Wednesday, 30th July, 2003

Pentagon abandons terrorism betting plan

By Ken Guggenheim

July 29, 2003 | WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon will abandon a plan to establish a futures market to help predict terrorist strikes, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Tuesday.

The little-publicized Pentagon plan envisioned a potential futures trading market in which speculators would wager on the Internet on the likelihood of a future terrorist attack or assassination attempt on a particular leader. A Web site promoting the plan already is available.

When the plan was disclosed by two Democratic senators Monday, the Pentagon defended it as a way to gain intelligence about potential terrorists' plans.

The program is called the Policy Analysis Market. The Pentagon office overseeing it, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, said it was part of a research effort "to investigate the broadest possible set of new ways to prevent terrorist attacks."

Traders would buy and sell futures contracts _ just like energy traders do now in betting on the future price of oil. But the contracts in this case would be based on what might happen in the Middle East in terms of economics, civil and military affairs or specific events, such as terrorist attacks.

Holders of a futures contract that came true would collect the proceeds of traders who put money into the market but predicted wrong.

A graphic on the market's Web page Monday showed hypothetical futures contracts in which investors could trade on the likelihood that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be assassinated or Jordanian King Abdullah II would be overthrown. Although the Web site described the Policy Analysis Market as Middle East market, the graphic also included the possibility of a North Korea missile attack.

In its statement Monday, DARPA said markets could reveal "dispersed and even hidden information. Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions."

According to its Web site, the Policy Analysis Market would be a joint program of DARPA and two private companies, Net Exchange, a market technologies company, and the Economist Intelligence Unit, the business information arm of the publisher of The Economist magazine.

DARPA has been criticized by Congress for its Terrorism Information Awareness program, a computerized surveillance program that has raised privacy concerns. Wyden said the Policy Analysis Market is under the supervision of retired Adm. John Poindexter, the head of the Terrorism Information Awareness program and, in the 1980s, national security adviser to President Reagan.

The Web site does not address how much money investors would be likely to put into the market but says analysts would be motivated by the "prospect of profit and at pain of loss" to make accurate predictions.

Trading is to begin Oct. 1. The market would initially be limited to 1,000 traders, increasing to at least 10,000 by Jan. 1.

The Web site says government agencies will not be allowed to participate and will not have access to the identities or funds of traders.

The market is a project of a DARPA division called FutureMAP, or "Futures Markets Applied to Prediction."

"The rapid reaction of markets to knowledge held by only a few participants may provide an early warning system to avoid surprise," the FutureMap Web site said.

Dorgan and Wyden released a letter to Poindexter calling for an end to the program. They noted a May 20 report to lawmakers that cited the possibility of using market forces to predict whether Israel will be attacked with biological weapons.

"Surely such a threat should be met with intelligence gathering of the highest quality -- not by putting the question to individuals betting on an Internet Web site," they said.

Wyden said $600,000 has been spent on the program so far and the Pentagon plans to spend an additional $149,000 this year. The Pentagon has requested $3 million for the program for next year and $5 million for the following year.

Wyden said the Senate version of next year's defense spending bill would cut off money for the program, but the House version would fund it. The two versions will have to be reconciled.


New Scientist : Pentagon cancels futures market on terror

13:17 30 July 03 Celeste Biever and Damian Carrington

In an extraordinary day in Washington on Tuesday, a government-backed futures market aimed at predicting terrorist attacks and other events was both revealed and then cancelled.

The market, which was due to start up on Friday, was condemned as a "market in death and destruction, and not in keeping with our values" by Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton. Following the outcry, the Pentagon cancelled the research project.

However, experts point out that intelligence gathering is frequently a dirty business and that the scheme could potentially have provided a cleaner, and potentially more accurate, way of obtaining valuable information.

The project, called the Policy Assessment Market, aimed to predict events relating to US interests in the Middle East by encouraging anonymous investors to speculate in an online futures market.

In the market, investors would have bought contracts that pay out if specific events happen. The contracts could have been complex, such the number of terrorist attacks against US citizens by the end of 2003, if US troops are not removed from Saudi Arabia. Other examples given included the assassination of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or the overthrow of Jordan's ruling family.

The value determined by the market for these contracts is then a measure of the likelihood of the events happening. But outraged politicians said the inherent ghoulishness of the plan outweighed any potential benefits. "It is a pie-in-the-sky project that is morally questionable and dubiously useful," says Carol Guthrie, spokesperson for Oregon senator Ron Wyden, who helped bring PAM to public attention.

PAM was the brainchild of the economist Robin Hanson, at George Mason University in Virginia, who teamed up with a small business in California called Net Exchange. The US Government's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded $750,000 to Net Exchange to apply Hanson's technology to events in the Middle East.

Using futures markets to predict future events is not new. US presidential elections have been analysed by the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) since 1986. It claims to be twice as accurate as pundits.

The suggested advantage of such markets is that the profit motive efficiently gathers information from a very wide range of sources. Real money is at stake, meaning informed speculators may reveal knowledge they would otherwise keep secret. Also, the prospect of financial loss discourages uninformed speculators. Futures markets have accurately predicted a wide range of events, from Oscar winners to commodity prices.

The decision to cancel PAM was "pure political" according to one DARPA-funded expert. And Hanson says: "The nature of intelligence is that you are paying people to tell you something unpleasant. But if you want information about such things, I don't see how [PAM] is morally better or worse than any other way of paying for such information."

But other observers argue the benefits of PAM were not clear-cut. Thomas Rietz, a director of the IEM, is doubtful speculators would really have provided helpful intelligence. When betting on presidential elections, he says, people can use their network of friends, family and workmates to form an opinion - that would not be the case for terrorist activity.

PAM's opponents also point out that it might even have allowed terrorists to profit from their own atrocities, or to change the dates of attacks if PAM was making an accurate prediction.

But Joyce Berg, also a director of the IEM, believes PAM would have been worth a try: "I think that we need more ways to gather information. This project was a possible way and the only way to find out if it can work is to test it."

VERBOSITY NOTE : Is this the ultimate expression of fundamentalist capitalism or what?

Pentagon abandons terrorism betting plan
logged by alf at 20:02, Wednesday, 30th July, 2003

Thursday, 24th July, 2003

Poetry website goes from bad to verse

New Scientist
19:00 23 July 03
Duncan Graham-Rowe

Vogons, fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recall, wrote poetry so bad it could kill. Now an experiment to create poems on the web looks likely to automate the awfulness of Vogon verse.

David Rea of Greenwich, Connecticut, has written a program that allows a poem to evolve, to see if people with diverse tastes in poetry can work together to create attractive verse.

Rea's program starts off with 1000 "poems", each comprising four lines of five randomly chosen words. People visiting the website choose between two randomly selected verses from the population. The bad ones are killed off and the fittest - those with the most positive votes - undergo further evolution.

Each word within a verse is thought of as a poetic gene. There are a possible 30,000 words, and as people vote, some genomes will prove more popular than others as they form semi-meaningful phrases. So the fittest verses are "mated" to form new verses, and the offspring again put to the public vote.

With more than 16,000 votes in already, Rea says, poetic structure is emerging. But in evolutionary terms, the poems are still a metaphor short of a mudskipper. As New Scientist went to press, one read: "You with life down the swords / How quieting tressed / Prince held by posers / Could be honking fight trekking."

Should it survive? You decide here.

Poetry website goes from bad to verse
logged by alf at 14:37, Thursday, 24th July, 2003

Craving an Oasis

Dear Cary,

I've been reading advice columns for 20 years because I've never seen a good relationship up close and personal. Life growing up with my family consisted of long periods of hostility broken up by periods of isolation and silence. School, bullies and my home life conspired to give me the worldview that life is harsh, the only way to get what you want is to fight for it, and even then you lose more often than not and when you win you've still not won because you've got to keep fighting to keep what you've won.

