Seven recent issues of The Nation

Ever since I started writing here, I’ve been referring to “Mrs Acilius.”  Until last month, that was a bit of an exaggeration, as I had not actually married the lady in question.  We tied the knot 12 May.  So lately, I’ve had things on my mind other than this blog.  That’s why I haven’t been posting “Periodicals Notes” regularly.  But I’ve vowed to catch up.  So here are my notes on the last seven, yes seven, issues of The Nation.

nation 25 may 200925 May: It’s been almost 60 years since a jury found that former State Department official Alger Hiss was lying when he denied that he had passed classified documents to an agent of Soviet military intelligence during the years 1934-1938.  The Nation has never let go of the Hiss case, and still publishes articles, columns, and reviews at regular intervals maintaining his innocence.  When Hiss died in 1996, I read a few books about the case.  Hiss’ own book, In the Court of Public Opinion, and his son Tony’s memoir of him, Laughing Last; Alistair Cooke‘s A Generation on Trial; and Allan Weinstein’s Perjury.  I mention the fact that I read these four books not because they qualify me as an expert on a matter as complex and hotly disputed as the Hiss case; obviously they do not.   All I want to do is explain that I have a certain familiarity with the Hiss case, and that I take an interest in discussions of it. 

D. D. Guttenplan reviews two recent books, Susan Jacoby‘s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.  In regard to Spies, Guttenplan’s main goal is disprove the book’s accusation that journalist I. F. Stone was a Soviet agent.  I would be inclined to say that Guttenplan achieves that goal easily.  I haven’t read the book, but unless there is a great deal more to it than Guttenplan acknowledges it would seem that its authors have not only failed to make the case against Stone, but have actually made a compelling case that Stone could not have been the man the Soviets codenamed “Blin” “”Pancake.”)  

Guttenplan’s contribution to the Hiss debate is less of a triumph.  The review goes on and on about the absence of Hiss’ name from declassified KGB documents.  It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant point.  Hiss was never accused of spying for the KGB.  The KGB was an organ of Soviet State Security.  Hiss was accused of passing documents, not to Soviet State Security, but to Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU.)  The man who identified himself as Hiss’ contact was Whittaker Chambers, whom no one denies was an operative of Soviet Military Intelligence.  In the Soviet system, Military Intelligence was a bitter rival of State Security; they most assuredly did not share with each other the names of highly placed agents whom they had recruited. 

Hiss’ defenders are not alone in ignoring this point.  So, those who are most convinced of his guilt often bring up the “VENONA Intercepts,” cables sent by KGB station chiefs in Washington to Moscow and intercepted by the FBI in the years 1946-1980.  These cables use the codename “ALES” to refer to a man who sounds more like Alger Hiss than anyone else, and describe him as an agent of Soviet intelligence.  They do not report direct contacts with ALES, however, nor do they include any intelligence gathered from him.  The likeliest explanation, then, is that the station chief had heard a rumor that Hiss was working for Soviet Military Intelligence and was reporting this rumor to headquarters.  That such rumors were circulating about Hiss in various intelligence services around the world before Chambers made his charges public has been known for some time; in the first edition of Perjury, published in 1978, Allan Weinstein devoted a whole appendix to indications that a number of European intelligence services believed Hiss was a Soviet agent.  VENONA does nothing but add Soviet State Security to the list of these services.   

nation 1 june 20091 June:  Akiva Gottlieb reviews Clint Eastwood’s latest bout of macho self-pity masquerading as a movie.  The last two paragraphs sum up Gottlieb’s view:

In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man’s will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, “on the condition that you don’t chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don’t paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don’t put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads’ cars.” In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood’s raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.

The traditional Eastwood hero–and Clint, for all his bluster, has never played a villain–spends an inordinate amount of time pushing other people away, only to grudgingly accept the perseverant embrace of the outside world, as long as the world is defined exclusively in terms of his suffering. If Eastwood is to be credited for artistic and emotional growth, his mythic doppelgängers must learn to accept a love that asserts itself without conditions. He has publicly reduced his political credo to “everyone leaves everyone else alone.” That philosophy is a reason to become a hermit. It’s a reason to vote for regressive taxation and Second Amendment rights. It’s not a reason to make movies.

