Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Broken Government

A friend and former colleague directed me to a video of a talk that Lawrence Lessig gave to the spring SNW (Storage Networking World) 2010 conference. Lessig never appears in the video, which is basically a reproduction of the projected images that accompanied his talk as we hear it on the soundtrack. The summary on the Web page for this video is clearly Lessig's own text:

Talk given at SNW 2010 about three areas of policy -- broadband, cybersecurity, and copyright, and about the corruption of the process of policy making affecting each. A mix of my old concerns with one section of the new concerns.

The operative word in this summary is "corruption;" and, while the talk is replete with examples to justify such a strong word, what is most interesting is Lessig's attempt at diagnosis and the reasoning behind his conclusion. The word he uses is "dependency;" and, while my own preference has been for the noun "addiction" (particularly after HBO ran their extended series on the topic), the rhetoric with which he makes his case is strong enough that his milder word choice still has the same shock value.

Any discussion of addiction must begin by identifying the addictive substance, and this may be one reasons why Lessig decided not to apply this particular noun. The object of the dependency that is the focus of his attention is status quo thinking by which decisions are made by those in power, who are concerned more with staying in power than in the consequences of their decisions. He illustrates this as a vicious circle in which established interests pay lobbyists to influence lawmakers to secure the establishment of those interests, and one of his strongest points is that large sums of money flow around this circle regardless of electoral results. Within the framework of the consciousness industry, voters no longer signify. Voter behavior can be manipulated by both the interests themselves and the elected officials they manipulate. Dissent can be tolerated, because the consciousness industry dampens its amplitude to a level that cannot possibly make a different. This leads to Lessig's conclusion that the consequences of this vicious circle affect not only the three areas in his summary but also just about any other major issue, such as health care or the deteriorating environment.

It goes without saying that this is not a particularly pleasant talk. However, it has the combined virtues of clear logic and compelling rhetoric. Whether or not it has any effect can only depend on how individual viewers react to it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Corporate Philanthropy

Big oil has been in bed with the arts for quite some time. My own generation was probably most aware of the relationship back in the days when Masterpiece Theatre was "made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation;" but one of the interesting phenomena of twentieth-century economic history was the migration of arts sponsorship from individual philanthropists to corporate entities. One only has to look at the lists of sponsors in the program book for any performing arts event to appreciate the extent of this migration.

One of the unanticipated consequences of that migration is now coming to the surface in unpleasant ways. An excellent example emerged last night when a fundraising event at Tate Britain was disrupted by a protest against BP. Here is how Farah Nayeri reported the episode for Bloomberg:

Activists opposing oil company BP Plc burst into a party at London’s Tate Britain last night, spilling cans of an oil-like liquid inside and outside the gallery to protest BP’s 20-year sponsorship.

Black-clad protesters with veils over their heads splattered the party entrance with cans of treacle bearing the BP logo, then sprinkled bird feathers over the slick. Another group smuggled cans inside, under their skirts, and emptied them in Tate Britain’s columned main hall.

Meanwhile, about a dozen artists wearing black separately picketed the party. “What do we want? Liberate Tate!” they hollered. “When do we want it? Now!”

BP has shed half of its market value after causing the U.S.’s worst-ever oil spill in April. The company is a longstanding sponsor of Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. BP has said it will maintain those London sponsorships, which together cost it more than 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) a year.

Liberate Tate? It certainly has a catchy rhyme, but just what does it mean? If Tate Britain is to be "liberated" from dependence on donations from a large corporation that, at the very least, has been sowing the seeds of its own destruction through what may be the most inept public relations campaign in the history of the oil industry (if not the history of public relations), then what organizations will pick up the slack?

Perhaps it is time to consider whether or not the very concept of corporate philanthropy is a good idea. I have no problem with individuals being rewarded with tax deductions in return for applying the money they have earned to worthy causes; but it seems as if, at least in this particular case, viewing a large corporation as if it were just another tax-paying individual is highly misconstrued, not to mention a perfect instance of what Alfred North Whitehead has called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." (As Friedrich Hayek would put it in his critiques of social theory, any individual working for a large corporation, regardless of position in the "managerial food chain," is "concrete;" but the corporation itself remains an abstraction that serves only legal purposes.) The bottom line is that the Tate (not to mention the Royal Opera House, since my own interests tend towards the performing arts) has fallen victim to "financial instruments" that determine tax policy, just as we have all paid the price for "financial instruments" for questionable practices such as commoditizing debt. As a result, we have become victims of an intentional muddling of the distinction between individuals and corporations through mechanisms such as those I recently cited concerning the problem of confusing government with business.

Government is not a Privately Owned Business!

That title might seem like one of those insights into the obvious; but is it obvious to municipal government, at least in the state of California? As a case in point, consider the city of San Carlos, located on the northern rim of Silicon Valley, once the pride and joy of the California economy. Henry K. Lee, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle filed the following report this morning (after I had already read my print edition):

The city of San Carlos has voted to dissolve its police force and to begin the steps to outsource the job of law enforcement to the San Mateo County sheriff's office as a cost-cutting measure.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Monday night to disband its 85-year-old Police Department to help save nearly two-thirds of next year's $3.5 million deficit. The council directed city staff to begin negotiating with the sheriff's office, said Mayor Randy Royce, who voted to scrap the city's 32-member force.

Royce noted that the sheriff's office, which has 462 deputies, has agreed to offer full-time jobs to all San Carlos officers. Redwood City police, which had also offered to take over police services, could not make such a guarantee.

In any private sector setting this would be viewed as a "business solution;" and, in the broader scope of business, it would be scrupulously examined by major shareholders and suppliers. However, the citizens of San Carlos are neither shareholders nor "customers" (and they are certainly not suppliers)! In the bluntest of terms, one does not turn to "business solutions" to address a total breakdown in the relationship between a government and its governed, even when that breakdown has to do with extremely unpleasant truths about the municipal budget. The real question is whether or not the citizens of San Carlos want their city to continue to exist, even if that means that they all have to contribute to restoring the budget through, for example, increased taxes. This is a matter that seems more appropriate for a public referendum than the "board room" thinking of a City Council, although I wonder just whom would then be engaged to deal with the results of that referendum, whatever they may be.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Strategic Kvetching?

On Saturday I took a rather scathing approach to Lyse Doucet's From Our Own Correspondent piece for BBC News, which seemed to argue that General Stanley McChrystal had been victimized by Rolling Stone through Michael Hastings' "Runaway General" article. Basically, I accused Doucet of failing to give Hastings' piece a serious reading; but I take this as evidence that I believed she was capable of such reading. Having now read David Brooks' "The Culture of Exposure" column, which appeared in last Friday's New York Times, I realize that I probably cannot expect Brooks to have the same language arts skills. On the desk of a better writer, one might find a "cultural" diagnosis of last week's events and the role that "cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources" (Brooks' words) played in reaching that diagnosis. However, Brooks seems so occupied with cherry-picking take-away one-liners from that profusion that there is little sign he has given any of those snippets any serious thought, let alone tried to situate them in a general sensemaking context.

The result is that Brooks basically reaches the same conclusion as Doucet: McChrystal was a victim. Whether or not Brooks and Doucet agree on the grounds for his victimization is less important than the premise that he was "more sinned against than sinning" (but probably not as stark-raving bonkers as Shakespeare's Lear was). Here, then, is Brooks' diagnosis:

But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.

These days I tend to read Brooks they way a previous generation read the Alsops (as in "anything both Alsops say is wrong"). Thus, while Matt Taibbi used his Taibblog post this morning to let us all know how bent out of shape he was by the column, I could take comfort that my Saturday hypothesis might have more strength than I had assumed. This was the hypothesis that McChrystal was an agent, rather than a victim:

For all I know he [McChrystal] also recognized that his current situation was untenable and in need of radical change, in which case he may well have deliberately used Hastings as his "change agent." In other words he had come to a stage in his life whose only priority was getting himself out of Afghanistan, and Hastings provided him with an effective means of achieving that goal.

