Monday, March 26, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians

Andrew Cockburn reports on a conversation between guardians of Judaeo-Christian values Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on September 11 (taken from the 9/11 Commission Report):

"After a brief discussion with [his acolytes], Rumsfeld finally made his way to the military command center. It was almost 10:30. Only then, as he later explained to the 9/11 Commission, did he begin to gain "situational awareness" of what was going on. After a brief interval he spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in a bunker under the White House and for the previous forty minutes had been issuing orders to shoot down suspicious airliners.

"There's been at least three instances here where we've had reports of aircraft approaching Washington - a couple were confirmed hijack," Cheney told Rumsfeld in his favored clipped, macho style. "And pursuant to the President's instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out."

Actually, the presidential authorization cited by Cheney consisted, at best, of the words "You bet" from Bush as Air Force One streaked out of Orlando, Florida. In any event, it was Rumsfeld, not Cheney, who was legally in the chain of command and authorized to give such an order.

"So we've got a couple of [military] aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?" asked Rumsfeld, still catching up.

"That is correct," replied Cheney. "And it's my understanding they've already taken a couple of aircraft out."

Together, these two men dominated the U.S. government for six years. They must have had thousands of conversations, but this snatch of dialogue, as released by the 9/11 Commission, is the only known publicly available sample of a private conversation between them. Though brief, it is instructive. Not for the last time, they were reacting to information that was wholly inaccurate - there were no more hijacked airliners in the sky. One of the planes Cheney had ordered "taken out" was United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania ten minutes before he issued the command. The other was a low-flying medevac helicopter on its way to the Pentagon. Neither man seemed concerned that the president was not involved. Cheney was usurping his authority, since he was not in the chain of command. Lacking any experience in the military, the vice president may not have realized that military commanders like precise orders, and will not proceed without them, which was why the fighter commanders chose not to pass on his aggressive instructions to the pilots." (Andrew Cockburn in the book Rumsfeld, excerpted in the New York Times, March 25, 2007).

The Conflict of the Faculties

Tom DeLay is the former House Republican majority leader known as "The Hammer." Turns out he is now bringing that bludgeon to the Communication discipline:

"Since his forced retreat from power in a corruption scandal, Tom DeLay, the former House Republican majority leader, must have been watching re-runs of “Cool Hand Luke.” That film’s cynical rationalization of life’s conflicts as merely a “failure to communicate” is Mr. DeLay’s approach to explaining the Republicans’ loss of Congress last year.

No, no, he insists in a new memoir, it wasn’t voters revolting against the quid pro quo corruption that Mr. DeLay turned into a dark art. Rather, Republicans “did not communicate their message” and overcome “short-term, media-fed issues.”

Despite Mr. DeLay’s retreat from public office after his indictment for political money laundering, the memoir is, of course, entitled “No Retreat, No Surrender.” Mr. DeLay excoriates former colleagues from Newt Gingrich to the leader of the moribund House ethics committee that finally found the temerity to admonish him. He is furious that Republicans didn’t back his attempt to stay in power after his indictment.

The private sector that the DeLay Inc. machine milked like a political cash cow is defended as if it were an underdog. “We should start recognizing that those who work in that sector have a right to political representation also,” says the former lawmaker as he defends his golf junket to Scotland — arranged by Jack Abramoff, the now-imprisoned lobbyist — as a genuine savings for the taxpayer.

Occasionally, truth peeks through. At one point, Mr. DeLay does allow that voters faced “a general perception of Republican incompetence and lack of principles.” Well, at least that got communicated, Mr. Former Leader." (The New York Times, "Tom DeLay Looks Back," March 21, 2007).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique

Peter Singer, fearless consequentialist, writes without irony:

"When we condemn the behaviour of a politician, celebrity, or friend, we often end up appealing to our moral intuitions. "It just feels wrong!" we say. But where do these intuitive judgments come from? Are they reliable moral guides?

Recently, some unusual research has raised questions about the role of intuitive responses in ethical reasoning. Joshua Greene, a philosophy graduate now working in psychology at Harvard, studied how people respond to a set of imaginary dilemmas. In one, you are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if it continues on its current track. The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley on to a side track, where it will kill only one person. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say you should divert the trolley on to the side track, thus saving a net four lives.

