Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Cartoon Channel

In my quest to understand absolutely everything, I’m afraid I’ve made the freshman error of over researching the topic. After all, even if you could get it right, a complete explanation would be as useless as a map as large as the territory. The whole point is to leave things out; and by whole point, I really mean the whole point since the general action of time is subtractive right from the collapse of quantum indeterminacy into classical observables to the reduction of our national discourse to a series of commentaries on the Peterson trial. The trick is to leave a beautiful corpse when you murder the possibilities. To that end, the poet Rimbaud insisted that it is necessary to be drunk. For some of us, glue’s more like it. So here’s what’s happening in world history.

We’re at the end of the exponential increase in the human population. The birth rate has stabilized or begun to fall in most countries, and the inflection of the curve is the great fact of the age. With one of the great motors of economic growth turned off, political elites are faced with a new situation. As long as the rising tide was lifting all boats, they could afford to be generous without losing ground to the plebs. Indeed, practical egalitarianism paid. That easy liberalism is increasingly obsolete, and new options have to be explored. I see four responses taking shape:

1. The modern liberals bet that technological progress will be able to maintain economic growth and underwrite a society that remains relatively rational and democratic provided its members are willing to live in the responsible, sober, and rather boring fashion that goes along with the information economy.

2. The thoughtful conservatives accept the likelihood that the economy will stagnate and plan to maintain or improve their privileged position by getting more of the pie. They recognize that this can only be accomplished by force or fraud. To take care of your family, you do what you have to do.


3. The thoughtless conservatives live in denial, proposing to maintain an expanding standard of living by deficit financing and the accelerating exploitation of finite resources like oil. Some of them rationalize their unsustainable policies by taking apocalyptic fantasies literally or by dreaming of magic technological fixes—nanotechnology as the Great Pig, Star Wars as the bulletproof shirt.

4. The utopian radicals propose to deal with the end of material progress by embracing a virtuous egalitarian poverty. One may be allowed a certain skepticism about the prospects of ahimsa in a tide pool.

Mix and match.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Authorized Leaks

I love to badmouth journalists, but it’s quite unfair to blame them for the absence of general public outrage at reports of the use of torture by American forces. The story was reported. The people simply didn’t care, believing, apparently, that terrorism justifies extreme measures. Which is why, incidentally, the administration was not completely unhappy the stories got out. Publicity makes everyone complicit. We knew and we did nothing. Indeed, we reelected the ultimate sponsor of the atrocities and made it possible for him to make the principal apologist for state-sponsored terror his attorney general while the generals who encouraged their troops to apply electrodes to Islamic testicles got a free pass and only the noncoms were left holding the bag. If there is ever a proper accounting of the deeds of the Bush administration, you can be sure that the defendants will point out that the public raised no objections at the time though they certainly knew what was going on.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

All In

Poker players know that it’s often easier to bluff when your hand is unambiguously bad than when it has some real strength. The possibility of actually drawing the flush distracts from the crucial work of bluster and deception. Which explains in large measure why the innumerable arguments against Bush’s social security reforms are strangely irrelevant despite their obvious cogency. It simply doesn’t matter that partial privatization is indefensible. It proponents have no intention of playing defense. Just as rightists really don’t care that Star Wars is technologically infeasible or that there really is no scientific merit to intelligent design, they are quite indifferent to the fiscal and moral objections to the proposed changes to Social Security. Of course it’s a bad idea. How could it be a triumph for an aggressive minority if it were a good one? What’s the glory in winning a hand with a full house?
Thesis, Antithesis, Prosthesis

Years ago I had to prove that I could read French in my degree program. I expected that I’d have to take an intensive French course to get past the requirement, but just for fun I took the achievement exam to see what I was up against. Though I’d never studied French, I didn’t go in quite unprepared. In the week before the test, I spent a couple of evenings looking over one of those laminated crib sheets for French grammar. Nevertheless, I certainly couldn’t read, speak, or understand the language in any meaningful sense. As a consequence, I was a bit surprised when I not only passed the test but scored well above the cutoff line. I remember thinking to myself that it was too bad I hadn’t taken the Chinese, Arabic, and Sanskrit tests on the same occasion so I could be fluent in those languages too.

Lots of folks denounce multiple choice tests. Frank McCourt, the genial author of Angela’s Ashes and himself a former school teacher, once referred to them as “the most hideous invention America has ever come up with.” I used to be dead set against them myself and inflicted essay exams on my students in a former life, but I’ve come to think that my dislike of them was mere ingratitude in view of the business about the French requirement and the many other occasions in which standardized tests have rewarded my superficial cleverness. Besides, multiple choice tests really are quintessentially American and patriotic to boot, having been invented for the benefit of our army by Arthur S. Otis in 1917. After 9/11 one is advised not to knock our heritage, at least publicly. Anyhow, multiple choice tests also have a metaphysical significance that marks them as something more important than just another piece of cultural detritus. They implement a powerful historical tendency, the grand process of simplification that allows us to live with the complexity our own activities create. In this way, multiple choice tests help fend off the never quite looming menace of epistemia gravis, aka information sickness or, to use a quaint old term, Harrison’s Fatheadedness.

Just as human beings are not adapted to live in nature without clothes, we are hardly prepared to learn about history, science, and literature without a host of mediating instrumentalities that protect our egos from the awful truth about how hard it is to figure things out. And that’s true even for people who happen to have the motivation and aptitude for learning. If the goal is to create an entire nation of people with some intellectual self respect and, moreover, to do it on the cheap—always the American way!—the intelligible world will have to be turned into a cartoon. Pretending there are at most four or five alternative responses to each mental challenge is a good start especially when you remember what it was like to grade blue books.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Complete the Sentence

…believing that one’s moral compass would be more reliable if the needle were glued to the card….
Anymore than Drag is Flattering to Women

What bothers me most about the right-wing fundamentalists is their political power, but then I’m an infidel. A believer might be even more unhappy with the Fallwells and the Dobsons and the Robertsons because they have created the impression you have to be a bigoted know-nothing to be a Christian. That’s not so healthy for the future of the real, which is to say, invisible church because even those who have signed on for the moment to reactionary religiosity may eventually weary of its somewhat artificial extremism while the merely ill-informed won’t be aware of the humane and highly-defensible outlook of people like Garry Wills or Jimmy Carter.

To the extent that professing Christianity involves adherence to elaborate metaphysical notions about things people are in no position to know, it makes a peculiar impression on an old philosopher like me, but not even I am down on practical agape. It would be a real loss if the braying Elmer Gantrys succeed in drowning out the quieter voices of the decent evangelicals, the thoughtful liberal Protestants, and the lay Catholics. And that’s true even though a seriously Christian politics would be far to the left of my own.


Monday, December 13, 2004

Gone Phishing

As I purge my inbox of three dozen pieces of spam every morning I’m reminded of a nature film I saw on cable a couple of years ago that showed a giraffe dying from an overwhelming infestation of fleas. The electronic equivalent of the giraffe may not be quite dead, but the technology of email has lost much of its value over the last several years because of the non-stop parasitical assault, not only because of the direct damage inflicted by all the spam but because of the side effects of the filters that have been put in place to hold back the tide.

The problem has become personal for me. My business requires me to send large documents to my clients on a daily basis. Years ago, FedEx was a huge expense for me; and every exchange of paper took a couple of days. Email increased my personal productivity enormously, but its value has steadily decreased because corporate defenses against spam intercept my attachments. In many cases, I have to follow up the submission of work product with phone calls so that busy managers can wade through a trash pile to rescue documents. I can’t blame the firms for reinforcing their defenses—I get from 100 to 150 pieces of spam a day, some of my clients get as much as a 1000—but the incremental cost of dodging the spam blocker adds up. Meanwhile, I have to be careful not to lose their messages in my own spam blocker.

Some of the costs of spam are obvious, and one can only guess how many of the same elderly population already ripped off by junk mail solicitations have already fallen victim to sales pitches for phony pharmaceuticals or have sent their credit card number to criminals claiming to be their internet service providers. There are hidden opportunity costs as well. Email could be a useful channel for legitimate advertising, for example, if it weren’t overwhelmed with trash, obscenity, and fraud. That’s a real loss, and not just for the corporations. Everybody’s so accustomed to complaining about advertising that it’s easy to forget its indispensable role as a source of information in an extraordinarily complicated world—imagine how much it would cost to provide public education about new technologies.

While serious law enforcement efforts might be able ameliorate the spam crisis—you have to wonder why more identity thieves and purveyors of bogus drugs aren’t prosecuted—the fundamental problem with email is structural. It doesn’t cost enough. As many people have noticed, spam would not be profitable if it cost even a few pennies to send a message. Even junk-mail advertisers have to worry about picking the right mailing list because a response rate of a percent or two is necessary to pay the freight. Meanwhile, since it’s free, the same spammers who send me an ad for breast implants at 10:12 follow it up with a pitch for penile enhancement at 10:13 and not because they know how eager I am to please everybody. At a nickel a pop, an ad would have to have something to do with its recipient. At a nickel a pop, also, sending targeted Internet ads for my own services might become economical.

