Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Thomas J. Sugrue has written a hefty 700-page tome with the above title, reviewed by Alan Wolfe of Boston College (“Uncommon Ground”, November 9,).

Sugrue has undertaken – and at great and useful length – to expand awareness of the black civil rights movement.

He first points out that he wants to focus especially on the Northern civil rights movement. This is fresh and valuable. Though perhaps not for the reasons he wishes.

It has to be said right off that at the time, the ‘civil rights’ movement had been largely understood in the country to pertain to what Sugrue is calling the Southern civil rights movement. And he limns clearly that for a number of ‘activists’ the signing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were simply the end of – as it were – ‘phase one’. OK. But that is not at all how the rest of the country understood it.

Further, the nation was looking for an opportunity to rest from the alarums (worthy though they were) of the exertions of the Southern civil rights struggle that ended in ’65. No doubt more than a few were hoping to get on with the ‘business’ of figuring out how the country was going to meet the changing situation in the world economy, where America’s postwar pre-eminence was coming under challenge, with much more challenge on the horizon.

Prior, I guess, to this past summer, the ‘correct’ response to that would have been to say that ‘civil rights’ is the country’s ‘business’. But at this point I believe that the present economic situation will of itself refute any ideas of defining metaphorically the nation’s ‘business’. It may yet be that the nation’s pre-eminence, its very economic viability, and its public maturity – the maturity of its citizenry, will all have been demonstrated to be seriously compromised by the exertions and impositions of the past decades of ‘rights revolution’, both the black and then the follow-on ‘revolutions’. (And I'm not hereby presuming that 'civil rights' and 'the rights revolutions' as currently construed were simply and wondrously about 'civil rights'; they were also other than that, and they were indeed revolutions, and those things are hugely fraught, and should never be undertaken without a reely reely lot of serious thought.)

Because if the ‘rights revolution’ was going to be implemented, then to ‘achieve’ so much in a very short time would not simply invite the frisky metaphor of ‘revolution’, but would require the all-too-real revolutionary imposition of ‘achievement’ by fiat, by elites, and by a congeries of academic authorities, media and government agencies all collaborating in that purpose. And that sort of thing never ends well.

The Southern movement – what is usually considered the ‘civil rights movement’ – was “The story of a freedom struggle … fundamentally a morality play, one that pits the forces of good (nonviolent protestors) against evil (segregationist politicians, brutal sheriffs, and rednecks). It is a story of suffering and redemption … Through protests and moral suasion – a call to conscience – activists reinvigorated the ‘American Creed’, a belief in the fundamental equality and humanity of all people that is supposedly enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.”

That “supposedly” sticks in the craw a bit: I sense beneath it the almost-sneering assumption that an incompletely fulfilled ideal is a false ideal – in which case every decent cause in the world, this world of incompleteness and even failure, is irrelevant if not feckless or even mendacious from the get-go. It is a conceit of all the following “social movements” of the Sixties and subsequently that they had to resort to a politics of end-run-around-careful-deliberation-to-reach-consensus because such democratic efforts were, by the mendacious unreality of their grounding ideal, misbegotten to begin with.

I’ve written before of the indispensable value of ‘ideals’ to Ground and to Trellis and to Boundary human activity. Absent any ‘higher review’ by ‘ideals’, anything might be justified – and that is a dark and bloody road humanity has been down before, and not so long ago.

The Northern civil rights movement that took the foreground in the mid-1960s, by contrast, involved “rioting, embracing a divisive identity politics, and sparking a white backlash against an alleged consensus in support of racial equality.”

He’s right there. On a couple of counts: there was a Northern version of “racism” (although I caution all of Us that the word is now so over-used and expansively defined as to be treacherous as a conceptual tool for aiding in understanding). It was far more societal, less a matter of clear-as-a-cancer-lump Jim Crow laws and in-your-face redneck lawman macho assertiveness. Far more subtle.

Of course, a disease or problem that subtly intertwined would prompt a competent physician to consider hack-and-cut ‘heroic’ surgery to be ill-advised: it probably wouldn’t ‘get’ all the bad tissue out, and the shock of it might well be lethal for the patient. But America is a place where ‘if one stick of dynamite works good, twenty sticks will work twenty times as good and as fast” – which is a recipe for catastrophe whether you’re doing some excavation on the farm or seeking to effect deep society-wide change. But it was the Sixties. And the Democrats needed to restore some electoral heft reely reely fast, in light of the intensifying mess in Vietnam and now the Southern Democrats bolting for the Republicans (via their own home-grown third-party ‘new Confederacy’ sort of stuff).

Second, there was indeed a “backlash”. But again, I caution against a too-easy wielding of this word as a conceptual tool. It lumps together i) I hate (x)-iggers, ii) I’m not sure this is a good idea, iii) I don’t want to change or see my neighborhood change, iv) I don’t’ think this solution is going to work even if they mean well, v) can I get some more information about this whole plan? And vi) can we talk more about all this and make sure we’ve got it all straight before we start trying this? And vii) this is a good idea, but let’s go easy and slow so as not to stampede everybody.

‘Revolutions’ don’t have the patience for the democratic process, don’t believe they can wait, don’t believe they have to wait, and are often run by visionary or ‘committed’ souls who figure that if it’s done Big and Quick, then it’ll all be over before folks can get riled up and – anyway – folks don’t deserve peace and quiet any longer after all that’s happened.

And this is a recipe for all sorts of “mischief”, in the quaint Founding-generation understatement.
The same is true and has to be considered when reading “white denial became defensiveness”, and for the same reasons. It might have been i) guilt at what was done and being done to black folks, but it might also have been ii) a horse-sense that the ‘bridge’ over which the public stage-coach is supposed to go at the gallop is not sturdy enough for the plan. Surely, after 35 years of school-integration, say, reading about the state of schools doesn’t indicate that bussing has ‘worked’ in any sober sense of the word. Now there may be many reasons for that, but it is highly inadvisable to just up and figure that if a plan hasn’t worked after three-plus decades and huge amounts of public treasure and uproar, then the failure is merely and utterly and totally due to ‘racism’.

(Let Us not here be side-tracked by the eerie similarities to the ‘justifications’ for continuing in Vietnam and Iraq: it has worked, it is working, and if we stay longer it will finally work).

Sugrue most perspicaciously and usefully points out that the Northern civil rights movement was not about ‘morality’; it was about “rights”. This is a hugely valuable insight: I think it explains the difference in tone and in substance between the ‘first’ 1960s (up to about July 10, 1965) and the ‘second’ 1960s (apotheosized in 1968). The ‘morality’ (of that ‘American Creed’) underlying the Southern movement, led by Martin Luther King, simultaneously invited all Americans of goodwill to a reaffirming project to establish the highest ideals of that Creed and also invited all to a participation in what has to be considered the spiritual life of any who are committed to Justice and Right. King cast the movement as a powerfully unitive spiritual experience, open to all Americans and indeed all humans “so conceived and so dedicated”. Powerful stuff – and powerfully positive for all (except the truly Klan-minded).

The Northern movement didn’t go that way at all. There were questions of separatism – that ‘whites’ didn’t belong in a ‘black’ movement; of ‘black power’ that didn’t invite general participation but rather demanded ‘respect’ from whitey or else; of demands for sweeping societal and structural changes rather than the removal of laws clearly unconstitutional; of immediate action satisfactory to the few rather than the building of consensus among the many.

And of vast relevance to Us today is Sugrue’s marvelous little discussion of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights”, enunciated in 1944. Whereas the original “first” Bill of Rights was ‘negative’, and limited the government as to what it could do to citizens, FDR committed an expanded government to doing more for citizens: enforcing “positive” rights to “a useful and remunerative job, to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, to a decent home, to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”. Sugrue goes on to sum up: “the twin pillars of these newly enumerated rights as President Roosevelt defined them were ‘equality’ and ‘security’. This became, he caps it, the basis of the “rights revolution”.

Well. The book suddenly veers toward a text on constitutional policy and American political affairs. And that surely is a valid and necessary project. It’s a splendid array of promises and goals. It echoes Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson as well as looks forward to LBJ (in 1944 making his way up the political ladder).

Far more than the ‘New Deal’ of 1932, this almost-forgotten Second Bill of Rights limns and bodes the great changes in government’s role. It deserved a lot more public discussion than it has ever gotten, in schools or in public discourse.

The devil, of course, would be in the details – but that’s par for the course in this world and should have come as a surprise to no one; but it was the Sixties! Sugrue is right to note that “such expansive notions of rights came into conflict with more traditional understandings.” I have no doubt they did, nor that they would – anybody could see that just by looking at the list of thorny questions: “Did a black’s right to a decent house trump the property rights of whites to sell to whom they chose? Did the right to a decent, remunerative job override the employer’s prerogative, long recognized in American law, to hire and fire at will [or for good cause]? Was there a right to welfare? Was there a right to equal education? Were rights restricted to the lifting of negative restraints on an individual’s freedom – or were they to be expanded to include equality of results … ?”

These are monster questions. And it’s an indication of how improperly their ‘answers’ were handled that even now it feels and no doubt appears somewhat ‘incorrect’ merely to be asking them. Good for Sugrue that he has done so.

But he is at no risk of losing his union card because he includes them only to then say that “black activists and their white allies kept them there [i.e. in the center of national political debate].” Which isn’t quite so. Through the imposition of Political Correctness – a phrase borrowed from the Leninst-Stalinist playbook – a stunningly illogical and immature rhetorical sleight of hand was introduced into and imposed upon national discourse: if you disagree with ‘us’, then you must be ‘our’ enemy and one of the bad people. And that evil spawn then leaped from its cage and ran amok. Like a backfire ineptly set to slow the actual wildfire, it leapt its setters’ bounds and plans, and spread all over the place. As We have since seen.

Nor was there overmuch political debate, since any politician who objected publicly or disagreed or simply demurred was certain to become the target of an agitprop demonstration, greedily gobbled up by the increasingly-immature news cameras and ‘press’ – a politician came quickly to see that while he couldn’t solve the problems to general satisfaction, he could lose his career in an afternoon. [The fact that politicians can even be said to have ‘careers’ is another issue that deserves a book all its own.]

