Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Virgin and/or Dynamo? In my reading of so many secular Liberal pundits and blogs I continue to find remarkable how patronizing and tone deaf they are to the concerns and sensibilities of religious believers. If nothing else, it's just politically stupid. As I wrote in my previous post, I don't have a problem with anybody condemning hatred, intolerance, and the plain nuttiness of the Robertson, Coulter, Limbaugh variety, but most people with traditional religious values are not hatefilled nutcases, and it's with those that secular liberals need to develop a rapprochement. I believe that in this country an appeal to the religious idealism of the American people has to be central for any hope for a substantive progressive politics.

But let's face it, secular Liberals really have at best a patronizing attitude toward believers. They are so insulated by their smug sense of having moved beyond the need for religion that they seem often to be genuinely surprised when they meet a believer who is not allied with the forces of reaction. They have come to see themselves as the only hope for a progressive future, and quite frankly, from my point of view, their pretensions are ludicrously delusional. These people no longer understand the world they are living in. And in my view they are one of the biggest obstacles for the development of a robust progressivism that would be true to America's highest ideals.

Progressive politics has a branding problem in this regard, because it has become too closely associated with the kind of secular European style socialism to which most Americans are allergic. A secular progressive politics may or may not continue to work work in Europe, but it hasn't a prayer here. Europe has its own problematic history with its religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, a history which is quite different in the U.S. European progressives saw the Church as the enemy, and for good reason. But in the U.S., the situation has always been quite different. Progressive politics until the seventies has mainly been driven by religious idealists. And for better or worse, no change has been widely accepted by Americans unless it was framed in terms that were consonant with the religiosity that is hardwired into the American psyche.

A little history as to why: Secularism is the spirit of the Modern period, and the modern period ended about a hundred years ago in Europe and in 1963 in the U.S. You can quibble about dates, but for me Gutenberg's first printing of his bible in 1455 marked the transition from the medieval period to the modern and the death in Europe of Nietzsche, the prophet of postmodernity, in 1900, and JFK here in the U.S. marked the transition from the modern to the postmodern. The Modern era itself reached its high-water mark between 1650 and 1789, the period of the great epistemologists--Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, and Kant--and the enlightenment philosophes--Voltaire and Rousseau. The beginning of the end was the massive irrationality of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and the end of the end was the French Revolution and the Terror.

WWI swept away what was left of enlightenment optimism in Europe, and WWII, framed by its Nazi perpetrators in a Nietzschean vocabulary, was the first postmodern war. It ended with the detonation of one of the most horrific products of the technological mind. And for the first time humans began to understand that they had it within their capability to destroy the earth. It became clear that human rationality was a fragile coracle being tossied about on a roiling sea of irrationality. Americans were a little slow on the uptake. It took the turmoil of the sixties to drive the point home that we were no longer moderns. And I would argue that the secular rationalist mentality is as relevant to understanding our world now as medieval Catholicism was for understanding the scientific technological impulses that drove the culture for the last five hundred years.

And while secular rationalism will persist just as Catholic medievalism persisted, it's simply no longer the cutting edge. But why did secular rationalism develop in the first place? It was mainly a response to the bloody post reformation relgious wars in Europe. It began to take hold in the wake of the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics that ended in 1648 and the English Civil War between Puritans and Anglicans in 1649. Intelligent people understandably started thinking that this religion thing was a problem. And they began to question whether it was really needed at all. Could it be possible to live without it, and would everyone be better off if they did? And at the same time the prodigious Newton was establishing for all the world to see what the power of reason could achieve, and it became interesting for people to think of the world as a great machine and of God as an engineer who made it. And like a wind-up clock he coiled the spring and then left it to run on its own.

Such a god has essentially abandoned his creation, and does not interfere with its workings once it had been set it into motion. In a world with such a god there is no grace, no miracles, no enchantment. Such a world might delight the engineer in us, but not the poet. If the world is nothing but a great machine, it has power, but it lacks soul. Such a god for such a world is useless when it comes to solving problems, and his new status as a cosmic irrelevancy made it easier to ditch him altogether in the nineteenth century. That's when the Industrial Revolution kicked in and the machine became more than a metaphor; it became in a very real sense the new god.

The main thing to keep in mind was that during the modern period, there were two basic camps that formed with all kinds of variations on two basic themes. The new one comprised those who were open to new ideas and put their faith in reason and technology, and the other was the old traditionalist camp that comprised those who resisted the "new thinking" and continued to put their faith in traditional practice and religious authority. Instead of religious authority, the progressive new thinkers had science. It gradually became a substitute religion for many progressives who wanted to assert values of freedom and independence over against the constrictions of the traditional past. It was completely understandable that these progressives would want to divorce themselves from traditional religion and work to undermine the kind of society that was dominated by oppressive religious ideologies.

The "new thinking" types were optimistic about progressive social change and thought that rationality and new technological advancements were the tools to achieve it. The traditionalists steeped in religious ideas about original sin were skeptical that any kind of truly significant progress was possible. But the new thinkers pointed to the material improvements and the prosperity generated by the new technologies. The most thoughtful of the conservatives Blake, Coleridge, Dostoyevski wondered if humans weren't being seduced by the promise of material progress into a rationalist/technological nightmare world. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, the first significant science fiction novel in 1817, gave expression to the foreboding.

It's not a foreboding that we have left behind. The problem does not lie with science, but with what we do with the new knowledge that science has made available. Science has given us the aiblity to reverse engineer the natural world, and with that knowledge comes enormous power. Pure science is a discipline very restricted in its scope--it seeks only to understand in naturalistic terms the natural world. The technological applications of this new knowledge go far beyond just trying to understand the natural world.

The motive driving technological development is very similar to the motive that drove alchemists and magicians in the late medieval and early modern period. Both sought to understand the laws that governed how the world worked in order to obtain greater levels of power. In the 1600s science and alchemy existed side by side-- Newton was as much interested in the latter as he was the former.

But in the end science and its materialistic logic proved to be the more potent tool for controlling and transforming the material world. And the principle of Ockham's Razor excluded any reference to a reality beyond the material world of the senses, even if scientists believed there was such a world. So a habit of mind developed that was committed to the radical separation of the material world from a spiritual world, and it is understandable that insofar as the supersensibile world becomes irrelevant to what one does on a daily basis, it would only be a matter of time before a kind of culture of skepticism developed whose members found it hard to believe that there was any other world except the material one they sought so diligently to understand.

Secularism is for the most part the product of that culture of skepticism. As science and philosophy became activities divorced from any consideration of the ways in which the spiritual and material world interacted, so was politics similarly divorced. I think the divorce was for the most part a good thing, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I understand why the Christian right and Muslim ayatollahs have a problem with it. They think the divorce is a false division that gives people who live in a society split that way a distorted picture of reality with profoundly alienating social effects. They have good reason to think so, but in a globalizing world they have no choice but to adapt.

Nevertheless their alienation is real and their confusion painful. Their God is not a watchmaker god. He is intimately involved with his creation, and they believe this to be true with every fiber of their being. To acquire the ability to live in a world where one's private beliefs are not reflected in the social structures that support them is not easy for a people with a traditionalist mindset. They view the secularists arguments about separation of church and state that require the removal of prayer from schools and the ten commandments from the courthouse lobby to be like the clever lawyer who makes a case in court that gets the obviously guilty criminal off. Their sense of the rightness of the world is profoundly offended, and it's understandable why they would have a hard time with a political system that operates from assumptions that makes such travesties possible. Liberals for whom nothing is sacred because everything is profane have no clue how viscerally wrong this feels to traditionalists.

It's not something they think about; it's something that is deeply felt, and I have to say that I think there is an element of healthfulness in it. It has made them feel strangers in their own country, and that's hard to bear. And one of the biggest drivers in the conservative backlash since the eighties has been the longing these traditionalists have to get their country back. It's a futile, nostalgic longing, but I understand it and I sympathize with their distress and confusion. And I understand why they feel so offended by the force that they believe is the cause of it all--secular liberalism and its cosmopolitian tolerance of just about any kind of weirdness. Is nothing sacred? Is there no shame? These are legitimate questions.

Nevertheless, in a globalizing world we're all Cosmopolitans, whether we like it or not. We have to learn to deal respectfully with those whose who come from different worlds while at the same time holding fast to what is for us sacred. And secularese is the neutral language we must speak in the public sphere. Otherwise we will revert to the kind of insanity that engulfed Europe in the first half of the 1600s and that we see now in Iraq as it devolves into a three-way civil war.

What bothers me about the smug cosmopolitanism of the left is that they have little sense of the price that has been paid and of the superficiality of their glib worldview. Cosmopolitanism is a survival strategy in a globalizing pluralistic world. It does not, however, comprise beliefs that most people would die for.

So if for the secularists, there is no God to worship, what do they substitute for him? For me the answer is clear--Technological Power. (There is also the nature myticism of the hippies and Greens, but I'll deal with that in the next post) Technological development since the dawn of the modern age has gradually become a force unto itself with as little human control over it as humans had over God and the forces of nature associated with him in an earlier and more naive age. Henry Adams took note of this in his Education when he wrote his chapter on the Virgin and the Dynamo, the latter supplanting the former as the culture's principal icon when the culture shifted from the medieval age to the modern.

It's about life force vs. mechanical force, and I for one am a partisan of the first. There is no question for me that the cult of the Virgin is infinitely to be preferred to the cult of the Machine. And it's a choice that confronts us all now as we move deeper into the uncharted waters of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics that will have a profoundly shaping influence on this new, ever more highly technologized postmodern era. The very definition of what it means to be human very shortly will be up for grabs. As it stands now almost anything is possible and anything is permissible.

So whose side are you on? Is yours the cult life, mystery, and grace. Or is it the cult of electricity, soulless rationality, and power? I'm not advocating Luddism or a return to the middle ages here. For me it's a question of which principle is superior and which subordinate. And it's clear that we're living in a culture where the Virgin is subordinate to the Dynamo. Is a reversal possible? Or perhaps there is some other possibility I'm unaware of. But to me this is the much larger issue that transcends the predictable myopia that passes for sophistication within the Beltway.

