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Friday, January 28, 2005

 

dressing down


if you want to know why most europeans feel entirely within their rights to look down their noses at naive, sophmoric, childlike americans, look no further than vice president dick cheney attending the recent 60th annual memorial at auschwitz.



if it weren't for all the bombs and missiles, they'd have hidden him in the back.


So glad to see you have begun blogging about the really important stuff. Mr. Cheney is an old man in suspect health. I respect his good sense in dressing warmly. However, I would not have bought the coat with white fringe on the hood because I could never keep it clean and I dislike its appearance. I think he would have done better to purchase a dark hooded coat as his wife did. Still, we are just nitpicking. Most Europeans hate Mr. Cheney regardless of his attire.

 
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lol -- i agree about the global opinion of cheney. but there is indeed a broader point about the ugly american which cheney is demonstrating. the stereotypical american is simply not class-, style- or etiquette-conscious. it's something american politicians and businessmen have to work against, not reinforce.

this is both good and bad -- to offer the counterpoint to my own opinion, many plebiscitarian europeans find american naivite on this count positive, deriding tradition and class division in europe as stagnating.

but i think even they would have to admit this is not charmingly naive, but inappropriate.

 
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Gaius,

I agree with you completely. An obviously successful businessman dressed like a rube for a solemn occasion. Truly a phenomenal job by Cheney of reinforcing the stereotype of the ugly American. I wonder if at any time he asked a waiter or waitress to "speak American".

 
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This picture is brilliant! Look at this guy. He's the gorilla in the china shop. This picture gave me a great laugh. Thanks,

 
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the last iraqi election


in case any had notions to the contrary, it seems that even neoconservatives like larry kaplan have thrown up their hands in iraq:

If Iraq the place has for some time now borne scant resemblance to Iraq the abstraction, the distance only became greater with President Bush's inaugural address. The president spoke not only of supporting democracy, but of "support[ing] the growth of democratic movements and institutions." To the world's "democratic reformers," Bush pledged, "America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country." But in Iraq, the very centerpiece of the U.S. campaign to export democracy, "democratic movements and institutions" are dying, the result of illiberalism, U.S. neglect, and, above all, sheer physical insecurity. As it grinds into its third year, the war for a liberal Iraq is destroying the dream of a liberal Iraq.

If liberal democracy--that is, a political system that protects basic rights and freedoms--is a political choice, an act of will, then someone must create and sustain it. In Iraq, however, those someones--Iraqi liberals--have been so thoroughly marginalized that Sunday's elections, which should be the crowning achievement of Iraqi liberalism, may instead signal its end. As well as empowering religious conservatives, the elections will showcase a cartoon version of democracy, a process of choosing leaders and not much more. The liberal component of liberal democracy--to the extent that it ever took hold in Iraq--has all but evaporated. Its dissipation can be measured in opinion polls, which show dramatic declines in support for a secular state and civil liberties, as well as in the weakness of Iraq's civil society and the strength of its sectarian attachments. It can be measured in the popularity of illiberal political parties. It can even be measured in the meager sums Washington has allotted Iraqi nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and liberal activists. Most of all, it can be measured by the number of prominent Iraqi liberals--NGO leaders, secular politicians, progressive clerics, newspaper editors--who have taken refuge behind barbed-wire gates, fled the country, gone broke, or been murdered. In a country with no liberal past to draw from, where ethnic and religious identities are hardening and daily suicide-bombs and beheadings are ripping apart the thin layer of national cohesion that remains, this hardly comes as a surprise. But for anyone who hoped to see a model democracy take root in the Arab world, it comes as a profound disappointment.
to my mind, the elections make not the slightest difference to the united states occupation -- the insurgency is almost certain to continue in its aftermath, and the bush administration will continue to set the parameters of what iraqi institutions can and cannot do for so long as the american army in iraq remains 150,000 strong. moreover, the idea that washington hasn't gamed the election seems absurdly naive, with so much political capital riding on the outcome.

but kaplan seems to think the outcome is not gamed -- or at least couldn't be gamed to the point of assuring a pro-american outcome. so he is taking the pre-emptive step of declaring the election a failure, that the inherent liberal will of the iraqi people (and it is inherent, if you are a neocon) has been overwhelmed by tradition, violence and neglect.

this conceit would allow the bush administration the freedom to vacate the election and install "enlightened despotism". but at least kaplan puts the lie to the pollyanna propaganda that regularly drips from washington:

Going out on Army patrols, then, feels like passing through a looking glass. Crisscrossing western Baghdad with a convoy made up of elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, the Iraqis staring back at us seem far away. The sensation doesn't last. The convoy lurches to a halt at a street corner in Mansur. Apart from the soldiers mounting the machine guns atop the Humvees, the troops all dismount--and start handing out pro-government newspapers. Perhaps because the handout is, literally, an exercise in gunpoint democracy, Iraq Now has few takers, and we make our way back to the American base. As we zip past gas-station lines and through traffic circles--Iraqi cars in front of us scattering to make way--an Army specialist riding in the front seat says, "Ninety percent of them are glad we're here. They know their freedom depends on us."

The belief runs all the way up the chain of command, along with a faith in Iraqi democracy that even the most optimistic of Iraq's liberals can't match. At Camp Victory, the sprawling Army base on the outskirts of Baghdad that the 1st Infantry Division and various units attached to it call home, I sit down for lunch in the book-lined office of Colonel Mark A. Milley, the 2nd Brigade's commander. "The enemy," Milley tells me, "is akin to nineteenth-century nihilists--they offer no alternative vision of society, they're only trying to destroy." And us? "As is true in any insurgency," Milley continues, "the people who will succeed have to appeal to large segments of the population. We and the government of Iraq offer a policy of hope." He recounts the story of an Iraqi cleric who told him, "What you are doing has God's blessing." At which point one of Milley's officers opens the door. The 2nd Brigade has been mortared, and five of Milley's soldiers have been wounded, one seriously. Over the past month alone, seven have died.

