Friday, December 26, 2008


Gabriel Sherman reports in ‘The New Republic’ about another Oprah-hyped ‘story’ that has turned out to be too good to be true.

We are familiar now, perhaps, with the script of this sort of thing. A politically-correct minority, some form of self-reported ‘victim’, tells a heart-warming story that a) reinforces the victimhood, b) demonstrates a certain ‘pluck’, while c) containing enough ‘sad’ elements to pluck the heartstrings of the studio audience (a creature that deserves a long article of its own) and provide the pretext for a ‘warm’ and ‘rich’ empathy-fest on camera that will beam out to open the eyes, hearts, and pocketbooks of the viewing audience.

In this case, a Jewish gentleman now retired from television repair who lives in Miami, was told not long ago by his deceased mother in a vision that he should finally ‘share’ his ‘story’: while a young inmate at one of the sub-camps of the infamous Buchenwald in the winter of 1944-45, he met a young girl, Jewish but masquerading as a Gentile, who came up to the camp fence every day for seven months and tossed him food, until he is transferred suddenly to another camp.

It goes on.

Having survived the camps, living in Coney Island and in his 20s in 1957, he winds up on a blind date with a young Polish immigrant who tells of tossing apples to a young boy in a concentration camp.


In my immediately previous Post I talked about how Rove and the rest of the Bush gang had rather cleverly if unscrupulously taken advantage of “History, with its flickering lamp”, threading their machinations through the dim and confused miasm of recent American society’s “rich” chaos, using the greasy smoke and fog to provide just enough ‘plausibility’ or ‘plausible deniability’ to effect their darkling purposes.

And I mentioned that this rotted plan is made a whole lot easier when so many citizens can no longer distinguish, or perhaps care to distinguish, between truth and fantasy.

Now this incident here is a clear example of how something that would appear both ‘liberal’ and ‘well intentioned’ can wind up weakening the bridge that carries truth over the swamps of falsehood.

This is not the first time that Oprah – and she is hardly alone – has supported the type of ‘story’ that contain all the elements dear to the dampdreams of ‘sensitivity’ and the desire to see the hundred flowers of empowerment bloom, and with a happy ending to boot. In fact, her business plan seems to have more than a little in common with Rawls’s jury-rigging of a ‘philosophy’ that would do pretty much the same thing – a business enterprise for which he, like many financial whizzes on the ‘other’ side of the ideological divide, was far too richly rewarded, in this life anyway.

Nor does it seem to do much good to find out truth. ‘Truth’ after all is just ‘facts’, and to the true believer ‘facts don’t matter’. In fact, to be so ‘insensitive’ as to attempt to ascertain the truth of reported ‘facts’ is seen in many circles as merely the irrefutable evidence that you ’just don’t get it’.

What We have so often seen among ‘fundamentalists’ appears to be equally true of much ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ discourse and its ‘stories’: it’s more of a pep-talk to buck up the converted than an actual factual appraisal of what’s really going on.

Which is fine for a some sort of therapy, but hardly the basis of determining public policy, foreign or domestic.

And this is the huge and lethal disconnect: ‘stories’ have come to be more important in political and public and civic discourse than thinking and deliberating and ascertaining reality (let alone truth).

This, of course, is a hallmark of revolutionary praxis: you grasp public authority and then use it to impose your ‘story’, ruthlessly suppressing dissent or any of those ‘stubborn’ facts that tend to indicate that your revolutionary vision and objectives have some serious holes in them. Lenin and Stalin were masters at this … for all the good it did them, or the Russian people.

And it’s the reason that Obama cannot be expected to ‘fix’ things – he is up against a game-plan that has been embraced by both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, by both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and has been thus going on for decades. Both Parties have been taken over by elements that seek only to impose their visions, facts and consequences being irrelevant, so long as ‘the vision’ is beaten and pounded into the public mind and public policy until it constitutes a ‘fact on the ground’, a piece of the national furniture that nobody even thinks – or dares – to question.

So, in this particular story, you’re not going to get too far with the audience if you ask: how can anybody get close to ‘the fence’ of a concentration camp? And in winter, where the snow would leave tell-tale tracks? And keep repeating it for months on end? And would inmates – especially in such dire circumstances as obtained in the camps – allow a single youth to enjoy such a benefice?

Nor can that now-all-too-familiar deceiver – spectral evidence – trump any sustained thought: having one’s dead mother issue instructions in a vision that only you can see is perhaps possible, but hardly constitutes any publicly useful justification for an action. Have the postmodernists and assorted Theorists de-authorized ‘God’ and ‘ideals’ and ‘metaphysics’ as grounds for action, only to replace those lost gems with ‘visions’ and ‘repressed memories’ and ‘hopes’ and ‘stories’?

The ‘sensitivity’ revolution, riding on the back of deconstructionism, seems to have erased ‘God’, ‘religion’, ‘tradition’, ‘common sense’ and ‘philosophy’ (the revered Rawls excepted) only to introduce and impose an even more primal panoplium of ‘feelings’ and ‘stories’. I’m not feeling the civilizational progress here.

Apparently, the assumption is that if you can make folks feel good, and make a few bucks, then who’s to say what’s true and what isn’t? And so what anyway? People need feelings and thinking is so … ‘male’.

Surely, having watched Bush and his better-educated associates for the better part of a decade, We can discount the assertion that thinking is an indispensable element of male-ness. Nor, watching Condi Rice, does it appear to be factory-installed in females either.

