Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thinking about France

I can't help thinking that the riots in France (are they still going on?; they were woefully undercovered in the U.S. press) portend something far more ominous. Commentators were quick to point out that the rioters were second and third generation Muslims, and so were in now way connected to al-Qaeda. But this misconstrues the nature of Islamic fundamentalism, which is to say that it is not an opposing force to the West, but in fact a force which grows directly out of it. The plotters of 9/11 were fully assimilated and Westernized Arabs. This is just as true of the rioting Muslims in France only their aggression and inclination towards violence shows that despite what Thomas Friedman tells us, even several generations of exposure to modernization and Western capitalism doesn't quell the Islamic hatred of the West. If anything, it only seems to intensify it.

The West needs to start recognizing that for all its emphasis on tolerance it is in fact intolerant of Islam. Western liberalism insists on a divide between the private and public spheres. Islam, or at least a fundamentalist strain of it, repudiates such a partition. And in so far as Islam does this, there can be no place for it in the West.

This, I think, is exactly what Muslims are reacting to -- theirs is a rebellion against Western intolerance of their religion. I am not trying to justify it. I believe liberalism offers a far better alternative than Islam. But I am saying that if the Muslims who come here feel there is no room for their belief system, it is an entirely legitimate and understandable feeling.

This is new, this clash of anti-liberalist Islam and the liberal West. But what is not new is the feeling that the West's insistence on a private sphere is simply not adequate enough. What young Muslims feel is what alienated young Europeans have felt since the 1700's -- a sense that there must be a better way than liberalism, a desire to organize individuals' private lives to the same esteemed ethical standards that govern the polity. This yearning has always produced highly destructive and delusional ways of thinking, but it can't be prevented either. It is the natural and inevitable precipitate of Western liberalism.

And so we should expect to see more rioting, more attacks by Westernized Muslims on Europe and the United States. So yes, even it is for reasons our politicians refuse to recognize, we are still witnessing the dawn of World War III.



Friday, October 07, 2005

An Obit for the Times

Well, it's official. The golden age of The New York Times is over. Their coverage today of Bush's speech on terrorism betrays such a lack of insight, journalistic distance, and careful reporting, I can only conclude that the Times' entire system for maintaining high standards has collapsed.

Here's what I am referring to:

    ?    Despite constant chatter in the media and at the Times about the need to use fewer unnamed sources, reporter, David Sanger, does just that. He writes:
A senior White House official said Thursday evening that the president's 40-minute speech arose from Mr. Bush's desire to remind Americans, after "a lot of distractions" in recent months, that the country was still under threat, and had no choice but to remain in Iraq so Al Qaeda did not use it as a base to train for attacks on the United States and its allies.

What possible reason there is for using an unidentified source to say this, I cannot even begin to fathom. But the bigger problem is that this is pro-Bush spin masquerading as political analysis. It seems as if a White House insider is tipping his hand about Bush's strategy when, in fact, he is reenforcing the President's message. New Orleans and the outrage over Harriet Miers are dubbed "distractions," and the theme's of the President's speech repeated. One wonders how such a paragraph ever made it through the innumerable layers of editing that supposedly exists at the Times.
    ?    We got the above analysis, but it's never explained why Bush's aides had to scramble to identify the 10 foiled plots Bush cited in his speech. It's merely inserted that they scrambled, raising all sorts of questions: did Bush veer off-message? was this speech not written or at least vetted by his aides? and, most importantly, is this claim true? Some political analysis on this apparent faux pas would provide at least some way of assessing the veracity of Bush's statements.
    ?    The President is allowed to boast of 10 foiled terrorist plots, yet there is no mention of the all the plots which were not spoiled and the spike in terrorist activities around the world identified recently by our very own State Department. It would not be unfair or unobjective to point this out. In fact, it strikes me as absolutely necessary since the Times played up the President's boast. And not mentioning it up implies that stopping attacks on America is more of an accomplishment and more important than stopping attacks in the rest of the world by al-Qaeda.
    ?    Another Presidential claim that goes unanswered: "Mr. Bush used his speech, before the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, to warn that Syria and Iran had become 'allies of convenience' for Islamic terror groups, appearing to step up political pressure on both countries." As far as I can tell there is absolutely no evidence, or minimal evidence, for this assertion. A recent report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) found that overwhelmingly, the insurgents in Iraq are not foreigners or for that matter Baathists, but Sunnis opposed to a Shiite-lead government. Of the foreign fighters who are their, the report says most come from Algeria. I am not saying Bush is wrong or that the CSIS is right (although I suspect that is the case) only that the Times has an obligation to mention the CSIS report. There's this weird ethos of fairness plaguing the Washington press corps where it's considered unfair to point out opposing views to his when he holds a press conference or delivers a speech. Essentially, reporters turn off their analytical skills, which is to say they play dumb.
    ?    How can you not mention that most of the themes in the speech have been repeated by Bush incessantly since this war began, and the speech, except that it ratcheted up the rhetoric, did not contain a single new policy initiative?

