Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Unjust Nation

Ten days after President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, I have come to some sense of clarity concerning my feelings about it. My immediate gut reaction was revulsion, and it marked the point at which I finally have stopped liking Obama personally (a “liking” which I see in retrospect was a far too hopeful reaction against my hatred of the barbaric yawping of Bush-Cheney and the neofascist forces they represent).

Just on the surface, it seems troubling to accept the peace prize with an argument for just war. Coupled with Obama’s recent escalation in Afghanistan, which I oppose, this might account for the sense of dissonance. Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is symbolic, and a very weak and compromised symbolism at that. What little good it can do lies in the accumulated prestige conferred upon it by the world, prestige that may perhaps provide some help to a truly brave and embattled figure of peace, such as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. A lot of the time it seems like not much more than self-congratulation for liberal moneyed elites. To give the prize to Henry Kissinger, for instance, because he helped negotiate an end to a war that he had viciously prolonged, symbolizes not peace but blind complacency. Obama’s award seems to indicate a desperate hope that the U.S. will recover from the sink of depravity represented by Bush-Cheney.

Knowing, therefore, that the prize is symbolic, it is clear to me on reflection that the President’s acceptance speech symbolizes something more disturbing than any immediate political significance it may have. I see now that what I find revolting in such an argument for “just war” doctrine, presented in the context of peace on the world stage, is its stubborn refusal of accountability for unjust war, in short, its embrace of imperial hubris.

The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath resulted in somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million deaths, according to the most conscientious and objective sources. In 2007, the Iraqi government reported that there were about 5 million orphans in the country. Estimates of the number of children killed have ranged between about 8-12% of total casualties, with many thousands more killed by malnutrition and disease. Iraqis themselves have reported that virtually every family in Iraq has experienced the violent death of a first- or second- degree relative. During much of the war, there were terrorist bombings going off on practically a daily basis, with casualties often in the hundreds. If a comparable death toll had taken place in the United States, it would have plunged the country into unimaginable grief and terror. Yet the relatively prosperous citizens of the U.S., insulated by distance and a silent and complicit news media, did not adequately comprehend or feel the enormity of Iraqi losses. Attention has been paid to the deaths of over 4300 American soldiers, although even that has been blunted by government and media neglect, of which the prohibition against showing photographs of dead soldiers, or up until recently, even their coffins, is a symptom. In addition, there have been over 30,000 wounded soldiers, many of them seriously, and this toll has been similarly muted.

Proponents of this war have often said that getting rid of Saddam Hussein has made Iraq a better place, but Iraqis themselves disagree: the death toll during his reign was much lower, and the displacement of people has been catastrophic: somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Iraqis fled the country, almost 10% of the entire population. It should be abundantly clear to all but the most ignorant by now that the U.S. invasion itself was based wholly on deception. The claim that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks was a shameful lie that has been repeatedly disproved. The Cheney fall-back position from this, that Saddam was aiding Al Qaida, has been thoroughly discredited. Then of course there was the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The evidence is now overwhelming that intelligence reports were manipulated and in some cases completely fabricated in order to support this false claim.

Once the invasion took place, the United States did nothing to help Iraq stabilize its infrastructure or to promote a peaceful transition to a post-Saddam government. The “strategy” of the Bush-Cheney war effort was one of utter venality. The oil resources were to be protected, but the people were expendable. The callous behavior of the military (and the mercenaries) towards civilians produced a death toll that actually exceeded the deaths from sectarian violence in the war’s first two years. The neocon crackpots who tried their hand at nation-building failed at every step of the way and on every level. The piles of dead bodies, the tragic destruction of an entire nation, are directly attributable to the greed, imperial ambition, and stupidity of the United States government.

So as a result of an invasion that was based on deliberate falsehoods, and carried out without the approval of the United Nations, many hundreds of thousands of people, probably over a million, have died, and millions more lives have been shattered forever.

By the time the so-called “surge” was put into place in 2007, Iraq was already a broken shell of a country and the bloodletting had already destroyed whatever hopes there might have been for a better post-Saddam reality. The war enthusiasts now use this contemptible and phony “surge” as a point of pride, even claiming that the United States somehow “won” the war, although what exactly we have won I have been unable to fathom.

I won’t even try to detail the massive looting and impoverishment of Iraqi resources (and the U.S. treasury) by rapacious corporations such as KBR, or the shameful use of torture on detainees which has called into question our very values as a people. The list of murders, crimes, and obscenities goes on too long to adequately discuss in a short piece.

And here is my question to the United States of America, not only to President Obama and the Congress but to our servile excuse for a news media, our corporate elites, the millions of flag-waving warmongering “patriots,” and the many more passive citizens watching their TV and saying nothing: Where is our remorse? Will there be no acknowledgment of guilt at all? Will no one express even a public sense of grief for the terrible damage and loss of life caused by this unjust, illegal and immoral war?

The so-called leaders of this country, the politicians, corporate executives, and other public figures and spokespersons, seem to think that you can wish murder away with silence and denial. And in this, I’m afraid, they represent the ignorance and sense of entitlement of a large percentage of the American people. The best many can do is admit that the war was a “mistake.” Many can not even do that, trapped as they are in the delusion that the United States has to be magically right in all things. The delusion of power, of “we’re number 1,” the fatal soul-sickness known as “American exceptionalism,” prevents most of us from even seeing the blood that stains our country.

If it is too much to ask for an admission of fault, guilt, or remorse, will we not at least allow mourning for what has been done to be publicly expressed? No, apparently, we will not. It is, I am told, politically unfeasible to do so. Those of us who express such things will be labeled weak at best, and at worst traitorous. So instead we have our President accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a feeble and misguided apology for American “just war.”

“Whatever mistakes we have made,” Obama said, “the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest.”

This is the refined pseudo-intellectual version of the imperial lie. We kill for the good of the world, and for peace. I suppose Obama believes the lie. Henry Kissinger, at least, knew that “enlightened self-interest” was a rhetorical device masking what he considered the necessities of realpolitik. The military industry that has been in charge of American foreign policy for over half a century (at least) plays a global chess game with the lives of millions, and for the consumption of the stupid dolts, the citizens and voters, the game is called “just war” and “self-interest.” Well, it does represent the self-interest of a very few men whose ideas are centered solely on naked power and the economic control which sustains it. The actual self-interest of the vast majority of the human beings don’t matter. We are just pieces in this game.

There is a price to be paid. Responsibility for mass murder may be hidden and denied, and the killers may go unpunished in our courts of law. But crimes of such enormity take their toll on the spirit of a country’s people, and unless they are acknowledged with grief, remorse, and correction in values and behavior, they result in a gradual and steady corruption which can only end in disaster. No pretty words by eloquent politicians, no phony peace prizes, no empty proclamations of hope, can change that. Staying upon our present course, like a blind giant stumbling through chaos while proclaiming his own greatness, we will surely fall.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Deadly Denial

The so-called conservatives are in full denial that global climate change is happening, and they have been for years. Recently they’ve pounced on some stolen emails from a UK research center as proof that global warming is a hoax. In fact, playing around with data in simulations is a common practice, and none of this tricked-up data was ever published. That hasn’t stopped the American media, always willing to run with whatever lies they’re fed by the right, from pretending this is a real story.

A recent open letter to Congress from U.S. scientists reaffirms that “The body of evidence that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming is overwhelming.” Yet the rightists and their corporate backers continue in their insistence on a hoax.

Take a moment to consider the implications of this. The climate change deniers would have us believe that there is a vast conspiracy of scientists to convince the world of a falsehood concerning the environment. And the motive for such a conspiracy would be the undermining of the capitalist system. In other words, all these scientists are being accused of plotting to bring down the economy. In the mythology of the right, they are being placed in the camp of the “liberals,” who are enemies of the American way of life.

Beyond this blanket accusation, the climate change deniers offer us no insight into why scientists would violate their ethics in such a way. Nor do they offer any plausible scenario for how so many hundreds of people could coordinate such a hoax. The whole theory is so patently absurd that it’s a wonder they even attempt it, but in the climate of stupidity fostered by Republicans in America for decades, there are many who are willing to believe anything they’re told.

The very simplest insights are often the ones never expressed in our public discourse. Here is one that needs to be said: economic self-interest is the obvious motive for attacks on climate change science. Global warming spells disaster for the petroleum industry, and a lot of other industries are heavily invested in petroleum—not just cars, but agriculture, pharmaceuticals, plastics, weapons, you name it.

Rather than consider the implications of climate change, these corporate elites look only at the short term: their profits. They go into full denial because they don’t know how to do anything else. The principle of short-term self-interest holds true in every aspect of politics, but what’s peculiar about this is that the stakes for humanity are unbearably high. If global warming creates catastrophe for the earth, it’s also bad for business in the long-term. Perhaps some of these people just don’t care—they figure they’ll be dead by the time anything happens, and they can let their kids or grandkids deal with it. But it seems more likely that they believe their own denials because it’s too frightening for them to contemplate the truth.

What we have is a situation in which a small segment of the population with a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth has become, for all intents and purposes, insane. Learned and intelligent experts are sounding the warning; many reasonable people are listening; but these stupid, greedy elites are actually trying to prevent anything being done to save our future from environmental disaster. Whether they believe their own lies or not becomes irrelevant. They must not be allowed to drive our world off a cliff.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Bad News

I actually like Barack Obama. I think he’s a great improvement on the gangster Republican rule of Cheney/Bush. But here’s the bad news: Obama still represents the moneyed establishment in this country. This was not news to me. I knew this when I voted for him. I just think it’s easy to lose perspective when watching the political spectacle in Washington. The right wing in this country is so rabid, dangerous, and delusional that it tends to distort one’s awareness of the big picture.

In the economic crisis, Obama has chosen to prop up the Wall Street bankers. He’s also made some steps to stimulate the economy, but the attempt to keep the bankers alive will be a major failure. I don’t know how long it will take for this failure to fully manifest, it could even be delayed until after Obama’s second term. But these people don’t know any other principle than greed and piracy, and they will drive us all into a ditch again.

