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Outkast: Aquemini

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2009 at 3:52 am

 ..We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… 
…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can always see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” 
— Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

It’s actually been eleven years since Aquemini set a standard for Southern Rap that hasn’t even been approached since, but five years after that was the last time we got a new Outkast album (ignoring Idlewild, which you probably did already).  That album featured Dre and Big Boi solo albums instead of Outkast – and then six years, and counting, of silence.  Outkast certainly didn’t lose their mojo after Aquemini, Stankonia is arguably as good and Speakerboxxx/the Love Below had moments of transcendence, but this was the last time that they were a southern rap group.  Pitchfork said they were “once America’s most promising pop group” and after “Hey Ya” that makes sense, but they used to be the greatest rap group in the world.  No one did it like they did and while rumors abound that they are gonna do it again it seems like ‘Dre in particular doesn’t have his heart in the game anymore.

After two great concept albums, Aquemini, was Outkast’s gangster album.  Rap as a genre has come to be so dominated by the sub-genre of gangster rap that to many the two seem inextricable.  Since Reasonable Doubt and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx proved the blueprint, the vast majority of rap has been about gangsters and gangster life.  It is a rich subject matter, but at times it feels like well traveled ground.  Rappers with no possibility or attempt at thematic expansion rely on artistry over art.  They have flow, phrases or hooks, but nothing that lasts after the thump of the bass stops ringing in your ears.  Perhaps the problem is that most rappers are very young, they have spent their lives working on the method of rap and do not have practice using it for an end.  Outkast, however, were old hands at this point.  Both of them can take their artistry for granted and from that base they build personality, themes and take risks.  This is about gangster life, from dealing, to going to jail to getting into fights at the club, but it is so knowing that it seems less judgmental than disappointed.

The first song on the album, “Return of the G”(angsta), is the thesis statement.  The skit at the end of the song, where two thugs walk into a record store and buy a “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album in lieu of the new Outkast, cuz after they went from pimps to aliens to genies to black righteousness he “don’t fuck with them no mo.”  This judgement dovetails with Andre’s verse only seconds earlier, where he clearly had something to get off his chest:

Return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them niggas that get the wrong impression of expression
Then the question is Big Boi what’s up with Andre?
Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?
When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?
Nigga I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you
you get down!

The individuality that Dre was defending would eventually make his star shine bright enough to eclipse Big Boi’s more consistent quality, but this was an album where they still had the synergy of longtime best friends.  They are all over the place on this album, slow songs, free verse spoken word poetry, dance songs, George Clinton sex jams- and pretty much everything bangs.  Maybe “Mamacita” is a little weak- and bizarrely homophobic in its tail of lesbian rape, a theme that also appears on Atliens in a poem denouncing “special rights for Sodomites”- but even Blood on the Tracks missed with “Meet Me in the Morning.”  Thirteen songs ranging from inspired to absolutely classic out of forteen, is pretty amazing- even the transitional skits are great (My favorite is Big Boi buying weed, where he complains that about Cali weed that “I guess it must have a fifteen dollar plane ticket tacked on to it”).  Aquemini is epic and yet personal.  Instead of glorifying the life, they, particularly Big Boi, demystify it in a thousand tiny details.  

Big Boi’s stories always seem to rooted in experience, so he can talk about dealing and yet be the business he thinks needs taking care of.  He appeals to the masculinity that is the core of all rap, but employs it to preach without backpacking. Here is the end of his spoken word verse in “Spottieottiedopaliscious”:

raisin’ y’all own young’n now that’s a beautiful thang
that’s if you’re on top of your game
and man enough to handle real life situations [that is]
Can’t gamble feeding baby on that dope money
might not always be sufficient but the
United Parcel Service & the people at the Post Office
didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss

Being a man is about living up to your responsibilities, not living in your “second childhood” to quote Nas.

Andre meanwhile, always seemed like his head was in the clouds, so its no surprise his point of view is more encompassing.  Instead of specifics he sprawls across a million subjects united loosely around a common theme- though his cadence and  flow are so tight that it all ties together.  His second verse in “Synthesizer” may be the slickest of his career.  A man often accused of being out of step with the world wonders what the hell is there to be in step with?  Dre always posed as a libertine, but here he comes off as conservative:

Synthesizer, microwave me
Give me a drug so I can make seven babies
Pump my breasts up, can you suck the fat up
Please make my life appear
like ain’t no such thing as bad luck
My, nose ain’t right
Like I need a new one
Just take your pick, a yellow red
A black or a blue one
Virtual reality, virtual, BULLSHIT
Synthesizer preachers can reach you
up in the pulpit
Who a bitch?
Give me my gat so I can smoke this nigga
Tell his mamma not to cry
because they can clone him quicker
than it took his daddy to make him
Niggaz bitin verbatim
Thought provokin records radio never played dem
Instant, quick grits, new, improved
Hurry hurry, rush rush, world on the move
Marijuana illegal but ciggarettes cool
I might LOOK kinda funny but I ain’t no fool

Sure that you won’t see Rush Limbaugh quoting that marijuana line anytime soon, but this cuts to the heart of real conservativism- a longing for prelapsarian lost values. 

Not content to merely criticize others, there are verses that take the shine off of their own apple too.  Big Boi’s story of trying to fuck a particularly hot groupie, only to have to settle for a blowjob in the mall parking lot because he is in a hurry to pick up his daughter is jarringly matter of fact.  The ending, where he leaves by giving “her a Lil Will CD, and a fucking poster, its like that now” reduces it to a business transaction of the cheapest sort.  This is the life of a star rapper, unlike ours, but no less mundane even in its thrills.  After a record as the antidote to the excesses of gangsta rap, it is fitting that it ends with the thugs returning their “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album to the record store.

For all of its gangster grit, Aquemini has plenty of smiles too.  “Liberation,” “West Savanah,” and “Chonkeyfire” are all joys, but nothing tops the song that follows “Return of the G,” “Rosa Parks.” The first hint of what would be fully revealed with “B.O.B.”, “Ms. Jackson” and “Hey Ya,” “Rosa Parks” was the slickest Outkast pop song yet.  Clocking in in a tight 3:45, it is as lean as a boxer at the weigh in.  A killer chorus- “A ha, what’s that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus/Do ya wanna bump and slump with us/ we the type of people make the club get crunk”- and two verses that hardly pause to catch their breath.  It wasn’t a big hit, surprisingly, though it did get nominated for a Grammy.  Still, it shows the promise that perhaps was their undoing, because clearly fame hasn’t fueled prolific output.

To that end, no song feels more bitterly ironic in retrospect than the title track, which makes a promise they ultimately betrayed: “nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever, But until they close the curtain, it’s him & I Aquemini.”  Perhaps we were all too in love to pay attention to the introduction, nothing is for certain, not even the melding of him and I, Aquemini. 


Breakthrough or Sign of the Apocalypse?

