Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

New posting philosophy

I used to post every day. Now I'm going to post every Sunday for next morning Monday, with one or two additional postings later in the week. Why?

Number one: I don't have the time anymore. It takes three to four hours out of my day, and I'm about to launch a record album of a rock opera on an unsuspecting world within the next two months. It's going to take me a lot of time to market my rock opera via iTunes, MySpace and other music/social networking sites. I'm hoping to sell millions without a record company, and that's going to be a full-time job. (BTW, I will let you know all about it when it happens -- it'll be the rather fascinating story of an artist doing his own marketing in our new web-empowered world.)

Number two: with Bush a lame duck, and the Dems in charge of Congress, my ire about Bush/Cheney has lessened somewhat, although I would love to see those two mu'fuckas' asses impeached for the good of our country. If ever a Prez and a Vice-Prez deserved to be impeached, it's them. Still, we seem to be living in what Gramsci called an "interregnum" -- with a bad old world dying, and a new world about to be born in 2008 under Democratic President Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I'm living for that day, and maybe when it comes, there'll be enough excitement for me to return to posting every day.

Meanwhile, you''ll still have something new to read on every week. Thank you for being there. And take heart. Our long national nightmare will be over by the end of next year.

The Iraq War is lost, but the war profiteers are winning big-time

1. Pentagon as Casino
Versailles on the Potomac
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR/Counterpunch

War profiteer. It used to be one of the dirtiest slurs in American politics, potent enough to sully the reputations of the rich and powerful. Now it's a calling card, something you might find highlighted in a defense contractor's corporate prospectus as a lure to attract investors looking for bulging profits and escalating dividends.

In the summer of 2000, the defense industry was mired in a prolonged slump, as was the US economy, which under the unforgiving lash of its neo-liberal architects had become dependent on the financial engines of the munitions makers. Unhappily for the defense industry and its investor class, the Soviet Union had disintegrated before their very eyes and the People's Republic of China, long considered the bogeyman state in waiting, had lustily embraced state capitalism instead of stepping up to the plate as a brawny military rival.

The big ticket items of the Cold War, from Stealth bombers to nuclear subs, from aircraft carriers to the Star Wars scheme, that had sustained the industry to the tune of tens of billions every year no longer had the slightest pretext for continued production, except as the most extravagant form of corporate welfare. Those weapons systems that weren't obsolete, such as the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter, simply didn't work, such as Star Wars-lately remarketed as Ballistic Missile Defense.

To make matters more fraught for the weapons industry, the Pentagon was poised to put the finishing touches on its Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets procurement, budget and policy goals for the Defense Department. Of course, the Pentagon would never slash its own budget and, in fact, many anticipated that the QDR would call for increasing annual defense spending to something approaching 4 percent of the gross domestic product. However, it seemed likely that the generals would call for the termination of many of the multi-billion dollar relics of the Cold War in exchange for massive increases in spending on newer killing technologies geared for what has come to be known as "4th Generation Warfare."

Then 9/11 happened and all the anxieties of the weapons lobby evaporated in the flames of one fateful morning. The QDR, once so threatening, was simply another fat white paper that came and went without leaving so much as a scratch on the old Imperial Guard.

As we revealed here in CounterPunch, the Taliban offered Osama Bin Laden, and his top associates, the Bush administration on several occasions after the attacks of 9/11. Bush refused. They wanted a prolonged and ever-escalating war, not a deftly executed police action and not justice for the families of those slain and maimed by Bin Laden's kamikazes.

Instead, thousands of Cruise missiles were ordered up and, just like that, Boeing and Lockheed were back in business. For months, cruise missiles, J-DAM bombs and CB-87 cluster munitions shredded the hamlets and hovels of Afghanistan, killing more than 3,500 civilians in the early days of that one-sided war. But this was simply a bloody prelude to a more profound slaughter. For Afghanistan, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, wasn't a "target rich" environment. But Iraq certainly was. And only hours after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld and his neocon coterie of laptop bombardiers began plotting the war on Saddam and the domestic propaganda campaign for how to sell it to a psychologically shattered and anxiety-ridden American public. The civilian body count in Iraq would climb much higher, topping 650,000 by the winter of 2007, with more than 200 Iraqis dying every day.

The Bush wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were misguided, counter-productive and illegal ventures, although entirely predictable outbursts of imperial vengeance. What is truly perverse is the fact that while one wing of the Pentagon was planning wars against a "faceless enemy" and a "rogue state", another wing was lobbying congress on behalf of the weapons companies to approve tens of billions in funding for all of the baroque artifacts of the Cold War, from Star Wars to Stealth fighters. Congress was only too happy to help. From the fall of 2001 through the end of 2002, not a single funding request for a big-ticket item went denied, from unneeded aircraft carriers to unwanted Boeing tankers.

But in order to fund these bailouts to the defense lobby for making weapons for a war that no longer existed, Congress had to rob other budgetary accounts. And here's where it gets truly bizarre. Intent on satiating the cravings for pork from their political patrons, the leadership of the Defense Appropriations committees, chaired until 2007 by Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, paid for these costly and useless projects by reprogramming billions from the so-called Operations and Maintenance accounts, which were being used to fund the logistics work for the on-the-ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the normally docile Office of Management and Budget raised a warning, writing in a letter to Stevens dated December 6, 2002: "These [Operations and Maintenance] reductions would undermine DoD's ability to adequately fund training, operations, maintenance, supplies and other essentials. They would seriously damage the readiness of our armed forces and undermine their ability to execute current operations, including the war on terrorism."

That warning letter (and thousands of documents like it), ignored by the war-hungry US press, is the congressional equivalent of the Pentagon Papers for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In order to shell out billions for Star Wars and the F-22 fighter, Congress took money from accounts that would have improved the terrible logistical planning in Iraq and bought essential items for the protection of US combat troops, such as body armor and armored Humvees. The blood of many a soldier maimed or killed in Iraq is indelibly stained on the hands of Stevens and his colleagues who choose to put the welfare of Boeing and Lockheed above the grunts in the field.

The Pentagon has become a kind of government operated casino, doling out billions in contracts to the big-time spenders in American politics: General Dynamics, Boeing, Raytheon, Bechtel, Lockheed and, of course, the bete noir of the Bush administration, Halliburton.

The saga of Halliburton, however, is only a grotesque symbol for a cancer that has gone systemic, gnawing away at corporations, politicians, bureaucrats, the legions of lobbyists on K Street, media elites, Wall Street fund managers and military brass.

Weapons making (and the credit companies) are the last thriving sectors of the American economy. . Of course, even defense work is being inexorably outsourced, as the story of Magnequench's relocation from Indiana to China details with a cruel absurdity that may even have caused Artaud to blink.

War and credit. The two enterprises go hand in hand. Recall Ezra Pound's declaration in the Cantos: "The purpose of war is to make debt." Bush inherited a $500 billion budget surplus. After his tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires and five years of war-making, the surplus has been transformed into a record deficit that forecloses opportunities for urgently social spending on health care, education, and development of alternative sources of energy that would alleviate the impulse to wage wars for oil.

It's an easy but fateful step from war and debt to corruption and profiteering. Washington has become a dizzying maze of revolving doors; bribery and kickbacks, where even generals betray their loyalties to the grunts in exchange for fat checks and cushy jobs with Pentagon contractors. The deals that reprimed the Boeing bank accounts and steered no-bid contracts to companies as big as Halliburton and as obscure as the Chenega Native Corporation were greased by the dispensation of political cash and, in some cases, more personal gratuities.

While the politicians, CEOs and generals got rich, the death toll in Iraq mounted with a grim inexorability. On average each week brings the death of 21 American soldiers, with over a hundred and fifty more being maimed. By the spring of 2007, more than 3,300 US troops had died in Iraq, nearly 3,000 of them perishing after Bush announced "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of the USS Lincoln. And for every US death more than 150 Iraqis die in bombings and ambushes, in losses that are unmourned and almost unmentioned outside their own ravaged nation.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has quietly regained control of much of the countryside, with US troops and NGOs under almost daily attack. In 2006 alone, nearly as many US troops were killed in Afghanistan than died there in the first four years of the war combined. But few want to look back at a war we'd been told that was long since won.

As for Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, he remains at large, his ranks of suicidal automatons swelled by the thousands as a direct result of Bush's clumsy crusades, the cruel torture chambers of Gitmo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib and the casual and unrepentant slaughter of innocents. Bush's ineptly executed war on terror may at last be running out of gas, but the fundamentalist forces that gave rise to it are only gaining in potency and global reach. The blowback next time may be a terrible thing to behold.

Yes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq blew up in Bush's face, but his cronies laughed all the way to their off-shore banks, as they raced to deposit their blood-soaked billions. Just another season in Versailles on the Potomac.

This essay is adapted from Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.

(Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon . His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate , co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at:

2. Dealing With the Devil
By Marc Ash/

One hundred billion dollars. People often ask why we are in Iraq and why the war cannot be ended. One hundred billion dollars. With that kind of money flowing into the pockets of defense contractors and everyone connected to them, "the war" will continue indefinitely. For as long as the money flows, "the war" will continue.

Leaving Soldiers on the Battlefield

The Marines have a rule: they never, ever leave fallen Marines on the battlefield. No such call to honor and duty concerns our political leaders. Those now seeking the latest one hundred billion dollars say that the money is needed to support our troops. That is not true. Our troops have been abandoned in a foreign land, their only purpose, to justify another one hundred billion dollars, and another. The money itself becomes the rationale for continuing the war.

