Sunday, December 30, 2007

A note to my readers

A health emergency in my family requires me to fly across the country on short notice. I probably won't be writing anything on this blog for at least another week. I wish you all a good new year. Well, it can't be worse than last year, right? Don't answer that.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas greetings

Today, Christmas Eve, I’m sending greetings to all my pals on the Christian Right. I thought they might appreciate some Bible verses.

To Pat Robertson:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they can be seen by men…And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:5,7)

Do you think this only has to do with people long ago, or does it perhaps apply today to certain, er, prominent evangelists?

To James Dobson:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

How about it? Got any lumber in there, buddy?

To Tim LaHaye:
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36)

Oops. Think maybe your novel-writing hobby has gotten out of hand?

To George Bush:

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25: 41-43)

Hmm. Not too encouraging.

And that's just Matthew. There are three other gospels too.

Merry fucking Christmas, you bastards.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Talk to me about abortion

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you also talk to me about:

13 million children going hungry.

More than 9 million children with no health insurance.

Almost a million and a half homeless kids.

More than a fourth of all households headed by women living under the poverty line.

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you also talk to me about:

2 million inmates in the prison industry, with 65% of them black.

Poor and minority families provided with inferior education, inferior housing, inferior health care.

Black youth criminalized and controlled in a phony drug war.

Poor people, many of them black, left to die in New Orleans.

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you also talk to me about:

Women still treated as inferior to men.

The continuous battering and sexual abuse of women.

Sexual assault in the family.

Women demeaned, objectified, and exploited daily in the media.

Lower wages and less opportunity for women.

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you also talk to me about:

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people slaughtered in the Iraq War, including many thousands of children.

Millions of children impoverished and dying of hunger and disease worldwide.

Corporations poisoning out water, food, and air while exploiting and impoverishing Third World countries.

Women and children enslaved in sweat shops so that corporations can make huge profits.

The U.S. practicing torture, secret renditions, and assassinations.

The existence of nuclear weapons, giving human beings the power to wipe out entire nations, and even the entire human race.

Addiction to oil causing catastrophic climate change threatening millions of lives, while politicians deny the problem.

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you also talk to me about

Sexism, white supremacy, hate crimes, homophobia, religious bigotry, corruption, misogyny, racism, fascism, election fraud, death squads, treason, imperialism, and genocide.

Talk to me about abortion

Only if you talk to me about all these other things.

Otherwise, don’t talk to me.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Freedom vs. Security

In late 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, The Economist and Shell Oil announced an essay competition with the subject: How much freedom should we trade for our security? Below is the essay I submitted. It was intended to be satire, but what I find astonishing now is how much of it has really come true. Of course, it didn't win. (Here are the essays that did win.)

How much freedom should we trade for our security? We are faced with this question at a moment of crisis, but it also represents an opportunity. Perhaps now, confronted with the threat of terrorism, we can finally put to rest old ideas that have not only hampered our security, but have prevented us from attaining our proper development as a society.

Above all, it is the idea, expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase "inalienable rights," that we are called to overcome. The notion that rights are bestowed at birth, and cannot be traded for security or anything else, has repeatedly placed our safety in peril. By declaring that individual freedom has an absolute, one might even say metaphysical basis ("endowed by our Creator," in the quaint words of the Declaration), this concept of rights constantly impedes the effective functioning of police and military authorities that are charged with keeping us secure. Legal strategies that attempt to circumvent this idea have only partly succeeded. We need a reevaluation of principles rather than a mere tinkering with machinery. The terrorist attacks have made clear that we need to change our thinking in a fundamental way.

The "freedom" of dissent, the "freedom," even, to overthrow the government, was undoubtedly important to a group of eighteenth century planters justifying a break with their colonial parent. But we live in a different world now. What the majority of people find important is the freedom of economic well being, i.e., the freedom to buy and own what we want, and to live in a degree of material comfort unknown to our forefathers. This way of life is provided by our free market system, with its corporations providing goods and services not only to the West but to the entire world, and which has made the United States economy the envy of all.

Terrorism represents a direct attack on that freedom. The terrorists couldn't have been clearer in their choice of targets. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon symbolized our economic and military power. It is here, then, that our freedom lies, not in abstract, disruptive concepts of inalienable rights. It is our duty to protect, at all costs, what we truly value. When people are insecure about their safety, the market becomes insecure. What possible political freedom could compensate for the loss of our material prosperity? We need only look at the underdeveloped world, that supposedly won its freedom from the colonial powers, to know the answer.

We know, then, that terrorism must be eliminated. But in order to do so, we need to dismantle those antiquated features of the American Constitution that are based on outmoded ideas concerning civil rights. These traditions only make it easier for terrorist or subversive groups to escape detection, while adding nothing to our essential quality of life.

Of what value is dissent in the modern world? We may bravely ask this question, in defiance of certain sacred cows, because our very existence is at stake. Difference of opinion is safely expressed within the parameters set by our governmental leaders and by the media. The people are as well informed in this respect as they want to be. But dissent in a wider sense - as a questioning of our system itself, of the legitimacy of government and corporate practice, or of the proper exercise of authority to ensure national security either by war or police action - has no use in the modern world, other than to create disunity, encourage unrest, and help to foster the very conditions under which terrorism can thrive. It could be argued, however, that the opportunity for dissent offers a necessary release valve for antisocial tendencies that could not otherwise be satisfied or controlled. I recognize some justice in this observation, and I expect the "right" of dissent to be preserved, at least in appearance - but with the important proviso that groups and individuals expressing dissent outside the mainstream need to be kept under rigorous surveillance by the police, so that any movement towards disruptive actions, such as demonstrations or political organizing outside of accepted institutions, can be immediately nipped in the bud by the authorities.

The U.S. government has already shown considerable wisdom by taking a hard line towards immigrants, and by avoiding the loopholes of the civilian justice system through military tribunals. By arguing in terms of war rather than crime, our leaders have shown the way towards a new understanding of freedom and security. War is no longer a temporary condition from which we can retreat into an illusion of disengagement. The rise of terrorism signals the beginning of a war that is essentially continuous. In order to maintain the economic well being that constitutes our true freedom, the so-called political freedoms need to be sacrificed. The government must be gradually militarized, and the capacity for surveillance and control of subversive elements must be increased tenfold in order to eliminate terrorism. In addition, the empowerment of the police authorities, at the national and local level, must continue even after terrorism is defeated, in order to ensure that this peril can never threaten us again. To this end, the current trend towards paramilitary training of police forces must continue and become more pervasive. Ultimately, our political institutions will need to take on more of the character of military government rather than "representative" government, which has proven inefficient and has, moreover, lost the faith of the people. The military retains its popularity, as well it should, since it represents the best of us - those who selflessly serve the nation in order to preserve our freedom. We can be confident that our economic growth will become more robust after the legalistic impediments to rightful authority are finally removed.

There is no need to give our institutions new names. A certain amount of continuity with tradition helps foster a sense of comfort. The old paradigm of political rights is already practically obsolete in mainstream society, where people have enough common sense to know that our culture will simply break down without the cooperation, expertise, and financial clout of multinational corporations. No clearer evidence could be provided for this than the almost palpable anxiety and concern that is generally expressed when the stock market is going through a downturn. We know that our true security depends on these markets, and therefore our trust lies in the successful men and women who run our economy. To question these institutions, or actively oppose them, is alien to the desires and concerns of the average person, and to allow fringe elements to do so is a luxury that has become increasingly unacceptable. Now, just as the people trust our economic system, so they can gradually grow to have more trust in our governmental system, provided that the state takes the vigorous steps needed to prosecute the war abroad and suppress dissent at home. Terrorism, along with other revolutionary ideologies, is fostered by ideas of fundamental social change, ideas which are delusory and only serve to agitate people. We must let go of the remnants of these ideas in our own traditions if we are to defeat them when advocated by others.

