“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Way back in the 4 June issue of The Nation, William Deresiewicz published a review essay about Kurt Vonnegut.  As I read Mr Deresiewicz’ piece, it dawned on me that I had never read Slaughterhouse-Five.  I’d read several of Vonnegut’s novels and miscellaneous writings, but had missed the most famous one.  Embarrassingly enough, I had talked about Slaughterhouse-Five with a number of people over the years, conversations in the course of which I sincerely, if somewhat vaguely, believed that I had read the book at some point.   Once, while still in high school, I even suggested to a friend that we co-author a tribute to Slaughterhouse-Five in comic book form.  If he’d taken me up on that, I suppose it would have become clear to both of us quickly enough that I hadn’t read it, but we settled on a tribute to Froissart’s Chronicles  instead.

So, not long after I read that issue, I reported to the library and checked out a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.  It was well worth reading.  Mr Deresiewicz says that the novel’s real subject is not the firebombing of Dresden, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that the firebombing bequeathed to Vonnegut and other survivors.  Mr Deresiewicz quotes a remark from the beginning of the novel, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”  The novel is great, he argues, because Vonnegut doesn’t try to offer answers or find meanings.  He looks directly at an unintelligible world, a world in which human beings by the thousand can be incinerated in their homes, and does not flinch by looking away to something else, something reassuring in its logic.  Instead, the novel’s Billy Pilgrim, like Vonnegut in his own authorial voice, says simply, “I was there.”  Mr Deresiewicz writes:

“I was there,” he says. And he adds, “So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” The moment prefigures the novel’s moral climax a few pages before the end. Billy’s in a hospital in 1968, after the plane crash. His roommate is a former Air Force general who is working on a history of the Army Air Corps in World War II. He is wealthy, healthy, masterful, accomplished (his name is Rumfoord, by the way), and he dismisses Billy, in his quasi-comatose state, as so much human refuse. He is telling someone that the raid on Dresden had been kept a secret for so long

“For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.”
It was now that Billy Pilgrim spoke up intelligently. “I was there,” he said.

“I was there.” Meaning not, I suffered, but simply: It happened. It doesn’t fit the story that we tell ourselves about the war, but it happened. And I alone escaped to tell the tale. But not completely alone: my old war buddy was there as well, which means you can’t dismiss me as a lunatic. I was there. Or as the novel’s famous invocation, thrice repeated, puts it: Listen.

“I was there”—not, “The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed.” The sentence comes from a short, unpublished manuscript, included in the Library of America edition, that Vonnegut had worked on in the years immediately following the war. Before he could write the novel, I believe, he needed to surrender that sense of judgment. “It had to be done,” Rumfoord finally says to Billy. “I know,” Billy replies, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.”

Elsewhere in the novel, Vonnegut explicitly disavows judgment of the pilots who carried out the raid.  He never did blame them, he says; he has known bombers and admired them.  He describes the bombs as if they acted on their own, unassisted by human agency.  In the novel, that description figures not as a psychological evasion,  but as the facing of a supreme horror.  A world dominated by malevolence and permeated by guilt would have a structure, and so would be intelligible.  As such, even a realm of villainy would be easier to bear than the realm of sheer absurdity into which the massacre introduced its survivors.

In a bit of the novel that Mr Deresiewicz does not quote, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners are herded into Dresden.  The crowd gives Billy dirty looks; one man confronts him and demands to know if he “thought we would laugh”?  Billy is confused, then realizes that the miscellaneous items of clothing he has scavenged to cover his nakedness in his weeks as a prisoner adds up to a clown’s costume.  Here, Billy parallels his creator.  Cobbling together a way to tell his story, Vonnegut has gathered up bits of wartime memoir, of science fiction, of midlife-crisis narrative, of soft-core porn, of half a dozen other genres,  and pasted them together.  The result is a very odd book, at first glance an aggregation as clownish as Billy’s costume.   It is precisely because Vonnegut is entirely willing to play the fool, to make himself as much a stranger to smart rhetoric as the war has made Billy a stranger to smart attire, that Slaughterhouse-Five is a possession for the ages.

As the Periodicals Notes section of this website attests, I read a lot of magazines.  After the attacks of 11 September 2001, I dropped several titles from my list of regular reads.  These included The New Statesman, The National Review, The London Review of Books, and The American Spectator.  Each of these magazines carried a number of piece about that series of massacres.  There were many things to find objectionable about those pieces; certainly the right-wing publications did not cover themselves in glory by arguing that the appropriate response was to adopt policies that would punish all Muslims everywhere, and the others did their reputations no favors when they published remarks such as “the United States had it coming.”  What I found most rebarbative about all of them was something I couldn’t put into words at the time, but Vonnegut crystallizes it perfectly.  Each of those commentators, left and right, treated the massacres and their aftermath as a continuation of their lifelong quest to display their own brainpower to the utmost possible advantage.  Because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, the result of this contest to be the smartest one was an exhibition of moral idiocy on a spectacular scale.

If we don’t endeavor to make intelligent remarks about a massacre, how do we honor the dead it leaves behind?  This is typically a religious question, so let’s see what we can say about Vonnegut and religion.

As Mr Deresiewicz documents, Vonnegut was raised to be skeptical of conventional religion*:

Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility. He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control. Or as he puts it in The Sirens of Titan, “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters. Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L. Ron Hubbard, a man who started writing science fiction but decided he was writing Scripture.

