Saturday, October 25, 2008


There are a couple of things that have come to me.

I’ve used the ‘ship’ metaphor often, many times ‘Titanic’ and other times just ‘ship’ in general. There’s more to clarify there.

If Our commonwealth is indeed a ‘ship’, what are We the People?

Not ‘passengers’ because passengers rely utterly on the captain and crew and the seaworthiness of the vessel, they have no knowledge of anything having to do with operating a ship or voyaging on the open ocean. And of course, they are completely at the orders of the captain or crewmembers, especially if things get rough.

Not ‘crew’ because the crew is completely at the orders of the captain.

Ships are – famously – not democracies.

So what are We then? I’d say that in the Constitutional vision The People are the ‘owners’. They paid for the ship, and they’re making the voyage aboard the ship. They may not know all there is to know about sailing, and they shouldn’t be up on the bridge day in and day out giving orders or getting in the way, but if there’s a major decision, then the captain is bound to consult them. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but then again the entire marvelous Rube Goldberg contraption of the Constitution is nothing if not a balancing act.

Nor should the ‘owners’ feel particularly cowed because unlike the captain and his officers and the crew they don’t get to wear snazzy uniforms. Their role is different, but the fact that it doesn’t involve gold braid and colored ribbons and a big hat doesn’t make their role less important – and a mature ‘owner’ will realize that.

Second, ‘fear’ and ‘emergency’ is not the best baseline emotional condition for conducting a vessel at sea. Nor is it the best way to conduct a democracy or a democratic republic – that curious but not bizarre hybrid that the Founders constructed and bequeathed to Us . Yes, the Founders allowed for special powers that would come into play in the declaration of a war – that monstrously weighty and grave decision that should never be entered upon lightly nor without the full comprehension and approval of the Branches and – it is to be hoped – The People.

But ‘war’ is a dynamic monster with a will all its own. Lincoln was saying more than anybody wanted to really comprehend when in his Second Inaugural he observed that “Each side looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding”. For Americans today, dulled by decades of advertising (You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! The amazing slicer and dicer!) Lincoln’s use of that heart-stopping “astounding” may slide beneath the radar.

But We cannot allow it. War is dynamic and its results do indeed “astound”; not ‘amaze’, not ‘wow’, not ‘impress’, but “astound”. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged defines it as “to shock with amazement, astonish greatly, shock with wonder or surprise”. And the adjective ‘astounding’ is defined as “stunningly surprising”. If you’re going to open the gates of a cage the living content of which is capable of ‘overwhelming’, ‘stunning’, shocking’ … well, you want to make sure you’ve thought things through.

Once it’s out, you can never go back. And even if you win, you can never go back. The America of 1865 could never go back to the ‘simpler’ time of 1861, the America of 1919 could never go back to 1914, the American of 1945 could never go back to 1941. And that isn’t simple self-indulgent nostalgia. Veterans in large numbers return, having changed or been changed; there is an awareness – no matter how buried – in the national consciousness that ‘things were done’ – yes, perhaps ‘had to be done’, but ‘done’ nonetheless.

And, ever and always, power of all sorts - financial, bureaucratic, prosecutorial, political, and cultural – has inevitably flowed to Washington, perhaps in waves that will not recede even after a President yields his wartime powers . Which Presidents now rarely seem to do.

Surely, while the Vietnam antiwar movement sought to curb the power of the post-WW2 presidency, the Identities were licking their lips, looking to capture that power for their own ‘liberational’ purposes. The Sixties were indeed troubled waters, deep beneath the surface. That both elements became identified with ‘liberalism’ has done nothing to clarify Our largest national matters, and the Democratic Party has fairly ripped its hull apart trying to navigate in that ominous sea – a process which the Republicans did nothing to prevent.

Third, there is a huge danger in taking the Civil War as a definitive embodiment of American Constitutional process at its best. The Civil War was precisely a failure of Our politics; the elected officials and citizens of those generations were unable to resolve the huge question of slavery in any way that was acceptable to all sides. “And the war came”.

It was in its way a hugely fortunate war for the Union: the elimination of slavery was a cause that later generations –even more than the generations of the War itself – could feel ‘right’ about; and certainly, the cause of ‘the Union’ (the logo of the most recent Presidential debate – “The Union and the Constitution Forever” – dates from those years) was a powerfully worthy one.

But it was also subtly but greatly dangerous. You could get the idea that anytime you were opposed, the situation was just a ‘replay’ of the Civil War situation, and the Army and Navy were to be called out forthwith to trample out some evil vintage, coming with the glory of God and a little tipsy on the grapes of wrath (served to them in paper cups by a Fundamentalist chaplainry itself drunk with the Deputization of God Himself). Oy.

