Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Katrina Blogburst

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Strike Three!

Back to blogging in this space tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out these threads I have been participating in...



The Belmont Club

and, of course, PressThink.

Also, check out this great trifecta from the Weekly Standard website.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Two Violations in One Night

One more and my blogger's license will be suspended! As I mentioned in my post immediately below, I wrote two essays over on Jay Rosen's open thread that I am reprinting here. The second is in response to Jay's comment that he is not actually a member of the press, even though he is often called to account for perceived media bias. To which I wrote:

Jay --
I, for one, don't hold you accountable for the content of the media. However, I would like to hold your feet to the fire on the consequences of your ideas.

In the last two days (actually nights), I have spent a fair amount of time perusing your archives. And I think it is clear from my comments that I find your approach to the press "religion" quite insightful. But I find that some of your essays stop just short of drawing a full conclusion.

For example, your discussion of the contasting coverage of Abu Ghraib (wall-to-wall pictures) vs the Nick Berg video (self-censored) very skillfully demonstrates the logical inconsistency at play. But you then express a hope/expectation that the media might show the Berg video after a brief delay for "absorption," and then launch into a lengthy attack on the bias-hunters.
You conclude with a diagnosis with which I fully agree (quoted below), but I would like to hear your thoughts on possible prescriptions for the patient, Dr. Rosen:

Way, way underneath these debates I find a disturbing fact. Even the smartest people in the major news media—and this is especially so in television news—have not really determined for themselves or explained to us exactly what their role should be in the worldwide fight against
terrorism...Terrorism can be many things, but it is always an attempt at communication; and a free press in an open society “completes” the act.
I would argue that this problem goes far beyond the airing of a single gruesome video, into just about every decision that the political and international press must make everyday, including the conduct of White House press conferences. In this context I would like to ask you to respond to my comments about Vietnam and Tet, to which you refer in passing in the Nick Berg essay.

More broadly, do you have any thoughts on the following observation?: Many core precepts of the press religion that you have identified are actually intellectual residua of the last two centuries of Leftist thought. Thus, is it possible that the bias-hunters, while perhaps focusing too much on the ephemera of specific "gotcha" moments, are actually pointing towards a deeper phenomenon?

Violating the Blogger Prime Directive

Never put your best stuff in other blogs' comments!

I have just written two essays in response to comments by Steve Lovelady and Jay Rosen over in the ongoing PressThink debate. I will reprint the first comment below -- it is in response to Steve's point that
the real's a function of corporations seeking a more favorable opinion of their stock price on Wall Street
My reply:

It is true that most people in most professions, including journalism, worry about what their bosses and the bean counters in the back office will think about their work vis-a-vis the bottom line. But that only goes so far in this dialogue because:
  1. It is not a given that the corporate masters will necessary want to "prove [their] macho chops," especially if they have the majority of their eyeballs coming from overseas. When CNN runs a viciously anti-Israel piece, are they proving their "macho chops" to their intended audience? How does Al Jazeera fit into this debate -- what is its PressThink, and should they be granted the same professional and social status as American press outfits?
  2. Moreover, sometimes the top of the corporate culture is run by elites who do not well understand the American public: Indira Nooyi may know a lot about which artificial sweeteners taste better but she does not exactly have her finger on the pulse of American public attitudes; more directly, I'm not sure that Pinch Sulzberger is strictly interested in maximizing the bottom line if it leads him too far away from his social goals. From accounts I have read, the NYT has tried to eat its cake and have it by attempting to find more like-minded readers in other cities rather than diversify their content.
  3. Even the best corporate bean counters cannot instantaneously alter the accreted rituals of a professional religion which limits creativity and diversity of thought. This is why much of the freshest reporting and commentary today is coming from sources who are not indoctrinated in this religion. And the audiences have responded, while many oldthinkers can only scratch their head; it is literally unthinkable.
  4. One approach, comforting only in the short run, is to blame the audience for being so dumb and/or primitive as to not understand the teachings of the priestly class. Patronizing the audience is the one intellectual space where both the “clerics” and the bean counters (who form an often-misguided corporate elite) can see eye-to-eye, although each may seek a different means of redress.
In sum, I don’t doubt that there are considerable financial pressures that affect moment-to-moment decisions every day. But that hardly explains the story of how Americans have lost their trust in conventional media, or how Fox News has built its audience starting with cheap sets and second-rate talent.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Thanks, Jay

I greatly appreciate that Jay Rosen has opened up a new thread (see here) in place of the old one I discussed Monday. Jay also took time out to respond to an e-mail I sent him, and he explained that his lack of participation in the prior thread was largely related to practical difficulties of getting to an internet connection while on his family vacation. I suppose that sometimes bloggers are actually human after all.

