Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clean House

Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney what his “highest moment” in the last eight years was, and he answered “9/11.”

You know, it’s become easy to just dismiss Cheney as a bizarre Darth Vader figure, but people should pay more attention to this answer. All the Bush years are succinctly contained in it. These ghouls, these spooks who somehow gained a grip on power in the United States, were overjoyed at the events of September 11, 2001. They saw it as a great opportunity to be exploited. I’ve said this before, and for those of us who are sane it still might sound extreme, but really, it’s right there in the record. These men exploited this horrific atrocity for their own benefit—and a majority of the American people let them. Like sheep, the majority went along with using a single disaster as an excuse for overturning two hundred years of democratic tradition. They bought into Cheney’s lie about “extraordinary” and “dangerous times” that required the exercise of unfettered executive power. And after five plus years of death in Afghanistan and Iraq, and corruption and criminal incompetence at home, it still took an economic collapse for the voters to turn against the monsters that usurped their country.

I won’t take the time to analyze Cheney’s interview further—he reiterated his dishonest arguments for torture and dictatorship. Dahlia Lithwick lays it out nicely for you at Slate (not exactly a radical left-wing site), and her main point is a most dispiriting one, i.e. Cheney’s views on everything have long been thoroughly discredited, yet there he remains, giving interviews and repeating the Orwellian lies that have surrounded us like a fog.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Richard Cheney should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, and for treason. As detestable a human being as he is, revenge is really not the point. Justice requires that when an individual holding high office in this land violates his oath of office, causes the deaths of untold thousands, and threatens the very foundation of constitutional government, there should be an accounting. Not for his sake—he’s incapable of remorse or apparently even of the recognition of ethical values—but for our sake and the sake of the country. If there’s no accountability for criminal behavior on the part of the most powerful people in the nation, then the law itself becomes hypocritical when applied to lesser crimes. Silence equals approval. If Cheney walks away with no consequences, then it’s essentially a win for fascism because it opens the door to future abuse.

I do not propose submitting Cheney to beatings, sleep deprivation, water torture, sexual mutilation, or any of the other methods he so enthusiastically promoted to be inflicted on others. I do not propose that he be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, kept in isolation until he goes insane, and then tried in a military court where he is denied the basic rights and elements of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. I would not propose that for anyone, because I believe in the Constitution of the United States, even for those who try to destroy it. No, I would like to see Dick Cheney tried in a regular court of law, with full right to counsel, and all other rights that are supposed to be guaranteed to someone accused of a crime. That’s not too much to ask. The victims of 9/11, who have been so disgracefully used by this man and his accomplices, deserve that much. So do the victims in Iraq. We all deserve some closure. I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “putting the past behind us.” The past never gets behind us unless there is some resolution.

The political establishment is afraid of bringing the Bush-Cheney crimes to account because they fear “instability.” The two parties are more interested in prestige than justice, so they maintain the false respectability of the status quo rather than bringing criminals in high places to justice. There is probably also a fear of being caught in the net—many members of Congress have been complicit in one way or another in the blood and corruption. So the consensus seems to be that nothing will be done. There will be no trials for Cheney, or Stephen Hadley, or Doug Feith, or Donald Rumsfeld. There may even be pardons—pardons before anyone has even been charged, which is a travesty.

So much the worse for us. But even given this probability, we need all the facts to come out. We need to know exactly what these men said and did. The secrecy must stop, or else it will continue to poison our society. We can’t just put our trust in some new “good” guy like Obama and leave it at that. Even if Obama turns out to be a good president, accountability and justice are structural needs that can’t be met with rhetoric or personalities. In politics, as in life, as in recovery—you don’t grow unless you first clean house.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Perfect President

Tolstoy wrote a tale called Esarhaddon, in which a king is in bed thinking about how he will order the torture and execution of his chief enemy the next day. He wakes up to discover that he is no longer himself, but his enemy, and as such he experiences the entire process by which he is captured, put in a cage, and then led to the stake to be executed. From this waking dream he also awakes, as the king again. Horrified by what he has learned, he frees his prisoner and gives up his crown.

