Saturday 01 March 2003

Fire and Snow

My bookshelves are organized in order of importance, like the tables in a chic restaurant: the more important the subject, the more likely those books are to be in the workroom where I spend most of my time.

Thus one wall of my workroom is completely covered with books on Japanese language, literature, and film as well as the Pacific War. There’s a separate bookcase for computing books.

American, South American, and European novels, books about writing, psychotherapy, and art are in the hallway, along with a stack of boxes filled with books destined for the secondhand store. In the eight years I’ve lived in this house, the photography books—which once had pride of place on the workroom shelves—have been consigned to Siberia (in the bedroom and living room).

This shift in interest coincided with the opening of a Kinokuniya bookstore across the harbor in Neutral Bay in 1996. It was a long way from Newtown, where I moved a year earlier, but since my Japanese class was also over the bridge in North Sydney I could drop by regularly to check out the new arrivals.

Then, last July, Kinokuniya moved to an enormous space opposite the Town Hall in the center of the CBD. While it’s nowhere near as big as either of the Shinjuku Main or South stores in Tokyo, it’s probably the biggest bookstore in Sydney and easily my favorite: light, spacious, airy, and crammed not just with Japanese books (though that’s its main attraction for me) but books on every imaginable subject. There’s a loyalty program that offers 10-20% discounts (depending on the day of the week, or the weather, or some criterion I haven’t been able to figure out) and a coffee shop too.

Book cover: Kawabata Yasurari's Yukiguni (Snow Country)Earlier in the week I was in the city so I dropped by to browse and, as usual, left with a couple of books. I’d been meaning to buy Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) in Japanese, even though I won’t be able to read it for quite a while yet. I was surprised it only cost AU$7.35 (US$4.45) even though that’s almost double the cover price of ¥280 converted to Australian dollars ($3.95). The English translation would be about AU$20. It’s a beautiful little book, with a lovely cover illustration. I’ve been vaguely thinking about reading the English version again but I’ll hold off until I can manage the Japanese.

Book cover: Martin Middlebrook's The Battle of HamburgMy second purchase was Martin Middlebrook’s The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid. Late last year, wanting to deepen my understanding of the shift in American bombing tactics that led to the firebombing of Tokyo, I read two of Middlebrook’s books about the European air war. The Nuremburg Raid describes what should have been a routine RAF night attack that turned into a disaster (the target was hardly damaged and 96 of 779 bombers went missing). The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission tells the story of how the USAAF lost one in six bombers while trying to destroy the Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Regensburg and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt.

The Battle of Hamburg focuses on one of the “successes” of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany: the entire city was destroyed in a terrible series of firestorms. Snow Country tells the story of a transient love affair between a geisha, Komako, and a wealthy dilettante, Shinamura, who makes three visits to the hot spring where she works.

I didn’t go into Kinokuniya to buy these two books, or any books, and yet they were the ones I walked out with. I’d handed my credit card and The Battle of Hamburg to the sales clerk and she was about to put through the transaction when I asked her if she’d mind waiting while I grabbed another book. For some reason, Snow Country had popped into my head.

Everything’s connected, I believe—that’s why I love hypertext, the Web, weblogs—yet the connection between these two books seems utterly mysterious. I guess I’ll find out eventually what that thread of association is.

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Sunday 02 March 2003

My brush with academia

I imagine my “overdetermined revulsion” (as AKMA might put it) for architects results from never having met one I liked. What is it about architecture school, I often ask myself, that turns decent people into insufferable know-it-alls?

Here’s the kicker, though: I’d only have to meet one architect I liked for my revulsion to evaporate.

I used also to loathe post-modernists and post-structuralists, for the way they ripped the heart out of art practice, taking something I loved almost as much as life itself, and trampling it into a noxious slurry concocted from fear, ambition, hatred, French theory, and PC claptrap mixed with generous portions of their own shit, piss, and vomit.

Whenever Dorothea Salo writes about graduate school, I’m reminded of the university where I taught photography and managed to complete an MA in visual arts. I don’t know whether the system was particularly slack in those days but when I commenced the MA the emphasis was firmly on art practice: my obligations were to make photographs, write regular progress reports, meet occasionally with a supervisor, and present the finished work in a gallery where it would be judged by independent assessors.

After a few false starts, I settled on a project—documenting everyday life in a neonatal intensive care ward. Although this bore little resemblance to my original proposal, I wasn’t troubled, since I’d always believed that art can’t be made to a formula but invariably takes on a life of its own, that it is possible to exert a fine degree of control over a project without necessarily knowing where one is headed. “You never know where you are with production,” said Brecht, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

But by the time I was photographing in the hospital, the pomo clique was firmly in control and I’d grown used to having my values dismissed as “idealist,” “transcendentalist,” or “essentialist.” (I felt a kind of perverse desire to be castigated as a “bourgeois individualist” but Maoist invective had fallen out of fashion by the mid-eighties.) In what must have been an accidental irony, a malicious joke, or a deliberate attempt to bring me under control, I was assigned the “supervisor from hell”: an up-and-coming young Marxist-feminist with a PhD in post-structuralist art theory.

I knew instinctively that my project would be anathema, that her enervated theorizing applied to the raw emotion of my pictures could only harm me and the work. And I was already fragile, since I’d placed myself in the most extreme situation I could imagine, other than war—the point at which life begins and is immediately under threat.

Every day in the hospital I experienced moments of unimaginable happiness as well as periods of the deepest distress. Every day I saw ordinary people, faced with appalling misfortune, behave with the most extraordinary courage and dignity. I learned more than I can adequately describe. And I became close to people. There was no way I could expose their experience or mine to any “theoretical analysis.”

So I invented a dummy project.

Out of the hundreds of finished 11 x 14 color prints from my various false starts and the thousands of unprinted negatives, I picked one failed project: pictures of suburban gardens, artfully lit with a mix of ambient daylight and fill-in flash, which I knew she would like—precisely because their emptiness and sterility had been the catalyst for my venturing into the intensive care ward.

