Tuesday, May 31, 2005


As per my posting of last week, and the speculation of most of Europe, the French voted down the treaty that would accept the new EU constitution by a considerable margin.

Read the excellent coverage from the Times of London.

This is a huge development, and the word is that voters in the Netherlands will also reject the treaty when they go to the polls tomorrow. This would, in effect, kill the new constitution, causing the alliance to return to the drawing board.

This is a huge blow to Jacques Chirac, who was re-elected as almost a "lesser-of-two-evils" candidate in 2000. He was running against far right-wing nutjob Jean-Marie Le Pen. This meant that most of France, having no other choices (imagine that...more than two choices for President), voted for Chirac. It was, interestingly enough, this rough coalition of moderate right-wingers, socialists, communists, and other left-wingers who dealt the treaty its defeat on Sunday. This will almost certainly lead to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin being asked to resign, probably before the end of this week. This widens the political vacuum in a country where the President has not enjoyed popular support for some time. Any time you can get French right and left wingers to unite is a serious referrendum on the current leadership.

Why did this happen? The reasons given seem a lot like things that Americans have been complaining about of late. Most central in a lot of comments that I read was frustration over jobs going to less-prosperous EU members and other nations around the world. This has helped to drive unemployment in France to about 12%. The French people, like others around Europe, are uneasy about the expansion of the EU, especially the case of Turkey. They see the alliance helping the lesser nations at the expense of the greater.

Another dimension that must be considered is that soon the British, and PM Tony Blair, will take over the EU presidency for a six-month period. It will be a critical task of Blair to salvage the constitution and see what of the EU can be saved and made acceptable to all member states. It was also Blair who championed the application of Turkey for EU membership. He can really leave a great mark on the alliance in this time of crisis. It will not be easy, but Blair has proved himself a very capable politician.

What will happen next? Who can tell? The most likely next move might be to ask the French to vote again, although I think this becomes less likely if the Dutch reject the constitution. Will the British hold such a referrendum? If they do, it would most likely be accepted...the British stand to gain with EU expansion, moreso than France. Will the EU crumble? No, but this definately puts it in doubt and also calls into question the French dedication to the alliance. France, often seen as a very pro-Europe country, has shown that it's population is not happy with the direction that the alliance is taking. Will Jacques Chirac lose his next election? Yes, and I think a moderate socialist will take his place.

This situation continues to develop. Keep an eye on it because what happens to a united Europe most certainly has implications for the United States in trade, policy and other facets of the relationship. We ignore Europe at our peril.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

When Is A Century Not A Century?

When historians argue, of course. We historians are an interesting bunch. We look at something as seemingly clear-cut as the divisions between centuries and start asking questions that yield answers that seem, to the layperson, to make very little sense.

For example, from my field of expertise, the eighteenth century was not the period of time between 1700-1799. Most historians of the period, myself included, consider the real extent of the "long" eighteenth century to be 1688-1815 (the period between the Glorious Revolution in England and the final defeat and exile of Napoleon/Congress of Vienna). The nineteenth century, similarly, lasts from 1815-1914 (Congress of Vienna to the start of World War I). Lastly, the twentieth century, shorter than most, lasted from 1914-1992 (Start of WWI to the final fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact).

Is this sort of counterintuitive periodization reasonable? I believe that it is, as the broad developments in politics, economics, society and culture do not merely follow the arbitrary strictures of an invented calendar and dating system. These causal chains of process cannot be confined to simple 100 year periods.

This does, however, raise other issues. Should historians be concerned with phases and developments in period at all? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who differed with Marx's theory of history, claimed that in all ages there is thesis, antithesis and synthesis that are untimately leading to the perfection of history. While his conclusions are spurious, his understanding brings out a commonly held idea concerning history: the march of history in the spirit of progress to the betterment of man, taking negative developments as lessons for the future. It can clearly be seen that things are more complicated and issues more intertwined to come to such a simple conclusion. People and societies do not develop over a timeline.

This also raises the question of periods themselves. Do these new boundaries of historical centuries call into question the utilities of periodization and the use of dates to mark history? In a certain way, they do. They challenge the notion of progress in history and also the reducability of human experience to linear standards. These new centuries merely try to point out these facts.

Are these opinions definite? No, and it is unlikely that they will ever be. Historians debate forever the significance of developments on images and understandings of the past, trying to agree on fair portrayals of these developments. That is, I believe, a key role of the historian in society. We are not merely tellers of tales; we are facilitators of understanding about ourselves and the condition of our world through an understanding of the past.


I realize that the debate between the right to know and the right to privacy is one that will likely never have an answer short of anarchy or repression. This fact, however, calls all of us to constantly re-examine these dimensions of our society and try to reach a situational consensus based on principle. Is this possible? We must at least try.

What suprs me to these reflections was a story concerning further photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq (read the story at CNN). It seems that the ACLU has petitioned a court and won in a case concerning these photos and the Freedom of Information Act. While admitting that these photos may cause further distress to the American people, the ACLU lawyer claims that it is the right of the people to see such information. I suppose that she is right in the fact that people have the right to see these documents, especially if they are ever to become part of a lawsuit/legal proceeding concering these behaviors either in civilian or military court.

The only reservation that I possibly have is for the wider effects of more photos on our image abroad. This, admittedly, can hardly get much worse (especially among Muslim populations), but this raises an interesting point: how much power do such images have to crystallize resistance/violence against American interest above and beyond pre-existing conditions? Also, there are issues of interpretation on the part of these supposed inflamed Muslim populations and the percieved effect of such images.

First, the power of the image. It is true that, given the widespread media exposure that everything seems to get, these images would doubtless spread across the world in various forms with out any delay. They would reach all corners of the earth where different groups of people will see them in different ways. There can be little doubt that the people who already have doubts about the United States and its position in the Arab world will see these as further proof of the insidious nature of policy.

This brings me to my second point, one often ignored by media, government and others who make these decisions. It is assumed that people in the U.S. will see these images and draw the conclusion that these are the acts of a few aberrant individuals and not indicative of the larger U.S. policy in Iraq. It is rarer said that these images, like the nightly reports of violence from Iraq, are bringing together the "great silent majority" (to use a phrase from Richard Nixon) in opposition to U.S. involvement. These points, while contradictory, are seen as somewhat complimentary as the U.S. people are seen to be free to form their own opinions as this is our tradition.

Why, then, is the same standard never applied to the "Muslim world?" Even the term "Muslim world" speaks of a monolithic community wherein the Arabs of the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, the western provinces of China, the former Soviet Central Asian states, Europe, North America and everywhere else think with one mind and speak with one voice. It is as if these diverse people are not trusted by the media powers to make their own decisions; it is assumed that they will react violently and their hatred of the West will grow ever keener. Why is it never thought that, around the world, people might think differently. What is beyond a Muslim anywhere in the world from thinking that these pictures are of horrible crimes commited by evil people who do not reflect the opinion of Americans of all Muslims? I would venture to say that there is nothing that would prevent such an opinion.

