Sunday, January 23, 2005

Hack Job: Technology Review and Nuland's Attack on de Grey

What the heck is going on at Technology Review?

The "oldest technology magazine in the world" started out as the official MIT alumni magazine but over the last 15-20 years has deliberately transformed itself into a mid-major mass circulation magazine with articles of interest to scientists, private sector elites as well as educated and curious general readers. It has trumpeted its success in this transformation by citing its drastically increased circulation numbers.

If memory serves, the current February '05 issue, is the first under a new editor. If so, the new editor is a person named Jason Pontin. Whatever, the tone of the magazine, and perhaps its purpose has changed drastically.

That new tone, agenda-driven and personal, was what first caught the eye with its cover story, an article on human aging and a researcher named Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University. Under a head-shot of de Grey is the title,

"living forever? Audrey de Grey thinks he can defeat death."
"is he nuts?"

"IS HE NUTS?"? When was the last time that question or anything like it appeared on the cover of TR? Has it ever?

The article, which it is no exaggeration to call a diatribe, is preceded by editorials, the most prominent of which is one by Mr. Pontin titled Against Transcendence in which he writes the following:

"de Grey thinks he is a technological messiah."
"But what struck me is that he is a troll."

a troll.

Likewise, the words that the article uses to describe de Grey?:

"Whether one chooses to believe that he is a brilliant
prophetic architect of futuristic biology or merely
a misguided and nutty theorist..."
...

"In the photo [on his website] his eyes are...gently
warm...But I would see none of that warmth during
the 10 hours we spent together, though it reappeared
in the 15 minutes during which we chatted with
Adelaide de Grey [his wife]..."

Those are borderline ad hominem words, again at odds with anything I had ever read in TR before. They would get worse but before doing so would include another merely borderline description, a weird one given the magazine's MIT geekdom roots and audience:

"He was dressed like an unkempt graduate student,
uncaring of tailoring considerations of any sort,
wearing a hip-length black mackinaw-type coat that
was borderline shabby. Adorning his head was a
knitted woolen hat...crafted by his wife 14 years ago.
As if to prove its age, the frazzled headgear...was not
without a few holes. When he removed it I saw that
de Grey's long straight hair was held in a ponytail..."

Even de Grey's wife is subject to this kind of comment. She is described as "just as uncaring about her appearance or grooming."

There is not serious point to this. It is simply to create the image of de Grey as "an obviously odd and driven duck."

This is such unusual language for TR and so unusual to be coming from another scientist, Sherwin Nuland, a Yale Medical School professor. One feels sorry for the people so described, the comments are so personal and unkind.

Husband and wife are an "uncommon pair" and it is striking to Dr. Nuland that "neither of them has ever wanted to have children."

This personal decision of husband and wife gets tied by Dr. Nuland into what he says is behind de Grey's work, "self-interest--or what some might call narcissism...":

"de Grey has some interesting notions of human
nature. He insists that, on the one hand, it is basic
to humankind to want to live forever regardless
of consequences, while on the other it is not basic
to want to have children."

Dr. Nuland concludes his article with broad similarly ad hominem characterizations of de Grey's work and underlying purpose:

"[His] purpose is only secondarily to overcome
resistance to his theories. His primary aim is to
publicize himself...as a means of raising the consid-
erable funding that will be necessary..."
...

"He has safeguarded himself against the informed
criticism that should give him cause to rethink some
of his proposals. He has accomplished this self-protection
by constructing a personal worldview in which he is
inviolate. He refuses to budge a millimeter."

Nothing appears as factual support for this characterization. In fact, Dr. Nuland details the amazing achievement of de Grey, a computer scientist, in mastering natural science to the point of having published peer-reviewed articles in leading biogerontology journals co-authored by many of the greatest minds in the field.

Nuland accuses de Grey of "unhesitant verbal trashing of those who disagree with him." Likewise, there is nothing in the article to support this charge.

"But the most likeable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous." that's the first sentence in the last paragraph of Dr. Nuland's article.

In another editorial TR says of de Grey:

"He dresses like a shabby graduate student and affects
Rip Van Winkle's beard; he has no children; he has few
interests outside the science of biogerontology; he drinks
too much beer...His ideas are trollish."

de Grey makes his arguments "loudly and angrily."

On de grey's idea for extending life span, "is this absurd? Yes, of course it is."

TR vouches for the opinions of Dr. Nuland:

"Sherwin Nuland would not be satisfied by anything
less than rigorous scientific reasoning and evidence.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a writer more qualified
to profile the eccentric de Grey."