In another dilemma, the trolley is about to kill five people. This time, you are standing on a footbridge above the track. You cannot divert the trolley. You consider jumping off the bridge, in front of the trolley, thus sacrificing yourself to save the people in danger, but you realise you are too light to stop the trolley. Standing next to you is a very large stranger. The only way you can prevent the trolley from killing five people is by pushing this stranger off the bridge into the path of the trolley. He will be killed, but you will save the other five. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that it would be wrong to push the stranger.

This judgment is not limited to particular cultures. Marc Hauser, at Harvard University, has put similar dilemmas on the web in what he calls a Moral Sense Test ( After receiving tens of thousands of responses, he finds remarkable consistency despite differences in nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and sex.

Philosophers have puzzled about how to justify our intuitions in these situations, given that, in both cases, the choice seems to be between saving five lives at the cost of taking one. Greene, however, was more concerned to understand why we have the intuitions, so he used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to examine what happens in people's brains when they make these moral judgments.

Greene found that people asked to make a moral judgment about "personal" violations, like pushing the stranger off the footbridge, showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with emotions. This was not the case with people asked to make judgments about relatively "impersonal" violations like throwing a switch. Moreover, the minority of subjects who did consider that it would be right to push the stranger off the footbridge took longer to reach this judgment than those who said that doing so would be wrong.

Why would our judgments and emotions vary in this way? For most of our evolutionary history, human beings have lived in small groups, in which violence could be inflicted only in an up-close and personal way, by hitting, pushing, strangling, or using a stick or stone. To deal with such situations, we developed immediate, emotionally based intuitive responses to the infliction of violence on others. The thought of pushing the stranger off the bridge elicits these responses. On the other hand, it is only in the past couple of centuries - not long enough to have any evolutionary significance - that we have been able to harm anyone by throwing a switch that diverts a train. Hence the thought of doing it does not elicit the same emotional response as pushing someone off a bridge.

Greene's work helps us understand where our moral intuitions come from. But the fact that our moral intuitions are universal and part of our human nature does not mean that they are right. On the contrary, these findings should make us more sceptical about relying on our intuitions. There is, after all, no ethical significance in the fact that one method of harming others has existed for most of our evolutionary history, and the other is relatively new. Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions." (Peter Singer, "Reason With Yourself," The Guardian, Tuesday, March 20, 2007).

Ogged of Unfogged blog with Swiftian modesty appends a footnote of a study indicating:

"Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists are reporting today. In a new study, people with this rare injury expressed increased willingness to kill or harm another person if doing so would save others' lives."

To which Ogged comments:

"Consequentialism: Like Brain Damage, But Without The Excuse." (Ogged, Unfogged, 03/21/2007).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Ideology of the Fascist Aesthetic

Frank Miller, creator of the comic book/films 300 and Sin City was interviewed a while ago on NPR:

NPR: Frank, what’s the state of the union?
FM: Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within. And frankly, I think that a lot of Americans are acting like spoiled brats because of everything that isn’t working out perfectly every time.
NPR: Um, and when you say we don’t know what we want, what’s the cause of that do you think?
FM: Well, I think part of that is how we’re educated. We’re constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues. When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.
NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.
FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?
FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.
NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?
FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.
NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…
FM: Well, so did Iraq.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Ideology of the Fascist Aesthetic

Ahmad Sadri of the Lebanese Daily Star reviews the movie 300, currently making record-breaking profits in the U.S.A:

To my mind, Snyder's 300 drinks deeply at the cauldron of rage that is still boiling over in the United States six years after that bloody Tuesday. Two invasions, a trillion dollars in smoke and three thousand dead Americans have not sated the Achellian anger in a remote part of the American psyche. The movie 300 unleashes that abiding desire to curse, brag and rave at "endless Asian hordes." Bring'em on you barbarian slaves, you, you..., black, gay, effeminate, depraved cowards. Your friends are hunchbacks, deformed giants, midgets, magicians, eunuchs, perverts, lesbians and executioners. To hell with you all and your "mysticism and tyranny!"

