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"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"

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Wednesday, 10 December 2003

Topic: Bush

What? The apocalypse scares you? Really? What's your problem?

On Sunday, 7 December 2003 I posted an item I called George Bush: The Manicheism Candidiate? Manichian? Whatever. Trust me. This will make sense. Notes on the Mentality of the Conservative Evangelicals and received a private email response from an old friend in Albany, New York.

She had been listening to a fellow in a radio interview who was talking, it seemed, about this heresy being perennial, recognized as heresy, and yet hard to root out in all three religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) involved in the Middle East right now. And how Manichaeism is involved with the apocalyptic vision, which is averse to cooperation, accommodation and all the rest - because it posits that everything is headed for that one last showdown between good and evil. That's why conservative fundamentalists (in all camps) really have no interest in progressive ideas that could avert calamity. She found it all interesting. And scary.

Scary? Well, I guess that depends on your point of view, and your particular flavor of theology.

There really has been a lot of talk recently about these apocalyptic views of this current war - this war that may last forever. Or at least until the end of time (read your Bible).

The piece that I see quoted most often, and referred to most often in the last few days, is something Robert Jay Lifton has in The Nation. It hit the web last Thursday and I guess the print version is on the newsstands now.

See American Apocalypse
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nation, Posted December 4, 2003, from the December 22 issue...

The link will take you to it, but here are some key excerpts:
The apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We can, in fact, speak of a worldwide epidemic of violence aimed at massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal. In particular, we are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war making and military power. Both sides are energized by versions of intense idealism; both see themselves as embarked on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve that purpose.
Yes, Lifton is arguing we as apocalyptic in our views as the folks on the other side. That's what I was getting at in my own post a few days ago. And here's his reasoning:
The American apocalyptic entity is less familiar to us. Even if its urges to power and domination seem historically recognizable, it nonetheless represents a new constellation of forces bound up with what I've come to think of as "superpower syndrome." By that term I mean a national mindset - put forward strongly by a tight-knit leadership group - that takes on a sense of omnipotence, of unique standing in the world that grants it the right to hold sway over all other nations. The American superpower status derives from our emergence from World War II as uniquely powerful in every respect, still more so as the only superpower from the end of the cold war in the early 1990s.

More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement - of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower - the world's only superpower - is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.
Well, that may be coming on a bit strong, but one does listen to the Bush team and sense Lifton is close to being spot on here.

But how could this happen? Here's what he sees:
In important ways, the "war on terrorism" has represented an impulse to undo violently precisely the humiliation of 9/11. To be sure, the acts of that day had a warlike aspect. They were certainly committed by men convinced that they were at war with us. In post-Nuremberg terms they could undoubtedly be considered a "crime against humanity." Some kind of force used against their perpetrators was inevitable and appropriate. The humiliation caused, together with American world ambitions, however, precluded dealing with the attacks as what they were--terrorism by a small group of determined zealots, not war. A more focused, restrained, internationalized response to Al Qaeda could have been far more effective without being a stimulus to expanded terrorism.

Unfortunately, our response was inseparable from our superpower status and the syndrome that goes with it. Any nation attacked in that way would have felt itself humiliated. But for the United States, with our national sense of being overwhelmingly powerful and unchallengeable, to have its major institutions violently penetrated created an intolerable breakdown of superpower invulnerability that was never supposed to happen, a contradiction that fed our humiliation.

We know from history that collective humiliation can be a goad to various kinds of aggressive behavior - as has been true of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It was also true of the Nazis.
Nazis? He doesn't go so far as to say we are like them, or very much like them. But he sees parallels.

Then too Lifton relies on Bob Woodward's book Bush at War to show how the president and his team see this all as an apocalyptic enterprise:
The war on terrorism is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end. It therefore enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil. Bush keeps what Woodward calls "his own personal scorecard for the war" in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out if killed or captured. The scorecard is always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
Well, that cheers me up.

But does such an apocalyptic view of things make things better? Not exactly...
Despite the constant invocation by the Bush Administration of the theme of "security," the war on terrorism has created the very opposite - a sense of fear and insecurity among Americans, which is then mobilized in support of further aggressive plans in the extension of the larger "war." What results is a vicious circle that engenders what we seek to destroy: Our excessive response to Islamist attacks creates more terrorists and more terrorist attacks, which in turn leads to an escalation of the war on terrorism, and so on. The projected "victory" becomes a form of aggressive longing, of sustained illusion, of an unending "Fourth World War" and a mythic cleansing - of terrorists, of evil, of our own fear. The American military apocalyptic can then be said to partner and act in concert with the Islamist apocalyptic.
Lifton has some idealistic thoughts on how to break this cycle. You could click on the link and see what he has to say about that, if you scroll down to the last few paragraphs. I just don't agree him. His solution - "renouncing omnipotence" - is not something our current leaders are likely to embrace, nor would most Americans. That would be too scary - far more frightening. Americans like to chant, "We're number one!" as often and as loudly as possible. Chanting that may be cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless.

