Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Debate. I have to say that I was surprised. I expected more from Bush and less from Kerry. At first I thought that Kerry was going to be in for a long night because Bush sounded pretty good in the first fifteen minutes or so. He seemed well on his way to counteracting his negative image as clueless, incoherent bumbler who doesn't know what to say unless it's been scripted for him. But after the first half hour, he lost it. He kept repeating things in a canned way that made his answers seem disengaged and irrelevant in that particular context. All he seemed to have were lines from from his stump speech to fill in the gaps when nothing else came to mind. By the end of the night he lived up (or down) to his negative stereotype.

I've been continuously astonished that anybody could take this guy seriously, and so his abysmal performance tonight probably won't matter that much to people who for whatever reason have found a way to take him seriously in the past. The question is whether it will make a difference to those in Undecidedville. We'll see in the next couple of days. But one thing is sure: Bush may not have hurt himself tonight, but he definitely didn't help himself.

Kerry did help himself. How significantly remains to be seen. If Kerry were Gore and this this debate were held four years ago, Kerry would have dealt a very serious blow to the then Gov. Bush. But that was then, and this is now. 9/11 has changed everything, as the saying goes. Bush has weathered far worse than the bad night he had tonight, so common sense about what one would think is damaging probably won't apply.

Kerry is clearly the more knowledgeable and smarter man, but does it matter? It may matter more that Kerry came across as much more poised and confident. Bush look tired, strained, defensive, uncomfortable. Kerry had coherent, relevant, well-articulated answers to the questions. In the last hour, Bush was rambling and repetitive. I know that repetition is a key to GOP rhetorical strategy--if you repeat something often enough, no matter how specious, people start to believe it. But in this context it made Bush look like he really had nothing else to say.

Kerry missed some opportunities to really slam the president, but you could see about halfway through that he grew noticeably more relaxed as it became clear to him that the president had nothing, and that he'd be able to coast to the finish line with a win. In a normal world this would have been a decisive defeat for Bush. We're not living in such a world anymore, so finding out that Bush's poll numbers will rise in the aftermath won't surprise me. We're living in a world where up is down, and down is up.

Because these days it doesn't matter what really happens; what matters is the spin, and the GOP is much more skillful at that than the Dems. The GOP spinmeisters, like Rudy Giuliani on The Daily Show, will find a way either to praise the president of disparage Kerry so that people once again won't believe their own eyes and trust their common sense. Up is down. Up is down. Up is down. Don't believe what you think or see, because I'm a GOP spinmeister, and I'm telling you that up is down and that George Bush is strong and decisive.

It occurred to me during the debate that millions of people around the world were watching this debate and seeing George Bush for the man he was without all the props that are usually there to support him. What an embarrassment for all of us as Americans. Dan Quayle has more to offer than this guy.

***

Of Dead Trees and Thin Ice. The argument I've been trying to make is that the traditional values promoted by the cultural right in this country are not really traditional values in any living sense, because the tradition that gave rise to them no longer exists. It's as though people on the cultural right are living in those exhibits you see in a Natural History museum with the stuffed animals and papier mache sets. Or perhaps a more apt image is to to think of the cultural right as having taken up residence in a huge, dead tree that they think still lives. It still has the form that was given to it when it was alive and the wood was green. But it no longer produces foliage, flowers, and seeds. It's just a dead form--a fossil or memorial to something great that once lived.

I honor the tradition that died, and I think that the great tree that stands as its memorial still has something awesome and grand about it, but that doesn't change the fact that it's dead. But here's what I believe. There are seeds that this great tree dropped and which lie dormant and in due time will germinate, may even now be germinating in some gully off the beaten path. I believe in the life force that gave rise to the tree in the first place. I believe in the Life, not the provisional forms it produces in its different seasons. That's a form of idolatry.

I understand that many people feel the need to live in the dead tree, because what else is there? At least it gives some sense of order and points to a source of meaning that once gave it life even if it no longer can be found in it. I don't think there's any harm in that, and I do it myself. I think the harm comes when there is too rigid an identification with the forms. There are too many people out there, especially on the right, who have no free independent existence, who have no conscience--only superego. They're on the left, too. I know. But this phenomenon is particualrly strong on the right now, and the people that I'm describing cannot think for themselves but are susceptible to manipulation by anyone who has the appearance of being one of them and who incites their hatred for the people who can't or won't live in the dead tree.

What disturbs me most about the engineers of the Bush campaign is their blatant manipulation of these childish people who cannot think for themselves but who will trust whatever these snakes say. The snakes know that these doves need a Big Daddy to make them feel safe, and they know how to stimulate their anxiety so that they will be motivated by their fear. I'm not saying that everyone who supports Bush needs a Big Daddy, but if he wins, it will be because the people who do need one will have voted for him en masse.

Bush can't win on substance and policy positions. And so to me what is absolutely unconscionable is that the GOP should devise a strategy that appeals to the fears of these children in the way it has done. It knows that it can win on those grounds alone and it knows that once elected, it can do as it pleases with impunity so long as it maintains the appearance of being strong and traditional.

This is very, very disturbing, and if you're a Bush supporter who sees this and says, "That's just politics," it's not. I really believe that you don't know what's at stake here. We're treading on very thin ice, but it's not too late to turn back to solid ground. More solid ground is what Kerry represents, if nothing else.

 

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Zombie Traditionalism. I'm not satisfied with what I said about "liberation fever" in previous posts. Liberation fever is not new; it's at the heart of the Modernity. It started with the Reformation, progressed through the Enlightenment, and ultimately manifested in the liberation movements of our own era. The modern spirit from its earliest manifestation has always been a movement to shuck off the constraints of the traditional premodern social system. The black liberation movement, the women's liberation movement, and now the Gay liberation movement are all perfectly consistent within the logic of modernity.

They are all assaults on traditional constraints. And resistance to the demands of blacks, women, or gays has always been rooted in arguments to preserve traditional social forms and traditional morality. And these arguments were also always accompanied by predictions of social chaos if these groups were given what they asked for. But in the modern era traditional logic always loses to modern logic sooner or later. The custom ("the way we have always done things around here") argument always loses to the rights argument when basic fairness is at stake. And it is right that fairness should defeat custom in responding to the demands of all three of these liberation movements.

