Monday, January 26, 2009

Between the Lines

The U.S. was "suspected" of two missile strikes in Pakistan on Friday. "Suspected" only because the Pentagon never publicly acknowledges such things, but of course, who else would have launched a missile strike?

The American empire flexing its muscles in the Middle East never makes me feel any safer, regardless of whether the dead in this case are innocent civilians or (as is claimed) "suspected militants."

In the world of realpolitik, one always needs to read between the lines. Tom Hayden offers an interesting take in his Obama Notes:

"The night after Obama's torture order, I was at dinner with a human rights lawyer who worried that the right-wing would launch political attacks on Obama for "letting our guard down." With that in mind, I became certain that the following day's Predator attack in Pakistan, which killed at least 10-18 people, was as much political as military, a message that the Pentagon will keep on launching strikes against a sovereign country in keeping with "war on terrorism" objectives. The cold truth may be that those people died in Pakistan to make closing Guantanamo more politically palatable. Many more will die as America tries to exorcise and replace the war on terror mentality.

"Obama has good reason to worry about counter-pressures from the right and the intelligence community. One day after the executive order banning torture was signed, an odd article appeared on the New York Times' front page about a former detainee who has joined al Qaeda in Yemen. There was no apparent reason for the article's timing except the Obama announcement. The detainee in question was released by President Bush, and is suspected of involvement in car bombings in September 2007."

It would seem that a President advocating change needs to cover his back at all times, prone as he is to constant harassment from the militarists and their right-wing enablers in and out of government. When, for instance, a seemingly coincidental article in the NYT such as that cited by Hayden appears, you must assume a deliberate strategy on the part of some faction. This is what it's been like for a long time--the real maneuvering is secret, far from the phony narratives concocted to explain events to a passive TV audience. It's to be expected that the domination of politics by elites will take on a conspiratorial character, although not the neat and monolithic type as dreamed by believers in Illuminati and such. There are power struggles within the establishment, within the ruling class if you will, and that is the real story occurring behind the curtain of public events and pronouncements.

The struggle against the notion of American empire will continue to be the primary field of struggle for progressives. It will be long and difficult because we are opposed not only by the Republican right, but by the so-called centrist Democrats, including Obama, who are unwilling (for whatever reasons: self-interest, political expediency, or just fear) to advocate true peace, which would involve shifting away from old notions of hegemony. It will take many years for this gradual shift to occur, but ironically the one factor in our favor is the collapse of the financial system. The sheer cost of military dominance is becoming economically unsustainable.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Final Philippic Against Bush

In the last week we’ve seen Bush give a final press conference and a farewell address. Before that there were some interviews, and in all these appearances Bush has sought to defend his record, his so-called legacy. It’s not enough that he leave office having been despised by close to 80% of Americans and—this is the remarkable thing—been despised by the majority for the greatest continuous length of time of any President in U.S. history. It’s not enough to simply exit quietly to enjoy his wealth and privileges while ordinary Americans sink into an economic morass. Bush must now try to justify himself. During his eight-year reign, he operated primarily in secrecy. Most of his speeches were made at military rallies, before captive audiences who were required to be silent and respectful. Or he would appear at carefully rehearsed events that were prepared by his handlers so that there would be no hard questions. Most of his interviews were granted to toadies, charlatans, and demagogues, such as Sean Hannity and other Fox “news” propagandists. So I find it unseemly, to say the least, to observe Bush trying to appear open and available in the final days of his regime. It is obvious that he was sealed in his bubble long ago, and that there is no possibility of contact with reality.

The “farewell address” (I shudder to use the same phrase to describe this pathetic piece of theater, when it brings to mind Washington’s great speech) was the usual carefully parsed pack of lies, among which was the following: “Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.” Hundreds of thousands of deaths (by conservative estimate!), many hundreds of thousands of more displaced, a country in ruins, and the killing hasn’t stopped, even if Bush succeeded in paying off some of the militias to reduce violence as part of his phony “surge.” That’s what I see. But Bush’s Iraq is apparently populated by unicorns, rainbows and happy furry bunnies liberated by American kindness. There’s no grief for the murdered children, the shattered families, or even the deaths of American soldiers, because after all, they signed up.