I took a half-dozen garden prints to our first meeting and encouraged her to tell me how they could be improved. A month later, I showed her another five or six photographs, sprinkling a fine dust of theory over the prints as I explained how I’d put her advice into practice.

What some might characterize as a performance of breathtaking dishonesty and cynicism was to me a strategy for survival—for which, as it happened, I was more than adequately equipped.

Since I’d always been prolific, exposing thousands of negatives, year after year, my three months worth of garden photographs looked like at least two years work. And because I was relentlessly self-critical, these rejected images would easily have gained me the MA. More importantly, after three years as a member of the Visual Arts Board (the Australian equivalent of the NEA), I was neither shocked nor surprised by the duplicity of art politics.

So the charade proceeded. Every month I’d bring a batch of “new pictures” for her to critique whilst I poured all my time, energy, and passion into photographing at the hospital. An hour of lies a month was inconsequential compared with the truth I encountered every day in the ward.

I’d booked an exhibition at the Sydney gallery where I normally showed my work. Eventually, once I’d chosen the prints with the help of some photographer friends and written the captions with the assistance of one of the nurses in the ward, I piled all the framed prints into my van one Sunday morning and headed off to the gallery.

We held two openings: one for the parents of the babies I’d photographed and the hospital staff, another for the usual art crowd. The photographs were well-received, the reviews were enthusiastic, the show would tour to other galleries, the assessors were impressed. To the delight of my parents, I got my MA.

My supervisor never commented on the “real work” though I heard from reliable sources that she hated it. As I’ve written in another post:

Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.

This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.

Looking back, I’m astonished that I got away with the subterfuge. Dorothea might point out that circumstances conspired to ensure my success, that someone else—lacking my cunning and audacity—might well have been crucified. That’s true. But, once fate or destiny put me under the invidious control of someone who lacked sympathy for the work I needed to make, I had no alternative but to marshall the resources necessary to outmaneuver her. In doing so, I learned that my only loyalty was to the individuals I’d photographed and the images that resulted from our collaboration. I didn’t give a rat’s arse about my supervisor’s opinion, pomo theory, or my academic career.

It’s hardly surprising that I’ve constructed myself as the (flawed) hero of this narrative. My former supervisor would tell the story differently—and, for some readers (or many), her version might be equally persuasive. If I’d listened to her unbiased advice, if I’d been able to put aside my pathological distaste for art theory, if I’d been really open to experience… I could have created a work of far greater depth and complexity. Better still, I might have continued to teach happily at the university instead of resigning my tenured position, splitting up with the lovely woman I’d been seeing for a couple of years, and abandoning photography, thus diving headlong into a midlife crisis.

All I know is this: at that time, she was absolutely the wrong supervisor. For me.

It’s only recently I’ve realized that she could well have been precisely the right supervisor for someone else, an insight that depended on both the passing of time and my “meeting” a couple of post-modernists and/or post-structuralists I like and respect. Enter stage left: AKMA and Jeff Ward.

Whereas once I regarded pomo theory (and theorists) with revulsion, as a consequence of reading AKMA’s and Jeff’s weblogs over the past year, I’m more open to viewing the world through theoretical (rather than purely experiential) eyes. I’m also willing to admit—having encountered a variety of smart, engaging academics amongst the faculty of U Blog—that not everyone who works in a university is either a cynical opportunist, a ruthless careerist, or a time-serving hack.

So, when Dorothea attacks academia and Jeff defends it, it seems to me that they are each describing different aspects of the same institution, since universities are just as subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”) as every other area of human endeavor.

The Theodore Sturgeon FAQ explains how the Law originated:

In his 1972 interview with David G Hartwell (published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #7 and #8, March and April 1989) Sturgeon says:

Sturgeon’s Law originally was “Nothing is always absolutely so.” The other thing was known as “Sturgeon’s Revelation.”

The first reference I can find in his oeuve appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture Science Fiction, where he wrote:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of sf is crud.

The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.

Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.”

It is this Revelation that has now become known as Sturgeon’s Law.

As a codicil, the author of a Spanish web site refers to an old Arab fable I’d not encountered before:

A young Caliph asked the Great Vizier how he could tell if a poem was good or bad. “Always assume it is bad”, he was told. “You’ll only be wrong one time in a hundred”.

Whether one focuses on reducing the bad or adding to the good is probably determined by experience and temperament. Either way, if you’re successful, the end result is the same: slightly less crud, though I doubt—given our moral and intellectual frailty—that we’ll ever radically alter Sturgeon’s ratio of 90:10.

All I can say about my experience of academia is that I taught until my passion and commitment were exhausted and that in the time I was there I made a set of photographs that combined the best parts of me, the parents, children, doctors, and nurses I’d photographed, and the dozen or so photographers whose work I’d loved and studied for nearly twenty years. As Jeff Ward explained:

Some people would rather sing. In order to be heard, they rearrange the language they inherit into something that is unique to them. It is composed of the song of others; there is no choice in this. It is novel in its arrangement, but not in its themes. It is an engine that creates difference from uniformity.

Because nothing is always absolutely so.

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Monday 03 March 2003

The cost of things

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’d presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

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Saturday 08 March 2003

Ikuko’s name

“When I was in middle-school,” Ikuko told me, “I hated my name.” We were lying in her bed, drinking champagne, fooling around. I traced her name in the glossy film of perspiration on her stomach. (On our second date, I’d asked her to write the characters for me. Since then I’d written them dozens of times in my notebook and on scraps of paper.) I could already guess what she wanted to say.

Whereas in the West we “come” during sex (or “cum” as they say in pornland), the Japanese “go,” saying iku (I’m going) as they approach a climax and itta (I went) immediately after.

But Ikuko never said “iku.” Sometimes she would bite her wrist or the pillow instead. Nor did she ever say “itta” though she came easily and often. The only time I asked, saying “Itta?” (Did you come?), she simply replied “Mmm, yokatta wa” (It was great).