Thinking is an indispensable element of ‘maturity’, but to the revolutionary method, ‘maturity’ only gets in the way. Stalin made it a point to seek out all the mature-minded folks in Poland … and shot them. It was a preventive sort of thing, since he could figure that sooner or later they’d get in the way of the great Soviet future for Poland. And as it turns out, ‘maturity’ was one of the first things to come under fire here some decades ago. I’m guessing that ‘mature’ people don’t go stand in line and build their year around sitting in the audience galleries of TV studios. But maybe I’m thinking too much.

There is a pattern in the dots here. Something connects ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, feminists and macho-ists – something that binds them together equally in dangerousness: the disregard for fact and reality and truth, and the substitution of fact, reality, and truth with feeling and fantasy.

And if this has also been insinuated into public education as well as into the general public ‘sense’, then generations are growing up without the tools and skills and self-development that the species has struggled millennia to acquire.

And that can’t be good.


Associated Press reports now that the author and alleged recipient of the apples has stated that “it’s a work of memory, not scholarship”. I’d like to unpack that, because – to restate its significance – it gives Us a clear glimpse into something that has gone very very wrong in American culture over the past several decades, and has spilled over into politics, jurisprudence, academia, media reporting and journalism, foreign policy, and the financial sector.

The author’s statement sets up an implied distinction between memory and truth-accurac: If I remember it this way, then I don’t have to take responsibility for its truth and accuracy – because that’s (only) for “scholarship”.


Truth has been reduced from some requirement to correspond to the facts of a given matter, to simply being ‘whatever I and maybe my supporters think it is’. If you ‘get’ my truth, then fine – and if you don’t ‘buy’ it, then don’t buy it.

Of course, in the matter of politics it gets worse: if you don’t ‘get’ the truth, then you’re an obstruction to ‘justice’ and are obstructionist and maybe Evil, so you are going to have to keep your mouth shut or you will indeed ‘get’ it.

In the ‘world’ created by shows like Oprah’s, which coincide – and I don’t think coincidentally – with the rise of a more feminist or female sensibility, it’s the ‘story’ that counts, not whether it’s ‘true’ (which is such a ‘male’ thing anyway). This is not a particularly new dynamic: stories have always counted more than truth and facts in the fairy tales that used to be read to kids.

Remarkably, the same dynamic holds true for revolutionary imposition of the vanguard-elite ‘vision’. And that should have raised red flags 35 or 40 years ago; it probably did, but Political Correctness was immediately deployed to prevent the flaggers from sharing their insight. Between ‘visions’ and ‘fairy tales’ there is some fundamental similarity, in dynamic if not in content. Nor do I say this in some sort of cutesy way to ‘trump’ particular vision of how things might be – We will die as a civilization and a culture without ‘vision’, as Scripture sayeth.

But if you’re going to start turning fairy-tale-level dynamics loose, in a society where you’re already ‘valorizing’ ‘feelings’ over thinking, and where you’ve given the vote to a whole lotta persons who aren’t really very far removed from their own fairy-tale time in the playpen, then you’ve got to ask yourself if letting all those variables loose and then turning up the pressure and the heat to speed up the process and then calling whatever happens ‘progress’ … well, that’s not how you’re going to get a science merit-badge.

Yes, ‘visions’ are an essential part of a mature life, individually and societally. But to take a personal mental image and the emotions it evokes and then figure that the image is totally and immediately transferrable into ‘reality’, and into public policy and law, and by imposition rather than deliberation, and without assessing any possible downsides in the form of consequences (expected or unexpected) or skepticism of one sort or another … well, that’s what the Fundamentalists have been doing with their Bible-haunted religious excitements for a century or more. Nor did they do Us much good service when they managed to achieve Ascendancy in the already addled swamp-pots of the Beltway milieu. Gack.

And if one’s ‘memory’ needn’t conform to any truth or reality that actually happened, then how in the blessed frak are courts supposed to determine actual guilt or innocence? A ‘memory’ – whether repressed or not – is pretty much ‘spectral evidence’ insofar as nobody else on earth can see it to assess it. This is medieval praxis and thinking. I’m not feeling the progress here.

Of course, in revolutionary justice (as in military justice) it’s not about the Process of finding truth; it’s about the symbolic value of the Outcome – of convicting the designated target. The ‘symbolic’ is the level on which both revolutionary and Identity justice operates: just churn out enough convictions on the basis of this or that ‘story’ – as ‘remembered’ – so that your target class will ‘get’ it. This has its concurrent ‘positive’ pole: it’s not competence, it’s the symbolic value – so make enough of ‘us’ this or that, give them this or that highly responsible position whether they can do the job or not because it’s really only the ‘symbolic’ value that matters. Competence is a ‘guy’ thing anyway; it’s so Industrial Age, and that’s gone. Oh yeah – it’s gone, baby, gone.

And, although I don’t want to be simplistic or reductionist here, I will point out that after several decades of such crapulous dynamics We wound up with (not to say ‘elected’) the most incompetent (as well as the most venal and treacherous) Presidential administration in American history – twice.

And the similarity between fairy-tale and ‘story’ holds for consequences to the mind as well as to public policy. A democracy where the citizenry are processing input (not to say ‘information’)
in fairy-tale mode is going to be in big trouble. It’s citizens are not ‘thinking’, not assessing or deliberating, but rather are processing with their feeling and their ‘gut’ (remarkably, the ‘sensitive’ and the macho – think Bush – wind up dealing with life the same way!). Gack again.