The news conference I found more interesting, in a perverse kind of way. Bush on his own, without a prepared speech, is usually a weird experience, and revealing, if you have the stomach for it. Here his body language was sickening in itself—looking down, grimacing like a half-wit, that creepy little snigger that passes for a laugh in his mind, the way he shifted from foot to foot like a very bad boy who’s been caught and is trying to think of a good excuse—Bush is the anti-gravitas. There is no dignity in this man.

So let’s go to the press conference:

“I think Israel has a right to defend herself. Obviously in any of these kinds of situations, I would hope that she would continue to be mindful of innocent folks, and that they help, you know, expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

Israel defending herself seems to mean the same thing as America defending herself in Bush World: smashing everything in sight with overwhelming military power, and to hell with civilians. In other words, Israel’s government is acting just like Bush, so any talk of being “mindful of innocent folks” is nothing but empty words for the public.

“And third, why haven't we achieved peace? That's a good question.”

Since you basically agree with whatever the Israeli government does, no matter what, that gives it carte blanche to do whatever it wants without any consequences. Your unilateralism has been disastrous for the Middle East. Your mindless policy of aggression has made everything much worse than it was in 2001 when you took office. And yet you pretend otherwise, against all the evidence. There hasn’t been a more feeble, or more futile, peace effort in the history of American Middle East policy than yours.

“The most urgent threat that he'll have to deal with, and other Presidents after him [Obama] will have to deal with, is an attack on our homeland.”

Where did you get this “homeland” word? Everyone I know has always said, “my country.” If you look back through all of our history, it always says “country,” not “homeland.” It’s really a German phrase, isn’t it? At first I thought this was some creepy way to instill a kind of proto-fascist thought-process into the citizenry. You know, dying for the fatherland and all that. Recently I realized that “homeland” implies that America owns other lands, foreign lands, like a colonial power. So it’s really a colonialist/imperialist style of terminology. Well, I’m sure you didn’t invent it. As usual, you adopted a way of speaking that you were instructed in.

“This [Republican] party will come back. But the party's message has got to be that different points of view are included in the party.”

That’s odd, because that’s not the way things were in your administration. You demanded absolute loyalty, ideological and otherwise, from the party, and they voted as an almost unanimous block for your policies. It was quite robot-like, really. So this sudden interest in diversity of opinions can’t be taken seriously.

“In terms of the economy, look, I inherited a recession, I am ending on a recession. In the meantime there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth.”

The recession you are “ending on” is many, many times the severity of the situation you supposedly inherited. To compare the mild downturn which actually started in March 2001, when you were already in office, to what we’re going through now, which has already lasted longer than any recession in 25 years and will probably get worse, is nothing short of chicanery. You are a liar.

As for job growth, there were only 3 million jobs created in your two terms, as opposed to 21 million under Clinton. Then we lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008, the most since World War II. Are you blind?

“And so, I view those who get angry and yell and say bad things and, you know, all that kind of stuff, it's just a very few people in the country. I don't know why they get angry. I don't know why they get hostile. It's not the first time, however, in history that people have expressed themselves in sometimes undignified ways. I've been reading, you know, a lot about Abraham Lincoln during my presidency, and there was some pretty harsh discord when it came to the 16th President, just like there's been harsh discord for the 43rd President.”

Arrogant pipsqueak, you dare to compare yourself to Lincoln? You're a mental midget calling yourself a giant.

You know, I never thought of myself as that patriotic, not in the stereotypical way. But since Bush has taken office, I realize how patriotic I am, because I am so angry at the way he has trampled on the Constitution of our country and made a mockery of our traditions. Yes, I am furious, and I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I weren’t outraged by your actions. Just in the last few months your administration has pushed through regulations that allow mining companies to dump waste into rivers and factory farms to allow their animal waste to seep into the reservoirs. You’ve opened up two million more acres of public land in the West, in and around our national monuments, to oil drilling. You’ve removed protections from workers exposed to toxic chemicals. You’ve pushed through regulations that allow providers to deny treatment to people because of religious views. These are only examples from the last few months! Your entire eight years have been filled with nothing but this kind of thing, policies that hurt ordinary people all over this country. Many people are losing their jobs right now because all you cared about was giving more wealth to your rich friends. More will suffer from poverty. Many people have died needlessly because of you. And you wonder why there is anger! What could be more despicable than this willful unconsciousness of the suffering of others caused by your own actions?

