July 2004 Post
Friday, July 28, 2004
Convention Recap. I don't have much to add here that goes beyond the conventional wisdom, but a couple of thoughts. It seemed clear that the Dems have learned the lesson that Tom Frank gives in his book What's Wrong with Kansas. They are clearly trying to recapture the cultural populist vote, or at least not to alienate it. The Democrats should be the natural constituency for middle Americans when it comes to economic issues. But huge swaths of blue collar and rural America have deserted the Democrat Party because it has become so identified with the cultural left. Middle Americans have had good reason to look at the Democrats and say to themselves, "That's not me."
So what was most remarkable about this Democratic convention was how it tied down the wing of the party dominated by the cultural left while still affirming themes that derive from the populist economic left. There are a lot of Americans who having felt estranged from the party in the past could watch the convention speeches this year and feel a lot more comfortable. Even Al Sharpton's feisty speech, about which Blitzer and the other CNN media morons saw as significant only because he went beyond his allotted time, was truly magnificent for giving an impassioned vision of what the Democratic Party has meant for Blacks that you'd have to be the most inveterate racist not have been moved by it.
The convention worked hard to establish for the mainstream electorate that "We are You"--we're not the wackos that the Republicans say we are. The Republicans will come back and say that it's all show, and that the Dems are pretending to be what they're not. The GOP, after all, know all about presenting themselves as what they're not. In 2000 they presented themselves as compassionate conservatives who would unite and not divide and who would not get involved in nation building abroad.
But it's true that the Dems will always have constituencies to the far left putting pressure on them to move more left than maybe most Americans are comfortable to go. But the GOP has gone beyond being pressured by the cultural right--they've been captured by it. They've become extremists, and they will lose this year not only because they have screwed things up so badly in Iraq, but also because they have tacked too far to the right on cultural issues and because they are rightly perceived as in the pocket of corporate interests.
This election is the Democrats to lose, and they've made a strong statement this week that they understand what they have to do not to lose it. But we may also look back to it someday as the occasion for the emergence of Barack Obama onto the national stage. He symbolizes a new kind of American identity that integrates traditional American values with a vision of America that understands that its strength lies in its remarkable diversity--that American identity in its deepest possibilities derives from sources so much broader than its Anglo Puritan heritage. Guys like Jesse Jackson never had it. His appeal was always very narrow. He had his day, and the role he played was important in a transitional sense, but now a new generation of black and brown leaders is arising, and maybe they more than any others among us will help America to find its lost soul. It could happen.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
Democrats as Hawks. That's Andrew Sullivan's take. He thinks they are taking up a position on the Iraq War that is to the right of Bush's. Hardly. Most Democrats, even if they thought it was a good idea at first to invade Iraq, think it was a mistake now, and that includes Kerry and Edwards. But they also realize that it would be irresponsible to just pull out.
So sure, there are some in the party like Jackson and Kucinich who think we should pull out, but their views are hardly representative. But it's important for partisan Republicans to believe that John Kerry is a "liberal" sissy who won't stand up to terrorists. In their black-and-white world, either you're John Wayne or you're Jane Fonda. God forbid that you should have a nuanced position. That's why we have to get these right wingers out of the foreign policy driver's seat. Their understanding of the world is dangerously simplistic and ideologically blinkered. They mistake the real world for the world as they see it through the lens of their power-intoxicated global ambitions. Lucky for us and the world they are so incompetent.
The fact is that there is a firmly entrenched foreign policy establishment from which both Republicans and Democrats have traditionally drawn their policy makers and cabinet officials. The idea that the Democrats are the party of McGovernite peaceniks is GOP negative branding and has little to do with reality. The Democrats are very much in the conventional foreign policy mainstream, and it's the neocons who have developed reckless and ineffective policy objectives in foreign affairs that have put the U.S. in a real hole. The hope now is that the Democrats will develop an aggressive counter-terrorism policy that is directed toward defeating terrorists and not toward over extending ourselves in occupations without end.
So don't expect Kerry to pull out of Iraq until the Iraqis have a fighting chance of stability, but don't expect him to continue the neocon unilateral imperial policy either. I think we have reason to hope that he'll internationalize the effort to stabilize Iraq, and if it becomes clear that the American presence there is counterproductive to such an international stabilization effort, he'll pull the troops out.
Anyway that's my read on how the Democrats are presenting themselves. I don't think they're being hawkish; I think they're acting like adults. Going into Iraq was a mistake from the beginning, but we're there, and we're responsible. It could be that Kerry will be left holding the bag and become another Nixon in Vietnam. But he has a far better chance of developing an effective Iraq policy than the current administration. They botched it, and now it's time to give someone else a chance to see if they can fix it.
Bush Lied; Our Soldiers Died? Yes and No. Michael Moore's tortured defense of the idea that Bush lied about WMD in his confrontation with Bill O'Reilly misses the point. I think that everyone in the Bush Administration was genuinely surprised that absolutely no WMD were found, but that doesn't mean that the administration was honest about its reasons for going to war.
It's well established that the neocon faction within the administration had been promoting an invasion of Iraq since the early 90s. It's also clear that within hours of the 9/11 attacks neocons like Wolfowitz were promoting the idea that Iraq was behind the attacks. Is there something he knew that the rest of us didn't know? No. But he saw the 9/11 attacks as the opportunity he was waiting for to finally get the country roused up for another go at Saddam.
So if the administration lied, it wasn't about the WMD, but in its promotion of the idea that there was a much stronger link between al Qaeda and Saddam than there really was. There were, of course, also exaggerations about the nuclear threat that Saddam posed. And the WMD had little to do with the real reasons for the invasion. It was simply a pretext.
Is this really lying? I think it's reasonable to believe in these instances the intent was to deceive either by taking some a kernel of truth (al Qaeda connection or Saddam's desire for a nuclear weapon) and exaggerating it into something that went beyond what was known to be true. But even with regard to the WMD, which they really believed to be there, their intent was to deceive because the WMD were promoted as as a way of hiding their real motivations for the invasion.
All of this is fairly typical of the propaganda effort most governments undertake to stimulate fear and anger in the people to rouse them for war. The Bush administration, however, was remarkably clumsy in the effort (the yellowcake business was farcical)--and unlucky in that the intelligence about WMD was so bizarrely inaccurate. But their own gullibility in being taken in by con men like Chalabi has something to do with that, as well.