The losses don't seem to have budged members of the brigade from their faith in the U.S. mission. "Iraqis are starting to see that things are getting better," Major Web Wright tells me. "They can see that we're offering them a future." Dusk arrives, and I wander around the base with a young Army journalist. Miles and miles of trailers stretch into the distance, flanked by forests of antennae and swirls of dust, kicked up by armored vehicles going out on patrols and choppers landing and taking off. In the huge mess hall, Indian servers offer ice cream, cheeseburgers, even an Indian buffet. And then I stumble back into Iraq. Searching for a night patrol to hitch a ride with, I wander into the darkened courtyard of a battalion headquarters. There, facing a concrete blast wall, sit a row of what appear at first glance to be soldiers back from a patrol, huddling in blankets. But they are all wearing blindfolds, and an Iraqi man shouts at them in Arabic. The detainees, it turns out, were captured in an auto-body shop--often used as bomb-making factories--and tested positive for explosive residue on their hands.

Finally, at about midnight, I depart Camp Victory with a patrol of armored personnel carriers (APCs) belonging to the 3rd Platoon, 58th Combat Engineer Company. As soon as the APCs start to move, its 20- and 21-year-old passengers begin trading coordinates on their radios, scanning darkened buildings with spotlights, and swiveling their gun turrets toward potential ambush sites. The platoon's interpreter, a Sudanese man who somehow wound up in Iraq a decade ago, shouts to me above the din of the tracks rumbling beneath us, "I want to go back to Africa."

I join the lieutenant standing in the open hatch. "The more educated Iraqis are, the more grateful they are to us," he says. "It's the less educated ones--they're the ones who throw rocks." Ahead of us, the line of APCs makes it way forward, only their headlights visible through the dust and darkness. I wonder whether I should offer my opinion that it is the less educated Iraqis who will decide the country's fate. I wonder whether I should tell him that he may soon be fighting on behalf of a government that includes the very forces his comrades battled in Najaf and Sadr City. I wonder what exactly it is that the United States has asked him to fight for.


 

the british police state


concern runs high in some circles in the united states that the bush administration has launched what is effectively a nascent police state in response to 9/11. but oft overlooked here is the fact that britain too -- a nation with a tradition of sensible parliamentary government dating to the 17th century -- has seen fascism rear its ugly head in london.

the biggest difference is that the british press discusses such things much more candidly than an american press that frequently appears cowed either by its readership or the authority of the white house. opinion runs hot from the left-wing guardian to the conservative daily telegraph to the house of commons:

The leftwing Labour MP and QC, Bob Marshall-Andrews, called the proposals "the most substantial extension of the state's executive powers over the citizen for 300 years".

He predicted the bill could face a Labour backbench revolt of up to 70 MPs.

Tony Blair mounted a strong defence of the plans.

Speaking from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he said: "I pay great attention to the civil liberties of the country. But on the other hand, it is also right that there is a new form of global terrorism in our country, in every other European country and most countries around the world."
even british counterterrorism czars -- much like our own richard clarke -- are sounding the alarms:

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Mr Clarke's proposals to extend powers, such as indefinite house arrest, were "not practical" and threatened to further marginalise minority communities.

Mr Churchill-Coleman told the Guardian: "I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that's not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards.
but the truth is that the cabinet in britain, much like the presidency in the united states, now operates beyond the authority of parliament in many ways. it is highly questionable that blair or his successors can effectively be called to account for the destruction of the tradition of civil rights that began perhaps with the rights of the aristocracy against the monarch, as articulated in the magna carta of 1215.

perhaps this is the end, then, of the british moderate tradition that was so magnificently expounded through hobbes, locke, smith, wilberforce, burke, madison and washington, bentham, hume, disraeli and so many others. the coincident decay of ancient political institutiuons of britain and its closest offspring, america and australia, should be evidence that what is happening is not a momentary isolated madness -- but is instead the erosion and end of parliamentary republicanism in the western nations which were its home and fortress.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

 

ripples of 1968


andrew moravcsik chronicles what he describes as the loss of american political leadership in the world. putting aside the efficacy debate, there is little doubt that the divide between america and the world is manifest and growing.

the break, it seems to me, came in the reaction to 1968. the year was the climactic point of the post-war embrace of antiauthoritarian individual emancipation.

in europe and much of the western world, 1968 was a call to revolution. it mocked communism, capitalism, trade unions, government, industry, colonialism, cold war machinations -- it was strongly anarchist and plebiscitarian. it was, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the nation-state in much of the world.

the lasting aftermath of the violence in continental europe -- despite the hardening of the soviet bloc, thatcher in britain and the reseating of de gaulle in france -- was the development of the new left. the greens and anti-globalization are the most tangible european legacy of 1968. the utilitarian principle asserted itself and took root in the politics of europe.

america, however, took a profoundly different, conservative and (if the majority is normal) abnormal route. nixon and kissinger followed 1968 with traditional power consolidation, as did many other western states -- a re-establishment of state legitimacy, in part bolstered by detente.

but the disillusionment with national authority that followed sparked the reactionary idealist dogmatism of reagan and, subsequently, neoconservatism. the path has been anti-utilitarian and anti-materialist, representing a reversion in america to the heroic continental political idealism of the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

the reasons behind it are terribly complex and philosophical, and quite a topic of debate, but i suspect the american insulation from the full horror of fascism has something to do with it.

regardless, the upshot is that the united states has since adopted the hegelian noble idealism that marked prussian germany -- and this sets it in stark contrast to the rest of the western world, in which the utilitarian principle has remained the legacy of the world wars following the rejection of hero-states.


 

sharansky's panacea


mclaughlin is about the only political talk show i can stomach anymore, in the era of vitriolic name-spitting. and the vivisection of the bush speech by all the regular panelists -- even conservative columnist tony blankley -- is instructive.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, I'm unfortunately in difficult company today, because I share ... much of Pat [Buchanan]'s view. Look, I buy in and I've bought in to the president's view that in the Middle East that the governments there are so dysfunctional that it's a breeding ground for terrorism, and it's realistically in our interest to try to transform that. And I continue to think that that's the most plausible policy.

If that was all he had said in the speech, I would be a strong endorser of it. But he's taken it a big step further in talking about any tyranny, any non-democratic government anywhere is now going to be our responsibility to engage, not necessarily militarily, but to engage. And I think that's utopian. It's unsustainable. There are plenty of authoritarian governments that are not a threat to us. There are some that are. We've got a big enough job focusing on the governments that are creating danger to us in the Middle East and other -- perhaps in parts of Indonesia and other places. To now expand it to the planet is simply unsustainable.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did it hold --

MR. BLANKLEY: And I think he's going to have to, in the coming months, focus down the application of these nice principles to a more realistic zone.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did it hold your attention?

