one moment i liked in bo's news conference: he was asked what 'humbled' him about the presidency. now usually people are 'humbled' by the honors and power you shower on them; an idiotically disingenuous pile of slop. bo actually said that he realized that the power of the president is limited, that there are "many centers of power." ok: that is actually responsive to the question.
watcha readin, crispy? been tackling william james. but also for recreation neal stephenson's baroque cycle. just finished the first massive volume: quicksilver. it is remarkable on many levels. it is, among other things, the adventure of the invention of modern science, and people such as hooke, huygens, newton, and leibniz are actually plausible characters, the last being particularly delightful and thoroughly explored. the treatment of intellectual themes is amazing in its depth and accuracy, while still being actually part of a novel, with narrative momentum. indeed the evocation of the era - in politics, religion, economics, etc - is astonishingly vivid, the product of more than research: stephenson must have just soaked in this atmosphere (1660-1710, say) until he was a sort of native. the characters are recognizably of their time and recognizably of ours, so you are drawn into intimate historical connection. and the writing just sparkles: by turn hilarious and profound.
it's a moment when the modern scientific consciousness is emerging from religious and alchemical models, and newton himself regards his physics as a religious text, and is as or more interested in wild alchemical speculations/experiments than in his own astonishing achievements in straight geometry or what we would consider to be empirical science. that is right, and has the effect of complicating our sense of what science currently is as well as of what it once was. in some ways a or even the central character is the royal society: a rich wild world in which things we would think of as insane or perverse are juxtaposed with fundamental scientific advancements, and in which nobody can be perfectly clear on the difference.
one amazing idea: parts of quicksilver are written in the literary forms of the era: picaresque novel , epistolary novel, restoration comedy , and scientific treatise, for example. that is a brilliant conceit, and becomes quite the hall of mirrors, as characters seem to be perfectly aware, for example, that they are living in a picaresque, or as characters in stephenson's picaresque novel become the subjects of picaresque novels being devoured by other characters. perhaps people have done this before, but it adds tremendously to the sensation that you're entering into a whole world of culture and knowledge.
like many progressive intellectuals, gary hart employs bold, innovative, 21st century software that recombines cant phrases into a new random collage every seventeen minutes, then automatically emails the result to the huffington post. in fact, gary hart died in 2005.
"And then shall the metal bird glide over the the City of Cash, and the people shall scream and run around like lobotomized geese. Swinishness shall become a contagion. Arlen Specter shall betray his peeps, if any. And the next day, at 8:23 AM Mountain, God will destroy the cursed earth and toast your souls over the bonfires of hell as though you were, verily, marshmallows. Which you are, you pussies."
it seems possible that nostradamus was referring to this very moment! it must have been a terrible burden to see the future so clearly.
ross douthat's first column as designated nyt conservative is pretty interesting: sort of a nice bold counterfactual premise. but it's also kind of overly cagey or cute. i haven't read his stuff before, and i don't know whether this is a stalking horse for the defense of torture, or whether it expresses sincere admiration for cheney, or whether it is sincere in just sort of wishing we'd had a straighter debate on the bush legacy in the campaign.
Unlike Watergate or Iran-contra, today's scandal emerges not from a shocking revelation of wrongdoing but from a long process of disclosure during which Americans have stared at blatant lawbreaking with apparent equanimity. This means Democrats as well as Republicans, including those in Congress who were willing to approve, as late as September 2006, a law, the Military Commissions Act, that purported to shield those who had applied these "enhanced interrogation techniques" from prosecution under the War Crimes Act.
since someone just asked, offline, about my use of the term bush-obamaism: i see bush and obama as in some ways continuous. reagan/bush1/clinton were a bit chastened and slow on government expansion. bush and obama are nonstop gogo enthusiasts, despite all their differences. a new bureaucracy for every problem. i love spending and debt. they coincide in some ways, as in federal regulation of k-12 ed: no child etc. and in other respects, they're complementary: bush beefed up the national security apparatus extremely: the department of homeland security, amazing new surveillance programs, and so on. obama will do the same for domestic/welfare/healthcare/environmental programs. notice that obama isn't at all trying to dismantle the bush institutions. so by the time the bush-obama era is over, everybody gets a slice.