These are the problems that always arise when people deal it generalizations and absolutes. Society is a rich tapestry of intersecting emotions, sturctures and realities. It would serve all humankind well if we were to recognize that societies are collections of individuals rather than faceless masses persuaded from above.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Content Over Form, I Hope

Sorry for the messed-up form of that last entry. Read it anyway, unless you take joy in my mistakes (hint, hint).

To make up for it, have some fun ('cause I'm working all weekend...damned comps).

Ken Jennings: Latter-Day Ozymandias?

I met a traveler from and antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped in these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When Percy Bysshe Shelley penned these words in 1817, I am sure he more possibly had the likes of Napoleon on his mind than a software programmer from Salt Lake City, Utah. Still, yesterday when Ken Jennings lost the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, I was reminded of these immortal musings on the fates of the once great and powerful.
I was reminded of another related instance from the more distant past. When ancient Roman generals and military victors would take part in grand parades to honor their might and the glory of the empire, it was whispered into his ear during the parade that "all glory is fleeting."
We all have experienced similar feelings, not only in our personal lives, but in the history of our times. Some are spurred to say "good riddance" to these smug and sneering former people of import, ascribing their defeats to the hubris that can accompany all successes in life. These are the people who see a person like Ken Jennings and just itch each day for him to fail so that he may be "put back in his place." Similarly, we take purile joy when the great, rich, smart, powerful, successful fall from their heights and assume their position among us or (even better for some) fall to new lows and degrade themselves even more. These moves, to many, are the fair and great leveller, that which insures the egalitarian nature of our society.
Why do we seem to take such delight when the successful gain such punishment? These people need not be famous. This could be that guy at the office who always seems one step ahead. It could be that really smart girl at school who seems to have it all in a row. It could be the people next door who seem to have life by the throat while you gasp for air. We wait and wait and look for these people to mess up, taking great joy when they do. This passive form of resistance to the successful in life is an interesting dynamic.
What does it say about us? Are we anti-success? Is it that we don't like having success defined for us, prefering to have our own personal victories? Have we become so lazy that the only way to win is waiting for others to lose and be the best of what's left?
What do a people's ideas, individually and collectively, about success and failure say about the society and culture as a whole?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Updates and Cheap Shots

Here are a few updates and short comments on past and current issues at hand (and also some stuff that struck me as interesting).

Now, talk amongst yourselves (or yourself).

Be The First One On Your Block...

...to own an MI-5 bugging device found in a Sinn Fein office in Belfast in September of 2004! I am not making this up, such an item is now available.

Check out the Sinn Fein Bookshop site for more information (also a great source of books about the Troubles).

This is not only a curiosity and an interesting piece of history. This is a token of the ongoing struggle and distrust that exists between Sinn Fein and the British authorities in the north of Ireland. The Brits said they didn't trust Sinn Fein's word after the December 2004 bank heist in Belfast that was blamed on the IRA. The situation worsened when the IRA revoked its promise to disarm in the wake of these claims in March of this year.

No progress will ever be made if spying, violence and distrust are allowed to rule the day. All I, as an American supporter of Irish nationalism, and the regular people of the north want is to live in real peace and free from the police state that the British have been enforcing for almost thirty-five years. No more spying, killing, robbing or bombing in the name of causes. Let's work for real solutions that make all happy, safe and free.

"Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." - Padraig MacPirais (Patrick Pearse), at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa, 1915.

Don't Call It A Comeback...

Sorry for the lack of posts yesterday. The system was filled with demons and its humors were out of balance. Thank god the barber could drill a hole in it and let the evil wizards out.

Why the medieval medical talk? I understand as much about the nature of the problems with websites as the medievals (Europeans at least) were with how disease killed people.

Well, onward and upward!

Monday, May 23, 2005

They Have Politics In Europe?

As ever, politics roll on beyond the pale of Washington. There is yet more problems in Europe. The French are about to defeat a treaty to streamline and codify laws and rules concerning the state of the European Union. This event, coupled with a few others, could mean some big shake-ups in the politics in several of the EU's key players.

Read the story on France in the International Herald Tribune.

At the same time, there is quite a flap brewing in Germany that started with the Social Democrats, the party of Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, lost a key local election the the Christian Democrats in the province of North Rhine-Westphalia (the old, industrial heartland of Germany). This has forced Schroeder to consider his place in the stem and make a push on the German President to call elections as a vote of confidence measure. This really shows that he is worried about his future and the future of his party. His popularity is at all-time lows and the SDP are worried about the growing support for the conservative CDU especially in the rural areas like Bavaria and the industrial areas like North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rhur Valley. This could prove a turning point for Schroeder, as the EU treaty vote would prove a considerable defeat for Jacques Chriac.

Read the whole story on the BBC.

What does all of this, coupled with the re-election but possible retirement of Tony Blair in Great Britain, mean for Europe in the years to come? I think that this shows that a process like uniting an entire continent with such cultural differences, different political cultures, different interests and influences, is not the easy process that was envisioned at Maastricht in 1992 when the EU charter was signed.

It has been a decade of change on the continent with the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the subsequent integration of former Soviet satellites into pan-European organizations. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, three great post-Soviet success stories, became members of NATO (1999) and the EU (2003). NATO also welcomed seven new countries in 2004 (Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania). Turkey, a NATO member but not in the EU, is also pushing to become a part of the EU. The protestations of the Turks may be hampered by a more conservative government in Germany or (to a lesser extent) France. Germany, who has a considerable population of gastarbeiters from Turkey, might be disposed to have problems with Turkish entry into the EU, especially from the conservative or radical nationalist perspective. The same goes for the small but vocal party of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

Is there a trend in Europe towards more conservative politics? I think that not much can be made of it continent-wide. These domestic developments, however, may have considerable influence on the nature of the partnerships built around things like NATO and the EU. Europe is uniting but will always be composed of different nations with different leadership and different priorities. As Europe forges into the 21st century, new challenges and old problems still exist (for example, anyone looked at Kosovo recently? Still a mess. How 'bout places like Albania?)

These developments are important for Americans to understand because some of our strongest allies, trading partners and resources lie in Europe. Or we can keep saying "Fuck the French" and close ourselves off from the Continent, occasionally calling the British when we need a favor. We ignore developments at our peril.

Politics don't just go on here, y'know. It is too seductive of a bloodsport to be ignored. And from my perspective, I look to the words of Hunter Thompson who called politics "better than sex."

Amen to that, Good Doctor.

Terrorist, All-American

In the furor surrounding 9/11 and the new "war on terror," we tend to forget that there are and have been terrorist movements in the United States comprised of Americans attacking Americans. We need only to look back to Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to see that not all terrorists are foreigners, or are trained or equipped by international terror networks.

In terrorism studies, this terrorism is often called "nuisance terrorism," a term that I think downplays the violent crimes of these individuals. Their groups are mysterious, their aims are unreasonable and their actions violent for its own sake. They are idealistic and driven often by percieved repression or injustice.

PBS has again produced a wonderful program about a historical event that has considerable currency to goings-on today. It revolved around Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970's.