I know nothing of the technicalities, but I gather that the only feasible way of creating a system with appropriate fees would be to create an entirely new and separate system. That may be a utopian suggestion, rather like the dream of getting rid of QWERTY. Over and beyond practical obstacles to reforming the system, any call for even a small amount of central control runs afoul of the libertarian ideology of many computer mavens. They maintain an almost theological faith that systems will organize themselves perfectly if only we let them alone. One small nickel for the man is one giant step on the road to serfdom for mankind. There’s another problem, too. If email generated a public revenue, we’d have to decide what to do with the proceeds—the point of the tax, after all, would not be to fix potholes on the information superhighway. That doesn’t bother me. If the swag from a spam tax went to build a swimming pool for Mayor Quimby, I figure we’d still be better off. But that’s me. I expect the universe to be perverse in spots. The others will go ballistic about the unnecessary taxation.

Things do not look good for the giraffe.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chicken Little or Just a Little Chicken?

Neither actually. The title is in honor of today’s publication in Nature of the genome of the domestic chicken. Meanwhile, I’m not particularly alarmed by recent political developments, though I certainly expect the outcome to be unfavorable for the United States. I’ve reached the time in my life when I find that external events have little lasting effect on my equipoise, either because I have an ever decreasing stake in the game or, more likely, because I’ve finally finished bulletproofing my vanity. My selfesteem unthreatened, I’ve risen above it all like a soap bubble, trivial and very temporary but round and perfect. Besides, though unfortunately my money's not in Euros, I mostly share the complacent European take on the Grand Fiasco. I calculate that the American empire is more likely to blow itself out in a noisy squall than to take the planet down with it in a terminal hurricane. So far, at least, we’ve been very careful to avoid a confrontation with anybody really dangerous so our Middle Eastern adventures have something of the staged and cheesy quality of a professional wrestling match, albeit the phony contest leaves all too many real corpses lying around. In this respect, Mr. Bush’s obvious lack of personal courage is a very positive factor. It’s hard to imagine these blowhards picking a fight with the Russians or Chinese.

America is not the world, and our misfortune is not necessarily a tragedy for humankind. Indeed, as Emmanuel Todd points out, loss of primacy may not even be a disaster for the Americans. The U.S. is a very rich and powerful country and will probably remain relatively rich and political significant even after it finishes impoverishing and humiliating itself—200 years after Napoleon, Paris remains a wonderful place to live and Washington may turn out to be a similarly agreeable monument to vanished pretension. Anyhow, as a rule, though everybody claims to be surprised when it finally happens, the decline of states and societies always takes longer than expected. It’s not quite time to start selling sombreros and colorful plaster piggybanks to Canadian tourists.

I go through phases of being similarly sanguine about the consequences of our neglect of the environment. Despite the interminable attempts of right-wing op-ed writers, most people knowledgeable about global warming don’t expect the Northern hemisphere to turn into a double boiler. Indeed, unless there really is some catastrophic tipping point, a real but modest possibility, global warming won’t ruin the Earth because its inexorably increasing effects will make international countermeasures inevitable. The people who project future energy prices for the utilities already routinely factor in the cost of CO2 recapture into their estimates of the economics of coal-burning power plants because in the long and even medium run, the opinions of this or that politician won’t matter. Willy-nilly we’ll have to restrain greenhouse gas emissions because, by definition, realities don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks. Just as the U.S. will eventually have to cut back on deficit financing even if Bush becomes dictator for life, even the Cato Institute will end up supporting global emission caps. Because the administration dragged its feet—and knuckles! —about global warming, the price of dealing with the problem will much higher than necessary but the resulting poverty, sickness, and death won’t necessarily make a good special effects movie. Let’s look on the bright side.

I also moderate my pessimism with a sometime belief in the Caucasian Cargo Cult of science. Like any other projection, guesses about the economic, political, and environmental future are based on assumptions about boundary conditions. For example, Marx’s prediction of the collapse of capitalism, indeed, his whole view of the human prospect, was vitiated by a drastic underestimation of the productive power of technology. I’m well aware that my own thoughts about what may or may not happen in the next several years similarly depend upon an estimate of the advance of technology. Maybe nanotechnology or some other Great Pig will arrive at the last moment and usher in a Rabelaisian millennium of sausages and mustard or, at the very least, ensure that even the humblest family will be able to enjoy the apocalypse on a high definition plasma screen in their cozy abandoned coal mine.
Live and Learn

Experience is a great substitute for brains—Hamburger Helper for the cognitively penurious. By now, I’ve accumulated enough of it to get through a few senior moments. Unfortunately, I’ve also had a lot more practice at being wrong than younger folks so maybe I’ve gotten better at that, too. For example, the current administration demonstrates a host of tendencies that were formerly thought to presage disaster; but the Conservatives and their de facto supporters in the media assure me that they’ve changed all that. Don’t get paranoid just because your lover is a bisexual Haitian hooker with a drug problem. The government is in good hands. The rules have changes under the new dispensation and it is no longer unwise for governments to:

Conduct public affairs in profound secrecy

Bribe and intimidate the press

Institutionalize groupthink by surrounding the leader with Yes-men

Destroy the careers and reputations of anyone who dissents

Denounce domestic opposition as unpatriotic

Replace professional civil servants and government scientists with political appointees

Vilify opponents by well-orchestrated campaigns of innuendo and slander

Suppress or distort unfavorable economic statistics

Disseminate inaccurate scientific and medical information

Freely break existing international agreements

Conduct aggressive wars without international sanction

Undertake military actions with insufficient forces

Permit or encourage the use of torture

Systematically weaken civil rights

Run up huge deficits

I could have sworn that a country ruled in this fashion was heading for disaster, but what do I know? Perhaps some one in the non-fascist right can explain to me again why I shouldn’t fret.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Now That We Need Him

Marxist ideas are laughed at these days, especially by Libertarians, Neocons, and other deep thinkers; but Marxism raised questions that don’t go away just because the most dogmatic version of the philosophy was associated with a failed empire. Like other enterprises of thought sponsored by religions or political movements, Marxism provided a context in which insightful inquiry of a focused kind could take place, not despite but because of its ideological setting. One can learn from Marxist sociologists and historians just as atheistic scholars can profit from the philosophers and theologians of Christendom without sharing even one article of their credo.

Whatever its failings, Marxism has at least one huge virtue. It relentlessly asks the question “who?” of history and politics. Thus where social scientists, no less than television pundits, blithely assume that policy debates are about the best means to achieve common goals, the Marxists recognize this methodological bipartisanship for the rhetorical scam it undoubtedly is and try to figure out which interests speak through which proposals. It may be an oversimplification or even paranoia to assume that all human affairs are a struggle between the exploiters and the exploited, but the opposite presumption is far less realistic. The current debate about social security reform, for example, is certainly not about how best to structure a system to assure a decent retirement for everybody. That’s why the official arguments on both sides seem so feeble. The wonkish debate is a ceremonial clown fight that serves to misdirect attention from the real issues. In fact, for middling people, attempting to preserve the social security system in something like its current state is a defensive struggle to maintain one of the few remaining mechanisms of income redistribution. For the well off, privatizing the system is an offensive operation to make the over all tax system less progressive and thereby increase the disparity of wealth between the haves and have-nots. One group doesn’t want to get poorer. The second group wants to get richer at the expense of the first.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Leaden Weapons and Lead Balloons

Historical analogies are such a poor guide to political action in the present that the most useful thing professional historians can do to promote sensible policies is to point out the limitations of history itself. That’s hard to do, however, because to deny that history repeats itself is to recognize the scary fact that what’s going on is literally unprecedented. Just as original writers have no way of understanding themselves except by misidentifying with some illustrious predecessor, historical actors and the rest of us in the terrified chorus imagine that we are repeating what is really happening for the first time. But every peace conference is not a Munich. Iraq is not Vietnam. Bush is not William McKinley. The Republicans certainly don’t merit comparison with the fascists—at any event not until the trains start running on time in these parts. Debunking such analogies by bloodless analysis is rhetorically ineffective, though philosophically interesting. The other available strategy is to multiply instances in order to make them all weaker, an approach that also has the heuristic benefit of suggesting alternate ways of understanding what’s going on.

Finally no science or other form of knowledge can be more intelligible than its object. Induction works brilliantly on the energy levels of atomic hydrogen because every electron really is exactly like every other. Natural history and totemism work to the extent that there really are natural kinds whose identities and borders are created and maintained by specific mechanisms. Where no objective order obtains, empiricism merely produces learned superstitions like astrology or the stimulus response learning theories of the first half of the 20th Century. The social sciences are full of such chimeras. Grown academics actually publish cross-cultural studies claiming to show whether or not capital punishment reduces the murder rate as if Sweden and Texas were lab rats of the same strain. Cross-temporal comparisons of events are even more problematic since there really are similarities between societies functioning at more or less the same level of technology while the haecceity named by World War II has very little more in common with the War of the Roses than with the War between the Roses. Even to the extent that one can identify comparable objects of study in history—states, classes, leaders, ideologies, conflicts—the number of instances is far too small a sample of possible cases to permit a test of more than the crudest generalizations.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Rolling Your R’s

I’ve never raised a child and I was a dreadful teacher so I’m a lousy judge of what teenagers can and cannot understand. Heck, I obviously have trouble figuring out what adults can understand. Even so, when I see a movie like Kinsey, which raises a host of serious questions in a lively way and presents history in a slightly more accurate fashion than, say, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, I find myself wondering if the way we censor movies for adolescents aren’t fundamentally wrongheaded. We make some effort to prevent kids from being exposed to brutal or pornographic images, but we don’t worry that they are missing something if they don’t experience art that challenges their assumptions and obliges them to think. For example, though I have no desire to return to the retail philosophy business, I’d love to teach just one section of 101 on the topic of creativity and morality, but based on the documentary Crumb instead of the usual Ion. I expect that the alarming cartoonist would make a better example of the menace of poetry than the harmless rhapsodist of the dialogue. I don’t know if 18 year olds are up to getting beyond a case of the giggles—in fact I expect that the problem would more likely be seriously offended young women—but I’m dead certain that the Plato would come across as a snoozer.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Kinsey Report

As environmentalists are aware, solvable problems have limited political utility. Because of the very strenuous efforts of many people in the United States and around the world, the ozone hole seems to have been successfully addressed; but just because sheep aren’t catching fire in Argentina, the public at large is indifferent to the issue and largely ignorant of how much work it took to prevent a global disaster. Smaller but significant examples, such as the expensive and protracted clean up efforts that restored Pittsburgh to livable condition also earn no votes for future efforts to manage pollution in other places. Indeed, the relative healthiness of many North American localities is an argument against spending money on environmental problems. “Hey, Lake Erie doesn’t look that bad to me.”