Nobody expects historical accuracy from a Hollywood movie based on a graphic novel. But using domestic racial and sexual stereotypes to demonize the enemy is breaking new ground. In the movie 300 Persian "immortal" knights are snarling beasts beneath their sinister masks and their king is a pierced and bejeweled androgynous savage. But, more significantly, Snyder's Persians - I am not talking about the disposable extras covered up to their eyes in male burqas - are predominantly black and by implication of mannerism and affect, homosexual. Allowing the widest berth for the genre and medium one still marvels at Snyder's audacity in demonizing the "Asiatic hordes" while morphing the Spartan warrior into the typical white American survivalist. Snyder's Spartans are white guys fighting a sea of racially inferior blacks, yellows and browns. They are staunchly heterosexual and weary of their elected elders (ephors) who are seen as sacrilegious lepers, traitors and scheming politicians.

Lenin of Lenin's Tomb adds:

Already the skies have been filled with such phrases as "gorgeous slaughter", "how fucking cool was that?", "best film ever", "Wholesale human slaughter never looked so pretty", "one-fifth history, four-fifths something that looks cool", "This movie is about the decapitations, severed limbs and blood splattering all over the screen. Yet, it works", "the movie's just too darned silly to withstand any ideological theorizing. And 'silly' is invoked here, more or less, with affection".

Obviously, I pinched most of those phrases from the thumbs-up reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. Most sympathetic reviewers have focused on how "rousing" and electrifying the slaughter is, how beautiful the machismo is, how alluring and artful the genocide is. At the same time, those who are sensitive to the charge of revelling in celluloid fascism are keen to assure readers that there is nothing ideological involved. That would be dirty and crass agitprop, while this is fun. The slogan that accompanies the film's title is "Prepare for Glory". The glory happens to be the last stand of Spartan "free men" against an anachronistic race of tyrannical mystics, effete warriors, transexuals, biomorphically perverse midgets, black people, lesbians etc. All the characters are digitally enhanced in ways that permit the level of editorialising through physical forms that is usually only available to the cartoonist.


It was reported that in pre-screenings, critics booed this movie and walked out in droves because it was such a pile of crap. It has now made record-breaking profits. Frank Miller, the author of the comic that became the film, has not shrunk from the Clash of Civilisations thesis imputed to his dreck: it is about the superiority of Western civilisation against a "sixth-century barbarism" evinced by those who "saw people's heads off" and therefore "do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us". On the one hand, the reduction of a brutal political strategy to "cultural norms" (where do these 'cultural norms' persist or emanate from?) gives the game away. On the other hand, films like this, and television programmes like 24 (in which I believe at least one person has had his sawed off by the hero) do indicate that such 'cultural norms' are eminently sensible to some American audiences. Sensible thus: "We don't like having to do it, but these barbarians come to our country in the hundreds of thousands and try to enslave us. We have infinitely fewer forces, but nevertheless we heroically resist, and if that resistance is brutal, then so be it." The book has an introduction by the Islamophobic neocon, Victor Davis Hanson, which denies a 'political message' but insists that it is problematic for 'multicultural' audiences in that it takes an unequivocally 'moral' stance on behalf of Hellenic superiority. Zack Snyder, the director, is someone who made the fairly commonplace move from advertising to movie-making, and presumably had a fair idea what it was about the comic that would appeal to audiences. You don't get to make that leap without knowing what sells.

It is quite interesting, this spate of historical fantasies, evoking Hellenic, Roman or Christian legacies: Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, HBO's 'Rome' series, for instance. Something is decidedly up with that. There is nothing new in futuristic comic book fantasies saturated with contemporary reference and the worship of technology and fascistic superhuman power. Imagined futures are invariably composed from historical and contemporary bric-a-brac. Nor is the reimagining of history as a contemporary drama at all original. But why the sudden surfeit of it, with all its in-your-face civilisationalist, culturalist metaphors? Why the slew of earnest, fascist fantasy (Batman Begins, Superman Returns etc)? Why did the X-men 'cure' themselves? Why is slaughter 'gorgeous'? Why is genocide dampening crevices and stirring pocket-linings in a cinema near you?" (Lenin, "Gorgeous Slaughter," Tuesday, March 13, 2007).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fascism and Form