Fourth, ‘fear’ or ‘outrage’ have always been necessary to goad post-Civil War Americans into war. McKinley had to use it to start his war with Spain, slyly focusing American outrage on the Spanish in Cuba while he made his move to occupy the ‘enduring base’ of the Philippines; Wilson had to do it – against a Germany that was trying equally shrewdly to avoid giving him a pretext (they remembered what McKinley had pulled against Spain less than twenty years before) and on behalf of an England and France who were equally aware of what McKinley had pulled and fervently and fondly hoped that Wilson had the same shrewd cojones as his predecessor; FDR may not have expected so bold a tactical stroke as the strike at Pearl Harbor but he was expecting the Japanese to strike somewhere (alas, We should know for sure, but when the statutory 50-years had passed in 1991, the Brits opened all their 1941 files except those for the last three pre-Pearl Harbor months of communications between Churchill and FDR, which – why would they do it, do you think? – they sealed for another fifty years, 2041).

Johnson had to fabricate an excuse for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf non-attack of 1964; and then there was 9-11, which was not an attack by an enemy nation at all.

But the American People responded differently to 9-11. They went all-out for war – against … well, whomever, or –rather – whoever. And whatever. It’s hard to say how deeply and widely: the media were pretty consolidated into corporate employees by then so who knows how many Americans disagreed but figured – shades of Germany in ’33 and ’34, that it was best to keep their thoughts to themselves. The Germans called that sort of thing ‘interior exile’ – and nobody in these parts nowadays knows just how many such ‘exiles’ there are, especially now that the option that existed in 1980 – switching to the other Party – really means nothing any longer.

Why? It’s not just because of the twin-towers and so forth. No, I think that there was still a strong sense of war-as-a-last-resort in the country. But a corporate media that had already been battening on a diet of inciting ‘fear’, cooperating eagerly thereby with both the National Security State and the Identities behind the National Nanny State, were simply too far gone down that dark road to suddenly stop and become sober and skeptical, especially in the face of the ‘patriotic’ demands that the government claimed were flowing like a river of wrathful grapes, demanding an assault on the oilfields of Iraq, planned by a President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State who were – didn’t We know that? – former oil corporation executives.

And folks were kind of used to being ‘fearful’ and ‘anxious’ and so much so that ‘stampedes’ didn’t really look like ‘stampedes’ anymore; rather than quickly proving themselves to be moments of irrational emotion and great danger they had come to look like liberating moments of extraordinary ‘outrage’ that - like the Civil War – stamped out this or that designated field of evil grapes. After all, it was a fight for survival – ‘us’ against ‘them’ – where We were (somehow) both ‘victim’ and ‘avenger’ against evil perps.

But American democracy and the Constitution and the Branches were not meant to function optimally in a state of continuous ‘emergency’, in a situation of sustained ‘fight for survival’. ‘Survival’ is an overriding End which might justify any Means whatsoever (this is the conundrum Israel has set for itself by claiming that it is ever under an ‘existential’ threat). And if one drives too long in the gear of End-Justifies-Means, the transmission’s gonna go; the vehicle wasn’t designed to drive in that clunky gear for long periods.

Human beings – soldiers and citizens – cannot for long operate in that ‘gear’ without seriously deranging themselves.

That’s why the Identities’ sustained agitprop seeking to highlight and incite ‘fear’ and ‘outrage’ in Our democracy was hugely dangerous and toxic. And to seek to incite such ‘fear’ and ‘outrage’ against other Americans … well, you can see why no nation in the throes of an extended bout of this sort of thing is going to be entirely well. Perhaps not entirely well ever again.

So here We are now.

With flu season – perhaps even a global pandemic – upon Us, the national immune system that protects ‘maturity’ and ‘common cause’ is hugely compromised after decades of abuse. We may wind up on an ER gurney as a ‘train-wreck’.

Lastly, I can’t help but note that ‘deregulation’ came along only after decades of ‘deconstruction’. I need to give this more thought, but just on first look it seems there’s a connection: having ‘deconstructed’ ‘character’, ‘virtue’, ‘justice’, ‘law’, ‘responsibility’, civic-mindedness and ‘maturity’ (don’t be fooled by the last 25-years’ worth of everybody-is-a-professional), finally the radical elements of ‘liberation’ had punctured and undermined those retaining and restraining walls designed to curb the eternal human weaknesses and vices and Shape the human energies.

And suddenly – can it be coincidence? – there arises a generation of lawyers and bankers and financiers and assorted butter-greasy sharpies that has no character, no virtue, no civic-mindedness, no sense of sin or fear of justice, and – despite huge expense accounts and salaries and perks – no maturity and no real human Shape. And they meet with a generation of politicians equally conformed to this brave new world, and together they all erect the deconstruction of limitation into a Plan, called ‘deregulation’ – which is a classy way of rephrasing the ‘60s mantra about ‘being freeeeeee’ by not trusting anyone over 30 who might ‘know better’ but who –reeely reeely – ‘just don’t get it’.

And here We are.

Don’t pass the popcorn. We might need to store it up for the winter.

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