Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Christopher Hitchens diagnosed with cancer
Sad news via Owen Bowcott in The Guardian:
The author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens yesterday announced he was cutting short a promotional book tour in order to undergo chemotherapy treatment.
There were reports that the the British-born writer, who was a heavy smoker until giving up several years ago, had been diagnosed with cancer.
In a statement issued by his US publisher, Twelve, the 61-year-old said: "I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice."
The firm gave no further details other than asking for his privacy to be respected. Hitchens launched a high profile book tour last month to promote his memoir Hitch-22, which tackles subjects ranging from the Middle East and Zimbabwe to his friendships with prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. The volume has already entered the bestseller lists.
I sent you a few words
ones that are now rare –
if they reach you one day,
hide them, there’s no way to understand me
the space that exists within a word
is like our home:
there are pictures, sounds, and gestures in it –
and yet we are forbidden to decipher it
for those who still believe in words:
silent is their surging core, pitch-dark is their heart of fire –
but when will we ever understand the sea?
and the eternal fire?
what do we find beyond words:
a flower garden? deep space?
in the garden, so many things are left unsaid
in space, so stark is the void
what else is left to cling on to? some words
insist on bursting through reality’s edge –
upon reaching the other shore, will it still be meaningful,
to you, everything I want to say?
in every word you read there are always
missing letters –
you will find them again someday
amidst thickets of memories.
by Sapardi Djoko Damono
translation: Hasif Amini and Sapardi Djoko Damono
from Hujan Bulan Juni
publisher: Grasindo, Jakarta, 1994
On a balmy and humid Saturday night, June 5th, we left our apartment on Kikar Masarik Square in Tel-Aviv and walked down to Yitzhak Rabin Square, only 5 minutes away. Recalling our youthful days at similar anti-war and peace marches, we eyed the crowd anxiously. We soon realized that we were joining the crowd, whose size would eventually grow to 6,000 and sponsored by the Israeli Peace Movement (Shalom Ahshav), at the gathering spot of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash): I noticed many young Arabs carrying the hammer and sickle, along with girls, Israeli or Palestinian, with their khaffiyas, chanting in Hebrew and Arabic as a distinguished looking elderly Arab gentleman addressed that part of the crowd. As the sea of red flags surges around us, I suppressed a tear: Such a sight is hardly visible in any European capital. I recalled all those Jewish communist militants of Europe who gave their lives for an ideal that was hollowed out by history. “Wie eine Trane im Ozean,” I mused --like a tear in the Ocean-- recalling that beautiful novel of Mannes Sperber, documenting the decimation of a generation of militants by Stalin and party purges even before the gas chambers reached them. But here now before me were their children and grandchildren, not in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, but in Tel-Aviv.more from Seyla Benhabib at Reset here.
cold war fiction
The political novel - the urgent, morally committed depiction of conflicts and tragedies - flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, amid depression, fascism and total war, when Soviet communism was the socialist star on an otherwise darkening horizon. This era spawned some of the finest political fiction and drama we have known: Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were all writing at full throttle. In my opinion, the cold war - and the fiction it created - begins in the 1930s with the Spanish civil war. Young writers made the pilgrimage to Republican Spain and some of them died. Orwell escaped death by a whisker, as a bullet passed through his neck. Malraux led an air squadron and produced a novel of electric expressionism, Man's Hope (1937). Hemingway settled down to the measured, crafted story-telling of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). But if anti-fascism was the point of departure for all these writers, they would soon divide over the nature of the Stalinist intervention in Spain. Dos Passos, the most formally innovative of all interwar novelists, chose to turn Adventures of a Young Man (1939) into a howl of protest against communist chicanery. Orwell himself went for a mix of autobiography and reportage in Homage to Catalonia (1938), an indictment of Stalinist tactics in which he talked himself out of Left Book Club patronage and into embittered isolation.more from David Caute at The New Statesman here.
even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales
When people talk about “natural storytellers,” they are probably paying an unintended compliment to the unnatural. They mean that such writers are unnaturally gifted in artifice; that, better than the rest of us, they can draw us in, sound a voice, shape a plot, siphon the fizz of suspense. Yet the compliment is not merely inverted, since even freakish mastery of such tricks does not account for those impalpable gifts—the tremor of presence on the page, the overflow of vitality—which rival the abundance, even gratuitousness, of nature itself. The English writer David Mitchell belongs to this returning army of nature. Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, he is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known novel, features six interlocked and rotating novellas, each completely different from its neighbor: the journal of an American notary, travelling by boat from Australia to America in the eighteen-fifties; the letters of a young bisexual English composer, sent in the nineteen-thirties to a college friend; a slice of nineteen-seventies paranoid political thriller, in which a young California journalist takes on a sinister energy corporation.more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Nabokov in Berlin
Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. "It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page...Something or other is going on around him." The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city's S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. "I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus." If Nabokov's Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.
He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London's Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. "That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style..." So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov's next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.
Myths and scientific realities about vampires
"Eclipse," opening June 30, is the third big-screen adaptation of Stephenie
Meyer's"Twilight" series of vampire romance novels. The stories revolve around the tangled relationship between the human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Heartthrob vampires are, of course, fictional creatures drawn from a rich history of myth and reality. Click ahead to learn more.
Bloodsucking humans in medieval times
This 16th-century woman, whose remains were excavated during an archaeological dig near Venice, apparently had a brick shoved into her trap because she was thought to have a thirst for human blood. Scholars trace the myth that humans rise from the dead and suck the blood of others to medieval ignorance about how diseases spread and bodies decompose. When mass graves were re-opened during epidemics to deposit fresh corpses, the diggers often encountered older, bloated bodies with blood seeping out of their mouths — conditions that scientists now know result from the buildup of gases in decomposing organs. In earlier times, however, this was regarded as a sign that the corpses were drinking the blood of others. Medieval Italians thought that the only known way to kill the undead was to stick a brick in their mouths so that they would starve, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. This skull with a mouthful of brick, he said, is "evidence of exorcism against a vampire."