But here's where it gets tricky, because many people on the right think that culture's surrendering to the demands of blacks, women, and gays is directly responsible for the destruction of the traditional American way of life. On the surface there might seem to be some merit to this argument, but traditional America was already dead by the time any of these movements got any traction, and the liberationist left didn't kill it. Consumer Capitalism did.

Consumer capitalism is the end result of another kind of liberation movement whose origins lie in the sixteenth century and is linked the emergence of the Protestant bourgeoisie as a driving force in science, politics, and commerce. The new class wanted to be free of the stultifying constraints of state-centered mercantilism and pushed for the laissez faire approach to economic matters which let the market dictate the direction of the economy rather than the King. They gradually won that fight and the result was the unleashing in the late 1700s of the enormous economic energies that produced the industrial revolution. And during the 1800s we saw the enormous growth of industrial capitalism and with it a ravaging of traditional social arrangements as the economic center of gravity shifted from the manor to the factory.

The American Civil War was from this angle a battle between the new modern forces of industrial capitalism pitted against the forces of tradition-centered agricultural society. The forces of tradition always lose to the forces or modernity, but that doesn't mean that the traditionalists won't go down without a good fight. The Southern Confederacy showed a gallantry then that was ultimately futile. The recent Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai explores this same theme of a soulful traditionalism losing to the relentless, machine-powered forces of the new industrial state in the 1870s. The same dynamic is working now in the Middle East.

But even as late as the 1890s about 90% of Americans still derived their livelihood from farming and agriculture-related businesses. And traditional American culture still thrived in a genuine way where family farms and rural communities maintained a living continuity with the past. And the greatest counterbalance to the soul-deadening encroachments of industrial capitalism came from rural America where Populism arose in the 1890s.

The rest of the culture benefited from the continuity of American traditionalism in the rural heartland. Whatever else maybe going on in the cities or the factories, the heartland was there as a kind of ballast. But living American traditionalism was destroyed by first the ravages of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the mechanization of agriculture in the 1950s, which led to the capital-intensive agriculture that gradually killed off the family farm as a basic institution preserving the genuine living American traditionalism of which I speak.

Traditions need thriving institutions through which the tradition is passed from generation to generation. The death of the family farm meant the death of a living American traditionalism. Sure people talk about traditional values, but the point I'm trying to make is that these are zombie traditional values. They no longer inhere in a living tradition. They are twitching, wraithe-like forms that have no life and provide no real nourishment.

That's enough for today. What I want to talk about tomorrow if I have the time is how consumer capitalism which was born more or less in the 1920s became the demon spirit that took hold of the now dead body of American traditionalism. This is what created the condition to which Christopher Lasch points in the quote I excerpted the other day.

 

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Drove My Chevy to the Levee. Yesterday I wrote that traditional America contracted a terminal disease in the twenties and died in the sixties. Don McLean sang the funeral dirge and Marshall McLuhan wrote the obituary. The terminal disease was liberation fever, and the demon spirit that took possession of the corpse is consumer capitalism. American culture has become a zombie culture, a culture of the undead.

What died was the traditional America shaped by white, mainly Calvinist, Protestantism. That Calvinism continues zombie-like to twitch and flail away on the religious right, and it's a shame because it gives Christianity a bad name now at a time when real Christianity is needed more than ever. But this zombie Christianity is a construct of Dr. Frankensteins like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson. Like Frankenstein's monster theirs has the appearance of the real thing--head, arms, torso, legs, but it's counterfeit. It's a phony construct animated by human delusion. Pull the cord in the back of its neck and it will quote bible verses, but it's rote, mechanical, without any understanding of their spirit.

It's not a question of sincerity. Most of the ordinary people going to to the zombie churches are as sincere, trusting, and nice as you'd ever want. But so were the people who drank the Kool Aid in Jonestown. Being sincere isn't enough to keep you out of trouble; you need to be shrewd and to see clearly. "Be ye as guileless as doves," says the Gospel, "and shrewd as serpents." But in a mature Christianity, the serpent part (human intelligence) is tamed by and is inspired by the dove part (the spirit) which the former serves. 'Con-science' is the 'together-seeing' by which the two work together fruitfully. Problems arise when one works without the other. In zombie Christianity, there's a division of labor in which all the doves surrender their their intelligence to the snakes who hypnotize them in the churches and on the airwaves.

I digress. The thing I really started out to write about was how consumer capitalism is the disease that killed the spirit of traditional America and has rendered almost everything that was noble in the American idea into some trivial parody of what it really should be. The liberation fever that killed it was a necessary purgative, and would have been health-promoting if somehow the culture found a way to get things into balance again, but for lots of reasons it wasn't possible. And so now in place of what was at one time real and life-sustaining there are parodies and zombies.

We're living now in a hall of mirrors where everything is image and nothing has any deeply sustaining substance. We're starved, and the only thing available to feed on is junk food. We graze, and we move on, and we call our moving on growth. But it's not growth, it's just a bovine grazing and moving on. Growth requires setting ones roots into something deeply, and it's this knack for depth that as a culture we seem to have lost. Because there is nothing in our environment, no customs, institutions, traditions that are themselves any longer deeply rooted and alive, and which are therefore capable of offering us wholesome nourishment.

I am someone who has a deeply conservative temperament, but I don't see anything out there of real value worth conserving. It's all empty, dead, and bogus. The so-called conservatives in the GOP are zombie conservatives. They are robotic and utterly predictable in the rote, hypnotic recitation of their scripts which have virtually no relationship to the world as it is. Nothing they say sounds fresh or real. So many of them are bizarre, creepy, quasi humans; they are the undead.

I'm being only half facetious here; maybe a quarter to a third facetious. I do think that there is something very weird and cultlike that has overtaken the group psychology of the GOP, and I find it very, very disturbing.