If we reject the belief systems and hierarchies of traditional religions and the rites that go with them, how do we go about honoring the dead?  I think I detect a kindred spirit in the Vonnegut/ Deresiewicz emphasis on “I was there, and so was Bernard V. O’Hare.”  We honor the dead by remembering them.  To do this we must turn our attention from ourselves and focus it on them, on them as they were individually and as they interacted with each other in groups.  To sustain this focus we must resist the temptation to retreat into distractions, whether those distractions take the form of ideologies that make our losses bearable or of activities in which we ourselves become again the center of attention.  We must give the dead our undivided attention, if only for a moment, if we are to honor them.

Religions can certainly be fruitful source of excuses for keeping the focus off the dead.  Many funerary rites focus attention on clergy or other performers; many include invitations to dwell on recondite theological doctrines about the relationship between life and death.  So I sympathize with opponents of religion like T. H. Huxley who say that respect for the dead requires us to renounce the conventional forms of religion.  On the other hand, for many mourners these things quiet their minds and take them outside of themselves, enabling them to maintain a clear, unwavering focus on the dead.  And there’s nothing to say that persons who find the ritual elements a distraction can’t learn to respond to them in the desired way.  After all, the others learned it; no religious practice comes instinctively to anyone, even if there is an instinct for something called religion in general.  So even proceeding from my idea that mourning should be a matter of focusing our attention on the dead, we don’t find an argument against funerary rites.

Of course, funerary rites do something else as well.  They reassure the mourners that the remembrance of the dead is not a burden they will carry alone, but a bond they share with their community.  Funerary rites aren’t the only social practices that give that assurance; one of the reasons we want medical professionals to make heroic efforts to save our loved ones is that we want to know that those professionals will remember them, at least as an interesting case.  When someone is to blame for the death of a loved one, we want the same attention from the criminal justice system, in part for the same reason.  That’s probably why murder mysteries are so popular.  Some time ago, I saw an episode of Columbo on some cable TV channel that specializes in nostalgia.  Lieutenant Columbo had caught the murderer hiding the victim’s body.  In his bizarrely friendly way,  Lieutenant Columbo was trying to keep the murderer from feeling too bad about himself, telling him, “Dead bodies have a way of turning up.”  In reality, of course, they don’t.  The only thing dead bodies actually have a way of doing is decomposing.   Given enough time, it will be as if the dead had never lived.  That may well be the world’s most unbearable fact.  Many years ago, my wife lost her closest friend to an act of violence that was never investigated; with each passing year, fewer people remember her, and her family’s burden grows more obvious.

Medicine and the criminal justice system, whatever their virtues, are never entirely satisfactory substitutes for funerary rites.  A course of medical treatment is an exercise in technology and finance that revolves around the person of a patient, but is never simply a tribute to that patient; a criminal proceeding is an exercise in institutionalized conflict in the course of which a person who is unavailable to participate actively is likely to vanish from view altogether.

Many people recommend political action as a way to honor the dead.  I’m all for democracy, and I understand the power of martyrs to arouse a citizenry to action.  So I’m not opposed to the idea of waging a campaign for reform in the name of some dead person.  But consider.  Every political dispute is complex; every political issue shades into other, related issues, and every person who takes part in a political disagreement is pursuing several objectives at once.  To turn a person into a political symbol, therefore, is likely to make it virtually impossible to focus our undivided attention on that person.  Again, not everyone sees that focus as the essence of honoring the dead; some may define honoring the dead in a way that begins and ends with the political utility of martyrdom, or in other ways that put a low priority on memory of them as they were.  But for me, and perhaps for Vonnegut, the key thing is to meet the dead on their own terms, not to impose our preconceived notions on them or to lose sight of them in the midst of some other activity.

If we say that our ways of honoring the dead are part of our religion, whether we belong to any recognized religious tradition or not, then Vonnegut and I may share a religion.  Moreover, at least in my version of that unnamed religion, politics is not part of the funerary rites by which we honor the dead.  The rites of the various religious traditions that do have names and belief systems and hierarchies aren’t really part of it either, though they can serve the same purpose.  What is a part of it?  How do we go about focusing our attention simply on a person, not on desires and ideas of our own that we may associate with that person?

In a post a few years ago, I quoted a man who had said that his way of praying for a person was to hold an image in his mind of that person against a plain white background.  This meditative exercise does not involve any words; that way he isn’t tempted to wish things on the person, or to try to recruit God as an ally in an effort to make the person do what he thinks is right.  Instead, it enables him to see the person clearly, to listen to what the person is actually saying, to accept the person as s/he is, and to respect his or her journey in life.  I’ve tried this exercise myself on many occasions, and can recommend it highly.

So that exercise is part of my religion, if you call it that.  Science is part of it, too.  Richard Feynman said in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech that in science, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.”  My favorite living philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, argues that healthy religious traditions represent lines of inquiry that guide their followers away from particular forms of self-deception.  I don’t really understand how that is supposed to work; MacIntyre’s own religious tradition, as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church, seems to me to be an ever-flowing fountain from which self-deception springs in forms unimagined anywhere else.  Be that as it may, science offers its practitioners tools unmatched in any other avenue of human pursuit for disabusing oneself of one’s pet ideas.  Thomas à Kempis said that the highest reward of the contemplative life was that it had enabled him to free himself of a multitude of opinions; to the extent that Thomas’s words apply to religious practice in general, scientific inquiry is the most efficient of all forms of worship.

*To be precise about it, the Vonneguts were members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana when the novelist was growing up.  At that time, the congregation met in a building designed by architect Kurt Vonnegut, Senior.  In his maturity, Kurt Vonnegut, Junior did not identify even with the creedless religion of the Unitarians, or the Unitarian-Universalists as they became in 1961.

