March 02, 2007

Thinking about the Beats

The first time I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road was at the suggestion of some guy I hung out with in Honolulu during one of those summers, way back when, when I used to spend the breaks between Berkeley school terms in the Islands. A family thing, and not really part of the story. This guy was over there doing the same kind of thing, killing time between semesters in the most dissolute way he could find, with a buddy from San Francisco State. They were self-styled intellectuals of a sort, and had the kind of buddy chemistry which necessitated that both of them act like pretentious assholes most of the time. I was a sucker in those days for that kind of thing, or maybe it was just homesickness for conversation different from the simplified talk, often in pidgin, that went on between me and the locals, who probably resented (justifiably) my presence in the Islands in the first place. Anyway, one of these guys was working his way through Kerouac's classic novel, also a kind of buddy story. He talked about it a lot while I was driving them around Oahu. It occurred to me after a while that the car I had access to was the whole point of the "friendship" from their perspective. He (the shorter and more self-consciously intellectual of the two) talked mainly about the hipster language in the book, the "gone chicks," everything being "way cool," everyone needing to "split" all the time. In some ways he was making fun of the style, I suppose, the way he made fun of everything. One dull Sunday they finagled me into driving them to a polo match on the windward side of Oahu, which I grudgingly did, but then when they began getting drunk and snotty, as always happened, I excused myself by saying I needed to use the outhouse, then got in the car and drove back to Honolulu. They must have had a hell of a time trying to get back to Honolulu themselves, which they tried to tell me about not long after in an angry telephone call. I just laughed and hung up. I wasn't actually afraid of two fake intellectuals from San Francisco State. The locals? Sure, often. But not those two guys.

But I've found, as you have, that even out of disappointing liaisons in life you learn things, you pick up things of value. And so after a few years I bought a copy of Kerouac's book myself. That was my introduction to the Beats. Unconsciously if unwillingly influenced by the wise guy of a few years back, I focused at first on the colloquial and disheveled style of Kerouac's writing, which led me away from the point. I was a little too formalistic and doctrinaire in my approach to art in those days. My cousin, the ace novelist from Santa Cruz (via common ancestors from the Cumberland Gap), straightened me out on the significance of the Beats. My cousin was about the same age in 1955 as I attained in 1970, so while my reference points were Hippie, his were Beat. He explained his admiration for Kerouac (and he really would not brook my trivial carping about writing style) by talking about what it meant to hear dissenting voices during the Eisenhower Era, how all of society talked about the perfection of modern (increasingly suburban) American life, when just under the surface, a sensitive soul (like Kerouac) could plainly see that things were going terribly, terribly wrong. He wasn't the only one. Lewis Mumford, writing in The City in History in 1961, described an America where post World War II development left an "end product [as] an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set." So deranging was this forming lifestyle, in fact, that Mumford blamed it for the insanity which led to the nuclear arms race. Nuclear annihilation, indeed, could be seen as a suicidal escape from the oppressions of Modern America.

As is my habit when encountering something new and interesting, I read lots of the Beats after that. My first run-through of Tropic of Cancer impressed me as the best novel I'd ever read. It was almost miraculous in its evocation of time and place. And then Miller's dark counterpart to Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, Henry's own book about touring America called The Air Conditioned Nightmare. For one thing, the title could simply not be improved upon. I realized my cousin had been influenced by these writers in his satirical vignettes about modern America, in his Charlie Bates stories. "Gas Mask" concerns Charlie's encounter with the Ultimate Traffic Jam on an unnamed Los Angeles freeway, a gridlock so final, so finished, that he eventually abandons his car, lowers himself by rope from the freeway, rents an apartment in a nearby high-rise, and watches his immobile car through binoculars. A new life, a love interest, also come about while he lives in this state of deracinated anomie. Indeed, how can you better describe the rootless nature of American life than through such a brilliant parody?

