Saturday, November 29, 2003

Coffin's Corner


william sloane coffin, the great divine of the 1960s, was the subject of a little new yorker article this week.

the occasion was proximity to the divine's 79th birthday and, owing to a bum ticker, his own proximity to the GREAT BEYOND. ominously, coffin spoke, according to the interviewer, "with flies buzzing around him."

the divine's guidance was sought on the war with iraq. he allowed as how he was against it. having dispatched that subject, he expounded on the weltanschauung that informs his opinions.

unlike the floppers who see good and evil in simplistic terms like good and evil, the divine has a more nuanced view owing to the nuance and subtlety of his own mind which is of course the hallmark of end-state intellectual evolution, to wit:

"nothing is more dangerous than misunderstanding evil. evil has an irremediable stubbornness about it. and it must be recognized, it has to be constrained, but it can never be resolved."

"an honorable pacifism recognizes that the mystery of evil is beyond its solution."

this is subtle. this is complex. this is The Great Insight.

the intellectual architechtonus being laid, the divine then concatenated historical events with a manner of creativity hitherto unknown among those who concatenate events for a living:

"poor old woodrow wilson said 'we're ending world war I, we're making the world safe for democracy.' as a result we opened all kinds of doors to every kind of dictator, from ataturk all the way to salazar, and in between franco, mussolini, hitler and stalin."

with this last, the interviewer, ben mcgrath, noted that even the coffins dog, a dalmatian, "sat quietly nearly seeming almost to listen." at such perspicacity even the beasts of the earth are stilled.

black fles buzzing ("it's sunday. i guess i'm getting worked up"), the divine expanded on the theme of american responsibility for "ataturk, salazar, franco, mussolini, hitler and stalin":

"and that's what's so pernicious, so dangerous, about bush [to end the suspense, coffin's for howard dean]. that he just doesn't understand the stubbornness of evil, and he just doesn't understand american complicity."

coffin's own axis of evil, mcgrath recorded for posterity, comprised "environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash in weapons."(at this point it was observed that there were two lap dogs in the room, interviewer mcgrath having descended to all four fours, chin resting on the divine's chair seat).

rev. coffin is a quote-monger, a veritable walking bartleby's, who keeps binders full of pith. in the course of this short interview he managed to squeeze in references to wilson, moses, hamlet, oliver wendell holmes, the new testament, and this one from st. augustine: "yea, my pride-swollen face has closed up my eyes."

ungenerous readers of rev. coffin's views, those disrespectful of their elders, those not of as nuanced an intellect may have been reminded of another quote:

"fetch here the stocks, ho!
you stubborn ancient knave, you reverend braggart
we'll teach you."

-benjamin harris

Sunday, November 23, 2003

the attacks by islam on the west, in iraq continuously and ever bolder, in saudi arabia, spectacularly twice in turkey, are harbingers. whether we "degraded" al qaeda with our post-9/11 riposte or whether they were just lying low and in the r&d phase of the next round, the signs are ominous that a new attack on america, in america, is coming, and it's imminent.

-benjamin harris

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Freddy Adu to Play for United


D.C. united, that is, not manchester united. quite a coup for major league soccer. the best young player in the world will make his debut next spring at rfk stadium and will appear on letterman tonight.

mls is unlike the four major team sports leagues. it is a "single entity owner" structure, much more centrally controlled than the franchise structure in the nfl, mlb, nba and nhl. only other league to attempt the single owner concept was abe saperstein's old american basketball league.

the benefits are classical economic economies of scale in purchasing and licensing but also makes the league, theoretically, better able to deal with dislocations and unfairness caused by a george steinbrenner or a donald trump who single-handedly destroyed the united states football league. players sign a contract with the league, not with the individual teams, and are assigned to one of the teams, which also helps competitive balance.

mls has never been able to break through the american sports public's conscious, not even close, not even close to the extent that the old north american soccer league did. adu could change all that. the u.s. is such a personality/celebrity driven culture that a player with real star power could allow the "beautiful game" to poke through. pele did it for nasl. d.c. has always been one of the league's glamour franchises. teaming adu with the incomparable ray hudson is a marketing dream.