Advice columns, by their nature, perpetuate this worldview, because the only letters that get published are the ones where someone is complaining about how they can't get what they want because someone else wants something that is different and mutually exclusive. Movies and TV and novels also perpetuate this, because there's no tension, nothing inherently interesting about two people harmoniously satisfying each other's needs with ease and delight.

I'm starting to glimpse this other possibility, but it seems almost a mirage in the distant desert and I could use a scouting report from someone at the oasis. So for me, and for the countless others out there who think that life has to be primarily strife and conflict, would you please share your view of a happy, healthy relationship (with a romantic partner and/or with the world in general), of how it can be that relationships are primarily a smooth and pleasant ride with a little bump here and there rather than a race down a washed-out street where the only smooth sailing is where you bounce off such a big bump that you briefly catch some air?

On the Brink of Something Amazing

Dear On the Brink,

Actually, I agree that life is primarily strife and conflict. Accepting that is the first step to finding some peace. Not accepting it is the road to madness. For instance, as a very basic example, consider economic necessity as a kind of strife and conflict. If it were up to me, I would not have to work for a living. I'd spend today surfing, perhaps, or playing tennis, and then I would play some music and work in the garden, fool around with my wife, eat some great food, read, lie on the couch and watch baseball, play with the dogs, see a movie, go hear some music, go to bed. There would be no friction between my desires and their fulfillment.

In reality, however, I am captive to a world that cares nothing about me and what I want. So I could, if I were so inclined, attribute my captivity and unhappiness to the malevolent design of some cabal of capitalists and government officials, and dedicate my life to destroying them. Or I could blame "liberals" for the fact that so much of the money I have to earn goes to taxes to support a government that simply perpetuates my enslavement.

If I chose to, I could live in strife and conflict with everything around me that is not under my control. I could fight with the dogs because I attribute to their anarchistic doggy subterfuge some sinister motivation. There is very little around me that is to my liking -- the ocean was a good idea, and I like my wife pretty well, and the dogs are nice, and I have some friends and co-workers I like. Other than that, and, OK, some paintings, some books, some music, you could pretty much take a flame thrower to the rest. So if I based my interaction with the world solely on what I happen to like, I would indeed be constantly battling.

So what I have to do in order not to become some madman or malcontent or recluse is simply accept everything as it is. It is not easy to do that. But it is immensely rewarding. When you begin to struggle to accept everything exactly as it is, you notice things you didn't notice when you were busy complaining.

For instance, I am looking, right now, at a light-blue napkin sitting on my desk. It could perhaps be a better napkin, but it is the one I am looking at right now, and in the act of studying it I begin to see that it has its merits. It is a pale blue and it is cotton and it is soft, and as I lift it off the desk I find it has a pleasant texture, and a pretty, curly fringe of threads on its edges. I smell it. It smells like cotton. I rub it against my cheek. I drop it on the desk so it lies under the lamp, against the copy stand against which, last night, my novel manuscript was propped so I could enter the final changes into the computer. It lies against the brown cardboard backing of a pad of yellow paper on which I had made some notes toward a book of advice columns. It sits under the lamp my wife gave to me when it did not give her the light she needed in her painting studio. It sits there like some folded cloth in a Flemish painting, full of sensuous shadow and rounded crevices; I notice its delicate fringe, its weave, its roughness, its little random threads, its peach-fuzz covering of down, the surprising sharpness of one fold at the top, the gentle curve of another fold near the bottom, its inscrutable and random topology, a mathematical mystery lying there on my desk. It's a miracle, this napkin, and if I lift it and drop it again, it will never fall in quite the same shape again, and whatever topological computations its shape might have engendered will be lost forever to science.

I will miss it if I lift it up and drop it, but I'm going to do that anyway, because I am restless and impatient, and I've looked at it enough. It's just a napkin. It could be better. It probably should be better. Someone probably should bring me a better one, and would if the world were as it should be. In fact, what is it doing here on my desk anyway? Someone must have forgotten to clean it up. It belongs, actually, upstairs in a drawer. Why didn't someone put it away? Besides, it was probably made by exploited labor. It was probably bought as an obligatory gift on sale in some tasteless fluorescent-lit discount emporium by someone in a hurry, thinking about money, only out of obligation. It may represent the mindless repetition of stupid traditions. It may represent the shoddy mechanization of the weaving industries. It may represent exploitation, the deaths of peasants, the destruction of the environment, the enslavement of whole populations. But it's just a napkin. It wasn't doing anything. It was just sitting there on my desk. I'm the one who decided to focus on it.

I am still looking at it, wondering if I should lift it up and drop it again, or leave it like that. Might it have fallen, this one time, in a shape that is the best shape it will ever have, a shape I will never see again? What if I change it and am not as happy with it? What if I burned the napkin, or poured water on it? What if I stuffed it down my pants? What if I tried to shred it, or poke my pen through it? Oh, there's a pen on my desk too. And there's a smoke alarm with a dead battery that I'm supposed to replace, and a phonograph cartridge I bought a long time ago for a lot of money for a turntable I bought at a Goodwill store that never worked.

There's all this stuff just right here on my desk and what I do about it is up to me. If I pay close attention to it I can find interest and value in it. I can also find its deficiencies; I can find in that phonograph cartridge my own idiocy and impulsiveness, my lifelong habit of scavenging, trying to circumvent, trying to get something for nothing, trying to outwit the capitalists, because I do not believe that I have enough, I am not confident about my safety, I do not think I deserve the regular stuff that others can buy. I am an outsider and it just might be your fault, by the way, you, the letter writer, that I am an outsider, who knows. No one is safe from my vengeance when I work myself up. If you don't appear to be an outsider, you might be one of the ones who is responsible for my unhappiness. You might be the one who cut me off in traffic, who didn't even look before you darted into my lane, endangering the lives of all of us. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think you might be the one who's been oppressing me all these years! In fact, it might be your goddamn dog that was barking at 2:37 a.m. and woke me up; or it might be your cat that my dog was barking at, and that might be your fault, and I might be mad at you for a week, if I keep thinking about it.

I am free to compose the elements of reality in any manner I choose. My feelings will follow right along. It might be you who took my parking place. I don't know for sure. It might be you I'm in strife and conflict with.

What I'm saying is that in every encounter you have with a person or a bank or a dog, there are infinite facets and ways of seeing it, things to concentrate on or not concentrate on, things to wonder about or not wonder about, and out of the choices you make about what things to think about and what things to believe will come your strife or your contentment as you choose. There are very few instances when the enemy is clear and it is absolutely necessary to fight.

The thoughts that are in your head will not be the same as the thoughts in someone else's head. That is no reason to fight. That's just nature. What if you tried to go through just one day without fighting? Say, you set a threshold for battle: If someone points a gun at you or attacks you physically, then you fight. Otherwise, for the sake of the experiment, you aim for harmony with others; you postulate that for everything that happens on that particular day, there is some good reason, unknown to you, and you don't fight any of it. You say to yourself, that right-wing bastard's ideas are his, not mine, and for some reason he has to share them with television viewers. And that's ... OK! You say to yourself, that driver is perhaps nearly blind, sent here by God to ram that giant car into evildoers; it is not my concern. You say to yourself, I cannot possibly know what is in my girlfriend's heart, so I'm going to pretend it's something kind and wonderful.

Do you like the strife and the conflict? Does it feed something in you? Is it proof that the world is indeed as you say it is? We are all to one degree or another conspiracy theorists; we all believe things about the world that are crazy. Belief is arbitrary, malleable: Why should your girlfriend like Mahler, after all?

That napkin is still sitting on my desk, impossibly pale blue against the brown of the cardboard like a great wrinkled desert seen from a passing jet. I could look at it all afternoon, and it wouldn't change anything. I pick it up and drop it, and it takes a new shape. I'm not sure I like the new shape as much as the old shape. I wish it was like it was before. But what's done is done.