What's surprising to me is that the media and even the more mainstream critics of the war effort haven't really probed very deeply into the real reasons for the invasion. See my 6/21/03 WMD and the Logic of Empire on this. Our drift toward empire is the issue that as a nation we seem to be in denial about. We don't want to see ourselves as an empire, so we don't see ourselves for what we are and how others perceive us. But what I said in the column then still stands now, the most important question we are facing as a nation is not whether politicians lie (Is the pope Catholic?), but whether the U.S. ought to conduct its foreign affairs according to the logic of empire.
It was not clear at the time I wrote that column that the whole pretext for the war would blow up so spectacularly in the faces of the Bush administration. For that, at least, we can be grateful--for now. The imperial ambitions of the neocons have been stalled by their astonishing incompetence in the prosecution of this war. They are proving to be as stupid about the Middle East as the Soviets were about Afghanistan in the '80s. And the Soviet failure there is clearly one of the key factors that led to 1989. Overextension inevitably leads to the fall of empires. Let's hope that the neocon failure there leads to a permanent discrediting of the "logic of empire." Somehow I doubt it.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
One Country, after All? I don't know much about the man yet, but what wasn't to like about Barack Obama's speech last night. It struck exactly the right notes. He eloquently attempted to point us to the basic humanity that lies behind all our political fractiousness, and to affirm the best possibilities for which the Democratic Party stands. An excerpt from near its end:
For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga.
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.
Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I'm not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!
In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America!
I know there's the rhetoric and there's the reality. But this speech does not have the b.s. stink of most political oratory we have to endure in this election season. Maybe this guy is for real. We'll see.
Democrats for Big Government? Government is not THE answer, but it's a part of the answer. Government is the tool, the only tool, really, that the people in the middle and the people at the bottom have for checking the power of those at the top. The biggest danger that the country faces at this time in its history is its drift into plutocratic oligarchy. The desire of libertarians and cultural conservatives for minimalist government, while understandable in principle, would be disastrous in practice. It would unleash the powerful to do as they please.
And they please to do what is good for them, and what is good for them will be very bad for the rest of us. The 'trickle-down' and 'rising tide lifts all boats' metaphors in the long run are nonsense if ordinary people allow the GOP to dismantle the basic controls they have to keep the powerful in check, and those tools are governmental, primarily through regulation and the tax code.
That much is essential. All the rest is secondary. We do need to deal with this insanely unfair healthcare system. We do need to find ways to make opportunities for a good education more widely available. We do need to develop a saner energy policy. We do need to develop a foreign policy that embraces a more multi-lateral understanding of America's role in coping with global problems. But as important as all those issues are, none of them is as important as preserving the Republic. Its preservation is threatened now more than at any time since the Civil War and its aftermath by the imperial ambitions of the neocons and the greed and gamesmanship of corporate elites.
There is no getting rid of them because there is no changing what is fundamental to human nature in a fallen world, but they must be kept in check. And that can't happen unless there are governmental powers, democratically controlled, strong enough to check the power of Big Money. The GOP agenda since the presidency of Ronald Reagan has been precisely to dismantle those tools to check power while most Americans aren't paying attention.
But it's important also to note that the DLC-driven Democrats in the nineties drifted into the place in the political spectrum that used to be occupied by moderate or Rockefeller Republicans. These people are dangerous for other reasons, and we cannot be complacent about what they represent either. Electing Kerry doesn't mean it's ok to go back to sleep again. Hardly. The Democrats are a better choice not because they have the answer, but because they are more vulnerable to those constituencies who can put pressure on them to do the right thing. It's up to us who think of ourselves in one way or another as part of that constituency to hold their feet to the fire.
Saturday, July 24, 2004
And I do tend to think that, given the upsurge of the religious right over the last couple of decades, these are the last spasms of those dinosaur organisms. [Why?] Because they are standing in the way of history, trying to turn everything, politically and spiritually, back to a medieval vision of the world. Whereas they're perfectly entitled to have whatever worldview they like, I would suggest that humanity is moving in a forward direction. And that any attempt to turn the clock back to a mythical, simpler, or better age would probably be about as effective as Britain's ancient King Canute, who famously sat on his throne along the tide line and ordered the waves to go back. To be fair, he was only doing this to demonstrate the futility of expecting leaders and rulers to be able to command the forces of history and the world. But yeah, I tend to think that this conservative backlash that has been going on since the '70s is the final spasms of a dying creature; history is not moving that way, and no matter how much people dig their heels in and assume this is the 1950s or the Middle Ages, that's not the truth of the situation. No matter how powerful our political and religious leaders think they are, they are as dust before the immense and implacable forces of history and progress. I just hope that they don't make too much of a mess or take too many more people down with them.
So says the "graphic novelist" Alan
Moore in an interview with Salon this
week. I tend to agree. At least this is the way I have always looked at
the forces on the religious right. I think these forces correlate in their
strength with the degree to which certain elements in the culture fear
the future. The shame is that they give religion a bad name when the culture
needs badly a robust, future-oriented religiosity if it
So says the "graphic novelist" Alan Moore in an interview with Salon this week. I tend to agree. At least this is the way I have always looked at the forces on the religious right. I think these forces correlate in their strength with the degree to which certain elements in the culture fear the future. The shame is that they give religion a bad name when the culture needs badly a robust, future-oriented religiosity if it's going to be able effectively to deal with the challenges that confront it.
The secular spirit that has increasingly dominated
culture for some time now has lost its vigor, and into the vacuum the more
primitive, future-fearing impulses of the religious right have flooded.
The question for me is whether something will catalyze at some point in
the cultural sphere that will provide a robust sense of new possibility.
The development of this kind of "new" thing seems to require
that the culture undergo a profound crisis of some sort that forces the
destruction of the old which enables an cultural alignment around something
new. The last time this happened in the West in a major way was at the
time of the Renaissance/Reformation during which the Medieval era shifted
to the Modern.
The secular spirit that has increasingly dominated culture for some time now has lost its vigor, and into the vacuum the more primitive, future-fearing impulses of the religious right have flooded. The question for me is whether something will catalyze at some point in the cultural sphere that will provide a robust sense of new possibility. The development of this kind of "new" thing seems to require that the culture undergo a profound crisis of some sort that forces the destruction of the old which enables an cultural alignment around something new. The last time this happened in the West in a major way was at the time of the Renaissance/Reformation during which the Medieval era shifted to the Modern.