This war has cut a deadly swath through the lives of the American service members ordered to fight it, and wreacked even greater devastation on Iraq. But it has laid waste to the careers of those who facilitated it politically as well. From Hillary Clinton to Rick Santorum, from John Kerry to John McCain, from Joe Lieberman to Donald Rumsfeld, the list goes on and on. The decision to support this war has proven costly time and time again for its political supporters.

Congressional leaders and experts say that "compromise" is in the offing, that by "working together" the White House and Congress can find a way to "work things out." But that's only the chorus - the lyrics in the background reveal a different message to Congress from the White House: "Don't get in the way of the one hundred billion dollars.'' And "don't do anything to end the party, now or at any time while this administration is in power."

"The clock is ticking for our troops," Mr. Bush pointed out last week. He continued, "The longer Congress delays, the worse the impact on the men and women of the Armed Forces will be." Those, in fact, are two deadly accurate statements. The clock is indeed ticking for our troops, and the longer Congress takes to act, the greater the impact on them and the Iraqi people will be.

The United States occupation of Iraq will end. The American armies like all occupying armies before them will leave Mesopotamia. This military action has no purpose other than the enrichment of private individuals exacting their will and lining their coffers with the blood of American service members, the Iraqi people and US taxpayer dollars.

These Decisions Matter

To those members of Congress who would view a compromise to continue what is now in the world's opinion an illegal and immoral military action, think again. If you are told that you can sanction crimes against humanity and be held harmless, think again. If you do not see the dismembered walking among us, look more closely. If you think that your country benefits from "staying the course," spend a few quiet moments at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This is your Vietnam. These are all our sons and daughters. What will you do?

This guy enjoys the fact that Bush is an asshole

Schadenfreude Is My Middle Name
by David Michael Green/ The Regressive Antidote

I’m not an angry man. But I am angry.

I’m not a bitter person. But, boy, am I bitter.

And I’m not generally given to vindictiveness. But, you know what? Right now I’m open to persuasion.

The Bush administration is now beginning an inexorable process which will change its status from the worst administration in American history to the publicly-acknowledged worst administration in American history. I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

That delight is only partly based on having been on the receiving end of their atrocities these last six years. And it is only partly based on the assurance that those gifts will keep giving for decades into the future, like a bad case of political herpes.

And that delight is also only partly based on their motivations and the scale of their transgressions. People who believe that the regressive right came to Washington to implement a legitimate ideology that just happens to be different from ours, or who believe that they meant well but, ironically, the first MBA president couldn’t manage his way out of an empty wading pool, even with the entire federal bureaucracy to assist him – such people fundamentally misunderstand this administration and the movement which they spearhead.

These are sociopathic predators – nothing more, nothing less – and we are foolish, to the point of acting as enablers, if we fail to call this what it is. This administration is a kleptocracy which came to town to grab everything it could grab, operating behind a hideously deceitful veil of generated fear and false security provision. Boiled down to its essence, this is little more than a classic protection racket writ large. Whether history will reveal that they manufactured 9/11, or purposely stood by and allowed it to happen, or simply screwed up the job of actually providing real national security, they in any case then milked that tragedy for everything it was worth, constantly sowing fear in the heartland, and offering the false promise of protection to a frightened public.

For all these reasons, they are surely getting what they deserve. But, finally, my delight in watching the long-deserved implosion of this American tragicomedy is also partly based on attitude. Never in my life have I seen such high-handed arrogance, such disrespectful condescension for the loyal opposition, such destructive shredding of the very core institutions of Western political culture, such cavalier disregard for the lives of anyone, including Americans.

No, I’m not generally angry, bitter or vindictive. But you rub your noxious garbage in my face for six (if not twenty-five) years and arrogantly dismiss me as an unpatriotic retread for opposing your transparent predations, then, yeah, I’m going to rejoice in your getting what you deserve. And, right now, I’m rejoicing. Right now, schadenfreude is my middle name.

The fun has only just begun, but nevertheless the wheels are already coming off the wagon. The dominoes are already falling, and Henry Waxman has only just begun to issue subpoenas. The water’s rapidly rising, and is now splashing the dirty faces of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and even George W. Bush. We’re running out of metaphors to mix here, but fortunately not jail cells.

You wouldn’t want to face what they’re facing over the next twenty-one months under the best of circumstances. But you especially wouldn’t want to go there with your popularity in the toilet, your credibility so shot that even Republican senators are disbelieving you in public, a corrosive war that, at best, cannot possibly regain public support, and members of your own party seeing that their association with you, your arrogance, your screw-ups and now your scandals all roll up together into a giant freight train called the 2008 Express, rapidly steaming their direction.

Who will be left to throw Bush a rope when he’s finally going down? Trent Lott? No, they burned him, and something tells me he hasn’t forgotten. John Kerry? Maybe he’ll FedEx over some Band-Aids. Jacques Chirac? That’s Old Europe, people. Saddam Hussein? His rope is in use elsewhere.

So one by one they come down, and no one is even going after the big questions yet, like what happened before and during 9/11, what’s happened before, during and after Katrina, the failure of the Afghan war, and the marketing of the Iraq war. Whether we ever get to those or not, we can at least take pleasure in the just desserts already being served, and relief in the enfeebling of Bush and his destructive agenda.

Rumsfeld’s gone. Without question, forced retirement in failure to some corporate pastureland is far too good a punishment for him, even if he does carry the shame of being one of the few people on this planet moronic enough to get fired by George W. Bush. Nor is he necessarily out of the woods, either. If even the merest approximation of the truth ever makes it to a grand jury, Rummy will want to be investing in some very high-powered legal Dobermans. He’ll need them.

Scooter Libby is now gone, and while it’s true that his crimes greatly exceed his likely punishment, even assuming no pardon, it is something. And let us all laugh collectively at the absurd claims of the right, trying desperately to defend him. “Valerie Plame wasn’t actually undercover!” Well, except that she testified she was. And it was the CIA which had initiated the investigation in the first place, out of concern about having its spy networks exposed. “Libby had lots of important stuff on his plate and just didn’t remember!” Yeah, except that what he just didn’t remember was nine conversations with eight different people on the same subject. (Aren’t these the same people who vitiated Clinton for lying about consensual oral sex under oath? Did I miss something here? When did treason get to be the lesser offense?) No one on the jury believed Libby’s lies for even a second. Indeed, they all felt sorry for what was transparently a case of Libby taking a bullet for his boss, Dick Cheney.

Now comes Wolfowitz and Gonzales. I doubt either can last very long, particularly the former, who has more constituents than just the thumb-sucker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and whose staff is in outright mutiny against the head pirate. It’s breaking my heart, in a schadenfreude kind of way, to see Wolfie hoisted on his own petard, and now flapping in the wind of shame for a third week running. Given his evident insularity of breathtaking proportions (talk about not being able to take a hint!), he probably doesn’t have the decency to be embarrassed for himself yet. And even when he’s unceremoniously tossed overboard, it won’t begin to atone for the destruction listed next to his name in the Big Book of Death. (With apologies to Nathan Hale, I regret that Wolfowitz has but one life to give for all the ones he’s taken.)

But it is a start. After what we’ve been through, it’s amazing and unfortunate how little it takes to provide a measure of satisfaction. Just the same, the visage of European governments and World Bank staff (not exactly paragons of liberalism, either of them) growing nauseous from the smell of rotting predator is always encouraging. And seeing the great anti-corruption crusader indicted for practicing the crassest form of nepotism is only icing on the cake.

Then there’s Alberto Gonzales, for whom the oft-employed term ‘consigliere’ was always far too generous. Sure, the guy makes things happen for his boss, but he’s far more the simple soldier than the clever counselor in Bushland. And since nobody in that sad country is actually principled enough to be a soldier for any cause other than lining their own pockets, we ought to just identify this guy for the sycophant that he is, pure and simple.

But he also happens to be the highest ranking law enforcement official in the land, and if that doesn’t send shivers up your spine you might want to cut back on whatever is your self-medicating substance of choice. Silly Al put on such a show before Congress last week that even Republican senators were eying the political egress, wondering how they could possibly get the stink of Bushism out of their clothes and hair (as if they weren’t one hundred and ten percent culpable themselves, back when Bush walked on water).

No less than seventy-one times, Gonzales’s memory evaded him as he tried to recall the firing of key members of his staff, in the biggest credibility meltdown since… well, since the Libby trial. Imagine a guy who really had a memory that bad arguing the government’s position before the Supreme Court. “I’m sorry, your honor, I don’t recall which side of this case I’m on here.” “I’m sorry, your honor, I haven’t been able to keep all those amendments straight since I lost the cheat sheet I used on my law school finals.”

Perhaps we would have gotten some different answers if the attorney general was subjected to a little of his own justice. Perhaps a few days at Guantánamo would have changed his tune. Maybe the rigors of a torture program he once claimed it was “quaint” and “obsolete” to oppose would stimulate his memory.

But, of course, his absurd testimony was all just dandy for the one guy besides Gonzales himself who could put an end to this embarrassment. Bush’s take was that “the attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer”. Bush concluded that Gonzales’s testimony had “increased my confidence in his ability to do the job”.

This last line in particular is just the most recent example of the utterly juvenile content of regressive politics, and the sheer contempt with which we in the body politic are held by these folks. As if Gonzales’s lies to Congress had anything whatsoever to do with Bush’s assessment of him. As if Bush was sitting there watching the television, hoping his attorney general would set the record straight, explain why all of this is not a scandal, and win back his job on the basis of his commitment to good governance. As if the president actually thinks Gonzales told the truth on Capitol Hill. As if that is what he wanted him to do. I don’t remember a looking glass, but surely there must have been one along the way somewhere.

