Thursday, February 04, 2010

The bomb

Michel Foucault yesterday, a leading American public intellectual today, but I promise crime fiction tomorrow including, possibly, a visit to the most surprising crime-fiction city you'll have heard of.

Today's subject is Garry Wills, a visitor to the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library last night to talk about his new book, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.

Wills says the American presidency arrogated for itself extraordinary powers amid the Manhattan Project, then kept those powers once the emergency of World War II had passed. The results include extraordinary secrecy, disrespect for the Constitution, the undermining of Congress, "the era of undeclared war, presidential war," and the development of a massive national security apparatus not at all times zealous about the truth.

Unlike the other 300 million Americans, Wills worries about the institution of the presidency, rather than about this Democrat or that Republican, and here's where a crime fiction or thriller plot suggests itself: A president takes office and finds out from his national security apparatus about secret, perhaps dirty projects around the world. He tries to end them. What happens?
***
Wills' talk was crisp and to the point, and the program finished early. Perhaps one should expect no less from the author of a much-honored book about the Gettysburg Address.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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16 Comments:

Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

I think Bill Hicks may have answered that question years ago.

Rather then transcribe it here is the clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MRykTpw1RQ

February 04, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

I know I promised not to quote Yeats at you, so now you know how much you can trust my promises.

The American 'empire' will collapse some day, as all empires do, and perhaps it will rot from within as many empires do. But is that collapse imminent? I don't think so.

I freely admit to having anti-American views but they're nothing compared to my anti-German, anti-French, anti-British, anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, anti-Israeli, anti-Islamic views.

When more people want to emigrate to China than they do to the USA, then we can consider the American century over. But not before then.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like to think that someone who uses a term like "industrialist, capitalist scumfucks" is making fun of people who believe in cosnpiracy theories as least as much as he's venting at the ICSs because conspiracy theories naturally offer an invitation to check one's brains at the door.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, would I take you to task for quoting Yeats when I have done as much myself, complete with a photograph?

The last question to Wills was delightful: "Does are salvation lie our coming penury?"

No, he answered, in part because the U.S. still has vast resources. And he invoked a point similar to your last one: Students still come to this country from around the world to study.

Quite naturally he invoked the Roman Empire as well, and we all know that that empire collapsed in the fourth century. Or in 476. Or in 1453. In fact, Wills compares the American empire to the Venetian, which sought less to take over territory than to establish safe bases for its own trade.

My own question to Wills was: "Is the secrecy/national security state reversible, and if you say it's not, are you committing the great American heresy of pessimism to say so?"

Politically, he said, reversal would be difficult, and no, he said, after some thought, he did not think he was pessimistic. He found much to be optimistic about in the U.S., he said, including widespread discussion and implementation of human and minotrity rights. This country is more than its political forms, he implied -- a salutary reminder.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

If you're going to poke fun at conspiracy theories, you need to read The Illuminatus Trilogy first. Those three books set a very high bar for those who wish to satirize the things.

Note: it's a hard slog for the first couple of hundred pages, because it seems so disjointed and has so many different points of view. If you can get past that it's a hoot.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The library's drector introduced Wills and kept calling him Willis. I was going to poke some fun at this. But the woman's name is Siobhan Reardon. She has no trace of any Irish accent, but the extra syllable reminded me of the extra vowel in the Irish pronunciation fillum for film, so I decided against making a joke it. Maybe the pronunciation was a holdover from what she heard growing up. Maybe it was a silly lapse after all. Either way, I decided not to chance it. My jab at her wold have been clever, though.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'd imagine that poking fun at premises so ludicrous to start with is an excedingly difficult task.

In fact, the one sensible thing I have heard about conspiracy came from Noam Chomsky, who has taken a beating here this week.

I'm paraphrasing because I read the interview long ago, but he said in essence that conspiracies in the sense of a bunch of men sitting in a room and deciding what's what were rare. Rather, he said, a conspiracy consists in the creation of a set of conditions that make a given set of thoughts or actions impossible. This made sense to me.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, here's that Yeats link again.

