a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Issue #43 (April 28, 2010)

Centennial, Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

Wildwood Canyon trail, the Verdugo Mountains
Burbank, California

Photos by Chris Collins

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci…

NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller pulled the book review assignment for the new Alan Brinkley biography, The Publisher - Henry Luce and His American Century, not because he identifies with Luce, that ended at puberty we’re led to believe, but so he could attack Rupert Murdoch for being “corrosive” in effect and merely seeking “the demolition of his rivals.” Regarding the book itself, Keller reads Brinkley’s take on Luce all the more sympathetically for the NYT’s current struggle to keep its voice heard above the din of the web. Luce might once have been blamed by the NYT for every single death in Vietnam including even Frenchmen, for his publications’ consistent editorial position arguing for the projection of American power in Asia, but these days that might demand Keller cut this unnamed “79-year old Australian billionaire” some slack.

If the newsmedia’s current problems didn’t leave journalists so self-absorbed Keller’s review might have read more like the one next to it: Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century, reviews two new books: The War Lovers - Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, by Evan Thomas, and The Imperial Cruise - A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Judging by the review both are quite timely whatever misunderstandings the many empty buzzwords flying around signify. After all in 1898 and for longer thereafter than understood, “racism”, “empire”, and “national destiny” were all part of Progressivism. At the time of the Spanish-American War any American over fifty years of age had personal memory of the American Civil War. Still, a younger educated class sensed the power of the country and wanted to exercise that power on the world stage. Everything in American higher education was still European-oriented, and so political ambition was now more common and no longer focused on domestic affairs. It wasn’t the largely rural population of America that wanted war, nor the urban working class of which increasing numbers had just escaped the old world, although they could be convinced which is where Hearst and Luce came in.

In political terms Theodore Roosevelt begins this “imperial” drift in the Republican Party, perhaps building on Lincoln’s fully excused constitutional abuse during the Civil War. And it spreads through his Governor of the Philippines, Secretary of War and successor President William Howard Taft, but then jumps like a virus to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and the other war-lovers had the doddering Spanish Empire in Cuba for a pretext -- the Philippines was a bonus which further required the annexation of Hawaii. Our military’s first lessons in fighting an insurgency were in the Philippines and war-fever soon passed due to that bloody reality. But Americans, humans, forget. Wilson promised to keep America out of WWI but after reelection in 1916 he entered the war anyway, despite that war’s long-having degenerated from the initial thrilling pageantry of all the great royal empires of Europe as they marched off for glory, only to find a new, modern techno-brutality of machine-guns, poison gas, aerial and tank war. Wilson was full of ideas, many cooked up by a young Walter Lippmann who had co-founded The New Republic in 1913. Europe ignored all of these ideas until The League of Nations, which Wilson found he couldn’t sell to his own country. Europe seemed to go out of its way to prove no model for the new world, yet our new class enjoyed walking around Versaille and Buckingham Palace carving up the world with the best of European society.

The triumph of Leninism in Russia changed Progressivism by action and reaction, and these tensions played out all through the American Century and into this Chinese one. Lippmann in his 1929 book, A Preface to Morals tries to deduce a post-religious non-Marxist morality that might sustain an elite coming out of the Roaring Twenties and heading for the Crash. He writes, “[T]he mature man would take the world as it comes, and within himself remain quite unperturbed. When he acted, he would know that he was only testing an hypothesis, and if he failed, he would know that he had made a mistake. He would be quite prepared for the discovery that he might make mistakes, for his intelligence would be disentangled from his hopes. The failure of his experiment could not, therefore, involve the failure of his life…. Defeat is no less interesting than victory.” Very wise and in terms of politics utterly unrealistic. Rather, the unlettered crowd must replace that “mature man” and it is their prerogative alone to recognize, as unpretentious less-invested ruling judge, what is mistaken or successful and move in or out of power these clinging experts and their politician-vehicles. This has gotten difficult as the number of permanent bureaucrats and expert advisors collect around the federal and state governments, seeking immunity from the judgment of mere voters.

