Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pardon me?

As the media looks back through rose-colored glasses at another dismal President, Gerald R. Ford, the subject of the power of presidential pardon comes up, if only obliquely, due to Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, a controversial and (rightly) unpopular act that may have contributed to his defeat in 1976.

It’s remarkable how infrequently this power has been examined, even in legal circles. It originates from Article II, section 2 of the Constitution: “...he [the President] shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”

The ideas of our nation’s founders almost never seem naïve to me—much of their thought was based on a healthy awareness of the inherent dangers of political power. But in this case I wonder. Of course they couldn’t foresee the extreme corruption of government as it has developed in the last century, culminating in our current situation, in which the White House is operated by what amounts to a criminal gang. But surely there were precedents in the 18th century for heads of state excusing the crimes of their families and associates. It would seem that the motive for instituting this power in the Constitution was, in fact, distrust of the tendency of courts towards severity in punishment. It was common in England for minor offenses to carry the death penalty. Alexander Hamilton thought that the conscience of a single person, the President, was necessary as a corrective to such unjust severity. In Federalist #74, he wrote: “The reflection that the fate of a fellow-creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution; the dread of being accused of weakness or connivance, would beget equal circumspection, though of a different kind.”

In regard to the second clause of this sentence, I believe history has proved Hamilton to be naïve. Weakness and connivance no longer carry enough shame to prevent the abuse of this power. Bill Clinton pardoned his own brother Roger, and this is only one example of that President’s high tolerance for weakness and connivance. Of course, it’s argued that it can be politically risky to pardon someone—but in Clinton’s case he was at the end of his final term, so there was virtually no political fall-out for him to consider. He pardoned former Arizona Governor Fife Symington in a case involving the defrauding of union pensions. It turns out that Symington, an old pal, had once saved Clinton from going under in a riptide. The working people who were Symington’s victims mattered for nothing compared to the personal loyalties of the wealthy Clinton.

Ford’s pardon of his predecessor was remarkable in that Nixon had not been charged with any crime. It was not at all certain whether the special prosecutor would pursue an indictment of Nixon. Ford’s action basically cleared Nixon of any charges that might be made against him in the future regarding actions he performed when President.

The impression of weakness and connivance is very much magnified by the pre-emptive nature of the pardon. It’s one thing to pardon someone who is in jail, or even someone who’s been indicted and is facing trial, but pardoning someone before he’s even been charged with anything is about as naked an exposure of political favoritism on the part of an arrogant elite that one could ever expect to see.

The official excuse for this was that the prospect of having a former President go on trial would be too much of a trauma for the nation. Thus a thoroughly phony principle of protecting the public from emotional upheaval was made to supersede the ancient, venerable, and simple principle of justice. The office of the President was cloaked in a bogus aura of imperial prestige, thus putting the President effectively above the law. It is dangerous to underestimate the power of this prestige, as we can see from the behavior of the current occupant, who has advanced the idea of the omnipotent “unitary” executive who is subject to no law but is himself the measure of all law, just like the kings and emperors of old Europe.

Now we discover, according to Ford’s memoirs as leaked by The Nation, that Nixon’s chief of staff, Al Haig, offered to Vice-President Ford the possibility of Nixon resigning in return for an agreement that Ford (who would of course have become President when Nixon resigned) would grant Nixon a full pardon. Oh, what a tangled web we weave! Ford denies agreeing to this, but when such a subject is even broached, involving the assumption of the Presidency by one politician depending on the pardon of another, one can see what a nasty can of worms the power of pardon can become.

Now that we’ve come to the point where we have a President who has no shame at all, a President who insists that the Constitution is just a “goddamn piece of paper,” the power of pardon (granted to him, of course, by that same Constitution) grants the Liar-in-Chief a wider range of corruption. Consider the Scooter Libby case, which has the potential of exposing a criminal conspiracy to lead the nation into a war under false pretenses. Bush could pardon Libby at any time, and for anything he might have done while he worked for the White House, not just the perjury charge. To be honest, I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened yet. As hard as it is to imagine from a President so indifferent to criticism, it could be that Bush and his handlers fear that the political fall-out from such a pardon (in a case involving, we need to remember, the outing of a CIA agent) could be too devastating for Republicans who have already been rocked by the disastrous war and various scandals. Perhaps they fear it could tip the White House to the Democrats in ’08. But when it comes down to a choice between losing politically and having the criminal actions of Bush, Cheney, et. al., exposed in a court of law, I would think that the current regime would eventually choose political loss. (In addition to the Libby case, it has become evident in recent months that Bush is scrambling to make everyone involved in his murders and tortures immune from prosecution. That was why the Military Commissions Act had to be passed in a big hurry.)

To sum up: the Nixon pardon stands as a warning to the nation. The more corrupt the political elites become, and the less accountable they are for what they do, the more likely it will be that the President’s power of pardon will be used in order to conceal corruption and evade justice. I might dream of amending the Constitution to eliminate or at least limit this power, but the chances are slim to none. We can hope, however, that the issue will become more prominent in the public mind, and that a debate will be opened in legal circles and in society at large regarding the proper use and function of this power.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Flesh-Eating Ghouls: How Liberals are Stalking and Crushing Our Innocence with their Monstrous, Oozing Tentacles

In a future less distant than we might suppose, the many books that have been published by right-wing gasbags in recent years will molder on thrift-store shelves, gather dust at flea markets and garage sales, and disintegrate en masse underneath thousands of landfills. Their contents will be as thoroughly forgotten as the works of Louis Dodge. For indeed, there has rarely emerged a more breathtakingly empty genre of literature than the conservative whine.

Despite an apparent multiplicity of subjects, there is only a single guiding idea behind all these books: to point a finger of blame at liberals and leftists. Let us sample a few titles, shall we? (The names of the authors have been concealed to protect them from undeserved attention.)

The Terrible Truth About Liberals; Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild;, The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Churches, Schools, and Military; Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream; Liberal-itis: A Thinking Disorder Destroying America; The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds; Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization; Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left; The Lethal Liberal Society in America: We Will Bury You!; Surrounded by Idiots: Fighting Liberal Lunacy in America; Liberalism is a Mental Disorder; Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.

Then there are the “how” books—usually a snappy main title, followed by a “how” subtitle outlining the insidious threat. (I’m listing most of these books without the main heading, so as to highlight this aspect of the, um, mental disorder…)

How Liberal Democrats Undercut Our Military, Endanger Our Soldiers and Jeopardize our Security; How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First; How the Left Created the Outsourcing Crisis; How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity; How the Left Was Won: An In-Depth Analysis of the Tools and Methodologies Used by Liberals to Undermine Society and Disrupt the Social Order; How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help; How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church; How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports; How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

You must understand that there is no engagement with actual issues in these books. The problems in our country, in our world, are due to the presence of certain groups who are bent on destroying us—“us” being the right-minded citizens who buy these books and listen to talk radio. The liberals (or the Democrats, leftists, feminists, environmentalists, whatever—the terms are interchangeable) represent a malignant force of motiveless evil. They “assault” everything we hold dear, endanger our safety, undermine our culture. They even “plot” against Christmas. Why? Who knows? They’re just evil, folks, and they need to be stopped at all costs.

In the upcoming publishing cycle we may expect books that explain how liberals want to rape our children, make Satanism the national religion, put LSD in our food supply, force everyone into gay sex, and legalize cannibalism.

I’m trying to imagine the poor credulous reader who buys and eagerly reads these books. What does he get out of it? A confirmation of his status as a victim, perhaps. An echo of every secret, self-pitying complaint against whatever people or groups he hates, or who seem to threaten his imagined privilege. And every succeeding book helps him to snivel a little bit longer, and to get angrier and angrier.

The reader imagines an earlier time, a blissful American Eden that existed before the rise of the dreaded liberals. A time when you could buy almost anything for a nickel, when men were men and neighbors were friendly, when family was the most important thing. A time when black people were in their place, and if they got unruly you could lynch 'em. A time when women knew their role: raising babies at home, not working or voting. The golden age, when there was hardly any crime, no unions, no do-gooders, when you could safely piss into the lake without worrying about the EPA. The golden age, my friends, the American Arcadia.

So what is the solution to our problem? Clearly, if we just lined up all the liberals, feminists, loony leftists, gays, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and antiwar protesters against a wall and shot them—then everything would be ok, right?

