Jul 29, 2006

Operation "Save Israel's High Command"

By CHARLES GLASS--Charles Glass lived in Lebanon from 1972 to 1976 and from 1983 to 1995. He was ABC News Chief Middle East Correspondent from 1983 to 1993 and was kidnapped by Hizballah in 1987. His new books on the Middle East are The Tribes Triumphant (Harper Collins) and The Northern Front (Saqi Books). His website is www.charlesglass.net. ]

In 1982, an unusual sight appeared on the Mediterranean horizon. Like the death ship in Star Wars, a World War II battleship threatened the Lebanese shore. US naval spokesmen claimed the USS New Jersey was the most fearsome artillery platform on the high seas. The Reagan administration had re-commissioned her and a few other seagoing dinosaurs to pursue gunboat diplomacy from Nicaragua to Iran. The New Jersey's advance propaganda impressed the Lebanese, who had already endured seven years of civil war, Syrian occupation and two Israeli invasions. The sixteen-inch guns aboard the New Jersey, the Navy said, would send payloads the size of Volkswagens to clear areas big as football fields. Why a Volkswagen rather than a small Ford was never explained, anymore than whether the football referred to was the kind the Lebanese or the Americans played. A Marine officer I knew pointed at the summit of Mount Lebanon above Beirut one day. He told me that, if the New Jersey fired at that mountain, it wouldn't be there anymore. It seemed an extravagant claim, but most of us were willing to believe him - until the New Jersey actually fired.
When the New Jersey unleashed its Volkswagens on 14 December 1983, we saw flames a mile away shoot out of its muzzles. What we didn't see was much destruction - not by Lebanese standards anyway. A few houses in the Druze hills of the Shouf were demolished. Hundreds of ...people, mostly Shiites and Druze, died. The summit of Mount Lebanon remained intact. There were no flying Volkswagens, no football fields. The Lebanese, faced with a bluff called, lost their fear of the New Jersey and, indeed, of the United States. They continued blowing up American embassies and military barracks. By February 1984, the New Jersey killed a Syrian army general while covering the "redeployment" of the Marines from Beirut. The Marines were ordered to abandon Lebanon and the French, British and Italian allies that Secretary of State George Schultz had conned into joining them in Lebanon as the so-called Multi-National Force. US spokesmen insisted that redeployment did not mean retreat. It looked like retreat to us in Lebanon, especially when the fleet and the Marines next redeployed to the United States. The New Jersey was mothballed in 1991, the year the US threw Iraq out of Kuwait and invited the Syrians to end the war by assuming control of most of Lebanon.
The biggest military mistake the Americans made in Lebanon was to use the New Jersey. As a threat, she caused fear. In reality, she caused a bit of damage. I won't go into the political mistakes, which were so many that the Reaganite Mideast specialists almost make George W. Bush's neo-cons look competent (I said, almost). An army can frighten people with a devastating weapon, until it uses it. Israel has used its weapons so often in Lebanon that the Lebanese don't care. They are suffering, but they are standing up to the displacement of a half million people and the loss of many hundreds of men, women and children. "The resistance isn't playing the role of victim," Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian Arab Member of the Israeli Knesset wrote in Al Ahram Weekly. "It didn't ask for international sympathy with the victims but for solidarity among freedom-seeking peoples." So, what other tricks can Israel perform that are not old-hat to the Lebanese? Bombardment? The Israelis have been bombing Lebanon since the late 1960s. Invasion? They played that card in 1978 and 1982 and left a thousand soldiers dead on the field before they withdrew in 2000. What's left in the arsenal? Occupation, again? The Lebanese realized sometime in 1983 that Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil were not ferocious warriors so much as targets. Israel could give them more targets, like the eight or nine Israeli soldiers who died on Wednesday in the small Shiite border village of Bint Jbeil (a place that made shoes until Israel occupied and nearly emptied it in 1978).
Israeli propaganda, except in the United States where there isn't any other kind, doesn't work its old magic. In 1982, a few people may have believed that Ariel Sharon sent his troops into Lebanon to avenge the wounding of Israel's ambassador to Britain, but no one is falling for the ruse that the current devastation is an operation to rescue two captured Israeli solders. The planners are having such problems with that slender pretext that, unusually, they have yet to give this mission a name. The operation that dare not speak its name has yet to join its immediate predecessors, Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, in the list of creatively branded onslaughts. How about calling this one Operation Infinite Repetition?
Operation Cover-Up might do, given that the soldiers scurrying into Lebanon and being shot by Hizballah today are trying to make up for the incompetence of officers who let three men under their command be captured by Hamas and Hizballah. Where is the American taxpayer's money going if officers cannot keep their troops from abduction by young guerrillas whom they watch day and night with the most sophisticated technological eavesdropping devices that American-Israeli genius can produce? If the army had not been so careless, they would not now be bombing the hell out of Gaza and Lebanon - unless, of course, the politicians wanted to bomb the hell out of Gaza and Lebanon anyway. If so, what better excuse than a few missing in action?
The prescient Mideast scholar Patrick Seale wrote in the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat on 21 July, "By their cross-border raids and the capture of three Israeli soldiers, Hizballah and Hamas humiliated the Israeli army and dented its deterrent capacity. In Israeli eyes, this cannot go unpunished." But who should be punished and who should be approached with an offer to save the soldiers' lives? Perhaps punish the high command for its negligence. Maybe approach Hamas and Hizballah for a trade of the kind Israel and its adversaries have made often - the last time in 2004, when a foolish, allegedly retired Israeli army major allowed himself to be taken in Beirut and Israel freed 400 prisoners to get him back. Israel knows it can pick up another 400 anytime it wants, so what's the problem? At the moment, it holds almost 10,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners and detainees. Using the 2004 ratio as a guide, the quick release of 1,200 detainees would do the trick without costing a single life.
Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert has come clean with added objectives for Operation Untitled. On 15 July, his spokeswoman Miri Eisen told Agence France Presse, "The Prime Minister is prepared to finish our operations in Lebanon if Hezbollah releases our two soldiers, stops its rocket fire and if the Lebanese Government decides to implement UN Security Council resolution 1559."The resolution requires the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. That means Hizballah, because the other militias disarmed under Syrian pressure years ago. Hizballah claimed however that its armed wing was a resistance movement - the only one capable of protecting south Lebanon from Israeli attack - and not a militia. On 21 July, another spokesman added a new Israeli shopping item, "One of the conditions for a ceasefire is that Hezbollah no longer receives arms supplies from Iran and Syria once it is enforced." As Operation Save the High Command annihilated Lebanon's post-war infrastructure - the airport, roads, bridges, army bases, clinics, telecommunications networks and lots of houses - without achieving anything, Ohlmert added a new condition: a NATO force in south Lebanon to stop Hizballah from hitting Israel. How about a force in north Israel to protect Lebanon?
This will go on and on. When Operation Get-Even ends, the respite may last a year or so. There will be other crises, other kidnappings by both sides, other murders, other wars. And it will not stop until Israel makes peace on terms that the Palestinians and Israel's neighbors have said they will accept: enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the end of Israeli land confiscations in the West Bank. If you think the land grab is over, ask the Palestinians whose property is fenced off and seized for the Israeli settlers almost daily. If you think Israel is content to leave the natives alone to get along with it, ask the Bedouin of the Negev desert (who serve in the Israeli army and have been loyal citizens) about the creative deployment of the Monsanto-manufactured herbicide Roundup Ready to destroy their crops so they will abandon their ancestral lands once and for all. Goat by goat, dunum by dunum, the old Zionist adage went, the settlers redeem the land. As the Arabs lost their goats and their dunums of land, they got bullets and bombs.

Jul 25, 2006

The War on Terror, or the Iliad Revisited

Between East and West (British though his father, Lebanese through his mother, and Parisian by culture), Percy Kemp* feels equally at home in Paris, London and Beirut.A consultant at Tactical Studies, a company specializing in strategic intelligence, he is also the author of the best seller "Le système Boone", a spy thriller which takes place in the Lebanon against a background of global geopolitical stakes. He talked to Les Dialogues Strategiques on the day after the London bombings of July 2007.

Véronique Anger : Percy Kemp, you are a consultant in international affairs. You are also a writer, and your novels often have geopolitical undertones. How do you interpret the bombings perpetrated in London on July 7th, when terrorists originating from a world in which you were raised, violently attacked a country to which you belong?

Percy Kemp : Being born to a British father and a Lebanese Arab mother, I am, symbolically at least, both a victim and an executioner of the 7/7 London bombings. You will therefore understand that I do not wish to express myself on the subject in my capacity as an "expert". This indeed requires a distance from the event which I lack. However, I will readily confide to you my feelings as a human being and as a writer. Confronted with these bombings, I cannot help think that fate is at play and that the sad London events were somehow pre-ordained by other, and equally sad, events in which the victims had been executioners.

