Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Internationale"?

That was the title to an e-mail that came to me a few days ago, from someone who thrills as I do to the overthrow of an undemocratic regime. But the course of rebellion and revolution since the 1970s makes me doubt that what will emerge from the ashes of the Mubarak regime is anything like democratic socialism.And that says a lot about the agonies of the left in the 21st century.

Once upon a time, when some people assumed that history had a clear direction and an obvious endpoint, it was safe (if not entirely discerning) to assume that the end point of human progress would be socialism. Those days are over. And the disappointing trajectories of Central and Eastern European Societies since the toppling of communism, the Iranian revolution, and China since Tiananmen are forceful reminders that rising up does not always lead to a better future.

In their calls for democracy and economic justice, the demonstrators in Cairo are demanding the kinds of things that one expects from the left. Whether something like a "left" will emerge out of this is not clear. I hope so, but the recent course of history doesn't make me optimistic.

Mubarak's regime rests on sand, and the policy makers in the USA and Israel who put their faith in Mubarak were sorely mistaken. Change is a constant, even if the direction of change is hard to predict and even harder to control.

Here's hoping that the people of Egypt get justice, democracy, peace and prosperity.

The Master Switch

We purchased our first I-pod about a week ago, basically in order to start the Herculean task of downloading my many, many CDs into a little box, thereby obviating the need to hold onto the physical discs, and thereby obviating one of the most frequent issues of domestic discord between me and my always beautiful wife, Jane. As I was doing the downloading, I found myself reading Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf, 2010), a history and meditation on communications history and policy in the United States since the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall, and rise) of AT&T, and the incestuous relationships between our phones, our radios and TVS, our computers, the companies they created, and the regulators who love them. I can’t think of a book I have read recently from which I have learned more .

Wu is basically, as far as I can figure out, something of a left-libertarian, whose hero is Thurman Arnold, the New Deal trust buster, and who believes that while regulation is necessary for the communications industry, to combat its inherent tendency to monopolization, it needs to be done lightly, and most communications regulation has always been a disaster, accentuating monopolization rather than curbing it, , and points to the 1996 Telecommunications Act as perhaps the worst offender, obviating most of the gains from competitiveness achieved in the initial break-up of AT&T.
Reading Wu, I think I understand for the first time how the packaging of information, so central to the internal, is inherently decentralizing of any communications network. And because no one created or owns the internet the way AT &T owned the long distance lines that were at the heart of its monopoly, this had led, rather than one huge monopoly largely controlling not only the communication network itself, but almost all the R &D associated with it, while the internet has spawned a million communication industry start ups. There surely is no industry that had been more stifled by regulation than communications. Wu is a defender of “net neutrality” and the larger point I came away with from Wu’s essential book is that, as the revival of ATT shows, that despite the inherently decentralized nature of the internet, without new Thurman Arnolds, new monopolies, that benefit only its owners, rather than the public as a whole, will proliferate as much as new technologies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

First Thoughts on the Egyptian Crisis

First thoughts on the events sweeping the Arab world, which seem to be to the most significant events since the fall of the shah. The fragility of power, when it is suddenly exposed, is always breathtaking. This will fundamentally challenge the preconceptions of America’s role in the Middle East since the Carter administration, propping up sclerotic, increasingly unpopular regimes in the interest of an increasingly elusive “stability,” a stability that was fatally undermined at home, in the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, and the dots can be easily connected from the fall of Lehman Brothers to the impending fall of Hosni Mubarak. May the Egyptians and Tunisians take this opportunity to reshape their countries in a truly democratic fashion, and we have to trust moderate Islamism to find its own way. In any event, the end of the Nasserist experiment in Egypt is long overdue.

If I may be parochial for a moment, what impact might this have on Israel and its endless impasse with its neighbors? I suppose everyone will see this through their own preconceptions. Those who are not really interested in negotiations with the Palestinians will see this as additional proof that the instability of the region makes enduring peace impossible. Those who feel differently will see argue that the ending of the wobbly pax America in the middle east will and must finally light a fire under Israel and force it to stop haggling over settlements it never should built in the first place, and strike a deal similar to the one outlined in the Al-Jazeera releases this past week. (That deal is looking better and better.) I guess one of the big uncertainties is the impact of all this unexpected democracy on the shaky, western-backed PA. In the end this will either, in a way that all the worlds’ jawboning never could, compel Israel to seek real peace with the Palestinians. Or not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Did He Do?

In 1994, I think I was, I had the great misfortune to spend about six months working with Jonathan Soffer. The problem, I should hasten to add, was not with Jonathan. We had been hired by two crazy people, married to each other, to update a very prominent one-volume encyclopedia, and we were sort of stuck in a room together, somewhere in midtown, surrounded by hundreds of reference works, writing about everything from sand slugs and berkelium, to Pure Land Buddhism and feminism. It was sort of fun writing about everything, but the people we worked for were impossible, and Jonathan and I spent the day talking, and plotting our escapes, and we both eventually did, and we both went onto our respective careers. (This was, BTW, the last time I was ever gainfully employed in the city of New York.)

