30 May 2008

Summing Up: An Opinion

The "revelation" by former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan that the Bush administration relied on propaganda to sell the invasion of Iraq is not really news to anyone who was paying attention at the time. McClellan's book, What Happened (to which I will not link because of its ubiquity and its stench of greed) confirms what Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay of then-Knight Ridder news had been reporting all along.

In terms of our recent Canettian blog theme: a powerful crowd crystal manipulated intelligence and covered up the facts in a propaganda campaign to bully the media and silence its critics for the purpose of inflaming the primitive emotions of post-9/11 grief, fear of brown-skinned terrorists, and blood-lust for revenge of the American people so they could mobilize a baiting crowd for an unnecessary invasion against a non-aggressor country with whom they had a history of bad faith dealing.

Despite millions of anti-war protestors world-wide, the American people allowed themselves to be manipulated by this powerful cabal—one that had mobilized unsuccessfully earlier to bring down a sitting President because of anger over his sexual indiscretions among other things. [Millions and millions of taxpayer dollars were spent investigating every aspect of President Bill Clinton's business, political, and person life. In fact, an Office of Independent Counsel hounded the Clintons for years only to be abolished in 1999, just in time for the ascendancy of the current administration. It was replaced by a so-called Office of Special Counsel which is a part of the Bush Department of Justice—which we are learning has been corrupted by political influence).

I believe that due to the mainstream news media's failure to puncture the administration's hard-sell spin, the American people (including any number of the so-called loyal opposition) succumbed to what Hannah Arendt termed 'the banality of evil.'  My prediction is that the White House press corps will rediscover their investigative moxy if a Democratic president is elected—just in time.

The natural response to being duped by a con artist or fraudulent salesman, of course, is anger. In this case, one reaction would be to form a counter-crowd crystal for the purpose of achieving justice for these gross wrongs—not one we are in any position to advocate. However, one former prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, has just published a book arguing that George W. Bush should be prosecuted for murder in these actions. The enormity of the evil perpetrated by this crowd crystal may not be so easily encompassed in the U.S. judicial system (which is weak in its ability to address such conspiracies), especially when judge-allies and legislator-conspirators with the evildoers still hold the reins of power and the perpetrators control the flow of information (they are able to classify those things they don't want anyone to find out about and de-classify those things they feel exonerate them). What is clear, however, is that if the perpetrators of this crime against humanity (and we haven't even begun to address their use and justification of torture, extra-juridical prisons, extraordinary renditions, etc.) are allowed to avoid responsibility for their actions, to evade justice for this grotesque atrocity, they will re-form again at some point in the future at which point they will believe confidently they can further harm this country with impunity.

29 May 2008

Golconde, by Rene Magritte


"It was Napoleon, I believe, who said that there is only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition. The thing affirmed comes by repetition to fix itself in the mind in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated truth." Gustave le Bon, The Crowd

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." Pres* George W. Bush, May 24, 2005. Here.

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."
- Dick Cheney, Vice President
Speech to VFW National Convention
"There is already a mountain of evidence that Saddam Hussein is gathering weapons for the purpose of using them. And adding additional information is like adding a foot to Mount Everest."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Response to Question From Press
"We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
- Condoleeza Rice, US National Security Advisor
CNN Late Edition
"Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons."
- George W. Bush, President
Speech to UN General Assembly
"Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons. We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons -- the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have."
- George W. Bush, President
Radio Address
"The Iraqi regime...possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas."
- George W. Bush, President
Cincinnati, Ohio Speech