Cary Tennis, Salon "Since You Asked" July 24, 2003

Craving an Oasis
logged by alf at 12:52, Thursday, 24th July, 2003

Training molecules to draw chips

By Michael Kanellos, CNET
Thursday, July 24 2003 9:53 AM

Currently, creating circuits on silicon chips involves several hundred different procedures, including coating the wafers with metallic vapors, printing circuit patterns that have been shrunk to microscopic dimensions onto wafer surfaces, and burning the patterns into wafers through a series of chemical baths. Outfitting a semiconductor fabrication facility with equipment to perform these tasks can cost US$3 billion.

By contrast, nanotechnology advocates say that making circuits out of self-organizing molecules can drastically reduce chipmaking costs. Unfortunately, self-organizing molecules have not so far organized themselves into straight lines. Instead, they generally form swirls or other aesthetically pleasing shapes.

"The problem is that you can't meet many of the requirements for manufacturing," said Paul Nealy, who oversaw the project.

Training molecules to draw chips
logged by alf at 12:51, Thursday, 24th July, 2003

Tuesday, 22nd July, 2003

Freedom after 9/11


Americans understand, deep down, that they have lost their freedom. They had it once, they remember what it was, but it is gone

by Catherine Mayo
22nd July 2003
The Daily Times (Pakistan)

Plato was the first person to think in words about what it would be like for a human being to be self-governing. His thoughts tended to go around in circles, because he was a man ahead of his time and he didn't have the words. His symbolism of the cave is good, because that is how he felt. He knew the possibility was there, in the dark, but he just couldn't see it.

Self-government is a discipline that we all take for granted now. It means action after careful consideration of our moral principles. It is hard to imagine how the cave man made decisions, because he didn't do anything unless he got the permission from someone else. It takes a long time for a human being to trust his own knowledge about the difference between good and bad. Confidence in our inner connection with God has to be taught to us as children, and we have to teach it to our children.

Americans now are feeling about the same way as their heroes, the troops in Baghdad. They are tired, confused and they see no end to their confusion. Ambushes happen every day, from any quarter, and they haven't figured out who the enemy is. They are putting out so many small brushfires on a daily basis that they don't have time to think things through and plan a strategy. Their leaders are no help, the president ran off to start a road map for peace between Israel and Palestine, and then did a comprehensive political tour of Africa. Now Bush is worried about Iran. North Korea, too, but mostly Iran. North Korea is building up a nuclear arsenal that it will sell to Iran for food, and then Iran will give the bombs to all of its terror groups so they can attack the US.

The decision-makers on the ground in Iraq are not faring any better. They are trying to decide who would be the best people to rule in Iraq in a council form of government, an idea they finally hit upon because they couldn't figure out how to start a democracy.

Like their troops, Americans are plagued by questions about why they are in Iraq. No WMD, no Al Qaeda, no regime change. But they can't admit this to themselves. Never in history has the US made such a bad mistake. Americans are wandering around in the dark, hoping that someone will provide an intelligent explanation soon.

But the moment has passed. They have gone back to the cave man way of thinking. They have forgotten that they know how to be self-governing.

I got a letter from a person in the US arguing that I was misinformed about a lot of things, and that I should remember what it is to be free. He didn't define what he meant by 'free'. I am free, I don't have to remember what it was like, I know it now. I am free to see the difference between right and wrong, and to do the right thing.

I have been trying to compile a definition of 'freedom' or what it means to Americans at present. To them, freedom means doing something about 9/11 so it will never happen again.

But it has not happened again. We are coming up to the second anniversary, and the horror of that day has not been repeated.

So let me try again. To Americans, at this moment in history, freedom means knowing that they can do anything they want, and it will always turn out right in the end. Freedom means believing something is true with such conviction that it is required to come true.

No, now I am not making sense. Americans understand, deep down, that they have lost their freedom. They had it once, they remember what it was, but it is gone.

Plato's ideas about the potential in every human being are written in a style that makes us smile when we read it. Plato had an interesting, off-beat sense of humour. Anyone who has hope, and confidence in himself, has a sense of humour. Even the Iraqis, looting the presidential palaces after the fall of Baghdad, had a sense of humour about themselves. They called themselves 'Ali Babas', and one would scold another to take back the carpet even while he was making off with the chandelier.

But Americans do not have a sense of humour anymore. This is the most telling characteristic now, the biggest cultural difference between them and the rest of the world. They can't laugh at a joke, they don't even understand it.

Cathy Mayo is an American journalist based in Pakistan

Freedom after 9/11
logged by alf at 11:56, Tuesday, 22nd July, 2003

Thursday, 10th July, 2003

Singapore swallows its pride over gum

By Edward Alden in Washington for The Financial Times

Published: July 8 2003

Two months after signing their free trade agreement, the United States and Singapore have finally resolved the last sticking point in the deal: chewing gum.

At the insistence of Wrigley, the US gum-maker, the government of Singapore has opened the first significant hole in its decade-long ban on chewing gum.

Singapore, an island state of legendary cleanliness, banned all gum in 1992 to prevent spent wads from sticking to trains, buildings and pavements. But under pressure from the US during the trade talks last year, Singapore agreed to a "modest" easing of the ban. Gum would be allowed, but only when prescribed by a doctor or dentist for "therapeutic benefits".

That was not enough for Chicago-based Wrigley, the world's largest gum-maker. It insisted that its sugar-free gums be sold over the counter, and enlisted members of Congress to make the case, led by Phil Crane, chairman of the House Ways & Means trade sub-committee.

Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's ambassador to the US, said that "after a very serious and long process" of negotiation, the government's health officials had agreed that Wrigley's Orbit brand of sugar-free gums could be sold without a prescription. She said that three of the gum's ingredients, including the sweetener xylitol, were deemed to have "therapeutic benefits", although she acknowledged "frankly, I have no idea what they are".

A Wrigley spokesman said gum helped to ease sore throats, clear sinuses and settle the stomach.

He said that while the company would prefer all its gum be sold freely in Singapore, "you have to walk before you run".

Singapore swallows its pride over gum
logged by alf at 15:57, Thursday, 10th July, 2003

Wednesday, 9th July, 2003

Harry Potter and the Childish Adult

July 7, 2003


What is the secret of the explosive and worldwide success of the Harry Potter books? Why do they satisfy children and — a much harder question — why do so many adults read them? I think part of the answer to the first question is that they are written from inside a child's-eye view, with a sure instinct for childish psychology. But then how do we answer the second question? Surely one precludes the other.

The easy question first. Freud described what he called the "family romance," in which a young child, dissatisfied with its ordinary home and parents, invents a fairy tale in which it is secretly of noble origin, and may even be marked out as a hero who is destined to save the world. In J. K. Rowling's books, Harry is the orphaned child of wizards who were murdered trying to save his life. He lives, for unconvincingly explained reasons, with his aunt and uncle, the truly dreadful Dursleys, who represent, I believe, his real "real" family, and are depicted with a relentless, gleeful, overdone venom. The Dursleys are his true enemy. When he arrives at wizarding school, he moves into a world where everyone, good and evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy him.

The family romance is a latency-period fantasy, belonging to the drowsy years between 7 and adolescence. In "Order of the Phoenix," Harry, now 15, is meant to be adolescent. He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors and tormentors alike. He discovers that his late (and "real") father was not a perfect magical role model, but someone who went in for fits of nasty playground bullying. He also discovers that his mind is linked to the evil Lord Voldemort, thereby making him responsible in some measure for acts of violence his nemesis commits.

