Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saturn and Sparta

Necessity is not the mother of invention. I mean, it might be the ovary, but necessity is a bitch who throws out a lot of spontaneous abortions. Seriously; think of how many eggs in an ovary will actually matter and that gives you a good idea of how often necessity bears live young.

But necessity can certainly produce strength, or provoke it. It's part of our human myth. Need, hardship, going without, living without, avoiding ease, going to the desert, living off the land, growing out one's beard. Going to the mattresses. Earning your keep. Your first post has got to be the worst. They always try to make you wipe out on the first day. These are what come to mind. This is Sparta. It's Apollo, too. And Marcus Aurelius. And Buddha, in his way. Part of the family is a cold rejection, and the other branch seeks to abstain even from avoidance. But it's linked, you see. It's related. All of this is the ascetic urge.

And we are told, by Jedi and priests, libertarians and authoritarians alike, that it brings power, self-reliance, and so on. I remain skeptical when asceticism is imposed (though some believe so firmly in a moral law of BYO that they believe that withdrawal of aid can never be an assault, and there's an argument to be had there), but in any case, this is what I hear, and I hear it from popular and elite sources alike. It's a deep root.

But if Apollo reigns, is he not joined by Dionysus? There is also the indulgent urge, and we are told that if this does not bring power then it proves it. A man can handle his shit, hold his liquor. Get what you want, hold it in your hands, be ambitious, get the most toys, grab the most women. Buy, buy, buy. Have an appetite. Don't eat like a bird (I always loved that for how inaccurate it is), don't eat "rabbit food," gulp down the meat of miserable animals who lived as sadly as you. Get a car that you can't park; get a house you can't afford. Invade a country you can't hold down. More, more, more. It takes money to make money. You get what you pay for.

And the fact is that surpluses have formed much of what we think of as material culture. If the pyramids were the product of want, then it was artificial want manipulated by a ruling elite in order to coerce talent to act as it wished. Looking at the system as a whole, it was not want that made those structures that have inspired billions. It was surplus. It is surplus which rules as much as want, surplus that provides the fuel, the cushion, for contemplation and for aspirations that are arcane and damn near crazy when you compare them to the world of want.

And to this day, the people from the land of plenty regard the people from the land of want as lunatics, and vice versa. They are both mad, and they are both reacting to their madness with cleverness and ingenious adaptation. People do that a fucking lot, let me tell you.

So I know it's a stupid dichotomy, and I know that living as an Apollinian or a Dionysian is destructive and pathological. I know that there is some power to be found in either situation. Still, when I live my life, do I go for indulgence or discipline? Do I deny myself what brings pleasure because going without makes me strong, or do I act as a libertine, accepting the consequences? What is power for the individual? Harmony with others? Coordination? Abandonment? Where the fuck does freedom lie when it comes to indulgence and abstinence? Is the addict but one image of freedom, or is she the inversion of it? Dare we believe LBJ's words that drug abuse is "slavery"? Is rampant lust the expression of our freedom, or of bourgeois society's hypersexualization of life or some bullshit?

Or perhaps this is all one more modern headgame. Maybe we are simply Puritans playing Spartans and alcoholics telling ourselves we're transcendental. Maybe there's no difference between the two. Functionally, the indulgence of a few is paid for by the want of many. And yet, in our little heads, we utopians have often bounced between eudaimonia and Macedonian rags (or German, or Scottish, and so on a billion times), humble but free.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When History Disagrees

Via the BBC.

Palestinian leaders are presenting their bid for upgraded UN status as a desperate move prompted by Israeli intransigence. In asserting this they are counting on the amnesia of the international community....

The main obstacle to an agreement, then, is not territory or settlements but the Palestinian insistence on the "right" to demographically destroy the Jewish state. Absurdly, the Palestinian leadership is demanding that Palestinians immigrate not only to a Palestinian state but also to a neighbouring state, Israel.

That demand, of course, would lead to the internal collapse of the Jewish state - which is precisely the goal....

Israel's dilemma is unique. It is, on the one hand, the only democracy that is also an occupier - a situation forced on the Jewish state by the Arab world's attempts to destroy it in 1967, but which has taken on an increasingly permanent nature....

