Progress, schmogress


When I hear the word ‘progress’ I reach for my… oh never mind.

A lengthy and highly tedious exchange has erupted on one of my mailing lists about the incredibly puerile question of which American presidents were, on the whole, ‘progressive’.

Really, this notion of ‘progress’ has done more to stultify otherwise thoughtful people than almost any other I can think of.

On a scale of one to ten, estimate the progressivity average of the following. You may extend the estimate to three decimal places, but no farther. Ties are frowned upon, and require substantial justification.

1) Genghiz Khan
2) Vlad the Impaler
3) Maria Theresa
4) Benedict of Nursia
5) Prince Gautama
6) Pontius Pilate
7) Blackbeard the Pirate
8) Henry VIII (of England)
9) Leon Czolgosz
10) Mad King Ludwig (of Bavaria)

Favorite people

ABN-24-08-2009-24 chomsky chavez

Here’s two of ’em. Thank God we still have the gent on the left — visually, not politically — among us.

Had an interesting experience the other day. The backstory is tedious, but suffice to say I was in a room with a couple of other echt West Siders, one of them a local liberal Democratic politician in a small way — let’s call him Aurelius — the other, Manutius, a guy in the publishing business.

Manutius and I were getting acquainted and I happened to mention the name of Noam Chomsky, entirely in passing, while telling some anecdote of my schooldays, a time when Chomsky bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus.

Aurelius, who had not thitherto been much involved in the conversation, snapped instantly to attention. “Chomsky? The guy who said we deserved Nineleven?!”

It was a context where contentiousness would have been out of place, so I contented myself with the mild reply, “He said that? Really?”(*)

I had the feeling Aurelius was ready to come right back at me, but Manutius saved the day. It turned out that he had been Chomsy’s editor, at some point and on some project, and he thought the world of old Noam. Since Manutius works for a large corporation, his imprimatur was sufficient to stifle Aurelius’ objections, and the awkward moment quickly passed.

Now you have to understand that Aurelius is not some mouth-breathing Fox News ignoramus; in spite of his unfortunate involvement in New York City politics, he’s a clever fella, well-schooled, well-read, and a liberal to the marrow of his bones. And he’s funny and amiable, with a very engaging fund of self-mocking humor.

So this was an odd moment. It was as if the restless ghost of Christopher Hitchens had suddenly taken over his vocal apparatus.

Of late I’ve started to reflect that the ancients’ belief in demonic possession wasn’t so dumb. We’re really very far from being unitary executives in our own heads. It’s a chaotic parliament in there, with no rules of order to speak of, and from time to time some particularly brazen-throated monomanic will take the floor and refuse to yield.

Ever known anybody suffering from anorexia? They’re like that: sensible, perceptive, subtle, humorous — on every subject but food. Once that topic comes up, they stop making sense, and contradict themselves three times in every sentence. The voice timbre changes, the body language changes. The impression is hard to resist that another personality has taken charge.

It was a little like that, just for a moment, with Aurelius the other day. One had the sense that Aurelius’ Community Board comperes had taken him over. They’re all staunch old Zionists and Cold War liberals, if not outright neocons — though Aurelius himself is none of these things.

This is one of the reasons why I hate the Democratic Party. Affiliating with it, identifying with it, even to the extent of rooting for its candidates, or even just voting for them, is to invite an incubus into your brain.

(*) Of course as we all know he’s never said anything of the kind.

Purity of arms


Hebraice, “טוהר הנשק”, a much-loved though now rather threadbare commonplace of Israeli propaganda. The idea is that war can and should be waged in a deeply moral way. There are people you can kill and other people you can’t; there are ways you may kill them and other ways you mustn’t. One imagines the Marquis of Queensberry refereeing the gory slaughterpit we call the ‘modern world’.

This notion, silly as it is, just won’t go away, and lately I’m hearing a lot of it from my Lefty pals who have lined up with AIPAC to cheer on the Syrian insurgency. The most recent great debate is, who’s using chemical weapons, the insurgents or the ‘regime’, aka the government?

Hmm. Well, suppose they both were? What would become of Queensberry’s Moral Razor in that case? Would all these beautiful-souled Trots just walk away in disgust? Or would they go out to the next decimal place, and consider who was supporting whom, and why?

But that scenario is no fun. The scenario I like is the one where the right side does all the wrong stuff — the chemical weapons, the ‘terrorism’, etc. — and the wrong side does all the right stuff — drones, boots on the ground, bunker-busters, and so on.