Jonathan has just published the first scholarly biography of Ed Koch, entitled Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. Koch cooperated with Jonathan on the biography, and knowing that Jonathan’s politics were somewhat to the left of mine (no mean feat), I have wondered for several years would he would have to say about hizzoner. Its an excellent book, respectful and thoughtful, offering an overview of the city as a whole during the three terms of Koch’s administration, from 1977 to 1989. Jonathan shows that in many ways Koch was the last white liberal mayor of the city, though his liberalism became increasingly attenuated as his tenure progressed. He gives Koch credit where it is due, especially in his housing program, and demerits when they are called for, and in all it’s a nuanced accounts of his ups and downs, highs and lows.
The most salient fact about the Koch administration is that New York City was widely seen as falling about in every possible way in the late 1970s, and by the time he left office, the city was firmly on the way to its 1990s rehabilitation. Koch did this by encouraging reinvestment and redevelopment, helping to make gentrification an (expensive) household word. Did Koch have an alternative? Probably not. Manhattan is not an island, outside of the more general forces of capitalism, and all the winds in the 1980s were blowing towards a free market. Would more or less the same thing have happened if someone else had been mayor? Probably, but the whole point of writing and reading historical biographies is get a reminder of the role that individuals play in history. Perhaps New York City had special advantages that explain the difference of its trajectory from, say, Rochester or Buffalo, but certainly Koch had a major role in what went right (and wrong) in the post-fiscal crisis city. The best thing that can be said about Koch is that he generally did the best he could under the tight constraints of a bad and illiberal time. And this is the best that can be said about any Democratic politician, with any real measure of power, on the local, state, or national level, in the two decades since Koch left the public stage. And compared to the very checkered records of the two post-Koch democratic presidents, Koch doesn't look all that bad.

Monday, January 24, 2011

No-State Solution

The revelations and document drop from the Al Jazeera on Israel-Palestinian negotiations are more substantial than the recent hoard of wikileaks documents, and we don’t have to get into a discussion of Julian Assange’s sex life. (On that, Katha Pollit is certainly correct—whatever his contributions to prying open government secretiveness might be, if he did the crime, he should do the time.) And Ben Roethlisberger too. (Go, Packers. Boo hoo, Jets. )

But the Al Jazeera documents are truly depressing, showing a Palestinian Authority abjectly offering everything Israel could possibly want—on the settlements, on Jerusalem, on Palestinian return, on demilitarization—and Israel, sensing the weakness of the PA, just wanting more and more concessions. Here’s the current situation—Israel has no interest in making peace with the Palestinians. It will involve too many difficult internal debates, and most Israelis simply think its not worth whatever compromises Israel will have to make. All Israel really wants is “legitimacy”, or to translate, to be left alone, but it knows this will never happen as long as they control the Occupied Territories, directly and indirectly, so they make a pretense of negotiating, and blame their failure on everyone else. The PA desperately want a settlement, but Israel increasingly sees it as a mere puppet of its financial supporters in the EU and the US, and too weak to carry though on any agreement. And Hamas wants its legitimacy, which they see as inclusion in negotiations, but knows that, save some super-dramatic turn of events, Israel and the US will never let this happen, so it does what it can to destabilize the possibility of talks further, which ain’t too difficult to begin with. Perhaps its always darkest before the dawn, but if you ask me, we have never been farther from a genuine peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. In a land that is lousy with Gods, its time for a deus ex machina.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Back to the Articles of Confederation!

I recently read Gilbert K. Chesterton’s first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, written in 1904, set (as it happens) in 1984, in a London which had divided into separate duchies and fiefdoms, each with its own medieval heraldry, and toll barriers. Chesterton was an opponent of progress and his contemporaries conviction that the early 20th century would lead, ineluctably, to larger and larger states, of ever greater size. In Chesterton’s utopia, everything would crumble into ever smaller granular sovereignties.

I was thinking of the Tea Party when reading Chesterton. He has long been a favorite of conservative thinkers, though he is too supple and clever to fit cleanly into any pigeon-hole and his medieval fantasy is more than simply turning back the clock, but challenges not only progressive thinkers but retrograde types who simply pine for some version of the good old days. Why, I have been thinking, does the Tea Party honor the Constitution? Don’t they know it is a counter-revolutionary document that had, as its main purpose, moving power from the states to an enhanced central government? Why wrestle with the ambiguities of the 9th and 10th amendments when what they really want to do is to go back to the Articles of Confederation?
That’s a restorationist dream I could come to enjoy. What we need are not stronger states, but to try to deal with fifty -independent republics. And without the ridiculous requirement for equal representation in the Senate, many of the states would split or reform along more meaningful lines. Liberals could institute single payer health care in their countries. Conservatives could try to give their citizens absolutely nothing until they are overthrown in a popular revolution, a la Tunisia. Let the up and coming superpowers, China, India, Brazil, deal with the problems of trying to run the world from the vantage of a massive state. Americans have spent their time trying to run the world, and we have done, at best, a mediocre job of it. Time to retire, time to relax. If the Tea Party want to turn the clock back, let us, lets do them one better, and try to turn the clock back to the Articles of Confederation, or even further, to when there were thirteen separately governed colonies, or further still, to when a series of independent native bands and groups ruled themselves without any central supervision whatsoever, and return to America’s original nomadic and overlapping sovereignties, or to when, before 12,000 years or so, animals in North America managed to live their lives without any government at all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where Beethoven Never Gets Rolled Over

