Monday, January 28, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Apocalypse Forever?


I did have a test today. That wasn't bullshit. It's on European socialism. I mean, really, what's the point? I'm not European. I don't plan on being European, so who gives a crap if they're socialists? They could be fascist anarchists--that still wouldn't change the fact that I don't own a car. Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the Walrus. I could be the walrus, but I'd still have to bum rides off of people.

--Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

I recently finished reading British political philosopher John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. With a cover and title like that, how could one not read the book? Gray's basic thesis, which is at once original, kind of obvious, and neither proveable or unproveable, is that the Christian narrative of a fallen humanity brought to salvation after an apocalyptic event has so powerfully affected Western political thought that it has been replicated in all of the post-Enlightenment political movements that are based on supposedly univerally applicable principles, beginning on the left with Jacobinism and Communism, going wack with Nazism, then moving into the currently active, intertwined philosophies of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. These -isms view history in stark terms, and tend to view the application of their own principles as the end of history--a utopia, or, in Christian terms, a millenium--with no other forms of government or society to be developed thereafter. Indeed, American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama titled one of his books The End of History. When these political movements are decoupled from the traditional Christian millenialist belief that only Jesus Christ can bring about the millenium, the movements take it on themselves to bring about the apocalyptic changes that will take global society into the land of milk and honey.

Gray's main focus is the neo-conservative movement, particularly in the United States, and its failure to create a functioning Western-style democracy in Iraq. According to Gray, neo-conservatism has rooted itself in America's Lockean founding principles of self-determination and personal freedoms. It is also tied to the neo-liberal belief that the spread of the capitalist free market to the entire world will diminish the significance of the nation state. Unlike more traditional American conservatives, who tend to distrust fanaticism and radical change, the founders of the neo-conservative movements are former Trotskyites who brought their intolerant revolutionary zeal and notion of permament, global upheavel from the political left to the political right.

Philosophically, the neo-conservatives rely heavily on the writings of Leo Strauss, though Gray believes Strauss would condemn neo-conservatism as a form of the liberalism he abhorred. Strauss believed that unchecked liberalism leads to nihilism, that political order should rest on the acceptance of moral constraints, and that the notion of natural law embodied in Aquinas and others should be revived as a way to avoid modern nihilism. Strauss, however, recognized that the attachment of liberal democracy to methaphysical beliefs is not rationally defensible, strictly speaking. At this point, Gray brings up the Platonic notion of the "noble lie," or that philsophers may know a deadly truth but may protect the benighted rabble with consoling myths. Strauss himself suggested that some great thinkers had beliefs that they held secretly, different from the beliefs that were overtly presented in their writings. More to the point, a noble lie is one that can be told to further some higher truth. Gray does not believe that Strauss himself engaged in noble lying, but he does believe that American neo-conservative figures in the Bush Administration did so in the run-up to the Iraq War, stretching Strauss's notion that thinkers write in secret codes to the interpretation of intelligence. This led them to disregard the CIA's interpretation of intelligence on Iraq in favor of their own. Indeed, Paul Wolfowitz had a group of his fellow neo-cons to filter prewar intelligence.

Like many traditional Amerian conservatives, the neo-conservatives believe in American exceptionalism, a phenomenon that has existed since John Winthrop's "shining city on a hill." Gray explains the history of American exceptionalism as a religious belief, though he curiously omits Mormonism, which places the exceptional position of America as a promised land in its foundational texts. Also, Mormomism is well known for its missionary zeal, an attribute Gray sees in neo-conservatism and most of the other political movements he discusses. However, Mormons do not believe that they themselves will bring about the millenium--that is something left up to Jesus. There are some Christian dominionists out there who evidently do believe that the Kingdom of God will be created by humans before the Second Coming, but those people are few and far between, and Gray doesn't discuss them other than to say that the Christian Right is aligned with the neo-conservative movement. I'd say that whatever alliance exists is a marriage of convenience; it was, after all, Mike Huckabee who labeled the Bush foreign policy "arrogant."

The linking of neo-conservatism with American exceptionalism and, more importantly, the Bush Administration and the most powerful military and economy in human history allowed the movement to believe it could spread its evangel at will. Iraq was the first experiment, a failed state where a Western democracy would be created by force of arms. Gray suggests that the sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War caused the Iraqi state to fail; I'd say that Saddam's war with Iran had the place FUBARd well before then. The Iraqi experiment, which Gray believes is doomed to fail, is the beginning and end of the neo-con attempt to create an international utopia.

Gray advocates a fallback to the conservative, realist notion that nation states are unique entities with their own unique institutions and competing interests that frequently result in armed conflict. Gray aligns himself somewhat with Burke and definitely with Machiavelli, whom my mentor at LSU called the only political scientist who ever mattered. He also believes that the history of western politics is, in its way, a history of religion. As for actual religion, he advocates that government recognize the importance of faith in the lives of individuals and that it should ensure that various faiths coexist without conflict.

