Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On What's Normal in America

I'm going to try something I didn't think of at first. Instead of putting together a sort of article-post based on what I've read, I'm going to comment on an article just as the thoughts come to me.

Bruce Jackson has a meaty piece at Counterpunch entitled "Normalizing Torture" (http://www.counterpunch.com/jackson10302006.html). I'm not going to do a 'review' of it, but I'm noting what occurs to me as I read it. Chris Floyd has an interesting piece on current Southern manifestations at www.truthout.org/docs_2006/103106J.shtml.

A) I am reminded that the American South has a history of torture that extends into very recent times. I'm not trying to deploy obliquely the now-classic Lefty accusations of Southrons being 'racist', 'homophobic', 'xenophobic', 'heterosexist' and/or fill-in-the-blank. There's something much deeper here, and it's something we as a society have forgotten over the past couple-three decades: the citizenry of the southern parts of this country are deeply involved with violence. (And yes, I am thereby insisting that southerners are American citizens, that they are part of American society, and that they are not to be 'written off' in the service of this or that Advocacy's scripting needs for an 'other', an 'enemy' or an example of how not-to-be American, mature, enlightened, or fill-in-the-blank) . The South as a region is even more familiar with violence than the movie-shaped Wild West or the old frontier West as it actually was.

I'm guessing this has something to do with the fact that the South was always an organized society whereas the old West was devoid of (non-native) society. So each of the West's various temporal phases saw its (native) 'enemies' dealt with in that particular area and then the 'problem' (or what was left of it) moved further west, leaving the settlers of that particular area to settle down to build a society. But in the South the 'enemy', the 'other' - slaves, former slaves, descendants of slaves - have shared the same space with a highly organized society throughout the region's entire history. By 1700 western New England no longer had 'an Indian problem', by 1830 Ohio didn't, and so forth. But the South had its 'problem' from the get-go and the 'problem' never moved on or otherwise went away. And further, all of the resources of its society - church, law enforcement, judiciary, intellectuals, education, authors, the media of the era - have been involved in dealing with the 'problem'. It was from the era before the Civil War that 'literal' reading of the Bible found its home in the South, since there are passages where slavery is either ordered, allowed, or mentioned in an attitude of acceptance as if it weren't ultimately significant.

And it was viewed as a life-and-death problem, a dire threat both to Southern identity and to the physical safety of the (white) Southerners. In a situation like that - constant 'emergency' from a clearly and easily identified 'other' who cohabits the very same geogrpahic space as your own 'kind' - it's not surprising that the firewalls of human decency were first melted out of shape so that they woudn't inhibit what was seen as purely defensive violence, and then the same walls were utterly recast to make such violence necessary, honorable, and even redemptive. But violence is Violence, and Violence is in its essence a repulsive and ugly thing. And the fabric of Life recoils from it in time, much as tectonic plates finally release the stress of their loading through the violent release effected by an earthquake.

We forget two things in modern America: 1) the repulsiveness and corrosive recoil of violence, and 2) the fact that the American South is well-acquainted with violence, used to it in the very deepest elements of its societal being.

And that the police violence so long practiced in the South - so vividly captured in the footage of the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and early 1960s - was precisely that: police violence, official violence, violence as policy, government violence against its own citizens. And it reinforces the strong impression that when a government decides that it is threatened, then there will be no holds barred unless Law and Justice are strongly reinforced. The Federal government - at long last - provided just such a reinforcement to Law and Justice in the South forty-odd years ago. But as the Romans shrewdly asked: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" - who can guard against the guards themselves? This is a question we must ask ourselves today, when the 'guards' of the civil-rights era have now turned against the citizenry.

And granted that Southrons have taken up numerous positions in the goverment and in the military, we have to give serious consideration as to how that fact connects to all that has been going on around here in the past few years. (While keeping a weather eye on that other major strain supporting the current Administration - the neocon strain - which has effectively imported into this country the combative, squabbly, techy 'imperialisms' of 19th-century Central Europe. Such pretensions, translated from the small countries and Rube-Goldberg dynastic entities of that time and place, to be splashed violently across the entire planet under the aegis of the modern American military, cannot bear fruit that will nourish a future.) There is an awful lot of Southron influence in government and in the military, and while that fact of itself does not constitute proof of anything, it generates the grounds for a lot of legitimate thinking.

