Post-election wrap-up

Welp, not all of my predictions about the 2016 US presidential election turned out to be 100% correct. The Republicans did not nominate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for president, Bernie Sanders did not lose every caucus and primary he entered, Donald John Trump did not run out of money and disappear from the race before voting took place, and Hillary Clinton was not elected president. Worst of all, the nickname which I gave Mr Trump,”Don John of Astoria,” which should be truly hilarious to anyone who knows the historical significance of Don John of Austria and the ambivalence in Mr Trump’s relationship to the Astoria district of Queens, has yet to catch on.

So I have not proven to be much of a seer regarding this year’s events. Even so, perhaps some might be interested in my recommendation of two books as illuminating about the events of this electoral year. Both were originally published in 1958, so neither includes any attempts at specific predictions of the sort I kept making.

The first was The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, by Michael Young. Young coined the word “meritocracy” in this book, written in the voice of a complacent functionary of a regime which, in the year 2033, has turned Britain into a society where all the good things of life have been turned into prizes to be awarded by competitive examination. The narrator is mystified that the regime is now encountering stiff resistance; after all, it has been so successful that the schools for the more talented children no longer need to send their pupils home at holidays, heralding the final dissolution of that old nuisance, family life.  In later life, Young was horrified that the label he devised for his dystopian nightmare had been adopted without irony as a rallying cry for elites and their defenders.

I do think that one of the secondary contributors to Don John’s rise to the presidency is a revolt against meritocracy. Hillary Clinton went to the right schools, held high-ranking positions that made her a central figure in two of the last three presidential administrations and a leader of the congressional opposition to the other, assembled an impressive campaign organization and staffed it with the most highly-qualified professionals in the business, and consistently presented herself to the public as a competent and well-informed policy expert with a reassuring leaderly presence.  Don John had no experience in government, showed no knowledge of or interest in any aspect of public policy, did not bother to put together a professional campaign organization in the modern style, and said whatever popped into his head at any given moment, often including obscenities. By the standards of meritocracy, it would be inconceivable that any voter anywhere would support him over her.

Therefore, Trump voters’ behavior cannot be explained as an attempt to apply meritocratic standards. Rather, they supported him as a revolt against such standards. This revolt may be rational even in a narrowly bureaucratic definition of rationality, since the schooling, certifications, licensing, and standards of personal presentation that make up the qualifications to rise through the ranks of meritocratic institutions in the USA may not in fact be very closely correlated with the characteristics that make a person likely to succeed in the work that the leaders of those institutions are supposed to do. There is a good deal of “failing upward,” in which people who have held important jobs are promoted to still-more important jobs even though they haven’t done especially well in their previous positions.

Not to kick a person when she’s down, but HRC is a prime example of failing upward. After graduation from Yale Law School, she was unable to pass the District of Columbia Bar Exam, but was assigned as a staff aide to the Senate Watergate Committee anyway. As First Lady of Arkansas she was a key part of efforts to keep the Democratic Party of Arkansas as the major force in the state’s politics; the outcome of those efforts could be seen on Tuesday, when Don John beat her in Arkansas by a vote of 60% to 34%. She then became First Lady of the United States, and in that capacity led the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform the US health care system, an attempt which not only failed to produce any legislation whatever but which also demoralized Democratic voters so thoroughly that the party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then she became US Senator from New York, voting for the invasion of Iraq, the USA-PATRIOT Act, and any number of other initiatives that have spread death throughout the world and empowered the US security services to do as they please to citizens who attract their attentions for any reason or no reason. That tenure led to her 2008 presidential campaign, in which she began with the overwhelming support of the party’s major donors and other elites, and wound up losing to Barack Hussein Obama, who is of course an exceptionally talented political operator, but is also a black man named Hussein and was, as such, someone laboring under a heavy disadvantage in a US presidential contest.  Mr O made her Secretary of State, in which capacity her most notable achievement was pushing for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, an act of unprovoked aggression which has turned Libya into a hell on earth and brought chaos to the whole of North Africa, but which HRC defends to this day as “smart power at its best.” If our meritocratic institutions can foster a career that has proceeded from failure to failure, with steadily more dire consequences for an ever-widening circle of victims, then there may be some wisdom in deciding that all the academic degrees, resume entries, and interview skills that their members can claim are of little value.

