Thursday, December 30, 2004

So Long, Susan Sontag

Back before I was born, Susan Sontag defined the American cultural concept of camp - "Something that's so bad, it's good." Maybe it was in that spirit that she spent the last thirty years peddling a world-view that looked like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

No need to revisit all of the tired sins. Sontag had typical left-pedestrian views of Israel, in which the noble (if tragically flawed) Palestinians got all the sympathy. Not all of the fake sympathy, though - respectable leftists like Sontag are always quick to point out that Israel is not just doing terrible things to the Palestinians, but Israel is doing terrible things to itself - itself! - by being so deaf to "world opinion" as expressed by that never-ending Nuremberg Rally known as the UN General Assembly. So they can pretend that they love Israel even as they kick Israel, and the more they love her the harder they kick, and so on. This, by the way, was pretty much Sontag's view of the United States, too.

So it was that Andrew Sullivan named a Moral Equivalence award after Sontag, and Ed Koch swore never to read another word she wrote, saying that she had earned a place in "the Ninth Circle of Hell". For those of you not up to speed on your Dante, the Ninth Circle (Cocytus) is the place of Judas, and Traitors to Kin and Country.

But Sontag was not just a knee-jerk peacenik. Here is what she wrote in The New York Times Magazine (May 1999):

War is not simply a mistake, a failure to communicate. There is radical evil in the world, which is why there are just wars. And this is a just war. Even if it has been bungled.

Stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes. Worthy goals. But how is any of this conceivably going to happen unless the Milosevic regime is overthrown? (And the truth is, it's not going to happen.)

Impossible to see how this war will play out. All the options seem improbable, as well as undesirable. Unthinkable to keep bombing indefinitely, if Milosevic is indeed willing to accept the destruction of the Serbian economy; unthinkable for NATO to stop bombing, if Milosevic remains intransigent.

The Milosevic Government has finally brought on Serbia a small portion of the suffering it has inflicted on neighboring peoples.

War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin of the entire region, including Serbia, for several generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon.
There you have it: Evil exists, and we must fight it. Stop genocide, stop the aggressions of petty tyrannies, and down with intransigent dictators even if they must be bombed into submission. Unthinkable to do otherwise, says she.

Without doing the slightest injustice to Sontag's logic, you could substitute Saddam for Milosevic and Iraq for Serbia, and you would have a much more hawkish view of the current war than most of its supporters would take. We do not wish, for example, that Iraqis should be punished for what Saddam did. Nor do we think that Iraqis need to be reminded that Saddam meant repression and ruin for Iraq - we believe that sensible and forward-looking Iraqis know that already. So we are less militant on the subject of Iraq than Sontag was on the subject of Serbia.

But what about the European opposition to Sontag's war?
But opposition to the war is hardly confined to Italy, and to one strand of the political spectrum. On the contrary: mobilized against this war are remnants of the left and the likes of Le Pen and Bossi and Heider on the right. The right is against immigrants. The left is against America. (Against the idea of America, that is. The hegemony of American popular culture in Europe could hardly be more total.)

On both the so-called left and the so-called right, identity-talk is on the rise. The anti-Americanism that is fueling the protest against the war has been growing in recent years in many of the nations of the New Europe, and is perhaps best understood as a displacement of the anxiety about this New Europe, which everyone has been told is a Good Thing and few dare question. Nations are communities that are always being imagined, reconceived, reasserted, against the pressure of a defining Other. The specter of a nation without borders, an infinitely porous nation, is bound to create anxiety. Europe needs its overbearing America.
That nicely fits our current situation. And the notion that Eurocratization Anxiety fuels the anti-Americanism and irrational contrarianism of European opinion is an excellent insight. Likewise the connection to Europe's wildly ambivalent attitudes towards its immigrant population. But whatever is causing it, Sontag clearly didn't think we ought to pay attention to a nervous Europe that's asking us to abdicate in the face of Evil, for fear of somehow making a hopeless situation worse.

Likewise, the unreliable and badly broken United Nations ought not to have a veto over our actions. The United States and NATO went to work in the Balkans without any UN resolutions to make it "legal".

These views on Kosovo, by the way, seem to classify Sontag once and for all. Not a radical or a leftist, but just another liberal who liked to talk big. Her view of the Balkan War conforms to the liberal exceptionalism of the mid-Nineties, when war was basically okay if Clinton did it. Or least, if any criticism of it might reflect poorly on Clinton, and associate one with the likes of Kenneth Starr. So it was that Hollywood liberals and insecure Clintonites quietly applauded when Tomahawk missiles smashed into dubious targets in Iraq and the Sudan. And no one accused Clinton of having murdered the Americans, Serbians, and Croatians that died in the course of that conflict.

Not that they should have opposed Clinton's actions in the Balkans. I supported them, for most of the same reasons that Sontag says she did. That in spite of my otherwise non-support for Clinton himself. It didn't work the same way for Sontag and her ilk; the day George Bush was elected, all their "just war" principles dried up and blew away until the day that Camelot returns again.

Still, loud-mouthed liberals are not all bad, if they're real liberals deep down underneath. Sontag spoke out against Castro's oppression, at a time when the left was so castrated by delusions of McCarthyism that they couldn't criticize any Communist short of Stalin himself. And she stood up for the Polish Solidarity Movement (throwing in all the Reagan-bashing she could, but never mind that) and blasted the leftist lack-hearts who couldn't:
I have asked myself many times in the past six years or so how it was possible that I could have been so suspicious of what Milosz and other exiles from Communist countries--and those in the West known bitterly as "premature anti- Communists"--were telling us. Why did we not have a place for, ears for, their truth? The answers are well known. We had identified the enemy as fascism. We heard the demonic language of fascism. We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism ...

We were so sure who our enemies were (among them, the professional anti-Communists), so sure who were the virtuous and who the benighted. But I am struck by the fact that, despite the rightness of many of our views and aspirations, in particular our sense of the madness of a nuclear war between the superpowers and our hopes for reforms of the many injustices of our own system, we were not responding to a large truth. And we were countenancing a great deal of untruth ...

We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough. Which is to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of the Communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among Communisms--for example, treating "Stalinism," which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character. [The Nation, January 1st, 1998]
Those words would still ring true today, in the present context. Requiat in pacem.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Stupid Never-Ending War Against George Bush

and What You Can Do to Help

By the Majestic Rack of Warlike Athena, can they stoop lower than this? Already you would have had to dig a hole to kick Professor-Doctor Juan Cole in the butt, but now the Resident Genius of the Alleged University of Michigan has dug in deeper than a gopher in soft dirt. Seismic experts will have to track his further progress.

Holding forth from his hopelessly misnomered pester-pulpit "Informed Comment", Dr. Cole delivers a sermon entitled Tsunami Toll Nearly 70,000 and Rising - Where's Bush? The tacked-on question is purely rhetorical, of course. Bush gives Cole the fits, so you'd think that Bush is the last thing that the professor would want to see on television. In fact, if Bush were to give a speech at the AU of M campus, the Secret Service would probably have to get a restraining order put on Dr. Cole first. But now Cole wants us to believe that he's pining after our Commander in Chief: "The president of the United States is invisible and on vacation (unlike several European heads of state), and could think of nothing better to do than announce a paltry pledge."

Notice from the title that Cole's first reaction to this vast human tragedy - his nearly simultaneous reaction - is to condemn George Bush. Cole has a knack for this sort of thing. When the murderer of Navy Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman (a man who personally knew and corresponded with Cole) admitted that he killed Jones-Huffman because he "looked Jewish", Cole's immediate reaction was to blame the Israeli Likud Party for causing anti-Semitism.

He lingers briefly over "horrific stories of corpses piled up on beaches" (in order to associate this awful imagery with the target of his hatred) and delivers up some of his No-Shit Wisdom like "Such catastrophes can have a political impact and can affect security affairs." Gee, you think so? Could you show us that one on the blackboard, professor?