While I still do not fully understand what was going on his mind while he was reading that thread, I thought of the following analogy: Perhaps he felt he had invited people over for drinks, and instead they came in, raided his refrigerator, ate all of his food, and then complained when he tried to kick them out of the house at midnight ("Hey -- you invited us over here!"). I don't know to what extent blog etiquette handles the issue of staying on-topic (mind you, I didn't perceive the comments as being very far off-topic, though Jay might have).

In any event, please see my comment in the new thread here. I am not cross-posting it here, as it is somewhat tied in with other comments over there, but I will post more about the topic in this space tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Thinking about Rosen

The title of this post is not merely a tag but actually indicating what I am doing right now. I will not post a detailed follow-up tonight, as I am busy reading Rosen in his own words. He has been quite prolific, and I admire his commitment to long-form blogging. In the posts I have been reading tonight, he provides at least some of the answers about his perspective that I wish he had been able to provide in this weekend's debate. If your interested, check out here, here, here, and here for starters. I am particularly interested in this posting on Abu Ghraib and related matters, as it gets quite specific and speaks to a larger issue that I am working on for my next post.

I also would like to quickly respond to Dean Esmay (thanks for the link, by the way! -- and thanks to neo-neocon as well). I truly appreciate Dean's point, reminding us of the simple humanity of individual bloggers, something that is easily forgotten in the digital realm.

For me, I write just about every entry with a superego in the back of my mind, in the imagined voice of my best friend whom I have know since childhood. I would describe him as an independent thinker, libertarianish (generally anti-war, socially liberal, pro-free market, but certainly well to the left of me), and scrupulously honest (both personally and intellectually). I don't always listen to that voice, just as we don't (can't, and shouldn't, I might add) always follow our superego's dictates in daily life. But I think it's a great thing for bloggers and commenters to have, to keep the blogosphere civil and constructive.

Like many on the right, I think the blogosphere represents a tremendous opportunity to construct a more positive discourse in this country (as compared to the old MSM monopoly), but we must uphold our end of the bargain as well. There is plenty of room for satire, passion, and a well-deserved hardcore fisking, but there is already more than enough snark and rudeness in our culture. At the same time, I don't think that that was at the heart of the problem with the PressThink thread -- I think it can be more accurately described at the level of ideas (which is what I am pondering tonight). More to come...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Don't Press, Don't Think

A very strange debate on the appropriate relationship of the White House to the MSM has unfolded over the last several days at Jay Rosen's PressThink. It has been Prof. Rosen's contention that the White House is inappropriately trying to "roll back" the media, and he had invited Austin Bay to guest post on the topic (crossposted at Austin Bay Blog here). As could be expected, Bay provided a long and thoughtful post, rich with historical allusion, in which he took both sides to task for a dysfunctional relationship. What made the debate strange was that Jay (who usually seems quite fair-minded) has shut it down with a rather odd tua culpa. I quote in full his final comment, with which he closed the thread:

I'm embarrassed that this thread appeared at my weblog. I'm embarrassed that something I wrote and edited was the occasion for it. I embarrassed that the letters "edu" appear in the Web address at the top of this page, since most of this is the opposite of education. I'm embarrassed for having entertained, even for a second, the notion that Austin Bay, a Bush supporter and war veteran, might get a hearing for some of his warnings from those who agree with him on most things. And I've had enough of anonymous tough guys with their victim's mentality raging at their own abstractions...Those who wish to continue can head over to Austin's thread, where the story is pretty much the same. But four days of this pathetic spectacle is enough for me. Thread closed. My advice: Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth.
I have the feeling that this thread will be talked about in the blogosphere for some time, as another one of those new media/old media watersheds. While I doubt that Jay's cri de coeur will be seen as a death rattle of Old Media's power monopoly, I think it will come back to haunt him. At the very least, he owes his audience an accounting of how he arrived at his dire conclusion. I think for most of us watching the debate, it seemed to confirm that he was in such a different memetic universe that communication was more difficult than we imagined. But it is notable that communication only became impossible when Rosen pulled the plug.

