Monday, December 20, 2004

Crichton's _State of Fear_

I'm reading Michael Crichton's new book. He was one of the folks who really got me intersted in science back in the days when he wasn't tremendously famous. I've noticed a real falling off in his writing since Jurassic Park made him really rich, but I held out hope that this one might be interesting, anyhow.

And it does look like the book will be interesting. It also looks like the novel will be bad--about on the standard of The Davinci Code: pretty poor as literature, pretty implausible and old as far as plot goes.

But, I skipped to the end just to see what Crichton had as an afterword, and he has an extensive annotated bibliography, mostly on the topics of the politics of science and environmentalism. I get the feeling that a technothriller isn't really what Crichton wanted to write. He wanted to do a reasoned polemic. Instead we get all his research inserted into a plot that reads like some old Saturday afternoon short, with scheming Nazis or Commies. And this complete with characters representing the likes of Ralph Nader--no, I don't like him either, but as evil mastermind . . . well, that stretched credulity. He isn't good enough to be a evil mastermind. Ralph Nader is just a puffed-up schmo. Underserving of villainhood on this scale, in both senses.

If you check out Amazon, you'll see the Dan Brown fans love the book, the environmentalists hate it because they disagree with it. Both camps are wrong: the book is horrible, the ideas are . . . worth having a look at.

To oversimplify, Crichton is taking up Bjorn Lomborg's side of the Skeptical Environmentalist debate. Lomborg's ideas are provocative and hard to summarize in a short piece (I will try to later), but essentially he questions the idea that the world is in a general environmental decline, calling into question a wide range of environmentalist worries, including the loss of species and habitats and global warming.

A group of scientists including EO Wilson led the counter-attack against Lomborg's questions in Scientific American (which has behaved "shamefully" over the course of the controversy, according to Crichton).

If you'd like to read the extensive response from the SciAm team, click here.

Here is Lomborg's blow by blow response.

And SciAm's response to the response.

And so on. More is to be found at the SciAm site and at Lomborg's.

Anyhow, this stuff is far from uninteresting, and Lomborg is far from alone in calling some environmentalist predictions of doom greatly exaggerated. Certainly worth a look and a thought or two.

Coincidentally, I am also reading a book by Stephen Budiansky, who was one of Lomborg's important defenders during the controversy. It's called Nature's Keepers and it deals with the non-scientific wing of the environmental movement, and their links with romanticism, and religious, political and dietary reform movements.

Funny thing, everything I've been reading lately seems to tie into a great whole--here comes creeping wholism!--even when I am trying to change the subject I'm reading about. I started reading Lasch just for the hell of it (I ran across Culture of Narcissism in a thrift shop), and it turned out to have a lot to say about the foreign policy stuff I was writiing about before the election and with some of the anti-modernist trends I was worried about in Wendell Berry. Budiansky I'd read because I love books about codes (he wrote Battle of Wits the story of WWII code-breaking) and I just stumbled upon his writings about those I'll call the Berry-ites (Budiansky never mentions Berry). And Budiansky has something to say about another of my interests--theories of ancient goddess worship. My favorite of these being Robert Graves' writings on this controversial topic.

The Crichton book is less of an accident, but now that seems to be leading me back to another of my little pet issues: the "science wars" of the nineties and the whole struggle over what science is and what it should be doing.

Perhaps one day I will find a really new subject to write about, one that doesn't tie back into my already existing interests. We'll see.


Sunday, December 12, 2004

Political Theater II

Christopher Lasch today seems a bit dated, especially if you read him for the psychology, which screams 1970s. But there are other, more interesting, ways to read him than as a 1970s Freud wannabe.

For instance, my take on Lasch has always been that his psychology is the least interesting part of his writing: it is far too strongly based on an uncritical acceptance of nineteenth-century moralism (family, work ethic, strong code of personal morality). As much as he'd deny this, Lasch's psychological insights are really driven by a sort of New Deal/Old Left horror at the "irresponsibility" of the New Left that arose out of the 1960s. Especially these days when psychoanalysis has fallen into such general disrepute, Lasch seems to us to play at Freud far too much in Narcissism.

On the other hand when he plays Max Weber, updating Weber's views on Western cultural institutions and their motors, Lasch strikes us as a keen and prescient observer. First-time readers of Weber are often struck by his positive evaluation of what has become for us a dirty word: "bureaucracy." For us bureaucracy exists as the great opposite to capitalist entrepenuerialism, to responding to market needs, to bringing the people what they want and making a little on the side, to healthy competition.

