Thursday, September 27, 2007

The roots of denial

Holocaust denial is in the news again, thanks (but no thanks) to the President of Iran. Ahmadinejad’s opinions have elicited the usual indignation, but what are we to make, finally, of Holocaust denial itself? There is no question that the “final solution” is among the most well-documented events in history. The Germans kept very precise records—not to mention the countless testimonies from survivors and perpetrators, along with all the other supporting evidence. That anyone would even attempt to deny the Holocaust has always puzzled me. Yet it’s been going on for at least forty years.

Sometimes the denial manifests as a critique of the extent or nature of Nazi persecution of the Jews, as for example in claims that the gas chambers were a myth. I don’t think it makes any difference whether a revisionist denies the Holocaust outright, or just the extent of it, or the means employed. None of it withstands critical scrutiny.

It seems to me that the question as to why such denial is being advanced has two related answers, one of them obvious, the other not as much. First, the obvious one: antisemitism. Hatred of Jews has a long tradition. The ambivalent relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which organized Christian power incorporated the Jewish scriptures while claiming to usurp the Jews’ “chosen” place within the biblical story, has been one of the most tragic aspects of European history. The 19th century, however, saw racism as a cultural construct give way to an ideological racism. The mythical position of the Jew as scapegoat became a lightning rod for those using fear and resentment to wield a new kind of power that we’ve come to know as “totalitarian.”

When the magnitude of the Nazi regime’s crimes became widely known, the world shuddered. A supposedly “civilized” nation demonstrated to what depths human beings can go, and they were deeper and more frightening than anyone had dreamed. The post-war revelations concerning the death camps were a repudiation of ideological antisemitism. As the cause, so the effect: the end of antisemitic rhetoric was mass murder.

Rather than boldly attempt to justify the “final solution,” therefore, the antisemite of today seeks instead to deny that it existed. If there were no Holocaust, then anti-Jewish ideology can pretend once more to have a case. Holocaust denial, then, is an attempt to regain access to the destructive energy of the old Jew-as-scapegoat mythos, a time-honored source of power. Of course there are other scapegoats available (the right wing is currently using gay people for that end) but none of them have the history or the potency of the Jewish scapegoat.

I believe, however, that there is a second reason for Holocaust denial, related to the first but more subtle. That the Third Reich was really a rightist state is a fact that must be secretly embarrassing to right wingers. During the Cold War, the American right was fond of raising the specter of Munich and “appeasement” when attacking the left as being soft on Communism. This obscured the fact that it was the right that opposed entry into World War II, it was the right that was isolationist, and what support there was for Hitler in this country came exclusively from the right. During the McCarthy era, anticommunism and antisemitism went hand-in-hand, and this was no different in essence from Hitler’s own political views. A number of Congressmen were on record as believing that America had been duped into supporting the “wrong” side in the war by a “Jewish-Bolshevist” conspiracy.

As a symptom, then, of this largely unexpressed embarrassment, we witness the appearance, on society’s fringes, of Holocaust denial. For if the Holocaust didn’t happen, or even if it wasn’t as severe as we’ve been told, then Nazi Germany was just another regime that waged an unfortunate war and lost, rather than a massive criminal enterprise. And if the fascist state was not beyond the ken, then the fascist project for the future is given a new lease on life. I don’t believe the issue at stake is whether or not the denial is supported by the facts. The motive is to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind. A gradual erosion of faith in the historical record advances the fascist cause. Most of this is unconscious, of course, just as all such ideological systems are an expression of an unconscious drive to power.

In the case of Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers from Muslim countries, I think it’s primarily a symptom of their hatred of Israel. A sane perspective is to consider Israel as a state among other states, which means that one can oppose the policies of an Israeli government without being anti-Jewish, contrary to what many reflexive defenders of Israeli policies may say. Conferring a “special” status on a particular country is just as delusional as giving it a “hated” status. To do neither is not only a prerequisite for sane political discussion, but for respect as well. But both are apparently in short supply. So we have the spectacle of a Muslim leader spouting off about the “myth” of the Holocaust. No matter what the motive may be, the negation of the historical record reveals an insidious prejudice.