MR. BLANKLEY: Yes, it held my attention. (Laughter.) It was an effective speech. I mean, my jaw had dropped, so I noticed that.
the pattern of actual conservatives and heretofore reflexive defenders of the imperial presidency now slowly backing away in light of an extremely frightening, nihilistic speech is heartening, even if it comes too late in the game.

but a subsequent dialogue, which focuses so clearly on bush's intellectual immaturity, is what i found most interesting:

MR. BLANKLEY: You know what's interesting is he read the book by Natan Sharansky.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MR. BLANKLEY: Sharansky had been in a Soviet gulag.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MR. BLANKLEY: He's told the story to a lot of people -- I've heard the story -- that he sat in the gulag hearing Reagan's words. That inspired him. I think clearly that Bush was inspired by Sharansky's statement, because they've met and he's read Sharansky's book. When we met with the president, one of the first things we said is, "Have you read Sharansky's book?"

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You'd better tell us the central proposition of Sharansky's book. Or would you like me to do that?

MR. BLANKLEY: You go ahead.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The central proposition is that democracy is available and sought after by everyone, including Iraq. They really want democracy. And in Russia, notwithstanding the fact that we tend to believe that they want a benign autocrat there, the people do -- no, they want democracy.

MR. BUCHANAN: More important, it is the panacea.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It is a panacea.

MR. BUCHANAN: "This is the road to world peace. This is what mankind has been seeking. We have the answer. And if we pursue this road, we will get to it."

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And there is no substitute for it -- no substitute.

MS. CLIFT: He's basically saying --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Any other government -- the implicit suggestion is no other form of government will do.

MS. CLIFT: He's basically saying the war on terror can only be won if we can spread democracy...
it's disturbing enough that neoconservative hero-cultism surrounding ronald reagan runs so deeply. but more profoundly, the idea that bush can be handed a book by a neoconservative and extrapolate from a musing on a "beautiful moment" a justification for conquering the planet bespeaks an jarringly childlike naivete in the leader of the world's most intimidating armies.

the speech was, as was mentioned later in the conversation, inherently "messianic". bush and the neoconservatives -- if any credence is to be put into their words at all, and i think we must do so -- really view the destiny of america on a romantic, even mystic level as a force for terrible destruction which can clear the path for a utopian age of Freedom.

i can't help but think that context makes bush's second inaugural speech quite possibly the most frightening address by the leader of a western state since the end of the cold war, and possible long prior to that. i would be no less shocked if he had called for liebensraum.

UPDATE: the economist has also printed a piece on bush's "intellectual love affair" with sharansky.


 

transvaluation


michael ewens comments on jerry muller and the transvaluation that has taken place in western society since the romantic movement -- linking it to its bookend in history, thomas hobbes' levaithan.


 

baghdad burning


the girl blog from iraq is being fashioned into a book -- but may make vital reading in the election aftermath.

if she has electricity and connectivity....


I certainly hope she does. She hasn't posted yet since Jan 27... I'm getting withdrawal symptoms for lack of Riverbend posts! :P

 
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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

 

bringing up the rear...


... in the race to realization are the fine fellows at national review online:

Tell me I'm wrong. Please.
... and wall street journal:

The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. ... A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the speech: the president's evolving thoughts on freedom in the world. Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty.
welcome to the second term.


 

neoconservative manifesto


from the archive -- irving kristol's revelation of what it means to be neoconservative:

The Neoconservative Persuasion

michael tennant's smart dissection.


 

johnny carson


reason mentions terry teachout's bit on the death of johnny carson.

I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I've thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever.
i find it unsurprising that many in the public dialogue find it difficult to gauge carson's depth. teachout looks for something he can relate to -- a statue of lenin, i suspect, or its hollywood analogue.

but carson was great, imo, precisely because he was not the ambitious asshole or the suffering cynic (a la letterman), but neither was he the village idiot. he was smart and quick, but the opposite of intimidating.

i've long thought that i'd hate to know a man like letterman; the man's a jackass, with only a thin forced civility laying over him like a sheet.

carson, on the other hand, is one of the people i'd choose to be stranded on a desert island with. i don't think there's anything carson said that carries the weight of Importance -- but if that's all you can look for (ie a byronic hero-figure, complete with indulgent idiosyncrasy), you've entirely missed the point and something central to life, imo. that something is why he may have been the most powerful man in showbiz.

jeff jarvis struggles to give it a name, while astutely naming his successor:

Carson represented more. He was, of course, the original Jon Stewart, who showed so much of news to be what it was: a joke. He and other, edgier comics of the day made comedy relevant.

He was the best barometer of trends. By the time Johnny did it, it took over America. When I was a kid, I wanted a Nehru jacket (shhh... I can hear you snickering... be nice) and my parents would let me -- until Johnny wore one. But when Johnny wore it, that meant it was no longer cool; the meme had gone mainstream.
in a word, johnny carson was social. having him on the tv was like inviting a friend over for a drink. no pretense, no intimidation, no sanctimony. you knew he was your better in some important ways, and operated in different circles, but he always seemed genuinely happy on -- not interested in, but happy on your level.

in an age replete with heroes of a different type, within which the dialogue gauges one's nobility based upon heroic suffering endured and inflicted, i can understand why carson's appeal is not easily understood. most of us spent our time asserting our individuality and denouncing the social as the chains by which we are bound. an easy, unserious manner and quick self-deprecation are weaknesses to such a view.

but carson so completely mastered them before such an appreciative audience as to reinforce them as integral parts of the public discourse for decades.

that time has changed. jarvis again:

After Carson left... I wrote in TV Guide that Jay Leno just didn't cut it. He tried to continue the idea that he had to be a common denominator of comedy, safe, one-size-fits-all. But that era of media was over. ... Johnny Carson was unique and so was his time; he created a common definition of comedy just as TV created a common definition of popular culture. That era ended.
indeed it had. the age of naked american hubris has since sparked to awful life -- and i think it must have appalled a modest, contemplative man like carson who saw fit to have a laugh at the seriousness of the world.

we could use more men like him.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 

the praetorian guard


in reading again the washington post's scoop on strategic support teams, i couldn't help but sort through for quotes:

Two longtime members of the House Intelligence Committee, a Democrat and a Republican, said they knew no details before being interviewed for this article.

Pentagon officials said they established the Strategic Support Branch using "reprogrammed" funds, without explicit congressional authority or appropriation.

Defense intelligence missions, they said, are subject to less stringent congressional oversight than comparable operations by the CIA.

