some explanation…

“It’s a history blog” was never that hot of a name, even for a blog.

So I decided to change it.

I went with Everybody Wins With Chauvinism because I was told that it perfectly captures my sense of sarcasm. Chauvinism is exaggerated or aggressive patriotism. But really it’s more than that. It’s a clichéd, unthinking loyalty to a given group or stereotype. For me, chauvinism would be laughable if it wasn’t so common and so pernicious.

My wife and I – Ashley – where talking about Lulu Lemon, the store that sells highly sexualized yoga clothing to women. She was wearing a jacket from there, which she grudgingly admitted to liking. I noticed that LuLu Lemon’s symbol had been added to the chest area of the jacket in a way that clearly marked out her breasts. The CEO of LuLu Lemon – not only makes sexy clothing for women – but has declared that he chose LuLu Lemon for the amusement of hearing Asian people trying to pronounce it. Further, he has made vacuous comments along the lines of if you don’t fit into LuLu Lemon’s clothing, you are simply to fat.

This prompted me to say sarcastically: “Well, everybody wins with chauvinism”.

It reflects a change in direction with my goals and hopes for this blog. I started “It’s a history blog” in order to flesh out the ideas that I was studying during my master’s program. Now that I have completed this degree, I want to focus writing book reviews along with penchant social commentary.

I want to grow this blog, and slowly make it more exciting for my followers.

I should stress – it should be obvious, but I want to be sure – that my title is purely sarcastic.

The Tao of Deception: a review

413MPEO5mxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Chinese history – massive, complex, highly varied and fascinating – is alarmingly lacking on bookshelves. Yes, you can find books on Chinese history, but these are either broad sweeping overviews condensed down from larger, more academic works, or they are more of a contemporary society bit along the lines of “understanding modern china” or “why china will rule the world”. The upshot is that history longer and more complex than European history is effectively ignored. Want to learn more about the Han Dynasty, which echoes and has some remarkable parallels to the Roman Empire? Too bad. Interested in the Warring States Period, a time of unrelenting warfare and strategy that makes Machiavelli look like a weepy schoolboy? Too bad.

At least I haven’t found any. And I have been looking.

We desperately need a Robert K. Massie or a John Julius Norwich of Chinese and Japanese history.

I’ll be honest. Ralph Sawyer isn’t Massie or Norwich, not by a long shot. Seeing this book on the shelf, I was very excited. But no, no.

Sawyer is a serious military think tanker, who specialises in China studies. The result is that this book is written for a handful of academics, other think tankers, and a select group of US Army officers tasked with creating the next generations’ War Plan Orange (err Yellow I think in this case).

We have all read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and realised how useless it is for businessmen. We have also realised that we bought it just to have a book entitled “The Art of War” on our bookshelves. This book wades deep into Chinese military classics, with The Art of War in a place of honour. There is a huge corpus of Chinese military thinkers, spanning the centuries and dynasties.

Chinese military thought, influenced by taoism, revolved around the idea of the orthodox and the unorthodox. Roughly, orthodox is when you line up your army, and your enemy lines up his army, then you sound the trumpets, gongs, and drums, and advance into battle. The unorthodox is trickery. It can be an ambush, or a tactical retreat. It can also be complex psychological warfare, spies, assassination and just generally subterfuge.

This is very different than western military tradition. It allows for far more tactical and strategic options. Sawyer is primarily cataloging the written tradition of the unorthodox in Chinese history. This is interesting. But Sawyer rarely offers insightful or contextually enriching commentary. Rather, he tends to sum up what has just been quoted.

Chinese history is chock full of fascinating episodes and eras, and yet Sawyer largely fails to, well, dramatise it. He fails to make it come alive. He strictly avoids any understanding of Taoist philosophy, and rather favours a very clunky and academic recounting of historical sources.

I struggled with Chinese names. I struggled with contexts and finding the narrative. But most of all, I raged with a lack of background information. Only the bare minimum of contextual information was included. There was a general lack of insight and depth to this book.

Lastly, Sawyer concludes with a chapter on the modern PRC army and their theoretical mindset. I found it to be pretty paranoid. Cold Warrior mentality oozing out of the woodwork here. Basically, Sawyer has extrapolated from the ancient and written Chinese military classics and has decided that modern day China is now, currently, actively implementing all of their unorthodox tactics on the United States right now, with the ultimate aim of world domination. I get that China wants to be a world player, maybe even a hegemony. They are not bent on a war with the US after they have weakened us through trickery and subterfuge.