On top of all the injuries of the Bush administration, these childish rhetorical turns only add insult in the sheer contempt they demonstrate for we owners of American democracy. Maybe for the thirty percent of Americans who still support this guy, it works. Maybe for the sheep who are so willfully naive that they let their pastors tell them what to believe politically, it’s okay. But for the rest of us with our very own brains, this is politics that wouldn’t be fit for a sixth grade civics class.

Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz, Gonzales, DeLay, Brown, Ney, Abramoff, Cunningham and more. Bush, Cheney and Rove are unquestionably next. Even if they are lucky enough to survive the next couple of years in office, they will be damaged goods to an extent we’ve never seen before, reviled and despised, first a joke and then too destructive to any longer be funny. The clock is now actually their only friend. If they had 41 months left to go, rather than 21, I have no doubt whatsoever there would be impeachments. As it is, we may be stuck with them for the duration.

Which is not necessarily such a bad thing. The longer these guys are around (within severe limits, of course), the more thorough a job they do in discrediting themselves and their regressive politics. Let the revelations drip out, one by one, corroding the foundations of their destructive project. Let them stew in the very acids they themselves have injected into American democracy. It is not enough just to destroy Bush, because there will always be more Bushes (starting with a real one – Jeb). It is Bushism itself – the entire regressive political project – which must be beaten into irrelevance, so that it never resurfaces to bring us this ruin again. And at the moment, no one – not the press and not the Democrats – is doing a better job of destroying regressivism than the regressives themselves.

I’m not an angry person, but if it sounds like I’m angry now, I am. I’m furious for the lies which have been told. I’m indignant about the manipulation of our best instincts as a society by the world’s most cynically destructive government this side of the 1930s. I’m outraged that probably a million people are now dead in order to satisfy the personal insecurities of one individual who is the most powerful amongst us, but at the same time also the weakest, the worst and the most emotionally bankrupt.

I’m irate that my country has become hated in the world, known now for its human rights violations, its arrogant disdain for the institutions of international cooperation, and its practice of cheap pretext-driven invasions of sovereign states of the sort that was already becoming morally inexcusable back in the nineteenth century. I’m enraged that my country is seen as the most hypocritical on Earth, calling for democracy abroad while undermining it even at home, ranting on and on about terrorism while protecting terrorists from justice, railing about weapons proliferation in other countries while building new classes of nuclear warheads and leading the process of weaponizing space, yet another frontier of our physical environment to be turned into a battlefield.

I’m ashamed that it was not already embarrassing enough that my country, five percent of the world’s population, produces twenty-five percent of its greenhouse gases, but that our government then also had to scuttle even the wimpy Kyoto attempt at remedying the problem, all the while lying to us about the disaster itself.

I’m incensed at the fiscal, environmental, governmental and moral mess that we are leaving to our children. We are saddling them with our debts instead of trying to advantage the next generation, like every generation prior has done, and this government’s policies are responsible for that. We are leaving them a planet which will be wracked by the effects of global warming, and this administration is responsible for that. We are bequeathing to them an America which is deeply divided and widely hated, and that is the legacy of the Bush government.

So, yeah, as a matter of fact, I’m pissed.

Three things happened on the same day this week. The first was that the stories of the two most visible faces of the Iraq war were exposed as complete, and completely intentional, lies, manufactured for the purpose of selling the war. Army Ranger Bryan O’Neal told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “I was ordered not to tell” the family of Pat Tillman the truth about how he died by friendly fire. Indeed, Tillman’s uniform was immediately burned and other evidence destroyed, so that a tale of his heroic death in battle with the enemy could be fabricated, complete with the awarding of a Silver Star.

Meanwhile, Private Jessica Lynch testified to the same panel that her heroic story was also manufactured, as were the lies about the abuses of the Iraqis holding her, people who in truth tried to help her and to return Lynch to her unit. “Tales of great heroism were being told. My parent’s home in Wirt County was under siege of the media all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting. It was not true.” To this day, Lynch says, “I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend“. Perhaps I can help here. Can you say “Old Shoe”? Does Robert DeNiro have to walk onto the set to get the American public to realize just how wholly fabricated everything about this war has been?

Everything, that is, but the death and destruction, which has been all too real. The second thing that happened that day was that nine more Americans were killed in Iraq, and twenty more seriously wounded. We don’t ever get to know how many Iraqis are consumed in Mr. Bush’s Mesopotamian conflagration (for the same reason we couldn’t be told the truth about Tillman and Lynch), but based on the best and most scientific research on this question, a reasonable estimate is that about 685 are killed every day. Not a bad day’s work for a contemporary Caligula, eh?

And the third thing that happened that day, while the administration’s lies were being exposed, and while those lies harvested their inevitable grinding, grim reapings yet again, is that the very same people who brought us this deceit and destruction continued their campaign to annihilate the remnants of American democracy through the use of yet further Orwellian rhetoric.

“What’s most troubling about Senator Reid’s comments yesterday is his defeatism”, said America’s vice-president. “It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage. Leaders should make decisions based on the security interests of our country, not on the interests of their political party.” The president added that the he was disappointed in Congressional Democrats for using the spending bill to make “a political statement”.

It would not be possible for Cheney’s assertions to be more polar opposite from the truth. It would not be possible for him to be more culpable of doing exactly what he accuses the Democrats of doing, for we know for a fact that much of the purpose of this fabricated war (or, at least, the quick and successful war they thought they were fabricating) was to make Bush and his GOP machine invincible in the context of domestic politics, so he could ram through predatory legislation like his raid on Social Security. And we know that the war has in fact been extremely damaging to the security interests of the United States. And we know that when Bush says that, because he will veto a bill it is therefore a “political statement”, he’s actually desperately trying to intimidate Congress into abdicating its voice on policy questions, to prevent them from forcing him to demonstrate before the public the very obstinance he seeks to hide.

All this in one day.

So, yeah, you’re damn right I’m angry. My question is, what in the world is wrong with anyone who isn’t?
And you’re damn right that I get a little thrill from seeing the slightest punishments meted out to the greatest of our criminals. Even if good news hadn’t been so entirely rare these last six years, it would be appropriate.

For these are not ordinary fools, and this is something that Americans haven’t really begun to appreciate yet. If these folks were mere bunglers with proper intentions, I could forgive them. If they were true patriots who simply believed fervently in a different ideology than mine while all their policy ideas turned out to be wrong, I could even forgive that.

But they are none of these things, and the measure of that is to be found precisely in the inversion of truth which is at the core of regressive politics as practiced by Bush, Rove and their fellow predatory kleptocrats. In the marketplace of ideas, lies don’t have to be told to sell policies. In the domain of good governance, memories don’t have to be conveniently erased in order to cover up incompetence and malfeasance.

And this, ultimately, is why I am so angry. These aren’t boobs who couldn’t shoot straight, though they are that as well. And they aren’t true believers of a stupidly destructive ideology suitable only for the most emotionally stunted amongst us, though they are that too. Instead, fundamentally, they are simply greedy marauders who have come to plunder America for all it’s worth.

If they were Russians, or Chinese, or Muslims, our response would be to hate such imperialist exploiters accordingly, and to seek their destruction expeditiously. But because they are Americans, and because they have ironically expropriated all the historic symbols of American patriotism, and because they have so massively and cynically exploited one of the greatest tragedies in American history, and, especially, because the magnitude of their crimes is too existentially debilitating for most Americans to permit themselves to comprehend – because of all these things, we merely revile them, rather than hating them and destroying their movement.

But that is our mistake, and it has already become a lethal one for so many innocent victims of the regressive machine. It’s time for this to stop, and it’s time for us to label this chapter in our history for what it is.

We have a word for Americans who sell out their country for their own profit.

They are traitors.

And we have a word for what these traitors do when they betray our country, our values and our Constitution to pursue their agenda of personal aggrandizement.

It’s called treason.

(David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles ( ), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, . “Dark of Heartness, Part I: A Journey Into the (Reputed) Soul of Conservatism” can be found here.)

Never mind Vietnam, the real model for the lost Iraq War is the Algerian War

Algeria, the Model
Fifty years ago, another Western power fought “Islamofascism”—then walked away.
By Scott McConnell/The American Conservative

When contemplating Iraq, Americans look into a murky crystal ball. History naturally presents itself as a tool to clarify the choices and possibilities that lie before us. But what history? Before the invasion, neoconservatives soaked the capital in the rhetoric of Winston Churchill and the “lessons” of the 1930s. Later, after Saddam was found to have no weapons of mass destruction, they sought to rebrand the Iraq War as a part of the long struggle against totalitarian “Islamofascism” and thus a successor to the Cold War. For many Americans, the natural comparison is the Vietnam War, which ended with evacuation choppers on the Saigon embassy’s roof and several more years of bloodshed in Indochina.

The French war in Algeria, never well known in the United Sates, has its own claims to stake. Before the Iraq War commenced, some Pentagon special operations officers attended a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 docudrama, “The Battle of Algiers.” More recently, reporters were told that George W. Bush was reading Alistair Horne’s exhaustive A Savage War of Peace —a book that, Horne stated in the preface to the recent paperback edition, was Ariel Sharon’s favorite bedtime reading. (Israeli dove Amos Elon remarked that Sharon must have completely misunderstood the work.)

What lessons might Americans draw from the Algerian war? They are not obvious. The brutal conflict, which gave rise to an extraordinary memoir literature in French, impinged on France’s national life far more than Iraq has yet touched America. But some common features are clear. The Algerian war was more or less part of our own historic era, influenced by international air travel and mass communications. A Western democracy was facing off against Arab Muslims; terrorism against civilians—first employed by the Arab guerrillas and later by the French far Right—was a central aspect of the war; and the use of torture to root out the terror networks produced a moral upheaval in France. Indeed, the war very nearly cost France its democracy.