VA : What do you mean by "Fate"? Is it the Arabic "mektub"? Is it your Oriental half expressing itself here?

PK : The fate I speak of is neither heavenly nor supernatural. It rests on historical grounds. The 7/7 London bombings, together with the 9/11 US bombings and the 3/11 Madrid bombings, were predictable. From the moment the West decided to extend its domination over the Muslim world following to the collapse of the Soviet Union, terrorism became the inevitable corollary of this Western will for power. There is no need, really, to be an expert or a strategist to understand what's going on. One merely needs to read the Iliad more carefully. This epic poem illustrates the Achaeans' drive for power and their settlement on the coast of Asia Minor, beyond the Hellespont. Both Herodotus and Thucydides considered the Trojan War as the first expression of the conflict between Asia and Europe,.. between East and West. And here are our leaders today, embarking on another Trojan War. Taking advantage of the implosion of the Soviet Union, they sought pre-eminence in South-West Asia after half a century of absence due to the decolonisation process and to the Cold War, and this intrusive and aggressive Western policy triggered a violent reaction on the part of some Muslim Arabs. What has been taking place in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, including the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the export of democracy and the pressure exerted on Muslim countries to prevent them from achieving nuclear power status, brings to mind the war between the European Achaeans and the Asiatic Trojans, as described in Homer's Iliad.

VA : President George W. Bush, draws his inspiration from the Bible, and more specifically from the Book of Revelations. Are you not doing the same with the Iliad?

PK : George Bush has a Manichean vision of the Bible, dominated by the struggle between good and evil. It is a black and white vision which leaves no room for grey. I have a more historical perception of the Iliad. The Iliad is not concerned with good and evil: Homer does not depict the Greeks as nice, civilised people, in opposition to wicked Trojan Barbarians. Indeed, the very word Barbarian, in Greek, merely refers to the nations that do not speak Greek. The absence of value judgements in the Iliad is all the more remarkable since Homer has an obvious bias for the Greeks. Besides, George Bush refers to the Book of Revelations in order to act upon and shape the world, whereas when I read the Iliad, I seek in Homer's epic poem an analytical frame that might help me better understand the Western ethos and interpret in light of it the events with which we are confronted. For instance, we now know that Saddam Hussein's regime, for all its unsavoury aspects, neither possessed weapons of mass destruction nor was involved in international terrorism. We therefore know that the war against Iraq was based on lies, and that US President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are, well, liars. In the Iliad, it is equally clear that the Trojan War was not caused by Helen's abduction (Helen being the wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother) by Paris, the son of Priam King of Troy. Paris had in fact ravished Helen in the literal sense of the word: He had seduced her, and she had followed him of her own free will. By waging war on Troy, Agamemnon was mainly seeking to loot the immense riches of the city while avenging the flouted honour of his cuckolded brother. Helen's abduction was but a pretext for Agamemnon to rally his allies to the Atreides. It is as simple as that. As simple, in fact, as the fallacious pretexts invoked by Bush and Blair in order to convince their public opinion and their allies to back them in their war against Saddam Hussein. Reading the Iliad, I realise that Bush is not acting any differently from Agamemnon. That he is neither better nor worse than Agamemnon. And I sleep better for that.

VA : What do you mean by that?

PK : I mean that as a human being and as a Westerner, I had to come to terms with the contradictions that haunted me and I had to bring myself to the idea that the war against Iraq was founded on lies. I also had to reconcile myself to the fact that, despite their obvious lies, the two leaders of the Coalition were subsequently and triumphantly re-elected by their own people, which happens to be my people. I then had to reconcile myself to the fact that those Western leaders, who had initially refused to follow Bush on Iraq (hence, German Chancellor Schroeder, French President Chirac), eventually rallied to his side and condoned his actions. Oddly enough, it is Homer's Iliad that enabled me to resolve all those contradictions. The Iliad teaches us that the false pretexts put forward by Agamemnon - protector of his people- to launch his war on Troy do not in any way detract from his glory. Why is that? Because beyond his petty lies and the equally petty goals he pursues (avenging a cuckolded brother, ransacking Troy), Agamemnon objectively serves a design that is greater than him: A Grand Design. Agamemnon symbolises the Greeks' will for power and embodies their strong desire to expand. That is what the Iliad teaches me. The Iliad enables me to go beyond Bush's clumsy lies, beyond Cheney's lust for wealth, beyond Rumsfeld's thirst for vengeance, beyond Wolfowitz's lack of physical courage, and even beyond the greed of Halliburton and of the oil majors, to view the war in Iraq and the US plans for the Middle East as being the historical embodiment of the West's renewed dynamism and their rekindled will for power in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of which goes far beyond subjectivity and far beyond the egotistical and short-sighted motivations of this or that Western leader. Reading the Iliad, I understand that I must make a choice. The same choice to which Kipling's Kim was confronted when the holy man realized he was but a little white man. I either accept to be part of this Western will for power and I help spread the values of freedom, democracy and good governance (even if the spreading of such values is based on blatant lies), in which case I must follow Bush-Agamemnon, right or wrong, or else I refuse and I become an outcast (a su'lûq, as the Arabs say). In either case I would have resolved my contradictions. I would then be at peace with myself, and I would sleep soundly at night.

VA : Is it not too much honour comparing Bush to Agamemnon? Are you not taking the risk of proving him right?

PK : Once again, my point is not to pass judgement on President Bush, or on King Agamemnon. The comparison between the two men makes historical sense. Both are God-blessed heroes, and this is a mere matter of historical "casting", not of personal worth. Agamemnon was no doubt as arrogant, as fallible and as venal as Bush is, but this is beside the point. We could broaden Homer's historical cast and compare today's Western leaders to the Greek chieftains of the Trojan War. Besides Bush as Agamemnon, I see Sharon as Menelaus, urging his elder brother Agamemnon to go fight the Trojans, one of whom had wronged him. I can picture myself Tony Blair as Ulysses, more cunning than strong and more clever than rich. Chirac, the oldest G8 leader, I see as old Nestor, the only Greek chief who fights on a chariot, and the only one, too, who does not kill anyone under the walls of Troy. As for the anti-war liberals, I see them as Thersites, mocking and stirring up ill feelings, but unable to stand their ground.

VA : In that case who would be Achilles, the most glorious and fearsome Greek warrior, and the archetype of the mythical hero ?

PK : Alas there is no Achilles in our modern Iliad. For there can be no Achilles without a Hector. Achilles' glory matches Hector's glory. Yet we deny our enemies any heroism. We deny them worth and courage: Saddam is but a bloodthirsty dictator, Ben Laden a murderous madman, Zarqawi a second-rate criminal, Muslim kamikazes are suicidal cranks, Iraqi insurgents are drug-addicts and drop-outs, the Taliban are lunatics, the new Iranian president is a despicable hostage taker, etc. How can we possibly gain glory by fighting such enemies? Caesar drew his glory from Pompey, Richard the Lionheart from Saladin, Wellington from Napoleon, but what kind of hero can possibly produce a war waged against madmen, maniacs, lunatics, cowards and criminals? We will only have an Achilles when we will have acknowledged a Hector in the opposite camp. And the same thing goes for the Asians, who still refuses to acknowledge an Achilles in the Western camp.

VA : But these terrorists attack innocent people.

PK : You are right. George Bush is St George, and Usama Ben Laden is the dragon. I would nonetheless remind you that the West burst onto those people uninvited. Western crash-gating indeed goes back a long way. Along the road, we had colonisation, the creation of the State of Israel and the constant support given by Western countries to local regimes lacking totally in legitimacy. The dragon only came out of its cave when Saint George sought to impose his law upon him. Worst still, the dragon was invoked by George who needed the dragon to be St. George! My point, however, is not to judge, but to understand. In order to understand, I have to shift the debate from a moral perspective to an historical one. What do we see, historically? Soon after the First World War, the Western powers refused to set up an Arab State on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, preferring, instead, to carve up the land and dominate it. Later, the West used a secular Iraq to fight Khomeinist Iran, then unhesitatingly broke down the Iraqi State and imposed sanctions on Iran. The West further emasculated Pakistan by neutering its "Islamic bomb", and it kept Muslim Turkey at bay as if it were a mistress one ought to be ashamed of. In truth, the West did it utmost all along to prevent the emergence of a strong Arab or Muslim State in the Middle East. Ought we be surprised, then, if orphaned Arabs and Muslims now turn en masse to the modern incarnations of the Old Man of the Mountain and of the sect of the Assassins?

VA : But past or present Western wrongdoings can hardly justify the bombings and the death of innocent people!