Honey, let's do it. Let's stop our subscription to the Times.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Within 15 minutes, the media had already constructed a narrative around Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers. The buzz word being used to describe her was that she was "shy."

I am sorry, but I can't imagine how a woman who has climbed to the highest ranks of power in mostly male dominated worlds could be shy. You might say she is deferential or achieves her goals by being soft-spoken, but shy? Yeah right.

Have no doubt that "shy" was a term leaked by the Bush White House to the press corps. First, they don't want her to come across as an aggressive, uppity broad in the tradition of Hillary Clinton. But more important, "shy" makes it seem like she's not especially political, she does her job, and does it well.

Again though, does anyone imagine that someone who serves as White House counsel, especially in this administration, is not at her core a political animal (a political beast would be more like it)? She may not be an ideologue, but rest assured, she is as manipulative, conniving, and ultimately as much as a political hack as anyone else in politics nowadays. And have no doubt that when she wants something, she is in no way shy about getting it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Almost as soon as New Orleans was destroyed, conservatives began putting forth ideas about how to rebuild it. The city, which was and remains in no position to fight back, was to becomes a laboratory for all those conservative ideas floating around on how to alleviate poverty. What Americans were seeing on TV, the thinking went, was the result of decades of misguided liberal social welfare policies. Now, conservatives could make a free start. Goodbye welfare dependency, hello self-responsibility and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

It's like we can't even remember events that took place four months ago. Iraq too was going to be a laboratory for conservative ideas. Paul Bremer believed in imposing a free market economy over there almost as zealously as he did a democratic state, and by many accounts, he was actually more successful in the former than the latter. Yet this experiment has been a disaster. But we should let the Bush administration try again in New Orleans?

The truth about this crop of conservatives is that they are leftists merely posing as conservatives. They believe, as did the far left, that societies can be completely remade, that history is irrelevant, and that human nature is altogether malleable. This was the same vision, quite tragically, that gave rise to Marxism, African nationalism, and the many other forms of radical societal restructuring that conservatives supposedly despise. Yet this ahistorical, rebuild regardless of the past approach is precisely what the Bush administration adopted in Iraq -- who cares that they've never had democracy before? -- and now in New Orleans -- to hell with the city's political tradition and its history, we can do better. What somebody needs to do is make a little Edmund Burke required reading in the halls of the West Wing. It's time to recall what real conservative thinking is about.

The results of the Republican onslaught in New Orleans will be as disastrous as in Iraq, but not because the ideas are bankrupt. The ideas are bankrupt -- it's just that there never even going to get a chance to be implemented. Instead, the tens of billions of dollars being pumped into the city will be handed out to the politically connected and squandered. The ideological trappings of the Bush administration are a charade meant to mask their venality, corruptness, and moral bankruptcy. For them, it's all about rewarding friends in high places.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Pretentious Blog Entry I Will Come to Regret Writing

Art's claims on us should be modest, restrained, and apologetic. The belief that art is transformative, consciousness-raising, even relevant is simply wrong. Art deserves to have no hold on us. It is just art after all. You go to see a show, movie, or exhibit, and then you leave. End of story.

