Saturday, March 24, 2007

“Support the Troops”: the evolution of a lie

My wife and I were interviewed on the local news at an antiwar demonstration last weekend. All too typically, the story ended up focusing on a completely inconsequential incident in which three lone wolf demonstrators, dressed up as Guantanamo prisoners and their jailer, crossed the street and were jostled by the pro-war counter-demonstrators. The police jumped in and separated them, and no one was arrested, but if you watched the local news that evening you were given the impression that this was the big defining moment of the day, the top story, blah blah blah. In the snippet of my interview that was aired, I said, “We’re not here to demonstrate against our fellow citizens across the street. We’re here to protest against this illegal and immoral war.” Since it came after all the nonsense about the “confrontation” between demonstrators, this may (I can hope) have had some good effect on a viewer paying attention.

In general, local news programs are a sure indicator of how irrelevant and brain dead TV news has become. The stale phrases used are worthy of some study. This report was about the two sets of demonstrators, and more time was spent talking to the pro-war faction, even though we outnumbered them by at least two to one. “On one side, demonstrators supporting the troops;” said the announcer, “on the other, those who oppose the war.” Here we can see—even at this stage of the conflict, when around 70% of the population wants the troops out of Iraq—how the media has absorbed the words “support the troops” like a devotee memorizing his mantra. Its pervasive use as a code phrase loaded with unspoken meaning is in perfectly inverse proportion to its actual relationship to the facts.

“Support the troops” was invented by the rightists in the lead-up to the Gulf War in 1991. It was based on a revisionist version of the Vietnam experience: that antiwar demonstrators demeaned and betrayed the soldiers who fought in that war. The Vietnam veteran was thus set up as a victim of the antiwar left, in order to erase the fact that there was a sizable antiwar movement among Vietnam veterans at the time. The yellow ribbon motif came from a story (probably apocryphal) about a wife who put yellow ribbons on a tree to welcome her veteran husband home from the war, which was then turned into a song.

As a representative symptom of this deliberate revision of the past, we see how Jane Fonda was turned into a symbol of everything treasonous, but McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, and all the other powerful men who sent thousands of soldiers down the pipeline to their deaths for no good reason, are not reviled or condemned in the mainstream.

You never heard “support the troops” during Vietnam because it was generally assumed—and rightly so—that everyone outside of a lunatic fringe supported them, and that this support was a completely separate consideration from whether or not the war was right. But the radical nationalists, who want an empire instead of a republic and a king instead of a president, changed all that. It was a deliberate strategy to take war off the table as a legitimate topic of debate.

“Support the troops” simply means, “Don’t protest the war.” I must emphasize this point: that is all that it means. By identifying dissent against a war (any war that the government chooses to wage) as dishonoring soldiers, the rightists seek to taint protestors as anti-military, anti-American, and ultimately as treasonous. The central implication of this idea is that we do not have a right to protest a war, because it harms the war effort and demoralizes the soldiers. On what is arguably the most significant issue facing a country—the waging of war—the people should not speak, except, of course, in support. If we’re talking about taxes or health or education, we are presumably allowed to speak. But if we’re talking about the possible deaths of our sons and daughters, and the commitment of our resources to killing people for some stated cause, we should keep our lips buttoned.

It’s significant also that the phrase popped up prior to the commencement of hostilities in 1991. The same was true during the 2002-2003 buildup to the Iraq War. “Support the troops” was used to discredit protest before the war, just as it was after the war started. The argument based on national security, i.e. that once the war has started we should unite behind the cause, as flimsy and dangerous as it is, does not correspond to the right-wing strategy in fact. The war was not seriously debated in the government or the media prior to its launch in 2003. The millions of protestors around the world were not taken seriously. The 9/11 attacks were used as an automatic justification of all arguments, with a strong message that dissent from this justification was an act of support for terrorism. This is conveniently forgotten in the media, now that the war is unpopular. It should be vividly remembered.

By using “support the troops” as a rhetorical mainstay, the militarist right is essentially hiding behind the soldiers in order to avoid serious discussion of its ideas and aims. It’s an act of moral cowardice, pure and simple. William Kristol and his neo-con associates have no moral standing whatsoever, and their ideas and predictions would be thoroughly discredited and reviled in a sane political environment. Instead, they still command public attention and are given plenty of opportunities in the media to make their specious arguments. There is still no debate in the mainstream on the justice or morality, as opposed to the mere competence, of this war. The only real thought is occurring on the margins—but here we’re seeing an expansion of the margins to a width that is greater than what is supposed to be the mainstream. We are seeing conclusively that the mainstream consensus is an artificially created minority view sustained by economic and political elites.

