Friday, November 16, 2007
Yesterday, friend and fellow blogster La_Rana wrote the following:
It is an abomination that so many in this country so callously disregard the lives of foreigners. It's cruel, inhumane, xenophobic, myopic, selfish and brutal. But good god, to actually walk among the Iraqis, other human beings, and kill them so callously is something I really cannot understand. It puts my neck hair on end. Whether it's their natural disposition or we made them that way, it doesn't quite matter now. These people are monsters.You'll note that La_Rana draws a fine but necessary moral distinction. On the one hand, he says, it's pretty awful that as an abstract matter we're willing to countenance--at least, to ignore--the deaths of foreigners. On the other hand, to actually kill them without cause or reason, to pull the trigger on innocents simply because they are there and you are armed, is to become a monster. These aren't complex moral sentiments, lord knows, but they're sure as shit true.
La_Rana's first commenter, YF, then swashbuckles in and begins dueling with the potted plants while the crowd looks on in wonder:
Did it ever occur to you that disregard for the lives of The Other might be the normal disposition of humans? That maybe an appreciation of foreigners' serious right to life is a triumph* of modern moral development, and not a necessary component of human nature?Other than mistaking La_Rana's kind of caveat for a thesis, and other than proposing a "triumph of modern moral development" in an era when the wholesale slaughter of foreigners has reached levels undreamed-of by the poor, dirty Romans who burned Carthage to the ground, and other than flying from "normal disposition" to "necessary component" in a high dander of folkway fantasy, it is a serious counterargument that deserves to be addressed.
It is undoubtedly true that casual disregard for the lives of foreigners is in a sense a steady feature of recorded human history, but only in a sense. It is true in the sense that when agents of the state are authorized by the state to kill people, especially foreigners, then citizens are authorized not to give a damn, or hell, to cheer the killing on. This is an important distinction, and I'll return to it. But first, and once again: On the other hand . . .
On the other hand, the majority of interactions between people of one country and people of another involve neither killing nor maiming nor raping nor pillaging nor the folks at home approving thereof. The majority of international interactions, both state-sanctioned and extralegal, involve mundane matters of commerce and tourism. These interactions may be fraught, or they may go smoothly, but by and large if an American pulls a gun on a Chinese and blows his head off because supply-chain negotiations aren't going his way, then everyone on every side will react with condemnation. I do not go on killing sprees when I visit France and expect pardon at home. Of course, there are gradations of outrage and horror that, regrettably, have largely to do with racism, and it's certainly true that a business executive who fucks and kills a 12-year-old in Thailand may be held in less horror than a business executive who fucks and kills an 18-year-old in, say, England. Nevertheless, in general and in principle, the point holds: that tolerance for brutality toward foreigners is not universal, but contextual.
As Sartwell notes, one of the central ironies--or, let's be charitable, paradoxes--of theories of the state as either an arbiter of justice or a guarantor of rights is that the state inevitably becomes the largest violator of its espoused principles of justice and subverter of rights. The state that claims it exists to protect the right to life arrogates itself of the right to take life, and so on. There are common good arguments here--that in order to protect the greatest number of lives, for instance, it's necessary to take a few; that agents of the state, conceived as essentially external to humanity and therefore immunized against the required protection of this or that right, must act in such capacity for the greater good. I find these arguments almost transparently silly, but I'm not going to address that here. The germane point is this: that violating human rights even up to the point of death, and that approving of or acceding to such violations are conditions authorized by states.
It may well be that if a state of war or conflict didn't exist between Iraq (or elements in Iraq) and the United States, then people would react with relative indifference to news of a crew of Americans massacring a lot of innocent Iraqis, but I think it's wrong to believe that there would be no outrage. In the absence of state sanction, such actions would rightly be seen as murder and condemned. In fact, we can see the operations of this very dynamic in the developing case of the Blackwater mercenaries. As the impression that their actions were sanctioned in war diminishes and the idea that they were acting outside of the violence permitted by our state grows, the domestic American reaction has increasingly been one of shock, horror, dismay, and disapproval--as if they had, indeed, committed murder. We might pause to note the sad supporting evidence that every day American troops, American pilots, American actions do kill dozens of innocents and otherwise violate their basic rights, and these actions are met with indifference or approval because they are state-sanctioned. And of course, it's worth noting that the very conditions which allowed the Blackwater guards to conduct themselves as they did--right or wrong--were 100% dependent on American state actions.