On NPR Tuesday morning Evan Thomas explained that The War Lovers was, if not an apologia for his own hawkishness on the 2nd Iraq war, an attempt to explain his and other opinion-shapers' alignment with the effort (Thomas is editor of Newsweek). Not having read his book, on the radio he sounded myopic in this Lippmann manner. Stepping back it can look much simpler. America might have been better off not having fought any war from 1898 on. The rest of the world perhaps less so, and it is possible that that may have redounded back onto us economically or by overwhelming invasion by refugees from that troubled world, if not by military pressure or invasion. That might have had to be called Blowback as well, innocent as a newborn non-empire as we’d have been. Still, it doesn’t seem likely to me that America might have opted out of it all given what the 20th century threw at our leaders. They, restrained imperfectly by voters, tried this, then that, then something else again, leaving the experts to be correct until proved wrong. None of those wars was alike. It would be up to them whether they took it personally or learned something when judged mistaken. Sounds like Evan Thomas learned more than a Thomas Friedman did. That may have something to do with the culture of the New York Times, where Friedman toils at his own suppressed apologia via an environmentalism intended to be as muscular as old Teddy Roosevelt’s, minus all that hunting.


Daniel Pipes from National Review on Pascal Bruckner’s book, The Tyranny of Guilt - An Essay on Western Masochism, summarizes: “Paradoxically, it is Europe's very readiness to acknowledge its faults that prompts self-hatred, for societies that do not engage in such introspection do not lacerate themselves.” One break on the admission of national guilt that is not often mentioned is that of the raising of children within a culture. Odd that it goes unmentioned because most of culture is concerned ultimately with just that task. Small children need an optimistic, sunny culture to come up in. They even must hold similarly sunny ideas of other cultures; they picture boys and girls from China or France or Mexico this way. Puberty will cloud that view enough, but to be hectored by teachers bent on scouring all simple pride and patriotism from young minds amounts to child abuse and cultural vandalism. The Germans dealt with it in ways that are hard to imagine but that void is mentioned as fundamental to their art by German musicians and filmmakers from the late sixties on -- and before that there was two decades of almost nothing. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the Russians and the Japanese for two never quite bend the knee to the satisfaction of their wounded neighbors.


Here is the NYT shaping the battlefield, setting up a definition of failure so wide there can be no success, full stop. There’s no sense of any military reality; they (there are four named authors) may appear to be surveying the situation on the ground in Kandahar but their eyes are as always on the next American election. They’ve probably rationalized that any Republican gains mid-term will help the Democrats keep the White House. What makes them nervous: Can President Obama withdraw from Afghanistan? And what about Pakistan where by strictly military rights any American ground troops ought to be.

There are no new Vietnams though, because the military was pulled and told it was unwinnable just twenty-five years after their officer corps had chased the Japanese from everywhere and eighteen after their junior officers had secured South Korea. A new political-media establishment beat an older one thanks to the assassination of JFK, followed by LBJ’s and Nixon’s inability to similarly harness the baby boom cultural revolution. That’s a long story never well-told, but the military’s own long story which involved a discounting of policy rationalizations and a burrowing down into what they could control was led by Colin Powell, John McCain, Donald Rumsfeld, and many more unknown to civilian authority. They fought through their own military culture revolution to produce the best, nimblest, cross-trained force there’s ever been. The placing of the Power Point graphic on the front page above the fold of Tuesday’s NYT would have once been presented as a virtual Pentagon Papers, but Elisabeth Bumiller’s article provides the critique of the use of this technocrats’ toy by the military brass itself and so whatever the editors believed putting a thin, side-bar story front and center, the story itself doesn’t warrant it. But the graphic invites a reaction-shot golden oldie, boo-bait for double-dome bubbah, if not for the original bubbah now recapitulating good old American isolationism in the Tea Party groups.

