The Wikipedia Cult

Interview granted to Daniel Tynan, May 2010

Q. When did the cult start?

A. I was involved with both the Wikipedia and its predecessor, the Nupedia. When the Nupedia was shelved and the Wikipedia launched, the first clusters of contributors regarded themselves as knowledge-aficionados, akin to an open-source movement. The Wikipedia did not possess the penetration and clout that it now enjoys. It was a club of gifted amateurs, to use the British expression. But as the Wikipedia expanded and attained its current status and prowess, power-hungry, narcissistic bullies leveraged it to cater to their psychological needs. Around 2003, the Wikipedia had acquired all the hallmarks of a cult: hierarchy, arcane rules, paranoid insularity, intolerance of dissent, and a cosmic grandiose mission.

Q. Approximately how many members/acolytes does it have?

A. The inner core of the English-language Wikipedia has c. 2000 members. Of these, about 200-300 members make all the important, strategic decisions. The others monitor articles and edit them, usually in order to promote and protect their own points of view and interests. This is not an informal network: it is completely rigid with a hierarchy, titles, job descriptions, remits, and responsibilities. It is a stringently edited work, not a loose forum, or a BBS. Many in the upper echelons (and in Wikimedia, the non-profit that is overseeing the whole operation) earn salaries and enjoy junkets and perks.

Q. Are there regular gatherings of the tribes? If so, when and where?  Who are its major and minor deities?

A. Wikipedia members meet regularly all over the globe, in special gatherings dedicated to the “encyclopedia”, its catechism and Weltanschauung, its regulatory (including enforcement and penal) mechanisms, and its future. Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales is invariably the star of such conclaves and fulfils the combined roles of prophet and Dear Leader. The Wikipedia’s narcissistic co-founder deserves a special analysis: he subtly misrepresents facts (claims that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, that he hold no special influence over it); Wales ignores data that conflicts with his fantasy world; he is above the law, including and especially his own laws (was caught editing his own Wikipedia entry, for instance); talks about himself in 3rd person singular; minimizes the contributions and role of others (such as the Wikipedia’s real visionary, Larry Sanger); has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself and his life; sets ever more complex rules in a convoluted world of grandiose fantasies with its own language (jargon); displays false modesty and “folksiness”; sublimates aggression and holds grudges; and, all in all, is an eternal adolescent (his choice of language, peripatetic pursuits). Wikipedia is its founder writ large: narcissistic, autistic, solipsistic, and puerile.

Q. What are its holy text(s)?

A. Authoritarian-totalitarian bureaucracies are marked by strict, rigid adherence to sacred texts – both foundational and exegetic – and by the blind and ruthless implementation of codified, arcane rules of conduct. The use of acronyms and ciphers singles out the initiated and separates them from the hoi polloi. The Wikipedia’s holy scriptures are strewn all over its Website, mainly in the Help and FAQs sections. Yet, though accessible, they are largely incomprehensible at first sight. They require months of learning and are ambiguous. This ambiguity requires frequent intervention and interpretation by a tiny self-imputed elite, equivalent to the priesthood in established religions. The decisions of these arbiters are often final and, in many cases, arbitrary. This gives them enormous power which they use intentionally to drive away competition by alienating contributors (especially experts and scholars) and intimidating newcomers (who are often regarded as potential troublemakers).

Q. Are there other cults Wikipedians share affinities with?

A. All cults are the same: they spawn a hierarchy, sport arcane rules, suffer from paranoid insularity, do not tolerate dissent, criticism, and disagreement, and ascribe to themselves a cosmic grandiose mission. No cult is benign. All cults are run by individuals with narcissistic traits and the Wikipedia is no exception.

The narcissist is the guru at the centre of a cult. Like other gurus, he demands complete obedience from his flock. He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his followers. He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline, adherence to his teachings and common goals. The less accomplished he is in reality – the more stringent his mastery and the more pervasive the brainwashing.

Cult leaders are narcissists who failed in their mission to “be someone”, to become famous, and to impress the world with their uniqueness, talents, traits, and skills. Such disgruntled narcissists withdraw into a “zone of comfort” (known as the “Pathological Narcissistic Space”) that assumes the hallmarks of a cult.

The narcissist’s control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability, fuzziness, and ambient abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what to be avoided. He alone determines the rights and obligations of his disciples and alters them at will.

The cult’s leader acts in a patronising and condescending manner and criticises often. He alternates between emphasising the minutest faults (devalues) and exaggerating the talents, traits, and skills (idealises) of the members of his cult. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations – which legitimises his subsequent abusive conduct.

The narcissist claims to be infallible, superior, talented, skilful, omnipotent, and omniscient. He often lies and confabulates to support these unfounded claims. Within his cult, he expects awe, admiration, adulation, and constant attention commensurate with his outlandish stories and assertions. He reinterprets reality to fit his fantasies.

The participants in the cult are hostile to critics, the authorities, institutions, his personal enemies, or the media – if they try to uncover his actions and reveal the truth. The narcissist’s cult is “missionary” and “imperialistic”. He is always on the lookout for new recruits. He immediately attempts to “convert” them to his “creed” – to convince them how wonderful and admirable he – and, by extension, the cult – is.

Often, his behaviour on these “recruiting missions” is different to his conduct within the “cult”. In the first phases of wooing new admirers and proselytising to potential “conscripts” the narcissist is attentive, compassionate, empathic, flexible, self-effacing, and helpful. At home, among the “veterans” he is tyrannical, demanding, wilful, opinionated, aggressive, and exploitative.

As the leader of his congregation, the narcissist feels entitled to special amenities and benefits not accorded the “rank and file”. He expects to be waited on hand and foot, to make free use of everyone’s money and dispose of their assets liberally, and to be cynically exempt from the rules that he himself established (if such violation is pleasurable or gainful).

Hence the narcissist’s panicky and sometimes violent reactions to “dropouts” from his cult. There’s a lot going on that the narcissist wants kept under wraps. Moreover, the narcissist stabilises his fluctuating sense of self-worth by deriving Narcissistic Supply (adulation, admiration, attention) from his victims. Abandonment threatens the narcissist’s precariously balanced personality.

Q. Are there other ‘cults’ or splinter groups Wikipedians consider rivals (or heretics)?

A. The Internet is overflowing with stories of former Wikipedians. They all claim to have been punished and mistreated following their “heresy” and “desertion”. I can only recount my personal experience with any certainty. When I left the Wikipedia, I wrote a widely-read article titled “The Six Sins of the Wikipedia”. It provoked heated debate and I became the target of Wikipedians the world over. I was on the receiving end of threats and mail bombs; the pages of my books in Amazon were flooded with bad reviews; I was vilified and subjected to an Internet-wide smear campaign, replete with defamatory and libellous statements; my work was plagiarized in various Wikipedia articles and repeated requests to remedy the situation were denied; my entry in the Wikipedia was deleted (after I threatened Wales and his cohorts with a class-action lawsuit). I do not believe that this was a coordinated, concerted, condoned, or centrally-directed onslaught. But, it does reflect the extreme fanaticism and aggressive intolerance of the cult.

Q. How would an outsider recognize a member of this cult?

A. Easily: try to criticize the Wikipedia, question its reliability and objectivity, doubt its co-founder, disagree with the way it is authored or edited, ponder its psychopathology, muse whether it is a cult. The responses of dyed-in-the-wool Wikipedians will prove to be violent, disproportionate, fanatical, intolerant, and malevolent.

Why Do People Pay Taxes?

It is commonly – albeit erroneously and counterfactually – thought that taxpayers are intimidated into the fulfilment of their fiscal obligations and that tax collection is mainly about coercion. The truth is different.

People pay taxes because they want to belong to a collective, share a communal fate and a common lore, and enjoy the benefits of membership in the exclusive club of productive citizenry. To be a taxpayer is akin to sporting a badge of honour: it is a proof of personal integrity and industriousness, and, depending on the tax bill, a hallmark of success and prosperity. The payment of taxes bestows civil rights upon the payee: the cries “I am an honest tax-paying citizen” or “no taxation without representation” resonate in many a film and book.

To motivate wayward denizens of the realm to discharge their pecuniary obligations towards the state, governments rely on police powers, incarceration, asset forfeiture, and sometimes (for instance, in China) worse. Yet, a far more effective method would be to name and shame tax evaders and to maintain a publicly-accessible registry of tax offenders. Peer pressure and public opinion are mighty weapons and the bulk of tax delinquents who are not utterly psychopathic are susceptible to it.