I agree with the analysis offered by neo-neocon here (as well as that of several commenters on her boards):
Understand that the comments section on the thread had not degenerated into the sort of overwhelmingly vicious nastiness that sometimes occurs on so many blogs... Yes, some of the comments may have overstated the case (on either side), and the comments were certainly polarized. But that's hardly remarkable in a comments section; in fact, it is to be expected...
What is most strange about this reaction of Rosen's is that his post contains a critique of the Bush administration for supposedly shutting off the flow of information to the press in retaliation for what it perceives as press bias against it. But in the very same thread Rosen threatens to close his own comments section for engaging in free speech that doesn't quite suit him, apparently because it doesn't go in the direction in which he wants it to go.
Now, I came to the party very late, and actually read almost the entire thread in one (long) sitting last night. I have tonight gone back and re-read the entire thread, including the original postings from Rosen and Bay, re-reading certain comments multiple times, as well as looking back through the last few threads at PressThink for context. And I have tried to analyze exactly where the debate turned so sour for Jay. First, a bit of background, then a careful parsing of his reaction is in order:

I understand that Jay has repeatedly announced his disaffection with bias-hunters of all stripes, and takes the philosophical view that bias is unavoidable. In the past, he proposed this solution:

Get into the habit of making these two distinctions:One: Treat the press as political, and argue about its politics. On the whole, this is a good thing, necessary to a free press. But when you argue about the press and its politics—which we should do—things cannot get politicized. And when they do, there is emptiness.Two: The press is not supposed to heed the people. It’s supposed to feed and sustain the public.
It seemed to me, and I assume a majority of the conservative commenters, that arguing about the press's politics was a central aspect of the thread. I can only assume that Jay found the discussion to be politicized, and hence, empty. But he failed to demonstrate how he drew that distinction in his first comment, in which he announced that the thread was "depressing" and petulantly threatened to shut down debate, without in any way offering an alternative focus. His second comment, after more than 40 more hours in which he failed to offer any substantive re-direct, declared himself at a loss for words -- until he found the words to accuse someone (everyone?) of "untruth in layers" and "meaningless" "self-infantalization." In his third comment, he finally added some substance to his critique, by picking off some of the more hyperbolic statements scattered across the comments and declaring "Every one of these statements is a fantasia. It isn't possible to argue with them." [emph added]

Of the comments he targeted, several were hyperbolic, but in some cases merely by painting with too broad a brush, using words such as "only," "doing everything possible," when of course a more measured statement would be more accurate. Yet, Rosen ignored the fact that such measured statements were often made by the very same commenters, at times in the very same comments. In fact, I scoured the first several dozen of the comments for hyperbolic statements, and mostly found that the posts were balanced, fact-based, and at times lengthy and even-handed almost to a fault. In his responses, Rosen also slightly alters a couple of the comments, to make them sound more extreme.

Most importantly, though, Rosen misses the point of the very first commenter, who stated (inter alia) ""the goal of such a press is Public Relations against Bush, implicitly supporting the death squad terrorists in Iraq." To which Jay responded: "Did you hear that? The press, in effect, supports the death squads who are murdering innocent Iraqis-- and journalists!" In the context of his post, Rosen seems deeply offended, as if the MSM has been accused of explicitly or deliberately supporting the terrorists, and as if he has never heard of Orwell's critique of the pacifist Left in WWII and its applications today. Moreover, Rosen ignores the following balanced statement (and others like it) in the very same comment:
Bush is failing in not explaining what Building a New Iraq really means. Not finding out what it means is how the press is failing. It seems that the speeches Bush gives don’t tell enough, and the questions the press asks don’t clarify what is known and not known, enough.
In a comments thread of more than 35,000 words, Rosen could not find a single critical comment worthy of his standards?

By contrast, I found that the first post which both explicitly and implicitly (in tone) brought the thread towards unproductive sniping, without offering a positive alternative, came from CJR's Steve Lovelady:
Already the thread has degenerated into "What the press reports doesn't correspond to my world view (of the White House, of Iraq, of Vietnam, of whatever), so it must be wrong. "It's too bad, because Austin Bay actually had some interesting things to say. Now he knows what it's like to be obliterated in a tidal wave of static. Welcome aboard the Fantasy Express, Colonel.
Too bad that Steve never found the time to make a productive comment on the interesting things Austin Bay had said; his tone throughout the debate tended to alternate between the pedantically nit-picky and the smugly dismissive. In an act of projection, he introduced the terms "faux-macho" and "posturing" to the debate. And he bizarrely criticized several commenters for the use of a nom de plume. I can just imagine his critique of the authors of the Federalist Papers:

We've had quite enough of tough-talking patriots swathed in anonymity. Do you guys show up at community hearings wearing Hallo'ween masks and using voice-distortion technology? [Publius?] ... enough already! Is this junior high ? Put your money where your mouth is.Then we can begin. Until then, it's all posturing.
At no point do either Rosen or Lovelady seriously attempt to engage their interlocutors. I take particular umbrage at the fact that my (admittedly late) attempt to redirect the debate to Austin Bay's original post (and his historical analogy to the Cold War) was completely ignored by both. I intentionally began and ended my post with a (verbal) peace offering, which was not taken up in the remaining 15 hours that the thread was open.

More importantly, I think that Rosen himself is responsible for the direction of the thread, after his summary of Austin's piece begins with a "gotcha" headline and meme that is popular amongst the MSM today: "Republican criticizes Bush," while ignoring his criticism of the press, giving short shrift to the overarching framework of the Cold War analogy, and never once picking up the NY-DC-LA gauntlet that consitutes the heart of the piece.

I know that this post has been long, even by my rather verbose standards. But I wanted very much to give all participants in this train-wreck the benefit of the doubt. I would love it if Rosen would publish a substantive explanation of his reaction. I would greatly appreciate it if Steve Lovelady would adopt a more congenial tone -- I suspect he has an interesting story to tell from his experiences. Most importantly, I hope they can understand that many of us are deeply worried about the potential for the MSM to unintentionally damage our national security through a repetition of the Vietnam template, and that we have come to our conclusions independently, without ever once receiving a fax from Karl Rove. Why, I've never even given him my fax number.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Gaza: Winning the Meme Battle, Losing the Meme War

Interesting debate in the Belmont Club about the tactical and strategic merits of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. As I probably made clear in my last post, I am not too sanguine about the wisdom of the forced evacuation.

I would argue that the Israelis have made four unnecessary and strategically disastrous memetic concessions, in addition to the physical concession of the (relatively worthless) land in Gaza:

1) They have demonstrated that terror has successful consequences, as elaborated by Lee Harris. Despite the successful decapitation attacks against Hamas leaders last year (which had made me optimistic), this withdrawal will be no different in its impact on the terrorist mindset than the Lebanon fiasco of 2000, which directly led to the second intifada.

2) They have consistently failed to put on the table the issue of Jewish refugees. For example, there were 137,000 Jews driven out of Iraq, primarily between 1948 and 1951, and again after the Baath takeover in 1968. Why shouldn't their "right of return" to Iraq be part of the nascent Iraqi Constitution (obviously this is a rhetorical question, but I am talking about rhetoric and meme wars here).

The Israeli government could make a big PR production over the number of Jews expelled, then inflated that number by their presumed offspring and relatives (as the Palestinians do), and calculated a dollar figure to compensate for seized assets. Then they could make a grand gesture of waiving the rights of return and compensation. That dollar figure (and population total) could then be permanently placed on the scales to balance out competing Arab claims.

3) Every day that goes by is a missed opportunity to broadcast subtitled MEMRI feeds across Israeli and Western television. The Palestinian pledge to eliminate incitement is the most easily-monitored and most flagrantly-violated treaty obligation since the Germans pledged not to invade Russia. The entire Israeli Foreign Ministry could be dismantled and sold for scrap, and the proceeds more effectively used to fund paid broadcasts throughout the US, until the Palestinian terror-muppet was as well-known as Elmo.

4) Most disastrously of all, and a moral abomination, they have endorsed the principle of Judenrein. The Israeli government has ethnically cleansed the land of Jews. Alternately, a trade for the transfer of Israeli Arabs could be (rhetorically) offered and dismissed, given that the Jews of the Palestinian state will of course be offered the same rights of worship, expression, and voting as the Israeli Arabs.

Contra Shrinkwrapped (with whom I normally agree), I don't think the media will cut the Jews any slack on any of these points, when the Palestinians make their next set of demands.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


"The blood of martyrs has
led to liberation."

So, it has come to this.
There is now a place on the Earth
where Jews are forbidden.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Back to Blogging

Tomorrow...Work and family commitments have been hectic...

