July 22, 2012
July 22, 2012
The influence of sectarianism in politics is about as welcome a topic among policymakers as the drunken uncle or the drug addict son is at the family dinner table. Indeed, a strong case can be made that it is because policymakers in powerful countries, above all in the United States and Western Europe, within the UN system, especially in the departments of political affairs and peacekeeping, and at the World Bank and the IMF, tend to craft their strategies and make their decisions as if sectarianism were a minor concern rather than the central one that it has always been in most parts of the world, that, like a sort of Philosopher’s Stone in reverse, it has turned so many supposed geostrategic sure things into either disappointments or outright failures.
In Afghanistan the Soviets thought Pashtun tribal loyalties would be no match for the kind of modernization they had imposed on the Central Asian republics to Afghanistan’s north, although anyone who has spent any time in post-1989 Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan will know that the sectarianism and tribalism that was quiescent during the Soviet era are back with a vengeance. As for NATO, the alliance went into Kosovo imagining the province to have the potential for the kind of ethnic comity that truly did exist in Bosnian cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla before 1992, when, in fact, Kosovo proved to be a zero-sum game. When the province was ruled from Belgrade, the Serbian minority held sway. When NATO arrived, it was the Albanians’ turn, and while on utilitarian grounds the oppression of a minority is perhaps to be preferred to the oppression of a majority, that was scarcely what NATO intended, or predicted would happen once Yugoslav regulars and Serb militias had been sent packing.
But the textbook example of this amnesia about the importance of sectarianism has been the American involvement in Iraq. The great physicist Max Planck once criticized his colleague James Jeans for refusing to relinquish his theory even in the face of facts that should have caused him to do so. Jeans, Planck wrote to a mutual colleague, “is the very model of a theorist as he should not be, just as Hegel was in philosophy: so much the worse for the facts if they don’t fit.” By analogy, one can say that the people who called for an invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003—many of whom, lest it be forgotten, were liberal democrats (beyond the usual suspects in Congress, these included the current editor of theNew Yorker magazine and the then executive editor of the New York Times, institutions not exactly known for their support of the Bush-Cheney administration)—were the very model of interventionists as they should not be. And, again echoing Planck, it is arguably the current Hegelian consensus that history is an evolutionary progress in a positive direction toward an ideal end state in which some form of liberal, law-based, rights-observing capitalism is, as Francis Fukuyama has put it, history’s culmination, “the only viable alternative for technologically advanced societies,” a conclusion that would almost certainly bring a smile to the lips of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. But unable to free themselves from the bear trap of one version or another of contemporary Western progress narratives, Fukuyama, his erstwhile neoconservative comrades, and many prominent activists within the largely left-leaning human rights movement, either remain entirely blind to the perdurability of sectarianism, or else imagine that—rather as Marx thought that once communism had been achieved the state would wither away—once prosperity has been achieved sectarianism will also disappear.
This consensus has been building for a long time. At least from the second half of the nineteenth century onward (and possibly quite a bit earlier), there has been a growing consensus among philosophers, politicians, social critics, and historians alike that to understand what is going on in the world it is necessary to think in larger and larger units of time, population, economy, and social structure. From the era in which the French historian Ernest Renan extolled the nation-state as an exercise in “large-scale solidarity,” in his 1882 essay “What Is the Nation,” and Marx insisted that the forces of capitalist production inevitably destroyed every autonomous countervailing economic structure or stubborn social form that might impede it, through twentieth-century Bolshevism and fascism, to our own time in the context of various forms of an essentially borderless capitalism that, while wounded by the recent economic convulsions in the developed world, still predominate, sectarianism has been consistently relegated to the status of atavism. Yes, it is still powerful in disfavored or crisis-wracked parts of the world like the Islamic Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, and can even crop up in the rich world in times of crisis, as has been demonstrated by the recent rise of xenophobic parties in Western Europe. But over the long term, the tide of history is carrying all of global society in a very different direction.
Why so many people are so convinced of this, and not only in the “first world,” is not entirely clear. Obviously, part of the explanation is the penumbral hold that the Christian progress narrative still maintains over our thinking. On this account, for all the bumps and glitches that humanity is bound to face along the way, history, too, is a progress toward a global society. One does not have to be a person of faith to adhere to this view. To the contrary, it was that stern non-believer Raymond Aron who proposed that what made modern times unique was that they were the era of universal history. And, indeed, whether such an analysis is derived from Aron’s analytic template, or Fukuyama’s unwise effort to update it with his argument that history is bound to “end” in some form of liberal capitalist society, or, instead, from the still influential modernization theorists of the 1950s like the Rostow brothers in the United States, or else, more recently, either from the left mysticism of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, the so-called biopolitics of the followers of Michel Foucault, or, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, from the free-market ideology that began with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, what has united these otherwise often largely incompatible analyses was the unwavering conviction that premodern allegiances of the type that sectarianism exemplifies might flare up and cause a great deal of trouble now and then but nonetheless had already had their ticket to the dustbin of history validated. In other words, almost anywhere on the squishy bog that is the contemporary intellectual landscape—right or left, technocratic or legalistic, unilateralist or post-national—we will most likely find ourselves sinking into the muck of one modern iteration or another of Hegel’s ideas about universal history and the theodicy that accompanied it.
