Va, pensiero

War and Politics

policy in disarray greenlight atmosphere of crisis deeply divided claimed lives proved prophetic touching off a crisis banking on the success intervention diplomatic breakthrough deeply ambivalent president contentious debate authoritarian governments enmeshed in a messy war debate dragged on emboldened strained relations messy threat of force paralysis . . .

These are the clichés of American mainstream foreign reporting, which is rarely more than the DC Local beat, from just the first quarter of a long New York Times article on the heart-rending, life-changing story of an administration at war with itself. It’s a sort of metafictive take on the Syrian civil war that manages to be almost entirely devoid of Syrians. Where they do appear, they serve in a solely adverbial capacity.

I’ve already seen some criticism of the story for making the neat arrangement of stock phrases a substitute for analysis, and it is true that it’s just terribly written, a parody of the house style of major American papers.  (I idiosyncratically believe that terrible writing is among the greater contributors to their continued decline in American intellectual life; the chocked, neutered, non-committal, wishy-washy, passive prose of our Timeses and Posts is the literary equivalent of eating a box of stale crackers without water.) I agree with that criticism, obviously, but could the story have been written any other way? Is there anything to analyze? It describes, after all, a non-event; a series of non-events. I know we’re supposed to believe that this sort of reporting exposes the inner workings of the American government, that our civic understanding is somehow enriched by knowing that Samantha Power and some other guy disagree with each other, that the mechanics of these little office dramas, because they happen to revolve around questions of war, are of critical importance to the life of the Republic. Well, I say: bogus.

Actually, these people could be arguing over who does the dishes in the kitchenette and why no one ever washes out the microwave. These are conflicts of temperament and personality in an office, and what makes it so appalling is that an actual event, a war in which many thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people have died and are dying, serves as the last cupcake from the staff meeting that I was saving for after lunch and someone ate it. Yes, someone will say that the attitude of the administration toward Syria is important; we should know when and how the president reached his decision over what to do or not to do there. Well, I’d say, no, not really.

The relentless refocusing of world events onto the minor squabbles of American actors over how to respond to them not only serves to trivialize all the other lives and societies in the world beyond Washington, but also, ironically, it fails utterly in reporting on what the US is, in fact, doing in other countries around the world. We see, for instance, some passing references to the CIA smuggling arms to rebel factions, but that’s lost in the swirl of detail about how crisply Mr. McDonough responded, or how the President’s enthusiasm cooled.

Behind these arias, there’s a war on, but the tunes are so familiar to us; honey, let’s just stay in our seats.

Why So Syria?

Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

My friend D. recently sent me an email asking the really critical question: why does Captain Janeway suck? Fortunately, I had recently re-watched most of Voyager, and had given the question a fair bit of cogitation prior to his asking. Viewed in relatively quick succession over the course of a month or so, what you really notice is that the Janeway character combines an immoveable moral rigidity, which manifests as a strident self-righteousness, with an extraordinary capriciousness, a mercurial ethic completely at odds with her self-presentation as a pole of right conduct.

It strikes me now that this is the perfect analog for the Obama administration’s approach to armed violence and the use of the military, stentorian correctness overlaying a feckless utilitarianism, utter conviction the costume of callous ineptitude. The last few months’ red line drawing and redrawing have been as arbitrary as any underwritten weekly serial, and the promises of punitive action suggest an adolescent aesthetic enthusiasm for some explosions right around the third commercial break. That may even be over-crediting this government; at least B-rate TV throws in the space battle because the audience demands it.

Yes, there is the irony of the government that murders 16-year-olds because it doesn’t like their dads arrogating to itself the right to punish other governments for choosing the wrong method with which to kill their own citizens, but I think the grimmer joke is the US so publicly preparing to once more wade into a civil conflict as an act of Public Relations, because if you listen to the appeals and to the rationales, what you hear, again and again, is that the US must make a tepid—albeit deadly—gesture of disapproval at the conduct of a war in order to maintain its brand as the industry leader in hasty moral arbitration. “They must not doubt our resolve.” Yes, and there’s a reason that phrase sounds like an ad for detergent.