the signing gives credibility to mls on two other fronts. first, since its inception, the league has had to loan or sell some of its best players abroad for much needed cash. that made it look like--because it was to some extent--a minor league masquerading as a first-division league. making the financial committment to adu (no details announced), and outbidding man-u and other european teams reverses that image.

second, just keeping home grown talent at home is all soccer will have to do to succeed here. there is a huge soccer public in the u.s. not a potentially huge, an actually huge. manchester united sold out everywhere it played in the u.s. this year. the cosmos drew 77,000 to matches at giants stadium. the tampa bay rowdies and ft. lauderdale strikers drew very well.

what america will not pay to see is second-rate anything. the american world cup team has proven it can compete with the best in the world, and was supported as such. more freddy adus peppered throught the ten mls teams will result in a very attractive product on the field, sorry, pitch.

so congratulations to mls. adu and american soccer could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

-benjamin harris

Saturday, November 15, 2003

the philadelphia inquirer reported on wednesday that a secret cia report has warned that the continued guerrila attacks on coalition forces in iraq are convincing the iraqi populace that america can be defeated there and that more and more iraqis are supporting the insurgents.

after "the end of major combat operations" in may a couple of soldiers per week were being killed; that was inevitable. but over the last few months the attacks have been obviously well-coordinated and more deadly. the attack on the palestine hotel when paul wolfowitz was staying there was a brilliant public relations coup to show the world that hussein loyalists had not been vanquished and in fact were able to attack at will what one would have assumed to have been an impregnable target. the look of anger, fear, and embarrassment on wolfowitz' face at his press conference afterwards was a bit humorous and said it all.

this week 26 italian soldiers were killed in the deadliest single attack yet.

in the face of all this the administration has announced that it is going to accelerate the timetable for turning over control of the country to civilian authorities.

so secretive is this administration, so isolated is this president, so deceiving have they been with what they know and what they're thinking that it amounts to little more than guess work to imagine what they're up to.

the cia report has the ring of truth. psychology is an important weapon in war. it is what kept the north vietnamese and viet cong going against the pounding of the b-52s.

the north koreans were being defeated and were demoralized at their prospects going up against the military that had just won world war II, until the chinese came to their aid. their whole psychology changed and they became a coherent, successful fighting force. you can never let your enemy think that he has a chance of success.

what SHOULD be done in iraq is clear: more troops, many more, should be deployed and there should be massive, ruthless application of force (1) to find and kill saddam hussein and the remaining 15 jokers in the pentagon's deck of cards and (2) to communicate to the islamic masses in the only language they understand that every man, woman and child will be slaughtered by the greatest military force in world history if they violently resist the coalition.

so what is the administration up to? as with any large organization where several major actors are involved in decision-making, there certainly is not any one explanation. there are a number of cross-currents effecting our response to events.

to go back to before the beginning of time, in 1998 i believe it was, paul wolfowitz, donald rumsfeld and others signed a full-page ad in major newspapers calling for the use of military force to oust saddam hussein. at papa bush's urging, that team was installed in the pentagon and that philosophy dominates input from there.

rumsfeld came to the pentagon after one prior stint. in an interview once he said that any new defense secretary is floored by the dog-and-pony show the military can put on for him to demonstrate their extraordinary capability, to engender awe and encourage deference. he related an anecdote from 1975 where the secretary of navy came into his office with a video showing how a u.s. sub had so artfully evaded soviet defenses that it slipped undetected into a russian military harbor and took a video of the port through it's periscope.

rumsfeld said he soon learned not to be cowed by such spectacles and to adopt an independent and appropriately skeptical view of military intelligence.

rumsfeld is the most radical, creative secdef the united states has ever had. he came to his second act with an agenda to transform, modernize and streamline what he saw as a huge, bloated, entropic organization. those efforts have been applauded in this space.

the showpiece for rumsfeld's new military was of course the iraq war. he proved what previously had been thought disproved in vietnam and elsewhere, that a war--or the "major combat operations" portion of it-- could be won with air power and a minimum of ground forces.

what is hard to understand is the memo he wrote that the war "could" still be won but that we were in for a "long, tough slog." the language and the tone certainly suggest that there is something he's not telling us about the capability of the enemy but even with the increased boldness of the guerrila attacks they are nothing more than pop-gun actions against the 135,000 troops we now have there much less the number we should have there. these attacks, even if they went on ad infinitum, would not defeat the coalition.