In psychoanalytic terms, having projected his childish rage onto the caricature Dursleys, and retained his innocent goodness, Harry now experiences that rage as capable of spilling outward, imperiling his friends. But does this mean Harry is growing up? Not really. The perspective is still child's-eye. There are no insights that reflect someone on the verge of adulthood. Harry's first date with a female wizard is unbelievably limp, filled with an 8-year-old's conversational maneuvers.

Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing "secondary worlds." Ms. Rowling's world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from "Star Wars" to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child's own power of fantasizing.

The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman — trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

So, yes, the attraction for children can be explained by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, combined with the fact that the stories are comfortable, funny, just frightening enough.

They comfort against childhood fears as Georgette Heyer once comforted us against the truths of the relations between men and women, her detective stories domesticating and blanket-wrapping death. These are good books of their kind. But why would grown-up men and women become obsessed by jokey latency fantasies?

Comfort, I think, is part of the reason. Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 "best reads," more than a quarter were children's books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.

But in the case of the great children's writers of the recent past, there was a compensating seriousness. There was — and is — a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper's teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman elvish beings that hunt humans.

Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for. Ursula K. Le Guin's wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force. Ms. Rowling's magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

Similarly, some of Ms. Rowling's adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton's pasteboard kids with their own childish desires and hopes. A surprising number of people — including many students of literature — will tell you they haven't really lived in a book since they were children. Sadly, being taught literature often destroys the life of the books. But in the days before dumbing down and cultural studies no one reviewed Enid Blyton or Georgette Heyer — as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.

It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the leveling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don't really believe exists. It's fine to compare the Brontës with bodice-rippers. It's become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called "consumable" books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's "magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

A.S. Byatt is author, most recently, of the novel "A Whistling Woman."

Harry Potter and the Childish Adult
logged by alf at 19:06, Wednesday, 9th July, 2003

A.S. Byatt and the goblet of bile

The author's recent New York Times Op-Ed shows that she doesn't understand why so many of us love Harry Potter. Maybe it's just too much fun.

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By Charles Taylor

July 8, 2003 | When a book sells 5 million hardcover copies in its first day, it's inevitable that there's going to be someone who slams it and tells us that what we're seeing is merely a pop phenomenon that bears no relation to literature. That esteemed gasbag Harold Bloom, in his guise as self-appointed keeper of the canon, did the honors after the fourth Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," telling us that reading should enrich us (without ever getting around to declaring whether it should entertain us) and shortly thereafter launching his own compendium of children's lit that, in his view, did just that. Right on schedule, just a mere two weeks after the new Harry Potter release, it's A.S. Byatt, apparently having made peace with Martin Amis' dental work, who steps into the ring against J.K. Rowling's books in a New York Times Op-Ed.

Byatt's argument is just what you'd expect from someone shouldering the mantle of high culture. To show that she's not a total killjoy, Byatt allows that Rowling's books are entertaining and reveal "a sure instinct for childish psychology." To answer the bigger question of what explains the series' huge success with adults as well as children (uh, because J.K. Rowling is a master of narrative?), Byatt decides that the books represent "comfort" for their readers, embodying Freud's notion of "family romance" (finding the surrogate family where we are appreciated for ourselves) and the chance to regress to a safe world where good and evil are readily identifiable and we feel that we are given control over the unpredictable.

Byatt may have a valid cultural point -- a teeny one -- about the impulses that drive us to reassuring pop trash and away from the troubling complexities of art. The problem is that her argument has nothing to do with the experience that anyone I know has had reading the Harry Potter books. Perhaps operating from the assumption that anything positive written about J.K. Rowling's work is little more than publicity or evidence of lowered cultural standards, Byatt wastes nary a syllable on the subject that has been widely written about and discussed with both "The Goblet of Fire" and the new "The Order of the Phoenix": the increasing darkness of the books. Rowling has conceived of the seven-book cycle as tracing Harry's growth from childhood to late adolescence. And as the books have gone on, the dangers he faces have not only increased but, as happens with age, become less easy to shrug off, inflicting physical and psychological wounds that are not so quick to heal. In the climax of "Goblet of Fire," Harry witnesses the murder of a classmate, an event that is still giving him nightmares in the new book. Having witnessed death, he is now prone to seeing things, not at all reassuring sights, that his classmates who have been spared experiencing death can not. And increasingly, he finds that the power that allowed him to survive the attempt Voldemort made on his life as an infant links his brain with that of the dark lord, making him feel that his goodness is forever imperiled by this access to the dark side.

In "The Order of the Phoenix," Harry experiences the death of another character, someone very close to him, and increasing alienation from his best friends, Ron and Hermione, who don't bear the burdens he does. Young readers who were the same age as Harry when the series began may be growing with him. But a younger group of readers who are just now beginning the series may find that the later books are too upsetting for them (in the same way that some teenage viewers of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" abandoned the show when it began dealing with the complications of young adulthood). But even if, at this point, they only read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" they will find themselves confronted with loss. Remember, this is a character whose parents are murdered when he is an infant, and who himself is under the continual threat of death from his parents' killer. That first book features the devastating scene where Harry encounters a mirror that reveals the heart's truest desire and, looking into it, sees himself happy and smiling with the parents he never knew, a vision that lasts only as long as he looks into the glass, and a metaphor for how fleeting our moments of real happiness are. This is Byatt's idea of reassurance?

Of course there's something comforting in the Harry Potter books. I defy Byatt not to find the same qualities in all great children's literature. She has confused comfort with escaping reality. Not only do all great fantasies relate back to the real world, any reassurance they offer always comes at a price. Kids suffer loss in the great works of children's literature and then find that they have the strength to cope. They don't forget their losses, but they learn to live with them. And that's as true of the young heroines in Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess," or the boys in Walter Farley's "The Black Stallion" and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling" as it is of Harry Potter.

From the question of comfort and reassurance, Byatt moves on to even shakier ground, complaining that Rowling's form of magic is ersatz. "Ursula K. Le Guin's wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force," Byatt writes. "Ms. Rowling's magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is." Excuse me? Anything exists in any novel only because the author says it does. That does not excuse the author from making it dramatically plausible, and if what Byatt intends to say is that for her Le Guin's worlds are magical and Rowling's are not, then that is an honest admission of taste. But to imply that there's some objective standard dividing books where "magic really does act as a force" from ones where magic is a gimcrack concoction is bunk, and Byatt knows it.

And still Byatt trudges on, claiming that "Rowling speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles and not the real wild." Well, if the author biography in my Modern Library edition of Byatt's "Possession" is correct, the closest she has ever come to the "real wild" is growing up the daughter of a barrister and a schoolteacher in darkest Yorkshire. Unless those pages are missing an episode where, Jane-like, Byatt swung from the jungly tendrils, then it's fair to ask how a life spent in boarding school in the British city of York, then Cambridge, Bryn Mawr and Oxford before settling in London, gave her experience of the real wild.

But this is where the crux of Byatt's argument makes itself plain, and she is extraordinarily upfront in its snobbishness. Contemporary adults love Harry Potter, she tells us, because "they don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had." In other words, we're too stupid to know the difference between diamonds and cubic zirconia. Byatt names us poor uncultured adult Harry lovers for what we are, "people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." How's that for putting us in our place?

It's clear that we're dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin'. Loath as I am to resurrect the old canard accusing writers or critics who dislike a popular work of art of being jealous, in Byatt's case it might be true. Remember, this is the same writer who went into a highly publicized hissy fit some years back when Martin Amis was given a lucrative advance against future books. It's only human for writers or filmmakers or musicians to feel resentful and even contemptuous when what they consider good, serious work is being passed over in favor of some pop artifact. But sooner or later, if you choose the life of a writer, you damn well better be able to make peace with the possibility that in all likelihood you will not enjoy spectacular commercial success. Byatt has it better than most, enjoying a modicum of fame, more than her share of respect, and the distinction of being one of the relative few who has been able to make a living at literary fiction. But success on the scale of J.K. Rowling's clearly gets under her skin.

