Friday, April 30, 2010

Considering Totalitarian Leadership

thedistanceiskillingme ( has left a new comment on your post "Seeking truth -- responsibility and ambition":

To Lawrence,
It appears that you have taken my words differently to how I was hoping they were interpreted. (I firstly am speaking completely informally from a personal view, which leaves me terribly vulnerable to judgment) But I am in uniform with you (as much as you would appear to despise) I agree. People follow these "great leaders" far too blindly and with ignorance to a more open view of their direct world.
On the other-hand though, I (and again stressing "I") believe that people such as Chomsky are important people to 'use' as a basis of not so much leftist based thought but even links to people such as Apollinaire or at least bottom line more thought in general! haha It may be my current surroundings or perhaps its my nurturing that has led me to believe that the human race is doomed, unless a "great leader" comes along with totalitarianism approach, so humans can see the world as instead of "what can I buy that will make me happy" but more so "what can I do to make others happy."
My desire for truth is only equivalent to the time I have to acquire it. Some things seem too far out of my reach as an individual, hence why I research into the dealings of others (that may not have the same view, but just one snipit can help me understand more) that you classify as "the great leaders."
And your last statement of what YOU want the average human to do, but won't. So cynical, depressive statements like these is why, (I'm a hypocrite! because I am also just as cynical, but for the purpose of this train of thought, bare with me :) the average human does not want to learn, amongst the age of consumerism vs. laziness.
Times will change soon, people will be forced to learn.
Kind Regards Chris

RESPONSE:   Chris, I'm glad you are continuing the discussion.   I was using the term "Great Leader" to include both leaders of Totalitarian regimes like Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein and popular leaders in a democracy like Chomsky and Limbaugh.  Let's set aside the latter and consider the sort of leader that might form a totalitarian government.  If you are saying totalitarianism, led by such a leader would be a desirable thing in the West, I must disagree with you.  Such a leader would in rebellion against all that has gone before.  We can agree that there is much that could be improved upon but what we live in today, what we in the West call "Liberal Democracy" is the product of centuries and thousands of leaders and political thinkers.  What does a Totalitarian leader have to counter this?  Just his charismatic personality.  I know there are many who want to follow a charismatic leader but I am not one of them. 
            Perhaps I'll be telling you something you already know when I refer to the experiment years ago with howler monkeys.  Scientists built catwalks on an island so they could observe but not interfere with these monkeys.  One of the things they did was to assign each monkey a "dominance factor" based on who got to decide when to go to the water hole, to lead in a foray against a neighboring tribe of monkeys, etc.  And then they observed one tribe of monkeys that behaved uncharacteristically.  It was able to go any place on the island.  After some time they were able to determine that one of the monkeys had a dominance factor that was far higher than any of the other monkeys.  I can't recall what it was precisely but say that a typical monkey leader had a dominance factor of ten to one.  This "great leader" howler monkey had a dominance factor that was much higher -- say a hundred to one.  No other monkey would challenge him; so he could lead his tribe wherever he wanted to on the island.
            Let us assume now that humans are similar.  Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger all thought that they were.  They didn't use the term "dominance factor," but they had a clear notion of what a "great leader" ought to be in terms of charismatic leadership.  But a modern leader is not simply choosing to go to a water hole or travel wherever he wants in the world.  He must manage a sophisticated nation and lead his nation in war and peace against or in cooperation with other nations.  How much is charisma going to help him do that?  It might help him convince others to do things his way, but is "his way" going to be better than anyone else's?  Charisma can be considered in terms of a dominance factor, but dominance factors do not guarantee competence.  In today's world a leader might have a very high dominance factor but he may be no smarter or competent than several others in his nation.  Maybe he can through force of will cause these others to follow him, but should he?   
            There are two major modern theories about the state of the world.  The first was created by Francis Fukuyama.  In 1992 he wrote The End of History and the Last Man.  He theorized that the Totalitarian systems, Fascism and Communism, had been defeated by Liberal Democracy and there were no other systems left in the world that could compete with Liberal Democracy.  He thought Liberal Democracy was destined to be the predominate form of government and society in the world.  But he was aware of Nietzsche's "last man," the "ordinary man' we have been discussing.  Fukuyama was tolerant of him but a "great leader" might not be.  If he has a dominance factor of 100 to 1 and only the "ordinary man" to contend with, the fact that the Liberal Democracy was running smoothly might not deter him from engaging in a Totalitarian adventure.
            The other theory was formed by Samuel P. Huntington.  In 1996 he wrote The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  He didn't foresee Liberal Democracy sweeping the world.  He saw ongoing clashes amongst the "civilizations," and here he uses the common sociological definitions of "civilizations."  A Totalitarian Leader might very well rise in the Islamic or African Civilizations, for example.  The pervasiveness of Liberal Democracy in the Western Civilization would make another Totalitarian Leader like Hitler arising there more problematic.  But if Huntington rather than Fukuyama is correct -- and you don't live in the West, you might very well be ruled by at some future time by another Totalitarian Leader. 