Later, I'll try to get into what I think this means for politics.

 

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Hitchens/Stewart Debate. Sort of. There's so much either side can say in ten minutes. And while it was interesting to see Stewart give the contemptuous Hitchens, who usually runs circles around those he spars with, a run for his money, I was disappointed. Stewart asked Hitchens to tell him why he's wrong to be skeptical about the administration's case for the war. Hitchens replied with a standard defense of the administration's pretexts for the war. And Stewart basically said that Liberals have good reason to be skeptical and angry with the manipulativeness and ineptitude of the administration's pursuit of its war strategy. Touché, I guess. But if Stewart is convinced that Bush lied about his reasons for going into Iraq, what does he think the real reasons were?

Critics of the administration seem satisfied to think they've won the debate if they can just prove that the president lied, but so what? It's as if the whole goal were to present oneself as clever enough not to be fooled. Iit just seems too radical to take the next step, which is talk about the real reasons for the U.S. invasion. The adminisration is perfectly happy if the debate stays stuck on the question whether it lied or not. The only thing it really cares about is that the country not talk about the real reasons it went in.

It doesn't really matter whether Saddam harbored al Qaeda, because even if he did, that's not the reason the administration went into Iraq. It has shown time and time again that fighting terrorism is not a top priority. It doesn't matter that there were no WMD; it's not the reason it went into Iraq. It's embarrassing that they didn't find any, but it was never central to their mission. Neither did it go in because Saddam was a bad guy who massacred Kurds and Shiites (If there was ever a time to intervene, it was when Saddam was performing those atrocities.) The administration went in because it wanted to establish a hegemonic presence in this important, oil-rich region after the Soviet Union's dissolution created a power vacuum there. Why is this never discussed, even by savvy guys like Stewart? Why can't they cut through all the b.s. and talk about what's really happening?

The whole public discussion is set up so that people argue only about issues that aren't really important, like whether the administration lied or not. Even if it could be conclusively proven to everyone's satisfaction that the administration lied, who cares? People will just shrug their world-weary shoulders, and say, "Well, polliticians lie. What else is new?" The interesting question is why it lied? What did it feel it couldn't say candidly to the American people?

The Bushies think that their long-range geopolitical goals are too abstract and sophisticated for the average American to understand. The policymakers think of themselves as the wise men; they don't want the sloppiness of the democratic process to impede the implementation of what they believe is in the country's best interest. All the endless blather on the tube is meant to be a distraction to keep our minds occupied with irrelevant issues. Politics is a game of sleight of hand. Create a diversion over there, while over here I do what I don't want you to see.

The worst thing that could happen from the point of view of the people in power is that we talk about what's really going on. We should be debating whether the neocons' long-term goals in the Middle East are something the American people are willing to pay for in blood and treasure. We should be talking about whether even when most of the troops leave whether we will be maintaining Guantanomo-like bases in Iraq. We are tallking instead about everything else. Let's face it, the admininistration won't make an honest case for it because it fears that Americans only support wars when they believe that they are being directly threatened.

That's the thing that makes me angriest about the way this administration and administrations before it operate. Politicians are more confident in the ability to manipulate public opinion with propaganda than they are in their ability to make an honest case for their policies. And they'll continue to do so as long as we let them. To the degree that there is no open debate, to the same degree we have a sham democracy. If we get the government we deserve, we Americans apparently don't have very high expectations.

P.S. If you go to the Crooks and Liars page to view the Stewart Hitchens clip, also check out the Ann Coulter clip right below it in which she's asked whether she thinks New Yorkers are cowards. Her repsonse illustrates what I was talking about with regard for the contempt wingnuts hold Liberals. It was also implicit in Hitchens remarks. Liberals "immediately surrender" when they are attacked. Stewart, to his credit, didn't back down. What disappoints me is that he was satisfied merely to stand his Liberal ground. I would have preferred that he play some offense.

 

 

Friday, August 26, 2005

In Defense of Liberals. I've been hard on Liberals in my recent posts, and I guess I want to take a moment to balance my criticism. I don't think Liberalism is a dirty word; I just think Liberalism has had its day; it's senescent, and something more robust has to arise to take from it the progressive mantle as we move into a post-secular globalizing culture.

That does not mean that state institutions should be anything but secular. I've argued elsewhere that while secular Liberalism is inadequate as a worldview and political ideology, it should still define the demeanor and the way business is conducted in our governmental institutions. Individuals who participate in the political process as citizens or as government employees can believe whatever they want, and they can argue for whatever policies their beliefs or ideology would lead them to support, but when they do politics, they have to speak in 'secularese'.

Discourse in the political sphere should be limited to questions regarding the balance of rights between conflicting parties. There can be a wide difference of opinion about how that works itself out in programmatic and regulatory legislation and in the judicial system, but religious language has no place in the discussion. It's un-civil. Secularese is the common language that everybody must learn to speak when they enter the poltical sphere; it's the lingua franca necessary for communication in a pluralistic society.

So for instance, the whole business of gay marriage should not be a political issue, except insofar as it's a rights issue. And insofar as it's a rights issue, it should be handled in a secular way. The government should not be in the business of sanctioning marriages. It is, however, in the business of legitimating civil contracts, and it is an injustice for it to deny gays or anyone else their civil rights based on religious grounds. That's an important element in insuring that in a pluralist democratic society majorities don't become tyrannical.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, pluralism is simply the reality everyone must deal with, and it's not going away any time soon. We are living in a rapidly globalizing world, and all the world's cultures will have to cope with the identity-shaking trauma that is associated with assimilating the Other into their societies. American culture, because of its experience in assimilating such a great diversity of immigrants in the course of its history, should be at the cutting edge of developing a model that can be emulated everywhere, but with the current attitudes of the neocons and Christian right we are moving backwards rather than forwards in that regard.

That's one of the biggest differences between the right and the left in American culture. The former have a much greater difficulty in handling pluralism and the idea that other cultures have a human legitimacy. And the latent (and explicit) nativism of the right is given intellectual legitimacy by the likes of Leo Strauss and Samuel Huntington who want us to believe that it's basic to human nature that different cultures will always hate one another, and that because the clash of civilizations is inevitable, we better do what we can to make sure our civilization stays on top. Their attitude sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nativism, which is clearly more of a red-state problem than a blue state one, is rooted in the most primitive kind of identity formation. Nativists are people who don't know who they are apart from their tribal affiliation, and they are threatened rather than intrigued and stimulated by the Other. And I think that the reason that heartland red-staters have a hard time accepting the Other is that they don't know many people who are different from them. When you live on the coasts or in the big midwest cities near the Great Lakes you are simply confronted with all kinds of people on a daily basis. In Seattle, where I live, I have German neighbors from Berlin living next door on one side, East Indian Jains living on the other side, Russians living in the apartment below. One of my son's best friends is a sweet black kid and terrific ballplayer whose parents are white lesbians.

It's a hodgepodge, and I can understand how it can be disorienting for some people, but in your encounter with these people you discover an endearing humanity that doesn't come in a predictable package. You mingle with these people all the time; you joke with them; you talk sports, about their families. I don't get into the heavy stuff I write about here. They are not going to be my intimate best friends, but I'm glad to know them. It's just not that hard to find common ground. And another benefit is that if forces you to look at your own beliefs and to decide which are the ones essential for living and which are just not that important.

And that's the way it would be for 95% of the ordinary people who live in any culture once they overcome whatever fear they have of the Stranger--if it were not for politics and economic conflict. And that's the problem because even though most people just want to get along, there's always somebody who comes along and convinces them that their neighbor hates them and wants to destroy them, and then the vicious circle of attack and retribution begins. Bosnians and Serbs who got along for decades become enemies overnight because some insane politician sees an opportunity in enflaming old tribal hatreds.

Why do people hate one another? How can it possibly be to their advantage to do so? Why does any individual or group seek the annihilation of another? The answer in the political realm, I think, is pretty simple--Group A hates Group B because they have come to believe that Group B wants to destroy them. Group B feels the same way about Group A. The greater the perceived threat, the greater the hate.

And let's be frank. The degree to which you feel threatened correlates with the degree to which you feel secure and confident in your own identity and ability to take care of yourself. If you feel weak and lack confidence, you are going to be more fearful, and you are more likely to react rather than act in a thoughtful, sane way. Attackers who initiate hostilities almost always justify their belligerence as a preemptive attack whose purpose is defensive. Leaders can be motivated by vainglory and powerlust, but the footsoldiers have to be motivated by a belief that they are defending the motherland.

So then given that the United States has more military strength than any nation in the history of the world and that all the militaries of the rest of the world added together right now don't equal American capacity, why are so many Americans so full of fear and hatred? Compard to everyone else in the world, shouldn't most Americans be brimming with self-confidence and magnanimity? Or is the problem that we have leaders who have this knack for fanning the flames of fear and hatred?

Well despite what our leaders would have us believe, there are lots of Americans who are confident and magnanimous, and they're the ones who live in cosmopolitan areas and tend to vote blue. It's the red-state rigid right who feels threatened, because they don't know who they are apart from the traditionalist script into which they were socialized. Fear of the Stranger correlates with one's inability to imagine that someone can live a life different from one's own. It's a primitive mentality that's typical of most tribal cultures, even the sophisticated ancient Greeks thought of all non-Greeks as barbarians. Difference and the possibility that anyone can live a decent life with values different from their fills people with this primitive mentality with dread, because in their black-and-white world one has to be right and the other wrong.

Don't misunderstand my argument here. I'm not criticizing the values--my values are profoundly traditional and I have complete confidence in the validity of my rather conservative Christian beliefs, which I have thought through and examined from every possible angle. I do criticize the rigid and the fear-saturated mentality that is more typically associated with a traditionalism that requires that everybody be like them because they feel threatened by Otherness. (There's some of this on the politically correct left, and it's equally to be condemned, but it's not nearly as widespread, restricted mainly to the academic world and its spinoffs.) If your beliefs have not enabled you to develop into a confident, independent thinker eager to engage with a world full of surprises, your beliefs are clearly inadequate and dysfunctional for life in the world we live in.

