Sunday, March 31, 2002

A week

It's been a week. I thought about doing an April Fools' thing, but I like being mopey and Rhine-massacre-apocalyptic.

As if I could post anything worthwhile. As if anything I had to say at the moment would have any redeeming value. It's been five days since the Seder massacre. It's been three days since the beginning of the police-sweep action proper. Time. That is what I have been doing, as observer. I have been marking time. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists made this wonderfully facile representation of the immanence of the threat of nuclear war back in the forties - the Doomsday clock, a rhetorical timepiece first printed on the cover of the magazine in 1947.

Monday, March 25, 2002


In years past, Pesach was a comfortable pitstop halfway through spring, a time of year when we gathered to re-enact ancient ritual, but mostly to eat macaroons, gefilte fish, matzoh, and complain about the constipation inflicted by the last. This year, everything is different.

Joshua Micah Marshall posted a couple of comments to his weblog here and here, about his aversion to the concept of multiple citizenships for an individual. He sees American identity as righteously hegemonic - that individuals who call themselves Americans should not have the right to place themselves at the beck and call of any other sovereign collectivity, that American citizenship is unitary and utterly unalienable.

I know that Josh is Jewish. I don't know his family's history, I don't know how much his day-to-day narrative builds on the older stories of previous generations in his family, and how much credence he places in those older stores. I don't know how much he identifies as an American, vice being a Jew. I won't comment on how correct his statements ought to be for himself - I'm no moralizing ghetto dweller believing in the sanctity of my own victimhood. But I am profoundly shaken by his pronouncements, because they are indistinguishable from similar protests made by prominent German Jews in the 'teens and 'twenties, about the perfectness of their Germanness. They possessed a perfect citizenship which many to the East desired who were by war or circumstance deprived of it. Even being Jewish did not collide with the Ausweis that said "Deutsches staatsburger".

And I am descended from German-Jewish refugees from Hitler. I sit now in a parlor furnished with odds and ends crammed hurriedly into a shipping crate in 1937, when such cramming was still possible. I am typing on this keyboard as it rests on a desk my great-great grandfather used in his house in Nuremberg one hundred and fifty years ago. Racked in a bookshelf two rooms away sit my grandfather's school-annotated Hebrew texts, published by the vanished Rüdelsheim press. When I go to services, I wear a smuggled tallis, and put on smuggled tefillin both made to order for my grandfather's bar mitzvah in the Erlangen schul in 1922.

As I approach Pesach this year, the very fact of the impermanence of my tenure in this land spits in my face. I don't feel secure in my Americanness. I don't feel safe with my white face and my brown hair. This year, unlike every year before, I am a Jew, andI am afraid. I'm not just afraid because of the blood libel bullshit some camel-jockey notional academic with a Potemkin degree published in al-Riyadh; I'm afraid because judeophobia seems to have seeped more deeply into the common Western consciousness than at any time since the Second World War. I'm afraid because Danny Pearl was murdered like a sheep at Eid because he was a Jew, and should I ever go to Pakistan or any of the two dozen Arab states in the Middle East, I would be murdered in exactly the same way because I am a Jew, and not a single person would raise their hands to defend me because I am a human being.

I think Jonathan is wrong. I think citizenship is tactical, and should be in the private interest of the sovereign individual. I'm glad I can get the British, German, Polish, and Israeli passports to which I'm entitled by national citizenship laws in those respective countries. I'm glad the option is open to me, should I need to flee as my grandparents fled.

My father was born in England in 1944. My mother, in Philadelphia in 1950. They keep their passports, bankbooks, and cash handy in a special place in the house. I used to think that was crazy and sad-funny. I don't anymore.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Larson-B has collapsed.

While this is the first time I've been able to post to Plastic Words in a week, it isn't the last.

I lived for a year, last year, underneath Joe Sabia, the Cornell student who is the author of this turgid and nasty piece. I never, ever saw him take somebody home at night. But he did have his Campus Republicans on staff on Election Night - pounding beer and doing waves for each state going red. I couldn't sleep until five am that morning because of all the friggin noise.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Things look better?