PK : Innocence is a moral notion. Politically, innocence makes no sense whatsoever. Politically speaking, there are only embarrassing deaths and others deaths that can be exploited. What is far more interesting that this moral issue is the fact that those who are killing people in New York, Madrid and London, but also in Indonesia, Turkey and Iraq, do it without distinction of race, nationality, or religion. In other words, their victims, be they British or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, are not politically embarrassing for them. The terrorists are as disconnected from their own society as they are from the Western society they are fighting. They do not need their co-religionists any more than they do the "infidels". It is the principle of takfîr wa hijra- that is to say "excommunication and exile"- according to which the holy warriors anathematise the society in which they live (takfîr), before excluding themselves from it (hijra) and waging war against it.

VA : The use of terrorism would thus be the proof of infinite powerlessness. Is that to say that the new Trojan War is about to end?

PK : Terrorism is indeed the weapon of the weak and the remaining New Trojans may well be about to succumb. Yet the war will not end with the fall of Troy. As Carl Schmitt once wrote, war is not a test of strength but a test of will: One is only defeated when one acknowledges defeat. The Muslim Arabs, who do not seem to have elaborated a political theory of defeat (in the same way the Germans and the Japanese did after World War II), still do not consider themselves beaten. And on the subject of the Trojan War, may I remind you that despite the Greeks' victory and the destruction of Troy, Aeneas - a Trojan hero and a member of the royal household - survived to the fall of the city. Homer tells us that his sons ruled over parts of Troad after that, and Augustus, the Roman emperor, later strived to build himself a mythical genealogy linking him to Aeneas In the fifteenth century, Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who had conquered Constantinople, identified himself totally with Aeneas and his descendants. Once, passing by Troy, he is said to have exclaimed: "God bestowed upon me the privilege of avenging this city and its inhabitants: I tamed their enemies, devastated their wealth (…) For, those who had devastated this city were Greeks, Macedonians, Thessalians and Peloponnesians, and it was their descendants who finally paid back to me the debt that their impious folly had contracted towards us, the Asians." One of these days, soon maybe, some Asian hero, feeling Trojan to the core and identifying himself with Aeneas, might well bloody the Westerners' nose and make them pay back the debt he would consider their "impious folly" to have contracted towards the Asians. The epic tale of the Greeks and the Trojans is, alas, a never ending one, and now and then the fortunes of war simply change side. This is precisely the reason why I started our talk with a reference to an historical fate.

VA : Can one escape this vicious circle?

PK : The answer to your question is probably in the Iliad. In the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, Homer tells us that the Olympian gods were more or less equally divided between the two camps: whereas Poseidon, Hera and Athena fought for the Greeks, Apollo, Artemis and Ares fought with the Trojans. The Greeks and the Trojans indeed worshipped the same gods, and Priam sacrificed to Zeus as did Agamemnon. The Greeks and the Trojans were not so much separated by the gods than by water: by the strait of the Hellespont. A far cry from the new Trojan War! Bush's god has nothing in common with Ben Laden's. In his preface to the French translation of the Iliad, Pierre Vidal-Naquet rightly points out that a king of Chios (a Greek island, therefore) was named Hector (a Trojan name); that Hector was worshipped in Thebes (a Beotian Greek city); that one of the brotherhoods of Thasos, five centuries BC, had taken the name of Priam; and that eight centuries later, in the third century AD, one could still see in Troy a statue of Hector facing one of Achilles. If we truly want to break the vicious circle of war between East and West, we ought at least to acknowledge that Judeo-Christian civilisation and Arab Islamic civilization are but two aspects of a single reality. For what is the East, if not the place where the sun rises? And what is the West, if not the place were the sun sets? Yet whether it rises or sets, the sun god, Helios, remains the same.

VA : Nonetheless we have trouble acknowledging this. The fierce opposition, within Europe, to the entry of Muslim Turkey into the European Union, testifies to this?

PK : True. Zeus, the supreme power, may have as much sympathy for the Trojans as he does for the Greeks, but underneath Zeus less important Olympian deities are still settling scores through human proxies. As long as we are willing to be the playthings of the minor gods, we will continue to relive, again and again, the Trojan War that sticks to us like some karma. And as long as we do, we will remain prisoners of the Iliad where the gods treat humans as they would toys, and we will be unable to embark, as we should, on the Odyssey where man truly begins to master his own destiny.

Jul 19, 2006


The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
posted on 05.30.06, Edge, the third culture