Emphasis mine. Hmm... "Forced" on Israel by the Arab world, huh?

Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say “no” and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy....

I am optimistic that [the Arabs] will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace. But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
--Ze'ev Jabotinsky, The Iron Wall, 1923

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pressure Points: Addendum

Alas, it's not a retraction or a clarification of that over-written piece of bloat, but rather One More Fucking Thing.

You see function even in hypocrisy, whether individual or systemic, so long as you are willing to see that lies serve functions. It is a fool or a moralist or a naif who assumes that our words are supposed to mirror or provide meaningful anticipations of other behavior. That might be your or my expectation, but nothing in the world dictates that our words have to be true. Words are inherently misleading, however well they may sometimes be used, for they are abstractions. Don't get me wrong; I think striving toward honesty has its benefits, and words have enough magic in them that they can wreak serious havoc when they are used enough and at odds with our other actions. That said, a perpetual expectation that they are to be lashed to action is going to leave you raw and angry.

So if the words and the actions are at odds, identify the function of each. This can help you find sympathy for your fellow liar and also, more importantly, understand him and his importance with slightly greater accuracy. Looking at an institution, you can dismiss the easy moralism of "they lie!" and move to how they lie and why.

Here we move into psychology, which is dangerous because the science still hasn't arrived. Neurology of trauma doesn't help us understand why some people respond to trauma in one way and others, in others. The psychology here is, as IOZ has said so completely and damningly in the past, at best absent and at worst pseudoscience and fraud. But, to stay to psychology in the lay sense of Figuring Out What the Fuck Is Going On In Others' Heads, I think we should give some thought to how others make their decisions. Perhaps there are levers, too many to count and, obviously, concealed to us, within others. Perhaps a major part of motivation, manipulation, and leadership is to understand what forces exist within individuals. Will the anarchist need to have something of the Marine recruiter and the beer commercial in her? I am not sure I like the idea, but I can't think of much alternative.

Pressure Points, Joints, Fulcra

Many in the world today are technicians only in the most pedestrian sense. We master the motions and see in the motions the whole of understanding. We are behaviorists, perhaps great predictors but terrible psychologists, terrible poets. Are we not also terrible mechanics? We know the title, the rank, the job description, the story of purpose, the story of who listens to whom. I know and was taught many supposed Whys. How many among us know the Hows?

It is helpful to develop an understanding of political physics. It is not enough to say what an arm, or a man, does. We must know how the elbow bends. We must know the forearm's range of motion. We must know where its muscular power is concentrated and when it is broken. Knowing desires and wishes are important. It is very important to know that others seek to dominate or injure us. Much more important is to know along which paths this can occur.

One can observe the same principles in social organization. We are told what sub-groups or individual members are supposed to do, and we are often told what we need to do to get by. This is not enough. Let me put this more simply: we are always told who holds a superior office, but we must often judge for ourselves where decisions rest, and who controls which social levers.

Who makes decisions?
If there is a stated purpose, what forces correct error?
What forces encourage compliance?
What happens if things go "wrong"? If the consequences are voluntary or petty, then perhaps there is a disconnect between the stated purpose of the machine and its actual function.

Functionalism cannot be combined with a passive acceptance. "It is what it is" cannot satisfy us if we believe in empowering ourselves and, as appropriate, changing our environment. We must say "It is as it has been made" when we speak of human habit, fixture, and culture. This is part of another ramble, that of linguistic shift; "being" seems stronger than "doing," and yet it is in action that all States of operation are maintained. What can be made stands a better chance of being abandoned, of being remade!

Nor can we afford to be mired in the hypocri-phobia of the would-be reformer, the disgruntled libertarian, and the failed idealist. "Oh my goodness," we scream! "Things are not as described!" A group that lies to itself is not stronger for it, and while I am not so naive as to believe that all bureaucracies, offices, and business units will be reformed simply by having their inconsistencies exposed--even the most dysfunctional systems tend toward equilibrium, which tells you something about the value of balance--I do believe that observing inconsistency tells you more about a system than seeing it act in perfect accordance with its "guiding principles" or "mission statement" or shit.