It might seem wiser to simply take incremental steps towards increased police and military power without bothering to reassess our philosophical assumptions. In the short run, this may be true. But as the struggle continues, the clarity of our thinking will become just as vital to our security as any practical measures. Terrorists will seize on our weaknesses in order to undermine our society. That's why it will become necessary, sooner or later, to repudiate the Jeffersonian doctrine of inalienable rights. As long as "liberty" - individual independence involving the freedom to actively oppose our system by word and deed - is seen as inherent in the human condition, it will continue to be invoked by our enemies in an effort to protect themselves and destroy us. This old concept has taken on a new guise in the idea of "human rights" that extend beyond the boundaries of America and the West, applying to all people regardless of their nationality or economic condition. In practice, this notion has always been used as a challenge to our economic power and military presence.

The truth is that freedom is a privilege, not a right. It is bestowed on us by those who possess legitimate power, won through economic risk and initiative. Middle class citizens, who constitute the majority in America, know that there is nothing to fear from the just exercise of their leaders' power, because they participate in the benefits of our system, the greatest the world has ever seen. The claims to power made by advocates of civil and human rights are illegitimate because they depend on birth, on the mere condition of being human, rather than on effort and merit. Their "freedom" is illusory because it leads only to misery, as evidenced by the failed experiments of communism. The civil liberties allowed in the West are fragile luxuries, and should be taken away when they represent a danger to our security. September 11th showed us that this time has indeed come, the time to "face facts." At the present time we need to carefully monitor all dissent, and as much as possible maintain the secrecy that is indispensable in this effort. If terrorists attack again, as our leaders seem sure they will, martial law will provide the necessary transition towards a future organization of society that will satisfy both our need for security and our freedom to buy and own the possessions that we need in order to live a happy and comfortable life. That is the freedom that counts. The danger is that we will lose this freedom, and our security, in a vain attempt to preserve the illusion of political freedom.

Ultimately there is no real freedom that is independent of national security. That, as uncomfortable as it feels to those living in the past, is the truth we need to embrace. How much freedom, then, should we trade for our security? The answer is simple: all of it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Radicals needed

One of my favorite bloggers, and in fact one of the top political blogs out there, is Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque. He understands the big picture, is consistently informative, and his writing has that quality of righteous indignation at the corporate state that is a prerequisite for political sanity in our time. He doesn’t see all the evils of our system as caused by Bush-Cheney, but regularly points out the complicity of both parties in the misbegotten drive for American empire. (The most recent example of his work along these lines is here, but you can find this penetrating insight throughout his blog.)

Regarding the Bush administration’s various operatives and other functionaries, particularly in the contexts of appointment and confirmation, Floyd is fond of pointing out that anyone who is willing to work at high levels for this blood-soaked regime is by definition assenting to its criminality, and is therefore unfit to serve our country. I agree with him, and I think it’s important to grasp the principle involved here if one is to maintain a realistic view of the political situation. It is one thing to say that so-and-so is a bad president, or attorney general, or whatever—or to say that one disagrees with the policies of a given administration or party. It is quite another to say that so-and-so is a criminal, that the administration is a criminal operation, and that (in the only possible conclusion that follows from this) said administration or government is illegitimate.

The list of abuses is a long one, of course. The case for impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors has long ago been made thoroughly and convincingly. Prior to all this, however, even prior to the grave crimes against humanity committed in the name of a phony war on terrorism, this administration is essentially illegitimate because, I would argue, of the deliberate perpetuation of fraud and abuse in the electoral system. Any persons or organizations that take away the people’s suffrage by either falsifying or suppressing the vote, has violated one of the most basic values of our republic. If the state cheats on the vote, so that the voting public may no longer trust that the announced results of an election are true, the most basic element of legitimacy, the connection between the people and the elected public servants, is completely severed. This is not to say that the voting process hasn’t already been compromised, manipulated, degraded, and trivialized to an incredible degree over the years. But there’s a yawning gulf between the perception of general decadence in the electoral system, as serious as that is, and the perception of outright fraud and illegality reversing the actual objective results of a given vote. The former represents corruption; the latter goes further into dictatorship. In other words, it is truly subversion, and in my view is tantamount to treason because it completely invalidates even the appearance of government legality.

Now, this subversion occurred not only in the 2000 election, but in the 2004 election as well. And the crime of 2004 was actually more serious, since it was perpetrated by the administration in power in the White House, and thus indicates an even more dangerous incursion. The media has maintained an almost universal, deathly silence on the fraud of 2004, precisely because the implications are so frightening. For the Bush administration to have criminally re-elected itself would clearly identify it as an illegitimate government, thereby raising the bogeyman of a “Constitutional crisis” for which the establishment and its media have no stomach. Perception of the fraud on the part of the public is, however, widespread, and especially damaging to public trust. Furthermore, underneath the recent scandal of the fired U.S. attorneys is the greater scandal that the administration sought to use the Justice Dept. to subvert the electoral process. This is of course not as well known by the general public, but it is known by the Democratic leadership. In their own self-interest, then, the Democrats pursued that investigation, at least to the point of forcing the Attorney General from office, but it’s not clear if things will go any further at this time.

Which brings us back to Chris Floyd’s point about appointees and confirmations. You may note that even Russ Feingold, one of the more principled progressive Democrats in the Senate, voted to confirm Michael Mukasey to replace Gonzales as AG, even while expressing misgivings. Mukasey, of course, refused to say whether waterboarding is torture, and that’s what got the headlines. But in general he’s been an advocate of the police state, and his history includes a close relationship with crypto-fascist Rudolph Giuliani. Floyd’s principle applies, as always. Anyone who would be willing to work for Bush is by definition unfit to serve the country. But the principle is considered unworkable in the context of Congressional politics. Democrats, even liberals like Feingold, are afraid to oppose Bush in everything, because they are afraid of being painted as unprincipled obstructionists. On a deeper level, the Democratic Party must believe—or at least must publicly appear to believe—in the legitimacy of the government. To admit that we are being governed by a criminal outfit would constitute, once again, a “Constitutional crisis,” which in the mind of a politician is feared as a dangerous disturbance of the peace, a stepping out into the dread unknown. Better, they think, to bide their time and elect a Democrat to the White House in 2008.

This is assuming that the election of 2008 would be fair. But wait—that’s exactly the problem. We can no longer make any such assumption. This is precisely the most basic underlying reason for the illegitimacy of the present regime. There is no assurance that the vote will not be falsified again. It’s sheer foolishness for Democrats to continue to postpone their opposition to an illegitimate regime by putting their faith in an electoral process already subverted by said regime.

Having said all that, we come to the much more serious crisis, which is a crisis that predates the ascension of Bush and his friends to power. Both political parties are complicit in a long-term imperial project, a drive for world hegemony that goes back, at least in its most threatening form, to the end of World War II and the beginning of the so-called “Cold War.” That’s the paradigm that is strangling us. The crisis of Bushism is serious enough, since it threatens a takeover by what is, in effect, a neo-fascist cabal that would destroy what vestiges of freedom we have left. But even if the neocon and rightist Republican movement is defeated domestically, the imperial project remains in place, regardless of which party is in power. Those putative progressives who expect the struggle to relax when (if) a Democrat occupies the White House, are living in a fool’s paradise indeed.

The correct political strategy in the long run is to oppose the Bush administration in everything. Bipartisanship has been dead a long time, and it was killed off quite deliberately by the Republican Party. Those who still believe in it and try to practice it will lose every single time because they’re playing by defunct rules. Those who support the Bush administration in anything, regardless of party, need to be opposed in regards to that support. If my representative in the House is a Democrat, and she votes to keep going in Iraq, or to confirm some crackpot Bush appointee, or whatever, she needs to know that I oppose that, and she can’t take my vote for granted. More significantly, we need to oppose imperial policies regardless of which party supports them—in this respect we can see how it makes perfect sense for people to stage protests at Nancy Pelosi’s office, and for Cindy Sheehan to talk about running against her. I don’t give a damn who is annoyed about it. The times are too serious for half-assed measures.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Long View

In Dead Certain, Robert Draper’s portrait of George W. Bush, the president is “keenly interested” in “what history will say” about his time in office. According to the New York Times, he only agreed to be interviewed for the book after he was convinced that Draper was “writing about him as ‘a consequential president’ for history, not for the latest news cycle.” We discover that Bush thinks that history will be “kind” to him. Mysteriously, the NYT piece speaks of the president’s “inner life,” a phenomenon I didn’t know existed, and says that Bush became “reflective” during the interviews.