There is indeed – didn’t Kathlik thought know this centuries and millennia ago? – a powerful level of human being beyond thought and mind. But unlike the ‘modern’ presumption of Freud’s era and the Enlightenment before him, that ‘feelings’ are wild and untamed and dangerous, the role of feeling is essential to true and full human-being. But feeling is meant to work in partnership with thought, as both heart and mind are trained to work at the higher end of their respective range.

This is not at all to deny that there appears to be a difference in how the female and male process and value life’s ‘input’. Just the opposite appears very much to be true; there is indeed something to the ‘Venus-Mars’ difference. And that would seem very logical, since Nature (or whatever you prefer to call it) has arranged things so that the female of the species must be the first nurturer of the young, while the male must keep things moving in the wider world.

Nor am I denying Betty Freidan’s insight in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (all those decades ago) that somehow ‘housewives’ adapt to the suburban home-making routine in some ways similar to how Dachau inmates settled into their fate in the camp: with a dis-spirited, alienated passivity that amounted to an abdication of the possibilities of one’s genuine and ‘highest’ self. Although Ma Joad seemed to do quite a bit, as did the sturdy women of the frontier who turned out to be as gimlet-eyed as the boys they raised and sent off to the Civil War. But postwar suburbia did not offer the stern and bloody challenges of the frontier that kept one – male or female – very much in touch with the ‘adventure’ and indeed the ‘agon’ inherent in life, what the Renaissance Italians referred to as life’s terribilita.

I think American religion missed a huge opportunity to educate believers into the higher ranges of perceiving the drama and indeed adventure of living a Graced life when so many of the ancient material challenges had been greatly reduced. Instead, American religion – all the religious faiths – simply sank into the same materially-defined miasm of the ‘burbs as their congregants (Richard Yates’s ‘Revolutionary Road’, now out in a film, captured something of the awefull Flatness of the postwar ‘burbers). The Fundamentalists certainly did their best to keep their religion ‘exciting’, but with an immaturity – spiritual as well as psychological and emotional – that reduced their efforts to a dangerous level of agitation and, again dangerously, a near-idolatry of ‘the powers that be’, which in a democracy is as dangerous as ‘passivity’.

Woe to Us: in the early ‘70s the Republicans sought to build on the South and its fundamentalistic and militaristic frenzy for adventures and the frenzied dampdreams of nationalistic, Rightist, corporatist ‘patriotism’; meanwhile the Democrats decided to cut the New Deal, Industrial Age ‘working man’ (and woman) loose, and embrace a post-industrial, feminist-friendly ‘knowledge’ polity and economy while pooh-poohing the ability to think, reason, and deliberate individually and communally. Gack again. And again.

And here We are.


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Thursday, December 25, 2008


Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith write about “Will War Crimes Be Outed?” in an article originally in ‘The Nation’ but also on Truthout, and available here.

It will be interesting to see if We can judge Ourselves with as much gimlet-eyed clarity as We did the Nazi functionaries 60-odd years ago. Going out and renting ‘Judgment at Nuremberg” from 1961, drawing near to the flint and glint of a by-then-craggy Spencer Tracy’s back-country judge, and sensing the heat and sharpness of his focus on truth and justice, and then imagining some of Our own Beltway macher and their enablers trying to swing into their vaudeville in the unwavering beam of that steely glare … well, that’s an exercise in a sort of civic prayer, the kind that the lesser-visioned might accompany with popcorn, but the larger-souled with sackcloth-and-ashes. Feel free to try it.

Tracy’s judge is rooted like a rock in concepts of decency and truth and professional responsibility – especially when one wields the power of high justice . Such a ‘character’ is not to be found inside the Beltway these days … anywhere. And to the pleas that in the service of a ‘larger good’ or of the ‘needs of the People and Nation’ certain allowances must – ach! – be made by any ‘responsible’ official, especially one of the ‘elite’ who ‘know’ … he is unmoved. Like an Old Testament prophet, or like an Old Testament ‘God’, his gaze – bearing within it a steady and solid stream of truth – he is unswerving. Perhaps his is a ‘moral equivalent’ to war, a moral equivalent to Sherman’s orders to his subordinate commanders: we are here to march from Atlanta and take Savannah , so do not let yourselves be distracted from the road.

Neither the fuzzy ‘optimism’ of the Sixties hippy nor the everything-is-good-because-nothing-is-bad deconstruction of the Seventies social-revolutionaries would tolerate such ‘rigidity’, such ‘judgmentalism’. Are We the better for that? Nor is this a subtle refutation of such social progress as has been made in recent decades. But such progress – to the extent that it actually is progress – should always have been seen truthfully for what it represented: as both a desirable ‘good’ and a tremendously fraught challenge that would require the most careful and deliberated calibration to avoid creating at least as much regression as progress, if not perhaps more.

At this point The People are comprised of so many who have been raised in such an atmosphere, who have grown to an adulthood built on the bright, shifty sands of ‘life’s a beach’ rather than the hard, straight surfaces of a Road that must be travelled without distraction.

It’s curious that as the military virtues inculcated by the military service of so many Americans in World War Two have faded – such that the citizenry have become less ‘military’ – yet the government has sought to militarize the citizenry. At the higher end of its range, military service inculcates habits of self-organization and self-discipline and teamwork and an abiding alertness to one’s surroundings and an unsleeping questioning as to whether ‘this’ contemplated action will yield the needed results and at what cost; this is distinct from what used to be thought of as the ‘civilian’ approach: less of all that – a more expansive concern for the self’s comforts and amusements, less awareness of the ‘cost’ of everything, measured against a ‘goal’ or an ‘objective’, less trellis-ing of the individual on an overriding purpose.