Monday, March 11, 2002

What I posted to RASFF the day after the attack:
Path: oemcomputer
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.fandom
From: (David Joseph Greenbaum)
Subject: Re: WTC Disaster
Organization: Cornell University
Message-ID: <9nof2u$>
References: <> <9nlilp$bc4$> <> <>
X-Newsreader: News Xpress 2.01
Mime-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII
X-Copyright0: Copyright 2001 David Joseph Greenbaum
X-Copyright1: All rights reserved. X-Copyright2: Permission granted for quoting in usenet articles
X-Copyright3: Permission granted for quoting in personal email
Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 20:03:42 GMT
Status: O

In a fit of divine composition, XXXXX@XXXXXXX inscribed in fleeting electrons:

Our President just did. He called it an act of war, which is in fact a military attack, right?

No. An "act of war" is, essentially, anything that a sovereign government decides is an act of war.

I so wish he had not done that. I so wish he had called it a criminal act. If he had called it a criminal act, it would have been tantamount to committing the country to taking legal steps and not military ones, and we might have come out of this with a stronger international commitment to law and peace. I suppose we still could, somehow.

I don't, and I vociferously disagree with you about calling this a "criminal matter" as opposed to a "military matter" being anything that can solidify and strengthen international commitment to law and peace.

I think you're engaging in wishful, magical thinking about how casting spells of nobility and love and lawful justice about oneself will inevitably lead to peace, love, and goodwill toward one's fellows.

I realize that it has to take a degree of pretending to say this is a purely criminal act and not a highly focussed political and military one, but I think it's a degree of pretending the world could benefit from right now.

I don't know how to phrase this carefully enough to avoid offense, but I think there's a large contingent of muddle-headed people who, before the fucking rubble has cooled off from the fires, loudly insist that America comport itself as the good guardian of Law and Justice, and thus refrain from anything that could possibly disturb the muddle-headed's righteous right to sleep at night. They are less disturbed by the savagery of the attack, by the powdered concrete and the pulverized blood-stained bones of the victims, than they are by the fear that they might be seen as less than holy themselves -- should they give voice to the darker, bloodier calls for vengeance and retribution.

I think, in the view that the people who plotted and carried out yesterday's mass murders didn't fucking care one fucking bit what we thought of them nor what we think of ourselves, that to imagine any kind of reciprocal regard for conscience is folly. I think it's muddle-headed, besides the point. I think, inasmuch as the planes, the passengers, and the targets were inanimate, soulless instrumentalities in the sight of the chaleria who hijacked their fates, the evil people who promote such calamity need to be addressed as dangerously contagious bacilli.

[....]Thousands of people are dead, XXXX. Thousands. International law-abiding justice did *nothing* for those people.

I feel the need for progressive political reform just as strongly as you do, but to these events, I think it irrelevant. The events at the World Trade Center have absolutely nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with war. My grandmother said that the World Trade Center attack felt exactly the same to her as Kristallnacht did, when her first husband was arrested and interned at Dachau.

Dave G.

Schöner, grüner mond von Alabama, leuchte uns!
Denn wir haben heute hier
Unterm Hemde Geldpapier
Fur ein grosses Lachen deines grossen, dummen Munds.
-- Bertolt Brecht

Sunday, March 10, 2002

The folly of living up to the stereotype

After a few ill-advised attempts to enter the current-events fray in blogdom (particularly my unilateral declaration of genocidal war on Glenn Reynolds for writing something dicky), I basically gave up on the idea of being a self-referential, interblog-linking uberpundit, shucking the crass world of the fray for snarky commentary in the discussion areas of better people's weblogs and airy, erudite, and remote essays on whatever topic interests or intrigues me at a particular moment in time. And things that piss me off. Those always work. But I'd better return sometime to the original point and inspirational root of this weblog, the plasticity of language, and its misuses for deception, lies, brutality, and theft. Otherwise I will lose myself in a miasma of intellectual jerkoffery.

From Little Green Footballs: the LA Times reprinted a bit of commentary from the Arab News, a delightful little soufflé penned by the esteemed John V. Whitbeck.

Whitbeck stands in august company; whoever he is, and I care not ever to make his acquaintance, he marches ranked in the battalions of prevaricators, dispatched at the command of an ugly ideological imperative to eliminate the term 'terrorist' from the descriptive lexicon of the gens. He shits on this word in order to ruin it. Let us engage in linguistic coproscopy, hmm?