The only Eastwood movie I ever liked was Paint Your Wagon.  It’s too bad he didn’t make more musicals. 

nation 8 june 20098 June: William Deresiewicz looks at “Literary Darwinism,” a number of recent attempts to apply evolutionary theory to the study of literature.  The most respectable specimen of this breed Deresiewicz can find is Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer.  That’s hardly surprising.  Classicists have been in partnership with anthropologists for a good many years now.  Both disciplines make large claims; an uncharitable observer might say that both disciplines tend to attract megalomaniacs.  At any rate, Gottschall has a long bibliography to work with.  Deresiewicz points out that all of the literary studies he considers are part of “Evolutionary Psychology,” a school which does not enjoy much prestige among scientists, least of all with scientists who specialize in the study of evolutionary biology.  I can see why; consider this:

Evolutionary psychology has had a tendency to trivialize the arts. Steven Pinker, EP’s popularizer par excellence, sees the arts as nothing more than mental “cheesecake,” useless technologies designed to stimulate evolved pleasure centers the way junk food hijacks our once-adaptive tendency to seek out fats and sweets. Pinker even warns against “invent[ing] functions for activities that lack design merely because we want to ennoble them with the imprimatur of biological adaptiveness.”

What makes this sort of thing so very dreary is its antiquity.  Over a century ago, Irving Babbitt declared the Romantic movement a failure because it left a business-minded public with the hopelessly naive view that literature and the arts were simply toys.  In the popularity of this view around the dawn of the twentieth century, Babbitt found an impoverished conception of work.  Romanticism, like the positivistic theory of science that Babbitt identified with Francis Bacon, accepted the idea that work was to be equated in theory with the rearrangement of matter, and in practice with moneymaking.  Babbitt appealed to a different conception of work, one which he found in sources ranging from ancient Greece and Rome, to the writings of the Buddha, to the Confucian tradition.  For him, real work was the cultivation of the will.  Literature mattered because it was part of this kind of work. 

We needn’t accept Babbitt’s moralistic criticism to be dismayed at Pinker’s parroting of ideas that were already hackneyed when Walter Pater popularized them in the Victorian Age.  Readers of The Nation will be quick to point out that the social conditions within which writers and readers find themselves shape the ways in which they relate to the written word, and that those same conditions determine scientific activity.  Philosophers will point to the incoherence of the concept “pleasure.”  Others will find other faults.  

nation 15 june 200915 June:  Jonathan Schell’s “Torture and Truth” begins with a condemnation of the Obama administration’s apparent intention to conceal and continue the Bush/Cheney administration’s torture policy.  Schell presents evidence that the purpose of the torture the former administration inflicted on detainees was not to extract information to help conduct the wars America was waging at the time, but to coerce those detainees into agreeing to prepared statements that would justify a new war in Iraq.  Schell considers the ways in which torture degrades the state that practices it and the society that condones it.  He cites Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain to explain how torture blurs the line between fantasy and reality, in that it “allows real human pain to be converted into the regime’s fiction of power.”  This unreality corrupts every aspect of the society in which torture is tolerated:

Other words drift free from their appropriate contexts and float into inappropriate ones. For example, in a statement responding to the recent release of memos from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing forms of torture, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, objected to “pain” that had been caused. But he did not mean what one would have thought–the pain of the victims. He meant the torturers’ pain upon finding themselves censured for their abuse. Recalling the discomfort of operatives who had been called to account after the Vietnam War, he said that he could “remember well the pain of those of us who served our country even when the policies we were carrying out were unpopular or could be second-guessed.” Now, he complained, “We in the intelligence community should not be subjected to similar pain.” In this response, the screams of the tortured had been shut out and only the whining of the torturers could be heard. (Blair’s statement prompted a pitch-perfect satire on the blog Balkinization by David Luban, who penned a mock inquiry into whether “‘second-guessing’ would violate the prohibition on torture found at Section 2340A of title 18 of the United States Code.” He found that it did.)

Why call Clint Eastwood to task for making movies where his character both commits acts of extreme violence and gets the whole audience to feel sorry for him?  Because men of violence pull the same trick in real life.  

Elsewhere in the issue, Stuart Klawans praises the theme song to the original Star Trek in terms that make it clear to us old Trekkies that he is of the body.  The imposing march that Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the first movie may have been good enough for the Trek franchise of the 1980s and 90s, as indeed it would have been a fine national march for North Korea.  But it was Alexander Courage’s exotic bolero that captured the spirit of the 60s show. 

