June Posts


Thursday, June 30, 2005

My What Big Teeth You Have. Con artists understand that most people operate in a symbolically patterned world, and that reality, whatever is really there, is hidden behind the symbols. We tend to accept the world as it appears at face value. We can't live without a certain minimum level of trust that things are in fact as they appear. Con artists know that because people are uncritically inclined to accept that the symbol represents truthfully what lies behind it that they can use the symbol as a kind of disguise. A sheep symbolizes passive docility; the wolf cunning and rapacious greed. The wolf knows that if he appears as its symbolic self, no one will trust him, so he hides his real nature and presents himself symbolically as a sheep. His effectiveness in the con depends on his effectiveness in in appearing non-threatening and innocuous, someone who raises no alarms in those whom he seeks to prey upon.

The con artist knows that people don't see what's there; they see what they are habitually disposed to see. Did you ever wonder as a kid how Little Red Riding Hood could ever have mistaken the wolf for her grandmother? I think the story speaks to this kind of patterned perception. We are inclined to see what we have been habitually conditioned see, what we are comfortable seeing. I tried an experiment once in which when I was greeted by someone with a "How are you?" I would respond with a smile and in a cheerful voice, "Never worse, and you?" Most people didn't hear what I said, and replied, "Great." They weren't listening to the verbal content; they're responding to the pattern and the tone in my voice. It's a symbolic or formal ritual where the content doesn't matter.

Con artists understand how to blend themselves into the patterns and symbolic rituals of our everyday life--one might be a wolf, but so long as he is tucked in bed like grandma and is wearing her nightgown and little night cap with the red ribbon, chances are that's all Little Red Riding Hood will notice. She sees big teeth but is not alarmed about them because she has been lulled into a mood of trust by the larger pattern of familiarity. In such a state of mind she minimizes the importance of what doesn't fit into the familiar pattern. She trusts that her world on that fateful day is the same as the world as it was the day before and the day before that. Big teeth, long snout? Minor aberrations. It's a story about how we are all more inclined to believe the symbolic version of reality rather than any evidence to the contrary.

Leonardo DiCaprio shows how it works in his role as Frank Abagnale in "Catch Me if You Can." He wasn't a wolf really; there was something rather innocent about his conning--he just wanted to be more than he was. But the key to his success was his uncanny ability to embody symbolic roles--airline pilot, lawyer, etc.--to become a symbol without having any of the substance to which the symbol points. Con artists play on that trust, and they have a talent for insinuating themselves into our symbolic landscape to appear the way we expect them to appear, to be what we want them to be. We tend to disregard whatever evidence doesn't fit into the familiar pattern.

It might be worth considering in a post at another time to what degree we live in a literal vs. a symbolic world. That's a big question, and there is no simple answer for it. My answer would pick up from what I was developing in the earlier post in which I talk about the hypertrophied eye and how it has led us to limit our consideration of what is real only to what we can see. For any of us who are religiously or spiritually inclined, what is real is not what we see, rather the ground that provides the supporting matrix for what we see is far more real, even if it is something that enters our field of awareness mostly in subtle ways.

In a fallen world, except for the rare epiphany, what is most real does not correlate with what we most intensely experience because we are cut off from what is most real. And so what appears in our experience is real to the degree that is is saturated with the reality grounds it, and it is unreal to the degree that is has lost its connection to it. The transcendent reality behind the appearances is unfathomably deep and multidimensional. And so if we as human beings are grounded only in what we see, if we believe only in what is given to us on the surface, then we can be easily manipulated by anyone who has the ability to appear as something other than what he is. The devil is quite capable of quoting scripture to persuade us that his perverse purposes are legitimate. It happens all the time.

Our practical day-to-day life requires that we learn to navigate effectively in a world of appearances, but the more important meta-task is to discern what lies behind them and to re-connect with what is true and reject what is false. And very often what is acclaimed by the official reality as true is false and what is denounced as false is true. Our only protection is to develop a nose for what is rotten on the one hand and on the other a nose that knows the aroma of what's real and is attracted to it. This is a cognitive skill best developed by the thinking heart.

Some years ago, when I was reading to my son before bed, we were working through a fantasy series based on Welsh myths. The stories had an interesting recurring feature in which an evil spirit was able to disguise itself as something beautiful--a bird, person, flower--and it was so beautiful that the unwary would be irresistibly drawn to it, and when the victim would get close enough, the evil spirit would appear in its true ugly form and bite its victim and cause him to become deathly ill. But as beautiful as the shapeshifter was in its disguise, it always had a minor flaw that distinguished it from the real thing--it had an extra toe or finger, the wrong colored eyes, a leaf pattern that wasn't quite right. If one was alert and discerning, he could recognize the con for what it was.

That's the thinking part, but in such encounters the heart also knows better, whether or not the head notices the extra toe. The heart has to be strong if it's not to be overwhelmed by unworthy desire which is also very strong in all of us and always will be. Unworthy desire or impulse cannot be extinguished; it can only be refused, and it's easier to refuse if another choice is presented as an alternative. The stronger our hearts, the clearer the alternative. So the task is on the one hand to be vigilant and alert, but on the other to develop a solar powered heart whose impulses are stronger than the instincts from below that otherwise drive our actions.

We are all of us wandering in a world of shapeshifters, a world where the shapes may or may not point to something true that lies behind them. Luckily, not all of what surrounds us intends us harm. And along these lines the official reality, as I spoke about it yesterday, is often innocuous enough. But there are times when the official reality is hiding horrors which, like Little Red Riding Hood, we are simply not conditioned to see because it doesn't fit into our pattern of expectations. Fear makes us stupid, but so does wide-eyed trust.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

War of the Worlds. Radiolab has a great retrospective regarding the original Orson Welles 1938 Halloween production with lots of the original radiocast to listen to. The origninal event is remarkable in so many ways, but perhaps mostly because of the way it demonstrates how in anxious times fear makes us stupid. Most of the twelve million people who heard the broadcast knew that it wasn't real, but about one million did, and 400,000 were utterly panicked.