The greatest threat to world peace today is clearly "terrorism" — not the behavior to which the word is applied but the word itself.
Ah, yes, this essay begins with the necessary opening hyperbole - that the world stands in greater peril from the dictionary-linguistic definition of terrorism than it does from human acts conventionally defined as such. Well, it's a clear statement of position.
For years, people have recited the truism that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." However, with the world's sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide war on terrorism, the notorious subjectivity of this word is no longer a joke.
Robotically reciting an asinine 'truism' does not make it true. Inverting the 'truism' - saying that 'one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist' - is a pointless activity - we learn nothing new; we have restated Whitbeck's point - which is that terrorism and freedom-fighting are inherently interlinked and interchangeable concepts, and that third person interpretations of 'terrorism' can amount to no more than subjective, idosyncratic, and individually autochthonous reflectivities - aggregated illegitimacies - all third-person subjectivities in conflict with the originator's intended conception of the 'terrorist act' are inherently invalid.

Whitbeck subsequently states a further point - that power and authority held by observers separately or in aggregate have no legitimacy in framing the moral debate about the definition of behavior putatively coming under the rubric of 'terrorism.' The subjectivity of the USA disqualifies it from judging the moral substance of the 'terrorist act', while the physical power of the USA inherently disqualifies it from applying its own valuations of that self-same 'terrorist act'.


The word is dangerous because many people apply it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding and discouraging rational discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.The word is dangerous because many people apply it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding and discouraging rational discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.
According to Whitbeck, the employment of the term 'terrorist' is inherently flawed - the term's moral implications blind its users to the real universe, because it allows them to justify illegalities and immoralities. What utter horseshit hogwash! Whatever rhetorical baggage Whitbeck and other assorted protoplasmic chazerei may hear in their addled heads, 'terrorism' is not a politically valenced word - it only defines a mode of warfare and politics: that mode of politics in which political activists use force and violent coercion to instill fear in their political enemies in order to achieve their policy goals. Simple enough - people who use violent, deadly force to scare their enemies into submission are terrorists. Political and legal theorists since Grotius and Hobbes understand that violence is socially corrosive, and that the state, as the constituted agent of law, needs must have a monopoly on the use of violence. The standard definition of terrorism long excluded states from being in the category of perpetrator - however, historically recent examples require the inclusion of states in this category. Regardless, defining a terrorist is only a matter of defining the means, thrust, and goal of that terrorist's demonstrated actions. If the goal of the sue of violence to to deter actors from implementing their own policies or from opposing the implementation of policies congenial to those of the terrorist, by inspiring fear and terror of the consequence of disobeying the user of violent coercion, than that is terrorism.
There is no shortage of precise language to describe the diverse acts to which the word "terrorism" is often applied. "Mass murder," "assassination," "arson" and "sabotage" are available. However, such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism," which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled abusers.
That 'thought-deadening impact' is an inherent feature of the word in liberal societies. That reaction is not illegitimate - the use of violent coercion in the public realm is antithetical to Enlightenment values. It utterly disputes the legitimacy of the concept of human equality and the concept of the human commonwealth. The state, as guarantor of the citizenship of sovereign individuals, is utterly vitiated when it is deprived of the monopoly on legitimate uses of violence, because the universal codes that states enact to preserve their bodies' politic cannot be enforced. Governance becomes a naked contest of warfare. Long experience with political terrorists has proven to the vast, overwhelming majority of citizens in the West that the costs of legitimated violence utterly outweigh its potential gains-in-use. Furthermore, disaggregating the political goal of 'terrorist' actions from the acts themselves only serves the threadbare preservation of mobilizing dignity on the part of the inspiring political movement. If terrorist actions can only be seen as the actions of criminals, absent political motivation, genuinely corrosive and evil political movements escape necessary examination, censure, or destruction.
Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be able to fight for their freedom by "respectable" means, using F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, and for so long as the Palestinians can see no hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the "delivery systems" available to them — their own bodies. Genuine hope for something better than a life worse than death is the only cure for the despair which inspires such gruesome violence.
This paragraph should leave any reader properly aghast. Whitbeck disputes not the use of violent coercion - but merely its moralistic evaluation. The idea that violence is a tactic of last resort is questionable; what is risible is that violence is inherently ideologically and programmatically justifiable without reference to consequence. That the Palestinians legitimately have the right to employ conventional weapons of war or weapons of mass destruction in their struggle against Israel - that they have the right to go to war against Israel, because of the peculiar moral idiosyncratic character of their policy goals - Whitbeck accepts unquestioningly. Of course, the converse - that Israeli Jews should have the right to wage war to defend themselves, Whitbeck by implication certainly has denied. If terrorism is a valueless term, how yet can Israelis become illegitimated and the proper subjects of murderous force because their conduct is described as 'terroristic'? 'One man's terrorism is another man's freedom fight', indeed.

