Saturday, September 20, 2003

A Kind of Defeat

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, a great many people, including me, joked that the real victor in the Cold War had been Japan. That was before Japan fell into a long lasting slump and the United States, led by a government that adopted unremarkable but sane policies, enjoyed a massive boom. In longer retrospect, however, we are learning that the capitalist political economy really did lose the Cold War, not capitalism as the ideological bugbear of the left or the shining ideal of the Chamber of Commerce, but the capitalism that actually functioned during the years of American greatness. That capitalism was a mixed system of predominately private ownership balanced by strong labor unions; independent scientists and academics partly financed by public money, a sometimes principled Press; an activist government supported by votes as well as dollars; and, above all, by the egalitarian sentiments of both owners and workers. That system is dead.

The old system depended an organization of production—mass production employing huge numbers of interchangeable, semiskilled workers—now obsolete; but it also emerged and persisted because governing elites recognized that only a system seen to benefit a majority of the people could compete with Communism or enforce universal conscription in an age of mass armies. As the objective need for popular support eroded, policy intellectuals, whose enthusiasm for democracy had always been guarded, became outspoken in support of an oligarchy consisting of the magnates best able to pay for their services. The word Democracy was kept around for propaganda purposes, but every effort was made to suppress political participation and otherwise ensure that elections had nothing to do with the meaningful consent of the governed. Where the old system redistributed income to counterbalance the relentless tendency of the corporate economy to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the new system actively promoted a deeper and deeper divide between the haves and have nots even at the cost of hindering aggregate growth. It remains to be seen whether this New Domestic Order can persist for very long—if nothing else, the running up huge deficits and the buying off or shushing inconvenient scientific advice about ecological problems isn’t a permanent solution unless, as some of these folks apparently believe or hope, the end of the world really is near.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Feng Shui (Sweet Chariot?)

As near as I can remember, I encountered the very first idea I ever recognized as an idea in my sister’s paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology book. Hamilton began by explaining that the Greeks didn’t think the Gods made the Universe, they believed the Universe made the Gods. That struck me as news and made a lasting impression. For most of my life, I’ve treated the belatedness of mind and form as an axiom, which is not to say I ever thought it was self-evident but simply that I chose to make it the foundation of my thinking. It was the bet I made. I look at things of special value—plants, animals, the human race, even divinities (as I understand them)—as instances, not of emergence from some pre-existing chamber of souls, but of a fortunate and unprecedented coming together. In this respect I am a pagan of sorts, though, contrary to Edith Hamilton, not even all the ancient pagans made the same wager and thinkers from other traditions adhere to an analogous (non) creation myth—I’m thinking of the sublimely prosaic Taoist notion of the Great Clod, a primal but homely entity traditionally symbolized by the won ton in the soup on Chinese New Year.

My view of life, or at least its Hellenic prototype, is sometimes dismissed as animism, but animism it is not if by animism you mean the belief that the surprising liveliness of the world is the result of the action of pre-existing spirits. Things may be full of Gods, as Thales remarked one fateful night at some Ionian bar; but such postulated entities—seminal reasons, divine sparks, entelechies, bacteria on meteorites—merely postpone the question of how one accounts for order. Indeed, like traditional theism, belief that life and sentience can only result from the actions of something already alive and sentient is just another way of saying that the important things are and will always be inexplicable. An explanation, after all, requires that something depend upon something different—you can’t properly explain why an object is green by pointing out that it is made of little green parts. Of course it may be that the appearance of intelligence in the world really is inexplicable. I certainly don’t know that it isn’t; and, in any case, I agree with Wittgenstein that explanations have to have an end, if only at the point where we lose interest. It seems to me, however, that for some centuries now the evidence has been piling up on my side of the issue.

I was reminded of these questions by a scholarly monograph on Greek Nymphs I recently found on a remainder table. The book reminded me on the aesthetic appeal of the old paganism, its sensitivity to the magical qualities of special places. Nymphs, associated with groves, mountains, caves, fountains, and other beguiling locations, figure numinous powers, neither immortal nor human, that arise from the accidents of land and water. The Greeks were exceedingly sensitive to such phenomena—Vincent Scully’s work on the relationship of Greek temples to their geographical settings is very revealing on this score—and so am I. I feel the lay of the land in my own body and in fact respond to certain places as to a beautiful woman, thus suffering or enjoying the peculiar inspiration the Greeks called nympholepsy. The supposedly disenchanted have their own piety.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Cui Bono

The 9/11 attacks were enormously beneficial to Mr. Bush, who probably would have been tarred and feathered for his disastrous economic record by now were it not for the hysteria about terrorism. Noting this fact, many people around the world think that Bush actually signed up Ben Laden to destroy the Twin Towers or at least looked the other way so that the desired outcome could come to pass. I certainly don’t buy into this conspiracy theory. After all, if we reason on the basis of who benefits most, the logical suspicion would be that it was Ben Laden who hired Bush since Bush has furthered the aims of Ben Laden, i.e. the decline of America, even more than Ben Laden has benefited Bush. If this supposition is true—and we know that mysterious Saudi money bailed out Bush during at least one of his failed business adventures—Ben Laden certainly bet smart. America is now diplomatically isolated, widely hated, militarily weak, and financially stretched— far less powerful now than we were three years ago.


I write that America is militarily weak. That runs against the premise of umpteen op-ed pieces that we have unprecedented military superiority. But that meme is getting a tad shopworn and was always a bit dodgy because military power is not a scalar quantity. In some respects we are powerful indeed. In others, not particularly. A nation isn’t militarily strong simpliciter but only in relationship to particular political purposes. As a defensive force, the U.S. military is fantastically strong and our almost complete ownership of the world’s oceans pretty much precludes any other nation from projecting power offshore. As an offensive force, on the contrary, our strength was always vastly overrated. We had and perhaps have the power to beat any other armed force in a given battle. As the Conquest of Iraq demonstrates, however, we simply don’t have the manpower to occupy much territory without leveraging our power with willing allies. Now that we’re bogged down in Mesopotamia, even the hapless North Koreans are feeling cocky.
Truth and Lie in Extramoral Sense

Because I prefer debates and elections to assassinations and civil wars, I have a considerable tolerance for political equivocation. Where bare metal rubs against bare metal, oily characters come in handy. With this in mind, I’ve never uttered the joke, already stale during the ostracism of Aristides the Just, about how you can tell when a politician is lying. Even in politics, however, there are lies and then there are lies: white lies and black lies, public lies and private lies, trivial lies and consequential lies, opportunistic lies and programmatic lies, lies we can forgive because they create an illusion of community between groups that in fact hate one another and lies we cannot forgive because they fundamentally misrepresent the purposes of the speakers in order to harm the interests of the listeners.

The deceptions of the current administration, the carefully crafted output of countless committee meetings and focus groups, are anything but casual tactical shifts. They are what people used to call studied lies. In the context of the expensive and relentless disinformation campaigns of the administration on the budget, the environment, the connection between Iraq and Ben Laden, corrupt deals with Halliburton, the manufactured energy crisis in California, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the much mooted sixteen words are a trivial issue and not even characteristic of the overall Bush approach to lying, which is usually careful to avoid specific assertions. The duplicity of these folks doesn’t so much reflect moral weakness—well, not that moral weakness—as the correct perception that policies beneficial to a minority of people can only be floated in a democracy by systematic fraud.