Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.

Virtue Engendered; or, Big States Breed Small Souls

I found two highlights in this issue: a review of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and a review of David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is a major figure in the revival of “virtue ethics,” the school of thought pioneered by Aristotle.   As its name suggests, virtue ethics tends to emphasize the importance of developing particular character traits.  Virtue ethics was out of fashion among academic philosophers for quite a long time, but now it seems to be on an equal footing with the two other leading schools of ethical thought, utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a set of approaches that take their cue from Jeremy Bentham’s definition of the Good as that which brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number of people; deontology first crystallized in the work of Immanuel Kant, defender of the idea that moral duty and rational understanding are inseparable one from another.  So, an advocate of utilitarianism might argue that we should sustain friendships because societies composed of people who like each other tend to have lots of healthy and cheerful citizens, and an advocate of deontological ethics might argue that we should sustain friendships because the universe only makes sense to people who recognize a duty to grow close to each other.  An advocate of virtue ethics, on the other hand, might argue that being a friend means developing traits of character that are valuable in themselves and that can be attained in no other way.     

Sandel, like other virtue ethicists, is associated with a tendency in political theory called “communitarianism.”  Communitarians criticize classical liberalism for its image of the individual human being as a self-contained unit.  As The Nation‘s reviewer puts it:

Nearly thirty years ago, in his massively influential debut in political theory, Sandel argued that communal belonging precedes individual freedom–that, in his language, the self is “encumbered” and therefore not altogether prior to the ends it chooses. An intrepid technical dissection of his colleague [John] Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice (1971), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice made Sandel’s name as a “communitarian.” Sandel demonstrated that for Rawls, the freedom of individual choice alone is the morally relevant starting point for inquiry into justice, an assumption that renders things like family ties, religious belief, group loyalty and historical identity irrelevant, except as a secondary extra. Communitarians like Sandel, Charles Taylor (with whom Sandel studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) and Michael Walzer responded that most people, even in liberal societies, prize those things at least as much as personal autonomy. The most attractive part of Sandel’s criticism was his contention that relationships, rather than being the result of previous choices, are the sphere in which identity is possible at all. (To put it in more technical terms, there is no individual subject not intersubjectively constituted from the first.) Ever since making these claims, even as political theory has substantially evolved, Sandel has continued to argue for the priority of the communal good in an account of justice, even as he recognizes its risks for liberty.

Because a person’s virtues are part of his or her identity, communitarianism and virtue ethics inevitably go hand in hand.    

The same review discusses a book by Amartya Sen that prompts the reviewer to mention that many philosophers were dismayed when political theorist John Rawls declared that the nation-state was “the natural forum for justice.”  Otherwise dedicated Rawlsians rebelled against this pronouncement, arguing that justice requires a worldwide framework.  I value Sandel and the communitarians because their position points to a different response to Rawls.  I haven’t studied Rawls’ work deeply, but what I have read suggests to me that his theory does indeed presuppose the nation-state as the standard of community.  The communitarians, on the other hand, have the intellectual resources to challenge that standard, not by arguing that the nation-state is too small to be just, but that it is too big.  The nation-state, especially in the form of continental behemoths like the USA or the former USSR or China or India or the European Union, is bloated beyond any capacity to nurture healthy relationships.  The only connection citizens of such enormous empires can achieve with each other is the one they feel when they cheer their rulers on and rejoice as their warriors smash the Enemy, whoever that Enemy may be at the moment.  The qualities of character that we develop when we do those things are hardly to be called virtues. 