Let us, of course, skip to the end

If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is "might makes right", every "retaliation" provokes a "counter-retaliation" and a genuine "war of civilizations" is ignited, the world — and particularly the United States — must recognize that "terrorism" is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law and domestic civil liberties which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.

By depriving us of the useful moral categorization and condemnation of 'terrorists', Whitbeck serves their goals. Depriving violent actions of their political and moral character merely serves to enshrine that Hobbesian state of perpetual, all-embracing civilizational war, by denying opponents of the moral high-ground necessary to mobilize populations against their outrages. If coercion of the weak by the strong is illegitimate, and the latter is not the case, how can the state of laws be preserved, oh International Lawyer? You gutless, lying, moralistically prevaricating get-of-a-suppurating-dromedary - fuck off and leave my language alone.

The Chinese Food System: a fearful tourist's fallible snapshot

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo. Cadogan, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, and the relatively little known Beijing Walks all advised against eating fresh vegetables or cold foods in China. Sometimes the reasons given were relatively simple – that the state of the art in kitchen hygiene in China is still rather low, and the knowledge and awareness of the germ theory of disease isn’t fully permeated into the cookery culture. Norbert Elias has written about the revolution in sanitation in Europe in the late nineteenth century, the shit-phobia that had been instilled into the culture by the advent of the germ theory of disease invented by Pasteur and the public health advocates, and the elaboration of techniques of germ control and cleanliness to control periodic outbreaks of infectious disease. Northern China is now in the stage of this process that the Western World passed through seventy years ago, only it has had the assistance of antibiotics in moderating the impact of the message. Seventy years ago, western hospitality industry journals were advising hoteliers and hostel mongers to reuse all unused meat and other meal leftover in special dishes purposefully designed to recycle meal waste. Roast joints to meat dormers and cottage pie (at least in Great Britain).

Sometimes the reasons given in the guides are straightforward: 85 per cent of China is still rural and agricultural, and this system of agriculture, which now feeds the population, unlike in the past when it was unequal to supplying a smaller population, still relies on tradition methods of intensive cultivation, including the use of human honeypot waste for fertilizer in the fields. Human waste is a vector for disease; the continued Chinese use of human waste for agriculture at least poses a public health risk to the foreign traveler unused to the novel disease environment.

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo. The advise given in the travel guides is simple – don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled, do not use chopsticks that don’t come in plastic seals, and don’t drink the water (which is the name of a Woody Allen play that has nothing to do with gastric upset experienced by travelers in foreign countries – only potential political difficulties). Don’t eat foods that arrive cold. Pickles that are highly preserved might be okay, but might not be okay for other different reasons (the Chinese still use niter and saltpeter to pickle vegetables and meats). To violate these rules meant to risk severe illness. My friend Dave, when he was taken to Russia with a school tour group in 1986, said that the first thing he and the rest of his group did upon arriving was to drink the water and to eat the fresh vegetables – what fresh vegetables he could find in a Communist dictatorship with a dysfunctional food system – and only one of the ten in their group got sick. An admirable rate of disease avoidance.

Here in the US, in Minneapolis, the water system was contaminated by Cryptosporidia in 1997 and 1998, and Milwaukee suffered the same outbreak in 2000. People died of Escherischia Coli-contaminated ground beef cooked into burgers at Jack-In-The-Box franchises in 1994, and of Listeria-infected pork, chicken, and beef cold cuts sold by Thorn Apple Valley in 2000. With growing frequency, meat factory farms in Arkansas and North Carolina herald the glorious future of environmental problems caused by livestock manure run-off, while they pollute and contaminate streams, rivers, and lakes, and contaminate underground water supplies, supplies which are used to irrigate the vegetable fields and orchards of rural farmers in the South. People have gotten ill from contaminated fresh vegetables served raw in salad bars at Wendy’s – enough so that public health officials and doctors advise people with acquired or innate immune deficiencies to avoid salad bars or other kinds of public food buffet.