The other 1958 book that shed light for me on the 2016 election was C. Wright Mills’ The Causes of World War Three. (I actually read the second edition, which was published in 1960, but it’s still a 1958 book.)  I was aware of that book’s discussion of “crackpot realism,” the confident assurance of those in charge that policies which can lead only to collective suicide are the only policies worth taking seriously. I hadn’t read the whole thing until this Tuesday, election day, and there were sections which seemed directly relevant to what was going on around me.

Most notably, on pages 36-47 of the 1960 paperback edition, in the chapters titled “The High and the Mighty,” “The Semiorganized Stalemate,” and “The Great American Public,” Mills argued that the USA’s political culture had undergone a profound change in the years following the Second World War. No longer did the middle class form a link between the upper and lower classes; instead, at the top could be found a Power Elite of corporate executives, senior military officers, and politicians, at the bottom a lumpenproletariat with ever less engagement in civic life or sense of investment in the country’s future, and in between a variety of classes disconnected from either the top or the bottom. No longer were the chief questions of politics, matters of war and peace, of fiscal policy and industrial policy on a grand scale, of civil liberties and the power of the security services, decided in open forums characterized by formal checks and balances and the informal competition of interest groups; instead, the Power Elite decides those matters in ways that bear no resemblance at all to the processes described in the civics textbooks, while the middle classes still have their civic organizations, labor unions, local elections, and so on, where they can decide smaller questions in more or less the traditional ways. The people at the bottom are left to go along for the ride.

That image does sum up something important about contemporary American politics.  The USA is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. There was no substantive discussion of any of these conflicts in the presidential campaign. Virtually the only references to Libya to make any impression on the US public were to “Benghazi,” an incident in which four Americans were killed. That always made me think of the old joke about The Boston Globe, that it was such an insular newspaper that if New York City were destroyed by a nuclear bomb and only one Bostonian happened to be in town that day, the headline would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” We have murdered a nation, inflicted chaos on half a continent, and the whole matter is reduced to the fate of the four Americans among the dead. But why should it be different? If the only people with a say in where the bombs fall are the handful whom Mills would identify as the Power Elite, why should the rest of us pay attention to anything other than little stories of human interest about gallant public servants who gave their lives in frightening circumstances in an exotic land?

And if the major questions are to be decided outside the sphere of voting and public discussion, why not spend a presidential campaign season arguing about whether a former Miss Universe is more than her tabloid image, or whether an octogenarian senator followed the POW Code of Conduct while in enemy hands decades ago, or what kind of email accounts high officials should use, or other minutiae?

It goes beyond minutiae and particular campaigns. If the only questions decided within the sphere of voting and public discussion are secondary, why not organize parties based solely on those issues? If the US trade deficit is driven largely by our use of a nonrefundable corporate income tax rather than a border-adjusted value added tax and only marginally affected by trade agreements, but the tax regime is a matter for the Power Elite while trade agreements are subject to the will of the electorate, then candidates may rage against trade agreements all they like, but never mention the corporate income tax or propose a border-adjusted value added tax.


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

“Azathoth,” by “Servant of Entropy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Conservative, June 2010

I’m a strange sort of American, one of a handful who has reached middle age without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the movie based on it.  Evidently Bill Kauffman also avoided the novel in high school, but has since read it repeatedly and “seen the movie 20 times.”  He makes a fine case for both.   Apostle of “placefulness” that he is, Kauffman defends the book against the charge that it is  “the Southern novel for people who hate the South” by saying that Alabaman Harper Lee is one of a long line of American writers who have shown that “the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.”  Kauffman puts her in the company of “Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.”  He quotes his favorite line from the novel, noble defense attorney Atticus Finch’s injunction to his daughter to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Lest we forget that the magazine is a populist right-wing journal called The American Conservative, Kauffman uses the word “liberal” to mean “self-important hypocritical scold,” as when he writes of that the movie’s “occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy- as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by- I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck… Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch.” 

