Saturday, September 13, 2003

THE MAN DEPARTS: Johnny Cash has died.One of the greats is gone. RIP.

HAPPY BLOGOVERSARY, DAN! Keep up the good work!

ANOTER BAD MOVE: You know, I could go on at length about the Israeli Security Cabinet's decision to 'remove' Arafat (one way or another ...). But I'm pretty busy, and the invaluable Josh Marshall has made the point I would've better than I would've.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

PLAY THE DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE GAME(s)! By way of Crooked Timber (which collectively liked it so much, they recommended it twice!)
In case you're wondering, I wound up favouring a welfare state-type society (though I was almost evenly divided between that an a meritocracy, and closer to favouring a meritocracy than most respondents, who overwhelmingly favoured a welfare state.) In terms of theory, I seem to be -- incoherent. Or indecisive. My results hover between Dworkin, pluralism, and left-libertarianism (I wound up being closer to Dworkin, and further from Left-libertarianism, than I thought I'd be; I may re-take the quiz.) (To be more specific, on the 'Talents, Efforts, and Needs' questions I wound up being closest to Dworkin, and also Rawls; on 'Appropriation and transfer of resources' I was closest to Left-libertarianism; and on 'Distribution, redistribution and state intervention' I was closest to pluralism. Overall, they told me I was a Dworkinite, which doesn't seem right to me, since I have problems with Dworkin's theory and much prefer Walzer's. Hmm.)

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR BIGOTS: Hmm. I've been spending an awful lot of time bashing the President and his supporters recently. I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a knee-jerk liberal. Not that that's such a bad thing, mind -- some of my best friends .... well, nevermind. Still, it seems to me that I'm overdue to take a glance at the other side of the fence, as it were.
Happily, though, the important work's already been done for me, by Mark Kleiman in this post reminding us that Al Sharpton is a bad, bad man, and that it's a scandal that the Democratic Party continues to tolerate him.
A scandal, indeed; but perhaps a necessary one? The Dems, unfortunately, can ill afford to alienate their core constituencies -- foremost among them African-Americans. Now, I tend to regard African-Americans expressing allegiance to Sharpton as being roughly analogous to Israeli support for Sharon or Palestinian support for Arafat (note: I'm not saying that Sharpton, Sharon, and Arafat are all morally identical. I'm not saying they're not, either. That's another, in my view not terribly fruitful, discussion for another, hopefully purely hypothetical, time.) (yes, I'm ducking that issue completely.) That is (the point, at last), it's both morally dubious, and pragmatically self-damaging -- and also pretty embarassing. Still, I can see why the Dems wouldn't want to alienate those who admire Sharpton -- or who, despite not liking him, would be offended by his exclusion.
And I think that it's probably good, as well as necessary, for the Dems to be inclusive -- to give even the crazies a chance to be heard. But how much prominence, and respect, should be given to the crazies? And how much prominence and respect should be given to people who incite and seek to justify violence? It seems to me that legitimating Sharpton -- which the Dems have done -- is both wrong, and counter-productive. The Dems should continue to put the improvement of the lot of African-Americans at the heart of their agenda. But there's a difference between being devoted to civil rights, and aware of the continuing disadvantages and indignities facing black Americans, and pandering to racial resentment and chauvinism. Such pandering is undignified; it violates the principles to which the party should be committed; and it tends to reinforce, and justify, perceptions of the Dems as weak, and prone to cave to extremists on the Left.
Then, of course, there's the GOP's reliance on, and consequent pandering to, the religious right. But that's a different story.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?: Despite my misgivings about the administration in which he serves and the policies he's been involved with making, I've always had a soft spot for Paul Wolfowitz -- and not just because he was so nice to me at that meeting of the Straussian Coven last year [Note to the Larouchites and their buddies at the NY Times, etc.: that was a joke. I've never actually met Paul Wolfowitz. Though I do hear he is actually a really nice guy. And that from non-, and indeed anti-Straussians.] I think that Wolfowitz is genuinely dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights, and that he's also a thoughtful and well-informed man.
But my faith in him as a dependable voice for rectitude within the administration is wavering. I still respect him tremendously, and trust that his intentions are good, and his mind sharp. But his persistent insistence on a Saddam-Al Quaeda link is starting to seem, well, like a case of paranoid fixation.
Of course, he may be right. He may know something we don't (in which case, why won't he disclose it?) Or he may just be being disingenuous, as &c. seems to believe.
Which makes me wonder what's scarier, and more disappointing: Wolfowitz being a bit of a nutter when it comes to the Iraq/Al Quaeda link, or his collaborating with an attempt by the administration to mislead the American people in order to justify itself and win political support.

