Archive | July, 2012

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

31 Jul

Responding to my post about the De Maistre Drones, Larry Houghteling, a reader, directs me to this poem of A. E. Housman. Seems appropriate for our “all-volunteer army.”

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling,

And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.

Águas de Março

30 Jul

It’s not March, but it is raining a whole helluva lot, so…


And since I’m in the mood…


For a lovely little post about this last video, check this out from the wonderful Scott Saul.

The Drone: Joseph de Maistre’s Executioner

30 Jul

The  drone (h/t Liliana Segura):

From his computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs, Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of insurgents, his intended targets, going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for weeks.

“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.

When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant — and only, Colonel Brenton said, when the women and children are not around — the hair on the back of his neck stands up, just as it did when he used to line up targets in his F-16 fighter jet.

Afterward, just like the old days, he compartmentalizes. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty.”

Drones are not only revolutionizing American warfare but are also changing in profound ways the lives of the people who fly them.

Colonel Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia.

When he was deployed in Iraq, “you land and there’s no more weapons on your F-16, people have an idea of what you were just involved with.” Now he steps out of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to help with homework…

 The Executioner:

Who is then this inexplicable being who has preferred to all the pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honorable jobs that present themselves in hundreds to human power and dexterity that of torturing and putting to death his fellow creatures? Are this head and this heart made like ours? Do they not hold something peculiar and foreign to our nature? For my own part, I do not doubt this. He is made like us externally; he is born like us but he is an extraordinary being, and for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary. He is a species to himself. Look at the place he holds in public opinion and see if you can understand how he can ignore or affront this opinion! Scarcely have the authorities fixed his dwelling-place, scarcely has he taken possession of it, than the other houses seem to shrink back until they no longer overlook his. In the midst of this solitude and this kind of vacuum that forms around him, he lives alone with his woman and his offspring who make the human voice known to him, for without them he would know only groans. A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to his house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemer is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up: then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unfastens him; he carries him to a wheel: the shattered limbs interweave with the spokes; the head falls; the hair stands on end, and the mouth, open like a furnace, gives out spasmodically only a few blood-spattered words calling for death to come. He is finished: his heart flutters, but it is with joy; he congratulates himself, he says sincerely, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he stretches out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws into it from a distance a few pieces of gold which he carries through a double row of men drawing back with horror. He sits down to a meal and eats; then to bed, where he sleeps. And next day, on waking, he thinks of anything other than what he did the day before. Is this a man? Yes: God receives him in his temples and permits him to pray. He is not a criminal, yet it is impossible to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable, and so on. No moral praise can be appropriate for him, since this assumes relationships with men, and he has none.

And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.

Lunch Break Utopia (Cont.)

27 Jul

Continuing with my series on the ever-disappearing lunch break, we get this (h/t Derek Attig)

Want to take off for lunch but the boss won’t let you? Then buy this inflatable Lunch Decoy from Applebee’s.

That’s the premise behind the latest marketing campaign from the fast casual dining chain. But the product is no joke — it’s a real product actually on sale on Amazon. There are six such decoys to choose from, including The Cubicle Queen and The Go-Getter.

Soon, all we’ll be left with is this:

A Caribbean-born Gay Jew Leading the US Confederacy?

26 Jul

Now that’s what I call a reactionary mind!

Daniel Brook, a former student of mine and a wonderful journalist, has the story on Judah Benjamin, the “Confederate Kissinger” and the South’s “evil genius.”

Liberalism Agonistes

24 Jul

After a couple of Twitter skirmishes tonight about Alexander Cockburn and his apologetics for the Soviet Union—though see this reconsideration from Cockburn (I’m told there are others in The Golden Age is Within Us; since we’re moving, my copy is now boxed up somewhere in Brooklyn, so I can’t check it out)—I come back to my age-old conundrum about the American liberal.

Why is he or she willing to make his or her peace with the American state—despite all its crimes (crimes acknowledged by liberals!)—yet never willing to make his or her peace with critics like Cockburn, whose only “crime,” if you can call it that, was to apologize for the Soviet Union long past its sell by date? Why so much room at the inn for Truman, JFK, or LBJ—all men with real blood on their hands—while people like Cockburn and Chomsky are denied entry?

