ashthomas//blog: April 2005


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

SMH shocked and awed

I think the Sydney Morning Herald is trying to make something more of this ("Brigadier shocks and awes") than it is. Brigadier Justin Kelly, the director-general of future land warfare, made some comments at a function yesterday that the SMH considers to controversial. Apparently the brigadier said "the "war" part is all about politics and terrorism is merely a tactic." If this is actually what he said, then the caption under the accompanying photograph is misleading (it says "War on terror "a tactic"", which is not the same as saying that terrorism is a tactic).

The brigadier went on to note that the War on Terror is essentially a counter-insurgency campaign, which will involve a different kind of soldier for the twenty-first century. The new soldier would need to be familiar with new techologies and the cultural values of the population of the area in which they are acting:
"While success in battle was critical, it would not of itself deliver victory - that would come by winning over the hearts and minds of the local people.

The war of the future would be "out of human control". There was "no alternative" but to engage the population and "convince them of your rightness".

I don't think that there is anything particularly new or controversial about such a position--I don't know many people who would argue that the War on Terror is solely military and did not incorporate politics and propaganda. But the SMH thinks that this is front page news (literally). The journalist also doesn't seem to recognise the origin of the following opinion:

"Brigadier Kelly said modern war could be defined as 'conflict, using violent and non-violent means, between multiple actors and influences, competing for control over the perceptions, behaviour and allegiances of human population groups'.

He said he found it interesting that 'if you take out violence out of the first line, it's a description of politics'."

It seemed obvious to me that it was a simple rewording of Clausewitz's century old observation that "war is a continuation of politics by other means."

Monday, April 25, 2005

The benefits of TV watching

Steven Johnson has an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.

The article, entitled "Watching TV Makes You Smarter", looks at the way that television has become increasingly complex and novelistic in its narrative techniques. Comparing the structures of the storylines of quality television in the 70s and today, Johnson determines that today's shows demand more from their viewers. Describing an episode of 24, Johnson says,
Nine primary narrative threads wind their way through those 44 minutes, each drawing extensively upon events and information revealed in earlier episodes. Draw a map of all those intersecting plots and personalities, and you get structure that -- where formal complexity is concerned -- more closely resembles ''Middlemarch'' than a hit TV drama of years past like ''Bonanza.''

The best dramas of today withhold information from the audience, like The West Wing's habit of depicting fast, complicated discussions the subject of which the viewer is not fully informed of; or do not shy away from technical language that an audience may not understand, such as the medical terminology in ER; or have long-term, complicated storylines involving many characters, with small events of one episode having repercussions many episodes later, like in The Sopranos.

Johnson goes on to show that even in medium-brow entertainment like sitcoms, and also in the accepted lowest common denominator of television today, the reality show, the level of viewer interaction has increased dramatically over the years -- the shows have increasingly become more complex:

Reality programming borrowed another key ingredient from games: the intellectual labor of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities. As each show discloses its conventions, and each participant reveals his or her personality traits and background, the intrigue in watching comes from figuring out how the participants should best navigate the environment that has been created for them. The pleasure in these shows comes not from watching other people being humiliated on national television; it comes from depositing other people in a complex, high-pressure environment where no established strategies exist and watching them find their bearings. That's why the water-cooler conversation about these shows invariably tracks in on the strategy displayed on the previous night's episode: why did Kwame pick Omarosa in that final round? What devious strategy is Richard Hatch concocting now?

Johnson argues that these programs (the quality dramas, the new sitcoms and reality shows) are actually helping people by exercising their intelligence. Television viewing has become less passive and now demands more interaction on the part of the audience. Thus popular culture today is not the mind-numbing intellectual sedative that some critics make it out to be, but rather fulfils a similar fuction as crosswords, novels and debating. Johnson qualifies this by noting that some programs are better than others; that some are more engaging than others, some make you think more:

In pointing out some of the ways that popular culture has improved our minds, I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves. What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind. Is it a single thread strung together with predictable punch lines every 30 seconds? Or does it map a complex social network? Is your on-screen character running around shooting everything in sight, or is she trying to solve problems and manage resources? If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them to watch ''Survivor'' over ''Fear Factor.'' If they want to watch a mystery show, encourage ''24'' over ''Law and Order.'' If they want to play a violent game, encourage Grand Theft Auto over Quake. Indeed, it might be just as helpful to have a rating system that used mental labor and not obscenity and violence as its classification scheme for the world of mass culture.