I don't see myself as a relativist. I do believe that Chistianity most adequately explains the purpose and meaning of human life on earth. I don't believe all religions are equal, and I will defend my beliefs against anyone who would challenge them. But I feel no need to invalidate other beliefs, and I respect anyone's beliefs to the degree that they enable their adherents to live rich, decent, courageous, magnanimous human lives. In the end, it just doesn't matter that much what you have believed; it matters only how you have lived.

So along these lines, no one is asking traditionalists to approve of, for instance, gay sexual behavior. But they needn't be so threatened by it, and they are being asked to mind their own business and to restrain their compulsive need for everyone to conform to their attitudes and behavior. If their complaints can be framed in terms of infringement of their personal rights, let them be adjudicated in the political sphere. Otherwise they should just get over it.

A true cosmopolitan attitude respects all value systems--including traditionalism, but it rejects any mentality that insists that everyone conform to its attitudinal and behavioral norms. It's impossible to have a healthy civil society so long as that kind of rigidity is legitimated. Intolerance and hatred and the belief systems that promote them cannot be given any respect, and must be condemned without equivocation. Liberals are quite justified in their negative judgments of right-wing rigidity insofar as the latter feels that their intolerance and hatred is justified.

Cosmopolitanism is in my view a normal requirement for any mature adult living in the real world. In other words people with Traditionalist beliefs must also be Cosmopolitans, at least when they do business in the political sphere. And Liberals, while they are right to condemn stupidity, intolerance, and hatred, must recognize that their perception of Traditionalists as stupid, intolerant, and hateful is based on not seeing or understanding what a healthy, intelligent, lifegiving traditionalism might offer.

So how does my defense of Liberalism here fit with my criticism of it in my posts over the last couple of weeks? For me it is not a question of rejecting what the Liberal spirit has given us--freedom, individuality, science, tolerance--it's a question of absorbing it and moving beyond it. And for me the moving beyond requires a retrieval of what Enlightenment modernity rejected--and the premodern world religious traditions, including the shamanic traditions, are a primary resource in that regard. We have to remember what was forgotten. That's a different thing from the kind of dead formalism and dogmatism of restorationist Catholics and the wooden imbecility of Protestant fundamentalism. There is so much that we have forgotten.

P.S. If you go to the Crooks and Liars page to view the Stewart Hitchens clip, also check out the Ann Coulter clip right below it in which she's asked whether she thinks New Yorkers are cowards. Her repsonse illustrates what I was talking about with regard for the contempt wingnuts hold Liberals. It was also implicit in Hitchens remarks. Liberals "immediately surrender" when they are attacked. Based on the performance of the Democrats in congress the last five years, she has reason to think so.

 

 

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Mainstream Wingnuttery. Is Pat Robertson borderline insane, or is he just becoming a little disinhibited in his dotage? His gaffe in calling for the assasination of Hugo Chavez was not that this good Christian was calling for the murder of the democratically elected president of another country, but that he was calling attention to the fact that we Americans do it all the time. We don't want the anesthetized naifs in the red states to know that. They have to believe that everything the U.S. does is for the noblest of purposes.

We have this thing in America called the military-industrial complex, see. And it's the beast that runs the show, and when it's crossed, it stomps on you. It has run both the Democratic and Republican parties since the end of WWII. It scared Eisenhower enough that in his parting address he tried to warn the country to get it under control before it's too late. There's some evidence that Kennedy was trying to steer a course independent of it, but Johnson gave it what it wanted after the Gulf of Tonkin in his more vigorous prosecution of the war in Vietnam.

It has become the tail wagging the dog. The proponents of the M/I Complex have shaped public discourse in this country so that it's now a given that its interests are identitical with the national interest. They have created a ravenous beast that demands to be fed, and there is quite frankly, no sating it. No matter how much you give it, it wants more. And the great treason of the McCarthy/ McGovern wing of the Democratic party in the seventies was that it tried to develop a policy that would mean cutting back on feeding it. But any sane ideas along those lines have been discredited ever since as being Liberal weakness. As a result, we don't have a democracy in this country; we have a two-party system in which both parties must bow to the beast or be dismissed as "not serious".

Nobody makes a move without the beast's tacit approval. It used the communist threat as a justification for its continued feeding, and now it is using the threat of Islamo-fascist terrorism. Because the M/I complex needs to be appeased , American leaders are under enormous pressure to use American brawn rather than brains, especially when developments around the world are not perceived to be in M/I Complex's interests. The M/I complex doesn't care about Islamic terrorism; it cares about making the oil reserves in the Middle East an American sphere of influence and to make those crazy Muslims behave as we have made the Latin Americans behave.

Robertson's fatwah on Chavez is completely consistent with the kind of thing the M/I complex orders all the time when countries in the U.S. sphere of influence show any signs of going their own way. Here's a little background for readers who might need a little brushing up on the subject from an article by Deborah James:

Robertson's Comments Consistent with US Government Policy

For years the US government has been working to create a climate hostile to the democratically elected government of Venezuela -- Pat Robertson's statements are, unfortunately, consistent with the actions of the Bush administration. The administration supported the 2002 coup against President Chávez, and has continued to fund coup leaders in their efforts to remove President Chávez from office after the coup.

Recently, the US has stepped up efforts to isolate Venezuela in the region (although these efforts have been largely rebuffed by other Latin American leaders.) Last week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld continued the Bush administration's rhetorical assault against President Chávez, re-issuing old and unsupported claims regarding Venezuela.

Yet in August 2004, President Chávez won a referendum on his presidency by 59%, results which were certified by the Organization of American States (OAS) and Carter Center as free and fair. His popularity currently stands at over 70% -- much higher than his US counterpart's, and one of the highest in Latin America. There is complete freedom of press, assembly, speech, and civil rights in the country, and there are no serious human rights organizations that have argued that these rights have been reduced under Chávez, nor do they compare unfavorably to other regional governments.

The policy of America's governmental antipathy towards Venezuela stems more from that country's creation of an alternative economic vision than unsubstantiated concerns regarding democracy. President Chávez has embarked on a series of economic reforms, such as funneling billions of oil industry profits into massive programs for health care, education, literacy, and clean water, and promoting regional integration, which fly in the face of Bush's failed efforts to promote corporate globalization by establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The US "free trade" economic model has failed to deliver growth in the region; according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Latin Americans have experienced less than .5% per capita economic growth overall in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, Chávez's economic policies (combined with oil profits) have made Venezuela the fastest growing economy in the region. But the American government's dislike for Chávez's vision certainly does not give anyone a license to kill.

In his comments, Robertson invoked the Monroe Doctrine, the primary instrument of the US policy of intervention and domination in the Western Hemisphere since 1823. "We can't allow this to happen in our sphere of influence," he said.

Past US involvement in the overthrow of democratically-elected governments weighs heavily on the minds of Latin Americans from countries like Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic. In addition, the US government has been connected to the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as the murders of Congolese President Patrice Lumumba, Chilean President Salvador Allende, and repeated attempts on the life of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Read more.

Listen, I'm not promoting Chavez as a saint. Even if he was democratically elected, he's another Latin American strongman in the authoritarian mode, but this time left leaning than right leaning. But so what, let the Venezuelans figure out their own destiny. We don't have any cold war excuse for deposing leftist governments anymore. My concern is with the U.S. And any kind of sane, progressive, principled politics in the America of the future will have to find some way to get this beast under control. I honestly don't know if it's possible. It could be that it's just too late for that.

 

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Neocon Nightmare World. When I first picked up Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the nineties, I feared that it would be a Rush Limbaugh-like rant against Liberal decadence. In some ways you could say it is, but unlike Limbaugh, you have to take Bloom seriously. He's got a case to make, and both he and Christopher Lasch, whose criticism of Liberalism comes from the left, make similar and to me persuasive cases for the inadequacy of secular Liberalism as a dominant culture-wide value system or worldview.

Neither Bloom nor Lasch have developed an alternative that makes any sense to me, but Lasch's celebration of the kind of relgious progressivism, quite alien to the spirit of Liberalism, that inspired the Civil Rights movement comes closer. For Bloom's thinking, as fairly typical of the thinking of all the Straussian neoconservatives, is a symptom of decadence rather than an antidote for it. Lasch understands the problem, but struggled in a much more wholesome way to develop a solution. The mistake the neocons make in my opinion is their belief that there should be no pluralism either in the political or cultural spheres. That a healthy society needs a unified cultural/political mythology to give it strength and coherency.

Both Bloom and Lasch understood that a society pays a price when it values individualism and freedom above all other values. For both men the laisser faire in Liberalism creates a fragmented, atomized society. This is a problem for Lasch because it diminishes the possibility for human community life, destroys local traditions and neighborhoods, and creates a culture of narcissism, a culture of minimal selves--of lost souls who don't know who they are, a society of ungrounded people who are empty of any real interior life, and who are therefore weak and easy to manipulate.

In other words, Liberalism creates a vacuum in the life of a society where instead there should be a soul. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so the emptiness is filled with the crudest kinds of impulses. I agree with Shadia Drury's reading of Bloom that he "believes that America fails to provide a culture that can be embraced, loved, and appropriated by its citizens. She offers them only an opportunity to devote themselves to the satisfaction of their brutish nature. Far from teaching them to have contempt for themselves and their brutishness, it teaches them smugness and self-satisfaction. America provides her people with nothing splendid and sublime to bow before." The American patriotism that tries be this sublime thing in American civil religion is the crudest kind of jingoism that appeals not to what is humanly noble, but to the base need to feel superior.

For Straussians feeling superior is good enough if it is a unifying social force. The problem lies with a society that is fragmented, because it is weak. An open, multicultural society in which every thing is equal, in which no value or cultural ideal is considered any better than any other, an anything-goes" different strokes for different folks" society loses any sense of cohesiveness and is very vulnerable to manipulation by a willful, well-disciplined minority that has no qualms about violently asserting its own values and suppressing any other value system as inferior and to be annihilated.

In other words, the easygoing, nonjudgmental laisser faire of Liberalism invites its own destruction by those whose attitudes are anything but laisser faire. The anything-goes decadence of the Weimar Republic created the conditions for the Nazis to bully their way into power. Strauss, a German Jew who fled the Nazis, saw structural similarities between the anything-goes liberalism of Weimar and the anything-goes mentality of the American Liberalism. He believed it was inevitable that the U.S. would succumb to an aggressive minority of thugs if Liberalism continued to be the main shaping force in American politics and culture.