To tax or not to tax: this question could have never been asked twenty years ago.

Historically, income tax is a novel invention. Still, it has become so widespread and so socially-accepted that no one dares challenge it seriously. In the lunatic fringes there are those who refuse to pay taxes and serve prison sentences as a result. When they try to translate their platforms into political power and established parties they invariably fail dismally in the polls. Still, some of what they say makes sense.

Originally, taxes were levied to pay for government expenses. But they underwent a malignant transformation. They began to be used to express social preferences. Tax revenues were diverted to pay for urban renewal, to encourage foreign investments through tax breaks and tax incentives, to enhance social equality by evenly redistributing income and so on. As Big Government was more derided and decried so were taxes perceived to be its instrument and the tide turned. Suddenly, the fashion was to downsize government, minimize its disruptive involvement in the marketplace and reduce the total tax burden as part of the GNP.

Taxes are inherently unjust. They are enforced, using state coercion. They are an infringement of the human age old right to property. Money is transferred from one group of citizens (law abiding taxpayers) to other groups. The recipients are less savoury: either legally or illegally they do not pay taxes (illegal immigrants, low income populations, children, the elderly, the ultra-rich). But there is no way of preventing a tax evader from enjoying tax money paid by others (this are known as the commons and free-rider problems).

Research demonstrates that most tax money benefits the middle classes and the rich, in short: those who need it least. Moreover, these strata of society are most likely to use tax planning to minimize their tax payments. They can afford to hire professionals to help them pay fewer and less taxes because their income is augmented with transfers (of tax receipts) paid for by the less affluent and by the less fortunate. The poor subsidize the tax planning of the rich, and the latter pay fewer taxes. Thus, tax planning is widely regarded as the rich man’s shot at tax evasion. The irony is that taxes were intended to lessen social polarity and friction – but they have achieved exactly the opposite.

In economies where taxes gobble up to 60% of the GDP (mainly in Europe) taxes became the major economic disincentive. Why work for the taxman? Why finance the lavish lifestyle of numerous politicians and bloated bureaucracies through tax money? Why be a sucker when the rich and mighty play it safe?

The results are socially and morally devastating: an avalanche of illegal activities, all intended to avoid paying taxes. Monstrous black (and gray) economies sprang up. These economic activities went unreported and totally deformed the processes of macroeconomic decision making, supposedly based on complete economic data. This apparent lack of macroeconomic control creates a second layer of mistrust between the citizen and his government (on top of the one related to the coercive and skewed collection of taxes).

Recent studies clearly indicate that a reverse relationship exists between the growth of an economy and the extent of public spending. Moreover, decades of progressive taxation did not reverse the trend of a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Income distribution has remained inequitable (ever more so all the time) despite gigantic unilateral transfers of money from the state to the poorer socio – economic strata of society.

Taxes are largely considered to be responsible for the following:

  • They distort business thinking;
  • Encourage the misallocation of economic resources;
  • Divert money to bizarre tax-motivated investments;
  • Absorb unacceptably large chunks of the GDP;
  • Deter foreign investment;
  • Morally corrupt the population, encouraging it to engage in massive illegal activities;
  • Adversely influence macroeconomic parameters such as unemployment, the money supply and interest rates;
  • Deprive the business sector of capital needed for its development by spending it on non productive political ends;
  • Cause the smuggling of capital outside the country (capital flight);
  • Foster the formation of strong parallel, black economies and the falsifying of economic records thus adversely affecting decision making processes;
  • Facilitate the establishment of big, inefficient bureaucracies for the collection of taxes and of data related to income and economic activity;
  • Force every member of society to – directly or indirectly – pay for professional services related to his or her tax obligations, or, at least to consume resources (time, money and energy) in communicating with authorities and navigating the bureaucracies that handle with tax collection on behalf of the state.

Thousands of laws, tax loopholes, breaks and incentives and seemingly arbitrary decision making, not open to judicial scrutiny erode the trust that a member of the community should have in its institutions. This lack of transparency and even-handedness lead to the frequent eruption of scandals which unseat governments more often than not.

All these malignant side-effects and by-products might have been acceptable if taxes were to achieve their primary stated goals. That they fail to do so is what sparked the latest rebellious thinking.

At first, the governments of the world tried a few simple recipes:

They tried to widen the tax base by instituting better collection, processing, amalgamation and crossing of information. This way, more tax payers were supposed to be caught in “the net”. This failed dismally. People found ways around this relatively unsophisticated approach and frequent and successive tax campaigns were to no avail.

So, governments tried the next trick in their bag: they shifted from progressive taxes to regressive ones. This was really a shift from taxes on income to taxes on consumption. This proved to be a much more efficient measure albeit with grave social consequences. The same pattern was repeated: the powerful few were provided with legal loopholes. VAT rules around the world allow businesses to offset VAT that they pay on consumables and services against VAT that they are supposed to pay to the authorities. Many enterprises end up receiving VAT funds paid by individuals who do not enjoy these tax breaks.

Moreover, VAT and other direct taxes on consumption were almost immediately reflected in higher inflation figures. As economic theory goes, inflation is a tax. It indirectly affects the purchasing power of those not knowledgeable enough, devoid of political clout, or not rich enough to protect themselves. The salaries of the lower strata of society are eroded by inflation and this has the exact same effect as a tax would. This is why inflation is called “the poor man’s tax”.

When the social consequences of levying regressive taxes became fully evident, governments went back to the drawing board. Regressive taxes were politically and socially costly. Progressive taxes resembled Swiss cheese: too many loopholes, not enough substance. The natural inclination was to try and plug the holes: disallow allowances, break tax breaks, abolish special preferences, and eliminate loopholes, write-offs, reliefs and a host of other, special deductions. This entailed conflicts with special interest groups whose members benefited from the tax loopholes.

Governments, being political creatures, did a half-hearted job. They abolished on the one hand – and gave with the other. They wriggled their way around controversial subjects and the result was that every loophole-cutting measure brought in its wake a growing host of others. The situation looked hopeless.

Thus, governments were reduced to using the final weapon in their arsenal: the simplification of the tax system.

The idea is aesthetically appealing: all tax concessions and loopholes are eliminated, on the one hand. On the other hand, the number of tax rates and the magnitude of each rate are pared down. Marginal tax rates go down considerably and so does the number of tax brackets. So, people feel less like cheating and they spend fewer resources on the preparation of their tax returns. The government, on its part, no longer uses the tax system to express its (political) preferences. It promulgates and enforces a simple, transparent, equitable, fair and non-arbitrary system which generates more income by virtue of these traits.

Governments from Germany to the USA are working along the same lines. They are trying to stem what is in effect a tax rebellion, a major case of civil disobedience. If they fail, the very fabric of societies will be affected. If they succeed, we may all inherit a better world. Knowing the propensities of human beings, the safe bet is that people will still hate to see their money wasted in unaccounted for ways on bizarre, pork-barrel, projects. As long as this is the case, the eternal chase of the citizen by his government will continue.

Sexsomnia

“I am with child” – says Mariam, her eyes downcast. In the murk he could not tell if her cheeks are flushed, but the tremor in her voice and her posture are signs enough. They are betrothed, he having paid the mohar to her family two moons ago with witnesses aplenty. She was a virgin then: the elders of both families made sure and vouched for her. At 14 years of age she was no beauty, but her plainness and the goodness of her heart appealed to him. She was supple and lithe and a hard worker. He liked her natural scents and she often laughed, a bell-like tintinnabulation that he grew fond of as her presence insinuated itself into his dour existence. By now, she has permeated his abode, like silent waters.

Yoseph was somewhat older and more experienced than his wife-to-be. Short, stocky and hirsute, his only redeeming feature was his eyes: two coals aglow above a bulbous, venous nose in an otherwise coarse face. Originally from Judea, he found himself stranded in Nazareth, an outpost, half watchtower half settlement of crude and stony-faced peasants. He traced his ancestry back to King David and wouldn’t marry one of theirs, so the locals mocked and resented him. Mariam’s tribe was also from Judea and her barren cousin, Elisheva was long married to a Temple priest. Mariam was well-bred and observant of God’s commandments. He could not imagine her sinning.

As was his habit, he laid down his tools, straightened up and stood, frozen in contemplation. Finally he asked: “Who is the father?” There were bewilderment and hurt in his voice.

Mariam shuffled her bare, delicate feet: “You are”, she whispered.

He tensed: “Don’t lie to me, Mariam.”

“I am not!” – She protested – “I am not!”