We have had, in American culture, for some time, a rage for ordinality. Ranking things in order of importance has become a national tic, an obsession. And the end of the year is the time for end of the year lists of the top 10 in everything. I am not sure why or when this particular practice started. Did the Romans make lists of their 10 favorite gladiators? The rabbis make a list of their ten favorite biblical passages? I guess part of the fascination is trying to determine what, or who, is #1, and ersatz voting, like American Idol, often seems more genuine than real elections, which have more than their share of ersatz.
All of these comments are prompted by a fascinating series of articles by Anthony Tomassini in the Times on the top ten classical composers of all time, a subject close to my heart. Of course, it’s a useless and pointless exercise, but it does make you think about those who are truly great, and their wonderful music. I basically agree with Tomasinni’s list, which if I remember goes, Bach Beethoven Mozart Schubert Debussy Stravinsky Brahms Verdi Wagner Bartok. I would only drop Debussy and Bartok from that list, and probably add Shostakovich and Messiaen. And I would drop Bach to about sixth (making Beethoven my #1 pick (tell Tchaikovsky the news), followed by the four greatest composers of vocal music of all time--Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and Wagner-- but our sensibilities are pretty congruent, and like Tomassinni I would insist on placing opera composers on the list. (I’m not sure Bartok would make my top 20. If I had to pick a Hungarian composer, I would go for Liszt or Ligeti before Bartok, and I would pick Ravel before Debussy.)

Its a strange exercise, sort of like picking nine people for the Supreme Court—there really aren’t enough slots for representativeness, but at the same time you need some sort of mix, whites blacks women men Jews Catholics Protestants, to keep your selections from becoming too homogeneous. So you need some 20th century composers, and there is a strong case for going before Bach (Monteverdi, Josquin) to round off the list. But there is the inevitable crowding. Like Tomassini I have long marveled at the remarkable situation that one smallish city, Vienna, from about 1775 to 1830, produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, four exceptionally strong candidates for the top ten, and like him, I mourn the passing over of Haydn in the interests of representativeness. And if you’re serious about this, and you don’t make quirky picks, you are more or less forced to end up with a short list more or less like everyone else’s.
Well if anyone wants to play this game with me, I am ready to entertain suggestions. Chopin? Purcell? Dvorak? Tchaikovsky? Schoenberg, Berg or Webern? But I am more interested in thoughts about why our culture has such a rage for ordinality, and what it says about us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Two Speeches

I don’t have a clear memory of the two speeches that we are celebrating this week, Eisenhower’s farewell and Kennedy’s inauguration. I do remember the Kennedy inauguration however, reading about in the New York Post as a precocious five year old, asking my mom what the term “president-elect” meant, and slowly beginning to understand the meaning and nature of the political world, a realm of people and things somehow connected to me but
outside of my immediate experience. Everyone said Kennedy was young, though this is hardly self-evident to a five year old, but since the one thing a five year old knows is that he is young, I thought a young president was a good thing.

There have been a number of interesting articles this week about Eisenhower’s farewell address, how it has its roots in the “merchants of death” controversy in the 1930s, and how, if we really needed reminding, that Eisenhower was not opposed to the military, or to military contractors as such, or to the expansion of the American military, which went from something like 300 nuclear warheads to about 10,000 (I think) during Ike’s eight years. But he came of age professionally in the smallish interwar army, at a time when there was a clearer distinction between the domestic and the foreign than prevailed during the Cold War, and this division, I think, is what he wanted the country to maintain.
Kennedy’s (or the late Ted Sorensen’s) injunction to ask what you can do for your country became the dominant cliché of the early 1960s, and had as its greatest legacy, perhaps, the Peace Corps, managed by the late Sergeant Shriver. Fifty years later, there is a corrosive skepticism towards all governmental actions and activities, except of course in the one area Eisenhower set out for skepticism, the role of the military in American life, and its abetters in private industry. And if there is any idealism left in this country, we are regularly told that the only way to cultivate it is to separate it from the taint and contamination of government. The sad thing about the state of the nation in January 2011, is that is it impossible to imagine Obama, or any president, delivering either of those addresses today, at least without generating loud guffaws of incredulity.