Sunday, July 29, 2007

Election Distraction

I haven’t watched any of the presidential debates. I do follow what the media has been saying about the races, but the truth is, I don’t really care very much. It’s not that I think all the candidates are the same. At this point, any Democrat running looks better than what we’ve got—although it’s not very hard to look good compared to a criminal. I had an intense dislike for Bill Clinton (still do) but the last six plus years of Preznut AWOL make the Clinton years look like the golden age.

No, my problem with the presidential campaign is that it’s a dangerous distraction. To state the obvious first, the domination of our body politic by the rich has now resulted in the idiocy of a Presidential campaign running close to full tilt over a year before the election. We, the jaded electorate, are expected to pay attention to slickly packaged political rhetoric for two whole years of a campaign? It almost seems designed to increase voter apathy.

More importantly, however, the media’s focus on a Presidential campaign drains attention away from the misdeeds of the current White House occupants. The TV bobbleheads can now drone on about who’s ahead and what strategy so-and-so needs to take in order to gain advantage over so-and-so—the whole politics as horse race nonsense has already taken up a lot of center stage in the official spectacle of current American politics. It’s the perfect non-issue. Let me make this clear: I don’t give a damn who’s ahead and who’s behind. I care about now, not next November, or January ’09. Caring about the race is part of the “business as usual” paradigm that keeps us asleep. The TV “news” is invested in the belief that everything is humming along normally. There’s no crisis. Just consume products, watch the spectacle, and listen to the pundits.

It’s not only that the media tries to distract us with this rubbish. That’s bad, but not as systemically bad as what’s really ailing us. No, what’s dangerous is that the presidential race becomes an excuse for politicians not to do their jobs. The other day on Amy Goodman’s show Democracy Now!, I heard Dan Gerstein, a Democrat who used to work for Joe Lieberman, arguing that impeachment is a bad idea because it might hurt the party’s chances for retaking the White House in ’08. He’s not alone by any means—this is a fairly standard view among the Democrats in the House and Senate. On the surface the argument has a certain logic, but only if you accept the premise that our current situation, although bad, is somehow an ordinary political situation that can be solved best through the process of electoral politics.

Well-meaning strategists like Gerstein fail to note how extraordinary the crisis is. To those in the political class, the undermining of the Constitution in order to establish what are basically dictatorial powers does not set off any alarm bells. The breathtaking contempt shown to the Congress by Bush, Cheney, Rove, Gonzales, and the rest of them—which has reached the point where they defy subpoenas and the threat of contempt citations without blinking an eye—doesn’t seem like a crisis to the politicos. Even the Democratic response to the war in Iraq is crafted with electoral politics in mind. This is the basic mistake that may doom the Democratic Party to failure. Instead of seeing their opponents as a threat to our very liberty as a people—a threat that has proven its nature time and again for the last six plus years—they focus only on beating them at the polls. Not fighting them tooth and nail in the corridors of power, but looking over their shoulders at poll numbers. What we need is to stand up to this nascent fascist movement, confronting it at every level, without letting calculations of possible effects on the ’08 election inhibit us.

The old approach has failed. The victories of ’06 are naught unless you exploit that victory with courage. If a Democrat takes office in ’09, the right-wing machine will still exploit their media power to attack and weaken the new President, just like they did Clinton. They don’t give up. Why should we? There will always be another election looming, either a midterm or Presidential contest. We’re paralyzed by this focus on elections, when fear of electoral consequences prevent politicians from doing the hard work they need to do.

Finally, the election is a distraction because we don’t know how much more damage Cheney/Bush can do in another seventeen months of power. Good god, in seventeen months these people can destroy us. Blithely swimming along as if Bush poses no threat is insanity. His group obviously doesn’t care how low they are in the polls. They don’t believe themselves beholden to public opinion or the will of the people. They believe that they are the law, and they’ve consistently exploited terrorism and war in order to place themselves above all accountability, beyond any standards of human conduct or decency. They have to be confronted now, because the situation will just continue to deteriorate at an exponential rate. War with Iran? Declaring martial law after a terrorist attack? Hey, at this point, you can’t put anything past them, because they’re not just politicians. This is not business as usual. These are criminals, and dealing with criminals means trying to put them away, regardless of whether you might lose some votes in the next election.