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Seeking truth -- responsibility and ambition

thedistanceiskillingme ( left the following comment in response to my post "Social Constructivism as Anti-Humanism":

Dear Lawrence,
Very interesting read I do say. Although your beliefs and opinions vary from mine, I do hold accordance with your belief for humans to empower themselves with personal beliefs and personal moralistic values.
Contrasting though is that I believe that the average human does not have enough knowledge or understanding of the inner workings of our political/social systems to make much opinion, other than idle gossip or uninformed slander.
I think there is a balance, a middle road, using great minds or as you dub them "great leaders" as a base of research to further your intelligence on the matter so you can in-turn make educated judgment on the system of which we belong.
You have obviously looked into these, hence you have something worthwhile to talk about.
Good read. Thanks

RESPONSE:  I am not quite sure what the author of the above comment has in mind.  He is referring primarily, I believe, to the final paragraph in my note which reads, "I am very tempted to feel critical of those who accept Stalin's beliefs without trying to understand and wrestle with their philosophical underpinnings. In addition, I am tempted to feel critical of those who don't strive to understand the philosophical influences in our modern age. It is so much easier, I know, to accept the teachings of a "Great Leader." If Stalin said it, it must be true. If Hitler said it, it must be true. If Chomsky said it, it must be true. If Rush Limbaugh said it, it must be true. If you aren't thinking through or wrestling with the philosophical underpinnings of these people, and of course you aren't because if you were you wouldn't bother with their ideas, but if you aren't then it depends entirely on luck as to whether anything these "great leaders" say is true and accurate. If you have selected one of these "Great Leaders," or a great leader like them to believe, then you will be congratulating yourself on your own cleverness. To which I say, good luck."   
            He may be a follower of one of the "Great Leaders" I mentioned, but if so, he doesn't say which one.  For the sake of discussion, I'll assume it is either Chomsky or Limbaugh.  If he takes what either of these individuals say as "a base of research to further [his] intelligence . . . [so he] can in-turn make educated judgment on the system of which [he belongs]" I say as I said in the note he is responding to "good luck." 
            I have debated followers of both Chomsky and Limbaugh and both sets would disagree with me about "luck."  They are quite sure that the Great Leader they follow has a right understanding of America and the World.  And if we were to ask what "research" they are doing to "further" their "intelligence," we would find that they are reading books that either their Great Leader has recommended or books consistent with the Great Leader's teachings.
            But, to be fair, I could reword thedistanceiskillingme's comment slightly and then not disagree with it: None of us can read everything.  We must find someone to listen to and I am no different in this regard.  However I have never sought out a "Great Leader" to teach me about history, politics, society, or foreign affairs.  I have sought "the best authorities."  This term can be criticized, perhaps, in the same way I have criticized the "Great Leaders," but when I read an historian I also read journals and reviews about what he has written which provide something like "peer reviews."  Even after I have read enough to consider myself adept on a given subject, I will still read reviews and comments from these authors' peers.  But does thedistanceiskillingme do that?  I don't know.
            One last thing occurs to me.  I wrote the above note 13 months ago, but at present I'm reading Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, the Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire.  Apollinaire seemed to some of the people he was associated with a great leader and yet who reads him today?  He took a tangent that was anarchistic and then looked within himself and fancied he had found a great truth -- a better way.  He was an extremely charismatic individual.  I criticized him in an earlier note for his on the one hand rebelling against "the establishment" and on the other wanting the approval of people who believed in the establishment.  Perhaps some of that was a hope that they would be converted to his ideas, but a larger part was simply that he was ambitious.  He did not move outside of society when he rebelled against it.  He stayed inside it and wanted its approval. 
            Chomsky is also an anarchistic rebel against "the establishment."  Does he want the same approval?  Is he ambitious in the same way Apollinaire was?  Perhaps.   Chomsky's ideas strike me as a great confusion. 
            Limbaugh does not rebel against society.  He works within "the establishment," but he has set himself up as a political force -- a great leader -- and does have a following.  Is he ambitious as well?  I suspect so.
            I have been accused of trying to sway others to my views, but I have never been ambitious of that.  I may well defend my own views, but somewhere along the way I lost confidence in "the average human" that thedistanceiskillingme refers to.  I don't want him following me, for if he does he will sooner or later suspect me of not respecting him.  I want him to think and he doesn't.  I want him to study and he won't.  I want him to read the best authorities and he chooses instead to follow one of the modern "great leaders."  I understand why Plato had no confidence in democracy . . . and yet . . . I have studied the alternatives and end up supporting the establishment -- sort of -- but without any interest in joining the cheering mob.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Apollinaire rebelling against society and God