Then check out Tom Tomorrow's cartoon of the week here. Credulity and incredulity go hand in hand in a world in which we depend too much on the trustworthiness of the "authorities". I am at a point now when I assume that the official version of reality has only the most tangential relationship to the truth--just enough to give it plausibility for the Sean Hannity's of the world.

Reality as it is officially presented to us is like being inside a carnival hall of mirrors. What you see vaguely resembles something you know to be really there, but has little to do with the way things look undistorted by the agendas of those whom the official version of reality serves.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A GOP Man of Principle. I know there are plenty out there. Some of them are in my family. And while I respect their principles, I question their judgment insofar as they can lend any support to the current administration. I hope that sooner or later they will follow the example of James Chaney, who sticks to his GOP principles and in doing so recognizes that the party in office is not a party he wants to belong to or can any longer support. Here's what being a Republican for him means:

I still believe in the vast power of markets to inspire ideas, motivate solutions and eliminate waste. I still believe in international vigilance and a strong defense, because this world will always be home to people who will avidly seek to take or destroy what we have built as a nation. I still believe in the protection of individuals and businesses from the influence and expense of an over-involved government. I still believe in the hand-in-hand concepts of separation of church and state and absolute freedom to worship, in the rights of the states to govern themselves without undo federal interference, and in the host of other things that defined me as a Republican.

I think this is a well articulated list of what makes the best kind of Republican, and this is someone I could sit down with and argue about particular issues in a reasonable way. I know where he's coming from, and while I might disagree, I respect and understand the principles which guide his political thinking. But it's because of these very principles that he goes on to say:

Fifty years from now, the Republican Party of this era will be judged by how we provided for the nation's future on three core issues: how we led the world on the environment, how we minded the business of running our country in such a way that we didn't go bankrupt, and whether we gracefully accepted our place on the world's stage as its only superpower. Sadly, we have built the foundation for dismal failure on all three counts. And we've done it in such a way that we shouldn't be surprised if neither the American people nor the world ever trusts us again.

My party has repeatedly ignored, discarded and even invented science to suit its needs, most spectacularly as to global warming. We have an opportunity and the responsibility to lead the world on this issue, but instead we've chosen greed, shortsightedness and deliberate ignorance.

We have mortgaged the country's fiscal future in a way that no Democratic Congress or administration ever did, and to justify the tax cuts that brought us here, we've simply changed the rules. I matured as a Republican believing that uncontrolled deficit spending is harmful and irresponsible; I still do. But the party has yet to explain to me why it's a good thing now, other than to say "... because we say so."

Our greatest failure, though, has been in our role as superpower. This world needs justice, democracy and compassion, and as the keystone of those things, it needs one thing above all else: truth.

Republican decisions made in 2002 and 2003 have killed almost 2,000 of the most capable patriots our country has to offer - volunteers, every one. Support for those decisions was gathered through what appeared at the time to be spin and marketing, but which now turns out to have been deliberate planning and falsehood. The Blair government's internal documentation only confirms what has been suspected for years: Americans are dying every day for Republican lies first crafted in 2002, expanded and embellished upon in 2003, and which continue to this day. This calculated deception is now burned into the legacy of the party, every bit as much as Reagan's triumph in the Cold War, or Nixon's disgrace over Watergate.

Chaney is saying that the GOP is no longer the GOP. My main argument has never been against principled conservatives. It has been that this group in office right now is not conservative; it is simply masquerading as conservative. Chaney has the good sense to recognize it. And now he feels similarly to the way that I do, which is that there is no party to represent his views in the political sphere. But his sanity is refreshing.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

On the Word 'Stupidity'. I was thinking about the word stupidity after I used it the other day to describe the criminal stupidity of the administration's war in Iraq. I guess I was wondering if my use of the word "stupidity" was stupid. Maybe it was.

But whatever the condition of my mind, the word 'stupid' doesn't mean that the people so described lack intelligence. It's related to the words 'stupor' and 'stupefied' which suggest a temporary condition in which the mind is stunned, groggy, disoriented, semi-conscious and so unable to think straight. I know in my own experience when I've done something stupid, it was usually something thoughtless, something I should have known better not to do--if I had only thought about it more clearly. So 'stupidity' is not about intelligence but about a failure to think clearly when thinking clearly is a possibility.

Richard Nixon was a pretty smart guy, but the whole Watergate thing was so stupid and unnecessary. His thinking was stupefied by his fear of his political enemies, who, as it turned out, posed hardly any threat to his being elected in 1972. It was his stupidity about Watergate that gave his enemies what they needed to destroy him after the election. Same with Bill Clinton. What was he thinking in his getting involved with Monica Lewinski? Clearly his thinking was impaired, stupefied or intoxicated by his libido or whatever, and he, like Nixon, gave his enemies exactly what they needed. Fear often makes us stupid. Sex often makes us stupid. And when we come out of our stupor, we are almost always, rightly, embarrassed by our stupidity.

The neocons in the Bush Administration are clearly pretty smart people, but they, too, have been astonishingly stupid. But unlike Nixon and Clinton, their stupidity has had far more serious consequences, not for themselves, but for all the people, Americans and Iraqis, who have been killed and maimed and who have otherwise had their lives destroyed. As should be clear from my posts over the last week, the stupefying agent was not paranoia as it was for Nixon or sex as it was for Clinton, but powerlust. Why is it that people are not embarrassed by their behavior when stupefied by powerlust the way they are by sex and fear? Even if the behavior led to "success" in Iraq, success defined by a measurement devised in a power-drunk mental state, would it have been any less stupid?

Wars are almost always started for stupid reasons, because some king or demagogue wants more glory or more power. Americans used to define themselves over against that model of war mongering, but we don't any more. It all changed after WWII. Now we're no different from most human beings who have lived throughout history. In the days of our republican ideals, we tried to be something different, something better and more idealistic, to be driven by something more high minded than the vainglory that intoxicates nations and drives them into stupid, destructive wars. We don't see it as vainglory, of course. We call it patriotism.

But our election of the Nixons, Clintons, and Bushes just show us that we're no better or worse than everybody else, just as prone to be stupid as everyone else. And we Americans have become just as stupid as everyone else, stupefied by our fear of terrorists and by our smug, unthinking patriotism. Nixon and Clinton had to pay for their stupidity. Will Bush?