Johnson's thesis is intriguing, and I found his analysis of the narrative structures of different shows fascinating. I think his book would be a very interesting read.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Bacevich on neoconservatism

The second excerpt on TomDispatch from Andrew J. Bacevich's new book is titled "The Neocon Revolution and American Militarism". In this extract, he traces the history of modern neoconservatism and highlights what he considers to be the essential features that make up its ideological position.
[T]he neoconservatives who gravitated to the Weekly Standard showed themselves to be the most perceptive of all of Woodrow Wilson's disciples. For the real Wilson (in contrast to either the idealized or the demonized Wilson) had also seen military power as an instrument for transforming the international system and cementing American primacy. Efforts to promote "a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence" found expression in five convictions that together form the foundation of second-generation neoconservative thinking about American statecraft.

The following is a shortened version of what Bacevich sees as the important features of neoconservatism:

First was the certainty that American global dominion is, in fact, benign and that other nations necessarily see it as such....
Failure on the part of the United States to sustain its imperium would inevitably result in global disorder, bloody, bitter, and protracted: this emerged as the second conviction animating neoconservatives after the Cold War....
The third conviction animating second-generation neoconservatives related to military power and its uses. In a nutshell, they concluded that nothing works like force....
The fourth conviction animating second-generation neoconservatives was a commitment to sustaining and even enhancing American military supremacy....
The fifth and final conviction that imparted a distinctive twist to the views of second-generation neoconservatives was their hostility toward realism, whether manifesting itself as a deficit of ideals (as in the case of Henry Kissinger) or an excess of caution (as in the case of Colin Powell).

Again, Bacevich's ideas are fascinating, but I shall refrain from discussing them fully until I have read the whole book.

Bacevich on the changing image of war

TomDispatch has two excerpts from Andrew J. Bacevich's new book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. The first extract, "The Normalization of War", makes some very interesing comments about the way war and the military are viewed by society, especially American society, in the twenty-first century, and how this is very different from much of the twentieth century:
The old twentieth-century aesthetic of armed conflict as barbarism, brutality, ugliness, and sheer waste grew out of World War I, as depicted by writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and Robert Graves. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam reaffirmed that aesthetic, in the latter case with films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket.

The intersection of art and war gave birth to two large truths. The first was that the modern battlefield was a slaughterhouse, and modern war an orgy of destruction that devoured guilty and innocent alike. The second, stemming from the first, was that military service was an inherently degrading experience and military institutions by their very nature repressive and inhumane. After 1914, only fascists dared to challenge these truths. Only fascists celebrated war and depicted armies as forward-looking -- expressions of national unity and collective purpose that paved the way for utopia. To be a genuine progressive, liberal in instinct, enlightened in sensibility, was to reject such notions as preposterous.

But by the turn of the twenty-first century, a new image of war had emerged, if not fully displacing the old one at least serving as a counterweight. To many observers, events of the 1990s suggested that war's very nature was undergoing a profound change. The era of mass armies, going back to the time of Napoleon, and of mechanized warfare, an offshoot of industrialization, was coming to an end. A new era of high-tech warfare, waged by highly skilled professionals equipped with "smart" weapons, had commenced. Describing the result inspired the creation of a new lexicon of military terms: war was becoming surgical, frictionless, postmodern, even abstract or virtual. It was "coercive diplomacy" -- the object of the exercise no longer to kill but to persuade. By the end of the twentieth century, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University concluded, war had become "a spectacle." It had transformed itself into a kind of "spectator sport," one offering "the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not, happily, for the spectator." Even for the participants, fighting no longer implied the prospect of dying for some abstract cause, since the very notion of "sacrifice in battle had become implausible or ironic."

Combat in the information age promised to overturn all of "the hoary dictums about the fog and friction" that had traditionally made warfare such a chancy proposition. American commanders, affirmed General Tommy Franks, could expect to enjoy "the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods."