Great art -- art that is non-exploitative, respectful of others -- recognizes its own irrelevancy. It has you, say, for half an hour, an hour, whatever; it does not seek to extend that time. You can easily return to reality once you put the book down or walk out of the theater.

Movies are not art (or not anymore). They are commodities, which is why, unlike good art, they seek an ironclad grasp on your reality. The narrative of film strives to engulf you. You are swallowed up inside it. Your reality becomes its property. The commodities marketed around movies -- toys, posters, soundtracks -- all give you the illusion that you are choosing to participate in the magic of the movie. In fact, you have no choice. The film has ensnared you. Buying its associated bric-a-brac is reflexive.

The powers of human imagination are greatly overvalued. Even the term imaginative is a euphemism for violent and destructive. The belief that the human imagination should be pushed to its limits and even beyond is nothing other than a desire for self-destruction.

I am now watching Shoah (this is a sign of mental imbalance, I know, but let's not to go into that right now). The most fascinating interview for me so far has been with a historian who describes the development of the Final Solution. He says that for the most part everything the Nazis did was unoriginal and entirely precedented historically. The rounding up of the Jews into their own segregated communities, laws against intermarriage, pilfering of Jewish riches -- all of this had been done before by secular and religious authorities. The Nazis may have implemented these tactics with greater efficiency, but they were still following in others' footsteps.

It was the Final Solution though, says this historian, that represented a complete break with the past. It was an unleashing of the powers of the human imagination so that the Nazis could come up with a more efficient and effective way of dealing with the Jews than anyone had ever before.

The historian (I wish I could remember his name) goes on to point out that in none of the correspondence or directives written by the Nazis do you ever see an explicit definition of the Final Solution. From this, Holocaust deniers have concluded there was no Final Solution -- where's the proof, they say? Another group might argue that this was an acknowledgment by the Nazis of how horrendous their behavior was. They could not bear to admit in print what they were doing.

I think though the omission was intended to incite Nazi officers' imagination. Go on, it said, imagine the worst, imagine what words cannot describe, push your imagination to its limits. It was just understood that when the imagination was unleashed like this, encouraged to transcend itself, the result would be barbarism.

So don't talk to me of the grandeur or greatness of the human imagination. Talk to me of the real challenge -- making our thoughts small and insignificant, doing no harm, acknowledging our limits and mortality.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

It's clear that we've reached something of a tipping point in terms of the media's coverage of Bush-- he is now fair game. You could see this today in the Times with a story not only about how FEMA continues to fuck-up things in New Orleans, but also a story on why the anthrax letter senders still haven't been caught. If you look at the piece carefully, you'll see all the sources are secondhand -- ex-FBI men, academics, a few political types-- yet the piece still declares the investigation at an utter standstill. I think even a few weeks ago, the Times would never have run a story like this. They would have waited for some FBI bigwig or Bush administration honcho to acknowledge the investigation was going nowhere, which, of course, would never have happened.

Liberals, at least my wife, are no doubt cheering at the media's change of heart, but I still think it's worth pointing out how arbitrary and hypocritical this turning of the tides is. New Orleans pointed up an utter failure on the part of the Bush administration to manage government apparatus, but anyone who covers Washington should have known about this by reading paul O'Neill's book from three years ago. He said at the time that the Bushies had completely politicized the political process so that the normal day-to-day management of government agencies was no longer taking place (Krugman thinks this is due to a right-wing aversion to government, but I think that gives Bush more credit than he's due. Every business he's ever run failed. The real cause here is simply ineptitude).