As far as I’m concerned, if you’re campaigning for President right now, instead of campaigning for impeachment, you’re part of the problem. Bush must go--now.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The glass is one third empty.

I’ve been thinking lately about the 27-30% (or so) of Americans telling pollsters that they approve of George Bush’s performance as President. In a “normal” case of a bad administration, it would seem na├»ve and foolish to spend much time considering this. There have always been these kinds of divisions in public opinion. I have known myself to be part of such a minority many times—during the Reagan years it felt like a truly beleaguered one.

What makes this situation seem unusual to me is the sheer magnitude of failure represented by Bush. From Iraq to New Orleans and everywhere in between, the Bush regime has corrupted everything they’ve touched. It seems futile to restate the many crimes and abuses committed—illegal eavesdropping, torture, kidnapping, using signing statements to avoid the law, the Plame affair, trying to sell our ports to Dubai, the “unitary executive,” trashing Social Security, trashing the environment, the Gannon affair, giving high government jobs to incompetent fundamentalist lackeys, using the Justice Dept. to suppress voting, bankrupting our future for a murderous, failed foreign adventure—and there’s so much more. Even on the most superficial level, Bush’s deranged and juvenile statements, the lawless and arrogant mendacity of Cheney (whose attempt to conceal the circumstances surrounding his shooting of a man in the face is the very least of his crimes), and the grotesque antics of the rest of the gang of liars—Rove, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzales, Rice, and so on—should be enough to make any partially awake citizen give pause.

And yet after all this, there are Americans who still approve of the job Bush is doing—if we are to believe the polls, somewhere around 27-30% of us. I would like to attribute most of this to sheer ignorance. I don’t doubt that a good chunk of this group consists of the fabled mass of hypnotized sheep who believe that Fox News is actually news, or (more likely) simply don’t pay attention to news at all.

I would prefer to think that’s the reason, simply because ignorance is something that can be treated. By sharing our views, by listening, and by making more information available, more people can become more informed. This is the job that the alternative media is trying to do today, and I would never want to underestimate the progress that has actually been made.

But I don’t think we can attribute all of this 27-30% to ignorance, or even most of it. It seems quite clear that there are many who believe the way they do not because they are misguided and manipulated sheep, but because they really believe in the message of war, hatred, and domination of the world preached by Bush and the rightist Republicans.

The situation today is analogous to that of having the Nazi Party, or the Ku Klux Klan, managing to win national office and thereby gaining control of the executive branch. The analogy is of course not exact—the current regime places looting and personal enrichment above most purely ideological concerns, for one thing. And in the case of Nazi Germany, the approval ratings were extremely high, so the extent and rapidity of the restrictions placed on human freedom, and the eventual murder campaigns, were much greater than we have now.

I realize that many people are turned off by such analogies. In this case I feel the need to make it because of one crucial aspect of the Bush-Republican movement. It has no interest in maintaining Constitutional freedoms, or in the democratic process of governance. This is a cautious, negative way of stating that Bush and company are actively committed to dismantling the Bill of Rights, and to establising a Presidential power unfettered by any law or standard other than their own political will. Everything they have done, every statement, policy, and initiative, has served the aim of absolute executive power. There has been no compromise. They will defy Congressional subpoenas, while finding ways to ignore and subvert any laws that Congress may pass which they consider a threat to their authority. Their arguments amount to claiming dictatorship over the United States, with perpetual war used as a pretext to refute any legal challenges. That is the simple truth, and everything that this administration has done falls perfectly within this paradigm, while alternative theories fail to adequately explain its behavior.