A cortical atlas of ghostly sensations
Vaughan Bell in Mind Hacks:
Frontiers in Neuroscience has an amazing scientific article that has collected all the studies that have recorded what happens when the brain is electrically stimulated in living patients. It's like a travel guide to the unnaturally active brain.
As you might expect, science generally takes a dim view of researchers cracking open people's skulls just to see what happens when bits of their brain are stimulated, hence, almost all of these studies have been done on patients who are undergoing brain surgery but have agreed to spend a few minutes during the operation to report their experiences for the benefit of neuroscience.
This procedure is also essential in some forms of brain surgery to make sure the surgeons avoid essential areas. For example, in some cases of otherwise untreatable epilepsy the surgeons track down the 'foci' or trigger area, and can often stop seizures completely just by removing it.
However, if an area is heavily involved in speech production, you wouldn't necessarily want to give up being able to talk for the sake of being seizure free, so surgeons will open the skull, wake you up, and then ask you to speak while stimulating the areas they are considering removing. They can map your speech areas by seeing when you can't speak as the areas are stimulated, and hence, know what areas to avoid.
Kitten World Cup
[Thanks to Ana Policzer.]
Pakistan's Heartland Under Threat
The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow.
Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple holding hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear traditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.
The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country's four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab's cosmopolitan brio.
But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best.
More here, including a lovely photo gallery.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Tyrant with a Movie CameraJ. Hoberman in the NYRB blog:
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”
Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.
Much of the material was shot without sound—only the speeches included an audio component—and Ujică shows the footage largely as found, often in the form of unedited rushes, in Romania’s National Film and National Television archives. There’s neither annotation nor voiceover commentary, although the filmmaker does intermittently add naturalistic sound effects—and, at one point, a slyly-chosen pop song, so that a gaggle of fashionable young Romanians can be seen dancing the Twist to the 1965 rockabilly hit “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”
Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and AndyLast month, Abbas posted a review of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch's Ten Walks/Two Talks, which "combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night 'philosophical' ramble through Central Park. Mapping 21st-century New York, Cotner and Fitch update the meandering and meditative form of Basho's travel diaries to construct a descriptive/dialogic fugue." HTMLGIANT has an interview with the authors on their project. It's also offering a free copy of the book to the commenter that's taken the longest walk, for those who may need an incentive to share their story.
Which came first for you, this form or the idea to collaborate? I mean, did you guys decide you wanted to collab on something and come up with this, or what?
Andy Fitch: By our late twenties, both Jon and I felt we had done enough single, solitary work for years to come. We loved each other, and enjoyed talking to each other. A two-for-the-price-of-one aesthetic had long appealed to us, though the idea for this particular book came later.
Jon: Ten Walks/Two Talks combines excerpts from two manuscripts: Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks, and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food. After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue—plus, Socrates was known to sample delicacies at congregations to which he hadn’t been invited. I thought the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but before long I’d gotten busy with other things and more or less forgot about it. Roughly a year later Andy asked me to record conversations with him. It was exhilarating. We did thirty dialogues in just over a month, all across New York City, though “Union Square W.F.” is our most common meeting-place since it’s hard to pass up a discounted organic meal. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food. Other people occasionally appear; for the most part the dialogues unfold between us.
Why are Ahmadis persecuted so ferociously in Pakistan?
Mohsin Hamid in Dawn:
The reason can’t be that their large numbers pose some sort of ‘threat from within’. After all, Ahmadis are a relatively small minority in Pakistan. They make up somewhere between 0.25 per cent (according to the last census) and 2.5 per cent (according to the Economist) of our population.
Nor can the reason be that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Hindus are non-Muslims, and similar in numbers to Pakistani Ahmadis. Yet Christians and Hindus, while undeniably discriminated against, face nothing like the vitriol directed towards Ahmadis in our country.
To understand what the persecution of Ahmadis achieves, we have to see how it works. Its first step is to say that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. And its second is to say that Ahmadis are not just non-Muslims, but apostates: non-Muslims who claim to be Muslims. These two steps are easy to take: any individual Pakistani citizen has the right to believe whatever they want about Ahmadis and their faith.
But the process goes further. Step three is to say that because Ahmadis are apostates, they should be victimised, or even killed. We are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor does it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step four is this: any Muslim who says Ahmadis should not be victimised or killed, should themselves be victimised or killed.
Lightning simultaneously strikes three skyscrapers in Chicago
Who You Callin' "Bird Brain"?
The amazing smarts of crows, jays, and other corvids are forcing scientists to rethink when and why intelligence evolved.
Charles Wohlforth in Discover:
Nicky Clayton is no better at sitting still than are the birds she studies. Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.
“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.
Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.
More here. [Photo shows a hooded crow which has made a nest outside my window in Karachi.]
Tuesday PoemKettle Island
the round orange
sun is about to dissolve
on the tongue of misery
island like the thin body
of god's son smoke black
stacks from salem power
plant ruin the brown
horizon i can smell the
salt hear the foghorn
my father walks on tired
legs we talk about red
sox politics mostly
i listen he is an old bigot
& i love him but the hard drinking
of our lives has left narrow
streets for forgiveness we
can only stare back at time
like two men suddenly alone
in the kitchen over
beers after ma's funeral
we got closer i was nine years
sober he wasn't truth
is i was angry & when i wrote
it down it hurt him
there's an eroded place
a beat down causeway
where cows used to walk
to kettle island now water
rushes over it i touch my father's
arm & we walk in small
silences to the coast
by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof: a Publishing Collaborative, 2005
The human genome at ten
The first post-genome decade saw spectacular advances in science. The success of the original genome project inspired many other 'big biology' efforts — notably the International HapMap Project, which charted the points at which human genomes commonly differ, and the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), which aims to identify every functional element in the human genome. Dramatic leaps in sequencing technology and a precipitous drop in costs have helped generate torrents of genetic data, including more than two dozen published human genomes and close to 200 unpublished ones (see page 670). Along the way, geneticists have discovered that such basic concepts as 'gene' and 'gene regulation' are far more complex than they ever imagined (see page 664).