I wonder what it will take for people to realize the infantile nature of this thinking, to realize that with all the talk of a “culture of complaint” and the weakness of liberal concern for the victim, that no movement has been more characterized by whining, complaining, and pointing the finger, by a complete and total victim mentality, than this pathetic right-wing movement in America. Why, they could take over all three branches of government (and they did), dominate the media discourse (which they also did), and reduce the Democrats to a cringing, ineffectual minority (it happened, and could happen again), but they are still somehow the victims of a powerful liberal enemy determined to corrupt everything good and decent. Now, imagine if the “enemy within” were finally crushed by the righteous power of the conservative state, what meaning would be left for the right-wing whiners? What on earth would they do?

Wouldn’t they have to find someone else to attack? Maybe the Jews—that’s always a good one. Or maybe they’d just end up eating each other. Because, you see, when you run screaming from your own shadow, there is ultimately no escape.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Afterdeath (Part 2 )

The attribution of moral significance to the afterlife is a relatively recent development. For most of human history, the notion of survival after death proceeded simply from assumptions about spirit, i.e. that the self, subjectivity, could not be mortal. The fear of death prompted much in the way of ritual, ceremony, and propitiation, for the sake of the departed spirits as well as for the living community. But ensuring the best outcome, the best experience, of the spirit’s travel to the “other” world was a process primarily magical and sympathetic in nature, not moral.

To speculate on the historical motivations behind the invention of heaven and hell is to risk confusion between conscious decisions and unconscious cultural developments. For the sake of exposition, we may discuss it as if a group of priests (of whatever ancient religion) got together to devise a strategy, but the truth concerning the history of religious beliefs involves great inward struggles followed by emergence of new convictions wielding the force of sudden insight or revelation. The birth of our beliefs about things unseen does not take place through cunning or calculation, despite the impression that is presented by later history to the atheist or skeptic. Such beliefs would have no power unless they emerged from the depths of our nature, from needs and desires that are imperative. This is a truth that it is important to remember at all times when investigating religion: all the concepts which seem so strange to the rationalist would not have arisen unless they had deep-seated causes, and one must take these causes seriously and respect their importance in order to understand the concepts.

There came a time in human history, then, when the desire for justice took on the nature of an overwhelming priority—indeed, a crisis in human affairs. The invention of law had allowed great advances, but its fallibility became more and more evident as society became more complex. Although the origin of law was attributed to the gods (and later to God), the idea that the Divine would reward good actions and punish bad ones on earth became impossible to credit. For one thing, law could be subverted by men who performed bad actions and then codified these bad actions as law. For every person who was judged by the law, there were many who escaped punishment and were able to hurt other people without consequence. The power principle itself, the dominance over others through brute physical force, presented a contradiction to the idea of justice, because the outcome depended on the degree to which the person wielding power was just, and this seemed increasingly a matter of chance rather than Divine will. Ultimately, tte suffering of innocent people presented a challenge to the notion that the cosmos was just—and thus we have the Book of Job. That great poem maintains human limitation and fallibility regarding such questions, but the religions and cultures committed to beliefs in an afterlife could not be satisfied with such an answer. (Here we must focus on the Western traditions—the Eastern religions took a different path, which we will postpone discussing until a later time.)

Then comes the revelation, the sudden thunderbolt of insight. If human beings are judged for their actions after death, then our desire for justice no longer contradicts the drama of life—there is no contradiction any more, because our preparation for the “next” life is now conceived as a moral one. Those who have acted justly, therefore, will be rewarded after death in such a way as to resolve any injustice experienced in this life. Those who have acted unjustly will be punished after death, so that even if they died peacefully in their sleep after committing terrible crimes against the innocent, the desire for justice will ultimately be satisfied.

Of course, the sum total of our actions are rarely, if ever, completely good or bad. So the process of judgment after death will have to take both good and bad into account, and the degree of reward or punishment will vary accordingly. But as absolutist thought became increasingly ascendant in human culture and religion, so heaven and hell gradually lost all degrees and became an either/or proposition, a development that injects a greater element of peril into the notion of judgment. (The Catholic Church tried to compensate for this by introducing purgatory, and also different circles or levels in heaven and hell).

The first phase of belief in the two great traditions born from Judaism—i.e. Christianity and Islam—indicates a final day of judgment in which all are judged together, a day conceived as occurring in historical time. This is actually a radical departure from the age-old beliefs about the survival of an individual spirit after death, because it posits a sort of interval of nothingness or cosmic sleep for the dead, between their death and the day of judgment. (In the case of Christianity, there’s the equally radical idea of an actual resurrection of the body, but that’s another issue).

Eventually, popular belief triumphed in the form of an individual surviving after death, being judged immediately, and then going to heaven or hell. An uneasy combination was made between this and the millennial doctrines, and there has always been controversy on this point. In any case, the moral significance is identical. The practical result, the design emerging in the form of human conduct, if you will, is that the fear of punishment after death is supposed to prevent us from committing bad actions, and the desire for reward after death is supposed to motivate us to performing good actions.

The eternal, or never-ending, nature of reward and punishment is a peculiar outcome of this development. Not only, then, are we punished or rewarded after death, but there is no end to these punishments or rewards. They last forever. To do evil is to risk not only painful consequences, but consequences that will never be exhausted, leaving the judged spirit without hope of ever finding relief from punishment. (It is noteworthy that this aspect of hell is more psychologically vivid to us than the corresponding eternity of reward in heaven. I think this is because the entire complex is motivated by fear of death, and therefore has an essentially negative character.)

Thus the great problem of justice seemed to have been solved. But was it really? The complexity of the after-life system presented its own contradictions. People eventually perceived the doctrine of hell itself as a symptom of injustice. The arguments are too many and diverse to enumerate here. Perhaps the most basic is simply that reward and punishment are not compatible with the true realization of virtue, that they represent a limited, self-centered view of human conduct that fails to comprehend the nature of good actions, or indeed of goodness itself as a subjective quality for human beings.

On the purely practical level, though, can we say that heaven and hell have improved the overall state of human conduct? It’s impossible to say for sure without speculating on how human history would have proceeded without the introduction of the moral element in the afterlife. Maybe it did improve things. But I think it should be abundantly clear that this belief did not result in the faithful and virtuous human society that one might have hoped for. The atrocities of human oppression, the massacres, tortures and cruelties of the last two millennia in the West have all taken place within a culture proclaiming the belief in heaven and hell.

To put it on a more personal, and therefore more comprehensible level, I will pose a question. If a person really believed that committing a sin would sentence him or her to a hell of eternal punishment, would that person ever sin? Or let us ask instead: if a person really believed that committing a sin would open up even the slightest possibility of eventually being punished in hell for eternity, would he or she ever sin? Could you imagine taking such a risk? If you really believed in eternal punishment of sin, wouldn’t you make every effort to live a blameless life, a life of such moral purity that you could manage to live in some ease from the fear of such a horrible and inconceivable punishment? And wouldn't therefore, the majority of people in our society, who believe in heaven and hell, be virtually blameless? We would expect, then, to be experiencing a more peaceful world, a much less violent world, than what we have.

The answer to the riddle, I think, is that no one, or at least very few people indeed, actually believe with full conviction in eternal reward and punishment. Religious people try to believe. They persuade themselves that they believe. But at a deeper level they don’t believe, because at the deepest and most unconscious levels of subjectivity we intuit reality, the absolute, essentially non-verbal reality of which we, so to speak, partake. And at this level, we know, despite all conscious suppression of knowledge, that these beliefs are a fiction. No one alive can actually tell us about an afterlife from experience, and this fact is perhaps the most obvious aspect of death we know—in a sense, it could even be said to define our intuitive awareness of what death is. So no matter how many sacred revealed scriptures we are given, or how many visions or stories we are told of, we know that it’s a fiction. In the form of mythology, such fiction has undeniable meaning and relevance for us, but when it is transposed into a method for maintaining a certain form of behavior through reward and punishment, it ends in failure.

Why? Because the fear of death is an insufficient cause for moral action. It only replicates our fear in ever-evolving, complex forms. Love, compassion, caring, respect, and all the other truths that we discern beneath the surface of virtue, originate and derive their meaning from some other source besides the fear of death. Heaven and hell are dead ends.

(This is the second in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Right to Know the Truth

The 9/11 Truth Movement is a controversial subject. I’ve even had some heated arguments with friends and family about it. The greatest barrier to discussion is the stigma of “conspiracy theorist,” which threatens anyone who takes the subject seriously to be labeled crazy or gullible or worse.