She's not alone. Around the time that "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was published three years ago, the New York Times Book Review, reportedly in response to complaints from publishers and literary agents, created a separate listing of children's bestsellers and relegated the Harry Potter books there. The arguments put forth in favor of that move all claimed to be concerned with fairness. A slot on the Times' bestseller list could mean great success for an author, the arguments went, and with Rowling threatening to occupy four slots on the list, it kept some books just bubbling under the top 15 from making it on. Tough. (When the Beatles occupied five slots in the top 10 they weren't relegated to a British list to make room for the Beach Boys.)

There's no doubt that publicists and agents use the Times list to sell books. But promotion can never be a consideration of people who put together a bestseller list. Either such a list is going to report the bestselling books in the country or it is not. And when a children's novel sells 5 million copies in its first 24 hours on sale, clearly it's not just children who are reading it, and it's a baldfaced lie to pretend that any other book is the No. 1 bestseller. And did Rowling's exile make room for those other lesser-known novelists? Of course it didn't. Occasionally, a left-field success like Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" earns a spot. But the exclusion of Rowling's books means that this week the bestseller list has more room for hacks like Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks and the born-again team of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Nothing deserves our respect (or scorn) simply because it's popular, no matter how popular. But literary critics almost never concern themselves with what people actually read. Sometimes there are good reasons not to. Faced with shrinking space for all sorts of reviews, I'd prefer for the novel of some unheralded new writer to get coverage rather than the latest hernia-inducer from Tom Clancy. But the literary novelists who get themselves worked up over popular fiction never stop to consider what it is that readers are responding to except, like Byatt, to put it down to the stupidity of the masses. It would be disingenuous to claim that literary fiction has altogether abandoned narrative and character. But enough literary fiction seems to have so little connection to the reasons people began reading -- and keep reading -- that it has to bear at least some of the blame for its own marginalization.

You would think that Byatt, whose most popular book, "Possession," is a fat, satisfying read that offers the pleasures of narrative and character, would understand that. But maybe the book offers a clue as to why she wouldn't. I don't know anyone who loved "Possession" who didn't skim through all the interpolated Victorian poems. (Reviewing the novel, enthusiastically, for the New York Review of Books, Diane Johnson quipped that Byatt's ventriloquism of epic Victorian poetry proved the old adage "nobody likes an epic.") People ate up the parallel stories of the two pairs of lovers, but every few chapters some damn poem about fairies or something got in the way. Byatt admits that she conceived the book as, among other things, a romance in the flavor of her childhood favorite Georgette Heyer, and as a parody of another favorite, Margery Allingham (whose books, she doesn't seem to understand, are already parodies of the English country house mystery). "Possession" is a resounding demonstration that a contemporary novel can be literary and still be a great, engrossing read (not a distinction that would ever have occurred to the great 19th century novelists). But maybe, for Byatt, those basic pleasures, no matter how nuanced and rich her rendering, were not enough.

In making J.K. Rowling the repository of everything that's cheap and phony in contemporary culture, Byatt seems to be arguing not just against what she sees as the inevitable cheapness of popular culture but also against the basic pleasures that draw people to books. Which is why for Byatt, as an academic as well as a novelist, the advent of cultural studies making their way into the sacred halls of academe is a betrayal. She may admit to loving Georgette Heyer's Regency romances as a child, but now, my God, she has lived to see people actually reviewing Heyer. Heaven forfend. What doesn't occur to Byatt is that the excesses of cultural studies (and she's right that some of it betrays an unseemly preoccupation with crap) was a direct response to the academics who deemed any study of popular culture inappropriate at the university level. And it's worth remembering that at one time, that bias would have prevented the study of Shakespeare, Dickens, Mozart or Griffith (or any movies, for that matter).

It's not making distinctions between high culture and pop culture that I object to. It's the either/or scenario proposed by high-culture guardians like Byatt that seems so churlish, so ready to make the appreciation of high culture seem the dreary duty it was when we were schoolchildren. "The only reason people read is pleasure," Leslie Fiedler once said. And I'll end by offering another Fiedler quote that should keep Byatt and the other keepers of the cultural flame up nights. In a Salon interview a few weeks before his death, Fiedler related a story about enraging a group of academics by announcing that when he and they were all dead and forgotten, people were still going to be reading Stephen King. The ugly truth that A.S. Byatt and Harold Bloom have yet to face is that when they have been reduced to footnotes, people are still going to be reading and enjoying the Harry Potter books. And somewhere, J.K. Rowling, keeping company with Dumas and Conan Doyle and the other "nonliterary" writers who live on, will be laughing.

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.

A.S. Byatt and the goblet of bile
logged by alf at 19:05, Wednesday, 9th July, 2003

Wednesday, 2nd July, 2003

The Road to Coverup Is the Road to Ruin

By US Senator Robert Byrd

US Senate - June 24, 2003 Mr. President, last fall, the White House released a national security strategy that called for an end to the doctrines of deterrence and containment that have been a hallmark of American foreign policy for more than half a century.

This new national security strategy is based upon pre-emptive war against those who might threaten our security.

Such a strategy of striking first against possible dangers is heavily reliant upon interpretation of accurate and timely intelligence. If we are going to hit first, based on perceived dangers, the perceptions had better be accurate. If our intelligence is faulty, we may launch pre-emptive wars against countries that do not pose a real threat against us. Or we may overlook countries that do pose real threats to our security, allowing us no chance to pursue diplomatic solutions to stop a crisis before it escalates to war. In either case lives could be needlessly lost. In other words, we had better be certain that we can discern the imminent threats from the false alarms.

Ninety-six days ago [as of June 24], President Bush announced that he had initiated a war to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." The President told the world: "Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly -- yet, our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder." [Address to the Nation, 3/19/03]

The President has since announced that major combat operations concluded on May 1. He said: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." Since then, the United States has been recognized by the international community as the occupying power in Iraq. And yet, we have not found any evidence that would confirm the officially stated reason that our country was sent to war; namely, that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction constituted a grave threat to the United States.

We have heard a lot about revisionist history from the White House of late in answer to those who question whether there was a real threat from Iraq. But, it is the President who appears to me to be intent on revising history. There is an abundance of clear and unmistakable evidence that the Administration sought to portray Iraq as a direct and deadly threat to the American people. But there is a great difference between the hand-picked intelligence that was presented by the Administration to Congress and the American people when compared against what we have actually discovered in Iraq. This Congress and the people who sent us here are entitled to an explanation from the Administration.

On January 28, 2003, President Bush said in his State of the Union Address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." [State of the Union, 1/28/03, pg. 7] Yet, according to news reports, the CIA knew that this claim was false as early as March 2002. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency has since discredited this allegation.

On February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council: "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets." [Remarks to UN Security Council, 2/5/03, pg. 12] The truth is, to date we have not found any of this material, nor those thousands of rockets loaded with chemical weapons.

On February 8, President Bush told the nation: "We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons ­ the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have." [Radio Address, 2/8/03] Mr. President, we are all relieved that such weapons were not used, but it has not yet been explained why the Iraqi army did not use them. Did the Iraqi army flee their positions before chemical weapons could be used? If so, why were the weapons not left behind? Or is it that the army was never issued chemical weapons? We need answers.

On March 16, the Sunday before the war began, in an interview with Tim Russert, Vice President Cheney said that Iraqis want "to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that." He added, "...the vast majority of them would turn [Saddam Hussein] in in a minute if, in fact, they thought they could do so safely." [Meet the Press, 3/16/03, pg. 6] But in fact, Mr. President, today Iraqi cities remain in disorder, our troops are under attack, our occupation government lives and works in fortified compounds, and we are still trying to determine the fate of the ousted, murderous dictator.