B) Police torture as a peculiarly Southron phenomenon is reinforced by the romanticizing of the military life, another Southron characteristic that was dimmed only for a moment by the brutal reality of combat that was the Civil War, after which it returned, in hazy golden-hued glory, nourished incomprehensibly - and in a human sense almost traitorously - by the very Confederate veterans who had survived their sustained encounter with Ares Ferox.

The romanticization of the military, initially a Southron characteristic, has taken root in other regions of the country. While the frontier wars against the various tribes and the Spanish American and Philippine gambits provided employment and some excitement, World Wars One and Two provided glorious Causes. And they were won. Many veterans of subsequent wars (I exclude the most recent Gulf War and the current operations that have become for this county our 'Eastern front'), serving in that era of unending low-grade national emergency called the Cold War have become so enamored of the military life (now safely behind them) that they insist on referring to the President as "my" or "our" commander-in-chief, as if the title and rank of Citizen - one of those for whom the President is an employee - meant nothing for them compared to the rank of ex-soldier. The country has come a long long way. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was more right than he might have let on when he observed (long after his own very active combat in the Civil War) that for him and his comrades "in youth our lives were touched by fire" and that the glow of that fire still warmed and illuminated their days. But a nation faced with such huge challenges as ours today - not at all resolved by the last half-decade's worth of adventures - is not well served by large numbers of erstwhile adults whose emotional focus is to look backwards nostalgically at an ever-receding glow of experiences that took place in an era which will never be repeated. And then to deploy such gravitas as is theirs to command in the service of forcing a repetition of those days and those experiences on a country and a future that has problems enough of its own.

Police departments now draw many of their members from the military ranks. This is not surprising: the need to operate efficiently as a member of a hierarchical team in the face of extraordinary danger is precisely what the military and the police missions have in common. But there are great dangers, because much of what is acceptable for troops operating against an enemy in the field in wartime is not acceptable for police officers operating in civil society among citizens on a day-to-day basis. Nor has the figurative declaration of 'war' on drugs, crime, and assorted subsets of criminal conferred more benefits than disadvantages. It is the very essence of 'war' to untether troops from the day-to-day, from the 'usual', from the 'normal', so that their energies might be 'stoked' for the extraordinary exertions that will be demanded of them. Nor is that extraordinariness simply 'heroic'; the forces of darkness as well as the forces of light are unleashed by war - within the troops as well as all around them. We once had, after a lesson paid for by oceans of blood, a set of Conventions governing governments and troops in their conduct of war - but those Conventions have been thrown aside now with as arrogant and ebullient an insouciance as another generation's hippies threw aside their clothes at a forest rock concert. Nor is the constantly bleated mantra of 'professionalism' sufficient to channel the awe-full power of Ares Ferox. It is never enough to be a dedicated professional; one must always ask: dedicated to what? The Waffen-SS were some of the most professionally competent and dedicated troops the world has yet seen, but dedicated to what?

Probably the most overt example of what's been going on is a comment made on a popular TV show by the star character police lieutenant to one of his subordinates: commenting on the possibility of a cop taking drugs he acidly asserted that "we are the moral governors" of the city and thus have to live in perfect conformity to the law. Now this comment doesn't work on sooo many levels. In the first place, any streetsmart Catholic could tell you that nobody - absolutely nobody - has a prayer of ever living perfectly within the law morally or - most likely - legally either. It's just not what humans do. And to imagine that any human can live a perfect life is both inaccurate and itself evidence of huge pride - and the asserter goeth toward a fall. But such an assertion - utterly avoided by the Catholics who have two millennia of experience with moral weakness, their own and others' - is indeed part of certain low-church Protestant fantasies that one can and must be pefect (that literalist reading again). A goal such as this in the context of one's religious strivings is going to yield trouble enough; for the police to hold citizens to that moral standard is profoundly not in the American tradition.. I'm not sure that even the German police ever expected that of good Germans.