So to the relevant question of whether or not it is "human nature" to care little for the lives of "the other," I repeat that the question itself is a kind of category error. The truth is that callous indifference to foreign life is a facet of history under constituted authority when that authority expressly absolves--in fact, encourages--its people to disregard the lives of foreigners. The other is a construct of structures of authority, and our willingness to meet the other with brutality is a construct of those same structures. It isn't the state of nature that makes us monsters. The state is a monster.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Well, it appears that the shit is still fucked. Shall we review?
Many moons ago, the Brits set up their Iraqi mandate and created a nation with grossly disproportionate power in the hands of a minority group. While it is true that alliegiences and alliances in Iraq have always been subject to suprasectarian considerations like tribe, clan, and region, and ethnicity, it is also true that by and large the Arab Sunni minority has dominated and the Shi'ite majority has been repressed. Then, on three kinds of whim and five kinds of evil intent, the United States broke down the door, invaded the place, and busted up an arrangement that for all its unfairness had maintained that country's territorial integrity for many years, even through a debilitating war in which it lost perhaps a half a million, perhaps a million men. Having busted up that arrangement and found our arrival met with less than the expected enthusiasm, we first set about to rule in a purely procunsular manner, but then settled for something more properly resembling a distant Roman province, deigning to give the People--ah, the People--some control over their own affairs. We whipped up a froth of elections as if Iraq were a New Hampshire of hamlets and diners. Then we realized that everyone was going to get blown to hell, so we clamped a lock on the country, banned vehicular traffic, and held a goofy martial-law plebiscite for a European-style proportional parliament. New Hampshire meets Switzerland meets the Road Warrior.
Surprising to none, the country's large Shi'ite majority won out through superior numbers and took over the government. The Sunni, now even more dispossessed than they'd been under direct American rule, started bombing the hell out of everything, and thus became enemy number one. In particular, they directed their ire at the ruling dogs, as dogs who once ruled and don't anymore are wont to do. This lasted for years. Years. Don't forget. Now, of course, as Iraq devolved into armed chaos with wild gangs of Americans killing who the fuck knows whom or what and Shi'ites, now in charge, suddenly riven by their own internecine divisions, foreign alliances, and what have you, and with various and sundry terrorist groups operating under a constellation of revanchist ideologies with all the rigor of an undergraduate dorm rap, but with more guns, suddenly exploding even more shit all up and down Iraq, the very Sunni organizations who formed the core of the initial insurgency, seeing opportunity--for let it not be said that they lack in opportunism--made overtures to the American occupiers, knowing that America, desperate for signs of progress, would do anything and not think about it first.
Now the Americans are largely incapable of telling a Sunni from a Shi'ite from a Maharashtran Hindu from an Ecuadorian day-laborer toiling away under the heavenly aegis of the Holy Mother and the many candle-bearing saints. Iraqis, meanwhile, appear to be able to tell each other apart, and so, among a thousand other reasons for the parties to the Iraqi "government" not to agree on anything, not the least of which is the fact that they are powerless agents of a government with no force monopoly who may as well use their sinecures to save up in case they have to flee for an expatriate's life in London, there is the fact that the Shi'ite majority seems to remember that these were the very fuckers who were trying to bring them down in the first place, and are therefore understandably skeptical about inviting them into the henhouse for a chat.