"Indeed" indeed, since this is how Dr. Nuland himself describes his qualifications in the article:

"What would it be like to come face to face with such a man? Not to debate him--A TASK FOR WHICH, AS A CLINICAL SURGEON, I WOULD IN ANY CASE BE SCIENTIFICALLY UNQUALIFIED..." (emphasis added).

Dr. Nuland's is a hatchet job, written by one who is self-admitted to be unqualified to write any serious review of Dr. de Grey's work. The article is part of the new editorial policy of TR to advance their briefs even if degrading personal characterizations are necessary, and the science be damned.

-Benjamin Harris

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Man City's Opportunity

manchester city can firmly position themselves among the top half of the premiership table and make a run at a spot in the champions league in their next three matches.

the blues play home against sixteenth place crystal palace on saturday, at bottom-inhabiting west branch albion on jan. 22 and then home against newcastle united which is two points under city on feb. 2.

boom. boom. boom. three wins, 9 points, hello europe! after all, this is the ONLY team that has beaten chelsea ALL YEAR.

but sports, fate, kevin keegan, nicholas anelka and maybe some cloud permanently hanging over the east side of manchester will prevent it.

team schizoid has beaten chelsea, tied man-u at old trafford, and tied arsenal at highbury in their last league match. they can play with anybody.

but they often play at the other team's level. they just lost to first division oldham in the f.a. cup and in the premiership have also been tied by relegation-threatened norwich and the aforementioned w.b.a. AT HOME and tied southhampton on the trot.

this is a team that plays in one of the best and newest facilities in all of europe and yet stinks up the joint more often than it rewards the faithful. i think i'm right that they won the same number of matches at eastlands last year as they did on the road.

the board gave kevin keegan 60 million pounds when they entered the premiership two years ago and king kev promptly wasted it on the likes of claudia reyna and, most abysmally, robbie fowler, among others.

everytime you think they have turned the corner, there's another corner. they were on one of their rolls a few weeks ago and then nicholas anelka ran his mouth about how he wanted out so he could play for a "big club" and compete in the champions league and the roll morphed into a tumble.

they are in ninth place and coming off a 1-1 draw at arsenal. they have three matches coming up that they can win, that a disciplined, professional, selfless, ambitious team WOULD win.

but they won't. if they win these next three matches i will walk to manchester and kiss kevin keegan's bum.

they will tie one or two or lose one outright, and the saturday night arrests for disorderly intoxication and domestic violence will swell on the east side.

and then they have their rematch with chelsea on the trot.


-benjamin harris

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Foreign Policy Analysis: Deconstructing John Lewis Gaddis

Deconstructing Gaddis

Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis gives President Bush a thumbs up in Middle East policy in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

On the first page of his article, Grand Strategy in the Second Term, Prof. Gaddis states,

"George W. Bush...has presided over the most
sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy since
the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt." (2)

Throughout the article Prof. Gaddis expands on the particulars of the President's historic paradigm shift:

"...the fact that more than three years have passed without [another 9/11-like] attack is significant."
"...the first and most fundamental feature of the Bush strategy--taking the offensive against the terrorists and thereby surprising them--has so far accomplished its purposes." (3)

"The military campaign [against Iraq] proceeded as anticipated..." (8)
...

"...on October 9, 2004, millions of Afghans lined up to vote in an
election that had no precedent in their nation's long history.
Had anyone predicted this three years ago, the response would
have been incredulity--if not doubts about sanity." (13)
...

"A conservative Republican administration responded by embracing a liberal Democratic ideal--making the world safe for democracy...if that does not provide the basis for a renewed grand strategic bipartisanship...then one has to wonder what ever would." (14)
...

"[Bush has achieved] far more...than any previous American administration has achieved in the Middle East." (14)

So, bravo, Mr. President. the war against Afghanistan was a success, the war against Iraq was successful and worthwhile, the war on terror generally has been pursued competently and efficaciously, and all this was done according to a "sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy" with bipartisan appeal.

Right? How could all of those statements be read otherwise?

They can't.

But that's not all that Gaddis says, nor is that the tone of his article as a whole.

It's not a matter of quoting out of context. Readers can read the whole article easily enough, it's only fifteen pages long. To quote out of context is to isolate specific portions of a piece that unfairly distort a clear, and different, meaning.

It is not that Prof. Gaddis makes one point that is clear when one reads the article as a whole. rather, it is that Gaddis SAYS things that are different.

Further he talks in code to avoid having one clear meaning attributed to him and he constantly jumps back and forth between similar sounding but completely different ideas so as to veil the bankruptcy of some of his ideas.

