Chronicles, January and February 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the same column:

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

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

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The Nation, 15 February 2010

Ramon Fernandez was a French fascist who actively collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of France.  His son, Dominique Fernandez, has written a biography of his father.  The Nation‘s review describes this biography as the culmination of Dominique Fernandez’ life’s work, his attempt to comprehend what his father did and why he did it.

Anyone who hoped that the election of Barack Obama as US president heralded a return to the rule of law will be dismayed by the news sections of this issue.  An article on “America’s Secret Afghan Prisons” lays out evidence that the Mr O’s administration, so far from ending Bush-Cheney’s policies of torture  and disappearance, has intensified those policies.  That article’s author, Anand Gopal, gave an interview about the story, which you can listen to here

Reports suggesting that three men who allegedly hanged themselves at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006 were in fact murdered move the editors to say that Mr O’s refusal to order investigations into the charges against his predecessor amount, not only to dereliction of his duty as a law-enforcement officer, but to a cover-up of crimes against humanity. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ acknowledgement that the Blackwater Group’s soldiers-for-hire are operating in Pakistan and the Pentagon’s subsequent assertion that the secretary never said the words he was shown on television saying prompts the magazine to quote the Washington adage, “Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”  Any Nation readers unconcerned by Blackwater’s expanding operations might want to look at a web-only piece, “Blackwater’s Youngest Victim.”

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2009

atlantic october 2009Mark Bowden starts his piece, “The Story Behind the Story,”  by recounting TV coverage of the announcement that President Obama had nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court.  Within minutes of the announcement, Bowden turned on Faux News and was impressed by the depth of their reporting.  He then turned to MSNBC, which was airing precisely the same report, using precisely the same quotes from Judge Sotomayor.  Flipping through the channels, he found that every station was airing the same report.  Curious, he looked into the matter.  The report apparently originated as a post on a conservative blog called verumserum, which not only did the TV channels’ work for them, but even did a better job of trying to be fair to the judge, giving far more of the context in which she made her remarks than did any of the broadcasters. 

Andrew Sullivan asks George W Bush to apologize for promoting torture.  Sullivan is oh-so-sure that Bush didn’t know what was being done in his name.  It reminded me of something about Cuba I read in Reader’s Digest when I was a teenager.  The reporter described ordinary Cubans’ habit of looking at injustices and sighing “If only Fidel knew.”  I had the reaction I was supposed to have, which was to feel sorry for those poor benighted victims of tyranny and certain that Americans would never delude themselves into letting a leader off the hook that way.  Whether there was any truth to Reader’s Digest‘s  description of Cuba I don’t know, but I do now know that we in the USA are not immune from the delusion it attributed to the people of that island. 

Benjamin Schwarz’ review of some new books about the economic slump of the 1930s contains an intriguing sentence, “The defining characteristic of the middle classes has always been their orientation toward the future.”  That sounds like the summary of some sociological theory.  Mrs Acilius is a sociologist; I should ask her if she recognizes the summary and can identify the school of thought in which such a claim might have arisen.  The backbone of his piece is a discussion of Robert Stoughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s 1937 study of life in Muncie, Indiana, Middletown in Transition:

The seminal book—really the starting point for the others—is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown in Transition (1937). The Lynds, husband-and-wife sociologists, had first descended on “Middletown”—the then-prosperous if stratified city of Muncie, Indiana—with their team of researchers in 1924, during the boom years. For the next 18 months, they dissected the everyday lives, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants, concentrating on the middle classes. The book that resulted, Middletown (1929), remains a classic of immersive sociology and the most incisive and complete portrait of American bourgeois life in the 1920s. Having taken this minute snapshot, Robert Lynd and a smaller team returned to Muncie 10 years later to see what had changed in the intervening period, which included the darkest years of the Depression. They interviewed the city’s industrial barons, plant workers, and prostitutes; chatted up its teachers, prosecutors, and real-estate agents (although all sources were anonymous, this much of their identities can be gleaned); and pored over its newspaper files and tax rolls. Mostly, they seem to have gossiped, lingered over dinners, and played bridge with the members of a stratum that ran from the “less-secure business class” to the engineers and middle managers, the young married set, and the well-established doctors, lawyers, and executives in the lower-upper class. The fruit of their sojourn, Middletown in Transition, reveals, fact by fact, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, the “staggering, traumatic effect” of “the great knife of the depression,” which “cut down impartially through the entire population, cleaving open the lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.”

Seven recent issues of The Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Nation, 18 May 2009

nation-18-may-2009It was William Wordsworth who asked “Where are they now, those wanton boys/ for whose free range the daedal earth/ was filled with animated toys/ and implements of frolic mirth;/  with tools for ready wit to guide,/ and ornaments of seemlier pride,/ more fresh, more bright, than princes wear;/ for what one moment flung aside,/ another could repair; what good or evil have they seen/ since I their pastime witnessed here,/ their daring wiles, their sportive cheer?”   