Posted by Alan at 15:21 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 10 December 2003 15:47 PST home

Topic: Local Issues

Arnold Shwarzenegger: the man California trusts to fix things...

My friend Joy wonders why I don't ever write about Arnold Shwarzenegger and matters related to his election and now his management of this state.

Sigh. What's to say? The voters out here bought the hype. Everyone believed that he had some magic plan that defied the laws of economics and lined up to vote for him.

Hell, he was a no-nonsense action hero who said the problems were simple - eliminate waste (no pun intended) and we keep all our services and get no new taxes; in fact, the new car registration tax increase was to be rolled back.

And it was. I paid a six hundred dollar fee to reregister my car a few months ago and I expect a refund check for four hundred in the mail any day now.

The upshot? Most cities, cities that depend on that tax income for basic services, now face sixty-percent cuts in their annual state funding. Close libraries. Lay off police and firemen. Arnold specifically said he would not, under any circumstances, reduce that allocation and now says... well, he's not saying anything. He just cut the funds.

Ah, but we love him anyway.

Kevin Drum at CalPundit pretty much sums it up. Arnold the most brazen liar in the history of politics, or what? I say this without a lot of malice, since I genuinely sympathize with the almost impossible job he's taken on. But still, enough's enough.

As the LA Times reports today, Arnold was on CNN yesterday and suggested that he might suspend Proposition 98, an initiative that guarantees a certain minimum level of school funding. To anyone who wasn't in California during the campaign it's hard to get across the depth of the deceit this demonstrates. Here was his TV ad on the subject of education:

Question: Will you have to cut education?

Schwarzenegger: No. We can fix this mess without hurting the schools. For me, children come first. Always have, always will.

I'm telling you, this ad ran a dozen times a night on every station in the state. He said over and over that education wouldn't be touched and that he supported Proposition 98. It was a cornerstone of his campaign. But less than a month after being sworn in he casually proposes gutting Prop 98 and then sends out his chief flack to make weasel noises about what the meaning of "cut" is. It's really unbelievable.

In the same interview, Arnold also backed off his promise to make sure local communities get back the money they lost when he reduced the vehicle license fee. And he's backed off his promise to investigate the groping charges.

This is a joke. He knew perfectly well exactly how bad the state's finances were when he made these promises, and he made them anyway. He knew he couldn't keep these promises without tax increases, and he made them anyway. And everyone believed that he had some magic plan that defied the laws of economics and lined up to vote for him.

And now he's just tossing those promises overboard without so much as an apology. It's revolting.
California voters got what they deserved. A lying fraud. But a dynamic, self-made lying fraud. An action hero who would clean house and fix everything? Dream on.

This is the land of illusion - or delusion - or whatever.

Posted by Alan at 13:04 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 10 December 2003 13:47 PST home

Topic: Election Notes

An instructive example of how a true hedgehog thinks....

In the post below - On the upcoming election: the hedgehogs will face off against the foxes... - I made this observation:
It has occurred to me that the conflict in which way we proceed from here, whether we reelect, or actually now elect, our current leaders for another four years of this way of seeing things, comes down to a vote between people who are stuck in brutal simplifications, and those who enjoy unsettling complexity.

One side will say the other is making simple things needlessly complex. The other side will say their opponents are foolishly ignoring the real complexity of the world, of the economy, of the environment.
And then I came across a fellow hedgehog.

Daniel Davies in London (UK, not Ontario) in D-Squared Digest yesterday wrote this about why we went to war, and the "we" here includes the UK. of the few things they teach you at business school which is worth the price of entry; very few decisions in business or elsewhere are "now or never". It is massively more common for a decision to be "now or later". Furthermore, corporate finance theory teaches us that the option to wait is usually really quite valuable. So when we were faced, pre-war, with the following dichotomy -

Option A: Have a war which will kill people and have many undesirable geopolitical consequences
Option B: Leave Saddam in power

- it was necessary to consider not just the pros and cons of A and B, but also the unstated third option which is almost always present whenever you are considering an expensive and time-consuming project.