Consider the following, taken from the same first page on which appears the "grand strategy" quote above:

"Neither Bush nor his successors, whatever their party, can
ignore what the events of September 11, 2001, made clear:
that deterrence against STATES affords insufficient protection
from attacks by GANGS, which can now inflict the kind of damage
only STATES fighting WARS used to be able to achieve." (2)
(emphasis added)

This is a radically different statement than those at the beginning of this post and Prof. Gaddis does not so much as acknowledge the difference.

This is talking in code. Lubriciously, Prof. Gaddis has now completely recast the entire discussion.

First, according to the above, it is not a "war" that the U.S. is in. This is a crime problem, in which America must protect itself from attacks by "gangs."

This is in fact how Richard Holbroke and John Kerry conceptualized the terror issue according to the famous New York Times Magazine cover story near the end of the presidential campaign.

Gaddis clearly seperates state violence against America ("wars"), which can be defended by "deterrence," and murder by "gangs" which, in his view, september 11 only demonstrated can now be carried out on as massive a scale as previously only wars could.

This is not an isolated instance of careless wording by Gaddis. Later he writes,

"...the survival of the STATE SYSTEM itself could be at stake. Here lies the common ground...securing the STATE..." (7) (emphasis added)

These do not "clarify" the other statements that Gaddis made that are quoted at the beginning of this post. These do not provide "context" for their real meaning. These are in addition to, in contradiction with, and an obfuscation of, those statements.

The language itself, "the state system," "securing the state" is Stalinesque. This framework treats all "States" as existentially equal and with the same legitimacy in the fight against terrorism. Totalitarian or authoritarian, theocratic or democratic, they are all in this context equal: "Here lies the common ground."

the author of the times magazine cover story stated that according to Holbroke and Kerry the conflict as they saw it was not between one state, America, and Islam or particular states like Iraq and Afghanistan, or even with a general problem like "terrorism." Rather the fight was between "Civilization" and anarchy. It's the theme of the old tv show "I Spy" where the enemy was "CHAOS."

Gaddis continually weaves this "I Spy" framework in with other nearly identical sounding language that has a totally different meaning. In the next to the last page of the article he writes,

"What September 11 showed was that the United States
can no longer insulate itself from what happens in that
part of the world: to do so would be to ignore clear and
present danger." (p. 14)

Thus, he flips back to framing the discussion in the more comfortable and familiar way as a problem for the United States and away from the radical, crackpot notion that it is a problem of all "States" against anarchy.

Not only does Gaddis refrain from clearly articulating and taking responsibility for the "I Spy" framework but he doesn't even allude to its practical implications, which are staggering and frightening.

Gaddis even adopts Kerry's campaign speech assertion that he would never give some other body a "veto" over his authority as Commander in Chief:

"[Gaining multi-lateral support] will not involve giving anyone else a VETO over what the United States does to ensure its security and to advance its interests." (p. 7) (emphasis added).

But just as Senator Kerry said in the next breath that there SHOULD be a "global test" for U.S. intervention, so Gaddis says,

"It will, however, REQUIRE persuading as large a group of states as possible that these actions will also enhance, or at least not degrade, their own interests." (p. 7) (emphasis added)

This is not accidental language. Prof. Gaddis knows what "require" means. He knows that it's a command, a condition precedent to its referrent. He knows that it's different from something like "demonstrates a need for," or "makes desirable."

Neither did Sen. Kerry misspeak in the first debate when he used the phrase "global test." He simply coupled it with the reassurance that he would not give any other body a "veto" over his authority as Commander in Chief.

Here is one example of what Gaddis' "I Spy" framework means.

Saudi Arabia was the home of fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers and of Osama bin Laden himself.

The kingdom was founded on and supports Whhabbism, one of the most radical strains of Islam.

Saudi Arabia is a brutally authoritarian monarchy that deflects internal dissent by allowing its mullahs to preach calls to violence against America and Israel. A member of the official Saudi delegation that visited President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in the summer of 2002 was a religious leader who in April of 2002 had preached a sermon calling for the enslavement of Jewish women for the pleasure of Muslim men.

It is a country that places copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in prominent places in its airports.

It is a country that is regarded by most (I thought all until I read Gaddis) as one of the keys to solving the problem of Islamic terror.

Under Prof. Gaddis' "I Spy" framework Saudi Arabia has the same legitimacy in the fight against terror as does the United States.

"I Spy" also unifies all terrorists. the I.R.A, the Basques, the Chechens, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, they're all the same. They all threaten equally legitimate states which are part of a single "Civilization." In fact, this is the argument that President Putin made after the Beslan school massacre.

This is obvious nonsense, morally repugnant and strategically bankrupt. It is this though what provides Prof. Gaddis with the basis for his criticism of Bush's foreign policy "redesign."