Even my saying that he has a “cold warrior mentality” as part of China’s devious plans. Basically, anyone who says “let’s give peace a chance” is a traitor or at least a pawn in China’s plan for world domination.

He does have a point. Taoist philosophy and war theory would indicate that the way to weaken a more powerful opponent (the United States) is to “make it grow” that is, to make it over-extend and be stretched thin. We are doing a good job of doing that to ourselves right now.

Sawyer’s neoconservative mindset is not just stupid, narrow and wrong, it’s a part of the problem, not the solution. We can’t let the hawks in China and in the United States goad us into a cold war with each other. It would be totally pointless and mutually self defeating. Do not let alarmists get control on this topic.

Still looking for good Chinese history….

The Torture Report: Part II

So what’s the argument for torture? What is the temptation?

Dick Cheney, which I feel like I can safely say is the biggest proponent of torture in US history, has argued essentially this: the CIA torture program produced intelligence that saved American lives and directly led to the foiling of terrorist attacks. It was necessary, it worked, and this information could not have been got any other way.

Further, Cheney appeals to our sense of revenge by saying that it is 9/11 which is torture, and that nothing the CIA is doing can compare to what happened to America on that day. He would then point out that the techniques used in the “enhanced interrogation” are drawn from the Air Force’s SERE School, and each technique was carefully vetted to ensure that no actual harm would come to the “detainees”.

As it stands, this is a compelling argument. It works. It’s saved lives. It’s not torture, but a sort of simulated torture that does no real harm. It’s about breaking down a prisoner psychologically to a state of “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit nasty, but this is a nasty war. The terrorists aren’t playing by the rules, so neither should we. What we are doing to them is nothing compared to what they did to us.

But what if every single one of these statements, which by the way the CIA, Cheney et al made over and over again for years, is a lie? And not just a lack of evidence, but a systematic campaign to convince both the American public and Congressional oversight that torture works and is necessary.

The Senate Committee Report on Torture is more than simply a catalogue of the criminal stupidities of the CIA. Even though there are many things this Report does not say, and many issues in which the Report skirts around and avoids quite assiduously, what this report does do is that it 1) refutes the CIA’s torture program’s efficacy, 2) documents and refutes the CIA’s systematic lies to Congress, Media, and Public, and 3) documents the horrors of the program in operation; illustrates that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are indeed torture.

Literally, this Report enumerates every single instance of the use of the “EITs” as well as every instance of the CIA’s “representations” about torture to other agencies, other governmental departments, and the media. And here is where it is great: it refutes them all. Not only is the argument for torture now officially left in tatters as a proven nonsensical lie, the system of lies around it has been documented and refuted.

First things first. The CIA’s “EITs” are torture. Any attempt to describe them as harmless is wrong, factually and morally. Torture does not need a medieval man wearing a hood with a hot branding iron, nor does it require a totalitarian, communistic terror apparatus intent on weeding out all “saboteurs”.

As a society we need to come to this realisation. The CIA’s “EIT’s” where degrading, inhumane, strange, and unusual. They went beyond the procedures described to the media and say, the Department of Justice. Water boarding quickly turned into a relentless “series of near drownings”. Weeks – months even – of solitary confinement. White noise, total darkness, loud music played twenty-four hours a day. It goes on and on. Some interrogators would play the same song before an “interrogation” session began. Now that’s creepy and Kafkaesqe for you. Worst of all…is the anal incursions the CIA went in for. Things like “rectal feeding” and enemas.

Yes. This is torture. It has every hallmark of torture, down to the weird sense of anger and guilt exhibited by the torturers. It’s strange and unusual. Modern torture has a history and a pattern. A pattern that we can recognise in our own government. I am referring to the legacy of the French in Algeria, the Soviets, especially in the ’30s, and North Korea. The thread that links these together is a government chasing an impossible geo-political goal. Exactly like waging an impossible war like the “War on Terror”. Many of the techniques used by the CIA seem copied right out right of Soviet techniques. Go read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon if you doubt me.

