January 25, 2017

The most recent New Yorker has a piece by Jill Lepore — which I can only hope is the germ of another book — in which she reveals the emergence of environmental science from a series of military tests and models made to determine the interaction of weather systems and nuclear detonations. She then goes on to discuss how the politicization of the concept of nuclear winter laid the template for politicization of environmental sciences. Carl Sagan has a large role in the article, and this passage stood out to me in light of last week’s “Blow Up The Moon” video.

Sagan, after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, in 1960, worked on a secret military project code-named A119, which had begun in 1958, a year after Sputnik. Sagan was charged with calculating “the expansion of an exploding gas/dust cloud rarifying into the space around the Moon.” The idea was to assess whether a mushroom cloud would be visible from Earth, and therefore able to serve as an illustration of the United States’ military might.

I’ve been circling around some kind of expression of why liberals are so goddamn ineffectual, especially when it comes to communicating their values, assuming they have any. I think most people have a hard time understanding that our value systems are not universal and thus find it easier to point out what we object to in others’ systems rather than making positive statements because, to our minds, this shit’s obvious. That’s definitely a failure of imagination and empathy: we see it very clearly in people who harbor elaborate conspiracy theories and would rather feel smug about being more clued in than us sheeple.

But, to perhaps a more annoying extent it’s on display from liberals who obviously haven’t thought enough about how their own beliefs may need some explanation, so you’ll get (as Travis mentioned to me the other day) folks on Facebook pointing out the Orwellian aspects of recent statements from the President and members of his administration that are, let’s say, contrary to verifiable fact, and then just leaving it at that. It should be said that observation is not critique and at any rate, simply pointing out that something reminds you of 1984 is maybe the beginning of half of an idea. Not sure what we’re supposed to gain from that keen insight of theirs. I imagine them hitting the post button with purpose, thinking, “This is going to blow some minds.” After which I guess they post the Mario Savio video without context, wipe their hands in a “that settles that” gesture, and turn to explaining how Star Wars: Rogue One is a perfect allegory of whatever else is bothering them today.

While Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” certainly discusses how totalitarian regimes seek to bend reality to their preferences through repetition of obvious lies in a way that strips words of meaning and creates an atmosphere of absurdity (in this I don’t mean an antic, Marx Bros absurdity, but the sort of horrible absurdity that drives people to docility or madness), one of its major insights is how this is done even by supposedly benign power structures. Obfuscation, cant, and argot from any entity prevents serious examination and discussion, shields the structure from criticism, and numbs us to the implications of what’s being said. Moreover, obvious falsehoods serve not so much as statements to be verified or refuted but as signals of the line the regime expects us to toe, demarcations of allowable attitudes, shibboleths — and woe unto those on the wrong side of the fence.

Remember back after 9/11 when Bill Maher got a bunch of shit for saying something typically insensitive and banal but arguably true? His gist was, no matter what else you can say about Atta and company, hijacking a plane and flying it into the building was not cowardly. Insane, cruel, monstrous? Sure, but it takes a certain amount of balls (Hell, I don’t even feel comfortable jaywalking). It was reported at the time that Ari Fleischer said It’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s unfortunate. And that’s why — there was an earlier question about has the president said anything to people in his own party — they’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that, there never is.

Now, unfortunately, Bill Maher is still somehow polluting our airwaves, but the pushback Fleischer received for this and similar statements kind of undercuts the “Orwellian” arguments. I mean, it’s only Orwellian if nobody wants to point it out. We’re not living in a country that jails or executes journalists merely for criticizing the administration (we reserve that treatment for the ones who offend our corporations).

What we’re living through now, though…sheesh. Remember when I said the outrages would come daily? It’s not even been a week and every fucking day we have to wade through lies of varying magnitude, and it seems like the easy, petty, ones get the most attention. This is because journalists, being human, are lazy and stupid. But there’s no reason why we have to compound the failures by posting them to our social feeds. Odds are if you’ve noticed that Sean Spicer said something crazy you’re not the first or funniest to comment.