Rumsfeld's ambitious plans rely principally on the Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, and on its clandestine component, the Joint Special Operations Command. Rumsfeld has designated SOCOM's leader, Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, as the military commander in chief in the war on terrorism.

"Operations the CIA runs have one set of restrictions and oversight, and the military has another," said a Republican member of Congress with a substantial role in national security oversight, declining to speak publicly against political allies. "It sounds like there's an angle here of, 'Let's get around having any oversight by having the military do something that normally the [CIA] does, and not tell anybody.' That immediately raises all kinds of red flags for me. Why aren't they telling us?"

Some Pentagon officials refer to the combined units (of SOCOM) as the "secret army of Northern Virginia."
this last is particularly startling, as it so clearly parallels the function of the roman praetorian guard.

i can't imagine that the department of defense, armed with such freedom from senatorial interference as they are openly seeking to procure, is any less a constitution-wrecking, kingmaking threat than the praetorians were. if history is any guide, such a shadow army will quickly (if not already) be selected and staffed on vitriolic personal loyalty as much as competency. augustus was careful not to let the praetorians get too large or prominent -- preferring the illusion of republic, much as we do now -- but that cannot last once they realize their power.

perhaps rumsfeld is something of a sejanus -- but even if he isn't, someone soon will be. i don't think congress retains the authority anymore to provoke a confrontation with the imperial presidency and survive it as anything more than a hollow shell.


Gaius,

There's a few big differences between covert elements of the modern military and the Praetorian guard. For one, our military (of which I used to be a part) is indoctrinated to safeguard the constitution, not the executive. Also, however covert and special these elements may be, and unlike the PG, they still answer to higher conventional military authority who would never allow them the type of political influence enjoyed by the PG. I think the real risk here is that all the rules that have been established for CIA operations will get thrown out the window, and we will see our military getting involved with drug traffickers, thugs, assassins, terrorists, and so forth. This may apear ugly, but at least we'll get better HUMINT.

 
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corporate social responsibility


reason noted the economist's attack on corporate social responsibility with some approval.

i read their leader and can't help but think that the author (and maybe the economist) has an incomplete picture of the world. they run on and on about smith (and implicitly locke) but do not recognize how the west has profoundly changed since 1688.

i agree that diverting work from the third world for wage concerns is silly. but calls for corporate responsibility are a product of the rampant antisocial individualism of our times -- which did not exist in adam smith's world.

the economist notes:

Thus, the selfish pursuit of profit serves a social purpose. And this is putting it mildly. The standard of living people in the West enjoy today is due to little else but the selfish pursuit of profit. It is a point that Adam Smith emphasised in 'The Wealth of Nations': "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." This is not the fatal defect of capitalism, as CSR-advocates appear to believe; it is the very reason capitalism works.
right -- but what smith and locke understood to be self-interest is not what we would think. smith envisioned a fundamentally christian "commercial humanism" -- not the randian war of all against all he is too often caricatured to have meant. this is a man who wrote "the theory of moral sentiments" -- his most popular and influential book in his lifetime -- to advocate the sympathy, tolerance and common humanity he felt so strongly that he assumed it innate -- and took care to separate the moderate "selfish" from the destructive "unsocial".

Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind. There is, in the very feeling of those passions, something harsh, jarring, and convulsive, something that tears and distracts the breast, and is altogether destructive of that composure and tranquillity of mind which is so necessary to happiness, and which is best promoted by the contrary passions of gratitude and love. It is not the value of what they lose by the perfidy and ingratitude of those they live with, which the generous and humane are most apt to regret. Whatever they may have lost, they can generally be very happy without it. What most disturbs them is the idea of perfidy and ingratitude exercised towards themselves; and the discordant and disagreeable passions which this excites, constitute, in their own opinion, the chief part of the injury which they suffer.

Smaller offences are always better neglected; nor is there any thing more despicable than that froward and captious humour which takes fire upon every slight occasion of quarrel. We should resent more from a sense of the propriety of resentment, from a sense that mankind expect and require it of us, than because we feel in ourselves the furies of that disagreeable passion. There is no passion, of which the human mind is capable, concerning whose justness we ought to be so doubtful, concerning whose indulgence we ought so carefully to consult our natural sense of propriety, or so diligently to consider what will be the sentiments of the cool and impartial spectator. Magnanimity, or a regard to maintain our own rank and dignity in society, is the only motive which can ennoble the expressions of this disagreeable passion. This motive must characterizeour whole stile and deportment. These must be plain, open, and direct; determined without positiveness, and elevated without insolence; not only free from petulance and low scurrility, but generous, candid, and full of all proper regards, even for the person who has offended us. It must appear, in short, from our whole manner, without our labouring affectedly to express it, that passion has not extinguished our humanity; and that if we yield to the dictates of revenge, it is with reluctance, from necessity, and in consequence of great and repeated provocations.
it is in this way we can see how we differ. emotionally-charged retribution and perfidy and ingratitude in kind are the hallmarks of the modern man in loss because we have become so individually selfish and prideful and immodest as to render ourselves powerless but to feel so unmitigatedly at the loss of anything -- or even the threat of loss. moreover, in the aftermath of the romantics, we feel entitled to act out our emotions in any way we please, society and expectations be damned. capitalism practiced from such an amoral, unrestrained basis becomes not the engine of creativity but an exercize in nihilistic indulgence.

smith presumed that the search for shareholder benefit would occur within the utilitarian moral framework he found around him -- and is hopelessly lost today, post-byron, post-nietzsche. to belittle many efforts at social responsibility as inefficient and counterproductive misses the point of why such a notion might take root and indeed be needed in the first place. the shallow cynicism with which many companies practice CSR, as the economist rightly notes, only drives the point further home.


 

strategic support teams


in the aftermath of seymour hersh's devastating insights, the pentagon's aggressive machinations have been named: strategic support teams.

this is the new euphamism for invasion of foreign nations without any disclosure or oversight by congress or the people -- the naked implement of unaccountable dictatorship.

by such acts at home and abroad, free nations are incrementally destroyed. it seems to me that the momentum of deterioration is steadily growing now; they have wasted no time in capitalizing on the american popular mood of insensate political overload following the election. but i personally cannot imagine how the american people remain asleep and aloof. we are forfeiting our right to democracy by our indifference.