perhaps he was talking about the apparent failure of wolfowitz' "shining city on a hill" vision for the arab world but the memo did not seem to be talking about that. it seemed to be a purely military view.

whatever, it says here that the administration will not commit more troops for two reasons. one is rumsfeld's influence. if he had to admit that more ground forces were needed it would look like (although it wouldn't be) a refutation of his high-tech war strategy.

the second reason is purely political. polls show that most americans support the decision to have invaded iraq. they believe that that operation was a success. if significant numbers of new troops were deployed it would put the lie to bush's aircraft carrier pronouncement and open the subject for debate again, thus giving howard dean, bush's probable opponent, more ammunition where at present dean is preaching to a choir that only exists to the left of the pulpit.

besides rumsfeld a second major actor, and as maureen dowd wrote this week, perhaps the most important, is vice president dick cheney. i don't believe that cheney was a signator to that '98 policy statement on iraq but from all reports he has a very dark, that is to say accurate, view of the world america finds itself in and consequently a very hawkish foreign policy view. he meets daily with the president, is considered, because of his age and health, to be an honest broker without any personal agenda and because he is loyal and discreet almost nothing is known of exactly what it is he tells the president in their daily sessions.

what is known from his public statements makes cheney a reinforcer of rumowitz' hawkish views and as seymour hersh has written extensively, both relied heavily on the "intelligence" they were getting from the secret basement-dwelling group of spooks rumsfeld installed in the pentagon to find evidence of iraq's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons even where none existed.

because the president is unabashadly uninformed about what is being reported in the press and because of his previous lack of foreign policy experience, he relies extremely heavily on the information he gets from this remarkably narrow group of advisors. the result, in one instance, was the inclusion of laughably--and as hersh has written, possibly deliberately and mischievously planted as a dark practical joke--wrong information on the nigerian yellow cake matter. this information was fed to bush and he insouciantly included it in his state of the union address.

thus the president exercises no skeptical detachment over the information he is given, as rumsfeld said he learned to do after his first stint at the pentagon.

it could be that the fallout from yellow-cake and the continued irritation of the iraqi guerrila activity is giving the president pause in his reliance on the pentagon. the recent announcement that condelleza rice would be put in charge of the post-iraqi planning group was obviously taken by rumsfeld to be a snub. perhaps this will also bring secretary of state powell into a position of greater influence in the president's policy direction. all of this would mean greater hope for a wrong-headed moderation in u.s. foreign policy and the greater involvement of our western allies and the u.n.

from the time rumsfeld took over as defense secretary, his irascible personality, the hatred of him that exists in and outside the pentagon among career officers, and the president's aversion to conflict among his advisors, led many to believe that he would be the first of bush's cabinet secretaries to go. that talk faded with the adulation he received after the iraqi war was "won" so quickly but now it is back again.

the "other" major actor of course is the president. who knows for sure what effect all of this has had on him, if he has grown disenchanted with rumsfeld, how, if at all, frustrated he is with the iraqi situation. he was a tabula rosa in foreign affairs when he came to office. it was always the suspicion here that he was far more likely to go along with a recommendation to invade iraq because of saddam hussein's attempt to assasinate his father. would we have invaded another deserving islamic nation, like syria?

we know that bush is a man of confidence in his convictions. by all accounts he never wavered on the correctness of the course he set on iraq. he was sure and determined. like many conservatives, he seems to see the world in black and white. he is deeply religious. his attorney general is as manicheanistic a man as has ever held the position. does the president really believe in his heart that "the war is not with islam" as he said after 911? apparently so. after a recent demonstration he was heard to say to an aide "do they really think we think all muslims are bad?"

what about rumowitz, do they see this conflict in civilizational terms? peter boyer's article in this week's new yorker on general wesley clark quotes clark as saying that he was told by a three-star general that after 911 the pentagon's civilian leaders "devised a five-year plan to topple the regimes in iraq, syria, lebanon, libya, somalia, iran, and sudan." best plan i've heard so far but i don't trust clark on this, it seems highly unlikely that such a plan could be hatched without anyone finding out about it besides some disgruntled three-star and where the hell is the evidence for it? this space was all broke out with excitement when it looked like the administration might be rattling their sabres in syria's direction in the spring but that petered out.