This war and the stupidity that led us into it sickens me, and maybe it's made me stupid, too. Maybe my anger about it and abhorrence at its consequences has made my thinking about it unclear. Maybe it's making us all stupider. I don't know for sure, but I do know that our collective stupidity about this war has made this not a particularly proud moment to be an American.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bush War Strategy Right out of the Book. This "Email of the Morning" from Andrew Sullivan's blog:

Last night I stumbled across something intriguing. I was reading a fairly obscure Kant essay called "Misperceptions of Morals and Politics" (appended to Towards a Perpetual Peace.) In it, Kant distinguishes between the "clever" but ultimately immoral politician who views everything in terms of political expedience and manipulates a superficial or false morality for political gain and that rarest of creatures, the moral politician, who recognizes the ultimate harmony between morality and good government.

Kant then cites the three tests which can be applied to discern the immoral from the moral politician. Under three Latin rubrics, as follows: (1) Fac et excusa - does he use thin pretexts to seize power in his own country, or, after coming to power, to invade and conquer another nation? (2) Si fecisti, nega. When his policies bring about ruin or failure, does he blame his own subjects for the failures, or place the blame on other nations? Or does he admit mistakes and change course to reflect this recognition? (3) Divide et impera. Does he maintain his position of power by sowing domestic hatred and discord; through the demonization of a portion of his own citizenry? (Immanuel Kant, "Sämtliche Werke vol. 5, pp. 695-97.")

I'm scoring the Bush administration a perfect 3 for 3 on Kant's test. One can accept or reject the war, but it seems clear (increasingly after the Downing Street memo documents) that the label of "thin pretexts" is fair. The president's refusal to assume responsibility is legendary. And Rove's remarks on which you reflect is a perfect example of the "divide et impera" approach."

Now read, if you haven't already, the post I put up Monday about the Bush "Power Agenda."


Friday, June 24, 2005

You Reap What You Sow:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA believes the Iraq insurgency poses an international threat and may produce better-trained Islamic terrorists than the 1980s Afghanistan war that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, a U.S. counterterrorism official said on Wednesday.

A classified report from the U.S. spy agency says Iraqi and foreign fighters are developing a broad range of deadly skills, from car bombings and assassinations to tightly coordinated conventional attacks on police and military targets, the official said.

Once the insurgency ends, Islamic militants are likely to disperse as highly organized battle-hardened combatants capable of operating throughout the Arab-speaking world and in other regions including Europe.
Fighters leaving Iraq would primarily pose a challenge for their countries of origin including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

But the May report, which has been widely circulated in the intelligence community, also cites a potential threat to the United States.

"You have people coming to the action with anti-U.S. sentiment ... And since they're Iraqi or foreign Arabs or to some degree Kurds, they have more communities they can blend into outside Iraq," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the report's classified status.

Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic militants similar to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan two decades ago and Bosnia in the 1990s, U.S. officials say.

Stupidity when it reaches the level it has reached with this administration in Iraq is criminal. Criminal stupidity when it pertains to war should be indictable as a war crime. That's idle thinking, of course. But to think that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush, after all the damage they have done, will just retire and write their self-justifying, self-aggrandizing memoirs.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Speech Durbin Should Have Given. Check out this column by Eric Zorn. An excerpt:

As I said last week, quoting Colin Powell: The use of such bestial interrogation techniques will `reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice ... undermine the protections of the law of war for our own troops ... [and] undermine public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain.'

It is immoral, ineffective and un-American for us to torture prisoners. The America I believe in has long been the world's beacon for human rights and dignity; for fairness and due process of law. The America I believe in is better than the America on display in our overseas prisons. The America I believe in inspires rather than disgusts the international community.

If anything I said caused you to believe that I was equating American soldiers with Nazis or equating American leaders with Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot, then you are an idiot.

I said nothing of the kind. I said that our mistreatment of wartime prisoners is of the sort you'd expect to see in a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship, not in a nation that has long congratulated itself on its exceptionally high standards of liberty and law. It's a troubling similarity. It's a warning that we're slipping.

As I said below, it's not a matter of degree but of kind. These are brush fires that we need to contain before they spread out of control.


Quote of the Day. This one from Jonathan Schell:

The American occupation of Iraq is something new, but the fundamental error of the United States has a long pedigree. It is the imprisonment of the human mind in ideology backed by violence. The classic example is Stalin's Russia, under which decades of misrule were rationalized as a "stage" on the way to the radiant future of true communism. As for the miserable present, it was amusingly called "actually existing communism." The future, when it came, of course was not communism at all but the disintegration of the whole enterprise. All the "stages" turned out to lead nowhere.

Once the mind is in the grip of such a system, every "actually existing" horror can be seen as a mere imperfection in a beautiful larger picture, every defeat a stage on the way to the glorious future. The simpler and more coherent an ideology, the better it can withstand the assault of fact. So today in Iraq, every act of torture, every flattened city, every gushing sewer, every car bombing and beheading, is presented as a bump on the road to "freedom" for Iraq, or for the Middle East, or even for the whole world, in which our president has promised an "end to tyranny." (It's apparently a rule of ideology that the more sordid the reality, the more grandiosely splendid the eventual goal must be.)

As with the abuse of prisoners, it's not a question of degree, but of kind. Yes, what the Soviets did in their gulags is far worse and far more extensive than what we are doing in our prison camps. And yes, the degree of ideological control by the Soviets was much more extensive than the control the Bush administration has been able to exert. But as a campfire is to a forest fire, so are the practices of this administration to aggressive central governments like that of old Soviet Union. And it's important that this fire be contained. We had an opportunity to do that last November and we failed. We just have to hope now that the wind doesn't pick up, because the forest is brittle dry with fear.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Why the Downing Street Memos Don't Matter. Columnist Mark Morford sums it up:

There is, unfortunately, nothing here that not already been trumpeted to death by the Left, and therefore to try to trumpet it all again as some sort of irrefutable revelation that should change the face and temperament of the nation is sort of like beating a dead horse we all knew was already dead but that is only now taking on a new dimension of stink.