In one discussion, someone commented that the belief in a conspiracy fulfills a need for us to make order and sense out of senseless, chaotic events. This is a common notion, but I actually think the opposite is true. It’s much more comforting to believe that there are no conspiracies, at least of this magnitude. To think that an event this important, an atrocity that has become a central rationale for a whole new direction in our country’s foreign and domestic policies, was the result of a government conspiracy of some sort, is very frightening indeed.

But I think it’s wrong to speculate on the needs such a controversy fulfills, on either side, because it obscures the real issues involved. The key point should be—does the official version of the event make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, then we as citizens have not only the right but the duty to demand the truth.

This key point often gets lost because of our tendency to speculate about what the truth might be. Some of the speculations may seem more plausible than others, but they all shift the attention away from the questions of fact to the questions “Who did this and how?” It is much easier to ridicule such speculations than it is to refute a fact-based analysis of the event itself. Yet the tendency to speculate is inevitable, and so we must expect such things to crop up around any question of political conspiracy. With the JFK assassination, for instance, popular attention has tended to focus on speculative and sensational aspects—the “grassy knoll” and so forth—while the fact that the official version is flimsy from top to bottom, even if one only relies on the Warren Commission’s own evidence, is rarely recognized.

In addition, there will always be lunatics that are attracted to conspiracies. This fact is consistently exploited by those who attack conspiracy theories. They use the argument ad hominem and by association: find the least coherent conspiracy theorists you can, and then label all of them with the same brush. Everyone gets lumped together with believers in Roswell and Elvis sightings. But although there are wackos who are attracted to conspiracies, it does not follow that all conspiracy theories, or theorists, are necessarily wacko. Only a sober examination of facts, and not personal attacks on the sanity or general character of critics, is a valid form of argument.

There are quite a few on the left who are dismayed by the 9/11 Truth Movement because they see it as a distraction from the important work of grassroots organizing and resistance. I certainly agree that political action is of more importance in the larger scheme of things. And yet, if the official version of the attacks is wrong, I can’t imagine how anyone could justify denying the need for truth. Interpreting history is one way that the political class attempts to control people. Surely part of resistance is to be skeptical about the official version of history. And this particular piece of history is evidently being exploited in order to steer this country towards a more authoritarian, less democratic state, as well as putting us on a perpetual war footing. We can’t really claim, then, that the issue is irrelevant.

For the record, I am very troubled by glaring inconsistencies in the 9/11 story. Among the many aspects, the most bizarre, it seems to me, is the collapse of the WTC buildings. Even if one were to accept the idea that the airplanes could cause such a collapse (which I don’t), the collapse of WTC Building 7, which was not hit by a plane, is inexplicable. I am open to hearing rational explanations of these events, but so far I have noticed a peculiar defensiveness and hostility on the part of those who seek to refute criticisms. They all end up making ad hominem attacks on the critics, while using flimsy and scattershot arguments to rebut their questions of fact. I haven’t seen a sober, systematic refutation yet. And the attitude of the government, which has been to stonewall and bluff its way past attempts at investigation, is suspicious, to put it mildly. To be fair, the Bush administration lies so routinely about everything that it’s difficult to attribute rational motives a lot of the time. Still, it begs the question—if the truth about 9/11 was clear, and favorable to the government, wouldn’t it be more forthcoming, if only in self-interest?

The fact is that no one has ever been disciplined for negligence over this terrible event. Not a single person has had to pay the piper for allowing this to happen. There has never been an actual criminal investigation. All we got was a commission with a very unsatisfactory report. WTC 7 went conveniently unmentioned in this report, among other things. It’s absurd for the defenders of the official version to get testy about criticism when those who have presented this version have done such a lousy job.

Earlier this year we witnessed the sorry spectacle of a mentally ill extremist named Ann Coulter, who actually has a voice in the media during these strange times, attacking the 9/11 widows as publicity seekers. I don’t think the real problem was that these widows supposedly supported John Kerry, although that’s the way it was framed. The problem is that they’re not satisfied with the official version of the event that caused the deaths of their husbands. This speaks particularly to my point, because I don’t think these widows are conspiracy theorists. At least, that’s not my impression. I haven’t heard any speculations from them. What I do hear is that the version of 9/11 that we’ve been given does not seem like the whole truth to them. And I know if my spouse had died in this attack, I wouldn’t care what anyone, Ann Coulter or otherwise, said about it—my sole focus would be finding out the truth. If the entire world told me to shut up, I wouldn’t stop talking as long as I thought there was some part of the truth that was still hidden.

What is a legitimate issue for the widows is a legitimate issue for the rest of us as well, because this event has been a catalyst for so much more tragedy. For myself, I can say with complete sincerity that I have no stake in what particular form the truth might take. If it were proved that Osama Bin Laden did it, I would be relieved. I would prefer not to have to face the possibility of government complicity. But as long as the events are not reasonably explained, strictly on the basis of reason and science and not on name-calling or innuendo, I can’t dismiss the issue from my mind. And I don’t think the American people will be able to forget either.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Time Lapse Politics

You couldn’t ask for a more pointed example of elitism combined with brain-dead media than the Iraq Study Group.

If you were to believe what you see on TV and the McNewspapers, we just got confirmation that the Iraq War is a disaster. Never mind that the majority of the people have known this for at least a year, probably longer. Never mind that there has been no lack of intelligent political observers saying the same thing for years. And forget about the millions who protested this war from the beginning, and have been consistently demonized as terrorist-friendly “moonbats,” along with right-wing Democrat Jack Murtha, for chrissake, who was saying all this a year ago.

But now that a hand-picked group of fossils, headed by Mr. Grinning Death-Head James Baker, says that the Iraq policy is failing, well—that’s news, my friends. It’s as if the people who own the country are in a time warp, only receiving factual reports two years later than everyone else. And it’s assumed that the American people are ignorant dullards, when the Boosh poll numbers have been consistently in the toilet for so long that you can almost hear the sound of flushing every time a new poll comes out.

The moral of the story is that the people in government, as a rule, do not feel responsible to those they serve, or even to the facts on the ground. The truth that we perceive is in a different realm from the artificial world of the media-projected national drama. And just as we are passive spectators of the junk parade on TV, so our citizenship is one of passivity. What has been abundantly clear for a long time now becomes official “truth” after a blue-ribbon panel of elite insiders declares it, all in the service of preventing an empty suit President from having to admit a mistake.

In such circumstances, thank the gods I can turn to His Rudeness for relief from mendacity.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Afterdeath (Part 1)

If the fear of death, as it’s been said, is the beginning of wisdom, it has also been, by extension, the cause of much folly.

Since our subjectivity is the one constant of life—the context, as it were, of all experience—it is impossible to imagine its loss. In our imagination, extinction becomes a semblance of night, like being locked in a dark room forever. But of course, being locked in a dark room is still an experience, while extinction is not. The fear of death, then, is different in kind from the fear of pain or any other fear, because of its unimaginable nature.

The ineffable nature of subjectivity, its wondrousness, if you will, lies at least partly in the fact that is not reducible to any experience or object, but is the precondition for every experience of every object. This gave rise to the idea of a spirit, soul, or self—some sort of being-essence that inhabits the body. Human beings could clearly perceive that the body was mortal, but could not accept that the spirit was mortal as well. Indeed, the presupposition of a spirit separate from the body already assumes that the spirit is permanent and the body impermanent, since it is the intuition of unconditioned reality that gave rise to the idea of a spirit in the first place. From this separation, it follows that the spirit survives the body, in other words, the notion of “life after death.”

The argument describes a process founded on human desire and fear. Like all animals, we seek to survive, and we avoid death. With greater awareness, however, comes a more acute form of avoidance: the fear of death as a lasting mental influence rather than just a feeling-reaction in the moment. When human beings became aware of their mortality—not just in times of threat but in all times, as a form of knowledge, and retainable in the memory—they first manifested the signs of culture that we identify as human. And among the earliest such signs, if not the earliest, were burials of the dead and funerary rites.

The ineffable and ungraspable nature of subjectivity, when intuited by a higher (human) level of awareness, leads to the notion of spirit or soul, which simultaneously transforms the instinctual avoidance of death into an emotional and intellectual fear of death. (It is significant that this higher awareness is commonly known as “self-consciousness,” for it involves reflection.) From this fear of death, in turn, is born the notion of life after death.