In Empires of the Mind on October 30, 2009 at 5:05 pm

It bothers me that science and faith are so often at war.  As a person without faith- or at least religious faith – perhaps I oversimplify the difficulty of rationalizing deeply held beliefs with another view point that is so rigid that it can be doctrinaire.  It pains me to see centuries old science dismissed as mere guesswork, but when religious views are repeatedly undermined perhaps it is natural to eventually believe that there is malicious intent.  Some days, even I wonder if perhaps the scientists aren’t just sticking it to them; exhibit A, Stanford researcher have discovered a process to make sperm and eggs from embryonic stem cells– a process that works no matter what the gender of the donor is.  Christians believe life begins at conception so this is murder, though to be fair, turning an embryo into sperm and eggs which can become another embryo is pretty muddy ethically.  I suppose their answer would be that either way it thwarts God’s will, but that does seem to skirt the larger questions.  How can life begin at conception if it can be restarted and become a different life?  If embryos are capable of being unwound back to their parts then how can they be a completed human life?  

Unfortunately, that is just the beginning of the head ache for the devout.  This research allows things like delaying menopause (further meddling with God’s will), advanced treatments for infertility (like those that allowed a 66 year old to give birth in Britain) and, here’s the kicker, allowing gay couples to have their own genetic children.  Eventually, scientists hope that by reverting skin cells back to their stem roots and then forming eggs, men would be able to create eggs capable of fertilization.  It is thought that because they miss the Y chromosome it probably will not be possible for women to create sperm.  The men would still need a surogate to carry the baby to term, and major advances in anti-rejection drugs would be necessary to allow that to happen.  Obviously this research is probably decades away from allowing this to happen, but it still a huge step towards the previously impossible goal of allowing gay couples all of the freedoms- including those rendered impossible by nature- that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy.  

In the meantime, if I was a Book of Revelations Christian I would get my heart right because this pretty much has to be a sign of the Apocalypse.

The Default Power and the Sword of Damocles

In General Principles on October 30, 2009 at 11:33 am

Josef Joffe‘s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The Default Power“, argues that despite recent suggestions that American power may be waning, America remains firmly on top: its military is unmatched, its leadership in resolving the financial crisis is evidence of its unparalleled economic strength, and its ideals are attractive enough to ensure American rule for a long time to come. While there is no denying American military power, this power could become a liability if America feels compelled to bear the burden of policing an increasingly multi-polar economic world alone. American ideals are indeed attractive to the world’s peoples, but America’s conduct in Iraq especially has called that into question.

Joffe’s main thesis relies on straw men, oversimplifications, and far-fetched extrapolations.  He attacks what he calls “declinism” as a form of cyclical panic, citing the “prophecies of doom” that followed Soviet detonation of a nuclear weapon, the launch of Sputnik, and the general missile gap of the late-fifties, as though a false argument to an effect proves the effect itself false.  However, it was these “prophecies of doom” that compelled the Kennedy Administration to start the Apollo program and prevent the Soviets from placing missiles 90 miles from Key West.  Perhaps Joffe’s “prophecies of doom” would be more aptly called “trenchant criticism taken seriously by elites.”  Joffe continues to detail the history of “declinism” under the false premise that because past predictions of the demise of American power turned out to be false, all current and future predictions of the demise of American power must also be false:

A decade (after Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech), academics such as Yale historian Paul Kennedy predicted the ruin of the United States, driven by overextension abroad and profligacy at home.  The United States was at risk of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy wrote in 1987, arguing that “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.”  But three years later, Washington dispatched 600,000 soldiers to fight the first Iraq War–without reinstating the draft or raising taxes.  The only price of “overstretch” turned out to be the mild recession of 1991. 

This is akin to arguing that because the contention that the sky is blue because God likes blue is false, the sky must not be blue.  Furthermore, this analysis ignores the realities of the Gulf War.  The Gulf War had limited goals: push Saddam out of Kuwait and open his regime to UN nuclear inspection.  It consequently lasted only seven months and cost 379 allied lives.  Compare this to the 6,000+ allied troops killed in a combined fourteen and a half years in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The latter war has no end in sight, and there is a planned escalation of hostilities.

Furthermore, two thirds of the $60 billion cost of the Gulf War was paid by Saudi Arabia.  In the “Global War on Terror,” the U.S. has already officially spent more than $800 billion–forty times what it spent on the Gulf War–with an estimated $3 trillion cost to the U.S. economy.  These figures already dwarf Vietnam, yet a lot of the actual costs of the “War on Terror” are hidden in escalating Pentagon operating budgets and non-earmarked DoD spending appropriations.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated true costs to be upwards of $1 trillion.  As Reason puts it:

How much money is $1 trillion?  Enough to pay for the entire 1976 federal budget, adjusted for inflation.  Enough to write a check for $37,500 to every Iraqi man, woman, and child.  Enough to buy 169,492 Black Hawk helicopters, or 455 stealth bombers.  Enough, in nominal terms, to pay for the entire federal government from 1789 to 1957.  And it’s 10 times more than what specialists predict it would take to eradicate malaria once and for all.  

The Gulf War featured a coalition of 34 countries, plus financial contributions from Germany and Japan.  In the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush spurned the international community and acted unilaterally (with only a small “coalition of the willing”), excoriating the standard for international cooperation set, ironically, by his father, and forcing the U.S. to cope disproportionately with the uncertainties of two wars.

There is no doubt America is overextended.  It’s survival as the sole hegemon rests on the fact that no one country or group of countries is powerful enough or organized enough to make a power play. While America has been stuck in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, future challengers have been left unchecked, and they have been unfettered by America’s distractions.  During the “War on Terror,” North Korea and Iran increased uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation, Venezuela and Bolivia kicked out U.S. diplomats and built stronger ties with Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conducted military exercises in Central Asia, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia has engaged in aggressive behavior relating to energy and regional autonomy, despite an expert on Russia, Condoleeza Rice, being the U.S. Secretary of State.  It’s revealing that Bush’s criticism of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia fell largely on deaf ears.  According to Gamel Abdel Gawad at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo:

Bush did not realize that by intervening heavily in other countries’ affairs, he would give the same right to other players.  The U.S. had no problem to interfere and separate provinces from bigger states like it did with Kosovo.  This is exactly what Russia is doing now: intervening to prevent the annexation of certain provinces to Georgia.  Russia is using the same logic that the U.S. used.

Joffe contends throughout “The Default Power” that China bulls shouldn’t rely on linear projections of that nation’s GDP to make inferences about the future global balance of power, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.  Indeed, Joffe’s analysis of China is especially apt.  The recent high growth rates are relatively new phenomena and are likely to come down to earth as they are affected more and more by the forces of world trade–there is always the potential for shocks and recessions.  However, to counter linear projections of China’s future GDP, Joffe relies on linear projections of the populations of the U.S. and China to the year 2050.  He cites a single study by Goldman Sachs to assert that:

…the median age in the United States will be the lowest of any of the world’s large powers, except India.  The United States’ working age population will have grown by about 30%, whereas China’s will have dropped by 3%.  The economic and strategic consequences will be enormous.  China’s aging population will require a shifting of resources from investment to welfare, thus reducing China’s growth…If China cannot dodge this, how can it expect to unseat the United States as the greatest military power the world has ever seen?      

