What are intellectuals good for? Actually that’s the title of a fascinating book by George Scialabba – the book columnist for the Boston Globe, among other things. Here’s a link (with text) to Maureen Corrigan offering her thoughts on the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. The question really is what intellectuals do for civilization. That’s an interesting question, at least to some of us. And at one point Scialabba writes about the work of journalists Alexander Cockburn and I. F. Stone, saying that, while they didn’t “create monuments of unaging intellect … they hemmed in everyday barbarism a little.”
That is useful, not that anyone notices. Someone has to do it. And it seems you don’t need to write a scholarly tome on the nature of perception and its relation to symbolic logic and how that determines responses to moral questions. You can write about the daily back-and-forth in the national dialog. You can start there and get to the same place. The idea is to hem in the barbarism as best you can.
A signed copy of the Scialabba book sits on the desk here – a gift from Scialabba, who does follow matters here and offered encouragement over lunch down in Venice Beach a few months ago. The talk was of long-form analysis of just what is happening in the world – the sort of thing where you attend to the details and look for broader implications. There’s not a lot of that going around these days. It’s all quick hits, to score points – the short blog-bursts, or the eight hundred word opinion piece from Friedman or Krugman or Brooks in the New York Times, or their equivalents elsewhere, and the two-minute segments on cable news.
There’s no depth there – but depth isn’t really the issue. It’s a matter of thinking things through and not taking shortcuts, and being as honest as you can manage, not glossing over what actually undermines what you think that you think. You have to consider that too. If you’re going to get to the bottom of things you can’t cheat. And that’s what makes reviewing the day’s news and commentary so maddening – you know something more is going on of course, but you also suspect there are dire implications. Take this action, adopt this policy, draw this line in the sand, and there going to big trouble ahead. People talk about the law of unintended consequences, but that’s a little misleading. It’s not a matter of intention – everyone has good intentions, at least by their own lights. It’s a matter of quick shorthand thinking. That’s the killer.
Of course the audience for what isn’t quick shorthand thinking is small – this site gets about a hundred hits a day. Everyone else is savoring this voice or that scoring points – and if they’re snazzy about it those guys get to appear on O’Reilly or Olbermann, where what they had said now must be said in one sentence or two, and even that gets condensed by the host to just one thing. So you’re basically saying that Obama is Albanian, right? And now a word from our sponsors –
So some of us go the other way – we fall, or drop, into the habit of mind one might call habitual and often infuriating thoroughness. But on a Friday night here in Hollywood you can spend hours reviewing the day’s news and commentary – the usual research that usually gets you thinking, and then writing. But as you move from site to site, drilling down for details, it can all seem stupid, and there is no way to find a unifying thread that would tie any of it together. It’s kind of like the staff psychiatrist at the big hospital listening to the paranoid schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for a week or two, and trying to find some thread to work with. Sometimes there’s no thread – all you’re hearing is nonsense. The guy is nuts. You pick up the chart and write down an order for an injection of some powerful antipsychotic – what those guys refer to as a chemical straightjacket – and you head home to the wife and kids. The job may be to make sense of nonsense, but sometimes you can’t.
It’s easy to understand that. In the political world there’s the new revelation that a Tea Party candidate in Oho likes to dress up as a Nazi and do historical reenactments – and defends it saying some of those Nazis weren’t all that bad – and the news that the ever strange and cute-as-button senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, once worked with Mel Gibson on his torture-porn movie about Jesus.
What can one say about such things? It’s just nuts – or perhaps finding it no more than that is a failure at synthesis. Maybe it all means something. Or maybe it’s time for the chlorpromazine injections all around. Who knows?
But all that is transitory – all elections are circuses, and midterm elections in the middle of a long economic collapse, with a black president for the first time in our history, and big changes like healthcare reform passed by Congress, an institution we had gotten used to being unable to do anything at all for a decade, are freak-shows. It will all sort itself out.
It’s what isn’t transitory, and a matter of life and death, not a matter of scoring points, and perhaps worth a bit of infuriating thoroughness, are the wars going on in the background. The nonsense with the elections has crowed out what is going on in Afghanistan, where we have a mess. That may be putting it mildly. We have a hopeless mess, in the literal sense. When your girlfriend says oh, you’re hopeless, she smiles and you know she means quite the opposite. It’s not like that.
This is serious. Caroline Wadhams recently returned from Afghanistan and offers An International Election Observer’s Impressions with this key paragraph:
I was struck by the deep pessimism I encountered from the moment I arrived in Kabul for the election observation mission. Each and every person I spoke to – whether foreign or Afghan – believed Afghanistan was deteriorating despite the infusion of U.S. troops and assistance. They also thought that the insurgency was spreading.
We’ve been there nine years now, entering out tenth year. How could this be?
Of course the devil is in the details, like with our man Karzai:
Many unsurprisingly expressed concern about President Karzai’s leadership. They questioned his ability to root out corruption, hold officials accountable, or conduct a genuine peace process. Afghans said that Karzai feels increasingly vulnerable and believes the West wants to get rid of him. He therefore acts in erratic ways – reaching out to the Taliban one day, creating new strategies for Afghanistan daily, deciding without consultation to disband private security firms, and more. The people we spoke to debated the international community’s leverage over Karzai.
