Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day Thoughts

As he has done before, Gary Trudeau summons the most honest and moving tribute to the previous year's fallen soldiers.

I am told there are people who find this kind of thing insufficiently patriotic (or even unpatriotic) -- in something like the way, I suppose, that there are still people who can't, or won't let themselves see the power and beauty of the Wall that Maya Lin created at Constitution Gardens.

To this kind of thing, I still think some lines from Hemingway's Farewell To Arms that I quoted in my very first post on this blog provide the best possible rejoinder:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Meanwhile, back in the political present, Wesley Clark's Memorial Day radio address for the DNC hit, I thought, just the right notes: unwavering support for the troops; a blunt insistance that they (all) be given the material as well as moral support they need, both during and after their service; and above all the recongnition that the one thing both the troops and the country they serve need and deserve most, is political leadership that uses it's volunteer military wisely and sparingly, and not as a cheaply-bought and easily-replaced substitute for having a clear and coherent foreign policy for protecting the nation.

Speaking of old soldiers and the price paid for lack seriousness in making foreign policy: Here is a brief reminder (from last January) of why David Hackworth will be so sorely missed:
Considering the hits we keep taking in our global fight against terrorism, I'm gearing up in '05 to go up against the Pentagon's increasingly out-of-control campaign to keep us all conned. The cover-ups track too often with more names added to the U.S. casualty list.

So here's my New Year's resolution: to keep countering Pentagon lies with the truth until enough concerned citizens demand that Congress set up a congressional investigative arm to formally expose the liars and hold them accountable.

For almost six decades, I've borne witness to scuzzy machinations that had little or nothing to do with America's national security. And because of them, I've watched my beloved country become enmeshed in far too many blood-splattered military misadventures only because they were good for Pentagon business. I've seen trillions of dollars allocated for gold-plated pork of value only to the monsters who manipulate the military-industrial-congressional complex and absolutely worthless to our gallant soldiers - the kids who end up paying the ultimate price for the madness of war.

Had a decent chunk of that dough been spent on the right stuff - supporting our troops - our warriors wouldn't have fought in Korea in 1950 with World War I gear or be slugging it out in Iraq in scrounged "hillbilly armor" and told to go to war with the Army we have and to suck it up.
If all of this sounds a bit, well, defensive for a Memorial Day post, that might say something about the way opponents of the current administration's foreign policies are feeling, in a time in which such opposition is equated, by the numerous and well-amplified attack droids of the right-wing media machine, with lack of patriotic feeling -- or (in the specific case of the celebrated Ann Coulter) considerably worse.

We are talking here, after all, about symbols of continuity, reverence and debt (the flag, the names of the fallen, the honors due them), that a naturally-fissiparous society such as ours probably needs to take particular care to separate from the standard stock of political weaponry. As my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it, writing just at the crest of the McCarthy era:
If there is to be an ideal fusion of freedom with stability, of justice with order, and of democratic experimentation with tradition, it is of course necessary that the symbols of stability should not be used as weapons of the parties of privilege to preserve a traditional privilege against the will of the majority. If the symbol is to remain untarnished as a symbol of the unity of the community above party conflict and of the continuing majesty of its government, any party in the community must have the confidence that it may, upon attaining a majority for its conception of justice, be able to speak through the royal symbol. This is to say that it achieves the right to speak for the whole community, though it is only a majority of the community. There must also be a corresponding respect by the majority of the rights of the minority. Otherwise a frustrated minority may become desperate and defy this attempt at national unity.
So my closing Memorial Day thought along these lines is this: That maybe the ability to honor the fallen in a country's war, without necessarily either endorsing, or demanding the endorsement of, the motives, rationale or conduct of that war, by those presently holding political power, is one of the ways that we find out what kind of idea a particular party's idea is, or will be, when it wins.

Bobo is Visited by the Ghost of Manifestos Past

I really shouldn't do this, because David Brooks really, really doesn't deserve a regular Op-Ed column in The New York Times, and linking to him only increases (if only in some pitifully fractional way) his Google ranking, making it seem like he maybe does deserve that lofty perch because, after all, see, he's provoking controversy.

Well in my case he mostly provokes nausea, but this particular column was so extra-special lame that I simply couldn't resist response. The conceit is that if Karl Marx were to rewrite his Manifesto for today's "information society" (I guess without Engels' help, but whatever), he would focus not on the industrial class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but on the cultural class struggle between, as Brooks puts the words in spectral Karl's mouth, "the educated elite and the undereducated masses."

It's mostly the standard Brooksian guilt-ridden wingnuttery about how those he famously labeled "bourgeois-bohemians" (i.e., people whose lives resemble Brooks's own) ruthlessly oppress the uneducated masses by doing things like:
  • Encouraging immigration (that is, letting in more uneducated masses to, as Brooks/Marx explains, "guarantee inexpensive lawn care");

  • Moving to well-off suburbs and letting inner-city schools go to hell (how this squares especially well with the cultural elite's infamous preference for cities over suburbs is left unanswered); and, above all,

  • Somehow-or-other imposing upon society a set of sexual mores that, in some unspecified way, allows cultural elites to have a lot of pre- and extra-marital sex without any bad consequences for their family structure, but that just ends up inflicting "maximum domestic chaos for those lower down." (I guess the uneducated just can't handle the extra sexual freedom -- or something like that.)
Oh, and all of this, in Brooks's version of the Manifesto, it (almost) goes without saying, has exactly nothing to do with economic factors -- especially those that could conceivably be affected by public policy (like, to pick one at random, thirty years of falling real wages and diminishing job prospects for blue-collar workers).

That's why Marx would have to recast the Manifesto if he came back to life -- get it? He would realize that the educational/cultural divide is so much more salient, now that we are an "information society," than any merely economic factors could possibly be. And he would of course also accept uncritically this distinction between educational and cultural factors, on the one side, and (merely) economic ones, on the other.

In other words, he would see the need to renounce -- well, the core of marxist social analysis. And presumably he would then become a sort of right-wing Clifford Geertz instead. Or -- if his wit, imagination and skill with a pen had eroded really badly in the 122 years since his death -- maybe he would just become David Brooks, and get a column in the Times.

Now, besides not being terribly funny (well, except for the crack about lawn care -- I have to admit I laughed at that one), there are two major, and deeply inter-realted problems with Brooks's attempt at Marx parody: First, Marx was a lot more openly (or, say, less hypocritically and guiltily) admiring of the rulling class he was aiming to overthrow than Brooks dares to be. Secondly, and for related reasons, Marx's idea of the bourgeoisie's role in modern society was not at all bound by the contingencies of the industrial mode of production circa 1848, or even by the French-inspired revoltionary political hope in which the Manifesto was written.

On the contrary, Marx's and Engels' vision of the social transformations being wrought be the asendency of capitalism in the middle of the nineteenth century both encompasses and celebrates all of the things that apparently give Brooks the vapors, sitting there in his Manhattan office, pondering the sins of educated bobos like himself, and worrying about the fate of those poor uneducated folks out in the red-state hinterlands. I mean, just listen to these guys:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff.

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground -- what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?
As you can see, Brooks is pretty far off-base in thinking that old Charlie would find the new manifestations of bourgeois power (in education and cultural production) an especially sharp break with that class's past history of revolutionizing change -- or that he would shed too many tears over the resulting cultural wreckage among relatively "backwards" (i.e., less revolutionary) social strata.