 

the fire is in the minds of men


where i saw robespierre, justin raimondo sees dostoevsky and his document to the insanity of nihilism, "the possessed".

the loss of literary knowledge as a currency of political and historical perspective has never been so acutely felt as it is now in "fear factor" america.

UPDATE: as bad as one could have expected, raimondo is exactly right -- neocon press hack michael barone spits out the truth -- the reference is wholly intentional.

it is either lost on barone and his ilk that the dostoevsky's burning town is a metaphor for the homes and lives of countless russians -- or, yet more frighteningly, they believe the wanton slaughter of millions is justifiable in the attempt to achieve the noble goal.


Friday, January 21, 2005

 

trepidation


the british press are much more objective viewers now, it seems to me, than any major american media manages to be with regards to the american government. one cannot help but get the somber feeling that this is a story whose aspects they report with great trepidation -- having, within the living memory of some, had to risk the fate of their nation to combat "uninhibited triumphalism" and "despair around the world".

even from the conservative daily telegraph:

The president and his speechwriters have yet to confront the tension between their rhetoric about freedom, which is universally popular, and their practice of projecting US firepower, which is resented in equal measure," it said.

"That explains why, on the very day when the president set forward his mission to bring liberty to the world, a poll revealed that a large majority of its inhabitants believe that he will actually make it more dangerous," it said.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

 

the heroes of liberty


words of george w. bush:

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty - though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.
words of maximilien robespierre:

We wish that order of things where all the low and cruel passions are enchained, all the beneficent and generous passions awakened by the laws; where ambition subsists in a desire to deserve glory and serve the country: where distinctions grow out of the system of equality, where the citizen submits to the authority of the magistrate, the magistrate obeys that of the people, and the people are governed by a love of justice; where the country secures the comfort of each individual, and where each individual prides himself on the prosperity and glory of his country; where every soul expands by a free communication of republican sentiments, and by the necessity of deserving the esteem of a great people: where the arts serve to embellish that liberty which gives them value and support, and commerce is a source of public wealth and not merely of immense riches to a few individuals.

We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honour, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, the attractions of happiness for the ennui of sensuality, the grandeur of man for the littleness of the great, a people magnanimous, powerful, happy, for a people amiable, frivolous and miserable; in a word, all the virtues and miracles of a Republic instead of all the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy.

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition, - this is the end of our efforts....

Again, it may be said, that to love justice and equality the people need no great effort of virtue; it is sufficient that they love themselves....
the robespierre of 1794, however, didn't bother to hide the truth nearly so much as the presidents of 2005.

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.

It has been said that terror is the spring of despotic government. Does yours then resemble despotism? Yes, as the steel that glistens in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles the sword with which the satellites of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his debased subjects; he is right as a despot: conquer by terror the enemies of liberty and you will be right as founders of the republic. The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. Is force only intended to protect crime? Is not the lightning of heaven made to blast vice exalted?


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

 

the coming wars


seymour hersh once again has been leaked the adminstration's plans -- war with iran in the next four years.

“This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone,” the former high-level intelligence official told me. “Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”
and that would be appalling enough. but the war has in fact already started, will exercize the salvadoran option and will continue outside the parameters of congressional control or even disclosure.

... The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books—free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. (The laws were enacted after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies involving C.I.A. domestic spying and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.) “The Pentagon doesn’t feel obligated to report any of this to Congress,” the former high-level intelligence official said. “They don’t even call it ‘covert ops’—it’s too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it’s ‘black reconnaissance.’ They’re not even going to tell the cincs”—the regional American military commanders-in-chief.

The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids. “The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible,” the government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told me.

It is possible that some of the American officials who talk about the need to eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are doing so as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at pressuring Iran to give up its weapons planning. If so, the signals are not always clear. ...

In my interviews over the past two months, I was given a much harsher view. The hawks in the Administration believe that it will soon become clear that the Europeans’ negotiated approach cannot succeed, and that at that time the Administration will act. “We’re not dealing with a set of National Security Council option papers here,” the former high-level intelligence official told me. “They’ve already passed that wicket. It’s not if we’re going to do anything against Iran. They’re doing it.”

... The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls “action teams” in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. “Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. “We founded them and we financed them,” he said. “The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

... “It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld—giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally,” the first Pentagon adviser told me. “It’s a global free-fire zone.”
the there's quite a lot more, and the whole article is necessary reading, as is justin raimondo's incendiary commentary.


 

individualism and depravity


"Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart.

"Self-love... is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others. Accordingly, it is against this enemy that are erected the batteries of moralists and religionists, as the only obstacle to the practice of morality. Take from man his selfish propensities, and he can have nothing to seduce him from the practice of virtue. Or subdue those propensities by education, instruction or restraint, and virtue remains without a competitor.

"When [the moral sense] is wanting, we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation, by presenting to the being so unhappily conformed, other motives to do good and to eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or the rejection of those among whom he lives, and whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence; demonstrations by sound calculation that honesty promotes interest in the long run; the rewards and penalties established by the laws; and ultimately the prospects of a future state of retribution for the evil as well as the good done while here. These are the correctives which are supplied by education, and which exercise the functions of the moralist, the preacher, and legislator; and they lead into a course of correct action all those whose depravity is not too profound to be eradicated."


--Thomas Jefferson, excerpts of a letter to Thomas Law, 1814.


 

the postmodern protagonist


it always surprises me that dr king's holiday isn't a bigger deal in the united states. his story and position are so powerful in the postmodern west that he seems to me no less a figure in his time than voltaire in his. in a place where race mattered less than it does in america, king would be revered in the same way, i suspect -- and perhaps we can look forward to a day when his importance is unobstructed by senseless prejudice.

what elevates great men to greatness? luck, mostly, i think -- but also requisite is a confluence of many contemporary influences, brilliantly articulated in complexity of words and deeds. when king wrote,

"Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice"
-- his use of "zeitgeist" cannot be overestimated in its importance. king is great because his philosophical person closely represented the zeitgeist.

king was eligible to be a great man when fortuna came calling in 1955 precisely because his vision is one of clearest individual emancipation -- each of us to be recognized for who we see ourselves to be, not for what others believe us born to be -- and, though viewed critically by some, his socialism, marital infidelity and abortive parenting in the context of the 1960s are perfectly consistent with his vision of individual relief from the oppression of birthright in all its forms. this consistently complements his primary advocacy, of course, which was wholly democratic. and yet more, his narrative and the narrative of his cause -- that of greatness imprisoned, betrayed and aborted -- is so stunning an ironic tragedy that it might have been penned by kafka.

