Holy rage

In his penultimate NYT column, following the events of the 13th of November in Paris—not those in Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria—, well-meaning Roger Cohen didn’t hesitate to throw oil on the fire and call for rage. The US president was too cerebral, not emotional enough, not in the holy rage that events demanded. Yesterday, he wrote another noise-and-fury column in the reminiscing mode. The rotting bodies of war, pockets made by battlefield thieves, the personal letters scattered, never to be read by their loved ones, all of this via Hemingway. It could have been Hugo’s Les misérables: “Après les vainqueurs viennent les voleurs”. One of the commentators, JL Albrecht, gives shape to what I thougt upon reading a column in which compassion for the victims of war struck me as  not paradoxical at all and continuing the thread of his previous column: passion and rage at the service of glorious causes. In the present column, compassion serves as excuse and mask for indulging an all-swallowing rage and fury. It does more than justify it, it  makes it holy and removes it from any critical discourse. That kind of passion is an engine that knows no left or right:

Mr. Cohen says the world needs the absence of bad luck to avoid death in combat. What I really think is a single non-printable word, but what I’ll write is that attitude is a huge dodge. Countries “go to war”, they don’t “appear at war”. Soldiers don’t just “show up” on battle fields. Someone sends them there.

It starts with politicians and pundits inflaming people, giving in to the common human failures of racism and xenophobia. Little men with little minds saying the only way to be strong is to wage war, as in Mr. Cohen’s last column. It ends with the Joneses next door losing their son, along with a lot of other families losing loved ones.

In sports we note that it is those that practice the most that have the most “luck” on the field. In politics and punditry it is the same. Practice humility, humanity, and equality; you’ll be amazed how much “luck” we’ll have avoiding war.


Houellebecq’s novel Submission was recently published in English. It was reviewed in rambling fashion two Sundays ago in the New York Times by Karl Ove Klausgård. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a solitary, pleasure-seeking professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a specialist of Huysmans. He is deeply disillusioned by a number of recent philosophical and social movements like feminism and gender studies. Or perhaps more accurately, he never believed in anything. He is willing to erase all traces of belief or trust. Eventually, reluctantly it seems, he sells out completely to an intelligent version of Islam that wins the elections in France in 2022 and is pursuing political and moral restoration on the grand scale. Houellebecq is apparently not Zemmour, whose The French suicide is one more lament over France’s fall from grandeur. Houellebecq’s target in this fiction appears to be a much wider and deeper current than the immediate social and political circumstances France finds itself in. Does he think that enlightenment intellectuals who “converted” lacked courage and resolution in Huysmans’ times? Or is he simply after monotheism, from whatever origin, as it is reported? Huysmans, the alter ego of the protagonist, lived at a time when the Catholic church demanded submission. Or perhaps Houellebecq’s fundamental take is that the problem goes back much further, to the pursuit of freedom as the single fundamental marker and good of enlightenment. That pursuit of freedom is what is also claimed to be the greatest good in capitalist America, for example by GW Bush or more recently Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. They manage to find it in the Bible as well as in pope Francis’ latest encyclical on climate change, though it is not there. That is perhaps what Houellebecq argues is the cause of what he sees as catastrophic failures. The relentless pursuit of freedom would prepare new forms of slavery and submission.

The book, beginning with the title, adds to the fears regarding Islam. My own experience of it is not of a conquering, hateful messianic dream, but of a search for a life of dignity. In that spirit, let me try to sketch a small portrait of such a life.

C. is not a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. Abandoned at birth, passed on to careless or cruel foster families, he was adopted by a loving, supportive family at four. There was a very long, painful struggle for him and his adoptive parents, with some peace achieved only in his thirties, after he realized he might lose his family to disease and accidents. There was a long-standing fascination for life at night—not nightlife—, friendships in this in-between world. He did not take to drinking or drugs, but followed people living at the margins and edges, on the fringe of sleeping society. School was extremely difficult and humiliating. There were jobs eventually, friendship with a woman but that too broke and threatened to become a catastrophe. I do not know how and why—I presume it is through some of his friends in the suburbs of his large city—, he became a Muslim. Within Islam, he planned to marry and did find a young woman from north Africa he had never met. She emigrated to France, married him, works in a factory, is learning French, and is adapting the best she can to the new world she is in. She is devoted to her family of origin and has many siblings still living in the town she comes from, one disabled and in great need of help. She does her best trying to help them. She also helps her in-laws who have the modest financial security a hard-working and frugal family could expect after more than forty years of salaried work in post-WW II France.

She is young, dresses conservatively, and could be taken to be a radical Muslim. H. and C. have a child. They are devout, work hard, visit her family every year, stand by the in-laws, by now quite ill and isolated. It would take a book or two to describe this long surge of hope and added life in that family and circle of friends. These are the kind of people I know a little and whom I am thinking about when I hear echoes of Houellebecq’s story of submission, on top of the recent terrible events in Irak, Syria, Paris, Beyrut. In this young family, there is more free spirit and courage, more trust and openness, and less submission than exist in those who are so quick to express their hate of immigrants and foreigners.