Look at it this way: The majority of the nation knows Bush lied like a dog to drive us into an unwinnable (but, for his cronies, incredibly profitable) war. The rest either refuse to believe it, or they claim, with equal parts ignorance and blind jingoism, that the ends (ousting a pip-squeak dictator who was no real threat to anyone and who had been successfully contained for 20 years) justify the means ($200 billion, 1,700 dead Americans, over 10,000 wounded and disabled U.S. soldiers, countless tens of thousands of dead innocent Iraqis, staggering economic debt, the open disrespect -- if not outright contempt -- of the entire international community).

Here is the American cynic's view: It is almost too late to care about the lies. It is almost pointless to scream and rant and point fingers of blame. We all know who is to blame, and it ain't Saddam, and it ain't Osama, and it ain't "terror," and it ain't our "freedoms." Bush has driven us so deep into the Iraq hellhole it serves almost no purpose to whine about the obvious deceptions and blatant whorelike pre-9/11 machinations that got us here.

We are now, instead, focused on endurance. On gritting teeth and getting through and getting the hell out of this new Vietnam Bush has imbecilically driven us into, all while surviving 3.5 more years of one of the most abusive, secretive cadres of warmongering leadership in American history.

Oh, and rest assured, Iraq is indeed a new Vietnam. The parallels are undeniable and mounting -- all the elements are in place: staggering civilian death tolls, inmate abuse and torture, international embarrassment, economic pillaging, executive impudence, a vicious drive toward empire and power, a false sense of "victory" and the overpowering sense we are so deeply entrenched in this violent, chaotic quagmire, it will take many more years and many thousands of more U.S. dead and countless more billions before we are anywhere near stabilization.

It does stink, but there you have it. It doesn't matter how stupid it was that we got involved in Iraq. Most people signed on at the beginning, and now that they realize what their supporting the president has come to mean, it's hard to face the fact that they were manipulated in the way they were. No one wants to dwell on that. What good does it do, anyway? It doesn't change anything. We have to soldier on.

Speaking of Vietnam, did anybody else note the irony of Vietnamese leader Phan Van Khai coming to meet with President Bush yesterday to ask his support for Vietnam's entry into the WTO? Good thing we beat them gooks into submission. Makes the 40,000 American lives lost in Vietnam seem worth it, doesn't it? Oh, but wait a minute, the Communists won that war, didn't they?

Well here they are wanting to play the capitalist game. If that doesn't prove what an incredible waste the Vietnam fiasco was, I don't know what will. In the long run, everyone, for better or worse, wants to join the world system. If forty years ago we just let the Vietnamese evolve without our intervention, they would have figured things out for themselves. Same is true now in Iraq. Our invasion there is probably slowing down what would have been a natural evolution.

This is the Burkean conservative in me speaking. I just don't believe in big, government-engineered, nation-building projects like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or now this stupid, violent exercise in nation building in Iraq. They are always exercises in collective madness. This is a project brought to the world by the real big-government Liberals--the necons in the Pentagon.


Monday, June 20, 2005

The Power Agenda. I've been saying pretty consistently that the only way to understand the logic of what the GOP is doing is to understand the logic of power. Anybody who goes into politics is "into" power, no matter what his ideological leaning. But what we've seen since 2000 has been the crudest kind of power grab, and the more we learn about these guys, the more calculated each step they have taken appears to have been. These people are smart, and they understand power, and they understand mass psychology. And they've been running circles around the Democrats, who are certainly not innocents when it comes to playing the power game; it's just that they are not nearly as savvy as their GOP counterparts. Or as Richard Thompson Ford put it last November in his Slate article "Why Americans Hate Democrats":

The Democrats are goody-goody student government types. They're earnest, studious, well-manned, talented debaters. And after working so hard on their speeches and staying up all night making election posters with fluorescent paint and stencils, they just can't understand why the jock with a C-minus GPA and a permanent smirk on his face won the election. It's just not fair. Why does everyone hate us so much?

This reaction to Kerry's defeat speaks volumes about why the Democrats lost.

As Tom Tomorrow points out, the ex-model-student-government Democrats are hopeless at spin while Republicans, the Eddie Haskells of American politics, are masters at it.

I think that Democrat ineptitude comes in part from a complacency among many liberal Democrats in which they've been lulled into assuming that their values and approach were universally accepted except by a troglodyte minority. But the smugness of left liberalism has been one of the chief goads to many conservatives and traditionalists in motivating them to want to remove these liberal prigs from their government. Of course they've replaced them with conservative prigs. Our electoral process these days seem to boil down to a noxious choice between two types of prig.

But it's one thing to have an agenda and to lay it out for the nation to debate and vote up or down, and quite another to manipulate the electorate to approve what they cannot understand because it has been deceptively presented. And the latter has been crudely, obviously, the approach of the Bush administration. The manipulation has been flagrant and crude, and I still haven't quite got over my shock that it has so easily succeeded.

Thom Hartmann has a piece that connects some dots in pulling together information that has already been very much out there even if not given very much media attention. The question for him is not whether the Bush Administration had decided to take out Saddam early on--even before 9/11. If you still don't buy that, then I really don't know what to say. But Hartmann asks the more interesting question, which is what was Bush's motivation for invading Iraq in the first place? And if you believe that it was to make America safe, well, again, I don't really know what to say. The more probing answer is that it was a means to an end, and that end was power:

Writer Russ Baker noted in October, 2004, that Mickey Herskowitz, the man Bush had originally hired to write his autobiography ("A Charge To Keep: My Journey To The White House"), told Baker that George Bush was planning his Iraq invasion - to seize and hold political power for himself and the Republican Party - during his first presidential election campaign.

"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," Herskowitz told Baker. "It was on his mind. He [Bush] said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."

Bush lied, and Americans died. And continue to die. But politically - at least so far - it has worked out well for Bush.

It was a lie of political expediency, with the war resolution carefully timed just before the 2002 elections to help the Republicans take back the Senate.

It was echoed and amplified and repeated over and over again to help him and other Republicans get elected in 2004.

It wasn't a war for oil - cheap oil was just a useful secondary benefit.

It wasn't a war against terrorism - that was just a convenient excuse.

It wasn't a war to enrich Bush's and Cheney's cronies - those were just pleasant by-products.