Like Egyptian peasants of the Old Kingdom, the Americans live in an eternal present. In the absence of an effective recollection, the fact that everything is changing at a furious pace doesn’t make any difference. It has been written—by me, actually—that longevity is the only time machine that works; but it’s not enough to possess the device. You’ve got to pull the gadget off the shelf and use it, or you’ve drawn those 946 million breaths in vain. If you don’t bother to remember how things came to be, including the good things, you’re bound to make bad decisions about what needs to be done in the future. So much is taken for granted. You start thinking that safety of the drinking water is as inevitable as the yearly flooding of the Nile. You think it is natural for middle class kids not to die of typhoid or whooping cough or cholera.

The new biographical move Kinsey got me thinking down this line. It is so easy to focus on the problematic consequences of the sexual revolution that one forgets its overwhelming benefits. The recognition that masturbation is essentially universal, for example, alleviated a huge, if unquantifiable burden of guilt from generations of teenagers and probably prevented quite a few suicides—hysteria about masturbation was a real curse on young people. Indeed, in many places it still is. I don’t think it’s such a small thing either that the advance of sexual enlightenment increased the net pleasure of life for most of us, though it says something about the incompletion of the revolution that to this day you’re not supposed to think that’s important. It’s also pretty clear that the socially mandated sexual ignorance of women played a role in maintaining general gender inequality and that promoting rights in the bedroom promoted rights elsewhere. One can dwell on ubiquity of pornography or the threat of STDs or the prevalence illegitimate births or get upset about legal abortions, but who really wants to return to the old regime—aside, that is, from the rightists that control our government?

On my way back from seeing Kinsey, I had to wait at an intersection while a fire truck drove by. It was driven by a female fire fighter, which, of course, is utterly unremarkable. Which, of course, is utterly remarkable. Which, of course, is never remarked. Same moral.

Friday, November 26, 2004

On the Beaches

You often hear that the two-party system is not part of the American Constitution, but this commonplace is only true if you are referring to the document of that name rather than the underlying structure of our polity. As recent history demonstrates, our vaunted system of checks and balances simply doesn’t work without warring factions. Executive is not moderated by the legislature or the judiciary when all three branches are controlled by the same interests, especially in the effective absence of a free press. Under the circumstances, now really is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party— not because the Democrats are an impressive bunch but because there is no alternative to maintaining an alternative. Or do you really want to rely on the self-restraint of ideologues who believe that the secret of political success is immoderation and that all internal as well as external dissent must be stifled?

Many people find it difficult to resist calls for bipartisanship even though in the mouth of Bush or Chaney, “bipartisanship” has a lot in common with earlier slogans such as “peaceful coexistence” or “It’s all right. You’re going to be deloused.” Like all revolutionaries, our rightists absolutely depend upon the forbearance of their enemies, who are expected to be tolerant even of those who are intolerant as a matter of principle. The heck with that. Let us deny them bread and salt.

Partisanship certainly has a cost, but having allowed things to deteriorate to the current pass, we have to accept the obligation to bear this cost. For example, in states like California and in much of the Northeast, the Republican Party still plays its normal role as one of the quarreling partners that make free government possible. From a local point of view, it is a good thing that Republicans are sometimes elected governor or senator in true blue states. Unfortunately, until the general crisis passes, any such advantage must be outweighed by national considerations; and all Republicans are the enemy, most especially the reasonable ones.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

And Now for Something Completely Different

To get my mind off the recent troubles, I’ve been reading David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing, a superb account of the crucial year in the American Revolution when it appeared that the military might of the highly professional British army would crush the colonists. The British decided that a maximum effort would shock and awe the traitors. The military leaders of the invasion were not barbarians. Indeed, general Howe was sure that his men would be welcomed with open arms once it became apparent that the Crown was appropriately conciliatory. True, the British were somewhat isolated diplomatically; but they could count on the stalwart support of Frederich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel, who supplied them with thousands of soldiers at reasonable rates and made up for the hostile neutrality of the French and the rest of the Europeans.

For several months things worked out as planned. Washington and the Americans, thoroughly overmatched on sea and land, were driven from Manhattan and then New Jersey. The English were in a false position, however. The 31, 625 troops that had landed on August 27, 1776 made up an enormous expeditionary force by 17th Century standards, but they were far too few to seize and occupy all the colonies. Worse, though military casualties were not high at first, mere attrition began to wear down the force; and Howe’s army could not be significantly augmented with fresh troops because George’s government was unwilling to raise taxes at home or institute a general draft. Inevitably, the overstretched occupying army resorted to more and more brutal means to subdue the rebellion; but the collateral damage of their efforts inspired more defiance—Fisher points out that the famous Christmas attack on Trenton was preceded and suggested by the success of earlier spontaneous attacks by irregular forces. Howe had hoped that he could count on the help of the local Loyalists to make up for the inadequacy of his strength. It turned out, however, that he could not even protect them from the insurgents. By the end of March 1777, the British were pretty much holed up in the safety of New York City, planning in the next year to seize the initiative by occupying Philadelphia, the sanctuary of the rebels. Back in London, the government-controlled papers explained how that would turn the tide…

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Another Attempt to be Fair

Sports writers discount the achievement of the latest golfer to set a new record for winnings in a single season because the relentless increase in purses means that the same level of performance will yield far more dollars in 2004 than it would have in 1994. By a similar logic, each new American president automatically becomes the most dangerous man who ever lived because technology keeps increasing his power to destroy. This sort of reasoning is as unfair to W as it is to VJ, however, because, on the one hand, the Fijian really is a heck of a golfer, and, on the other, Bush’s moral and intellectual failings multiply his net potential to do harm. Clinton or Bush’s father already had the wherewithal to blister the surface of the Earth seven times over; but if they were hearing voices in their head, at least they kept quiet about them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The True Armature of the Absolute

The affairs of men are much simpler than the doings of atoms. We call them complex, but what they really are is interesting. Which is why it is possible to write history across centuries or even millennia despite radical changes in how people cook, eat, farm, trade, fight, travel, write, compute, build, revel, sicken, dance, and sing that should reduce any general narrative to incoherence—epistemic breaks are the least of the problem. But whether in Babylon or Bayonne, in the Iliad or on the Sopranos, each renewal of the mammalian game of King of the Hill remains as stereotyped and inevitable as the zillionth hand of pinochle with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Jo.
Displacement

Just because an issue doesn’t irritate my moral sensibilities doesn’t mean it isn’t a real question. I have a rather leathery heart, after all. But I just can’t escape the feeling that all the hand wringing and Presidential commissions about stem cells and genetic engineering are mostly an empty ritual, moral busy work that allows politicians and religious entrepreneurs to demonstrate their earnestness without confronting the irresistible changes in human life that really bother them. A clone, for example, is nothing more nor less than an artificial identical twin, so that even if there were some reason to create a lot of people in this fashion—unlikely, since human beings can already be mass produced by unskilled labor—the resulting pairs would be no more alarming than any other Terri and Toni or Mike and Nick. Meanwhile, there really is something icky about the radical franchising of our existence and the emergence of the electronic hive mind. Nobody knows what to do about Walmart, so we get excited about steroidal outfielders or designer babies instead. Something similar takes place in the hysteria about decency on television. While Janet Jackson’s boob is apparently a national security issue, the plot lines of shows like CSI are grotesquely and entertainingly perverse. I came to during one episode last year, suddenly startled by a story that revolved around semen detected in a discarded wad of chewing gum. Indeed, in their endless attempts to achieve more and more extreme effects, such shows reflect the characteristic stylistic frustration of the Marquis de Sade whose tableaux are also finally thwarted by steric hindrance and the limitations of human sexual stamina. Apparently, we have to get excited about Howard Stern’s use of the word “fuck” because we certainly don’t want to take judicial notice of the hypersexuality of the rest of the media.
Verily Lord Jesus Come Quickly (Revelation 22:20)

One way of escaping credit card debt is to drop dead before you reach your limit. I’m sure plenty of spendthrifts have found themselves contemplating that out. The financial, environmental, and international policies of the administration have a similar logic. They are perfectly prudent and reasonable assuming the Rapture occurs before 2010 or so. If not, they are criminally irresponsible. Various right-wing spokesmen explain that we need not do anything about global warming because the science is unclear, for example, and some of them may even believe their own line, but the deeper explanation of the indifference is the sense that the physical world is getting old and decrepit anyhow and doesn’t matter very much except as a suitably bleak setting for the eschatological drama. No reason to give up smoking if you’ve already got lung cancer.