Japanese characters for IkukoIku has multiple meanings since it can be written with a variety of kanji, all with the same pronunciation. I tried to reassure her. “But it’s a lovely name. I looked up your iku in my dictionary. It means ‘aromatic, fragrant, sweet-smelling’.”

“I was teased about it constantly,” she replied, “all through middle school. The boys were always saying to me ‘Iku! Iku!’ Even some of the girls joined in.”

“So what did you do? Did you tell your parents? Or the teachers?”

“How could I do that? I would have been too ashamed.”

I knew it was pointless to ask why she hadn’t changed her name, if she hated it so much. Not only might she have offended her parents; worse still would have been asking the local bureaucracy to record the new name in her family register.

Naze o-namae o kaeta’n desu ka?” (Why did you change your name?) When, not long after we’d started seeing each other, I told Ikuko that I’d changed my name—from John Anthony to Jonathon—she’d changed the subject. Now, six months later, she was suddenly curious.

Yume o mita’n desu yo.” (I had a dream.) In my dream I was standing in line, listening as a female voice called a roll. When she said “Jonathon Delacour”, I thought: “That’s me.” I looked down and saw that I was holding a three-by-five index card in both hands, white, with JONATHON DELACOUR written on it in a neat script. I woke up, knowing that I’d discovered my real name.

Ikuko sipped her champagne. Drops of condensation splashed gently on her stomach, nearly obliterating the character ko.

“I knew they were having sex and that they knew I wasn’t. Not that I was saving myself for someone special, it’s just that none of the boys in my school appealed. But I knew, even before having sex, that I’d enjoy it, because I’d already discovered how to give myself pleasure.”

“Now, occasionally after I come, I think of my stupid classmates. None of those boys will ever have me and the girls are stuck with children and salaryman husbands. They probably can’t remember when they last had sex.”

She took a mouthful of champagne, rolled nimbly onto my chest, and kissed me, filling my mouth with warm bubbles.

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Monday 10 March 2003

Political (a)morality?

My former wife believed that by marrying me she’d meet a superior class of people. When we met she was working for IMG, a leading sports management agency, in a job that brought her into contact with many of the world’s most talented and highly paid sportspeople. At that time, I was a professional photographer with a specialty in photographing art for books, catalogs, and magazines—and I exhibited my own work.

Driving home one night after an opening at the Art Gallery of NSW, Francesca suddenly confessed: “I can’t believe how naive I was. It’s been such a shock to realize that artists are even more arrogant, self-indulgent, status-conscious, paranoid, and obsessed with money than the sports stars I deal with every day.”

“Why do you think art politics is so bitterly contested?” I asked her (reworking the joke about academic politics).

“I’ve no idea,” she replied. “Tell me.”

“Because the stakes are so small.”

She let out a peal of laughter. “I can’t wait to tell Simon that,” she said, “he’ll love it.” Simon was her immensely charming (and likeable) boss, who’d have made mincemeat out of any artist, curator, or gallery owner in the Southern Hemisphere, in less time than it took him to tie a Windsor knot.

The joke relies for its impact on the widely shared belief that artists (and academics)—disconnected, as they are, from the “real world”—spend an inordinate amount of time and energy arguing about trivialities. While that may well be so, the joke neatly sidesteps a couple of truths about art: firstly, that art politics has nothing to do with actually making art; secondly, that an artist’s personal behavior has little, if anything, to do with the quality of the work they make.

Even more surprising to me than Francesca’s general observation about artists’ preoccupation with the inconsequential was my discovery—based on spending time with every important Australian artist as well as many from the US and Europe—of an inverse correlation between the work of art and the character or behavior of the artist who had made it. The art I admired most had frequently been created by men and women whose conduct or personality I found repulsive whereas the most decent and engaging artists made work I regarded as dull, trite, or derivative.

Richard A. Posner makes a similar point in his review of Bruce Allen Murphy’s Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. Here is Posner’s vivid characterization of the former Supreme Court judge:

Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended. Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.

After another seventeen paragraphs summarizing Murphy’s account of Douglas’s career and numerous character flaws, Posner notes that the author “does not try to extenuate Douglas’s failings as a human being, or to excuse them, or even to explain them, but he greatly admires Douglas’s civil liberties decisions, and (without his actually saying so) this admiration leads him to forgive Douglas’s flaws of character.”

Posner then observes:

Murphy is right to separate the personal from the judicial. One can be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge. With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged; and anyway, as Machiavelli recognized long ago, personal morality and political morality are not the same thing.

Nor—as my experience suggests—is there an equivalence between personal morality and aesthetic worth (although the controversy over whether or not Roman Polanski should receive an Academy Award for The Pianist suggests a widely held belief that such a nexus should be established and followed).

In the case of William O. Douglas, Posner argues that it was not the Supreme Court Justice’s personal failings that made him a poor judge but rather that he didn’t like the job—or, more exactly, there was another job he wanted badly, that of Roosevelt’s running mate in the election of 1944:

If passing over Douglas was an error (which we shall never know), it was an error of statesmanship. With his intelligence, his toughness, his ambition, his leadership skills, his wide acquaintanceship in official Washington, his combination of Western homespun (a favorite trick was lighting a cigarette by striking a match on the seat of his pants) and Eastern sophistication, and his charisma, Douglas might have been a fine Cold War president.

A fascinating proposition: that a thoroughly loathsome and reprehensible person might make a worthy and capable President of the United States. To test the validity of Posner’s suggestion one need only contrast decent, ineffectual Jimmy Carter who was humiliated for the 444 days of the Iran hostage affair and the morally ambiguous Nixon/Kissinger team who extricated the United States from the Vietnam war and established diplomatic relations with China.