Having dished out some pathos by way of an appetizer, he gets right to the main course: "If Bush were a statesman, he would have flown to Jakarta and announced his solidarity with the Muslims of Indonesia (which has suffered at least 40,000 dead and rising). "

Never mind that Cole has just disenfranchised virtually every statesmen on earth, not just Bush. Never mind that Buddhists, Christians, and ethnic Chinese (minorities who have gotten some rough treatment from the Muslims of Indonesia) drowned too, and might like to be included in that solidarity. Not to mention the non-Muslim people of Thailand, thousands of whom also perished. Never mind that millions in aid (including many, many US millions) are now flowing to the region, a process which can neither be helped or hindered by the physical location of George Bush's person. No, the real tragedy, as Cole sees it, is that George Bush failed to put on a sufficiently orchestrated display of "statesmanship" to inspire the world in the wake of disaster.

There is a preposterous tendency in recent years to pretend that none of us can function or experience emotion unless "statesmen" go in front of cameras to show us how to do it. There is an endless nagging demand for our leaders to present themselves at certain times in certain places, meeting the victims of this or that tragedy. This chorus persists even though when such meetings do take place, they are generally criticized for being the unproductive political gestures that they usually are. When they do get results - as Reagan's meetings with the families of hostages in Lebanon did - the result is often outrageous to liberaldom. Yet they demand more. Liberals especially demand reassurance from Republican presidents - no one asked why Roosevelt didn't fly to Pearl Harbor, or why Clinton laid low during the Waco disaster - which gives you some clue as to what this is all about.

The demand is especially bizarre in the case of Bush, whose every word and gesture is utter bane to leftheads like Cole. Any appearance or statement he could make would leave them as unsatisfied as ever. In fact, if Bush were to declare himself in solidarity with Indonesian Muslims (whatever that entails) Professor Cole would be morally obligated to hate the Indonesians as well, and to accuse them of being the tools of Likudniks. "All Bush, All the Time" would be a kind of Hell for the likes of Cole, so you have wonder why they beg for it.

Still, let's not discount the idea. We can question their motives for wanting more Bush, but it's not like they're asking for the moon. An all-Bush cable news network, that they could sit and obsessively watch, is probably not an economically feasible project. How about a "West Wing"-type television drama, full of neoconservatives and Likudniks instead of washed-up Clintonites? The promoters are always screaming "Ripped from the Headlines!", so why not rip something out of today's paper instead of constantly re-living 1992?

That might be fun, and this is how you can help - by writing to the networks.

Meanwhile, why do people like Cole hate Bush so much? It seems obvious to me, as a person who grew up in the Reagan years. After thirty years of getting walloped in the historic War of Ideas, they have nothing left except their obsession with personalities and superficial appearances. They think that the President somehow makes the country, almost to the point of controlling its weather after the manner of a pagan agricultural diety, and that if they have the wrong President they must be in the wrong country, too. They have become obsessed with the offices of power as well, because they mistakenly believe that anyone who controls them can make the country into anything they want it to be. Bereft of power, they think that everything they want is only inches away from their grasp, and that they are out of the public's favor only because they are on the losing end of a colossal scam.

To add to this fixation, they have convinced themselves that Bush (like Reagan) is both moronic and diabolically insane. Therefore, the entire country is moronic and diabolically insane. And yet Bush defeats them - which speaks rather poorly of their own mental state - and the stupid nation refuses to bow to their yoke. As Michael Ledeen writes at NRO:

Well, virtually the entire American and European intellectual establishment thought Ronald Reagan was nuts to believe he could do that to the Soviet Communists, and they ridiculed his "evil empire" speech as at best fatuous and at worst provocative. I always thought that was an odd position for intellectuals, who claim to believe in the value of ideas and the power of words.
They used to claim that they believed in democracy, too, though not always in a very convincing fashion. Haven't heard much of that lately ... don't miss it a bit, either.

UPDATE: In the comments, jinnderella reminds me that I ought not to splash mud on the University of Michigan while attempting to run over Juan Cole. It is, of course, the alma mater of Arthur Miller, William J. Mayo, and the entire crew of Apollo 15. I apologize to all Wolverine folk, and when I last visited your campus I admired the design of your library very much.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Counterinsurgency for Losers

[Following on a discussion at Winds of Change] - The International Crisis Group is a Brussels-based think tank which has its snout in every feed trough the Western world has to offer, from Bill Gates to USAID. In return for all this money (which could have fed a few unfortunate people in Bangladesh, I would think) the ICG regurgitates the kind of stuff that career bureaucrats and busy-body left-wing millionaires like to hear, a process commonly known as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.

So as a joint effort between the Eurocrats in their Brussels office and their allegedly objective Middle East experts in Amman, Jordan, the ICG offers a report entitled What Can the U.S. Do in Iraq?

Here’s the world-weary punchline:
Its initial objective was to turn Iraq into a model for the region: a democratic, secular and free-market oriented government, sympathetic to U.S. interests, not openly hostile toward Israel, and possibly home to long-term American military bases. But hostility toward the U.S. and suspicion of its intentions among large numbers of Iraqis have progressed so far that this is virtually out of reach. More than that, the pursuit has become an obstacle to realisation of the most essential, achievable goal -- a stable government viewed by its people as credible, representative and the embodiment of national interests as well as capable of addressing their basic needs.
Since it was totally crazy of us to think that Arabs could be democratic or secular, or even not openly hostile to Israel, it looks like we’re screwed. But wait – the ICG has a whole bunch of great ideas to “save” us:
To the United States Government:
1. Recognise new realities and constraints under which it operates, and in particular that:

1 (a) the insurgency is not confined to a finite number of fanatics isolated from the population and opposed to a democratic Iraq but is fed by nationalist feelings, widespread mistrust of U.S. intentions and resentment of its actions …

So a crew of Europeans and leftists ask us to recognize that Iraqi insurgents hate the United States for all the same reasons that Europeans and leftists do. We already suspected that they were sympatico, so we’ll take this as a confession – a rare moment of candor on their part. But the fact that anti-American loons are fond of living vicariously through the violence of revolutionaries and terrorists is not news to us.

Of course, their description of the insurgency’s intentions is missing a few things. How about the desire of former Baathists to evade justice? More importantly, how about the militant Islamic jihadism of al-Qaeda and their ilk? Anybody notice anything like that going on in the world lately? [Crickets chirping …]

1 (b) the current transitional process is not the answer to the legitimacy deficit but one of its sources …
The insurgents have murdered Iraqis, civilians, Muslims, UN and Red Cross workers, and generally any outsiders they can lay their hands on – in the most gruesome and brutal fashion possible. They have stated their intention to violently disrupt democratic elections. But guess who’s on the short end of the “legitimacy deficit”? You guessed it – the evil Yanqui imperialist cowboys, same as always.
1 (c) national elections scheduled for January 2005 will change little unless they produce institutions that can address basic needs and prove their independence by distancing themselves from the U.S. and reaching out to all political components.
Of all the possible problems that the new Iraqi government might face, the deep thinkers of the Old World mention only the one that concerns them – the new government might fail to distance itself from the United States. Apparently, the Iraqis do not have the right to choose a pro-American leadership, as Europe will only recognize a government that aligns itself with Europe’s ambitions. There’s some good old-fashioned colonialist condescension for you.
2. Designate a senior official in Washington with lead responsibility for designing and implementing a transitional strategy for the U.S. in the lead-up to late 2005, and if necessary beyond, ensuring proper coordination between agencies and with the field.
Thanks for the advice. It never would have occurred to us to “implement” and “coordinate” stuff.
3. Develop an integrated counter-insurrection strategy that: (a) is focused on gaining the population's support rather than on eliminating insurgents; and …
Now the geniuses who gave us Vietnam, Algeria, Rhodesia, and the horrific Belgian Congo are going to advise us on counterinsurgency techniques. Rule Number One is “Hands off the insurgents”.
(b) further subordinates military operations to political and economic initiatives -- including offers of amnesty or negotiated surrender to combatants; establishment of elected, empowered and duly funded local government structures; reconstruction; payments to displaced civilians; and compensation for damages.
By further subordinating military operations, of course, they mean no military operations other than providing target practice to insurgent rocket and mortar attacks. Meanwhile, we hand the various localities over to local jihadist warlords, along with a truckload of cash. It’s doubtful that any of this cash will come from Saddam’s massive bribes to Europeans – after all, they earned it and a deal’s a deal.