"And surveillance photos reveal that the regime is rebuilding facilities that it had used to produce chemical and biological weapons."
- George W. Bush, President
Cincinnati, Ohio Speech
"After eleven years during which we have tried containment, sanctions, inspections, even selected military action, the end result is that Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons and is increasing his capabilities to make more. And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon."
- George W. Bush, President
Cincinnati, Ohio Speech
"We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas."
- George W. Bush, President
Cincinnati, Ohio Speech
“We know that Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy — the United States of America. We know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade,” and that “Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses.”
- George W. Bush, President
Cincinnati, Ohio Speech
"Iraq, despite UN sanctions, maintains an aggressive program to rebuild the infrastructure for its nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs. In each instance, Iraq's procurement agents are actively working to obtain both weapons-specific and dual-use materials and technologies critical to their rebuilding and expansion efforts, using front companies and whatever illicit means are at hand."
- John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control
Speech to the Hudson Institute
"We estimate that once Iraq acquires fissile material -- whether from a foreign source or by securing the materials to build an indigenous fissile material capability -- it could fabricate a nuclear weapon within one year. It has rebuilt its civilian chemical infrastructure and renewed production of chemical warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, and VX. It actively maintains all key aspects of its offensive BW program."
- John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control
Speech to the Hudson Institute
"Iraq could decide on any given day to provide biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group or to individual terrorists...The war on terror will not be won until Iraq is completely and verifiably deprived of weapons of mass destruction."
- Dick Cheney, Vice President
Denver, Address To Air National Guard
"If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"The president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Response to Question From Press
"We know for a fact that there are weapons there."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"I am absolutely convinced, based on the information that's been given to me, that the weapon of mass destruction which can kill more people than an atomic bomb -- that is, biological weapons -- is in the hands of the leadership of Iraq."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
MSNBC Interview
"What is unique about Iraq compared to, I would argue, any other country in the world, in this juncture, is the exhaustion of diplomacy thus far, and, No. 2, this intersection of weapons of mass destruction."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
NewsHour Interview
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
- George W. Bush, President
State of the Union Address
"Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent."
- George W. Bush, President
State of the Union Address
"We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Remarks to UN Security Council
"There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction. If biological weapons seem too terrible to contemplate, chemical weapons are equally chilling."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Addresses the U.N. Security Council
"In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world -- and we will not allow it."
- George W. Bush, President
Speech to the American Enterprise Institute
"If Iraq had disarmed itself, gotten rid of its weapons of mass destruction over the past 12 years, or over the last several months since (UN Resolution) 1441 was enacted, we would not be facing the crisis that we now have before us...But the suggestion that we are doing this because we want to go to every country in the Middle East and rearrange all of its pieces is not correct."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Interview with Radio France International
"I am not eager to send young Americans into harm's way in Iraq, or to see innocent people killed or hurt in military operations. Given all of the facts and circumstances known to us, however, I am convinced that if we wait, a threat will continue to materialize in Iraq that could cause incalculable damage to world peace in general, and to the United States in particular."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
Letter to Future of Freedom Foundation
"Iraq is a grave threat to this nation. It desires to acquire and use weapons of mass terror and is run by a despot with a proven record of willingness to use them. Iraq has had 12 years to comply with UN requirements for disarmament and has failed to do so. The president is right to say it's time has run out."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
Senate Speech
"So has the strategic decision been made to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction by the leadership in Baghdad? I think our judgment has to be clearly not."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Remarks to UN Security Council
"Getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime is our best inoculation. Destroying once and for all his weapons of disease and death is a vaccination for the world."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
Washington Post op-ed
"Let's talk about the nuclear proposition for a minute. We know that based on intelligence, that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He's had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
- Dick Cheney, Vice President
Meet The Press
"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
- George W. Bush, President
Address to the Nation
"The United States...is now at war so we will not ever see what terrorists could do if supplied with weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
Senate Debate
"Well, there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly . . . all this will be made clear in the course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. And...as this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them."
- General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief Central Command
Press Conference
"One of our top objectives is to find and destroy the WMD. There are a number of sites."
- Victoria Clark, Pentagon Spokeswoman
Press Briefing
"I have no doubt we're going to find big stores of weapons of mass destruction."
- Kenneth Adelman, Defense Policy Board member
Washington Post, p. A27
"We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
ABC Interview
"We simply cannot live in fear of a ruthless dictator, aggressor and terrorist such as Saddam Hussein, who possesses the world's most deadly weapons."
- Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader
Speech to American Israel Political Action Committee
"We still need to find and secure Iraq's weapons of mass destruction facilities and secure Iraq's borders so we can prevent the flow of weapons of mass destruction materials and senior regime officials out of the country."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Press Conference
"You bet we're concerned about it. And one of the reasons it's important is because the nexus between terrorist states with weapons of mass destruction...and terrorist groups -- networks -- is a critical link. And the thought that...some of those materials could leave the country and in the hands of terrorist networks would be a very unhappy prospect. So it is important to us to see that that doesn't happen."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Press Conference
"Obviously the administration intends to publicize all the weapons of mass destruction U.S. forces find -- and there will be plenty."
- Robert Kagan, Neocon scholar
Washington Post op-ed
"I think you have always heard, and you continue to hear from officials, a measure of high confidence that, indeed, the weapons of mass destruction will be found."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"But make no mistake -- as I said earlier -- we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about and it is about. And we have high confidence it will be found."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"Were not going to find anything until we find people who tell us where the things are. And we have that very high on our priority list, to find the people who know. And when we do, then we'll learn precisely where things were and what was done."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Meet the Press
"I have absolute confidence that there are weapons of mass destruction inside this country. Whether we will turn out, at the end of the day, to find them in one of the 2,000 or 3,000 sites we already know about or whether contact with one of these officials who we may come in contact with will tell us, 'Oh, well, there's actually another site,' and we'll find it there, I'm not sure."
- General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief Central Command
Fox News
"We are learning more as we interrogate or have discussions with Iraqi scientists and people within the Iraqi structure, that perhaps he destroyed some, perhaps he dispersed some. And so we will find them."
- George W. Bush, President
NBC Interview
"There are people who in large measure have information that we need...so that we can track down the weapons of mass destruction in that country."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Press Briefing
"We'll find them. It'll be a matter of time to do so."
- George W. Bush, President
Remarks to Reporters
"I'm absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We're just getting it just now."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Remarks to Reporters
"We never believed that we'd just tumble over weapons of mass destruction in that country."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Fox News Interview
"I'm not surprised if we begin to uncover the weapons program of Saddam Hussein -- because he had a weapons program."
- George W. Bush, President
Remarks to Reporters
"U.S. officials never expected that 'we were going to open garages and find' weapons of mass destruction."
- Condoleeza Rice, US National Security Advisor
Reuters Interview
"I just don't know whether it was all destroyed years ago -- I mean, there's no question that there were chemical weapons years ago -- whether they were destroyed right before the war, (or) whether they're still hidden."
- Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, Commander 101st Airborne
Press Briefing
"We said all along that we will never get to the bottom of the Iraqi WMD program simply by going and searching specific sites, that you'd have to be able to get people who know about the programs to talk to you."
- Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Interview with Australian Broadcasting
"Before the war, there's no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical. I expected them to be found. I still expect them to be found."
- Gen. Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps
Interview with Reporters
"It's going to take time to find them, but we know he had them. And whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we're going to find out the truth. One thing is for certain: Saddam Hussein no longer threatens America with weapons of mass destruction."
- George W. Bush, President
Speech at a weapons factory in Ohio
"Given time, given the number of prisoners now that we're interrogating, I'm confident that we're going to find weapons of mass destruction."
- Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff
NBC Today Show interview
"They may have had time to destroy them, and I don't know the answer."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Remarks to Council on Foreign Relations
"For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction (as justification for invading Iraq) because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."
- Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Vanity Fair interview
"The President is indeed satisfied with the intelligence that he received. And I think that's borne out by the fact that, just as Secretary Powell described at the United Nations, we have found the bio trucks that can be used only for the purpose of producing biological weapons. That's proof-perfect that the intelligence in that regard was right on target."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing
"We have teams of people that are out looking. They've investigated a number of sites. And within the last week or two, they have in fact captured and have in custody two of the mobile trailers that Secretary Powell talked about at the United Nations as being biological weapons laboratories."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Infinity Radio Interview
"But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them."
- George W. Bush, President
Interview with TVP Poland
"You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons...They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two...And we'll find more weapons as time goes on."
- George W. Bush, President
Press Briefing
"It was a surprise to me then -- it remains a surprise to me now -- that we have not uncovered weapons, as you say, in some of the forward dispersal sites. Believe me, it's not for lack of trying. We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they're simply not there."
- Lt. Gen. James Conway, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force
Press Interview
"Do I think we're going to find something? Yeah, I kind of do, because I think there's a lot of information out there."
- Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, Defense Intelligence Agency
Press Conference
"This wasn't material I was making up, it came from the intelligence community."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Press Briefing
"We recently found two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents. This is the man who spent decades hiding tools of mass murder. He knew the inspectors were looking for them. You know better than me he's got a big country in which to hide them. We're on the look. We'll reveal the truth."
- George W. Bush, President Camp Sayliya, Qatar
"I would put before you Exhibit A, the mobile biological labs that we have found. People are saying, 'Well, are they truly mobile biological labs?' Yes, they are. And the DCI, George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, stands behind that assessment."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Fox News Interview
"No one ever said that we knew precisely where all of these agents were, where they were stored."
- Condoleeza Rice, US National Security Advisor
Meet the Press
"What the president has said is because it's been the long-standing view of numerous people, not only in this country, not only in this administration, but around the world, including at the United Nations, who came to those conclusions...And the president is not going to engage in the rewriting of history that others may be trying to engage in."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Response to Question From Press
"Iraq had a weapons program...Intelligence throughout the decade showed they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced with time we'll find out they did have a weapons program."
- George W. Bush, President
Comment to Reporters
"The biological weapons labs that we believe strongly are biological weapons labs, we didn't find any biological weapons with those labs. But should that give us any comfort? Not at all. Those were labs that could produce biological weapons whenever Saddam Hussein might have wanted to have a biological weapons inventory."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
Associated Press Interview
"Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa...The issue of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president's statement."
- Sean McCormack, National Security Council Spokesman
Statement to press
"My personal view is that their intelligence has been, I'm sure, imperfect, but good. In other words, I think the intelligence was correct in general, and that you always will find out precisely what it was once you get on the ground and have a chance to talk to people and explore it, and I think that will happen."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Press Briefing
"I have reason, every reason, to believe that the intelligence that we were operating off was correct and that we will, in fact, find weapons or evidence of weapons, programs, that are conclusive. But that's just a matter of time...It's now less than eight weeks since the end of major combat in Iraq and I believe that patience will prove to be a virtue."
- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
Pentagon media briefing
MS. BLOCK: There were no toxins found in those trailers. SECRETARY POWELL: Which could mean one of several things: one, they hadn't been used yet to develop toxins; or, secondly, they had been sterilized so thoroughly that there is no residual left. It may well be that they hadn't been used yet.
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
All Things Considered, Interview
"That was the concern we had with Saddam Hussein. Not only did he have weapons -- and we'll uncover not only his weapons but all of his weapons programs -- he never lost the intent to have these kinds of weapons."
- Colin Powell, Secretary of State
All Things Considered, Interview
"I think the burden is on those people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are."
- Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary
Press Briefing