Miracle stories like this express, among other things, a desire that the truth could be directly known and grasped by supernatural means, thus making the world a far better place than it is. Conscience has not proven to be a strong enough force to contend with the desire for gain. In the corporate world, for instance, money has lulled conscience safely to sleep.

I wish that the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Nike, Reebok, Guess? Jeans, JC Penney, and Bloomingdale’s (to mention only a few) would wake up some morning as a 12-year-old kid working in a foreign sweatshop, or a Mexican immigrant sewing clothes in L.A. for minimum wage and supporting two kids. Because I’m sure these guys don’t think about those people--to them, the workers are just a means towards the end of profit, and their struggles and suffering don’t matter.

And I wish that Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, and the rest of those fine, upstanding men who got us into this marvelous war would wake up tomorrow as Iraqi civilians, who have seen family members killed, their society destroyed, their country soaked in blood, and for what? Because I’m also sure these guys don’t think about their victims. Everything is abstract to them--ordinary people are just units in a geopolitical game. They can write the suffering off as “collateral damage,” justified for what they consider a noble end, which happens to coincide with American hegemony, as well as their own power and influence.

I thought of Esarhaddon whenever I saw George W. Bush being interviewed in recent days. It’s obvious he’s on a last-minute mission to spruce up his image, trying to appear like a decent, thoughtful person. It’s impossible, of course. Whether he’s saying, “Obviously I don't like the idea of people losing jobs, or being worried about their 401(k)s” (a far cry from admitting any responsibility for these developments) or naming his biggest regret as “the intelligence failure in Iraq” (when in fact he deliberately bent the intelligence to fit the policy of invasion, as we all should know by now), there’s simply no room for real honesty when you’re sitting on a mountain of lies.

I never dreamed I would be saying this, but there’s something absolutely perfect about George W. Bush as a representative both of U.S. power and the conservative political class. He is the end product of years of political image-making: the elevation of the talking point and the attack narrative over actual discussion, the reduction of ideology to its most basic (and stupid) elements, the shallow pseudo-patriotic rhetoric of Reaganist “pride” in country, the equation of naked greed with “principles.” Behold the apotheosis, the final incarnation of the right-wing ideal, summed up with an almost classical concision in one man, one “decider.” Leaving aside the policies (wrong and destructive 100% of the time, which I would have thought a statistical impossibility), and the corruption (as close to total as we can expect to see in American history), let us look at the man himself. The overriding characteristic is self-centeredness; indeed, narcissism of the most degraded variety. With an utter lack of self-knowledge, and certainly no awareness of an actual moral dimension to human life, Bush is all about himself--his own paltry emotions and thoughts, his image, his role, his “legacy.”

This would be a terrible shortcoming in a talented person, but in Bush’s case we see self-regard combined with a personality so mediocre, so lacking in distinction, that it should make anyone who has learned to read above the 6th grade level experience a cold shudder of fear. This is the end result, embodied in a kind of historical logic that seems eerie in its perfection, of the phony “conservative” movement--a complete cipher, an empty man, a man with no insides, no conscience, no reflection, no shadow. A grinning, head-bobbing, self-regarding fool, who doesn’t even know that he’s done incalculable harm, but thinks that the harm somehow just happened independently of him, and is therefore incapable of true remorse. If Bush woke up, like Tolstoy’s character, as a tortured Guantanamo prisoner, he would lack the ability even then to make the connection. The level of selfishness achieved here, and symbolized for all of us, is itself the true engine of capitalism, the real power behind American imperial ambition. The world’s great superpower is a feckless frat boy trying to impress his drunken friends—oh boy, I get to be the President! The specialness of Bush is not that he is different from other figures in the political establishment, but that he is such a perfect symbol of their secret aims and desires.