But there can be no doubt that what was now developing was a huge change – and a decent respect for the opinions of the citizenry, and a constitutional respect for that stage of the process, should have dictated a broad and deep phase of public deliberation, including education and suasion by all concerned.

Such was not to be. An ‘identity’ was formed as a base for creating a politics. And the method chosen for achieving the goals was not ‘advocacy’ in the sense of a concerned individual or individuals trying to inform and persuade others among the citizenry. Instead, ‘Advocacy’ became a deliberate and sustained effort to manipulate public opinion (‘symbolism’ and telegenic moments of ‘outrage’ or ‘pride’ became major elements in political calculation and in ‘news’) and – wherever possible – outright direct subornation of politicians. It was something ‘revolutionary’ alright, no doubt about it.

Thus it is being too too nice when Sugrue allows one ‘advocate’ to declare that ‘identity politics’ was just a way of ‘speaking out’. That is theoretically true of all politics – an individual or small band of individuals speaks out to the other citizens to inform and persuade. But Identity Politics in capital letters is big-business itself, and a manipulative, kinda shady business it is. And if anybody wishes to point out that the forces of opposition were also kinda shady, I won’t completely disagree – but to saddle the American polity now with both ‘sides’ behaving in a shady and manipulative fashion … surely some bad things could have been expected to follow from that.

And he quotes a historian to the effect that what is needed is “the history of a ‘long civil rights movement’ that … was continuously and ferociously contested, and in the 1970s inspired a ‘movement of movements’ that defied any narrative of collapse’.”

So much in this plaint. If it was ferociously contested, then unless the dynamics of national life be cast purely in terms of a Manichaean ‘good versus evil’, there must have been a wide and deep doubt as to some aspect or other of the ‘war’.

And if on top of the black civil rights movements (admittedly huge and fraught) there then arose – as there did – in the 1970s a "movement of movements" (what I have always called the 'Revolutions of the Identities'), then the stresses put upon the communal discourse in this country must have been (and were) immense, dangerously and perhaps lethally so. Surely, Our present sad state of political discourse – so easily blamed on ‘Bush’ and on ‘the Republicans’ (and not improperly) – had far deeper roots in recent American history.

Interestingly, he immediately moves to choke off the implications of what he has just discussed. He challenges, he states outright, “the tired clichés of recent books that fixate on the 1960s as the fundamental turning point in the history of race in modern America. Many prominent analysts of race relations argue that the ideal of a color-blind society met its demise in the destructive 1960s. The nonviolent vision of Martin Luther King gave way to the angry rhetoric of Malcolm X. Blacks wanted too much, too fast. Whites recoiled at the angry militancy of black power. When the cities exploded in race riots, the ‘silent majority’ gave up all hope of racial reconciliation. In the aftermath of the bloody summers of the late 1960s, minorities and their well-intentioned liberal supporters embraced a pernicious identity politics that deepened America’s racial divide and destroyed the integrationist dream of a land where character, not skin color, mattered most. This story is powerful for its simplicity. It has been influential in shaping national politics. It is also terribly incomplete.”


It seems to me that the ‘story’ is not so much a tired cliché, but a perennial and accurate assessment. It would stand to reason that ‘radicalism’ and ‘revolutionary’ agendas were going to create more than a little push-back, whatever their specific agenda might be. The explosion of the cities indicated either that something was out of control or that something was part of the agenda that created hugely uncontrollable political dynamics – and that says something greatly disturbing about those who made the agenda and those who supported it.

Such broad agendas – and demands – could not be implemented ‘fast’ without doing great damage to the process of deliberation, debate, and building consensus that should have been clear from the outset. After forty years the government is less color-blind than ever before; indeed, under assorted banners such as multiculturalism and diversity, government 'distinctions' - if you will - have been erected into a Plan that is Good. The concept of ‘character’ was ‘deconstructed’ by a subsequent Identity and its movement [see below]. And Sugrue himself, after his long indictment of the ‘story’, accuses it not of being wrong, but only of being ‘incomplete’.

In other words, the ship is heading for the rocks, a certain command philosophy has been guiding the ship all this time, but Sugrue doesn’t call it ‘wrong’, just ‘incomplete’: Let’s not focus on the rocks, let’s talk about how nuanced and complex the philosophy is. It is either quintessentially American or quintessentially ‘academic’ that it is presumed that the great ship will not soon hit the rocks with all the attendant destruction.

The historian quoted is looking to ‘control the narrative’, which is spin control – and whence did Atwater and Karl Rove ever discover that American politics would offer richly manured fields for their own fetid crops? There is a truth to it: different passers-by, blind, may each ‘construct’ a different elephant as they try to understand it with their hands – the sharp tusks, the long sinuous trunk, the huge ears, the monstrous legs, the mountainous flanks, the thin wisp-like tail. But the elephant is there, independent of their efforts. What We see here is the beginning of a disconnection with reality, and a dependence on symbol and appearance and story and ‘perception’ and ‘spin’. Thus did Our substance trickle away.

And after all this, We have to put this all into context – a context that Sugrue alludes to as ‘a movement of movements’. The black civil rights revolution – and it called itself that – not only posed the problems that a revolutionary content and process would pose to a democratic politics, but it also broke the path upon which the feminists of the Second Wave would march. Within a couple of years of 1968, there was another full-blown ‘revolution’ blazing, and this one not basing itself on a few measly centuries of oppression, but on millennia of premeditated, malicious oppression, spanning continents and epochs, dwarfing any previous historical conspiracy: ‘men’ and their ‘patriarchy’.

And this new revolution – far from simply demanding action on the basis of its grievances – deployed copious philosophies not only in support of its own agenda, but to destroy the coherence and integralness of American society – that host of patriarchal oppression.

And within those few short years, the same liberalism that decried lynching as barbaric was touting abortion as liberation.

No wonder those large swaths of citizens not initiated into the mysteries were both puzzled and cautious.

And still are, decades later. For which they are blamed as being divisive and obstructive and oppressive and just-don’t-get-it Lumpenvolk.

Sugrue has done a great service in this book. It may not reveal precisely what he wants it to reveal, may not lead all of its readers precisely where he wants them to be led – but that’s democracy for you.

What’s left of everything now is anybody’s guess. Maybe this whole chapter of American history will stand merely as a warning for some other Republic yet to come, that may arise to carry on the Founding vision: Here’s some serious mistakes to avoid.

But I think there’s still time and still enough in The People to hope that We can simultaneously work for a fuller realization of the American ideal while working together to bind up the nation’s deep wounds and steer Our ship away from the rocks. Or, at least, ease her off the rocks, and limp along until We have effected repairs. The common experience of pumping out and repairing the damage will do Us all some good.

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On Slate, Emily Yoffe had an article in October (‘Well, Excuuuuuse Meee!’, here).

She makes the good point that people who behave utterly and purely rationally are brain-damaged, quoting Antonio Damasio in “Descartes’ Error”. “Patients who have suffered injuries to the areas of the brain that control emotion, but who retain their intellectual abilities, end up acting in socially aberrant ways.”

So emotions are essential to healthy human functioning. So far so good. Nor is it necessary to go the Men Are From Mars route, mixing things up in the ‘intellectual’ and ‘conceptual’ elements of Identity Politics’ long march through American culture. Emotions are important, and contrary to the broad-stroke agitprop, there has probably never been a culture that taught its people – male or female – that feelings are alien to humans. Yes, the Spartans – for example – realized that in some ways and in some situations one has to suppress emotions in order to get a particularly distasteful or difficult task done, but nobody who’s changed baby-diapers could argue with that.

Efforts to utterly repress or even excise emotions have not worked out well. Even the vaunted Nazis found that when executing victims by firing squad, the troops required substantial doses of alcohol before and after the exercise, which in the long run did nothing to enhance their overall military efficiency. I read somewhere recently that the Nazis also found that with very few exceptions, dedicated and active Party members were not the best candidates for extermination duties since their habitual emotional investment in the Party rendered them more labile and excitable, ensuring some form of emotional recoil after such activity.

Of course, this leads one to wonder if there isn’t some built-in human aversion to exterminating non-threatening humans; which starts to point toward some sort of in-built moral template, which of course is gall and wormwood to certain influential strands of modern, Identity-friendly thought. ‘In-built’ starts one toward the heresy of ‘essentialism’, ‘moral’ starts one on the path to ‘judgmentalism’, and – worse – suggests a Creation template, or at least a pre-birth ‘factory’ where some of this stuff is installed by the manufacturer (capital-M .. ?). The only politically-correct response to any of this is to rend one’s garments and look for a handy stone, all the while uttering loudly either ‘Eeeeeeeee-yewwwww’ or ‘Gack!’ or ‘Fie!’ or ‘You just don’t get it’.

But Yoffe goes on to reference the work of Marc Hauser at Harvard: just as children are able to pick up speech so readily because there is they “are born with” an “intrinsic language-learning ability”, so too children can build upon their already note-worthy “instinctive feelings of right and wrong” because “a moral template is already there”.

Nice how the prof – or at least Yoffe – doesn’t actually put the exact words together on the page for public consumption: children are born with a moral template. Rather: in children, a moral template is … ummmmm … already there. But hey – I accept that you have to be careful, given the current state of affairs. Such is Our modern American reality. You don’t get to keep your union card by just ‘saying’ things, no matter how accurate they may seem to be. We recall that the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade, who went over to help the Spanish (socialist) government against the Fascist-backed Franco-led military revolt were not – in 1940 after they had returned to this country after Hitler and Mussolini tipped the scales in favor of Franco – considered reliable enough to serve in the urgently-enlarging US military because they had been … “premature anti-Fascists”, i.e. in the military mindset if you are that capable of independent thought and initiative, you’re going to be a problem for the highly organized, hierarchical life of the soldier. Americans concerned about ‘militarization’ of civil life here today and perhaps enamored of the ‘efficiency’ of military justice would do well to take note.

The contents of the template are handily proposed as “the three R’s”: Respect, Reputation, and Reciprocity. Not a bad beginning; one might indeed almost call them ‘virtues’ (small ‘v’). And huge that these are in-built; that the ‘unit’ (surely no more mechanistic and reductionist than ‘blastocyte’) comes with such characteristics factory-installed. Not that I am going all metaphysical on you here; such characteristics and capabilities evolved in humans, in response to the pressures of living socially with others of their kind. But once you’ve gone back this far and this deep, there’s no real way to ‘prove’ that there is no ‘factory’; I’m just sayin’.