As for amnesty, ask yourself this question: Who has the right to give amnesty to the criminals of Saddam’s regime, and to terrorists who have deliberately targeted Iraqi civilians and police? Might not that right belong only to a duly elected Iraqi government? Or do Iraqis have rights only insofar as they conform to the wishes of the insurgency’s foreign cheerleaders? Would amnesty be a convenient way of covering up some inconvenient and embarrassing European behavior that might be further exposed in court?
4. Signal quick acceptance of a fully sovereign Iraqi government both before and after elections by: (a) abstaining from commenting on the desired election date and making clear it would accept a delay decided by the Iraqi government;
There are no indications that Iraqis want to delay the elections. All indications are to the contrary. So what does “quick acceptance of a fully sovereign Iraqi government” have to do with making it clear that we’ll accept a delay? And if we are to abstain from commenting on a date, are the back-seat drivers of Europe going to shut the hell up, too?

An uncharitable interpretation of this might be that some in Europe – and elsewhere - do not want quick elections that will de-legitimize the heroic insurgency’s struggle against American imperialism.

(b) seeking participation of as many non-U.S. and non-Coalition election observers as possible;

(c) abstaining from challenging steps to revisit earlier decrees or decisions made by or in
coordination with the U.S. and from interfering on sensitive issues such as economic policy;

(d) systematically consulting and coordinating on reconstruction priorities and implementation and involving local and national Iraqi institutions in the management of funds;

(e) transferring as soon as possible any prisoners to independent and credible Iraqi judicial authorities; and

(f) dealing with the new government as with any sovereign partner,
conditioning longer-term support on respect for human rights, financial
transparency and anti-corruption steps, and dismantling of militias.

More cheerful prattle about coordination, implementation, and abstention. Can’t have too much of that. Interesting that the Coalition is not allowed to use force against the insurgents, but we’re supposed to threaten cutting off support to the Iraqi government if they fail to forcibly dismantle “militias” that might interfere with insurgent operations.
5. Change Iraqi perceptions of U.S. by: (a) commencing immediately and visibly the process of ending co-location of the embassy in the Green Zone with the Iraqi government and by substantially reducing its size;
Apparently it isn’t fair that we appear to be siding with the Iraqi provisional government against the murderous terrorists who are trying to destroy it. This is the famous “even-handed” approach to Middle East foreign policy that the left (and the extreme right) are so fond of.
(b) redeploying troops to ensure a more dispersed and less visible presence, while maintaining a rapid intervention capability;
Security is the number one concern of Iraqis, so the “crisis group” decides that the solution to this is to have the security forces hide. After all, they reason, surely Iraqis are as revolted by the sight of brutish US Marines as Europeans are. So they would have us lurk in the desert, where we can rapidly intervene in the wake of terrorist attacks on Iraqi civilians. After it’s too late.

Insurgency warfare targets population, not territory. By ensuring that the insurgents are allowed to have an unrestricted presence among the population (unmolested by any politically incorrect military operations) while the Coalition is not, these people are suggesting to us a really good way to lose. We’ll charitably assume that they’re just idiots on the subject of Guerrilla Warfare, because we’d hate to think they’re on the other side.
(c) entering into transparent negotiations with the Iraqi government over the timetable for a staged withdrawal, including (if that government wishes) a target date for complete removal of all U.S. troops, and repudiating publicly and unequivocally any intention of establishing long-term military bases;
No one has said anything about long-term military bases. If Iraq desired such a base, that would be between them and the Coalition nation in question. That goes along with “sovereignty”, and it is no business of the International Nervous Class.

It’s very typical of the irresponsible left to simultaneously talk about “independence” and “sovereignty” while attempting to dictate their own policy, point by tiresome point, to sovereign, independent states.
(d) making clear that the military priority is not to destroy the enemy but physically to protect civilians, in particular by limiting military operations that imperil civilians and altering procedures governing arrests, treatment of prisoners and homes searches;
A “sitting duck” strategy that refuses to do any harm to the enemy will absolutely fail to protect civilians. It is a deliberately losing strategy. Again, we’ll assume that the fools are just trying to be helpful.
(e) continuing transfer, to the extent possible, of full security responsibility to Iraqi forces in areas where Coalition forces would intervene in emergency situations only;
Thanks for noticing our efforts on this front – without much help from the region’s former colonial masters, I might add.
(f) refraining from referring to Iraq as a "model" for the region or the new "front" in the anti-terrorism war;
Allah forbid that Saudis or Iranians might pick up bad ideas from all this wild neoconservative talk about democracy. But if we refrain from calling Iraq a model, are the opponents of our Iraqi policy going to refrain from all their trash talk about oil and imperialism? Probably not, huh?
(g) adopting a more credible communications strategy by publicly articulating U.S. objectives, admitting setbacks …
In return for downplaying our achievements and generally being ashamed of ourselves, will our opponents reciprocate by admitting that their efforts to protect Saddam were misguided? Probably not, huh?
(h) encouraging negotiations with opposition elements who do not resort to deliberate acts of violence against civilians.
Like who?

I skip points 6 and 7, in which the International Crisis Group gives us organizational pointers based on their own vast military experience, offer vague suggestions about Iran and Syria, and drag “Israeli-Palestinian and other Arab-Israeli conflicts” into the picture.

Point 8 – addressed to “To the Newly Elected Transitional National Assembly and Forthcoming Transitional Iraqi Government” - is another amusing example of “Prove that you’re sovereign and independent by doing exactly as you’re told”:
8. Clearly demonstrate their sovereign independence by:

(a) reviewing agreements reached between the U.S. and the Interim Government as well as decisions with continuing effect made by the Coalition Provisional Authority;
(b) debating openly status of forces arrangements for Coalition troops and negotiating with the U.S. and its partners the criteria and timetable for gradual withdrawal, including a target date for completing that process; and
(c) naming a credible independent commission to investigate human rights abuses and violence against civilians since the war began, in particular by Coalition forces, and recommend compensatory damages to victims.
The ICG's idea of a sovereign, independent Iraq is one that acts as a proxy for Europe’s revenge fantasies against the Coalition – especially the US – and punishes the nations that helped Iraq win sovereignty and independence.

What they clearly don't want is an independent Iraq that unmasks European collaboration with the butcher Saddam, and demands compensation for the billions in Oil for Food aid that was stolen from the Iraqi people. Clearly, only a US puppet regime would do such a rude and unsophisticated thing.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Class Warfare for Vampires

[This is my version of "Interview with the Vampire". I dug it out of my old journals for a Halloween post, but the horrors of the election campaign pre-empted it, so it will do for a Christmas ghost story instead.]

Vampires Confront Hollywood Stereotypes

From the earliest days of film-making, the legendary figure of the vampire has haunted movie screens all over the world. Graveyard resurrections, blood feasts, and gruesome impalements are as familiar to movie audiences as romantic kisses, or Western gun battles, or the standard fare regularly offered by any other genre.

Recent years have seen a fresh outpouring of vampire films, with first-class budgets and major stars. But in these politically sensitive times, when Hollywood has learned to tread more carefully in its depiction of ethnic minorities, the roles of women, and even the nature of criminals, the old cape-flapping vampire seems a trifle unreconstructed in appearance. Is his perpetual nocturnal existence on screen as a fiendish blood-gulping villain (or at best, as an anti-hero with a nasty over-bite) a fair or accurate portrayal? How do real vampires react to these sinister images?

The following interview hopes to explore that question. It was arranged through the efforts of numerous individuals and organizations, most of whom choose to remain anonymous. However, we would like to thank the following for their invaluable advice and assistance: the National Geographic Society, the International Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, and any survivors of the Serbian broadcasting industry.

NOTE: It was originally hoped that this interview would extend also to a discussion of vampires in popular literature. This proved impossible, as two out of the three vampires assembled for it proved to be illiterate. Thanks all the same to the Anne Rice Foundation and the folks at

is the only genuine Transylvanian of the group. A farmer in his natural life, he has spent the last two centuries marauding villages in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Roman hails from the former Soviet Union, operating out of a grave near the border between Russia and the Baltic States. He formerly made his living as a cobbler. Bartholomew, previously a schoolmaster, now divides his nights between England and Scotland.

Julian Richards
has written for the Weekly World News and People magazine, and is a regular contributor to Time-Life Books, Inc. He is also a photographer who has worked which such notable people as Princess Diana, Sean Penn, and Jack Nicholson, to name only a few.


