Friday, May 27, 2016

The Essence of Truthiness

Reading the works of Martin Heidegger, two things are readily apparent. 1) It makes perfect sense he was a Nazi and 2) Plato has a lot to answer for.

That second may not cover his entire oeuvre but it's front and center in The Essence of Truth, a book compiled from Heidegger's lectures on Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. Over two hundred pages of Heidegger doing a close reading of Plato's dialogues, teasing out all the implications and constructing brick by brick a complex definition of Truth - that just so happens to coincide with his fixation on Being but hey, Western Philosophy - however it is all rooted in a single word: ἀλήθεια.

That's "aletheia" for y'all without too much book learnin'. Heidegger translates it as literally meaning "unhidden" though I asked my Hellenophone wife and the modern translation is simply "truth." We'll get back to that in a minute, but it's worth examining not just the implication of Truth being that which is un-hidden but the presumption that it would be hidden in the first place.

This is more than simply the idea that Truth must be reached through investigation, though that is a part of it. Rather, owing to Plato's Theory of Forms, it follows that the Truth of things cannot be perceived or empirically determined, but rather arises through a more intuitive process. Just as all of physical matter reflects a perfect metaphysical abstraction, so is Truth understood only through the direct revelation in the soul of the philosopher.

This is the heart of the Allegory of the Cave, that humanity in general only experiences a flawed shadow of the Truth. Or at least the Truth as conceived by Plato. From this follows Plato's political philosophy of benevolent dictatorship, where the best the ignorant masses can do is agree to be ruled by the select few who can walk outside the cave and into the light - though Plato also claims these enlightened few, when trying to spread the Truth to the dunderheads in the dark, suffer resistance and ridicule. A less charitable reading would call this rationalization for oligarchy sprinkled with the angsty teen's lament of "You just don't understand!" but it has undeniably had a far-reaching effect throughout history and all of Western Civilization, from political theory to theology.

But what if Plato is wrong?

What if Truth is much more self-evident? What if it can be determined in a more methodological rather than intuitive approach? What if it is painful and disturbing? That last question is at the heart of Existentialism, as it inverts the usual Platonic model of essence before existence. You're certainly free to believe either but believing as Plato that the universe follows an understandable and humanity-friendly order is going to cause you some anxiety when you experience the chaos and indifference of the cosmos. This might lead you to reconsider your assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.

Or you'll need a scapegoat.

See what I did there!?!

There's not much in the Anglophone media about the current Greek crisis as it's experienced by actual Greeks. Probably because it would hurt the narrative promoted by the bankster class that it's all due to Greek inefficiency and laziness. So what luck for all of us that Sophia Nikolaidou's The Scapegoat is in English!

Ostensibly about the sovereign debt crisis that kicked off in 2010, the novel actually bounces back and forth through history, contrasting a previous era when Greece found itself caught between the maneuverings of Great Powers. Specifically, the murder of George Polk in the middle of the Greek Civil War. Of course that "Civil War" was less about Greek politics and more about the US and UK pitting their proxies against the Soviet proxies in the Democratic Army of Greece.

It's always for the sake of "democracy" when wealthy nations kill...

Anyways, Nikolaidou fictionalizes the events and persons surrounding Polk so she can say what she wants without getting lost in the chaotic minutiae of history. And what she says is exactly that you can't rely on that chaotic minutiae to provide the Truth.

This is where the modern storyline of The Scapegoat comes in, focused on too-cool-for-school Minas Georgiou. Really, his very first lines in the novel are about how he's sitting out the infamous Greek university entrance exams because, well, "Fuck this shit, bruh." University is a big deal in Greece, inspiring cram schools and gut-twisting anxiety that should be familiar to every teenager in China, and Minas wants none of it, to the everlasting horror of his mother.

Enter Marinos Soukiouroglou - hereafter referred to as Souk because Holy God - the eccentric history teacher who forces the kids to think rather than just regurgitate data. On the urging of Mama Georgiou, he assigns Minas a special research project on the murder of Jack Talas - the fictionalized Polk - and the hapless Manolis Gris who got sent to prison to keep the US foreign aid flowing.

Nobody actually believes Gris is the guilty party. Not in the modern storyline and not even in his own storyline. As Minas soon learns, the government and police knew very well Gris wasn't the guilty party but saw him as a convenient sacrifice to the bruised egos of their American allies, best exemplified when some high muckety-muck from the Ministry of Justice tries to cajole Gris into signing a confession. He talks about honor and duty to his country, to which Gris responds:

-Sir, why don't you ask your son to sacrifice himself? To have his name go down in history as a benefactor of the nation? My family has already paid a high enough price. I lost a brother in the war. My mother can't bear to lose another child.

