News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Quick Debate on Libertarianism:
Dr.D: nice to butt horns with you on economic policy. i checked out milton friedman and libertarianism. i'm in favor of the decriminalization of pot and of prostitution, so i do have some libertarian bones in my body. and i don't reject the use of school vouchers that can be taken wherever. i like the distinction between positive rights (to shelter, education, etc.) and negative rights (to not be assaulted or robbed).
what makes me uneasy is the suggestion of ideology in discussions such as these. i'd have to pay more attention to friedman to see if he seemed to be speaking ideologically or sensibly. in economic and legal policy, i just want to know if it works or not. perhaps in some places they've already given school vouchers a try. with enough cases, you can be scientific and decide whether vouchers work or not, do they help some people more than others, and if they do work is there a certain voucher system that works better than others. same for prostitution and drugs. i'll check out holland next time i'm there (though holland is quite socialist in some respects, with a high rate of taxation, lots of social programs).
at least, i've had one misunderstanding cleared up, which is that libertarianism does not equal no government, which would be anarchy.
in the end, i would hope that i have no ideological commitments but would be willing to submit whatever beliefs i have about what kind of government/law/legal policy to the test of history.

Biff: absence of ideology sounds pretty libertarian to me. Also sounds like George W. Bush and Conservatism, both of which have a great distrust of ideas; one of the reasons young Platos mock them both. Check out more of Friedman and his statistics on how the passage of minimum-wage laws causes unemployment in urban young blacks to double or triple (having to pay higher wages, stores usually fire their low-caste employees and employ kids from middle-class homes). Friedman on unions is interesting too. Companies in stable industries have stable profit ratios. When unions come and up wages, the money doesn't come from the boss who can't afford to lower his profit ratio without endangering company re-investment in capital goods, etc. (Besides, if profit ratio is too low and can be expected to remain low, owners just close up the business, sell off the equipment, and reinvest in a new industry. It's done all the time.) Typically, the non-unionized employees take a loss in wages. This is the pattern because unions usually only cover part of the employee structure, not all. To pay unionized employees higher wages and increase their benefits, the non-unionized employees have to pay the bill. Walmart keeps unions out because it was unions that led to the inflexibility and bankruptcy of Woolworth's and the other chains that it used to compete with. As soon as unions arrive, Walmart will head on a downward trajectory and a new competitor will replace end up replacing it. But not before we have to pay higher prices to buy precisely the same thing.

Think of government as a huge un-fireable union; no matter how badly run, the bureaucracy staggers on. 9/11 is the quintessential example. Who got fired? Who was punished? Nobody. That's paradigmatic of unions. National security in the US used to be managed in part by the private sector (Pinkerton's etc.) and the private sector should be brought back in again. If Pinkerton's was in charge on 9/11, it would have been fired with criminal charges and class-action lawsuits outstanding as we speak.
Dr. D: is there no political or social problem to which libertarianism does not have an answer?
Biff: Interesting question and one I never thought to ask... Libertarianism, as far as I understand it, isn't an ideology so it doesn't provide answers. To me it's more like an approach. People provide answers; libertarians don't have a Prophet (Marx) or Doctors in holy orders (the arch-angel Chomsky et al). America's Founding Fathers, for the most part, were libertarians. Democratic republicanism, separation of powers, small government, minimal entangling alliances, no government sponsored internal development, etc. is libertarianism in politics... With Lincoln, the US turned towards deficit-spending and big government with the acme of this movement being Roosevelt's robbing of Peter to pay Paul. He paid farmers not to grow crops in order to raise crop prices and then gave money to the poor so they could afford to buy them. The Fathers must have been turning in their graves. Roosevelt, whose inheritance came from his father's (or grandfather's) Chinese opium profits, despised businessmen. But of course it's almost a platitude that rich parents spawn limousine liberals and champagne socialists... Business people tend to be libertarian because they see how business keeps people clean. You fuck up in business, nobody saves you (and the failure rate for new businesses is something like 95% within the first year). You fuck up in a government bureaucracy or private sector union, you get a lateral move.
Dr. D: absence of ideology means an openness to sane solutions to specific problems. a commitment to libertarianism can be as ideological as a commitment to socialism or any other approach to government.
Biff: Agreed. I don't have any ideology that I'm aware of and I don't believe in anything. I ain't committed to libertarianism. But I've seen socialism in action. Given how poorly it works, it's worth exploring alternatives. And that goes for every field. Law and order for example. In Iceland and Scotland, the tort law of the Norsemen ran automatically on economic principles, with the market determining punitive damages. I don't know the specifics of how it worked but apparently the heros of the Viking sagas were lawyers, not swordsmen. My point is, whether we're talking law, or geology (where I'm a fan of the expanding planet theory for explaining everything from plate tectonics to dinosaur size and gait to the existence of continents on Mars and Venus) or astronomy (I'm a fan of the exploding planet theory for explaining the trajectory and composition of new comets, the successful prediction of moons orbiting asteroids, the successful prediction of the behavior of disentigrating comets, plus it offers an interesting explanation for the disappearance of water on Mars and it's odd declination) to human evolution (I'm a fan of the aquatic ape theory) to whatever... I enjoy considering alternative explanations for things. I love thought experiments. Newspapers and newsmagazines are incredibly negligent at presenting the richness of the body of alternative theories that exist for practically everything. Reading the newspapers you'd think the only explanation for dinosaur die-off at 65mil years ago was the Alvarez theory of meteor impact. You'd think that man-made global warming was accepted across the board when most meteorologists don't accept it. Newspapers and magazines are simply awful and are put together by incurious people with a really shocking ignorance of how the world around them works. The scales have fallen from mine eyes... haha...

Dr. D: hope you're not drinking this coffee, which contains a penis and heart stimulant not listed on the ingredients. another case of the DOH trying to protect citizens from lying manufacturers. what would a libertarian government do?

早上一杯,晚上發威,由知名藝人高凌風代言的火鳥咖啡,一盒咖啡內,只有一包咖啡,就要價三百九十九元,最近被衛生署檢驗出違法添加犀利士這種壯陽藥,以違反藥事法移送地檢署偵辦,並要求廠商立即回收下架 不止是火鳥咖啡,還有像是龍鳳液養生飲,龍抬頭,快樂精靈,慾旺99,勇豹錠等食品,雖然都有衛生署食品字號,不過也都被驗出違法添加威而剛和犀利士等壯陽藥,這些違法食品大多在第四台或是西藥房買得到,醫師表示,這類產品喝多了對心血管病患會有致命危險
Biff C. Esq.: First of all, a libertarian government (a sort of contradiction in terms...haha) would let Taiwan's consumer foundations take care of the publicity and issue warnings as they have been doing since long before the DPP reformed government operations. I expect the government is performing a redundant function. Secondly, either affected citizens or consumer foundations can file lawsuits. Government agencies are not the sole actors with legal remedies at their disposal. Law suits work just fine; in fact they work even better than government fiats because the manufacturer has a chance to state and argue his case in a court of law.
It's naive to think that government bodies are cleaner and less corrupt than the private sector: both, after all, are human institutions. In France, bribery while doing business overseas is a tax-deductable business expense. As it is in several other European nations. I'm not making this up. Often the only way for European corporations operating in Europe's high-expense environment to compete with US companies overseas is to bribe bureaucrats in banana republics (like Iraq, which is why the governments of France and Russia were opposed to the war. Several European political representatives, including one British member of the House of Commons, were found to be on Saddam Hussein's payroll. Any American politicos on that payroll? None. Corruption in the US is not institutionalized in the way it is in Europe and, sorry to say, it is in Canada (unless things have changed since I was there)). As opposed to France et al, US companies have been forbidden by US law to bribe foreign governments since 1976.
Socialism (i.e. government interference) encourages unethical practices because (a) it raises the cost of business artificially high and (b) there is often only one bureaucrat to bribe and this bureaucrat is now beheld to you; with his pecker in your pocket, to coin a Lyndon Baines Johnson phrase, he becomes your mouthpiece and shill for when the shit hits the fan. Thus (c) there is incentive to buy a bureaucrat's cooperation and then go about on a spree breaking the law.
The Love Canal hazardous waste scandal of the 1970's is usually blamed on corrupt private-sector companies but this forgets that the canal was managed by a government agency which took bribes and corruptly cooperated with these companies facilitating their crimes. I can only presume the government agency was protecting these companies from exposure, for it was in its own interest to keep newspaper busy-bodies unaware of what was going down. Without the agency, the appearance of propriety via a false watch-dog would not have been available to mislead the public and press. Minus the official watch-dog, the scandal would likely have been exposed all the sooner. And without the government watch-dog there might not have been a scandal at all for without incentive and opportunity, chances are slimmer that the unethical companies involved would have taken the risk.

Lin Yu-tang wrote that the primary impetus for passing proscriptive legislation in 1930's China was the manufacture of opportunities for bribery. Render any activity illegal, and there is only one conduit that can re-enable this activity: the government bureau in charge of enforcing its prohibition. Then, its just a matter of purchasing dispensation.
A favorite racket in Mencken's day was pick-pockets who worked streets only after bribing the beat cops. Another racket was prohibition which saw drunkeness and consumption increase. That of course took official connivance. Just as prostitution, illegal for a decade now in Taipei, continues courtesy of Mayor Ma's office. I had a roommate who I lived with for a couple of years and who spoke at length about working full-time for a major US city police force as a member of its extortion program that threatened local businesses with police harassment if they didn't donate to a fund for the families of policemen killed in the line of duty.
Another great government scam is today's Drug War. Drugs can only be sold in any number if the local cops are in on the action. When I left, Fredericton's largest dealer was an ex-vice cop who was busted at one point and then continued in the biz in a private capacity (I learned from a long-time friend who was a dealer). The first US drug czar stayed in office for nearly 30 years because, just like J. Edgar Hoover, his primary occupation was collecting dirt on politicians so that he could blackmail them into renominating him for his position every several years. Hoover was head of the FBI until the day he died. The reason he could galavant around in such a conservative era with his boyfriend in public places, such as ballparks, was because nobody dared whisper a word about his gay lifestyle. And, he got launched into the highest echelons of government by participating as a lieutenant in America's first Red Scare in 1919. His boss, Mitchel A. Palmer used this to leverage himself onto a party ticket and was a candidate in the primaries for the 1920 US presidential elections!