In any event, I am not without hope. The whole point of this blog is to be an exercise in striving to see more clearly and to look toward the future in hope. I do believe that this corruption of our life together that we call American culture can be redeemed.

Anyway, it's looking more and more as though things will get worse before they get better. The levee is dry now, but it will not always be. Our job in the meanwhile is to live in such a way to insure that when the thaw comes and the cool waters begin their descent from the mountains, there will be nothing in us to obstruct its flow.

 

Monday, September 27, 2004

Bye Bye Miss American Pie. Several months ago I was watching one of the talking-heads shows on which Pat Buchanan sits in wearing his conservative's hat. I forget what the show's topic was about, but I remember his saying something along the lines that the America he grew up in was a good America, and it isn't good anymore. It struck me then that this sentiment is what's really at the heart of the conservative backlash in this country. There is a deeply abiding sense among many Americans that we lost the good America in the sixties and seventies, and they want to get it back. They see Liberalism as the enemy that destroyed the wholesome America, and I think that many on the cultural right believe that if they can defeat liberalism in the political sphere, that somehow this will make things all right again.

I think the mistake that conservatives make is to think of liberalism as if it were a mistaken way of thinking, and if people would just stop thinking liberal thoughts, that would solve the problem. But liberalism is the laissez-faire spirit of modernity, and the driving force behind modernity is technology and commerce, and the driving force behind technology and commerce is innovation and growth. Any society in which innovation and growth are the central driving forces is not going to be hospitable to the values and structural requirements that make a traditional society work. The conservatives want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the affluence that comes with consumer capitalism and free markets and they want the America that essentially contracted a terminal disease in the twenties and died in the sixties.

That's why the traditional-values agenda of the GOP seems so hollow. It's all form and no substance. The GOP agenda is to take a whore and dress her up for church on Sunday, but to let her do her thing the rest of the week. The basic difference between conservatives and liberals lies in that liberals don't see any point in dressing up the old girl or making her go to church. They accept modernity on its own terms and are simply willing to let her do her thing, and the thing she likes to do best is consumer capitalism.

Our basic understanding of what the word freedom means is shaped primarily by the terms defined by consumer capitalism. Freedom means the freedom to choose, and the idea of choice has become linked to having more and more choices, and having evermore choices means that you can never settle in with anything--you're always moving on to the next thing. There's little stability; everything becomes fragmented--our culture, our families, our very selves. We swallow what's in our environment, excrete it, and move on.

This is what freedom has come to mean in the popular American imagination. And it's hard to imagine anything that could do a better job of undermining a genuine living tradition than this particular way of understanding what freedom means. This isn't real freedom; it's a kind of counterfeit of freedom. It's freedom understood at its crudest level as a mere lack of restraint. Why American and Thatcherite conservatism celebrates this kind of crude freedom is really for me at the heart of why contemporary Anglo-American conservatism just seems intellectually incoherent and naive. Conservatism is in effect dating a prostitute while all the time thinking she's a paradigm of virtue and beauty.

But this doesn't mean that I approve of the sanctimonious condemnation of consumerism that comes from certain sectors of the politically correct left. I don't think stoning the old girl is going to accomplish anything. If people want to opt out of a consumption-oriented lifestyle, fine, but their doing so doesn't change much. They still have to swim in the same soup as the rest of us, unless they decide to drop out and, dragging their kids kicking and screaming with them, go live in some nook of the world where modernity has not yet encroached.

But what's the point, because there's no escape in the long run no matter where you go. This kind of refusal is often (not always) a form of anal Puritanism in politically correct garb. There's no getting out of the soup, only learning how to swim in it without drowning. And maybe over the long haul we can find truly effective ways to clean it up so it isn't so foul smelling--because it really does stink now. There's nothing I see going on out there that I find terribly encouraging. It seems as though all my effort now is directed toward keeping my head dry, and that's in a large way my motivation for keeping up this blog. It's my way of keeping my head, if nothing else, out of the soup.

But this brings us back to Pat Buchanan because in his memory, the soup he swam in as a kid smelled pretty good. And he wants to swim in that soup again. But I suspect that the soup of Buchanan's memory has more to do with a feeling of the lost innocence of his childhood, which like most of our childhoods was a time when we just weren't aware how bad things smelled, even though they did. We were just better then at covering up the stench. It's a little more complicated than that, but I'll return to this idea when I have a chance. Time to get the kid up and out to school.

 

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Quote of the Day. This one from Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self:

A culture organized around mass consumption encourages narcissism--which we can define, for the moment, as a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires--not because it makes people grasping and self-assertive but because it makes them weak and dependent. It undermines their confidence in their capacity to understand and shape the world and to provide for their own needs. The consumer feels that he lives in a world that defies practical understanding and control, a world of giant bureaucracies, "information overload," and complex, interlocking technological systems vulnerable to sudden breakdown.

The consumer's complete dependence on these intricate, supremely sophisticated life-support systems, and more generally on externally provided goods and services, recreates some of the infantile feelings of helplessness. If nineteenth-century bourgeois culture reinforced anal patterns of behavior--hoarding of money and supplies, control of bodily functions, control of affect--the twentieth century culture of mass consumption recreates oral patterns rooted in an even earlier stage of emotional development, when the infant was completely dependent on the breast. The consumer experiences his surroundings as a kind of extension of the breast, alternately gratifying and frustrating.

He finds it hard to conceive of the word except in connection with his fantasies. Partly because the propaganda surrounding commodities advertises them so seductively as wish fulfillments, but also because commodity production by its very nature replaces the world of durable objects with disposable products designed for immediate obsolescence, the consumer confronts the world as a reflection of his wishes and fears. He knows the world, moreover, largely through insubstantial images and symbols that seem to refer not so much to a palpable, solid, and durable reality as to his inner psychic life, itself experienced not as an abiding sense of self but as reflections glimpsed in the mirror of his surroundings. (pp. 33-34)

Lasch's book, appropriately enough, was copyrighted in 1984, and the themes he develops in it are an important complement to Orwell. I don't have time today to comment on this extensively right now, but it's the beginning of a longer-term reflection I want to undertake concerning how contemporary consumer culture and the mass media it has created defines for too many of us what is believable and unbelievable, and how it reinforces collective delusional thinking and the drift toward the kind of world that Orwell warned would be our future.