`Perhaps it is harder to see in Erik Satie and Henri Rousseau who produced works that did not speak in verbally, but with Alfred Jarry and especially Guillaume Apollinaire there can be no doubt.  They have devoted themselves to criticizing established society, established political society, and taken to its extreme, established morality and God.  Consider what Shattuck has to say about Apollinaire reaching into himself for the antithesis of established morality in order to achieve "freedom":
            [from pages 304-6 of Shattuck's The Banquet Years:"His theme was always freedom -- freedom to be an individual before being a member of society.  The total visual freedom of cubism was called depravity by the world of 1910; the moral freedom signified by the under-the-counter texts over which he labored many years bore the same name. . .   Apollinaire's published opinions and his persistence in developing them finally left their mark.  The most challenging sentence of all occurs in the story, 'L'heresiarque': 'Mysticism verges very closely on eroticism.'  Total liberation, then would finally obliterate any frontier between the spiritual and the physical.  He did not shrink from the hazardous ground to which these roads lead.  Following the decadents, paralleling Gide, and anticipating the surrealists and existentialists, Apollinaire finally had to confront the gratuitous act, 'L'acte gratuit,' as the extreme instance of human freedom.   Since, in the Christian world of the West, charity has become closely associated with reward in a life hereafter, its spontaneity and selflessness have tended to become tainted.  One can maintain that the only domain of purely disinterested action that remains [is] the inversion of charity: unmotivated evil.  It satisfies nothing deeper than whim.  This view explains how Apollinaire, having undertaken them for other reasons, became absorbed in writing pornographic novels.  The best of the Onze mille verges, represents its hero as obsessed by the liberating power of wickedness, yet he remains untroubled by soul-searchings such as those that affect Dostoevski's criminal-saints. . . After describing a frightful debauch, Apollinaire begins the next paragraph: 'For a considerable time Mony led this monotonous life in Bucharest.'  A hundred pages later, at the end of the book, Mony sentenced to death by the Japanese, violently deflowers a twelve-year-old Romanian girl who was chosen to yield her virginity to a condemned man.  The true climax follows: 'Then Mony stood up and since he had nothing more to hope for from human justice, he strangled the little girl after having gouged out her eyes, while all the time she uttered hideous cries.'
            "The 'purity' of this imaginary act lies not in its utter cruelty but in the gratuitousness of its evil.  Only a man already facing death is free to act unswayed by any human motives of right and wrong, gain and loss, pleasure and pain.  The detached, scientific tone of Apollinaire's prose here . . . concentrates the horror or deliberate moral depravity; the act becomes both inhuman and superhuman. . . The casual ordering and unrestricted subject matter of his tales support the major accomplishments of Proust, Gide, and Joyce in overthrowing the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel. . . ."
            COMMENT:  One can find reasons in Shattuck's book for disapproving of the direction taken by the four figures of his "Banquet Years."   But Shattuck is not nearly as disapproving as some of us might be.  For example, I'm sure we can couch "charity" or "Christian love" in terms other than Shattuck has used, but even if he, Jarry and Apollinaire are right and many seek "reward" for their good works, is such a seeking inconsistent with human nature?  I don't think so.  We grow up seeking the approval of our family and friends.  And if we write, paint, compose music, or become a critic, do we not seek the approval of someone?  The four rebels Shattuck chose to examine anxiously sought societies approval.  So why does Apollinaire disapprove of Christians for seeking the approval of God?  We Christians are encouraged to behave in such a way that after we die and stand before God he shall say, "well done, good and faithful servant."   Surely Apollinaire knew it was wrong to rebel against his mother with whom he had a close relationship.  So why would he think it right to rebel against God?
            And what is the merit in "spontaneous selflessness"?  Doesn't that suggest acting without considering consequences?  For if we think of the consequences then we might be accused of being "selfish," e.g., if I avoid this act then my wife, family, society and God will not withhold their approval of me; so I'd better do it spontaneously and not worry about the consequences in order to become "free."   What is such "freedom" worth, I would ask Apollinaire if I could -- and why would anyone want it?
            It is characteristic of the impudence of rebels such as Apollinaire that they fancy they see society better than those who live at peace in it.  They not only see its evils but fancy they have an alternative that is superior.  Minor little figures like Jarry and Apollinaire are not remembered for their positive alternatives to society but merely for their whining complaints and insolence.  When we assess their lives and works did they seek any more than to say like the graffiti artists who paint our walls and buildings, "look I was here.  I existed, and I am different."  You weren't so very different as far as I can tell, Apollinaire.  You managed to behave like a rebellious adolescent well into adulthood.  Just why you would want to be remembered for that is a mystery to me.

Anarchy, Cubism and poking fun at the establishment

            I am struggling with Shattuck's The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire.   I enjoyed reading him as long as he was on the outside looking critically in at the political anarchy that was replaced by artistic anarchy, but by the time he began his discussion of Apollinaire he had clearly gotten caught up in it.  It was no longer art poking fun at "the establishment."  It had become a new establishment, and Shattuck found much to admire.  Shattuck wrote his book in 1958.  By that time critics, many of them, could judge Jarry, Rousseau, Satie and Apollinaire as part of a passing phase -- but not Shattuck:
            On page 283 Shattuck writes, "Frequently, the accusation is made -- and has been from the very beginning -- that cubism is an enormous hoax dreamed up by the hashish-smoking, pistol-carrying, half-starved inhabitants of Montmartre who had been impregnated with Jarry's 'Pataphysics and the pseudo-mathematics of the fourth dimension.  (An imaginative and articulate mathematician, Princet, was originally a member of the bateau lavoir group.)  Without doubt, much of the inspiration for the speculations that produced cubist theory came from these sources.  Yet two further points temper this estimate.  First, the sources are perfectly valid, are, in fact, integral parts of all modern inspiration.  Jarry and Satie, as well as Henri Monnier and Alphonse Allais, were predecessors in this line of perpetrators of hoaxes who took their own antics seriously.  The Chat Noir and the Lapin Agile were truly the salons of the new art.  What started as a humorous indulgence of the imagination in confronting eternal artistic problems became a serious endeavor. 
            "The second point is that these buffooneries helped produce cubist theory, but not its works, to spend several days or weeks painting a difficult and elaborate cubist composition (or to spend year after year writing about these paintings required total dedication.  There is a headily improvised side of cubism that can be called 'dreamed up,' but the genuineness of the whole movement cannot be challenged.  Too many monumental figures lived it.  Part of the greatness of cubism consisted in its willingness to entertain speculations which other minds would have dismissed as foolishness or mere bluff. . . ."
            Can Shattuck be right?  We might grant that the initial political anarchy that inspired the "buffooneries" metamorphosed into "genuineness," depending upon what we mean by "genuineness," but is that enough to authenticate "cubism" and all the other artistic buffooneries of the period Shattuck describes?  And what is "authentication" if not "genuineness" I hear someone object?  Let us move this line of thought back into politics and take another look at it.
            The most serious attempt to subvert the "establishment" was the Communistic political movement.  Lenin and a host of others seriously believed that their enterprise was "genuine" and "authentic."  They were certainly committed to it.  They were even more dedicated than Shattuck's buffoons, but their dedication and genuineness wasn't enough to counter the fact that they were dead wrong.  Their political enterprise didn't work, and in the period (well after Shattuck wrote his book) from 1989-91 the USSR, the great Communist experiment, collapsed. 
            Someone wrote that Jarry's Ubu Roi was a great inspiration to him.  It poked fun at "the establishment" in a very effective way.  I can almost sympathize with the person who wrote that.  We do need to "poke fun" at the things wrong in our society so that they can be corrected, but when the "poking fun" becomes a replacement society then something has gone seriously wrong.  The "poking fun" that became the USSR carried the joke way too far. 
            The "poking fun" that was Cubism can be seen (if we aren't Shattuck) for what it was, a passing-phase buffoonery.  Maybe the artists involved in it were "genuinely" committed, but they were seriously committing themselves to a series of jokes that were only funny when not taken seriously.   