When Klawans goes on to praise the new Star Trek movie, however, he seems to lose some of his connection to the show.  “You might have guessed, for example, that if not for the grace of God, or an anomaly in the Infrandibulum System, James T. Kirk might have been nothing more than a drunken, arrogant, self-destructive jerk,” Klawans writes.  For the last several months, I’ve been introducing Mrs Acilius to the show, watching one every few days.  What strikes me about the series every time I watch it through is that Kirk is not at all the sort of person about whom you would have guessed this.  He’s a quiet sort of fellow, introverted, with a tendency to go by the book.  We spend the episode in suspense, wondering if Kirk will have the grit to show leadership in a crisis.   So the first time we see Kirk he’s playing chess.  Later in that same episode his oldest friend reminisces that in his days at the academy Kirk was “a stack of books with legs.”  A few episodes into the first season Dr McCoy asks Kirk if he was serious when he was a cadet.  “Serious?  Bones, I’ll make a confession.  I was positively grim!”  In episode after episode, Kirk uses his quiet intellectualism to resolve confrontations peacefully.  So we get a movie where Cadet Kirk is a drunken, arrogant, self-destructive jerk.  I suppose we are supposed to feel sorry for this nasty Kirk, like Clint Eastwood and the torturers.  Apparently that’s the only form of masculinity allowed in the movies nowadays.   

I knew we were in trouble with this new movie when I saw the opening of the first trailer released.  A race car drives at the screen.  It stops, and a boy climbs out of the driver’s seat,.  He identifies himself as James T. Kirk.  The only time we saw Kirk or any member of the Star Trek cast drive a car in the series was as comic relief.  He cannot figure out how to operate the clutch, so the car sputters along at two miles an hour, making a variety of loud noises.  That sequence made the point that the automobile was twentieth century technology, someday to be obsolete.  Showing Kirk as someone born to drive a car, by contrast, embraces the automobile as a possession for all time.     

nation 22 june 2009

22 June:  Eduardo Galeano denounces the tortures that have been inflicted in the name of Christ over the ages.  It’s a worthy enough piece, but it starts with a misleading claim: “The Catholic Church invented Hell and the Devil.”  Well, that depends on what he means by “the Catholic Church.”  If he means that there is only one Church, that this Church is catholic, or universal, in its scope, and that it as a whole participated in the invention of thease notions, then he may be making a coherent claim.  It would be a most unusual claim however; if the Church has that kind of mystical unity, it must have a supernatural character.  What supernatural character could it have if it fabricates major points of doctrine?  Wouldn’t it be far simpler to explain a group that engages in that sort of fabrication in purely natural terms as an ordinary gang of scam artists ? 

If on the other hand Galeano means that the Roman Catholic Church, an institution distinct from other, similar, institutions, invented Hell and the Devil, he is quite wrong.  Hell and the Devil were popular notions well before the Great Schism of 1054.  Prior to that event, there was no institutional distinction between the Roman church and the churches of the East.  Indeed, the Eastern churches call themselves Orthodox just because they regard Rome as a breakaway province of the church, the Pope as a renegade Patriarch.  For that matter, “Roman Catholic” as distinct from “Protestant” churches is meaningless when discussing events that took place before the Reformation.  How can Roman Catholics claim Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo or Benedict of Nursia was a “Catholic”?  How do we know what choice any of those men would have made if confronted by the alternatives available in post-Reformation Christendom? 

nation 29 june 200929 June: Alex Cockburn brings up the fact that early in February two nuclear submarines, one British and one French, collided in the North Atlantic.  He contrasts the attempts of the British and French governments to cover this disaster up with North Korea’s prompt announcenents of its missile tests, and rather impishly suggests that this difference implies that Britain and France are worse “rogue states” than is North Korea.  I won’t go along with that, but he does make a good point.  And goodness gracious, why hasn’t there been more coverage of this episode?     You’d think the spectre of the North Atlantic so crowded with nuclear submarines that they can’t help crashing into each other would sell a few newspapers. 

nation 6 july 20096 July: Of course there is an editorial about the Iranian election and its aftermath.  They make the obvious point that any interference by the USA would only strengthen the hands of the hardliners and reduce any chance that a more democratic Iran will emerge from the crisis.  Writing on the Chronicles magazine website yesterday, Paul Craig Roberts took this editorial to task because it proceeds from the assumption that the Iranian election was indeed a farce.  Roberts cites a poll conducted in Iran by Americans Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and sponsored by two leading political science research organizations, the Center for Public Opinion and the New America Foundation.  This poll predicted an even wider the margin of victory for President Ahmedinejad than was in fact reported.  On the other hand, Juan Cole’s blog carries a piece in which Mansoor Moaddel of Eastern Michigan University finds fault with Ballen and Doherty’s interpretation of their results.  I think Ballen and Doherty make the better argument, but Moaddel’s piece is worth a look.      

