Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Crazy Thinking

For those innocent folks who might have thought that the election of 2006 proved that American democracy was in good shape, the events of the last couple of months must be quite disillusioning. Polls show that 67% of the public disapproves of Bush’s handling of this war, and 64% think that the war was just flat-out not worth fighting. And yet we are witnessing not only a plan to escalate the Iraq war, but a steady drumbeat signaling an eventual attack on Iran.

Our country is owned and run by a small group of moneyed elites. In the final analysis, they don’t care what the majority of citizens think. They do what they want to do to advance their interests, which are the interests of the corporations and the military-industrial complex, and then the people are fed a steady diet of prevarication and distortion designed to confuse, divide, and disempower us.

The consensus in Washington seems to be that the war in Iraq must be a noble cause because America couldn’t have an ignoble cause, since that would be a disgrace. By all means this disgrace must be avoided, so we hear politicians blaming the Iraqis for not doing “their part,” and criticizing Bush for not waging the war competently, rather than for waging the war at all. The rightists in particular become hysterical at the mere thought of American failure, lurching around for someone else, anyone, to blame for the catastrophe.

It’s a peculiar, emotionally insecure kind of rhetoric that we’re hearing. It’s taken for granted that things would get much worse in Iraq if American troops pulled out, but there’s no real basis for this belief other than desperation. The invasion of Iraq caused the problem in the first place. The waging of this war has given birth to the civil war. I believe that the situation could only get better if the U.S. pulled out. This is not to say that the civil war would suddenly end, but without American troops there the people would actually have a better chance of resolving the issues. (Wayne O’Leary at Progressive Populist sums up the practical benefits of withdrawal here.)

There’s a strong element in the establishment, right wing or otherwise, that sees everything in the emotional terms of victory or defeat, triumph or disgrace. Instead of really considering what would be the best course of action for our country, and our security, they are ruled by the fear of weakness. War becomes about perceptions and messages rather than any real political strategy, just as we saw in Vietnam. The central problem, then, is the delusional belief in American infallibility, entitlement, and virtue. An adolescent pathology has been projected onto an entire country, as if “America” were an actual living being with a sensitive ego that should never be challenged.

The polls show that the majority of people really have a much more sensible approach to things than the leaders who are supposedly representing them. Hubris and concentration of power in the executive have resulted in insanity. That’s what it is. When someone refuses to acknowledge the reality that everyone else sees, he is considered insane. The cocoon of prestige and media-fed oblivion surrounding the powerful prevents them seeing their own insanity. But more and more ordinary people are seeing it, and it’s truly a radicalizing experience.

I don’t know what will happen if Bush bombs Iran. I can tell you one thing—it won’t make us safer. In fact, everything this government does places us in an increasingly dangerous place. Perhaps the cruel truth about having a pretend democracy is that things have to get unbelievably bad before the people get mad enough to make a difference.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Old lions

Some wise person said recently that if we focus too much on hating Bush, we end up as shallow as he is. I can see this tendency in myself, and I know I see it in others. The point is not that we’re supposed to love a criminal head of state, although a Quaker might say just that, but that the energy for change isn’t sustained by personal animosity.

One of the things I like about Noam Chomsky is that he analyzes ideas and institutions, and doesn’t spend much time talking about personalities. He might mention Cheney or Wolfowitz once in awhile, but identifying individuals to blame is really not the point. Read this recent interview, for instance, and you’ll see how Chomsky tries to understand not only the sociopolitical forces at work, but the general ways of thinking that drive them. His central insight—that the elites of the West actually hate democracy—will purge your mind of a lot of foolish beliefs assumed in the mainstream, if you can take it in.

Because of this impersonal approach, Chomsky seems to come off as a little cold—not brimming with the outrage we might expect, but looking at things from several steps backwards and seeing the continuities between our current situation and the stages we have traveled through to get here. He was practical enough to recommend a vote for Kerry in ’04, simply because the Bush regime represents a kind of radical nationalism that poses a very dangerous threat to the world. At the same time, he knows that Kerry and other establishment politicians do not challenge the assumptions of corporate imperialism. For those who place a lot of hope in the possibilities of Democratic Party opposition, Chomsky must seem discouraging. Yet he continually expresses optimism about the potential of organized resistance, because he knows that the only real change is going to come from the bottom up, and we’ve seen a greater resurgence of progressive activism under Bush than in the previous twenty years. It’s too bad that it’s taken this steep a plunge to wake people up, but perhaps that’s how it had to be.