I get the sense that these governments and spooks and military men are trapped in a philosophical quandary. How can you be sure you have the truth? You never can. There could always be another terrorist plot, or western saboteur, or seemingly westernised Algerian out to plant a bomb in downtown Algiers. Stopping these (largely imaginary) enemies constitutes something new; the enemy is as much in your head as anything else. I am not saying that Islamic terrorism is not real, I am saying that the US response to it, the role range of government activity from the Patriot Act to invading Iraq has been in response to an imaginary enemy that says more about us than the reality of Islamic extremism.

So it’s one part frustration, one part fear, one part revenge, and one part a reflection of the political winds that are blowing (neo-conservativism) that results in these government torture programs, which continue, as ours did, even though it is clear that it does not work. There is something at work beyond mere utilitarian “means justifying ends” rationales. The CIA’s track record, so incompetent and criminally stupid (Bay of Pigs, Iran, the Contras and dealing cocaine, the coup against Salvadore Allende, the coup in Guatemala, consistently being outwitted by the Soviets, and now strait up torture) that I could almost believe the CIA is simply a dummy organization meant to take flak for other screw-ups. 9/11 was another major failure for them, one that they where unprepared to explain or respond to. The CIA went to war and they where out for revenge and the politicians gave them the green light to “take the gloves off” and that is the kindest thing I can think to say about them and their actions.

Torture does not work. First of all you can never be sure. The record shows that people who are tortured just say what ever they think their tortures want to hear. Not only do transcripts of the torture sessions read like scenes strait out of 24, where there is an immune terrorist attack on American soil. The weird thing is that clearly the “detainee” cannot fathom his tortures. The reality is that al-Qaida et al simply lack the capability to mount attacks in the US, or even Europe for that matter. Yes, it could happen, but in terms of plots, they have no real ability to strike anywhere outside of the Middle East. Hence things happened where one detainee made up a plot in Montana. Second there is a huge social cost with torture, one that American society will be paying for for decades. Not to mention loss of prestige internationally.

Lastly there is the torture program as it was “represented” to the public and Congressional oversight. The CIA lied to everyone. A click in “Headquarters” insisted to both the actual interrogators and congress, and maybe even the White House that torture was necessary, was saving lives and was providing intelligence that could not be got anywhere else. Again, ALL this was false as an analysis of the CIA’s own records CLEARLY show. The CIA basically copy and pasted its arguments for torture for years in reports to the media, congress, and even the public. They use the exact same phrasing and words over and over.

And in The Report, over and over, it goes through and systematically and fully disproves the claims of the CIA. They where totally wrong on all their claims. In the odd langue of the Report, the CIA’s statements either “misrepresented” or “left out significant facts”. There are many crimes here: a horrendous failure of our political system.

The big question is: why aren’t we angry about this?

Part III coming soon.

Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought

31T+h7c-TZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought is probably most interesting because of what it does not talk about, or even mention. Written immediately after the death of Lenin in 1924, it also marks another, more subtle death: that of Georg Lukacs’ creative independence as a think, philosopher and writer.

Lukacs is considered one of the founding thinkers of “Western Marxism,” an body of ideas and thinking that shy away from Marxism, and the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviets. It led to the Frankfurt School, and from there has flown into what we know know variously as “critical theory”. Thus, along with the Italian Antonio Gramsci, Lukacs has actually had remarkable, though indirect, influence here in the United States.

In 1923, Lukacs published History and Class Consciousness, easily his most important work. It’s magisterial. And seeks to move beyond the work of Marx and to more subtly understand social and cultural aspects of ‘dialectical materialism’. Marx’s writing is heavily economic and based on a rigid concept of “class”, the famous “proletariat” and “bourgeois”. It does not take a whole lot of thought before we realise that society is far more complex then a dynamic of economic classes. Lukacs was one of the first major thinkers to move past Marx in this regard.

Lukacs was Hungarian and thus lived within the Soviet sphere of influence. As an ardent communist, he lived within the legendary “discipline” of the Communist Party. History and Class Consciousness was an attempt to philosophically underpin Marxism. However, as it shows signs of “ultra-lefitsim”, it was an officially controversial book that Lukacs was forced to recant.

It is telling that the magnum opus of probably the only real Soviet thinker was censored and its author forced to recant and refute himself.

Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought is thus interesting because it is, in part, Lukacs’ recantation. It is therefore very much a work of its time, as Lukacs himself is aware (he himself described it as a work of its time in his own 1967 afterword to this book).