For the neocons, politics is thuggery, and you fight thuggery with thuggery, so the only thing that matters is whether the thugs you approve of are running things. The thuggery that we began to see assert itself on the right starting with Newt Gingrich, the impeachment of Clinton, through to the the bullying of Tom Delay in the House are all justified by Straussian theory. It's thuggery in the cause of the higher good. They really believe that. Liberalism must be destroyed or America will be destroyed by its enemies.

For the Straussians, following Carl Schmidt, politics is not the sphere of compromise and working things out, it's the realm of domination of the weak by the strong. For the neocons, politics is war. It's about controlling the political process or being controlled, annihilating or being annihilated. They understand power as the central truth, and every other value has value only insofar as it promotes power. And the neocon influence in the Republican party seems bent on proving their theory right by doing everything it can to discredit and destroy Liberal ideas and Liberal institutions. And so far, judging by the compliancy of the Democrats, they seem to have proven their case.

All of this has become so much clearer for me after reading Shadia Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right -- particularly the virulence of the conservative attack on Liberalism which until recently I had naively dismissed as crackpot. Most normal people think of wingnuts like Limbaugh, Robertson, and Coulter as comical, barely sane troglodytes. These wingnuts, on the other hand, take the Liberals very seriously, and see them as a cancer that is destroying American society and making it spineless and weak, and as such all the more vulnerable to its enemies. They believe that Liberalism is destroying America, and they are totally committed to preventing that by destroying Liberalism. "Let the Liberals laugh at us," think the wingnuts. "We'll see how hard they laugh when eventually we put our boot on their throats."

The great virtue of the Liberal credo is its belief that a society can be built on truth, philosophy, and enlightened self-interest. But I also think that over the long haul that's not enough. Conservatives understand that a society needs myths, religion, and to stand for something worth dying for. Otherwise, as Drury points out, "it is little more than an animal farm." I would say that a postmodern America needs to find a way to integrate both the Liberal and Conservative credos.

But the conservative part is dangerous if the myths are not true narratives. By that I mean that they are true in a metaphorical or analogical sense--they use symbol and story to point to transcendent truths that are genuinely life-giving and profound. For the neocons, myths are simply arbitrary fictions whose value lies in their effectiveness to anesthetize and galvanize the masses. How to distinguish between the true and false myths is a tricky business, but it boils down to: By their fruits you will know them.

Until reading Drury's book, I thought that the alliance between the intellectually sophisticated neocons and the simplistic religious-right extremists like Falwell and Robertson was a marriage of convenience engineered for short-term political gains. But Drury makes clear that the neocons believe that the religious right is essential for continued American dominance because it provides the requisite myths that justify American supremacy.

The neocons themselves don't believe in the myths of religion--they are philosophers who have transcended the need for such childishness. Like the nihilists on the cultural left, they believe that philosophy necessarily leads one to understand that there is no God, that there is no truth, that there is only the void. But the few, the true philosophers, can confront the bleak truth of this metaphysical nihilism. And the truly great philosophers are the creators of the great metanarratives that inspire great cultures.

Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed constructed magnificent fictions, according to the neocons, that they themselves did not believe, but which they saw as meeting the needs of the people who could not live without such splendid illusions. The arrogance and cynicicsm of this kind of thinking is beyond comical. You have to be a madman to take it seriously, and yet these guys surround Bush and are directing policy.

This is why in my opinion Straussian neoconservatism is just as decadent as the left-leaning philosophies of Foucault and Derrida. Both left and right are nihilistic at their root; the difference lies in that the the Straussian rightists see themselves as socially responsible because they understand that society needs its myths and illusions and should not be disabused of them. They oppose the cultural left, which wants to evangelize its nihilism. Drury says of Bloom:

But it is important to recognize that Bloom does not condemn the universities for failing to inculcate the truth. On the contrary, he regards the truth as too dangerous to be spread liberally by universities intended for mass education. His point is that the universities because of their commitment to openness, have failed American society on two counts. They have failed to educate either the many or the few. First, they have failed to impart to the many what Strauss calls the noble lies or the salutary myths; the myth of of openness is destructive, not salutary. Second, the universities have failed to provide the few with what Bloom regards as an education in the real sense: a capacity to transcend the myths of the cave and see the truth. To do this, philosophy must dismantle culture, and Bloom warns that this is a "dangerous business." Philosophy breaks the spell of culture. It liberates man from the charms by which culture holds him captive. It is therefore a threat to civil society.

Strauss thought that the Athenians were correct in their condemnation of Socrates. Socrates was indeed corrupting the youths of Athens by breaking the spell the collective myths had on their minds and which undermined their ability to be loyal citizens who loved their city above all others. For the neocons, a society must believe in its superiority and it must be fanatically committed to its preservation precisely because of its belief in its superiority. It doesn't matter if in reality its customs, values, and achievements are no better or worse than that of its enemies. Power determines what the truth is, and history is written by the victorious. Does this sound familiar? We have Americans in power now who believe this.

For the Straussians, if a society does not believe in itself as superior in every way to its enemies, it will be defeated by an enemy who is not intimidated and that believes itself superior. The neocons therefore have formed an alliance with the Christian Right not for political convenience, but because the Christian Right naively and fanatically accepts the myth of American superiority and of its special God-given role in world history. The neocons support the wingnut attitude that anyone who does not believe this myth is an America-hater and, as Ann Coulter puts it, is guilty of treason. There is no gray area. There is no room to criticize. It's my country right or wrong--any other attitude leads to inevitable defeat by another society that believes in itself more.

Sane people dismiss extremists like Coulter as comical crazies. I know that's been my attitude. But the very fact that her views have been legitimated by her ubiquitous presence in the media points to the drift of things in this country toward insanity. What should by now be clear to everyone is that the right is not just indulging in a lot of crazy talk. They are walking their talk.

They look at the mainly passive, disorganized, fragmented Democrats and they say to themselves, "This is an enemy easy to defeat. The Liberals have no unifying religion or myths; they are fragmented, weak, and ripe for the taking." And they were taken in 2000. And they were taken again in the runup to the war in 2002. And they were taken yet again in the swiftboating of Kerry and the shenanigans in Ohio in 2004. The wingnuts have proven correct their critique of the Democrats as weak and spineless time and time again.

Does that mean that anybody who wishes to oppose the neocons must resort to thuggery to defeat them? No. But I do not believe that secular liberalism has the resources to defeat it. Even if the Democrats win in the short run, the problem remains for the long run. We need a tough, principled, idealistic politics in the spirit of King, Mandela, Gandhi. These men were not nihilists. They were genuinely religious humanists who understood evil and knew how to fight against it on their own principled terms, not on the terms defined by the thugs.

The Straussians are convinced that we all live in a nightmare world and that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to human existence, and they seem bent of turning our world into something that conforms to their imagination of it. It will be an American capitalist nightmare world that the neocons believe nevertheless all Americans should all embrace with patriotic fervor. They believe that the masses have to be anesthetized and controlled with myths and religious fictions, but that the grownups have to run things, and the grownups understand that it's all about power, and that so long as the U.S. has the enormous power it now possesses, it had better use it or lose it.

This explains their gambit in Iraq--it was an opportunity to fill a geopolitical power vacuum with American power after the collapse of the Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. It's a gambit that has failed--the Muslims there are not Liberals, and they do not fold so easily. But I for one am worried about what they have up their sleeve now that their policies are being discredited by their failure. They will not walk away with their tail between their legs. They still believe they are right even if their tactics were ineffective. They will not be gracious in defeat.

And they are not going away. Wingnuttery in America will always be a problem so long as there is a vacuum in American society where there should be a soul. How to solve that problem in a sane, progressive way is for me the most pressing issue that confronts Americans in the 21st Century

 

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Beltway Media as the Courtier Class, etc. I've written about it before, but I like Walter Birn's take on it in his post at Sullivan's site today:

What big-time Washington journalists largely do these days, in my experience, is to get as close as possible to power, socially and in every other way, while maintaining the legal fiction that they aren't implicated in its workings. They send their kids to school with power's kids, they marry it, they go to parties with it, they jabber with it on the phone, they watch the game with it from adjoining seats, and, as a natural result, they keep its confidences - until, that is, some secret leaks out anyway and they have to pretend that they didn't already know it but will get to the bottom of it immediately or that they knew it all along and just weren't telling their audiences because they were bound by some lofty code of ethics that allows them to do the jobs they rarely do. They're profound double-dealers, is what I'm saying, who pay for their access, influence, and by going along and getting along until it's simply too embarrassing not to. They reserve their best stories for one another, publishing them only when they have to and feeling very nervous when they do, because it might screw up the Great Arrangement. And afterwards, once the secrets are on the street, it often comes out that they were common knowledge among the people whose jobs it was to tell them.

I also sympathize with his earlier post in which he professes to be a-political.

Me, I don't even have a politics -- not in any coherent left-right sense -- and I wonder sometimes where other people get theirs. No one's born a Republican or a Democrat or even and Independent, for Pete's Sake, but in time we all become one or the other. Bowing to expectations, it seems to me, trying to seem grown-up and serious and entitled to join in a "debate" that's about as substantial sometimes as Friday night stadium cage-match. The older I get, the less I'm bothered by low voter turn-out. It's a rational response to an irrational spectacle that mostly just profits its promoters.

That was pretty much my attitude until recently. Who cares what I thought? And what do I know anyway? And what does anybody I get into some stupid political argument with know either? We're all just blowing smoke for the most part jabbering on about things that we have no direct experience of. The Beltway is the "heart of darkness", and who knows what really happens there, how things that are bent are made to look straight and vice versa. All we can do is piece things together from second- and third-hand sources.

But for sure what we don't know is so much greater than what we do. It's not a question about who really knows the raw truth; it's a question about who is controlling the mainstream narrative. The Straussian neocons understand that. They believe there is no truth except what the powerful say it is. Their basic media strategy is to control what is perceived to be normal reality by delegitimizing every narrative that competes with theirs as "not serious."

