January 18, 2012 - January 11, 2012
Friday, January 07, 2011
Ever heard about the first Union
of the Civil War? He was a New York Zouave, like the
ones pictured above.
Elmer Ellsworth was a hero in the North
even before the first shots of the Civil War. Born in Saratoga Springs,
NY, Ellsworth moved to Chicago to study law. It was here that Ellsworth
was introduced to the Zouaves - colorful military units outfitted in
pantalooned uniforms based on those worn by French colonial troops in
Pomp and Puffinstance
Ellsworth formed his own Zouave unit and molded it into a crack drill
In the summer of 1860, Ellsworth and his Zouaves toured the North
performing precision drills before awed audiences in 20 cities. At the
end of the summer, Ellsworth joined Abraham Lincoln's law practice in
Springfield, IL as a law clerk. Impressed with his hard-working,
enthusiastic clerk, Lincoln invited Ellsworth to join his campaign for
president. Following his victory, Lincoln asked Ellsworth to join him
As tensions between the North and South states intensified, Ellsworth
moved to New York City. He formed a Zouave unit made up of volunteers
from among the city's firemen - the New York Fire Zouaves - and became
May 1861 found Ellsworth and his Zouaves stationed in Washington, DC.
On the 23rd of that month the Virginia legislature voted to secede from
the Union. Before the sun rose the next morning, Ellsworth, anxious to
see some action, led his Zouaves across the Potomac River as part of an
eleven-regiment Union invasion of Virginia. Ellsworth's objective was
to secure the port of Alexandria.
The Zouave's landing at Alexandria was uncontested, and they quickly
spread through the town securing important targets such as the
telegraph office and rail station. As Ellsworth led his men through the
streets his eye caught sight of a Confederate flag waving from the top
of the Marshall House Inn. Followed by four of his men, Ellsworth
rushed into the building, ran up its stairs and cut down the offensive
symbol. Descending the stairs, Ellsworth was confronted by the inn's
proprietor, James W. Jackson, armed with a double-barrel shotgun.
Firing at point-blank range, the inn keeper ended the life of the
twenty-four-year-old and conferred upon him the distinction of being
the first Union officer killed in the war. Almost instantaneously,
Jackson was cut down by Ellsworth's men.
There are short, spectacular wars and long, dark, punishing wars. They
both tend to begin the same way, with fanfare, lofty rhetoric, and
grandiose symbolic gestures. Today, nobody remembers that there were
Union troops who wore red pantaloons. Just as nobody remembers that the
first battle of Manassas was treated as a picnic outing by Washington, DC, social elites who camped on a hillside to watch the ceremonial showdown between north and south, with
plovers' eggs and fine wine as accoutrements. The subsequent rout of
Union troops may have been the first indication to those elites that
the unfolding war would be less strutting and cheers than stinking charnel house.
I was not inspired by the idea of reading the Constitution on the floor
of the new congress. I understood the sentiment, but sentiment is,
well, sentiment, not strategy. For me it highlighted the quandary of the
new Republican majority: how do you transform a mix of hardened
survivalist politicians and idealistic Tea Partiers into an effective
Where all the mixed metaphors come into play. The remaining Democrats
in the House of Representatives are clever, experienced politicians.
Combat-proven veterans. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, chewing nails and plotting ambushes. The Republicans are
a Pro-Am crowd. (Think of Pros vs Joes
The Tea Partiers are definitely the Zouaves of the early days of the
Civil War, all puffed up with pride in their red-white-and-blue
pantaloons. They may be accomplished at constitutional drilling, but
they're lambs to the slaughter in congressional trench warfare unless they learn very damn fast that
their mission can't be accomplished with a few symbolic votes and an
air of intransigent patriotic virtue.
There's still no sign of a Republican Ulysses Grant, let alone a
Lincoln, and the best we can hope for right now is that John Boehner
is, gulp, George McClellan, the general famous for refusing to fight
who nevertheless succeeded in creating the modern, disciplined,
professional military his country would need to win a very very long
and very very very bloody war.
The Tea Party members of congress aren't going to roll back the Obama
offensive on liberty any more than the Zouaves won an easy early
victory in the War between the States. We will see plenty of them
become quick casualties of the infantry slugfests in Washington.