As Keynes famously observed, “in the long run we’re all dead.” On the other hand, there’s something to be said for leaders whose time horizon extends to their grandchildren. At the very least, since we plain don’t know what America or, for that matter, the human race as a whole can reasonably expect or hope for in the future, it would seem prudent not to foreclose possibilities unnecessarily. Eschatological thinking, however, is not merely appealing to unscrupulous political leaders. It offers the mass of their followers the allure of the extreme. End-of-the-World fantasies aren’t just for psychotics. Indeed, Heidegger got it wrong in Being and Time. The ultimate temporal horizon of an intrinsically social being is not individual death but universal apocalypse. In this respect, Tim LaHaye not only possesses more commercial savvy than Heidegger but also demonstrates a sounder grasp of existential phenomenology.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Democratic Republic of Flugelstan

The 20th Century provides many examples of one-party states, but Americans don’t have to look abroad to see what such regimes are like. During most of our history, the southern states of our union have been effectively dominated by a combine of oligarchs who maintained a monopoly of power through demagogic appeals to racism and superstition. While the current administration has also borrowed a lot from the corrupt practices of Northern machine politics—there’s more than a slight scent of Tammany Hall about Carl Rove—the beau ideal of its political practice is Southern and the goal of the Republican revolution is to make the country into an enormous Alabama or Mississippi, poor, proud, stupid, and bellicose.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Tough Love

Even if Kerry had ended up winning Ohio by some miracle, the popular vote shows that the public has opted for Bush and what he stands for. It wouldn’t have taken much for things to have gone the other way; and the next election may reverse the results; but the outcome is nevertheless a significant milestone of American decline. Nirad Chaundhuri, the querulous Bengali centenarian and sometime personal secretary of Mahatma Gandhi, once wrote that a nation that has decided to go down will find the appropriate leader to show it the way. He was thinking about mediocre English parliamentarians of the interwar years, but the comment also suits this moment in time. Bush really is the right man for the job.

Democrats and other moderates will have to recognize the limits of what can be achieved. Things will get much worse before they stabilize at a lower level of equilibrium, and the most that can be reasonably hoped is that America will adjust to its new status as a second-rate power with a minimum of casualties. As it sinks in that our military preponderance will not solve all problems and that running up huge trade and budget deficits does indeed have consequences, the temptation is going to be to lash out at other nations while seeking scapegoats at home for declining incomes and increasing cultural and environmental degradation. Under the circumstances, cooperating with the administration is simply wrong, and we should avoid talk of bipartisanship. The task of the opposition is to oppose. As the unfortunate sons and daughters of an increasingly dysfunctional clan, we can’t just throw up our hands and let our relations destroy the neighborhood. It’s our family, too; and we’re responsible for what it does.

Monday, November 01, 2004

A Stray Thought

The assumption seems to be that the Republicans will make an unprecedented effort in this election to suppress voter turnout in minority areas. That may be, but I’m mindful that the Republicans, heirs to Jim Crow, have been doing a lot of that for many years now. It may even turn out that what is novel in the current cycle is not exceptional rightwing activity, but a well organized and determined effort on the part of the Democrats to counteract the customary villanies.

Just thought it was only decent to make at least one dubious prediction on election eve.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Third Sequel: Direct to Tape

As much as I hate to be fair, I have to admit that I’ve sometimes attributed ideas to Leo Strauss that are more properly the obsessions of his followers. Just as popularization morphed Poststructuralism into cultural relativism, neo-conservatism has made Straussian philosophy into a clumsy rightist ideology. When I first encountered Strauss—as I write I’m gazing at the spine of his History of Political Philosophy on a nearby bookshelf—he struck me as a mildly interesting but hardly earth-shattering thinker. I found his discussions of the necessity of dissimulation neither alarming nor particularly radical—like everybody else who has an idea once in a while I’ve sometimes had to adopt Descartes motto, “I go forth masked”—and Strauss’ general skepticism about the Rule of Reason didn’t set off any alarms either in somebody raised as a cultural conservative. If you’re not going to blame Marx for Stalin or even Lenin, you shouldn’t blame Strauss for Wolfowitz or even Bill Kristol. Besides, in some respects the most interesting aspect of der Fall Strauss is not the genetic principle that regressive concepts breed true but the taphonomic commonplace that corpses eventually stink.

Anybody who ever taught Philosophy 101 understands a basic pedagogical problem with the project of Enlightenment. The Socratic method is a non-starter when inflicted on kids with plenty of prejudices but no convictions. In grad school, one learns how to throw rocks at received ideas; but in the absence of any ideas at all, there’s nothing to throw at so you end up teaching the 18-year olds ancient history or English composition instead of philosophy while reserving the real stuff for conversations over lunch with a handful of serious students. Mark Lilla points out in a piece in the October 21 New York Review of Books that much of Strauss’ outlook is rooted in just this kind of teaching experience and that, at least in the U.S., Strauss the teacher was far more influential than Strauss the learned interpreter of Hobbes and Spinoza. His followers, especially the Alan Bloom of the Closing of the American Mind, think of themselves as promoting a realistic brand of the Socratic method, which is to say, a rigorous, critical philosophy for the elite, myths and fairy tales for the state college set—rum for the ratings, gin for the gentlemen.

The fact that most people are not ready to reason as adults most of the time is a boundary condition of civilization, which, like many other problems, can be managed if not cured. The history of the last 150 years, however, reveals a problem with the neoconservative approach to managing Urdummheit. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to pull off the light irony recommended by Aristotle. The public is supposed to be mollified and edified by myths at the same time that wise counselors, operating in deep shadow, guide the decisions of the handsome but none-too-bright Prince by reason. In practice, unfortunately, four big problems mess up the scenario.

1. The religious and political myths the right promotes to the People don’t in fact make them more tractable and peaceful. All the talk about God and Evildoers stokes ethnic and sectarian passions for tactical political gain while the demonizing of the liberals both depends upon and exacerbates the dangerous resentments of lower-class whites.

2. A reasonable political philosophy recognizes the public’s limitations as rational actors, but it doesn’t try to underline its point by actively promoting irrationality. God knows I’ve got many Tory genes, but even I’ve noticed that straightforward arguments do have an effect on many voters when they address their existential concerns without cynicism. A lot of the despised Voodoo of Clinton’s rhetoric was nothing more than the magic of explanation—he gave reasons for what he thought we should do and people listened to them. A lot of rightwing propaganda is not an attack on the reasoning of liberals so much as an attack on reasoning itself.

3. The philosophers are supposed to keep two sets of books, promoting useful fictions to the multitudes while remaining hardheaded realists themselves. Even in a good cause, however, consistent hypocrisy is very difficult to pull off. The Neocons find themselves intrigued and eventually seduced by the religious and nationalistic myths they retail to the others. By now, for example, various writers in Commentary are obviously taking intelligent design seriously; and some of them have forgotten they, like Strauss, are atheists indoors.

4. As Plato himself found out in Syracuse, political leaders are dangerous allies. Lots of Conservative intellectuals dream of playing Joseph to Pharaoh, and wind up being getting manipulated themselves as the stately figureheads turns out to have purposes of their own. Over the last thirty years, the Princes fronted by the Chicago boys have turned out to be a prize bunch of opportunists and thugs.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Make It So

By now, people under 30 have heard that Social Security won’t be there for them thousands and thousands of times. It is a popular Republican theme, though one that candidates only utter sotto voce during actual campaigns. Former Senator, current television D.A. Thompson repeated the meme the other day. Don’t kid yourself, the actor/politician warned, the system is headed for inevitable catastrophe. But why is he so sure, especially since, from a strictly actuarial point of view, no such disaster is looming. Well, I figure it’s like the vows exchanged at the altar. From a purely statistical point of view, eternal love may be somewhat unlikely, but we promise it nonetheless. By the same logic, the social security system is not likely to fail on its own, but with sufficient political determination, it can be made to fail. So why are the Republicans confident that Social Security won’t be there for you? The full form of the prophecy would run, “It won’t be there for you if we have anything to say about it!”

There is surely nothing sacred about our particular version of social insurance, and there may well be ways in which the current system could be safeguarded, improved, or even replaced with a better alternative. The Republican dream of a privatized system does not address the real issues with Social Security, however, because it is misidentifies the real problem, which does not concern the financial and distributional arrangements we make to provide income for old people but the economic and demographic problem of providing goods and services for everybody when a smaller proportion of the population is at work. One can bleat like a sheep about compound interest as the solution to this problem, but what’s needed is not compound interest but compound growth, something real, not something notional. In the absence of a more productive economy, the numbers on your account statement, however grand, won’t buy you what you need. On the other hand, granted reasonable economic health, the nation surely has enough wealth to provide a decent condition of life for all its citizens, though it may be that somebody, somewhere, sometime will have to forgo a ski weekend so that old women don’t have to eat dog food.

