Bad move, Leo

Dingsheim_StKilian_Leo_IX

Maybe we shouldn’t blame St Leo for the Orthodox/Roman split in 1054 (seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it?). But he certainly teed it up for his Legate, wonderfully named Humbert, whose was the proximate curial slipper that kicked over the hornet’s nest. Not quite a thousand years later, the consequences continue to reverberate:

Syriza in Athens and Putin in Moscow: An Unholy Alliance?

[Oy vey!] the troubling attitudes of Syriza and its leaders in foreign policy…

Syriza has chosen to rule in alliance with 13 deputies from the rightist party of Independent Greeks, which gives the new government a majority. But why did a militant neo-Marxist phenomenon like Syriza find itself wedded to a conservative force like the Independent Greeks?

Information about the background of this puzzling lash-up is dismaying, and indicators point to meddling from Moscow….

The first foreign official to visit prime minister Tsipras was Russian ambassador Andrey Maslov, who soon invited defense minister Kammenos to visit Moscow. Putin echoed the welcome. Meanwhile, aside from its criticism of European economic policies, the Tsipras cabinet has dissociated itself definitively from Western sanctions against Moscow over the seizure of Crimea and other Russian armed intrigues in Ukraine.

This piece was written by somebody named Steven Schwartz, who seems to be associated with an organization called “The Institute for Islamic Pluralism”. (Funny… you don’t *look* Islamic.) But of course other, less obviously ridiculous figures have worried about some sort of entente between Syriza and Russia. With good reason, I hope and pray; and my prayers on this topic ascend in Latin and Greek impartially. In fact I may brush off the Old Church Slavonic grammar and make a stab at that.

Ah, those Greeks. Not only are they making a break from Miss Merkel’s Austerity Academy; they seem to be going AWOL from the NATO citadel.

This all makes me very very happy.

m4s0n501

Big data, big dreams

professor

We all know that Google and Amazon and Facebook know everything about us, right? This bothers some people — it bothers me, for example — and not others. But what bothers the Chronicle of Higher Education is that the lords of Big Data aren’t sharing it with… academics:

[W]hat should be an opportunity for social science is now threatened by a three-headed monster of privatization, amateurization, and Balkanization. A coordinated public effort is needed to overcome all of these obstacles….

While many folks are legitimately concerned about privacy in an era of Internet giants, we think that these private firms and public-sector agencies should be made to share their data more—not less—but with the National Science Foundation, not the National Security Agency….

Rather than just apply to Yahoo to work with its data in a silo, researchers would be able to link such proprietary data to other, diverse sources of information including those of other firms and government agencies, or even to newly collected information.

Gotta admire the chutzpah.

What’s the German for ‘mission civilatrice’?

bundesbank

Old joke:

Holger, from Frankfurt, arrives at the Athens airport.
Customs official: Name?
Holger: Holger von Alteboesefeind.
Customs official: Occupation?
Holger: Not ziss time. Chust visitingk.

A few more elections like the recent ones in Greece, and I may have to reconsider some long-held opinions. Oh sure, sure, I know, what will come of it, all a big fizzle, no doubt, no doubt, but it’s been pretty damn exhilarating up to this point. Mostly because of what it implies about how public opinion can change dramatically after a few years of what the new Greek PM, Alexis Tsipras, called “fiscal waterboarding”. If nothing else, Syriza’s willingness to use blunt and accurate language is a breath of fresh air, or rather, what a breath of fresh air would be to… to… well, to a person being waterboarded.

Will Amurricans ever stop trying to be ersatz Romans and start learning from the Greeks instead? I know: sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Not least among the pleasures in this recent turn of events is the constipated rhetoric effortfully squeezed out by various solemn hard-money Germans. It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but here’s a good one, from Martin Jaeger, identified as a spokesman for the German finance ministry:

“We are prepared to work further with Greece … But we will not force our help onto Athens.”

And Athens is no doubt very grateful to Berlin for its manly restraint. That forced help is a bitch, and particularly a bitch when it’s Made In Germany.

Another, less Pecksniffian and more in the old Pickelhaube mode:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the Greeks should abide by their commitments, adding: “There’s no arguing with us about this and, what’s more, we are difficult to blackmail.”

As if all this weren’t enough to gladden my gristly old heart, Syriza has entered into a coalition with the small right-wing party ANEL, which really makes me giddy with delight. ANEL has the usual anti-immigrant craziness and a deep romantic attachment to the established Greek Orthodox church, but it is also solidly anti-austerity and has no use at all for the Germans. So here we have realized the terrible specter of a left-right populist alliance leaving the respectable, responsible centrists and liberals high and dry.

