News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: June 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Israel Gets Another Pass While Palestinians Bleed to Death

... and gasp, hunger, thirst, shiver with terror...

So where is the outrage over Israel's invasion of the sovereign territory of Palestine? Pause..............

The "arrest" of democratically elected Palestinian officials. Pause.......................................................

There is none. Instead, the news media lead off the story noting that this invasion and the arrests were preceded by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by a radical wing of Palestinian militants. Oh, wait, didn't Israel kill, then deny killing, then admit killing seven Palestinian family members on a beach?


Steve Clemons draws a useful historical analogy and puts the Israeli actions into proper perspective:

Israel would do well to go reacquaint itself with the USS Liberty, which Israelis fired on killing American servicemen. I have had a discussion with someone who was the former head of the U.S. National Security Agency who has no doubt at all that Israel's attack on the U.S. ship was purposeful and not an accident, as Israelis and Americans eager to cover up the incident have asserted.

America's response was measured and put in context -- whether one agrees with that or not. Israel got a huge pass.

Israel is demonstrating profound immaturity with its behavior, though I support the importance of negotiating and even pursuing its kidnapped soldier. However, despite its regional superpower status, Israel is showing that it tilts too easily towards responses far disproportionate to any sane or reasonable action. While Israel radicalizes Palestininans and many Arabs in the region with this behavior, it needs to know that it is eroding American support for its behavior and position.

Lines must be drawn -- and Israel is way over the line now.
Who cares? Let Israel rampage and destroy everything. What I'd like to know is who the fuck gave Israel the right to do this? Oh yeah, I forgot.... G--.


It's about time that they stop pawning off their thuggish and bullying behavior onto God and realize that soon Americans will begin seeing them for the thugs and bullies that they are. Then they will find that all their petitions to God will simply mean nothing since God--it's supposed--does not support murder and irresponsible and conscious spreading of chaos to foment hatred and vengeance.

While we meditate on this irony, let's also pray for the safe release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as well as the return of compassion, forgiveness, and reason to the daughters of Jerusalem.

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Supremes Show Grit and Backbone

The Supreme Court has finally shown that there's sense and morality still in the old grand carcass. On Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, SCOTUS blog reports:

...[T]he Court held that Common Article 3 of Geneva aplies as a matter of treaty obligation to the conflict against Al Qaeda. That is the HUGE part of today's ruling. The commissions are the least of it. This basically resolves the debate about interrogation techniques, because Common Article 3 provides that detained persons "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," and that "[t]o this end," certain specified acts "are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever"—including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard, not limited to the restrictions of the due process clause, is much more restrictive than even the McCain Amendment.
As recent studies have shown, most of the detainees are there because they were turned over for cash rewards and many, if not most, were never involved in terrorist activities. Reports on "terrorists" at Guantanamo include the following:What's ironic is that after these "terrorists" have suffered tremendous forms of psychological torture uner US captivity, the Bush administration is now saying it's concerned about repatriating many of these prisoners to their home countries because they'll be tortured there.

Several commentaries on today's ruling by SCOTUS in Ramdan v. Rumsfeld assert that the ruling opens up the possibility that US officials can be charged with war crimes, since the torture at Guantanamo and secret "redition" facilities go contravene rules in the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war.

Therefore: 1) The Supreme Court seems to assert that the notion of "illegal combtatant" does not apply to the prisoners at Guantanamo; 2) if the articles I cite are correct, over 50 percent of those at Guantanmo were not combatants of any kind; 3) Even the illegal combatants are covered by the Geneva Conventions.

If any one of the above is true, the Bush admin. could be accused of war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, I believe. That they won't, one assumes, does not mean they could not be.

Strangely enough, the Bush admin's own Justice Dept. suggested the same thing in 2002:
The White House's top lawyer warned more than two years ago that U.S. officials could be prosecuted for "war crimes" as a result of new and unorthodox measures used by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, according to an internal White House memo and interviews with participants in the debate over the issue.

The concern about possible future prosecution for war crimes--and that it might even apply to Bush adminstration officials themselves-- is contained in a crucial portion of an internal January 25, 2002, memo by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales obtained by NEWSWEEK. It urges President George Bush declare the war in Afghanistan, including the detention of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
One can now imagine (if somewhat utopianly) that Bush et al. will have a warrant issued by the Hague for prosecution for war crimes.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bush the Narcissist

In a previous post, I adduced a relationship between the neocon effort to take over the world and the Freudian analysis of narcissism. My crude depiction of that world-negating enterprise reflects perhaps some lack of true understanding in an academic sense of the workings of narcissism.

Stephen Soldz (a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis) gives a more flattering rendering of the Bush soul--if only because it couches in psychoanalytic terms what should be said in words that even an illiterate can understand: Bush is a feces-smearing boob who fantasizes creating his own little voodoo doll to prick when he doesn't get his way.

At ZNet, Soldz writes:

As the weakness and vulnerability needs to be kept out of awareness, narcissism contributes to another process that poses dangers for narcissistic leaders like President Bush in that their narcissism contributes to an ignoring of reality, of possibility of error or other indicators of potential weakness. Bush doesn't appear to seriously consider that what he thinks may not accurately represent reality. Iraq will welcome his legions with flowers so there is no need for contingency planning just in case that assumption is wrong. Iraqis are valiantly struggling for pro-American "democracy" [whatever that means to him], so there is no need to consider that, just possibly, rival Iran is the big winner from Bush's Iraqi intervention. Harriet Miers is a convenient choice for Bush so there is no need to consider what others may think of her appointment. And Bush, like other tragic leaders throughout history, may actually believe the incredibly dangerous notion that there is no alternative to victory in an Iraqi conflict which, in all likelihood, has already been lost.

Bush's narcissism, thus, has provided the backbone of certainty which makes him appear as a strong leader to those so predisposed. But it also contributes to those character flaws that may ultimately lead to his undoing.
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Friday, June 23, 2006

Those Sea of David "Jihadists"!

Juan Cole on the Seas of David cult that Ubu-Bush et al. are calling "militant Muslim" jihadists. When will Bush, Gonzales, Cheney, etc. get their heads out of their ethnocentric asses and realize that not everyone who disagrees with their hegemonic putsch can be lumped in with "jihadism"?

Cole writes:

This Seas of David group primarily seems to have been studying the Bible. The mother of one insisted that he is a Catholic. Then there is all that Jewish symbology and terminology, even in their names. Islam was nothing more for them but a set of symbols they could pull into their syncretic local culture. The group drew on poor Haitian immigrants and local indigent African-American youth. If this were the 1960s, they'd have been Black Panthers or Communists.

American folk religion, pursued in small groups with charismatic leaders, is replete with such groups, from Father Divine to Jim Jones of the People's Temple to David Koreish.

The group never got past the stage of talking big, and violently. They talked dangerously, and some sort of intervention was warranted. Since they begged the FBI informant for "shoes," they weren't exactly a well-heeled group that seems very dangerous in actual practice. And, to what extent did the FBI informant press an al-Qaeda connection on these otherwise clueless but imaginative zealots?
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More Nussbaum; This Time on Shame AND Disgust

Fascinated by the intellectual depth and emotional profundity of Nussbaum's work on disgust and shame in the law, I offer the following article she wrote for Chronicle of Higher Education. ...

Summing up why shame and disgust are ambivalent criteria to use in the law, Nussbaum writes:

In general, a society based on the idea of equal human dignity must find ways to inhibit stigma and the aggression that are so often linked to the proclamation that "we" are the ones who are "normal." Such a society is difficult to achieve, because incompleteness is frightening, and grandiose fictions are comforting. As a patient of the psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott said to him, "The alarming thing about equality is that we are then both children, and the question is, where is father? We know where we are if one of us is the father."