Unkept Republics

I named my online persona after Gaius Acilius, a man who lived in 155 BC, in part because the history Acilius wrote of Rome seems to have reflected some of the concerns that would define what scholars like Quentin Skinner call the “Republican Tradition” in political thought.  Professor Skinner has labeled such thinkers as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas More “neo-Roman” because of their preoccupation with themes that Romans like Acilius developed.  For example, all of these thinkers ask how a person can be called free when that person is dependent on the favor of others, and all of them answer with various schemes for creating compartments of social life within which people can be independent.  A couple of years ago, I suggested in this space that a way of developing this idea in a highly bureaucratized world like that of the twenty-first century might be to develop three conceptions of liberty in tandem with each other, as freedom from bureaucracy, freedom within bureaucracy, and freedom as a product of bureaucracy.  I called this suggestion “The Three Freedoms.”  So far as I can see, it is an idea which has had no influence on anyone.  I shouldn’t be surprised; I haven’t been trying very hard to draw anyone’s attention to it.  Gaius Acilius would probably be disappointed in me.

What brings all this to mind is a piece in the current issue of The Nation magazineYascha Mounk reviews Maurizio Viroli‘s The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy.  According to Mr Mounk, Professor Viroli accounts for Silvio Berlusconi’s long tenure at the forefront of affairs in Italy by arguing that “Berlusconi was able to stay in power because he transformed Italy from a republic into a kind of royal court.”  Not simply a monarchy, but a court.  Mr Mounk explains Professor Viroli’s terminology thus:

For him, a court system, far from being defined by the traditional trappings of royalty, is any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals—his courtiers—who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore. Even if it weren’t for the uncanny association with the droit du seigneur, it is clear why the label fits Berlusconi. Viroli is hardly exaggerating when he states that over the past few decades, “all of Italy’s political life has rotated around Silvio Berlusconi: all eyes turn to him, all thoughts, hopes, and fears.” He quickly became such a polarizing figure that the gulf between Italy’s left and right, which had been huge and vicious during much of Italy’s postwar history, has shrunk. What mattered most for Italians during his reign was whether one was for or against Berlusconi. In the summer of 2010, for example, several politicians on the left were prepared to fawn over Gianfranco Fini, a longtime fascist with center-right views, simply because he had broken with Berlusconi and spoken in public about his opposition to the prime minister.

Berlusconi not only made himself the Sun King of Italian politics; he acted like a Mafia don. At his word, pretty teenage girls became TV presenters, TV presenters ascended to the rank of government ministers and government ministers were offered lucrative jobs in various industries once they left office.

Mr Mounk goes on the explain the relationship between Professor Viroli’s views and those of the school associated with Professor Skinner:

For Viroli, Berlusconiland was more than a corrupt court. Drawing on republicanism, a long-neglected tradition of political thought that has recently been revived by intellectual historians and political theorists like John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, Viroli argues that Berlusconi’s corrosive influence has deprived Italians of their liberty. On Viroli’s account, philosophers who stand in the liberal tradition worry only about actual interference with a person’s actions. “A Free-Man,” wrote Thomas Hobbes with his characteristic crispness, “is he that, in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to.” The subjects of a benevolent despot remain perfectly free so long as he does not inhibit their actions. Viroli argues that according to such a liberal conception of freedom, Berlusconi’s Italy remained a free country: “If we can rightly point to violations of liberty only in cases where fundamental civil and political rights are suppressed by force, then we Italians are, generally speaking, a free people.”

Yet for Viroli, the liberal definition of freedom, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom from interference, is too anemic. He worries that a ruler with vast, arbitrary power would have a chilling effect on the freedoms of his subjects even if he never chose to exercise his power. To emphasize this point, republicans such as Viroli like to cite the example of Tranio, the protagonist of a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. Tranio is a slave. But because his master is often absent, and because he is so wily, no one ever interferes with his actions. As long as he continues to flatter and manipulate his master, he is free to do as he pleases. And yet, the republicans point out, a slave is surely the very opposite of a “free man.”

While slavery is now officially banned throughout the world, Viroli argues that the most salient characteristic of slavery—the relation of domination and dependence between master and slave—persists in a milder form in our societies. “Citizens who can be tossed into prison arbitrarily by the police,” for example, stand in just such a relation of dependence to an oppressive, dominating power. Even if, for now, they nominally remain at liberty, they lack real freedom. In the case of Italy, though Berlusconi never used his vast power to interfere with the lives of Italian citizens, they knew that he could, at any moment, choose to do so. This lack of real freedom, Viroli argues, limited the things Italians dared to do as well as the words they dared to say.

Mr Mounk suspects that Professor Viroli’s model takes him at once too far and not far enough in his assessment of the damage that Mr Berlusconi did to Italy:

Viroli’s account of the theory of republican liberty is attractive, but his argument that Italians were, in his own sense, unfree is not convincing. Some Italians did find themselves in a true position of dependence on Berlusconi’s whims. Journalists at the networks and newspapers he controlled knew that one honest sentence could make the difference between a lucrative job and the dole. In a country where even many junior positions in business, government and academia have long been reserved for insiders and their children, many young people knew that their career prospects depended as much on their willingness to flatter Berlusconi or his cronies as on their ability to get the job done.

Nevertheless, even on a republican conception of liberty, most Italians remained free during Berlusconi’s rule. The reason is not just that Berlusconi never chose to interfere with the lives of his adversaries by, say, throwing a member of the opposition in jail for a rude op-ed; it’s that Italians knew perfectly well that Berlusconi had no more power to do such a thing than does Barack Obama. The price that opponents of Berlusconi were afraid of paying was not, as Viroli thinks, that Berlusconi might decide to interfere in their lives in an arbitrary manner but rather that he would choose not to tempt them with favors. For all the signore’s power and influence, ordinary Italians hardly lived in fear of his wrath.