I also think that anyone even vaguely familiar with what happened in Iraq in the few weeks after we invaded would understand that this administration cannot deal with the small, niggling matters that are part and parcel of what government does. The place was chaos a few days after the invasion. So why did the media right then and there turn against Bush?

I think the answer is twofold -- first, in the case of New Orleans, reporters actually left the office. They witnessed first hand the devastation and their movement was unrestricted so they could see for their own eyes when the federal government failed the flood's survivors. In Iraq, reporters chose at first to be embedded with the troops and now that the country is in the midst of a violent civil war cannot go anywhere. I also think that the dispatches from Iraq were filtered, indirectly or directly, through the Washington bureaus which meant that any bad news coming in from Iraq was run by Bush administration flunkies. They in turn put their own spin on events, and even though the reporters on the ground in Iraq knew this was nothing but spin, the Washington reporters pulled rank. In the interests of getting the other side of the story, the bad news from Iraq was portrayed as just one possible interpretation of what was going on there. Thus-- and this is my key point-- it was the Washington press corps, whose daily traveling includes little more than going back and forth between their offices and the White House press secretary's office -- who got ultimate control of how the situation on the ground was depicted.

But my second explanation for why the tide has turned against Bush-- media narcism. It's sort of a truism in the media that Americans don't care about any news unless it happens in America, but I never thought for a moment this was also true of the members of the media. I always thought this was an utterly stupid maxim, which even if it was true, still didn't relieve the press of its obligation to report on international events (in fact, it made it even more of a moral imperative). Yet it's clear that far more weight and significance has been given to the deaths of Americans in New Orleans than those in Iraq. I never saw a single reporter express outrage at the government when Iraqis got blown up due to our decision to invade, yet utter inability to provide security afterwards. But I have seen reporters become flaming balls of indignation over the incompetence in New Orleans.

For that matter, why wasn't the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in southeast Asia grounds for turning on Bush? I understand it's harder to blame the devastation in Sri Lanka on the president, but where was the media's outrage over the failure of the world community to prevent what happened? Everything that is now being said about New Orleans could be said about the tsunami -- scientists have long said that region of the world was ill-prepared to deal with a major storm; everyone knew an early warning system for tsunamis was needed in Asia. Did not the Bush administration, in its role as leader of the world's only superpower, not have some kind of responsibility to protect Asia from a major tsunami? Not only was this question never asked. I have yet to see any stories in the press about the relief efforts over there. We have no idea if the Bushies followed through on all their promises of aid. It's like the tsunami never happened.

The New Yorker -- Puke

I sometime think the New Yorker exists purely to be placed in aged copper basins before club-footed bathtubs. You want something appropriate on display for when the guests come over. (It's important to thumb though the magazine too before you lay it out. It must look as if you've read it).

Does anyone actually think the New Yorker is a journal of ideas? With the exception of Sy Hersh, there's barely even any fresh reporting in there. Rather its piquant observations on the middle-class lifestyle -- Alka Seltzer for the mind in case thoughts about your own bourgeois small-mindedness and hypocrisy started giving you indigestion.

Benjamin Kunkel et al

The Tines on Sunday lay a giant wet kiss on the lips of Benjamin Kunkel and his fellow intelligistes (my coinage) at the literary journal n + 1. Kunkel was given the front page of the book section to write a not particularly illuminating essay on the American novelist and terrorism while n + 1, a magazine he co-edits, was featured in a glowing profile by A.O. Scott in the magazine. That's a lot of real estate to give over to first-time novelist and a newborn literary magazine that maybe a few thousand people have ever heard of, much less read.

I have read n + 1, both issues, and they are excellent. The quality of the writing, the commitment to books -- and not just any books, but books of substance and importance -- is impressive. Elif Batuman has an exquisite piece on a Babel conference in California she attended that I am sure will lead to some kind of assignment at the New Yorker -- it is full of sharp, funny, and insightful observations of academics gone just a little overboard in their devotion to the Russian author. There are also some impressive intellectual takedowns. It;s about time that that lightweight intellectual turned celebrity worshipper turned celebrity Christopher Hitchens got his comeuppance, and n + 1 gives it to him in droves.