SENSE ON ISRAEL: Tom Friedman has a great column in today's Times about the latest suicide attack on Israel (Friedman was close by when the attack occurred, and witnessed its aftermath, which he effectively describes). Friedman is unsparing in his recognition of the dangers Israel faces, and its need and duty to respond to them, as well as being admiring of Israeli society's endurance and resolve. He also realizes that concern and respect for Israel should rightly make one oppose Sharon's disastrous policy of no concessions, and support a policy of withdrawal from the West Bank, cooperation with any Palestinians who are willing to work for peace, and recognition of a Palestinian state -- and call on Washington to put pressure on Israel to act in its own best interest, even if Mr. Sharon won't.
Elsewhere on the same page, Maureen Dowd makes some good points -- Bush's foreign policy has been hubristic, the Saudi rulers are really unlikeable people and bad allies, etc. -- but manages to mar them with her Dowdishness.

On the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it seems fitting that we should -- after remembering the horror of that day and those following it, the lives and fates of the dead and the sufferings of those who knew and cared about them -- survey what has happened since then, in consequence of that moment, and where we stand now.
The picture that emerges is, of course, mixed. On the positive side, we have not been subjected to further terrorist attacks -- and when I say we, I mean the American 'homeland'. (Our troops in Iraq, and other people around the world, have been less fortunate). The US has responded to terror with resolve, and has toppled two oppressive and genuinely evil regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, despite the excesses and violations of Ashcroft's Department of Justice, we have, by and large, responded to terror without succumbing to bigotry and hate-mongering, and without indulging in campaigns of persecution, whether through vigilante violence of governmental legislation, against Americans of Islamic faith or Arab descent. All of this is cause for pride and relief.
Still, things don't look all that wonderful from where I sit at the moment. The battle to protect America against terror has thus far been a success. But reports on how this battle is going, and how those responsible for fighting it are handling things, are not entirely encouraging, and while I think we're probably safer than we were -- we're aware of the danger, at least -- the threat of domestic attacks remains real. At the same time, I remain unconvinced by President Bush's contention that the U.S.A. Patriot Act is too lenient, and worry about past violations of, and continuing threats to, civil liberties and the rule of law, both constitutional and international, by this Administration. While our attention and grief is, rightly, focussed primarilly on those who were killed by terrorists two years ago, we should also be mindful of the later, indirect victims of September 11 -- all those Arab-Americans unjustly imprisoned and detained without recourse to Constitutionally guaranteed legal protections. Their fate has certainly not been as terrible; but it has, for the most part, been unjust, it has been anguishing, and in at least one case, it has proven fatal. To give the DOJ even more power with which to commit abuses -- as President Bush has used the anniversary of our national trauma to do -- would be a horrendous mistake. While I don't always agree with John Conyers, I think his criticism of the President's proposals is right-on:
"Removing judges from providing any check or balance on John Ashcroft's subpoenas does not make us safer, it only makes us less free. Of course terrorists should not be released on bail, but this administration has a shameful record of deeming law-abiding citizens as terrorists and taking away their rights."
And then there's the rest of the world. What, exactly, are we doing in Afghanistan? Not enough, apparently, to prevent a growing resurgence and nastiness by the Taliban, or war-lord rule of much of the country. And Osama bin Laden? Still at large, it would seem, and no down snickering at us -- and possibly planning some new horror.
Things in Iraq are not going well. Despite Rumsfeld's protestations, I think we need more troops on the ground there -- and we only have so many troops to send. We need help, we need direction, and we need, I think, to seriously rethink how we're going about the occupation, and what it will take to succeed. I don't see the Administration as capable of fulfilling any of these needs. And in Israel, our ally, and fellow target, in the war against terror, suicide-bomber attacks continue; Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader who provided the best hope for a genuine Israeli-Palestinian partnership, has resigned after his job became impossible (in part, in my opinion, because the US, having made a number of gestures about the "Road Map", proceeded to neglect a deteriorating situation, failing to provide Abbas with the support he needed and to put pressure on Israel to make meaningful steps towards peace that would've molified the Palestinians, shored up Palestinian support for and trust in Abbas, and also been inherently just.) And now, after another suicide attack, the Sharon government is moving towards exiling Arafat. While I think that Arafat will never be a genuine partner in pursuing peace, and I think one of the few really smart things the Bush administration has done in the region is sidelining Arafat, I think this would be a bad move; it wouldn't decrease Arafat's (now resurgent) power, but would only inflame the Palestinians further. If Arafat's hold over the Palestinians were lessened by his absence, it seems likely to me that, in the present situation, his followers would be more likely to turn to a militant than a moderate.
Also in the Middle East, we continue our necessary but uncomfortable alliance with our criminal and unreliable 'ally', Saudi Arabia, despite Saudi repression, anti-semitism, anti-Americanism, fundamentalism, and ties to terrorism. Most of the rest of the Islamic world continues to be ruled by despots. As for the rest of the world: a lot of people don't like us. I mean, really don't like us.
It's a tough situation. The terrorists are wily; the emotional pull of anti-Americanism is strong. America, as the world's single super-power, is vulnerable, resentable, and bears a heavy responsibility. There are bound to be failures and disasters, no matter how many battles we win, and no matter how wise our leadership.
Still. I may be partisan, or I may be expecting too much, but I think that Bush and his administration have fumbled too often on matters that are too important to be mishandled with the mixture of arrogance and carelessness that the administration has often evinced.
I hope that when we look back on all this on September 11, 2004, we'll inhabit a better, if only marginally better, less suffering world, and that my pessimism about Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine (and also North Korea, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, etc.), and distrust and lack of respect for the President and his subordinates, will have proven mistaken. Because the stakes are too high for us to mess all this up.

