Thursday, May 31, 2007

The end of excuses

In an excellent recent essay, Chris Floyd writes of American moral cowardice:

“The fact that cynical power-seekers and war profiteers have been able to inflate this deadly but minor scourge [Islamic terrorists] into a globe-straddling monster capable of destroying the United States and enslaving its people speaks volumes about the timorousness that has entered America's national character.”

He contrasts this with the period of the Cold War, when we had the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, yet experienced an era in which the concepts of civil and human rights actually expanded and gained a greater foothold in American culture.

Although it is no secret that the government is now practicing torture, indefinite detention, kidnapping, and secret prisons—and openly claims that it has the right and the duty to commit these monstrosities in our name—most of the politicians and the press act as if this were not so. By simply continuing on their mad course without conceding any validity to moral objections, the royalists in Washington have succeeded in making the unthinkable the commonly accepted. We expect criminals to behave this way, but what are we to think of the so-called opposition, the Democrats who, with few exceptions, continue to say nothing about this degradation of our character? And what kind of credibility can we accord the media toadies who continue to babble inanely while a police state arises gradually around us? Credibility is not an infinite resource. Surely the TV talking heads have lost theirs completely and forever.

Required viewing: this video of the blatant and illegal attack on peaceful protesters in MacArthur Park by the L.A. police. The fish rots from the head down, as you know. When the highest orders of the state countenance tyranny, the lesson trickles down to the local protectors of property, the dubious black-clad soldiers of insecurity and fear.

A special place of infamy, however, is reserved for the guardians of our “moral values”—the conservative Christians. History should note that at the time of crisis, when lawlessness and crime became official policy, the right-wing church moralists—the Dobsons, Robertsons, and Falwells—stood up and cheered. Their religion, which they supposedly defend, has suffered more damage from these modern Pharisees than any radicals or atheists could ever have inflicted. Called upon to awaken us to the higher callings of conscience, the American church has been reduced to a cheap little political action group, offering silence in the face of war and official murder, while focusing its moral efforts on the apparently more important mandate of compulsory childbirth, repression of homosexuals, and the indoctrination of children with anti-scientific superstition and sexual ignorance.

Without spiritual opposition to violence, there is no faith.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Nation of Spooks

