and they brought prosperity down at the armoury

The Dispossessed: One of those novels I wish I’d found sooner. Le Guin has a beautiful economy of language not often found in fantasy writers: making the terse but poetic choice, rather than bombarding a scene. The Dispossessed feels like an epic, though it comes out fairly slim.

And like all good science-fiction, the story focuses less on a naturalistic depiction of how a What-If would come to pass than what such a What-If would mean. Le Guin rejects the notion of a true utopia, depicting the lunar colony of Anarres as an anarchist state slowly ossifying into a socialist oligarchy. Anarres is poor, while its neighbor Urras is rich. But it’s the richness of cloying food and it makes the protagonist – Shevek, an Anarrean physicist visiting Urras, the first person to do so in over a century – literally ill.

Le Guin has always excelled at making the alien seem truly alien, and her depiction of how a true anarchist would react to a capitalist society reads very true. She doesn’t use Shevek as a platform for anti-capitalist polemics: people on Urras are wealthy, happy and comfortable with their station in life. But to someone who doesn’t want property, life on Urras is mystifying and weird. Adequately conveying the stilted weirdness of a capitalist society is no mean feat – considering that Le Guin, her audience, and the publishers who made such a novel possible spent their whole lives in one.

(As an economist, I always read anarchist fables looking for solutions to the calculation problem. The Dispossessed doesn’t provide one, although a good portion of the book deals with a famine on Anarres. Maybe it’s implied)

Why We Fight: A meticulous recounting of the history of American presence in the Middle East would be enough. Start with the Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; continue through the U.S.’s efforts in training, arming and bankrolling the Taliban in the 70s, our installation of Saddam Hussein in the 80s and the troops in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Why We Fight accomplishes all that.

Documenting the growth of the defense industry in the United States since the Eisenhower era would be enough. Begin at the end of the second World War; continue through Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, etc. Add the nature of American representative politics and the inextricable link between defense contracts, jobs and votes which guarantees escalations in defense spending.

Taking a look at the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would be enough. The world went from universally supporting America (there were marches of solidarity with the U.S. in Tehran and Pakistan in the days after the attacks) to distrusting and fearing America. What changed in that time?

A movie that did all that would be enough.

Where Why We Fight triumphs is twofold. First, the documentarians interview several prominent conservative voices to answer these questions. And not in an attempt to bait them. And not cherry-picked fringe cases either: William Kristol, Richard Perle and John McCain are among them, as well as several Naval pilots. The movie’s prejudices are obvious, but these speakers don’t get the sneering dismissal that (say) Michael Moore would give them.

Second, the way the movie manages to weave together disparate threads into a single story. The narrative begins with a retired NYPD cop who lost his son in the September 11th attacks. A Vietnam veteran, he decides that an appropriate tribute might be to get his son’s name written on a piece of munition – like an aerial bomb – to be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story weaves in and out with several others, like the story of a Boeing weapons technician who helped invent the “bunker buster.” Only later in the film do we hear that this technician, Anh Duong, fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War – a war that the retired NYPD Officer fought in. And only much later do we learn that the bomb with his son’s name on it – like all bombs dropped in the first 60 days of OIF – missed its primary target.

Why We Fight was the name of a series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II. The U.S. has established a military presence in over 130 countries around the globe since that time, and fought a variety of police actions, covert operations and wars in that time. This documentary seeks to answer the same question Capra’s films did, albeit with a more critical tone. And it finds no definitive answer. The documentarians interview an eager young recruit, two Naval stealth bomber pilots, a retired Lt. Colonel from Pentagon intelligence, Dwight Eisenhower’s son, Gore Vidal, a few military historians and a CIA consultant to get an answer and finds nothing. It’s no one person’s fault – certainly not President Bush’s. But when you combine a perpetually growing defense industry, a global military presence, a first-in-class hunger for resources and a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, the question becomes not why we fight, but why wouldn’t we.

