August 2004 Archives
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Quote of the Day. This one from Jonathan Weiler of the Gadflyer:
Absent shame, and in the presence of the public watch dog's maddening insistence on playing he said/she said even when what he said has no credible basis in reality, there's no incentive for the right to stop lying. They understand perfectly well that in an era of ever increasing sources of information and ever-diminishing attention spans, news cycles are short and need only be dominated for a few days. By the time the bones of the carcass are picked over, it's on to the next story, a fresh set of lies, and so on. Until progressives can figure out, before the fact, what pack of lies the right is preparing to trot out next, the left will always be playing defense. The right spent most of the 1990s screaming about the value relativism of the "Stalinist" left on college campuses, and the inevitable decay of our civilization that would follow. More than ever, though, they've discovered that factual relativism is a boon. Contrary to their assertions, it's the right that has brought the intellectual habits of Stalin to America. In service of the Great Cause, any claim, any lie, is a noble one.
This is going to be a time-of-possession game. I've said on a couple of occasions, whoever has to keep his defense on the field longest loses. At the end of the Dems' convention last month, Kerry was well into GOP territory and threatening to score. But he fumbled and the GOP recovered and has pushed him back into his own territory, mainly by playing dirty ball. Question is whether he'll be able to get the ball back and start pushing the other way.
Convention Commentary. Tim Grieve sees it pretty much as I do
McCain and Giuliani don't represent the reality of today's Republican Party, and Monday night they didn't even do a particularly good job of representing themselves. McCain tarnished his reputation as a "straight talker" by sucking up entirely to a president he has often opposed. Giuliani, meanwhile, lost some of his good-guy luster by engaging in the kind of fact-challenged smearing favored by the Bush campaign.
I understand the politics of the GOP's putting on this moderate public persona. But why do these moderates submit to being used in this way? The only thing I can think of is that in some naive way they, particularly McCain, believe they can bring the party back to the center. Andrew Sullivan's remarks about McCain's speech this morning seem to share in this hope: "He gives me hope that the GOP is not doomed to become the reincarnation of the Dixiecrats, that it can avoid the rancid recesses of its own fears, that it can rise to the occasion of this war."
Dream on, Andrew. As Hilary Clinton said, "They're [the moderates] not running the House -- Tom DeLay is. They're not running the Senate -- the Republican Senate caucus largely driven by the most extreme members are unfortunately calling the shots." That's the reality and will continue to be no matter what McCain and Sullivan hope for their party.
Monday, August 30, 2004
GOP Is Going to Run on Iraq. In keeping with its strategy promoting a reality that is really Opposite Land in which you argue that your opponent's strengths are really weaknesses and your own weaknesses are really strengths, the Bush campaign will run on his leadership in leading us into this disaster in Iraq. In order for it to do so, it will argue that the war in Iraq equals the war on terrorism.
This is, of course, nonsense. This has been the Bush administration's pretext all along, but you have to be pretty naive to believe that his was its real motivation for going into Iraq. And even if you think their proffered rationale is sincere, it's hard to imagine a worse use of resources for the fight against terror. But we will hear this Republican spin on what Iraq means repeated ad nauseam for the next week, and it's going to have an impact in the polls.
Again, the GOP understand much better than the Dems how to shape the public mind by saturating the media with its message. The key is to repeat their falsehoods or half truths over and over and over and over and then over again. It has an hypnotic effect, and up can appear to be down and black white when it gets its propaganda machine cranked and firing on all cylinders.
As for tonight's speeches, Giuliani is a political hack and hard to take seriously. But I do take McCain seriously, and I really don't understand where he is coming from. I suppose there is the possibility that he is sincere, in which case I have significantly overestimated him.
More Rats Deserting the Ship? Andrew Sullivan's back from a little R&R, and seems to have gotten a little saner as a result. His is a sensibility that I have always thought honest if somewhat naive. And he's as good a representative as you'll find of what I would call a neocon-libertarian point of view. He wants a strong, aggressive foreign policy coupled with a leave-me-alone policy in the cultural and economic spheres.
As in the following quote, he considers himself a conservative, but I think he mislabels himself as such if my description of conservatism in this previous blog post holds any water. Invading Iraq is not a conservative thing to do, and he supported it from the get go. Promoting gay marriage is not a conservative thing to do, and yet he has been one of its most articulate proponents. Sullivan has always seemed to me to be something of a grab bag of fragmented attitudes, none of which hang together, which is for me the hallmark of the Liberal soul.
So I don't know quite what his definintion of conservatism is, but I do agree with what he has to say about how Bush has given conservatism a bad name. It's been my argument all along that Bush is not a true conservative. Being a man of the right--a "flag conservative" as Norman Mailer calls it--does not equate with being a genuine conservative. Here's Sullivan:
I think it's close to unarguable that a Bush second term, regrdless of whether you believe it would be good for the country, would be terrible for conservatism as a coherent political philosophy. You can only admire David Brooks for trying to find a sliver of coherence here, but the reality of what Bush has done and what he is likely to do has already made a mockery of conservatism as a governing ideology. It will take a period in opposition to put it back together.
That last sentence sounds like he's looking for a backdoor way to justify his vote for Kerry. "I'll vote for him in order that I may oppose him," he seems to be saying. I'll be glad to have him in the opposition. More on David Brooks' piece when I have a chance.
The Neocons: As Contemptible as They Are Contemptuous. An interesting article in today's Salon about how the Neocons are jumping the Bush ship and blaming him for doing what they said he should do. Closing paragraphs:
What is the reaction of the president, his national security advisor and his political master strategist, Karl Rove, to the necons' open and flagrant rebellion and the palpable contempt with which they are now treating their benefactors? It is, as usual, to bury their ostrich heads ever deeper in the sand. Bush, with the curious passivity that betrays his macho self-image, has not fired a single defense or national security official during his nearly four years in power despite the unprecedented catastrophes they have led him into. They know they can rely on Bush's predictable timidity to let their own closest associates in the media run wild with their tacit approval, even though this behavior only serves to further humiliate him.
For where else can Bush go? He has isolated himself with his own simplistic vision of the world and his pathological anti-intellectualism. Bush truly believes that by embracing the neoconservatives, he freed himself from the chattering classes. He does not realize that he thereby made himself the hapless and helpless puppet of the most irresponsible, incompetent and pretentious intellectual clique of all: the neocons themselves. And now he is stuck with them, even while they openly spit upon him and prepare to flee.
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Quarreling with Liberalism. My loathing for what the GOP has come to represent is about as intense as it could possibly be, but my criticism does not come from the standpoint of Liberalism. I came across this quote from Louis Menand's essay "Christopher Lasch's Quarrel with Liberalism" the other day, and it serves as an introduction to what I want to say:
Modern life, to some of its critics, looks like a giant wrecking yard of traditions, with none around to pick up the mess. In the middle of the yard there is a small tin shed and inside the shed the apologists of fragmentation sit. These are the liberals. They explain how it is that we are better off without guides to conduct that are any more substantive than the right of each of us to pick up whatever pieces catch his or her fancy, and why it is that life inside the yard counts as liberation.
People who are unhappy with modernity, on this description, have two alternatives: they can gather together bits of the failed traditions and construct from them a philosophy of conduct that might supplant liberalism's emptiness, or they can choose, intellectually , at least, to live outside the yard altogether.
There are three kinds of people who choose to live outside the yard. There are those like the Amish, Hutterites, Hasids and guys like the poet Wendell Berry, who still plows his field with a horse-drawn plow. These people chose to live in worlds constructed as best as possible as a huge refusal to acknowledge the existence of the modern world around them. A second group would be restorationists who feel that the traditions haven't failed they just have to be freshened up a bit. The old traditional social forms were good for our ancestors, they think, and we've got to bring them back. The agenda of much of the Christian right is restorationist in this sense. Think, for instance, of Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court Chief who insisted on having the Ten Commandments displayed in his courthouse.
There is a third category of critics of modernity and its liberal metaphysics, and it's this one for which I feel the most sympathy. Those in this group are what I would call the Romantics. Nietzsche and Heidegger were Romantics in this sense--and Christopher Lasch is another, homegrown example. The romantic impulse dates to the mid 1700s and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. It was animated by a revulsion many felt at the disenchantment of nature being promoted by the new approach to it taken by science (Blake, Wordsworth). And by profound misgivings about the kind of human being who was being created by these new social forms that seemed to blithely sweep away tradition as if it were so much irrationality and superstition (Burke).