But for all the intellectual ferment of the past decade, has human health truly benefited from the sequencing of the human genome? A startlingly honest response can be found on pages 674 and 676, where the leaders of the public and private efforts, Francis Collins and Craig Venter, both say 'not much'. Granted, there has been some progress, in the form of drugs targeted against specific genetic defects identified in a few types of cancer, for example, and in some rare inherited disorders. But the complexity of post-genome biology has dashed early hopes that this trickle of therapies would rapidly become a flood. Witness the multitude of association studies that aimed to find connections between common genetic variants and common diseases, with only limited success, or the discovery that most cancers have their own unique genetic characteristics, making widely applicable therapies hard to find.
Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind
John Tierney in The New York Times:
In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.
But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems. Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.
Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.
who touches this touches a man
The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality, and occasionally we have dreams about books, like the one I had after my mentor died. When I was in graduate school, he used to lend me his books, their margins overflowing with neat, handwritten questions, objections, notes to himself (I can still picture the fine purple line quality of his felt-tip pen), teaching me how to read in conversation with the author, that is, when I paid attention to the author and not, as I was inclined to do, to the always more interesting thoughts of my mentor. When he died, I dreamt that he had left me a book that he had annotated especially for me and how grateful I was to have it ("who touches this touches a man") and how sorry I was to wake up.more from Rochelle Gurstein at TNR here.
RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension. Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA's help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters' section. It didn't matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I'd had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who'd banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. "Extra England ticket?" they whispered. "Trade? Trade?" We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks? Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn't make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought.more from Luke O'Brien at Slate here.
know your place
Studies show a host of physiological benefits to having high status, whether you’re a senior partner at a bank or the alpha male in a baboon troop. But while that may come as no surprise, there are also findings that suggest people derive psychic benefits from being low-status, as long as there’s no question about where they stand. In a 2003 study by Larissa Tiedens and Alison Fragale, both then at Stanford University, subjects who displayed submissive body language were found to feel more comfortable around others who displayed dominant body language than around those who also displayed submissive body language — and to like those with more dominant posture better, as well. People, it seems, prefer having their evaluation of social hierarchy confirmed, even when they see themselves at the bottom of it. These two linked findings — that people derive comfort from an established hierarchy and that they react particularly strongly to those who buck it — may help explain why McChrystal’s insubordinate comments and the French soccer mutiny were so compelling as public dramas: They were conflicts over who is in charge, and over what punishment the loser would suffer.more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Of National Character
With Especial Attention to the Americans, the Muscovites, the Magyars, and Various Balkanic Peoples, touching particularly upon their Aspirations to Global Hegemony, and their Use of Air-Conditioning.
Justin E. H. Smith
Organic nationalism, which emerged towards the end of the 18th century, supposed, or at least implied, that a nation bears some essential relationship to a particular territory. In the most mythologized version of this belief, the nation is thought, or at least said, to have arisen directly out of the earth, to be literally autochthonous, springing up from the depths without any connection to neighboring groups. Moderate nationalists of the period, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, sought for a way to defend national distinctness without resorting to such crude myth, and while they did not pretend that a people is born directly from the soil, they still hoped to tie national character to the way it is forged over the course of history out of a particular geographical nexus.
A clear demonstration that we are not in fact like plants, rooted in our national soil, is our ability to get up, should we so choose, and go somewhere else. We do not wilt and die, though we also do not remain quite the same. I am an expatriate, and it grows harder with each passing year for me to maintain a personal sense of what being American must mean. I have lived outside of the US steadily for seven years, and spent large segments of the decade before that outside of the country as well. Although I am fully connected, via the internet, to the American media that keep that country's pulse around the clock, it is increasingly difficult for me to maintain any real interest in domestic issues. Unlike nearly all the Americans I know, I am not really made angry, for example, by Glenn Beck. Outraged reactions to the latest stupid thing he has said strike me, I dare say, as a bit undignified. He is a buffoon, and he occupies a niche that has its equivalent in every time and place. Let him do his thing, and let us not stay tuned in to the networks that give him voice.
Expatriation, I mean to say, helps one to overcome the passions with understanding. As my identification with one or the other party to internal American conflicts diminishes, my perception grows sharper of the very long historical processes that give shape to current American life. Thus for example I often find myself trying to make sense for bewildered Europeans of western American crackpot libertarianism by arguing that it evolved directly from the settling of the frontier, with the ethnic cleansing and genocide that that involved, but also with a certain 'spirit' of freedom and individualism that cannot be valued nearly as much in dense urban centers. In turn, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that American imperialism, and the delusions of entitlement and superiority for which individual Americans abroad are so often criticized, flow directly from the late-18th and early-19th-century project of constructing America through expansion into the frontier. Oklahoma and the Phillipines and Iraq were just different stages of the same development, and this centuries-long process has something to do with the perception of the world, and of their place in it, often had by individual Americans.
Another consequence of extended expatriation is an ability to think about American history comparatively. In this connection it seems reasonable to suppose that it was a similar though opposite trajectory on Russia's part that brought the Russian Empire (now re-branded as the Soviet Union) into conflict with the US in the 20th century. From being a relatively modest regional power, Muscovy became an empire in the 17th century by subjugating what remained of the khanates left by the Mongols, and in that way, pushed all the way to the Pacific Ocean by 1639.
