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The Fortieth Anniversary of Nixon’s Resignation

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Forty years ago, Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, resigned his office under threat of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors.

He committed them.

Richard Nixon left a complicated legacy, of which I wrote last year,  on his hundredth birthday. My views have not changed much in the interim. As a statesman, Richard Nixon was an adept strategist and visionary, who would rank in the company of our greatest presidents if his crimes in Watergate did not render him an epochal failure. Worse, some of his abuses of power that drove Nixon from office are in danger of becoming normalized and institutionalized or exceeded. Nixon’s accomplishments cannot be separated from his misdeeds because we are living with the consequences of both.

Resignation of the Office of the Presidency of the United States was not provided for in the original U.S. Constitution, but was mentioned in the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967.  Characteristically, Nixon ignored the spirit of the amendment in choosing to submit his resignation to Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State and his Executive Branch subordinate, rather than to his co-equal peers, the Constitutional officers of the US Congress, as is specified in the 25th Amendment for cases of presidential disability, though not resignation.

Even in being forced from office, Nixon found a technicality to deny his political adversaries that point of satisfaction.


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REVIEW: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Monday, August 4th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss 

Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.

This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.

Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable - Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin,  Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring,  Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others.  ”Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of  Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.

Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today.  Lev was a talented writer, a  Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.

Recommended.

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War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.

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New Book: The Lion’s Gate by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War by Steven Pressfield 

This just arrived hot off the presses on my doorstep yesterday, courtesy of Steve and in terms of writing, The Lion’s Gate appears to be a significant departure for him.

While Pressfield has done novels that were historical fiction (Gates of Fire, Killing Rommel),  military futurism ( The Profession ) or non-fiction essays on harnessing creativity ( The War of Art), achieving professionalism ( Turning Pro) and writing (The Authentic Swing), The Lion’s Gate is a serious work on history.

I say “on” rather than “of” because Pressfield described his book as “hybrid history”, having approached the Six Day War partly in Studs Terkel fashion, with interviews of participants in the war recounting their experiences heavily driving the story, but this is combined with traditional historical research and Pressfield’s own shaping of the narrative. As a technique, it also reminds me somewhat of what Solzhenitsyn termed a “literary investigation” in describing his monumental Gulag Archipelago.

Israeli history or the specific battles of the Arab-Israeli wars have not been my areas of research, so I am looking forward to reading things that are new to me. The Six Day War burnished Israel’s military reputation and that of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to the point that frustrated supporters of America’s war effort in Vietnam sent the beleaguered head of MACV, General William Westmoreland, black eyepatches.

A full review to come in the future.

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Of a flag and the blood of martyrs

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- how, where and why the name, the map, and the flag merge into reality -- Gregory Bateson to the rescue ]
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I am indebted for this screengrab to Phillip Smyth, whose recent Singing Hizballah’s Tune in Manama: Why Are Bahrain’s Militants Using the Music of Iran’s Proxies? post in his Hizballah Cavalcade at Aaron Zelin‘s Jihadology included the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq martyr video for those killed fighting in Syria, with its allusion to the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala — deep breath — from which this grab is taken.

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Let me back up: what I want to discuss here is the significance of flags, with the blooded Shahada flag providing an instance.

We have two brain hemispheres: one of them, according to Gregory Bateson, knows the difference between a sign and what it points to, one doesn’t — and we live in a world that’s made up of these two perceptions, one layered over the other, the other shining through on occasion.

Here’s Bateson — if you don’t know him, one of the presiding geniuses of the twentieth century thought:

The distinction between the name and the thing named or the map and the territory is perhaps really made only by the dominant hemisphere of the brain. The symbolic and affective hemisphere, normally on the right-hand side, is probably unable to distinguish name from thing named. It is certainly not concerned with this sort of distinction. It therefore happens that certain nonrational types of behavior are necessarily present in human life. We do, in fact, have two hemispheres; and we cannot get away from that fact. Each hemisphere does, in fact, operate somewhat differently from the other, and we cannot get away from the tangles that that difference proposes.

For example, with the dominant hemisphere, we can regard such a thing as a flag as a sort of name of the country or organization that it represents. But the right hemisphere does not draw this distinction and regards the flag as sacramentally identical with what it represents. So “Old Glory” is the United States. If somebody steps on it, the response may be rage. And this rage will not be diminished by an explanation of map-territory relations. (After all, the man who tramples the flag is equally identifying it with that for which it stands.) There is always and necessarily be a large number of situations in which the response is not guided by the logical distinction between the name and the thing named.

I’d like to reemphasize a couple of phrases:

  • certain nonrational types of behavior are necessarily present in human life
  • the right hemisphere … regards the flag as sacramentally identical with what it represents
  • **

    That quote comes from a while back, of course, and we have a great deal more detailed knowledge now than we did when Bateson first wrote it — but I checked with a neuropsychologist colleague, and he gave me the okay to quote it as an admittedly broad strokes version of a more complex truth, and thus subject to various qualifications.

    And while it may seem like a strange suggestion to some who might otherwise think of the flag as “just a flag, a piece of colored fabric” — it makes perfect sense of the diplomatic protocol surrounding the Saudi flag which I noted in a previous post:

    The script in the centre of the flag is the Islamic creed, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah”. The flag is therefore considered sacred and special protocol rules apply: the flag does not dip in salute, nor is it ever flown at half-mast. Note that the creed always reads properly from right to left, with the sword hilt to the right, so the reverse of the flag is not a mirror image of the obverse. When making the flag, the creed must be reproduced precisely, including the accent marks. The use of the flag on any commercial item (especially clothing) is not recommended as it might be considered inappropriate, or even insulting.

    The Saudi flag is the scripture is the Word of God, in the same (lower case “s” sacramental) way in which the consecrated bread is the body of Christ is the Real Presence in the Catholic eucharist, and in each case, to desecrate the symbol is to desecrate that to which (from the point of one hemisphere) it refers and which (from the perspective of the other) it makes present.

    Thus Bateson might say, with Saint Augustine and the Catechism, that in each of these cases, the outward and visible sign embodies an inward and spiritual reality.

    And which in turn may explain why Bateson, setting an exam for the young psychiatrists he was training in a mental hospital in Palo Alto, asked them as his first question for brief descriptions of “sacrament” and “entropy” — figuring them to be two of the “core notions of 2,500 years of thought about religion and science”.

    To some readers, all this will be so obvious as to need no explanation, to others it may still seem utterly opaque. My hope is to give you a sense that beneath the rational surface of our lives, there lurks another mode of thinking — and that one of its aspects is to treat “signs” as though they *are* whatever they represent.

    **

    Relevant quotes from Gregory Bateson:

    Once I drew up a sort of catechism and offered it to the class as a sampling of the questions which I hoped they would be able to discuss after completing the course. The questions ranged from “What is a sacrament?” to “What is entropy?” and “What is play?”

    As a didactic maneuver, my cathechism was a failure: it silenced the class…

    – Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind

    Even grown-up persons with children of their own cannot give a reasonable account of concepts such as entropy, sacrament, syntax, number, quantity, pattern, linear relation, name, class, relevance, energy, redundancy, force, probability, parts, whole, information, tautology, homology, mass (either Newtonian or Christian), explanation, description, rule of dimensions, logical type, metaphor, topology, and so on. What are butterflies? What are starfish? What are beauty and ugliness?

    — Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

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