synthetic zero


October 18, 2001

I believe in healthy eating; I don't eat red meat, and ever since I read some of the studies that suggested that reducing overall caloric intake could increase your life span, I have eaten less (not out of any conscious design or anorexic excess, but I just began to eat less, naturally, until I find now that the typical American-supersize meal portions served in restaurants are usually about twice what I can eat in one sitting)... but I don't believe in personally avoiding foods out of a sense of self-denial; I eat what I like, I just don't eat that much. However, in the "eat what I like" category remains a wide variety of desserts and sweets which I consume when I feel like it without much guilt. When I go to a movie I often buy a box of Sweet Tarts (as I wrote about in my first month of weblogging), my favorite movie "food," and I love going to the local Rimsky-Korsakoffee House (a story in itself --- or many stories), which has the best cheesecake --- in the world.

But there is one confection which does give me some feeling of guilt --- Krispy Kreme donuts --- but still, I love them. They seem best when eaten hot, walking down the streets of New York. There is something absurd about eating them; they are unbalanced, somehow out of place in the 21st Century, yet, still, I can't help but like them. It's neither a sublime experience, like Rimsky's, nor a totally pleasurable one (the feeling of your body coagulating slightly as you chew is enough to put a slight damper on the whole experience), but it is one of those slightly extreme experiences which seems to fit the whole mood of the city. Or The City, since New York is the only city which to me really ought to be called "The City." Can you tell I've been a little bit nostalgic for New York in recent days?

There is always something slightly extreme about New York; no matter how pleasurable it might be, always in the back of your mind something detracting from it, if only the feel of the discomfort lurking around the edges --- how you will feel when you have to walk outside again and some abrasive edge of the city rubs up against you. On the other hand, there is hardly anything as wonderful as a brisk breeze blowing down a New York city street hitting you on a cold, sunny morning, or that liquid bluish light that filters in through the thick glass windows of a Manhattan skylight. I feel drawn back to the place where I was conceived but have never lived (though I spent many summer vacations there growing up, visiting my parents' friends in Greenwich Village). Oddly, it is now, when most people seem most afraid of the city that I feel most like going there. Who knows why, but I feel more like going there now than I ever did before; it even feels safer to me now. I could even imagine moving there, something I haven't seriously considered for a long time.

October 16, 2001

What's truly ironic about this whole war is that the conservatives in our country do not seem to realize that the Taliban is simply an extreme version of the same primal impulse that drives them.

In every population there is a distribution of conservative to progressive, aggressive to peaceful, etc. The famous classical game theoretic model, the Hawk-Dove contest, shows that the evolutionarily stable population in that model is not all hawks or all doves, but rather a certain degree of each; in that model, 58% "doves" and 42% "hawks". It stands to reason that it is expected that you will have both types of personality in your population. Similarly, I believe a stable distribution of political sensibility is probably one with both progressive and conservative elements.

Of course, it's funny how the same personality type seems to latch on to radically different ideas depending on the society. "Conservatives" here profess a belief in capitalism and extol the virtues of the good old days of the 1950's, a half century ago; "conservatives" in Russia pine for the bygone days of the stability of the old Soviet empire. I believe that the propensity in conservatives is not towards ideologies per se, but rather towards status quo versus change. I'd bet you'd find much more psychologically (and perhaps genetically?) similar between conservatives here and in Russia, despite the fact that they profess supposedly opposite nostalgias.

But of course a typical conservative doesn't look at the conservatism of their enemy and learn to moderate themselves; they see the enemy as an "other", as confirmation of their own rigid views, despite the evident similarity between the two stances. Thus I believe it is important not to choose one's strategy based solely on whether it is conservative or radical, or solely based on whether it is aggressive or passive. I'd rather not be a hawk or a dove; I want to choose my strategy depending on the situation at hand. I believe in situational politics. The only strategy I think I can safely say I universally disdain is the totalizing strategy: trying to impose a single, cookie cutter approach on everyone and on every situation. Instead, I believe it is best to choose the strategy depending on circumstances, using both compassion and pragmatism, with a healthy dose of self-skepticism.