One wonders exactly when these paragraphs were written; on 31 December 2011, Barack Obama signed into law a bill which grants him the power to throw anyone in jail on any grounds whatever.  So he is a rather poorly chosen example of an official with limited power to interfere with the lives of his adversaries.  Nonetheless, no such law seems to be on the books in Italy, and no Italian leader since Mussolini has behaved as if one did.

As Mr Mounk thinks that Professor Viroli’s model drives him too far when it implies that Italians have been reduced to slavery, so he claims that it prevents him going far enough in his analysis of aspects of the Berlusconi regime that liberalism also indicts:

The weakness of Viroli’s central assumption, that only the language of liberty can adequately express the horrors of Berlusconi’s rule, may explain why his account of Berlusconiland is not fully persuasive. Other critics of Berlusconi have written damning accounts of his reign, but instead of going so far as to claim that Berlusconi made Italians unfree, they have demonstrated that his government violated the equal treatment of citizens before the law, neglected the government’s duties to further the economic interests of its citizens and condoned corruption (failings that liberals as well as republicans condemn). In The Sack of Rome (2006), for example, Alexander Stille explains that Berlusconi’s business empire was, from its first days, built on political favors and rent-seeking. A true modernization of Italy’s economy would have given his companies unwanted competition and deprived them of crucial state subsidies. Berlusconi chose instead to preserve arcane rules and bureaucratic roadblocks, or even to create new ones, to protect his business interests. He sacrificed the country’s economic well-being for his own.

Berlusconi’s influence on the judicial system was equally disastrous. Whereas in many countries the statute of limitations cannot expire after a defendant has been indicted, in Italy defendants go free if the highest court of appeals has not upheld their convictions within the allotted time. Knowing this, Berlusconi’s attorneys, whom, in a rare instance of efficiency, he made members of Parliament, shortened the statute of limitations for the most troublesome white-collar crimes and devised rules to strengthen legal tactics for delaying trials. This change had the desired effect of aiding Berlusconi’s defense in his trials for false accounting and embezzlement. It also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to jail members of the Mafia.

Even with these strictures, Mr Mounk’s final assessment of Professor Viroli’s book is strongly favorable:

Stille and others have described the disastrous economic and legal fallout of Berlusconi’s rule in much greater detail than Viroli. But Viroli, in his own way, paints an even more memorable portrait of Italy’s new ruling class. His description of Berlusconi as a signore is on the money. And while the servility of Berlusconi’s hangers-on may have been self-imposed, it still raises the central paradox of Berlusconiland. Absolute monarchs are able to cow their courtiers into submission by wielding the implicit threat of pain, imprisonment or execution. Berlusconi never had such tyrannical powers. Even so, his underlings acted as if they were mere courtiers—apparently, the hope of getting rich was quite enough to keep them in line. This makes the Italian case all the more relevant at a time when the superrich and their political enablers seek to wield ever more influence over democracies in a climate of austerity. It seems that to achieve their purposes, our would-be masters need not impede our rights or liberties: the promise of a farthing of their vast riches might be quite enough to turn many of us into docile servants.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Sarasohn contributes a piece with the resoundingly neo-Roman title “The Treason of the Senate,” in which he looks back to a series of essays published in 1906 and concludes that all the forms of corruption that marked the US Senate in the Gilded Age have reemerged and been joined by new evils.  Sarah Wildman’s “Israel’s New Left Goes Online” promoted a webzine called +972, which presents itself above all else as independent of ideological and institutional constraints characteristic of the Israel/ Palestine conflict.  Someone like old Gaius Acilius would certainly have been alarmed at a process that empowers extremist minorities and reduces citizens to dependence on increasingly professionalized security forces, so he likely would have understood +972s goals, whatever conclusion he might ultimately have reached regarding their politics.  Chris Savage writes of “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers,” officials appointed by that state’s governor to replace elected municipal governments of whom he disapproves.  I think that someone in the republican tradition would say that the true scandal of this system is that there is no citizenry jealous of its rights that rises up in revolt when the governor pulls this stunt.  That same governor, incidentally, is the topic of Patricia J. Williams’ column in this issue; though he is a member of something called the Republican Party, he could hardly be called an heir of the republican tradition.

I’ll mention just one other piece, a review essay by Paula Findlen called “Galileo’s Credo.”  At various points in the development of the republican tradition, Galileo has been a powerful symbol of the autonomous individual maintaining his honor by refusing to knuckle under to the overweening power of a court.  Professor Findlen notes that as a young man, Galileo and his friends laughed at literal-minded neo-Romans who favored Latin over the vernacular and went about wearing togas.  Yet in his resistance to the demands of the Vatican, surely Galileo lived as the stubbornly independent noblemen of the old Res Publica would have recommended.

The Nation, 7 November 2011

In this issue, Mark Oppenheimer (of Bloggenheimer fame)  recommends two books and a magazine article about the Church of Scientology.    The books are Janet Reitman‘s Inside Scientology and Hugh Urban‘s The Church of Scientology.  The magazine article is Lawrence Wright‘s profile of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.  Mr Oppenheimer writes that even “liberals for whom ‘tolerance’ is a sacrament” look for ways to ban religious practices that diverge substantially from social norms.  The interest of the review is Mr Oppenheimer’s own queasiness as he considers a relatively new and aggressively evangelical religion.  Time and again he squirms about, first praising religious diversity in general, then expressing his disapproval of Scientology in particular.  For example: “[E]mbracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology.”  And:

Scientology may be one of those native religions that at first seems bizarre but adapts, grows and eventually thrives in our country’s fecund, undepleted spiritual soil.