PBS’ “The American Experience” just did their battlefield-shaping, re the Af-Pak Theater and their wayward Commander-in-Chief on that stage with a new documentary on My Lai. Curious. But it brings to my mind just how lost in myopic tactics Al Qaeda has been. They might have attacked just the Pentagon on a meaningful date, say, the anniversary of My Lai. They might have allowed the western press to run loose behind enemy lines. Instead, they knit the world together against them by their actions at the World Trade Center, Bali, London, Madrid, where else? Moscow? Urumqi? Then they decapitate any western reporter they can get their hands on. Reporters would love to win their Pulitzers writing up any and all civilian deaths from the drone attacks over Pakistan. They’d love to find the inner peace-loving ascetic that is Osama - a regular Ho...

Further pummeling of the battlefield, PBS grimly touts that the next greatest hit of our tragic national melodrama, i.e., “The American Experience”, will be “Roads to Memphis”, which is not about Elvis.


Ross Douthat in the NYT on the Comedy Channel’s submission to the Prophet (pbuh, or else). Douthat summarizes, “This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that ‘bravely’ trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.” He might be describing John Stewart’s reflexive defense of his employer’s act as being one of concern for its employees. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t buying that judging by their comments at their site, southparkstudios.com. Stewart on Friday duly assembled clips of all of the Comedy Channel’s brave trashing of every other religion in an unintended but predictable submission to Islamic sensibilities. That’s pretty damn Reform of him. The frat-boys and newsmedia loved it, or maybe that’s a laugh track.


Christopher Caldwell in the FT on "Freedom to discriminate":

It is a bad sign when a court case that seems likely to set precedent is based on a bizarre controversy. This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Christian Legal Society v Martinez, which revolves around the question of whether a Christian group violates anti-discrimination law if it insists that its leaders be Christians (as it understands the term). The case has generated 40 friend-of-the-court briefs, a sure sign of brewing political controversy. There has always been a contradiction at the heart of anti-discrimination statutes. The rights they confer are bought at the cost of other people’s right of freedom of association.

Caldwell also reviews Ray Madoff’s book, Immortality and the Law - The Rising Power of the American Dead in the FT:

Trust law is at the heart of Madoff’s discussion but she deals with a range of macabre and infuriating subjects besides. With advances in organ transplantation since the 1960s, a corpse is now a more valuable object -- a mother lode of medical resources. A decade ago, the Los Angeles Times discovered that the local coroner‘s office was selling corneas to an eye bank. Authorities are scrambling to tap this new source of funds, replacing laws under which citizens must register to donate with laws under which they must register not to.


Richard Serrano in the L.A. Times, "U.S. prosecutors rattle, but don’t break, Mexican cartels", features short, sharp portraits of imprisoned cartel leaders one is tempted to call uniquely penitent, Catholic, Mexican crime-bosses. They don’t sound like Italian-American mafiosi at all, but as with the mob here, Serrano like the press generally, fails to connect the removal of the bosses and their replacement by younger, less stable toughs with an increase in violence and ultimate progress against feudal crime culture.


There’s just a blizzard of state and municipal budgetary disaster reporting. Here’s Fran Spielman on Chicago’s flavor of it in the CST, "We’ll All Feel Pension Pain", and Peter Applebome on New Jersey’s funk in the NYT, "Governor Christie vs. the Teachers: Nastiness in New Jersey", and Tamara Audi on Los Angeles’ stench in the WSJ, "Mayor Confronts Former Union Allies", and finally, Gov. David Paterson on New York rot in the NYT, "Borrowing Our Way to Failure". He must really be running for his life to fess up to so much. There’s still wiggle room though, in his formulation, “Anyone who has ever managed a household budget or a small business knows that there are only two ways to correct that kind of unsustainable budget imbalance: Cut spending or increase revenues. Borrowing accomplishes neither of those goals. It only imposes a burden on future generations without a corresponding benefit. Borrowing solves nothing.” Obviously what the borrowing bought were votes and election day “volunteers”. And all has been leveraged in this Age of Finance until we find ourselves like Wile E. Coyote a good ten paces out past the cliff’s edge. And by “increasing revenues” Paterson means to bag tax increases for every cut, when in any of these high tax cities and states further rate hikes will yield more revenue only momentarily at best, until the activity or persons taxed are suppressed or move.