My own favorite specimen of the fantasy life of 1960s US liberalism is Star Trek, and Kauffman works a mention of that series into his column.  Praising child actor John Megna, he tells us that Megna would later “chant ‘bonk bonk on the head’ in a famous Star Trek episode.”  I would only point out that the episode in question, “Miri,” is really much better than the line “bonk bonk on the head!” might suggest.   Kauffman’s devotion to the importance of place may inhibit his appreciation of a TV show about people wandering around the galaxy in a spaceship, and his aversion to self-important hypocritical scolds may also get in the way of his enjoyment of Star Trek

Attorney Chase Madar scrutinizes the legal thought of Harold H. Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, chief legal advisor to the US Department of State, and very likely to be an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court before many more years have passed.  Mr Koh is a renowned expert on international law, which in Madar’s words is supposed to be “much more civilized than mere national law.”  In a recent address to the American Society for International Law, Mr Koh defended the USA’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where people might be found whom the Obama administration would like to kill.  The same speech praises in glowing terms the administration’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other locations around the world.  In Madar’s words, “Koh’s lecture- warmly applauded by the conventioneers- demonstrates once again the amazing elasticity of international law when it comes to the prerogatives of great powers.”  Madar’s article is titled “How Liberals Kill”; again, the sense of “liberal” here seems to be self-important hypocritical scold. 

A review of Garry Wills’ new book about official secrecy and the US national security state includes a line that reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.”  “Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters  and fake experts.”  Ushered into an exclusive world of secrets and power, people often do become intoxicated by their situation and overly impressed by each other.  As a result of this intoxication, people who might under other circumstances be relied on to show excellent judgment may very well make unbelievably foolish decisions.  Mills developed the concept of crackpot realism in a book called The Causes of World War Three; that title shows just how far he thought the foolishness of such groups could take us.

Victoria Fontan

Victoria Fontan in Baghdad
Victoria Fontan in Baghdad

The 16-31 March issue of Counterpunch features an article by Victoria Fontan, a scholar in “Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies,” a growing subfield of Peace Studies.  Fontan studies conditions under which people who have been humiliated are more likely than others to become terrorists.  She has interviewed members of several violent groups in Lebanon and Iraq.  In this article, Professor Fontan tells what happened when she taught at Colgate University in upstate New York and a group of right-wingers launched a smear campaign against her.  The smear mongers managed to hound her out of her job and to get her name on an official terrorism watchlist.  A French citizen, Professor Fontan did research in Iraq after leaving Colgate, and now teaches at The University for Peace in Costa Rica.  While Colgate’s campus rightists may consider Professor Fontan to be a stooge of America’s enemies and congratulate themselves on having performed a patriotic service by driving her off campus and out of the country, much of the US national security apparatus disagrees.  Her work is still assigned to cadets at West Point, and the FBI agents who interview her every time she flies into the USA (she’s on a terrorism watchlist, remember) have become her friends, recognizing in her research something indispensible to them as they try to figure out how to look for terrorists without making more terrorists. 

Fontan’s article reminds me of two things.  First, I’ve often thought that in the Aeneid Vergil represents warfare as primarily a matter of humiliation.  One of these days I might get around to developing that idea in a scholarly article about books 7 through 12 of the Aeneid, the “battle books.”  

Second, an idea popped into my head which I don’t believe is original with me, though I can’t seem to find where I may have picked it up.  It doesn’t seem to be Fontan’s idea.  The idea is that the road from “humiliated person” to “terrorist” may tend to run in three stages:  humiliation→ isolation→ radicalization. 