Movements like the SLA seem to be based around almost unattainable goals of ideological significance. Different from other movements of the time, the SLA was organized and dedicated to violent action against government and industry, thus the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. That dimension is an interesting one that leaves some intriguing questions: Was Patty Hearst brainwashed or did she eventually join willingly? Was this a classic case of the Stockholm Syndrome? Were the SLA violent opportunists, revolutionaries, terrorists? Did Patty Hearst play their game as some sick extended youthful rebellion? What part did her father play in getting her sentence commuted in 1979, if any?

These domestic terrorists, are they an extension of America's revolutionary birth or an indication of their own times and the fears and uncertainties that plague all times (more acutely, it seemed, in 1970's America)? Clearly, the SLA had a political agenda and propaganda to back it up. It did not, however, seem to participate in mass recruitment or outreach to the disaffected youth of the time. Did they see themselves as a revolutionary vanguard who would start and the people would follow? These groups are difficult to pin down apart from the violence that is involved in their actions. It is hard to generalize about them and even harder to spot patterns in their development. They span the spectrum from groups like the SLA to the militia movements. There is not much that they could agree on. So, what are they?

They appear at the fringes of American life with visions of a world they wish to bring back or create anew. They seem to reflect the most extreme form of dissolutionment with the lumbering oaf that is the American system. They are a reaction to this sort of sociopolitical torpor that emerges in all eras of history. They are in somewhat the same camp as protestors/activists but with one central difference. That is the question of means. Violence vs. peaceful protest. I think that this is the issue that is at the center of the problem. It all has to do with methods. When you put down the picket sign and the petition and pick up a gun, you are crossing the line.

Does that line need to be crossed in certain situations? Remember the Declaration of Independence calls people to replace the government if it is not serving the people. This is a rather weak legal precedent because the Declaration of Independence is not the law of the land. I agree that pressure and outrage are central pillars in the structure of protest, pillars that are necessary to the people being heard when they feel that they are voiceless. Violence, however, especially against innocent people is never justified. Ever.

Protest and anger at the powers-that-be are a cornerstone of American culture. It also seems that violence is a critical factor in the American psyche. When the two collide, history is made, the message is passed but people die for no good reason. We must continue a national dialogue of culture, to see where these two factors fit in our lives. If we do not, violence can be just around the corner.

Dialogue is certainly preferable to death.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Screwed Brittania

In considering the results and the path for the future after the elections in the U.K. two weeks ago, I came to the realization that this election was rife with problems and contradictions. Tony Blair, when he cast his lot with President Bush, started the wheels turning to redefine not only the U.S.-U.K. partnership but the fortunes of his own party, a party that he helped reshape and build.

For added insight, read the piece by Sidney Blumenthal in the Manchester Guardian.

First, the partnership. The US and the UK have always shared a vision in world affairs and a certain, if strained, cultural link. This partnership, around since the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, was defined in the current sense after World War II. The partnership between the two nations, due in no small part to the personal rapport between Roosevelt and Churchill, became the cornerstone of the Cold War west, the NATO alliance and the central push against the Warsaw Pact nations. After the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union (1989-1992), this partnership continued, although in a rather confused manner. It has so often been built on personal relationships between leaders with similar political outlooks and eerily similar fortunes.

If we look at the period from 1979 to the present, we see these personality pairs and what went wrong in a link between Blair and Bush43. Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), John Major (1990-1997) and Bush41 (1989-1993) and Tony Blair (1997-pres.) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001). The comparisons between these are obvious even to the casual observer and need not be repeated here. What is important is the fact that Tony Blair reconfirmed this link between the US and the UK in the aftermath of 9/11.

In the intervening years, Blair has realized the position that he is in because of supporting the U.S. not so much in Afghanistan (which was clearly a NATO Article 5 operation) but in Iraq. If he said no, this would have provided the Tories an opportunity to question Blair on his dedication to the relationship and the larger global war on terror. If he said yes, well, we know what has happened. He pulled off an electoral victory by simply avoiding the issue and running on his reputation as the engineer of "New Labour," having cleasned it of the old "loony left."

Blair is not long for power. He will step down as party chair and therefore as P.M., choosing a successor from the ranks. Labour will continue in power in Britain for some time, but they would be well to watch their backs. Dissatisfaction and dissolutionment with leadership that seems to be leading the country wrong can be a tough political situation. The Lib-Dems have gained ground as have the Tories. The era of New Labour may be coming to an end and Blair may have his relationship with the U.S. to blame.

The U.S. and the U.K. will doubtless always maintain an alliance. Will Britain turn towards Europe and away from the U.S.? Will the relationship become more of a pan-European one as the EU, NATO and the EDI expand? Will it always be the case, as Churchill famously said, that "Britain is in Europe, but not of Europe?" Stay tuned...

I know what you are thinking: "Will, you didn't mention Ireland!" Another issue, another day.

Too much commentary can be hazardous to your mental well-being. Digest and continue.

Sox vs. Cubs: Fun and Harmless Fanaticism?

That time of year has again arrived here in Chicago. Sides are being chosen. Reputations are being staked. The very social fabric of the city is being strained at several points. What is this? Political strife? Protest against injustice? Economic disadvantage taking arms against the oppressor?

Not even close. It is the first Sox/Cubs baseball weekend.

This is one issue that I allow the waves of fanaticism rush over me as I take up a position without consideration, debate or reason. I am a Sox fan. Simple as that. Why do I hate the Cubs and their fans? Because I do, that's why. They are different and wrong and should all weep and gnash their teeth at the thought of the loss they will suffer.

Why am I like this about baseball? The reason is actually quite simple. Sports are so insignificant in the greater picture of thigs, so devoid of actual meaning, that such unabashed blind faith is allowable. There is one condition: you must understand that this sort of behavior must be quarantined and not allowed to invade other areas of your brain. If not, then you become Ann Coulter, and no one wants that now, do they?

I realize that there are sociocultural meanings to baseball, most notably pointed out in George Will's 1987 book Men at Work. Will was, in my opinion, streching the point in arguing that baseball is a metaphor for life. Some of it worked, but most of it was awkward, ethereal and ultimately making too much of a really simple thing. I allow myself to become a raving loon for just a bit, get it out of the old system doing something brainless (like watching sports) then return to the more important questions of life. I think this perspective dovetails nicely with the piece that I wrote a few days ago about Dumarsais and the intellectual in society.

Sports are nothing more than an extension of meaningless media culture transmuted into ritualized combat whereby the fans identify with an ego mass and can be driven to frenzy by this identification and considerable amounts of intoxicating agents. I enter myself into this world confident in the fact that it is compartmentalized into its proper place. Then I can join in the craziness and emerge the same person, hung-over but essentially the same. It is rather cathartic if kept in perspective.

My life will not be materially changed by the outcome of these games. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about others of my townsmen. To them I say: gain perspective and think about your actions. Understand them for what they are and let that be that.

If not, then this mindset can and will spread to other areas of your brain, making you an inflexible dupe.

Have your fun, but keep your head about you. Leisure can become more than just fun.

American Red Cross and Gitmo: Hints From The Recent Past

In searching stories and news about the conditions at Guantanamo Bay and the life of the uncharged detainees there, I ran across a few items from the "past" that may lead more to question the assertion that there were no measures such as flushing a Koran used at the detention center. I get the feeling that Newsweek may have been onto something, but they got the "finger" put on them by the (White House/Pentagon/State Department) to keep the fall-out to a minimum. The use of psychological intimidation seems more plausible the more one reads about the situation at Gitmo.