In a rational world debate about Social Security would be exceedingly wonkish and dull because it would be a discussion about practical and mundane remedies to real but hardly overwhelming problems. Stoking paranoia about the system is hardly helpful unless, as is pretty obviously the case, the warnings about looming disaster convey political and personal benefits on the prophets and their kin. Even more than being the reflex of an ideological fixation, the call for the privatization of Social Security is all about slopping the hogs. What it is not is a response to the logic of history or the arithmetic of pension plans. If it ever occurs, it will be one of those things like the establishment of the Soviet Union that happened because a group of determined people made it happen.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Krokodil Rock

I’m very skeptical of the ability of satire to illuminate politics because the normal effect of ridicule is to reinforce existing prejudices. There’s a bit of a Tory in every commercial wit, even the leftish ones, if only because playing to received ideas flatters and gratifies the audience while conveying something new would require them to think. Anyhow, these days a comic who attempts to say something significant, which necessarily implies subjecting one side of an issue to more grief than the other, is subject to universal criticism. The equal time rule, which no longer applies to serious commentary, is very much in force when it comes to lampoons. Which explains, for example, why Jon Stewart, for all his intelligence, finds it necessary to deploy the same stale jokes about Gore and Kerry as a hack like Jay Leno. Meanwhile, the humor of mainstream shows such as SNL is comprehensively emasculated despite the irrelevant daring of its bad taste. So we get more fart jokes at the same time that satirical content becomes as toothless as the social critique once found in Krokodil, the Soviet humor magazine of the Stalinist era.

Speaking of Jon Stewart. I’ve worried for some time that he was in danger of a fall, and the ambiguous reaction to the Crossfire appearance shows that I may have been right. Stewart told the truth on television, and for that outrage to the cosmic order, he must atone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Forward to the Past

While I’m only knowledgeable about 18th Century English political history because as the Scrooge McDuck of cultural capital, I’m knowledgeable about everything, a great many Conservatives are buffs on the era of Old Corruption out of sheer nostalgia. They feel a deep affinity for a frankly oligarchic system in which all elections were stage managed by insiders, Parliament spent much of its time expanding the death penalty to cover the theft of silverware, and George III and his minions could control government by paying off their supporters with government contracts. Like the followers of our George, the King’s party benefited from the many rotten boroughs that returned an MP despite their tiny populations—think Wyoming or Alaska. Relatively inexpensive favors could buy a vote in those tiny constituencies just as it is fairly cheap to buy off the cattle and mining interests that dominate the empty pith and frozen rind of the American continent. Meanwhile, general public opinion was also for sale. The English system provided a good living for a large class of flacks and publicists who defended the powers that be with purchased sarcasm.

The Anglophilia of the rightists explains a lot. For example. The administration and its posse is thought to be hostile to things French because of the opposition of France to the Conquest of Iraq, but the pundits never manage a comparable level of anger for the Germans or any of the many other peoples who opposed the war. You might think that the Germans, whose government is officially socialist, would be a more obvious target than the French, who are led by a conservative. Anger at the French, however, is more rewarding to our Conservatives on the level of fantasy because these guys still think of themselves as William Pitt. Over and beyond the normal hostility of Conservatives to the Enlightenment, in denouncing Paris, they are channeling the English beefsteak patriotism of 1796. Somehow it goes with bow ties.

I advise the pundits to be careful with the historical analogies. They’d like to believe that contemporary America is in the situation of late 18th Century England, a nation that eventually triumphed over its great continental enemy despite its diplomatic isolation. It is perfectly true that England did survive the loss of its American colonies and went on to flourish economically despite the hostility of most of Europe. England, however, did several things that we are not doing. While the English were in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, we are busily dismantling our own manufacturing economy. While the English pioneered a sound system of public finance, we are destroying our own national credit. While English patriotism made it possible to increase taxes during wartime, we’re unwilling to pay the price for our aggressive foreign policy. In fact, in our ideological posturing, national vanity, and feckless bravado, we’re acting precisely like cartoon versions of 18th Century Frenchmen. Moreover, as a declining but militarily formidable power, we’re very much in the situation of late Bourbon France. Unlike the English, we don’t have the prospect of lording it over a worldwide power vacuum where obsolete empires and helpless natives await exploitation. This time the heirs to the Moguls and Manchus are coming for us.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Oxycontin of the Masses

According to Marx, the preoccupation of the German intellectuals of his time with religious issues was evidence of their political immaturity. How else explain why grownups were seriously debating the divinity of Christ as late as the year 1848? Similarly impatient sentiments are often enough expressed today about the growing salience of religion in American political affairs. Most outlooks on history view religion as a kind of pedagogy and separate its message, which is more or less endorsed, from the nursery story format in which it is conveyed to the people. In this narrative, the advance of education and enlightenment eventually make it possible to dispense with the crude symbolism and miracle mongering in favor of plain speaking and a respect for the truth. So why does every political candidate have to make a public confession of faith in order to get a hearing at all?

Most conservatives are not surprised by the persistence of irrational styles of faith since they don’t believe in progress of any kind, except perhaps scientific progress. Religion has no intelligible core for them. It is merely a method of crowd control whose content is irrelevant to the clear-eyed elites who in the best case run the world with virtuous cynicism. Religion and reason address different strata of the public, not different ages of history, so one should hardly be surprised that religion neither declines nor becomes more reasonable over time. Indeed, a public that reasons is a great evil so the right subscribes to the Taoist admonition to “fill their bellies and empty their minds,” or at least to the part about emptying their minds.

Although I retain enough of my Left-Hegelian upbringing to think that religion does have a cognitive significance and really does represent a way in which people understand themselves and their world, I have to admit that the Conservative take on religion does provide a useful if partial perspective. But even to the extent that the telos of religion is not truth, it does have a history. It progresses, albeit as a technology progresses, getting better and better at mobilizing the resentments and hopes of people. In my lifetime, for example, television evangelists have pioneered entirely new ways of exploiting a huge audience of vulnerable listeners just as earlier operators colonized the radio waves back in the 30s and their distant ancestors figured out how to exploit moveable type.

Even aspects of religion that appear to be thematic to particular faiths can be understood as technological breakthroughs. Religious entrepreneurship has a history—traditional religious personnel sacrificed cattle, they didn’t propagandize their followers. Once a group discovers how to establish a secret sect, the technique will be copied by other groups just as religious fanaticism, a Persian and Jewish invention, quickly escaped copyright. Indeed, the practice of religious devotion itself, like so much else, seems to have been a Hellenistic invention that got picked up by the Christians and eventually spread to the ends of Asia as bhakti. Whom one adores is less important than the practice of adoration. The original man who was proclaimed the savior (Soter) by his PR department may have been Ptolemy the First, but Christ, Rama, Kannon, Guru Nanak, and various Sufis and Saints have filled the same role since. The absence of truth in religion leaves the field wide open for the advance of technique.

Now it may be that modern man is suffering from an especially bad case of existential anguish and that the religious revivals of the time are a response to a deeply felt need. I’m skeptical. From an objective point of view, the human condition has always been pretty desperate. Perhaps something about contemporary conditions does make the resentful plankton of our kind more aware of its humiliating situation and therefore easier to manipulate. On the other hand, just as the automobile was not introduced to meet the challenge of a worldwide horse shortage, the current obsession with religion may simply be a consequence of a wave of entrepreneurial activity that is exploiting the latest developments in the technology of superstition.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Somewhere Under the Radar

My Dad was convinced to the day he died that the Japanese and Chinese would one day get together and stab us in the back. Where he got this notion I have no idea. It wasn’t that he harbored bad feelings about Asians—he didn’t have any discernable animus towards the many Nisei who lived in our town—and his prophesy was certainly not based on any knowledge of the history of the region or the culture or languages of the peoples involved–he didn’t have any of that either. When he would pronounce on the matter, I tried to suggest that the Chinese had every reason to hate the Japanese, but he waved that off with a smile as if I were being na├»ve. The strangest thing about his conviction on this issue is that he never acted as if the forthcoming reversal of alliances was at all important. It was just something he absolutely, positively could foresee. What was impressive was his perfect assurance that he was right.

Maybe Beijing and Tokyo will get together one of these days, possibly inspired by old Fu Manchu novels. That’s not why I recall this bit. It’s just that I get my own premonitions from time to time and have to remind myself that they may sound—or be—as quirky and unsupported as Dad’s offhanded warnings about the Yellow Peril. For example, I’m quite sure that the Star Wars anti-missile system is a fraud; and my skepticism about it has very little to do with the widely-held opinion in the scientific community that the whole thing is a crock. I mean that’s a good reason not to think the thing will work, but it’s not my reason. After all, from that kind of reasoning one could arrive at the reasonable guess that the system is impractical but never achieve the kind of total confidence that runs in my family. On the other hand, unlike my father, who was as absolute in his oracles as a Priestess of Apollo, I do have some reason for what I think though maybe my syllogisms are only suitable for a Sibyl. Anyhow.

This is the theory that I have and the theory that is mine. If there were any real prospect of an anti-missile missile system really working, we wouldn’t have heard a word about it. Whenever practical and important weapon systems are in the works, they are treated as the darkest of state secrets as in the case of the Manhattan Project and more recently of stealth aircraft, which never appeared on the radar until they didn’t appear on the radar. The technical possibility of atom bombs and undetectable planes was indeed suggested long before the realization of either—my Dad, for example, had heard about the possibility of nuclear weapons from his physics profs at UCLA in the early 30s—but once the technology became something that could be realized in a matter of years, all mention was squelched. Indeed, I understand that the Germans gleaned some inkling of what was up when many topics in atomic physics disappeared from journal articles in the 40s. On the other hand, since we hear a very great deal about Star Wars indeed, it’s obvious that nobody in the military expects it to work. QED.