This has always been the way of it with the Palestinians and the Israelis, for example. The highly moral smug Israelis have their tanks and bulldozers. The poor Palestinians have none of that, so they’re reduced to hijacking airliners and suicide-bombing discos.

But even so I favor the immoral Palestinians over the moral Israelis. Not that they truly are that moral, of course; it’s sheer hypocrisy, really; but even if all their moral claims were true, I would still be on the side of the sinners. Because, at bottom, the sinners’ cause is just, and the cause of the Zionist bulldozers is not.

Now I really have no idea what’s going on in Syria, and I daresay very few other people who don’t have platinum security clearances have any idea either.

Certainly my moralizing comrades, with their nattering tut-tuttery about chemical weapons, have no more idea than I do. But for them, Purity Of Arms takes the place of actual information.

If ‘the regime’ is using chemical weapons, then the regime stands condemned. Presumably if the insurgents were using chemical weapons, they too would stand condemned; and therefore, since the insurgents are clearly the right side, it follows that the insurgents can’t possibly be using chemical weapons.

Tidy world these people live in.

But there is no morality in war. War is wickedness from start to finish. This is not to say that wars should never be fought. If you’re attacked, you have the right to fight back. But your attackers will observe no morality in attacking you, and you will observe none in defending yourself.

Apologia pro dronis suis

I was a little surprised by Obie’s Drone Speech. I had expected something more political, but what we got was the real Obama, couched in leaden Powerpointese — ‘transnational threats’, for example. A bureaucrat’s speech, a technocrat’s speech, a professor’s speech, in which all the important and interesting questions are ruled out of order and the conclusion is therefore thoroughly foregone. The Summa Stultitiae of crackpot realism.

Just about every sentence is a lie — except for Obie’s rather self-congratulatory observation that Obama bin Laden, like the great god Pan, is dead. That much, at least, I am prepared to believe — once I’ve seen the death certificate.

Little joke there.

Interestingly, Obie seemed to prefer the term ‘extremists’ to ‘terrorists’. Being an extremist myself, by any reasonable standard, this has me casting nervous glances over my shoulder and out the window. Of course I won’t see the drone coming. I know that. But it’s a reflex.

One of the reasons for this choice of words — ‘extremists’ — is to include Timothy MvVeigh and the Boston bomberini and maybe, for all I know, Ted Kaczinsky and Sacco and Vanzetti and Gavrilo Prinzip and the Defenestrators Of Prague and the Gracchi in the list. Munging several different phenomena together under one rubric is a very good way to darken counsel and promote a single solution to a ginned-up imaginary problem. Do you have cancer? Male pattern baldness? Anorexia nervosa? They’re all the same thing, and I have the answer!

Its a very dull, boring, predictable speech — though it’s also a classic exercise in the rhetoric of instutional self-justification, and perhaps worth reading on that account. Go through it and keep a tally: sentence count, X; flat-out, palpable lies, Y. In my case Y/X came out to around 0.99. Your mileage may of course vary, but I bet it won’t vary much.

Among the slight literary ornaments that Obie saw fit to hang on this crudely-fashioned artificial tree was a reference to good old Mattress Jack Kennedy: “the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War”. This is mentioned along with the Civil War and the “struggle against Fascism”(*). So presumably Obie agrees with the cold war liberal consensus on this topic, namely that the Cold War was a righteous struggle and it’s a very good thing that ‘we’ won it. (From my own point of view, life was much better as long as there was a Soviet threat, and I miss it badly.)

All of us — even those who, younger than me, weren’t around for the event — have a kind of vague brainstem memory of Jack’s oratory. Memory tends to flatter it. Here’s the original:

“Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…”

Oh boy oh boy. For tinselly, tin-eared, grandiose rodomontade, this is hard to beat. “Arms we need”! “Embattled we are!”

One can’t help thinking of Yoda.

(*) Other peoples’ Fascism, that is. Our own — quite another matter.

You’re graduating into an improving job market

Barack Obama

Much has been written — some of it rather good — about Obie’s appalling speech at Morehouse University.

I have little to add: the point has been well made. This is a black guy who has built a career on blaming other black folks for their own situation, so the only thing left to be surprised about is how explicit and banal the Rotary CLub message is. My expectations of him were always low, but it’s amazing, even so, how often he amazes me with the unforeseeable depths to which he can sink.

A few quotes — really, the horrible thing speaks for itself:

Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.