If you legalize an activity, there are far fewer people to bribe (i.e. just the sales staff of the occasional badly run company are left) and those taking bribes can't control who's in the marketplace, unlike a corrupt government official who may. So the remaining opportunities for bribery distort marketplace operations much less. Minimize government and the market is cleaner, more liberal, and more effective. Which means lower prices and greater selection.
Government is sometimes an ameliorative treatment for societal ills, but very seldom a cure. It operates rather like tuberculosis, the Middle Ages cure for leprosy. TB worked, munching leprosy's bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, and it also seems to have enjoyed a widespread reputation for increasing intelligence, but in the end it still killed you.
That's my fifty-cents worth...
Hope I said something useful...

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Hard Ethics of Libertarianism
Yesterday debating libertarianism with D, what perhaps really annoyed him were the conclusions that libertarianism points to: a sort of immoral lack of sympathy for the welfare of others; this particularly so when I suggested that people should take care of themselves and not be baby-sat by government nanny-crats. To many people this sounds like a sort of idle-rich, 19th century Gilded Age carpet-bagger irresponsibility.

Watching a booktour video of PJ O'Rourke later in the day, my ears pricked up when he stated that Iraq being "smashed to bits" was a sort of best of all possible worlds. I was caught off guard by his apparent seriousness and the lack of murmers or coughing behind hands by the bookstore audience. His argument was that a unified Iraq attacked Israel twice, Iran, Kuwait, and murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Naturally, most people will blame Saddam Hussein for being the immoral baddie. But I think that PJ was suggesting that no matter who's in charge, such abominations and atrocities will take place as it is part of the Iraqi psyche that one does not entreat with, but slaughters your enemies; a sort of poly-sci edition of dead men tell no tales.

Many libertarians are dubious that governments can change people. People change governments, and not the other way around. The German volk, once given democracy after WWI, elected Hitler. If the Nazi's had not been elected, next in line at the feed trough were the Communists. Either way, totalitarianism was what the proletariat, i.e. that untainted herd of noble savages at the bottom of the food chain, wanted. The same thing is happening in Russia as we speak: the political sphere offering a pantheon of fascists, lunatics, and power brokers, with the downtrodden classes objecting that nothing can be done. In a democracy no less! The same thing happened in Revolutionary France: after trying elections and democracy, everyone went chasing after Chomsky-like conspiracy theories which were followed by various slaughters and the entrance onto the stage of the hero and climax of the tragedy: Napoleon and the glory of wasting hundreds of thousands of men in the attempted conquest of Europe. Similar phenomena broke out in Japan. And in Iraq, where Hussein got into power legally. Was India better off out from under the heel of empire? Once free of the colonial oppressor things went back to an approximation of the pre-conquistador idyll of yore: a traditional Muslim/Hindu civil war broke out with millions dying. This was followed by the country being partitioned and the ensuing Indian democracy kept the country poor from 1949 through 1990 via various hard-core socialist policies (socialism being the most efficient political system, short of despotism, for generating opportunities for bureaucratic corruption -- the desired goal of the famously finger-in-pie, pecker-in-pocket Indian polity of that unfortunate benighted era). Had the British remained, India would be prosperous, with everyone from its sweating factory workers to its Marxist hacks lounging in academe enjoying per capita incomes somewhere between contemporary Malaysia and Hong Kong.

PJ knows this, is a hard-core libertarian and views the present carnage in Iraq as inevitable. Democracy will not change the Iraqi's, the Iraqis will pervert democracy. Just as continues to happen in Afghanistan. Just as early democracy in the US saw voter rights limited to men of substantial means and outright disenfranchized women and slaves.

This sort of resigned acceptance that people cannot be taught what is good for them, and that it is better to stay out of the way and let people slaughter each other if that's really what they want, is also to be found throughout Mencken:

In certain States efforts have been made, sometimes by the medical fraternity, to make the practice of chiropractic unlawful. I'm glad to be able to report that practically all of them have failed. Why should it be prohibited? I believe that every freeborn man has a clear right, when he is ill, to seek any sort of treatment that he yearns for. If his mental processes are of such a character that the theory of chiropractic seems plausible to him, then he should be permitted to try chiropractic. And if it be granted that he has a right to do so, then it follows clearly that any stevedore privy to the technique of chiropractic has a right to treat him. To preach any contrary doctrine is to advocate despotism and slavery...

Such quackeries as Christian science, osteopathy and chiropractic work against the false humanitarianism of the hygienists and to excellent effect. They suck in the botched, and help them onto bliss eternal. When these botched fall in to the hands of competent medical men they are very likely to be patched up and turned loose upon the world, to beget their kind.

Here's Mencken on the US Civil War.

War naturally sucks in those who can be most profitably spared, and let's go most of those whose talents are really useful. One hears, now and then, of promising young men cut down too soon, but the science of statistics scarcely justifies the accompanying mourning. Let us turn for example to the Civil War. In the Union Army, during the four years of the war, there were 2,666,999 man who reached the field, and of this number 110,070 were killed in battle or died of wounds, 199,720 died of disease, and 40,154 perished otherwise -- murdered, killed by accident, or done to death in prisons. Of those who were murdered or died of accident or disease, probably 100,000 would have died anyhow. Deducting that number, the total net loss comes to about 250,000. How many men were wounded is not certain, but probably the number ran to at least one million.

We don't know, of course, what the dead men would've done if they had lived, but we may reach some approximation to it by examining the wounded who survived. How many of them, after the war, contributed anything that was genuinely interesting to civilization? Searching the record for weary days and nights I can find but three names: those of Major Ambrose Bearse, Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Private George Westinghouse. The typical eminentissimo who survived the Civil War was not of this company; he was the shallow political plug, McKinley. All the really important men of the post-Civil War era, all the men who developed and fecundated such culture as we now have, from John D. Rockefeller to Walt Whitman, from Grover Cleveland to William James, from Mark Twain to Cyrus Field, from Andy Carnegie to Mark Hanna, from William Dean Howells to Bronson Howard, from John Fiske to James Russell Lowell, and from Willard Gibbs to Brigham Young -- all these men were slackers, and leaped not to the cannons roar. The three exceptions the research reveals I have listed. Apply the ratio to those who perished, and it appears that the Civil War cost American culture exactly three fourths of a really valuable man. Call Fitz-James O'Brien, who died of his wounds, the other fourth -- and the net loss comes to one man.

Harsh comedy? But it is accurate; is it sensible; is it informative and useful to know? And haven't we all entertained such dark ponderings from time to time?

As a youth, like most of us, Mencken started out with an unexamined acceptance of the gospel of socialism and it's lavender rhetoric. After all, we live in the modern Romantic era, which began in the early 19th century and continues to incommode us as we speak (Orwell, wrote about its debilitating effects in his essay on Peter Pan and children's fiction). Mencken grew out of soft words and affecting purple prose via working hard and debating any and all subjects with whomever was available. Over the course of his professional career, he was a reporter, newspaper editor, freelance writer of journalism & criticism & poetry & short fiction, translator, whore-hopper and womanizer, book author, literary magazine owner, etc. He acquired a broad and worldly education and, given the wealth and prosperity of America, he developed a great suspicion for reformers, socialists, and other folks with a hand constantly out for donations in a country at a time (the Roaring Twenties) where it took an effort not to emerge at the end of each fiscal year with a swelling belly and burgeoning bank account. He became jaded at the sight of world-savers who then, as now, were clad in scandal after scandal. From his experience as everything from a court-room reporter to a presidential primary reporter, he took the view that the unfortunate can't be saved from themselves and won't be saved from above. But his Olympian indifference also came part and parcel with his general libertarianism, which gave him prejudices that freed him from many of the distortions that arise when one is supposed to feel first and think later.

On developing a full range of heterodox ideas, one sees the world in a very different light; one becomes irritated by government because, among other goads, one no longer shares the mainstream ideas that inevitably inform government policy. Government begins to take on the same bizarre cast as the ignorant and credulous public that blithely votes into office double-talking wind-wizards ventilating hope and dreams into the marketplace of feelings.

A minor example of heterodoxy is my opposition to the regulation taking force next year in Taipei requiring all citizens separate trash into biodegradable, flammable, and other types. My amateur research into the recycling biz informs me that recycling has proven completely uneconomical in the US; where, in the late 1990's, most cities went quietly back to dumping all trash in landfills** It requires double, triple, quadruple, or quintuple the money (i.e. a vast amount of additional polluting energy resources) to recycle plastic and metal as opposed to extracting it from oil and ore (which results in less pollution). Recycling by government (even by fiat) is attractive to voters, perenially ignorant as most of us are of the background and partisan arguments behind political issues. It's just a political showboat. The mayor I'm sure has seen the research and is perfectly clear that recycling serves no useful prophylactic function. Yet, to grease the runway to the nation's presidential office, he's got on board this idiotic and time wasting showboat and saddled the rest of us with potential fines of NT $4000 or NT $6000.
** Worth mentioning though is that in the past year or so, recyclable trash has become profitable as companies in China are scrambling for global resources: this is good news for all of us, but I expect that this demand, like that for oil, will go back to normal in a couple of years. And, I seriously doubt that this new development is a factor in the good Taipei mayor's political calculus; it doesn't seem to have been any more than a vote-catcher in US mayoral campaigns.

Another example of government intrusion into people's lives is that of HIV and AIDS medication. Children who are HIV-positive are required by law in certain states and provinces of Canada to receive to the appropriate medication. My amateur research into AIDS convinces me that there is no effective anti-HIV medication. Indeed, the proposed medication, AZT, is highly carcinogenic and a known, some would say leading, cause of AIDS! [a quick reminder: HIV tests don't test for HIV because HIV has yet to be discovered; it's a hypothetical concept based on circumstantial evidence; plus, the alleged US discoverer of HIV, Robert Gallo, has stated publicly that an HIV+ person with a healthy lifestyle can expect to live just fine for at least 30 years without medication] Yet, if I had a child who was HIV-positive, in several US states and Canadian provinces I would be liable to jail time if I did not put him on an AZT regimen. Given my opinion of AIDS junk-science, I would be forced to choose between having my child suffer terribly and even die from the medication or else sneak overseas with my child.