Option C: Wait awhile to see if a better tradeoff or more information becomes available.

Specifically, my taste was to wait until 2004, when we might have a different American government which wasn't quite so zealously devoted to the project of cocking things up.

This is why I never quite understand why the pro-war crowd, left and right, seem to think that injecting the phrase "Bush is a moron" into the debate is in some way unsportsmanlike, unmannerly or evidence that one's opposition is partisan or not serious.

It's an entirely germane point in considering the costs and benefits of a war whether or not it's being run by a moron, and it is by no means established that the option of a war not run by a moron was completely out of the question.

The benefits of waiting could have been considerable; we might have had a significantly better-planned war and post-war. And I'd argue that the costs were not so great; although Saddam was indeed a dictator or the variety "brutal", the fact is that those mass graves were filled in the early 1990s. At the particular time when we were discussing this question, the actual Saddam-caused mayhem was at a much lower level (although, obviously, I would certainly not have chosen to live there). In any case, any argument based on the assumption that Saddam's domestic brutality was so horrible in 2003 that it could not be suffered to carry on for a single second longer runs into a particularly nasty tu quoque objection; like the rest of us, the humanitarian-bomber crowd were, observably, not out in the streets demanding intervention in Iraq during the first half of 2001, so how serious could this argument actually be?

I'm pretty sure that a lot of us who marched to Hyde Park were in the same camp as me; opposed to "this war now", rather than opposed to "any war against Saddam ever". A very significant proportion of UK and world opinion was entirely prepared to give them their damn war, if they could only get a UN resolution in favour of it, but they couldn't. It's simply an error of reasoning to assume, without specific proof to the contrary, that the anti-this-war-now left could be described as "objectively pro-Saddam". Much fairer to say "objectively pro-Saddam until a sensible plan can be formed to get rid of him, which they judge the current proposal not to be". I'm pretty sure that this was a common point of view, which is why I'm disappointed to see that it wasn't articulated better at the time (I only said anything about it myself in a pretty frivolous way).

Of course, the point would have been moot if there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that of course would have been a decent reason why the "war/not war" decision was "now or never" rather than "now or later". But I don't think anyone's pushing that line any more.
So. That's how a hedgehog sees it.

Posted by Alan at 12:37 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Election Notes

On the upcoming election: the hedgehogs will face off against the foxes...
The man we selected to be our president, to administer how our government functions domestically and internationally, is fond of making things simple and understandable.

The most obvious examples of this center on our official policy statements regarding how we will now relate to other nations - the various formulations of "you're either with us or against us" and how not falling in line with our policies and actions means that such an uncooperative nation has sided with the terrorists in the battle of "good versus evil." Enough has been said about that.

As for domestic disagreement with official policies and actions - dissent - those who voice such disagreement are characterized, at best, as harmless but unbalanced "Bush Haters" and, at worst, as traitors, as Ann Coulter would have it. And much has been said about that. No need to go over that again. This formulation does simplify matters.

As for why we find ourselves in a protracted, worldwide war against certain elements of the Islamic world, the short answer is simple. "They hate freedom." It's just envy and resentment. No more. That's our official line.

On the domestic front, we have adopted the position that Abraham Lincoln was stupidly wrong, that we do not have "government of the people, for the people and by the people." Big government is bad; in fact, it is the enemy of the people, and not "the people" at all. Thus government programs and institutions should be privatized - given back to the people, as with the current efforts to privatize the national air traffic control system "to get the government off our backs," and efforts as small as replacing all the staff in our national parks with private employees. The list is endless - abolish welfare, let businesses regulate themselves and all that - but the concept is quite simple. People should "take personal responsibility" for their lives. Reduce or eliminate taxes and end "entitlement programs" and let people spend their own money as they see fit. Government? Bad. Individuals? Good.

There are those of us who think things are a little more complex than all that, who feel we as individuals also live in a community and formed a government to address issues of the common good - and gladly pay taxes for government efforts that help the community. Some things should be a matter of personal responsibility, but other things are matters of common concern, matters of the common good. It's not one or the other. Ah, too complicated.

Some of us feel there are myriad reasons the World Trade Center fell and the USS Cole was attacked and all the rest, and these reasons might be examined as we plan what to do next in the world. Again, too complicated.

I am fond of quoting what I think Albert Einstein once said - "Everything should be made as simple as possible - but NOT simpler." That sort of view, of course, gets you nowhere these days.

It has occurred to me that the conflict in which way we proceed from here, whether we reelect, or actually now elect, our current leaders for another four years of this way of seeing things, comes down to a vote between people who are stuck in brutal simplifications, and those who enjoy unsettling complexity.

