The Blog Without A Name
A most amusing (and offensive) law-suit
, to be filed against all Jews, everywhere:
According to Dr. Hilmi's mathematical computations, which include an annual doubling in value of the material in question, 1,125 trillion tons of gold are owed by the Jews for each of the 300 tons he estimates was taken. And that doesn't include interest, which he claims, without explanation, should be calculated for 5758 years.
... in other words, since the beginning of time. (Can we say 'anti-Semitism'? Yes!) I guess we can say at least one good thing about Swiss immigrants: they have great faith in their legal system.
ON THE SCREEN
(1972), by Andrei Tarkovsky. The Cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is part of a future mission of exploration on the ocean-world Solaris, which has the mysterious ability to create beings out of people's dreams and memories. When confronted with one of his former lovers, Khari (the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide ten years before his service on Solaris begins, Kris is immediately thrown into emotional turmoil (not to mention forced to question his sanity) and for the rest of the movie struggles with the implications for himself and for mankind of a being who is, and is not, his lover.
I should probably preface everything I'm going to say here by noting at the outset that I was not at all prepared for this movie. The only other movie I ever started to watch by Tarkovsky was his earlier Andrei Rublev
, a story about a famous 15th-century Russian icon-maker. I rented that movie with a bunch of friends late one evening several years ago. We got about half an hour or forty-five minutes into it before we had had enough with apparently meaningless action and popped it out, no doubt to watch Monty Python or some such thing. Thus, when I got the DVD for Solaris
, about as far from 15th century iconopoesis as you can get, I really didn't know what to think and so just sat and watched for a while. The first 45-minutes or so is somewhat slow: the characters seem to muck about a scientific commission examining strange events on Solaris, with a few scenes of family fare-wells (though in hindsight these are crucial to understanding the last thirty seconds of the movie). Then suddenly Kris is aboard the station on Solaris with two other scientists, who get around to telling him how they dealt with the horror of spontaneously generating beings visiting them, who cannot be killed, and the scientists' experiments on them. A third scientist, who committed suicide from the emotional and mental stress, also plays a role in forming Kris's responses to the appearances. After Khari's appearance, Kris finds himself unable to reduce the appearances to purely scientific phenomena, and refuses to allow Khari to be subjected to their painful experiments. The pace of the action never speeds up; slowly the sense of isolation and spiritual desolation take their toll on Kris, leading to the climax, the birthday party of one of the scientists, which ends up being an extended existential dialogue about the role of man and of science in the universe. Some time after the party, the scientists "make contact" with the ocean, leading to Khari's suicide and Kris's finding meaning in life separate from knowledge.
This film constitutes in many ways a kind of anti-Faust. Indeed, the Faust-motif is at several points brought up explicitly, contrasted with that of mythical Sisyphus, though done in such a way as not to be too terribly blunt; but like Goethe's Faust (in Faust
, Part II, not Part I), Kris ultimately finds meaning in sentient relationships rather than the naked acquisition of knowledge. In contrast to that other science-fiction movie about the dehumanizing effects of technology, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
, this movie probably accomplishes a heavier philosophical load with fewer loose-ends (though granted one might claim Solaris itself is tantamount to 2001
's monolith). But I think it has a somewhat more uneven flow, as if the director (or the author Stanislaw Lem, on whose work the movie is based) couldn't figure out quite how to pull off the end. Nevertheless, this is a truly timeless work of cinema, and not only deserves to be seen but to be part of any serious movie-collector's collection.
It is well to remember that in civil conflicts it is rare that one side merits the kind of adulation or condemnation that outsiders frequently put on it. Peru's conflict with Maoist rebels
is one example: according to the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of the 69,000 who died or disappeared, about 56% were killed by leftist terrorist organizations, and the rest by military or quasimilitary government organizations. Is it so simple, then, to place blame?
ON THE SCREEN
Recently saw Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon
, and must say that I was not impressed. The movie tracks the fate of Redmond Barry, a young Irishman who gets himself into a duel from which he must flee and ends up fighting in the King's service during the Seven Years' War. His exploits eventually earn him a place in the British nobility, but due to his his concupiscence and material greed he falls into debt from which he seems incapable of extricating himself. Another duel, this time to save his estate, destroys his leg and forces him to flee back to Ireland, where he dies in penury.