RICHARDS: You've all had the opportunity to attend special screenings of such vampire movies as Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Lost Boys, and Interview with the Vampire. Let me say at the outset that most screenwriters realize that they are drawing on a popular conception of vampires that has little or no basis in fact. Did you find the vampires in these movies to be totally unrecognizable? I mean, did you find yourself asking "Who are these people?"

ROMAN: Not really. I recognized them as being vampires, all right.

JANOS: Me too. They were weird, but they were definitely vampires.

BARTHOLOMEW: They were dead, and they drank blood. What else would they be?

RICHARDS: Are you telling me that you found these portrayals realistic?

JANOS: Hell, no. Did you see the way they were living?

ROMAN: No vampire I ever heard of has clothes like that. Even if you had those kind of clothes before you died, they'd never bury you in them. Grave-robbers would dig you up in nothing flat. And what about those fancy apartments, and what not?

BARTHOLOMEW: Totally unbelievable. Quite ruined it for me, I'm afraid. I could understand that Dracula chap living in the castle, where his crypt was. But vampires buying houses? Living in hotels? Preposterous!

ROMAN: What about those balls they went to? And the carnivals? And people actually inviting them into their homes! Wouldn't that be something?

JANOS: All the vampires in these movies were carrying on like they weren't even dead.

RICHARDS: So you found their lifestyle incredible? What about the class issue? Did it surprise you to see vampires portrayed as aristocrats and upper-middle class types?

JANOS: I don't know why an aristocrat can't be a vampire. What, is it too good for them, or something? Aristocrats die like everybody else does, so why can't they be vampires?

ROMAN: I agree. I suppose a movie about a cobbler who becomes a vampire would be pretty boring. I wouldn't expect them to make a movie about me.

BARTHOLOMEW: Look, a member of the upper class becoming a vampire is one thing. But trying to carry on like the bloody nobility when you're dead is something else. It simply isn't done. A vampire with a busy social calendar is ridiculous.

JANOS: I think that's why they were all so screwed up. They were pampered all their lives, waited on hand and foot, with nothing to do except go to the theater and the opera and so on. Now all of a sudden they're vampires, and they have to work for a living.

RICHARDS: Well, let's get down to specifics. What did you think of the character of Count Dracula?

ROMAN: That count was a complete lunatic.

JANOS: Yeah, what the hell was up with him? At the start of the movie, he had everything a vampire could ever want. He had that castle, all that great country to hunt around in, he had the local folk completely cowed, and what does the fool do? He emigrates! The whole movie was about how he threw away everything he had. I guess it was supposed to be a tragedy. It was a damn shame, that's for sure.

BARTHOLOMEW: It was the woman that did it to him. A vampire has no business falling in love with a woman. What did he intend to do with her, marry her? What on earth for? The fellow who wrote that movie had no idea what it's like to be a vampire.

JANOS: You know, that's it, exactly. All of these movie vampires acted like being a vampire is some kind of picnic.

RICHARDS: You don't like being a vampire?

JANOS: What kind of a stupid question is that? Of course I don't like it. Who would?

RICHARDS: But ... does that mean you long to be released from your undead existence? You don't want immortality?

BARTHOLOMEW: I don't understand all this business about "immortality". I don't expect to live like this forever, and I never heard of a vampire who did.

ROMAN: Of course not. Sooner or later, they're going to get you. Every vampire knows that, just like every man knows he's going to die some day. That's just the way it is. These vampires who rave about immortal life are crazy.

RICHARDS: But if being a vampire is so awful, do you want to be destroyed?

JANOS: Look, being a peasant is not much fun either. That's doesn't mean peasants want somebody to come along and slit their throats. You just have to accept your lot. That's the problem with movie vampires, they can't accept what they are.

RICHARDS: Um ... I hope this isn't a tactless question, but what exactly does destroy you?

ROMAN: Well, if they pound a stake through you, or cut your head off, you're pretty much out of business. Or if they set you on fire.

BARTHOLOMEW: That vampire called Louis, he claimed he wasn't afraid to have a stake pounded through him ...

ROMAN: That was a damn lie.

RICHARDS: You're talking about the vampire protagonist in Interview with the Vampire?

JANOS: That Louis was a bigger lunatic than Dracula was.

ROMAN: The only thing I liked about that vampire was the fact that he wasn't too stuck up to eat rats.

BARTHOLOMEW: I'm afraid I can't find anything good to say about him. Really, he was too much. Constantly starting fires. Did you notice that? What kind of a vampire goes around starting fires? I guess he's wasn't afraid of burning himself up, either.

RICHARDS: So, beheading, burning, pounding in stakes ... what about sunlight?

ROMAN: I've never heard of a vampire dying from sunlight.

BARTHOLOMEW: Totally unscientific. Speaking as a vampire of some small education, I assure you it's quite impossible. After all, if sunlight could destroy you, the light of the stars would do the same, although it might take a little longer. Sunlight, starlight, it's all the same stuff, you know. Of course, that doesn't mean you go walking about in the daytime, like that absurd Dracula did.

JANOS: The fool. What in the world did he think he was doing? Everybody knows you can't hunt in the daytime, when people are awake and sober.

ROMAN: No vampire would last very long doing that. What if somebody recognized you? That's a good way to get yourself dug up in a hurry.

RICHARDS: What about crucifixes? Do they repel you?

BARTHOLOMEW: I happen to have one on my grave. I could hardly get in and out of it if I were repelled.

RICHARDS: So if someone brandished one at you, you wouldn't run away?

BARTHOLOMEW: Of course I'd run away. I'd run away if it was a porridge spoon. I don't fool around with chaps who are brandishing things at me. I would sensibly go away and come back when they're asleep.

RICHARDS: Let's get back to the films. Why do you think film-makers and movie-goers are fascinated by the idea of vampires?

JANOS: People are always stuck on the idea that somebody, somewhere, is having a better time of it than they are. You know, better clothes, more women, nicer furniture ... a big fancy coffin ...

BARTHOLOMEW: And they like to see such people hunted down and impaled on wooden stakes.

JANOS: Even though vampires are actually more wretched and miserable than they are.

BARTHOLOMEW: Yes, but one couldn't put that in a movie, could one? I mean, it would rather ruin it all, wouldn't it? All the jolly great larking about, with chaps getting stabbed and burnt up and sliced in half with garden tools ....

JANOS: Oh, yes! Let's go get the vampires! Hunt them down, dig them up, chop them to pieces! Does the blasted peasantry have nothing better to do these days? When I was alive, I worked for a living. I didn’t have time to be running around in the middle of the night with a pitchfork, slopping drunk …

BARTHOLOMEW: But you have to see why ordinary chaps would like such films. Vampires are like aristocrats that you can kill without getting hanged for it. Dreadful good fun, you know. Perhaps it's a sort of catharsis. Gets it out of their system. They see it in a movie, and it gratifies that urge without anyone really getting hurt ....

JANOS: I disagree. I think these movies give out bad ideas.


JANOS: I think violent movies promote violence against vampires, plain and simple. Puts the idea into people's heads. I can see them going to these movies and getting all riled up ... before you know it they're blundering through the woods with torches and shovels, reeking of beer and applejack and howling like banshees. You can bet that's going to be trouble for somebody.

ROMAN: Which is exactly why they make these films. They exist for the same reason that everything else does ---- because they serve the interests of the ruling class.

RICHARDS: How do they do that?

ROMAN: They re-direct revolutionary urges away from the ruling interests, so that the masses lash out at vampires instead of the feudal masters who oppress them ...

BARTHOLOMEW: You're a bloody Bolshevik!

ROMAN: Why don't you wake up and smell the garlic, school teacher? You're a tool of reaction if you don't realize how vampires are being exploited by capitalism.

BARTHOLOMEW: Now I've bloody heard it all.

ROMAN: The people who make these movies are protecting their imperialist masters by confusing the revolutionary consciousness of the workers. By encouraging the masses to lynch vampires, they hope to prevent the formation of legitimate class struggle. We're their scapegoats. That's why they depict us in these films as being rich, with lots of nice stuff just waiting to be looted.

JANOS: Yes! Get the vampires! The vampires run everything, the vampires own all the banks! Let's get stinking drunk and dig up the graveyard right now!

ROMAN: I found that movie Blade to be a particularly reactionary piece of work. It was all the more offensive for having a so-called "hero" who was a self-hating vampire.