There’s so much else to muddle through and I will spare you the Lakoff today, though he has been pretty astute lately about our failures of empathy and imagination. I’ll leave you with some passages from two recent essays. One is a blog post from Masha Gessen concerning the mendacity of Russian leaders from the Soviet era through today, the effect on the populace, and comparisons in style to our own bullying puppet. The other was on the New Yorker’s blog following Trump’s appearance at Langley on Saturday, and the excerpt is not about Trump but a gruesome chapter that kicked off a special phase in our adventures abroad. It should be noted that the episode discussed played a big role in motivating the invasion of Grenada for a quick and dirty show of “winning,” and presaged the bluster that underscored the hypocrisy (not to mention, y’know, illegality) of selling weapons to Iran.

The Styrofoam Presidency

The writer Andrei Sinyavsky, perhaps the first person to become known as a Soviet dissident, once quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” Buried in a dense autobiographical essay and qualified as a joke, the line nonetheless was and remains one of the most-repeated sentences among the differently minded in the Soviet Union and in Putin’s Russia. It has a way of coming to mind every time one cringes at Russia’s political spectacle—which is nearly every time one turns on the television or radio or picks up a newspaper…

The rule of the worst seemed to become a thing of the past in the 1990s, but under Putin mediocrity returned with a vengeance. Not only did the media come under the control of the Kremlin but it acquired an amateurish quality. Not only did the government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself…They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.

Sometimes vastly different processes yield surprisingly similar results. Trump is staging an assault on America’s senses that feels familiar to me—not because he admires Putin (though he does) or because he is Putin’s puppet, but because they seem to be genuinely kindred spirits.


Trump’s Vainglorious Affront to the C.I.A.

The death of Robert Ames, who was America’s top intelligence officer for the Middle East, is commemorated among the hundred and seventeen stars on the white marble Memorial Wall at C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. He served long years in Beirut; Tehran; Sanaa, Yemen; Kuwait City; and Cairo, often in the midst of war or turmoil. Along the way, Ames cultivated pivotal U.S. operatives and sources, even within the Palestine Liberation Organization when it ranked as the world’s top terrorist group. In April, 1983, as chief of the C.I.A.’s Near East division, back in Washington, Ames returned to Beirut for consultations as Lebanon’s civil war raged.

Shortly after 1 P.M. on April 18th, 1983, Ames was huddling with seven other C.I.A. staff at the high-rise U.S. Embassy overlooking the Mediterranean, when a delivery van laden with explosives made a sharp swing into the cobblestone entryway, sped past a guard station, and accelerated into the embassy’s front wall. It set off a roar that echoed across Beirut. My office was just up the hill. A huge black cloud enveloped blocks.

It was the very first suicide bombing against the United States in the Middle East, and the onset of a new type of warfare. Carried out by an embryonic cell of extremists that later evolved into Hezbollah, it blew off the front of the embassy, leaving it like a seven-story, open-faced dollhouse. Sixty-four were killed, including all eight members of the C.I.A. team. It was, at the time, the deadliest attack on an American diplomatic facility anywhere in the world, and it remains the single deadliest attack on U.S. intelligence. (Only one of the thirty attacks on U.S. missions since then, in Nairobi, in 1998, has been deadlier.)

Ryan Crocker, the embassy’s political officer, had met with Ames earlier that day. Crocker was blown against the wall by the bomb’s impact, but escaped serious injury. He spent hours navigating smoke, fires, and tons of concrete, steel, and glass debris, searching for his colleagues.

“This is seared into my mind, irretrievably,” Crocker recalled for me this weekend. “There wasn’t an organized recovery plan, not in the initial hours after the bombing. I was de facto in charge that first awful night, when you dug a little and shouted out in case there was someone alive there, and then dug a bit more. Somewhere that night, I was on that rubble heap, and a radiator caught my eye. There was an object at the foot of the radiator. It looked like a beach ball, covered thick with dust. It was Bob Ames’s head.”