It wasn't a war to show Poppy Bush that Junior was more of a man than him - that was just a personal bonus for Dubya.

It was, pure and simple, well planned years in advance, a war to solidify Bush and the Republican Party's political capital.

It was a war for political power. That had to be first. Everything else - oil, profits, ongoing PATRIOT Act powers, easy manipulation of the media - all could only come if political power was seized and held through at least two decisive election cycles.

The Bush administration lied us into an invasion to get and keep political power. It's that simple.

So like the Downing Street Memo, does this little interview with Herskowitz prove anything? Not by itself, but as another element that fits into a larger pattern, I think it's pretty compelling. I buy this interpretation of Bush's motives because, I suppose, because it's consistent with what I've been writing about for the last year and a half in this blog.

I think the neocons in the Pentagon have a larger agenda than using the Iraq War to empower the Bush/Rove domestic political agenda. The Pentagon neocons are imperialists with a grand strategy for establishing American hegemony in the Middle East. Rove/Bush just wanted the photo op on the aircraft carrier; they didn't want all this nation-building mess. They were probably sold on it because the neocons told them that it would be as easy as invading Grenada. And that Bush needed it to earn his wartime-president spurs.

He's probably wishing he just came up for some pretext for invading Grenada again, or maybe Panama. I doubt he would have done it if he knew it would have turned ut to be so hard the way it has. It could be that Bush 2 is feeling conned by the neocons who were conned by Chalabi, who was working for the Iranians. But rule number one is never to admit to making a mistake. So we're stuck with this fiasco indefinitely.

The question now is whether the 51% of Americans who legitimated this administration and its abuses are catching on enough to vote out the Republicans in the next congressional election in '06. Probably not, if the electorate also requires that the Democrats give Americans a plausible alternative. Not much reason to hope there.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

What? Me Worry? Yeah, I do worry. And my big-picture worry, the worry that transcends all the fuss about left and right, Dems and GOPs, is about the mechanization of reality and whether a counterbalance will arise within the culture to check it. In Thursday's post I talked about how the human mind is either sun (or heart)-centered or moon (or brain)-centered, and how our natural state of mind in a fallen world is moon-centered and that the spiritual task or challenge is to become sun-centered. An awful lot, in my opinion, depends on a progressive shift from moon-centered to sun-centered thinking. Because now our world is dominated by lunar thinking, thinking in the dark. And lunar thinking leads us all toward a dead, spiritually stagnant, sci-fi nightmare world dominated by the machine.

(I probably need to say more about that to make that plausible to some readers, but it follows from the serpent/dove logic that I've been talking about for the last couple of months. And that relies quite a bit on Jacques Ellul, about whom I'll have more to say this summer.)

The machine is the product of lunar or brain-centered thinking, and its greatest achievement so far has been the computer--which magnifies significantly the brain's mode of operating. But the computer, like the brain, is only as good as the data fed into it. It stores enormous amounts of information in its memory and has the ability to combine, sort, and calculate at a speeds unimaginable for the human brain. But like the lunar brain in eclipse, the data that it can work with excludes any consideration of the spiritual dimension of reality. It works with quantity, not quality; the horizontal world, not the vertical.

I'm not a Luddite--you wouldn't be reading this if I were. The machine is not good or evil; it all depends on the human purposes to which it is put. And what worries me is that the technological impulse is the tail wagging the dog. That there is no robust sense of higher human purposefulness to which the development of new machines submits. It's just assumed that any new technological development is a positive evolutionary step. But almost all of our technologies are the result of lunar thinking, and I think the challenge that we as the human race are confronted with at this moment in the earth's evolution is whether we shall be able to develop technologies that are the result of solar thinking.

Isn't this really the great theme underlying Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy? The trilogy is an extended metaphor on the corruptive effects of power and the deadening effects of the lunar technologies developed in the service of power. But it is also interesting that another metaphor is counter posed to the dark technologies of Sauron and Saruman, namely the solar technologies developed by the Elves. The lunar technologies are dark, serpentine, and convoluted--like the human brain. The Elven technologies are light-filled, radiant, and beautiful--like the magnanimous human heart. The first are designed to serve the powerlust of their creator; the second are designed to enrich and ennoble life on the earth.

I know this is a bit flakey because I am just at the beginning of trying to think about it in these terms, but if solar thinking is possible, so then should be the development of solar technologies. More on what that might mean in practical terms when I have more time. But I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the future of the earth's evolution hangs on whether solar technologies emerge as a counterbalance to the lunar.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

Bonaventure and the New Pope. St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, was someone who was uncomfortable with Aquinas's cool rationality. Bonaventure was a Platonist, and Aquinas was an Aristotelian. Bonaventure was a Franciscan mystic, and Aquinas, at least in his written work, was a rationalist, a pious rationalist and a man of faith, but his method was rationalist nonetheless.

What is coming into clearer focus in the election of the new Pope Benedict is that the central question in the 13th Century is basically the same as the central question for him now: Do you use reason and the tools of reason to serve the purposes of faith? That was the Thomist approach. Skepticism and nominalism accompanied the Aristotelian renaissance in the 12th and 13th centuries. Thomas sought to confront and defeat them on their own rationalist terms.

For Bonaventure, who was by no means an intellectual slouch, the intellect was secondary and possibly an impediment to the grasping of truth in the light of faith. The Buddhists would say the same thing--the mind is a chattering monkey distracted from distraction by distraction. In comparison to the really real, all the constructions of the mind are nothing more than a flimsy house of cards, a realization Aquinas himself seemed to have made when in a mystical ecstasy he called all his work nothing but straw.

Bonaventure did not like the Thomist approach, and Ratzinger does not like it either. And given the choice, like Ratzinger, I would put myself more in Bonaventure's camp than in Thomas's. The brain is a very powerful tool, but it's only a tool, and everything depends on the purposes to which the it is put to work.