As I said on Saturday, this may sound cynical; but cynicism does not provide logical grounds for refuting a hypothesis!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kool-Aid or Politics (or both)?

The BBC News report filed last night on the eve of the G20 summit began by recognizing the clear division in economic policy among leading member states:

As the G20 summit begins in Canada, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Europe and Japan should boost domestic demand instead of cutting spending.

European leaders have said reducing government deficits is key to setting long-term growth on track.

But Brazil warned that steep budget cuts could harm emerging economies.

Speaking in Toronto, scene of the summit, Mr Geithner said the global economy was still emerging from its crisis and "the scars of this crisis are still with us".

He said: "This summit must be fundamentally about growth."

However, this story is likely to play out more as one of context than of policy.

Perhaps the most important part of that context is that the European policy of cutting spending in the interest of more stable, if not balanced, budgets resonates with prevailing Republican policy. Indeed, whatever jokes Republicans may have told about Europe (old or new) in the past, the European Union has provided them with a talking point with which they can disagree with Barack Obama for some other reason than just disagreeing with him as a matter of principle. What makes matters worse for Obama is that they may be right. When Geithner says that he wants the summit to "be fundamentally about growth," it is hard to tell whether he is speaking in the interests of the United States or of Goldman Sachs. Whatever economic reforms may eventually be imposed, the latter has any number of instruments to profit from growth. Can the same be said of the country as a whole?

None of this should be taken as an endorsement of Republican policy. Republicans have a strong hand in just about every predisposing (if not direct) cause of the current economic crisis; but, as they say, a stopped clock is right twice a day. Under the current conditions, not only in the United States but also around the world, economic growth still looks too much like toxic Kool-Aid to be taken at face value as curative. Too much attention to growth has quickly turned the promising new European Union into a battle-scarred argumentative family, which is probably why the new British Prime Minister David Cameron will not use the noun without preceding it with the modifiers "long-term" and "sustainable." This leaves Obama with a choice that will probably be even more serious than that of who is in charge of the occupation of Afghanistan. Does he listen to the arguments of his hand-picked Treasury Secretary, even if the warrants are grounded in the interests of Goldman Sachs; or does he listen to the experience-laden voice of the European Union and give the Republicans the chance to crow about getting one right (for a change)? Obama has tried to make the case that he does not want to oppose Republicans just because they are Republicans, but ignoring Europe can easily blow up that case right in his own face. This G20 summit may prove an even stronger test of how effective a President Barack Obama can be than all of the aggravations pouring out of both Afghanistan and the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Like a ROLLING STONE (article, that is)

Presumably Rolling Stone was conceived as a magazine for the changing entertainment scene of the Sixties. Because this was a time when many of the entertainers were highly politicized, one might almost say that it fell into reporting and commenting on world affairs through "accidental circumstances" (as in the coroner's verdict at Peter Grimes' hearing). Nevertheless, there has been nothing "accidental" about how it has handled this unanticipated responsibility, which is why people like myself, who could care less about their entertainment reporting, track the dispatches of Rolling Stone news reporters.

The seriousness of Rolling Stone received particular endorsement when David Simon created his HBO series Generation Kill, based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the First Recon Battalion of the Marines in the period leading up to and including the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. One has only to sample Wright's book or follow Simon's dialogue for a single scene to appreciate both the language and its context in Michael Hastings' "Runaway General" article. Thus, while I have already endorsed Matt Taibbi's diagnosis of the repercussions of this article in the context of political journalism, when it came to understanding the military context, only National Public Radio came up with a source whom (thanks to Wright) I could respect. That source was Nathaniel Fick, currently Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security. More important, however, is that, at the time of Wright's embedding, Fick was First Lieutenant in Platoon 2 of First Recon's Bravo Company; and Wright spent most of his time with Team 1 Alpha in that platoon. Fick could thus speak on National Public Radio with direct experience of having an embedded reporter in his presence. Along with the Center's Senior Fellow Tom Ricks, Fick provided a much-needed reality check about the sorts of things that happen when journalists encounter military personnel of any rank when they are under fire, whether that fire is coming literally from hostiles in Afghanistan or figuratively from NATO allies questioning our underlying strategy (the opening "scene" in Hastings' article).

The bottom line is that one cannot really grasp what goes on in battle conditions without establishing an extensive context. This is why Simon committed himself to seven one-hour episodes in order to provide an acceptable account of Wright's book. Thus, when I read Lyse Doucet's From Our Own Correspondent piece for BBC News, I found myself wondering how much of that context had been on her radar. For that matter I could not quite figure out her motive for writing the piece. Was she trying to "humanize" General Stanley McChrystal in the wake of the punishing week he had endured? If so, then I also have to wonder if she had given Hastings' report a serious reading (or if she had read it at all).

For my part I am still trying to draw my own conclusions about McChrystal. Clearly (to those who read me regularly), my own reading has less to do with whether or not McChrystal should have been relieved of duty and more to do with why we are still in Afghanistan at all. From that point of view, I do not think that McChrystal needs the sort of "redemption" that Doucet was trying to provide. Like Fick he understood the implications of having an embedded journalist in one's presence. For all I know he also recognized that his current situation was untenable and in need of radical change, in which case he may well have deliberately used Hastings as his "change agent." In other words he had come to a stage in his life whose only priority was getting himself out of Afghanistan, and Hastings provided him with an effective means of achieving that goal. Whether or not this proposition is cynical will probably depend on your political bias; but I would argue that, whatever its rhetorical dispositions may be, it stands as a realistic hypothesis.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Which is the Greater Menace?

If Rolling Stone was instrumental in ending the career of General Stanley McChrystal as head of the President’s occupation of Afghanistan, can it be equally effective in bringing down hostile governors? Tim Dickinson has decided to pursue this question as it pertains to whether or not "everything is being done" to deal with the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the recurring themes that on-site reporters keep playing is the question of why more qualified people have not been mobilized. As Dickinson reported last night on the Rolling Stone Web site, it is not because such people are not available:

Nearly 16,000 highly trained, well-equipped war fighters are sitting on the sidelines in the battle for the Gulf Coast — and the fault lies not with the federal government but with the governors of the affected states.

Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Bob Riley and Charlie Crist are respectively the commanders in chief for the National Guard in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It is their responsibility to direct the troops at their disposal. And quite an army it is: As of May 3rd, the Pentagon has authorized 17,500 guardsmen to respond to the BP spill — free of charge to the states. The federal government will front the costs, which will ultimately be passed on to the oil giant.

But more than six weeks later, the region's governors have deployed just 1,585 guardsmen — less than ten percent of this oil-fighting force — to the frontlines. And they are sorely needed: More than 160 miles of coastline in these four states are currently inundated with BP crude. If all of these soldiers were deployed, it would represent a nearly 50 percent surge over the 35,000 disaster responders currently in the Gulf.

As far as Dickinson is concerned, the problem is not one of resources but one of raw politics being played in the worst possible way. As they say, "Context is everything;" and in Jindal's case the context is that he is "a likely contender for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination who has emerged as one of the most strident critics of the Obama administration's cleanup response." In other words it is more important for Jindal's political career for him to make Barack Obama look bad than it is for him to alleviate the punishing conditions that his current electorate must endure. Thus, Dickinson reports:

But as commander in chief of Louisiana, Jindal has only himself to blame for leaving more than 80 percent of the troops available to the state idle. As of June 23rd, only 1,045 Louisiana guardsmen out of an authorized force of 6,000 had been activated, according to data provided to Rolling Stone by the Department of Homeland Security.