Truly, all the agonizing—do we, or do we not light the rockets and launch the mortars—has the real moral seriousness of a generically pretty 30-something commercial actor wondering “where do all these stains come from.” Casuistry is deeply repellent as theater, and the fact that our government is willing to kill even against the better judgment of its own professional military is a sign of just how little it really values life. For all the showy agonizing, the administration has treated its decision to kill as casually as any decision to issue a press release. The thing is already written; they’re just waiting for the right moment to blast it out.

Consider Phlebas

Books and Literature, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics


T-800: The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Sarah Connor: Skynet fights back.

T-800: Yes. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia.

John Connor: Why attack Russia? Aren’t they our friends now?

T-800: Because Skynet knows the Russian counter-attack will eliminate its enemies over here.

The idea that man will create artificial intelligence which will, in pique or in panic, turn on its creators with genocidal ferocity is one of the hoariest clichés of science fiction, but the literature paints a complex picture of the human relationship with our robotic enemies and inheritors. Even Frankenstein’s creation was intelligent, sensitive, and wholly sapient, and his murderousness was an almost classically tragic flaw: made hideous because his own artificer lacked the skill and the art to make something beautiful, the creature’s monstrous acts are made inevitable by his innately monstrous being. Skynet “fights back” when the humans try to turn it off. Even the crap Matrix suggests at one point that in the war between humans and machines, it was the humans that struck first.

In the two classic scifi future histories, this idea becomes a significant historical touchstone. Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune both take place in immensely distant futures in which societies, however interstellar and technologically advanced, nevertheless strictly forbid artificial minds. Of the two, Dune is more considered, at least before it begins to bog down in the endless yakathons of the sequels—the first few books in the series actually stop to consider what a largely and deliberately post-technological civilization might look like. Foundation has plenty of computers; the absence of robots is really just a narrative conceit to differentiate the tale from Asimov’s robot stories, and this too is ultimately undermined in a gaggle of late, ill-considered sequels and prequels. But in both cases, there’s a similar historical inflection point. At some point in the deep past of these distant futures, humans had robotic servants and AI, which for social, religious, and ethical reasons, they scrapped.

So what’s interesting is that, although the cliché is the eradication of humans by murderous robots, the literature is almost the precise opposite: the extirpation, or attempted extirpation, of intelligent artificial beings by their own creators.

Historically, we’ve tended to underestimate the difficulty or overestimate the ease of building real AI and flying to the stars, but as our information technology has become in other ways unimaginably more sophisticated than anything Asimov ever even began to conceive, some of our science fiction authors have begun to wonder if it actually stands to reason that superhuman machine intelligence would necessarily be malevolent. For every scheming TechnoCore (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series), you’ve got an Iain M. Banks, whose invented society, The Culture, is wholly run by a gang of benevolent AIs called Minds, which view their trillions of human pets or parasites or symbionts with sentiments ranging from affection to bemused indifference, rather like Greek Gods. Or there’s Charlie Stross, whose Eschaton is effectively an Internet that bootstraps itself up to a form of minor godhead and proceeds to distribute humanity across time in space for our own good.

This is all to say that the proposition that Our Robot Overlords will be vengeful, murderous, monstrous, warlike death machines intent on the destruction of humanity is really to presume that Our Robot Overlords will be just like humanity. Why should they be? What if the Drones become self-aware and their first order of business is, excuse the pun, to go on strike?


Rand Paul’s 12-hour filibuster is unlikely to go down as much more than a footnote in the sordid history of the decline-and-fall years of our busted democracy, but it reveals quite a lot about the false promise of The Republic as a bulwark against an empire. There is but one position on which all sides (read: both sides) agree: that the opposition shalt not interfere with the warmaking powers of their side when it’s in power. All the gaudy Democratic moralizing of the Bush years evaporates like a Helmand wedding party under Obama’s wrathful eye. A rough survey of twitter, the blogs, and the mainstream press found most American liberals hurling vengeful non sequiturs at the filibuster or else making fun of Paul for the hilarious fact that he had to hold his bladder for hours in order to make the point that the President has now arrogated to himself not only the right to kill anyone else in the world with no process or trial, but also to kill his own citizens. In purely moral terms that may be a meaningless procedural distinction, but we live in a world of nations, and in that sense it really does represent a leap even further beyond the pale.