Check out this BBC story from October 10, 2003.
Also, this New York Times stoy published on an NGO website on November 30, 2004.
Lastly, this statement from the American Red Cross seemingly distancing themselves from the ICRC and the Red Crescent in their discoveries at Gitmo.

In asymmetrical conflict, it seems natural to conclude that different methods of combat will be used. This is the nature of combat in the 21st century. What cannot change is a respect for human dignity that is absent from most combat situations, most notably in the detention of prisoners of war. The rules of combat have changed, and were changing in the latter half of the 20th century. The fact that every human being, guilty or not, has certain dignities by the mere fact of their humanity can never change. We would be well to remember this.

Newsweek, Sources and Trust: This Cannot Go Away

In the interest of all of the comments from yesterday's post of the transcripts from Imus in the Morning, I offer this information. This is the transcript of Imus and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post discussing the issue from the show on Wednesday, May 18. This discussion presents some new issues and other considerations about the meaning of the event and the next step, presented for those who don't have the honor of being up at 5:00 AM when Imus comes on the air.

Imus and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post talk about the now retracted Newsweek story claiming U.S. investigators at Guantanamo Bay attempted to humiliate Muslim prisoners by flushing a Koran down a toilet.

Imus: "So how are we supposed to look at this Newsweek thing?"

Howard Kurtz: "...As one of the biggest blunders in the history of modern media. The costliest half a sentence ever published by a magazine that I can remember. This whole thing is about half a sentence in a Periscope item and yet, you know, it led to these deadly consequences, riots around the world. And looking back at it, it's really hard to understand how this thing got into Newsweek. You know, as you know by now, one anonymous source who now it turns out didn't know what he was talking about. Newsweek acknowledges, 'Well gee maybe we should have thought through the consequences that this might set off.' Newsweek is usually a pretty good magazine. It is owned by the Washington Post Company, where I work, where they're editorially independent and I enjoy kicking them around. But I feel badly, because I don't think, unlike a lot of these, you know, this is not Jayson Blair, this is not Jack Kelly, nobody intended to commit any fabrication, but it was a pretty big screw up."

Imus: "Well we feel bad about it as well, but however, we have a pretty reliable reporter, Michael Isikoff...I mean he's not some, you know, he's not Jayson Blair or Robert Frank from the Wall Street Journal, he's you know, he's a pretty reliable guy. And he, with a source that he's obviously used before, so..."

Howard Kurtz: "And this is why, you know, no reporter will say this out loud, but you have a sort of a gut feeling in your stomach that this could possibly have happened to any of us. I mean I still think that Newsweek was somewhat reckless in not, in putting this in the magazine with only, you know, one guy. You know, what does he say? The guy didn't have any documents he said. He had seen some papers that this was going to be in a forthcoming report by U.S. military investigators. This of course about the Koran being flushed down the toilet. I mean it wasn't exactly the hardest nailed story that I have ever seen. But how many of us, day in and day out, you know, talk to sources? And I do think anonymous sources are way overused, especially in Washington, but talk to sources who tell us things that we say, 'Well, you know, this is a trustworthy guy,' we put it in the paper and you're always kind of afraid in the back of your mind, 'Gee what if it turns out to be wrong?' The funny thing about Isikoff being at the center of this is, you have Republicans and Conservatives now trying to use this to paint the media, the hated, dreaded, liberal, mainstream media, as anti-American, anti-military, heartless, not caring whether people die. I mean it's been some extremely heated rhetoric from the administration and from some Republicans on Capitol Hill. And yet Isikoff was their hero about six years ago when he wrote or tried to break, I should say, the Monica Lewinsky story. Newsweek famously didn't run it, but he was the guy who listened to the Linda Tripp tapes. In other words when he was going after Bill Clinton he was, he was a demi-God, and now he's being attacked by a lot of folks on the right."

Imus: "There are some great people at Newsweek... Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas and Jon Meacham. But the editor Mark Whitaker seems like a dope to me. He also, siding with Jim Lehrer and Brian Williams, he seems like he's in way over his head."

Howard Kurtz: "Well actually, I have a profile of him in today's paper. Dope is the furthest thing from a good description of him. I mean this is a guy who everybody says is just brilliant. He went to Harvard, he went to Oxford. He is not, by his own admission you know, the most polished television performer around. I mean, you know, he likes to let Isikoff and Fineman and Alter be the TV stars and he's more of a behind the scenes kind of editor and I think is less than fully comfortable being the out front guy. But, I'll say this though..."

Imus: "Well let Meacham do it then. At least Meacham is a lot more persuasive and appears to me to be at least able to articulate his thoughts better on television than this dope. I don't care if he went to Harvard or not. I know a lot of morons who went to Harvard by the way."

Howard Kurtz: "Well I'm sure that's true, but Whitaker is the captain of the ship and he's decided that he has to be the one to stick to the magazine."

Imus: "Get him out."

Howard Kurtz: "Here's what I was saying about that. I've covered as you know, the Jayson Blair story at the New York Times, the Jack Kelly story at USA Today and the Dan Rather debacle at CBS News. And in most of these cases, not all, but most of these cases, the top executives when something like this happens, when it hits the fan, go into the bunker, you can't get them on the phone, they put out statements, their PR people don't call you back and so forth. Whitaker, from the moment this happened, and I don't let Newsweek off the hook in any way, this was a terrible blunder, but within a day of being told by the Pentagon that your story was wrong, he apologized, put out an editor's note, put out his follow-up story and has returned my phone calls and the phone calls of other reporters around the clock and has gone on television. So whatever you want to say about his lack of electronic persuasiveness, he has not been hiding from this and I just think that he deserves some points for that."

Imus: "Is someone going to get fired here...should they?"

Howard Kurtz: "Well I'll leave that to the judgment of others. I don't usually call for people to be fired in these situations. I don't really think so. Here's why... I've asked Mark Whitaker that question a couple of times in the last forty-eight hours and he says while they feel badly and did it wrong, apologized, will change the rules and all of that... how do you fire a guy, you know because the likely culprit would be Mike Isikoff who A has been a very strong investigative reporter for you over the years, even though he didn't publish as big a scoop as you pointed out. B, who is doing his job? In other words, it wasn't like he heard it an elevator or something and put it in a magazine. He went to a source, who is described as a senior U.S. government official who Newsweek says had been reliable in the past, used frequently, who gave information that turned out not to be true. If you started firing every reporter who published something that somebody told him that turned out not to be true, you'd de-populate a lot of newsrooms. It seems to me that the ultimate responsibility here lies with the editors who put this in the magazine, because investigative reporters, by their nature, are aggressive, they are always pushing the envelope and they want to get all kinds of stuff in. But it's up to an editor to say, 'Well gee do we really want to go with one source here? Gee is it worth doing this if it's just one sentence and it could be inflammatory? Gee how do we really know it's really going to be in this military investigative report?' Apparently none of those things happened at Newsweek."

Culture: What Is It (Good For)?