I understand that there are Holocaust deniers on the left as well. Delusion is not the sole property of the right. But if I were to believe what the right wing noise machine tells me, liberals and leftists are natural allies of Islamic fundamentalists, although the fundamentalists oppose homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and just about everything else that the American right opposes. The Orwellian state of public discourse is such that indignation about Holocaust denial can be expressed by those who haven’t learned anything from the Holocaust. The mortal danger of extremist ideology, whether we label it “right” or “left,” is not something in a museum. It’s still very much with us.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


In a sleepy corner of Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, residents mill about. Children are playing; some are being breast-fed. A beautiful Malian woman leaves her house, where her little daughter is suffering from a fever, and goes to sing at a local nightclub. A young man lies in a nearby building, deathly ill but with no medical care. And in the midst of all this, something unusual is occurring. There’s an open-air trial being conducted in a little enclosed town square. Judges sit at a table; there are lawyers and witnesses. Gradually we find out who is on trial: the World Bank. The plaintiff is the African people.
I'm describing a film called
Bamako, and it’s directed by the extraordinarily talented Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. Now, I would expect a film in which a symbolic trial of the World Bank takes place, with impassioned speeches on both sides of the issues around globalization and African impoverishment, would be contrived, didactic, or in any case difficult to sit through. But not at all. Sissako’s method of placing this highly charged rhetorical event in the middle of what amounts to a village atmosphere creates a compelling and realistic link between oratory and ordinary life.
Most of the men seem alienated or listless, sitting with heads down outside the court, listening to the trial on loudspeakers, sometimes having laconic and rather intriguing conversations. The women are more active
dyeing cloth, weaving, handling the food and the childcare. Sissako is even confident enough to be absurd: at one point the kids watch a mock-Western on TV starring Danny Glover in which the sheriff and the outlaws shoot it out but the only people who get killed seem to be civilians, which in itself is a symbol of the situation in Africa vis-à-vis the West.
The trial itself is the film’s centerpiece. On the plaintiff’s side we have eloquent denunciations by a writer, a professor, and others, talking about the tremendous burden of debt hanging on the neck of Africa, how it relates to colonialism, how the World Bank’s policies only reinforce servitude and the shattering of traditional communities, and how privatization degrades Africa’s right to its own land, water, education and health. Sissako also gives the devil his due, so to speak, in the person of the lawyer representing the World Bank, who presents the kind of counter-arguments you’d expect, credible if not humane, claiming good motives, economic progress and concessions on debt
notwithstanding the occasional intervention of a local goat, who seems to want to give the lawyer a good butt with his horns.
This is a polemical film, a film of outrage about what has been done and continues to be done by the prosperous north enriching itself at the expense of the south, and the tremendous cost in human life and dignity. But the careful creation of atmosphere, the film’s accurate feel for the rhythms of life, and the fiercely intelligent script, ensure that it doesn’t just leave you feeling angry, but wiser, more determined, more empowered.
Bamako is an extraordinary achievement, and I urge you to see it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Move on

The reaction to the ad attacking Petraeus provides a convenient glimpse into the rightist mindset. It would appear that attacking the military is the one unpardonable sin. Before venturing any criticism of the war regime, we must always reassure the public of our admiration and devotion to the brave, fine, excellent men and women of our armed forces. Unless they’re whistle blowers exposing abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Or soldiers who have turned against the war. Then we’ll ignore them, or denigrate them if necessary.

On cue, the “centrist” opinion makers are sure to fall in line with the lemming march against Move On. It’s all a bit surprising, since Move On has been comparatively cautious in its approach in the past. That hasn’t stopped various Bush mouthpieces, such as Dan Bartlett, from painting them as radical extremists. In our country, anyone even approaching sanity is a radical extremist.