JANOS: And chopping vampires up with swords, pushing them into trains, ripping people's faces off ... don't tell that this trash isn't warping impressionable minds. I mean, they show you how to do it.

RICHARDS: But I wonder if you're seeing the whole picture here. Haven't you noticed how many of these films romanticize vampires, rather than vilifying them? Isn't the vampire a sort of dark but desirable fantasy figure, an outlaw who does as he pleases, eternally young and with all kinds of amazing powers? Isn't the viewer being invited not to hate or fear the vampire, but to identify with him? Desire to be like him?

BARTHOLOMEW: But ... that's just bally silly.

ROMAN: The proletariat will never be taken in by such counter-revolutionary propaganda.

RICHARDS: You don't think so? Were you aware that there are clubs and groups all over the world where people dress up like vampires, steep themselves in vampire literature and vampire films, and even drink blood?

BARTHOLOMEW: You're talking about chaps who are still alive? Drinking blood on purpose?

JANOS: They're drinking blood, when they could be having real wine, or caviar and some nice roast mutton?


JANOS: That's really sick.

ROMAN: Reactionary swine! Traitors to their class, that's what they are!

BARTHOLOMEW: Now that really is disturbing, old boy. Bloody revolting.

JANOS: You humans ... you people really give me the creeps.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Fascism for Idiots

Fascism is an easily defined and understood concept. Its origins are not mysterious. It is easy to distinguish from other political philosophies, as it features a rigid and distinct unifying concept, which Mussolini expressed as “Nothing above the State, nothing outside of the State, and nothing against the State.”

Fascism is simply totalitarian Statism - in which every aspect of society is nationalized and subject to control by State authority - with the additional notion that the State is an ultimate end in itself. The State serves only its own interests, demanding absolute obedience from its members without assuming any obligations towards them. Groups and individuals within the State are merely components of the State, like cells in the body of a super-organism. For this reason, Fascism has also been called Corporatism, from the Latin corpus (body).

There is a philosophical tradition behind the idea of the “living State”, which I won’t try to go into. It’s the same tradition that inspired Marxism: German Idealism, especially the philosophy of Hegel. Politically, Fascism is basically a Marxist heresy.

Why would anyone become a Fascist? Why would anyone want to be a widget in a Fascist colony organism?

Because (the Fascist will say) you can only be truly happy and fulfilled when you have been assimilated into the Fascist State, and because you have no choice – it’s your destiny as a human animal to become part of this transcendent phenomenon. Like other forms of politicism, Fascism is both utopian and fatalistic. It’s utopian because it promises to resolve all differences and disputes, producing harmony and perfect human solidarity. It’s fatalistic because it believes itself to be the unavoidable future; the logical outcome of a natural or historical process – a process which it variously refers to as Nature, Evolution, History, Spirit, or Will.

To the potential recruit, Fascism makes the same wild promises that Marxism does. In the Fascist State, people will evolve into higher beings, once the State has freed them from insecurity, conflict, and – well, freedom. Every man will become a hero - Fascism borrows heavily from Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, and from European Romanticism. Like the Marxist, the Fascist does not consider the idea of an enslaved Superman to be a paradox. It only looks like a paradox to those of us who are corrupted by bourgeois democratic notions about “liberty”.

Some common misconceptions about Fascism can be cleared up by comparing it to its competitors.

LIBERALISM (meaning, of course, not just American political “liberalism” but the general tradition of free and open democratic societies). Fascism is pretty much the complete opposite of this, as it opposes individual liberties, individual rights, free speech, and democracy. According to Fascism, these things produce nothing but conflict and chaos, which allows people to exploit one another and retards human evolution.

The main confusion between Fascism and Liberalism is the question of Capitalism, which is an outstanding feature of all Liberal societies. Marxists (except for a brief period during the 1930s) always insisted on associating Fascism with Capitalism (and therefore with Liberalism), partly in order to avoid having Fascism associated with Marxism. The non-Marxist left tends to follow this line, when it suits their own dogmatic purposes.

The equation is obviously false. Fascism requires not only a centralized economic plan, but complete and absolute State control of all industry and production, and control of labor as well. The Capitalism that made Ayn Rand go all girlish and swoony is an outrage to Fascism. Fascism argues that the free production and marketing of goods leads to exploitation, division, and conflict, so it must condemn Capitalism for the same reason that it condemns democracy.

The biggest fallacy here, very popular with amateur leftists, is that Fascist Corporatism means rule by corporations. The terms “corporatism” and “corporation” are both derived from the same Latin root, but otherwise are totally unrelated. Corporations are publicly owned institutions that distribute (and de-centralize) wealth and power, in manner that is directly contrary to Fascism. A society ruled by corporations would be a form of oligarchy, which is a bad thing but is definitely not Fascism.

SOCIALISM AND MARXISM. Fascism is necessarily a form of socialism, because it requires total State control of everything. But Fascism differs from Marxism in its understanding of a) the State, b) society, and c) property.

The State: In Fascism, the State is the ultimate expression of human evolution, whereas to the Marxist it is nothing but the by-product of historical and economic conditions, destined to ultimately “wither away”. Fascism is necessarily nationalist, while Marxism is anti-nationalist (in theory, at least , though rarely so in practice).

Society: Fascism attacks Marxism most strongly over the question of class warfare, which Fascism rejects. Fascism claims to harmonize all social classes, making class warfare unnecessary. Essentially, Fascism takes society as it is, and installs State control at every point. Instead of pitting worker against capitalist, it makes them both mere functions of the State. Marxism promises a classless and egalitarian society (Communism) at some point in the future – Fascism insists on having one right now, else somebody is going to get shot.

Property: Fascism and Marxism take different views of private property, but this is really a very minor distinction. Fascism does not really recognize private property - the State is entitled to confiscate whatever it requires, and individual rights do not exist - but it does not directly attack the concept of private property in the way that Marxism does. The Marxist obsession with property comes from the influence of antique leftists like Pierre “Property is Theft” Proudhon. Marx essentially got hung up on a “private property” fetish. The Fascist view is more logical: it doesn’t matter who holds the deed to a factory; the only thing that matters is who controls the factory, and in that regard Fascism is no different from Marxism.

NAZISM: Fascism is often held to be more or less the same thing as Nazism, but this is problematic. Fascism is a true ideology, while Nazism was not. The central feature of Nazism was the absolute authority of Adolf Hitler, who believed himself to be superior to any mere political theory. Nazism lacked a coherent social and cultural program, simply because Hitler had little interest in such things, and Hitler’s obsession with race gives “Nazism” a different emphasis than Fascism. In practice the Nazi State was closer to being an oligarchy than a true Fascist State. The tragedy of Nazi Germany is a huge and difficult subject to tackle, so let it suffice to say that Fascism and Nazism are closely related but separate phenomena.

There is one thing that Nazism shares with Fascism, and with Marxism as well: It took a false and caricatured view of 19th century science and turned it into a disastrous political program. (Can you say Social Darwinism, boys and girls?)

THEOCRACY: Just a small note to be made here – modern Islamic extremism is often compared to Fascism (“Islamofascism”). I should know, having so often made the comparison myself. But a purist would have to observe that no theocracy could be a true form of Fascism, since theocracy appeals to an authority above the State.


So (you might ask): What prompted this pompous discourse on Fascism? Was our existence on this festering cheese of a planet called Earth not already sufficiently boring, without you making it worse?

All of this was, of course, only a prologue to my true purpose: attacking something that some fool wrote on their blog. Namely, this piece of prime idiocy dumped by The Daily Kos (the Cornucopia of Really Bad Ideas) which argues that the United States is now a Fascist State. This assessment is based on a list of “14 signs of a Fascist society”, which has been floating around the internet like an STD virus at a Green Day Concert:

1. Powerful and continuing expression of nationalism.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
5. Rampant Sexism.
6. A controlled mass media.
7. Obsession with national security.
8. Religion and ruling elite are tied together.
9. Power of corporations protected.
10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.
11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.
14. Fraudulent elections.

Presumably, the United States displays enough of these characteristics to be called “Fascist”, in the opinion of people who think themselves smart enough to spot Fascism - though they apparently lack the intelligence to qualify for Canadian citizenship, else they would not be here to tell us this bad news.