So in this sense I think it is accurate to characterize the Bush regime as fascist in nature. And the trouble with fascism is that you can’t make deals with it. “No appeasement”—that Cold War rallying cry of the right wing—in fact reveals the only possible response to the right wing movement itself. To think that you can coddle fascism, or somehow use the legislative process to disarm it, is an illusion, one which the Democrats have been too slow in discovering. It has to be rooted out of the body politic by any means necessary. When I’m living in a country where the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan run the executive, I don’t bother to give serious consideration to anything that the agents of the executive may say. What they say is always already false. They are inherently untrustworthy because their object is the destruction of American freedom and the establishment of dictatorship. No one now says of the Germans, “They did the right thing by respecting Hitler, since he was their commander-in-chief, after all.” With hindsight we decry the fact that so few fought back. We even wish someone had assassinated Hitler, although this ignores the truth that Nazism was an entire movement and not just one man.

But hindsight makes everything seem simple. Prior to World War II, it didn’t seem that way. At the time, many conservatives in this country liked Hitler. The point is, you can’t see all the destructive consequences of fascism when it first starts. It may just seem like “strong leadership.” But it is during these earlier times that one needs to recognize the threat for what it is and take action.

In my view, therefore, a large percentage of those 27-30% that tell pollsters they approve of Bush are fascists. They don’t call themselves that, of course, or think of themselves that way. But their views and actions coincide with a policy of despotism.

I don’t say this to declare war on a group of people, and certainly not violence of any kind. My intent is to warn against complacency, and against underestimating the threat. I know that I probably sound too extreme to some, but all you have to do is visit any number of right-wing websites, or listen briefly to right-wing radio, and you will see that these people have no compunction about labeling you as a traitor and an enemy. Many of them would not hesitate to sanction your murder, and the murder of your loved ones, if you demonstrated opposition to their movement. I believe we must recognize this group that has seized power in our country as an illegal and subversive movement, without legitimacy of any kind. It is a criminal fascist movement and must be characterized that way, not as a normal “business as usual” political phenomenon. No appeasement.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Moving on

When asked about the morality of his most senior advisors leaking the name of a covert CIA agent, President AWOL said:

I haven't spent a lot of time talking about the testimony that people throughout my administration were forced to give as a result of the special prosecutor. I didn't ask them during the time and I haven't asked them since.”

Those poor men! Forced to give testimony in a legal proceeding! To this criminal mind, the law is not an obligation or a responsibility, it’s something you’re forced into, and presumably will do everything possible to avoid. Then again, if he’s the one wielding the force, there is no limit to its application—kidnapping, torture, and murder are all OK.

Notice also the peculiar attitude towards an investigation within the highest reaches of his own gang. He asks no questions. Has no curiosity whatsoever. If the leak had been something he considered damaging, do you think he wouldn’t tear down the house looking for the traitor?

The decider continues:

I'm aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person, and I've often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, I did it. Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter? But it's been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House, and it's run its course and now we're going to move on.”

Perhaps? After everything that’s been revealed in court, under oath, our little commander guy still thinks there’s a chance that the leak didn’t happen. The “somebody” who “perhaps” disclosed the name of “that person” was actually a whole team of somebodies, headed by the Vice President and including Libby, Rove, and others, and this has been established without doubt in a court of law.

Then the whiner-in-chief talks about “endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent…” as if this was just some annoying waste of time and money with no effect on our security and integrity. No acknowledgment that leaking a covert CIA agent’s name is a bad thing, or that this agent was working on the highly sensitive matter of WMDs in Iran.

And I ask again a question that should be asked by every journalist confronted with a rightist making excuses for all this: If this were a Democratic president, and one of his or her top aides had leaked the name of a CIA agent in order to punish a conservative critic of his policies, would you be defending that action today? We all know the answer to that question, and it proves that principles have come to mean absolutely nothing to Republicans. They consider themselves above the law, while anyone else is fair game. In fact, if there’s been one thing most characteristic of Bush and Cheney, it’s the conviction that they should never be made accountable for anything, and that no law applies to them. They are a lawless, rogue regime, and therefore illegitimate, but this is the truth that the elites and the pundits and the dummy news networks can never admit even for a second, because the truth is too disturbing. Better that we continue being lulled to sleep with the notion that this is all just politics, a Washington-style spectacle with “the President” as chief celebrity.