It was difficult not to be reminded of this paradox when I followed Stuart Langridge’s link to John Perry Barlow’s essay, Sympathy For The Devil, an astonishing portrait/analysis of Dick Cheney, whom Barlow assisted in getting elected “to his first public office as Wyoming’s lone congressman,” conspiring with Cheney to close down an environmentally dangerous copper smelter.

Barlow has the highest regard for Cheney’s intelligence:

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I’ve ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour of all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. In the final analysis, this may simply be about oil, but I doubt that Dick sees it that way. I am relatively certain that he is acting in the service of principles to which he has devoted megawatts of a kind of thought that is unimpeded by sentiment or other emotional overhead.

The rest of essay is devoted to the problem that Barlow believes Dick Cheney is trying to address: “How does one assure global stability in a world where there is only one strong power?”

He notes that prolonged periods of peace have resulted from one of two conditions—a “symmetrical balance of power” or “unequivocal domination by a single ruthless power”—and suggests that Cheney has decided “that it is in the best interests of humanity that the United States impose a fearful peace upon the world” by establishing “dominion over the Middle East through the American Protectorate of Iraq.”

In other words, it’s not about oil, it’s about power and peace. Well, alright. It is about oil, I guess, but only in the sense that the primary goal of the American Peace is to guarantee the Global Corporations reliable access to all natural resources wherever they may lie. The multinationals are Cheney’s real constituents, regardless of their stock in trade or their putative country of origin.

There are many reasons for the widespread opposition outside America to a war on Iraq. One that comes up over and again is a lack of trust in the Bush administration’s motives. In other words, there is a perceived mismatch between the US government’s actions (and those of its British and Australian lackeys) and their stated reasons for going to war.

John Perry Barlow’s essay suggests that this lack of congruence flows inevitably from a strategy that seeks to convince

every other nation on the planet that the United States is the Mother of All Rogue States, run by mad thugs in possession of 15,000 nuclear warheads they are willing to use and spending, as they already are, more on death-making capacity than all the other countries on the planet combined.

“By these terrible means…the Great American Peace will begin.”

One should not imagine, from my synopsis, that Barlow is defending Dick Cheney and his associates. It’s clear that he believes, as many of us do, that the United States has fallen into the grip of an amoral cabal. The real value of Barlow’s essay is its unsentimental gaze into the heart of darkness, through the eyes of someone who knew Dick Cheney at a time when a veteran Washington journalist described him as “the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.”

“But,” Barlow admits, “if I’d been in charge back in 1983, there might still be a Soviet Union and we might all still be waiting for the world to end in fifteen nuclear minutes.”

In other words, an amoral cabal could be exactly the right team for the task at hand. Just as the morally challenged William O. Douglas “might have been a fine Cold War President.”

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Wednesday 12 March 2003

Riding easy in harness

[This long entry consists mainly of quotes from other weblogs, which I’ve assembled primarily for my own benefit, since they articulate what is perhaps my most central belief.]

In the last couple of days I’ve received—courtesy of Burningbird, Trevor Bechtel, and The Happy Tutor—a quick refresher course in How Context Shapes Meaning (a subject in which I’d mistakenly imagined I had some expertise).

In her passionately argued essay, Uncompromising Individualism, Burningbird quoted a paragraph from Trevor Bechtel’s Against Independence:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

I’d already found myself in deep disagreement with Trevor, along the lines that Burningbird expressed when she wrote:

To make of each of us into nothing more than a puppet to the community’s whims and actions would still see me back in a small town in the middle of nowhere, married with a dozen children, racist, bigoted, and afraid of anything outside of that which is comfortably familiar. However, lest you think it was exposure to another community that changed me, think again. It was my own uncompromising individuality that started my discordant communion with my ‘community’.

The “communities” that immediately sprung to mind midway through reading Trevor’s argument were those in places like Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda—“communities” riven by long-standing religious, tribal, or racial conflict; “communities” defined by generations of bigotry, racism, hatred, violence, and killing.

It wasn’t until I read the The Happy Tutor’s defence that I realized I’d completely misunderstood what Trevor had said. Here’s the “offending” paragraph as I originally perceived it:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

In a series of insightful posts and comments, The Happy Tutor redirected my attention to the phrases I’d missed (again the emphases are mine):

cultural narrative
understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative
stand on others shoulders
no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge

The Tutor on Individualism as Moral Insanity:

Well, Crusoe thought he could succeed in isolation, so did Descartes, so do many entreprenuers - deluded souls! There is no Private Language, or if there is it is tantamount to insanity. Individualism is the most group-think concept of our American Heritage, our communal illusion, like the oxymoron, Free Market.

The Tutor On Humility of Spirit (Or, Kiss my Whip):

When AKMA speaks of his own teachers, he does it with reverence and humility. Each is taught and teacher in turn. The current passes as from a powerful magnet through a chain of iron rings, each holding the other. Original? Trevor is not original, he is different, and faithful. “Christian humility” — think of Dr. Johnson on his knees.

The Tutor on Community and the Individual Talent, if Any:

The self is a prison house. The only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition, to become through years of subordination, accepted into a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice. Through that mastery we achieve not our own voice, but the voice of something greater that may once or twice in a lifetime speak through us. Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof, but say but the word and my soul shall be healed.

Jim’s comment on Individualism as Moral Insanity

Well, I would agree with your view that individuality is largely illusive. But the view that originality is just a mirage? No.

It’s real. Elusive, rare, but real.

It is visited upon us occasionally, exclusive of will. Infuses this sorry bag of bones. Dissolves the boundaries of tissue. Steals the common breath. Leaves us gasping, instead, with HOPE.

That we might be gifted momentarily with a less limited vision. That we might *approach* God. This is a constructive and merciful illusion. Let it be.