could the bushies be biding their time? right now, the president looks to be a good bet to be reelected, the economy seems to be getting on track and criticism of the war doesn't seem to have much traction with joe in peoria. why rock the boat? once a second term is secured might we see an expanded conflict?

predictions are irresistible but there is so much uncertainty here, so much secretiveness. oh well. the guess here is that we will muddle through in iraq in 2004 without committing any more troops, there will be a major push, as appears to have been begun, to get saddam hussein, which will be a major public relations coup and a not insignificant accomplishment, then a similar concerted effort to find osama bin laden. bush will be reelected and we will continue to fight the war on terrorism piecemeal. rumsfeld will be replaced in the second term, maybe by condi rice, and the other terror crescent countries will be safe for "four more years."

-benjamin harris

some wag once said of antonio vivaldi that he did not compose 400 pieces of music, he composed one piece of music 400 times, so distinctive and similar was his repertoire.

the same could be said of frank gehry's late architecture. they're all beginning to look like bilbao and son of bilbao.

there's no gainsaying the significance of the original. it is the first post-modern building, one of the most important in the entire 20th century. and it is dramaticus maximus. when i first saw a--small--picture of it in the new yorker my jaw must have dropped. there had never been a building like it, with it's billowing, windowless titanium skin and it's raucous shapes.

that first picture i saw was a view of the "petals" but i didn't see horticulture. i saw a nuclear explosion captured by a still camera, an unfolding of a violent awe-inspiring drama, and in the metallic color of those atomic bomb detonations captured a split second after detonaton. in that way too it seemed to me the perfect emblem of this particular fin de siecle. gehry conveyed movement, quite a feat in the design of a building.

i bought a couple of coffee table books on gehry after that and was disappointed to see so much of bilbao in places other than bilbao, in toledo (ohio), cleveland (ohio), minneapolis, and dusseldorf. bilbao had not been a creation that sprung full-blown like athena from the head of zeus. this was the culmination of a process. at least it seemed a culmination.

detestable los angeles has finally gotten around to honoring it's native son by scraping together enough jingle to complete the interminably-delayed walt disney concert hall. what a deflating experience.

paul goldberger of the new yorker sniffs at the unimpressed. disney "is more refined that that of the guggenheim, and more sumptious..." "gehry has not repeated himself here so much as he has expanded his architectural vocabulary." those who see disney as epigonic "are missing an architectural experience of immense power and subtlety."

i'm with those unrefined philistines who see a constricted vocabulary and want to shout, "the bilbao mold--lose it!"

-benjamin harris

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

anything that presents an obstacle to howard dean getting the democratic nomination for president is ok with me but the confederate flag flap is a sign of the democratic distemper not of the vermont sap's unelectability.

let's consider the different ways in which this issue does not apply to dean:

-dean believes the union was the right side to be on in the civil war.
-dean does not have a confederate flag sticker on the back of his pick up truck.
-dean does not even have a pick up truck (i'd bet)
-dean is not a racist (except in the sense that all elitists, of which he is one, are racists). all the other candidates who spoke on the issue last night conceded that.
-dean does not support policies that would harm or are insensitive to minority rights.
-dean does not have some "southern strategy" where he is going to subtly appeal to southern racists.

so where's the beef? are you john edwards telling me you didn't have, or would have disavowed if you had, ONE pickup truck driving supporter who had a confederate flag on the back of said truck? in NORTH CAROLINA?

and al sharpton? AL FRIGGIN' SHARPTON. HE is a racist. one of the greatest outrages by a public figure in the last thirty years was his libel, on new york city radio, of a state prosecutor who he accused of being involved in the non-existent rape of tawana brawley.

this is what passes for legitimate discourse in the democratic party these days. a major candidate, the presumptive nominee, gets raked because he recognizes that one of the party's big problems is that it only has 22% of white male voters AND HE WANTS TO APPEAL TO THEM ON ECONOMIC ISSUES! he wants them to get past race and see the democratic party as standing up for his economic interests. and that is topic A on his opponents agenda? pathetic. just pathetic.

howard dean is a symptom of what is wrong with the democratic party, but not on this issue. it is just the reverse. it is the "reverse racism" of those like al sharpton and the pandering to the loony left of john edwards, who this page expected better from, that is the larger problem with the democratic party.

-benjamin harris.