Post-Totalitarian Society, Part I

In my recent appearance on Bloomberg News, where I called Edward Snowden a “national hero,” I tried to distinguish between the totalitarianism George Orwell conjured in 1984 and the “post-totalitarian society” Vaclav Havel depicted in his zamizdat manifesto of 1978, “The Power of the Powerless.” I actually mentioned Havel by name, hoping to cloak myself in his reputability.

Some friends and colleagues have urged me to explain this distinction, as a way to grasp both the scope of the NSA’s illegal searches and the nature of Snowden’s achievement-—that is, his heroism. I gave it a try and sent the result to my old friend Mike Fennell, suggesting he read it backward and asking for comments. His quick response was so bracing and stimulating that I have appended it to this post.

I begin here, in Part I, by assessing the charges against Snowden, from the personal to the political. By doing so, I hope to illustrate the extent to which we, the people, have become complicit in spying on ourselves, thus adept at disciplining ourselves on behalf of the state. I hope, that is, to illuminate the defining characteristic of a post-totalitarian society-—relying on ourselves to keep the peace. In rehearsing these charges, I move from the ridiculous to the sublime.

(1) Snowden contributed money to Ron Paul’s presidential bid, and thus validated this Republican’s racist past. My comrades on the Left have pressed the charge most consistently, in part because, after Brecht, they’re uncomfortable with the very idea of heroism. I would ask them to dispense with their worries about heroes and consider this Nietzschean axiom: “There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming: ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” I would also ask them to remember the simple fact that Paul’s intellectual background wasn’t common knowledge until press coverage of the Republican primaries brought it to light.

(2) Snowden is a “grand narcissist,” just looking to get attention. This was Jeffrey Toobin’s early accusation in The New Yorker, which I’ve heard repeated many times since. David Brooks hinted at the same conclusion in his New York Times column on Snowden, characterizing the man as a “solitary naked individual,” a product of “the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds.” Quite apart from the vacancy of narcissism as a concept or a psychological category, what kind of narcissist risks his future and even his life to save constitutionally guaranteed rights of privacy and free speech from their enemy in the state, thus upholding the founding principle of American politics—-viz., the sovereignty of the people, the supremacy of society over the state?

(3) “He signed a contract and didn’t keep to it,” or, “He violated an oath and betrayed his employers if not the U.S.” Brooks peddled this line in the same column cited above, but I’ve heard it dozens of times in person, most recently in the Green Room at Bloomberg News, from a Senior Vice-President at MasterCard who held herself up as a model of integrity: “I signed a confidentiality agreement just like he did, and I wouldn’t break it.” I asked her how she’d feel if she knew that abiding by this agreement would harm thousands of people by violating their most basic rights-—if she knew, consequently, that carrying out her duties as a corporate vice-president put the public interest and the American republic itself at risk.

She waved that question away, but it can’t be evaded. The most binding oath, the one that military men and women take, requires them to disobey the orders of their superior officers if they believe that carrying out such orders would violate the rules of war, which include protection of the human rights of non-combatants. Snowden might have betrayed the interests of his employer, Booz Allen, but he upheld a higher good, a more compelling interest, by refusing to keep the NSA’s illegal searches secret, thus refusing to sacrifice the rights of his fellow citizens in the name of Booz Allen’s bottom line.

(4) By seeking asylum in Russia, Snowden has undermined any claim to be interested in the sanctity of human rights; for even (or especially) in its post-Soviet phase of development, this state acts as if the rudimentary rights of free speech, privacy, and fair trials are a joke. The charge might hold if Snowden had designated Russia as his final destination, or had endorsed the Putin regime, or had leaked NSA documents to Russian authorities. But of course he hasn’t done any such thing (and here I rely on reporting from the New York Times). He sought asylum there because the U.S. government revoked his passport and prevented his departure for his preferred destination(s).

(5) Snowden is no hero of human rights because he can’t be compared to the civil rights leaders who deliberately broke the laws and gladly accepted the sanctions that followed, including jail time; to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Times; or to the Eastern European dissidents (like Havel himself) who destroyed Soviet totalitarianism by peaceful but unlawful means. Snowden’s civil disobedience does not qualify him for inclusion in this pantheon because he fled the country rather than stay at home and stand trial, where he could make his case to the American people. Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker and the University of Connecticut has offered the most forceful version of the charge; but I’ve also heard it from several academics and prize-winning historians who have written eloquently about civil rights struggles. Here’s how Cobb states it:

“The cornerstone achievements in American rights were attainable precisely because their proponents refused to avoid consequences for their dissent. . . . During the civil rights movement, the young activists of SNCC adopted a ‘Jail, No Bail’ strategy not only because of the financial burdens of raising money but also because their willingness to remain in prison, to suffer for their cause, eroded the moral standing of the men responsible for their arrests. . . . Daniel Ellsberg endorsed Snowden’s actions, but Ellsberg himself remained within the U.S. after he released the Pentagon papers. Had he fled the country, the Nixon administration might not have pursued the actions that ultimately brought its own demise. . . . This year marks the 50th anniversary of MLK’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ A half-century after supporters smuggled King’s out of the facility and oversaw its publication, it remains the clearest distillation of the meaning and implications of dissent. Edward Snowden is a figure of current events, but if he wishes to become a figure of history or, more crucially, advance the important arguments he has forced us to think about, he should return to the U.S. ‘Dispatch From an Undisclosed Location’ simply doesn’t carry the same weight.”