It all filters down to the rote repetition of “support the troops” on the brainless local news. How long will “the troops” be used to hide the truth? It’s obvious that the militarists don’t really care about the troops. If they did, they wouldn’t be cutting their benefits, neglecting their health and well being at Walter Reed Hospital and other facilities, and sending them into harm’s way without proper training or equipment. You’d think by now that the blow-dry anchors and cardboard cut-out journalists would get this, but “support the troops” gets trotted out again and again, like an old lame cow disguised as a horse. For the sake of all that’s true and moral, for the sake of decency and conscience—for the sake of the troops, we need to stop saying “support the troops.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Flawed Question

Do you believe in God? For a long time this common question has provoked my impatience and frustration. There is an unwarranted assumption behind it—that we know what we’re talking about when we say the word “God,” and that it’s therefore a simple matter to say whether or not we believe in it.

If I ask, “What do you mean when you say ‘God’?” I usually get an expression of surprise in response. I’ve challenged the unspoken assumption. When the questioner then attempts to give me a definition, it is usually different in some ways, subtle or obvious, from responses I’ve received before. Even members of the same Christian denomination will give me answers that are strikingly different. This word is interpreted in so many different ways that the question of whether I believe in what the word means becomes practically nonsensical. If those who assume they know what it means don’t even agree on the meaning, how should I be expected to answer?

Speaking philosophically, I would argue that the word has so many meanings because it refers to a transcendent reality—and thus it indicates that which is greater than what we can perceive or even think. It is a metaphor by necessity, because it points to “something” that cannot be directly expressed, and therefore it is capable of multiple interpretations, even contradictory ones. This, however, does not solve our problem, it only provides a hint as to its origins.

First of all, let us attempt to gather together the most common conceptions into one general definition. By common conceptions I mean those we usually encounter in daily life and discourse, private or public. Philosophical ideas come later and reflect both an attempt to understand actual principles and a quest for the origins of our ideas. So in common parlance, I would say that “God” is an all-powerful being that created the universe.

In our culture, moreover, this being is usually referred to as a male person. This personal gender aspect would seem to be of secondary importance, but in practice it has been tied up inextricably with the general concept of the supreme, all-powerful creator. It cannot be ignored in any discussion concerning common conceptions of God.

So it is in this context that the question “Do you believe in God?” actually occurs, and it is in this context that the controversy between organized religion and atheism takes place. We now get bogged down in questions of proof regarding the existence of God, with a typical example being the arguments around Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

I’m not really going to analyze this aspect in any great detail. This may surprise you. The fact is that the concept of the all-powerful creator has already been demolished many times by rational argument, centuries ago. The writings of David Hume alone should be enough to shatter most of the assumptions, although Hume ended up accepting a Deist concept—the common escape for 18th century philosophers from the charge of atheism. Subsequent authors have elaborated on Hume’s beginnings. The assaults of Voltaire, Paine, and Nietzsche were primarily on the cultural front, but in the realm of the common conception one can’t really separate the cultural assumptions from the rational ones.

Before I ever read these philosophers, I sensed a basic conflict within the idea of an all-powerful deity. The creator must be different from the creation, therefore separate, therefore limited in some way. For that which is separate from something exists relatively to something, and anything that is relative is limited, conditioned. If God is separate from the creation, does he therefore occupy space? If he does, then space is a condition of a higher category than God. If he does not, than he is separate from creation in a way that cannot be conceived. We might say “a different dimension,” but this is just magical language with no actual reference point for us. On a more abstract level, even to say that “God exists” implies that existence is our ultimate principle, with God subsumed under it. But God cannot be anything but the one, primary principle, otherwise he is limited. And so forth. In other words, the concept of a being that is separate from us automatically implies the relative nature of beings, which contradicts the language of absolutes assigned to the supreme being.

On a more concrete level—that of personalization and gender—I would ask if God has sexual organs. If not, why do we refer to God as male? If so, to what end would God have such organs? Furthermore, does God exist as a physical body at all? If so, does this body perform physical functions as all bodies do, and how could that be in the case of an all-powerful being, since it implies limitation and mortality? Or if not, why again do we refer to God as male, or indeed in personal terms at all? A theologian’s answers to these kinds of questions would inevitably admit metaphor, but this is precisely where theology parts ways with common belief, and it is common belief that we are concerned with here.

My point is that honest, disciplined, and searching rational inquiry will dissolve the common conceptions of God, and has dissolved it already. The debate, however, involves atheists in assumptions that confine us to a kind of endless loop where nothing is resolved. One of the primary assumptions, it seems to me, is that rational proofs against the common conceptions of God should lead to the end of belief in God. But of course, this has not happened. When confronted with this, atheists may argue that ignorance and superstition are implacable, persistent, deep-rooted forces that resist change.

But I must here confess my skepticism. Most people have been cured of belief in witches and evil spirits. Science has convinced the majority of people that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, even though we don’t have personal experience of this fact beyond the data and reasons presented to us. To attribute the belief in God (and, in a wider sense, religious ideas in general) just to ignorance and superstition, is a colossal error of imagination. I am convinced that there is a meaning behind belief in God, and religion in general, which has both a basis in reality, and a connection to fundamental human need. Of that, I will write in the next part of this series.