The Tutor’s response to Jim’s comment:

Excellent, and much on point. The way you put it is exactly right, “We are visited by….” We are visited by the Muse, the Holy Spirit, the tongues of flame, the burning coal, the vernal breeze, the volcanic force, by “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” To others it appears that speaker is original. To the speaker it feels like letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over… the voice of the community, so that you are speaking not just to them, but for them, the voice of a tradition, or, in prophecy, the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe Randall Jarrell, one of the best 20th century critics, and also a poet, put it best. He said a poet is distinguished from a craftsman in that in a life time of standing out in the rain, he manages to get hit by lightning once or twice.

Originality, authenticity, voice — so many blather about these, but do all they can to avoid the lightning, that would shatter the self they so cherish.

I’m not religious, though like The Tutor “I stand respectfully, and feel a kind of awe, in the presence of that faith.” So when Trevor Bechtel writes “it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all” and The Happy Tutor adds “the only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition,” I immediately recognize and acknowledge that these beliefs have always informed my attempts to understand and practice the two crafts that have imbued my life with meaning: photography and writing.

When The Tutor describes “a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice”, I recall my nineteen year struggle to become part of a photographic tradition that starts (for me) with Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan’s images of the 19th century American landscape and runs through the 20th century in the work of Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee.

I know the all-too-infrequent feeling of “letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over”, of discovering on a contact sheet something beautiful and true and of having no recollection of “taking” that picture—rather the photograph had “taken” me, in the sense that the subject took possession of me, expressing itself through me, as a spirit speaks through a medium.

Jackson Browne, in the song Fountains of Sorrow (from Late for the Sky) expresses the complementary occurrence when he sings:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you

In this case, the same spirit takes possession of the viewer and puts him or her in touch with what captured the photographer at the instant the picture took itself.

I feel similarly about the craft of writing and the debt I owe to certain Japanese literary traditions, particularly the zuihitsu, nikki, and shishosetsu, as well as to Fielding and Sterne, to Agee and Sebald, and—as The Tutor recognizes in his entry How He Rambles! - Freedom and Craft—to the classical English essayists: Addison, Chesterton, Hazlitt, Johnson, and Lamb. In other words, to writing which, in Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.”

Enough! I’m rambling. Allow me to finish by acknowledging the truth of The Tutor’s quote from Frost: “Freedom is riding easy in harness.” That’s because a shared cultural tradition turns out to be a considerate as well as a firm master so that the harness eventually becomes light, and soft, and comfortably worn.

Or, as the Japanese say, The further one travels along a narrow path, the wider it becomes.

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Monday 17 March 2003

Boo Hoo

In late July 1943, RAF Bomber Command mounted four raids against the civilian population of Hamburg that resulted in the deaths of approximately 45,000 women, children, and (mainly elderly) men. Martin Middlebrook, in The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid, describes the lighthearted mood of the city as its citizens enjoyed themselves on the Saturday evening of July 24, unaware that the first round of devastation would be unleashed on them within a few hours:

The drinking halls were mainly full, although there were more female patrons than men. Beer and schnapps were in short supply but wine was plentiful, although not really thirst-quenching on this hot evening. The restaurant beneath the Rathaus, the Ratskeller, was a favorite rendezvous. ‘It was a good place for us middle-class girls. The food was good and we could order a bottle of wine and sit round a table, talking. Our reputation was safe there.’ All dancing and private parties were forbidden by direct order of Hitler; the civilians at home were not to enjoy such pleasures while the men at the front were having such a hard time. But a few dances and parties did take place just the same. Suites at the best hotels—the Atlantic, the Esplanade and the Reichshof—could be hired by private parties of the privileged class and discreet dances were taking place there. There could even be parties in homes—perhaps to celebrate an engagement or a soldier’s return for leave—provided one’s neighbor’s could be trusted not to report the celebration. In some of these parties, the forbidden English and American dance records so loved by the bright young things of Hamburg could be brought out and played. One such girl remembers her favorite: ‘Boo Hoo, You’ve Got Me Crying for You.’

My mother turned eighty last week and, rather than having an elaborate party, she chose to spend a few days in one of Sydney’s best hotels: inviting her friends for meals, to play bridge, visit the nearby museums, or see a movie. On the night of her birthday, while we we were dining at the hotel, I asked whether she remembered Boo Hoo.

“Oh, yes!” she told us. “I loved that song. It starts ‘Oh you meanie minie mo…’ But I can’t remember who used to play it.”

Google turned up the lyrics to Boo Hoo, proving that, sixty years later, my mother’s memory remains excellent:

Oh you meanie minie mo,
When you let me go
You let me in the middle of next week
When you said you’d let me go
Did I holler “No”
Now the tears are rolling down my cheek

Boohoo, you’ve got me crying for you
And as I sit here and sigh
Says I, “I can’t believe it’s true”
Boohoo, I’ll tell my mama on you,
The little game that you played
Has made her baby oh so blue
You left me in the lurch
You left me waiting at the church;
Boohoo that’s why I’m crying for you
Some day you’ll feel like I do
And you’ll be boohoo hoo in too.

The song is credited to Mal Hallett (also spelled “Hallet”). The Edison Project describes him thus:

Mal HalletMal Hallet, who at six and a half feet tall, waxed moustache, and wavy hair, was an impressive band leader; a graduate from the Boston Conservatory of Music. During WWI, he toured France as a member of the Al Moore Orch. He began his career as a bandleader recording for Edison in 1929 shortly after Edison began producing lateral-cut discs. In the 1930’s, his orchestra toured all over the New England states, usually in one-nighters. He was pioneering a “swing band” before swing bands had been invented, and included many accomplished musicians who would later achieve fame as great sidemen. Among these are: Gene Krupa, Toots Mondello, Jack Teagarden, and Frankie Carle. Mal Hallet died in 1952 in Boston, MA.

CD: Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (1926-41)A CD, titled Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (1926-1941), contains digitally restored versions of 25 of his songs, including Wang Wang Blues, Too Marvelous for Words, Where The Lazy River Goes By, and She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl, though not—unfortunately—Boo Hoo.