“You know, Presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature. I'm the kind of person that, you know, is willing to take on hard tasks, and in times of war people get emotional; I understand that. Never really, you know, spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices. I of course hear them, but they didn't affect my policy, nor did they affect -- affect how I made decisions.”

If you had really made hard, principled decisions we would be seeing some benefit from them. You might not be popular with the majority, but you would have a sizable minority in this country that would understand and agree with what you did. But there’s a difference between hard decisions and wrong decisions. You’ve consistently made the wrong ones, and to say that you’re unpopular because you’re principled is sheer vanity on your part. Do you really believe that over 70% of Americans just don’t understand how high-principled you are? That we’re all so stupid that we turned against you because you made tough decisions? We judge by the results, Bush, we see the havoc you’ve created, and the total failure on all fronts, and we judge by that. If you invade a country, for instance, and then make every wrong decision about how to secure that country, so that the infrastructure collapses and the country dissolves into civil war, while billions of dollars get poured into the toilet, do you think the people aren’t going to judge by those results? Most of the time you didn’t even make decisions, you appointed incompetent ideologues who made bad decisions that you didn’t keep track of. So spare us this idiotic nonsense about “your nature” and how you take on hard tasks. It’s a lie. You’re obviously lazy and inattentive, and the people know that.

“I wasn't kidding when I said Wall Street got drunk and we got the hangover.”

Your entire administration was about handing over our wealth to Wall Street. You outsourced the war to greedy contractors who ripped us off on an unprecedented scale. Yet you talk as if Wall Street was something different than you, something outside of you that you had nothing to do with.

“Clearly putting a Mission Accomplished on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.”

Yeah, you would consider anything that goes wrong with your public relations a mistake. But since you did whatever Karl Rove thought would be politically advantageous, there doesn’t seem to have been anything else going on except public relations. You flew onto that aircraft carrier in your little flight suit, and you thought you were really cool, I bet. Oh look at me, I’m a macho man. And six years later, and many thousands dead and maimed later, the only mistake in your mind was that banner behind you.

“I've thought long and hard about Katrina -- you know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. The problem with that and -- is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission. And then your questions, I suspect, would have been, how could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?”

You seem to think that you’re just an individual with some sort of symbolic power. Don’t you realize that you were the President during Katrina? It is grotesque beyond belief that you would think that the problem with Katrina was you not visiting New Orleans right away. People were stranded there dying, and nobody came to help, you idiot! Five days after the levees broke, and FEMA didn’t even know that there were people at the Superdome screaming for help. You were the head of the executive branch. It was your job to help those people, and you failed miserably. And you continued to fail after that. There has been no commitment to recovery in New Orleans. Most survivors have either scattered to other places or are still living in trailers. You didn’t care, and it’s obvious from your feeble response here that you still don’t care.

“I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake.”

Destroying Social Security was a bad idea no matter when you would have proposed it. But it’s so typical of you that a matter of political timing would be your sole idea of a mistake.

“There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.”

How can you call Abu Ghraib a disappointment? It was a crime, and it was really just the tip of the iceberg concerning the widespread crime of torture, which you approved. Abu Ghraib was merely a result of the policies that you, Cheney, and Rumsfeld approved. And you continue to promote torture to this day. So I guess the disappointment was that the photos of Abu Ghraib were released. If there had been no photos, no publicity, you wouldn’t have been disappointed.

And by the way, words can't express how disturbing it is to have my government using torture and trying to justify it. What is this sick obsession with torture, anyway? Anyone with morals knows it's wrong. If you're not against torture, you're probably a sociopath. Yet those of us who oppose this were said to be anti-American, as if being an American meant having to endorse your sick perversions. I honestly believe you should be in a prison mental ward instead of strutting around the world stage.

