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