The Faceless Crowd

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

28 May 2008

The (Un-)Wisdom of Crowds

"The characteristics of the reasoning of crowds are the association of dissimilar things possessing a merely apparent connection between each other, and the immediate generalisation of particular cases. It is arguments of this kind that are always presented to crowds by those who know how to manage them. They are the only arguments by which crowds are to be influenced. A chain of logical argumentation is totally incomprehensible to crowds, and for this reason it is permissible to say that they do not reason or that they reason falsely and are not to be influenced by reasoning. ... Crowds are to some extent in the position of the sleeper whose reason, suspended for the time being, allows the arousing in his mind of images of extreme intensity which would quickly be dissipated could they be submitted to the action of reflection. Crowds, being incapable both of reflection and of reasoning, are devoid of the notion of improbability; and it is to be noted that in a general way it is the most improbable things that are the most striking. ... Whatever strikes the imagination of crowds presents itself under the shape of a startling and very clear image, freed from all accessory explanation, or merely having as accompaniment a few marvellous or mysterious facts: examples in point are a great victory, a great miracle, a great crime, or a great hope. Things must be laid before the crowd as a whole, and their genesis must never be indicated. A hundred petty crimes or petty accidents will not strike the imagination of crowds in the least, whereas a single great crime or a single great accident will profoundly impress them, even though the results be infinitely less disastrous than those of the hundred small accidents put together." from The Crowd, by Gustave le Bon.

27 May 2008

Ground Rules

Principle I
Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.

Principle II
The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

Principle III
The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

Principle IV
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

Principle V
Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.

Principle VI
The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

(a) Crimes against peace:
(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

(b) War crimes:
Violations of the laws or customs of war include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

(c) Crimes against humanity:
Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connexion with any crime against peace or any war crime.

Principle VII
Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.

Issues: Jurisdiction, Applicability, Enforceability

Crowd Kristol

"Crowd crystals are the small, rigid groups of men, strictly delimited and of great constancy, which serve to precipitate crowds. Their structure is such that they can be comprehended and taken in at a glance. Their unity is more important than their size. Their role must be familiar; people must know what they are there for. Doubt about their function would render them meaningless. They should preferably always appear the same and it should be impossile to confound one with another; a uniform or a definite sphere of operation serves to promote this.

The crowd crystal is constant; it never changes its size. Its members are trained in both action and faith. They may be allotted different parts, as in an orchestra, but they must appear as a unit, and the first feeling of anyone seeing or experiencing them should be that this is a unit which will never fall apart. Their life outside the crystal does not count. ...

The clarity, isolation and constancy of the crystal form an uncanny contrast with the excited flux of the surrounding crowd. ... Whatever the nature of the crowd it gives birth to, and however much it may appear to merge with it, it never completely loses the sense of its own identity and always recombines again after the disintegration of the crowd. ...

Another astonishing thing about these crowd crystals is their historical permanence. It is true that new ones continually arise, but the old obstinately persist side by side with them. They may, for a time, withdraw into the background, lose something of their edge and cease to be indispensable; the crowds belonging to them may have died away or been completely suppressed. But, as harmless groups, without effect on the outside world, the crystals go on living on their own." Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power pp. 73-74.

This passage struck me as I read George Packer's essay, "The Fall of Conservatism," in the May 26, 2008 New Yorker.

The Project for a New American Century ("PNAC") is (was) just such a crowd crystal. Essentially, PNAC formed in the void created by the fall of the Soviet Union. The members believed America needed to project its hegemony globally. To do this, the group's imperial goals must be officially sanctioned—that is to say, it must have a government/administration that adhered to its ideology—and the country must be unified behind them. Thus, a new enemy had to be created, found, articulated—the "war" on terror, Saddam Hussein, Islamo-fascists, etc. As early as 1998, the PNAC was spoiling for further war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Their chance came after the 'election' of 2000—of course, leading one to wonder if we'll ever know the true role of Justice Anthony ("Oh, just get over it") Scalia, hunting partner of Cheney, in all this. Then, after the airline attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, with PNAC members Cheney and Rumsfeld in place, they diverted America's grief and desire for justice/revenge for this 21st Century "Pearl Harbor" to an irrelevant (and disastrous) invasion and occupation of Iraq, squandering whatever "peace dividend" we would have derived from the abatement of the Cold War (does anyone remember the remarkable economy of the 1990s?). Meanwhile, the real perpetrators of these 9/11 atrocities have yet to be brought to justice. And the U.S. economy is only just now beginning to realize how costly this Mesopotamian (mis-)adventure is. This is to say nothing of the war crimes and crimes against humanity associated with pursuing a 'war' of aggression on fraudulent pretenses.