Then it’s gruesome that you would say that you were disappointed by “not having weapons of mass destruction.” But it’s very revealing. Of course you wanted to find horrible weapons to justify your unilateral, illegal war. The weapons were of course just a pretext for the invasion, because you wanted to invade even before 9/11, so you used whatever made-up arguments you could, and you twisted the intelligence to fit your desire to invade. And that’s a crime. I remember how you joked about it later at the press dinner--where are those weapons, ha ha--just like you would smirk and laugh when talking about the war, even while people were dying. I've been ashamed to even look at you. It's as if you are the personification of everything soulless and cynical in this world, while pretending to be a paragon of virtue.

“And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States, and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, because all these debates will matter not if there's another attack on the homeland. The question won't be, you know, were you critical of this plan or not; the question is going to be, why didn't you do something?”

How bizarre that you would say you were worried about the Constitution. Yeah, I guess you were worried that the Constitution of our country was something that made us weak, so you sought ways to nullify it, in violation of your oath of office, in which you pledged to protect it. As far as the notion that torture makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, I don’t believe you. Torture never served that end. It never led to any convictions or foiled any threats. The phony examples you’ve given have been debunked over and over, but of course that doesn’t stop you from continuing to lie about it. But in any case, if you don’t think torture is wrong, how can you claim to be moral, or a Christian? Whenever challenged on this, you sputter about how you’re protecting us and our kids as if you were the big daddy and we shouldn’t question you. As if this country, which has survived a civil war and world wars and many trials, needs to crawl under the bed and shiver in fear because of a few terrorists, and then hand our liberties over to some little tin-horn wimp squeaking about the homeland. You impudent, pathetic little man, did you really think that one terrorist attack meant that we had to scrap over two hundred years of our history and become a one-party dictatorship like China? Because that’s the way you acted. To call it hubris would be to dignify it. You are simply and appallingly ignorant of what the United States of America is about. When you talk about freedom I guess you mean the freedom to buy products from big corporations, or maybe the freedom to vote in rigged elections. But freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unlawful search and seizure—you don’t have the slightest inkling of what that is.

“Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here? In press conferences and opinion pieces and in stories -- that sometimes were news stories and sometimes opinion pieces -- people were saying, how come they didn't see it, how come they didn't connect the dots? Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do. When people were hauled up in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, how come you didn't know this, that, or the other? And then we start putting policy in place -- legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, how come you're connecting the dots?”

You were warned that bin Laden was going to attack, and you took a vacation. Not a single person was disciplined or investigated for failing to stop 9/11. Instead they got medals. So why shouldn’t the Congress ask questions, you dolt? That’s what they’re supposed to do, but as I recall, there really weren’t enough questions. And suddenly the Patriot Act is brought out, this huge document produced very quickly—and maybe you call this “connecting the dots”—yet it had little to do with actually preventing terrorism and everything to do with giving unlimited power to the executive and its spy agencies to attack the left, jail people without trial, and generally exploit the crisis for your own advantage. Then you used the NSA to tap Americans phones, without getting a FISA warrant as you were required to do. It’s not as if it would have been hard to get a FISA warrant. You would have easily gotten one. So the implication is clear—you broke the law and went around FISA because you were using the NSA to spy on political opponents, and you didn’t want that known. How contemptible.

“I believe this -- the phrase "burdens of the office" is overstated. You know, it's kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It's just -- it's pathetic, isn't it, self-pity.”

Unconscious people generally affirm what they try hardest to deny. It is clear that you are drenched in self-pity. The fact that you would use the financial collapse happening on your watch is revealing. To you, the financial collapse just happened and you had nothing to do with that. You’re just a passive observer. All the dismantling of regulations, the looting of the treasury to help your rich friends through sweetheart contracts and tax cuts, the economic sinkhole of your two wars and your phony war of terror, all that had nothing to do with the financial collapse in your mind.

What’s amazing to me is how such a narcissist could have served two terms as President of the U.S. Everything’s about you and your feelings. I never get a sense from you of the public good, or even civic duty. It’s all just a little drama with you in the center. It’s revolting to listen to a totally self-centered person with no values and realize that this was our President. It’s really shocking. Why did you even run for President? It doesn’t seem you ever cared about the country, or had a vision of any kind. I’ll bet you were persuaded by a bunch of Republican buddies that you could win, and you thought, “Wow, that would be really cool to be President.” You get to be really important and strut around and have your picture taken. You can live in the White House and get your name in the history books. Is that why you ran for President? I can’t figure it out. I could see if you were someone who was ambitious for power, but when you got to be President you basically did whatever Dick Cheney and Karl Rove told you to do. You were disengaged from the job. It was as if you wanted to be President without having to think.