A shaft of light penetrated the hut and illuminated his table and the flapping corners of her gown.

“We are not to be married until after the harvest. I cannot know you until you are my wife. I did not know you, Mariam!”

She sobbed softly.

He sighed:

“What have you done, Mariam? If this were to be known …”

“Please, please,” – she startled – “tell no one! No one need know!”

“It is not a thing you can hide for long, especially in Natseret” – he sniggered bitterly.

“I swear before God, as He is my witness: you had me, Yoseph, you knew me at night time, several times!”

“Mariam!” His voice was cold and cutting and he struggled to regain control and then, in softer tones:

“I will not make a public example of you, Mariam, worry not. I will give you leave tomorrow privately. We need only two witnesses.”

She fell silent, her breathing shallow and belaboured.

“Mariam?”

“You fell asleep and tossed and turned all night. I could hear you from my chamber. You then came to me, your eyes still shut. You … you had me then, you knew me. It is the truth. Throughout the deed you never woke. I was afraid. I did not know whether to resist would have meant the end of you. You were as though possessed!”

Yoseph mulled over her words.

“I was asleep even when … even when I seeded you?”

“Even then!” – Cried Mariam – “You must believe me! I didn’t want you dead or I would have done to rouse you! But you were so alive with passion, so accomplished and consummate … and yet so numb, so …” – Her voice faltered.

Yoseph crumbled onto a bench: “I walk at nighttime, Mariam. I know not whence and whither. I have no recollection. People have told me that they have seen me about the house and fields, but I remember naught.”

“I saw you at times,” – said Mariam – “so did Bilha the maiden servant whom you expelled when it was found she was with child.”

Yoseph drew air and exhaled.

“Have you told this to anyone?”

“I did,” – said Mariam, kneeling beside him and laying her calloused hand on his – “When I found out, I went to visit with Elisheva.”

Yoseph nodded his approval: “She is a wise woman. Had she some advice to give you?”

“She had,” – answered Mariam.

Yoseph straightened up and peered ahead into the penumbral frame of the reed door.

“She said I have a son,” – Mariam recounted softly – “your son, Yoseph! Our firstborn. Her husband, Zacharia, had a vision in the temple and was struck dumb by it. Elisheva is pregnant, too.”

Yoseph chuckled in disbelief: Elisheva was way past childbearing age.

“An angel appeared to Zacharia and told him that she will bear a son, a great man in Israel. I had a similar dream after I have returned from her. I saw an angel, too.”

“Woman, don’t blaspheme,” – exclaimed Yoseph peremptorily, but he was listening, albeit with incredulity, not awe.

“An angel came to me,” – persisted Mariam: “He said that I am the blessed among women and that I need fear not for I have found favour with God. He knew that I am with child. He promised me – us – a son and ordered that we should name him Yeshua. He shall be great, the fruit of your loin, and shall be called the Son of the Highest and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign …”

“Enough!” – Shouted Yoseph – “You have gone mad, woman, you took leave of your senses! Not only do you blaspheme against God, the Holy Blessed be He, but you also incite rebellion! You will bring upon us the wrath of the mighty with your troubled speech!”

But Mariam pressed on, her diminutive frame ablaze with the crimson dusk, her hands held high:

“He shall reign, Yoseph, over the house of Yaakov forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end!”

Deflated, she crumbled onto the bench beside him, respiring heavily, supporting her bosom with one hand, the other palm again camped on his sinewed forearm.

Yoseph stirred: “How shall this be, seeing that you knew not a man?”

Mariam implored: “I did know you, Yoseph! Believe me, please, for I am not a harlot!”

He knew that. And he remembered Bilha’s words when she left his household, Hagar-like with her baby. “You are the child’s father!” – She protested – “You came upon me at night, aslumbered! I could not wake you up no matter what I did! There and then you took me and you knew me many times and now you cast me out to destitution!” And she cursed him and his progeny terribly.

Mariam beseeched:

“Zacharia told Elisheva that the Holy Ghost shall come upon me and the power of the most High shall overshadow me. Our son will, therefore, be the Son of God!” Yoseph recoiled involuntarily: this was high sacrilege and in his home, he who observed all the commandments from the lightest to the harshest!

“What did you answer?”

Mariam responded instantly: “I said to him who was surely the messenger of God: behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Yoseph kept quiet for a few moments and then rose from their common seat:

“Mariam, tomorrow, in front of two competent witnesses, we will part. You will go your way and I will go mine. I cannot invoke the name of God, blessed be He and blessed be His Name, in vain. Not even for you and your child …”

“Our child!” – Mariam screamed – “Our child, Yoseph! Curse be upon you if you abandon us and your firstborn son as you have Bilha’s!!!”

He swerved and left the shed, forsaking her to the shadows and the demons that always lurked in him and his abode.

*****************

That night, he slept and in his sleep he dreamt an angel. And the angel regarded him with great compassion and said to him:

“Yoseph! Fear not to take unto thee Mariam thy wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit and she shall bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Yeshua for he shall save his people from their sins.”

And in his slumber, Yoseph turned his face from the terrible sight and cried, the tears rolling down his cheeks into the stubby growth that was his beard and onto his blanket. Even then he knew that he would marry Mariam and father Yeshua and that he will not live to see Him die a terrible death.


Mindgames Tales

The Capgras Shift

I Hear Voices

Folie a Plusieurs

The Elephant’s Call

Night Terror

Anton’s Trap

A Dream Come True

Lucid Dreams

Live Burial

The Galatea of Cotard

Fugue

The Con Man ComethReaders Discussion

The Last DaysReaders Discussion

Putin’s Last Days?

I. Putin’s Twilight
Putin is losing his grip on power. His allies – not least former KGB and current FSB operatives – are deserting him in droves, put off by his recent economic failures as much as by his clownish and narcissistic public conduct. Erstwhile faithful oligarchs are now hedging their bets, putting feelers to the West and even colluding with the banished Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky.
In June 2010, Mikhail Kasyanov, A former Russian prime minister, offered a spirited defense of incarcerated tycoon and Putin nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In a packed court in Moscow he labelled new charges against the disgraced oligarch “absurd”.

The week before, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government for suppressing information or ignoring environmental problems. He threatened to get the presidency involved, encroaching on Putin’s turf, hitherto strictly off-limits.

Yury Shevchuk, a Russian musician and Kremlin critic of renown challenged Putin for his brutal mistreatment of peaceful protesters. With elections looming, Putin was forced to dissimulate: “protests don’t hinder but, on the contrary, help” the government. “If I see that people are pointing to crucial issues that the authorities should pay attention to, what can be wrong with that?” he exclaimed, unconvincingly. “One should say, ‘thank you.'” Following this tacit admission of defeat, Russian opposition activists rallied in Moscow on May 1, shouting slogans comparing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The authorities licenced the demonstration.

German Gref,  general manager of Russia’s banking behemoth, state-controlled Sberbank and the architect of Putin’s economic policies while he was President of Russia, said that “the first stage of economic reform, which had required a tightly held political system to push through change, was nearing an end. Russia must carry out sweeping political reforms to safeguard future economic growth” (Reuters).

As dictators the world over have learned to their detriment, a totalitarian regime is an all-or-nothing proposition. Cracks in the monolithically repressive state tend to grow into fissures and lead to a loss of power. The surest way to regime change is via political reform. Soft concessions yield harsh consequences and the overthrow of potentates and their cronies. Putin is repeating the mistake that the Shah and Gorbachev and a myriad other tyrants have committed: they hung themselves by giving the people a little rope. Putin’s days are numbered. His successor – not necessarily Medvedev – is sharpening the knife. This time, the transition may not be pretty.
II. Putin’s Background