When I first read Martin Middlebrook’s book, I connected Boo Hoo with Busby Berkeley movies such as Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Although Mal Hallett wasn’t actually associated with those films, this reminiscence by Elizabeth M. Horton—quoted by John M. Holman in a story about the Dance Carnival at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire—suggests that Hallett’s music offered the same kind of innocent sophistication as Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell singing Guy Lombardo’s By a Waterfall (“By a waterfall, I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo…”):

“I remember that dance hall as a place of pure glamor! We girls of towns 10 or 15 miles away seemed to make it every night during the summer. In my crowd, someone had a car. The dance floor was so beautiful, the fellows (we called the best and most attractive ones ‘cageys’), so handsome in their wide bottom gray flannels-plus fours (or even plus eights) worn with colored argyle type golf hose and such-like apparel. (No ragged jeans in those days!) The girls wore short dresses, short hair but curly, and rolled silk stockings (not yet nylon) and fancy garters to keep them up. When the nights were hot, the management opened the windows on the ocean side and delicious breezes wafted over the dance floor. Murphy’s Orchestra was very good always, but the greatest attraction was Mal Hallet on a Saturday night. We all thrilled to the music of Mal Hallet and when he went into his feature, the band would demonstrate such pieces as ‘Horses, Horses, Horses’ accompanied by the members standing up and riding hobby horses (which now seems more corny than it was). Also, they played and acted out ‘Collegiate, Collegiate, Yes, We Are Collegiate ….’. This called for a freshman cap and a crazy outfit. Others, too, but I forget. One piece I remember particularly, was called ‘After The Storm’. Then the music would roar, the lights would go out and all was dark until the make-believe storm was upon us and the ‘lightning’ would flash while the lights would go on and off and the roar of the music was really something!quot;

It’s impossible to ignore the poignant connections between the two young women: the American girl on a warm summer night thrilling to the fake thunder and lightning and the “roar” of the orchestra in a dance hall that would be destroyed by fire in 1929; and the German girl who would hear the roar of the bombers, see the incendiaries raining from the sky, and whose favorite song was Mal Hallett’s Boo Hoo, You’ve Got Me Crying for You.

Lancaster bomber over Hamburg

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Thursday 20 March 2003

Accountability

I’ve written enough about Iraq. There’s nothing more to add, apart from the hope that this regrettable war can be brought to a swift conclusion, with the minimum casualties on both sides. What happens after that is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain: it won’t even vaguely resemble the outcome planned by Bush & Co.

My sympathies lie primarily with the soldiers who have been placed in this invidious situation: having to fight a war over which the citizens of their countries are deeply divided. Nothing I have read expresses my own thoughts and feelings as well as Dave Rogers’ essay, Responsibility:

So when the shooting starts and the terrible things happen, the burden is on us to keep faith with them, not to judge them, even if we couch our judgment in words like “grieve.” Better one should grieve for oneself than presume to grieve for the moral failure of a soldier doing his or her duty, holding up their end of the bargain while we shirked ours. They will not fail in their military objective. Some few of them may fail in their duty as a soldier and as a human being, and commit acts not in accordance with the laws of war. Even then, the burden is on us to keep faith with them, because we placed them in those circumstances, through our own inaction and indifference. We keep faith with them by holding our tongues, and we forgive them, and we ask them to forgive us. We let them down first. Our institutions will hold them accountable. It’s hard to say if anyone will hold us accountable.

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Tuesday 25 March 2003

The unbearable heaviness of babble

I’ve been meaning to write about Liz’s extroversion post ever since Phil Ringnalda pointed to it at the beginning of the month. Though Phil doesn’t reveal precisely what Liz revealed “about extroverts that has baffled [him] for years,” her post confirmed what I’d long suspected: that extroverts don’t know what they think about an issue until they’ve talked about it at (interminable) length. As Liz explained:

…I said that the whole concept of something being “self-evident” seems to me to very specific to introverts. Where an introvert sees something as obvious based on observed actions, an extrovert is more likely to want to explore it, to triangulate views from multiple sources before forming an opinion. To be valid, for me, an opinion must include input from other sources—I don’t believe any of us can be “objective” or see a full version of what’s around us, and without asking what others see, I don’t believe I’m getting a full picture.

That’s where the conversation got particularly interesting—I told her that I thought the extrovert’s desire to discuss things endlessly was the antithesis to the belief that something is “self-evident.” She said she’d always assumed that the talk was an announcement of fully formed ideas, not a thought-forming process—that the people talking “already had their ideas, and felt a need to subject us to them.” And I replied that for me, that talk is really the only thought-forming process; the thoughts aren’t solid until they’re expressed, discussed, poked, prodded, etc. Internally, thoughts are amorphous and unformed. When “exposed to the light” through expression, you can see if they’re solid.

I was reminded of Faulkner’s question: “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve written?” (Which, for extroverts would be: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I’ve said?”)

The process of triangulation that Liz describes, of comparing views from multiple sources, is something I can do in my head because—and I have no idea whether this holds true for other introverts—for most subjects, I don’t feel attached to any particular point of view. For example, I regard General Curtis LeMay as one of the most gifted and courageous generals of World War II while at the same time I believe that he was a war criminal according to the standards established by the Tokyo War Crimes trials. I suspect it’s this ability to hold simultaneously contradictory viewpoints that makes the internal triangulation possible, though the end result—a state of almost permanent ambivalence—is frustrating for those who see issues from one perspective or another.

[I admit to being puzzled by Liz’s need to determine, through conversation, “what others see,” since I am so rarely surprised by what others see. One only needs to spend ten minutes or so with most people in order to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, their position on any issue. The introvert’s pain at being trapped in a conversation with extroverts is caused partly by boredom—we’ve already formulated allthe arguments in our heads—and partly by repetition—we then have to listen to those arguments being repeated ad infinitum.]

The comments on Liz’s post are equally fascinating. A few people warn of the dangers of stereotyping, dangers that I believe are insignificant when compared to the insights that the MBTI offers about different temperamental styles, why extreme differences—for example, between introversion and extroversion—lead to conflict and misunderstanding, and what each side might do to facilitate harmonious relations.