Dickinson then adds irony to this insult:

Perhaps more shocking, Jindal's record is actually the best in the region. In Alabama, where Riley recently called on his state's residents to join him in a Day of Prayer for a solution to the Gulf disaster, the GOP governor has activated just 439 of the 3,000 National Guard troops authorized to assist in the cleanup effort. In Mississippi, where Republican Haley Barbour has repeatedly downplayed the scope of the disaster — calling the presence of tar balls on the state's beaches "no big deal" — the governor has deployed just 64 out of 6,000 troops at his disposal. In Florida, meanwhile, independent governor Crist has 2,500 troops available. He's activated only 37.

Thus, as a quartet operating as if with a single mind (or perhaps under the instruction of some other single mind?), these governors have managed to turn the "War to Save the Environment" into the "War against Obama," presumably under the assumption that the President is a greater menace to the United States than even the most massive oil spill.

This raises an important question: If the mainstream media were so eager to pick up on Michael Hastings' "Runaway General" report, will they do the same with this dispatch from Dickinson? Is this about helping the Gulf Coast states to recover, or is it about choosing sides for the next round of national elections? Enquiring minds want to know!

Learning from the Maciel Scandal

Having reflected on the "origins" argument in "The Mission of Father Maciel," Alma Guillermoprieto's analysis of the Maciel scandal in the latest New York Review, I feel it only fair to apply similar reasoning to her conclusion. This requires my beginning with a paragraph of her text, rather than a sentence:

In the end, the scandal of Marcial Maciel, gruesome and grotesque as it is, may turn out to be a scandal of the Catholic Church. There is the distressing question of the Church's last pope, the popular John Paul II, and his relations with the demonic priest. There is the not unimportant fact that the Legionaries—along with Benedict XVI and indeed John Paul II—represent the most morally conservative part of the Church, and that they now appear enmeshed in squalid moral scandals. There is, above all, the fact that an entire large, wealthy, international institution is now under suspicion (what did Maciel's fellow Legionaries know, when did they know it, and who was complicit?) and that the greatest institution of all, the Roman Catholic Church, appears to have engaged in a cover-up for decades on its behalf. Catholics who always identified their priests with Bing Crosby films will need some time to adjust to this knowledge.

Once again I would like to proceed on rhetorical grounds. Let me begin with a minor point, which is the need to include the word "films" in that final sentence. This is a perfect example of what Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass called the "media equation" phenomenon, best summarized in the subtitle of their book whose title is the name of that phenomenon, "how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places." There are any number of stories about how the "real-life" Bing Crosby did not live up to the idealized standards of the priests he portrayed; so the process of identification singled out in that concluding sentence has no grounding in reality. However, since faith does not require such grounding in reality, this is no more than a minor observation.

Of far greater interest is that parenthesis, because I would like to assume that its words were deliberately chosen to evoke memories of the Watergate scandal, the only political scandal in American history to have led to the resignation of the President of the United States. The bottom line is that Richard Nixon resigned because it was very likely that, had he not done so, he would have been obliged to face an impeachment trial. The Articles of Impeachment being drawn up by a House Committee chaired by Peter Rodino may have been confined to specific issues concerned with the letter of Constitutional law; but the investigation itself was clearly driven by the question of whether or not the President was "enmeshed in squalid moral scandals."

What happened after the resignation? Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath of Office; and, after having been sworn into the office, proclaimed "our long national nightmare is over." Unfortunately, he subsequently issued a blanket pardon for Nixon, which basically quashed all further investigation. It also left a black mark on the entire Republican Party, leading many of us with more progressive inclinations to hope that the "long national nightmare" of Republican conservatism had also ended. We were further encouraged by the election of Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, Carter was undone by his own set of nightmares; and conservatism was resurrected (with an intentionally Christian connotation) with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Since that time progressivism has had a harder and harder time of advancing its agenda. Bill Clinton was not elected on the basis of a progressive strategy but through a cleverly managed set of tactics all based on an astute understanding of the consciousness industry. Clinton may have thought that these tactics were necessary, that becoming President with his Party in the majority in both Houses of Congress would be sufficient to then proceed with a progressive agenda; but, as they say, he quickly had another think coming. Eight years of Clinton became one prolonged Night of the Long Knives, during which conservatives embraced the conviction that winning was "the only thing." (Clinton, of course, supplied some of those knives with his own "squalid moral scandals.") By the time of the 2000 Presidential Election, it was clear that any progressive agenda was in tatters; and ten years on there is little to show for it being stitched back into a coherent fabric.

At the risk of sounding too reductive, I would suggest that the "survival value" of progressivism has been jeopardized by too much attention to ideas and too little to the significance of that consciousness industry. The conservatives learned from Clinton's tactics and pulled the judo strategy of turning them to their own advantage. The result is that we now have a "President of ideas" who is under attack on just about every conceivable front. In a similar way I would suggest that every organized religion has grown and thrived by virtue of the consciousness industry, and the Roman Catholic Church has one of the best track records for doing so. It would be nice to believe that an inherently corrupt hierarchy could be undone by the system of values it purports to represent, but I think Guillermoprieto may have missed out on the likelihood that what claims to be a community of faith is actually a highly authoritarian organization. It understands the logic of domination just as effectively as Republican conservatives have understood it and applied that understanding; and, for all intents and purposes, faith does not really signify.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Matt Taibbi's Diagnosis

Having just invoked the medical metaphor to characterize our current situation in Afghanistan as a "disease," I feel obliged to report that the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal seems to have provoked Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi into "diagnosing" the prevailing enfeebled state of political journalism in this country (if not elsewhere). In his latest post to Taibblog on the Rolling Stone Web site, entitled "McChrystal and Us," he suggests that, when it comes to providing news about politics in the United States, the practice of journalism "has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability." At the risk of following The Nation's John Nichols down the primrose path to PowerPoint rhetoric, here is an itemized list of the symptoms described by Taibbi that support his diagnosis:

  1. This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it's a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush's shut-out of the Washington Post's White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don't always deserve.
  2. Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That's a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that's why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that's partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.
    The media business is so used to associating the whole idea of challenging or negative reporting with partisanship that even the coverage of our role in the McChrystal thing is being pitched to audiences as a kind of extreme version of the usual crap — that what Rolling Stone is doing is "attacking Obama from the left." It's almost like it's not considered possible anymore for tough reporting to exist without some kind of partisan angle, which is sad, because just a generation ago an almost completely apolitical iconoclasm was the expected ideological orientation of the investigative journalist.
  3. A third thing we get these days is outright prostitution, and unfortunately I can't even tell all the stories I've heard about the kinds of things that go on in our business. I will say that in the world of business journalism in particular there are prominent news organizations that will openly promise favorable coverage in exchange for access to major business figures. This behavior is common enough that it's not at all a surprise that the major business networks missed the signs leading to the financial crash; they were too busy lobbing softballs to bank CEOs as part of pre-arranged interview deals.

I find this analysis particularly ironic in light of the recent move by Yahoo! News to a crowdsourcing model. Those who still believe in the wisdom of crowds believe that the truth will always be revealed, regardless of Taibbi's diagnosis or the list of symptoms he cites. However, as I recently observed, the crowd is more interested in amusement than truth, which is why "Katherine Heigl's dowdy dress" gets a higher "crowd rating" than the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano. ("Dude, what did you expect? That was in Iceland!") To invoke the title of Nicholas Carr's recent book, we have become a society hopelessly mired in "the shallows;" and that setting is the perfect breeding ground for the metaphorical microorganisms responsible for the disease Taibbi has diagnosed.