That big states breed small souls is supported by material cited from David Finkel’s reports from Iraq.  The American public is separated from the perspective of the American soldier by official censorship, and so has a distorted view of what is being done in its name in Iraq.  Senior American commanders, too, have a distorted view, in their case because sycophantic briefing officers tell them what they want to hear rather than what their subordinates on the ground are actually seeing and doing.  The reviewer describes a scene in which Finkel reports on a briefing given to the celebrated General David Petraeus.  Finkel attended the briefing, and had been an eyewitness of the firefights deascribed in the briefing.  He makes it clear that what the general heard had little or no relationship to the events Finkel saw.  Even ground troops themselves see an ever smaller portion of what they are doing; “the Pentagon’s continued dependence on unmanned Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan means that even soldiers aren’t seeing the full contours of the global battlefield,” as the reviewer points out.  Of course, it’s long been an axiom of military history that a researcher should ask a participant in a battle for eyewitness accounts only of events that took place within a meter of that participant’s face, and shouldn’t expect extreme clarity even in those accounts.  But these added degrees of separation certainly don’t improve our ability to take responsibility for what is done in our name.  Finkel apparently pulls out the emotional stops in an attempt to protest against this separation:

The chasm between over here and over there is central to another heartbreaking sequence, when the wife of a severely wounded soldier transferred from Iraq to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, remembers a visit from President Bush. Finkel recounts not only what the soldier’s wife said to the president–“Thank you for coming”–and not only what she wished she had said to him–“He doesn’t know how it feels”–but why she hadn’t said it: “Because I felt it would not have made any difference.” Communication is fruitless, because if Bush can’t see the problem staring at him from that hospital bed, he’s already living on too remote a planet.


Latest out of Iraq Plan

Obama set to unveil Iraq plan

Obama won’t be getting  s out as soon as some of us thought.

The Nation, 9 March 2009

nation-9-march-2009Robert Dreyfuss looks at the regional elections held in Iraq on 31 January and finds good news.  A new alliance of Shi’a and Sunni groups is beginning to operate in Iraqi politics.  Soon, Dreyfuss hopes, this alliance will be strong enough to present itself as a genuinely nationalist bloc and to insist on an end to the US occupation. 

No such development is in sight in Afghanistan.  An editorial expresses the fear that the Obama plan to send more US troops to that country will make “Bush’s War” into Mr O’s very own. 

Katha Pollitt speaks up for free speech.   On the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah against Salman Rushdie, she finds fault with fellow leftists whose only response to violent behavior by Muslims who have taken offense at speech labeled anti-Islamic is to “see these incidents as gratuitous provocations by insensitive Westerners” and to support restrictions on speech that amount to blasphemy laws.  She grants that many of the incidents that have generated violent responses in the Muslim world have indeed been gratuitous provocations by insensitive Westerners, and is happy to list extremists from other religious groups whose conduct has been every bit as deplorable as the worst we have seen from Khomeini and his coreligionists.  But:

Appeals to the hurt feelings of religious people are just a dodge to protect the antidemocratic and retrograde policies of religious states and organizations. We’re all adults; we have to live with unwelcome expression every day. What’s so special about religion that it should be uniquely cocooned? After all, nobody at the UN is suggesting that atheists should be protected from offense–let alone women, gays, leftists or other targets popular with the faithful. What about our feelings? How can it be logical to say that women can’t point out sexism in the Bible or the Koran but clerics can use those texts to declare women inferior, unclean and in need of male control? And what about all the abuses religions heap on one another as an integral part of their “faith”?

An essay about Israeli novelist David Grossman of course concerns itself chiefly with Grossman’s insights into the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict.  What sticks with me from the essay is this quote from Grossman about writing:

[Y]ears ago, reflecting on a story he was writing that featured a bitter, emotionally unstable protagonist, he described his desire to have the tale surprise him. “More than that, I want it to actually betray me,” he wrote.

To drag me by the hair, absolutely against my will, into the places that are most dangerous and most frightening for me. I want it to destabilize and dissolve all the comfortable defenses of my life. It must deconstruct me, my relations with my children, my wife, and my parents; with my country, with the society I live in, with my language.

The Nation, 5 January 2009


A few things stand out in this issue.  Two pieces by A. C. Thompson, the cover story with a general focus and another about one particular case, detail acts of violence committed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by groups of white homeowners who banded together to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. 

On a happier note, Katha Pollitt offers her annual list of do-gooders who deserve our financial support.  Each of the ten she cites sounds terrific, I’d single out Iraq Veterans Against the War as the group with the most urgent agenda. 