But the civil rights standard analogy can’t work in this instance, unless we’re willing to broaden it to include Malcolm X’s prescient efforts to “import the social question” by accusing the U.S. of human rights violations under the terms of the UN Charter.

Why won’t the civil rights analogy work? First, there is the tricky difference between foreign and domestic policy. These have been mixed up in the Snowden case, of course, because the FISA guidelines permit routine surveillance of exchanges between US citizens and foreign nationals by the NSA; but one of Snowden’s revelations, as the Obama administration’s White Paper acknowledged, is that the distinction makes no difference. The FBI spied on MLK, to be sure, but if he had leaked or documented his knowledge of COINTELPRO, would he have been subject to indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, or a military tribunal, on the grounds that he had compromised national security? Was he ever formally accused of espionage, was he ever indicted or incarcerated for such a capital offense?

Edward Snowden has already been formally charged with espionage by a government that has yet to acknowledge any limits on its legal scope or military power in fighting a “war on terror.” If he returns to the U.S. to be tried for this charge, his trial cannot be public because on national security grounds, the NSA, the CIA, and the Justice Department will not present evidence in a court of law that they have refused to disclose to the Congress, let alone the press and the larger public.

For Snowden to reenact the example of “civil disobedience” would, then, be to silence himself and his sources. Is that what we wanted or expected from Daniel Ellsberg, who had the cooperation of the paper of record? Who could count on the support of the Supreme Court as well as the liberal media, not to mention a social movement that had made the war in Vietnam the central issue of the time? Is silence what we want from this moment of doubt about the reliability and the resilience of these media?

Second, in our circumstances, the scope of the state’s power is aided, abetted, approved, and excused by the very liberal media that, in the civil rights era, took the other side. Edward Snowden already stands charged with espionage by the United States. But his crimes against the state are clear only if you grant the extant, infinite definition of state power claimed by the masterminds at the NSA, the judges at FISA, Obama’s lawyers in the Justice Department, and all the compliant pundits, from Jeffrey Toobin and Thomas Friedman to David Brooks-—not to mention David Simon and his ultra-liberal ilk-—who can say or do anything they want on behalf of this Leviathan because its dimensions must remain unknown, even to its most ardent defenders.

So, in the absence of the old-time urge to speak truth to power, except where the McClatchy Newspapers get published, what’s a dissident who has massive evidence of unconstitutional and unlawful government conduct supposed to do? Stay home and be forever silenced by the merry collaboration of the executive branch and The New Yorker? Or go into exile, with some hope of asylum because there are nation-states with grievances against the US?

(6) Edward Snowden is invoking a right to privacy that was expressly denied by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland (1978), when it decided that a customer’s provision of personal information to telephone companies was voluntary. From this standpoint, there is nothing illegal or even untoward about the NSA’s bulk collection of telephony metadata. The legality and legitimacy of undisclosed government surveillance with respect to telephony have been repeatedly confirmed, moreover, by formal Congressional approval, first of the FISA courts in 1978 and then Section 215 of the revised Patriot Act: the wire has long been a staple of law enforcement and intelligence gathering. Snowden’s breach of confidentiality and national security is all the more egregious, then, because he is defending a right that doesn’t exist against a state that hasn’t violated the law, whether statutory or constitutional.

This specious claim is the basic content of David Simon’s blog rant against Snowden, which Thomas Friedman then borrowed for his Times column; of the White Paper cited above; and of Judge William Pauley’s recent decision in favor of the NSA.

Here’s Friedman introducing Simon:

“So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.”‘

Here’s Simon himself:

“You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope. … The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. … I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. … The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. … The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

It is of course true that we, the people, don’t know of any actual abuse, but that is because the whole program has been conducted in secret: we don’t know anything about it. Simon’s “more fundamental” question can’t be addressed, let alone answered, until we do know enough to make a judgment. Friedman doesn’t even raise a question because he takes it on faith that “our government” must be protecting us from “real, not imagined threats,” as it clearly did in 1964 (Gulf of Tonkin), 1983 (Grenada), and 2003 (Iraq).