And in the second place, any police department that considers its members the 'moral governors' of the citizenry is laboring under some serious misgivings about its mission and its authority and its role in a free society. And that can only lead to bad things. Yes, some Protestant preachers considers themselves so deputized by God that they may direct the lives of their followers, and some of them or certain assorted New Age whackjobs have actually set up communes where they insist on running the lives of their adherents and followers. But citizens are not the adherents or the followers of their police departments, and no earthly power can so Deputize. Citizens are the employers of their government, not its followers. And while it is true that especially since World War 2 far too many Americans have approached their government with the kind of eager reverence recently displayed by his adherents for the Bhagwan, we will not keep the Republic afloat with such a passive and dependent approach to our responsibilities.

C) And now, in our day, in the past half-decade, the people themselves, us, the citizens, the People to whom Lincoln referred so respectfully and earnestly, are allowing ourselves to tolerate what in other era we would have protested and even repudiated: 'So long as the bad guy is gotten, who cares if non-bad guys are gotten in the process? It's kinda sad, but we got the bad-guy and that's really what it's all about.' We've been rooting against sex-offenders for too long and it's started to affect our judgment: dozens of thousands - perhaps half a million - of Iraq's citizens are dead (many of them children). Did we think the vast firepower being deployed over there was being deployed in a desert empty of civilians? Do we think Iraq is simply the North Africa campaign against Rommel, only with different uniforms and better tanks? And unlike sex-offenders, where one down removes him from the street, one resistance fighter down over there simply creates two or three more, and a dead woman or child creates a dozen more. There's a payback for letting ourselves think that anything we do here is so Good that it doesn't need to be Examined (in the sense Socrates meant it): we wind up letting things happen elsewhere that those elsehwere-people won't sit still for. Our in-a-Good-Cause hubris has created its own Nemesis; an earlier age might have said that we've placed ourselves downrange of the gods.

D) Dershowitz's comments demonstrate how degraded and weakened our ability to think has really become. If you were going to save a child ... he proposes. The trip-wire of the Endangered Child. In the past thirty years, how many times has that bell been rung in the night? Can we recall the late 1970s, when we were told in no uncertain terms that hundreds of thousands of abused children were on the streets and highways of the nation each day? Can we recall in the early 1980s when it was insisted that the nation's day-care centers were facilitating, even perpetrating, the sexual violation of children by numerous adults in animal and even dragon costumes? Can we recall that in the 1990s we acquiesced in the passage of laws that began chipping away at such key aspects of Western Justice as statutes of limitation and rules of evidence? That since then citizens have been locked away merely on the basis of what the goverment thinks they might do in the future?

Did our present predicament spring full-grown from the shock of 9-11? No, many of the ideas and emotions that have been used in the building of our present predicament were already in place, in our minds. And not only in our minds, because we had allowed such things to be introduced into our society, into our social reality. And all ostensibly to protect children. How many times has it been heard: Even if just one was protected, wasn't that worth the price? And: Laws are only words; what are words and abstract ideas when measured against the well-being of a child? And: Can words and abstractions be allowed to slow down the response to the emergency of helping a single child? But words are what the Constitution is made of, words and the concepts in capital-letters behind them. Emergency-ism and Just-one-ism have become the primary elements of public discourse, and this has happened only in the past few decades. It hasn't helped us as citizens to think things through.

And when applied not to other of our fellow citizens (over whom our goverment has a monopoly of power) but rather deployed against citizens not our own, those folks tend to reject it with as much violence as we try to impose it. And more. And successfully. 'If Saddam is an emergency then we can't waste time talking or we'll risk the mushroom cloud. If only one WMD were found, then it would all be worth it. What are the Geneva Conventions but words and abstractions? We've got Sadaam to get rid of and people to save. It's all so urgent that we can't waste time thinking about any of it.' Well, it's been an emergency of one sort or another since 1946: the Cold War, then the long roll of emergencies of the Identities, and now the ever-deepening emergency of 9-11 and of Iraq. Emergencies require even more thinking, performed even more quickly and even more accurately, not less. Is that more than we signed up for? The Republic is stake. And the lives of god-knows how many adults and children within reach of our weapons systems.