In dealing with questions of identity and culture as I do in my work, I often bring my mind back from nineteenth century Ireland and wonder about the contours of these notions in our own day. It is indeed easy to ascribe to a Baudrialliardian viewpoint where the image has collapsed reality and we live in a state of hyper-reality where nothing, in a concrete sense, is real. I am trying to come to terms with ideas like this that seem to be so useful. There has to be something more to our "culture," hasn't there?

In the spirit of these questions, here is an excerpt from Todd Gitlin's 1995 book The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars. I think Gitlin presents an interesting perspective, and one that does not leave us totally hopeless:
  • "In recent decades, all kinds of secular commonality ideas have lost much of their cogency and power. The Enlightenment belief in progress rooted in the onward march of reason seems reserved for scientists or students of society who fancy themselves scientists; it is not a popular faith. The liberalism of individual rights is under fire for cultivating systematic irresponsibility and failing to offer a sense of community. The secularist, cosmopolitan young who wish to feel part of a global community turn to the disposable imagery of popular culture...that seem to inhabit a world without locality and speak some primitive language without depth. The weightless, spurious universalism of commercial culture, the thrill of new technologies for wiring together the world, the all-consuming blackness of Generation X-such attachments and detachments are alluring substitutes for deep belief in the whole human project. The consumerist utopia of the Mall Without Borders offers endless enticements, but hopes only to heighten the pleasures of the ephemeral. It offers no commonality but the lightest, no vision of the future but more fun. There are pleasures and addictions and evanescent communities galore to be found under the big tent of popular culture, but what there is not is a sense of common citizenship. Instead, people seek solidarity among those who resemble themselves (1)."

Much to think about there. While I resent the generalizations about "Generation X," of which I assume I am a part, I realize his trepidation with culture and its meaning today. Who are the arbiters of culture? Who should they be? As I have argued before, we need to be the makers of our culture, forming it to our specificiations. It cannot be derivative or it becomes vapid and meaningless. We must fight the hard fights for truth and understanding. We need to look at the hard issues, deal with the difficult problems that face us literally and otherwise on a daily basis.

What happens if we don't. I don't think I have to spell it out. Look around you and you can see the grip loosening every day.


1. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Owl Books, 1995) , 86-87.

Cafeteria Commentary

Just a few short comments on some items of possible interest:

Pick and choose, any way you look at it, we lose!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Journalists, Heed the I-Man!

Once again, Don Imus gets it right concerning the veritable shitstorm surrounding Newsweek and the Koran-flushing story. Here is a bit from Imus's show on Tuesday, May 17:

(For those who don't know, "Charles" is Charles McCord. He is Imus's long-standing news man)

Imus: "We're tired of this! We're tired of these anonymous sources. At least, if they are going to use anonymous sources, and Craig Crawford is right and others, and in some instances obviously they have to, but we need some sort of context. They don't provide any context. We don't know what this government official...this high government official who? Or if they can't be identified, why can't they be identified? How do we know? What insurances can they give us? People like Michael Isikoff and these other folks, that the person who they are talking to, knows what they are talking about. Can they put that in some sort of context so we have some sort of frame of reference?"

Charles: "...Something to base some sort of judgment on."

Imus: "About half the time when we have these dopey reporters on, and they try to tell me, and I've questioned it before, (I haven't) gone into great detail because I'm just jerking their chain without really thinking about it. When you talk about a high ranking official from the administration told me... Well who? If they could not have done it by themselves, why couldn't they? What's the motive of giving you this information you moron."

Sometimes it takes a haggard, angry, cynical ex-alcoholic and cokehead to get to the bottom of things. Hunter Thompson is dead, so we must seek it where it may be found.

Need to keep the bastards honest.

Intellectuals Are People?

As a participant in the "academy" and an intellectual/academic denizen of the ivory tower (and intending to make this my place in life), I have often considered how to strike the balance between "social life" and academic pursuit and meditation on issues of great import. It seems that it is more comfortable and easy to go one way or another. Either become the sheltered academic who shuns and scorns the "real world" or fall into the typical culture of anti-intellectualism which is endemic in the United States (in a sense, distance oneself from the nerds).

In my readings, I have recently encountered just such a discussion that really shed considerable light on the subject of the intellectual in society. It comes from the great Encyclopedie, compiled by Jean Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot in the forty years preceding the French Revolution in what is commonly called "the Enlightenment." I will not get into debates about the meaning of this movement here, but suffice to say that this was a time when a certain sector of European society began a period of great intellectual effluescence considering the place of man in the world and the limits of the human mind to concieve society, politics, economy and culture anew.

The particular passage is from the definition of a philosophe from the Encyclopedie, which was written by French grammarian and philosopher Cesar Chesneau Dumarsais in the 1740's.

I will let M. Dumarsais speak for himself:
  • "The philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection: he walks in the dark but by a torch."
  • "Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes is to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful and for probable what is only probable...he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgement."
  • "The philosophic spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness which relates everything to true principles; but the philosopher does not cultivate the mind alone, he carries his attention and needs further."
  • "Our philosopher does not believe in exiling himself from this world...he wishes to find pleasure with others, and in order to find it, he must make it: thus, he tries to be agreeable to those with whom chance and his choice have thrown him, and at the same time, he finds what is agreeable to him. He is an honest man who wishes to please and make himself useful."
  • "The majority of the great...are savage towards those whom they do not believe to be their equals. The ordinary philosophers who meditate too much or rather meditate badly, are savage towards everybody; they flee men and men avoid them. But our philosopher who knows how to strike a balance between retreat from and commerce with men, is full of humanity."

Oh, what eternal strife to strike the perfect balance! We should hope to get close in our lives.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Trading Old Wars For New

With the breaking news of former CIA operative and Venezuelan security official Luis Posada Carriles and his detention by U.S. officials for the terrorist bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976, the United States faces a real crossroads in its relations not only with Cuba but a defining moment in the "international war on terror."

Read the story from ABC News. Once there, also check out Ted Koppel's interview with the president of the Cuban National Assembly.

This case presents a real litmus test for the momentum of U.S. foreign policy in a post-Cold War world. Granted, this guy was on our payroll and was working covertly for the U.S. government in an almost Achmed Chalabi-like way during some of the tensest years of the Cold War. He was involved in the resort bombings in 1997 and an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in 2000. Up until then, he was one of many in-country people that the CIA had around the world organizing intellegence and effecting operations against what were percieved as hostile regimes.

All of that changed, or should have changed, with the event and aftermath of 9/11. With a newly declared "war on international terrorism," the United States seemed to re-focus foreign policy with this one goal in mind. It seems that we would, for once, come to the realization that the world of the last fifty years of the 20th century was gone forever. A war on international terrorism should not mean that we pick and choose. It seems clear to me that such an action means seeking terrorists where they may be found and bringing them to task for their acts of political violence.

This man is a terrorist and needs to face justice for his actions. Naturally, there are some sources of resistance in the United States. As one may expect, the Cuban-American community is outraged that the U.S. would even consider turning Carriles over to Venezuelan officials for trial. This man is somewhat of a hero to these exile Cubans for his actions against the Castro regime. I don't know how long the militant anti-Castro Cuban-Americans will continue to be a concern in the larger political scheme (I guess as long as Florida is a contested state in every national election...so no time soon apparently). There is also a hint of resistance in the actions of the U.S. government in not deciding what to do with Carriles. It is in this decision that the U.S. will bear its real soul concerning the legacy of Cold War foreign policy and the war on terrorism.