Atheism is involved in another error here, though. It is strangely similar to the destructive beliefs of fundamentalist religion. And that is that we can hope someday for most people to come to agreement on these questions, and all share the same beliefs. If only everyone would recognize that there is no God, then we’d be okay. But it will never happen, and it is foolish to expect it to happen, or to try to make it happen. We need to accept that people will always differ on this, even if we think that those who belief differently are wrong. Belief is not what threatens us—the forces that threaten our world are deeper than that, and are reflected in our actions towards each other. Belief systems mold themselves to our patterns of action, and not vice-versa. They adapt to our lives when we learn new ways of action in our relationship to others.

--This is the first in a series of articles about the debate between religion and reason.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Reasons to be cheerful

Chuck Schumer and Joseph Biden calling for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation. If the creepy torture guy’s job is in jeopardy, something must be going right.
NY firefighters blast Rudolph Guiliani. The former mayor has exploited 9/11 for his own image, and has been able to get away with it for the most part. Maybe this will help expose his feet of clay.
Bush’s Latin American trip features angry protests in Brazil and Colombia.
War protesters are occupying Congressional offices. And not just Republican offices, either.
Fox Noise-sponsored Presidential debate cancelled. Fox should be boycotted by all Democrats. Period. Let the propagandists sit by themselves in their own stink. Going on their shows only lends the Australian network a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.
Libby found guilty.
You see, for things to get better, people need to say No to the criminals running the show.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Miasma at the CPAC

The latest belch from mentally ill attention-seeker Ann Coulter has succeeded in getting some attention. At the end of a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she said, “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I -- so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

Some have demanded that every major rightist figure attending (including Deadeye Dick) publicly condemn the remark. Which is fine. Of course, what we’re missing here is that a certifiable nutcase continues to be invited to speak at the CPAC. It’s not as if Coulter’s behavior is a mystery. So really, they’re getting exactly what they want to hear.

A spokesman for Mitt Romney (one of the attendees) said, “It was an offensive remark. Governor Romney believes all people should be treated with dignity and respect." What? I don’t understand. Romney went on the 700 Club to tell Pat Robertson that Rudy Guiliani is pro-gay marriage and therefore a bad candidate. And he doesn’t like civil unions either. So gay couples can just go to hell, really, which is where Robertson thinks they’re going. How can Romney then claim that all people should be treated with dignity and respect? Can you believe in a person being made a second-class citizen and at the same time say that you treat them with respect?

Actually the preceding paragraph could have been shorter, to wit: “Romney went on the 700 Club.” That’s enough right there to prevent his name being used in the same sentence with the word “dignity.”

The Editor & Publisher article detailing Coulter’s psychotic effusion informs us that the remarks “also drew disapproval from some popular conservative commentators… Michelle Malkin expressed disapproval.”

Here’s what Malkin actually wrote: “Would you want your children hearing the word ‘faggot’ spoken in such a casual and senseless manner? Would you like your first-grader or three-year-old running around the halls of CPAC singing ‘faggot, faggot, faggot?’"

You see, there were children at the CPAC. It’s about the decorum of the language, not the meaning of the word. Michelle Malkin, just like every other rightist, consistently opposes gay rights. Her supposed disapproval of the word “faggot” is mere window dressing, a strategy of trying to appear civilized and mainstream while practically and in every real sense supporting the denial of equal rights to gays.

Our media-drenched culture is hyper-sensitive about words, while at the same time virtually oblivious to the actions that give them meaning. A white comedian yells “nigger” on stage, and there’s outrage. Bill O’Reilly calls the citizens of New Orleans who were stranded during Katrina “thugs” and the “urban menace,” and there are no consequences. Senator Jon Kyl blithely says that New Orleans residents should not receive aid because they should have bought insurance, and there is no outrage. Republicans know a thousand different ways to say “nigger” without actually using the word, and they get away with it. The same is true of “faggot.” Every appeal to the “base,” every cynical use of gays to stir up right-wing voters (on an issue that really doesn’t significantly affect most straight people's lives the way Iraq does, or our lousy health care system) is really the word “faggot” whispered into the ears of a bigoted voting bloc.

And it has results. Not only do Republicans win votes, but gay men and women are bashed and murdered by haters who are being given tacit permission to do so by people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, Sam Brownback, Pat Robertson, and George W. Bush. So any and all disapproval of the word “faggot” by Republicans or right-wing gasbags like Malkin should never be taken seriously. If they faced no opposition, you would not hear a peep of disapproval from them. In fact, you would hear far worse coming from their own big mouths.

Ann Coulter is a slime-oozing bubble rising from the id of the American right wing. I hope she continues to embarrass her employers as long as possible. The more offensive the better, I say. And if she goes down, there’s still Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and other assorted troglodytes to carry the banner. This is the true face of conservatism, people. Don’t be fooled by the polite coded bigotry of the country club Republicans who mouth the words “dignity” and “respect” but practice manipulating and dividing us with hatred and ignorance. Just turn to wingnuts like Coulter for the truth. They represent the reality of right-wing rule.