Friday, October 26, 2007

In their face

Channel surfing is a terrible habit, worse than biting my fingernails. I’ll inevitably run across something by chance on one of the “news” channels that will piss me off. Last night my remote clicked around to the evil clown Glenn Beck, who somehow managed to get a prime time show on CNN. Watching the antics of this bug-eyed lunatic is equivalent to slowing down next to a bloody car wreck, just to get a glimpse of some mayhem.

Perhaps part of my sick fascination stemmed from reading about something he’d said Monday, to wit: "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today." Think of the families forced to flee their homes on a moment’s notice, losing everything they have. Then read that sentence again and wonder why Glenn Beck has a job.

Anyway, last night he was showing clips of the recent Code Pink action at the Congress, where a woman with her hands painted blood-red actually got up close to Condoleezza Rice, calling her a war criminal and yelling, “The blood of millions of Iraqis is on your hands." She was dragged away, along with the other Code Pink women that were there.

And Glenn Beck is gesticulating in that clownish way that makes you feel nauseated and saying, “They're horrible, just a horrible group of people! I mean, look, you can be against the war. You can have this debate. There's nothing more American than saying that. But this is -- these people are over the line!"

I’d like to know what “debate” he’s referring to. Public opinion has been overwhelmingly against this war for literally years now, so that debate is over. But you wouldn’t know it from watching the “news” channels. And what avenues, may I ask, are available to the people to voice their outrage over what has been done? Well, I guess we can write letters to our senators and representatives. Or to the editor of our local newspaper. Oh yeah, we can vote every two years, assuming that the vote is not being rigged or suppressed, which is sadly not something we can ever assume again. In fact, I seem to recall that there was an election last year in which the Democrats were put back in control of the Congress, an election result fueled in large part by disgust with this war. And yet—nothing has happened. Bush and Cheney go on their merry way while Congress ensures that we're not making any disrespectful puns on General Petraeus’s name.

The citizens of this country are treated like spectators who have no duty to their conscience but to keep out mouths shut while war-mongers and plutocrats continue to drive us to ruin. That’s why Code Pink disrupts public events. Face it, everyone who has stood up for peace has been ridiculed, slandered, demonized, and accused of disloyalty, even when they’ve been polite and played by the rules. So raising a little hell is quite appropriate. Getting in the face of a murderous flunky like Rice is just what’s called for. She deserves to feel uncomfortable, maybe even a little scared.

Women taking action, angry women, women who are acting “unladylike”—these things inspire fear and revulsion in the patriarchal brain. Even Jon Stewart, bless his heart, cracked “You’re not helping!” when they showed a clip of a previous Code Pink action on his show. But what would help, do you think? Folding our hands, being polite, being quiet, waiting our turn? Our turn never comes if we just wait for it. We march in the streets by the millions and the “news” channels say that we were “thousands,” if they mention us at all. Have the rightists practiced dignity and civility? Hmm, maybe we should ask Ann Coulter about that.

The more hissy-fits the wingnuts, the better off we are, I think. The Fox zombies and AM radio roaches starting piling on Media Matters over the last few months because this little website has had the nerve to regularly fact-check their statements and expose them as liars. And they’re such pathetic little whiners that the thought of some website criticizing them provoked them into a torrent of whining and finger-pointing. It’s funded by George Soros, they sniveled, as if that would make a difference, even if it were true—which of course it isn’t.

Whenever an anti-war group or a progressive organization is attacked by these people, it means we’ve hit a nerve. That’s a good thing. We want that.

And you know, the last time I looked, Code Pink hadn’t killed anyone. They haven’t shoved anyone’s head underwater to simulate drowning. They haven’t blown little kids to pieces in the name of democracy. They haven’t put American soldiers in the line of fire while looting the treasury for all it’s worth. And yet somehow, they’re a “horrible group of people.” You know what? I’m reaching for my checkbook right now and I’m making a donation to Code Pink.

There. I feel better.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bad faith

In a speech the other day, Sam Brownback said the following: "The view of government without faith has been tried and failed; it was atheistic communism. It had the idea that somehow man would move himself into a perfected state, and it utterly failed. It didn't look to the transcendent, and didn't pull man out of himself in love.”

