David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2011 (page 1 of 2)

Profiles in Type L: General Paul Van Riper

A few months back, in Battle Lines, I talked about the divide between the free-market technocrats and the conservative old boys in American society, dubbing them Type L and Type C respectively. To review:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic. “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic. “The powerful should have the power.”

(Remember, I don’t identify with either of them! They’re just all we have.)

I had no trouble coming up with big-name examples of Type C (see: nearly our entire political system and corporate overlords), but had a harder time thinking of big-name Type L’s who weren’t associated with technology or economics. Part of this is that these are probably the only relevant places in society where Type L’s can thrive without being utterly annihilated by cronyism. The space for someone like Arnheim in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities doesn’t really exist, and I’m not sure if it ever did. Musil had to contrive a situation for brilliant (but oh so wrong) thinkers to be in positions of political power, and while the voices of the time speak through his characters, I suspect his characters may be improvements on their models, no matter how much he damns them.

Perhaps some CIA wonks might qualify, along the lines of George Smiley, but somehow I doubt it.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley - Insert Star Wars Reference Here

But tonight I thought of someone in the military who fits the bill: Paul K. Van Riper.


Paul K. Van Riper

Van Riper first came to notice when he very publicly failed to give the military the results that they wanted in their Millennium Challenge 2002 (note corporate brand). The war game was supposed to prove the validity of Rumsfeld’s super new strategies of high-tech, low personnel forces, and Van Riper took on the “Red Force,” some unnamed Middle Eastern player.

Hellbent on showing Rumsfeld how stupid he was, Van Riper used all sorts of clever gambits to render the high-tech stuff useless. In exchange, the Army cheated, ignoring his orders, handicapping him and resurrecting US forces to ensure the US won against Red Force. Van Riper, already retired, went public:

Van Riper said this approach ran counter to his notion of how an experiment should function. “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out,” he said. [Type C never says this.]

Van Riper said the blame for rigging the exercise lay not with any one officer, but with the culture at Joint Forces Command. “It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s embedded in the institution.” [Who is he, David Simon?]

He was highly critical of the command’s concepts, such as “effects-based operations” and “rapid, decisive operations,” which he derided as little more than “slogans.” [Type C never ever says this.]

“There’s very little intellectual activity,” Van Riper said about Joint Forces Command. “What happens is a number of people are put into a room, given some sort of a slogan and told to write to the slogan. That’s not the way to generate new ideas.”

Van Riper’s single-mindedness can sometimes rub other experiment participants the wrong way, said a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with the Marine. “What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.

“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Van Riper is probably about ten miles to my right on all sorts of issues, but his very visible break with the US military and civilian leadership in this exercise and again shortly after the start of the Iraq war sets him aside from the military leadership as a type. So in a Frontline interview, while he praises Colin Powell even as he trashes McNamara and Rumsfeld, he also says anti-cronyistic things like this:

I see inside the United States Army the germs of a second intellectual renaissance that’s approaching these problems. And they’re not caught up in the sloganeering that most of the Joint community’s caught up in. They really are studying; they’re having conferences. The conferences aren’t love fests, where they put out some idea and try to get people to sign up to it. It’s a real debate, real argument, trying to synthesize some new knowledge out of it.

Is there anything in the current Defense Department that would lead you to believe those ideas will flourish?

I see nothing from the highest levels of the Pentagon that would lead to this. What I see is a support of the Joint Forces command by edict being told to be innovative. You cannot demand innovation. You can’t simply say to an organization, as Mr. Rumsfeld apparently did to the Army: “Be more innovative. You’re not innovative enough. Service Chief, you’re out of here.” That’s not the way to do it.

This is, of course, exactly what so many non-technical executives say to their R+D people, and this is exactly the response that the R+D people always have, right down to the ridicule of love fests. Type C’s have love fests because they are celebrating all being rich white guys; how can they not have love fests when they get together? They certainly would not let ideas get in the way. They say stuff like this:

Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”

Van Riper would not use the phrase “the key to military transformation,” and I bet he never had a nickname like “Buck.” (He’s clearly more Sterling Hayden than George C. Scott in the Buck/Rip(p)er dichotomy.) And I bet he hates William “Buck” Kernan. We have an apparently near-perfect recreation of that sort of love fest Type C in David Rasche’s Rumsfeld/Bolton character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:

These sorts do not like to lose wargames, ever. Reality must shift to accommodate them.

