Meeting Alison

acilius:

I wish I’d been in New Zealand to see brilliant young cartoonist Sarah E. Laing meet her hero, comics titan Alison Bechdel.  Exxtraordinary to compare the photo below with the comic Ms Laing is giving Ms Bechdel- powers of prophecy that one has.

Originally posted on LET ME BE FRANK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gw_K_XjvFA

This is the trailer for The Curioseum – what do you think? I was pretty excited to see all my illustrations animated, albeit in a low-fi way.

Also, I gave Alison Bechdel my Metro comic, the one with her in it.

BiRkusdCEAAp4WA

She seemed pretty excited to see herself there, and she accepted my bundle of Let Me Be Frank comics, but I think I scared her with my enthusiasm. When I saw her at the NZ comics panel the next day she looked a little guarded and apologised for not reading my comics yet. I told her it was ok – she could throw them in the recycling if she liked – but I hope she doesn’t. I felt a bit sorry for her – she probably has half-crazed cartoonists foisting comics on her all the time and she’s too nice a person to tell us to piss off…

View original 47 more words

Unreal city

The other day a man named Fred Phelps died.  He died alone, and no funeral is planned for him.  Unlike most who exit life under these circumstances, Mr Phelps was a well-known public figure.  A disbarred lawyer, Mr Phelps declared his family to be a church and himself to be its pastor.  For many years, the Phelpses have traveled the USA, forming picket lines outside funerals and other events carrying signs with such lovely slogans as “God Hates America,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”  The Phelpses don’t conduct funerals for their own dead, and had evidently disowned their patriarch before his death.

I saw the Phelpses in action twice.  Once, they were picketing a military funeral, celebrating the death of a 19 year-old soldier.  A few years later, they were picketing the funeral of a 16 year old girl who had taken her own life.

So I have first-hand evidence that there was such a person as Mr Phelps.  But I can’t entirely get over my disbelief that he could possibly have existed.  What could possibly possess anyone to devote his life, and to influence his children to devote their lives, to such a perverse endeavor?  I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know whether mental illness would be a viable explanation.  And I’m not a theologian, so I don’t know if it would be appropriate to attribute Mr Phelps’ behavior to demonic possession.

I can sympathize with those who suspect that Mr Phelps was some sort of agent provocateur serving the interests of those who wanted to discredit the causes he ostensibly supported; certainly the level and form of publicity he attracted shows that he made himself remarkably useful to precisely the people he targeted with his message of hate, and a conspiracy in which he was deliberately acting to promote equal rights for same-sexers by tarring the opposition with the brush of sheer lunacy would be intelligible in a way that a world in which someone could sincerely believe that what Mr Phelps was doing was a worthwhile way to spend a life would not be.  Having seen the Phelpses up close, though, I can’t accept so simple a theory.  They struck me as something radically alien and radically hostile to the life of the world.  Any explanation of them, I suspect, would have to be, not only complex, but also a challenge to our usual assumptions.

Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

What they could never kill went on to organize

By now I suppose everyone knows about “Prism,” the massive program of eavesdropping that the National Security Agency has been carrying out for a number of years.  Many have asked what it means for our freedoms that the NSA is listening to all our phone calls, reading all our emails, etc.  The question fewer people seem to be thinking about is just who the people are at the NSA who are doing those things.

The NSA is famously an outgrowth of US military intelligence.  Its top leaders are senior military officers, and much of its staff is also drawn from the uniformed services.  However, the total number of active duty personnel in the US military is something less than 1.5 million.  Only a minority of that rather small group would be in a position to develop the skills and obtain the security clearance required for assignment to a project like Prism.  And that same minority would be in demand wherever the US military is tasked with a complex and dangerous operation.  So it seems unlikely that the NSA would have enough military employees to sift through everyone’s personal communications.

So, most of the work of Prism must be in the hands of civilians, employed either by the Department of Defense or by private contractors.  Those people, unlike their uniformed coworkers, are eligible to form unions and demand collective bargaining.  So, if you want to give the NSA’s bosses an incentive to tell their people to stop reading your communications, fill all of them with the case for organized labor.  Granted, that won’t take away the rest of the incentives that have motivated US authorities to create and maintain this system and the US public to accept it, but at least it’s something.

Worshiping coitus

Sacred art

One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage.  The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets.  Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse.  Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.”  Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do.  First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?”  Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage.  Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court.  “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes.  He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”

Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago.  Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it.  Click on the image to go to the strip:

I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation.  Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences.   If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.

Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract  considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex.  The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree.  Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility.  I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex.  However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.

The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept.  Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies.  Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline.  This is a real problem with modernity.  Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people.   Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem.  Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization.  An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.

Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society.  As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society.  Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes,  might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general.  But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters.   If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.

Uh-oh

I added a comment to my post below that I decided I should put into a post in chief.  Remarking on the elevation of Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio to be Pope Francis, I wrote that I hope he will:

say the phrase “Malvinas/ Falklands” in a high-profile forum very soon. Another war between Britain and Argentina over the islands may not be particularly likely just now, but it is by no means impossible. And that a churchman who has so emphatically identified himself with Argentina’s claim to the islands should have been elevated to the papacy the day after the Falklanders voted almost unanimously to remain a UK territory does threaten to create the impression that the Vatican is something other than neutral regarding the dispute. Such an impression can do no good and could raise the potential for conflict from its current, rather low order of probability to a significant danger.

I made a similar remarks as a comment on Mark Shea’s blog.  I suspect that if Pope Francis waits more than a few hours to make it clear that he will not be bringing his nationalism with him onto the international stage he now occupies, any statement he makes later will inflame Argentine public opinion.

I’ll also link here to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece in Slate magazine expressing his reservations about Francis.  I’m not familiar with the issues Mr Dougherty raises, but it shares the crispness and force of all his writing.

Three things I hope the next pope will do

I’m not a Roman Catholic, so it’s really none of my business who will be chosen as the new Pope in the next week or two.  But I can’t resist mentioning that there are three things I hope the new papacy will bring:

1. An effort to promote the Latin language.  I’m a Latin teacher, among other things, and among the major institutions of the world the Roman church is the likeliest to do something to drum up interest in the language.  So I’m hoping that the cardinals will choose a leader who will support such an initiative.

2. Make Insight more widely available.  Between 1960 and 1983, a Paulist priest named Ellwood Kieser led a group that produced an anthology of 30-minute morality plays that were distributed to television stations and shown in Catholic schools around the USA.  This series, titled Insight, reminds many viewers of The Twilight Zone; indeed, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling himself wrote a couple of episodes of Insight.  Like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, Insight deals with serious moral issues from a distinctly 1960s perspective.  To the extent that the show offers answers, therefore, they are dated; but that’s part of the charm.  The questions are still there, and by the time we figure out how the show might look different if it were done now we’re wrestling with them.

The Roman church owns the copyright to Insight, but has never made any of them available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or any streaming video format.  They did issue some VHS tapes with a handful of the 250 episodes back in the 1980s, but even those are hard to find.  Most of the episodes are available on kinescope in UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, so if you’re in Los Angeles you can go have a look.  And a few episodes have, no doubt illegally, been uploaded to YouTube.  Paulist Productions is currently raising money to make Insight available again, but that effort doesn’t seem to be making much headway.  It needs a push from someone in a prominent position.  So that’s the second thing I hope for from the new pontificate: Put Insight online!

3. There is one important thing we might realistically hope the next pope will do: have a funny name.  Sure, calling Pope Joseph Ratzinger “Papa Ratzi” might be good for a chuckle, but the cardinals can do better.  I was bitterly disappointed in 2005 when they passed up the opportunity to promote Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, to the papacy.  Not only is he named Biffi of Bologna, but he had spoken out against vegetarianism.   I suppose he could have taken the name Pope Carnivorus I.  Now Cardinal Biffi is  too old.  But don’t despair; the bookmakers’ favorite is the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola (also spelled Sicola,) who would become Pope Sicola.  Pope Sicola hits the spot!

I mentioned these three points to Mrs Acilius the other day.  When I summed them up by saying “So, when the cardinals call and ask for my advice, that’s what I’ll say,” she laughed.  Maybe she doesn’t think they’ll call?  I don’t know.

Anti-Anti-War

On Counterpunch, Jean Bricmont warns us to “Beware the Anti-Anti-War Left.”  Professor Bricmont explains:

The anti-anti-war left has no influence on American policy, but that doesn’t mean that it has no effect.  Its insidious rhetoric has served to neutralize any peace or anti-war movement.  It has also made it impossible for any European country to take such an independent position as France took under De Gaulle, or even Chirac, or as Sweden did with Olof Palme.  Today such a position would be instantly attacked by the anti-anti-war left, which is echoed by European media, as “support to dictators”, another “Munich”, or “the crime of indifference”.

What the anti-anti-war left has managed to accomplish is to destroy the sovereignty of Europeans in regard to the United States and to eliminate any independent left position concerning war and imperialism. It has also led most of the European left to adopt positions in total contradiction with those of the Latin American left and to consider as adversaries countries such as China and Russia which seek to defend international law, as indeed they should.