Would that be a good thing? In many ways, no. It would mean more people reading L. Ron Hubbard’s tedious books when they could be reading real literature. It would mean more people suspending critical judgment, ignoring the factual record and insisting that Hubbard was a great warrior, adventurer, intellectual and teacher. It would mean more dollars misspent on auditing, instead of on good psychotherapy, badly needed prescription drugs or some really helpful classes at a community college.

On the other hand, if Scientology is still around in fifty years, some lucky Americans will discover in its practices the right cure for what ails them. For whatever reasons, either auditing or Hubbard’s “study tech” or Scientology communication classes will give them what public school—or a Freudian analyst or Judaism or Christianity or the Quaker meeting or the local Masonic lodge—could not. Scientology will give them a community. It will give them a way of life. Yet I remain worried about Scientology, worried enough that I can say this: I hope, fifty years from now, it’s not my children or grandchildren who turn to the church. But I also believe that freedom of religion is necessary. Without it, freedom of speech is a hollow guarantee.

Scientology may not last, but there will always be something like it. Reitman’s and Urban’s books are gifts to all religious people, especially Scientologists. They pay Scientology’s hierarchy the simple courtesy of holding them to adult standards of truthfulness and ethical behavior, and they confront Scientology lay people with some hard truths about their church. They also make the case—Urban’s book, explicitly so—that government and religion do not mix, and that perhaps it would be better, less entangling, to tax religious organizations. Reitman and Urban offer religions the respect they deserve in the form of the scrutiny they require. The Constitution, guarantor of free press as well as free religion, offers nothing less.

Mr Oppenheimer’s piece includes some interesting remarks about US tax policy.   To quote:

Most fascinating is Urban’s argument that Scientology has been instrumental in shaping how the US government defines religion. Beginning in 1967, when its tax-exempt status was revoked, the church fought a lengthy battle to have its exemption restored, infiltrating the Internal Revenue Service and harassing agents; in 1993 the IRS caved, offering Scientology a full tax exemption, sweetheart terms on back taxes and an unusual promise of secrecy (the deal was eventually leaked to the Wall Street Journal). Urban seems disheartened that Scientology bullied its way to victory—in Reitman’s book, IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg Jr. emerges as either a coward or a fall guy—but Urban powerfully makes the point that the IRS should not be in the position of deciding what is and is not a religion.

“The United States does not register religious groups and has no official hierarchy of religious organizations,” Urban writes. “And yet, federal income tax law does provide exemption for religious organizations, and, therefore, there must be some means to determine whether a group claiming to be religious is ‘genuine’ for purposes of tax-exempt status.” Supporters of religious tax exemption argue that it promotes religious charitable giving and prevents entanglement of government and religion. But if the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.

In 1977 the IRS promulgated a thirteen-point list of criteria for religious exemption (a recognized creed and form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a literature of its own, etc.). It is probably no coincidence, Urban argues, that these guidelines were written “during the height of Scientology’s efforts to reemphasize its religious profile,” to complete its transformation from a philosophy, or self-help group, or whatever, into a religion. The IRS surely would have clarified its rules about religion over time, but it seems clear that the conflict with Scientology forced its hand. Urban writes, “As such, the complex legal and extralegal battles between the church and the IRS have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.”

It would not be startling if, years from now, Scientology’s main legacy was its substantial contribution—if it can be called that—to tax law.

Professor Urban comment on a paradox which may be inescapable in a society that values religious freedom.  If “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” as Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch vs Maryland (1819,) then one would think that religious freedom requires special limitations on the government’s ability to tax religious groups.  Yet such limitations imply an official definition of “religious group,” which in turn implies an official ecclesiology. The “thirteen-point list of criteria” Mr Oppenheimer mentions is not the only test the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine tax-exempt status for religious groups, and that’s just as well.  Criteria such as “a distinct creed and form of worship,” a “definite ecclesiastical government,” “a formal code of doctrine and/or discipline,” and “schools or courses for preparation of its ministers” would all tend to rule out, for example, many of the Quaker groups that played such an important role in the USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Quaker ecclesiology in those days (and still, at least officially, for many Quakers today) regarded creeds, hierarchies, catechisms, seminaries, and ordained clergy as just so many idols and abominations, affronts to the Almighty.  If they had allowed themselves to be carried away by testosterone, such Quakers might have looked at the thirteen points of the IRS list and declared them to be a definition of a godless group.  Of course, if it were left up to people of that leading to replace the IRS list with their own definition of “religion,” I’m sure the result would be very nearly useless for purposes of deciding who should and who should not pay what tax.  “[I]f the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.”  Who else could it be, if not the IRS?  Congress would never dare pass a law defining what constitutes a religious organization, and without official definitions any person or group could claim the religious exemption.

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt’s column documents clueless remarks about Occupy Wall Street that media eminences made in the early days of the movement and contrasts them with relatively well-informed expressions of sympathy that similar people have made in recent days.  My favorite bit was this: “The more people join the movement, the clearer the message becomes. Former [New York] Times executive editor Bill Keller still doesn’t get it—“Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?” is how he began his October 16 column. (But then it took him till this summer to acknowledge that he’d been wrong to support the Iraq War, so maybe eight years from now he’ll apologize for snarking at OWS too.)”

Jail to the chief?

In the current issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn reminisces about the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.  On that day he and his fellows swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, a document which they had all been required to study, and which speaks of limits to state power and protection for the rights of the individual:

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

What moves Mr Cockburn to this bitter declaration is of course the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, a killing for which the president of the United States proudly claimed responsibility.  al Awlaki may have been acquainted with some men who committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism, and he certainly made unpleasant comments in public forums.  But the Obama administration has yet to do so much as accuse him of complicity in any violent act, much less provide evidence that he was the commander of an enemy force engaged in war on the United States, and as such a legitimate military target.  As it stands, the al Awlaki killing can be classified only as an act of murder.  Mr O’s boast that he ordered the strike is of a piece with his predecessor’s casual public admission that he ordered the torture of terrorism suspects.  Each man is serene in his belief that there is no crime he can commit that will stir the legal authorities to prosecute him.

