Tuesday, November 07, 2006

WHAT’S REALLY REAL?

A bunch of articles in the past couple of days. Lemme riff.

William Rivers Pitt has a sharply observant article about the number of clear non-truths that the current Administration puts out there in front of us (www.truthout.org/docs_2006/110306R.shtml): “You’re Kidding Me, Right?”.

Well and good. We’re seeing a lot more of this type of article now, although mostly in the blog-world. There’s still not much in the mainstream media. The next level is: Why would an Administration even try to troll such swill in front of the citizenry?

I’d have to say that the answer is: because the citizenry has allowed its Citizen-capacities to degenerate to the point where this sort of swill cannot be distinguished from reality. And that suits a certain type of ‘government’ just fine, thank yuh vurrry mutch.

Again, though, it’s been going on for a long time. It’s been noted elsewhere on this site that since the mid-‘60s the Democrats have been caught up in an ever-intensifying spiral of placating Identities. Let’s go a step further: each of those Identities had a cause that was furthered by what we may call an Advocacy.

“Advocacy” is a word from a distinguished family and with a distinguished lineage. We think of Norman Rockwell paintings: a town meeting, this and that citizen standing up to speak his/her piece in favor of this or that. Advocacy as ‘informing’ people; one or several citizens, acting to advocate for or against something, go to the personal trouble of collecting accurate information and putting it before their fellow citizens so that the citizens can think it over and make an informed choice and decide. This is the stuff of real democracy.

But there are other variants of advocacy. One variant merely puts one side of the story forth; the other side’s is left out – ‘that’s not our job’ says this type of ‘advocate’. This variant is not performing a service for the citizenry, for society as a whole. Instead, it is serving its ‘customer’; and not surprisingly, this is a variant that can coexist quite nicely with getting paid for one’s efforts, and that introduces – almost calls for – a team effort of advocates, a firm or company with a mixture of skills and resources. A variant of this variant is that this type of advocate only puts forward the accurate good of his/her own position, and then puts out only the negative of any alternative. And a variant of that variant is that one’s own goods don’t always have to be accurate and the alternative’s negatives don’t always have to be true. Clearly, the purpose is not to provide the citizenry with information so that they can make the best-informed decision they can; the purpose has become to manipulate the citizenry toward approving the advocated position or – more dangerously – its plan of action. Equally clearly, the citizen’s ability to process information and deliberate, within his/her own mind and then among other citizens, is not a priority; in fact, it has become a hindrance to the Advocate’s objective of getting a particular plan approved.

But there’s still another level. When the so-called Advocate (most probably a group, and looking for cash, if not also in business for profit – we’ll call it an Advocacy now) eliminates all of the prior steps – all the gathering of information, checking it for accuracy, and placing it before the citizenry for their careful deliberation – and simply bursts into the middle of the public day, loudly reporting an Outrage that has created an Emergency that demands an Immediate Response That Requires … fill-in-the-blank. No deliberation required: the Emergency is too great, too pressing, too immediate. What is required of the citizenry in this scenario is simply instant-emotion, in the service of whatever the Response demanded by the Advocacy. The citizenry in this scenario is to function as a crowd, to be manipulated by the Advocacy. But always in a Good Cause.

An even more sinister, and recent (within the past twenty years or so) variant is to include in the implied logic of this full-court press the following (grossly faulty, hugely immature) syllogism: if you don’t immediately agree with us, then you must be against us, and worse, you must be f-o-r the Outrage, and so you must be one of the perps yourself. Thus the citizen who might simply want to speak up for the right to inform oneself and to deliberate is cut off at the legs in the very first moments of the stampede.

‘If you’re not for us you’re against us. You’re either with us or against us.’ It’s a ridiculously childish form of thinking, one that no decent parent or educator would permit to go unchallenged. A child who grows into an adult (and a citizen) armed only with such primitive mental equipment is set up for failure. And if a large number of children is allowed to grow up with this type of primitive equipment, then the society that relies on their citizenship capacities is in deep trouble.

The thing gets to be a self-feeding loop. The society allows itself to devolve from the hard-work of thinking maturely, its education system and media and government respond to that devolvement by conducting themselves on increasingly less mature levels, more children start growing up with a degraded civic capacity, and as those numbers increase the society starts a new round of civic devolvement, eventually demonstrating sufficient primitive characteristics that the terms ‘degraded’ and ‘degradation’ may be accurately applied.