Just as the US pushed westward and southward, the Russians pushed eastward and southward, coming gradually to dominate in the various central Asian lands, the so-called blizhnee zarubezh'e or 'near abroad', at roughly the same time that the US imposed its will in Latin America by means of the Monroe Doctrine and other attempts at defining an enlarged sphere of influence. The US and Russia were the two powers to rise over the course of the 19th century whose growth involved expansion across and settling of their own frontiers, and establishing sovereignty across the extent of these frontiers. The European powers, by contrast, grew principally through asserting control over colonies that they never stopped seeing as foreign territory, even if Queen Victoria was officially named 'Empress of India' in 1876. By the middle of the 20th century, the US and Russia would both see the entire world as their frontier, as territory to be made theirs. The US's growth eventually brought it about also that it would take over many of the global charges once held by Great Britain. Thus the British Palestine Mandate would become, as Israel, what is essentially a US protectorate; and the Great Race for Central Asia, played out between Russia and Britain in the 19th century, would flow seamlessly into Cold War (and post-Cold War) geopolitical maneuvering in Eurasia on the part of the two superpowers.
But who cares about Russia? Isn't the Cold War over? Didn't Boris Yeltsin prove as much when he slipped out of the Clinton White House in his underwear, drunk as a true muzhik, and attempted to hail a cab in order to seek out a pizza joint and cure his late-night munchies? Though not so long ago, that was a very different era, as different in its own way as Khrushchev's shoe-pounding or Stalin's awkward pose at Yalta. Yet for some reason Americans still seem to think that Yeltsin and Clinton's hillbilly bonhomie continues to characterize post-Soviet US-Russian relations: hospitable and generous Americans on the one hand, and unpredictable yet harmless Russians on the other.
I can report from recent experience that it is only the Americans who remain in the feel-good nineties; the Russians have very clearly moved on, or, perhaps better, moved back. After more than 15 hours spent waiting outside the Russian embassy in Paris earlier this month, I was turned down by the Russian authorities for a visa. Well, technically, I was not turned down, but I was told that I would have to return to my home country in order for my case to be processed. Having waited so long, and having just slipped through the gate a few minutes before the consular department's closing at the end of my third day, I was naturally hesitant to take 'no' for an answer. I pointed to my official invitation from a distinguished scholarly institution within Russia, and insisted that I had been assured that arrangements would be made for me to receive the visa in France. I drew attention to the official 'Reason for Visit' stated on the invitation: 'scientifico-technical exchange'. "Well I'm a diplomat," the young clerk at the counter smirked. "Would you listen to me if I tried to tell you anything about science?" I would not, I answered. "Then why did you listen to your scientific colleagues when they tried to tell you how things work here at the Russian embassy?"
I am told that it is a mere expression of my American sense of entitlement for me to complain about the circumstances at that embassy, but still I feel the need to say it: the treatment of the people waiting there to get visas was simply barbaric. Even if one were to arrive well before dawn, three or four hours before the consular division opened, there was no guarantee of passing through the gates, since over the course of the morning countless couriers and other figures with unspecified privilege would show up, strut to the head of the line, and be buzzed right in. There were no numbers distributed, there was no way of establishing one's priority other than to use one's body as a shield to block others from passing in front of you. Several shoving matches broke out over the course of three days, one full-fledged fist-fight, and countless exchanges of insults involving putain, ta mère, and mon cul. One attempt by an earnest student-type to block a leathery, long-haired motorcycle courier from entering with a stack of 100 passports (essentially enabling 100 absent people to cut in line at once), prompted the courier to say indignantly: "If you don't get the fuck out of my way, I'll say one word to the Russians and they'll cancel your visa just like that." The student stepped out of his way, the gate buzzed, and the leatherman went in and shook hands with a Russian employee. Corruption! Corruption! shouted the French people from outside the gate.
One of the most striking lessons of my 15 hours outside of the embassy is that traits we often suppose to be part of the individual character of a member of a particular nation or ethnicity in fact flow directly from institutional arrangements. Due to the way the line was arranged (no bathrooms, no protection from rain, no distribution of numbers that would ensure adherence to the just and rational principle of 'first come, first serve', no information available from inside as to whether we might hope to be served that day), due to this precarity, the normally composed French people waiting in the line were reduced, within the course of a few hours, to behaving like animals towards one another. The crowd took on the character of a bread line during famine or wartime. The sort of behavior one commonly associates with the way they do things in less civilized parts was induced in French people, as if the subjects of a social psychology experiment, simply by obliging them to stand in a Soviet-style queue.
Many French people complained that the Russians had not adequately thought out their system of visa issuance in Paris. One young, rather adventure-hungry French employee of the OSCE, who was on his way back to Kyrgyzstan to monitor a referendum in the violence-stricken region, and who regaled us with stories of his experiences being held at gunpoint by drunk teenaged Kyrgyz soldiers, responded that his countrymen were being naive. Things worked at the embassy the way they did not because no one had thought about how to do it well, but precisely because someone had thought about how to ensure that it not be done well, that it be an ordeal, that it demoralize everyone who goes through it, and that it thereby gives us all to know who's boss.