October 15, 2001

When we try to control what we are doing or saying too much, it starts to feel very small. Logical, but small, and ... it occurred to me that this stems from a certain kind of fear. A fear of what might happen if we gave ourselves over to the unknown. Not a totally irrational fear; yet if we pretend that we've escaped the unknown by covering it over with control, we're sadly mistaken. The unknown is always there, lurching us around anyway.

Eclogues is an interesting blog recommended to me by mystery woman.

Also, various Generosity Pack folks remind me to read David Chess.

Webvan Lives! From Metafilter.

Let's try to bomb softly today. Pilots, please check the damn GPS coordinates three times over.

October 13 (b), 2001

Yes, verbal conversation has certain advantages over writing long passages in weblogs back and forth (something I was thinking as I wrote my long passage this morning)... though of course, even though Ray agrees with what I wrote, I still found it helpful to write it out, since I like to do my thinking while having a conversation... I thought of another example where Vonnegut's admonition (We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be) proved true... the Meiji Restoration in mid-19th Century Japan. My argument this morning was that the ostensible reasons for a political action, in the long run, end up constraining the behavior of those who would use it for other purposes, which works in both directions: when the ostensible reasons are virtuous and when they are not so virtuous... a good example of the latter (opposite to the case I was arguing about below, but still interesting) was the modernization movement in Japan. A bunch of forward-thinking liberal samurai had come to the conclusion that Japan had to end its self-imposed isolation and modernize. They wanted to copy Western institutions such as representative democracy, elimination of the class system (the very system that kept them at the top of the heap), etc. But they thought they needed a symbolic justification for their actions, and they decided: what better way to stealthily impose liberalization than using the most conservative symbol of them all ... the Emperor? They couched their movement with the rhetoric of "restoring the Emperor to power" when in fact what they wanted to do was dismantle the whole conservative system that had held Japan in stasis for centuries. With this rallying cry they managed to succeed, overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, institute democratic reforms, disband their own class, and begin the modernization of Japan. However...as the original Meiji revolutionaries died out, one by one, the original thinking behind the revolution became obscured in the mists of time... and the propaganda they had used to justify it grew and grew in significance, until conservative forces managed to take over power using, yes, the symbol of the Emperor as their justification. Despite the efforts of various moderates within the government (a number of whom were assassinated by the right wing), the general public didn't really have a clear understanding of what the whole Meiji Restoration was really supposed to have been about. A too-clever gambit which fell flat on its face, leading to the disaster of World War II. Even today few Japanese really understand what went wrong, or what even happened during that period.

October 13, 2001

A mind-boggling snafu causes us, apparently, to mistake a village for a terrorist training camp. There was a training camp near there, but it has been closed for years. We seem to have killed at least sixty civilians, if not a hundred or more. Though I believe that some civilian casualties are inevitable in war, this sort of mistake is absolutely unconscionable. Not only have we killed innocent people due to what looks like a monumental error in intelligence, this will invigorate our enemies and give them a propaganda weapon to use against us, and greatly reduce our security as a result. Shouldn't we have been carefully monitoring these terrorist camps over the years, and known that this one had been shut down years ago? Who is it who is checking these target lists? Is it impossible to distinguish between a training camp and a village? Wouldn't all of the training camps have been shut down already? The mere presence of people, which should be clearly visible in satellite photos, should be a giveaway. I am shocked and saddened. What's even worse is that the people in this village were vehemently anti-Taliban before this. Good work.

A fiery interview with the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, about the way we abandoned the Afghans in recent years. Her views are very close to mine.

Ray Davis (Bellona Times) makes some very good points regarding "the left" and motivations behind political actions, (in reference to my comments of a couple days ago). The issues he raises got me to thinking about the further underpinnings of my particular brand of politics, which has always been progressive but a bit different from both the "left" and the "right" (and the "libertarians" and everybody else). So I am left to my own devices in terms of coming up with some sort of theoretical basis for it; I've often wished I could just turn to a vast army of like-minded people, or better yet, just leave it to Chomsky to analyze things for me, but alas...

I wrote a long entry on the subject but I decided to put it on a separate page (like Paul sometimes does) because it is long.