In fact, I suspect that the only thing that would surprise and disappoint Karl-van-Winkle, is that it is still the bourgeoisie out front, leading the ongoing revolution of the instruments and relations of production, and that his beloved proletriat had proven such an unworthy, or unnecessary, vessel of that revolution. But that would hardly dampen his ardor for the process as such. Why, if you want to read swooning celebrations of capitalism and globalism like that from a New York Times columnist these days, you have to go to this guy.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why We Don't Have That Many Free Citizens, And What It Would Be Like If We Had More of Them

  • Free citizens don't grow on trees. In general, to get a lot of them, you have to cultivate them, just like a tyranny has to cultivate cowering, isolated subjects. It's much, much harder to cultivate free citizens than it is to cultivate cowering, isolated subjects. Possibly because of this difficulty, we don't even give it much of a shot, really.

  • To the extent that you succeeded in making free citizens, you would have a naturally quarrelsome bunch on your hands. They would be predisposed to be critical of existing institutions, practices, and standards -- including those of the various media currently designed primarily to manipulate them in various ways. They would be so to speak a self-rousing rabble.

  • This natural quarrelsomeness, however, would have a definite, and quite sharp limit. When it came to the conditions for the possibility of the life of a free citizen, they would feel approximately the way good Aztecs felt about the need for human sacrifice, or good Han about the Emperor's possession of the Mandate of Heaven. Any public or private power that tried to mess with -- to degrade -- those conditions, would do so at its peril.

  • Such free citizens would be chronic perfectionists, and therefore constantly aware of the shortcomings of the present order of things, compared to what it could and should be, with a more thorough application of the virtues of free citizens. This would give them something of a busy-body quality. There would also be a natural melancholy about them -- they would never quite feel satisfied with any particular social or political arrangement.

  • At the same time, however, they would tend to have a broad philosophical (or comic) tolerance for the existence of the those very same shortcomings. Though they would endlessly demand perfection from their society, they would never be so foolish, or so naive, as to expect it from anything put together by human hands, or to suppose for a moment that anything resemblng it had ever been, or could ever be achieved by creatures as cracked-about-the-head as human beings.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sitting on the Handlebars While the Poor Man Peddles

The Poor Man reads sensible conservative John Cole's sensible reflections on the fact that Newsweek's flush-the-Koran story turns out to have substantial factual and contextual support after all.

He then goes on to provide (for John's benefit and ours) a set of very useful principles he has gleaned over the last couple of years about the nature and extent of wingnuttery, the better for us to understand how that knowledge has driven him to mad, unholy shrillness. Please do read all ten, but here are some particular favorites of mine:
2) There is a natural tendency to think that all opinions have some validity, and, by carefully plotting a conservative course somewhere between two representative arguments, you can make a serviceable approximation to something you could call “truth”. This is an admirable impulse, and often a constructive one, except if one (or both) of the positions is horseshit. Then, you’re fucked.

5) If people say they are going to do something, and then they do it, and then they say they’re going to do something else, and they do that, too, and on and on, you should assume they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do. Even if they aren’t looking at you when they say it.

6) Conversely, if they consistantly tell you they are going to do things they never do, it is worth considering the possibility that you’re a big, huge, gigantic, bitch. Even if they look you right in the eyes and say “freedom” every two seconds.

As pertinent, however, as this account of the metaphysics of shrillness is, it is not nearly as funny as this dazzling bit of Yeats-inspired Thomas Friedman poetry, contributed by Poor Man commentor Phoenician in a time of Romans.

And then, one post before that one -- just so we know it's not all fun and games in Poor Man land -- he finds and quotes this magnificient rejoinder to Andrew Sullivan's continuing mindless jihad against Paul Krugman; a joinder which -- wonder of wonders! -- Sullivan actually had the taste and gumption to present as the reader email of the day on his own blog.

By all means, read the whole thing, but here is the part that, for me, has the sweet cool taste of truth after the longest of treks in the most parched of deserts:
Paul would have been called a moderate or even conservative Democrat prior to this Administration. (Read his classical essay, "In Praise of Cheap Labor," if you’re under the illusion that he’s some sort of leftist.) So would I. Paul appears strident only because he’s had the bad manners to say that people are lying when they’re obviously lying. (A prominent case in point: many of the President’s public statements about the finances of the social security system have been plain, simple untruths.) And what’s maddening to Paul, and to me, is that there’s no core of conservative principle in this Administration. A conservative devotion to free markets has been displaced by reckless spending, reckless tax cuts, crony capitalism and special interest give-aways. What "balanced" take on these issues should Paul offer?
If such simple sanity can find at least a guest's place in the tent on a blog like Sullivan's, then maybe all is not lost. Or maybe, on the other hand, The Poor Man is right, and the End Times truly are upon us.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How to Lie Your Way Into a War

If, on the other hand, what you are looking for is a reminder of the utter contempt with which the Bush administration lied us into war with Iraq, then Mark Danner's "The Secret Way to War" in the current number of The New York Review of Books is the place to go.

It is one of the few U.S. sources that both publishes the entire text of the so-called "Downing Street Memo" (a document so scandalous in the British context that it helped cost Tony Blair almost 60% of his parliamentary majority -- against a thoroughly unpopular opposition), and also subjects that document to a thorough review of the relevant prior and subsequent historical context.

Danner does a brilliant job, and there is absolutely no substitute for reading the entire piece, but, to give you a flavor of what you will find there, here are few interesting juxtapositions we can now make from the public record:

George Bush, October 16, 2002:
Our goal is to fully and finally remove a real threat to world peace and to America.
From the Downing Steet Memo, 23 July 2002:
The [British] Foreign Secretary [Jack Straw] said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.
George Bush, October 16, 2002:
Hopefully this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without any military action.
From the Downing Steet Memo, 23 July 2002:
C [Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.
George Bush, October 16, 2002:
Yet, if Iraq is to avoid military action by the international community, it has the obligation to prove compliance with all the world's demands. It's the obligation of Iraq.
From the Downing Steet Memo, 23 July 2002:
The [British] Attorney-General [Lord Goldsmith] said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: selfdefence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMDwere linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD
And that, after some negotiation with Colin Powell, is how we got the diversionary route to the U.N. in the fall (and unanimous SCR 1441), with the high drama of compelling Saddam to permit those intrusive WMD inspections. As the Downing Street Memo makes clear, the point of those instrusive inspections -- of that ultimatum -- was of course to provoke a refusalof cooperation by Saddam, and thereby to generate the missing causus belli, and to give Bush some legally and morally coherent hook on which to hang, that October, the challenge to Iraq to live up to its international obligations -- or else face war.

Of course, just as the Administration hard-liners (above all Cheney) had feared, Saddam kept respoding not defiantly but largely compliantly to the U.N. demands, and the inspectors, for all their unprecedented acccess, kept coming up empty handed. (In retrospective, of course, there was nothing for Saddam to be defiant about, lacking as he did any WMD arsenal.)

But, no matter: since Iraq's "obligation to prove compliance with all the world's demands" had been, from the very beginning, nothing but a way to generate a justification for a war that had been decided on months in advance, it was easy enough (calling upon the considerable PR resources of the White House and the Executive Branch) to create the illusion of defiance and deceit, even where there was none.

As Danner astutely comments on how the U.N. charade subsequently unfolded:
Indeed, the inspectors' failure to find any evidence of weapons came in the wake of a very large effort launched by the administration to put before the world evidence of Saddam's arsenal, an effort spearheaded by George W. Bush's speech in Cincinnati on October 7, and followed by a series of increasingly lurid disclosures to the press that reached a crescendo with Colin Powell's multimedia presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Throughout the fall and winter, the administration had "rolled out the product," in Card's phrase, with great skill, making use of television, radio, and all the print press to get its message out about the imminent threat of Saddam's arsenal. ("Think of the press," advised Josef Goebbels, "as a great keyboard on which the government can play.")