The cover story outlines Gretchen Morgenson‘s achievements covering finance for The New York Times.  Illustrating I. F. Stone’s definition of news as “What somebody doesn’t want you to print,” the article quotes a PR executive who says that “The consensus view of her among actual business people I know is pure contempt.”  It would be hard to imagine a higher endorsement of any business reporter, especially one with Morgenson’s beat.  Morgenson defines herself as a moderate Republican: “I believe in capitalism,” she is quoted as saying, “To me it’s natural that I would go after the people who are wrecking it.”  She says that the fact that she’s accused of being “antibusiness” shows only that corporate ethics are at a low ebb.  “If you’re going to believe this is an ownership society where you’re going to take part in the upside, if you’re going to participate in a sort of populist form of capitalism…you have to be confident that the agents have your best interests at heart,” she says.

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  1. cymast

     /  June 19, 2009

    “arts as nothing more than mental ‘cheesecake,’ useless technologies designed to stimulate evolved pleasure centers”

    So pleasure isn’t a worthy goal in life? How sad for Pinker. Perhaps his overly-evolved brain has lost the ability to understand pleasure is good. No cheesecake for Pinker. Instead he gets a plate full of algorithms. Unless that would give him pleasure. You don’t want to flirt with the cheesecakey, pleasurey “arts” category.


    “Britain and France are worse ‘rogue states’ than is North Korea . . so crowded with nuclear submarines that they can’t help crashing into each other”

    The word “rogue” trivializes the issue of nuclear weapons, IMO. “Insane” would be a more fitting choice. In fact, I find it the only choice. What have we become? A race of self-deluded war-mongers gleefully flaunting hundreds of thousands of NUCLEAR WEAPONS and bragging about the power to destroy the entire world hundreds of times over? Those who seek positions of mass power are often those who are mentally unbalanced. So Korea does not surprise me. It’s just a matter of time now, as it has always been.


    Infrandibulum? What the heck is that?

  2. acilius

     /  June 19, 2009

    I think “infrandibulum” is Klawans’ example of a made-up science fiction word. In its sound, “infrandibulum” appears to be modeled on “infundibulum,” a Latin word meaning “funnel” that shows up in some anatomy books as a name for various funnel-shaped body parts.

    “Those who seek positions of mass power are often those who are mentally unbalanced.” That’s for sure. And many of those who achieve such positions quickly begin to behave as if they were mentally imbalanced, no matter what they were like before. It’s why we need to ensure that all power people exercise over one another and over other living things is sharply limited.

    Pleasure as a goal in life- That’s one of the difficulties Irving Babbitt identified in the materialistic philosophies of his day. Both the “hardheaded man of science,” the type of which Pinker seems (in that quote, anyway) to be a survival, and the sentimental type Babbitt labeled “Romantic” tend to lump all pleasant feelings together into a single category, as stimulation of certain brain centers.

    Neither type can distinguish among pleasures. The “hardheaded” type is left to brusquely dismiss the best poetry as the equal of the crudest toy, while the “Romantic” type has to look at the crudest toy and try to find the same satisfactions that the best poetry offers. The old objection to utilitarian philosophy is that its “Hedonistic Calculus” (that is best which provides the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people) is traditionally expressed as the inability of that “Calculus” to distinguish between “Pushkin and push-pin.” And the founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, was quite willing to discard Pushkin if push-pin gave greater pleasure.

    Nowadays, I think everyone realizes that we need a more sophisticated set of concepts. If the word “pleasure” refers both to the satisfactions of Pushkin and the satisfactions of push-pin, it is far too vague to be usable as the basis of the sort of moral philosophy Bentham wanted to construct. Yet writers in many fields still carry on as if the crudest sort of utilitarianism were defensible.

  3. cymast

     /  June 19, 2009


    Yeah I tried looking it up and the funnel thing threw me.


    Pushkin VS push-pin:

    I don’t see any practical usefulness from trying to construct a moral philosophy- or a philosophy of conduct- based on pleasure. Sure you could construct pleasure-based philosophies without regard to conduct ’til the cows come home, but couldn’t really use them for anything other than mental exercise. IMO

  4. acilius

     /  June 19, 2009

    Now of course different people have different opinions. So just to bring old Irving Babbitt up one more time, if he were around he might wonder whether there really were distinctions to be made between “practical usefulness,” “mental exercise,” and “conduct.”

  1. The American Conservative, August 2009 « Panther Red
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