“It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.” – Chalmers Johnson


it doesn’t take a lot to get a lot of us to talk this way

I’ve got a post up on Overthinking It that I’m particularly proud of: Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Schwarzenegger. Critics accuse Arnold Schwarzenegger of always playing the same type in his 80s action roles. But what if that’s deliberate? What if he’s actually playing the same person?

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My answers to yesterday’s questions:

1) Find some activity where you’ll meet more girls. Not to date, just to learn how to talk to.

2) Take a few computer classes.

3) Nothing in your life is as important as you’re making high school out to be. If you can’t handle something, tell your parents. If you can’t tell them, tell a counselor. If you can’t tell her, tell a priest (while you’re still talking to them). But letting the pressure build until it breaks you will accomplish just that.

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Monthly Yelp Elite event at Nile Lounge in Allston last night. Free drinks and snacks courtesy of Kick for Nick, a charity that distributes soccer balls to Iraqi children. The easy, cynical response would be to laugh – what good are soccer balls in a civil war? – but don’t forget that futbol is the most popular sport everywhere in the world except for the U.S.

Nile Lounge is a hookah bar, and I indulged in many fragrant incenses. You’d fit a little plastic mouthpiece over the tip of the hookah, draw in a deep draught and exhale gently. Wash your palate out with a little Naragansett and try another. Personal favorites: White Peach Apple (light and sweet) and Blue Nile (tastes like Powerade).

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I couldn’t stay at Nile long, though, as I had an Atmosphere concert to hit up at the House of Blues.

First, some words about the venue: the line for admission stretched to the end of the block. Red-shirted guards rousted drunks and rowdies from the queue; I saw one poor stumbler get cuffed and paddywagon’ed while I was still one hundred yards from the front door.

The inside tiers like a stadium: open ground floor, balconies ringing the second and third levels, and even some theater seating in the way back. They closed off the first floor by the time I arrived, but I got a killer view from the second floor: balcony corner closest to stage right.

slugThe artist: this was my second time seeing Slug and Ant live. I’d immersed myself deeper in their foreign language in the past year, picking up not only God Loves Ugly and Seven’s Travels but even some of the sad clown bad dub tracks. This was fortunate, as 90% of the set came from God Loves Ugly and When Life Gives You Lemons …, with a rare mixtape track thrown in.

As with last year, Slug eschewed that fake-ass encore shit to take us out on a high energy set. “Now, the smart thing to do would be not even mention the encore and just play the set,” he admitted. “But I’m not that smart.”

But the following changed between this year and last:

Size of the venue: Roxy had about a thousand fans; House of Blues holds over 2400. “This is some Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome shit,” Slug observed. “Ant was comparing it to the Los Angeles crowd. I was comparing it to home.”

No pushing: Slug pointed out a vortex of moshing humanity ten feet back from the stage. “I ain’t down with that shoving. No crowd-surfing, neither. I’m serious: I’m getting too old for that. You keep up that shoving, I will politely ask security to put you in a chokehold and take you to the fucking sidewalk.”

but I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passe

Time to troll the week’s headlines:

  • I’ve never registered to vote because, for other reasons, I want to stay off of jury duty rolls in Massachusetts. Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder whether that’s really the right tack. My one vote is so insignificant as to be statistically discountable – but think of the havoc I could wreak on a jury! That’s just eleven other people! And they can’t leave the room!

    I remembered this malicious little thought when I read an op-ed in Time by the writers of The Wire, the greatest show that the medium of television has yet produced: Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos. Quoted (emphasis mine):

    “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right,” wrote Thomas Paine when he called for civil disobedience against monarchy — the flawed national policy of his day. In a similar spirit, we offer a small idea that is, perhaps, no small idea. It will not solve the drug problem, nor will it heal all civic wounds. It does not yet address questions of how the resources spent warring with our poor over drug use might be better spent on treatment or education or job training, or anything else that might begin to restore those places in America where the only economic engine remaining is the illegal drug economy. It doesn’t resolve the myriad complexities that a retreat from war to sanity will require. All it does is open a range of intricate, paradoxical issues. But this is what we can do — and what we will do.