October 12, 2001

Now and then I get an impulse to just write something, sort of like automatic writing but not quite as free-form; the words just spill from my fingertips into the typewriter and it is only much later that it makes sense to me. The whole thing, from beginning to end, typically has a certain structure and flow to it, wholly unintentional, that is to say, consciously unintentional. I don't know what I am going to type before I type it. Re-reading it, I realize that "I" was intending all sorts of things I was unaware of, however, when I began.

Somehow this doesn't work very well when I am typing into a computer, which is why I made this typewriter simulator, to give me a little bit of a taste of the same feeling I used to have while typing.

Have you ever looked up the lyrics to songs that you had going through your head, for no apparent reason, when you wake up? That's a similar phenomenon: getting messages from the unconscious. I often find that although I have no conscious knowledge of the specifics of the lyrics of these songs, in fact, when I find them on the Net, there is an interesting message in them which is often very appropriate to my current situation.

Why songs? As I posted a little while ago, music activates the same parts of the brain that are active during sex. I think music is an integrator; mind (the structure) / feeling / body (we like to dance to music, it imitates the rhythms of our biological cycles --- not to mention other cycles, the days, the moon-ths, the seasons, etc.) It is a connector, so why not a messenger. With respect to sex; perhaps it is more appropriate to say that sex activates the same parts of the brain as music, rather than the other way around?

I didn't know I was going to write all that.

October 11, 2001

I just took a nap and had this dream about an "underground museum" --- underground as in "obscure, secret" not as in "underground" --- a place that would, in my dream, pop up for "defined spacetime intervals" in various different locations. As one woman in my dream described it, "do not confuse this Underground Museum with any other instance of the Underground Museum you may have enocuntered before --- in Eugene, Ashland, Seattle, Olympia, or Portland --- an Underground Museum appears in defined spacetime intervals, each one unique, never to be repeated." A strange riff on the same/different dichotomy, since they were all called the Underground Museum but each one was supposed to be unique, unto itself, a singular event.

We found this underground museum by digging, literally; we had found a crack in the back wall of our place (by "we" I am not sure who I mean, other than the sort of diffuse group identity that often pervades a dream existence --- I know there are others but I don't know exactly who they are), and we found a hidden stairway which opened into secret coffeehouses, meeting places, only those in the know knew about them. From these, we managed to hear of many wonderful things, the most wonderful so far being the Underground Museum itself, a mystery hidden within a rumor. The exhibit opening this time included a theme about some psychospiritual mysteries which were being elucidated via art... with the comment that they were the sorts of things that religious fundamentalists wanted to regiment and suppress, but could be found being freely taught by people like the Sufis or the Zen folks or other groups of people devoted to investigations of mind and body, many of whom were secret: hidden cabals of people deconstructing the self in a complete and participatory manner.

Some extended thoughts on global versus local progressive thinking.

October 10, 2001

Oh, my god, this is the funniest thing I have seen since the attacks. (via Metafilter, referred to me by Stewart of the now-quiescent Sylloge, and now to be found livening up the life and occasionally the weblog of Caterina).

October 9, 2001

Teeny tiny terabytes of terrifying toroidal transmissions tell telling tales.

It's important to know when to stop. When to not start, also, even more important. Quit while you're ahead. Last time I was in Vegas I played the nickel slots. I quit when I had won ten cents. Whee!

On the other hand, I had a friend who told me a story about this old Native American guy he met on a bus trip. The old man said he went to visit his children and grandchildren in the cities once a year, and he financed his trip by gambling. When the bus stopped (they were in Nevada), my friend got off to observe the old man. The man didn't play a skill game like poker; instead, he walked from slot machine to slot machine, stopping briefly in front of each one. At some point he would choose a machine and begin to deposit coins. After a short time ... bang, jackpot. He kept doing this and never failed to win at every machine.

I have some distant relatives with similar luck; they always win when they go to Vegas. Every single time.

I swear the above is true. Well, I don't know if my friend was telling the truth, but I am swearing that this is what he said.

