Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Weakness of Power

The Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of trying to undermine the Olympics. The Dalai Lama replied that he has always supported the right of Beijing to host the Olympics.

The Chinese government also says that the Dalai Lama is “masterminding” Tibetan unrest, and is in league with terrorists.

Let’s take a look at the antagonists here. On one side you have China, a nuclear superpower with the fastest-growing economy in the world and a population of about 1.3 billion people.

On the other side you have the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist wearing a robe. He has no weapons, no party apparatus, no secret police, and no territory. He lives in exile in northern India.

Yet the Chinese government, through its various interchangeable spokesmen, throws regular spoiled brat-style tantrums about the Dalai Lama and how much of a threat he is. And these people are not even aware of how ridiculous they sound.

Authoritarian states are founded on the principle of brute force. The people are considered mere raw material to be ordered about, indoctrinated, supervised, transported, or killed, at the whim of the state. But in almost every case, the elite authorities attempt to formulate the power principle in terms of some version of the “good.” The Chinese dress up their cruelty, arrogance, and venality in communist jargon, at this stage so far removed from its origins that the rhetoric can hardly be distinguished from standard old-style fascism—the “glory” and “wisdom” of the party and so forth. The American rightists, on the other hand, prattle about “freedom” and “democracy” while draining the terms of all meaning and doing everything they can to suppress the realities they correspond to. And so it goes.

But it’s a curious thing, this lip service that needs to be paid to some idea of goodness. I suppose it’s not merely meant to fool others, but a way to fool ourselves. When Bush goes on about how Saddam Hussein was such an evil despot, I’m sure he believes in his own goodness and the rightness of his cause. Any rational person (still a minority in this country, however) can see that Iraq was invaded because of oil and geopolitics, not morality—but Bush can’t come out and say that. There needs to be some good, righteous selfless reason for invading, and the invader probably even believes his own bullshit. On the other hand, the fact that the Chinese government oppresses, enslaves, and tortures its own people—the fact that there are no civil rights in China, doesn’t merit a mention from the President. China is a big market for corporations—therefore we don’t care about what its government does. We forget about goodness in this case, because it doesn’t coincide with self-interest. (I’ve remarked before that I suspect a secret envy of China in the minds of Richard Cheney and company—no protesters there, no sir, and torture is legal!)

All this is fairly self-evident. But when we see a public figure who actually practices some form of sincere good action, however imperfect, it’s amusing and instructive to see how it drives authoritarians crazy. The Dalai Lama teaches on such subjects as compassion, peace of mind, freedom from anger, service to all beings, and so forth. Everything he says is directed to the existing human being as such. Whatever political statements he might make are always in that context. In contrast, the voice of the Chinese government recognizes nothing except the human mass in abstract—the individual is worse than useless; there are only the ideas of “China,” “the party,” “the people,” etc. If the authorities were to respond to the Dalai Lama with a realistic assessment of relative strength, in worldly terms, they would act calm and courageous and unruffled—but they never do.

If I had to characterize the official voice of the Chinese state—not only in regards to Tibet, but on each and every issue on which official doctrine is challenged—it would be as a heedless, petulant pre-teen, an ignorant and insensitive bully, incapable of self-examination and reflection, who still regularly wets his bed and consequently lashes out in shame at anyone who dares to criticize him. There’s also an element of mental illness, of paranoia: all this talk about plots and masterminds and insidious enemies. These petty, small-minded elitists are infuriated by anyone who acts on principle, and they feel a loss of prestige and influence just from the existence of the Dalai Lama. Someone who takes a spiritual stance, who actually and sincerely attempts a public life of integrity, is a threat because he or she appeals to the remnants of conscience that underlie our deepest desire for the good. Thus, the Chinese government’s rage at the protesting Tibetans, and at the Dalai Lama, is founded in fear of its reputation and prestige being damaged. These people don’t even see that they have no reputation or prestige, that their power is based on nothing but brute force, in other words, nothing at all that can be rationalized as “good.” Therefore anyone who comes from a different place than this power principle is automatically a threat, whether he means to be or not. For instance, the Dalai Lama really does support the idea of the Beijing Olympics. Don’t you think that’s funny? And aren’t the statements of the Chinese authorities pathetic in their weakness and helplessness before this one bald guy in a robe?