Importantly, though, we can't lose heart. There will be many letdowns,
defeats, and even some disasters to come. A Gettysburg may make us
doubt our own will to continue. But we have to remember -- even those
of us from the South -- that Sherman did march to the sea, Grant did
take Richmond, and Lincoln did free the slaves. Preserving the union is
not easy, and we will all be or know casualties before the war is won.
quick thank you to 'DorkvsMaximvs,' whose quick response gently corrected an
IP brain fart I wouldn't want to get in the way of the post. I'll
document my error in a day or so.
Thursday, January 06, 2011
The Ghost in the
WAY BACK WHEN
. I was
going to write today about the Republican legislative calendar and the
need for patience. I've been slow getting off the mark in the new year,
and I don't mind admitting that it's largely because of the topic of my
first 2011 post
. I found the experience described there and lightly
responded to unutterably depressing. I didn't contend with my friend
because I recognize impenetrable armor when I see it. For gifted people
to be wrapped in such armor makes me come close to despair. Which is
why my frail resolve to write about politics was torpedoed by an
interesting late comment on that post:
Helkenberg 2011-01-05 10:40:00
Micro: It could be an altogether different reality than anyone has
imagined is beginning to take hold, where concepts such as waste,
inefficiency and small-mindedness are to be replaced with automation,
total information awareness and, of course, total-mindedness. This
would imply that no boomer, indeed no human being whatsoever, is in
charge of any aspect of our daily lives at all, rather the illusion of
personal responsibility is just that, an illusion, and rather than
working toward small personal goals, we are being pulled toward an
inevitable climax over which no person exercises any control
whatsoever. This is not to say that the appearance of incontrovertible
evidence regarding human involvement in health care can be denied, it
is just to say that whether it is accepted or denied is of no
consequence to the inescapable
arrival of a system over which no human exercises any authority.
I look at the continuing expansion of the federal bureaucracy as
evidence that soon the system will be so overwrought with specialized
rules and regulations that it will be more complex than many organisms.
This trend cannot continue indefinitely simply due to the restrictions
placed upon physical memory, which is to say that human minds are just
memory devices that instantiate a particular rule, when it is deemed
necessary by the government, which in this case is the only sentient
life on Earth.
Macro: It would seem that the continuous erosion of the abductive
logical faculties humans have relied upon for the formation of
hypothesis is steadily making the scenario related above more and more
plausible, the conclusion being that humans are to become little more
than cells in an organism we can loosely define as a corporate-state.
This then would lead me to conclude that any sentiments contrary to the formation of the conscious
corporate-state would be bad. Possibly very very bad. Apoptosis
aside, the corporate-state might deem a systematic elimination of those
cells that are "rogue" to be a necessary step in the ongoing process of
health care reform.
And nothing is worth dying for, especially if you are already
immortal. [boldface added]
The term "conscious corporate state" is what snagged my attention.
Shortly before I left corporate consulting in the early 1990s, I had
become convinced that the 'corporate change processes' I was hired to
facilitate were being defeated not by human resistance but by a kind of
organizational consciousness nobody could contend with because they
couldn't even detect its existence. Even though all of us have
encountered it directly in every corporate conference room where
nominal allies suddenly sell out every important principle without ever
acknowledging, even to themselves, what have they done. I wasnt't
thinking of it in terms of groupthink or moral cowardice and
selfishness. I was thinking of it as an active consciousness made of
the pieces it owned of thousands of human brains or, if you will,
organizational brain cells.
I even wrote about it in somewhat guarded terms, nearly
fifteen years ago
. Here's what I said in July 1997:
Movies came up. Patrick and I share an
interest in bad action movies of both the 'A' and 'B' varieties. While
I was giving in to the temptation to see Under Siege II again, he was
falling victim once more to Executive Decision Andrew hadn't seen it,
so we recapped the plot for him. In the telling, it's almost the same
as Under Siege II -- a secret U.S. military technology falls into the
hands of terrorists, threatening the passengers on a train/plane as
well as the residents of Washington, DC. What to do? Send in Steven
Seagal to kill the terrorists, rescue the passengers, and, if there's
time, DC too. The only thing different about Executive Decision is the
twist about killing off Seagal before he can save the day, which means
that bookish Kurt Russell has to do it -- ve-e-e-ery slowly -- with the
help of a brave and beautiful flight attendant. There's a Marx Brothers
quality about the piece, with Russell constantly popping up inside
cupboards and service panels and elevators to ask one more dangerous
favor of the flight attendant before the heavily armed commandos can
make their appearance.