Yet as those qualities faded from the national characteristics – or withered under the dual assaults of death and deconstruction - the increasingly Shape-less citizenry came to rely on the government, as if it were an exo-skeleton, for purpose and objective and discipline and – oy! – meaning itself.

No government deserves that much dependence. And not Washington or Jefferson or Jackson or Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt would have expected it or thought it healthy from a civic point of view. The current generations have wound up as ‘other-directed’ as the Fifties’ popular sociologists had feared those generations were becoming. Though few wear ‘gray flannel suits’ anymore, yet many are indeed ‘organization’ folks, unable to stand on their own, detached from their own interior strengths, ignorant (and thus at the mercy) of their weaknesses, penned up in a flatness fenced and policed by forces – social and ‘business’ then, ‘patriotic’ and governmental now – outside of themselves. The new film ‘Revolutionary Road’ doesn’t simply limn the aimless emptiness of the Fifties and its ‘adults’, but touches more deeply into the great abyss of meaninglessness lurking in all human beings, against which the adult must early and ever strive to impose a Shape and bring forth order and fruit from such dull chaos. Nor could the moist though brightly colored clay of a James Dean or Brando’s defiant-biker offer a reliably constructive and life-giving alternative, one that would put a firm foundation under a citizen capable of taking one’s place among The People. And the Republic is thus greatly diminished. As We are now seeing.

What can We expect at this point from a political leadership that has for decades shaped itself in such a way as to profitably deal with an increasingly dependent citizenry? The pols are clay – whether mushy or brittle – because the citizenry who elect them have become, in far too many instances, mushy or brittle.

And like the urban crowds ever milling about in the HBO series “Rome”, We now appear to them and their corporate masters and media enablers as nothing more than a milling mass of sheep, to be placated (millions of anything – even sheep – can cause a lot of trouble if they stampede) while the ‘great ones’, the magnates and the optimes pursue their various plots and plans.

But I can’t let pass a point raised by “law professors Anthony D’Amato and Jordan J. Paust (the latter a Professor at Northwestern School of Law): Obama is required to faithfully execute the laws and if credible accusations of law-breaking are put forth, he cannot choose whether or not to investigate.

True enough.

But Professor Paust is also a former Army JAG and, as well, on the faculty of the “Judge Advocate General’s School”. So I have to point out what I have pointed out several times before, especially in Posts in the latter months of 2006 and the Spring of 2007: in the matter of war crimes and the endless ‘insults’ to the rule of law and the spirit of American law, the military justice system is not the redeemer of the present unholy situation; it is rather the source, fount, and origin of it. Bush did not oppose military law; he simply took it recklessly to a higher level, one dangerously more exposed to the possibility of public view (and, hopefully, review).

I make no judgment as to the integrity of Professor Paust’s personal position. An ‘upside’ to the catastrophe of the past several years is that there are now younger JAGs (Paust himself is only a Captain at this point) who refuse to acquiesce in the prostitution of Western law as it applies to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, to torture and ‘enhanced interrogation’ (that phrase borrowed shamelessly from Himmler). Or he may be simply contributing – knowingly or not – to the JAGs’ effort to save their core operation by getting themselves out in front of the exposure of Bushist illegality, hoping that We will unthinkingly make the inference that if the JAGs are ‘against illegality’ then their system of military justice must be ‘good’.

And that inference would not be justified.

The system itself is the problem: ‘company justice’, where the legal system is seen as an arm of the command that brings the charges to begin with, and where all the players are on the same side except the defendant him/herself.

Surely, if Congress were to pass legislation to the effect that the General Motors Corporation is so essential and unique that it should be allowed to have such authority over its employees that it can prosecute the entire criminal code – using judges, prosecutors, investigators, defense counsel, and jury members in the pay of the Corporation, and assuming that almost all of the witnesses would also be employees of the Corporation … if Congress were to do that, We would not, could not, stand for it.

Yet staging such a kabuki is precisely what the military system does.

We are currently seeing the emergence of a debate about the Federal Reserve that bears much relevance to the problem. In 1913 Wilson (who later bitterly acknowledged that he had ‘ruined his country’ by doing it) got Congress to go along with the erection of the Federal Reserve authority. In essence, Congress ‘delegated’ its constitutional control over the money supply, and delegated it to gentlepersons who, for all their specialized knowledge, had a very great deal to personally gain from such control. There was, and always has been, a profound constitutional question as to whether Congress even has the authority to ‘delegate’ its power over the currency and the money supply to some other entity.

A few years later, on the eve of World War 1, the military – unsleeping in its sharp lookout for the aggrandizement o fits authority and its role - approached Congress and sought the authority to prosecute not only the old Articles of War, but rather the entire criminal code, through its courtsmartial. In order to do an end-run around the clear strictures that the Constitution placed on Congressionally-erected courts (so-called Article Three courts, named after that section of the Constitution governing judicial procedure), the generals proposed that Congress ‘delegate’ its authority to the military, although the military’s command authority stemmed from Article Two, the Executive; Congress, thus, would be delegating its power to the Executive - and precisely, its power over criminal process, so carefully structured by the Founders. The Constitution and the Founders most specifically did not want the Executive to be running a criminal court system; the Founders recalled such legal abominations as the Court of Star Chamber, that answered to the Crown and the Sovereign as late as the era of Tudor and Elizabethan England.

But Congress’s enabling of the Federal Reserve authority just a few years before was a ‘delegation’ that had breached the firewall, and the generals were trained to take advantage of any breach of any wall that limited or confined their authority and range of operation.