Here we have a fairly standard distortion, an imitation of actual thinking, in which the separation of church and state is identified with atheism. It’s designed to appeal to the fundamentalists. Liberty from religious intolerance, from the enshrinement of religious power in government power, is framed as a threat to faith. The harking back to communism is an almost nostalgic appeal to the knee-jerk hatreds of the Cold War. If you don’t want prayer in the schools, if you think women should be able to decide themselves whether they want to go through with a pregnancy, if you think gay people should have the same rights as everyone else, well you must be an atheist communist.

An all-too obvious aspect of all this—which is, however, seldom pointed out—is that Christian fundamentalists and their enablers must have incredibly weak faith, seeing as how they are in a practically constant state of anxiety about threats to it from liberals, feminists, gays, atheists, Muslims, or what have you. Their almighty God must be a puny little weakling if his rule is threatened by a few gays, or for that matter by any mortal who summons the courage to question his existence. But of course the fundamentalist faith is the real weakling, since it relies on a constant diet of hatred, resentment, anger, repression and contempt to stay viable. The spiritual midgets of the so-called religious right apparently think that God needs their help. Without Pat Robertson scrunching his eyes closed and asking for a Supreme Court Justice or two to have a heart attack, Jehovah just may not be able to succeed in his mission.

When someone like Brownback starts to pontificate about faith and the sacredness of life, etc., I am puzzled—no, dumfounded—trying to understand what he means. He voted no on requiring CIA reports on detainees and interrogation methods. I guess “faith” means keeping silence when people are tortured. He voted no on banning chemical weapons. So I guess “faith” shouldn’t interfere with the right of the state to use nerve gas on human beings. He has continued to block pulling troops out of Iraq. I guess “faith” means more war, more death, more militarization, more fraud, more lying, more lawlessness.

The faith that countenances continued violence and state-sponsored terror is no faith at all. It is a sham. And the only way someone like Brownback can tell himself that he is a man of faith is if “faith” is a concept so devoid of meaning as to simply indicate the craven exercise of power over others. And when our modern Pharisees hear of the suffering caused by their government, they cheer inside, and cry against those who stand for peace, and use the idea that liberals want to man to “move himself into a perfected state” as an excuse to do nothing.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Clinton cul-de-sac

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s a narrowly tactical saying, and therefore false in almost every way that matters to ordinary working citizens. But in the American political scene in the last fifteen years, this fallacy has had a destructive effect on liberals and progressives seeking meaningful change.

I’m referring, of course, to the Clintons. The right wing has demonized them to such an extraordinary degree—to this day obsessing about the Clinton presidency even as they make excuses for his deeply corrupt successor—that many well-intentioned Democrats seem to think that the Clintons must be friends of the progressive movement. On the other hand, I have known many an instance when attacking the Bush regime has prompted conservatives to assume that I must be a Clinton supporter. Such is the shallow cul-de-sac that is mainstream political thinking.

It’s no use pointing out here that Clinton was a much better President than Bush. It’s not hard to be better than the worst. The Bush gang’s depredations have lowered the bar to virtually subterranean levels. I have heard comparisons of Nixon, Ford, and even Reagan to the current occupant in which the previous crooks and mediocrities have gained a better rating than Bush. Does that mean these men were good Presidents? Not to a sane way of thinking.

In discussions that I’ve had, Clinton supporters have extolled his charm, his eloquence, his marvelous speaking ability. Frankly, I’ve never seen it. He’s always come off as a facile glad-hander to me, and a very boring speaker, full of general platitudes without fire or substance. His stultifying “bridge to the 21st century” State of the Union speech was not at all unusual for him—a pretentious lathering of rhetorical emptiness that numbs the mind into apathy at best, impotent rage at worst.

But let’s look away from the man and measure the accomplishments. What did President Clinton do?

He went to the mat for NAFTA, and for “free trade” in general, just like the corporations wanted him to. Unions? Forget about it. Clinton never did a thing for them. On the other hand, he was in favor of deregulating the banking industry, part of the short-sighted corporatist strategy that still plagues us.

He jumped on the right-wing anti-welfare bandwagon, helping to craft punitive anti-poor legislation.