Will the individuals who constituted this (apparently now defunct) "crowd crystal" ever be held accountable for its larcenous, murderous policies? Will it reform in a few years around a similar set of hegemonic principles, mobilize around a 'leader' who either shares its aims or is a willing dupe , and attempt (again) to bring down a U.S. President that does not share its goals?

For more information, see here and here. There's tons more info available on the web, but it appears with the abject failure of both their ideology and their political implementation they are trying to slink off unnoticed and, hopefully, unremarked.

The complete list of signatories to the various documents issued by the Project for the New American Century can be found here. Recognize any of these names?

• Elliott Abrams
• Kenneth Adelman
• Richard V. Allen
• Richard L. Armitage
• Gary Bauer
• Jeffrey Bell
• William J. Bennett
• Jeffrey Bergner
• John R. Bolton
• Ellen Bork
• Rudy Boschwitz
• John Ellis "Jeb" Bush
• Linda Chavez
• Richard B. Cheney
• Eliot Cohen
• Seth Cropsey
• Midge Decter
• Paula Dobriansky
• Thomas Donnelly
• Nicholas Eberstadt
• Steve Forbes
• Hillel Fradkin
• Aaron Friedberg
• Francis Fukuyama
• Frank Gaffney
• Jeffrey Gedmin
• Reuel Marc Gerecht
• Charles Hill
• Fred C. Ikle
• Bruce P. Jackson
• Eli S. Jacobs
• Michael Joyce
• Donald Kagan
• Robert Kagan
• Zalmay Khalilzad
• Jeane Kirkpatrick
• Charles Krauthammer
• William Kristol
• John Lehman
• I. Lewis Libby
• Tod Lindberg
• Rich Lowry
• Clifford May
• Joshua Muravchik
• Michael O'Hanlon
• Martin Peretz
• Richard Perle
• Daniel Pipes
• Norman Podhoretz
• J. Danforth Quayle
• Peter W. Rodman
• Stephen P. Rosen
• Henry S. Rowen
• Donald Rumsfeld
• Randy Scheunemann
• Gary Schmitt
• William Schneider, Jr.
• Richard H. Shultz
• Stephen J. Kantany
• Henry Sokolski
• Stephen J. Solarz
• Vin Weber
• George Weigel
• Leon Wieseltier
• Marshall Wittmann
• Paul Wolfowitz
• R. James Woolsey
• Dov Zakheim
• Robert B. Zoellick

21 May 2008

The Wisdom [?] of Swarms

Rambling around the internet. Random links for further reading and thought:

"Blink vs. The Wisdom of Crowds." Slate's dialogue between Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki.

An article on collective wisdom and investing. PDF.

And another one.

Apparently, this is a big topic in the internet world over whether website indexing for search and ranking purposes is best done by algorithms or by social networking. Here's a blog + discussion about the problem of information overload and the digg problematic.

"Why the Wisdom of Crowds Fails on Digg" [may be outdated]

"Weblogs and the Wisdom of Crowds". The title says it all.

A somewhat contrarian view: Web 2.0 and the stupidity of crowds.

Here, start your own social network at Ning.

Of course, if you follow the logic of our images, you will have noted our use of the Wikipedia logo. Wikis are collaborative efforts precisely geared to amass information from a crowd of sources. The debate concerns the wisdom of this. Certainly, a tremendous amount of information can be amassed. Information, however, does not equate to wisdom. And this is not at all personal in the way Canetti discusses.

Here's an article on the species wisdom of Homo sapiens sapiens.

20 May 2008

Swarm Sense

Some crowds form spontaneously. People are swept up into them and lose themselves within them. In our brief quotes from The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West gave us a portrait of what it was like—from the point of view of the resister, the individual who is unwilling to give over his identity to that of the swelling mass. This is an American type. He makes the choice to resist, but larger forces carry him against his will, wounding him in the process. West seems to be telling us this is the fate of the willful individual in modern times (much as Elias Canetti does, to a more tragic effect, in his brilliant novel Auto-da-Fe). Remember, too, Ayn Rand's explicitly polemical novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—unsubtle reactionary paeans to unabashed selfishness.

But these situations are less interesting than the situation where the individual willingly gives over her identity to that of the crowd; chooses, that is to say, to go with the flow of the crowd, to abandon himself for the sake of the group identity. Some examples we've identified: religious services, the march to war, lynch mobs, sporting events, musical performances, movies. I'm sure there are others. What is the trade-off? What do we get out of it when we abandon ourselves? There must be some reward.

Paradoxically, Canetti locates this reward in the complex, deep-seated fear of being touched:
There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. ... It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest." Crowds and Power, pp. 15-16.
This seems apt—as far as it goes. It helps to explain situations like the one pictured above from Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will. It works for riots, mobs, rock concerts and raves, and other similar immediate crowd phenomena. It does not explain the atavistic desire to be part of a unifying crowd where one is not forcibly thrown against other bodies: most religious services and operas and movies, for example. Sporting events too, for the most part. Nor does it help us get our arms around the crowd sense formed by the use of mass media for political, commercial, or aesthetic purposes.

We will call "crowd sense" those cultural phenomena that create (for the most part) non-physical, non-touching type crowds formed around a common emotional experience. Political propaganda musters a populace to embrace a particular point of view. Advertising creates a receptive crowd of potential consumers. Recording artists, poets, novelists, movie-makers, painters, sculptors, etc. attempt to create a unified "aesthetic experience" in their viewers, readers, and listeners. Television evangelists create crowds of hopeful donors. These are, for the most part, non-simultaneous and non-physical crowds; but they are crowds nonetheless with all the attributes we've been examining. No doubt there are more. But the point we keep returning to is the metaphorical point of the West snippet: what is the fate of the individual resistant to the main cultural forces crowding him into a political position (however well-considered), consumer products, artistic tastes, and benefaction/faith?

Is there ever a "swarm sense" or common sense that makes sense? Is there such a thing as the "wisdom of the crowd"? Homework assignment: read this article "The Genius of Swarms" from National Geographic magazine before we reconvene.

[More to follow]

19 May 2008

Some Swarms

We've been theme-blogging about swarms.  Shoals of fish, crowds, swarms of bees, swallows, bats, etc.  We find it difficult to understand how such a large group can seemingly act as one.  What is the connective tissue?

There is a simultaneity sometimes in human affairs.  Scheler identified a community of feeling.  We postulated that certain primitive emotions could generate this sort of mass behavior in people:  fear, hatred, grief—the sorts of pre-verbal emotions that can take us over and cause us to let go of ourselves and act as part of a crowd in an unmediated way.  When are some of the times we find ourselves acting in these ways?