With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.

All of you are heading into an economy where many young people expect not only to have multiple jobs, but multiple careers.

If you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same — nobody can stop you.

Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy.

That last quote brings out what is for me the most repellent aspect of the speech — more repellent even than all the finger-wagging Horatio-Algery of it — namely its insistent tone of preening self-congratulation.

I’m sure the guy was always secretly like this, but being president has brought it out, as it has brought out his inner serial killer.

Here’s the message, in the immortal words of Richard Pryor: I got mine. You get yours.

Headline of the week

Professor Obama gives the nation a severe dressing-down

Obama to address Guantánamo and drones in major defence speech

Now this seems like a subject for Comarade Mike Flugennock to illustrate : the God-Emperor speaking — quite sternly, in that schoolmasterish voice of his — to an audience consisting of the hapless hooded inmates of his Guantanamo concentration camp, interspersed with a number of eager and attentive drones.

Katrina van den Heuvel and Melissa Bracegirdle-Blatherskite being prominent among the latter. Really, is there anybody else in North America who can still stand the sound of this awful murderer’s snappish little sermonettes, his admonitory body language, his dyspeptic peevish scowl?

The Guardian item linked to above repeats a familiar trope:

Having pledged to shutt the camp in his 2008 campaign, and again after taking office, Obama was blocked by Congress with following through with the promise.

Those bad old Republicans again, the fontes et origines of every horrible thing Obie has done. How tired — really, how revolted — I am with this deeply dishonest mantra.

Somebody really needs to explain this to me. Obie is the commander in chief of the US military. Guantanamo is a military base. As far as I know, Obie does not need Congress’ permission to move — or no, I should say ‘redeploy’, like a real Laptop Bombardier — military forces from one place to another. He could move the whole Gitmo operation to, oh, say, Plattsburgh overnight, and congress couldn’t say boo. What am I missing?

As for the poor inmates — doubly fucked, first by Bush and now by his stay-the-course heir and successor and, apparently, his pupil — their status seems to studiedly vague. They are not ordinary prisoners, charged with a crime — people who would have to be tried or released in some reasonable amount of time. They are not prisoners of war, who are subject to rules too. No, they’re some kind of weird ambiguous perquisite of the Unitary Executive, as lettres de cachet were of the Bourbon monarchy.

But that being so, Congress has nothing to say about them either. Congress happily abandoned that power to the executive Sauron years ago. Obie could release them; he could charge them with a crime and try them; for that matter, he could have them all summarily shot and buried in quicklime, entirely according to his good pleasure; and once again, congress would have no say in it.

So I for one will not be listening to Obie’s ‘major address on counterterrorism’. It will be, as usual for Obie, half excuse and half dressing-down, a strange nauseating blend of truculence and self-exculpation and smarmy hypocrisy, a dish so foul it would sicken a starving hog.

The unrequited loves of Dr Johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson, LLD

Shown above is the most touching image there is of a man whom I love deeply, and venerate to the extent of my capacity for veneration: Dr Samuel Johnson, LLD.

My reading list is more or less a treadmill: I have my faves, and I revisit them. Every so often I add one to the rotation, but it’s the faves who give me the greatest pleasure.

I’ve been revisiting Dr J lately, and I’m bowled over, as I always am, by Boswell’s improbable artistry: How could such a goofball write one of the five or six most lovable works of prose ever? SJ and Jamie and Joshua R and Nollie Goldmsith — they’re like Huck Finn and co. in wigs and broadcloth.

But Boswell doesn’t need any encomia from me; everybody knows how great he was. In a strange way, his genius and his personality have somewhat eclipsed those of his subject: the tortured, ungainly, haunted Sam, a man great enough in his own weird way to attract the veneration of a man himself as unexpectedly great as Jamie.

Everybody who ever took an English course knows Dr J’s letter to Lord Chesterfield. There’s a standard narrative about its significance: the bourgeois publishers and their Grub Street hacks — like Dr J — break the power of aristocratic patronage.

Well, of course it didn’t work quite that way. But it’s a good story, and there’s a grain of truth in it.

Still, what strikes me now, reading it for the Nth time, is how heartbroken it is. There’s a little isolated paragraph, which I daresay most readers just skip over, thinking that it’s just an ornamental Classical tag:

The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks.