This splendid and exemplary piece of opportunism — in the best sense of the word — on Syriza’s part has disappointed a few of my more beautiful-souled Lefty comrades, of course, but surprisingly few. Most of us seem to get what a brilliant move it is.

Comment cartoon by Ellie Foreman-Peck

Nous sommes Charlie

french-cops

Clearly the martyrs of the Rue Nicolas-Appert didn’t die in vain:

[New York ]Police Commissioner Bratton [announced today a] new 350 cop unit, called The Strategic Response Group, [which] will be dedicated to “disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities” against attacks like the hostage situation in Sydney, which the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller said was an inevitability in NYC.

This new squad will be used to investigate and combat terrorist plots, lone wolf terrorists, and… protests. “It is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton said, according to CBS.

“They’ll be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not,” Bratton explained. “They’ll be equipped with all the extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns — unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.” Capital NY adds that these officers will also be used “to assist on crime scenes, and help with crowd control and other large-scale events.”

… Bratton said Mayor de Blasio was on board, and he expected the City Council to be as well.

No doubt Bratton will prove to be entirely correct in his sanguine expectations about de Blasio and, needless to say, the City Council.

I’m mildly surprised to hear that the NYPD doesn’t already have every cop toy a porker could possibly dream of. But maybe Bratton watched a lot of TV during the CH lockdown, and sensed that the tres soigne porc francais had a certain je ne sais quoi that he couldn’t quite identify, and characteristically concluded that it must have something to do with firepower. I’d almost be willing to bet that he orders French machine guns.

But if he expects the New York oinkerie to look anything like their French counterparts, he needs to recruit them from Williamsburg, not Rockland County.

French-police-special-forces

Culling the herd

Sheldon-Silver

I seldom have much use for prosecutors, but like a stopped clock, perhaps they can be right twice a day. The most unspeakable politician in New York(*), Sheldon Silver, shown above, has just been indicted on a lengthy list of corruption charges by the somewhat uncle-Festerish Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, shown below.

Preet-Bharara

Old Shellie has been mentioned here before, but it would require a thick book, written perhaps by Evelyn Waugh, to do anything like justice to his Lord Of Misrule decades running the New York state assembly, and forming one of the troika that run the state. (The other two are the governor and the state senate majority leader. Legislative districts in New York are so precisely gerrymandered that the senate nearly always has a Republican majority and the Assembly a democratic one. There is in fact honor among thieves.)

Shellie, of course, is a Democrat. Just sayin’.

It seems quite unlikely that the legislature will be “cleaned up” by prosecutorial smash-and-grab raids like this, amusing though they are. At any rate I don’t expect it. I imagine that the legislature will continue to be run on the current bought-and-paid-for basis for the foreseeable future. And I imagine that the prosecutors will continue to swoop in from time to time, seize some hapless plump grazer in Albany’s lush pastures, and hold an eclatant press conference.

This is, of course, good for the prosecutors and their political ambitions. It may even be good for the Legislature. Culling the herd, you might say.

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(*) Or maybe the second-most. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a very strong contender, and one can only hope that he and Shellie will someday be cellmates and have a lot of time to argue the point between themselves.

St Charlie

coran

Voltaire, who was perhaps the most distinguished French Islamophobe since Charles Martel, and the only one, ever, with any charm, once said that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. The same might be said about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Whether it was really spontaneous, or some ginned-up police provocation, hardly matters. It’s been a brilliant success.

In the name of vague and unexamined notions like “free speech” and “satire”, all kinds of ordinarily reasonable, skeptical, good-hearted people have enlisted in the Clash of Civilizations, on behalf of the folks who published the charming image above, shortly after the Egyptian military coup of 2013.

It’s extraordinarily depressing now to listen in on the chatter of people I usually respect and admire. This one somehow got them where they lived, and while they would no doubt deplore — retrospectively — the uses of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or the Reichstag fire, or the Zimmermann telegram, or remember-the-Maine, they’ve swallowed this latest one hook, line and sinker.

Who was that wiseacre who observed that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history? I’m afraid he got it right.

Below, another product of French enlightenment.

burqa

Charlie? Moi, non

je-ne-suis-pas-charlie

Nobody should have to die just because he’s an asshole. Talk about a holocaust. But Charlie Hebdo was a nasty bigoted shitrag, and I for one decline to join the stampede of righteous indignation — as if some great principle, like free speech for example, were at stake here.