He flinched when rightists opposed gays in the military, turning around and establishing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an unworkable anti-gay policy that plays right into the hands of the hate lobby.

Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism Act foreshadowed Bush policies. It included wiretapping without warrants and giving the State Dept authority to decide what organizations are terrorist and then make anyone contributing to these groups liable to prosecution. It also negated habeas corpus for non-citizen terrorism suspects.

He used military force in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Sudan. He instigated a long bombing campaign against Iraq that went largely unreported in the U.S., and his sanctions on that country were estimated to have killed a million people, many of them children.

And what about the economic prosperity we supposedly enjoyed under Clinton? The upper five percent became much wealthier under Clinton, and Wall Street prospered. But it didn’t translate into change for working people. Wages stagnated while downsizing and outsourcing accelerated. The internet boom provided a nice illusion for the media to latch onto, but we all know what happened next. Clinton helped facilitate corporatist policies that led to constant mergings, short-term speculation, and corruption. Basically he was bought and paid for by Wall Street.

Under Clinton the Democrats became a minority in the House for the first time in five decades. They lost eight Senate seats, which basically destroyed Democratic effectiveness in that body, and led to further losses later on. Eleven state governorships went Republican under Clinton. The Clinton presidency was a golden age for the right-wing. And did he stand up and confront them? No, he tried to co-opt their power by becoming more and more like them. Principles didn’t matter, only power. And how did this strategy play out? While Clinton played for the ever-shrinking “centrist” vote, and took liberals for granted, the Republicans viciously attacked him on every front, finally impeaching him for lying in a civil suit that they instigated against him for sexual misconduct.

The degraded state of our political landscape today did not just appear out of nowhere. A lot of the reasons that it has gotten this bad can be found in eight years of spineless surrender to the right during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council, a conservative group whose goal is to align the Democratic Party with the corporatist agenda, and thus keep the money flowing in. They bought into the rightist mantra that “liberal” is a dirty word, and that progressive politicians are unelectable. They still wield a lot of clout. And their way leads to disaster.

Was there any area in which Clinton held firm for progressive values? I can think of one: choice. Not the greater issues of women’s rights, health, and empowerment; not the needs of poor women with families; but just abortion rights. In a time when we needed someone to fight for us against the rising tide of reaction, this is the sop we were thrown. Is that enough for you? Is being pro-choice, and nothing more, enough to qualify someone as a liberal? I think not.

Since the catastrophe of Reagan, the official definition of the “center” has continued to move farther and farther right. This was a conscious strategy. When outrageous things are said, they begin a process in which the outrageous can become “normal.” By going along with this, Clinton Democrats marginalized liberal and progressive voters. The assumption is that there was nowhere else we could go. (The same attitude was maintained regarding African American voters.) They’d say stuff during election years, but when it came time for action we were ignored. One of the results has been widespread voter apathy. Rather than see this as a problem, both parties have been afraid to expand voter participation. Better the security of low voter turnout than the wild card of an energized citizenry. This dovetails with the strategy of appealing to the “undecided” voter. Although Rove demonstrated that energizing the base can win elections, Democrats don’t seem to have a sense of their base, or rather one should say that their base consists of the corporate donors who are bankrolling them. If the voters turn against corporate interests, what are Democrats to do? Give lip service to the public interest, while placating the corporations, that’s what. And this is exactly what we still see now.

Do you think Hillary Clinton offers anything different in essence than Bill Clinton? Study her words and actions carefully, and you will find no meaningful evidence of such difference. Once again we have sheer opportunism, a consistent placating of the right along with token gestures to the left. I hope we can do better.

When we witnessed the spectacle of Democrats, even progressives like Eric Alterman or Todd Gitlin, become apoplectic about the third party candidacies of Ralph Nader, it’s a symbol of the impotence and weakness of mainstream liberal thinking. What they’re really saying is: “Your vote belongs to us! How dare you waste it on a third party candidate!” A mature adult response would be to question oneself, asking how the Democratic Party can meet the needs of this portion of the constituency that is voting for a third party. What can we do for progressive needs and causes, so as to bring them back into the fold?