The Symptoms and the Disease

One of my greater thrills was being invited to the dedication of the new campus for The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California back in the fall of 2005, since it gave me the opportunity to hear lectures by a significant number of scientists who had been familiar to me only through my reading experiences. It was on this occasion that I believe I first picked up an aphoristic summary of the "Hebb rule" from a talk given by Eric Kandel:

Cells that fire together wire together.

Under that rule it would have to be the case that any cells that fire when I am thinking about chutzpah have become rather intimately wired to the cells that fire when I encounter the name of Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich holds an admirable place in the Chutzpah of the Week archives not only for his own chutzpah but role in sharing awards. One might say that, in the extended community of our nation's government, Kucinich has the best appreciation for the extent to which "it takes a village" to raise serious chutzpah. The "population" of that village may vary in both size and membership; but Kucinich always seems to be there intent on raising the "chutzpah child."

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he should be putting a stake in the ground in the wake of the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as "head of the President’s occupation of Afghanistan;" and in this case, on the basis of today's post to The Beat by John Nichols (which is also responsible for that quoted turn of phrase), there are two fellow congressmen in his "village," Democrat David Obey, head of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Russ Feingold (like Obey a Democrat from Wisconsin), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Intelligence Committees. I am tempted to call these three Democrats the "Chutzpah Three" to evoke the "Chicago Seven;" but, given our cultural attitude towards history, I wonder how many know about the Chicago Seven and their relationship to one of our past military blunders. The point is that Kucinich, Obey, and Feingold have had the chutzpah to recognize just how much of a blunder the current situation is and to hold the Commander in Chief to account even while endorsing the dismissal of McChrystal.

Let us consider how each of these three has earned this week's Award. Here is Nichols' account of Kucinich:

“The counterinsurgency strategy is falling apart. The doctrine of counterinsurgency has broken down just as the chain of command has broken down. The Karzai Administration is broken by corruption. Our budget is broken. General Petraeus has served his country honorably, but we can’t expect a different outcome from a new general with the same old strategy. The only way to repair this mess is to get out of Afghanistan," says Kucinich.

Appropriately blunt and unapologetic in his opposition not just to General McChrystal as a commander but to McChrystal's wrongheaded policies -- wrongheaded policies that, tragically, remain in place even after the man is gone -- Kucinich concluded: “What we have to show for our strategy is the death of over 1,100 U.S. soldiers and countless innocent civilians. The U.S. has not been made safer, and the Afghan people are left to fend for themselves between the failure of their government, and ours, to protect them. Bring our troops home."

Obey, on the other hand, receives far more attention. Indeed, he has poll position in Nichols' post, which draws upon Jordan Fabian's post to the Blog Briefing Room maintained on the Web site for The Hill. Nichols' summary almost reads like one of those PowerPoint slides that came under so much attack in the "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan" report released (and made public through a Web page on the Web site of the Center for a New American Security) at the beginning of this year. Here is the "moral equivalent" of his bullet list:

The problem is not only that General McChrystal displayed contempt for the president, the vice president, ambassadors and others – although that is a serious matter.

The problem is not just that General McChrystal repeatedly displayed disrespect for the civilian chain of command – although that is an even more serious matter, which goes to the heart of the American experiment.

The problem is not even that General McChrystal refused to listen to opposing views regarding his plan to surge tens of thousands of addition troops into Afghanistan.

The problem is that General McChrystal put his blinders on and, for too long, Obama still followed his advice.

Thus, like Kucinich, Obey has concluded that, while the action against McChrystal was justified, it was dealing with only one symptom while ignoring the disease presented through that symptom, which is the mission we have set for ourselves in Afghanistan.

Nichols then reinforced this conclusion with a quote from Feingold:

The comments of General McChrystal and his aides were very troubling, and the president’s decision to accept his resignation is appropriate. But I continue to have strong concerns about our misguided policy in Afghanistan. The massive, open-ended military operation in Afghanistan will cost a hundred billion dollars this year with no end in sight. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to operate and recruit around the world. After nine years, it is time to give the American people, as well as the people of Afghanistan, a timetable to end this war so our nation is better able to focus on the global threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Will these three voices be heard beyond the bastions of progressive thinking, such as The Nation, which hosts Nichols' blog? History teaches us that this is unlikely to be the case. Those voices deserve more than a Chutzpah of the Week award; but, unfortunately, that is all I can offer.

A Cynical Reflection on a Well-Turned Phrase

While reading "The Mission of Father Maciel," Alma Guillermoprieto's no-holds-barred exposition on the scandalous life of Marcial Maciel in the latest New York Review, I came across the following sentence:

Uneducated and mendacious, Maciel nevertheless had a genius for politics, and for personal relations.

Given that, by this point in her text, Guillermoprieto had established those opening adjectives as thoroughly warranted, I could not help but wonder if her use of "nevertheless" was appropriate. Could that "genius" for politics and the broader domain of personal relations have been a product of his mendaciousness and lack of education? Could this be the "dark side" of Isaiah Berlin's "Political Judgement" essay (which, coincidentally, also appeared in the pages of The New York Review)? Berlin's point was, of course, far more innocuous than Maciel's behavior. He argued that the many subtleties of a rich educational background might actually "do more harm than good by interfering with other factors that might contribute to more effective judgment" (my words, not Berlin's). He overlooked the possibility that baser motives could be a dominating factor, turning to figures like Otto von Bismarck for positive models without taking more negative examples (such as, say, Joseph Stalin) into account. Had Berlin lived to read Guillermoprieto's article, what would he have concluded about the "political judgment" of Maciel?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Questionable Support of a Good Cause?

This past Monday I wrote a post about the Chase Community Giving organization and the efforts of the Old First Concerts series to be one of their beneficiaries. Basically, Chase decided that it would make its donations on the basis of votes cast through Facebook. Old First Concerts responded by circulating a "get out the vote" message through electronic mail. This led to my casting a vote and concluding that this was a legitimate process. On the basis of that conclusion, I circulated information about the process not only on this site but also through an article. I may not be bullish about "beauty contests;" but I figured that, if those are the rules that Chase has set, those of us who know and love Old First Concerts should respond accordingly.

One member of that "know and love" community is my colleague Chloe Veltman. Therefore, I was not surprised that she should have received the same electronic mail that I did; but I was extremely disquieted to learn that her experience with the system was far more negative. Here is what she wrote on her blog post:

The money on offer is significant and I love the work that Old First Concerts does. So I dutifully followed the link and tried to vote. But Facebook wouldn't allow me to cast my vote without making all my personal information available to Chase, which I wasn't keen on allowing as I don't want the financial institution to start badgering me with offers etc. There seemed to be no way around this demand, so I decided not to vote after all.

Those who know my feelings about social software would probably conclude (rightly) that, if I had had this experience, I would have done exactly the same, deciding that withholding personal information is more important than voting. However, I wonder whether or not Veltman was correct in accusing Chase of going after that information. On the basis of a post I wrote last December, I am more inclined to believe that Facebook is the malefactor. In that post, entitled "Valuing Private Life," I wrote about my experiences with receiving "invitation to friend" messages from Facebook members, all of which I have ignored:

When I received my second invitation, it came with a reminder that I never replied to my first one. (This, of course, was mistaken. I had replied. I just chose to do it through a channel other than Facebook!) I was then presented with a three-by-three grid of photographs and names of "other people you may know," which was surprisingly accurate. This raised the question of just how Facebook knew whom I "may know." This, of course, brings us (again) to the terrain of data mining, because there are any number of ways through which Web pages can connect me with these people. The problem is that not all of those pages are ones that most people would regard as public (which is to say that most people do not give very much thought to whether or not they are public). Specifically, from my own point of view, my connections to two of the names on that grid were established only through my Yahoo! Mail account. Thus, when I had recently written about the potential problems with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security looking in on every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (and we may assume that they are particularly active in the wake of Friday's incident), I had forgotten that the search space extends beyond those social networks.