It may even be that a society in which people acknowledge their equal weakness and interdependence is unachievable because human beings cannot bear to live with the constant awareness of mortality and of their frail animal bodies. Some self-deception may be essential in getting us through a life in which we are soon bound for death, and in which the most essential matters are in fact beyond our control. But if we cannot fully achieve such a society, we can at least look to it as a paradigm (as Plato said of his ideal city), and make sure that our laws are the laws of that community and no other.
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Gore Gives the Gory Details and States the Obvious

Gore Vidal is one of those people who has a pedigree of wealth and status but has instead attacked the status quo for its sham hypocrisy and lying deceit. In a recent interview Gore gives his take on the fascism that is either incipient or full-blown, depending perhaps on whether you live in the homeland of fascism or live under its insular blindness. ...

On Bush and his "war," and the media's connivance in the whole fiasco, Vidal says:

"Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It's like having a war on dandruff, it's endless and pointless. We are in a dictatorship that has been totally militarised, everyone is spied on by the government itself. All three arms of the government are in the hands of this junta.

"Whatever you are," he goes on, "they say you are the reverse. The men behind the war in Iraq are cowards who did not fight in Vietnam - but they spent millions of dollars proving that John Kerry, who was a genuine war hero whatever you think of his politics, was a coward.

"This is what happens when you have control of the media, and I have never known the media more vicious, stupid and corrupt than they are now."
Now that's speaking truth to power with wit and charm. Read more!

Those Miami al-Qaeda Terrorists

So we've finally caught us some terrorists! right next door! All the fear and anxiety drummed into our heads by the Bush admin appears to have been based on fact and due vigilance. ...

Larry Johnson (terrorism expert) at No Quarter suggests that we react with caution to the news:

Some things to keep in mind. First, no weapons or explosives were recovered at the site of the raid. Second, the claim that one suspect "pledged bayat" (swore an oath) to Bin Laden should be treated as questionable. Bin Laden has been on the run since he escaped Tora Bora in December 2001. I don't think he is receiving too many visitors since then.

When this shakes out I suspect we will find a disaffected group of youths who had fantastical dreams of destruction but no real capability to carry out their evil fantasies. Given the Bush Administration's proclivity to play the fear card and use the threat of terrorism to scare the hell out of the public, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.
Larry could have added the fact that when the Okalahoma bombing happened, news media automatically assumed it was Islamic terrorists who carried out the attack. Only later did we learn that it was our own home-grown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh.

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So What CAN the Blogosphere/Internet Do?

One of the accusations against the blogosphere is that it's simply a web of fantasy where people sit around snarking and surfing and getting lost in a world of possibility from which they never escape to live real life. So what, then, can the blogosphere/internet contribute to political dialog and/or activity?

One of Germany's foremost philosophers, Jurgen Habermas, thinks the web can serve the best service by correcting the official news media. (via Habermasian Reflections via signandsight) Dietmar Jazbinsek writes:

According to Habermas, online communication can only make a relevant contribution to political discourse if it deals with reporting in the established media. A positive example is the website (which reports critically on the Bild Zeitung - ed)
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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Focus Group Think from Oz

Who says the Iraq "war" isn't about political football and staying in power? The honest Republicans will tell you that the politicos are making this war into a rhetroical carnival whose emptiness and lack of authenticity betray all pretensions to self-righteous . ...

Via Think Progress, Sen. Chuck Hagel ripped away the curtain of Oz for a few seconds on the Senate floor:

The American people want to see serious debate about serious issues from serious leaders. They deserve more than a political debate. This debate should transcend cynical attempts to turn public frustration with the war in Iraq into an electoral advantage. It should be taken more seriously than to simply retreat into focus-group tested buzz words and phrases like “cut and run,” catchy political slogans that debase the seriousness of war. War’s not a partisan issue, Mr. President. It should not be held hostage to political agendas. War should not be drug down into the political muck. America deserves better. Our men and women fighting and dying deserve better.
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"Slave Labor" Use by US Contractors in Iraq Investigated

The Chicago Tribune has continued its coverage of a story that should be a headliner in the national media: the use of underpaid laborers in Iraq in conditions and under circumstances that sometimes resemble slave labor. ...

I have posted before about this issue. The US Congress is investigating the conditions of foreign workers used by US cintractors in Iraq. Recent revelations reported in the Tribune include the withholding of these workers' passports so they cannot leave the country.

According to the Tribune [you will need to subscribe for free to read the rest of this article]:

Getting contractors on U.S. military bases in Iraq to return the passports they seized from thousands of foreign workers imported to do menial labor in the war zone was "kind of like pulling teeth," even though the seizures violated U.S. laws against human trafficking, a senior contracting officer told Congress Wednesday.

Air Force Col. Robert Boyles, who helped implement military reforms aimed at eliminating trafficking of Asian laborers onto American bases in Iraq, also testified that contractors had seized passports as a standard practice. He suggested they complied with military orders to return travel documents to the workers only because their business was threatened.
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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Rhetoric and Politics of Disgust

What has struck me about the rhetoric used by the Right is its spitefulness and ugliness. I find it telling that the Right accuses the Left of being angry, as though that were a profane emotion. As several postings at Unclaimed Territory have pointed out, anger is not an unreasonable emotion in many contexts, especially the field of political debate. Yet, the Right has attempted to stigmatize anger as though it is something unreasonable and ultimately unethical. As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, however, it is anger at injustice and wrong that forms much of the underlying basis for the legal system. ...

I allude to Nussbaum and her recent work on disgust, shame, and the law (Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law) can give some insight into the rhetorical tactics currently used by the Right.

To shorten this comment, I'll simply provide a quote from Nussbaum that I believe explains the emotion that the Right hopes to exploit in its political strategy. This emotion is disgust. Nussbaum quotes conservative bioethicist Leon Kass, who head Pres. Bush's commission that examines the ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research:

According to Kass, there is a "wisdom" in our sentiment of "repugnance," a wisdom that lies beneath all rational argument. When we contemplate certain prospects, we are disgusted "because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear." Repugnance "revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound." Kass admits that "[r]evulsion is not argument," but he thinks that it gives us access to a level of the personality that is in some ways deeper and more reliable than argument. "In crucial cases...repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom."

Now Nussbaum wants to show that recent legal cases by conservatives have attempted to make disgust a legal criterion. She argues that it's an invalid criterion for various reasons. She also explain how disgust lies at the root of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and violence against women.

Be that as it may, how this relates to Coulter et al, is in how their rhetoric is an expression of disgust. At the same time that it expresses the author's disgust with numerous subjects, it also hopes to elicit in the reader a sense of disgust. The theory behind this rhetoric follows Kass in his belief that disgust is a truer and more authentic basis for morality and ethics (and by extension the law) than rational argument.

If the preceding is true, then we can say that Coulter, Limbaugh, et al hope to forestall rational debate and discussion and evoke what they perceive as moral sentiments that in some way are truer to reality than reason. In this sense, then, it is inaccurate to call Coulter's work an exercise in hate or anger but rather a rhetoric of disgust.

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The Internet, Pseudonyms and the Struggle for Self

One of the more provocative investigations of the strengths and weaknesses of the blogosphere as a political forum, not to mention as a "place" for human interaction comes from Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus wrote the provocative book, What Computers Still Can't Do. He takes up his argument from there and applies it to the Internet in his essay, Kierkegaard on the Super Information Highway. ...

One of his main points with regard to the Internet is that it is an abstract space. Something that seems to be here, there, and everywhere. For Dreyfus, at least, this gives an illusion of personhood that denies what it is that makes us human. That is, character, personality, and sense of who we are must come from being situated in a body in a time/place that involves all those problems/obstacles that being in a body is susceptible to. By giving the illusion that all these things can be overcome via an abstract space gives us a false sense of who we are.

In relationship to political dialog and interaction, the same problems apply. It's easy to come up with solutions and apparent "action," but until these are put into action realtime, they are just an illusion of action. The illusion is that something is happening when it's really not.