‘Nature’ as the factory and the builder is also quite tenable. Although, whether Nature is fronting for something else, or is a tool of something (or someone) beyond it, again – we’re getting beyond scientific proof here … but so what? Just a thought.

Which leads to fresh thought as to whether Hobbes (man is a solitary savage) or Rousseau (man is a solitary noble) really got it right about us humans. Yoffe tellingly notes Frans de Waal’s observation in “Primates and Philosophers” that if humans were not social beings, then ‘solitary confinement’ would not be the worst punishment other humans could inflict.

DeWaal ‘s further conclusion is that human beings never existed as free and equal, but rather – to the extent that any starting point is discernible at all – always existed as “interdependent, bonded, and unequal”.

Now that ‘unequal’ is interesting. It’s not how the American Constitutional vision quite sees it. Nor the old Christian vision: as children of God, all human beings, regardless of their gifts and individual endowments and/or placement in society, share a fundamental and primary equality – as God’s children and in God’s eyes. The Enlightenment tried to keep the ‘equality’ without getting too Goddy about it, and the Founders tried to lock in the fundamental political equality without letting the clowns run the circus and run the whole thing into the ground (sort of like has happened nowadays, as it turns out – though the clowns turned out to be the elites, which still says something unflattering about how We have let things slide).

It’s interesting to imagine that Christianity – and not just Christianity – in its best work – and there was a lot of it – was building upon certain human ‘givens’, seeking to create a supportive structure for deeply natural skills that are fundamental to a full humanity, to a full humanness.
If so, then a lot of baby has been thrown out with the bathwater recently. And a lot of human beings these days are trying to make life work without actually understanding the ‘machinery’ they’re trying to operate. And that’s not a thought that gives any cause for consolation or confidence. A civilization is supposed to provide a framework for ‘civilized’ humans, for humans operating ‘out of the higher end of their range’, as the social workers say. If it does otherwise, less than that, other than that, then it fails as a civilization.

It cannot be a coincidence that if We are failing as a civilization, We shall also fail as a Constitutional Republic – the Founders build the latter on the basis of the former.

Of course, science can’t account for ‘sin’ – for the incomprehensible capacity of the human to deny its best self.

Nor can science itself address the apparent human sensibility towards, need for – perhaps – a Beyond. Some ‘science’ tries to reduce that Beyond to the proverbial ‘undigested bit of beef’, or assign a purely this-dimensional explanation. There is no ‘proving’ that such theories are wrong. But there is no ‘proving’ that other-dimensional connections, perhaps sources, are non-existent, either.

Thus ‘religion’, when honed and operating at its highest capabilities, serves humanness without being its pit-bull. A matured religion, like a great wine, will do something that rubbing-alcohol won’t do, can’t do.

Nor can efforts to reduce ‘religion’ to its lowest operational possibilities, thereby depriving humans of its highest gifts, yield anything in the end but catastrophe for a civilization.
Nor will efforts then to define degraded life and Flattened selves as a ‘new’ civilization end well.

Yoffe moves along smartly: “Many of the researchers studying the origins of human moral emotions and behaviors say that religion does not create morality; it is building on pre-existing patterns.” This is, I would say, a worthwhile though scientifically un-fulfillable line of thought. If the initial assumption is that an understanding of the functional origins of moral behavior automatically rule out any further source of causation, further back beyond the veil of this dimension, beyond the ability of science to inquire or pursue – then it is possible that We have brought a knife to a gunfight. There may be a whole lot more goin’ awwnnn, and We have defined Ourselves out of the loop. We have, in the words of British general General Ironside chuckling over Hitler’s ‘failure’ in 1940, “missed the bus”. Tee-hee indeed.

It has been a rocky road for Christianity in this country. In the welter of interactions with ‘democracy’ its efforts to join with people drew it down into its lower ranges as it made its compromises with their lower ranges, a risk inherent in any religion’s engagement with humans; in the engagement with ‘science’ it has tried to learn without being seduced, and without taking the easy path of simply relinquishing its own responsibilities and coasting along – not often successfully maintaining its own integrity; in the engagement with government it has tried to prove itself useful – far too successfully; in the engagement with social movements, it has tried to make the best and do the best, in the torturous road toward a better life and a better civilization.

Science cannot allow itself to be inveigled into non-scientific activity; government has its own purposes; social movements are never complete.

Science has tried to define its purview as the ultimate reality, ignoring the awefull question as to whether its natural limits actually define as well the limits of the range of human existence. Government has tried to become for all practical purposes the most significant object of human life – as Mussolini declared it to be; social movements have in too many cases presumed their own agendas to be not only undeniable but illimitable.

All have turned on ‘religion’, using examples of its lower-quality performances to justify their desire to supplant what it represents in the inchoate but deeply embedded and stubborn longing of the people for some higher ‘above’ in themselves and some Beyond ‘out there’.

With the current tremendous ‘embarassment’ of both the government’s brass-plated agenda and some of the more outrageous of the social movements’ agendas, there exists an opportunity for religion to contribute its best gifts to the present difficult situation.

The developments noted in this article, respectable and quite interesting in themselves as scientific research, might help a science-minded citizenry to see what value might lie in ‘morality’ and the religious sensibility. The science cannot go further than that, and shouldn’t.
But science was never a religion. Or never should try to be one.

We, on the other hand, as individuals, seem to possess a range above and beyond – but built upon – what science can usefully ‘discover’ and study.

So … We should do something about that. Do something with that. Or else We will be denying Ourselves the use of capabilities and competencies that – especially nowadays – We most desperately need, as individuals, as members of a society and a civilization, as The People.

For such gifts and competencies We may do well to give Thanks this season. And give life to such ‘thanksgiving’ by buckling down to develop and deploy those gifts. Maybe even those Gifts.

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On Alternet, Lindsey Beyerstein reports on the remarkable work being done by photographer Nina Berman (‘Theater of War’, here).

Berman has been going around the country since 9-11 taking photos depicting “the evolution of the American security state”.

She’s especially concerned with the disturbing weirdnesses that have resulted from people’s fearful imaginations being given license to – essentially – go into freefall. With government fomenting the fear (as Harry Truman was told he had to in order to get the postwar American citizenry to tolerate the budding new National Security State), stimulation and sensation and emotion-happy media amplifying all that is telegenically worst in the public’s agitations, and all sorts of business and local government agencies fearful of not appearing ‘concerned’ and ‘serious’ enough, it is a profoundly sad and fear-inducing scenario itself.

Specific unhappy examples need not detain Us here: the blending of ‘patriotism’ and frustration and the chance for grandiose, often violent fantasies – played out ‘in public’ the way kids can never do; the calculating tailoring of funding requests to obtain for utterly improbable contingencies weaponry and equipment that will no doubt remain gathering dust while local folk or relatives are paid to ‘administer’ it; SWAT teams more excited about performing as front-line military troops in battle than as public peace and law enforcement officers.

The military itself, trying to prepare its troops for ‘Iraq’ duty, has set up huge Stateside mock-Iraq preserves where troops are sent to ‘familiarize’ themselves with “the real Iraq”. Of course, given the politicization of the whole sorry mess over there, and the hierarchical nature of the military itself, just whose version of ‘real’ is another question altogether. Military ‘reality’ gives ‘social constructionism’ a whole new level of meaning. And it’s closer to self-induced hallucination than it is to acute-perception.

Most painfully of alll, she interviews troops who thought that it would all be “fun” over there.

It’s confounding: on the one hand a government committed to raising the ‘fear’ in Us (and after decades of women’s fear of male violence and victimism’s unending fears, what’s left to counter that ‘fear’ with anything more ‘courageous’ or ‘mature’?) and on the other hand the military – abetted by certain well-intentioned but besotted ‘civilians’ and ‘patriots’ – insinuating to the young that war is kinda ‘fun’. Or that it’s more about skills than about shooting – as if the skills weren’t all focused on better ‘shooting’, and in a 4th Generation War about shooting up-close-and-personal, and getting shot-at, and getting shot-back-at, and … getting shot.

The gimlet-eyed youth of the Civil War didn’t seem to delude themselves that their service would be ‘fun’. Nor did their generals imply that it would be (Sherman said it was “hell” and that was that; deal with it). Indeed, the nobility of their soldiering derived precisely from the fact that it was not at all ‘fun’, and that one’s character and ‘legacy’ stemmed directly from the soul-shaping effort to sustain one’s commitment in the face of the ‘hell’, in the teeth of it. In its face, kids might say today.

‘In your face, hell!’ That may seem like a pretty brassy sentiment, telling Hell or Ares Ferox et Atrox just what they could go and do. To back that spunky sentiment up with several years of your very own personal life in the field under fire – there’s something soul-making about that. Although it is not at all without its costs, life-changing costs. They’re all toll-roads in this vale of tolls.

On what basis can We today honestly encourage Our young as they go off to war? (And to this misbegotten hash of wars currently underway?) Our culture – the one We have raised them in – has no longer any working competence in ‘soul’ or ‘hell’ or ‘beyond’ of ‘character’ or ‘commitment’. Indeed, the very categories have been ‘decommissioned’. Truly, as Mussolini did to his sailors, We send them out onto the awefull deep in a ‘cardboard fleet’; brightly painted and of ultramodern style and design, but hugely too fragile for the tasks and operating environment awaiting it once the easy ordinariness of ‘land’ sinks astern beyond the horizon.

FDR, whose New Deal many claim to further these days, said famously that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Yet both the National Security State and the National Nanny State and all its Identity Advocacies traffic in exactly that: fear. As previously noted, it was precisely ‘fear’ that Harry Truman was advised to engender in the American citizenry in 1948, a bare 16 years after FDR unfurled his standard of anti-fear from the steps of the Capitol.