One side will say the other is making simple things needlessly complex. The other side will say their opponents are foolishly ignoring the real complexity of the world, of the economy, of the environment.

The hedgehogs will face off against the foxes.

One does tend to recall "The Hedgehog and the Fox" - Isaiah Berlin
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense.

But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moli?re, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.
See Berlin, Sir Isaiah (1953), The Hedgehog and the Fox, New York, Simon & Schuster

The problem is that the hedgehog and the fox will never, ever, understand each other.

Posted by Alan at 11:11 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 10 December 2003 11:17 PST home

Tuesday, 9 December 2003

Topic: The Media

Is angry talk dangerous? It's only talk. A social scientist considers the question.

Another odd site came my way: The Left End of the Dial: Dr. James Benjamin's periodic musings and rants - primarily of a political nature, as well as jazz, poetry, haiku, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

The Left End of the Dial is pretty much "angry left" as you would imagine. Benjamin is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Behavioral and Social Science at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. He's not really a doctor in the MD sense. Here's what I found: Doctor of Philosophy University of Missouri-Columbia (2000), Major Area: Social Psychology, Dissertation Title: The Moderating Influence of Individual Differences on the Provocation-Aggression Relationship: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Literature

Yeah, that's cool. A Meta-Analytic Review. Sure.

Well, he doesn't like Ann Coulter and all her talk about bombing the New York Times building and stuff like that, and others on the right who talk about the moral right to "perform procedures" (kill) abortion providers as a way to stop mass-murder of innocent "children" [sic]. Yeah, Ann Coulter, in her 1998 book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, suggested the only viable discussions for dealing with Clinton came down to whether we should "impeach or assassinate." There's been a lot more talk of such things in the air recently. A couple of weeks ago the nationally syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker approvingly quoted an anonymous military man's wish that the nine Democratic presidential candidates be "lined up and shot."

There seems to be no real parallel to this "verbal behavior" from the left, but maybe I've missed it.

Is such talk dangerous? It's only talk.

Benjamin has some things to say about the dangers of right-wing "rant radio" -
... the general trend of political hate speech is truly the domain of the right wing's politicians, pundits, and rank and file. Research on authoritarian aggression is especially pertinent, as it appears that individuals who are high RWA tend to be prone to act in aggressive or violent ways if those actions appear sanctioned by those they consider as authority figures (see, e.g., Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 1996).

What is troubling from my standpoint as a social scientist is that much of the writings and speech advocating violence against liberals and other political enemies is coming precisely from those authority figures. Television and radio talk show hosts are for better or worse viewed as authorities by those who make up their core fan base. Same with those who hold political offices or who are considered religious leaders. If these authority figures appear to sanction violent acts against other groups, there is an increased risk that someone among their followers will ultimately act violently. The danger isn't so much from what is said by these authority figures (most of it comes across as sophomoric at best) but rather the danger is from the interpretation of the meaning of those hate-filled words based on the rather black-and-white mentality held by their followers.
Benjamin has no faith in the essential goodness and good sense of most people? Perhaps so. Not one of the Democratic candidates has been shot yet. He's being alarmist, no doubt.

And all the talk on the right now is about how much the left is being so unreasonable and just full of blind hatred of George Bush - and not being civil and responsible and moderate at all. The left has been consumed by its irrational hatred. You hear that everywhere.

Here is Benjamin's psychologist's take on the right, particularly Fox News, lamenting all this recent criticism of Bush as no more than "hate speech" -
What is projection? Freud viewed projection as an ego defense mechanism used to ward off anxiety. What the individual does is to attribute their undesirable traits onto someone else, thus enabling them to hate said others instead of themselves for possessing those undesirable traits. For example, a husband who has been carrying on an extramarital affair may project this undesirable quality onto his wife by showing suspicion towards her potential to be unfaithful. Let's face it, that various famous and obscuroid right-wingers have advocated violence against various liberal and/or Democrat targets is well-documented and need not be repeated here. To the extent that these people want to portray themselves as "reasonable" or "fair and balanced," such pronouncements by themselves or likeminded individuals has to be inducing some cognitive dissonance. What better way to handle a guilty conscience or to reduce the dissonance than to latch onto any angry rhetoric from one's political enemies and use it as "evidence" that those enemies are a bunch of hate-filled violent thugs.
I like this guy.

Check out his site.

Posted by Alan at 21:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 9 December 2003 21:31 PST home

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