In the meantime, please read this post from Varifrank -- one of the best I have read in a while.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Getting out of the Corner

Two great follow-up posts at the Corner continue the stem-cell debate in a direction I find very appealing. Iain Murray's post about the "scientization" politics continues on exactly the "naturalistic fallacy" theme I was hammering yesterday:

When people appeal to science in political arguments it is generally either out of an attempt to steal lightning for their preferred policy position (the "science says we must" argument) or in an attempt to introduce uncertainty where ever increasing numbers of scientists will argue over ever more complicated issues that fail to provide the certainty politicians say they need (the
precautionary argument). In either case, politicians have abdicated their responsibility to debate the moral and political aspects of the issue, which may well come up with a solution that doesn't need science. And the logical outcome of the scientization of politics is handing over much of policy to technocrats.

In an earlier post, John Hood demonstrates the kind of political (in the best sense of the term) reasoning that appeals to me, which avoids the false certitudes of scientism: proposal is intended simply to find a criterion that seems likely to attract a political consensus. It doesn’t pretend to achieve anatomical precision, or to address at all any religious or spiritual conviction as to when the soul enters the body (or, indeed, whether it is created at conception or instead pre-exists the body)...The fact that lines may be blurry or even somewhat arbitrary does not constitute an argument against drawing them, or against their practical usefulness. Sometimes you just have to draw the line as best you can in a way that satisfies the largest number of interested parties...The best government can do right now, it seems to me, is to a draw an admittedly arbitrary line at some point in the average pregnancy at which a functioning brain is evident.
This kind of pragmatic, approximate approach to hot-button social issues can make use of the available scientific data without reifying it, and seems to me to be more likely to generate workable political consensus while moving society in a moral direction; in fact, this approach calls on society not to abdicate its moral authority to the technocrats (or theocrats), and thereby in itself may represent a moral good.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Is You Is or Is You Ought?

One month after the British subway attack, it finally feels right to get back to an issue at the interface of modern biomedical science and political theory: the embryonic stem cell debate. I intend to return to specific GWOT (or should I say SAVE?) issues in the near future, but today's post draws on some of the same ideas I invoked in my prior discussions of causality and moral agency.

The fireworks over at the Corner these last few days on the stem cell issue once again seems to get down to the is-ought problem, sometimes referred to (not entirely accurately) as the "naturalistic fallacy." Most sophisticated thinkers, such as those at NRO, are well aware of this longstanding conundrum, and are quick to abjure its use. Nevertheless, both John Podhoretz and Robert P. George seem to help themselves to a handful of Is in their attempts to get to Ought. In both cases, I think that they are seeking answers in Science that are to be found elsewhere.

Robert P. George, a legal scholar and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, opposes any destruction of human embryos for scientific purposes, on the grounds that: 1) all human life is entitled to equal dignity and basic rights; and 2) human life begins at conception. He directs his opening thrust at those who agree with 1 (whom he implicitly assumes includes most conservatives) yet are unsure about 2, and are asking: "When does the life of a human being begin?"
Where do we go to find the answer? Not to the Bible, which says nothing about human embryos... Not to the Koran. Not to our "moral intuitions." Rather, we go to the standard texts of modern human embryology and developmental biology...When we consult these works, we find little or nothing in the way of scientific mystery or dispute... Let's leave religion out of this. Let's agree to resolve our difference of opinion strictly on the basis of the best available scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins.
In his subsequent post, Prof. George then recites the standard scientific account of the developing embryo from union of sperm and ovum to single cell to two cells, etc, reaching the conclusion that "the human embryo, from the zygote stage forward, is a distinct, unitary human organism--a human being." However, a subtle philosophical slippage is evident between the sharp analysis with which he begins his first post and the scientific detail of his second, and reflects a linguistic conflation between scientific and moral terminology:
Anyone who wishes to know when he or she as a distinct living member of the species Homo sapiens came into existence need only open any of these books and look up the answer. So I have a proposal for people of goodwill who wish to affirm the inherent and equal dignity of all human beings but disagree with those of us who are opposed on moral grounds to embryo-destructive research [emph added]
I would argue that Homo sapiens is a term developed by biological taxonomists to classify a certain kind of animal, whereas "human being" has a far longer (and richer) philosophical history, with frequent application to the fundament of moral agency and value. In explaining the inability of the "root cause" Left to identify evil as a motive force, I previously wrote that
any complex phenomenon can only be explained in the context of its relevant frame of reference. And the one frame of reference that has been written out of Western scientistic discourse is the moral dimension.
Similarly, it would seem that Prof. George does not believe that strictly moral considerations can be brought to bear on question 2. But I believe that his search of cellular activity for the "root" of human-ness is analogous to the search of brain scans for the root cause of crime. In his book The Ethical Brain, which I promised to review last month (just before the 7/7 attacks), eminent neuroscientist Mark Gazzaniga makes a critical, and quite humble point:
neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans - to people - not to brains...the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain. (pp. 101-2)
Gazzaniga makes an analogy that I would apply to George:
optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/40 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus
Similarly, embryologists and molecular biologists can provide tremendously important information about the division of cells, but will necessarily fall short in answering the key moral dilemmas opened up by the field of embryonic stem cell research.