In the end, it required the extraordinary political leadership of Charles de Gaulle, who turned against some of his most devoted supporters, to extricate France from the mess and move the country forward. Losing the war proved far more painful for the Algerians who had aligned themselves with France than for France itself. If one is looking for an example of a comparatively rich and technologically superior Christian country trying to dominate an Arab land against substantial local and international opposition, Algeria surely fits the template.

Still, different people will draw different conclusions about the conflict: The Weekly Standard ’s Irwin Steltzer reports (with great satisfaction) that the lesson George W. Bush has apparently imbibed from Alistair Hornes’s book is that France didn’t stay long enough!

Of course the parallel doesn’t fit perfectly. France was tied to Algeria through the presence of one million European settlers, who saw themselves as French, though they came from throughout the northern tier of the Mediterranean. Prosperous landowners, small industrialists, holders of lower middle-class city jobs, shopkeepers, (a few) manual laborers, the pied noirs were united by attachment to a privileged status French control over Algeria gave them. They had a powerful lobby in Paris, through which they exercised great influence on the appointed colonial government. A local legislature—originally created as a liberalizing reform—was designed with separate wings, one for Europeans and one for Muslims, so that any Algerian democratic initiative would be stillborn. The pied noirs secured for themselves the colony’s best land and had access to the best jobs. France devoted more resources to schooling the children of the one million pied noirs than it did to those of nine million Muslims. The two communities had little social contact and virtually no intermarriage.

The accelerating disparity between the groups’ birthrates reached into every aspect of the colony’s social system. At the time of the French conquest in 1830, the Muslim population was less than two million; it was nine or ten million at the outbreak of the insurrection—and growing fast. Any program of real integration between the two communities—one that gave every Algerian an equal right to a European to vote for representatives in Paris—would have led to Muslims becoming a powerful voting bloc in France proper. This was a fact few partisans of French Algeria were willing to face.

In May 1945, the pied-noir conceit that Algerian Muslims were content with second-class status was contradicted by a violent Muslim riot: a V-E march in the town of Sétif took on nationalist overtones, the police fired shots, and the Muslim crowd turned on the Europeans. The unrest spread quickly to neighboring towns: 103 Frenchmen were killed, often brutally. In punitive retaliation, the French used dive bombers, naval shelling, and Senegalese troops to destroy several villages, producing a Muslim death toll in the thousands. The Sétif riot and its aftermath passed almost unnoticed in France but set a pattern that would repeated as the rebellion gathered steam: the Muslims would riot or stage an attack, and the French would answer with massive and relatively indiscriminate reprisals. At the end of each round, nationalist sentiment would grow.

Months after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Algerian rebels—the FLN—then numbering fewer than a thousand, launched their first organized attacks, setting off bombs, striking isolated barracks. The ringleaders were young men of modest education, with no real ideological program beyond getting the French out. But they succeeded in igniting a war and capturing the imagination of Algeria’s youth, who in the tens of thousands proved willing to kill, suffer, and die for Algerian independence.

France responded as a sophisticated liberal Western power might be expected to. The Fourth Republic’s leaders were humanist, temperate democratic socialists, convinced that France’s ideals of liberty, combined with increases in economic and technological aid, could surmount the acknowledged evils of colonialism and bind Algeria to France. They sent Jacques Soustelle, an ethnographer first prominent as a left-wing intellectual, later a key organizer of the Resistance and an associate of de Gaulle, to govern the colony. Soustelle was determined to make France’s rule enlightened and not reactionary, to break the social and economic monopolies of the pied noirs , to make “Algérie Française” something progressive France could be proud of.

Meanwhile, the military set about to clean up the guerrillas in the countryside, and France began to pour in troops. Within a year, most of the initial FLN leadership was killed or captured. But still the rebellion managed to survive. In 1955, a handful of guerrillas incited the Muslims of Philippeville to set upon the town’s European majority with knives and axes. In an orgy of violence, the Muslims killed women and children, slitting throats, disemboweling pregnant women. The death toll was 123, including 53 Muslim “collaborators.” The French responded in kind, but more widely. The pied noirs went on a countrywide rampage, shooting Muslims in the street. American diplomats estimated the death toll of the French retaliation at 20,000.

Philippeville brought a practical end to “integration” as a concept, though it lingered on in French rhetoric. The massacre also brought a quick end to Soustelle’s liberalism; at the funeral of one slain Frenchmen, he spoke of revenge and of the “totalitarian fanaticism” of the rebels. He would end his career as a backer of the terrorist far Right trying to hold on to French Algeria at all costs.

Military means could never definitively smother the rebellion, even after France stationed half a million troops in the colony. As a character in Jean Laterguy’s war novel The Centurions put it, the guerillas were “like the algae which always comes back in aquariums.” Their chief targets were the Muslims who co-operated with the French and the most liberal representatives of the French effort, teachers and engineers. Killing was not enough. The guerrillas preferred mutilation, severing the noses, lips, and sexual organs of their victims. The purpose was to make the middle ground untenable. “France is at home here,” Soustelle had announced to the Algerian Assembly when he arrived at his post. Following Philippeville, this claim sounded ridiculous.

After one battle in which a platoon of French reservists was ambushed and wiped out, the rhetoric escalated as France sought more grandiose justification for a conflict it couldn’t face losing. French Resident Minister Robert Lacoste described the war in Algeria as “but one aspect of a gigantic global struggle, where a number of Muslim countries, before collapsing into anarchy, are trying through Hitlerian strategies to install an invasive dictatorship. … The war we are waging … is that of the Western world, of civilization, against anarchy, democracy against dictatorship.” By the third year of the war, language like this was commonplace among diplomats and intellectual partisans of Algérie Française, who increasingly depicted the conflict as “terror” against “liberty.” To justify the sacrifices of the war, much of the French political class essentially talked itself into believing that defeating the rebels in Algeria was a matter of national life and death, which of course made a negotiated withdrawal that much more difficult to contemplate.

The war reached the city of Algiers in the spring of 1956. The FLN recognized that killing French civilians in the capital was worth more, propaganda wise, than killing soldiers in the field. The memorable scenes in Pontecorvo’s docudrama tell the story well enough: attractive young Muslim women getting dressed up in Western clothes, flirting with the French soldiers, and placing bombs in the social hangouts of the gilded youth of Algérie Française. After a few months, the city yearned for martial law. Gen. Jacques Massu and a division of paratroopers were put in charge. The paras began torturing. Contrary to liberal conventional wisdom, the torture did its job, and the secret organizations of bomb makers and placers began to give up their secrets. Electrodes to the genitals—“ la machine qui fait parler ”—was the most effective method.

The paras won the Battle of Algiers. By the fall of 1957, the city was free of violence and would remain so for four years. And the legend of the paras in their colorful regimental berets grew: many Frenchmen would come to see them as their country’s most legitimate political force.

But elite metropolitan France—or at least its liberal intellectuals—was not willing to accept torture done in its name. Repugnance at the paras’ methods waxed during 1957, inciting an uproar in the Parisian journals. Then it waned, the mood of indignation proving impossible to sustain. By 1960, an American writer in Paris noted that among the intelligentsia, torture had become a bore—perhaps the worst fate a moral cause could suffer. Nevertheless, the debate lingered. France officially disavowed the methods that seemed necessary to defeat the guerrillas, and mainstream French political opinion began to shift toward finding the costs of staying in Algeria heavier than defeat.

Much as France sought to depict the battle as a decisive conflict between “Western civilization” and “Islamic fanaticism,” few elsewhere in the West shared the view. The Eisenhower administration remained publicly understanding toward its ally. Forging NATO and a strong Western Europe were central to its diplomacy. But when the war swelled France’s budget deficit, forcing it to seek emergency aid from Washington, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles hinted that withdrawing from Algeria would help matters. The young Sen. John F. Kennedy called openly for Algerian independence in 1957, and the chic French weekly L’Express put him on the cover. Americans of both parties feared that if the war dragged on, Communist infiltration of the North African nationalist and independence movements would become inevitable.

It was in this context that the Fourth Republic stumbled. In February 1958, a French air strike along the Tunisian frontier killed scores of civilians, and British and American diplomats offered their “good offices” to calm matters. This was widely seen as a prelude to dreaded American interference, and the army and the colons sniffed a “sellout.” A mob in Algiers, eventually backed by several key generals, seized the government buildings and put the city under the rule of a Committee of Public Safety. Rumors flew around Paris that the army would take power there too; it was not clear that in a crunch any regiments would defend the Fourth Republic against a military coup.

Charles de Gaulle was well informed of these plots through his own network—perhaps encouraging them while holding himself aloof as an arbiter between the elected government and a rebellious military. In May 1958, he was asked to form a government by Fourth Republic politicians who knew they might otherwise be swept away by a few regiments of angry paratroopers.

He was 67, too old for the job by his own reckoning. Six feet, five inches tall, his regal style was evident in both spoken and written word. His call to national resistance after the 1940 armistice had salvaged France’s honor in World War II—he had won a place for France among the war’s victors by the force of his own personality more than by France’s military contribution to the victory—and his presence in the first postwar liberation government was a critical brake on the ambitions of France’s largest organized political force, the Communists. He resigned in 1946, perhaps expecting to be summoned back. By the 1950s, his mystique still lingered, and he maintained a powerful network of devoted followers among the French political class. The first volumes of his memoirs were huge bestsellers; even without his remarkable second act, de Gaulle would have been one of the political giants of the 20th century.