As the gap between administration rhetoric about enormous arsenals— "we know where they are," asserted Donald Rumsfeld—and the inspectors' empty hands grew wider, that gap, as Cheney had predicted, had the effect in many quarters of undermining the credibility of the United Nations process itself. The inspectors' failure to find weapons in Iraq was taken to discredit the worth of the inspections, rather than to cast doubt on the administration's contention that Saddam possessed large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Oddly enough, Saddam's only effective strategy to prevent war at this point might have been to reveal and yield up some weapons, thus demonstrating to the world that the inspections were working. As we now know, however, he had no weapons to yield up. As Blix remarks, "It occurred to me [on March 7] that the Iraqis would be in greater difficulty if...there truly were no weapons of which they could 'yield possession.'" The fact that, in Blix's words, "the UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it"—that the UN process had been successful—meant, in effect, that the inspectors would be discredited and the United States would go to war.
Talk about "catastrophic success!"

Budget Deficits, The Bank of China, Interest Rates, and You

Should you happen to feel the need for 750 words that clearly, cogently and concisely explain just why it is that:
  • long-term U.S. internest rates (including mortgage rates) are unsustainably low, and will sooner or later be heading sharply upwards;

  • there is consequently an asset bubble in real estate that will sooner or later burst, resulting in a major drop in overall consumer demand, and consequent downward pressure on domestic sources of ecnomic growth;

  • our massive structural budget deficits are thus much, much more dangerous (i.e., more likely to start crowding-out private capital formation) than currently seems to be the case; and, above all,

  • why all of this is likely to take place, when it happens, with the maximum amount of damage to the domestic economy, given that the Administration's only policy response to the situation is to continually jaw-bone our Chinese creditors into charging us, in effect, dramatically higher interest rates for the loans to which we have become addicted;
-- if, as I say, this kind of thing is what you are looking for, then look no further than this piece by (who else?) Paul Krugman.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Revenge of the Sith: An Attempt at a Philosophical Criticism, Part II

Let me put this another way.

By venturing beyond the original Star Wars films -- whatever their charms -- Lucas set before himself a particularly challenging aesthetic problem: He had to put on film the story of a great fall. I mean, of course, the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader -- with all that this particular fall entails for the fate of the Lucasian universe.

Now, given all the story elements that Lucas puts in play in Revenge of the Sith (never mind its predecessors), there are, by my count, at least three possible great-fall scenarios, that he could have chosen to tell:
  • A story about the fall from a virtuous politics into a corrupt politics;

  • A story about the fall from something much higher than politics, down into the corrupting mire of politics; and, lastly,

  • A story about the fall from virtue into vice, fought out entirely within a realm of will quite beyond the reach of mere politics.

Now each of these three types of fall-stories has some pretty familiar precedents in the kinds of source materials you might imagine a filmaker of Lucas's stature poking around in. For the sake of argument, let's just pick three of them more or less at random, one for each type.

First up is the purely political storyline -- the one about how a virtuous politics gets corrupted. Machiavelli is always a good source for this kind of thing, so here, as a reminder, is a brief but I hope fairly germane excerpt from his Discourses on Livy (Book I, Chapter XVIII -- not sure which translation we're dealing with):
As to the creation of the Magistracies and the laws, the Roman People did not give the Consulship and other high offices of the City, except to those who asked for them. In the beginning these institutions were good because no one asked for these (offices) except those Citizens who judged themselves worthy, and having a refusal was ignominious: so that in order to judge himself worthy every one worked well. However, this system became pernicious in a corrupt City, for it was not those who had more virtu, but those who had more power, who asked for the Magistracies, and the less powerful ((no matter of how much virtu)) abstained from asking from fear. This evil did not come on suddenly, but by degrees, as happens with all other evils: for the Romans having subjugated Africa and Asia, and reduced almost all of Greece to their obedience, had become assured of their liberty, nor did they seem to have more enemies who should give them fear. This security, and this weakness of her enemies, caused the Roman people no longer to regard virtu in bestowing the Consulship, but graciousness, drawing to that dignity those who knew better how to handle men, not to those who knew better how to conquer their enemies: afterwards they descended from those who had more graciousness to give it to those who had more power. So that because of the defects of such institutions, the good were entirely excluded from everything. A Tribune or some other Citizen could propose a law to the people on which every Citizen could speak in favor or against it before it should be adopted. This institution was good when the Citizens were good, for it was always well that anyone who intended some good for the public was able to propose it, and it was well that everyone could speak his thoughts on it, so that the people, having listened to all sides, could then select the best. But when the Citizens had become bad such institutions became the worst, for only the powerful proposed laws, (and) not for the common liberty, but for their own power, and everyone for fear of them was not able to speak against them: so that the people came to be deceived or forced into deciding their own ruin.

It was necessary, therefore, if Rome wanted to maintain herself free in her corruption, that she should have made new institutions, just as she had made new laws in the process of her existence, for other institutions and modes of living ought to be established in a bad people as well as in a good one, nor can the form be the same in a people entirely different. But because these institutions when they are suddenly discovered no longer to be good have to be changed either completely, or little by little as each (defect) is known, I say that both of these two courses are almost impossible. For in the case of wanting to change little by little a prudent man is required who sees this evil from a distance and at its beginning. It is easily probable that no one such as these springs up in a City: and even if one should spring up he is never able to persuade others of that which he intends; for men living in one manner, do not want to change, and the more so as they do not see the evil face to face, but being shown to them as (mere) conjecture.

As to changing these institutions all at once when everyone recognizes they are not good, I say that the defect which is easily recognized is difficult to correct, for to do this it is not enough to use ordinary means, as ordinary means are bad, but it is necessary to come to the extraordinary, such as violence and arms, and before anything else to become Prince of that City, and to be able to dispose of it as he pleases. And as the re-organization of the political life of a City presupposes a good man, and the becoming of a Prince of a Republic by violence presupposes a bad man; for because of this it will be found that it rarely happens that a (good) men wants to become Prince through bad means, even though his objectives be good; or that a bad one, having become Prince, wants to work for good and that it should enter his mind to use for good that authority which he had acquired by evil means. From all the things written above, arises the difficulty or impossibility of maintaining a Republic in a City that has become corrupted, or to establish it there anew.
Well, that certainly seems to provide plenty of scope for a dramatic fall! One can easily imagine a Chancellor Palpatine, or even an ambitious young warrior like Anakin, falling prey to such temptations -- and indeed the movie gestures that way from time to time.

Next up comes the storyline about how a great figure can be tempted to fall from something far higher than politics, down into its evil clutches. Here the master teacher is without doubt still good old Plato, and espeically Book VII of The Republic, in which, after Socrates has presented the famous Allegory of the Cave (explaining, rougly, the position of the true lover of wisdom in a world that seems to have little love for it) we get his narration of the following exchange between himself and his interlocutor Glaucon, who are, remember, still about the business of building their city in speech (Apologies for using the outdated Jowett translation, but it's online and free):
Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all — they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.

What do you mean?

I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not.

But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?

You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.

True, he said, I had forgotten.

Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.

Quite true, he replied.

And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?

Impossible, he answered; for they are just men, and the commands which we impose upon them are just; there can be no doubt that every one of them will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion of our present rulers of State.

Yes, my friend, I said; and there lies the point. You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.

Most true, he replied.

And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Indeed, I do not, he said.

And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For, if they are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight.

No question.

Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians? Surely they will be the men who are wisest about affairs of State, and by whom the State is best administered, and who at the same time have other honours and another and a better life than that of politics?
The danger signs are pretty obvious here too, aren't they? What if the ardor of the lovers of wisdom cools, and they start to desire the rewards of power or wealth more than those of philosophy, falling into illusion themselves? Then they might use their status as guardians of justice as a mere mask for their true ambitions, and though they would have lost the thing most worth having, they would, perhaps, be well-positioned to gain the lesser prizes the shadow-play of the cave has to offer. One can imagine Anakin having gone this route, after a patient career of ascent within the Jedi order; it is, in fact, one way to interpret what Palpatine himself winds up doing.