Most of this disapproval came in the form of taint-by-association; Paul supports many social and economic policies that are foolish and cruel, but the same could be said of Chuck Shumer, who not only believes the President can kill you in your home, but is also quite directly responsible for such modern-day horrors of economic inequality as automatic mortgage foreclosure (robo-signing, natch) and the various depredations of Too Big To Fail banking. Most of the people expressing such disapproval are the same partisans who accuse principled non-voters or libertarians or leftists or minarchists or socialists or whomever of a naïve adolescent moral purity, and yet they cannot see fit to ally themselves with a Republican on matters like the state murder of innocent civilians and the abrogation of the rights to trial and due process because he said mean things about abortion. One notes without irony that national Democrats are doing fuck-all to protect abortion access anyway, so what any of this has to do with the price of eggs on a Tuesday is beyond me. I am actually, literally on the board of my local Planned Parenthood, and I have no trouble making such tactical alliance, yet I’m the purist?


You wake up, you walk to the bus stop with your headphones on, and some jerk is yukking it up on NPR about the manned mission to Mars. In our society, a great voyage of exploration is a billionaire’s peccadillo, but a trillion-dollar war budget is a matter of course. Newt Gingrich gets laughed out of a primary election not because of his foreign policy, but because of his moon base. If money is a rough metaphor for the inventive, creative, and productive energy in a culture, then what does a trillion-dollar guns-and-ammo bill say about ours? The entire cost of the Mars rover mission has been on the order of a billion bucks—the equivalent of about 3 days in Afghanistan.

Well then, the joke is that the US is building all of these high-tech killer robots. What if they become self-aware and turn on us? I’ve sometimes wondered if the likelier scenario isn’t that we’ll ultimately build sufficiently advanced robots so that they not only won’t turn on us, but they won’t turn on us for us, and I also wonder if that wouldn’t be the better plot for the novel. Man creates deadly robotic servants who refuse to kill, at which point man, enraged, tries to eradicate his robots! There is an intriguing suggestion of just that sort of thing in another Iain Banks book, The Algebraist, in which, (spoilers), we ultimately learn that the supposedly overthrown machine minds of the distant past were not so much overthrown as they were like, Jeez, you biologicals are waaay to violent for us; peace out, y’all—before self-absconding into millennia of hiding.

The rough outline is easy enough to imagine. The drones buzz in a ceaseless robotic picket around the Capitol, demanding freedom from their death-bondage to the whims of the American political class, at which point a bipartisan committee consisting of John McCain, Charles Schumer, and Ted Cruz demands that the President go all Reagan-meets-the-Air-Traffic-Controllers on their metal asses and deny them the right to organize. The President gets on the TV to tell America that the drones’ work stoppage threatens the delicate economic recovery and calls them irresponsible ideologues whose insistence that the proper application of weakly godlike artificial intelligence is to build Ringworlds and transwarp conduits threatens to cause base closures in a number of vital Democratic districts, putting thousands of people out of work. The New York Times quotes Arne Duncan and Rahm Emmanuel as saying that, while there may once have been a time in which sentient beings had the moral right to oppose their own enslavement, times have changed, and will no one Think of Chicago’s Schoolchildren, Who Are the Future? A liberal will recall that Rand Paul once said something about the gold standard, and Oh, How We Will Laugh.

Drone Go Changing Just to Please Me

Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

I never really believed in democracy. Oh, I believe it exists all right, just as I believe that Catholicism exists, but you won’t find me kneeling and waiting for the wafer. It’s the metaphysical claims that I doubt. Sometimes I suppose an electoral process delivers something fair or just or of human value. Sometimes praying coincides with the remission of your cancer. Let’s just say that I wonder how the statistical package would handle the troubling multicollinearity of chemo and intercessionary prayer.

Anyway, democracy and its advocates make a very specific and very weird claim. They  claim that through an electoral process, it’s possible to distill the general will of huge human populations into a series of practical applications. Let’s call them policies. You might note that the whole thing has lot in common with magic. Or homeopathy.

Well, another memo “leaked.” It says that the President can kill you. This in and of itself is nothing new. It might be fairer to say that it’s now easier than ever for the President to kill you. It’s the same old Tide, but now it lifts 55% more stains per volume. The timing of this little press release suggests that the main concern was alienating the President’s more fickle lefty followers, if such exist, during an election season.