The fact that you actually wore a little device on your back during the 2004 campaign, through which somebody would whisper your lines to you, really shows that you have no pride at all. Oh, we know that you were being prompted during the debates. We saw the device under your suit jacket. Of course the media never probed too deeply on that one because it was so embarrassing, and the media bent over backwards not to reveal anything embarrassing about the “commander in chief.” But I can’t imagine anyone with a shred of pride agreeing to do that. So on the one hand, you’re a narcissist, thinking about yourself all the time, and on the other hand you don’t have enough pride or resilience to really stand on your own. That’s a very sick combination.

The fact that you chose your campaign manager, Dick Cheney, to be your running mate in 2000 was a real tip-off. I mean, no other politician would have done that. Most Presidents want a VP who is subordinate, but you chose someone who manages your campaign, someone who ended up managing your administration. Why did you allow that? Why, if you really care so much about your legacy, would you hand your power off to someone else? I can only conclude that you’re basically a shiftless coward with no center. Without stronger people directing you, you’re helpless. You’ll just sit there with a lost look in your eyes, even when the country’s being attacked, until someone tells you what to do.

“People said, well, the federal response [to Katrina] was slow. Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response.”

Yes, the Coast Guard did their job. But no one else did. So now you hide behind the Coast Guard, just like you hide behind the troops, making excuses. Revolting.

“It's just the rhetoric got out of control at times…I don't know why. You need to ask those who -- those who used the words they used.”

You never disassociated yourself from the rhetoric. Your entire team used the rhetoric. Your Republican supporters used the rhetoric. And you used it too. You implied over and over that Democrats were somehow aiding the enemy. Cheney said that if Kerry won there would be probably be another attack. Now you act as if you played no part in any of this, as if your work with Karl Rove never happened. You’re lying.

I’m getting tired. There’s much more I could say. I could talk about how you promised to fire anyone involved in outing the CIA agent, and broke the promise, and then commuted Libby’s sentence. I could talk about how you paid phony journalists to promote your policies and planted Jeff Gannon in the press room; how you went back on nuclear “no first use” policy which opened the door for Armageddon; I could talk about your close ties to Enron, failing to support troops with proper armor, failing to support troops when they come home, not allowing dead soldiers’ coffins to be photographed, the horrendous military commissions act voiding habeas corpus, Terry Schiavo, Dubai, appointing right wing judges like Roberts and Alito, censoring global warming data, using false terror alerts for political ends, firing attorneys when they refused to cooperate in election tampering, lickspittle Gonzo and his chronic amnesia, Pat Tillman, Blackwater, oh I give up. I couldn’t possibly mention all the damage you’ve done, all the scandals and crimes and lies, because everything you did failed and everything you touched turned to shit.

Just a few final thoughts. When you and your friends argued for a theory of the “unitary executive,” did you understand that meant that you were above the law? That you were essentially lawless? What’s to prevent a President from announcing a never-ending war (remember to give it a snappy name) and then using that war to justify overriding all the safeguards against the separation of powers? In fact, that’s exactly what you did, or what you tried to do. I count that as treason because it deliberately strikes at the very heart of our republic and seeks to establish a dictatorship. You basically tried to overthrow the United States, using terrorism as a pretext.

Among the most shameful aspects of the last eight years were the elections of 2000 and 2004. You cheated in order to win Florida in the 2000 election. Most people agree that this is true. And in a way, it seems par for the course for a politician to try to win by any means. But then in 2004, on Election Day, when there was no more campaigning, you suddenly took Air Force One to Columbus, Ohio, accompanied by Karl Rove, where you met with Kenneth Blackwell, Republican campaign manager and Secretary of State for Ohio. Why did you do that? That seems very unusual for the President to make a trip to Ohio on Election Day, when there was no more campaigning to be done.