By Jaron Lanier

My Wikipedia entry identifies me (at least this week) as a film director. It is true I made one experimental short film about a decade and a half ago. The concept was awful: I tried to imagine what Maya Deren would have done with morphing. It was shown once at a film festival and was never distributed and I would be most comfortable if no one ever sees it again. In the real world it is easy to not direct films. I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again. I can think of no more suitable punishment than making these determined Wikipedia goblins actually watch my one small old movie.
Twice in the past several weeks, reporters have asked me about my filmmaking career. The fantasies of the goblins have entered that portion of the world that is attempting to remain real. I know I've gotten off easy. The errors in my Wikipedia bio have been (at least prior to the publication of this article) charming and even flattering.
Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure. In my particular case, it appears that the goblins are probably members or descendants of the rather sweet old Mondo 2000 culture linking psychedelic experimentation with computers. They seem to place great importance on relating my ideas to those of the psychedelic luminaries of old (and in ways that I happen to find sloppy and incorrect.) Edits deviating from this set of odd ideas that are... important to this one particular small subculture are immediately removed. This makes sense. Who else would volunteer to pay that much attention and do all that work?
The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It's been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. At the very least it's a success at revealing what the online people with the most determination and time on their hands are thinking, and that's actually interesting information.
No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.
There was a well-publicized study in Nature last year comparing the accuracy of the Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. The results were a toss up, while there is a lingering debate about the validity of the study. The items selected for the comparison were just the sort that Wikipedia would do well on: Science topics that the collective at large doesn't care much about. "Kinetic isotope effect" or "Vesalius, Andreas" are examples of topics that make the Britannica hard to maintain, because it takes work to find the right authors to research and review a multitude of diverse topics. But they are perfect for the Wikipedia. There is little controversy around these items, plus the Net provides ready access to a reasonably small number of competent specialist graduate student types possessing the manic motivation of youth.
A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes. In all these cases, it seems to me that empirical evidence has yielded mixed results. Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don't. Often we don't live long enough to find out. Later in this essay I'll point out what constraints make a collective smart. But first, it's important to not lose sight of values just because the question of whether a collective can be smart is so fascinating. Accuracy in a text is not enough. A desirable text is more than a collection of accurate references. It is also an expression of personality.
For instance, most of the technical or scientific information that is in the Wikipedia was already on the Web before the Wikipedia was started. You could always use Google or other search services to find information about items that are now wikified. In some cases I have noticed specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages. And when that happens, each text loses part of its value. Since search engines are now more likely to point you to the wikified versions, the Web has lost some of its flavor in casual use.
When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn't just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning. Personal Web pages do that, as do journals and books. Even Britannica has an editorial voice, which some people have criticized as being vaguely too "Dead White Men."
If an ironic Web site devoted to destroying cinema claimed that I was a filmmaker, it would suddenly make sense. That would be an authentic piece of text. But placed out of context in the Wikipedia, it becomes drivel.
Myspace is another recent experiment that has become even more influential than the Wikipedia. Like the Wikipedia, it adds just a little to the powers already present on the Web in order to inspire a dramatic shift in use. Myspace is all about authorship, but it doesn't pretend to be all-wise. You can always tell at least a little about the character of the person who made a Myspace page. But it is very rare indeed that a Myspace page inspires even the slightest confidence that the author is a trustworthy authority. Hurray for Myspace on that count!
Myspace is a richer, multi-layered, source of information than the Wikipedia, although the topics the two services cover barely overlap. If you want to research a TV show in terms of what people think of it, Myspace will reveal more to you than the analogous and enormous entries in the Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia is far from being the only online fetish site for foolish collectivism. There's a frantic race taking place online to become the most "Meta" site, to be the highest level aggregator, subsuming the identity of all other sites.
The race began innocently enough with the notion of creating directories of online destinations, such as the early incarnations of Yahoo. Then came AltaVista, where one could search using an inverted database of the content of the whole Web. Then came Google, which added page rank algorithms. Then came the blogs, which varied greatly in terms of quality and importance. This lead to Meta-blogs such as Boing Boing, run by identified humans, which served to aggregate blogs. In all of these formulations, real people were still in charge. An individual or individuals were presenting a personality and taking responsibility.
These Web-based designs assumed that value would flow from people. It was still clear, in all such designs, that the Web was made of people, and that ultimately value always came from connecting with real humans.
Even Google by itself (as it stands today) isn't Meta enough to be a problem. One layer of page ranking is hardly a threat to authorship, but an accumulation of many layers can create a meaningless murk, and that is another matter.
In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion.
Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Whole Earth Review and the founding Executive Editor of Wired, is a friend and someone who has been thinking about what he and others call the "Hive Mind." He runs a Website called Cool Tools that's a cross between a blog and the old Whole Earth Catalog. On Cool Tools, the contributors, including me, are not a hive because we are identified.
In March, Kelly reviewed a variety of "Consensus Web filters" such as "Digg" and "Reddit" that assemble material every day from all the myriad of other aggregating sites. Such sites intend to be more Meta than the sites they aggregate. There is no person taking responsibility for what appears on them, only an algorithm. The hope seems to be that the most Meta site will become the mother of all bottlenecks and receive infinite funding.
That new magnitude of Meta-ness lasted only amonth. In April, Kelly reviewed a site called "popurls" that aggregates consensus Web filtering sites...and there was a new "most Meta". We now are reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously.
Is "popurls" any good? I am writing this on May 27, 2006. In the last few days an experimental approach to diabetes management has been announced that might prevent nerve damage. That's huge news for tens of millions of Americans. It is not mentioned on popurls. Popurls does clue us in to this news: "Student sets simultaneous world ice cream-eating record, worst ever ice cream headache." Mainstream news sources all lead today with a serious earthquake in Java. Popurls includes a few mentions of the event, but they are buried within the aggregation of aggregate news sites like Google News. The reason the quake appears on popurls at all can be discovered only if you dig through all the aggregating layers to find the original sources, which are those rare entries actually created by professional writers and editors who sign their names. But at the layer of popurls, the ice cream story and the Javanese earthquake are at best equals, without context or authorship.
Kevin Kelly says of the "popurls" site, "There's no better way to watch the hive mind." But the hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?
Readers of my previous rants will notice a parallel between my discomfort with so-called "Artificial Intelligence" and the race to erase personality and be most Meta. In each case, there's a presumption that something like a distinct kin to individual human intelligence is either about to appear any minute, or has already appeared. The problem with that presumption is that people are all too willing to lower standards in order to make the purported newcomer appear smart. Just as people are willing to bend over backwards and make themselves stupid in order to make an AI interface appear smart (as happens when someone can interact with the notorious Microsoft paper clip,) so are they willing to become uncritical and dim in order to make Meta-aggregator sites appear to be coherent.
There is a pedagogical connection between the culture of Artificial Intelligence and the strange allure of anonymous collectivism online. Google's vast servers and the Wikipedia are both mentioned frequently as being the startup memory for Artificial Intelligences to come. Larry Page is quoted via a link presented to me by popurls this morning (who knows if it's accurate) as speculating that an AI might appear within Google within a few years. George Dyson has wondered if such an entity already exists on the Net, perhaps perched within Google. My point here is not to argue about the existence of Metaphysical entities, but just to emphasize how premature and dangerous it is to lower the expectations we hold for individual human intellects.
The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.
Compounding the problem is that new business models for people who think and write have not appeared as quickly as we all hoped. Newspapers, for instance, are on the whole facing a grim decline as the Internet takes over the feeding of curious eyes that hover over morning coffee and even worse, classified ads. In the new environment, Google News is for the moment better funded and enjoys a more secure future than most of the rather small number of fine reporters around the world who ultimately create most of its content. The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.
The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it's easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation.
The artificial elevation of all things Meta is not confined to online culture. It is having a profound influence on how decisions are made in America.
What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug.
As a consultant, I used to be asked to test an idea or propose a new one to solve a problem. In the last couple of years I've often been asked to work quite differently. You might find me and the other consultants filling out survey forms or tweaking edits to a collective essay. I'm saying and doing much less than I used to, even though I'm still being paid the same amount. Maybe I shouldn't complain, but the actions of big institutions do matter, and it's time to speak out against the collectivity fad that is upon us.
It's not hard to see why the fallacy of collectivism has become so popular in big organizations: If the principle is correct, then individuals should not be required to take on risks or responsibilities. We live in times of tremendous uncertainties coupled with infinite liability phobia, and we must function within institutions that are loyal to no executive, much less to any lower level member. Every individual who is afraid to say the wrong thing within his or her organization is safer when hiding behind a wiki or some other Meta aggregation ritual.
I've participated in a number of elite, well-paid wikis and Meta-surveys lately and have had a chance to observe the results. I have even been part of a wiki about wikis. What I've seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization. Why isn't everyone screaming about the recent epidemic of inappropriate uses of the collective? It seems to me the reason is that bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.
The collective rises around us in multifarious ways. What afflicts big institutions also afflicts pop culture. For instance, it has become notoriously difficult to introduce a new pop star in the music business. Even the most successful entrants have hardly ever made it past the first album in the last decade or so. The exception is American Idol. As with the Wikipedia, there's nothing wrong with it. The problem is its centrality.
More people appear to vote in this pop competition than in presidential elections, and one reason for this is the instant convenience of information technology. The collective can vote by phone or by texting, and some vote more than once. The collective is flattered and it responds. The winners are likable, almost by definition.
But John Lennon wouldn't have won. He wouldn't have made it to the finals. Or if he had, he would have ended up a different sort of person and artist. The same could be said about Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, David Byrne, Grandmaster Flash, Bob Dylan (please!), and almost anyone else who has been vastly influential in creating pop music.
As below, so above. The New York Times, of all places, has recently published op-ed pieces supporting the pseudo-idea of intelligent design. This is astonishing. The Times has become the paper of averaging opinions. Something is lost when American Idol becomes a leader instead of a follower of pop music. But when intelligent design shares the stage with real science in the paper of record, everything is lost.
How could the Times have fallen so far? I don't know, but I would imagine the process was similar to what I've seen in the consulting world of late. It's safer to be the aggregator of the collective. You get to include all sorts of material without committing to anything. You can be superficially interesting without having to worry about the possibility of being wrong.
Except when intelligent thought really matters. In that case the average idea can be quite wrong, and only the best ideas have lasting value. Science is like that.
The collective isn't always stupid. In some special cases the collective can be brilliant. For instance, there's a demonstrative ritual often presented to incoming students at business schools. In one version of the ritual, a large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.
This is an example of the special kind of intelligence offered by a collective. It is that peculiar trait that has been celebrated as the "Wisdom of Crowds," though I think the word "wisdom" is misleading. It is part of what makes Adam Smith's Invisible Hand clever, and is connected to the reasons Google's page rank algorithms work. It was long ago adapted to futurism, where it was known as the Delphi technique. The phenomenon is real, and immensely useful.
But it is not infinitely useful. The collective can be stupid, too. Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania. The reason the collective can be valuable is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals. Both kinds of intelligence are essential.
What makes a market work, for instance, is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence. A marketplace can't exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition. It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place.
In other words, clever individuals, the heroes of the marketplace, ask the questions which are answered by collective behavior. They put the jellybeans in the jar.
There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual. When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective that is reasonably free of manipulation or runaway internal resonances. But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.
Here I must take a moment to comment on Linux and similar efforts. The various formulations of "open" or "free" software are different from the Wikipedia and the race to be most Meta in important ways. Linux programmers are not anonymous and in fact personal glory is part of the motivational engine that keeps such enterprises in motion. But there are similarities, and the lack of a coherent voice or design sensibility in an esthetic sense is one negative quality of both open source software and the Wikipedia.
These movements are at their most efficient while building hidden information plumbing layers, such as Web servers. They are hopeless when it comes to producing fine user interfaces or user experiences. If the code that ran the Wikipedia user interface were as open as the contents of the entries, it would churn itself into impenetrable muck almost immediately. The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters, but it is bad when taste and judgment matter.
Collectives can be just as stupid as any individual, and in important cases, stupider. The interesting question is whether it's possible to map out where the one is smarter than the many.
There is a lot of history to this topic, and varied disciplines have lots to say. Here is a quick pass at where I think the boundary between effective collective thought and nonsense lies: The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn't defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result (such as a single numeric value,) and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree. Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person. Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.
Meanwhile, an individual best achieves optimal stupidity on those rare occasions when one is both given substantial powers and insulated from the results of his or her actions.
If the above criteria have any merit, then there is an unfortunate convergence. The setup for the most stupid collective is also the setup for the most stupid individuals.
Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals. These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes. The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects. There's a lot of experience out there to work with. A few of these old ideas provide interesting new ways to approach the question of how to best use the hive mind.
The pre-Internet world provides some great examples of how personality-based quality control can improve collective intelligence. For instance, an independent press provides tasty news about politicians by reporters with strong voices and reputations, like the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein. Other writers provide product reviews, such as Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal and David Pogue in The New York Times. Such journalists inform the collective's determination of election results and pricing. Without an independent press, composed of heroic voices, the collective becomes stupid and unreliable, as has been demonstrated in many historical instances. (Recent events in America have reflected the weakening of the press, in my opinion.)
Scientific communities likewise achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and "blind" elitism — blind in the sense that ideally anyone can gain entry, but only on the basis of a meritocracy. The tenure system and many other aspects of the academy are designed to support the idea that individual scholars matter, not just the process or the collective.
Another example: Entrepreneurs aren't the only "heroes" of a marketplace. The role of a central bank in an economy is not the same as that of a communist party official in a centrally planned economy. Even though setting an interest rate sounds like the answering of a question, it is really more like the asking of a question. The Fed asks the market to answer the question of how to best optimize for lowering inflation, for instance. While that might not be the question everyone would want to have asked, it is at least coherent.
Yes, there have been plenty of scandals in government, the academy and in the press. No mechanism is perfect, but still here we are, having benefited from all of these institutions. There certainly have been plenty of bad reporters, self-deluded academic scientists, incompetent bureaucrats, and so on. Can the hive mind help keep them in check? The answer provided by experiments in the pre-Internet world is "yes," but only provided some signal processing is placed in the loop.
Some of the regulating mechanisms for collectives that have been most successful in the pre-Internet world can be understood in part as modulating the time domain. For instance, what if a collective moves too readily and quickly, jittering instead of settling down to provide a single answer? This happens on the most active Wikipedia entries, for example, and has also been seen in some speculation frenzies in open markets.
One service performed by representative democracy is low-pass filtering. Imagine the jittery shifts that would take place if a wiki were put in charge of writing laws. It's a terrifying thing to consider. Super-energized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax-code on a frantic, never-ending basis. The Internet would be swamped.
Such chaos can be avoided in the same way it already is, albeit imperfectly, by the slower processes of elections and court proceedings. The calming effect of orderly democracy achieves more than just the smoothing out of peripatetic struggles for consensus. It also reduces the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an over-excited state when too many rapid changes to answers coincide in such a way that they don't cancel each other out. (Technical readers will recognize familiar principles in signal processing.)
The Wikipedia has recently slapped a crude low pass filter on the jitteriest entries, such as "President George W. Bush." There's now a limit to how often a particular person can remove someone else's text fragments. I suspect that this will eventually have to evolve into an approximate mirror of democracy as it was before the Internet arrived.
The reverse problem can also appear. The hive mind can be on the right track, but moving too slowly. Sometimes collectives would yield brilliant results given enough time but there isn't enough time. A problem like global warming would automatically be addressed eventually if the market had enough time to respond to it, for instance. Insurance rates would climb, and so on. Alas, in this case there isn't enough time, because the market conversation is slowed down by the legacy effect of existing investments. Therefore some other process has to intervene, such as politics invoked by individuals.
Another example of the slow hive problem: There was a lot of technology developed slowly in the millennia before there was a clear idea of how to be empirical, how to have a peer reviewed technical literature and an education based on it, and before there was an efficient market to determine the value of inventions. What is crucial to notice about modernity is that structure and constraints were part of what sped up the process of technological development, not just pure openness and concessions to the collective.
Let's suppose that the Wikipedia will indeed become better in some ways, as is claimed by the faithful, over a period of time. We might still need something better sooner.
Some wikitopians explicitly hope to see education subsumed by wikis. It is at least possible that in the fairly near future enough communication and education will take place through anonymous Internet aggregation that we could become vulnerable to a sudden dangerous empowering of the hive mind. History has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling. I don't see why there couldn't be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism. If wikis are to gain any more influence they ought to be improved by mechanisms like the ones that have worked tolerably well in the pre-Internet world.
The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals — just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.
These are just a few ideas about how to train a potentially dangerous collective and not let it get out of the yard. When there's a problem, you want it to bark but not bite you.
The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all. By avoiding that nonsense, it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.
Jaron Lanier is a film director. He writes a monthly column for Discover Magazine. Jaron Lanier's Edge Bio Page