Let’s start with that concept, actually. There is no such thing as free speech, never has been, and probably shouldn’t be. If I walk into a bar and inform the first plug-ugly I see that his mom was recently laid off from a house of ill repute, I’m likely to get pounded for my pains, and quite right too. If the Charlie massacre suggests to smug complacent humorists softly ensconced behind the police lines of the First World that they can’t rely on impunity if they make fun of lesser breeds’ religion, well then, perhaps the Carlists will not have died in vain. I hope Richard Dawkins is holed up in a secure undisclosed location somewhere, quavering like a Victorian soprano, and sporting a false beard and a turban.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the intrinsic charm and value of something called “satire”, as if it were all of a piece. Dean Swift wrote satire, and so did Der Sturmer, a satirical publication much given, like Charlie, to cartoons featuring big noses and bushy eyebrows(*). We can still read the one with pleasure and intense enthusiasm, but the other is pretty distressing. Perhaps the value of satire depends in part on who is being satirized, and why. Perhaps it even depends on who’s enjoying it. There are people with whom I would not care to share even a harmless taste — fly-fishing, say.

Of course what complicates the picture in the case of C-Hebdo is the strong whiff of provocateurism the thing gives off. When something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

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(*) Its editor, Julius Streicher, was hanged at Nuremberg. So much for free speech.

What goes around, comes around

eric garner

The cops kill, and kill, and kill; and finally a couple of ‘em get killed. There’s been much tear-shedding as a result, but my own eyes are bone dry, dry as the vertebrae of some ancient fossil reptile.

I know nothing of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the collateral damage in this case, except that they were cops. This fact strongly prejudices me against them; but prejudice is merely prejudice, and it must be disregarded. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Wenjian and Rafael were, as individuals, dear good people; mild and harmless to one and all. New York City chews up and spits out dozens or hundreds of such good people every day. We ought to mourn them all, but we don’t: and I don’t think we should make an exception for cops. In fact I think we should bend over backwards not to.

Our poor mayor, the hapless, gormless Bill de Blasio, doesn’t agree, and so he finds himself in the hopeless position of conciliating people — namely, the cops — who seek only to make an example of him. The cops are determined to show, once and for all, that it is they who rule New York. De Blasio was insufficiently obsequious to the pork during his campaign — though he really did try — and they will never forgive him.

Indeed, even if he had tried harder, it is the nature of institutions, like tumors, to grow if they can. Not to advance is to fall back. No matter how much the mayor grovels, the cops must always press for more, more, more.

Okay, you gave us Bratton. Fuck you very much. More!

I think de Blasio must really be as big a fool as he appears, unlikely as that may seem. I do believe he really thinks there’s a line he can walk here, a difference he can split, a meeting of the minds he can somehow effectuate, if he’s only nice and sensitive enough.

His latest grovel is a pathetic appeal to “demonstrators” to shut the fuck up and go home. He didn’t say it quite that way, of course; but that’s what it comes to. He didn’t tell the cops to go home, naturally, or even suggest that it might be a good idea to shoot and strangle members of the citizenry a bit less often. No, it’s the “demonstrators” who are the problem; they’re the people who ought to go home.

Even people who are less mutton-headed than de Blasio — people I know personally! — are still hag-ridden by the fetish of even-handedness, and feel committed to the imbecility of moral equivalence. Yes, it was bad to kill Eric Garner, but it was just as bad to kill the two cops. Twice as bad, in fact, since there were two of them.

Much is left aside in this view. The cops were killed by a poor loon operating without institutional backup. The poor loon had nobody to call on the radio if the gig didn’t go down as expected; and there was no way the DA would whitewash him, as that useful police adjutant did in the case of the cops who strangled Eric Garner. The loon was at least rational enough to grasp these facts, and rational enough to remove himself from the sublunary world before he could be made an example of. You might say that he appealed to a higher court and balked the lower.

I dunno about the morality, but there’s certainly no equivalence.

I’m trying to imagine the poor loon’s frame of mind after having failed (fortunately) to kill his girlfriend. Here again he seems to have been rational enough to realize that it was all over for him; the only thing left was to choose how to play his last scene. His choices were sharply limited.

The choice he made was by no means a random one. He could have gunned down some arbitrarily-chosen people, as despairing men so often do. Or he could have lain in wait for a mayor, or a senator, or a president, all of ‘em popular targets.

But he didn’t. Instead, he chose cops; and not just any cops, but New York cops, the police-state gold standard. And he made a weary drive from Baltimore to Brooklyn in order to enact his final script.

(Like a real New Yorker, I wonder: Did he take the Verrazano? Only the MTA knows for sure.)

In every madness there is a method. Demented assassins seem to go for whoever appears to be in charge — the aforementioned presidents, governors, senators, mayors, etc. But our poor loon went for the cops.