The unquestioning worship of the military is not a particularly American sentiment. It doesn’t distinguish us from any number of kingdoms and dictatorships through history. In fact, civilian oversight of the military has been the American approach, ideally at least if not always in practice.

The military is not a republic, or a democracy. It is by its very nature a dictatorship. You do as you’re told. That’s the way it has to be. The danger is that if the military becomes a dominant political force in society, you end up with tyranny. That’s what right-wing authoritarians crave, because they don’t really care about America in terms of its republican traditions, the heritage of the founders. It’s just a fiefdom to them—a way to get rich and lord it over the rest of us. The identification of patriotism with militarism is one of the main corrupting influences in the political process today. You see it everywhere. To challenge it is to challenge the climate of fear and the threat of ostracism and violence. As the tin-horn fascist John McCain said, “ ought to be thrown out of this country.” Deep in the reactionary psyche, criticizing the military is like challenging Dad’s authority. Hysteria is the automatic result.

The ad made a pun on Petraeus’ name (“Betray us”) which seems to be what pissed the wingnuts off the most. I don’t think wordplay of this sort is a good thing. It sounds too much like the rightists themselves. As those of us who are conscious will recognize (but the corporate media and their drone viewers don’t see), the right has been using this kind of rhetoric with impunity for decades. Bill O’Reilly and the rest of that ilk have no qualms about calling liberals, or even just those who oppose their views (e.g. John Murtha) traitors to America. And they do it continually. But if a liberal or a progressive, or a group like Move On does it, then that’s not acceptable. A big brouhaha will be kicked up in the media and the sneering mob will demand an apology.

No apologies should be made. None. The noise machine needs to be attacked for what it is. And that’s the only effective strategy when it comes to this kind of incident. Because the fascist group will always find some distraction like this to whine about. That’s their method—distraction.

The larger lesson to be drawn from all this is not a new one. It’s the same ugly fact we can discern from any one of such incidents in our recent history. And that is that the assumption of moral values by the American elites is a lie. The sad part is that it has also become a lie for a great deal of ordinary Americans as well—I wont’s say all, or even most. I don’t know. But the evidence is discouraging.

Thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the American invasion. The conduct of the occupation—the brutality, the profiteering, the constant lying—has shattered Iraq. Millions have fled the country. But do we hear any concern for that on the part of the political elites? What politicians, pundits, or candidates demonstrate an awareness of the criminality of what has been done and continues to be done in the name of America? Almost no one says a word about that, or expresses the slightest moral qualms about this war. It’s always expressed in selfish terms: how we’re stuck there in a quagmire, how the war was “mismanaged,” or even how the Iraqis are ungrateful and uncooperative. Among those who may feel the horrifying moral implications, few speak out, because they know they will be condemned and ostracized if they do so. The few exceptions, such as Kucinich, are already marginalized, therefore ignored.

The underlying belief is incredibly infantile. The United States is inherently good, and cannot do wrong. Anything we do is right, and anyone who questions that is a dangerous traitor. If someone else does exactly what we do, that’s different, because they’re not us. This is an essentially amoral belief. It does not recognize any objective moral standard. To grieve the loss of American losses while being indifferent at best to the lives of non-Americans, is not moral in the least. It’s nothing more than barbarian tribalism. To be “outraged” and “repulsed” by an ad attacking Bush’s general, and at the same time to have no outrage or disgust at what the American government is doing, has been doing, around the world and at home against its own people, shows that the power elites and those who follow them have absolutely no moral values whatsoever. If you’ve grown up believing in the United States, if you’ve had faith in American ideals of freedom as expressed in our founding documents and in the rhetoric of our leaders, this insight is a shocking one. We are an amoral country whose only real value is power and self-aggrandizement.

I recently watched The War Tapes, a documentary film culled from video footage shot by American soldiers on duty in Iraq. Towards the end, when the soldiers we’ve been following are back home, and suffering some of the after-effects of war, one of them explains that the war has to be about oil and money, and that this is a good thing. What would happen to this country without oil? he asks. Then he says that it better be about the oil because he doesn’t want to believe that his friends were killed and wounded for Iraqi freedom.

