Monday, June 25, 2007

The fruits of theocracy

From the New York Times, June 24: Iran is in the throes of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years, with the government focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women’s rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks.”

Theocracy is incompatible with democracy. In the midst of so much debate about the place of religion in public life, it is essential to understand this. State religion has nothing to do with faith, or even with the relationship of humanity to God or to the Divine, despite all protests from fundamentalists and other religious zealots to the contrary. It has only to do with the control of people’s lives by those wielding power in whatever religion dominates the state. The absolutist nature of religious doctrine makes it impossible to tolerate differences. Inevitably, therefore, state religion will seek to suppress labor (autonomous workers), education (independent thought), and the press (free communication). Most significantly, it will repress women’s rights. The domination of women is the primary form of domination from which all other authoritarian forms are derived.

“The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic.”

State religion persecutes people on the basis of cultural norms that are often quite trivial, such as, in this instance, types of clothing. The purpose is to control the lives and behavior of individuals through fear. When it comes to state-sanctioned murder, torture, false imprisonment, or other government action against its perceived enemies, the authoritarian religion does not object at all. The religionists support all these atrocities, or at best remain silent. The assumption of moral authority is completely baseless—state religion is based solely on the exercise of power by one group over another. The absolutist nature of religious belief provides the perfect excuse for hatred, cruelty, and oppression, while the oppressor feels justified behind the conscience-proof wall of his religion.

As a rule, the religious groups that oppose state oppression are those that teach a spiritual relationship to the Divine characterized by love and compassionate action. These groups are open to differences in culture and belief. They usually end up being attacked as well, often by the public religionists who claim to be of the same “faith” as those they repress.

It is remarkable how similar Iran’s use of shame, humiliation, and violence mirrors the practice of communist dictatorships such as China and the Soviet Union under Stalin. These supposedly “left wing” systems simply projected the same absolutist tendencies onto their secular doctrines that the authoritarian religious groups employ in their belief systems. It’s not that communism is a religion, as has been falsely maintained, but that both practice authoritarianism with claims to absolute validity.

What we commonly call “religion” today is just another method of social control. The key element is that human beings are conceived as means to an end. Therefore, anything is justified in order to attain the end. Anything.

The truth of human life as an end in itself, not subject to the absolute demands of any belief or doctrine, is an essential truth of spirituality, and should always have been central to religion in its proper role. But although it remains, by its nature as subjective relationship, as part of spirituality wherever it is practiced, that has not been true of religion, because religion always involves community. From time immemorial, community has been undermined by the power principle. No matter how fervently religious people may have been, the public structure of religion has been vulnerable to exploitation in the interests of one group dominating another. This is the dilemma of religion. Any member of any religious faith who fails to address this dilemma in some way is lying—lying to everyone else and to himself. Because humanity will never be united into one set of beliefs, and the quest to achieve this unity produces nothing but death.

How easy it is to feel superior to these Islamic fundamentalists who oppress their own people in the name of God! But we risk the same fate if we continue to allow our own Christian fundamentalists and authoritarians to blur the distinction between religion and state. The founders were anxious to avoid the bloodletting that state religion had invariably produced in Europe. Only by maintaining a secular democratic form of government that was not allied with any church or religion could the United States avoid the tragedy of religious oppression. Nothing that has occurred since in American history or the history of the world has shown them to be mistaken. The same groups that the Islamist state targets as enemies—women’s rights advocates, intellectuals, labor unions, journalists—are attacked by the so-called Christian right and their neo-fascist allies on a regular basis. The fact that they also attack Muslims should not be surprising. A hater is most afraid of his own reflection.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

No Confidence

The Senate recently failed to pass a “no confidence” vote on the so-called Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. One might wonder what it would take for the Republicans (and one virtual Republican, Joey the Rat) to express “no confidence” in Gonzales, since he’s nothing but a water boy for Karl Rove, and is apparently suffering from amnesia as well. Confidence must be an almost unlimited resource for the Republicans, if they can retain it in the face of the complete duplicity and incompetence of Gonzales.

Back in the real world, it seems to me that the “no confidence” vote was too limited in focus. I have no confidence in the Secretary of State either. Or the Secretary of Defense. I have no confidence in the ability of the Vice-President to speak the truth at any point in which he opens his mouth. I have no confidence in the administration’s Iraq policy, no confidence in its ability to protect our soldiers or anyone else. I have no confidence that this administration can respond to an emergency (say, for instance, a hurricane) that will be of help to the citizens of the country, or indeed not make it many times worse for us. I have no confidence that King Bush can do anything at all for the public good, no confidence that his rule will not weaken and destroy us in every imaginable way. Since every single policy and pronouncement of this administration is based on gaining political advantage for their criminal outfit, I have no confidence in anything that any administration official might do or say from now until whenever they might be forced to step down, if that blessed day ever comes.

“No confidence” is really a very mild way of expressing the reality of all this, don’t you think? Revulsion, outrage, protest, condemnation—these would seem to be more appropriate responses to the depth of venality, cruelty, and corruption manifested by the current occupants of the White House. But the Democrats tried “no confidence,” I suppose, because they still want to maintain some kind of decorum, at least some pretense that there is such a thing as the rule of law in this country, such a thing as decency and civilization. Gangsters are running the country, and the chief executive is an insane maniac, so the Democrats are trying to quietly take the steering wheel away without panicking the country. I almost sympathize with them. How to deal with such a frightening situation without making it worse?