Jul 6, 2006

Thus ATE Zarathushtra

Issue of 2006-07-03Posted 2006-06-26
The New Yorker

The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup? It was Leibniz who first said that fat consisted of monads. Leibniz dieted and exercised but never did get rid of his monads—at least, not the ones that adhered to his thighs. Spinoza, on the other hand, dined sparingly because he believed that God existed in everything and it’s intimidating to wolf down a knish if you think you’re ladling mustard onto the First Cause of All Things

There’s nothing like the discovery of an unknown work by a great thinker to set the intellectual community atwitter and cause academics to dart about like those things one sees when looking at a drop of water under a microscope. On a recent trip to Heidelberg to procure some rare nineteenth-century duelling scars, I happened upon just such a treasure. Who would have thought that “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book” existed? While its authenticity might appear to be a soupçon dicey to the niggling, most who have studied the work agree that no other Western thinker has come so close to reconciling Plato with Pritikin. Selections follow:

Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips. Among the pre-Socratics, it was Zeno who held that weight was an illusion and that no matter how much a man ate he would always be only half as fat as the man who never does push-ups. The quest for an ideal body obsessed the Athenians, and in a lost play by Aeschylus Clytemnestra breaks her vow never to snack between meals and tears out her eyes when she realizes she no longer fits into her bathing suit.

It took the mind of Aristotle to put the weight problem in scientific terms, and in an early fragment of the Ethics he states that the circumference of any man is equal to his girth multiplied by pi. This sufficed until the Middle Ages, when Aquinas translated a number of menus into Latin and the first really good oyster bars opened. Dining out was still frowned upon by the Church, and valet parking was a venal sin.

As we know, for centuries Rome regarded the Open Hot Turkey Sandwich as the height of licentiousness; many sandwiches ...were forced to stay closed and only reopened after the Reformation. Fourteenth-century religious paintings first depicted scenes of damnation in which the overweight wandered Hell, condemned to salads and yogurt. The Spaniards were particularly cruel, and during the Inquisition a man could be put to death for stuffing an avocado with crabmeat.

No philosopher came close to solving the problem of guilt and weight until Descartes divided mind and body in two, so that the body could gorge itself while the mind thought, Who cares, it’s not me. The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup? It was Leibniz who first said that fat consisted of monads. Leibniz dieted and exercised but never did get rid of his monads—at least, not the ones that adhered to his thighs. Spinoza, on the other hand, dined sparingly because he believed that God existed in everything and it’s intimidating to wolf down a knish if you think you’re ladling mustard onto the First Cause of All Things.

Is there a relationship between a healthy regimen and creative genius? We need only look at the composer Richard Wagner and see what he puts away. French fries, grilled cheese, nachos—Christ, there’s no limit to the man’s appetite, and yet his music is sublime. Cosima, his wife, goes pretty good, too, but at least she runs every day. In a scene cut from the “Ring” cycle, Siegfried decides to dine out with the Rhine maidens and in heroic fashion consumes an ox, two dozen fowl, several wheels of cheese, and fifteen kegs of beer. Then the check comes and he’s short. The point here is that in life one is entitled to a side dish of either coleslaw or potato salad, and the choice must be made in terror, with the knowledge that not only is our time on earth limited but most kitchens close at ten.

The existential catastrophe for Schopenhauer was not so much eating as munching. Schopenhauer railed against the aimless nibbling of peanuts and potato chips while one engaged in other activities. Once munching has begun, Schopenhauer held, the human will cannot resist further munching, and the result is a universe with crumbs over everything. No less misguided was Kant, who proposed that we order lunch in such a manner that if everybody ordered the same thing the world would function in a moral way. The problem Kant didn’t foresee is that if everyone orders the same dish there will be squabbling in the kitchen over who gets the last branzino. “Order like you are ordering for every human being on earth,” Kant advises, but what if the man next to you doesn’t eat guacamole? In the end, of course, there are no moral foods—unless we count soft-boiled eggs.

To sum up: apart from my own Beyond Good and Evil Flapjacks and Will to Power Salad Dressing, of the truly great recipes that have changed Western ideas Hegel’s Chicken Pot Pie was the first to employ leftovers with meaningful political implications. Spinoza’s Stir-Fried Shrimp and Vegetables can be enjoyed by atheists and agnostics alike, while a little-known recipe of Hobbes’s for Barbecued Baby-Back Ribs remains an intellectual conundrum. The great thing about the Nietzsche Diet is that once the pounds are shed they stay off—which is not the case with Kant’s “Tractatus on Starches.”

Orange juice
2 strips of bacon
Baked clams
Toast, herbal tea

The juice of the orange is the very being of the orange made manifest, and by this I mean its true nature, and that which gives it its “orangeness” and keeps it from tasting like, say, a poached salmon or grits. To the devout, the notion of anything but cereal for breakfast produces anxiety and dread, but with the death of God anything is permitted, and profiteroles and clams may be eaten at will, and even buffalo wings.

1 bowl of spaghetti, with tomato and basil
White bread
Mashed potatoes
Sacher Torte

The powerful will always lunch on rich foods, well seasoned with heavy sauces, while the weak peck away at wheat germ and tofu, convinced that their suffering will earn them a reward in an afterlife where grilled lamb chops are all the rage. But if the afterlife is, as I assert, an eternal recurrence of this life, then the meek must dine in perpetuity on low carbs and broiled chicken with the skin removed.