After a good laugh about the special effects in Seagal's death scene,
we returned to a subject Patrick and I have discussed many times before
-- "the possibility that there is a collective meaning to the clicheed
plots used in bad popular entertainment. I once read a theory -- "I
wish I could remember whose -- "that popular culture becomes a kind of
underground railroad for archetypal themes that are being ignored or
censored by highbrow culture. Such themes may appear in a badly
degenerated form, but at the least their most rudimentary essence is
being preserved for the day when the official culture rediscovers their
value. This made enormous sense to me, and I started watching bad
movies in a new way, almost in aggregate, as if they were unconsciously
designed pieces of a puzzle that could indeed be fitted together into a
For example, the Under Siege/Executive Decision plot can be read as a
cartoonish treatment of two themes that are being ignored by
intellectual culture. First, there is
the implicit awareness that the U.S. government is a runaway leviathan,
with no one fully in charge or capable of controlling its appetite for
predation. The terrorists are themselves a by-product of that
predation, having been servants or victims of it or both. Whatever
ambiguities may be present in terms of our expected response have
generally to do with these villains. At times they could be proxies for
us, tough and ruthless enough to break the eggs for a wickedly
delicious omelet we dare not order from the menu. At others they seem
more like the face behind the mask of power, the unabashed willingness
to use the high-tech killer toys that must have sponsored their
creation in the first place. In either case, they display a knife-edged
decisiveness which mocks the gassy committee response of a government
that makes easy choices hard because it must pretend to care equally
about everyone and everything.
The good intentions of individuals
within the government -- and even within the military -- are
represented, but these are shown to be impotent under the weight of the
obese monstrosity the government has become. Note that this is not a
liberal view -- it expressly undermines the notion that serious
problems can be solved politically by caring legislators. When elected
politicians make an appearance, they are depicted as selfish, stupid,
and hypocritical fools who are themselves destined to become victims --
the U.S. Senator on the plane in Executive Decision gets killed trying
to make personal political hay out of the hijacking.
Overlaid on this theme is the
archetype of the hero, which has been banished from serious literature
for most of this century. He is preserved in the movies as a
caricature -- racing from one impossibly dangerous situation to another
with near-miraculous impunity. Almost
invariably he is depicted as a loner, a rule breaker, a man natively at
odds with authority. The caption seems to be that we need exactly this
kind of hero, although the odds against his success are incredibly
There are, of course, endless variations of this particular plot
combination -- the Rambo movies add the image of the hero as a
specifically targeted victim of the U.S. leviathan, although he
nevertheless saves the day -- a comic book Christ figure. John
Carpenter's Snake Plisskin flicks, Escape from New York and Escape from
L.A., cloak the same basic formula in confused political innuendo but
offer the same image of the persecuted hero who must be induced to
rescue a mindlessly authoritarian political system. In fact, Escape
from L.A. ends with Snake Plisskin pulling the plug on all of
technological civilization, upping the ante to a level worthy of the
Una-Bomber. The Die Hard movies downplay the complicity of the
leviathan in the crisis being addressed, but go out of their way to
depict the bullying impotence of federal law enforcement organizations
and, to a lesser degree, their state and municipal counterparts.
Scores of cheaper, slapped-together movies that make their appearance
on late-night cable also give us this same story again and again and
again. One could argue that the David and Goliath theme obviously makes
for a good story, but the appeal to the American public may very well
include the subliminal awareness that there is something fundamentally
true about the premise which does not quite come across in the analyses
offered by journalists, pundits, and politicians.
Is this plot significant or meaningful? Hard to tell, I grant, but
contrast it with the westerns of a generation or two ago. The hero is
present -- still a loner and a rule breaker -- but even he is grateful
when the cavalry arrives, and when the government makes mistakes and
causes problems in an old western, it is still not presented as any
kind of impersonal intractable ogre.