Ought Americans who stand to Mr O’s left support a candidate to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination next year?  If being on the left means that one prefers the rule of law to a regime in which the president may kill and torture with impunity, one might  think the answer would be obvious.  For John Nichols, it’s more complicated.  Some might say that the best thing the president could do is resign, stand trial, and go to prison, accompanied if possible by his predecessors.  For Mr Nichols, not only is it clear that Mr O should continue in office, but it is apparently desirable that he should be reelected.  He wonders whether a primary challenger could help Mr O improve his chances of winning a second term, and seems to wish that one were on the horizon.  He doesn’t claim to know that it would work out that way:

The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.

“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”

Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.

The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.

In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.

On The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin denounces singer Hank Williams, Junior, who recently lost a gig after comparing Mr O to the late Adolf Hitler.  It is not entirely clear what it is about Mr O that reminds Mr Williams of Germany’s late tyrant.  Perhaps the fact that each head of state boasted publicly of the murders he had orchestrated, that each dispatched his air force to bomb into submission countries that posed no threat to his own, that each used his office to accelerate the dismantling of the democratic constitution under which he had come to power, and that each claimed the right to detain any number of people for any length of time without judicial process may have prompted Mr Williams to think that they bore some resemblance to one another.  Of course, since Mr Zirin is a faithful supporter of the Democratic Party, one might expect him to find ways in which Mr O is less advanced in his murderous ways than was Adolf Hitler, as faithful Republicans spent the years 2001-2009 counting the degrees that separated Mr O’s predecessor from the same benchmark of wickedness.  Strangely, Mr Zirin says nothing about Mr O other than to describe him as the “first African-American president.”  This description precedes Mr Zirin’s pronouncement of his anathema upon Mr Williams, that anathema taking the form of the label “racist.”  Such a pronouncement is a sort of ritual; to complete it, the officiant needs nothing from Mr O but his skin color.  Once this ritual element is provided, no further information about Mr O could have any possible relevance to the proceeding.

Of course, there are sound reasons why one ought not to compare active politicians to Adolf Hitler.  For one thing, using him as the all-purpose symbol of an unjust ruler gives him a satanic glamour of just the sort that the Nazis used so effectively in their seduction of the more desperate members of Germany’s middle classes in the late Weimar period.  If Hitler must be remembered, it is far better to view him with contempt, perhaps tinged with the sort of pity one feels towards people who have psychological problems that one finds uninteresting.  Besides, the history of humankind is bursting with tyrants and killers; it is dismaying indeed that we share so little knowledge of history that Hitler is virtually the only one of the evil rulers of the past whose name we can be confident will be recognized almost anywhere.  For my part, I think an apt analogy could be made between Mr O and Critias, a fifth-century Athenian who is remembered today as the uncle of the philosopher Plato and the namesake of one of his nephew’s uncompleted dialogues, but in his own day he was rather more widely known as the leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” a group who seized power in Athens after the Peloponnesian Wars and claimed the right to govern by means of assassination.

The Nation, 26 September 2011

James Longenbach contributes a surprisingly sympathetic review of a collection of letters by the young T. S. Eliot.  Longenbach argues that Eliot’s Unitarian family made a fetish of doubt and complexity, and that the aspects of Eliot’s life and thought that puzzled them came from a rebellion against this fetish, against “the Eliot Way.”  Eliot rebelled against what he called “the Way of Doubt” by time and again taking actions that entailed an irrevocable commitment.  As Longenbach puts it:

In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.

Considering this disposition of Eliot’s, and in view of his time and place, it is nothing short of amazing that he did not join the Blackshirts.  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone:

In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.

The man’s neighbors, in their fascination with the details of the crime, might easily fall into a psychological or other scientific explanation of the killer’s motivation, which would in turn reduce the crime itself to the ordinary level of everyday life.  The medieval view insists that murder, like other sin, is not ordinary, that it is a thing set apart from the created world around us.  Eliot may not have craved murder, but he did crave that sort of setting apart.  For him, it was a lie to say that the whole world is one thing and that it can be reduced to one set of laws.  Eliot’s onetime teacher Irving Babbitt was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “There are two laws discrete,/ not reconciled–/ Law for man and law for thing;/ The last builds town and fleet,/ But it runs wild,/ And doth the man unking… Let man serve law for man,/ Live for friendship, live for love,/ For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;/ The state may follow how it can,/ As Olympus follows Jove.”  These lines come from a poem Emerson dedicated to W. H. Channing.  W. H. Channing was the nephew of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, and like Emerson was himself a Unitarian preacher.  The Channings, Eliots, and Emersons were all related to each other, so Eliot likely perked up when he heard Babbitt quote these lines.

While Emerson may have concluded that the “Law for Man” is best observed by general friendliness, Babbitt drew a more sobering conclusion.  In his first book, Literature and the American College (which takes the lines from Emerson as its epigraph,) Babbitt explained that he called himself a “humanist” rather than a “humanitarian” because the former word suggests a more selective sympathy than does the latter.  One can see the humanitarian impulse, in Babbitt’s sense of the word, in the neighbors’ insistent focus on the practical details of the murder, in the implication that the act of murder can be reduced to those details, that it can therefore be put on a level with other acts a person might perform.  The humanitarian impulse thus reduces even murder to one form of behavior among many.  In an age dominated by humanitarianism, murder loses its terror.  The word “mystery” comes to mean, not that of which one may not speak because it lies outside the ordinary realm of our experience, but that of which one must inquire until it can be reduced to the ordinary realm of our experience.  The “murder mystery,” a story in which investigation reveals that a murder was of a piece with the ordinary life around it, thus emerges as the signature genre of the humanitarian age.