as it happens, i agree with much of what mark taylor has to say. but i'm just flummoxed by this sentence:
If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges
and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously
regulated and completely restructured.
oddly, none of the proposals that taylor actually makes do anything with "regulation." maybe it's just a rhetorical flourish, to connect his proposals to our beautiful mood of enthusiasm for huge bureaucracies, the bush-obamaism of the 131st century, the new green authoritarian economy. but what can he mean? a new department of higher ed, a cabinet-level position, standardized testing (="accountability")? legislation to ban dissertations on duns scotus? obama or arne duncan personally firing university presidents and demanding restructuring plans? congressional hearings on deconstruction? in five years - during the palin administratrion, when tom coburn is majority leader of the senate - you're going to love yourself for having made proposals like this
i think perhaps the real reason for all the abuses following 9.11 is that people were really angry and wanted to hurt somebody. i felt the same, actually. my late bro jim said at the time that he wanted to fly over the middle east and "see nothing but smoking rubble."
We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the
past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding
those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed
everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture
people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world
The turnaround began when Taylor, Lobdell’s first son, was born. A
month later, Lobdell married Taylor’s mother, at a wedding chapel in
Las Vegas (baby steps toward Jesus, one might say); afterward, they
watched Tony Orlando and Dawn sing in a half-empty casino concert hall.
Lobdell adored his son, and like many new fathers he resolved to grow
up fast. But he was skeptical that his marriage, born of imperfect
circumstances, would last, and in most respects he still felt pretty
desperate. Soon after his wedding, “on an especially low day,” Lobdell
confessed his pain to a good friend. “You need God,” the friend told
him. “That’s what’s missing in your life.”
what's excellent here is the inclusion, apparently utterly random, of tony orlando and dawn. obviously, in the interpretation of the reviewer, tony orlando and dawn was the last straw, the very acme of despair. at least it wasn't billy joel; then he'd have hung himself there and then. or i guess you could take this the other way: lodbell, gazing rapt upon the luminous countenance of tony orlando, realized that a universe with tony orlando in it could only be the product of an all-powerful and perfectly-good being. to grasp the true spiritual significance of tony orlando, i guess i'd have to read lodbell's book. but after absorbing oppenheimer's review, i've decided that reading is futile.
a washpost piece about judge jay bybee, torture enthusiast circa early 2000s, headlines his "private regret."
"I've heard him express regret at the contents of the memo," said a
fellow legal scholar and longtime friend, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity while offering remarks that might appear as "piling on."
"I've heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I've heard
him express regret at the lack of context -- of the enormous pressure
and the enormous time pressure that he was under. And anyone would have
regrets simply because of the notoriety."
these are not regrets, but just layers of self-exculpation. this is
exactly the opposite of "i am responsible and what i did was wrong." he
regrets the notoriety? please. under time pressure, i suppose anyone would come to the conclusion that torturing prisoners is compatible with the constitution. the memo was misused? how? by being taken seriously?
"On the primary memo, that legitimated and defined torture, he just
felt it got away from him," said the fellow scholar. "What I understand
that to mean is, any lawyer, when he or she is writing about something
very complicated, very layered, sometimes you can get it all out there
and if you're not careful, you end up in a place you never intended to
go. I think for someone like Jay, who's a formalist and a textualist,
that's a particular danger."