For Christopher Lasch situates himself solidly in this tradition as it manifested in American thought, which for him was carried forward by Jonathan Edwards, R. W. Emerson, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr. And in his books, especially in The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, he points with alarm to the kind of human being modernity has created. And in his, I believe, last book, The True and Only Heaven, he struggles to define what the antidote is, and he calls it "populism."
Populism is not Liberalism. Populism is the force that drove southern blacks to overturn the segregationist system. Liberals went along with it, but they did not have the moral force to make it happen. The essence of Liberalism is laissez faire--leave people alone to do as they please. Liberalism lacks moral force because it is morally contentless. It is simply a framework that seeks to allow citizens to do as they please so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to do as they please. Moral content must come from outside the framework of Liberalism. The Civil Rights movement would not have been possible outside of a Liberal political framework, but it was not something that was effected by Liberalism. It was effected by a religious consciousness that was quite alien from the spirit of Liberalism.
I plan to be writing a lot about this, because it really cuts to the heart of what this site is about. I'm not endorsing everything that Lasch has said, but he's one of the few people out there who seems, from my point of view, to have a clue. In what I have written in the last year here I have directed most of my criticism toward the political and cultural right in this country because it holds the reins of power, and because I don't believe that their values are truly conservative values. They are using conservatism as a cover for a more radical agenda. And I do very seriously believe that agenda poses the most serious threat to the Republic since the time of the Civil War and its Gilded-Age aftermath.
But that does not mean that I endorse the Liberalism of the Democratic Party. I just see it as the less harmful alternative. If nothing else, the Democrats will uphold the Liberal framework within the political sphere which is necessary for the protection of basic rights. For all the cultural right's talk about democracy and freedom, I don't think it's something they really understand or value. For many on the cultural right, it would not be much of a sacrifice for them to give up their freedoms in confusing times if a demagogue were to promise them security and control in exchange for them. The GOP is the party of security and control, and that has nothing to do with being conservative or in honoring tradition.
If Kerry is elected, as I most fervently hope he will be, I will have plenty to say about the profound flaws of Liberalism and its soul-rotting effect on the national character. There's a connection between what Nietzsche called the Last Man and what Lasch calls the culture of narcissism, and neither is well enough understood and both are the products of modernity and its Liberal values matrix. About that I have no disagreement with the right. My disagreement lies not with their diagnosis of the problem but with their prescription for a remedy.
My standpoint in criticizing Liberalism, therefore, is not from the restorationist cultural right--that way, if left unchecked, leads inevitably to a neo-Puritan dictatorship. Restorationism is a form of decadent Romanticism that is rooted in the longing for long ago and far away. And it's fueled by a politics of anxiety that would promote the most slavish form of Last Man society. Rather, my standpoint lies in a Romanticism that is rooted in hope and oriented toward the future.
The Romanticism that I would promote while looking toward the future would at the same time seek to retrieve and to revive what has been lost from our past. Such a project is not at all the same as "restoring." Restoring is what you do to old run-down things that still have some structural integrity, like a house or an old car. A tradition is not a thing. It is a living organism and as such the parts of it that have been lost cannot be restored, they must be re-membered. We must re-awaken ourselves to what we have forgotten and integrate it with what we have become in the mean time.
The challenge, therefore, is not to reject Liberalism, but to move beyond it. And for me this requires that "Romanticism come of age," as Owen Barfield entitled a collection of his essays. The nostalgic Romanticism that focuses on long ago and far away is a form of decadence, and offers no way forward. But the archetypal longing at the heart of all Romanticism is a longing for a culture that is more soulful, which means to say more intensely human. A Romanticism come of age is one that without falling into utopianism redirects this longing from the past toward the future.
I don't know if it's going to happen or if it does, how it will. But I'm convinced that something like this has to happen if we are to make it through to the next century.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
Hamm Should Take the Silver. I think Olympic gymnast Paul Hamm probably will. Not because he's being pressured, but because he seems like a decent guy, and it's the right thing to do. Not that you'd get that from Peter Ueberoth or any of the American opinion pieces that I've read on the matter.
Caple and Thiel, for instance, seem to miss the big point in trying to score minor ones. They argue it's not Hamm's fault. It's the judges' fault, and Hamm shouldn't be penalized because the judges screwed up. It would be like changing the results of a game because an umpire made a bad call. And what nerve the Olympic Committee has for putting the onus on Hamm by asking him to give up the medal.
Well, it's tough. But that doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do. Hamm didn't win it, and a big part of the reason he didn't win it is because he messed up spectacularly on the vault.
This isn't a matter of subjective judgment. It's not a question of going back and looking at the video tapes to see if the judges were wrong. There is no ambiguity here. It's very objective and very clear. The Korean guy won. He hasn't been given the gold yet because of a technical start values scoring error about which there is no dispute, and which should have been quickly rectified.
It couldn't be clearer or more objective. Hamm didn't win, he knows it, Caple and Thiel know it. Ueberoth knows it. We all know it. He should give the gold toYang Tae Young. There's really very little moral ambiguity about it.
So maybe Hamm and others can justify his retaining the gold on legalistic technical grounds, but he'll always know he didn't really win it. If he can live with that, it's his choice. But it's not the right thing to do. And he will always know he didn't deserve it.
Friday, August 27, 2004
Quote of the Day. This one from the companionable prairie homeboy, Garrison Keillor:
The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk. Republicans: The No.1 reason the rest of the world thinks we’re deaf, dumb and dangerous.
Rich ironies abound! Lies pop up like toadstools in the forest! Wild swine crowd round the public trough! Outrageous gerrymandering! Pocket lining on a massive scale! Paid lobbyists sit in committee rooms and write legislation to alleviate the suffering of billionaires! Hypocrisies shine like cat turds in the moonlight! O Mark Twain, where art thou at this hour? Arise and behold the Gilded Age reincarnated gaudier than ever, upholding great wealth as the sure sign of Divine Grace. . . .
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. The omens are not good.
Our beloved land has been fogged with fear—fear, the greatest political strategy ever. An ominous silence, distant sirens, a drumbeat of whispered warnings and alarms to keep the public uneasy and silence the opposition. And in a time of vague fear, you can appoint bullet-brained judges, strip the bark off the Constitution, eviscerate federal regulatory agencies, bring public education to a standstill, stupefy the press, lavish gorgeous tax breaks on the rich.
Kerry should hire this guy.
Thursday, August 26, 2004
The Southernization of American Politics. It's the title for the last column I wrote in April. I was trying to show that the one-party system that dominated the post-Reconstruction South shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans after the passage of the Democrat-sponsored Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the poisonous mentality that infected the Southern Democrats during the Jim Crow era now infects the GOP. Racism is just a part of it--it's the mentality of oligarchy.
There are a lot of decent, good-hearted Republicans who don't want to believe that, and think that their party is in some way related to the heritage of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, but not any more. It really is closer in spirit these days to the party of Jefferson Davis and Strom Thurmond.
Julian Bond in an article today supports the contention.
In the pre-1965 one-party South, intimidation, often fatal, was the exclusive handiwork of the nearly all-white Democratic Party. When he signed the Voting Rights Act into law, Present Lyndon Johnson was prescient when he told an aide: “We are delivering the South to the Republicans for a generation.”
After 1965 and the Voting Rights Act, as resistant whites fled the Democrats and found a sympathetic home in the Republican Party and newly franchised blacks joined the Democrats, these menacing and threatening practices have increasingly become the province of Republicans.
That they continue at all, under any sponsorship, is a continuing blot on our democracy.
Read the article to find out how Jim Crow practices continue but by different means. What we saw in Floida isn't that unusual, and it isn't restricted to the South.
Quote of the Day:
"Bush operatives constantly whine about the media, but Bush is benefiting from the mock sophistication of journalists who, striking a world-weary stance, say of his campaign dishonesty, 'It was ever thus in American politics.' Even if that were true, it would be no excuse, and it isn't true. This is extraordinary ... serious people flinch from being associated with the intellectual slum that is the Bush campaign, with its riffraff of liars and aspiring ayatollahs."
It's from George Will writing 8/26/92 about Bush Sr. And he was the nice one. Josh Marshall found it, and had this to say about it:
The whole column merits reading in full -- and not simply because of the irony that Will was saying of that Bush campaign what many Democrats are now saying about his son's campaign. It's more than that. You have the same tactics, the same people, even the same criticisms in many cases -- ones which the campaign makes no effort to defend as being accurate but nonetheless insists it will keep repeating.
I don't know how many times I've heard the retort to this kind of accusation that the Democrats do it, too. So maybe it will help those of you who buy that line to get it when a conservative like Will points to the obvious. The Bushies from Atwater to Rove have brought this kind of dirty campaigning to historic lows. The everybody-does-it-argument just doesn't cut it. It's like saying a slap on the bottom and a kick in the groin are equivalent.