It’s understandable that a veteran would want to draw meaning from the experience, and be as honest about motives as possible. What’s astonishing is that the notion of fighting in self-defense doesn’t enter the equation. Bush and company pushed hard on the “WMD” angle because the inherent belief is that you don’t go to war unless your country is threatened. But underneath that, in the rationale of the soldier from The War Tapes, is the fall-back argument, the real motive when self-defense is a sham, and that is that we have the right to kill other people to gain an economic or political advantage over them. Ultimately, people are just so many means to the ends of power. There’s a word for the end of that road: totalitarianism.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Beyond belief

The subject of theism versus atheism has almost always been a difficult one to discuss calmly, because the social tension surrounding religious beliefs and institutions are inherently high. I must preface my remarks by saying that I am a member of more than one twelve-step fellowship. These fellowships practice a program of recovery from addiction that is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model. Friends and other people I know in the fellowships who hold what I would call conventional theistic views are often surprised by my opinions about God and spirituality. On a basic intellectual level, my point of view is far closer to that of an atheist than to the church-goer or other religious person. I don’t know many atheists—I’ve become acquainted with more on the internet than in my personal life—but I have found that they are often surprised by my opinions as well, perhaps even more so, because I argue for the value and necessity of spirituality despite my disbelief in God.

When I ask theists to define God, by no means do they all give me the same answers. There’s usually something quite vague about their answers, which in itself indicates something about the problem. But if I had to summarize most of the answers into one definition, it would be that God is a supernatural and all-powerful being who created the universe. This being has many different attributes depending on the speaker’s background, religious upbringing, or any number of other factors. In our culture, which is predominately what they call Judeo-Christian, the being is usually referred to as “He,” a male person. Other characteristics include the aspect of a judging watcher or listener, someone who listens to prayers, a being characterized by perfect love for humankind, a being that can perform miracles, and so on and so forth. One may have problems or differences with one or more of these attributes, but that doesn’t really affect the basic “supernatural creator-being” concept.

On a purely logical basis, I have long been convinced that such a being is literally impossible. When we come to those attributes conveyed by the major religious traditions that are of cosmological (and thus social and political) significance, I end up having grave moral objections as well. There is no point, however, in attempting to explain my conviction within the confines of this essay. Most skeptics won’t need explanations, and most believers would be impervious to them. But rather than merely reject this concept, and thereby put an end to my thinking on this subject, I seek its origins and its significance for human life, and this search leads me to a wider understanding of what spirituality really is and why it is important.

It seems to me that human beings—those animals on this planet that developed self-consciousness, which in turn engendered thought, language, and culture—experience a basic intuition which concerns something beyond the immediacy of their existence. I call this an intuition of eternity. A rational formula that aimed to convey the thought-content involved in this intuition would be something like: “In order for all things to be conditioned, reality itself must be unconditioned.” Historically, such formulas appear much later than the original intuition; usually they never appear at all. Human beings simply experience awe and wonder—at existence itself, but even more importantly, at the existence of a living, experiencing subject: the wonderer himself. That is to say that the questions posed are not merely, How did all this come to be? or What is all this? but Who am I? Self-consciousness is the spark igniting the spiritual impulse.

Experience is personal, in the sense that I alone, or you alone, experience everything as a single existing individual. Therefore everything we experience seems personal as well, until finally reality itself, the unconditioned that we intuit, is conceived as a person. And every social aspect of our existence, from the parents and children to the tribe, as well as other animals, feeds into this central idea, so that the gods (and later God) constitute a sort of cultural palimpsest in which one can read the thoughts of the human wonderers.