The nature of political struggle involves hardship, sacrifice, painstaking confrontation/debate/consensus. Until these exigencies of everyday, real life are encountered and overcome, talk of a political dimension to the Internet is more talk than it is real action.

An extension of Dreyfus' ideas involves the idea that the Internet can add just one more source for the great manipulation machines of the propaganda units of both parties to work. Trying to sort out fact from fiction in the traditional media is hard enough; with the addition of the WWW you now have an ocean to swim in and to discern what's worthwhile reading/responding to and what's not.

The possibility of being anonymous or creating personae is what attracts many to the Internet. In my first attempts in chat rooms and blogs, I loved creating a pseudonym and the anonymity that that brought with it.

There can be several reasons that people choose a pseudonym. In literature, for example, Rabelias first wrote under the pseudonym of Alcofrybas Nasier. He did so because the scandalous, raucous, scatalogical humor of his writings cut so many ways and chafed so many sensibilities.

But note the name and think of the connotations that easily come to mind: alcohol, food, and Arabs. The combination, of course, is ridiculous. And hilarious. But its very suggestiveness is the point, and the connotations reflect Rabelais' ideological, philosophical, and religious humanism.

Stephen King writes under various pen-names for different reasons. There's very little danger that the church will burn him at the stake as Rabelais could suspect. Instead, King writes so to see whether he can tell a good story and whether it'll sell without his label attached to it.

So, the reasons for pseudonymity are diverse. The writer Kierkegaard--known for using dozens of pseudonyms--suggested several reasons for doing so. One is that people don't want others to know that the ideas are theirs. Some do so to evade detection for espousing various views--for honest or dishonest reasons.

Another reason that someone might use a pseudonym is to create a character that expresses views that the author does not necessarily believe but does understand the power of.

The pernicious aspects of the blogosphere arise from the very possibility for remaining anonymous. It breeds a form of irresponsibility that destroys the principles of what can be termed true selfhood. Publishing views without running the risks of having to actually stand up for them in realtime creates a hypocritical and superficial attitude to the world and others.

I am not unaware of the philosophical ramifications behind some people's desire for anonymity. It denotes for some, I think, a belief that there is no real self anyway. The ability to take on and discard anonymous pseudonyms reflects the very emptiness and nothingness of life itself. It's a form of nihilism that the blogosphere promotes but whose potential damage for political reality have yet to be assessed.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

The MSM, The Conservative Right, and the Blogosphere

In talking about the press and mainstream media (MSM), in its relationship to the so-called blogosphere, there are some major assumptions that bear discussion. ...

  • What motivates the MSM to pass on stories? The answer might seem to relate to who has authroity to speak about issues of interest. Since the MSM finds itself incapable of answering these questions in and by themselves, they have to resort to stories about character, which by itself indicates that the a person is telling the truth.
  • How the news is packaged. The press makes itself useful by purveying news in neatly discrete packages that appeal to the limited information-seeking time of the electorate. It's much easier to dwell on personal, feel-good stories than it is on the difficult questions of global warming, etc.
  • The power of the blogosphere is not as ubiquitous or influential as many here assume. The internet--for most people--is still the arena of pedophiles, oceans of garbage-data, and people out to steal personal information. Until the blogosphere can attain some form of influence beyond the stereotypes, any information emanating from it will remain suspect.

In classical rhetoric, you assume that people are, at heart, disposed by human nature to discerning "the truth," most notably when presnted with an inductive argument that is credible.

One thing that the classisists assumed, however, is that the ones listening to the argument share certain educational and cultural assumptions.

With the advent of "the public"--during the Enlightenment, the appeal to reason became a supposedly universal appeal. Yet, as some commentators have rightly noted, those who hear the appeal are in a position to do something once they "see" the truth of the reasoned argument.

Some current theorists base their arguments on the Enlightenment notion of the public. In this regard, what stops people from coming to the rational, democratic solution is the corruption of the means of communication by diverse personal and socio-economic factors--capitalism in particular. The effort, therefore, is to clear away those obstructions to democratic and clear debate.

Others who oppose this view ask a very simple question. How can we ever hope to achieve this "perfect" communication ideal? That is, the model assumes that for the democratic situation to occur, these changes must have already come about. People must change--socially and subjectively--before that ideal itself can be realized. Yet, the socio-economic and subjective factors at work in modern society may be so great that the perfect communication situation will never happen. It's always an ideal-in-waiting, so to speak.

One solution might be to get rid of the rationalistic model presupposed by the ideal communication model althogether. This solution jettisons any notion of "truth" and insists instead on smaller truths. In the best interpretation of this approach, the use of irony and localized, acerbic tricksterism works in ana anarchic way to undermine the prevailing false ethos. This practice opens up the possibility for alternative and creative solutions to injustice and non-democratic structures.

The gist of the preceding is that "the solution" to your question is not simply either psychological or social. It's a combination of both terms. Any solution must, it seems, work at subjective and social levels to bring about a situation in which anything approaching a just and democratic society can exist.
Now, you can go back to classical rhetroic to find the idea that a good debated is someone who can argue the other side's position just as well if not better than him/her. Of course, it's exactly this idea od being able to argue both sides of an issue that's given rhetoric and lawyers a bad name in popular usage.

Yet the point, I think is a valid one. But instead of doing it simply froma desire to beat your opponent, the effort to understand the other side should be motivated by the desire to find what's really motivating them. Based on this, it is perhaps possible to find revelational issues that can serve as the basis for further discussion. A basis that forms a bond of trust that I'm not just jettisoning his/her actual concern for the truth just as much as I have.

No one is completely wrong. There's always a mixture of truth, fiction, misperception, etc. Only the insane are completely wrong. And it's hyperbole and mean-spiritedness to accuse the other side of such. They may be really wrong, even mostly wrong, but there's always that substrate of whatever you want to call it--human nature, innate human sensibility for the ethical, etc.--that we can seek to overcome these differences.

And then the question becomes who benefits from such polarization. I think there's something to the idea that insiders/outsiders on all sides are perhaps captive to a socio-economic system that benefits those at the top of that system.

The so-called culture war is really a class war, and the underlying forces at work are an economics that produces and thrives on antagonism between people with the same interests in an effort to consolidate its hold on power.

The answers to some of these questions originate in remembering the bogus framework that informs all political debate. The Right has been successful in "framing" political dialog for the last 20 years or so.

They have divided the world between left and right and tagged the extreme left with being socialists/communists. This division itself goes back to the 50s, with the successful fear campaign run by politicians in the country to fight a perceived Red Menace.

How many people actually understand political differences of this kind is, of course, up in the air. Whether your normal Jane Doe would know what particular stances a socialist or communist holds is debatable.

Yet, that does not matter; what does is the perception that the press has of these political philosophies. Educated with a smattering of political and historical understanding, journalists and others in the media simply rely on those who supposedly know the threats that face us--the think tanks and inside sources.

The Right has created a convenient filtering system which parses out reality and political questions so that they can then be fed in easily digestible bits to an information-hungry public.

The conventional wisdom among political scientists and campaign consultants is that voters tend toward the center--however that is defined. But the question is, who gets to define the extremes? and what are their agendas? And would voters always vote for the so-called "center" if the issues were really debated?

As many know, the tools of modern political consulting include polling, focus groups, and grassroots networking from the top (also called "astroturfing"). These tools enable political operatives to form their campaigns around simple wedge issues that are then packaged into visually stimulating and provocative bits of "real" information. In this way, a voter decides their vote not on a reasoned understanding of issues but merely a visceral, gut reaction to artfully constructed stimuli devised by politicos adept at manipulating emotions.

The blogosphere--if it's to gain any influence in the political world--has several options open to it. It can 1) serve as a forum for free and open discussion that undermines the think-tank hegemony, 2) freely and honestly debate issues without the prevailing filtering system consstructed by the prevailing political interests, 3) act as a conduit for information that bypasses the filtering processes imposed by the MSM.