'If the Cause is Good, if your intention is Good, then you can't let 'words' and 'concepts' stand in your way. Real men don't even let gunfire and armed opposition stand in their way; they sure as shootin' won't let 'words' and 'abstractions' stand in their way.' Interestingly, though, for quite a while the attack on 'words' and 'abstractions' has come not from the macho men, but from the concerned women (I'm drawing with broad strokes here: Let's call them Guyists and Womenists). For ten or fifteen years at least it has been from the Womenists that the attack on established principles of law have come; for at least that long, and against a variety of Outrages and in the service of an assortment of 'emergencies' the complaint has been that established principles and practices of law have slowed down the righteous response to the emergency. In the beginning it was in order to get funding for this or that; then it became a matter of getting certain types of people convicted through the deployment of the awe-full power of criminal law against them.

Americans have long been familar with the danger to established Civilized Order posed by the gunslinger macho Guy; what we haven't been so alert to is the even more fundamental danger posed to American and Western civilization by the Womenists. The Guy shot up the town and busted a lot of glass and maybe a coupla heads; and yes in real life killed some folks who should have been able to live out their lives in peace. But the Womenists - or some of their Advocates - have literally deconstructed the foundations of the damned Civilization. Habeas corpus is gone; the Posse Comitatus protecton is gone, the Geneva Conventions are gone; torture is in only you just can't call it that. Could all of this have happened in the past month if the bunch in Washington hadn't seen us sit still for years as rules of evidence, statutes of limitations, prosecution for acts and not for tendencies ... as all of those watertight bulkheads were vigorously punctured?

E) All done to 'protect' us. Because we're victims, weak and befuddled and we need to be protected. But we are The People. We are mentioned very prominently in the foundational documents of our Republic and we owe it to ourselves and - yes - our children and - Lincoln noted - the rest of humankind to stand up for ourselves. Which we haven't been doing very much of recently, except to nod in polite tolerance as the hull of our ship was dismantled under us, and we at sea tossed on the ocean of Time and History and a storm raging. HEY. You want to be very careful when you start playing with the hull-planks on your ship at sea. Because even if you remove one in a good Cause, you're gonna let in a lot of water, and the water won't care. Are there some filthy compartments that could use a good scrub? Fine, but don't pull out the hull-planks in that compartment just to get some water without having to carry it down in a bucket.

The government wants our freedom so that it can protect us better, because that is its eternal duty: to protect us. That deal, in almost those very same words, was offered to the German people 73 years ago and they took it. Old Central European issues keep coming over here to afflict us. And they are succeeding. We need to do something about that.

F) Governments are much like people: if there' s no prospect of immedate payoff, they're not going to go to the effort. So when the government starts worrying about war-crimes laws, the very nature of the beast makes you have to think that the goverment sees a problem coming. Robert MacNamara was right; not just about the firebombing as a technique, but because the context of the firebombing was that the Japanese goverment was trying to surrender. But we had these great bombs we'd just gone and built. And maybe we also knew something else: that what the Japanese really feared wasn't the Marines; it was the Red Army. Ivan came through Manchuria like a scimitar through yak butter and the ferocious implacability of Ivan when he was on a tear was enough to give the Japanese nightmares. The Japanese! The authors of the Rape of Nanking, so vicious that they upset even the German ambassador. The Japanese scared the Nazis, for heck's sake. The Marines' garden variety bestialness - the boiled Japanese skulls as ashtrays, or sent home to hold the Valentine candy - didn't bother the Japanese; Soviet industrial-scale massacre did. If Stalin could kill 20 million of his own people between breakfast and tiffin', what was going to prevent him from doing to Japan what the West's God was said to have done to Egypt? The Japanese were more afraid of Stalin than they were of us; that would have to be changed while we still had the war as a cover for making people do things at the point of a gun. Kaboom. Ditto Kaboom. We were back on top again. It was a good war.

