Saturday, April 08, 2006

From Admiration to Fear and Loathing: Anti-Americanism Left and Right

André Gide, writing from Algiers in his journal on May 27, 1943: “The Americans, in our old world, get themselves beloved by everyone and everywhere. Such ready generosity, so genial and sunny, so natural, that we happily agree to be at their service.” (My anglicized translation of this original: “Les Américains, sur notre vieux monde, se font aimer par tous et partout. De générosité si prompte, si cordiale et souriante, si naturelle, que l’on accepte joyeusement de se sentir leur obligé.” May 27, 1943, Algiers.)
Adrian Wooldridge, writing from Washington in his Lexington column in the April 1Economist: “The most striking thing about Americans to many outsiders is how nice they are. They have none of the aloofness of the British or the froideur of the French. On the contrary, they go out of their way to be warm and welcoming. This is the land of the smiley face and the ‘have a nice day’ greeting. Put simply, Americans like to be liked.” From Gide to Wooldridge already there’s an inversion: In Gide’s time, Americans abroad projected likability to such a point as to seduce the foreigners among whom they mingled. World War II was in full swing of course, anything resembling the shimmer of a savior, even and especially to the French, would have evoked buckets of gratefulness by the Sanctus. By the 1970s and 80s, the Me-Generation’s narcissism had retrenched Americans’ world view onto themselves. Americans were still likable. (I remember that quality being, along with those obsessively tended and fertilized lawns, one of the most remarkable thing about Kingsport, Tenn., when I first arrived in this country in 1979: the sheer tonnage of smiles on everybody’s faces, along with that effusive willingness to hug.) Read the rest...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Puppeteering a Kiss-Ass Press

For a time it looked as if the dominating non-event of the day was going to be the U.S. Senate’s impending vote on an alleged “compromise” that would put “millions” of Mexicans on the path to American citizenship (an assumption half-pregnant with arrogance: why do these lawmakers think Mexicans’ priority is citizenship, as opposed to livelihood?). I call it a non-event because whatever the Senate decides will either die in an eventual absence of agreement with the House of Representatives, or, should it become law, will result in an administrative nightmare that will have every migrant crossing the border carrying a copy of Kafka’s Castle with him, as a primer on the Department of Homeland Security’s morbid ways and means. Then the other non-event of the day broke: the allegation, by the Vice of Darkness’ former chief of staff “Scooter” Libby, that Bush authorized the leak of classified Iraq war intelligence in order to rebut a CIA analyst’s debunking of Iraqi nuclear threats. This, too, is a non-story that will garner all the headlines in the morning because the White House spin dervishes, along with a compliant press, will do to it what they did with the story about Bush being told, twenty-four hours before Katrina hit, of the potential disaster should the levees be overrun: Semantics silenced the smoking gun. Bush didn’t react about Katrina, you see, because his pals only warned about levees being topped, not breached. Big, huge difference (regardless of the disaster that did actually happen while Bush was gallivanting around Arizona and California, chatting up Medicare and one more military memorial, while his Vice of Darkness might as well have been on the dark side of the Moon and his Secretary of State was shoe-shopping in Manhattan). In this “breaking” CIA case, the dervishes will swarm around the convenient distinction, so well spelled out by the Washington Post, that although Libby “gave a reporter sensitive information from a secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in a July 2003 conversation with the president’s approval, he did not disclose the CIA employment of Valerie Plame.” Missed, of course, will be the Lord and Savior president’s role as deceiver-in-chief. Read the rest...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bleacher Bleats: Blog Comments and Straw Men

Comment sections on blogs, appearing at they do at the bottom of every entry, tend naturally to generate bottom-feeding discourse with very little redeeming value other than WB-quality entertainment. That’s not to brush off some blogs’ comment sections (Eurotrib, Digby, the eminently comment-worthy Dr. Bitch, to name a quick few), where the action, like the footnotes in a David Foster Wallace story, sometimes outruns the main event. Nor do I mean to downplay the Herculean effort of bloggers to patrol and clean up some of their more skin-headed contributors. I don’t even mean to judge the validity of comment sections; the more the better in my view. I’d have them on this site if I could only figure out the technicalities (along with a few dozen other technicalities I haven’t figured out yet). But you get the idea. Comment sections can aspire to be community town halls. They’re just as often the echo chamber of your neighborhood gutter, shallow enough for knee-jerks to flop about but, like any gutter, easy enough to ignore and be grateful for efficient drainage systems (the scroll or delete keys, the shrug). The gems are worth the muck.
And anyway I’m all for the defense of the muck, if that’s what it takes to have a few gems, or to give voice to those who normally stay too quiet. As Octavio Paz so perfectly said of “bad words,” they are “the only living language in a world of anemic vocables. They are poetry within the reach of everyone.” Lord knows there are enough strictures and brown-shirted patrols of the “acceptable” and the “appropriate” everywhere that a little loose-letting on comment sections can’t hurt anyone. Unfortunately, “being inoffensive, and being offended, are now the twin addictions of the culture” (in Martin Amis’s words). So offensiveness is verging on becoming another one of those victimless crimes we’re so fond of prosecuting. Still, for anyone to cite blog comments as representing anything more than the rhetorical runoff they are is more idiotic than hunting buzzards in an aviary. But because it’s easy, because it makes some people with an inferiority complex feel better, because it’s cheap points on the high and mighty scale, because—to the gullible—it can seem like someone’s got a trend picked out or a point proven, it’s still done and will probably always be done. Read the rest...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ending the Flop

Two Deadlines and an Exit
John Kerry
The New York Times, April 5, 2006

We are now in the third war in Iraq in as many years. The first was against Saddam Hussein and his supposed weapons of mass destruction. The second was against terrorists whom, the administration said, it was better to fight over there than here. Now we find our troops in the middle of an escalating civil war. Half of the service members listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after America's leaders knew our strategy would not work. It was immoral then and it would be immoral now to engage in the same delusion. We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers can't bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq's leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires.
As our generals have said, the war cannot be won militarily. It must be won politically. No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences. So far, Iraqi leaders have responded only to deadlines — a deadline to transfer authority to a provisional government, and a deadline to hold three elections. Now we must set another deadline to extricate our troops and get Iraq up on its own two feet. Read the rest...