Third, and finally, we have the story of the fall of virtue into vice, as told on the purely metaphysical plane. The language and imagery will still be politicial, of course, but only metaphorically so. The stakes are no longer for the control of any city, but of ultimate reality -- it is a struggle, you might say, between the children of light and the children of darkness. And there is still no superior telling of this story, in English at least, than Milton's Paradise Lost. Here, in Book I, we join Satan and his disciple Beelzebub, having just recently been cast down, and only now starting to get their bearings in their new quarters of hellfire and brimstone, but already plotting their revenge:
O how unlike the place from whence they fell!
There the companions of his fall, o'rewhelm'd
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in PALESTINE, and nam'd
BEELZEBUB. To whom th' Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav'n call'd Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

If thou beest he; But O how fall'n! how chang'd
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth'd with transcendent brightnes didst outshine
Myriads though bright: If he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope,
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fal'n, so much the stronger provd
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

So spake th' Apostate Angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:
And him thus answer'd soon his bold Compeer.

O Prince, O Chief of many Throned Powers,
That led th' imbattelld Seraphim to Warr
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endanger'd Heav'ns perpetual King;
And put to proof his high Supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate,
Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat
Hath lost us Heav'n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,
As far as Gods and Heav'nly Essences
Can Perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns,
Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallow'd up in endless misery.
But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow'rd such force as ours)
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains,
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e're his business be
Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire,
Or do his Errands in the gloomy Deep;
What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment?
Whereto with speedy words th' Arch-fiend reply'd.

Fall'n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destind aim.
What can I say? If you want a killer scene between a Sith Lord and his apprentice -- deformed and burned to a crisp, but still ready to come back for more, there you have it.

Now, here's the point of making you read all this stuff (besides making you regret that you didn't pay more attention in your philosophy and comparative lit classes): To have brought any one of these three stories of a great fall to the screen -- to have convincingly realized any one of the three on film -- would have been a masterful achievement, worthy of the very greatest filmakers of all time.

I do not know if Lucas is filmaker enough to have pulled something like that off. Let's say I have my doubts. But in the event, that is not what Lucas seems to me to have attempted. Instead, he seems to have tried to put on film all three stories at once -- that is, all three falls, somehow intertwined, in some manner known perhaps only to the adepts of the Force. And in that goal -- whether it was born of commercial calculation, or overwhelming hubris, or (my bet) just bad aesthetic judgment -- he succeeded not at all.

But He's Our Son-of-a-Bitch

Dateline Uzbekistan, Fergana Valley. The Forward Strategy of Freedom ® -- Special Democracy-Promotion Division ™ -- Marches Happily On.

Via The Medium Lobster, via Atrios.

And to think that that well-known organ of the liberal media conspiracy, the CIA Fact Book, has the temerity to characterize the regime of our good friend and War-on-Terror ally Islom Karimov as, "authoritarian presidential rule, with little power outside the executive branch." Are they implying that there is something wrong with that arrangement? Sounds like a budding case of treason to me -- somebody better alert Ann Coulter.

Revenge of the Sith: An Attempt at a Philosophical Criticism

Warning! Spoilers Throughout!

So go and see it already, if you've got a problem with that.

First things first: I enjoyed the movie. I can think of no higher praise than to say that, for the duration, it banished the thought of the perfectly dreadful "Episode I" (meaning the third sequel) from my mind. To be haunted no more by little Annie's immaculate conception, or his midi-chlorian blood count, or his amazing prowess in building and driving pod racers (to say nothing of the dreadful shtick of those animated off-season Catskill acts Jar Jar and Watto) is a considerable achievement, in its own right -- a redemption, of sorts. Beyond that, ILM's cityscapes and planetscapes have never been more captivating. A friend suggested to me that the real destiny of this series of films lies in video gaming. I can believe it. I would love to have a "Myst" version of Lucas's worlds to play with and explore. The cinematic use of CGI is that good. (So good, in fact, that one often forgets about the characters in the foreground -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

And Lucas is to be credited for going the extra mile for his old-time fans. He troubles himself to tie up such loose ends as: why C-3PO remembers nothing, while R2-D2 remains a font of android wisdom about the intentions of the bad guys and the virtues of the good guys; just how and why Darth Vader winds up imprisoned in his ultra-cool black cyborg outfit; what accounts for the Emperor's terrible skin condition (hint: it wasn't Dioxin poisoning); how it is that the once-great Jedi order winds up as a tiny, dispersed remnant, waiting for Mark Hamill and/or Carrie Fisher to come along and set things right; why it is that the Wookies in general (and Chewbacca in particular) remain so loyal to the good guys; and, most importantly, why it was that Obi-Wan had to send young Luke off to apprentice with Yoda -- the answer being not only (as we already knew) that Obi-Wan is a little, shall we say, challenged in the mentoring department, but also that (as this film makes abundantly clear), Master Yoda is the most ass-kicking little green man in the history of cinema.

Unanswered, however, is the interesting (cinematic) question of why the "New Hope" only gets off the ground (in various senses), thanks to the intervention of one Han Solo, AKA Harrison Ford playing an updated version of the classic American hard-boiled action hero -- the reluctant idealist with a hard shell of protective cynicism -- a type perfected almost 40 years before the original Star Wars by Humphrey Bogart. That kind of character doesn't make an appearance here (and hasn't made one in any of the "first three" episodes), leaving one to wonder if it is too early, or rather too late in saga for such a thing to work for Lucas. Come to think of it, the kind of "dame" capable of bringing such a character's latent idealism to the surface -- through a mixture of snappy dialog, self-reliance, and sexual electricity -- doesn't show up either. But, here I am perhaps just dating myself. Back to the film at hand, and what disappointed me about it on its own terms.

At first I thought the problem was simply Hayden Christensen not being up to the role. Well, in fact, he isn't -- he simply doesn't have the slightest fraction of the screen presence required to carry off either the charismatic young Jedi hero or his transformation into the tormented Sith Lord apprentice. Here's a tip: don't watch Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia on the same day that you see Christensen in Revenge of the Sith, thinking that the characters' similar transformations, amidst similarly epic settings, might make for an interesting comparison. It's a bit like starting out with a surprisingly good morning at the local driving range and then having Tiger Woods show up. Not flattering.

But, on the other hand, Christensen isn't the whole movie. He gets an awful lot of very fine support from the likes of Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid and especially from dear old Yoda (as I say, Frank Oz, with the aid of ILM's CGI wizards, makes this a muppet to be reckoned with). And those gorgeous sets (computer generated or otherwise), give practically eveyone in the frame an added dose of conviction. Plus, as others have reported, the quantity of lame Anakin/Padme dialog has been reduced to a bearable (though not, be it noted, a bare) minimum.

And yet, it has to be admitted: The central character's transition from best of the good guys, to worst of the bad guys -- the main aesthetic challenge and justification, wasn't it, for this entire second trilogy? -- still doesn't come off with anything like the impact and conviction it should. Why not?

Then I thought: No, the real issue here is that Lucas is hanging too much on Anakin's fear of losing Padme, without anything to motivate it except a couple of vague and unconvincing dream sequences of her dying in childbirth. After all, she's not dead yet. Yes, yes, he is supposed to able to see into the future, so strong is the force with him. But why then is it just this sliver of the future that he sees?