If n + 1 is garnering so much attention, it is likely because it is so strident in announcing its break with the ironic, smug, meta approach to writing that has prevailed in American letters for so long now. The writers in the journal all seem to be in search of something substantive, a transition that I suspect has mostly to do with the Iraq war. There is nothing like death to sober you up. But I also think the Bush administration has so skillfully spun this country that it should now be clear that all those post-modern hijinks and stylistic games everyone thought were so revolutionary in the nineties can, in the wrong hands, be easily employed for evil ends.

What n + 1 is not is a intellectual movement, or, at least I would say, the magazine does not actually stand for anything. It is more a tirade against than a proclamation for. This may just be because it's so new -- it is still groping its way toward a vision -- or it may actually be the Kunkel style. Certainly, his hit sensation novel seeks to characterize the current moment as one of ambivalence and paralysis or why else would he have called it Indecision?

But you can also see also see Kunkel's world view on display in the review he contributes to the Spring issue of his journal. In it, he reviews Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee. The format of the review is ingenious -- Costello is about a novel about a novelist reflecting on the novel; Kunkel's piece is a review about a reviewer reflecting on reviewing. I actually think it's the perfect way to examine Elizabeth Costello since it addition to being a a consideration of certain literary issues, it is a consideration of how to best express a consideration of literary issues. Why shouldn't Kunkel dive right in there with his own meta-take on meta-dom?

But don't be fooled by all these literary hijinks -- Coetzee is a highly moral writer concerned about the weightiest kind of ethical issues. All his works are full of characters whose irresolute moral stances takes them to the periphery of acceptable societal norms. There's no dilly-dallying, and no muddle-headedness or ambivalence permitted. Tragically, we have no choice but to take a moral stand even if that stand pushes us to the fringes of society, and even if we can't or don't know how to justify that stand. Morality is an instinct. It's unavoidable.

Kunkel's piece, in which his protagonist is highly critical of Coetzee, is all about the necessity of murkiness and inaction. The character in the review, Diana, is best by ennui and confusion. Mostly, she just comes across as in need of a low dose of anti-depressants. She has nothing close to the vision or forthrightness of the protagonist in Elizabeth Costello. Kunkel takes one of the great moral avatars of our age, Coetzee, and reduces his work to insouciance.

I think we can ask if Kunkel represents a new direction for the American novel or just more David Eggers.

P.S. In his essay on terrorism and the novel, Kunkel references the Japanese author Yukio Mishima and says he, unlike many American novelists, gets the mindset of the terrorist. This strikes me as preposterous. Mishima viewed violence through an aesthetic lens. He thought it was beautiful, especially when it lead to death. I have yet to read anything that says the terrorists in 9/11 or London thought the act of violence they were committing was a work of art. Rather they saw it as a political and religious act. For my money, it's only V.S. Naipaul who gets the mindset of these young Muslim terrorists. I don't agree with Naipual's politics, but if you want to understand why suicide terrorists what they do, there's no one more insightful.

P.S.P.S. The answer is Stanley Cavell. Why is no one talking about Stanley Cavell.

Bush announces he takes responsibility for the foul-ups in New Orleans and that becomes news. I just can't see how. The statement, "I am responsible," which is not at all what he said anyway, does not constitute a policy shift or a new approach. It is his acknowledging what our pundits have been saying non-stop for the last several weeks. It is a statement of the obvious. Only in a political arena where the truth is constantly distorted and spun can it become news.

Bush's statement, which if you read it closely was actually conditional -- if there were mistakes, then I am responsible for them -- is a political maneuver that should have been relegated to the inside A sections of the paper. It's his attempt to get ahead of the news cycle -- acknowledge mistakes, move on. As new information comes up showing just what a colossal fuck-up New Orleans was, he can keep saying, well, I already acknowledged I'm responsible, what's the news here? Paradoxically, the statement, I am to blame, gives him immunity from blame.