There's another stereotypical movie plot that I believe may be groping
toward a concealed and very real problem in the American culture. This
is the 'Cyborg' theme, which has been worked and reworked in probably
hundreds of different ways--ranging from such critically acclaimed
efforts as Blade Runner, RoboCop, and Terminator to junky ripoffs like
The Demolitionist (female RoboCop), American Cyborg, Johnny Mnemonic,
and, most recently, Screamers. What's interesting to me about these is
that they have been interpreted by critics as addressing a deep-seated
human fear. I suspect, however, that the fear being addressed goes
considerably deeper than the one usually cited.
The standard explanation is that we're afraid of the advances in
genetics and computer technology which may one day soon blur the line
between human being and machine. Thus, we are given the plight of
RoboCop, a human being turned into a microprocessor-controlled cyborg
by a ruthlessly exploitative corporation. Can his humanity survive the
deliberate technological attempt to destroy it? In much the same vein,
we are given Johnny Mnemonic, most of whose memory has been erased to
permit his brain to be used as a mass storage device for computer data.
Can he regain his life and his humanity even as he saves the rest of
mankind from the paralyzing AIDS-reminiscent disease caused by
overexposure to information technology? In much the same vein. we are
given the near-perfect 'replicants' of Blade Runner, who inspire pathos
with their desire to be human even though they are artificially created
pieces of organic machinery. What will be the difference in the future
between humanity and technology? Interestingly, there is also a later
release of Blade Runner, captioned 'the director's cut,' in which the
hero, a professional killer of replicants, is shown to be--quite
possibly--a replicant himself.
Reinforcing this 'fear of technology' theme is the strain of movies
inspired by Terminator, in which the cyborg is decidedly more powerful
and predatory than any human being. The standard plot shows the
pathetic inadequacy of flesh and blood beings burdened by conscience
and other baggage when the creature after them is exquisitely designed
and programmed to eradicate them. Hints of this are also to be found in
the movies already cited. Johnny Mnemonic features a Terminator-like
religious(?) cyborg, and the hero of Blade Runner is really no match
for the replicant 'superman' played by Rutger Hauer. Completing the
circle, Terminator II offers us a killer cyborg acquiring humanity in
the process of protecting a 12-year-old human boy.
And so, the reviewers would have it, we're afraid of the possibility of
corporate abuses of technology that will become dangerous to us both
physically and mentally. They'll create artificial beings to control
us, and they'll replace pieces of our bodies to the point where our
original identity may be imperiled. It's an interpretation that's
plausible enough, as far as it goes. But what if it doesn't go far
Yes, there's an obvious entertainment value in science fiction and its
designer-future images. And, yes, people may find sufficient appeal in
the prospect of some 2lst century cyborg threat to make hits of such
fare. But these movies are just as popular as the Under Siege/Executive
Decision genre, which suggests to me that there may be a much more
immediate fear embedded in them that hasn't been brought to light.
Movies personify abstractions. They
have to because film is a visual medium. The villainous CEO stands in
for the anonymous greed of Corporate America. The conniving, amoral CIA
executive stands in for the vast, intrusive intelligence bureaucracy.
And so on. Why is it therefore the case that the title characters of
Terminator, RoboCop, and Johnny Mnemonic must be taken literally, as
specific human-machine combinations that could be implemented to our
detriment? What if they are also stand-ins?
I believe they are. What's more, I believe that computer technology is
also functioning in these movies as a kind of stand-in. The fear being
recorded in these movies is a genuine and well-founded fear of
essentially the same leviathan depicted in the Under Siege/ Executive
Decision genre. The cyborgs are a way
of putting a face on the vast faceless system which presses harder on
us every day. In Terminator, we are given the nightmare vision
of a war between technology--i.e., the system--and humanity, which we
humans can win only by turning back the clock and undoing what has
already been done. In other words, the war is well underway and we are
In RoboCop and Johnny Mnemonic, we're given symbolic representations of
what we are becoming, nominal human beings who have been invaded,
incorporated into an inhuman scheme that is turning us into robots. At
some deep level, we feel that this is already happening and that we may
already have lost our souls to it. Hence the odd circumstance of two
Blade Runners--the first giving us a human being in conflict with an
impenetrable power structure that annihilates its own creations, the
second revealing that the human being was lost before he even realized
there was a conflict.