The White Paper is by it nature more circumspect than these cheerleaders could be. Still, it’s as mindless as the opinions offered by Friedman and Simon.

Part II of this document could be called “Why the Program is Legal.” The point here is that the collection and analysis of telephone metadata by the NSA at the request of the FBI and with the approval of FISA courts complies with Section 215 of the revised Patriot Act. Notice that at 14 pages, this is by far the longest part of the White Paper, composing about 60% of the total—-by contrast, Part III, which could be called “Why the Program is Constitutional,” is four pages, only about 17% of the total.

Part II uses the very specific language of Section 215 regarding “authorized investigations,” “tangible things” discovered in searches—-yes, electronic storage qualifies as such a thing—-the “relevance” of any suspect, lead, or information in authorizing investigations, and “prospective orders” of surveillance based on reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause. The rhetorical move here is always to compare what the NSA is doing to routine police work, where these legal categories and imperatives determine the contours of any investigation.

The analogy cannot hold, of course, and the White Paper authors, whoever they may be, acknowledge this awkward fact in two interesting ways. On the one hand, they keep canceling their own comparison with invocations of the state’s interest in national security—-“even if” you could object to our Law & Order analogy, they keep saying, we’d have to tell you about terrorism and explain why the DA’s rules are moot-—and on the other hand they exhaust themselves in an increasingly circular argument about relevance.

The “relevance” argument takes up seven pages of the White Paper, about a third of the whole. Why? Because the category has not hitherto applied and cannot apply to the bulk collection of data, meta or no. Until now it has borne the moral and legal weight of specific circumstance, not crimes still uncommitted by conspiracies that haven’t yet convened. And because “relevance” is the central criterion by which a judge outside of FISC decides whether to authorize an investigation using modern methods of surveillance (short of bulk collection). If legal authorization of an investigation is predicated on relevance—particularity, specificity, actual or impending crime—but the bulk collection of (meta)data denies the very possibility of relevance because it subjects virtually everyone to random search, the argument becomes hopelessly circular.

The perfunctory Part III of the White Paper, on the constitutionality of The Program, validates the circularity of Part II.

There are three claims here. First, a Section 215 order for the bulk collection of telephone metadata “is not a ‘search’ as to any individual” because the Supreme Court expressly held in Smith v. Maryland (1979) that telephone users have no reasonable expectation of privacy because they’ve already relinquished information to a third party (the telephone company). Second, the 4th Amendment bestows only a “personal right” against unlawful searches—a right that “must be invoked by an individual,” and thus “may not be vicariously asserted” in the name of any others (the key cite is Minnesota v. Carter [1998]) Third, “lawful investigative activities conducted in good faith” do not violate the 1st Amendment.

So if you thought that the NSA surveillance program was an intrusion on your constitutional right to privacy and protection from unlawful searches, Not To Worry! It can’t be such an intrusion, you see, because the Government—-the word is capitalized throughout—-doesn’t know who you are: it doesn’t sample the verbal content of your telephone conversations, and you don’t know what the Government is doing because it can’t tell you, for your own good.

(7) Snowden’s actions don’t acknowledge that we are engaged in a “war on terror”—-a war against unconventional combatants, unseen enemies, decentered cadres, trans-national movements, and so on, all of which require a new balance between national security and individual liberty. His theft of NSA data was profoundly naïve, in this sense, and therefore dangerous; for the bulk collection of telephony metadata could well have prevented the catastrophe of 9/11, and subsequent terrorist attacks.

This is the argument presented, or rather the assumption embodied, in Judge William Pauley’s recent decision rejecting the ACLU’s claim against the NSA’s program. It is as empty, as specious, as the notion that the NSA has been operating within statutory law or constitutional constraint. Robert Mueller’s testimony notwithstanding, in 2000 the NSA was already able to identify the location of a suspected terrorist who became one of the 9/11 hijackers, and was also able to identify his father’s residence, where most of the suspect’s calls were directed. There is, moreover, no evidence whatsoever that the bulk collection of telephony data since then has prevented another attack—-none.

So the argument for the NSA’s secret program boils down to a justification of a “war on terror.”
But a “war on terror” cannot be won. There are no military means with which any state can defeat a terrorist movement, as the most cursory look at the historical record would show, from the Russian anarchists to the IRA, the Irgun, and the PLO. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. It subsists by erasing the distinction between state and society, combatant and civilian, public and private, enemies and innocents. But that is precisely the logic offered by the NSA when it insists that the bulk collection of telephony metadata is necessary because the difference between enemies and innocents is unknowable. No state can long indulge this terrorist logic as the justification for its constant deployment of armed force; for by doing so it places its legitimacy—-the consent of the governed and the acquiescence of the oppressed-—at risk. It solicits and enables not merely active “dissent” in the form of political opposition, but everyday resistance in the more insidious and effective form of cynicism or resentment. The politics follow from the resistance, not the other way around.

