Monday, May 25, 2009

Reality Check

Mr. President, “indefinite” or “preventive” detention is not compatible with the rule of law. Merely saying that it is does not make it so. A person cannot lawfully be detained without charges. To do so is in essence an act of unchecked executive power. Even if the Congress were to authorize such detention, it would violate our principles as a nation. Human rights are not privileges bestowed by the government, at the whim of whatever individuals are “in charge.” If we were founded upon trust in the benevolence of authority, we would not need a Constitution. In that case, a king would suffice for us. It is of no account whether the people trust you as a leader more than they trusted your predecessor, when there is no safeguard against abuse of power. A benevolent ruler may always be succeeded by a tyrant. The concept of inalienable rights was established precisely for this reason.

You talk about detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. This is double talk. If they have committed crimes, they can and should be prosecuted. To say that they cannot be prosecuted is to say that you have no case. It creates a system of perpetual imprisonment without due process. If the executive has the power to determine that someone poses a danger to the American people, and yet not have a case, that means that the executive’s power is unchecked by the rule of law. There is nothing to prevent a President from declaring that his administration’s domestic political enemies pose a security threat. As far as I can tell, the only safeguard you are offering against this untrammeled power is trust in your character. Even if I were to accept this as a valid safeguard (which I don’t, since I retain a healthy mistrust of all politicians who claim special powers not stipulated in our Constitution), it would still not protect us from the ambitions of a future untrustworthy President.

There is nothing to prevent the “indefinite” detention of a U.S. citizen deemed to be “dangerous” by the White House. In fact, this was already done in the case of Jose Padilla. The supposed guilt of a suspect has been used over and over as a justification for the violation of our Constitution. There is nothing in what you have said that bars that practice from continuing.

This is supposed to be a nation of laws, and not of men. The fact that you are turning from some of the flagrant abuses of the Bush administration does not give you permission to continue using such spurious claims of executive power in your current administration. I regret to say that I will be unable to vote for you again if you continue to adhere to this line. No, I will not vote for your Republican opponents, who openly advocate lawlessness. But I can stay home on election day. There are certain things that I cannot in good conscience tolerate. The fundamental principles of our republic, including the ancient and venerable writ of habeas corpus, and the 6th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, are not negotiable. I know that I am not the only one who feels the way. To take supporters like us for granted, as if our votes belong to you, could be a serious mistake. I urge you to follow your profession of faith in the Constitution, in actions as well as words. Otherwise I must vigorously oppose you. And I will not be alone.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pink: the Color of Justice

I’ve noticed that of the many groups on the left, Code Pink raises more hackles than most. Of course right-wingers hate them and demonize them pretty regularly, but I’ve also heard them catch flak from leftists for their tactics, and just from casually informed people I hear more rejection of them than I would normally expect to hear about a political group.

Code Pink’s style of protest is to get into the face of people in power and call them out. Recently, at the Washington press dinner, they started yelling “Here comes the war criminal!” when Donald Rumsfeld showed up. A few years ago, famously, a Code Pink member with fake blood on her hands got right up in Condi Rice’s grill at a Senate hearing. I find it remarkable how offended many people get at this sort of thing.

The right’s antipathy is fairly easy to dissect. Code Pink is basically a women’s organization. Any activist organization on the left that is primarily composed of women is going to be a special target of the right because the right wing hates feminism, along with any woman who is aggressive in the cause of peace or human rights. The basic position of the right is that male supremacy is the way it should be, and that anyone challenging that is a scary extremist.

In terms of the mass of only casually informed people, it’s my belief that we have been instilled with a sense of “propriety” that pretends to be about respect, but is in fact based on blind deference to authority. Boldly and loudly confronting political authority seems frightening because of the unconscious fear of retaliation from those in power. It’s as if we’re all tiptoeing around the powerful, doing everything we can not to upset them so that we can stay out of harm’s way. Code Pink violates that unspoken fear, and it frightens people.