This argument relies on a cocktail of assumptions such that its margin of error is many times the figures it projects.  First, it assumes that China will be in a position to suddenly develop a more comprehensive welfare program for a disproportionate number of retirees.  Second, it assumes there will be no significant increases in life expectancy in the developed world.  Were such a technology to come about, it would impact the United States to a far greater degree than it would impact China. (At this point, I’m imagining Ray Kurzweil and Josef Joffe having coffee together.)  Even increased access to antiseptics, higher standards for food safety, additional incentives against tobacco use, new stress management techniques, a religious revival, an atheist awakening, and other small unknown innovations could have major effects on the population growth of either country.  The high rate of immigration that population growth in the United States depends on could be affected by new healthcare legislation or a sudden wave of xenophobia.  Space aliens could come and kill every last American, there could be an outbreak of a retrovirus that decimates the population, the scenario from the film “Children of Men” could play out…the point is that 2050 is a very very long time from now.  Humans have never had a successful track record at predicting the future, and to rely on such projections to attack other projections is a self-serving contradiction.

Joffe suggests China is paralyzed because its GDP in large part depends on exports to the United States, however, Japan’s GDP used to depend on exports to the United States (Exports still play a large role.), but Japan reallocated resources to build a domestic consumer economy during its rapid economic growth in the 1980s.  Indeed, Chinese central planners are already beginning such a shift.

Joffe’s next point is about the considerable international leadership of the U.S.:

When (the U.S.) adopted a hands-off policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early years of the Bush Administration, no other state could fill the vacuum…Nor could any other state have harnessed the global coalition that has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The six-party talks in North Korea were orchestrated by the United States; on the other hand, the three-party talks with Iran–led by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom–could not put a stop to Iran’s nuclear ambitions…More recently, in 2008, it was the United Kingdom and the United States–rather than the G-20–that took the lead in battling the global financial crisis, with massive stimulus measures and injections of liquidity.      

There are many problems with this list.  First, Palestine and Israel have been fighting each other for sixty years, with few real breaks in the action.  The U.S., in addition to every other country, has been unable to broker a successful peace agreement.  Joffe is saying that no one could duplicate U.S. leadership, despite the failure of U.S. leadership to solve the problem.  This argument holds for Afghanistan as well, which is looking more and more like it will never stabilize.  Privileging the success of the six-party talks with North Korea over the three-party talks with Iran is a very charitable reading of two programs that failed to acheive anything, though, since the publication of “The Default Power”, the latter might have reached an agreement that is to everyone’s advantage.  Joffe’s economic analysis uses a self-reinforcing measuring stick: because the U.S. and the U.K. spent the most money on trying to solve the financial crisis, they exhibited the most “leadership.”  Yet the purchasing power parity of those two countries dropped dramatically compared to countries with more minimalist responses to the global financial crisis, like Switzerland and Japan. 

Despite Joffe’s assertion that the U.S.’s position is secure for years to come, there are many scenarios, however unlikely, that could oust the U.S. from its position of authority.  Thankfully, the Obama Administration seems to be maneuvering to minimize risk, but many scenarios involving a decline of American power are beyond the abilities of the White House to prevent. 

A few weeks ago, the Independent ran a news story that Gulf Arabs had conspired with Iran, Russia, France, Japan, and China in switching from the U.S. dollar to a basket of currencies to use for trade in oil, in order to hedge their bets against the inflation many predict as a result of America’s aforementioned “massive stimulus measures and injections of liquidity.”  It turns out the story was a hoax, but it presented a relatively trivial event which exposed the weakness of the American currency.  Were oil to move from being backed by dollars to being backed by a basket of currencies, it would likely inspire other global commodities conglomerates to do the same.  Eventually, such a paradigm shift could take hold of the central banks themselves, and before America could adjust–if in fact it is possible to adjust to such a thing–the collateral against its debt would be detroyed when it was at its economically weakest.  Such a scenario, though false, revealed a strength that, because of U.S. overextension, could prove a liability.

New Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has announced that he seeks an Asian currency union on the EU model and an integrated, regional economy.  Currently, U.S. diplomacy in East Asia relies on splitting the interests of China and its neighbors.  Countries such as Japan and South Korea see U.S. military power as a hedge against Chinese expansion, but if an Asian Union took hold, they might gravitate more to China for leadership in cases where it suited their own interests.  Such an Asian Union would create a tri-polar world, where the EU and AU would team up on occasion to check the ambitions of the U.S. 

These are just two known scenarios that show that remaining only the leader by default is dangerous.  Other countries, especially European ones, have an incentive to rely on the U.S. for military purposes, while simultaneously castigating America for being belligerent.  Despite the London and Madrid bombings, America absorbed the brunt of the blowback for Western actions against the Soviet Union in the form of 9/11, and America will continue to absorb the effects of being world police.  Josef Joffe closes “The Default Power” with:

A final point to ponder: Who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which, for all its enormous appeal, can’t even take care of its own backyard?  Not even those who have been trading in glee and gloom decade after decade would prefer any of them to take over as housekeeper of the world.

Unfortunately, world powers are not chosen by democratic election.  Were that the case, surely America would defeat any would-be rivals.  As the European Union and the countries of East Asia continue to grow in economic influence, the U.S. military, by far the largest and most powerful on earth, will continue to be relied upon for protection.  Currently, American economic might and the ability to convene effective coalitions to greater purpose allows privileged leadership.  However, in a world in which the U.S. abuses its power or fails to provide economic stability, it could lose its advantage while still footing the bill for worldwide security.

Fixing the incentives requires a shift to collective global responsibility for security: the paradigm set by the Gulf War must be restored.  This allows the US to still effectively convene coalitions and to socialize both losses and gains.  In the case of the Iraq War and the War on Terror especially, gains are socialized: a more stable world without al-Qaeda benefits everybody.  But losses are capitalized, since the U.S. is the main recipient of blowback and is paying most of the costs.  The U.S. needs to avoid getting involved in these sorts of wars in the future.   

The United States has the strange dichotomy of being perceived as both highly civilized and highly militant. To say these elements don’t exist for all cultures is a form of nationalist exceptionalism, however, America is both the artist of the world and its chief of police. Rome was in a similar position 2000 years ago, when moderate statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, included “The Sword of Damocles” in his Tusculan Disputations, intending to popularize stoic moral uprightness in the last days of the Roman Republic. “The Sword of Damocles” tells of a coutier who trades places with a tyrant for a day, only to realize that, for all of his riches and power, the tyrant has a sword above his throne, suspended by a single horse hair. The parallels between Cicero’s Rome and today’s American Republic are striking: Cicero wrote “The Sword of Damocles” as a metaphor for the fate that awaits those who abuse their power; Josef Jaffe castigates the parables of modern Ciceros as irrelevent.

Whether or not America likes it, it is in a position of management of the international community.  America needs to seek and receive international support for its international action to ensure that its power does not breed resentment.  The Obama Administration is doing an excellent job thus far of rebuilding America’s crumbling alliances and preparing for the unknown, but America still has much work to do if it wants to be not just the default power, but the power by choice.

Sekai Gyoten News

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm

This subtitle says “stupid bastard?”Sekai Gyoten News is a Japanese television program that is like a combination of Unsolved Mysteries, Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, and the various oddities that show on TLC.  Each episode has a theme: fat people, tumors, amputation, etc. most of which rely heavily on material from the United States.  (I’ll save for another post criticizing the fact that a show highlighting freaks and violence primarily showcases the US.)  Tonight’s episode was about young children.  Three short segments at the beginning focused on young children who know their mothers are pregnant, infants who refuse to breast-feed from cancerous breasts, and young children who remember being in the womb respectively.  The first segment can perhaps be explained by the different sensitivities children feel: they are dependent on their mothers for survival and are often more intuned to their mothers’s bodies than their mothers are.  The second segment most-likely has an evolutionary explanation.  The third is likely memetic

Today’s long segment on Gyoten news was the story of a boy named James who, at two years old, would dream about being a WWII fighter pilot.  He often woke up crying during the night, and when asked about his dreams by his parents, replied with uncommon language for a two-year old.  Throughout two or three years of recurring nightmares, James’s parents received details of a dogfight that had occured during the closing years of WWII over southern Japan, where several of “James’s” friends had been shot down or disappeared.  Two-year-old James knew his dogtag number, the model of plane he flew and with what it was equipped, and the location of the US base, among other things.  When his father cross-referenced James’s dreams with the historical record, he found that they matched perfectly.