When we attend a musical concert:  whether it's Mozart or Motorhead, Aida or The Star-Spangled Banner, the aesthetic idea is to create an emotional response in the audience.  And for those moments, the crowd is responding emotionally as one.

When mass disasters strike:  we've pointed out how the outpouring of sympathy and offers of aid accompanied the recent events in Myanmar and China, not to mention the recent tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc.

When we go to war:  the nation must be sold on the necessity of the war for its own interests.  It must march as one.  Nationalism, tribalism, etc. are powerful forces related to fear, hatred of the other, and love for those who are in our own group.

When we attend religious services:  the liturgy is designed for the sole purpose of uniting us in a religious feeling.  The sense of security which a benevolent deity gives us cows us into a feeling of submission, self-abnegation, gratitude, reverence.

When we attend sporting events (and to a lesser extent watch them on television):  each of us is moved by the fate of our home team.  Joy, sorrow, hatred of the other, love of our group.

At these moments, we make the decision to forego our individuality and relinquish our identity; to become a member of the crowd.  Other times, we are swept up in the crowd without our conscious choice:  for example, when we become the victims of some disaster such as an oncoming tidal wave or volcano or hurricane or invasion or other atrocity.  There are, I'm sure, others mostly related to fear.

Then there are events, such as riots and mobs, which are less clear-cut.  Economic panics or bubbles, for example, which seem to overpower the participants and take on a life of their own.

Can you think of others?

16 May 2008

The Swarm

[This is a continuation of the series of blogposts on Swarms. Of course, what prompted this sequence was the set of posts on recent natural disasters beginning here and the initial sense of a unified outpouring of sympathy.]

We've seen what it's like to be caught up in a disorienting swarm of other animals and wondered what force united these fish, insects, birds, bats, etc. We've speculated that, in human beings, it is akin to such primitive emotions as fear, hate, etc. Nathanael West has shown us what it's like to be a part of a swarm of our fellow humans: the helplessness of being caught up in something that is greater than ourselves, the vain struggle to extricate and differentiate one's self from the swirling chaos, the heedlessness of the crowd to the individual's pain, the amorality and disinhibition of those who are caught up in an anonymous herd, the grasping for comfort in memory and art to help explain what's happening to us. West even suggests some causes of this sort of swarm behavior, pulling in everything from movie star hype to moral outrage. It is too easy to lose one's self in the swarm, to let go the lonely struggle to set one's self apart—dare we say it, to transcend.

Others have observed and commented on this phenomenon in various contexts:
"there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own." J.S. Mill, On Liberty Ch. 1.
"Inasmuch as at all times, as long as there have been human beings, there have also been herds of men (clans, communites, tribes, peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obeyed, compared with the small number of those commanding—considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated better and longer among men so far than obedience—it may fairly be assumed that the need for it is now innate in the average man, as a kind of formal conscience that commands: 'thou shalt unconditionally do something, unconditionally not do something else,' in short, 'thou shalt.' ... In the last analysis, 'love of the neighbor' is always something secondary, partly conventional and arbitrary—illusory in relation to fear of the neighbor. ... The highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience, wreck the self-confidence of the community, its faith in itself, and it is as if its spine snapped. Hence just these drives are branded and slandered most. High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil; and the fair, modest, submissive, conforming mentality, the mediocrity of desires attains moral designations and honors."  F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil Secs. 199, 201.
"Differences only arise through individuation ... The unconscious consists, among other things, of remnants of the undifferentiated archaic psyche, including its animal stages. The reactions and products of the animal psyche have a uniformity and constancy of which we seem able to discover only sporadic traces in man. Man seems to us far more individual than the animals. This may perhaps be a delusion, since we have in us a convenient tendency to discern differences mainly in the things which interest us. ..." C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation p. 176.
"the facts of man's collective life easily rob the average individual of confidence in the human enterprise. The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior ... expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolises one of the tragedies of the human spirit: Its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command." Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society pp. 8-9.
"Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. ... Elias Canetti distinguished between two types of multiplicity that are sometimes opposed but at other times interpenetrate: mass ('crowd') multiplicities and pack multiplicities. Among the characteristics of a mass, in Canetti's sense, we should not large quantity, divisibility and equality ofthe members, concentration, sociability of the aggregate as a whole, one-way hierarchy, organization of territoriality or territorialization, and emission of signs. Among the characteristics of a pack are small or restricted numbers, dispersion, nondecomposable variable distances, qualitative metamorphoses, inequalities as remainders or crossings, impossibility of a fixed totalization or hierarchization, a Brownian variability in directions, lines of deterritorialization, and projection of particles. Doubtless, there is no more equality or any less hierarchy in packs than in masses, but they are of a different kind. The leader of the pack or the band plays move by move, must wager everything every hand, whereas the group or mass leader consolidates or capitalizes on past gains. The pack, even on its own turf, is constituted by a line of flight or of deterritorialization that is a component part of it, and to which it accredits a high positive value, whereas masses only integrate these lines in order to segment them, obstruct them, ascribe them a negative sign. Canetti notes that in a pack each member is alone even in the company of others (for example, wolves on the hunt; each takes care of himself at the same time as participating in the band). 'In the changing constellation of the pack, in its dances and expeditions, he will again and again find himself at its edge. He may be in the center, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back in the center. When the pack forms a ring around the fire, each man will have neighbors to the right and left, but no one behind him; his back is naked and exposed to the wilderness.'" Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus pp. 29, 33-34.
"Baudelaire had the true intuition of number as a tactile hand or nervous system for interrelating separate units, when he said that 'number is within the individual. Intoxication is a number.' That explains why 'the pleasure of being in a crowd is a mysterious expression of delight in the multiplication of number.' Number, that is to say, is not only auditory and resonant, like the spoken word, but originates in the sense of touch, of which it is an extension. The statistical aggregation or crowding of numbers yields the current cave-drawings or finger-paintings of the statisticians' charts. In every sense the amassing of numbers statistically gives man a new influx of primitive intuition and magically subconscious awareness, whether of public taste or feeling: 'You feel better satisfied when you use well-known brands.'" Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media p. 107.
[More to follow]

15 May 2008

Swarming (cont'd)

[This is the concluding paragraphs of Nathanael West's magisterial novel, The Day of the Locust. Before reading it, you should at least read the previous post—if not the entire book. It's also a pretty good movie that prefigures, in many respects, the Coen brothers' excellent "Barton Fink."]