What I suspect is that Mayor Richard Daley with his special entre to this White House via Rahm Emmanuel and President Obama himself will seek to replay what his father received in emergency city aid from President Johnson. It’s hard to imagine there may be more borrowing and spending by the federal government, but there will be coast-to-coast attempts to offload these budgetary and pension deficits onto the federal government. If the economy is truly rebounding then some of this might be hidden in an inflation cycle, but it’ll take one fully out of control to disguise it all. I predict that Paul Volcker will soon find that he wishes to spend more time with his family.


Jed Graham in the IBD’s Capital Hill blog, "What Krugman Left Out About U.S. Debt Outlook".

Paul Krugman’s recent piece ‘Learning From Greece’ is more right than wrong: Hitting the fiscal and monetary brakes too soon still poses a risk to the recovery -- and the nation‘s fiscal health. But in arguing against premature tightening, Krugman has also created an impression that our budget plight is much less worrisome than it is.


David Wessel in the WSJ on UC’s Raghuram Rajan’s "Mapping Fault Lines of Crisis":

The first Rajan fault line lies in the U.S. As incomes at the top soared, politicians responded to middle-class angst… by fostering an explosion of credit, especially for housing. This has happened before. Farmers’ grievances led to a U.S. government-backed expansion of bank credit in the 1920s… But one thing was different: ‘When easy money pushed by a deep pocketed government comes into contact with the profit motive of a sophisticated, amoral financial sector, a deep fault line develops,’ Mr. Rajan writes….

The second fault line lies in the relentless exporting of many countries. Germany and Japan grew rich by exporting. They built agile export sectors that compete with the world‘s best, but shielded or strangled domestic industries such as banking and retailing. These industries are uncompetitive and inefficient, and charge high prices that discourage consumer spending….

A third Rajan fault line spread the crisis. The U.S. approach to recession-fighting… and its social safety net are geared for fast recoveries of the past, not jobless recoveries now the norm. That puts pressure on Washington to do something: tax cuts, spending increases and very low interest rates. This leads big finance to assume, consciously or unconsciously, that the government will keep the money flowing and will step in if catastrophe occurs.


In that bizarre paid advertorial that has run unread in the NYT Sunday opinion section probably since teachers gave up professional status for union membership in the late sixties, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers writes:

‘WE THE TEACHERS…’ Teachers don’t have their own version of the U.S. Constitution, but I sometimes think we should have a similarly bold, substantive and specific document that lays out what constitutes a good education, and how we can ensure every student has access to such an education.

Too often, the policies governing public education read more like: ‘We the school board,’ or ‘We the Department of Education,’ or ‘We the administrators of such-and-such program.’ In a democratic society, each of these entities can and should play a supportive role. But it shouldn’t eclipse that of classroom teachers, who know children, who understand what works in education and what falls flat, and who know how policies and mandates can directly affect what goes on in the classroom -- for better or worse.

Thanks to the union, no doubt, the average length of a public school teacher’s in-the-classroom career is I believe under ten years and has been for decades. They move out of the classroom up into administration as fast as possible. The few real teachers who bother with the kids and their parents are cover for the rest.


Patti Waldmeir in the FT, "China embraces freedom of the road". It’s already the Fifties in the Chinese Century.