The irony is that GOP pursues this kind of politics in the cause of promoting traditional moral values.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Finding Your Way in Opposite Land. Tom Schaller gets it right, but it's still hard to grasp. The GOP has created a political landscape in which we are in Opposite Land.
It reminds me of the "Opposite George" episode from Seinfeld, where George Costanza consults his regular instincts, then does the opposite of whatever those instincts tell him. The result? He lands the job of a lifetime and starts dating a hot babe who's way out of his league.
In a normal universe, of course, a person who used familial connections to avoid Vietnam service, got a plum assignment replete with taxpayer-funded flying lessons despite low scores on the military qualifying exams and then, to top it off, failed to meet his 1972 reserve duty obligations because he was too busy boozing it up on a segregationist's campaign eight years after passage of the Civil Rights Act – in a normal world, that person wouldn't dare challenge the military service of an opponent who, despite also coming from a privileged background, fought anyway and returned as a decorated hero.
I've been saying all along that you can live in an insane world and think its normal if everyone is telling you it's normal. Demagogues understand this, and that's the whole point of their telling the Big Lie. It happens all the time: Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, America's segregated south. We just don't want to believe that it could happen to us. But only those who are outside of it can see it for the insanity that it is. It's as if a spell is cast on the collective mind, and up is down, black is white. And later, when we wake from this bad dream, we wonder what could have possibly gotten into us. This election is about who gets to define what's sane or insane--the realtively sane or the wingnuts.
So, according to Schaller, since we're already in an insane Opposite Land, the worst thing you can do is to assume that acting or speaking rationally will be effective. He says that what the Kerry campaign should have done in response to the Swiftboat wingnuts is to have developed a strategy that makes sense according to the laws of Opposite Land. The Campaign instead should have:
Laughed and laughed and laughed some more, scoffing repeatedly that this episode is the best thing that could have happen for their campaign. In unison, Kerry and his surrogates should said they were pleasantly bemused that Bush was, in effect, conceding defeat so early in the campaign by resorting to desperate tactics that will only steer more Americans toward the Democratic ticket.
Instead of beseeching the President's campaign to say "stop these ads," Edwards should invite Bush-Cheney to engage in more attacks. Indeed, a vice presidential candidate fluent in Bushperanto would start every campaign speech with a wry, albeit puzzled smile, and say something like this:
" It's laughable that the president's men are going to waste all the time and money they've invested in this campaign by supporting a backdoor, superficial campaign that will only confirm all the public's doubts about the character of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Can you believe they're handing us the election? I mean, the polls show it's still close, yet they're putting up the white flag with two months to go! It reminds me of their attacks on me for being a trial lawyer who defends the little guy against them and their fleet of well-heeled corporate lawyers. I just love it. I hope they attack our families next. Why they want to disgrace themselves and their party on their way to defeat is beyond me. Mark my words: This episode will be remembered as the point at which Bush conceded the White House."
Kerry should hire this guy. Read the whole piece.
From the Gadflyer's 8/24 Flytrap:
"By the time we're finished, they're gonna wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate." - Lee Atwater
By the time the White House finishes with Kerry, no one will know what side of the [Vietnam] war he fought on." - a "Senior Republican" quoted in the Financial Times.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
LA Times Editorial Board Gets It Right. Headline: "These Charges are False: It's one thing for the presidential campaign to get nasty but quite another for it to engage in fabrication."
The technique President Bush is using against John F. Kerry was perfected by his father against Michael Dukakis in 1988, though its roots go back at least to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It is: Bring a charge, however bogus. Make the charge simple: Dukakis "vetoed the Pledge of Allegiance"; Bill Clinton "raised taxes 128 times"; "there are [pick a number] Communists in the State Department." But make sure the supporting details are complicated and blurry enough to prevent easy refutation.
Then sit back and let the media do your work for you. Journalists have to report the charges, usually feel obliged to report the rebuttal, and often even attempt an analysis or assessment. But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis' patriotism or Kerry's service in Vietnam. And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues.
Kerry after Nam. His problem with the vets who are out to smear him stems from his anti-war activism when he returned. They considered him a traitor because he pointed to the atrocities most Americans didn't want to believe were being committed by American combatants.
Vietnam in the 70s and Afghanistan in the 80s are the two most potent symbols of the folly of power in the 20th Century. Our involvement now in Iraq amazes me because it is born of the same folly that brought the world Vietnam and Afghanistan. It defies belief that we could be so stupid. It defies belief that there should be any respect given to people who promote policies that derive from this foolish mindset.
And yet the fools, it seems, will always be given equal time. That's why the Swiftboat liars are getting theirs. The media have not been able to figure out that their utterly obsolete and moronic Rambo world view is what it is. The media give these fools airtime because their simplistic world view still commands their respect, not because their baseless case against Kerry has merit.
The baselessness of the Swiftboat liars' accusations share in the same baselessness as the reasoning that justified the invasion of Iraq. The two go together, and it stands to reason that if you buy one, you'll buy the other. It's not about reality. It's not about the complexities of history and culture. It's not about understanding our own complicity in evil. God forbid that we should ever entertain a complex idea.
When you boil away all the specious rationalizations proposed to justify this war, all that remains is this moronic puffing out of our chests to show the world we're boss. It really is that stupid and that crude and that irrational. And when someone is in the grip of the irrational, there is no debating him. It's like a trying to talk a friend out of being in love with a woman who is no good for him. The irrationality does all the thinking, and it can make the most compelling, if self-deluding, arguments.
Kerry's sin thirty-three years ago was to point to the delusion, stupidity, and crudity of our continued engagement in a pointless, unwinnable war. History has proven him to have been correct. The emperor and his loyalists didn't like it then when someone pointed out he was wearing no clothes. They are in love with their own delusional picture of the world that the naked emperor symbolizes. But now we have another emperor with no clothes, and the question is whether the people who can see that fact clearly will elect one of their own, or whether the people still immersed in their fantasy will elect theirs.
Again Tom Tomorrow puts it into perspective.
Also Josh Marshall's been good all week on this issue. Check out his 12:44 am post today. Some key paragraphs:
The current debate about these two men's military service has put the spotlight on physical courage. But that really is a side issue in this campaign, if we're talking substance. The real issue isn't physical bravery but moral cowardice.
President Bush is an examplar of that quality in spades. And it cuts directly to his failures as president. Forget about thirty years ago, just think about the last three years.
Before proceeding on to that, one other point about the two men's service. On the balance sheet of moral bravery, as opposed to physical bravery, the two men are about as far apart as you can be on Vietnam. On the one hand you have Kerry, who already had doubts about whether we should be fighting in Vietnam before he went, and put his life on the line anyway. On the other hand, you have George W. Bush who supported the war, which means he believed the goal was worth the cost in American lives. Only, not his life. He believed others should go; just not him. It's the story of his life.
That is almost the definition of moral cowardice.
We have a more immediate sense of what physical bravery and cowardice are. In fact, when we speak of bravery and cowardice, the physical variety is almost always what we're talking about. It's whether or not you can charge an enemy position while you're be fired at. It's whether you're immobilized by the fear of death.
Moral cowardice is more complex. A moral coward is someone who lacks the courage to tell the truth, to accept responsibility, to demand accountability, to do what's right when it's not the easy thing to do, to clean up his or her own messes. Perhaps we could say that moral bravery is having both the courage of your convictions as well as the courage of your misdeeds.
As I've been saying here for the last couple days, the issue isn't that Bush ducked service in Vietnam. It's that he tries to smear other people's meritorious service without taking responsibility for what he's doing. He gets other people to do his dirty work for him. Again, that image of McCain calling him on his shameless antics and his look of fear, his look of feeling trapped.
The key for the Kerry campaign to make is that the president's moral cowardice is why we're now bogged down in Iraq. It's a key reason why almost a thousand Americans have died there. President Bush has set the tone for this administration and his moral cowardice permeates it.
Monday, August 23, 2004
Dole: Another GOP Cretin: On the Blitzer show, as reported in the NY Times, Bob Dole has this to say about Kerry:
He's got himself into this wicket now where he can't extricate himself because not every one of these people can be Republican liars,'' said Mr. Dole, whose right arm was left limp by a war injury. "There's got to be some truth to the charges," he said
They can't all be liars, so therefore there has to be truth to the charges. Republican logic: Ambiguous premise followed by dubious conclusion. I'll grant that some of these guys sincerely believe what they are saying because that's what they want to believe. But that hardly gives them any credibility. Take the example of Alfred French, who in the Swiftboaters' ad says
"I served with John Kerry. . . . He is lying about his record."