Obama has also rolled over to the military industrial complex. The policies are imperialistic in the old style, as opposed to the scarier crypto-fascist Cheney approach. But they’re still imperialistic, so we’re still being the cop of the world and the guardian of multinational corporations as opposed to the oppressed millions on this earth. Obama also flinched on Israel—there will be no serious stand against expansion of illegal settlements. The situation in foreign affairs is back to the status quo, which was never a healthy thing. The United States will apparently have to keep learning the hard way that world hegemony is untenable.

Even the arrogance of Bush’s “unitary executive” initiatives has not been repudiated in full. Obama has not renounced the criminal and unconscionable policies of CIA “rendition.” The same specious arguments are made by Obama’s Justice Dept. in favor of so-called preventive detention and other unconstitutional means in the bogus “war on terror.”

Being a moderate on social issues means that Obama doesn’t go to the mat for gay rights, but gives them lip service instead. He is not pro-active on equality, civil rights, labor rights, or human rights abroad—and sometimes actively ignores these issues in order to curry favor with more conservative members of his own party. Time and again he takes the support of progressives and liberals, who were responsible for getting him elected, for granted, while pursuing a naïve and unattainable ideal of bipartisanship.

My purpose is not to discourage aspirations to change, but to emphasize that real change only comes from the bottom up. The establishment elects its own to run its business—they will preserve and promote the status quo as long as the American people tolerate the status quo. The mass of American citizens will continue to passively observe their own exploitation as long as they identify their interests with the rich. When they stop doing that, what follows is committed action on the local level. When progressive-minded people serve their communities instead of living passive lives of consumption, change will accelerate.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The New Religion

The next time you mute the television during a commercial, examine the silent language of an advertisement. It’s more obvious with the sound off. The human drama is centered on a non-human object, an object of attraction, even of obsession or worship. The satiated stare of the actors, whether speaking directly to you or in some concocted interaction, rests on the commodity. Whatever social milieu may be depicted, whatever situation presents itself as self-consciously typical of “us,” the viewer, is completed and fulfilled only by the commodity. Although life is portrayed as if it were something else, something existing outside of the commercial, the product being sold is manifestly the meaning of life.

Here is the real American religion, indeed the religion of “Western civilization.” The religion of prayer and sermons and churches is only a sideshow, a feature in the cultural landscape. There is no adoration in mass culture, the culture of day-to-day life in the “developed” countries, that can compare to the adoration of the car, the appliance, the light beer, the prescription drug. In fact it is not the specific commodity in itself that is significant, but our relationship with any product, the relationship of the consumer with any desired object, that constitutes our way of life.

To understand this fully it is necessary to clear away all illusions about the “means of existence.” Some commodities are necessary to us in terms of food, shelter, health, or future security. Many of them are unnecessary. But the cult of the commodity creates the same mental outlook in either case. You can be poor as dirt and still be hypnotized by a sense of dependency on products as such, a mental and emotional dependency that molds one’s entire attitude towards life.

When people talk disparagingly about “material things” as if an attachment to the physical world was a problem, it only obscures the issue. The object of worship in this religion is not really material at all. It represents a way of living that is purposely alienated from interpersonal relations. Our attention in the deepest sense, the locus of our daily awareness, is trained to turn away from ourselves as a human community and towards the product, which becomes a replacement for meaning. When the shiny car drives up in the commercial, the people turn towards it as if it were a god or a holy grail. It has been invested with a kind of magic, a meaning that has no meaning other than the turning of attention itself. The market, through the sheer mechanical logic of its operation, has colonized the human mind, turning society into a group of atomized individuals bonding with their commodities.

The effect on the world is disastrous, but it is difficult to realize what the problem is as long as one is under the spell of this new religion. If one has no experience with culture based on relationships between people, if all one knows is consumer culture, there is only a nagging sense of unease, a premonition of emptiness. It has become difficult to experience the natural world without the intrusion of commodities, but glimpses can be had if you are lucky. In the midst of the nonjudgmental and non-manipulative environment of the wilderness, gratitude can suddenly arise. There are people who can look at a forest or a canyon and only see the potential for some kind of use, something to grasp, something to consume. Humanity pays a steep price for ignoring its dependence on nature.

In architecture, too, we can tell when something has been built with an attention based on a relationship with nature, and on the sense of human community. Such places inspire an inner sense of freedom and contentment, and a connection with other people. The architecture of the consumer religion is only designed to showcase the commodity. People are always visitors in these environments. There is nowhere to rest, nowhere to interact meaningfully with anybody. We are impelled, rather, to interact with products. Such places foster a sense of inner constraint and dissatisfaction. Nothing can satisfy the restless seeking. No object is ever enough.

The U.S. is covered with strip malls now, from coast to coast. The strip mall is the perfect church for the new religion. They are alike in their ugliness. We park our cars in the parking lots and enter the strip malls looking for a promised fulfillment. Whatever conversations we may have with each other are only incidental to the drama of the capitalist economy. It is the epic drama of perfect boredom.

To break away from the new religion is to experience a wrenching of the psyche. There is no easy way for a free spirit to make his escape. An attitude of sheer negation is in itself a mere reaction, a symptom of malaise. Those of us who see a different reality are called also to make it visible. We find ourselves blending the unrelenting vigor of a satirist with the tenderness of a grieving lover. Shaking free of the common stupor is not something achieved once and for all, but must be practiced every day, with varying success, while at the same time we strive to meet the eyes of others without dishonesty or shame. At this time we are still spraying graffiti on the walls. By the time we tear down the walls, will we have learned how to grow gardens instead?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Special Victim Status

I know people who are unwilling to express an opinion on Arab-Israeli issues because the political atmosphere is so charged with animosity. The decades-long conflict has the nature of ancient tribal hatred and vendetta. And it seems that nothing will ever solve the problem except a willingness by all parties to let go of this tribal hatred for a greater good.

But there’s also the peculiar nature of the debate as it manifests in the United States. One might more accurately say “lack of debate,” because in mainstream American politics there is a general taboo against criticizing the government of Israel.

It’s not my intention to analyze the immensely complex and entangled history around this issue. I only want to make one important point about nations and their governments. To consider any country as simply a nation among nations, with the same powers, rights and responsibilities as any other nation, is a sign of respect. When Israel was founded, as much as that event was marked by conflict and injustice, the true intent was to create a new nation that would be equal to other nations in the sense that I have just stated, a country that a long-suffering and persecuted people could call their own.

It seems more than evident to me that there is always a difference between the people of a given country—the country per se—and whatever government that country may have at a given time. I am opposed, for instance, to the repressive and inhumane policies of the current Iranian government, but I do not hate Iranians as people. Even more to the point, I have strongly opposed the policies of my own government, yet I myself am an American and do not hate Americans.

Equating opposition to a government’s policies with hating the country itself, is a common rhetorical trick. It is nothing more than a way of silencing dissent without having to argue effectively with it. In fact, it exemplifies what I would call totalitarian thinking, since it identifies the people of a country with the state.

In the case of Israel, this rhetorical trick has the added potency of race and religion. If you publicly criticize the government of Israel in the U.S., I can guarantee that you will be accused of anti-Semitism. Keeping in mind the long and shameful history of Jewish persecution, culminating in the horrific genocide in Europe, this is a very serious accusation indeed. Although “anti-Semitism” is the common term, I will use the more explicit phrase “Jew hatred” here to avoid confusion, since the Arabs are a Semitic people as well.

Jew hatred has not gone away. It exists on the extreme right and extreme left. Because it has finally become generally unacceptable in society, it is usually disguised. We find it frequently on the “conspiratorial” fringes, by which I mean those groups that interpret world power relations in terms of certain groups of people that secretly control institutions. Recently someone told me that the Jews controlled most of the American media, and he named the heads of some of the networks and movie studios, as if this Jewish element somehow explained everything. Countering this argument with the names of numerous Gentiles wielding enormous power is only partially effective as an answer. The point is that ethnicity and religion are nothing more than lightning rods for scapegoating behavior. To believe in their significance is to claim an essentialist meaning for these categories, the same way a white supremacist believes that Africans are “inferior.”

Of course there is Jew hatred among Arabs and Muslims as well. And there is hatred of Arabs and Muslims among Jews, Christians, Europeans and Americans. The latter has been greatly encouraged recently within mainstream discourse in America, without the contradiction being widely noted.

Relying then on the power of all this history, and of the persistence of Jew-hatred in the world, the defenders of Israeli government policy routinely accuse those of us who criticize said policy of being Jew haters. If the dissenters are themselves Jewish, we hear the label “self-hating Jews.”

Returning to my original point, then, concerning the correct and respectful attitude towards nations, I contend that this defensive stance, taken by a large portion of the dogmatic pro-Israel forces and lobbyists in the U.S., is an infantile and disrespectful stance to take regarding the nation of Israel. They are claiming a special victim status for this particular country—rather than a nation among nations, they see Israel as an exception to the rules, a privileged nation whose government is exempt from criticism. For if you cannot criticize the policies and actions of Israel without therefore being a Jew-hater, any such criticism must be automatically invalid. This is totalitarian thinking.

I have had enough of this. What I see is a long-standing militaristic, anti-democratic faction within Israel dominating its political life and implementing policies that are profoundly inhumane and destructive. And if I oppose the aggressive expansion of settlements, the constriction of Palestinians within a system of virtual serfdom, and the killing of innocent people, including many children, in Gaza and the West Bank, I know there are those who will say I am unfair, pro-terrorist, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. It’s a lie. And it is a transparent technique for avoiding responsibility. Using Jew hatred and the Holocaust as an excuse to justify whatever the Israeli government does is a strategy of cowardice. If Israel is the free and proud democracy that it claims to be, then it doesn’t need to hide behind a special victim status in order to function as a nation on the world stage. The United States continues to enable this blind dogmatism by writing the Israeli government a blank check for whatever it does, and then vetoing whatever actions the UN tries to take. I don’t hold a brief for Arab governments, which are by and large corrupt autocracies that do not serve their own people. But it does not aid the security of America, or indeed the world, for Israel to avoid making peace with the Palestinians, using the fear of terrorism to put off taking any action that would aid the progress of peace in the region. If Israel wants to claim moral superiority over their opponents, then it’s high time for them to show leadership in the cause of peace. The world sees the emptiness of official Israeli rhetoric. Fewer people in the United States are being fooled. And those who accuse critics and dissenters of Jew-hatred are actually hurting Israel more than any critic ever could. Blurring the distinction between actual anti-Semitism and honest criticism is bad for everyone.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Age of Arrogance and Greed

If I’m asked to name the biggest problems facing the world today, my answer is “arrogance and greed.” People tend to shrug at that answer. I understand. These things are just aspects of human nature, and seemingly intractable. When they’re asking this question, they’re thinking of objective conditions such as war, environmental degradation, poverty, and so forth. I don’t expect the mass of humanity to undergo a spiritual transformation. But I do think that in order for problems to be solved, there has to be a change in the social ethos—that which is generally considered desirable in our social attitudes and behavior. Arrogance and greed won’t disappear, but there needs to be a general recognition that these traits are destructive and inappropriate for the conduct of social institutions and government. Instead, they are either tacitly accepted as “the way things are,” or in the case of capitalist economics and right-wing ideology, actively encouraged.