Russia (alongside the very different case of France) is one of the only countries that continues to see its way of doing things as universalizable, and as a fully legitimate and worthy rival to the American way. When the consulate employee comes out of the Russian embassy in Paris, he speaks Russian to the crowd (not to give us information, but only to remind us that he has no information to give), not English or French, just like his American homologue speaks English and not Russian. Of course, the crowd is much less likely to understand Russian than English, but that doesn't diminish the sense, which seems widespread in Russia in general and must be most deeply felt among the loyal Putinites who get embassy appointments in Paris, that Russian ought to be understood, that it is fitting and natural for people around the world to be addressed in Russian. Again, this is a conviction that is felt only by speakers of two other languages: French and English. (For all our anxiety about the rise of China, one thing that most commentators have overlooked, with the usual sharp exception of Perry Anderson, is that Chinese inwardness and ethnocentrism virtually guarantee that no occupying army or paper-pushing desk clerk outside of China will be expecting us to respond to him in Chinese anytime soon.)
While I could not travel to Moscow this year, I at least remain free to roam as far east as Budapest, and to ride around on Soviet-built metro cars identical to those in Moscow. Having just arrived in Budapest from London, I've had a fresh chance to observe the contrast between two very different species of geopolitical imaginary. London, when it was the center of the British World System, was the center, and whatever was felt to be great in it was never felt to be great in virtue of its similarity to or approximation of something somewhere else. Budapest at its fin-de-siècle peak, by contrast, was thought to be great, both by its local bourgeoisie as well as by visitors, in virtue of its supposed likeness to cities further west. The greatness of Budapest consisted in the fact that a sort of class and refinement ordinarily associated with cities that grew up much closer to the English Channel was successfully transported into deepest, darkest Europe, the part that was still thought to be quasi-Asiatic.
After its double decimation in the mid-20th century, Budapest remains a faded beauty, with blackened and pock-marked art nouveau façades that, then as now, cause visitors to say: 'Ah, so like Paris'. A reverse comparison, looking from Paris to Budapest, is of course unthinkable, while an eastwardly comparison, from Budapest to, say, Moscow, is not unthinkable, but is by definition a comparison with a highly negative charge.
Hungarians are not in fact descended from Huns, any more than Tatars, deformed into 'Tartars' by their enemies, emerged out of sulphuric Tartaros. The exonym 'Hungarian' comes from the Old Turkic term on ogur, 'ten arrows', and its transformation into something resembling the name of the dreaded enemies of the Roman Empire has no basis in genetics or historical linguistics. As nearly as can be made out, the Hungarians came into existence through the confederation of several different ethnicities. According to the national narrative, they were born as a people when they were led into the Pannonian plain by Árpád, the Grand Prince of the Magyars (pictured above), at the end of the 9th century. It is hardly a metaphor to describe this event as a sort of planting, as since 895 the Hungarian identity has been tightly fixed to a definite geographical region with important distinguishing features. They didn't spring up from the soil, but nonetheless came to thrive in it. When the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, and large chunks of territory under Hungarian control were ceded to Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia, it was understood that the Pannonian plain could not be ceded to anyone. It was essentially Magyar.
But what is that? The way forward for post-communist Hungary has been set in large part by the invention (or recovery, depending on how you see things) of the idea of Central Europe, which contrasts with Eastern Europe in that it has, so its advocates say, always been oriented towards the values and the institutions of the West. Hungary's definition of itself, along with Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, as 'Central' rather than 'Eastern', has necessitated the drawing of a line that is naturally disadvantageous to the solidly 'Eastern' countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as a good portion of Ukraine, the countries that cannot possibly claim 'centrality', but also do not wish to trace their own cultures and institutions back to tyrannical Muscovy. I understand Hungary's aspirations, but every time I hear the phrase 'Central Europe' with all its post-communist connotations, I can't help but think of the class-climbing young professional who drives a Lexus and shops at Whole Foods, looking down on the one in the Ford Fiesta at Safeway, unaware that there are yet others, still higher up, looking down on everyone equally.
One of the driving forces behind Hungary's recent orientation has of course been its richest son, George Soros, who in 1991 founded the Central European University. At that time, much of Eastern Europe was in the midst of what can only be described as a craze for Popperianism, with its somewhat simplistic account of the contrast between the 'open society' and its opposite, totalitarianism. The 20th century of course brought forth ideas more noxious than this, and I for one would much rather see a craze for Popper than one for either Heidegger or Lenin. But still, the Central European University, where I've had the pleasure of spending the past few days, can't but appear now as the product of a certain historical moment, which involved a certain vigorous reorientation, a reorientation that was, I want to say, fundamentally geographical and not just political, based as much on an ancient sense of the cardinal points and their different valences, as on any preference for demand-side over supply-side economics.
This reorientation has been both spatial and temporal. Particularly in Budapest, I think, there has been an effort to recover a lost greatness from circa 1900 that was and continues to be based on comparisons to Vienna and Paris. One thing that results is an antiquated sense of class and refinement that I myself know principally from having read Thomas Mann's underrated novel, Felix Krull. Much is made, here, of the number of stars a hotel merits, but these stars have little to do with what, dare I say, a real Westerner would associate with comfort; rather, they are a supposed measure of fin-de-siècle authenticity. What one gets with an extra star in Central European hôtellerie is an extra layer of servile bell-hops, but still no functioning AC.
And this brings me to my second main concern here, beyond the jockeying by superpowers for hegemonic clout in the world, namely, the differential ways different nations relate to air-conditioning. How much one could learn from studying the different ways different cultures have incorporated cooling technologies into their respective Lebensräume! Every time I return to deep Europe I have to psychologically prepare myself for weeks in advance just to be able to endure the stuffy unventilated spaces that the locals seem to find perfectly comfortable. It seems the further one travels to the south and to the east, the stuffier it gets, and the more phobic the locals grow about the deleterious effects of something as innocuous as a little breeze. If natural air is greeted with caution, artificial cooling, while it exists, is handled as if it were some dangerous force, some highly charged, almost radioactive technology that must be employed with the utmost restraint. Have you ever rushed, of a hot summer day in the Balkans, to the cold-drinks case of a corner store, only to lay your hand on a bottle of Coke or water that is, as far as the sense of touch can tell, no colder than room temperature? I used to think that this was a consequence of economic underdevelopment, that either the refrigerators did not work, or the shop owners could not afford to turn them on. But even now, in my luxury hotel in Budapest, where I had my internet password delivered up to me on a silver tray by an employee in a bowtie, the inside of the minibar is even warmer than the rest of the room. And have you ever walked into a sweltering store in Istanbul, only to be greeted by a merchant who, having noticed the incoming foreigner, declares 'yes, please!' and 'welcome!' with a beaming grin on his face as he turns on the AC by remote control? He would never think to use it for himself, and doesn't seem to grasp that by the time it's been on long enough to make a difference, any normal customer will be long gone.