You can see that my hypothetical situation is like that of people taking their children to a chiropracter in Mencken's 1920's America. The question is: do I have the right to choose my child's doctor and care regimen or should you ignore my sincere concern for my child and issue it with, what I consider to be, a death warrant? We're not talking semantics anymore. If you thought your child was going to be damaged or killed by well-meaning lunatics, what would you do?

I say the taxpaying citizen should be allowed to decide for him or herself.

And, as a libertarian functioning in a democratic polity, i.e. as a minority interest, if I wish to rally mass support for minority rights I must appeal to the interests of all minorities. I.e. I must also allow other minorities the same latitude to engage in activities that I deem opposed to their best interests. Thus for libertarians the left-wing, moral-majority babysitting, piety scheme goes out the window. Again, as a minority accepting the rights of other minorities to run their lives as they please, I have to accept the inevitability that others will engage in prodigies of achievement that inevitably doom them to remain poor (ex: the Amish), die (i.e. religious nuts like Heaven's Gate), or inadvertently harm their children (Christian Scientists, Luddites etc. who oppose modern medicine, blood-transfusions, vaccinations, etc.; Liberals who oppose school vouchers and are pro-affirmative action, pro-AIDS medication for HIV+ pregnant women, pro-estate tax, and pro-unequal taxes for the rich, etc.; and Conservatives who are pro-Creation science, opposed to sexual and gay liberation, anti-abortion, etc.).
As a libertarian you have to arrest the natural mothering tendency to busy-body: i.e. stop caring so much; give up and get over the contemporary fashion for the outreach of feelings. You have to respect the rights of others to make decisions and recognize the commendable diversity this produces, instead of joining in the universal mob-cry for a robotic utopia where everyone's an icon of perfection just like yourself. You have to stop pretending that the heterodox are mentally deficient, deranged or different 'for no good reason' and get your nose out of their welfare and otherwise resist the messianic desire to micromanage their lives.
In other words, when Christopher Hitchens criticized Henry Mencken for being immoral and unfeeling* he's appalled at his lack of soft feelings and compassion for others less fortunate: i.e. sentient human beings who, for whatever reason, have deliberately and repeatedly chosen a path inimicable to their own self-interest. However, what Mencken was doing, as I see it, was facing up to the inevitable end that the train of logic he set in motion took him: I.e., if you grant people greater latitude, sometimes they're going to act foolishly and harm, even kill, themselves. Given the inevitability of this, he then examined this sad fact and made a decision about whether it was in the national interest to allow this. He concluded that, in fact, it is. He didn't flinch from making a decision and then announcing, regardless of the outcry it might cause (which was often considerable, given that his era was more conservative than our own).

Christopher Hitchens, like most of us, first considers whether following a train of logic puts him prima facie in contact with anything smelling of moral repugnance. If so, he makes a face, stops the logic train in its tracks and declares the departure point or the train itself immoral. How facile.

A more enlightened and courageous method is to follow the logic and see where it takes you. If you decide in the end that the conclusion of the logic train is not in the nation's interest, then pronounce it unethical or undesirable, or what have you. But at the very least, the logic train should be followed to its end. For otherwise, how are you to know what the ultimate result of the logic train is? And lacking such knowledge, and given that fact that so many good things in life arise from unethical departure points, and that the reverse is very true as well, ergo the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," it strikes me as timid and insincere to wonder, first and foremost, what those around you will think of you if you follow where logic takes you. (I'm not suggesting that people who disagree with libertarians, or me, are deliberately insincere. I'm guilty of this sort of thing too, for its usually an unconscious or habit-based affair.) Anyway, frank and implaccable pursuit of the facts and conclusions is one way to wisdom and truth; most other ways lead to folly and false piety.

Biff Cappuccino
* [Mencken] was also, like Twain, a tremendous humorist and satirist and even entertainer. But there was a largeness and humanity to the laconic Samuel L. Clemens that was crucially absent in the Sage of Baltimore [i.e. Mencken], and ''The Skeptic'' reminds one of that vital discrepancy.
This is from a fabulously inaccurate essay in which, in this passage, Hitch commits the Borges error of praising someone (with Borges it was Wilde) as a comic with something to say. It was this absence of "largeness and humanity" that helped make Mencken the "tremendous humorist and satirist" that he was. It also enabled Mencken to proceed directly and forthrightly to the many conclusions that his fellows could equally have easily arrived at, had they not been hobbled by propriety.
For example, in one essay Mencken wrote that it was clearly an African-American musician, the anonymous individual he believed responsible for several American spirituals, who had been America's most talented musician. And this was in an era where blacks were not though highly of at all by mainstream America. And, he praised African-American music at length despite believing African-Americans as a class were retrograde and uncivilized. Why the contradiction? There is none. He followed the logic trail; he didn't try to systematize his conclusions or to warp them to make them fit his preconceptions. He didn't soften the blow. He expected genius to come from wherever it came from. He knew better than to demand it come from a prestigious social echelon or culturally dominant group. If the best music came from the lowest caste people, then that's where it came from. Likewise he wrote a lengthy essay demonstrating that Anglo-Saxons were the lowest most ignoble caste in America, suffering the highest rates of criminality, the highest STD rates, cherished the most primitive form of Christianity, etc. And he starts out the essay stating that he himself is probably the purest form of Anglo-Saxon in the country. There is no contradiction here. What there is a mind free from conspiracy theories whereby everything must conform to preconceptions and favorable outcomes and wish-fullfilment.
To perhaps overstretch my thesis, as a libertarian he was primed to accept the random, the inexplicable because he was magnanimous of thought: not necessarily by choice but perhaps, probably, necessity. Once you get away from the majority-think where whatever the herd thinks is ipso facto sensible and reasonable, you become more amenable and intellectually curious as to what lunatic minorities are doing and thinking. You acquire a rich grounding in how wrong-mindedness and chance often leads to truth. You become more cosmopolitan and more broad-minded. Ergo, the low caste and retrograde can incidently produce brilliance via tradition; high-caste can be in fact, on examination, pervasively decadent as it fails to keep up with the Joneses and Johanssons.
As to Wilde, he had an heterodox, irreverent worldview acquired in part from his American friend Whistler, the painter, which he learned to express in a manner that suggested parody. But Wilde was serious about most of what he said. As is PJ O'Rourke. Similarly, Mencken had an Olympean indifference to sentimentality in part due to the preceding but also because he was much brighter and better informed than his peers. His was a more logical, sharper, penetrating mind. Having a mind that works meant the impossibility of subscribing to the urban legends, received wisdoms and unexamined notions of history, gender relations, politics and so forth that the bulk of his fellow citizens cherished. Like Wilde he was a heretic who, like Twain also, learned how to express heterodox ideas in a manner which offered deniability and paid the bills: i.e. humor. This isn't the whole story, nor even much of it. But Hitchens, as I see it, has the cart in front of the horse.
Biff Cappuccino

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Violence & Courtesy
Native-English speakers are courteous primarily out of fear that the lack thereof will result in a sharp and embarrassing harangue or a match of fisticuffs. On the other hand, there is little to fear in public as a Taiwanese citizen because most of the citizenry, when sober, is extraordinarily given over to avoiding confrontations. As a result, there is a pervasive lack of courtesy. And yet it's a cliche and a given to most Chinese that they belong to that most charmed of world nations whose many distinctions includes being the acme of courtesy. But clearly Taiwan, if not China, is the more likely the acme of something quite different: protocol.
If you don't abide by the expectations of your Chinese host he or she will often become visibly angry. This isn't symptomatic of a connoisseur of courtesy but of a fanatic demanding adherence to set of esoteric cultural rules. It was a commonplace in Taipei until about ten years ago that refusing a cigarette from a local gentleman was near tantamount to challenging him to a duel.
But surely, outside of this sort of thing, most Chinese people are courteous? Perhaps. It depends on whether one considers it a courtesy to fart in public, belch in public, shed one's shoes and pick the skin off one's toes in public, explore one's nose in public, step on people's toes in public, and rarely if ever say please, thank you, or sorry if it can be avoided, and so on and so forth. And while some will suggest that different societies have different standards, one sees the same standards arising here once people get money and leisure and the find themselves swelling with the desire to shine and distinguish themselves from the lower orders, even if there aren't any yet available.

As usual it's the more relentlessly competitive half of the species, women, who lead the way by refraining from clearing nostrils into the gutter and keeping their shoes on even if they've an itch. And while I'm allowed to fart at will, being a man and thus presumed ipso facto to be an incurable adolescent, I've never had a girlfriend who felt comfortable passing a ripe one through lingerie. And those Chinese with lighter skin populate the preferred half of the master race. The more wealth one accumulates, the softer one's tone of voice becomes to the point working-stiffs almost require an earhorn to conduct a conversation with you. There is a pronounced desire not to be seen sweating, to no longer wear one's lunch in one's teeth, to smell of a rose, an orchid, sandalwood, or the latest ester to emerge from a French laboratory, to wear gold, silver, and designer gear, to feign or be genuinely incompetent at blue-collar endeavor. In other words, whatever mechanisms drive our own class distinctions are surely driving class distinctions here as well.

An angry or violent Taiwanese citizen is most often someone enforcing protocol; they feel they have the combined force of tradition, justice, and the ancestors behind them. Not that the polite don't get pissed. But the polite are more concerned with the other person getting violent. To dodge conflict, people of courtesy pay attention to detail and go out of their way to minimize friction. Someone stressing protocol is the opposite: an enforcer, with the mindset of a constable, a censor, or a Red Guard; eager to take the initiative and employ anger or violence to insure adherence to their supposedly universal, but unluckily parochial, standards of conduct.