Despite the prevalence of food-related danger in the USA, on the whole, I took the warnings about the nature of food in China much more seriously. I think I took it more seriously because of the durability of the threatening images of third world Agriculture – the uncleanness, the fright of ill-effected sanitation, the ever-present honeypots. The images of the unclean street markets, where street vendors hawked skewers of raw chicken, beef, fish, and pork, food that sat out in the unseasonably warm air, exposed to the spattered droplets of passerby-shoe-pavement strikes, and the ever-present phlegm of the perpetually expectorating population (the pollution in Beijing was so bad that everyone, including myself, coughed out the airborne insults of the day at night into handkerchiefs.) China was an unknown place with inscrutable habits, lack of caution in the bazaars and the eating halls only augured ill.

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo hotel. China’s agricultural system has three tiers: the first, most primitive, yet not the oldest, is the subsistence agriculture of rural dependent peasantry. The urban rural commercial food exchange system broke down at the end of the nineteenth century, and the social chaos which descended on China after the Opium wars and the rebellion of the Great Tai’Ping drove rural proprietors into an essentially subsistent growth regime. The extensive interregional trading systems which prevailed earlier failed in the face of tremendous rural population growth and land pressure, combined with a failing market for agricultural produce. Capitated taxes fixed in money could not be paid with proceeds earned on crops grown for steadily diminishing market prices, and retail inflation squeezed peasants pocketbooks. This dysfunctional system provided a way out – farmers simply grew enough to survive on, and no more. Under the communists, these peasants found their minimally productive estates squeezed by exactions of contributions by the state in kind. The Communist collectivization of agriculture killed millions, particularly during the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famines. Communes formed from subsistence farming communities sometimes died out completely. Today, this agricultural system still prevails in many remote provinces away from the primary riverine trading routes – the thrust of modernization has not touched these rural holdings, despite the divestiture of the notional communes and the return of ownership, or at least proprietorship, to private hands. Productivity remained very, very low.

Deng Xaioping’s 1978 and 1986 reforms permitted the growth of a new agricultural system - or rather, the renewal of the older kind of effective intensive market agriculture. From the enormous holdings of communes in the fertile valleys along the main river courses, individuals, their families, or small alliances of families, recreated the intensive productive agriculture that fed the China’s burgeoning cities during the Song, Ming, and Manchu dynasties – an agricultural regime not based on required requisitions in kind in lieu of taxation, as the Communist state did before, but based instead on flexibility in crop selection, transport and marketing to regional population centers, with farmers keeping profits only moderately taxed by the government. Traditional agricultural methods have persisted here, too: the ruthless frugality of the traditional intensivist agriculture has been complemented by modern strains of crops and breeds of farm animals, and by the introduction of modern fertilizers and pesticides – the Green Revolution strikes China. Productivity in this system is higher, and it is this system that presently feeds the vast majority of Chinese. Its greenhouses, fields, paddocks and paddies supply the grain (wheat or rice), the fruits and vegetables, and the variety of meats that Chinese use to make up their diet.

The Buffet at the Marco Polo Hotel. The last agricultural system to be implanted inside China is the modern factory farm. Assays and attempts have been made to emulate the corporate farm in China for decades – one of Mao’s favorite communes, Dazhai, was built around a Soviet imported dairy and feedlot, built with the application of cutting-edge agronomic theory in the Taylorized matrix of Soviet mass-production. But now, a different force remakes the countryside, exciting high productivity, heavily capital-intensive commercial mass agriculture. This force would be McDonalds.