There was voter suppression in Ohio. We know that. What is obvious to anyone with eyes to see is that there was also outright fraud in Ohio. You conspired with Karl Rove to steal an election. Ken Blackwell was involved in switching computer-tabulated votes in that state to your column. And as a President, not just a candidate, that constitutes a breathtaking violation of every citizen’s trust in their government. When we can’t believe that our votes are counted, when elections can be rigged by the government, that’s a sign that freedom has ended and we can give up hope.

So in your secret little mind you know that you really didn’t earn being President. Both elections were stolen. For you to live with it requires an astonishing level of mendacity, perhaps a very complicated system of rationalization and denial. It’s certainly delusional, and it means that you were always unfit to serve, from the very beginning until now.

I gather that you are interested in how history will judge your Presidency. This is how it will be. In the list of Presidents in the history books, your name will be the only one with an asterisk next to it. Next to the asterisk at the bottom of the page it will say “Illegitimate.” You will be the President that unlawfully usurped the White House, and was therefore, technically speaking, never President at all. These eight years will be like a gap in history, an unfortunate and tragic period in which a criminal acted as if he were the elected leader of the country. Your name will be only a blot on the history of the nation.

And if your Presidency is mentioned when kids are being taught social studies at school, you will be compared to Benedict Arnold. Both were traitors to the United States; both names will be forever associated with crime and treason. This is a bit unfair to Benedict Arnold, the teacher will point out, since Arnold was a real hero before he betrayed the country. But Bush was never anything, and moreover, he betrayed the country while serving as President, which is the greatest act of treason one could imagine.

That is your legacy. Now go away. We mourn all the people who died and suffered because of you, and the many who will continue to suffer in the future because of your betrayals. There was a sign in New Orleans after Katrina that said “All looters will be shot.” In the end, all you are is a looter. You looted whatever you could and then you whined that you were misunderstood. Count yourself lucky that you haven’t been shot, because that’s what you deserve. We don’t want to hear any more bullshit from you, Go to your fucking ranch with your thorazine-addled wife, get drunk, and leave us alone. You’ve done enough damage. Get lost.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

War Crimes

That is what is happening in Gaza. Any government that uses phosphorus on human beings has lost all legitimacy. (See here also.) I said it about the U.S. government in Fallujah. I now say it about the Israeli government in Gaza. The Israeli people need to overthrow the right-wing militaristic gang running their country. Anyone making excuses for this at this point in history is either a liar or seriously deluded.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

To My Readers (you happy few)

My posting has dwindled in frequency over the past year. I know it, and I wish it were different, but so it is. What I plan to do in '09 is post shorter thoughts, insights, etc., like most blogs do, instead of thinking that every piece has to be some well-crafted essay. It just doesn't work that way.

Having said that, I also need to say that witnessing Bush making the rounds lately, being interviewed, giving a press conference, and on Thursday is scheduled a "farewell address" for god's sake, I am mightily pissed, and am planning a final philippic against that blood-stained sociopath before he leaves. Silly me, I thought such a colossal failure might just slink away quietly, but the bastard won't shut up, trying to convince us that things weren't that bad, and that he actually accomplished things. There's a reason that three quarters of the country hates your guts, douchebag. Shut the fuck up and get out.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


As a film lover, and a critic, it has become impossible to ignore the ever-increasing presence of the comic book superhero on the screen. Of course this is not a new phenomenon, but it is obvious that in the last few years Hollywood has been making movies from the Marvel Comics catalogue at an unprecedented rate, along with other superhero and comic book characters.

I’m not going to take the position that comic books rot the minds of the young. I read them myself when I was a pre-teen, and occasionally even later. An industry expert might argue that the adolescent and “young adult” market is the primary targeted demographic of Hollywood, and that therefore it makes perfect sense that it would latch on to this genre, which also happens to involve a popular element from videogames: computer-generated imagery. In terms of cinema history, this is another example of the tension between film as commercial product and art form. Hollywood’s investment in a blockbuster strategy, in which huge sums are spent on a film in the hopes of massive profits, has meant that the creative aspect of cinema keeps getting pushed farther onto the margins. It also indicates a state of “mainstream” film craft that is increasingly out of touch with what I would call “literary” ideas. Industry filmmakers seem to live in a world without books—we witness instead a steady stream of TV show remakes and adaptations of comic books and graphic novels.