Longenbach doesn’t mention Babbitt, through the study of whom I first became seriously interested in Eliot.  Nor does he mention Eliot’s Royalist politics, one of the aspects of Eliot’s thought that kept Babbitt from taking his former student seriously.  However, I was thinking of Eliot the Royalist earlier today, when I offered a comment on the website Secular Right.  A post there complained about a speech Prince Charles had made about global warming.  As rightists, the authors of the site aren’t much interested in speeches about global warming; as secularists, when they hear such a speech from the heir apparent to a throne which sits at the center of the established Church of England, they are quick to attribute it to a yearning for the apocalyptic.  For good measure, the post threw in an identification of the prince as an “aristocratic idler.”  I suggested in reply that this yearning might be a sign that the House of Windsor is an unsatisfactory sort of monarchy:

It might be better if Prince Charles truly were an “aristocratic idler.” As it is, his handlers set myriad tasks for him each day, among them the delivery of public statements that reassure various groups that their concerns are being taken seriously at the highest levels of the state. This frees the people who actually exercise power at the highest levels of the state to ignore those concerns. If the prince and his immediate family were relieved of this chore and their other public functions, they would have an opportunity to withdraw into seclusion, appearing only on those occasions when they might strike awe into the natives. Then the UK might have a proper monarchy, distant, godlike, surrounded by an aura of high majesty and cold terror. Then there would be no need for the heir apparent to repeat warnings about the end of the world; the sound of his name would suffice to fill the people who find such warnings emotionally satisfying with the dread they crave. Failing that, you might as well have a republic.

Walter Bagehot said that there can be arguments for having a splendid court and arguments for having no court, but that there can be no arguments for having a shabby court. I’d say that there can be arguments for having a terrifying king and arguments for having no king, but that there can be no arguments for having an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person as king.

I call Charles “an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person,” not only because his statement is a pack of cliches, but also because of his busy-ness and because he is so familiar a figure.  Irving Babbitt criticized the cult of busy-ness in his own time as something that robbed life of depth; today, the same cult has gone to such extremes that it has reduced people to interchangeability.  By the end of the day, virtually anyone who had completed Prince Charles’ schedule would be indistinguishable from Prince Charles.  And his constant presence in the public eye makes it impossible to accept the prince as a figure embodying any kind of mystique.   As humanitarianism has made murder an ordinary act, albeit a costly one, and murderers ordinary folk, so too it has made kingship an ordinary job and kings ordinary fellows.  I don’t disagree with the Secular Right crowd that there is an unwholesome yearning for the apocalyptic afoot in our time; though perhaps that yearning is in fact simply a yearning for an event that will cast ordinariness aside once and for all.

(more…)

The Higher Cannibalism

On 16 December 2010, Swiss Senator Dick Marty presented to the Council of Europe a report that he had been commissioned to make.  Senator Marty demonstrated that the government of Kosovo, led by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, operates a network of “clinics” in which ethnic Serbs and other political prisoners are routinely killed.  Their organs are removed and sold on an international black market.

The Marty Report has barely been noticed in US media.  News outlets that in 1999 were flooded with tales of atrocities that Serbs were supposed to be committing against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have been entirely silent.  If it weren’t for notices of the Marty Report in Alexander Cockburn’s column in The Nation, in Cockburn’s newsletter Counterpunch, and on Antiwar.com, even so devoted a reader of news as your humble correspondent would have missed the story completely.

The Nation looks back at 2010

Stuart Klawans lists 15 interesting movies that were released in 2010:

  1. Carlos
  2. A Prophet
  3. Wild Grass
  4. Life During Wartime
  5. The Social Network
  6. Inside Job
  7. Last Train Home
  8. The Illusionist
  9. The Kids Are All Right
  10. Lebanon
  11. The Ghost Writer
  12. Winter’s Bone
  13. Never Let Me Go
  14. Alice in Wonderland
  15. Marwencol

The only one of these I’ve seen is The Ghost Writer.  I’d rather not do business with Roman Polanski, but I couldn’t resist a movie that, in Klawans’ words, represents “a wickedly clever revenge fantasy directed against a British prime minister much like Tony Blair.”  The only one I’m adding to our Netflix queue is Marwencol, since Klawans’ description of it is even less resistible:

Finally, in the category of odd, affecting little documentaries, perhaps the best of the year was Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol. The title is the name of a Belgian town—an imaginary one, where it’s forever World War II—which Mark Hogancamp of Kingston, New York, painstakingly built at scale model using plastic dolls and hobby-shop materials. This project was his self-prescribed occupational and psychological therapy, after a severe beating outside a bar left him with neither memories nor normal motor functions. The film gradually reveals why Hogancamp was beaten, how he changed afterward and what became of his fantasy town; but best of all, Malmberg brings his camera right into the model, to show you a Marwencol as large and vivid as its creator needs it to be.

That sounds like the perfect movie for me; I love documentaries, I’m intrigued by creative miniatures, and a sizable portion of my imagination is permanently billeted in German-occupied Western Europe in 1942.

Klawans opens his column with the fact that Jafar Panahi, one of the world’s great filmmakers, is in prison on purely political charges.  Klawans hopes that some demonstration on behalf of Panahi will be arranged at the Academy Awards, and that this will be helpful.