Are we not always a little more familiar with a person when we discover them committing what they officially consider sinful? I am well educated when I discover that a Muslim is a tippler, or that a Baptist is addicted to Internet pornography, or when I see that the director shares smoke breaks with and hangs on the every word of a co-worker who, according to the organizational leadership flowchart, should be a peer. You cannot learn everything, and sometimes cannot learn anything, by talking about how things are supposed to work. We must develop a sense of how they truly function, and that requires direct observation and experience.

When this awareness is cultivated, it gives you a greater sense of social power just as, when you understand the function of the leg's joints, you know how to more greatly control its motion. The other person may be stronger, but control the thigh just above the knee, pressing it against a flat surface, and you're less likely to get kicked (obviously, the notion of total control is ridiculous). In such a situation, one may think "I get hit with the foot" and grab the ankle. It's a weak position, grabbing the end of a lever. One must go to the fulcrum. In this sense, the political mind is radical in the oldest sense, in that it goes to the root of things.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Obama: Expert!

You can't be Kennedy without some well-chosen words for Latin America, specifically Cuber:

Recent changes in Cuba have not been "aggressive enough" to open its economy or reform its political system, US President Barack Obama has said.

Mr Obama, speaking to Spanish-language correspondents in Washington, said Cuba remained a "throwback" to the 1960s....

President Obama said the Cuban authorities had indicated they wanted to make changes to allow businesses to operate more freely.

But, he said, there was no evidence that they had been sufficiently aggressive in doing this.

"And they certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds", Mr Obama said.

Provide your own punchline. Yes, Mr. Obama, they should be more aggressive about liberating political prisoners in Cuba. Yes, they should be working on their economy and political reform...

Look, I certainly prefer living in America because of the status I hold here, but you know, when I look at Cuban unemployment, hunger, and abuse, I can't help but feel that it's small stuff compared to us. What person in their right mind would listen to President fucking Obama about successful reform? The guy makes Jimmy Carter 1980 look like Jimmy Carter 2010.

Of course, and it's not just because he's an empty suit, shades of Obama are always to be found when discussing clumsy attempts at reform. Were I him, I wouldn't rush to have my name associated with the subject.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Real Oppression

We live in a world which seems about as violent as it ever has been, and it may well be that. (I don't know; I just got here.) We may be tempted to talk about how people are today more comfortable than they were, and that may be true for many but is false for many, too. Rape, murder, intimidation, disease, brittle bones, crumbling teeth... It seems to me that the myth of progress is pretty thorough. Wherever I've ever been, I could find the limits of modern bourgeois comfort if I wanted. And most of us, no matter how comfortable, can find those limits too, beyond which the old ways survive.

But though we often reveal our bourgeois arrogance when we speak of How Easy Folks Have It, the truth is that in some ways, we have become accustomed to subtler forms of abuse. And now I conclude my long-winded disclaimer and get to my main thought.

Across time, culture, and social evolution, we find ourselves dancing around this continuum of subtle infliction of power on one side and, on the other, coarser and more overt displays of power. Depending on your historical epoch, deceit was perfectly acceptable; to lie was no abuse when Odysseus first spoke, though to his Christian readers, it was his violence that was heroic, while his treachery had long since become a mortal sin. The Ottomans considered beatings routine. They weren't reserved for punishment; they were part of questioning. I have little doubt that the Turks, like their Christian fellows in the medieval world, found themselves superior by far to the Romans with their pagan bloodsport, wanton sexuality, and all that late-night-telly type stuff. But the fact is that Romans too saw themselves as a, oh, what's the going phrase here? "A nation of laws, not men." The Romans might yield to personal fiat in time, but they were profoundly legalistic. This set the terms, of course, for the imposition of power.

Where am I going with this? Well, I see anarchism and market libertarianism and all that shit as merely occupying different points along the same continuum. It's all part of the same headgame, you see. Humans don't want to admit their abuse and so they find ways to differentiate their abuses from those of others.