Whether the blogosphere can successfully change politics will depend on how well it gains influence within 1) the political establishment and 2) the general public.

The political establishment is wary of the blogosphere because there's some question about the linkage between it and real voters. Does the blogosphere represent or reach into the motivating factors that get people to the polls? Does it represent public opinion? Unfortunately, the politicos will decide this question as they always do: with polls and focus groups.

Gaining influence with the public is questionable itself. While more and more people are gaining access to the Internet, the informational diet has been even more restricted by the way that people filter information.

Much of this seems to offer the hope of a technical adjustment to fix the problems. I suggest that this is just one more superficial fix. The problem is much more fundamental. It gets into the "vocabulary" and "grammar" of the concepts and meanings that inform the political landscape.

This is commonly known as culture; obviously, the Right has been more adept at controlling and manipulating the culural values and imagery than has the Left. By doing so, it can then gain ground on the much more practical field of political operations and electioneering.

All in all, then, those who wish to change the political landscape must begin to address the most fundamental questions that humans face as human beings. Until an alternative cultural vocabulary and grammar can find its way into the hearts and minds of everyday voters, the Right's filtering system will continue to amass votes and structure politics in this country.

Journalists are limited by time concerns. They do not have the time to do the research that's necessary to confirm or disaffirm stories. In this regard, they must rely on sources, many of whom--obviously--have their own agendas with regard to any particular story.

Sure, you might get sickened by the obsequiousness with which journalists go about this, but that's just a matter of taste, perhaps. In fact, objectivity--the key criterion in our culture for laying the basis for truth--is provided by sources with inside information. The closer to the source, the more objective the information is. This accords with a definition of objectivity that correlates it with influence.

William Beeman writes:
The media bears a great deal of responsibility in this matter. Lazy, news-cycle driven and subject to the pressure of ideology and publicity flackers, it is so much easier to just call the think tank down the street, or a PR firm like Benador Associates where someone is on call and already in suit and tie, or skirted suit to get to the studio within the next 20 minutes, than to spend the extra half-hour trying to locate an ISDN feed in . . . Minneapolis or Austin to get the best possible expertise on a subject at hand. For the print media a quote--any quote--is often good enough to anchor a story. No time to wait for someone to call back after a seminar! If the reporter can't get the quotable phrase on the first phone call, its on to the next, or once again, to the on-call quotables [sic] at the think-tank around the corner.

Even when someone with real expertise can be located, the media vitiates the message by making a fetish of "balance"--an odd feature of American public discourse, documented by my colleague Deborah Tannen in her classic book, The Argument Culture. This means that whatever the subject, a pro and con side must be represented--even if one of the positions is absurd, or representative of an extreme fringe opinion. This results in match-ups like Paul Krugman debating Bill O'Reilly on economic matters and other such ludicrous pairings. This situation has created careers for people like Anne Coulter, David Frum and Jonah Goldberg, who otherwise know very little--but they are reliable as "cons" (pun intended) on virtually any topic that requires an expansion of intellect. No wonder the public doesn't know which way is up.
As something of a commentary to this, consider sociologist Leon Mayhew's (in The New Public: Professional communication and the means of social influence) comments:
This generalization derives from studies of how workers in the news industry decide who should be granted the status of a source. There are two categories of sources: routine sources that provide press releases and similar forms of packaged information and enterprise sources that are generated by reporters' independent efforts to find people who can supply or corroborate stories (Epstein 1973). Epstein's study of 2,850 news stories publicized in the New York Times and Washington Post over a fourteen-year period documented that only about a quarter of these stories were based on enterprise sources. The rest were based on ready made sources. More than half were supplied by officials of the federal government, including the legislative branch (Epstein 1973, 119-30). ... Choosing sources as principal sources flows directly from the two main criteria for choosing sources: credible knowledge and capacity to represent constituencies. Officials are presumed responsible and close to the scenes of action, which makes them what Fishman (1980) has called "people entitled to know what they say" and thus "authorized knowers." Networks of authorized knowers upon whom journalists routinely depend constitute a "web of facticity" (Tuchman 1978, 82-103) that bestows credibility on news workers. [emphasis in original] (Mayhew, p. 252)
It is gaining the type of influence that the sources described by Mayhew have that the blogosphere must garner. Until the blogosphere can gain that influence, its attempts to keep the MSM honest will fall on deaf ears.

What Mayhew describes is only one facet of a much larger picture, of course. The larger question relates to discussion of the issues--a rational and open debate about whether the claims made by a candidate or a policy are true, feasible, or prudent.

It is that debate that the blogosphere promises to provide, yet because it is limited in its coverage, the debate never reaches the ears of those who must make the decisions--ie, the voters, policy-makers, and so on.

Mojo Magazine's blog gives a good example of how the media--under the aegis of "balance"--creates controversy where none exists.

According to MoJo:
Pam Spaulding spots a great example of one of journalism's most annoying tics: the need to put fake "balance" into stories. The other day the Houston Chronicle ran a profile of Sgt. Jack Oliver, the first officer in the Houston Police Department to undergo a sex change while on active duty. Interesting stuff. But the reporter then feels compelled to gin up controversy where none exists and quotes some pastor or other who gets all squirmy at the thought of transsexuals: "That would raise issues of competency in the line of duty in my mind."

The point of Beeman's remarks can be seen in the context of the campaign to discredit and undermine the authority of the intelligentsia and the academy. Perhpas none has been so forceful in this effort than David Horowitz. He's beacked by very powerful friends who have lots of money, yet as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, in front of a Pennsylvania legislative committee, Horowitz had to detract a large amount of his claims:
This broad-based and even global acclaim for higher education in the United States is strangely at odds with the concentrated political attacks that Cole warns us about and that the academy is currently experiencing. It is particularly out of step with the dark and dysfunctional picture of the academy painted by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. If Horowitz were simply a disaffected political crank, as many have hitherto regarded him, then his views on the academy could be easily dismissed. Such dismissal would seem to be all the more in order following his disastrous testimony before the legislative subcommittee in Pennsylvania in which he was forced to recant as unsubstantiated several of the cases that he had been widely circulating as documentation of alleged malfeasance in the academy.

Oddly, however, his campaign goes on. Horowitz, with assistance from Karl Rove and the former House majority whip, Tom DeLay, has briefed Republican members of Congress on his Academic Bill of Rights campaign and DeLay has even distributed copies of Horowitz’s political primer The Art of Political Warfare: How Republicans Can Fight to Win to all Republican members of Congress. Rove refers to Horowitz’s pamphlet as “a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield.”

Update 1 Karl Rove attacks the Internet:
Additionally, Rove answered the attacks from the left-wing blogosphere:

"The Internet for the Left of the Democratic Party has served as a way to mobilize hate and anger -- hate and anger, first and foremost, at this President and Conservatives, but then also at people within their own party whom they consider to be less than completely loyal to this very narrow, very out-of-the-mainstream, very far Left-wing ideology that they tend to represent."

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10-Commandments Legislator Can't Name Them

Defense Tech calls him the "Dumbest Congressman. Ever." You might also agree. He has introduced a single bit of legislation: to have the 10 Commandments placed in public schools. The problem is, he can only name three of them: "Don't murder. Don't lie. Don't steal. ..." ...

See the video at Colbert's show. Crooks and Liars provides a partial transcript.

For your edification, I list the 10 Commandments below (from memory):

  • Thou shalt have no God before me.
  • Thou shalt make no graven images. (This is the one I missed. I had to look it up.).
  • Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain.
  • Thou shalt honor thy father and mother.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not commit murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass.
  • Thou shalt not lie or present false testimony.
  • You shall keep the Sabbath.
For those interested in these things, these are the commandments listed by Jesus, as reported by the Gospel according to Matthew:
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and [thy] mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Mat 19:17-19)
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Worlds Apart, but Oh So Close: Radio Interviews with Zizek and Phillips

I listened to Slavoz Zizek's interview with Doug Henwood [clicking on this link starts the audio of the interview at low hi-fi, which I found works well with slow Internet connections] at the Left Business Observer this morning. Interviewed in 2003, Zizek's points are still pertinent today. His accent is pretty thick, so you might want to read a condensed version of the interview transcript; read it first and then listen to the interview. ...