Chomsky is 78 years old. Howard Zinn—warm and folksy where Chomsky is rigorously academic, yet sharing Chomsky’s broad historical vantage point—is 84. Gore Vidal is a different sort altogether—a kind of patrician satirist who definitely likes to focus on personalities yet brings years of wit and wisdom to the debate. He’s 81. These people aren’t going to be with us very much longer, and that actually scares me a little. We need people with the long view, fearless and tireless, in the coming years, which promise to be full of tumult. I would like to know what figures in the next generation will sustain their work. Who do you think they are? And how can we support them?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Interview with the Klan

Standing in line at the bank, I saw a Ku Klux Klan member being interviewed on CNN. The bank has a TV above the tellers with the sound off, and I only caught a little of the closed captioning. A headline said, “Klan membership growing.” I began daydreaming about what I might say if I were interviewing a member of the KKK:

CD: Thank you for talking to us. First of all, I’m interested in your costume. I’ve noticed you wear a robe and a pointed hat. I’ve also seen pictures of members who hide their faces with a hood that has holes cut out for the eyes. Is your organization Halloween-based in some way?

KKK: No, the uniform was originally meant to appear like a ghost, so as to frighten the…

CD: And yet I notice that your costume is purple. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a purple ghost…

KKK: Well, I’m an Imperial Wizard, so our uniform is a different color…

CD: A wizard? So you practice sorcery?

KKK: This is just a traditional title…

CD: I have to tell you, this whole thing seems so, well, retro. I mean, your costume looks like something from the Renaissance fair, and then you say you’re a wizard. Is this a Dungeons and Dragons tie-in of some sort?

KKK: Look, I came here to talk about our beliefs…

CD: Oh, I know, you hate blacks and Jews and so on, we’ll get to that. But I just wonder, wouldn’t it be smarter to wear business suits like everyone else? I think you’d have more credibility that way. The pointy hat and the mask and the robe, it’s so off-putting.

KKK: There’s a tradition behind the uniform, and we don’t call it a costume, by the way…

CD: The robes aren’t even well-fitted. They’re just sort of this dumpy thing, like wearing a tent. And I look at you and I think, Harry Potter? Bilbo Baggins? Then I find that you’re a political organization of some kind, I mean, your presentation just doesn’t fit your act, you know what I mean?

KKK: Now, you listen to me, sir, sir…

CD: And the pointy hat. You could do better. Maybe a smart looking cap of some sort. Times have changed. People aren’t scared by guys running around in a sheet yelling “Boo!” any more. At least not in my part of the world. Now, about that cross on the front of the costume, is this some kind of affiliation with Christianity? The Crusades? I’m confused here, first we have ghosts, now the ghost is wearing a cross….

Etc., etc.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm Spartacus

Shakespeare's Sister
left the Edwards campaign. I understand her decision. And I also understand that the unscrupulous right-wing demagogues who attacked her have no credibility, and no guts. We are all Spartacus. If you have a blog, please join us.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The proper attitude to war

When asked if he was troubled by the firebombing of Tokyo, in which about 100,000 people were killed in one night, Air Force General Curtis LeMay said, “Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."

LeMay was a prick, but when he said “all war is immoral,” he spoke the truth. The part about not letting it bother you is untrue, however, or at least only partly true, and moreover it contradicts the first sentence of his statement. For if every soldier thinks about the moral aspects of what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is immoral, then it has to bother him somewhat, or else he’s not really thinking about the moral aspects, is he?

In any case, the central statement that “all war is immoral” is a very important concept to get. On the face of it, it seems incredibly simple, but in fact the common belief is that not all war is immoral, only unjust war, i.e. war waged for the wrong reasons. War in self-defense is considered moral.

This is not just verbal hair-splitting. It goes to the heart of our attitudes about war, and there’s a long history behind all of this. What we need to understand is that something can be necessary without being moral. Killing people is immoral, but it may be necessary if one’s country is attacked. Ideally, a civilized people would wage war with courage and firmness, but not glorying in it. We would recognize the terrible cost to ourselves, to the soldiers, to humanity, of war, and therefore fight the necessary war without trying to pretend that it’s a great and glorious thing that we should romanticize or celebrate.