Next week: news about Knight Templars.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Fact Deficit

I’ve been unfair to many of Bush’s supporters, believing that they were being arrogant in dismissing foreign criticism of our policies. Like many others, I cited, at least in my mind, the phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” But this criticism assumes that the people are aware of what the world thinks. A recent study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) shows that the Bush base is largely unaware of the depth and breadth of anti-American feeling and even imagines that most Europeans and even Muslims support the war and have a high opinion of Mr. Bush. The Bush supporters are ill-informed in general, supposing, for example, that he is promoting a multilateral approach to global warming and other international issues and continuing to think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and significant ties to Al Qaeda.

One should not be entirely surprised, though inevitably one is. It takes a huge investment of time and money to teach the alphabet and other basics to a reasonable proportion of the population; and at least in that enterprise the effort to inform is not opposed by a large and well-financed group circulating falsified multiplication tables. The human mind may not be a perfectly blank slate; but, to paraphrase a familiar maxim of the Scholastics, “Nothing is in the Intellect that is not first on Prime Time.” It requires real effort to create a society in which important matters of fact are generally understood by everyone—you certainly can’t expect the average person to exert even a tiny effort to find out for themselves. In this instance, however, not everything can be chalked up to the inertness of the public mind. Kerry supporters are far more aware of the state of the world and, crucially, have a much more accurate picture of the positions of their own candidate than Bush supporters. Why are they so much better at registering the facts of the case?

The authors of the PIPA study suggest that Bush’s supporters can’t hear evidence contrary to their high estimation of Bush because to do so would result in cognitive dissonance. If, as was famously proclaimed on the Daily Show, the facts are biased, so much the worse for the facts. People don’t want to accept that we invaded Iraq on false premises, and they certainly don’t want to admit that they were taken in. Bush, after all, had been made into the hero of 9/11. Indeed, if you recall the way the events were covered, he performed brilliantly in the aftermath even before he did anything at all, so strong was the imperative of the story line. Once you’ve decided that Bush is the necessary man, it’s easy to simply assume that he shares your opinions even when he obviously doesn’t because, to speak the language of physical chemistry, the default case is energetically favorable and, to speak the language of clinical psychology, you’re frightened and desperate to believe whatever Daddy says.

Snark aside, I don’t know whether the average Bush supporter is stupider than the average Kerry supporter. The more important difference may be that the greater insecurity of Bush supporters makes them easier marks for the cynical propaganda that exploits their fears and thus spreads disinformation. The deeper or rather the more important question here is how a large group of people gradually became so vulnerable to manipulation.

I’ve often written that it is the American public and not the Bush administration that will bear the responsibility for what we’re doing to ourselves and the world. In making this point, I’ve descended into prophetic denunciation from time to time. To be fair, I ought to make it clear that the relevant moral category in politics is karma, not sin. I love to dress up as Jeremiah, but what History is likely to punish is not the unrighteousness of the people but their stupidity and cowardice. While each of us has some responsibility for the kind of person we become, specifically ethical condemnation should mostly be reserved for the individuals in politics and the media who have self-consciously promoted popular ignorance and timidity for power and gain. Unfortunately, karma, a merely statistical tendency, often passes over the worst malefactors. Showered with honors, they die in their beds and wind up buried next to their libraries.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Postmodern Condition

It’s already been ten years or so since I suggested that it was time for the local bookstore to start a Used Postmodernism section. The folks at Green Apple didn’t think that was very funny, but whatever point I had is perhaps a little less over subtle in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s death. The amorphous set of themes and assumptions formerly known as Poststructuralism and then Postmodernism is indeed long in the tooth.

Of course the philosophical interesting ideas of the French never really circulated as such. The influence of serious thought is surely indirect; what appears in public is a crude parody of the original. The parody can be significant in itself however. Postmodernism really doesn’t name a philosophy; but perhaps it identifies a historical condition; and it may be that historical condition rather than any fragments of credible philosophy that lingers on and on.

The philosophers, at least the pros among ‘em, may have decided that there is something outside the text and that no amount of sociology can dissolve the results that crystallize out of the sciences. They’ve taken notice that you can do things with words but also realized that you can’t do very much—the effectiveness of performative utterances such as the universally invoked example of the “I do” depends upon the pre-existence of an entire system of laws and customs and has no force outside of the tribe. Being married is merely a legal state, not a natural fact.

Only God Almighty is able to bring a world into existence by a WORD. “Let there be light,” works for Him. For us, “Let there be a terrible rumpus!” is more like it. To listen to the television, however, you’d think that what people wish or intend or decree is what creates all the facts, especially in politics. The talking heads endlessly rediscover that appearances are more important than realities and retail this profound truth to an audience that is supposed to be surprised by an idea that had been banal for two generations in 399 B.C. Let us not criticize this venerable sophistry, however; but ask instead the why it seems so apropos circa 2004 A.D.

If the Postmodern condition is one in which the realities that matter are cultural artifacts and what’s important is simply what people think, we must be somehow be insulated from realities that are non-human or at least alien to our own society. Under what circumstances can the physics of the atmosphere can be ignored in relationship to global warming? How can we get away with ignoring arithmetic in deciding a fiscal policy? In which universe do the opinions of the rest of the world have no relevance for American foreign policy? The presidential aide interviewed by Ron Suskind in an already celebrated article supplied the answer. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” But if we’re really going to create a new reality and revalue all values by virtue of our redoubtable Will to Power, we’re going to need not merely the belief that we have the power, but the power itself.

Children can live in fantasy worlds because the adults protect them. Nobody’s protecting us, but we’ve inherited a splendid playpen. We’re able to conduct our politics by the postmodern rules of fantasy, if only temporarily, because it has fallen out that we acquired a huge advantage over the other nations. Our military preponderance, for example, though universally overestimated, is quite real and all the more formidable because we are crazy enough to use it. More importantly, we haven’t maxed out the credit cards yet, so we can go on imagining that we’re wealthy even though we’re obviously going bankrupt. We can also outrage the environment, not because we can repeal the laws of nature but because technological karma works with a time lag. A dying man can eat anything. On the other hand, as the German’s say, “Erst Kommt das Fressen, denn der Moral.” (= I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!)

Monday, October 18, 2004

Antibiotic Resistance

Inadequate doses of antibiotics have the predictable effect of promoting resistant strains of bacteria by natural selection. Which is why all those pill bottles bear a tag encouraging the patient to finish the prescription. I think we should take this advice to heart in our military policy, but half measures seem to be the rule both in Afghanistan and Iraq where we are running what amounts to a training program for terrorists. We certainly don’t have the overwhelming presence that would be required to put down the multifaceted rebellion by main force, and it’s a good bet that our enemies will gradually figure out how to evade or defeat the military technology we are so dependent upon. Many right-wingers think of themselves as military philosophers, but they seem to have forgotten the rule of thumb they themselves formerly invoked to criticize previous administrations: only the long-term application of a considerable numerical advantage can defeat a popular insurgency. Absent that, random violence and torture merely toughens and strengthens the opposition. We are breeding a generation of superbugs.

At this point I should insert a bit of boiler plate about how the Bush strategy in Iraq is of a piece with many other policies based on a principled contempt for the lessons of experience. These folks are addicted to wishful thinking.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Semi-Crow

American racial politics have modulated over the years. The segregationists who migrated to the Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights movements are not the stone racists of the past. I don’t think they are being disingenuous when they insist that they aren’t prejudiced against black people in general. In 2004, class probably is more salient than race as a factor in judging people, which is to say that a black guy who sounds and looks middle-class might as well be a Caucasian, just as Japanese and Chinese Americans have once again become honorary Aryans. Poor blacks are still despised, however. By the same token, although Republicans are perfectly happy that the franchise extends to Negroes so long as they vote Republican, Jim Crow policies are back in favor for those that do not. The great issue of the Florida election of 2000 had nothing to do with hanging chads, after all, but with the premeditated disenfranchisement of thousands and thousands of black voters who were likely to vote for and elect Al Gore absent the criminal behavior of Jeb Bush and other state officials. The same game is once again underway in Florida and many other places in the United States, not all of them in the South.

From my intensely cynical perspective, the most interesting thing about this issue is the indifference of the Press and the public to very credible reports of utterly unprincipled and often thoroughly illegal attempts to keep people from voting. In Oregon, for example, Republicans are registering Democrats and Republicans to vote and then throwing away the democratic applications but what we hear on the news has to do with Mr. Chaney’s gay daughter. In Florida, people erroneously removed from the voting lists because they have the same names as felons are being prevented from reregistering by various bureaucratic dodges, but the news shows have calculated, with some plausibility, that a mostly White audience won’t care. Indeed, such actions probably strike a good many Americans as desirable so long as the people who are kept from voting aren’t real Americans. Why should they get riled about civil rights violations when they obviously aren’t upset that people in Cuba and Iraq are being tortured in their name? In this respect, it’s no use blaming the degradation of American public life on Bush, Chaney, or Rove or G.E. or Fox. The fault lies with the People. The election is really a judgment about them.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

You Don’t Have to Outrun the Bear

Despite the recent increase in the price of crude oil, the world economy seems to be doing pretty well. Indeed, much more than fears of political instability, it is the growth of countries like China and India that has caused the rise in oil prices and will surely cause further price increases in the future. In this context, the poor performance of the American economy cannot be blamed on the business cycle or a lack of international demand. And America’s economy is performing dismally. Numbers released today show that our trade deficit is increasing. September was the second worse deficit on record. 2004 will be the worst year on record. Meanwhile, claims for first time unemployment insurance were up this morning for the fifth week in a row and the economic recovery from the recession is easily the slowest and weakest of the last 60 years.