Oedipus, at least, had a bit a of riddle to puzzle out. Anakin's visions are like digital videos from the operating theater. Shouldn't oracles -- no matter how disturbing -- speak a little less univocally? Shouldn't, in fact, their very inscrutability be part of the what makes them the trigger, or mark, or occasion, of tragedy? If you just flat-out know, with utter certainty, that some very specific, very bad thing is going to happen, why not (to ask the question that instantly dooms all dramatic tension) simply avoid it? Or, to put it more crudely, were the abortifacients known since time immemorial here on earth just supposed to be beyond the technical capacity of the physicians of Coruscant?

But, in fairness, great plots have turned on a lot less: Hamlet was troubled by dreams, wasn't he, and visited by ghosts? Besides, Natalie Portman doesn't suck nearly as bad as Hayden Christensen, and that's almost enough to make his feelings for her convincing -- the implausibility of their immediate motivation aside. Yes, far too much is made of Anakin's desire to "save" Padme and, no, the memory of the loss of his mother Shmi (a scene we are not even given to ponder) doesn't make up for this dramatic deficit in the slightest.

But even that would only have left Anakin/Vader's transformation under-motivated. In fact, the transition felt worse than that. It felt completely false. It felt like a scam. And, strange to say, I realized this, not because of anything Anakin said, nor even because of anything Padme or Palpatine said. I realized it because of something Obi-Wan said -- something that rang completely, utterly false.

Recall the late scene: Anakin/Vader and Obi-Wan are circling one another, gearing up for their final battle, when the following exchange takes place:

ANAKIN: Don't lecture me, Obi-Wan. I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the dark side as you do. I have brought peace, justice, freedom, and security to my new Empire.

OBI-WAN: Your new Empire?

ANAKIN: Don't make me kill you.

OBI-WAN: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic ... to democracy.

ANAKIN: If you're not with me, you're my enemy.

OBI-WAN: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.

Yes, I know, Lucas is wearing his politics on his sleeve here -- the allusion to Bush's "War on Terror" rhetoric in those last two lines is pretty inescapable. But that is not why the exchange went CLANG! for me. It went CLANG! when Obi-Wan came out with that business about his allegiance being to Republic.

Out of kindness to Lucas, let's leave aside the absurd anachronism of "democracy" for the moment. There is, at least, in the world of this film, an institution that looks something like a Republic. Specifically, it is something a lot like the late Roman Republic, with power largely in the hands of an oligarchical Senate. So be it. We know this story well -- the story of how patrician republics devolve into empires. It is, after all, one of the central Western stories, and it has been told, in a variety of forms, by some of the West's best story tellers.

Compared to this tradition (even compared to its considerably thinner cinematic variant -- I'm thinking for instance of Kubrick's Spartacus) -- Lucas's version is abrupt, schematic, unconvincing. But that is not what hit me about Obi-Wan's rejoinder to Anakin/Vader. What hit me about that line is that it was completely, utterly unconvincing. It was, in fact, the most unconvincing line in the whole movie. The good guy (or, rather, whoever was writing the lines for the good guy) was, in this instance, blowing smoke up our hind quarters. Why?

And now we come to a fatal confusion at the heart of Lucas's political vision -- so far, I mean, as that political vision has any specifically cinematic consequences, which is all that really matters here. We have, on the one hand, the story of a great Republic being corrupted into Empire by its greatest and most prominent citizen. That is the story of Palpatine, and Padme, and the Senate and all the rest. It is no accident that Natalie Portman is given the best line in this aspect of the story -- "So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause" -- and that she gets to deliver this line in the Senate chamber, in reaction to the speech in which Palpatine declares himself, in effect, Emperor.

We have, on the other hand, the story of the Jedi. And what exactly are they supposed to be doing here, in this Republic, decaying into Empire? This post at Marginal Revolution was a tip-off, but Tabarrok missed, I think, the essential point. The Jedi don't fit the narrative of the decaying Republic, not because they are malign and untrustworthy (Anakin/Vader is emphpaticaly not right about this), but because they don't belong here. They come from, and belong in, another story altogether.

There was nothing like the Jedi in Rome. But something very like them did make a rather famous appearance in the history of Western political thought.

Think about it: They are a self-perpetuating order, dedicated to selfless service of the state. They are chosen, it is said, from a special breed of subjects. Perhaps they were fashioned of gold rather than silver or bronze like other men; or perhaps they are uncommonly rich in midi-chlorians. Either tale would do -- the important thing being that they are set apart at, or shortly after, birth. One way to do that would be to assign randomly-chosen sexual partners in common, always drawn from within the order itself. Another would be to recruit younglings from the general population at a tender age, and impose an ethic of celibacy upon them as a condition of membership.

Their training would emphasize the pathways towards the very highest things. Call these the Forms, or the Force. If we think of these apprentices as escaping the shackles of the illusions of this world, and ascending, with great difficulty, away from those everyday illusions, towards the undying light of the Force, or the Forms, behind them; if we think of them finally coming to behold that light directly; if we think of the ecstasy of that journey upward, away from all merely worldly concerns; -- then, and only then, can we appreciate the great strangeness with which these Jedi initiates would be greeted upon their return to the ordinary, everyday world.

How odd they must seem to everyone else -- how remote, how unnatural! And how, to them, this world must seem like nothing more than a cave -- a cave with illusions projected on its walls, and the denizens of that cave chained in place, and forced to take those illusions for reality, and knowing no better. The Force is not only beyond them, they do not even know of its existence.

And we can appreciate, I suppose, the temptation that some of these apprentices might have, as they begin their ascent, and begin to realize what they are being made privy to -- the temptation to exploit their great and growing knowledge of how illusory is the world as commonly regarded by men, and how much power lies in the knowledge of the true realities behind those illusions.

But -- and this is all-important -- the higher they ascend, these apprentices, the more they approach the status of masters, the less and less will be this temptation to take the slightest advantage of their superior knowledge. On the contrary, indeed, it is the reverse temptation that will take hold of them, and so powerfully that they will find it all but irresistible.

And what is that temptation? It is the temptation to leave the miserable, illusory world of human affairs behind. Or to turn away from it, at the very least, and concentrate instead on the beautiful world of the Forms, or the Force -- the world that only they, after all, of all men, have been vouchsafed the knowledge, and whose sight puts all merely human, merely worldly endeavors and hopes and fears in the shade.

I hope these recent paragraphs of shameless cribbing from Plato have been enough to make my basic point: The Jedi do not belong in this story of the fall of Rome. On the one hand, they would have no particular reason for allegiance to the Republic. Anakin was right -- Obi-Wan's loyalty must be to the Force, not to the Republic. But neither, on the other hand, would they have any temptation at all to seize power. And so Anakin was also wrong -- Obi-Wan wanted nothing for himself, or for the Jedi. In fact, Anakin could never have become a Jedi, much less a great one, with a mind could desire power for himself, for its own sake. He would never have made it out of the cave -- never have glimpsed the Force/Forms.

What Anakin would have to know, as a Jedi who had made the full ascent out of the cave, is that take on the burdens of politics with the greatest possible reluctance, since every hour spent politicking, is an hour less spent communing with the wonder and beauty of the Force/Forms. Democracy, in particular, would be their least favorite (because most demanding and querulous, and least orderly and disciplined) form of government. It's quite clear they would prefer monarchy, if only they could prevail on one of their own number -- specifically, the one least interested in doing it -- to take up the dreadful burden of becoming a philosopher-king. An unlikely prospect, to say the least.

It's quite conceivable, then, that they would try to single out a tyrant, and train him in the Jedi ways -- Plato actually gave this a shot. It didn't go so well. But it makes Chancellor Palpatine's appeal to the Jedi council intelligible -- a plot point which, consequently, works well. What isn't intelligible, is why the Jedi should care about defending the Republic, as opposed to finding a more manageable tyrant, when it turns out that Palpatine is the Sith Lord.