But Weber's bureaucracy didn't replace these things, it replaced corruption, bribes, sweetheart deals between politicians and railroad barons, elections that were bought and sold, success based on who you knew and who you were related to. The Robber barons were aptly named, and though their relentless pursuit of self interest did have some Mandevillian payback for the social good, there was also a fairly steep social cost to pay: inhuman working conditions, displacement, huge inequalities and resultant social friction, and, not least, the communist movement which tyrannized so much of the world for 75 years can be said to be the direct result of the deeply unenlightened pursuit of self interest that Max Weber saw being rightfully tamed and directed through the rise of governmental, legal and administrative bureaucracies.

For Weber, it was through these structures that science, proceduralism and rationality could be introduced into a system whose driving force would remain self-interest.

Today, we are more likely to see the downside of bureaucracy: today, it is bureaucracy that seems to dominate, and the independent pursuit of self interest that seems marginal. Today, bureaucracy seems more to be a self-perpetuating structure, less interested in conditioning the motive forces in the economy than in creating a almost autonomous social subsystem. Bureaucracy tends not toward the conditioning of "reality," it tends toward isolating itself from other realities to the greatest degree possible.

It is for insight into this tendency that we turn to Lasch.

The unfortunate thing is that Lasch was right about the tendency of public administration to attend to image while ignoring real outcomes. This would seem to be one of the easiest lessons to learn from the Vietnam experience "look first to your interests, not to your image" but not only have we not learned that lesson, hardly anyone seems to think the Vietnam experience has anything to say on that score.

The lesson of Vietnam seems to have been "take no military risks if you can possibly avoid them." This is the foreign policy of Colin Powell. Over the last few years we have seen the emphatic rejection of that particular foreign policy, but what has taken its place?

American foreign policy is an interesting animal. Unlike domestic policy, foreign policy is not something we can easily dichotomize. In domestic policy we have fairly well-established liberal and conservative views, which dominate discussion. Then there is the slightly complicating views: libertarians who are economic conservatives and social liberals; fire-eating conservatives who, though they are loud in touting their nominal allegiance to the free market, actually have very little loyalty to it when its findings differ from their prejudices.

In foreign policy, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is very difficult indeed to make sense of where the various players stand.

The greatest contrast in foreign policy thinking used to be between those who thought of the Soviet Union as a serious threat to the United States and those who did not. But even here there was great complication. There was the wing that thought that Khrushchev's threat to "bury" us was likely to come true if the US didn't act dramatically and soon. There were those who thought that the Soviet Union was a highly corrupt and decaying system, but that they ought to be opposed to the utmost of our ability on moral grounds: they were evil, even if they were not the direct threat the first group made out, and they ought to be thwarted wherever possible. There were those who thought the Soviet system was weak and crumbling and that the fastest way to complete the process of collapse was detante and rapproachment. There were those who saw the Soviet Union as a viable and legitimate and perhaps even necessary alternative to the hegemony of Western capitalism, and that the only way forward was to learn to peacefully co-exist with our rival.

And there were many admixtures of these positions, all with different evaluations of 1) the ability of the US to tolerate any international rival; 2) state socialism; 3) the viability of the Soviet system; 4) the threat posed by the Soviet Union; 5) the most effective way to thwart that threat; 6) the danger of any prolonged confrontation with a well-armed nuclear rival; 7) the moral obligation of the US to thwart advances in Soviet power, regardless of our material interests in doing so.

Now, perhaps the most dramatic dichotomy in US foreign policy has been between the rationalists, influenced most crucially by the political scientist Henry Morgenthau; and the crusaders, who can be represented by Woodrow Wilson, but whose crusading spirit actually has largely taken a different cast.

The limited usefulness of this dichotomy is made immediately clear when we look at the background of the Vietnam scenario sketched out by Christopher Lasch. One of the main proponents of extending the Vietnam war to maintain US "credibility" was Henry Kissinger, a student of Morgenthau's. Most of the people who cried out for the US to cut its losses and withdraw from Vietnam were moralists.