This is a reference to a pastoral poem, specifically to Virgil’s 8th Eclogue, all about lovesick shepherds and cruel nymphs:

Nunc scio, quid sit Amor. Duris in cautibus illum
aut Tmaros aut Rhodope aut extremi Garamantes
nec generis nostri puerum nec sanguinis edunt.

Roughly: Now I know what sort of thing Love is. Among the unyielding boulders he was born; mount Tmaros or Rhodope or the uttermost Garamantes brought him forth, no child of ours, one not of our blood.

An odd reference in a letter to a non-patron, innit?

I think ole Sam, in spite of his prideful tone in the famous letter, is letting us know — and is not ashamed to let us know, if we could only catch the hint — how much he loved, and hoped, and how deeply he was crushed. Love, for Heaven’s sake! The love of a shepherd for an unyielding, inacessible nymph! And the awful Lord Chesterfield, that Philistine complacent beeyotch, its object! And a great man like Sam its subject!

Love is a cruel god, and he delights in humbling the mighty. I don’t know whether to admire Sam more for picking himself up after his heartbreak; or for acknowledging it so frankly.

Or for feeling it in the first place. Is there anything more brave than admitting — even, or rather especially, to yourself — an impossible, unequal love?

The problem with poor people is quite simple…


…They don’t have enough money.

My dear (and long-suffering) spouse was on some kind of a panel the other day, where a number of kind good-hearted liberal folks were trying to figure out how to encourage literacy among the poor.

Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t any poor. You’d then just have rampant illiteracy among the ‘middle class’, which doesn’t seem to cost anybody any sleep. As long as you have a BA and a white-collar job, it doesn’t matter how pig-ignorant you are.

So dear spouse suggested that maybe poor people would be better off if they had more money. Shock and dismay all round.

Now really, isn’t this the very heart and soul of liberalism? Leave all the core institutions of the society alone — including that most ancient and hallowed of institutions, poor people — but think, think very hard, about clever ways to improve the lot of those… poor… people. Everything is on the table. Sky’s the limit. Think. Think! Think outside the box!

Except the one unthinkable idea: abolish the poor. Which is to say, give ’em money.

Oh, no doubt they’d all buy big flat-screen TVs, and nice new sneakers, and SUVs. But then, that’s what their ‘middle-class’ fellow-citizens do too. Doesn’t that mythical but indispensable beast, ‘the Economy’, feed itself on just such folly? So the Teevee tells me, anyway. Not to mention NPR.

Now you may say that an unearned income is bad for peoples’ moral character. And maybe it is, in some cases. But I know a bunch of people who have enjoyed unearned incomes for the last four or five generations. Some of them are pricks, of course. But most are very decent people — hardworking, if there’s any virtue in that; conscientious; polite; respectful of books and pictures and 18th-century music; attentive to their spouses and devoted to their children.

From what little I’ve seen of life — if you want to elevate the cultural tone of the poor, you need to give ’em a trust fund.

And you have to stay the course. A presidential term won’t do it. A generation won’t do it. No, if you want to eradicate the lingering traces of the Culture Of Poverty(*), you’ve got to take the long view. Three generations at least.

(*) Do I correctly recall that we owe this loathesome phrase to the unspeakable Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I hope gets to Heaven some day, but spends several millennia frying in Purgatory first?

Volunteer cops


Nobody can — or at any rate, should — complain about nice weather, but it does have its drawbacks.

Now that the trees are in bloom and the breezes are balmy and the sun rises early and sets late, my bicycle commute, so solitary and contemplative in the winter, is suddenly thronged with fair-weather cyclists, and an amazing number of these are what I think of as volunteer traffic cops. They’re always yelling at you about some violation you’ve committed against the rules of the road — rules which, in many cases, seem to exist solely in their own heads, and may even be made up on the spot.

Full disclosure: I am in fact a great scofflaw even when it comes to the actual on-paper Vehicle Code. I laugh at stoplights, for example, and run through them at every reasonable opportunity. (On the bike, that is: I’m quite law-abiding in a car.)

Now I don’t necessarily expect other cyclists to be quite such an old anarch as I am, but even so, I’m amazed at the psychic investment so many of my fellow two-wheelers seem to have in the notion of law-abidingness.