There is a certain superficial view according to which the presence of Coke bottles on the table, or of Dallas on the TV screen, provides evidence that some distant culture has been substantially 'Americanized'. This misses all the other cultural borrowings from elsewhere (no American would suppose that the Brazilian soap that comes on next shows that, say, a Romanian TV viewer has been Brazilianized), and it also misses the more important fact that bits of borrowed culture no longer mean the same thing in the culture into which they are borrowed that they did in the culture in which they began. This is as true of technology as it is of soap operas and soft drinks. In some parts of Nigeria, mobile phone technology seems to be largely important as a new means of transmitting hexes. In the Balkans, as in 'Central Europe', something they call air-conditioning certainly exists, but not in the same way it does in the finely chilled banks and supermarkets of my Central Californian youth.
My spouse issues from the Balkans, and I probably need not mention that most of our quarrels are centered around the thermostat. In my imagination, the temperature I come forth to defend is so much more than a temperature: it is a way of life, it is cattle-herding under the big Western American sky, it is the Donner Party; it is, dare I say, freedom. It contrasts with serfdom, medievalism, and totalitarianism. It is also complete bullshit, of course, but I think this sort of bullshit says a great deal about what national character really is, what you can't shake even when you've renounced just about everything there is to renounce in the ethnic package imposed upon you at birth. What's left of my Americanness, when everything else has been cast off like snakeskin, is nothing more than a sense of the proper keeping of my body, of --to speak with Hippocrates-- the airs, waters, and places with which it naturally agrees.
Budapest, 27 June, 2010
Works consulted for this essay include:
John Lukacs, Budapest, 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture, Grove Press, 1988.
Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Heroes and Whistleblowers
A mysterious, white-haired man casts a cautious glance over his shoulder and steps onto a train. Like a man on the lam, he has no fixed address and lives out of the rucksack that he carries. The man could be a character in a Hollywood film, maybe one of the Bourne series, but he isn’t. The man described is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, an internet site for whistleblowers. And he’s right to be cautious.
Whistleblowing isn’t to be taken lightly. Mordechai Vanunu spent 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement, for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear program to a UK newspaper. Amnesty International described Vanunu as a “prisoner of conscience” and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a number of times. He’s paid a heavy price for his courageous actions.
Whistleblowers comprise an important and undervalued genre of hero. Just as traditional heroes, they demonstrate courage and bravery, and accept personal risks in the interests of others.
On a recent Veteran’s Day, I was struck by the extent to which we use the term “hero” to describe soldiers. I don’t disagree with this use, but it seems odd that the term is seldom qualified. What distinguishes our soldiers from the soldiers on the side that we’re fighting? How do we know that we’re the good guys?
“Serving one’s country” without any consideration of the ethical basis for its policies doesn’t seem an especially laudable undertaking. What we’re really doing when we offer blind support for our troops is offering blind support for our governments’ policies. Blind obedience to anything is dangerous. This is what makes huge armies of bad guys possible. This is how genocide happens.
There aren’t enough truly evil psychopathic types to build an entire army of bad guys to carry out atrocities. Could it be that the majority of people who join an army, regardless of the conflict or the side they take, think they’re doing something noble - fighting for freedom, for instance? It seems that if we were to put an army together to carry out unethical acts, we’d have to use ordinary people and convince them that the unethical acts are actually noble.
Which brings me back to whistleblowers and the noble things they represent, like freedom of information and integrity. Heroes and bad guys are distinguished by facts. Both may think they’re doing something noble and both may be lauded as heroes by their fellow countrymen and their family members, but invariably one side is wrong. We can only know which side that is if we have access to complete and reliable information.
Access to information is one of the most important freedoms that people can have. Without it, we can’t know what side of any conflict we should be on. And we can be easily manipulated. We can be led to believe that we have freedoms that we lack. We can be led to believe that ordinary people are “bad guys”. And we can become the “bad guys” ourselves.
In terms of loss of life, the 9/11 attacks stand out as the worst terrorist attack in history. For each hijacker, 157 civilians were killed. In January, Pakistani authorities reported that American drone attacks in 2009 killed 140 civilians for every targeted al-Qaeda or Taliban member. If there had been 2 or 3 more hijackers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center, the ratios would be the same. If these figures are accurate, then the US is committing horrific acts of terrorism, framed as part of a “war on terror”. Americans can’t know if they should be outraged or proud, since the figures vary widely. Other sources claim that only a third of those killed were civilians.
Courage and bravery on their own aren’t worth celebrating. It takes courage and bravery to poke a mean dog with a stick - that doesn’t mean it’s laudable. We can’t be sure that our soldiers are heroes unless we have accurate information. The Wikileaks video, Collateral Murder, revealed a sharp discrepancy between events as they happened and as they were reported. The video shows a number of people being fired upon from a US apache helicopter. Initially, it was reported that those killed in the attack were militants, but the video revealed that the dead included civilians and Reuters staff, and the injured included a couple of children. The most chilling part of the video, of course, was the alacrity with which they killed and congratulated each other on their nice hits. The take home message, however, is that the mainstream media cannot be trusted to provide an accurate account of events.
