Friday, January 25, 2008

The sound of silence

It’s hard for me to imagine an intelligent person of conscience not being dismayed by the spectacle of the current race for President. However, my expectations concerning what folks will or will not put up with have been continually challenged during the last seven years. Be that as it may, the disgrace of electoral politics is never more evident than in a time of real crisis such as now.

It’s obvious, first of all, that television news is nothing more than a sham, intellectually and morally bankrupt beyond calculation. To watch the news on TV is to be sucked into a dizzying vortex of unreality. The immaculately coiffed fools who “anchor” the news and present us with their opinions seem to think that there is nothing more vital for us to know than who is ahead or behind, what strategies the candidates are employing to get ahead or avoid falling behind, and what is going to happen next ahead- or behind-wise. That anything could possibly be at stake other than the status of an insider’s scorecard seems not to have entered what passes for their minds. The idea that any of this is entertaining—given, after all, that the entertainment divisions have absorbed the news departments into their bloated, celebrity-obsessed maws—is in itself ludicrous. To understand what the candidates actually stand for in any detail is impossible. The talking heads will continue to jabber over the snippets of footage of candidate’s speeches, telling us again about the many variation of “ahead” or “behind,” etc., and the candidates have long ago bought into this themselves, saying very little if anything outside of the most generalized bits of inspirational rhetoric.

Let us turn to the candidates, then, and try to hear them outside of the TV prism. What I hear most of all is the sound of silence. The depredations committed by the current White House occupant are rarely mentioned. The horrifying carnage wreaked on the people of Iraq is never acknowledged. The war is treated like some sort of embarrassing domestic problem that we have to tiptoe around for fear of upsetting right-wing nutjobs. The fact that the Cheney-Bush administration has sought to draw us into the sinkhole of their perversions with torture, illegal detentions, and illegal spying on American citizens, provokes no outrage whatsoever, in fact barely a mention unless it’s to applaud the degradation of our souls as Romney, Huckabee, and Guiliani have done, or utter mild reproofs like McCain (who nevertheless supports the criminal occupation with regular bleatings of “We’re winning!” and “The surge is working!”). The corruption that is laying waste to our society, from the Justice Department to FEMA to the Abramoff and Plame affairs to countless others, including the sacking of the U.S. Treasury by licensed military contractors, is met with complete and total silence. Corruption does not even register as an issue.

Silence, many of you may know, equals complicity. There is a hell of a lot of complicity going around.

It’s hard to conceive of a more ghoulish group of pandering hate-filled liars than the Republican candidates, who seem to be competing to see who can be a bigger fascist. To elect any one of them to the White House would sound the death knell for any hopes of improvement. The press dutifully reports on their candidacies because, after all, they’re the Republican candidates. Outside of a Washington cocktail party, one can’t escape the conviction that a fair election should trounce any one of these bozos into the dirt and deliver a landslide to the Democrats. But a greater silence envelops this conviction—the poisonous stench of rigged elections. Karl Rove, one of the most revolting American political figures to ever crawl out from under a rock, has left an odious legacy, to the Republicans and thereby to all of us who suffer their antics. Their way to victory is to suppress the vote by any means available. They’ve done it, they continue to do it, and they’ll try their best to do it again—yet virtually no one in the mainstream talks about it.

The Democratic candidates inspire more complicated feelings: disappointment, impatience, frustration, betrayal. What kind of hell are we in that the opposition party spends so little time opposing the manifest corruption and criminality of the White House and its enablers? No one in the field possesses even the minor virtue of eloquence—the ability to step outside the cliché-ridden political discourse and speak truth directly and powerfully, with an appreciation of the crisis we are in, and the courage and decency to appeal to our better natures. Servile fear inhibits the candidates, fear of losing the confidence of their corporate sponsors, fear of rocking the boat.

I watched Obama’s speeches after Iowa and New Hampshire. The pundits gushed over his rhetoric. What I heard was a stringing together of inspirational phrases without point or substance. The word “change” became a mantra that is supposed to unite us, but I fail to see the meaning of change without an overt declaration of what exactly the mess is that we want to change, and why. It is impossible to predict from his rhetoric how Obama would actually govern. It’s a given that he would be a vast improvement over Bush—any non-fascist with a mind and a heart would be—but I wonder how much the imperative of the national security state would dictate his actions, or if he would ever have the nerve to challenge the Wall Street-Pentagon axis.