"In this part of the mob no one was hysterical. In fact, most of the people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Near him was a stout woman with a man pressing hard against her from in front. His chin was on her shoulder, and his arms were around her. She paid no attention to him and went on talking to th woman at her side.

"The first thing I knew," Tod heard her say, "There was a rush and I was in the middle."

"Yeah. Somebody hollered, 'Here comes Gary Cooper,' and then wham!"

"That ain't it," said a little man wearing a cloth cap and pullover sweater. "This is a riot you're in."

"Yeah," said a third woman, whose snaky gray hair was hanging over her face and shoulders. "A pervert attacked a child."

"He ought to by lynched."

Everybody agreed vehemently.

"I come from St. Louis," announced the stout woman, "and we had one of them pervert fellers in our neighborhood once. He ripped up a girl with a pair of scissors."

"He must have been crazy," said the man in the cap. "What kind of fun is that?"

Everybody laughed. The stout woman spoke to the man who was hugging her.

"Hey, you," she said. "I ain't no pillow."

The man smiled beatifically but didn't move. She laughed, making no effort to get out of his embrace.

"A fresh guy," she said.

The other woman laughed.

"Yeah," she said, "this is a regular free-for-all."

The man in the cap and sweater thought there was another laugh in his comment about the pervert.

"Ripping up a girl with scissors. That's the wrong tool."

He was right. They laughed even louder than the first time.

"You'd a done it different, eh, kid?" said a young man with a kidney-shaped head and waxed moustaches.

The two women laughed. This encouraged the man in the cap and he reached over and pinched the stout woman's friend. She squealed.

"Lay off that," she said good-naturedly.

"I was shoved," he said.

An ambulance siren screamed in the street. Its wailing moan started the crowd moving again and Tod was carried along in a slow, steady push. He closed his eyes and tried to protect his throbbing leg. This time, when the movement ended, he found himself with his back to the theatre wall. He kept his eyes closed and stood on his good leg. After what seemed like hours, the pack began to loosen and move again with a churning motion. It gathered momentum and rushed. He rode it until he was slammed against the base of an iron rail which fenced the driveway of the theatre from the street. He had the wind knocked out of him by the impact, but managed to cling to the rail. He held on desperately, fighting to keep from being sucked back. A woman caught him around the waist and tried to hang on. She was sobbing rhythmically. Tod felt his fingers slipping from the rail and kicked backwards as hard as he could. The woman let go.

Despite the agony in his leg, he was able to think clearly about his picture, "The Burning of Los Angeles." After his quarrel with Faye, he had worked on it continually to escape tormenting himself, and the way to it in his mind had become almost automatic.

As he stood on his good leg, clinging desperately to the iron rail, he could see all the rough charcoal strokes with which he had blocked it out on the big canvas. Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the face of its members, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of the people who come to California to die; the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral and preview watchers—all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super "Dr. Know-All Pierce-All" had made the necessary promise and they were marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

In the lower foreground, men and women fled wildly before the vanguard of th crusading mob. Among them were Faye, Harry, Homer, Claude and himself. Faye ran proudly, throwing her knees high. Harry stumbled along behind her, holding on to his beloved derby hat with both hands. Homer seemed to be falling out of the canvas, his face half-asleep, his big hands clawing the air in anguished pantomime. Claude turned his head as he ran to thumb his nose at his pursuers. Tod himself picked up a small stone to throw before continuing his flight.

He had almost forgotten both his leg and his predicament, and to make his escape still more complete he stood on a chair and worked at the flames in an upper corner of the canvas, modeling the tongues of fire so tht they licked even more avidly at a corinthian column that held up the palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand.

He had finihsed one flame and was starting one another when he was brought back by someone shouting in his ear. He opened his eyes and saw a policeman trying to reach him from behind the rail to which he was clinging. He let go with his left hand and raised his arm. The policeman caught him by the wrist, but couldn't lift him. Tod was afraid to let go until another man came to aid the policeman and caught him by the back of his jacket. He let go of the rail andthey hauled him up and over it.

When they saw that he couldn't stand, they let him down easily to the ground. He was in the theatre driveway. On the curb next to him sat a woman crying into her skirt. Along the wall were groups of other disheveled people. At the end of th driveway was an ambulance. A policeman asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital. He shook his head no. He then offered him a lift home. Tod had the presence of mind to give Claude's address.

He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could." Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust.

Swarming (cont'd)

"The next thing Tod knew, he was torn loose from Homer and sent to his knees by a blow in the back of the head that spun him sideways. The crowd in front of the theatre had charged. He was surrounded by churning legs and feet. He pulled himself erect by grabbing a man's coat, then let himself be carried along backwards in a long, curving swoop. He saw Homer rise above the mass for a moment, shoved against the sky, his jaw hanging as though he wanted to scream but couldn't. A hand reached up and caught him by his open mouth and pulled him forward and down.

There was another dizzy rush. Tod closed his eyes and fought to keep upright. He was jostled about in a hacking cross surf of shoulders and backs, carried rapidly in one direction and then in the opposite. He kept pushing and hitting out at the people around him, trying to face in the direction he was going. Being carried backwards terrified him.

Using the eucalyptus tee as a landmark, he tried to work toward it by slipping sideways against the tide, pushing hard when carried away from it and riding the current when it moved toward his objective. He was within only a few feet of the tree when a sudden, driving rush carried him far past it. He struggled desperately for a moment, then gave up and let himself be swept along. He was the spearhead of a flying wedge when it collided with a mass going in the opposite direction. The impact turned him around. As the two forces ground against each other, he was turned again and again, like a grain between millstones. This didn't stop until be became part of the opposing force. The pressure continued to increase until he thought he must collapse. He was slowly being pushed into the air. Although relief for his cracking ribs could be gotten by continuing to rise, he fought to keep his feet on the gournd. Not being able to touch was an even more dreadful sensation than being carried backwardss.

There was another rush, shorter this time, and he found himself in a dead spot where the pressure was less and equal. He became conscious of a terrible pain in his left leg, just above the ankle, and tried to work it into a more comfortable position. He couldn't turn his body, but managed to get his head around. A very skinny boy, wearing a Western Union cap, had his back wedged against his shoulder. The pain continued to grow and his whole leg as high as the groing throbbed. He finally got his left arm free and took the back of the boy's neck in his fingers. He twisted as hard as he could. The boy began to jump up and down in his clothes. He managed to straighten his elbow, by pushing at the back of the boy's head, and so turn halfway around and free his leg. The pain didn't grow less.