But when you read on in the article in the Oregonian in which he is intervewed, you find out that his basis for this assertion has nothing to do with what he knows first hand:
French said he is relying on the accounts of three other veterans who were friends of his at the time. A fourth veteran with whom French was acquainted corroborated their accounts.
" I was not a witness to these events but my friends were," said French, who was awarded two Bronze Stars during the war. "I believe these people. These are people I served with."
Well, fine, Alfred. You're gullible enough to believe friends like the discredited Larry Thurlow. And you think that gives you the right to make assertions about events that you have no first-hand knowledge about? Again, this kind of thing doesn't pass the laugh test.
French probably isn't a liar, but if not, he's a fool because he believes others who are. That pretty much defines the political dynamic within the GOP. There is a symbiotic relationship between leaders who lie and followers who believe them.
He said; she said. That's what much of the media coverage of the swiftboat liars's ad makes it seem like. But as Josh Marshall points out in his 12:29 am post today, it shouldn't be so hard for the media to figure out which side has credibility and which doesn't. As he points out, in a court of law the Swiftboaters contentions wouldn't pass the laugh test. In reference to a Washington Post piece taking this so-called objective approach, he says:
Considering the piece a bit more, though, it strikes me just how clear an example this is of the poverty of what passes as journalistic objectivity -- the effort to find a point of balance when the facts themselves provide no basis for it.
Let me explain.
If you wade through the article, it's easy to lose track of this. But what does the article itself say? Kerry says one thing, his critics say another. But are Kerry and O'Neil really equal in this?
The military records all back up Kerry. Back in the old days -- i.e., last month --official military records use to be considered at least presumptively accurate. Now, everyone knows or should know that every after-action report or medal citation isn't necessarily the product of an exhaustive investigation. Yet, they're not meaningless. At a minimum one would assume that the burden of proof would lie with those who dispute their veracity.
So, as I say, all the Navy records support Kerry's account. On top of that, all the people who were in Kerry's boat support his version of events.
Think about that for a minute. All the people in Kerry's boat means all the people closest to the action in question support Kerry's account. Others who were tens or hundreds of yards away, or not even present, contradict his account. Is it really so hard to distinguish between the quality of evidence and testimony that both sides are bringing to the table?
So the real story here is once again about how the mainstream media allows itself to get played by these right wingers who have a political axe to grind. These people should be accorded as much media attention as their credibility supports. Which is none. It's just that the Pavlovian Press has no capability to make those kinds of distinctions and simply responds mindlessly whenever the wingers ring the bell.
Tom Tomorrow provides a little perspective here.
Saturday, August 21, 2004
Who You Gonna Believe? Another credible witness that contradicts Kerry's Swiftboat smearers. Read it here. The accusations of these GOP cretins would be a joke if it were not for supposedly respectable types like Bill Kristol trying to get political mileage out of them on the Lehrer News Hour.
What a snake that dude is. All of this has nothing to do with the truth. It's all about winning a perception battle. Kristol is a power player. He understands how the game is played and that it's all about taking a part of the truth and distorting it into something that bears little resemblance to what really happened. He'll push it for all it's worth under the guise of having an honest debate.
If anybody knows anything that has been written about Kristol that documents his long history of ideologically motivated distortions, let me know. This guy is smart and he is as oily as they get. He'd have a great career in Hollywood typecast as one of the unctuous, brainy villains that populate the action thrillers.
If you want the most comprehensive picture about what this whole thing is about read the yesterday's NY Times piece on it . It becomes pretty clear what the payback motivations are for the people making these accusations. It's despicable.
Friday, August 20, 2004
Swiftboaters Won't Get Away This Time. Not if the media does its job. The New York Times is doing its part in putting out this chart that shows the web of deceit spun by these wingnuts. For full text see this page.
Sorrows of Empire. Jonathan Schell has some interesting things to say about the unconscious way the United States seems to have drifted into having become and empire. We Americans don't want to think of ourselves as imperialists. We never chose to become that. Yet look around, and that's what seems to have happened when we were paying attention to other things.
. . . when did this happen? Was it with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American war of the 1840s, the allied victory in the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that left only the "sole superpower" standing? Or was it perhaps at some undetermined moment in the giddy decade that followed? Did any of the new mainstream imperial apologists notice the development, or alert anyone else to what was happening? Was I looking the other way when the transformation was announced? I am unaware that any candidate ran on an imperial program, or that any voters voted for one. Or did empire simply sneak up on the country -- a stealth empire indeed -- as in the case of the British empire, once famously said to have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind? Can a people rule the world without noticing it?
Such an account of American history involves a spectacular denial of agency -- and of democratic responsibility -- to voters and politicians alike. Moreover, an assumption that the imperial deed is already done deprives the public of decision-making power for the future. Why debate a decision already taken? American empire then acquires the tremendous weight of accomplished fact, and the only realistic question becomes not whether to run the world, but only how to do so.
Before the Iraq invasion, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard wrote that the United States was an empire "in denial." He wanted the United States to wake up and face its imperial responsibilities: "enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest," "laying down the rules America wants," "carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century -- Ottoman, British and Soviet." For "in the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones -- Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two -- that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past." This was reluctant, sorrowful imperialism. The British historian Niall Ferguson took the argument a step further, writing an entire book, Colossus, praising the fallen British empire and inviting the United States to step into its shoes.
These ideas seem to me to embody a grand misreading of events. Ignatieff and Ferguson appear to look at twentieth century history as a contest among empires that was won by the United States, opening the way for it to run the world. As I see it, however, the United States is likely to prove the last of the long series of imperial tenpins that have been knocked down not by other empires but by local independence struggles. Once it has become clear to everyone that the American imperial bid has failed, and with it the entire age-old imperial enterprise, we can return to the mountainous real work of our time, which is to put together what we have never had but now must create -- an anti-imperial, democratic way of organizing the world
This fundamental misreading of events to which Schell points is the foundation upon which the whole Iraqi policy has been built. There was a moment last spring when I thought it might actually be successful. I should have known better. If you're interested, read my take about this from a year ago June.
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Deconstructing the Swiftboat Ad: See Slate's Weisberg and Saletan take apart the vileness of this ad here. Read the whole thing, but here are two key paragraphs:
The ad is a carefully crafted lie. The Swift Boat Veterans ad is beyond vile. You nail many of its distortions. There's a useful survey of some others at Fact check.org. Suffice it to say that the spot packs an impressive amount of deceit into 60 seconds. Without entering into every detail of the "controversy," it pretends, as you note, that people who weren't present when Kerry sustained injuries were eyewitnesses. It implies that Kerry wouldn't deserve his Purple Hearts if his injuries had been caused by friendly fire, when in fact he would still qualify. It implies he has said things about his experience that he hasn't. It blurs the distinction between friendly fire and "self-inflicted wounds," implying that Kerry intentionally harmed himself to receive medals and escape Vietnam. It makes criticism of his activities after returning home sound like criticism of his activities in Vietnam. "He betrayed all his shipmates ... he lied before the Senate."
The ad greatly benefits Bush. A story in today's New York Post (part of the aforementioned slime machine) says the ad has the potential to be hugely effective for Bush. According to an independent study cited by the Post, "the ad planted doubts in the minds of 27 percent of independent voters who planned to vote for Kerry or leaned pro-Kerry. After seeing it, they were no longer sure they'd back him, the study found." The reason the ad really might be so effective, despite its fraudulence, is that it undermines the heroic part of Kerry's biography, which forms the basis of a big, positive personal contrast with Bush, while at the same time bolstering the GOP theme that Kerry is "untrustworthy."
These snakes know what they are doing. They've had a lot of practice in the last fifteen or twenty years, and the mainstream media for the most part is letting them get away with it. They realize that they can say pretty much anything and that there's no accountability. They realize that their job is just to sow enough seeds of doubt to swing the gullible undecideds.
And by the way, the idea that the Dems are just as bad because of the MoveOn ad is ridiculous. It's simply stating what's indisputably known about Bush's National Guard record. And if the GOP is going to make military service thirty years ago a campaign issue, then the Dems have a right to go after Bush on this. There's got to be some standard of truthfulness and accountability, though.
Bush supporters out there: How can you stomach this?
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Quote of the Day: This one from Pat Runyon, a fifty-eight year old Ohio factory worker who was with John Kerry on the swift-boat mission 36 years ago in Vietnam that's getting so much attention lately:
"I saw a nice, quiet guy who knew he was in command and didn't flaunt it. He could make a decision, and he made the right one because we got out of there alive. That's all I can tell you."