"These findings are mind-boggling. In spite of billions of dollars and the six years TSA has had to deploy new technology and procedures, our airlines remain vulnerable. This is unacceptable. The American public deserves better."As you, I, and everyone knows, we're all a lot more likely to die in an airplane suffering from mechanical troubles than one taken out by a bomb, and of course, far, far more likely to get shanghaied on the highway by a senescent grandpa piloting am 8,000-lb caddy at 30 miles per hour in the fast lane (irony!) or by a drunk frat boy piloting his brothers home in an SUV in a slick rain than by all the circumstances of airline doom combined and increased by several orders of magnitude. In other words, one would convincingly argue that six years and billions of dollars, even had they resulted in the total prevention of bomb bits from being smuggled onto planes, would almost necessarily have been misspent. But proportionality has never been a compelling consideration for congresscritters, particularly where "security" is concerned, so rather than point out that in this instance even success constitutes a kind of failure, let's stick to the more nuts-and-bolts issue that failure represents failure represents failure. Congressional harangues are inevitably obtuse on this point, for Congress as an institution does not contemplate that its own directives might simply be unachievable. Our airlines are vulnerable to hijackings, bombings, and terroristic attacks even though Congress said that they must not be. This, to a congresscreature, is evidence of a failure at the administrative and operational level, but not evidence of the more likely (indeed, the true) conclusion that invulnerability has not been accomplished because it cannot be accomplished.
-The Wax Man
This, by the way, is largely how state security apparati grow first burdensome and then totalitarian--not through malicious intent alone, although that too can obviously play a part, but through the sequential addition of totalizing directives. Rather than constructing modest mechanisms that will be effective most of the time and admitting that extraordinary, unpredictable, unplanned, and unexpected circumstances will sometimes arise, obscenely expensive, overarching, and absolutist mechanisms--whose very expense and unweildy complexity preclude their smooth operation--are constructed, and when they fail because such absolutes are literally impossible, they invest even more money and even more effort in even more unweildy, complex, and inoperable efforts to solve insoluble problems.
We're all familiar with how this plays in airports. The increasingly burdensome regulatory-safety environment has made air travel almost unbearably difficult for travelers. Byzantine prohibitions, ever-changing protocols, and the proliferation of layers upon layers of additional security devices and services have not notably made travel more safe, but have certainly made it harder and less pleasant. Now any objective observer would conclude, therefore, that a better path would be to substantially streamline security procedures, focus more on common rather than extraordinary risks, and to plan mitigatory actions in the case of the extraordinary. Fortunately, governance in our age--one might say in any age--is driven not through consideration of the commonplace but through reaction to the unusual, the momentous, the unlikely, and the bizarre. Flying and flight safety would be improved and made more efficient at far lesser cost by hiring more and better controllers and by replacing the antiquated tower-control system. Instead, we're piling more part-timers at the security gates and policing hair gel on the off chance that an action-movie treatment becomes real life.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
GENERAL RIPPER:And thus, mes p'tits, do I give you the "FEMA Rap for Kidz." This sort of Hitlerjugend effort to acculturate children to their collective responsibility to the body politic is not without its self-parodic charms, and I'm surely not the sort who "considers the children," even those children who are our future. That said, there is something grotesque and monstrous about this perceived need to indoctrinate the youngest among us with an irrational belief in the ubiquity of catastrophe. I won't be the first to point out this irony at the heart of the teleology of the security state: on one hand, necessary dependence on the state as the sole defender from disaster; on the other hand, the total inevitability of disaster regardless. I may be a little more original when I suggest that without this central irony, the argument for the necessity of the state becomes rather weak. At the heart of justifications for state power, even modest, minarchical, secure-property-and-defend-the-borders libertarian justifications, is the proposition that disaster will befall you in the absence of a state agent with a capacity to act forcefully. You will be mugged and raped and murdered by some Hobbesian villain. You will die in a natural disaster. You will be invaded. If, conversely, you presume otherwise, then the protective necessity of monopolistic force seems less evident; indeed, it seems extraneous
Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridated water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake. Children's ice cream?