Steak or sausages
Hash-brown potatoes
Lobster thermidor
Ice cream with whipped cream or layer cake

This is a meal for the Superman. Let those who are riddled with angst over high triglycerides and trans fats eat to please their pastor or nutritionist, but the Superman knows that marbleized meat and creamy cheeses with rich desserts and, oh, yes, lots of fried stuff is what Dionysus would eat—if it weren’t for his reflux problem.

Epistemology renders dieting moot. If nothing exists except in my mind, not only can I order anything; the service will be impeccable. Man is the only creature who ever stiffs a waiter.

Jul 1, 2006

The Rebel and Mr. Danger

Is Bush’s nightmare Venezuela’s salvation?

Greg Grandin, Boston Review

There is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In Doña Barbara, the inhabitants of Venezuela’s untamed southern plains at first welcome the arrival of Mr. Danger, believing that he will bring “new ideas” to help modernize the region’s agricultural production. Their hopes are quickly dashed as the “scornful foreigner” loafs in his hammock, smoking his pipe and living off rustled cattle, stirring only to shoot alligators and ply his neighbor with liquor to steal his property and despoil his daughter. Mr. Danger is a “humorist in his own way” who, when introducing himself, repeats his surname in Spanish— peligro—“to emphasize its disconcerting translation.” It’s a trick Chávez, also easy with a joke, likewise enjoys: “The greatest peligro in the world,” he warns, “is Mr. Danger.” Gallegos himself served as Venezuela’s president ...for less then a year in 1948 before being ousted in a coup that many Venezuelans insist had the support of Standard Oil and the U.S. embassy. So for the millions reared on the novel Chávez’s own disconcerting translation has special force.
Chávez’s success owes much to his creation of a colloquial cosmopolitan nationalism, his ability to thread into his speeches historical figures such as Simón Bolívar and literary references more obscure than Mr. Danger. As his international stature and aspirations have increased, Chávez has expanded his repertoire. He now moves seamlessly from Simón Bolívar to Jawaharlal Nehru, Bertrand Russell to Noam Chomsky. But Mr. Danger has only a bit part in Doña Barbara, which is concerned less with vanquishing the imperial interloper than with taming Venezuela’s inner demons. The novel follows the progress of Santos Luzardo, beginning with his return from Caracas to his ancestral ranch deep in Venezuela’s mythic llano country. Urbane and lettered, Luzardo at first hopes to sell his inheritance but soon succumbs to the call of the land. Gallegos leaves little to the imagination. Santos Luzardo, a lawyer whose name means Sacred Light, slowly gains the advantage in a war of maneuver with his neighbor, Doña Barbara, an enchantress whose impulsive power over men symbolizes all that the interior of the nation, and thus the nation itself, must overcome if it is to move forward: hierarchy maintained by arbitrary clientalism; profit derived from theft rather than production; and society held together by fear in lieu of law.
For those familiar with Doña Barbara, it might seem odd that Chávez, in invoking Mr. Danger, implicitly identifies with Luzardo, whose struggle to civilize the plains was represented by his installation of a barbed-wire fence around his vast ranch. Chávez, after all, has done more than any of his center-left counterparts who now govern throughout Latin America to weaken the absolute right of private property that has been the cornerstone of the global political economy for more than two decades. He has distributed large, unproductive public lands and private estates to peasant cooperatives, nationalized bankrupted industries, and forced oil multinationals to renegotiate operating contracts. But Chávez easily updates the values that mark Doña Barbara’s barbarism to lambaste “cruel and savage” free-market capitalism. And like Luzardo, who triumphs by putting his enemies’ weapons to his own use, Chávez, a former coup plotter and self-described revolutionary, has bested his opponents at their own electoral game.
* * *
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has moved away from its traditional reliance on military strongmen in Latin America, instead staking its future on the promotion of unregulated markets and constitutional democracies. It has turned out to be an explosive combination. Decades of financial liberalization, tight money, and open markets, along with the rampant corruption that took place with the selling off of state industries, have bejeweled the few while leaving the rest ragged. During the first five years of this decade the region’s economy grew by one point, and during the previous decade it grew by only nine points. In contrast, the heyday of state developmentalism, between 1960 and 1980, produced 82 percent growth. Today, over 213 million of Latin America’s 520 million people live in poverty, 88 million of them in extreme poverty. Provoked mostly by this social catastrophe but also by Bush’s post-9/11 embrace of unilateral militarism, voters in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia have in recent years elected presidents sharply critical of Washington, a trend that may continue in July when Mexicans go to the polls. But these new leftists, constrained by free-trade treaties, autonomous central banks, and the fickleness of financial markets, have mostly opted to pursue mild reform while leaving unchallenged the assumptions of export-led market development. Even Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who came to power promising to be Washington’s “nightmare,” conceded just before his election that in office his hands would be tied by “20 years of neoliberal laws.”
It was Venezuela that provided the prototype for this kind of top-down, restricted democracy. After a decade-long dictatorship ended in 1958, the formalities of democratic rule were maintained for 40 years as power rotated between two ideologically indistinguishable parties: Acción Democrática and the Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente. By the early 1980s, the country had enjoyed such a long period of stability that it was celebrated by the U.S. State Department and its allied policy intellectuals, among them Samuel Huntington, as the “only trail to a democratic future for developing societies . . . a textbook case of step-by-step progress.” In hindsight, its institutions were rotting from the inside out. Every sin that Chávez is today accused by his opponents of committing—governing without accountability, marginalizing the opposition, appointing partisan supporters to the judiciary, and dominating labor unions, professional organizations, and civil society—flourished in a system described by the political scientist Michael Coppedge as “partyarchy.” This arrangement solidified during the flush years of high oil prices, with export revenue funding an enormous patronage trough, including graft and kickbacks for political and business elites and what was hailed as a showcase welfare system for everyone else. Absolute poverty and inequality did decrease somewhat in the 1970s, less a result of government programs than a massive march of migrants in search of industrial wages escaping to either Caracas or one of the country’s provincial towns organized around oil drilling, refining, and shipping.
But petroleum prices began to fall in the mid-1980s. By this point, Venezuela had grown lopsidedly urban, with 16 million of its 19 million citizens living in cities, well over half of them below the poverty line. Between 1981 and 1997, the share in national income of the poorest two fifths of the population fell from 19.1 to 14.7 percent while the share of the wealthiest tenth increased from 21.8 to 32.8 percent. During roughly this same period, the percentage of those living in extreme poverty tripled, from 11 to 36 percent. Throughout the 1980s, Caracas grew at a galloping pace, creating combustible concentrations of poor people cut off from municipal services—such as sanitation and safe drinking water—and hence party control. The spark came in February 1989, when AD’s recently inaugurated president Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had rallied against the IMF during his campaign, announced that he had no choice but to submit to its dictates, which included abolishing food and fuel subsidies, increasing gas prices, privatizing state industries, and cutting spending on health care and education.
Three days of rioting and looting spread through the capital following Pérez’s announcement. The Caracazo, as the uprising became known, heralded both the beginning of the hemisphere’s increasingly focused opposition to free-market absolutism and the end of Venezuela’s exemption from the pitched cycles of radicalism and reaction that had overtaken most of its neighbors during the Cold War. Established parties, unions, and government institutions proved entirely incapable of restoring legitimacy in austere times, committed as they were to not challenging a profoundly unequal class structure. The military, which remained relatively respected during the declining years of AD-COPEI rule, was torn apart, having killed (according to some observers) over a thousand people to restore order. Hugo Chávez emerged from this ruin: leading a group of young officers, many of them educated in civilian universities and untutored in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, who were committed to a broad and vague program that rejected free-trade austerity, he repudiated the country’s unresponsive and corrupt political system and sought to restore the prestige of the armed forces.
Chávez’s fearsome political skills—his ability to bob and weave and keep his opponents off-balance—contributes to the sense that he has no political program beyond responding to exigencies. Yet for a decade before the Caracazo, Chávez had patiently built ties between his fellow young cadets and civilian reformers, excavating embryonic concerns about economic justice, racial inclusion, and social solidarity within Venezuelan nationalism and fusing them to the leftist political alliances that emerged in the wake of Venezuela’s failed insurgency of the 1960s and breakup of the Communist Party.
By the time he burst onto the national scene with his 1992 coup attempt, he had secured at least the tacit endorsement of much of the country’s true opposition, those activists and parties cut out of the AD-COPEI duopoly. During the six years between the aborted coup and the 1998 elections, two of which Chávez spent in jail, the wildfire spread of his putschist-turned-electoral movement was fanned by more than a would-be caudillo’s magnetic appeal to an amorphous mass. Venezuela—like other countries in the region—witnessed the emergence of independent grass-roots organizations not dependent on party patronage, including neighborhood councils; feminist, economic-justice, and human-rights groups; environmental coalitions; and breakaway unions. Chávez’s 1998 presidential candidacy provided a focal point for this diffuse civil society, at first more metaphorical than institutional. Sixty-seven percent of Venezuelans are considered mestizos, ten percent black, 21 percent white, and two percent indigenous, a racial distribution that largely corresponds to the class distribution. The esteem in which Chávez is held by the dark-skinned poor is amplified by the rage the Venezuelan president provokes among the white and the rich, a distinction that has destroyed the country’s myth of racial democracy as thoroughly as it has its sense of political exceptionalism.
Winning the presidency in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, Chávez at first seemed to be following the path blazed by Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who harnessed the electorate’s anger to strengthen the executive branch at the expense of the congress and the judiciary. Shortly after his inauguration in early 1999, Chávez launched a series of votes that resulted in the ratification of a new constitution and the replacement of a bicameral legislature with a unicameral one. In July 2000, 6,000 political offices, from community posts to the presidency, were put to a vote under the terms of the new charter. Chávez was reelected, and his supporters won a majority in the new legislature and 15 out of 23 state governorships.
But the experience of Peru under Fujimori was fundamentally different. The former Peruvian president came out of nowhere, with no social base or political tradition to build on, leading him to rely on the services of his deadly intelligence director Vladimiro Lenin Montesinos and to implement economic policies favored by Wall Street and Washington. Chávez, in contrast, had spent decades building relations with left-wing and reformist civilians and military officers, and his populism has a depth that hasn’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Juan Perón. He also has oil, which has allowed him to forge his own version of Venezuelan exceptionalism: an ability to keep his currency stable and investment flowing even as he provokes the United States, negotiates favorable terms with multinationals, and increases social spending.
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The current constitution is Venezuela’s 27th, a caution to those who treat it as evidence that “Chavismo” represents a definitive split with the past. But the charter did rotate the distribution of power away from decentralized party politics toward a greatly fortified president and an empowered citizenry. It also broke with the astringent definition of democracy that has prevailed in Latin America—officially, at least—since the end of the Cold War. It is an explicitly social instead of narrowly political compact, developmentalist rather than market-oriented, and potentially participatory as opposed to strictly representative. It bans the privatization of the country’s public pension fund and the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and guarantees a range of economic, personal, cultural, and even environmental protections. The government now pledges that “every worker has the right to a sufficient salary to live a life with dignity” and “recognizes work at home as an economic activity” eligible for Social Security, while assuming the authority to promote industry and agriculture in ways that would fulfill these promises. The new constitution requires a plebiscite on any treaty that would infringe on national sovereignty, including free-trade agreements, establishes transparent mechanisms for citizens to recall politicians and hold referenda to pass or rescind legislation, and protects the right of civil disobedience in pursuit of justice.