In short, by the dawn of the twenty-first century the reigning postulates of technology-as-panacea had knocked away much of the accumulated blood-rust sullying war's reputation. Thus reimagined -- and amidst widespread assurances that the United States could be expected to retain a monopoly on this new way of war -- armed conflict regained an aesthetic respectability, even palatability, that the literary and artistic interpreters of twentieth-century military cataclysms were thought to have demolished once and for all. In the right circumstances, for the right cause, it now turned out, war could actually offer an attractive option--cost-effective, humane, even thrilling. Indeed, as the Anglo-American race to Baghdad conclusively demonstrated in the spring of 2003, in the eyes of many, war has once again become a grand pageant, performance art, or a perhaps temporary diversion from the ennui and boring routine of everyday life. As one observer noted with approval, "public enthusiasm for the whiz-bang technology of the U.S. military" had become "almost boyish." Reinforcing this enthusiasm was the expectation that the great majority of Americans could count on being able to enjoy this new type of war from a safe distance.

As someone with a professional interest in political ideology, I found the above quotation very interesting. Bacevich has noticed what is in effect a return to the anti-enlightenment/anti-liberal position that war is not necessarily destructive but capable of being a force for change for the better. War is seen less as the last resort and more increasingly as simply another tool in a state's toolbox of diplomatic options. This is, as Bacevich notes, similar to the fascistic position that war is a venue for nation-building, bonding and individual and collective bravery -- a source of honour, excitement and personal growth. It is withing the military setting that men and women find courage and worth.

This is in stark contrast to the common perception of a generation ago, when Vietnam veterans were spat on and vilified, where draft-dodging gained an heroic and noble veneer:

According to the old post-Vietnam-era political correctness, the armed services had been a refuge for louts and mediocrities who probably couldn't make it in the real world. By the turn of the twenty-first century a different view had taken hold. Now the United States military was "a place where everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody… looked out for each other. A place where people -- intelligent, talented people -- said honestly that money wasn't what drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings." Soldiers, it turned out, were not only more virtuous than the rest of us, but also more sensitive and even happier.

Bacevich finds this new militarism a disturbing prospect. I agree with his depiction of the phenomenum, but not necessarily with his interpretation. I shall have more to say on his ideas when I have had a chance to read his full argument and consider his opinions.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Peek into the chambers of SCOTUS

This article by David Garrow in Legal Affairs, "The Brains Behind Blackmun", provides a fascinating insight into the usually secret world of the chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States. Drawing on the recently released papers of Harry Blackmun, Supreme Court justice from 1970 to 1994, Garrow reveals what he calls "a scandalous abdication of judicial responsibility".

According to Garrow, the papers show "the story of a justice who ceded to his law clerks much greater control over his official work than did any of the other 15 justices from the last half-century whose papers are publicly available".

While clerks are often responsible for assisting their justice in research, reasoning and drafting, it is a combination of the degree of influence that Blackmun's clerks had over his published opinions, as well as the manner in which the clerks exercised that influence, that offends Garrow.

The clerks' memos display an inappropriate degree of informality and assertieness, suggesting that Blackmun's clerks had permission to be more candid in expressing their feelings about the other justices, and, more disturbingly, that the clerks were used to hetting their way with Blackmun. Garrow shows example after example of clerks requesting, sometimes insisting, that a change be made or something be done, and the clerk's way being followed.

Extremely interesting for those interested in how laws are made and interpreted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Eulogy for the Public Interest

David Skinner has a heartfelt eulogy for the Public Interest in the Weekly Standard, "Farewell to 'The Public Interest'". The Public Interest was the domestic policy equivalent of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, and it was, for a long time, one of the foremost organs of intellectual debate in America. As Skinner puts it, "[Irving] Kristol and [Daniel] Bell established an editorial system that, above all, let intellectuals be intellectuals: showy, disputatious, charming, brilliant." Skinner's article is an interesting peek behind the doors of an influential journal.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Never Let Me Go

Everywhere I look, there seems to be a review of the book that I currently reading: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

Essentially, what Ishiguro has done in this book (and in recent novels) is subvert the stereotypes of a given literary genre and thus reinvigorated it and expanded it. Never Let Me Go, with its theme of bioethics and genetic engineering within an alternative, although not too different, reality, is a version of a science fiction novel, without many of the genres traditional tropes. Similarly, When We Were Orphans is a skewed version of the classic detective story, The Remains of the Day is a manor house drama from a different angle, &c. Margaret Atwood in her review of Never Let Me Go for Slate makes a similar observation:
Ishiguro likes to experiment with literary hybrids, to hijack popular forms for his own ends, and to set his novels against tenebrous historical backdrops; thus When We Were Orphans mixes the Boys' Own Adventure with the '30s detective story while taking a whole new slice out of World War II. An Ishiguro novel is never about what it pretends to pretend to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form. You might think of it as the Enid Blyton schoolgirl story crossed with Blade Runner, and perhaps also with John Wyndham's shunned-children classic, The Chrysalids: The children in it, like those in Never Let Me Go, give other people the creeps.