But the key aspect of de Gaulle’s return as the first president of the Fifth Republic—about which most of the country was unaware—was that he was prepared from the outset to flout the wishes of the very generals and colonels who had eased his return to power. From 1946 onward, one can see a clear line in de Gaulle’s thinking: the era of colonies was finished. It could end sooner or later, gracefully or abruptly. France could retain cultural and economic ties to its ex-colonies or not. But the end of colonial rule was inevitable. And yet de Gaulle allowed many Gaullists who were fierce partisans of Algérie Française to interpret his Delphic utterings as they wished.

Having ascended to power in the slipstream of a pied-noir riot, within weeks of his investiture in Paris, he visited Algeria. Standing on an Algiers balcony with his commanding general Salan and the hawkish Soustelle, he addressed a crowd very much like the one that set the coup in motion weeks before. Introduced amid oceanic cries “long live Algérie Française,” he replied, famously, “ Je vous ai compris ”—“I have understood you.” He would later write that those words, “seemingly spontaneous but in reality carefully calculated” would fire the crowd without committing him to any further action. In the same speech, he spoke of “ten million French citizens of Algeria” who would decide their own destiny. Already he was using a formulation too liberal in its implications for any French politician in power to have uttered before. Then came a nearly heretical reference to the courage of the FLN guerillas. Their struggle, he said, “I personally recognize is courageous … however cruel and fratricidal.” Before the cheering stopped, some in the crowd must have wondered what exactly they were cheering for.

During his first year, de Gaulle set his generals to winning the war. France had by then completed the Morice Line, a complex of electrified fence and minefields that cut off the rebels from their sanctuaries in Tunisia and Morocco. Gen. Maurice Challe, the new commander of the French forces, developed tactics to keep the guerrillas on the run, and France had learned to induce more Algerians to fight alongside its own forces, the so-called harkis. By every statistical measure—insurgents killed, weapons captured, harkis recruited—the war was being won. All that was remained was for the guerrillas to seek surrender terms.

The army was not only winning, it was highly conscious that its honor was at stake. Soustelle explained it best, in a book published after he had broken with de Gaulle: the French army had made an oath to the Algerians and was bound by it. Every Algerian notable had asked the commanding officer of every village post “Are you leaving or staying?” If the notables refused to help the rebels, would the army protect them from reprisals? The army had always answered, “France remains and will remain,” Soustelle wrote. He concluded, “So don’t let anyone say that in committing themselves the officers committed only themselves. It was the whole army that made that oath, an oath that no one had the right or power to untie.” This powerfully emotive argument was impossible for many French officers to ignore and explains how perilous de Gaulle’s process of disentanglement would prove to be.

He began the task the following year. His cabinet was roughly evenly divided. His prime minister, longtime Gaullist Michel Debré, was an Algérie Française hawk. Even his closest ministers could only guess at de Gaulle’s own thinking. In September 1959, he spoke of Algerian “self-determination”—a process whereby the Algerian people would choose, through universal suffrage ballot, between independence, which he depicted as “cruel and impoverished,” a formal linking to France, or some less binding form of association. The FLN recognized that with these words, de Gaulle had acknowledged the legitimacy of their aim.

From that point forward, de Gaulle’s main adversary was the French Right. General Massu, the hero of the Battle of Algiers, denounced de Gaulle as a “man of the Left” in January 1960, and in the next two years de Gaulle faced down two coup attempts instigated by pied noirs allied with high-ranking dissident officers. He could not have squelched both without taking to the airwaves, appealing in a visceral and heartfelt language to the French people on television and to the army’s enlisted men, who heard him on transistor radios. Their loyalty, he intoned, was to France, not to their commanders. Both coups were close-run things; both could have easily succeeded, giving France a Franco-style military dictatorship and a slow bleed in Algeria that might have endured for a decade or more.

De Gaulle fashioned a referendum to legitimize the path of negotiations he had embarked upon, and by 1961, the French people overwhelmingly backed “the bill concerning self-determination.” He remained utterly, coldly realist: he did not want the Algerians to become part of France any more than the FLN wanted to. (In 1959, he privately remarked that under the full integration with France envisioned by some partisans of Algérie Française, his native village of Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises would be turned into Colombey-Les-Deux-Mosquées.)

Rhetorically zigging and zagging, conscious always that he needed to maintain a certain baseline of military support to survive in power, de Gaulle moved toward negotiations with the FLN. After the collapse of the second coup attempt in 1961, the army and settler diehards of French Algeria formed their own terrorist organization, the Organisation Armée Secrète , and set out to assassinate de Gaulle while fomenting as much chaos as possible within Algeria to render the colony ungovernable. To what end? The best they could imagine was that some sort of apartheid solution could be created in Algeria. Some styled themselves a sort of pied-noir Hagganah. The broader strategy was never clear. But such was the rage against de Gaulle, and the number of officers who felt betrayed by him, that the OAS could carry out actions in both France and Algeria for over a year. They barely missed de Gaulle several times, and their terrorist “successes” in Algeria so poisoned the atmosphere that no settlers could remain there after independence. They brought terror to France as well. Jean Paul Sartre survived when a bomb meant for his apartment was placed on the wrong floor. André Malraux, the novelist who was de Gaulle’s culture minister, was a target as well, but a plastique intended for him maimed a four-year-old girl instead. By the end, OAS activities only increased the majority of Frenchmen who just wanted to be done with Algeria.

This Algeria fatigue was a sentiment de Gaulle nurtured, coaxing it along with his rhetoric. Asked at a press conference in 1961 whether the withdrawal of France from Algeria would open the colony to exploitation by the Soviet Union and the United States, he replied, with lofty formality, “I hope they both enjoy themselves there.” Or again, at a 1961 press conference, “Algeria costs us, it’s the least one can say, dearer than she brings in. … In sum, decolonization is in our interest, and consequently, our policy.”

At the final cabinet meeting, signing off on a negotiated settlement that essentially met all of the FLN demands (including the ceding of the disputed oil and gas rich Sahara), André Malraux declared that the end of the war marked a sort of liberation of France. Debré, overcome with emotion and still a fierce partisan of Algérie Française concurred, “It’s a victory over ourselves.” De Gaulle concluded, “It was vital to free France from a situation that had brought her so much misfortune.” No one in authority had any illusions that the agreements would be airtight in their application or that the new Algeria would be any better than a revolutionary totalitarian regime.

Freed of its colony, France quickly began to modernize its own economy (which grew at an amazing 6.8 percent in 1962 after the armistice). Algeria remained full of French teachers, doctors, and technicians. The French constructed a flattering narrative for themselves: they had “given” Algeria its independence because they wanted to, thus providing for the world a model for decolonization and modernization.

To the surprise of few, a darkness descended on Algeria. The first victims were the harkis, those who had served in the French army. Perhaps as many 100,000 were slaughtered, often with great sadism, being made to swallow their French medals before execution. Then the revolution turned on itself: Ben Bella, the country’s first president, spent most of the 1960s in an Algerian prison, as he had spent much of the 1950s in a French one. But France was done with it.

So how could the Algerian war not speak to us? Its example has long resonated in Israel, and many even hoped that Sharon—a successful military man of the Right—could do what no liberal Israeli leader could accomplish and withdraw Israel from the West Bank.

But now its lessons are dear to America as well as we search the horizon for a leader who can explain to the country—especially to the military and to the Republican Party—that its destiny doesn’t lie in the long-term occupation of Arab lands. The rhetoric that justifies the Iraq War as part of colossal battle against “Islamofascism” could be lifted almost directly from the French colonial intellectual slogans of the 1950s—and is no less self-deluding. To leave Vietnam, America needed a man of the Right, Richard Nixon. Today, when we need our own de Gaulle to achieve a “victory over ourselves,” we don’t even have a Nixon.

Bookplanet: Clive James's book of essays on the 20th century's most influential intellectuals

Cafe Society

When I was younger and more pretentious, I used to toy with the idea of founding something called the Boethian League. Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher who was put to death by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great after spending his life trying to preserve classical learning, was, to my imagination, the Last Man of Antiquity, and I used to picture him gazing out, as if on the edge of a dark sea, over the abyss of barbarism that followed in his wake. We Boethians would be the Last People of Western Culture, leagued together for the purpose of leaving some record of what that culture had been for the remote posterity that might someday rediscover it, as the Renaissance had rediscovered classical civilization eight centuries after Boethius. Our collective output would be called Letters to the Fourth Millennium.

What I didn't realize at the time was that a one-man Boethian League was already in operation, and that his name was Clive James. Cultural Amnesia , forty years in the making and the summa of James's unparalleled career as a cultural critic, may not be a letter to the fourth millennium, but it is explicitly one to the twenty-first century, from and about the twentieth and prompted by the suspicion that a new age of barbarism is indeed descending. At the same time, this vast work is also an epic of the mind that produced it, an implicit record of its author's remarkable life and an argument for the intertwined values of humanism, liberal democracy, literary clarity and moral courage.

The catalogue has been a convention of Western epic ever since Homer sang of the thousand ships that sailed for Troy, and James ends his introduction with a catalogue of the cities in whose cafes he has sat over the course of his long career as a journalist and television presenter--not to mention novelist, poet, lyricist, essayist, memoirist, travel writer and book and television critic--working his way through tall stacks of books. The list begins with Sydney, his birthplace, wends its way across forty cities on six continents and ends up back in Sydney--a symbolic circumnavigation of the geographic and literary worlds. The books were in French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Latin, as well as English, languages that James mostly taught himself, and Cultural Amnesia is a series of meditations on the writers and other figures, more than a hundred of them, who have meant the most to him for reasons good or ill.