The Nation, 30 March 2009

nation-30-march-2009A review of The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills mentions  Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism,” introduced in his Causes of World War Three to explain how a group of highly intelligent people could come to believe that each step in a course of action certain to lead to their destruction was the safest, most prudent one possible.  Mills feared that “citizenship was obsolete”; “Modern society made freedom in the liberal sense of autonomous and reflective citizenship increasingly impossible.” 

The new Library of America volume The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on his Life and Legacy from 1860 to  Now draws  a review titled “Sallow, Queer, and Sagacious.”  Dissenters from the celebration of Abraham Lincoln as America’s great secular saint are well represented in the volume.  Among them are Edmund Wilson, whose portrait of the sixteenth president in 1962’s Patriotic Gore has reminded more than one critic of Stalin, and Lerone Bennett Jr, who since the 1960s has been arguing that Lincoln was no friend to black America.

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.


The American Conservative, 22 Sept 2008

In this issue. John Laughland describes the Saakashvili regime in Georgia, quoting along the way gushing praise that various Western media outlets have lavished on that grubby little dictatorship.  Faced with the contrast, Laughland provides an intriguing psychological theory to explain why media and policy elites in the USA and the states ranged with it so often form passionate attachments to unappealing foreign states and leaders:

The Georgian president has indeed achieved extraordinary success in presenting his fiefdom as a Jeffersonian paradise.  This is partly due to Georgia’s use of operatives in Washington, such as John McCain’s foreign-policy advisor Randy Sheunemann, and a PR firm in Brussels.  But more importantly, it is the result of a virulent form of Western self-delusion.  Faced with seemingly intractable domestic problems, in which different political actors have to be balanced, Western states like to indulge in occasional but dangerous flights of foreign-policy escapism.  We imagine that we can free subject peoples with our bombs.  The image of a victim nation has now become an easy psychological trigger that can be applied indiscriminately to Bosnian Muslims, Iraqis, and now Georgians.  These unknown peoples and nations are but a blank screen on which we project our fantasies.  Our image of them says much more about us than it does about reality.    

Tony Smith analyzes the foreign policy teams and statements the presidential candidates have made and concludes that neither is likely to conduct a significantly less warlike administration than the current one.  Both candidates are committed to the major tenets of the interventionist consensus: democratic peace theory, the notion that states governed by democratic institutions are unlikely to make war on each other (Smith mentions thinkers Bruce Russett, Andrew Moravcsik, and John Rawls as advocates of this theory); democratic transition theory, the idea that liberal democracy could be established in any of an extremely wide variety of social contexts (here Smith cites Larry Diamond); and “R2P,” the notion that a state forfeits its sovereignty unless it meets its “responsibility to protect” its population (Smith cites Thomas Franck and Anna-Marie Slaughter.)  “With these three concepts, a witches’ brew has been concocted.”  America’s wars against Serbia in 1999 and against Iraq since 2003 have bubbled up from this unholy concoction. 

Septimus Waugh reviews Gerard deGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade.  Waugh mentions an article deGroot wrote for The Journal of Mundane Behavior, wherein he argued “that the writing of history is too influenced by what is interesting and newsworthy to be a true reflection of the past, which is made up of the boring and humdrum events of survival.  By concentrating on extraordinary events, historians, he complained, were pandering to myth, though to tell the true tale of the past would be boring.”  So Waugh sets out to explode the myth of the 60’s as a time of extreme behavior, letting people into his story who spent the decade minding their own business.

This June’s Issues of The Nation

It’s been a few months since any “Periodicals Notes” have gone up here about The Nation.  In part that’s because it’s so topical that there aren’t many articles in each issue that I think I’ll want to have notes about, in part because I’ve been busy and have been slacking on “Periodicals Notes” generally, and in part because it comes out every week, so that as soon as I’m done reading one issue another shows up.  Anyway, here are a few notes about recent issues.