A collection of poems by the late Jack Spicer includes some love letters Spicer wrote, an editorial decision which moves the reviewer to comment on Spicer’s views about the relationship between poetry and correspondence.  While Spicer often compared poems to personal correspondence, and “the idea or form of the letter underlies much of his published work,” in practice he always maintained a sharp distinction between the two genres.  “What Spicer recognized as poetry was always fierce and contentious and, despite the devices that feign otherwise, written to no one and for no one. ”  Indeed, Spicer’s discussion of Emily Dickinson centered on the difficulty of distinguishing between letters and poems, taking it for granted that this distinction was a needful one.


The American Conservative, 15 December 2008

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

Several pieces this time despair of any prospect that traditionalist conservatism will reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  What, then, do the writers for this traditionalist publication believe is to be done? 

At least two of them seem to think that the time may have come to give up on the USA altogether.  Bill Kauffman writes an admiring piece about Kirkpatrick Sale’s Third North American Secessionist Convention, singling out for praise the doughty Yankees of the Second Vermont Republic, who want to break away from the continental Leviathan in the name of Ethan Allen, Robert Frost, and maple syrup.  A review of Lee Congdon’s George Kennan: A Writing Life includes remarks on Kennan’s argument in his late work Around the Cragged Hill that the USA is too big for anyone’s good and should be broken into smaller constituent republics. 

Elsewhere, a letter to the editor takes issue with those who claim that neoconservative advocates of the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have been so foolish as actually to have believed the sorts of things they said in public at that time.  The correspondent asks the magazine to “spare me the ‘neocons were dumb to believe Iraq would turn into Ohio’ nonsense.  These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet, weren’t convinced of something a 10-year old knew?  Please.  It’s nice to imagine that some massively dumb, partially blind, amazing social phenomena led us into this debacle, but the truth seems simpler and more banal: the neocons didn’t care and neither did we.” 

The fallacy here seems obvious.  “These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet”- that’s an impressive description.  The correspondent is right to be impressed, we should be impressed as well.  But keep in mind, every one of the members of that group was at least as impressed by his or her colleagues as we are.  Sitting at a table surrounded by such people, who would dare be the first to say something radically different from what the others were saying?  Unless someone goes first and breaks the spell, a roomful of extremely competent people can march blindly into mistakes any well-informed individual, sometimes any normal 10-year old, could have warned them against.  Many policymakers are acutely aware of this danger; indeed, when President Truman made George Kennan head of policy planning at the US  State Department in the late 1940’s he explicitly defined Kennan’s job as speaking up against the preconceptions under which others were laboring and breaking the spell of those preconceptions.


Cuneiform tablets

A Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum

A Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this article in The London Review of Books about an ongoing British Museum show called “Babylon: Myth and Reality.”  Apparently the exhibition concentrates on cuneiform tablets.  The article explains what we know about cuneiform tablets as a medium and speculates on what we may yet learn about them.

The Nation, 10 November 2008

As you would expect from its cover date, this issue was devoted primarily to the 2008 presidential election.  As that event recedes into the past, I find it hard to imagine myself going back to re-read any articles about it.  Perhaps I may wake up some morning and find it impossible to believe that it ever really happened, and may want to look up this issue as proof that it did. 

What I want to note now is a review essay by Moustafa Bayoumi.  Bayoumi treats three books, Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, by Sandra Mackey; Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, by Ussama Makdisi; and Origins: A Memoir by Amin Maalouf.  Bayoumi aligns Mackey’s book with “a budding movement on anthropology’s right wing.”  Thinkers associated with this movement look at Arab societies and see one institution as paramount, the tribe.  Bayoumi cites Philip Carl Salzman, who argues (in Bayoumi’s paraphrase) “that Arabs, universally and throughout history, organize their societies along a series of ‘nested’ relationships- family, lineage, clan, tribe, confederacy, sect, and religion- with each group larger than the preceding one.  Indeed, Islam, on this account, postdates tribalism; with its ability to magnify the difference between believer and nonbeliever, it’s simply the largest tribe of all.”  The tribalist school has had great influence in recent US policy in the Middle East; a 2003 Brookings Institution report on Iraqi tribalism (“The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System,” Brookings Iraq Memo #18, 8 July 2003) has apparently served as one of the blueprints for US occupation policy in Iraq.   Inasmuch as, according to Bayoumi, “tribalist theory presumes that tribes always impede the growth of the state,” the influence of the tribalist school over Iraq’s occupiers may explain why so little appears to have been done in the last five and a half years to develop a viable state in Iraq.