Although the idea of spirit separate from body does not withstand the scrutiny of scientific reasoning, humans still cling to it because of their fear of death. The idea can’t be disproved empirically, of course (since death is inherently non-empirical), but even the overwhelming power of logical argument will not change anything as long as the fear of death remains a dominant force in culture. The paradox is that many forms of religion have sought to free us from the fear of death, and by various means, even while retaining the assumptions regarding a spirit or soul that end up perpetuating that fear. Those forms of religion and spirituality that honestly seek the truth, therefore, are faced with the necessity of grappling with the idea of spirit, and resolving the contradictions that leave the mass of humanity in bondage to fear.

(This is the first in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

To hell with the homeland

Prior to the September 11th attacks, I had never heard my country referred to as the “homeland.” Shortly after, I started hearing this word bandied about by Boosh Administration officials, and then the media caught on and started using it. It was as if this was a well-known, traditional word that had always been used. Not long after this, the term “homeland security” cropped up, well before the actual creation of a Department of Homeland Security.

I have always used the term “my country,” and I think I’m probably in the majority in that regard. So this bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand caught me completely by surprise. I had a negative reaction to it from the get-go. “Homeland” sounded to me like something from a World War Two movie, in which a German officer might say, “We must defend the homeland at all costs, mein Kapitan!” On reflection, I guess it was the “land” part of the word that bothered me, because, of course, the Nazis used the term “Fatherland.” And the Soviets, I believe, referred to their country as the “Motherland”—at least when it was being attacked by Hitler. “Homeland” has that feeling to it—there’s something old European about it, with a sprinkle of xenophobia.

As it happened, James A. Bartlett had the same reaction I did, and wrote a good essay about it in 2001, which also confirmed my suspicion that the term had rarely been used before in American public life. Bartlett decided that the term was sentimentalist manipulation, and cautions that it implies an anti-democratic point of view. I think there are definite nativist overtones as well.

I find it very curious that the word suddenly popped up after the 9/11 attacks, and gained a complete and dominant currency within weeks. It hardly seems likely that this idea came out of nowhere. Why “homeland security,” then, and not simply “internal security”? I would speculate that the neo-cons, the power behind the scenes, would prefer a term emphasizing American exceptionalism, our separation from the rest of the world. This is precisely where American foreign policy ended up—as a “go it alone” policy of arrogance and isolation, rejection of the UN and international law combined with a sense of an American mission to refashion the world in its own image.

The “home” in “homeland” also implies fear and defensiveness, framing 9/11 as the violation of our home by foreign enemies, and therefore requiring a reaction of distrust to anything not sufficiently patriotic or “home”-like. The faint totalitarian echoes of the word imply obedience to authority as well.

I am hereby declaring a boycott of the term “homeland.” I refuse to use it when referring to my country. I think it’s another ploy to change the way we think about ourselves and our traditions of free thought and speech. In any case, it’s another ugly reminder of the attempt by an authoritarian political movement to refashion our language, and thereby influence our minds.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Liberals and Conservatives

Here’s what my dictionary says about the word “liberal”: favorable to progress or reform, of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies, favorable to concepts of maximum individual freedom as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties, free from prejudice or bigotry, open minded or tolerant, characterized by generosity, broad-minded, beneficent.

Why should anyone be ashamed of this word? I would feel honored to be so named. The day when “liberal” became a dirty word was a catastrophic day for us, politically and morally.

Here’s what my dictionary says about the word “conservative”: disposed to preserving existing conditions, institutions, etc., agreeing with gradual rather than abrupt change, having the power or tendency to conserve, preservative.

How do those who call themselves conservative fit this description? Rather than preserving existing conditions, they seek to establish radically new ones: the merging of church and state, the arrogation of dictatorial powers by the executive, the undermining of habeas corpus and other basic traditions of American society, the use of torture, the propagation of endless war. Citing the threat of terrorism, they seek to abruptly transform the values and principles of a nation that managed to survive a civil war and two world wars without abandoning its traditions. And what do they conserve? Not the environment—in fact, they mock and deride those who seek to conserve it. Not our liberty, which they consider a threat to security. Not individual choice, which they violate through increasingly invasive forms of social control and surveillance. Not science or education, which they attack when it does not agree with their prejudices. Not free enterprise, which is devoured by ever-expanding corporate monopolies. Not freedom of the press, which is controlled and co-opted by corporate interests. Not the economy, which continues to plummet into mind-boggling deficits and debt. Not our values, which they erode by approving torture, disappearances, pre-emptive war based on lies, and a poisonous political culture based on name-calling and accusing one’s opponents of treason.

In fact, they conserve nothing. We who speak out and organize and struggle for peace and freedom—we are the conservatives, and the liberals. The so-called conservatives and “centrists”—what should be call them? Royalists, because they believe in the absolute authority of a king disguised as a president? Fascists, because they seek corporate domination in all areas of social life? For now, let’s just call them: Nihilists.

The only thing a nihilist knows how to do is destroy things. They are never really happy, because they cannot create. We who work for peace and freedom are working for them as well. Happiness is a revolutionary act.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

More on the "literal truth."

There have been some interesting responses to my essay “No Literal Truth.” One reader pointed out that it is an essential aspect of Christianity that the resurrection be taken literally rather than “just” metaphorically. More generally, 2 Peter 1:16 makes a central point clear: “For we do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

It seems to me that, taking Christian belief on its own terms, the reader was absolutely right. There are two points that I need to make about this. The first is that my statement “All meaning is transmitted by metaphor” is not the same as the reductive idea that “such-and-such event in a religious scripture did not actually happen, but is in fact only a metaphor.” The question of what happened and what didn’t is, on the one hand, a matter for scientific investigation, and on the other—the other being in the context of a religious tradition—strictly a matter of belief. But I maintain that the meaning of such an event is accessible to the believer only through the power of metaphor. The reality of which the believer believes only gains significance because, subjectively, it has meaning for him, e.g., in Christian terms, it has meaning for the soul, such as salvation or blessedness.

If we just take the resurrection as fact alone, without metaphor, there is no meaning beyond the fact that someone defied the law of nature by rising from the dead. That’s what you might call “a curiosity and a wonder,” a singular and incredibly unusual event. But what, I ask, does it have to do with my soul? Christian theology would answer me by going on to explain the significance of this event for my soul, and in this metaphor inevitably will be the means. It’s not enough to say that the resurrection promises that we will all rise from the dead too, if we believe that Jesus is Lord, because my resurrection from the dead would also be a “curiosity and a wonder,” but with a questionable significance for the soul. So we’re all resurrected and we’re still ignorant, limited beings. So what? In other words, the actual theology involves a change in the soul, and this change cannot be explained through any plain, objective expression (i.e. “literally”) but only through metaphor.

The point is that metaphor has been degraded to the status of a word indicating “unreal,” “not actual,” or “not true.” So when religious people insist on the literal truth of their scriptures, they are buying in to a view of life that considers human experience to be unimportant and accidental compared to the existence of the “outside” world. Instead of accepting that subjectivity is an inherent aspect of existence, they deny it in favor of the same objective standard maintained by science. They end up hoisted on their own petard, because science is consistent in its reliance on facts, while the religious people put belief before facts.

The resurrection is a good example. I think everyone would agree that the resurrection would not be considered remarkable if we saw such a thing every day. People didn’t need science to tell them that to rise from the dead would be an unprecedented feat—a miracle, in fact. If everyone were rising from the dead all over the place, Christians would have no reason to mention that Jesus had done it. It is characteristic of a miracle that it goes against the observed laws of nature. And yet, after Christianity became the dominant religion in the West, and its doctrines became the status quo, any doubt about the possibility of such a miracle became heresy. We see today that fundamentalists are offended when someone challenges the possibility of the resurrection. If they were consistent within themselves, if they understood the nature of miracles, they would calmly expect that most people would not believe. This isn’t to say that they wouldn’t attempt to persuade people to believe, but instead we see indignation that someone would have the temerity not to believe. And I think this proves not only that what passes for belief is often only the assumption of an inherited cultural tradition, but also that such belief is confused as to its own nature.