This is what I really want to talk about. No matter who we elect in a few weeks, the deeper structural problems shaping contemporary culture and our political life will remain. I endorse the Kerry candidacy not because I think he offers any real solutions, but because he represents constituencies that are less dangerous than those Bush represents. I really do believe the GOP is capable of driving us off the cliff justifying what they do in the name of patriotic platitudes and traditional Christian values. Too many of them are nuts and those who aren't are naive.

There are some sane Republicans who can see clearly what a disaster this administration has become, but cannot bring themselves to vote for a guy like Kerry. I understand their dilemma. The Dems have serious, serious problems, and Kerry is emblematic of them. But it's the Dems confusion and their very lack of a sense of direction that recommends them to me. Better that than to give the steering wheel to people who think they know where they are going but who really don't.

 

Friday, September 24, 2004

Premodern/Modern/Postmodern. This presidential election is not like other elections. Everyone across the political spectrum feels its importance, and everyone has his or her own reasons for thinking it so. American politics for the most part has focused primarily on people choosing candidates based on their positions on issues—taxes, deregulation, the environment, jobs, health care, energy policy, welfare, social security, national security, and so on. Those issues are important, but none of them individually or all of them taken together are as important as what this election represents in our history. This is an election that at its roots is about American identity, about who we say we are to ourselves and to the rest of the world. We're at one of those critical historical moments when we make a choice either to take a small step forward or a large one backward.

The country is in a state of identity crisis, not unlike the one now being experienced in the Islamic world. The crisis there involves a conflict between the age-old traditions of Islam and the threat that modernity poses toward it. It’s not unlike the crisis the Western world experienced at the time of the Reformation. As those who then supported the traditional crown and altar institutions rejected modernity, so now do the traditionalist forces in Islam reject it. American identity was shaped in very large part by the rejection of the premodern, medieval model, and its feelings of scorn toward the medievalism of Islam today are similar to the deepseated American scorn for the medievalism of Catholicism which began then. The post reformation religious wars in Europe were symptomatic of how profound many felt the stakes to be. These wars were not at the deepest level about territory and money. They were for the traditionalists about preserving the integrity of their age-old way of life and for the the moderns about freedom from the constraints of what they perceived tradition’s irrationality and corruption. As in Europe then, so in the Middle East now.

America, unlike its European cousins, came into existence as a modern, post-medieval experiment, and for the most part it’s been an experiment that has worked out. But just as modernity is now posing a challenge to Islamic identity, post-modernity is posing a challenge to America's modern identity. And just as Islam has very powerful factions on its right that feel a desperation to resist the inevitable, so does America’s right. Both in the long run are losing causes, but both in the short run can do a lot of damage. Both forces here and there sense their inevitable extinction, and both like cornered animals are thinking now with their reptile brains, which means that it’s all about survival, and when people feel that their survival is at stake, they can justify the commission of any crime. The reptile brain does not think in moral categories. Its only concern is survival. And the cultural right in America really believes that the survival of the American way of life is at stake, and its destroyers are Islam from without and Liberals from within.

In my view this goes a long way to explain the behavior of extremists and their sympathizers on the cultural right both in this country and in the Middle East. The people within these factions in each society have to be treated very, very carefully because they are truly like cornered animals, and they are very dangerous. It would be nice if we could just tranquilize them and have them sleep it off until the new thing gels, but the task is far more difficult and confusing—and sane traditionalists have a constructive role to play in shaping the future if they would embrace it.

I consider myself such a traditionalist. I am, after all, a Catholic, but I'm one with historical consciousness. And Catholics, because they have a foot in both the premodern world as well as in the contemporary globalizing world, have the potential to play a critical role in mediating the global transition into the postmodern if they develop an imagination for doing so. Not much sign of that yet. The restorationists within the Catholic Church are simply part of this larger right-wing backlash for which there is no constructive future. My guess is that if the Church is to play such a role, the impulse for it will come out of the southern hemisphere, but not in my lifetime. Too much has to change. But that's a topic for another day.

In a free, rights-centered society, the right, even its nuttiest extremists, must be allowed their freedom, and in the long run their influence will wither away for lack of relevance. But right now they have more relevance than they deserve because they offer a solution to a culture-wide problem that the more progressive forces in the culture cannot yet offer. The right offers a very clear picture about what it means to be American for people who cannot live with the insecurity and ambiguity that characterize a period of cultural transition. And that picture is based on a fantasy of "the way we were." Ronald Reagan was iconic in this respect. He was the embodiment of the "way-we-were" American fantasy, and his appeal lay in his giving Americans some feeling of pride in being an American again in a confusing time of identity crisis.

I have more to say about this, especially in the light of my reading in recent weeks of Christopher Lasch, who, as I said in a post a few weeks ago, is one of the few people I know who really understood what is happening to us. Marshall McLuhan was another. But another day.

 

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Killian Memos. James Moore stating the obvious:

This has all worked very well for the Bush campaign. Reporters worried about the veracity of the Killian memos have not yet asked the president if he failed to obey a direct order to take his physical. And that’s a fair question, regardless of who wrote the Killian documents. Lt. Bush missed a physical and there has never been an explanation beyond Dan Bartlett’s lame argument of “formality.” This most glaring lie in the president’s resume, his time in the Texas Air National Guard, avoids intelligent scrutiny because memos raising the issue appear dubious.

The bonus for Rove is that Dan Rather is enduring greater evaluation than the President of the United States. The CBS anchor, who rode to the top of his profession on the crest of great national events like Hurricane Carla, the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and Watergate, has long been vilified by the right. If Rather and his talented producer Mary Mapes did not bring proper skepticism to their analysis of the documents, they will likely pay a dear professional price. And John Kerry, who ran a positive convention and ignored the Swift Boat attacks while the GOP spat vitriol, can also be expected to pay a price for bad advice and a lack of political diligence.