Morgenthau famously wrote an article inn the journal Foreign Affairs where he pretty much laid out the rationalist take on Vietnam: there were no interests there on behalf of which the US ought to sacrifice lives and money. Kissinger responded by weaving one out of the air: credibility.

On the other side, moralists desperately wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, but they wanted to do so for moral reasons, and therefore they concentrated much of their attention on portraying US intervention in Vietnam as not only stupid but as morally reprehensible. Though there was certainly room to argue that dropping millions of tons of high explosive on a country we had little hope of holding at the level of sacrifice we were willing to engage, the moralists went well beyond this, puffing up the legitimacy and humanity of a North Vietnamese government which was , in fact, ruthless, little concerned with the immediate welfare of its people, and not at all concerned with democratic notions of legitimacy.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Morgenthau tradition has passed down to us largely through Henry Kissinger, who still has a great deal of influence over our foreign policy, both through his students and through his being consulted at times of high foreign policy drama.
For instance, Kissinger had a phone conversation with Condoleeza Rice directly before the launch of the most recent intervention in Iraq, urging the administration to pull the trigger on war so as to maintain US credibility: The US could not threaten to do something so prominent and so often and then not do it, regardless of how stupid that action might be.

Hans Morgenthau did not think reputation and image were negligible concerns. Morgenthau, in fact wrote to quite the opposite effect:
The prestige of a nation is its reputation for power. That reputation, the reflection of the reality of power in the mind of the observers, can be as important as the reality of power itself. What others think about us is as important as what we actually are.
But Morgenthau wrote in 1965 that Vietnam was mainly a moral crusade, and that since our resources were limited, we could not afford to undertake moral missions which were negligible in terms of interest, as Vietnam was.
Kissinger, though, institutionalized the notion that symbolism trumps all, and for Kissinger and for the current administration, the "mind of the observers" is all that matters, because they have no notion whatsoever of what the true power interests of the US are, what counts as a true (as opposed to an apparent) threat, and what counts as true (as opposed to seeming) security.
Our foreign policy has become a Brechtian perfromative theater, where real blood is spilt and real power gets expended on pursuit of image, rather than material gain.

In an era when our wealth, power and willingness to make real sacrifices are all quite limited, this is a dangerous and stupid way to align foreign policy. Foreign policy as theater means we have almost literally infinite opportunities to expend all these finite resources, and we are unable to choose which to take up on the basis of interest. We make our foreign policy a slave to the image we are seeking to maintain.

In fact, we make ourselves slaves to whatever dictator who can threaten or manipulate that image, which is very, very easy to do.


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Something on Political Theatre (finally)

I share an insight with Christopher Lasch. Of course he thought of it almost thirty years ago, but I did think of it on my own before I read this now much quoted passage in his Culture of Narcissism:

Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity... all politics becomes a form of spectacle. It is well known that Madison Avenue packages politicians and markets them as if they were cereals or deodorants; but the art of public relations penetrates more deeply into political life... The modern prince [an apt turn of phrase for the current member of the Bush political dynasty] ... confuses successful completion of the task at hand with the impression he makes or hopes to make on others. Thus American officials blundered into the war in Vietnam... More concerned with the
trappings than with the reality of power, they convinced themselves that failure to intervene would damage American 'credibility...' [They] fret about their ability to rise to crisis, to project an image of decisiveness, to give a convincing performance of executive power... Public relations and propaganda have exalted the image and the pseudo-event.

The point of the passage was to observe that America in the 1970s had so lost perspective on itself and its material interests that we could only define positive and negative through the perceptions of others. In other words, we did not conduct foreign policy to acheive any stated ends--we didn't seem able to decide what those ends should be--we conducted foreign policy to maintain a elusive thing called "credibility."

When politicians and administrators have no other aim than to sell their leadership to the public, they deprive themselves of intelligible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure. It was because prestige and credibility had become the only measure of effectiveness that American policy in Vietnam could be conducted without regard to the strategic importance of Vietnam or the political situation in that country. Since there were no clearly defined objectives in view, it was not even possible to say how defeat or victory was to be recognized, except that American prestige must not suffer as a result. The object of American policy in Vietnam was defined from the outset as the preservation of American credibility. This consideration, which amounted to an obsession, repeatedly overrode such elementary principles of statecraft as avoidance of excessive risks, assessment of the likelihood of success and failure, and the calculation of the strategic and political consequences of defeat.

(Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism, 146-47, Warner, 1979.)