There remains the profound Constitutional question as to whether Congress even has the power to make that delegation. And thus whether the military has or has ever had any right to conduct ‘criminal’ justice. Indeed, it was not until the Gingrich Ascendancy in 1994 that the military felt ‘safe’ enough to suddenly label its assorted ‘courts’ and investigative services as ‘criminal’: thus the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (irony, alas, is lost on the Pentagon mind), among others. These pretensions were therefore formalized only recently, and effected ‘overnight’ (think of how much it cost to change all the badges, stationery, door and building signs, and templates for court documents).

This question joins the older and rather clear problem in the Constitution: in the Fifth Amendment the Founders clearly placed a comma in such a way as to forbid the military to conduct its own trials of its soldiers except in time of war.* That’s how nervous the Founders were not only about a standing army, but about an army dispensing’ justice’ through its command structure.

The current codification of the military justice system – the Uniform Code of Military Justice – was deployed in 1950, only after the generals had stiffed Harry Truman for five years; Truman had been deluged by complaints about military justice from returning vets in 1945 and even General Jimmy Doolittle’s blue-ribbon commission recommended major changes to reduce the very ‘command influence’ that was the precise reason the generals wanted to be a so-called Executive court rather than an Article Three court (bound by all the Constitutional strictures).

How to keep their ‘criminal’ power without accepting the Constitutional strictures? The generals and the JAGs borrowed from Stalin’s playbook of the mid-1930s: if you own all the players, you can make all the ‘guarantees’ and pious promises you want, even in writing, because when push came to shove your players would perform exactly as you wanted them to. The players in this case being the judges, prosecutors, investigators, defense counsel, and any witness in uniform who wanted to keep his or her job.

Truman was displeased, and said so publicly. But it was the Cold War and the Commies were everywhere. He couldn't afford to take on the Pentagon and a hive of career-hungry lawyers.

And here We are.

As the citizenry becomes less able to Shape their own individual lives, as the government intends to exercise even more power over them for ‘national security’ or for their own good, a militarized justice system will serve the purposes of control far more efficiently than the ‘old’ (perhaps ‘quaint’?) Constitutional system of adversarial justice.

Things are taking an ominous turn indeed.

Now Bush has gone and thrown the whole racket into the bright light of day, and the JAGs have to do something to save their core racket, as well as avoid getting themselves into … ummm … a ‘Nuremberg situation’ where they will have to fall back on the ‘only following orders’ defense.

Before they had sunk to the level where they made the Emperor’s horse a god, the Roman Senate exercised a crucial wariness of uniforms and swords operating anywhere except far away on the fields of actual battle. Caesar’s grafting of a military and imperial template upon the old Republic spelled its doom. And Rome did not end well, nor did its Citizens.

This was a lesson not lost on the Founders.

Our dependence on things military – on government – almost to the exclusion of any personal independence of spirit and vision, of personal and civic character, will continue to corrode even as it corrupts The People.

This is Our rendezvous with destiny. This is the challenge of Our time.

* The actual text is: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger".

Note the effect of the comma after "Militia"; it extends the following phrase ("when in actual service ...") to cover both of the preceding clauses ("or in the Militia" and "except in cases ...").

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I just finished “The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History”, by the University of Georgia professor Peter Charles Hoffer, published – interestingly – by the University Press of Kansas in 1997.

I have on occasion noted the similarity in dynamics between the witchcraft trials and certain modern American legal ‘reforms’ of the past few decades – those related to domestic violence and ‘sex offenses’ being only the most notorious.

I have also noted the dangerous revolutionary tendency to see the Law as being ‘at war’, and that its ‘truth’ is somewhat fungible, the integrity of its means and processes being at the service of whatever ‘end’ is politically useful. And in that regard, I have noted in passing the Rawlsian maxims that no law (let alone Law) should be allowed to stand in the way of (his concept of) ‘justice’ and ‘rights’, and that courts, under the best-and-brightest guidance of (Rawlsian) academics, should without further ado demonstrate their superior wisdom by vigorously inserting themselves into matters far too important to be left to the lumpen citizenry and their too-often lumpen elected representatives.

At some point, I have to spend more time with the thought that Rawls created a generation of ‘whiz kids’ who have done for America domestically what JFK’s and LBJ’s ‘whiz kids’ did for the country with their long and enthusiastic support for the disastrous adventure in Vietnam. When you come right down to it, I’d say that Rawls – his minions still active in academia, the law and the law schools, and even on the Bench in state and federal courts – should be far more feared than Robert McNamara, the brothers Bundy, Rostow and the rest of that gang.

While even the most prudent citizen often feels incompetent (and not inappropriately so) to make a judgment as to matters historical, very few citizens feel similarly about matters that have been draped in the sacred and mysterious veils of ‘philosophy’ , which – through a collective trahison that still has not received its condign deserts – was precisely what was done for the Rawlsian mélange.

Whereby We are most grievously bethumpt even unto the present day.

But that’s for another Post. On to this book, which has prompted a few thoughts.

Hoffer notes that the Salem trials were comprised of both ‘modern’ and ‘premodern’ legal elements. By ‘modern’, he meant certain procedures such as juries and the government – as opposed, say, to the complainants – being in charge of the prosecution. “But”, he notes, “there were no lawyers for the defendants, and the ideal of a fair trial was overwhelmed by superstition and rumor”. Thus the ‘premodern’ legal elements.

Worse, “throughout [the proceedings], the Salem cases were dominated not by book law, that is, written rules scrupulously followed by professional officials of the court, but by folk beliefs shared by the judges, the witnesses, and even the accused”. The results of such infestations within the operating precincts of the legal amphitheatre are plain for all to see nowadays, and actually were clear to some hardy and insightful minds even as the trials were being conducted.