October 8, 2001

When I was a freshman in college I used to own an Olivetti typewriter; it wasn't old or "vintage"; in fact it was new at the time (early 80's) --- one of the last typewriters they made. It even had a fancy feature called an "erase ribbon" which allowed you to slowly erase what you typed, one letter at a time, lifting the ink neatly off the page, leaving behind only a ghostly indentation as evidence. Despite this innovation, typing on that typewriter was a considerably different experience from typing into a word processor or text editor; there was, of course, no cut and paste, and even though you had an erase ribbon, nevertheless, what you typed had to have a more permanent quality, right out of your fingers.

I am not sure, but I feel I wrote differently on a typewriter than I ever have on a computer; there was something fun and mysterious about my typewritten language. I have speculated about why this might be; perhaps it is the extra time you must take before committing words to paper, or perhaps it is the physical or tactile quality of writing with a typewriter. In any case, I have long wanted to build a little typewriter simulator for my computer to test this; how different would my writing become if it were constrained as I typed in a similar way --- i.e., no cut and paste, very slow backspace/erasing, etc.

So I finally wrote one. It's very simple; it uses Courier font, allows slow backspacing, and does not allow any other editing. I even added a little sound effect of a typewriter key to add to the somatic memory effect. The only information age feature it has is the ability to copy the text to the clipboard; a feature that one is supposed to use only after one is done writing. It very roughly reproduces the feel and operation of my old Olivetti. I intend to use it for a while for writing and see if anything changes. Of course, I am writing this using it.

If I am not satisfied with the results I may just drag out my old Olivetti and see what happens with it.

Which gets me to thinking about constraints in general. We tend I think to naively assume that freedom is good and limits are bad; of course we recognize the need for some limits, but essentially the tendency is to assume that the more choices, the better. And indeed there is a lot to be said for freedom of choice. But there are many interesting ways that creativity and life can flourish in more vivid ways within the bounds of constraints, even though they may be arbitrary; for example, take the novel A Void, written entirely without the use of the letter e, or the discipline of a Zen monk, who voluntarily and arbitrarily limits his or her daily routine so other aspects of life have a better chance of being able to come forward --- or writing with a typewriter.

It is easy to become distracted by choice; by all of these taps on our attention, on our time. By limiting the purview of our investigation we can go deeper. Even just stopping for a brief moment before careening off on the next impulsive action or thought --- allowing ourselves to be decoupled from the world for just that extra instant --- we can have universes be born and die in the extra breath we take before we allow ourselves to be dragged back into the next moment.

I think, strangely, that there is insight even in the types of strictures that religious fundamentalists want to impose; I think limits in general come from this basic ground. But fundamentalists do not have the faith in themselves or the universe to recognize the inherent arbitrariness of constraints; they take them very seriously, they want to impose them on everyone --- I want the freedom to be able to choose the set of constraints that I feel is appropriate for myself, on myself. I do not ask to impose these identical arbitrary constraints on everyone.

As the Zen master Hakuin said, if everyone became a Zen monk, no one would be growing food or making clothes, everyone would starve, and the people would rightly curse Zen as a scourge. Constraints are not one size fits all.

Meanwhile... We're air dropping food, but only enough for a few tens of thousands of people so far. We've got to get more serious about the food aid, folks.

The above was written entirely with my typewriter simulator, with the exception of the hyperlink, added later.

(Don't worry, I don't intend to use Courier font for all my entries in the future; just for this one, for visual effect).

October 6, 2001

Great story about women of Afghanistan and their views on what we should do. Some RAWA members are opposed to both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, others cautiously support the Northern Alliance as less bad than the Taliban. From AlterNet, via [sub]culture. Also, in general, check out [sub]culture's list of alternative news media websites.

Ariel Sharon, true to form, goes off the deep end. One absurd canard that the Israeli government keeps repeating is that the extremist terrorist groups like Hamas are somehow "in fact" under the control of Arafat --- because Arafat has thousands of men with guns, that means that he should be able to control hundreds of men with guns. Well, first of all, while I don't doubt that Arafat could do more to reign in the terrorists, the idea that he could completely shut down Hamas is ludicrous. When the Israelis controlled the territories, did they manage to stop all terrorism? Since the answer is no, does this mean that the terrorists were "in fact" under Israeli control? If terrorists attack us again, will we shell the Capitol building in Washington DC because we failed to control "hundreds" of extremists with our millions of military personnel and police? By Sharon's logic, we should, because clearly our millions of men with guns surely ought to be able to control a few hundred extremists. Therefore any terrorist plot against us must clearly have the tacit appoval of our own government. Right.

