Friday, April 09, 2004

Plots Hatched in the Rec Room

Back in the run up to the Second Iraqi War, the loudest voices raised in opposition to our invasion were the usual radicals. ANSWER, et. al., however, were hardly representative of the bulk of the people I met at rallies and marches last year. The really angry people were the moderates. Unlike the eternal left, which has long since grown comfortable playing the algae to the right-wing fungus in the lichen of symbolic politics, we wanted something to actually happen, which is to say, we weren’t calling for an impossible revolution or expecting perpetual peace on Earth. We just wanted our country to act responsibly in world affairs or, if honorable behavior were out of the question, at least to promote our own self-interest in a rational way by avoiding wars we can neither win nor afford. Ideology didn’t have anything to do with it, and the idealism most in play was not very different than what used to be called prudence.

I challenge anybody to question the impurity of my motives. My skin is white, but O my heart is black. For example, like decent Americans everywhere, I have no principled objection to using military force as an instrument of national policy. Indeed, I think it is a very good idea for the United States to maintain its military preponderance for as long as possible. Unfortunately, to manage this trick, which is not going to be easy in any case in view of the inevitable decline in our economic strength relative to the rest of the world, we should be avoiding everything we’re doing now. If we really want to stay strong, we should be keeping our national finances in order instead of running up a huge debt. We should be avoiding operational military expenditures in order to pay for continual technical research and capital military expenditures. Instead of alienating the world, we should be figuring out how to get our allies to foot a large part of the bill for international activities. We should be spending our money on what’s effective and relatively cheap—an unchallengeable navy and air force—and spending as little as possible on what’s ineffective and hugely expensive—large land armies bogged down fighting insurgencies and science fiction fantasies like that golden dildo, missile defense.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Confessions of a Test Particle

Maybe a lot of people buy lottery tickets in the expectation of winning, but I suspect a fair number bet merely as an aid to daydreaming. Once you’ve bet, you don’t need to imagine a separate chain of circumstances that leads to waking up rich. Winning the lottery on a given occasion is much less likely than having a stroke during the same period of time, but at least it’s definitely on the sunny side of possibility and that fact economizes on the energy needed to fantasize. Writing a blog has a rather similar rationale. I don’t expect to be read very often or by very many, but the fact that any given message might find a reader is meaningful to me. The hobby does have a downside, however. Indeed, it can be extremely corrupting.

Writing is a blind trade where seller and buyer do not normally meet. But that doesn’t preclude an element of negotiation. Over reasonable stretch of time, the message maker learns what the message receiver is willing or able to hear. It turns out that the market for surprising ideas is exceedingly small, though the universal resistance to anything substantively new is masked by an insatiable desire for superficial variety. It would be quite unjust for a writer to think badly of his audience because of this fact. The writer, after all, shares with his readers the same reluctance to hear when it is his turn to listen. Unwillingness to hearken is an ineluctable aspect of the primal stupidity (Urdummheit) that rules the human condition. Besides, in this instance, it is the writer who displays the most blameworthy sloth. Just writing down something simply because it is true, profound, and apropos is a very self-indulgent practice. All the art and, lord knows, the effort, lies in mudding the message and flattering the readers as necessary. In this respect, a virtuous writer is like a moral politician, who isn’t really moral at all unless he compromises his principles enough to give them effect.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


The Roman army of Trajan’s time was more powerful than the forces of the Parthians with which it contended for the province of Mesopotamia. Even so, the emperor was only able to secure the region for three years, probably because the area was far more important to the nearby Persians than it was to the distant Latins. Where the price of victory is greater than the prize, every victory is a defeat, which is why the analysts who claim that the Tet Offensive was an American victory are both quite correct and utterly wrong and also why we’ll probably show ourselves to the door in Iraq even more quickly than Trajan did.

The Persian Gulf is just about as far away from the United States as you can get on this planet. By the same rule that every suspicious mole will be located on the center of your back, fate seems determined to locate the center of gravity of world politics in the most inconvenient spot. But what is most relevant strategically is not linear distance but a more complicated interval that takes into account cultural as well as geographical remoteness. It costs a lot to ship men and material to the Middle East. It costs even more to figure out who's who and what’s what in the Iraqi world.