In this context I have hypothesized that Facebook did not request my personal information because they already had whatever they wanted (including the ability to know who I was when I entered the voting site)! This is, to say the least, scary. It also means that any information that Facebook harvested about me prior to the recent uproar over their invasive tactics is still "in the system," which may well mean that any promises to resolve those problems will never be anything more than hollow promises.

If Chase wants to make its donations based on a "beauty contest," that is their decision. However, if they wish to conduct their contest through a Web site with a reputation for invasion of privacy and no sign of that reputation changing, that is the business of anyone thinking of voting. For those already part of the Facebook social network, this will probably not be an issue (although they may wish to think twice about whether those new privacy settings really have any effect). The rest of us, however, will have to give this matter further thought, since we do not even have access to the window dressing of a privacy settings site on Facebook.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Yuja Adulation

I have rarely seen as much critical acclaim for a performing artist visiting San Francisco as I have seen for pianist Yuja Wang. Because her April 22 San Francisco Performances recital was cancelled and rescheduled due to an arm injury, over this past weekend her followers had the opportunity to attend not only the rescheduled recital but also her guest appearance in the penultimate subscription concert of the current San Francisco Symphony season. By way of disclaimer, I should state that my own coverage of her at these events was as positive as any reports I subsequently read. However, I also make it a point to get my own pieces into the system "with all deliberate speed;" so I can put a stake in the ground to claim that my ideas are strictly my own.

The secondary theme to all this adulation seems to come with the question, "Is there anything she cannot play?" For my part the primary open question concerns chamber music. I know that she has performed in the summer at Santa Fe, and I have heard bits and pieces of some of her performances as they were later broadcast here on KALW. However, that was hardly enough for me to form an opinion. From my own (San Francisco based) point of view, the first serious test of her chamber music skills will take place in almost exactly a year's time, on June 14, 2011, when she will perform in a chamber music recital by San Francisco Symphony musicians as part of her Project San Francisco residency. The event page for this recital is already on the Symphony Web site, but the program has yet to be announced.

This allows me the luxury of fantasizing about what I would like to hear her perform at this recital. There are any number of "usual suspects" I could round up that would be consistent with what I have already heard her perform. Béla Bartók's Contrasts would probably rank high on that list; but, since she will be performing his second piano concerto at that week's subscription concert, I would hope for more variety. Then there is Sergei Rachmaninoff's Opus 19 cello sonata in G minor. Rachmaninoff thought that cello and piano should be equals in this composition; and, while I have come to know and love this music, I also accept that, since it came from Rachmaninoff's pen, the piano is probably "more equal" than the cello. In a more traditional vein I have heard Wang play Johannes Brahms only on her latest recording; and either the piano quintet or any of the piano quartets (the G minor being my favorite) would be an excellent choice. However, what I would most enjoy would be a composition that does not get very much exposure and definitely deserves more. So the top of my list would most likely be the Opus 84 A minor piano quintet by Edward Elgar. I first hear this performed over twenty years ago in Santa Maria (of all places) and was so drawn into it that I leapt at the first opportunity to purchase a CD of it. I have not heard it in performance since then, even with all the diverse opportunities available through the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and, as I said, this music just does not deserve that kind of neglect. So, while Elgar was never known for his piano writing, my greatest delight would be if Yuja's residency included a performance of this quintet!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Putting Social Software to Work for a Good Cause

Before today I did not know about the Chase Community Giving organization. I was not surprised that there was an arm of Chase concerned with making donations. I was, however, surprised that they would determine the beneficiaries of their donations through Facebook voting. As a result Old First Concerts, one of my favorite venues for truly stimulating concert opportunities, has launched a get-out-the-vote campaign, which I have just endorsed with an piece entitled "Giving support that matters." I began enjoying Old First Concerts recitals long before I began writing for and even selected one of their events when I decided to compile a best-of-2009 list. As far as the attention I have given the series on, all I can say is that I wish more of my Calendar dates were free for their events! I encourage all readers of this blog to take a look at the statement that I duplicated on my piece and give serious consideration to engaging the technology of social software to help support the performing arts.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Nineteenth-Century Origins of the "Techno-Moron"

By my records it has been over three years since I invoked the pejorative colloquialism "techno-moron." At the time I was railing against the "Innovation America" initiative, which had been established by the National Governors Association and may have provided me with my first incentive to view innovation-centered thinking as "the new Kool-Aid." As I saw the matter, the toxic nature of the Kool-Aid was similar to that of Homer's addictive lotus plants; but, while the latter banished all thoughts of home (and therefore identity) from the eaters' minds, the former could drive out any rational thinking about consequences. I may have dropped the colloquialism, but I find that I cannot say enough about the neglect of consequences in prevailing decision making. Last week, for example, I got onto a roll on this theme with back-to-back posts entitled "Reckless Innovative Minds?" and "Reckless Innovative Journalism?"

I thus took some comfort when I discovered that Friedrich Hayek had documented the origins of this intellectual myopia in a 1941 paper entitled "The Counter-Revolution of Science." He associated those origins with the impact of the French Revolution on the rise of positivism. His view of French society in the early nineteenth century uses language far more polite than my more colloquial rhetoric; and, as a result, his text is probably more effectively acerbic. Nevertheless, we can see from this paragraph that he is targeting a class of individuals who are flourishing just as much today as they did in the period he examined:

Thus a whole generation grew up to whom that great storehouse of social wisdom, the only form indeed in which an understanding of the social processes achieved by the greatest minds is transmitted, the great literature of all ages, was a closed book. For the first time in history that new type appeared which as the product of the German Realschule and of similar institutions was to become so important and influential a figure in the later nineteenth and twentieth century: the technical specialist who was regarded as educated because he had passed through difficult schools but who had little or no knowledge about society, its life, growth and problems and its values, which only the study of history, literature and languages can give.

In other words it is through such neglected issues as "knowledge about society, its life, growth and problems and its values" that we become sensitized to the relevance of the simple precept that all actions have consequences. One may aspire to "positive" truths; but only the most abstract of those truths are eternal (and most of them were documented in Principia Mathematica). Indeed, I suggested in my very first blog post that any "specialized truth" has a "half-life," based on the effects of those aforementioned neglected issues; and, if Homer's lotus obscured all thoughts of home, the Kool-Aid of innovation-centered thinking dulls our awareness of the "rate of decay" of those truths. Hayek has is own punch line for this state of affairs. However, rather than saving it for a parting shot, he uses it as his opening sentence:

Never will man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success.

Hayek's lesson is that it was ever thus, so we should not be surprised that it still is!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Went Wrong?

It has been a long time since I walked out on a performance. Between that "find the beauty" lesson that David Amram learned directly from Thelonious Monk, Billy Eckstine recalling that, in the midst of all the radical experimentation in jazz taking place in the Forties, "we never knocked nobody else's music," and my own premise that any effort at execution, whether on a stage or in a classroom, can teach me something about listening, I have been a lot more tolerant as part of my ideological shift from criticism to "examination." Before that shift my wife and I used to have a code phrase that we would apply to dramatic performances in theaters and opera houses. If one of us was losing patience with a production, then the first thing that person would say at the intermission was, "If I tell you how it ends, can we go home?"

At the first intermission of last night's San Francisco Opera performance of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), both of us immediately realized that neither of us cared how it would end. This was as unexpected as it was disappointing, particularly after conductor Nicola Luisotti's expressed enthusiasm for the music at the Insight Panel at the beginning of this month. It seemed as if Luisotti could not say enough about the influences of Richard Strauss' Salome and Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande on Puccini's score. On the basis of his Salome "insights" last fall, I have acquired considerable respect for Luisotti. Prior to those remarks, I had never heard anyone talk about the transparency of orchestral textures in any Strauss opera. Luisotti understood listening at a level that would have made Igor Stravinsky proud.