Being a KGB officer was always a lucrative and liberating proposition. Access to Western goods, travel to exotic destinations, making new (and influential) friends, mastering foreign languages, and doing some business on the side (often with one’s official “enemies” and unsupervised slush funds) – were all standard perks even in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Thus, when communism was replaced by criminal anarchy, KGB personnel (as well as mobsters) were the best suited to act as entrepreneurs in the new environment. They were well traveled, well connected, well capitalized, polyglot, possessed of management skills, disciplined, armed to the teeth, and ruthless. Far from being sidetracked, the security services rode the gravy train. But never more so than now.
January 2002. Putin’s dour gaze pierces from every wall in every office. His obese ministers often discover a sudden sycophantic propensity for skiing (a favorite pastime of the athletic President). The praise heaped on him by the servile media (Putin made sure that no other kind of media survives) comes uncomfortably close to a Central Asian personality cult. Yet, Putin is not in control of the machinery that brought him to the pinnacle of power, under-qualified as he was. This penumbral apparatus revolves around two pivots: the increasingly fractured and warlord controlled military and, ever more importantly, the KGB’s successors, mainly the FSB.
A. The Military
In 2001, Russia announced yet another plan to reform its bloated, inefficient, impoverished, demoralized and corrupt military. Close to 200,000 troops are to go immediately and the same number in the next 3 years. The draft is to be abolished and the army professionalized. At its current size (officially, 1.2 million servicemen), the armed forces are severely under-funded. Cases of hunger are not uncommon. Ill (and late) paid soldiers sometimes beg for cigarettes, or food.
Conscripts, in what resembles slave labour, are “rented out” by their commanders to economic enterprises (especially in the provinces). A host of such “trading” companies owned by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense was shut down last June by the incoming Minister of Defense (Sergei Ivanov), a close pal of Putin. But if restructuring is to proceed apace, the successful absorption of former soldiers in the economy (requiring pensions, housing, start up capital, employment) – if necessary with the help of foreign capital – is bound to become a priority sooner or later.
But this may be too late and too little – the much truncated and disorientated armed forces have been “privatized” and commandeered for personal gain by regional bosses in cahoots with the command structure and with organized crime. Ex-soldiers feature prominently in extortion, protection, and other anti-private sector rackets.
The war in Chechnya is another long standing pecuniary bonanza – and a vested interest of many generals. Senior Russian Interior Ministry field commanders trade (often in partnership with Chechen “rebels”) in stolen petroleum products, food, and munitions.
Putin is trying to reverse these pernicious trends by enlisting the (rank and file) army (one of his natural constituencies) in his battles against secessionist Chechens, influential oligarchs, venal governors, and bureaucrats beyond redemption.
As well as the army, the defense industry – with its 2 million employees – is also being brutally disabused of its centralist-nationalistic ideals.
Orders placed with Russia’s defense manufacturers by the destitute Russian armed forces are down to a trickle. Though the procurement budget was increased by 50% last year, to c. $2.2 billion (or 4% of the USA’s) and further increased this year to 79 billion rubles ($2.7 billion) –  whatever money is available goes towards R&D, arms modernization, and maintaining the inflated nuclear arsenal and the personal gear of front line soldiers in the interminable Chechen war. The Russian daily “Kommersant” quotes Former Armed Forces weapons chief, General Anatoly Sitnov, as claiming that  $16 billion should be allocated for arms purchases if all the existing needs are to be satisfied.
Having lost their major domestic client (defense constituted 75% of Russian industrial production at one time) – exports of Russian arms have soared to more than $4.4 billion annually (not including “sensitive” materiel). Old markets in the likes of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, China, India, and Libya have revived. Decision makers in Latin America and East Asia (including Malaysia and Vietnam) are being avidly courted. Bribes change hands, off-shore accounts are open and shut, export proceeds mysteriously evaporate. Many a Russian are wealthier due to this export cornucopia.
The reputation of Russia’s weapons manufacturers is dismal (no spare parts, after sales service, maintenance, or quality control).  But Russian weapons (often Cold War surplus) come cheap and the list of Russian firms and institutions blacklisted by the USA for selling weapons (from handguns to missile equipped destroyers) to “rogue states” grows by the day. Less than one quarter of 2500 defense-related firms are subject to (the amorphous and inapt) Russian Federal supervision. Gradually, Russia’s most advanced weaponry is being made available through these outfits.
Close to 4000 R&D programs and defense conversion projects (many financed by the West) have failed abysmally to transform Russia’s “military-industrial complex”. Following a much derided “privatization” (in which the state lost control over hundreds of defense firms to assorted autochthonous tycoons and foreign manufacturers) – the enterprises are still being abused and looted by politicians on all levels, including the regional and provincial ones. The Russian Federation, for instance, has controlling stakes in only 7 of c. 250 privatized air defense contractors. Manufacturing and R&D co-operation with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is on the ascendant, often flying in the face of official policies and national security.
Despite the surge in exports, overproduction of unwanted goods leads to persistent accumulation of inventory. Even so, capacity utilization is said to be 25% in many factories. Lack of maintenance renders many plant facilities obsolete and non-competitive. The Russian government’s new emphasis on R&D is wise – Russia must replenish its catalog with hi-tech gadgets if it wishes to continue to export to prime clients. Still, the Russian Duma’s prescription of a return to state ownership, central planning, and subsidies, if implemented, is likely to prove to be the coup de grace rather than a graceful coup.
B. The FSB (the main successor to the KGB)
NOTE:
The KGB was succeeded by a host of agencies. The FSB inherited its internal security directorates. The SVR inherited the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates.
With the ascendance of the Vladimir Putin and his coterie (all former KGB or FSB officers), the security services revealed their hand – they are in control of Russia and always have been. They number now twice as many as the KGB at its apex. Only a few days ago, the FSB had indirectly made known its enduring objections to a long mooted (and government approved) railway reform (a purely economic matter). President Putin made December 20 (the day the murderous Checka, the KGB’s ancestor, was established in 1917) a national holiday.
But the most significant tectonic shift has been the implosion of the unholy alliance between Russian organized crime and its security forces. The Russian mob served as the KGB’s long arm until 1998. The KGB often recruited and trained criminals (a task it took over from the Interior Ministry, the MVD). “Former” (reserve) and active agents joined international or domestic racketeering gangs, sometimes as their leaders.
After 1986 (and more so after 1991), many KGB members were moved from its bloated First (SVR) and Third Directorates to its Economic Department. They were instructed to dabble in business and banking (sometimes in joint ventures with foreigners). Inevitably, they crossed paths – and then collaborated – with the Russian mafia which, like the FSB, owns shares in privatized firms, residential property, banks, and money laundering facilities.
The co-operation with crime lords against corrupt (read: unco-operative) bureaucrats became institutional and all-pervasive under Yeltsin. The KGB is alleged to have spun off a series of “ghost” departments to deal with global drug dealing, weapons smuggling and sales, white slavery, money counterfeiting, and nuclear material.
In a desperate effort at self-preservation, other KGB departments are said to have conducted the illicit sales of raw materials (including tons of precious metals) for hard currency, and the laundering of the proceeds through financial institutions in the West (in Cyprus, Israel, Greece, the USA, Switzerland, and Austria). Specially established corporate shells and “banks” were used to launder money, mainly on behalf of the party nomenklatura. All said, the emerging KGB-crime cartel has been estimated to own or control c. 40% of Russian GDP as early as 1994, having absconded with c. $100 billion of state assets.
Under the dual pretexts of “crime busting” and “fighting terrorism”, the Interior Ministry and FSB used this period to construct massive, parallel, armies – better equipped and better trained than the official one.
Many genuinely retired KGB personnel found work as programmers, entrepreneurs, and computer engineers in the Russian private sector (and, later, in the West) – often financed by the KGB itself. The KGB thus came to spawn and dominate the nascent Information Technology and telecommunications industries in Russia. Add to this former (but on reserve duty) KGB personnel in banks, hi-tech corporations, security firms, consultancies, and media in the West as well as in joint ventures with foreign firms in Russia – and the security services’ latter day role (and next big fount of revenue) becomes clear: industrial and economic espionage. Russian scholars are already ordered (as of last May) to submit written reports about all their encounters with foreign colleagues.
This is where the FSB began to part ways with crime, albeit hitherto only haltingly.
The FSB has established itself both within Russian power structures and in business. What it needs now more than money and clout – are respectability and the access it brings to Western capital markets, intellectual property (proprietary technology), and management. Having co-opted criminal organizations for its own purposes (and having acted criminally themselves) – the alphabet soup of security agencies now wish to consolidate their gains and transform themselves into legitimate, globe-spanning, business concerns. The robbers’ most fervent wish is to become barons. Their erstwhile, less exalted, criminal friends are on the way. Expect a bloodbath, a genuine mafia gangland war over territory and spoils. The result is by no means guaranteed.
III. Putin: Historical Precedent
France’s Empire is very reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s reign in post-Yeltsin Russia.
Karl Marx regarded Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire as the first modern dictatorship – supported by the middle and upper classes but independent of their patronage and, thus, self-perpetuating. Others went as far as calling it proto-fascistic.
Yet, the Second Empire was insufficiently authoritarian or revolutionary to warrant this title. It did foster and encourage a personality cult, akin to the “Fuhrerprinzip” -but it derived its legitimacy, conservatively, from the Church and from the electorate. It was an odd mixture of Bonapartism, militarism, clericalism, conservatism and liberalism.
In a way, the Second Republic did amount to a secular religion, replete with martyrs and apostles. It made use of the nascent mass media to manipulate public opinion. It pursued industrialization and administrative modernization. But these features characterized all the political movements of the late 19th century, including socialism, and other empires, such as the Habsburg Austro-Hungary.
The Second Empire was, above all, inertial. It sought to preserve the bureaucratic, regulatory, and economic frameworks of the First Empire. It was a rationalist, positivist, and materialist movement – despite the deliberate irrationalism of the young Louis-Napoleon. It was not affiliated to a revolutionary party, nor to popular militias.  It was not collectivist. And its demise was the outcome of military defeat.
Like the French Second Empire, it follows a period of revolutions and counter-revolutions. It is not identified with any one class but does rely on the support of the middle class, the intelligentsia, the managers and industrialists, the security services, and the military.
Putin is authoritarian, but not revolutionary. His regime derives its legitimacy from parliamentary and presidential elections based on a neo-liberal model of government. It is socially conservative but seeks to modernize Russia’s administration and economy. Yet, it manipulates the mass media and encourages a personality cult.
Like Napoleon III, Putin started off as president (he was shortly as prime minister under Yeltsin). Like him, he may be undone by a military defeat, probably in the Caucasus or Central Asia.
The formative years of Putin and Louis-Napoleon have little in common, though.
The former was a cosseted member of the establishment and witnessed, first hand, the disintegration of his country. Putin was a KGB apparatchik. The KGB may have inspired, conspired in, or even instigated the transformation in Russian domestic affairs since the early 1980’s – but to call it “revolutionary” would be to stretch the term.
Louis-Napoleon, on the other hand, was a true revolutionary. He narrowly escaped death at the hands of Austrian troops in a rebellion in Italy in 1831. His brother was not as lucky. Louis-Napoleon’s claim to the throne of France (1832) was based on a half-baked ideology of imperial glory, concocted, disseminated and promoted by him. In 1836 and 1840 he even initiated  (failed) coups d’etat. He was expelled even from neutral Switzerland and exiled to the USA. He spent six years in prison.
Still, like Putin, Napoleon III was elected president. Like him, he was regarded by his political sponsors as merely a useful and disposable instrument. Like Putin, he had no parliamentary or political experience. Both of them won elections by promising “order” and “prosperity” coupled with “social compassion”. And, like Putin, Louis-Napoleon, to the great chagrin of his backers, proved to be his own man – independent-minded, determined, and tough.
Putin, like Louis-Napoleon before him, proceeded to expand his powers and installed loyalists in every corner of the administration and the army. Like Louis-Napoleon, Putin is a populist, travelling throughout the country, posing for photo opportunities, responding to citizens’ queries in Q-and-A radio shows, siding with the “average bloke” on every occasion, taking advantage of Russia’s previous economic and social disintegration to project an image of a “strong man”.
Putin is as little dependent on the Duma as Napoleon III was on his parliament. But Putin reaped what Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, has sown when he established an imperial presidency after what amounted to a coup d’etat in 1993 (the bombing of the Duma). Napoleon had to organize his own coup d’etat all by himself in 1852.
Napoleon III – as does Putin now – faced a delicate balancing act between the legitimacy conferred by parliamentary liberalism and the need to maintain a police state. When he sought to strengthen the enfeebled legislature he reaped only growing opposition within it to his domestic and foreign policies alike.
He liberalized the media and enshrined in France’s legal code various civil freedoms. But he also set in motion and sanctioned a penumbral, all-pervasive and clandestine security apparatus which regularly gathered information on millions of Frenchmen and foreigners.
Putin is considerably less of an economic modernizer than was Napoleon III. Putin also seems to be less interested in the social implications of his policies, in poverty alleviation and in growing economic inequalities and social tensions. Napoleon III was a man for all seasons – a buffer against socialism as well as a utopian social and administrative reformer.
Business flourished under Napoleon III – as it does under Putin. The 1850’s witnessed rapid technological change – even more rapid than today’s. France became a popular destination for foreign investors. Napoleon III was the natural ally of domestic businessmen until he embarked on an unprecedented trade liberalization campaign in 1860. Similarly, Putin is nudging Russia towards WTO membership and enhanced foreign competition – alienating in the process the tycoon-oligarchs, the industrial complex, and the energy behemoths.
Napoleon III was a free trader – as is Putin. He believed in the beneficial economic effects of free markets and in the free exchange of goods, capital, and labour. So does Putin. But economic liberalism does not always translate to a pacific foreign policy.
Napoleon III sought to annul the decisions of the Congress of Vienna (1815) and reverse the trend of post-Napoleonic French humiliation. He wanted to resurrect “Great France” pretty much as Putin wants to restore Russia to its “rightful” place as a superpower.
But both pragmatic leaders realized that this rehabilitation cannot be achieved by force of arms and with a dilapidated economy. Napoleon III tried to co-opt the tidal wave of modern, revolutionary, nationalism to achieve the revitalization of France and the concomitant restoration of its glory. Putin strives to exploit the West’s aversion to conflict and addiction to wealth. Napoleon III struggled to establish a new, inclusive European order – as does Putin with NATO and, to a lesser degree, with the European Union today.
Putin artfully manipulated Europe in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA, his new found ally. He may yet find himself in the enviable position of Europe’s arbitrator, NATO’s most weighty member, a bridge between Central Asia, the Caucasus, North Korea and China – and the USA.  The longer his tenure, the more likely he is to become Europe’s elder statesman. This is a maneuver reminiscent of Louis-Napoleon’s following the Crimean War, when he teamed up with Great Britain against Russia.
Like Putin, Napoleon III modernized and professionalized his army. But, unlike Putin hitherto, he actually went to war (against Austria), moved by his (oft-thwarted) colonial and mercantilist aspirations. Putin is likely to follow the same path (probably in Central Asia, but, possibly, in the Baltic and east Europe as well). Reinvigorated armies (and industrialists) often force expansionary wars upon their reluctant ostensible political masters.
Should Putin fail in his military adventures as Napoleon III did in his and be deposed as he was – these eerie similarities will have come to their natural conclusion.