First of all, NOT ONE of these symptoms is unique to a Fascist State. The moron who compiled this list might as well have noted (with appropriate alarm) that in Fascist societies people put their pants on one leg at a time, and sometimes have trouble finding a good parking place. In fact, a theorist of Fascism (like the late Lawrence Dennis, who is often favorably cited these days on Indymedia and would strongly object to 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14 – claiming that these are contrary to ideological Fascism.

Given a sympathetic jury, a very determined prosecutor could possibly convict the United States of two or three of these offenses. On the other hand, 95% of the nations on Earth are guilty of the same offenses, plus a whole lot more. Many of the troubled nations of the Arab League would probably be found guilty on all 14 counts, which would lead some to condemn the list as racist and Islamophobic. Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and Nicaragua under Sandinista rule displayed nearly all of the listed traits, but somehow this rampant "fascism" escaped the notice of the left.

In short, running around with a Fascist checklist serves no purpose other than to alarm other persons who are as paranoid and imbecilic as yourself.

“Fascism” is a term that properly describes a highly specific historical phenomenon. It does not truly describe any significant society that exists today, though societies like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and pre-invasion Iraq are close comparisons. Fascism as a theory is as dead as Mussolini, though similar ideas survive on both the far right and the far left. Likewise, Marxism is dead, though some marginal creatures are still gnawing on its bones.

Today Fascism is a rhetorical device, not an actual thing. It has some proper uses, but mostly it's an expression of one's own spitefulness and intellectual laziness. So it has been since the fabled Sixties that our elders are so fond of, when everybody was a fascist: the police, the local draft board, and above all Mommy and Daddy. Maybe even yourself, if you ever attended a group criticism session and found out what an awful person you were.

Some people like that kind of anti-intellectual environment. They would have been happy back in old Salem Village, huddled around a fire wondering how many of their neighbors are witches.

UPDATE: Someone pointed me to Fascism: Past, Present, and Future by Walter Laqueur. I'll follow it in nailing down a few more points:

Laqueur: What made fascism different from earlier dictatorships was the presence of a mass party that monopolized power through its security services and the army and that eliminated all other parties, using considerable violence in the process. This new style of party was headed by a leader who had virtually unlimited power, was adulated by his followers, and was the focus of a quasi-religious cult.

I didn't deal with the charismatic dictatorship aspect because it is not unique to Fascism, and is not really a theoretical requirement of Fascism. In practice, of course, Fascism turned to personal dictatorship. So did Marxism, after a period of so-called "party democracy". All such ideologies must inevitably end in a dictatorship, usually a personal dictatorship, because social revolution wrecks the machinery of normal society and continually redistributes power upwards to a group of elites, who in turn become governed by a smaller super-elite, and so on.

So Fascism will always end in dictatorship, but it's misleading to look at it as simply a type of dictatorship. In Nazism, on the other hand, the personal dictatorship of Hitler was not just the central feature of the system, it was virtually its only solid feature.

Laqueur: Defining fascism was difficult because only two countries ever became fascist. During World War 11, the Vichy-style regimes under Axis tutelage cannot truly be considered fully fledged fascist, even though some, such as Croatia, tried hard to move in that direction.

I would disagree, calling Fascist Italy the sole example, with Nazism as a related but distinct phenomenon. Nazi Germany operated like a feudal kingdom, in which powerful figures competed under the aegis of the Führer. There were absolutely no rules in this competition other than the need to stay in Hitler's graces - Nazism operated without reference to a legal system, a constitution, or any kind of party authority that could punish members for misconduct or political deviancy.

The official Nazi Party theoretician, Alfred Rosenberg, was generally regarded as a clown by everyone, including Hitler. It was characteristic of Hitler - very unlike Stalin - that he did not suppress Nazis that he mistrusted or disliked. He prefered to keep them "in the mix", to serve as check on other potential rivals - a sort of wolf pack system. He agreed to purge Ernst Röhm only after a great deal of pushing from Röhm's enemies.

Another state that was often called Fascist was Franco's Spain. Very briefly: In spite of a lot of Fascist sentiment in Spain, Franco was a conservative and anti-communist dictator who had no interest in Fascist or Nazi ideology, both of which were seen as anti-Catholic by Spanish conservatives. And Franco felt free to defy both Hitler and Mussolini, probably because he owed them a lot of money that would never be repaid if they pushed him out of power.

One more interesting thing on the "class" basis of Fascism:

Laqueur: White-collar workers were fairly strongly represented in most fascist movements, whereas working-class representation varied greatly It was initially strong in France and relatively strong in Spain, but less so in Eastern Europe, except in Hungary. The reason was largely accidental - a popular local leader who joined the fascists would bring with him his followers. Students were strong supporters of the fascist movements in Spain and Romania, and so in these countries fascism was in the early years a phenomenon confined mainly to particular universities. Likewise, the Nazis emerged victorious in Germany's university elections well before they became a major political factor nationwide.

Somebody better grab that Fascist checklist and inspect Columbia University, before it's too late.

Friday, December 10, 2004

It's Funny Because it's True makes it official: they own the Democratic Party:

For years, the party has been led by elite Washington insiders who are closer to corporate lobbyists than they are to the Democratic base. But we can't afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers ... Now it's our party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back.

Interesting that George Soros has already begun to refer to himself with the royal we.

What would I do if I owned the Democratic Party?


1. Experience Buyer's Remorse. What the hell was I thinking?
2. Rename it "Generic Hong Kong Holding Company" to throw creditors off the trail for a while. I just know there's some guy out there who never got paid for 15 million "Eat Bush" bumper stickers.
3. Go Public. Under my leadership, it will become the first political party in US history to sell shares. Laugh all you want - European investors will gobble them up.
4. Defraud the investors. I'll hire Hillary Clinton to cook the books, and Bill Clinton to write the annual report.
5. Introduce mandatory retirement. The retirement age will be however old Cynthia McKinney is.
6. Introduce employee health care plan. Employees of congressional level or higher will get partial reimbursements for valium, quaaludes, and "medicinal" marijuana. Employees holding state-wide offices will get a stipend they can use to buy whatever they can get on the street. Everyone will agree that this is the greatest health care plan that anybody ever thought of, and I will be very popular.
7. Restore the Hollywood division to profitability. Previous owners made the error of attempting to use demented Hollywood liberals for public relations purposes - a recipe for disaster. Leasing celebrities to Las Vegas casinos and Japanese nightclubs will generate decent revenue.
8. Sell Massachusetts. Liquifying some assets will give us operating capital.
9. Have power lunch with Ted Turner and Time Warner execs. Talk them into buying Massachusetts for $500 an acre and turning it into a Palestinian homeland, and a permanent site of the Good Will Games.
10. Run for President of the United States. I'll save money by doing this myself instead of hiring some blow-dried drone to do it. Buying votes would be wrong, so I'll sell them instead by introducing a $50 party registration fee.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Frustrated Cat Blogging

Margaret Hassan was murdered a few days ago, and the world blinked. I'm a little sick of the world right now. My ill temper is showing. The blogosphere teaches us: When in despair of men's souls, blog the cat.

Notice there are no photos in this cat blog. I don't really like cameras, except for the ones they use to take pictures of Mars and such things. I don't know what the point of photographing the cat would be, as the image could not adequately depict the cat's greed for tuna, its near-psychotic mood swings, or its unreasoning hatred of vacuum cleaners. For compensation, here is a picture of Meryl Yourish's cat, which looks nothing like mine. And here is a haiku I wrote about the cat:

I want to die, old
and fat, flat on my back in
the big yellow patch.
Here is a haiku I wrote about a bat, which rhymes with cat:

I am a blind bat
and you are nothing more than
a hole in my scream.
The cat has no name. Unless I happen to be cursing at it, in which case it has every name under the sun. If it were a dog I would give it a name, but apart from cursing, I see no point in the cat having a name which its brain is too primitive to even recognize. If there were two cats I suppose they would have to have names, so I could distinguish between them when cursing at them, and on the rare occasions when I had to refer to one or the other of them conversationally: "I don't know whether it was Fluffy or Dickhead that knocked the Christmas tree over, but I suspect it was Dickhead."