dr king is wonderfully placed to be the archetype of the twentieth century man in the west.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

 

but for the grace of god


in many discussions in my life recently, i have been struck by the lack of common humility in modern man. i think this an inevitable effect of individuality taken to its absurd extreme -- after all, a hero cannot be humble if he must walk in solitude against all the world. in a life in which we are, or dream ourselves to be, all artists, all heroes, all individuals -- perhaps arrogance is unavoidable.

i take respite from pride in remembering john bradford, the 16th c english protestant martyr, who had a much less important vision of himself -- who knew enough of the world to say, famously, when observing criminals being walked to the gallows, "there, but for the grace of god, goes john bradford."

i wrote recently, inveighing against nietzsche:

a life devoid of sympathy -- as nietzsche advocates -- is what? a life spent in the love of pain.

this is not a love of life -- it is antithetical to life and its enjoyment. if life cannot be enjoyed -- if indeed the point of life is only pain -- why live it?

i know men to be animals of the meanest sort. but i, unlike The Misanthrope, do not take that to be evidence of their worthlessness. why? because i know that i am immeasurably better if i am at all -- and that no man is better than any other except by pernicious chance.

we are learning by observation that the world is random and probabilistic at its smallest quantum levels, and chaotic even in its largest systems. in our nature, in our development, in the outcome of our existence -- in this way the universe assures randomness is the most significant factor in our lives.

nietzsche argues against free will -- "a man is as he ought to be" -- he believes Great Men destined to be great, each ruled by his internal noble idea, and that Noble Greatness entitles the Superman to be valued over a million lessers. he is wrong -- which is not that free will is right. it is simply to say that Great Men are the product of the outcome of a series of probabilities which they have nothing to do with deciding. Great Men are random -- they are made or destroyed by chance.

when this is so, how can any man be admired above any other? we are not equal; and yet, the quality of our lives is distributed randomly, irrespective of our inequalities, because the role of chance is so large in comparison to them.

nietzsche's philosophy is that of a man who cannot live except in fear of this truth -- and in his psychopathic insecurity, he was forced to believe in destined Greatness because he could not accept randomness.

because the lowest wretch and the highest hero are different from me by chance, i know that there are no Supermen -- at least none i could separate from ordinary men -- but only fortunate men.

i am unable to muster lasting contempt or worship for men who are significantly different from myself on that basis -- as nietzsche was able to, on the premise that some were destined to be greater than others. i am unable to condemn prudence as a symptom of weakness, when the random turn that destroys a fortunate man is waiting around every corner, as solon knew -- as nietzsche could not admit, deriding prudence as Slave Morality. i am unable to avoid sympathy in considering the pain of my fellow man because i know that mere chance separates me from him -- something nietzsche was well capable of because of his misguidance.

i am able only to try to enjoy my life, accepting its random distributions with levity, and to help where i am able to assist my fellow man in doing so as well for the benefit of us both -- knowing that he, if he is like me, will assist me when he can.
that i should be fortunate enough so as to live my life in this way is all that i can hope for.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

 

sharpening the claws


frustration must be running high over iraq in the monkey cage we call the white house. first we get trial balloons about death squads, and now we get trial balloons about airstrikes in neighboring syria -- which only coincidentally has been on the neocon hit list for a decade.


Tuesday, January 11, 2005

 

the salvadoran option: a retrospective


a very instructive remembrance of what the salvadoran option really means.


 

on morality


apologism for torture has given way to support for american death squads in iraq as the fatuous amoral of america do their best to betray their country and their civilization.

there is a profound ignorance among some as to the purpose of morality -- as though it descended from the clouds for no good reason and we would do as well without it. these people get caught up in arguing utility, on the grounds that the end justifies any means.

the point of morality is to serve as the means to protect against ends which you have not (and often are not able) to consider. moral behavior is a code derived of unimaginably long experience which is intended to protect you and your society from yourself and itself in fits of self-empowering idealism.

the redirection of an established torture apparatus on one's own is one such end -- i submit that one would do best to visualize the maximal utility of morality by considering iraq as a pilot plant for programs for future possible use against the american population.

nihilists have no problem with torture -- despite its profoundly immoral basis -- because they naively assume that the ends will be only those which they have considered. this is a conceit that one almost always finds in the amoral.

it is also why such nihilism accompanies ages of unrestricted individuality. antisocial degrees of individualism are inherently arrogant, stupidly assuming that the safeguards of society are not only unneeded but hindrances.

such nihilists haven't -- and indeed, through the veil of future complexity, cannot have -- considered the unintended disasters that await them by acting on their idealism without regard for the morality whose function it is to protect them from such narcissistic idiocy.


How moral is it to oppose the removal of brutal autocrats and the spread of freedom and democracy?

 
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Monday, January 10, 2005

 

the apologists


it beggars decent minds as to how people who claim to love individual freedom in the abstract can find ways to justify torture. but they are all over the place, including reason's hit-and-run blog.

the argument made again and again by the apologists is that torture may save lives. putting aside the fallacy of utility, this is obviously a simple ends-justify-the-means argument that few sensible people would agree with -- but many americans today, in the midst of a full-blown paranoid mania, actively espouse. the very rationale is the license used by every totalitarian state to intimidate millions into subservience.

which is why current events are yet more frightening. as one poster astutely noted:

the torture apologists aren't just average guys... posting on Internet comment boards; one of them's about to be made Attorney General of these United States.

And the Watergate comparison doesn't cheer me, either. When news of Watergate came out, the perpetrators got in trouble, whereas the perpetrators (save a few, generally low-ranking, scapegoats) of various Iraqgates and Gitmogates and otherwise are getting medals pinned on them by the President.

Because of human nature, every country will always have a few nationalistic apologists for evil to be found among its rank-and-file, I suppose. What really poisons a society is when such people reside in the halls of power, and craft the laws to reflect their prejudices.


UPDATE: just when you hoped it wasn't really possible, here's the trial balloon for reinstituting terror squads in iraq -- this time, working for america. comments to follow. and raimondo suddenly seems less angry than prescient.

what ever became of my country?