First, Gaddis discusses the violence that the Bush administration has done to the distinction between "pre-emption" and "prevention," two long-used concepts in theoretical and legal discussions of war. Gaddis thus shifts his language back to the level of state-to-state theory and interaction.

The dangers of Bush's "conflation" mistake are many as Gaddis sees it:

"...the United States itself will appear to much of the world as a clear and present danger." (5)
...

"For the world's most powerful state to suddenly announce that its security requires violating the sovereignty of certain other states whenever it chooses cannot help but make all other states nervous." (5)
...

"As the political scientist G. John Ikenberry has pointed out, Washington's policy of pre-emption has created the image of a global policeman who reports to no higher authority and no longer allows locks on citizens' doors." (5) [ed note: He needed a political scientist as authority for that?]
...

"[The invasion of Iraq has resulted in] an unprecedented collapse of support for the United States abroad."(6)
...

"...Americans within a year and a half [of 9/11] found their country widely regarded as an international pariah." (6)

There are many points of note to be made on these quotes which are all taken from a section ironically titled "Speaking More Softly--and More Clearly."

First, using the pre-emption/prevention issue is not necessary to make his point, which is clear enough from the quotes above, that is, that the U.S. must act more multi-laterally in the future.

Second, he states that "John Kerry made it clear during the 2004 campaign that he would not have relinquished [the pre-emption] option had he won the presidency."

What I assert that Gaddis is doing here is once again using language to deliberately veil the true radical nature of his ideas.

The quotes above are very strident. Gaddis feels very passionately about the Bush mistake of conflating pre-emption and prevention. That John Kerry would have continued use of the pre-emption doctrine is not apposite to Gaddis' point, which is that Bush conflated that internationally accepted principle with a new, more controversial and dangerous one, preventive war. Of course he does not say that John Kerry would have continued THAT.

Third and most obvious, is the language that Gaddis uses. It is jarringly over-the-top and out of place with the language he uses in other sections of the article and simply schizoid when placed in the same article with his laudatory language of Bush.

Fourth, its content, Gaddis' "meaning" here, is just bizarre.

The United States is "WIDELY REGARDED" as an "INTERNATIONAL PARIAH."

The United States, in pursuing a course of preventive war, will appear, to "MUCH OF THE WORLD" as a "CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER."

Wow.

"Widely regarded," "much of the world;" not as bad as "universally regarded" or "most of the world," but still pretty bad obviously.

But, question: Who exactly? Who exactly does Gaddis allege feels this way?

France? Does Gaddis mean that the French think that the U.S. is a "clear and present danger" to them?

China? Do the Chinese regard us as an "international pariah?"

Prof. Gaddis, exactly which countries have the image of the U.S. as a "global policeman...[who] no longer allows locks on citizens' doors,"--as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry pointed out to you? Professor Ikenberry, can you help out here?

Russia? Does Gaddis believe that Bush's friend "Poot-Poot" is "nervous" that the U.S. may attack his country?

How about if we take it by continents.

Europe, who amongst you doesn't like Nascar... er... Who amongst you believes that America is a "clear and present danger" to you? Do i see one hand? Poland, I can't see you back there. Bulgaria, where are you hiding?

Prof. Gaddis, which country(ies) in Europe feel that the United States is a "clear and present danger?" There must be many, since, according to you, "much of the world" feels that way. Is there one?

How about Asia? Japan, the U.S., pariah or no? Cambodia? Tibet? Richard Gere, what say ye? Prof. Gaddis, who are we missing?

Australia?

Sub-Saharan Africa? South Africa, are you building underground bomb shelters and instructing your school children in the art of "duck and cover" for fear that Bush may drop atomic bombs on the beloved country? You're not?

South America: You Brazilians, Chileans, and Argentines, anybody battening down the hatches down there?

Gaddis' contention that the U.S. "has suddenly...announce[d] that its security requires violating the sovereignty of certain other states...," is wild. One imagines Bush and Cheney in the Oval office each morning, Cheney spinning a globe and a blind-folded Bush laughing malevolently and randomly pointing to some country and saying "THAT ONE!," and plans for the invasion of Luxembourg are put in motion.

Gaddis asseverates that "ALL OTHER STATES" are nervous about this. Is Gaddis' vcr permanently stuck on Dr. Strangelove? Did Michael Moore vet this article for him?

Who says something like that, much less writes it in a scholarly article?

WHICH COUNTRIES, Professor Gaddis, are "nervous" that the U.S. may willy-nilly decide to invade them randomly, "whenever it chooses?"

Prof. Gaddis well uses language to sugarcoat the strong medicine of his ideas. He is also a practiced user of the bogeyman overstatement masquerading as scholarship.