Monday, April 19, 2010

The rise and fall of Niall Ferguson

            In the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson has written, "Complexity and Collapse, Empires on the Edge of Chaos."  This article may or may not be available on line at .  Foreign Affairs seems to be saying that all one needs in order to read it is to register, but since I already had the hard copy I didn't put that to the test.
            In this article, Ferguson assumes that the U.S. is an empire (I suspect a search of the blog will find me disagreeing with him about that) and then predicts that it will one day collapse much as past empires have collapsed, "suddenly." 
            That the U.S. might one day possess much less military or economic power than it does now seems entirely possible, but that there will be the sort of collapse that Rome had seems preposterous.  An important element that Ferguson refuses to take seriously is the interrelationship of the Liberal-Democratic nations in this modern world.  Ferguson leans toward neither Fukuyama nor Huntington (the two theorists that the present, in my opinion, the most viable, albeit incompatible, theories of the near-term future).  Instead he bases his predictions on pre-Liberal-Democratic empires -- empires that operated much more independently than any Liberal Democracy does today. 
            It might do Ferguson good to consider historical Britain as something other than an empire.  If he were to manage that then its "fall" would seem much less precipitous.  What exactly did it consist of, I ask?  It consisted of loss of its colonies and the inability of Britain to successfully oppose the U.S. (as evidenced by the Suez crisis in 1956).  As to the colonies, one might as well say that the loss of the slave trade comprised a collapse of empire.  And in regard to its relative power compared to the U.S., surely it was no secret to any Britain that participated in World War II that the U.S. had become a much more powerful nation.  But so what?  Is this a zero-sum situation?  I don't think so.  Europe has even today not utterly overcome the effects of the two devastating World Wars that took place largely in its midst during the twentieth century.  That surely is more important that the hypothetical loss of Britain's, or even France's, empire -- as emotionally as that might have been for them.  But "empire," however nostalgically pleasurable that term might be for Niall Ferguson must be so heavily couched in disclaimers that it loses its usefulness for explaining anything in this modern world.
            Another recent "empire" Ferguson likes to describe as having "fallen" is the USSR.  Indeed the Soviet "Communist" experiment dif "fall," but its failure is hardly in the same category as that of Rome or other ancient empires.  The USSR comprised a modern day Socialistic experiment.  It was the largest and most ambitious such experiment, but an experiment nonetheless.  Its fall can best be described in terms of human nature: the unwillingness of humans to live under the Socialistic restraints imposed the dreamers that conceived the experiment.
            Might not China or India become more militarily or economically powerful than the U.S. by, say, 2080?  Sure, but that doesn't mean the U.S. will be overrun by barbaric hoards as Rome eventually was.  The most likely scenario is that it would take a step back as Britain and France did after World War II. 
            Another element Ferguson doesn't discuss is the potential interference of the present-day number two power (China) with the number one power (the U.S.).   The reason for this is that there is nothing to discuss -- at least not along the lines that Ferguson likes to argue.  China has absolutely no interest in dominating the U.S. physically or economically.  It is not spending its money on a military force that could cross the pacific in a vast armada to conquer the U.S.  Neither does it seek the economic collapse of the U.S.  In fact if the latter event were to happen, China's economy is so inextricably combined with that of the U.S. that it would probably involve the collapse of the Chinese economy as well.  Which, by the way, is the nature of Liberal-Democratic economic relationships -- not that China qualifies as a Liberal-Democracy in every respect, but it is functioning as one economically.  It has successfully entered the vast Liberal-Democratic economy as a player.  Players are not interested in zero-sum enterprises.  They don't function as "empires." They don't wish their trading partners to fail.  Any failure, any setback or loss of economic wherewithal, means some sort of loss for the rest of them as well.   What I am describing is the world as Francis Fukuyama knows it.  It is not the world that Niall Ferguson seems to be living in. 
            I can imagine Ferguson waxing nostalgically about the "good old days" of "British Empire," but that surely must be a British enterprise and not an American -- and yet Niall Ferguson has rather firmly ensconced himself at Harvard.  But perhaps "firmly" isn't a term I should use when discussing Ferguson.  He seems to have moved around quite a bit:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jarry, Chomsky and Gerhart Niemeyer