I realize this is one of those questions that cuts to the bone of 20th (and apparently 21st!) century politics, and obviously I’m not a completely disinterested party. But I do come to it out of a genuine curiosity—and confusion.

I asked a version of it at the height of the Iraq War.  It got published in The Nation in 2005, but I actually first posed on the eve of the war in a draft of an article that never got published.

Why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?

I’ve never gotten an answer.

Update (July 24, 10:30 am)

Eric Rauchway has a thoughtful response to this post.  I don’t think he quite gets my point—perhaps because I wasn’t as clear as I could have been—but I’m going to chew on what he says.

More on Alexander Cockburn

23 Jul

I wrote a longer piece on Alexander Cockburn for Al Jazeera.

Here are some other reminiscences, remembrances, and reflections:

One of the most thoughtful and comprehensive assessments from Kathy Geier, who also includes some great links.

Dennis Perrin on, among other things, Cockburn’s darker side.

I linked to this in my earlier piece, but here again is Jeffrey St. Clair, Cockburn’s comrade and writing partner.

More on Hitchens versus Cockburn from Jeff Sparrow.

An interesting appreciation from National Review‘s John Fund, who had once been Cockburn’s editor at the Wall Street Journal.

And another appreciation from the right: libertarian Jesse Walker.

Some tweets from his niece actress Olivia Wilde: “He taught me how to make coffee in a jar, how to listen to LPs, how to ride a horse through a river, and how to drive a classic with love.”

And the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Nation, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and the Los Angeles Times, quoting Marc Cooper: “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist.” Cooper means that as a criticism, but Cockburn would have worn it as a badge of honor.

The last word goes to Cockburn himself: a compilation by Jack Shafer of some of his best writings and an interview he gave to Doug Henwood last year.

Update (10:45 am)

Oops! I forgot to include this one from Louis Proyect.

Update (4 pm)

A late arrival by James Wolcott.  By far the best.  So worth the wait. Makes me embarrassed that I tried at all. Here’s a selection:

Alex might have been tagged with the label of “radical chic” were it not for the fact that he truly was radical, it wasn’t a passing phase or trend surfing or a temporary swelling of liberal heart; he was the son of the great Claud Cockburn (whom he would celebrate on the 100th anniversary of his birth as “the greatest radical journalist of his age”), he was and remained a contributor to New Left Review, he had an executioner’s gleam in his eye when he went after a conservative foe or a former comrade turned defector, something one didn’t quite picture in the caring eyes of Lenny Bernstein.

Even when he was at his most high-visibly productive, there were those who complained that he devoted and dispersed too much of his energies into deadline journalism and public addressing, riding the whirligig instead of delivering a “real book,” a stand-alone achievement that would have join the company of the best of C. Wright Mills or Saul Alinsky. It was a nagging shadow that would dog journalists and critics as different as Dwight Macdonald, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Seymour Krim, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ellen Willis–where’s the Major Tome, buddy? Since I’m a fan of collections and anthologies, believe that the best writing often shines in shards and galloping stretches, I never find myself lobbying for a writer I enjoy reading regularly to hole up in Heidegger’s hut for four or five years to bring forth a mountain. You want a tombstone masterpiece so much, go write your own, we’ll keep the landing-strip lights on for your victorious return.

Update (8 pm)

These two appreciations—from James Fallows and Michael Tomasky, liberals of the sort that Cockburn loved to flail—are worth a read.

And the Nation does a roundup, including two lovely reminiscences at the top from Cockburn’s niece Laura Flanders and the economist Robert Pollin, who says:

Alex also became good friends with our two daughters, Emma and Hannah, when they were about 9 and 6 years old. Emma once had a school assignment to write an essay on the person she most admired in the world. Without asking or telling anyone beforehand, she wrote it about Alex. After I had sent the essay to Alex, he told Emma how honored he felt. He said that nobody had ever captured him so well in words. I think he really meant it.