In the interview, Zizek notes:

What I'm really afraid of is that when we left-wingers ask, "is America aware that in this way they are only creating new tensions?" they miss the point. What if the aim is to introduce instability to the entire region and then to brutally impose some kind of universalized emergency state or new order? But even if the U.S. is consciously counting on the global disorder, it will not be able to control it. My only hope is that American interventions will give rise to some kind of resistance. My big hope - as an atheist, praying night and day for it - is that the resistance in the Middle East will not be simply kidnapped by the so-called fundamentalists. That this resistance will have at least secular socialist wing. And I think there is a fair chance at it. Look at Iran. There is hope.
There's always hope, Slavoz, and it doesn't always come in the form of anarchy or police states; but thanks for the pep talk. Be that as it may, he is a major political thinker, even if he has attained some kind of "rock star" status," something I'm sure he dreads hearing.

I also listened to part of a Kevin Phillips interview on Minnesota Public Radio. Phillips, former front-man for the Republican Party and major political strategist in the 80s and 90s, is quite frank in his assessment of the emerging religious theocracy in the Republican Right. He's also quite blunt in popping any balloons about the "humanitarian" rationale for the Iraq War. It's all about the oil--did you think anything else? Read more!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rage at Haditha Turns to Xtian Forgiveness

In a posting filled with righteous rage and bitterness, the Kit Jarrell at register their frustration with the Leftists and others who bemoan the deaths of civilians at Haditha. Granting his point, the allegations have not been proven in a military court of law, so some restraint must be exercised in passing judgment on the soldiers allegedly involved in this "action." ...

Jarrell writes:

A year ago, we watched Ilario Pantano fight to clear his name of ridiculous charges. He was ultimately vindicated by autopsy evidence, but the damage had already been done. The idea of putting a Marine on trial for killing the enemy in a time of war is asinine. Haditha, in my opinion, is no different.

Marines are trained to kill. Total demolition and obliteration of the enemy is what they excel at. They are not Air Force technicians. They are not Navy radar operators. They are not hostage negotiators. They are killers, trained to win wars by killing the enemy preemptively, NOT reactively. Battles like Iwo Jima were won because Marines are “bold, bloody, and resolute,” not “understanding, tolerant, and merciful.” The Pacific front of World War II was a filthy, gory, stunningly real display of the realities of war. The Marines lived it, breathed it, slept in it for many, many months on end. They did what they had to do to survive, but more importantly, they did what they had to do to win. Were it not for their courage and their testicular fortitude, we would never have won against the Japanese. That means at this very moment, you would not be free.

What the Left (and other worthless institutions like the UN, etc.) are doing is to force Marines - and every other branch of our military - to fight a war as though it were a rough football match, with rules and penalties and punts from their own end zone if they hurt someone during the game…
I can understand the sentiments and anger evoked by this posting. Without a doubt, the accused soldiers deserve the presupposition of innocence. On the other hand, military law is much different than civilian law in the US.

But a soldier's rights do not always coincide with his or her rights as a civilian. Their circumstances require them to exercise deadly force--indeed, as a soldier they are given the right to exercise that power of life and death which a civilian cannot perform, unless duly deputized by various legal constraints.

Above and beyond these considerations, however, is the underlying notion voiced by Mr. Jarrell. He works under the impression that because a soldier is trained to kill, they must therefore be given more leeway in being allowed to invoke mitigating circumstances for when s/he does kill. This view is neither backed up by military law nor by common-sense morality.

The unusual and extraordinary circumstances in which a soldier kills puts more restrictions and responsibilities on them than even a civilian. This is what soldiers are trained to do--and any violation of those restrictions should call down the wrath and full might of military law.

I am perhaps more willing than many to grant that compassion and forgiveness be extended to men and women exposed to a deadly environment in which they neither know who their enemy is nor from which direction death will strike. The overwhelming fear and despair created by such a situation will wear down anyone and expose them to the temptation to use force and death in terrible ways.

Yet, the very deadliness and lethality of the environment cannot excuse one infraction. War is hell, they say. Yes, it is. As Simone Weil once noted in her comments on that greatest of war poems: war turns victim and victimizer into things. The victim is treated as just an object to disposed of, thereby removing them as threat. The victimizer becomes a thing is its murderous disregard for the humanity and dignity of human beings.

Update 1 Via RawStory, the Wall Street Journal has published a poll that shows that "by 49%-33%, they [Americans] want reprimands rather than criminal charges" brought against the soldiers accused of massacring Iraqi men, women, and children. I find this sentiment understandable but also very dispiriting. For all the talk about morality and humanitarianism, a majority of the US public would rather see someone else's kids blown to bits and shot in the back of the head rather than their own and not even hold the men responsible for the atrocity. The religious Right is correct: there is a moral decline in America, it's just that the decline uses Xtian principles to mealy mouth barbarity and injustice, those same principles the Right uses to sermonize the world about how great a god-feaing nation the US is.

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Catholic Cardinal says Shut Down Guantanamo

An influential Catholic cardinal, Archbishop Martino, has called for the US to shut down its concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. ...

According to Catholic News Service:

The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace spoke out on behalf of about 500 people, classified as "enemy combatants," who are being held by US military forces at the base in Cuba. The Italian cardinal said that "something must be done when human rights are not respected." He encouraged "international insistence that might obtain the desired results."
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Set Your Alarms: Big Face-off Between Stone and Posner on Civil Liberties and thhe War on Terrorism

From the UofChicago Law School Blog:

Next week, we launch yet another new feature of the blog: a debate forum where our bloggers will have the chance to exchange ideas in a series of related posts over a several day period. First up are colleagues Geof Stone and Richard Posner, on the topic of "Civil Liberties and the War Against Terrorism."

This debate will begin on Monday with a post from Geof, and should run the whole week. Readers can follow the posts here, or can access the full set of posts via the link in the left-hand column.
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Pentagon/Republican Playbook Against DoD Rules Against Politicking?

A report by RawStory links to a Pentagon document that suggests that the Pentagon is laying out talking points not only for the Pentagon PR office but also for political supporters of the US war in Iraq. What this ostensibly does is to provide attack points for those supporters in order to counter domestic political opposition to the war. And I always thought it was illegal for the military to get involved in domestic politics. Not according to the new Pentagon. ...

RawStory is reporting:

The 74 page document seems to be an election year guide for Republicans and Democratic supporters of the war, with many of the "points" seeming to be rebuttals to arguments made by opponents of the war.

Other portions seek to categorize opponents of the war as "cut and run" advocates.
Of course, impressions may be misleading. The Pentagon has an obligation to publish its plans and strategies for victory in Iraq. That's just "standard operating procedure," as they say in the military.

Rules against politicking by the military and its civilian representatives include "DoD directive for active-duty servicemembers [sic] and the Hatch Act for federal civilians," according to an online article by Donna Miles of the American Forces Press Service.

Dennis Ryan writes:
Soldiers may encourage other Soldiers to vote, but may not attempt to influence an election. They may also join political clubs, but not attend in uniform.
Republican candidates have been criticized for introducing military symbols and rhetoric into their campaigns. Perhaps one of the most egregious incidents occurred when a Colorado Representative, Marilyn Musgrave, had a soldier in uniform speak at a campaign dinner.