There are twenty eight McDonalds in Beijing City alone; over a hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises are in the Beijing prefecture. A TCBY sits close to Mao’s tomb. Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Bob’s Big Boy, and Schlotsky’s Deli complete the set, with dozens of outlets sprinkled around Beijing. One McDonalds in Beijing is the world’s largest, and the world’s cleanest, seating thousands – together they sell hundreds of millions of hamburgers every year – and since they are growing, they will be selling more. These western foodsellers require sufficient regular inputs of qualitatively predictable agricultural produce, since the importation of food is not only illegal but would also be prohibitively expensive. These chains set up, in the countryside, with select farmers chosen for their willingness to supply a new market, an entirely new agricultural system fashioned after the American model. Rural holdings were bought out and amalgamated into enormous factory farms, growing the tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and cows that McDonalds needs for making its hamburgers. Dairies and cheese packers were set up, supported by a liberal regime of loans from the state-owned agricultural banks, Taylorized to supply this insatiable market. Every technique of American agriculture is at work on these farms, which are, in dollar terms, are the most productive farms in China, producing the most predicable product.

That Buffet at the Marco Polo Hotel was of a variety and quality that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. The Marco Polo Hotel, on 6 Xuan Wei Men Wu Dajie, about five blocks from Tian’anman Square, is brand new, part of a chain of luxury businessmen’s hotels built in urban centers throughout the Far East. This particular hotel was built by a joint venture of the international chain and a public company owned by the Beijing City Development Authority, a state agency. It was opened and managed, while I was there, by an Australian expatriate. For the breakfast buffet, the managers of the hotel deployed a heroic variety of foodstuffs, from cultures round the globe: Scandinavians found smoked fish; Britons and Americans could wolf down traditional English breakfasts of thick-cut bacon, farm fresh eggs, Poor Knights of Windsor, and spotted dick; Japanese guests could eat sushi, congee, and a variety of soups and broiled skewered meats and fish; those whose palates turned to the Chinese model could consume traditional Chinese dishes, like fried rice and noodles; Germans found their rolls, aufschnit, and butter; the health conscious could consume from a variety of fresh fruits, breakfast cereals, western bread, crescent rolls, fresh fruit juice. The food met a very high standard of quality and freshness.

And there was a salad bar, with the whole variety of salad vegetables that a Westerner might expect in Europe. Clearly, in the center of all that plenty, the salad bar shrieked caution. I was surprised, what I saw the salad bar at the Beijing Marco Polo hotel. That salad bar symbolized everything that was full of fear in Chinese cuisine. The Cadogan guide was particularly severe- in no uncertain terms did it condemn the consumption of fresh raw vegetables from Chinese tables. If I wanted to contract a gastrointestinal illness or hepatitis or, God forbid, some horrific unknown viral disease of uncertain etiology, then I certainly ought to partake. These salad vegetables in glistened with moisture; they were freshness and perfection. They looked and certainly cost delicious.

It was a clarion call to the accumulated wisdom of a million turista’ed travellers gone before: “Do Not Eat!” (like the sign on the silica gel packets sold with moisture sensitive products).

Saturday, March 09, 2002

The nones of March

Zygmunt Bauman: one of the premier sociologists writing on issues of modernity, identity, and the revenge of ambivalence

Think about how modern Islamism is, in the context of the following quote:

Narrating Inhumanity

Dehumanizing definitions of the enemy are not new in human history and hardly a peculiar feature of the modern age. They accompanied most wars - perhaps any war. During the combat, they were probably indispensible. The soldier had to suppress his aversion to kill and maim if he was not to be killed or maimed himself. There is a grim symmetry in battlefield contests. On both sides, suspension of the 'Thou shalt not kill' commandment regarding the Other becomes the condition of upholding it toward oneself (or, more perversely still, of coercing the Other to obey it). Defence of one's own right to live needs a denial of such right to the Other. In such a figuration, the Other need not - or so it seems - be defined. The Other defines himself - as the Enemy - as he casts one's respect for his moral identity into conflict with the protection of one's own. One can deny his being an enemy only at one's own peril.

While ostenibly surviving intact the advent of the modern age, the old tradition of dehumanizing the enemy in combat has been, like everything else, thoroughly revolutionized by modern organization and technology. The contest of individual combat skills - the duel in which chances of survival were evenly cast on both sides - was replaced with wholesale slaughter at a distance. Symmetry of intentions is no longer self-evident and self-corroborating - it has to be construed and demonstrated. More importantly, the symmetry of intentions always points to symmetry of practises, and modern weapons of mass annihilation are rationalized to stave off such symmetry. Unlike the combatants in a man-to-man battle, the objects of wholesale slaughter cannot have their humanity, however impaired, admitted. Modern weapons require a complete obliteration of the moral identity of their victims before they obliterate their bodies.