We watched those World War 2 movies as kids; I always wondered: how did the German people let it happen? Didnt' they keep an eye on their government? No, the good German didn't keep an eye on his goverment; he obeyed it like a good German. Very un-American. Except for the past sixty years - since World War 2 it seems like Americans have lost the Founding generation's general suspicion of any goverment, and the early Republic's genial but unsleeping distrust even of its own. We maybe need to get some of it back, the distrust and the government. The government is ours. And if we break it, or let some of our employees break it, we pay for it. And if we let those employees take our government out for a joyride or use it in the commission of a raid, then we'll be held responsible for that too. Sooner or later. Sure as shootin'.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Where do the Democrats go from here? How can it be that at a time when public disapproval of the Republican agenda and its performance over the past six years is waxing hot, when it's even possible that a public revulsion is developing, a growing public fear of what is happening to the very Constitutional structure of this Republic, this nation of ours ... how can it be that the Democrats can't stand tall?

I think the answer has to be approached by looking at where the Democrats have been. Some large and necessary chunk of the answer lies in the past, their past and our past. The past forty years, I'll say. It was over the course of this stretch of time and events that the Democrats lost some fundamental and essential capabilities, and caused us as a citizenry and as members of a society to lose some too. The losses were unintentional, mostly. And they were masked by a relentless PR-type focus on the positive elements of their agenda, to the exclusion not only of any objections but also of any doubts or misgivings as well as of any common discussion of alternatives. The Democrats couldn't muster the patience and the confidence in the citizenry that would have permitted great change to be usefully absorbed.

In fact, I think it can be said that what the Republicans have managed to pull off in the past six years could only have been pulled off because of the the groundwork laid - again, mostly unintentionally - by what the Democrats had pulled off in the previous thirty-five years. And now, in a huge but hardly suprising historical irony, the Democrats find themselves incapable of exercising true leadership even as the Republicans take us - as a nation and a society - to the brink of a dark and chaotic vastness, a new frontier never imagined in 1961, an agressive, feudalized military-industrial corporate semi-police state that combines the most disturbing nightmares of the Founding generation and of the Progressive generation. We are the heirs of those generations, however pampered we have become, however unmindful we have become of the undulating waves of sinfulness and danger that roar through all of human history. It was against those waves that the vessel of the Republic was constructed; it is against those waves that we must still strive to maintain this ship, so that her journey through Time might be brightly continued, and we and all of humankind be raised up thereby. It is our watch. The buck has stopped; Time has not.

What have the Democrats done? Forty years ago, under the robust, craggy leadership of another Texan, the Democratic Party led in the achievement of two magnificent and genuinely American pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So excellent were these two achievements that I borrow from the British usage in referring to them collectively as the Glorious '65, after the year in which the second Act was passed.

And - granted the alarmed reservations of not a few Southrons - we achieved it together, as a people. Truman of Missouri, the former artillery captain, desegregated the Army; Eisenhower of Kansas, the former career soldier, sent Federal troops into the South; Kennedy of Massachusetts, the former PT-boat commander, made engaged and enlightened civility a desirable national trait; Johnson of Texas, the bull-sized coyote and professional politician, steered through or around all of the damned torpedoes and brought the ship of state into a harbor as momentous as MISSOURI's anchoring in Tokyo Bay 20 years before. Nor can anyone forget or gainsay King, who wielded the bright stern truths of scriptural Prophetry and Eastern mysticism, and in a sustained clarion call - amplified by a media not unmindful of its responsibility to us, the citizenry - he summoned us as a nation and a people to our dignity and to Truth. And so it was done.

But we are a frail species, for all the zeal of our intentions and the dignity of our ideals. Almost immediately, the Democrats took counsel of their fears. The South had been the bulwark of the Party since the end of the Civil War. Although the cagey but steadfast and mature Lincoln had defeated them, he wanted to reincorporate the Southern states with a minimum of acrimony: "Let'em up easy" was one of his last communications to his victorious generals. But a Southron sympathizer killed Lincoln - 'to send a message' we might say today - and the Radical Republicans who inherited the Federal government's vastly expanded power were fired by a righteous vengeance and a reforming zeal, intolerant of any objections and impatient of any delay. They occupied the South, put it under martial law, and governed by decree at the point of the sword and the bayonet. And they kept on doing that until political necessity required them to remove those troops in order to secure the election of 1876. But by then the damage had been done, and the South is not a place that forgets: it became a bulwark of the Democratic Party for almost the next hundred years. And so, even as he signed the Acts, LBJ observed - not without trepidation - that the Democratic Party had lost the South for the next hundred years. The Democrats in 1966 were torn between two almost tectonic forces: the zeal to ensure that the promise of 1965 was not sidetracked as was the promise of 1865, and the fear of electoral impotence consequent upon the desertion of Southern voters in reaction to the imposition of civil rights in the South.