DoD Directive 1344.10 prohibits the military from engaging in most forms of electioneering and politicking. It provides a common-sense view of what electioneering and politciking means:
Any activity that may be viewed as associating the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security, in the case of the Coast Guard, or any component of these Departments directly or indirectly with a partisan political activity shall be avoided.
What does seem odd and cause for concern about the Pentagon "playbook" is that the document appears to have been distributed only to supporters of the war. This is anti-democratic because it does not allow the opponents of the war to counter assertions made in the document. It looks like it might also be illegal.

Update 1: Now RawStory reports that the Pentagon is asking lawmakers to return the playbook it previously sent out. This adds to the suspicion that the Pentagon is trying to influence domestic politics, something that is illegal.

Update 2: ABCNews' Liz Marlantes reports:
hursday afternoon, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Rumsfeld complaining that his office had spent "taxpayer dollars to produce partisan political documents." Lautenberg also suggested that the document may have violated laws prohibiting the Executive Branch from using taxpayer dollars for lobbying and propaganda activities. [my emphasis]
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The Plague... Continued?

I have posted here some remarks on the prospect of a biological plague and its moral and spiritual consequences. Of course, there are the symbolic aspects of plague that many writers and thinkers have used to express various political or spiritual messages. Perhaps the most famous recent use of the theme came from Albert Camus in his book, The Plague.

The beauty of symbolism is that it can mean many things to many people. It's always been my understanding that Camus was writing about the human condition. While situated in a specific time/place, the book explores humanity's mortality and the various ways we deal with the continual threat of death in philosophical, experiential, spirutal terms. There are other interpretations, though. ...

In a recent appearance at the US naval Academy, controversial authors Mearsheimer and Walt--known for their very strong objections to a linkage in foreign policy between the US and Israel--presented their views on the situation in Iraq, as well as future repercussions of this war. In response to a question, Mearsheimer makes the following rather creative interpretation of Camus' plague:

I remember once in English class we read Albert Camus's book The Plague. I didn't know what The Plague was about or why we were reading it. But afterwards the instructor explained to us that The Plague was being read because of the Vietnam War. What Camus was saying in The Plague was that the plague came and went of its own accord. All sorts of minions ran around trying to deal with the plague, and they operated under the illusion that they could affect the plague one way or another. But the plague operated on its own schedule. That is what we were told was going on in Vietnam. Every time I look at the situation in Iraq today, I think of Vietnam, and I think of The Plague, and I just don't think there's very much we can do at this point. It is just out of our hands. There are forces that we don't have control over that are at play, and will determine the outcome of this one. I understand that's very hard for Americans to understand, because Americans believe that they can shape the world in their interests.

But I learned during the Vietnam years when I was a kid at West Point, that there are some things in the world that you just don't control, and I think that's where we're at in Iraq.
As the article reports, after something of a stunned silence, the assembled cadets, officers, and others gave Mearsheimer and the other guests a standing ovation for their responses and comments.

I am somewhat bemused, perhaps confused, by this response. My first reaction is to see it as some kind of mystification, a denial of responsibility, a fatalism even. I find that response unacceptable. As much as I appreciate the pathos of Mearsheimer's speech, I do not accept that this type of passive acceptance fits this situation. Not that there are not circumstances and situations where one might not indeed simply accept things that fall outside of your control. Indeed, not to do so, not to recognize that life often presents such circumstances and situations is probably a sign of being a control freak, if not sociopathic.

Yet, I disagree that Iraq is that type of event. It is a man-made occurrence whose causes are well-known as ahving their origin in choices made by the Bush administration. These can be known and understood and counter-acted by making other choices and implementing other actions.

Perhaps I am overstating Mearsheimer's point. Again, the pathos of his remarks--in the context of his audience--is very effective. It could be, however, that Mearsheimer is putting the Iraq "war" in a much larger context. He does say: "But I learned during the Vietnam years when I was a kid at West Point, that there are some things in the world that you just don't control..."

Is he referring to the historical conflict between civilizations or something of that kind? Is the you here the indefinite you as in anybody or everybody? If it is, then he's referring to you, the everybody we supposedly are. That is, the I that I am as part of this or that culture, society or civilization.

There are problems with even this formulation, disregarding for the moment the statement as a matter of personal belief. Its acceptance of the historical as a force outside one's control, holding up one's hands in exasperation or futility is a sign of despair. But the despair originates in accepting the notion that I or anyone else is a passive member of a collective whose purposes or ends are coincident with the fate of that collective.

Certainly, I could say that there are forces that I have no control over. That's a fact of life that I must indeed accept just to face the real facticity of who I am. As I mentioned above, to do otherwise is to imagine a measure of control over events that I simply do not have. To try to do so, to believe that I can somehow control all things about the world around me implies a pathological desire that itself probably begins in a deep sense of despair.

But to accept the notion that I am only this factical being, to rule out the possibility of affecting events based on possibilities inherent within that very factical matrix that I call my own is not only existentially dishonest, it's also immoral. A moral being does not identify his or her being with the collective will or the interests of the race or species. An ethical being sees that its own sense of well-being often means opposing such a view because to do otherwise means that I have given up the struggle to live as a moral being.

Mearsheimer's fatalism is surprising. After courageously taking on the Israel lobby, he now contends that the fight against injustice may simply be a "done deal" against which individual and personal actions have no effect. I reject this view for various reasons; most notably, I do not accept the view that I am simply a weaponless pawn of history. To do so means that I will--if only silently--assent to injustice and immorality. And that is something I cannot and must not accede to. Read more!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Military Tribunals To Begin at Guantanamo Concentration Camp

In an article describing how reporters have been asked to leave Guantanamo detention facility for "terrorists," Editors and Publishers almost off-handedly report that military tribunals will begin at the US concentration camp.

Isn't this news itself worthy of some reporting in the MSM? I, for one, think that the American public should know that the US military is about to carry ouyr kangaroo court proceedings against people who've never been accused of a crime and many of whom have been falsely incarcerated for over three years. ...

According to Edtitors and Publishers

J.D. Gordon, the Pentagon press officer, told E&P that these two reporters had been invited to come to Guantanamo last weekend for the start of tribunals. Mike Gordon and Observer photographer Todd Sumlin arrived to produce a profile of the camp commander, who hails from North Carolina. The suicides of the three detainees happened to occur in this time period and the tribunals were cancelled.
Read more!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bush: Daniel in the Lion's Den?

So what's the big headline for Bush's Iraq publicity stunt today? As a PR activity, it shows:

  • Bush thinks Iraq is safe enough to visit Iraq contra the perception that Iraq is falling apart
  • Bush is in control contra indications that events in Iraq were spiraling out of control
  • Bush the decider knows risks and through sheer gumption and grit defies the terror and chaos that he says are threatening the world
  • the Iraqi government is now consecrated with Bush's laying on of hands
  • Bush is a man of surprises, flying against the negativity and pessimism and exhibiting imaginitve and creative flights of political acumen that leave his political enemies stupefied and flabbergasted.

The Bushco crowd has boviously chosen the interpretation that Bush is all piss and vinegar when it comes to meeting the Terrorist threat. On FoxNews, Rep. Hoekstra bruited:
Well, not only can the good guys win, the good guys have to win. … This is a global war on terror. There are those in the radical Islamic movement who want to attack us on the homeland, and our objective is to win this war on terror, to take the battle to where radical Islam would plan and strategize and train for an attack against the United States, and today the President is going in their face with the elected government in Iraq and saying, “We’re going to win this and it’s essential that we win it. We have no choice.”
Which image plays well in Peoria is undecided. Certainly, as a photo op the image of Bush braving terror and violence gives the illusion that he's at the front lines of the war on terror. "Yes, America, the Pres truly does understand the dangers, but he believes so much in what he's doing that he's willing go into the maw of death (like Daniel in the lion's den?) and face the horror show that our soldiers must embrace every day."

But the important thing here is in the sheer imagistic quality of the visit. That is, its alleged (perceived) audacity defies reason; and in its bravado, it forestalls rational debate about the underlying issues relating to the war effort. To cast aspersions at it, to question its true audacity or even to ask questions concerning the President's reasons for doing it will come across as the sour grapes that really motivates the President's political opposition.