More from the antiwar Right

The American Conservative, 8 September 2008

Two major articles deal with the fear that haunts many of the “Old Right” contributors to this publication, the fear that America is becoming dependent on foreign powers.  An obituary for Lieutenant General William Odom discusses the testimony the general gave to the US Senate in early April, in which he pointed out that US forces in Iraq depend “on a long and slender supply line from Kuwait, which runs through territory controlled by Shi’ite forces friendly to Iran” [a quote from the obituarist, not Odom’s own words.)  American service personnel in Iraq are therefore hostages at the disposal of Iran. 

Andrew Bacevich attacks American consumerism and its economic consequences.  Our insatiable appetite for luxuries, Bacevich argues, has saddled us with debts and a dependence on imported fuels that we can manage only by maintaining a constant war footing, while our wars serve only to increase our debts and deepen our dependence.   

The American Conservative, 25 August 2008

Remember George W Bush saying that the fall of Saddam Hussein meant that the “rape rooms” in his prisons would forever close?  Abu Ghraib made a sick joke out of that boast.  Well, the return of rape rooms wasn’t the end of it.  Since the current war began in March 2003, well over 2 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes.  Most of them left empty-handed.  How have they been surviving since?  Kelley Beaucar Vlahos shows how; tens of thousands of Iraqi women and girls have been forced into prostitution.  No one in authority is even collecting statistics about these victims of daily rape, much less trying to help them.   On the contrary, when it was revealed that a major US defense contractor was shuttling women and girls between Kuwait and Baghdad to be used as sex slaves, the story went nowhere.  The matter remained so obscure that even Vlahos misreports the name of the whistleblower who revealed it.  She calls him Bruce Halley.  His name is Barry Halley. 


The Nation, July 2008

7 July– Alexander Cockburn points out the shortcomings of the late Tim Russert; Jon Wiener derides efforts to depict the University of California at Irvine as a hotbed of anti-semitism.

14 July– In “The Subprime Swindle” Kai Wright shows that many of those now facing foreclosure because of exotic mortgages are African-American, and argues that those mortgages have had the effect of siphoning away a tremendous share of the accumulated wealth of black America.  Stuart Klawans recommends the film Full Battle Rattle, a documentary about a military training exercise in California meant to simulate conditions in Iraq.   

21/28 July– Naomi Klein labels the current state of our political economy “disaster capitalism” and identifies its main instrument of persuasion as extortion.  The rise of private firefighting firms enables the rich to threaten to shut down public fire departments that serve the rest of us; the deal the big oil companies have made in Iraq, apparently giving them right of first refusal on future drilling, puts them in a position to threaten to shut down oil supplies; genetic modification gives seed producers the power to starve the world.  Klein doesn’t have much faith in the power of market mechanisms to rein in the rich, but then why should she.  

In the same issue, U Penn classicist Emily Wilson reviews John Tipton’s translation of Sophocles’ Ajax.  The play puts her in mind of war’s psychological effects.  “[B]y denying the opposition any humanity, and therefore making them killable, we risk making ourselves something less than human.”  When Ajax responds to a slight by setting out to kill his fellow Greek warriors at Troy, the gods delude him into mistaking a herd of sheep for his companions.  He slaughters them with great efficiency.  Classicists used to call this slaughter “the Ovicide” (from the Latin ovis, meaning “sheep.”)  The Ovicide (Wilson doesn’t mention the term, and it is extremely old-fashioned, but I’m rather fond of it)  occurs before the play, which focuses on Ajax’ attempt to come to terms with the fact that he has made a fool of himself.  In Ajax’ torment, Wilson sees a symbol of every warrior whose training and formation have stripped him of the ability to distinguish between human and not-human.