The zeal drove the reformers to conduct a decisive blitzkrieg so that their initial beach-head, so nobly begun, would not be blunted or choked-off. Impatient of the slow process of discussion and deliberation that is the most local common action of a free society and - worse - mistrustful of it, the Democratic reformers vigorously worked the levers of power to rapidly and efficiently impose their great vision through the dual modes of Executive and Judicial authority.

The media, still feeling the bracing surge of excitement and importance that flows through the blood of those who know they are in the vanguard of great things, embraced the Cause, for it was a good Cause, against which doubt or hesitation or delay could only be considered as a failure of spirit and nerve, a betrayal of the great work. And so being for the Cause was praised in the media, while anything else was dismissed as obstruction or backlash or lumpen-stubborness. In such heady times the careful and time-consuming sifting for Truth among the media and the mature capabilities of democratic discourse among the citizenry were considered inessential: after all, the Cause was so obviously Good that it would be a almost-criminal negligence to waste time and energy entertaining any alternative input.

Worse, hadn't the Southrons used all those old-fashioned things to obstruct the promise of 1865 until they had erected the monstrous reign of Jim Crow? 'Tradition', 'reason', 'the sense of community', 'common sense', 'natural law', patience and deliberation ... hadn't all these things been used as excuses for delay and evasion, until the vengeful but righteous redemption delivered by the blood-bright sword was finally put off for a hundred years? Such abstractions would not remain available to recalcitrant Southrons to bethump the promise of 1965. There was too much at stake: a people had to be free who should have been free a hundred years ago. The Democrats, who had launched this awe-full craft, now found it taken by currents and winds beyond their control. But what could they do?

Because they were afraid, truly afraid: who would rise up to replace all those Southron voters? And if this liberation of a people spread into the North, who then would replace all of those voters? And in the North there was already political unrest as adult Democrats watched hippies and yippies claim to be the true life of the Party. And how to keep citizens from asking too many questions, taking up too much time, delaying a voyage through troubled and uncharted waters that were best navigated quickly. It would do in the emergency to stampede folks, but stampedes have a notoriously short shelf-life and the stampedees tend to take it out on the whip-holders, once the dust settles down. How to keep a good work going and yet remain still viable as a political party? How to win a new voter base without making it look like you've gone and declared war on your old voter base? Or - if that one can't be solved - then how do you get a big enough voter base fast enough to keep you from being overwhelmed by the anger of the previous voter base?

The solution that the Democrats hit upon was to raise up Identities as voter-blocs, and to promote Emotion rather than Reason as the primary motivation in public activity. They didn't pull this out of thin air. There was a school of thought that held that there were no virtues, that there was no such thing as Virtue or a Virtue; instead, a word like that was simply a coded way of expressing the preference of the particular person using the word. Meanwhile, French literary theory was toying portentously with some possibly useful and impressive-sounding stuff. Derrida dismissed what he called the "metaphysics of presence", the need among humans and their societies for certainty. Then he went and dismissed the possibility of certainty altogether: it could never be claimed because it could never be gotten-to because it didn't exist. And in making that assertion he did away with one of the carrying-walls of Western civilization, or of almost any civilization at all. Saussurian thought asserted 'anti-foundationalism' and 'difference': there is no common humanity, no universal human-ness, no abstract Human or Human Nature; there is no universality or abstraction (and there went Truth, Justice, Reason, Love, Freedom, and all those other great capital-letter words). There is only difference, of one group from all the others, of each from all. There is no commonality among humans; there is only difference, inescapable, unchangeable, unbridgeable, unending. Fanon wielded that thought like a sword, asserting that abstractions and capital-letter words are simply tools that oppressor people wield to keep down people whom they oppress, the oppressed.