In the absense of material interests to pursue, we strived mightily to give the appearance of a country that would act decisively to protect its interests.

The war in Vietnam dragged out for years because Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon could not bring themselves to do what they finally did anyway: cut Vietnam loose and cut our losses. Kissinger and Nixon found it difficulkt to do this because they felt it would be a grave sacrifice to our "credibility," our reputation for fulfilling our commitments even when they are stupidly undertaken.

I've often thought of the Kissinger line on credibility as the "barricaded house" approach to foreign policy--it makes the United States sound kind of like one of life's losers, who has taken hostages and barricaded himself in somewhere, carrying out his idiotic threats because, though he's a loser and a practitioner of senseless violence on innocents, he is a man of his word.

more later


Sunday, November 28, 2004

More on creeping agrarianism

I've been reading quite a bit around this topic. I thought I should make a few things clear as I start in on some of the issues and thinkers connected with it.

First, I, like most thoughtful people I know, agree with Wendell Berry and the agrarianists in their negative evaluation of contemporary culture: there is something empty in it, it does lack for something very needful. But, I also know that part of this feeling is part of life--the ancient Greeks moaned about the same sort of hollowness in life that we do.

I say part because I think that contemporary culture has exacerbated this basic condition of life.

I am happy that Wendell Berry has expressed his discontent with contemporary culture and that his negative analysis of our lives has given focus to so many others who feel discontent.

I also agree with some of the agrarianists in their notion that technology is not neutral. If you think about it, the proposition that technology might be neutral is absurd--if it doesn't have a significant impact on the way we live, why invest so much in it?

BUT, I don't think that technology is such a great villain in the story of human kind, either.

I am surprised also by how much of the agrarianist agenda seems to come out of the diet-obsessed neuroticism we so often see amongst the health-food-store set. This line of "thinking" is not a solution to our cultural problems, it is one of its more depressing and sad symptoms: people with critical perspectives and (generally) significant educational and economic resources turned into obsessors over trivia that they imbue with issues of purity, defilement, and apocalyptic accountability.

Farmer, writer and technophobe Wendell Berry could not be better suited to become the patron saint of this movement: intimately engaged in the production of food, engaged in a livelihood many Americans are brought up to reflexively revere, a noble smallholder who plows his fields behind a team of horses; browned and callused, yet sensitive and profound; Our new-age Cinncinnatus.

Unfortunately, though, Berry is essentially a simple soul and a simple thinker caught up in a world where simple answers are often disastrously wrong, or even deeply pernicious.

As for the simplicity end of things, witness his exchange with Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin. (Please forgive my telling the whole of this long story, but we will eventually come around to the point!)

Lewontin had written a piece in the New York Review of Books where he reviewed a number of books on the controversy surrounding genomic foods. Lewontin is a Marxist and is generally in sympathy with democratic movements and with people's power to decide what risks they'd like to take. So while Lewontin is very critical of the abuse of science and scare-mongering he sees in many GMO opponents, he is equally critical of the elisions and obfuscations of the interested parties who'd like to have us growing and eating as much genetically modified food as possible.

But, in the course of his review one of Berry's friends, the Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva, comes in for something of a drubbing. Berry ran to the defense of Shiva in a cover article of the Progressive magazine, "The Prejudice Against Country People." Lewontin was used as the first and most prominent example of said prejudice.

Lewontin responded with a letter to the same publication.

One passage in Lewontin's original piece became the center of the exchange:

Now we understand the Turning Point Project. They're a bunch of Luddites. Right century, but wrong movement. The followers of the unseen King Ludd and Captain Swing from 1811 to 1830 were industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed
knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor. Their objection to technology was not ideological but pragmatic. If we want to find the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sources of Turning Point consciousness, we must find it in the movement that began with Blake and
ended with Rossetti, Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites, in the call to arms against the dark Satanic Mills:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

That nineteenth-century discontent was the reaction of a middle class repelled by the spiritual and physical ugliness created by a surging industrial capitalism to which they sensed no attachment. One might think that because the rise of industrial capitalism occurred so long ago and the culture it created has become so much the basis of European and American life, any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable. But what was then a struggle against the rise of its dominance is now a struggle against its last consolidation in spheres of life that seemed set apart.

Berry immediately jumped on the first two sentences of this passage, and castigated Lewontin for his trite response to the challenge of the anti-technologists.