Governments simply can’t be trusted to provide us with accurate information. A 2008 study by Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Bush and seven of his top officials “waged a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq”. According to the report, in the two years following 9/11, they made 935 false statements. Americans went to war for bogus reasons. Perhaps the war was justified, but whatever valid justification there might have been, it wasn’t the one that was served up to the public. How confident should we be that our soldiers are heroes if we don’t know why the war is being fought?
It should be clear to everyone that governments and international agencies can’t be trusted to dispense accurate and complete information. I think we can safely say now that the threat from swine flu was exaggerated. We can also say that the World Health Organization wasn’t as transparent about potential conflicts of interest as it should have been. If there is any doubt about the inappropriateness of the relationship between the WHO and the pharmaceutical industry, documents leaked through Wikileaks should clear it up.
Dishonesty and lack of transparency are serious problems. They fuel conspiracy theories and generate controversy where there should be none. Given the state of affairs, it’s not entirely irrational to doubt authorities. Industry is enormously powerful and bias in research and reporting is a real phenomenon. The mainstream media is corporate-owned and even government-sponsored media is non-democratic and subject to bias. When a group can benefit by manipulating public opinion and it is has the power to do so, it will.
It’s no secret that public opinion can be manipulated and people’s behaviors influenced. Political campaigns can influence the way we vote, commercials can influence what we buy and what we’d like to have. The information that we take in through other people, and through movies and forms of entertainment, shapes the way we see the world. Huge amounts of money are spent on marketing research and strategies. Those who would benefit from controlling public opinion and attitudes would be foolish not to make use of this knowledge.
The power of marketing can be harnessed for our good or to our detriment. Public health campaigns employ such strategies to improve people’s lives. Marketing of fast food may contribute to obesity, which has led some to call for a ban on the marketing of such foods to children. Some argue that the ban should be implemented for children since they're unable to understand the intent of the advertising. But, while adults can understand the intent of advertising, they are not immune to its influence. Any age can be targeted. In a sense, marketing fast foods, or any unhealthy product, amounts to a public unhealth campaign of questionable ethics.
The information we receive also shapes our attitudes toward violence. Societies can be groomed for war or for peace. In the 1980s, the US spent millions on textbooks for Afghan school children in an attempt to nurture violent fundamentalism to fight Soviet communism. The books were laden with militant Islamic teachings and violent imagery.
In the West, the glorification of violence and militarism is accomplished largely by entertainment media. Hollywood tells us who our heroes are. Jason Bourne is cool and he’s an assassin; it’s cool to be an assassin. The glorification of the military in Hollywood films is no accident. Liaison officers from the Pentagon work with Hollywood producers to generate what amounts to feature length advertisements for the military.
The public stands to benefit immensely by controlling the information it receives. The information to which we are exposed is like the curriculum of an academic program in which we never willfully enrolled. Given the power that information has over us, it’s reasonable to suppose that we should have democratic control over our media.
Controlling information is as important as government itself. Power is not held just by the people who make decisions, but by people who can garner the support needed for the implementation of their plans. You can’t lead if you can’t get people to follow. And you can’t get people to follow if you can’t influence the information they receive. When an elected government acts in a manner that's inconsistent with the wishes of the people it represents, there is no greater threat than transparency and free-flowing information. An informed public is a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, we the people are not in charge of the information we receive. Our governments decide what they want to do and then manipulate public opinion to suit their purposes. This was made clear by a CIA document leaked through Wikileaks this past March. The document outlines PR strategies for manipulating public opinion in France and Germany, with the intention of bolstering support for increased troop deployment in Afghanistan. The report says: “The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force.” This is not democratic leadership.
With greater reliance on electronic media and electronic forms of information storage, there comes greater ability to manipulate information and to distort reality. People are less willing to seek out hard copies to confirm facts, and in some cases printed copies may not be available. When multiple versions of a story surface on the internet and attempts to check facts yield “file not found” the truth has been effectively obscured.
The power to control information is being wielded in more sophisticated ways than ever before. The Israeli foreign ministry coordinates vounteer efforts to spread propaganda on the internet. They recognize that public opinion is not determined by the facts, but by which version of reality gets more favorable media exposure.
Thanks to the internet, a wide variety of information sources is easily available to us. However, some countries have already taken steps to restrict this information. China and Iran already have internet censorship, and Australia has recently followed suit. This has been served to Australians under the guise of managing obscenities like child pornography and sites that advocate terrorism. While this may sound reasonable, the blacklist, leaked through Wikileaks, proved to be inexplicably broad and included many sites that had absolutely nothing to do with pornography or terror, like Wikileaks.
We can’t afford to ignore the power that information has over us. If we value democracy and freedom, we need to have democratic control over our media. If we don’t have control over the information we receive, we can’t know when our leaders behave undemocratically. There’s a war being waged over our most important freedoms, and whistleblowers are on the front line. They are the heroes of free societies.
Oil on paper.
Thanks to my sister Azra for introducing me to this artist's work.
Good Government: The Imperative for These Timesby Michael Blim
In the Chicago of the Daley dynasty, they have been disparaged as the “goo-goos.” They are the “good government” types whose passion for honesty and the pursuit of the public good have offended generations of political machine hacks whose motto for the great seal of the city, Mike Royko was fond of saying, consisted of the two word phrase “Where’s Mine?”
Good government in Chicago was and still is an honorable tradition. It produced Paul Douglas, Adlai Stevenson, Abner Mikva, and Barack Obama. It joined with Chicago’s black community to elect Harold Washington. With Jane Addams and John Dewey acting as its exemplary turn of the 20th century intellectuals and activists, Chicago’s good government movement is one of the taproots of American liberalism.