And the White House press corps is powerless to do anything except take notes while this man lies again and again to their faces. Then they file their reports and pompous-sounding anchors relate the story as if it were just the most normal thing in the world for a self-styled apostle of democracy to give the finger to the rule of law on national TV. And if it’s Fox, there’s a little banner underneath saying: President stands strong.

“It’s run its course and now we’re going to move on.” Yes, sir, a commutation of sentence is one way of letting the law “run its course.” A much shorter and more convenient way, if you’re a crook.

Now stop gawking, folks. Move along. Nothing more to see here. We’re going forward now, leaving this unfortunate minor episode behind us. Pay no attention to the Dick behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Liar-in-Chief.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The god of the soul and the god of the tribe

It has become a truism in anthropology that the world, in the eyes of the earliest human beings, was populated by spirits. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that in a crucial sense, the ancients were correct. Human beings were subjects—they not only lived, but experienced, perceived, felt, and thought. Subjectivity is the primary fact of human life, a precondition for all others, and yet, because of its nature as the context of all experience, only expressed through symbol and metaphor, and projected, as it were, onto every aspect of the world that we perceive.

We do not conceive the world as a place created with us. We come to being, we awaken, within a reality that is already there. Behind experience is the experiencing spirit, self, or soul. Therefore (and this “therefore” expresses an intuition of eternity), behind the world itself, this place we have come to, are spirits, selves, or souls. As human society develops into more organized forms, the spirits—or some of them at any rate—become gods. Gods not only experience the world, they create, sustain, and control it.

The development of religion mirrors the degrees and stages of human self-consciousness. The social unit—the clan, the village, the tribe—comes first. Rousseau had it backwards. We experience ourselves as social beings first, and only later do we become aware of our nature as individuals per se. It is natural that this should be so, since survival for homo sapiens can only be achieved together, as a group. Moreover, we are not born alone, but from a mother and father, and we are immediately in their realm and that of their kin and clan.

As society grew and developed, so did the power and authority of the gods. The more complex the society, the more powerful the gods. The god of the tribe was an intimate aspect of each individual’s experience—the symbol of his or her own experience as subject—and at the same time was the power and authority of the tribe itself. Mythology guides us not only on our journey as individuals—the stages of life, the hero’s journey, and so on—it also establishes the foundations of culture and social organization. In truth, there is no “both” or “also” for early humanity—they are one. The god of the tribe is the god of the soul.

In Martin Buber’s great philosophical work I and Thou, he explained the direct relationship between human subjectivity and the eternal (or Divine) in terms of the “I and Thou” of the book’s title. For the earliest human beings, however, the distinction between “I and Thou” and “I and She” (or “I and He”) is not conscious. Perhaps only the shamans, with their perilous voyages to the hidden worlds where they encounter and grapple with mysterious beings alone, and with only their magic to aid them, are aware at this stage, at some level of consciousness, of the “I and Thou,” or what I choose to call the god of the soul.

The authority needed to organize human beings into societies was always conceived as primary and eternal. The imperative of survival, later manifested in consciousness as fear of death, made it so. We should never minimize or dismiss the incredible power of this god of the tribe. It connects the essential subjectivity of the individual—the only being experiencing everything in life—to the rest of the people in the tribe, affirming a shared agreement on the nature of the soul and the world.

But as human society developed, individual self-consciousness progressed. Like a baby who gradually learns to distinguish itself from the environment, human beings gradually became more aware of themselves as existing individuals. They still lived in the context of the tribe—or the city-state, kingdom, or nation—but the distinction between self and society became more conscious.

In like manner, the god of the soul and the god of the tribe—or, more precisely, our experience of these metaphorical powers—began to diverge, ever so subtly at first, and then more and more. They both took on the characteristics of whatever cultural type emerged at a given time. But there was also a difference, one that has had tragic consequences for humanity. The god of the soul, by necessity, retained its direct experiential nature. Regardless of where the seeker or devotee lived, or what culture or religion he or she came from, the relationship between spirit and source, mortal and eternal soul, was the only thing at stake. It was intuited, finally, that ultimate truth, reality, the Divine, transcends all the conditions and circumstances that we call the world, and that includes the family, the clan, the tribe, and so forth. This development can be observed most markedly in the emergence of Buddhism, which challenged all the accepted categories of religion (including gods, after-death beliefs, and the dualist structure of reason itself) in favor of a message of total liberation and understanding. The other religions manifested this in less extreme forms: as mysticism, secret teachings, and wisdom traditions.