But a bit of attention the passage (and to what follows) quickly tells us that this is far from being a trite and uncomplex response to the Turning Point Project and their ilk. Lewontin tries to spell this out for Berry in his letter of response to the Progressive:

Berry's passions have interfered with his ability to read plain English. I did not speak of Vandana Shiva's allies as Luddites, but, rather, made a special point of the incorrectness of such a claim. I wrote that the Luddites were "industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor." In contrast, I pointed out that the correct nineteenth century equivalent of the Shivaites was the middle class educated urban romantic movement of Blake and Rossetti, which called for the return to an idyllic rural life that never, in fact, existed. Most people engaged in English agriculture in the nineteenth century and before were, in fact, hired laborers whose chronic poverty and misery were the root of the struggles over the Poor Law, just as in Berry's grandfather's day, half of Southern farmers were landless tenants and sharecroppers.

In other words, the first two sentences of the passage are meant to be ironic, the rest is intended to correct the trite and mistaken comparison to the Luddites. The true parallel, as Lewontin sees it, is to the nineteenth-century Romantics. (Lewontin is no doubt thinking about his Raymond Williams at this point--Culture and Society is a relatively sympathetic portrait of Romantic anti-modernism, and The Country and the City deals quite directly with the fantasies and realities surrounding life in the country).

Berry didn’t get the irony the first time. And even after Lewontin spells out everything for him, Berry responds by simply quoting the first two sentences again. Irony and voice, apparently, being literary technologies that Berry as reader has completely forsaken!

And Lewontin is no stranger to agricultural issues either, as he points out. He's written two serious considerations of the plight of the farmer in industrial modernity in the Monthly Review: "Technology, Research, and the Penetration of Capital: The Case of U.S. Agriculture" (July/August 1986, with J. P. Berlan) and "The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture" (July/August 1998).

Reading over this exchange, one point is driven home: you'd be far better off reading and thinking about Lewontin than Berry, unless you're in the market for Lukewarm Comfort Farm.

Personally, I think Lewontin is on the right track with the nineteenth-centruy romantics, but I think the best parallel to today's agrarians can be found a bit later, after Romanticism has gone to seed. We ought to be looking at Boyle's Road to Wellville.

More later . . .


Monday, November 22, 2004

Creeping agrarianism

Prefatory note: We'll have to wait a little while longer for my promised "Political Theater" piece--the election and some other stuff having taken away my research time for a little while. But here's something else I've been thinking about of late.

Lately on the local community radio station, I heard a song by John McCutcheon called "It's the Economy Stupid," part of an album of polemical tunes he's written about Clinton and Bush-era political and social issues. Other titles include "Hail to the Chief" which cleverly weaves together a bunch of Bush malapropisms and "I'm Packing," which spoofs concealed weapons carriers.

All fairly typical of your folk lefty.

But "It's the Economy Stupid" really struck a chord with me, and not a receptive one. This in spite of the fact that I'm generally in agreement with McCutcheon is his other left-of-center sentiments, from fear of yokels with concealed handguns to contempt for George Bush's intellectual capacity.

But "Economy" resonates loudly with an agrarian populism I'd come to hope the left had left behind, or had left to the nutters on the right. But, surprisingly enough to me, a new sentimentalist, crypto-nativist, populist agrarianism has taken hold on the left, and McCutcheon's lyrics are the most direct expression of it I've heard, so I will quote them here in their entirety:
It's the Economy, Stupid (2001)
words and music by John McCutcheon
Written after reading Wendell Berry's fabulous novel, Jayber Crow.

It's the economy, stupid
A victory sign
A mantra
An explanation
A reminder
A warning
An omen
An onus
A threat
It's the economy, stupid

Farmers' wives bring eggs
Whole milk
Fresh butter
To the local market
To the store
Come in with groceries
And leave with groceries and money

Small farmers raise crops
For local markets
Up at dawn
Home at dusk
More in fallow
Than under the plow
Dark loam
Rich with earthworms
Defying erosion
Anchoring forest borders
Home for
Now virginity is no longer fashionable
Even in our forests
We will harvest another crop
Of walnut
Cherry, oak
If we only live
Another hundred years.
Man was the last piece
Of creation
And has been playing catch up
Ever since.

