January 5, 2009

Another version of the "end of history"

... What was going on in Peking in Caesar's time, or in Zambesi in Napoleon's, was going on on another planet. But melodic history is no longer possible. All political themes are entangled and every event that takes place immediately assumes a multitude of simultaneous and inseparable meanings.

The politics of a Richelieu or a Bismarck are lost and lose their meaning in this new environment. The ideas that they made use of in their schemes, the aims that they could advance to satisfy the ambitions of their people, the forces which figured in their calculations, all become of no import....

With effects so rapidly becoming independent of their causes, and even antagonistic to their causes, perhaps it will now be considered puerile, dangerous and insane to seek out events -- a habit essentially due to history and sustained by it. It is not that, in the meanwhile, there will no longer be events and monumental moments; there will be prodigious ones! But those whose function it is to await them, or prepare them, or to ward them off, will of necessity learn more and more to beware of their results. It will no longer suffice to combine the will with the ability in order to undertake some enterprise. Nothing has been more destroyed by the last war than the pretension to foresight.

-- Valéry, "Extraneous Remarks" (1927).

... Israel's assault on Gaza is only the most recent example that the world's politicians have been very slow learners.

Anyway underfed Bengalis

Altogether malnutrition and diseases stemming from it killed some three million people [in the Bengal famine of 1943].... Despite pleas from [Leo] Amery, the Prime Minister refused to divert scarce shipping to Calcutta and little was done to bring relief when it was most needed, though American aid came later. Churchill regarded the dispatch of food to India as an appeasement of Congress and he believed that "the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious [than that of] sturdy Greeks." He added that despite the famine Indians would go on breeding "like rabbits."

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997.

... Churchill and Stalin could've gotten a decent conversation out of comparing notes; Stalin didn't beat Churchill by much ... if at all.

A sound banker

A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.

-- Hyman Minsky

January 4, 2009

I wouldn't know, sir

Among the international dignitaries present [at Ghana's independence ceremonies] were two Americans of very different persuasions, Martin Luther King Jr. and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon.... Echoing the euphoria of his Ghanian hosts, Nixon slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. "I wouldn't know, Sir," came the memorable reply. "I'm from Alabama."

-- Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1987.

January 2, 2009

A series of defeats

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

-- Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali."

Today verse would not be invented

Poetry is a survival.

Poetry, in a period of language simplification, of changing forms and insensibility in regard to them, of specialization -- is a thing preserved. I mean that today verse would not be invented. Nor, indeed, rites of any kind.

-- Valéry, "Literature" (tr. Louise Varèse).

December 29, 2008

Reason in its more amiable aspects

For me, Stendhal is the embodiment of the principle of prose. I don't mean literary reality, but reason in its more amiable aspects. No doubt Stendhal will survive Flaubert, because Stendhal is a point of reference for the mature, while Flaubert is a point of reference for the artist, and perhaps for the immature. Flaubert takes possession of the immature and almost develops a sense of maturity and of competence and strength.

-- Stevens, in a letter (June 20, 1945).

... Possibly this rhymes with a phrase in a letter three years later, discussing artists not authors: "fantasy on the one hand and realism on the other: evasion and evasion."

December 22, 2008

Flies buzz about.

Another interrogation method was the stoika. It consisted of standing a prisoner against a wall on tiptoe and making him hold that position for several hours. A day or two of this was said to be enough to break almost anyone.

When there was time, the basic NKVD method for obtaining confessions and breaking the accused man was the "conveyor" -- continual interrogation by relays of police for hours and days on end. As with many phenomena of the Stalin period, it has the advantage that it could not easily be condemned by any simple principle. Clearly, it amounted to unfair pressure after a certain time and to actual physical torture later still, but when? No absolutely precise answer could ever be given.

But at any rate, after even twelve hours, it is extremely uncomfortable. After a day, it becomes very hard. And after two or three days, the victim is actually physically poisoned by fatigue. It was "as painful as any torture." In fact, we are told, though some prisoners had been known to resist torture, it was almost unheard of for the conveyor not to succeed if kept up long enough. One week is reported as enough to break almost anybody....

There is nothing new about the conveyor method. It was used on witches in Scotland. The philosopher Campanella, who withstood all other tortures in the sixteenth century, succumbed to lack of sleep. Hallucinations occur. Flies buzz about. Smoke seems to rise before the prisoner's eyes, and so on.

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

... Compare:

Sgt. Ben Allbright knows something about sleep deprivation. During the first six months of the Iraq war, his job was to guard prisoners in Al Qaim, a makeshift base near the Syrian border where U.S. troops conducted aggressive hunts for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Every day, soldiers hauled in about 20 new detainees for questioning by military interrogators or CIA operatives. To "get them out of their comfort zone" before the interrogation, Allbright told Newsweek recently, the drill was to keep the Iraqis awake for 24 hours or longer. The guards would stand the prisoners up in old shipping containers, their hands tied behind their backs and their faces blindfolded and facing the wall. "After a while you'd see their knees buckling, or you'd see one of them lean forward and put his forehead against the wall to try to sleep." When that happened, Allbright would holler into the container or bang on the metal side with a stone or a club.

... Human Rights Watch, which interviewed the lawyers of 20 detainees held in a secret [CIA] prison in Afghanistan as late as 2004, says some of them were sleep-deprived for up to two weeks, though sometimes allowed short naps. The facility, known among detainees as "the dark prison," was among the harshest run by the United States since the start of the war on terror.

-- Dan Ephron, "Singing for Your Sleep: President Bush Aimed to Clarify Interrogation Rules: So Is It Legal -- or Effective -- to Deny Prisoners Rest?", Newsweek, Oct. 30, 2006.

Divulging state secrets

There are many accounts of the NKVD insisting that anyone released (usually after 1938) should sign a guarantee not to reveal what had happened to him in jail. A Soviet newspaper recently quoted one such:

I, Sternin, N.V., pledge never and nowhere to speak of what became known to me between 11 June 1938 and 11 July 1939 about the work of the organs of the NKVD. It is known to me that on any breach of this I will be accountable under the strictest revolutionary laws, for divulging state secrets.

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

... Compare:

The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.

The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release -- even to the detainees' own attorneys -- "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.

-- Carol D. Leonnig & Eric Rich, "U.S. Seeks Silence on CIA Prisons: Court Is Asked to Bar Detainees from Talking About Interrogations," Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2006.

The Party can do anything

The exact methods by which Stalin silenced her [Krupskaya] are unknown. He is said to have once remarked that if she did not stop criticizing him, the Party would proclaim that not she, but the Old Bolshevik Elena Stasova, was Lenin's widow: "Yes," he added sternly, "the Party can do anything!"

-- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

December 19, 2008

Vast views

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.

-- John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson, quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History.

Unreasonable expectations

All are not naturally conditioned so as to act according to the laws and rules of reason; nay, on the contrary, all men are born ignorant, and before they can learn the right way of life and acquire the habit of virtue, the greater part of their life, even if they have been well brought up, has passed away. Nevertheless, they are in the meanwhile bound to live and preserve themselves as far as they can by the unaided impulses of desire. Nature has given them no other guide, and has denied them the present power of living according to sound reason; so that they are no more bound to live by the dictates of an enlightened mind, than a cat is bound to live by the laws of the nature of a lion.

-- Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

... As he writes in the Tractatus Politicus, "men are not born fit for citizenship, but must be made so." A liberal polity that treats education as a secondary priority has doomed itself.

December 10, 2008

An understandable mistake

In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: "How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?" Dzerzhinsky scribbled, "About 1,500" and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account.

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.