Ideally, I say. For we know that in reality it never works out that way. The reasons are complicated.

The role of the warrior has been invested with glory and prestige since ancient times. We see it in tribal culture, and not merely in the context of defense, but also, and in fact primarily, in terms of conquest. It’s difficult to envision a warrior role without it, if only because a person wouldn’t be expected to risk his life without some prestige being attached to it. I think it goes deeper, though. The whole notion of conquest is founded on what I call the power principle. Power over others is the mark of authority. Authority is always invested with prestige, and so it comes to be that power by force of arms carries the ultimate prestige. This became more and more magnified as humanity developed larger social units—cities, kingdoms, empires. By the Bronze Age the linking of war with glory was already fully formed. In the Iliad, glory has become fame, a sort of immortality in which the warrior’s glory outlives him in the memories of his countrymen and even in the eternal realms of the gods. And the Greeks were by no means unique in this regard.

Glory, honor, fame, sacrifice. War is ennobled by these words, and so they were used in order to motivate people for war—especially the people who stayed at home while their sons or brothers went to fight. They motivated the sons and brothers too, but for them in addition there was the promise of material gain—booty. When a city was sacked, the soldiers would gain some of the goods of the defeated people, and if they didn’t, the result would be angry, restless soldiers. Those who fought wars would also stand to gain public honors, privileges, and offices. All these, including material gain from booty, are also kinds of prestige in themselves. They all increase power.

Returning, then, to where we began—the firebombing of Tokyo—we are confronted with the dilemma of war in the modern age, namely, the duality of soldier and civilian. Civilians have always suffered in wars. In warrior tribal culture, the conquered enemy was often enslaved. This continued with the rise of empires. The historical origins of slavery lie in war. Those other people, the barbarians, would become our slaves after we conquered their city or their kingdom. Moreover, in the Old Testament we read of entire cities being slaughtered—man, woman, and child. This was less common, but still not unique to the Hebrews by any means. Rape and other depredations were also common. Slavery became an established institution, practiced on a huge scale in the Roman Empire, and providing a crucial underpinning to the imperial economy. Empire and slavery went hand in hand, and empire was of course created through conquest. This has been true right through to the modern age, even after the literal state of bondage was outlawed and replaced by less overt forms of coercion. There is fertile ground here for historical thought and investigation. I introduce the concept here in order to make the point that war has never spared civilians, albeit there have always been varying degrees of separation between the roles of soldier and civilian.

The change in the nature of war that we have seen in the last two centuries, therefore, is not primarily a matter of kind, but of degree. When aerial bombing was introduced, there were always sound military reasons for it. Most of the time, military targets were being bombed. But of course, people live near these military targets. LeMay’s goal, for instance, was to knock out munitions factories in Tokyo. But there was also a military justification for bombing cities regardless of what military targets might lie in them. It was thought that causing widespread destruction to cities would demoralize the population and therefore aid the war effort. The Nazis did this, in Rotterdam, London, and elsewhere. The Allies pulverized the German cities in turn. The estimates of deaths in the firebombing of Dresden range from 150,000 to 250,000 people. Incendiary bombs got around the enemy’s air defenses to wipe out the target—they also wiped out the people.

There is a sense in which a line had been crossed. The ratio of civilian deaths to deaths of soldiers had become far greater than ever before. And civilians were being directly targeted as part of the war effort, rather than as primarily a sequel to conquest. Nevertheless I would argue that the horrible consequences of modern warfare were the result of a progression by degrees, not of a radical shift in thinking about war. All war is immoral—it’s just that the immorality became increasingly horrifying and unacceptable due to the sheer increase in the numbers of civilians killed. The more likely the killing of non-soldiers became in war, the more widely evident war’s immorality became.

The culmination of this increasing arc of war, of course, was the development of nuclear weapons. It was as if the internal contradictions of war inevitably reached this point of no return. And for the first time, there was something of a change in kind, rather than just of degree, involved. Fewer people died from the Hiroshima bomb than in the Dresden or Tokyo firebombings. In fact, the combined deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably less than that in the Tokyo bombing. But there is something particularly shocking, I think, about one single weapon leveling an entire city. The ancient idea of the battle (admittedly already obviated to some degree by the concept of aerial bombing) is now completely outmoded. There is no battle, just the complete slaughter of man, woman, and child, like the Old Testament but in the blink of an eye.