Another way of saying it: what really matters is what's in a persons' heart, for the heart is like the sun and the brain is like the moon. The moon works with what comes into view in the light given to it by the sun. The problem for all of us in a fallen world is that our minds are in a state of lunar eclipse, darkened by the shadow cast by the earth. Our thinking is for the most part only but a poking around in the dark. It becomes more "truthful" only to the degree that it has more light to work with. And more light comes only through spiritual development, and spiritual development is first and foremost the work of transforming the heart and the development of a "thinking heart." It is fundamentally a moral project. The mind in lunar eclipse that works in a kind of dusky light has an affinity for projects that have dark purposes, purposes which are rarely fully conscious to those who pursue them.

And so on one level, I find myself very sympathetic to the basic approach taken by our new pope. I found this Commonweal article by J. A. Komonchak helpful in understanding the theologian Ratzinger's highly intellectual attack on philosophical rationality:

The church lives today in a state of intellectual or cultural crisis. Once, theology could draw on a common intellectual heritage for the articulation of the Christian vision. This philosophical tradition focused on reality and the search for its truth. Linked up with Christian faith, it enabled theology to plumb the depths of reality and in the end to acknowledge the truth of things as they emerged from the hands of an intelligent and loving Creator. Theology can no longer presuppose that common cultural and intellectual heritage. Through various stages, philosophy abandoned the ontological and metaphysical attitude that once marked it. It became fascinated with phenomena and from emerging natural science borrowed a positivistic interest in facts as they appear; it grounded itself now, not in the reality of things, but in reflections on human consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness moved attention away from reality as created by God to reality as constructed by human beings. With Marx, attention has moved from attempting to understand the world thus created to seeking to change it. “Truth” now refers, not to reality as given, nor to what has been done, but to what remains to be done. Through all of these processes, philosophy has been dissolved into a multiplicity of philosophies.

The point here is that insofar as philosophy restricts itself only to what can be seen in the dark, that is, what is rational or is given to the senses, it must necessarily operate in a thought world that leaves out the most important thing--consideration of the ultimate ground of everything that is. Since Kant this has been out of bounds for mainstream philosophy. Metaphysical questions--questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human existence--are outside the scope of pure reason.

They are matters simply for "belief." And the postmodern era into which we have entered is an anything-goes time when "belief systems" are a dime a dozen. Whatever you're into, man. Scientology, cool. Wicca, far out. Kabbala, groovy. Science, why not? Orthodoxy, hey, if that's your thing, go with it. Every belief system is equal. But you gotta believe in something.

So everything depends on what you think it's plausible to believe in. Kant was a man of faith, and for him faith and what was given in the light of faith could be thought about by the use of practical reason. And, I would argue that practical reason is the more important rational faculty for us all to develop in the postmodern, post rationalist era into which we are entering. And that's all to the good from where I stand . This dalliance with pure reason has caused more problems than it's solved insofar as Reason became a substitutue god of the Enlightenment rationalists, but that's a subject for another day. So in that, too, I tend to agree with the new pope.

The tragedy of post-Vatican II theology is that, after dethroning the inadequate neoscholastic vision, it has turned, not back to the ancient wisdom displayed in the church fathers and the medieval masters, but to various forms of modern philosophy. It has therefore lost its critical distance and has become a handmaiden of the various forms of positivism, particularly by linking itself to other visions of the future, either the one liberals hope from technology, or the one Marxists hope from political and economic revolution. The results of this disastrous choice are all around us, in a church that has become indistinct from its surrounding worlds and has lost its sense of identity and mission, and in a world in which the triumph of positivism has led to ever growing dissolution and alienation.

I'd agree with this. The kind of practical reason used in the light of faith employed by the great early Church Fathers is much better source for religious thinking that what passes for theology as it has been developed in by academic theologians in the post-conciliar era. In my experience many of them became a little too concerned to justify themselves to its colleagues in other academic disciplines, and the result was a theologizing that was more a groping around in the dark--too much moon, and not enough sun.

The one response that can rescue us from this slavery to our own works is the presentation of the Christian message as the only truly liberating force. Theology cannot count on any help from contemporary philosophy or the human and natural sciences. In Ratzinger’s writings, there are very few positive references to intellectual developments outside the church; they almost always appear as antithetical to the specifically Christian. There are no cultural or social pierres d’attente. Instead, dichotomies abound, contrasts between the Christian notions of truth, freedom, nature and those current in Western culture. The faith must be presented as countercultural, as an appeal to nonconformity. It can appeal to the widespread sense of disillusion to what modernity has promised but been unable to deliver. It will make its appeal by presenting the Christian vision in its synthetic totality as a comprehensive structure of meaning that at nearly every point breaks with the taken-for-granted attitudes, strategies, and habits of contemporary culture. The gospel will save us, not philosophy, not science, and not scientific theology. The great model for this enterprise is the effort to preach the gospel in the alien world of antiquity and to construct the vision of Christian wisdom manifest in the great ages of faith before philosophy, science, and technology separated themselves into autonomous areas of reflection and activity.

This is a “Bonaventuran” theological vision. In the last stages of his intellectual journey, and in the face of the cultural challenge of his day, the great Franciscan responded with a religious concentration on holiness and an eschatological interpretation of contemporary intellectual developments that led him to an “apocalyptic anti-Aristotelianism” that was anti-philosophical, anti-intellectual, and indiscriminate enough to include in its condemnations the effort of Aquinas to engage critically the Aristotelian challenge. There are remarkable parallels between Bonaventure’s final view, as described by Ratzinger, and the basic attitude the new pope has himself adopted in the face of the great changes in the post-Vatican II church.

I have always felt a stronger affinity to Bonaventure than to Thomas, and there is a big part of me that is profoundly sympathetic to the idea that the "faith must be presented as countercultural, as an appeal to nonconformity." I would, however, find the Ratzinger approach more appealing if it did not demand an intellectual and behavioral conformity within the countercultural community that is for him the Church. Because this seems to be the practical implication--that there is the secular world with its "taken-for-granted attitudes, strategies, and habits" and there is the Church which is a radically different reality. But is the Church different, really? Is to be strictly orthodox a guarantee to be thinking the radiance of the Logos? Not necessarily.