But for us now we're stuck between a kind of flaccid
liberalism that doesn't really believe in itself anymore and a somewhat
crazed tendency toward religious fanaticism both in the U.S. and in the
Middle East. From where I sit, there isn't much difference between the
psychologies of either. The main difference lies in that the American fundamentalists
have allied themselves with free-market capitalism which, as I've been
pointing out in different ways over the last couple of weeks, is bizarre
since the forces released by freemarket capitalism are precisely the forces
destroying the traditional way of life American fundamentalists want to
preserve. It's their obtuseness about this that makes them hard to take
seriously. But it's this obtuseness at the same time that makes them kind
of scary in the way that the Muslim fundamentalists are scary.
But for us now we're stuck between a kind of flaccid liberalism that doesn't really believe in itself anymore and a somewhat crazed tendency toward religious fanaticism both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. From where I sit, there isn't much difference between the psychologies of either. The main difference lies in that the American fundamentalists have allied themselves with free-market capitalism which, as I've been pointing out in different ways over the last couple of weeks, is bizarre since the forces released by freemarket capitalism are precisely the forces destroying the traditional way of life American fundamentalists want to preserve. It's their obtuseness about this that makes them hard to take seriously. But it's this obtuseness at the same time that makes them kind of scary in the way that the Muslim fundamentalists are scary.
Both kinds of fundamentalism refuse to understand the
world as it is and seek to recreate it in their own image of how it should
be. Both are so afraid of the future that they are capable of the the basest
crimes if they can in some way be made to justify the preservation of their "world." The
fear that is at the heart of both fundamentalisms is rooted in anxieties
that their sense of identity, their sense of who they are as collectively
defined by a traditionalist world view, is being threatened by forces they
Both kinds of fundamentalism refuse to understand the world as it is and seek to recreate it in their own image of how it should be. Both are so afraid of the future that they are capable of the the basest crimes if they can in some way be made to justify the preservation of their "world." The fear that is at the heart of both fundamentalisms is rooted in anxieties that their sense of identity, their sense of who they are as collectively defined by a traditionalist world view, is being threatened by forces they cannot control.
This kind of threat to identity is one that is capable
of engendering tremendous violence. People who fear extinction, people
who fear that the world is mobilizing to erase everything that they cherish,
feel deeply that they have nothing to lose. And so if they have no future,
why not take the future away from everyone else?
This kind of threat to identity is one that is capable of engendering tremendous violence. People who fear extinction, people who fear that the world is mobilizing to erase everything that they cherish, feel deeply that they have nothing to lose. And so if they have no future, why not take the future away from everyone else?
I've argued elsewhere that the same dynamic is what
drives kids like Dylan and Klebold at Littleton to shoot up their school.
It's born of a sense of powerlessness trying to overcome itself. There
is no easier or effective way for those who feel weak and powerless to
feel powerful than to start shooting or blowing things up. This is why
I think the NRA has such appeal on the right in this country. The right
to bear arms is symbolic for people who feel powerless because deep down
they feel that history is overtaking them.
I've argued elsewhere that the same dynamic is what drives kids like Dylan and Klebold at Littleton to shoot up their school. It's born of a sense of powerlessness trying to overcome itself. There is no easier or effective way for those who feel weak and powerless to feel powerful than to start shooting or blowing things up. This is why I think the NRA has such appeal on the right in this country. The right to bear arms is symbolic for people who feel powerless because deep down they feel that history is overtaking them.
Owning a gun is a way for them to preserve some sense
of power and control. In extreme cases this leads to the kind of thing
we saw with Timothy McVeigh. But it's the spirit behind the militia movement.
It's the spirit animating anybody who feels he needs to have a gun for
security. It's the kind of psychology that is not in itself fascist, but
is very vulnerable to fascist manipulation.
Owning a gun is a way for them to preserve some sense of power and control. In extreme cases this leads to the kind of thing we saw with Timothy McVeigh. But it's the spirit behind the militia movement. It's the spirit animating anybody who feels he needs to have a gun for security. It's the kind of psychology that is not in itself fascist, but is very vulnerable to fascist manipulation.
So I agree with Alan Moore. The future is not on the
side of the right. It never has been except during temporary periods of
cultural decline. But the extremists among them are capable of doing a
lot of damage. Let's hope they don't take too many people down with them.
So I agree with Alan Moore. The future is not on the side of the right. It never has been except during temporary periods of cultural decline. But the extremists among them are capable of doing a lot of damage. Let's hope they don't take too many people down with them.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
I'm Not against Capitalism. I'm against bigness and the concentrations of power that accompany it. I'm ok with a society where it's possible for people to accumulate wealth, but I'm against a society in which concentrations of wealth breed concentrations of power. I'm not against consumer capitalism, but I think that it's important to clearly recognize how its dynamics can have a corrupting effect on our traditional heritage and the national soul.
The most positive thing that can be said about consumer capitalism is that it has created a system that depends on what consumers want, and so at least in theory can become whatever consumers collectively demand that it should become. The businesses on the supply side have to be responsive to the consumers on the demand side. The problem lies in that the supply side in fact has been the tail wagging the demand-side dog.
Consumer capitalism thrives by stimulating human appetites, and in the last hundred years the people on the supply side have become expert in finding ever more crude ways to expand the range of the demand side's appetites. Consumers during that time have proven to be very easy to stimulate/manipulate, and to the degree that they are manipulated, they experience a loss of soul. To the extent that a society has lost its collective soul, it has lost its power to resist manipulation and becomes evermore intensely the slave to its appetites. And so a vicious circle ensues.
It would seem that we Americans are spinning quite viciously at this time. And this is what conservatives should focus on, because such a loss of soul is also the loss of all possibility for the genuine attainment of virtue. Consumer capitalism isn't in itself the problem and it does in fact present us with an opportunity. For ultimately the choice we face as a "consumer democracy" is whether we shall rule or be ruled.
The Enemy Is Us. For a remarkable exercise in paranoia, read this Women's Wall Street Journal piece about Annie Jacobsen's terrifying flight from Detroit to Los Angeles. This one ought to be put in the text books as a classic example about how fear breeds delusion--and how fear leads people to surrender their liberties for security.
On this harrowing flight fourteen Syrian musicians in Arab garb get on the plane. They talk to one another. They go to the bathroom. That's it. The plane lands safely and without incident. And yet this experience has led the author to conclude that "What I experienced during that flight has caused me to question whether the United States of America can realistically uphold the civil liberties of every individual, even non-citizens, and protect its citizens from terrorist threats."