Everyone is scandalized. "The Minister let loose for a while and then stormed out, slamming the door behind him, and [Police Commander] Tzitzilis vowed to punish the prisoner's audacity." It's a synecdoche for the entire case: It's not that the authorities are actively conspiring to punish an innocent man, they just don't care who suffers as long as they keep their phony-baloney jobs. Parallels to the ECB are as obvious as a kick in the goolies.

Had she stopped there, Nikolaidou would have crafted the definitive novel of her time. However she clearly possesses the obsession of the true artist because, as the novel and Minas's project reach its climax, she skewers the righteous self-satisfaction of every character and likely her own audience. The Gris affair is perfect conspiracy fodder for the conspiracy-obsessed Greek culture, which can always find some reason to blame "The Government" for every personal misfortune. Even the otherwise enlightened Souk falls into this, demanding that Minas present some alternate theory as to who killed Polk, whether the Greek government or the Communists - or even a British foreign services officer, as hinted in an aside late in the novel.

But Souk has taught Minas too well and the boy refuses to claim any un-hidden Truth. With the neutral rationalism of the best historians, he simply reports the facts as they are, and leaves interpretation to his audience. This outrages Souk, who harangues Minas before the entire school - which prompts the other students encountered throughout the narratives, from the overachievers to the muddling fuck-ups, to rise in defense of not-knowing. It's a microcosm of a generational conflict, between the old guard scrambling to find someone to blame, some scapegoat, the Truth that remains hidden... and the generation growing up in the financial crisis who face the much starker challenge of simple survival. The harsh realities of the world certainly follow chains of causality - whether ECB demands for austerity or US demands for a scalp - but even when this process is transparent, the results are unavoidable. The kids listening to their elders lecture on the importance of a university degree or "what really happened" in a murder case from half a century ago are still living with austerity, no matter who is to blame.

Generational conflict is in fact the great unrecognized theme of The Scapegoat. The confrontation between Minas and Souk is even foreshadowed by Minas venting over his proudly literary grandmother:

Grandma calls it the Socratic Method. She considers it the highest pedagogical technique. I call it cornering a person. Instead of just telling you what I want you to know, I ambush you with questions. You try to escape, but you can’t. You can run whichever way you like, but in the end you’ll fall right into my trap.

It's an overdue critique of Plato's heavily scripted "dialogues." A criticism Mikhail Bakhtin would likely appreciate, as he identified the essence of dialogue being not just the exchange of ideas but that those ideas are forever informing and influencing each other. This leads to much more mutable truths as opposed to Truth, something that a budding Existentialist like Minas - and all his peers - are much more comfortable with than their meaning-obsessed elders.

The Greek intellectual tradition stretching back to Plato offers both a sense of meaning and order to the universe. An explicitly hidden meaning, requiring interrogation and reasoning to ultimately arrive at, but a meaning nonetheless. Minas and the Austerity Generation, perfectly capable of such philosophical investigation, have discovered the self-evident Truth that there is no meaning to any of this. They can reject this perfectly rational conclusion, insist as Souk and the US and the ECB does that someone is to blame... or they can move forward and make the best of this indifferent world.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Man Who Sold the War

In it's continuing quest to stop being the paper of record, the New York Times went ahead and printed this here piece ghost-authored by one General Mark A. Milley. It's the sort of thing that's become the norm among "serious" journalists since the Bush era - falsehoods wrapped in falsehoods and presenting the nagging question of if these people are liars, fools, or some adaptive combination.

Let's start with the falsehood that serves as the premise for the entire article: The US Army is actually good at counter-insurgency warfare. This is the position of General Milley, therefore it is the position of the Times and their stenographer Helene Cooper. No polite American careerist is allowed to dispute anything said by the US military and it's not like the Times actually wants to ask the tough questions anyway, that might hurt their access. Instead, they regurgitate Milley's claim that the Army has been fighting guerillas and terrorists so long, they've forgotten how to wage a conventional war in the classic NATO versus Warsaw Pact scenario.

As anyone who's been following the War on Terror could have told the Times - and Milley - that is the exact opposite of the problem. It took four years of occupying Iraq before brassholes like Milley would even admit to an insurgency and the solution - the much vaunted "Surge" of 2007 - was an exercise in Americans striving to feel good about themselves. Bombings and beheadings went down but not even David "Lost a quarter-million Kalashnikovs" Patraeus would acknowledge that common guerilla doctrine is to go to ground when the enemy is out in force. American patrols spent more time zipping up and down the Baghdad streets in their humvees while the various militias had a nice sit down with some pistachios and shisha as they waited for the big dumb Yankees to finally get bored and go home.

If you still think it was such a strategic success, just look at the abbatoir that is the Sunni Triangle today. The existence of ISIS is due entirely to the US military's failure at counter-insurgency operations. Zoom out to include Libya and Afghanistan, and it becomes all the more certain as one is a failed state and the other is a divided territory with more than half the real estate owned by the Taliban everyone thought was over and done with in 2002.