The opposites of arrogance and greed are humility and compassion. Both tend to be ridiculed nowadays, at least in the political arena. They are associated with a sort of airy and unrealistic idealism that is practically unworkable. Politicians of all stripes tend to adhere to self-interest as a guiding principle. This has the effect of enslaving us to short-term goals. It may be ultimately in our self-interest to solve the environmental crisis, for instance, but this kind of self-interest implies a wider conception of “self” that is outside the orthodox view.

Humility involves the simple realization that we are limited and mortal creatures; that we don’t know everything, and therefore must adopt uncertainty and open-mindedness as guiding attitudes if we are to succeed in governing ourselves well. Nothing could be more opposed to the way nations have conducted themselves until now. In the last sixty years, we have possessed nuclear weapons, for instance. These weapons are capable of incinerating millions of people in a matter of minutes. Yet governments have persisted in the illusion that human beings can possess such godlike powers indefinitely; that our wisdom and abilities can be trusted in such a matter. Nothing in the history of humankind confirms this as valid. Arrogance alone, the refusal to practice humility, justifies it.

In daily political life, arrogance is rampant. Politicians and their owners operate from a stance of close-mindedness and certainty, based on their ideologies. You might think that religion would encourage humble attitudes, but the religious groups that have wielded the greatest power have also demonstrated the most unbridled arrogance. Fundamentalists who trust that their sacred book (and their own narrow understanding of that book) is beyond criticism, give themselves permission to be absolutely right about anything they think. The notion of human beings humbling themselves before the wisdom of a higher power has proven ineffective. The zealots, armed with their infallible book, presume to speak for God. They think God needs their help. The self-righteousness of dogma poisons the social atmosphere, while the zealot accuses everyone who disagrees with him while failing to examine his own limitations.

Arrogance has reached a stage in which facts no longer stand in the way. Our political discourse is clogged with pundits and demagogues who make reckless claims and accusations every day, statements that have no basis in reality, but are born wholly from the ideological certainty of the closed-minded bigot.

Compassion in its political form involves the simple realization that all human beings are connected; that there is such a thing as the common welfare. Governments operating from such an ethical standard would seek to foster the basic health and well-being of the community, and not simply be the tools of private gain. On the international level, there has to be an effort at cooperation and the empowerment of all people and countries. Such is the stated purpose of the United Nations, undermined as it is by the hegemony of the richest countries. Mike Huckabee, who calls himself a Christian, recently said that we should cut the UN loose and let it float away into the East River. For such people, there is no value in listening to any other points of view (arrogance) or aiding anyone outside of our nation or tribe (greed).

Even if President Obama had the wisdom of a Martin Luther King, which he doesn’t, it would be impossible for one politician to transform the ethical culture which keeps us bound to narrow and self-defeating behavior. It is up to those people who have realized the inescapable necessity to practice humility and passion to continually express their values publicly, while denouncing arrogance and greed as wrong and destructive. It’s not enough to attack certain persons, as if the problem were simply that the wrong people were in charge. It’s not enough to express positive values without calling out the negative ones, or vice versa. Arrogance and greed have to be named for what they are, over and over, and their opposites affirmed as necessary, over and over. If only one half of this action is performed, there is no choice presented. It hardly needs to be said that humility and compassion need to be practiced to the best of our ability as well, otherwise our insistence on their value is empty posturing.

This is not to deny the necessity for taking practical steps to solve problems. But as long as the sociopolitical ethos is based on arrogance and greed, the practical solutions will be stopgap measures that only gain us a little time, while narrow self-interest labors continually to negate them. Compassion, which recognizes the connection of all life, is actually a form of self-interest, but one in which a long-term and universal sense of self, namely a sense of community, takes precedence over the short-sighted self-interest of “us versus them.” When anti-environmentalists, for instance, ridicule efforts to save a species of bird or fish, they simply fail to see that the extinction of a species ends up damaging our chances of survival. They seem to think it’s just some disinterested love of the animals, unconnected to our own interests as human beings. An awakening of a general ethos of connectedness would gradually obviate this point of view in public policy.

It’s a measure of how cynical and degraded our social conceptions have become that the ideas I’ve presented here probably seem impossible to many readers. The influence of life-affirming values is slow, and often escapes wide notice. But culture does change, and as the conditions around us become more threatening, we are seeing more and more people rejecting the suicidal values that are driving us towards a cliff. Necessity, I believe, is forcing us to access values that have always been within us, both as individuals and communities. But in order for humility and compassion to become more consciously valued as a social ideal, and not just a private belief, we need a third virtue: courage.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Character?

I’m not often inspired by the speeches of politicians, and I can measure the gap between idealistic phrases and actual policy. Nonetheless, there was something about President Obama’s Sept. 9 health care speech that still resonates with me: his invocation of Senator Kennedy’s letter in which he said that, “At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

It’s important, in other words, that we ask what kind of country we are, and what kind we want to be. This question doesn’t get asked in public very often, at least not in the mainstream, not in Washington. Whatever core beliefs are at work in the echelons of American power are revealed through actions that often belie official rhetoric. The central one, it seems to me, is to make money, and make as much of it as possible all the time. Politics is simply a way of aiding the “economy,” the modern term for business interests. On the face of it, this is a legitimate purpose or value, if you look at in the most simplistic terms: people need food, housing, the ability to fulfill various other needs and wants, and the means to raise and educate children. These are just the terms that are emphasized because they are at the end of the chain of power. Voters can understand that. But those aren’t the operative terms. Capitalism functions through the self-interest of the capitalist, not because of a socially desirable result.

Ask any CEO if there is any other motive that takes precedence over the profit motive in the operation of a company. If he’s honest, he’ll say no. That’s how it works, and within those terms, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is that this motive, this sole overriding principle in the operation of a business, became identified with the ultimate value of society. The “free market” ideologies, identified most purely with Republicans but permeating the thought of members from both major parties, are hostile to any principle that places itself above the profit motive. Politicians may say something different, but in practice the core value is profit above all else. And there are consequences to this regarding other human values—there are effects on our character.

The logic of “free market” values leads to deregulation, removing effective oversight from business, and to so-called “privatization,” the handing over of traditionally public functions to business. It also leads to the dismantling of social programs, which have no profit-centered logic, and therefore no reason for being. From the victory of the right wing under Reagan until now, the effect on the economic condition of the masses has been quite clear. The middle class has become increasingly less affluent, with wages stagnating and families forced to take two or more jobs in order to get by. At the same time, the poor became poorer, and more numerous with the addition of people falling from the middle into the lower class.

I never saw masses of homeless people on the streets before Reagan was President. Almost immediately after he took office, they became a permanent presence in our cities. The ideologues mounted a campaign to explain this fact away. The homeless deserved their plight: they were lazy, irresponsible people who often chose to be homeless. The same kinds of campaigns were waged against welfare and food stamp recipients. This wasn’t just a practical move on the part of the right—it was a conscious attempt to define the American character in a new, non-liberal way.

Which brings me back to Obama’s speech. Kennedy’s notion of “social justice and the character of our country” has its roots in the epochal founding events of modern American liberalism, the Depression and the New Deal. Such ideas had of course existed long before, but they gained power under FDR. Essentially what the New Deal said is that we as a nation have a stake in caring for the basic needs of people, and that this “caring” is in itself a principle independent of the profit motive. It was never that the profit motive should go away, or that there is something inherently wrong with making a profit—although the free marketers would always try to paint liberal thought in those terms. It was only that there were other worthy principles and values that people need to live by, besides making a profit. And that all these principles must be honored in order for a country to be well and justly governed.

Schooling children doesn’t really make a profit. People try to couch it in terms of the country needing to have well-educated children in order to be “competitive” in the world economy and so forth, which only goes to show how much the profit motive dominates the public discourse. But really, most parents don’t seek to educate their children for business reasons.

The same is true for having a police force, a fire department, public transport, traffic lights, driver’s licenses, and a host of other public institutions and functions. Communities have needs, and the need for businesses to make money is only one of those needs, not the only one or even the primary one. So when the “free market” ends up denying basic needs to people, such as food, shelter, and health care, the contradiction between the belief in the sacredness of the profit motive and the reality of most people’s lives becomes evident. In the case of health care, it has become insupportable, and yet the disciples of making the most money possible all of the time will fight tooth and nail to prevent health care from being recognized as a right, since they recognize no other good but profit.

The world in which profit has been elevated above compassion, caring, family, neighborhood, and friendship is very much like the world depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels, the world of predatory capitalism before regulation. If we can accept people living on the streets, ultimately we accept them dying from cold or starvation on the streets. From there, we can accept people dying because they can’t afford treatment for their health problems. If it weren’t for labor laws that were pushed through by liberals, we would be accepting children being worked to death in factories. In fact, corporations still accept it when they use sweatshops in other countries.

The point is, there is no possible moral or principled objection to such things in terms of the “free market.” In philosophical terms, human beings are replaceable objects in the profit system; if profit is the one organizing social principle, then there is no crime that is not excusable in the name of business. I’m not speaking of the future here, but of the present. The prisons are packed with poor, working class, and minority criminals. The so-called “white collar” criminals are, more often than not, given a slap on the wrist, or even acquitted, if they’re ever charged at all. This is an open secret in our society, and it follows from the valuing of profits over people.