Look, I understand the fear is real and that it's not totally irrational to feel uncomfortable with a bunch of Arabs on an airplane. But as Patrick Smith, who brought Jacobsen's article to my attention in today's Salon, rightly points out, Jacobsen draws exactly the wrong lesson from her experience:
That her story concludes in such a painfully boring anticlimax [landing safely and without incident] ought to be the very point, and in the final few pages she still has time for a constructive moral, the clear lesson being not the potentials of global terror, but the dangers of our own preconceptions and imagination. Instead, she pulls a vile U-turn and chooses to bait us with racist innuendo and fearmongering. Nothing happened, but something might have happened, and so it serves us to remain frightened and draconian at all costs, furthering our nation's pathetic embrace of maximum paranoia.
The question for all of us is whether we are going to be ruled by our fears or whether we are going to find a way of managing our fears prudently. The irresponsibility of the Wall Street Journal for running a piece of fearmongering like this really tells you the answer the political right is inclined to give. It's shameful.
Monday, July 19, 2004
This Isn't My Country Anymore. This is a complaint I'm hearing more frequently from conservatives. And of course they're right. Things have changed, and they will continue to change. It's not ever going back to the way it used to be. The cat's out of the bag; the genie's out of the bottle, and they're not going back in. Get used to it. And what's not going back in are the forces released by consumer capitalism. It's the great leveler of traditional civilizations and the values that have sustained them.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference between Cosmopolitans and Traditionalists (roughly, liberals and conservatives) is that the former welcomes and celebrates the liberation from traditional constraints that accompany the consumer capitalism wherever it takes hold. American Traditionalists hate these changes. They want the affluence that consumer capitalism generates, but they don't want to lose traditional way of life that consumer capitalism inevitably destroys. That's why the Traditionalist narrative will in time essentially crumble from its own inner contradictions.Give the Muslim fundamentalists credit. They at least understand what American fundamentalists can't seem to grasp, namely, the true nature of the forces that will destroy it.
So American Traditionalists complain about how their country is losing its soul--that they live in a cultural world that is being stripped of its traditional meanings. They blame the government or they blame Hollywood or the professors who indoctrinate their kids with leftist propaganda. But what they fail to see is that consumer culture is the cause of the destruction of traditional cultural meaning. Everybody complains about consumerism, but not enough attention is paid to how traditional meanings are inexorably being replaced by commercial meanings. This is something that Patriots don't want to face.
Commercial meanings are penetrating every nook and cranny of our lives. It's suffocating, but we simply accept it as the price we have to pay for our relative material affluence. But why is it that so few on the right recognize its effect in eroding the national soul? Why aren't they complaining more about it? It's because in some warped way traditional values and freemarket capitalism are seen as supporting one another rather than as antithetical. To have convinced half the country of this is the great achievement of the GOP since the Reagan presidency. And it's quite a remarkable achievement, as snowjobs go.
Anyway, things are completely out of balance, and I don't see anything on the horizon that can act as an effective counterbalance--especially since the conservatives, who seem to be most sickened by what has happened to American culture, are the ones electing politicians who while they mouth traditional values are promoting the economic policies that are destroying them. It's insane.
Cosmopolitans are perhaps better adapted to a changing world, but there is a shallowness and a puerile, smug sanctimony that pervades the cosmopolitan left that thoughtful conservatives rightly find nauseating. The fact is that cosmopolitan elites are as much the beneficiaries of consumer capitalism as the business elites many of them repudiate.
That's why the Democratic leadership doesn't really offer a substantive alternative. But at least with the Democrat leadership, what you see is what you get. There's more transparency. Their shallowness, concupiscence, and spinelessness are real. In other words, they're all too human. But with the GOP, you have wolves wearing white robes and fake halos. And they are far more dangerous.
Sunday, July 18, 2004
A Universe in Which News Won't Matter. Very good piece by Orville Schell on the capitulation of the media to the official line. See Groupthink piece from the other day for an exchange between John Stewart and Wolf Blitzer that deals with the same issue. Here is a part of the the Schell article I thought most relevant:
Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, bluntly declared to New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press "don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush Administration, the press corps had become little more than another special-interest lobbying group. Indeed, the territory the traditional media once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying, publicity, and advertising - cleverly staged "photo ops," carefully produced propaganda rallies, preplanned "events," tidal waves of campaign ads, and the like. Afraid of losing further "influence," access, and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.
What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that "we the people" are seen not as political constituencies conferring legitimacy on our rulers, but as consumers to be sold policy the way advertisers sell product. In the storm of selling, spin, bullying, and "discipline" that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized, and cowed. Attacked as "liberal" and "elitist," disesteemed as "trouble makers" and "bashers" (even when making all too little trouble), they were relegated to the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place in the political process. . . .
Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed - at least for a time - in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often they simply found themselves looking into a fun-house mirror of their own making and imagined that they were viewing reality. As even the conservative National Review noted, the Bush administration has "a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations."
In this world of mutant "news," information loops have become one-way highways; and a national security advisor, cabinet secretary, or attorney general, a well-managed and programmed polemicist charged to "stay on message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or is about to do. Because these latter-day campaigns to "dominate the media environment," as the Pentagon likes to say, employ all the sophistication and technology developed by communications experts since Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, first wed an understanding of psychology to the marketing of merchandise, they are far more seductive than older-style news. Indeed, on Fox News, we can see the ultimate marriage of news and PR in a fountainhead of artful propaganda so well-packaged that most people can't tell it from the real thing.
For three-plus years we have been governed by people who don't view news, in the traditional sense, as playing any constructive role in our system of governance. At the moment, they are momentarily in retreat, driven back from the front lines of faith-based truth by their own faith-based blunders. But make no mistake, their frightening experiment will continue if Americans allow it. Complete success would mean not just that the press had surrendered its essential watchdog role, but - a far darker thought - that, even were it to refuse to do so, it might be shunted off to a place where it would not matter.
Saturday, July 17, 2004
Four Sorrows. Maureen Farrell put together a remarkable series of quotes juxtaposing the founding fathers with contemporary politicians and pundits. The whole thing is worth reading in its entirety, but I've deleted some of her choices and rearranged others in a way that I think works better. I expand her idea of using Chalmer Johnson's "Four Sorrows" as a motif to dramatize the dangers we are facing at this critical time when the future of our republic is very vulnerable. This is a little long, but it's worth reading and rereading:
CHALMERS JOHNSON: "Four sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States. Their cumulative effect guarantees that the U.S. will cease to resemble the country outlined in the Constitution of 1787. (11/03, PresentDanger.org)
First, there will be a state of perpetual war."