At the world’s shittiest magazine, meanwhile, Karl Rove gave us the “long view,” predicting that history will view Bush as “a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.” And so on. There appears to be a direct correspondence between the depths of abysmal failure that an administration can sink to, and the number of times that the verdict of history is invoked by its supporters.

I have written previously about the verdict of history, and how the obsession with it by Presidents and other politicians is a symptom of idiocy, self-centeredness, insufferable narcissism, and total disregard for the real responsibilities of one’s position. And there is yet another curious aspect of all this. The “reflective” public figure (even the shallowest pool can reflect, it would seem) thinks of “history” as a single, authoritative figure, perhaps draped in a white robe, pronouncing its verdict with one stroke of its cosmic gavel. But of course history is simply the discourse of existing individuals, historians and others, who construct narratives and thereby strive to understand the past—in other words, it is always contested, always limited, never absolute or transcendent.

What kind of a creature does Bush think “history” is, after all? Perhaps someone just like himself—a frat boy munching on a Hostess ding dong? Or maybe, among all the other Orwellian echoes in this madhouse of a White House, the notion of rewriting history to favor Big Brother—namely, the Ministry of Truth—comes into play. History will be kind to Bush because some other son of a bitch will alter history and erase the truth like they erased his Texas Air National Guard record.

But let us, for once, allow a strain of optimism to influence our thinking. Let us assume that future historians will be studious, conscientious, and objective—that they will, as Mr. Turd Blossom said, take the long view. Realistically, what will they say? I offer here my own tentative prediction.

“At a critical point in world history,” writes our esteemed chronicler from the future, “after the end of the Cold War, the United States suffered the ascension to power in the White House (through fraudulent electoral tactics on the part of the Republican Party) of George W. Bush, a man who proved to be inadequate in every conceivable way to the task of governing a nation. His two terms in office were marked by an illegal war, numerous scandals, and a wholly pervasive atmosphere of corruption and incompetence. Particularly notable was his attempt to undermine the Constitution in favor of an imperial concept of the Presidency as being above the law, and insistence on the need to legalize torture. Bush was more unpopular, and for a longer continuous period of time, than any President in history. Decades later, the world still struggles to recover from the looting, indifference and denial that became commonplace during the Bush years.

“Over time, Bush has become an archetype of imbecility and mindless hate. In the psychiatric community, ‘Bush’ has become shorthand for ‘sociopath.’ Although history is a field usually characterized by dissension and extreme diversity of viewpoint, the historical verdict on George W. Bush is remarkably consistent—he is considered the perfect jackass, a figure so odious as to be almost pathetic, a blithering fool with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, a reckless warmongering thief and liar who left an indelible stain on the country and a stench in the Oval Office, a whiny, self-important braggart who ordered the deaths of thousands so that his wealthy patrons could profit, a man with so little self-respect that he consented to be Richard Cheney’s acknowledged bitch, an historical figure so contemptible, so utterly irrelevant to anything meaningful, that the only reason he’s remembered is because of the sheer magnitude of his failure…” Etc.

Well, my future historian is obviously more colorful than you might expect. But history, you may have noticed, has caught up with satire.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sold out

It’s no accident that the degradation of modern political life has coincided with the rise of advertising as a dominant form of communication. I use the word “communication” for lack of a better term—advertising has bent the meanings of more than a few words we once took for granted.

An ad could be considered merely another spice of capitalist life when it was just the local grocer hawking his wares, or a few lines in the back of a penny weekly. But with commercials plastered on almost every available surface and blaring from radio and television, the spice has become a deadly narcotic.

Worshipers of the “free market” may claim to enjoy advertising, but we know they’re in the minority—the popularity of the mute function on the TV remote is proof enough of that. Of course ads are annoying. There’s a big difference between a friend knocking on your door to pay a visit and the stranger selling you magazine subscriptions. But the pretense of advertising is that there is no difference. And it’s only one of many pretenses permeating this dubious anti-artform.

The prominence of out-and-out lying as a commercial strategy is no secret, but even supposing that an ad’s claims about a particular product are true (quite a supposition, that), there’s something about ads themselves that feel deceptive. The person, actually the company, doing the persuading will obviously say whatever it takes to accomplish the objective of selling you the product. Only children and the credulous, to their misfortune, believe that the advertiser is attempting to communicate a truth—the rest of us recognize persuasion for what it is. And persuasion is annoying because it constantly presses us to make a choice. It pulls at our sleeve like an unwanted companion who won’t shut up and leave us alone.

In this imagined conversation, a burden is placed on you, the customer. In other words, you are being asked to do something—in point of fact, told to do something, since an ad rarely stoops to asking, which would imply some sort of need. In any case, there is a decision that you are being presented with. The relationship of salesman to customer is incompatible with friendship. Friendship is based on equality in the personal sense. It involves dialogue. A commercial, on the other hand, talks at you, never with you.

The ad pretends to be sincere about the content of what it presents, but we know that the desire to sell the product overrides any consideration of content. The salesman may even believe in the product—it’s irrelevant because the act of persuasion itself is inherently insincere. Looking at society under the influence of advertising, then, we notice that we are surrounded and enveloped by false sincerity. The omnipresence of this false sincerity makes actual sincerity more and more difficult. The phony pitch gradually replaces rational discourse in the public sphere until many find themselves unable to tell the difference.

The voice of the ad—which we can take literally as a voice in the case of radio and TV—is the voice of self-satisfied capitalism. "Everything is fine the way it is," the voice says. "There are no real problems other than what to buy, what objects to acquire, and how to acquire them." The commercial's persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an essential acceptance of this situation as the only reality, the only happiness.

We can laugh at the blatant hard-sell techniques of old commercials from the 1950s. But the supposedly hip, humorous, smooth, ironic voice of the present-day ad campaign is no different in essence. Behind the slick veneer of the commercial is the grin of a fool. No rational person talks this way. People know this instinctively. Yet we have been conditioned to accept this language, this decadent form of speech, as an important part of our environment. Advertising presupposes stupidity as the normal, acceptable human condition. The ideal customer may wear a suit, drink martinis, and listen to indie rock, but his brain resembles that of the rube trembling with excitement when he gets the sweepstakes letter telling him that he “may already have won.”

There used to be a sense that advertising was only one aspect of business, and that business was only one aspect of society. But now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism—the "news" shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. The blather about “values” that has been one of the favorite political dodges in recent decades ignores a basic truth—a society’s values can be easily discerned through the messages that dominate public life. Those messages, by a huge majority, can be summarized simply as “Buy now!” This has the effect of repressing true dialogue in the social, spiritual, educational, artistic, and political realms, and it does so without most of us being aware of it.

I remember how shocked many people were by the statements of a Bush aide in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article. That’s the one where the Bushie said that the “reality-based community” believed wrongly that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” when in fact (according to said Bush freak), the empire creates its own reality when it acts. I was surprised by the uncharacteristic frankness and demented eloquence of the unnamed neocon (“reality-based community” indeed—if I hadn’t known better, I’d say it was satire), but the idea was really just a central tenet of advertising pushed to the level of geopolitical strategy. The worth of the product is ultimately not the point—the important thing is to sell it, and when you succeed at selling it, the success of the “market” justifies the product.

The problem, then, is much bigger than those rotten billboards blocking my view of the mountains—although I’m not opposed to banning them; it would at least be a start. The problem is really a new way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. It’s delusional because it filters everything through a paradigm of persuasion for profit, persuasion without reference to standards of truth and without a relationship to notions of the public good, the welfare of the individual or society. The principle that opposes this new force is simple honesty. With the loss of this principle comes the inevitable destruction of culture and the end of freedom.

