Saturday, April 03, 2004

The Rest of the Phrase

I was just perusing Richard Clarke’s book when I suddenly recognized the implication of its title, “Against All Enemies.” I’m sure everybody else got the point right off the bat, i.e. that the whole phrase in the oath reads “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The Other Shoe

The fall of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole superpoweron the planet. It also left only one ideology standing, a quasi-theological version of economic liberalism that is every bit as dogmatic as Marxist-Leninism. The Cold War era will not really be over until this relic also passes from the scene, replaced, so we hope, by a more pragmatic political economics that can learn from experience.

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Contents of Our Character

My last piece about Central Asia was not calculated to promote tourism to Tashkent, but I note that ads for hotels in Uzbekistan mysteriously appeared on this site after I posted it. For that matter, the Republican Party regularly visits this page after I accuse it of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors. One would like to believe that evil partisans are carefully reading my words and vainly attempting to counteract them with their own propaganda—not for nothing do delusions of grandeur commonly accompany delusions of persecution—but obviously the Google folks are using some sort of keyword search to identify the right markets for various advertisers. Amazon does something similar. Vainly trying to identify the buying habits of the world’s most desultory reader, they always suggest exactly the wrong thing by proposing the items most similar to my last purchase. That’s pretty harmless, although the Amazon computer apparently believed I was a seminary student for most of last year, which was a bit spooky. Similar technology can be truly scary, however, if the government agencies read your email and qualify you as a person of interest on the basis of content analysis—I assume that’s what the NSA does with all those computers.

Many people have likened the evolving Internet to an enormous brain. It would be more accurate to liken it to a set of ganglia, however, since it has only rudimentary pattern recognition capability, no ability to understand or generate true language, and therefore operates with a crude, associational psychology. In this respect, it is well suited to interface with the American people, who are evolving or devolving convergently towards a similar mode of functioning. Note that the ‘logic’ of the Internet and public opinion have many formal similarities, in particular the inability to process negation. From a content point of view, “it is not the case that x” and “x” are both count as x, just as all publicity is good publicity. I used to call this phenomena the “hold the onions” effect because I discovered that asking a waitress to hold the onions resulted in no onions or a tremendous number of onions because what mostly got registered was just onions. The communication was subpropositional. Whether I got lots of onions or not probably depended upon how much she liked ‘em herself.

I look on the bright side. Understanding the world through an instrument organized like an invertebrate’s nervous system seems appropriate to our political condition, which, after all, has a lot of similarities to life in a tide pool. Anyhow the built-in stupidities make using the Internet rather like playing Madlibs. In the spirit of that game, let’s see what ads come up in response to this:

A twisted young fellow named Wallace
Once had an affair with a mollusk,
But that’s not as odd
As the brachiopod
Who buggered an ostrich for solace.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Great Game

My friend Iris from Osh tells me that the Ferghana Valley resembles the Big Valley of California. Those central Asian place names—Tashkent, Samarkand, Bishkek—may conjure more exotic associations than Modesto; but their unfamiliarity is just a consequence of our ignorance. A lot of history has taken place in the various Stans, which, if you bother to look, are the geographical and cultural center of the Eastern hemisphere and mediated the interchanges between the great civilizations for thousands of years. All the great religions and diseases staged through these oases and bazaars; and now, following the Persians, Greeks, Hindus, Arabs, Chinese, Turks, Mongols, Russians, and Britons, we’ve arrived to place a piece or two on the venerable chess board. Central Asia, however, is distinctly different than Hades. Getting there isn’t easy; staying there is very hard indeed. In this respect, though I don’t know if the terrorist attacks and public riots in Uzbekistan last week are a real threat to the regime of Islam Karimov or the American garrison at Khanabad, the disturbances should serve to remind us that taking on Imperial responsibilities in this part of the world is far easier than living with them over the long run.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Demon of Nonanalogy