[This may be why I am more sympathetic to the analytic philosophy community than a lot of bloggers out there. The only thing worse than a room of people fighting over abstract issues and shutting each other down is a room of people all agreeing with the most powerful one there, be it Rumsfeld or Derrida. This is an oversimplification, obviously, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.]

Van Riper, who has been retired for many years, was last heard from in 2006 calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. What took him so long? Though I share some of Gary Brecher’s respect for his cleverness in U Sank My Carrier, my intention is not to praise Van Riper. I suspect he adheres to a form of realpolitik that I would find morally repugnant. I suspect he has his own sort of obsessive myopia indicated by tidbits like this: “General Van Riper would spend his chow break by issuing speeding tickets all across MCB Quantico.” I suspect I would find him rather scary. But if you are looking for the counterweight to the current ruling class of CEOs and politicians, people like Van Riper are probably the best you can do.

Note on Corporate and Academic Institutions

Ray wrote:

Cholly on Software : The Signifying Code Monkey

There are benefits — non-financial, obviously — to working for an institution of higher education. But in a 27-year career I remember only four people with whom I couldn’t establish some sort of working relationship, and I met three of them after leaving what’s oddly called “private industry.” Similarly, two of the three pieces I’ve regretted publishing were written within the context of a (mostly) academic website. Maybe it’s true that there’s something peculiarly toxic about this environment? Or maybe this particular pachyderm happens to find my own blend of tones and pheromones peculiarly noxious? For whatever reason, I’ve spent a painful number of turns playing the wrong side of Whac-a-Mole.

I responded:

Academia tolerates and even fosters antisocial behavior in various forms, while the private sector is much more strict in its codes of behavior hewing to some practical norm. Coders who work in academic nonprofits tend to be those who were “too weird” for industry, by their own account. Much of this may have to do with the ultimate bottom line of the holy dollar asserting itself far more incessantly in the private sector. (The exceptions were research-focused places like Bell Labs, which also attracted the types of pig-headed people you simply could not deal with. They have gone under precisely because their employees would rather spend their time perfecting an IETF RFC than writing server monitoring scripts in Python or, god forbid, Perl.) So given an insufferable, ambitious, and/or dogmatic person, that person will either have the rare good fortune to rise to a management position in the private sector that he (occasionally she, mostly he) will then use to attempt to realize his treasured, pure vision of paradise, and fail repeatedly while inflicting untold suffering on his peons; OR, that person will be thrown aside by the capitalist machinery and will seek refuge in locations where the almighty dollar holds less immediate sway. There, in academia or a like-minded non-profit, their high rhetoric and uncompromising passion will convince prestige-hungry administrators that here is a person with the vision to save the university from the capitalist chopping block, money and reasonableness be damned! Lather, rinse, repeat. See Albert O. Hirschmann’s The Passions and the Interests for what I genuinely believe is the dynamic at work.



House with Shingles - Egon Schiele (1915)

Many Meanings Can Have One Word: Sigurd Burckhardt

Under the headings pun, rhyme, metaphor, and meter I have in fact already been discussing an aspect of poetic language which, since Empson, no treatment of poetics can afford to ignore: ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity became all but synonymous with the essential quality of poetry; it meant complexity, associative and connotative richness, texture, and the possibility of irony. The ambiguous word proliferated like a vine, wove or revealed hidden strands between the most various and distinct spheres of our prosaically ordered world. By exploiting the ambiguity of words the poet could ironically undercut the surface meanings of his statements, could avail himself fully of the entire field of meanings which a word has and is. I want to shift the stress of Empson’s analysis a little. He made us aware that one word can–and in great poetry commonly does–have many meanings; I would rather insist on the converse, that many meanings can have one word. For the poet, the ambiguous word is the crux of the problem of creating a medium for him to work in. If meanings are primary and words only their signs, then ambiguous words are false; each meaning should have its word, as each sound should have its letter. But if the reverse is true and words are primary–if, that is, they are the corporeal entities the poet requires–then ambiguity is something quite different: it is the fracturing of a pristine unity by the analytic conceptualizations of prose. The poet must assume that where there is one word there must, in some sense, be unity of meaning, no matter what prose usage may have done to break it. The pun is the extreme form of this assumption, positing unity of meaning even for purely accidental homophones, such as the sound shifts of a language will happen to produce.