In My Dinner with Andre there is a riveting moment in the long conversation when Andre talks about the Sixties as the final convulsion of a society rebelling against the forces of standardization and commercialization, the reduction of the landscape to a tacky "crapscape" (Jim Kunstler's matchless epithet) of chain stores, fast food joints, big box outlets, the whole American Trail of Sorrows. The rebellion failed, as Andre noted, and eventually Americans "became the keepers of their own prisons." We became collaborators in our captivity, a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome. Almost all of us do it now: consume too much, pay too much attention to celebrity, fill the seas, the skies, our minds with garbage (as Pete Seeger sang), encourage our kids, above all, to "make it" in American society. We live in a country which is dominated completely by Big Business which owes its primary (only) loyalty to the global network of trade. The sense of a commons is so attenuated that we sit complacently by as more and more Americans fall into poverty and out of the medical system. A mercenary army fights endless wars, and their deaths are significant only as political footballs for parties competing for the plum jobs available at the public trough. Calls to patriotism have turned to ashes in the mouths of hypocritical legislators who are simply looking for manipulative angles.

One might say that it is those who stand at the cusp, at the interface, between eras who see things most clearly. There is a moment, a twinkling, when the horror can be appreciated because the culture being abandoned is still visible, still around, as its evil successor begins to materialize. Such were the Beats. Eisenhower himself, now a kind of patron saint of America's conformist age, became something of a Beat in his final warning about the rise of the Military-Industrial Complex. It is here now, in force and in all its menacing glory. A charter member of the corporate ruling class received 53% of the popular vote in the last presidential election. The government is now in the full-time business of spying on its own citizens, compiling dossiers, subjecting them to "mathematical algorithms" by an elite and secret class of apparatchiks with no accountability. No amount of money spent on defense or in ongoing wars seems too great for Congress, even if Social Security, Medicare and the federal government itself are headed toward bankruptcy. Instead of making decisions (the nominal reason for their election), the legislative freeloaders idle away their hours passing nonbinding resolutions.

The Beats, in fact, were on to something. But now there is really no one left to Howl, to go On the Road, to point out the Nightmarish tenuousness of our decadent life. No one, at least, who can influence matters decisively. I suggested to my able cousin at one point that Charlie Bates make a comeback, that he turn his satirical gifts to the vexations of the Bush Era. Plausible, it might have seemed, as a suggestion. But not really possible. The broad audience is gone; it exists only as an illusion in the minds of those who remember that golden era of American dissent. Change in these United States will not come about through peaceful evolution or through hortatory satire. The body politic will fall apart through degenerative processes already well underway. "A throe, an eschatological heave," said another quasi-Beat, Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night.

February 28, 2007

Copy + paste = blog

Sometimes a blog can write itself:

"The European Union and the United States were at similar greenhouse-gas emission levels in 1990, but between 1990 and 2004, the EU economy grew by 32 percent and the greenhouse gas emissions went down by almost 1 percent compared to 1990 levels. By contrast, the U.S. economy grew by 52.6 percent between 1990 and 2004, but its emissions grew by 15.8 percent and are projected to increase to 32.4 percent above 1990 levels by 2010."

John Bruton, European Union Ambassador to the United States, February 28, 2007, special to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Researchers say [narcissism] scores have risen steadily since 1982 when the first of some 16,475 college students across the United States completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The survey asks for responses to such statements as 'If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,' 'I think I am a special person,'and 'I can live my life any way I want.'"

"Twenge said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favour self-promotion over helping others. In addition, the study says narcissists 'are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviours.'"

"Researchers cite the 'self-esteem movement' of the 1980s, saying self-confidence building has gone too far."

Associated Press, February 27, 2007.

Any questions?