Every month or so, and lately about twice a week, someone--usually a Democratic something-or-other, a think-tank centrist, an Aspen Institute drone, an East-Coast University placeholder, or Tom Friedman--rears back, opens his gaping yawp-hole, and howls a panegyrical tribute to the panacea of an increased gas tax. Today, it's Friedman. He'll do as an example of the form, and we'll get to that in a minute. The usual number bruited (as you'll see) is a buck a gallon, and the idea (charitably speaking) is that this increase will coerce changes in American driving habits, which will in turn decrease our "dependence on foreign energy," a signifier, as our English-department aphasiacs might put it, that lacks a signification. This, in turn, will lead inevitably and in a direct line to peace on earth, good will to men, the repair of the hole in the ozone, the reinvention of New Orleans, the lion laying down with the lamb, the light fantastic tripped, and various and sundry other boons to men, women, children, and cute animals of all sizes, types, and varieties. The self-evident absurdity of these claims is no less preposterous when stated more modestly by their advocates. Thus, Friedman:
As a higher gas tax discouraged oil consumption, the Harvard University economist and former Bush adviser N. Gregory Mankiw has argued: “the price of oil would fall in world markets. As a result, the price of gas to [U.S.] consumers would rise by less than the increase in the tax. Some of the tax would in effect be paid by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.”This is almost a self-refuting argument. If, in fact, a higher gas tax resulted in decreased consumption--a false assumption, as we'll see--which in turn resulted in lower wholesale prices--also a false assumption--which, again in turn, resulted in consumer-end increases of less than the initial increase represented by the tax, then it would be a very short matter of time before driving returned to and then exceeded its current levels. There's a why in there. I'll get to it in another moment. In any event, the root proposition here, that a dollar-or-less increase in the per-gallon cost of gas will substantially decrease America's gas consumption was soundly refuted when gas prices first leapt from the mid-twos to the over-threes last year, which had the effect of . . . no measurable effect.
But U.S. consumers would have known that, with a higher gasoline tax locked in for good, pump prices would never be going back to the old days, adds Mr. Verleger, so they would have a much stronger incentive to switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles and Detroit would have had to make more hybrids to survive. This would have put Detroit five years ahead of where it is now. “It’s called the America wins program,” said Mr. Verleger, “instead of the petro-states win program.”
We simply cannot go on being as dumb as we wanna be. If you hate the war in Iraq, then you want a gasoline tax so you can argue that we can pull out of there without remaining dependent on an even more unstable region. If you want to see us negotiate with Iran, not bomb it, you want a gasoline tax that will give us some real leverage by helping to reduce the income of the ayatollahs.
If you’re a conservative and you believed that the Iraq war was necessary to drive reform in the Middle East, but the war has failed to do that and we need “Plan B” for the same objective, you want a gasoline tax that will reduce the flow of wealth to petrolist leaders who will never change if all they have to do is drill well holes rather than educate and empower their people.
If you want to see America thrive by becoming the most energy productive economy in the world — a title that now belongs to Japan, which doesn’t have a drop of oil in its soil — you want a gasoline tax, which will only spur U.S. innovation in energy efficiency.
President Bush squandered a historic opportunity to put America on a radically different energy course after 9/11. But considering how few Democrats or Republicans are ready to tell the people the truth on this issue, maybe we have the president we deserve. I refuse to believe that, but I’m starting to doubt myself.