I happen to think that belief in and of itself falls short of the truth concerning spiritual experience, that it is essentially a mental operation that doesn’t change anything unless something deeper is touched—what I call “meaning”—that transcends thought and language. But that’s another essay. Here it’s important to understand that the attempt to divorce metaphor from religion is essentially an unconscious betrayal of the foundations of religion in favor of a soulless view of reality, a reality that is purely “objective” and has no room for poetry or the experience of transcendence.

My second point is more practical in nature; in fact it’s political. By stating my view that the “literal truth” is not spiritual, I do not thereby declare that fundamentalists should be outlawed, persecuted, prevented from practicing their religion, etc. I make a distinction between discussions of a philosophical nature regarding religion and discussions about the legal and political implications of religion in society. I believe that the American founders got it right by forbidding both the establishment of religion and the prohibition of its exercise. Everyone should be allowed to practice any religion they want, and express any religious belief they want. But the demagogues who seem to have hijacked a good portion of the church in America right now don’t seem to understand the first part, the establishment clause. To give one’s religious belief the force of law is to establish an official religion. It’s as simple as that. It excludes others who have different religions or no religion at all, and it’s untenable even within a Christian context, since the various churches and denominations often disagree on many basic points of doctrine.

The demagogues have taken the position of victims, claiming that secularists are ruining the country. There are millions of churches in this country freely practicing their faith. There are thousands of Christian radio stations. The claim that Christians are being persecuted is ludicrous and pathetic on the face of it. What it really amounts to is a demand for a theocratic system of government rather than the one established by the founders.

I am intellectually opposed to fundamentalist religious belief. I also believe in the absolute right to be a fundamentalist if that’s what you choose. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, don’t extend the same courtesy to me. The current leadership, at least, seeks to use the force of law to deny my rights. It is this attempt to undermine the Constitution, to break down the wall of separation between church and state, that I strongly oppose, not the mere existence of an opposing viewpoint, which is inevitable.

There will never be a time when everyone is going to believe the same thing. To try to achieve that has led, and will continue to lead, to nothing but destruction. That’s why the American tradition of tolerance and separation of church from matters of state is so wise, and must be preserved if we are to remain free.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What if you're wrong?

Faced with an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that global warming is a very serious threat to our existence on this planet, the right wing, along with most of the corporate establishment, has responded by—attacking the messenger.

If I understand the arguments correctly, what these wise leaders are saying is that global warming is a fake, a plot by liberals to undermine the economy and our way of life. A recent Fox Lies program featured interviews with “skeptics” who turn out to have strong ties to the oil industry, and whose claims have already been debunked. Our friend Rush Limbaugh claims that global warming is a fraud that has been cooked up by the “wacko” UN, with the help of evil environmental activists. The Wall Street Journal has chimed in on its editorial page, claiming that the scientific case for global warming is “getting weaker all the time.”

I’m reminded of a remark by Robert F. Kennedy in his account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Joint Chiefs had argued that the U.S. needed to use nuclear weapons against Cuba, because if we didn’t, our enemies would eventually use them against us. RFK wrote, “I thought, as I listened, of the many times that I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.”

There’s the rub, you see. The question that I ask of the global warming deniers is, “What if you’re wrong?”

On most issues, being wrong has consequences which are survivable. But here, we’re talking about a threat to our very existence as a species. The catastrophic effect of climate change, caused by our petroleum addiction, involves the deaths of billions of people, an unspeakable level of extinction. And we only have about a decade to turn things around.

Now, even if one were skeptical, in the face of such a threat the issue should at least be faced with seriousness and an appropriate level of concern. I don’t hear that here. We’re supposed to believe that scientists have been fooled by some sort of left-wing cabal that is plotting to undermine our economy. We’re supposed to believe that the subject doesn’t deserve our attention, that it’s a hoax, and that someone like Rush Limbaugh knows more about such things than the many, many scientists who have been ringing the alarm for years and decades.

Self-interest is perhaps the most blinding and misleading tendency in human nature. Apparently if the news from the scientific community contradicts a desire to continue making money in the same way we’ve always made money, then the response is to hide one’s head in the sand and accuse the messenger of ulterior motives. But if these ostrich people are wrong, we all lose in a bigger way than can even be imagined.

I wonder if they think about the future at all. The whole Wall Street mentality is so wrapped up in short-term gains that it doesn’t seem to possess the capability of considering future generations at all. In the secret recesses of the right wing brain, perhaps the thought arises, “I’ll be dead then anyway. Might as well make my money now and not worry.” Who cares about the future of the planet? Who cares about my children, or my grandchildren, or what kind of conditions they will have to endure? That must be the mindset, even if it’s only unconscious. Nothing else can explain the complete disregard of, and indeed the contempt for, facts.

Never mind that it’s bad government, bad social policy, bad morality. It’s bad business. You don’t just throw away your future assets on a gamble. Even a filthy rich capitalist should have that much sense.

What if you’re wrong? Can you even conceive of the possibility that you could be wrong? Are you a human being, or some kind of god who never doubts yourself? The stakes are too high to treat this issue as if it were like any other, a political football or a hammer to hit your enemies with.

We need to wake up, or we’ll find ourselves in the boiling water with the proverbial frog, croaking idiotically while our world dissolves.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Eejits in your living room

I happened to catch Soledad O’Brian interviewing my new Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, on CNN. Here’s a question she asked (I’m quoting from memory):

“It’s pretty certain that Nancy Pelosi will be the Speaker of the House. Now, she’s a liberal with a capital L, from San Francisco—I lived there for many years. Do you think this will be a problem?”

Questions like this, which are very common nowadays on TV news, illustrate the complete inanity of the pseudo-journalists and anchors on these major networks. First of all, what does “liberal with a capital L” mean? I guess the implication is that it’s far left, or farther left than most liberals, but one can’t be sure. The idea that mainstream liberals like Pelosi are somehow beyond the pale is so disconnected from reality that it’s almost impossible to know how to respond to such rubbish. One can marvel that an idiot like O’Brian gets to ask questions on TV, but it’s not as if she’s unique.

The fact that Pelosi is from San Francisco is supposed to mean something negative too. Right-wingers talk about San Francisco and Massachusetts as if the politics they hate is a matter of geography. But then O’Brian adds the breathtakingly irrelevant fact that she lived in San Francisco for many years. Who cares? No one should, but the point is that Soledad O’Brian thinks that she’s somebody, that she’s part of the news rather than someone who just reports it, and that therefore it’s important that she lived in San Francisco. There’s also the implication that her residence in San Francisco confers expert status on her regarding the political nature of this city, and of Pelosi. Well, you know, I lived in New Jersey for twenty years, so I guess that makes me an expert on that state. If CNN wants to interview Robert Menendez, they should definitely call me.

Finally, I’m not sure what “problem” O’Brian might be referring to. Is liberalism just an inherent problem, like a disease one must overcome in order to govern? Has right-wing ideology ever been framed as an inherent problem, or is it assumed to be the norm? I think you know the answer to that.

Giffords said “No,” and then wisely sidestepped the whole thing by talking about issues. She might not have even noticed how stupid and insulting her interviewer is. I don’t know. But the groundless self-regard of these anchors and other vacuous talking heads who style themselves TV personalities creates a smothering effect on the news. You can be sure that if you get most of your news from TV, you’re most likely getting it filtered through a fool.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Quack, quack

Watching the election returns on TV provided the perfect opportunity to observe the “business as usual” paradigm at work. The dominant narrative is that the re-taking of the House by Democrats (insert sigh of relief here) means that the President must now work with the “opposition” party if he wants to get anything done. Bush is now a wounded, lame duck president.

The pundits and assorted TV bubble-heads still don’t seem to notice that this lame duck is a unitary executive duck. And it only knows how to quack one way. The idea that Bush (or the hands inside the Bush costume, i.e., Richard Cheney and associates) would ever work with the Democrats is such wishful thinking that it may qualify as science fiction. These guys will continue to do whatever they damn well please under the rubric of “national security” and the “war on terror.” They don’t care if the government “works” properly, a fact which Katrina should have proved once and for all. But denial is a wonderful thing. (And the name “Katrina” was notable for its complete absence during election night coverage.)

The Democrats are apparently laboring under the same delusion, what with all the talk of working together, reaching across the aisle, and so forth. Maybe they believe it, although Republican behavior over the last twelve years makes me doubt that. What we really have is a situation in which the Democrats and the media enablers are too frightened to say the truth out loud: that we have a lawless, illegitimate, rogue presidency that is threatening the foundations of American liberty. The theory, I suppose is that announcing that the bus driver is insane would increase the chances of the bus driving off a cliff. Better to pretend that the driver, no matter how strangely he behaves, will obey all traffic laws.