Purely in terms of cinematography, the movie is breathtaking in its scenery and structural use of empty space and above all of lighting, which is entirely natural. As many others have noted, the movie leaves one feeling that one has just been taking in a wonderful baroque painting for three hours, observing its every detail. But that fact is also a fatal flaw: like a Rococo tromp l'oeil, Barry is simply plopped down onto the stage because... well, because the movie needs a protagonist, right? The problem is not that Barry cannot control the events around him. Great dramaturgs throughout the ages -- Sophocles, or Goethe, say -- have pulled that off with with admirable success. The problem is that Barry's inability to control the world around are never made to serve some higher purpose explaining man's role in the world, whether positive or negative. When Oedipus comes to his tragic end, it is after having put out his own eyes in realization that his whole life has served profoundly immoral ends which only exile can even begin to make up for. With Barry, we never feel any such recognition has occurred: when he dies, he dies doing the same things he has always done, trying to make the old, broken habits of his youth work again. It's possible that if Kubrick had found an actor for the role of Barry more talented than Ryan O'Neal, one who could turn Thackeray's wooden stick-figure into a real character, the movie might have turned out differently. But he apparently did not find such an actor.
In the end, it may be that this is Kubrick's point: that man is a beast, unaware of the forces that drive him hither and yon. But that is a level of cynicism and pessimism that even I have trouble accepting.
Niall Ferguson's latest article
("Hegemony or Empire?" Foreign Affairs
September/October 2003) about hegemonic stability theory and the power of the United States is an interesting contribution to the subject, but I feel he misses his own point when he deconstructs the notion of "hegemony" as more or less a euphemism for "empire". The problem is that every empire/hegemony (whatever we want to call it) operates under different circumstances economically, militarily, politically, technologically and geographically. Ferguson notes, to be sure, even very similar empires/hegemonies, such as the universally noted similarities between Great Britain and the U.S., are wildly different in some such crucial respects. But he doesn't go one step further and simply accept that "empire" and "hegemony" are merely labels for very complex and differing sets
of phenomena (or maybe sets of sets). As such, using the word "hegemony" poses no problem as long as we don't impose some kind of platonic reality on it.
When I read articles in Der Spiegel
like "The Great Darkness
", I am often reminded of a piece on French intellectuals
by Mark Rosenfelder:
It may be that I just don't understand French intellectuals. They have, it seems to me, a tendency to overgeneralize; their remarks are so abstract, so vague, and so suspect, that they lose almost all meaning. And they are more attached to themselves than to their subject: they're drunk on their own literary éclat, carried away by their own verbiage.
Like the Baudrillard that Mark criticizes, Der Spiegel
articles have this airiness about them, a certain tendency to isolate individual facts and spin them off into whole worlds of thought in which some grounding in empirical reality seems almost besides the point. When I read lines like
Last Thursday, at 4:11 p.m., this global metropolis' heartbeat faltered, as the collapse of the power grid in the largest blackout in New York's history revealed a deep vulnerability, exposing the weaknesses of the world's sole remaining superpower....
I have to wonder whether this "deep vulnerability" is more a matter of Der Spiegel
's editorial board's wishful thinking. Sure: the blackout was, and remains, a problem. But the blackout more realistically represents a temporary blip on the economic well-being of the United States. There would have been a real problem if the blackout had occurred without any political response to change the circumstances that brought it about -- the kind of political rigidity, for example, that characterizes the politics of labor or of immigration in Europe. As it is, the immediate calls from both parties for closer regulatory oversight and market responses to foster more investment in the energy grid suggest, rather than rigidity, remarkable flexibility.
So, it turns out that the UN actually turned down
additional help from the US military in protecting their headquarters in Baghdad. What, exactly, did they think they were going to accomplish by doing this? Did they so truly believe their own propaganda about American malfeasance that they didn't want the Iraqi people to associate the UN with them?