As such Taiwan's flatland denizens (as opposed to the aborigines, who can be very polite or very rude) are not deliberately rude but instead haplessly crude: bumping into one another like penguins, ambling in the middle of sidewalks like cattle, holding up traffic by stopping at corners to let their friends out of the car, and so on and so forth because people know there will be no verbal or physical retribution. For that matter, it has only been fairly recently that people have even begun starting to honk at cars that hold up traffic. So things are changing in the direction of familiar developed nation norms.
Why? Because democracy is empowering and, once empowered, everyone gets a hard-on for verbal and physical violence. In authoritarian societies, such as those run under martial law or communism, folks are afraid to speak up and to act out their violent fantasies because you never know if the villain of the piece is attached to somebody important. If so, it could be curtains for you. Thus, people get in the habit of putting up with a great deal; ergo the most popular Chinese ideograph of the elder generation: endurance. The same folk, growing up in a democracy, would be more pugnacious, willing to harangue or issue an arse-kicking in their quest for higher standards of comportment, i.e. courtesy.

Interesting in this regard is my better-half, Clara. Whenever I move furniture or plants or whatever around the house, she typically stands and watches, doing absolutely nothing to help. It's maddening. In the English speaking nations, we don't have much patience for that, ergo the phrases "don't just stand there, do something" and "make yourself useful." Growing up in a society which lacks democratic spirit, Clara's learned that discretion is the better part of valor. In a corrolary to 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', she doesn't show any initiative. In her world, the nail that sticks out gets hammered. In an unfamiliar situation or one where she doesn't understand how she can help, she waits for a command, for her marching orders. Initiative has apparently not been rewarded and probably been discounted.

But she's just one person? No such entity. We're all bees in a hive, automatons with pre-installed software.
Another example of this passivity came up while moving to our pseudo-legal rooftop pad. One of the wife's colleagues showed up with her boyfriend du jour and a car. Clara and I loaded it up at the old place and unloaded it at the new place and then carried our stuff up several flights of stairs. We rushed back to the original pad and reloaded. This went on for a couple of hours, during which time neither Clara's coworker nor her quarry lift a finger to assist us. Nor did they manifest any shame while idly watching Clara and I get into a sweat like a couple of coolies. Maddening stuff by the standards at home. Interestingly, they did buy us a cup of ice coffee, using money, as is so often the case to handle situations. At home, things would be completely bass-akward. Friends would feel embarrassed and offer to lend a hand. The people moving would purchase a coffee for them.
T.E. Lawrence describes a passive tribe reminiscent of Taiwan just a few years back, which is a way of saying I don't think Taiwan's values are stagnating and that things were much worse before. Here's Lawrence:

Turkey was dying of overstrain, of the attempt, with diminished resources, to hold, on traditional terms, the whole Empire bequeathed to it. The sword had been the virtue of the children of Othman, and swords had passed out of fashion nowadays, in favour of deadlier and more scientific weapons. Life was growing too complicated for this child-like people, whose strength had lain in simplicity, and patience, and in their capacity for sacrifice. They were the slowest of the racesof Western Asia, little fitted to adapt themselves to new sciences of government and life, still less to invent any new arts for themselves. Their administration had become perforce an affair of files and telegrams, of high finance, eugenics, calculations. Inevitably the old governors, who had governed by force of hand or force of character, illiterate, direct, personal, had to pass away.

Loving the old ways steadily, the Anatolian remained a beast of burden in his village and an uncomplaining soldier abroad... The burden fell heaviest on the poor villages, and each year made these poor villages yet more poor.

The conscripts took their fate unquestioning: resignedly, after the custom of Turkish peasantry. They were like sheep, neutrals without vice or virtue. Left alone, they did nothing, or perhaps sat dully onthe ground. Ordered to be kind, and without haste they were as good friends and as generous enemies as might be found. Ordered to outrage their fathers or disembowel their mothers, they did it as calmly as they did nothing, or did well. There was about them a hopeless, fever-wasted lack of initiative, which made them the most biddable, most enduring, and least spirited soldiers in the world.

Such men were natural victims of their showy-vicious Levantine officers, to be driven to death or thrown away by neglect without reckoning. Indeed, we found them just kept chopping-blocks of their commanders' viler passions. So cheap did they rate them, that in connection with them they used none of the ordinary precautions. Medical examination of some batches of Turkish prisoners found nearly half of them with unnaturally acquired venereal disease.

This wicked description of mental blanks has stuck me with ever since university, reminding me of the hometown yokels.
Martial law, the murder and exiling of dissidents, and the profit-motivated brain-drain hit Taiwan simultaneously below the belt, between the eyes, and in the pocket-book. Many English-teaching tourists in the early days, myself included, on interacting at length with the dreadful souls manufactured en masse by martial law etc. felt like Lawrence did about WWI vintage Syrians: "...the Syrian -- an ape-like people having much of the Japanese quickness, but shallow -- they speedily built up a formidable organization."

The demand that others make themselves useful comes from an angry whimper: it's not fair that I have to do all the work. Out of this pathetic selfish rage emerges a grab-bag of actions and reactions that make democratic society proactive and can-do. For the comment that most often follows "Go on! Make yourself useful!" is something along the lines of a disgusted "Jesus, you're pathetic!"

This is how many of us grow up. And surely it's better to be forced to grow into adulthood competent and confident in one's ability to learn and overcome (the older democratic nations), than to be babied as a child and grow into adulthood insecure and incapable of learning how to overcome (Taiwan: a newly democratized nation with many decadent authoritarian traditions extant).

Crucial to understanding the strength of the modern developed nations is the more pervasive and encompassing degree of paranoia felt by citizens of the older democracies. We're held accountable and required to be competent across an almost inhuman range of human endeavor, with the result that we have what seems to many Third Worlders to be an almost super-human range of competencies. Third Worlders are most of all impressed by First Worlders because they presume we're natural-born capable on many, many fronts.
For example, when cleaning up the veranda with a hose tonight, I sprayed water back and forth on the veranda tiles in reinforcing streams to press the dirt and murky water in an organized fashion farther and farther ahead to my destination, the drain. In other words I used a slashing motion to create reinforcing waves and prevent backwash, something which you would recognize immediately if you saw it and would consider child's play. Which it is at home, but here, it's almost like David Copperfield magic. But people here seeing this sort of thing, are usually seeing it for the first time. They're impressed. Just as they're impressed with mechanical skills (motorcycle and car repair), a broad knowledge of music and film, physical and athletic ability, and so on and so forth.
As mentioned in a previous essay, even the ability to cross a busy street with traffic flowing in both directions is something that we've been taught as children, but which many people here have still yet to learn. Back home you're mocked, nay hounded, if male and incompetent with various mechanical skills, specific directions to practically anywhere within fifty miles, ignorance of popular culture on back to your parents' generation, and so forth. But here, as in most developing countries, there's no demand for this sort of thing and most people aren't going to do what they're not forced by familial, peer, or workplace pressure to do. The result is that we get to Taiwan, down on our luck with only a couple of nickels to rub together, and fall off the boat only to discover that we're Gods.
And having witnessed the way which I used a hose, did Clara ask me how I did it? No. And when I navigate a busy street and catch somebody having trouble doing the same, does a person ask me how I did it? Nope. It's never happened. And it is this perfectly understandable social-mammal status-conscious fear of admitting ignorance and incompetence which reinforces the Third World and developing nation belief in our inherent superiority; i.e. our racial superiority.
Of course, this is loony. But, most of the world is and will fight to the death to remain loony. Two billion muslims pray to a meteorite: the Kaaba in Mecca. 50% of Christians believe in astrology, a pagan cosmology, while nearly 100% celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees, an icon of a pagan German tree-worshipping religion.
For better or worse, most of our species takes nonsense perfectly seriously, thank you very much. Magic, fetishes, talismans, ghosts, sorcerors, astrology, chiropractry, poultices, and hobgoblins: instant solutions to the more mysterious of life's questions. You can't get into the brainpans of Third Worlders until you take seriously the possibility that shooting stars and meteorites are demon slayers and until you can earnestly ask such questions as: who inhabits our shadows and why does he keep following us?
Isolated hunter and gathering peoples call themselves by such titles as The People. Peoples whose ancestors were powerful enough to generate city states and empires call other peoples barbarians. That's where the Third World remains. Us & Them. The chosen, the elect vs. the barbarians. The manichean view: right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, sun vs. moon, hot vs. cold, stuffed vs. hungry, Us vs. Them rotten lousy bastards.
For Third World folk not trained in the interpretation of events via impersonal systems, understanding the First World tribe is so much easier with the common-sense belief that they are a superior race. The only change in mental outlook required is for Third World folk to drop the notion that they're the superior race and turn it over to us.
Naturally this turning over is done only grudgingly and with a whimper. Previously, everyone else was inferior. The tables are turned now.
And so I posit that Third World rage is understandable to a degree if you keep in mind that we've displaced various Chosen Peoples across every continent and disabused them of the notion that they are de jure the best. And trying to persuade them now, in the democratic spirit of egalitarianism, that everyone is equal is not only counterintuitive to them, but offers them no consolation. For what they really want is to be number one, the best, the master race all over again. They won't be happy with anything else.

Wish us luck,

Biff Cappuccino

Friday, September 24, 2004

Thoughts regarding the Asia article: Closing the Globalization 'Gap'

The author writes: "Many groups or individuals reject the idea of joining the Core [the league of wealthy countries], fearing that the adoption of Western norms - which define the Core's norms - will mean the loss of their traditional way of life."

In my observation, people don't really fear the adoption of Western norms anymore than they fear the loss of their traditional way of life. People who grew up with traditions never tend to lose them and tend to be hidebound and fettered by them until they leap into the grave. It's the younger generation, untutored in the traditions of the older generation because it has other priorities such as attending a full 12 years of public school, who thus never acquire these traditions and thus never lose them. They never fear the loss because they're not in a position to lose anything.

Likewise, people don't adopt Western norms; people are persuaded that a new idea is useful and choose to adopt it, independent of its provenance. A case in point is the attitude in Taiwan previously towards old folks homes. They were decried as inhumane and something that only unfeeling famously family-dysfunctional Americans would use. They were conceived as a sort of jail for the elderly, an impersonal holding tank for those refusing to putter off their mortal coil.