The so-called bike path I take from home to work and back is not without its charm. It runs more or less along the bank of the Hudson River, except where it’s interrupted by horrors like the cruise-ship terminal, with its pathetic hordes of sad-sack customers wheeling their bulky suitcases on- and offboard. And the Intrepid, that munchkin aircraft carrier, with its clutter of goofy-looking military planes on deck. And the trash-barge pier, where another cyclist got smashed flat a couple of years back by an NYPD tow truck crossing the path, and where I nearly followed him to the Shades last week (though my near-Nemesis was an NYC garbage truck). And worst of all, the unspeakable Chelsea Piers, home of a driving range and other vaguely sportif venues. Apparently exercise needs to be confined to the interior of this shrine, since the city has made elaborate arrangements to ensure that patrons can practically step out of thir cabs into the steam room.

No walking, please, we’re jocks.

So it’s a very compromised design, this path, a grudging, half-hearted affair, but nevertheless very popular.

Yesterday I was heading home and I came to one of these interruptions, where there’s a silly-looking bicycle red light, allowing patrons of some city giveaway or other to take their cars in and out. The light had just turned red, for us cyclists, and there was one of those preposterous SUVs — an Escarole? An Escalator? An Eschewage? something like that — at the head of the line waiting to get out.

I seen my opportunity, I took it. Just as Escarole was starting to roll, I darted athwart his bow. With the usual prey-species startle reflex, he jammed on the brakes, and very likely spilled some of the warm fluids which are said to contribute so much to these people’s sense of safety(*).

After this somewhat juvenile stunt I heard somebody yelling at me. I figured it was Escarolius, and went my way rejoicing. THAT’ll teach him to drive that preposterous folly in this town.

But no. Five minutes later, another cyclist, whom I had barely noticed, a guy who had obediently stopped at the red light, caught up with me. He was one of those head-to-toe Lycra dudes, though the look didn’t really suit his somewhat doughy physique. And he was furious. He unleashed the most amazing torrent of abuse: “what part of red don’t you understand, asshole?” was his exordium. A number of other injurious reflections followed it, which I didn’t quite catch. He concluded with the crushing observation that I ought to get a helmet. (I haven’t worn a bike helmet in the last twenty years, and never will again(**).)

This incident was a bit of an outlier — one seldom ecounters this level of frenzy, and I suspect this chap may have been even crazier than the general run of Amurrican. But on a smaller, less vivid scale, this sort of thing is not just a daily, but a many-times-daily occurrence. I probably get more of it than most, being such a blithe lawbreaker, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that this town — this country? — is full of people who walk or ride out their door in the morning, loaded to the gills with a fund of reproach and censure which they simply have to unload on somebody.

(*) E.g. G Clotaire Rapaille, Detroit consultant : “The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give… There should be air bags everywhere. Then there’s this notion that you need to be up high. That’s a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it’s soft, and if I’m high, then I feel safe.”

(**) My memory is apparently worse than I thought. An old comrade has produced photographic evidence that I wore a helmet on at least one occasion as late as 1998. Busted!

Gun virilence


A characteristically tiresome debate has erupted on one of my Lefty mailing lists about gun control. As usual on these lists, the majority opinion — which favors more legislation and other policy tweaks — is essentially undistinguishable from the liberal view. This tends to confirm my long-standing suspicion that most American Lefties are really just liberals who are quirky enough to enjoy the feel of chewy Marxist phraseology in their mouth.

One line of argument, developed at some length, is that because ‘the right’ is pro-gun we Lefties need to be anti-gun. Now it seems to me that this literally couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t mean Joe Biden literally: I mean literally literally. There’s nothing you can say that would be more wrong. 2+2=5 would be less wrong.

It’s massively obtuse to imagine that ‘the right’ is the problem: that if ‘the right’ could be somehow neutralized or weakened, then it’s simple physics: the center of gravity would shift ‘left’. So for people who think in this (literally!) one-dimensional way(*), ‘the right’ is what us old Maoists used to call the ‘main enemy’.

But this is silly. ‘The right’ is a sideshow. The problem is not ‘the right’, it’s the elite consensus; or to put it in the usual obfuscatory American terms, the problem is what the so-called ‘right’ (e.g. gun nuts) and the so-called ‘left’ (e.g. Hillary Clinton) agree on. And if there is a ‘main enemy’, it’s the so-called American center, a deeply imperialist, chauvinistic, technocratic, repressive, and violent formation — and one which, unlike ‘the Right’, actually holds state power.

(*) You might call it the Seesaw Theory Of History: a gaggle of Trotskyites on one end, and a gaggle of heavily-armed Teabaggers on the other. Which gaggle outweighs which? Presumably if you could relieve the Teabaggers of their shootin’ irons, it would lighten their end.