You see, the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Nike, and the rest--and the pack of neocons too--are no doubt family men who love their kids, and their pets too. I don’t believe in the Illuminati or any of that diabolical crap. The hidden meaning of Arendt’s “banality of evil” is that banality is the purest (and stupidest, and dullest) avenue of harm in this world. Self-interest, so called, is the most banal motive of all, and the most universal. Only rarely do we see this banality portrayed with such impeccable accuracy by the (harrumph!) “leader of the free world” as we have since 2001. Most of the time I would get so angry watching Bush that I’d switch the channel before the man had said more than two or three sentences. As it turns out, however, there was something to be learned (yet at such cost!).

It is not enough to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Or to be more accurate, it may be sufficient for those who have taken care to develop a strong conscience, but not for the rest. Why? Because power in the modern age, the age of arrogance, the tragic age when entire peoples can be vaporized with the flip of a switch--power has become synonymous with a failure of imagination.

We are all the same person, not in imagination alone, but in reality. This is the fact, a spiritual fact (dare I say a religious fact), the heaven, the nirvana, the whatever you want to call it, that we eventually confront with our own death but which we are called upon to experience today in order to truly know ourselves. As Tolstoy wrote: “You thought life dwelt in you alone, but I have drawn aside the veil of delusion, and you have seen that in doing evil to others you have done it to yourself as well. Life is one in everything, and within yourself you manifest but a portion of this one life. And only in that portion that is within you can you make life better or worse, magnify or diminish it. To destroy the life that dwells in others is not within your power. The life that was in those you have slain has not been destroyed: it has merely vanished from before your eyes. You thought to prolong your life and to shorten the lives of others, but you cannot do this. For life there is neither time nor space. The life of a moment and the life of thousands of years, your life and the lives of all creatures seen and unseen, is one. To destroy life, even to alter it, is impossible, for life alone exists. All else only seems to be.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Just a few questions

I watched the unveiling of Barack Obama’s “national security team,” and I have some questions for him.

Why is there not a single person on the team who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003? I’m not suggesting that every person you appoint should have been right about the war, but I think it’s reasonable to expect at least one non-hawk appointee. One of your main selling points in the campaign was that you were opposed to this war. I don’t see why your appointments shouldn’t reflect that position in some way.

Why should we put up with having Bush appointee Robert Gates continue at Defense? As an old crony of Reagan spook William Casey, he was deeply involved in Iran-Contra and other dirty covert operations. Under Gates, the corruption and looting by war contractors in Iraq has not abated. He continues to push for massive budget increases at Defense, which does not represent any change from the past. And what about all the Rumsfeld parasites still on the Pentagon staff? Do they stay too? Really, sir, are we supposed to believe that you can’t find anyone better than this Bush toady to run Defense? If there was one chance to show courage and determination in appointments, it would be the Pentagon. All this signals is more of the same. I consider any person who worked for Bush-Cheney as already morally compromised.

Speaking of the Pentagon, will you take a good hard look at cutting the Defense budget? I realize that it’s considered politically dangerous to do so, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we happen to be having an economic meltdown after throwing away our resources on an illegal war. The war industry is in fact a drag on the economy—we can have a strong defense without having to waste billions of dollars making weapons manufacturers filthy rich. Moderate cuts in the Defense budget, including clamping down on the massive waste and fraud, will be needed if we’re going to restore the economy. If we can’t challenge this sacred cow, all the economic stimulus packages in the world aren’t going to do the trick.

What about Blackwater and the other private mercenary forces that are a stain on our honor and a threat to freedom? Will you please cancel their contracts?

Will there be accountability for the crimes and corrupt practices of KBR and other Iraq War contractors who have been looting billions from our Treasury?

You have nominated Janet Napolitano to run Homeland Security. This is a huge department created as part of Bush’s so-called “War on Terror.” Are you planning on continuing this so-called “war” which by definition can never end? Do you support the Patriot Act, one of the key items in Bush’s attack on the Bill of Rights? Do you plan to continue the illegal NSA spying “program” which uses the pretense of “terrorist surveillance” to violate the rights of our own citizens? Why is it called “Homeland Security” anyway? This is colonialist language that implies that we have other lands to administer—couldn’t we just call it domestic security?