Gideon Rachman in the FT on Stefan Halper’s book, The Beijing Consensus - How China’s Authoritarian Model will dominate the Twenty-First Century, traces former Nixon, Ford, Reagan-hand Halper’s argument that China will not democratize, nor militarily threaten the U.S., but will help sustain otherwise unnatural pariahs like Burma and North Korea, will hold sway over its third world raw material suppliers, and will compete for the diplomatic alignment of rising nations like India and Brazil. But the photo by Paolo Woods that accompanies this book review is even more interesting. It shows a Chinese man in hard-hat with sleeves rolled up and shirt half-open standing surrounded by Congolese workers on the construction site of the Imboulou dam. What such Chinese are learning as they spread around the world building and running massive things will return to China over the next decades and they will change it.


Charles Horner and Eric Brown in The American Interest on "Beijing’s Islamic Complex".


David Pilling in the FT, "Tokyo wobbles on the American alliance".


Simon Montlake in the CSM, "Thailand’s red-shirt protestors find sympathizers in military".


Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the NYT, "Ending the Slavery Blame-Game", comes close to the full disclosure for how vexed the issue of slavery is, even at this late date. But Gates does not mention the Arabs in his piece, nor do the three letters it inspired, all from academics. Before the Portuguese, French, Spanish, and British arrived at west African ports, the ongoing slave trade was north overland to Arabia. And this trade persists. The poverty culture of the desert encourages these ancient patterns. Leaving this out in polite discussion is necessary because there are all these black Americans since the sixties running around with assumed Arabic names. Ghetto provincialism led them to make a symbolic mistake of enormous proportions; to tweak the Man descended from slavers they took to the trappings of the culture that kept the ancient slave trade alive to be expanded in the colonial age. I remember the street intellectuals of 80s Chicago buzzing over the Jewish financing of the Slave trade, to the point that they seemed willing to let whitey off the hook where he could high-five Abdul.


Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian on Orwell’s Animal Farm.


J.J. Green on WTOP interviews "Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader".

‘I'm 100 percent sure they had no clue about what was going to happen,’ says Noman Benotman, who was head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the summer of 2000.

‘What happened after the 11th of September was beyond their imagination,’ says Benotman, who adds that al-Qaida thought the U.S. was a ‘paper tiger.’

Sitting on the floor at bin Laden's compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan during a meeting the summer before the attacks, Benotman shocked bin Laden and more than 200 other international jihadist leaders by telling the al-Qaida leader his jihadi strategy was ‘a total failure.’

Benotman, a highly regarded associate of bin Laden's at the time, says he surprised him again by rebuffing a plea for help. ‘He asked for my help. Bin Laden asked me personally, you know. I responded immediately on the spot ...'No. I'm not going to help you.'’ Bin Laden was stunned.

‘Because he used to like to sit next to me, you know. My right hand side,’ Benotman says.
The seating location meant he was someone bin Laden respected.

Benotman says he spoke frankly because his reputation allowed him to.

‘I've spent time in the front line engaging with the enemy more than bin Laden and [Ayman Al-]Zawahiri and the entire group of al-Qaida.’

Zawahiri laughed when he warned those at the 2000 meeting that the U.S. response would be swift, hard and long, Benotman says.


Robin Wigglesworth in the FT, "Islamic banks caught between two worlds".

Islamic financial theory stipulates that sharia-compliant banks are agents who invest depositors‘ money in profitable ventures. Therefore, according to many sharia scholars, if a bank loses money, depositors should in theory share in the loss. In reality this has never happened, as it could cause runs in the Islamic finance industry, bankers point out. Yet it is still uncertain what would happen if an Islamic bank were to default.


Hungarian writers Peter Nadas interviewed in Die Zeit at Signandsight.com, and Laszlo Foldenyi interviewed at Salon.eu.sk, on the victory of the right party Fidesz’s victory over the Socialists and Jobbik -- an extreme nationalist party.