Jeremy raised an interesting question when he asked:

whether or not bloggers and blogging has any relationship to these sets of indicators intro/extroversion or whether they are completely unrelated?

My guess is that Liz might be one of the few extroverts whose weblog I read regularly since her writing in no way resembles what she describes as the “constant babbling” of her conversational style. But then I’m not attracted to the traditional link+quote+comment weblog, which I instinctively believe is more likely to belong to an extrovert than an introvert.

I visited friends in the Blue Mountains last Saturday and, during the 80 minute train ride, a few different people in my carriage conducted protracted, voluble, and loud mobile phone conversations. I found myself wondering, along the lines suggested by Jeremy, about the relationship between extroversion and the willingness to reveal to strangers both the intimacies and banalities of one’s existence. “Have these people no sense of privacy, or shame?” I asked myself.

To me, being interrupted on a train or in a restaurant, while I’m thinking or reading or watching, is an intolerable intrusion. Yet all around me people are constantly checking their mobile phones for voicemail or SMS messages. Surely only extroverts feel such a relentless desire to be in constant contact with their family, friends, and/or business associates.

In her post Liz mentions that she (an off-the-scale extrovert) is married to an introvert and in a comment on her own post she quotes a couple of typical conversations which suggest a mutual tolerance for their diametrically opposed temperamental/conversational styles. I began to wonder about their respective mobile phone usage: does Liz make ten times as many calls as her husband? Does he, as I do, have his phone switched off most of the time? Does he, as I do, delete all messages before listening to them? (I guess not—if I were married, with children, I think I’d listen to my messages.)

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides. So how do they make it work? I’m not suggesting that introverts and extroverts can’t get along—rather it’s the presence of an extreme type in a relationship that has me baffled. What would a relationship between a mild extrovert and an extreme introvert be like? Could two extreme extroverts be happy together?

Or have I been so absorbed in my conception of the ideal relationship (between introverts who can intuitively share their thoughts and feelings) that anything else seems utterly strange?

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Wednesday 26 March 2003

Telepathy

Dorothea’s response to finding out that I have a mobile phone—she was “completely wogboggled”—provoked a sense of panic that I might be expelled from the Introvert’s Guild. I’ve already pointed out that I have the phone switched off most of the time (in fact, I rarely carrry it with me) and that I delete any voicemail messages without listening to them. To avoid any accusations that I’m not a bona-fide introvert, allow me to explain how I came to have one.

Like Dorothea I couldn’t imagine anything more intrusive. Then, a couple of years ago, at a time when I had to attend a ten-day seminar, my mother spent a couple of days in hospital and I found myself asking a colleague if he’d mind my using his phone to check her progress. The second time I did this I thought to myself: “I can’t rely on payphones to make these calls, I’ll have to get my own mobile phone.”

At the back of my mind was a story I’d heard about certain Amish who eschew the use of modern technology until there’s an accident or a child is ill—then it’s suddenly OK to use a non-Amish neighbor’s telephone. It felt hypocritical to me to be rabidly against mobile phones but to use someone else’s.

I mentioned to my former girlfriend Natsuko, with whom I remain close friends, that I’d decided to get a mobile phone. She immediately said, “You can have mine. I don’t need it anymore.” (Originally a freelance designer, she’d recently secured a fulltime job.) I took her somewhat clunky Phillips Twist phone to the Telstra store, got a new number, and organized a monthly plan. Every month I pay about $25 not to use it. This month, because I’ve been to Melbourne a couple of times, I’ve used it instead of calling from the ludicrously expensive hotel phone.

I was astonished and impressed by Dorothea’s intuitive realization that my mobile phone was a “living-in-Japan thing” because, if I did live in Japan, I would have a mobile phone and I’d use it constantly. Why the turnaround? Because I’m much less introverted when I’m in Japan—I talk to anyone about anything in order to practise my Japanese. When I’m traveling alone, my favorite part of the day is having dinner in a tiny restaurant, where—as inevitably happens when the other customers realize that I drink alcohol and can carry a conversation—I can spend a few hours drinking and chatting. (My Japanese becomes noticeably more fluent when I’ve had a beer or three.) I’d also use the mobile to send and receive SMS messages since that would allow me to practice reading and writing Japanese.

But Dorothea rejected my suggestion of “the ideal relationship (between introverts who can intuitively share their thoughts and feelings).”

Jonathon. Dude. Wrong. Wrong ever so. Introverts are introverts, not mind readers. Trust me on this one.

Chinese characters for Japanese word ishin-denshin (from one heart to another)Interestingly, this idea also happens to be a Japanese thing. In conversations with Japanese about relationships, the term ishin-denshin frequently crops up as one of the characteristics of the “ideal relationship.” The first and third characters mean “by means of” and “transmit, communicate” respectively, whereas the second and fourth character means “heart, mind, spirit.” The dictionary definition of ishin-denshin is “tacit understanding; telepathy; communion of mind with mind” while my Kodansha Dictionary of Basic Japanese Idioms renders it as “from one heart to another” and offers the following supplemental meanings:

immediate communication from one mind to another, telepathy, telepathic communication between people, tacit understanding, intuitively shared thoughts or feelings, to be able to read each other’s mind.

The example sentences suggest how the term might be used by Japanese speakers:

Don’t make me spell it out. You must know what I’m getting at, surely.

Dad didn’t have to say a word. I knew exactly what he was thinking.

He and I know each other so well that we can tell what the other’s thinking.

Chinese characters for Japanese word isshin-dotai (one heart, the same body)The entry for ishin-denshin cross-references a related term, isshin-dōtai, rendered as “one heart, the same body” (which is exactly what the four characters mean, respectively). The supplemental meanings are:

of one heart and mind, as one mind and body.

The first example sentence is similar to those in the entry for ishin-denshin:

We’re one and the same, you and me. You can tell me anything.

