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.