And in consequence We are a fearful folk. And huddle now like sheep, looking to the very government that has stampeded Us for consolation and safety. While We shop. Or increasingly: sit around recall those days when We could afford to. Even now folks haunt malls like wraiths, like revenants coming back to scenes of a life in which they no longer can participate. Our societal life is becoming like a horror-flick, which is about the only holiday diversion We can afford now. At least among the wealthy, if you’re thrown out of ‘the club’ you’re not allowed back onto the grounds , to scare the still-beautiful with your hollow-eyed, gaunt shuffle and pleading for recognition, a Memento Mori, a harbinger of the Gray Death at a declining party whose celebrants would prefer to keep up appearances.

Make what fun of John Wayne’s iconic characters you will – and far too many learned to mimic him without learning the truth beyond the characters – but allowing oneself to be paralyzed by fear (“like a duck that’s been hit on the head” in Lincoln’s pithy, vivid phrase) was not in the repertoire. I think my favorite scenario is his soon-to-retire cavalry officer who averts a frontier massacre by having his young troopers sneak up on a warrior encampment in the middle of the night and then suddenly, bugles blaring and guidons snapping … stampede the braves’ horses. “No horses, no war”, as he grunts in satisfaction.

I’m not making a comment on the integrity of the wars against the Indian here. I’m pointing out that there was a lesson about character and wiliness (Odysseus was ‘wily’, We recall) and even perhaps the highest competence of military art (Sun-Tzu would not disagree).

All of which went out with the bathwater not so long ago. Including Odysseus, that Dead White European Male (What Greek would even consider himself/herself ‘white’? Surely few Greeks at Ellis Island were welcomed as ‘white’.)

Ah well. Expecting much of Odysseus or Sun-Tzu from a military whose only significant victory of late has been the appointment of a female general in striped-pants and sensible-shoes is equivalent to expecting Obama to ‘change’ everything on January 22nd next.

Those young We sent off to war will be returning, with their shields or on them. Having failed to protect them from their own unknowing enthusiasms, what now will We offer them, We failed-adults and failed-citizens who let them scamper into the abyss on the authority – to which We have legitimate if now nominal claim – of Washington and Lincoln and all the gimlet-eyed dead of far better wars?

Increasingly they will return as Wehrmacht troops did on leave from the Russian Front after ’42, their relief at being away from the catastrophic blear and smear now assaulted by the smoked shadows of a country and a civilization they once knew, that is no more.

There is much to do this holiday season. Let Us begin.

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Monday, November 24, 2008


E.L Doctorow wrote an article for the June 26, 2008 edition of ‘The Nation’ entitled “The White Whale” (here).

It prompts a couple of thoughts.

He brings in the scientific term ‘quantum nonlocality’. The term refers to the verrry interesting fact that electrons shot from the same atom will – no matter how distant they are from each other – mirror each other’s behavior, and will do so simultaneously. Short of science fiction, miracles, or metaphysics, this isn’t supposed to happen. Marvelous.

But that’s not where he’s going with it.

Rather, he observes that there is a fundamentalist criminality confronting Us in the Middle East stemming from a bunch of radicals misinterpreting their sacred texts, and – a hemisphere away – the United States is sort of going down a dark path itself.

I get nervous that he is allowing his piece to go the way – as is so often the case nowadays with public intellectuals who want to stay on dinner and talk-show lists or be able to ‘get listened to’ and have their writings purchased – of pulling his punches. Because he immediately backs off: “This is not to suggest that our water-boarding and sensory-deprivation torture techniques and the incarceration in perpetuity without trial of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, are the moral equivalent of 9-11.”

But maybe I’m missing a well-embedded irony here and that’s precisely what he wants Us to think. He certainly goes to enough trouble to detail just what it is that’s verrrry baaad and has been done by Our forces (or ‘contractors’) over there and down there.

He goes on quickly to assert that “a declared enemy with the mind-set of the Dark Ages throws his anachronistic shadow over us and awakens our dormant primeval instincts.” Aha. We are ‘victims’ then? Is that what We going to go with at the bar of History?

Less focus on the ‘act’ and more focus on the ‘effects’ of the act might help achieve some clarity. Nobody can make Us torture. Nobody can force Us to indulge those nicely noted “dormant primeval instincts”. They are indeed down there inside each of Us, and in an even more eerie way, functioning among Us as a collective, as a social or societal group. But the fact that they are there does not mean that We ‘have to’ act on them.

In fact, it’s precisely in imposing upon Ourselves as individuals the discipline of the higher brain capabilities – all that prefrontal cortex stuff, among other things – that We demonstrate that We are not simply a single-stage brained animal, but indeed are something far more advanced (evolved, if you wish; created, I’d say). While the limbic reptilian brain and the earliest experiences of hominids around campfires in the days when life was “nasty, sharp, brutish, and short” are all held deep down inside each of Us and all of Us, there are other capacities and ingrained experiential pathings inside the self. We demonstrate just how ‘evolved’ and ‘mature’ human beings are by imposing sufficient mastery upon Ourselves so as to give Ourselves more options, more freedom from the flat, narrow, searing yet stone-like milieu into which Our earliest ancestors were mired and locked.

The “time loop” that Doctorow sees Us stuck in is not simply a current-events loop, nor a historical loop that pulls all civilization back to more barbaric times. It is a maturational time-loop that sees a reputedly evolved and mature human culture ( and society and civilization) regress to an immaturity, emotional and psychological, that also undoes the gifts bestowed through that culture’s maturity upon the rest of the world’s peoples. Oy.

Of course, it’s great to be able to be discussing anything in terms of ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ and ‘maturity’ at this point. Who cannot recall the shrill sustained bray of Second Wave feminism and multiculturalism, and before them the hippies and yippies, to the effect that ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ and ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’ is all so ‘bourgeois, so ‘male’, and so oppressive?

Doctorow doesn’t go so far as to connect any of those dots: that after some years of deconstructing adulthood and maturity and civilization, Americans – and their elected government – have reverted to acting childishly, immaturely, and in a decidedly un-civilized manner. As one’s Marine drill instructor might once have inquired noisily: YOOOOO-HOOOOOO? But maybe he hopes that We might still be able to do it for Ourselves. From his lips to God’s ear.

He evokes Henry James: “to take to myself ‘the faintest hints of life’ and convert ‘the very pulses of the air into revelations’”. Who can deny the nobility and – face it – frakking utter urgency of such a worthwhile resolution? To sensitize oneself to unseen but vital things is a tremendously human and humanizing achievement, and beyond ‘achievement’, it is an ‘askesis’ – a discipline around which one might trellis one’s entire character.

Nor is such sensitization the same thing as the ‘sensitivity’ that has now plopped out of the cultural sausage grinder as a result of feminist and celebrity concoctings. This is not some hysterical or histrionic or shared-mania emoting: this is a tuning of the human instrument – like a violin or a radar.

Indeed, while much the former, even more the latter. The former image – the violin – suggests that We are wondrously made and can be honed to perform Our marvelous gifts ever more genuinely, thus achieving a genuine, life-affirming, self-affirming, socially contributive fulfillment.

But that still leaves Us – as it did James and his fellow American Pragmatists – with only half the circuit completed. Pragmatism’s conceit was that if it ‘worked’ then it was ‘true’ and that was the only way anything could be called ‘true’. So ‘truth’ came from … the person who decided that it worked for him (or her).

But if the only ‘authority’ such truth possessed stemmed from the individual, then how much help was that ‘truth’, how authoritative was that ‘truth’, in the face of the massive challenges – ‘insults’, the medical and psych folks would say – to Our individuality when We are bethumped – as We all are, must be, and will be – by mortality, evil, and death? Piss little, actually. And that’s why – I would say – so many folks are zinging around now not only like loose electrons but like little globs of grease and fat on the flat surface of a hot iron skillet.

Whereas the latter image – the radar image – goes somewhat further. A radar is not only an instrument that has the capability of its own fine-tuned perfection; it can also detect and discern other things beyond itself, things ‘out there beyond’. Presences, even. And if I go a little further and propose the image of a radio, well then the thing can bring in ‘transmissions’ … and that’s one giant step for mankind.

A step that was made quite some time ago. And was retraced recently in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ and ‘empowerment’ and fill-in-the-blank.

Because while James hits it on the head by claiming to want to convert “the very pulses of the air into revelations”, neither he nor his Pragmatist brethren and sistern could accept the necessary fact that if you have a revelation you have to have a revealer. Otherwise your revelation stems from merely talking to yourself, which may indeed lead to some interesting thoughts – especially if you’re kind of intelligent – but still leaves you holding your own … stuff … in the end. If you get my drift here.

So when Doctorow then speaks of “knowledge as a foundation for a democratic society” he’s speaking something of a truism, and yet at this point it imparts the kinetic energy of a revelation. Because knowledge has come in for quite a drubbing. Yes, the National Security State, like all control-leaning governments, started to play fast and loose with accurate knowledge so that The People, the Prime Branch, wouldn’t get too upset too soon. But that was old-fashioned skullduggery and deceit (not that I am in any way approving it).

What then came along after 1968 was something else: the praying mantis cutting off the head of its mate (well, host society, in this case). Weirdly – as things always get when revolution’s afoot – knowledge was simultaneously degraded (it wasn’t accurate and it wasn’t possible to have any anyway) and raised to the level of a secret handshake (those who ‘got it’ and those who ‘just didn’t get it’).

It may seem an act of supreme treachery or feckless imbecility to vitiate the wellsprings of a civilization. But that’s what radical revolutions do – although they claim that they’ve got something much better, if everybody would just shut up and do as they’re told . And that’s what has happened here. To Us.

He goes on about ‘terrorists’ but in this Year of Grace 2008 it is no longer even modestly possible to separate archetypal Islamic terrorists from committed Resistance fighters carrying the fight to the enemy. (If We have declared them an ‘enemy’ to Us, then I can’t see how it can be deplored if they consider Us their enemies.) Had the national response to 9-11 been handled differently, this confusion wouldn’t have come about, and there would not now be more ‘enemies’ of Ours out there than there ever were before this Administration.

The Incumbent, he notes, has no concept of “national community” – but what “national community” is left after the sustained fracturing assaults of Identity Politics? All We have in common is ‘fear’, and potential target-hood or – hmmmm – victimhood. Other than that, there isn’t anything else; or at least not when Doctorow was writing in June; now, perhaps a common descent into the economic abyss could elicit a new birth of unity and community.