I don’t agree. I think the Democrats need to be merciless towards a foe that did not shrink from accusing them of “aid and comfort to the enemy.” But it won’t happen because the Democrats are also beholden to business interests, and we all know that. The responsibility for the future of our country lies not with them but with us—I mean the progressive community. Only a vital, growing progressive movement can force the Democrats to do what’s right. A new party (say, for instance, a Labor Party) would be nice, but that’s a long way down the road. In the meantime, we’re stuck with the donkey, and it will only listen if we stay active and committed.

Anyway, CNN’s coverage was remarkably free of insight into the issues. MSNBC offered a bit more entertainment, albeit coordinated by the incredibly narcissistic Chris Matthews. Over at the Zombie Channel, we had the usual gang of idiots headed by cold fish Brit Hume (with Bill Kristol flashing his satanic little smile as he tried to spin what was happening into his neocon framework). I confess that I could only watch brief snatches, since I forgot to take my anti-nausea medication. I did notice, however, that Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and other assorted psychos were conspicuous by their absence. They were hidden away because the network thought that a somewhat different audience (to wit, grown-ups) may be watching on election night. I'm sure things are back to normal now.

Make no mistake. What happened last night was a good thing. Witnessing the voters rejecting the Royalist party in droves was cathartic for me. I am disappointed that Jon Kyl, the crypto-Nazi senator from my state (Arizona) was re-elected. His opponent, Jim Pederson, failed to attack on the issue of the war. I suppose his advisors know more than I do. On the other hand, he lost, so maybe not. Now we have six more years of this elitist creep, who depicted himself leafing admiringly through the Patriot Act in one of his TV spots. An interesting thing about Kyl—he’s never replied to a letter or e-mail. Not even a form letter. My other repulsive senator, John McCain, always sends a reply, which would seem to be the proper way to interact with a constituent. Kyl is too busy hobnobbing with Dick Cheney and other high-level crooks to take the time to respond to mere residents of his state. Perhaps he knows that he’s already lost my vote, so he’s saving paper. But the fact that he was able to win another term here is a somber tribute to the continued political backwardness of the Grand Canyon State.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Keep the faith

I remember standing on a busy street corner in Tucson with about thirty other people in 2003 holding signs protesting the war that had just been launched against Iraq. No talking or chanting, just quietly holding up our signs. A lot of people honked and gave us thumbs up or the peace sign. There were also a lot of people who screamed and swore, gave us the finger or tried to spit on us. The rage was sometimes hard to take, but we only responded by waving and smiling.

There were big demonstrations all over the world against this war before it even started. Millions of people gathered to say No to what we saw as an impending disaster. There were huge crowds in the major cities as well. In Tucson, a smaller city, over 8,000 people protested.

But if you get all your information from the mainstream media, it’s as if we never existed. The protests were marginalized, and now that it’s evident even to many Republicans that the war is a disaster, the pundits talk as if no one cried out a warning, as if the public simply joined in the steady march to war.

The protesters were right and those who attacked us, and still attack and demonize us, were wrong. But there’s no pleasure or fulfillment in being right, god knows, as we see the death and suffering continue and increase in Iraq. There’s only the knowledge that we must always trust our desire for peace, even in the face of the greatest opposition. The noise machine does not speak for us, nor does it represent even a majority, but only a wealthy, armed minority trying to control what we think, what we say, and what we do.

These thoughts are inspired by the latest masterpiece from the fiery tristero at hullabaloo, who says what should be the final word on Richard Perle and the other neocons, whose blind ambition has become our disgrace.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Big Mistake

Recently Senator Kerry made headline news by apologizing for something he said. (Actually he apologized for saying something that was misconstrued, but no matter.) I find it peculiar that this is considered a big story.

Among the most disturbing type of person encountered in discussions of any kind is the person who never admits that he or she could be mistaken. In personal relationships, we find the same type of person never admitting wrong, and never apologizing.

It’s impossible to have meaningful discussions with such people, just as it is extremely difficult to have good relationships with them. Human beings are limited and fallible—no one would deny this. It can, however, be quite difficult to admit that I (as distinct from human beings in general) am mistaken or wrong. Self-centered pride is deeply ingrained, and we avoid feelings of humiliation if we can. The history of this is too complicated to explore here. Let’s just say that it’s unfortunate.

However, despite our pride, in real life—in ordinary day-to-day life, that is—most of us admit that we could be mistaken, and most of us apologize at some point. It’s an unavoidable part of living. I’ve met a few people who don’t, and I have to say that they seemed to me to be mentally ill, although they may have appeared quite functional on the outside. To never admit even the possibility of being wrong is an untenable position. It is, in effect, to claim perfection and infallibility. And that way, as they say, lies madness.

In politics, on the other hand, it is customary not to admit mistakes, and not to apologize. Apparently to do so is to appear weak, which is supposedly a deadly flaw in a politician. Never mind that we are weak. Never mind that awareness of one’s weakness is a sure foundation for wisdom, and that unawareness leads to the most foolhardy decisions imaginable. The image that politicians wish to project is one of strength, and for some reason that means never admitting mistakes or apologizing.

So when John Edwards said that his vote for the Iraq war was a mistake, it was considered news. You may recall Dick Durbin apologizing for his remarks about Guantanamo (something for which I don't think he had a good reason to be sorry). Some Democrats apparently retain a faint, flickering belief in human fallibility, and Republicans take advantage of this by demanding that they apologize for saying certain things. This is seen as humiliating. Republicans usually don’t apologize unless they face indictment, although not always even in that case (e.g. Tom DeLay). Right-wingers make outrageous, morally repugnant statements on a daily basis and never apologize for them.

In ordinary life, then, admitting mistakes and apologizing when wrong is a sign of mental health. In politics, it is a sign of weakness. We have witnessed, then, the elevation of mental illness to the standard of political wisdom. I suppose the public bears some responsibility for this. I suppose that polls have shown that people feel safer with leaders who are infallible. I find such leaders the least safe of all, but perhaps that’s a minority view.

We have now attained the perfect outcome of this approach with the current U.S. administration, and by a firmer logic than we normally witness in affairs of state. The president doesn’t admit mistakes, or doubt. Certainly he never apologizes. The apparatus surrounding him is also invulnerable to human limitation.

And yet, curiously enough, we notice that the president is always mistaken—he is wrong with a consistency that is rare even in the history of the Republican Party. He need only open his mouth to speak, and a stream of untruth is emitted, undiluted by facts. His policies are uniformly wrong and destructive. His administration has broken everything it touches. There is not a single policy success that it can legitimately claim.

I would argue, in fact, that the premise, the very idea of not admitting mistakes, leads inevitably to this result. By considering the admission of mistakes to be political weakness, by covering with shame the normal human need for apology, we have ended up with the weakest, most foolish, most mendacious, and most dangerous White House in our history.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

One reason for hope

With all the similarities to Germany in the early 1930s that are evident from the efforts of the Boosh Gang to establish a one-party military state in America, it is worthwhile to note an important difference: the Nazis had very wide popular support.

In contrast, it is remarkable that, considering the constant barrage of propaganda from Fox and the other state-friendly media outlets, the relentless demonization of all opponents by the Royalist party, and the general passivity of the Democrats, that Boosh’s poll numbers have hovered in the 30-40% range for most of the last three or four years. Keep in mind, also, that despite all the heavy artillery that Rove and the Royalists have been able to bring to bear on elections, Boosh was only able to muster a 51% popular vote in 2004, and that indeed he would have lost without Ohio, a state tainted by strong indications of electoral fraud.

In my experience, the reality-based community tends to bemoan the ignorance of the public more often than not, seeing the American masses as apathetic sheep, easily swayed by militarism and prejudice. In truth, the history of the Boosh Gang’s rule provides an object lesson in how far brazen lying and fear-mongering can get you, especially with a corrupt and docile press. But still, there are the poll numbers. Over 60% of us, on the average, have continued to disapprove of Boosh’s performance, no matter what phony stunt or distraction he pulls out of his ass.

I am convinced that most Americans are far more intelligent than their so-called leaders take them for, or the media pundits. So we really are seeing the kind of “manufactured” consent that Noam Chomsky has talked about, where a minority view of political reality is maintained by the establishment, and made to appear mainstream, even though the majority of Americans think differently. Both political parties, and the media, represent the monied elites, and the views of this minority are projected as if they were the sane, ordinary, middle-of-the-road, established way.

