Friday, January 30, 2004

Asterisk and Dagger

Two small points about WMD and intelligence failures:

1. The very concept of WMD is a weasel. Nuclear weapons are all that counts. Chemical weapons have been around since 1915. They are hardly apocalyptic relative to, say, cluster bombs, and bacteriological weapons have proven a comprehensive flop. By lumping these very dissimilar weapons together, our government is able to claim that almost any regime it doesn’t like may be going in for WMD since bacteriological and chemical weapons can be produced in easily hidden boutique factories. If a nation had to undertake the development of nuclear weapons to earn the title rogue, it would be much harder to invent imaginary threats because it takes a huge, hard to hide physical plant and an immense expenditure of resources to produce even simple atomic bombs.

2. I think the evidence is pretty clear that the Bush and Blair administrations pressured the intelligence community to tart up the evidence of WMDs in Iraq—Kay and Hutton are hardly credible judges of the matter— but it is worthwhile recalling that the intelligence community has long been in the business of overestimating military threats. It was obvious, even at the time, that Reagan era estimates of Soviet military capabilities were grossly overstated and were designed to further the political purposes of the administration, the financial interests of the defense contractors, and the career interests of the military. In this respect, the current anger of old intelligence pros is a bit ironic, though the Bush folks probably have gone beyond the old limits. Cheney’s visits to the CIA headquarters were quite unprecedented, for example; and I can’t recall any previous administration that outed an operative to punish a whistleblower as in the Valerie Plame case.

Thursday, January 29, 2004


The latest (January 23) issue of SCIENCE includes a letter to the editor signed by sixteen eminent psychiatrists who complain that two of the fastest and most efficacious treatments for depression are largely ignored. They write, in part:

Sleep deprivation and light therapy cannot be patented, and they will not bring profits to the conventional psychopharmacology industry, but they can help the patient in a shorter time and with fewer side effects than drugs—and can easily and successfully combined with medication. Given the psychological suffering that depression inflicts—including the danger of suicide—and the financial pressures to minimize the duration of hospitalization, it is surprising how little notice is taken of thee remarkable chronobiological interventions.

I note this letter not only because of its intrinsic importance—depression is a major cause of death in the United States—but because the problem it highlights is quite general. Where substantial profits cannot be realized by exploiting control of intellectual property, the system is lousy at delivering the goods.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A Central European Intellectual

James Glassman had a piece in the American Standard today that slammed George Soros. No surprise there. Soros is a sworn enemy of the administration and a major source of funds dedicated to defeating Bush. The nature of the attack was peculiar, however. Soros was denounced as a hysterical ideologue and Bush hater. Now anybody who has ever toiled through a couple of pages of Sorosian prose knows that his utterances are extremely guarded. He writes like a German philosophy professor. You keep wishing he’d just get to the point instead of piling one more qualification on to the enormous pile of ifs, on the other hands, althoughs, and to a certain extents that define his style. These are not the literary habits of hysterics. They come more naturally to a moralist who takes things very seriously indeed and subjects his own beliefs to relentless criticism. Which is why his most recent statements, which have indeed become much more direct, have impressed me so much. It takes a great deal of anguish to make so cautious a man strident. The American Standard guy is also wrong about the Bush-hating bit. Bush, in any case more contemptible than hateful, isn’t the basic problem. Writes Soros:

“If Bush is rejected in 2004, his policies can be written off as an aberration and America resume its rightful place in the world. But if he is re-elected, the electorate will have endorsed his policies and we will have to live with the consequences. But it isn't enough to defeat Bush at the polls. The US must examine its global role and adopt a more constructive vision. We cannot merely pursue narrow, national self-interest. Our dominant position imposes a unique responsibility.”

Pretty hysterical.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Amorous Flea

Unless, as certain Gnostics believe, individual souls are exiles on this plane of reality, the task of the philosopher is to provide a venue in which the universe can come to consciousness of itself. This is not so nutty as it may sound and does not quite amount to saying, “I, Hegel, am God.” Indeed, it is very difficult to conceptualize what’s going on in any other way. Absent literal angels or something like them, who else is going to figure things out around here? And what is there to figure out besides what’s here?

All this said, there are two objections to this picture, one comic and answerable and one far more serious and perhaps unanswerable. The comic objection raises a laugh at the notion that the acme of reality, thought thinking itself, occurs in a handful of college professors and similar folks who had a hard time getting dates in high school. And it is funny to think that the incarnate world spirit is located a couple of feet above some academic ass. But if it is, it is. Anyhow, human civilization itself began with the discovery that you make better stone tools by discarding the core and focusing on the flakes. Maybe the flakes are still what matters.