Friedman goes on to his usual series of groundless assertions. One of my favorites is the idea that decreased oil revenues will constrain "the ayatollahs." The ayatollahs, of course, have very little money. Iran is poor. Venezuala is poor. Saudi Arabia, in fact, is poor. The fact that the oligarchs of these nations are in some cases able to amass billions of dollars in fortunes impresses the rubes, but is really irrelevant when you consider that Saudi Arabia's GDP is still a mere 1/37th of the United States' and that the Saudi Royal Family is nevertheless in the realm of the private fortunes of America's computer-industry barons, but just a line item in the national budge of the United States. Beyond the fact that these countries are poor by our admittedly exceptional standard, there is the plain fact that depriving, even if only potentially, presumtively dangerous autocrats of their sole source of sustaining income will hardly make them more amenable to US interference in their domestic affairs, nor yet more "predictable" or "rational" or whatever adjective expresses the opposite of what they're currently supposed to be. In the short term, anyway, it should be clear that the destabilization of their economic bases would make them more prone to act rashly, even if the hoped-for long-term effect would be to make it more difficult for them to mount military challenges to American hegemony. Let us also note that they are not now capable of mounting such challenges, because, again, they're poor. In that sense, the consideration is moot even as a hypotehtical. It is one thing to propose some great global benefit--environmental, social, cultural, economic--to the reduction of fossil fuel consumption; quite another entirely to suggest that concerted economic warfare will make us safer.
The same ridiculous principles underly the assumption that by depriving a nation like Saudi Arabia of its sole revenue we can somehow cajole it into "educating and empowering its citizens." In the first place, there's the obvious question of how a hypothetically money-starved nation would pay for all that educatin' and empowerin'. More meaningfully, there is the question of why an essentially totalitarian, theocratic monarchy would want an educated and empowered--rather than a bribed and cossetted--citizenry. Bourbons are not in the business of printing jacobin pamphlets.
But I said I'd talk about the whys, and I will. There is a very fundamental reason why the gas tax idea will simply represent an additional, regressive, wealth-transferring domestic tax with no effect on the economies of Saudi Arabia, less yet Iran, and it is this. Americans have to drive. We have embarked upon a fifty-year project of national development to this effect. Our entire national infrastructure demands it. Friedman and the like look to Europe and see higher gas taxes and less driving, but Europe (and Japan as well) has spent a commensurate period building a transportation infrastructure that obviates the necessity of excessive driving. Americans, meanwhile, built interstates and big box stores and strip malls and far-flung suburban and exurban housing stock, effecting massive transfers of population and wealth out of our already less-dense-than-average urban centers. The reason that Americans didn't decrease their driving at $3/gallon is that they had no choice but to commute to work every day, unless they chose to sell their homes and move into near suburbs serviced sporadically by public transit or else--horror of horrors--back into cities with high property taxes and bad schools--the results, one might add, of the initial period of government-subsidized flight.
This is the white elephant in any discussion of American energy consumption. As a society we are physically unable to reduce our per capita energy consumption because we have spent a half century and trillions of dollars to create a nation wherein personal automobile ownership is necessary to most of the population's economic well-being and survival. Now I am all for a radically different social arrangement, for the re-agrarianizing of exurban and even suburban lands and the repopulation of urban centers, for the reconstruction of rail and subway and trams and trolleys, for walkable communities, for local-level commerce, for full-service neighborhoods in our cities, and for full-service towns in outlying and rural areas. I am not, however, naive enough to believe that this sort of reimagination of America at its most basic physical level can be incentivized through what's effectively a fifty-cent-per-gallon increase in fuel costs.
And that, as they say, is the way it is.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
You've got to love it. The hope. The striving. The stupidity. The emdash that oughta be an ellipses. The Media's not gonna vote . . . but we are. This primary is the biggest of them all. It's pornographic.
The so-called left in America, whether they call themselves Democrats or Progressives or, you know, the Left, is rapidly approaching their fetus-worshipping rightist counterparts in their dedication to waging permanent warfare against a neverending roster of implacable bogeymen. There's no sense to it. Even if you accept the electoral process as the sole means of social change and, you know, progress, what practical end is served by bombarding a national mailing list with exhortations to participate in the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary? I live in Pennsylfuckingvania. I am all for fraud at the ballot box as a matter of general principle. If you must vote, vote early and often. I have plenty of now-deceased relatives whose crackpot opinions I spent decades tolerating. I see no reason to deny them their rightful votes just because they must be cast posthumously. Yet here I am, sitting in Pittsburgh, being told that showing up at some cowtown VFW in Iowa can serve me as a moment of personal validation and psychic healing right up their with my hypno-regression-therapeutic realization that Pastor Touchnkiss was behaving . . . inappropriately.