Defenders of the administration’s economic policies like to contrast our situation with Europe’s—they are notably quiet about China, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, and the other Asian nations. Unfortunately, the European comparison is not really favorable either. The unemployment rate in France and German is higher than ours, but that result is a statistical artifact that reflects the way that unemployment is counted in those countries. Truly comparable numbers, the percentage of adults gainfully employed, for example, tell a different story. The lower growth rates of some European countries is also systematically misleading because the populations of many European nations are stable. In view of the demographic dynamism of the U.S., our lackluster GNP growth is all-the-more significant.

The policies of the current administration are obviously not the fundamental reason for our competitive disadvantage since the problem has been building for many years. The Bush response to the challenge has been inadequate and wrong-headed, however. Even the steps that made some economic sense—fiscal stimulus, for example—were carried out in the least effective and most expensive way. The recession provided a new excuse for a tax policy whose true motives were a mix of political cynicism and ideological fervor. In any case, economic stimulus is properly a short-term measure that addresses a business cycle problem and not a policy designed to address a long-term structural problem. Indeed, because the tax cuts are essentially permanent, they have put us at an continuing disadvantage relative to other countries by weakening our national credit, especially in view of the huge increases in government spending necessitated by our aggressive foreign policy,

Reasonable people can disagree about what economic policy is best; and even if they aren’t reasonable, you still have to deal with them. I certainly don’t claim any prescience in these matters. What does seem clear, however, is that the economic health of the United States is not the first priority of this administration; and that treating it as an important but secondary goal does not suffice. I’m sure that Mr. Bush would prefer healthy job growth—I don’t think he kicks his dog, either—but the record indicates that in practice rewarding the political base comes first. It has been reported that when Bush himself worried aloud about the bias of the tax cuts, Carl Rove admonished him to stick to the program. Rove’s probably right. Bush’s political support is rooted in those who benefit from the current economic system and he cannot cross them. Everybody understands, for example, that companies are reluctant to hire because of the rapidly increasing cost of the health insurance they have to provide full-time workers. Any serious attempt to improve American competitiveness must address the gross inefficiency of a medical system that delivers a mediocre standard of care at an inflated price. Bush dare not undertake such reforms because the insurance and drug companies are among his most important supporters and potentially his deadliest enemies. Dealing with the health problem is hard enough. Dealing with the health problem while continuing to pay off your friends is simply impossible.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Deus lo Volt!

In the Middle Ages, poorly informed people in northern Europe believed that the Muslims were pagan idolaters; but just as anybody with a modicum of education knew that the world was round, the well informed knew that Muhammad had actually been a monotheist. They understood Islam as a Christian heresy rather than an alien faith and treated Allah and God as names for one and the same Power. One of the alarming things about the current scene is the way in which many Fundamentalists seem to approach the Arab world with the rather tribal notion that what’s involved is a fight between our God and your God and that religious strife can only be settled World Wrestling Federation style Deo a Deo. The neo-cons know better. Following Aristotle’s advice on dealing with the masses, they regard their theological allies with light irony. But the cultured apologists for the Crusade in Mesopotamia operate with some fairly rustic notions of their own.

The justification of the invasion as a way to bring the light of the West to the benighted people of Asia is not so different from the line taken by many generations of intellectuals in the Latin West. The monks and bishops also believed that their ideology would be welcomed with open arms once the natives recognized its obvious superiority though I don’t know if any abbot of Cluny who ever actually suggested that the citizens of Babylon would name a square after the Pope. At all events, whether in 1095 or 2003, the respective publicists never seemed to have seriously entertained the question, “What gives us the right to decide what people in a foreign land should believe and/or how they should govern themselves?” In both cases, the obvious superiority of the Roman Faith or Democracy was beyond debate. The Saracens weren’t and aren’t entitled to an opinion on the matter since the truth of Christianity is proven by the Gospels and the inevitability of Democracy has been settled once and for all because a man named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Blah, blah, blah, blah, REX, blah, blah, blah

Trying to figure out who won a political debate is a difficult cognitive feat because the point is not usually whether or not one side or the other was convincing to you but whether they were convincing to some other group of people—the only thing that mattered about the Vice Presidential debate, after all, was its effect on the mysterious undecided voters. Listening with somebody else’s ears is no mean feat, especially when their assumptions, values, and habits of thought are alien to your own. It’s quite possible to learn from experience that certain appeals will succeed with uninformed people, but that kind of constructed understanding is clumsy and slow. Many scientists have discovered, for example, that arguments about evolution decisive to biologists are utterly unconvincing to lay audiences; but this understanding doesn’t necessarily make them any more effective in public venues because it seldom becomes intuitive and requires indirection if not deviousness from individuals trained to be literal minded. Napoleon used to say the great talent commanders needed was the ability to guess how their subordinates would hear an order in the heat of battle, something not easy to acquire for those of us who were not born to the manner. Scoring a debate requires a similar skill, a kind of ventriloquism in reverse in which we cast not our voice but our hearing into another body.

I certainly don’t know what the undecideds thought they heard last night, though the CBS poll suggested they thought Edwards won by a fairly large margin. It may be that the messages that mattered were as simple as “Gee, maybe it’s permissible to have doubts about what the President says,” or “Now that you mention it, the economy is pretty punk,” or simply that there is a guy named Edwards whose running and he seems normal enough. If nothing else, the debate may have been the first time in a long time that the voters have heard a word about issues of any kind—I gather that discussion of substantial matters is pretty much taboo on the evening news. I wouldn’t know. I read the papers where such matters are sometimes discussed, though usually in the back along with the car ads.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How the Irish Became Catholics

Left to their own devices people come to a bewildering array of conclusions on matters of religion. National religious uniformity doesn’t just happen. When it is not imposed by sheer force, it usually comes into being because a particular religion becomes a symbol of national unity in the face of foreign aggression. In the first century of the Reformation, for example, Poland was famous for its religious diversity and toleration. It was only after the repeated invasions of the Lutheran Swedes that the Poles became increasingly Catholic, an identity which was reinforced in our times by resistance to the atheistic Soviets. Similarly, it wasn’t some mysterious national piety that made the Irish so loyal to Rome. The Jesuits wouldn’t have been anything like so successful without Cromwell and King William.

Our activities in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are underwriting the popularity of fundamentalist Islam in the region, an outcome by no means likely in the absence of our troops and bombs. Of course the Arabs would probably have called themselves Muslims in any case; but Islam, like Christianity, can be peaceable as well as fanatic. Indeed, because religions have no objective truth, they can become anything at all. Unfortunately we seem to be determined to reawaken what are precisely the most unpleasant elements of the Muslim tradition and to make skepticism or secularism into cultural treason.

These things work both ways. Creating a huge and permanent enemy in the Middle East has certain advantages from a rightist perspective because a hostile Islamic world automatically provides America with a unifying other that has been lacking since the Reds wimped out on us. Many Neocons accept the thesis of Carl Schmitt that real politics absolutely requires an enemy. If you really want to have a nation that amounts to more than a contemptible mutual aid society, you simply must pick a fight with someone. Unfortunately, the obvious bogyman, China, is already too formidable to challenge. In this respect, the terrorists are a godsend. True, they had nothing at all to do with the fascist regime in Iraq; but they can be made to have something to do with Iraq retroactively. And the prospect that conflict in the region will be interminable is actually a selling point since what is needed is a reliable, permanent foe to discipline the Americans and justify an authoritarian, one-party state at home.

Monday, October 04, 2004

You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

The player with the most chips can win a lot of hands by betting on everything, but eventually the table gets wise and the bluffs have to be larger and larger to be impressive. Once and a while, the cowboy will get very lucky indeed and survive his recklessness; but most nights end predictably with a ridiculous showdown where we learn once again that a pair of sevens isn’t a very good hand. I’ve played against macho types who kept raising me in a stud game even though no possible hole card would beat what my hand was already showing. “I guess you weren’t buyin’ it,” says Tex and one politely allows that you can’t beat Lady Luck.

The poker example is a pretty good allegory for a common historical pattern. A nation frustrated by its inability to secure a military victory against an elusive or inaccessible foe reacts by intensifying or widening the conflict as when Germany invaded Russia because it couldn’t invade England and France and later the United States invaded Cambodia because they couldn’t win in Vietnam. Sometimes the bluster and bluff involves an increase in barbarity rather than a geographical extension of the conflict as when the French became increasingly brutal as they lost ground to the insurgents in Algeria or we lose more and more of our inhibitions about bombing civilians in rebel-controlled cities in Iraq. All these moves have the flavor of the last despairing raise in a losing game. In the present case, unfortunately, there may be cards left to play. You often read that the administration will not be able to repeat its strategy of preventative war against Iran or even Syria because the cost of such an action has gone up drastically and our military resources are already dangerously drained. That optimistic thought ignores the routine irrationality of desperate militarists for whom folding is unmanly. Of course it would be dumb to pick a new fight. How smart do you think these guys are?