I’ve been reading Henry Kamen’s sweeping history Empire: How Spain Became a World Power with the reverb on, even though I’m aware that the echoes of the present I detects in the adventures of the Prudent King are largely a literary effect. Agreeing with Hegel that no nation ever learned a thing from the past, I don’t buy the idea that history is philosophy teaching by example. Mostly we discover similarities between one situation and other because the historian has hidden them there like Easter eggs. The Spaniards had an empire once, and we’ve got one now; but the meaning, indeed, the reality of empire is totally different 400 years later. On the other hand, if positive metaphors such as “America is like Hapsburg Spain” are literally false, negative metaphors such as “America is not like Hapsburg Spain” are literally true; and the reasons America is not like Hapsburg Spain can be highly illuminating and perhaps even useful in thinking about current policy issues. One example:

Although the Hapsburg’s pioneered many of the techniques of modern administration—whatever else he was, Philip II was a tireless bureaucrat—the Spanish empire of the 16th and 17th Centuries was an astonishingly ramshackle structure that exerted only the most tenuous control over its immense domain. After absorbing Portugal and its dominions, the empire comprised all of the Iberian peninsula; the southern Netherlands; various principalities in what is now eastern France; many parts of Italy, including Milan, Naples, Sardinia, and Sicily; various enclaves on the North African shore; forts and trading stations in West Africa, the Azores and Canary Islands, all of the New World south of Florida, the Philippines; the Spice Islands; Malacca; Ceylon; and bits and pieces of India—a list comparable in scope and heterogeneity to the foreign deployment of American military personnel charted in Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire. But we’ve got spy satellites, computers, cell phones, and drone surveillance aircraft armed with rockets to keep our imperium under the thumb. They had memos written in long hand, warships propelled by oars, and Jesuits. Moral issues aside—and I’m far more inclined to buy into the Black Legend version of Spanish history than Kamen—Philip’s empire just didn’t have the technical means to dominate its subjects on a modern scale. An empire with Xerox machines and security cameras is potentially a far worse threat to human freedom.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Braille Billboards

I hold no brief against advertising. In fact, I’ve written many, many ads myself over the years and much enjoyed the process. Of course, I was mostly advertising technical products. When you’re flogging linear programming software, the whole point is to efficiently inform the potential buyer of exactly what the product does. That doesn’t necessarily preclude humor or flash; and a suspicious number of subtly sexy biologists appear in journal ads for DNA sequencers; but the object is normally to sell your product rather than to increase the demand for a class of products. Contrast that situation with mass-market advertising. Ads for cars sell SUVs as well as Fords or BMWs. Ads for fast food promote gluttony as well as Big Macs.

In an old fantasy of mine, an advertising expert persuades Coke to buy advertising space on the bottom of coffin lids, “It’s a cheap buy; and you know if the dead really do rise at the Last Judgment, they’re going to be thirsty.” I don’t know if final victory over Pepsi would be worth this expense, but it doesn’t really matter. Winning a commercial contest is not as important to the bottom line as increasing the overall consumption of carbonated sugar water. In this respect, commercial competition is really a form of collusion.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

The Arnold Rimmer Institute of International Relations

Debates about foreign policy are often represented as a fight between realists and idealists, but this way of posing the issues is deeply wrong headed. Attention to Real Politik and respect for international law are not alternatives. They aren’t on the same level. No sensible political figure can ignore the collisions of will and interest that structure world politics just because they are unpleasant. And nobody who ignores the need for legitimacy in the world can properly be said to be realistic. History, indeed, has a name for those who run roughshod over the sensibilities of other nations and their people in the name of manly cynicism. They are called losers.

It seems to me that there is an awful lot of little-boys-playing-with-tin-soldiers about the various tough guys who have surfaced in American public life while I’ve been watching the show. The Neo-con defense intellectuals are only the latest batch for whom it is not enough to win if you don’t crush somebody’s will or produce a satisfactory series of explosions. From a real Real Politik point of view, if you’ll allow the expression, the United States was actually better off with Saddam Hussein in power. A powerless, increasingly ridiculous, but completely secular tyrant would have kept the terrorists out of Iraq while giving us an excuse to maintain a presence in the region that didn’t seem to the locals to be part of a culture war. But waiting out the old monster wouldn’t have been any fun—or personal profit—to Richard Perle and the gang. The kids were itching to play war, having recently been denied that adolescent satisfaction by the celebrated quiet ending of the Soviet Union. It’s absurd to call their policies realistic: they are essentially recreational despite all the scowls and heavy breathing that are part of the fun.