In contrast, the god of the tribe, what we now call organized religion, retained its function as the authority for social organization, while becoming gradually alienated from the god of the soul. Why? Because the direct spiritual experience challenges the power principle by making religion a matter between “I and Thou.” It’s not that human beings no longer needed to connect with each other through religion. Quite the contrary. The problem was that the ability of those wielding power and authority in society to control their subjects was threatened by an intuition of eternity that could potentially eliminate the boundaries between classes, tribes, and nations. In short, the path of the mystic led to the realization of an identity between the soul and God, the human and the divine. At the end of the way of the mystic, subjectivity discovers its eternal nature. In the god of the soul’s terms, this is freedom, happiness, liberation. But if we translate this experience into the language of the god of the tribe, it means equating oneself with god, eliminating the gulf between the king and the subject, i.e. undermining social authority.

Whatever actions were taken by human beings wielding power over other human beings were given the sanction of the human authority’s particular religion. This resulted in a sort of inner struggle. The god of the soul symbolized love, cohesion, goodness, and what we eventually came to call morality. Revenge, punishment, hatred, killing, and the waging of war against those outside the tribe—these were sanctioned by the god of the tribe when the tribe thought it necessary, but the inner contradictions became acute. The god of the tribe had to claim moral authority as well—whatever public religion says is acceptable, is therefore moral. As it turns out, any human expression of passion, greed, and power was capable of being deemed moral simply because it served the self-interest of the tribe, or more accurately at this stage, the powerful. Thus we see, for example, the burning of Indians at the stake because they would not convert to Christianity. Thousands of other examples abound. For all its virtues, including (arguably) the taming of self-destructive forces within society, public religion failed to contain the power principle, and instead became a mere vehicle for it, until today it is almost totally discredited as a beneficial or civilizing force.

Mysticism was thrust to the margins of religious awareness—tolerated or sometimes even revered, but not accorded any social relevance. When mystics went too far, they were attacked as heretics, even murdered. The god of the tribe attempted to conciliate the god of the soul by giving it an isolated realm of its own—the monastic tradition. Buddhism, as we know, took on all the characteristics of public religion, as was inevitable if its message was to reach anyone, and its inner core grew within monasticism. In East and West, much beauty was born and preserved through this tradition, but it has proven sterile in terms of influencing the social order for lasting good.

Rationalism, born of the Enlightenment, maintains that we must abandon religion, and by extension, spirituality, since it doesn’t recognize a distinction between the two. I don’t agree that this is desirable, because I maintain that the human intuition of eternity will always require metaphorical expression, both individually and in community. But I also don’t even think that it’s possible for such a change to take place. Human beings will always have spirituality and religion. The question is, what kind?

I am convinced that is necessary for us to see through the curtain of mythology in order to free ourselves from religious authoritarianism. Religious truth must be perceived as metaphor, not as literal truth—and at the same time metaphor must be recognized as the source of meaning. This change will involve the end of the idolatry of the book—the idea of revealed scripture bearing absolute authority cannot stand—and the end of the idolatry of power, which is based on the fear of death. Religion can only be an environment for people to encounter the mystery together, a community in which a culture of spirituality can thrive, and in which poetry can find its home. No longer can it constitute an authority for controlling people, a foundation for the existing social order. Religion has failed in that regard because it failed to uphold its connection to the soul—the subjectivity of the existing individual—and instead maintained the idolatry of the “outside” world, the abstract realm of things possessed through power.

