Monday, July 25, 2005

The San Francisco Chronicle really, really hates Dubai, and the paper isn't coy about giving us reasons, starting with the title of the piece ("Dubai is a chimera to be: Sheikhdom's future promises excess, sin and sadistic violence"). I have to smile a bit at the idea of someone from San Francisco clucking at the thought of "excess, sin, and sadistic violence": It sounds like just another typical Saturday night at the neighborhood bathhouse.

Now seriously, the author does point out the truly nasty business that does happen in Dubai:

The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai, any of the hipper guidebooks will advise, is the Bangkok of the Middle East, populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10 percent of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)

But this sort of stuff is only a small part of the piece. Most of it consists of sneering descriptions of the city's tourist attractions:

Your jellyfish-shaped hotel is, in fact, exactly 66 feet below the sea surface. Each of its 220 luxury suites has clear Plexiglas walls that provide spectacular views of passing mermaids as well as the hotel's famed underwater fireworks, a hallucinatory exhibition of "water bubbles, swirled sand, and carefully deployed lighting." Any initial anxiety about the safety of your sea- bottom resort is dispelled by the smiling concierge. The structure has a multilevel fail-safe security system, he reassures you, that includes protection against terrorist submarines as well as missiles and aircraft.

Although you have an important business meeting at the Internet City free- trade zone with clients from Hyderabad and Taipei, you have arrived a day early to treat yourself to one of the famed adventures at the Restless Planet dinosaur theme park. Indeed, after a soothing night's sleep under the sea, you are aboard a monorail headed for a Jurassic jungle. Your expedition encounters some peacefully grazing apatosaurs, but you are soon attacked by a nasty gang of velociraptors. The animatronic beasts are so flawlessly lifelike -- in fact, they have been designed by experts from the British Museum of Natural History -- that you shriek in fear and delight.

The author follows this with editorial comments that leave no uncertainty as to the way the audience is supposed to look at Dubai ("a pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly"..."not just a hybrid but a chimera: the offspring of the lascivious coupling of the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jerde, Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill"..."the city's monstrous caricature of futurism") until he gets to the point, the dirtiest and meanest invective he can think of: "the latest fad in urban capitalism."

In fact, I have no doubt that the "excess" referred to in the title of the piece is the excess of wretched consumerism. I get the very distinct feeling that the author is not as upset about Dubai's human trafficking and child slavery--which in any case happens all over the Muslim world, often with full religious sanction--as much as he is about the Evil Capitalism on display there. There is little doubt that the author, Mike Davis, disapproves of it all: In consecutive sentences he compares the city's architectural style to Nazi Germany (in case you missed the cute reference to "Albert Speer and his patron", i.e. Hitler) and Las Vegas. Now there's excess for ya.

Dubai is the kind of place that Mohamed Atta, like the author, hated. This is one of the points where the beliefs of Islamic head-choppers and granola-eating hippies coincide exactly: They hate flashy developed cities, and they both want to impose their mutual vision of dusty mud-huts for all on the world.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

My latest ATO column:

The Return of Napoleon, Sort Of

All truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an ‘outside’, an ‘other’, a non-self, and that no is its creative act.
--Nietzsche, The Geneology of Morals

One of the most intriguing bits of recent trivia concerns the new French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who turns out to be an unapologetic Bonapartist: “…the first wholehearted admirer of Napoleon,” points out Frank Johnson of the London Telegraph, “to become head of a French government since the Emperor Napoleon III…in 1848.” De Villepin has even published a book (not yet translated into English) about Napoleon’s Hundred Days, whose full original title is Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice. (“The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice”). Says David A. Bell in The New Republic: “for de Villepin, Napoleon is nothing less than a hero of almost Christ-like dimensions.” To readers who might find this an exaggeration, Bell points out the title of the final chapter in the book: “Waterloo: The Crucifixion.”

The day after his election, de Villepin said that he hoped to restore French confidence in 100 days. How, precisely, he would accomplish this wasn’t clear; the Guardian reported that de Villepin “refused…to push the country down the road towards free-market reform, saying ‘Gallic genius’ would help put back on its feet a ‘suffering, impatient and angry’ nation that has failed to adapt fully to a changing world.”

The figure of 100 days that de Villepin used was not a coincidence, as it deliberately echoed the Napoleonic Hundred Days on which his book was based. "These 100 days,” writes de Villepin in Frank Johnson’s quick translation from the book, “constitute an opening, in the form of a fable or a tale, the hyphen between two worlds, two epochs, and two legitimacies, which offers a gripping summary of the epic. In a short period, mixed and confronting one another, were the ideals and the doctrines, the characters and the passions, in a kind of laboratory of the human comedy, where the face of modern France is sketched." [italics mine]

De Villepin makes specific comparisons between the fate of the historical Napoleon and that of France itself: Waterloo "consecrates the end of passion at the profit of commercialism, this growing economic liberalism which neglects the founding humanism of France's political ancestry - the stamp of compassion and tolerance - to promote self-interest.” In de Villepin’s world, modern France stands, exactly like Napoleon, as the lone, heroic counterweight to rampant Anglo-Saxonism, shouting Non! to the government-by-shopkeeper ethos of the English-speaking hegemony.