So much for Our self-indulgent tendency to hope that We will be judged as an ‘age’ that did the best according to its lights; there are always those who speak the truth in any age – but the age refuses to look where they are pointing.

Partly as a result of the frightening example of what can happen when an entire community actually stampedes in such a way as to break down its own legal principles, and the judges stampede as well, American justice learned from the blood that was shed by numerous women and men on the authority of Salem death-warrants and consequently instituted “highly technical rules of evidence”.

This was a clear example of vital progress being purchased at the price of lethal and bloody miscarriages of justice; miscarriages, that – unlike crimes themselves – were clearly recognized for what they were even before they brought forth their noxious fruits, and which might well have been prevented by the very citizenry and state authorities that held themselves sufficiently knowledgeable and mature to wield the solemn power of high justice.

But that didn’t happen. “It seemed the thing to do at the time” might be the defense of those who either participated significantly or who looked on and approved, or those who held their tongues for fear of being labeled a ‘witch’ themselves simply for trying to point out what was actually going on. But who in the dock at Nuremberg could not have attempted the same defense? As many of them did. Or tried to do.

The fatal legal step was the judicial decision to admit ‘spectral evidence’ – evidence that could not be seen by the jury as finder of fact or by the judge, or indeed by anybody else except the accusers (and of course by the alleged ‘witch’, whose assertion that s/he could not see it was considered to be merely demonic lying). This was not in 1692 a necessary outcome. By that time English law had developed somewhat beyond medieval practices and assumptions , progressing to a requirement for and a reliance on observable facts that could be considered by a jury.

But witchcraft cases constituted an unusual sort of ‘crime’: they were by definition un-see-able. Witches and witchery (male as well as female) operated on a level beyond the material world of perceptible actions. Less than 30 years before, in 1664 at Bury St. Edmunds, Chief Justice Hale had permitted spectral evidence in light of the gravity of the threat that witchcraft posed to the citizens and the realm.

So, given the gravity of the threat – the ‘emergency’, one might say – the fundamental anchor that grounded the trials in any semblance of palpable and provable reality, or truth, was pulled away, and by the very guardians of the law themselves.

Once that was done, “there was no way to limit credulity”, or incredibility, and “the door was opened to all manner of evidence”. And since spectral evidence was evidence that “only the victim” could see, the possibility for grievous legal mischief was dangerously enlarged.

Nor – the whole dynamic feeding on and off the fears of the citizenry and the judges – were any clearly illogical complications allowed to be noticed. So, for example, although the ‘specters’ which (only) the accuser/victims could allegedly see were by definition “sent by the devil”, who was universally acknowledged as a trickster and a deceiver, yet these specters – when they purportedly established the relationship of the accused witch to the demonic realm – were instantly and fully credited as irrefutable evidence of the accused’s guilt.

And why on earth would a witch – so given to secrecy and darkness – reveal him/herself by tormenting the accuser/victims spectrally at precisely the moment when accused, accuser(s), and judges were all present in the courtroom, in the bright light of day, specifically for the purpose of unmasking the suspected witch? Nobody in the room would venture to think up an answer to that.

In light of the ‘emergency’, that was not only thinking-too-much, but it was also liable to get you accused yourself.

But a few hardy souls, and not of low estate, saw and stood up.

After the special court erected by the governor to try the cases rapidly executed an elderly and disliked crone by the name of Bridget Bishop, in a manner so legally repugnant that one of the judges – Saltonstall – resigned from the court, a junior Boston minister – Samuel Willard – spoke out against the regression to medieval forms of proof, the suspiciously uniform and over-the-top behavior of the accusers, the absurd performance of a clearly demented ‘witness’, and the absence of even a modicum of due process (already established in English law).

Willard did not know at the time that the second most important minister in Boston – Cotton Mather, son of the even more renowned senior minister Increase Mather – had sent a secret letter to the judges prior to the trial approving their zeal and their practices; as has been seen in far too many instances since then, professionals and academics and ministers just cannot seem to resist the opportunity to get out on the field and be a real ‘player’ – and not by courageously speaking truth to the stampede, so to speak, but rather prostituting their authority and their education to the purpose of surfing the waves of public emotion for their own benefit and purposes. I’d like to place the name of Rawls in nomination.

Willard even took to his pulpit, to exhort his own parishioners to restrain their passions and consider matters carefully. As minister in the town of Groton 20 years before he had been confronted with a similar situation – a child accusing somebody of witchcraft – and by exercising restraint and urging his congregants to do the same, had prevented the type of stampede which now held the Salem townsfolk and the judges in a death-grip.

And in an act of very dubious legality, monstrously similar to the expropriation of Japanese-American property on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor, the court seized the personal goods of executed witches; an act (formally known as ‘escheat’) which, even at the time, was acknowledged as contrary to the spirit of English law as it was by then evolving.

In the second half of September, 1692, the court was stopped cold when one of the accused refused to ‘say his lines’. Eighty year-old Giles Corey, accused with his elderly wife of being witches, refused to plead, considering the entire matter incomprehensibly unreal. The court resorted to a medieval practice at that time no longer permitted in English law, and had him pressed beneath stones until he agreed to enter a plea. He chose to die instead, un-pled and un-convicted. Even more than those of the ‘witches’ who had behaved on the gallows with a becoming Christian self-possession, Corey’s recalcitrant death – and he having survived until 80 in the 17th century and in the New World! – was a sharp splash of water (blood, actually) that started to call the crowd to its senses.