No toll, however, has ever been exacted on the life and political career of George W. Bush. The magnitude of his lies and mistakes far outweighs any possible transgression by CBS or those who might have fabricated the Killian memos. If they get caught, they suffer. Mr. Bush has been proved both wrong and deceptive and has danced into a lead in the polls through our collective American delusion. We punish the anchorman and praise the president.

CBS and Rather may have to admit mistakes. And then make corrections. Why don’t we demand the same thing of our president? Maybe there are no big lies and small lies. There are just lies. And they all must be atoned for. We know the ones that belong to George W. Bush. And if we don’t hold him accountable, eventually, we the people will end up paying for his debts and his sins.

And Greg Palast:

This is not a story about Dan Rather. The white millionaire celebrity can defend himself without my help. This is really a story about fear, the fear that stops other reporters in the US from following the evidence about this Administration to where it leads. American news guys and news gals, practicing their smiles, adjusting their hairspray levels, bleaching their teeth and performing all the other activities that are at the heart of US TV journalism, will look to the treatment of Dan Rather and say, "Not me, babe." No questions will be asked, as Dan predicted, lest they risk necklacing and their careers as news actors burnt to death.

And then read Bill Moyers' speech on the parlous state of contemporary journalism. He has a good story about how the snake mind works:

In an interview I did with [John Henry Faulk] shortly before his death a dozen years ago, John Henry told the story of how he and friend Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken house when they were about 12 years old.  They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor.  As John Henry told it to me, “All the frontier courage drained out our heels—actually it trickled down our overall legs—and Boots and I made a new door through the henhouse wall.” His momma came out and, learning what the fuss was about, said to Boots and John Henry: “Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless?  They can’t hurt you.” And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, “Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that, but they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”  John Henry Faulk told me that’s a lesson he never forgot. It’s a good one for any journalist to tuck away and call on when journalism is under fire.

And the rest of us us, too. It should be pointed out it would be the same, fear-obsessed snake brain at work if those kids went and got a shovel and pounded the snake to death. Fools mistake an adrenaline rush for courage. Courage is the power of the human will in each of us to do the right thing when we are afraid to. Killing a relatively harmless snake does not require courage, and that's what we did in getting rid of Saddam. And in doing so we stirred up a nest of wasps, and now we have a bigger problem than whatever minor threat Saddam posed before this mess was created.

Anyway, Moyers goes on to talk about what he sees as the most ominous development in America today, namely the the increase in government secrecy. All in the name of security, of course. We'll let those in government do whatever they please, so long as they tell us they're doing it to keep us safe. That's how the snake brain works when its owner is in a state of fear.

This “zeal for secrecy” I am talking about—and I have barely touched the surface—adds up to a victory for the terrorists.  When they plunged those hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three years ago this morning, they were out to hijack our Gross National Psychology.  If they could fill our psyche with fear—as if the imagination of each one of us were Afghanistan and they were the Taliban—they could deprive us of the trust and confidence required for a free society to work. They could prevent us from ever again believing in a safe, decent or just world and from working to bring it about.  By pillaging and plundering our peace of mind they could panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of the press—that constitute the ability of democracy to self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.

I thought of this last week during the Republican National Convention here in New York—thought of the terrorists as enablers of democracy’s self-immolation.  My office is on the west side of Manhattan, two blocks from Madison Square Garden.  From where I sit I could see snipers on the roof.  Helicopters overhead.  Barricades at every street corner. Lines of police stretching down the avenues.  Unmarked vans. Flatbed trucks.  Looking out his own window, the writer Nick Turse (TomDispatch.com 9/8/04 ) saw what I saw and more.  Special Forces brandishing automatic rifles.  Rolls of orange plastic netting. Dragnets.  Pre-emptive arrests of peaceful protesters. Cages for detainees. And he caught sight of what he calls “the ultimate blending of corporatism and the police state—the Fuji blimp—now emblazoned with a second logo: NYPD.” A spy-in-the sky, outfitted “with the latest in video-surveillance equipment, loaned free of charge to the police all week long.”  Nick Turse saw these things and sees in them, as do I, “The Rise of the Homeland Security State.

The question before the American people this election is whether we are going to be ruled by our snake brains or whether we're going to be free adults. A vote for the GOP is a vote for Big Daddy. If that's what you want, that's what you deserve. The mantra embraced by snake thinkers is "9/11 changed everything." It only changes everything if we use it as an excuse to get hysterical.

This election is not about George Bush vs. John Kerry. It's about us. It's about whether we're going to be frightened children or grown ups. It's about whether we're going to be poised, prudent, and intelligent about the way we deal with real or imagined threats or whether we are going to let the fear-driven snake brain direct our behavior.

In the face of a threat, the choices are not restricted to flight or fight. If we've succumbed to the flight-or-fight mentality we've already lost our freedom. We're just reacting, allowing ourselves to be driven by irrational impulses. Grownups, if they have achieved any degree of self-possession, are capable of more effective action than those driven by their fears. It's probably too much to expect our political leaders to set an example in this regard, but the worst thing politicians can do is fan the electorate's fears, and that's precisely what the GOP is doing. On that basis alone these guys should be thrown out.

 

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Liberal Bias? If you think it's just anti-American Bush haters who think the war is wrong, read Pat Buchanan's new book about the neoconservatives and the Iraq War. I haven't read it, but I've seen him interviewed about it on TV a couple of times now, and everything he says is exactly as I understand it. Bottom line: it's a disaster, and anyone who has vision undistorted by administration spin should be able to see it for what it is by now.

There are two basic schools of thought as to why the administration invaded. The one favored by the Michael-Moore left is more formulaic in its belief that the administration was driven by the corporate interests of Halliburton and other corporations who have oil interests. I think this was a factor, but hardly the driving force. The more likely explanation is pointed to by Buchanan and also by Seymour Hersh in an interview he gave Salon that appeared yesterday: The neocons were driven by a naive utopianism fed by illusions of grandeur.