To expose this way of thinking as false, then, is one of the goals of a progressive movement. It implies the recognition that capitalism does not constitute a way of life, but only a single aspect of society. This aspect needs to be kept within bounds by an informed citizenry and a government that represents all of the people, not just the salesman.

You can see what an uphill climb we’re talking about. Oh, it’s steep, alright. But there it is.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Token Club

Clarence Thomas has recently written a book called My Grandfather’s Son. The title is unsurprising if one remembers the tendency of self-righteous male political figures to invoke their fathers. The book is a dull read: Thomas devotes a great deal of space to sputtering denunciations of liberalism, and an unseemly obsession with his own perceived status as victim of liberal elites. It would seem that, incapable of writing a decent opinion for the Supreme Court, he will have to settle for writing self-pitying and vindictive personal opinions in his ill-considered memoir. Foremost among Justice Thomas’s themes are his tired complaints concerning his confirmation hearings sixteen years ago. He reveals nothing that would effectively counter the testimony against him, but continues to throw dust in our eyes.

But let us leave aside the Anita Hill controversy—as important as it was, the allegations of sexual harassment obscured other substantive issues regarding Thomas. The American Bar Association gave Judge Thomas a very tentative rating of “qualified” in 1991, with two voting members on the panel voting for “unqualified.” To put this into perspective, you must realize that the third possible rating is “well qualified,” and that this highest rating is fairly easy to achieve. Samuel Alito, a legal mediocrity if there ever was one, got a “well qualified” rating from the ABA. More importantly, it was very unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, for a Supreme Court nominee to be confirmed without a unanimous evaluation of at least “qualified.”

Thomas never really practiced law, except for three years in the Missouri Attorney General’s office, where he worked on state tax issues. He was an in-house lawyer for Monsanto, which is not a job where you’d be expected to have much training in Constitutional law. He then rose through the ranks of the Reagan Administration, where he ended up heading the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (One should note that the Reaganites were pioneers in the practice of promoting right-wing blacks to positions previously identified with progressive liberal causes. Perhaps you recall the crook Samuel Pierce, the secretary of HUD under Reagan.) Finally, Thomas served as a D.C. circuit judge for exactly one year before getting the call from Bush Sr.

The occasion was the retirement of the ailing Thurgood Marshall (who died two years later), the first black member of the Supreme Court and one of the giants of the civil rights era; the man who argued Brown vs. Board of Education; a tireless defender of civil liberties, racial equality, and the rights of the accused. Shallow political thinking being what it is, it was generally assumed that he would replaced by another African American, without much attention being paid to what made this particular African American a great judge.

Now consider the thinking behind the nomination of Clarence Thomas by Poppy Bush and his gang. Here we have the retirement of a great black man, a defender of the oppressed and a champion of freedom and equality. The reasoning, if you can call it that, going on in the brains of these toad-like political hacks could be summarized as something like the following.

“So they want another black guy on the Court? Okay, let’s find a black guy who’s as right wing as they come. Let’s make sure he’s a mediocre lawyer with very little experience, even though there are many other black judges who are far more distinguished. And let’s nominate this nobody, this nonentity who represents a fraction of a percentage of the black community, to the highest court of the land.”

Think about the utter contempt that this nomination demonstrated—for the Court, for Marshall’s legacy, for the black community, for all of us. Consider how this strategy was calculated to turn the tables against civil rights, and against all the gains of that movement through decades of struggle. And remember that all this was to be accomplished by nominating a black man, and then contemplate the nauseating depths of political calculation to which George H.W. Bush and his advisers were willing to go. These were the guys that deliberately evoked racial hatred and fear in the 1988 campaign. They continued to push the Nixonian “Southern strategy” that used code words and secret winks to win the votes of white bigots, and keep the country divided for their own political advantage. Their successors have continued on the same road.

And Judge Thomas has been everything that they hoped he would be. He has consistently embraced the unchecked power of the police to do whatever they want against the citizenry of this country. In the backward march of the Court against racial equality, he has been in the forefront, to the point now where it seems as if we might as well reaffirm Plessy vs. Ferguson. He is the black Jim Crow. He is against abortion rights. He is for torture. He doesn’t even believe in the rule of legal precedent—one of the very foundations of our judicial system. His career on the Court has been one of astonishing mediocrity and ineptitude. And of course, he helped appoint Bush Jr. in 2000.

In his spare time, he performed the ceremony for Rush Limbaugh’s third marriage. What a guy.

As for Poppy Bush’s strategy of racial contempt, the Shrub took it to a whole new level. The appointment of black rightists, culled from an African American population that is overwhelmingly progressive in its political and social leanings, is a Bush hallmark, with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as the most conspicuous examples. (And when you need someone really batshit crazy to bring out during a crisis, there’s always Alan Keyes.)

You see, the evidence of New Orleans notwithstanding, Bush and the Republicans really do care about black people. They care so much that they’ve appointed blacks to the most important administration jobs—our chief liars, thieves and killers.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The familiar problem

Recently I ran across this passage from Plato (Laws, bk. III). He’s discussing the decline of Persia:

“We find that they degenerated still further. The reason is that excessive curtailment of the liberty of the commons, and improper intensification of autocracy, made an end of their national feeling and public spirit. Since their disappearance, the concern of the authorities is no longer for their subjects, the commonalty, but for their own position; they give over loyal cities and peoples to fire and desolation whenever they think it of the slightest advantage to themselves, and consequently hate and are hated with savage and unrelenting animosity. On the other side, when they need the arms of the common people for their defense, they find no patriotism in them, no loyal readiness to hazard themselves in the field; in theory their forces are reckoned by countless thousands, but all these thousands are worthless for service. Hence they hire mercenaries and aliens, as though they had no troops of their own, and look to them for their salvation. Moreover they are forced to an exhibition of their folly, since their habitual conduct amounts to a proclamation that all that society esteems honorable and of good repute is a toy in comparison with gold and silver.”

Now, with a few little adjustments (the well of patriotic soldiers has not yet run dry, for instance, although one can't help but note the mention of mercenaries), this passage can be applied justly—not to present-day Persia (Iran) of course, but to us, the United States under corporate rule, and to the Bush regime especially. Which demonstrates, as many other documents of our Western heritage could, that the problem we face is neither new nor particularly complicated. The arrogance of technology, and the politics of the image, fool us into thinking that we have advanced beyond the problems of the 4th century B.C.E. But the folly of valuing gold and silver over the good of society as a whole plagues us still, and to this narrow and short-sighted self-interest we can still attribute the majority of our ills. Only now the disease may be fatal, since the end of the human race has become an actual possibility in our time.

Friday, October 26, 2007

In their face

Channel surfing is a terrible habit, worse than biting my fingernails. I’ll inevitably run across something by chance on one of the “news” channels that will piss me off. Last night my remote clicked around to the evil clown Glenn Beck, who somehow managed to get a prime time show on CNN. Watching the antics of this bug-eyed lunatic is equivalent to slowing down next to a bloody car wreck, just to get a glimpse of some mayhem.

Perhaps part of my sick fascination stemmed from reading about something he’d said Monday, to wit: "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today." Think of the families forced to flee their homes on a moment’s notice, losing everything they have. Then read that sentence again and wonder why Glenn Beck has a job.

Anyway, last night he was showing clips of the recent Code Pink action at the Congress, where a woman with her hands painted blood-red actually got up close to Condoleezza Rice, calling her a war criminal and yelling, “The blood of millions of Iraqis is on your hands." She was dragged away, along with the other Code Pink women that were there.

And Glenn Beck is gesticulating in that clownish way that makes you feel nauseated and saying, “They're horrible, just a horrible group of people! I mean, look, you can be against the war. You can have this debate. There's nothing more American than saying that. But this is -- these people are over the line!"