As it is, we’re like some rube who horns in on a conversation in a bar, a conversation about things we don’t understand conducted in a language we don’t speak. True, the fact that we’re packing a gun and distributing bribes gets us noticed, but that doesn’t change the fact that our childishly simple view of the world is quite incommensurate with the concerns and values of the patrons. Shooting some of them for looking at us funny turns out to have only a marginal and temporary benefit.

You have to be a fanatical ideologue or a cynical opportunist to believe that this sort of thing is really justifiable as a rational strategy. Imposing your will by main force on other people surely implies that you know what is best for them, unless, of course, it just means you don’t give a damn about them at all. But does anybody think that Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the inevitability of democracy is any better as a justification for imperialism than earlier enthusiasms for Romanitas, the conversion of the Indians, or the classless society? Theories of historical rationality inevitably turn into exercises of collective will. Just as those who believed in the eventual triumph of the proletariat quickly concluded that the dialectic helps those who help themselves, those who insist on the irresistible advance of the American Way have discovered that cluster bombs are the necessary secondary causes of the victory of the Good. It finally comes back to a question of will and power, and we just don’t have enough of either.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The Bubble Boy

As part of the set up of several Star Trek episodes, an alien intelligence maintains a earth-like conditions inside a small bubble on an otherwise inhospitable planet. The protected zone serves as a stage setting for the delicate dramas of the fragile humans. Now I don’t think the habitable part of the Earth was laid out by any intelligence whatsoever—I’m on the record that Tom Fool Nature did it—but our actual situation is strikingly similar except that the playground we inhabit is not a symmetrical volume in the midst of a wilderness, but an exceedingly complicated network of intersecting passageways that from very far off or very close in looks like a continuous space. I may think I can wander freely in these parts but a random excursion to the middle of Gerry Avenue or even a trip out of my clothes and then down the hall will disabuse me of this theory.

Spinoza famously suggested that a conscious stone would believe it was acting freely as it tumbled down a hill. I think we are more like a counter on an abacus that somehow manages to ignore the rod upon which it slides. I do not point out the fact to provide an occasion for existential anguish, however. It is part of a general explanation of how beings of limited power and intellect can function at all.

There is also a thermodynamic way of making this point. An individual, thinking human is a very high peak of negative entropy, but the exception we all represent to the usual law of ruin is only possible because we are located in a region already maintained at low entropy, indeed at the center of a concentric set of such regions: the brain in the body, the body in the city, the city in the human world, the human world in the biosphere, each shell excreting its disorder to the next.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Democracy Again

I’m a believer in the iron law of oligarchy. States are governed by minorities and always will be. Authoritarian regimes do not differ from democracies because elites are in charge but because the rulers in such polities are not loyal to the peoples they serve or feel any obligation to consult their wishes or promote their interests. Elections are only meaningful when the power structure of a nation allows them to be, where the holders of power wager some of their power on an outcome that is genuinely in doubt. Absent that willingness, elections are a way of asserting control, not of seeking consent, much as public opinion polls, supposedly a means for finding out what people are thinking, are merely the means by which commercial and political interests impose an agenda on a passive and thoughtless population.

Where politically effective people lack the will to maintain a government with a popular element, no constitutional or legal mechanism will prevent abuses. We have laws against political corruption, but they are simply not enforced. We have congressional elections, but they are rigged by gerrymandering to the benefit of incumbents so that very few districts are actually up for grabs in any given year. We have de jure freedom of the Press, but a de facto monopoly of what counts, the means of propaganda.

There is nothing remarkable about any of this. Functioning democracy is a rare and fragile condition that can only be maintained by continuous effort while a corporatist state is a more or less natural endpoint, especially for an Imperial state in decline. Indeed, at the present, populism is more likely to make things worse than better since the right is far better than the left at flattering and frightening the just plain folks.