That the Greeks, or, indeed, great Renaissance political thinkers like Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who essentially believed that history was a series of cycles, not a progress, would have laughed at such a crude account is worth pointing out, if only as an at least partial vindication of the intuition of educated pagans, like Celsus in the late Roman empire, that Christianity was not going to be an intellectual improvement over Greek philosophy. But as a faith, Christianity can hold that we are progressing toward a day of final judgment and the end of history without having to provide empirical grounds for its claims. The adherents of secular progress narratives, however, can plead no such justification. To the contrary, the claims of a Fukuyama or of the contemporary ideologues of the global human rights movement—in many ways, the most powerful and influential of all contemporary utopian progress narratives—insist that however much their views have a component of hope, their confidence in the rightness of these views is based on the empirical evidence.
Nothing could be further from the truth. For if empirical criteria and historical evidence are the grounds on which intelligent people base their understanding of which direction the world is going in, it is surely just as plausible to claim that sectarianism has been as defining of modern history as universalization has been, and even that, at least in some parts of the world, sectarianism, in a broad sense that would include tribal, ethnic, racial, religious, and, within particular religions, confessional identities and loyalties, has played as central a role as globalization. The fact that this does not seem obvious—or, more precisely, that, at least in the West, the political and intellectual ruling classes seem to have to “rediscover” sectarianism every time it crops up (which, of course, is often) only to forget about it again until the next crisis imposes yet another rude awakening—is a reoccuring mystery of modern world affairs…
The Beauty Of Bodysnatching: Astley Cooper (1768–1841), an English surgeon and anatomist, is remembered for his contributions to vascular surgery and other specialties.
July 22, 2012
Born body and soul into the Romantic era, Hector Berlioz found beauty in the wonder of music. As the son of a physician, however, he was encouraged by his parents to enter a career in medicine. When he began anatomical studies, he found the dissecting room was not wholly his idea of a pleasant place: At the sight of that horrible human charnel-house, its fragments of limbs, its grimacing faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we walked around, the revolting odor it exhaled, the swarms of sparrows fighting over scraps of lungs, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and ran panting home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. I spent twenty-four hours stunned by this first impression, wanting to hear no more talk of anatomy, or dissection, or medicine, and meditating on a thousand mad schemes to extricate myself from the future that menaced me.
In spite of that initial shock, Berlioz managed to stick with his studies, at least for a time.
I consented to return to the hospital and face the funereal scene once more. How strange! Seeing again the objects that had inspired in me such profound horror, I remained perfectly calm, I felt absolutely nothing but a cold disgust; I had become as familiarized with the spectacle as a veteran soldier. It was all over. I even found some pleasure in rummaging in the gaping breast of a poor corpse for a bit of lung to feed the winged inhabitants of that charming place.
“Well done!” cried [my fellow student] Robert, laughing, “You are becoming quite human! Feeding the little birds!”
“And my bounty extends to all nature nature,” I answered, throwing a shoulder-blade to a great rat that was staring at me with famished eyes.
As a young medical student, I did not expect experiences with corpses to be easy (one might be worried if they were). What I was unprepared for was the physical impact of the hospital. The wards seemed full of the elderly, the decaying, and the demented. The smell of incontinence and diarrhea seeped into the air, clinging to me when I walked home. The institutional food merged its sickly perfume with that of the patients. They sat vacantly propped in their beds or slumped in chairs, a few clutching tattered magazines or newspapers (I came to realize that these barely altered—the same paper would do as well one day as the next). Books were scarcely to be seen, conversations hardly heard. How grateful I used to be to escape, and when it was into a sunny evening and a warm breeze, it felt like leaping into cleanness. Keats, who qualified as a family doctor and a surgeon, recalled the horrors of his own hospital wards in one stanza of his Ode to a Nightingale, wishing to
Fade far away, dissolve,
and quite forget
What thou among the leaves
hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad,
last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale,
and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think
is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eye despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep
her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them
In the Romantic era in particular, where you saw beauty—or horror—was a matter of acute and widespread concern. There was more wisdom in birdsong than in study, wrote Wordsworth. Yet while he was writing about the spiritual benefits of the countryside’s natural beauty, and Keats was worn into retreat by his experiences of suffering and death, another man was heading wholeheartedly in the opposite direction. He lived from 1768 to 1841, and his international reputation—among the populace as much as the cognoscenti—was remarkable. “We think it is indisputable that no surgeon in this, or any other country,” said one obituary, “ever realized such a fortune, or acquired such wide spread fame.” The Times of London said his career had made him the richest professional man, of any profession, ever to have lived.