            Billy Blogblather response to my post, "Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi's opening night -- and Chom..." is as follows.  My comments will follow:
            "So much seems to me to depend on what one means by "anarchism." I can't fathom anyone seriously believing in no law or governance, but I can certainly imagine and support vehement opposition to a society's mores and even rebellion against a State if it uses its power to enforce those mores. I've never believed that any State has control of my conscience, quite the contrary, if it acts in violation of my conscience, I have a "moral" obligation to oppose the State. What that opposition might entail is dependent on many factors. The "absurdity" that Jarry brings to Western Culture was, I believe, a God send. Who can look at the history of humanity and not despair over the ruthless insanity -- but at the same time not marvel at "what a piece of work is a man?" The gap between what we see as potential and how monstrous we still are -- that's the mother of absurdity. Theater of the Absurd is a call to leave the foxholes and find some other employment. Since time immemorial the stupid exigencies of power -- political and religious have all ended in the trenches with human beings stabbing or shooting one another for some goddamn reason or another. THIS IS THE ABSURDITY. The Absurdists were the pragmatists: Get the fuck out of Dodge. Chuck this insanity.
            "I first read Ubu Roi some 40 years ago. It was one of the best days of my life. I celebrated it! Here's a man (Jarry) not afraid to call all Western Civilization a bloody murderous monstrosity. It has remained so, yes, even became more monstrous as the seekers of intelligent order marched across Europe. But here was one among us who said NO in thunder and I loved everything about it. Chomsky, I don't think is in any way an absurdist. I don't doubt he believes that many absurdities exist in the world of power politics, but I think he's one of the most rational critics of Western power that I've read. If he were an artist, no doubt he would scream absurdist words at the word and probly throw shit. But he's not. He argues very sanely. God love Jarry. God love Chomsky."
            COMMENTS:  Billy Blogblather's comment, "The gap between what we see as potential and how monstrous we still are -- that's the mother of absurdity," reminds me of the arguments of Gerhart Niemeyer.  In the preface to his Nothingness and Paradise, he writes "For some time I have been interested in a feature common to all totalitarian ideologies which I have called the 'total critique of society,' and the corresponding activism that goes under the name of 'creative destruction.'  Three months before the end of the war Goebbels gloated over the wholesale incineration of Germany as the road to radical newness, and a little later Hitler nodded his approval to total defeat.  But these two were latecomers to a company of major and minor figures which in the past and present has included Babeuf, Marx, Bakunin, Nechaev, Lenin, Trotsky, Marcuse, Cohn-Bendit, and Mark Rudd.  All have made a vocation of total revolution directed not against any injustice in particular but against the 'system.'  For them, society represents evil in general and their existential rejection of it engulfs ethics and metaphysics, politics and religion."
            Blogblather's commendable hope that war can be eliminated is not followed by any coherent argument as to how we might effect that end.  There are no measurable steps we can take to get from his hope that war can be eliminated to the actual elimination of war.  The best he can offer is to "leave the foxholes and find some other employment."  By that I take him to mean to include the refusal to back one's nation if that nation decides to go to war.  But that is precisely what Jarry and the other artistic anarchists inspired.  The period Shattuck writes about ends with 1918.  After that the Blogblather-Jarry-Chomsky anarchism is in full swing.  Antiwar sentiments were very popular at that time.  But what did they result in?  They contributed mightily to France's unpreparedness.  When we read histories of France prior to Germany's invasion, we learn that France was doing exactly what Billy Blogblather recommended: it's men were leaving their foxholes and finding some other employment.  Perhaps they weren't permitted to literally leave their foxholes, but they were not prepared mentally to oppose Nazi aggression.
            Neimeyer argues that the Jarry-Chomsky-Blogblather "hope" for paradise ends often enough in a Totalitarian Inferno.  And, interestingly, some of those involved in this process believe the cataclysmic destruction that results or may result is a good thing.  Whether it is a good thing or not, it at the very least fails to accomplish what Blogblather hopes for.
            As to Chomsky, I agree.  He isn't an absurdist, but he is an anarchist -- another anarchist without a coherent plan or argument.  Note that he has mastered the list of all the bad things his nation has done.  But are there any nations which haven't done similar things?  He likes to praise nations which have no power, but once they get power, as Cambodia and Vietnam did, then see whether they eschew the evils that Chomsky bemoans.  The fact is that they do not.  More people were killed in Vietnam and Cambodia after the U.S. pulled out than during the whole Vietnam War.  Chomsky knows that, but he blames the U.S. for that as well: if the U.S. hadn't gone over there none of what followed would have happened.  He concentrates upon his belief that this "evil" that he opposes is, almost exclusively, province of the U.S., but it isn't.  It is in the very nature of man himself.  We are a war-like species. 
            In our early hunter-gatherer days, the ability to fight "wars" against neighboring tribes had some survival benefit.  The tribe that won survived.  The tribe that lost didn't.  And even after man began settling in towns and cities the ability to fight a war had benefits.  We can read of great peoples of the past that no longer exist.  Why do they no longer exist?  Because they lost a war.  But today that doesn't hold true -- at least not in the West.  We don't war against each other to extinction -- at least not normally.  That is a limit we have placed upon ourselves: no more wars to extinction.  We have a word for that limitation: "Genocide."   It is okay to defend one's nation's interests, but it is not okay to commit "Genocide." 
            Jarry, Chomsky and Blogblather aren't willing to see that the Western Way of War is an improvement over the earlier ways.  And singling out "the West" for special abuse in regard to war is not presented with anything like a coherent argument.  Are there other systems that do better in regard to war?  No.  They other systems do worse.  After Chomsky got his way and the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the Vietnamese and Cambodians no longer had the restraint, as small as it was, of the Americans; so what did they do?  Did they produce a better way of war?  Not at all.  What followed the U.S. withdrawal was far worse than anything that occurred during the war. 
            I know the anti-war Blogblather will refer to agent orange and the bombings.  I would agree with him on that up to a point.  We went over there to support our ally, South Vietnam, but our tactics were flawed.  We did not fully understand that an enemy like the North Vietnamese could not be defeated solely from the air.  We probably still don't understand that.  Clinton's war in the Balkans seems to have been successful from high altitude (in order to avoid the "body bags" which were the anathema of the Vietnam war).  Today we have more sophisticated air-borne weapons than we did then; so the "hope" that we can fight a war without losing many of our own soldiers is still with us.
            But is the hope that there will be no more war realistic?  I don't believe so.  It isn't "the system" that causes war, neither our system nor any other system.  It is human nature.  But what is "human nature," the absurdist-anarchist will challenge?  Without attempting to define all that it is or all that it isn't, we have good evidence that we as a species have always been warlike.  Having said that, we have learned that periods of peace occur when a single power has defeated all the others -- or has become so powerful that none of the others challenge it.  We have levels of wealth and technology that are new to our species.  There is a lot of "other employment" in the twenty-first century for our species to be interested in.  But "leaving our foxholes" isn't going to secure the peaceful enjoyment of that employment.  Coming to terms with our potential enemies may.  We are in interesting relationships with China, Russia, European nations, Japan and much of the rest of the world.  Despite Chomsky's criticism, we are not interested in fighting against all these nations militarily.  But we have learned the lesson that Jarry's followers didn't learn: pacifism doesn't eliminate war, it invites it. 
            We are remaining strong so that wars can be kept to a manageable number.  That won't be acceptable to Blogblather, but there is no coherent alternative.  The Blogblather's of the U.S. got their wish in the last presidential election and elected a leader after their own hearts, but that leader was not content to live in incoherent hope.  He learned to deal with the rest of the world as it actually existed.  He learned to study the difficulties of the Middle East and ended up taking a position not dissimilar from his predecessor.  The success in Iraq, now, some are saying, will be Obama's "crowning glory."   Do I need to emphasize the irony involved in that?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi's opening night -- and Chomsky