The true measure as to how much Alex respected my daughters occurred after he had written something very nasty in one of his columns about, of all things, Sesame Street. I told Alex that he had written many great columns about, say, Reaganomics or U.S. imperialism and Nicaragua, but that he had totally missed the boat on Sesame Street, which my kids, along with zillions of others, loved. After Alex heard confirmation on this directly from Emma, he published a lengthy retraction and apology. Since Alex died on Friday, I have seen many descriptions of him as a fierce and relentless critic who would never, ever back down. But my family and I knew otherwise.

Update (10:30 pm)

Two more before bedtime: one from Doug Henwood (including a Skype interview with Cockburn), and one from James Ridgeway, who was Cockburn’s writing partner in the 1970s at the Village Voice.

Update (midnight)

Still awake, and stumbled across this one from Jack Shafer.  It includes this brilliant excerpt from Cockburn on how to write an earthquake story:

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in “remote Eastern Turkey” or in the “arid center of Iran.” But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then “for six seconds the earth shook.” Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

And also ends on this perfect note:

He routinely sided with the powerless, sometimes even when they were wrong, and sometimes, I suspect, precisely because they were wrong. That was Cockburn’s kind of fight.

And that really is all.  For now.

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

21 Jul

Alexander Cockburn, one of the finest radical journalists—no, journalists—of his generation, has died. Because of the similarities between him and Christopher Hitchens—both Anglos (he of Ireland, Hitchens of England) in America; both friends, for a time; both left (though, in Hitchens’s case, for a time); and both dying relatively young from cancer—people, inevitably, will want to make comparisons. Here, very quickly, are three (and why I think Cockburn was ultimately the superior writer).

First, Cockburn was a much better observer of people and of politics: in part because he didn’t impose himself on the page the way Hitchens did, he could see particular details (especially of class and of place) that eluded Hitchens. At his best, he got out of the way of his own story and allowed his readers to see things they never would have seen without him.

Second, he was extraordinarily well read, but he didn’t make a parade of his learning. One sly quote from Gibbons or Tacitus was enough. He understood, unlike Hitchens, that less is more, and that helped him—to an extraordinary degree—on the page. Ever the over-achieving schoolboy, Hitchens simply drew too much attention to himself, and even his finest sentences (which were quite fine) had a way of distracting from the matter at hand.

Finally, and though this does get into the politics or at least character of the two men, Cockburn managed to achieve, again at least on the page, a better equanimity between his savagery and his sweetness. I remember one of his pieces on taking his daughter to school, and it was affecting: poignant and pungent. When Hitchens was sweet, he often slipped into sentimentality. Never Cockburn. At least not that I can remember.

I should say that Cockburn had some tremendous failings as a journalist: his thoughts on climate change, his indulgence of the paleocon right, and more that I can’t immediately remember. If I had time for a fuller reckoning, I’d go back through his work and offer up a more balanced view of his virtues and failings. On the whole, for better and for worse, I’d say he was the great refusenik of our time.

But for now, on the question of Cockburn versus Hitchens, this is it.

Update (July 21, 11 am)

Via Brad DeLong, I came upon these comments from Cockburn on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  They are simply unconscionable. And I suspect there are probably more like this on similar topics. Any fuller accounting of Cockburn would have to reckon with these.

Eli’s Comin’—Hide Your Heart, Girl: Why Yale is Going to Singapore

20 Jul

In Fall 1998, my penultimate semester at Yale, I TA’d for a course called “Yale and the External World.” Taught by historian Gaddis Smith, it was part of the university’s annual DeVane Lectures, in which a distinguished member of the faculty is given an opportunity to expound over the course of a semester—to students, alums, and the public—on a topic of his or her choice.

Other DeVane Lecturers have included Nancy Cott on the history of marriage, whose lectures ultimately became this excellent book, Michael Denning on democracy, and more. But in 1998, Yale was heading toward its tercentennial, and President Richard Levin wanted someone to take stock of “the evolution of the University’s place in the modern world.” Smith, with his long ties to Yale—he had been an undergrad and a grad student there—was the man for the job.