When the media announce that a massacre is imminent, we hear at times that action is “urgent” to save the alleged future victims, and time cannot be lost making sure of the facts.  This may be true when a building is on fire in one’s own neighborhood, but such urgency regarding other countries ignores the manipulation of information and just plain error and confusion that dominate foreign news coverage.  Whatever the political crisis abroad, the instant “we must do something” reflex brushes aside serious reflection on the left as to what might be done instead of military intervention.  What sort of independent investigation could be carried out to understand the causes of conflict and potential solutions?  What can be the role of diplomacy?  The prevailing images of immaculate rebels, dear to the left from its romanticizing of past conflicts, especially the Spanish Civil War, blocks reflection.  It blocks realistic assessment of the relationship of forces as well as the causes of armed rebellion in the world today, very different from the 1930s, favorite source of the cherished legends of the Western left.

Professor Bricmont traces the rise of the Anti-Anti-War Left to the end of the Cold War:

The demonization campaigns prevent peaceful relations between peoples, cultural exchanges between citizens and, indirectly, the flourishing of the very liberal ideas that the advocates of interference claim to be promoting.  Once the anti-anti-war left abandoned any alternative program, it in fact gave up the possibility of having the slightest influence over world affairs.  It does not in reality “help the victims” as it claims. Except for destroying all resistance here to imperialism and war, it does nothing.   The only ones who are really doing anything are in fact the succeeding U.S. administrations. Counting on them to care for the well-being of the world’s peoples is an attitude of total hopelessness. This hopelessness is an aspect of the way most of the Left reacted to the “fall of communism”, by embracing the policies that were the exact opposite of those of the communists, particularly in international affairs, where opposition to imperialism and the defense of national sovereignty have increasingly been demonized as “leftovers from Stalinism”.

Interventionism and European construction are both right-wing policies. One of them is linked to the American drive for world hegemony. The other is the framework supporting neoliberal economic policies and destruction of social protection. Paradoxically, both have been largely justified by “left-wing” ideas : human rights, internationalism, anti-racism and anti-nationalism.  In both cases, a left that lost its way after the fall of the Soviet bloc has grasped at salvation by clinging to a “generous, humanitarian” discourse, which totally lacks any realistic analysis of the relationship of forces in the world. With such a left, the right hardly needs any ideology of its own; it can make do with human rights.

Joan Walsh is in a position to examine the inner workings of the Anti-Anti-War Left.  In a piece for Salon, Ms Walsh looks at what appear to be the first visible signs of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.  Discussing a video that media mogul Haim Saban produced in tribute to Ms Clinton, Ms Walsh begins with a quote from David Remnick:

The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The tone was so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology. After it was over there was a separate video from the President.

Comparisons between the Obama administration and the Brezhnev regime strike me as remarkably inapt on one level.  Leonid Brezhnev pursued identifiable goals by rational, if brutal, means in his occupation of Afghanistan; Ms Clinton and her colleagues have approached the Soviets’ level of brutality in that country, though their motivations are entirely confined to the electoral politics of the USA.  Of course, Mr Remnick’s statement has to do with the propaganda these two regimes produced, and there may be some superficial similarities there.  Be that as it may, Ms Walsh writes:

If Clinton is serious about not running, she should keep copies of the video handy to cheer her up in case she ever doubts her legacy or gets bored. (I’d maybe edit out the Henry Kissinger parts, but that’s just me.) But if she’s serious about running, she should burn the video and never watch it again. It’s an artifact of our self-congratulatory global national security and finance elite, and it belongs in a time capsule. If it were shared widely, it could cost her as many votes as it wins her. And trust me: Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” is not going to wear well over the years to come.

Ms Walsh goes on:

Remnick’s reporting from the Saban Forum underscored the foreign policy challenges of a Clinton candidacy. Although the Obama administration certainly pushed the Middle East peace process harder than Bush officials did, the prospects for peace may be dimmer than ever. Clinton’s warm-up act at the forum was hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who argued (to little pushback) that “settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The opposite is true.” Clinton followed him, boasting of opposing last week’s symbolic U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood and supplying Israel with the “Iron Dome” weaponry that protects it from Hamas rockets, while asking Israel for “generosity” toward the Palestinians. She was rewarded Monday with the Netanyahu government announcing plans to expand its settlements on Palestinian land.

Even after she leaves as secretary of state, Clinton will continue to face tough questions about U.S. Middle East policy if she runs for president. As well she should. The GOP crusade against Susan Rice is personal and unfair, especially since questions about the State Department’s security situation in Benghazi, the role of the CIA at the consulate, as well as the administration’s ongoing Libya policy, are more appropriately asked of Clinton. And have no fear, they will be, should she run. The 2016 election will at least partly be about whether the Obama administration’s policies have made Americans safer and the world more just. The answer to both questions may turn out to be yes, at least within the confines of reasonable 21stcentury political expectations (I recognize that’s kind of a cop-out qualifier, but the question deserves an article, or a book, or books, or a whole library, of its own). But it’s a debate worth having, and Clinton would be either blessed or cursed with having to defend the Obama side.