MADISON: "If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." (As a U.S. Congressman)
BUSH: "Our war on terror. . . will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." (9/20/01, WhiteHouse.gov)
MADISON: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." (4/20/1795)
ROBERT NOVAK: "The last thing that the hawks inside the administration, and their friends outside the administration, want is a coup d'etat that would replace Saddam Hussein. They want a war as a manifestation of U.S. power in the world and as a sign that the United States is capable of changing the balance of power and the political map of the Middle East." (1/18/03, CNN)
MADISON: "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad." (To Thomas Jefferson, 5/13/1798)
BUSH: "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while." (9/16/01)
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR: "Unilateral preventive war is neither legitimate nor moral. It is illegitimate and immoral. For more than 200 years we have not been that kind of country." (The Los Angles Times, 8/21/02)
CHRISTOPHER LAYNE: "One thing is certain: unless the call for the United States to exercise self-imposed grand-strategic restraint is heeded, the rest of the world will act to impose that constraint on Washington." (10/6/03, "The Cost of Empire," The American Conservative)
JOHNSON: "Second is a loss of democracy and Constitutional rights. . ."
MADISON: "The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home."
BILL MOYERS: "Not since December, 1941, has Congress declared war. . . We’ve turned the war powers of the United States over to, well we are never really sure who, or what they’re doing, or what it costs, or who is paying for it. . . And now we are faced with a question brand new in our history. Can we have the permanent warfare state and democracy too?" (1987, PBS)
CONGRESSMAN RON PAUL: "If the president claims extraordinary wartime powers, and we fight undeclared wars with no beginning and no end, when if ever will those extraordinary powers lapse? Since terrorism will never be eliminated completely, should all future presidents be able to act without regard to Congress or the Constitution simply by asserting, ‘We’re at war’?" (6/15/04, House.gov)
CHARLES LANE: "The Bush administration is developing a parallel legal system in which terrorism suspects--U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike--may be investigated, jailed, interrogated, tried and punished without legal protections guaranteed by the ordinary system. . ." (The Washington Post, 12/1/02)
BUSH: "I am the commander, see?" I do not need to explain why I say things. — That's the interesting thing about being the President. — Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." (Bush at War, 11/02)
MADISON: "War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement." (4/20/1795)
FORMER CHIEF UN WEAPONS INSPECTOR RICHARD BUTLER: "This administration has a view of the special character of the United States, the singular and exclusive character that is new. I've talked to them about it and they make this plain. They say, ‘We are the sole super power, we're therefore the exceptional country, we're outside of international law. Others have to obey the law and obey the rules, but we don't.’" (5/14/03, SBS.com)
MOYERS: "The government's obsession with secrecy is all the more disturbing because we are fighting a war without limits . . . That gives a handful of people enormous power to keep us in the dark. And it justifies other abuses." (6/29/02, PBS)
SAM DASH: "Our government leaders. . . have made many mistakes in the past when they have lost sight of the sacred American values rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We are at the brink of even graver mistakes and assaults on these values." (The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft, 4/1/04)
PAUL KRUGMAN: "[A] democracy's decisions, right or wrong, are supposed to take place with the informed consent of its citizens. That didn't happen this time. And we are a democracy — aren't we?" (The New York Times, 4/29/03)
MOYERS: "The apparatus of secret power remains intact in a huge White House staff operating in the sanctuary of presidential privilege. . . This is a system easily corrupted as the public grows indifferent again and the press is seduced or distracted. So one day, sadly, we are likely to discover, once again, that while freedom does have enemies in the world, it can also be undermined here at home, in the dark, by those posing as its friends." (PBS, 1987)
ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve." (12/7/01)
DASH: "This guy Ashcroft is a very dangerous attorney general." (to John Dean).
BUSH: "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." (CNN 12/18/00)
JOHNSON: "Third is the replacement of truth by propaganda, disinformation and the glorification of war, power, and the military legions."
BUSH: "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." (10/7/02)
CHRIS MATTHEWS: "The president. . . won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics. . . The president there--look at this guy! We’re watching him. He looks like he flew the plane. . He looks for real. He didn’t fight in a war, but he looks like he does." (MSNBC’s Hardball, 5/1/03)
BUSH: "I've been to war. I've raised twins. If I had a choice, I'd rather go to war." (1/27/02, CNN.com, a lie considering that Bush never went to war)
MATTHEWS: "Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war." (5/1/03/)
SUSAN FIELDS: "George W. was a hottie in his flight suit. He was the victorious commander, and most of all he looked at home with himself. He glowed with the pride born of authenticity, declaring the war over . . . " (The Washington Times, 5/13/03)
WASHINGTON: "Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." (Farewell address, 1796)
MATTHEWS: "We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern." (5/1/03)
CHENEY: "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." (Meet the Press, 3/16/03)
MATTHEWS: "There was a sales pitch for this war. . . It was going to be easy; it was going to be a cakewalk; the people would welcome us with open hands. . . Who sold that bill of goods?" (MSNBC’s Hardball, 5/25/04)
JOHNSON: "Lastly, there is bankruptcy, as the United States pours its economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchanges the education, health, and safety of its citizens."
NORAH O’DONNELL: "Congress is concerned about burdening taxpayers with an additional $87 billion. That’s far more than the U.S. spends annually on education and nearly triple the budget for homeland security."(Today, 9/9/03)
MADISON: "In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them." (4/20/1795)
LAYNE: "The Bush administration will not be remembered for conquering Baghdad but rather for a policy that shattered the pillars of the international security framework that the United States established after World War II." (10/6/03)
JOHN BRADY KIESLING: "Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security." (The New York Times, 2/27/03)
JEFFORDS: "President Bush is rashly piling up debt our nation can't afford . . .One of the more disturbing effects of the economic downturn is the lack of state and federal funding for our educational system. . ." (National Press Club, 6/5/03)
JEFFERSON: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." (1776)
Friday, July 16, 2004
Groupthink.Wolf Blitzer was on The Daily Show the other night. He epitomizes everything that is wrong with the courtier mentality of the Beltway media. He thinks of himself, I'm sure, as an intrepid journalist who is only intersted at getting to the bottom of things and getting the story right. But he is most remarkable for his predictability in taking a courageous stand in whatever is the conventional wisdom of the moment.
This was very nicely exposed in his exchange with Stewart. They're talking about the Senate Report on the failures of CIA intelligence, and then Stewart asks Blitzer about the media's responsibility in getting the real story:
Stewart: What does the media do differently?
Blitzer: I think we learn from our mistakes and try to do it better the next time.
Blitzer: Specifically, we learn from our mistakes and try to do it better the next time.We look back and say we should have been more skeptical.
Stewart: Well, come on.
Blitzer: We're trained to be skeptical by our very nature.
Stewart: Why weren't you?
Blitzer: I think we could have been more skeptical.