Back in the 80s and 90s, you’ll recall, there was a lot of huffing and puffing—among liberals and conservatives—about how American students were focusing too much on their identities: black students were enrolled in African American history, women in women’s studies, and so on. Yet here were 500 Yale undergraduates attending lectures on the reorganization of the provost’s office after World War I and writing term papers on topics like the history of the  swim team—I’m not shitting you—and no one on the faculty, anywhere, blinked an eye.

Due to a misprint, the course catalog titled the lectures “Yale and the Eternal World.”

It has always been thus at Yale: the university’s relationship to the external world of money and power are intimately bound up in its conception of itself as the embodiment of, if not the Deity, then at least the World Spirit. It is the place where God and Mammon freely and happily commune. As I wrote over a decade ago in a piece that has barely seen the light of day:

Despite the admission of women and a century of other social transformations, Yale in 2002 remains, in one critical respect, little different from Yale in 1902.  It is still a gentleman’s college, a learned estate where youthful minds amble among the colonnades of western civilization.  Small colleges dotted throughout the campus evoke that medieval fellowship of students and scholars forged long ago at Oxford and Cambridge, while letters of Latin and Hebrew carved into the facades of campus buildings suggest to one and all that even the gods of ancient Rome and Israel went to Yale.

Admissions brochures at Yale offer snapshots of thoughtful intimacy between students and professors, deftly portraying the university’s marriage of promised power to inherited culture.  Every June, students graduate from Yale, ready to embark on their journey to the commanding heights of the international political economy.  But before they go, they must be certified as fully trained in the liberal arts by a Yale professor.  Yale is this communion of privilege and poesy, a stately mansion where the professor stands proudly at the apex of the knowledge class, while the student stirs hopefully on the threshold of the ruling class.

Fast forward to 2012. The University is now preparing to open a campus in the repressive state of Singapore. When students enroll there next year, they’ll be entering a Yale in which they will be forbidden to engage in political protest or join  “partisan political societies.”

Well meaning voices on the right and the left are crying foul. Setting up shop in Singapore, they say, is inconsistent with the university’s values. With a very few exceptions, no one has asked the obvious question: what if it’s not?

While I was at Yale, a very smart labor leader told me something I’ve never forgotten. Everyone at Yale, he said, thinks of the place as a pyramid, with the president at the top, the provost and deans beneath him or her, and the faculty beneath them. The reality, however, is that Yale is an upside-down pyramid. The president is at the bottom (the rest of the administration and faculty don’t matter at all), and it goes up and out from there to the board of trustees (aka “The Yale Corporation“) and the rest of corporate America.

The fact that the Yale administration has consistently and roundly ignored faculty opinion on this Singapore matter should tell you something about who calls the shots—even on vital questions of the university’s academic mission—and whose values matter most.  As Charles Bailyn—future dean of the Singapore campus, member of the Yale faculty, and son of Bernard Bailyn, arguably the most influential historian of the American Revolution in the last half-century—said: “The vote won’t derail our work.”

(Something else this labor leader told me: Yale is like a great big Saint Bernard lumbering through the alpine snow. It focuses on a distant goal—endowment growth, new campus in a peninsular tyranny—never casting a sidelong glance at the passing obstacle. Or protest.)

To its denizens, the place seems like a university; to its managers, as the U. Mass. economist Rick Wolff likes to say, it’s an investment fund—19.4 billion dollars at last count—with a small educational operation on the side.

So why is Yale in Singapore? After all, there are cheaper and easier ways to make money.

For starters, there’s that investment fund.

Members of the Corporation see the Yale board in the same way most wealthy people see their board memberships: not only as a source of cultural prestige but also as an opportunity for building personal economic networks. Corporation members get to make and get to know important contacts that way; they’re also sitting on top of a huge pile of cash in the form of the endowment that, if it gets put in the right places, can open up doors to them and their own investments.

From that perspective, the Singapore adventure could be a goldmine. As Jim Sleeper has written, three current and recent members of the Yale Corporation “are now or have also been directors, advisors, and investment officers of the Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd. (GIC), which is chaired by the country’s prime minister and manages at least $100 billion of assets.” Just a hop, skip, and a jump from China, the Singapore campus will give Yale’s elites an excellent perch from which they can develop the kinds of personal contacts in East Asia that will lead to more and better investment opportunities.

