Friday, November 23, 2007

The Long View

In Dead Certain, Robert Draper’s portrait of George W. Bush, the president is “keenly interested” in “what history will say” about his time in office. According to the New York Times, he only agreed to be interviewed for the book after he was convinced that Draper was “writing about him as ‘a consequential president’ for history, not for the latest news cycle.” We discover that Bush thinks that history will be “kind” to him. Mysteriously, the NYT piece speaks of the president’s “inner life,” a phenomenon I didn’t know existed, and says that Bush became “reflective” during the interviews.

At the world’s shittiest magazine, meanwhile, Karl Rove gave us the “long view,” predicting that history will view Bush as “a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.” And so on. There appears to be a direct correspondence between the depths of abysmal failure that an administration can sink to, and the number of times that the verdict of history is invoked by its supporters.

I have written previously about the verdict of history, and how the obsession with it by Presidents and other politicians is a symptom of idiocy, self-centeredness, insufferable narcissism, and total disregard for the real responsibilities of one’s position. And there is yet another curious aspect of all this. The “reflective” public figure (even the shallowest pool can reflect, it would seem) thinks of “history” as a single, authoritative figure, perhaps draped in a white robe, pronouncing its verdict with one stroke of its cosmic gavel. But of course history is simply the discourse of existing individuals, historians and others, who construct narratives and thereby strive to understand the past—in other words, it is always contested, always limited, never absolute or transcendent.

What kind of a creature does Bush think “history” is, after all? Perhaps someone just like himself—a frat boy munching on a Hostess ding dong? Or maybe, among all the other Orwellian echoes in this madhouse of a White House, the notion of rewriting history to favor Big Brother—namely, the Ministry of Truth—comes into play. History will be kind to Bush because some other son of a bitch will alter history and erase the truth like they erased his Texas Air National Guard record.

But let us, for once, allow a strain of optimism to influence our thinking. Let us assume that future historians will be studious, conscientious, and objective—that they will, as Mr. Turd Blossom said, take the long view. Realistically, what will they say? I offer here my own tentative prediction.

“At a critical point in world history,” writes our esteemed chronicler from the future, “after the end of the Cold War, the United States suffered the ascension to power in the White House (through fraudulent electoral tactics on the part of the Republican Party) of George W. Bush, a man who proved to be inadequate in every conceivable way to the task of governing a nation. His two terms in office were marked by an illegal war, numerous scandals, and a wholly pervasive atmosphere of corruption and incompetence. Particularly notable was his attempt to undermine the Constitution in favor of an imperial concept of the Presidency as being above the law, and insistence on the need to legalize torture. Bush was more unpopular, and for a longer continuous period of time, than any President in history. Decades later, the world still struggles to recover from the looting, indifference and denial that became commonplace during the Bush years.

“Over time, Bush has become an archetype of imbecility and mindless hate. In the psychiatric community, ‘Bush’ has become shorthand for ‘sociopath.’ Although history is a field usually characterized by dissension and extreme diversity of viewpoint, the historical verdict on George W. Bush is remarkably consistent—he is considered the perfect jackass, a figure so odious as to be almost pathetic, a blithering fool with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, a reckless warmongering thief and liar who left an indelible stain on the country and a stench in the Oval Office, a whiny, self-important braggart who ordered the deaths of thousands so that his wealthy patrons could profit, a man with so little self-respect that he consented to be Richard Cheney’s acknowledged bitch, an historical figure so contemptible, so utterly irrelevant to anything meaningful, that the only reason he’s remembered is because of the sheer magnitude of his failure…” Etc.

Well, my future historian is obviously more colorful than you might expect. But history, you may have noticed, has caught up with satire.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sold out

It’s no accident that the degradation of modern political life has coincided with the rise of advertising as a dominant form of communication. I use the word “communication” for lack of a better term—advertising has bent the meanings of more than a few words we once took for granted.

An ad could be considered merely another spice of capitalist life when it was just the local grocer hawking his wares, or a few lines in the back of a penny weekly. But with commercials plastered on almost every available surface and blaring from radio and television, the spice has become a deadly narcotic.

Worshipers of the “free market” may claim to enjoy advertising, but we know they’re in the minority—the popularity of the mute function on the TV remote is proof enough of that. Of course ads are annoying. There’s a big difference between a friend knocking on your door to pay a visit and the stranger selling you magazine subscriptions. But the pretense of advertising is that there is no difference. And it’s only one of many pretenses permeating this dubious anti-artform.

The prominence of out-and-out lying as a commercial strategy is no secret, but even supposing that an ad’s claims about a particular product are true (quite a supposition, that), there’s something about ads themselves that feel deceptive. The person, actually the company, doing the persuading will obviously say whatever it takes to accomplish the objective of selling you the product. Only children and the credulous, to their misfortune, believe that the advertiser is attempting to communicate a truth—the rest of us recognize persuasion for what it is. And persuasion is annoying because it constantly presses us to make a choice. It pulls at our sleeve like an unwanted companion who won’t shut up and leave us alone.

