? Was it something very different (a humanitarian revolutionary state gone awry) or something very similar (a fascistic state beyond saving)?
Today, what are we to make of the Islamic world? Is it beyond saving, or something that can be "fixed" in some way? Can we turn the Middle East into a region of free-market secular democracies all living together in peace and harmony, and all buddies with Israel? Iraq seems to be our first stab at this.
Since it seems there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at least since the early nineties, we have been told the real reason the second Iraq war was so important is this seeding of secular, capitalistic democracy in the area. Just as we defeated the Soviet Union and now have a nation there stumbling toward capitalism and democracy - even if Putin doesn't quite get the concepts - so we can transform Iraq and all the Middle East. This is, after all, the core of the neoconservative argument.
Well, according to Rothstein such issues affected the impassioned arguments between the two most important writers in postwar France, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Rothstein refers to a new book, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (University of Chicago), in which Ronald Aronson, who teaches at Wayne State University, "traces the nuances of their friendship, their mutual influences and hostilities, and the themes that still haunt contemporary debates."
What of that? They were concerned with past-war communism, not Islamic terrorists flying into tall buildings, nor with a strange dictator in a sandy land behaving badly.
What really was going on with these two guys then? Is there a parallel?
Their schism over Communism was not academic. At the time of France's liberation, buoyed by its Resistance role, the Communist Party had 400,000 members; that figure almost doubled by 1946, and the party joined a coalition government. In addition, according to Mr. Aronson, the party dominated the largest trade union, published dozens of newspapers including the country's two largest, and had a payroll of more than 14,000. The Communist Party was part of the mainstream in a way it never was in the United States.
But its allegiances were just as open to question: it slavishly followed Soviet leadership; fellow travelers idealized the Soviet Union, despite readily available accounts of horrors.
Andr? Gide, who visited Russia in the 1930's, said he doubted whether anywhere, even in Hitler's Germany, the "mind and spirit are less free, more bowed down."
Okay then. The issue was this - can communism be fixed, or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly?
The question today is for the messianic neoconservatives - can the Islamic world be "fixed," or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly? We're working on that.
Camus and Sartre disagreed - just as some of us feel perhaps the neoconservatives are more than a bit loony in thinking the Islamic world can be made "more like us" and thus, in Douglas Adams' famous formulation "Mostly Harmless."
Rothstein points out Camus had joined the communist party in Algeria in 1935 and left two years later in dismay. Aronson even implies that Camus' views on absurdity and freedom grew out of that experience.
But the Germans rolled into Paris, and then were booted out, and one had to make some judgments:
... in France, during the German occupation, Camus did heroic work as editor of a Resistance newspaper, Combat. Sartre, in their developing friendship, called Camus an "outstanding example" of a life lived in "engagement." After the war, both men saw an opportunity to remake the world, redressing social ills. Both also wanted to steer the French left away from the Communists while distancing themselves from the growing cold war.
But by 1948, Sartre had become a fellow traveler, even giving the party the right to censor one of his plays. He called freedom under capitalism a "hoax" and France a "society of oppression." He refused to denounce Soviet labor camps or the show trials. And he justified revolutionary violence, praising the African revolutionary Franz Fanon.
Meanwhile, Camus found himself ever more repulsed by Communism, which he called "the modern madness." He saw Communism as a desperate attempt to create meaning and certainty. He wrote, "Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything." If there were a choice between justice and freedom, meaning a choice between the ideal Communist state and the flawed Western state, he wrote: "I choose freedom. For even if justice is not realized, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open."
And there you have the split.
After Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes, panned Camus' influential counter-revolutionary book The Rebel in 1952, the friends never spoke again. Sartre's influence was so strong that Camus' French reputation was not repaired even after winning the Nobel Prize in 1957. And then he died - drove his Citro?n into a tree on Boulevard St-Germain, just down the street form the H?tel Madison where he was staying, across the street form the Caf? de Flore where his used to meet Jean-Paul and Simone when they were still friends. Or was that Les Deux Magots? (See this for more detail.)