On March 30, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during the height of the war, said of the search for weapons of mass destruction: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat." [This Week, 3/30/03, pg. 8] But Baghdad fell to our troops on April 9, and Tikrit on April 14, and the intelligence Secretary Rumsfeld spoke about has not led us to any weapons of mass destruction.

Whether or not intelligence reports were bent, stretched, or massaged to make Iraq look like an imminent threat to the United States, it is clear that the Administration's rhetoric played upon the well-founded fear of the American public about future acts of terrorism. But, upon close examination, many of these statements have nothing to do with intelligence, because they are at root just sound bites based on conjecture. They are designed to prey on public fear.

The face of Osama bin Laden morphed into that of Saddam Hussein. President Bush carefully blurred these images in his State of the Union Address. Listen to this quote from his State of the Union Address: "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans ­ this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." [State of the Union, 1/28/03, pg 7] Judging by this speech, not only is the President confusing al Qaeda and Iraq, but he also appears to give a vote of no-confidence to our homeland security efforts. Isn't the White House, the brains behind the Department of Homeland Security? Isn't the Administration supposed to be stopping those vials, canisters, and crates from entering our country, rather than trying to scare our fellow citizens half to death about them?

Not only did the Administration warn about more hijackers carrying deadly chemicals, the White House even went so far as to suggest that the time it would take for U.N. inspectors to find solid, 'smoking gun' evidence of Saddam's illegal weapons would put the U.S. at greater risk of a nuclear attack from Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was quoted as saying on September 9, 2002, by the Los Angeles Times, "We don't want the 'smoking gun' to be a mushroom cloud." [Los Angeles Times, "Threat by Iraq Grows, U.S. Says," 9/9/02] Talk about hype! Mushroom clouds? Where is the evidence for this? There isn't any.

On September 26, 2002, just two weeks before Congress voted on a resolution to allow the President to invade Iraq, and six weeks before the mid-term elections, President Bush himself built the case that Iraq was plotting to attack the United States. After meeting with members of Congress on that date, the President said: "The danger to our country is grave. The danger to our country is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons.... The regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material, could build one within a year."

These are the President's words. He said that Saddam Hussein is "seeking a nuclear bomb." Have we found any evidence to date of this chilling allegation? No.

But, President Bush continued on that autumn day: "The dangers we face will only worsen from month to month and from year to year. To ignore these threats is to encourage them. And when they have fully materialized it may be too late to protect ourselves and our friends and our allies. By then the Iraqi dictator would have the means to terrorize and dominate the region. Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX ­ nerve gas ­ or some day a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally." [Rose Garden Remarks, 9/26/02]

And yet, seven weeks after declaring victory in the war against Iraq, we have seen nary a shred of evidence to support his claims of grave dangers, chemical weapons, links to al Qaeda, or nuclear weapons.

Just days before a vote on a resolution that handed the President unprecedented war powers, President Bush stepped up the scare tactics. On October 7, just four days before the October 11 vote in the Senate on the war resolution, the President stated: "We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy ­ the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade." President Bush continued: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses.... Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."

President Bush also elaborated on claims of Iraq's nuclear program when he
said: "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his 'nuclear mujahideen' - his nuclear holy warriors.... If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." [Cincinnati Museum Center, 10/7/02, pg. 3-4]

This is the kind of pumped up intelligence and outrageous rhetoric that were given to the American people to justify war with Iraq. This is the same kind of hyped evidence that was given to Congress to sway its vote for war on October 11, 2002.

We hear some voices say, but why should we care? After all, the United States won the war, didn't it? Saddam Hussein is no more; he is either dead or on the run. What does it matter if reality does not reveal the same grim picture that was so carefully painted before the war? So what if the menacing characterizations that conjured up visions of mushroom clouds and American cities threatened with deadly germs and chemicals were overdone? So what?

Mr. President, our sons and daughters who serve in uniform answered a call to duty. They were sent to the hot sands of the Middle East to fight in a war that has already cost the lives of 194 Americans, thousands of innocent civilians, and unknown numbers of Iraqi soldiers. Our troops are still at risk. Hardly a day goes by that there is not another attack on the troops who are trying to restore order to a country teetering on the brink of anarchy. When are they coming home?

The President told the American people that we were compelled to go to war to secure our country from a grave threat. Are we any safer today than we were on March 18, 2003? Our nation has been committed to rebuilding a country ravaged by war and tyranny, and the cost of that task is being paid in blood and treasure every day.

It is in the compelling national interest to examine what we were told about the threat from Iraq. It is in the compelling national interest to know if the intelligence was faulty. It is in the compelling national interest to know if the intelligence was distorted.

Mr. President, Congress must face this issue squarely. Congress should begin immediately an investigation into the intelligence that was presented to the American people about the pre-war estimates of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the way in which that intelligence might have been misused. This is no time for a timid Congress. We have a responsibility to act in the national interest and protect the American people. We must get to the bottom of this matter.

Although some timorous steps have been taken in the past few days to begin a review of this intelligence ­ I must watch my terms carefully, for I may be tempted to use the words "investigation" or "inquiry" to describe this review, and those are terms which I am told are not supposed to be used ­ the proposed measures appear to fall short of what the situation requires. We are already shading our terms about how to describe the proposed review of intelligence: cherry-picking words to give the American people the impression that the government is fully in control of the situation, and that there is no reason to ask tough questions. This is the same problem that got us into this controversy about slanted intelligence reports. Word games. Lots and lots of word games.

Well, Mr. President, this is no game. For the first time in our history, the United States has gone to war because of intelligence reports claiming that a country posed a threat to our nation. Congress should not be content to use standard operating procedures to look into this extraordinary matter. We should accept no substitute for a full, bipartisan investigation by Congress into the issue of our pre-war intelligence on the threat from Iraq and its use.

The purpose of such an investigation is not to play pre-election year politics, nor is it to engage in what some might call "revisionist history." Rather it is to get at the truth. The longer questions are allowed to fester about what our intelligence knew about Iraq, and when they knew it, the greater the risk that the people ­ the American people whom we are elected to serve ­ will lose confidence in our government.

This looming crisis of trust is not limited to the public. Many of my colleagues were willing to trust the Administration and vote to authorize war against Iraq. Many members of this body trusted so much that they gave the President sweeping authority to commence war. As President Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify." Despite my opposition, the Senate voted to blindly trust the President with unprecedented power to declare war. While the reconstruction continues, so do the questions, and it is time to verify.

I have served the people of West Virginia in Congress for half a century. I have witnessed deceit and scandal, cover up and aftermath. I have seen Presidents of both parties who once enjoyed great popularity among the people leave office in disgrace because they misled the American people. I say to this Administration: do not circle the wagons. Do not discourage the seeking of truth in these matters.

Mr. President, the American people have questions that need to be answered about why we went to war with Iraq. To attempt to deny the relevance of these questions is to trivialize the people's trust.

The business of intelligence is secretive by necessity, but our government is open by design. We must be straight with the American people. Congress has the obligation to investigate the use of intelligence information by the Administration, in the open, so that the American people can see that those who exercise power, especially the awesome power of preemptive war, must be held accountable. We must not go down the road of cover-up. That is the road to ruin.

The Road to Coverup Is the Road to Ruin
logged by alf at 12:51, Wednesday, 2nd July, 2003

Tuesday, 1st July, 2003

Hate and Hedonism : The insolent art of Michel Houellebecq

Issue of 7th July 2003 (Posted on 30th June 2003)
The New Yorker

In 1998, I was one of the judges of the Prix Novembre, in Paris: a prize given, as its name implies, late in the literary season. After the Goncourt had got it wrong, and after stumblebum efforts by other prizes to correct the Goncourt's errors, the Prix Novembre would issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year. It was unusual for a French prize in having a (slowly) rotating jury, foreign judges?Mario Vargas Llosa was also there?and serious money attached: about thirty thousand dollars for the winner.