Ms Walsh thus takes her place on the Anti-Anti-Anti-War Left. Why not simply call this the Anti-War Left?  Her closing paragraphs make clear that Ms Walsh’s political world is circumscribed by the boundaries set by the Anti-Anti-War Left:

In 2008, I fought hard against the ahistorical, inaccurate notion that the middle-class Clintons, a married couple, could be considered a political “dynasty” à la the Bush family dynasty. Still, I would wince at yet another Clinton-Bush contest. But if it came to that, I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton over Jeb Bush – and so would most of the country.

But it’s a long way from here to there, with a lot of domestic and international landmines that could make Clinton forgo the race or else doom her candidacy if she runs. I write as a Hillary admirer. But I think the fawning of her overclass admirers, as captured on the Saban video, could make her presidency not inevitable but impossible.

“I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton.”  The Anti-Antis need take no notice of Ms Walsh; she will vote for them, she will of course vote for them, she will vote for them enthusiastically, no matter what they do.  Her disagreements with them have no influence even over her own vote.

As in these last twenty years the Left in the USA and Europe has been largely co-opted by advocates of perpetual war for perpetual peace, so the Right has been co-opted by the War Party for sixty years.  It was not always so.  Until the United States entered the Second World War late in 1941, organized opposition to wars had usually expressed itself most effectively in American politics in the form of movements from the Right.  It was the Federalists who led opposition to the War of 1812, the Whigs who led opposition to the Mexican War in the 1840s, conservatives of all stripes who scrambled for decades to prevent the Civil War and tried to broker a compromise peace during it, the arch-conservatives of the Anti-Imperial League who raised the loudest voices against the war with Spain and the annexation of the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, and the America First Committee of 1939-1941 that still ranks as the largest antiwar organization in American history.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, an international situation appeared in which it was difficult to imagine any sort of order emerging without a dramatic expansion of American power in the world, and the military establishment built during the war had become so prominent a part of the USA’s economic system that only the bravest politicians could imagine a return to the pre-war America in which military spending was a tiny percentage of Gross Domestic Product and the USA barely had a standing army.  The leaders of the American Right therefore turned away from the anti-interventionist tradition to which they were rightful heirs.  They had not developed a coherent militarist ideology, and had little of value to contribute to the formulation of an activist foreign policy.  What they could and did do was devote themselves to attacking dissenters left and right.  Senator Joseph McCarthy is remembered in a harsh light because of his attacks on left-leaning figures who looked skeptically on Cold War policies; McCarthy’s sometime defender, the late William F. Buckley, Jr, is still lionized for his attacks on right-leaning figures who dared to doubt the same policies.  This Anti-Anti-War Right reached its apotheosis in the Bush-Cheney administration, and its willful deafness to all who questioned its approach.

In a recent piece, economist Bruce Bartlett details how what he saw of the Anti-Anti-War Right in the Bush-Cheney phase led him to question his decades-long allegiance to the conservative movement, and shift markedly to the left.  What most horrified him was the insularity of the Anti-Anti-War Right, its refusal to consider points of view that its leaders had not previously approved or to take notice of publications not on their recommended list:

In 2004 I got to know the journalist Ron Suskind, whose book The Price of Loyalty I had praised in a column. He and I shared an interest in trying to figure out what made Bush tick. Neither of us ever figured it out.

A couple of weeks before the 2004 election, Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine that quoted some of my comments to him that were highly critical of Bush and the drift of Republican policy. The article is best remembered for his quote from an anonymous White House official dismissing critics like me for being “the reality-based community.”

The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.

Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

My growing alienation from the right created problems for me and my employer. I was read the riot act and told to lay off Bush because my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas, many of whom were close personal friends of his. I decided to stick to writing columns on topics where I didn’t have to take issue with Republican policies and to channel my concerns into a book.

I naïvely thought that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm. I also thought that once past the election, conservatives would turn on Bush to ensure that the 2008 Republican nomination would go to someone who would not make his mistakes.

As I wrote the book, however, my utter disdain for Bush grew, as I recalled forgotten screw-ups and researched topics that hadn’t crossed my radar screen. I grew to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I also lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity, I thought.

My book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, was published in February 2006. I had been summarily fired by the think tank I worked for back in October 2005. Although the book was then only in manuscript, my boss falsely claimed that it was already costing the organization contributions. He never detailed, nor has anyone, any factual or analytical error in the book.

Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.

Some would argue that this “epistemic closure” takes more spectacular forms on the Anti-Anti-War Right than on the Anti-Anti-War Left.  Even if that is so, it is likely because the Anti-Anti-War Left is newer.  The Anti-Anti-War Left will likely continue to evolve in the same fashion as long as it continues to win elections.

In a recent Guardian column, Glenn Greenwald mentions left-of-center media figures who have, since last month’s election, been making remarks that mirror Mr Bartlett’s post-2004 assumption “that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm.”  The reaction his former colleagues on the Right gave Mr Bartlett’s book showed him that such an assumption was “naive.”  Mr Greenwald analyzes the excuses which Democratic-leaning media gave for whitewashing the Obama administration up to Election Day and concludes that the same excuses will apply equally well for all time to come:

Hendrik Hertzberg proclaims that they will now be even “more respectful” of Obama than they have been. Short of formally beatifying him, or perhaps transferring all their worldly possessions to him, is that even physically possible? Is there a reverence ritual that has been left unperformed, swooning praise left to be lavished upon him, heinous acts by him that have not yet been acquiesced to if not affirmatively sanctioned in the name of keeping him empowered? That media progressives will try to find ways to be even “more respectful” to the president is nothing short of scary.

As for the vow that media progressives will now criticize Obama more and hold him more accountable, permit me to say that I simply do not believe this will happen. This is not because I think those who are taking this vow are being dishonest – they may very well have convinced themselves that they mean it – but because the rationalization they have explicitly adopted and vigorously advocated precludes any change in behavior.

Over the past four years, they have justified their supine, obsequious posture toward the nation’s most powerful political official by appealing to the imperatives of electoral politics: namely, it’s vital to support rather than undermine Obama so as to not help Republicans win elections. Why won’t that same mindset operate now to suppress criticisms of the Democratic leader?

It’s true that Obama himself will no longer run in an election. But any minute now, we’re going to be hearing that the 2014 midterm elections are right around the corner and are of Crucial Significance. Using their reasoning, won’t it be the case that those who devote their efforts to criticizing Obama and “holding accountable” the Democrats will be effectively helping the Republicans win that election? Won’t Obama critics stand accused of trying to keep the Speaker’s gavel in the hands of the Tea Party rather than returning it to Nancy Pelosi, or of trying to hand Senate control over to Mitch McConnell (or, soon enough, of trying to give the White House to Marco Rubio instead of Hillary Clinton)?

Once one decides in the name of electoral expediency to abdicate their primary duty as a citizen and especially as a journalist – namely, to hold accountable those who wield the greatest political power – then this becomes a permanent abdication. That’s because US politics is essentially one permanent, never-ending election. The 2012 votes were barely counted before the political media began chattering about 2016, and MSNBC is already – as one of its prime time hosts put it – “gearing up” for the 2014 midterm.

I’ve described before how the permanent election cycle is the most potent weapon for keeping the citizenry (and media) distracted by reality-TV-show-type trivialities and horse-race excitement in lieu of focus on what the government is actually doing. But the other significant benefit of having all political disputes viewed through a partisan electoral prism is that it keeps partisans focused only on the evils of the other party and steadfastly loyal to their own. The desire to influence election outcomes in favor of one’s own party subsumes any sense that political officials from one’s own party should be checked in how they exercise their power.

Can the USA break its cycle of ever-more warlike politics?  I would say that the cycle will be broken, and rather soon, but probably not by the electoral  process.  The USA is running short of funds and short of allies; its recent military campaigns have ended disastrously, most obviously in Iraq where thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of American dollars have turned the country into a satellite of Iran.  Eventually a foreign policy so idiotically mismanaged will have to exhaust the ability of the country that perpetrates it to project its power in the world.  Perhaps the prediction William Graham Sumner made in his 1899 speech “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” will be fulfilled in this century:

We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she now is. Those philosophies appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them…

The perpetuity of self-government depends on the sound political sense of the people, and sound political sense is a matter of habit and practice. We can give it up and we can take instead pomp and glory. That is what Spain did. She had as much self-government as any country in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The union of the smaller states into one big one gave an impulse to her national feeling and national development. The discovery of America put into her hands the control of immense territories. National pride and ambition were stimulated. Then came the struggle with France for world-dominion, which resulted in absolute monarchy and bankruptcy for Spain. She lost self-government and saw her resources spent on interests which were foreign to her, but she could talk about an empire on which the sun never set and boast of her colonies, her gold-mines, her fleets and armies and debts. She had glory and pride, mixed, of course, with defeat and disaster, such as must be experienced by any nation on that course of policy; and she grew weaker in her industry and commerce and poorer in the status of the population all the time. She has never been able to recover real self-government yet. If we Americans believe in self-government, why do we let it slip away from us? Why do we barter it away for military glory as Spain did?