In the week or so following the cease-fire, prior to the most recent violence, NINE Palestinians were killed and only one Israeli. Meanwhile, Sharon was repeating his claim that Arafat was violating the cease fire. With this sort of attitude peace will never come. The problem with Sharon is that he does not know who the enemy is. He thinks it is the Palestinian people. He needs to look in the mirror, because he himself is aiding the enemies of Israel through his actions. If we were to start bombing innocent Afghans or Muslims the way Sharon is killing Palestinian teenagers throwing stones and farmers on their way to work, then we, too, would be our own worst enemy.

October 5 (b), 2001

Via ikastikos (Cynthia Korzekwa): National Novel Writing Month. I decided to sign up for it.

October 5, 2001

The whole objective of the terrorists is to provoke us into overreaction, as Chalmers Johnson so aptly puts it. However, I believe policymakers seem to be surprisingly aware of the need to balance a determined response against humanitarian concerns. Bush recently approved a $380 million food aid program and they are now considering air drops of food, exactly as Chomsky had recommended and predicted might not ever occur. The only major mistake I believe we are making is not getting a clear United Nations mandate to proceed with this; for whatever reason, Arab and Islamic nations appear to trust the UN much more readily than the US, and it doesn't seem as though it would be impossible to get UN approval for our actions.

They are also going to hit us again, especially when we proceed with the retaliation. More people who are now alive will die if and when they succeed. Kiss your family members, call your parents. Don't part angry because it might be the last time you ever see your loved one.

The Israelis, on the other hand, do not seem to understand this dynamic. They are acting in perfect accord with the desires of the terrorists, like marionettes, overreacting and radicalizing ever-greater numbers of Palestinians. The Israeli Army is too young to have yet learned the dual responsibility of being an effective military: they've got the first one, precision competence, but have failed at the second, restraint. They attack in anger and are thus weakened by it. Their whole state is weakened, not to mention the stability of the entire region and the world.

October 4, 2001

Cynthia Korzekwa writes this about art and war:

Included with this email is a letter from the artist Maurizio Cattalan expressing his inability to create something worthwhile for the Triana Biennale. He says Da qualche parte ho letto che finché c'è una guerra, l'arte non può nulla. In other words, as long as there's war, art can't do anything.

So what is this suppose to mean, that artists should forget about making art if there's a war going on. Which thus leads to some questions: what's art for? what's the role of art in terms of our daily lives? is art important only if we plan to visit a museum or gallery over the week-end?

The Biennale of Venezia showed that art today is very depressing. Many artists today seem to feel the need to overwhelm. And in their desire to overwhelm, they are conformists. Their artwork is full of gore and sleeze and excess.

The Attack of America has changed many things. Including our daily aesthetics. As of September 11, violence is no longer in vogue.

At one point in the story of art, the representational was substituted wiith the abstract. A visible physical reality was replaced with an invisible spiritual reality. But eventually the image was re-introduced. Exterior dominated interior. Surface replaced depth. But sooner or later the inside must come out. And this is where the role of the artist comes in.

During the 80's when the economy was good, Italian art critics, such as Achille Bonito Oliva, said that if an artist was not famous by 35, he'd never become famous. Thus a whole group of Baby Boom artists were produced (by the critics, of course) and dumped on us. When I was in college, our art professors told us not to even consider having one-man shows before the age of 40. However, young artists today are encouraged by the system to immediately have exhibitions. And alot of them--whether or not they have something worth showing. And to get attention, they often try to overwhelm you with gore. They want to be transgressive even if there are no more artistic boundaries to burn. But no artists can overwhelm you more than that which happened to the Twin Towers. And maybe that's why these artists are intimidated by what happened...their gore can't go beyond that of the Towers. But art isn't meant to abe a form of shock therapy.