It is all metaphor, a mythopoetic realm in human consciousness. Metaphor is the way humans express the meaning of their lives. It is absolutely subjective. Even insofar as the metaphors accurately reflect the phenomena we perceive, the significance can only be subjective. I believe that “God” is the absolute conceived in the human mind as personal. A Hindu philosopher might say that if God is absolute and ultimately impersonal, God must be inclusive of all manifestation, and therefore of the personal as well. This is an ingenious way of explaining theism, but it won’t hold up unless one accepts the validity of metaphor as the only way that humans can express the meaning of their own lives.

The false attitude towards religion, in my view, is of the literal truth of a religious belief or doctrine. When a religionist proclaims literal truth, he is denying the validity of metaphor and placing truth outside of the mythopoetic realm, and into the realm of mere phenomena or things. The source of meaning is shut off, and a crucial sense of importance is placed on belief, a mental operation. The conflict here is primarily political, the issue being the desire to unite people around a particular religion and codify their social behavior through beliefs. The intuition of eternity is ignored and suppressed, and along with it the subjective nature of meaning—in its place we are offered an external (objective) belief system to which we are ordered to submit in order to be happy, be saved, have a moral society, or what have you.

Until the rise of science, there was very little perceived contradiction between metaphor and literalism. Science arose from the human need to understand the actual nature of phenomena. A scientific treatise is metaphorical only in the way all language is metaphorical—as an abstraction of real things into thoughts and symbols representing them. But in the spiritual sense--in the way that myth, metaphor, and poetry have been conceived from time immemorial—science is something completely different. It is, in fact, a way to understand and express the literal truth.

Scientists struggled to discover the truth about the planets, for instance, for no other reason than to understand the actual truth about the phenomenon of the planets. Truth in this sense is an objective value. On the other hand, if we take two religious mystics, one of them believing in an earth-centered cosmology and the other believing in a sun-centered cosmology, both of them will derive some symbolic meaning from their respective cosmologies, and they will most probably be very different meanings. The meaning has to do with themselves, with the reality of being a self, of being alive and conscious, and all that this involves. The scientific fact that the earth revolves around the sun has no meaning in and of itself. Its only significance, if we can use that word in the context, is that it is objectively true, but it has no mythopoetic significance without the human subject.

I think most scientists understand this. Their business has nothing to do with religion. But for the religionists who cling to the literal truth, science is an obvious threat. Science places a firm boundary between the metaphor and objective fact, but the religious literalists don’t want to see that their beliefs don’t qualify as objective fact. Perhaps they have an unconscious sense that the validity of the mythopoetic realm is being threatened. The trouble is, they are not conscious of the realm in which they live. They think that meaning comes from outside the human breast, that the subjective cannot be trusted. They’ve bought into the idea that “myth” means “false” and that “metaphor” means “not really.”

When I was in summer camp as a boy I got into a conversation with another boy in which the subject of Adam and Eve came up. At one point I blurted out that of course Adam and Eve was a myth. The other boy, who was Catholic, was so shocked that he refused to speak to me from then on. I wasn’t trying to shock him. I just knew instinctively, probably because of my liberal upbringing, that there was a difference between mythology and history, and what each of them looked like. I loved mythology and derived a lot of benefit from it, including myths from the Bible. Today I don’t accept many aspects of Biblical mythology as meaningful for me. In other words, there are metaphors expressing meanings that I don’t accept. But I don’t question that whatever power a story such as Adam and Eve has for us is born from the power of metaphor. The other boy had no conception of that. Being shut off from the actual power of his own myth, he could only surround the story with anxious taboos, and flee in fear whenever the poetic nature of his own belief was revealed.

I see the controversies around religion today, the apparent conflict between religion and science, as actually a conflict within religion itself. The intuition of eternity will never go away, because it is true. But because it can only be expressed through metaphor, those who seek spiritual meaning are being challenged to recognize and embrace the poetry of the religious impulse, and to realize a life beyond the mental adherence to a set of beliefs—in short, an expansive, visionary life.