These guys aren’t  just looking at their own pockets; they’re also looking at Yale’s. We forget that a lot of Yale’s spectacular endowment performance over the last two decades was due to its investments in private equity. Success in that arena often depends on insider knowledge and personal contacts, the kind of tactile wisdom one gains from years of experience and immersion in a place. Especially in a place like China, which is undergoing such rapid change—particularly in its regulatory regime—these kinds of contacts and networks are essential. Again, Singapore would be a very nice perch from which to develop them.

But more important than these immediate and even long-term monies is the vital question of class reproduction, specifically, ruling class reproduction. As capitalism becomes ever more global, the institutions that produce and reproduce its ruling classes must become equally global. Not only must students at Yale feel at home in that world—but Yale must feel like a home to that world. Particularly East Asia, which houses some of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world.

In theory Yale could simply expand its campus in New Haven and admit twice as many students, many of them from places like China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But New Haven is a minefield for development, and its Board of Aldermen—now in the hands of Yale’s unions—can prove a source of thorny opposition (a point of leverage the unions recently exercised in their contract negotiations with Yale.)

Far easier to build a campus in Singapore, where the politics are, shall we say, under control. Singapore’s also more local: it might be easier to attract students from East Asia to Yale if Yale is actually in East Asia.

Insofar as Yale’s in the business of education—and remember what Rick Wolff said—it’s in the business of producing the people who govern (not for nothing did Yale political scientist Robert Dahl title his study of politics in New Haven Who Governs?). With so much of the action in global capitalism happening in East Asia, there’s a premium on breaking into that market, on being the university that trains those new governors, not only in China but ultimately perhaps in India as well.

Yale also knows that if they don’t get there soon, Harvard or Stanford will beat them to it, if they haven’t already. (NYU already has a campus in Abu Dhabi.) That wouldn’t just hurt Yale in the international market; it would also hurt them, ultimately, in the US market.

And what of those Yale faculty, who voted in April to register their “concern” over the deal?  I suspect they’ll ultimately get into line, pack up their pickets, and go home. Don’t get me wrong: their protests are sincere, if largely ineffective. But the same humanism that drives them to protest the Singapore adventure will ultimately compel them to close up shop.  As I concluded in that piece I mentioned above:

The faculty at Yale…juggle two heartfelt commitments:  a devotion to high-minded liberal principles and an equally strong devotion to Yale.  Although they see themselves as the bearers of an exalted tradition of humane learning – which envisions in education an ameliorative path to freedom and progress – they are ineluctably pulled by a not-so-exalted tradition of elitism.  Knowledge and privilege are, for them, necessarily fused; one cannot have the one without the other.  And so, despite their best intentions, they float everyday further and further from the spirit of Socrates, Mill, and Freud.  It’s not that they don’t care about ideas.  It’s just that for them a job at Yale is an idea.

And in time, a job at Yale in Singapore will seem like an idea too.  An idea whose time has come.

Update (July 21, 8 am)

Here’s an excellent—though old—piece by Jim Manzi on Harvard as “a tax-free hedge fund.”

So if you just think about how much cash went into the shoebox and how much came out of it, a more accurate accounting for Harvard for FY 2007 would, in rough numbers, be a lot more like the following:

Receipts = $2 billion of operating revenue + $7.3 billion of investment income + $0.6 billion of gifts to the endowment = ~$10 billion.

Operating costs = ~$3 billion.

Profit = $10 billion – $3 billion = ~$7 billion.

This explains why Harvard’s net assets increased about $7 billion in 2007, from about $35 billion to about $42 billion.


Desperate Housewives

19 Jul

Here’s a fantastic piece in the current issue of Harper’s on Mary Kay and their exploitation of desperate housewives. It’s by Virginia Sole-Smith, a talented young journalist who’s carved out an interesting niche for herself: her beat combines beauty, labor, and exploitation. (She also happens to be the daughter of my adviser in grad school, Rogers Smith.) Alas, the geniuses at Harper’s have it behind the firewall.  But it’s astonishingly cheap to subscribe to the magazine, so do that or buy the issue.


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