Above all, however -- and this is the part that really throws the monkey wrench into Lucas's plot -- there is absolutely no way that the very greatest of the Jedi would:

a) be diverted from love of the Force/Forms by the love of any individual;

b) be greedy for wealth, power or any other illusory, worldly reward; or,

c) have the slightest desire to possess anything, or anyone, in particular.

This does not mean that the Platonic Jedi would be unrelenting good guys. Actually, your average movie-going audience would probably think them terrible bores. They would disdain all seeking after wealth. They would be communistic in their ways. They would use their considerable fighting skills with zeal, but without hope of power. With great reluctance, they might be prevailed upon to take a hand in politics. The best of them would aim for total detachment from everything except contemplation of the Force/Forms. Their main interest in the prevailing form of government, whatever it was, would be that it let them alone.

A Jedi would never say, with Machiavelli, that the fate of his city (or country, or planet, or solar system, or what have you) was more important to him than the fate of his immortal soul. One of the superiorities of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films over Lucas's second round of Star Wars films, is that Jackson captured (or successfully conveyed from Tolkien) this ineluctable tension between the civic/political and the transcendent/metaphysical realms -- call it our (human) sense of being stuck, or stretched, between two worlds at once. Jackson didn't knock this one out of the park either (neither did Tolkien, for that matter), but he at least showed some awareness that the these realms have claims that push and pull on us humans in quite different, and potentially quite incompatible ways.

Now, in fairness, Lucas heads in the right direction. How, after all, do Plato's guardians become corrupt (and all things become corrupt, with time)? One path he mentions is that of marrying out of turn. That is, particular erotic attachments are formed, and begin to break up the communistic solidarity of the guardian class. So that was a promising path, and it might have worked.

But the problem -- and it is an essential one -- is that one fallen from the guardian/Jedi order, would not have retained his powers. He would have fallen from communion with the Force/Forms, and so would be cast ever more completely into illusion, just like the many around him. He might become politically powerful; he might go even lower and become merely wealthy. But he would not retain -- would in fact progressively lose -- all relation to what made him wise and powerful beyond the ordinary run of humanity.

We would no longer be in Plato's world, but in Cicero's -- and the Cicero of the political battles of the Philippics, not of the Stoic wisdom of The Republic. We would back, in other words, to our eminently political story, about how republics fall into empires.

But Lucas wants to stay on the Platonic plane, right through the fall of his Rome, so that he can justify, retroactively, the rise of the New Hope, and the reemergence of the Force. And there is only one way to pull that off: Lucas needs more than Platonism -- he needs Manicheanism. This is why the Force must have a "Dark Side," why there must be Sith Lords, and not just Jedi Masters. If there were no Dark Side of the Force, then the story of the dissolution of the Jedi would be a different kind of beginning -- the beginning of a non-metaphysical age, of a Political Age -- of what Tolkien called (in a tone, no doubt, of lamentation) The Age of Men. And, as we all know, that is not what the New Hope is all about.

Of course, once one dabbles in Manicheanism, one needs to decide whether to go all the way, or rather to find some path back to something like an Augustinian settlement, in which the Dark Side, for all its power, is but, in the last analysis, the privation, the absence, of the Good. And this little excursion has its own theological-philosophical pitfalls (into which Tolkien, like his friend and fellow fantasist C.S. Lewis -- both far braver and more experienced hikers than Lucas could ever hope to be over terrain like this -- seems to have tripped head-first, in that way peculiar to very smart, orthodox yet eccentric English Roman Catholics). But all that is a post, or several, for another day.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Democrat-Republican Crazy Glue

Speaking of the problem of democratic authority as it relates to our present partisan ideological division: Another of my excellent teachers once said to me, apropos this general topic, "What you want to know is -- what's the glue?" By which I think he meant something like -- what bothers you is the question of what the hell is supposed to hold a liberal-capitalist society together.

Now I don't deny that this particular concern has from time to time been part of what I was (am) most worried about, in my (less and less frequent) episodes of serious political thinking. But there was, and is, a good deal more to it than that, and if, dear George, by some cyber-miracle you are out there somewhere reading this, what I wanted to say was something more like the following:

In the first place, I am, at bottom, not really that puzzled by what the glue is, that holds this thing together. I think the broad outlines of this are pretty obvious to any moderately diligent student of modern social order. What does interest me rather a great deal, these days, is the way the whole glue-factory is run -- and in particular the role of the different major parties, interests groups and ideological formations, in the running of it.

For convenience's sake, let's make a broad division between two major kinds of glue that keep American society together (once again I beg off commenting on other liberal-capitalist regimes for lack of first-hand experience): And for nostalgia's sake, let's call one of these Panem and the other Circenses.

Now under Panem I would place the broad responsibility of a modern government to keep a mixed capitalist economy growing in a responsible way -- to minimize and shorten recessions, stave off excessive inflation, assure reasonably robust job growth and middle-class asset accumulation, provide for general economic security, keep national savings and investment in some kind of reasonable balance. Without making too big a deal about the reasons for this at the moment, it's pretty clear as an empirical matter that Democrats tend to do a better job of it than Republicans.

But when it comes to the other major glue factor that holds things togeher in this society -- what I'm calling Cicenses -- the conservative movement has, I submit, a decisive edge. This may seem odd at first. After all, isn't American popular culture and entertainment dominated by godless Hollywood types who'd sooner lick Michael Moore's stubble than pledge allegiance to the flag? Well, yes, I suppose so, but there's the problem with that, from the perspective of social glue.

Popular culture is, and has always been, thank the gods, a rather anarchic affair. The kind of circenses it provides is, by and large, distinctly non-civic. That, indeed, is part of it's point. Rock and Roll was about youthful rebellion. What it strays too far from that legacy, punk and post-punk keep yanking it right back, like fundamentalist orders. Hip-Hop, like Jazz before it, is associated with a(an enormously popular) counter-culture of pleasure in the sheer violation of taboos about the mixing of high and low, and white and black and brown, cultural styles. And Hollywood, at its best and its worst, is about keeping going a medium in which both shlock and great art are possible, and in which you really have to experience a fair chunk of both to recognize either.

My point is -- none of this is designed to, and none of this does, provide the kind of diversions, the kind of entertainments, that weld Americans together qua Americans -- that give us that crucial rooting interest that transcends all merely instrumental calculations of loyalty or consent.

For that, you need a very different kind of circenses. The most mild version of it is on dislay during the quadrennial Olympics, when, as a people, we suddenly throw off our nationalist athletic lethargy and start acting like the planet's most pumped-up world-cup football (soccor) fans.

But that is, unfortunately, only a very occasional form of the circenses that makes the glue that, together with our prosperity, currently holds what's left of the Republic together. The more pervasive form, the more persistent form, the far more effective form, is the one on display when our President appears on the nation's television screens and declares that it is time to destroy an evil dictator or regime, in a far off, foreign land.

Not to stop a human rights emergency, not to provide humanitarian relief, not to separate warring combatants who are killing innocents -- no, these things do not have the glue-making power. Only the pitched contest with naked evil, the more demonic, the better: Fidel Castro, Maurice Bishop, Daniel Ortega, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein (twice). It is not necessary that they be especially threatenting enemies. In fact, in a pinch, they need not be possessed of any particular enmity for us at all. (In fact, as it happens, we have a rather poorer track record when it comes to hunting down the real thing -- the Bin Ladens and Zarquawis).

For remember, we are talking here about circenses. We are not trying to convince a committee of Congress diligently doing its job. We are putting on a show, and that show must be satisfying. It must in fact be satisfying enough to weld its audience -- all of us, with our welter of doubts and fears and questions -- into a compact unit of public opinion, ready to fill the public spaces with our ullulations, as our warriors march off to battle.