I did so in accordance with the law!
I hold Identity or Status X!
I didn't cripple him!
I didn't kill him!
At least he'll live!
I did as much as she did to me!
I didn't profit from it!
I didn't lose control!
I paid the bloodgold!
I only took what was mine by right!
He started it!
I had no choice!

And alongside every cop-out, excuse, and distraction, there is still the imposition of power and the normalization of what falls below the standards we set. Because here's what's consistent from the Age of Violence to the Age of Law to the Age of Negotiation or Democracy or Market or Merit or What-the-Fuck-Ever...

Where a society has legitimized certain kinds of contests where there are winners and losers, that society has almost always blamed the loser for his or her lack of power. If we dueled with pistols (or did so more often), we might fault a poor shot. As it is, many Internet Tough Guys love to blame the victims of violent crime for not being Batman. Accordingly, those who fail to spot a scam may be either Victims of Injustice if we might ourselves fall for it, or variously they are Fools if we feel we would be smart enough to avoid their fate. In each case, there are coarser forms of exploitation on which we can all agree--armed theft, for example. But where things get subtler, fewer and fewer are willing to call it abuse, and more say that the responsibility falls on the abused.

I don't know where the line falls, or if there's any line at all. To see violence everywhere solves nothing, but I certainly feel that there is abuse and power that exists beyond physical displays. To say, as the Randians say, that we should eschew fraud and violence, is an interesting starting point, but they are too comfortable with accepting market coercion. Maybe any revolutionary anarchist will, necessarily, favor the coercion of the engines she hopes to turn in her desired direction.

I don't know. My words are failing me. This is my best attempt to force out something worth another person's time. The rest of my head is fit only for tequila, weeping, and LiveJournal.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I felt two ways about our recent festival of mourning, and between those feelings I was left in a mood of dread and resignation.

On one hand, I see the opportunity for millions of people to seize the day, to return it to the only way things ever matter to us, which is in our own personal understanding of it. I did not need to be a New Yorker to have my own experience. I did not need to have friends or family in the air. It was a shock and a challenge to me. It mattered to me. It mattered to a lot of us. So talking about this can, I grant, be good.

As for the other, I felt a sense of loathing at the social obligation, at all the exhorting to "REMEMBER" and so on. I do remember. And I will, as humans do, find my memory changed in the remembrance. And I will recontextualize, and twist, as we all do, as none do more so than the remembrists. For a couple of weeks, I felt the dread build in me, the hostile preparation to be assailed by images and media spectacle, the forced remembrance--in truth, the co-optation of millions of individual recollections by a tired, sentimental, meaningless master narrative.

I was 18 when it happened, which may render my experience more or less meaningful, depending on the observer. I had a lot of conversations. Tried to be social. Tried to be intellectual about it. Posted little signs urging patience and decency. Offended some people. Talked about it.

But what the fuck to say about it now? For me, the towers are obscured by the bodies, thirty times as many if you take an estimate which even its generators think is low-ball. A quarter of a million? Half a million? After ten years, is it even possible to smell Ground Zero over the gruesome hills we have made in Iraq? Can I hear the planes strike the towers over the buzzing of horseflies and the weeping of children?

Does it still matter to me? Sure it matters. I can care about things at the same time. I've wept over shit that happened before I was born. I'm allowed. So I remember 9/11. But I feel this powerful sense of emptiness, this hole where I used to have a lot to say. Other pains are stinging me. Other horrors shake me. I've grown. I've lived. And living manages to warp your perspective in ways both helpful and sick.

I didn't hear too much about unity this year, for which I'm thankful. If you felt united, then maybe you were. But unity exists for moments and episodes, for nations as surely as for individuals.

If America is a crumbling family, 9/11 has long been our holiday celebration, and it is our fervent desire for unity that only emphasizes the distance between us. 360 or so days of separateness, resentments, and disaffection cannot be erased with one great forced display of cohesion, and one wonders how much of the sappiness is fake and how much is due to intoxication or senility.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Quiet day. To those still reading:

Working on fiction and paid work. Lots going on in the brain.

