December 2001 Notebook
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Sunday, December 30, 2001

Usual news this morning: Palestine arrests terrorist suspects, and Israel says that's not enough; Pakistan arrests terrorist suspects, and India says that's not enough; U.S. bombs convoy of tribal leaders in Afghanistan, says they thought they were Taliban. But then there's this puff piece called "Bush's rookie year a success." I stewed for a while, then fired this note off to The Wichita Eagle:

Bush's rookie year a success? Well, he's certainly accomplished a lot: a war that is projected to be endless and that provides Israel and India an excuse to step up their own wars; an economy in the toilet, with rising unemployment; tax cuts to the rich, and bailouts to big business (although not enough to save his buddies at Enron); the end of the surplus that supposedly had been necessary to keep Social Security solvent; an assault on our legal system which has safeguarded our freedom for over 200 years; and not the least bit of attention to skyrocketing health care costs; and, of course, more damage to the environment. I'm just not sure how much Bush success we can really afford.

The list, of course, could have gone on and on, but in tallying it up so far I'm struck by how huge these calamities really are, and how hard it was less than a year ago to predict so much damage so soon. Equally amazing is how little attention people here seem to be paying.

Saturday, December 29, 2001

The Village Voice did a set of articles under the rubric of "A Lefty New Year: Reviving Left Influence in a Time of Rampant Reaction." I didn't read much of this, but what I did read seemed long on protest and short on ideas. Take the union piece for example: some good points about the value of work, but the bottom line is 13% -- that's the current measure of unionization in the U.S. workforce. Predictably, the push is to organize more, but let's suspend disbelief for a moment and ask what happens if herculean efforts push the figure up to, what?, 15%. Not much of a difference. Hell, double the unionization figure -- that'd just about get you back to the '50s -- and you still wind up with a situation where unions have no direct bearing on the lives of three out of every four workers. I think it's obvious that if unions ever hope to have any role in American life other than being a special interest group for a semi-lucky few, you have to start looking at doing something for the non-union 87%. I've always believed in unions, but I've never worked where there was a union or even a union movement, so I've never been represented by anything more than my own wits. Could I have ever used a helping hand? Damn straight! Damn near everyone can use a helping hand.

The Voice featured two war pieces, one anti, but the other more/less pro. The latter was written by longtime friend Robert Christgau, provocatively titled "Wanted: A Protest Movement for Progressive Hawks." I lost some sleep over this, but ultimately the argument doesn't amount to much. As a movement it is hopelessly compromised. It won't impress the war establishment, whose main concern is to reassert America's symbolically tarnished superpowerdom. Its argument is equally wasted on those of us who do believe in peace, since we also believe that all that the Progressive Hawks wish to protest is in fact the work of war. And it's hard to see any fertile middle ground that would be more impressed by, say, Hawks for Civil Liberties, than by a broad-based coalition that focuses on simple questions, like is limiting this or that civil liberty really necessary even in a world vulnerable to terrorism? As for Hawks for Feeding People Displaced by War, enough said.

The rhetoric can also be dispensed with. Hawk seems to have two shades of meaning. One is the preoccupation that hawks have for attacking doves, which is often all they do. The other is the core belief that good things can come from the application of military force. The latter point does not totally lack historical justification -- primarily in the form of tyrants who seem unable to accept "no" in any other form. Yet every case I can think of where war winds up looking remotely good is littered with previous failures to address serious grievances. Take Nazi Germany. The appeasements are often cited as a failure of the will to go to war against evil, but evil was there to be challenged long before Germany marched into Czechoslovakia, or Austria, or even the Rhine. And really, evil (in this case racism and anticommunism) much preceded the Nazis -- had such evil been effectively opposed by the generation before, and had WW I been settled (or better, not fought) more constructively, would the Nazis ever taken root? (A highly rhetorical point, I admit, given that the WW I generation was led by virulent racists and anticommunists like Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George -- talk about Progressive Hawks!)