But instead, as you know, they pouted, threw tantrums, pointed at Nader and whined that he had thrown the 2000 election to Bush. The immaturity and entitlement of this stance is breathtaking. We supposedly owe them our votes without question, or we’re branded as stupid idiots. But what had eight years of Clinton done for us? What had he done for civil rights, women, the environment, equality, racial justice? All we saw was an opportunist game of double talk and triangulation, in which society became increasingly engulfed by the right-wing narrative. And the Gore that campaigned that year was not the Gore we saw emerge later on.

I’m sure even the majority of us, who voted for Gore, didn’t expect that the Bush administration would be a crypto-fascist coup. The narrative that was sold to us was that he was just another Republican shithead. But even though Bush has been an unmitigated disaster, in the long view we need a much more radical change than electing some cautious establishment figure to the White House. In fact, the focus on the Presidency as an agent of change is misguided in itself. There’s a huge architecture of power that is in place in this country, an imperial power inflated to mammoth proportions during the Cold War, and no one person in the White House will be able to transform it into a true servant of the people. I mentioned how different Gore was as a Vice-President and a Presidential candidate than as a Nobel laureate. We’ve also seen how Jimmy Carter has said and done some wise and sensible things after he was President. While he was President, he had Brzezinski as his Secretary of State, and he made sure that the federal government would survive underground while we all fried to death in a nuclear war. He was a conservative Democrat, not a liberal, and this is what we forget. But it seems everyone changes in the secret corridors of power. If by some freak accident, a man like Kucinich was elected, don’t you think he might get assassinated, or otherwise disposed of?

So the answer is a mass movement of the people. It always has been. If we want politicians to pay attention, we have to be mobilized. This is not easily done. The material comforts offered to the masses by the corporate powers act like a glaze over the mind. The wasteful luxury of our “way of life” is bought at the expense of a lot of other lives in other countries. Most people don’t want to see this, or do anything about it. But besides all this, people are generally busy with their lives, and they’re not going to drop everything to become political activists. How can you blame them? Strategies of engagement need to be fashioned that ask more of people without asking more than they can give. In the meantime, I suspect that things will have to get a good deal worse, economically and otherwise, for the mass of Americans, before a progressive movement will make the kind of gains we need. The rightists are not going away quietly. The polls show them losing at every level, yet they still dominate Washington and the media discourse. The astounding thing is how well progressives have actually done in the last few years, considering the forces arrayed against us.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Just trust us

On Thursday, Dana Perino, the White House’s new official liar, brought out the old “we don’t torture” mantra in response to the New York Times’ revelations about U.S. endorsement of torture. When asked to elaborate, she used the old “we won’t tell you because the enemy is listening” rationale: “You don't hand over your game book to the opposing team.”

You see, children, the enemy trains itself to resist interrogation. If they know what we do, they will be better prepared to resist. Mind you, we don’t torture. You’ll have to take our word for it. Trust us. But we can’t answer questions about our interrogation techniques.

Fact: the torture methods are already well known, and have been public knowledge for years now. The notion that we’re not being told in order to protect us is another insult to our integrity and conscience. The Bush regime wants the American people in the dark as much as possible because our knowledge threatens their power.

“Just trust us” is not within the American tradition. If anything, it’s an ancient royalist concept of obedience to divinely ordained authority. If all we needed was to trust that our masters were doing the right thing, there would be no need of representation by legislatures, or trial by jury, or a Constitution, or for that matter, the vote. “Just trust us” is merely a doctrine of submission to a paternalistic power, like peasants submitting themselves to the will of an Emperor. This republic was not founded on trust, but in fact on a wise and healthy mistrust of the human capacity to govern itself without proper checks and balances. So for the government to refuse to give an account of itself, to keep the people in the dark as a matter of principle, is an inherently un-American philosophy. It’s a philosophy much more in keeping with dictatorships such as China or North Korea.

The Bush regime must make the pretense of being moral, because an amoral political philosophy of pure power is not completely acceptable to most Americans. Therefore we get this infantile insistence that “we do not torture.” They do in fact torture, and have been torturing for years now, but the denial is necessary in order to keep the mass of people, who are generally uninformed, in a semblance of moral comfort and apathy. It doesn’t matter if the statement has repeatedly been shown to be false, as long as this information is confined to a relatively small educated segment of the populace.