The book, then, is itself a kind of catalogue, alphabetically arranged--an abridged encyclopedia of twentieth-century art, thought and politics: Marcel Proust and Jean Prévost, Aleksandr Zinoviev and Alexandra Kollontai, Thomas Mann and Josef Goebbels, G.K. Chesterton and Margaret Thatcher. The list is remarkable for its range: composers like Erik Satie and Duke Ellington, performers like W.C. Fields and Dick Cavett (James disdains the distinction between high and low art), heroic victims like Sophie Scholl and Heda Margolis Kovaly, discoveries like Paul Muratov, whom James calls "the most learned, original and stylistically gifted Russian art historian of his time" but whose work is now almost completely forgotten.

The Muratov essay typifies the book in a number of ways. There is the magisterial judgment I just quoted, which bespeaks not only breathtaking erudition but also supreme self-confidence. Elsewhere we're told that the Viennese wits Alfred Polgar and Egon Friedell wrote "the most successful full-length cabaret script of the years between the wars," that Enrique Santos Discépolo was the most gifted and prolific tango lyricist in Buenos Aires and, with a rare qualification, that Abba Eban's Personal Witness is "perhaps the most remarkably sustained work of intricate diplomatic exposition ever published." Then there is James's bibliophilia (or bibliomania). He tells us that he's assembled his collection of Muratov's work by ransacking bookstores worldwide, and throughout the book he lingers to describe the color or texture of particularly handsome editions. Rilke's are apparently especially beautiful, with the result that James's shelf of the poet's books ("let alone of books about him") now measures some five feet and counting. Where does he find the space?

Never mind the space--where does he find the time? Not by cutting corners: "At one stage I read all the way through [Sainte-Beuve's] collected Causeries de lundi columns in a bunch of disintegrating paperbacks I bought from a bouquiniste on the Left Bank.... (It was one of the ways I learned French)." Either by reading fast or not sleeping: On the same weekend he read Karl Tschuppik's book on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a Bohemian state library, "I worked through the two imposing volumes of Metternich's Denkwürdigkeiten ." James pays his audience the high compliment of assuming it shares his energy and appetite. His imagined reader is a young intellectual making his or her start in culture the way the author himself did half a century ago, and James offers a steady stream of advice on how to go about the business of self-education: must-reads and how-tos, anecdotes and exemplars. One of his highest terms of praise is "he figured it out for himself."

But James's vision of the life of the mind only begins with the individual. His introduction explains how he used to struggle with the seeming paradox that culture doesn't necessarily lead to humanism--witness Leni Riefenstahl or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both of whom made common cause with totalitarian regimes. Then it dawned on him: "Humanism wasn't in the separate activities" that comprise culture, "humanism was the connection between them," "all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding." Humanism is the embrace of human creativity in all its variety. From this principle follows a complete aesthetics, politics and sociology of humanistic endeavor, though James would reject such lifeless and systematizing terms for the philosophy he elaborates, unsystematically and in full-blooded contact with the particulars of dozens of actual lives, across the length of the book.

The sociology comes first. Before he launches his symphony of voices with Anna Akhmatova, James gives us an "overture" on the cafe culture of prewar Vienna. It is the place where his imagination seems most at home, precisely because it was a time when the life of the mind was lived collectively and interconnectedly, by an astonishing array of wits and polymaths and artists and journalists (like Friedell and Polgar and Peter Altenberg and Stefan Zweig, who fittingly bookends the alphabetical procession). The cafes were their clubhouse, their debating society, their stage, sometimes even their mailing address. They were there, for the most part, because they were Jews, and as Jews they were excluded from the universities. The situation was humiliating for many, but the result, James says, was that "whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies compiling abstruse doctoral theses."

By a lucky chance, I started reading Cultural Amnesia on my way down to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of literary academics. Nothing in a long time has focused my discontent with academic life more pointedly than James's assertion that "Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus." In James's cosmology, the university is the infernal (and infertile) counterpart to the paradise of the cafe. Humanism means interconnection, and the cafe gives that interconnection social form. Academia necessitates specialization and incessantly discourages intellectual breadth (now more than ever, no matter how much lip service is paid to "interdisciplinarity"). The academic conference, where small groups of identically specialized professionals meet to debate narrow questions of interpretation and doctrine, is the cafe's demonic double.

But James's evocation of Viennese cafe society is elegiac, and not just because that society was destroyed by Hitler. James, too, has been a denizen of cafes, but he has haunted them alone. Friedell and Polgar and Altenberg were sitting on the table, not around it. Though James's life has been richly social, as he hints from time to time, still, "most of [my] listening was done by reading." For a host of reasons--the expansion of universities, of suburbs and of telecommunications, to name three--the kind of face-to-face intellectual-artistic life that Vienna exemplified, and that flourished in other twentieth-century cities, simply no longer exists. James's answer to this bereavement is the book itself. Here is the cafe he has created in his mind, a convocation of voices that respond to one another across the barriers of language, outlook, expressive form and, most of all, time.

If, for James, the cafe is humanism's ideal social context, its necessary political one is liberal democracy. The civilized life that humanism seeks to embrace in its totality is by its nature "provokingly multifarious" and "bewilderingly complex." Its preconditions, James believes, are pluralism, tolerance and freedom, the values that liberal democracy enshrines. All else, he implies, is totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left. For James, totalitarianism's essential intellectual structure is ideology (which, when it travels in the academy, goes by the name of "theory"): the belief that you possess an idea that explains everything. With such a key in hand, you can stop learning, stop doubting yourself, stop listening to other people--all the activities that humanism most requires. If your ideology is salvationist (and which of them isn't?), you will even feel justified in shutting those other people up--if necessary, by killing them.

The twentieth century's two great totalitarian ideologies were Nazism and Communism, and James devotes a large number of his essays to figures involved with one or the other--as perpetrators, apologists, resisters or victims. If James's cultural imagination is rooted in Vienna, his political imagination is rooted in the decades when Hitler and Stalin forced European intellectuals into the direst of moral choices. The cumulative message of these entries is that history has a way of waking up and finding you out. And so the reason to read history, James quotes Zweig as saying, is "to see how other men had acted" when tested by events, and to measure oneself beside them. Faced with Hitler or Stalin, some, like the saintly Sophie Scholl, executed at the age of 21 for refusing to renounce her nonviolent resistance to the Nazi regime, martyred themselves in the cause of righteousness; some, like Nadezhda Mandelstam, survived to bear witness; some, like Ernst Robert Curtius, the great romance philologist, withdrew from public life; and some, like Jean Cocteau, openly collaborated.

And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is the book's antihero, who "looms in the a genius with the evil eye." For James, Sartre's response to both Nazism and Stalinism was just about the worst an intellectual can do. After largely acquiescing in the occupation, Sartre retroactively co-opted the Resistance by placing himself at the head of the "post-Liberation witch-hunt" that "called down vengeance on people whose behavior had not really been all that much more reprehensible than his own." After the war, he became a paragon of the ideologically committed leftist intellectual, James's bête noire, and it is a major project of Cultural Amnesia to impugn the credibility, intellectual as well as moral, of him and everyone like him. James's own political heroes are liberal intellectuals like Sartre's great nemesis, Raymond Aron, who exposed Communism and defended the sanity, strength and value of liberal society.

But Sartre's sins were stylistic as well as political, and they bring us to James's humanist aesthetics and its connection to his humanist politics. For James, Sartre's abstruse, impacted philosophical style was designed to conceal more than just the vacuity of his thought: "If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior--and clearly he did--he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing." And it's not just Sartre; it's also Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida and the rest of the Obscurantist International. Clarity is the enemy of self-deception, and of the larger deception known as ideology. Style is not an ornament of thought but its very substance, and thinking is an ethical act. Humanism, which seeks a complex integration of disparate experience, requires the most difficult kind of style: a simple one. "Great writing," James tells us, "is not just writing," because to become great it must respond to, and thus forces us into an awareness of, the whole of reality. The crabbed, pedantic cant typically favored by academics responds to only a tiny crumb of reality; the abstract bombast of ideologues responds to no reality whatsoever.

Great writing requires loftiness of soul. Good writing merely requires a reader who has the option of turning the page. The Viennese writers who were denied the chance to write dissertations for an audience of one "were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain." They wrote essays, reviews, sketches and squibs; they also wrote in longer and more conventionally prestigious forms, but always in styles that had been honed by the whetstone of conversation. Cultural Amnesia is an extended defense of literary journalism as occupying not only an honorable place within the hierarchy of cultural discourse but the supreme one. For journalism demands both simplicity and compression, and compression makes language glow. James's stylistic models are writers like Altenberg, who could "pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs." His highest hero, "the voice behind the [book's] voices" (and one of several exceptions to his rule of writing only about twentieth-century figures), is Tacitus. It was Tacitus who wrote the sentence out of which the entire volume grew: "They make a desert and they call it peace." James heard the line quoted as a young man and "saw straight away that a written sentence could sound like a spoken one, but have much more in it."

Indeed, Cultural Amnesia is less a collection of great figures than of great sentences. Each entry begins with a thumbnail sketch of the individual in question but mainly consists of James's commentary on one or more quotations drawn from his or her writing. Sometimes the commentary concerns its author, sometimes not. No matter what it concerns--pornography, movie dialogue, the politics of literary exile, the problem of high seriousness in modern art--it is invariably absorbing. Reading the book feels like having a conversation with the most interesting person in the world: You're not saying much, but you just want to keep listening anyway. The reason James is such a good talker, though, is that he's such a good listener. He means it literally when he says that the book took forty years to write, because its quotations are the harvest of the notebooks he has kept for all that time, and the notebooks are the harvest of his insatiable reading.