In Part II, I will take up Havel’s notion of a “post-totalitarian society” by way of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, the presiding intellectual spirits of “The Power of the Powerless.” For the time being, I hope that this summary of the charges against Edward Snowden indicates two salient facts. First, both the defense and the critique of the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata is a symptom of the dispersal of power from state to society, not a new rationale for or critique of state power, as against civil society. Second, the critique is more promising than the defense, simply because it assumes that our consent to and complicity in surveillance is predicated on our prior knowledge of it.

HERE FOLLOWS MIKE FENNELL’S RESPONSE:

Reading this backward makes the last sentence, especially, and the last paragraph sound too optimistic. I would assert the opposite: The critique of the program cannot be the more promising development precisely because it arose only after we “read the charges” so to speak–had them made “real” by seeing them in print. This is a child’s excuse for willful ignorance. The crimes were always there and we knew it–every 9th grader has read Animal Farm and we all grew up on “Three Days of The Condor” and James Bond. Dick Cheney especially didn’t fool anyone. We liked the idea of Darth Vader at the helm.

But that’s why the re-authorization of sec. 215 of The Patriot Act is so troubling. The childish, willful ignorance was a representative act by Congress. They chose to not know what was in there as an act of good faith representation. They knew, as we all do, that to know what the state is up to is to be responsible for it and, as Americans, to dissent, or at least open ourselves to dangerous argument. Once we/they take that step, the next attack is on them/us.

That is to say, reading backwards also got me thinking about what could possibly account for the bizarre language you cite here–from the critics of Snowden to the District Court rulings. I get the creepy feeling that the words themselves don’t make any sense because we are beyond speaking rationally. Perhaps the “Paranoid Style” has met technological promise?

So I think the route from here goes through Chapter 5 of The World Turned Inside Out and The Technology of Desire in particular (again with the Althusser). I think our faith–and what else can you call it really–in the NSA, and our ambivalence about the consequences of surrender to it, looks like an Oedipal struggle with the Cyborg. The idea of post-totalitarianism–leading the state in our own subjection–almost seems sensible if we believe that the enemy here is unknown, unseen yet omnipresent. Such an enemy might call for total resistance, total war, total control–all things we know ourselves to be incapable of. We have the technology now to “Report Suspicious Activity” all around, and to insure that “Loose Lips (don’t) Sink Ships” that we didn’t have in the olden days of omnipresent enemies. All we have to do is trust the “being” that has total capability.

If my reading is not too far fetched, the thing we do not trust–what really scares us–is the man behind the curtain; Snowden in this case. That’s why his critics insist on minimizing the case only to his motives and personality and ignore their own complicity.

And what do they imagine there is in this Matrix if not people like Snowden who will always muck it up somehow? I mean follow their reasoning to the end–what’s left after the human error, desire, avarice, prurience is deducted from this system?

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the District Court(s), Friedman and others and the White House itself mimic in the broadest sense, Sara Connor: “He was more of a father than any man could be”–in a flash of light an unstoppable assassin becomes an indefatigable protector. Totally whatever you need him to be (as long as his/its properly programmed CPU lasts).

I feel a ghostly “Hamletization” coming on so I’ll stop while I’m behind.

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Edward Snowden, National Hero

Here’s the clip from my session at Bloomberg News today, on Snowden’s Xmas message. It’s slightly truncated at both ends, so look at the message before you view this. The opening question is “Does he have a point” in comparing our situation with the fiction of Orwell’s 1984?

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/i-see-snowden-as-a-national-hero-livingston-dhWa1rH4Qs69404qPpHvOA.html

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Reactionary Critique, or, Fuck Full Employment

Pope Francis recently declared that “Where there is no work, there is no dignity.” This utterance was in keeping with John Paul II’s extraordinary encyclical of 1981, “On Human Work,” a profoundly Hegelian meditation on the master/slave dialectic and the meanings of necessary labor—-I read it with great curiosity because I was then in my own Hegelian phase, and because I thought it was another sign of the “third way” that had been (re)emerging in Eastern Europe since the late 1950s.

I’m not as excited by Pope Francis as my comrades, though, because John Paul II turned out to be the intellectual thug who erased the legacy of liberation theology, and because the Church’s genuine opposition to capitalism has taken deeply reactionary forms since 1892, with the publication of Rerum Novarum. Meanwhile, I would note, communism and fascism embodied equally reactionary forms of the same intellectual opposition: as social movements, they were both anti-liberal and anti-capitalist. Not incidentally, they also glorified productive labor and denounced the parasites of monopoly or finance capital.