Often, as aboard the Titanic that last night, the better sort of folks don’t realize the true extent of the trouble until the champagne flutes start sliding off the tables in the first-class lounge. We as a society are in a modestly better situation: it’s starting to become obvious a little earlier than that. But it’s taken America making an aggressive invasion, waging an aggressive war concurred in by a Congress that – after forty years of the sustained and increasing degradation of civic capacities – can no longer find the solid ground upon which to take a stand, even against what the Nuremberg Commission unmistakably tagged as the greatest of international crimes.

It’s taken a long time for us to reach this point. The politically partisan attempt to ascribe it all to the dark-magic powers of Rove and Cheney and Bush – names that should live in infamy – are self-serving and inaccurate. And as untruths, they can and will lead only to further degradation. And as a society our civic skills are sufficiently low now that we can’t afford to lose any more altitude.

We can’t distinguish Reality from un-Reality any longer. Not easily, and not quickly. A spell cast by the current Dark Lords in our imperial capital? Not cast by them, no. Used by them for their own nefarious purposes, certainly. But the spell was cast decades ago. And it has been getting progressively more intense, thus progressively worse, all along.

We can’t distinguish Truth from un-Reality. We can’t even name it, let alone discuss it. Few have the courage to name dis-allowed realities; many have given up trying to, if they were ever able to do it in the first place. The Advocacies don’t want us to think because our thinking will only interfere with the quick implementation of their demanded agendas; the media have figured that these Emergencies, their Outrage, and the pursuit of the Evil Other adds a marketable spice to the bland humdrum of day-to-day civic life. In fact, one’s personal fears and outrages have now replaced civic life in the media; and among far too many folks personal fears and emotions (one’s own or somebody else’s) have replaced the skills of the Citizen as a desired element of one’s personality (‘character’ having been removed from the discussion almost completely).

This is the recipe, the script of Advokism, which is Advocacy hypermorphed into a corporate enterprise. It is not concerned with Truth or reality, but rather seeks to create Truth and reality (does that have a familiar ring?). On the theory that if enough people come to believe something, than that ‘something’ becomes a social reality. It’s an interesting theory, and its pedigree has been discussed elsewhere on the site. But it’s got a lot of weaknesses, one of them being that if enough people come to believe that water doesn’t freeze below 32 degrees F, it’s not the law of physics that’s going to have to change. Even in the realm of social reality, a group’s consensus – say – that in 1914 Belgium invaded Germany, is not going to result in Time altering itself accordingly. In fact, in an awful lot of Life’s operational areas this assumption that belief-trumps-Reality or that belief-trumps-Truth doesn’t really work at all.

But it’s been eating away at civic capabilities for decades now. In the late ‘70s, it was asserted suddenly and loudly that hundreds of thousands of abused and abandoned children were loose on the highways and byways of the country. Questions arose in one’s mind immediately: Why so suddenly? What suddenly happened that caused this? And where are all these kids? If there are this many of them all of a sudden then we should see at least a couple of them? But those questions weren’t asked, not in public, anyway. Not in the media. Not by the media. Photo posters of some of these children began appearing on the bland sides of milk cartons, turning them into a Post Office wall plunked right in the middle of your own kitchen. Then, somehow, it suddenly went away, the whole thing.

Well, not all of it; milk cartons still have posters. As each of these waves suddenly recedes, it always leaves some damage behind, some weakened civic capability, rendering us less able to deal with the next wave, which – history amply demonstrates – is always sure to come. The dust had hardly settled from the lost-children Emergency before the Day-care Sex Abuse Emergency began, there in the very early ‘80s. And on and on.

But worse, each wave has been getting worse, leaving behind more damage: from wearing down the individual’s citizen’s ability to think and reason things out and process information, to the social and communal ability for deliberation and discourse, all the way up to the passing of laws that dismantle some of the fundamental safeguards of American and Western Justice … and all of this before 9-11, before the election – such as it was – of Bush.