I do believe that authentic Christian faith leads one to a deeper apprehension of this radically different reality and to a necessary non-conformity with logic of the "real" world, but I would also say that the Church, while it points to that other reality does not embody it in any special way. There is very little evidence that is privileged in this regard. And I would also say that the failure of many with the curial mentality over the centuries to recognize this fact has led Church authorities to commit awful atrocities that have profoundly undermined its spiritual credibility. The Church is rather like every other human, sin-soaked institution, and one's Church membership and one's conformity to its teachings and moral codes do not by themselves bring the individual into an apprehension and experience of this radically different reality.

The Church can, at its best--in its sacramental and liturgical life--help the individual to be in touch with It. But more important, in my view, is that there are people who are themselves in touch with that alternative reality and attest to it in the way they live their lives--by their fruits you will know them. The authority that comes from a grace- and conscience-driven life is far more compelling than the latest encyclical issued from Rome. Intellectual and behavioral conformity at this time in the development of the human being is more of an impediment than an aide toward the achievement of authentic holiness--which is what happens to people who live grace- and conscience-driven lives. Holiness is an old-fashioned word for those who have developed radiant hearts, thinking hearts glowing with the presence of the Logos. Encounters with the radiant-hearted men and women who have themselves achieved a level of holiness is far more persuasive than anything the Church qua institution puts out there.

The Church is not this radically different reality; it only points to It. Human beings transformed by It are It, and together they are the Church no matter their denominational affiliation. I stick it out with the Catholic Church for reasons I have explained elsewhere--because of the potential it has to be a force in forming a new postmodern, global religious worldview . And maybe Benedict XVI has a role to play in laying the foundation for that. We'll see. But so far the signs are not good.

It would appear that he is attempting to make the church into a conformist, bubble world, which to be sure attempts to set itself up in nonconformity to the logic of the "real world" outside of it. But I think the attempt is delusional and dangerous. It leads to the "whited-sepulcher syndrome" that I have spoken about elsewhere. There is very little about living in such a bubble world that is in essence different from living outside of it. Life within it is no "purer" than life outside it. And the biggest problem for those who are inside is the delusional thinking that leads them to think they are morally superior to those who are outside.

It's a very different thing for the official Church to claim to be "It" (this other reality) as opposed to saying that it points to "It". Or to point to some within the Church who have adopted this nonconformist way and who have to some degree made "It" real in their own lives. The Church cannot be identified with "It". The Church can only claim to have a special interest in working with "It". But to the degree that they do find a way to work effectively with It, to that degree will they have spiritual authority. And the low level of spiritual authority today possessed by the official Church is, in my opinion, a direct result of its ineffectiveness in genuinely understanding how "It" works in the world.

Because "It" is ubiquitous. And "It" works in ways that know no bounds. It cannot be contained or controlled. Any attempt to do so shows a spiritual obtuseness rivaled only by that of the Pharisees 2000 years ago.


Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The Media Rules. I was going to do a little piece on the way the media is being manipulated by this administration, but there's a lot being said about it, and I don't have much to add. But here's my two cents anyway: It starts with the debunking of the rightwing propaganda that mainstream media outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post or CBS are politically progressive. They are run by the Liberals in the classic sense which I've defined here in several previous posts.

This definition of Liberal embraces people like Charles Krauthammer, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz as much as it does Ben Bradlee, Dan Rather, and JFK. They are all enmeshed in the political and economic establishment and its power arrangements. People like them are all about power, and they understand what they must do to hold onto what they have and to get more. They believe that big government with its enmeshment in the military industrial complex can accomplish grand objectives.

They don't care at all about the agenda of the religious right, but one faction, the Republican elite, understands that it needs to accommodate the religious right as part of its power coalition. The media faction can disregard the concerns of the religious right and its morality because the media know that their power lies in peddling sleaze, sleaze that is consumed in red and blue states alike. The concerns of the religious right are irrelevant to the media's effective functioning. They can be a nuisance, but pose no significant threat.

But there is nothing about the media establishment that is inherently opposed to the projection of American military power in the world. They were enthusiastic riders on the Iraq invasion bandwagon, and adopted what was for the most part a supercilious attitude toward anyone who opposed it. The media are deeply implicated in the military industrial complex, and there is no effective platform, except maybe the internet, in this country to promote an alternative to the "official" reality they want the country to buy into.

In any event, Buzzflash has a good piece today that elaborates on how it works and says what should be pretty obvious to anyone who's been paying attention with regard to the Dan Rather and Koran toilet flushing incidents:

Newsweek's alleged sin (and we take no pleasure in defending Michael Isikoff) was that it didn't have two "on record" sources to confirm the flushing of a Koran down the toilet. That is ludicrous on several fronts. First, the real issue here is the desecration of the Koran as part of a pattern of interrogation to humiliate the religious beliefs of Muslim detainees, just as the real issue of "Rathergate" was the substance of Bush's failure to fulfill his national guard duties, not who wrote the memo.

Secondly, most Mainstream Media today is built upon the Pentagon -- let's say, for example -- proclaiming a lie, and then a reporter for a television station gets the lie "confirmed" by someone else in the Pentagon and runs with a story that is nothing more than propaganda. But this is considered professional journalism because two sources have confirmed a story, even though it's a lie.

In the Newsweek case, they had the "Koran Flushgate" story confirmed by one source and approved by two other sources in the Pentagon, which makes three sources by our count, one more than most Mainstream Media reporters use to confirm lies instead of the truth. So either Newsweek did its journalistic due diligence or it was a Karl Rove set-up from the get go.

But, remember, the purpose of "Rathergate" and "Koran Flushgate" was to discombobulate and intimidate the media into not printing or televising anything overtly critical of the Bush regime. Rove cleverly knows how to use the media to cannibalize itself. All he has to do is toss them some red herring and they are off like jackals, devouring each other, while the crimes of the White House go unnoticed and unreported. Furthermore, reporters, editors and publishers become even MORE intimidated about printing or airing a story critical of the Bush Administration.

What motivation has the mainstream media to criticize the Bush administration? It's a simple question of carrots and sticks. The Bush administration carries a big stick, and it is very good at wielding it. And it has lots of carrots to offer those who toe the line. Who's offering carrots for the media to tell unpleasant truths about what's going on? Who has the big stick to punish them for not telling us what's really going on? The media have no motivation to oppose the administration; they only pursue what is in their own best interest, and that best interest is defined by the rules of corporate power--they are primarily driven by what increases market share and profitability. People like Karl Rove understand the media rules, and they are working hard to make sure that it never becomes the best interest of the corporate media to turn on the administration. So far he's been very effective.