George Orwell once remarked that Gandhi’s strategy would never have worked against the Nazis, because nonviolence presupposes a fundamental decency or conscience on the part of the oppressor. He was probably right, but what’s remarkable is how much influence decency and conscience still has in this ravaged world. After two obscene world wars and numerous smaller ones, after countless crimes and ethnic cleansings, there is still an expectation, or assumption, even on the part of the greatest liars and hypocrites in the world, that there is some standard of goodness in the hearts of men and women. We talk about the system, about the overwhelming apparatus of military power, police power, capitalist power. Still, there are only existing individuals. The power principle is a principle of weakness because it sees human beings as objects, as instruments towards some inhuman end. It is also fearful and insecure—it may bluster, but its confidence is hollow. In the end it will always betray itself and fail. The absurd ravings of authoritarians, like the pipsqueak Chinese spokesmen who point at the Dalai Lama and whine, “It’s all his fault!” reveal the fundamental impotence of power in the face of even an approximate attempt at truth.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five years too many.

Five years of blood and death.

Five years of lies, of deadly deceit.

Five years of hiding behind “the troops” instead of admitting failure.

Five years of demonizing all of us who have been brave enough to oppose this madness.

Five years of ignoring the warnings and advice of our own military.

Five years of incompetent planning, incompetent supply, and non-existent diplomacy.

Five years of fear-mongering, of bogus links between Iraq and 9-11.

Five years of changing the reasons that we’re supposedly in Iraq, from 9-11 to weapons of mass destruction to “democracy” to the pathetic goal of “less violence.”

Five years of war profiteering by contractors like KBR, ripping us all off, and especially the soldiers, while making huge profits and remaining unaccountable to oversight, with the collusion of the Bush administration.

Five years of atrocities. Five years of cover-up and denial of what’s really happening in Iraq, including American support of terror groups, the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah, the use of enriched uranium, the bombings and deaths of civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children.

Five years of torture, five years of arguments for torture by the Bush administration, five years of moving our country into a state of acceptance of such sickening perversions as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the other torture sites.

Five years of Blackwater and other mercenary death squads, answerable for their crimes to no one.

Five years of cowardly politicians in both parties.

Five years of plummeting regard for our country in the world.

Five years of shame.

Five years of betrayal.

By conservative estimates: 700,000 Iraqi civilians dead.

4 million homeless Iraqi refugees fleeing the country.

The callous destruction of a country by a superpower, cynically using terror to justify its quest for oil.

4,000 American soldiers dead, not counting those who died later from wounds, suicide, or war-related illness.

At least 60,000 American soldiers wounded, not counting PTSD and trauma victims.

The sacking of the U.S. treasury by criminals posing as patriots, to the tune of $500 billion so far, and more to come, with the economic results evident today to everyone except the obscenely wealthy, blood-soaked perpetrators of this crime against humanity.

Five years. Five years too many.

Today I go once again to march in the streets. I hope you are joining me. Silence means acceptance. We must say No, again and again, for as long as there is breath in our bodies, to the murder and corruption and degradation, the destruction of what we stand for as a country and the commission of war crimes in our name.

Out of Iraq! End the War of Terror that is being waged on all of us. We must say No to a government of war and crime before we can say Yes to a meaningful future.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

After These Messages

I’ve come to believe that there’s a huge disconnect between the world portrayed in the media, and the world of ordinary working people. Case in point: a co-worker—one of the nicest, most patient, most generous people I know—mentioned off-hand to me that she enjoys listening to Michael Savage when driving home from work.

It took me a few seconds to absorb this. Then I shook my head and said softly, but emphatically, “Oh…I don’t like him.”

She seemed slightly taken aback. “Oh, he does exaggerate quite a bit, I guess.”

“He preaches hatred,” I said. “He says that people like me are enemies of America, and I’m sure if he had his way I would be shot or put in a camp, along with my family.”

Visibly flustered, she changed the subject.

I had a similar experience with an acquaintance—not quite a friend, but not a stranger—who always showed me a great deal of kindness and concern, expressed his admiration for me, and was supportive during difficult times. In a casual conversation it emerged that he liked Bill O’Reilly.

“Bill O’Reilly!” I said. “He’s a right-wing extremist, and a liar.”

“Well, I don’t want to get into a political debate with you. I just know that I feel grateful for the information I get from his program. He’s a very smart man.”

“So was Goebbels.”

“Who’s Goebbels?”

At that point I became speechless, but in any case the particular circumstance was such that it made no sense to pursue the subject.