James Poniewozik has a one-page piece on this in the October 16th issue of “Time” (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1543949,00.html). He refers to the ‘culture of child anxiety’, the fear for children. An unintended consequence of one or several Advocacies, it has hypertrophied into a profoundly corrosive civic influence. It wasn’t (I hope) planned that way. It may be recalled that up until 30 years ago or so, a profoundly realist American culture, used to gritting its teeth, rolling up its sleeves, and facing the music, day in and day out, did not value ‘dreaminess’; change took place slowly, by accretion, by deliberation, not by sudden wide overturnings. But the Sixties brought the Boomers, young folks, and youngsters are not known for their patience or their appreciation of complexity. And the Seventies brought a more feminist consciousness, elevating Feeling over Reason, and Demanding Instant Change. But all in a Good Cause: to Right a Historic Wrong and to Make Room.

To jump-start the American culture, you needed a strong set of paddles (CPR, defibrillators, and the heroic shock of emergency trauma-medicine were, curiously enough, the brand new stuff all over the news and even in popular TV shows just then). You needed to shock society’s ‘heart’ somehow, so that it would go from zero to sixty in ever-shorter amounts of time. And anyway, behind roll-up-your-sleeves realism there was a masculine influence, behind realism there was a passive acceptance of what Is as opposed to what Might be or – more urgently – what Ought to be or – more ominously – what Must be. Politics was not for deliberation; that was as old as Eisenhower (although by this time even Kennedy and his New Frontier would have been left in the dust by the press of loudly declared Emergencies and Outrages). Politics was simply the job of mobilizing ‘people’ so that their ‘outrage’ would blast a path through the stolid, stupid rock of convention and macho posturing.

Emotions and stories that stoked outrage were the quick-burning fuel for the purpose; toss in some academic theory later just for show. Blast a path through people’s minds’; ‘blow’ their minds. Let the sunshine in. Of course, on the vessel of the Republic, with those thin hull-planks being the only thing between society and a hell of a lot of water, you want to be verrrry careful with explosives and quick-burning fuels. But the new ‘politics’ was as realistic as Lenin: the personal is the political, and the political is All. There is nothing Higher, and there is not even anything Else worthwhile.

‘Children’ became a hugely useful ‘shocker’. Whereas doubt and skepticism might be mounted against a new ‘idea’ or even a new ‘demand’, no such delay could be mounted in the face of an Endangered Child, or thousands or millions of them. (The article has yet to be written on the coincidence that concern for their endangerment came at exactly the same time that abortion, single-parent families, and parents working two jobs, and latch-key kids were becoming widespread.) Coupled with the increasing deployment of primitive thinking (if you’re not with us you’re against us; if you disagree with us then you must be one of ‘them’ and you must support ‘that’) in the public sphere, unchallenged by an increasingly sensationalistic media, fig-leafed by ‘theories’ and ‘studies’ whose assertions and numbers were immune from scrutiny or validation, Outrage followed Outrage, and by the early 1990s the battle was not only in the realm of social practices but in the realm of criminal law, where substantive and fundamental changes were demanded immediately. Changes that reversed centuries of the jurisprudence that had provided the protective carrying-walls of Western civilization and of democracy. And all in the name of eliminating violence against women and then in the name of eliminating the suddenly-discovered ‘sex offender’, both ostensibly Good Causes, or at least very desirable goals. But however unintended some of the consequences were, we are faced with them now, and they are bearing a terrible fruit.

And so the corrosion of civic capabilities moved to the next level: the corrosion of criminal law and practice (all in the Good Cause of meeting the Emergency). And with this expansion the unintended consequences began to dismantle the structural safeguards built into the Republic in the form of rules of evidence, statutes of limitation, and habeas corpus. But there was an Emergency. And if the statute of limitations interfered with meeting that emergency, if the rules of evidence did, if privacy did, if habeas did – well, then, those things had to go. It was all very cutting edge, all very vigorous, all very Good. And when it was said and done, great great violence had been done to the carrying-walls, to the hull planks of the vessel of the Republic.

