Friday, April 27, 2007

Glimmers of hope

Something unusual occurred on TV the other night—they aired some truth. The kick-off to Bill Moyers’ new program on PBS, called Buying the War, documented the bill of goods that we were sold in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Although it strung together all the lies of Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, and the rest of the gang, the real focus was on what we’ve come to call “the media”—the mainstream press, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post, and the network and cable news outlets. In painstaking detail, Moyers showed how the media regurgitated what they were told by the administration, relegating criticism and questioning of the official line to oblivion, or the back pages at best. And while those of us who have followed events closely are familiar with the players, seeing all the names and faces of the administration’s enablers lined up together on a 90-minute program brought back the pain and dismay of that period (from late 2001 to the invasion in 2003) with vividness. Judith Miller, Tim Russert, Paula Zahn, Jim Lehrer, Lesley Stahl, Tom Brokaw, even Oprah Winfrey lapping up all the rubbish from Chalabi and the other U.S.-sponsored exiles, and of course the bobble-head pundits like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and the zombies at Fox News in their endless right-wing echo chamber.

In contrast we were shown one example of journalists doing their jobs--John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel at Knight-Ridder—demonstrating that the story was there if someone would just do the footwork. Knight-Ridder reported that the WMD claims were not backed up by credible evidence. But of course, they don’t have offices in New York or Washington. Moyers also exposed one of the motives for journalistic timidity: fear. Anyone questioning Bush was liable to become a target for the Republican attack machine. Just having Scott Ritter on his show (despite being “balanced” with a war supporter) was enough to get Phil Donahue fired from MSNBC.

Bill Moyers coming back to TV is good news for the country. He is intelligent, thoughtful, and thorough. And he’s also fair. Although TNR’s Peter Beinart reveals himself as a callow opportunist, Moyers gives him credit for being one of the few (the only?) pro-war pundit to admit that he was wrong about the WMDs. It’s a measure of how corrupt and useless TV news has become that a gentleman like Moyers is practically one-of-a-kind, and that he’s reviled or marginalized in what passes today for the mainstream.

There actually is a bright side to this dark night of journalism, and that’s the progressive blogosphere. As the media went brain dead, a lot of brave, smart people took to the internet, and I think that they have had a lot to do with the resurgence of a progressive movement in this country. Moyers highlighted one of them on his second show which aired tonight: Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. The inestimable, even-tempered Marshall broke the U.S. attorney scandal that is currently rocking official Washington.

There are also a lot of opinion blogs, or blogs that mix news and commentary. The incredibly well-written Hullabaloo, with digby and tristero, is at the head of the pack, followed by firedoglake (the premiere source of news on the Plame scandal), the fiercely intelligent Glenn Greenwald, and many others such as Crooks & Liars, Blue Meme, and Mahablog. There are also wonderful satirist blogs who regularly demolish right-wing nonsense, such as TBogg, The Poor Man Institute, and the brilliant Driftglass. Finally, there are sites that connect the threads of the progressive blogosphere together, highlighting links from all over the web to help us find interesting information and comment. The raucous Buzzflash has been doing excellent work for years, and I also admire the modest and hard-working Shaun Dale over at Upper Left.

I’m a small fry in a big pond, unleashing a rant once a week or so, and I definitely feel humbled when I read the work of these folks who write great stuff every day (and many others I don’t have the space to mention, but check out the blogroll on the left). I also feel very grateful. Can you imagine where we’d be without the internet? If all we had were the TV networks and the print news? Do you think the Dems would have taken back the Congress without the internet? I know things look grim a lot of the time, but there’s a whole hell of a lot of us talking together and agitating for change. I believe it’s making a difference.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Idiot wind

The “President” was asked about the comparison between Iraq and Vietnam the other day. Here’s an excerpt from his answer:

“And there are some similarities, of course. Death is terrible. There's no similarity, of course, is that Vietnam is the first time that a war was brought onto our TV screens to America on a regular basis. Looking around, looking for baby-boomers, I see a few of us here. A different, for the first time, the violence and horror of war was brought home. That's the way it is today.”

The entire quote is just as appallingly stupid as this excerpt. Really, I could have chosen any statement from the last six years. This is just one of the most recent.

The extent, or even the existence, of Bush’s idiocy has been a matter of some debate. Some have contended that it’s an act, but if so, it’s the most masterful piece of acting I’ve ever seen. Even if we were to suppose that his style is heavily influenced by an innate contempt for the intelligence of ordinary people (thus “dumbing” the presentation down into someone’s idea of folksy generalization), the presentation is too inept to provide a rhetorical advantage.

