Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I left out a few points that I wanted to make in my post on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War:

  1. About a week after, I wrote in my diary that I had the disturbing impression, reading the comments of journalists, politicians, and intellectuals, that a significant subset of them were in a certain way pleased: not that the country was attacked, certainly not at the tremendous loss of life, but that life had turned serious. The country had been wallowing in nostalgia for the “Greatest Generation” — Tom Brokaw’s book had been published just a few years earlier — while the current youth (a group which I was just growing out of, being then aged 33) had its culture defined by ironic detachment. So we had articles on “The Age of Irony Comes to an End“. It was mainly just another way to bash young people, which is always popular, but it also appealed to a deep-seated desire to be the protagonists of history, solving problems of historic dimensions. And there are no victory parades for conserving energy and stopping runaway global warming. This was confirmed for me when people started quoting incessantly W H Auden’s 1939 disdain for the “clever hopes” expiring “of a low dishonest decade”.
  2. This was why I was never in doubt that Iraq would be invaded. Bush clearly got such a rush from being a war president, I was sure he would find an excuse to keep the war going. From early in his candidacy I had him pegged as someone who had a deep hole in his soul, desperate for respect, and that craved above all the pomp and ceremony of the presidency. During the campaign I read about a talk show appearance, where he was asked about his “favourite dream”. In response, he mimed taking the presidential oath of office. He repeated the gesture at the end of his last debate with Al Gore. This gave me the strong impression that, after sitting through four years around the White House as the president’s son, with no serious interest in policy, he had an emotional attachment to the trappings of power, the gestures, the salutes, swearing an oath, but no real interest in governing. I never saw much reason to doubt this initial impression, though I did also think that he had grown in office to have some concern at least with how his presidency would be remembered.
  3. It has been argued that antisemitism in the US pretty much collapsed between 1940 and 1960, as a consequence of the ideological side of WWII. The argument is not simply that all but the most militant antisemites were embarrassed by the association of their sentiments with some of the worst atrocities of human history — the Holocaust was far less culturally present in the US in 1950 than it is today, and in any case, humans are infinitely capable of distinguishing between their own (perfectly reasonable) beliefs and behaviours, and the vile iniquity of others that might seem superficially similar to an outsider. That’s where you get comments like “I have nothing against Jews. And there would be a lot less antisemitism if they would stop abusing their control over the news media.” Rather, it was (it is argued) a natural outgrowth of Allied use of Nazi antisemitism as a propaganda weapon. If you define the enemy as antisemitic, that does impel you to try to show that you are the opposite. This is somewhat analogous to the way opposition to slavery grew in the North during the US Civil War. The reason I mention this is that there was a strain of progressive opinion in the US after the 9/11 attacks that challenged the right wing to demonstrate their anti-theocratic bona fides by supporting the rights of women and sexual minorities that were anathema to the Islamists. This approach received only tepid support on the right at the time — Dinesh D’Souza’s* weird common cause with the cultural politics of Al Qaeda is discussed by Zinnia Jones here – but now I’m wondering if the same kind of propagandistic alchemy is partly responsible for the unstoppable progress of gay rights in the US, Europe, and Latin America in the past decade.

* I find D’Souza a fascinating character, sort of a right-wing ideologue’s Golem of what an intellectual would be like. I remember listening to him being interviewed by Christopher Lydon back when I was a student in Boston, on the event of the publication of his book The End of RacismHis argument, as well as I could understand it, was, once upon a time there was racism, which was an irrational hatred and disrespect for black people. But that disappeared decades ago, to be replaced, purely by coincidence, by an accurate appraisal by white folk that black people are culturally depraved, or something like that. “Shiftless” wasn’t a word he used, but he was arguing that one naturally would not wish to hire an African American for a job, knowing that most of them grew up with single mothers in housing projects where no one has worked in generations, and they’ve never heard of an alarm clock. His point was subtly undermined by the fact that he arrived almost half an hour late for the hour-long interview — this was live radio, so there was basically half an hour of the host tap-dancing — and explained that he’d been caught in traffic. I think this is the only time that I’ve

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