It is an interesting question; what is the importance of art during wartime? Or at any time? I don't believe art has no purpose or no utility --- the fact that it doesn't directly apply itself to an explicit utilitarian purpose is, in fact, part of its utility. By taking us away from heavy-handed action with a purpose, art can both remind us of the real lives we sometimes forget, and it can even be real life itself. But clearly anything that participates in the space of information has an effect on the world; because we live and move with information, that is what makes us alive. Information guides us in both love and war, and art is embedded not only in information "out there" but in perception: the continual intermingling of mind and body, the inextricable cycle of awaress and expression. In an ultimate sense we cannot separate out the useful from the useless; as Chuang Tzu liked to say, the apparently useless often has a hidden value that far surpasses the obviously utilitarian. In fact, as Chuang Tzu points out, the obviously useful isn't always as wonderful a thing as it appears at first. When one acts with a heavy-handed purpose, there is a kind of pulling away from a direct engagement with reality --- a masking over of the pure movement itself with the idea of the movement, the symbol, the story. Art has the capability of being more than a diversion, it can point us back to the source of everything.

One thing that's rather amusing about this whole conflict is that the media, when discussing what the Administration is considering doing, always seems to couch it in terms of what Powell, Wolfowitz, Rice, or Rumsfeld think, and no one ever seems to talk about what Bush's position is, except to say "I wonder which of his advisers Bush is going to listen to." Occasionally, reporters will use phrases like "Bush's plan" though this always refers to plans that Bush has announced, rather than policy decisions under consideration: Bush-as-spokesmodel, Bush as symbol for the nation. In a way, however, perhaps this is a good thing; our policy is clearly not being driven by a single person, but seems to be a product of a group effort, of negotiations between factions, dovish (Powell) versus hawkish (Wolfowitz et al).

October 2, 2001

Lopati sends me some more interesting links on the subject of wild Japanese: William Gibson talking about the continued futuristic Japan (even in the face of economic stagnation), and an interview with Toshiya Ueno, social and media theorist/critic. As Gibson points out the history of Japan in recent times has been one of successive revolutionary changes --- but the same can be said of ancient Japan as well. Again, we have the seeming contradiction between the aspect of Japan that honors old traditions and the aspect that eagerly adopts new innovations. I think the main reason for the former is not that Japanese believe tradition is sacred --- it is, ironically, more because they have a longstanding, inherent, almost postmodern sense that every tradition is largely arbitrary. Therefore, why bother changing it? Is it really going to be better otherwise? So Japanese will accomodate traditions for a long time, beyond their usefulness, often. But --- when circumstances change, and the times warrant it, and pressure builds --- Japanese will eventually come to the point that they decide, often en masse, to accept radically different ways of living and acting, without the slightest hesitation, like some sort of cultural phase change. Unlike in America, where change seems to progress in steady, smaller, increments, in Japan, change comes in lurches. The end result is both countries end up reinventing themselves over and over again --- America in smaller steps, continually, and Japan, in leaps, separated by periods of relative stability.

I saw a news report that said something like 70% of the population is feeling depressed in the wake of the attack. There there are the many people who want to have sex with strangers to a much greater degree after the attacks. As I wrote before, my reaction has been to feel a sense of release of tension, as though I've been expecting this my whole life. "Finally." Time for battle. I feel a sense of purpose: must take care of those around me. Must think strategically. Must contribute my voice in my small way, must help others through this. If I were in the military, I'd be ready to sit down and draw up battle plans. Advising ruthlessness and compassion together. So, to me, this change is not depressing or that much of a shock. Yet, I am not happy that it's war: it's sad. I don't think I have cried more, ever. But I am not crying out of anguish; I cry when I see people feeling compassion for each other when they are suffering. There has been and will continue to be both a lot of suffering and a lot of compassion on every side of this.