February 04, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Free Library" -- those are 2 of the sweetest words in the English language.

Peter, Wills's observation that "students still come to this country from around the world to study" is quite true but then so many of them go home again afterward. Helpful for their home nations but a drain on resources for the US. Do I think we should limit foreign students? No, but the downside of our top college-level schooling (unlike our appalling primary- and secondary-schooling) is that we have a kind of reverse brain drain.

I enjoy Wills's commentary very much. His is a calm voice of reason in our mostly shrill, hyperbolic political diatribes, I mean discourse.

His book "Lincoln at Gettysburg" is superb. He made me realize that Lincoln did not say "government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people," like I had always heard it read but rather "government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE." Which stirred me and depressed me simultaneously when I think how little the "people" matter to those inside the Beltway.

And, solo, you might be interested in Wills's book "Why I Am a Catholic."

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Wills cited the attraction of American universities as a sign of this country's vitality. I'm not sure how it's a drain on this country's resources unless these Chinese and Indian and what have you graduate students are taking places that Americans might otherwise hold.

Wills invoked Lincoln, citing his suspension of habeas corpus among wartime acts of emergency by presidents that had been ended or declared illegal once the emergency was over. He contrasted this with powers that have accrued to the presidency since Truman and have yet to be repealed.

February 04, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I'm normally allergic to poetry but I've always liked Yeats, even if he was a bit of a nutter with all that theosophy stuff (a bit like A C Doyle).

Elisabeth, thanks for the tip on Wills. I grew up in a Catholic household but I never took to it myself. I don't seem to have the genes for religious belief.

February 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, the poem to which I linked above (the first link didn't work, so I reposted a few comments down) is refreshingly down to earth.

I didn't read much Yeats growing up, but how many poems have been more widely plundered for pop-culture references than "The Second Coming"? (I read that one in school.)

February 05, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, your comment "I'm not sure how it's a drain on this country's resources unless these Chinese and Indian and what have you graduate students are taking places that Americans might otherwise hold" is part of what I meant. "Resources" being our college/univ staff, research libraries (or at least the "stuff" accessible online that used to be available only in the library), state-of-the art equipment, etc. Just as we exploit immigrants at the bottom level of unskilled labor, we are also becoming addicted to upper level immigrant labor that will often accept salaries that are less than their US-born counterparts. The decision whether or not to return to the home country is also a two-way problem. Many Indians do choose to return, I believe, and they can live far more comfortably there than here (expanding India's middle class) but I read an interesting article by a Malaysian gov't rep. which pointed out that their students who so often remain in the US create problems for the home country that can't entice international investment because the necessary labor force isn't there. No easy, pat answers.

solo, from your comments re Chandler's attitudes towards Irish-Catholics I'm afraid I presumed you were a practicing Catholic. Mea culpa.

February 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Just as we exploit immigrants at the bottom level of unskilled labor, we are also becoming addicted to upper level immigrant labor that will often accept salaries that are less than their US-born counterparts. The decision whether or not to return to the home country is also a two-way problem. Many Indians do choose to return, I believe, and they can live far more comfortably there than here (expanding India's middle class) but I read an interesting article by a Malaysian gov't rep. which pointed out that their students who so often remain in the US create problems for the home country that can't entice international investment because the necessary labor force isn't there. No easy, pat answers.

Elisabeth, is that part of the larger university problem of exploiting graduate students to do work that tenured or tenure-track stadd ought to be doing?

The Malaysian comment makes me think that the problem you cite might be ripe for international cooperation.

February 05, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, "is that part of the larger university problem of exploiting graduate students to do work that tenured or tenure-track staff ought to be doing?" Absolutely! It was bad enough in my day; based on a few comments of college-age children of friends of mine I understand it is even worse now.

February 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"is that part of the larger university problem of exploiting graduate students to do work that tenured or tenure-track staff ought to be doing?"

Absolutely! It was bad enough in my day; based on a few comments of college-age children of friends of mine I understand it is even worse now.


And I don't suppose university representatives are any more forthcoming about this matter than they were in my day.

February 05, 2010  

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