There's an additional possibility in here. What if these movies, with their cinematic
requirement to personify every abstraction, have accidentally captured
the deepest fear of all? That this vast overarching system has acquired
its own consciousness and knows full well what it is doing. That we are
being deliberately transformed, by an authentically superhuman power,
into automaton slaves of the system. That the Terminator is here
and is stalking us.
Yes, I know. It's all idiotic. Couldn't be. We talked about it anyway,
and then I went home. [boldface added]
Idiotic. So I'm posting this and then I'm going home for the night.
Tomorrow is supposed to be another day.
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
The real story.
They hate women. The Nanny State is pure guilt.
I told you I got streaming Netflix as an early Christmas
present. Mrs. CP thought it would inspire me somehow. What do women
know? As it turns out, everything. Why I haven't been paying much
attention to domestic political developments. I've been too busy
watching British TV shows on Netflix. They do
have the best shows by far. As
of this moment, I'm surfeited with the superiority of such series as Touch of Frost, Wire in the Blood
, Waking the Dead
, and a truly
landmark trilogy called Red Riding
writing is extraordinary, the acting superb. And unlike the old
BBC, the production values range from competitive with American shows
All of which leaves me in a quandary. You have a nation that is clearly
imploding on itself, day by day and month by month, yet its dramatic
output remains the best in the world by far. Their writers are better.
Their actors are better. And not by just a little. They're a lot
better than we are. The
tempting answer is the old Greek-Roman thing -- the Greeks were
cultured while the Romans were, uh, er, dominant somehow. But I have a
different theory in this case. One that might actually shed some light
rather than muddy the waters.
Some of you aren't going to like this theory. Bear with me. I'm not
arguing politics. I'm pursuing human nature. I think what we're looking
at is the biggest disconnect ever between the soul of a people and its
contemporary cultural assumptions. The result is absolutely stupendous
irony that is nevertheless revealing and potentially healing, if people
weren't so determined to be blind.
A case in point. American TV shows love the premise of unresolved
sexual tension between a male and female lead. In American hands, the
result is invariably irritating and strained to the point of making
intelligent viewers want to vomit. (You Bones
and Warehouse 13
fans know who you
are...You're morons.) The Brits can get away with it. For two reasons.
First, their idea of a TV series is a lot shorter than American
producers insist on. And, second, everyone in Britain is actually severely repressed, regardless of deep-down sexual preference. And they're all impotent or frigid. Nobody in Britain has had sex in a generation. But they think about sex a lot. Artificial insemination is the national pastime. Along with Manchester United soccer.
When you watch enough Brit TV shows, you realize that emotionally,
every female is actually male, with tits she'll show you (desultorily) if you ask. It's
just that the women are dumber somehow. Because the U.K. is the single
most masculine culture on earth. Why their writing is better than
everyone else's, for example. But when you watch their dramas, it turns
out that all the women are really men. And increasingly, all the
authority figures are women who are, uh, men. Which is why their female
dramatic characters are still interesting even when they're not
beauties and why there are still always parts for Helen Mirren and all
the other non-beautiful, naturally aging female actors who get the best
parts in even Hollywood movies.
Except that Britain is dying. Day by day and month by month. How comes
it? This is how. The Brits have become the ultimate nanny state because
they hate their own masculinity and are looking for women who are no
longer women to save them.
Ya know, they never were
women. All Brit women turn into men as they age. Even Mrs. Peel. Their
voices get deeper, they get more frank and technical about sex. Their
increasing sophistication about life and the tea lines in their faces
makes you dread the possibility of accidentally seeing their breasts.
It might hurt somehow, that contrast between stern authoritarian face
and smooth bosom. Some of them were never women in the first place.
Just Brits with vaginas. "Cheerio. Saddle up. Afterwards we can trim
Something about empire. Something about Rome. About now, the Brits are
trying to save themselves from what they believe is excessive
masculinity. Hence, the nanny state. I'm thinking the problem is
exactly the reverse. A nation without women. And therefore no blood,
fertility, or reason for living. Fitzgerald said something about
"making love to dry loins." How many hundreds of years can one nation
survive on such a diet?
In the meantime, the rest of us get great writing, and the women actors
get to be all the man they always wanted to be.