What then is the character of our country? There is no simple answer. The masses of ordinary people, working day by day to get by, possess whatever variety and degree of character they have been able to cultivate. People still love their families and help out their neighbors. It’s a fact that the lower middle class gives proportionally more to charity than the rich or upper middle class. I don’t believe that self-centeredness is the only distinguishing trait of our society. I don’t think we could have survived this far if it were. But as a country, we are split. The economic system, and the government, is aligned with a callous and anti-humanist philosophy. By no means is there agreement on fundamental principles of social justice, or even that social justice is a good to be aimed at. For the country to realize a character greater than the examples of greed and power-seeking we have been shown so far will involve relegating the profit motive to its proper place in society. It will always participate, but it can no longer run the show.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Best We've Got

A patriot says “My country, right or wrong.” A nationalist says, “My country can never be wrong.” Implicit is a different view of what “my country” is. Simone Weil made the distinction in The Need for Roots between country as land, people, culture, and language; and nation as authority, state, army, and flag. And I would add to that list the notion of a dominant or privileged class. The nationalist wants to be in a dominant group, and will kill his fellow countrymen en masse in order to achieve that.

In the United States, the tension between these two ideas of country is at a height, and the lines are often blurred. We hear a lot about the founding fathers these days, and the ideas and principles that guided the U.S. at its birth. Everyone wants to claim that mantle. But history is never simple, and when we try to make it so in the service of our ideals, we do ourselves a disservice. When I truly love someone, with the deep and unconditional love that comes with time and effort, I don’t just love certain attractive aspects, but the entire flawed human being. I would argue that the same is true of loving one’s country.

The right-wing extremists who still dominate public discourse have an antique schoolboy veneration for the founders without displaying much insight into their ideas, the principles that shaped the Constitution of the United States. American revolutionary thought was anti-autocratic. Despite major differences in the views of such figures as Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they shared the vision of a republic that would represent the will of citizens rather than the desires and caprices of a monarch or dictator. The founders, being British, were enormously influenced by the British parliamentary and legal tradition. It was, however, too easy for Great Britain to succumb to despotism in one form or another, and the founders therefore sought remedy for this by fashioning a purer kind of republic that had no monarch to be revered, but three branches of government with powers divided between them, all servants of the people.

To this structure was added a Bill of Rights that restricted the government’s ability to interfere with people’s lives. If you study the first ten amendments as originally ratified, you get a good idea of the threats that the founders were worried about. A tyranny would try to control what religion people could practice, what they could say or print, their ability to gather together in groups for peaceful purposes, and their ownership of arms. A tyranny would attempt to break into people’s homes without legal warrants based on probable cause. It would try to arrest and imprison people without formal charges, without the right to confront their accusers, detaining them indefinitely without trial and without a jury. A tyranny would steal people’s property from them, or force them to give their property over for the use of the military.

All these threats, these fears, sprung from the founders’ experience of treatment by the British government. They all reflected the desire to prevent untrammeled authoritarian power, which they called tyranny, and to make government a servant of the people rather than a master. The founders differed as to how much power and authority the government should have—Hamilton believed in a strong central power, whereas Jefferson and his followers tended to think in decentralized terms. All shared the belief that the legitimacy of government power depended on the consent of the governed. What exactly this “consent” is, and how to determine it, was the perennial issue of debate, and it was in the very nature of a republic for this to be the case.

If we look at the right-wing “patriots” of today, outside of the pure libertarians, it is remarkable how indifferent they are to the actual thought of the founders. What we see here is crude authoritarianism, in which “America” needs to be the greatest and most powerful country in the world, providing its citizens with a good measure of economic affluence. The Bill of Rights is mainly viewed as an obstacle to getting things done, and other than the part about bearing arms (which makes money for the gun companies), the “rights” enumerated are painted as threats to national security, law and order, morality, and the Christian religion. When someone outside of the right-wing becomes President, the “patriots” start squawking about rights again, but it’s only political warfare, not principle, since the same rights didn’t mean anything to them when a right-wing President was in office.

What we have, then, is an American “patriotic” movement that is essentially no different than monarchism or dictatorship—the polar opposite of the republican ideal aimed at by the founders.

Turning from the schoolboy notions of American history to actual history, in the air and sunlight of reality, there is a painful tension between the ideas of the founders and the historical conditions in which they grew. British colonists settled on a new continent, killing and displacing native populations in the process. The cultivation of land and the development of this new society were greatly facilitated by the importation of African slaves. The property owners held power, and enjoyed the greatest benefits, including the benefits of education. They were the true “citizens,” not the laborers or the poor. Women had no vote—that went without saying, as it was the condition of women in all of Europe as well.

Post-revolutionary history reflects all these tensions quite explicitly. The killing and displacement of Indians increased as colonization expanded westward. This expansion brought out other imperialist tendencies, such as in the Mexican War. And of course, the existence of slavery became an impossible moral and political burden, resulting in a huge civil war between the northern and southern regions of the country. Although slavery ended, the struggle over the status of African Americans continued.

The tragic and bloody history of the United States has caused many on the left to be skeptical about the republican ideals of the founders. If Washington and Jefferson held slaves, how can we take their notions of liberty seriously? This is an understandable reaction to the schoolboy version of American history. Moreover, the awareness of economic power and the class system as crucial factors in politics makes the founders’ reliance on Enlightenment ideals seem naïve. They tended to rely on moral explanations based on character, without reference to economic realities. Yes, despotism has its root in greed and selfishness, but these character defects thrive in a socioeconomic culture.

But to be aware of the truth of our history does not necessitate turning against love of country. For the right wing, in the spirit of “my country can’t be wrong,” the only recourse is denial or minimizing. Slavery wasn’t so bad; the Indians mostly deserved what they got; that sort of thing. For progressives who still retain love of country, however, the answer lies in a vision of the United States as work in progress. We view the republic as an ideal to which successive generations add their experience and insights, expanding the scope of what liberty means. In fact, this is largely in the spirit of the founders themselves, who had the foresight to make the Constitution a document that could be amended and variously interpreted. They even made provision for more constitutional conventions by which the people could revamp the founding document. We were not stuck with slavery, or with no suffrage for women. Provision was made for change, although it was deliberately made rather difficult to actually amend the Constitution, perhaps more difficult than has been good for us. The rapidity of social change has made our founding document seem rather rickety at times.

The states, for instance, were very important entities in the beginning. It really meant something to be from Virginia, or New York, or Massachusetts. The U.S. Senate owes its origin to this notion of state autonomy. In modern times, though, with migration between states becoming so common as to be the norm, there just isn’t the same significance attached to the idea of one’s home state, at least not in the political sense. It has created an imbalance of power in the legislative branch, since sparsely populated states such as Wyoming have just as many senators as California or New York. This reinforces an American provincialism which empowers the most backward elements of society. It would require a major Constitutional change to correct this, and it’s not at all clear that this would be to our ultimate advantage.

The biggest problem with the form of government bequeathed to us, in my view, is that it did not prevent the rise of an industrial capitalist ruling class that has effectively assumed power in the U.S. government since the 19th century. Critics point to the use of the 14th Amendment to confer personhood (and thus citizenship status) on corporations as the nail in the coffin. As long as corporations are treated as free entities with rights, their dominance of the political process is assured.

No Constitution will ever be perfect, and ours is no exception. At heart, though, I think the system of government devised by the founders is better than any of the alternatives so far attempted in other countries. I suppose this makes me old-fashioned. I just think it’s the best chance we’ve got, and I see many of the problems posed by an imperialist, corporate, authoritarian America as a turning away from the American tradition, a regression, if you will, to older monarchic and despotic ways of thinking. There is no mention of Wall Street in our Constitution, or of a two-party system. The equation of the United States with such things is a convenient myth for the powerful. As an American progressive, I embrace love of country, and love of our Constitution as a living document capable of growth and adaptation. I accept this framework as what we have to work with, and I look with suspicion on those who claim to support it while undermining it with their actions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Church of Conformity

In the lobby during the intermission at classical music concerts, I almost never overhear conversations about the music or the performance. Indeed, observing such audiences mummified in their evening dress, with their vacant stares, suggests a certain shallowness of middle class interest in culture. The concert is more of an occasion to dress up and be seen, a sort of of class ritual. This isn’t very fruitful an insight, except that I immediately drew a parallel with going to church.

I like to think that I’m far from alone in remembering feelings of oppression and bewilderment when I was made to go to church as a kid. Five days of the week I was forced to sit at a desk in a school, enduring a great deal of boredom for the sake of very little actual learning. The weekend should have been a break, but on Sunday mornings I was dressed up in a suit and tie (hot and uncomfortable) and taken to church. “Sunday school” was not school in any meaningful sense. The little we were “taught” made no sense; mostly we were just baby-sat. As for church itself, if anyone remembers sitting on wooden pews, standing and singing horrid and incomprehensible songs, and listening to the pretentious babbling of a bore in a black gown as a pleasurable experience, I would like to meet him.

I always assumed that the church experience was meant to signify religious truth in some way. Being a precocious child, I set to work reading the Bible, and although I was often confused and disturbed—especially by the Old Testament—I sensed the titanic nature of the text, the assumption of overwhelming importance and gravity in almost every line. Subconsciously I felt a great distance between the goings-on in church and the world view of the holy book. Sunday service was quite patently mediocre and petty, even to a young mind, whereas the Bible had a huge, looming, dramatic presence that quite dwarfed anything ever said or sung in church.

Only much later in life did I see, in a way that the analogy with the classical music concertgoer makes vivid, that church was not experienced as significant in religious terms, but as a social event with a purely social meaning. Going to church meant that you were an upstanding, normal member of society. It signified one’s status as a conforming member of an acceptable group. It also reassured parents that their kids would continue in the path of normality. The “values” assumed under the rubric of religion were primarily general cultural values, such as obedience to authority, sexual restraint, and (to some degree) helping behavior. They were only religious in the most abstract sense. And to continue the analogy with the concertgoers, I never heard parishioners discussing religion on the steps after service. I got the feeling that it would have been considered embarrassing to do so.