Sometimes I wonder why I ever read European newsmedia. Take the recent "big story": the New York blackout. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson makes the comment: "We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid". There is a kernal of truth to this: dislocation resulting from moving from monopolistic energy production to less regulated, more market-driven distribution of energy means that, just right now, little money is being invested in infrastructure when utilities don't know what the rules will be. But Mr. Richardson's comment is fundamentally an exaggeration: in the third world, energy grids routinely cannot direct energy to most housing units for upwards of 20 hours a day (the situation in Iraq is far from unusual in this sense). So, how do the European media outlets cover this? Big headlines like "A 'THIRD WORLD ENERGY GRID
'" (The Guardian
) and "STROMNETZ WIE IN DER DRITTEN WELT
" (Der Spiegel
). A rhetorical comment made by a single individual has been uncritically taken at face value, and trumpeted on the pages of the newspapers/magazines to catch people's attention whatever the impression it might leave behind. I find such behavior to be utterly typical of European journalism, but uncommon from more sober journalists in America.
is a diplomatic situation to keep one's eye on. We will probably learn in coming months and years how close we came to military confrontation -- perhaps much closer than 1994, when President Clinton ordered military strike plans drawn up.
I find The Guardian
's coverage of Idi Amin's death
not a little curious. Here was a guy who butchered 300,000 of his fellow countrymen, who routinely mutilated prisoners, who whipped and dismembered his victims with sadistic codewords like "Give him tea". This was a man who had his prisoners bludgeon each-other to death with sledge-hammers, who dismembered his own (ex)wife, and who stored the decapitated heads of his political victims in a refrigerator. Rightly, The Guardian
condemns this, and sympathetically quotes an Amnesty International official condemning the international community for its "inability to hold leaders accountable for gross human rights abuses". Yet consider their Iraq-war coverage: here was (shockingly) an even worse
despot, who killed by conservative estimates considerably more than 300,000 of his own people (some estimates rise as high as half a million), often with chemical weapons, whose sons would literally throw "sexual competitors" into cages with hungry lions, who executed pregnant women with no known cause for guilt, who threw political prisoners into wood-chip grinders feet first. And what was the Guardian
's position for Saddam? Outright hostility to the notion that the international community should do anything to get rid of him.
Look, I agree that it is not always possible, nor always proper, for the "international community" (whoever that turns out to be), to commit military forces to deposing dictatorships. In some cases, because of their might, as with the Soviet Union, going to war against some dictatorships would necessarily mean killing many times the number of people who are likely to be killed by the gulag, and thus it is not possible to end the dictatorship without causing even more carnage. Others are not mighty, but tactically placed to cause unacceptable harm: with its ten thousand pieces of artillery sitting a half-hour's drive from Seoul, North Korea has the potential to endanger its ten million inhabitants even without the nuclear arsenals it undoubtedly seeks.
It is also clear that not all dictators are the same. All violate human rights, but some do so on very modest scales, and with these it is sometimes possible to use economic sanctions, or targeted assassinations, or other means, to change the behavior of the regime. This is clearly the case in South Africa under apartheid
. But in rare cases the dictatorship is so rooted in a country's society, as with Hitler's Germany or Hussein's Iraq, that nothing short of military intervention will prevent gross abuse of human rights. (In the case of Stalin, clearly, it was only his natural death that ended his police-state.) The international community should not pretend that it is always possible to avoid war. War is always
bad, but sometimes
the consequences of not acting are worse, politically or morally.
I am generally upfront about my dislike of and sometimes anger directed towards George W. Bush both as a person and as one who formulates policy. As an anti-intellectual, he offends my notions about how aspects of life should be approached, and many of his policies are destructive, or irresponsible, or both. But Bush is not the kind of right-wing caricature that many on the Left see. His policies on immigration, for example, which spring straight from his Texan upbringing, are quite libertarian in their scope: immigrants are seen as positively good things for our society. The contrast with other conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, or labor-liberals like Dick Gephardt is quite stark, or with otherwise similar conservatives like Australia's John Howard
, for that matter.
It was really amusing to watch the BBC's Newsnight
interviewing one of the author's of this
study. The interviewer tried to put a member of the British Tory party on the spot, asking him if he thought it was true that all conservatives' views stem ultimately from their own internal neuroses and paranoias. The author piped up and said: "Well, you know, you could also say that liberals are wishy-washy, indecisive and disloyal", and that that would have about as much truth as this claim about conservatives. Zing! You could actually see the BBC interviewer squirm knowing what kinds of claims of bias would be made against it. (As if it needs that now)
So, I was mucking about on the net just now and happened on this
article. It started out as a completely normal article from this paper, damning Commie China and whatnot. Then I come upon this:
"The US should move further to declare and assert its custodial right to the sovereignty of Taiwan so that there will be no misunderstanding on the part of the people and governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Our foundation promotes Taiwan joining the US as a commonwealth -- through a US-sponsored referendum in Taiwan -- in order to preserve the democracy in Taiwan and to strengthen the US' national defense capability in the Pacific region. Our foundation's proposal offers the best solution to the Taiwan issue."