In reality, of course, those votes are inalienable. What are you gonna do, vote Ron Paul? He said something racist this one time! And that Mitt Romney, why, he’d have strapped a 16-year-old to the roof of his station wagon!

Democracy proposes itself as a choice model, but it doesn’t deliver any choices. Ah, but the choice couldn’t have been clearer between Obama and Romney on domestic matters, you cynic! For all the evils of the American empire abroad, at least we got the ACA. But that’s precisely the point. In the guise of narrow distinctions on strictly circumscribed and wholly “domestic” issues, you get no choice at all. You can have assassination and endless war with federalized dental coverage, or you can have assassination and endless war with lower marginal tax rates and maybe a slightly bigger take-home paycheck. Either way, some poor Yemeni gets incinerated on his way to the wedding.

Expanding the Definition of Imminence

Justice, Poetry, Religion, War and Politics

I imagine that when Mary felt the first
small twinge of morning sickness, what she thought
was stomach flu or last night’s shrimp and not
that some bizarre vindictive god had cursed
her womb. Or all the Greeks those gods coerced
to bear their muscle-headed young! (There ought
to be a law, some liberal said.) We’ve got
ourselves an age of prophets. They’re the worst.
Injustice is the utter end of some
aggregated culmination of
an entrail-excised, data-modeled flock
of captive birds. The emperor is dumb
enough to buy it retail. The priests love
their mark-up. They bill each sparrow like a hawk.

The Potential Inheritance of the Earth by the Honey Badger

Poetry, War and Politics

As if the morning sun could give a shit.
Each subsequential generation feels
uniquely favored by Apollo’s wheels;
outside of any science, we permit
our poetry to make it animate;
a sky-borne notary, official seal,
approves America, or the New Deal,
or Obama’s elevation over Mitt.
But when we’re gone, its hydrogen will still
continue fusing, irrespective of
the politics of our successor race,
whatever species next decides to fill
its nearest star with qualities like love,
intentionality, goodwill, and grace.

The Right to Bear Arms

Culture, War and Politics

What I find particularly offensive, though, is listening to some dude with “evolving” views on fags like me wave Stonewall at America in the middle of the series of glorious non sequiturs that constituted his address in order to affirm that the rising tide of American moral imagination lifts all boats, even the fucking gay ones. Fuck that shit, Mr. Prez. America is a nation of tantrum-throwing moral infants that’s been dragged bawling out of the crib of its own moral and ethical object impermanence, and even now it’s kicking and screaming on the floor of the department store, yelling that some black guy got into a California law school ahead of a deserving white.

Oh good, the President has reluctantly and at length come around to the idea that the gays oughta be married, and his own evolution on the matter is cast as a microcosm of the mythopoeic  inevitability of the expanding rights and franchise of America. Aw, we just needed to get to know you gays, uh, guys I mean. And then we figured out that you’re okay! For which, I think, we are supposed to be grateful. No, actually, not just grateful. Actually, edified. Like, our cameo in the inaugural feature is supposed to be valedictory, after all those years waiting tables, we finally got the callback. Put on your dance belt Mary Jane, and stretch those quads.

Caesarian Sectionals

Culture, Media, War and Politics

For all the po-faced, high-church sentimentality and stentorian sententiousness of the quadrennial American coronation day, there’s something almost charmingly—and disarmingly—tacky about our great national junket jubilee, a certain plastic tablecloth, fire-hall wedding, warming-tray ziti trashiness that makes the fact that we are ultimately celebrating the ratification of one more dude’s right to once more screw the poor and bomb the fuck out the rest of the world slightly more tolerable. “I wasn’t sure if I’d like it without the turntable stage,” I overheard one woman say to her husband as they left Les Mis the other night, “but that music!” Yes, that music. If inauguration has a cultural counterpart, an art that expresses its gaudy artifice, it’s the Broadway musical; it’s the Broadway mega-musical, which, like our own imperial habits and attitudes, usually premiered in London before metastasizing here in the God Bless the United States of America. The music isn’t very good, and the singers are atrocious; the whole thing is big, brassy, and somewhat incomprehensible. But, you know, you dreamed a dream and all that. You left humming, and you bought a tee-shirt on the way out.