A more valid concern, in my view, is that the general perception of Bush as an idiot lets him and his administration effectively off the hook in the public mind. Making fun of the President's syntax on the Tonight Show has a far different effect that getting angry about his policies. Idiots are not held as accountable as the rest of us, and thus Bush can get away with being a mere fool (remember Gerald Ford falling down the steps?) instead of a danger.

The truth of the matter seems fairly evident, however. Bush is a puppet, a figurehead. The fact that the deeply unattractive Richard Cheney, Bush’s campaign manager, picked himself to be Vice President, was a tip-off from the start. Bush will do what he’s told. The right-wing Republican and neo-con interests chose Bush because they thought he had the kind of image that would be good for a President. Like Ronald Reagan (it seemed), Bush could play the down-home “regular guy” man of the people, the kind of leader that would look good in the media, while the real policy makers would endeavor to push their extreme rightist agenda into law. Then the September 11 atrocities made a bad situation a thousand times worse—Bush was elevated to “fearless leader” status while terrorism was exploited in order to remake the U.S. into a full-fledged dictatorship.

Here I advance what I think is a novel argument. The fact that Bush is an intellectual pipsqueak turned out to be a stroke of luck for progressives, liberals, patriots—in fact, for the country. With a corrupt sensationalist media willing to go along with the “9/11 changed everything” script, a right-wing leader of even modest charisma and intelligence might have pulled off the coup. Now imagine a very clever demagogue, charismatic and handsome, with a command of rhetoric, and you can easily imagine a successful dictator. All in the name of freedom and security. This does, however, beg the question: do such men even exist anymore in the current political climate? Not on either end of the spectrum, it would seem, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Using the Reagan example again, we can see that even a third-rate actor managed to seduce the majority of the country into believing in a whole package of lies and prejudices that were neatly wrapped up in the flag. I could never understand Reagan’s appeal, his supposed skill at communication. What I saw was a mean glint in the eye, a narrow-minded hatred of difference, and an assortment of simple-minded slogans that bore no relation to reality. But the media has turned politics into a game of personalities, and on those terms Reagan was sold to us as a leader.

With a modicum of cleverness, even just an average ability to make a case, who knows what kind of cover Bush could have provided? But the Republicans and neo-cons ended up hiding behind an empty suit. Although the media continues the pretense that Bush is the “President,” acting as if he can be taken seriously as a political figure, not to mention a statesman, Dubya’s lack of the most basic skills has been evident to the public for quite some time now. His policies have been disastrous, and that of course is the main factor in his consistently low poll numbers, but I would argue that a President with an actual brain would have been able to salvage more support.

The Republicans picked what they thought was the perfect little puppet to play President in front of the TV cameras. But the qualities by which such puppetry was judged—affability, the illusion of being a “regular Joe,” etc.—were not enough to sustain support when the right-wing agenda produced spectacular failure. What’s astounding is how much media slack is still given to this pathetic little frat-boy President even now. If someone this stupid was a liberal, he would be mercilessly pilloried on TV every day, and probably impeached by now. It’s clear that the folks who own the country have a stake in maintaining the illusion, no matter what it may cost.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Results of war

From USA Today:

“About 70% of primary school students in a Baghdad neighborhood suffer symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering, according to a survey by the Iraqi Ministry of Health.”

This is what it comes down to. The long-term future of a country mangled for the sake of a few greedy men.

“Many Iraqi children have to pass dead bodies on the street as they walk to school in the morning, according to a separate report last week by the International Red Cross. Others have seen relatives killed or have been injured in mortar or bomb attacks.”

You won’t see them on the news channels. No one will mention them on Fox. They’re not American, so they’re not worth talking about. George W. Bush’s sleep will not be disturbed by their cries.

"’Some of these children are suffering one trauma after another, and it's severely damaging their development,’ said Said Al-Hashimi, a psychiatrist who teaches at Mustansiriya Medical School and runs a private clinic in west Baghdad. ‘We're not certain what will become of the next generation, even if there is peace one day,’ Al-Hashimi said.”

Before the war started, I participated in a silent march to Senator McCain’s office in Tucson. We carried coffins with American and Iraqi flags on them. People jeered at us, told us to protest Saddam instead, but we didn't answer. When we got to McCain’s office, several of us chose to be arrested for trespassing. One woman yelled, “I cannot stand by while children are murdered!” while the police handcuffed her.

McCain did not listen. He did not hear her. Neither did the Democrats. The media pretended that the protests were small and irrelevant. Do any of them feel any remorse today?