Laudato si

An article by Nordhaus in the latest NYRB takes issue with the economic theories or thoughts rather that undergird pope Francis’ Laudato Si, and especially with its hostility to market-based cap-and-trade. He grants that profits have a distorting effect and consumerism is a danger but returns to Adam Smith’s fundamental idea that “the efficient performance of a market economy does not depend upon the ethics of individual behavior.” I think this idea has much older antecedents (Pascal for instance and other thinkers in the seventeenth century). Anyway, he quotes the famous phrase of Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Of course, this “interest” could integrate an ethical interest for the well-being of the society, as advocated by Nordhaus later in the article. Nordhaus speaks of impersonal forces of the market. Indeed. Still the “forces” at work have to do with unleashed desire and envy at the personal level which were kept bridled, at least for the masses, until the eighteenth century. Economists realize that market failures and inequalities were wrongly ignored by Smith. Nordhaus further agrees with Okun that there should be limits to what markets are allowed to do until such time when economic deprivation is ended and a truly competitive market may be authorized to play out.

But isn’t poverty rising (Atkinson, Piketty, Stiglitz) and as the encyclical repeatedly says? Nordhaus disputes two things in that respect. First, that degradation of resources and pollution are major causes of rising poverty. The more important reasons, at least in the US, are robotization, imports from low-wage areas, and distortions in the financial system. Secondly, for the rest of the world, trends are rather for the decrease of global inequality. This is where a Marxist or neo-marxist analysis is badly needed. Mais passons.

It remains that externalities, especially pollution, have long preoccupied economists also. Can’t we tinker with the piping and the valves of the glorified system? The problem is that Laudato si doesn’t propose solutions for the resorption of pollution, a major externality that affects many poor people and threatens to be a catastrophe for millions of them. Nordhaus appeals to the market, a corrected market, to reduce pollution:

Rather, environmental degradation is the result of distorted market signals that put too low a price on harmful environmental effects.

A few examples: natural goods like water are underpriced in places like California; use of airports and roads is underpriced. Carbon dioxide emission is essentially priced at zero and its price must be raised, “This can be done either by taxing emissions or by a system of cap-and-trade.”

The encyclical is right in much of its approach but wrong, Nordhaus continues, in condemning a market approach. In a cap-and-trade approach, countries would decide to limit their emissions and then auction off emission permits that would be owned and traded by firms. It encourages not only limits but also highest economic value per unit of carbon emission. A very high price (vs zero) for emissions would signal a serious attempt to cap. Taxing emissions is simpler, but Nordhaus says precious little about this solution.

Back to the pope’s criticism of the market in this particular case, misguided criticism, according to Nordhaus. Why would the financial instruments regarding capping emissions be more volatile and particularly targeted by speculators? Nordhaus feels that the encyclical, which had great potential in raising consciousness and inviting everyone to strong actions, missed an opportunity to endorse carbon-pricing.

Many lines in this article invite discussion. Just one comment on why Catholic doctrine tends to be hostile to the capitalist form of the market. The fundamental reason for the discrepancy between Catholic doctrine on these modern matters and economists like Nordhaus is the still powerful structuring influence of the way sin is conceived of. Desire and envy, as in the story of Cain and Abel, are to be contained and capped. That was and is the priority. It happens that royal officers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries began to recognize that personal envies and desires, no matter the Church-proclaimed, aristotelic, moral preaching, could be allowed to play their role in a sort of miraculous self-regulation. They are indeed at the center of market mechanisms, as Smith after many others saw so well, and cannot be easily put back into the bottle. Perhaps we need a new Francis, I mean, a new world in which envy and desire can be confronted directly at the personal level and capped in imaginative new ways. Nordhaus, on the other hand, still believes that the magic of “the impersonal market” and its servo-mechanisms may still work miracles. Not glorious miracles but day-to-day grunt miracles. It seems he is asking a genie to become less of a genie and work at restraining itself via an ultimate trick. I’m afraid he is calling for the kind of political strength and unity in nations and international organizations that the market has precisely been eroding.

No to torture

From the ACLU:

Over a decade, the American people have demanded to know about post-9/11 torture conducted in our names. Today, we finally have some answers.

The Senate just released its summary report detailing widespread and illegal CIA torture during the Bush years. Over a hundred people were abused and tortured by the CIA and its contractors, often in secret prisons, set up in countries such as Poland, Romania and Thailand.

We have long known that the Bush administration’s torture program was authorized at the highest levels, including the White House, the Department of Justice, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.

We now also know that the CIA misled the public, Congress, and other oversight agencies about the scope and extent of its torture and the significance of the information obtained through torture.

In our system, no one should be above the law or beyond its reach, no matter how senior the official. Now that we have additional evidence of the wrongs committed in our name, we must demand accountability.