"Jay would be the sort of lawyer who would say, 'Look, I'll give you
the legal advice, but it's up to someone else to make the policy
decision whether you implement it,' " said Randall Guynn, who roomed
with Bybee at Brigham Young University and remains close.
exactly the kind of lawyer, in other words, who should be locked in a box with venomous insects. actually, i guess they call that 'law school.' let's just say, among people incapable of things like responsibility, decency, or self-reflection bybee's is the precise form of apology: i'm sorry about your misconstrual of my excellence and good intentions. i'm sorry that other people really fucked up. i'm sorry for bizarre accidents i couldn't have prevented. i'm sorry i did my job, etc.
some days, as when you realize that jay bybee is a sitting federal judge, being an anarchist is just too ridiculously easy.
should america torture? i, personally, would rest this question on the quotient of american pleasure over pain. my question is: do y'all get off on it? i.e. does it work, for you - dick, donald? did you groove on the photos and vids? then i say: go right ahead. for i, like you, am a hedonist at heart. whether torture yields reliable information is a difficult question. but that it yields reliable sexual recreation is not disputed by anyone acquainted with the magnificaent spectacle of human progress.
this thing of looking forward, not back, is a load of bullshit. if you are incapable of reflecting on your actions because you're looking forward not back, you're an ever-repeating, ever-intensifying monster. resolving to do better in the future requires understanding fully, exactly, what you did in the past. any person or institution who is not looking back should have no forward.
speaking today at a holocaust remembrance event, obama said this:
Today, and every day, we have an opportunity, as well as an obligation,
to confront these scourges -- to fight the impulse to turn the channel
when we see images that disturb us, or wrap ourselves in the false
comfort that others' sufferings are not our own. Instead we have the
opportunity to make a habit of empathy; to recognize ourselves in each
other; to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and
indifference in whatever forms they may take -- whether confronting
those who tell lies about history, or doing everything we can to
prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, those
taking place in Darfur. That is my commitment as President. I hope that
is yours, as well.
ok. what have you done, and what do you intend to do, about darfur? a hundred days isn't very long, unless it was more time than you had left.
one way into the problems: say you take the bush admin position that you can apprehend anyone anywhere and hold them without evidence or representation. and say you also hold, with these patriotic defenders of freedom, that the interrogation techniques you use on these people are state secrets. now say you interrogate someone for a few years, waterboard him a couple of hundred times, see how he likes insects, rodents, large bruises, electricity to the testicles, and so on, trying to figure out what his role is in terrorism, etc, and come to the conclusion that you kind of made a mistake and he doesn't know anything and is not guilty of any crime or act of war. this is peculiarly likely to be the case since you never had to provide any evidence of his guilt to anyone in the first place. (in fact, you nabbed him on the basis of a denunciation by his father-in-law. but better safe than sorry, and the bomb is ticking.) however, you now have an extremely good reason to hold him: he is in possession of state secrets, namely the interrogation techniques you used on him. that is, torturing him made him guilty of espionage. so you are obliged to hold him forever or ditch his body out back.
it's perfectly evident that the bush administration workedtoward a culture of torture and an arbitrary widespread internment system. a number of agencies and branches of the armed forces and intelligence were doing this at abu ghraib, at guantanamo, in afghanistan, in black sites her and there. they were, among other things, trying to force confessions to the effect that saddam was involved in 9.11, a year before the iraq invasion, in order to justify it. (at the same time they were pressuring intelligence agencies to produce intelligence to that effect, interpreting whatever "intelligence" there was in an utterly tendentious way; leaking valerie plame in order to shut up her husband on that matter, etc.) you've got cheney, rice, rumsfeld (in particular), and then the lawyers: alberto gonzales, jay bybee, john yoo, etc. in my opinion, all of these people should be spotlighted and prosecuted, mercilessly.
but i do not, do not accept the apparent consensus that the grunts who actually did the work are innocent and should not be prosecuted. no. people are responsible for their actions, even under orders, even after memos. not to prosecute them is...to insult them. to say they are people without moral autonomy, without conscience, that they are not, if you like, created in the image of god; it is to treat them as inanimate objects. if we're ever going to be a decent people then "jimmy told me to" just can't be an excuse. and the state, the president, the command structure, the lawyers: they are all just jimmies, just people: not abstract functions: not mesmerists, not operating people like marionettes. of course if we thought of them as just people, there could be no state. right?