There’s a sense in which it is just as immoral to kill one person as it is to kill a million, because from the point of view of the individual who is killed the only life he knows is being taken away. From the point of view of people living in society, however—families, communities, countries—a greater number of deaths is a greater evil. Nuclear weapons take this to a level that transcends what we can even conceive of as social creatures. Jonathan Schell was very forceful about this in The Fate of the Earth when he talked about the crime of erasing humanity’s future. Another aspect that I don’t think has been talked about enough is the violation of our proper sense of limitation as human beings. When we’ve reached the point where we can annihilate entire countries in minutes (and indeed wipe out humanity itself), we find ourselves unwittingly in the position of a god, the old idea of the all-powerful god who can destroy us all (such as in the flood of Genesis). We all should know that people are limited, flawed, prone to mistakes, and capable of causing harm to one another through their passions. It is not sane to trust human beings to hold such absolute life-and-death power over the world. And in a religious sense, I would maintain that it’s actually blasphemous to presume to wield such power. Anyone claiming to be religious who also believes that human beings have a right to such godlike power (“God bless the atom bomb”) is, in my view, usurping the place that properly belongs to God—or to use Christian terminology, is espousing a Satanic philosophy. The power principle has led us, then, to this—either the assumption of amoral divinity by the merely human, or (and this is the most difficult choice we face) the renouncing of the power principle as the central tenet of the social order.

We still have “conventional” war, however. We still have soldiers, weapons, and battles. And there is still the possibility, contrary to the strictest teachings of pacifism, that a war would be necessary in order to defend ourselves. This brings me back to the beginning. After all we know now as a race, after two terrible world wars, a "cold war" nuclear stand-off, and many other wars around the world right up to the present day, can we really maintain the glory, honor, and prestige of war? The politicians are still doing so, and the civilians who push the reality away from their consciousness with flags and rhetoric. But those who know war firsthand, soldier or civilian, know differently. Even if a war is justified (and so few of them really are), the proper attitude is solemnity, determination, and the grim knowledge that killing is shameful and wrong, and that there’s nothing glorious about being killed. The proper attitude is seriousness, and that’s just what seems to be missing now.

No more parades.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why we are here

Take a look at this clip (courtesy of JC) of Senator Leahy giving Alberto Gonzales a lesson in basic decency. The subject is “extraordinary rendition,” Newspeak for the transfer of terrorism suspects to countries where they will be tortured. Leahy makes points that those of us who have been protesting for years are already familiar with, including the important fact that the government has sent people to Syria for torture, a country that we supposedly consider a sponsor of terrorism itself.

Contemplate, if you have the stomach for it, the simpering countenance of the little creep who somehow became the highest law enforcement officer in the land. He wears a smirk of condescension, no doubt feeling an innate superiority to anyone with a conscience. Leahy can talk about freedoms, values, or the Founding Fathers all day, but Gonzales won’t hear, or comprehend. He’s a Bush toady, and that’s the sum total of his world view.

When I think about these times, and these pathetic little men who hold power, I often feel a sense of vertigo, a wonder at how we could have descended so far. When I heard the first stirrings of a right-wing argument for torture (it was in a George Will column in 2001) I was sickened, because I knew it meant that the administration was going to take that route. But I never dreamed that it would become such a central aspect of their program.

Even if one were to believe that torture is an effective tool against terrorism—a belief contradicted by all the facts—it certainly could never be conceived as one of the most important methods, compared to intelligence gathering, informants, surveillance, etc. The need, the absolute imperative to have the “freedom” to torture, which has been repeatedly expressed by Cheney and company, seems completely out of proportion to its importance, as long as one assumes that the rightists really care about fighting terrorism. If, instead, one comes to believe, as I do, that the rightists have a stake in perpetuating the fear of terrorism (and therefore a stake in its persistence), then a couple of possibilities present themselves.

The first is that they believe that the threat of torture will strike fear into the hearts of all their opponents. The enemies, whoever they are, will be intimidated by the apparent willingness of the U.S. to “disappear” people into secret prisons from which there is no escape, and to torture and abuse them for as long as it chooses. The purpose is to strike a super tough, super aggressive attitude that will deter attacks. This is fully in line with Bush foreign policy in general, which has relied almost solely on creating an image of so-called toughness against “terror,” “Islamo-fascism,” etc. The occupation of Iraq has thoroughly discredited this na├»ve approach, except for the Bush cadre, which continues to adhere to it, believing that to acknowledge any other approach would mean defeat. (Defeat for the rightists is equated in their own minds with defeat for the country, although in reality our country’s true interests lie in the opposite direction from the Bush regime’s.)