Ambiguity, then, becomes a test case for the poet; insofar as he can vanquish it–not by splitting the word, but by fusing its meanings–he has succeeded in making language into a true medium; insofar as it vanquishes him, he must abdicate his position as a “maker.” I would say, therefore, that he does not primarily exploit the plurisignations of words, as though they were a fortunate accident; rather he accepts, even seeks out, their challenge, because he knows that in his encounter with them the issue of his claim is finally joined and decided. A pun may be a mere play, a rhyme a mere jingle, even a metaphor only an invitation to conceptual comparisons; true ambiguities are another matter. With them it is not a question of taking two words or meanings and showing how, in some sense, they are one, but rather of taking one word and showing that it is more than a potpourri of the meanings we have a mind to attach to it. Since the poet’s credo must be the opening of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” he meets the temptation of meaning ultimately in ambiguity.

Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest” (1956)

Some of this, in its talk about meaning and intention, may read as a bit naive, but I think that’s mistaken. Rather than positing some Platonic meaning that a work aims at, one locked inside the poet’s head, I think Burckhardt means to talk about how there is inescapably the notion of some intent on the creator’s part that a reader has to deal with. There is some particular instantiation of meaning that a poet was working with. The “pristine unity” is private, maybe even an illusion. Meanings may be primary, but they are still private in their particular essence, even if it is by them that we are able to live and function. The writer’s intent is not decipherable or recoverable, but at the same time we do have the fact that such an intent existed at the time of creation. If “intent” and “meaning” are too specific, just take it that there was some unified surplus in the poet’s mind at the time. Some critics try to externalize that surplus onto historical surroundings, about which we know far more; other critics try to minimize the role of that surplus by exploding the amount of sheer ambiguity in the words themselves. Yet the collateral effect is also to dampen a sense of unity. Despite the clear attempts made by critics to reconstruct a more complex unity from the proliferations of meaning, there is a point where such unities are no longer comprehensible or plausible to a lay reader, and so multiplicity rules over unity.

Another irony is how some of those obsessive close reader critics complained about the advent of theory and other cultural readings, as though there were limits to what ambiguity could suggest, when in fact the Ambiguists had opened the door to such diversity in the first place. By positing that any “pristine unity” lay precisely in the multiplicity of meaning, they abdicated their hegemonic throne, a la Richard II. Theorists then made a rear-guard action by reclassifying where the “pristine unity” could be, outside the realm of the text-in-isolation. I love much of the work of the Ambiguists, but they should have seen it coming. They were climbing Jacob’s ladder.

The Pushcart War – Jean Merrill

Growing up in the ARPAnet days, I only had access to the books in the local library and small B. Dalton’s. I believe I found Merrill’s economics tutorial The Toothpaste Millionaire at a book fair and liked it enough to track down her magnum opus The Pushcart War in the library. The book has more or less stayed in print, though, and it certainly sells better than most of the books I talk about here.

The majority of the books I read in primary school haven’t stayed with me except for a detail or two, but three authors stand out as having imprinted themselves far more deeply on my young brain: Daniel Pinkwater, Ellen Raskin, and Jean Merrill. (I’m leaving aside obvious classics like The Phantom Tollbooth.) They are all fundamentally urban authors, though beyond that they don’t have a lot in common beyond being very strange. (Raskin’s profound Figgs and Phantoms was simply incomprehensible to me at the time, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have known what to make of Pinkwater’s brilliant Young Adult Novel had I stumbled on it.)