And all of this was accomplished before 9-11. And rather than accept the conventional line that almost all of the strange changes being made to American civic and Constitutional life are the result of the 9-11 attack that ‘changed everything’, we have to accept the real fact that almost all of the change was in place before 9-11. Even the most recent rumblings about ‘preventive prosecutions’, prosecuting people for what they haven’t done yet, what they might not do … the precedent for it is already well-established, having been introduced almost a decade ago as part of the sex-offender craze. And again, the justification is that what might be done is too terrible to allow to be done. This approach is not new. It is precisely one of the pillars of the political tyranny that was repudiated by the evolving democratic sensibility in Europe and which led up to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Truth is a tricky thing. That doesn’t mean that The People cannot be trusted with it. It’s tricky because it’s complicated. It’s complicated because there are layers and dimensions to Reality, just like there are layers to – say – the modern battlespace. Think of a warship in the age of sail: in terms of enemy threat, the ship at sea only had to worry about enemy vessels within two to fifteen miles away. That was as far as the cannon of the day could shoot and the ships of the day could ‘see’. The tactical problem was two-dimensional and limited pretty much to the range of the unaided human sensorium. Now think of a warship today: the ship faces possible enemy action from below the surface and above the surface, as well as on the surface. And from above it might be a matter of air or space platforms. And if air platforms it might be as slow as a jet plane or as fast as a missile or rocket. And they might be launched from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It’s a multi-dimensional battlespace involving distances and speeds and possible attack-platforms far beyond the ability of the unaided human eye or brain to comprehend. You have to do some serious homework to handle yourself in a ‘world’ like that.

Now take Truth. What is it? It may simply mean Whatever-You-Think. If not, then it’s Outside of you. But is it What Really Happened? Who knows for sure? Who can know for sure? If something is called ‘true’, does that simply mean that everybody (and who is this ‘everybody’?) agrees that it is true, or does it mean that it corresponds to or participates in some quality called ‘True’ that exists ‘out there’, Outside of us humans? And this ‘Outside’ of us: is it just outside us as individuals and as a group? Or is it also Beyond us, in some Higher dimension – if this is true, then there’s a Vertical dimension to our Life-space like there is a Vertical dimension to the modern battlespace. *

These are tough questions. A Citizen, being like the captain of a warship, has to have some answers, and they’d better be at least sorta in the ballpark or bad things are going to happen out there in the battlespace, in the Life-space, in the public space.

And nowadays, as Bill Moyers hints in the recent article “America 101” (www.truthout.org/docs_2006/110306J.shtml), the education system does not prepare students for any of this. In fact, if anything, education today unprepares students for the challenges of Truth and thus effectively disables them from developing the capabilities of a Citizen. Telling a kid that things are Simple and All-You-Need-To-Do-Is listen to the folks who are trying to sell you the Right Thing (a Cause or a CD or a car) or Get In Touch With Your Feelings … this isn’t a terrible assault on the Republic? On America? This isn’t endangering a child? Abusing a child?

But how many of the mover&shaker elements in America really want us to be Citizens? To be The People? The Democratic elites want us to function as extras in the ongoing soap-opera of the Identities. The Republican elites want us to be – literally – footsoldiers in the unending horse-opera of naked aggressive war and its awe-full consequences.

What we allowed to happen domestically to the Constitution in a Good Cause a decade and more ago has now been ‘weaponized’ and deployed aggressively in foreign affairs, again in a Good Cause. And now there is even more danger to the Constitution, as well as to our very standing among the community of nations. We are now facing not the reality we wanted to believe but the reality that we have created, and between those two ‘realities’ there yawns a chaotic abyss, and it is getting wider.

What is real and what is spin? What is the relationship between what someone said or did yesterday and what they say or do today? What Should be? What Ought to be? What Must be? What Might be? And then how can we as a society and as a culture and as a nation help the True things ‘be’?

It’s a lot for anybody’s plate. But for The People as the Founders imagined The People, as Lincoln envisioned The People, it is no less than what is required to keep this marvelous but fragile vessel of the Republic afloat and engaged upon accomplishing its mission: to be a light and a beacon, “to achieve a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”

*
I am indebted to “The Art of Prison”, by Grey Foss, for a comprehensive and readable analysis of the nature of the Life-space that humans face, individually and collectively.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Davidco said...

All students of history are aware that one mark of a declining civilization is a rising tide of irrationality traceable often to the importation of foreign religious cults (In the case of Rome: Mithraism, Christianity, Manicheeism and a host of other oriental mysteries).

The paranoia of fundamentalism (with its 'either for us or against motif')is based on the nature of hypocrisy.

Pastor Ted honestly fulminated against gay marriage because it was, indeed, a threat to *his* identity and *his* own marriage.

The self-hatred caused by recognition of these tendencies in oneself was a mighty engine for such rancidly bogus ministies.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for hot emotions on all social issues. Puritanism is built on the fear and loathing born of the recognition that somebody else, somewhere else may be having fun that you would enjoy yourself if you gave yourself permission.

10:26 AM  

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