It's a fascinating read, and Gary's writing style is clear, witty, and accessible to one who is fairly unschooled in technical aspects of philosophy (e.g., me). His link of utopian political theories with the Christian narrative is something I'd never thought of before.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back in the USSR


I finished reading a book on political philosophy yesterday (a book I will review when I have more time), so it would make sense that I would have political imagery in a dream. So I'm in a generic American department store with a friend of mine, though I'm not sure who it is. We're walking down the fragrance aisle on our way to the back of the store. I glance at the display to my right and see a womens' product called "Stalin." It's a gold-colored liquid in a glass bottle, looking just like all of the other womens' perfumes. "What does that smell like, rotting bodies?" I ask my friend. "No," he responds, "more like cold, hard steel." We get to the back of the store and see a display of art books on the floor, one of which is a book of Stalin-era propaganda cartoons. This particular artist did a series in which Stalin looked something like the cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, frequently hanging in the sky with rainbows and and sunshine in the background. The book is only $5, and it comes with a wall-sized animation cell of the Cheshire Stalin. The dreams ends with me filling out a form with Cyrillic lettering to obtain my wall poster. Is Stalin the new Che Guevara, some kind of hipster commie? Or is my subconscious telling me something very warped?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Can't someone make the trains run on time?


"[I'm] risking my life to save people I hate for reasons I don't quite understand. Gotta go!"
--Homer Simpson

Something like that could have been said by the character Dan Evans (Christian Bale) in 3:10 to Yuma, which I saw last night. Evans is a dirt-poor rancher and disabled veteran in post-Civil War southern Arizona who has lost the respect of his wife and of his son William, who pretty much idolizes a train-robber named Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), the subject of a series of cheap novels the kid loves to read. Evans is powerless in the face of his creditors, who want his land for the omnipotent Southern Pacific Railroad, and it seems as though he can do nothing to stop his ranch from being taken away. Evans and his sons happen upon Wade and his gang during a stage-coach robbery, and, by happenstance, Evans ends up as part of an escort party that is assigned to deliver Wade to the town where he will catch the 3:10 to Yuma, home of the Arizona Territorial Prison (which is currently a tourist attraction; I went there when it was 113 degrees outside). Evans really has nothing left to lose, and, by taking a notorious outlaw to justice (or, more accurately, the Southern Pacific) he can gain the respect of his family and make all of $200.

Wade is a charming, relatively cultured thug and a canny student of psychology. He finds Evans interesting, though he cannot bring himself to understand why Evans is so determined to deliver him to the train in the face of any and all adversity. Along the way, William Evans away from home to join-up with the escort party, and Wade seems to understand that he--and not Evans--is what attracted the kid to come along. Wade has another idolizer in his gang's second-in-command, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who has a huge hetero man-crush on Wade, and who will stop at nothing to free his boss.

I suppose the movie is, in large part, about the degree deserving people will go to gain respect, and the misplaced respect that is given to undeserving people. In what is basically a lawless frontier society, getting respect could entail putting one's life in grave danger. The movie is also a great, rip-roaring Western, chock full of fabulous performances. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale play their roles with restraint, though Bale's face frequently is seething with rage. I particularly liked the scene in which Evans poured out his frustrations to his wife. One would expect that kind of scene to be done with shouting or growling in sotto voce; Bale, however, did it by whispering. Crowe is soft-spoken during the film, despite his character's frequently violent behavior. The scene-stealer of the film is Ben Foster, whom some may remember as Claire's long-haired boyfriend on Six Feet Under. He is a dandied-up killer who likes to twirl his pistols and dismount his horses with great style. Peter Fonda also puts in a brief but fierce performance as a Pinkerton guard.

It was a bit odd for a viewer of HBO's late, great Deadwood to hear such mild language in a Western. Whatever. 3:10 to Yuma is a very good movie.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bobby J.'s Modest Proposal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was sworn into office at noon yesterday. Shortly after 4 p.m., DW and I drove through Baton Rouge. The traffic volume was startling light; this in a city that usually is in gridlock by that time of day. I, of course, suspected that something was very, very wrong. I contacted my always reliable sources, who confirmed my worst suspicions.

The facts are these. Gov. Jindal ran for office on a platform of improving our state's abysmal image by radically changing the way things are done--ditching the Louisiana Way and doing business the way business is done in every other state, except for those states that similar histories of endemic, systemic corruption. Bobby J. came off as a policy wonk during the campaign, but my sources tell me that he began his term in office yesterday with a most dramatic gesture, one that greatly affected the traffic flow by the time I drove through town.

During his inaugural address, Gov. J. announced that the entire population of Baton Rouge--with the exception of LSU's athletic department--had been loaded aboard barges destined for Cuba. Evidently, the new Gov. decided that the best way to fix Louisiana is to get rid of everybody who lives here, save for a select few who will help build a brave new world of shiny happy people.