Public Intellectuals: The Rise of the Librarians and the Decline of the Author

There are two flavours of public intellectual: librarians and authors.

Librarians possess a synoptic view of mostly trivial and anecdotal data, interspersed with histories, accepted truths, slogans, catchphrases, clichés, and platitudes. They are good at composing bibliographies, regurgitating knowledge, and cross-referencing information. Though always fanatically biased and orthodox, they are often meticulous, conscientious, and erudite. The best of them are great and entertaining historiographers. Daniel Boorstein and Paul Johnson are prime examples of modern-day Librarians as are many popularizers of science, such as Carl Sagan. David Hume was a curious hybrid: a Librarian, yet with sublimity and penetration that place him firmly in the authors’ camp.

In contrast to Librarians, Authors focus on one topic at a time. They are rarely as learned as the Librarians because they are less concerned with precedent, received wisdom, and with the work of their predecessors. Their product is frequently academically sloppy and their texts unintelligible on first skimming. They coin neologisms and invent whole new languages, narratives, and fields of discourse to describe their work and convey it to the uninitiated. They are innovative, ground-breaking, and iconoclastic. Notable modern Authors include Freud, Einstein, Marx, and Sartre.

In the great scheme of things, Librarians are responsible for introducing Authors and their works to the public. Regrettably, as most Librarians are hoarders with conventional and intellectually-provincial minds, they often fail to grasp the essential insights and revolutionary implications of the Authors’ words. Instead of “getting the big picture”, Librarians resort to nitpicking and criticism and purvey distorted and over-simplified versions of Authors’ ideas, embedded in faux historical “context”. Authors struggle to think outside the boxes that Librarians keep foisting upon the academic disciplines within which they both operate.

Modern technology and the New Media – concerned as they are with data hoarding and taxonomy – have sealed the triumphant ascendance of the Librarian over the Author.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”. The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment – only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don’t regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia “encyclopedia” – a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice – is “edited” by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and “facts” but can’t tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn’t mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid – or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens – both television’s and computer – than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated “news”. The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob “wisdom”. Information – unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong – substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers – intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios – are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals.

2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.