February 27, 2007

Das Leben des Anderes

"The Lives of Others" deserved to win Best Foreign Picture, if you ask me (and you didn't). Set mainly in the pre-Glasnost days of East Germany, the movie tells the chilling story of Stasi (State Security) instrusion into the lives of a group of talented artists and intellectuals in an unnamed East German city before the fall of the Wall, and of the destructive effect of surveillance on sanity and human happiness. A fascinating character study, and a timely reminder of the dangers of trading freedom of speech and association for an illusory "state security."

Which brings me, as so often, to the question of America's move to the Right. Joe Conason is out with a book called "It Can Happen Here," a play on the title of Sinclair Lewis's (unreadable) old novel "It Can't Happen Here," (meaning also that It Can Happen Here), which is about the slide toward Fascism under Bush. I think we're at the point, actually, where we can say with some confidence that American liberal democracy will outlast Bush, and the "photo finish" I talked about the other day (liberal democracy versus January 2009) comes out of my own despair over the unnecessary destruction of American institutions that Bush introduced as part of a disorganized and hapless approach to seizing power for the "Unitary Executive."

Conason organizes familiar material using a Sinclair Lewis outline, trotting out the Lewis line about "Fascism coming to America wrapped in a flag and bearing a cross." I think books like his are part of a vital and healthy dissent, and essential to preserving the ideas of the Founding Fathers so that when Bush at long last leaves town, we can remember what we used to be about. It's interesting, however, to contrast what a finished totalitarian state, as depicted in "Das Leben," looks like compared to Bush's fumbling attempt to undermine American liberty. In the GDR (East Germany) an astonishing 200,000 citizens were offical informants for the Stasi, out of a population of about 15 million. That's penetration; that's serious intrusion. People were routinely arrested and imprisoned for saying things that sounded anti-state. The East German apparatus grew, naturally, out of Nazi practices as supplemented and made more "humane" by Soviet security techniques. These people were deadly serious about repression.

Bush is sometimes compared to Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, and this is of course the most immediate historical parallel that comes to mind. The situations are distinguishable, however. Hitler came to power out of an intense, personal and monomaniacal desire to rule supreme. He had unquestionable gifts of organization and motivation, and he was animated by a malignant ideology of hate and violence. He had been imprisoned; he had been debased and made a political pariah after the Beer Hall Putsch; he had fought and been wounded in World War I; he had come out of a difficult Austrian background of failure and marginalization, and was attempting to seize power on the big stage of German resurgence.

Bush, on the other hand (and it's our saving grace), is not really like that at all. Instead of a fire-breathing, highly ambitious ideologue armed with ruthless motivation, he's a homegrown product of America's decadent period. He came out of privilege and limitless money. He had no ambition for 40 years except to get drunk and deranged on booze and coke. By the time Hitler was 43, he was Chancellor of Germany and head of the Nazi Party, and he achieved this lofty pinnacle beginning from rural poverty and without political connections. Bush's father had been, among other things, President of the United States. Bush is not talented, except as a content-free vehicle in the service of corporate interests. He has no idea what he's doing. He's not charismatic and he doesn't motivate anybody. Unlike Hitler's Germany, America under Bush continues to lose ground economically and in its relative standing in the world. If he's a Fascist, he's the laziest and most disorganized Fascist in the history of the movement. But as I say, we are fortunate that it is so.

I recall after 9/11 that British citizens, in particular, sometimes sounded skeptical about America's over-the-top reaction to this single event of invasion. They were, of course, prudent and circumspect in their grumbling, but the idea was simple: America needed to get over itself. Britain had been bombed nonstop by the Luftwaffe from 1940 until Hitler finally turned his attention to the East. Night after night, all the major British cities took a pounding, thousands and thousands of civilians died. Day and night, the whole country was engulfed in flames for nearly a year. And when the Russian invasion failed, Hitler experimented with his V-2 rockets on those same British Isles with devastating lethality.