We must not fail to also acknowledge the intimidation of American political opponents as a motive. This brings me to the second possible reason for this peculiar fixation on torture. This radical group that I usually label with reference to Richard Cheney, but is in fact a much wider phenomenon, encompassing the so-called neoconservatives as well as neo-fascist, theocratic and nativist forces dominating the Republican Party, is essentially hostile to the American tradition of freedom embodied in the Bill of Rights. To these elements, human and civil rights are an obstacle to the exercise of authoritarian control and economic power (the latter is what they mean when they refer to “freedom.”) The rightists are also hostile to the separation of powers, preferring a centralized executive with unlimited authority. (Paradoxically, they will seek to undermine an executive who is not of their group, e.g. Bill Clinton, if the outsider has connections to elements that does not adhere to rightist ideology. Thus, any Democratic president will be attacked and weakened by the rightists unless he is a rightist himself.) The project, then, is to take any remaining force out of the Bill of Rights, concentrate power in a king-like executive and one-party apparatus (such as in China), while extending economic dominance abroad. The legitimization of torture is a key step along the way, because it ups the stakes against dissenters by discouraging protest, and it undermines the moral foundations of human and civil rights. Torture takes center stage because people need to get used to the degradation of human dignity if they are to eventually accept dictatorship, or at least tacitly accede to it.

I have always maintained that the Bush administration is illegitimate, i.e. not a bona fide legal executive. It has gained power, and maintained it, through fraud, and it has operated primarily through the commission of various crimes, from the crimes against humanity in Iraq and elsewhere to its consistent violation of the Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and other legal and common human standards of decency, along with deliberate negligence (New Orleans) and political crimes exemplified by Karl Rove and the Libby case.

Nevertheless, it is important to take a long view as well. The creation of a national security state after World War II, and the emergence of an imperial mindset as its driving force, has led us—with tragic inevitability—to where we are today. This idea of government was similar in some respects to the Soviet state that it ostensibly opposed, in that policing and spying (“intelligence”) were invested with virtually unchecked authority, and cloaked in secrecy. Again and again, we have seen the advocates for the military-industrial complex and the police agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) stress the need for secrecy, and this always involved eliminating any oversight by the citizenry. “Security” became the byword for the maintenance of power by a bloated military and police establishment, and this large group has of course an interest in perpetuating itself and its power. This self-interest did not go away with the fall of the Soviets. It holds on to power with all its might.

One of the central tenets of this imperial mindset is that America must act without moral scruples in order to defend itself. Since the enemy has no scruples, neither should we. Torture has always been a part of this. “Rendition” is not a Bush innovation. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have been committing crimes against humanity for decades. What we see today is the result of a progression of “national security” ideology. The authoritarian model, with its emphasis on secrecy, cannot coexist comfortably with the old-fashioned American idea of personal liberty. It was bound to produce the result we have today—an entrenched anti-democratic rightist faction controlling the executive, and making concerted efforts to turn us into a de facto dictatorship. Previous White House occupants since FDR—the establishment as we have come to know it in the post-war era—have been less overt in their anti-democratic aims. This administration has brought those aims out of the closet, so to speak, in an attempt to turn an unofficial “shadow” government into an officially recognized government system. Verbal compromises are still made out of political expediency—Bush denies that we torture while simply giving the torture a different name—but this latest group is remarkable for how indifferent it generally is to public opinion or even to the views of traditional conservative forces. Its behavior indicates that the stakes are far greater than the “business as usual” paradigm in Washington would have us believe. For the rightists to put torture in a central place on the table is essentially to say that they are staking everything on an outright seizure of power. We must therefore assume that the world situation, economically and politically, appears so dire to them that short-term political considerations ultimately must take a back seat to the requirements of an imperial ideology.

The Bush regime appears to be losing. But in the long run, the national security state will continue unless the apparatus is drastically reduced. The CIA needs to be dismantled. The Pentagon budget needs to be gutted down to a size that actually defends the country instead of imperial interests. Control of the state must be seized from the corporations. The fact that all these goals seem unattainable right now is a measure of how bad things are, and how far we need to go.