The Laboratorium
May 2004

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Just Delete the Punctuation

Ashcroft: ‘Clear and present danger to America’


The (Not So) Long View

My general belief, over the last few years, has been that humanity is more or less doomed, mostly out of an inability to manage resources intelligenty. My best guess was that we’d stumble through most of the next century okay before running smack up against some horrible eco-catastrophe or other. Though it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious at the time, humanity would peak sometime in the 2000s and start a long and painful decline back into chaos and squalor.

Now, however, largely as a result of the United States’s botched adventures in Iraq, I’m skpetical that humanity will even survive to 2100. My best guess at the most likely scenario has the nukes flying sometime in the latter part of the next century, probably as a frustrated and paranoid America lashes out at its demons in the only way it knows. I now seriously doubt both the rest of the world’s tolerance for American habits, and America’s ability to cope sensibly with skepticism from abroad.

A Free Nation Deep in Debt

A Free Nation Deep in Debt isn’t really a history monograph and isn’t really a textbook on finance. It helps to have a bit of background and interest in each of those fields, to know who the Habsburgs were and the difference between debt and equity. If these questions actually interest you, this is a cracking brilliant book, and loads of fun.

Basically, James MacDonald provides a whirlwind history of national debt in the West, with an eye to the relationship between a government’s ability to raise money and its political structure. His thesis is something that Adam Smith and the political œconomy wonks of the 18th century knew in their bones but we’ve lost some sight of since then: there’s a natural connection between democracy and borrowing capacity. You can spin this observation in a number of different directions: contrast the idea that responsible political controls by a wealthy citizenry make nations less likely to default, and therefore able to get better interest rate with the idea that people living under a democracy will happily pay taxes at a rate far above the rate that would cause open rebellion against a king.

The real geeky fun of this book, however, consists in the cheeky fun of looking at all of Western history as though it were merely the story of finance ministries. It turns out that looking at things this way provides both a neat synthetic overview of the history of finance and financial markets and also a useful sidelong perspective on some pressing issues of globalization. Plus, I picked up all sorts of neat historical tidbits: the aforementioned Habsburgs, for example, went bankrupt about once every twenty years in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Strategy Memo

Some free advice for the Kerry campaign or anyone anti-Bush with some ad money to spend. If …

  • The U.S. invaded Iraq, in large part, because Bush thought Iraq had WMDs, and
  • The administration got much of its WMD info from Tommy Flanagan Chalabi’s INC, but
  • Most of that info was bogus, perhaps because
  • As now seems likely, Chalabi was working for the Iranians,

… then Iran manipulated us into invading Iraq. (The reason doesn’t seem hard to see—a wave of anti-American sentiment has to work to the benefit of the Iranian clerical government by taking some of the wind out of the sails of the reformers.)

Do you understand what a good TV buy this one is? The message is simple: George Bush was stupid enough to be tricked into war by one of the worst nations on earth. This one is perfect jujitsu: it highlights Bush’s weaknesses while pointing out how his “strengths” are actually weaknesses, too. Some bad guys manipulated Bush’s hatred of bad guys to bend him to their will: in his overly simplified view of things, the possibility that there might be multiple sorts of bad guys doesn’t even come up.

The whole leaking classified information to the INC so they could pass it on to the Iranians is a good line, too, but it shouldn’t distract from real the dynamite here: we’ve been played for patsies by the Axis of Evil.

Doublespeak Alert

[Brig. Gen. Mark] Kimmit denied that the Italians had retreated. “They just moved to a more secure camp,” he said.

— Daniel Williams in the Washington Post, 18 May 2004

Bodies and Skulls

Deaf and drug-addicted talk show host Rush Limbaugh has been getting some flak for comparing the Abu Ghraib torture to a secret society iniatiation:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You of heard of need to blow some steam off?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one. Bush and Kerry are both Bonesmen, after all. So Rush’s point with this Skull and Bones analogy is what, exactly?

  • George W. Bush knows about torture from his own initation. But you don’t see him whining about the dogs and the beatings and the psychological manipulation. Those Iraqis should act like real men and keep the secrets of the Tomb.
  • Whenever you see an American engaged in torture, just think of John Kerry.
  • We’re giving these Iraqis something even better than freedom or democracy: honorary membership in Skull and Bones!

At least the news out of India seems to be good.

Nice Cheap Words

Hermes : What do we do when we break somebody’s window?
Dwight : Pay for it?
Hermes : Heavens, no! We apologize! With nice, cheap words.

—Futurama (episode #312: The Route of All Evil)

Lapses in Responsibility

I haven’t had a great week for thinking through the consequences of my actions. Over the weekend, I ran a red light. Not by all that much, I thought, and not so badly, given the standards of this town,—but still, badly enough that a cop on a motorcycle pulled me over and gave me a warning. My guess is that it was my habit of calling him “sir” that made him let me off without a ticket.

That or my until-Saturday clean record.

Then, on Monday, I locked myself out of my apartment in a particularly brilliant way. I was on my way out at the time, and I got a phone call, and in the confusion, went into the foyer of my building and let hte door swing shut behind me. Through the glass in the door, I could see my backpack on a table in the hall. Next to it: my keys. And behind them both: the open door to my apartment. That’s about as badly as it’s possible to lock yourself out, no?