Paul Fussell, Professor of English atPennsylvania and a veteran of the Pacific War, remembers that 'Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys.' Army and Navy journals wrote of the 'gigantic task of extermination', and some of the marines landing on the islands held by the Japanese duly inscribed 'Rodent Exterminator' on their helmets. Dehumanization of the enemy was, of course, reciprocal. Its persistence on both sides, the shared forgetfulness of the humanity of the other side, made the massacres possible - as they allowed the participants to think of them as sanitary operations rather than murder. '...Let's pour gasoline into their bunkers and light it and then shoot those afire who try to get out. Why not? Why not blow them all up, with satchel charges or with something stronger? Why not, indeed, drop a new kind of bomb on them?'

With all its modern innnovations war remains a situation in which the adversaries retain the right to self-definition (in its developed stage at least, even if not always at the point of original assault.) The enemy appears to be objectively an enemy, while my denial of his right to be protected by moral commandments appears - again - as an exercise in reciprocity. Not so with genocide. Here, the object of extermination is defined unilaterally. No symmetry is applied or intimated in any form. By any stretch of the imagination, the other side is not an enemy, but a victim. It has been marked for annihilation because the logic of the order that the stronger side wishes to establish has no room for its presence. Most of the little wars which combined into the great war waged by Nazi Germany against the world were of this blatantly assymetrical character - removal of the aliens occupying German living space, or alien races burrowing into German life and corroding the German spirit. The object to be destroyed was defined fully by the vision of the future German Reich. And as Rubenstein and Roth point out, 'If the Holocaust has a single overriding lesson, it is that there is absolutely no limits to the obscenities a determined and powerful aggressor can freely visit upon stateless, powerless victims.'

Declaring that a particular category of people has no room in the future order is to say that this category is beyond redemption - cannot be reformed, adapted, or forced to adapt itslef. The Other is not a sinner, who can still repent or mend his ways. He is a diseased organism, 'both ill and infectious, both damaged and damaging'. He is fit only for a surgical operation; better still, for fumigation and poisoning. He must be destroyed so that the rest of the social body may retain its health. His destruction is a matter fo medicine and sanitation.

Hitler set the tone for all later Nazi narrative, describing his service to humanity (killing the Jews) as 'exterminating the pest'. Streicher's Der Stürmer hammered this defnition home with relentless monotony: 'Bacteria, vermin and pests cannot be tolerated. For reasons of cleanliness and hygiene we must make them harmless by killing them off'. The modern scientific discourse of race (of an immutable, ascribed quality - hopelessly 'nature ordained', admittedly hereditary, culturally unmanipulable, resistant to all remedy) from which the Nazi manufactur of the Other dre so lavishly, was from the start replete with the images of pathological deformation, degeneration, madness, sexual perversion. Theoretical concepts were inextricably interwoven with mdeical practises, taxonomic operations with surgical ones, conceptual oppositions with segregatory actions, abstract evaluations with social discriminations. Defining the other as vermin harnesses deeply entrenched fears, revulsion and disgust in the service of extermination. But also, and more seminally, it places the Other at an enormous mental distance at which moral rights are no loger visible. Having been stripped of humanity and redefined as vermin, the Other is no longer an object of moral evaluation.

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, pp. 46-48

Adding Chris Johnson (Midwest Conservative Journal) to my blog list, despite the fact that his politics sometimes set my teeth a grinding..

Friday, March 08, 2002

'Nother Beijing Sonnet

Top of the Town sits on East Chang'an Street
Capitalist people's palace of wealth
Machers and scheibers in Mao's shadow meet
Rich, that no furtive sin impels them to stealth.
Replacing poverty with massive goods gluts
Party and businessmen practise their swings
learning the good western art of golf putts
while bank accounts grow on commerce's wings.
By Tian'an'men Square, this monument
To replete bellies, notional top hats,
Proudly present Party's modern rules bent
Favoring fatness and the swarm of brown rats.

China has chosen a new path today,
Bragging of gold, its newspapers bray.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Just kill me now. I'm done. Stick a fork in me. My juices run clear and hot.