“It will take more than revelations of an inveterately corrupt administration to dissolve the miasma of otherworldly weirdness hanging over this land, to recover us from our spiritual disarray, to regain our once-clear sense of ourselves – however illusory – as the last best hope of mankind.”

Well, the weirdness of the other-worldly is a many-faced thing. On the one hand, the past decades created an abyss in the center of the national mind and soul, as revolutionaries assorted and various sought – with no little success – to destabilize ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ (as must be – for any radical revolution recognizes that ‘tradition’ (degraded to ‘the status quo’) and religion constitute obstructions to its agenda). But – the hot and terrible ironies – in destabilizing them and creating a yawning abyss where once stable and strong structures had stood, the revolutionaries were unable to muster the necessary violence to totally replace the lost values with their own revoltuion’s iconic thought and values.

Instead, the theretofore marginalized fundamentalism – claiming an other-worldly authority for enshrining this-worldly tradition and extending its sway and smiting its opponents – was sucked into the vortex from – as noted – the outer darknesses of American culture. You can have it however you like it: who were more the barbarians in this – the radical revolutionistas of the Identities or the Fundamentalist whackjobs with their sacred Moonpies and blood-thirsty flags?

Either way, We were the still-fat and fine fields and towns of Rome’s later empire. Until the barbarians came.

It was no illusion that We were the last best hope of mankind. It was an unfulfilled ideal – but that is not the same thing (though especially in matters Catholic, its enemies dearly love to make that inferential leap).

Nowadays, perhaps enough of the Constitutional vision has been spread about the world (not through Our recent essais d’armes, to be sure) that some other nation and people will provide a more suitable and capable vessel. The jury’s still out, but there’s no more guarantee that Americans were to be the only chosen people than there is a guarantee that there exists only the one sentient species in the universe. What a note to go out on: that We have indeed “meanly lost” the great heritage entrusted to Us – and just as women in striped pants and sensible shoes were becoming Army generals. Ah t’is a bitter and wanton trick, and enough to depress the bejesus out of a saint herself. History, not only not dead but quite frisky, may be allowed a cosmic guffaw, though some polite attempt to stifle it is the least decency might demand.

“Fundamentalism really cannot help itself – it is absolutist and can compromise with nothing, not even democracy.” Yes, and the same is true of revolution. We might note that in the face of 35 years of unremitting public doubt, the Second Wave and perhaps its follow-ons and spin-offs have been unable to compromise with democracy on the matter of abortion. Do We not recall what Lenin did to Kerensky? The last thing Lenin wanted was ‘compromise’ or a consensual improvement to matters; he wanted complete overthrow and power and he was settling for nothing less no matter how many bodies (or ‘blastocytes’) had to be piled up in the process – eggs, famously, must be broken, and some murders are simply ‘necessary’. Selah.

“A Manichean politics reduces the relevance of knowledge and degrades the truth that knowledge discovers.” A Manichean politics thinks it already ‘knows’ all the relevant knowledge and on the basis of that has declared this or that ‘evil’. Once the decision for ‘knowledge’ and ‘good’ has been made, any further search for knowledge or any further refining of the knowledge one already has is simply insufficient dedication to the task. But isn’t that also the task of those who ‘get it’ against those who ‘just don’t get it’? Or, in the matter of the aborted, those who don’t even get to get-it or not-get-it at all.

“To take the long view, American politics may be seen as the struggle between the idealistic secular democracy of a fearlessly self-renewing America and our great resident capacity to be in denial of what is intellectually and morally incumbent upon us to pursue.”

If fearless self-renewal involves a lot of killing, then surely the late Third Reich was one of the most self-renewing games in the league. And if self-renewal of humans involves killing humans, then somebody’s got a mighty deficient understanding of humanity’s potential. But nobody ever said that the current age possesses the fullness of understanding and wisdom; although far too many simply assume that it does. And that they do.

“Reality is too much for us to take in, as, for example, the white whale is too much for the Pequod and its captain.” But the captain – and that lemming crew – of the Pequod precisely thought that the white whale was not too much for them; that it was nothing but a whale. They refused to accept that some things are beyond human capacity to change or subdue. They refused ‘limits’ and so lost their ‘shape’ totally, permanently, utterly.

So if reality is too much for Us to take in, then just how is it a good idea to be messing with it so fundamentally, or declaring it totally plastic and devoid of any free-standing existence outside our own ‘constructions’?

“It may be that our new century is an awesomely complex white whale … “ Well, reality has always been an awesomely complex white whale; that’s what Melville saw in his century. And he saw that going after it – and with a harpoon or two, no less – is the height of madness and folly. And thinking that you could subdue it and turn it into something that will turn a profit – well, We are all as looney as Wall Street Gekkos. However the ‘profit’ is defined, whether as cash or a new and bloody revolutionary vision – the madness is the same.

The Pequod was a stout and well-found vessel. Had she been in the hands of sane folk, she would have continued on her voyage through time, for the time allotted her, and no doubt turned a respectable profit for all involved with her. But in the hands of madmen – madness defined as presuming to control reality and indeed to create it, and ‘men’ defined as ‘humans’ – then even the stoutest vessel, even a nuclear aircraft carrier, will founder in the vortex of forces roused up that no human can control.

Doctorow quotes Richard Rorty, himself taking a shot at the current state of affairs: “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.”

I would go further than Rorty; this descends, it seems to me, beneath poor philosophy to outright pandering. This is a 'philosophy', simply providing a whacked-out revolutionary mania what it wants to hear.

The first mistake is to define Christianity merely horizontally: that it was a purely human construction, erected for the purely human (and hardly the best human competence is capable of) purpose of controlling other humans for its own aggrandizement. Even if that were true, the fact that the thing has lasted for two thousand years should give any lesser-lived entrepreneur prudent and sober pause. Not so Our modern revolutionistas.

But there’s no way to scientifically prove that it is a purely human construction. Yet to smooth one’s thus-rocky path by asserting that if it can’t be scientifically proven then it’s not true at all … this is akin to pre-war Western strategists dismissing the Japanese as fliers because, being carried about by the mothers for so long as children, they would ‘naturally’ have a poor sense of balance.

Rorty is cagey enough not to toss out all the gifts Christianity has bestowed. But they are demoted to “suggestions”, thereby losing their Vertical capacity to ground human life against any of outrageous Fortune’s slings and arrows. Simply “suggestions”, as a waiter might propose any of an assortment of fillings for one’s breakfast omelette. So the revolution gets to keep the property of those it dispossessed, while baptizing it in the good-purpose of the revolutionary cause and reducing it to merely ‘intellectual property’. Neat. Since the revolution could never make on its own what it has expropriated.

“Wonderfully different”? You mean, we’ll be able to fly? Be invisible? Have the Golden Touch? Or what?

There isn’t enough ‘wonder’ in being a human being? Perhaps not, if ‘wonder’ is taken to include the dark wonder of sin and evil and all its pomps and all its works.

But Rorty is philosopher to the beautiful – and thus there are no dark wonders. This is truly a financially-independent, young, and pretty person’s philosophy – suitable, like a Pharaonic ceremonial barge, only for junketing in shallow waters on nice, California summer afternoons. High-seas voyages over the face of the mighty deep are beyond it. The howling tempests of an over-extended superpower that has crashed its own and perhaps the world’s economy … those foaming mountainous seas will cull the ranks of the sleek and the fatted; the first generation of Puritans didn’t look like that because they were born that way.

Rorty is Ahab in a modern, juvenile, shallow key: not stark, raving proud and mad about it, but optimistic and cool, self-confident and mellow, safe behind mental walls of spun-sugar; like a hand-fed, penned soup-rabbit that never had to spend a night in the forest, a house-pet with floppy ears that gets shampooed often.

“Wonderfully different”. A namby-pamby version of that American exceptionalism that could treacherously destroy one race and enslave another for its own convenience. Convenience and comfort and the freedom of never having to say no to oneself. O brave new world, to have such people in it!

“Wonderfully different.” Freed of the need to mature, swathed in the mummified embrace of an all-providing government that demands only obedience, until it’s time for the soup.

“Wonderfully different”. Freed from the biological responsibility for procreation and nurturance of the young, male and female grooving together, generating ‘ideas’ from a collegiate education to which they paid no attention and which perhaps deserved no attention, and being more or less nice to the pool-boys and burger-jocks and waitpersons and salesfolk.

Whitman, Doctorow notes, advised Americans not to be curious about God but rather to affix our curiosity to the matters and things of this earth around us. Which is true as far as it went, but Walt didn’t go near far enough. One isn’t ‘curious’ about God; one is in desperate need of God as a Ground and a Rock and a Companion and Lord so as to be able to go up on deck and stay there to face the challenges of conducting human-hood on this stormy sea, so as to be free from the degrading necessity to either smother oneself in spun-sugar ‘philosophies’ and damp-dreams or to do away with oneself outright.

There’s no use being ‘curious’ about the goings-on if there’s no purpose or meaning to your existence. What’s the point? Might as well go shopping and call it a life. Be a valley-girl and get gagged with a spoon.

If we are becoming wonderfully different “to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate” … then I say We should give things some serious thought.

And if other cultures in the world can’t tolerate our ‘wonderful’ difference, then maybe that’s because they know that to accept such madness into their own midst is to invite the sugary flatulent flatness of this evolving American anti-civilization over the thresh-hold of its own national and cultural life.

The world’s cultures are starting to avoid Us. If this happened while We were walking down Main Street, or in the foyer of ‘the club’ … well, that would be a message, wouldn’t it?

Respect the whale. Respect Ourselves.

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In a Perspective piece on Truthout, Henry Giroux warns of new efforts by Defense Secretary Gates to ‘militarize’ universities (“Against the Militarized Academy”, here )

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. Not unsurprisingly, the National Security State began to forge relationships – links, is more like it – with universities from its inception after the Second World War. In the struggle against Communism, it was seen in the universities as an endeavor worthy of them and compatible with – perhaps required by – their commitment to reason and science and the education of a democratic citizenry competent to participate in the affairs of the Republic.