That was what Wordsworth asked.  As a columnist for The Nation, Katha Pollitt isn’t allowed to ask such congenial questions.  In this issue, she asks where the Bush-Cheney administration officials responsible for the torture regime are now.  Wanton boys they are, indeed.  But no longer do they range quite so freely over the daedal earth; Judge Baltasar Garzón has ruled Europe off limits for them.   Former assistant attorney general, now federal judge Jay Bybee gave an opinion that treatment which did not result in permanent physical injury could not be considered torture; as if “what one moment flung aside, another could repair.”  Their “animated toys” are to be released from the Satanic toyboxes of Guantanamo Bay and the leftover Gulags of eastern Europe; the “implements of frolic mirth” the wanton boys once directed to be used are to be relegated to the ever-more distant past, along with the photos that came from Abu Ghraib prison five years ago.  True, the new administration’s reluctance to prosecute the architects of the torture regime does raise the worry that they may be looking on that regime as so many “tools for ready wit to guide.”  And the wanton boys themselves do not seem to be suffering; banks, investment firms, universities, and think tanks have given the worst of them positions that could pay for “ornaments of seemlier pride, more fresh, more bright, than princes wear.”  Pollitt jokes that she herself would be better off had she quit journalism and taken a job marketing torture:

I could have nicknamed waterboarding “drinking tea with Vice President Cheney,” although come to think of it, waterboarding is a euphemism already. Maybe that’s why people didn’t catch on that it was the same thing we prosecuted Japanese interrogators for doing in World War II. In the Tokyo trials it was called “the water treatment,” or “the water cure,” or just plain “water torture.” Calling it “water torture” was probably what got those Japanese into trouble. That, and losing the war.

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Water Torture

Torture- I mean “enhanced interrogation”- for charity . . 

 

Being asked the same question 183 times in 1 month while being bound and asphyxiated might be 183 times as unpleasant as this . .

 

The Nation, 11 May 2009

nation-11-may-2009

The recent release of Bush-era “torture memos” occasions an argument to the effect that those responsible for the writing of those memos and the implementation of the procedures described in them must be held to account.  This must be done, less to honor a duty to the past than to establish a precedent for the future:

As a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama should have a firmer grasp of the point of executive accountability. It is not merely to “lay blame,” as he suggests; it is to set boundaries on presidential behavior and to clarify where wrongdoing will be challenged. Presidents, even those who profess honorable intentions, do not get to write their own rules. Congress must set and enforce those boundaries. When Obama suggested that CIA personnel who acted on the legal advice of the Bush administration would not face “retribution,” Illinois’s Jan Schakowsky, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, offered the only appropriate response. “I don’t want to compare this to Nazi Germany, but we’ve come to almost ridicule the notion that when horrific acts have been committed that people can use the excuse that, Well, I was just following orders,” explained Schakowsky, who has instructed aides to prepare for a torture inquiry. “There should be an open mind of what to do with information that we get from thorough investigations,” she added.

There must also be a proper framework for investigations. Gathering information for the purpose of creating a permanent record is only slightly superior to Obama’s banalities about wanting to “move forward.” Truth commissions that grant immunity to wrongdoers and bipartisan commissions that negotiate their way to redacted reports do not check and balance the executive branch any more than “warnings” punish speeding motorists.

A short piece remarks on the success leading neocons have had in publicizing the view that piracy off the Horn of Africa is a national security threat to the USA.  The Washington Post, for example, the other day tossed off a reference to “ties between al Qaeda and” the group that recently hijacked the Maersk Alabama, ties which appear to be wholly imaginary. 

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Torture Memo Set to Music

Via Alison Bechdel’s website,  a way to take some words that have become all too familiar and give them back their power to shock us.  

Here’s the artist’s website.

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. 

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New Year, Old Right

The latest issues of my two standard “paleocon” reads, The American Conservative and Chronicles, include fewer really noteworthy articles than average.  The election of Mr O as president and a solidly Democratic Congress freed them to turn from the constant struggle to show how they differ from the Bush/ Cheney Right and toward standard-issue conservative territory, denouncing government spending, unconventional family structures, etc. 

The contest, 1972

The contest, 1972

In The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy argues that George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign triggered a transformation of the Republican Party by driving Cold War liberals into its ranks.  Mary Wakefield reviews Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Wakefield reports that Dowden, the current director of the Royal African Society, is deeply pessimistic about western programs to aid Africa, but deeply optimistic about Africans’ ability to build a future for themselves if left alone. 

Sheldon Richman offers a succinct explanation of the Austrian school of economics’ theory of malinvestment and uses this theory to explain the current financial crisis.  David Gordon reviews a book by the most celebrated living opponent of the theory of malinvestment, Paul Krugman. 

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Jim Pittaway,  licensed psychotherapist and friend of the late Michael Aris, applies his professional expertise and his personal animosity to Aris’ widow, Aung San Suu Kyi, to an analysis of western policy towards Burma.  The professional expertise part is quite illuminating.  Suggesting that we should view the Burmese regime’s relationship to its people as one of captor to hostage, he asks us to apply “the biggest rule of hostage crises: unless you can take him out right now, don’t threaten the perp.”  Since the 1990 election, the West’s dealings with Burma have consisted primarily of a series of idle threats, and the hostages have paid the price. 

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