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Saturday, September 14, 2002

I have spawned, or respawned, something:

I've just been informed that I now have a second blogchild. Cigar, anybody?

posted by Eric at 8:59 PM          

Friday, September 13, 2002

When there's nothing left to say, self-parody is the way:

I'm just, barely, old enough to remember the anti-war Leftists of the 1960s and 1970s. I disagreed with them over Vietnam then, and I disagree with the anti-war Left's agitation against a war on Iraq today. But as I read what comes out of minds of people like Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag these days, I wonder if I'm getting old and allowing a golden haze to cloud my recollection of past decades. Because I find myself feeling almost nostalgic for the anti-Vietnam-war Left.

Yes, yes, I still think "Hanoi Jane" and her crowd were basically wrong. Wrong about the consequences of a North Vietnamese victory (Communists turn out to be murderously repressive — what a shock!); wrong about the motives and interests of the U.S.; wrong about almost everything except the level of incompetence, buffoonery, and myopia afflicting the generals and politicians running that war.

But there was one important difference. The anti-Vietnam-war Left may have been deluded and prone to masturbating in front of Che Guevara posters...but if you sifted through enough of their ranting you could detect the outlines of a principled case, or several principled cases. There was one argument on which they persuaded me; though I was not of draftable age, I found I agreed with them that the military draft was an intolerable form of slavery years before I encountered Robert Heinlein's pithy objurgation that "A nation that cannot find enough volunteers to defend itself will not survive — and does not deserve to."

But try as I might, I can't detect a principled case anywhere in today's anti-war Left. Which is all the more curious since I think they could be making one. Several, in fact: starting with the argument that we should abandon the path of war not even because of what it does to our enemies but because of what it does to ourselves. At every level from the personal to the political, warfare is a brutalizing experience that erodes our freedoms and empowers the nastiest elements of human psyches and societies.

There are principled responses to that case, but that particular argument is not my point. My point is that today's anti-war rhetoric, as exemplified by reports on a planned September 11 "Teach-In and Panel regarding Oppression" at UCLA, never seems to even confront the question of whether war against Afghanistan and Iraq is justified by the Islamist threat. Instead, the topic is "U.S. Law and Policy Against Immigrants of Color", as if there is any kind of equivalence between the U.S.'s border policies and the catastrophic mass murder of 2,500 people.

There is a curious kind of evasiveness at work here. We can see it at work in the arid deconstructionism of Susan Sontag's NYT op-ed, Real Battles and Empty Metaphors. Even the title announces that she's going to lucubrate about the relationship between language and reality, not confront reality itself. A similar denial is evident it the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky; prodded for commentary on the war, he recites a litany of past American wrongdoing as if that somehow banishes the question of how soon Saddam Hussein will have nuclear weapons and what he will do with them when he gets them.

Maybe I'm getting senile, but it seems to me that the Left of my teens was in better contact with reality than today's crew. There really was a military-industrial complex and the desire for war profits probably did drive some of the political support for the Vietnam war. The military-industrial complex is still with us today, but the Left seems to have forgotten even the little it once knew about political economics and isn't even bothering to raise that issue. Perhaps this amnesia is a post-traumatic effect of watching Marx take a header into the dustbin of history; we've come to strange days indeed when I have to conclude that my libertarian self could easily write a better Marxist critique of Dubya's war propaganda than anyone on the Left has yet issued in public.

Instead, what we're seeing is a rhetoric that is half a retreat into language-chopping and half an expression of contempt for the U.S. — contempt so out of balance that it's doomed to be tuned out by anyone less far to the left than the unlamented former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

When did the Left descend into such empty self-parody? And why?

Watching "real existing socialism" self-destruct must have been part of it. I speculated on the psychological effects of that political collapse in a previous essay Socialists to the Stars, about Scottish SF writers Ken McLeod and Iain Banks. But something weirder and more diffuse happened to the Left on this side of the pond, and I'm not sure what it was.

Some days I wonder if Greg Egan, the reclusive West Australian author who has produced some of the best hard SF of the last decade, may not have called it right in the following passage from his novel "Teranesia":

"Feminism was working, and the civil rights movement was working, and all the other social justice movements were getting more and more support. So, in the 1980s, the CIA [...] hired some really clever linguists to invent a secret weapon; an incredibly complicated way of talking about politics that didn't actually make any sense, but which spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded so impressive. And at first, the people who talked like this just hitched their wagon to the social justice movements, and everyone else let them come along for the ride, because they seemed harmless. But then they climbed on board the peace train and threw out the driver."