    If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun’s manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

    Jury nullification is American dissent, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest. If some few episodes of a television entertainment have caused others to reflect on the war zones we have created in our cities and the human beings stranded there, we ask that those people might also consider their conscience.

    But, in order to get on the jury duty rolls, I need to register to vote anyway. So who do I talk to about that?

  • Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz thinks the war’s responsible for the U.S. recession. His reasoning:

    “The Fed has flooded the economy with liquidity and the regulators looked the other way when very imprudent lending was going up,” Stiglitz said. “We were living on borrowed money and borrowed time and eventually a day of reckoning had to come, and it has now come.”

    The war has also altered how the United States has reacted to its current economic troubles, he said.

    “When America’s financial institutions had a problem, they had to turn to the sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East for recapitalization, for the bailout,” he said.

    “The reason was obvious. The war had led to high oil prices. The war had meant that America had to borrow more money. There weren’t sources of liquid funds in the United States. The sources of the liquid funds were in the Middle East,” he said.

    I don’t expect to shake the man’s Nobel laurels at you and silence the argument there. But if you still thought wars were good for the economy – and you forgot that the “economy” is a thermometer, not a thermostat – then ask me about the Broken Window Fallacy sometime. Or Google it. That’s what I’d do if I had to explain it to you. Which I don’t. Because Joe Stiglitz just did. I forget the point I was trying to make, except that there’s no good reason for American troops to be stationed in Iraq at present.

  • I continue to sit agape at Cracked‘s transformation from “MAD Magazine knock-off” to “prime source for clever online essays.” Here, for instance, are seven insane conspiracies that actually happened, like the Tuskegee experiments, MKULTRA, Scientology’s “Snow White” project and President Bush’s grandfather’s (alleged) plot to kill FDR. If you haven’t had enough yet, you can read about the South American coup that the CIA conducted on Chiquita Bananas’ behalf. And if you can still handle the jive, read David Wong’s much-linked article on the monkeysphere.

    Holy shit, dude. If I could be so profound.

  • My favorite entry in the Funny/Tragic file this week has to be Mukasey’s Paradox:

    In his twisting of legal principles, the attorney general has succeeded in creating a perfect paradox. Under Mukasey’s Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president — and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.


    Once in office, Mukasey still had the nasty problem of a secret torture program that was now hiding in plain view. Asked to order a criminal investigation of the program, Mukasey refused. His rationale left many lawyers gasping: Any torture that occurred was done on the advice of counsel and therefore, while they may have been wrong, it could not have been a crime for CIA interrogators or, presumably, the president. If this sounds ludicrous, it is. Under that logic, any president can simply surround himself with extremist or collusive lawyers and instantly decriminalize any crime.

    However, this is only half of Mukasey’s Paradox. The other half occurred last week when Mukasey refused to allow contempt charges against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to be given to a grand jury. Bolten and Miers stand accused of contempt in refusing to testify before Congress in its investigation of the firings of several U.S. attorneys in 2006. Mukasey wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that their refusal to testify could not be a crime because the president ordered them not to testify under executive privilege.

    Under this logic, no official can be prosecuted for contempt as long as a president ordered them to commit the contempt — even if the president’s assertion of privilege is clearly invalid or incomplete. In this case, many experts have expressed skepticism that all or any of President Bush’s assertions of privilege in this case would be upheld.

  • I’m going to shotgun these last few: John McCain declares there’s “strong evidence” for a link between vaccinations and autism (note: there isn’t); a blindfold test confirms that Monster brand stereo cables are no better than coat hangers at conducting sound; readers of the Freakonomics blog come up with a six word motto for the United States; and Dubai may own a quarter of the world’s construction cranes.

  • To end on an upbeat note, here are some publicity stills from the set of Watchmen. Based on these, I can say with certainty that it’ll be a kickass first 75 minutes. No question. After that it’s anyone’s guess.

Have a good weekend, folks.