It will be objected that this is no more possible for us than the atheist vision of a society without religion at all. Perhaps that’s true. I believe, however, that we cannot mend the wrongs of religion without understanding its power, its sources in legitimate human needs, and those of its aspects that reflect a common truth.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Biodreck

Freeman Dyson’s essay “Our Biotech Future” in the New York Review of Books is very instructive, but not always in the way Dyson intended. He’s a brilliant scientist and an excellent writer, so it’s all the more striking how his views display some characteristic blind spots in the modern scientific world view.
“I predict,” he writes, “that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.” In case you were wondering, Dyson thinks that's a good thing.
“I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized.”
I didn’t know that the computer industry was small and friendly. Someone forget to tell that to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
“There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer….Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.”
For all his expansive enthusiasm, Dyson’s envisions life forms as objects. Subjectivity is reduced to instrumentality, and the scientist sees no contradiction in that because all he sees is potential utility. The power principle, which the Judeo-Christian tradition expresses as “dominion” over nature, is reproduced in the scientific world view, with “reason” replacing “God” as the unquestioned authority. But when we objectify nature, we simultaneously objectify ourselves. Why should biotechnology stop with dogs and cats? Human beings will be the next project, and in fact already is. You can stereotype this as the old Frankenstein idea, which for modern science is merely a scare tactic by the unadventurous. But I think Mary Shelley was on to something.
The ingenuity of science has been employed just as much, if not more, in killing people and destroying things as it has in helping them. It’s brought us to the brink of our own destruction. Dyson thinks biotechnology will take a different path than what he calls “gray technology”—the machines of our industrial age. But why should it? The same human passions that resulted in nuclear weapons will find ways to exploit biotechnology in order to dominate and destroy human beings. Dyson writes as if he’s never heard of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the Soviet gulag. Adult human beings employing reason took part in these atrocities, and found ways to justify them.
Dyson’s political and economic naivete is breathtaking as well. He talks as if the relentless growth of centralized corporate power is some kind of temporary phase that we will naturally outgrow. But there’s no reason for technology to obviate either the profit motive or exploitation as a system of political power. Technology doesn’t make men wiser or more compassionate. It only serves the tendencies they already have.
Panglossian science dreams of growing plants with silicon leaves, and termites that eat junked cars instead of houses. “The twenty-first century,” he writes, “will bring us powerful new tools of genetic engineering with which to manipulate our farms and forests.” The key word here is manipulate. Why should I believe that limited, fallible human beings can be trusted to manipulate life itself? Furthermore, the confident scientist has no idea what effects his manipulation may have on the ecosystem. Dyson blithely assumes that we will simply keep creating new organisms that will correct any imbalances that occur.
The blundering faith of the scientist is akin to hubris. What is missing from the credo of the modern scientist is spirituality. Human beings need to have reverence for life, humility before nature, and respect for the emotions as part of their makeup in order to live in balance with the world and in harmony with themselves. It’s not that reason is somehow faulty, but that the followers of scientific reason don’t consider the passions as legitimate aspects of life, or even address their effect on the world and society realistically. The notion that we only need to be rational in order to live well is hopeless short-sighted. Everyone has good intentions. Hitler believed that what he was doing made sense. Justice can never be apprehended through reasoning without love.
The philosophical parting of the ways consists in whether the human being is considered as a means or as an end. The power principle always treats the existing individual as a means towards some ideal end. When science finds a way to create forms of life, it does not thereby free human society from the power principle. It only increases the peril we face. Dyson dreams of relieving poverty in Africa. But it would be quicker and more expedient for those possessing political power to simply destroy or enslave Africa. Dyson doesn’t even consider this. He acts as if we live in a neutral political landscape or that human society is mature and benign. All evidence indicates otherwise.
For all his faults, Gandhi was correct when he insisted that only spiritual change could foster political justice. With the public face of religion hardening into sterile and oppressive fundamentalism, it’s tempting to believe that scientific rationalism is a true alternative. Yet both ignore the subjective nature of the human as such in favor of an objective historical ideal that continues to fail. Only a wiser, happier, more compassionate human being will solve the problems besetting us, including the proper use of technology. The dream of a technological fix is a new form of the primitive belief in magic—ultimately a fool’s game.