That year, the major prizes had all failed to honor Michel Houellebecq's "Les Particules Élémentaires," and for months le cas Houellebecq had been simmering. Schoolteachers had protested the book's explicit sexuality; the author had been expelled from his own literary-philosophical group for intellectual heresy. Nor was it just the book that provoked. One female member of our jury declared that she had admired the novel until she watched its author on television. The Maecenas of the prize, a businessman whose interventions the previous year had been very low-key, made a lengthy and impassioned attack on Houellebecq. He seemed, at the least, to be indicating where he didn't want his money to go.

In the course of a rather tense discussion, it was Vargas Llosa who came up with the best description of "Les Particules Élémentaires": "insolent." He meant it, naturally, as a term of praise. There are certain books?sardonic and acutely pessimistic?that systematically affront all our current habits of living, and treat our presumptions of mind as the delusions of the cretinous. Voltaire's "Candide" might be taken as the perfect example of literary insolence. In a different way, La Rochefoucauld is deeply insolent; so is Beckett, bleakly, and Roth, exuberantly. The book of insolence finds its targets in such concepts as a purposeful God, a benevolent and orderly universe, human altruism, the existence of free will.

Houellebecq's novel?his second?was very French in its mixture of intellectuality and eroticism; it was reminiscent of Tournier in the evident pride it took in its own theoretical bone structure. It also had its faults: a certain heavy-handedness, and a tendency for the characters to make speeches rather than utter dialogue. But, in its high ambition and its intransigence, it was clearly superior to the other immediate contender for the prize, a novel that was very French in a different way: elegant, controlled, and old-fashioned?or, rather, classique, as I learned to say in judges' jargon.

Houellebecq squeaked it by a single vote. Afterward, I was talking to the president of the jury, the writer and journalist Daniel Schneidermann, about the fuss our winner had kicked up in the press and on television. Perhaps, I suggested, it was just that he wasn't médiatique?mediagenic. "On the contrary," Schneidermann (who had voted for Houellebecq) replied. "He's médiatique by being anti-médiatique. It's very clever." An hour or so later, in a gilded salon of the Hotel Bristol, before literary Paris's smartest, a shabby figure in a baggy sweater and rumpled scarlet jeans took his check and?in the spirit of his novel?declined to wallow in bourgeois expressions of pleasure or gratitude. Not all were charmed. "It's an insult to the members of the jury," one French publisher whispered to me, "for him to accept the prize without having washed or gone to the dry cleaner's."

Our Maecenas also got huffy, and announced the following year that the Prix Novembre would be suspended for twelve months, so that we could discuss its future direction. Most jury members thought this unnecessary, not to say a touch insolent; so we decamped to a new sponsor and renamed ourselves the Prix Décembre. Meanwhile, the novel was translated into English, and Anglophones became aware of what Schneidermann had told me: its author was médiatique by being anti-médiatique. The literary world is one of the easiest in which to acquire a bad-boy reputation, and Houellebecq duly obliged. When the (female) profiler from the Times visited him, he got catatonically drunk, collapsed face down into his dinner, and told her he'd answer further questions only if she slept with him. Houellebecq's wife was also enlisted, posing for the photographer in her underwear and offering a loyal quote of treasurable quality. "Michel's not depressed," she told the interviewer. "It's the world that's depressing."

If Houellebecq is, on the evidence of "The Elementary Particles," the most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier?and the wait has been long, and therefore overpraise understandable?his third novel, "Platform" (translated by Frank Wynne; Knopf; $25), opens with a nod in an earlier direction. No French writer could begin a novel "Father died last year" without specifically invoking Camus's "The Stranger." Houellebecq's narrator is called Renault, perhaps hinting that such a man has become a mere cog in a mechanized society; but the name also chimes with Meursault, Camus's narrator. And for a clincher: Renault's father has been sleeping with his North African cleaner, Aïcha, whose brother beats the old man to death. When the son is brought face to face with his father's murderer, he reflects, "If I had had a gun, I would have shot him without a second thought. Killing that little shit . . . seemed to me a morally neutral act." Cut to Meursault's gunning down of the Arab on the beach in Algiers, and his similar moral indifference to the act.

But, in the sixty years that lie between "The Stranger" and "Platform," alienation and anomie have moved on. So have expressions of disrespect for the parent. As a schoolboy in the sixties, I found Meursault's transgressive opening words?"Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don't know"?registering like a slap (and I wasn't a pious son, either). Nowadays, you have to slap harder:

As I stood before the old man's coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. "You had kids, you fucker," I said spiritedly, "you shoved your fat cock in my mother's cunt." I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It's not every day you have a death in the family.

Houellebecq ups the ante; but it's also his trademark to follow the coffinside vituperation with the wry "I was a bit tense." "The Elementary Particles" was hard to summarize (well, it's about the third "metaphysical mutation" of the last two thousand years, that of molecular biology, which will see cloning put an end to the fear of death and the miseries of genetic individualism . . .) without making it sound heavy; on the page, there was a satirical glee to its denunciations, drollery in the dystopia.

"Platform" begins very much in the mode of "The Elementary Particles," with a radically detached male narrator, a child of the information age, excoriating the falseness of the world. He boasts the "disinterested attitude appropriate to an accounts manager" toward almost everything. He is emotionally mute, and socially, too, and thus barely able to converse with Aïcha. When she begins criticizing Islam, he more or less agrees, though he isn't entirely hard-line about it: "On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina."

Anyone not yet offended? But Houellebecq, or, rather, "Michel," as his narrator is elidingly called, has barely started. Snorting contempt is coming the way of the following: Frederick Forsyth and John Grisham; Jacques Chirac; the Guide du Routard (a French equivalent of the Rough Guides); package tourists; France ("a sinister country, utterly sinister and bureaucratic"?copy that to Bush and Blair); the Chinese; the "bunch of morons [who] died for the sake of democracy" on Omaha Beach; most men; most women; children; the unattractive; the old; the West; Muslims; the French channel TV5; Muslims again; most artists; Muslims yet again; and finally, frequently, the narrator himself.

What does Michel approve of? Peepshows, massage parlors, pornography, Thai prostitutes, alcohol, Viagra (which helps you overcome the effects of alcohol), cigarettes, non-white women, masturbation, lesbianism, troilism, Agatha Christie, double penetration, fellatio, sex tourism, and women's underwear. You may have spotted an odd one out there. Frederick Forsyth may be a "halfwit," while John Grisham's books are good only for wanking into: "I ejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; didn't matter, it wasn't the kind of book you read twice." But Agatha Christie receives two pages of adulation, mainly for her novel "The Hollow," in which she makes clear that she understands "the sin of despair." This is "the sin of cutting oneself off from all warm and living human contacts"?which is, of course, the sin of Michel. "It is in our relations with other people," he remarks, "that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable." Further: "Giving up on life . . . is the easiest thing a person can do"; and "Anything can happen in life, especially nothing."

The sin of despair is compounded when the sufferer is a hedonist. "Platform" is concerned with tourism, sex, and the combination of the two. Tourism is considered the biggest single industry on the planet, a pure locus of supply and deliberately massaged demand. One key appeal for the novelist is tourism's psychology: not least the central, Flaubertian irony whereby anticipation and remembrance (the brochure's false promise of happiness, the holiday snap's grinning lie) often prove more vivid and reliable than the moment itself. One key danger for the novelist?not always avoided here?is that of easy satire: tourists make soft targets not just for terrorists.