Like Sumner, I consider myself a patriotic American.  At the conclusion of Sumner’s speech, he harks back to the political ideals of the founders of the United States:

No adventurous policies of conquest or ambition, such as, in the belief of our fathers, kings and nobles had forced, for their own advantage, on European states, would ever be undertaken by a free democratic republic. Therefore the citizen here would never be forced to leave his family or to give his sons to shed blood for glory and to leave widows and orphans in misery for nothing. Justice and law were to reign in the midst of simplicity, and a government which had little to do was to offer little field for ambition. In a society where industry, frugality, and prudence were honored, it was believed that the vices of wealth would never flourish.

We know that these beliefs, hopes, and intentions have been only partially fulfilled. We know that, as time has gone on and we have grown numerous and rich, some of these things have proved impossible ideals, incompatible with a large and flourishing society, but it is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something unique and grand in the history of mankind and that its people have been happy. It is by virtue of these ideals that we have been “isolated,” isolated in a position which the other nations of the earth have observed in silent envy; and yet there are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.

As a patriot, I do not wish to see my country reduced to a “poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state.”  I would much prefer to see an aroused citizenry, indignant at the crimes which, committed in its name, defile its honor in the eyes of the world, rise up and put a stop to those crimes.  It would be worth a thousand Fourth of July celebrations to see Mr Obama and his living predecessors in the office of US president tried, convicted, and punished for the myriad atrocities they have ordered, beneath which the proud boasts of our Constitution lie buried.  But I have little hope that such will happen.  The Anti-Antis, left and right, will likely retain their monopoly on political power in the USA until the regime collapses under the weight of their misgovernment.  What follows will be shabbier, meaner, and less menacing to the world at large; but the promise that this country made to its citizens and to all those who believed in its founding ideals in the days when there was real debate here will never be kept.   Perhaps, after our decline is complete, the USA will reemerge as a socially progressive liberal democracy, as Spain has done.  Considering what Spain went through on the path to its present condition, that prospect offers the patriotic American cold comfort indeed.

 

The Internet: Bureaucracy or Fiefdom?

From the Bayeux Tapestry

Bruce Schneier declares:

It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

The whole piece is worth reading.  For my part, I’ve often wondered if the Internet doesn’t fit Max Weber’s conception of a bureaucracy.  Weber described six major characteristics of bureaucracy (here‘s a handy summary of his views.)  First and most familiar in the popular use of the word, a bureaucracy has a formal hierarchical structure.  While there is no group of people who are the president and board of directors of the Internet, the machines that make up the Internet do in fact relate to each other according

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

to set routines.  Weber described bureaucracies staffed by human officials, but parts of his description still apply where, as in the functioning of the Internet, the officials are replaced by machines.

The second characteristic of bureaucracy in Weber’s description is a set of rules that consistently transform particular decisions made in one part of the structure into particular actions taken in other parts of the structure.  In this regard every bureaucracy aspires to the condition of a machine; as a bureaucracy composed of machines, the Internet would in a sense represent the ultimate bureaucracy. Along with these rules comes a heavy emphasis on written documents and permanent records, to ensure that decisions are communicated from one part of the structure to another accurately and that they are converted into action appropriately.  Here again, the Internet’s tendency to preserve data makes it the ideal form of bureaucracy.

Third, Weber says that bureaucracies are organized by functional specialty.   Here we see two levels of organization taking place independently of each other.  Of course, the machines are sorted together by their functions.  At the same time, the people who use the Internet develop specializations in their ways of relating to it.  Those who resist specialization remain on the fringes of the Internet.  So, a general-interest blog like this one toddles along for years with a handful of readers; start a tumblr site devoted entirely to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes, and you might  draw a thousand followers in a week.  Through them, you can learn more about your topic than you had imagined possible.  Because of the efficiency that results from the Internet’s specialization and consistency, users have strong incentives to specialize their own use of the system and to respect its rules.  Thus, the Internet’s human users behave as they would if they were clients of a bureaucracy staffed by human officials.

Fourth, Weber’s bureaucracies have missions.  These missions are not simply tasks for which groups might be established ad hoc, but are the overarching goals that justify the organization’s continued existence.  Because so many people have stakes in the continued existence of large bureaucracies, their missions tend to become rather broad and ill-focused over time; the last thing anyone wants is for the bureaucracy that provides his or her livelihood to have completed its mission.  A phrase like “the distribution of information,” precisely because it is so vague, is therefore a perfectly apt mission statement for a major bureaucracy.