A DEATH IN JERUSALEM: This is incredibly sad. It is, of course, always distressing to read about people dying by violence; but it is far more distressing when the account is particularized in this way -- when we're able to put a face to the victims, and when we are made aware of a life and a personality, with all their possibilities and blessings, behind the statistic.
This story is also a reminder, on September 11, that, while the US has been spared direct terrorist attacks over the past two years, the people of Israel continue to be subject to the sort of trauma we experienced two years ago -- albeit on a far smaller scale, though also more pervasively -- from month to month and even week to week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

HEAR, HEAR: Bravo, Brett! A good point, well made.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED ... IGNORE REALITY: It's really amazing to me that sharp, intelligent, and well-intentioned people continue to trust, and even applaud, and indeed defend, President Bush. Bush, and his administration, by now have a track record for failing to live up to their own rhetorical and opportunistic promises, for misleading the public, and for planning either poorly or not at all -- and subsequently refusing to acknowledge their errors, their failures, and their vices (something that even some neo-cons, such as David Brooks in his inaugural NY Times column, acknowledge; see also this sharp piece, in response to Brooks, in TNR's &c.) I think the Bush admin.'s policy of dishonesty and irresponsibility is so well established, so oft-analyzed and condemned, as to not need further treatment (one of the better exposes is Josh Marshall's, here.)
Bush's defenders seem to live in a strange world where rhetoric is as good as reality, and making promises earn one points, even if one doesn't keep them. (A particularly good example of Bush's outright hypocrisy is his touting of public-service programs, and pledge to support them -- and subsequent complaisance as Congressional Republicans slash funding for AmeriCorps, an outrage that is discussed, with a combination of pol's tact and civic patriot's outrage, by John McCain. Remember him? The neo-cons at one point seemed to prefer him to W. I think they were right the first time round.)
So, why do people remain in the thrall of Bush? One explanation is wishful thinking. Of course, anyone who cares about the future of our nation, the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the future of democracy and human rights around the world, would want to believe that the President really is going to start acting with far more resolve, focus, and effectiveness. To believe that the Bush administration is incapable of being successful, for whatever reason -- an inability to compromise, internal disagreement and lack of unity of vision, over-confidence, cynicism, economic incompetence, collective attention deficit disorder, etc. -- is really, really depressing. And scary.
But, as my parents are fond of quoting, hope isn't a plan of action. Just because we'd like Bush to behave well, and know what he's doing, and do the right thing, doesn't mean that he will.
Another explanation is opposition to the President's critics -- call it anti-anti-Bushism. Because a lot of these critics opposed the war against Saddam, and in some cases the war in Afghanistan, those of us who supported these ventures, even if reluctantly or ambivalently or only in part, continue to have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to criticisms of Bush -- especially when they're allied to demands to pull troops out of Iraq, or come from the ideological far-left. But most of the criticisms of Bush that I've seen lately don't come from wild-eyed Nader/Chomsky groupies; and while many critics do employ the Iraq-as-quagmire argument (which isn't necessarily wrong, just because some of the people who use it are nuts), you can recognize that Iraq is a very different kettle of fish from Vietnam, while also recognizing that Bush and his aides have often exhibited the arrogance and tendency to mislead the public and expect things to go far better than they have gone that characterized the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' handling of Vietnam. Besides, if you really are opposed to the anti-war, anti-spreading-democracy camp, shouldn't you be sort of annoyed with Bush for providing them with so much ammunition?
A third reason is far more sophisticated, or prudential. Perhaps some of Bush's defenders realize that he's been doing a bad job, and really are critical of him, but hope to influence him or his advisors in a better direction. Perhaps they hope that, if they applaud Bush for making promises, they'll be able to hold him to them; that Bush's rhetoric will take on a life of its own, becoming a real force or constraint in the making of foreign policy. By applauding that rhetoric, they hope to put pressure on Bush.
Now, this is a very interesting theory (and would make a really good topic for a doctoral thesis in international relations. I wonder if anyone has thought of that ...) But at this point, it doesn't seem very likely to work to me. I could of course be wrong about this, as I have been about a number of other things, but it seems to me that at this point any defense of Bush serves to ennable and encourage his tendency to talk big, act rashly, and leave it to others to pay the price and pick up the pieces at some future date. And I think that the last thing we need is to encourage such behaviour.