So it's clear that what I think would be perceived as not serious. So should I care? Throughout the nineties I didn't pay much attention to national politics. There were big energy-absorbing things going on in my real life that demanded my attention. And sure, I agree with Birn--it would be nice if we could live like Hobbits and attend only to affairs in our little world without bothering about what's happening in the larger world. But we cannot. There is too much at stake for us now.

I've become convinced in recent years that we're in the midst of a momentous shift, and that we're at a special moment when any number of different outcomes is possible. It's easy not to see it or to dismiss its symptoms as nothing new--just the same old, same old in new packaging. But something very significant is happening now, and because I was aware of no one speaking about it in a way that connected with my experiencce, I tried to clarify for myself what I thought was going on and what needed to be done about it in a book. You can read the introduction for it here.

The main point of the book is that we are entering an era in which the old narratives longer make any sense, and that a new one will inevitably have to be developed. It's not that the old ones were untrue. It's just that they were suitable for a particular kind of consciousness, a consciousness that was shaped in the premodern and modern eras. The tension for the past five hundred years was between the modern Enlightenment narrative and the premodern Christian medieval narrative. That's what's still being played out in this evolutionism vs. creationism debate. It's an old argument, and it's a waste of time.

The tension that we'll be living with in the future is the emerging postmodern narrative, whatever it might be, versus the rationalist, mechanomorphic narrative that is the reductio ad absurdum of the the modern Enlightenment narrative. It will continue to influence our future with all the devleopments in cybernetics, robotics, genetic engineering that are all moving us toward what some are predicting will be a "posthuman" future by the middle of this century. Enormous power for good and for destruction will be put in human hands in the next couple of decades. Who knows what's going to happen, but the worst possibility would be to let power and money write the script that legitimates their corrupt dealings. We need to recover our souls. We need to make a culture where the human soul, not the machine is the central human metaphor.

An alternative narrative has to be developed. Letting the market and free scientific inquiry do its thing is more than likely to lead to disaster. It's allowing the tail to wag the dog. We have to develop a narrative that must be rooted in the wisdom traditions of the past, but it has to be radically open to the future--the Absolute Future, a name used to describe God by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. A future, in other words that builds on the best of what those who have come before us have bequeathed us, but which understands that everything about what we humans might become in the future cycles of time is open-ended and will be shaped by the choices we humans make with the unprecedented power that will be at our disposal.

As I said the worst thing we can do is let power and money control the narrative. And of course I write from the perspective of a Christian still trying to find a way to stick it out with the Catholics, a task I'm finding more difficult with each passing year. I'm holding on by my fingernails, not because I don't believe everything that the great tradition it preserves has handed down to us, but because the institution seems to have become so much dead wood when the world needs desperately something green and vibrant.

Anyway, my book is not something I've aggressively pursued for publication. I worked several years as a book editor in NY, and I realize that if someone like me submitted to me the book I've written, I would turn it down. I recognize no matter how interesting or insightful the book may be, the publishing world operates according to a market logic, and there is, for now at least, only limited receptivity the ideas I want to share. Conventional Catholics aren't comfortable with it because they have no sense for the drama of the evolution of consciousness. New Agey types aren't interested because my Christian traditionalism seems too contraining to them. Secular Liberals are uncomfortable with it because of the religious focus and because of my respect for the premodern. So there's no ready-made or clearly identifiable market.

That may or may not change. And one way I have to measure that is the number of people who regularly read and respond to my blog here. If it ever grows to a critical mass, perhaps I'll pursue the book thing again, but for now, I'm happy to have my more or less daily say here.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

It's the Culture, Stupid. I've been following the debate about the future of the Democrat Party, and it's interesting to me how many mainstream Democrats do not see the defeats of the last two election cycles as major disasters. In their thinking the Dems really won the 2000 election, and they only lost in 2004 by a couple of percentage points. According to this logic, the country is evenly divided, and the only reason the GOP won in the last election is because Americans are reluctant to change presidents when the country is at war.

Many of these Democrats believe that history is on their side and that as soon as Americans wake up to the fact that their economic interests lie with the Dems and their programs, they will vote rationally accroding to pocketbook logic.

But I'm more and more convinced that at this time in our history it's not the economy; it's the culture, stupid. This gets discussed in the MSM as the debate over moral values, and it's that, but at a deeper level it's about identity. It's about which team you are on--the traditionalists or the cosmopolitans, and the split between them is as fierce now as any split in the nation since the Civil War.

Moral attitudes are intimately linked with identity, with one's sense of self, and the GOP has a more solid grip on the national identity because it presents itself as the defender of well-understood traditional moral attitudes. But as I've pointed out before, the traditionalist red-state morality has little to do with behavior. Traditionalists are equally, or more, inclined to behave immorally as those in blue states. It's not a behavioral difference; it's an attitudinal one.

"Heaven Is Just a Sin Away" is the title of a country western song from the seventies that I heard by chance on the radio yesterday. It talks about a woman struggling to be faithful to her husband, but it's clear she's all but slipped away. It's a vocabulary that isn't even conceivable in cosmopolitan cultural precincts. And it reinforces the point that traditionalist behavior is no more or less moral than cosmopolitan behavior. The difference lies in that the the traditionalists in the red states feel the need to condemn such behavior as wrong even if they celebrate it in song. The cosmopolitans, even if they are not themselves involved in such behaviors, are more laissez faire, and it's precisely their laissez faire attitude that outrages the traditionalists.

Does society suffer if cosmopolitan, anything goes-ism dominates the culture? It's an interesting question that I'm not sure about how to answer. Two or three years ago I would have said No and that society benefits from the tolerant attitudes typical of cosmopolitanism. But now I would say No and Yes. There is a wishy-washiness that is a part of the cosmopolitan package that creates real problems, and the first of them is its naiveté and surprise when bad guys come along who don't play by the rules.

Cosmopolitans seem defenseless against it; they assume everyone will be as rational, tolerant, and fairminded as they are. They want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and they are easily manipulated by the unscrupulous. And the proof of it is the way the Democrats have been incapable of effectively confronting the unscrupulousness of the Republicans in the last two presidential elections. They lack toughness and discipline, and unless that changes, I don't care if the country is evenly divided attitudinally, the Dems will keep losing.

The one stereotype about secular cosmopolitan Liberals I think is grounded in reality is that they don't grasp the reality of evil. They tend to think of it as the result of poor socialization that can be remedied in therapy, and conservatives rightly make fun of such an attitude. Evil is real, and it's brutal, fanatic, unscrupulous, and uncompromising when it gets a hold of people. And most of the time it doesn't let go unless there is some radical intervention.

And evil, when it is associated with the aggregation of political and economic power, must be resisted and given no quarter. And the GOP, no matter that it is robed in the sheep's disguise of traditional Christian morality, is the party which promotes the aggregation of political and economic power in the hands of the few. The GOP is run by riverboat con men who are gaming the system, quoting the scriptures all the way, and if they are not stopped they will run this country into the ground quicker than you can say banana republic.

And that's why I roll my eyes when I read the political analysts of the oh-so rational Democrat wonks who think we'll do better in the next election cycle because the numbers are on their side. That assumes that everyone votes rationally, and hardly anybody votes rationally. These Democrats think that it's just a matter of framing their message more effectively, but they will be outframed and out maneuvered time and time again until they realize what they are up against.

And even if they get into office they will be as effective in changing things as Bill Clinton was in reforming national healthcare. They will be outmaneuvered and outframed on every issue that supposedly they have the numbers to succeed with. Most Americans want a sane health care system. Most Americans want a sane energy policy. Why don't most Americans get what they want? Because there are a few Americans who have most of the political power, and these few Americans don't want what most Americans want, and they will do everything they can to insure they win, no matter whether it's Dems or the GOP in the White House and Congress. The Dems have proven themselves so easy to coopt and buy off. They are as a group pathetic.

So while I could not disagree more with his solution, I do I agree with Leo Strauss's evaluation of cosmopolitan liberalism as a problematic cultural attitude. It is weak and ineffective when confronted with any well disciplined opposition. Mainstream cosmpolitians also have a hard time understanding how the irrational elements of identity and culture politics can be manipulated to drive the political process. Because they are themselves not influenced by such appeals, they tend to undervalue how others are profoundly affected by them.

The most positive cosmopolitian assets are their embrace of rationality, tolerance, and pluralism, but those are their greatest weaknesses, too. Because they are divided and wonkishly dispassionate about their agenda in a way that weakly contrasts with the unity and passion right-wingers have with regard to theirs. History is not driven by the lukewarm majority; it is driven by the passionate few. Look at Iraq. It doesn't matter that most Iraqis want peace and order, this majority of Iraqis doesn't have the power to deliver it. And in our country, the Democrats right now are the party of the lukewarm who are likewise powerless to do anything no matter how sane their program and how large a majority that supports it in opinion polls.

So what's the solution? I don't see any concrete signs of one developing that I think will be effective, but I certainly don't expect it to come from the policy wonks or their ilk in the Brookings Institution. It has to develop from a grass-roots cultural shift. It has to arise as the Civil Rights movement arose. It has to be passionate, disciplined, and singleminded, but it cannot stoop to using the dirty tactics of the right. In other words, religion and ideals like justice and compassion have to to be inspiring factors that undergird rather than undermine a toughminded, disciplined progressive politics. That's something that Strauss would understand and perceive as dangerous.

But unlike Strauss, who saw religion as a noble delusion, I see it as pointing to something quite real. And religion has the potential to inspire noble action only when it is real; it is most dangerous when it is used to legitimate delusions, particularly nationalistic and patriotic delusions. There is no greater power on the face of the earth capable of more wanton destruction than religion in the service of a delusion. And that's the part that Strauss just didn't get. More on this as we go along.

 

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Quote of the Day:

George Bush talks about caring about the troops who get killed in Iraq. Sherwood was killed protecting the people looking for weapons of mass destruction on April 26, 2004. This was one month after Bush was joking [at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, on March 24] about looking for weapons of mass destruction. And then my Sherwood is dead trying to protect people looking for them because Bush said it was so important to the safety of our country.