 

military television


last weekend, i took to the couch with a book and a remote to relax as i am wont to. i'm constantly appalled by the state of television, even in the age of a thousand channels. and yet there remain at least one or two programs on the air most of the time with which one can kill time without wanting to kill oneself. plebiscitarian television has made me into a documentary junkie.

of course, 80% of documentaries are horrid as well -- purporting to instruct the viewer on the power of crystals or the construction of the pyramids by aliens of somesuch. these i have difficulty separating from q-ray and cortisol infomericals, with which they share the fifth circle of information hell.

however, i'd be hard pressed not to notice, even among more scholarly viewing, the marked decline into militarism that is overtaking documentary television. on the saturday in question, i sprawled out to end up viewing a review of the life of hannibal. this was followed by three hours on alexander, and that followed by hours more of yet other conquerors past. it seems that elevating conquest and carnage to heroism is what sells adverts.

and now comes news that two of the channels i would often resort to in order to while away a lazy day are being reprogrammed as devastation-celebration programming.

Considering millions of Americans have military experience and the country is at war, it seems like such an obvious idea for a network that it's a wonder a version of these networks didn't exist before.

... "There is a group out there that wants to be able to see military history documentaries any time of day, 24 hours a day," he said.

The Military History Channel has come out guns blazing. For its first three nights, the channel telecast four-hour, prime-time documentaries recounting the battle histories of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. The Marines got three hours, the Coast Guard two.
there is in this, i think, something to dread. when the praise of the engines of slaughter becomes a mode of constant public contemplation, something profound has changed in the outlook of the nation. the united states, which was once saw fit to isolate itself from any "foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues" -- to the extent of allowing the nazis march over france and most of russia without armed action -- is now in a state bordering on ecstasy in celebration of disasters unknown to virtually all and yet vividly remembered as "our finest hour" -- churchill's desperate propaganda now believed as if god's own truth.

to the student of history, it is all quite reminiscient of german idealist school of nationalism -- in which the Volk of herder and novalis were developed through fichte, hegel, fries and schleiermacher into the irrational ultranationalist elevation of all things german and the condemnation and exclusion of all things foreign. the widespread belief in a natural german superiority based in primitive romantic pastoralism morphed into the heroification of the prussian state and, in combination with darwinism, the love of war as the means of purifying the Volk through the noble struggle for life -- a noxious mix to which blame for the advent of the world wars can in large part be pinned.

the parallels often seem plain to me -- the fascination with romantic heroic war, the idealization of the primitive as virtuous and set against the complex and decadent civilization of the west -- but also the broader mystical hegelian idea of america as a thing greater and more noble than all others, a force of historic reckoning and reconciliation, a vehicle to utopia. of course, it finds justification where it can -- as hegel's germanic realm was supposedly the triumph of Reason, as would america's be of Democracy.

where such idealism remains the basis of action, fascism is not dead. to the extent that the glorification of war has permeated the masses in a fashion that makes military television a profitable reality, we all have much to be concerned about in america's political future.


Friday, January 07, 2005

 

propaganda


reason links to some revelations of bush adminstration illegal propaganda to complement their probably illegal propaganda.

i've talked before about what this government studies and what that says about their ethics. here is evidence that the lessons of machiavelli -- so useful to european fascism -- are making a powerful return in america.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

 

individuality and madness


a discussion on insanity defenses led me to read this negative review which itself is very informative on the conception of madness in ancient law.

particularly striking to me was the account of the ancient conception of harmonia, which one might describe as the social fitness of a person. the account of homer from the iliad:

The sons of the Achaeans shouted applause at the words of Diomed, and presently Nestor rose to speak. "Son of Tydeus," said he, "in war your prowess is beyond question, and in council you excel all who are of your own years; no one of the Achaeans can make light of what you say nor gainsay it, but you have not yet come to the end of the whole matter. You are still young- you might be the youngest of my own children- still you have spoken wisely and have counselled the chief of the Achaeans not without discretion; nevertheless I am older than you and I will tell you every" thing; therefore let no man, not even King Agamemnon, disregard my saying, for he that foments civil discord is a clanless, hearthless outlaw.
the association of individualism with criminality is by no means unique to homer. the ancient world saw antisocial behavior as dangerous (rightly), and gave great strength to patriarchy as a means of order.

i fear this is little thought of now when, as was noted, "we are nowadays all in the situation that Homer once described... uprooted from containing wholes, and skeptical concerning them" -- perhaps just when we should consider it most.


 

are we culpable?


by way of argument regarding the ethics of terrorists striking at american civilian populations:

regardless of our hyperindividualist times -- which is a spot of changed moral stripes from even recent times in the west -- the question is: is there an institutional culpability for the actions of the past?

i think there is. institutions arranged and maintained by us are designed to be slow to change in some respect -- which is part of the point of their establishment, to enshrine something worth keeping. if the institution facilitated a wrong, can it not continue to facilitate future wrongs? and is there not then a preventive as well as a punitive effect in striking at them?

when related to a question i asked earlier -- "have we, by the action of our (democratic) system, indicted ourselves in the same manner the german and italian people did in their wild support of fascism?" -- one could argue that it is entirely within the capacity of western ethics to strike so.

certainly, i see that no individualist can countenance being culpable for the actions of any collective, even one he is a part of, if he did not both agree individually to the action and was not "co-opted" into membership of (such as being a natural citizen). but this perspective is very new and quite extreme.

westerners have long authorized their agents to take action against groups of individuals irrespective of their individual opinions on the same principle that one can be prosecuted as an accessory to a crime -- if you didn't prevent it, you are culpable.

anyway, i don't pretend to have the final answer in this as an ethical debate -- but it strikes me as disingenuous to cry "it's not my fault!" when you are implicitly a member of the empowered body politic that authorized, wittingly or unwittingly, such transgressions -- because you didn't *personally* authorize them.

if you wish to avoid that responsibility, move to a dictatorship. democracies are social -- or rather are supposed to be -- and the social culpability should serve to make the citizen think hard about that which they vote on. in this way, perhaps the question -- "have we, by the action of our (democratic) system, indicted ourselves in the same manner the german and italian people did in their wild support of fascism?" -- is to be answered yes, indeed moreso.

insofar as our moral position of culpability for the acts of government goes, then, i see these positions:

1) we are representatively empowered and therefore culpable;

2) we are not empowered and therefore not culpable;

3) there is no we, therefore i am not (or am) culpable.

few would argue 2) -- but many would argue 3). i think there is an uncomfortable truth of collective responsibility here, even in a democracy, if it is still a society.

we would all huddle under the social services and military protection of our society; to that extent, we enjoy social benefits. i find it difficult, then, to claim we are not also socially responsible -- even if most of us now quietly fight to undermine that responsibility (and thereby society) every day.