I confess that it has taken me a while to accept that Barack Obama, for better or worse, is a “goo-goo.” He is the latest in a distinguished line of pragmatist, intellectually inclined politicians who believe that the public interest can be served by intelligent decision-making based upon the analysis of facts and the implementation of technically sound rules and administration.
What is interesting about the new “goo-goo-ism” of Obama is that it is shorn of its more radical roots. The radical reformism and pacifism of Jane Addams and John Dewey, despite Obama’s community work that derives from their inspiration, is notably absent. Missing too is the New Deal version of good government: there is no left wing in the White House west wing as there was under Roosevelt. There is no one the likes of Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, or Raymond Moley, just to name a few that put a radical liberal edge on the New Deal, to push the Obama Administration from within toward more fundamental government guarantees for a people being battered by economic crisis and an inept political system.
Here perhaps one example suffices to illustrate how the Obama administration “skipped” the New Deal tradition in its policy-making. Franklin Roosevelt broke with the Progressive tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that was largely content with reform through regulation by creating jobs directly through public works of all sorts – from dams to drama one might say – as an answer to the private sector’s inability to solve the massive unemployment problem. Obama instead has taken passive measures such as extending unemployment benefits and supporting business recovery via a variety of means. Yet the unemployment problem is grave and growing, as the proportion of the long-term unemployed rises relentlessly. Whole social strata ranging from poorly educated factory workers to young people seeking a foothold in the job market from all sorts of backgrounds are being savaged. Yet, one hears not a peep from Obama’s administration of how absent direct government employment, 15% of America’s workers are to find their feet again economically.
The goo-goo instincts of the Obama administration thus reflect more accurately the turn of the 20th century progressive politics of Wilson and the elder Roosevelt than those of the New Deal. As Robert Wiebe in his much-celebrated Search for Order (1967) argued, the new middle class from which progressivism flowed was distinctly managerial in orientation, seeking a new rationality through the technologies of bureaucratic organization and regulation. It represents and operates in and on the world as if there were a class-less general interest that can be safeguarded through the wise administration of enlightened experts drawn from a meritocratic elite. Its justification thus is of competence rather than of the fulfillment of more radical goals such as using government as a primary agency of resolving social injustice through direct economic redistribution.
Obama proposes good government, in other words, which is something we dearly need. Since Reagan, we have lived in a society where government was not merely a necessary evil, but evil per se. Successive administrations either savagely or passively looted the federal government of expertise and practical power of personnel that guarantee the country’s basic laws. The ballooning list of government regulatory failure grows by the day. Whether in regard to health and safety, food and drugs, or natural catastrophes and civil defence, it as if, as concerns government resources, to cite Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. The now infamous neglect of basic environment safety propagated by British Petroleum and sanctioned by the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department has led to our latest disaster, and Katrina debacle displayed how thoroughly disemboweled the federal government had become under successive regimes of government-haters and weak executives of Republicans and Democrats alike.
Obama’s two “great reforms” are cut from the same cloth: in essence they consist of regulation through the wise management of experts. In health care and finance, the task is to manage the status quo more efficiently, not transform it. Not my choice, of course. But it is theirs, and now they must really manage these two great chunks of the American economy wisely with some notion, however watered-down, of the public interest.
As regards health care, they have created via private insurance a network of care in where the incentives still point the wrong way: the profit motive still governs the system. If the federal government does not govern the health market directly with a firm hand, citizens, now mostly insured under one title or another will find themselves continually victimized by insurers and providers seeking to shift costs and increase profits by either sticking the other with increased costs and diminished profits, or sucking the difference out of the insured via low reimbursements, exclusions and billing tricks. If you find yourself in frequent conflict with your health provider and/or your insurer, your aggravations and financial liabilities are guaranteed to grow under the new scheme – unless the Obama administration staffs up the new regulatory entities, appoints tough good government reformers, and supports them politically.
The same is true for financial reform, essentially a “reset” of the same big capital game under some new rules. Most of the elements that led the economy over the cliff are still in place. Most importantly, banks escaped the more radical impulse to redefine them as public utilities, thus leaving a pure profit motive at the heart of their operations. It will take extraordinary capacity-building on the part of the federal government to enforce its new laws, and more still to apprehend new forms of mischief in the works. Once more, the appointment of stalwart good government experts and supporting their efforts become critical.
The political challenge is enormous, particularly as good government is a sort of political odorless, tasteless, colorless, classless gas that surely fuels the good government experts to do their best, but fails to ignite the citizens on whose behalf they govern. I have been on the road for the last month and so did not actually see the reportage on Obama’s spill site visits, nor did I see his White House address on the BP disaster. I have gotten back in time to hear all the carping about his seemingly technocratic and dispassionate approach to the problem.
The disappointment of the chattering classes is wrongly put, I think. With his seemingly Zen-like concentration, Obama is staying “inside” himself, matching his beliefs and methods with his actions, and showing careful attention to detail and the need for dispassionate judgment. There is some “truth” in his rhetoric in as much as it appears to reflect his character and beliefs, and I would argue that this internal correspondence between character, belief, and action is a value per se in an American political environment full of insinuation, fraud, and character assassination.
It is not the Obama I wanted. I wished for more than a “goo-goo.” But a goo-goo is what we got. Though his mission may be modest by my lights, our lives will be a little bit better if he succeeds in providing good government after a generation of government destruction and neglect.
However, it must be said that his disavowal of radical reform even of the ultimately balanced sort offered in the New Deal is bound to cause him problems politically. In trying to solve everyone’s problems in the “general interest,” he solves no one’s in particular. No one is his majority. Should he be re-elected, it will be because voters one by one in a plebiscite on his rule, will decide that some good government of a modest, technocratic sort is preferable to a right-wing reconstruction.