Now, if a group of people were to go up to Casey Anthony, a woman accused of murdering her child in a case hysterically covered by the sensationalist media, and yell “murderer!” at her, I would guess most people wouldn’t be offended. Casey Anthony is not an authority figure, but a media-sanctioned object of our moralistic scorn. Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. But because it’s a war, and we’re not supposed to criticize war, since that would be unpatriotic, then people get offended by Code Pink calling Rumsfeld a war criminal.

Again, think of the socially sanctioned hatred that many have felt towards rioters and looters. I remember vividly the disgust and disapproval people openly expressed about the looting that occurred in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Fair enough, it’s looting and it’s wrong. And yet, during the late 1980s and early 90s, the perpetrators of the Savings & Loan collapse looted on a scale thousands of times greater, robbing ordinary people of their life savings to the tune of billions of dollars. Some went to jail, most didn’t. In fact, Reagan-Bush policies allowed and encouraged the looting to occur, and taxpayers ended up paying the bill when the industry needed bailing out. Was there a comparable sense of disgust, contempt, outrage among the populace? There was not. These looters were elite bankers and politicians in suits and ties. Their power made it less safe to attack them.

Cowardice is the basic moral currency of American political life. The Republicans turned this into an art form. They learned how to divide white working class from black working class, men from women, straights from gays, Southerners and Midwesterners from Californians and East Coast residents, and any number of variations on the basic theme of scapegoating. The ultimate scapegoat was the liberal, who became the author of everything wrong in the country. The rule of thumb is that the scapegoat is always less powerful than you. To attack those who are actually powerful is taboo, and will result in attacks being aimed at you.

Code Pink breaks that taboo by calling the powerful what they are—criminals. They reject the passive spectator role that has been assigned to ordinary citizens, and especially women, in this country. Some on the left sincerely believe that their tactics are counterproductive. I understand that point of view, but I don’t agree. In my view, one of the functions of a progressive movement is to break through the false propriety, the denial of what is right before our eyes but goes unnamed. If someone were to scream at an SS or NKVD officer who has gone unpunished for murders they committed or ordered, we would consider that normal. But there is a common assumption that America is magically different, and that we don’t have war criminals in our midst. For the truth to get out in this case, someone must first yell it in public, despite all the social taboos against it.

War remains an abstraction for many of us. A Rumsfeld or a Rice may have loving relationships with their families, and their pets. At the same time, the suffering they cause is put at a far remove from their actual experience. As a people, we have become accustomed to thinking of war in these abstract ways. We don’t imagine what it’s like to be the father or the sister of someone who has been suddenly blown to pieces for no reason. The car bombings and the so-called collateral damage are just statistics to us. But war is very real, and real people’s lives, many thousands of them, have been cut off because of the lies and manipulations and greed and self-interest of people sitting calmly in a Washington office. Code Pink gives voice to the outrage that is real and that needs to be expressed. And I think the degree of condemnation and hatred that they receive is a measure of how important their work is.

I haven’t heard of them killing anyone yet. I cannot say the same of their targets. We must learn to channel our outrage towards the powerful who continue to cause untold suffering without having to endure meaningful consequences for it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

History Occurs at Night

The following is a recently discovered fragment of an introduction to the history of a neglected era by an intrepid academic at the turn of the century, who to this day remains anonymous.

History records roughly two thirds of what we know to have happened. The other third consists of when people were asleep. The textbooks are strangely silent on that period.

To be fair to historians, it is more difficult to keep track of the many changes occurring during sleep. One person has often changed into another; many have combined into one; one has split off into many. Locations and times have shifted suddenly and wildly. The dead frequently reappeared, and people were known to flap their arms and fly through the air to escape danger, or just to impress others of their acquaintance.

The frequency of embarrassing and even scandalous occurrences was remarkable. Many went to work or school in their underwear, or without any clothes at all. Society was correspondingly more tolerant of these lapses in etiquette during sleep. During this period, most people acted as if a naked person walking down the street was, if not a completely normal event, at least an understandable one, whereas in waking history it usually led to an arrest. This phenomenon seems ripe for sociological study.