Powerful stuff, at least in its destructive potential. If there are no capital-letter words or concepts, then what grounds a daily life? What makes it all 'worth it'? These questions have been around as long as humanity, and each of the world's civilizations have come up with an answer relying upon one or several capital-letter concepts; all of them have acknowledged that while daily life is sort of small-letter, there is another aspect of being or another level of being that seems to require a capital-letter. Or a bunch of them. But the Democrats were in trouble and in a hurry. And it was the Sixties.

And then in 1971 a book came out that warned of the passing of America's period of manufacturing pre-eminence; we had succeeded so well in re-building or building up the rest of the world that now they were becoming our rivals in manufacturing. There went the blue-collar voters of the Northeast along with their jobs, another huge chunk of the traditional Democratic bloc gone.

And the liberation of a people, that in the 1950s and early-60s had been a common concern and task of Americans united by the ringing but prayerful words of Martin Luther King, had morphed into something else: an agressive, assertive and demanding presence, fueled by a sense of outrage and grievance and not averse to violence. The great project of liberation upon which the Democratic Party had knowingly risked its existence - calculating that the grateful liberatees would become good citizens and even better voters - had turned, it clearly appeared, into an attack on white society. And on top of that, Nixon was making some shrewd overtures to the liberatees himself, and there was a real possibility that those for whom they had risked all would abandon the Democrats and go Republican if Nixon put in the highest bid. But it was too late for the Democrats to turn back now.

And for the media, as well. They were in for a dime, they were in for a dollar. It became necessary now to allow only the most positive spin to be put on certain topics of public interest; anything other than that might inflame a reaction that could destroy not only the gains of the previous years but even the two-party system itself. "Political Correctness" was born, new to the United States but well -established in the totalitarian societies of Europe and Asia. The mid-60's TV show "Hogan's Heroes" eerily reflected it: the German POW camp commandant or his sergeant would suddenly blurt out an obviously accurate comment (on, say, how the war was going against Germany) and would suddenly stop himself and with a look of horror warn himself out loud "Whaaaaat am I sayyyyying?" What had been going on just twenty years before in the Nazi Reich (which we had defeated) was now starting up here, although in a much better Cause. Truth itself was not the objective; it was the version of 'truth' that the government had put out for today. We laughed at Klink and Schulz ... great uniforms but they really didn't get it, those poor dumb Nazis.

And in that same 1971 another book came out. It proposed that if you opposed change then you would often be hiding your guilty opposition by blaming the victim. And this maneuver - which you may not even know you were performing - would victimize the victim (yup - sentences started to look and sound like this now) all over again, a second time. Suddenly the Democrats found themselves shepherding not only outraged voters, but outraged voters who were victims and wanted their demands met without further ado, because any questioning of the outrage would simply re-victimize the victim and was, anyway, just a cover for an oppressor's guilt. How could the Democrats placate them without running the high risk of being labelled as oppressors themselves? Yet each and all of these Identities had to be placated. Otherwise, who was going to be left to vote Democratic?

And so the Seventies. The great historic American effort to abolish slavery had been a massive and demanding effort, conceptually and morally as well as politically. It had reached a splendid point in 1965, and now less than ten years later it had taken on a life of its own; rather than seeing the national concentration on skin-color retired as a thing of the past, it was suddenly re-introduced as the wave of the future. And expanded widely. Because as each Identity came to be raised up, its birth process followed the same pattern: an Outrage created an Identity, and that Identity had an Emergency created by that Outrage and that Emergency had to be Resolved Immediately and It was so Good and so Urgent that anything short of Total Support and Immediate Gratification would constitute Collaboration with the Perpetrator. No public discussion was needed or desirable or allowed. But what could the Democrats do? Placate them all, as best it could be managed - allowing nothing, absolutely nothing, to interfere with the demands of those who would, it was hoped, bring in votes, if not become good voters.

And the media went along. What other options were there, with the Republicans left to make something out of the disgruntled and agitated Southrons, with their country music, their car racing, and their bumptious preachers. The good Cause had now become the only news in town, and the only Cause, and since there appeared to be no Truth, then who better than the press to say what the 'truth' would be? If 'Truth' was up for grabs, it was best that it be grabbed by the professionals. Who could deny the wisdom in that?