Hersh thinks that we would have been in better shape if we had a Machiavelli like Kissinger calling the shots. K. at least was clear sighted about the realities he was dealing with (and lying about). The neocons, in contrast, are more dangerous because they are driven by a delusional, quasi-religious zealotry that blinds them to the facts as they are on the ground:

Hersh: Wouldn't it be great if the reality was that they were lying about WMD, and they really didn't believe that democracy would come when they invaded Iraq, and you could go to war with 5,000 troops, a few special forces, a few bombs and a lot of American flags, and Iraq would fold, Saddam would be driven out, a new Baath Party would emerge that's moderate? Democracy would flow like water out of a fountain. These guys believe it. They believe WMD. There's no fallback with these guys. These guys are utopians. They're like Trotskyites. They believe in permanent revolution. They really believe. They believe that they could go in with few forces. They believed that once they went in it would happen quick. Iran would get the message. What they call occupied Lebanon would get the lesson. Even the Saudis would change.

Salon: They thought it would happen quickly?

Hersh: Very quickly. I don't have any empirical basis for it, but if I had to bet, the plan was to go right into Syria. That's why the fourth division was hanging for so long in the desert out there right on the border with Syria. In the early days of the war, before this government figured out how much trouble they were in -- which took them a long time -- they would drive practice runs, somebody told me. Again, I'm just saying what was told to me; this is not something I reported, but I was told pretty reliably, they were doing practice runs that amounted to the distance from the border to Damascus. It's my belief always -- again this is not empirical, it's sort of my heuristic view -- that the real reason [Paul] Wolfowitz and others were mad at [Gen. Eric] Shinseki when he testified before the war about [the need for] 200[K] or 300[K] troops -- it wasn't about the numbers -- was, "Didn't he get it? What had he been listening to in the tank? Didn't we explain to him in the tank what we told the chiefs? This is the way it's going to be. Didn't he understand what it's all about?" He didn't get it. He hadn't understood what they meant. This was all going to fall down. It was all going to be peaches and cream. And Shinseki just didn't get it! It wasn't about the numbers. He wasn't a member of the clan. He didn't join the utopia crowd. . . .

I think these guys in their naiveté and single-mindedness have been so completely manipulated by -- not the Israelis -- but the Iranians. The Iranians always wanted us in. I think there's a lot of evidence that Iran had much to do with [Ahmed] Chalabi's disinformation [about nonexistent Iraqi WMD]. I think there were people in the CIA who suspected this all along, but of course they couldn't get their view in. I think the Senate Intelligence Committee's report's a joke, the idea this CIA was misleading the president. They get some analysts in and say, "Were you pressured?" And they all say, "No, excuse me?" Is that how you do an investigation? The truth of the matter is, there was tremendous pressure put on the analysts [to produce reports that bolstered the case for war]. It's not as if anybody issued a diktat. But everybody understood what to do. . . .

I think Chalabi thought he could handle the Iranians. They were helping him all along with disinformation and documents he could give to the White House. Don't forget, once the neocons decided to go to Iraq in the face of all evidence, they were like a super-reverse suction machine, and anything in the world that furthered the argument that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was hot. I call it stove-piping, because it's a technical wor[d] of art. But it was much more than that. It was anything -- vavoom! -- into the president's [office]. It was so amateurish, it was comical. How hard was it to get some crapola into the White House about WMD without the CIA looking at it?

I think this partially explains the positions taken by people like David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer and lots of Americans who wanted to believe that this was an idealistic crusade against Islamo-fascism. There is this dangerously naive characteristic in the Anglo-Puritan American psyche that thinks it can actually defeat evil by force of arms. I've likened this elsewhere to Captain Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick. It's as if our identity as Americans requires that there be some evil in the Other against which we define ourselves.

We saw the American Indian in this way and later the Hun, and then Communists lurking everywhere seeking to destroy our way of life. So therefore the only logical thing to do within this mindset is to destroy these evils wherever they are found. There's a psychological term that describes what we're doing. It's called projection. It's the universal human tendency to see the suppressed evil within our own psyches in the Other. The Gospel talks about it to when it warns against becoming obsessed with the mote in one's neighbor's eye when one should be attending to the beam in one's own.

The flip side of the the projection coin is grandiosity.As there is a tendency to see the Other as the embodiment of evil there is equally the tendency to see oneself as the embodiment of everything that is good. This leads to the idealistically delusional thinking that was described above. People who perpetrate evil in the political sphere rarely see themselves as evil. They see themselves in grandiose terms as idealists who do what they need to do to promote their noble cause. Do you think that Osama bin Laden sees himself as evil? On the contrary, he sees himself as a great Islamic patriot fighting the forces that seek to destroy his culture.

This is how evil works, and my point is that Americans are hardly immune. The traditional antidote for grandiosity is the sobriety and modesty for which conservatives used to be known. That is why this adventure in the middle east is not at all consistent with a principled conservatism. It is a classic form of national grandiosity, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Hannity and Colmes. Fox claims to be fair and balanced in its reporting and discussion of the issues of the day, and points to its popular show Hannity and Colmes as proof. Here you have Hannity, a conservative, balanced by Colmes, a liberal. What could be fairer or more balanced?

Well Hannity is a big, thick Mick who radiates primitive virility. He's the image of the star fullback in high school. He was the ambitious, competitive A-student but who never had a fresh, unprogrammed thought in his life. Colmes, on the other hand is this little mousy guy with thick glasses who probably played on the chess club but wasn't very good. He was a B-student and the timid guy who handed out towels to the football team after practice.

It doesn't matter what they say. The message is in the imagery. Hannity is a winner, and Colmes is a loser. If you buy into Colmes's positions on things, that means you must be a loser, too. That's Fox's idea of fair and balanced.

Ailes and the people at Fox understand the psychology of their audience, and manipulate it masterfully. And the same strategy is at work in the presidential campaign with Bush as Hannity and Kerry as Colmes. The GOP understands that for a huge number of Americans the rhetoric and the candidates' stands on the issues are irrelevant. The issues are too complex, and thinking about them gives people a headache.