It seems to me that, by the end of the day, John Podhoretz realized that he had been painted into a corner (forgive the pun) by George's initial setting of the terms (biological) of the debate. Podhoretz's e-mailers have already chastised his own multiple commissions of the naturalistic fallacy, as he played the miscarriage card and the twin card, so I will not belabor the point here. Moreover, I don't think he wanted to be in that position, as he self-mockingly confesses he did badly in science, and most importantly states:
the thought of that 25-percent failure rate killing off human life "naturally" is a matter of horror to me...and I need something more than nature to make it tolerable. I need faith. I need the sense of a divine plan. I need the sense of something more, something larger...I think it is a demonstration of the limits of logic. And this is the crux of the problem with your assertion that we can use science and logic alone to find our way out of the embryonic stem-cell conundrum. [emph added]
I would probably say that it demonstrates the limits of scientistic reasoning as applied to moral dilemmas (rather than the limits of logic). I should also note that I do not have a firmly settled position on human embryonic stem cell research. Still, I obviously am inclined to agree with Podhoretz's point in his last post, which admittedly leaves us in very murky territory. Prof. George would seem to suggest that it leads to a slippery slope of Peter Singer-ism. Having thought about these issues for a long time, I must admit that, for practical purposes, he might be right. It is very hard to draw a clear distinction between forms of humanness that leave a bright line between acceptable research and, say, infanticide. And it is very possible that other technologies may moot the point.

But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't keep trying to find a moral language that can reconcile our Western traditions and moral sensibilities with the technological possibilities created by those very traditions.

Finally: isn't it ironic, that it is the "pro-life" debater appealing to science, and the somewhat more pro-choice (as relates to embryonic research) writer who appeals to religion?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

How the Left was Lost (pt. 3)

Stalling for time, yesterday I posed the question: "What happens when a mentally unbalanced but brilliant homosexual French intellectual with a death wish finds himself in the middle of an Islamic revolution?"

Let's listen to Foucault's own answer: "It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane." Bear in mind that this was intended as the highest possible compliment.

A recently published book, nicely summarized in this Boston Globe article, argues that the Iranian revolution

appealed to certain of Foucault's characteristic preoccupations — with the spontaneous eruption of resistance to established power, the exploration of the limits of rationality, and the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death. It also tied into his burgeoning interest in a "political
spirituality"..."Industrial capitalism," he said, had emerged as "the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine."

This last quote firmly establishes Foucault as having had either the most impoverished, or the most expansive, imagination of the 20th Century. And yet, Foucault here does us the favor of making explicit a set of assumptions that have not only seized the "blame America first" Left, but also provide one key intellectual foundation to the post-60's counterculture. While most American leftists and liberals would not agree with such a stark and explicit condemnation of our society, a diluted version is figuratively in our drinking water: the romanticized Che of T-shirt fame (not the sadistic murderer, mind you), the celebrated "authenticity" of hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur ("Thug Life"), to Oprah Winfrey's website, which urges the reader to Live Your Passion, and exhorts the reader:

Are you screaming on the inside?

Everyone feels it. Get in touch with your ire power!

Now, as pop culture phenomena these trends are fairly innocuous, but they demonstrate why we are intellectually unprepared to meet the challenge of Islamofascist terror. The notion that our bourgeois society smothers our authentic selves, leaving no outlet for our stored-up rage and passion, leads to a simultaneously romanticized and patronizing view of the Other, as expressed in the headline of this NY Times analysis of the 7/7 bombers:

Seething Unease Shaped British Bombers' Newfound Zeal

And how else to account for this humdinger which begins that same article:

[The bombers] ... turned their backs on what they came to see as a decadent, demoralizing Western culture. Instead, the group embraced an Islam ... focused passionately on Muslim suffering at Western hands. In many ways, the transformation has had positive elements: the men live healthier and more constructive lives than many of their peers here, Asian or white, who have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol or petty crime.