In this imagined conversation, a burden is placed on you, the customer. In other words, you are being asked to do something—in point of fact, told to do something, since an ad rarely stoops to asking, which would imply some sort of need. In any case, there is a decision that you are being presented with. The relationship of salesman to customer is incompatible with friendship. Friendship is based on equality in the personal sense. It involves dialogue. A commercial, on the other hand, talks at you, never with you.

The ad pretends to be sincere about the content of what it presents, but we know that the desire to sell the product overrides any consideration of content. The salesman may even believe in the product—it’s irrelevant because the act of persuasion itself is inherently insincere. Looking at society under the influence of advertising, then, we notice that we are surrounded and enveloped by false sincerity. The omnipresence of this false sincerity makes actual sincerity more and more difficult. The phony pitch gradually replaces rational discourse in the public sphere until many find themselves unable to tell the difference.

The voice of the ad—which we can take literally as a voice in the case of radio and TV—is the voice of self-satisfied capitalism. "Everything is fine the way it is," the voice says. "There are no real problems other than what to buy, what objects to acquire, and how to acquire them." The commercial's persuasive appeal, the need to buy the product, is always set against the background of an essential acceptance of this situation as the only reality, the only happiness.

We can laugh at the blatant hard-sell techniques of old commercials from the 1950s. But the supposedly hip, humorous, smooth, ironic voice of the present-day ad campaign is no different in essence. Behind the slick veneer of the commercial is the grin of a fool. No rational person talks this way. People know this instinctively. Yet we have been conditioned to accept this language, this decadent form of speech, as an important part of our environment. Advertising presupposes stupidity as the normal, acceptable human condition. The ideal customer may wear a suit, drink martinis, and listen to indie rock, but his brain resembles that of the rube trembling with excitement when he gets the sweepstakes letter telling him that he “may already have won.”

There used to be a sense that advertising was only one aspect of business, and that business was only one aspect of society. But now advertising dictates the campaigns of political candidates, and the methods by which government leaders communicate their actions and intent. Its methods have to a large part absorbed more traditional ideas of journalism—the "news" shows seek to agitate, inspire, and distract us, rather than truly inform. The blather about “values” that has been one of the favorite political dodges in recent decades ignores a basic truth—a society’s values can be easily discerned through the messages that dominate public life. Those messages, by a huge majority, can be summarized simply as “Buy now!” This has the effect of repressing true dialogue in the social, spiritual, educational, artistic, and political realms, and it does so without most of us being aware of it.

I remember how shocked many people were by the statements of a Bush aide in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article. That’s the one where the Bushie said that the “reality-based community” believed wrongly that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” when in fact (according to said Bush freak), the empire creates its own reality when it acts. I was surprised by the uncharacteristic frankness and demented eloquence of the unnamed neocon (“reality-based community” indeed—if I hadn’t known better, I’d say it was satire), but the idea was really just a central tenet of advertising pushed to the level of geopolitical strategy. The worth of the product is ultimately not the point—the important thing is to sell it, and when you succeed at selling it, the success of the “market” justifies the product.

The problem, then, is much bigger than those rotten billboards blocking my view of the mountains—although I’m not opposed to banning them; it would at least be a start. The problem is really a new way of thinking and perceiving, a way exemplified by advertising but now influencing all aspects of society. It’s delusional because it filters everything through a paradigm of persuasion for profit, persuasion without reference to standards of truth and without a relationship to notions of the public good, the welfare of the individual or society. The principle that opposes this new force is simple honesty. With the loss of this principle comes the inevitable destruction of culture and the end of freedom.

To expose this way of thinking as false, then, is one of the goals of a progressive movement. It implies the recognition that capitalism does not constitute a way of life, but only a single aspect of society. This aspect needs to be kept within bounds by an informed citizenry and a government that represents all of the people, not just the salesman.

You can see what an uphill climb we’re talking about. Oh, it’s steep, alright. But there it is.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Token Club

Clarence Thomas has recently written a book called My Grandfather’s Son. The title is unsurprising if one remembers the tendency of self-righteous male political figures to invoke their fathers. The book is a dull read: Thomas devotes a great deal of space to sputtering denunciations of liberalism, and an unseemly obsession with his own perceived status as victim of liberal elites. It would seem that, incapable of writing a decent opinion for the Supreme Court, he will have to settle for writing self-pitying and vindictive personal opinions in his ill-considered memoir. Foremost among Justice Thomas’s themes are his tired complaints concerning his confirmation hearings sixteen years ago. He reveals nothing that would effectively counter the testimony against him, but continues to throw dust in our eyes.

But let us leave aside the Anita Hill controversy—as important as it was, the allegations of sexual harassment obscured other substantive issues regarding Thomas. The American Bar Association gave Judge Thomas a very tentative rating of “qualified” in 1991, with two voting members on the panel voting for “unqualified.” To put this into perspective, you must realize that the third possible rating is “well qualified,” and that this highest rating is fairly easy to achieve. Samuel Alito, a legal mediocrity if there ever was one, got a “well qualified” rating from the ABA. More importantly, it was very unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, for a Supreme Court nominee to be confirmed without a unanimous evaluation of at least “qualified.”