"So instead of going to the people in power and saying, `How about upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?' the people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like `My truth narrative is in conflict with your truth marrative!'. And the people in power replied `Woe is me! You've thrown me into the briar patch!' And everyone else said `Who are these idiots? Why should we trust them when they can't even speak properly?' And the CIA was happy. And the people in power were happy. And the secret weapon lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone who'd played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit what they'd done,"

Egan's account is implausible only because it seems unlikely that the CIA is quite that subtle. But he's right in pointing out that the rise of the language of postmodernism — the sterile, involuted, pseudo-profundity famously skewered by the Sokal Hoax — seems to be an important correlate of the decline of the American Left.

Self-parody is where you end up when you have nothing left to say. And when all you can talk about is `discourse' that's a damn short road.

posted by Eric at 10:50 AM          

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

One year later...

One year ago today, the World Trade Center fell in flames. And that very day, just a few hours after the event, I wrote the following:

Some friends have asked me to step outside my normal role as a technology evangelist today, to point out in public that a political panic reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attack could do a great deal more damage than the attack itself.

Today will not have been a victory for terrorism unless we make it one. If we reward in any way the Palestinians who are now celebrating this hideous crime in the streets of the West Bank, that will have been a victory for terrorism. If we accept "anti-terrorism" measures that do further damage to our Constitutional freedoms, that will have been a victory for terrorism. But if we learn the right lessons, if we make policies that preserve freedom and offer terrorists no result but a rapid and futile death, that will have been a victory for the rest of us.

We have learned today that airport security is not the answer. At least four separate terror teams were able to sail right past all the elaborate obstacles -- the demand for IDs, the metal detectors, the video cameras, the X-ray machines, the gunpowder sniffers, the gate agents and security people trained to spot terrorists by profile. There have been no reports that any other terror units were successfully prevented from achieving their objectives by these measures. In fact, the early evidence is that all these police-state-like impositions on freedom were exactly useless -- and in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center lies the proof of their failure.

We have learned today that increased surveillance is not the answer. The FBI's "Carnivore" tap on the U.S.'s Internet service providers didn't spot or prevent this disaster; nor did the NSA's illegal Echelon wiretaps on international telecommunications. Video monitoring of public areas could have accomplished exactly nothing against terrorists taking even elementary concealment measures. If we could somehow extend airport-level security to the entire U.S., it would be just as useless against any determined and even marginally competent enemy.

We have learned today that trying to keep civilian weapons out of airplanes and other areas vulnerable to terrorist attack is not the answer either -- indeed, it is arguable that the lawmakers who disarmed all the non-terrorists on those four airplanes, leaving them no chance to stop the hijackers, bear part of the moral responsibility for this catastrophe.

I expect that in the next few months, far too many politicians and pundits will press for draconian "anti-terrorist" laws and regulations. Those who do so will be, whether intentionally or not, cooperating with the terrorists in their attempt to destroy our way of life -- and we should all remember that fact come election time.

As an Internet technologist, I have learned that distributed problems require distributed solutions -- that centralization of power, the first resort of politicians who feed on crisis, is actually worse than useless, because centralizers regard the more effective coping strategies as threats and act to thwart them.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that we will respond to this shattering tragedy as well as the Israelis, who have a long history of preventing similar atrocities by encouraging their civilians to carry concealed weapons and to shoot back at criminals and terrorists. But it is in that policy of a distributed response to a distributed threat, with every single citizen taking personal responsibility for the defense of life and freedom, that our best hope for preventing recurrences of today's mass murders almost certainly lies.

If we learn that lesson, perhaps today's deaths will not have been in vain.

As I reread the above, it does not seem to me that we have yet learned our lesson. We have taken steps towards arming pilots, but not passengers. Tiger-team probes of airport security have shown that the rate at which weapons can be smuggled through remains 30% -- unchanged since before 9/11. A year later, therefore, the frisk searches of little old ladies and the no-sharp-edges prohibitions have bought us no security at all.

The scorecard is not entirely bleak. Al-Qaeda has not been able to mount another successful mass murder. Post-9/11 legal changes through the Patriot Act and related legislation have been troubling, but not disastrous. And the war against the Taliban was a rather less complicated success than one might have expected -- civilian casualties minimal, no uprising of the mythical "Arab Street", and Al-Qaeda's infrastructure smashed. Osama bin-Laden is probably dead.

Still, the war is far from over. Islamic terrorism has not been repudiated by the ulema, the college of elders who prescribe the interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. The call to violent jihad wired into the foundations of Islam has not yet been broken or tamed into a form civilization can coexist with. Accomplishing that is the true challenge that faces us, one greater and more subtle than merely military victory.

posted by Eric at 10:59 PM