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THEY WERE DONE WITH STRAUSS-BASHING: This is perhaps the shoddiest, most inaccurate, superficial, tendentious, grossly unfair and intellectually vulgar and obtuse thing I've yet seen written about the 'Straussian Conspiracy'. The best (and novel) bit: the conjecture that Hannah Arendt's alledged (but, so far as I know, unconfirmed) spurning of Strauss as a young man planted the seeds of resentment that eventually blossomed into his philosophy -- and thus caused the war on Iraq. So, if Hannah (described in the article as beautiful, incidentally) had only accepted Leo, none of this would've happened.
Reading this article, I'm not sure whether to laugh, or retch.

THE BUCK STOPS -- SOMEPLACE ELSE: I tend to blow hot and cold on Paul Krugman, but I think his latest column is a home-run. What Krugman says -- that George Bush's foreign policy, and his treatment of the American people, are grossly, glibly, and unabashedly irresponsible and destructive -- seems to me obvious. But it still bears saying, and Krugman says it well.

I READ THE NEWS TODAY: Ian MacDonald has died. His book on the Beatles -- Revolution in the Head -- is the best book on rock n'roll, and the best book on the '60s, I've read; it's one of those books that you wish you'd written (well, that I wished I'd written), or rather been able to write -- while realizing that only the author could do it. I therefore feel somewhat personally bereft at learning of MacDonald's death (via Crooked Timber), so important has his book been to me.
It's hard to convey just how good MacDonald's book is (which is why you -- yes, I mean you -- should go out and find a copy, even if you've never listened to a note of the Beatles [on purpose] in your life -- or even if you think you know all there is to know about their music). For one thing, MacDonald is -- or, rather, was -- a brilliant writer, as this passage, quoted in the Guardian obit, suggests:
"During the academic year of 1968-69, Cambridge University felt an alien influence from beyond its sober curtain walls. Solemn flagstones frowned up at kaftans, wooden beads and waist-length hair. Staid courtyards winced to the sounds of Beggars Banquet, The White Album, Big Pink and Dr John The Night Tripper drifting through leaded windows. The stately air was fragrant with marijuana and no one seemed to be doing a stroke of work."
The above also suggests another invaluable aspect of MacDonald's book: it's wry, exact evocation and understanding of the '60s. MacDonald manages to be both fond of some of the decade's great (cultural) contributions, while remaining realistic -- and thus, often critical, and sometimes harshly disapproving -- of its excesses. Just as his precise, scrupulous, yet far from dry analysis gets us inside the musical fabric of each of the Beatles' songs, his recounting of the mentality of what became the Counter-culture gets us inside the head of 'The Sixties' in a way that few other authors, in my experience, do; his work is a masterpiece, not just of musical analysis, but of cultural, and even intellectual, history.
And then there is that musical analysis, precise and detailed without being dull or confounding, even to the musical novice. MacDonald (who, perhaps not coincidentally, trained as an archeologist at Cambridge) makes the tracing of chord changes, or the discussion of instrumentation, into an exciting journey of discovery, revealing the inner workings of the Beatles' craft -- the technique that made their music what it is, and uncovering riches within the familiar songs that even devoted listeners have probably missed.
Finally, MacDonald's book is, in its quiet way, a deeply courageous one -- courageous in its attempt to say something new about the Beatles, without fanfare or apology, courageous in its frank but non-hectoring honesty in expressing aesthetic, cultural, intellectual and even moral judgment, and courageous in its adherence to such high standards.
Maybe the standards were ultimately too high, the judgments too stern and unsparing to MacDonald himself: for this mordantly witty man, capable of conveying and explaining the joys and wonders of music so well -- who also wrote one of the better books on that tortured genius, Shostakovich -- took his own life, at the age of 54.
He once refered to himself as 'an ephemeral agitator in the cause of truth' (a reference to his provocative and epochal work on Shostakovich). His work is a lasting testimony to this, and will remain a source of pleasure and enlightenment for many. I think I'll go back and read Revolution in the Head again.
See also this, this, and this.