Fifth, bureaucracies are impersonal structures, in which the relationship of one person to another is restricted to the roles that those people are playing.  So, if Alice is a sales agent for her company and Bob is a purchasing agent for his, their business discussions are between vendor and client, not between Alice and Bob.  When Internet cafes first appeared, nearly twenty years ago, a huge percentage of them had Peter Steiner’s cartoon from 5 July 1993 The New Yorker taped to the wall:

http://www.ricklatona.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/picresized_1229584137_youreadog1.gif

Now we’re living in the age of Facebook, and on the Internet everyone knows that you’re a dog, what you had for breakfast, where you like to do your business, etc.  Still, there is an element of impersonality built into online interactions.  So online political discussions, even on Facebook itself, quickly become interactions between supporter of Party X and supporter of Party Y, even when those supporters are close friends in other settings.  Obviously people can turn each other into symbols of opinions they dislike in any social environment, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that online discussions are particularly prone to this sort of reduction.  Moreover, the most pleasant online relationships tend to be the simplest, those in which participants change their personas least often.  If Alice and Bob meet at a site devoted to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes and interact simply as devotees of those recipes, I suspect they are likelier to look forward to hearing from each other than they will be if they start talking about other topics and expecting other kinds of emotional and intellectual support from each other.  Offline, I would think it would be the opposite, that people who discuss only one topic and present themselves to each other in only one way are unlikely to become close.  I’d be interested to see studies on this hypotheses, a quick Google Scholar search hasn’t shown me any but if you know of such, please enlighten me.

Sixth, employment in a bureaucracy is based on technical qualifications.  Civil service exams, educational requirements, efficiency ratings, and other devices for measuring competence are not necessary if the best person for the job is the person who has inherited it as a matter of right.  They are necessary if the best person is the ablest.  Of course, every human bureaucracy exists within a society where there are laws, institutions, and ethical ideas that predate the rise of bureaucracy and survive independently of it.  So one does not expect a certifying authority to require the person who owns a business to prove that s/he is the ablest person to oversee its operations.  Nor does one expect anyone to require potential parents to demonstrate any particular abilities in order to earn a license authorizing them to produce children, or to raise the children they have produced.  If all social life were subject to the demands of a single bureaucracy, we would expect to see such requirements.  Indeed, as bureaucratization proceeds apace, we see ever more footprints of bureaucracy in areas which were once matters of right.  In many parts of the USA, for example, voters are routinely required to produce identification before they are allowed to take ballots, even though there is no evidence that anyone has ever impersonated a voter, and absolutely no way to affect the outcome of an election by impersonating voters.  These laws are accepted, not because they serve any legitimate purpose, but simply because it seems natural to the residents of a social world dominated by bureaucracy to be called on to produce one’s papers.

As for the Internet, there are technical specifications devices must meet in order to be connected.  This automated bureaucracy rarely sorts its human users by technical qualifications, though they do sort themselves in much the way that the clients of bureaucracies staffed by humans sort themselves.  And, as they do when interacting with bureaucracies staffed by humans, Internet users do tend to see themselves as clients receiving services rather than as citizens asserting their rights.  Zach Weiner expressed that point very effectively in February, with his now-classic cartoon about the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” that was then before the US Congress:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

So you can see why I have thought it made sense to look at the Internet as a bureaucracy in Max Weber’s sense.  Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to follow Mr Schneier and look at it as a feudal realm.  While every element of a bureaucracy is, at least in theory, accountable to some overall authority that regulates that bureaucracy, the elements to which we trust our online security are accountable to no one.  As Mr Schneier writes:

In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.

Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.

Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.

For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve wondered if the USA is undergoing a revival of feudalism.  Mr Schneier makes a strong case that it is, at least in this area.

“The blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things”

“Azathoth,” by “Servant of Entropy”

Three days after the US presidential election, CIA chief David Petraeus stepped down from his post.  In his letter of resignation, General Petraeus confessed that he had carried on an adulterous liaison with a woman named Paula Broadwell.  Ms Broadwell had written a book about him.  The book was titled All In, about which title I will not make any jokes.

Many observers have speculated that there must be more to the story than this.  Surely the head of the most famous and most lavishly funded spy agency in the world could not be ousted simply because of a private indiscretion.  For example, on Counterpunch Bart Gruzalski speculated that the general may have burbled out some state secrets to Ms Broadwell, and that these state secrets may have threatened to damage the reputations of well-connected figures.