Japan, being a Buddhist country, has it’s fair share of people who claim to know who they were in a past life: a panelist on the show tonight claimed she managed a confectionary shop in the Holy Roman Empire; my old boss hung up pictures all over her school by an obscure French artist.  When I asked about them, she explained that the artist had been her friend in a past life.

Gyoten News usually gives scientific explanation for the oddities they showcase, however, tonight’s episode left it at a discussion of reincarnation.  Nevertheless, I think a more likely explanation comes from the recent experience with Balloon Boy.  It is highly likely than James’s parents made up the whole story as a way to gain fame and publicity.  I don’t want to accuse them of that however, so I’ll offer the alternative explanation that perhaps James’s parents inadvertantly “planted” the ideas into James’s head as they were concurrently following leads on the descriptions of his nightmares.  This sort of thing has resulted in the past in false convictions for child abuse.  It probably operates for more benign things as well.  

At the end of today’s program, James, now eleven years old, was interviewed.  He has absolutely no recollection of any of the events, but he still has a keen interest in aviation.  I for one can’t wait until next week’s special on gun violence.  Awesome.     

Click here to watch a segment from the John Wayne Gacy episode:            

Germany’s Paradox in Afghanistan

In Specific Facts on October 28, 2009 at 4:49 am

Afghan Security Forces inspect the remains of a bombed fuel tanker. (AP/Getty Images)At 1:51 a.m. on the morning of September the 4th, German Colonel Georg Klein ordered two American F-15’s to bomb a pair of stranded fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban only hours earlier.  There were people swarming around the tankers at the time, but an informant had confirmed that they were all Taliban, including four leaders.  NATO General Rules of Engagement and Standard Operations Procedures require specific conditions for calling in an air strike: the target must be time sensitive and NATO troops must be in immediate danger in the area.  Neither was true that night; there were no NATO troops present and the tankers had been stuck in the mud for hours.  NATO rules alternately call for a warning to limit civilian casualties and so the American pilots asked to fly over the tankers at a low altitude– a “show of force” to give the people on the ground a chance to flee.  Klein refused the request and ordered an immediate bombing – perhaps in response to intelligence that the Taliban was going to use trucks in an attack on the Germans.  With Klein’s terse “weapons release” order, the planes released two GBU-38 radar-guided bombs, each with a 500-pound warhead. The target dissolved in an enormous fireball.”  Rather than entirely consisting of Taliban, at least 79 Afghan villagers were killed in the process of unloading the fuel for the Taliban under armed coercion. 

The massive civilian casualties caused a huge outcry in Germany; Col. Klein might be brought up on criminal charges and the Left Party, the only German party favoring immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, staged a massive protest at the Brandenburg gate and was rewarded with a 4% increase in the recent Parliamentary elections.  Because post-Nazi Germany was established as a pacifist country it officially cannot be at war, so their very moderate presence in Northern Afghanistan officially consists of civilian reconstruction instead of combat.  As German Defense Minister Franz Jung puts it: “the Bundeswehr’s mission is to protect, assist, act as an intermediary and — last of all — fight.”  Perhaps as a consequence, the Germans have seen very little violence in the region of Northern Afghanistan leading to years of boasting of how well their semi-pacifist methods work.  Meanwhile, their NATO allies have complained that the Germans aren’t seeing any violence because they are simply allowing the Taliban to operate freely- their pacificism is appeasement masquerading as principle.  As counterintuitive as it seems, increasing violence- at least in the short term- is viewed as positive sign, since it means that NATO troops are actually engaging the Taliban.  After the catastrophe bombing of the tankers, other NATO countries piled on condemning the attack, in what one German diplomat termed: “Schadenfreude against the eternal know-it-alls.” 

This incident crystallizes the many challenges and changes going on in Afghanistan.  A new American administration has brought a new strategy to the eight year old fight, even as some of their NATO counterparts are still getting on board with the old, more confrontational, strategy.  There is turmoil on every level of Afghanistan right now, but domestic pressures in America and in its NATO allies Germany, Britain, France and Canada will ultimately decide the outcome of the conflict.  Germany was just the first to feel the political heat from a war that has no end in sight, necessitating deeper commitments at a time when many want to abandon the venture altogether.  Rather than digging deeper, I expect a flurry of NATO allies joining Canada in withdrawing.

The Sisyphean Task: Change in Afghanistan

In Specific Facts on October 28, 2009 at 4:00 am

On Sept. 10, 2009, almost eight years to the day after a terrorist attack planned in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh submitted his letter of resignation from his position as the Senior Civilian Representative of the United States in the Zabul Provence of Afghanistan.  He is the first Obama official to resign in protest of the continued war in Afghanistan.  Far from the caricature of antiwar protesters as hippie pacifists, Hoh is a former Marine who served twice in Iraq, including from 2006-2007, the darkest days of that war.  He was praised by his superiors as an good officer, but his conscience would not allow him to continue to serve in a war that he did not believe in.  His letter of resignation gave a sober assessment of Afghanistan:

The History of Afghanistan… has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional.  It is this later group that support the Pashtun insurgency.  The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained attack, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, tradition and religion by internal and external enemies. … I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

To describe Hoh’s provence, Zabul, as rural is apparently too urban a description, as it is “Biblical in terms of its development.”  Still, this is not a man to shrink from hard work.  Citations from his last tour in Iraq included one for “uncommon bravery.” Anxious to retain him, both the Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, offered Hoh positions.  However, as evidenced by the conclusion to his letter of resignation, his conviction on the subject was too deep to continue working on the U.S. effort: “The dead return… to families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished and promised dreams unkept. I have lost conviction that such assurances can anymore be made.” 

U.S. Casualities in Afghanistan: An Ugly Trend

The news of Hoh’s resignation was reported on the same day that October was confirmed as the deadliest month of the war. It is a difficult backdrop for the biggest decision of President Obama’s Presidency: the largest U.S. troop increase since the invasion of Iraq in 2003- even the Iraqi Surge in January of 2007 is dwarfed by comparison.  At stake is not only the future of a country that has been nearly continuously at war for thirty years, but also Barack Obama’s nascent presidency.  Elected with an ambitious domestic agenda- perhaps elected because of his ambitious domestic agenda in the midst of economic crisis- Obama now has to decide whether to stake his Presidency on what appeared to be more of a tactical decision that a conviction during his campaign.  By showing that he wanted to escalate in Afghanistan- “the war we should be fighting”- Obama shored up his right flank against portrayals of being weak on defense.  Yet, eight months after he kept his campaign promise and sent 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Obama is now debating whether to send as much as 45,000 more to shore up a situation that seems less manageable than ever.  What exactly has the U.S. gotten itself into in Afghanistan, and more than eight years after 9/11, what should it do next from here?