THE SNARKY EQUIVALENT TO WAR: Dan Drezner links to a typically clever, nifty piece by Clive James (whose demolition of one Danielle Steele novel probably ranks among the most wittily and deservingly cruel reviews of the last century) about -- guess what? -- nasty reviews. Among other things, James writes:
"When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn't allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them."
The reference to a remark of Dr. Johnson's, of which I didn't know, is particularly interesting, since Freud says much the same thing -- something to the effect that the first man to use curses and insults, instead of his fists, was the father of civilization.
Dan throws in some interesting observations about that strange and accursed breed, grad students. And over at Crooked Timber, after linking to Dan's post, Kieran quotes James's highly recommended poem 'The Book of My Enemy has been Remaindered'.

Monday, September 08, 2003

BACK -- SORT OF: I've now returned to my home-base (for the next three weeks, at least, until it's back to Oxford), and have less slow and infrequent access to the 'net, and more time, than i have for the past week or so. I also have a pretty full plate, and am trying to not get re-hooked on heavy blogging.
I therefore won't be posting heavily for some time. Nor will I even try to catch up with various events that have occurred while I was 'away', or the many interesting things that have been going on in the blogosphere. With a very few exceptions, which some of my readers may not have seen yet, and which I urge them to check out:
This harrowing piece on Zimbabwe (via Norm Geras) (On a FAR lighter note, I belatedly urge everyone to read the hilarious poem about Richard Rorty posted on Norm's blog.)
Also on a light note, as a Noah Baumbach obsessive I feel compelled to note his humour piece in the current New Yorker (which seems to have eluded one of my fellow blogging Baumbach-enthusiasts [are there more than two?])
I can't find Adam Gopnick's piece on summer in Paris from the New Yorker of a few weeks back, which is a pitty; while I found the piece, like much of Gopnick's work, somewhat uneven in quality (while first-rate in style), it's nice to see the likes of Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy getting some attention in the Anglophone world. Levi has, indeed, been getting plenty of press of late, thanks to his sensational new book on the murder of Daniel Perl; see this good piece from the Financial Times, which manages to convey Levi's foibles and absurdities, as well as some of his passionate intellectual and moral seriousness (for my money, Glucksmann is a more important and interesting thinker, though I'm not sure by how much; but both are important, if sometimes overly self-dramatizing, voices, which are all too rarely heard on these shores amidst the general Francophobia).
Also, anyone who doesn't read Dissent regularly -- should.

IGNATIEFF ON US INTERVENTIONS: Not a real return to blogging -- I'm not sure when I'll really have a chance to blogging in earnest over the next week, when I'm supposed to be doing serious work, for paper-publication, or the week thereafter, when I'm hoping to travel around and see friends -- but I do feel compelled to make online reference to Michael Ignatieff's typically thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in the latest NY Times Magazine (and also Jacob Levy's excellent correction to Ignatieff's rather, um, skewed perception of the US conquest of the Phillipines around the turn of the last century. I haven't quiet finished Ignatieff's article myself; but once I do, I may get around to commenting on it, if I have anything that I think worth saying.

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