Four years later, that woman’s cry haunts me. Children were murdered, and still are. The surviving children live in fear. McCain lives in comfort, as does Cheney, and Rice, and Powell, and Rumsfeld, and the rest of that criminal gang.

Here are the results. Those horrible yellow ribbons are stained red.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Empty souls

Andrew Sullivan’s latest book has the unintentionally ridiculous title of: The Conservative Soul. The sub-title is: “How we lost it, how to get it back.”

This of course assumes that the conservative had a soul to begin with, a proposition that I don’t find self-evident. From defending the right to own slaves, through fighting against suffrage for women, to suppressing the right of labor to organize and championing the war in Vietnam, the American conservative has not demonstrated what I would consider a soul under any but the most abstract definition.

For conservatism to gain something resembling a soul, it will have to pay attention to the needs of people rather than just corporations. It will have to recognize that the public good is not subsidiary to the profit motive. The conservative strategy has been to turn everything into an opportunity for business to make money, and to hell with education, health care, the arts, human rights, and the environment. If liberals hadn’t intervened, children would still be working in factories. (They still are in other countries—countries where American corporations move their plants.) The conservatives weren’t the ones fighting to end segregation—they were busy calling Martin Luther King a Communist. Karl Rove didn’t invent the “win at any cost” strategy—he just refined it. The Republican Party has been cynically exploiting racial bigotry and fear in order to win elections for generations.

So I’m not particularly receptive to the lukewarm awakenings of conservatives such as Mr. Sullivan. If you’ve turned a blind eye to torture, the killing of innocents for profit, and the undermining of the American Constitution itself, your sudden realization that Bush is fiscally irresponsible does not qualify as an act of moral redemption. When you’ve cheerleaded the war in Iraq, stupidly swallowing every lie and deriding those who had the sense to question or challenge the Bush regime, turning around now and saying that the war was a mistake is not a significant revelation.

If Bush’s poll numbers were in the 70s instead of the reverse, I am certain that Mr. Sullivan would not be questioning the conservative soul, just as I know that if he had not happened to be born gay, he would be just as opposed to gay rights as any other Thatcherite. Mr. Sullivan spends a lot of time telling us about his devout Catholic faith. If there’s one facet of Christianity he and his conservative soul-mates could really use, it is true, heartfelt repentance. Their policies have led us to disaster. Their advice has been the most unreliable and destructive we could have received. Yet I sense no remorse, only belated justifications.

For the conservative to get a soul, he needs to find out what a conscience is. He needs to stop lecturing the rest of us about morality and look at the immorality, the criminality, of what has been done by his movement and his party. The conservative (and I speak figuratively of the so-called conservative movement and not just of Mr. Sullivan) has blood on his hands. It will take a lot more than blithely talking about the soul to wash those hands clean.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Facts are Biased

When things don’t go well for right-wing extremists, they whine about the supposedly liberal media. By chance, I caught Glenn Beck gesticulating wildly on CNN about the DOJ scandal. It’s not important, he sniveled. With all the HUGE problems we have (as he looks up, waving his arms), why is this non-issue getting any attention? (I ask: What huge problems? If the rule of Bush and Cheney is so swell, we can’t really have such problems, right?) Then the kicker: the problem is, of course, that the media is OVERWHELMINGLY liberal!!

That this ass-clown has his own show is the final refutation of any claim to journalistic legitimacy on the part of CNN. But leaving that aside, it’s painfully evident that the ranks of wingnut punditry have unlimited contempt for the American people. In their eyes, the citizenry is so stupid that they couldn’t possibly care about anything more complicated than a 4-second soundbite. And if polls say that they do (a Gallup poll showed people favoring subpoenas of White House aides by a 3-1 margin), it couldn’t be because people actually think independently—it’s the liberal media that causes them to think that way.

The view of Americans held by Beck and the rest of the talk-radio bed-wetters is that they have no opinions that can be taken seriously unless those opinions have been hatched and inculcated by either them or the “liberal” media. They pretend to value “ordinary” Americans, the real citizens from the heartland, blah blah blah--what Nixon used to call “the silent majority.” But the personal interest news stories they choose to highlight are always about some nasty horrifying crime, designed to make us look down at other people with disgust. They exploit the very worst tendencies in human nature, and glory in them. That people could actually care about the corruption of the Justice Dept., that the majority of Americans have rejected Bush and his policies for years and by big margins, is inconceivable to them. The “huge” problems we have are always attributable to somebody else—to liberal female gay flag-burners, not to the conservative Republicans who are actually in power, not to the wingnuts themselves, who can never be wrong and never make mistakes. When all else fails, blame the media, even though the media has been kissing their asses for two decades, even though nutjobs like Pat Buchanan, Beck, and the Fox Zoo have regular high-paying gigs in the media. Because the important thing to remember if you’re a conservative is, be a baby. Never grow up. And don’t ever admit responsibility for ANYTHING. For you know, as Stephen Colbert says, the facts are biased.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Two Faces of Wonder

Religion and mythology were born from human wonder. This wonder has two faces—one that is hidden, and one that everyone sees.