            That the "Banquet Years" were to a large extent the outgrowth of the French Anarchists isn't something one is permitted to lose sight of.  Probably, many in those days viewed the changes in art and music as progress.  But from our perspective, the years between 1885 and 1918 were at best a cul de sac to which one can go and appreciate a piece or two by Eric Satie, a few primitive paintings by Henri Rousseau . . . and something Alfred Jarry.  Jarry is the third of four artists Roger Shattuck decided to concentrate upon.
            Jarry was wild enough to satisfy the anarchistic tastes of that period.  Consider his Ubu Roi, the play Shattuck seems to be putting forward as Jarry's magnum opus.  Here is his description of opening night:
            "December 11, 1896, the opening night, is worth describing in detail.  There had been nothing like it since the wild premiere of Victor Hugo's Hernani in 1830 . . . ."
            "Before the curtain went up, a crude table was brought out covered with a piece of old sacking.  Jarry appeared looking dead white, for he had made himself up like a streetwalker to face the footlights.  Nervously sipping from a glass, he spoke in his flattest, most clipped tones, for ten minutes . . . In these earnest nonsense lines Jarry was already insinuating that the play is more than it appears, that the true setting of farce is (like Poland, a country long condemned to the nonexistence of partition) an Eternity of Nowhere, and that contradiction is the mode of its logic.  The speech did not exactly insure a sympathetic reception. . . ."
            "' . . . the scenery was painted to represent, by a child's conventions, indoors and out of doors, and even the torrid, temperate, and arctic zones at once.  Opposite you, at the back of the stage, you saw apple trees in bloom, under a blue sky, and against the sky a small closed window and a fireplace . . . through the very midst of which . . . trooped in and out the clamorous and sanguinary persons of the drama.  On the left was painted a bed, and at the foot of the bed a bare tree and snow falling.  On the right there were palm trees . . . a door opened against the sky, and beside the door a skeleton dangled.  A venerable gentleman in evening dress . . . trotted across the stage on the points of his toes between every scene and hung the new placard on its nail.  (Studies in Seven Arts.)'
            "Gemier, swollen and commanding in his pear shaped costume (but without a mask, despite Jarry's campaign), stepped forward to speak the opening line -- a single word.  He had not known how to interpret the role until Lugne-Poe had suggested he imitate the author's own voice and jerky stylized gestures.  The midget Jarry truly sired the monster Ubu.  In a voice like a hammer, Gemier pronounce an obscenity which Jarry had appropriated to himself by adding one letter.
            "'Merdre,' Gemier said.  'Shite.'
            "It was fifteen minutes before the house could be silenced.  The mot de Cambronne had done its work; the house was pandemonium.  Those who had been lulled by Jarry's opening speech were shocked awake; several people walked out without hearing any more.  The rest separated into two camps of desperately clapping enthusiasts and whistling scoffers.  Fist fights started in the orchestra.  The critics were on the spot, their reactions observed by both sides. . . A few demonstrators simultaneously clapped and whistled in divided sentiments.  Malarme sat quiet, waiting to see more of the 'prodigious personage' to whose author he addressed a letter the following dy.  Jarry's supporters shouted, 'You wouldn't understand Shakespeare either.'  Their opponents replied with variations on the mot of the evening. . . ."
            "Finally, Gemier improvised a jig and sprawled out on the prompter's box.  His diversion restored enough order to allow the action to proceed to the next 'Merdre,' when the audience took over once more.  The interruptions continued for the rest of the evening. . .  Pere Ubu and Mere Ubu use language more scatological than erotic . . .   The curtain rang down that night and the next on the only two performances of Ubu Roi until it was revived by Gemier in 1908.  For the Theatre de l'Oeuvre it was the catastrophe that made it famous.
            "Also present in the house was a young Irishman by the name of William Butler Yeats.  Despite a very limited knowledge of the language, his description of the performance is worth repeating.  'I go to the 1st performance of Jarry's Ubu Roy, at the Theatre de l'Oeuvre, with Rhymer . . .  The audience shake their fists at one another, and Rhymer whispers to me, 'There are often duels after these performances,' and explains to me what is happening on the stage.  The players are supposed to be dolls, toys, marionettes, and now they are all hopping like wooden frogs, and I can see for myself that the chief personage, who is some kind of king carries for a sceptre a brush of the kind that we use to clean a closet.  Feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more.  I say, After S. Mallarme, after Verlaine, after G. Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after the faint mixed things of Conder, what more is possible?  After us the Savage God.  (Autobiography.)'
            "No event marks more clearly than this the close of one era and the imminence of another.  Yeats did not have to understand French to perceive the significance of Ubu, natural offspring of the turbulence of the nineties."
            COMMENT:   Most of us like a good joke, and perhaps this human characteristic stretches back to our beginning as a species.  But we have become so highly industrialized, sophisticated, and independent, perhaps we don't always realize that what we are watching or listening to ought to be viewed as a joke and not progress.  Some painters tried to imitate the "primitivism" of Henri Rousseau.   Shattuck doesn't imply that many tried to imitate Erik Satie; although, he tells us, he had an influence on many of the composers of his day.   And what of Alfred Jarry's influence?  I am only 211/360 through Shattuck's book and he hasn't said yet, but who can read of Pere Ubu without thinking of James Joyce?
            I wanted to pause here to consider the relation of what Shattuck says about Jarry's direction and Noam Chomsky.  Shattuck says of Jarry, "He left behind every standard, ethic, maxim, golden rule, and secret of success.  In the end his role implies new, almost nonhuman standards, and its most immediate significant aspect is the completeness of the transformation he wrought.   Everything in his universe had to yield to his power to change it.  Nothing escaped . . . ."   Some of what Shattuck says about Jarry must surely apply to Chomsky as well.  He has been fairly successful in his role as an anti-American anarchist; so he has been more successful than Jarry was, but Chomsky too has "left behind every standard, ethic, maxim . . . and Golden Rule."  And if one tries to take something Chomsky has said in attacking America and make it into a Kantian or Benthamite principle, Chomsky's attack can be seen for what it really is, illogical rant.
            Does this mean that Chomsky might be in sympathy with Jarry's desire to create his own universe and subject everything to his power?   Jarry didn't make the kind of money Chomsky does.  He couldn't afford good alcohol; so he resorted to ether which was a very inexpensive way to become intoxicated back then.  He died of influenza, but perhaps he wouldn't have if he hadn't been so weakened by poor eating habits and the ether.  And if he had gone on, as Chomsky has, would he not have been just as illogical, just as insistent on his own special view of the Universe?  He wouldn't have been anti-British back then, but I suspect he might have transformed himself into a pacifist if he had survived World War I.  Jarry attacked the Universe -- at least the part he was interested in -- as he found it.   The war became an easy target for the Anarchists, the intellectual Anarchists who filtered themselves through the Banquet Years, to oppose -- not so much that war that had just ended as any future wars.  We can see that sort of pacifism as illogical, but we have already seen that Anarchy is illogical almost by definition.  The pacifists who arose after World War I were not terribly worried by those who argued that their opposition to Britain's preparing for a new war against Germany, rendered their nation a serious disservice.  Anarchists, and anti-whatever-powers-that-happen-to-be, don't really care whether their nations are destroyed.  Like ee cummings who lived through this period, they can sanguinely let this Western World destroy itself because "Listen: there is a hell of a good universe next door.  Let's go."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Aijalon Mahli Gomes -- got to admire him

            Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a teacher from Boston who had been teaching English to South Koreans, decided to walk across the border into North Korea, knowing he would be arrested, with the intention of protesting North Korea's human rights abuses. 
            Assuming the absence of psychological problems, and the articles I read don't refer to any, I do admire someone so strongly convinced of his principles that he is willing to put his life on the line.  He is like the Christian martyrs of old -- albeit a modern Boston variety of one. 
            Will his sacrifice achieve the results he desires?  Maybe -- a little: ". . . North Korea expert Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University in Seoul said Gomes will likely be released without having to serve the prison term. He predicted North Korea would use him as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S. on its nuclear program.
            "'Continuing to hold him in custody is also a burden for North Korea,' as it will only galvanize criticism of its human rights record, Yoo said.
            "He said North Korea will likely press for payment of the fine, or at least a negotiated amount."
            COMMENT:   Much of what I've been reading recently has been critical of the idea that there are any fixed principles.  Heidegger more or less assumed that when he urged Germans to seek authentication in their heritage.   His idea, it seems to me, was that even though there are no fixed principles, one can be true to what is best in one's heritage or tradition.  He wasn't specific, but I thought the idea had merit.  Even people who don't believe in anything can seek the good from their tradition.  Sartre, following Heidegger a little, thought that one ought to look about, seek the best ideology at hand and follow that.  For Sartre that was Communism. 
            What was Aijalon Mahli Gome's "tradition."  To some extent it had to be Christianity, but he didn't travel into North Korea to convert the Communist pagans, he went there to protest their human rights abuses:  ". . . Gomes — described by friends as a devout Christian — attended rallies in Seoul in support of Park, a fellow Christian from the U.S. who deliberately went into the North in December to call attention to the nation's rights record.
            "A Seoul-based activist familiar with Gomes, Jo Sung-rae, said he might have been inspired by Park to make a similar trip.
            ""Gomes was weeping and he looked so sincere when he asked me if I knew anything about Robert Park's status in North Korea,' Jo said Wednesday."
            We are too used to hearing about the willingness of Islamists to sacrifice their lives for what they believe.  We hear to much about their desire to strap on bombs and blow up unbelievers.  It is refreshing to read about Gomes with a similar level of commitment, sacrificing himself in accordance with his Western, Christian, and (with hat doffed to Boston) Liberal traditions.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Revenge" -- Chenya, Chomsky, and Mary Beard