A group of Saudi and Egyptian nut cases flew commerical airliners into office buildings in New York and into the Pentagon. We had clear warnings that it was coming, but the federal government was too lazy and incompetent to react. Bush, seeing a political opportunity for reelection, seized on the attacks and immediately divided American history into "before" and "after" 9/11. "Everything changed." The American electorate, ignoring the inconvenient observation that this inarticulate faker was the one who failed to react to the warnings in the first place, bought into the story line. This is typical of American hysteria. In a similar way, the changes wrought by the "Mayberry Machiavellis" are hyped and exaggerated. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales - they love pushing people around for political effect, such as Guantanamo detainees and Abu Ghraib prisoners, but with occasional notable exceptions early in their reign, such as Jose Padilla, they lay off American citizens. East Germany, as a police state, was the real deal, run with characteristic German efficiency. Its purpose was to perpetuate power. Bush, Cheney and the gang piss all over America's noble traditions without anything, really, to show for it. All the violations of due process, the intrusion of NSA spying, the squalor of the signing statements, invading Iraq, the elimination of habeas corpus for the helpless, the torture -- all of it, it's for nothing. Bush & Cheney's sole agenda is to redistribute tax dollars of ordinary Americans to big business with military connections, and they do this through exaggerating nonexistent threats from irrelevant countries.

In some ways, our overreaction to this, the comparison to great Fascist regimes of recent history, parallels the hysterical overreaction to 9/11. We take ourselves, our precious selves, oh so seriously. America does face serious external threats, such as the danger of a terrorist nuke, but about those threats we do almost nothing. It's boring, unglamorous work. Who cares about port security, or X-ray machines for cargo holds, or enforcement of Nunn-Lugar? How can that thrive on the front page? When Bush leaves office, the blogosphere will contract by 50% and we'll be left with all those niggling, real problems that were neglected during our orgy of Fascism Envy. A spoiled, indolent and seriously overweight populace will have to look then for the Next Big Thing to distract them.

February 26, 2007

Apocalypse How?

"These people are going to detonate a nuclear device inside the United States ... and we're going to have no one to blame but ourselves." -- Michael Scheuer, former head of the C.I.A.'s bin Laden unit, to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, February 19, 2007.

That isn't really news; it's sensational and au courant, but not really news. The Nunn-Lugar Act was passed years ago to deal with the very real threat of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists, and many experts, such as Graham Allison at the Kennedy School at Harvard, have offered in Senate testimony the probability estimates of an actual detonation. In late 2004, the guess was that the chance of a nuclear explosion somewhere in the world was 70% over the coming decade.

It's difficult to be more precise, of course, or even to know what to do with a probability estimate such as that. We could usefully contrast it with survival statistics in cancer research, for example. If we say that the five-year survival rate for a given type of cancer is 70%, then we can test the estimate by seeing how many survivors are around five years later. With sufficient numbers in the sample and standard scientific controls, the guesstimate can be affirmed or refuted. With a single, discrete event like a terrorist nuke, it's difficult to quantify, refute or affirm in the same way. Logically, any probability greater than zero during a given 10-year period would be affirmed by the actual event. Only if the prognosticator said the chances were, on one hand, zero; or at the other extreme, 100%, could we definitively say whether the guess was right or wrong.

So the purpose of such a probability estimate is to give us a general feeling. Should we be scared shitless, or is it just a Hollywood scenario pitch? If scientists with lots of data at their disposal start throwing around numbers like 70%, what do you think? In terms of my own street cred, I was, a long time ago, lead counsel for the intervenor in the Diablo Canyon licensing proceedings, through which Pacific Gas & Electric sought from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a green light to operate twin megawatt reactors built on an active earthquake fault in Avila Beach, California. Part of the proceedings required me to execute an Affidavit of Nondisclosure forbidding me to divulge any information acquired through my review of classified information in the clean rooms maintained on site at PG&E. That's been easy, and the silly nature of hyped-up classification was one of the two lessons I learned from the litigation. The other was that the NRC provides no real oversight of the nuclear industry because the appointees to the Commission are all industry hacks calling in political favors. As it was then, so it is now; the difference is that the blogosphere now extensively covers Bush's continuation of these corrupt practices, so that we have, for example, coal industry lobbyists in charge of America's "fight" against global warming.