It’s an audacious comparison, and one we haven’t seen in a while. The 19th-century Romantics took forever to get Napoleon out of their system; Thomas Moore’s attack on the British governor of St. Helena is typical:

But the middle of the twentieth century presented an utterly unavoidable point of comparison—one that, fairly or unfairly, was destructive to Napoleon’s general reputation: Adolf Hitler. After Hitler, uncritical public appreciation of Napoleon became much more difficult, even among the French. In his biography of Stalin, Henri Barbusse quotes Bonaparte’s famous dictum that “if one is in the wrong, one must persist, and one will end up being in the right” with derision. If the nineteenth century could ignore Napoleon’s “persistence,” and the trail of bodies that came with it, the twentieth couldn’t—not after Hitler and Stalin. English antipathy has only increased: Paul Johnson’s recent, hostile biography, according to Victor Davis Hanson in a review, “reflects deeply-rooted Anglo skepticism about messianic killers, as the principled careers of Englishmen like Edmund Burke, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and most recently Tony Blair attest.”

Admiration for the Emperor has compartmentalized into admiration for his military genius among military historians and gamers, and I don’t think that will ever change: If, for the enthusiast, Napoleon can be faulted for errors at, say, Leipzig, his against-the-odds triumphs at Lützen, Dresden, and Hanau will forever outweigh them.

But to return to de Villepin: When he analogizes Napoleon and his Empire to 21st-century France, the audacity wears thin early on, and the bathos just grows and grows. Keeping Wellington’s army at bay is not the same as keeping free-market reforms at bay. On one hand we have “the struggle of nations”—and on the other we have the struggle for the 35-hour workweek. The correlations trail into absurdity. I’m still not sure what “sacrifice” is referenced in de Villepin’s title exactly, but it isn’t the sacrifice necessary to carve out a revolutionary European empire—perhaps it’s your standard Parisian worker’s sacrifice of having grand-maman sit in the attic during his customary eight-week summer vacation.

De Villepin apparently isn’t troubled at all by the modern historical trends that have hurt Napoleon’s standing. In another quote from The Hundred Days, translated by David Bell, de Villepin identifies those particular character traits that he admires most: “Here we touch on that particular essence of great men, on what distinguishes Napoleon or Alexander, Caesar or de Gaulle, from the common run. It is excess, exaltation, and a taste for risk that forms their genius.” A passage like this—of which one could easily say the same of Hitler—is intended to exalt Napoleon, but in fact it defames him.

The correlation between the Imperial era and contemporary France breaks down completely, of course, when we remind ourselves what Napoleon was most of all: A military man. The idea of France today—from a military perspective—would infuriate Napoleon, and tales of Sedan and Dienbienphu would horrify him. Victor Davis Hanson again:

For the insecure, megalomaniac, and duplicitous, Napoleonic power holds an eternal appeal, one apparently with increased attraction for a slowly eroding contemporary France, which deploys half an aircraft carrier as it eyes longingly the 12 fleet carrier groups of the United States.

Even if one supposes that Napoleon would know what to do about, for example, the current French unemployment problem, there is no immediately foreseeable cure for France's military decline. A vanguard role in a combined European military—had French voters not rejected the EU constitution--could have dragged the French into a more equitable bargaining position against the American hyperpower. But instead we’re left with a France that seems only able to react, despite all the Bonapartist nostalgia, and all the talk of “Gallic genius.” The real Napoleon, whatever else one might say about him, did a great deal more than simply delivering a Non!—which is all that contemporary France seems able to do.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


The London bombings make the numerous 9/11 references in the new War of the Worlds seem even odder and more callous than before.

For one thing: When Dakota Fanning asks "Is it the terrorists?" as the aliens tear up New Jersey, the audience is supposed to cluck knowingly at the silly little girl and her quaint notions. Today, the little girl doesn't look so silly.

For another: I hadn't seen anyone else pick up on this, but I found another 9/11 reference in the alien death ray that incinerates people but leaves their clothes fluttering in the air. Such an odd--to say nothing of ridiculously unscientific--weapon serves no logical purpose at all for the story. If, as later established, the aliens want to drain blood from people, why would they use a ray that disintegrates the entire body no matter where the ray hits it? A simple laser would leave lots of tasty, blood-filled body parts around. It doesn't make any sense--unless the device is only intended to supply a visual reminding us of the papers and office debris fluttering from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It's a visual that the movie really didn't need, and it feels cheap and superfluous.

And the worst is the scene where Spielberg shows us a wall filled with anguished "HAVE YOU SEEN" pictures of missing relatives. When I saw the film I thought the scene blithely trivialized the horrific experience of the 9/11 families, and, only weeks later, the scene feels only more so now that people are again putting up real pictures of real people on walls. Now, instead of being merely inappropriate, the scene feels truly shamelessly exploitive.

I think that the references are a vague attempt to deal with a specific problem. Whereas, in Schindler's List, he faced Nazi evil without flinching, here he's coy and allusive. And why is that?

It's because we can't speak the truth.