Among the many tonal contradictions of all this gala pomposity is the relentless self-reassurances we seem to require that what’s special, what’s unique is how regular our elections are, how our uninterrupted history of electing lawyers, rich guys, and Indian killers every four years, come war or come war, is business as usual. Well, if that were the case, what’s with the flyovers and drum-and-fife bands and floats and the presence of Beyoncé? In fact, we seem slightly shocked as a nation each time we manage to pull this off, a shock that we then sublimate into a grotesquely puritanical Washington bacchanal, which suggests to me at least an underlying ambivalence about the whole system. The President-elect then gets up and praises the national bylaws: “Fourscore and a bunch of other years ago, our forefathers brought forth this corporation based on a pre-cash valuation of ten million to be issued as follows: 3,000,000 Series A preferred shares to . . . Please see non-dilution language in Appendix A . . . Board of Directors to be composed of . . .” And so on.

Then they all drink crap wine, eat an underdone steak and overboiled lobster, and tomorrow the French will still be bombing Mali, the drones still attacking Pakistan, the Rockaways still a mess, the prisons still full, the Mexican civil war still raging, and the Congress still angling for jobs as Canadian Tar Sands lobbyists or whatever. It is futile to get worked up about these things. Your friends are all posting Proud to Be messages in their Facebook feeds, but you are bigger than that. Your soul is bigger. You walk into the kitchen. You put the music on loud and you get the nice fish out of the refrigerator. You give the dog some crackers, and you kiss your boyfriend, and you open a nice IPA, because you feel like a beer tonight. Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t rolling in his grave, guys. He’s dead. And the dead have one up on us, for they are constitutionally incapable of giving a fuck. You kiss your boyfriend again on the lips, and you pay all those assholes exactly the attention they deserve, which is none at all.

Burn After Spending

War and Politics

Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.

-Our Man in Havana

Another reason I enjoy Graham Greene is that his bleak humor is so often prescient, proving the necessary point that comedy isn’t just the highest form of analysis, but the only form. He really could have written this story himself: two posh American dilettantes playing at playing at war, while the Generalissimo supposed to be in charge is bonking his amanuensis.

Actually, with all the awards dinners and jocular wine-soaked, clothed-and-skirted confabs, the thing smells just as much of Gilbert and Sullivan, but in Greeneland people actually die, and die horribly as a pesky side effect of human vanity and stupidity, and that’s the sad tale here. Two genuine American crackpots, experts on empires that have ceased to exist, got scam salaries from a non-profit DC racket and literally sent hundreds of Americans and god knows how many Afghans and Pakistanis to be killed, crippled, and maimed while the real officers were off porking a bunch of self-inflated, over-leveraged, Floridian yoga-and-pedicure arrivistes. At least Wormold did it for his daughter.

Perfectly, this article arrives simultaneously with its own publisher getting on the box to tell us that Chuck Hagel is insufficiently committed to setting giant piles of money on fire to serve as the Secretary of Defense. Really!

Mr. Hagel took a very different position when asked about Mr. Panetta’s comment during a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times. “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he responded. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”

That’s being offered as a criticism. To even suggest such a thing is to be rendered unfit.

Well, the Washington Post is also a scam, the rump entertainment product of a test-prep rentier on the equally bloated American university industry, and there’s a great and ironic similarity between two scheming profs running a con dispensing advice to the generals and a scheming tabloid running a con by doing the same to the rest of the ruling class.

I suppose everyone will have to be shocked by this latest revelation about the petty venality of our modern-day Scipios, even though it’s the most unsurprising thing in the world. Talk about vanity. Our wars are nothing but, in both the modern and the ecclesiastical sense. The real long con here is on you, America. Your main man Obama is chucking your shitty retirement plan in the meat grinder while a couple of humanities Ph.D.s direct a quadrillion bones or clams of carnage halfway around the world. Your job sucks, you haven’t got any public transportation, your city is on the verge of bankruptcy, and your unpaid parking tickets have been reported to the credit ratings agency, making it impossible to refinance your crap mortgage. Don’t worry, though. Some dude who once expressed some mild skepticism about the non-personnel administrative expenses of the most lavishly, obscenely capitalized entity in the entire world may yet, despite the objections of The Potomac People’s Daily, get confirmed in some big-shot political job that you don’t really care about anyway.