I’m reminded of this ugly correlation—-of the fact that the critics of capitalism often come from the right wing of the political spectrum—-by Thomas Edsall’s website column on the safety net in the New York Times, posted 12/20/2013. Here’s the bottom line of his argument, which he derives from Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute:

“The economics of survival have forced millions of men, women, and children to rely on ‘pity-charity liberal capitalism’ [transfer payments, entitlements, etc.; this is Konczal’s locution]. The state has now become the resource of last resort, consigning just the people progressives would like to turn into a powerful force for reform to a condition of subjugation—-living out their lives on government subsidies like Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and now Obamacare.” (my italics)

Now, Thomas Byrne Edsall is no reactionary. He is by any political measure a progressive. And yet the implications of this argument are, to me at any rate, profoundly conservative if not downright reactionary. Notice, to begin with, how the welfare state appears exactly as it does in Paul Ryan’s dream world, as the oppressor of the poor—-a greedy bureaucracy that produces dependence. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that this paragraph was written by a Tea Party enthusiast, particularly in view of the reference to Obamacare as a “government subsidy” that will subjugate the poor, to be sure, but also create a permanent constituency for the Democrats, the party of “pity-charity liberal capitalism.”

Notice, then, that the only alternative to this benignly fascistic version of liberalism is a “bold” public policy commitment to full employment. On this Konczal and Edsall are extremely emphatic. It’s a bleak, even barren horizon they conjure.

Between work on the one hand and dependence on the other—-between having a job and being subjugated-—there is nothing to be seen or done, not from their standpoint. Quite apart from the logical inconsistency of this “alternative”—-a policy of full employment will create a class of public servants who are at least as dependent on the state’s largesse as anybody who receives Medicaid—-you have to wonder how Konczal and Edsall made their way back to the 19th century, when the either/or choice between work and dependence was a cultural commonplace because the material footings for a welfare state hadn’t yet been laid.

That is not the choice before us. And Thomas Edsall, of all people, ought to know it.

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The Smartest Dude at the Times?

Does anybody procure the New York Times for its news coverage? Nah.

For its cutting-edge coverage of the culture industry? Probably not. OK, you go looking for David Carr on Mondays, you wonder what A. O. Scott or Manohla Dargis will make of a movie you want to see, you’re pretty sure that Neil Genzlinger and Alessandra Stanley will say something interesting about the TV programs you don’t want to watch. Until Dwight Garner decided Katie Roiphe was a great writer, you’d read his book reviews all the way through, to make up for the fact that you never got past the first two paragraphs of Michiko Kakutani’s fussy pronouncements.

Still, “Arts & Leisure” is not why you subscribe.

Let’s be honest. Whether you’re holding the hard copy or noodling with the iPad, the first thing you do as a sentient, caffeine-driven being is go to the Opinion pages. But the op-eds are mostly homework, things you have to read just to feel like you know what’s happening at the middlebrow level of intellectual controversy—they’re abridged editions of essays you’d read at The Atlantic or The New Republic or The American Prospect.

In short, you can’t expect anything from the op-eds because they’re about everything. So you start at the back of the front section to see what the regular columnists are up to.

And now, among these, who’s the smartest dude—the one you turn to first and last? The one you can count on to say something that will (a) enrich or amplify what you have only surmised, (b) change the way you think, or (c) move you to inspect your premises? I don’t mean that this columnist has to bring you a weekly conversion experience. I mean that he or she is more or less than predictable. He or she makes a habit of violating your expectations—making it new from week to week.

Nominations are now open. In order of preference determined by these criteria, my choices are: Ross Douthat, Thomas Byrne Edsall, Stanly Fish, Mark Bittman, and Paul Krugman.

Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins don’t qualify because both are reaching for the title of snarkiest kid on the block, the former by imitating the alliterative idiocies of William Safire and following Leon Wieselthier’s lead on everything, the latter by alerting us to the provincialisms of state politics in what she styles as a kinder, gentler mood than the locus classicus, H. L. Mencken.

Thomas Friedman and David Brooks don’t qualify because each has charged himself with the impossible task of deciphering the future by means of personal anecdote, anthropological energy, and the current state of social science. They’ll grasp at any straw if it lets them suck a sound bite out of what their research assistants pour into their liquefied brains. Friedman will say anything that comes into his head about globalization, no matter how inane. Brooks will say anything that comes into his head. And yet you’re never surprised by what they say.

Charles Blow doesn’t qualify because he’s there to fill the shoes of Bob Thomas—to remind us that race matters. He’s brilliant on the question of public opinion (how to measure it, how to interpret it), but his columns typically function as a kind of retort to criticism, from both Left and Right, of Obama’s policies and sensibilities.

As for Nicholas Kristof, Joe Nocera, Frank Bruni, and usually at the remove of the website, Timothy Egan. Has any one of them ever written something that made you think harder, or differently? Have they articulated anything apart from liberal pieties? Nah.