Besides having no name, the cat has no claws, and no functioning genital apparatus. This aggressive pruning was the work of a previous owner and no responsibility of mine. In happier days the cat was female, and I would think that putting the genitals out of commission would mean no female pheromones, but apparently the pheromones are indestructable. So every filthy, arrogant tom that passes through the neighborhood instantly detects my cat. For years I've been coming home to find these fearless bastards on my doorstep, giving me their nasty defiant looks.

There are many strange things about cats. Like the fact that most of their endearing qualities are derived from their natural existence as solitary killers. Cats don't stink because their saliva acts as a deodorant - a very efficient form of natural camouflage. Curiosity and playfullness are traits they require in order to learn hunting and killing behavior, which is not instinctive in felines. They nap constantly as a means of conserving the maximum amount of energy between kills - and to maintain a constant state of rested alertness, in case something comes along that needs to be killed. In other words, Pooky-Cat is built to kill, kill, kill. No wonder then, that the Nazis named their panzers after cats.

People wonder about the intelligence of cats. Especially after the cat has just perpetrated some unbelievably destructive cat-feat that seems to be fiendishly clever and suicidally stupid at the same time. There is actually a reliable anatomical method of measuring the intelligence of vertebrate animals, which is to divide the weight of the brain by the weight of the spinal cord. The higher the number, the greater the animal's intelligence. By this means we learn that the cat has about two-thirds the intelligence of a dog, and less than half the intelligence of the smartest quadrapeds (like the echidna, or Australian hedgehog).

So it's safe to say that Tigger's instantaneous demolition of all your bookshelves was just a piece of idiotic luck, and not the result of some Osama bin Laden-like plan.

That's all I can think of to say about the cat, which could consider itself well-blogged for now, if it were capable of considering things.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Two Futures

Contemplations Under a Night Sky

After Nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
- Nietzsche

----------------------> 1.

At the close of the Twentieth Century, the human race stood at the foot of the stars.

An age of imperialism, revolution, and nuclear teeter-totter had passed. Slack-jawed utopianism was dead, too, but things were better than one might have hoped. Man had not blown himself and all his vain works straight to hell, for example. He had not expended all of his resources, or copulated himself into starvation, collapse, and cannibalism. He had given up trying to assassinate God and had made peace, more or less, with his own spiritual imagination. He had not buried himself in his own trash, choked on his own poisons, or submitted himself to the living extinction of universal totalitarianism.

Man stood pat, or more accurately, leaned pat, with his hands in his pockets and a smug expression on his face. He complained constantly about everything imaginable, as creatures do when they have lost all fear. The vast universe of annihilating energies and incomprehensible particles, which ancient philosophers had looked upon with terror, was little more to him than a game, or a joke. He floated in it like a careless bubble.

Comets whipped past him --- missing him by millions of miles.

The human race had passed the test, it seemed. All that remained was to set a few domestic affairs in order before taking his place among the stars, where Eden worlds and civilizations unimaginable were waiting. He had brains to burn, and more technology and science than he had ever taken the time to exploit. He had the necessary means to colonize the Moon at once, and Mars in short order. As for the leap into the great beyond, well, that was surely only a matter of time.

But it was not to be. Though his knowledge grew greater and ever more intricate, the increasingly refined equations continued to churn out the same cruel facts. Even the nearest stars were too far away, and the velocities he could achieve were too meager, for such a venture to be adequately conceived. A journey to Alpha Centauri would take many years, at great risk, with no promise of a secure foothold once it was reached. The more it was pondered, the more the idea of interstellar travel seemed to be yet another naive conceit that needed to be outgrown.

So man pottered about the solar system, with whatever money and resources he could spare. He built small outposts from time to time on neighboring planets, but no permanent habitations: such harsh colonies made no sense to him except as stepping stones to the unattainable stars. He continued to peer at the rest of the universe across the great gulf. But he reconciled himself to the fact that he would never set foot there, and in time he ceased to even think about it.

And time, of course, ran out eventually. The actual mechanism makes no difference. But his world ceased to sustain man, and the day finally came when the last human being drew its last tired breath.

Light-years away, the civilized inhabitants of a thousand stellar nations knew nothing of this. Had they known, they certainly would have cared. Steps would have been taken to rescue at least some human specimens before extinction overtook the race. But they never knew man was there. The cosmos is a big place, and not all of its galaxies have been probed, let alone all of its trillions of back-water planetary systems. And the stellar nations had other affairs to attend to --- affairs so vast and profound that human beings could scarcely have imagined them. They would have welcomed man into that community, and man would have grown immeasurably thereby, but it just didn't work out that way.

Eventually the star Sol reached a critical point in the consumption of its fuel, and growing cooler it shucked off a great portion of its mass, which engulfed the planet Earth and erased whatever remote traces of human habitation still remained on it. No relic or fossil or fragment of man was ever discovered, and so he disappeared completely; another isolated and remote biological phenomenon that the grand history of life simply overlooked.

----------------------> 2.

At the close of the Twentieth Century, the human race stood at the foot of the stars.

In the decades that followed man's burgeoning technology continued to advance, and his impressive knowledge of astrophysics grew ever more detailed. Fusion power gave him access to virtually unlimited energy. But more importantly, man was finding new energies within himself. The petty tribalism that had plagued him for centuries was gradually relinquishing its grip. The human race was beginning to view itself as a unified race, not as a pastiche of grasping and resentful factions.

With this solidarity came a sense of mission never before experienced on such a scale. Visionaries began to speak of other worlds, inhabited by other intelligent beings, to which man would come, bringing his own contributions to the pageant of life. Such talk had been heard before, of course, but had never been taken seriously, even though a preponderance of scientific opinion considered the existence of extraterrestrial life to be highly probable, perhaps even a mathematical certainty. But man's own distressed and disunified condition had always made the very idea of an interstellar extension of the same seem absurd.

Now, however, that objection was no longer a fatal one, and the idea grew deep roots at last. An increasingly educated and technically sophisticated public began to nurture it, and millions of young people made it their obsession.

Not that human relations were idyllic. The society of Man was not a perfect harmony, but it was a near-perfect balance; an accord firmly buttressed by a common intellectual culture that well understood its own limitations. It made no attempt to tamper with men's souls, or even with the natural currents of everyday life. It merely formed a framework of commonality which damped the violence of factionalism and alienation, and this was enough to form a cradle for the birth of Interstellar Man. An unbroken unity of vision was not necessary for this undertaking.

Man does not need (and probably cannot have) an exact definition of himself.

The first steps were slow and tottering. Alpha Centauri, Sirius, Epsilon Eridani, and Barnard's Star: their sparse orbits were silent and empty of life, but wondrous all the same. Pioneering spacecraft ringed them with new lights, and man's domain became a small constellation.

Skeptics had doubted that this new frontiersmanship would be lasting, given that human beings had grown comfortable and individually self-gratifying over the ages. The new planets, with their wistful new names, were barren and hostile beyond belief. Nevertheless domed habitations sprang up on scores of them, and volunteers waited many months for the privilege of crossing the terrific gulfs to occupy these spartan outposts. The crossings themselves took long years, but became ever more frequent. Danger, tedium, and menial labor were suffered, not without complaint, but without despair. Immersed in the elemental routine of frontier life, Man found new value in his own nature, and rejoiced in it.

The slow process of Terraforming, which in time would turn hells into paradises, was begun on a dozen worlds --- then on a hundred more.

When the light-speed barrier was finally broken, a pent-up yearning exploded into the infinite reaches of space. In the space of a few decades, the human race trebled in size, and a far greater multiplication lay ahead as planets were colonized with astonishing rapidity. Man bobbed to the surface of the galaxy. He peered down from its flat keel, raced along its rim, and sailed the fantastic depths of its core.

But he sailed it alone. No voices hailed him, and no strange ships hove into view. Everything was there for him to take. A thousand vanguards had landed on a thousand virgin worlds, but no aboriginal inhabitants had bestirred themselves to greet them. Energetic explorations found nothing: no baroque civilizations, living or ruined, and no alien tribes, not so much as a single sentient individual. Only the random jumble of matter, in which no stone had been stirred by any purposeful hand.

This was strange, but not conclusive. The universe was a big place. Other minds had to be out there, somewhere. So ships never ceased in their probing. Their engines burned in the remotest regions of the Milky Way, and in time, courses were set for fresh galaxies.