How often do we run up against these startling incongruities between the positive qualities of someone we know and their political inclinations? I don’t even know in these cases how serious or casual their beliefs might be. It seems the best I could do was express my disapproval of the persons referred to (Savage and O’Reilly) without making it disapproval of the person I was talking to. Why? Because disagreements should be about principles, and not about attacking the person we disagree with. However, this is the very idea that Savage and O’Reilly and the rest of the rightist haters never honor.

Incidents like these make me wonder about the awareness of the media audience. My co-worker is a thousand times the human being that Michael Savage could ever hope to be. So I can’t help but think that she fails to make the connection between a voice on the radio, ranting and raving, and the reality of people’s lives. Perhaps it’s something abstract to her—“other” people out there who are undermining America and need to be stopped (or whatever), and not real people that she might know, that she might like, that might even be in her own family.

I don’t know what percentage of the hate media audience consists of died-in-the-wool wingnuts. But I suspect there’s a good chunk of the viewing/listening group that resembles my co-worker and my acquaintance: people who listen and believe without thinking too hard or suspecting where the beliefs might lead. In our culture politics is made to seem like a kind of entertainment—powerful people doing things in a world from which we are both excluded and insulated. The media is very much like a drug that lulls the mind into a softly pliable, semi-conscious state of passive acquiescence.

What does it take to get through to this limited type of consciousness? But before asking that, I should ask, how do I first break away from this consciousness myself, and in such a way that I can act as a force for understanding rather than reaction? Reaction is understandable for progressives, considering the attacks that have been aimed our way for so long. It’s even necessary and appropriate, to some degree. But when I hear friends say that they love Bill Maher, I realize that the sword does cut both ways. I suppose because Maher hates George Bush, folks nod their head without really listening critically and realizing what an inane and superficial prick he is. On a recent show he asked why the Bush gang even talks about waterboarding—why not just do it and keep it a secret? There’s so many things wrong with this statement that I won’t even try to analyze it, but the point is that there’s a kind of cultural liberalism that pretends to represent an alternative, but in fact doesn’t.

Actual debate with people of a right-wing persuasion is a rare event for me. In the instances I mentioned, the topic came up in awkward situations that didn’t really allow for a meaningful discussion. For the most part, the people I hang out with share my general outlook. More importantly, though, the narcotic nature of the media has made it difficult for many people to even grasp what actual debate would look like anymore. Name-calling, catchphrases, and talking points are not methods of argument, they’re strategies for preventing meaningful discussion.

The only thing I know for sure is that it’s wrong to be silent, to deliberately avoid stating my views on a subject. If someone, no matter how nice, praises Bush or parrots Sean Hannity, or whatever, I’m going to speak my mind. Where it goes from there, however—where it can go, I still don’t know.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Race is Nonsense

If you’re American, you grew up with the idea of race, whether you liked it or not. This would be self-evident to black people, whose second-class status is impressed on them every day. To white people it might be less obvious, but it’s there. I was a kid during the 1960s, and I lived in an all-white community. My family was liberal. We heard about the civil rights movement on the news; we supported it and voted for politicians who supported it. But the belief in the reality of race was transmitted to my consciousness simply by being in the culture—I couldn’t help having prejudiced thoughts, fear of the “other,” an overriding self-conscious sense of difference, because of the prominent place that race issues occupied in what you might call the national psyche.

When we talk about racism it can mean a lot of different things. There is basic racial fear and prejudice. Then there’s discrimination, which goes hand in hand with the former. Institutional racism is discrimination writ large—the supremacy of a particular race as the assumed and established system of political and economic power. Finally there is racism as an ideology, which posits race as a system of biological superiority and inferiority. All these aspects flow into and mix with one another in various permutations.

For a white liberal or progressive during the last forty years, the standard belief was that no race was superior to any other, that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, and that racism was a problem that needed to be dealt with. I suppose this was a good start—good intentions must count for something. But it never occurred to most of us to challenge the very idea of race itself. We just assumed that there were different races of people. Well, wasn’t it obvious?

Xenophobia would appear to be as old as humanity, but the ancients don’t talk about race in the modern sense of the word. Herodotus mentions people with dark skin, but doesn’t say or even imply that such people are essentially different than other people—his report that the Ethiopian men were said to be the tallest and handsomest in the world would certainly contradict any notions of superiority. Slavery was usually a result of capture in war. In the ancient world, a slave would often look just like a free man. A slave might be a foreigner, but there was no racial standard at work.