This romanticized "noble savage"-ism brings us back to Foucault on political Islamism:

a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.

Here Foucault is equating the rule of law ("legalism") with grim obedience, and contrasting these with the "luminous" creativity of the Islamic revolution. Thus, the far Left's utopianism is no longer focused on economic perfection, which in any case has been rather better achieved in the vast aisles of the local supermarket than in the entirety of the Soviet experiment, but instead on a spiritual redemption. Foucault called this a "political spirituality."

As for the reach of these ideas, ask yourself: What baby-boomer parent today would encourage in their children a faith in legalism and a distrust of creativity? Yet these are essential underpinnings of conservative political thought: certainly the Framers of our Constitution understood that politics was a realm to tame passions, not exalt in them; that spirituality was expressed in houses of worship and in our homes, not in the streets and in the legislature; that creativity was to be expressed in science, literature, and art, not in mass rallies.

Does our society tamp down on opportunities for Dionysian ecstacy of the sort exalted by the late French philosopher? Of course, and sometimes too much so. But better to err on the side of the Apollonian, the rational, the predictable, then to be left intellectually unarmed against the post-modernist worldview of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer who famously said of 9/11:

"That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of,that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically, for aconcert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the wholecosmos."

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

How the Left was Lost (pt. 2)

(........musical interlude...........)

Due to pressing work commitments, today's installment of "How the Left was Lost" is postponed until tomorrow. Stay tuned to find out what happens when a mentally unbalanced but brilliant homosexual French intellectual with a death wish finds himself in the middle of an Islamic revolution!

(....resume musical interlude.....fade out.......)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How the Left was Lost (pt. 1)

Yesterday, I discussed how the new anti-Semitism on the Left is borne of hostility to the rationalism and moralism at the heart of Western Civilization (and the American idea); these building blocks of the uniquely Western worldview have been described by Thomas Cahill as the Gifts of the Jews. Given that the Left prides itself on its history of anti-anti-Semitism from the Dreyfus affair to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, this represents a strange turn of events. Stranger still, considering that rationalism and moralism were also essential components of Leftist movements from "scientific Marxism" to the New Deal. How did the left pivot to an anti-rationalist, anti-Western view which can find sympathy with, or at least excuses for, our Islamofascist enemy?

I think that one pivotal moment occurred during the the Iranian revolution in 1978 and '79. Geo-politically, its tectonic significance is obvious. But a critical intellectual shift could be seen in the reaction of the leading French philosopher of the time, Michel Foucault. As a quick background on the man, this scorching polemic actually manages to leave out the two most damaging (though never proven) accusations that have been levelled against him, which I will not repeat here.

A sarcastic and fiercely intelligent depressive, he took LSD, repeatedly attempted to kill himself, drove a Jaguar and attended sadomasochist parlours in California. He was also one of the first famous casualties of Aids. Foucault loved being outrageous. He publicly urged inmates of French jails to escape from prison, and supported the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution as well as Baader-Meinhof terrorists. He also declared that the happiest day of his life was in July 1978, when he was hit by a car while high on opium. "I had the impression that I was dying, and it was really a very, very intense pleasure," he later told a journalist.

Prior to the near-death experience in 1978, he had described his greatest experience as his first LSD trip in 1975, which he claimed had only one rival as a peak experience: sex with strangers. (This was from a nearly 50-year old man.)

This Weekly Standard article provides a quick take on Michel Foucault's Excellent Iranian Adventure (actually more of a Bogus Journey); tomorrow I will try to explore it in a little greater detail.

THE RELATIONSHIP between postmodernist European leftism and Islamic radicalism is a two-way street: Not only have Islamists drawn on the legacy of the European Left, but European Marxists have taken heart from Islamic terrorists who seemed close to achieving the longed-for revolution against American hegemony...Foucault was sent by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera to observe the Iranian revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Sartre, who had rhapsodized over the Algerian revolution, Foucault was enthralled, pronouncing Khomeini "a kind of mystic saint." The Frenchman welcomed "Islamic government" as a new form of "political spirituality" that could inspire Western radicals to combat capitalist hegemony.