So that's the heart of Milley's thesis right out the window - but we're not stopping there! No, this general just can't stop being wrong. About everything.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the War on Terror hasn't been a total failure, there's still Milley's argument that the US Army doesn't know how to fight a conventional war. This might at first seem like a legitimate concern, after a decade and a half of counter-insurgency and all the resources flowing into the much vaunted Special Operations. However, this claim is quite simply false as demonstrated by, well, anyone who's been through the Fort Benning School of Infantry in all this time. Or the stated doctrine of the United States Marine Corps. Light infantry craft may not get as much attention in Michael Bay movies but it's still taught, drilled, and drilled again by the two services who would take the brunt of a conventional land war. Even the Rangers, everyone's favorite JSOC skinheads, are first and foremost shock infantry.

Don't take my word for it, take it from former Ranger medic Stan Goff:

The mystique of Special Operations (including the Rangers, who are the Special Operations’ shock infantry component) is useful as a deterrent, but it is not reflective of a reality. The Pentagon and others want you and the rest of the world to believe this mystique, because your fear and the fear of the rest of the world is what maintains the efficacy of a huge bluff. This government wants us to spin out as many scary fantasies as possible, because it serves the dual purpose of either portraying opponents of the military as “conspiracy nuts” or promoting precisely the myth of spooky invincibility that keeps us in line.

Goff was writing on the Pat Tillman fratricide, an event that didn't do much for said mystique of the Rangers or for then Secretary of Defense Rumsfled's claims of "good news" from Afghanistan.

Related to that debacle, the assassination of Osama bin Laden by DEVGRU - a stage-managed affair where some forty to sixty SEALs met no resistance as an ISI officer lead them through the compound to their target. Neither of these cases do much for the mystique of Special Operations but they would hardly lend credence to any claims that US troops have somehow forgotten how to fight a "regular" war.

But let's grant that too, for the sake of argument. The DOD has been so good at fighting terrorism that it's forgotten how to fight a real war and then oh no! The Russians are rolling on Berlin!

Seriously, the Times article presents Russia as the next big threat...

Again assuming for the sake of argument that Putin actually wants to conquer the world rather than just the good beachfront property of Crimea, this does not present a convincing argument for some grand Back To Basics military doctrine because of the one word the Times article refuses to use: Nukes.

America's got 'em, Russia's got 'em, and if you really think a full-on land war in Europe won't see 'em fly, just listen to what a retired Russian general has to say:

The journalist asks again, like just to make sure: "We [the Soviets] would have struck first?" and the General says again, "Of course!"  
And he makes it real clear that he's not just talking about conventional first strikes. The interviewer says, "But [Soviet] Foreign Minister Gromyko said that the USSR would not use nuclear weapons first!"  
I love Burlakov's answer: "He said one thing and we [the Soviet staff] thought another. We are the ones responsible for wars." 

Nothing they teach at Camp Lejeune or Fort Benning can overcome a mushroom cloud, rendering Milley's thesis moot. Even if it wasn't already wrong.

"But what about China!" says anyone trying to look smart. "They're a much more likely opponent in this hypothetical World War III and won't use their own nukes because reasons!"

So let's assume a US versus China war - sans nukes. In that case it would be a naval engagement in the South China Sea, leaving Milley to twiddle his thumbs at CENTCOM.

And it would be a clusterfuck.

Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.

Those are the exact words of the US Naval Institute, admitting that this final scenario is over before it starts. You don't even need a nuke in a ballistic missile - hell, a bunch of rocks would disable the runway of an aircraft carrier, and that would mean no more air power projection. Factor in speedboats firing swarms of cheap missiles and it's Battle of Salamis meets the Keystone Kops.

At every level, the argument that the US Army needs to revitalize it's most bread and butter branch is ridiculously wrong. So why did Milley take his story all the way to a credulous New York Times? Well, there's the usual duplicity of anyone with stars on their shoulders auditioning for a lobbyist job. But look at where Milley is:

In West Africa, Army and Special Operations forces are working with militaries from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and other countries to try to stem a recent wave of attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has taken to hitting hotels and other tourist sites. 
And in East Africa, American military advisers and trainers are working with regional counterparts to fight the Qaeda-affiliated Shabab... The United States is also working in Africa with former Russian satellite states like Angola...

The US is again following in the footsteps of past empires and delving into Africa. Sure, there's Bokos and Shababs and all but there's also billions of dollars worth of the minerals needed to make the mobile device your reading this on right now. Securing precious resources, whether from reactionary dickweeds or democratically elected governments, has always been the purpose of American military power for the past century.

General Milley is singing an old familiar song, and nobody at the New York Times cares that he sings so badly.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What Innovation?