I. Afghanistan Today: Same Song, Different Verse

There are now 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, though over half of them are under the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, plus over 10,000 NATO troops from other countries.  That is a three-fold increase over troop levels at the end of 2006.  As a consequence casualties have also tripled over that period.  Rather than pacify a country that was being neglected while the focus was on Iraq, troop increases have been met with greater hostility and violence.  All that fighting and dying is to win space for the Kabul based government to exercise sovereignty throughout all of Afghanistan- a feat without precedence in modern history- yet there is seemingly very little to show for it.  There is almost no test of governance that the Afghan government does not fail: it is corrupt, both nationally and on a local level; it is unable to provide basic services to the population of most of the country, including ensuring their safety from Taliban reprisals; and rampant electoral fraud has undermined the democratic process itself.  The corruption in Afganistan is so commonplace that the sitting President, Hamid Karzai, ran for reelection with a Vice-President, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who is also a war-lord linked to arms smuggling and kidnapping.  Lest Americans cast stones from their glasshouses, it should be pointed out that while Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai,  is perhaps the most powerful drug lord in the country, he is also on the CIA payroll

Afghan citizens are often fleeced by the local police and officials for bribes for services, only to then have the Taliban later shake them down for protection.  In the legitimacy vacuum left by Karzai- depricatingly referred to as the “Mayor of Kabul”- the Taliban has set up its own courts in some areas, dispensing “justice” more efficiently than the laughable Afghan courts.  There is even a Taliban “ombudsman” who visits Afghans to ensure they are happy with the services the Taliban provides for them.  There is a real case to be made that, in many parts of the country, the Taliban is providing better governance than Kabul- and this is an organization that offers bloody reprisals for girls who go to school.  At this point, to create the illusion that Kabul can do a better job of governing than the Taliban, NATO civilian development programs will have to stand in for lacking Afghan counterparts. 

Most damaging though is the utter failure of the Afghan elections last month.  Not only did NATO fail to provide sufficient security to have real civilian participation- indeed participation was zero in some areas compared to over 70% nationally in 2004-, but fraud was so widespread that it is suggested that over a third of polling stations reported fraud and over a million votes were disqualifiednearly a quarter of the total votes cast.  Even worse, the vast majority of the fraud was perpetrated by Hamid Karzai, the sitting president and stalwart U.S. ally.  After all of the international outcry against the disputed Iranian elections, an exact parallel developed in a country that the U.S. has 68,000 troops in.  Like in any banana republic, the ruling faction had an “election” that was a fiat accompli, however many identical ballots, imaginary polling stations and voters had to be intimidated to ensure the “right“ result.  After the UN Election Counsel ruled that after throwing out disputed- as in completely made up- ballots Karzai would not be able to top 50% of the vote, Afghan law required a runoff with his closest challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.  This time around, NATO is confident that there will not be similar fraud because “the wholesale vote-stealing operations that were mounted in August were detected and exposed. ‘That has a deterrent effect.'” Except of course, there was no consequences last time, so what is to deter further fraud this time?  It is akin to punishing attempted murder with a stern look and second shot to finish the job.  Yet, using the same logic that compelled America to support Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and General Pervez Musharaff, Karzai might be better for the International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) effort than his almost assuredly more competent rival simply because we are fighting for Pashtun hearts and minds.  Karzai is the Pashtun candidate, while Dr. Abdullah is half-Pashtun but seen as representing the Tajik Northern Alliance.  Make no mistake, Abdullah is more qualified- and Karzai should be disqualified at this point-, but Karzai is America’s man.

If Aghanistan is a mess, incredibly it is still less complicated than Pakistan- which is the real focus of the West’s efforts in South West Asia at this point.  Nearly all of the al-Qaeda leadership is in Pakistan, and the Taliban moves back and forth across the border between the two countries at will.  Even as the Taliban has escalated violent terrorism in Pakistan, the shadowy Pakistani intelligence has demonstrated their maintained ties with Taliban- who they have traditionally view as asset.  Almost all U.S.-Pakistani relations are based around similar duplicity.  The Pakistanis’ clearly do not view the Taliban as the threat that the U.S. does. The U.S., meanwhile, pretends that Pakistan is its ally when at best it is a friend of convenience.  The U.S. is absolutely hated among Pakistanis, but unlike in Afghanistan where the effort at reconciliation with the public is achieved through beneficial NATO development and security, Pakistan only receives military aid, which does not trickle down, and drone attacks, which all too often do.  This is the central front of the war on terror, yet all of the discussion is centered around Afghanistan, which receives 30 times as much military spending even if it is ostensibly just a base for attacks in Pakistan.  Without Pakistan in the picture, there would be almost no strategic U.S. interest in Afghanistan, but the combined Pakistan-Afghanistan combination trumps Iraq, Iran and Israel-Palestine as the single most pressing foreign policy issue of the day.

II. COIN: Bringing Sexy Back

Given the present difficulties in Afghanistan/Pakistan it is no surprise that General Stanley Mcchrystal would request more troops to calm the situation down, but what could convince Obama to get more deeply involved in such a quagmire?  Only the sexiest strategy since colonial Americans wondered why they had to march out to meet those Redcoats when they could just shoot at them from behind trees: population-centric counterinsurgency – affectionately known as COIN – has taken Washington by storm.  Obama’s favor for the practice is demonstrated by his nomination of Michele Flournoy, the Co-Founder of the Center for a New American Security, the think tank that is home to all of the best COIN writing, for the job as Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy.  As the third ranking person in the Department of Defense, albeit in a position once held by “the stupidest fucking guy on the face of the Earth”, Douglas Feith, Flournoy elevates COIN to Bible in the DoD.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, the idea that has all of the military enamored involves less fighting and more building, translating and police work.  COIN focuses on minimizing civilian casualties and working to build good relations to convince the population not to support the insurgency.  It is an idea of war that goes beyond just cause to being as low impact as possible in execution.  This is a gentleman’s conception of the military: devoted to minimizing collateral damage even if means accepting more risk, requiring politeness and respect to foreign citizenry and obligating soldiers to fill a variety of roles beyond “breaking stuff and killing people.”

The most well known military figure since Colin Powell, General David Petraeus, is also the most famous practitioner of population-centric counterinsurgency- a role that has seen him catapult from a one star brigadier general to the head of U.S. Central Command in six years.  With jurisdiction over Iraq and Afghanistan, CENCOM Commander is ostensibly the fourth ranking military commander behind Commander-in-Chief (Obama), Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Admiral Mike Mullen).  Petraeus’s Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency is the bible in the field, and he is widely credited with the policy change in Iraq that salvaged a failed war.  Promoted to oversee both wars as a result of that success, it is clear that he views the lessons from Iraq as widely applicable.  