The outgoing political order, along with the country’s business associations, opposed the new constitution, but dissent, though visceral, remained unfocused during the first few years of Chávez’s tenure. The country’s fair-skinned upper and shrinking middle classes had been on the lookout for their own Fujimori since the Caracazo, and if Chávez wasn’t willing to rule on their behalf they assumed he would quickly fall. And there were deep divisions between gung-ho global entrepreneurs—men like Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of the Venevisión TV network and the junior partner to AOL, Coca-Cola, and Pizza Hut—who wanted to finish the job of opening up Venezuela to foreign capital and those invested in the previous party system, bloated state bureaucracy, and privileged sectors of organized labor who wanted to return to an easy life of high oil rents. Since neither of these two options appealed to a now unleashed electorate, there was little they could do to stop the new charter’s momentum. But Chávez’s opponents began to draw together toward the end of 2001, after the government passed a series of laws that further formalized their disenfranchisement. These included a land reform, efforts to democratize unions and political parties, and, most critically, a move to place PDVSA, which had been run by an autonomous group of technocrats committed to its privatization, under government control and use its revenue for social spending and non–oil sector investment.
If the first three years of Chávez’s administration were spent in an effort to change Venezuela’s political rules, the following three years were a full-on fight by the old regime to prevent the rules from going into effect. Blind to Chávez’s popularity among the heretofore invisible urban poor and counseled by hard-liners in the Bush administration, the opposition launched a series of maximalist actions to drive him from power, including an April 2002 coup attempt, a two-month oil strike that cost the country $6 billion, and an August 2004 recall vote. Chávez beat back this campaign and emerged from the crisis years greatly strengthened, with PDVSA firmly under state control, his victory in the recall vote confirmed by the Organization of American States, the European Community, and the Carter Center, his adversaries in the military, police, and unions removed from office, and his bond with the poor strengthened. The corporate print and TV media, which not only sided with Chávez’s enemies but roused them to action, lost its credibility as a tribune of public trust and could credibly be dismissed by government supporters as an instrument of a self-interested and revanchist oligarchy. More critically, polls reveal that an overwhelming majority of citizens, regardless of their opinion of Chávez, consider the new political arrangement put into place between 1999 and 2001 to be lawful. Recent surveys report that while roughly 39 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of their president, the opposition’s core support has shriveled to less than ten percent of voters.
Yet as Chávez’s position has become more secure, Washington has stepped up its efforts to stoke the opposition’s militancy. Bush’s new national-security strategy specifically identifies Chávez as a threat, a “demagogue awash in oil money” seeking to “undermine democracy” and “destabilize the region,” while Donald Rumsfeld recently compared the Venezuelan president to Hitler, noting that both men came to power through the ballot. Because of high oil prices, Chávez has more room to maneuver than do other Latin American presidents, leading Washington to look for new ways to constrain him. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed that the OAS expand its Cold War mandate as a mutual-defense alliance against extra-hemispheric threats to “monitor” the internal politics of member nations to ensure they adhered to the norms of democratic procedure. Latin Americans voted down the proposal, understanding it to be an attempt by the United States to isolate Venezuela, but it is now part of Rice’s stump speech on Latin America to warn “leaders who are elected democratically” to “govern democratically.”
Democracy in Latin America has long been infamously fragile, a liability that social scientists often like to blame on an authoritarian political culture. Yet it didn’t help that that culture developed in the shadow of a world power that repeatedly sacrificed political liberalism for “hemispheric stability.” Throughout the Cold War, the CIA habitually subverted the press, legislature, labor movement, and military whenever an executive began to take sovereignty too seriously. A long list of Latin American presidents, from the familiar Salvador Allende in Chile to the less-well-known Ramón Villeda Morales in Honduras, lost Washington’s favor for one reason or another and then found the pillars of pluralism pulled out from under them.
Washington today prefers to outsource much of this “democracy promotion” work to organizations such as the quasi-private but publicly funded International Republican Institute. The IRI recently came to prominence in the United States when The New York Times reported that in Haiti it worked to unify President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s opponents, counseling them not to negotiate with him in order to provoke a conflict and force his ouster, which is what happened in 2004. But the IRI has been well known in Venezuela since 2002, when the story came out that it had helped coordinate the activities of a number of groups involved in the destabilization campaign leading to the April coup. The IRI presents itself as part of a mainstream democratic consensus, yet even as the OAS and every other Latin American and European country were condemning the brief overthrow of Chávez, the IRI’s president was issuing a press release praising the “bravery” of the plotters and practically claiming credit for their fleeting success. “The Institute,” he wrote, “has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil-society groups to help Venezuelans forge a new democratic future.”
The IRI, along with similar organizations such as the Center for International Private Enterprise, continues to work closely with some of the most unbending anti-Chávez militants, including those who last December, ripping a page out of the Haitian playbook, boycotted Venezuela’s congressional elections. Going into the vote, polls predicted that the Chavistas would increase their slim legislative majority from 52 percent to about 60 percent, a significant but by no means suffocating margin. Yet in a move that The New York Times editorial page—no friend of Chávez—called “petulant idiocy,” opposition leaders, deciding that 40 percent wasn’t worth the candle, withdrew from the election, even though OAS representatives successfully lobbied the National Election Commission to meet their demands for stricter voting secrecy. As this December’s presidential elections approach, surveys have consistently reported that 60 percent of Venezuelans both approve of Chávez and believe his government, including the legislature (now completely controlled by Chavistas because of the boycott), to be legitimate.
The public-opinion numbers have split the opposition. New political parties untainted by the rot of the old “partyarchy,” such as Primero Justicia, have signaled their willingness to participate in the coming vote, hoping to establish themselves as a responsible minority able to step in and govern when Chavismo falters. But so far they have been pressured into taking a hard-line stance by a more feverish “National Resistance” faction, made up of AD and COPEI holdovers and upper-class ideologues who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by forcing polarization. Adding to the potential for confrontation, there is also a move to again invoke the constitution’s referendum clause, as the opposition did in the recall vote, this time to allow inhabitants of the oil-rich state of Zulia, a conservative stronghold, to vote on secession from the federal government.
Chavista officials say they are aware of the danger of unchecked power, both to their own legitimacy and to their professed goal of building institutional stability. Yet they insist that the opposition must give up its attempt to drive the president from power. All of the controversy surrounding the government’s prosecution of those who participated in the coup and oil strike, and its attempts to regulate the rabidly anti-government corporate media and to monitor civil organizations that take money from the United States turns on this distinction. “I am a democrat,” Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel said recently. “I’ve spent 50 years in the opposition. I’ve been exiled, jailed, persecuted, and I know the importance of an opposition . . . If only we had an opposition that was sane and not one with a knife up its sleeve ready to stab you in the back. But we have an anti-democratic opposition . . . It is irrational and transnational.”
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Considering how well so many Venezuelans are doing under his administration, irrational seems an apt description of the elite hatred of Chávez. Since the government won the fight for control of PDVSA, the economy has grown rapidly: by 18 percent in 2004, and by 9.9 percent in 2005. Currency reserves and current-account surpluses are high, inflation has remained under control, and unemployment has been halved from the height of the crisis in 2003, when it stood at 20 percent. Overall poverty has fallen to its lowest levels in over a decade, and purchasing power is up across the board, rising 43 percent last year among the poorest fifth of the population. General Motors reports that car sales hit record numbers last year.
Critics are loath to give Chávez any points for this boom; they attribute it to skyrocketing oil prices. But one of his first diplomatic initiatives upon taking office was to end Venezuela’s habit of pumping more oil than was allowed under OPEC’s production quotas and to work with Iran and other petroleum-exporting nations to orchestrate an increase in world prices. The government has diverted billions of dollars of PDVSA revenue and Central Bank reserves to diversify the economy and to create a sustainable agricultural sector. Even as the petroleum-related portion of the economy fell a bit in the last quarter of last year, non-oil-related growth accelerated, suggesting that government efforts to diversify the economy are having some effect. Last year, manufacturing was up nine percent while the commercial, construction, and communication sectors were each up 20 percent. Domestic finance has grown 30 percent, partly the result of a new law requiring that nearly a third of all loans go to low-income mortgages and small-scale agriculture, which has led to sharp spikes in deposits and lending. (The state’s underwriting of credit to small businesses and cooperatives has also contributed to this trend.) Chávez’s purchase of billions of dollars of Argentine and Ecuadorian debt has likewise benefited national banks, which buys the debt from the government and then resells it on the open market for a profit.
But it is never just the economy. Chávez elicits hostility not only because he spends more on the poor—a record $17 billion this year—but because of how he spends it. Much of the government’s social expenditure is budgeted not through the country’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient state ministries but through newly created “missions.” Misión Robinson has significantly reduced illiteracy; Misión Barrio Adentro, a country-wide network of clinics, provides free, high-quality health care to the poor; and Misión Mercal distributes subsidized food and household goods to over 11 million Venezuelans. To nurture what Chavista intellectuals call a “protagonist democracy,” the government channels welfare, property titles, and even municipal services through new grass-roots organizations such as urban land committees, peasant cooperatives, local citizens’ councils, community banks, prenatal and day-care centers, and independent TV and radio stations. In Caricuao, for example, a sprawling shantytown in southwestern Caracas, 72 “health committees” made up of community activists carry out Misión Barrio Adentro’s preventive health program at the household level. What is happening in Venezuela, in other words, is a fusion of the bottom-up civil-society model of social change that has evolved throughout Latin America over the last two decades with an older, state-directed vision of development and wealth redistribution.
The opposition charges that Chávez is building a political patronage machine, cynically using the language of “participatory democracy” to mask high-level government corruption and cloak the consolidation of unchecked power. A recent survey of activists in poor neighborhoods conducted by an economist and political scientist from Brigham Young University did raise concerns that too much organizing was dependent on a charismatic identification with Chávez, which, they felt, could undermine democratic institutionalization. Yet they also found a significant degree of both financial and political independence from national-level organizations. A large majority of their sample were committed to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution, and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. In fact, there is a good deal of competitive pluralism among grass-roots organizations. In Venezuela it is common to find committed Chavistas who not only are not members of Chávez’s official party, the Movimiento Quinta República, but are openly hostile to it—which, at least in principle, helps keep it responsive and honest. This stands in sharp contrast to Nicaragua in the 1980s, where it would have been impossible for someone to oppose the Sandinistas and still consider himself or herself a revolutionary. Whatever the potential for abuse, a mobilized citizenry has saved Chávez more than once, while the missions are so successful that even a representative of the Inter-American Development Bank has praised them for striking “at the heart of exclusion.”
One gets the sense when visiting Venezuela that the country, despite the revival of the regulatory state, is in the middle of an economic and political free-for-all. Construction sites are blooming throughout Caracas, and street trade is vibrant. Opposition newspapers publish daily jeremiads, often in response to something Chávez said in a multi-hour speech the previous day. In the barrios, activists carry on with their particular contributions—drug rehabilitation, popular education, cooperatives, battered-women shelters, exercise classes for senior citizens—to what they call el proceso. Government supporters and opponents hold each other responsible for a number of still-unsolved killings that took place during the April 2002 coup attempt. But compared to the political repression that plagues neighboring Andean countries, Venezuela’s revolution has been remarkably tolerant and peaceful. If there has been violence, it has arguably been mostly directed against Chavistas. Last month, Venezuela’s peasant federation claimed that over the last few years, paramilitaries working on behalf of landlords have assassinated 164 rural activists involved in land disputes.
Critics are right when they say that high oil prices help Chávez hold it all together, allowing him to mediate between those within his coalition who want to accelerate social transformation and those who hope to make a permanent peace with domestic and international capital—not unlike the way the hero of Doña Barbara reconciles conflicting national values. But even if oil stays expensive, it is unclear how long he can maintain this balancing act. The success of many of his initiatives will bring new demands and new conflicts, and without an opposition to provide institutional ballast more political polarization is likely to come. Governing without opposition is “very boring,” says Vice President Rangel. It is also very dangerous, which is what, it seems, Mr. Danger is banking on.