I’m sure there were, and are, exceptions, but I think the exceptions prove the rule. My experience was with mainstream Protestantism. I didn’t notice much difference when I talked to my Catholic friends. I’m not sure how different it might be in the Jewish traditions. I suspect that it’s fairly universal, though, simply because the true religious impulse is not a common one. The idea that it could become common, that devotion to God, spiritual fervor of one sort or another, could become the status quo, has proven illusory. Most people just want to live their lives in reasonable comfort without bothering about the “big questions.” This has always been acknowledged at some level—in the ancient pagan traditions there were regular worshippers and initiates; in the Catholic Church the monastic orders were set apart from the laity, and so on. It’s only that the gradual advance of reason and science has made the forms of organized religions seem increasingly irrelevant to the real needs people have for social cohesion.

Fundamentalist Christianity was in many respects a “non-conformist” movement in the sense that it decried the lack of passion in the church, the lack of religious meaning in the church service. The fundamentalists brought enthusiasm back into the service for white Christians. (The black church is an entirely different matter—social and political conditions channeled spiritual passion there.) The Pentecostals and their like defied the upper middle class decorum of the mainstream churches, and in that respect seem like more of a lower middle class or sometimes even a working class phenomenon. On closer inspection, however, we find that fundamentalists are still wedded to a vision of social conformity, and that their religious doctrines follow from that vision rather than the other way around. There is a sense of great anxiety about liberal social change. The intense anger around feminism, abortion, and gay rights, for instance, is not centered on religious passion, although they think it is. The Bible has simply become the authority figure which absolves the worshiper of reason and responsibility—the written “word of God,” because it is does not require anything except obedience, is a handy tool for conformity to the social norm. For all their sound and fury, the fundamentalists do not mark a significant change in church culture. All they did was give it a sharpened political edge that isolated church members within their group through a shared sense of threat from secular forces outside. But when it comes to secularism, they pick and choose what to accept and reject—embracing the social Darwinism of predatory capital while fighting against scientific Darwinism because it threatens the centrality of man in the cosmic narrative.

I believe that all the stages of culture are present in any current stage. Children will always be pagans, and it is folly to bind them in suits and take them to church, and nothing less than cruel to deny them fairy tales, Halloween, and Harry Potter. For adults, however, I think that the church experience is becoming useless at best and harmful at worst. I have no idea what more healthy forms of social cohesion are going to look like, except that they will have to foster and reflect a more humane social order.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Immortal Soul

It was raining as I ran along the silent road. When I came to the crossing place I saw them. My mind spun, my body convulsed. Those piles of bloated flesh, reeking with stench, used to be my mother, my father, my brother. All the refugees had been lined up on the embankment and shot. The immortal soul.

You will never understand. You may turn away, or you may ask questions. You may be silent, or you may cry out. But you will never understand. We, the survivors, are now forever separate from you.

Whoever says the words “noble cause,” “brave men and women,” “honor,” “glory,” “victory,” or “not in vain,” you are lying to me. You who are standing in church with your hand on your heart, praising the lord of war, you are a gravedigger. Empty stone sanctuary, religion of the vultures and crows, you have nothing. Your holy whispers are useless and end in agony.

Because we survived this time, we think it’s all a story. My mother, father, brother, they say nothing. The survivors tell stories. We fools, we ragged jesters. We too are bloated, stench-filled piles. The immortal soul.

In the name of what, I ask, are living beings turned into things, just trash to be cleared away? Am I to believe that a child, nursed and loved by a mother, raised and taught and treasured for so many days of care, years of priceless cherishing; a living, breathing soul with a universe of feelings, thoughts, dreams, and dances contained in the heart and pulse and in the brilliant eyes; is all for nothing but to be pierced or crushed or suddenly blown to pieces by some stupid bomb? Do you really believe? What is the measure of our indifference? And for what—a piece of earth, a box made of gold? I reject your sacrifice.

I will not cheer your uniforms. I will not salute or wave your flag. Your monuments I will avoid. I turn my back on the parade. I walk away, without looking back, even when you call me. You must cross the gulf of silence between us on your own. I have no more stories to tell you, hopeless immortal souls.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

History Lessons

Of all the subjects taught in elementary and secondary education, history is the most primitive. For when it comes to history, we teach children the pretenses that man has given for his actions as if they were the substance, and for the most part communicate the truth only subliminally.

Beginning with Mesopotamia and Egypt, we follow a wearying succession of states, wars, and empires. The details can of course be entertaining, but the simplicity of the truth is obscured by the many names, dates, and actions. What is an empire, for instance? Why did Alexander bother to go on a rampage from Macedonia through the Middle East all the way to India? Wouldn’t it have been less of a bother to just stay home and enjoy life? The student would get a complex answer to this, I’m sure, but here is my answer: Macedonia saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, so they did. A few centuries before, Persia had seen the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions in Greece, so they tried and failed.

The point is: it’s stealing.

Stealing is taking what you want by force. Applying this principle to political science in general, we see that states and kingdoms were based on groups of people forcing other groups of people to do what they want. Sometimes what they wanted was good, relatively speaking—a more peaceful and organized state rather than a chaotic warlord-type state, for example. The principle I’m laying out is more fundamental than whatever good or bad results you might get. It’s simply the principle of force. As the last line of defense, so to speak, in the social order, after persuasion, indoctrination, promises and agreements have failed, there is just force. We will force you to do what you don’t want to, or punish you by force for doing what we don’t want you to do.

Children understand this at a deep level, but it’s seldom spelled out so clearly. The parent will impose his or her will on the child through physical restraint or the infliction of pain. The parent also teaches morality of some kind, ideals and principles of good behavior. But when push comes to shove (how revealing is that phrase?) the child will be forced to comply with the parent.

However (and there are thousands of years of history contained in this “however”), the wills and desires of human beings are various, and with will and desire comes a sense of freedom and justice. I’m referring to the simplest kinds of feelings, not the great ideals fashioned later from these words. Freedom is the basic pleasure of action, of following my desire and perhaps attaining it. Justice is the sense that my freedom is respected and that my will is recognized by others. When someone else—who has will and desire as well, but also more power than I, more access to force—when someone else makes me do something against my will, or prevents me from doing something I want to do, it is experienced as the opposite of free or just. When someone takes something away from me by force, it is felt acutely as unjust, and this is perhaps the most basic experience of injustice there is.

The dilemma of humanity in the development of civilization becomes this: How can we have an organized society without bondage and injustice? This is often modified to mean: with a minimum of bondage and injustice. In a nutshell, the principle of force seems to contradict our humanity in essential ways.

The dominant school, today and for most of history, claims that force is not a contradiction at all, as long as it works efficiently. From monarchism down to fascism, this strain of thought vigorously persists. The competing schools of thought claim that the principle of force is something to be overcome, or at least reined in, so that higher principles (freedom, justice, love) can prevail in society.

What I find interesting is that even from the authoritarian point of view, force tends to be disguised in idealistic terms. Honor, glory, and fame have been the trappings of force since Homer, and they are still worn today. Heroism, bravery, courage—these describe the incredible risks of life and limb taken by those fighting in the cause of theft. In the modern age, the words are borrowed from the non-authoritarian traditions: we fight for freedom, democracy, human rights, peace. The old words have lost something of their power because of the memory of mass murders that boggled our minds, such as in the Holocaust. So these newer idealistic words need to be brought in for service. Our troops are fighting for our freedoms, right? If you say they’re fighting for oil, that’s considered an affront to the soldiers.

When a nation fights in its own defense, then the war is considered “just,” and rightly so from that relative point of view. World War II is considered a “good” war by Americans, because we were fighting against those who sought to enslave us. But if we are not to be entangled in our own rhetoric, we must acknowledge the big picture: World War II was started the old-fashioned way: a group of people (Germany, Japan) saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, and they went ahead and did it. Notice, however, that the Germans clothed their murder and theft with idealistic words: purity, fatherland, destiny, and so forth.

The contradiction therefore remains, as evidenced by the need for those wielding power to disguise the naked character of force with ideas of a more exalted nature. So the child reading an American history book, at least in my day (there have been modifications since then), learns that Europeans “discovered” America, explored it, and colonized it. The English colonists eventually broke away from their mother country because they wanted political freedom. They owned black slaves in America, and eventually there was a Civil War in the United States that freed them. The implications of this history can only be sensed subliminally by the student, for the most part—a student with a critical and inquiring mind (a rarity) will intuit the meaning in the gaps of light darting between the obfuscating mists of the textbook.

My 7th grade history teacher made an effort to head such inquiries off at the pass—he told us that Africans were actually much better off in America than they had been in their miserable grass huts in Africa. There is a need on the part of the social order to turn history into a narrative in which everything is “ok,” at least in terms of “our” country, whatever that may be. Sure, there was slavery, but it was better than slavery in Brazil, and eventually it worked out and justice prevailed. This imperative of the social order manifests as a political pathology in which nothing can be “wrong” about one’s country. The authoritarian is invested in his country as “great”—better than other countries. The reality of power is minimized in order to instill pride. If you point out injustice in history, you’re being unpatriotic and denigrating the country.

A history book written from the sole point of view of force might be a very short one. A summary would perhaps be something like this: When people formed into cities and nations, they created structures by which groups of people forced the rest of people to do things the way they wanted them done. The more power was amassed by these groups of people, the more they needed in order to sustain power. So they organized more efficient ways of theft—mass killings and thefts known as wars. Some people got so good at this that they gained power over huge areas known as empires. The Romans developed methods of warfare that allowed them to steal on an unprecedented scale, and their empire lasted for many centuries. Other societies followed the same pattern, to a greater or lesser degree.

When the countries of Europe had developed their technology to a certain point, they discovered the existence of other countries in parts of the world of which they had previously been unaware. They saw the opportunity for stealing vast areas of land, and huge possessions, and therefore went ahead and invaded these countries. In order to develop these stolen lands more quickly and to greater profit, they enslaved millions of people from Africa and forced them to work on the stolen lands. A few centuries later, they went into Asia and Africa and stole every bit of land they could, dividing these places up between themselves so they could steal more efficiently.