Sitting around their fireside while snowstorms came down on the Yorkshire moors, the Brontë family—not medical in the least—included this surgeon in their imaginary games, placing him alongside the Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon, in their personal pantheons. He was intimately involved in the French Revolution and came close to being executed for treason for supporting revolutionary democracy in Britain. Unless you happen to be a surgeon or a medical historian, however, you are unlikely to have heard of him. His name was Astley Paston Cooper…
Dodd-Frank’s Protection Racket: The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is both irrelevant and dangerous
July 22, 2012
When President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law two summers ago, standing behind him was Andrew Giordano, a retired Baltimore police officer. Giordano had “discovered hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees on his bank statement—fees he had no idea he might face,” Obama said. Looking on, too, was schoolteacher Robin Fox, “hit with a massive rate increase on her credit card even though she paid her bills on time.” Obama promised that it wouldn’t happen again. “A new consumer watchdog,” he announced, would have “just one job: looking out for people as they interact with the financial system.” People could expect an end to complex mortgage, student-loan, and credit-card contracts in which “pages of barely understandable fine print” contained “hidden fees and penalties.”
The new watchdog is called the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection but is commonly shortened to the CFPB, with the “bureau” at the end. Its director, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, is a savvy politician, and he has worked to fashion an anti-TSA: a government agency that people trust and like. It is busily making and enforcing rules governing everything from mortgage approval to bounced checks, and it has created a website, consumerfinance.gov, full of handy tips—many targeted to young people—and humble requests for comments and complaints. The bureau has held “field hearings” and town-hall meetings far outside the Beltway, listening to regular Americans’ perceptions of the financial industry. A publicity coup came in March, when New York Timescolumnist Joe Nocera visited the bureau’s offices and came away gushing about his “inspiring day.”
Despite the good press, however, the CFPB—which will cost taxpayers almost half a billion dollars per year—is useless in some ways and deeply harmful in others. Some abuses that it was designed to curb have already been handled by existing federal agencies, while others are beyond its power to fix. The agency is equally incapable of remedying the worst ailment facing the American financial “consumer”: crushing debt, much of it purveyed by the federal government. Yet at the same time, Congress has given the CFPB the formidable power of banning abusive, unfair, deceptive, or discriminatory financial practices relating to Americans’ everyday financial interactions. Though that may sound appealing, remember how the government, by trying to do essentially the same thing with mortgages, lured poorer people into financial contracts that they couldn’t afford. The CFPB may do for credit cards and other financial products what the government did for mortgages: make the poor think that borrowing lots of money is perfectly reasonable. The CFPB, in sum, is Washington’s new weapon in its war for more debt.
The CFPB’s “field hearings” are a good example of its public approach, which emphasizes empowering Americans, via better education and disclosure, about the vast array of products that the financial-industrial complex wants them to “consume.” The bureau has cleverly chosen to hold hearings not on what caused the financial crisis—loose credit—but on hot-button topics affecting key voting blocs, such as prepaid debit cards for young people and payday loans for poorer minorities.
At one such hearing, at New York’s Hunter College in February, Cordray took to the podium to open “a candid discussion about bank overdrafts,” which could prove “very costly” for those for whom “every penny counts.” Politically, bank overdrafts are an easy target. We’ve all heard the stories about the innocent consumer who buys a cup of coffee with his debit card and then, at month’s end, gets hit with a $35 bank fee because he didn’t have enough money in his checking account to cover the charge. Overdraft fees totaled $38 billion last year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Two cohorts pay the bulk of these fees: the young, often because of inexperience or inattention; and poorer people, who use overdrafts as a form of expensive borrowing from paycheck to paycheck. Cordray acknowledged both groups, noting that “almost half of account holders who are young adults incur overdraft fees” and that overdrafts “disproportionately impact a vulnerable demographic” of “lower-than-average income” consumers.
Then came the next step in the CFPB’s carefully honed PR strategy: the requisite horror story that shows the need for tough government action against big finance. In this case, Sarah Ludwig—codirector of the New York–based Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP), whose mission is to “promote economic justice”—played victim’s advocate. To illustrate how the disadvantaged “experience abusive overdraft protection not as an isolated project but as part of a continuum of exploitation that continues to plague low-income communities and communities of color,” Ludwig told the story of “Ms. Jay,” a hardworking New York City government employee and single mother exploited by a rapacious bank.
Ms. Jay “hit some unforeseen financial troubles,” we learned, and resorted to a payday lender. Such outfits pockmark the poorer neighborhoods of American cities, lending money at triple-digit annual interest rates, usually under the condition that the borrower show a recent pay stub as proof of income and hand over a postdated personal check. When the date on the check arrives, the payday lender cashes the check, closing out the transaction—unless the borrower comes calling for a new payday loan, complete with its own hefty fee. Ms. Jay took the second route, as is common, and “one payday loan quickly turned into several.”
Eventually, though, the payday lender presented its check or checks to Ms. Jay’s bank—and there wasn’t sufficient money in the account to cash them. Yet Ms. Jay’s bank allowed the lender to overdraw the account repeatedly and applied overdraft charges as well. Ms. Jay tried futilely to close her bank account and stop the charges, which totaled $1,390 in overdrawn funds and fees. Only after NEDAP involved itself did the bank close the account and write off the loss. But now, Ludwig said, Ms. Jay “will have trouble obtaining an account at another bank,” meaning that she’s been “systemically blocked” from mainstream banking. “It’s yet another way that banks fail to serve low-income communities,” Ludwig concluded…