Elsewhere in the issue, William Greider decides that last year’s events prove that the New Deal and Great Society coalitions are thoroughly dead; Eric Alterman calls for institutional reform in US politics;  Eric Foner points out that Barack Obama is one of a startlingly small number of African Americans in public office; James Ledbetter argues that Dwight Eisenhower was deeply influenced by articles that appeared in The Nation; and Patricia J. Williams outlines how the ostensibly individualistic policies of the American Right are designed to foster the rise of “a controlling class of the economically privileged- to wit, an oligarchy.”

“Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”

Two items of note in the 10/17 January issue of The Nation:

-The artist Philip Guston wrote “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”  (Quoted in a book review by Barry Schwabsky)

-“WikiLeaks is revealing information citizens need to know—it’s a good thing. Assange may or may not have committed sex crimes according to Swedish law. Why is it so hard to hold those two ideas at once?” (Katha Pollitt)

Maybe Guston could have answered Pollitt’s question.  When you start thinking politically, everybody is in the debate in your head- the past, our friends, enemies, the televised world, and above all, your own ideas about authority- all are there.  But as you continue  thinking, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone.  Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.  Maybe an artwork takes on a personality of its own, independent of all those other personalities, and so too an understanding of politics takes on an independent personality too.  Once you get to that point, Assange can be a villainous cad or an object of persecution or a bit of both, and the Wikileaks revelations can stand on their own regardless.

Mr O and the facts

Nation magazine columnist Gary Younge supports Barack Obama; his latest column ends with the line “Obama needs to get out there and fight.”  Fight for what?  For a connection with reality.  As Younge says:

The sad truth is that even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, some people still prefer the reality they want over the one they actually live in. Herein lies one of the central problems of engaging with those on the American right. Cocooned in their own mediated ecosystem, many of them are almost unreachable through debate; the air is so fetid, reasonable discussion cannot breathe. You can’t win an argument without facts, and we live in a moment when whether you’re talking about climate change or WMD, facts seem to matter less and less.

So far, so good.  But I simply do not see the evidence that Mr O is inclined to fight the Right.  On most issues, the president stands well to the right of public opinion, and benefits from the fact that the only effective opposition he faces comes from a party that is even further to the right than he is.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

My wife is a sociologist whose main interests are in qualitative research.  Unlike quantitative researchers, who collect a limited number of facts about each of a large number of people and use statistical methods to look for patterns in those collections, qualitative researchers collect a large amount of information about each of a relatively small number of people in order to discern just how those people go about making their decisions.  Qualitative and quantitative research are not schools of thought which compete with each other, but methods which depend on each other to be made useful.  While it is not possible for qualitative researchers to formulate general laws of behavior without transforming their conclusions into hypotheses to be tested by quantitative methods, neither is it possible for quantitative researchers to apply general laws of behavior to any case in the real world without conducting qualitative studies in which they ask people what’s on their minds.

I bring this up because of an item in the 13 December issue of The Nation.  In a review of some books about the history of New York city politics, Samuel Zipp writes of the administration of Mayor John Vliet Lindsay (1966-1973):

Lindsay was what [author Joe] Flood calls a “moralistic crusader.”  He hoped to unseat the old Tammany political machine, which had kept Democrats in power with a finely calibrated exchange of favors and services for votes greased by pervasive graft, and which rewarded loyal white ethnics with patronage while paying lip service to the concerns of the low-income migrants arriving in ever greater numbers from the black American South and Puerto Rico.  At the same time, Lindsay promised to master the chaos of the city by applying the technological marvels of computerization to city service delivery.  Systems analysis, game theory, computer modeling: these RAND innovations in information management promised to give Lindsay’s administration a way to turn the constant stream of information coursing through city agencies into “easily defined variables.”  Perhaps most important, though, was Lindsay’s sense that RAND would give him an advantage over the Tammany machine.  Flood ingeniously describes Tammany as an “information-gathering apparatus.”  As much pragmatic “intelligence network” as craven patronage machine, the system ran on stories collected on the street and sent up the ladder from the ward boss to the Democratic Party clubhouse to City Hall.  Reformers had often struggled to deliver on their promises if good government because they lacked the machine’s intelligence network.  Lindsay counted on RAND to supply an equivalent information system that would shift the power base “from using narrative to using numbers.”  With total information awareness, the city could be turned “into an assemblage of numbers,” a series of inputs and outputs that would easily surpass Tammany in the efficiency department.

As a liberal Republican reformer, Lindsay lacked the connections and manpower to govern the city “using narrative.”  What he found in his two terms in Gracie Mansion, however, was that he did not command even the political resources necessary to collect useful numbers.  Affluent New Yorkers blocked any study that might suggest that their neighborhoods could do with fewer city services, while longtime municipal employees refused to perform the analyses Lindsay wanted.  For example, when the fire department received stopwatches and supervisors were told to use them to produce reports on their reaction times, what fire battalion chiefs in fact reported was an epidemic level of stopwatches crushed as firetrucks accidentally drove over them.

I wonder if New York mightn’t have done better had reformers taken a different approach.  For over a hundred years, from the days when municipal reformer Theodore Roosevelt Senior left the Democratic Party in the 1850s until the fiscal crisis that overwhelmed the city when John Lindsay’s successor Abraham Beame was mayor in 1975, New Yorkers campaigned for good government by campaigning against Tammany Hall.  The goal of all these reformers seems to have been a rational, transparent government.  Perhaps the better way to create this rationality would have been for an enlightened set of leaders to rise to power within Tammany Hall.  One might imagine them formalizing the intelligence network using the tested methods of quantitative research.  Once that was done, we could imagine the machine itself becoming rational and transparent.  Perhaps a new system would have emerged in which Tammany’s long-established dominance in municipal policy and staffing would have been officially acknowledged, and the formal distinction between the machine and the city government would have been erased.