Under him is the commanding General in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, who is so fanatically devoted to COIN that he makes a point of talking to locals without wearing body armor or firearms.  In his leaked report on the situation in Afghanistan, General McChrystal lays out his recommendations and analysis for saving the new failed war.  More than a revelation of new strategic methods, his report lays out the importance of the present to the success of the war effort.  Despite foreseeing years of more war, he states that the next twelve months will be critical.  The war can not be won in the immediate future, but it can be lost.  Operationally, his recommendation is built around two principles: (1) change the mission of soldiers on the ground to protecting and relationship building with the Afghan population; and (2) unifying command of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  The first aspect is the classic definition of COIN operations; the second is to prevent more incidents like the last month’s German bombing of two fuel tankers that left 80 Afghan civilians dead.  The ISAF has a messy command structure.  McChrystal would like to see that streamlined so that everyone is fighting the same war – his war, the war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.  The long term goal – the exit strategy if the discussion was leaving instead of increasing troop levels – would be to have Afghan security forces capable of taking over national security for themselves – putting an Afghan face on the Western effort.  Given that the U.S. is currently spending five times the total GDP of Afghanistan on the war, it seems unlikely that Afghanistan could ever afford to maintain an army that big.  Some estimates are that 300% of the total budget of the country would have to be spent on maintaining a security force as large as ISAF would like, an effort that would give even the staunchest Keynesians pause.  

While COIN seems uncontroversial at first glance, the connotations of this type of counterinsurgency war are harrowing.  Short wars become impossible because instead of overwhelming force- which the U.S. military has a monopoly on at this point- the goal is to create good will through long term nation building.  Huge asymmetries of personnel and money are required because relatively small adversaries only need to cause chaos anywhere, while COIN’s goals are to maintain order everywhere.  There will be far more casualties both because treating the populations with respect makes troops more vulnerable to attack and because of the longer scope of COIN wars.  Counterinsurgency is more dangerous and expensive than the traditional conception of war, so it should instead be seen as a deterrent against entering into one.  Nation building is a imperial breach of sovereignty without sufficient rationale.  The events of 9/11 certainly were such a rationale, but however well-intentioned COIN may be, it is not in-and-of-itself a justification for preventative warfare.  In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no choice, since the U.S. was already at war when COIN was adopted, but if this is the shape of future wars, expect that there will be less of them.

Unsurprisingly, this new approach to war is not uncontroversial.  There has been criticism from both the left and the right, but the two most vocal opponents of America’s approach to Afghanistan have been Rory Stewart, a British Harvard professor who came to prominence by authoring a book about walking across Afghanistan after 9/11, and Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and Boston University professor who lost a son in Iraq.  Their criticisms differ sharply however: Stewart contends that the U.S. does not understand Afghanistan, while Bacevich maintains that the U.S. misunderstands itself.  

For many, the fervent debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan began with Rory Stewart’s article “The Irresistible Illusion” in the London Review of Books.  Stewart had sprung into national prominence with the release of his book, The Places In Between, about two years he spent walking across Afghanistan and Central Asia, so his passionate repudiation of the conventional wisdom of the need for more troops did not go unnoticed. Intimately familiar with the country in a way that very few are, Stewart’s criticism was biting:

There are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building. You could create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign (India, which is far more stable and legitimate than Afghanistan, is still fighting several long counter-insurgency campaigns from Assam to Kashmir). You could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a stable state (if such a state also required the rule of law and a legitimate domestic economy). Nor is there any necessary connection between state-formation and terrorism. Our confusions are well illustrated by the debates about whether Iraq was a rogue state harbouring terrorists (as Bush claimed) or an authoritarian state which excluded terrorists (as was in fact the case).

Stewart thought that by lowering expectations and using appropriately limited force, the War in Afghanistan could swiftly be brought to, if not an end, then at least a very manageable equilibrium.  Limited goals means ensuring that al-Qaeda never reestablishes itself, rather than trying to ensure the Taliban doesn’t.  Appropriately limited force means special forces, drone attacks and intelligence services, instead of 100,000 troops.  If the goal was to prevent another 9/11, then surely that could be accomplished for less than what we are spending both explicitly and implicitly.  The opportunity costs of ramping up yet another long war was poignantly expressed by Marc Lynch:

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world?

Does COIN ensure that the U.S. will have to fight endless “small wars” that are minor, yet lengthy; low risk, yet rewardless?  At what point does the marginal improvement in security become negative relative to the cost in blood and treasure to securing it?  

This question is the core of Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.  In it he argues that is not the danger posed by a tiny, impoverished country in Central Asia, but the relentless hyping of any possible danger by U.S. power elites that leads to war after war.  He points to the lineage of Chicken Little experts stretching back to Paul Nitze’s hysterical reaction to the Soviet detonation of a nuclear weapon.  The foreign policy elite inflates the danger posed by any threat no matter how far removed from America.  Rather than addressing pressing threats with necessary force, U.S. policy has become that it cannot tolerate the slightest threats and will use overwhelming force.  This line of thinking found its logical end with Dick Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine”: “Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It’s not about ‘our analysis, it’s about ‘our response.'”  This conception of the U.S.’s interest led to the abject failure of the Iraq War, a pointless war where the justification, weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be not only imaginary, but fabricated.  Surely lessons would have been learned from that, but then again

Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, said the chances of a new al-Qaeda stronghold that could threaten American territory was relatively low but that even a small risk was a concern.  “It’s like buying life insurance for a 50-year-old,” Mr. Biddle said. “The odds of a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America are substantially less than 1 percent. And yet most Americans buy life insurance.”

The metaphor is heartbreakingly apt.  Life insurance is a minor cost with a huge benefit in the case of an unexpected calamity, but the actual product purchased is peace of mind.  Having life insurance allows freedom from worry about what loved ones would do in an emergency.  These wars have major costs, over 6,000 allied troops lost in two wars and trillions of dollars, to make an unlikely threat even less likely; but the real purchase is psychological.  Rather than live with the reality that life is never secure, the U.S. is squandering a birthright hard-earned by generations past on a false sense of security.  The amazing resiliency of New Yorkers after 9/11 is replaced by a terror that lashes out at at countries that pose manageable, marginal risk.  Rather than putting its own house in order, America has sought to remake the world in its image. 

III. Going Forward: Bringing it all Back Home

There are two noble ideals at conflict in Afghanistan.  One is that the U.S. should fight only when its vital interests are threatened; the other is the nobility of a war without civilian collateral damage.  Those two notions do not have to be in mutually exclusive; but the choices in Afghanistan now are constrained.  The U.S. does not need to stay, but leaving will mean using drones and the C.I.A. to kill more and more indiscriminately – like it does in Pakistan already.  Future wars may avoid this conflict of interests, but once the tar baby has been gripped it isn’t so easily relinquished.  

Some continued U.S. presence will be necessary, perhaps for years, because the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaeda’s leadership is intact, still capable and willing to strike America.  That Pakistan, initially an asset under the dictator, Musharraf, has become the U.S.’s biggest liability only makes leaving that much more bitter.  After such a titanic effort is hard to stomach leaving the job unfinished, or even worse for wear, especially when the historical risk of doing so is so great.  As much as Obama does not want to have Afghanistan define him the way Iraq defined Bush, being the President of the second 9/11 would be much, much worse.  It seems cowardly to overpay for security, but everything would be lost if the unlikely occurred.

There is also the cost in international esteem of abandoning the country.  Obama was elected to global rapture, but leaving Afghanistan to dogs after promising to rebuild a country torn apart by thirty years of war will not be anyone’s definition of leadership.  Obama made a commitment and while there is nothing more noble than being able to say you were wrong and changed your mind, not allowing things to play out will look like a lack of purpose.  Even worse, it will take deft messaging to distract from the parallel to the Russian pullout in 1989, which happened at a similar point in their intractable war.