But the second could have been written by Dorothea herself:

When they say man and wife are of one heart and mind, isn’t that just a fantasy (illusion)?

It intrigues me that the idea of telepathic communication between lovers or spouses has such a strong resonance in Japanese culture; and I wonder whether this is because Japanese speech and writing are so oblique compared to English. Much of the meaning of a Japanese sentence is inferred rather than stated—for example, I’ve heard it it said that 60% of Japanese sentences lack a subject—and I have to admit that it’s this indirect, elliptical quality that particularly attracts me to Japanese and to the Japanese. I never quite know quite what’s going on and consequently, whether I’m reading or listening or watching, I feel constantly engaged. That is, of course, the antithesis of ishin-denshin, but I only ever cited it as an ideal.

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Saturday 29 March 2003

Window dressing

US FOREIGN POLICY HAS A NEGATIVE EFFECT ON OUR COUNTRY. WE-ARE-NOT-AN AMERICAN STATE. ALIYAH.

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Monday 31 March 2003

“…always already writing about war”

Like a (relatively) few bloggers, I’ve been rendered nearly wordless by the war. When the coalition forces invaded eleven days ago, I decided I’d already written enough about Iraq, wishing only that the war be brought “to a swift conclusion, with the minimum casualties on both sides.” So I wrote about introversion/extroversion and telepathic communication and, oddly, I started photographing compulsively. But, essentially, I felt as though silence was preferable to opinionating.

I spent the first four days of last week in Melbourne, working. Friday I slept a lot. On Saturday, I saw Roman Polanski’s The Pianist in the morning and did my monthly accounts in the afternoon. Instead of writing all day Sunday, as I’d planned, I did a truly stupid thing: morbidly curious about what was likely to happen once the coalition forces entered Baghdad, I went to the local bookstore, bought a copy of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, and spent much of the day reading. It wasn’t until Sunday evening that, catching up on some of my favorite blogs, I came across a wonderful entry of Steve Himmer’s that gently nudged me back on course:

Like I said, I’d like to write about all that, but I’m having a hard time finding the words. As you may have noticed, I’ve been a lot more comfortable relying on the words of other people this week, words that have already been written or spoken in other, less immediate contexts and now, removed from their origins by the hindsight of interpretation, can by adjusted and maneuvered to say some of the things I’ve been struggling so hard to say for myself.

It’s a balancing act of sorts: Do I write about the war? Do I write about myself? Which is a better testament to living in these times? And all the while the answer is pretty obvious, really: no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war. I heard the point made last night that the novels of Jane Austen are very much of their time, full of markers of the immediacy of politics and warfare in the way that good men are literally hard to find, wiped out in the Napoleonic Wars, and that without resorting to the crutches of popculture markers and disposable references Austen presented a realistic image of the lived experience of her political moment. She, too, was always already writing about war.

Which gives me, I suppose, the freedom to engage whatever topics I want to, but unfortunately doesn’t encourage those topics to present themselves—I’m left only with the half-convinced sense that it’s okay to stop thinking about war for a minute, but no closer to actually being able to do so.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the war, either, though I tried to stop writing about it. And, since the war is the only topic that presents itself, I’m left with the choice of the war or catatonia (as in immobility and stupor). I’ve been planning for a couple of months now to alter the focus of my weblog. The shift is already well underway within me, though probably not so apparent from the outside. So, I’ll write about this war—and other wars—since, after all, I started blogging out of a failed desire to write about the war against Japan. Yet, as Steve Himmer taught me, “no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war.”

“What happens after [the war is brought to its ‘swift conclusion’],” I wrote in my earlier entry, “is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain: it won’t even vaguely resemble the outcome planned by Bush & Co.” I was thinking not so much about the military campaign, but rather of its aftermath. My ideas weren’t fully formulated but I knew one thing at least: the Bush administration’s goal of establishing a “model democracy” in Iraq—à la post-war Japan—was laughably unrealistic.

Last night on the late news, I saw an interview with Professor Des Ball, Australia’s leading defence and intelligence analyst. Regardless of the successful military outcome, he said, which would result in the capture or death of Saddam Hussein, the United States and its allies had likely already lost the political war in Iraq.

In this News.com.au story by Sharon Mathieson, he argues that “instead of putting an end to terrorism, coalition forces will have effectively strengthened al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks by the end of the war,” thus diminishing the security of the US, Australia, and other allies.

Professor Ball made a number of other points which suggest that, although Saddam and his regime will go, the coalition’s other war aims are in tatters:

  • It was unlikely that coalition forces would find any substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq of the type that might persuade world public opinion that their removal was worth the price.
  • The use of chemical weapons to defend Baghdad will be seen around the world as a legitimate means of defence against the onslaught of coalition bombing and missile attacks.
  • Coalition forces would fail to produce persuasive evidence of links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which will be strengthened in Iraq and around the world.

He summarized his argument in these terms:

“The coalition faces defeat in the sense that it’s likely to emerge from this war with its global interests more threatened, its strategic standing in the world more challenged and its security, the security of the United States and its allies, ultimately diminished.

“It would take a brave person to argue that the security of the world is going to end up being enhanced by this war.”

The success or failure of the military campaign is now largely irrelevant. A coalition “victory” is merely the end of the beginning. After that, it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling “democracy” against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison. A coalition defeat—as in a negotiated withdrawal that leaves Saddam or his minions intact—will, as Dave Rogers suggests, “only guarantee far more death and destruction in the years to come.”

Dave adds: “I just hope we’re up to this challenge. With the right leadership, I’m sure we could be. I’m not at all confident we have the right leadership.”

We don’t have the right leadership. To put it bluntly, we’re fucked.

Unless the anti-war/peace movement can come up with something more sophisticated and useful than red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.

[Mark Pilgrim has gone to some considerable effort in assembling a comprehensive list of peaceblogging links. I have some reading to do.]

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