It was only a thousand years later or so, when the Europeans discovered that the world was bigger than they assumed, that the concept of race was born, or at least came into its own. Some historians have said that the Europeans were struck with fear and dread when they saw the black skin of the Africans, along with their unfamiliar dress and customs. I suppose the narrow and repressive nature of Christian culture would contribute to such a response, but it still doesn’t add up for me. No elemental fear of “blackness” can account for what happened. Europeans were familiar with Arabs, Turks, and other Muslim peoples who were often dark-complexioned. There was plenty of fear and hatred there, but it was basically religious, not racial.

What the Europeans saw were people at an earlier stage of political and technological development. This meant that they could be exploited on a scale never before attempted. By enslaving Africans, the Europeans would gain a source of labor that would build huge empires in a very short period of time. For various reasons, it was less practical to enslave the natives of America and Asia, but the Europeans went about conquering and colonizing their lands with equal energy.

That which we call self-interest—in the unenlightened sense of a quest for power and wealth—creates in its wake the ideas that justify it. It was to the European’s advantage to believe that Africans, Asians and American Indians were an inferior type of human, because it provided a rationale for what they did. European culture had developed to the degree that it needed rationales. It had not developed to the point, other than in the case of advanced thinkers like Montaigne, that it could tell when it was lying to itself in order to gain an advantage.

A gradual moral awakening led to the abolishment of slavery, but not of the idea of race. Along came various white scientists telling us that the white brain is bigger and better than the black one. We’ve seen an endless succession of theories regarding heredity, eugenics, “survival of the fittest.” Every decade some new book comes out correlating race with intelligence or performance—remember The Bell Curve? It never seems to occur to these “thinkers” and the audience that listens to them, that such theories will always support the dominant social order. If a particular system of supremacy is in place, then statistics can always be produced that seem to establish this supremacy as natural and necessary. Self-interest rules the discourse, and those who argue against it face an uphill battle, because people who enjoy the benefits of privilege and power don’t want to believe that it’s undeserved.

But science can’t be corrupted forever. There’s a stubborn impulse at its core—the search for empirical truth. What we’re seeing now, when we really get down to it and sweep cultural preconceptions aside, is that race is not a valid biological concept. There is no actual, measurable physical phenomenon that corresponds to it. Now, in addition to skin color we think of hair and facial characteristics. They all vary in ways that do not necessarily accompany one another. The latitudinal difference in the intensity of the ultraviolet component of sunlight, which is correlated to skin color, is not directly related to whatever factors have resulted in the type of hair or the shape of the nose, etc. Their significance is merely ethnographic, not biological except in the most general evolutionary terms. When people resided in the same place for a few hundred thousand years, their skin color, their hair, their eyes, developed in certain ways. The people who lived in a somewhat different climate a few mountain ranges away may have had a different skin shade, but similar hair and the same eyes. In the modern world, with more and more contact between different people and regions, these characteristics become more and more diverse. If my mother is Italian and my father is from Brazil, what race am I? If my skin is dark, the old thinking would be that I’m “black.” What does it really mean objectively? Nothing. It is nonsense that has been enshrined in the public mind as a way of framing the social order as if it were the natural order.

I’m not advocating that we stop talking about racism. People who are oppressed because of race have no choice but to pay attention to race. A black person in America is not going to be “colorblind,” simply because race is the rationale for his or her inequality and subjection. But what we’re talking about is the social order, the system of white supremacy (or any such supremacy, for that matter—it just so happens in history that it turned out to be “white”). We’re talking about a system of power and domination, not about racial characteristics, biological or natural or genetic.

There are also, of course, the commonalities of culture that nurture people in their families and communities — similarities of language, customs, ways of thinking; the shared history that every group has. But that’s not “race,” really—that’s the human condition, that’s what culture is.

And white people especially need to talk openly about racism. Right-wing groups try to smother honest speech on this topic, playing on white people’s desire to avoid feeling guilty. It’s not about guilt, it’s about freedom. Race is a shackle of the mind that prevents us from speaking the truth without fear. It constricts our understanding of the human as such. It’s like an ancient taboo that has power only through silence. When we wake up and look around we see centuries of talk about race, about the superiority or inferiority of people, evaporate into the mist of illusion from which it came. It was a huge potent brew of nonsense, hypnotizing us into submission, into accepting the worst aspects of our character, our greed and fear and hatred, as the truth of our nature.