Long before Paul de Man was exposed as the fascist that he was, Frank Lentricchia had discerned the grammar of the Reichspropagandaleitung:

"Recently in the Hudson Review William Pritchard playfully dubbed Yale's four best-known literary critics the "Hermeneutical mafia." Who could have imagined that the term 'Mafia' would degenerate into a metaphor for avant-garde literary theorists? But perhaps there may be some value in extending a much-assaulted figure to the fearsome Yale group. Assuming there is a Yale mafia, then surely there must be a resident Godfather. One is forced to finger Paul de Man, who exhibits qualities that may earn him the role of Don Paolo, capo di tutti capi. Reading the prefaces and acknowledgments of Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, one is struck by the tone of respect, even reverence, with which the name of Paul de Man is mentioned. It is not difficult to locate reasons. Bloom's latest thesis about literary history was announced by de Man in an obscure essay; Miller's turn from Poulet to Derrida in an essay on Poulet was not much more than a repetition of de Man's earlier essay on Poulet. The question is, why should Bloom, Hartman, and Miller -- potential dons in their own right -- appear to be executing the orders of Godfather de Man?

In the manner of a don whose power is assured and unquestioned, de Man has found it necessary to speak only sparingly; in comparison to his prolific lieutenants he is almost invisible. We know that according to certain dark traditions the don need not speak often, nor elaborately, because when the don speaks he speaks with total authority, and it is de Man's "rhetoric of authority," as I'll call it, which has distinguished his criticism since its earliest days. This is a critic who has always given the impression of having a grip on truth. Even while, in Blindness and Insight, he was telling us that there was no truth, of if there was, that it could never be known, he spoke transcendentally of the "foreknowledge we possess of the true nature of literature." Unlike Hartman, whose prose, in its pursuit of the labyrinthine ramifications of a point, is the very model of the scholar's descent into the inferno of self-consciousness; and unlike Bloom, whose emotionally pressured and strident style gives away a critic not altogether confident of how what he proposes will be received, de Man has not had to speak in anything but a cool and straightforward manner.

The epigraph that I've chosen from one of his latest pieces is representative of the de Man style at its most intimidating: [ "The whole of literature would respond in a similar fashion, although the techniques and the patterns would have to vary considerably, of course, from author to author. But there is absolutely no reason why analyses of the kind here suggested for Proust would not be applicable, with proper modifications of technique, to Milton or to Dante or to Holderlin. This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years." -- Paul de Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric"]. He speaks openly of the "whole of literature" responding to his thesis. But how does he know? Is he making the claim from a transcendental ground, having discovered the a priori form of all literary discourse? In two subordinate clauses, we observe him granting a qualification: he tells us that techniques of analysis will have to be modified from author to author. But the tone of his qualification is set with that tired little scholarly aside -- "of course" -- which in this instance projects the tone of the critics voice, condescending to an elaboration, but telling us, as he does so, that such practical matters are for others to worry about. The final sentence clarifies his stance: "This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years." If we had any doubts, we know now that de Man is making not an empirical but an idealistic claim. He presumes to tell us not only what literature has been but also what it must be. And, somewhat chillingly (perhaps it is best to drop the metaphor of the Godfather at this point), he tells us not what literary critics ought to be doing but what "in fact" they shall be doing. In one way or another, whether in the philosophical garb of the Sartrean existentialist, or in the guise of the Derridean poststructuralist, de Man has been speaking that way about literature and criticism for many years." (Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism, p. 283--284).

"Irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas" (With Apologies to Lionel Trilling)

Gary Kamiya on the content of American conservativism:

"It will be objected that Coulter, Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and their ilk are just the lunatic fringe of a respectable movement. But in what passes for conservatism today, the lunatic fringe is respectable. In the surreal parade of Bush administration follies and sins, one singularly telling one has gone almost entirely unremarked: Vice President Dick Cheney has appeared several times on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Think about this: The holder of the second-highest office in the land has repeatedly chummed it up with a factually challenged right-wing hack, a pathetic figure only marginally less creepy than Coulter. Imagine the reaction if Al Gore, when he was vice president, had routinely appeared on a radio show hosted by, say, Ward Churchill. (The comparison is feeble: There really is no left-wing equivalent of Limbaugh, just as there is no left-wing equivalent of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy.) The entire American political system would melt down. Beltway wise men would trip on their penny loafers in their haste to demand Gore's head. Robert Bork would come out of retirement to call for a coup to restore the caliphate, I mean the Judeo-Christian moral law in America. Yet the grotesque Cheney-Limbaugh love-in doesn't raise an eyebrow. We're so inured to the complete convergence of "respectable" conservatism and reactionary talk-radio ravings that we don't even deem it worthy of comment.


In fact, the right's culture war was -- and is -- mostly bogus. Most of the deep societal changes it decried -- the decline of community, the loss of religious faith, economic insecurity, selfishness, social atomization, anomie -- cannot be blamed on liberalism: They are products of modernity itself and of the modern world's triumphant economic system, capitalism. (Daniel Bell pointed this out more than 30 years ago in his 1976 classic "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.") And those changes have been greatly exacerbated by the monopolistic, heck-of-a-job-Brownie, corporate-crony version of capitalism -- one loudly championed by, naturally, the GOP. Other aspects of the right's culture war are simply reactionary and/or unconstitutional, like its attack on science and its outrageous attempt to tear down the wall between church and state. There are some culture-war issues, like the fight over abortion, that are genuine moral cruxes and difficult to resolve. But even these have been made far more toxic and destructive than necessary by the right's hysterical use of them as a bludgeon to attack its enemies.

But if the right's culture war is almost entirely a fraud, and is one of the major factors behind the unraveling of the American polity, it paid big political dividends. The right's embrace of "values" allowed it to stave off what should have been its inexorable decline. If the price is obeisance to an increasingly vulgar, bigoted, nativist, know-nothing and theocratic ideology -- well, apparently it is better to survive as a slimy Gollum hungering after the Ring of Power than not to survive at all.

By rights, American conservatism should be dead or on life support by now. The ideology has always been incoherent, deeply divided between its libertarian, free-market wing and its traditionalist, "values" wing. As George H. Nash noted in his 1976 book "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945," a shared anti-communism and political convenience temporarily concealed these profound differences. Ronald Reagan's anti-communism, and his sunny personality, allowed free-market conservatives to overlook the fact that government actually grew enormously on his watch. With a majority of Americans continuing to believe in Democratic social policies and programs, and demographic trends running in the Democrats' favor, the right was facing disaster after Reagan's exit and the fall of communism. It desperately needed a boogeyman to unify its unruly factions. Fortunately, conjuring up boogeymen has been a right-wing specialty since the days of the Know-Nothing movement.


The sorry state of contemporary conservatism shows that there is an innate danger to civil society in letting loose the dogs of "values" -- especially right-wing values. Because conservatives tend to believe more than liberals in good and evil, in a clear-cut, transcendental morality, a values-based politics for them quickly acquires not just an authoritarian cast, but an almost religious one. As we learned on 9/11, and observe every day in Iraq, religious zealotry is not conducive to reasoned discussions. When you have God, right and patriarchal authority on your side, anything goes. The result, among other things, is ugly psychosexual mudslinging like Coulter's. As my Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the right's strategy is "to feminize ... all male Democratic or liberal political leaders. For multiple reasons, nobody does that more effectively or audaciously than Coulter, which is why they need her so desperately and will never jettison her."

Yet despite their supposed beliefs, a kind of nihilism, an intellectual sterility, emanates from the Coulters and Limbaughs of the world. This is in part due to the fact that they are, at bottom, entertainers, stand-up comedians of resentment. Their riffs are so facile and endless that they devour whatever actual beliefs supposedly stand behind them. Incapable of compromise or nuance, lashing out robotically, never finding common ground or examining their own ideas, they are shills of negativity, forever battling cartoonish monsters in a lurid, increasingly unrecognizable world. And most Americans, even conservative ones who may share some of their putative positions, are tired of their glib, empty paranoia. If these are the messengers, there must be something wrong with the message." (Gary Kamiya, "The Coulterization of the American Right," Salon).