The GOP strategy is simply to keep it simple and black-and-white platitudinous when it comes to the issues. The real work comes in promoting the imagery of Bush as the strong, virile leader and Kerry as the mousey, wishy-washy liberal. That's why the swiftboaters' attack on Kerry was so important. The image in the electorate's mind of Kerry as a decisive, effective battle commander had to be destroyed or at least undermined.

That there is nothing in Bush's unscripted life that comes close to what Kerry proved about his character with bullets flying is irrelevant. It's all about the imagery. And so far the GOP is winning the imagery war, for the challenge the GOP now poses to the undecideds in the American electorate is this: "Are you thinking about voting for Kerry? Go ahead, be a loser. But if you vote for Bush, maybe we'll let you come to the party where you can hang with the football team and the cheerleaders."

But when such a voter rings the doorbell at the Bush victory party after the election, no one's going to come to the door. They've got four more years to do what they please, and they don't need him anymore. They don't care; they don't have to.

 

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

I'm back. And I have a lot on my mind, but not a lot of time to write. I have to say, though, that I am feeling as discouraged as I've felt in a long time. This election has nothing to do with the issues; it has everything to do with our fears. We Americans are allowing ourselves to be manipulated because we are so afraid. We are letting our fears rule us, and no good can come of that.

I have this terribly ominous feeling about the country's drift. It's not just about this election, but about what we are becoming as a people.

Bush and the GOP are are more deeply implicated in promoting the drift toward this ominous future, but Kerry is not the one to stop or redirect it. He's not the one to rouse us to fight against our fears and fight instead for something more constructive. He offers nothing that can work effectively to counter the campaign of fear being promoted by the GOP, and he will lose if he doesn't figure this out.

He's running as a colorless bureaucrat, as if this election were to be the governor of Minnesota. He doesn't seem to grasp what he's up against. It's hard to believe that anyone could present himself as being more clueless than Bush, but Kerry seems to be managing it.

It's astonishing. What is it about this country that we cannot produce better candidates than these two? Perhaps that more than anything is the leading indicator of the disaster that lies ahead for us.

 

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Get Out of Town. That's where I'll be for the next week, so my posts here will be dependent on my finding time and a wi-fi place to post from, which is not very likely, but we'll see. Back on the 15th.

 

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Big Daddyism. My remarks earlier in the week about how the GOP wants us to be fearful children in need of a Big Daddy were meant to be provocative, but I guess I'm more mainstream than I thought. I just became aware of a story the Boston Globe carried about Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card's saying pretty much the same thing:

''It struck me as I was speaking to people in Bangor, Maine, that this president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child," Card said. ''I know as a parent I would sacrifice all for my children."

The comment underscored an argument put forth some by political pundits, such as MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews, that the Republican Party has cast itself as the ''daddy party."

Card lets slip how the leaders of the GOP, supposedly the party of cowboys and rugged individualists, really regard the American people. In their eyes we're all ten year olds who must be protected by the benevolent father from the world's harsh realities. This is how the ruling class has always justified itself in authoritarian regimes. The ruler looks at himself as the powerful but benevolent Father. He's kindly to all the good little children who obey, but don't cross him, because then it's out to the woodshed. It's typical of the paternalism of the American South and was often used to justify the treatment of blacks:"Oh, they can't vote. They're like children who don't know how to think for themselves. But we'll take care of them." They sure did.

As Will Saletan said the other day, "The election is becoming a referendum on democracy." To think that this election is merely about one or the other party's approach to particular issues like tax policy or healthcare is to miss its real significance. It's become a question about whether or not we will submit to the creeping authoritarianism which the GOP has come to represent.

All the signs are there, people. Are you paying attention? Your republic is slipping away.

 

Saturday, September 4, 2004

Point Counterpoint. This post is directed to those of you who are still leaning toward Bush. I'm going to state the main reasons I hear Bush supporters giving for re-electing the president and then give my counterpoint as to what I think about these claims.

Point: He's a likable regular guy. Kerry's a stiff. Who'd you rather be stuck with in an broken elevator for three hours?

Counterpoint: We're not electing the fraternity president here. Being a good 'ol boy is hardly a serious reason to vote for him. The point is obvious, but it does seem to warrant some emphasis. There are an awful lot of people who feel "uncomfortable" with Kerry because of his personality. But if we were in a court of law, I'd argue that the evidence for likability or unlikability should be inadmissible. It's shouldn't be relevant to the decision that needs to be made.

Point: Bush is a man of character--a strong, steady leader, and Kerry is a flip flopper.

Counterpoint: Character is a more relevant issue than likeable. And promoting Bush as man of character and Kerry as a wishy-washy Liberal is a central to the GOP strategy, but it has little to do with reality. Apart from the GOP's distorted representation of Kerry's voting record, does the GOP have that Bush is superior to Kerry in character and leadership? Anything you can point to in Bush's biography is likely to have been a moment that was scripted for him. When you see him in unscripted moments as for instance when he was in the Florida classroom on 9/11 or when he's in an interview situation, he appears to be a clueless boob. The one telling, unscripted moment we do know about with regard to Kerry were his actions as a swiftboat skipper. Ask yourself: If you were in trouble, who would you want watching your back? Is there any evidence at all from the unscripted parts of Bush's biography that he has the character to stand up to hostile fire. Is there any evidence that this guy has achieved anything on his own or distinguished himself in any way? The idea that this callow, clueless man has a strong character and superior leadership capability is pure spin.

Point: The Republicans are tougher, and they will be more effective in the fight against terrorism. The Democrats are the hippy party of peace and love.