I’d like to know what “debate” he’s referring to. Public opinion has been overwhelmingly against this war for literally years now, so that debate is over. But you wouldn’t know it from watching the “news” channels. And what avenues, may I ask, are available to the people to voice their outrage over what has been done? Well, I guess we can write letters to our senators and representatives. Or to the editor of our local newspaper. Oh yeah, we can vote every two years, assuming that the vote is not being rigged or suppressed, which is sadly not something we can ever assume again. In fact, I seem to recall that there was an election last year in which the Democrats were put back in control of the Congress, an election result fueled in large part by disgust with this war. And yet—nothing has happened. Bush and Cheney go on their merry way while Congress ensures that we're not making any disrespectful puns on General Petraeus’s name.

The citizens of this country are treated like spectators who have no duty to their conscience but to keep out mouths shut while war-mongers and plutocrats continue to drive us to ruin. That’s why Code Pink disrupts public events. Face it, everyone who has stood up for peace has been ridiculed, slandered, demonized, and accused of disloyalty, even when they’ve been polite and played by the rules. So raising a little hell is quite appropriate. Getting in the face of a murderous flunky like Rice is just what’s called for. She deserves to feel uncomfortable, maybe even a little scared.

Women taking action, angry women, women who are acting “unladylike”—these things inspire fear and revulsion in the patriarchal brain. Even Jon Stewart, bless his heart, cracked “You’re not helping!” when they showed a clip of a previous Code Pink action on his show. But what would help, do you think? Folding our hands, being polite, being quiet, waiting our turn? Our turn never comes if we just wait for it. We march in the streets by the millions and the “news” channels say that we were “thousands,” if they mention us at all. Have the rightists practiced dignity and civility? Hmm, maybe we should ask Ann Coulter about that.

The more hissy-fits the wingnuts, the better off we are, I think. The Fox zombies and AM radio roaches starting piling on Media Matters over the last few months because this little website has had the nerve to regularly fact-check their statements and expose them as liars. And they’re such pathetic little whiners that the thought of some website criticizing them provoked them into a torrent of whining and finger-pointing. It’s funded by George Soros, they sniveled, as if that would make a difference, even if it were true—which of course it isn’t.

Whenever an anti-war group or a progressive organization is attacked by these people, it means we’ve hit a nerve. That’s a good thing. We want that.

And you know, the last time I looked, Code Pink hadn’t killed anyone. They haven’t shoved anyone’s head underwater to simulate drowning. They haven’t blown little kids to pieces in the name of democracy. They haven’t put American soldiers in the line of fire while looting the treasury for all it’s worth. And yet somehow, they’re a “horrible group of people.” You know what? I’m reaching for my checkbook right now and I’m making a donation to Code Pink.

There. I feel better.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bad faith

In a speech the other day, Sam Brownback said the following: "The view of government without faith has been tried and failed; it was atheistic communism. It had the idea that somehow man would move himself into a perfected state, and it utterly failed. It didn't look to the transcendent, and didn't pull man out of himself in love.”

Here we have a fairly standard distortion, an imitation of actual thinking, in which the separation of church and state is identified with atheism. It’s designed to appeal to the fundamentalists. Liberty from religious intolerance, from the enshrinement of religious power in government power, is framed as a threat to faith. The harking back to communism is an almost nostalgic appeal to the knee-jerk hatreds of the Cold War. If you don’t want prayer in the schools, if you think women should be able to decide themselves whether they want to go through with a pregnancy, if you think gay people should have the same rights as everyone else, well you must be an atheist communist.

An all-too obvious aspect of all this—which is, however, seldom pointed out—is that Christian fundamentalists and their enablers must have incredibly weak faith, seeing as how they are in a practically constant state of anxiety about threats to it from liberals, feminists, gays, atheists, Muslims, or what have you. Their almighty God must be a puny little weakling if his rule is threatened by a few gays, or for that matter by any mortal who summons the courage to question his existence. But of course the fundamentalist faith is the real weakling, since it relies on a constant diet of hatred, resentment, anger, repression and contempt to stay viable. The spiritual midgets of the so-called religious right apparently think that God needs their help. Without Pat Robertson scrunching his eyes closed and asking for a Supreme Court Justice or two to have a heart attack, Jehovah just may not be able to succeed in his mission.

When someone like Brownback starts to pontificate about faith and the sacredness of life, etc., I am puzzled—no, dumfounded—trying to understand what he means. He voted no on requiring CIA reports on detainees and interrogation methods. I guess “faith” means keeping silence when people are tortured. He voted no on banning chemical weapons. So I guess “faith” shouldn’t interfere with the right of the state to use nerve gas on human beings. He has continued to block pulling troops out of Iraq. I guess “faith” means more war, more death, more militarization, more fraud, more lying, more lawlessness.

The faith that countenances continued violence and state-sponsored terror is no faith at all. It is a sham. And the only way someone like Brownback can tell himself that he is a man of faith is if “faith” is a concept so devoid of meaning as to simply indicate the craven exercise of power over others. And when our modern Pharisees hear of the suffering caused by their government, they cheer inside, and cry against those who stand for peace, and use the idea that liberals want to man to “move himself into a perfected state” as an excuse to do nothing.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Clinton cul-de-sac

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s a narrowly tactical saying, and therefore false in almost every way that matters to ordinary working citizens. But in the American political scene in the last fifteen years, this fallacy has had a destructive effect on liberals and progressives seeking meaningful change.

I’m referring, of course, to the Clintons. The right wing has demonized them to such an extraordinary degree—to this day obsessing about the Clinton presidency even as they make excuses for his deeply corrupt successor—that many well-intentioned Democrats seem to think that the Clintons must be friends of the progressive movement. On the other hand, I have known many an instance when attacking the Bush regime has prompted conservatives to assume that I must be a Clinton supporter. Such is the shallow cul-de-sac that is mainstream political thinking.

It’s no use pointing out here that Clinton was a much better President than Bush. It’s not hard to be better than the worst. The Bush gang’s depredations have lowered the bar to virtually subterranean levels. I have heard comparisons of Nixon, Ford, and even Reagan to the current occupant in which the previous crooks and mediocrities have gained a better rating than Bush. Does that mean these men were good Presidents? Not to a sane way of thinking.

In discussions that I’ve had, Clinton supporters have extolled his charm, his eloquence, his marvelous speaking ability. Frankly, I’ve never seen it. He’s always come off as a facile glad-hander to me, and a very boring speaker, full of general platitudes without fire or substance. His stultifying “bridge to the 21st century” State of the Union speech was not at all unusual for him—a pretentious lathering of rhetorical emptiness that numbs the mind into apathy at best, impotent rage at worst.

But let’s look away from the man and measure the accomplishments. What did President Clinton do?

He went to the mat for NAFTA, and for “free trade” in general, just like the corporations wanted him to. Unions? Forget about it. Clinton never did a thing for them. On the other hand, he was in favor of deregulating the banking industry, part of the short-sighted corporatist strategy that still plagues us.

He jumped on the right-wing anti-welfare bandwagon, helping to craft punitive anti-poor legislation.

He flinched when rightists opposed gays in the military, turning around and establishing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an unworkable anti-gay policy that plays right into the hands of the hate lobby.

Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism Act foreshadowed Bush policies. It included wiretapping without warrants and giving the State Dept authority to decide what organizations are terrorist and then make anyone contributing to these groups liable to prosecution. It also negated habeas corpus for non-citizen terrorism suspects.

He used military force in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Sudan. He instigated a long bombing campaign against Iraq that went largely unreported in the U.S., and his sanctions on that country were estimated to have killed a million people, many of them children.

And what about the economic prosperity we supposedly enjoyed under Clinton? The upper five percent became much wealthier under Clinton, and Wall Street prospered. But it didn’t translate into change for working people. Wages stagnated while downsizing and outsourcing accelerated. The internet boom provided a nice illusion for the media to latch onto, but we all know what happened next. Clinton helped facilitate corporatist policies that led to constant mergings, short-term speculation, and corruption. Basically he was bought and paid for by Wall Street.