After decades of James Bond and other secret agent superheroes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the figure of the spy was always heroic, but in fact it wasn’t so until the Cold War.
Spies were marginal figures in the history of warfare, and their activities were always considered unsavory, even when necessary. Spending one’s time sneaking around and prying into the lives of others, practicing deception and disguise, was not a noble occupation, but a contemptible one.
However, when the U.S. shifted from a republic to an empire after World War II, the image of the spy was refashioned into a guardian of freedom. The new elitists with their new religion—anti-communism—put their faith in secrecy and espionage rather than in the free and open democratic ideal they professed to protect. The holy spook was born.
It is remarkable, once you pull your head out of the fantasy realms of movies and TV, how many famous spy cases actually involved figures in the West successfully passing secrets to the Soviet Union. The notorious examples of Philby and Maclean in the U.K, and the more recent U.S. intelligence traitors Ames and Hanssen, were reputed to have tremendously damaging effects. There’s always been something of a puzzling air surrounding these cases. For someone enjoying the relative freedoms of America or England, it seems unaccountable that people would choose to spy for Russia against their own nations. The motives, of course, range from the merely pecuniary to ideological conviction. But behind the headlines lies a deeper irony.
A secretive society, a state predicated on the notion of secret information and spying as the bulwark of "national security," is far more compatible with an authoritarian political philosophy than a democratic one. It’s obvious, for instance, that a free press could only be an obstacle to the effectiveness of such a society. Any kind of oversight by elected representatives or judicial bodies would naturally make secrecy more difficult as well. The national security state, therefore, is by its very nature an undemocratic state, or at least one in which the state apparatus resists and opposes the country’s democratic institutions on a regular basis.
With all the parallels sometimes drawn between the Bush gang’s political ideology and early fascism (some of which are quite valid, in my view), the similarities to Stalinism are even greater. In Stalinist society the secret police were the primary instrument of state power. The idea of national security legitimized any and all behavior by the government, including torture, summary execution (although capital punishment was forbidden by the Soviet constitution), and of course imprisonment on political grounds, or indeed on any pretext at all, with a rigged court system providing the face of legality. A similar philosophy is evident in the practices of the Chinese government today—one-party rule, a subservient press, no free speech, torture, etc. And always secrecy. The citizen of a totalitarian state is kept in the dark concerning the true activities of his government. He or she is not trusted with such information. In fact, ordinary people are primarily viewed as potential security threats. Therefore, knowledge is restricted to the ruling few. The rest are expected to simply believe and obey.
The post-World War II anti-communists in American exploited fear for their political gain. Although the Soviet Union was a legitimate threat, the right wing mirrored the nature of Soviet thinking in its strategies. Show trials, guilt by association, blind obedience as a value, dissent as unpatriotic, and the elevation of the spy to hero status—all these developments have occurred in American society, and continue to hold sway in the right-wing world view after the fall of the Soviets. Islamic militancy has become the new devil, and even though the methods used to supposedly fight terrorism only promote it, the authoritarian world-view is self-perpetuating. It needs an enemy in order to maintain the religion of "national security," which implies an endless state of war, which in turn necessitates the suppression of democratic forms of government. The actual security threats facing the country are almost incidental to the workings of the ideological mechanism. The real enemy, the unconscious shadow haunting the machine, is peace, or rather a national vision that values peace, and therefore values a free and open society.
Early in the post-9/11 nightmare, when the Bush gang proposed a program where we would all be asked to spy on one another, there was an outcry. In America there is still a residual repugnance to spying, whereas in Stalinist Russia it was assumed to be the absolute duty of a citizen. The reason that the Soviets were better spies than we were, it seems to me, is that spying is simply more characteristic of a secretive society, a society of constant suspicion in which authority is invested in a dominant executive police power. The true ideal of Richard Cheney, the neo-cons, the radical extremists who have taken over the Republican party, and their financial sponsors, is in essence almost identical to the Soviet model.
To be fair, it should be said that this disease was shared across party lines for decades. It has been holy writ in national politics for over sixty years. Those who have challenged it are labeled as weak on defense, pinkos, terrorists, traitors, and so forth. All the Democratic presidents, from Truman to Clinton, have been votaries of the national security state. The Republicans have simply been more radical about it, and the current occupants of the executive branch have taken it to previously unimagined levels of extremism. But they have all tended to distrust the ideals of an open society and the workings of democratic institutions, favoring instead an ancient model of rule by specially educated elites. The liberal establishment thought that they could balance this model with a limited form of representative government. The right wing, on the other hand, was committed to the pure imperial idea—shut up and salute. Strangely enough, the rightists were more intellectually consistent in this regard. A national security state will always function more effectively in secrecy. The ensuing consequences—undeclared wars and subversions, corruption of the press, attacks on civil and human rights, the consolidation of power into smaller and smaller elites, the militarization of the police, and the placement of the spy agencies outside of any legal or ethical accountability—have proceeded steadily and with a kind of iron logic.
The United States will only find relief from its political woes when the people firmly reject the rule of the spooks. So-called "security" must be rejected as a national ethos, and society returned to a condition of openness and freedom from fear. We must trust the institutions of our forefathers, and condemn the un-American, undemocratic cult of secrecy that has held us so long in thrall.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

These truths are self-evident

One of these days I’m going to compile a list of axioms for our post-satiric age. For instance: The wider currency given to a catchphrase or idea about current events (with Time and Newsweek covers and topics promoted by the punditry representing the high end of the scale) the less accurate a description of the actual situation it is. Indeed, if all the media is saying the same thing, it’s almost mathematically certain that the truth is exactly the opposite of what they’re saying.