The point, then, is that these figures, the chosen targets, must be made to seem like the ultimate enemies of all that is American and good and true. Always, they must be made to seem to be seeking our destruction -- overtly or covertly. And always, therefore, they must be made to seem like adversaries who can only be stopped, by being granted the utter destruction they have chosen for themselves, in deciding to menace us.

And now comes political lesson number two about the glue that stands in for a legitimate concept of democratic authority: At this form of circenses, the conservative movement absolutely excels. It leaves the left utterly in the dust. It has done so since it's inception in the Red-baiting of the late 40's and early 50's, led by a young Congressman named Richard Nixon and a vituperative Senator named Joe McCarthy. It is no accident that Bush recently presumed to excoriate Churchill and FDR for being insufficiently resolute friends of liberty -- presumably for the historical blunder of not being willing to turn World War II into World War III. The "betrayal" at Yalta was one of the founding myths of the birth of right-wing fanaticism -- after all, there was Alger Hiss himself, standing right there in the background of the picture with Stalin and FDR!

The legacy of this kind of right-wing circenses in post-war Red-baiting points to an important -- indeed a crucial element -- of how it works to glue the nation together, despite its seeming divisiveness. It works, in particular, by identifying enemies internal as well as external -- and the former, of course, are regarded as by far the more insidious. "Treason" -- once a charge of the utmost possible gravity -- is now thrown around on national media outlets by right-wing hacks like Ann Coulter with all the care and glee of a malicious child pulling the legs off of spiders. Why is this tolerated in our public discourse? Why is it, in fact, encouraged? Because it works.

The glue provided by this kind of entertainment does the trick -- it brings in the viewers and the listeners, and in the process it welds together at least some elements of the popular mind. There are enemies -- wicked enemies -- to seek out and destroy. They are sufficiently distant, and sufficiently foreign to us in their ways, that one needn't worry too much about which ones will get sent to their maker, or their precise degree of culpability, or for what. Some of the tank crews invading Iraq painted 'remember 9/11' slogans on their canons. Who gave them such a notion? They might as well have painted 'remember the Main' for all the reality it reflected. But the show must go on, and the show owes no one any apologies.

And if things bog down unexpectedly (as, indeed, they have)? This does not make for the best TV. But, it can kept out of the headlines when the news is very bad and, when a report does have to be filed, so long their body counts continue to exceed our own by a sufficient order of magnitude, the job, it can be reported, is getting done. Somewhere, after all, other enemies, or would-be enemies, are cowering before our might -- of that, the show tells us, we can be sure. And at home -- at home the weak and the would-be traitors are learning what it means to be on our side.

And what does it mean? It means what it has always meant, throughout time immemorial, when you are content for your "side" to be nothing better than a tribe, a clan, a gang: It means that the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must; it means that might makes right; it means that justice is the interest of the stronger; it means that if one of "their" tribe kills one of our tribe we will kill another of theirs -- or many times more -- in return; it means that to share a world with others different than yourself is to live in a constant state of war; and it means that to question any of this is be, at best, a weak link and, at worst, suspect in your loyalty to the tribe.

And that, it seems to me, pretty much sums up the warp and woof of our current politics. We elect Democrats to give us Panem. They're pretty good at it -- not great, but a hell of a lot better at it than the other fellows, who are always leaving things in a shambles. But then, when things get good and confortable, we start to long for the Circenses. And Democrats, as everyone knowns, give lousy circenses. You have to maneuver them into perjury traps to get interesting television out of them.

But now the Republicans -- they give us the tribal entertainments we crave, that make us feel whole and unified, and that we never seem to get with the other guys. Good and evil, foreign enemies out to destroy us, unless we get them first, morally unambiguous wars in distant lands, with overwhelming firepower at our disposal. We feel like real members of the tribe, then, and we fly its colors proudly.

Later, inevitably, reality starts to kick in, and the story starts to fall apart, lose its narrative drive and unity. And then the Democrats get brought back in, like a relief pitcher after a particularly long, rough inning, to try to save what can saved, and clean up the mess.

And that, as far as I can tell, is how our social and political glue currently works. It's crazy glue, of course, that we use to keep this Republic going, in its present condition. But that is what we have got, and what I fear we will continue to have, in lieu of a working concept, and reality, of democratic authority.

Does it surprise you, Mr Bentley?

This is an old story, but very much worth repeating in the current climate. Via Digby, citing the Tim Golden's May 20th report in The New York Times, which (acting like real newspaper for once) got its hands on the Army's internal 2,000 page report on detainee deaths at the so-called Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan.

By all means read the whole thing, if you can stomach it. But here's my summary of what it tells us -- or rather what it reminds us -- about the what else, besides vast quantities American blood and treasure, Mr. Bush's way of conducting the "War on Terror" has so far cost us:

  • The Administration's insistance that Afghan prisoners were neither properly enemy combatants, nor covered by the Geneva Conventions, was the magic legal-political key that opened the door to everything that followed.

  • Bagram, in Afghanistan, subsequently became the training ground for the torturers and methods of Abu Ghraib.

  • At a bare miminum, dozens of U.S. military and intelligence personnel became, in effect, professional torturers, whose duties included all manner of human torment, up to and including murder.

  • Neither due process of law -- nor the actual guilt or innocence of particular detainees -- nor even the proportional military necessity (if, indeed, any at all) of so treating them, seems to have crossed anyone's mind.

  • Military spokesmen (that is, the Pentagon's professional PR flaks) lied about the entire thing from day one.

  • The punishment of those so-far identified as perpetrators of these war crimes has been slow, uncertain and -- to all appearances -- designed primarily to limit responsibility to the lowest ranks, while exculpating those who, explicitly or implicitly, ordered it done.

In the present political climate I suppose it is necessary to add what would, in less-corrupt political times, go without saying, namely this: That the moral depradations here described are primarily the reponsibility of the political leadership that placed these soldiers in this situation, and that the resulting political evil is not in the slightest excused, but is in fact immeasurably compounded, by having meanly and illegitimately cloaked itself in, and thus far tainted, the honor of our armed forces.

The army of a free people is not maintained so that its political masters can order up torture and murder by decree.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Stuck in the Cave Again Blues

I want to keep going on about this (to me at least) very interesting theoretical question that I call the problem of democratic authority. I really do. But, unfortunately, I find that massive quantities of current-affairs stupidity just keep pulling me back into the damn cave of contemporary events again and again.

Consider: Here is Robert Rubin -- co-architect, at the very least, of the late-90's prosperity -- on the magnitude and likely effects of our current budgetary problems, if left unchecked. Some highlights:

Most pressing is the 10-year federal deficit, which most independent analysts project at $4.5 trillion to $5 trillion, assuming that the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 are made permanent and that the alternative minimum tax is adjusted to avoid unintended effects on middle-income taxpayers. And while 10-year numbers can be highly unreliable, deficits are as likely to be higher as to be lower. Over the longer term, Social Security has a 75-year estimated deficit of $4 trillion, while the different components of Medicare, including its new prescription drug benefit, represent a fiscal problem of roughly $20 trillion.

For those keeping track at home, this means that the general fund deficit over the next ten years is as large, or larger, than the (obviously much less certain) Social Security funding shortfall projected for three quarters of a century from now. It also means that Medicare looms as a problem roughly five times the size of the worst-case Social Security shortfall. But wait, there's more:

Virtually all mainstream economists agree that, over time, sustained deficits crowd out private investment, increase interest rates, and reduce productivity and economic growth. But, far more dangerously, if markets here and abroad begin to fear long-term fiscal disarray and our related trade imbalances, those markets could then demand sharply higher interest rates for providing long-term debt capital and could put abrupt and sharp downward pressure on the dollar. These market effects, plus the adverse impact of continuing fiscal imbalances on business and consumer confidence, could seriously undermine our economy.