Despite the loosening of moral standards, this historical timeframe seemed to be, on the average, fraught with considerable fear and anxiety. Reports of people searching frantically for lost items were very frequent. There were very many incidents of people being late for appointments, classes, work, or even major events. Many others forgot the names of their family and best friends, while having intense and intimate encounters with complete strangers, or people whose identity is at best obscure.

Magical powers or occult abilities of one sort or another were considered routine, which is fortunate, since violent attacks by others were a constant threat. On the one hand, a person might have been able to slay an opponent by firing bullets out of his hand; on the other, he may have suffered a bout of slow motion when attempting to flee. The need for constant vigilance was countered by a persistent vagueness and confusion of mental outlook.

As to sexuality, the range of practices seems to have been incredibly wide, with voyeurism, paraphilic infantilism, coprophilia, urophagia, and numerous other fetishistic behavor being extremely common. Incest, rape, and other forms of sexual assault appear to have been so popular as to be considered almost normal. It is difficult for the objective historian to credit this, yet virtually all available testimony confirms the startling fact of complete sexual chaos as characteristic of the time.

What accounts there are of governments, treaties, wars, and political arrangements are so various and complex as to challenge the abilities of the most skilled researchers. Democracy would appear to have been almost unknown. Dictatorship was the most common political arrangement, yet there were so many autocrats that they seem to have actually outnumbered the subjects under their rule. In truth, the political situation during sleep came closest to the concept of anarchy as this is popularly termed, and many scholars find it both puzzling and significant that society survived the period relatively intact.

More matter for the cream of the scholiasts has no doubt dripped from the statue of the hearse in barns of square. We have reported again soon how in fact unreliable fists of fancy dress preponder the food they ate. Leaders of sexual insurpency coffin contradict the delusions we have run to, and I would not deign to outrage this steaming crowd with more toots than it can fester. Pending verification to continue and

Here the manuscript breaks off. Is est optimus nos permissum lemma somnus.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The mythology of modern life

Celebrities are the gods and goddesses of our age. A sordid, petty pantheon they are, but they are all the culture offers to fill the vacuum caused by the death of mythology and folklore.

Commercialism does not recognize awe and wonder unless these emotions pertain to products that are being sold to us. In the commercial world view, nature is only a place for consumption and entertainment. Therefore the sense of awe before nature, the intimate experience of nature as power, being and sustenance of humankind, is replaced with empty acquisition and spectatorship. An entire realm of mythology and spirituality has been banished to the margins of life.

Much of the organized monotheistic culture has staked its authority on the flimsy notion that its myths are “literally” true, i.e. science. The unintended result is that “myth” has now become synonymous with “falsehood” in the popular mind. Fundamentalism blames science for this, because literalist religion is blind to the potency of myth, considering it only as a means to enforce obedience to the social order. We are left with a religious culture that has been drained of meaning. When myth is hardened into dogma, it dwindles down into superstition.

Spirituality as such is tainted in the popular mind, both by commercial culture which ridicules it, and organized religion which has largely neglected and abandoned it. In the debate between theists and atheists, there isn’t even any conception of spirituality as a phenomenon, since it essentially lies outside the endless and futile struggles over “belief.”

People need folklore and mythology because our imagination discovers meaning through stories and symbols that illuminate all aspects of life. Their significance is subjective. The historicity of King Arthur is of no account when considering the power of the mythos surrounding him. Even in the case of Jesus, where his historical existence is an essential aspect of the religious tradition, the power of the tradition as it affects the soul of the Christian is not historical.

The modern age, then, finds itself in a predicament whereby the subjective is not considered meaningful. Commercial culture promotes the “meaning” of owning products, of prestige through material possessions. The dominant religious cultures promote the “meaning” of obedience to a patriarchal social order. It hasn’t worked. People still need mythology, and so we end up with the pathetic mythos of the celebrity. Homer’s gods and goddesses fell in love and squabbled and broke up and fought over children as well—as I said, myth illuminates every aspect of life. But they did much more. Our present-day pantheon does nothing but reenact the blind dramas of romance and personal conflict. Our myths reflect badly on ourselves—the horizon of imagination limited to the most narrow boundaries of alienated self-involvement and powerlessness.