The National Security State did everything it could to reduce the ‘perhaps’, making sure that large amount of cash went along with the collaboration (and all this on top of corporations looking to buy or rent the best and most prestigious talents to develop or sell their products).

For a while the university and the State could travel along together without too much trouble. Just where that changed is open to discussion. But it can be said at this point that the purposes of the National Imperial Security State are surely incompatible with the mission of a university.

Of course, it has to be said that the National Nanny State is equally hostile – for all practical purposes – to the mission of the university. The jaw-dropping speech codes and the faculty braying that ‘facts don’t matter’ are only the tips of huge icebergs beneath the surface: revolutions do not accept any ‘truth’ higher than or incompatible with their own objectives, any more than militaries do. And while Jean Bethke Elshtain adverts somewhere in her book “Sovereignty” that (I’m working from brute memory here) the most radical feminists and Theorists had unworkable agendas and migrated to the universities as their refuge of last resort, it’s still true that there’s a whole lotta damage they can and did cause, spewing their stuff to young minds in an almost Soviet hothouse atmosphere. And let’s not forget that they are on tap to impress judges and legislators with their expert and elite thoughts through books and testimony and talk-show appearances and the chit-chat at high-level, bosky buffets.

Militarization in the narrow sense may lead one to think that ‘the military’ should not be involved with the university. But the phenomenon called ‘militarization’ is not only dangerous but also extends beyond the presence of the military. An imperial nation requires an obedient but competent military; a corporate nation requires docile workers; and a government ruled by elites requires a subservient and obedient citizenry. Needless to say, Identity nation requires lots of citizens who ‘get it’ – and the dynamics of ‘getting it’ are not incompatible with the dynamics of reducing oneself to an obedient, un-thinking but ‘correct’ pawn.

As the troops become an imperial gendarmerie, so the citizenry become an obedient mass providing the food and the support. This was the way of Rome – in its last centuries (events moved more slowly then – We won’t have that much time).

The citizenry of a democratic Republic functioning as The People, that Primary Branch of Constitutional government, is only going to ‘get in the way’ of an imperial government, a corporate operating plan, a revolutionary and ‘politically correct’ agenda.

‘Elites’ educated into the capacity to think critically and to draw upon the resources of previous history and tradition and thought, and upon the accumulated experiences of previous generations, and to put this into the service of a free and democratic Republic … such elites will be valuable participants, servants perhaps – in the best sense of the word – of the common weal. Perhaps We might call them ... ummmmm .... 'public servants', although that may sound kind of pie-in-the-sky these days.

It may be imagined that the debilitating process of ‘militarization’ and all the danger it presents has already been well-advanced not only by the government but by the assorted whackery taught or asserted on campuses under the guise of this or that liberation in the past thirty-plus years.

All of which simply goes to show that the problem is even more advanced and entrenched than Giroux’s focus on the post-9/11 Bush-era militarization would suggest. Surely, the adult citizenry – college-educated included – have been profoundly passive for far longer than any recent initiative would account for. This country has not had a robust and vital democratic politics for quite some time.

In this regard I would also point out that neither the National Imperial Security State nor the National Nanny State require the services of the adversarial, evidence-based jurispraxis of Western law. The legal infringements by the Security State since 9-11 alone are matched by the ominous desiccation of fundamental legal principles in response to the demands of this or that Identity in the past several decades. The military system of justice – which is really a costumed kabuki designed to produce a command-designated outcome while maintaining the appearances of adversarial process – is far more compatible with, indeed indispensable to, a militarized and corporatized civic life. But it would be fatuous to imagine that the National Nanny State – in its commitment to meeting the demands of this or that identity – is any less desirous of the type of assured-outcome operation that the military system (treacherously and deceitfully) provides.

Indeed, one of the great challenges facing Mr. Obama, and one of the great dangers threatening Us, is that the more extreme (not at all to say ‘liberal’) elements of the Left will seek not to roll back the power accumulated by the Bush Administration, but rather to wield it in the service of this or that ‘emergency’ of this or that Identity. Surely, for example, the nation’s domestic patriarchal oppressors constitute as much a danger and outrage as any overseas Johnny-come-lately political terrorists … that sort of thing.

And while it may be somewhat true that the ‘most radical’ of the Identity theorists have retreated to the universities, still you can exert a lot of influence from such a prestigious and well-placed platform. We’ve seen what lobbyists can do: a relatively few folks, with enough access and enough well-packaged ‘cover’ can get an awful lot of unwise stuff passed into law up there in the fleshpots of Washington City.

It has been building for a long time now – this desiccation of the civic life of the Republic and of the vitality of The People. The Bush era has highlighted it, primarily by associating it with the unpleasantries of a failed invasive war and in-your-face assertion of extralegal government power. But before that, in the service of a putatively better cause, The People were side-tracked in the rush to get desired results.

Mr. Giroux comes late to the battle, and with only one boot on - but at this point, that's quibbling. His acute and comprehensive perceptions are spot-on.

It’s not eight years but forty years – at least – of ‘de facto’ militarization that need to be reversed in order to recover the civic vitality that has been buried beneath them. The threat does not simply lie ahead.

And if you think prevention is hard, wait til you try rolling-back.

But if We don’t, the civic vitality already lost will determine this country’s fate far more surely than even the increasing economic disaster and the almost-impossible-to-sustain military situation.

With things this bad for so long, you almost have to ask: where have the college-educated citizens been all this time?

Worse, as if it weren't bad enough being relegated to Lumpen status by the general Democratic gaga-festival over the 'knowledge economy' (read: knowledge and serfs, the latter waiting upon the former in some sort of quasi-Greek simulacrum of Plato at his worst), We are now confronted with those other modern-day moral and psychological class titans, the financial sector whizz-guys (and gals), demonstrating beyond any shadow of doubt that they are not now and have never been ready-for-prime-time.

Obama faces an Augean Stable.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


Chris Hedges, as always, offers acute thoughts in his article “America’s Wars of Self-Destruction”, originally on Truthdig but also on Truthout ( )

Recounting the utter strategic folly of declaring global and generational ‘war’ on “a tactic” (terrorism) and on “evil” (whose ‘homeland’ is, famously, beyond the reach even of the U.S. military and even of its chaplainry, whether handling snakes or thumping Bibles), he adverts that We have, in effect, declared a very physical ‘war’ against a ‘metaphysical’ entity. And that is verrrry uncomfortably close to the standard set-up for any number of half-century-old B and C-level Saturday matinee horror flicks, where the villagers with pitchforks or the Army with tanks and bazookas attempt to defeat evil demons from beyond.

It has come to this. We – Boomers and their follow-on generations – are now re-enacting the amusements of their youth. Only this time with whole armies, whole economies, and the copious blood being shed isn’t just chocolate sauce or motor oil on a cheap soundstage. We may go out on a note of historical farce before this is all over, but held responsible for it all nonetheless.

And how We smirked at the hapless Catholic priests trying to drive the devil out of Rosemary’s baby thirty-five long years ago. Stand aside, pathetic poseurs! The Army is going to do it now, and if the babies have to be destroyed in order to save them, well …. Yahoo and Can-do! Been there – done that. But it’s more than pea-soup that’s flying through the air now.

Hedges observes that ‘We have a childish belief that Obama will magically save us from economic free fall, restore our profligate levels of consumption and resurrect our imperial power”. It’s amazing how, in the past forty years of shrill demands for and brassy-gassy celebrations of ‘empowerment’ and ‘liberation’, yet the American citizenry is more passive, more unable to think, more incapable of facing up to ‘reality’, more emotionally gelatinous, and more dependent upon some ‘father-figure’ (or ‘mother-figure’) to tell Us it’s not Our fault, wave off all consequences, and make everything go back to the way it was before We frakked it all up.

At the risk of sounding age-ist or judgmental, I’d say that We have become infantilized, male and female together.

He asserts that “this naïve belief is part of our disconnection with reality”. Ah. Bingo, as they say. Of course, ‘reality’ has taken quite a beating. The National Security State simply wanted to define it as whatever is in America’s or the Establishment’s or the government’s interest.

The National Nanny State went about it – drawing a lesson from its Leninist grand-uncle – in a far more organized manner: it embraced a modern variant of old philosophical Nominalism to assert that there is no ‘Reality’, there is only whatever any particular group chooses to call or name ‘reality’, which is always subject to change. And for good measure slathered a hefty dollop of deconstructionist theory to the effect that every oppressive group seeks to define ‘reality’ in such a way that it can continue to oppress the oppressed and – ta-dah! – with the cooperation of the oppressed who figure that if you can’t fight city hall, you sure as hell can’t fight ‘reality’.

So out went ‘Reality’ and any ‘reality’ that could reasonably (very generously defined) be construed as ‘oppressing’ anybody. Out went the fences. But the trellises as well, alas. Out went the walls. But the frameworks as well, alas.

Can’t squeeze through to get to the green grass on the other side? Break the bones that keep you ‘too rigid’. Thus the skeleton goes. That’s OK, it’s a good thing: now you’re much less ‘rigid’ and much more ‘flexible’. And how does a creature keep its shape without an endo-skeleton? Why with an exo-skeleton of course, a shell encasing and protecting the inner mush. Provided by a government now taken over – in their dampdreams – by the vanguard elites who ‘get it’ and are willing to make a great living doing the right thing for those sad lumps who ‘just don’t get it’. That was the plan, that still is the plan for far too many folks, and the consequences will intensify accordingly.

I’m not making a case here for troglodyte primitivism. But these consequences – not altogether unintended – could hardly have been unforeseen. Although, you have to ask yourself: did the screaming screw-ups of the Iraq War strategy simply leap full-blown from the whacked-out, half-clever minds of the Bushist Imperium? I think not. I think an almost premeditated, purposeful un-realism was pretty much par for the course in this country before Bush was ever – you should pardon the expression – elected.

How the frak do We fix this? Don’t even ask how ‘Obama’ is going to fix this. He was born the year JFK urged Us to ‘ask what you can do for your country’. By the time he was taking care of his own business at the potty - no offense intended – five years later that era of JFK was gone, baby, gone. Five short years and the whole American ‘world’ changed, and if not for the worse to all appearances, then at huge and unconsidered price – as We now can see. This has not been JFK country for quite some time, stranger. When they say ‘Camelot’ didn’t last very long, they said more than they ever knew.