As part of this strategy of deliberate obfuscation, concepts which are incompatible can be combined without much consequence. Thus Perino emphasized several times that we haven’t had another terrorist attack here since 2001. The implication is that torture has helped prevent such attacks. (But of course we don’t torture.) Bush himself has used this ploy, as when he credited “tough” tactics last year in the cracking of terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah. (The narrative concerning Zubaydah was a lie, but we can generally assume that any statement of fact by Bush is a lie.)

The moral stance is flimsily transparent. The real message, the red meat thrown to the rightist base, is that torture is good when used against the enemy. If you’ve got bad people who want to kill you, then you’re justified in torturing them. This really appeals to the basest, most primitive human elements, the part of us that hates and wants to make the enemy feel the pain of vengeance. I think this element is a big part of what motivates the base—pure rage and hatred against enemies. And “the enemy,” we know, is domestic as well. It includes liberals, leftists, feminists, etc., so implied in this appeal to the base is the prospect of using torture against the “domestic” foe as well.

Conservatives used to decry the “moral relativism” of the left. What could be more relativist than this desire to justify torture? If we can torture an enemy, who is going to decide what the definition of “enemy” is? What’s to prevent me or my family from being designated an enemy, if I protest, dissent, or say the wrong thing? If a Democrat were in the White House—say for instance Hillary Clinton—what’s to prevent the government from declaring anti-abortion groups as the enemy? But you see, when their political opponents do it, it’s wrong; when it’s their guy doing it, it’s right. This is the quintessence of moral relativism. It’s government by men instead of laws.

The use of public discourse as a means to hoodwink the uninformed masses is perhaps best epitomized by the “ticking bomb” argument. We recently witnessed the grotesque spectacle of a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, using the fictional character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 to argue for torture. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles...He saved hundreds of thousands of lives...Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" The utter contempt that this argument demonstrates is breathtaking. We’re considered so stupid that we will accept the confusion of a TV thriller with reality, by a Supreme Court justice no less.

When the ticking bomb defense comes up (and it does, frequently), I haven’t heard anyone ask, “So is that what we’re facing in these cases? Are we racing against time here to dismantle an atomic bomb? And if not, what possible relevance does this argument have to the debate on torture in Guantanamo and elsewhere?”

To which the Fox viewer might reply, “Yes, this is a ticking bomb. These terrorists are out to get us.” Who decides which person is a terrorist, and who gets tortured to save us from this metaphorical ticking bomb? The Preznit, of course. Just trust him.

Which brings me to another subliminal argument going on underneath all this talk of game plans and scorecards and tough tactics. The secret message is: “These weak, pansy liberals are more concerned about the rights of dirty Arab killers than they are about you, Mr. Decent White Guy, and your decent white family. So publicly we’ll say that we don’t torture (wink, wink) to keep these do-gooders at bay. But we know, don’t we, friends and patriots, that your glorious leader is doing whatever it takes to keep America strong, and if that means attaching electrodes to the balls of some filthy wog, then so be it. We’ll do what we have to do, like true manly men, and we'll deny it so that the liberal traitors can't sabotage our righteous work."

We wonder why the constant exposure of lies hasn’t brought this regime down. I’ll tell you a story. I had a t-shirt made with a big picture of that hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib on it. The shirt says, “If these are our values, we’re losing more than a war.” Yes, it’s provocative. I was wearing it a couple of weeks ago when I was in line at the grocery store. The cashier looked at me with a quizzical expression. “If these are our values…” she said, “What does that mean?” “I had this shirt made myself,” I answered. “The picture is from Abu Ghraib.” Can you guess what she said?

“What’s Abu Ghraib?”

I told her it was the prison in Iraq where they tortured people. She said, “You mean our soldiers?” I said yes. She said, “Oh. I…don’t like to think about the war.”

This person was not hostile, just curious. And I don’t blame people for not wanting to think about the horrific things going on in this world. But it was an eye-opener for me because I assumed everyone had heard of Abu Ghraib. The torturers have shown themselves less naive than I in this regard. They know that most people don’t pay very much attention to the news, beyond the most superficial aspects.

They count on it.