Stewart: Are they afraid of the Bush Administration. Is the Bush adminsitration so ham-handed. . . . Are they so forceful that they have intimidated the press corp into not asking those questions?
Blitzer: No. The answer is no.
Stewart: So is the press corp, and again I'm going to use a word, suffering from "groupthink?" Or another word, "retardation?"
Stewart: Come on. Tell me the truth. I want to know. I'm really curious. I'm baffled.
Blitzer: It's groupthink. Not retardation.
Stewart: It is groupthink.
Blitzer: You know when you're told repeatedly, and I was told going into the, I went off to the war. I went off to Kuwait. . . .I remember going off. I had all the briefings, I went over, I got the briefings from the CIA, the Pentagon. I spoke to all the members of congress, the intelligence committees, the house side the senate side. Everybody said the same thing. There is no doubt that there are stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and it's only a matter of time before he has a nuclear bomb. Remember Condoleeza Rice said on my show. . .She said we can't wait for a smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. You remember that?
Stewart: You're exactly right. And as it turned out, Pakistan had already sold mushroom cloud material to every country in the area but Iraq. It's crazy. The whole thing is crazy.
There's a lot I could say about this, but I think I'll just let it speak for itself.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Splinter in One's Eye Dept. E.J. Dionne in his column today points to the obvious which for some reason isn't so obvious:
Bush gave a powerful speech in York, Pa., last week describing his "values." He declared: "The culture of America is changing from one that has said 'If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else' to a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life."
That's a great idea. Applying it to the president means that he, not the CIA, is responsible for the case that was made for the war in Iraq. By the president's own logic, he can't blame a bunch of bureaucrats ("if you've got a problem, blame somebody else") for his administration's eagerness to offer the most lopsided picture possible of the threat Hussein posed.
" If it feels good, do it." Bush is absolutely right that this is an inadequate approach to the decisions we face in life. The "values" that lead Bush to reject this concept should pertain especially to decisions to start wars and to the methods used to sell them.
We've pointed out before that a big part of what's going on right now within the administration is factional warfare, and who really knows the ins and outs of it. But it's clear that the CIA is on its heels right now, and it deserves much of the blame that is being heaped on it. But I'm sure we don't know the half of it. Maybe we'll get a better sense of what was going on some day if Tenet ever writes a memoir.
Far be it from me to defend the CIA, but it's been clear to anyone who's been paying attention that the Pentagon neocons thought that the CIA was much too cautious and for that reason set up Doug Feith in the Office of Special Plans to stovepipe intelligence that conformed to neocon doctrine. (See this article, too.)
The neocons trusted the information that they got from guys like Chalabi more. And whatever culpability the CIA has in colluding with the administration in the runup to the war, it's naive to think that "Gee, the president wouldn't have gone if he knew then what he knows today." The administration hasn't said that, but it's laying the foundation for saying it, which it might, if to say so will serve its purposes down the road.
Update, 7/15: "Gee, says Pat Roberts, the president wouldn't have gone if he knew then what he knows today." See NY Times article for exact quote: "I don't think the president would have said that military action is justified right now," Mr. Roberts said. If the administration had been given "accurate intelligence," he said, Mr. Bush "might have said, 'Saddam's a bad guy, and we've got to continue with the no-fly zones and with inspections.' "
Saturday, July 10, 2004
More Frank Talk: He's talking here about the futility of the right-wing backlash against liberals:
Consider for example, the stereotype of liberals that comes up so often in the backlash oeuvre: arrogant, rich, tasteful, fashionable, and all-powerful. In my real-world experience liberals are nothing of the kind. They are an assortment of complainers--for the most part impoverished complainers--who wield about as much influence over American politics as the cashier at Home Depot does over the company's business strategy....
But when you flip through People magazine, you come away with a very different impression of what liberals are like. Here you read about movie stars who go to charity balls for causes like animal rights and the "underprivileged." Singers who were big in the seventies express their concern with neatly folded ribbons for this set of victims or that. Minor TV personalities instruct the world to stop saying mean things about the overweight or the handicapped. And beautiful people of every description don expensive transgressive fashions, buy expensive transgressive art, eat at expensive transgressive restaurants, and get edgy with an expensive punk sensibility or an expensive earth-friendly look.
Here liberalism is a matter of shallow appearance, of fatuous self-righteousness; it is arrogant and condescending, a politics in which the beautiful and the wellborn tell the unwashed and the beaten down and the funny-looking how they ought to behave, how they should stop being racist or homophobic, how they should be better people. In an America where the chief sources of one's ideas about life's possibilities are TV and the movies, it's not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated world: feminist cartoons for ten-year olds are followed by commercials for nonconformist deodorants; entire families of movies are organized around some transcendent dick joke; even shows for toddlers have theme songs about keeping it it real.
Like any industry, though, the culture business exists primarily to advance its own fortunes, not those of the Democratic Party. Winning an audience of teenagers, for example, is the the goal that has made the dick joke into a sort of gold standard, not winning elections for liberals. Encouraging demographic self-recognition and self-expression through products is, similarly, the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism. These things are part of the culture industry's very DNA. They are as subject to change by an offended American electorate as the occupant of the Danish throne.
Never understanding this is a source of strength for the backlash. Its leaders rage against the liberalism of Hollywood. Its voters toss a few liberals out of office and are surprised to see that Hollywood doesn't care. They toss out more liberals and still nothing changes. They return an entire phalanx of pro-business blowhards to Washington, and still the culture industry goes on its merry way....
This is the basic lie of the backlash, the manipulative strategy that makes the whole senseless parade possible. In all of its rejecting and nay saying, it resolutely refuses to consider that the assaults on its values, the insults, and the Hollywood sneers are all products of capitalism as surely as are McDonald's hamburgers and Boeing 737s. (From Thomas Frank, What's Wrong with Kansas, pp. 240-42.)
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Election Themes. Some things to think about regarding the American future. The UW's Walter Williams provides some numbers to bring John Edwards' "Two America's" theme down to earth:
Two Americas has undone the historic balance between the nation's two most important values: liberty and equality, which pull in different directions. Liberty implies that people have full freedom to do as they choose with their resources. Equality of economic opportunity requires a fair start for all those in the race toward success.
Today, the continuing imbalance between liberty and equality jeopardizes ordinary citizens' economic opportunities, and hence their middle-class status. Yet democracy in America demands a prospering middle class. The imbalance also raises the specter of an aristocracy of wealth, which was anathema to the nation's Founders.