I find this fact rather hopeful. A neo-fascist government will have difficulty operating with a disapproval rating of 60% or more. The Royalist power won’t hold without a larger base.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Props to Netter

Mark Netter is one of the better kept secrets in the blogosphere. I would like that to change. Nettertainment combines first-rate political commentary with smart, forthright film and culture criticism.

You can start with Not Insane for President from a month ago, or his great personal take on Punk and the passing of CBGB. Or just dive in anywhere. This man knows how to write, and I order you to read.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cancel the Elections

Two months before the November elections in 2004, Dick Cheney said the following at a town hall meeting in Des Moines: “If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again -- that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” (9/7/04)

In other words, the election of John Kerry would represent a serious danger to the national security of the United States. Assuming this was a fact, there’s one thing I don’t understand. Why were the elections allowed to take place?

If there’s one message that’s been consistent on the part of the Bush regime, it’s that national security, the so-called “war on terror,” is more important than any other issue. It’s more important than our Constitution (you can’t have civil liberties when you’re dead, as more than one Republican has said, turning Patrick Henry inside out), and more important even than morality (since torture has been justified in its name). So how could something as pitiful as an election be allowed to occur if the wrong result could make a terrorist attack more likely?

In fact, the idea of postponing the elections, if a terrorist attack occurred, was floated in July of 2004 within Homeland Security. I assume this was “floated” because the pattern within the Bush regime is to keep testing the boundaries of its power, and these kind of stories, in CNN or USA Today or wherever, do not appear by accident. The trial balloon was met with scorn and laughter, and Condoleeza Rice quickly denied that it was a serious consideration.

Then of course we have Bush recently saying at a Reno fundraiser: "If you listen closely to some of the leaders of the Democratic Party, it sounds like—it sounds like—they think the best way to protect the American people is, wait until we're attacked again." (10/2/06)

The implication is the same, although not as bald-faced as in Cheney’s rhetoric. The election of the Democrats represents a security threat. For God’s sake, then, why allow elections at all? If the opposing party represents that serious a threat, if we’re that unsafe under their governance, I don’t understand why it's even allowed to operate. Shouldn’t the Democratic Party be outlawed for the sake of our security? At least cancel the election until we’re safe from terror. This dancing on the edge of peril seems very foolish.

If, on the other hand, the government is unwilling to cancel the elections, we can only be skeptical as to the seriousness of the threat posed by the Democrats. In which case, and with all due respect, I would advise Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

No Literal Truth

All meaning is transmitted by metaphor, through an act of poetry. This is the secret of all scriptures, all spiritual teachings, all wisdom of any kind that has been thought, spoken, or written down through the ages.

It’s a secret because society has hidden this truth, while proclaiming as law a falsehood called the literal truth. This law was motivated by the fear of death, and it pretends to protect us from annihilation through a system of belief.

As soon as the Bible, or any religious book, is declared literally true, it loses all meaning, because meaning is only accessible through metaphor. Metaphor is the gatekeeper of subjectivity. Even fundamentalists, who falsely believe that they are interpreting their scripture literally, only gain access to meaning for themselves through the power of the metaphors conveyed in their scripture.

Through mythology, the ancients combined metaphor, the language of the subjective, with interpretations of the cosmos that united communities in shared belief. But with the rise of science, born of an inextinguishable thirst for knowledge, mythology could no longer play this dual role. Modern fundamentalism clings to its mythology as objectively true, as if it were on the same level as science, while at the same time emptying its mythology of all metaphorical power.

Why? Because religion, for the vast majority of mankind, became a mere tool for social control, a method of domestication. Meaning was banished to the realm of the “esoteric,” the “occult,” “mysticism.” And if those who entered this realm—the mystics, the poets, the seers and seekers—got too close to the truth, organized religion would attack, punish, and persecute them.

Thus we have come to a time, our modern era, when religion must see through its own mythology, recognize that mythology is fundamentally different than science and cannot contest its realm—if it is not to become a completely negative and destructive force, in other words if it is to avoid the spiritual dead end of fundamentalism.

Spirituality is not going away. Human beings will always need to create and experience meaning in its many forms—such as love, beauty, wisdom, and compassion. The idolatry of sacred scriptures, the setting up of the literal truth as religious dogma, the attempt to project human limitations upon the unlimited, represents an obstacle in the way of meaning, not a way to meaning. The reified notion of a being out there who watches and rules is our darkest metaphor, a symbol of our fear of death. The secret of all religions, the supposed mystery of mysteries, always comes back to the self, the anonymous and impersonal self that we all are, the naked self that feels joy, hope, fear, and desire—the self that dies.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Enemy Mind

Labeling one’s political opponents as traitors or “enemies within,” as the Republicans are so fond of doing, is not a new phenomenon. One can trace this particular symptom all the way back to the beginnings of the Cold War. The Democratic Party occupied the White House, one should recall, for twenty straight years, over twelve of them under FDR. Being out of power that long fostered a deep resentment in the Republican Party. Republicans saw government as the servant of big business. They hated FDR and his New Deal, which they considered socialist. Prior to Pearl Harbor, they were opposed to going to war. They feared Stalin, not because of any knowledge of mass atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, but because communism was ideologically opposed to business. Many of them liked Hitler and Mussolini. The right wing of the party contained Nazi sympathizers. After the war, during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-communist purge of Hollywood, a number of Republican Congressmen went on record as believing that America had been duped into supporting “the wrong side” in the war. Anti-Semitism was an integral element in the anticommunist movement, on both sides of the aisle—Southern Democrats like the racist, Jew-baiting John Rankin of Mississippi (a prominent HUAC member) made common cause with the Republicans.

The Alger Hiss case alerted the Republicans that there were spies in the government. The anticommunists ran with this, raising the alarm that the entire Democratic administration was infiltrated. They made no distinction between supporters of the Soviet Union during the war (when, in fact, that country was an ally of the U.S.) and actual spies. If you were a communist, or were a communist in the past, you were an enemy and must be blacklisted or worse.

From here, the Republicans, following the lead of Joe McCarthy, began to openly accuse, or at least imply, that the liberal (non-segregationist) Democrats were Communist dupes or allies—not just political opponents, but enemies. A typical example took place during the 1952 Presidential campaign, when McCarthy referred to Adlai Stevenson (with a chuckle) as “Alger…I mean, Adlai…” The Republican Party discovered that branding one’s opponents “red” represented a path to electoral success, because it played on people’s fears. Ricard Nixon’s career is a good example. He was first elected to Congress by claiming that his opponent was financially supporting communist-influenced labor unions. He became a Senator by slandering his female opponent as “pink..." (a slang term for communist sympathizer) ..."right down to her underwear.”

Over the years, this way of thinking and operating turned into an addiction for right-wing Republicans. The accusation of treason was not the sole province of the John Birch Society—it was gradually incorporated into standard Republican ideology, just as the party itself gradually became an almost exclusively right-wing enterprise. Apologists may argue that the fear of communism was justified, but I would counter that the idea of demonizing political opponents as security threats and traitors is so tempting to politicians looking for votes, and is so much simpler than having to debate the issues in a civil manner, that it became a self-perpetuating attitude that bore little relation to national security. And since the Republicans have generally offered no positive ideas, but only reactions against liberals (government programs are bad, taxes are bad, civil rights means blacks taking white jobs away, etc.) the “enemy” approach became more and more prevalent and addictive. Karl Rove didn’t invent this—stoking fear and resentment was a prime strategy of the Reagan group. But the reactionary takeover in the 1990s, and the subsequent appointment of George W. Bush as President, took things to a new level. Now we have the President and Vice-President telling us that Democrats are aiding and abetting terrorists.

The fall of the Soviet Union presented a political dilemma to the Republicans. Since their whole strategy is based on reaction to an enemy, not on any positive moral vision, they needed a new devil. Islamic terrorists fit the bill nicely. The rightists had to turn the neat trick of identifying liberals with fundamentalist Muslims, while allying themselves with fundamentalist Christians whose social views are identical in most respect to the Muslims. But religious ignorance and bigotry can sometimes do the impossible, and the politicians and mainstream media don’t notice the contradiction most of the time.