In the course of the first act, I could appreciate Luisotti's point, if not his enthusiasm. There were many occasions when it was clear that we had ventured onto Debussy's turf, whether it involved melodic lines, harmonic progressions, or orchestral textures. The Strauss influence was less evident; and my strongest conjecture is that this had less to do with the actual musical "language" of Salome and more to do with Strauss' skill at unfolding this highly compact one-act drama into a continuous flow of music. Like Salome, Fanciulla does not bring the progress of the narrative to a screeching halt for the sake of a star turn for the diva. (Even during Salome's final monologue "aria," the narrative is clearly still churning forward to its catastrophic conclusion.)

The question is not whether the influences are there but whether they enrich the score and its performance. As my thesis advisor Marvin Minsky put it in his Society of Mind book, are they "differences that make a difference?" My current conjecture is that there is little that any composer can do to work with the flow of a narrative that does not have a lot of flow in the first place. One can appreciate how Puccini could take David Belasco's rather flimsy (if not insulting) play about an American in Japan and turn it into an experience as transcendent as Madama Butterfly; but that dog just does not hunt in a California mining camp, probably for several reasons.

One may just be that we are more sensitive to "realism" when it gets closer to our personal "reality." It is one thing if both Belasco and Puccini were wide of the mark on Japanese culture and quite another when the scene shifts to the North American continent and the audience has had more than its fair share of the myths of Hollywood Westerns. Indeed, even those further than driving distance from where Fanciulla's camp could have been have experienced changes of thought about the nature of "the Wild West." The reality of John Ford (even when it was more sophisticated than most audiences apprehended) has given way to the reality of Deadwood (which Ford probably would have appreciated, even if he might not have wanted to tell the story that way). Ironically, Fanciulla now provides a memory trigger for Deadwood with its reference to Cornish miners, who were Hearst's primary source of exploited labor in his silver mining ventures (but this connection probably has nothing to do with Belasco's plot line).

Another possibility may be that there was far more substance to Belasco's play and that Puccini never "got" that substance. Thus, we have over a dozen separate singing male roles in that mining camp. A good production team for the play would draw upon the expressive capabilities of both costume and acting technique to make sure that each of those characters spoke with a distinctive voice that established a "sense of role" not only in the text of the play but also in the unfolding of the narrative, however flimsy that narrative may have been. (A really good director would probably be bold enough to cut any lines that did not contribute to that "sense of role.") No such distinctive voices emerge in Puccini's musical language; and, in the midst of all the stage activity emerging from Lorenzo Mariani's direction, it was often difficult to establish just who was doing the singing at any given time.

In fairness to the San Francisco Opera, I should point out that this is a shared production and that any of the problems I have tried to address may have originated with the partners. Those partners are the Fondazione Teatro Massimo de Palermo and the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, both of which are European institutions. At the Insight Panel Mariani talked about dividing his time between Europe and the United States; but his base is in Palermo, which is where this production originated. My guess is that a production team with "better grounding" in American culture might have been able to overcome any of the limitations in Puccini's score; but would such a production have succeeded in Europe? Perhaps we need to consider other approaches to production that originated in the United States, particularly in the context of a "post-Deadwood" frame of reference.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hasn't THE NEW YORK TIMES Better Things to Do?

It seems to have taken over a week for the buzz over the "standards injunction" against the use of "tweet" at The New York Times to build to an audible roar. I suppose what tipped it over the edge was the coverage it got in The Colbert Report, which is as good an attention-grabber as any. However, as "Choire" posted on The Awl, the source text speaks for itself and hardly with the best of logic or rhetoric. My own problem lies in the following text from the proclamation issues by Standards Editor Phil Corbett:

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three.

Is Corbett willing to acknowledge that, first and foremost, "tweet" is a metaphor? If the metaphor escalates to a level of colloquial use, does that turn it into a colloquialism? Is it a neologism because, as a metaphor, it was not being used ten years ago; and are those grounds for excluding its use?

The real kicker, however, is "jargon." This word tends to carry a connotation of exclusivity, confining usage to some limited community. Readers who are not members of the community should not have to struggle. Fair enough; but, when a word becomes colloquial, is that not a sign of the acquisition of a more inclusive scope? Can a word be both exclusive and inclusive at the same time? Perhaps The New York Times should start thinking about the Standard Editor position in terms of a "Law of the Excluded Middle-Man."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Division into Three Worlds

One of the major repercussions of my personal efforts to make sense of the writings of Jürgen Habermas has been my ongoing effort to recognize distinctions between the objective, subjective, and social worlds and to avoid cross-world confusions. With my more recent reading of Friedrich Hayek's The Sensory Order, I now also find myself thinking in terms of distinctions between the physical and phenomenal worlds. However, when I was recently reviewing for a friend some past work I had done in geology, I realized that this was only a portion of another more general three-world view, which Hayek actually recognized in The Sensory Order but never pursued in any great depth. Hayek recognized that the "sensory order" we impose on our phenomenal world is a product of observation; but he also appreciated that our capacity for observation is often enhanced by measuring instruments, such as a telescope or microscope. I wish to argue that, as our technologies for building such measuring instruments has grown more sophisticated, measurement itself has achieved the status of a "world" of its own that mediates between the physical and phenomenal worlds.

This is, by no means, an original insight. In retrospect I would have to say that I was first exposed to it through one of the programs in Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man series on PBS, which was followed not much later by a Nova program entitled "Through Animal Eyes." In both cases the point was the same, observation depends on equipment, whether that equipment is biological or mechanical.

I suspect that one of the reasons I am now thinking in these terms is that it is relevant to the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico. I have given this problem considerable thought, because some of the best years of my career as a researcher took place at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I was there as part of a team that was basically concerned with providing Schlumberger with better software, and the specifications for that software had a lot to do with the way in which Schlumberger ran its business. The "core competency" (as we say now) of Schlumberger was measurement technology; and the value of that competency to the oil business still cannot be overestimated. After all the most important part of the oil business concerns what is below the surface of the earth, which makes it even more removed from our capacity for observation than much of what we see through telescopes and microscopes. The Schlumberger brothers began processes of invention that I assume continue to the present day that involved harnessing principles of electromagnetism, radiation, acoustics, and other disciplines of modern physics to develop instrumentation that would tell us what was underground. Some of that equipment could be used to identify where you wanted to try to drill a well, but most of it involved measuring devices dropped into the bore of the well as part of the drilling process.

The signals provided by those instruments could be called "observables" only through some stretch of the imagination. One could not, at an intuitive level, "see" what was there through the mediation of this equipment. Thus a major part of the oil business revolved around the analysis of measurement data for interpretations that told you things like where the oil was and what you would have to do to bring it to the surface. In Hayek's terms this means that analysts had to bring "sensory order" to the abundance of data provided by the measuring equipment. In theory that order could be grounded in the physical theory of how the equipment worked. To put it simplistically, the underlying physics would explain everything. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily the case for a variety of reasons. Some of the measurements were based on statistical sampling, and you did not always know whether or not the samples were representative. In other cases the behavior of the equipment might depend on physical properties of the earth that had not been anticipated. Thus, there was an inevitable disconnect between the physical world and the "measurement world."

This was probably the setting in which I first learned that not everything could be reduced to understanding the equipment. Sometimes you also had to understand the behavior of those responsible for doing the interpretation itself. It was how I discovered workplace anthropology before realizing that it was an intellectual discipline. The good news is that my decision to shift the focus of my research from the "measurement objects" to the "interpreting subjects" was, for the most part, well received by those subjects. These were guys who enjoyed talking about what they did, primarily because it was the most reliable means through which their skills could be passed to the next generation of interpreters. As far as they were concerned, talking to me was no different than talking to a new kid on site; and I still thank them for the most memorable years of my career in computer research.