A find Lenin to be largely an unoriginal thinker. Unexciting. Irrelevant, mostly. Yes, what he wrote about the relationship between capitalism, war, and imperialism I think was very smart, but that’s about it. His idea about the revolutionary vanguard hardly rates as an academic enterprise at all.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (Part1)

 

cia-report-p1-normal

Heavily redacted, tersely written and a brutal marathon of odd euphemisms and acronyms, this is our political system in action. It’s the War on Terror, as well as a front row seat to the spectacle of our personal freedoms eroded in the name of “national security”.

It’s not very pretty. In fact, it’s quite ugly. But it is truly fascinating.

I am planning to make this a three part salvo on the Torture Report. In this first section, I want to explore the idea of federal surrealism, and identify the larger context of the Report. I will also list a series of observations, ideas, and questions which swirl around the CIA, torture, the Report, and government in general. In Part II, I will discuss the actual actions of the CIA and debate the efficacy and logic of torture. In Part III, will be a final review of the book, and I will explore the larger implications, discuss what should be done, and probably recommend that every honest citizen read it.

Borrowing from Grayson Clary’s article on the Report in the LA Review of Books (http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/guide-federal-surrealism-fiction-american-intelligence-community), I approached reading the Torture Report as a work of “federal surrealism”. Federal Surrealism captures the paradox of governmental investigations and reports, especially of the goings-on of the “Intelligence Community” (a great example of the odd euphemisms that pour like water from Washington DC). What makes it surreal is that 1) the sheer detail and length serve to distract and hide from the main conclusions, 2) the redaction of nearly all nouns make sure that the people most responsible for torture will escape unpunished and unknown, 3) a lack of “big picture” thinking, wether moral or otherwise lead to a failure to actually understand what happened and why, and 4) the result is a utter lack to really condemn torture and the failures in our government and the Bush Administration that allowed torture to happen.

Federal Surrealism thus implies the weird philosophical quandary that these reports find themselves in. Ostensibly seeking to find and reveal the truth; they serve to mask individuals and governmental processes and instead signal the current way the political winds are blowing. Most telling is the simple fact that the Report never calls it “torture”, referring instead to “EITs”.

The other ‘great’ governmental reports: The 9/11 Commission Report and The Warren Commission Report into the Kennedy assassination, hopelessly associated with conspiracy theory and cover ups, are the other examples of “federal surrealism”, which comes complete with its own style guide and list of great writers of the genre (you’ve never heard of them).

Here is my list of ideas, which I assembled during and after reading The Report.

1. We need to keep in mind here the tension and ultimate philosophical chasm between the “spirit” of the law and the “letter of the law”. The CIA and DOJ and White House lawyers dream up arguments of necessity to find that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are constitutional. Yet, while the US constitution does not literally prohibit “EITs”, clearly, CLEARLY, the spirit of the document prohibits such acts.

2. The power of the prevailing “political wind” or “political climate”. This is partly another term for peer pressure and peer group dynamics, but it also refers to the notion that there is a seething ocean of tacit understandings and permissions-granted given certain precedents and larger social signals

3. The sense of guilt and awareness exhibited by the CIA and the various individuals within the system.

4. To what extent is the how torture program motivated by a sense of revenge? A sense of “taking the gloves off”? A quest to expunge the very public failure of the CIA?

5. To what extent is the torture program an expression of futility and fear?

6. The curious interagency and inter-governmental fighting.  The culture and power clashes between the FBI and CIA, the office politics within the CIA illustrated by the role of the Office of the Inspector General and its clashes with, say ALEC station (the part of the CIA tasked with Islamic extremism/terrorism/Osama binLaden).

7. The importance of “plausible deniability”. This plays out in multiple ways, from the role played by individuals in the Administration (how much did Bush actually know? I sense that he and his administration is shielded quite well in this report; it seems to be a very CIA only initiative).

8. The relationship between the Bush Administration and the CIA. Where does the torture program originate? Is this the CIA on its own? Or is the Administration the driving force behind it?

9. The philosophical paradox generated by a report that ostensibly attempts to report the truth, and yet, between the redactions, and the larger obsession with precision over any awareness of larger issues?

10. Relatedly, the idea that if you want to hide something terrible, you bury it in this day and age in a huge heap of boring detail, acronyms, and euphemisms. Distracting detail and just sheer boring.