Farming is a balance
Of muscle
And conservation
Becomes the muscle now
Allowing us to work
Into the night.
We plant our debts
Fencerow to fencerow
Every bitter dram
Of expert advice
'drunk with dreams
of fortune

We grow
What we cannot use
What we used to raise
What we used to save
What we used to treasure
What we used to revere
What we used to love
It's the economy, stupid

I am not a nostalgist
I am a most pragmatic man
I look at what naturally occurs
In the living world--
And see diversity
Not specialization.
I look at
Hometown banks
Hardware stores
Where your name
Is your credit
And decisions are rendered
By people who know you
Where you are more than
The five banks
And the four airlines
And the three newspaper chains
And the two big box stores
And the one-and-a-half political parties
And the one retort:
It's the economy stupid

And the standards
That demand that
Every teacher teaches
Every student
Exactly the same thing
And, like these students
I have to ask 'why?'
It's the economy, stupid

Now those educated
Appraised students
Ride their buses
From their consolidated schools
Back to their small towns and farms
And cannot wait
To drive their cars away
On that highway of diamonds
Into the consolidated cities
Where they look back
In shame
And wonder
Between what they know
And what they've been sold
It's the economy, stupid

The economy that looks
For the maximum return
For the quick turnaround
For the short term gain
For the unearned income
For the Big Lotto
It's the economy, stupid

And the economy
Is impatient
It has a short attention span
It is easily bored
It is hungry
It is late for its next appointment
It puts you on hold
It does not return your call
It's the economy, stupid

The economy
Has you working two jobs
It is mandatory overtime
It is expensive sneakers
Made by sweating children
It is cheap food
Picked by landless hands
It is good paying jobs
Disappearing from American towns
And reappearing
It is your closed up main street
And it is your boarded up mill
And it is your condo-minimized factory
And it is your cookie cutter mall
And it is not accountable
It is not America
It's the economy, stupid

The economy now has no borders
Or horizons
Or faces
Or hands
The economy has only one rule:

And the economy lies.
The economy tells us it is about Freedom.
The economy is about Dependence.
Not on land
Or animals
Or weather
Or neighbors
On machinery
And fuel
And credit.
Most farmers
Have borrowed their way
Right out of farming.
No government loan
No government program
Will change
That cycle.
Because the government
Is powerless now, see:
It's the economy, stupid

And the government is the economy's
Biggest cheerleader.
It plays by the same rules:
The quick fix
The stronger army
The bigger bomb
The dependence on machinery
To do work
That can only effectively be done
By humans.
It consolidates
When diversity is required.

It's about economy
It's about small towns with
And baseball teams
A general store
Family cemeteries
A schoolhouse
A lumberyard
A radio station
A newspaper
A roadhouse
A funeral home
A filling station
Open space
Open opportunity
Open eyes
Open hearts
It's about economy

Craigston, Carriacou, Grenada February 2001

©2001 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Keep in mind, I live in Northern Michigan, and though the town where I live is fairly moderate, much of surrounding area is rural. There are few minorities or foreigners here. To me, a lot of this sort of song really seems to me to appeal directly to the racism and xenophobia which are very strong ideological undercurrents in this area, even on the left.

And I am not doing the white guilt thing here--finding reason for the whites to castigate themselves everywhere--I am merely observing that popular movements here like the effort to shut down the Perrier water plant in Macosta, Michigan make pretty freely appeal to nativism and xenophobia to get people excited--the company is FRENCH! (or, somewhat less dramatically, Swiss) or its a MULTINATIONAL! (code word for "foreign") and the scandal is that "our" water might be taken so that foreigner can profit by it and some brown-skinned people somewhere may get to drink it.

Keep our water here!

If this sounds a lot like the sort of agrarian nativism Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his works on American populism and nativist paranoia, well it should.
The American left is slowly but surely leaving behind its commitment to things like science, social progress and urbanity and embracing irrationalism, nostalgia and, rather more surreptitiously, the sort of "blood and soil" ideology that gave a bad name to this line of thinking in the first place.

The time to head this off is now. The way to do it is by facing up to some hard truths: we are stuck with modernity; We are stuck with the rest of the world; We are stuck with negotiation, compromise and politics no matter how righteous we think we are; We are stuck with uncertainty, complexity and complication.