Under Clinton the Democrats became a minority in the House for the first time in five decades. They lost eight Senate seats, which basically destroyed Democratic effectiveness in that body, and led to further losses later on. Eleven state governorships went Republican under Clinton. The Clinton presidency was a golden age for the right-wing. And did he stand up and confront them? No, he tried to co-opt their power by becoming more and more like them. Principles didn’t matter, only power. And how did this strategy play out? While Clinton played for the ever-shrinking “centrist” vote, and took liberals for granted, the Republicans viciously attacked him on every front, finally impeaching him for lying in a civil suit that they instigated against him for sexual misconduct.

The degraded state of our political landscape today did not just appear out of nowhere. A lot of the reasons that it has gotten this bad can be found in eight years of spineless surrender to the right during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council, a conservative group whose goal is to align the Democratic Party with the corporatist agenda, and thus keep the money flowing in. They bought into the rightist mantra that “liberal” is a dirty word, and that progressive politicians are unelectable. They still wield a lot of clout. And their way leads to disaster.

Was there any area in which Clinton held firm for progressive values? I can think of one: choice. Not the greater issues of women’s rights, health, and empowerment; not the needs of poor women with families; but just abortion rights. In a time when we needed someone to fight for us against the rising tide of reaction, this is the sop we were thrown. Is that enough for you? Is being pro-choice, and nothing more, enough to qualify someone as a liberal? I think not.

Since the catastrophe of Reagan, the official definition of the “center” has continued to move farther and farther right. This was a conscious strategy. When outrageous things are said, they begin a process in which the outrageous can become “normal.” By going along with this, Clinton Democrats marginalized liberal and progressive voters. The assumption is that there was nowhere else we could go. (The same attitude was maintained regarding African American voters.) They’d say stuff during election years, but when it came time for action we were ignored. One of the results has been widespread voter apathy. Rather than see this as a problem, both parties have been afraid to expand voter participation. Better the security of low voter turnout than the wild card of an energized citizenry. This dovetails with the strategy of appealing to the “undecided” voter. Although Rove demonstrated that energizing the base can win elections, Democrats don’t seem to have a sense of their base, or rather one should say that their base consists of the corporate donors who are bankrolling them. If the voters turn against corporate interests, what are Democrats to do? Give lip service to the public interest, while placating the corporations, that’s what. And this is exactly what we still see now.

Do you think Hillary Clinton offers anything different in essence than Bill Clinton? Study her words and actions carefully, and you will find no meaningful evidence of such difference. Once again we have sheer opportunism, a consistent placating of the right along with token gestures to the left. I hope we can do better.

When we witnessed the spectacle of Democrats, even progressives like Eric Alterman or Todd Gitlin, become apoplectic about the third party candidacies of Ralph Nader, it’s a symbol of the impotence and weakness of mainstream liberal thinking. What they’re really saying is: “Your vote belongs to us! How dare you waste it on a third party candidate!” A mature adult response would be to question oneself, asking how the Democratic Party can meet the needs of this portion of the constituency that is voting for a third party. What can we do for progressive needs and causes, so as to bring them back into the fold?

But instead, as you know, they pouted, threw tantrums, pointed at Nader and whined that he had thrown the 2000 election to Bush. The immaturity and entitlement of this stance is breathtaking. We supposedly owe them our votes without question, or we’re branded as stupid idiots. But what had eight years of Clinton done for us? What had he done for civil rights, women, the environment, equality, racial justice? All we saw was an opportunist game of double talk and triangulation, in which society became increasingly engulfed by the right-wing narrative. And the Gore that campaigned that year was not the Gore we saw emerge later on.

I’m sure even the majority of us, who voted for Gore, didn’t expect that the Bush administration would be a crypto-fascist coup. The narrative that was sold to us was that he was just another Republican shithead. But even though Bush has been an unmitigated disaster, in the long view we need a much more radical change than electing some cautious establishment figure to the White House. In fact, the focus on the Presidency as an agent of change is misguided in itself. There’s a huge architecture of power that is in place in this country, an imperial power inflated to mammoth proportions during the Cold War, and no one person in the White House will be able to transform it into a true servant of the people. I mentioned how different Gore was as a Vice-President and a Presidential candidate than as a Nobel laureate. We’ve also seen how Jimmy Carter has said and done some wise and sensible things after he was President. While he was President, he had Brzezinski as his Secretary of State, and he made sure that the federal government would survive underground while we all fried to death in a nuclear war. He was a conservative Democrat, not a liberal, and this is what we forget. But it seems everyone changes in the secret corridors of power. If by some freak accident, a man like Kucinich was elected, don’t you think he might get assassinated, or otherwise disposed of?

So the answer is a mass movement of the people. It always has been. If we want politicians to pay attention, we have to be mobilized. This is not easily done. The material comforts offered to the masses by the corporate powers act like a glaze over the mind. The wasteful luxury of our “way of life” is bought at the expense of a lot of other lives in other countries. Most people don’t want to see this, or do anything about it. But besides all this, people are generally busy with their lives, and they’re not going to drop everything to become political activists. How can you blame them? Strategies of engagement need to be fashioned that ask more of people without asking more than they can give. In the meantime, I suspect that things will have to get a good deal worse, economically and otherwise, for the mass of Americans, before a progressive movement will make the kind of gains we need. The rightists are not going away quietly. The polls show them losing at every level, yet they still dominate Washington and the media discourse. The astounding thing is how well progressives have actually done in the last few years, considering the forces arrayed against us.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Just trust us

On Thursday, Dana Perino, the White House’s new official liar, brought out the old “we don’t torture” mantra in response to the New York Times’ revelations about U.S. endorsement of torture. When asked to elaborate, she used the old “we won’t tell you because the enemy is listening” rationale: “You don't hand over your game book to the opposing team.”

You see, children, the enemy trains itself to resist interrogation. If they know what we do, they will be better prepared to resist. Mind you, we don’t torture. You’ll have to take our word for it. Trust us. But we can’t answer questions about our interrogation techniques.

Fact: the torture methods are already well known, and have been public knowledge for years now. The notion that we’re not being told in order to protect us is another insult to our integrity and conscience. The Bush regime wants the American people in the dark as much as possible because our knowledge threatens their power.

“Just trust us” is not within the American tradition. If anything, it’s an ancient royalist concept of obedience to divinely ordained authority. If all we needed was to trust that our masters were doing the right thing, there would be no need of representation by legislatures, or trial by jury, or a Constitution, or for that matter, the vote. “Just trust us” is merely a doctrine of submission to a paternalistic power, like peasants submitting themselves to the will of an Emperor. This republic was not founded on trust, but in fact on a wise and healthy mistrust of the human capacity to govern itself without proper checks and balances. So for the government to refuse to give an account of itself, to keep the people in the dark as a matter of principle, is an inherently un-American philosophy. It’s a philosophy much more in keeping with dictatorships such as China or North Korea.

The Bush regime must make the pretense of being moral, because an amoral political philosophy of pure power is not completely acceptable to most Americans. Therefore we get this infantile insistence that “we do not torture.” They do in fact torture, and have been torturing for years now, but the denial is necessary in order to keep the mass of people, who are generally uninformed, in a semblance of moral comfort and apathy. It doesn’t matter if the statement has repeatedly been shown to be false, as long as this information is confined to a relatively small educated segment of the populace.

As part of this strategy of deliberate obfuscation, concepts which are incompatible can be combined without much consequence. Thus Perino emphasized several times that we haven’t had another terrorist attack here since 2001. The implication is that torture has helped prevent such attacks. (But of course we don’t torture.) Bush himself has used this ploy, as when he credited “tough” tactics last year in the cracking of terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah. (The narrative concerning Zubaydah was a lie, but we can generally assume that any statement of fact by Bush is a lie.)