Ishiguro's book has been receiving a lot of good press, and he is popping up in dozens of periodicals giving interviews. However I am particularly annoyed with The Atlantic's recent policy of making almost all their content subsciber-only. This includes the web-only features, which this month includes what I gather to be a long and interesting interview with Ishiguro. The Rake's Progress has kindly reproduced some of the interview, but, really, I would like to read the whole thing. I buy The Atlantic every month, although I am not a subscriber. I am a loyal and keen follower of the magazine, so I am pissed that they now want only subscribers to come to their site. I understand the logic of not printing entire articles online because it takes away the need to buy or subscribe, but online only content is different. I guess the internet has made me used to getting something for nothing.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Two McEwan articles

I just want to point to a couple of articles about Ian McEwan and his new book, Saturday. James Wood, the most insightful literary critic of our generation, has written a long assessment of Saturday and McEwan's body of work in the New Republic. Some choice samples:
Saturday is set on a single day, both with great naturalness and with the self-consciousness that always attends such literary endeavors. (It is written, for instance, in the present tense, a tense that mimics real-time continuity but in fact always draws attention to the stop-time of writing itself.) Like Atonement, also a fictional argument about fiction, Saturday alludes to other novels and writers. It has a long epigraph from Herzog, and is palpably indebted to Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses. It closes with a whisper of allusion to Joyce's story "The Dead." Its denouement turns on a reading of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." Less obviously, McEwan has, I think, read Cosmopolis, DeLillo's novel set on a single day, and he has learned from DeLillo's errors.

McEwan's protagonist, like DeLillo's, spends several hours driving through a big city, and has a similar fondness for what Bellow once called "modern speculation." But Henry Perowne has nothing in common with DeLillo's pomo techno-analyst. His thoughtfulness is thoughtful rather than theoretical. McEwan writes far better prose than DeLillo's smeary stylish ecstasies. His severely planed and rich sentences are supple, disciplined, natural--a rigorous dovetailing. There are moments of quietly satirical wit: "Once a week, usually on a Sunday evening, they [Henry and Rosalind] line up their personal organisers side by side, like little mating creatures, so that their appointments can be transferred into each other's diary along an infrared beam." But the prose is also capable of aeration, and London is caught in precise sensuous detail. Above all, the novel manages to inhabit the mind of a not immediately fascinating man--"a droning, pedestrian diagnostician," he thinks of himself, and also something of a philistine--and move easily from that mind to general reflection and back, without ever losing narrative pressure.

Elsewhere, Laura Miller interviews McEwan in Salon. He talks about his feelings about literature and commercial success, and how he came to write the novel the way he did. An interesting insight into one of the best writers of fiction in the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I have been teaching my class on Fascism and National Socialism, as well as doing final stage revisions to my doctoral dissertation.

The class is going wonderfully, and although I have had problems with remembering all of my hundred or so students names, I think that I have made good connections with most of them. Of course, during the first few weeks of a subject, we are in a honeymoon period, but now they have handed in their first essays, the unfortunate reminder of hierarchy (assessment and grading) rears its ugly head.

It is something that I will eventually get used to, I am sure, but there is a strange feeling when, after five weeks of getting to know the students and forming friendly and casual relationships with them, I am required to critically assess their work. I try, when marking, to avoid looking too closely at the author of the paper, and once I have marked it, I don't let it affect the way I treat the student, either in class or private consultation. But while I can control my end of the relationship, I am sometimes afraid that a student that previously liked me may begin to resent or hate me because of their mark or comments I made on their essay.

Oh well--at the end of the day, I am paid to be their teacher and not their friend, and although a friendly relationship withmy students is preferable, if they end of hating me, I guess I have to live with it.