The Tuesday Column: Wealth Worship

[This is a reworked version of a post that first saw light of blog last week as "Wealth and Plutocracy."]

Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s billionaires — the plutocracy’s swimsuit issue — is out along with its familiar bods: Bill Gates at the top with $50 billion, which is more than the total GDP of about 150 countries; Warren Buffet at $42 billion; Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican-Lebanese financier, at $30 billion; the gang of five Waltons (Sam’s heirs), each of whom clocks in at close to $16 billion for a sum-total of $79 billion; and so on. Three years ago there were 476 billionaires. Now there are 793, each of them a tea leaf of speculation for the rest of us. Wealth these days elicits reactions usually associated with sex: desire, envy, resentment (toward those who have so much of it), moral judgments. But no matter how ostentatious, other people’s sex lives are irrelevant to public welfare. Not so with wealth, least of all the wealth of the wealthiest, because that wealth isn’t of their making as much as they’d like you to believe.
“Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get,” Michael Kinsley wrote in a recent column. “But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous.” He then followed with this fatuous line: “It’s probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us.” The last line assumes cause-and-effect between wealth and material virtue that adds up to this: The wealthier you are, the more you’ve contributed to the general well-being. It’s a convenient way of saying that the wealthy should be praised most and taxed less because they contribute so much. The proposition has been taken pretty much at face value since Ronald Reagan began the go-go years of tax-cutting. But to equate wealth accumulation with making life “better for the rest of us” is absurd. Read the rest...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"God's Eye-View" and Confererate Tags

L’infâme—my all-purpose term for all things repressive and regressive—has been a busy bastard lately. Bush has been playing up his average Joe quotient to win Gallup brownie points. Neo-Nazis in Germany appear to be putting together a few cheerleading squads of their own to bash up foreigners attending the World Cup there come June. America’s anti-immigration cheerleaders, led by their doberman-in-chief at CNN, are dangerously close to sounding like Germany’s gathering foreign-bashers.
Here are two fresher idiocies altogether that haven’t gotten much play: A U.S. Air Force commander in Iraq tells Stars & Stripes that the “focus of U.S. air power has shifted from dropping bombs to giving U.S. troops a ‘God’s-eye view’ of what’s on the ground,” as if one crusading bigot mightily high in the Pentagon’s Iraq chain of command wasn’t enough. I wasn’t aware that god had joined up with the Air Force’s bomb-detecting squad, being under the impression that the “What Would Jesus Bomb” campaign still had him, or Him rather, in the bomb bay scoping out targets to fry. Lt. Col. Pete Gersten, commander of the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base and Stars & Stripes quotee, probably though in that Average Joe fashion of the day that he was making a cool run at vivid imagery. Maybe he was confusing god’s eye view with that of our true Lord and Savio, Bush himself. Let that little divine description of bomb-scoping get out on the Iraqi street, where word has it people are just a touch weary of Americans playing god on their ass, and see how wonderfully it will be received. Read the rest...

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Israel Lobby Debate, or As They Say in the U.S., Controversy

The March 23rd issue of the London Review of Books’ cover was devoted to a long piece by John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Not surprisingly, the piece has provoked an angry reaction in the United States but a much more interesting, because more open-minded, reaction in Israel. It’s not quite a Muhammad cartoon-like controversy. Flags aren’t being burned and heads aren’t rolling. But the story isn’t without its shameless tempers: Harvard went so far as removing its seal from the study, and the row over the study in academia and the media, at least in the United States, borrows more from the methods of dogmatists than scholars, or journalists. Below will be your one-stop shopping mart for the controversy as it is likely to keep evolving: the original piece in the London Review, a couple of notable reactions, plus ongoing news items and additional reactions. Read more…

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Freak Inquisition: Borders Book's Gutless Magazine Ban

In the mid-1980s Borders Books and Music was one store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It has since evolved into a chain of 470 superstores in the United States, 54 abroad, and another 650 Waldenbooks—mall kiosks that serve up bestsellers and how-to’s like triple-decker burgers at Wendy’s—for a combined $3.9 billion in sales and 34,000 employees. What stands out about Borders, for readers who care about finding more than the latest Crichton and Clancy landfillers on the shelves anyway, isn’t its middling Wall Street profile. It’s that Borders has been to suburban sprawl what Constantinople was to the Middle Ages—a concentrate of culture slightly more bracing than the surrounding gruel. The company’s PR (“finding new ways to surprise and delight customers—and turn them into lifelong friends”) is, for once, closer to the truth than these self-serving proclamations tend to be. So a bit of shock and a lot of disgust should greet the company’s decision not to carry the April-May issue of Free Inquiry, one of the better small magazines around, because that issue is running four of the by-now stalish Muhammad cartoons (This site has carried the whole series since January 31). Only a bit of shock because a corporation’s cravenness is never surprising, and even less so in these days of dividends by all means necessary. More disgust is warranted for various reasons: The response to critics by the Borders CEO, the fact that the left-wing blogosphere has seemed indifferent to the story, as if right-wingers championing it somehow renders it less legitimate, and of course the irony of the ban itself. Read the rest...