The moral stance is flimsily transparent. The real message, the red meat thrown to the rightist base, is that torture is good when used against the enemy. If you’ve got bad people who want to kill you, then you’re justified in torturing them. This really appeals to the basest, most primitive human elements, the part of us that hates and wants to make the enemy feel the pain of vengeance. I think this element is a big part of what motivates the base—pure rage and hatred against enemies. And “the enemy,” we know, is domestic as well. It includes liberals, leftists, feminists, etc., so implied in this appeal to the base is the prospect of using torture against the “domestic” foe as well.

Conservatives used to decry the “moral relativism” of the left. What could be more relativist than this desire to justify torture? If we can torture an enemy, who is going to decide what the definition of “enemy” is? What’s to prevent me or my family from being designated an enemy, if I protest, dissent, or say the wrong thing? If a Democrat were in the White House—say for instance Hillary Clinton—what’s to prevent the government from declaring anti-abortion groups as the enemy? But you see, when their political opponents do it, it’s wrong; when it’s their guy doing it, it’s right. This is the quintessence of moral relativism. It’s government by men instead of laws.

The use of public discourse as a means to hoodwink the uninformed masses is perhaps best epitomized by the “ticking bomb” argument. We recently witnessed the grotesque spectacle of a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, using the fictional character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 to argue for torture. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles...He saved hundreds of thousands of lives...Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" The utter contempt that this argument demonstrates is breathtaking. We’re considered so stupid that we will accept the confusion of a TV thriller with reality, by a Supreme Court justice no less.

When the ticking bomb defense comes up (and it does, frequently), I haven’t heard anyone ask, “So is that what we’re facing in these cases? Are we racing against time here to dismantle an atomic bomb? And if not, what possible relevance does this argument have to the debate on torture in Guantanamo and elsewhere?”

To which the Fox viewer might reply, “Yes, this is a ticking bomb. These terrorists are out to get us.” Who decides which person is a terrorist, and who gets tortured to save us from this metaphorical ticking bomb? The Preznit, of course. Just trust him.

Which brings me to another subliminal argument going on underneath all this talk of game plans and scorecards and tough tactics. The secret message is: “These weak, pansy liberals are more concerned about the rights of dirty Arab killers than they are about you, Mr. Decent White Guy, and your decent white family. So publicly we’ll say that we don’t torture (wink, wink) to keep these do-gooders at bay. But we know, don’t we, friends and patriots, that your glorious leader is doing whatever it takes to keep America strong, and if that means attaching electrodes to the balls of some filthy wog, then so be it. We’ll do what we have to do, like true manly men, and we'll deny it so that the liberal traitors can't sabotage our righteous work."

We wonder why the constant exposure of lies hasn’t brought this regime down. I’ll tell you a story. I had a t-shirt made with a big picture of that hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib on it. The shirt says, “If these are our values, we’re losing more than a war.” Yes, it’s provocative. I was wearing it a couple of weeks ago when I was in line at the grocery store. The cashier looked at me with a quizzical expression. “If these are our values…” she said, “What does that mean?” “I had this shirt made myself,” I answered. “The picture is from Abu Ghraib.” Can you guess what she said?

“What’s Abu Ghraib?”

I told her it was the prison in Iraq where they tortured people. She said, “You mean our soldiers?” I said yes. She said, “Oh. I…don’t like to think about the war.”

This person was not hostile, just curious. And I don’t blame people for not wanting to think about the horrific things going on in this world. But it was an eye-opener for me because I assumed everyone had heard of Abu Ghraib. The torturers have shown themselves less naive than I in this regard. They know that most people don’t pay very much attention to the news, beyond the most superficial aspects.

They count on it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The roots of denial

Holocaust denial is in the news again, thanks (but no thanks) to the President of Iran. Ahmadinejad’s opinions have elicited the usual indignation, but what are we to make, finally, of Holocaust denial itself? There is no question that the “final solution” is among the most well-documented events in history. The Germans kept very precise records—not to mention the countless testimonies from survivors and perpetrators, along with all the other supporting evidence. That anyone would even attempt to deny the Holocaust has always puzzled me. Yet it’s been going on for at least forty years.

Sometimes the denial manifests as a critique of the extent or nature of Nazi persecution of the Jews, as for example in claims that the gas chambers were a myth. I don’t think it makes any difference whether a revisionist denies the Holocaust outright, or just the extent of it, or the means employed. None of it withstands critical scrutiny.

It seems to me that the question as to why such denial is being advanced has two related answers, one of them obvious, the other not as much. First, the obvious one: antisemitism. Hatred of Jews has a long tradition. The ambivalent relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which organized Christian power incorporated the Jewish scriptures while claiming to usurp the Jews’ “chosen” place within the biblical story, has been one of the most tragic aspects of European history. The 19th century, however, saw racism as a cultural construct give way to an ideological racism. The mythical position of the Jew as scapegoat became a lightning rod for those using fear and resentment to wield a new kind of power that we’ve come to know as “totalitarian.”

When the magnitude of the Nazi regime’s crimes became widely known, the world shuddered. A supposedly “civilized” nation demonstrated to what depths human beings can go, and they were deeper and more frightening than anyone had dreamed. The post-war revelations concerning the death camps were a repudiation of ideological antisemitism. As the cause, so the effect: the end of antisemitic rhetoric was mass murder.

Rather than boldly attempt to justify the “final solution,” therefore, the antisemite of today seeks instead to deny that it existed. If there were no Holocaust, then anti-Jewish ideology can pretend once more to have a case. Holocaust denial, then, is an attempt to regain access to the destructive energy of the old Jew-as-scapegoat mythos, a time-honored source of power. Of course there are other scapegoats available (the right wing is currently using gay people for that end) but none of them have the history or the potency of the Jewish scapegoat.

I believe, however, that there is a second reason for Holocaust denial, related to the first but more subtle. That the Third Reich was really a rightist state is a fact that must be secretly embarrassing to right wingers. During the Cold War, the American right was fond of raising the specter of Munich and “appeasement” when attacking the left as being soft on Communism. This obscured the fact that it was the right that opposed entry into World War II, it was the right that was isolationist, and what support there was for Hitler in this country came exclusively from the right. During the McCarthy era, anticommunism and antisemitism went hand-in-hand, and this was no different in essence from Hitler’s own political views. A number of Congressmen were on record as believing that America had been duped into supporting the “wrong” side in the war by a “Jewish-Bolshevist” conspiracy.

As a symptom, then, of this largely unexpressed embarrassment, we witness the appearance, on society’s fringes, of Holocaust denial. For if the Holocaust didn’t happen, or even if it wasn’t as severe as we’ve been told, then Nazi Germany was just another regime that waged an unfortunate war and lost, rather than a massive criminal enterprise. And if the fascist state was not beyond the ken, then the fascist project for the future is given a new lease on life. I don’t believe the issue at stake is whether or not the denial is supported by the facts. The motive is to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind. A gradual erosion of faith in the historical record advances the fascist cause. Most of this is unconscious, of course, just as all such ideological systems are an expression of an unconscious drive to power.

In the case of Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers from Muslim countries, I think it’s primarily a symptom of their hatred of Israel. A sane perspective is to consider Israel as a state among other states, which means that one can oppose the policies of an Israeli government without being anti-Jewish, contrary to what many reflexive defenders of Israeli policies may say. Conferring a “special” status on a particular country is just as delusional as giving it a “hated” status. To do neither is not only a prerequisite for sane political discussion, but for respect as well. But both are apparently in short supply. So we have the spectacle of a Muslim leader spouting off about the “myth” of the Holocaust. No matter what the motive may be, the negation of the historical record reveals an insidious prejudice.