None of this is meant in any way to apologize for what happened in the Gulf of Mexico on BP's watch. I was never an expert on safety procedures, but I knew how important they were. Nevertheless, I think it is important to recognize that it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, to identify definitively what actually happened down where the drilling was taking place, let alone what is happening now. Anything that will ever be offered as "observation" will always be mediated by equipment; and not all interpretations of the signals from that equipment are necessarily "perfectly reliable" (whatever that may mean). Uncertainty is part of the job, and any investigation into what actually happened can only address whether or not BP was taking appropriate actions in the face of that uncertainty. Knowing what I know about our government, I have a hard time believing that either our Executive or Legislative branch has the resources to make such a judgment; and I can only hope that they will at least be able to draw upon the expertise of those more familiar with this aspect of the oil business.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Winning the Vietnam War

Last September I put up a post with the deliberately provocative title "Has Wall Street Finally Won the Vietnam War?" It was based on a New York Times report by Seth Mydans on the apparent embrace of a globalized market economy by Vietnamese culture. The title I selected was elaborated in the following passage from my post:

… when it comes to appreciating the consequences of globalization, Mydans found one Vietnamese woman who seems to have swallowed an entire pitcher of the Kool-Aid and is willing to talk about how she now feels. The woman is Do Thanh Huong; and she committed to a three-fold embrace of globalization. She has two shops in Hanoi, one for fabrics and the other a clothing boutique, and also runs an export business. What she has to say is valid on all three of those fronts:

When people don’t buy in New York, we feel the effects in the village here.

Reading those words in the context that Mydans created for them, I suddenly realized that the financial sector of the United States managed to do to Vietnam what our military forces never succeeded in doing. Decades after the fighting ended, the embassy was evacuated, and peace was concluded, Wall Street won the Vietnam War for us.

I found myself thinking about these words this morning while reading Jonathan Mirsky's review for The New York Review of BBC reporter Bill Hayton's new book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon. It began when the following quote from Hayton's text caught my eye:

… many Vietnamese who fought the war find themselves trapped in voiceless rage. They know why they fought, they know what they and their fellows suffered, they know how unjust it felt—but they're banned from expressing any of it in public because the Party has decided that the country needs the support and resources of the United States.

I realized that I had encountered the dark side of an argument I had previously suggested that ideological differences could be resolved through simple acts of doing business. At the time I was writing about Barack Obama deciding to raise the issue of "universal rights" in a question-and-answer session with Chinese students in Shanghai. I suggested that it was unlikely that this (or any other) act could lead to any "shared agreement" between China and the United States on a human rights policy and that seeking such an agreement might be counterproductive. I proposed an alternative approach:

Yet business goes on, because business runs through negotiations, rather than agreements to accept universal truths. Those who succeed in business tend to be those who succeed in communicating; and communication involves engaging with a wide variety of interests (suppliers, partners, customers, competitors, etc.), each of which requires different communicative strategies, tactics, and actions. Like it or not, worldviews and value systems differ; and we probably understand more about how the diversity of life forms has evolved than we do about the emergence of such differing views of humanity itself. We should definitely see to our own interests and values, but that is likely to involve negotiation with those who do not share them. Negotiation, in turn, is more about being able to get things done, rather than whether or not one worldview can "win" over another. To a great extent the history of the world is a chronicle at just how poor we have been at such negotiation. Can we look back at our track record for getting it wrong and start thinking about getting it right for a change?

While I may still accept the validity of this argument, it has interesting social implications. Most important is Hayton's observation that the Vietnamese Communist Party has only one priority, which is staying in power. When you think about it, this is also the priority of any large business: Controlling a market is simply a euphemistic way to describe controlling a population. In both Vietnam and China we have a Communist Party that sees great value doing business with the United States, regardless of any fundamental Marxist ideologies about businesses and markets, while on this side of the equation we have a government ideology that what is good for Wall Street (including those businesses that are "too big to fail") is good for the country as a whole.

Yes, we do not have to talk about moral values when we talk about business; and it would be simplistic to reduce this to asking whether or not this is "a good thing." The problem is that we run the risk of accepting the corollary that nothing is to be gained from talking about values at all. I see this as a sacrifice of our "American identity" (assuming that we have not sacrificed it already); so I suppose the conclusion is that we need to be more aware that negotiation does not have to entail giving up such an identity for the sake of doing better business. On the other hand the reason I inserted that parenthesis is that it may be too late to accept this conclusion. We may have already given up our identity while under the influence of the Kool-Aid of globalization, and we may now discover that recovering it is no easy matter.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Every good servant does not all commands"

News concerning the liability of Bush Administration Justice Department lawyer John Yoo for any number of abusive acts perpetrated in the name of the "Global War on Terror" returned to the San Francisco Chronicle this morning. Here are the opening paragraphs of the report filed by Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko:

A lawyer for former Justice Department attorney John Yoo asked a federal appeals court Monday to dismiss a prisoner's torture suit against him, arguing that a government attorney shouldn't be penalized for giving honest legal advice.

A "midlevel" Justice Department lawyer who "advises policymakers on matters of national security" isn't legally responsible for the consequences of those policies, attorney Miguel Estrada told the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

These words served to remind me that any effort to prosecute Yoo, either civilly (as in this case) or criminally (as in the case of war crimes), needs to be examined under two separate lenses. The "easier view," so to speak, concerns how both sides of the case are argued. The more difficult one concerns the case itself in the broader perspective of moral judgment and any questions of alignment between legal and moral criteria.

By way of reference before examining the nature of the current argumentation, here is the summary of the plaintiff's position:

Jonathan Freiman, lawyer for plaintiff Jose Padilla, countered that Yoo was seeking a "perfect circle of deniability" for government perpetrators of torture and other illegal conduct.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen serving a 17-year sentence for conspiring to aid Islamic extremist groups, claims Yoo was responsible as both a policymaker and a lawyer for his brutal treatment in a Navy brig.

Under Estrada's argument, Freiman said, abusive interrogators and jailers could claim they were following legal advice, top officials could assert executive immunity and lawyers who knowingly recommended lawbreaking could walk away unscathed.

Estrada's argument was heard by a panel of three judges, one of whom quickly detected a fundamental flaw of misrepresentation. This came from Judge Raymond Fisher and involved the use of the adjective "midlevel:"

Yoo has written that he was "part of a very small group, the war council," which discussed the administration's counterterrorism strategies, Fisher said. The Padilla suit, he said, involves "a fundamental notion of accountability."

I would further argue (although the point did not come up in Egelko's report) that any matter of "honest legal advice" must also be evaluated against that "fundamental notion of accountability." This is consistent with the June 2009 ruling by U. S. District Judge Jeffrey White in refusing a request to dismiss the Padilla suit. White actually did not care whether or not Yoo's position was an elite one, even if it involved a war council. His position was that all government lawyers are "responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct;" and this strikes me as one way in which the adjective "honest" can be used as more than a mere platitude.

Presumably, Yoo's position is that, when the President poses the interrogative, "Can I do this?," he is actually asserting the imperative, "Provide me with a sound legal justification for doing this." I take White's statement to imply that, even if Yoo's job description requires that he respond to that imperative (known as "following orders" during the Nuremberg Trials), "honest legal advice" would require that the President be informed of plausible "foreseeable consequences." This seems to be the essence of the quotation of William Shakespeare used in the title (taken from the fifth act of Cymbeline). The moral judgment that makes a servant "good" goes beyond whether or not the servant follows orders ("all commands"). In other words Estrada's reckless choice of words in arguing his case escalated questions of judgment to the case itself, when he was probably trying to keep the discussion restricted to the soundness of legal arguments.