He’s a loose cannon, and Wadhams does even mention the current talk that he’s manic-depressive. But she does mention the warlords:
Afghans also leveled disdain at the international community’s (and specifically the United States’) empowerment of warlords and tolerance of impunity and corruption. One U.N. official said that the international community has also marginalized Afghan civil society groups and women, who should be instrumental to creating peace in Afghanistan. Afghan women were often excluded from important conferences and meetings such as the London conference. Many also criticized the U.S. policy of supporting local militias. The newest incarnation is the Afghan Local Police Initiative program.
And the insurgency is ramping up:
Many individuals argued that insurgency recruitment was increasing due to disillusionment with a corrupt government. Afghans in many communities are angry. They cannot get justice, and they cannot get jobs.
One man from Logar province also argued that some people’s opposition to a foreign presence was causing them to join the insurgents. The Taliban has outpropagandized the coalition with negative messages of foreign occupation, which the Americans only reinforce with night raids.
And there’s the general distrust:
The debate among Afghans and between Afghans and the international community is rife with distrust. I heard various beliefs Afghans hold about the United States, including that we are transporting Taliban from the south to the north by helicopter to spread the reach of the insurgency, that we want to occupy Afghanistan forever for their mineral wealth and strategic location, and that we hope to destabilize Afghanistan to bring about regime change in Iran.
And the flip side:
No one I spoke to, however, thought the United States should leave immediately. They said that civil war would most likely erupt. Some already saw signs of civil war coming because President Karzai’s base of support is eroding and groups in the north are beginning to rearm. They also thought ethnic divisions were deepening, with different countries in the region supporting their favorite faction.
And course no one she spoke to knew what to do next:
A number of people argued that the international community must focus on creating a larger national consensus on Afghanistan’s future – that broader political participation is required and that officials must be held accountable. They did not, however, believe that the United States is the right actor to broker a deal among groups. This has to be Afghan-led.
Another individual argued that the United States should replace the government and the parliament altogether, arguing that Afghanistan’s current government was too far gone to be salvaged. Afghan academics debated whether the country’s constitution should be amended to create a more federalized system. One worried that a more decentralized power structure would only empower unaccountable abusive warlords and commanders, leading to instability.
Another thought that the United States should focus on educating Afghans above all else. He believed that the central problem driving war in Afghanistan was lack of education. Once people were educated, he argued, no one would support the Taliban.
So you’ve got a deteriorating security situation, an Afghan government losing support, and growing divisions among Afghanistan’s economy and all the rest. This makes Christine O’Donnell’s campaign against masturbation and her ties to the now quite unhinged Mel Gibson small beans. And that congressional candidate in Ohio dressing up as a Nazi on the weekends seems almost quaint. Christine O’Donnell’s father worked as a Bozo the Clown for a local television station. What else is new?
There are more pressing issues. How do you synthesize all that is going on in Afghanistan? How did it come to this? What are we doing there? And, more specifically, why do they keep blowing up our supply convoys?
Glenn Greenwald gives that a go:
Obviously, religious fanaticism plays a role in causing people to be willing to give up their own lives, but so constant and consistent is this claimed rationale from Terrorists – we’re doing this in retaliation for U.S. actions in the Muslim world – that it should no longer be questioned or doubted what principally motivates these attacks. It’s one thing for Americans to argue that we have the right to engage in these actions, that we are justified in doing them, or that we somehow are doing Good Things for Muslims with our bombs and drones even though these primitive ingrates don’t realize it. But it’s another thing entirely to act shocked, surprised or confused when our endless (and still-escalating) stream of bombings, invasions, occupations, and other means of control in their part of the world end up provoking a desire to retaliate and return the favor. It’s not just expected that our actions will produce these reactions, but inevitable. It’s the most basic part of human nature there is.
As always, the issue is not justification – it is inherently unjust to deliberately target civilians with violence – but causation…
The very idea that we’re going to spend an entire decade dropping a constant stream of bombs and other munitions on and in multiple Muslim countries and otherwise interfere in their governments – and then expect that nobody will try to attack us back – evinces such a child-like sense of imperial entitlement that it’s hard to put into words.
There’s the synthesis – it’s our sense of imperial entitlement, and it does seem child-like. But when you want to say someone is cute and innocent you call them child-like. When it’s not cute you call them childish. They may mean the same thing, but they really don’t mean the same thing.
And Andrew Sullivan offers this:
The fact is that the average American can’t even fathom the fact of innocent Muslims killed by Americans, because when these errors are made they seldom appear in the newspaper or on the nightly news alongside photographs. This is true of casualties on our own side too. The sanitization of the War on Terrorism is a striking avoidance of reality, whatever one thinks of its justification or root causes.
The job is thinking things through and not taking shortcuts, and being as honest as you can manage, and not glossing over what actually undermines what you think that you think. And the job also is attending to what really matters, the daughter of Bozo the Clown notwithstanding.
What are intellectuals good for? They’re good for that.