Merrill’s work is not as crafted or sheerly inspired as that of the other two, but The Pushcart War stood out for its epic scope and comparatively large cast, as well as its political intrigue, which was beyond anything else I’d read. Looking back at it now, though, the book is far more bizarre, because the allegorical content is so strong, certainly as great as in C.S. Lewis or Philip Pullman. Except that this is a secular book and it’s allegorizing political and social struggles, and doing saw awfully specifically. Some appropriate subtitles would be:

  • Saul Alinsky for Beginners
  • A Young Person’s Guide to the Battle of Algiers
  • Ho Chi Minh Jr.

The subject of the book is, for the most part, guerilla warfare and insurgency. Three big trucking firms seek to have pushcarts banned from New York to clear the streets for more trucks, making way for (it is later revealed) banning cars and even small trucks as well. They work with the corrupt mayor, but the pushcart owners wage war by shooting tacks into tires, causing the trucks to break down and annoy the public/civilians, turning them against the trucks.

This seems like a pretty blatant allegory for Vietnam in particular, since the failure of the US’s huge forces against asymmetrical guerrilla warfare resulted from absurd civilian deaths causing the Vietnamese to increasingly side with the Vietcong. But the book was published in 1964. Vietnam did not have the overwhelming presence in American life then that it would have a few years later, but I get the sense Merrill was pretty well-informed and politically interested. Still, the book could also be drawing from French experiences in Algeria, or perhaps France’s own futile war in Vietnam against the Viet Minh.

There are also echoes of the civil rights movement in the nonviolent protests that occur toward the end of the book, but honestly, they are much weaker, as there is no analogue for segregation or discrimination. And the nonviolent protest is less entertaining than the tales of taking out trucks with pea-shooters. I remember being disappointed as a kid that the guerrilla war ended (though it is picked up briefly by kids imitating the cool guerrillas) in favor of more abstract dealings.

Those more abstract dealings are also allegorical. “The Three,” the leaders of the trucking firms, are two big thuggish guys named Moe Mammoth and Walter Tiger, as well as the slick mastermind Louie Livergreen. (Livergreen, like a majority of the characters, is clearly of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, though unlike Pushcart King Maxie Hammerman and elderly but stubborn pushcart owner Mr. Jerusalem, he does not speak in a Yiddish-derived idiolect. There is no mention of religion in the whole book, though.) When they are first shown riling up their truckers to cause more trouble for the pushcarts, there is this bizarre footnote (the whole book is fashioned as an academic documentary account):

“The Three” were originally known as “The Big Three,” but this caused some confusion as the leaders of three important nations of the time were also called The Big Three, and after a city newspaper ran a headline announcing BIG THREE CARVE UP CHINA (over a story about Mammoth, LEMA, and Tiger Trucking buying out the China Carting & Storage Co.), there was some international trouble in the course of which Moscow was bombed by an Indo-Chinese pilot. After that the city papers referred to the three big trucking firms simply as The Three.

Capitalists/imperialists that they are, “The Three” pretty much own New York Mayor Emmett Cudd, at least until public opinion turns so decisively against the trucks that the mayor drops them without a second thought. Cudd’s schemes are somewhat limited by the unnamed Police Commissioner (all police officials go unnamed, in fact), who enforces law and order but does refuse to go on witch hunts. He comes off more affably than the others despite going unnamed, and I have to wonder why Merrill chose to leave him anonymous. It almost seems to enforce a conservative dictum that entrenched civil servants will remain less corrupt than elected officials.

Still, the message is pretty clearly “hearts and minds.” Ultimately, popular opinion rules, and there’s no way to get traction if the public hates you. Ah, if only life were so simple. Still, this is one of the best social realist kid books ever written, and far more fun than Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done?

One loose end. While Moe and Tiger give up and Louie Livergreen goes into hiding and (it is hinted) is killed, Cudd gets reelected mayor without suffering any ill consequences. This bugged me as a kid. It still bugs me now.

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