Thomas never really practiced law, except for three years in the Missouri Attorney General’s office, where he worked on state tax issues. He was an in-house lawyer for Monsanto, which is not a job where you’d be expected to have much training in Constitutional law. He then rose through the ranks of the Reagan Administration, where he ended up heading the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (One should note that the Reaganites were pioneers in the practice of promoting right-wing blacks to positions previously identified with progressive liberal causes. Perhaps you recall the crook Samuel Pierce, the secretary of HUD under Reagan.) Finally, Thomas served as a D.C. circuit judge for exactly one year before getting the call from Bush Sr.

The occasion was the retirement of the ailing Thurgood Marshall (who died two years later), the first black member of the Supreme Court and one of the giants of the civil rights era; the man who argued Brown vs. Board of Education; a tireless defender of civil liberties, racial equality, and the rights of the accused. Shallow political thinking being what it is, it was generally assumed that he would replaced by another African American, without much attention being paid to what made this particular African American a great judge.

Now consider the thinking behind the nomination of Clarence Thomas by Poppy Bush and his gang. Here we have the retirement of a great black man, a defender of the oppressed and a champion of freedom and equality. The reasoning, if you can call it that, going on in the brains of these toad-like political hacks could be summarized as something like the following.

“So they want another black guy on the Court? Okay, let’s find a black guy who’s as right wing as they come. Let’s make sure he’s a mediocre lawyer with very little experience, even though there are many other black judges who are far more distinguished. And let’s nominate this nobody, this nonentity who represents a fraction of a percentage of the black community, to the highest court of the land.”

Think about the utter contempt that this nomination demonstrated—for the Court, for Marshall’s legacy, for the black community, for all of us. Consider how this strategy was calculated to turn the tables against civil rights, and against all the gains of that movement through decades of struggle. And remember that all this was to be accomplished by nominating a black man, and then contemplate the nauseating depths of political calculation to which George H.W. Bush and his advisers were willing to go. These were the guys that deliberately evoked racial hatred and fear in the 1988 campaign. They continued to push the Nixonian “Southern strategy” that used code words and secret winks to win the votes of white bigots, and keep the country divided for their own political advantage. Their successors have continued on the same road.

And Judge Thomas has been everything that they hoped he would be. He has consistently embraced the unchecked power of the police to do whatever they want against the citizenry of this country. In the backward march of the Court against racial equality, he has been in the forefront, to the point now where it seems as if we might as well reaffirm Plessy vs. Ferguson. He is the black Jim Crow. He is against abortion rights. He is for torture. He doesn’t even believe in the rule of legal precedent—one of the very foundations of our judicial system. His career on the Court has been one of astonishing mediocrity and ineptitude. And of course, he helped appoint Bush Jr. in 2000.

In his spare time, he performed the ceremony for Rush Limbaugh’s third marriage. What a guy.

As for Poppy Bush’s strategy of racial contempt, the Shrub took it to a whole new level. The appointment of black rightists, culled from an African American population that is overwhelmingly progressive in its political and social leanings, is a Bush hallmark, with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as the most conspicuous examples. (And when you need someone really batshit crazy to bring out during a crisis, there’s always Alan Keyes.)

You see, the evidence of New Orleans notwithstanding, Bush and the Republicans really do care about black people. They care so much that they’ve appointed blacks to the most important administration jobs—our chief liars, thieves and killers.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The familiar problem

Recently I ran across this passage from Plato (Laws, bk. III). He’s discussing the decline of Persia:

“We find that they degenerated still further. The reason is that excessive curtailment of the liberty of the commons, and improper intensification of autocracy, made an end of their national feeling and public spirit. Since their disappearance, the concern of the authorities is no longer for their subjects, the commonalty, but for their own position; they give over loyal cities and peoples to fire and desolation whenever they think it of the slightest advantage to themselves, and consequently hate and are hated with savage and unrelenting animosity. On the other side, when they need the arms of the common people for their defense, they find no patriotism in them, no loyal readiness to hazard themselves in the field; in theory their forces are reckoned by countless thousands, but all these thousands are worthless for service. Hence they hire mercenaries and aliens, as though they had no troops of their own, and look to them for their salvation. Moreover they are forced to an exhibition of their folly, since their habitual conduct amounts to a proclamation that all that society esteems honorable and of good repute is a toy in comparison with gold and silver.”

Now, with a few little adjustments (the well of patriotic soldiers has not yet run dry, for instance, although one can't help but note the mention of mercenaries), this passage can be applied justly—not to present-day Persia (Iran) of course, but to us, the United States under corporate rule, and to the Bush regime especially. Which demonstrates, as many other documents of our Western heritage could, that the problem we face is neither new nor particularly complicated. The arrogance of technology, and the politics of the image, fool us into thinking that we have advanced beyond the problems of the 4th century B.C.E. But the folly of valuing gold and silver over the good of society as a whole plagues us still, and to this narrow and short-sighted self-interest we can still attribute the majority of our ills. Only now the disease may be fatal, since the end of the human race has become an actual possibility in our time.