Why, I do ask, a million times over in the serenely quiet unmolested airport parking lot, is it that that crap begins at the legal-political border? (for a plane on an international flight is considered to be the territory of the destination power) China works like heavily staffed clockwork. Things are very clean. A lot of people get paid to stand around or perform odd tasks (like applying and removing stickers from peoples' shirts at arbitrary intervals), and aside from the developing country nonsense of poorly finished plumbing in five-star hotels costing thirty bucks a night (I could only take baths because only the hot water line was connected to the shower mixer valve. If I wanted to provide blanched David to the starveling locals, I could have taken showers.), Peking shows off a remarkably sophisticated and functional infrastructure and social system.

Detroit, on the other hand, doesn't. Sorry - if context is being lost, I am comparing Beijing and Detroit International Airports. On the whole, I felt freer, more comfortable, and less harried in the communist totalitarian dictatorship airport than I felt in the new Detroit McNamara International Terminal, which is to airports as the 1962 Rambler American is to cars.

Simmer down.

If I could have calmed down, I would have written some scathing poetry about the sheer staggering incompetence on public display. I would have been humorous and biting and witty and... after 24 hours in transit, on a plane declaring a medical emergency en route (the poor Chinese lady is still alive, but apparently people kick off on transcontinental flights alla time), while I couldn't sleep en route because nobody saw the good idea behind trying to reset their internal clocks by sleeping, so it was 747 HOUSE PARTY TIME with DJ DOCTOR G IN THA HOUSE, and, well, if you haven't guessed by now, I missed my connecting flight despite having two hours layover time scheduled, because - ring-ding-a-ling - the security system in US airports has finally gone Bulgakov-Mad. I was awake for thirty one hours yesterday, the longest day in my life. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Monday, March 04, 2002

Just like the Soviets and sundry Eastern Europeans of yore, the Chinese do not have a freely convertible currency, so I am burning the yuan that I bought on my last day, getting value for service here at the internet center of the Beijing international airport, instead of getting back half the dollars I paid for my wad of yuan. also, I bought a phone card, a bottle of real cheap Szechuan rice wine (100 proof!), and a VCD of some weird-ass Japanese anime. And I don't like anime. But I prefer being robbed behind a price tag to being extorted at the open currency exchange window. For a capital city, Beijing has been remarkably cheap. Exclusive of the tour package, I've spent less than $500 on trinkets, beads, silks, and other tourist crap sundries. I will be posting pictures of my Chairman Mao kitsch. It is to laugh, and the Chinese are laughing, all the way to the bank. They are mad after money, in these airy windswept totalitarian boulevards of Beijing. They are mad after money, and they are mad after fame, power, wealth, and more than one child. And they have the most risible employ,ment policies that I have ever seen. Except the service, now, here, has been excellent. Okay. Random thoughts end, as I have sixty yuan more to blow.

Sunday, March 03, 2002

Am posting to Plastic Words from the China Post office on Jiangguo Men Jie, about a kilometer west of the Silk Alley (tourist trap! tourist trap! what the hell, I bought a bunch of pretty shirts for twenty bucks.) and I have run smack dab into the famed Chinese government internet censorship. I can't reach my email nor newsgroups, but oddly enough, I can update the blog. How odd. Well, China Post internet access is about 90 cents an hour. You can't go wrong with that. Am now off to Beijing University. Ta.

Saturday, March 02, 2002

The first of a cycle of sonnets describing my trip to Beijing

Always already, the art of tea brew
As ceremony, celebration, art,
Practise, joy, culture, good deep and true,
From Japan articulated in part.

Tea is Chinese, old like hills with man names-
Tea Ceremony is modern, novel.
In tourist shops deployed in timely frames
To send porcelain sold on foreign travel.

By tailored ritual, lives are sped along
The practised Hu-Tong path, tourist rutted
With cups, saucers, filled with jasmine, oolong,
This novelty by citizens tut-tutted.

The mahoganny chairs change butts with time,
Selling mugs for tea bags crusted with twee rime.

Friday, March 01, 2002

A short notification: I am now in Beijing, and shall be for the next five days. Thanks for your forbearance. I promise to post the completed essay on kosher butchery when I get back. I shall also buy a laptop, for the next time I travel to Beijing.