            The above article quotes the Doku Umarov, the Chechen leader who leads Islamic militants in Chechnya and other regions of Russia's North Caucasus as saying "this is revenge for killing of civilians by Russian Security."  I don't think the Chechen's know any more about "revenge" than Noam Chomsky knows about America's "guilt."  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Revenge: "Revenge (also known as vengeance) is a harmful action against a person or group as a response to a real or perceived grievance. Although many aspects of revenge resemble the concept of justice, revenge connotes a more injurious and punitive focus as opposed to a harmonious and restorative one. Whereas justice generally implies actions undertaken and supported by a legitimate judicial system, by a system of ethics, or on behalf of an ethical majority, revenge generally implies actions undertaken by an individual or narrowly defined group outside the boundaries of judicial or ethical conduct. The goal of revenge usually consists of forcing the perceived wrongdoer to suffer the same or greater pain than that which was originally inflicted."
             How does the killing of 39 people in a Moscow subway force wrongdoers "to suffer the same or greater pain" than the Chechen's suffered?  In order for this to be a logical act, they need to show that the 39 people were "wrongdoers."  If they can't do that, and I don't think they can, then they need to produce an argument to explain their reasoning -- that is, if they wish to be "perceived" by the rest of us as reasonable.  Even mad people have their reasons for doing what they do.  Some mad people are even coherent enough to explain them to their doctors.  But what are the Chechen's reasons?  They can describe how they suffered injury.  That is fairly easy to understand, but how do they connect the 39 people on the subway to their injury.
            Mary Beard engaged in Doku Umarov's rationalization (I'll use that word for want of a better) when she claimed that 9/11 was "chicken's coming home to roost."  It obviously didn't surprise her that Islamic radicals blew up the World Trade Center.  She could see it as an act of "revenge," but is it?  The Islamists who blew up the WTC were vague about their grievances and make no attempt to connect the people who worked in the WTC with those grievances.  They would have been happy to kill all of them, but why?  What is the reasoning behind their act?  How were the people who worked in the WTC perceived as "wrongdoers" by the young "martyrs" who flew passenger-planes into the Twin Towers? 
            Chomsky, who in some circles is perceived as a great thinker, engages in similar thinking when he blames modern day "America" for such things as slavery, giving Indians blankets contaminated with disease, killing off the buffalo and "Wounded Knee."  When he expresses his "anti-Americanism" he dwells at some length upon these early American wrongdoings.  He clearly wants these wrongdoings to count against present-day America.  If you like present-day America and support it, then you are a wrongdoer guilty of slavery and giving diseased blankets to Indians.   Chomsky doesn't bother with logic any more than Duku Umarov or Mary Beard.  How does the guilt of 18th century slave owners reflect upon a modern American whose ancestors never owned slaves or gave diseased blankets to Indians?
            But let's for the sake of argument assume some individual did have ancestors who were slave owners and other ancestors who gave diseased blankets to Indians, and knew it.  How does this individual share in the guilt of his ancestors?  It would be interesting if Chomsky could give up his polemics long enough to deal with a question like this.  I would ask this individual, "do you agree with what your ancestors did?"  If he said he did, then he is guilty of having defective morals.  But do his morals reflect upon America at large.  More than likely he will say he does not agree.  Most Americans would not.  Most Americas see that we "don't do those things anymore."  Most Americans we see that we have moved away from the immorality of those acts.  So moving the matter back to Chomsky how do either of these positions of this hypothetical individual reflect on modern-day America?
            Chomsky has no coherent argument.  Neither does Mary Beard.  Neither does Doku Umarov.  What these three have in common is blind unreasoning hatred and prejudice.  This is the sort of prejudice the slave owners felt toward black people in the South.  It is the sort of prejudice that the early American farmers felt toward the Indian.   It is the sort of prejudice that the Nazis felt against the Jews.  And it is the sort of prejudice Chomsky and Beard feel against America and Umarov feels against Russia.  Chomsky, practices and gives evidence in every speech of the sort of prejudice that he holds America accountable for, but he is guilty of that same sort of prejudice.  America has largely moved past theirs, but Chomsky still wallows in his.  Look first to the beam in thine own eye, Chomsky, before thou worry about the speck in thy brother's (to paraphrase something some place in the Bible).