Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘human condition’

People who wore top hats

In thinking about the response of many Americans to the revelations of torture of prisoners by the CIA (not that it was a huge secret before, but I think most people still found something to be surprised and appalled by in the Senate report, such as the 26 people whom even the CIA acknowledges were held in error, or “rectal feeding”), but also the response of many American and British Jews to atrocities and human rights abuses by Israel, I often find myself coming back to the remarks of Aldous Huxley, in his 1958 Brave New World Revisited. In discussing the distinction between the old-fashioned totalitarianism of 1984 — innovative propaganda and mental manipulation, to be sure, but backed up by hard power and torture — and the purely medical and psychological manipulation of Brave New World, he admits that he was too hasty in consigning the crude atrocities to the ashheap of history:

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asi­atics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can and, no doubt, it will. But in the immedi­ate future there is some reason to believe that the punitive methods of 1984 will give place to the rein­forcements and manipulations of Brave New World.

This phrasing is perfect. (I’m willing to give Huxley the benefit of the doubt by reading ironic scare quotes into “benighted Africans and Asiatics”.) Compare “people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats” with this excerpt from an interview with torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney:


Well, let me start with quoting you. You said earlier this week, “Torture was something that was very carefully avoided.” It implies that you have a definition of what torture is. What is it?


Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. There’s this notion that somehow there’s moral equivalence between what the terrorists and what we do. And that’s absolutely not true. We were very careful to stop short of torture. The Senate has seen fit to label their report torture. But we worked hard to stay short of that definition.


Well, what is that definition?


Definitions, and one that was provided by the Office of Legal Counsel, we went specifically to them because we did not want to cross that line into where we violating some international agreement that we’d signed up to. They specifically authorized and okayed, for example, exactly what we did. All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without, in fact, committing torture.

Instead of going to church in top hats to have their crimes blessed by God, they went to the Office of Legal Council in slick suits to have their crimes blessed by the Justice department. But the idea is, people like us don’t commit atrocities, because they’re people like us.


Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan’s lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.[…]  Does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?


–in my mind, I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives

I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) (more…)

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