And of the straw-man argument. For example, he states that,

"The President and his advisers seem to have concluded"
that the international "status quo everywhere needed
shaking up. Once that had happened, the pieces would
realign themselves in patterns favorable to U.S. interests."
(p. 14)

Yes, one can see in one's mind's eye Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld sitting in their bunker the night of September 11 saying to each other, "I think if we just shock and awe the world a little and really shake things up the pieces will just naturally realign themselves in our favor."

And what, in the paragraph from which the above quote is taken, was just a "seeming" mode of thought on the part of the Bushies, becomes in the next paragraph on page 15, a FACT:

"The assumption that things would fall neatly into place after
the shock was administered was the single greatest misjudgment
of the first Bush administration."

How did we get from here to there?

This is what passes for foreign policy analysis these days.


-Benjamin Harris

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

FASHION AND SEX

FASHION AND SEX

i have this recurring argument with a friend. i contend that true fashion has more to do with art; he contends that it's all about sex. obviously, the line is a fine and often blurred one.

vogue's big spring fashion issue last year seemed to have more ads with more overt appeal to sex in the photography than i had remembered previously. from memory i think there was a talbot's ad with a leg-splayed model and a diamond industry ad of a model wearing jeans and one of her hands casually posed between her wide-open legs. on the ring finger of that hand was of course a diamond which lit up her crotch like a sun.

another one of the big designers, maybe calvin klein, was advertising a shorts set with a dead-on shot of the model with her legs spread.

off that issue of vogue i actually began a draft of a post on this subject but never finished it.

a couple of days ago i picked up an old copy of elle that one of the employees had left as reading material in the visitors waiting area. it's the august, 2002 issue.

the back cover ad was for anne klein. it shows a model leaning back on her elbows on a large red cube. she's wearing thick-strapped black sandals a white t-shirt and jeans. her right leg is up on the cube, her left leg is draped over the side. her legs are spread and the central focus of the shot is her crotch. it's a classic porn pose. there's no double entendre there. there's just one entendre.

then on page 148, part of a multi-page layout on shoes, is a model in another classic porn pose. she's kneeling on a leather couch wearing a frilly SHORT skirt. her butt is thrust out and she's wearing a pair of above-the-knee leather boots. which i didn't notice on first glance.

i'm not offended but i'm not showing that issue of elle to my friend. i ain't got no argument against evidence like that.


-benjamin harris

Monday, January 03, 2005

TRUE CRIME STORIES

"I AM BECOME DEATH" *

an englishman once said, "tell me what a man does and i will tell you what he is."

i grew up in a household influenced by that protestant work ethic. my town once flooded and one of the coal trains coming through was stranded on the tracks. my dad walked on the top of the boxcars to get to work . he was around newsprint all his life. he died of a rare cancer that only struck people in certain occupations, one of them being newspaper printing. tell me what a man does and i'll tell you what he is.

for nineteen years all i've done is murder cases. i know murder well and i know little else. i am still fascinated by every case i get. i never get tired of them . i can be obsessive-compulsive and murder is a good subject for my personality.

of course there is pathos in every murder, some more than others. but in evey case there is horror, violence, the end. you become very aware of the finality of death. survivors often parrot one of the religous sayings like "he/she's in a better place," or "we'll be together in the next life." i can't help feeling jaded when i hear that time and again when my work belies the sentiment and only reinforces the opposite, the finality.

you do your job for nineteen years, you immerse yourself in every case. you meet the next of kin. to do it for that long you have to develop some distance.

it's a little jarring looking at death scene photos the first time. but that quickly goes away. they're just pictures. for a very long time, i've been able just to look at them for their evidentiary worth, not for the broken human bodies that are the reason i have this job in the first place. i can eat lunch and study the photos without being bothered.

scene visits were once a different thing for me. seeing a "live" dead body made me squeamish. if i could avoid it i wouldn't view the body, but that is not possible at most scenes. but even this changed after one homicide call.

one sunday afternoon i had my baby boy alone at home and was just starting to watch a football game. i was relaxed and enjoying life when the beeper went off. i cursed. i was exasperated. i had to call around to friends to get someone to babysit. as i drove to the scene i got more aggravated at the imposition and by the time i got there i was in full bloom.

i remember it was a domestic murder. that frustrated me even more. i am not a very jealous person so when i hear that a MURDER has been committed out of jealousy i become contemptuous. "if i can't have him/her nobody will." that is the mantra of all "domestics" and i know i should be more understanding but it angers me to hear it. this murder was at the apex of that senselessness.

a mother came home from church with her two children. her estranged husband confronted her at the house. they quarreled. he pulled out a gun and shot her. right in front of the kids.