But the word that worries me most is Progressive -- both as historical reference and as political agenda. Progressivism was but a historical moment -- the notion that technological progress would complete man's domination of nature, and that business and political organizations would have to evolve to make that domination more reasonable and fair. There are some good ideas in the progressive agenda -- antitrust, in particular, is worth resuscitating -- but the key idea of forcing nature has run into limits: more and more we find ourselves trying to figure out how to live with nature rather than simply dominating it. Also more muddled now is the notion of progress and especially the direction of progress, especially when one moves beyond technology and into culture and economics.

But there are more problems with "progressive hawkism" than just poor choice of rhetoric. These include:

  1. A tendency to greatly exaggerate the threat of terrorism, and to react in ways that amplify the effectiveness of terrorism.
  2. The view that we (U.S. citizens) have common interests distinct from the rest of the world, and that we can trust the Bush administration to protect and further those interests.
  3. The view that similar acts done by different groups for allegedly different reasons should be judged differently. (E.g., I've read that terrorist bombing is worse than U.S./Israeli bombing because the former deliberately targets civilians, whereas the latter only kills civilians by accident.)
  4. A deep-seated belief that force works, that force can be used for good effect.

One could add more to the list, but I'm not doing a good job either of representing Bob's views or of containing my critique to them. This seems much like the second coming of the Cold War Liberals: pro-New Deal, pro-Civil Rights, anti-Communist, ideological apologists for the Vietnam War. It seems to be a fallacy that intellectuals are particularly prone to: the arrogance that they can re-arrange the world to fit their ideals, and the foolishness to think that the people who hold power will be so smitten by their fealty that they will be allowed to exercise power. The Liberals got nothing for their efforts -- the war only strengthened the warmongers and their conservative cohorts, while the New Left was invented to exclude them. IMHO, much the same fate awaits Progressive Hawks.

One thing that happened after Sept. 11 was that all sorts of people crawled out of the woodwork with their own special agendas. E.g., I recall a well-known Gun Nut asserting that the only way the hijackings were possible was because law-abiding gun-toters weren't allowed to pack heat on airplanes. Among these people, the 900 lb. gorilla was the U.S. military -- a lazy but dangerous group that has been so hard-up to justify itself that it's tried to peddle a missile defense fantasy for the past 20+ years. This fit Bush's political agenda much more than it fit the problem, but the only skill the U.S. military has is bombing, so it quickly led to the absurdity of bombing caves with B-52s, while promoting local gangsters as our proxy ground troops.

Thursday, December 27, 2001

I keep this file open, but days seem to pass by without me ever noticing it. Christmas has come and gone -- hardly amounts to much since my folks died. Mike came back from NJ for a couple of days. We fixed Indonesian food one night (Ayam Bali, Nasi Goreng), and I showed Mike how I make peanut sauce.

For Christmas I baked two cakes from Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen: Sweet Potato Layer Cake, and Oatmeal Stout Cake. No weight lost this season. Mom would be proud.

Saturday, December 15, 2001

I know I said I may stop trying to do movie reviews, but I got roped into this movie, and someone's gotta pay for it:

Movie: Ocean's Eleven. Not as offensive as the other overhyped criminal superhero movies, basically because it squanders so little talent that it's hardly worth the effort it would take to hate it. The rotten core is the menage trois between George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Andy Garcia -- beats me what any of them sees in each other, but such shallowness is never easy to fathom. The balance of the movie is little more than a technological obstacle course. Of course the crooks scale the course with just enough aplomb to fill out two hours. Of course they get away with the loot -- America has come a long way since movies were required to admonish that crime doesn't pay. Little pays these days but crime. C-