The “enemy within” strategy has worked for the Republicans in electoral terms. As far as governing is concerned, it’s proven to be disastrous, since it inevitably involves some kind of suppression of political opposition. The Democrats have proven remarkably meek and compliant in the face of this strategy, ever since Reagan. They still show little backbone. Yet the Cheney-Rove juggernaut has pushed so hard with its fear agenda that the public seems to be souring on it, and some Democrats are beginning to see the writing on the wall. If the right espouses an “eliminationist” philosophy, as its AM radio toadies do, saying that liberalism is the cause of terrorism, and so forth, then the Democrats will have to fight or die. Contrary to rightist mythology, Bill Clinton was a fairly conservative Democrat, certainly a lover of big business and not a leftist, and we saw what happened—the right went at him as if he were the reincarnation of Ho Chi Minh. Endless attempts on the part of the great triangulator to become more Republican than the Republicans only made them more determined to destroy him. There is a lesson here for Democrats. The so-called “centrist” strategy is a failure. The Republicans, like crackheads, will not relinquish their drug. They instinctively label Democrats and liberals as enemies and traitors because it’s been their ticket to electoral success for over fifty years. After decades of avoiding issues, most do not even possess the ability to debate them on their merits. Name-calling and finger-pointing are the only "skills" remaining for them.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Republican “enemy” mindset will eventually collapse from its own emptiness and irrelevance. It appeals to the worst in our nature, but that hasn’t handicapped it very much so far. I like to think that things have gotten so bad now, with the most corrupt White House and most corrupt Congress in the history of the United States, that a politics that is responsive to the needs of the people, rather than using fear and hatred to divide Americans from each other in order to win votes, may have a chance. But I’m not holding my breath.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dregs of the Whine

I consider it a given that only a certain percentage of talk uttered by any human being is going to be interesting. The more time is taken before speaking one’s mind, the more considered the speech, the more likely it will be that something of what is said will be useful.

So consider the case of the radio talk show hosts. They talk for hours on end, every day, five days a week, all year long, excluding vacations. Leaving aside the intelligence of the speaker, or his or her political orientation, the mere law of averages would dictate that the vast majority of what is said will be boring rubbish, and that a considerable percentage of that rubbish will be simply false. I believe this because I’m keenly aware of the limitations of human nature. Even Homer nods, as they say—so what can we except from somebody taking calls on a radio show every day?

I would argue, therefore, that the very premise of talk radio as it is today guarantees an overflow of verbal junk. But of course the situation is far worse than that. The right-wing radio host, as pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, emits a stream of self-righteous opinion about everything under the sun, without the restraint of humility or doubt. Everything said is determined beforehand by an ideology of aggression and bombast. The breed of “personalities” that crawled from under the rocks in the 1990s, and which plagues us today, possesses a range of opinion so predictable that the only element of surprise is how offensive, how ugly, the expression might be on a given day. The AM airwaves are now owned by unscrupulous demagogues for whom no lie or distortion is off limits.

And yet, behind the arrogant presentation, underneath the swagger, we can hear, if we listen carefully, a sickening and pathetic sound—it’s the whine of the self-pitying victim. Everything would be fine if it weren’t for the liberals, the feminists, the gays, the peaceniks, the civil rights “crowd.” The radio orators rarely pause to consider anything positive. Everything takes the form of reaction. Tormented by the awareness of traitors in their midst, they spend hours berating one group or another, one liberal figure or another, in a relentless litany of complaint. Their standards are non-existent. If their own guy outs a CIA agent, they’ll find a justification for it. Would anyone in their right mind believe that if a Democratic president, a Clinton, or (heaven forbid) a Howard Dean, had outed a CIA agent, that the windbags would be justifying it? Of course not. And the fact that their standards shift according to whether the person involved is on “their side” or not, demonstrates that they have no principles at all.

After two decades of incessant on-air sniveling, the spoiled brat whine that knows no satiety in its “poor, poor me” sense of victimhood (even after their wingnut faction has taken power, they talk as if liberals are running things!), it’s a wonder that anyone can listen to this crap. How can people tune in to Rush, or Hannity, or Michael Savage day after day, week after week, and not go into a coma of rant-induced boredom? What pleasure can be derived from having some idiot complain for hours in your ear? Such is the mystery of the hate radio listener, but the polls are proving that they are a sad little minority.

One of the surest signs that sanity has revived in this country will be when these ridiculous shows lose what popularity they have. For real thought to occur, a certain amount of silence is necessary. Quiet minds speak wisdom. And may we see a day soon when the whiners are at a loss for words.

Monday, October 09, 2006

"Sexual Predator"

The language of our public discourse has been so consistently degraded that it is difficult to even notice the symptoms. A case in point is the use of the phrase “sexual predator” to describe pedophiles and other sex offenders. With the Foley scandal, we see progressives adopting the phrase (which was coined by reactionaries) as a kind of payback for Republican moral hypocrisy, in order to describe Foley and those who covered up for him.
“Sexual predator” is designed to dehumanize a subject, to turn a criminal into a monster. By demonizing in this way, we evade all responsibility to examine the problem, to locate its causes, and thus to find solutions that can help prevent it. This is one of the most basic right-wing methods, so elemental that in most cases it’s probably instinctive and unconscious. When we’re dealing with a monster rather than a human being, we can feel righteous about attacking the monster without having to deal with the complexities of the crime. This has become the standard way of responding to crime, and especially in the case of sex crimes, where the aura of fear and taboo is highly charged.
There is no need in this case to consider prevention. The monster is an inexplicable force, completely alien, and therefore cannot be prevented. In the case of the “sexual predator” we are told that it is not possible for the criminal to ever change, so we are justified in throwing him on the scrap heap and leaving it at that.
The “sexual predator” is a convenient figure by which a politician can win votes. Senator Self-Righteous Avenger can run on the promise that he’ll get “tough” on the monsters and protect us, while accusing his opponent of being soft. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, for instance, one of Dick Cheney’s favorite tools, is running on this very issue.
To state that pedophilia, or other criminal sexual behavior, is a kind of sickness, is to risk being called “permissive,” or worse. If I were to point out that a sex offender is a human being who became a sex offender for certain reasons, some may assume that I show undue compassion for the offender and none for his victims. But one doesn’t need compassion in order to seek a solution to a problem that isn’t going away. If treatment can help sex offenders, then treatment should be supported, for our own sake. Calling someone a predator is the equivalent of hiding one’s head in the sand.
It’s obvious to me that “sexual predator,” however it may superficially correspond to a description of behavior, is a loaded phrase intended to make us think of a wild animal and not a person.
Of course I’m not excusing Foley, or those who protected him. But when progressives adopt demonizing language, language that turns people into objects, scapegoats for our rage, we are no better than the right-wing hypocrites who do the same.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The National Fallacy

One of the most heavily-used rhetorical sleights-of hand is to equate a country’s government with its people. If I criticize the government, therefore, I’m “anti-American.” You may recall the words of the decrepit Jeanne Kirkpatrick: dissenters are the “blame America first crowd.” As if the state itself was America. This is known as totalitarian thinking.
At Crybaby Boosh’s Sept. 16 press conference, the commandant was asked about Colin Powell’s statement that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” This is how he answered: “If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic.”
Through the magic of totalitarian thinking, the United States government, the subject of Powell’s comments, has been magically transformed into “the American people.” And how dare you make a comparison between their compassion and decency, and terrorists?
We hear this kind of crazy-making rhetoric all the time. In the case of Israel, for instance, if I oppose their government’s military policies, I’m anti-Semitic. Or I’m against the very existence of Israel. The only rationale for such arguments is to avoid discussing any substantive issues, to permanently block meaningful debate, or keep it within “acceptable” parameters.
In The Need for Roots, Simone Weil made a compelling case for the complete separation of patriotism from the concept of nationalism. Patriotism is simple love for one’s land and people, including the people’s language and culture. Nationalism is an artificially created system of obedience to authority in the form of the state. The latter employs extensive symbolism in order to fix the attention of the people on authority, with a flag being perhaps the foremost example. Generally, the degree of reverence for a flag is in inverse ratio to the degree of patriotism, as surprising as this may seem. Flag worshippers are more likely to create enemies out of their fellow citizens, because their loyalty is to state authority, and if that means killing your neighbor, then so be it.
Patriotism is a natural sentiment. Nationalism is an indoctrination. Politicians, therefore, will always try to identify one with the other in order to confuse our minds and stifle dissent.