another remark or two: evolution is non-hierarchical and is value-blank. a human being is no more evolved and no higher on the (alleged) evolutionary scale than a virus. evolution undergirds and justifies no values: it cannot be used to generate any moral or aesthetic truths. it does not prefer life to death, order to chaos, cooperation to competition, beauty to ugliness. it is as compatible with a holocaust as with a commune. if we want any values, we have to get them somewhere else.
in some ways, people have actually tried to make evolution do some of the things god did: order the universe, explain human values, give us a special status in the world, make meaning. but it is a complete blank on all these matters.
i think what we have to grasp fully about evolution is that it a mindless, random, self-contradictory and self-devouring process taking place in a mindless etc environment. it has no actual end or goal. so, for example, what lets a species flourish gets more and more intense, until the giraffe just tips over. or until a microbe evolves that kills all the trees that giraffe-necks let them reach. the microbe flourishes, kills its hosts, and expires. the fantastic plumage gets everybody mating for completely inexplicable causes. then it proves to be the end as hunters can hardly miss. the species evolves in exquisite relation to its environment for hundreds of thousands of years; then the environment transforms itself entirely in a century and kills everybody. predators outrun prey until the prey goes extinct, extinguishing the predators. there's no place this is going and no stable point and no meaning, as we might say. and human consciousness, evolved over thousands of generations etc. is fatal. nature doesn't care, is extremely unstable, can't think, doesn't mean, and isn't headed anywhere. (when you think through environmentalism or, like, global warming, your thinking-through had better be compatible with these realities. you'd better not be thinking about the environment as a stable, coherent, balanced, or intentional system, better not be conceiving an ideal end-state, etc, all of which notions make no sense at all.)
see *that* is what darwin left us. and i am not rejecting it at all; it's the only idea in town. i'm trying to *face* it. life is no more stable, advanced, organized, or sensible than it was ten million years ago.
some things we need to keep in mind about torture etc: they were setting up from the highest levels a culture of abuse throughout the armed forces and intelligence services. it's not two guys. it's a whole system of abductions, detentions without representation or provision of evidence, abuse of detainees and of people in the field. now if you frame the thing very narrowly - should we be able to blast metallica at the world's worst person as the bomb ticks? - you seem a bit obsessive. but consider what you are setting up: a parallel penal system, spread around the world, in which no constitutional or geneva-convention type constraints have any application at all. you are constituting an absolute, unlimited, and completely arbitrary judicial power, and conferring it on the executive branch. now consider for a moment the potential for such power to be abused, the certainty that it will be (and was) abused: trained on the innocent without recourse, or (eventually) used for whomever anyone in a position of power wants gone, for any reason whatever. our system is based on the idea that power is subject to abuse, that arbitrary power is a terrible human problem: the essence of tyranny. i say you must, if you have any commitment to american values, expose and expunge every vestige you can find of such power. so the people who enthuse about this or want it concealed are not patriots, not defenders of democracy (as cheney claims of himself in every other sentence he utters). they are enthusiasts for tyranny; they are what the american revolution tried to destroy, only worse.
one argument i like for keeping torture info secret: revealing our "interrogation techniques" helps the terrorists. um, how, exactly? do you think the notion that you might be waterboarded would help you withstand waterboarding when the time came? the spanish inquisition had a better idea: show potential blasphemers your amazing torture devices, and this will keep their inmost hearts orthodox. but i don't think anyone was arguing that knowing we were going to cut you up and pour molten lead into the wounds would help people resist ratting on their fellow heretics.
speaking of totalitarian schools, the supreme court is hearing arguments in a case where a 13-year-old girl was strip-searched at her school on the suspicion that she was concealing...ibuprofen. if i was antonin scalia (which i am) i'd simply arrest the searchers for assault and clap them in irons. one thing i like about the case: the search was based on a report from another student. i think it's very important that we destroy anti-snitching culture, and encourage denunciations to the authorities, even in cases where there's nothing wrong at all. this is very important to citizenship responsibilities in a democracy.