I want to talk about sources of power; that'll be next.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Limit of My Power

I feel my throat swelling. It's getting painful to talk. I would gladly trade this for the fever of a few nights ago; at least a sweaty night of chills and broiling brains gives me a sense of inner comfort. I can deal with discomfort if I feel like my body's fighting back. Right now I feel I'm losing. I hate not being able to deal with this shit on my own.

It's an interesting realization of a grim thought that I had last night, a thought that accompanied a pain that defied all behind-the-counter painkillers. I thought that I should cut my tongue out for all its use to me, if I can't find a way to persuade a mild, curious adolescent to find some other path than to take money in exchange for training and being placed in a position to murder other human beings.

I can't even say it straight. As I rolled under the sheets, wishing I'd opted for nice green noxious NyQuil-D, I wished I could call him a victim, wished I could take his agency away so I didn't have to call him what he's willing to become: a mercenary. Are those the choices? Victim or villain? For me, right now anyway, there's no other way to see it. I refuse to play the polite game of the liberal working classes and imagine some war in which the whole structure would be justified. The need is not there. The danger is not there. And a man who murders human beings for coin is not made more sympathetic for lack of options... At least whores only poison themselves.

What power do I have here? I know the myth of control is foolish and destructive. I know I don't make others' minds up for them. I know the limit of my power... Then why act at all? And why do I seem to only have power when it doesn't matter to me? Are the Christians and Buddhists somehow actually right about something? Is this some nihilist universe in which the most empty acts are the only ones that succeed? Why is it that I can help some people see what's inside them and now I can say nothing that matters, point out no conflict worth settling? Have I ever really changed anyone's mind? Are the mechanics just hidden from my eye and it's been arrogance all along that gave me credit?

Maybe he hungers for war. I sure as hell do. I just never fooled myself that the war for which I wait was the one I'd be fighting if I took their money and their kit and their orders.

But if I'm so smart, why can't I use the man's pacifism to challenge his desire to belong, his desire to get away from the hassle of family.... If I'm so smart, why can't I do a goddamned thing? Not the right type of relationship? A little bit too old to be sympathetic? I'm smart enough not to push, smart enough to be an older friend but never an authority, never a Because I Said So, but I'm not smart enough, or something enough, to do anything more than watch.

Going down to work with his aunt for a few weeks, I believe he said. Coming back up and going back to the fucking Marine recruiter. He knows they lie. He knows it's a one-sided contract. He says he doesn't even agree with the course of these occupations, laid down when he was a boy. But none of it matters. I think he's trying to impress some girl. I think he wants a family not of his birth. I think he's made up his mind. And that's stronger than anything anyone else can provide. His parents say they accept it. I think they've reached the point where they acknowledge the limit of their power. So why am I bothered by this?

The personal side of it troubles me more, but there's nothing to do but mourn it. The personal side of it's mine to worry about. But isn't this a philosophical issue, too?--and it reinforces the personal sense of impotence, shame, and futility, which is all the better--doesn't it mean that there's no fucking point to any of this, to all the soapboxing and deliberation and scribbling and pondering and debating and "proving" and considering and theorizing, if I can't persuade even one kind-hearted young man who doesn't support the wars to turn down their money and refuse to kill those who have no conflict with him or his loved ones? If I cannot speak to the willing and sympathetic about the greatest human rights issue of our age, then what good am I?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Insult to Injury

The Kurds have suffered greatly in Iraq. There, as in Turkey, they have suffered depredation and abuse for a hundred years. They have been poisoned, they have been shot, they have been kidnapped, they have been raped. They have been beaten, they have been robbed, they have been chiseled, imprisoned, and invaded. They have been rounded up and driven out. They have had their villages assaulted, seized, burned, and brought to the ground.

They have suffered greatly, the Iraqi Kurds.

And they have been supported by a foreign army. They have earned a new autonomy, made powerful friends with their newfound wealth; the earth of Kurdistan, so long saturated with blood, is also rich in oil. It would seem that the people (or at least the majority people) of Kurdistan face a further injustice; the fate that follows when the foreign army leaves. It would seem so but for one, far greater outrage: the simple fact that it was never about them.