Nominalism is dressed up now with the scientific moniker ‘social constructionism’. The insight of the latter is that human beings ‘construct’ what is their ‘reality’, as a group and as individuals.

From that it follows that there is no way they can know for certain any one big Reality ‘out there’; there’s no scientific way to prove that the ‘knowledge’ is accurate.

From that it follows that there is no one big Reality out there at all. We construct it for ourselves, as groups and as individuals.

Now the problem becomes: there is no ‘fixed point of reference’ which has an existence independent of humans and more substantive than human figurings, upon which serious life-affecting decisions and regulations can be made.

It’s as if, having come across some strange alien machine, and not knowing how it works and not being able to communicate with the designers, we just have to come up with some best guesses that we all agree is the way to use the thing. In a less enlightened age we might posit the example of natives coming across an abandoned airplane on their island, and having finally figured out how to start the engine, they proceed to cut down huge swaths of the island’s forests so that it can be driven around, like a giant bus with strange, protruding decorations. (The gas will run out eventually, but let’s not get ahead of things.)

This is the adventure of Nominalism in the modern world. There is no score, so everybody with an instrument get together (or not) and play what everybody (or somebody) thinks best. Until … they don’t. And then the whole thing starts over again.

And that’s without getting into just how people are supposed to find meaning in a life where there is nothing ‘fixed’ and ‘beyond’ them that can anchor their hopes and fears, let alone care.

But of course, if there’s no ‘scientific proof’ then there’s nothing there. Which has worked out quite well, in the short run but over and over again, for numerous groups that figured they would help matters by imposing their own ‘reality’. Meaning was reduced to the satisfaction (it would be too much to call it happiness) one would get from being a (almost always) very small part of that great saga.

Like the Bushisti now, the many vanguard elites of the past decades do not at this point want to acknowledge that they really intended to deconstruct the whole damned country - in terms of its fundamental grounds of meaning and purpose. But that’s where it’s led to, and to read a lot of them, you have to think that all along they sorta did. Feith and the feminists actually do have something in common, besides tenure at major universities.

Hedges sounds the call that ‘reality’ is playing now, summoning Us: “The old America is not coming back.” Hark ye to him. Boomers, the country you were born into, the country that was on top of the world – is gone. The America of 1945, 1955, 1965, even the moon-landing country of 1969, is gone and it’s gone for good.

I suppose you should have realized it when it turned 1980 and the cars weren’t flying. Maybe the computers and other shiny gizmos distracted you. Or when the ‘jobs’ suddenly became all burger-flipping and shelf-stocking, the stuff teens did in the old America just for pocket money after school.

Or when the Democrats kept rolling over so they could be ‘bipartisan’, but the Republicans never gave any ground of their own away. And the Democrats kept getting ‘bamboozled’ – but nobody thought after a couple-six years to figure they were either stupid as frakking rocks or treacherous as snakes.

But they weren’t stupid there in the Beltway. They figured a way to keep everybody stocked up with nice shiny stuff, even as the whole base of industry and decent jobs was being deconstructed for shipment overseas: cheap credit.

A citizenry that had learned to accept that ‘reality’ was whatever you wanted it to be was in no position to really say that something was not on the level – the standard solution was to change the way you were holding your head until things did appear level again. This is not an adult way to proceed. It never was. But then, ‘adult’ is a judgmental and age-ist term and so insensitive and inappropriate. Thus distracted, it was no longer asked But is it accurate?

So here We are. The party’s over. ‘Reality’ has returned, and needless to say, uninvited. Nor have many wise virgins made preparations, nor are lamps trimmed. Indeed, where are the lamps now? Where were they put – like old Christmas decorations – when ‘reality’ was declared nothing but a human (American, really) house-pet?

Time for a rendezvous with destiny. Time to show how this generation is going to be ‘the greatest’. Time to ‘man’ up (is that sexist? – I haven’t seen a memo).

But this is also the time to consider that there is a Reality after all. And that it cares. We leave politics behind with this thought. But We take a certain philosophy with Us, into a further realm.

Do I have to draw a map? The old ones are still around. Where We left them.

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Here’s a straw in the wind: Recently, a local court of an un-named, fiscally dissolute country, indicted the 2nd-in-command of the national government and the country’s top law enforcement officer for torturing citizens imprisoned in some of the privately-run prisons run – at great public cost – by newly erected private corporations who were awarded contracts by the government – corporations in which the 2nd-in-command held shares of stock; the indictment is for engaging in organized criminal activity.

The state prosecutor refused to show up in court and was being sought – on order of the court – by territorial police. He and other local prosecutors are named as defendants in the charges that they colluded in the whole thing. The missing prosecutor’s official secretary said she doesn’t know where he is. The top law enforcement officer of the nation is accused of attempting to stop investigations into the whole thing.

Attorneys for the high government officials insist – apparently with a straight face – that the local judge should turn the whole matter over to the nation’s top law enforcement agency for investigation.

A local politician is also indicted because he ‘consulted’ for the corporation and received handsome remuneration.

The judge is hobbled because the Clerk of that Court is also under indictment. When the judge asked him whom the Court should appoint as a temporary replacement to handle the cases, the Clerk stated that his deputy is a witness in the trial and the next in line is – spoken presumably with a straight face – ‘out of town’.

The judge gave the task to the Clerk from the next-over jurisdiction, whose chief judge is also under indictment. Charges against some of the other officials include “official abuse of official capacity” and “official oppression”.

After police conducted a raid on his official office earlier in the month, the now-missing prosecutor “camped outside the courthouse in a borrowed camper with a horse, three goats, and a rooster.” He was threatening to dismiss literally hundreds of cases in his purview because “local law enforcement had aided in the investigation against him” – which seems to be what local law enforcement in civilized countries is supposed to do, but not, apparently, in his opinion. We are reminded of the Scooter-Libby defense (no doubt We’ll be hearing it again): criminal law is for ‘criminals’ and is not appropriately deployed against members of the government or law enforcement (remarkably similar to the military justice rule-of-thumb that courtsmartial are for little people and not for the generals).

The world is confronted with this spectacle as a reminder that lawlessness is still rife, and that the cause of true justice is not yet established in this darkling and darkening world.

The jurisdiction is Willacy County, Texas, and the matter is ongoing.

What has happened to Us?

For reference, the AP article is on Truthout, written by AP correspondent Christopher Sherman under date of Thursday, November 20, “Cheney’s Indictment in South Texas Moves Forward”, )

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Friday, November 21, 2008


Gary Brecher on ‘eXiled Online’ has a short piece whose title, again, says it all: ‘How Did We Ever Let This Guy Get Away with Being a War President?’. (

He goes on to do a very creditable number on the Incumbent. The piece stands on its own very well.

But while he gets the low-hanging fruit (And what else is Bush? And to read Rove’s description of his first glimpse of the young George, that phrase seems to work on so many levels …), he only skirts the actual question that his title implies.

Brecher sort of hints at it: “Nobody wants to recall what Americans believed back then [i.e. at the time of the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq]”. Folks, he notes, “thought” that Saddam was “connected to 9-11” and that “his agents were going to poison our water, nuke our cities, and gas our subways”.

But then he shears off before really coming to grips: “At least they [the American people] claimed to believe all that. I don’t think they really did. There was just so much revenge momentum after 9-11 that it had to burst out somewhere. Everyone wanted payback.”

Nice. But too nice.

It’s sort of exactly the time when grown-ups show why they get paid all the respect: they ‘think’ when all their emotions and passions are pushing toward something else, like hasty, poorly-considered action that is undertaken with no thought to consequences, intended and – especially ‘and’ – otherwise: unintended, unforeseen.

We recall that the Imperial Japanese government hugely weakened its already delicate position after Pearl Harbor by only allowing itself to imagine that the results would conform to a best-case scenario for Japan: the Americans, deprived of their Pacific Fleet, the backbone of their naval power, would simply roll over and sue for peace, on Japan’s terms of course. Case closed and – banzai! – Mission Accomplished.

Things – as their Emperor was to note sadly but vaguely four years later – had “not worked out necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. Indeed. All that treasure and blood gone, and a budding empire reduced to a vassal state. No wonder that the Japanese tread carefully at the Yasukuni, their national shrine to the nation’s war dead, whose spirits are believed to inhabit those sacred precincts. And perhaps aren’t too pleased at the wastage of their young lives. It’s perhaps not to America’s cultural advantage that most of Us do not tread the precincts of Arlington with quite the same remorseful apprehension, sensing presences at every step, stopping Us in Our tracks, finally, and reducing Us to silent, imploring prayer. Perhaps one day We shall learn.

Especially now that the rackety, flag-happy Fundamentalist chaplainry is soon to depart the Beltway, perhaps – in the marvelous 19th-century phrase – “to take the veil”, and spend the rest of a natural life in silent, rueful contemplation of one’s follies and vanities and the blood-soaked consequences of actions hastily and lustily indulged. And of lives and treasure and honor gone beyond recall. Welcome to Christendom – for real. Welcome to that Old Testament that imposes sackcloth and ashes and the bitter gall and wormwood of evil’s ultimate treachery: to its own servants and cheerleaders. Use it well, ye of too much faithiness and not enough decency-ness. Leathery lungs that cheered pridefully must be taught to cry out in remorse, and loudly enough to prevail over the blood crying out to the Throne from the earth. And that’s a whole lotta blood.

And upon those dead be great peace.

But it was all done on Our watch. In Our name. Upon Our authority. And We watched it – on television.

Where I think Brecher is being too nice to Us is in trying to whistle by the graveyard of Our own culpability. Frankly, We’ve really let Ourselves go.

As one historian wrote about the decline of the British Empire: it would go like the Roman Empire had gone – its extremities grew at the expense of its heart. We are the heart. We have ‘gone’.

We’ve gotten so used to believing impossible things that after a while We couldn’t tell the difference any longer. And it’s been this way for a long while.

Could it be possible that before the guns had cooled in 1945 another, even worse enemy had arisen and wanted to destroy Us? Could it be possible that Harry Truman wanted to ‘scare the hell’ out of Us? Could it be possible that JFK would lie to Us about a missile gap? Could it be possible that LBJ and all those generals would lie to Us about how things were going in Vietnam?