With Donald Trump poised to campaign as the anti-establishment upstart for the rest of this year, let's take a look at the philosophy underpinning his whole image: that business produces something good.

The connection between capitalism and innovation is more than a cable news talking point, though it contains all the veracity. This assumption has, if not driven decades of legislation and popular opinion, at least served as the purported reasons for aligning more and more of the world towards corporate interests. Letting "entrepreneurs" do as they wilt supposedly fires the imagination of all the John and Sally Galts, sitting in their usually inherited executive suites. This is presented as a good thing for everyone as whatever these rugged individualists can dream up will trickle down to the rest of us who are too busy working to come up with the Next Big Thing.

What is never addressed is how much good said Next Big Thing might actually be. This is an important point to consider, as so much of the "innovative" tech industry is at best a solution looking for a problem. The fact that so many of them don't work is another issue never addressed in polite conversation or TED Talks. This is inevitable though, as the much-vaunted free market begins and ends with products.

When it comes to artistic expression and scientific inquiry - the only meaningful human endeavors - capitalism fails even more thoroughly. You can go see various Hollywood stars wailing on each other in spandex and CGI right now to see what happens when film is a slave to the market, or just go back through half of this blog. As far as the sciences the record is much much worse.

In fact, business interests are actively stymieing scientific research. From outrageous operating costs to rent-seeking patents on knowledge, "free enterprise" is demonstratively neither in the ever more important field of genetics. Worse still, the demand for pseudoscience and quackery rewards charlatans from climate change denialists to that Blood Type Diet moron. Theories that are wrong and outright harmful, but maintained by the vagaries of a market predicated on irrational consumer desires.

And then there's the not so small matter of NASA. Space flight remains the most titanic - and titanically expensive - human achievement but the ultrawealthy United States hasn't been beyond Earth's orbit since 1972. Unless you count unmanned drones and you don't. No one does. As has been pointed out before, there is no profit-motive in travelling to the stars so there has been no "innovation" in forty-four years.

The coddling of the business class does not promote any real innovation or progress. It just sanctifies monomania.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

James Joyce on Yo Mama

In Dubliners, James Joyce examines the condition of women in Irish society most notably through "The Boarding House" and "A Mother." In both stories, a mother seeks to establish her daughter securely in society but must find a subtle, even underhanded means of doing so. Their relative success in this endeavor lays bare the absurd restrictions on women of the time and how such a state contributes to the development of a sly and conniving personality.

"The Boarding House" centers on Mrs. Mooney, the proprietress of the titular house, and her schemes to offload her own daughter Poly onto a husband. Having witnessed her own husband squander her father's meat business on drink, she addresses this problem with an at times brutal pragmatism, allowing her daughter to flirt with the young men who pass through her house. Rather than seek to protect her daughter, as would typically be expected of a mother in a time of such strict norms governing the sexes, she allows her daughter to become involved with one boarder to such a degree that Polly finds herself pregnant.

While such a condition would normally be a crisis for an unwed girl in this time and place, her mother sees an opportunity. Mr. Dornan, Polly's paramour, holds a respectable job with a winery which he cannot afford to lose and comes from a financially stable family, clearly of better means than the proprietress. Considering her daughter's flirtations and the how Joyce elsewhere leaves sexual situations implied but unspoken, it is questionable whether or not Mr. Dornan is indeed the father. However, the mother skillfully manipulates him into entering into marriage with her daughter, ostensibly to soothe her outrage.

Mrs. Kearney of "A Mother" attempts similar, if less scandalous, advancement of her daughter but finds less success. A woman of only middling ability but enough to understand the benefits of propriety, Mrs. Kearney pushes for Kathleen, her musically inclined daughter, to perform at a local community hall. Mrs. Kearney takes the vocation much more seriously than her own daughter, who simply enjoys accompanying the theatrical productions and either out of ignorance or indifference does not press the matter of her contracted pay. Mrs. Kearns presses on her behalf, harrying the old and lame director of the hall who argues for the hall's strained finances as the reason Kathleen cannot receive the full amount. Mrs. Kearney challenges this claim, asserting that were her daughter a man then she would receive the full amount, which instead earns a condescending dressing down by the director. Though Mrs. Kearney made a salient point, and though her daughter was indeed entitled to the contracted amount, she went about claiming the money in a manner considered inappropriate for a woman by society.

Through Mrs. Mooney and Mrs. Kearney, Joyce illustrates how women, though limited by social norms, may still exercise their own agency. However, he also demonstrates how doing so requires cunning and moral flexibility, in the contrast of the success of Mrs. Mooney and the failure of Mrs. Kearney. Such compromise reflects the broader condition of a people under foreign occupation, as the Irish were for so long under the British, where the indigenous population finds traditional means of economic advancement limited and so must connive new, morally questionable methods in order to survive.