Ever since running into Tacitus, James has been a connoisseur of aphorisms and aphorists--of writing that is both conversational and compressed and of the kinds of minds that produce it. It's no coincidence that he is also a connoisseur of music. "Echoes of a predecessor's rhythm, pace and melody are rarely accidental": That sentence contains four terms that sound like they refer to music, but it's about writing. Rhythm is central to James's understanding of style, and so are "echoes"--that is, memory. He is himself an incandescent and virtually habitual aphorist--I wanted to follow his advice and copy down his best lines into a notebook of my own, but I would have had to transcribe the entire book--and so his love of the beautifully turned phrase goes far deeper than mere appreciation. "Few writers have ever had a more identifiable tone of voice than Egon Friedell," he writes, "but the tone was a synthesis of all the voices he had ever heard, and so is ours." The most individual style in the world is the product of a collective effort. In gathering the voices that inhabit his own, the echoes he hears in his head, James has indeed produced an epic on the growth of his mind, a song of himself.

Still, for all his talent for aphoristic utterance and sensitivity to other people's, James has some curious ideas about style. For one thing, he thinks the closer good writers get to the truth, the more they tend to sound the same, as if wit operated by a single set of principles that all its practitioners follow. For another, he believes there is a single ideal English prose style, and that it was achieved by one or two writers in the years between the wars. The two positions are clearly related. If you think there's a single template for good writing, you will necessarily think that some writers come closer to approximating it than others, and you may also think that a few writers actually achieve it. For James, the writer who achieves it, at least in English, is Evelyn Waugh: "Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English; he stands at the height of English prose; its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him." Despite the characteristic absoluteness of the judgment, however, top honors are apparently shared by another writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, practitioner of what James calls "the ideal natural, neutral style."

There are several problems here. For one thing, languages don't develop, much less steadily; they only change. Sir Thomas Browne wrote one kind of English prose in the seventeenth century, Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth, John Ruskin in the nineteenth, Joan Didion in the twentieth. Each may represent a kind of local summit, but none is higher than another, only more or less pleasing to particular ears, which are always formed by the language of their time. It is probably no accident that Waugh and Fitzgerald flourished in the years just before James was born. For another thing, a neutral style isn't necessarily better than a highly accented one. I love Waugh's elegance, and I also love the virtuosic kvetching of Portnoy's Complaint , and I don't see why I should have to choose between them. Art isn't American Idol ; there doesn't have to be a winner. For a third, there is no such thing as a neutral style, only ones that try to sound that way. Style is the thumbprint of personality, and Waugh and Fitzgerald were two writers whose personalities were shaped by an outsider's need to blend into--to appear neutral to--an intensely suspicious aristocracy. And the ideals of aristocratic behavior, of course, are naturalness and elegance. Finally, James himself doesn't believe any of this stuff about neutral styles half the time. As he says about Friedell and implies again and again in the book's many subtle stylistic appreciations, every good voice is an idiosyncratic one. There's no mistaking Wilde for Shaw, or Pascal for Rochefoucauld, or Martin Amis for Clive James.

There are also problems with James's political ideas. After a lifetime of fighting doctrinaire leftists, he's become a bit doctrinaire himself in his dismissal of everything that smacks of progressive thinking. There's little sense in the book that liberal democracies ever do anything wrong. He makes excuses for the Red Scare, soft-pedals colonialism and makes no distinction between political and economic freedom. He does say that the two components of "liberal democracy" must remain in balance, but he ignores the fact that capitalism, and capitalist governments, have often been inimical to both freedom and democracy, especially in the developing world. As for that world, James remarks that "most of the poverty on Earth is caused by the number of people being born who would ordinarily never have been conceived." Even if we amend "been conceived" to "survived," the statement is incredibly simplistic and ill-informed (not to mention creepily Malthusian). However wide James's erudition, it apparently doesn't extend to economics.

But there's a larger issue. For all his acuity about the moral dilemmas posed by totalitarian societies to intellectuals and others, James seems uninterested in the possibility that liberal democracies can pose such dilemmas, too, even if far less tragically or urgently. To say that we're better than Stalinist Russia sets a pretty low bar, and hardly settles the matter. Granted that Cultural Amnesia is intended to convey the experience of earlier generations to the latest one, I see no point in reminding us that history has a tendency to find you out without also pointing out, at least in passing, how it's doing so right now. Totalitarianism may be essentially finished, as James says, but history isn't, and one would think that he, of all people, knows that. Instead, astoundingly, he concludes the book by declaring precisely the reverse: "The young might do well to tie a handkerchief over the rear-view mirror and just get on with it. The world is turning into one big liberal democracy anyway." This is a statement in which Francis Fukuyama and Dr. Pangloss hold hands and jump off a cliff. It also sounds exactly like the kind of thing people were saying just before the start of that era of peace and justice known as the twentieth century.

These last-minute reversals are rather stunning, but they do little to diminish this overwhelmingly valuable book and indeed may be inseparable from the source of its many strengths. Does he contradict himself? Very well then, he contradicts himself. He is large, he contains multitudes.

Never mind Wolfowitz - the real scandal at the Word Bank is the goddam bank itself

The Real Scandal At The World Bank
The Bank is Killing Thousands of the Poorest People in The World
by Johann Hari/ The Independent/UK

While the world’s press has been fixated on the teeny-weeny scandal over whether the World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz helped to get his girlfriend a $300,000-a-year gig next door, they have been ignoring the rancid stench of a far bigger scandal wafting from Wolfie’s Washington offices.

This slo-mo scandal isn’t about apparent petty corruption in DC. It’s about how Wolfowitz’s World Bank is killing thousands of the poorest people in the world, and knowingly worsening our worst crisis - global warming - every day.

Let’s start with the victims. Meet Hawa Amadu, 70-something, living in the muddy slums of Accra, the capital of Ghana, and trying to raise her grandkids as best she can. Hawa has a problem - a massive problem - and the World Bank put it there. She can’t afford water or electricity any more. Why? The World Bank threatened to refuse to lend any more money to her government, which would effectively make it a leper to governmental donors and international business, unless it stopped subsidising the cost of these necessities. The subsidies stopped. The cost doubled. Now Hawa goes thirsty so her grandchildren can drink, and weeps: “Am I supposed to drink air?”

She is not alone. Half a world away, in Bolivia, Maxima Cari - a mother - is also thirsty. “The World Bank took away my right to clean water,” she explains. In 1997 the World Bank demanded the Bolivian government privatise the country’s water supply. So Maxima couldn’t afford it any more. Now she has to use dirty water from a well her villagers dug. This dirty water is making her children sick, and she is sullen. “I wash my children weekly,” Maxima says. “Sometimes there’s only enough water to wash their hands and faces, not their whole body … This is not a nice way to live.” The newly elected socialist government of Evo Morales is planning to take the water back - and he is, of course, condemned and threatened by the World Bank.

Meet some more victims. I have met hundreds, from Africa to Latin America to the Middle East. Muracin Claircin is a rice farmer in Haiti - only he can’t grow rice any more. In 1995, the World Bank demanded Haiti drop all restrictions on imports. The country was immediately flooded with rice from the US, which has been lavishly subsidised by the US government. The Haitian government barely exists and can’t offer rival subsidies anyway: the World Bank forbids it. So now Muracin is jobless and his family are starving.

Some 5,000 miles away, Charles Avaala in Ghana is watching his tomatoes rot. He used to grow them for a government-owned community tomato cannery that provided employment for his entire community. The World Bank ordered his government to close it down, and to open the country’s markets to international competition. Now he can’t compete with the subsidy-fattened tomatoes from Europe. He, too, is starving.

How would Hawa and Maxima and Muracin and Charles feel if you told them none of this is considered a scandal, but business as usual?

These victims are not merely an anecdote soup; they are an accurate summary of the World Bank’s effect on the poor. Don’t take my word for it. The World Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Group just found that barely one in ten of its borrowers experienced persistent growth between 1995 and 2005 - a much smaller proportion than those who stagnated or slid deeper into poverty. The bank’s own former chief economist, Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, says this approach “has condemned people to death… They don’t care if people live or die.”

Why? Why would a body that claims to help the poor actually thrash them? Because its mission to end poverty has always been mythical. As George Monbiot explains in his book The Age of Consent, the World Bank was created in the 1940s by US economist Henry Dexter White to be a further projection of US power. The bank’s head is invariably American, the bank is based in Washington, and the US has a permanent veto on policies. It does not promote a sensible mix of markets and state action - the real path to development. No: the World Bank pursues the interests of US corporations over the poor, every time.

The bank’s staff salve their consciences by pickling themselves in an ideology - neoliberalism - that says there is never a conflict between business rights and human rights. If it’s good for Shell, it must be good for poor people - right?

This ideology also backfires on us in the rich world. In 2000, the World Bank was finally forced to undertake a review of its energy policies. It did its best to rig it, putting the former energy minister of the corporation-licking Indonesian dictator General Suharto in charge. Emil Salim was even serving on the board of a coal company at the time he was appointed. But - to everyone’s astonishment - Salim concluded by opposing the carbon-pumping oil and gas projects that make up 94 per cent of all the bank’s energy projects. He said they should be stopped altogether by 2008.

The bank’s response? It ignored its own report and carried on warming. The business climate, it seems, trumps the actual climate. Feel the heat.