Those are valuable lessons to learn at the callow age of 32. The federal government is (a) thoroughly, utterly corrupt, and hides many of its mistakes through (b) abuse of the classification process. For purposes of thematic continuity: these sad factoids relate to the existential danger posed by terrorist nukes. How bad is the danger? The information is all classified. And who's in charge of protecting us? Hacks, such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who don't know their ass from a hot rock.

Those who are privy to the information necessary to blow us to kingdom come include Islamic extremists, even if you, loyal American citizen, are not among the favored, in-the-know cohort. The basic information relevant to building a nuke is available now on the Internet or in public libraries, although the generalized diagrams or details are insufficient for a workable device. A terrorist would need either (1) an actual, assembled bomb, or (2) the materials to build one with, assisted by a bomb-making physicist.

If I were devising a Hollywood scenario, I would go for Door #2. One thing I learned (but not from classified sources) back in those glory days of within-the-system radicalism is that a standard commerical light-water reactor (such as those at Diablo Canyon, San Onofre, or dotting the landscape all over France) produces about 500 pounds of plutonium per year. About 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of plutonium is all you need for a good, solid, serviceable 10-kiloton bomb (in the Trinity shot ball park). In all the controversy over Iran's "nuclear program," we keep reading about Condi Rice's insistence that Iran "stop its uranium enrichment" as a condition of bilateral talks. Sometimes I actually wonder to myself: are Condi, Bush & Cheney so stupid they actually don't know? Uranium enrichment is the long way home. The United States undertook uranium enrichment as part of the Manhattan Project for one very simple reason: there were no nuclear reactors around to produce plutonium. But they undertook this extraordinarily complicated process because they had to. You can't find plutonium in a mine (except in infinitesimal quantities as the result of "natural reactor piles" sometimes found in uranium deposits). You make it in a reactor. A light water reactor uses U-238 (the plentiful kind) enriched to 3% (or more) U-235 (the highly radioactive isotope), all of it packed into long, cylindrical fuel rods. In the course of producing heat, through the neutron flux in the reactor core, the U-238 is altered (through a couple of chemical intervening steps) to Pu-239 - Plutonium. This silvery metal from Pluto's dark realm must be extracted from the spent fuel rods in a reprocessing plant by chemical means. The United States doesn't do this anymore, but France, England and (ahem) Russia do.

There's your weak link: Russia and all the former Soviet republics, particularly those with significant Muslim populations. This is where we're paying a terrible price for George Bush's anti-social personality disorder. His inability to get along with people has transmogrified into a global, existential crisis. Hate to say it, but it's true, folks. Bush's weird personal problems have succeeded in alienating Russia, which has strong connections to Iran, and the "crusade" bullshit he uses to galvanize America into unnecessary wars has polarized Muslim sentiment against us. His abrogation of the ABM treaty without bringing Russia along on a joint venture to develop a "missile shield" against rogue nation nukes; his enlisting of former Soviet Republics into NATO, and stationing new missile sites on Russia's border; and his adamant refusal to "talk" to Iran unless they cease doing something they don't need to do in order to become a nuclear threat - all this stupidity has added immeasurably to the danger.

We need the assistance of every advanced civilized nation on Earth to help us counter the threat of a terrorist nuke. We can't afford to be at odds with a country (Russia) which poses no threat to America's safety, yet which possesses not only finished nuclear weapons but tons of raw plutonium. We have to talk to everybody, all the time. There is no upside to this silly posturing, this Axis of Evil crap. It is the ultimate zero-sum game: one mushroom cloud here in the "homeland," and our days as a viable polity are over. We need to pull for that 30% chance it won't happen, and we need January 2009 to happen as soon as it can.