3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

4. By its very nature, science as a discipline and, more particularly, scientific theories, aspire to discover the “true” and “real”, but are doomed to never get there. Indeed, unlike religion, for instance, science claims no absolutes and proudly confesses to being merely asymptotic to the Truth. In medicine, physics, and biology, today’s knowledge is tomorrow’s refuse. Yet, in this day and age of maximal uncertainty, minimal personal safety, raging epidemics, culture shocks and kaleidoscopic technological change, people need assurances and seek immutables.

Inevitably, this gave rise to a host of occult and esoteric “sciences”, branches of “knowledge”, and practices, including the fervid observance of religious fundamentalist rites and edicts. These offered alternative models of the Universe, replete with parent-figures, predictability, and primitive rituals of self-defense in an essentially hostile world. As functional literacy crumbled and people’s intellectual diet shifted from books to reality TV, sitcoms, and soap operas, the old-new disciplines offer instant gratification that requires little by way of cerebral exertion and critical faculties.

Moreover, scientific theories are now considered as mere “opinions” to be either “believed” or “disbelieved”, but no longer proved, or, rather falsified. In his novel, “Exit Ghost”, Philip Roth puts this telling exclamation in the mouth of the protagonist, Richard Kliman: “(T)hese are people who don’t believe in knowledge”.

The Internet tapped into this need to “plug and play” with little or no training and preparation. Its architecture is open, its technologies basic and “user-friendly”, its users largely anonymous, its code of conduct (Netiquette) flexible and tolerant, and the “freedoms” it espouses are anarchic and indiscriminate.

The first half of the 20th century was widely thought to be the terrible culmination of Enlightenment rationalism. Hence its recent worrisome retreat . Moral and knowledge relativism (e.g., deconstruction) took over. Technology obliged and hordes of “users” applied it to gnaw at the edifice of three centuries of Western civilization as we know it.

Print Books (p-books) and Electronic Books (e-books): Different Packaging or Revolution?

The first-ever print runs were tiny by our standards and costly by any standard. Gutenberg produced fewer than 200 copies of his eponymous and awe-inspiring Bible and died a broken and insolvent man. Other printers followed suit when they failed to predict demand (by readers) and supply (by authors who acted as their own publishers, pirates, underground printers, and compilers of unauthorized, wild editions of works).

Confronted with the vagaries of this new technology, for many decades printer-publishers confined themselves to pornographic fiction, religious tracts, political pamphlets, dramaturgy, almanacs, indulgences, contracts, and prophecies – in other words, mostly disposable trash. As most books were read aloud – as a communal, not an individual experience – the number of copies required was limited.

Not surprisingly, despite the technological breakthroughs that coalesced to form the modern printing press, printed books in the 17th and 18th centuries were derided by their contemporaries as inferior to their laboriously hand-made antecedents and to the incunabula. One is reminded of the current complaints about the new media (Internet, e-books), its shoddy workmanship, shabby appearance, and the rampant piracy. The first decades following the invention of the printing press, were, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it “a restless, highly competitive free for all … (with) enormous vitality and variety (often leading to) careless work”.

There were egregious acts of piracy – for instance, the illicit copying of the Aldine Latin “pocket books”, or the all-pervasive piracy in England in the 17th century (a direct result of over-regulation and coercive copyright monopolies). Shakespeare’s work was published by notorious pirates and infringers of emerging intellectual property rights. Later, the American colonies became the world’s centre of industrialized and systematic book piracy. Confronted with abundant and cheap pirated foreign books, local authors resorted to freelancing in magazines and lecture tours in a vain effort to make ends meet.

Pirates and unlicenced – and, therefore, subversive – publishers were prosecuted under a variety of monopoly and libel laws (and, later, under national security and obscenity laws). There was little or no difference between royal and “democratic” governments. They all acted ruthlessly to preserve their control of publishing. John Milton wrote his passionate plea against censorship, Areopagitica, in response to the 1643 licencing ordinance passed by Parliament. The revolutionary Copyright Act of 1709 in England established the rights of authors and publishers to reap the commercial fruits of their endeavours exclusively, though only for a prescribed period of time.

Books – at times with their authors – were repeatedly burned as the ultimate form of purging: Luther’s works were cast into the flames and, in retaliation, he did the same to Catholic opera; the oeuvres of Rousseau, Servetus, Hernandez, and, of course, of Jewish authors during the Nazi era all suffered an identical fate. Indeed, the Internet is the first text-based medium (at least at its inception) to have evaded censorship and regulation altogether.

The battle between industrial-commercial publishers (fortified by ever more potent technologies) and the arts and craftsmanship crowd never ceased and it is raging now as fiercely as ever in numerous discussion lists, fora, tomes, and conferences. William Morris started the “private press” movement in England in the 19th century to counter what he regarded as the callous commercialization of book publishing and the inexorable decline of Renaissance-type libraries and collections.

When the printing press was invented, it was put to commercial use by private entrepreneurs (traders) of the day. Established “publishers” (monasteries), with a few exceptions (e.g., in Augsburg, Germany and in Subiaco, Italy) shunned it and regarded it as a major threat to culture and civilization. Their attacks on printing read like the litanies against self-publishing or corporate-controlled publishing today.

But, as readership expanded (women and the poor became increasingly literate), market forces reacted. The number of publishers multiplied relentlessly. At the beginning of the 19th century, innovative lithographic and offset processes allowed publishers in the West to add illustrations (at first, black and white and then in color), tables, detailed maps and anatomical charts, and other graphics to their books. Battles fought between publishers-librarians over formats (book sizes) and fonts (Gothic versus Roman) were ultimately decided by consumer preferences. Multimedia was born. The e-book will, probably, undergo a similar transition from being the static digital rendition of a print edition – to being a lively, colorful, interactive and commercially enabled creature.

The commercial lending library and, later, the free library were two additional reactions to increasing demand. As early as the 18th century, publishers and booksellers expressed the fear that libraries will cannibalize their trade. Two centuries of accumulated experience demonstrate that the opposite has happened. Libraries have enhanced book sales and have become a major market in their own right.

Publishing has always been a social pursuit and depended heavily on social developments, such as the spread of literacy and the liberation of minorities (especially, of women). As every new format matures, it is subjected to regulation from within and from without. E-books (and, by extension, digital content on the Web) will be no exception. Hence the recurrent and current attempts at regulation.

Every new variant of content packaging was labeled as “dangerous” at its inception. The Church (formerly the largest publisher of bibles and other religious and “earthly” texts and the upholder and protector of reading in the Dark Ages) castigated and censored the printing of “heretical” books (especially the vernacular bibles of the Reformation) and restored the Inquisition for the specific purpose of controlling book publishing. In 1559, it published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“Index of Prohibited Books”). A few (mainly Dutch) publishers even went to the stake (a habit worth reviving, some current authors would say…). European rulers issued proclamations against “naughty printed books” (of heresy and sedition). The printing of books was subject to licencing by the Privy Council in England. The very concept of copyright arose out of the forced registration of books in the register of the English Stationer’s Company (a royal instrument of influence and intrigue). Such obligatory registration granted the publisher the right to exclusively copy the registered book (often, a class of books) for a number of years – but politically restricted printable content, often by force. Freedom of the press and free speech are still distant dreams in many corners of the earth. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the V-chip and other privacy invading, dissemination inhibiting, and censorship imposing measures perpetuate a veteran if not so venerable tradition.

The more it changes, the more it stays the same. If the history of the book teaches us anything it is that there are no limits to the ingenuity with which publishers, authors, and booksellers, re-invent old practices. Technological and marketing innovations are invariably perceived as threats – only to be adopted later as articles of faith. Publishing faces the same issues and challenges it faced five hundred years ago and responds to them in much the same way. Yet, every generation believes its experiences to be unique and unprecedented. It is this denial of the past that casts a shadow over the future. Books have been with us since the dawn of civilization, millennia ago. In many ways, books constitute our civilization. Their traits are its traits: resilience, adaptation, flexibility, self re-invention, wealth, communication. We would do well to accept that our most familiar artifacts – books – will never cease to amaze us.

Consider the e-book (electronic book): a computer file that contains text, images, and even audio and video and can be opened and read on dedicated devices (e-book readers) or on PCS, laptops, netbooks, PDAs, and mobile phones. But, is it a book?

UNESCO’s uninspiring, arbitrary, and ungrounded definition of “book” is:

“Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers.”

But a book, above all else, is a medium. It encapsulates information (of one kind or another) and conveys it across time and space. Moreover, as opposed to common opinion, it is – and has always been – a rigidly formal affair. Even the latest “innovations” are nothing but ancient wine in sparkling new bottles.