There was another wild surge forward that ended in another dead spot. He now faced a young girl who was sobbing steadily. Her silk print dress had been torn down the front and her tiny brassiere hung from one strap. He tried by pressing back to give her room, but she moved with him every time he moved. Now and then, she would jerk violently and he wondered if she was going to have a fit. One of her thighs was between his legs. He struggled to get free of her, but she clung to him, moving with him and pressing against him.

She turned her head and said, "Stop, stop," to someone behind her.

He saw what the trouble was. An old man, wearing a Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses, was hugging her. He had one of his hands insider her dress and was biting her neck.

Tod freed his right arm with a heave, reached over the girl and brought his fist down on the man's head. He couldn't hit very hard but managed to knock the man's hat off, also his glasses. The man tried to bury his face in the girl's shoulder, but Tod grabbed one of his ears and yanked. They started to move again. Tod held on to the ear as long as he could hoping that it would come away in his hand. The girl managed to twist under his arm. A piece of her dress tore, but she was free of her attacker.

Another spasm passed through the mob and he was carried toward the curb. He fought toward a lamp-post, but he was swept by before he could grasp it. He saw another man catch the girl with the torn dress. She screamed for help. He tried to get to her, but was carried in the opposite direction. This rush also ended in a dead spot. Here his neighbors were all shorter than he was. He turned his head upward toward the sky and tried to pull some fresh air into his aching lungs, but it was all heavily tainted with sweat. ..." Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust.

[More to follow]

14 May 2008

More Swarms

The profundity of my disorientation while in the midst of the swarming bait ball, I'm sure, was a function of the amount of fish, the intensity of their swirling behavior, and their proximity to me. Tens of thousands of silvery fish engulfed me in a flickering whirlwind of erratic activity. I panicked. What's more, no matter how hard I tried I couldn't follow them with my eyes, much less keep up with them. I was a radically alien species and could neither receive whatever signals kept them moving in unison nor react and move as efficiently through the clear blue Caribbean waters. My neurons did not fire nearly so rapidly.

Our premise is that these simultaneous behaviors in fish, swallows, and bats (and others such as lemmings, locust, jellyfish, bacteria, etc.) are somehow evolutionarily akin to human emotions. More primitive, perhaps. More direct. More powerful. But different only in degree, not kind.

The swarm, it seems, perceives and responds as one. It makes sense that in the human animal—whose responses are capable of being mediated by thought or imagination or memory, for example—for the response to come close to being so unified, the stimulus must be powerful and primitive. Put another way, the more direct and primitive the emotion stirred, the more unified the community of feeling (to borrow Scheler's term).

What are the more primitive emotions? Awe, surely. Fear, yes. Anger, likely. Lust. Pride. Distrust. Disgust. Sorrow. Joy. All these are good candidates. But we're not so much interested in a taxonomy of the primitive emotions as in the power of these intense emotions to provoke an unmediated response in us.

The significance of human emotional responses, it seems to me, is governed by two factors: intensity and proximity. The more intense the cause, the less proximate it needs to be to arouse our sympathy. Thus, the shock of 100,000 instantaneous deaths in a flood or tsunami occurring anywhere in the world will affect us strongly and prompt a response, though the deaths of 10 or 100 or even 1000 occurring remotely might not. Whereas, one person killed in a swollen creek in our own neighborhood catches us up.

Similarly, intensity is a feature of two factors: time and presence. Thus, 150,000 deaths in England or France or China (any country which has a media presence and an ability to publicize its disaster—one whose affairs are deemed 'newsworthy') will affect us more than, say, half a million deaths in Rwanda or Congo. Or, 150,000 instant deaths in Southeast Asia will affect us more than, say, 150,000 deaths in the U.S. this year due to lung cancers resulting from cigarette smoking or 43,000 deaths due to automobile accidents in one year. Though, one death to a family member or close friend or work colleague due to any one of these causes affects any of us profoundly.

We end today with a quote from Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power:
Men's feeling for their own increase has always been strong. The large numbers of the herds they hunted blended in their feelings with their own numbers which they wished to be large. They expressed this feeling in a specific state of communal excitement which I call the rhythmic or throbbing crowd.

Their excitement grows and reaches frenzy, until they are all doing the same thing. They all swing their arms to and fro, and shake their heads. In the end, there appears to be a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all acting in exactly the same way and with the same purpose. When their excitement is at its height, these people really feel as one, and nothing but physical exhaustion can stop them.

The fact that wars can last so long and may be carried on well after they have been lost arises from the deep urge of the crowd not to disintegrate; to remain a crowd. This feeling is sometimes so strong that people prefer to perish together with open eyes rather than acknowledge defeat and thus experience the disintegration of their own crowd.

[More to follow]

13 May 2008


Ever go snorkeling or diving and find yourself in the midst of a swarm of small fry? They swirl this way and that simultaneously. Dipping and diving, swerving and climbing, round and round. It's vertiginous. You find yourself enclosed in a dense ball and become disoriented. You can't see the light from the surface. You can't tell whether you're right-side up or upside down. And there's no foothold because you are swimming. You don't know whether you're moving through the water or whether it's moving around you. You don't know whether you're going to crash into a rock or mound of coral. You become still and begin to hold your breath or gasp for air waiting for the moving wall of fish to sweep past. Then panic sets in because it dawns on you that all these small fry could be fleeing some large predators that're going to emerge out of the dense cloud of silvery fish. After a moment of confusion, the mass of fish moves on and you regain your orientation. You head for the surface or breathe through your regulator and try to calm your heartbeat.

I have.

There was much to marvel at in this encounter. Once I got past my own personal experience of disorientation I started to reflect upon the swirling phenomenon of the fish: how were they able to move so rapidly and simultaneously? What form of communication could account for their instantaneous changes of speed and motion? I had no answer, though I had seen this same behavior in flocks of chimney swallows and bats—and I am sure there are others. But what about us? Humans. The, theoretically, most evolved creatures on the planet.

My conclusion: The feature in human beings that corresponds most closely to the fish swarm phenomenon is: emotion. Hear me out.