We have managed to avoid these market effects so far because private demand for capital has been relatively limited, and because the central banks of Japan, China and other countries have provided large inflows of foreign capital. A change in either of those circumstances, or simply a change of market psychology for whatever reason, could, however, turn these interest rate and currency risks into a reality.

So, in a, er, nutshell, our financial balls are hanging out over the void, and a relatively small handfull of foreign bankers and currency speculators are holding all the sharp knives. So what should we be doing about it?

The tough decisions needed on both spending and revenues will probably require some process whereby the president and leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives and both parties assume joint responsibility for painful political choices. Tax revenues are approximately 16.5 percent of gross domestic product, the lowest level since 1960, and spending is roughly 20 percent. We must have serious spending discipline and entitlement reform - though any entitlement reforms likely to be proposed would have little immediate effect.

But, as BusinessWeek, not an advocate of activist government, said in a recent editorial, "the deficit morass is due as much to a revenue shortfall as to excessive spending." (The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, for example, are estimated to have a 75-year cost of $11 trillion, almost three times the entire Social Security deficit.) And that shortfall is especially pressing given the rapid increases in entitlement costs and the need to finance national security, investments in education and infrastructure and other critical programs. At the same time, revenue-increasing measures must reverse the recent trend of disproportionately favoring upper-income taxpayers.

The first priority should be to tackle the 10-year fiscal imbalances, which would also be the best way to promote economic growth and minimize the risks I have outlined. Using structural measures to address the 10-year deficits would address our long-term imbalances as well.

For example, if the tax cuts for those earning above $200,000 were repealed and the inheritance tax as reformed were continued rather than eliminated, the 10-year projected deficit would be reduced by roughly $1.1 trillion, or almost 25 percent, and the 75-year fiscal reduction would be roughly $3.9 trillion, or approximately equal to the Social Security shortfall. This course of action would be similar to the income tax increases that were combined with spending cuts in the 1993 deficit reduction program, which some predicted would lead to recession but which, instead, was followed by the longest economic expansion in our nation's history.

We should also begin a serious bipartisan process on Medicare to identify possible solutions and create public support for action, because doing so is absolutely key to our long-run fiscal health. Despite the focus in Washington today on Social Security, it is a smaller and less pressing problem, and our political system can bear only so much traffic at one time.

If we were to address Social Security now, whatever we do must not increase federal deficits and borrowing but instead must improve fiscal conditions and increase national savings in both the short and long terms. The proposal that the administration has embraced - private accounts plus progressive price indexing of benefits - would result in additional deficits and borrowing of more than $1 trillion in the first 10 years, more than $3 trillion in the second 10 years, and so on for roughly 50 years.

That's because this approach - which would eliminate only about one-third of the projected 75-year Social Security deficit - calls for private accounts that would involve immediate and large continuing costs while the savings begin only in the second decade and would grow slowly. While some estimate that after 50-plus years those savings will exceed costs on a cumulative basis, projected savings 50 years out will do nothing to offset the impact of increased deficits on interest rates. After all, if markets took into account 50-year projections of fiscal conditions, interest rates would already be through the roof.

Now all that sounds bad enough -- impending fiscal disaster, which the administration is not only ignoring but positively worsening by its stated policies, while toying with Social Security "reform" of dubious necessity that, itself, is more likely to do harm than good. All that, is, as I say, bad enough. But it is not the worst of it.

The worst of it is that they are not even trying to rectify this mess at the White House. They are, on the contrary, if anything, pushing it to new heights of utter incompetence. Read the whole De Long post, by all means (he's drawing on Jason Furman's analysis over at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities), but here are the bits that get the essential points across most succinctly:

It is a clown show, an episode of stupidity of a jaw-dropping magnitude:

1. The administration's Social Security gurus shove Bush out there with talking points saying that we need to act now to pass the Bush plan, because starting in 2017 Social Security will start taking resources away from the rest of the government and that's a very bad thing--and then they roll out a plan in which Social Security starts taking resources away from the rest of the government in 2011.

2. The administration's Social Security gurus shove Bush out there with talking points saying that passing the Bush plan is essential because if we don't the Social Security trust fund balance will hit zero in 2041, and big benefit cuts will then be necessary--and then they roll out a plan in which the Social Security trust fund balance hits zero in 2030.

3. The administration's Social Security gurus shove Bush out there with talking points about the importance of restoring actuarial balance to Social Security--and then they roll out a plan which closes less than a third of the 75-year funding gap (and refuse to specify the plan in sufficient detail to allow anyone to do a longer-run analysis).

I am sorry, but with the best will in the world there is no other explanation for this than the most cyncial one. No one -- not even in this White House -- could be this inept. The point is clear. It is exactly the point Yglesias made in commenting on the White House's on-again-off-again flirtation with the so-called Pozen plan:

Robert Pozen is primarily concerned with putting Social Security in long-term actuarial balance. George W. Bush is primarily concerned with keeping taxes very low and with phasing Social Security out in order to replace it with something very different. Pozen isn't a die hard opponent of private accounts. It's not clear that he's even an opponent at all. But he's aiming at so-called "solvency" and Bush isn't. Pozen seems to have thought he could drag Bush on to his side of the fence. But he can't. There's a lesson to be learned here.

And the lesson, folks, is obvious: The reason Bush and his mouthpieces in the right-wing media machine started talking about solvency, then dropped it, then picked it up again, and so on, to suit the changing Party line, is because all this has squat to do with "saving" social security (if, indeed, it needed saving). What it has to do with is a bold as brass attempt to carry out an item that has been at the very top of the hard right's agenda ever since FDR beat them four elections in a row and convinced them Bolshevism was right around the corner -- and that is, quite simply, the destruction of the signature domestic achievement of the New Deal.

This is not, in other words, about economics -- which is why the so-called economic arguments on the Right are so damn pitiful. It is about class power, and trans-generational payback. It is about political revenge -- the kind that is carried out by people and institutions with long, long ideological memories.

The John Birchers fantasized about doing it in. The Goldwater Republicans scorned Ike's acceptance of it and treated its reversal as a spearhead of the true Anti-Communist crusade here at home. Reagan touted privatization in the euphoria of his first 100 days -- until he realized he'd come perilously close to electrocuting himself on what then became known as the Third Rail of American Politics, and quickly backed off, becoming almost a born-again New Dealer in his rhetorical defense of it.

But Bush's people have learned some new tricks: First, make it look like you're "saving" the program from itself. (This they picked up from the bi-partisan, Greenspan-led compromise of the late 80's, which really was about guaranteeing solvency, back when there was some serious question about that, but which unhappily lacked the safeguards to make sure the benefits resulting from the compromise stayed within the system.)

Then the Bushies figured out that they needed -- without getting too specific about the details -- to suggest a way to "save" the system that happens to strip it of its near-universality among the middle class, and its inherent relationship to the obligation to work for a living, thereby making its benefits look increasingly like something received by economic losers. And then, someday, in a more-thoroughly right-wing future than our own, a future Bushite can unleash the coup de grace. For, by then, the old quasi-socialist Daemon, no longer cherished by the middle-classes, can be killed off with relative ease, just like any other unloved "welfare" program that most people naturally assume is full of nothing but cheaters and malingerers.

Meanwhile, while this little ideological project is underway, the share of taxes paid by the very rich have been so sharply and systematically and permanently reduced, that we face a very real, and quite immediate, and exceedingly dangerous prospect of fiscal shipwreck -- our economic fate, essentially, mortgaged into the hands of a few powerful foreign institutions whose interests, for the time being, happen to coincide with ours -- but may very well not do so tomorrow.

And this -- this mishegoss -- is what your modern Republican Party is pleased to call "fiscal conservatism."