My landlord came through big time: he got in touch with a former tenant who had kept a key to the building. And luckily for me, I’d left a spare car key in my wallet, so I was able to drive out into the suburbs and pick up the building key. I was just extremely glad that I hadn’t put my generic Club on when I’d parked the car, because the key to that was sitting on the keyring with my apartment key.

On Abu Ghraib

A few thoughts, in no particular order:

Those photos are shocking. The hooded prisoner standing on a box with wires in his hands, in particular, lingers in my mind. It’s by no means the most graphic or the cruellest, but it’s the one that will beome iconic. The combination of the hood with the outstretched arms creates an unsettling collision of symbolism: part crucifixion and part Klan lynching. There is also something about the photo stock—perhaps the yellowish tinge or the graininess—that reminds me of the Subserviant Chicken, another creepy addition to the mix.

I’m also waiting for the media—and later, academe—to process the sexualization of the situation in all its complexity. Consider: * Military culture itself has strange sexual undercurrents, in particular a combined fascination with and repulsion from homosexuality. All of the simulated-sex poses and forced masturbation strike me as form of working out that tension, by deflecting the actual sexuality onto the prisoners. * If it was someone’s idea to use this sexual degradation as a way of breaking Arab prisoners by undermining their dignity, well, that was sure a great idea. Now hard-core porn is being circulated by Arab media outlets with captions claiming it to be photos from Abu Ghraib. Nice going, shit-for-brains: by blurring the usually clear prison/porn line, you’ve made this form of propaganda plausible. * That said, the prison/porn line isn’t actually so clear, at least in the fertile American imagination, obsessed as it is with homosexual prison rape, and the occasional sexploitation flick about women behind bars. * If the photos look like some suburbanite’s basement S&M play gone horribly awry, what might the distinction be? Is it that everything is for real, instead of just being a game played by consenting adults? Is it the crudeness of the soldiers with cigarettes dangling from their lips, the banality of their imaginations? Is it that this sex play seems so completely unsexual for the soldiers? * And what about the presence of those grinning women? This is something more than just being “one of the boys;” the horror of those photos is larger than just gender. There’s something darker and more universal about power, sex, and violence taking going on there.

One meme I’ve spotted here and there over the last few days is that the soldiers torturing prisoners are “traitors” to the United States and should be treated as such. As tempting as such language may be, it’s an act of linguistic abuse not unlike referring to all terrorists as “cowards.” Not all negative terms apply to bad people; not all positive terms apply to good people. What happened in Abu Ghraib was bad enough without calling it “treason.”

Another recent meme has been debate over whether Rumsfeld should resign. Now, while I don’t think his apology cuts it, I also don’t think he needs to quit. It would be okay with me if he borrowed a catchphrase from another Donald. Someone needs to be fired; it doesn’t necessarily need to be Rummy.Actually, at least two sets of people need to go.

One set needs to be sacked for the horrible failure of leadership that gave us the abuses documented in the Taguba report. The military is not inherently incapable of running prisons; soldiers are not uniformly monsters in uniform. Something went specifically wrong with a specific part of the occupation, and those responsible need to be sacked. That means BG Karpinski; that means the commanders of the intelligence units pushing for harsher measures; that means those above them in the hierarchy who should have known what was going on and put a stop to it. Courts-martial up and down the line: imprisonment for the torturers and those who sanctioned torture; dishonorable discharge for everyone else.

Second, if we’re to take Bush and Rumsfeld and Congress at their word that they were in the dark on the torture, then that means that someone, quite likely multiple someones, improperly sat on this information for months. Perhaps these are the same people as in the first group, though I suspect the overlap is not complete. In any event, these people have proven that their loyalty and judgment are both so deficient as to make them unfit for duty.

As a matter of image, unless heads roll, the United States military will have no credibility with the rest of the world. We’re already far past the point at which what happened in Abu Ghraib can be dismissed as a few bad enlisted apples. It’s either bad leadership or bad culture—and if the world decides it’s bad culture, then we are so deeply and profoundly boned that I tremble in fear. Bad leaders can be replaced, and replacing them sends the right signal: that those at the very top are committed to doing right, and will not tolerate anything less from their subordinates.

It’s probably best for our image if it’s an underling, rather than Rummy, who falls on that sword: it makes the claim that the problem was a few bad leaders more plausible. They just have to be high enough up that the entire mess can be laid at their feet. One might call it scapegoating, except that in the military, you are responsible for what happens on your watch, and pleading in your defense that your subordinates didn’t follow your orders just exposes you as an even worse leader. If Rumsfeld isn’t willing to hold the military to its own standards, then he should resign. Anything less would be the soft bigotry of low expectations, as they say.

A Patriot Is

A patriot is somebody who protects his country from its government.

—Pieter-Dirk Uys

Splitting Hairs

[T]he court cannot instruct the jury that it may presume the existence of the presumed fact from proof of the basic facts. The court may, however, instruct the jury that it may infer the existence of the presumed fact from proof of the basic facts.

— Notes of the conference committee on the enactment of the Federal Rules of Evidence (House Report 93-1597), on rule 301

Another Line Bites the Dust

Another now-deleted oddity from this paper:

… whereas the Objectivist approach (so-called because it derives a selfish form of ethics from the fact that something exists) would favor the user.