Heavily influenced by Heidegger and Sartre, Foucault was typical of postmodernist socialists in having neither concrete political aims nor the slightest interest in tangible economic grievances as motives for revolution. To him, the appeal of revolution was aesthetic and voyeuristic: "a violence, an intensity, an utterly remarkable passion." For Foucault as for Fanon, Hezbollah, and the rest down to Osama, the purpose of violence is not to relieve poverty or adjust borders. Violence is an end in itself. Foucault exalts it as "the craving, the taste, the capacity, the possibility of an absolute sacrifice." In this, he is at one with Osama's followers, who claim to love death while the Americans "love Coca-Cola."

Monday, August 01, 2005

Leftism and Anti-semitism

Neo-neocon considers the "root cause" of the Presbyterian Church USA leadership's call for divestment from Israel: anti-semitism or "merely" fashionable leftism? My initial instinct was to disagree with her, and to suggest that no mere sanctimonious or self-congratulatory pose of victimology could explain or excuse the many errors of fact, lapses of logic, and fundamental lopsidedness of the divestment effort. This impulse was bolstered by my recollection of the long history of the Arab boycott campaign, and its relation to the unremitting effort of the Arab nations to eradicate the lone Jewish state. On the other hand, a perusal of the PCUSA (fitting acronym, no?) website supported the notion that these people were too woolly-headed to be hardcore anti-semites.

Upon reflection, however, I think neo has hit upon an uncomfortable reality that has been explored at some length (see links here), and yet still not enough: there is an intrinsic ideological link between contemporary Leftism and the new Anti-semitism. (It is important to emphasize that this is not meant to tar individual leftists, many of whom are well-meaning if misguided, but to expose the intellectual currents that unavoidably underly today's discourse).

As noted in "Anti-Globalization, the New Anti-Semitism,"
Controversial right-wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi notes a "strange unanimity" between Islamic terrorism and anti-globalization protestors -- both "enemies of Western civilization."
although the authors curiously attempt to soften this conclusion in the remainder of the quote below, it is clear that they are pointing out a classic chicken-and-egg example of reciprocally-reinforcing influences:

This is overstepping the mark. The association between the Arab world and the anti-globalization movement has its roots in a common opposition to American "domination." Israel and the Jews represent American capitalism. Thus attacking Israel gives the movement a good excuse to vent its anti-Semitic frustrations.
In his essential thesis on the new anti-Semitism, Natan Sharansky quickly dismisses the root cause-ism of those, presumably including the PCUSA leaders, who would point to Ariel Sharon as the instigator of Jew-hatred:

The Jewish state is no more the cause of anti-Semitism today than the absence of a Jewish state was its cause a century ago.
Sharansky goes on to show that fear of Jews as carriers of frightening ideas, such as monotheism, individualism, personal responsibility for moral choices (for an excellent exegesis, see here), has been at the root of anti-Semitism for 3000 years, and has only become worse.

The Jews were the only people seriously to challenge the moral system of the Greeks. They were not an "other" in the ancient world; they were the "other"--an other, moreover, steadfast in the conviction that Judaism represented not only a different way of life but, in a word, the truth... The (by and large correct) perception of the Jews as rejecting the prevailing value system of the ancient world hardly justifies the anti-Semitism directed against them; but it does take anti-Semitism out of the realm of fantasy, turning it into a genuine clash of ideals and of values.

Now, which contemporary American political movement is fundamentally opposed to monotheism, individualism, personal responsibility for moral choices? Sharansky makes the link explicit:
Decades before "occupation" became a household word, the mood in European chancelleries and on the left turned decidedly hostile... as anti-Western, anti-"imperialist," pacifist and pro-liberationist sentiments, fanned and often subsidized by the U.S.S.R., took over the advanced political culture... Behind the new hostility to Israel lay the new ideological orthodoxy, according to whose categories the Jewish state had emerged on the world scene as a certified "colonial" and "imperialist" power, a "hegemon" and an "oppressor."

And then closes the link between Leftism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism:
Despite the differences between them, however, anti-Americanism in the Islamic world and anti-Americanism in Europe are in fact linked, and both bear an uncanny resemblance to anti-Semitism. It is, after all, with some reason that the United States is loathed and feared by the despots and fundamentalists of the Islamic world as well as by many Europeans. Like Israel, but in a much more powerful way, America embodies a different--a nonconforming--idea of the good, and refuses to abandon its moral clarity about the objective worth of that idea or of the free habits and institutions to which it has given birth.