Counterpoint: Do you at this point really believe that invading and occupying Iraq was a smart use of our resources to fight an enemy that is everywhere? The GOP wants you to believe that getting rid of Saddam was a strike against terror, but it has had virtually no effect at striking back at the real source of the threat. If anything it is diverting resources and distracting us from developing strategies that will be more effective in suppressing threats far more dangerous than anything that Saddam could have ever posed. The GOP, as evidenced especially by Cheney's speech this week, wants to bring its antiquated Cold-War strategies to bear in its fight against terror. This is an approach that is rooted more in an outmoded ideology than it is in the realities as they present themselves on the ground. The Bushies' approach is like that of the French in their building the Maginot line to defend themselves against the Germans. I'm sure the consensus of the tough minded supported it at the time. But it was just plain stupid. Being tough isn't enough; you've got to be smart, too. The Democrats are not hippies now and never were in terms of their foreign policy. But they are more flexible and less ideologically blinkered. They are more likely to come up with an intelligent approach that works multi-laterally to take on an enemy that we cannot defeat without genuine international cooperation. The Bushies' unilateralism is the product of 19th Century American cowboy mind still at work. It is inadequate to the complexities of the world as it is. It is a proven disaster in Iraq. They were given their chance. They failed, and now it's time to give the other guys a shot at it. They could hardly make things worse.

Point: The GOP stands for traditional American values and the Democrats stand for permissiveness and cultural decadence.

Counterpoint: This is a more complex issue. I think the concern about the loss of tradition and traditional values is very valid. But here's something quick to think about. If you are going to celebrate the the idea of freedom and if you are going to insist that the free market and consumer capitalism are the greatest gifts that America has to give to the world (this is really what we mean by spreading freedom and democracy), then you have to accept the consequences. It's not Hollywood and liberal college professors that have destroyed traditional American values; it's consumer capitalism that has. Consumer capitalism is great at promoting innovation and creating wealth. But a price has been paid, because both of these are far more destructive of traditional ways of life than any other force you can point to. I have a column in preparation that will try to suggest a way that we can retrieve or remember the past while living toward the future. The GOP approach, and the approach of the cultural right in general, is steeped in nostalgia, and there is no future in nostalgia.

 

Friday, September 3, 2004

Setting Record Straight. The Washington Post does a good job of correcting the GOP's distortions about Kerry's voting record this past week. Not that facts really matter in this campaign. The GOP has set the tone: It's going to be a street brawl, and for reasons explained in earlier posts, the Dems lose if they try to be reasonable and fact-based in their campaign approach. Complexity, intelligence, and nuanced positions on issues are Kerry's great liability. The GOP realizes it can't win on the issues, so it takes the fight to the place where it feels more comfortable--the gutter. It has good reason to believe it can win there.

***

Former Bush Cheerleader Sullivan Dis-Endorses Bush. It's mostly because this administration is just so anti-gay--but also because the president no longer represents the small government conservatism that he espouses. But he at long last has come clean today that he will not support Bush for re-election. This is hardly going to send shock waves through the GOP, but I think it's nevertheless significant.

He did so after a mostly positive evaluation of Bush's speech last night. But the odd thing about Sullivan is that one part of his brain doesn't seem to have any contact with another part. On the one hand he has this to say about the convention:

In this way, the whole convention was a very mixed message - but also a very effective one. They presented a moderate face, while proposing the most hard-right platform ever put forward by a GOP convention. They smeared and slimed Kerry - last night with disgusting attacks on his sincerity, patriotism and integrity. And yet they managed to seem positive after tonight. That's no easy feat. But they pulled it off. Some of this, I have to say, was Orwellian. When your convention pushes so many different messages, and is united with screaming chants of "U.S.A.", and built around what was becoming almost a cult of the Great Leader, skeptical conservatives have reason to raise an eyebrow or two.

And later

The whole package was, I think, best summed up as a mixture of Bismarck and Wilson. Germany's Bismarck fused a profound social conservatism with a nascent welfare state. It was a political philosophy based on a strong alliance with military and corporate interests, and bound itself in a paternalist Protestant ethic. Bush Republicanism is not as authoritarian, but its impulses are similar - and the dynastic father-figure is a critical element in the picture. Bismarck's conservatism also relied, as Bush's does, on scapegoating a minority to shore up his Protestant support. Protecting the family from its alleged internal enemies is an almost perfect rallying call for a religiously inspired base.

He really gets the Big-Daddy, pre-fascist mentality that is at the heart of what the GOP is about. His reference point is 19th-century Germany, but for me the more apropos analogy is the one-party American South. What else was Zell Miller's suggestion that Kerry should follow the example of Wilkie except an argument that in a time of war we should have only one party and one Big-Daddy leader. This is a shocking idea in a democracy. And it's all part of a process of softening us up for accepting an increasingly authoritarian GOP rule.

Miller should remind us exactly what kind of mentality the American South has bred and which still thrives there more than most Americans care to take the full measure of. Miller resents the condescension of liberals and intellectuals and then goes and shows us why he deserves it and more. Miller is a fool's fool, and his rant would be high comedy if it didn't strike such a powerful chord inciting this fear-and-resentment-steeped fantasy in the souls of so many Americans.

But while on the one hand Sullivan seems to be very cognizant of this vicious dynamic that has grabbed hold of the GOP soul, he can't seem to push those ideas to their logical conclusions. Rather he reverts to his conventional pundit standpoint. I was amazed that anybody supposedly as knowledgeable as Sullivan could take the president at his word with regard to his laundry list of domestic program proposals. The irony is that he was dismayed by it.

People like me who became conservatives because of the appeal of smaller government and more domestic freedom are now marginalized in a big-government party, bent on using the power of the state to direct people's lives, give them meaning and protect them from all dangers. Just remember all that Bush promised last night: an astonishingly expensive bid to spend much more money to help people in ways that conservatives once abjured. He pledged to provide record levels of education funding, colleges and healthcare centers in poor towns, more Pell grants, seven million more affordable homes, expensive new HSAs, and a phenomenally expensive bid to reform the social security system. I look forward to someone adding it all up, but it's easily in the trillions.

Andrew, you're right about this party wanting to use the power of the state to direct people's lives, but you needn't worry--those proposals will never make it into reality. They are pure political propaganda in the best Orwellian style.

Connect the dots, Andrew. You can do it. Of course, your GOP friends will accuse you of going off the deep end if you do. Maybe that's what is giving you pause.

 

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