 

the safety net


reason, in their inimitable way, advocates choice as the solution for many social ills -- and ridicules the suggestion that choice is best deprived the masses. this time in particular, they address the proposed social security privatization plan.

one of the commenters explained the program's impetus quite clearly:

If you look at the numbers, and I have done so exhaustingly, these ideas are so simple that it's frightening. All of the high-level arguments about this only serve to confuse people and muddy the waters.

Look at this simple example: a person that earns $30,000 a year with a wage adjusted 1.7% per year from age 22 to age 65. Take this person's complete SS contribution every year and place it in a Personal Retirement Account. Allow this person to diver that money to a variety of options, including Money Markets, CD's, Savings Accounts, Mutual Funds, Stocks, corporate bonds, annuities, federal treasury notes, and municipal bonds.

If this person were to see a yearly return of just 6.5% (which the employees of Galveston, TX who opted out of SS have in the last 20 years) this person, who only ever earned $30,000 in real wages, will retire with $1,075,000 in their retirement account. A guy that only ever earned $30k will retire a millionaire.

This is what we need to stress to people in these debates. Not privatization, not choice, not complication. Stress the fact that a married couple will retire with at least $1.7 million in the bank.
this analysis hinges upon this statement:

If this person were to see a yearly return of just 6.5% (which the employees of Galveston, TX who opted out of SS have in the last 20 years)
this suffers the error of projecting reductive recent past statistics into longterm future outcomes.

first, reductive: what is more true to say is that such employees garnered thousands of different returns that clustered around 6.5%. that is to say some lost 20% average annual -- others made as much.

i'd be interested to see the distribution of returns, frankly. in my education and experience, what small investors are best at is selling bottoms and buying tops -- because human information processing is emotional and crowd-oriented. (sorry, rational individualists.) markets are extraordinary at destroying emotional capital.

second, recent past into longterm future: we're coming out of one of the great bull markets of all time. history indicates that the united states stock market will probably trade sideways to down for up to two decades henceforth. the dow high of 1929 was not surpassed until 1954. japan is 15 years on from 1990 and the nikkei sits at 1/3 its high. secular bear markets last a long time and wash out *everyone* -- indeed, the function of a bear is to eliminate all possible sellers through widespread irrational pessimism. this inevitably includes just about every small investor, after significant and repeated losses have taught them futility.

in fact, one of the signs that japan may have finally bottomed recently is the fact that virtually no japanese citizen will invest in the stock market. this is where america's petty-stock-speculation culture is on its way to, i'm afraid. some years from now, this whole idea will seem a horrid boondoggle to everyone. and that would be just the time to jump into it.

this is where the idea of a "hedge" comes in, although that is the wrong term -- socsec can provide a *low-risk* account that provides a minimal safety net.

this allows the individual with private savings to take greater risks with their private capital without being denied a safety net. it has functioned in this way for decades already -- retirement assets are already privatized.

for those who do not have that luxury, it provides subsistence.

so one has to consider what the effect of this policy change could be. it seems to me that if one allows individuals who need subsistence to take their low-risk capital and allocate it to high-risk (ie the stock market), one is hoping that they allocate a sufficient amount into low-risk alternatives. that hope will, in fact, in millions of cases be betrayed. and these millions will, in the end, be poorer -- not richer -- for having had this choice. people being what they are, they'll also probably be angrier.

of course, none of this is to say the united states government does not face severe fiscal problems going forward. but this is clearly not the way to solve them.


I'm good at buying high and selling low!

Give me my SS money now. I'm taking it and heading for the tables at Ho-Chunk. It would be more fun that watching my losses on a statement.

 
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Retirement is for quitters. I'm putting my money on Declan's Moon on the first Saturday in May. I might change my mind and go with Fusaichi Samurai. Choice and risk make life worth living.

 
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Monday, January 03, 2005

 

american prison camps


well, if you were waiting for the american version of a siberian gulag, here you are. if abu ghraib just didn't seem permanent enough to be dangerous, this should.

on the heels of a trial balloon intended to test the waters for the possibility of another reichstag fire, and with some sensitive quarters sounding the alarm on the rebirth of fascism, one hopes that the agitation will be enough to get some to really think about what we're doing in and to america.

but i sincerely doubt it matters, frankly, how loud and long the alarm goes up. american government operates on hegelian mysticism because americans want it that way -- having been immersed in the jingoism of sixty years of ideological warfare and victory, they know no better. to most, american heroism is a self-evident, self-reinforcing truth: if we put people in prison forever, it's because they deserve it.

i've come to sincerely doubt that enough opposing effort will be mustered to counter this destructive narcissism.


reason's comment thread includes some of the nietzschean defense of totalitarianism that so clearly, imo, indicts the west as absurdist.

 
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Sunday, January 02, 2005

 

german idealism


british empiricism was embodied in locke, berkeley and hume -- temperate, tolerant men. but the philosophy of empiricism tended to subjectivism. locke had said, "since the mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings, hath no other immediate object but its own ideas, which it alone does or can contemplate, it is evident that our knowledge is only conversant about them." locke had been inconsistent and therefore tolerant of both knowledge as only "the agreement or disagreement of two ideas" and also simple ideas as "the product of things operating on the mind in a natural way". but berkeley and then hume took empiricism to its fully evolved consistency: berkeley abolished matter for god's ideas, and then hume refuted even that, as well as the self and causation. if even hume's impressions could have no certain cause, nothing outside the mind could be said to exist. and science -- where observation led to nothing certain -- was made nothing better than credulous belief. what was left but solipsism?

these conclusions, which no one could accept, forced a reaction. rousseau accepted the bankruptcy of reason, and put his faith in the heart -- romanticism was born.

in germany, however, a more subtle reaction came with kant, who was followed by fichte and hegel, intending to safeguard knowledge from the subversion of hume. it took subjectivism to an even greater extreme (until hegel). kant was not politically important; fichte and hegel were.

the german idealists emphasized the mind over matter, criticizing knowledge as a means of addressing philosophical questions. it rejects utilitarian ethics. the movement was very academic, the main progenitors being university professors. they were concerned with defending the orthodoxy of theology and politics from hume, despite the eventual revolutionary effect of german idealism.


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