But when a few old folks homes opened up for business, were written up in the magazines (no doubt with a certain financial incentive coming from the old folks industry), and people started to learn just how old folks homes operated, the economies that they provided, the quality and standards of their services, the recreational activities offered, the inhouse medical care, and so forth, people were persuaded that old folks homes were useful and humanitarian. They were adopted because they were agreed to be ethically sound, chemically pure, affordable, and in many other ways just downright attractive.

People did not adopt Western norms at any stage of the process. Whether the old folks homes were a paradigm imported from the west or from Japan, I'm sure it made no difference at all and I'm sure most people never thought to ask. For all I know, they were a homegrown reinventing of the wheel. And many of us are familiar with how much resistance there often is to innovation, whether it comes from abroad or from inside one's own borders.

The author writes: "Barnett notes that precisely because connectivity empowers women relative to men, it will be opposed on that basis by most men in traditional societies."

The average man will passively oppose the empowerment of women in precisely the way he passively opposes the empowerment of his fellow man. Only a small minority of fanatics, i.e. psychological defectives, will aggressively oppose the empowerment of women because of their sex.

Plus, women as a class are far better prepared than men for combats of wit. They have better articulation, savvy, and are much less constrained by public notions of morality or honor. By this I refer to the great talent for dramatic acting and other shameless monkeyshines that women the world over are known for and by which they succeed in overcoming the resistance of (i.e. effectively manipulate) most men (who privately rationalize feline machinations as evidence of women's defective intelligence and immaturity! Men, myself included of course, can be such dolts!)

Its well-known by most of my colleagues that North American women were kept down by a glass ceiling imposed due to sexual discrimination. But this factoid though correct, politically speaking, is wrong in every other sense of the word. There were women doctors as early as the 1920s. There was nothing keeping women out of the other professions either. They simply lacked motivation. Why ? For the same reason that prostitutes lack motivation for the drudgery of office work, when they can work in a 9-to-5 (i.e. 9 pm to 5 am) brothel, have the opportunity to marry into the highest echelon of money-bags in town (prostitutes are constantly fending off marriage proposals), and get paid four to five times the salary of an office girl who does four to five times the work and never gets any satisfaction.
Throughout the 20th century most women ignored the suffragettes and radical feminists. Who wanted a career?, when marriage and lazing around in front of the boob-tube were available. And what about the 'oppression' of housecleaning? You must be referring to automated dishwashers and electric washing machines, can-openers, knife sharpeners, blenders, ad infinitum plus the laborious preparation of TV dinners, canned and frozen foods, instant coffee, and so on and so forth. Our home became a sort of Smithsonian Institution of labor-saving devices. And I, the eldest male, did at least half of the housework, with my father and I doing the entirety of the yardwork. Oh my poor mom! I don't blame her at all though. If I had a choice between working or being a househusband, I would not hesitate to be a househusband. Women only entered the US workforce beginning in the 1970's when inflation ate into wages and one breadwinner was insufficient to support families.

Biff Cappuccino
Letter to AsiaTimes online: Regarding Jim Loeb's "Human Dignity, Crazy Mike and Indian Country." An interesting article, but surely "the reason Washington is having such a difficult time persuading of its good faith in his good works and its ' war on terror'" is simply because such persuasion cannot be achieved through the media. In the US, for example, with the lonely exception of, the media is not in the business of informing the public; it's in the business of being a business. It's profit motive is demonstrated by the mantra: "if it bleeds, it leads." The media prints scandal, moral combats, tragedy, gossip, and soap operas right across the board. It doesn't educate, it hypes; it doesn't provide facts, it presents rumors. That's its job, that's what the shareholders want it to do. But relying on the media for one's opinions may lead to the belief that McDonald's is a greater threat to global serenity than terrorism.

And why take George W. Bush on his word? He's a politician and an honest person never gets elected because the public won't stand for it. Two candidates give a speech: the first is honest; the second speaks about hope and striving gallantly for a better tomorrow. The second, the charlatan, wins the vote every time in every country. Politicians have to lie to get into office, to stay in office, and to get anything commendable done while they're in office. Both President Wilson and President Roosevelt had to deceive the US public to get it on board and enter the European world wars. Thus it is hardly a surprise that the incumbent president lied to the public to get it on board the war in Iraq.

I'm no fan of Robert Kaplan's books, but presumably what he's discussing here is the sad necessity of fooling the public into making decisions that are in its best interest. I'm no more fond of Kaplan's approach than Jim Loeb, but I don't have an answer for what to do with a public (including myself) that is 99% functionally ignorant of the whys and wherefores of the platforms advocated by both political parties.

Biff Cappuccino
Review of the first half of Islam: the Arab National Movement by Anwar Shaikh
"Anwar Shaikh is no ordinary mortal." - from About the Author at

"I have not resorted to swearing or falsification simply to uphold the dignity of truth. ... I must add that by making me a martyr, they will sound the death-knell of Islam." & "This is an excellent question and proves your competence as a journalist." - from an interview with Anwar Shaikh conducted by Dr. Ranjit Kanwar, Chandigarh Times, India.
Despite Anwar Sheikh's brazen self-promotion, blithe non-sequiturs, and shameless stroking of his interviewer, he is still very much worth reading. Considering his handicaps, as demonstrated above, it is sort of a miracle that he wrote a logically cohesive and persuasive book at all. Kudo's to the Shaikh are in order.
There's something touching about the naivete of Third Worlders. Of course that reeks of condescension and yet the fact remains that it can be intensely amusing to observe simple traditional folk in their natural environments, playing their social roles as faithfully as ants in farms, bees in hives; conducting themselves in a narrow, often wooden, manner that less traditional communities of fellow human beings cannot help but find hide-bound, comically counter-productive, and glaringly obvious. Naturally the same occurs back home as people move from the farm to the city, and America's Founding Fathers surely observed the bulk of their disenfranchized Americans with disdain; some of their wives put their feelings on paper and those feelings weren't always generous.
It's also perhaps worth mentioning as a second introduction that, back in 1991, a friend and I earnestly considered establishing a cult in Japan. An ex-girlfriend had sent back a couple of magazines from Tokyo containing a range of ads for crude mystics and improbable religions. We realized this contained the answer to our prayers, so to speak: to manufacture our own eschatology, liturgy, and ritual, and lets not forget the most important aspect, the Special Dispensations. Whereafter we'd hawk the whole kit and kaboodle to eager believers.
In brief, we could bang Japanese chicks and get paid for it. We began to consider a masthead, charter, and business model. My fellow prophet and co-founder advised that I immerse myself in the mysteries and revelations of several respectable pioneers in the trade: Gurdjieff*, Rajneesh, Ron L. Hubbard, et al. In the end however, to the eternal regret of my accountant, I concluded I couldn't take advantage of the benighted in good conscience.
Sheikh's book is particularly interesting as it conducts some of the analysis we planned for back in 1991. He conducts an autopsy of two Prophets, their devices, business models, and rates their successes and failures, all the while providing anecdotes and commentary. All of this constitutes as sort of Idiots Guide for reinventing onself as a member of the beatific tribe: shimmering seraphs with naughty feet of clay who elbow their way savagely into the good people's finances and sex action.

Essentially, Shaikh's thesis is the obvious one -- the one that most of my (admittedly few) readers presume and take for granted -- that Mohammed, like every other religious leader, was an entrepreneur who took advantage of the psychological defectives in his neighborhood to make a few coppers and go downtown.

Shaikh describes the modus operandi whereby old-time Prophets get themselves installed in the confidences of the confiding. The Prophets receive a calling from God. They reply coyly, shyly, diffidently, that they are unqualified. Moses, for example, mumbles that he has a stutter and lacks eloquence. Mohammed, on the other hand, shrieks that he's illiterate and not qualified to read God's written directions. Whereupon God orders an angel to wring his neck and get the truth out of him. Shaikh points out the defect in the Koran story: the all-knowing Allah who yet fails to know that the Prophet is illiterate. Oops!

Another giveaway that mortals lie in the wings operating the props and that the angels rely heavily on the assistance of piano wire is that Moses debates with God and wins. Outstanding! A small step for God, a giant leap for Mankind. For example, in Exodus 32: 12-14 and in Numbers 14:11 - 20 God blows his stack and threatens to kill every living person; no surprise there, he's always the drama queen in the Old Testament. Moses, to his credit, saves the day. In other words, Moses, the self-appointed Prophet, appoints himself the lion tamer and trainer of the Bible. Good thinking.

Then Shaikh shocks us with the heresy that both Judaism and Islam were founded by Prophets who took advantage of the human weakness for nationalism. In other words, both were super patriots promising to help everybody who got on team via good works. Both attacked polytheism because monotheism enabled them to unify their rubes and to keep them both unified and paranoid. Plus, by designating them the chosen people, he got fanaticism and cock-sureness in the bargain. These dudes were way cool...

Having done so, Moses lead his tribe out of Egypt and Mohammed leads his crew out of Mecca to Medina and back again. Key here is the selflessness ploy. Both Prophets say they're powerless, just mediums for God. Thus, they can claim they just want to help while deflecting dissatisfaction with their decisions on to God's shoulders.
Some of the commentary above is silly, I'm sure, but I'm tired. What a difference fatigues makes... Below is still unrevised first-draft material from my notes.
Interestingly, Allah is Arabic for El, the old God who ruled over Yahwe the God of Israel. Allah is the God of the universe, not just Israel and is therefore more powerful.

Also, Mohammed changes the Jewish covenant which was God with Isaac, one of the two Sons of Abraham. Isaac, conveniently, is the patriarch of Israel. Mohammed changes the covenant to God with Abraham and the other son, Ishmael, the patriarch of the rest of mankind. Convenient that.

Allah originally was the God of the Kaaba (a meteorite that the region's yokelry believed was sent out of the sky to slay a demon) and which took the form of a statue. The Kaaba originally hosted a pantheon of gods like a Hindu temple. It's a credit to the commendable audacity of Mohammed and the stupidity of his followers, that he brazenly writes up the Koran to suit his various profane needs (banging his brother's wife, conducting assassination campaigns and ethnic cleansing, pillaging caravans during holy months, etc.) by issuing dispensations from Allah.