he then went inside the house and shot himself in the living room. i remember he had fallen awkwardly, his legs bent under him. the gun was large caliber, a .45. the bullet tore a big hole in his shirt. his eyes were open.

the cops had already turned on the tv set before i got there. i sat on the couch--his couch--propped my feet on his coffee table and watched the game on his television with his body right underneath me. i was angry at him for what he did, for the reason he did it, for what he did to his children and for ruining my sunday afternoon. "fuck you," i said to him in my head. "i don't give a shit about you."

i have never been that callous since, but the point is the work had changed me a little. i have not been as squeamish around the destroyed bodies since then. now i was able to contemplate a scene and a body in strategic terms alone. what can i do to make the case better? what problems can i head off?

that's good for my work but if the emotion of even murder is subsumed to analysis and rationality then emotionally and psychologically, murder becomes "normal"; it is one's job, it is part of one's routine and i wonder if that has effected my own morality and what i view as acceptable. tell me what a man does and i will tell you what he is.

we are the philosophical children of descartes and kant and the whole rationalist tradition. our criminal justice system is certainly built on that foundation. "feelings of bias, sympathy and prejudice must not influence your verdict in any way," is what every criminal jury is told. the pictures of the broken and wrecked human bodies, the anguish of the family, the terror of the witnesses, the jury is to detach themselves from all that.

and because they must at the end stage of the process, those at the earlier stages--the detectives, the prosecutors, the defense attoneys, the judges--must also detach themselves from it.

jurors can get back to their morally normal lives after a week or two. but we must go on to the next case. there is no return from the dark side.

maybe the long term effects of this work are not all bad. it has made me see shades of gray where previously i had only seen black or white, but maybe too it is a moral and emotional carcinogen like the newsprint chemicals that killed my dad.

i seldom have hatred toward the murderers. almost always, when it's all over, i shake their hands, sometimes we embrace. for my colleagues that is odd behavior but it is not that i condone what they've done. unless they're truly evil, i view the whole case as sad.

in my experience--in my opinion--the murderers who are truly evil are rare. if there were no drugs and alcohol, if there was no jealousy, if men's testerone level wasn't so high, if they didn't get into fights, if THEY could seperate the emotional from the rational and not react violently, if all those things could be changed then a lot of murders wouldn't happen and i don't think those who kill for those reasons are necessarily evil.

"not evil" does not mean "not immoral, or "not criminal" certainly, and i gladly seek to have them punished severely for what they do but i do seperate them morally from reggie who liked to beat old white women to death with his bare hands. i honestly don't think that is moral relativism but if you combine that view with the change in my emotions to corpses, i wonder if it hasn't had an effect.

a colleague told me one time that over the last few years he had begun questioning housewives in jury selection about their daytime tv viewing habits because he was concerned that those who watch those shows get exposed to so much aberrant behavior that murder wouldn't seem so bad or a defendant's bizarre story might be accepted as normal and he didn't want people like that on his juries.

i thought it was a brilliant point but if we have concerns about viewers of those shows, what about us? we don't just watch it on tv. aberrant behavior is our job. our minds force us to think a certain way. the body isn't just a horror but a piece of evidence. a witness's terror is not a primal human reaction but something that needs to be conveyed convincingly in court.

i remember thinking about my job one time and recalling president reagan and the iran-contra scandal. he traded arms for hostages but somehow, in his mind, a mind that his hand-chosen biographer found "unfathomable," he truly believed he hadn't. "who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes."

reagan was an actor. his career before politics was playing a role, "lying." as an actor that is what one does. you pretend to be someone you're not. you convincingly display emotions that are not really there. if one does that in one's job then it must become easier to do it in other area's of one's life. lying becomes normal. tell me what a man does and i'll tell you what he is.

it's obviously the same thing for people like undercover cops and intelligence agents. there too your job is to lie. your life may depend on how well you do it. when you can so successfully erase one of the first morality lessons we are taught, "thou shalt not tell a lie," it becomes easier to do it in all other areas of life.

in my own case i make compromizing my opponent an uncommonly large part of my work and i am successful at it. it's been enormously helpful and it's easy for me. i use friendship and collegiality to loosen lips and learn secrets. i plant disinformation. i flatter, ingratiate, and feign laziness to lull my opponents. i draw them into apparent confidences so that i can use the faux intimacy to my advantage. i enjoy it. but to do all of that successfully you have to compartmentalize your emotions. you have to be cold, even ruthless. you have to be a good liar.

but if those compartments are so tightly shut, if the emotions are so successfully subsumed to strategy then maybe there is a blunting of emotions in other areas of life and again, the prohibition against lying, a bedrock of my own morality growing up, no longer has anywhere near its old effect.