Susan Sontag, Memento Mori

Negotiating the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect
by Leslie Camhi, June 16th, 2006, The Village Voice

on the occasion of:
On Photography: A Tribute to Susan SontagThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue,Through September 4

"All photographs are memento mori," Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), her groundbreaking collection of essays. So one could hardly imagine a more fitting memorial to the writer, who died two years ago, than this show of photographs organized around her reflections. In that book, Sontag pinpointed the moment when she lost something akin to her critical virginity, at age 12, while looking at "photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously .... I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying."

Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the "courage" of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a brilliant extended meditation ...on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster. No mere political diatribe, it ranges widely across history, from the Victorian photographer Roger Fenton's staged tableaux of British soldiers in the Crimean War to the horrors on display in this morning's newspaper, uncovering in the process the double standard that underpins our relationship, in the developed West, to images of suffering.
Shows about critics are a tricky business. There's a tendency for the writer's words, reproduced
in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. With one notable exception—Robert Capa's The Falling Soldier (1936), an icon of Republican heroism in the Spanish Civil War whose veracity has recently been challenged—curator Mia Fineman wisely leaves out specific photographs Sontag dwelt upon at length, preferring instead allusive juxtapositions of word and image.
Sontag's aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin's epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with photography's whiff of mortality.)

So her reflections on the surrealism that "lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise" accompany a picture by Buñuel's cinematographer Eli Lotar, whose Slaughterhouses at La Villette shows severed rows of cattle hooves, lined up in the calm light of dawn like shoes at a Japanese bathhouse. "Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves," Sontag wrote. Well, none more so than the beautiful 32-year-old author herself, who reclines in Peter Hujar's 1975 portrait and projects an aura of serene self-confidence and domination. (At the Met, she's the last in a delightful line of sacred monsters, from Napoleon Sarony's silk-stocking-clad Oscar Wilde to photo-booth self-portraits by Andy Warhol.) And her thoughts on fascist pageantry find an echo in Leni Riefenstahl's showstopping aerial shot of endless lines of insect-sized, seemingly identical German athletes doing push-ups at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

One might quibble with Sontag's assessments of specific artists; her harshness, for example, toward Diane Arbus, whose posthumous 1972 retrospective at MOMA occasioned one of the writer's more spectacular failures of empathy. But the power of her impassioned amateur's stance remains an inspiration. "Space reserved for being serious," she wrote toward the end of her life, "is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or museum)." Or, one might add, a Chelsea filled with art galleries. But "space for being serious" was precisely what Sontag preserved in her writing—and in the frantic rush to consumption, with most critics simply providing (or withholding) seals of approval on the cultural assembly, line, we would do well to follow her.