Perhaps his reasoning powers weren’t entirely unimpaired, and there’s something we — and Bill de Blasio — can learn from him, to wit: that so far as daily life is concerned — the quotidian experience of the ordinary man and woman — it really is the cops who are in charge. All the doughfaced emperors on the coinage are mere figureheads, and it’s the Praetorian Guard who are really running the show.

The white whale

whaleboat

For the last two nights — ever since the most recent whitewash, this one in the case of Eric Garner — the skies above my neighborhood have been full of the maddening, monotonous thrum of hovering police helicopters. In one way, I suppose, it’s a good sign. It shows they’re scared of us. And well they may be. The sins of this guilty land, to borrow my man John Brown’s phrase, remain unexpiated. When the dam finally breaks — and oh my God, may I live to see it — the thin blue line will abandon its lethal toys and shed its uniforms and call out to the hills, Cover us!

I happened to pick up from my disorganized shelf an old tattered falling-apart copy of Moby-Dick tonight — I had carefully written the date on the flyleaf: May 1, 1977.

(I don’t do that anymore. Too many books have come and gone.)

It’s a very remarkable book, and if you haven’t read it lately, I recommend it. People talk about the Great American Novel, but it’s been written; case closed. There may be some doubt whether Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn is it; but one way or the other, no American writer is ever going to beat either of these, and in fact the sooner the category of ‘American writer’ becomes archaeological, the better.

Moby-Dick is a much better book than this guilty land deserves to have produced. Lit-crit thumbsuckers love to read it, somehow, as an allegory of the Amurrican project; but if it’s an allegory of anything, it’s an allegory of something much more important than this blighted slaveocracy’s lamentable history, the sooner done with and forgotten, the better.

On the other hand, it is, undeniably, a very Amurrican book. Only this country, in its early years, before the radical fatality became so obvious, could have produced it: back when the curse and the promise seemed to hang in the balance.

The curse won, of course. As we all now know, who have eyes to see.

A few hundred years hence, the only good thing posterity will be able to say about us is that we produced Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, and a few others. Edith Wharton, I’m sure, will still give the kind of pleasure Jane Austen gives; and John Singer Sargent will still delight.

Even the Visigoths did better; but let’s console ourselves as best we can. Our nation was a suppurating chancre on the face of the earth. But we weren’t all bad.

Home sweet home

ferguson

I had a somewhat unexpected occasion to spend a few days in France last week, and came home a couple of days before the Ferguson grand jury whitewashed — I use the word advisedly — yet another murderer in a squad car.

France is by no means a paradise, and there are plenty of crazy people there. But I must say that even so, the US looks very bad by comparison.

We are surely the second-craziest(*) people on Earth. And this is an amazingly badly-run country, too.

There is a notion, widespread among Usonians, even those who should know better, that France and Italy are slow, sloppy, inefficient and so on.

I have no idea what this idea is based upon, apart from people repeating what they have heard other people say. But in my experience the food is better, the trains are nicer, the streets are cleaner and the motorists are less demented there, in the bad degenerate Old World, than here in the New. The people are generally better-looking, too, and almost always better-dressed.

Why are we so fucked up? In particular, what’s up with this hobby we have of shooting down unarmed young black men?

Is it that we palefaces still hate black people so much? Or is it that we love cops so much? (Not mutually exclusive, of course).

We’re apt to deploy the term ‘racism’ reflexively, and we’re surely not wrong about that — not entirely wrong, anyway. Though it does seem to me that the beast has evolved in the last fifty years or so. It may in fact now be a different species of beast, though it’s still pretty beastly.

Does the existing order still need racism to prop it up? It’s not clear to me that that’s so. We recently found a handsome brown-skinned chap to command the Death Star for eight years, and the business of America — namely, slaughter — seems to have gone forward very much as usual. Oprah bestrides the book trade — and pity the poor book trade. Eric Holder; what more do I have to say? I don’t need to mention Clarence Thomas, do I?

I wonder whether racism nowadays isn’t a consequence of American inequality rather than a precondition of it. I wonder whether the police are so numerous and well-armed that they have to shoot somebody every so often — after all, it’s why they joined up in the first place — and it’s still just that little bit easier to shoot a young black guy than a young white guy.

If that’s so, then which would be better: persuading the pigs to be equal-opportunity shooters, or making it more difficult for them to shoot anybody at all — by disarming them, say? Or even better, by disarming them, laying them off, and forcing them to find honest employment like the rest of us — or rather, not find honest employment, as the rest of us increasingly cannot?

Thought experiment, of course; it’ll never happen. The American ship of state has its tiller lashed down: we’ll keep piling on the police, building the prisons, shooting the black guys, and so on, until the keel hits the rocks.

Bring on the fucking rocks, I say.

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(*) Israelis, of course, take the gold, and have done for some time now.