I don't want anyone else to go through this, not an American, not an Iraqi, no one. As a person of faith, I firmly believe we have the ability to provide better answers on how to resolve conflict than what Bush is offering us. I've tried to meet with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, I was turned away by armed guards. It's incumbent upon everybody to take responsibility about what is happening in our country. I have no recourse but to go to Crawford to do what I can to change the disastrous course we are currently on and to bear witness to the true costs of this war.--Celeste Zappala, Co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace

There are many things worth dying for, but George Bush's foolishness is not one of them. I can only begin to imagine the grief and the rage of the parents who have saccrificed their children for this idiocy.

***

Right-Wing Humor. Bush is a pretty funny guy, what with hilarious routine about missing WMD at the correspondents' dinner, but Bob Novak is a real stitch, too, when it comes to entertaining our craven Beltway press corp. This from a piece on Novak by Sidney Blumenthal in today's Salon:

Just last year, the investigation was a laughing matter for Novak. He appeared onstage at the annual dinner at the Gridiron Club, the exclusive inner circle of the Washington press corps, of which he is a long-standing member. As a gag, Novak was attired as former diplomat Wilson, wearing top hat and cutaway coat, singing to the tune of "Once I Had a Secret Love": "Novak had a secret source who lived within the great White House ... so he outed a girl spy the way princes of darkness do ... Now John Ashcroft asks Bob who and how, could be headed to the old hoosegow." He belted out his last line with panache: "Cross the right wing you may try, Bob Novak's coming after you." The press corps hooted and clapped. They loved that Bob.

 

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Fragile Democracy. Americans pride themselves on having the world's oldest democracy. This idea is such a sacred cow in America's self-understaninding of itself that it rarely occurs to them that it could ever be in danger. American democracy is in our imagination of it an eternal truth, as enduring as the flow of the Mississippi River. But the fact is that the American people have very little knowledge of and any control over what its government does. We just trust that our guys in office are more or less going to do the right thing.

Sure, they'll make mistakes once in awhile, but their hearts are in the right place--they're Americans aftter all. Sure, when things get really out of hand, we can vote the rascals out. But for the most part we trust that the people we put into office are motivated by the greater good. It is self-evident to us all that democracy is the only kind of government worth having, and ours is as good as it gets.

Plato and Leo Strauss, however, thought democracy was the second worst form of government, tyranny being the worst. In Plato's view democracy was almost as bad as tyrrany because it always devolved into tyranny. Democracy is an impossible ideal; it's too vulnerable to one or another power coalition emerging and imposing its will on the body politic. For Strauss the Weimar Republic in Germany was the classic example of a liberal democracy devolving into tyranny. According to Shadia Drury:

Strauss saw liberal society as devoid of any authoritative truth. He saw it as a world in which all opinions, all preferences, and all religions were of equal worth. He felt that this state of affairs creates a vacuum at the heart of liberal society. As the vacuum grows, the struggle to fill it intensifies, and the desire to have it filled becomes irresistible. Under such circumstances, the most single minded, ruthless, and daring are bound to emerge victorious. In other words, there is a great danger that America might repeat the errors and terrors of Europe.

The error being the way in which Weimar Germany inevitably turned into Nazi Germany because the single-mindedness, ruthlessness, and daring of Hitler and his merry men. They exploited the vulnerability of democratic process and came into power legitimately. No military coup was necessary, but it was a coup nevertheless. Strauss believed that American society is vulnerable in the same way because of the vacuum that is at the heart of American culture. He thought it was vulnerable because of the softness of American liberals who are morally confused ditherers who could be easily run over by anybody with the will to do so.

Now one of the basic arguments I've been making all along is very similar to the one that Strauss made. I don't believe Liberalism as a belief system is robust enough to withstand the aggressiveness of the ruthless and single-mnded. We've seen how weak it is in the last two national elections in which the Democrats produced weak candidates who allowed themselves to be run over in Florida and Ohio. But unlike Strauss I do believe along with the nation's founding fathers that the well-being of a republican form of government can be maintained if it is able to live with and promote a healthy pluralism.

And that requires a secular state where contending factions with their different beliefs meet and wrangle. The great innovation of modern liberal democracies is the idea that the government can and should be religion free. That's the great experiment we have been undertaking, and which must be defended against the neocons and those with whom they are allied on the relgious right. The neocons are creating exactly the kind of state they say they fear, and I guess it's ok for them so long as they are the ones in power.

I usually support the Democrats because they are open to pluralism in a way that the Republicans simply are not. I usually support the Democrats because they at least pay lip service to the concerns of low- and middle-income Americans; Republicans do not care about those constituencies. I support the Democrats because somebody has to provide a robust counterbalance to the neocon/Republican agenda which is transforming our republic into corporate plutocracy disguised as a Christian theocracy.

The Democrats are, of course, complicit in selling out the country to corporate interests; they are complicit in the corrupt campaign financing system; they have become increasingly beholden to big money, and it's for that reason that working and middle class Americans cannot take them seriously as truly representing their interests. This is why so many Americans, who should be a natural constituency for the the Democrats, have stopped voting for them. And why so many who do vote for them do so without enthusiasm. At least the Republicans care about moral issues that concern these former Democrats. The Democrats now represent nothing that they care about.

I understand how they feel. My sharing in that disgust with the Democrat wishy-washy world view has made it impossible for me to ever enthusiastically support them and their program. They are better than the Republicans, but only because the Republicans are so dangerous and so duplicitous. The Democrats do not offer a robust alternative. Their role has degenerated into simply trying to slow the Republican juggernaut.

What do Liberals believe in? Reasoned discourse? Fair play and working through the process? Science? Tolerance? That's all fine so long as everybody chooses to play by the rules, but Liberals, indeed, are helpless against the single-minded, ruthless, and daring. It's just a matter of time before the latter take over the shop.

So what's the solution? For Plato and the Straussian neocons the best form of government is aristocracy, the rule of the "aristos", the "best", the philosophers, the wise men. And that requires in our current historical context a Christian evangelical theocracy--the aristos for Americans have to be " men of God." That's why George Bush was such an ideal candidate for the GOP. He is utterly unsuited for the office in any meaningful way except as a figurehead "Godly man" with a big name.

That many of the neocons are Jews or atheists doesn't matter. They see themselves as the powers behind the throne, the real wise men who are piloting the ship of state. The problem is that in a world with so many bad guys, the aristos have got to play dirty because the game is dirty. Their noble ends justify their less than noble means for winning and maintaining power. It's all in the interests of the greater good. Promoting fictions for popular consumption is one of their main tools. They believe, echoing Jack Nicholson, that the people don't want the truth because they can't handle the truth.

The American founding fathers knew their political philosophy, and they understood how fragile democracy was. Central to their attempt to create a system that would avoid Plato's predicted degeneration of their hoped for republican democracy into tyranny was the idea of checks and balances and of competing factions balancing one another out. The system only works if there is a healthy pluralism; it only works so long as one faction doesn't acquire too much power. So the most pressing question for me right now is how to preserve a healthy pluralism. The worst thing would be for the people on the left to play using the cynical neocon tactics. The goal is to find our way back to a mediocre balance.

That's the opportunity we missed in not electing Kerry. He was mediocre, but he would have given the country an chance to find a little more balance. I would not envy his having inherited Iraq, but he would have had a better chance of working things out than these foolish wise men now in charge of our foreign policy.

But the neocons understand vacuum politics. They saw right away after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, that there was a power vacuum in the Middle East, and they to developed a bold single-minded strategy to fill it with American power that neither Bush Sr nor Bill Clinton had the courage to adopt. In the eighties they saw that there was a power vacuum in American politcs with its mushy left and delusional right, so they moved in to fill it. They are firmly rooted now at every level of the government, and the question is whether there is a constituency or coalition of constituencies in the U.S. right now that has the singlemindedness to root them out.

 

 

Sunday, August 7, 2005

Evolutionism as Belief. Philosopher of Science Philip Ruse in his book The Creation Evolution Struggle makes the obvious point. This from a Salon article today:

Creationism and evolutionism, he says, are siblings, born of the same historical crisis, and they provide distorted reflections of each other. "The two sides share a common set of questions and, in important respects, common solutions," he writes. More explosively, he thinks both are essentially theological in character; they are "rival religious responses to a crisis of faith -- rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates, and above all what theologians call rival eschatologies -- pictures of the future and of what lies ahead for humankind."

Ruse is drawing a crucial distinction between evolutionary science, narrowly considered -- which need not have any religious or spiritual consequences -- and evolutionism, the secular, atheistic religion he says often accompanies and enfolds Darwinism. Leading evolutionists like Dawkins, Ruse believes, have failed to draw clear distinctions between the two, and have led many to believe that Darwinian science is fatally allied to an arrogant atheism and a hostile caricature of religious belief. In essence, Ruse believes that fundamentalist evolutionists like Dawkins and W.D. Hamilton hold similar beliefs to fundamentalist creationists -- both sides would agree that Darwinism is a "dark theology" that removes ultimate meaning and purpose from the universe and augurs the death of God.

You might say that, in this new book, Ruse is calling for a Reformation within the church of evolutionism. He himself honors the truth claims of science and is "a hell of a lot closer" to atheism than to religious belief. But he thinks evolutionists must purge themselves of reflexive anti-religious fervor, and acknowledge at least the potential validity of the classic Augustinian position that science and theology can never directly contradict one another, since science can only consider nature and God, by definition, is outside nature. Without this consciousness, Ruse suggests, evolutionism is in fact a secular religion, a church without Christ. And if that's what it is, what is it doing in biology class? The current Supreme Court, trending ever rightward on questions of religion in public life, may wish to address this question sooner rather than later.

Exactly. From my point of view it's astonishing that this argument between creationists and evolutionists has had such staying power, and it's a very good example of the kind of argument typical of our culture in which both sides are stupidly wrong, but the argument is presented as if one or the other must be right.

But if evolutionism is wrong in presenting itself as science rather than as a belief system, so are some factions within the Intelligent Design community. And that's what leads to their not being taken seriously. Neither is science; both have validity only insofar as they are a reflection on the facts, attempts to connect the value-neutral dots uncovered by scientific research. The argument here ought not to be about whether one or the other is better science, but about which interpretation of the facts is more philosophically coherent.