Read his account about what happened on December 2, 1968. And then ask yourself, especially if your're still a Bush supporter, who you'd rather have in the boat with you: Kerry, who proved himself time and again under fire? Or Bush, who just sat there cluelessly for seven minutes in a Florida classroom on 9/11? Nobody's saying that Kerry deserves the Medal of Honor. But the bottom line is that Kerry was there and passed the test with the bullets flying and Bush and Cheney were back home where it was safe.
The idea that Bush is a strong, steady leader and that the nation is somehow safer in his administration's reckless hands is one of the great propaganda coups of the last one hundred years. Me--I'm voting for the quiet guy who gets the job done and gets everyone home safely.
Deconstruction of the Snake Mind. Psychologist/activist Thom Hartmann provides an interesting deconstruction of Cheney's most recent excursion into the Orwellian. He uses the functions of the three human brain layers--the reptilian (survival, fight or flight), the limbic or mammalian (shame/enthusiasm), and the neocortex (thinking) brains--to explain the effectiveness of Cheney's recent remarks about Kerry sensitive approach to the war on terrorists.
When Dick Cheney recently took John Kerry's comment about sensitivity in the war on terror out of context and spun it for his audiences, he was performing a psychologically masterful bit manipulation of all three brains.
Only ridicule with a subtext of fear has this power.
"America has been in too many wars for any of our wishes, but not a one of them was won by being sensitive," Cheney said, firing first the thinking brain ("too many wars") and then the limbic brain ("for our wishes[/hopes/ideals]"). And then he went for the reptile brain: "...but not one of them was won by being sensitive."
The comment brought an instant response of laughter - an emotional and involuntary response, as Freud pointed out, that's the result of the neocortex thinking it's moving logically along in one direction (a discussion of too many wars) and then suddenly getting derailed ("but not one of them was won by being sensitive") from that thought. This sudden derailment - known among comedians as the "punch line" - causes the thinking brain to be momentarily confused and triggers a response known as laughter that comes involuntarily from the limbic mammalian brain. (This is why comedy almost always involves misdirection, like in the old Red Skelton classic, "I just flew in from Chicago...and, boy, are my arms tired!")
But then, in a brilliant coup de grâce, Cheney spoke directly to his listener's reptilian brain, the part that most powerfully controls our behaviors because it constantly is vigilant to maintain our survival. "Those that threaten us and kill innocents around the world," he said, arousing the reptilian awareness of threat, "do not need to be treated more sensitively, they need to be destroyed."
To reinforce this message to his listener's most primitive instincts, Cheney continued to invoke the word "sensitive" a half-dozen more times, always wrapping it in surprise and survival.
Not only is this among the most sophisticated of psychological warfare operations, in this case it was also one of the most immoral, since Cheney was quoting Kerry out of context and, thus, basing his entire premise upon what was essentially a lie.
But the deed was done, because all three brains had been touched.
No matter how much the Kerry campaign tried to argue to the thinking neocortex that his words meant we should be sensitive to the needs and values of our allies and not sensitive to our enemies, his response never reached the limbic or reptilian brains of his or Cheney's listeners. Kerry's response - "It's sad they can only be negative" - was one that only reached the thinking neocortex. It didn't provoke a laugh, driving it into the limbic brain, and it didn't address Bush/Cheney failures to keep Americans safe, the main issue of the reptilian brain.
The entire GOP strategy is to frame Kerry as a liberal wimp. After all, in the GOP reptile mind, if you're male and a Democrat, you are by definition a wimp, right? So that's an easy sell, no matter whether there are facts to support such a contention or not. That's the basic GOP tactic being employed in trying to discredit Kerry's war record: He's a freakin Massachusetts hippie liberal for gawdsakes! He can't possibly be a war hero. It's a contradiction in terms. So thinks any of the neocortext-challenged who buy into this crap. The idea is to plant enough seeds of doubt no matter how distorting of the the truth they might be, and maybe that gets Bush a couple of million reptile votes. It's cynical, but it works.
But the point that Hartmann makes in the rest of the article is an important one: The GOP understands very well the primitive processes of the reptilian brain, and it knows that stimulating it with images and rhetoric is far more effective in motivating action than appealing to facts or to the thought processes of the neocortex. Demagogues have understood this from time immemorial. And the GOP, from its Willie Horton ads in '88 to its smoking-gun mushroom clouds in 2002, knows what it's doing. It has everything to do with using an appeal to the reptile brain to manipulate an all-too manipulable public to buy into its phony vision of the world.
Speaking of phony vs real scandals: Why is Cheney getting a media pass on Halliburton's book cooking? Imagine what Limbaugh and Hannity would do with this if it were Al Gore who was the Halliburton CEO when all this was going on.
Sunday, August 15, 2004
Sex, Power, & Money. When you look around today, the basic consensus would seem to be that the more you have of each, the happier you will be. And in a free society, like the one we Americans cherish as our own, we believe everyone should be free to do whatever he pleases to pursue that path which will bring him the most happiness. The only inhibition is that he not infringe on the rights of others who along their different tracks are pursuing the same thing.
But according to this culture-wide consensus, life's winners are the one who have the most sex, the most power, and the most money. Our stature as in individuals in the world is determined by our successes in getting as much of all three of these as we can. Our culture's most celebrated personalities are those who have distinguished themselves one way or the other for being prodigious in one or all three.
Because chances are that if you have a talent for obtaining a good supply of any one, you have a good supply of the other two as well. If you have power, you use it to get sex and money. If you have sexual appeal, you use it to get power and money. If you're rich, you use your wealth to get sex and power. If you don't, you must be some kind of loser. You must lack ambition. You must be too timid to grab life by the balls, so to speak. I can hear Mussolini saying something like that. It's so seductive when it's put that way. The lure of fascism, after all, is in its ethic to be strong and to live boldly. To be master rather than slave. Who could criticize that?
Nevertheless it's pretty crude because it defines living life to the fullest exclusively in terms of sating one's appetites. And while most of us Americans think that the fascist mentality is about as far from the American experience as is the experience of Australian aborigines, it's there nevertheless lurking in so many subtle forms in the mainstream narrative that defines American consumer culture.
We accept it on an unconscious level; its like the air we breathe. And this inclination toward crudity becomes stronger with each passing decade as the influence of traditional religious and classical values become weaker. This crude logic determines hierarchies in every dimension of our lives. It starts in middle school, and it shapes the basic dynamics that drive the business and political worlds. Getting more sex, power, and money is what makes the world go round.
The measure of a civilized society, however, is the degree to which it has created social forms that seek to cultivate or humanize the raw, instinctual energies associated with these three drives. That's what we mean by culture, and culture is transmitted from generation to generation by tradition. And if that tradition lives, it produces human beings who have cooked these raw energies into something that gives their souls a special kind of beauty, goodness, and truthfulness.
It's what we mean by virtue, or its pre-Freudian meaning when we used the word without irony. And the virtuous life in the classical understanding of it was considered the happy life. I don't think anybody makes the connection anymore between virtue and happiness, and that's really the main indicator that we have lost touch with its real meaning.
When a tradition dies, or has become decadent, it no longer produces robust exemplars who soulfully embody virtues the culture prizes most. By robust I don't mean those diligent attempts by the most earnest of us to be decent, law-abiding citizens. Virtue is not the product of effective socialization. It's not like being a well-trained dog. Virtue is the condition of a transformed soul. Goodness, truth, beauty live in such people with an authenticity and vibrancy.
But our situation now is that we rarely if at all meet anyone who is prodigious in virtue. I'm not saying that there are no good, decent people. There are plenty, and that's not nothin'. But few of us are prodigious in virtue because we don't often meet people who themselves have become prodigiously virtuous. Meeting such people has become rare because we don't have a culture that values the aspiration toward virtue anymore.
We're caught in a vicious circle. We need the encounters with people who embody virtue, or else we never really can know what it is to which we aspire. The idea of virtue remains an abstraction, impossible to attain. If there are no genuine examples of nobility that embody that toward which we aspire, there is nothing to counterbalance the intoxication offered by the baser impulses which otherwise dominate the field. The cultural right, even if they don't understand the reasons for it, at least recognizes what has been lost.
The cultural left doesn't really care about the loss and is content to live with a new psychologized, narcissistic model of the human being whose purpose is essentially to get his needs met. Combine the new psychological human being with the market principles that dominate our political and economic life, and you get the Last Men that Nietzsche was quite right to tell us we were becoming. And Last Men, whether liberal or conservative in their opinions, are in a pre-fascist state of soul, vulnerable to manipulation by any demagogue bold enough and clever enough to bend the collective soul to his will by appealing to that which is basest in it.