As if that wasn't enough to test one's credulity, check this out: From Confederate 55: "God and his angels pray peace to the Prophet. O believers, you must also bless him, and pray him peace." Shaikh writes "Here is something extraordinary! Instead of men worshiping God, it is God, along with his angels, who worship man, the true purpose of the device of revelation."

In other words, revelation, the divine process whereby any God reveals himself to his prophet is the sophistical act whereby the prophet convinces his moron followers of his personal sanctity.

Discuss the eminent suitability of Sheikh for vivisecting religion as he has the appropriate Thirld World mind of the founders of these religions and is thus in an excellent position to understand their crude but effective thinking and the simple-minded monkeyshines they engage in.
Biff Cappuccino

*Gurdjieff was a champ and his evasions, circumlocutions, and daring repackaging of the obvious has to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated:
Question: Sir, I asked you last Thursday, if there was a way to develop attention; you said that attention was measured in the degree that one remembers oneself. You told me to especially look into myself. I especially asked you that because I wasn't able to put my attention on the reading of Beelzebub. During this week I understood that attention was what I was. As many "I's" as there were, so many different attentions. I wanted to ask you if there was, for developing attention, only the method of "I am" or if there are other special methods?
Gurdjieff: One thing I can tell you. Methods do not exist. I do not know any. But I can explain now everything simply. For example, in Beelzebub, I know, there is everything one must know. It is a very interesting book. Everything is there. All that exists, all that has existed, all that can exist. The beginning, the end, all the secrets of the creation of the world; all is there. But one must understand, and to understand depends on one's individuality. The more man has been instructed in a certain way, the more he can see. Subjectively, everyone is able to understand according to the level he occupies, for it is an objective book, and everyone should understand something in it. One person understands one part, another a thousand times more. Now, find a way to put your attention on understanding all of Beelzebub. This will be your task, and it is a good way to fix a real attention. If you can put real attention on Beelzebub, you can have a real attention in life. You didn't know this secret. In Beelzebub there is everything, I have said it, even how to make an omelet. Among other things, it is explained; and at the same time there isn't a word in Beelzebub about cooking. So, you put your attention on Beelzebub, another attention than that to which you are accustomed, and you will be able to have the same attention in life.
Letter to Asia Times online: In John Steppling's letter of September 23 he writes: "Those countries in [Eric Koo Peng Kuan's] region who (sic) have developed rapidly did it through state involvement - including Singapore. The free market is a bit of a myth, I am afraid." Taiwan's economy developed rapidly over the past 50 years of US hegemony as this kept Mao and the Great Leap Forward at bay across the Taiwan Strait. But the making of money by the overwhelming majority of the people of Taiwan was not the result of any states' involvement; indeed, it was despite state involvement (as was also the pattern during the Ching Dynasty and under Japanese rule; and which is also the pattern with the Chinese diaspora despite being slaughtered in country after country, century after century). The Kuomintang (the political party of Chiang Kai-shek) established a whole host of state monopolies in Taiwan after it arrived in the late 1940's, thus restricting the operation of the free market. Almost every government agency was corrupt to the hilt and it required a bribe to get anything done in this country until ten years ago. For example, customs and immigration up at Keelung (just north of Taipei) used to print brand-new customs declaration forms every month and required all shipping agencies to use the new forms. The customs people, i.e. the state, had a kickback scheme going with a local publisher. At one point, all of Northern Taiwan's shipping agents refused to process any shipping through Keelung Harbor. This one-day embargo was national news but neither the city nor national government did anything to change the kickback scheme. Another way in which the national government assisted local business was by skimming 5% off all foreign currency coming into or exiting the country and this only ended when Lee Teng-hui became president of the country in 1988. As it stands, Taiwan's Kuomintang party remains the richest political party in the world. Today the Taipei Times is reporting that the KMT is trying to get it's grubby hands back onto another US$1 billion worth of what should be public assets (state operated television stations, etc.). The state used to be so corrupt here that during Taiwan's economic boom of the early to mid-1990's, something like 50% of the private sector was completely under the table. In short, the state did nothing to help the private sector. For that matter, states seldom ever do. States are in the business of helping themselves, just like everyone else is. But while business folk are always hunting for a fresh opportunity to make a deal and a profit, bureaucrats occupy themselves primarily with snoozing or kickbacks. And as to whether or not "the free market is a bit of a myth" I have experience exporting umbrellas and commemorative pins. Basically, all you need to set up a business in Taiwan is a three-day loan to fool the government into thinking you have financial assets. Following this, all you need is some real cash in your pocket, a taxi to take you to several vendors, a bank to assist you with writing up letters of credit, a shipping agent, and a bank account in which to stuff your profits. Does this sound difficult? Business was so easy that even a moron could make money in the 1990s; in fact, many morons still do. One in every 125 Americans is now a millionaire. I have several friends who are self-made millionaires. None of them, I regret to say, shows any particular talent for the business of making money. They just work hard. Personally, I can't be bothered anymore. But I don't cry for the state to save me from myself.

Biff Cappuccino

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Quick Critique of The Resort to Force By Noam Chomsky

More significant, President George W Bush and colleagues declared the right to resort to force even if a country does not have WMD or even programs to develop them. It is sufficient that it have the "intent and ability" to do so.

Just about every country has the ability, and intent is in the eye of the beholder. The official doctrine, then, is that anyone is subject to overwhelming attack.

Every country? How many sub-Saharan countries have this ability? Mauritania, Senegal, Zambia? How about the Americas? Guatemala, Belize, Surinam? How about Oceania? Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, Fiji? In other words, probably half the nations of the world don't have the ability.

Intent is in the eye of the beholder? Nope, it's in the eyes of the beholders, i.e. elected officials, representatives of the people who are influenced by everything from political action committees to the press to voter mail.

George W. Bush and his cabinet did not attack Iraq, anymore than George found Jesus. Jesus was already there, and so was the will to hammer Iraq, long before George arrived in the Great White Jail, as Harry Truman called it. The market of ideas, 9-11, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the East African bombings, the Cole bombing, the failed 1995 Al Queda plot to explode fifteen 747's on the same day, US political culture, religion, his party, the right-wing intelligentsia, etc., etc., etc. resulted in a consensus that facilitated the decision to attack Iraq on G.W. Bush's watch. The US is not a person and is only nominally represented by a person. It is a democratic republic of 300 million people; not a sock-puppet nor the Great Satan.

Given the aggressive lunacy of the ruling regime in 1990's Iraq and its US enforced military weakness, someone was going to go in sooner or later. If not W, then another president. If not the US, then Iran, or someone else even. It was going to happen. There was a power vacuum in the region created by the US and fortunately it was filled by a democracy. And whether America or Germany went in, it's all the same to me. With democracy you have greater accountability and efficiency.

Chomsky has little patience for explaining events via impersonal systems when conspiracy theories, i.e. moral combats, have more appeal to his mostly suburban listeners whose primary grounding in reality comes second-hand at best, via the media primarily. Of course G.W. Bush explains reality via moral combats too, but then I would argue that the conspiracy theories of the Bible belt (angels, cherubim, seraphs vs. devils, demons, poltergeists, etc.) are simply the right-wing analogue to left-wing conspiracy theorists like Chomsky and Zinn.

Essentially this form of thinking, whether on the left or right, is primeval and a holdover from before the industrial revolution. Marx in the Communist Manifesto is explicit about the right type of moral values: The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

"...pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors'" - That's a great line. And who are those natural superiors? Marx, then Lenin, and now Chomsky. Hurrah! Hurrah!

The Luddites and Pennsylvania Dutch, with their prohibition of electricity and most technologies, would applaud. Hitler's Volkisch movement exhorted the same. Just different brands of the same moron millenarian.

This sort of fond reminiscing and daydreaming should have been abandoned generations ago by serious people across the board, and in the economic sphere (at least in the US) it has. But national cultures are inherently conservative (because most people lack curiosity, imagination and drive) and are thus almost always behind the times. A Chomsky of the Middle Ages would have worn a gown and tights, joined an arm of the Inquisition, and gone for a-burning witches and a-blaming minorities for poisoning wells, while shaking down their estates for loose change. The present minority scapegoat are the wealthy, i.e. the competent. In an earlier age, his scapegoat would have been the gypsies, i.e. the incompetent. Either way, in my immodest opinion, he's only interested in the popularity and fame his Nobel Prize failed to garner for him back in the 1960's and he'll advocate practically anything to stay in the limelight. Like Michael Moore he's a publicity hound. This doesn't detract from his arguments, but it does help explain why he advocates solutions that I find hard to believe he himself takes seriously. This is the guy who on the record first defended Pol Pot, then blamed the US for Pol Pot.

With all the vacillations of policy since the current incumbents first took office in 1981, one guiding principle remains stable: the Iraqi people must not rule Iraq.

But, post-2004, how can the Bush government prevent Iraq from becoming a democracy other than by letting the religious fanatics win? The United States is not Europe, where in several countries, such as France, bribes issued in foreign countries are tax-deductable. Since Watergate and the Church Committee Hearings, the United States polity has become much, much cleaner. I'm unaware of any American public representative found on the payroll of Saddam Hussein, unlike England, for example. While membership in a mafia organization may help one's electoral chances in parts of Taiwan, it hasn't anywhere in the United States since the 1970's. The reason the United States is such an economic and military power is primarily because it has much more effective economic system which renders it capable of having a much cleaner and more transparent democratic system. Socialism doesn't work: the more socialist the polity, the more dirty the politics you get. Starting with the transparency of US, one must take steps down on the trajectory of political hygiene to find England and Canada, farther down to find France and start digging if one wants to reach China.

I find it very hard to believe that the American public would tolerate a puppet regime in Iraq in this day and age. If you read the Guardian, I can imagine you might think otherwise. But if you're really curious, then check out MSNBC, Newsweek, the Washington Post and, most important of all

Here Chomsky paraphrases US foreign policy: "We must reject the most elementary of moral truisms, the principle of universality - a stand usually concealed in professions of virtuous intent and tortured legalisms."