Jilarack Edbamton, a nation turns its lonely eyes on you. It used to be that losers and shut-ins could turn to drink or heroin or science fiction, but now the romantically disinclined, the overweight, the undersocialized of America have made a weird fetish out of yanking levers and touching touchscreens. It's trop bizarre. I guess it's cheaper than head-shrinking, but honestly, you can build an orgone accumlator in your backyard with some two-by-fours and scrap particle board. That's still more expensive than voting, but there are fewer seniors, and it's less likely to rain.
You come here on supposedly on a reconciliatory mode, and right before you land, you’re on a confrontationist mode. I am afraid this is producing negative vibes, negative optics.Negative vibes! Negative optics! Now, like such fellow luminaries of the telluric currents as Pat Lang, I am deeply skeptical and resolutely dismissive of the Friedmanian task of "convincing humanity of its homogeneous future." Culture is culture. We may all be able to mate, the one with the other, the tall with the short, the pink with the brown, but as I've often observed, if there remain nigh-unbridgeable cultural differences between an American and Frenchman--and believe me, they remain--then between a Washingtonian and a Chinese villager there remains a whole wide world.
-General Pervez "The Dude" Musharraf
Yet here you have the military dictator of mysterious--you'll pardon the orientalism--Pakistan speaking like a once-upon-a-time deadhead now comfortably ensconed in a high-floor office at a midtown marketing firm with one executive assistant, one creative assistant, three computers, two PDAs, one car service, a six-figure salary and a seven-figure year-end bonus. Optics! Jesus Christ, he sounds like a character from a Delillo novel.
Throw in Olympia Snowe and some of the other "moderates" who survive the 2008 elections into the mix, and suddenly you have a decent sized pool of Republicans who can be lobbied to abandon their caucus at least some of the time.It ain't aux barricades, but there it is. The revolution as a dialing-down. But I suppose it inspires the troops.
Today I read somewhere--I won't link because you don't care--that Obama has stripped the "cloak of invisibility" from Clinton. No. Cloak of inevitability. Whatever. Who knew she had one? People, regardless, are deeply invested in this sort of thing, as a cursory reading of DailyKos, or the WaPo for that matter, reminds us. Even the pwoggie-bloggies who spend their days deconstructing--in their fancifully neologistic use of the term--these "narratives" are invested in them. More Democrats. Better Democrats. Future Democrats. The last is where the shit hits the lawn. The dirty turd of electoral truth is that its essence is the future tense. Read that linked post. 2008. 2010. There's something Maoist about it. Everything will be set after the next five-year plan.
Pakistanis face the unlovely choice between a military dictator and a kleptocrat with a developing christ complex--or, of course, the even more likely scenario that some third party will emerge from the wreckage of this current confrontation a few years down the road and establish a tenuous, Islamic state as the Taliban did from the wreckage of the post-war Afghan state. Everyone seems to take it as a matter of faith that this last is the worst possible outcome because "Pakistan is a nuclear country." In other words, everyone seems to believe that a crazy mullah is more likely to lob a nuke at Mumbai than a crazy martial potentate. I cannot quite associate myself with that thesis, but there it is. The lay of the land.
In the meantime, it seems to me that Bhutto, the United States, and Musharraf were all too clever by half in the months preceding the ongoing crisis. I've yet to see a clear timeline of who made what overtures to whome, but clearly each of the major players believed that events were more or less under their control. Out of the tripartite play-for-advantage, with each party believing itself to have successfully manipulate the other two just so, what emerges is a portrait of extraordinary hubris on all sides. None of them knew what the fuck they were doing. I am not, of course, concerned with the "effects on the broader War on Terror," which is all the newspapers want to talk about, as if there were such a thing as "the broader War on Terror." I do, however, wonder what this means for an itchy subcontinent. Also, note that Pakistan shares several hundred kilometers of border with China. Just to make things even more interesting.