Glenn Greenwald analyzes the matter, and points to what I would consider the most chilling explanation of all.  Mr Greenwald points out that General Petraeus, as Director of Central Intelligence and in his previous posts as commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, would seem to have done a great deal that one might consider objectionable:

[I]t is truly remarkable what ends people’s careers in Washington – and what does not end them. As [Michael] Hastings detailed in that interview [broadcast on MSNBC's Martin Bashir Show on 9 November], Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him: a disastrous Iraqi training program, a worsening of the war in Afghanistan since he ran it, the attempt to convert the CIA into principally a para-military force, the series of misleading statements about the Benghazi attack and the revealed large CIA presence in Libya. To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.

Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal – a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair – to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington. Of all the heinous things the CIA does, the only one that seems to attract the notice or concern of our media is a banal sex scandal. Listening to media coverage, one would think an extramarital affair is the worst thing the CIA ever did, maybe even the only bad thing it ever did (Andrea Mitchell: “an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about”).

Perhaps the real reason that General Petraeus resigned was nothing more than meets the eye.  While the directorship of Central Intelligence is a civilian post, the general retains his commission in the US Army, and under Article 134, paragraph 60 of the USA’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice it is a crime for an American soldier of any rank to commit adultery.  It may be the case that the Army prosecutes that crime only occasionally; however, if an officer of General Petraeus’ prominence were to be allowed simply to disregard a long-established and well-known provision of military law, morale in the ranks might well collapse.  So his resignation might have been unavoidable.

Mr Greenwald’s column is well worth reading; his main theme is the extent to which the Washington press corps has come to regard the US military and its senior commanders as figures above reproach.  So for example, when Mr Hastings listed the grounds quoted above for regarding General Petraeus’ recent career as something less than glorious, the ostensibly progressive Martin Bashir hustled him off the air with unseemly haste.  The overall portrait Mr Greenwald paints of the Washington press corps reminds me of C. Wright Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism.”  As Mills explained it on pages 86 through 88 in his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three (as quoted here):

In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps—which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war—and in great, round, hortatory principles. (p. 86)

. . . The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe. (p. 87)

. . . They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that “winning” means something, although they never tell us what. (p. 88)

. . . Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its “inevitability,” want it in order to shift the locus of their problems. (p. 88)

The crackpot realist regards his or her warlike worldview as the only one worth taking seriously for a most understandable reason.  S/he is surrounded by highly competent, impressive people who command great resources and occupy lofty positions within the social order.  The sheer fact that these individuals want a thing makes that thing seem reasonable.  That they constitute an isolated group with interests that are far removed from those of society at large does not seem credible when one is in their presence.  Yet the more impressive such a group is, the more of their wishes it is likely to persuade the public and policymakers to grant.  A group that is as impressive as America’s generals and admirals undoubtedly are will be very likely to press its agenda far beyond what the national interest demands.  Mr Greenwald quotes John Parker’s remarks on this phenomenon:

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe – interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity – and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it’s personally humbling for reporters who’ve never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters’ innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically. . . .

Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’, a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.

To that, Mr Greenwald adds “That is what makes this media worship of All Things Military not only creepy to behold, but downright dangerous.”

Undoubtedly it does.  But there is more to it than that.  If General Petraeus, high priest and god-king of Washington’s cult of military worship, a man exempt both from the laws that forbid extreme violence and from the rational scrutiny that analyzes the costs and benefits of public policy, can be brought low by what is in the end a conjunction of personal weakness and bureaucratic inertia, then “the sharp, amazingly focused” minds at the helm of the USA’s military establishment have not coalesced into an intelligent policymaking body.  As individuals they are eminently rational; as a group they are a mindless thing.

Warfare and spycraft are endlessly fascinating to adolescent boys; much of the military worship current in the USA is an outgrowth of the fact that many men never outgrow that fascination.  Action movies, thrillers, and war-themed video games form much of the canon of twenty-first century culture; lessons about the rule of law, the value of restraint, and the role of diplomacy find little reinforcement in this canon.  I’ve taken the title of this post from the writer of another sort of story that appeals chiefly to adolescent boys.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote horror stories, eventually uniting them with an elaborate, and to me frankly rather boring, system of mythology.  Still, his description of one figure in that mythology haunts me, and seems perfectly apt as a description of the National Security State and its worshipers:

Before his eyes a kaleidoscopic range of phantasmal images played, all of them dissolving at intervals into the picture of a vast, unplumbed abyss of night wherein whirled suns and worlds of an even profounder blackness. He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.

(from “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935)

A “flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers… lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”  That fits the Washington press corps perfectly.  Perhaps I’ll call them that from now on.  Or perhaps I’ll shorten it to “the flopping horde.”

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