Ask Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation of the torture program: sign the ACLU petition.

US queen

I shouldn’t be surprised by the NYT‘s continuous attempts to belittle Sanders. The main media are systematically avoiding to cover his ideas and program, including those media that pride themselves on providing depth in their reports. His belief in a social democracy based on open rational discussions of the proper role of the financial, health, military, and education sectors is apparently considered dangerous. Not that opinion writers and pundits are enamored of Clinton. But she can be trusted to support the type of capitalist forces that provide the bread and butter of media. She does that not least by working hard on important moral and social issues that cost very little or nothing to the public treasury or corporations. It doesn’t matter that these capitalist forces are out of control. She is an adequate and time-tried instrument, much better than the right and extreme right can provide. The last example of an article managing to avoid discussion of Sanders, except to mention his “crusade against income inequality,” was this morning’s post by Charles Blow where he manages to disparage Clinton while going along with the program by calling her the queen.

Palestisraeli hopes

More attacks in east Jerusalem, this one in Pisgat Ze’ev. Two teen-agers attacked a young Israeli (same age? on a bicycle) with knives, one of them was hit by a car while escaping and was hospitalized. The other one was shot dead by security forces. Security forces. A scandal ensued this morning in Israel: Abbas named the first boy as having been killed by Israeli forces and was accused of incitment. As if the Israeli Parliament memorializing Rehavam Zeevi, an ultra-right leader who was murdered in 2001, did not bear the lion of Judah’s share of responsibility in the recent events. The tracing of this responsibility back via the thousand of little cuts is impossible even to historians. To take one example: what weight does the physical appearance of Pisgat Ze’ev, its large boulevards and housing complexes, the Jerusalem light rail that crosses it, its modernity, have on Palestinian hopes and understanding of the conflict and their chances of ever seeing some semblance of justice that will always come too late? From Shu`afat to Pisgav Ze’ev: an abyss.

Who says?

Who says: We can’t have a Shakespeare Santa Cruz on UCSC campus, with performances in the glen?
Who says: We can’t have a Science Illustration Program at UCSC?
Who says: We can’t have a Journalism major at UCSC?
Who says: Who says?

Who says?

Iraq: a mistake

In today’s NYT opinion page, Thomas Friedman does his best to drown the fish, I mean to turn the agressive, cynical US adventure in Iraq he applauded in 2002-3 into yet one part of a larger attempt to transform the whole Middle East politically. This is an idea he has come to see as misguided. He is almost on the same page as David Brooks who a couple days ago defended the thesis that mistakes were made because intelligence was faulty or partial. No reason therefore not to re-elect the Democrats and Republicans who voted for the Iraq war: they were just misguided by faulty intelligence. No kidding. No recognition of the lies that hundreds of thousand of people demonstrated against in late 2002 and early 2003, no acknowledgment that this whole political class (except some experts who knew something about those countries) failed the country in this ill-thought adventure, no admission that the media, beginning with the NYT, played the enabler’s role in the tragic story. His final words:

We’ve spent more than a decade of lives and treasure trying to “fight terrorism” to fix a part of the world that can’t be fixed from the outside. It has been a waste. I wish it had worked. The world would be better for it. But it didn’t.

He is not yet prepared to admit it was a criminal act built on a lie he helped spread.

blessed isles

Where is grandpa?
Gone on the water, far away, for a long time
He doesn’t answer calls.
What is dead?
Are we dead? or living
the flip of a sign, gone fishing,
the catching of striped bass on the Er island,
the rustling and blooming of trees at the little house.


From Poems new and collected, by Wisława Szymborska (Harcourt: 1998), a centerfold thought for my hard-thinking friends, titled:

An opinion on the question of pornography

There’s nothing more debauched than thinking.
This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne weed
on a plot laid out for daisies.

Nothing’s sacred for those who think.
Calling things brazenly by name,
risqué analyses, salacious syntheses,
frenzied, rakish chases after the bare facts,
the filthy fingering of touchy subjects,
discussion in heat–––it’s music to their ears.

In broad daylight or under cover of night
they form circles, triangles, or pairs.
The partners’ age or sex are unimportant.
Their eyes glitter, their cheeks are flushed.
Friend leads friend astray.
Degenerate daughters corrupt their fathers.
A brother pimps for his little sister.

They prefer the fruits
from the forbidden tree of knowledge
to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines–––
all that ultimately simple-hearted smut.
The books they relish have no pictures.
What variety they have lies in certain phrases
marked with a thumbnail or a crayon.

It’s shocking, the positions,
the unchecked simplicity with which
one mind contrives to fertilize another!
Such positions the Kama Sutra itself doesn’t know.

During these trysts of theirs, the only thing that’s steamy is the
People sit on their chairs and move their lips.
Everyone crosses only his own legs
so that one foot is resting on the floor
while the other dangles freely in midair.
Only now and then does somebody get up,
go to the window,
and through a crack in the curtains
take a peep out at the street.

Gildas Hamel