Eventually the competition between the various thieving European countries proved to be so intense that they could no longer cooperate at all, and they got to killing and stealing from each other on a mass scale, which was known as the Great War. This didn’t really resolve the issue, so a few decades later there was another killing and stealing spree that was even more terrible than the first. This time Japan had caught the fever, and made a bid for big thief status along with Europe. Luckily the more humane countries ended up winning the Second World War, but by this time the people in the stolen countries had organized and decided to reclaim their lands and possessions. Gradually they succeeded, although there was a lot of thieving and bloodletting in the process. When the dust settled from World War II, the two countries with the most power left entered into a contest to see who would survive, and they used smaller wars to try to attain this. Technology had advanced to the point where the weapons could quickly destroy everybody in the world, so that made world wars much less desirable for stealing. Eventually the United States emerged as the most powerful thief in the world. Since that time, they have been struggling to consolidate and expand their stolen goods by maintaining a higher level of force than any other country.

This overview of the history of empires is of course very general. One must keep in mind that all the people everywhere, not just in Europe, experienced periodic instances of killing and stealing in order to maintain and expand power and possession. Moreover, by focusing on wars and conquests, it is easy to lose perspective on humanity as a whole. While all this was going on, people were also maintaining families and communities, enjoying themselves, creating culture, sharing ideas, and so forth. It’s just that the farther away from the individual we stand as an historian, the more we consider the actions of humanity en masse, the more important mass killing and theft becomes—the more evident, that is, becomes the principle of force.

Most people would be horrified by such a history book. I would imagine that a teacher who instructed students in this way would be hounded out of his or her job by enraged parents and politicians. There is an investment in hiding the principle of force. Such things as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” would be much more difficult to implement if a majority of people were to see through the language of empire. The entire narrative of military honor, honoring of troops, memorializing the war dead with parades and speeches, the very logic of war as an answer to our problems, would be terribly weakened if the curtain were lifted from empire.

In that case we would be faced once again with the question of how force can be reconciled with freedom and justice. We could at least consider this question together with a certain degree of clarity. Who knows what answers we would come up with? At least we would be asking the question again, the question with which philosophy, religion, political science, ethics, and art have grappled for thousands of years. But first we must acknowledge that such a question exists, and to do that we must clear our minds of attractive and comforting lies.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 3)

Most Christian philosophers in the centuries before Protestantism believed that faith was in accord with reason. Since God created reason, it was an offense to God’s wisdom to maintain that the truth contradicted logic. If we turn to that exemplar of scholastic theology Thomas Aquinas, for instance, we witness a rigorous definition of God that is almost wholly consistent with the process of Aristotelian reasoning. The logic and structure of Aquinas’ thought in this regard is impeccable. Drawing on Aristotle’s proof of the “unmoved mover,” Aquinas explains God as the absolute reality itself. And despite the traditional attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, this God of Aquinas is primarily conceivable in negative terms: without limit or condition of any kind, either in terms of time and space or the conditional abstractions of thought.

In doing so, Aquinas ends up with a God that, for all intents and purposes, is identical to what I call “reality itself,” the context of all conditions being unconditioned. Language and tradition still implied an entity or “Supreme Being” as the moderns came to call it, but it’s doubtful how seriously such an implication should be taken in Aristotelian terms, since such a “being” necessarily involves conditions. What is more glaringly obvious, however, is that language and tradition involved the use of the personal pronoun “He” and all that implies, with its historical background in the Bible, including the Lord of the Old Testament, the Father of the New Testament, and every other personal formulation in the Christian faith. Aquinas never pointed out the metaphorical nature of such language. We can only assume, based on the iron-clad nature of his logic, that he was aware of it, but there is no actual evidence of this. It would be impossible to point such a thing out at the time, because challenging the literal truth of the personal God would be dangerous, possibly heretical. As a man who was thoroughly at home in the culture of the Church, Aquinas would probably not be aware of a contradiction. The distinction between the truth of reason and the truth of revelation was a convenient boundary protecting the philosopher from questions regarding the role of metaphor in religion.

In any case, it doesn’t take a genius to notice, now that science and the secular have created some breathing room for our capacity to reason, that the god of the philosophers, the Godhead, Being itself, this ultimate principle, if you will, of reality, is not at all the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is in all respects a personality, with desires and moods and specific plans for specific nations and people. A better case could be made for the Father of the New Testament, who at least takes a more symbolic role in the theological drama, but then we have the very human figure of Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be God incarnate in the form of man or begotten Son. We not only have the tension between an impersonal and personal conception of God, as the 19th century Indian guru Ramakrishna liked to talk about, but a tension between God as absolute truth and God as a very specific personality. The personal Christian God is involved in history, like an actor performing an essential part in a cosmic play. And in this God’s relationship to his worshipers, a huge variety of human interactions and feelings are reflected.

Spinoza was one of the first to point out the difference between the mythical, cultural God of scripture, and the actual God, which he considered to be the same as Nature. Pascal, his contemporary, famously chose to have faith in the Biblical God rather than the philosopher’s God. By any rational measure, he was wrong, but it’s important to understand why such a great intellect would make such a choice. It is because the personal God allows the human as such, which includes the entire range of thought, emotion, and action, especially including love, to be experienced as cosmically valid, as real, significant, and meaningful. The God of the philosophers swallows the human up, along with everything else, in infinity.

I have taken this brief stroll through the struggles of western philosophy and Christianity in order to arrive at a central point. The creation of the God “out there” who watches us, the personal deity embraced by the theist in alternations of love and fear, is a product of a primeval form of alienation. The helpless subject confronted by the all-powerful and enduring objective world lies at the core of human duality. I argue that it is identical in origin to the idea of the soul trembling before the possible annihilation of death. When subjectivity recognizes that it is already not separate, when the absolute it seeks is realized to be already that which has been seeking, there is no more contradiction. The impersonal and the personal are the same. The “I and Thou” of the encounter is still present as a form of spiritual practice. At the same time, however, the entire superstructure of “literal” truth, with all its mythological baggage, is revealed as poetry. This is the point at which we will have to part ways with the orthodox of all stripes, because the insistence on “belief” is now meaningless to us, but still has an overriding significance to those who cling to the power principle and all the repressions of the social order.

Those of us who find that we are unable or unwilling to use the word “God,” or to employ theistic language in our spirituality, and I count myself among that group, need have no compunction about dropping personal deities from our practice and our daily lives. There is so much cultural pressure in the West around the “God” complex that it has become very difficult to separate oppressive structures and notions from our use of that kind of language. For one thing, there is a constant affirmation of male power with practically no corresponding affirmation of female power. In addition, associations from childhood or from abusive and addictive religious beliefs and practices can even block one’s ability to access an “I-Thou” form of encounter.

Buddhism is the one example of a world religion that did away with most theistic forms of thought, along with reliance on beliefs based on “being” of one sort or another. It is, however, a tradition with its own history, cultural associations, and problems. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a part of any religious organization or group in order to have a spiritual life. At the same time, I have learned from all the traditions, including the ancient and so-called “pagan” ones, insights and practices that are beneficial. Ultimately none of it matters unless I make the initial connection between “self,” subjectivity, consciousness, and what I call the unconditioned nature of reality. It is the “in here” and “out there” that constitutes the binding illusion, and it is felt as fear and denial of death. If the Divine is something separate from me, then that separation might as well be an infinite distance. “Something” with which I have no direct contact cannot have a real effect on me outside of the vagaries of abstract thought. When those vagaries are seen for what they are, one may choose to pick up one form of traditional metaphor or another, or let go of them all. It doesn’t matter. For the knower, for what we somewhat inaccurately call the “mystic,” the experience becomes radically simple, and the language with which it is expressed is often simple as well: love, consciousness, ecstasy, compassion, service, surrender, celebration.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Humanism For Dummies

Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, was paid $193 million last year. If we go down the list of highest-paid executives a little, just for perspective, we see that no. 14, Steven A. Burd of Safeway, took home $67 million in a single year. On the list of richest Americans, choosing at random, we discover that Orange County developer Donald Bren, number 20, has a net worth of $12 billion. We also notice that positions 4 through 7 are occupied by members of the Walton family, those folks that gave us Wal-Mart, with a combined net worth of about $93 billion.

My initial reaction, my mental reflex, if you will, is “How unfair.” But if I stop and pay closer attention, a more interesting thought—a question, really—emerges: “What in the world could any one person do with that much money?”

Even allowing for the most fantastically excessive luxury—multiple homes, cars, and so forth—there is a limit to how much one can enjoy materially. I wonder, then, if the rest is simply saved for the perpetual comfort of the family—an inheritance to one’s descendants that will last for generations. But the huge amount of capital involved is grossly out of proportion to any such planned security, and the wealth still exceeds human desires even when divided up among progeny.

The real reason is simple, although it opens up wide avenues for thought. Wealth is not merely a means for possessing material things, but the means to power. And I’m not talking about personal power, the power of an individual to control his conditions. Nor am I referring to political power in the narrow sense, even though many rich people, such as Michael Bloomberg (no. 8 on the net worth list at $20 billion), choose that form of enjoyment. To be sure, people like the Waltons have only the most limited kind of private interest in mind when they act, but I maintain that they truly operate on a principle that is unconscious, and does not need to be conscious in order to be effective: power as the interest of their class. It matters little whether or not someone is born into a class, or in the case of the so-called self-made man, works his way “up” to it. The class system works according to its own laws because it is a principle of social organization that determines action, economic or otherwise, regardless of our intent.

Recently, for instance, we have seen the phrase “spreading the wealth” used negatively to characterize proposals to increase taxes on the rich in order to repair the economy. One could make a reasonable argument that a more even distribution of wealth would be good for business—consumers would have more income, and would therefore be able to spend more money on goods and services, which makes more money for corporations, therefore achieving greater stability in the system. The rich will still, for the most part, oppose such ideas, not only because the logic of “the market” always presupposes maximum short-term profit as the greater good, but because greater economic equality is a threat to class itself as a determining factor in society. When we internalize class as “the way things are,” anything that makes the class system more fluid threatens our sense of stability. The irony of “individualism” as preached by American conservatives is that it subordinates the diversity of individual goals to the blind mass of economic determinism. Power supports the stability and authority of the system. It does not support “freedom,” despite all the lip service paid to it. Individual freedoms are maintained only by the constant vigilance and effort of individuals who are aware of and find value in other principles besides power.