Monday, December 10, 2001

Spent a good deal of Saturday typing down artist names from All Music Guide to Electronica. Got a lot of 1000 names with **** or better albums. Looked up a bunch of them on AMG, and added those with ****(*) or better. This pushed my estimated Techno/Electronica coverage down from 36% to 22%. The likelihood that I'll get my coverage back up to 36% is pretty slim; the 50% that I think is pretty good coverage is a pipe dream at best. I like the music, but making distinctions amongst it is hard, and buying broadly just isn't in the economic cards these days. As I recall, I wasn't able to recognize 10% of the artists in Drum 'n' Bass: The Rough Guide when I first looked at it; I may be up to 35% or so, but way below where I'd be even on rap (where I think my 69% is way overblown, but I have 220 rap records rated vs. 57 electronica). I also have T.J.'s list: of 30 records, I own two, own other records by two others, hadn't heard of well more than half. I'm working on this; hard to say if I'm making progress.

Spent most of Sunday trying to sift out an outline for a record guide. The idea would be to lay out a map of the interesting parts of the musical universe, at least from my own singular viewpoint. Having a single viewpoint promises some coherency (unlike, e.g., AMG), but also ensures uneven coverage (too much groundwork, even if one's ears were up to it) and a strong likelihood that few people will share my taste or trust my judgments. So why do it? Too early to tell, but chances are it's just for me: a slice of autobiography, an exercise of thought, a chance to create a pretty picture. IOW, it would be art. Some rough numbers: I have approx. 1000 A/A+ records rated (out of 7000 total, pretty damn generous). Some of these would be weeded out as duplicates (e.g., go with the larger of the two A+ Coasters anthologies), but some A- records are worth writing up. Say I write 150 words on each, that's 150,000 words, a decent sized book. Slightly less than 50% are rock (broadly speaking); another 25% are jazz; the rest are scattered, with country, blues, reggae, and African in pretty comprehensive shape.

Friday, December 07, 2001

Let's talk about something else. I had been adding short journal entries when I saw movies. I think the last one was Ghost World. Since then I've seen three movies: one worthy of comment, the other two more deserving of derision. Working backwards:

  • Heist is yet another of a seemingly endless stream of movies featuring (usually reluctant) super-crooks. Soderbergh's Oceans 11 opens today, promsing more of the same. But this is Mamet, so we also have to endure more double crosses and sleight-of-hand tricks than I can keep track of, much less give a damn. C+

  • Mulholland Drive sure looked like good ole film noir, but whereas much of the pleasure of detective art is to resolve complexity into truth and understanding, David Lynch gives us nothing but confusion. I've read critics chirping about how this shifts into parallel universes, but such shifts as do appear do little more than negate the preceding story. Sooner or later all this negation sums up to . . . nothing. C

  • Apocalypse Now Redux: The extra scenes add weight, nuance, and pacing to Coppolla's Vietnam-as-descent-into-hell flick, but the metaphors haven't aged well. Or maybe I'm just less tolerant of artistic license since the history and lessons of the Vietnam war seem to be slipping ever further from our grasp. For instance, we seem to have reduced the tragedy of Vietnam to a single watchword: quagmire, omnipresent here in the encroaching, smothering jungle. But the movie is enough a piece of its time that if you remember the time, you can piece it back together again. The main problem for the US was distinguishing friend from foe; two such lines were drawn, a theoretical one by the politicians, and an arbitrary one by US firepower, each compromising the other. Deeper was the cultural dissonance -- the movie spotlights beachboy consumerism and the hardened special forces warriors, but from every facet of American poltical culture you could see a distorted image of Vietnam. The quagmire in Vietnam was not the jungle: it was the contradiction of destroying villages to save them, the impossibility of military and political and socioeconomic success, and ultimately the damage done to America's own capacity for moral reasoning. Until we come to grips with what was profoundly wrong in America's Vietnam war we will remain prisoners of our delusions. Coppolla doesn't really help us here. A-

We also watched 1999's James Bond tramp, The World Is Not Enough, on TV. What a relief: terrorism so absurd you could laugh at it, or more likely snicker. Bad writing. Worse acting. Ridiculous action sequences. Bad science. Lame technology. Giggly sex. It was a hoot. B-

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

Old news, but it looks like the anthrax threat which so effectively pushed up US paranoia to grease the skids for Bush's Afghan adventure was done with US government-made anthrax. Without getting into the question of who mailed the anthrax, or why, one conclusion is obvious: the terror would not exist had the US military not developed the weapon. Which is to say that at least in this case terrorism could have been prevented by the simple, sensible policy of governments not developing terrorist weapons.