Here’s another one: All official pronouncements by the Bush administration are lies in one form or another, and this is done out of principle, since the criminal mindset always assumes that the citizens of the U.S. are a threat and must be kept in the dark. This axiom holds even in those rare cases when the administration discloses facts—because they are always purported to demonstrate a false conclusion.

This axiom saves a lot of time for those of us who don’t have the leisure to read every story or piece of evidence on this sorry excuse for a White House. By this time, the pattern is clear, and every new story only reconfirms it, albeit in increasingly bizarre ways. And if you have a sense of history, or even a simple sense of time, you will understand that there comes a point where credibility is lost forever. With Bushco, this point actually occurred years ago, although the citizenry is coming to it in successive waves of awareness. Bush defenders seem to operate in a perpetual zero point of time, in which past deceptions are of no account when evaluating the present. In ordinary life, giving the benefit of the doubt, year after year, to a compulsive liar would be considered idiocy, or perhaps insanity. In Republican circles, it’s the modus operandi.

Finally, one more truth that should be self-evident to all who have not yet drunk the Kool-Aid: Anyone who works for Fox News is a whore.

Sorry, Alan Colmes. No exceptions. If you take money from Fox News, if you work for that network, regardless of what your private convictions may be, you are a whore. And the stink of your degradation follows you wherever you may go. If you only stay in the company of other whores, you may not notice this. But to re-enter real civil society, you will eventually need to acknowledge your whoredom.

I know this sounds extreme, but you must understand that this is not a legitimate news source. Its purpose is not to inform, but to distort the facts in order to convey an extremist, hate-based ideology. If there was a Ku Klux Klan network, this would be obvious to everyone, but since a corrupt Australian plutocrat is able to throw huge amounts of money around, using nifty graphics and almost lifelike “anchors” to simulate the appearance of TV news, many poor souls have failed to note the essentially bogus nature of the organization.

Well, this is at least a start. With these three axioms, the reasonably alert citizen can save a great deal of trouble navigating the realm of current events today. As a side note, I would like to know if there’s a way to discover all the sponsors who advertise on Fox News. I’m simply unable to watch the station for any length of time without succumbing to nausea, but I would like to contact these sponsors and let them know that I am not willing to spend money on their products if they insist on giving money to a network that is calling for my destruction, and the destrruction of my loved ones. Make no mistake, here. I’m not being unnecessarily alarmist. The ultimate goal of Fox and other neo-fascist extremist organizations is to eliminate liberals and progressives altogether. And this is only logical—for if all the woes of the U.S. can be laid at the feet of a fifth column of liberals, feminists, gays, tree-huggers, and politically correct academics, all of whom constitute a threat to the troops and their mission, then the only lasting solution, the only final one if you will, is the firing squad.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Planet of the apes

Surely by now, everyone is bored to death with the debate (if you can call it that) between evolution and creationism—everyone except those directly engaged in it. Those who know what science is have said all they can say, and will certainly not be convinced otherwise. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have long ago made up their minds, or had their minds made up through obedience to literalist doctrine. The battle is over the minds of those who don’t know what science is, and yet are not necessarily fundamentalists. But the educational needs of this group are far greater than encompassed by the mere teaching of evolution.

The fundamentalist view was best summed up by a preacher in the film Jesus Camp. He said that evolution tells kids that they came from monkeys, whereas the Bible tells them that they came from God and are therefore sacred. Which teaching, he asked, is more affirming?

This is a seductive point of view, provided one doesn’t devote too much thought to the question. (And it would seem that shallow thinking is a sort of precondition of fundamentalist teaching.) The assumption, which is by no means atypical of the Christian world view in general, is that monkeys are not sacred. To be more exact, kinship with animals is denied while a special relationship to God is maintained.

The reason Darwin has caused such offense, while the Copernican revolution and other scientific findings undreamt of in the Bible has not, is clearly not because the glory and power of God is somehow maligned by evolution, but because of a perceived injury to the pride and self-regard of man. That the concept of the power of a creator could possibly be diminished by any scientific determination of the manner of creation is absolutely absurd. If one believes in a creator, tracing the process back in time eventually leads to the paradox of creation ex nihilo. So creation itself retains its mystery no matter how one describes the history of the world post-creation.