These images are meant not to evoke debate and discussion but to stop the talk that might undermine the entire rationale for being in Iraq and the wisdom of the foreign policy approach currently at work in the WH.
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Iraq, the Land of Democracy

Some people are accusing Iraq war critics of missing the good things that are happening in that country, thanks to the American presence. What improvements? The Iraqi government is run by the US as a satellite state. The country has been in a civil war (by many standards, most notably the Lebanese civil war) for some time, and areas under insurgent/militia control continue to grow (most notably Basra, as well as northern Iraq).

The prospect of a US pullout from Iraq is nowhere in the cards for at least 50 years, contrary to Bushco propaganda and the continual false impression that it's even a possibility which the press continues to foster by asking the inane question, "when are we pulling out of Iraq?"

It is perhaps sobering to realize what everyday life in Iraq means. The Baghdad morgue can't handle the number of dead rolling in. Fear is a constant presence--a mortifying fear not only for the present but for women facing a future filled with the inevitability of losing the small freddoms to dress, walk, work, and act like they wanted to under Hussein.

On the other hand, you say, there's democracy. But this word in the mouths of Bushco and most people these days just about means as much as you want it to mean. Does anyone dare even think that Iraq will be democratic in any way that resembles the US or any other nation that can reasonably be called democratic? How many years to accomplish this, then?

Maybe that's what those super-bases are for: to ensure that Iraq is democratic. Yes, I imagine that Iraqis will find it edifying to see the American way of life through barbed wire, concrete berms, and soldiers with automatics patrolling the perimeters--to make sure the natives stay out.

What is democracy supposed to be while looking into this mess? I imagine democracy means whatever ensures that the US gets what it wants, whatever ensures its security, makes us all feel warm and fuzzy at home while the horrors vistied on the natives go undocumented, unheard, unseen.

Of course, much of this will sound like pacifist claptrap to those who wallow in visions of ersatz wars against the armies of darkness. But even a soldier's soldier, or at least a soldier's academic, agrees. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld (whose books are required reading at West Point) recently wrote in his article, "Costly Withdrawal Is the Price To Be Paid for a Foolish War," that this war is the worst military blunder in over 2,000 years.
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Out of the Bubble and Into the ... Euphrates?

Isn't it nice that Iraq is a sovereign, free nation--now...?

Helena Cobban notes:

AP's Terence Hunt writes that Bush's ostensible "host" there in the Baghdad Green Zone, PM Nuri al-Maliki, was given all of five minutes warning about the "guest" who, unbeknownst to him, had already flown into his country and was now anxious to meet him in the Republican Palace.

So much for Iraq's sovereignty".

I'm glad to see Bush getting out of his bubble and meeting people--in other people's houses! On the other hand, with Bush listening in on what's going on in my bedroom via the NSA, he might as well be living with me too...
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We Can Be Heroes

The following was written many years ago; I offer it as a historical oddity. It's premise is still valid--to my mind--but I'd rework and clarify my definition of the political.

Though nothing
Will keep us together
We could steal time
Just for one day
We can be heroes
For ever and ever
What d'you say

Heroes by David Bowie

Jonesboro, Arkansas. Littleton, Colorado. The pictures of young men strolling school hallways coldly and brutally shooting classmates like targets in a video game makes the blood run cold. The senselessness make the crimes so much more alien. These weren't kids who grew up surrounded by violence and despair--at least the kind we normally associate with killers, people say, as though children who do grow up in such surroundings are somehow allowed to be able to kill.

But the crimes in Colorado, Oregon, Arkansas, Pennsylvania differ from kids killing other kids over drugs, and spring from different causes. These are even more disturbing to contemplate than so-called gang violence, although it seems horrendously callus to think of children killing children as having gradations of terror. The disturbing factor in the school-yard killings is what I will call the political dimension of the crimes. This is a controversial position I hope to maintain in the following paragraphs, as well as the circumstances and repercussions of such a view, if true.

Confession of a Coulda Been Terrorist

I admit that I do not find incomprehensible the actions of the children committing the school yard slayings. I've felt similar anger. I fed on similar scenes of carnage in my adolescence. To say this does not mean I condone what they did--never. But it does mean that I have been in a psychological place and similar circumstances where that kind of violence was a possibility for me. To confess this means I can understand it.

I grew up in a town just north of the Mason-Dixon line surrounded by factories and farmland. I helped my grandparents bring in the hay, wheat and corn every summer. My father worked in an aluminum factory while my mother worked full-time as a hospital admissions clerk.

I spent my pubescence in the throes of the civil rights marches and the anti-Vietnam War protests. For several years, my favorite films were A Clockwork Orange and If. A Clockwork Orange has a perennial aura about it. Its stylized violence and vision of the future, spans generations. My teenage son loves A Clockwork Orange.

I don't think my son's seen IF, less known than Kubrick's classic. In the context of school yard killings, it is a prophetic film. Amazingly so.

IF director Lindsay Anderson's vision of two working class boys living a series of meaningless, desolate acts in an upper class boarding school, echoes the existential nihilism of Sartre and Camus. The emptiness and grainness of the film echo the lack of values that many felt in those days. This is an aspect of the glorious years of the 60s and early 70s that the image of flower power, free love, and peaceful idealism gloss over. There were also those who were drawn down darker paths where emptiness and despair lived.

Anderson's film carries on the British literary tradition of angry young working class males striking out at a society they found empty with hypocritical optimism and the decline of British influence around the world, as reflected in plays and films like Look Back in Anger. Yet, IF is noteworthy for its almost stultifying lack of eloquence. One could watch Richard Burton declaim eloquently John Osborne's words and feel moral outrage and perhaps even sympathy. Yet, Anderson's heroes have no fine moments or climactic scenes raw with emotional power. Emptiness builds on emptiness until the final brutal and bloody scenes, where the two boys lure their schoolmates' parents at graduation ceremonies into a courtyard below and mow them down with machine guns from the rooftops.

My fascination with IF was just that--mesmerized infatuation with the notion of committing a single act that would be unfathomable and seemingly incomprehensible. It would mean nothing except the raw sense of emotion that I felt during that moment of power and liberation. My freedom in that instant would stand as a testament to its power--power beyond words and beyond understanding. The ultimate power, of course, is when we hold the key to a meaning that we believe others cannot reach.

Where's the violence in all this? Well ten years of drug and alcohol abuse, black outs, aimless wandering from job to job, long periods of complete anti-social alienation and seclusion. All this time wracked by sadistic imagery and violent feelings, mainly taken out on myself, but always there below the surface. These experiences make me keenly aware of what these young men must've felt and thought when they entered those schools, ready to kill and be killed.

Beyond Words

President Clinton's words after Jonesboro present a telling testament to today's political discourse. "We don't know now and we may never fully understand what could have driven two youths to deliberately shoot into a crowd of their classmates." The President's words intone a theodicy that only a man whose religion is politics could say. I don't say that disparagingly. I refer to a possible way of understanding religion and politics in the modern world--much as the German philosopher Hegel did.

For the President, the youth of the criminals, as well as the nature of the crimes, questions very deeply held beliefs about human nature and the boundaries that define social cohesion.

These crimes are unthinkable for children. The planning, the premeditation, the predation, all point to a threshold of unthinkability surpassing the cognitive skills or even the moral resources that children are normally expected or understood to possess. Children should not be able to formulate actions that transgress these thresholds. That they could and did formulate these actions is incomprehensible, non-thinkable.

In the President's words, supernatural boundaries are transgressed; boundaries that define a properly functioning and moral society. The president's words are the shadow of a great anxiety. To break the sacred bonds that hold society together threatens to throw us into an abyss of fear and anarchy. His words try to fill in the abyss by ruling out comprehending the boys' actions. That is, by saying the actions are somehow of a supernatural order, we cannot ever hope to lay hold of the reasoning behind their acts, since there was no reasoning.