But while there is much merit in Nietzsche's diagnosis of the disease, there is little in his pjroposed cure for it. His celebration of the will to power and the uebermensch lead inevitably to one or another form of fascism rather than to provide an antidote to it. The way forward does not lie with him. There has got to be another way to retrieve a culture-wide ideal that celebrates the aspiration toward virtue as a future-oriented, community-centered project. Simply trying to breath life into the all-but-dead traditional forms as the restorationists on the cultural right want to do is not a way forward. New wine needs new wineskins. The old ones have burst and are ruined.
The problem is not that most men and women fail in their aspiration to become truly virtuous. It's that as a culture we have ceased to even envision virtue as a possibility. And whatever that migh mean for us individually, it also has profound political consequences. To the degree that we are weak in virtue, we are weak as citizens. And to the degree that we are weak as citizens, we rely on conventional wisdom, and to the degree that we rely on conventional wisdom, we rely on the people who define what the conventional wisdom is. And for us today that means the mainstream media. And the mainstream media as it consolidates is becoming easier and easier for clever people with an agenda to manipulate.
And whose interests do the media serve? The general public's? Hardly. The media's goal is to manipulate the general public to serve its interests. Their technique is modern marketing. The corporate media have no interest in serving the public interest; they serve only their shareholders. And the shareholders have little interest in promoting virtue. The shareholders want docile Last Men who will buy beer when they are told to buy beer. See post directly below.
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Cultural Contradictions of Conservatism. E.J. Dionne's column yesterday, which I got around to reading this evening, suppports the point I've been making about what's really at the heart of conservative politics. It's symbolized by the senate race in Colorado in which Peter Coors of Coors Beer, the company famous for its soft porn beer ads, is running against real social conservatives. As Dionne says,
Conservatism is a noble tradition and an intellectual mess. Conservatives say they revere both traditional and market values. But those two sets of values so often contradict each other that conservatives have to cover their eyes -- from the twins ads, for example -- if they are to pretend to be consistent.
What is the most powerful force for permissiveness in the United States? It is not liberalism. It is the free market's use of sexuality to sell products. Children in our country are exposed to many more sexual images in television ads -- especially those selling beer -- than in raunchy magazines sold under the counter. The beer ads run heavily during sports broadcasts watched by sports-minded kids who love healthy competition, achievement, discipline and victory. Rather "conservative" values, no?
By running for the U.S. Senate, Coors put himself in the cross hairs of the conservative contradiction. He had to try to be as conservative as he could to win a Republican primary, even as his own company was anything but conservative on the social issues. Hey, he had to sell beer.
Thus was Coors faced with sharp attacks from Schaffer, and even more from an independent ad campaign organized by former senator Bill Armstrong. A staunch conservative, Armstrong attacked Coors for running "brewery ads that are degrading to women and nearly pornographic."
Coors was challenged for favoring a lowering of the drinking age. Yes, conservatives are supposed to favor abstemious behavior. But, hey, Coors had to sell beer.
Coors won the primary. The point is that when it comes to GOP politics the bottom line is always about selling beer, because the real drivers behind GOP politics are not the principles that are promoted by Judeo-Christian humanistic tradition, but the principles that govern how to sell beer. Yes, selling beer is important for the Dems, too, but it's not so unadulterated as for the GOP. For the GOP the freemarket is a matter of sanctimonious prinicple. It's all part and parcel of what it means to be a real American.
But in our society market values always trump traditional values. Traditional values just about always lose when it comes to a choice between them and making money, and sincere social conservatives in the GOP apparently are just too freakin' obtuse and intellectually confused to figure that out. So they keep supporting the candidates who are most responsible for destroying the world they hope to conserve.
In yesterday's post I said that "flag conservatism" in the final analysis is always about Powerlust. I forgot to mention his fraternal twin brother Greed. And both, but particularly the latter, are quite willing to use crude sexual appeals when it serves thier purposes. Strip away all the pious posturing on the Right about traditional values, and that's the ugly reality that lies behind it. Right wing politics in this country masquerades as a traditional conservatism; it is in fact something far more sinister and dangerous.
Friday, August 13, 2004
What is Conservatism? Here's an interesting paragraph from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The conservative temperament may be, but need not be, identical with conservative politics or right-wing economics; it may sometimes accompany left-wing politics or economics. Regardless of a conservative's politics or economics, however, it can be said that two characteristics of the conservative temperament are: a distrust of human nature, of rootlessness, of untested innovations; and a corresponding trust in unbroken historical continuity and in traditional frameworks within which human affairs may be conducted. Such a framework may be religious or cultural or may be given no abstract or institutional expression at all.
In relation to the latter aspect, many authorities on conservatism—a minority in France and a majority in England—consider conservatism an inarticulate state of mind and not at all an ideology. Liberalism argues; conservatism simply is. When conservatism becomes ideologized, logical, and self-conscious, then it resembles the liberal rationalism that it opposes. According to this British approach, logical deductive reasoning is too doctrinaire, too 18th century. Whereas the liberal and rationalist mind consciously articulates abstract blueprints, the conservative mind unconsciously incarnates concrete traditions. And, because conservatism embodies rather than argues, its best insights are almost never developed into sustained theoretical works equal to those of liberalism and radicalism.
I think this is an interesting follow-up to Norman Mailer's description of the political right wing in this country as not being genuinely conservative but what he calls "flag conservative." The distinction is apt and important to understand. True conservatism is today a form of Romanticism. Burke, Tolkien and more recently a guys like Wendell Berry or Garrison Keillor, are conservatives in this sense. Hell, I'm a conservative in that sense.
True conservatism requires living from a deeply rooted sense of the rich life that comes to us from the cultural heritage of the past. It is not anti-evolutionary, but it is anti-utopian. It distrusts all grand schemes and bold projects concocted by the sin-flawed human mind. Flag conservatism, on the other hand, is a form of not-quite-yet fascism that uses traditional symbols in a demagogic or manipulative way in the service of an anti-conservative, radical program which in the end is really only about powerlust.
More to say about this, but not enough time today. Posts will be intermittent and brief for the next week or so.
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Quote of the Day: This one's from a Molly Ivins' interview:
For years, I have always made fun of liberals who are always, it seems to me, prone to take alarm and hear the sound of jack-booted fascism around every corner. But I am really concerned at the degree of damage to the Bill of Rights. I mean, for the administration to have maintained that they had the right to put an American citizen in jail indefinitely without a right to counsel or a speedy trial, especially without even knowing what they are accused of, is scary. That was this administration’s position, that they could do this to an American citizen. And for there not to have been a greater outcry than there was is just, to me, shocking.
Shocking not only because it's the administration's position, but because the rest of us are ok with it. Why? Because (let's shout it out robotically in unison): "Everything has changed since 9/11." If we had a noble political leadership, it would find a way to help help us confront and check our fears as well as to find a prudent, effective strategy to confront and check those who would do us harm. A demagogic leadership, like the one we have now, seeks to inflame our fears as a way to manipulate us for their own political ends. It will use our fear to justify anything.
Monday, August 9, 2004
Norman Speaks. Mailer is eighty years old now, but the synapses are still firing away. Catch his interview with his son, John Buffalo Mailer, in New York magazine. Here's a quote that relates to some of the themes I've been developing in this blog:
I’ve been saying for a couple of years that Bush is not a conservative. He’s what I call a flag conservative, a Flag-Con. He’s not as interested in conservative values as in empire-building. The classic conservative, someone like Pat Buchanan or, to a more complicated degree, Bill Buckley, does believe that certain values in society must be maintained. The classic conservative believes in stability. You make changes grudgingly and with a great deal of prudence. Don’t move too quickly, is the rule of thumb, because society, as they see it, is essentially a set of compromises and imbalances that can be kept going only by wisdom and, to use the word again, prudence. So you don’t go off in wild, brand-new directions.
None of this characterizes Bush. As a Flag-Con, he is surrounded by the tycoons of the oil industry, plus neoconservatives, plus gung-ho militarists who believe that since we’ve created the greatest fighting machine in the history of the world, it’s a real shame not to use it. These three different groups came together on a notion that I would call “exceptionalism.” The more ideological among them believe that when the Cold War ended, it was America’s duty to take over the world. They believe God wanted America to run the world. All too many Americans do believe that.
Just look at the patriotic fever every time there’s an occasion for people to show their flags. Very few fascist nations ever failed to put a huge emphasis on getting people to wave flags. This is not the same as calling America fascistic—we are not next door to fascism yet—but even as certain people fall into a pre-cancerous condition, I would say America could be approaching a pre-fascistic condition.