Ruse is clear about which side he's on. He has spent his life arguing against the Creationists and Intelligent Design people, but he's clearheaded enough to understand that his argument is philosophical not scientific. They're not the same thing. What science can affirm as true is very, very limited and has little relevancy beyond questions about the 'How' of things. It has no jurisdiction regarding the 'Why' of things. Do the facts avail themselves of an atheistic interpretation? Of course they do. But they also avail themselves of a theistic interpretation. But neither interpretation is a part of scientific discourse.

Everything depends on what your fundamental assumptions are. Do you start with the assumption that matter is anterior to mind? Well that inclines you to certain conclusions. But if you start with the assumption that mind is anterior to matter, as almost all the great philosophies of the world have done, it leads to quite different conclusions. And any theism obviously assumes that mind is anterior to matter

For more read my piece on Cardinal Schoenborn's NYT op-ed piece here.

 

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Power is Truth in Neoconville

Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make "philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector." That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn't like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.

Mr. Kristol led by example, using The Public Interest to promote supply-side economics, a doctrine whose central claim - that tax cuts have such miraculous positive effects on the economy that they pay for themselves - has never been backed by evidence. He would later concede, or perhaps boast, that he had a "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit."

"Political effectiveness was the priority," he wrote in 1995, "not the accounting deficiencies of government."
Corporations followed his lead, pouring a steady stream of money into think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world of "scholars" whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.

You might have thought that a strategy of creating doubt about inconvenient research results could work only in soft fields like economics. But it turns out that the strategy works equally well when deployed against the hard sciences.
The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren't. And behind it all lies lavish financing from the energy industry, especially ExxonMobil. Read more.

The basic strategy that we have seen time and time again is for the right to sow the seeds of doubt. They know that most people don't really know what's going on. They know the power-compliant media won't challenge their falsehoods. So the the task for them is to develop alternative narratives that serve their poltical ends that have the trappings of plausibility despite having little connection to the truth. They don't have to prove anything; they only have to cause people to throw their hands up in confusion--to get them to the point where they don't know who's right.

In this sense it's fair to say that they are "swiftboating" global warming and any number of other issues where the truth undermines their political agenda. And if there's enough money and power behind the effort, you can make people wonder whether up is really down.

P.S. I agree with Krugman about how fundamentalists are using some intelligent design ideas as a way to undermine evolutionary science. But I think there needs to be a distinction made between science and one's interpretation of what the science means. I think that many religiouis believers, and I'm one of them, have no quarrel with science, but we are uncomfortable with the materialist meaning framework that often, even if unconsciously, surrounds the presentation of scientific knowledge.

Intelligent design is nonsense if it presents itself as an alternative to evolutionary science, but it's valid insofar as it is presented as a valide attempt to grapple with the significance or meaning of what science gives us as knowledge. Science gives us the mechanics, but not the meaning. Meaning comes from philosophical or theological reflection. But any theology or philosphy is constrained by the facts.

 

Friday, August 5, 2005

The Neocon/Christian Fundamentalist Linkage. I have commented before on this strange-bedfellows link between sophisticated neocons and bumpkin fundamentalists that defines the powerbase of the GOP coalition. But I have never seen its deeper logic spelled out so clearly before in how the political philosophy of Leo Strauss is the blueprint for its construction.

From an Amazon review by Panopticonman of Shadia Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right:

According to Drury, Strauss's philosophy accepts the death of God, (unlike traditional conservatism) and then moves positivistically (unlike traditional conservatism) to fill the vacuum with elite group of self-elected philosopher kings. This elite, alive to the nihilism of the liberal ethos and its potentially anarchic consequences, believes it must act forcefully to paper over the hole left by His demise. Their esoteric/exoteric readings of philosophy tell them they must forge from the ashes a seamless, monocultural machine to encourage obedience and stanch chaos. This nationalistic machine must be equipped with a religion (any religion) and a mythic culture based on flag-reverence and knee-jerk patriotism. This is necessary because pluralistic, liberal societies cannot meet the challenge posed by well-organized, culturally cohesive states. Because the mass of men are primitive, credulous, prone to error and evil, the state with the best machine necessarily will win. Straussians, unlike traditional conservatives who see the state as malevolent, justify their activism by insisting that as philosophers they are immune to temptations of power.

Here we have Leo Strauss as the Grand Inquisitor, the unbelieving hierophant who uses religion to save us from our own worst tendencies. This cynicism that masquerades as idealism is appalling, especially to those of us who are genuine believers.

According to Drury, a particularly striking strategy of Straussian conservatives is their struggle to identify and mythologize American traditions. She points out that while Burke had the last remnants of feudalism to extol as a naturally just system, American conservatives have been forced to create a "traditional" America out of whole cloth. To do so, according the Drury, Strauss's followers have invaded history departments across the US where they have been working hard to uncover "tradition" in the beginnings of America, a difficult task given that America was the first truly modernist state. Nevertheless, these historians, depending upon which ax they are grinding, rewrite American history either to prove that colonial America was feudal, or to prove the Founding Fathers were not Deists and creatures of the (Liberal) Enlightenment, but rather Platonists.

Drury notes that like postmodernists on the left, Straussians believe there is no ultimate truth, but that instead there are only discourses of power and that whoever controls the discourse wins. She notes that this is what makes American politics so narrow and so tedious -- the right and the left both operate from the same morally bankrupt premise.

This is what Nazis and Marxist Leninists also believe: He who has the power defines what's true, and rewrites history to reflect that truth. It's all about power, and that's why what we're witnessing in the Beltway right now is so disturbing. These guys are profoundly cynical; they understand power, and they will not relinquish it gracefullly.

***

The Big Picture.

In all human cultures, there have always been those who have warned people again and again that we cannot live on lies or thrive on degeneration. We have always been free to ignore such warnings, but we certainly have never been free of the fatal consequences of such ignorant decisions. Whenever human beings abandon the principles of reality for the foundationless hallucinations of egotism, willful ignorance, selfishness and greed, disaster must and will come to raze such illusions to the ground. This is as implacably true for civilizations as it is for individuals.-- Diane Harvey

***

The real problem stems from two incontrovertible facts: that reserves of oil and other non-renewable resources will someday run out, and that on its current course, the Earth is soon to become overloaded with people. . . . As the situation gets worse, governance in the traditional mode, based around at least the pretense of liberal democracy, will become impossible. Instead, naked power grabs will become the norm for wealthy elites capable of mounting them. "The people"'s job will be simply to provide money and labor for the war machines that make these imperial conquests possible; those who aspire to a role in their own governance beyond subsidizing imperial expansion will be brutally repressed.-- Mike Ward

I'm in a bad mood right now because I'm not seeing a way out. We are participating in a slow descent into barbarism, and hardly anyone is diagnosing correctly the causes. It's as if we're eating food that looks and tastes good and yet has zero nutritional value, and we're dying slowly and can't figure out why. Can't you feel it? It's as if nothing about our society, as real as it appears, is real. It's a charade of the real. It's real in a bloodless, zombie sort of way.

We are trusting that it will all work out somehow, that the decency of our leaders will insure a cure. Oy.

In light of what I wrote yesterday, I think it's true--there's not much difference between Democrats and Republicans as individuals. Both parties haave noble ideals and both embrace a mix of human types, some better than others. But there's something driving the Republican party right now that is downright scary. And it's not clear to me that there's anything that can stop it. It's the same thing that was driving things at least since the Democrat administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. Call it the Beltway Establishment, the Military Industrial Complex--whatever--but it is the real power behind the throne no matter who temporarily occupies it. It's like a pagan deity that demands its sacrifices as a sign of obeisance.

There's some evidence that Kennedy tried to free himself from it and to go his own way after the Bay of Pigs, and it's clear that the Democrats tried to free themselves from it in the seventies. But if you don't pay obeisance the powers behind the throne, you're very quickly discredited as not "serious." The Democrats have ever since 1972 been ridiculed as lacking seriousness as McGovernite, hippie peaceniks.

In any event, the DLC was invented in the eighties by Democrats who came to understand that they would be forever shut out of power unless they paid their obeisance. They presented themselves as the "serious" Democrats, as the "new," grown-up Democrats. But really they are only the Democrats who are willing to pay their obeisance. Clinton, a former chairman of the DLC, was given a shot, but he was not someone the Beltway Establishment ever trusted or felt comfortable with, never really thought of as "serious." They kept him on his heels and constrained him from ever getting any momentum on policies that were not it tune with its agenda.

George Bush is more their kind of guy. How else to explain how this mediocre man has been given a free pass on every controversy from his less than exemplary biography. If he got even a tenth of the scrutiny that was given to Clinton, he could never have been elected dog catcher. But he is one of the Beltway's own, and that makes all the difference.

One thing we have to keep in mind is that whatever negative perceptions we have about any candidates who defy the Beltway Establishment is based on how they are portrayed by the Beltway Media. Our perceptions of Carter as the moralistic control freak who gave up the Panama Canal is a negative media caricature. Our negative perceptions of Dean, Kerry, Clinton and Gore are a media caricatures. Reagan was a joke, but the MSM always portrayed him in the most reverential terms--he was a positive media caricature. The same is true for Bush Jr.

I understand that American society is complex, and that even within this right-wing culture there are competing factions. I realize that nobody has complete control. I realize that at the heart of this extremist mentality is a power-crazed delusionism that ultimately causes it to overreach and to self-destruct. I am not a fatalist. There is always the surprise element, the obscure, under-the-radar efforts of so many good people whose heroism, dismissed by Power as "not serious," causes nevertheless the ruin of great powers. There is grace. There are always unforseen opportunties. But it's important to get as clear a picture about what we're dealing with here, to understand how formidable a power we are confronting, and to do everything we can to work for its defeat earlier rather than later. But you can't defeat what you don't see or don't understand for what it is.

So yes, on one level, especially the local level, Democrats are neither better nor worse than Republicans, but it's clear that factions within the Democrats have a better record of resistance to the agenda of the Beltway militarists, even if it has been without much success. And for that reason, we need to support its candidates at the national level no matter what their human frailties.