Um. "Custodial Rights"? And a commonwealth? It's really rare when (some) people actually want
to be colonized.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
, by Daniel R. Headrick (Oxford University Press, 1981). Headrick's work is seminal in the limited sense that at the time of authorship little real scholarship had been done on the relationship between technology and the development of human political institutions. He describes in great detail the what and how of technologies that Europeans developed in the 19th century, focusing on those that allowed penetration of new areas (gunboats, quinine), those that improved the chances of tactical military conquest (breechloading guns, machine guns), and those that made administration of new colonies more efficient once they had been established (railroads, submarine cables, steam-powered locomotion). He shows that there is a strong correlation between the advent of worldwide thalassocratic empires and the improvement of technologies that enabled those empires. But correlation is not proof, and ultimately Headrick often leaves one wanting for direct links between these two related but distinct phenomena. Because Headrick is not a technological determinist, this is a curious lacuna; one would expect the real story to start
, rather than finish
, here. As it is, rather than being necessary reading, this book is merely interesting.
Fine, Mr. Friedman
: I agree that humiliating Iraqis is a bad thing. The problem is that there's no good way out of this situation, because even if American males just come into contact with Iraqi women, many Iraqis would consider that a form of humiliation. The problem is that America is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't: America has thrown Iraq's social backwardness into its face, and Iraqis are unwilling to see that for what it is.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
Inspired by a friend
, this column will constitute an occasional foray into opinions on whatever I happen to be reading at the moment.
Egypt, Israel and Canaan in Ancient Times
by Donald Redford
(Princeton University Press, 1992). Written by an erudite scholar of Egyptian historiography and political history, this book seeks to reassess the political and sociocultural relationships between Nilotic culture, the Levant, and more broadly the ancient Near East. Much has already been said of this work, so I don't want simply to repeat critiques others have already made of it. Redford is broadly speaking a useful corrective to the vast bulk of "literature" written about the relations of Ancient Israel with, well, anything: he simply refuses to accept religious or cultural orthodoxies that have grown up around discussion of the religious texts of the Hebrews, and submits them to rigorous, indeed sometimes abrasive, criticism. That much is all quite healthy.
One difficulty that I see in his work consists in his inconsistent application of this kind of criticism to his extra-biblical sources. He questions, rightly, the ability of the Israelites "fresh off the desert" to bring down massive fortifications of the Canaanites. Yet when discussing the origin of the infamous "Sea Peoples" (whose origin he never really tries to explain, crucial as they are to an understanding of Egypt-Levant relations in antiquity), even greater Egyptian defenses simply fall before their might. One also gets the impression that Redford really has an ax to grind against Yahwist religion. The rules Yahweh laid down were "Draconian in the extreme, and the deity's will utterly barbaric" (276), while when discussing the arguably even more barbaric tactics by which the Assyrians reduced Egyptian cities, these are merely the "excesses" (446) of a conquering nation. He even goes so far as to justify this dark side of Assyrian imperial policy, presumably including wholesale terrorism of subject populations and genocide, suggesting it might have been required for political expediency. This kind of lopsided analysis -- vitriolic invective one moment, and sober, reasoned discourse the next -- are not likely to be endearing to any reader who does not already assume his biases. In the end, Redford's book is worth getting, but should not simply be taken at face value, for a whole range of subtexts lie beneath the surface.
Two neat headlines from China:
-- "Ancient Cities found in Yangtze Valley
": Basically, if this is true, it will revolutionize our understanding of the origins of agriculture and urban settlements.
-- "Cracks Appear in Three Gorges Dam
": if this
is true, and something is not done about it... well, we can look forward to a very violent end to the rule of the Communist Party in China.
The question of weapons of mass destruction was never my primary reason for supporting a war to topple the Hussein regime in Iraq -- Saddam's hideous gulag-state was. But it is still uncertain whether such weapons will be found, or whether evidence will be brought forward suggesting they were destroyed shortly before the war began to prevent the Coalition from having its casus belli after the fact. At least, we now know that the program existed on paper
solved? It just goes to show that Kantianism is still alive and well today.