And the basic notion behind such an impetus, what the Flag-Cons fear, is that America is going to lose its preeminence in the world unless drastic steps are initiated. As, for example, taking over the oil of the Middle East, as well as enlarging our reputation as a superpower to such a degree that China, India, Japan, and Europe will not be ready to stand up against us in any important way. These flag conservatives would argue, I expect, in their private colloquies, that if they don’t embark on such steps, America’s control of world economics could be lost forever.
I want to come back to this question: "What is a conservative?" later. This is something I addressed in a column I sent out last December. But more needs to be said about it in light of the question: Is it possible to conserve anything in a society driven by primarily by the tradition-destroying engine of freemarket capitalism? If so, what and how? Is there a difference between nostalgia for the past and retrieval of the past?
Saturday, August 7, 2004
Our Future as a Banana Republic. If we lived in Franco's Spain or Pinochet's Chile, the equivalent politicians of our moderate Republicans disguised as Democrats (like Joe Lieberman or Bill Clinton) would be considered men of the far left. When the political landscape is dominated by radicals, whether the fascists of Spain or Latin America or the Leninists of Eastern Europe, they get to define reality according to their insane notions about it. When such people are in power they have no interest in sitting down to talk reasonably with their opposition. It's a matter of either you're on the bus with them, or you're a traitor. Sound familiar? It was typical for the right-wing autocrats of Latin America to simply dismiss any kind of moderate opposition as "communist." Communist = traitor, and treason deserves the nation's opprobrium, and the traitors to be liquidated. And so they were.
Political extremism on the left or the right is a form of mental illness, and it's rooted in an obsessive need to have the world as it is conform to the world as one thinks it should be. It's a form of control freakism gone completely bonkers. With the exception of the Timothy McVeigh types, such extremists are usually not taken seriously and pose little threat to the nation, and they are free to fulminate in their chat rooms or talk radio programs to their heart's content.
It's worrisome, however, when they actually organize and start acquiring real political power, because then they start bending what is publicly accepted as normal reality toward their insane notions of it. It's been happening over the last twenty-five years in this country. It's been gradual, but it's been happening. And because it's been happening slowly, and because it has not affected the way most of us live our day-to-day lives, it has not been all that alarming. But what would have been rejected in the past as lunacy is now becoming accepted as part of our normal political discourse. Relatively sane Bush supporters I know think people like me are alarmist cranks to be saying this. Well, sorry, but I'm here to say it's time to get alarmed if you're not already.
The wing-nuts, like Tom Delay, Anne Coulter and a host of others who should be the marginal cranks no longer are. They have extraordinary power and influence, and that they do should be sobering for the rest of us. These people are extremists who are not interested in sitting down and working things out with the opposition. Their goal is to make the world over so that it conforms to the nutty way they think it should be. They are obsessed with achieving their goal, and obsession is possession. They are not in their right minds. They are possessed by a compulsive need to achieve their goals, and since the obsession is what is thinking in them, their thinking is capable of justifying the worst crimes.
Think about how Rush Limbaugh sought to justify the abuses of Abu Ghraib. These people are capable of coming up with the most tortured justifications for anything if it promotes or defends their agenda. We have no reason to take them at their word. They have proven time and again that they are not worthy of our trust. They have no real moral anchor; they are rather moored in the deep waters of obsession and the fear of the future as the world moves implacably in a direction they cannot control.
What we're seeing now from the cultural right is their desperate attempt to control the uncontrollable, an effort as likely to succeed as any attempt to stop the seasons or the wheeling of the earth around the sun. What they cannot control, they seek to destroy. It's the same insane logic as that which led Ahab to hunt his whale or the idea of nuking Vietnam to save it. It's this idea that the only way to deal with evil, which equates with the uncontrollable, is by destroying it or throwing it into some kind of prison.
Evil is whatever eludes their control, and whatever eludes their control is subversive and must be destroyed or repressed. The right wing need for control, therefore, equates with a distorted idea of morality. Morality is about the defeat of evil, and evil is the uncontrollable, therefore the moral task is to control the uncontrollable. Pharisees and Grand Inquisitors always think they are doing whatever they do for the highest possible moral purposes. And it's the Pharisees and Grand Inquisitors who in the name of morality commit the most horrific crimes. And unfortunately for us human beings, throughout history Pharisees and Inquisitors have this remarkable knack for rising to positions of power and to impose their insane vision of reality on the rest of us who all too often are willing to let them. Pharisees and Inquisitors always promise safety and order, and they thrive in times of fear and social confusion.
Think about what was done in the name of national security by the right-wing autocrats in Latin America in the last twenty-five years. All those people who were disappeared. The blood cult of the hit squads.The branding as a communist of anybody who speaks out for the rights and interests of the poor. The killings of nuns and priests, of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Do you think think for a moment that the perpetrators of these crimes thought they were not perfectly justified in killing these enemies of the moral order? On the contrary, they saw it as their patriotic duty.
So we Americans say, well that's just the way it is in those banana republics. It could never happen here. Well, it did happen here. It was called the Segregated South, and people were disappeared on a regular basis if their behavior was perceived to deviate from an insanity that tradition and custom validated as normal reality. Most of the disappeared were blacks, and they weren't dropped from airplanes into the ocean, they were hung from trees. If you believe that was an aberration that could never repeat itself in this country, you are in deep, deep denial. It won't be restricted to blacks next time around; it will be anybody whom the new moral order brands as deviant, and a deviant will be by definition anybody who resists their obsessive need to control them. The goal for us all in such a society will be to remain invisible so we won't have to be disappeared.
This country is quite capable of devolving into a banana republic. Orwell's security state is just a high-tech version of the basic type, and we have good reason to fear that as our future especially if we sustain another major terrorist attack while this administration is still in power. That's why it must be voted out in November. We might escape until then without such an attack occurring. But the odds are high that we will sustain an attack during the next four years no matter who is president, so God help us if Bush is reelected. Our vulnerability to terrorist attack worries me, but our vulnerability to demagoguery in the wake of such an attack worries me even more.
George Bush is not the problem. He is a non-factor, at most a kind of clumsy figurehead. He doesn't worry me. It's the people behind him we need to worry about, and I do believe they are capable of terrible crimes in the name of national security. And if the country is attacked again, we have good reason to expect the worst from them. The Democrats, whatever their shortcomings, have a much higher respect for preserving our civil liberties.
In Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we've seen the real face of what this administration is capable of. They can justify it any way they want. We can listen to callow moral morons like Rush Limbaugh rave on, but don't think for a minute that these people aren't capable of turning our nation into a banana republic if they are given another four years to do it.
And the irony is that we are all the more vulnerable to such an attack precisely because this administration is so wrongheaded and inept in its efforts to develop an effective counter-terrorism policy. They have not taken the steps that should have been taken since 9/11, and to anyone who's paying the least bit of attention, it should be obvious that this war in Iraq has been about as stupid a thing as we could have done if we are really serious about fighting the people who really pose a threat to us.
We have become so distracted by Saddam, that we essentially gave up on capturing Osama, who, unlike Saddam, does really pose a threat. We're spending all our money in Iraq or on missile defense systems which have no deterrent effect on any of the likely scenarios in which a nuclear device will likely be detonated on American soil. The delivery systems for such attacks are not going to be missiles but more likely something like a container ship, and not nearly enough has been done to increase the security of our ports. And there is hardly any money being given to bolster the capability of first responders if such an attack were to occur.
Our priorities are insanely out of whack, and yet for some reason most Americans bought into the absurd rationale offered by this administration for going to war. It's just nuts. If we lived in a sane country, every time Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld say anything to justify this war, they would be laughed off the podium. But instead the mainstream media and huge swaths of the American electorate nod respectfully as if what they're saying actually makes some kind of sense.
I understand why they say what they say. Their political survival is at stake, and they are capable of saying anything and doing anything to insure their survival. But that they should get away with it so easily is what really worries me. What is the matter with us? How anybody can take these clever fools seriously is beyond me. If they can get away with winning this election, they can get away with anything. And if we're attacked again on Bush's watch, buy big in banana stocks. It's a commodity whose future will be bright.
Monday, August 2, 2004
Failed State? Is such talk about Iraq just the storyline of the defeatist liberal media? The media obviously have their own agenda, and it's not necessarily about getting the story right. But it's possible to piece things together read between the lines, and a picture emerges.
And once in awhile you come across a piece that strikes a chord that seems to resonate more credibly than others. Such is the piece in yesterday's Philadelphia Enquirer by Ken Dilanian. He wrote a piece in April complaining about how the good things in Iraq were being under-reported. He has recently returned from a second trip to Iraq and things look a lot different now:
I still believe the U.S.-led effort in Iraq is accomplishing many good things, most of which get no publicity. And I still think it's too early to abandon hope that a stable and democratic Iraq will emerge from this crucible.