all of this has resulted in my creation of a new dictum, "the two most overrated things in the world are the truth and 'i'm sorry'." the latter is useless in my view, doing more good for the speaker than for the listener. the former is not black and white for me anymore. sometimes the truth is used as a sword to wound others. we'd never say "my, you're ugly," to another person and then justify it because it was the truth. there are countless examples like that. and just as many where there are morally gray areas between the truth and the lie.

i think all of this is true. i believe all of the examples and arguments are reasonable but i wonder about the cumulative effect of my job, of whether the circuit breaker on my outrage meter has been readjusted too high, of whether the necessary blunting of emotions in dealing with murder has effected my emotional ability in other areas, of whether my acceptance of lying and nuanced views of murderers have not taken a toll on other aspects of my life.


* from the bhagavad gita

-benjamin harris

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Beginning of Hitler

The socio-economic reasons for the rise of Adolph Hitler--Versailles, the dominance of the military over German society, hyperinflation, etc.--are familiar to even non-historians thanks to William Shirer's book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. For Shirer though the whole thing was just too improbable, too bizarre for those causes to explain everything.

The Fuhrer himself, not even a German but an Austrian, a mere corporal, a failed artist and vagabond; the "weird assortment of misfits" who were Hitler's inner circle; the "crackpot economics" and other "intellectual" bases of national socialism. All of this did not make sense to Shirer for a nation "which had given the world a Luther, a Kant, a Goethe and a Schiller, a Bach, a Beethoven and a Brahms."

Shirer details other events, coincidental happenings, bizarre twists of fate, innocuous, banal events that somehow came together to produce Hitler. They were not causes. They are "but for" events, evidence almost of a diabolus ex machina involved. It was as if all the parts of the toaster were put into the paper bag, shaken vigorously and out came the gas chambers.

Among this category of events, was the fortuity of his Hitler's last name. Hitler's father was born "Alois Schiklgruber," his mother's name because he was born illegitimate. The father lived under that name until age 39 when, bizarrely, the natural father, his own name having evolved from Heidler to Hitler, came forward to acknowledge paternity, whereupon Alois changed his name to Hitler.

"But for" this, Hitler would have been known as "Adolph Schicklgruber." As Shirer says,

 "Can one imagine the frenzied German masses acclaiming a Schicklgruber with their thunderous 'Heils.'? 'Heil Schicklgruber!'?...It is a little difficult to imagine."

You can sense Shirer's astonishment at the prominence of these chance events in his language and punctuation: "misfits," "crackpots," "Heil Schicklgrber!?."

And then he quotes from Mein Kamph and Hitler's own account of the beginning of his anti-semitism, which Hitler traced to one particular day, and one specific encounter, with one particular person, while walking in Vienna:

"I suddenly encountered an apparition in a black caftan and black
sidelocks. Is that a Jew? was my first thought. For to be sure they
had not looked like that in Linz. I observed the man furtively and
cautiously, but the longer I stared at this foreign face, scrutinizing
feature for feature, the more my first question assumed a new form:
"is this a German?"...[from that day on] "wherever I went, I began to
see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became
distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity. Later I often
grew sick to the stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers."

The prominence of these events is psychologically unsettling because of their exemption from rational examination. Rational analysis must fixate on the details of a catastrophe if corrective action is to result. No retrospective analysis could identify and isolate the missteps to be avoided in the future, no seminars could get to the bottom of it, no historian could root it out, and hence the realization that despite our intelligence, despite our capacity for reflection, despite our capability for change--despite, in all, our ability to control our world and hence our fate, events like these show us, to our horror, that we are not in control of our destiny, that no matter what we do, sometimes there will be an event, of pure chance, of the stringing together of banal occurrences that perversely mutate into something monstrous.

There is fixation also on the details of incidents like Hitler's street encounter, not because of their significance in explaining, but just the opposite, because of their insignificance and inability to explain. We examine the details knowing their innocuousness, singly and together, and are incredulous, unable to rationally comprehend the horrific outcome that resulted. Irresistibly the reel is rewound and we see the endless ways the outcome could have been different if one banal detail were exchanged for the other.

What time of day did the encounter occur? Hitler used the word "apparition."  Was it then at night so that the man would have seemed more ghostly and menacing? If it had happened in daylight, would the encounter have turned out as it did?

How old was the man? Hitler's age, making the contrast in circumstances more threatening to Hitler? Would that have made a difference in the way Hitler reacted?

Where was the man going?

Where was he coming from?

Did he notice Hitler "staring" at him, "scrutinizing" him? If so, what did he think? We know what Hitler thought.

Where exactly did this occur? On what street? Why did Hitler go THERE that day?