It is insane that anyone could justify development of biological weapons as a valid military (let alone "defense" -- they do call it the Department of Defense) weapon. The obvious problem is that is that it is impossible to aim or time-limit disease organisms. (Not that the US is able to aim its bombs all that accurately, but at least they only go off once, and somewhere in the neighborhood of their intended target.) On the other hand, as we've seen, anthrax can be an effective terrorist weapon. Maybe that's why the US developed it?

I hate the "weapons of mass destruction" euphemism. Three things: 1) It conflates nuclear weapons (which are the real standard by which we measure mass destruction) with chemical and biological weapons that effect their destruction in incomparable ways, which makes it all the harder to see the differences. 2) It amplifies people's fears of chem/bio attacks, which in turn makes their threat more effective and attractive to terrorists. 3) It sanitizes the weapons, making them seem legitimate for the US to have while only illegitimate for terrorists. A much more appropriate grouping phrase would be "weapons of criminal irresponsibility." What all these weapons have in common that they are indiscriminate and have potentially longlasting effects. The inability to properly target them makes it crazy to deploy them -- for the exception that proves the rule we need only note that the one place Nazi Germany did deploy poison gas during WWII was in closed rooms full of Jews.

For many years the US justified its nuclear arsenal as deterrence against other nations' nuclear arsenals. That theory depended on a fundamental symmetry with other threatening nations. That symmetry breaks down with terrorist groups, and the breakdown fundamentally alters the logic of keeping such fundamentally irresponsible weapons: against the "benefit" of defense-by-deterrence we have to weigh the risk that such weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. What is that risk? Well, in the anthrax case it has already happened. (If you fancy the theory that the US government planted the anthrax as some sort of hair-brained innoculation program, you probably think the US government is the world's biggest terrorist anyway.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

More war news: chalk up another big day for the bomb people over the bystanders. Israel's tactic of trying to "motivate" Arafat by bombing his habitual hangouts reminds me of nothing so much as one of those westerns where the sadistic outlaw shouts "dance!" as he shoots around the feet of some schlemiel. How can anyone, much less the nominal leader of a nation, function under such conditions? The only sensible thing Arafat can do under the circumstances would be to dissolve his organization and go into exile, removing his person as an issue. The smart thing would be to go one step further, and denounce jihad and its attendant terrorism as a viable strategy to secure human rights for Palestinians living under Israel's suzerainty. For if anything is clear, it is that terrorism is a desperate act which plays to the worst impulses of those in power.

One thing that is especially disheartening here is that Israel's targeting of Arafat comes on the heels of meetings between Sharon and the US government. Whereas the early post-9/11 hope was that the US would moderate Israel in the hopes of gaining much needed Islamic support against Al Qaeda, it now looks like the 9/11 glee evinced by the likes of Peres and Netanyahu has prevailed. Israel indeed has much to teach the US about terrorism: specifically, how terrorist threats provide cover and excuse for the most vicious and reactionary of political agendas. But it also puts US actions in the harshest of light: Given how popular it would be in the US to assassinate Osama Bin Laden, how can we fault Israel for its assassination program? Given that the US adjudged Mullah Omar culpable for not handing Bin Laden over, how can we fault Israel for condemning Arafat? Given that the US routinely bombs innocent bystanders in the name of protecting its security, how can we fault Israel for the same. We have in fact given Israel a green light to wreak unlimited havoc, and it's hard to imagine that the world will not give the US more credit than we'd really like for Israel's actions.