OK, so why Douthat, Edsall, Fish, Bittman, Krugman, again in that order? Range of interest, depth of perception, to begin with. None of them is satisfied with the corporate liberal order as it’s presently constituted, and each is equipped to criticize it in fundamental ways, by examining the assumptions that legitimate it rather than remaining at the level of this or that policy. Bittman and Krugman are the most confined in these terms—they walk a beat, whereas the other three have slipped into plain clothes—but they, too, have become more and more radical in their criticisms of business as usual.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Let the argument begin.

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Happy Holidays

I forgot the cleaning lady was coming today, so the place was a mess when she arrived at noon. Usually I try to pick up after myself before she gets here, just to maintain some semblance of self-respect: empty beer cans, sexual devices, controlled substances, and unfinished song lyrics are stowed safely, out of sight. And yes, I do have a cleaning lady, it’s better than listening to my girlfriend lecture me on my hygienic lapses and their bacterial results—-also cheaper, if, like Marx, you count the “historical and moral element” in calculating the costs of being human.

This girlfriend wrote a whole book about such lapses, and, more to the point, why women are more determined to clean up after everybody. OK, not a whole book, but a very long chapter on Dirt, in The Female Thing (2006). Here’s what I avoid by paying the cleaning lady $40 an hour:

“Our apertures make us permeable, but we desire not to be—or only under those special circumstances, like sexual attraction or when in love, and even then the desired permeability is frequently achieved only in tragically defended and self-limiting ways. Besides which, for most of our lives, unfortunately we are not in love, meaning that the bodies of others often produce anxious aversion in lieu of desire; disgust is always right around the corner. And who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly turning that corner, after which things just aren’t the same, and those little physical traits that were once endearing suddenly seem . . . really gross. Or obscurely angering. How many marriages could have been saved by separate bathrooms?” (pp. 88-89)

My place is a one-bedroom apartment, no chance of separate bathrooms. But the bathroom does have two sinks and matching medicine cabinets; mine is full of drugs, hers is stuffed with makeup. Besides, my girlfriend doesn’t live here full-time: she’s got her own bathroom downtown. So neither of us has turned that corner on disgust, not yet.

I knew today was going to be different, I could sense it in my unfounded animus toward my friendly and competent cleaning lady. When she arrives, I want to say “Get the fuck out of here, Vickie, I have shit to do!” Instead I mutter a greeting and vow to ignore her until I write the grand end-of-year check with a big tip, when I can smile benignly and bequeath season’s greetings by spending money on cleanliness.

She starts as usual by stripping the bed, but today it’s the center of a disaster area littered with beer cans, used towels, the machine that ices my replacement knee, books I won’t bend to pick up, and the more random detritus an invalid produces in two days of isolation. It takes her much longer than usual to make the room navigable. “What this, beer cooler?” she asks of the ice machine. “Yeah, that’s a cooler, a very special one,” I say, pointing to my knee.

“What wrong with knee?”

“Ah, well, nothing now, it got replaced, it just hurts a lot. On its way to not hurting.”

Then she starts scrubbing in the galley kitchen across from my workplace, which is a barstool at the counter that officially separates the cooking from the thinking and the writing that take place here. There’s a division of labor for you. I’m always facing the Viking range, I realize, as I tap out these words. I like the angle because it reminds me that I’m here for good, in this beautiful new apartment equipped with a Subzero fridge and that Viking range and Bosch appliances (dishwasher, microwave, washer/dryer). I’m not leaving New York, ever, I know this just by looking at the stove. It’s a splendid view, and a comforting sight.

“What you do to stove,” she says, “I do nothing.” She’s been wiping and polishing the Viking range for five minutes already. “I do nothing, it stay on. I turn off, nothing.”

“What are you talking about,” I say, but I’m already alerted to the possibility of liability—-blame—-by the repetition of the nothings and the question that preceded them.

“This, see, I turn, won’t go off. Still on.”

“What’s on?”

“Oven on, burning, here,” and she points upward from her crouched position, to where the broiler’s flames are now licking the outside of the oven’s open mouth, obscenely inviting me to intervene.

I limp around the counter and tell her to get out of the way–suddenly she seems frantic, and I swear I can smell fear, but I don’t know if it’s hers or mine. By this time the fire alarm is going off, so I roll out the Miele fan about the stove and close the oven, but I realize that this last move will just heat the thing up faster. I grab a chair, sit down in front of the Viking and start playing with the knobs, moving one to another position, using an insulated glove now to turn them because the unit is so fucking hot. I ask myself, does it blow up if I don’t turn it off? I tell Vickie to open the back door.

I decide to get safe. I call 911, explaining very carefully to all respondents that this is not an emergency but may yet require the Fire Department’s attention. Meanwhile I call Viking, whose operator gives me three numbers of certified appliance repairmen, warning me however that the backup is deep this time of year. My call to the guy with the 212 area code verifies the warning: the first appointment available is on December 30.