The comparison with Nuremberg was not a mere rhetorical flourish. The case in question is a civil suit; and, while the Obama Administration has distanced itself from any talk of war crimes trials, there is still the possibility that such a trial may eventually surface. As we saw in the case of General Augusto Pinochet, the path that leads to arrest and trial is not always the one we anticipate. However, whether or not such a trial ever takes place, we cannot ignore questions concerned with how a phrase like "honest legal advice" (or even that adjective "good") can align with both legal and moral criteria. In this respect one paragraph from Yoo's Wikipedia entry (portions of which have been tagged for lack of neutrality and unreliable claims) may be worth considering:

Professor Yoo has been a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association since his admission in 1993. The Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility concluded in a 261 page report dated July 29, 2009 that Yoo committed "intentional professional misconduct" when he "knowingly failed to provide a thorough, objective, and candid interpretation of the law" and recommended a referral to the Bar for disciplinary action.[74] However, career Justice department lawyer David Margolis [75] in a Memorandum dated January 5, 2010 countermanded the recommended referral.[76] While Margolis was careful to avoid "an endorsement of the legal work" which he said was "flawed" and "contained errors more than minor" concluding that Yoo had exercised "poor judgment," still he did not find "professional misconduct" sufficient to authorize OPR "to refer its findings to the state bar disciplinary authorities." Professor Yoo contended that the Office of Professional Responsibility had manifested "rank bias and sheer incompetence," intended to "smear my reputation," and that Margolis "completely rejected its recommendations." [77]

Apparently even highly skilled legal minds are having as much trouble with a phrase like "honest legal advice" as any ordinary reader would have!

Monday, June 14, 2010

"The Leer of the Sensualist"

If last week was a slow one for chutzpah, this week seems to be getting of to a roaring start. It is only Monday; and, in a single report story, there are multiple acts of chutzpah. Selecting only one for an award bears considerable thought.

Fortunately, one of the candidates is not really current. That would be the conception of Ulysses Seen, an interpretation of James Joyce's Ulysses in comic book form. Having grown up with Classics Comics, I can appreciate how the comic book genre can contribute to, rather than detract from, literature. Not all of the projects in this series were great successes, but many of them accomplished far more than one might imagine. Still, in the canon of English literature, Ulysses stands as one of the great challenges to the reader. One could not even begin such a project without the fortification of a strong personal sense of chutzpah; and, on the basis of my initial sampling of the Web site, I have to say that illustrator Robert Berry and production director Josh Levitas did an admirable job. I certainly believe Julie Bosman's report in The New York Times that the entire project took them over two years.

Boseman's story, however, is not about the project or about its publication by Throwaway Horse. It is about the far more contemporary question about whether or not the iPad will be the future of our reading practices. Where this particular instance of image-based literature is concerned, Apple has thrown a few speed bumps into the road to publication for the iPad. Apparently any images of nudity must be removed before Apple will approve such publication.

Now, between the pages I examined and the duration of the book project, I have to say that Berry and Levitas are serious people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. Ulysses is unbelievably rich in its discourse structure, and there have been massive annotation projects to demonstrate that not a single word of its 800 pages is either superfluous or out of place. If Berry claims that he was trying to establish an equally elaborate discourse structure through images, then I am willing to believe him and assume that any depiction of nudity was there for functional reasons in the overall scheme of the novel. I also wonder whether or not Apple intends to have art books published in iPad version and how they plan to deal with nudity in any number of sources of "textbook material."

Most important, however, I wonder whether or not anyone at Apple, particularly the Apple representative who argued the issue with Chad Rutkowski, Business Manager of Throwaway Horse, took the time to read the 1933 United States District Court decision by Justice John M. Woolsey, which lifted a ban imposed on importing copies of Ulysses (conveniently reproduced in the Modern Library edition of this work). Woolsey's judgment was based not on the content itself, but on the intent behind the content. He took the premise that "pornographic" intent would provide grounds for maintaining the ban. He then continued:

But in "Ulysses", in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

It seems to me that Apple responded to the portrayal of nudity without worrying about whether or not that image was offered with "the leer of the sensualist." If so, then the corporate chutzpah of Apple far surpasses that of the gargantuan (and some might say pretentious) ambitions of Berry and Levitas in undertaking their project. Apple may have once been the company of computing "for the rest of us;" but, where reading is concerned, they seem to neither know nor care who "the rest of us" are. Given the power that the company now has, I feel it is entirely justified that this particular act of censorship earn them the Chutzpah of the Week award; and I wish a Happy Bloomsday to all this year!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Wotan's Will, Alberich's Market

I try to wait until my colleague, Cindy Warner, weighs in on San Francisco Opera performances as SF Opera Examiner; but this afternoon's performance of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre sent me down some philosophical paths. I figure that, as long as I keep to those paths, there should be little risk of my stepping on any of Cindy's toes. Most important was that I quickly lost count of the number of times the word "will" came from Wotan's lips; and, in a close second place, I found that this was the first time I was thinking about all four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen in terms of a fundamental opposition between Wotan and Alberich. I believe that these are two pieces of a common puzzle, at which I shall make some attempts at assembly.

Let us begin with that concept of will. We knew that Wagner had a fair amount of interest in philosophy; and, while I suspect that he was a bit of a cherry-picker in the way he read philosophy, we may arrive at a better understanding of the dramatic side of his operas through some of those cherries. In this case the source most likely to be of interest is Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. As contemporary readers we might consider whether or not this book was sowing the seeds of what would later be called "constructed reality," either subjectively or socially. However, we might also have the inclination (which Wagner may have shared) to consider the opening words of The Gospel According to John as a reflection on creation by will:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In other words will had its origins in the godhead and only subsequently descended to mankind, perhaps as a result of eating from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil." Thus, will has a place in Wagner's pantheon; and much of the drama has to do with the fact that the exercise of will is not restricted to Wotan. Both Fricka and Brünnhilde exercise will, and Wotan's will does not always dominate.

What may be more interesting, however, is that, in Wagner's narrative, will resides only in the pantheon. In particular Wotan's primary opponent Alberich is never driven by will. His whole obsession with the gold-to-become-Ring is "market-driven;" and all of his actions are driven by marketplace thinking and the ambition to dominate all markets. Thus, if, as Wotan claims, the Ring has the power to bring down all residents of Valhalla, it is because market-driven thinking has no need for divine will and can essentially "eliminate gods from the equation."

Go back to Rheingold. Wotan's will has no power over Alberich. In order to get the Ring, Wotan has to resort to trickery and theft (not to mention probably violating the principles of contractual agreement etched into his staff). This is the beginning of a slippery slope. Wotan is already losing his right to godhead (and the divine exercise of will) before the entry into Valhalla that concludes Rheingold. By the beginning of Walküre, the Ring is being hoarded by Fafner; and Wotan is trying to recover it. This involves a "cunning plan" for the procreation of a "hero" through the incestuous union of his Volsung children.

Director Francesca Zambello may have come up with an interesting way to suggest that this is the next phase of the slippery slope. Siegmund and Sieglinde begin their duet under a full moon. Moonlit night gives way to dawn, but not before the sky displays a churning red color that looks more like fire seen from a distance. This led me to consider that the first romantic embrace of Siegmund and Sieglinde provided the spark that began the fire that would eventually consume all of Valhalla at the end of Götterdämmerung. (I suggested to my wife that this was the longest "Hail Mary" forward pass in the entire musical repertoire!) To be overly reductive, all catastrophe is motivated by the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde; and that union is motivated by the displacement of will by market-based thinking and the chain of thefts resulting from that displacement.

There is no sign that Karl Marx ever showed any interest in Wagner; but, from this particular point of view, it is amusing to consider how he might have reacted to the Ring cycle!