He will deliver a speech tomorrow (Thursday) night and the pundits will dutifully analyze it. They will call it "moving" or "appropriate' or another example of him rising to the occasion. Even if they disparage it as too little too late, they are still doing Bush's bidding -- importing significance to a speech that we can be sure will be full of vacuous statements and meaningless promises of commitment. There is no there there, and anyone with half a brain has known that from the day Bush entered office. It is only our well-educated media elite which has ever thought otherwise.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The press corps is outraged. They have seen, either in person or on the TV sets in their newsrooms, the images of New Orleans -- corpses floating along on flooded streets, the famed Historic Quarter overrun by rats, people stewing in their own feces, desperate for water and food and dying. Of course, none of these journalists is so naive to believe that this kind of horror doesn't ever happen, but this is America, we are told over again and again, it is not supposed to happen here.

Apparently, none of these reporters has ever visited an American prison, or a housing project, or taken even a cursory look at the statistics on racial and health inequities in this country. I heard on Washington Weekly the other night one of the pundits predicting New Orleans would trigger a national debate on just what kind of a country we wanted to be and whether we were any longer going to tolerate the kind of injustice that had lead to all those black people in the Big Easy being left behind while the whites escaped. She was very worked up, quite emotional so she really had no idea of how ignorant and idiotic she came across as. Every day in this country, you can walk by someone living in the most appalling conditions, yet I don't see that as ever having prompted the kind of dialogue she was talking about. The Washington Post just polled a few hundred Americans in the aftermath of Katrina. Just about three fourths said they were sure oil companies were taking advantage of the crisis to gouge the public, yet only half said there was nothing wrong with the government's response to the hurricane. So Katrina may prompt a national debate about the cost of oil (now basically the same as it was 30 years ago), but it hardly seems likely to do so about human suffering.

But one thing remains unchanged about our 'deeply moved' press corps -- they see this tale of immense human suffering as largely a political story. Almost from the moment the images of dead bodies began appearing on TV, everyone has been asking what the impact on the Bush administration's poll ratings would be. Not so long ago, it would have been the politicians, quietly and discreetly, who would be asking this question, but now it's done so clamorously and obnoxiously by the press, whose members then go on to provide answers that are little more than blithe speculation. Basically we have corpses rotting away in New Orleans while the members of the press sit in well air-conditioned studios ruminating on possible poll dips for the President.

Don't get me wrong here: there are plenty of reporters out in the field, risking their personal comfort, if not lives, to cover this story, and there is no doubt there is a political dimension of this nightmare worth considering. But the political dimension has come to dominate the coverage with endless numbers of stories talking about Bush facing the greatest crisis of his presidency and having to struggle to win back the confidence of the American public. I see absolutely no evidence that this is the case. Even if the polls do show some level of unhappiness with the administration's response to Katrina, there is no reason -- as of yet anyway -- to believe it will be long-lasting. If, for example, New Orleans is ridded of water in two months rather than the three months that is being predicted, that will lead to a victory march by Bush along the now dry streets of the city and all confidence in him, at least on this front, will be restored.

What I really can't understand is why a single breath of air is wasted talking about the political fallout of Katrina. The Times today had a story about all the finger-pointing now going on among politicians over who is to blame for the slow response to Katrina. It strikes me that this is the laziest kind of reporting -- rather than going out and investigating whether there was in fact a slow response and then, if there was one, trying to assess why, the article is just an extended he said/she said take on the controversy with almost no effort by the reporter to assess the truth behind any of these statements. As a result, the entire New srleanO tragedy gets reduced to a political issue -- who fucked up here is a function of who can spin the tragedy to their advantage not a function of who actually fucked up.

This whole category of political analysis reporting needs to be permanently abolished and our so-called pundits shifted into to the accountancy jobs to which they are far better suited.