What on earth are moral truisms? Moralities vary from society to society, aged age, economic system to economic system. There's no such thing as a moral truism and never will be. Was human-sacrifice a moral truism when most or all of our ancestors practiced it? Is capital punishment or its inverse a moral truism today? How about sharia, Muslim Law?

Here Chomsky quotes a fellow traveler: "Now it is Americans who live in infamy, he wrote, as their government adopts the policies of imperial Japan."

This is a rather unfortunate choice of descriptions for those of us living in Asia and having a knowledge of its history. Imperial Japan gave law and order, economic infrastracture, social welfare, and rising living standards to the people of Taiwan, Manchuria, South Korea, and so forth. It's military wing was often barbarous, as was Englands, as were the indigenous regimes they overcame; but both Japan's and Englands colonial administrations did often excellent work, work which far outdid that of the original indigenous regimes. If imperial Japan had succeeded in China, China's standard of living would have taken an astronomical leap upward beginning in the 1940s, as opposed to taking an astronomical leap downward as it did with its indigenous regime (i.e. Mickey Mao) in the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, the Japanese imperial regime would have slowly reinvented itself with Chinese characteristics. As history has shown again and again, China incorporates her conquerors and turns them into facsimiles of herself. Whether the Chinese spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujienese or Japanese, they would have remained Chinese, just as the Taiwanese and Okinawans continued to resist Japanese influence. Just as American culture resisted England's, Hollands, and France's.

"As the anniversary of the invasion approached, New York's Grand Central Station was patrolled by police with submachine-guns, a reaction to the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed 200 people in Europe's worst terrorist crime."

Surely the reason for the patrolling police had to do with September 11 and not March 11. And surely, September 11 and the bombing of embassies in Africa made the patrolling police an inevitability regardless of whether there was a bombing in Madrid or not. And does Noam Chomsky really believe that establishing a second democratic state in the heartland of Islam will encourage terrorism? Perhaps what he really believes is that establishing a second democratic state will rob him of talking points and weaken his application for beatification.

"Suicide attacks for the year 2003 reached the highest level in modern times; Iraq suffered its first since the 13th century."

First of all, I doubt this claim very, very much. Secondly, the United States is probably establishing the first democracy that Iraq has enjoyed in its history. Suicide attacks are no more acceptable as a method of political participation in a democracy in Iraq than they are in the United States. If suicide attacks broke out in the US to protest gay marriages, abortion-on-demand, or whatever, would this be acceptable to Noam Chomsky under the (dis)guise of multiculturalism?

"Every use of force is another small victory for bin Laden," who "is winning", whether he lives or dies. Burke's assessment is widely shared by many analysts, including former heads of Israeli military intelligence and the General Security Services."

In 1940, a similar widely held assessment would have been found amongst Allied military intelligence, etc. Likewise for Northern generals and military intelligence during the American Civil War as late as 1864 when Congress was discussing the drawing up of terms for an armistice with the South. This sort of thing means nothing because it is a war being fought and not a battle.

Violence can succeed, as Americans know well from the conquest of the national territory. But at terrible cost. It can also provoke violence in response, and often does.

Ahem, but Noam surely knows the statistics per American knowledge of national history. Most Americans are quite unaware of the violence that accompanied the conquest of national territory (i.e. the slaughter of Indians, Mexicans, British, Dutch, Spanish). Just as most Chinese cannot find China on a map of the world, most Americans don't know their history or geography either. Both are big countries, not threatened by anybody at the moment, and thus national history is simply not important to most people. Thus, there's no sense of the terrible cost nor any knowledge that violence may be provoked in response, because there's no legend of Indians defeating Europeans with the minor exception of General Custer, and which is most often viewed as comedy rather than a sensational defeat, as it was at the time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ivanov cited the Bush doctrine of "preemptive strike" - the "revolutionary" new doctrine of the National Security Strategy - but also "added a key detail, saying that military force can be used if there is an attempt to limit Russia's access to regions that are essential to its survival"

But all this does is put into words what is already taken for granted. Of course if you limit Russia's access to regions that are essential to its survival you are going to provoke some kind of military response (and not necessarily war, but simply a show of force or saber rattling or what have you). That goes for any country surely. The statement of the obvious in bold and astounding terms. A feather from Marx's cap?

A resolution to prevent militarization of space passed 174-0, with four abstentions: the US, Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Of course the US and Israel were opposed. After all, if a resolution was passed making democracy a right for the citizens of all countries, would this make it a reality? If you tried to deter a mugger by exclaiming that he was infracting your civil rights, would he cease and desist?
The problem is that eventually one or more non-democractic nations would pay lip service to the resolution while doing whatever they pleased on the side. Why on earth would it be in US interest to hobble itself in the development of space weaponry when it is no secret that other regimes will sooner or later move into this field and thus be in a position to threaten US interests. And what does a creepy term like US interests imply? You and I, muggins, because we live in democratic Taiwan courtesy of Taiwan being a US interest. How does it feel living in a puppet state? But where are the puppets? In Chomsky's conspiracy closet, under the skeletons.

Lunatics like Chomsky say there's one type of justice for the rich and one type of justice for the poor. And when you point out the 10 years of litigation that cost Microsoft and Bill Gates millions and millions in legal fees and resource down-time, they tell you that the case was politically motivated. And when you yourself, Joe Blow, become the object of a state lawsuit, the explanation is that you're being oppressed by an unfair legal system owned and operated by the elite. Perhaps you see the pattern: these clowns have a conspiracy theory to explain every event in the known universe. It's all so mysterious, so hush-hush: you're being oppressed, you just don't know it, yet...

If AsiaTimes is going to print Chomsky, why not go whole hog and print other wingnut political celebrities from America such as perennial US presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche who is endorsed by Ramsey Clarke and appears from time to time on CNN. I'm sure he'd be happy to provide exerpts from his master trilogy, Children of Satan: The Sexual Congress for Cultural Fascism. Or, if this is too hot for the family-format of, perhaps they could use some of the sophisticated forensic reportage of the legendary Sherman Skolnick, the Chicago justice-busting hero who's latest must-read report is entitled: GREENSPAN REPORTEDLY BRIBES AND AIDS BUSH IN GOLD SWINDLES, Part One

Biff Cappuccino
Review of The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood, 1999. Wood's writing has improved markedly since this collection in which he takes his subject too seriously, overburdens everything with jargon, and fails to clearly expound ideas in a sort of hysterical effort to be concise, be a rolling stone, and be chemically pure.

Wood grew up in an English evangelical family and took his religion seriously until becoming an atheist early in his teens. This and Britain's curious fetish with moral this and moral that leads an earnest moron at the Boston Globe to ask him in a recent interview, In what sense can such novels as Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" be said to be morally lacking? The article leads with: DESCRIBED BY ONE fellow litterateur as a critic of "extreme ethical rigor," The New Republic's James Wood, a 39-year-old Briton currently teaching at Harvard, has made a name for himself…

A much better interview is here.

If I ever get published as a critic, I'm going to make a point of skewering the parrots and sycophants who elbow their way onto book covers with fabulous encomiums to distinguished literary bunglers.

John Danville of the Irish Times makes James Wood out to be, "a close reader of genius... illuminating and exciting and compelling... one never doubts the soundness of his judgments..." I might agree if only I could understand Wood’s tangled verbiage and figure out what he’s trying to say. This literary critic proves incapable of writing an intelligible paragraph over the course of more than 300 pages.

No I didn't read them all. Call it an educated guess.

Susan Sontag informs us, "He is one of literature's true lovers, and his deeply felt, contentious essays are thrilling in their reach and moral seriousness." Are they contentious? How can anyone tell? And what is moral seriousness?

The encomiums go dizzily on and on. He's "magnificent... a storyteller of the act of reading, recreating the experience on the page for us." Note the dubiousness of that sentence. Is it likely that a genuinely good critic really reads and interprets a story in the same manner as yer average novel-devouring toilet-reader?

Having plowed through the first several chapters of this monster several years ago and suffered terribly in the process, I opted to look at a later chapter, picking one at random, so as to be clear of my former prejudices. I ended up with his chapter Iris Murdoch's Philosophy of Fiction.

Poring through it reminds me of reading an article of shoddily written Mandarin at the learning stage when your reading and critical skills are still not quite up to par. Read quickly, the stuff sounds sort of okay, but on closer examination it gets murkier and murkier, especially as you slow right down and start asking nosy questions. Take the very first two sentences: "English fiction since the war has been a house of good intentions. Inside are thick theories and slender fulfillments." A house of good intentions? Thick, thin? Uggh...

The sixth sentence reads: "Thus Angus Wilson possessed a serious liberal politics, and an ethical respect for the individual, which illuminates his criticism of the novel; that he never really created a single character of free and serious depth."

What the...?

I took to writing several years ago presuming that intelligibility is one of basic aims of good writing. But it ain't necessarily so. As an author, there's a constant temptation to distinguish oneself from the sweating proletariat via short cuts, to soar high above wrapped in the sacred mantle of the artiste.

I gave into this temptation meself, rationalizing the whole inglorious episode, just after I started out. Like James Wood, I cobbled together the same sort of mystic, multi-layered, fuzzy-wuzzy, doggerel poetry stuff. I'd write a sentence and then rewrite it and edit it, plume it up, chop it down, finesse and massage it and otherwise constantly build it up and break it down, refurbishing all the time. Rereading a sentence too many times, the initial sense and emotions it pricked fade to dull or non-existent. So you 'improve' it by replacing the old with a new, fresher metaphor or a more pungent, less clichéd usage.

But do this several times over and you radically depart from the intended meaning of the sentence. By cannibalizing the original, cutting it up and grafting on new embellishments, you end up with Franken-sentence after Franken-sentence without realizing that you're several layers removed from the meaning of the original sentence. A couple of weeks later, even you the author don't know what you originally meant and are now at a complete loss as to what your gang of Franken-sentences mean as well. Of course, if you can’t read it, nobody else can. This ought to be a recipe for failure. It was for me. But James Wood has built a reputation for "extreme ethical rigor" on the back of these Franken-sentences.