Of course we are dealing with a specific cultural tradition, and the investment of absolute truth in a particular book, and this conflict therefore extends beyond Darwin to the astrophysicists and their cosmological speculations, such as the “Big Bang,” and so forth. Once the idolatry of the book is in place, science itself is automatically in conflict with religion regardless of specific findings. This does not, however, account for the special animosity towards Darwin. I would argue once again, therefore, that when it comes to evolution, the fundamentalist feels (whether consciously or not) that the pride of humanity is at stake. And why should this be so? Because the idea of being directly related to the animals—not by analogy but literally, i.e. by blood—is experienced as obnoxious and insulting by the fundamentalist.

If we look to the mythology and folklore of the ancients—especially the ancient cultures preceding the establishment of large city-states, kingdoms, and empires—we see that animals occupy a prominent role. In tales of the hero’s journey, various animals typically aid the hero along the way, imparting wisdom and special skills to the hero in order to help him attain the goal. Very often it seems that almost all the knowledge and labor of the quest is provided by the animal helpers—all the human hero needs is a little bit of courage and determination, and the willingness to follow the animals’ advice. Animals are also frequent providers of cultural gifts, imparting the ceremonies, songs, and other life-ways of the people. Sometimes this is connected to the animals as sources of food (sacrificing their lives for the good of the people), but not always. In myriad tales, animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics—the things they do and say indicate a mythic blending of human and animal.

Kinship with the animals, and in fact with all life, was simply assumed by the ancients. Nothing could be more obvious or reasonable. Human beings found themselves in a world where other beings moved, fed, procreated, and died just like they did. Far from being ashamed of this relationship, human societies made it one of the central themes of their mythic and religious structures.

With the advent of authoritarian religious forms, accompanying the increasingly centralized city-states and kingdoms, this gradually changed. Humanity’s mastery over animals (domestication) helped foster a different relationship to nature. The great monotheistic religions of the Levant created a mythos of alienation from the natural world. Man was exalted above the animals, and no longer recognized his kinship with them.

It would be foolish to believe that this development was nothing but a mistake, or a bad move. The gods (and God) taking on a human face meant that the human as such—including reason, justice, art, and human love—was growing and becoming more refined. Human capacities were increased immensely by the recognition of human consciousness and individuality.

There was a negative aspect, though. Alienation from nature resulted in an imbalance not only with the environment (the consequences of which are now facing us with dire immediacy) but with ourselves. For one thing, sexuality could never be divorced from the natural per se, so the human alienation from our own sexuality caused many complex and often contradictory problems affecting every aspect of life. The rise of science inevitably clashed with the religious world view, despite the fact that scientists themselves were heavily influenced by their own alienation. For science is preeminently the study of nature, and the proper and rigorous study of nature led to the inescapable conclusion that man was not separate from nature. Darwin’s work brought our kinship with animals back to center stage, and our alienation is so far advanced that this kinship causes feelings of revulsion in those most invested in the religious doctrine which separates us from animals, placing us forever above them as masters.

D.T. Suzuki once quipped: “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion.” The mainstream religion we know today, the public face of religion, opposes the reality of connection with a mythos of alienated life that is increasingly beset with contradiction, taking refuge in obscurantism and fear.

If you question a fundamentalist regarding the characteristics of animals, it would be impossible for him or her to deny that human beings breathe, feed, defecate, circulate blood, procreate, and die in a manner identical to other mammals. The more reasonable among them would even admit the definition of man as a “rational animal.” But to admit that humans once were a species of ape, a species that has admittedly evolved into a form that seems unique (at least for this planet), but nevertheless “came from monkeys,” as the preacher put it, is to bend one’s mind more than the ingrained habits of human pride and entitlement are accustomed to do. It offends fundamentalists because it feels like humiliation—having to admit that our attitude to nature was wrong, perhaps even sinful, and having to admit that we share a fate with, as the good book says, the beasts of the field.