A quote from the Preface to Charles Mackay's Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds comes to mind.
In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity.
Disasters, like those of the Myanmar cyclone and the China earthquake, often draw our attention simultaneously and we automatically respond sympathetically. We saw similar simultaneous outpourings after the fall of the twin towers and after Hurricane Katrina. Max Scheler, German philosopher, identified this simultaneity as what he called a "community of feeling":
"Two parents stand beside the dead body of a beloved child. They feel in common the 'same' sorrow, the 'same' anguish. It is not that A feels this sorrow and B feels it also, and moreover that they both know they are feeling it. No, it is a feeling-in-common, A's sorrow is in no way an 'external' matter for B here, as it is, e.g. for their friend C, who joins them, and commiserates 'with them' or 'upon their sorrow'. On the contrary, they feel it together, in the sense that they feel and experience in common, not only the self-same value-situation, but also the same keenness of emotion in regard to it." The Nature of Sympathy, pp.12-13.
Humans are more complex animals than fish or swallows or bats and are capable of more complex, mediated, individual responses. A human emotional response might provoke any of a number or actions—or none at all. However, that doesn't mean there is no emotional response; it just means we don't automatically swarm when we have these simultaneous feelings.

I think it's safe to say that the more significant the cause, the more profound the emotional response, and, thus, the greater the likelihood of a herd/flock/swarm reaction.

[More to follow]

There's more

The headline reads: "2008's Tornado Toll Deadliest In A Decade" You may not have these monsters where you live.

And now, wildfire season in Florida. Not as disastrous as in California or Australia or Canada, but trouble nonetheless.

06 May 2008

The Who Sell Out?

I think it's going to take some time for me to wrap my head around this one. Lexus, the Japanese luxury car company, has hired nine writers to write one chapter each in a long-form copy ad for one of its new model cars. They are calling it a "novella". [Tip of the hat to Jeff B. over at Syntax of Things for alerting us to this.]

The writers? Arthur Phillips, Richard McCann, Curtis Sittenfeld, Brian Antoni, Bob Shacochis, Pam Houston, Robert Ferrigno, Mary Otis, and Jane Smiley.

We've read much about the commercialization/commodification of literature. For example, here:
AMS: An American reads a book, and often as not it is treated as an economic reality rather than as a political risk. Book packaging will receive as much attention as what’s being packaged. I don’t want to demean contemporary literature at all, but it is constrained perhaps by the emphasis on what the next thing will be to make a splash.

WHG: That commercialization process increasingly bothers me. It has gotten so much worse, and it has made the art world a zoo. When I was writing this piece recently for "New York Review" on Johns, I just kept thinking, what does it do to a painter to know that every brush stroke is inescapably another hundred thousand dollars? How does one manage to deliver the right critical notice? I’m glad literature is spared that, or rather, that it is milder in our case. [Interview with Wm. S. Gass]
But this is something new entirely.

In the Sixties and Seventies, there was a great uproar about Bob Dylan "selling out" by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Nowadays, you've got Led Zep songs in Cadillac commercials, Wilco songs in VW ads, and "Ginger" by The Lilys in yet another Caddy addy. Still, these guys aren't yet writing original songs for the ads (tho', a number of rockers have always written anonymous jingles and movie soundtracks).

This is one of the unintended consequences of Warhol's pop art movement, perhaps its obverse: instead of "the transfiguration of the commonplace" we have the commercial utilization of the aesthetic.

I think it would be altogether too facile to dismiss this "novella" because these writers are merely writing "copy". After all, patronage has a long and distinguished history in the arts, whether in the form of sponsorship or commissioning—from the Medici boys who managed to get their visages immortalized in Rafael's Transfiguration to Maxim Gorky's glorification of the Soviet state to Bach's transcendent sacred musics. And, who knows, judged by objective—let's call it New Critical—standards, the damn thing might be well written, even if by committee. By the same token, it would be entirely fatuous for these writers to claim their marketing of Lexuses is merely "product placement" as we see in all the movies.

Who are we to say these writers can't do what they need to to earn a living wage? In the U.S., unless you write commercial or genre fiction, or resort to memoir or hit the jackpot with a screenplay, it's tough to sell your work. Still, in our mind there's now a bit of an "ick" factor attached to their names and we will have some trouble getting past it when it comes to reading, much less purchasing, any further work of any of these writers.

05 May 2008

"more things in heaven and earth..."

Martha Nussbaum provides the following recipe in the latest The New Republic:
To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher's study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle--rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare's plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what? "Stages of Thought"

This brings us back to the theme of our previous post. Let's expand a bit, shall we? There are two perspectives we wish to examine: 1) how philosophy views literature and 2) how literature views philosophy. For now, we'll limit ourselves primarily to fiction.

1) From the philosopher's point of view, fiction is often useful. Philosophers are always looking for pithy aphorisms or apt metaphors to bring home their points and fiction writers and poets, because of their facility with language and image, often provide good illustrations. Fiction provides salient illustrations of abstruse points—but in an intuitive sort of way. Literary authors are seldom witting philosophers. There is an imperious view as well: fiction is something that can be used, for example, to confirm the philosopher's own philosophy or repudiate an opponent's argument. Through fiction, the philosopher can often demonstrate the power of his/her ideas. (The problem here, of course, is that fictional worlds stand in for real worlds and true experience.) And, finally, philosophy tries to make sense of things and the fictional work of art is one of the things the philosopher must ultimately make sense of. Philosophy asks such questions as what counts as knowledge? what does it mean to be? what does it mean to mean? how can we clarify things? what legitimate conclusions can we draw from a given set of premises? what, ultimately, underpins thought, reason, logic? is language thought? what is good, true, beautiful, right, just, etc? A philosopher might find a literary author touching around the edges of these questions but, in the end, must dismiss the effort as unsystematic or non-serious. Philosophy is about the life of the mind. A work of fiction is only useful so long as it is, in fact, useful to the philosopher.

2) From the literary point of view, philosophy is usually clumsy and poorly written. Boring. Abstract. Distant. Disengaged from reality. If a given novel or story is deemed to be merely the instantiation or embodiment of a philosophical doctrine then it is probably not a fully-realized work. It is hack work; its characters merely counters on a larger gameboard, its themes prefabricated, its "message" inauthentic. It is true that works of literature sometimes try to philosophize—e.g., the seven ages of man—but it is usually soft philosophy, not something widely respected or taken seriously among the pros. How can you falsify such a 'philosophy'? Certainly, writers can turn to philosophers to get an understanding of the nature of fiction or literature. What is its true function? its proper province? How best to understand or criticize literature? Fiction gives us insight into the life of the senses and the emotions, as well as the life of the mind, but as embodied in recognizably human characters. And what the writer of fiction does best is to humanize the philosopher and, importantly, and bring his/her philosophy down to earth. Who are these egg-heads and nerds, these geniuses and visionaries who provide us with these magnificent systems of insight? They are not gods, after all.

Drawing on our previous post, if art (in this case fiction) is the transfiguration of the commonplace (or, in Novalis's famous expression "renders the familiar strange and the strange familiar"), philosophy is the subsumation of the same.