What troubles me about the current debate from the atheist side is that I hear (not always, but quite often) an expressed desire for humanity to realize its error and abandon theism. This is really the same mistake the fanatic makes who thinks everyone should convert to one true religion. It’s not going to happen. The human race is never going to all have the same beliefs. Nor is it desirable that it should. Such a goal could only be attempted through brutal violence. The attempt has been repeatedly made, and it has always failed. Atheists are of course not threatening to convert anyone to atheism through violence, but the idea of mankind renouncing religion through reason is hopelessly naïve as well. I also think that there is a failure on the part of atheists to seriously explore the sources of spiritual practice and culture, and a general discounting of myth and metaphor as mere superstition that people should do without. We cannot do without it, because we need to have meaning, and meaning is an expression of our subjectivity.

The real problem, it seems to me, is political. It’s no threat to others if people develop and practice a spiritual culture, in whatever way they choose. It only becomes a threat when people attempt to impose their culture and practices on other people through government, war, or other forceful means. The religious institutions as political entities, with their own social agendas based on self-interest, are all about controlling other people, and very little about asking, “Who am I?” There is no alternative but to place a legal wall between these entities and the state, and that’s exactly what the founders of the U.S. tried to do. My neighbor has a right to be a fundamentalist. But if my neighbor wants the public school—the school my kids go to—to be fundamentalist, that’s not his right.

The fundamentalist would argue that the teaching of evolution in the public school violates his rights because it contradicts his religious beliefs. An atheist might remark that the fundamentalist thereby demonstrates that he does not understand what science is, and I agree. But what I’m also saying is that in addition to not understanding what science is, the fundamentalist, more crucially, more tragically, does not understand what religion is.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Uncommon thievery

Matt Taibbi has written an important piece in Rolling Stone about the rampant fraud by contractors in Iraq. You should read it, even if it means going to it right away and leaving this blog. He makes the case, quite eloquently, that stealing from the taxpayers is not an aberration in the Iraq War, but an essential aspect of that deadly enterprise.

It’s not that the point hasn’t been made before. Robert Greenwald made a very good film about it called Iraq for Sale. There have been excellent reports on this and many other shameful aspects of the debacle from the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, The Nation, and other places in print and on the web. Here, however, we have a rock music publication aimed primarily at younger people—far more ephemeral in content than in its 1970s heyday—that has saw fit to print good, hard-hitting journalism from time to time. And that’s what Taibbi’s piece is: actual journalism with a point of view, not the empty “objective” version of reality we get from the corporate news outlets. The piece is curiously uncredited in its online version, but I’m guessing that’s a mere oversight. Rolling Stone has put Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News to shame as the rags they are. We need more pieces like this, in more widely read popular magazines.

Among other essential points, the author makes what I consider a crucial connection between the unbelievable level of swindling and the very nature of this war and occupation. In World War II, the country was fighting for its survival. If a contractor had delivered equipment that didn’t work, it would not have been tolerated. But in the case of Iraq, the administration has consistently blocked attempts to make the contractors accountable for their crimes, arguing that the swindlers are exempt from prosecution because they work for the government.

Besides the devastating truth that the administration is deliberately countenancing theft from the public treasury, this fact also makes clear that the basic claims of national security on which the war is justified are a fabrication. If this conflict is the great challenge of the century, part of the great struggle against terrorism, Islamo-fascism, or whatever they’re calling it now—if this war, in other words, is a struggle of true importance for our national security, our freedom, our safety, the future of democracy, etc., as we are continually told by its supporters—would fraud on such a scale be allowed? Here's Taibbi's answer: “Operation Iraqi Freedom, it turns out, was never a war against Saddam ­Hussein's Iraq. It was an invasion of the federal budget.”

The Bush administration is a danger to the security of the United States. Nothing could be clearer. Every day this regime stays in power constitutes a threat to our safety—yours, mine, our families, our communities, our country. Even if you discount the subversion of our Constitution and our tradition of liberty, even if you ignore the shameful policies of secret prisons, torture, and lawless detention—just on the basis of national security alone, the impeachment of George Bush and Richard Cheney must be initiated, if only to slow down the destructive machine that threatens our very lives.