In the section of Capital entitled “The Working Day,” Marx enumerated the suffering, destitution, and death experienced by workers under industrial capitalism. The entire chapter has a tone of outrage and indignation, strikingly different from the analytical tone of most of the rest of the book. Yet Marx never bothered to explain why we should be indignant. He fashioned an ideology of “historical materialism” that ended up rejecting humanist values as impotent bourgeois sentiment and mysticism. Since economic conditions determine value, human beings are inevitably a means towards the achievement of economic ends—in Marx’s case, communism—and there is no explicit reason to be indignant about the historical process as it works out. Consequently, those countries that have attempted to use Marxism as an alternative social structure have merely created a different form of the class system. It never seemed to have occurred to Marx, for instance, that the party itself, and its military and police power, could constitute a ruling class, but we witnessed just that result in Russia and China. Without even the “bourgeois” notion of individual freedom to stand in the way of “progress,” the Marx-inspired governments committed murders and cruelties on a mass scale, while mouthing grotesque slogans of victory for the “people.”

This line of thought may seem like a diversion, but I have briefly discussed Marxism as way to make a larger point. Economics are only one aspect of the human as such. As the power principle that determines social organization, it is a failure. With money as the center of human striving, the reality of existing individuals becomes a mere means towards the maintenance of power. The reason we are indignant about poverty, hunger, and all their attendant sufferings, is not because of mysticism or “bourgeois” illusions. It is because human life as it is actually lived and experienced is in itself the only true end, encompassing all realms of emotion, relationship, affection, intellect, and enjoyment. Our environment, especially including the food that sustains us, is a gift from nature that belongs to us by right and not by the prerogatives of avarice, competition, or war. The same holds true for shelter and physical health, which are the inherent responsibilities of a human community. The subjective values of freedom of thought and movement, of self-determination and psychic well-being, also spring from a need inherent in human nature as such. Law is necessary to maintain the stability of care, respect, and nurturance as assumed values. Law became arbitrary and oppressive because power became the primary principle of society rather than a means towards these ends. In the end, the class system expresses an undeveloped animal instinct that has never matured into a truly human form of social organization. The perennial struggle for a just society is a gigantic attempt to evolve from a pre-human way of life.

I call my point of view, for lack of a better term, humanism. The daunting challenge posed by humanism is that it exists primarily as an aspiration in the hearts of men and women, and finds only fitful expression in religion, the arts, and other forms of culture, all of which have been infected at the same time with inhuman forms based on the power principle. Because the entire record of history is almost exclusively that of class, the humanist is always in a position of uncertainty, of a striving towards the unknown which is often only dimly seen. With dreams of utopia come the dangers of ideology—once again, we build a prison when we imagine ourselves as means towards an ultimate social end. The futility of the utopian enterprise leads the humanist, in the modern age, the age of arrogance, to the refuge of anarchism.

Anarchism has of course, been turned into just another scare word, a threat of social dissolution. But what is extremely valuable in anarchist thought is that it rejects the economic definition of the human being. An anarchist consciously maintains a subjective independence from class as a value. An important consequence of this is an affirmation of ourselves as we are now, in the present, as inherently valuable and important. As a leftist, I have often experienced a great weariness in the midst of a constant struggle towards social justice and equality—in the face of agonizingly slow progress in the long term and constant defeat in the short, leftists can become grim, humorless, and bitter. We often become obsessed with the “enemy,” consumed with anger at the opponents of freedom. It is easy to see how we can become that which we hate, daydreaming about trials and firing squads and the settling of accounts. I have heard progressives say that we should waterboard Dick Cheney, architect of the recent American torture policy, and they are not aware of a contradiction when they say it.

The anarchist rejects this joyless march to the future in favor of an affirmation of the possibilities of freedom, love, and enjoyment in the present. This does not preclude social action; rather, it grounds such action in a conscious awareness of human value and well-being as existing realities that can find expression today.

Another essential aspect of the anarchist view is the rejection of work as a dominant value. The class system assumes that two-thirds of our life should be spent working. What are we doing and creating that is so valuable that it takes up most of our time? We’re just oiling the machine so it will keep running. A majority of the labor is deadening to our faculties and devoid of pleasure. The class system creates a chimera of “prosperity,” an illusory wealth that goes largely unenjoyed. Anarchism takes a stance outside of work; posits work as a minor aspect of life that in any case should be a means towards actual well-being in the present.

The modern humanist, then, must take a radical position in order to validate the human as such. This is not an arbitrary choice—we either value ourselves as we are, or we don’t, and the affirmative choice is one of necessity if we are to be both aware and happy in our awareness. The bad news is that justice and equality cannot be imposed from “above” by rearranging power relations according to theory, although progress within the system in order to relieve suffering and provide a kind of “breathing room” is generally to the good.

The good news is that at least we know where the solution lies—within ourselves. We must understand, however, that “ourselves” does not refer to a mass of atomized individuals, but to the only reality that matters, and consequently the only value worth having.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


A downtown street on a windy morning, paper and other trash blowing in fits and starts across the intersection. Red weathered skin and dull eyes, a haunted man wrapped in stale cast-offs. Can you spare a quarter? Here you go. God bless you sir.

God bless pockets of clinking change. If I could recreate the scope and wide-angle visions of this walking life in words, I’d plunk it down into your skull right away, with appropriate chants and prayers. All elusive, though, a passing thought and I go on, we go on, crossing the street when the light changes.

What would Walt Whitman do if he could see America now? Would he clutch his head in agony and bellow like some poor tortured animal? I sing the god epileptic. The dreaming masses squirming to eat free. Out of business sale, everything half off.

There was a day when, out of fear and no wonder, I gave in and bought a ticket for the home town fair. Mom and Dad woke me up at three in the morning, light on suddenly, shouting in tandem. We overheard that phone call, we read your diary, we know what you’re doing. You are taking drugs, don’t lie about it. We cannot allow it.

Mean facial contortions and vicious yelling I omit here for sake of retrospective justification. Volenti non fit injuria. Hey, it’s okay, don’t worry about me.

From now on you will come directly home from school. You are not allowed to see any of your friends. They are not your friends. Real friends would not give you drugs.

Au contraire, mon pere. I would define my friends precisely as those who give me drugs. I speak to you from the future, from the realms of dialectic.

Waiting for the bus, surrounded by youthful characters smoking and swearing and saying god knows what, I seek no advancement, I ask for no difference in my condition. Freedom comes the long way, roundabout the mountainous landfill and under the arching forest of clotheslines—tramp tramp tramp, the tramps are marching. Without fear, finally, I can breathe the fetid atmosphere. Oh see can you say why the spawn’s yearly flight while so loudly he wailed despite all their scheming. America, show us your hairy ass. Let loose, I pray, a thunderous fart to astound and dismay the cowering world.

So then, that day, when all I could muster was hysterical pipsqueak bargaining—let me keep my long hair, damn it, and I promise to see a shrink—there was another way before me. Two roads diverged in the yellow fucking wood—one of them rutted washboard, the other with a school crossing sign. And I followed the one with the trail of crackerjacks, back from the witch’s house, you know, never mind that you left us out here, father, in the first place.

In this other life I ran away, truly, hooking up with the underground teenage bus route. With desperate stealth I blazed a cunning journey west. A new name, an altered visage, concealed in poverty the best disguise. Across the country, fending for scraps, living free on the back roads, a tough street kid, older than his years, I bartered the occasional ass-fuck for a roof and to score the needed dope. Years pass. The family has all but given up. All that’s left is a blistering good-bye note of undying hate. No, not really, it’s better without a note. There are no reasons.

The pain in the story is incident to the joy of revenge. They thought they could murder me, but I was stronger. Oh vagabond loner in a torn leather jacket, you decided your own fate. I salute you. Later you became—what? The notorious artist, voice of an outcast generation. There he is, at the table in the corner. You can glimpse him through the smoke. Cool but not aloof. If there is one man in this city who can help you, it is he, forcing his heart and nerve and sinew and so on. And which is more, you’ll be a man, my son. Pass the whiskey.

The reality, I know, is in the sick and dirty morning, my bones on the sidewalk, waking to find the next fix and avoid the next cop. Shivering as my teeth fall out, I crawl to the gutter and heave. Dead dog for dinner again. With vermin.

To live it is not the same as to dream it. The mewling pupa curls into a ball. If you can forgive, good. Even better would be to forget, he said. Daddy, were you playing a lead role in your story? I understand. Whenever I try to forget, I remember again.

I’ve arrived. I know most of the passengers by now—silently we say farewell. The bus drives away and I walk two blessed blocks and a half to home. Three squares, a bed, and someone to call me honey. Shut out the howling winds with song, in stereo. If I could give you all this, the days and times behind me, tramp tramp we march ahead and all for love of course—I would, and no delay. I would give it to you and hold back—nothing.

America, where are you? I’ve left messages. My letters have all been returned. I filled out a missing country report, but the police have no leads. Are you cold and hungry? I don’t expect you to come back. Just let me know you’re okay, and I promise not to bother you again. Your mother is inconsolable.

Dear dad, I’m off to the wars. Don’t worry. I’m doing fine, civilizing the natives. All is forgotten. Can you spare a quarter? God bless you sir.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Left as Straw Man

If you take a look at the history of the “left” in the United States—and I mean really study the reality of it—and then compare that with the notion of the “left” as framed by conservative or “mainstream” discourse in this country, you just have to laugh. It’s a melancholy type of laughter, I suppose, but nonetheless the comparison is funny in a gallows humor type of way.

I am loosely defining the left as those who are in favor of a truly participatory democratic process, and who oppose the domination of government and society by class interests, which has primarily meant capitalist interests but has also included military and police forces considered as classes. Usually this has also involved a belief in justice conceived as human rights, not just in the sense of the three rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but also the rights to adequate food, housing, health, and socioeconomic equality. There is of course plenty of room for differences within this definition of the “left,” but I think this covers it in broad outline.

Separate from this, but sharing occasional points in common, is that segment of political culture known as “liberalism.” Liberalism has always operated within the class system, and assumed as an article of faith that the class system is inevitable, yet has argued that relatively equitable conditions should be maintained for all classes in order for the system to work. So-called conservatism, on the other hand, claims that the government has no business trying to maintain even relatively equitable conditions, and that, in effect, it’s every person for himself, with the wealthy wielding power by right. (In detail, the landscape is always more complex and varied, but this will do for my purposes.)