If the U.S. turns Carriles over, it will show the international community that the U.S. is committed to the war on terror, even against a former ally. It would prove that we are searching out terrorists past and present and bringing them to account for their violent actions. It would show that we bankrolled Carriles and his ilk for Cold War expediency and intellegence gathering during a period when the world was divided into U.S. and Soviet polarities. He was useful to us once, but now he is a terrorist. This should have been realized years ago, but how many times have we said that since 9/11 in regards to terrorism.

I fear that the opposite will happen. He will be given asylum or immunity by the United States. Where does this leave us? It shows that the U.S. is willing to be selective in hunting and prosecuting terrorists. It proves that we just can't shake the old, calcified habits of the Cold War and face the realities of a new world order. It will show that the U.S. is committed to a 46-year old rivalry that pitted the greatest industrial and military power the world had seen since the height of the British Empire in the late 19th century against a small Caribbean nation with one of the most charismatic and stubborn leaders in recent memory. Old habits die hard, and none more than U.S. intransigence vis-a-vis Cuba. If we follow our old ways, I think that confidence in our dedication to "total war" against terrorism will be further shaken, especially amongst our partners in Europe and Central/South America.

Stay true to your mission and send Carriles to trial or let him stay here and again be called a two-faced liar and be accused of putting the U.S. prejudices and old quarrels before the new modality of international relations.

To look backward or foreward? May our leaders have the foresight to choose wisely.

Star Wars: A Thoughtful Consideration Then What I Really Think

With all of the commercials, product placement, toys and other such garish hype, I have finally been forced to consider where I stand vis-a-vis the Star Wars industry; this is not just the latest incarnation, but the entire span that, in fact, goes back to the year I was born. I have come to two positions, derived from different parts of my psyche that often fight with each other.

First, my background in academics (in particular social and cultural history). It seems to me that Star Wars speaks to a large segment of the population in their search for belonging and meaning in a postmodern condition where image is divorced from reality and that which goes on on-screen can be just as real for people as interpersonal relationships (sad, but seems increasingly true). What makes people like these movies with such fervor? I believe that it can be attributed to a couple of factors: the savvy of the advertisers in selling a bill of goods, a need on the part of the "fan" to belong to an ego mass that has a particular purpose and shares peculiar (in more sense than one) histories and contours and the combination of techno "gee-whizzery" and a clear moral/ethical message with out the necessary complications that seems reflective of American popular culture. This movie brings people together in a way similar to religion or ideology. It gives the fan a common history and set of values. They also live in the same worlds with the same characters and same conflicts. In an often morally bankrupt world, these true believers seek out meaning and depth where it may be found. If that happens to be in a high-budget commercial enterprise about spacemen, then so be it.

Is this an unfair characterization of the average person who will see these movies? Yes, in many ways it is. For most, it will most likely be a completely forgettable piece of computer-generated sounds and images that will provide temporary entertainment before retuning to more important pursuits. It will be another one of the useless bits of flotsam on the seas of modern American commerical film. For the dedicated, however, this can prove to be an important determinant in their group ethos. I seem to remember when the first of the second group of movies came out a few years back, these people were disappointed, really disappointed. In any event, if this enterprise brings them joy and they don't harm me or my property in the process, let them have as much of it as they can take.

Now, what I really think. I think that this is just another piece of quasi-religious sputum designed to give the hopeless something to buy and consume in hopes of gaining some insight into their lives and their place in the cosmos. Want to understand the moral universe of Star Wars? Watch some old westerns and read some mythology followed by The Hero With One Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. That should about do it. This film is no different from any other piece of crap that is made today. It is made to generate revenue not so much from the film as from the merchandising deals, product placement, books and all of the other attendant crap that will be on clearance by Christmas. It is designed to separate dorks from their money. This is a great market because these people usually don't recreate in adult ways (booze, porn, electoral politics) and they have an amazing amount of disposable income. Couple this with the fact that their raison d'etre is a merchandising/media concept designed to sell product, and what you have is a merchandiser's dream.

So, let the line up and let the spending begin! All for a movie about stuff that never happened to spacemen and creatures in other worlds. Why not create a few worlds of your own? These are whatever you make them, take on many forms and they are completely free.

Have your own vision, or at least try to take it back.

Quit being a brainless shill for some bastard who doesn't need any more money than he had in 1983.

Or, if you must, watch it, forget it and move on.

Friday, May 13, 2005

A Little Something For The Week-End?

Seeing as we are heading into Friday, here are a few fun things for you to do. If they are not as fun as I am leading on, do what it is you normally do on Fridays. I usually have a fight with a bottle of bourbon. I play to lose. Anyway, here goes...


Teach A Man To Short Sell And Buy Puts...

After putting some thought into the issue of Social Security reform (which is I daresay more than would be allowed by the 24-hour news cycle), I have come up with two observations which I feel are important and related.

First, people need to take a more positive and calm attitude toward managing their own financial futures. Opponents of change would have people believe that their money will be taken from some safe, quiet place and invested in lottery tickets, off-shore casinos, jai alai wagering in Miami, Russian mob ponzi schemes and cockfights. Actually, the investments that would be offered would be pretty boring and mostly safe (nothing is completely safe...read yesterday's post concerning risk). One of the ones that was mentioned was a government bond fund which is essentially putting your money in an investment that is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S government. It is a bigger dollar equivalent of all of those savings bond that boring uncle gave you every birthday. Besides, isn't choice better than the lack of choice? When it comes to my money, I certainly think so.

That leads me to my second point. If such a plan was to be passed, there needs to be concomitant moves for investor education for all participants. For younger people, it would be easy to integrate this into school curriculum. For everyone else, there are a couple of options. One possibility is to have the financial industry and its several organizations and members offer subsidized (read: free) seminars to teach investors the basics of the market (these are huge corporations, it would be a community service and a huge write off...just to get 'em in the door). That is just one possibility. This would be essential if such a scheme were to work. I personally used to work in the financial services industry on the floor of a major exchange in Chicago, so I have a decent understanding of the markets. This is not so for many people who find it confusing, intimidating or even sinister. This should not be the case as the basics are simple to grasp and can even prove interesting. And who knows...people might actually like it. Maybe not, but who knows anyway?

Is this the best solution? Not by a long shot. I believe that everyone should be able to keep all of that money and make their own decisions for all of their investments. Far be it from the government to allow people to decide how their own money gets spent. Shouldn't seem far-off, but it seems to be...and the Republicans claim to be the party of smaller, less intrusive government. When was THAT ever true?

Well, I have to get going. Cockfight starts in twenty minutes.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Risk: Deal With It

All in all, today's happenings in Washington went off well. It seemed to me that a good job was done by security personnel and that this served as an left-handed drill for a more serious situation. Luckily, it turned out that it was a lost pilot and all is forgiven.