Fundamentalist Islam could claim that it managed to defeat both sides of the Cold War, a claim that might reinforce the “paper tiger” perception Bin Ladin had of America under Bill Clinton.  America is slinking out of Iraq too, but that was Bush’s war.  After this decision, this one will be Obama’s.

To his credit, Obama has opened a debate about the best way forward, rather than dogmatically insisting that everything was fine.  That only a few months after Rory Stewart laid out his approach to Afghanistan a major administration official like Vice-President Joe Biden publically advocated for a similar strategy is laudable.  Biden’s staff is also meeting with Matthew Hoh, now that he is back, so perhaps Biden is the Administration’s token voice of dissent.  Nevertheless, the flexibility and open-mindedness to adapt to changing situations, both on the ground and at home, is reassuring. Yet, the question remains: what to do?

Sometimes the wisest decision is to punt and see if you can improve your field position.  That the U.S. will have a commitment in Afghanistan for several more years is a given, just the logistics of leaving will take a long time if Iraq is illustrative.  Obama should begin a plan to begin a withdrawal in 12 or 18 months, but in the meantime a surge will allow everyone time to see if the new methods are working and if the election had any effect.  If in a year, if there are major security gains, then a withdrawal along the lines of the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq could be drawn up.  If there are only minor gains, or worse, then the intractability of the situation will be forcefully demonstrated and withdrawal can be justified along those grounds.  If McChrystal hopes that a year of improvement will earn the U.S. years of further nation-building, then that is not a prize worth pursuing; if instead his strategy can provide an honorable exit either way, then why not?  40,000 soldiers is a heavy price to demonstrate seriousness of purpose, but if Obama does less than that, he cannot pivot cleanly later.  If he sends less than McChyrstal asked for, then lack of results could be interpreted as proof that more men are needed, not less.  The troop increase should be explicitly temporary and the time period should be defined, but this is the war Obama asked for and now he is getting it.

Going forward, it would be best not to end up in such a quagmire, but you fight the war you have, not the war you want.  Which is why you shouldn’t go to war in the first place.

The National Review

In Specific Facts on October 28, 2009 at 1:50 am

The National Review was founded by William F. Buckley in 1955, as a counterpoint to liberal intellectual journals, which had, until that point, dominated the landscape of political debate.  In his founding statement, Buckley described his vision of the National Review’s role in the discourse:

[The National Review] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

Now, the folks at the National Review seem to have taken a literal interpretation of Mr. Buckley’s vision.  Buckley was a confident intellectual that could articulate conservative values in debates with his liberal counterparts, helping lay the groundwork for the modern conservative movement, first with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then with Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Today, the National Review is a magazine for partisans that defines itself less on a core set of values and more on its opposition to the other side.  It is the journalistic embodiment of the “party of no.” On its blog, the Corner, many of its authors spend most of their time caricaturizing the views of “the Left” (capital “L”), focusing on why it is wrong, rather than why they are right.  What once was considered the intellectually-honest voice of conservatism now just marches in lockstep, attacking whoever a few dominant voices (Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh) deem the villians to be.  Eventually this leads to a wholesale rejection of the premises of the other side, because acknowledging even the valid concerns of opposing views undermines your own central tenet: opposing the opposition.  Now, the National Review yells “Stop,” before the other side starts.

In October of 2008, David Frum, former National Review contributor (whose conservative credentials are ironclad) and friend of this newsmagazine, criticized McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as VP.  He was chastised by his fellow contributors to NRO blog, who summed up the basis for their criticism in a sentence:

PLEASE KEEP YOUR REMARKS TO YOURSELF! Nobody but Democrats wants to hear them.

As a free-thinking intellectual that refuses to drink the Kool-Aid, Frum responded in a post titled “I Get So Weary of This…”, which sums up the contemporary role of the National Review:

Perhaps it is our job at NRO is tell our readers only what they want to hear, without much regard to whether it is true. Perhaps it is our duty just to keep smiling and to insist that everything is dandy – that John McCain’s economic policies make sense, that his selection of Sarah Palin was an act of statesmanship, that she herself is the second coming of Anna Schwartz, and that nobody but an over-educated snob would ever suggest otherwise.

Frum later acted on his convictions, left the National Review, and founded his own website, The New Majority.  In its About Us page, he articulates his mission in a sentence: is a site edited by David Frum, dedicated to the modernization and renewal of the Republican party and the conservative movement.

The National Review was institutionalized by the movement it started; many of the fundamental tenets of conservatism are either misconstrued or entirely absent from its arguments.  It was formed as a counterpoint to the status quo; now it is the status quo’s apologist.  David Frum recognized this and escaped.  It seems to me that William F. Buckley, the intellectual juggernaut, probably would’ve done the same.

Book Review of Dogs and Demons

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on October 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm

I wrote the following bitter, bitter book review in 2008.  A lot has changed since then, but I stand by the spirit of the review:

I live in Japan right now and work within the Japanese Education system. Dogs and Demons has been the only scholarly, scientific account of contemporary Japanese society I have ever come across, written by probably the most qualified foreign authority on Japanese culture.

Often foreigners reporting on Japan are subject to an unwritten rule that criticizing the nation’s government is somehow ‘racist’. and accept Japanese government official statements at face value. This is because reporters covering Japan from abroad are unaware of Japanese cultural memes and grossly methodologically irresponsible: they do their research in English; stay for the short term, traveling only to known tourist sites; largely use (often outdated) secondary sources; and interview only government officials or their private sector allies.

As someone who lives here and speaks Japanese in his daily life far more frequently than English, its disgusting to witness the bureaucrats manipulate the foreign media, and its also disgusting to witness the countless short-term stayers and long-term (but unwilling to learn the language or engage with the Japanese) stayers confirm this account in an effort to either gain “cool” points with their friends back home or out of honest gullibility.

Indeed, in the opinion of one reviewer below (this review initially appeared on facebook), this book which criticizes only the Japanese government and not at all the Japanese people, is somehow “disguised racism”. This reaction to Dogs and Demons is typical of those with no real experience of Japan, and while such a reaction would never arise if someone criticized the government of a Germany or a Spain , because the Japanese are so ethnically and culturally different from us and politically unified as a distinct and isolated civilization, somehow it is widely perceived as racist to criticize any aspect of their society. The biggest obstacle to the truths of Kerr’s book hitting home in countries like the United States are Americans themselves. Anytime any foreigner in Japan righteously criticizes any element of Japanese culture, society, or government, saying for example, “there are so many worthless construction projects going on.” almost inevitably, someone who has no knowledge of the Japanese people or language outside of Nintendo or Hello Kitty will inevitably say “Hey man! Thats racist! Thats not cool, bro! Its Japanese Culture!” Indeed, these people are doing the work of the Japanese plutocrats for them.

You hear the same things continuously from the Japanese, no matter where you are in the country, in the same words: the Japanese are “close to nature”, the weather in Japan is more severe than other places in the world, urbanization is modernization, Japanese problems (including the Yakuza, which is hundreds of years old) are all the fault of America, the world has it in for the Japanese, foreign thought is dangerous, etc. None of these have any grounding in fact, and are actually not-so-subtly placed items of propaganda injected into everyday life in Japan by a plutocracy seeking to delay an inevitable economic collapse with unneccesary public works projects riddled with overt corruption. And these official statements are eaten up by foreigners!