Then the party starts. First three firemen wielding pikes and axes, wearing helmets that bang up against the Miele fan as they move the stove out from the wall and cut the gas connection. Then two guys from Con Edison who test the firemen’s handiwork and confirm the cutoff with paperwork, everybody busting the balls of the other party. And then two uniformed police officers arrive, explaining apologetically that they’re probably uninvited guests, just in the neighborhood answering a call. More balls busted all around.

The party lasts a half hour, and the whole time I’m thinking, “You gotta love this town.” Where else would a call to 911 produce seven public servants within twenty minutes? The cost of living may be high, but the benefits are higher: living here, I tell myself, is a good investment.

The doorman and the super have checked in by the time everybody clears out. But the cleaning lady remains, polishing that Viking range as if she could force it back to life with the mere friction of her vigorous motions.

“I think we can give up on that old hound,” I say, scolding myself immediately for using an idiomatic expression she won’t understand. I’m back on my stool across the counter, facing the range, wondering what she thinks she’s doing.

“Off, yes, but no clean,” she says. “I clean, before I go.”

“Don’t bother,” I say. I write her end-of-year check with a flourish. “Here’s your check, Vickie. Happy Holidays.”

She looks at the check and nods, nothing more. Still, I smile benignly as she leaves.

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Peter Beinart Stops Making Sense

I hope it’s clear that I’m a fan of Peter Beinart, particularly the writing he did for The Daily Beast. I admire his rhetorical scruples, his strict adherence to the necessary sequence of the argument at hand, and, generally speaking, I agree with the conclusions he reaches (for example, the conclusions of the piece on the emergence of a new American Left). Beinart is a Zionist, but he’s also a realist-—he understands that AIPAC is an impediment to peace, and that the recent damage done to Israel’s standing as a sovereign state is a self-inflicted wound.

So I’m surprised by his response to the American Studies Association’s resolution in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. It makes no sense. I mean that as emphatically as I can: Beinart’s response amounts to non-sense. But for that reason—-precisely because the response is both ignorant of and out of proportion to the provocation—-it is instructive. The hysterical form tells us that by now, rational grounds are unavailable to even the most realistic Zionists.

To demonstrate this unfortunate proposition, I will quote Beinart at length. I begin where he dismisses the charge of anti-semitism, but begins to sound like William Bennett or Lynne Cheney rising to the defense of Western Civilization.

“But as far as I’m aware, the ASA has no record of hostility to Jews. . . . What it does have, like many other left-wing academic groups, is a record of hostility to the West. In 1998, the ASA announced that it would boycott California and Washington State for their anti-affirmative action laws (it later rescinded the boycotts).”

Well, OK, I admit these are western states. Still, how does a defense of affirmative action entail hostility to western civilization? As if it’s self-evident, Beinart moves on:

“In 2003, [the ASA] condemned the Patriot Act.” Yes, along with the ACLU and the larger Left, which were insisting on the rights inscribed in that monument to Enlightenment-—western civilization-—we call the U.S. Constitution.

“In 2005, it condemned America’s embargo of Cuba. In 2006, it condemned the war in Iraq.”

All true, and uniformly inconsequential. Where is he going with this chronology? How does Beinart interpret these innocuous acts as instances of hostility to the West as such?

“Because for the global left, imperialism is the great sin of the modern world. And only Western governments and institutions—the U.S., South Africa, the World Bank, IMF and now, Israel, can commit it” (my italics). The ASA has no double standard that allows it to conduct business as usual with, say, China, while condemning Israel for its human rights violations. No, the unitary standard that determines the recent resolution is an anti-imperialism that is always already animated by the detection of Euro-American racism:

“For institutions like the ASA, Israel’s real crime is not being a country where Jews rule non-Jews. It’s being a country where, in their view at least, whites rule non-whites.”

Hello? It is true that the vernacular rhetoric of occupation in Israel often echoes the sounds of segregation in the American South and of apartheid in South Africa. But since when did imperialism require racism as its essential ingredient? Whether it does or not, is Beinart claiming that race is the central category in deciphering the ASA resolution? Is the ASA resolution itself framed in these terms?

It goes without saying that a state that rules in the name of one race at the expense of another cannot be legitimate. In Beinart’s view, the ASA’s resolution assumes that Israel is such a racist state. Otherwise he couldn’t reach the following conclusion: “This is the fundamental problem: not that the ASA is practicing a double standard and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”

But the ASA resolution denies no such thing. It doesn’t mention imperialism, or race, or Jews, or even a two-state solution. It emphasizes violations of academic freedom and human rights.