Consider the scrolling protocol. Our eyes and brains are limited readers-decoders. There is only that much that the eye can encompass and the brain interpret. Hence the need to segment data into cognitively digestible chunks. There are two forms of scrolling – lateral and vertical. The papyrus, the broadsheet newspaper, and the computer screen are three examples of the vertical scroll – from top to bottom or vice versa. The e-book, the microfilm, the vellum, and the print book are instances of the lateral scroll – from left to right (or from right to left, in the Semitic languages).

In many respects, audio books are much more revolutionary than e-books. They do not employ visual symbols (all other types of books do), or a straightforward scrolling method. E-books, on the other hand, are a throwback to the days of the papyrus.  The text cannot be opened at any point in a series of connected pages and the content is carried only on one side of the (electronic) “leaf”. Parchment, by comparison, was multi-paged, easily browseable, and printed on both sides of the leaf. It led to a revolution in publishing and to the print book. All these advances are now being reversed by the e-book. Luckily, the e-book retains one innovation of the parchment – the hypertext. Early Jewish and Christian texts (as well as Roman legal scholarship) was written on parchment (and later printed) and included numerous inter-textual links. The Talmud, for example, is made of a main text (the Mishna) which hyperlinks on the same page to numerous interpretations (exegesis) offered by scholars throughout generations of Jewish learning.

Another distinguishing feature of books is portability (or mobility). Books on papyrus, vellum, paper, or PDA – are all transportable. In other words, the replication of the book’s message is achieved by passing it along and no loss is incurred thereby (i.e., there is no physical metamorphosis of the message). The book is like a perpetuum mobile. It spreads its content virally by being circulated and is not diminished or altered by it. Physically, it is eroded, of course – but it can be copied faithfully. It is permanent.

Not so the e-book or the CD-ROM. Both are dependent on devices (readers or drives, respectively). Both are technology-specific and format-specific. Changes in technology – both in hardware and in software – are liable to render many e-books unreadable. And portability is hampered by battery life, lighting conditions, or the availability of appropriate infrastructure (e.g., of electricity).

Every generation applies the same age-old principles to new “content-containers”. Every such transmutation yields a great surge in the creation of content and its dissemination. The incunabula (the first printed books) made knowledge accessible (sometimes in the vernacular) to scholars and laymen alike and liberated books from the scriptoria and “libraries” of monasteries. The printing press technology shattered the content monopoly. In 50 years (1450-1500), the number of books in Europe surged from a few thousand to more than 9 million! And, as McLuhan has noted, it shifted the emphasis from the oral mode of content distribution (i.e., “communication”) to the visual mode.

E-books are threatening to do the same. “Book ATMs” will provide Print on Demand (POD) services to faraway places. People in remote corners of the earth will be able to select from publishing backlists and front lists comprising millions of titles. Millions of authors are now able to realize their dream to have their work published cheaply and without editorial barriers to entry. The e-book is the Internet’s prodigal son. The latter is the ideal distribution channel of the former. The monopoly of the big publishing houses on everything written – from romance to scholarly journals – is a thing of the past. In a way, it is ironic. Publishing, in its earliest forms, was a revolt against the writing (letters) monopoly of the priestly classes. It flourished in non-theocratic societies such as Rome, or China – and languished where religion reigned (such as in Sumeria, Egypt, the Islamic world, and Medieval Europe).

With e-books, content will once more become a collaborative effort, as it has been well into the Middle Ages. Authors and audience used to interact (remember Socrates) to generate knowledge, information, and narratives. Interactive e-books, multimedia, discussion lists, and collective authorship efforts restore this great tradition. Moreover, as in the not so distant past, authors are yet again the publishers and sellers of their work. The distinctions between these functions is very recent. E-books and POD partially help to restore the pre-modern state of affairs. Up until the 20th century, some books first appeared as a series of pamphlets (often published in daily papers or magazines) or were sold by subscription. Serialized e-books resort to these erstwhile marketing ploys. E-books may also help restore the balance between best-sellers and midlist authors and between fiction and textbooks. E-books are best suited to cater to niche markets, hitherto neglected by all major publishers.

E-books are the quintessential “literature for the millions”. They are cheaper than even paperbacks. John Bell (competing with Dr. Johnson) published “The Poets of Great Britain” in 1777-83. Each of the 109 volumes cost six shillings (compared to the usual guinea or more). The Railway Library of novels (1,300 volumes) costs 1 shilling apiece only eight decades later. The price continued to dive throughout the next century and a half. E-books and POD are likely to do unto paperbacks what these reprints did to originals. Some reprint libraries specialized in public domain works, very much like the bulk of e-book offering nowadays.

The plunge in book prices, the lowering of barriers to entry due to new technologies and plentiful credit, the proliferation of publishers, and the cutthroat competition among booksellers was such that price regulation (cartel) had to be introduced. Net publisher prices, trade discounts, list prices were all anti-competitive inventions of the 19th century, mainly in Europe. They were accompanied by the rise of trade associations, publishers organizations, literary agents, author contracts, royalties agreements, mass marketing, and standardized copyrights.

The sale of print books over the Internet can be conceptualized as the continuation of mail order catalogues by virtual means. But e-books are different. They are detrimental to all these cosy arrangements. Legally, an e-book may not be considered to constitute a “book” at all. Existing contracts between authors and publishers may not cover e-books. The serious price competition they offer to more traditional forms of publishing may end up pushing the whole industry to re-define itself. Rights may have to be re-assigned, revenues re-distributed, contractual relationships re-thought. Moreover, e-books have hitherto been to print books what paperbacks are to hardcovers – re-formatted renditions. But more and more authors are publishing their books primarily or exclusively as e-books. E-books thus threaten hardcovers and paperbacks alike. They are not merely a new format. They are a new mode of publishing.

Every technological innovation was bitterly resisted by Luddite printers and publishers: stereotyping, the iron press, the application of steam power, mechanical typecasting and typesetting, new methods of reproducing illustrations, cloth bindings, machine-made paper, ready-bound books, paperbacks, book clubs, and book tokens. Without exception, they relented and adopted the new technologies to their considerable commercial advantage. It is no surprise, therefore, that publishers were hesitant to adopt the Internet, POD, and e-publishing technologies. The surprise lies in the relative haste with which they came to adopt it, egged on by authors and booksellers.

Israel and Turkey: The Impossible Alliance

In June 2010, Turkey voted against the UN Security Council resolution that imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran for its enrichment of uranium. Earlier in 2010, Turkey and Brazil have struck a deal with Iran to have two thirds of its nuclear fuel shipped outside its territory to be treated. Iran’s outspoken President Ahmadinejad and a bevy of lesser officials have visited Turkey multiply, cementing the NATO member’s tilt towards the West’s traditional enemies as well as its renewed focus on the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

Earlier in the same month, various Turkish officials, from the Prime Minister down, have lashed at Israel’s “murderous piracy” when the latter’s special forces have raided a flotilla of ships intended to break through to the blockaded Gaza Strip. This followed bitter recriminations on previous occasions: upon Israel’s re-invasion of the Gaza Strip and an apparent disrespect shown to the Turkish Ambassador by high-level Israeli civil servants.

Prior to 2008, it has been a common – and misleading – truism that relations between Turkey and Israel have never been better. The former is ruled by yet another Islamic government, though somewhat constrained by secular-minded generals. The latter is increasingly nationalistic-Messianic and theocratic, though it is ruled by former army generals who cobble together largely secular coalition governments.

Throughout the last 10 years, behind the scenes, Israel’s only steadfast allies in Turkey were the military and extreme secularists, both on the receiving end of the judicial and economic wrath of an increasingly-Islamized government, a faithful mirror of a Muslim-fundamentalist populace.

Geopolitical ranting for internal and external consumption aside, economic relations are still healthy.

Each year, more than 300,000 Israelis spend their vacation – and more than a quarter of a billion dollars – in scenic and affordable Turkish resorts. A drought-stricken Israel revived a decade-old plan to buy from Turkey up to 400 million cubic meters a year, instead of expensively desalinating sea water.

Israeli land use, hydrological and agricultural experts roam the Texas-sized country. The parties – with a combined gross domestic product of $300 billion – have inked close to thirty agreements and protocols since 1991. Everything, from double taxation to joint development and manufacturing of missiles, has been covered.

Buoyed by a free trade agreement in force since 1997, bilateral trade exceeded $1.5 billion at its peak (2002), excluding clandestine sales of arms and weapons technologies. According to the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, “Turkish exports to Israel consist mainly of manufactured goods, foodstuffs and grain, while Israel’s main export items to Turkey are chemical products, plastics, computers and irrigation and telecommunications systems technologies.”