If you are not sure what I'm talking about or were loaded or in a coma today, read the story in the Washington Post.

Two things, however, stuck with me out of today's ordeal, brought to you in vivid color by the twenty-four hour news cycle. First, we still seem to think that there could be a better way to do everything related to national security. Jets were scrambled, but not fast enough. People were evacuated, but not quick enough. The threat was not neutralized, but not before it could have turned ugly. Security is an ever-changing and flexible notion, especially in a post 9/11 world. In responding to an asymmetrical attack on American soil, there are plans in place and it seems that they were followed as well as could be expected today. The problem that I have is that some people still seem to think that all risk of dying in an attack or incident can be eliminated if we just work hard enough. This is just not possible. It bears repeating that the world is a dangerous place. People around the globe have lived with fears like this for years. It seems that we were roused from our slumber with the attacks on 9/11.

We figured that, after the fall of the USSR in 1991, that there would be a certain time where we would enjoy a peace dividend. This was not to be, but we seemed blind to this reality. As I said above, the rest of the world has had to deal with the possibility of dying in a terrorist attack for quite some time. One need only look at the last fifty years of the twentieth century in western Europe. If you lived in Northern Ireland or Great Britain, you lived in fear of attack by the Provisional IRA. If you lived in Italy, you had the Red Brigades to fear. If in Germany, you had the Baader-Meinhof gang/Red Army Faction. If in Spain, it was ETA. This is just a few of the worries, not to mention what was going on elsewhere in the world. Living entails risk. If we ignore this, we might as well end it all. Risk is the center of a lot of what we do, at the smallest level just going out in public. The sooner we get over the fallacy of a perfect safety of all within our lifetimes, the sooner we can move on and live our lives.

Secondly, and lastly, why was it that the President of the United States was not immediately informed? It seems to me that it is the job of the President to be abreast of these things rather than going on with a bike ride in the D.C. suburbs. A lot of questions spring to mind. Did the Secret Service themselves know (it seems they MUST have)? If the situation did escelate, would the president be involved in the decison to shoot down a private plane? If not him, then who? Does this not seem oddly similar to the president's demeanor on the morning of 9/11 in that school in Florida? Where was the chain of command here? Did things actually work, or was this an accident?

I think that we would all do well to review the 9/11 Commission Report and ask wether any of these big ideas are being implemented or did Congress just slam something through to get out of town last December?

We need to realize the risk of life in our times, but we cannot be blind when it comes to the situations that now involve not just those in power or with influence but each and every one of us. Ignorance is no excuse nor does it have to be permanent.

Updates Twain

Here are updates to two posts on this site. One is serious and one involves puppets.
  1. The Army will suspend recruiting for one day, May 20 of this year, to "reinstruct" recruiters. As this story suggests, more and more of these cases are surfacing. This is normal, as it takes less and less courage as time goes on. They are trying to put out the fires before they spread. I suspect, however, that people have had a hunch for a while (as I suggested yesterday) that these people are no good.
  2. The puppets of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater CAN BE YOURS! The folks at Countdown with Keith Olbermann are auctioning the original MJPT puppets on Ebay, I imagine in hopes of attracting the likes of Golden Palace casino on their jag of buying the odd and that of questionable use. As it seems, the morons are out already as the bidding is over $15,000. All the money goes to charity and all is in good fun. But, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, "who ARE these people?"

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Lie, Cheat and Steal? If It Gets The Boots On The Ground.

This developing story out of Arvada, Colorado is truly sickening, but not completely surprising. To sum up shortly, a local high school newspaper reporter posed as a dropout, drug-using teenager and went to the local army recruiter. The recruiter then proceeded to instruct 17-year old David McSwane to buy a kit to help him pass a drug test and go online to buy a fake high school diploma. This sleazeball then also said that he could falsify the results of the ASVAB taken by McSwane to make it "passing."

Read the full story at the website of Denver's CBS affiliate.
Here's the Army's expected "we'll-get-to-the-bottom-of-this message, also at CBS4-Denver.

This is truly a new low. I do realize, naturally, that this is one incident in one place and one recruiter. The fact, however, that this high school kid (who if he keeps this up will be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein) could walk in, play a role and get the reaction that he got causes one to wonder.

The military forcing conscription is by no means a new thing. Impressment of men into the military was a major issue in the War of 1812. Men during the Civil War, with the means, could buy their way out of service by paying poor immigrants or rural dwellers to do their service. More recently, the draft filled the ranks of the U.S. military during the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam war and also during peace time. This non-voluntary conscription fortunately ended after the problems with draft evasion during the conflict in Vietnam (the year was 1973). From that day to this, we have had an all-volunteer military (the way it should always be in a free society) and things seemed to be fine.

Comes the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the protracted situation in Afghanistan and the military finds itself in quite a state. Seems that a combination of a stronger economy and an even stronger desire by young men and women not to get killed by a suicide bomber on the streets of Baghdad. Recriuitment is at all time lows. Check the stats and story in the Honolulu Observer. Now comes this situation in Colorado. The military is showing a less than honorable side with this incident.

Military recruiters always struck me as being akin to car salesmen, television preachers (most preachers, really) and other such unsavory catergories. They seem to try to play to your basest, lowest, knee-jerk sensibilities. The seemed like a lower form of life to unleash a barrage of empty promises and bluff language about God, country and freedom all in an attempt to get you to essentially sign away your whole life for years. They prey on the fearful, naive, ignorant, poor, uneducated, hopeless and shiftless. Like a smarmy funeral director, they can hit you in your weakest moment and get you to make the Faustian bargain.

Where does this leave the military? It seems, like many paths in life, this is a great fit for some people and they go on to a rich and rewarding life. It can be a way to fulfill a psychosocial need to serve your nation, but also make a life for yourself, learn new things and hell, who knows, you may get to kill people all over the world! In other words, the military should not be at all surprised at the problems that they face. The military is a career choice, one of many. That's the great part about an all-volunteer force; it should be made of people who WANT to be there. Hard to do in a war sans exit strategy or hope for resolution, but hey, few in power are blameless for this one.

Is any career choice worth dying for? This is a question that one must ask before comitting to any high-risk line of work.

They do not need help from a dirty, sleazy con-man trying to herd the sheep onto the ever-expanding minefield of entangled world politics.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A "Republic of Letters" or a Dictatorship of Access?

Continuing on yesterday's theme, we left off with the question of providing a voice for the voiceless. If we look at an example from the eighteenth century, we can see that the supposedly voiceless were not really so; in Paris of the time, au contraire.

Cultural historian Robert Darnton has argued that popular speech and writing were a considerable political and literary force in eighteenth century Paris. Darnton maintains that there were intricate networks of communication and dispersal for the rough doggerel and popular songs/poetry/fables and the like. These networks extended throughout French society providing these intertwining arrangements where speech could (and did) pass from the streets to be read by those at Versailles (1). These writings, in a real way, showed the political concerns of the day and the reaction of the bulk of urban France to them; everything from the mistresses of Louis XV to the dissolute nature of the aristocracy (2). These texts evolved from their original forms, changing with the teller and with the situation of the day; they influenced each other and their readers to the point where Darnton cleverly dubs it "rampant intertextuality (3)." Darnton concludes by asserting that people in the eighteenth century made sense of often baffling news by fitting it into narrative forms that had cultural currency for them; they were reinforced in their interpretations by the many rhetorical forms that composed the political folklore of their world (4).