Could it be possible that the ‘kids’ would really know more about how to conduct a human life than adults who had lived through a Depression and a World War (or two)? Could it be possible that the entire recorded history of the human race boiled down to brutish, kill-crazy guys keeping down the far more marvelous ‘women’?

Too many impossible things dutifully believed; no tires kicked, no questions asked.

James Dean must have known more than his bathrobe-bundled dad in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Brando looked so cool on that bike that he must have known more than anybody in the town his gang terrorized. The Beatles must know more than anybody else about what life really means and what it’s all about (nobody thought that about Gershwin or Cole Porter). Sinatra and Elvis really knew how to enjoy life and get the most out of it – everybody else was a chump.

It goes back that far.

Did We really think that nothing We were taught was real? Or did We just figure it was somebody else’s job? Did We have so little confidence in Ourselves that We naturally assumed that anybody with a little more cash or a little more get-up-and-go must automatically ‘know’?

Maybe, if you’re going to watch TV and movies, you really have to be anchored in a sense of your own self or else you’ll find yourself giving your life away to somebody with better teeth.

And giving your country and your heritage away to … well, various forms of sleaze and whackery. Or letting a bunch of too-eager unripes with a ‘sure idea’ of what has to be done take over the controls.

The Founding generation feared all of that. And they feared that the citizenry would not be up to the job of being The People.

Were they right? They wouldn’t be happy that their worst fears have come to pass.

Would they be surprised? I don’t think so – it was always in the cards that there might not be enough sturdy folks to People this contrapted Constitutional Republic. That eventually the whole thing might revert to the same old tyranny or oligarchy or absolutist State that had been the norm for almost all of human history up to that point in the late-18th century. That – after all – the whole show would turn out to be ‘Camelot’, just a bright, shining moment that its inhabitants let slip through their fingers. (That’s an anachronism, of course: none of the Founders would be familiar with the musical itself – although the plot would have been too familiar to them … they’d seen it in their nightmares.)

If only folks would ‘look at things differently’, then ‘things’ would get better. Nothing is real ‘per se’. It’s all in how you ‘look at’ it. If you hold your head the right way, then anything is on the level. Such was the 'wisdom' of the day - and for far too many still is.

A woman was just made a four-star general. Wearing pants, no less. Will her tenure at Army Materiel Command get the troops better armor? Maybe, but probably not – but that’s not the point. She’s a ‘symbol’. If people get used to ‘looking at’ her, at ‘a woman’, in a four-star general’s uniform, then that’s really what it’s all about. Don’t ask for facts about her specifically – embrace the ‘symbolism’. It’s a symbol of a great victory. Or, actually, the symbol is the victory. Which is kind of way too symbolic for the present mess the Army’s in. But then, the men haven’t done a very good job. So what the hey?

Anyway, We are rapidly approaching the situation of the once-mighty Royal Navy, that now has more admirals than it has ships, even little ones. But it’s still a nice symbol. Perhaps they’ll make her Chairman of the Joint Chiefs just in time to preside over the withdrawal of the Army from the Middle East. Or its encirclement. Or its being hired out – like Hessians of yore – to whomever has the cash to pay its bills. But the symbolism of a woman ‘Chief’ – ooooh. That’s progress. Chardonnay all around, barkeep! And make it the good stuff!

The British people – before the ink was even dry on the German instruments of surrender – voted Winston Churchill out of office forthwith. They knew what they’d had to live through since September of 1940; they sort of knew what was coming down the pike at them in the second half of the 1940s. They had had enough of flags and glory; they had saved Western civilization, they were flat broke, and it was somebody else’s turn now. They brought him back, a few years later, and he loved it – but there was no British Empire any longer; he was a museum piece, reminding them in a hazy golden glow of the time when once they had been a Great Power.

There is no ‘America’ that’s going to come and relieve Us of the burden. The whole concept of Novus Ordo Seclorum (it’s on the money) was entrusted to Us. And We’ve pretty much let it slip through Our fingers.

The world goes back to something much less than it was when the Founding vision was kept alive. We have failed to tend the flame. Maybe it’s not so strange that failed priests are all the rage as objects of derision nowadays: maybe this is a whole country of failed guardians, just looking to get by or get away. Like Mussolini when Hitler’s commandos scooped him off his mountain-top prison, hoping to thank his Fuhrer and then ask for cabfare back to his hometown in Italy – quiet Predappio - where he’d jus t like to settle down and get back to normal and leave history – what there was of it – to somebody else now.

Hitler and History had other ideas. And Mussolini was no longer in a position to ‘make’ history. How fast time changed for him. Not long before, just a few years, he could even make trains run on time.

If We slept through those history lessons the last time, it seems they’re coming around again. Buckle up.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008


Steven Thomma of McClatchy has an article, ‘Public distrust of government could hobble Obama’. ( ).

I think it was Mark Schmitt of ‘The American Prospect’ who in the most recent issue said something to the effect that if people don’t trust government, then that’s bad for democracy.
So this thread seems to be floating around. As well it should be.

The first thing that comes to me is that the Founders built a complexly counter-balanced Constitution pretty much telegraphing the fact that they didn’t trust government.

Or perhaps: they didn’t quite trust the citizenry to rise to the occasion of acting as The People (Lincoln ran further with that ball). But they also expected that the Branches would not ‘trust’ each other. What balanced the machine was that through a certain professional ‘distrust’, the Branches would keep each other honest. While none of the Branches, being composed of human beings subject to original sin or the Enlightenment equivalent of ‘natural human frailties’, would be perfect in its disinterested and honest dedication to the public and common weal, yet they would each ‘help’ the others from straying too far down the paths of a self-serving official treachery, a betrayal of the common weal and the public interest in the service of pursuing their own interests.

In this sense, nobody should ‘trust’ the government: whether for religious or philosophical reasons long-established in the West, and based on a centuries’ long or millennia’ long observation and experience, human beings no matter how highly placed – indeed especially those who are highly placed – cannot be presumed to be doing the right thing. Many tires have to be kicked, and probably not a few asses. It’s Nature’s way, and God’s will. Selah.

There is a ‘regulation’ built into the Constitution because there is a great probability that sooner or later some derangement of the machine’s human elements will occur. ‘Deregulation’ is thus in a sense contrary to the interests of democracy, and is indeed contrary to everything We might expect from human nature.

Of course, when in the interests of running their own revolution the Second Wave of Feminism (2WF) led the way in deconstructing ‘human nature’ – claiming that there was no ‘human nature’ to which anybody had to conform or the authority of which anyone had to respect or under which anyone need be ‘oppressed’ – they undercut (whether purposely or not is another question) the concept of ‘regulation’.

Blended with the Boomer-Hippie urges to tear down any speed bumps, fences, or walls that would interfere with the groovy flow of Luv and – by the by – sex … well, you can see what a powerful brew was going to be dribbling, and then pouring, out of the national still that was the late Sixties. Eager not to seem fuddy-duddies the Dems blessed it all, bestowing upon it the full faith, credit and authority of the federal government to the extent that they controlled it, telling themselves, it now appears, that the ‘liberations’ of the later Sixties were of a piece with the liberations of the civil rights legislation of the early Sixties, the concern for the ‘little people’ exemplified by the New Deal, and the general traditional American concern for ever-increasing freedom and liberation.

They were, perhaps, more than a little too generous in their assessment of things and of themselves.

So ‘regulation’ was undercut philosophically long before it was repealed and watered down and otherwise deconstructed by policy and statute. (Except – Dr. Freud to Consulting One stat! – for certain stigmatized groups of folks who, marvelously, were to be ‘totally’ regulated.)

At this point We have every reason to be very parsimonious in Our investment of ‘trust’ in the government, in each of the Branches.

But this is as it should be. As that remarkable Prime Branch of Constitutional government called The People, it is for Us rather to place Our trust in the Founders’ Constitutional vision of how things must work. It is not for Us to ‘trust’ individuals or, at this late and dangerous point, ‘government’ or the Branches.

Of course, several newer generations of Americans and many who are only recently arrived, no longer have or have never had a lively and robust appreciation of just how things have to work for a democracy under this Constitutional vision to properly work. The People need not – indeed cannot possibly – involve themselves in every single aspect of administering national affairs or ensuring that – among other things – ‘the laws be faithfully executed’. That is not the role of The People.

It is the role of The People to keep the Branches honest, as the Branches – all cozied up there inside the Beltway (formerly known, by General Sherman as “the fleshpots of Washington City”) - are supposed to keep each other honest, aware as they must be of each others’ less Constitutionally salubrious predilections. Sort of like alcoholics in AA keeping an eye on each other, familiar as each is with all the old weaknesses and the dodges that enable the slide back down into the abyss.

Of course, the Founders’ worst nightmare would be that all the Branches would become debauched, and that The People themselves would become debauched. That is a process that would take years – decades – and would require a highly concentrated and sustained effort by an astounding array of the politically powerful and the educated, and ‘the free press’ as well. Only in their worst nightmares might the Founders have imagined this country in the past forty or so years.

But so it has come to pass.

It’s hard to say what Mr. Obama is going to do. If he actually understands the tremendous rot that has already set in, and wishes to do everything possible to start the cure, and if he is yet cautious enough to realize that it can’t be done overnight or even overtly – so entrenched is the disease – then he may have to do a great deal of tacking and one-step forward/three-quarters-step back. No Hercules can clean out this stable overnight – the Augean kine are humans, after all, there in the Beltway, and quite capable of a very human demonry when they perceive themselves and their habits threatened.

It would help if The People were to find a way to keep a close eye, on them and on him.
On him, a benevolent but gimlet eye, the eye of independent souls who are used to having to hold things together in the face of misfortune and the ‘frailties and weaknesses of human nature’.
On them, at this point, as a People who have already been fooled once, twice, and a hundred times, and a People alert enough to their own survival and their own responsibilities to realize that it won’t take much more for these bloated and tax-fattened kine (and not a few swine) to knock out the last roof supports for the whole Stable. We lose the barn and We lose the farm. It’s come to that now.

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