Clinton is establishment through-and-through. The DLC and other centrist Democrats who feed at the corporate trough and try to out-conservative the conservatives are backing her, just as they backed her husband. President Clinton did nothing for progressives—his impersonation of a “liberal” is due entirely to the actions of his Republican enemies and not to his own actions as President. If you like globalization, old-style imperialism, and losing both houses of Congress to the Republicans, than with Hillary Clinton you’ll get more of the same. I’m sorry, but the fact that she’s a woman is not enough. Margaret Thatcher was also a woman.

Edwards is not so much out of the mainstream of establishment thinking as the media or the Republicans would have you believe. The same doubts surround his eventual governance as Obama’s. For what it’s worth, though (which isn’t much), I plan to vote for him in my state’s primary. Why? Because he’s the only one talking about inequality. And as long as huge economic inequality is encouraged by the political elites, favoring a tiny master class over the rest of us, all other reforms will be stopped dead in the water. I have no illusions—Edwards’ stand against gay marriage pisses me off mightily. But at the present time, he’s the one viable candidate that scares the corporate puppet masters, and that’s enough to get my vote, at least for now.

It is absolutely imperative that the Republicans lose the White House. The probable effect on the Supreme Court of another Republican president, to mention only one factor, is enough to force me to vote for whomever wins the Democratic nomination. We rightly deride the “lesser of two evils” as a corrupting electoral yardstick, but the War of Terror being waged on us (and if you think you’re not the target of this war, you’re either a fascist or a fool) makes the choices utterly stark. We can elect a more conventional establishment President who is still part of the corporate system, or we can slide further into the outrageous crime and despotism that already threatens to engulf us beyond reprieve.

What hopes I have (abashed as I am to even admit any remaining hopes for our political life) rest on an increasingly outraged citizenry. For the first time in my memory, the majority of the people are showing themselves as smarter and more compassionate than their so-called leaders. That needs to be sustained and increased. Ultimately, the White House needs to become less powerful. We need to stop being fascinated by Presidential elections, and the media-induced aura of unconditional respect for whomever is President needs to be dissipated. Representative government requires a re-thinking of the Executive branch—no more kings, emperors or righteous “deciders,” but just servants of the people. This mindless, fascistic “commander in chief” mentality needs to be cut down to human size if we are to survive as humans.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A tale of two anthems

Patriotism is a term so long ill-used that it is tempting to propose scrapping it completely. But if it is indeed “the last refuge of a scoundrel” as Samuel Johnson famously said, this is due more to the degradation of politics in general than to anything inherent in the idea of patriotism itself.

In my view, much of the harm can be attributed to the confusion between patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment behind the former is quite ancient, while the latter notion is relatively recent—dating perhaps no earlier than the 17th century. Patriotism as I define it is love of country in the oldest sense—i.e., love of the land and the people who live on it, along with their language and culture. Nationalism, on the other hand, really has nothing to do with love. It is allegiance to a state or government, commonly symbolized by a flag. The essence of nationalism is obedience to authority conceived as a primary virtue. Its expression is most often of a military nature, because the state defines itself essentially as separate and distinct from other states. This in-group against out-group stance lends itself perfectly to racist ideas as well, and in the modern era we often see nationalist movements taking on racist ideologies of one form or another.

The two words have, of course, been hopelessly muddled together in political discourse. The common view of patriotism nowadays is most often synonymous with nationalism. When you hear someone say, as Mitt Romney said recently, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, this is an expression of what is popularly considered patriotism. It is, however, nationalistic, because it finds value only by abstractly separating the country from other countries presumed to be inferior. The idea of dissent as patriotic, on the other hand, is foreign to the nationalist mind. To criticize the state is considered unpatriotic by nationalists, and it is significant that dissent is especially frowned upon in times of war, which is, conveniently, just about all the time.

An uncanny illustration of the difference between nationalism and patriotism is presented by two American songs, The Star-Spangled Banner, our official national anthem, and the popular patriotic song, America the Beautiful.