Houellebecq sends Michel off on a sun-and-sex vacation; his largely crass companions include the acceptable, indeed positively attractive Valérie, who works for a travel agency. Much of the immediate plot turns on her attempts and those of her colleague Jean-Yves to revive an ailing branch of the corporation they work for. This is all adequately done, though Houellebecq's strengths and interests as a writer are not particularly those of traditional narrative. His approach to a scene, and a theme, often reminds me of a joke current in Euro circles. A British delegate to some E.U. committee outlines his country's proposals, which, being British, are typically pragmatic, sensible, and detailed. The French delegate reflects noddingly on them for a considerable period of time, before delivering judgment: "Well, I can see that the plan will work in practice, but will it work in theory?"

Thus the primary, obvious link between sex and tourism is the carnal, interpersonal (and impersonal) one. But just as important for Houellebecq is to find the theoretical connection. Which he does: both sex and tourism exemplify the free market at its most free. Sex has always appeared capitalistic to Houellebecq. Here is his formulation from his first novel, "Whatever":

In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

This kind of swift, audacious linkage is Houellebecq at his best; he loves nothing more than working over what in "The Elementary Particles" he called "the libidinal, hedonistic American option." But his actual writing about sex in "Platform" is curiously both pornographic and sentimental. Pornographic in the sense of taking all its moves and images from pornography (who put what where and moved it whither, until a convulsive spurt-'n'-groan); also, written like pornography of a decent, middle-ranking kind (the translation, throughout, is exemplary). Sentimental in that the novel's really nice, straightforward characters are Oriental masseuses and prostitutes, who are presented as being without flaws, diseases, pimps, addictions, or hangups. Pornographic and sentimental in that nothing ever goes wrong with the sexual act: pneumatic bliss is always obtained, no one ever says "No" or "Stop" or even "Wait," and you just have to beckon to a non-white-skinned maid on the hotel terrace for her to pop into the room, quickly reveal that she is braless, and slide seamlessly into a threesome. Houellebecq sees through everything in the world except commercial sex, which he describes?perhaps appropriately?like one who believes every word and picture of a holiday brochure.

And then there is love. "I really love women," Michel tells us on the opening page. Later, he elaborates: "My enthusiasm for pussy" is one of "my few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities." Despite "loving women," Michel pointedly never refers to his mother. And when this depressed, old-at-forty sex tourist gradually finds himself becoming involved with Valérie, you wonder how Houellebecq will handle it. After all, it is a piece of literary insolence to make such a character fall in love in the first place. So how is love different for Michel from commercial sex? Happily, not very. Valérie, though at first she appears rather dowdy and browbeaten, turns out to have wonderful breasts; she is as good in bed as a Thai prostitute, and she doesn't just go along with threesomes?she instigates them. She is by nature docile, yet she holds down a good job and is very well paid; like Michel, she scorns designer clothes. And that's about it, really. They don't do any of that old stuff like talking about feelings, or thinking about them; they don't go out much together, though he does take her to a wife-swap bar and an S & M club. He does a spot of cooking; she is often so tired from work that it isn't until the next morning that she can give him a blow job. This is less insolent than fictionally disappointing. Oh, and Valérie has to die, of course, just when she has found happiness and the couple have decided to live on a paradise island. The setup, and execution, of this would have been improved upon by Grisham or Forsyth.

Why, to go back to the start, does Michel hate his father so? This is one question a normally inquisitive reader might ask after that coffinside denunciation. What do we learn of this "old bastard," this "clever cunt," this "moron in shorts," this "hideously representative element" of the twentieth century? That he was over seventy when he died, that Aïcha was "very fond" of him, that he exercised a lot and owned a Toyota Land Cruiser. Hardly grounds enough, you might think. But we also learn, further on, that this monster was once struck down by a sudden, inexplicable depression. "His mountaineering friends had stood around awkwardly, powerless in the face of the disease. The reason he immersed himself in sports, he once told me, was to stupefy himself, to stop himself from thinking." This is all new (we hadn't been told before that the father was a mountaineer); and you might think, since Michel is himself depressed, that it might have been reason for sympathy. But this is all we get, and the father swiftly disappears from the narrative, as he does from Michel's thoughts.

Within the novel, the filial hatred is just an inexplicable given. But in an interview Houellebecq gave a few years ago in the magazine Lire he says that his parents abandoned him when he was five, leaving him in the care of a grandmother. "My father developed early on a sense of excessive guilt," Houellebecq says. "He once told me the strangest thing: that he devoted himself to intense physical activity so much because it stopped him thinking. He was a mountain guide."

No reason why this strange confession shouldn't be used by a novelist; but if it is to work it needs to be supported fictionally. In "Platform," the slippage between Michel R. and Michel H. is more serious than this bit of autobiographical leaching might suggest. There are problems with the narrative, officially a first-person account by Michel R., but one that (insolently??well, anyway, unjustifiedly) dodges into the third person if it needs to tell us what only Michel H. can know. (There is even an incompetent moment when Michel R. gives us his judgment on a character he hasn't yet met.) Within Michel himself, there is also some curious slippage. Thus he sets off on holiday with "two American best-sellers that I'd bought pretty much at random at the airport" (this despite feeling de haut en bas about Forsyth and Grisham); he also has the Guide du Routard. Fair enough for a sex tourist, you may think. Later, a little surprisingly, he panics at the thought of having nothing to read. Later still, back home, he turns out to be an assiduous reader of Auguste Comte and Milan Kundera; he also quotes confidently from Kant, Schopenhauer, and social theoreticians. Is this credibly the same character, or is it someone shifting to meet the needs of the moment?

The sense of Houellebecq's being a clever man who is a less than clever novelist obtrudes most in the novel's dealings with Islam. Structurally, the function of what Michel calls the "absurd religion" appears to be to deliver, at the end, an extreme and murderous disapproval of the happy sex tourists. Its running presence, however, consists in a trio of outbursts. The first is from Aïcha, who launches unasked into a denunciation of her Mecca-stupefied father and her useless brothers ("They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some stupid bastard like them"). Next, there is an Egyptian once encountered by Michel in the Valley of the Kings, an immensely cultivated and intelligent genetic engineer, for whom Muslims are "the losers of the Sahara" and Islam a religion born among "filthy Bedouin" who did nothing but "bugger their camels." Then, there is a Jordanian banker met in Bangkok, who in the course of a general denunciation points out that the sexual paradise promised to Islamic martyrs is much more cheaply obtainable in any hotel massage parlor. Extraordinary that three casual meetings on three different continents should turn up three vociferous Arab Islam-despisers who disappear from the narrative immediately their work is done. This isn't so much an author with his thumb on the scales as one clambering into the weighing pan and doing a tap dance. (Book-chat parenthesis: Houellebecq told Lire that his mother had become a Muslim, adding, "I can't bear Islam.")

Before I started reading this novel, a friend gave me an unexpected warning: "There's a scene where the narrator and his girlfriend and another woman have a threesome in the hammam at the thalassotherapy center in Dinard." His tone hardening, he went on, "Well, I've been there, and it's just not possible." He is not a pedantic man, and his attitude surprised me. But now I quite understand it. Fictional insolence is a high-risk venture; it must, as "The Elementary Particles" did, take you by the ear and brain and frogmarch you, convince you with the force of its rhetoric and the rigor of its despair. It should allow no time for reactions like Hang on, that's not true; or Surely, people aren't that bad; or even Actually, I'd like to think this one over. "Platform," fuelled more by opinions and riffs and moments of provocation than by thorough narrative, allows such questionings to enter the reader's head far too often. Is sex like this? Is love like this? Are Muslims like this? Is humanity like this? Is Michel depressed, or is the world depressing? Camus, who began by creating in Meursault one of the most disaffected characters in postwar fiction, ended by writing "The First Man," in which ordinary lives are depicted with the richest observation and sympathy. The trajectory of Houellebecq's world view will be worth following.

Hate and Hedonism : The insolent art of Michel Houellebecq
logged by alf at 12:41, Tuesday, 1st July, 2003