Now this may be drifting from a real parallel with the neoconservative agenda today. But you do have two guys arguing over what can be fixed and what cannot. There is a sort of parallel.
Aronson apparently does not want the reader taking sides. He insists that we have to "free ourselves from the dualistic thinking of the cold war," and not take the "currently fashionable" view praising Camus.
Well, maybe so. Like Rothstein, I find that Camus, "in his concreteness and human sensitivities, is more perceptive, and in his compassion, more trustworthy."
Rothstein says Camus had a major influence on later French writers like Andr? Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri L?vy and Pascal Bruckner - guys he calls the neo-cons of the French left. If so, fine.
Rothstein also says that in Camus' "rejection of utopianism and his acceptance of sad compromise there remain hints of what might form some sort of realistic political ideal."
But that does not sound at all like the idealistic claptrap of the neoconservatives over here who have been creating our national policies for the last decades and implementing them for the last three years.
Our "neo-cons" know nothing about compromise, sad or otherwise, and certainly have no urge to reject utopian visions. They are shoving those visions down our throats, and slapping Iraqi folks around, hard, with those visions.
Camus would just sigh. He'd seen it before. That's why he walked away from Sartre.
Janet Jackson, Jesus and Newsweek I have a friend with a young daughter. Her daughter retrieved this week's copy of Newsweek from the mailbox, and was pretty upset.
My friend wrote to me:
"Janet Jackson's boob was much easier for my daughter to take than what showed up on today's Newsweek cover, the bloody face of the actor portraying Jesus. I've had enough. No more magazines, no more TV..."
And she sent his off to Newsweek -
To the Editor:
My young daughter came inside after collecting today's mail, and when she uncovered the February 16, 2004 issue of Newsweek, she let out a horrified shriek, and covered her face. On the cover was a close up color photograph of James Caviezel's face, and although adults can understand that it's only makeup, my daughter saw gashes and red, and thought it was blood. Children cannot distinguish reliably between fantasy and reality, and certainly today's movie makeup can look more real than reality. This movie was not made for children, and I do not think that photos from the movie should be on the front cover of magazines that young kids will see in newsstands, grocery stores, bookstores, and coffee tables across America. I believe that children are traumatized enough by the reality of this world, let alone the fantasy of Mel Gibson's movie on the cover of your magazine.
And I sent her this:
How old is your daughter now? Is it time to explain the Christian myth of Jesus - and how it's important to many hard-core Christians to emphasize his suffering? Is it time to explain folks like Mel Gibson and his father, crazed at the thought the Jews did this to their hero? Time to explain how Mel Gibson broke down in tears in an interview two days ago explaining that he knew his own wife was going to hell, to endless torment, because, even though she is a devote Christian, she is an Episcopalian? Is it time to explain that Mel Gibson said he was suicidal, with wild mood swings, until he decided to make this film because God wanted him to make this film?
Is it time to explain to her that although you and your husband don't buy into this stuff, almost all other Americans do? And that almost all other Americans want revenge for what happened to Jesus - from the Jews, or at least from the Muslims? Time to explain the Crusades, and the Inquisition, and the Thirty Years War?
Is it time to explain to your daughter how our mutual friend's older sister suddenly found Jesus and gave up her Judaism and now will not let her children ever again see their cousins or ever again see their grandfather, your friend's father now dying of emphysema, because they are all, every single one of them, heathen and unclean. Drop him a line. That happened this year. And the details are nastier than in this paragraph.
Sit your daughter down and explain religion? It's a thought.
Yes, the magazine cover was graphic. On purpose. Jews and other evil people did this to our sweet Jesus. Maybe it's time she understood the world is full of people that passionately hate other people - with every fiber of their being - and will use such images to help them get up the outrage to start killing those they hate, to make the world better, to make it good and pure.
Yes, she young. But she ought to know about the world.
Flashing one's boobs in public is considered a bit over-the-top. But some women secretly want to do that, and it gives them a thrill even to consider it. And with Janet Jackson it was that, or more probably, marketing. Doesn't matter much, really.
But such people don't get a kick out of suffering and death. Some folks do. Lots of folks do.
I have no idea what to say to your daughter, really.