With that, Samuel Willard, many of whose brother ministers from Boston had joined him in observing the Salem trials first-hand (while Cotton Mather remained in Boston, supporting the judges with theory and sermon, while refusing to see how matters stood ‘on the ground’), took pen in hand and wrote the pamphlet “Some Miscellany Observations”. There, he joins with the opinion of many English writers that “satisfactory proof of witchcraft was almost impossible to obtain”.

It is interesting to note that the conclusion drawn by that age was that if by the very nature of a situation, satisfactory evidence is impossible to obtain, then ‘court’ was not the solution to the problem. In Our own time, much affected by revolutionary zeal, the conclusion is that ‘the courts’ must be changed so as to be able to call something – anything necessary – ‘evidence’ and so deliver a decision that will justify a desired action. This does not seem to be progress.

Willard went on that “conviction by mere suspicion … is contrary to the mind of God”, and then goes further to say that “the more horrid the crime is, the more cautious we ought to be in making any guilty of it”.

At this point, even Increase Mather, who had stayed on the sidelines as his more impetuous son led the support for the trials, realized he would have to speak his mind, cognizant that as senior minister of the colony even the governor would listen carefully. Remarkably, in October 1692 he came forth with what was to be one of the most famous, and the earliest, American treatises on evidence and rules of evidence, entitled “Cases of Conscience”. While fully acknowledging that there was a Devil who reveled in the success of his witches, Increase also asserted forthrightly that “Christian charity and legal wisdom demanded close adherence to the rules of evidence in cases of witchcraft”.

Of course, you can’t nowadays use ‘Christian wisdom’, let alone ‘charity’ as the basis of any legal reasoning.

He went on to warn that reliance on medievalisms such as spectral evidence and trial by touch (eerily echoed in the current era’s ‘victim confrontation’ rituals) would only serve to “subvert this government and disband, yea ruine, Humane Society”. Which, for legal insight, is not only progress but – compared to the quality of legal insight nowadays as to the legal system’s subversion of its own evidentiary rules – constitutes a wisdom now lost in what must be construed as a massive and sustained professional regression.

The governor needed little prodding once he had read it. He stayed the executions of five persons already convicted, ordered the special court to disregard spectral evidence, and then on further consideration, disbanded the special court altogether. ‘Special’ courts apparently have a tendency to think that they are verrrry speshull indeed, neither needing to take the usual and classic precautions in adjudication nor to consider themselves erected for any purpose except the conviction of those accused of this or that ‘special’ crime.

The legislature met and outlawed spectral evidence, but authorized the witchcraft trials to continue, which they did in early 1693.

The first thing that the re-authorized court did was to order five convicted witches whose execution had been suspended because they had been pregnant at the time of their conviction, prepared for execution. It was a shrewd move, to re-establish their authority as judges and create another firewall against eventual prosecution themselves. The governor, already a little worried about how all of this hanging was going to look back in London, stayed the court’s order while he sought instructions from the Crown.

Desperate now, the original judges, especially their chief – William Stoughton – accused the governor of being soft on witchcraft, and – eerily reminiscent of the Army generals in the Vietnam era – Stoughton claimed that he was just on the verge of “clearing the land of witches” when the governor stopped him. Real men, apparently, kill witches first and ask questions later.

In such cases (or ‘battles’?) the law is simply the tool that the truly consummate professional macher prefer, being far less messy than a mob with pitchforks and flaming torches. How positively ‘Beltway’ a philosophy. How tasteful and ‘elite’ yet ‘manly’ – a decision for all seasons, one might say.

“Without the use of spectral evidence, the cases of all but three of the thirty-one brought before the court that January ended in acquittal.”

And word came from London and the governor quashed the convictions. In May, 1693, he stopped all the trials and sent anyone convicted home. It would take the next 20 years for the legislature to grant their petitions for redress and repudiate the trials utterly.

Cotton Mather (who had been quietly supporting Stoughton in the trials all along) continued to insist that “witches can take the form of specters and specters can hurt people”; he also insisted, though nobody doubted it, that the Devil existed (so perhaps to doubt Mather was to doubt the existence of the Devil … ?). He began then to focus only on his good intentions, and felt unfairly put upon when interlocutors started to stray into questions of fact and logic in the matter of his support of the trials.

Nor, it would seem, have We progressed very far beyond such poltroonish dodging of consequences, if the Great and General Beltway be any indicator.

The Salem villagers never managed to reconcile. There were powerful clans of families on either side of the trials, and indeed – typical of clan feuds – the clan from which the accusers mostly came from did not want to face the clan from which the majority of victims came from. The original minister, one Parris, who had helped get the whole fire going and had been loyally supported by the ‘accusing’ clan, refused to acknowledge any mistakes. He left town after a few years and went into business as a merchant.

The minister of the neighboring village of Beverly, one Hale, who watched the whole thing start but refused to try to put it out, wrote up his own thoughts which he surreptitiously left with a neighboring minister to be published after he’d died (and, so to speak, ‘gotten out of town’). He concluded that “false witness and natural causes were responsible for some of the prosecutions, as well as malice and ignorance among the accusers”. Since the ‘accusers’, in modern-day scripting, would be considered the ‘victims’, Hale was an insensitive minister as well as a cowardly one; ‘getting out of town’ can be no surprise, when you look at his track record. As for what modern-day legal parlance would make of the executed ‘witches’, We might be guided by Justice Scalia’s remark about persons wrongly convicted: “Waaaal, they probably did something else wrong anyway”. I’m not feelin’ the progress here.