October 1 (b), 2001

Caroline asked me to say something more about Japanese inner wildness. This is what I wrote to her (links added, some clarifications made):

As for Japanese being wild, well, the whole "reserved" thing is just for appearances. It's a front, so to speak. Just take a look at Japanese when we get more comfortable. Or a bunch of Japanese after they get drunk at an after-work party. Or look at the crazy way young Japanese kids dress and act in Japan --- you can see them everywhere in Japan. Have you ever seen Butoh dance? Or the way Japanese act in some of those weird religious rituals? Etc. One person told me that he said it was suspicious that practically every Japanese person he knew told him that they were "secret individualists in a sea of conformity." That's the Japanese style --- to outwardly conform but inside --- anything goes. You can see it in the rather blase attitude most Japanese have towards crazy things that kids do --- like everyone dyes their hair different colors, or 1/30th of Tokyo high school girls are involved in some sort of prostitution-like activity (not exactly prostitution --- they get "gifts" from men in exchange for dates, and when they're older, sex --- it's a popular activity in Tokyo.) I mean, yes, deep down, we really are pretty wild.
The flip side of this, of course, is that I don't think that most Japanese realize this. Which means that when a Japanese person does get to express himself or herself in a fairly direct way, it often comes out in remarkably intense ways, in a bizarre, colorful fashion, but most Japanese keep these impulses to themselves, and conform outwardly. It's kind of a giant Emperor's New Clothes society, where everybody knows that, deep down, they would prefer to be a lot more radical than they appear to be on the surface, but no one wants to rock the boat except for some artists and musicians. I think Japanese people ought to let it out more often. Loosen up. Nothing bad will happen. In fact it would do them a lot of good.

I remain surprised that we've been getting a lot smarter in foreign policy since the attacks; as I keep saying, the fact that we seem to be moving with more care than I thought possible --- particularly compared to the idiotic and boneheaded foreign policy gaffes and unilateralist positions the Bush Administration was taking prior to the attacks --- instead, we seem to be moving with some deliberation and what appears to be intelligence. We're sending in food aid, we're trying to ally with local people from all ethnic groups who are fed up with the brutal and repressive Taliban... I've wondered why this might be occurring now, and I've come up with the following hypothesis.

Normally, in peacetime, the stakes are relatively low, so pettiness rises to the top. Politics becomes more about turf battles and status, and a lot of incompetent people (those who are attracted to such things) end up holding sway over policy and getting into positions of power. The really smart people are doing other things, focused on other, less petty concerns.

But during a real crisis, the smart people who were off doing something else all become focused on the task at hand. Meanwhile, I think the petty mediocrities that tend to dominate at more peaceful times realize deep down that even they need to rise to the occasion and be concerned with more important matters --- and the smarter people, I think, get a hell of a lot more forceful now that something important's at stake. They don't sit back and let the mediocrities play --- they march in and smush them.

At least that would be my psychology.

Whatever the reason, I have to say I have been both shocked and pleased to see the level of the policy debate rise several notches since the attack. I can only hope this will persist.

We shall see once the bullets start flying.

Captain Richard Kidd (ret.) writes an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor which captures the dual nature of this peculiar war:

It will be a war of wills and, conversely, of compassion and character. We must show our enemies a level of ruthlessness that has not been part of our military nature for a long time. We will have to kill our enemies - members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, religious fanatics, and those who support them. We will have to bribe fighters away from the Taliban, and sow disinformation and dissent.

But to those who are not our enemies - the proud people of Afghanistan - we must show a level of compassion probably unheard of during war, by providing immediate humanitarian relief and making a long-term commitment to creating a stable Afghanistan. We should do this not only for humane reasons, but also as a matter of shrewd military logic - to keep people from turning against us.

Simplicity, of the kind provided by the cold war, is a luxury that this current conflict will not allow.


October 1, 2001

Even Noam Chomsky seems to grudgingly acknowledge that our government has been moving more slowly and carefully than one would have expected (which is a good thing). However he is concerned about the humanitarian crisis, and his (typically Chomsky-esque) prediction is that we will make symbolic moves to send food aid without actually doing anything significant. I hope he's wrong, and that we air drop significant amounts of food, as is being discussed. Chomsky also mentioned with alarm the same thing that I worried about last week, that is, that the Bush Administration has made disturbing comments to the effect that they're not interested in "nation-building" --- when the disastrous situation in Afghanistan is precisely what we need to address if and when the Taliban are defeated (not to mention right now, to avoid a horrendous humanitarian disaster). At the very least he suggests that we can aid the UN and other relief and rebuilding agencies who can do the "nation building" themselves. This is crucial because we need to help them in ways that we failed to do after the Soviet war ended.