You have said that you oppose the shameful use of torture by the Bush-Cheney regime, and that torture will end under your administration. Will you also end the so-called “renditions” in which human beings are kidnapped and sent to other countries who then torture these prisoners? Will you end secret prisons and indefinite detention without charges? Will you call for the repeal of the Military Commissions Act, which denies the age-old right of habeas corpus and violates the Bill of Rights?

Will there be any accountability for the crimes against humanity committed by the Bush administration? Will there be investigations into the unlawful actions of these people? If not, doesn’t that send the message that future Presidents can fail to uphold their oaths of office without fear of any consequences? How does sweeping these crimes under the rug help this country to change for the better?

I noticed that there was no nomination for CIA director. Does that mean that Bush appointee Michael Hayden, who has supported all the illegal and immoral foreign policy doctrines of the Bush-Cheney regime, is staying on at CIA? Isn’t it time for thorough reform of the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies, especially following a period when a covert agent’s identity was exposed for political reasons by the administration, with minimal consequences?

I hear you talking about the danger of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Could we also talk about the danger of any country at all having a nuclear weapon? How can we tell other countries not to get nukes when we’re not doing anything to reduce our own? Are we supposed to think that somehow we have the moral right and the inherent ability to wield these weapons, but other countries don’t? Will you lead by example and create a plan for gradual de-escalation of our nuclear arsenal, thereby lending legitimacy to our professed concerns about proliferation?

I haven’t heard you or Hillary Clinton questioning any of the policies of the Israeli government. Why should criticizing these policies be taboo and equated with hating Israel or being antisemitic? We can criticize the Mexican government’s policies without being accused of hating Mexicans, can’t we? Are you willing to admit that the Palestinians have rights too? This endless conflict in the West Bank and Gaza doesn’t make me feel safer—it makes everybody less safe, in fact. What do you plan to do to help Israel and the Palestinians make peace?

American politicians have been talking about supporting freedom and democracy for as long as I can remember. Why, then, do we pump arms and money into repressive authoritarian governments such as Egypt, Indonesia, or Uzbekistan? Will you end funding of such regimes?

We still hear anti-Cuban rhetoric every election cycle. Yet we continue to treat China, a totalitarian government, as a favored nation. Will you challenge China on its numerous violations of human rights? Will you open dialogue with Cuba?

The Bush administration expressed constant contempt for the United Nations. Will your administration recommit to the principles of international law and cooperation? Will you accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, or will you continue the Bush policy of defying the court, the Geneva Conventions, and other international standards of human rights and responsibilities?

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have contributed to the drastic poverty and debt of the developing world by using so-called “neoliberal” economic policies to maintain the power and privileges of rich countries and international corporations. Would you consider policies of debt forgiveness for the Third World in order to free poor countries from burdens unfairly placed on their people by corrupt leaders? Would you oppose the predatory economic strategies of international corporations that are impoverishing millions in Latin America, Africa, and Asia?

I expect the answers to a lot of these questions are going to be “no.” I know that there are great political constraints on a President in this country. Some are theorizing that you are bringing the establishment under your tent so that you can govern with less disruption than previous Democratic presidents. You’ve proven yourself to be a brilliant politician, which is a definite plus if you really want to create change. Nevertheless, I think these questions need to be asked, because change has to involve the challenging of preconceptions. And the level of disintegration we are witnessing today, socially and economically, makes this even more vital. You talk about unity, and I appreciate the sentiment, but you know, there are powerful groups who don’t want anything more than a cosmetic change, if that. And they aren’t giving up without a fight. If you just give in to these interests without confronting them, I think that there won’t be a significant enough change. This is true in every area of policy, but since I’m focusing on national security in this case, I will say that we need to make peace our priority, first and foremost. That means shifting away from our war-based social and economic structures. That means letting go of the illusion that we can be the world’s policeman. That means ending the madness of trying to exploit the world’s resources and people for the exclusive benefit of the U.S. and the international corporate classes. That means coming to our senses and recognizing our country as a republic, a nation among nations, and not an empire or superpower.

I wish you luck. I hope you prove yourself worthy of your promises.