The time came at last. It might have taken unnumbered millennia, but it had to come at last. On the last planet of the last unsounded star, at the final fringe of the final galaxy, a ship fired its braking jets and settled onto the surface.

An explorer dismounted, earning celebrity. What Armstrong had been the first to do, this individual would be the last. Striding a few paces through swirling dust, not feeling the feeble wind that swept it away, the explorer knelt and scooped up a handful of soil. The dry, sterile powder drained away between the fingers of the explorer's pressurized glove. There was no life in it, nor had there ever been.

And so the famous words were spoken: "We are all alone."

Or maybe: "Looks like it's just you and me, God."

"... God?"

Friday, December 03, 2004

A Thumbnail History of the Twentieth Century

[This was written a few years ago, not long before 9/11. Recent discussions, and the past election season, have brought it back to mind.]

Imagine if, some hundreds of years from now, a historian were asked to write a concise paragraph describing the Twentieth Century for some microscopic electronic Encyclopedia. Space permits him to mention only two persons by name, of all the billions that lived, labored, and died in this sliver of time. And the paragraph must have a "punchline"; a summary conclusion. In the future, as now, when dealing with remote subjects the human race has no time for unpackaged facts.

On the names he cheats a little. He chooses one man who lived in the Twentieth Century and one man who died before it began: Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. And here's the punchline: "The Twentieth Century was remarkable for the vivid contrast between its scientific brilliance on the one hand, and its social and political depravity on the other."

Our intellectuals will just have to eat that, being now long dead and no longer in attendance at cocktail parties and such. But if they were to have some latter-day champion (they won't, but just pretend) willing to break a lance or two on their behalf, the following explanation might be demanded and given.

Firstly, why these two men? Neither exactly epitomized the century in all its Bosch-like panorama, of course. They were merely salient features of two opposing trends, and their figures stand out prominently in the messy diptych. No undue praise or blame is intended.

The rise and fall of the Marxist ideal is rather neatly contained in the Twentieth Century, and comprises its central political phenomenon. Fascism and democratic defeatism are its sun-dogs. The common theme is politics as a theology of salvation, with a heroic transformation of the human condition (nothing less) promised to those who will agitate for it. Political activity becomes the highest human vocation. The various socialisms are only the most prominent manifestation of this delusion, which our future historian calls "politicism". In all its forms, it defines human beings as exclusively political animals, based on characteristics which are largely or entirely beyond human control: ethnicity, nationality, gender, and social class. It claims universal relevance, and so divides the entire human race into heroes and enemies. To be on the correct side of this equation is considered full moral justification in and of itself, while no courtesy or concession can be afforded to those on the other. Therefore, politicism has no conscience whatsoever, no charity, and no mercy.

In nations with weak traditions of liberalism, this turned to tyranny and bloody fanaticism. The result is almost beyond comprehension. Millennia of religious strife and princely quarrels, even when totaled up across the centuries, pale by comparison with the enormity of the Twentieth. No depredation of despot, barbarian, inquisitor, witch-finder, or brigand was ever committed in all of history that was not trumped a hundred times over. In Nazi Germany children were executed en masse. In Cambodia, children themselves were turned into executioners, in an ultimate mockery of everything human.

In countries institutionally resistant, politicism took forms less malevolent, if only because the strength of those societies kept it in check. And so the forces of politicism railed against those societies incessantly. It ought not to be confounded with mere social criticism, or even with outright social dissent. As Albert Camus wrote (near the middle of this mess of a century): "A patriot ought to prefer justice to his country." But the politicists precisely preferred injustice --- they endlessly excused it, and damned their own countries for repudiating the brutal regimes that practiced it. They abused democracy, not to improve it, but to reduce it to an object of scorn and ridicule.

If they were less dangerous than the butchers they idolized, they were often less honorable as well. Fascists and communists laid down their lives for their errors. The defeatists, secure in the comfortable domains of the liberal societies they despised, merely compromised their own dignity, like the unloved dogs who lapped up the blood under the guillotine.

Speaking of which, it's true that the overture to this grim symphony was played in the Eighteenth Century. But the Nineteenth Century that followed was one of considerable humanism and enlightenment, however much its manners and naive presuppositions were mocked in the Twentieth. Twentieth Century Man sneered at his forefathers, even as he readopted every form of savagery and invented new ones.

Marxism, then, did not hold the monopoly on politicism, but it loomed large at the core of it, and its unexpected implosion rocked all houses, even those which had long since renounced it. Doctrinal differences aside, the Soviet Union formed the foundation of the worldwide cult of political man. It demonstrated the possibility of a completely politicized society that was, if not progressive, at least self-sustaining. Its injustices were noted, but considered to be beside the point: it represented politicism's permanent glacial grip on the face of the earth, hopefully to be reformed but never to be surrendered. When it melted away, a whole host of ideologies were adrift in the flood.

That was not the end of politicism, of course. Politicism is a permanent temptation of modern man, who is alienated from religion, from liberal culture and tradition, from his own history, and above all from a sound sense of truth. But it was a resounding setback.

It was less keenly felt, perhaps, in the United States, where the current was already running away from traditional class-based politicism towards the all-consuming politicism of race and gender. American politicism, at any rate, had always been somewhat faddish and migratory, not to mention self-centered in the extreme. As the Soviet ideal drifted into dotage, the imagination of American intellectuals was obsessed by such spectacles as McCarthyism, which threatened what they seemed to hold most dear: careers and reputations. The awful specter of such middle-class martyrdom blotted out any broader sensibility, and was used to justify a thorough-going moral and intellectual cowardice in the face of evil. Lost in self-pity, they capitulated and called it victory.

As for the redeeming part of the picture, Twentieth Century science and technology was truly beneficial to the human race, though too often it was held in unjust suspicion. Einstein, of course, does not play the same role in this arena that Marx played in his. While the politicist whips up his mobs, the scientist seeks to persuade his own mind. While the politicist is ever prepared to sacrifice truth, the scientist has to be governed by it, or be an imposter. Here was the great parting of ways.

Science, of course, is only human endeavor, subject to all the weaknesses and errors thereof. It has been argued, in fact, that science as a whole is often held back by convention and prejudice until the overwhelming weight of evidence pushes it forward --- but those reluctant revolutions make all the difference. And while the product of science is liable to all manner of abuse, to blame science itself for such horrors is not only unfair, it's a crude and superstitious error. It is to be hoped that scientists will not encourage the abuse of science, but to expect them to prevent abuse is asking altogether too much of them, and could only be accomplished by self-abolition. On the whole, the scientists of the Twentieth Century did a most commendable job. Those who deny it are merely those who take it for granted, or who entertain romantic and utterly false sentiments about the life of pre-modern man.

Still ... depravity? The historian shrugs.

"A generalization, admittedly, but a perfectly fair one. The two centuries preceding the Twentieth advanced the rights and dignity of man. The Twentieth roundly violated them, while adding nothing to their principles except a gruesome collection of false idols. If you object to the word, I apologize for not having given my definition. The human mind is depraved when it craves power more than truth --- no matter how noble and glorious the ends to which power promises to put itself."


My further comment on this post at Winds of Change (my thanks to Joe Katzman for the link, and to all who commented):

I really do think that history will look back on the 20th century as the absolute low point of human history - as bad as anything the Dark Ages offered, without any of the excuses. All of of us who were born into it - those of us who are remembered at all - will be looked on with some suspicion because of that. The way you might look at the portrait of a 15th Century German burgher, and wonder how many witches he burned back in the Good Old Days.

What science did during this time, though, was to create a sound and sustainable philosophy of itself. It realized that it was not a revealed religion, competent to speak on all subjects (Heisenberg, Gödel). It realized that it was not a super-human process that was immune to human failures (Kuhn, Popper). It recognized that many of its propositions were provisional and subject to revision, so it was not a matter of discovering the truth once and for all, but a process of continually discovering and practicing truth. In this way, science avoided absolutism on the one hand and relativism on the other. (I elaborate some more on this in a little post about the 21st Century - Two Futures.)

Politicism, on the other hand, makes free use of both relativism and absolutism. In a sense, they're both the same thing: contempt for truth. For the politicist, Utopia is whatever is left after you've reviled and smashed everything that everyone else has worked so hard to build, and "truth" is whatever is left after all dissent has been silenced.