11. To what extent does this report damn the CIA, and to what extent does this report shield the CIA?

12. What role does our culture play? What does 24 tell us about ourselves? Consistently, the CIA officers and “interrogators” speak, act and write literally like characters in a Tom Clancy novel. I do not think that this is a coincidence.

13. The role of private contractors, notably “the psychiatrists” who develop and advocate for torture. What does it mean when you have a company with 100% of its revenue from the government?

14. The historical reality that the torturers and the genocidests have a way of slipping away…these people are either shielded, or slip away. I cannot help but conclude that torture preforms some sort of social role beyond that of merely that of an “intelligence gather tactic”. It’s about revenge and power and fear and this is ultimately why the torturers are “excused”.

15. What are the rhetorical chains of logic which authorize torture? Are they true? For example: do I only feel comfortable condemning torture because I know that the CIA is there and doing its best, analogous to: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” – George Orwell

16. The simple ethics and morality of it all…and the weird notion that you can be sure to get the truth our of a prisoner, if only you can use the right (read: all) techniques on him; the conviction that the prisoner is holding back. But you never can; you can never be sure. Torture almost seems to be more about the torturer than the tortured.

17. The sheer incompetence of it all. Competence is always fine; it’s the criminal stupidity of torture that makes absolutely a catastrophe for this nation. Incompetence to the point where I almost think the CIA is a simple front and scape goat agency, so blank is my mind when I try to think of CIA successes.

Part II in the next few days….

A Review of “The Corrections”

Thecorrectionscvr

I will try not gush for this one, or spend any credibility I might have on inveiglements. In my own mind, what I want to say sounds cheesy, bombastic; hyperbolic. A terrible collection of blandishments.

But here goes: Jonathan Franzen is the first American novelist whose work reminds me vividly of the breadth and depth of the Russian Greats, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. This is an American Brothers Karamazov; an Anna Karenina of the 21st Century.

O.K. Hyperbole over.

This is a harsh book. It’s realistic. It is a massive stripping of illusions for both you and for the various characters in the book. And while it is definitely a novel written in classic omniscient narrator style, one can’t help but feel its timelines: it rings true, too true on every single page.

This is a story about the Generations. About the typical American nuclear family and its Modern accumulations of drama and first world problems. Each character is both highly typical (bordering on stereotypical), yet ultimately deeply nuanced and emerges by the end of the novel to be gifted with individual value and insight. Each character has her or her own personal tragedy to wrestle with.

Enid and Alfred Lambert are your typical mid-western old couple. Conservative, full of Calvinistic work ethic and shame, they embody a sort of Great Generation where times where only more simple on the surface. Alfred is strict. A yeller. An engineer who values discipline and hard work. Enid is both controlling and manipulative, yet largely lives in a fantasy world; she lives for future Christmases and senior citizen cruises.

There three children, Gary (materialistic, unimaginative and established as a banker and father who suffers from depression and being very much like his father), Chip (intellectual and insecure; a failed academic), and Denise (a professional chef who struggles with her sexuality) are emotional wrecks due to their strict and painful upbringing by Enid and Alfred.

(spoiler alert) Through the course of the book, Alfred decays in Parkinson’s (this is extremely painful and heartrending), Enid escapes her shame and loosens up; Gary comes to terms with his depression, Chip finds his place in the world (and with women), and Denise seems to pass through the emotional eye of the needle with her sexuality. I do not feel like I am giving too much away because the how-why-when of the book is as important as these ultimate conclusions which I have revealed. It is not a predictable book by any means.

I was struck by the depth and breadth of Franzen’s emotional and philosophical understanding of the characters and their situation. Each character is fully realised; full of strengths, weaknesses, dispositions and personal growth. You feel like you know these characters; have met them and spent time with them. I personally painfully identified with one character (I won’t mention who) for example, and it is very rare that I identify with a character in a book.

It is this aspect which reminds me the most of Tolstoy. And it is the philosophical and emotional experimentation with three siblings which puts me in the mind of The Brothers Karamazov.

It’s a book that I wish old people could read so they could (finally) gain some perspective on their parenting style and they way younger people think and feel about them. Younger people will gain insight about how old people think and feel about them. It’s a book which shows us the American reality, not Hollywood fantasy American that we are used too.

This book appeals both to the “head” and to the “heart” in a way that is penetratingly intelligent, as well as complete and satisfying.