I understand that there are Holocaust deniers on the left as well. Delusion is not the sole property of the right. But if I were to believe what the right wing noise machine tells me, liberals and leftists are natural allies of Islamic fundamentalists, although the fundamentalists oppose homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and just about everything else that the American right opposes. The Orwellian state of public discourse is such that indignation about Holocaust denial can be expressed by those who haven’t learned anything from the Holocaust. The mortal danger of extremist ideology, whether we label it “right” or “left,” is not something in a museum. It’s still very much with us.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


In a sleepy corner of Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, residents mill about. Children are playing; some are being breast-fed. A beautiful Malian woman leaves her house, where her little daughter is suffering from a fever, and goes to sing at a local nightclub. A young man lies in a nearby building, deathly ill but with no medical care. And in the midst of all this, something unusual is occurring. There’s an open-air trial being conducted in a little enclosed town square. Judges sit at a table; there are lawyers and witnesses. Gradually we find out who is on trial: the World Bank. The plaintiff is the African people.
I'm describing a film called
Bamako, and it’s directed by the extraordinarily talented Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. Now, I would expect a film in which a symbolic trial of the World Bank takes place, with impassioned speeches on both sides of the issues around globalization and African impoverishment, would be contrived, didactic, or in any case difficult to sit through. But not at all. Sissako’s method of placing this highly charged rhetorical event in the middle of what amounts to a village atmosphere creates a compelling and realistic link between oratory and ordinary life.
Most of the men seem alienated or listless, sitting with heads down outside the court, listening to the trial on loudspeakers, sometimes having laconic and rather intriguing conversations. The women are more active
dyeing cloth, weaving, handling the food and the childcare. Sissako is even confident enough to be absurd: at one point the kids watch a mock-Western on TV starring Danny Glover in which the sheriff and the outlaws shoot it out but the only people who get killed seem to be civilians, which in itself is a symbol of the situation in Africa vis-à-vis the West.
The trial itself is the film’s centerpiece. On the plaintiff’s side we have eloquent denunciations by a writer, a professor, and others, talking about the tremendous burden of debt hanging on the neck of Africa, how it relates to colonialism, how the World Bank’s policies only reinforce servitude and the shattering of traditional communities, and how privatization degrades Africa’s right to its own land, water, education and health. Sissako also gives the devil his due, so to speak, in the person of the lawyer representing the World Bank, who presents the kind of counter-arguments you’d expect, credible if not humane, claiming good motives, economic progress and concessions on debt
notwithstanding the occasional intervention of a local goat, who seems to want to give the lawyer a good butt with his horns.
This is a polemical film, a film of outrage about what has been done and continues to be done by the prosperous north enriching itself at the expense of the south, and the tremendous cost in human life and dignity. But the careful creation of atmosphere, the film’s accurate feel for the rhythms of life, and the fiercely intelligent script, ensure that it doesn’t just leave you feeling angry, but wiser, more determined, more empowered.
Bamako is an extraordinary achievement, and I urge you to see it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Move on

The reaction to the ad attacking Petraeus provides a convenient glimpse into the rightist mindset. It would appear that attacking the military is the one unpardonable sin. Before venturing any criticism of the war regime, we must always reassure the public of our admiration and devotion to the brave, fine, excellent men and women of our armed forces. Unless they’re whistle blowers exposing abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Or soldiers who have turned against the war. Then we’ll ignore them, or denigrate them if necessary.

On cue, the “centrist” opinion makers are sure to fall in line with the lemming march against Move On. It’s all a bit surprising, since Move On has been comparatively cautious in its approach in the past. That hasn’t stopped various Bush mouthpieces, such as Dan Bartlett, from painting them as radical extremists. In our country, anyone even approaching sanity is a radical extremist.

The unquestioning worship of the military is not a particularly American sentiment. It doesn’t distinguish us from any number of kingdoms and dictatorships through history. In fact, civilian oversight of the military has been the American approach, ideally at least if not always in practice.

The military is not a republic, or a democracy. It is by its very nature a dictatorship. You do as you’re told. That’s the way it has to be. The danger is that if the military becomes a dominant political force in society, you end up with tyranny. That’s what right-wing authoritarians crave, because they don’t really care about America in terms of its republican traditions, the heritage of the founders. It’s just a fiefdom to them—a way to get rich and lord it over the rest of us. The identification of patriotism with militarism is one of the main corrupting influences in the political process today. You see it everywhere. To challenge it is to challenge the climate of fear and the threat of ostracism and violence. As the tin-horn fascist John McCain said, “ ought to be thrown out of this country.” Deep in the reactionary psyche, criticizing the military is like challenging Dad’s authority. Hysteria is the automatic result.

The ad made a pun on Petraeus’ name (“Betray us”) which seems to be what pissed the wingnuts off the most. I don’t think wordplay of this sort is a good thing. It sounds too much like the rightists themselves. As those of us who are conscious will recognize (but the corporate media and their drone viewers don’t see), the right has been using this kind of rhetoric with impunity for decades. Bill O’Reilly and the rest of that ilk have no qualms about calling liberals, or even just those who oppose their views (e.g. John Murtha) traitors to America. And they do it continually. But if a liberal or a progressive, or a group like Move On does it, then that’s not acceptable. A big brouhaha will be kicked up in the media and the sneering mob will demand an apology.

No apologies should be made. None. The noise machine needs to be attacked for what it is. And that’s the only effective strategy when it comes to this kind of incident. Because the fascist group will always find some distraction like this to whine about. That’s their method—distraction.

The larger lesson to be drawn from all this is not a new one. It’s the same ugly fact we can discern from any one of such incidents in our recent history. And that is that the assumption of moral values by the American elites is a lie. The sad part is that it has also become a lie for a great deal of ordinary Americans as well—I wont’s say all, or even most. I don’t know. But the evidence is discouraging.

Thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the American invasion. The conduct of the occupation—the brutality, the profiteering, the constant lying—has shattered Iraq. Millions have fled the country. But do we hear any concern for that on the part of the political elites? What politicians, pundits, or candidates demonstrate an awareness of the criminality of what has been done and continues to be done in the name of America? Almost no one says a word about that, or expresses the slightest moral qualms about this war. It’s always expressed in selfish terms: how we’re stuck there in a quagmire, how the war was “mismanaged,” or even how the Iraqis are ungrateful and uncooperative. Among those who may feel the horrifying moral implications, few speak out, because they know they will be condemned and ostracized if they do so. The few exceptions, such as Kucinich, are already marginalized, therefore ignored.

The underlying belief is incredibly infantile. The United States is inherently good, and cannot do wrong. Anything we do is right, and anyone who questions that is a dangerous traitor. If someone else does exactly what we do, that’s different, because they’re not us. This is an essentially amoral belief. It does not recognize any objective moral standard. To grieve the loss of American losses while being indifferent at best to the lives of non-Americans, is not moral in the least. It’s nothing more than barbarian tribalism. To be “outraged” and “repulsed” by an ad attacking Bush’s general, and at the same time to have no outrage or disgust at what the American government is doing, has been doing, around the world and at home against its own people, shows that the power elites and those who follow them have absolutely no moral values whatsoever. If you’ve grown up believing in the United States, if you’ve had faith in American ideals of freedom as expressed in our founding documents and in the rhetoric of our leaders, this insight is a shocking one. We are an amoral country whose only real value is power and self-aggrandizement.

I recently watched The War Tapes, a documentary film culled from video footage shot by American soldiers on duty in Iraq. Towards the end, when the soldiers we’ve been following are back home, and suffering some of the after-effects of war, one of them explains that the war has to be about oil and money, and that this is a good thing. What would happen to this country without oil? he asks. Then he says that it better be about the oil because he doesn’t want to believe that his friends were killed and wounded for Iraqi freedom.

It’s understandable that a veteran would want to draw meaning from the experience, and be as honest about motives as possible. What’s astonishing is that the notion of fighting in self-defense doesn’t enter the equation. Bush and company pushed hard on the “WMD” angle because the inherent belief is that you don’t go to war unless your country is threatened. But underneath that, in the rationale of the soldier from The War Tapes, is the fall-back argument, the real motive when self-defense is a sham, and that is that we have the right to kill other people to gain an economic or political advantage over them. Ultimately, people are just so many means to the ends of power. There’s a word for the end of that road: totalitarianism.