Peter Nadas: The political competition has degenerated into a fight for the state as prey. The Socialists plundered the state when they were in power. But the Europeans should refrain from finger pointing. Because EU accession in 2004 only made everything worse, because then it was EU money that was up for grabs. The party political struggle became nothing but a front for the battle for cash. Without a national bourgeoisie, East European society in transition cannot stabilise. And this is what I mean by the ‘great transition‘ which we are now facing. The first round of Hungary‘s attempt to catch up with the modern states in Europe has failed…. (Victor) Orban has very limited room for manoeuvre. The country is heavily in debt and in need of radical reform -- in education, health, pensions. The bureaucracy is absurdly inflated. A third of the population lives off the state.

Laszlo Foldenyi: Unlike other countries Hungary has never really come to terms with its involvement in the Holocaust. In the last two years of the War 600,000 Jews were deported from Hungary or were killed on Hungarian soil. It was a civil war against the defenceless which became a taboo later, in the communist era. We still haven‘t come to terms with this issue; it‘s lodged deep inside the Hungarians… The country cannot sink any lower. And that might actually give Fidesz a chance to raise morale a little. Fidesz has to rein in anti-Semitic groupings such as Jobbik. I prefer to see it as a historical challenge…. However, even under contemporary capitalism Hungary has a semi-feudal social system. The Hungarians’ attitude, unchanged for a century, continues to be an expectation that they will be saved by the state, from above. That is why communism worked particularly well in Hungary. Better than in Czechoslovakia. People were content with the system. It is no coincidence either that communist Janos Kadar still comes out in opinion polls as the most popular Hungarian politician of the twentieth century.


Elaine Tyler May in the NYT, "Promises the Pill could never keep". Some literature is designed to endarken rather than enlighten. The Scientific Method is not as popular in the Humanities where it doesn’t earn one rewards to risk jeopardizing prevailing political winds, nevermind cyclones.


Sulzberger the Elder in KC May 25, 1994 on the web at JimmyCsays.com, wherein all those years ago in cybertime Mr. Punch lurches into the truth, “And while you’re thinking about newspapers, don’t forget serendipity. How many times has one opened a newspaper to discover some fascinating tidbit you never would have had the wit to search for in a computer?” Serendipity, or as Lightbourne reminds me, McLuhan considered the old broadsheet newspaper page with its hodgepodge of unrelated matter, the origins of surrealism.


Steve Pond has a nice piece in the new DGA Quarterly on Directing Sinatra:

‘When Sinatra really wanted it, and when he respected the director, he worked hard,’ says Hawk Koch, whose father Howard was the head of Sinatra’s production company in the early 60s.’ …‘Aaron Rosenberg, who produced The Detective, told me that the way they worked with Sinatra was to light six setups ahead,’ says director John Badham, who interviewed Rosenberg for his book I’ll Be in My Trailer. ‘When he walked in the door at 10 o’clock in the morning, they’d put him right where he was supposed to be and shoot the first scene. Then they’d walk him to the next set, scrambling to light ahead of him. And by 2 or 3 they’d be done with him for the day.’ …Gordon Douglas, whose Sinatra films included Robin and the 7 Hoods, Tony Rome and The Detective, pre-lit every scene and blocked it with Sinatra’s double, so that he was ready to shoot as soon as his leading man appeared. ‘That was always the key,’ says Koch. ‘When you called Frank to the set, you’d better be ready to roll camera.'


Alan Licht, Lee Ranaldo, Gary Panter, Henry Kaiser, and others:

Saturday May 1:
Text of Light (Licht & Ranaldo) with psychedelic light show by Gary Panter & Josh White at Thirty Days NY 70 Franklin St., 7pm

• Sunday May 2:
Henry Kaiser, Alan Licht, Charles K. Noyes, and Weasel Walter
Two guitars, bass and drums at The Stone 2nd St. & Ave. C, 10pm

• Tuesday May 4:
Video & Music: Ralph Gibson & Jon Gibson, Alan Licht "Shaka Drone"
at the Stone, again, 8pm


(thanks Steve Beeho)

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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