In reworking sentences I had aimed to squeeze as much content as possible into each one and thus reduce each to a sort of verbal essence and thus up their value. But I ended up cramming too much into too little space, with the result that I deleted parts of logic trains (rendering sentences confusing to nonsensical) and references (rendering sentences wooly to incomprehensible) all in the name of condensing meaning and achieving some sort of novel literary efficiency. James Wood was at the same game of trying too hard to make each sentence count. The way this thinking goes, if a sentence does not contain an original thought, then it must contain some sort of gimmick. If bereft of a Penetrating Opinion!, then you must work up a play on words, infiltrate some wild alternative vernacular, adorn the scheme with some fabulous neologism.

Cliché and pedestrian English had to be rooted out. But in so doing, I invented a pointless new language, for no one could understand it; not even me. Silly stuff.

In this collection, Wood does a job of hashing the English language that's far more professional and expert than my own amateurish fumbling. He's raised it to a high amperage indeed and thus it is downright persuasive to the undiscriminating, unseeing reader and yet, at the end of the day, no less, and perhaps even more, impenetrable than mine. Someone must have congratulated him on this stuff. For instead of realizing that his writing was going down a blind alley, he kept at it prodigiously, muscularly (to use an adjective from the dreadful jacket) even, gaily carrying it further and further into oblivion. For the job he diligently memorized all sorts of worthless jargon and other tools of the trade, while no doubt noticing that obscure diction also serves a useful functions as a fear-inspiring weapon that implies imprimatur to those lacking confidence in their literacy. Personally, if I met him, I wouldn't hesitate to incommode him and shut down his delivery with an endless succession of "Excuse me. Ahem, eh, excuse me? Eh, what does that word mean please?"

By resorting to alien five-dollar words, the author heads out of the realm of the familiar, and the reader has less and less of a purchase on what the impatient author is trying to get across. An obsession with the use of impressive Cadillac sized words is a pathology common to young writers and whose reductio ad absurdum would be sneaking Classical Greek into a romance novel for housewives. Now, imagine the old dolls nervously applauding and even vying for the sophisto's attention, and you have the essence of the timid literary claque that brays in high praise for Mr. Wood.

While we're on the subject, clichés are, in fact, not to be avoided like the plague. They have a great utility in sarcasm. You can appeal intelligibly to two or more groups of people at the same time; those who recognize sarcasm, those who do not. Done deftly, i.e. stating a fact with two plausible interpretations in the context, the effects can be very rewarding as the first rank of authors from Shakespeare onward has noted.

An example of what I mean by a defective description is in a sentence where he says "And Iris Murdoch has written repeatedly that the very definition of the great novel is the free and realized life it gives to its characters, while making her own fictional characters as unfree as pampered convicts."
The bit about pampered convicts works reasonably well, whereas free and realized life is incomprehensible.

More lunacy on the following pages: "Murdoch's inspiring, embarrassed hospitality to sublimity, her philosophical seriousness, and her free travel through literatures... the fabric of her worldview ever since... Murdoch has an appealing, though formidable, metaphysics - appealing because vulnerable - which might be called daylight mysticism. It is a pudding of Plato, Kant and Weil. Looking around her, she feels summoned to believe that..."

Pudding? Fabric of her worldview? Worldviews have fabrics? She feels summoned to believe? Who's doing the summoning?

And my favorite: "Murdoch's hungry metaphysics can perhaps survive on the alms of assertion, but her aesthetics cannot."

That sort of nonsensical metaphor and inadvertent comedy is beloved of Christopher Hitchens as well. Maybe it's an English disease, which means it's destined to invade North American shores soon. The tossing out of random sesquipedalian diction (i.e. $5 words) may be good for impressing impressionable students and may offer paramours an excuse to pretend to be impressed, but it seldom hits home with paying customers. Twain said something to the effect of, "the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between a bolt of lightning and a lightning bug." Wood's work is definitely buggy.

Reading James Wood helps make it more clear to me why most writers find writing to be so painful. Writing requires thinking and these people simply can't think.

On page 179 I finally find the first half of a paragraph to be intelligible, "Instead, Murdoch's aesthetics have a strange, quasi-philosophical circularity. At the beginning of 'The Sublime and the Good,' she takes issue with Tolstoy's idea that we should first fix our aesthetics and then, in the light of that theory, choose the artworks which fit it." But it proves to be a false hope and quickly devolves into "Murdoch promises to make her aesthetics provisional - but provisional on an aesthetic certainty secured without the help of aesthetics."
However, when he expresses himself clearly, i.e. goes off-color and doffs the plumage, it's only to find him stating something palpably wrong. Murdoch apparently suggested that the appreciation of Shakespeare should begin with enjoying Shakespeare and then explaining why one enjoys him; as opposed to setting up a body of aesthetics standards and finding artists who adhere to them and then lauding them for it.

The thing runs like this: "She goes on; 'So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetics grow to be the philosophical justification of his judgments.' But this is illogical. If one simply knows 'independently' that Shakespeare is great (though Murdoch never tells us whence comes this independence: nor can she, of course), that one cannot test one's aesthetic by recourse to Shakespeare."

If Murdoch does not tell us whence, wherefore, or where from comes this independence, I perchance and perforce would be happy to: we all grow up with a body of standards, including standards for aesthetics. Our sense of humor derives from our parents, our schooling, and our friends. The same goes for clothing, wit, story telling, and so forth. Already having these aesthetic standards enables us to make judgments. So this is how Murdoch knows independently that Shakespeare is great. And, actually, she's not independent: she's hardwired into her own national culture and is thereby confident in making her assessments because she presumes that other people, sharing the same culture, will agree with her.

So wazzup with Murdoch's use of clear and intelligible English? Perhaps his murky English is a sort of camouflage for an absence of ideas on his part. But, to be honest, I don't even think he's dumb, just deluded. I suspect that he's not a mediocrity by nature, but by unfortunate design.
Most of this book is hapless rhetorical flourishes which appeal to the bogus sensibilities of James Wood and his readers apparently, neither of whom stresses precision or logic. Perhaps it's another version of the ivory tower syndrome: a lack of experience with the real world usually results in users for whom words don't have to mean anything. Indeed words can mean anything since, without experience, one can't understand, describe, analyze, or understand the world and its events, let alone its writers and writing. In lieu of a demand for precision, we get bad poetry and indecipherable blank verse.

When I wrote a less erudite version of this high-sounding fluff myself, I couldn't decipher my own writing two weeks after putting it down on paper. It was as unintelligible to me as Wood's essay collection must be to any honest reader. The reason for engaging in this awful stuff was that I did not have sufficient references at my disposal to write decent, entertaining, provocative material. I could think, but only in the conversational framework. With conversation, you don't have to structure material to very rigid confines as you to have to do with an essay. An essay must start from one point, proceed down a rather narrow corridor to its end. Until you've written essays, this may not be apparent. With conversation, you can go anywhere. You can jump back and forth, in and out, etc. So, when you first start writing essays, it's difficult on the one hand to adhere to discipline that you never it here to before. Secondly, you can't bring up and refer to opinions that you formerly developed, because you have yet to develop them. And yet you have a deathly fear of writing cliché and repeating the already written. The Broken Estate is James Wood's first book. As such, I suppose I should commend him on fooling so many of his peers into believing that he actually wrote something of substance. The book is bogus, and a sort of testament to the credulity and pack mentality of most writers and critics.

As such, this book serves as an excellent antidote to the urban legend that writers and poets are ladies and gentlemen of ideas; elevated spirits and seers with a grander vision of society. It's hard lines but unluckily true that most writers and poets are posers, regurgitators, and borrowers, when not outright purloiners. The fact that this book could win such acclaim and that this king of bosh can still get his bosh published in the London Review of Bosh is a testament to the hollowness of a field pioneered by a set of ingenious French quacks such as Sartre, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault. It's a further refutation of the Chomsky and Marx conspiracy theories, by the way, as it demonstrates that the cream of the intelligentsia is no more intelligent than so many talking horses.

I should include myself in this indictment. After all, I've not tried to get published again this year is because my own shortcomings are evident. I keep writing essays regularly in part because I need to enrich my background knowledge, facility with common points of reference (useful cliches, turns of phrase, arch useage, etc.) and so forth upward until I achieve a sort of critical mass after which I will feel confident about going to magazines with articles. As things stand, I'm too much the corn-fed ignoramous.

What got me away from the bosh style of books was the fact my books were rejected time and time again. Deservedly so. Is James Wood published because his professional background appeals to publishers? Simon Winchester got himself published immediately by virtue of being a prominent reporter, as he admits in this quite entertaining interview (he's a better raconteur than writer by far), and then carried on solidly for the next 25 years writing books that never sold (his first book sold 13 copies and he only started making money from books when he reached his fifties). James Wood is also limited to a select readership. He and his readers expect and enjoy bosh. He has trouble expressing ideas; they don't understand the point of ideas. There is thus no demand placed upon him to provide ideas. The circle is complete.

Again, he's not satisfied with the humdrum appearance of prose and wants something richer: i.e. poetry. Fair enough, but the poetry should be firmly grounded in reality and be precise and accurate. He needs to study the form of Wilde, Twain, Nietzsche, and Mencken to see poetry and other wind music in competent hands. He needs to fully abandon the clumsy, non-sequitor filled, obscurantist rhetoric of the iron rice bowl professor who, once installed in the ivory tower, never again has to sing for his supper, his ideational faculties corroded by immersion in sophomores obsessed with polluting themselves and getting their fingers wet.

Although the essay was only 10 pages long, your humble critic couldn't wade all the way through it. After the assault of the first paragraph, I was pissed. A page later I was indignant, beet-red after the next one, two more pages and I was purple going on ultraviolet. By page six I was have trouble breathing and felt an attack of apoplexy coming. I checked my insurance and fortunately I wasn't covered or I might have had to go under the knife, if not underground. It was just too dreadful a dose: harsh for a normal punter, lethal to a sensitive one. I had to rush the book back from the parlor to the reading table in my study, placing it under the northwest leg for balance, where it once again serves a useful literary purpose.
Biff Cappuccino