What I find more interesting is how film fans and reviewers manage to convince themselves that superheroes are invested with more significance or insight when they are adapted into films. The daily newspaper reviewers, and those for major magazines and media outlets (I don’t say critics, for that’s a different matter) are going to pay attention to these money-making films or else be out of a job. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has gotten this treatment, and plenty of rave reviews. The film struck me as a repellent mélange of sadism, sensory over-stimulation, and traditional simplistic action-movie tropes.

What I call sadism in the movies is the exploitation of the “thrill” of witnessing immoral, amoral, or extremely taboo behavior—in short, brutal violence for its own sake, for the sake of excitement in the spectator rather than as an integral element in a story idea or theme. It took off in the horror genre, and has since migrated to the action/adventure and suspense films. This aspect has come to overshadow narrative itself in many cases. The amped-up “aesthetic” of a film like The Dark Knight reminds me of stronger, more potent forms of drugs that are made to provide a greater “hit” for the addict who has already developed a tolerance for previous forms. In any case, fans and reviewers praise the way Nolan (and the late brilliant actor Heath Ledger) invests this superhero story with “darkness.” I would argue, however, that the nature of the superhero genre itself resists any deeper meanings, either associated with dark themes, or any meaningful themes at all.

Superhero comic books express an adolescent fantasy that is a reaction against fear and powerlessness. A child is confronted with control and interference from adults and from the powerful influence of society. This becomes something of a conflict when the child reaches pre-teen age, about eleven years old, sometimes earlier. We crave autonomy, but we’re not old enough to exercise it wisely. Adolescent rebellion is in large part a striving for separation from the controlling adult forces.

In literary fiction, and in all forms of art that are meaningful and of high quality, the desires of human beings are portrayed and expressed in the context of real life realities. A primary reality is pain and mortality—in other words, the natural limitations of any sentient being or in fact any existing thing or condition. I don’t restrict this to realism or naturalism in the arts. Symbolist or mythic art engages with reality. Lewis Carroll’s playful fantasy, and even the best science or fantasy fiction, engages the human condition in some way that is meaningful.

With modern popular genres, however, we observe a steady flattening effect, a reduction of human reality to much smaller dimensions. In simplest form, genre becomes an expression of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The romance novel or the paperback western don’t give us the unexpected—what the reader wants is the same thing over and over. The good guy beats the bad guy. The woman meets and marries the prince. And so forth. The pleasure of repetitive genre is very crude, but effective. It feels good to see good triumph over evil because it’s a fantasy. In reality, things aren’t that clear cut. Art forms that seek to express the truth that is not “clear cut” are often rejected by the genre lover. The common aversion to the “unhappy” ending, for instance, is really the genre lover objecting to the wish fulfillment being frustrated.

There is a distinct pleasure involved in the literary or non-genre arts. It is the perception of truth. An increase in awareness, which usually involves an increase in emotional presence, is pleasurable, but it is a pleasure that needs to be learned. It is more complex than genre pleasure, and needs more time to develop. The fact, however, is that both elements are often blended together in works of art. Some filmmakers, for example, have employed genre structure while also expressing truth—the results can be very effective. Wishes, desires, are an important part of human nature, so it’s only natural that they should take a prominent place in art.

The superhero tale is a genre in which wish-fulfillment no longer tries to conceal itself within physical reality. H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man had a mythic precursor: the folklore hero with the magic cloak that makes him invisible. But then there’s The Time Machine. It’s curious that no author in all of recorded history ever conceived of time travel before. The scientific and industrial revolutions solidified a world-view in which magic no longer had a place. There’s a sense in which science fiction explored the possibilities within that world-view. But there was also a strong impulse to defy this new regime of thought.

In a popular form of the superhero tale, the main character is a nebbish, a loser who is often bullied by stronger people. Somehow this loser gains supernatural powers. He puts on a costume and fights crime—a hero in disguise. Meanwhile he maintains his old identity as a loser, continuing to be slighted and ignored while secretly knowing that he is a super-powered hero. This isn’t the only form, though. Batman is a rich playboy in “real” life, and he has no supernatural powers, only far-advanced technology and fighting skills. Still, in most cases there’s a “secret” identity (the ordinary identity he was born with) and a separate superhero identity.