By the way, the best advice about international politics doesn’t come from poker but from chess. The fundamental error of the Bush administration was to ignore that cardinal Tartakowerism, “A threat is more powerful than its execution.”

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Peel Me a Grape

Debates about the bias of the media universally misidentify the problem, which is not whether a range of opinions and ideas are available but whether one side has a decisive advantage in promoting its own interest by propagandistic means. If voters were intelligent agents who made reasonable efforts to figure things out, there would be no problem. Books and magazines of all persuasions are far more readily available now than in the past, and the Internet makes it possible to read most of the world’s newspapers. For the most part, however, the public is neither intelligent nor active. They don’t read and they certainly don’t think. One can make utopian suggestions about how to lift them out of their normal condition of sloth and ignorance—an excellent idea if you can do it and have lots and lots of time—but in the meanwhile, an objective observer has to be realistic about the boundary conditions of political life that guarantee that emotional appeals and sheer repetition are vastly more important than logic or accurate information.

As thoughtful rightists know very well, political rhetoric is about training, not education. The Neocons are quite correct in this, and it behooves anybody who cares about the preservation a free society to recognize the fact and prevent one group from seizing control of the means of propaganda. Thousands of hours of chest thumping chauvinism are not counteracted by a couple of sound bytes from the editor of Nation.

In my more curmudgeonly moments I grumble about the stupidity of people of normal intelligence as if it were part of the natural history of the human species, but the susceptibility of the public to propaganda is less a function of intellect than sheer inertia. The big political issues are not rocket science, after all. Recent studies show that the population is divided between a minority who draw their own conclusions and a majority who do not. The former are politically active, the later reactive. To move them, it is not enough to present the premises of an argument. No matter how simple the inference, they will not make it. It follows that the political operators who supply the answers will always beat out those who provide the evidence because the evidence only matters to a tiny group. The public, let us remember, is overwhelmingly made up of the kids who only cared about what was going to be on the test.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

It’s About Russia

I just finished reading James W. Valentine’s new tome on the evolution of the big animal groups, On the Origin of Phyla. Valentine is a heavy hitter in the phylogeny business, but his book, whose title self-consciously echoes Darwin’s epochal book, doesn’t offer any similarly earthshaking insights. I think that’s a significant result in itself. Trying to work out the particulars of a process that occurred 600 million years ago is bound to be a long slog, especially since the precursors of the various groups were tiny worm-like creatures with soft bodies that leave few fossil remains. Scientists are winnowing down the available hypotheses, however, and nobody seems to see any need for explanations that involve notions beyond what is already familiar in evolutionary thinking. Indeed, the more-or-less automatic advance of molecular biology can be expected to provide more and more reliable family trees as time wears on, though as Valentine is careful to point out, interpreting the floods of data on the genetic affinities of living organisms is far from automatic and we may never precisely identify the sponge with an attitude that was the authentic metazoan Adam. The nature of the evidence may limit us to telling likely stories about our most distant ancestors, but the point is that the stories sound more likely all the time. The subject evolves. It isn’t in crisis.

In most of the sciences, books aren’t very important because the crucial developments appear in research articles. In evolutionary biology, however, books have a larger role because of the continuing challenge of putting together a vast and heterogeneous mass of evidence to draw meaningful conclusions about living things. The grand example is the Origin of Species, a masterpiece of synthesis that is still an inevitable work 145 years after its publication; but there are a number of important books by Mayr, Dobzhansky, Stanley, Grant, Gould, Simpson, Wilson, and others that are structurally similar to Origins. I don’t think physics or chemistry has a similar bibliography. There are wonderful books in these sciences, but, aside from Galileo’s Two World Systems and Newton’s Principia, they tend to be textbooks, not the primary exposition of new ideas. Valentine’s book is hardly in a league with Tempo and Mode in Evolution, let alone the original Origin; but it’s a worthwhile example of the type.

Valentine thinks that the earliest metazoans probably lived on the floor of shallow seas. I’m a benthic form, myself, a sort of intellectual brachiopod subsisting on whatever nutritious morsels lodge in my lophophore. It is hardly surprising I have a bias in favor of inductive methods. One of the larger pieces I’ve strained from reading Valentine and other such books is that most of the creativity of evolution normally occurs at the earliest stages of the emergence of a group of organisms when some lucky founder arrives in an empty geographic or ecological zone. In that absence of competition, anything works brilliantly if it works at all. Fundamental principle of evolution (and marketing): If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

An evolutionary flowering doesn’t necessarily occur because an organism develops a new adaptation. Most often some Elmer Fudd of a worm lucks into a new scene and its offspring rapidly develop into a whole range of new forms, some of which include morphological novelties that could only emerge under conditions of lessened competition. When the ancestors of what would become insects diverged from the ancestor of what would become fish, there is little likelihood that the first members of the first group looked very different from the members of the second or that what differences they did have had anything to do with being like an insect or being like a fish. That probably came later. By the same logic, the fact that there are a limited number of types of animals at any taxonomic level doesn’t imply that there are only so many basic types that work. It may just be that “when some region of adaptive space is already occupied, novelties produced to reinvade that space will usually be less well adapted than are the inhabitants, and will lose out in any sorting. Thus the Cambrian radiations may have produced enough metazoan types to occupy the broad range of available marine environments, thereby foreclosing the production of additional bodyplans.”

We tend to think of the Theory of Evolution as the explanation of how new living things emerge but most evolutionary mechanisms ceaselessly work to prevent novelty. At the beginning of every new epoch, a thousand flowers bloom precisely because a disaster or some other contingency has created a temporary cessation of competition. In nature as in history, competition merely puts a high finish on conformity and routine—the perfected Brontosaurus, the New Improved Chevy, Brad Pitt.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Making the Short List

The mathematical romance Flatland takes place in a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are mystified by the occasional visits of three-dimensional interlopers who can effortlessly accomplish such amazing stunts as escaping from a loop without breaking the line. We don’t live in Flatland, of course, but to judge from our public discourse, we have decided to act as if we did, ignoring the depth of the world in a search for radical simplicity. It would be dubious enough to operate with the notion that particular individuals and groups have an essence that is unchangeable without divine intervention. We go beyond that to claim that this postulated center or axis is either good or evil, which is to say that our fundamental category of judgment is actually not even two-dimensional or simply linear but binary. No wonder that our thoughts are like infantile graffiti scrawled in smeary crayon on the nursery wall. But it’s not that we don’t know better. Stupidity, long promoted to the laboring and servile classes as the virtue of simplicity, is also admired in leaders as a sign of strength and a token of solidarity with the People. We chose to be crude. But maybe this sort of thing can be overdone.

Mind you, I don’t dispute the value of oversimplification. Even the most elaborate theory is a cartoon version of an intractably complex reality; and my own thinking is exceedingly narrow, an obsessive meditation on the theme of selection itself. For me, culture does not transcend nature or differ from it in essence or operate according to novel laws. It is simply an infinitesimal subset or subgroup of nature insulated from the remainder by various active mechanisms. To complain about this situation is pointless since it is constitutive of any possible human world—you might as well curse the nature of things—but my objection is not to the fact that the human agenda is so narrow but that it is often the wrong agenda, a poor selection. That, and the fact we often seem to omit the recognition of the narrowness from the list of the six permissible ideas.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Revolutionary Justice?

Effective political action always involves the mobilization of unpleasant human emotions. Lately the right has been better than the left in playing on the resentments of the population. While dismissing concerns about material inequality as class hatred, the Republicans have played on the envy that so many middling people have for the possessors of disproportionate amounts of cultural capital. True, the merest idiot can become rich by inheriting millions while even the most privileged child has to work to become educated, but this modest element of fairness makes things worse. Even the saddest loser can identify with one of our lumpenmillionaires since the difference between the wretchedness of the pleb and the splendor of the mogul is mostly just luck or can be imagined to be luck. The sorriest specimen on earth can identify with Donald Trump. Indeed, being a sorry specimen makes it all the easier. Meanwhile the hateful thing about cultured people is not the possibility that they are fakes, but the suspicion that they aren’t. As Nietzsche pointed out over a hundred years ago, it is not the presumption of merit that offends. It’s merit itself.

There is no general way of getting around the human propensity to hate the competition. A worker who works too hard will be restrained by the other workers. A black kid who tries to escape the Inner City will be pulled back by his friends and relations—the so-called crab bucket effect. In their endless celebration of mediocrity, the Republicans merely apply the same principle to politics. One can fight this tactic by promoting candidates like Clinton, the Galactic Mule of American politics, whose tremendous charm made people forgive him his competence; but there aren’t very many Clintons around. And the situation gets worse because our form of civilization really does tend to debase and infantilize most people, thus increasing their need for psychic compensation.

What’s needed is an appeal to some equally problematic but powerful psychological mechanism. Unfortunately, the obvious and probably necessary choice is the premeditated awakening of the sense of political justice, by which I do not mean the benign and healing process of assessing responsibility for what happens, but the reckless and imperative desire to punish political enemies.