2 June- A lot of presidential campaign coverage, an essay about Nick Cave’s career and his latest album, and a review of a book about the game Second Life.

9 June- The Spring books issue.  Michael Massing voices reservations about Samantha Power’s biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, concluding that the books shortcomings might be due to the difficulty Power faces in transitioning from “an independent critic working outside the system to being a high-profile figure operating within it.”  Massing never sees fit to mention that Power was a propagandist for “humanitarian intervention” long before she joined the Obama campaign.  This omission especially compromises Massing’s ability to analyze Power’s treatment of the Balkan wars of the 90’s.  For example, “Power’s chapter on Vieira de Mello’s time in Bosnia (which is based on her own eyewitness research) is devastating, and after reading it I fully expected her to draw the obvious conclusion- that his vaunted pragmatism too often degenerated into simple amorality.  But this she refuses to do.”  Because, Massing suggests, Power’s feelings just won’t let her stop “clinging to her image of him as an exemplar of democracy and multilateralism.”  Consider Power’s role in the mid-90’s as a cheerleader for the war party, and a far less innocent explanation for her resistance to fact and her rosy account of Vieira de Mello’s antics begins to emerge.  The West’s anti-Serb policy in those years was “simple amorality” from the beginning- there was no lofty height of idealism from which it could have degenerated.  

16 June- HBO’s John Adams miniseries was based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams, a book which The Nation gave to Daniel Lazare to slam for its whitewashing of Adams’ genuinely catastrophic presidency.  Unfortunately, Lazare didn’t get to review the TV show.  They gave that job to Nicholas Guyatt, who takes a much more sedate appriach.  Fatema Ahmed reviews two reissued novels by 30’s literary cult figure Patrick Hamilton, whose work leads her to say that “Neglected writers are often overestimated in rediscovery.”  Movie reviewer Stuart Klawans pans some summer blockbusters, then praises Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite (called here The Edge of Heaven) for its anarchic moments and Canadian Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg because it “refutes the conventional wisdom that other people’s dreams are always boring.”

23 June- Reviewing Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer’s Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970’s, and a reissue of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, Corey Robin writes “Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them- or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.”  Barry Schwabsky reviews the touring exhibition “Jess: To and From the Printed Page,” arguing that the exhibition’s insistent historicism goes too far and obscures the whimsy that gives that collagist his real worth. 

30 June- “A Special Issue: The New Inequality.”  The highlight is “Ending Plutocracy: A 12-Step Program,” by Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati.  The 12 steps are written as a tribute to Alcoholics Anonymous-style programs and a suggestion that the USA is not only saddled with plutocracy, but addicted to it.  About 20 policy prescriptions appear under these 12 steps.  Most of those policies have been proposed in Congress in the last few years, and the rest have been proposed in state legislatures.  It’s rather an upbeat article, suggesting that something can be done about our #1 problem and that there are at least a few people in positions of power who would like to do it.

Crackpot Realism


In 1958, the New Left sociologist C. Wright Mills made a seminal contribution to political science in his book The Causes of World War Three by introducing the concept of “crackpot realism.” He applied the notion specifically to the intellectual outlook of top government officials, especially the ones known as the “serious people,” who have proven their capacity for dealing with important practical affairs by, say, managing a giant corporation, such as Halliburton or G. D. Searle, or a huge educational institution, such as Texas A&M University or the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Mills’s key insight was that although such people have indeed been movers and shakers, they have moved and shaken within such a constricted milieu of experience and training that in most respects they are fools. Despite having developed supreme confidence in their own judgment and a corresponding contempt for other people’s views, they are astonishingly ignorant of many workaday aspects of the world and bewildered in the face of unexpected difficulties. As government leaders responsible for matters of war and peace, they have a tendency to paint themselves into corners of their own making and, then, seeing no way out, to conclude that their only escape lies in dropping bombs on somebody. As Mills observed, “instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe.”

From Robert Higgs (a crackpot himself, but one who was capable of writing a good column) at