Update: Tom Tomorrow's take. Check out this one while you're at it.


Sunday, June 5, 2005

Amour Propre. This French phrase has been rattling around in my head for several days now. It means self love. It can have the meaning of vanity, but can also mean self-respect or self-confidence. It's something, on the one hand that we associate with mental health--we all want our kids to have high self esteem, don't we? But not too much or too little. As with anything it becomes problematic when there is too little or too much of it. And the problem arises when it has been wounded. And so therefore it is a problem for all of us, because in all of us it is wounded.

From one point of view, you could say the wounding is healthful: we are all born narcissists who find through a series of life lessons that the world is not an extension of our ego, that the world does not very often cooperate with our wishes or our commands. It's as if our sense of self is a balloon full of air that receives a thousand pricks that deflate it over time so that it shrinks from the size of the entire world to a size where it can fit with other balloons in a society of saggy balloon heads. This is the process of learning how " to play nice."

"Playing nice" is essentially the program program of the "liberal left" (as opposed to classic Liberalism, which plays nice only when it is expedient to do so). When I was coaching a Little League team, an angry mother upbraided me for not giving her kid equal playing time at the catcher position even though her son could not catch--he was a good kid, but he was severely uncoordinated. I gave him an inning or two in a game, but not as much time as the better players. From her point of view being successful as a team meant nothing. She was against the idea of competition. She was the president of her son's school's PTA, and school's a place where everybody has to play nice. And when people like this woman set up the rules for games, nobody wants to play them. Why? Because they are exercises in alienation. She is living in an abstraction that has little to do with the juices that give life its vigor. And she wants to design the world in such a way that her son's balloon doesn't get pricked.

What about the opposite classical liberal or "Social Darwinian" view? This is essentially the position of the people running our foreign policy. It's eat or be eaten; dominate or be dominated. It is impossible to have too much power. The goal is not to deflate the balloon, but to pump it up. National interest equates with the unilateral imposition of our will. Anyone who thinks we should "play nice" is goofy left liberal who doesn't understand how the real world works. Playing nice means working through the United Nations or "asking permission" from our allies to do what is in our obvious self interest. Asking permission is what weaklings do, and we are the most powerful nation in the history of the world. If we don't act like it, others will take advantage of us.

I think there is an alternative to being either a saggy or over-inflated balloon head, and I would say that it is essential that we find it, but before getting to that, let's examine for a bit what it means to live in the fallen world of turgid and flaccid balloons--that is, what it means to live in the "real world."

In the "real world" the people who tend to be most admired are the ones who either have not suffered so many pricks and so have larger, less saggy balloon heads or others who have found a way to keep their balloons inflated so that theirs appears bigger than everyone else's. Because what determines the size of one's balloon is determined by where one fits on a spectrum of winners and losers. We all of us instinctually want to be winners, and we all instinctually want to avoid being losers. We admire power, and power is measured by one's effectiveness in the world, and that effectiveness is what we call success. The more success one has in life, the more power one has. The more power we have, the more substantive we feel as human beings. We feel like we're somebody, and nobody wants to feel like a nobody.

Now, of course, there are different ways of defining success, and we'll talk about some of the "alternative" definitions later. But in the "real world", the world that most of us live in, the world of business, politics, sports--the world reflected back to us in our mainstream media--success means having as much sex, power, and money as you can get while at the same time playing nice. This is universal because it's the way we're built. We are, on the one hand, instinctually driven, and, on the other, we have to get along. That's how it works on the horizontal without any influence from the vertical. There is no question that the vertical, or the dimension of grace, is a critical factor, but the reallity that most of us live in is defined by the horizontal, and we cannot pretend it's not what we deal with 95% of the time on a day-to-day basis.

Different cultures emphasize one or the other of the instinctual drivers (American Calvinists, for instance, are traditionally ok with money, but not ok with sex), but these instincts are the raw material out of which civilizations are built. Any attempt to pretend that human beings can be socialized to diminish the power of these instincts is silly. You can't pretend they're not there. That's my problem with the PTA lady. She and people like her want to believe that kids can be socialized to be cooperative and not competitive, and that's just stupid. We are all instinctually programmed to want to win.

I don't want to digress here on some things I could say about kids and sports, which maybe I'll get into another time. But while I don't think that the Social Darwinians are right in their definition of the world, I do think that they are more right than the PTA lady. There are things adults need to teach kids about how to behave on the field or the court. Kids need to learn how to lose well and to win well. But they do not have the maturity to do the real work, which is the adult spiritual task of transforming what is fallen. And that has very little to do with playing nice. Being good and being nice are not the same thing. Being good has more to do with the development of deep compassion and a thirst for justice, and that often requires a refusal to just "get along". And the whole task of spiritual practice, as I understand it, is not to repress our instinctual life, but to transform it--to take the raw energy of our instinctual life and to cook it with the energy that comes from the vertical.

I digress. The people admired in the "real world" are the "nice" people who are at the same time prodigies of sex, power, and wealth. And to be ambitious in such a world means to exploit whatever talent one might have to obtain as much of all three as you can, and if you're really good at one, the other two usually come along with it. The prodigies are the ones who wind up in People magazine. The rest of us operate in smaller worlds at work or in school, and if we have any ambition at all, we are working hard to get recognition from our social world. Getting recognition is certification of success, and it pumps up our saggy balloon--it makes us feel as though we are somebody.

But such a sense of self is nothing that has any real substance. Sure it feels good when our balloon is puffed up and feels bad when it's deflated, but it has little to do with the more deeply profound human task, which is the restoration of the shattered image. The question I want to explore is what the Christian alternative is to saggy-balloon syndrome, and whether it's realistic to to believe it has any possibility of changing the way our politics and economics work. I have to say at this point that I don't know whether it does, but I do know that the PTA lady's way won't work. Or to put it another way, it's not a world I would want to live in if it did work. But neither do I want to live in a People Magazine world and the perverse way it defines who's somebody and who's nobody.


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