More on this topic later.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Political Theater

No, the title doesn't refer to the debates, but to an area where the theatrical comes to play a much more powerful and disturbing role in our politics: foreign policy.
Hearing and reading the rhetoric (and I don't use the word pejoratively, by the way) coming from the President and his supporters, I am struck by the degree to which they seem to base their foreign policy ideals on "messages" that are sent (to whom?) by policies we take and a near-mythical conception of American "credibility" (what precisely is this? is it really worth the sacrifices these people want to make for it?).
I am currently at work on what will probably turn into a few essays on the topic of Bush's foreign policy and his foreign policy rhetoric.
Sorry to be posting a merely anticipatory entry here, but, if you read this and have any ideas about potential avenues in this connection, please post them here.
As you can see from my post below on Imperial Hubris (and even moreso from a reading of the book itself), there is a sense in which Bush's foreign policy can be looked at as more the end result of ineptitude than of any particular philosophy. But I think there may be more to it than blundering and the mindless confusion of what ought to be distinct areas of policy-making.
I am not really interested in writing a polemic so much as a critical analysis of the Bush foreign policies, but I would certainly appreciate the views of other folks on this general topic.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Return to Normalcy?

"We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." --John Kerry

"Just this weekend, Senator Kerry talked of reducing terrorism to - quote - nuisance' - end quote - and compared it to prostitution and illegal gambling. See, I couldn't disagree more. Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world." -- George W. Bush

Earlier today, Vice President Dick Cheney took John Kerry to task for comments published this weekend indicating that he hoped to see a day when terrorism would again be at the level of a national "nuisance." Cheney called "naive and dangerous."

Kerry's rather careless choice of words aside, it is remarkable the extent to which Dick Cheney, in this and other published comments, talks as if America can expect to be in a constant state of emergency and a perpetual state of war for the foreseeable future.

One has to wonder sometimes if the Vice President is setting the stage for a future promotion from Dick Cheney to Dick Tator.

But the siege mentality seems to be spreading quickly among Republicans. Rudy Giuliani said that the notion of "an acceptable level of terrorism is frightening." And the President himself assured a Colorado audience that his vision of the War on terror has America "on the offensive . . . spreading liberty and freedom around the world."

This line of rhetoric would not seem to me to serve Republican interests very well, and I hope to see the Democrats take them up on it quickly. The Republican vision for the War on Terror has the sort of endless quality of a moral crusade--much like a crusade against liquor, or fornication. While we might, like Rudy Giuliani, find it hard to accept that there will be murders and drunkenness and fornication in New York City in any perspective future, not to be able to overcome that difficulty in the final event would mark us as insane.

The same goes for terrorism: there will always be people out there who hate us and who are willing to die and kill to harm us. Can we imagine a world where there is absolutely no terrorism? When can we imagine America can rest in its task of spreading Democracy and Freedom? When does being on the offensive not going to mean being up to our necks in quagmires halfway around the world?

The short answer is that the Republican have no vision for America safe and at peace. All they have is a vision of crusading America. For them, the endless crusade began on September 11th and there is no end in sight. There is no end that they can even imagine.

Mr. Kerry ought to jump straight to the hustings and proclaim loudly that he, for one, can envision a day when Al Qaeda has been vanquished, when America returns to a watchful but prosperous normalcy, and if Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush cannot envisage such a future, they ought to step aside.


My debut


The title of this, my web log, is a riff on the town I live in, Traverse City, MI.

I'm not trying to tear the place down or anything--Traverse City is a beautiful place with lots of interesting and kind people in it.

But "Adverse City" does sometimes reflect my experience of northern Michigan. The job market is tight, intellectually stimulating jobs are particularly hard to come by, it snows every day from Halloween to Easter, and the cultural atmosphere sometimes seems rather limited and retrograde when compared to New Jersey, where I used to live.

I also use "adverse" in the sense of "going in the opposite direction" in reference to myself. I tend to be a bit contrarian. I don't trust the consensus on a lot of things, and I like putting people's assumptions to the test. (Hopefully my own as well as others'.) Over time, as I fill these pages with my contrarian and sometimes cranky views and arguments, I hope this will become indeed an "Adverse City" for people who cherish unexamined assumptions about the world.

Also, I am fascinated with cities and how people, goods and information travel through and

between them. The fascination of cities is all the accidental juxtaposition they force on us as this process takes place. I'm hoping for something like that here, though on a strictly voluntary basis!