To reprint the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner in full would perhaps only confuse the reader, since its poetry is infamously and ineptly convoluted. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t far off when he wrote that the United States had the only national anthem consisting of “gibberish sprinkled with question marks.” For those few who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the song, such at is, it can be summarized as the musings of a person observing a night bombardment against an American fort and asking, in a rhetorical way, whether our flag is still up and waving. The impression aimed at is that no matter how fierce the attack may be, the flag will always fly proudly.

It’s an innocuous piece of writing, as such things go, I suppose, although the thoughtful listener may be excused for being a trifle embarrassed that his national anthem contains the words “bombs bursting in air.” I wouldn’t normally associate the love I feel for my country with such an image. But of course, as I said before, this isn’t about love of country. This is about the pride of loyalty and allegiance to a national power, and in typical nationalist fashion, the subject of the song is the piece of symbolic cloth on a pole.

A Canadian friend once confided to me how dumfounded he was observing the fetish we have in the U.S. about the flag. Flags are of course symbolic objects—the idea is that all eyes turn toward the symbol in an almost mystical unity of purpose—but I don’t think any other country has taken the flag thing and run with it to the degree that Americans have. In any case, it follows as a matter of course that the “pledge of allegiance” would be to the flag, and the wording even says, “…and to the republic for which it stands…,” a frank admission of the simplistic nature of the symbolism involved here. The idea of a country’s citizens being told to pledge allegiance conveys a certain insecurity that underlies nationalist thinking—a person’s value is tested and conferred by the state, rather than recognized as a birthright.

Now let’s turn to the other song, and here I will actually quote from the first stanza. The other stanzas get us into troublesome territory, but almost no one knows them or sings them.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Love of the land is the first and primary characteristic of patriotism. Nationalism is concerned only with the abstraction of loyalty to a state. The land is just the place you happen to live, a place to be exploited for all it’s worth.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee

Well, the atheists will have a problem with this, and I understand that. However, religion is one of the main cultural aspects of a people, like it or not. And in this case, notice that God is not punishing sinners or calling us to arms against the heathen. God is being asked to shed grace on the country—a humble expression that is incomprehensible to a nationalist who believes only in pride, not humility, despite any lip service paid to such religious beliefs.

And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The reference to brotherhood clinches the case. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) is a state enjoyed by equals, and it suggests compassion, fellow-feeling, and even hints at social justice. Nationalism doesn’t want brotherhood, with its peaceful connotations, but triumph over enemies. Nationalists don’t want to be brothers with anyone except other nationalists—not dissenters, communists, homos, feminists, civil rights activists, or left-wing intellectuals. There are people in the country who represent a threat to the nation—the “enemy within.” Brotherhood is a code-word for weakness.

I’m not arguing that America the Beautiful should be our national anthem. We didn’t have a national anthem until 1931. The branding phenomenon, that plague of modern life, was unknown to earlier generations. They apparently had more important things to think about. I just find it interesting that the opposition of patriotism and nationalism, an opposition that has been purposely obscured and denied by authoritarian ideologies, is so clearly expressed by two cultural artifacts, two songs whose lyrics are recited mechanically more often than not, providing two contrasting windows into a fundamental conflict in the American soul.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My father

Adrian “Duke” Smith, my father, died on Monday, Jan. 7, after a brief bout with cancer. He was 84.

Dad was passionately involved in my home town—Mountain Lakes, N.J.—as a councilman, mayor, and citizen. Everyone he met felt welcomed and appreciated, and his passing is mourned by many people, young and old. He was a great husband, father, and grandfather, and I feel so lucky to be his son.

He left his best gift to me for last: a true appreciation of what life is really about. For Dad, giving was both the greatest pleasure and the highest good. And I give the most emphasis to the pleasure aspect, because giving to other people—embracing them with his friendship, humor, and love—was Dad’s favorite way of having fun. He loved being with people, laughing and playing games, the feeling of togetherness with family and friends. He wasn’t afraid to be silly or tender or sentimental. He was also a lifelong liberal, and he taught me the values of honesty, understanding, and generosity that are the hallmarks of true liberalism.

I slept in his room at our old house the night before I flew back home. In the morning, I picked up what I thought were my shoes, to put them on. But they were his shoes. And it occurred to me that I could never fill them.

Thank you, Dad, for showing me the way. Your love will always be with me.