So, I repeat: Peter Beinart’s response to the ASA resolution is ignorant of and out of proportion to the actual provocation. It is hysterical in the clinical sense—-it treats its own inventions as a threat that comes from elsewhere, from outside. But if he’s the best Zionism can offer, the debate is already over.

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The Devil’s Anus, or, Life in Hell

“If I could get out this bed, I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”

This proclamation came from my roommate on Seven Garden North, Room 452, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, 165 Fort Washington, on Wednesday, December 11, at 1:23 AM. We were separated by a curtain. Neither of us could see the other, but I could still smell the shit he had taken upon my arrival, at 3:00 PM the previous day. “Do you have some air freshener,” my girlfriend whispered to the nurse who carried the bedpan at arm’s length, as if he were a priest bearing the host. Her nostrils closed, her eyes widened as the offering passed us; she was breathing through her mouth. The nurse just nodded.

I had had a partial knee replacement at noon on Tuesday; old John had broken his hip in a fall on Sunday, and had had it replaced on Monday. By 8:00 PM, I knew his name and his entire medical history from listening to his continuous phone conversations. More specifically, I knew he was a junkie, and not just because the nurse happily announced she was delivering methadone at 4:10. I also knew he was an alcoholic because at 7:35 he told his sullen daughter that he wasn’t drunk when he fell down his own steps.

At 12:35 AM I had politely asked him to wrap up a conversation that had already lasted over an hour, mainly about how Bill Dee Bee Blazeeo locked up the black vote by trading on his wife’s race. At 12:50, I told him he had to stop talking so that I could get some sleep. At 1:10, I buzzed the nurse and when he arrived at 1:15, I said, “Look, this guy’s been on the phone since 11:15, can you tell him I need some quiet? He won’t listen to me.”

The nurse explained to old John that my position was reasonable—-so, no more phone conversations-—and that the TV would also have be turned off.

Old John said, “I been here since Sunday, he just got here, why he get this, uh, privilege, yeh, privilege? Why he get the morphine and I get this over-the-counter shit? I hear him pushin’ that button all day, what’s that about, huh?”

“Seniority doesn’t count in hospitals,” I said. “It’s your condition that matters.”

“Shut up, nigger, nobody talkin’ to you.”

“Oh for Chrissakes,” I said, “who’s writing your lines, Tarantino? David Mamet?” I was high on morphine.

The nurse diverted the patient by asking if he needed some pain medication, and then fled to fetch the meds; as soon as he was gone, at 1:23, the old man turned his full attention to me. That’s when he said, “If I could get out this bed I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said, “you can’t move and neither can I. We’re both ‘prisoners of the system, ‘ John. My knee, your hip, these disallow our further engagement. So shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”

“I’m a kill you, motherfucker, I’m a make some phone calls—-“

“Fine, make some calls, just not tonight,” I said. “Go the fuck to sleep.” I was too tired to threaten anybody, too drugged to care about anything except myself. Old John went on for another twenty minutes or so, starting with “Now you a dead nigger, motherfucker,” then ranting creatively about my invasion of his privacy and the larger injustice of the system.

I was almost grateful because his voice overruled the screaming from down the hall, where the Orthodox women stood guard. It hadn’t stopped since I arrived.

At first I thought the screams came from a child in fear or denial, but gradually the voice became recognizable as something an adult was trying out in different registers of despair. I didn’t hear any resignation in these sounds—-instead I heard terror, disgust, and pure desire, enough of each to dissolve any solid beliefs or standing commitments. Not hers, mine. Ours. That explained the guards, anyway.

How could she scream this way all day and all night? What preternatural powers equipped this woman to make these piercing, heartbreaking sounds every ninety seconds, no matter what time of day? Did she sleep between screams? Was she physically restrained, or protesting the more effective constraints we conjure when we say “the system”?

It wasn’t noise she was projecting, it was all signal, as if she were learning to phrase a familiar song but not yet tarrying with the words themselves. And she wasn’t lamenting her own fate, she was performing on behalf of others. That’s what I took the different registers of despair to mean—-she was expressing dread she hadn’t experienced. She was playing emotional scales. She was the vessel of something everyone else had already tasted. But she wasn’t singing. She was screaming.

If I were tied to a mast, or an inmate of a 19th-century insane asylum, or in a theater on 8th Avenue watching a slasher movie, these screams would have sounded normal, even predictable. But there I was in a Columbia University hospital in Washington Heights. This was real life, as they say. At any rate it was my waking life, not “The Odyssey” or “The Snake Pit” or “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

The screaming stopped just as old John was winding down: “You hear me, nigger? I’m a bust a cap in yo ass, or my friends will.” He must be really old to be talking like that, I thought, or really stupid, or really helpless.

He turned the TV back on. And then he said “You white, what color er you?” It was 1:45 AM.

“Yeah, ” I said, “I’m really tired.”

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