The culture can't talk about Muslim terrorism honestly. It can't even begin to. The most common response is simply to lie. To change the nuclear terrorists in Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears from Muslims to "Russian Nazis" is a lie. To invent an apparent Muslim nuclear terrorist plot that turns out to be the machinations of evil American politicians (Season 2 of 24) is a lie. The culture today feels almost like Russian literature in the Soviet period as described by Solzhenitsyn: The lie pervades and corrodes all.

The problem is fully, painfully on display in the BBC's silly spy show Spooks: It's supposed to be about the work of MI5 agents protecting Britain from terrorists, but the show never, ever deals with anything resembling real terrorists. One hears the premise of the very first episode--a London bombing campaign--and imagines the show's writers as prescient--until you understand that the episode in fact dealt with a bombing campaign by pro-lifers. I hadn't realized that abortion clinic bombing was such an enormous problem in the UK, possibly because I knew there had never been any. But there you have it. Ensuing episodes were about "connections between racist ring-leaders, politicians and mass killings of immigrants," a "Serbian terrorist ring," "Columbian terrorists," and so on. After a while you almost have to laugh at the grotesque contortions that the writers perform in order to avoid speaking the truth.

The only Spooks episode to deal straight-on with Muslim terrorism is the second episode of the second season, which features a suicide bomber who, in a crowd of people, reveals himself as a suicide bomber. And then he detonates the bomb only after all the people around have run away, killing only the Good Muslim who nearly talks him out of it. Of course, no suicide bomber would ever, ever act like this, since the purpose of the act is to kill and terrorize, and any suicide bomber who ever let infidels off the hook would be considered a failure.

The episode presents another liberal fantasy figure: The Good Muslim whose common sense nearly prevents a tragedy. At one dramatic point, the Good Muslim brings the suicide bomber to tears by talking about football--Bend It Like Bin Laden?--and dies heroically.

The problem I have is that I just don't see Muslims in the West acting like this. The first reaction after every atrocity is an almost reflexive self-pity, as here:

'When the twin towers got bombed they started on Iraq,' said Goshah, also 16. 'Now they will start on another Muslim country. And they will kick us out of this country as well.' Goshah flung his arm towards a woman standing nearby. 'You're lucky because you are white,' he said. 'Yeah, white people will be more racist now. They call us Pakis already, but it is going to get worse,' said Jakir. He was becoming agitated.

Fara Khan, 31, emerged from the mosque wearing a green headscarf. 'I am worried,' she said. 'I have been wearing a headscarf for two years and I used to get funny looks all the time. It got worse after Madrid and Bali, but it had got better. Now it will start all over again.'

I just hope in a civilised nation the backlash will not be too bad.'

Combined with the self-pity we have the standard Arab conspiracy theories:

'They are blaming Muslims for yesterday,' replied 20-year-old Saira Bin Bashir.

'I can't believe they are already blaming al-Qaeda,' said Jakir, 16. 'They have no evidence,' he said to nods from his friends.

'It is that Tony Blair,' he yelled. 'I bet he did it so people hate us more.'

'Don't point the finger too fast or the real culprit will get away,' said one.

A woman at the East London mosque said: 'I think it was other people wanting to make people dislike Muslims.'

'Maybe I am just being paranoid.' Everywhere there is similar sentiment: why would Muslims do something that would cause such pain to other Muslims?'

Or even worse, they openly cheer the murderers, as with this genuinely prescient story from 2004:

Four young British Muslims in their twenties - a social worker, an IT specialist, a security guard and a financial adviser - occupy a table at a fast-food chicken restaurant in Luton. Perched on their plastic chairs, wolfing down their dinner, they seem just ordinary young men. Yet out of their mouths pour heated words of revolution.

"As far as I'm concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better," says Abdul Haq, the social worker. "I know it's going to happen because Sheikh bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid - I pray for it, I look forward to the day."

"Pass the brown sauce, brother," says Abu Malaahim, the IT specialist, devouring his chicken and chips.

However, I do see Good Muslims in--ahem--Iraq, where every day locals tip off the authorities about arms caches and bomb factories. There are, of course, reasons why Iraq is producing such people while the West is full of sullen, resentful whiners. But that's another story.

And if the truth, as above, is so ugly that we can't speak it--that we are only permitted to lie--then the only alternative for the artist with even an ounce of integrity is to speak in riddles and metaphors. (We've seen this before in many literatures). If you don't want to lie, you need to transmogrify the truth somehow. And that's the impulse that, I think, gave us the 9/11 references in War of the Worlds. I got the impression that Spielberg was horrified by the evil of 9/11, and wanted somehow to address it. But, sadly, he wasn't horrified enough to deal honestly with its implications. The bottom line is that for the modern liberal, nothing, not even annihilation by terrorists, is more terrifying than being considered "intolerant."

Which position liberals hold at their peril. They want so desperately to find evil in Bush, in Rumsfeld, in the "neocons," in the "religious right" that they ignore every exemplar of what real evil is.

If I can reimagine a famous Orwell image,

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.

I have, instead, an image of the future of the Western liberal, croaking out with his last breath, "Bush lied! Stop the Christian Right" while a jihadist, laughing uncontrollably, slices his head off.

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