From 1970 to 2000 (adjusted for inflation), the bottom 90 percent's average income stagnated at $27,000 a year. The top 10 percent experienced an average yearly income increase of nearly 90 percent, from $119,000 in 1970 to $225,000 in 2000. The top one-hundredth percent had their average yearly incomes skyrocket by $20,327,482 between 1970 and 2000.
There's a problem here and it needs to be talked about because this doctrinaire commitment to the free market is leading us into very dangerous territory. We can talk about the the mystical powers of the free market and its invisible hand all we want, but the bottom line is that in an absolute free market, one free of any regulation or any attempt to moderate its negative effects, the powerful are given free reign to dominate the weak--and they will because that's what they've done from time immemorial.
Modern liberal democracies were invented to prevent that sort of thing. The rich, of course, want to be left alone to do as they please, and the GOP has been the traditional political vehicle for promoting its cause since the days of the Robber Barons. But unless there is any politically mandated check on the inevitable tendency of the rich to become more politically powerful, they inevitably become a ruling oligarchy. It's as predictable as ants finding the spilt jelly at a picnic.
Democracy is a possibility only when there is a thriving middle, and the survival of the middle is no sure thing. I'm not against people getting rich if that's what they really want to do, but I am against such people having a disproportionate influence in the political sphere. And right now they do, and it's not healthy, and no good is going to come of it in the long run, no matter how complacently comfortable those of us in the middle feel now.
Making the choice between putting limits on the rich to do as they please or preserving the integrity of a democratic republic and the well being a healthy middle shouldn't be that hard. Problem is that we're not really being given that choice, even by the recent vintage of Democrats. Everyone in the mainstream of our political life seems to be intoxicated by the mystique of the free market, and the result is that the whole system is corrupted, and everybody complains about it, but nobody wants to face up to the real reasons we're in this fix.
Edwards and Dean talked the populist talk that suggests they understand the problem, and maybe they do. But I have no confidence that either of them, even assuming they were sincerely interested in attacking this problem, could do anything about it if elected, because the congress is dominated by mostly rich guys or rich wannabes on both sides of the aisle who are free-market devotees.
Kerry Foreign Policy. Another article worth reading is Josh Marshal's Atlantic piece on the likely shape of Kerry's foreign policy. Here's a taste:
Over the course of Clinton's presidency, especially during his second term, the President's foreign-policy team crafted a new vision of how America should engage with the post-Cold War world. Because this process got into gear well before 9/11, when the world was less keenly attuned to lofty questions of foreign policy, their vision received far less attention than the high-octane theorizing of Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and the neocons before and after the attacks. Nevertheless, it offers a road map to the probable overall direction of a Kerry Administration—one that might surprise people familiar with Kerry only through his relentless criticism of Bush on the campaign trail. These ex-Clintonites are quite comfortable with the use of force, and actually agree with the Bush Administration on some key goals—for instance, exporting democracy and political liberalization—though they differ significantly on how they would pursue them. They also differ on the question of where the true threats to America lie and how to combat them. Kerry's advisers focus less exclusively on nation-states like those Bush identified in his infamous "Axis of Evil" speech and more on the host of diffuse dangers that have arisen in the wake of globalization: destabilization, arms smuggling, and terrorism
I don't think there's anything particularly noble or morally superior about the Dems approach to foreign policy. Theirs strikes me, though, as a policy that will do less damage and will probably be more effective in confronting the real causes of terrorism, which the neocons, it should be clear by now, are clueless about.
Tuesday, July 6, 2004
It's Edwards. I'm surprised. The choice seemed too obvious. It had too many advantages. So chalk up at least one good decision the the presumptive president, says this presumptuous observer.
A CBS poll has Kerry head to head with Bush leading 49/41 with Edwards moving him to 50/40. Still a long way to go until November, and those numbers will tighten. But the polling at least is finally beginning to correlate with what's been happening.
I hesitate to say that the polling is correlating with reality, because the media fog which creates the appearance of reality hardly is. But I do think that "media reality" and "reality reality" are coming more into line with one another, though never the twain shall meet.
Monday, July 5, 2004
Quotes of the Day. From Frank's What's Wrong with Kansas in talking about how the working class Patriots have been bamboozled into voting to undermine their own interests:
The movement's basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern--that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country's return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people. p. 6.
...This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, might in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege [liberal elite]. They ar laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills [an affluent Kansas City suburb], hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes." p. 109
Whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing, the force that more than any other that is destroying "traditional" America is consumer captialism. The free market may or may not be a good way to run an economy, but there is no other force unleashed in the history of the world that has had a more devastating effect on traditional cultures.The conservatives want to have their cake [traditional values]and eat it too [consumer capitalism], but they are deluding themsleves if they really believe that in the long run the latter will not completely destroy the former.
Thoughtful cultural conservatives have understood this since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Traditionalist Muslims understand it now. Consumer capitalism is for them the Great Satan. It may bring a higher standard of living, but it will inevitably destroy the traditional fabric of their society as it has done to Western society.
But the cat's out of the bag, and there's no getting it back in. So don't blame the liberal elite. Their values are simply the inevitable product of the affluence that comes to those who are the winners in the free-market system. They are not the cause; they are simply the effect. I'm interested in a politics that focuses on causes not effects.
Saturday, July 3, 2004
Summer Heat: Fahrenheit 9/11. As with the other movies I've seen by Moore, I came out of this one with mixed feelings. He has a knack for touching a nerve, and boy has he hit on one in this film. But while I am sympathetic to what he wants to say, I find myself disappointed that he has said it in a way that is so easy to dismiss.
It's not a matter of being fair and balanced. Being fair and balanced today means balancing one set of delusions against another. I don't want fair and balanced; I want a strong point of view that cuts to the heart of the matter to reveal there truths that must be confronted and dealt with. Parts of the film that do that, but the power of those moments is undermined by the parts that are mere pamphleteering.
The most powerful parts of the movie were in its opening and closing scenes. The footage from 9/11, the footage of the parade of Black Caucus members being repeatedly turned back in the Senate by its president, Al Gore; the scenes with Lila Lipscomb and her family; the footage showing the grief of Iraqi civilians whom we otherwise think of as abstract statistics about collateral damage.
The footage showing Bush to be a callow, clueless buffoon were political cartoons. Good political cartoons make their point through caricature and exaggeration, but in a way that rings true. Moore's cartoon rendition of Bush rang true for me.
The parts that didn't work for me were the business with the Saudis and the bin Ladens, and the idea we invaded Afghanistan so we could build a pipeline there. I'm not saying that there's nothing there that needs to be examined, but in this film it proved nothing and wasted our time. Maybe it's because I've heard it all a dozen times, and I'm just bored with it, but I think more because a film like this is not the place to make the case for such accusations. And because it just gives people an excuse to dismiss the whole film as the ravings of a conspiracy nut.