Why would this genre originally be aimed at pre-teens and adolescents? Because the peculiar frustration of this group is that they are prevented from exercising autonomy in the world even though they feel the need to express it somehow. And the forces arrayed against their autonomy are so powerful that there is no hope for the child to prevail. The fantasy, then, requires extraordinary powers, powers that defy physical reality, in order for the hero to triumph over the forces that oppose him. The ordinary frustrating life, the real life of the child, is preserved in the story by a secret identity, with the superhero identity expressing the wish for power. (With time, when the readers became thoroughly accustomed to the genre, it became impossible to abandon the “secret identity” altogether. The reader could still identify with the superhero without having to keep a foot in reality.)

I no longer read superhero comic books, for a few reasons. The main reason is that as an adult I have developed a need for the awareness of truth, an engagement with reality through the transforming power of art. I haven’t lost all my wish-fulfillment tendencies—they’ve simply taken a less central role. As a critic, I now view genre fiction and other pure forms of genre narrative, as less interesting, less vital, less important. Therefore I get accused of being a snob, which I’ve co-opted in a humorous way as part of my identity as a critic. Personally, I can’t do much about this. It’s as if I’ve dined regularly on filet mignon and can therefore no longer find the appetite for a Burger King “whopper,” to which the whopper lovers respond by calling me an elitist. But the truth is that I don’t consider the pleasures of genre to be worthless, and I even partake of them sometimes, though less often. I simply think that they are less meaningful and less important than art forms that engage with the truth of human life in an honest and uncompromising fashion, and that an art form that becomes dominated by genre to the point where reality becomes a dirty word is an art form that is in poor health. In terms of film, then, I don’t see anything wrong with superhero films per se. But when the film industry devotes a huge percentage of its resources to the creation of superhero films, I sense something wrong, in fact something dishonest.

I don’t refer to graphic novels in general, but only to the superhero narrative. The notion of the super-powered individual as hero is based, I believe, on a fantasy, and it’s a fantasy of the impossible. When this story emerges from its adolescent origins into the cultural mainstream, what it tells me is that frustration and powerlessness are expanding elements of our experience. The only form of wish-fulfillment that can remedy this is an impossible infusion of power. There is no balance between the autonomy and capabilities of the individual and the powers that restrict him. In social terms, the national security state and the advanced technical power of destruction achieved by the armed forces reduces the powers of the individual protagonist to insignificant proportions. Even the non-superpower action heroes, such as Jason Bourne in the Bourne movies, regularly perform and endure things that are beyond belief. The demands of wish-fulfillment, in short, become more and more exaggerated as our actual powerlessness increases.

The pretensions of a film like The Dark Knight are insurmountable, simply put, because the hero, wearing tights and a cape, is an adolescent fantasy that cannot be transformed into meaningful content since it defies the core human reality of death and limitation. For the same reason, the exaltation of violence in Hollywood cinema, not just in superhero or action films but in almost every genre, is meaningless because it is intended as an addictive hit for a powerless spectator rather than as a truth that actually engages us.

A vital art, a vital literature or cinema of the future, would need to explore the actual power and capabilities of human beings without giving way to nihilism and despair. The superhero narrative reduces all power to the physical—it’s the counterpart to the doctrine of pure force and domination that is destroying the world. Higher art forms present wisdom, intelligence, love, emotion, presence, connection, and engagement as forms of true power and meaning in the world. The hero himself, or herself, has long ago lost relevance to the degree that he or she has lost human fallibility, and with it human depth and complexity. The story that Joyce tried to tell in Ulysses, that the mythic hero was a lie that needed to be transcended in favor of the “ordinary” (yet marvelous) narrative of real life, has not yet been absorbed into mass culture. Perhaps it is an adjustment that must come from social conditions as a whole. When the fantasy bubble bursts, there is a chance for light to come in. One of the tasks of art nowadays is to burst the bubble. And it doesn’t take superpowers to do it—just a commitment to honesty.