The second face is the wonder of existence: that anything exists at all, and (accompanying this primal sense) the overwhelming variety and complexity of that which exists.

The first face is the wonder of subjectivity: that the world is experienced, perceived, known and felt by living beings, and (in the case of human beings) that we are conscious of ourselves as living and experiencing, and that this reflective consciousness has developed into thought, reason, and imagination.

The first face is hidden because we are that face. In more abstract terms, since subjectivity is the basis of all experience, we can only indicate it indirectly, and can never actually perceive it, since it is the precondition of perception itself.

All experience, without exception—past, present, and future—is experienced in one mind, or as one being, and this is an inextricable and essential aspect of individuation itself. Just as there can be no phenomena without individuation, so there can be no life without the individuation of subjectivity.

It may seem strange that I would characterize the wonder of existence as the second face of wonder, and the wonder of subjectivity as the first. Existence is prior to experience—by the very definition of these categories it could not be otherwise. But in speaking of the origins of religion and mythology, subjectivity is the first face of wonder. Without self-consciousness, however indirect and consciously unacknowledged it may be, there would be no imagination. Whatever thoughts we had would be strictly in the service of our needs in the present moment; metaphor would be unnecessary and indeed impossible. Only when we become aware of the experiencing subject are we then capable of wondering about existence itself, and the variety and complexity of form.

I have written elsewhere about the ineffable nature of experience. Suffice it to say at this point that the experiencing subject can only be described through metaphor. The most common terms in English are: self, spirit, and soul. Language necessarily involves abstraction, which in turn always implies division or separation of one thing from another. But the ineffable nature of subjectivity is such that it is the context of experience, (and not a specific content within it), and thus literally inseparable from it. Thus we find that the self, spirit, or soul, conceived as an entity somehow separate from the mind-body complex, does not withstand the scrutiny of scientific investigation. Nevertheless, they emerged as primary metaphors, as central to our thought and discourse as the word “I.”

When human beings awoke into self-consciousness, then, both faces of wonder became fertile grounds for imaginative representation, for the metaphor-making that we know as religion and mythology, and eventually as poetry and art in general. The first face, subjectivity, was intuited as hidden and ineffable, and thus eternal. The second face, objectivity, was intuited as conditioned and subject to change. In concrete terms, the self-conscious human awareness of the world was marked by the awareness of death. That the spirit, intuited as eternal, could be subject to death (the extreme boundary, if you will, of change), seemed an essential contradiction. For the very context of life, subjectivity itself, to have an end, seemed inconceivable. And although I here describe this in abstract terms, as if it were a rational development, it is in fact fear, born of the need for survival, (a need that is prior to all thought or reason), that is the cause or motivating force of this felt conflict, this division between spirit and world.

The idea of spirits that exist independently of bodies, then, arises because of the human intuition of eternity, accompanied by the fear of death. The intuition of eternity is a basic aspect of subjectivity. In order for anything to be conditioned, reality itself must be unconditioned: this is one concise form of representing this intuition in rational terms. But the intuition itself is of course not rational—it arises simply because of the nature of subjectivity as context of all experience. Just as the figures in a painting cannot exist without the blank canvas on which they are painted, so our experience of the world, the very content of our life, is impossible outside of the context of our subjectivity. Here, as always, we must recognize the importance of metaphor—for whereas the canvas can exist without the painting, subjectivity is only separable from experience through abstraction, not in the concreteness of reality.

Spirit is the essential element of culture. The spirit was plural because human beings were plural, therefore life was experienced as a world of spirits. The development from this world of spirits to a world of gods may seem to us like a huge leap. In fact it wasn’t a leap, or even a step, but a simultaneous occurrence. The intuition of eternity extended its subjective nature to the world. Behind experience was the experiencing subject—the spirit, soul, or self. Behind the world, then, behind the second face of wonder, there must also be an experiencing subject, one far more powerful than the puny human being who is subject to birth, change, and death. This spirit was plural, just like human beings, but unlike human beings, who are experienced merely as the selves of their bodies, these spirits, these gods, as we came to call them, are the selves of the world, of existence itself.

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