An important notion in modern America is the idea of a child's natural-born innocence. This innocence, in normal circumstances, should protect them from the possibility of murder. William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, depicts human nature in a different light. In Golding's novel, left to their own devices children can and will perform greatly savage acts. Golding's book is perhaps as shocking a revelation to commonly accepted notions about children as was Freud's discovery that children are sexual beings. The socially constructed nature of innocence throws us back onto the seemingly terrible vision of having no basis in reality on which to formulate a positive, irrevocably and eternally transparent, basis for moral behavior.

The problem with Golding's depiction and Freud's, however, is that they appear to say that these are permanent features of human nature. But is there such a thing as human nature? Or do we perform certain acts given certain social, political, economic circumstances? What we should realize is that human nature is not solidified, and while in some circumstances children might act like the ones in Lord of the Flies, in other situations they will act differently. As the poet William Blake was keenly aware of, innocence is often a function of social injustice and status quo.

Political Nihilism

Several months after the rampage at Jonesboro, a strange web site appeared on the Internet. Filled with discussion of cannibalism, serial murders, and anarchist diatribes, the site valorized the perpetrators of the school yard killings as revolutionaries.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss this web site as an expression of simple aberrance. The youthful creators of this web site, however misguided, saw the acts at Jonesboro as politically revolutionary. Why or how could someone look at life this way? Is it the confusion of unbalanced young minds, the joking of demented pranksters?

Political acts often involve groups of individuals exhibiting organized behavior to reach recognizable goals. Terrorism is a political act if it has a political goal such as overthrowing a government. The problem with Jonesboro and Littleton is that there is no identifiable goal. This lack of a clearly defined goal comprises what I call the nihilistic or randomness and emptiness of the actions.

Nihilism as political expression acts in direct opposition to political categories simply by opposing no counter-claims of any kind. Often, the nihilist terrorist makes completely absurd statements. It is the seemingly irrational nature that is the essence of nihilism. The violence ann the irrationality testify to the validity of the action. The violent act itself--in whatever form--is a statement of political belief. Indeed, as Albert Camus showed in The Rebel, the ultimate nihilistic act is to commit an act with no goal and no reason--a defiant bloodstained hand thrown in the teeth of what the rebel perceives as an ultimately unjust existence. Nihilistic opposition to the state is an opposition to the injustice of existence as a whole.

Some of this can be seen in the utter inability of the young men at Jonesboro to defend their actions or even to begin to describe how or why they acted the way they did. The most detailed account of the inner workings of their minds was provided by Klebold at Littleton. His rambling pages espouse everything from contradictory hatreds to some form of personal superiority to other human beings, somewhat akin to Nazi eugenics theories. The nagging question that rises from these pages, however, is still Why?

Postnational Identity

I think there's much to Camus' interpretation of political nihilism. Yet, the cultural milieus of the American teenagers and what they did before they committed these acts shows some commonalties that bring into focus sociological factors that Camus does not discuss. These factors provide the possibility of better understanding these acts on a critical and existential plane.

The key similarity is that the perpetrators of these crimes grew up in communities undergoing a clash between modern technological values and older, more traditional communities. The Littleton teenagers lived in a traditionally agrarian and ranching community that had recently become the suburban homes for Denver. The older boy at Jonesboro had lived in the city for most of his life and had moved to the more traditional community. Classmates reported him as idolizing inner city gang behavior.

The term culture war is not new in American political jargon. Beyond the cant of this term, this clash is best characterized as the clash between Christian-based value system and the more fluid, less clearly defined values of modern technological society. While the former stresses stability and rootedness, the latter recognizes fast-paced change and innovation. Instead of views and opinions passed down from generation to generation, you have every value scrutinized and tested under a microscope.

The clash can be seen in the way women's roles have changed and how this change is greeted in rural America. Traditional America sees women who seek non-traditional life-styles as either transgressing sacredly ordained roles, or seeking special rights that give them a unique social or economic status or political advantage. The animosity directed at women in such enclaves of our society can be strong, bitter, and hidden.

The issue of guns is another example of the conflict between different ways of viewing what is the right way to live one's life. In rural communities guns are seen as a rite of passage. To take away a gun is in a way to take a person's identity from them. For urban dwellers, however, there are no such rites of passage. Guns are simply a symbol of violence used in murders and other crimes.

These examples point up the notion that a vacuum exists in American culture. Children exposed to this vacuum, I am arguing, find it difficult to develop a sense of self that sustains them and provides a solid base upon which to develop a strong sense of who they are. Many children are able to make the transition through this vacuum. Yet, others do not. Those who do not fit in or are marginalized in the way that the Littleton teenagers were or even the older Jonesboro boy show how explosive living in that vacuum can be.

This type of reaction is not new. The reaction against Americanism in Islamic countries exhibits is just as violent. And the religious fundamentalist response is also important to see. What we are seeing in America is a reflection of this type of fundamentalism, but with a characteristically American twist. It has many guises--from the self-styled super-men at Littleton to the wannabe gangsta at Jonesboro. We see a form of life emerging that attempts to create self-awareness from a cultural context lacking stable values while seeking some form of coherence and meaning.

In Postnational Identity, Martin Matustik analyzes the political, cultural and psychological underpinnings of modern-day ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. For Matustik, communism was an ideological system that tried to answer all existential and socio-political questions. Its failure caused immense despair individually, since the beliefs and socio-political structures that developed around the ideology were stripped away and people were left little meaning upon which to base their actions.

Seeking a valid meaning in the face of this ideological collapse, countries and individuals moved away from systems that promised universal solutions, supposedly based on certain scientific principles and facts. Nationalistic and racial mythologies took their place. Personal identity became identified with group identity. But what is someone to do? People need a meaning their acts. For many, the collapse of communism proves how the search for certainty and absolute truths in politics cannot be based on science. Instead, they must be found in a set of values that play on differences between peoples. What sets apart is certain, and what is the same as I--culturally, physically, politically--has a psychological appeal.

Matustik proposes that we develop what he calls "open identities." People exhibiting this form of individuality would not accept any social or political institution as final and absolute, realizing, however, the need for socially responsible action. This type of individual would always remain open to the possibility that any previously accepted values are open to critique and change. On the social level this means multiculturalism and democratic socialism.

On the personal identity level, it means non-dogmatic, existentialist attitudes that confront life as a continuing and open possibility for change and redefinition. Such attitudes would enable individuals to accept difference in others, while maintaining a sense of self that did not disintegrate in the face of challenges to accepted norms from various cultural, scientific, and interpersonal encounters. The emphasis is on continued ethical responsibility to the Other--"naked openness of the face to the nakedness of the other."

For Matustik, the political and individual aspects are imperative. One must live an open society that is willing to challenge previous beliefs based on new evidence and democratic debate. But to stabilize this social form, one must have individuals who withstand an ever-changing challenge to personal self-perception. For Matustik, this means accepting the existentialist notion that identity has no pre-given basis in objectivity, but is a continuous exercise of will in the face of ever-new possibilities for meaning and self-awareness.

On the Brink

America has seen the advent of modern nihilistic terrorism not only in its schools. Self-styled militias and white supremacists, acting alone, have committed terrible acts to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling powers. The narrative that underlies the motivation for these acts presents an image of identity that stresses sameness and group solidarity. The political nihilistic response is even less well defined, taking its imagery and motivation from urban culture to video games to so-called goth life-styles to Nazi romanticism.

What these phenomena share is their response to a cultural schism in America wherein traditional values are undermined by rational debate and technological regimentation. The human animal seeks meaning in the face of the failure of traditional values. When these are not found, the potential violence is great. We must foster institutions and personal life-styles that remain open to change and difference among individuals. Without this, we will see continued violence and the eventual destruction of democratic values by fascist/nihilist factions.
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