If you study the history of the United States, then, it is clear that the left has never gained anything close to a major share of power in the political process. There have been isolated figures with small followings, such as Senator LaFollette and the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, but in truth there’s never been a powerful leftist faction in Congress, and certainly never in the White House. The left has been active in grass-roots organizations, in the early labor movement, and in social movements of one sort or another, such as the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the various peace movements over the years. There has been a certain degree of influence on politics, especially as a general cultural force that seeps gradually into the process, which happened for example in the 1970s as a result of the ferment in the previous decade. But in tangible terms, in terms of who holds the real power in the government, the left has always been isolated on the margins.

Liberalism, on the other hand, has held power within the establishment at various times, and with various degrees of influence. The New Deal, for instance, and the social programs instituted in the 1960s and 70s, attempted to foster and maintain more equitable conditions, economically and socially, in America. It’s significant that liberalism has at the same time held to imperialist foreign policy aims. The Vietnam War was begun under liberal administrations, and supported by most liberals. More recently we saw a majority of mainstream liberals in the Congress, including such figures as John Kerry and John Edwards, vote for the invasion of Iraq. Liberalism does not take an anti-militarist stance, not only because it’s politically taboo to do so, but because liberals identify with the class interests that support themselves through foreign intervention and control of foreign markets.

For someone on the left, therefore, as I have defined it, the political experience in this country has been one of constant frustration and failure. Psychologically, a sense of defeat has been a salient feature of progressive consciousness for generations. I have witnessed this personally as an almost fatalistic attitude, a perpetual underdog role, and a constant underlying feeling of anger and despair. One backlash after another has effectively neutralized the labor movement and stymied the progress of the women’s movement, the movements for racial and ethnic equality, and just about every other facet of leftist political struggle. The use of protests and demonstrations, which for a brief moment in the 1960s seemed a potent force, has become practically meaningless due to a strategy of deliberate indifference and marginalization on the part of the establishment. Whatever satisfaction has been experienced in the ranks of progressives has been almost solely the satisfaction of solidarity with those of like mind and purpose, with actual achievements being sorely limited in scope and effect. Being on the left in this country has been, in terms of real power and influence on events, to be a loser.

Now if we turn from the historical reality of the American left and look at the narratives that have been, and continue to be, presented within the mainstream of public discourse as describing the left, you see a grotesque distortion, a set of assumptions and beliefs divorced from reality yet dominating the political landscape. It is the “right,” the so-called conservative movement, that has written and honed this narrative so that it is now largely accepted without challenge within the establishment and its expression in corporate media.

First of all, the left was lumped together with liberalism as one monolithic entity. Sometimes the distinction is subtly acknowledged by referring to certain politicians as “liberals,” and groups outside the “mainstream,” such as the peace movement, as “left.” Nevertheless, they are essentially treated as synonymous terms. Increasingly over the years, these terms have become interchangeable. In the language of the right, the “left” encompasses everyone from a business-friendly “centrist” such as Bill Clinton all the way over to Noam Chomsky. This is a deliberate strategy. Actual leftists had already been demonized many times over, particularly after World War II, when the right identified them with hostile foreign powers—the Communist bloc—and then persecuted them as threats to the country’s security. McCarthyism was one of the first attempts to connect liberalism with the “anti-American” left in order to gain political advantage and win elections through fear. This strain continued to have a considerable degree of influence on politics, although its more overt varieties—the John Birchers and their ilk—were generally perceived as on the fringes. With the right-wing backlash, first under Nixon and then with the triumph of the hard ideological right under Reagan, the conflation of “left” and “liberal” became more mainstream, until finally the term “liberal” was accepted as a complete negative, an insult. By 1988, the Democratic candidate for President, Michael Dukakis, denied that he was a liberal when asked. He was actually much more conservative than the liberals of the 1960s, but the point is that his campaign considered it political suicide to accept “liberal” as a label.

During the Clinton administration, leftists found themselves in the bizarre situation of seeing the President relentlessly attacked by the right and portrayed as a dangerous leftist. Self-aware progressives knew, on the contrary, that Clinton was in almost every respect an enemy to the left. Yes, he was pro-choice, and tried to throw a few crumbs to progressives in his social agenda, but overall he was a staunch NAFTA-backing corporatist, a traditional imperialist in foreign policy, passive on the environment, never challenging the oil interests, and aiding the erosion of the Bill of Rights in his anti-terrorism policies. It was his administration that helped spearhead the deregulation of the banking industry. He was also fond of trying to out-conservative the conservatives in an attempt to win votes from their base—the regressive “end of welfare” policy being just one example. Meanwhile, less politically aware citizens who tended to be more liberal, at least on social and economic issues, bought into the idea of Clinton as “one of them” because the right-wing fought him as if he were in fact a liberal. The progressive movement was left out to dry.

I go into such detail on this period because it is crucial in understanding how the right-wing narrative about the left and liberalism succeeded. It was to the advantage of the liberal establishment to abandon traditional liberalism in order to shore up the support of the upper class, and replace it with a sort of “conservatism lite,”—giving lip service to the notion of equality while relying on corporate power to keep the campaign money flowing. Greed had made liberalism in the traditional sense unfeasible for the political leadership. The old idea was that the system worked better when the government tried to foster more equitable conditions for the people. The right harassed that notion into the margins, and the Democratic Party for the most part abandoned it, in order, they thought, to hang on to a share of power.

The trouble was, that since the right had found a winning political formula, they weren’t about to be co-opted by Clintonesque “triangulation” strategies. Conservatives heated up the rhetoric even more, and after the September 11th attacks, the paradigm of the liberal as dangerous leftist traitor was established as official White House doctrine under Bush Jr. It didn’t matter that most Democrats had stopped calling themselves liberals. The right simply made the word “Democrat” synonymous with “liberal” just as they had done with “liberal” and “leftist.”

A very significant development of the last thirty years was the right’s identification of the media as “liberal.” The “mainstream” media has always been thoroughly establishment, which should be obvious since it is corporate-owned. It’s just that the establishment was not yet thoroughly right-wing. By hounding the media with accusations of “liberal bias,” the right was able to frame themselves as something of an oppressed political minority, with the media as part of a liberal elite opposing the will of “the people.” In response, the media shifted gradually rightward, until conservative dominance of the public discourse was effectively achieved. The “liberal media” became a famous catchword, and the right still clings to it strategically even though it is a patently false description. By continuing to demonize the media, the right can maintain its fictitious identity as a movement outside the establishment, fighting the power of the government with populist anger.

The absurd result, from the point of view of progressives, is that “the left” is treated in the right-wing narrative as a powerful establishment force, even a force of tyranny opposing the will of the citizenry. Rightist demagogues persistently frame themselves as oppressed by a powerful left-wing movement. But the truth is quite the opposite, as you may recall. The actual left in the United States has been isolated to the margins of power for generations. This fact has not changed to any significant degree. Liberalism, on the other hand, has shown faint signs of life within the establishment, simply because the effort to co-opt conservative Republican strategies has failed, and Democrats have been forced in some degree to attempt a more spirited opposition. Nevertheless, Obama still represents a segment of “centrist” political strategy—still supporting the imperialist enterprise, still beholden to Wall Street, still taking an ameliorist approach to social issues. Leftists are in a similar situation as in the Clinton years—howling outside the gates of power, while many of them reluctantly support the President because the right-wing alternative is so much worse. Liberalism has always offered more of an opportunity for the left than conservatism—liberalism allows for the awareness of inequality and injustice as social realities, whereas conservatism doesn’t.

The dominant narrative about our political process that we are presented with today is so riddled with confusion and deliberate obfuscation that it takes a concerted effort of attention and awareness to not be fooled. The left in western Europe, for example, takes overtly socialist positions, which are in line with general developments, since socialist institutions have been effective there to some degree. They also have had much more success gaining real power within the political structure of those countries, although the history of their influence is problematic for a variety of reasons. The left in the U.S., on the other hand, has no access to real power, and yet finds itself in the curious position of being demonized as if it were extremely powerful, while at the same time being confused with an establishment liberalism that won’t challenge corporate or military power. If you hear the term “left” or “leftist” on TV in this country, it has no relation to any actual conditions on the ground. These terms are nothing but straw men set up by dominant conservative forces in order to characterize all their opponents as dangerous and beyond the pale. This extends across the spectrum of policy. In foreign affairs, for instance, it would be virtually impossible to discern from the American public discourse that Muslim fundamentalism is an essentially right-wing movement. Since the left opposes imperialist foreign policy, and that includes the so-called “War on Terror” and the Iraq war, the right simply identifies the left (and therefore liberalism, and therefore Democrats) with Muslim terrorists, even though the social aims of the left are directly opposed to the conservative, intolerant, anti-feminist, anti-labor aims of Muslim fundamentalism.

Recently the right has been attempting to revise historical realities that have seemed inviolable. The latest outrage is the equation of liberalism with fascism and Hitler. There is seemingly no end to the mendacity of the conservative “message.” Before any meaningful discussion of politics can be had in this country, it is necessary, unfortunately, to dispel the fog of rightist rhetoric that surrounds our public conversation. This requires continual alertness, and the work involved in simply dispelling incorrect assumptions might seem like an enormous waste of time. But that was the right-wing strategy, and they have proven adept at it, so that is where a great deal of the battle needs to be fought. The one saving grace, perhaps, is that the lies and distortions become, as if impelled by a natural law, increasingly extreme over time. If you even compare the sort of things said nowadays with what the right could get away with during the Reagan years, you will notice a very sharp increase in the extremist tone. As a result, we are finally seeing the rhetoric becoming too outlandish for a majority of the voting populace, and consequently the first signs of the right painting themselves into a corner where they could become marginalized themselves. The more they sense themselves losing, however, the more desperate and hysterical they become, so that what could be a tipping point for the country in a progressive direction has also the potential for unpredictably dangerous developments. The role of the left will be to oppose right-wing extremist rhetoric at every opportunity while at the same time pressuring the establishment to challenge its investment in a failing class system. The task is not easy.