 

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Who Are the Good Guys? As rank-and-file Republicans are waking up to smell the corruption and lying of the party they have supported, they usually fall back on the comforting thought that the Democrats are no better. And it's a tough argument to have to defend Democrats, because I don't really believe they are any better. Wherever a party is entrenched, corruption and abuse of power are the m.o.

The corrupting agent isn't ideology; it's power. The ideology is just window dressing used to cover their crimes. And if the Democrats in Washington have any claim to righteousness recently, it's mainly a function of their lack of power. The stink coming from Democrats in Chicago is pretty bad at the moment. Wm. Jefferson, the Democratic congressman from New Orleans, a political culture famous for its world-class stench, isn't smelling too pretty at the moment either.

I don't know if there have been any studies done to establish which party has the worse record of corruption. And I'm sure there are any number of local machines, Democrat or Republican, where it would be pretty hard to tell which is worse. It depends on which machine is dominant because such dominance almost always leads to a culture of corruption, and the Democrats have had their day. It's just human nature. Just as sharks are attracted by the smell of blood, so are the worst kind of people attracted to the smell of power and money. The more concentrated the power and money, the greater the concentration of crooks jockeying for their opportunity to feed. And the crooks define the de facto culture that hides behind the facade of patriotism and ideological commitment.

The problem is that decent people are nauseated by politics and turn away. This increases their feeling of alienation; they don't bother to vote, don't bother to pay attention. They say a pox on both their houses, and then pretty much let them do as they please. And maybe that would be ok if there were not so much at stake right now. I don't have time today to expand on this, but I have some ideas I want to share on the subject later.

 

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

GWOT to GSAVE. At first I thought, "How stupid do they think we are?" But I guess that's just my West Coast cultural elitism showing through. That this move is transparently directed toward lowering expectations and masking the failure in Iraq must be just a sign of my bias and my knee-jerk disapproval of everything this administration does.

"But it's just so obvious," I think to myself. And then again, these guys do seem to know what they're doing when it comes to their Orwellian style of marketing. It works, no matter how crude. They know what they have to do to get their 51%.

But it's a clear signal that the administration does not think the war is winnable. What war? Repeat after me: We're not in war; we're is a struggle against violent extremism. Now say it ten times to yourself, and any memory of the global war on terror will be forgotten.

And it's clear that they're preparing the ground for withdrawal without having too much egg on their face (but what about the blood on their hands?) Inevitably we're going to have our departure from the rooftop moment here, if not literally, at least figuratively. And it's all about the midterm elections. The Hackett/Schmidt special election in Ohio today should be an interesting bellwether. If Hackett does well, get ready for some serious GOP panic.

 

Monday, August 1, 2005

Class in America.

Liberals used to have close connections with blue collar laborers. But in the 1960s and 70s, the leaders of the liberal movements also became increasingly college educated, distancing themselves culturally from blue collar workers. The liberals, however, did not connect with the new generation of college-educated white collar workers. In fact, they tended to look down at those corporate cogs. Instead, liberals connected with "counter-culture" types--academics, artists, socialists--people who avoided or opposed the emerging corporate culture. This made the liberals easily open to the charge of being elites. purplestate, a TPM bookclub respondent

This is one of some interesting comments in response at TPM's bookclub discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas. Class in America has always been a reality, but so has social mobility. But the evidence is growing that since 1980 a more rigid stratification has begun to set in. It stands to reason that the American Dream, version 1.0 based on the Horatio Alger narrative will eventually become obsolete as the avenues for upward mobility become clogged with obstructions. But it still seems to have a hold on the American imagination.

The concept of "class" is not part of our national identity or our national mythology. For example, we're supposed to be a country where even a simple shoeshiner could become president. But we've so failed to analyze the class implications of that ideal that the OPPOSITE has become true and only the perversely wealthy have any hope of a successful campaign. Radical liberals sometimes joke that the working class vote Republican because they want to maintain the fantasy that they will someday win the lottery and then the Republicans will protect their windfall. There's probably an element of truth to that, but more importantly, Americans just aren't comfortable thinking in terms of class and have no uniquely American words for talking about it. I think this is the primary explanation for why America isn't holding corporations and their super-rich CEOs responsible for anything. It's eminently American to think of those CEOs as just "average workers" who "earn what they have". JesseBB at TPM

I think this is an important point. Populism has always been driven by both economic interests and culturally anti-elitist, down-home values. And the most significant political shift in the U.S. has been the split between them.The elites used to be the wealthy northeastern swags with their hoity-toity airs, and they made their home with the Republicans. The Democrats had been the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian voice for the family farmer, the working class, and chunks of the middle class.

The Republicans were the voice of a lingering remnant of the old Hamiltonian Federalist Party, and the bankers, financiers, country-club rich--made their home there. But it also attracted professionals and small-business owners class, who for different reasons wanted government off their backs. But as the quote from purplestate above suggests, something changed in the 1970s when Democrats became primarily associated with the college educated and their anti-traditional aesthetic. As Daniel Yankelovich points out in a speech worth reading in its entirety:

A cultural revolution incubated on the nation’s college campuses in the 1960s. Initially, its true nature was disguised by the Vietnam war protests, but when the war ended the unrest on campus turned out not to be essentially about antiwar protests and radical politics but rather about cultural values. It was characterized by sharp discontinuities in many traditional values. For example, we lurched from lockstep social conformity to insisting on choosing our own lifestyles. We shifted from living in the future to living in the present. Our focus on work lurched for a short period of time to a focus on leisure. We lurched from puritanical, repressive attitudes towards sexuality to open, unrepressed sexuality, from duty to pleasure, from saving to spending.

The heart of this values revolution was a questioning of the traditional moral precept of automatic sacrifice for the family. Up through the 1950s, all sacrifices for the family were regarded as morally valuable irrespective of whether they were necessary in practical economic terms. The cultural climate in the 1960s raised the question of whether one needed to sacrifice one’s own self-expressive needs if it was not economically necessary to do so. A "psychology of affluence" — an attitude that self-sacrifice was no longer economically necessary — began to replace the Depression psychology of want and scarcity.

In the 1970s the new values spread like wildfire. At the beginning of the decade, in 1970, the new values were held by a paltry 3% of the population — mainly the college-student sons and daughters of affluent parents. By 1980, at the end of the decade, a whopping 80% of the public subscribed to at least part of the new value orientation.

In the 80s we saw a backlash against this narcissism, or as I call it elsewhere following Christopher Lasch, the "Politics of the Id," while at the same time we saw an unfettering of many of the restraints on corporate greed. This was the Reagan formula: It's morning in America. It's time to return to the great American ideals and its traditional values. And a big part of it was to promote the mythology that corporate capitalism runs just like the Mom & Pop store down the street. Just like Mom & Pop, these mega-businesses were hamstrung by ridiculous, unwieldy regulations and taxes, and for America to be America, they needed to be free from government restraints. That's what freedom really means for the GOP, freedom for corporations to do as they please with impunity.

It's an appealing mythology, and while the logic applies with some legitimacy to small business, it doesn't apply to huge corporations whose power to do as they please can only be restrained by governments. And corporate culture, ironically, could care less about traditional values. Many of it most prominent players--the Boesky's and Millkens and Trumps in the 80s--were notorious exemplars of anti-traditional narcissism. But Americans talked themselves into believing that these were exceptions rather than people who reached their prominence precisely because of their narcissism-- that's what makes corporate culture work--everybody asking himself, "What's good for me?" Sacrifice for a larger good? What, are you kidding?

So that's the perversity of the Reagan narrative which continues to animate the right-wing backlash in this country. Talk traditional values and then unleash the forces that are the most powerful agents for their destruction. It works beautifully so long as people don't pay too much attention, and enough people haven't been. All that's needed is 51%. And if there's any chance that people will start to catch on, they get their media stooges to distract large swaths of the electorate with the old populist drumbeat of anti-elitism:

What makes the play on class resentment so effective for Coughlin-wannabees like Limbaugh and O'Reilly is that the "elites" they hate aren't so much the rich and the powerful as the educated and "cultured" (and by implication atheist and queer). What's so weird about it is that only in America are multiple generations of wealth and power considered sufficient to buy yourself a reputation as just plain folks. paulw/TPM

This is the key: Class in America is not about money, it's about values. It's about traditionalist vs. cosmopolitan values, with Big Money allying itself with the first, even though in their personal lives they are sophisticated elites who are more comfortable with the cosmopolitan left. But so long as Americans think of the big money elites as teddy bears like Dave Thomas or Lee Iacocca rather than as snakes like Ken Lay, they will buy the Limbaugh line.

The facts are confusing, and nobody knows for sure what the objective truth is. So It's an image war, and the party that wins it is the one with the narrative that resonates more deeply with the American electorate. There's no question that the GOP is winning that war right now with their traditionalist values narrative, not because it's more true, but because they are promoting it skillfully, while the Democrats really have no resonant narrative. People will stick with a story they're comfortable with until someone comes along with one that makes more sense.

Because let's face it, the situation is complicated, and it's easy to come up with two plausible narratives that completely contradict one another. The situation in American politics is a lot like the situation in Iraq. Supporters of the war can argue that most Iraqis are glad that the U.S. came in and got rid of Saddam and that most Iraqis are not part of or even support the insurgency. It's easy to build a self-justifying narrative around those facts. But it's equally easy to argue that it doesn't matter what most Iraqis think. It matters more what the people with the guns think. And it matters that there are enough people with guns in Iraq to make it impossible for the U.S or anybody ever to establish order there, even if the vast majority of Iraqis want peace and a normal life.

The same is true about corporate politics in America. There are lots of good, decent people running their companies ethically--probably a majority. But it doesn't require a majority to corrupt the system. As in Iraq, all it takes is a powerful minority. And the Republican Party, whatever its traditional principles might be, has become the political arm for that bullying minority. And I think it's a legitimate to wonder whether, as in Iraq, this bullying minority is defeatable. But for sure, as long as decent people believe GOP propaganda and vote for their candidates, they are complicit with the bullies who are destroying our republic.

 

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