While the elites huff and puff about Wolfowitz’s alleged small corruption and ignore his organisation’s proven immense corruption, there is something we - ordinary citizens - can do. In the summer of 2001, at the global justice protests in Genoa, I met Dennis Brutus, a former inmate of Robben Island prison alongside Nelson Mandela. He had been repelled by the bank’s actions in South Africa, and started his protests against them by asking a very basic question: who owns the World Bank? It turns out we do. Ordinary people in the West - through their trade unions, churches, town councils, universities and private investments - own it. The bank raises nearly all its funds by issuing bonds on the private market. They are often held by socially minded institutions, the kind who signed up to Make Poverty History. So, Brutus realised, we have a simple power: to sell the bonds and bankrupt the World Bank. “We need to break the power of the World Bank over developing countries just as the disinvestment movement helped break the power of the apartheid regime in South Africa,” he explained.

The campaign to make World Bank bonds as untouchable as apartheid-era investments has already begun. The cities of San Francisco, Boulder, Oakland and Berkeley have sold theirs. Several US unions have also joined. Even this small ripple has caused anxiety within the bank about the threat to its “AAA” bond rating.

In the Genoa sun, as tear gas fired by the Italian police hissed in the background, Brutus told me: “I lived to see the death of political apartheid. Now I want to live to see the end of global financial apartheid.”

This is the fight we should join. Not some petty squabble over which Washington technocrat is morally pure enough to lead the forces of subsidy-slashing and starvation.


Jimmy Wales, the web's most interesting entrepreneur, is going after Google

The wisdom of one
Jimmy Wales... one of the most influential players in the new information economy.
By Nick Miller/

JIMMY Wales, the cofounder of the phenomenally successful online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has found himself the Dr Frankenstein to his own internet monster.

Wales, 40, is one of the most fascinating characters of the modern internet.

He's smart, philosophical, often deliberately contrary, with a penchant for red silk Mao jackets, and a colourful past.

Last year Wales tried to rewrite that past. His contribution to the dot-com boom of the late '90s included, a Yahoo-like search engine with a collection of adult photos called "Bomis Babes". A Wikipedia entry described it as "soft-core pornography", which Wales later edited to read "adult content".

As Mr Wikipedia, you'd have thought this would be only fair.

Droit de seigneur, and all that. But Wikipedia doesn't work this way.

The site is the first encyclopedia written by its readers, constantly edited and re-edited, as debates rage and history unfolds. This democracy of information doesn't take a dictatorial edict lightly.

And anyway, the original writers of the entry had a point. As The New Yorker magazine wrote, "Adult content (is) perhaps not the most precise way to describe lesbian strip-poker threesomes."

Argument ensued. Eventually Wales had to agree to a compromise phrase: "erotic photography".

"I still check out the entry from time to time and complain when I see something I don't like," he says, on the phone from Japan ahead of a visit to Melbourne on Friday. "(But) if you have a direct interest in an entry (and want to rewrite it), it raises a lot of difficult questions about conflict of interest, about bias. Also it's not very much fun to edit the entry about yourself - it's a little too close to home."

This story is a great example of the qualities that have made Wikipedia one of the biggest internet success stories, and set Wales on a path that now ranks him as one of the most influential players in the new information economy.

His plans now include a direct assault on that megalith of search, Google. If it sounds as if he has set his sights pretty high, it's because he always has.

Wales was born in 1966, according to his Wikipedia entry, the son of a grocery store manager in Huntsville Alabama, near NASA's Space & Rocket Centre.

"I wanted to be, maybe not an astronaut, but maybe a scientist, building rockets," he says. "It was an environment where we felt a real connection to the space program, and science, and all that excitement about going to the moon and the space shuttle."

He read voraciously and was into computers from a very young age. "I was definitely quite the geek in high school," he says. But at university he studied finance, and spent a few years as a futures and options trader in Chicago.

"I just thought it was fun, and an intellectual challenge," he says - plus it reportedly set him up for the rests of his life.

At the time the boom was on. "It really felt this was something really big coming, and I was itching to be a part of it somehow," he says. "I was quite the internet addict, I was online basically all the time. But even today I find the internet rather frustrating, when a web page won't load. I still sometimes joke that it's going to be really great once the internet doesn't suck."

When Google arrived it was a revelation. "Wow, it was like I could actually find things now," he says.

He wanted a big idea himself, one that would solve the frustrations of the online realm he loved.

Soon afterwards he had what he calls a flash of inspiration - the idea of a freely licensed, online encyclopedia, built by unpaid collaborators. "I remember being in such a hurry, because I had this feeling it was such an obvious idea, I'd better hurry up or someone else would do it first."

That first project was Nupedia.

It was written by experts, freely contributing their work and reviewing each other's entries - and it was not very successful.

"It wasn't much fun (for the contributors)," says Wales. "That big charitable goal, of a free encyclopedia for everyone on the planet, can keep you going through the dark moments but in the long run it has to be an enjoyable experience."

In 2001 Nupedia's editor, Larry Sanger, came up with the idea of Wikipedia, a side project where the Nupedia writers could kibitz, collaborate, debate and create.

This brought the fun that Nupedia lacked and soon Wikipedia dwarfed its parent. It now has 1,744,558 articles in English.

Wales could have made an absolute fortune from the idea, as it became clear it was, alongside Google, the best way of getting a useful answer out of the billion byways of the internet.

But Wales was already rich.

So he gave it away, in 2003, to the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.

He is just one of several trustees, and "chair emeritus" - though he kept his (unpaid) role as final arbiter of disputes in the encyclopedia.

"My role in the community is something like the monarch of the Commonwealth. Some technical powers exist but they shouldn't be used except as a safety valve in an extreme situation."

In a world where hot internet properties sell for billions, does he wake up in the middle of the night and bitterly regret this decision, to give away his most valuable possession?

"It was either the dumbest thing or the smartest thing I ever did," he says. "The dumbest thing for the obvious reasons, but the smartest thing because I don't think it could have had nearly as much impact as it has. One of the key things that inspired people to put a lot into it (was the charity aspect)."

Wales is full of fascinating contradictions, Alan Deutschman wrote recently in Fast Company magazine. Wales named his daughter after Ayn Rand, a "combative elitist who glorified the heroic, capitalistic individual and denigrated the envious, ignorant masses", but Wikipedia is the epitome of collectivism.

Despite his wealth he's a confessed cheapskate who lives in a modest single-story house in St Petersburg, Florida.

Philosophically, he backs away from trusting the "wisdom of the crowd", despite creating the wisest crowd on the planet.

"I always feel that a lot of the 'wisdom of crowds' rhetoric is overblown," he says. "Everything comes down to the individual mind, someone putting in some diligent effort, thinking, working, and writing something useful.

Most of the articles are written by one or two people, or small groups of people discussing something, hammering out a compromise. It isn't 10 million people adding one sentence each."

The key is that it creates a forum where the best person can contribute.

"Having all the world's information at your fingertips really does empower you," he says. "You can quickly confirm some halfforgotten fact and move on."

He tells the story of a college freshman, who went to his first class in linguistics and surprised the professor with deep, searching questions. He had learnt everything he knew through Wikipedia.

"It doesn't mean Wikipedia is a substitute for the university eduction, but it's pretty cool this knowledge was at their fingertips," Wales says.

The question is: can you trust that knowledge. The reliability of Wikipedia is, depending on your point of view, both its Achilles heel and its strength. One study in the journal Nature said its accuracy was similar to that of the Encyclopedia Britannica - at least in a particular area of science - though that study was later criticised as flawed (by Britannica).

Political and religious entries are hotly contested, and spoof entries have survived undetected for some time. Last month Wikipedia user "Essjay", who edited more than 20,000 Wikipedia articles and described himself as a tenured professor of religion at a private university, was revealed to be a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky.

Wales says the nature of Wikipedia is that it will keep getting better, in breadth, depth and reliability.

"I always invite people to pick 10 articles at random, and take a look at them two, three, five years ago," he says. "It's pretty clear the quality has improved dramatically over time.

"That hardly finishes the matter. IT and the hard sciences, some aspects of history, anything that the 'geek crowd' is into is going to be a strength. Beyond that, subtle points about intellectual thought in ancient China - it's not going to be so strong.

It follows the core interests of our contributors. As we've gotten bigger we have a more diverse set of contributors.

"The core community is passionate about quality and getting it right. If you want to read some good criticisms of Wikipedia, probably the best place to go is to the Wikipedia article called 'criticisms of Wikipedia'."

Wales is keenly aware that Wikipedia, by its very nature, is "always open to being wrong on something at any given moment in time".

His response is that Wikipedia should be better understood. "To discourage (students) from using it is unlikely, so instead we need to do some education about media competence, how to evaluate sources - that's a skill that needs to be taught more across the board, with respect to television, newspapers and magazines, helping students to critically evaluate sources of information."

Wales is now chasing profits with his new company Wikia, which wants to use Wikipedian principles to build a challenger to Google. "Wikia is building up the rest of the library. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia, and we are the rest of the library and the magazine rack," he says.

Wikia's 500,000 articles makes it bigger already than the French Wikipedia. At the end of this year the search project will be unveiled.

"This is what I'm really excited about," he says. "Good quality search, like the giant leap forward that was Google, is close to being something we can create as a commodity. If we could create a freely licensed search engine of similar quality it would change the landscape of the internet, take a lot of the power away from the search engines and put it back with the content producers, newspapers and so forth."

It's a giant-killing idea. But you wouldn't put it past Wales, whose eyes have always been fixed on the stars.