And he leaves out any discussion of Israel and the grand strategy of the Project for a New American Century as key elements driving our Middle East policy. These are more germane to a deeper understanding of American motives for its invasion of Iraq. I think that corporations like Unocal and Halliburton are happy that we are having a war over there, and they surely had their K-Street guys pushing for it. That's a factor in the equation, but that's not the main reason we invaded.
And so the result is that what Moore presents seems more like an imposition of his ideology than a presentation of a plausible explanation about what happened. It didn't convince me, and I'm sympathetic to the basic idea that corporations have an inordinate amount of power in shaping public policy.
But the film does otherwise address important issues that need more to be part of the national debate. The disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and in other states needs to be a part of that discussion. It was a travesty, and there's plenty of information in the public record now documenting it. What happened in Florida does delegitimze the 2000 presidential election, and it does raise serious questions about how this administration with no legitimate mandate has been able to take the country in the direction it has.
The other important theme is the one centering on Lila Lipscomb. At first I thought that this was Moore trying to manipulate me as he did in Bowling for Columbine with his agitprop at K-Mart corporate HQ--his playing on American sentimentality to make a political point. But her grief still rocks me as I think back on it. It is archetypal and transcends whatever political purposes Moore had in mind. It's for me the Guernica of this war.
Hers is the rage and grief that we have all collectively suppressed because of the administration's stage management of this war.And we need to feel what she feels because it is profoundly real. It's one thing to cope with a loss like that when you believe that the cause was a worthy one. That's hard enough. But if you believe, as she and her son had come to believe, that the war had no justification as a response to real threats to American security, it takes on a very different meaning.
Nothing can take away the grief of her loss no matter how worthy the cause. But grief turns to rage when one comes to understand that such a sacrifice was made for no good reason. And so Lila Lipscomb's grief and rage is iconic for the growing number of Americans who are coming to see what this war is all about. The waste of her son's life and the lives of so many other Americans and innocent Iraqis quite rightly should enrage us all.
Friday, July 2, 2004
Traditionalists & Cosmopolitans. There are very deep allegiances that split Americans in two fundamental ways, and each American's identity is linked to one or the other. And while each has much in common with the other, each has a very different understanding about what it means to be an American. Within each of those two there are any number of variations, but when push comes to shove, most people are inclined to be more comfortable in one or the other.
These two ways of being American might be described by the labels Cosmopolitans and Traditionalists. Although David Brooks doesn't use these labels, he makes fun of the Cosmopolitans in his BOBOs book, and praises the Traditionalists in his more recent On Paradise Drive. Cosmopolitans don't like to be thought of as BOBOs (BOurgeois BOhemians), and they think the virtues of the Patriots are much exaggerated in Brooks's rendition of them.
There's plenty to quibble about, but I don't think he is fundamentally wrong. He is pointing to something that is central to what's ailing the American Soul now, namely that Cosmopolitans and Traditionalists relate to one another a lot like Jews and Muslims relate to one another in the Middle East. They have a lot in common, but mostly what they see in the other is what they don't like.
The Traditionalist narrative is the heartland narrative I was describing the other day which is the fundamental mythos for the GOP base; the Cosmopolitan narrative to the base of the Dems. [Blacks and Labor are something else, but neither is perceived to be the driving force behind the party at this time.] There are obviously people in either camp who are more hardcore than the others. But Traditionalists feel a fervent pride in their American identity, which is in their minds deeply connected to a traditional idea about what America stands for. We can go into details some other time, but Ronald Reagan is emblematic of this traditional American sense of itself. If you're a Traditionalist, you have good feelings about Ronald Reagan, even if you are a Democrat.
Traditionalist have a pretty clear idea about what it means to be an American, and they have a tendency to see Cosmopolitans as un-American or as promoting a vision of America that undermines and dilutes the American character. They see Cosmopolitans as weak and effete. They see themselves as unpretentious, straightforward, and strong. Therefore George Bush and his handlers aspire to project his image as unpretentious, straightforward, and strong, and their success in doing so is central to his appeal among American Traditionalists. And this is why GOP strategy is focusing so strongly on trying to make Kerry look like a weak (flip-flopper), effete (speaks French, vacations in chi-chi resorts), hypocrite (talks about energy conservation while his family owns an SUV.)
The Cosmopolitans, who can be identified by their feelings of aversion for Ronald Reagan, are also proud of their American heritage, but for different reasons. They see America as a pluralistic big tent that embraces a multitude of lifestyles, ethnicities, and value systems. They emphasize individual rights more than traditional values. Their ideas about personal character are shaped more by a psychotherapeutic model than by reference to traditional religious understanding, and while they are on the whole not against religion, they are less likely to be consistent churchgoers or members of a church. Hardcore Cosmopolitans think all religions are saying pretty much the same thing.
They pride themselves in their ability to see the other person's point of view because they believe that their own point of view is limited and biased. They are therefore more inclined to think along multilateral lines in foreign policy because they see themselves as Americans in a larger global community. Cosmopolitans, like their European cousins in the social democracies, are more open to the idea of government playing a role in solving social problems than are the Patriots who think people should be able to solve their own problems without government interference or paternalism.
There are other storylines that don't quite fit under either of these two umbrellas. Free-market libertarians, for instance, tend to vote Republican because they support a strong projection of American power (good for business) and minimal government interference in the social and economic spheres. But most Libertarians do not feel very comfortable in the Traditionalists' traditional-values narrative when it comes to abortion, gay marriage, and so on.
A lot of people, including me, don't fit completely comfortably in either one of the two main narratives, but in my case my allegiance lies more with the Cosmopolitans than the Traditionalists. Ronald Reagan, quite frankly, nauseated me. But I have a lot of respect for the Traditionalists narrative, which I believe is being manipulated by GOP elites for objectives which have little benefit for most ordinary people in the Traditionalist camp. But that's a theme to be developed later.
Most Cosmopolitans I know are too dismissive of Traditionalist values, and as I've said repeatedly now, a robust political progressivism in America is impossible without enlisting the Lila Lipscombs of the Land whose faith and religious sensibility is central to their identity and world view (She's the key figure in Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, about which more later). A new politics can only develop with people like her at its core, and there are an awful lot of people like her who, because of their traditional values, feel more comfortable with the Patriots than they do with the Cosmopolitans. And at this time no politiical party effectively represents their interests and their values.