But I learned this summer that the insurgency has been far more successful than I would have imagined at sowing instability and halting progress. Most Iraqis aren't seeing the improvements they had hoped for, and they're not blaming the guerillas - they're blaming the Americans. Sovereignty seems to have had zero effect on this equation.
In March, as I was writing, the $18.4 billion reconstruction effort was just getting off the ground. I had sat in on a briefing in which a senior U.S. official confidently predicted that, by June, thanks to American rebuilding efforts, Iraq would have electricity 18 hours a day throughout the country.
I called that promise "credible," and argued that, once Iraqis could see that kind of progress from the rebuilding program, perhaps the insurgency would abate.
I just couldn't conceive, given how severely the lack of electricity undermines everything they are trying to achieve, that the Americans would publicly set a goal and then fail to meet it.
But that's just what they did. It's now August, and that goal still hasn't been reached.
The reason? Read the rest of the article.
Sunday, August 1, 2004
What Might Have Been. I think that what happened to Bill Clinton at the hands of an hysterical, prurient GOP and its tool Ken Starr was a disgrace, and I still lay the blame at the feet of the GOP for unnecessarily dragging the country through that absurd exercise.
But I also agree with Gary Wills in his NYRB review of Clinton's book--he should have resigned. Clinton saved his own neck but his doing so was a disservice to the country. What he did with Monica Lewinski was nobody's business outside of his family, but his recklessness had enormous negative consequences, not the least of which is the disaster in Iraq.
Clinton bequeathed to his party not a clear call to high goals but an omnidirectional proneness to pusillanimity and collapse. This was signaled at the very outset of the new presidency. The Democrats, still in control of the Senate, facing a president not even strong enough to win the popular vote, a man brought into office by linked chicaneries and chance (Kathleen Harris, Ralph Nader, Antonin Scalia), nonetheless helped to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general. The senators knew Ashcroft well; they were surely not impressed by his acumen or wisdom.
A whole series of capitulations followed. While still holding a majority in the Senate, the Democrats did not use subpoenas and investigative powers to challenge Dick Cheney's secret drafting of energy policy with Enron and other companies. A portion of the Democrats would support the welfare-to-billionaires tax cut. They fairly stampeded to support the Patriot Act and the presidential war authorization —with John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton at the front of the pack. The party had become so neutered that Al From and others from the Democratic Leadership Council called Howard Dean an extremist for daring to say what everyone is now saying about the war with Iraq—that it was precipitate, overhyped, and underprepared, more likely to separate us from the friends needed to fight terrorists than to end terrorism.
What would have happened had Clinton resigned? Gore would have been given a "honeymoon" in which he could have played with a stronger hand all the initiatives Clinton had begun, unashamed of them and able to bring them fresh energy. That is what happened when Lyndon Johnson succeeded John Kennedy. Clinton himself may have reaped a redeeming admiration for what he had sacrificed to recover his honor. Before him would have lain all the opportunities he has now, and more. Hillary Clinton's support of him in this act of real contrition would have looked nobler. Clinton's followers were claiming that it was all and only about sex. Clinton could have said, "Since that is what it is about, I'll step aside so more important things can be addressed." All the other phony issues Starr had raised would have fallen of their own insubstantiality.
Of course, this is just one of many what-ifs about the Clinton presidency. By chance I saw a revival of Leonard Bernstein's musical Wonderful Town, just before getting my copy of the Clinton book. All through the 957 pages of it, a song from the show kept running through my head: "What a waste! What a waste!"
I doubt Gore would have been given much of a honeymoon, but he would have been given a chance to establish himself independently, and the country would have had a better sense of the man than the imge of him refracted through the campaign attacks. He would not have been invulnerable, but he would have been in a much stronger position.
Whither the Democratic Party? Must-read article by Matt Bai I just came across in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine. He focuses on how the 527s are changing he way progressive politics is thinking about itself, and speculates that the Democratic Party may itself become an irrelevancy:
We tend to think of the two political parties that have ruled American politics for the last 150 years as being cemented into the framework of the Constitution. In fact, parties, like the political movements that sustain them, have shelf lives. In the 1840's and 1850's, the Whig Party, at various times, controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. By 1860, at a loss to coherently address slavery, the defining debate of the time, the Whigs vanished from the planet like a bunch of pterodactyls, replaced by Republicans. It is not unthinkable that the privatization of Democratic politics is a step toward institutional obsolescence. People like Andy Rappaport and Jonathan Soros might succeed in revitalizing progressive politics -- while at the same time destroying what we now call the Democratic Party.
What seems all but certain is that the future of Democratic politics will more closely resemble MoveOn.org than it will resemble anything that happens on the convention floor in Boston. On Memorial Day, I spoke with Harold Ickes, who had been running the Media Fund, a 527 charged with airing anti-Bush ads in the period before this week's convention. Ickes -- like his father, who was a close confidant of Franklin D. Roosevelt's -- has spent a lifetime in service to the Democratic Party, reaching its very highest levels. As we talked about the influence that millionaires and independent groups will have in the years ahead, Ickes sounded more weary than excited, like a man who has accepted change in the family business without entirely embracing it.
''When you go out and talk to them, people are much more interested in something like MoveOn.org than in the Democratic Party,'' Ickes said. ''It has cachet. There is no cachet in the Democratic Party.
''MoveOn raised a million dollars for a bunch of Texas state senators, man,'' he went on to say. ''Plus their bake sale. If they continue with their cachet and really interest people and focus their people on candidates -- boy, that's a lot of leverage. No party can do that. And what the political ramifications of that are -- '' Ickes's voice trailed off. He shrugged. ''Who knows?''
I certainly don't feel any particular loyalty to the Democratic Party, and I'm fine with the idea that it must either adapt or die. I've said on a number of occasions in this blog that the kind of flaccid, secular-left liberalism represented still by the likes of Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson has no future. Neither does the DLC moderate Republicanism that Bill Clinton came to espouse. A truly progressive politics must draw on a different source of inspiration and motivation.
An organization like MoveOn.org at this point is mostly a reflection of the tired liberalism of the secular left. It is energized for the moment by widespread alarm about the increasing power of the radical right. Such a response to the real dangers posed by the right is warranted and necessary, but I have a hard time believing that MoveOn represents a positive vision which will be at the heart of a future, vibrant, progressive politics.
But that could change. The future for progressive politics is up for grabs right now. A new narrative that goes beyond the Marxist narrative that is always a shadowy presence lurking within the narrative of the secular left. Anyway, it would be nice if rich guys like George Soros want to send a check to support a post-secular politics if such a thing should arise in the near future. But if it is to be the real thing, it has to be a popular movement from below, supported but not engineered by democracy-loving elites from above.
Ron Reagan on GOP Mendacity. An article in Esquire worth reading indicating how independents in the middle are coming to see this administration for what it is. A taste:
Politicians will stretch the truth. They'll exaggerate their accomplishments, paper over their gaffes. Spin has long been the lingua franca of the political realm. But George W. Bush and his administration have taken "normal" mendacity to a startling new level far beyond lies of convenience. On top of the usual massaging of public perception, they traffic in big lies, indulge in any number of symptomatic small lies, and, ultimately, have come to embody dishonesty itself. They are a lie. And people, finally, have started catching on. . . .
Does anyone really favor an administration that so shamelessly lies? One that so tenaciously clings to secrecy, not to protect the American people, but to protect itself? That so willfully misrepresents its true aims and so knowingly misleads the people from whom it derives its power? I simply cannot think so. And to come to the same conclusion does not make you guilty of swallowing some liberal critique of the Bush presidency, because that's not what this is. This is the critique of a person who thinks that lying at the top levels of his government is abhorrent. Call it the honest guy's critique of George W. Bush. . . .
The Bush administration no doubt had its real reasons for invading and occupying Iraq. They've simply chosen not to share them with the American public. They sought justification for ignoring the Geneva Convention and other statutes prohibiting torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners but were loath to acknowledge as much. They may have ideas worth discussing, but they don't welcome the rest of us in the conversation. They don't trust us because they don't dare expose their true agendas to the light of day. There is a surreal quality to all this: Occupation is liberation; Iraq is sovereign, but we're in control; Saddam is in Iraqi custody, but we've got him; we'll get out as soon as an elected Iraqi government asks us, but we'll be there for years to come. Which is what we counted on in the first place, only with rose petals and easy coochie.