Gov. Bobby managed to negotiate a deal under thich the State of Louisiana will supply Cuba with a large labor pool in return for the exclusive U.S. rights to market Cuban tobacco products. The U.S. Government will end the embargo on trade with Cuba as part of the deal. Gov. J. also is negotiating exciting people-for-product deals with various other countries. According to my source, Bobby said, "I look forward to the day when all of Britney Spears's relatives can be airlifted to North Korea." That source took a look at the relocation database, and it looks as if I may be blogging from Siberia in the near future.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Happy Birthday!


My older son turned 11 yesterday. We had fun at the beach, even if the water was frigid.

My younger son had fun with us too.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Football Fun in New Orleans

DW and I were on Bourbon Street earlier tonight with her brother, who is in town for a conference. It was nice to see him, especially as he seemed to be enjoying the city. How they ever got hotel rooms for that conference is beyond me, as the collegiate football national championship game will be played at the Superdome on Monday night. It's like a Super Bowl weekend in the French Quarter, particularly as LSU is in the big game (hence the purple blog). Also, I saw some beads being thrown from balconies; I suspect I know what will start happening as the people down there become increasingly drunk. Alas, most people have no business showing their body parts in public, but that's what happens when people start throwing beads.

I just enjoy watching this clip of Les Miles, so I'm posting it here.

Also, whenever I go down to the Quarter on a crowded party night, I think of the A Streetcar Named Marge episode of The Simpsons, which hilariously pissed off the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Long before the Superdome,
Where the Saints of football play,
There's a city where the damned call home,
Hear their hellish rondelet:

New Orleans!
Home of pirates, drunks, and whores...
New Orleans!
Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores...

If you want to go to hell, you should take a trip
To the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Mississip':

New Orleans!
Stinking, rotten, vomity, vile...
New Orleans!
Putrid, brackish, maggotty, foul...

New Orleans!
Crummy, lousy, rancid and rank...
New Orleans!
. . . .

Friday, January 04, 2008

Lucky Seven

Gentle reader Sideon enjoys poetic song lyrics, and he recently matched up lyrics with various bloggers. I dig what Sideon selected for me:

Can't tell the real from reflections
When all these faces look the same to me
In every city such a desolate dream.
Some days are strange to number
Some say the seventh sounds a little bit stranger
A year of Sundays seems to have drifted right by -
I could have sworn in one evening.
And I'm not seized in desperation,
No steel reproaches on the table from before.
But I still can feel those splinters of ice
I look through the eyes of a stranger...

For rumours in the wake of such a lonely crowd
Trading in my shelter for danger
I'm changing my name just as the sun goes down -
In the eyes of the stranger...

-from The Seventh Stranger by Duran Duran

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy Effing New Years

2008 started off with our neighbors blowing up fireworks to wretched excess, which we wouldn't have minded except that DW had lasik surgery last week and hadn't had a good night's sleep in days, which means that I hadn't had a good night's sleep in days either. Grrr! I was in a relatively bad mood when I got up yesterday morning.

So I was in a mood for a little light entertainment yesterday. I went to bed last night reading Milton's Paradise Lost, and, before that, viewed the delightfully fun Scarface. I'd not actually seen that film before, which is kinda odd given my attraction to violent movies. I avoided the movie due largely to its venerated status in the gansta subculture. I'm pretty much a snob about the whole gangster glorification of violence, which differs somehow from whatever buttons violent entertainment pushes in my own subconscious mind. I suppose the difference is that I don't view the characters in these films as role models to be emulated. Whatever. Anyhow, I picked up the "platinum edition" at WalMart yesterday, which includes a hilarious option of two running tickers at the bottom of the screen--one for "f-bombs" (over 200) and another for gunshots fired (2,049). I remember Scarface being very controversial in its day (1983), largely for the number of f-bombs and the extremely high level of violence.

"Say hello to my little friend."

Scarface originally was planned as a remake of a 1930s movie by the same name about Al Capone, but the film was reconceived in the wake of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, a brilliant move that allowed screenwriter Oliver Stone and director Brian De Palma to make a film more relatable to audiences of the mid-1980s. De Palma later came out with The Untouchables, which was all about Capone and Elliot Ness. Scarface is about the rise and fall of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a nobody from Cuba who ruthlessly works his way to the top of the cocaine business in South Florida. The movie is quite emphatic about how the American dream of wealth, power, attractive sexual partners, and wretched excess can end very badly, a la GoodFellas. Scarface, however, is much wilder than GoodFellas, perhaps because there was no organized crime tradition to reign in Tony Montana's crazier impulses. The director, writers, and actors were absolutely fearless, and, I would guess, knew that the critics and other cultural guardians of the day would vehemently denounce their film. It's a much better movie than I expected it to be, but it certainly isn't for everybody.