"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hat Dance


Whirl Around the WorldNet
Every local Internet Service Provider in the world just went belly-up.
Five years ago today in Suck.

One sign of an elite group is a tendency to keep following a well-worn groove, never noticing that it runs in a circle. The same few conversations keep trundling back around, in different armbands and different bodies. The same people, in different names and at different times, keep lending it all the same pointless regard. In the latest case, the argument centers on the issue of some special hats, but we'll get to that.

A few years ago, Thomas Ricks waited by the yellow footprints on the pavement at Parris Island to watch a group of hapless new Marine Corps recruits step off the bus for boot camp. Later, just beyond mid-cycle, Ricks recorded a series of awestruck admissions from those same young men that seven weeks of precision marching and brutal punishment had changed everything, sir, and changed it all forever. "People outside military life," one entirely typical trainee helpfully explained, "are repulsive." Another seven-week man allowed that America as a whole, almost, could clearly use more military discipline: "Outside of South Boston, I feel it's gotten pretty pathetic. No one strives to be their best."

And there were, Ricks noted, plenty of Marines outside the gates of Parris Island who wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment (and undoubtedly still do). Essays in the Marine Corps Gazette have predictably warned of the tired threat from fellow countrymen who have "thrown away the values, morals and standards that define traditional Western culture."

"The next real war we fight," warned a Gazette essay, summing up the game and the stakes in one neat sentence, "is likely to be on American soil." (It's probably not worth being that upset over the Grammys, but still.)

So skip ahead, easy one, to the punchline. A year after the hardened elites of Platoon 3086 heaped disdain upon their nasty civilian analogs — whom they would one day, being superior, have to fight — eight of the platoon's fifty-five graduates had run away from the Corps or been thrown out, and others were teetering on the edge; some of the loudest fault-finders and chest-thumpers were among those who fell or were pushed to the side. At least one of the new Marines most often suspected of being a closet civilian in his training days (he was into the, um, Cranberries) had gone on to thrive in ways that some of the most self-consciously superior couldn't quite touch. If all of this reminds you of a whole long list of ex-bosses, well, no kidding.

The lieutenant colonel who was the platoon's old commander decided, after that one-year reality check, that the fifteen percent of his former trainees who had endured the strengthening fire but still turned out to be nasty, non-South Bostonian types were "casualties in our war." The war with, remember, that anti-Western God population the Marines are getting ready to shoot.

Misery loves company, though, and the embattled knights of the Marine Corps might be pleased to know that another elite has also struggled with the deadweight of a big dumb culture.

In 1902, Vladimir Lenin was still many years away from getting this one really cool job that he wanted. The blueprint he drew of his job-hunting process bears the Time-Life how-to title What Is to Be Done? — first caulk the revolution, then sand it smooth. The book describes a vanguard of hardened thinkers who would necessarily impose political discipline on the slouching body of proletarian culture; Lenin found nothing quite as distasteful as spontaneity, mass movement without enlightened design. He was, it turns out, a communist.

The Yale professor James C. Scott, aside from having played a magnificent Patton, has neatly explored Lenin's passionate attachment to manufactured human order. He writes that the well-preserved corpse was enraptured with the now-familiar idea that "superior knowledge, authoritarian instruction, and social design could transform society." (And you better sound off when you revolt, worker!)

"Thus the vanguard party not only is essential to the tactical cohesion of the masses," Scott sums up, "but must also literally do their thinking for them... The relationship depicted is so asymmetrical that one is even tempted to compare it to the relation that a craftsman has to his raw material... Just as the force of a powerful magnet aligns a chaos of a thousand iron fillings, so the party's leadership is expected to turn a crowd into a political army."

But there was a big problem, and Lenin fretted and fidgeted at length on the threat of "petit-bourgeois bacilli" and "infection." The party would have to figure out, as Scott puts it, "how to train revolutionists who will be close to the workers (and perhaps of worker background themselves) but who will not be absorbed, contaminated, and weakened by the political and cultural backwardness of the workers." The answer, we now know, is pretty simple: Recruit from South Boston.

The final reality that can't be missed, though, is that Lenin's vanguard pretty much wasn't. "What must forcefully strike any reader of accounts of the detailed events of late October 1917," Scott writes, "is the utter confusion and localized spontaneity that prevailed. The very idea of centralized coordination in this political environment was implausible. In the course of battle, as military historians and astute observers have always understood, the command structure typically falters... In Lenin's case, the command-and-control structure could hardly falter, as it had never existed in the first place."

What Lenin did do was move to occupy the vacuum. Scott quotes Hannah Arendt: "The Bolsheviks found power lying in the street, and picked it up." And that, pretty much, is what an elite is good for.

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