Wherever the man was going, did he take his usual route or did he unexpectedly take a different one at the last minute?

None of these things is causal. That's what's maddening. You can't BLAME them so retrospective analysis can't proscribe against their recurrence, but change any one and astonishingly, maddeningly, the encounter doesn't take place.

Clearly anti-semitism would have come to Hitler, if not on this day then some other. But it did happen on this day, on that street, with that man. Who's to say that on another day the encounter wouldn't have struck Hitler so forcefully?

Who's to say that a delay of even a month or two months in the onset of Hitler's anti-semitism wouldn't have thrown off the timing of his rise to power?

Who's to say that if Hitler were known as Adolph Schicklgruber he wouldn't have become the Nazi leader?

And so, we rewind the film, and we become an observer of this developing catastrophe, to ache at the fall of each snowflake that we know is going to result in the avalanche, and as we're watching, we want to say "no," "don't leave now," "don't go that way," "don't look at him" and we find ourselves powerless to do any of that and to have to just watch as the nightmare unfolds, banal detail by banal detail.

And so I imagine that day. The encounter occurs not in daylight but at dusk. Hitler wanders but, attracted by the architecture of some building, heads in it's direction, toward the Inner City.

The man is in his home, preparing to go to evening services. He is a serious man, his countenance even grave. He heads out onto the street.

It is a winter day and so the days are short. Hitler is cold and, as he always was in Vienna, hungry. The man is well-set. Hitler will unconsciously contrast that with his own gauntness.

The man has a functional coat and a hat. Hitler's coat is worn, thin and ineffective.

As he walks, cold, hungry, tired, Hitler thinks of how Vienna is trying to break him, how he has come to hate the city for it's failure to recognize his talent as an artist, to provide him with the kind of job he feels himself worthy, to feed him, house him and protect him against the cold.

It is not late at night because Hitler, lacking proper shelter, would not have wanted to be out as the city got darker and colder.

The man is thinking of his religion. He is absorbed in thought and walks the same route that he has always walked to the synagogue. He looks at the ground a few paces in front of himself. Hitler just wanders, looking at his surroundings, the buildings and the people.

The man is in middle age, 40's-50's. An elderly man walking with difficulty with a cane might have engendered some sympathy in Hitler, or at least not have seemed as threatening.

Hitler is looking up to keep the building in sight but as he gets closer his view is blocked by the buildings nearer to him and he is unsure now where to turn.

Both men are lost in thought.

Hitler turns down the street. He randomly turns down this street rather than that street and randomly walks on this side of the street rather than on that side and now he and the man are walking toward each other.

The man walks purposefully if mechanically. Hitler walks slowly and aimlessly.

There is a corner in the street. Hitler turns the corner and the man is a few yards in front of him. Lost in thought, Hitler is startled. The man's thought is broken too and he looks up.

Hitler sees a larger man than himself, dressed in black, in clothes foreign to him. The man's hat and full beard make his grave countenance more alien and menacing. The soft gas light of the street lamps obscures the details of his face, making them mysterious.

The two men's eyes meet, Hitler's startled and wide-eyed, the man's sharp and penetrating. In the inadequate light Hitler sees only the eyes and the angular nose that dominates the face.

The two have to alter their strides slightly to pass each other, and they pass so closely they almost brush. As they pass the air carries their smell to the other.

The man continues on, just one of many daily encounters in a big city.

Hitler though is confused by what he has seen. "Is this a Jew?..."Is this a German?"  He pauses and then stops. He hears talking, in a foreign tongue.

The man has seen a friend and has stopped to talk. The man and his friend pivot and their positions change, so that now the man is facing down the street he just came, in Hitler's the direction.

After being startled, after being confused, after pausing and hearing men talking, after stopping, Hitler steps around the corner to look further:

"I observed the man furtively and cautiously..."

The man has already forgotten about Hitler and is now absorbed in conversation. Hitler is in his field of vision but only as a dark shadow in the background. The image doesn't consciously register with him.

Hitler continues to look and now "stared at his foreign face, scrutinizing feature for feature."

The man ends his conversation with his friend and insouciantly walks away, his back now to Hitler.  Hitler continues to stare, oblivious to the man's friend who is now walking toward him. The friend sees Hitler staring down the street, but Hitler does not notice him.

The friend passes Hitler, still staring, and as he gets a few steps past he briefly turns and looks back at this strange little man staring down the street after his friend. He turns back around and continues walking.

Hitler's stare is still fixed on the man going to temple who gets farther and farther away and smaller and smaller in the distance. Hitler continues to stare. In the soft gas light and the deepening gloom of evening the man becomes just a black form on the streetscape. Hitler continues to stare. And the darkness gathers.


-Benjamin Harris