From among the Identities Outraged by Victimization and demanding Immediate and Unquesitoning Redress of their particular Emergency, there then emerged the demand for abortion-rights. And this was to become a watershed in the Democrats' already thorny dilemma. 'Tradition', 'common sense', 'reason', 'natural law', Truth, Justice and all the other major abstractions ... all of these had already been done away with. And it hadn't caused too much outcry among the citizenry: the media were ready to pounce on dissent ('backlash', it would have been called), and most folks didn't use any of these terms in day-to-day life. If a professor from a famous university or a psychiatrist or a celebrity came along and said that something that looked contrary to commonsense really wasn't, well then let it be. But with abortion, you had to start toying around with God, and did the Party really want to start putting that word in quotes? Or start using a small 'g'? The Bible had figured strongly in the civil rights struggles; aside from some Southrons still deploying their literal reading of the Bible to defend slavery and race subjection as they had done a century before, just about everybody felt that the Bible held a dim view of slavery. But in the case of abortion, most folks had the strong impression that the Bible came down forcefully for human life (assorted non-believers excepted in the early Books). There was a religious element here. And Americans - the citizenry - were a strongly religious people.

What could the Party do? Women constituted more than half the population; the men with blue-collar jobs were fading as an identifiable voting bloc, and Nixon was starting to make some impressive overtures to the recently liberated. The only solution would be to quickly placate the demands of women, insofar as these claims could be known from the organizations that claimed to represent them. But where to put God? How to keep Him in the Party without having Him spoil it? The possible conceptual solutions were unattractive, although Jefferson's passing comment about separation of Church and State in a letter provided some amount of historical support, or at least the appearance of it. Eventually, it would become a matter of leaving any talk about God from the public discourse, such as it was, then hope that the folks who didn't want Him in there were placated and the folks who did would simply go home and pray quietly.

I take no position here on any of the initiatives the Party developed to placate its Identities. But I point out that the overall operating plan of precluding public discourse and refusing any capital-letter talk that could stand in judgment over whatever initiative was demanded ... that plan did a huge disservice to the integrity of public discourse and to the ability of the citizenry to engage in sustained public discourse. This was a more or less unintentional consequence, but it is a real consequence nonetheless. And it affects us to this day. And its poisonous fruits were hanging low when the Republicans got rolling.

The Democrats today have been functioning as, and have trained as, placators and not leaders. And it's been going on for forty years or so, such that only a few very very senior Democrats even remember the days when a politician actually exercised leadership (not to be confused, in our democracy, with the militaristic commandership claimed by the current Administration). They have learned to wheel and deal not simply with money and influence (all pols do) but with the very foundational elements of Western civilization, of any civilization. They live in a world of appearances, and many of them can no longer distinguish appearance from reality, and perhaps are not even able to grasp that there is a distinction between the one and the other. (The fact that the Republicans are in the same boat cannot be considered good news to any serious citizen.)

For all practical purposes the Democrats have already disavowed the capital-letter words and the capital-letter realm. They haven't opposed the Iraq occupation as immoral? How could they? The same morality - and the Virtue or God that anchors it - that could stand in judgment over the Iraq invasion might then be used in judgment upon abortion or some other initiative dear to an Identity. No Martin Luther King has risen up against the current American reality? How could one arise? On what rock would he anchor his position? Fluidity has been the overriding principle of the Party for decades. Can it be any wonder that those who came along touting even the appearance of solid rock-ribbed Virtue and Godliness have been raised up by a citizenry too-long force-fed the thin gruel of political tactics and gamesmanship?

Those pretenders may in the coming weeks be cast down, part of the way, at least. But what then? Will the Democrats be able to lead? In the service of a good Cause and through a concentration upon the tactical and the apparent the Democrats have for decades grown away from the capital-letter dimension, the Vertical dimension of human existence. In doing so they have shrunken the vision-world of their Party and they have shrunken our civic world. They have reduced themselves to one-dimenionsal life and they have rendered our civic life monodimensional, a Horizontal world of appearance without angulating substance.

To do us any good at all, they must Go Vertical.

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