Dogs and Demons bravely exposes this element, which almost all the Japanese are aware of and powerless to stop. Indeed, even a cursory glance at Japanese cinema (I’m specifically thinking of Kitano Takeshi’s “Zatoichi”, Kurosawa Akira’s “Shichinin no Samurai”, and Miyazaki Hayao’s “Mononoke Hime”, films familiar to most western Japanophiles) reveals this problem of a powerless population in the face of corrupt, destructive rulers as a chronic one within Japanese culture. The two real difference in Japanese society between the age of “Zatoichi” and now is that (1) bureaucrats have crucial information technologies at their disposal and can disseminate propaganda all the more efficiently, and that (2) aside from Kitano Takeshi taking the role of Stephen Fry’s Dietrich in “V for Vendetta”, Japan has no Zatoichi to save it! It becomes a wonder, then, that Kerr’s opinion is not the mainstream among foreign observers.

Kerr’s book was written in 2001. Now it is 2008 and the problem of unconquerable, self-serving bureaucracy has arguably gotten worse. Conservative politicians have taken even more power and just as conservative politicians in the United States say that to criticize them is “Un-American”, in Japan, to criticize those in power has become quintessentially “Un-Japanese”.

It’s no secret that Japan is a totalitarian state. Government Ministers regularly release statements telling the populace which words they may and may not use, similar to the “newspeak” of George Orwell’s “1984”; they have created an impossibly complex system of procedures, rules, and meaningless regulations, that together with a non-independent judiciary, ensure that the government can never be legally changed or held accountable for anything, similar to the situation of Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”. But the most telling aspect of modern Japanese society as pointed out by Kerr is that the government has effectively childized its populace, making them docile, preoccupied with increasingly more ridiculous toys, videogames, and karaoke (like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”), ignorant of the potential of a full life, afraid of the world outside Japan, engaged in only superficial amusements. It is a credit to the Japanese that they’ve managed to be so good-natured throughout thousands of years of despotic rule.

It’s also worth noting that real political change in Japan has always been top-down–organized and enacted by elites. I’m frequently asked who I think will be elected the next President of the United States. When I say that it will probably be John McCain, the most frequent response from Japanese people is “America loves a hero!” Japan, for all it’s Zatoichis and Mononoke Himes, is a nation with no heros. No one is willing to stand up to the latest despot in charge. Japan is a nation that will not be storming the Bastille anytime soon.

To anyone with a requisite knowledge of Japanese history, this thesis put forth in Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons” is not “disguised racism”. It’s a loud but surprisingly conventional gong in the face of what is in fact only the latest incarnation in a long tradition of despotic rule.

Noam Chomsky: Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post 9-11 World

In Uncategorized on October 27, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Noam Chomsky‘s greatest talent is to state the obvious in very clear language, which is why it’s amazing that he is so often misinterpreted.  It’s no secret that those with power act in ways conducive to keeping this power and attempt to elicit support from those without power. This is an underlying tenet of all kinds of religious, economic, Marxist, socialist, anarchist, libertarian thought, etc., as part of an intellectually self-conscious, continuous scientific research program dating into oblivion.

In “Imperial Ambitions“, Chomsky applies his distinctly pluralistic framework to a post-9-11 American populus become hysterical by domestic attacks, enterprising plutocrats, and lazy media coverage.

Following a simple question-answer format with interviewer David Barsamian, “Imperial Ambitions” rationally contends that the “Social Security Crisis” is a scam; slow, steady, non-violent activism is the best and most-effective solution to social problems in a democratic society; the executive branch under the Bush Administration has essentially nullified constitutional civil liberties; “social” sciences should be studied with the same empiricism as “natural” sciences; among other sober contentions.

However, while simultaneously railing against propaganda and euphemistic language, Chomsky uses charged words, quotes out of context, and employs bitter sarcasm when discussing those viewpoints with which he doesn’t argree, often to the point of patronizing the reader.  Together with David Barsamian’s leading questions, “Imperial Ambitions” effectively “manufactures consent” in the same way as those it criticizes.

As for the various, common misinterpretations of “Imperial Ambitions”, first, those whom Chomsky criticizes, and righteously so, are, in modern parlance, statists and plutocrats, not conservatives. Chomsky is a conservative.  As he states in the text: “I’ve always considered myself an old-fashioned conservative”.  Second, in the publisher’s statement, the “increasing threat, including devastating weather patterns, of global warming” is mentioned as being “explored” in the book, however, this “exploration” consists of nothing but an extremely brief mentioning of a few worst-case, nightmare scenarios, rivaling something from a science-fiction novel and taking up no more than a few extremely hypothetical sentences.

Overall a very good book from an exceptional, scholastic mind. Chomsky is far more methodologically consistent than most, but unfortunately, guilty of the same sensationalism he criticizes.

A Diamond is Forever (from 1947)

In Specific Facts on October 26, 2009 at 3:28 pm

American artist Lee Gainer has created a variety of images of engagement rings that can be bought for two-months’s salary. This synopsis is for a truck driver.Anyone who’s seen the excellent HBO series, Rome, knows that the Romans were the first to give rings as a sign of engagement: at the beginning of Season 2, badass Titus Pullo, in proposing to his long-unrequited love, shy Eirene, because he spent all of his money on drinking and gambling, ties a blade of grass around her finger.  The Romans also smeared dirt on each other’s faces. 

In the Middle Ages, as diamonds were seen to withstand both fire and steel, a platinum diamond engagement ring was given by princes to princesses as a sign of the unbreakable vows of marriage.  It wasn’t until the discovery, in 1870, of the Kimberley Diamond Mine, that diamonds became “not so rare a gem after all.”  The price of diamonds fell rapidly, and, as anyone with a really old grandmother knows (mine’s 93), the birthstones phenomenon started.  At this time, it was far more common to give a potential wife an engagement ring with her birthstone as opposed to a diamond ring, because diamonds were seen as cheap and vulgur.

Fast forward to 1947.  Platinum has been banned for personal use, since the military needed it to kill people in World War II.  De Beers responds by introducing the “Diamond is Forever” campaign.  Jewelers capitalize by instructing customers that one-month’s salary is the proper amount to pay for a platinum diamond engagement ring.  (This was later upped to two-months’s salary.)  Men don’t want to be seen as cheap and miserly on the Day of Reckoning, so they buy it.  Mad Men are hired to spread the idea through all of society: the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds has pop culture icon Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” as a boon to De Beers et al.  Am I cynical?  I’m the guy that, when asked what I’d do if I won the lottery, replies “I’d put it in the bank.”.

As the Diamond Wholesale Corporation puts it: 

This is where the tradition of the diamond engagement ring really started, all from an advertising campaign . . . So you see, buying a diamond engagement ring isn’t really a popular ancient tradition.  It’s more a combination of dreaming of being a princess, a compelling marketing campaign, and compelling Hollywood glamour that ultimately promotes diamonds as the only jewels with which to furnish your loved one as a sign of engagement.

Undoubtedly, the folks at De Beers are marketing geniuses.  My question is: why hasn’t Ford or Chrysler thought of this?  Start a marketing campaign where not giving your son or daughter a new car upon graduating high school is seen as cheap and miserly.  That should take care of the looming bankruptcy that plagues American automakers.