This matters little to our cynical allies in Israel. After all, they've lived and breathed war for 50 years; perhaps they wouldn't know what to do with themselves otherwise? The fact that the level of hate there has never been higher has a reassuring continuity to it. But one wonders how long this show will play to rapt audiences in middle America. While the US government has engaged in foreign wars almost continuously since 1942, those wars have had very little impact on everyday life here. WWII was a big pep rally -- tough on the soldiers, but a boom for everyone else. The anticommunist crusades were minor distractions on TV, and the mercenary thing against Iraq was little more than one of those short-lived smash hits. But girding for an endless threat of terrorism, and enduring the endless hassles of prying, sinister government, is something that's likely to grow tired.

But the bigger question will be how to move beyond the cycle of terrorism and repression, and give peace a chance. Were Arafat to do that, to just walk away condemning both sets of bombers, would be a noble (or Nobel) move. But the only Nobel-worthy prize this year is for war: let's share this one between Osama Bin Laden and Ariel Sharon. And hope that George Bush isn't still in the running come next year.

Monday, December 03, 2001

Resolution: write more. As a minimal step, I'll just keep this file open. Try to jot down passing thoughts.

Hendrik Hertzberg's New Yorker comment (Dec. 3, 2001) was among the most annoying things I've read about the Afghan war:

One way in which this conflict is indeed different is that there is no antiwar movement to speak of. [ . . . ] Apart from traditional pacifists, who oppose any use of force on principle, and a tiny handful of reflexive Rip Van Winkles, almost no one objects, in broad outline, to the aims and methods of the antiterrorism campaign.

I'm not sure which one of these diminutive and deprecated groups I belong to, but it isn't hard or unreasonable to find objections to either aims or methods in the US's "antiterrorism campaign." The aim is clearly to contain terrorism by repression. More basically, this means that the aim is to reassert the inevitability and indomitability of US global power. The campaign we're witnessing is the reflex of power provoked. But the methods do little more than remind us that the US's real power doesn't amount to much more than the ability to indiscriminately bomb and wreak havoc, to unleash terror at a pitch that Al Qaeda can only dream about.

In this, the US leadership has managed to reverse the plain truth of the 9/11 attacks, which is that the victims had no relationship to any plausible complaint about the US or how the US power has damaged any other part of the world, and that the terrorists had shown themselves to be utterly immoral in their slaughter of innocents. Hertzberg is right that no one disagrees with this judgment of the terrorists. Where he misses the boat is in not realizing that the same logic that lets the US leaders justify their bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other quarters of the Islamic world, is the selfsame logic that leads terrorists, with their relatively crude weapons, to target US innocents. And while in the US people like Hertzberg are grinning over laundered news about US military success in Afghanistan, the even more hardened government/terrorist factions in Israel have viciously expanded their own power tryst.

The bottom line is that the logic of terrorism and repression, the indifference and contempt for the lives and liberties of innocents, is the common denominator for terrorists and repressive powers alike. They need each other to justify themselves, in effect they are each other. But why on earth do we need either of them?

Quoting Hertzberg again:

The truth is that no one anticipated the extraordinary military gains of the past two weeks, and no one can know what the next two weeks -- or two months, or two years -- will bring.

Actually, the military gains seem pretty straightforward. The US pressured Pakistan and Saudi Arabia into stopping the arms flow to the Taliban, so the Taliban withdrew. The sad story of Afghanistan is that for more than 20 years now civil war has been funded by other countries shipping arms and supplies to anyone willing to fight. Cut off those arms supplies and the civil war has to dry up.

I've never thought of myself as a pacifist -- I don't have the instincts, and I don't have the faith. But I hate it when the media dump on them: experience has shown that their instincts are usually right, while the instincts of the warriors rarely give us anything but more war. And when that becomes ridiculously obvious, we'll need all the pacifists we can find.


Oct 2001 Jan 2002