How does this inform the discussion of access to methods of political argument and the seemingly elitist modality that emerges in the bourgeois worlds described by Habermas and Chartier? I think the most valuable for our times is the idea of news taking cultural forms that are current and meaningful to different populations. It seems inconceivable, but cable news is a cultural form that seems to speak to many Americans and their cultural sensibilities. So do many of the other outlets of the the "conventional media." What of those who have cultural diferences, real or percieved? What are they to do with the news? Are they just ignorant?

I believe this is where Darnton's argument comes into play and has real meaning for us in the "modern" world. Concern for the world cannot take simple and safe forms that the majority finds current and profitable. Granted, these forms seem to dominate the cultural landscape. In this sense, the people of eighteenth century Paris had it easier; they inhabited a culture that was of their own making. Ours seems to be an imposed culture, made up of commodified elements and fictive bits of "tradition" that can be emphasized for effect or packaged for enjoyment. We, therefore, must dig deeper, look closer at the totality of our culture. We must seek those "outsider" voices that, miraculously, live beyond the pale of Fox News. How are we to do this? We must take the advice of another man of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, and "DARE TO KNOW!"

We must be endless seekers of the different, the skewed, the cacophonous, the offbeat and the marginalized. We must use these great information technologies of our day to seek and make plain these cultures that make different sense of the world than we do. It is only in this task that we can truly understand ourselves not as cogs in a culture that was created for us and done TO us. We must be the authors and finishers of our own worlds, worlds where ideas are not under control. These must be places where the fullness of human expression in all its many forms live in constant conversation.

What we need is not a "Republic of Letters." What we need is a direct democracy of human expression.

1. Robert Darnton, George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), 35-36
2. Ibid., 47.
3. Ibid., 73.
4. Ibid., 74.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Are Blogs the New "Republic of Letters?"

I, as a historian of early modern Europe, have been considering this question in relation to bigger issues of public and private spheres as well as the development of public opinion as the premier arbiter of taste, policy and the general direction in life beginning in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In doing this, I was struck by questions relating to the blog phenomenon and the expansion of communication engendered by electronic communication. First, I will present two theoretical viewpoints and then I shall comment on these, relating the arguments into a picture of the place of new "information media" in the realm of public discourse. Centrally, I will argue that while the internet seems to expand the realm of public opinion, there still are factors (as there were in the eighteenth century) that limit access and give a decidedly circumscribed bent to much of the discourse.

Sociologist/philosopher Jurgen Habermas proposed a model of a growing bourgeois public sphere in the "age of Enlightenment." Habermas contends that the public sphere was composed of the state and official court culture, a heavily controlled milieu where the participants and subjects were limited to official notions of sociability and the whims of the royal household. The private sphere, conversely, was composed most importantly of the public sphere of the political realm and the world of letters as well as the commercial interaction of the marketplace (1). He also asserts that the institutions of this public sphere needed to, at first, hide the exposition of their public reason in secret societies and the criticism of the arts; this would expand with increased commerical congress on a continental scale as markets grew coupled with the expansion of literacy among the middle classes of society (2). He concludes by arguing that this new public sphere was comprised of property owners who asserted their role as human beings by attempting to influence society, culture and politics with the aforementioned excercise of criticism now applied to public life (3).

Following many of the same themes, historian Roger Chartier argues that through access to ideas and writing by a literate public built a new political culture where public opinion, constituted in the open and without an institution, usurped power from the private and localized monarchy (4). This dissemination of printed material gave rise to a public that had no visible presence, not reliant on proximity (5). Chartier, however, qualifies these arguments with a discussion of the difference between ideas of the "public" and the "people." The public was understood under much the definition given by Habermas with an increased emphasis on literacy as the "sheepgate" for entry into the realm of the "public (6)." Those who were considered to be "the people" were still considered as those who were led by passion, ignorant and illiterate. The new court of public opinion had little place for the "rabble," considered to be violent and easily manipulated-the greatest subjects of a paternalistic monarch (7). The public, therefore, was an exclusive group comprised of urban, literate people who would, as the eighteenth century progressed, make their influence known in the halls of power in Europe. It was from this group that the French Revolution would be ideologically born.

What do these developments of the eighteenth century have to do with the "blogosphere?" I think that there are two relations, one positive and one negative. First, the positive. Blogs, for me, represent the continuation of this global community of ideas and reasoned discussion. Just as the people of the eighteenth century used the latest in print technology to print journals and newspapers, we use blogs, message boards and the like to debate ideas of the day and enter our thoughts into this exchange of ideas. In this way, I think that the essence of the "Republic of Letters" lives on in many blogs; their authors concerned with developments in the larger society feeling compelled to share their ideas and debate in a robust public forum.

Negatively, however, I think that Chartier's argument about a distinction between people and public and Habermas's contention that this was a bourgeois phenomenon speak to the limited scope and nature of the blogs and the like. Just as literacy was the deciding factor for entry into debate in the past, access to computers, education and resources are the stumbling blocks for wider participation in our own day. Not all have access or opportunity to do these things. Today, with 24-hour cable "news" bombardment, soul-draining entertainment brought directly into the home and decreased opportunities for economic success, the "people" seem to have again been shoved out of the opinion pool by those who's very ideas define that unseen community. Like their eighteenth century counterparts, they have a voice but it can only be heard in relation to the culture that would not have them as a component.

How can these voices be heard? Where can the voiceless gain a platform into the new digital "Republic of Letters?" Tomorrow, I will discuss another historical paralell to this dynamic of communication. Here we will see that perhaps I paint an overly dark portrait of the possibilities of the blogosphere. We will look back to eighteenth century Paris to see what the people in the streets were saying and who was paying attention. We will also look at ourselves, wondering how the persistance of communities of ideas pass through technologies of knowledge to shape the world as we know it.

1. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Society, trans. by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 30.
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Ibid., 56.
4. Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 30.
5. Ibid., 32.
6. Ibid., 36-37.
7. Ibid., 33.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Questions of Questionable Importance

Just some small stuff and comments today. Consider these wire service table scraps in the form of a question. Working up some bigger things for later this week.
  • MSNBC changing names? It's not surprising that Microsoft wants to get its hands off of the "sick man" of cable news. Their only redeeming programming, Don Imus and Keith Olbermann, is far overshadowed by that braying ass Chris Matthews, legal sleazemonger Dan Abrams and Joe Scarborough who seems like a door-to-door bible salesman with a television show.
  • So, Laura Bush is funny now? More realistically, she can read a prepared statement and takes coaching better than her husband. Was it really shocking that she has a sense of humor? Being around THAT guy for how many years?
  • A 9/11 soap opera/mini-series on Fox? Only Rupert Murdoch's gang at Fox would pull something like this. Didn't they see the episode of South Park that said a disaster cannot be entertaining until 23.7 years after it happens?
  • Why do I still laugh when I read things like this?

I promise. I can and will do better.