The serious objection to the Sage as Absolute Spirit scheme is rather different. The individual thinker may just not be the true locus of the world’s knowledge of itself. After all, veridical knowledge about the world seems to be best exemplified by the sciences, which are complex social and economic institutions that operate above and beyond the wishes and comprehension of individuals. One need not claim that it is impossible for individuals to understand a good deal of what the sciences discover or even try to discount the role that very clever people have in fact played in the development of the sciences to recognize that the process that generates the results transcends individuals in an essential way. Certain individuals may have a fuller and deeper understanding of Nature than others but such personal characteristics, however valuable and admirable in themselves, are irrelevant to the validity of the results and may not even have played much of a role in accelerating the pace of discovery. If the figure of the genius really is important to the operation of the sciences, it’s mostly for public relations purposes. An Einstein or a Feynman is mighty helpful for purposes of getting financing, but their discoveries were inevitable granted the state of play of the sciences of their time.

As a recovering Hegelian might phrase it, perhaps Objective Spirit is as good as it gets, i.e. maybe the fullest, most adequate self-awareness is actually a kind of unconscious social process in relation to which human awareness plays at most an instrumental role. The individual mind can only aspire to be a flea in the universal brothel, well situated to witness the most interesting action, but not the protagonist of the piece.
Dialectical Conclusions

Sun Wu, the author of the Art of War, recommends leaving the enemy a means of retreat, We seem determined not only to disregard this advice but to go even further and deny our enemies a means of surrender. The invasion of Iraq is necessarily interminable because we won’t recognize anybody in that country that can give up. Even the puppet regime we’ve put in place can’t be allowed to cry “Uncle” because that would imply that what we accomplished was conquest instead of law enforcement. Since we refuse to win, I predict we will eventually lose.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Brain is Like a Fish. It Breathes through its Gills…

Popular accounts of how DNA works remind me of ads for sea monkeys. One is left with somewhat exaggerated expectations. At the very least, folks should be informed that the genetic material does not contain the full instructions for a living thing. Indeed, if you cast your genome upon the waters, you won’t even get icky little brine shrimp. To get a new generation, the absolute minimum requirement is quite elaborate, namely an entire cell. Omnis cellula e cellula, as Rudolf Virchow put it back in 1855. Even so elegant a molecule as deoxyribonucleic acid requires, among many other things, a whole suite of enzymes and an environment kept within fairly narrow limits of pH and temperature to do anything whatsoever.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame popularizers for promoting a misleading version of biology. They know their market; an essentially magical version of how things happen is bound to be more attractive than a complex and sometimes prosaic reality that requires real effort to comprehend. Besides, it may be a mistake to introduce real science into popular discourse. When people sense the inadequacy of the usual accounts, their skepticism generally takes a form indistinguishable from the grossest credulity, hence the enthusiasm for homeopathy, morphic resonance, Lamarckian inheritance, and various sorts of vitalism among the middlebrow. It would be nice if somebody bothered to learn some real biology before they ran off to listen to Sheldrake the Magician or some other charlatan, but that doesn’t seem to happen very often.

For the record, I’d like to point out that nothing prevents the famous, though more often postulated than sighted, intelligent layman from digging into real biology. College textbooks are often very good sources of information if you can supply your own curiosity. And there are a select group of popularizations that actually attempt to introduce their subjects instead of providing cocktail party ammunition or an intellectual pacifier. I have in mind, in particular, authors like Carl Zimmer whose book on parasitology, Parasite Rex, manages to convey the genuine weirdness of living things in a form as compulsively readable as pornography. There are also academic historians of science like Jan Sapp whose writings, perfectly accessible to a reasonably well-educated person, provide an indirect but reliable picture of the real and continuing controversies of life science. Reading Sapp’s Genesis: the Evolution of Biology (2003) is what got me thinking again about the inadequacy of the usual accounts of biology.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Everything for Everybody

When the Soviet Union went under, the market for Russian language tapes tanked. French has also suffered a steep decline as a second language—oddly, or maybe not, the new comer, outside of English, is German. That reported, one of the amazing things about the last century is how well the French have maintained their cultural importance as they have declined from a world power to at most a middling regional power. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to match up Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Aron, Sartre, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Dumezil, Bachelard, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Bourdieu with the corresponding American thinkers. Good luck.

The most recent French savant I’ve encountered is the philosopher Alain Badiou. I don’t know what I think about him yet. I’ve only read his brief book, St Paul, the Foundations of Universalism. If nothing else, Badiou got me to thinking about how relevant Paul is to us here in the early Imperial period. Paul is important not because of his monotheism—arguably every human belief system has a supreme entity of some sort because of the irresistible logical temptation to posit one—but because he addressed everyone, Greek and Jew, as if ethnicity doesn’t really matter. These days we’re more likely to argue about getting Supersized than circumcised; but our tepid multiculturalism, as convenient, mediocre, and indefensible as the calculated tolerance of the Romans, contrasts drastically with Paul’s genuine, if scary, universalism. Suggesting that any idea or value might hold for everybody really is impolitic—even the Bush administration wants to keep the Missionaries on a leash in Iraq—but ruling out a confrontation between faiths or convictions means that one’s religion or philosophy is merely local color like wearing a colorful sombrero or eating gravilax. I’m certainly no Christian, but, like Paul, I do believe in playing for keeps.