Impeachment is the solution offered by our founding document. People around the country are clamoring for it. A Newsweek poll says that 51% of the public favors it. (That may not sound like a good majority, but compare it to the numbers on Clinton’s impeachment.) Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. I think there’s a high level of denial on the part of Washington Democrats as to how bad things are, and how much worse they could become if we don’t get rid of this illegitimate regime. It’s easy to get complacent in Washington. The Democratic leadership thinks that it’s better to take little bites out of Bush, weakening him more and more, rather than try a full frontal assault. The received wisdom is that’s too politically risky to try that. I don’t doubt that the Barbarian Party will cry bloody murder about impeachment. But Republicans howl and whine about anything that the Democrats do, no matter what. They need to be ignored. As an institution, the Republican Party has ceded its right to any respect, since it refuses to respect others.

This whole bloody mess needs to be brought out to the forefront of the political process, and at least an attempt made to bring the Bush gang into accountability for their crimes. They will continue to degrade and destroy people’s lives, and our values, regardless of how low their poll numbers may be. Only an outright public fight, which involves an admission that we’re in a constitutional crisis, can give this country a chance to survive.

Telling the truth is always healthier than denial, even if it seems more painful in the short run. We have no confidence left. There’s been no confidence in quite some time, actually. The only real confidence comes from honesty.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Beyond liberty

I was perusing the U.S. Constitution the other day, and I was startled to discover that Wall Street is not mentioned anywhere in the entire thing. This is an amazing oversight, since Wall Street is clearly the most powerful branch of our government. All Wall Street has to do is make a few threats or express alarm about something, and you can be sure that the Congress and the White House will do all they can to placate it.

Just a little research into the historical era of the Constitution helped clear up my perplexity. In those days, as it turns out, there was no Exxon Mobil. Nor was there a General Motors, Citigroup, General Electric, Home Depot, or Lockheed Martin. How these people survived I cannot imagine. Without television or the internet, they could only sit and read by candlelight in their powdered wigs, passing the interminable hours writing letters. Without the thousands of helpful billboards and other advertisements surrounding them, they didn’t know what to buy, or even what to want. It’s no wonder, then, that their work, however laudable, has become woefully out of date and inadequate for the needs of our time.

One can only chuckle at the quaint notions that pop up in our ancient founding document. The Congress, for instance, is given the authority to declare war, when we all know that only the President does that. I don’t know how they expected a bunch of elected officials to be able to coordinate something as important as declaring a war. Only the executive knows the secret information about our security that necessitates military action.

Article IV of the amendments, to cite only one more example, says that no warrants should be issued without probable cause, and the police would even have to specify the persons or things to be seized. This would tie the hands of our law enforcement and homeland security authorities so that terrorists and criminals would be free to wreak havoc. It’s no wonder that we decided to sidestep this barrier by going without warrants altogether. Torture and detention without trial are further wise steps taken to protect us, and the protests of the so-called human rights community can only be viewed as ultimately self-hating. The Constitution, as Judge Posner so wisely stated, is not a suicide note.

Times have changed, and our leaders have understandably altered our course with the times. The founders sought naively to make liberty the centerpiece of their document rather than security or authority. When all that threatened them were antique muskets and cannons, that probably made sense. But now it’s far too dangerous a world for us to indulge in such infantile fantasies.

When we talk about freedom today, we of course mean economic freedom. We have the freedom to buy many wonderful products and enjoy their use. We can sit with our families and watch television, freely digesting our good food, in reasonable security from the actions of criminals or terrorists, provided we give our leaders and troops the support they need in order to keep us safe. We can ride in our automobiles across this fine land, enjoying the many picturesque natural sites and theme parks. And we all worship together in the church of our choice, satisfied with living moral lives, working together to ensure that fetuses go to term and homosexuals are kept in their place. These are time-honored values.

Freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and so forth, is fine within certain limits. We have seen, however, how abuse of those rights have led to discontent and distrust. Ultimately these freedoms don’t matter so much in the larger scheme of things because the authorities and corporations have more knowledge and expertise on how to run things than the average person, and allowing dissent or anti-government views to proliferate only weakens our credibility in the world, giving encouragement to our enemies and undermining our security.

For the sake of sentimentality, we talk about the old Constitution as if it mattered. We even have the President swear to uphold it, although we all know that’s not possible. We are the greatest country in the world because of our wealth. Much of the rest of the world is jealous of our riches, and the wide range of products that we consume—thus we have terrorists seeking to destroy our way of life, take our oil and wrest other resources away from us. For our own sake, and the sake of our children, we must face the facts. A military government, with the President as commander-in-chief of all the citizens, is the best way to face the challenges of a dangerous world. A few wise men know this, while liberals and other do-gooders continue to live in the past. Surely our founding fathers, who were practical enough to allow slavery to exist for a while rather than upset the social order, would understand the need for a decisive new vision of government to meet the new demands of a terrifying world.