A sizable portion of Turkey’s $3-5 billion in annual spending on the modernization of its armed forces is rumored to end in Israeli pockets. This is part of a 25-year plan launched in 1997 and estimated to be worth a total of $150 billion. Israeli contractors are refurbishing ageing Turkish fighter planes and other weapons systems at a total cost exceeding $2 billion hitherto.

In May 2002, the Israeli Military Industries and Elbit secured a $688 million contract to upgrade 170 M-60A1 tanks. There are at least another 800 pieces in the pipeline. Small arms, unmanned aerial vehicles and rockets originating in Israel make only part of a long shopping list. Israeli pilots regularly train in Turkey. Joint military exercises and intelligence sharing are frequent. The Israeli backdoor allows friendly American administrations to circumvent a rarely Turkophile Congress.

The American-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and, more generally, the almighty Jewish lobby in Washington, often support Turkish causes on the Hill. In 2000, for example, Jews helped quash a resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkish forces during the First World War. There was no repeat performance in 2010, though: Israel felt piqued by Turkey’s constant hectoring on human rights violations perpetrated by the Jewish state.

This exercise in hypocrisy did not endear the Jewish community or Israel to either Armenians or to European Union cardholding Greeks who have long permitted Palestinian terrorists to operate from the Greek part of Cyprus with impunity. The friend of my enemy is my enemy and Israel is clearly Turkey’s Jewish friend.

But Israeli hopes that Turkey will reciprocate by serving as a conduit to Arab regimes in the Middle East proved to be ill-founded. Only one tenth of Turkish trade is with its neighbors near and far. Turkey’s leverage is further limited by its chronic economic distress and its offensive designs to monopolize waterways shared by adjacent countries.

Though Muslim, like the Iranians, Turkey is not an Arab nation. It counts Syria, Iraq and Iran as potential enemies and competitors for scarce water resources as does Israel. The rebuff by its parliament of America’s request to station troops on Turkish soil prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 notwithstanding, the country is defiantly pro-American against a backdrop of anti-Western virulence.

Turkey aspires to join the European Union because it regards itself as an island of civilization in an ocean of backwardness and destitution. This counter-regional orientation is another thing it has in common with the Jewish state. In an effort to differentiate themselves, both polities were early adopters of economic trends such as deregulation, equities, venture capital, entrepreneurship, privatization and hi-tech.

Turkey was the first Moslem state to recognize an ominously isolated Israel in 1949. Both Israel and Turkey are democracies though they are implicated in systemic human rights violations on a massive scale. The political class of both is incestuously enmeshed with the military even to this very day.

The two countries face terrorism on a daily basis and feel threatened by the rise of militant Islam, by the spread of weapons of mass destruction – though Israel is hitherto the only regional nuclear power – and by global networks like al-Qaida.

In his travelogue, “Eastward to Tartary”, published in 2001, Robert Kaplan notes:

“Turkey’s more friendly position toward Israel was the result of several factors. (Turkey) became tired of diplomatic initiatives that failed to induce the Arabs to end their support of the Kurdish Workers’ party, which was responsible for the insurgency in southeastern Turkey. The Turks felt, too, that the Jews could help them with their Greek problem (via the Jewish lobby) … (The Turks realized) they might never gain full admittance to the European Union. Thus, they required another alliance.”

This confluence of interests and predicaments does not render Israel the darling of the Turkish street, though. Turks, addicted to conspiracy theories, fully believe that the second Iraq war has been instigated by the Israelis (or, at the very least, the Jews). They also decry the way Israel manhandles the Palestinian uprising. Flag-burning demonstrations are common occurrences in Ankara and Istanbul. Suleyman Demirel, Turkey’s former president, nearly paid with his life for the entente cordiale when a deranged pharmacist tried to assassinate him in 1996.

Turkey’s erstwhile power behind the throne and current and future prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called Israel’s Ariel Sharon a terrorist. The previous prime minister called Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories “genocide”, hastening to reverse himself when faced with the possible consequences of his Freudian slip.

Indeed, the conflict in Iraq has proven to be the watershed of the Turkish-Israeli love fest. Turkey is growing increasingly religious and more pro-Arab by the year. The further the United States – Israel’s sponsor and unwavering ally – pushes into the region, the less aligned are its interests with Turkey’s.

Consider the Kurdish question. Turkey is committed to preventing, if need be by force of arms, the emergence of independent Kurdish polity in Iraq. It would also wish to secure oil-rich northern Iraq as a Turkish protectorate. But the Kurds – America’s long-standing and long-suffering collaborators – are the United States’ “Northern Alliance” in Iraq. It cannot abandon them for both military and moral considerations.

But even in the absence of such blatant conflicts of interests, Turkey’s shift is inevitable, a matter of geography as destiny.

Turkey continues to ignore the Arab world at its peril. Regional conflicts fail to respect international borders as the country is discovering, faced with the damaging Iraqi spillover. Until 1998, Syria, another restive neighbor, actively aided and abetted the rebellious Kurds. It may yet resume its meddling if Israel, its bitter enemy, is neutered through a peace accord. The dispute over precious water sources is embedded in Turkish-Syrian topography and is, therefore, permanent.

It may have been in recognition of these facts that Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s previous prime minister, embarked on a tour of Arab capitals in January 2003. Simultaneously, then Turkish Trade Minister, Korsad Touzman, led a delegation of 150 businessmen in a two day visit to Baghdad to discuss trade issues. Turkey claims to have sustained damages in excess of $30 billion in the 1991 Gulf War – a measure of its regional integration.

Turkey has also recently begun considering the sale of water in the framework of the “Manavgat Project for Peace” to Egypt, Jordan and even Libya. Turkey’s then foreign minister, Bashar Yakis, is a Turkish diplomat who knows Arabic and had served in Damascus, Riyadh and Cairo.

Turkey’s Occidental orientation has proven to be counterproductive. As the European Union grows more fractured and indecisive and the United States more overweening and unilaterally belligerent, Turkey will have to give up its fantasies – bred by the country’s post-Ottoman founding father, Kemal Ataturk – of becoming an inalienable part of Western civilization.

Both Turkey and Israel will, in due time, be forced to accept – however reluctantly – that they are barely mid-sized, mostly Asiatic, regional powers and that their future – geopolitical and military, if not economic – lies in the Middle East, not in the Midwest. Turkey could then serve as a goodwill mediator between erstwhile enemies and Israel as a regional engine of growth.

Until they do, both countries are major founts of regional instability, often deliberately and gleefully so.

Israeli engineering firms, for instance, are heavily involved in the design and implementation of the regionally controversial Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP), intended to block Turkish water from reaching Syria and Iraq. Additionally, protestations to the contrary aside, the thrust of Israel’s burgeoning military cooperation with Turkey is, plausibly, anti-Arab.

Turkish security officials confirmed to the English-language daily, Turkish Daily News, in March 2002, that Turkey worked with Israel to counter the Hezbollah in Lebanon. As early as 1998, Turkey threatened war with Syria – and mobilized troops to back up its warnings – explicitly relying on the always-present Israeli “second front”. The Egyptian government’s mouthpiece, the daily al-Ahram, called this emerging de-facto alliance “the true axis of evil”.

Israel’s massive army, its nuclear weapons, its policies in the West Bank and Gaza, and its influence on right-wing American decision-makers and legislators provoke the very same threats they are intended to forestall, including terrorism, the coalescence of hostile axes and alliances and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by regional thugs.

Turkey’s disdain for everything Arab, its diversion of the Tigris, Asi and Euphrates rivers, its arms race, its suppression of the Kurds and its military-tainted democracy have led it, more than once, to the verge of open warfare. Such a conflict may not be containable. In 1995, Syria granted Greece the right to use its air bases and air space, thus explicitly dragging NATO and the European Union into the fray.

It is, therefore, the interest of the West to disabuse Turkey of its grandiosity and to convince Israel to choose peace. As September 11 and its aftermath have painfully demonstrated, no conflict in the Middle East is merely regional.


Also Read:

The Emerging Water Wars

Iran between Reform and Mayhem

Turkey’s Troubled Water

Israel’s Hi, Tech – Bye, Tech

Syria’s Sunshine Policy

Israel’s Economic Intifada

Saddam’s Thousand Nights

The Iraqi and the Madman

God’s Diplomacy and Human Conflicts

The Economies of the Middle East