William Stoughton, the fire-breathing judge, eventually replaced the governor, Phips, whom he had consistently tried to undermine in order to prevent himself from being considered a malfeasant hanging judge. He never apologized and never looked back, merely repeating that he thought “the Devil had come to Massachusetts and the witches were hell-bent on doing evil all around”. There is a town in Massachusetts named Stoughton now; I wonder if there will be a Cheney-ville in whatever state spawned that spawn of the unholy.

But there were no trials of the judges themselves. Right after Giles Corey died, they had quietly held a meeting and decided that they might indeed one day be held responsible for this whole thing. They gave their supportive preacher, Cotton Mather, a summary of the trials (he would be writing a history to ‘spin’ the events); and then they ‘lost’ the original trial records.

History is not only not dead; it is repeating itself. The trials were held in 1692, the book was written in 1997 – and yet it is all so contemporary, so 2008 – if I may.

Of course, it is the human species that is repeating itself. True to its nature. And true to its tendency to what was once conveniently and hardly inaccurately called ‘original sin’.

But We are much too modern and postmodern, have progressed way too far, to be burdened with such old and outmoded concepts. We are the age of Rawls, and ‘repressed memories’ that only the rememberer can access, and preventive wars based on ‘spectral evidence’, and high officials who spin and destroy records and claim that they can only be judged on their intentions although they will simultaneously assert that their actions were not ‘actionable’ in any event. But We are not to think that We might have lost ground; that We have regressed to a more primitive level of societal and even personal functioning.

Ask yourself: are We better off today than We were 316 years ago?

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Thursday, December 18, 2008


It seemed like a catchy title. It’s inspired by an article by Mary Hunt, Ph.D., described as a “feminist theologian”. The article is entitled “Newsweek takes a bullet on gay marriage” and is available here. It is commenting on a Newsweek article whose link is within Hunt’s piece.

A few thoughts.

The ‘Newsweek’ article is a supportive piece on gay marriage. She notes that it received so much response online that the magazine’s Comments function shut down (though whether through technical dynamics or editorial/site moderator concerns is not clear). Surely there is a great deal of feeling about the matter ‘out there’ or ‘out here’ or wherever the vanguard elites are not. It recalls the point that substantive changes in a society’s and a culture’s most fundamental ways of seeing and organizing life is a huge change that requires much deliberation, or else – in a democracy anyway – a whole lotta folks are going to become alienated or mad, perhaps at the proposed change, perhaps at being bypassed in the approval-process of that change.

Stalin, of course, would have none of it. He rather thought he knew what Russia needed, as did his mentor Lenin. Consequently, adoption and implementation were not up for discussion and, indeed, any effort to ‘discuss’ was considered ‘obstructive’ and got you a trip to the Lubyanka or the nearest wall or the Gulag (take your pick on which option was the ‘luckiest’).

I’m not taking a position here on ‘gay marriage’. I’ve got some questions, starting with – I think – Gore Vidal’s observation that just as scads of ‘straight’ people are looking for exits, the gay community (lesbians included) want in. Or as one wag put it somewhere recently: Gay people want to get married … haven’t they suffered enough? Is it simply another ‘symbol’, justified as a further way to get gays ‘recognized’ as equal in status to heterosexuals? Is it that gays are equally as capable in raising children? More capable? Is it a self-esteem ‘thing’ – We recall that the ‘philosopher’ John Rawls named ‘self-esteem’ as a ‘right’ back there in the early ‘70s. Is it simply that they want – as Jesse Jackson characterized all such ‘rights’ agitations with uncharacteristic candor 15 or 20 years ago – “a bigger slice of the pie”? These are questions that most recently came to mind in the matter of the latest Army General, replete with striped pants and sensible shoes (whose contributions to the actual combat efficiency of the beleaguered Army remain to be seen, if indeed any are actually expected).

At any rate, Hunt opines that people would not be as interested in what “religions” say in a “progressive” mode about the war in Iraq or the death penalty. I’m not sure that objecting to the war in Iraq on religious or theological or moral or philosophical grounds is the private property of a “progressive” theology, especially if such a “progressive” stance includes approval of gay-marriage and – for that matter – ‘choice’. Some rectification of names is in order here, and has been for quite some time. Forty years ago ‘liberal’ theology opposed the war in Vietnam using quite ‘traditional’ arguments and reasoning, without necessarily embracing every social change that was rammed into the ‘liberal’ agenda.

But she’s right that people seem (still!) very concerned (she implies ‘too much concerned’) about what religions have to say about “matters of sexuality”. Can it be surprising? Must such ‘concern- - and so widespread and energetic – be explained away as merely obstructionism, fuddy-duddyism, and lumpish backlash by troglodytes who ‘just don’t get it’? Is it not possible that a whole lotta folks have – however unrefined their conceptual apparatus – a visceral sense that ‘sex’ is somehow a significant element in the human life and therefore in human societies and cultures?

I can’t quite grasp how simultaneously We are told that a) the ‘sexual rights’ revolution is a huge and glorious chapter in the evolution of the species and the culture and yet b) the revolution’s agenda is comprised of ‘changes’ or ‘reforms’ that aren’t really such a big deal and it’s only silly and obsessive whackjobs who would oppose or doubt them. Either this revolution is a verrrrry big deal or it isn’t. To assert both is to give rise to legitimate suspicions that manipulation rather than enlightenment is driving matters here.

It’s ‘big’and ‘good’, so it should be respected and shouldn’t be questioned and ‘proves’ that those who support it are right and very clever and really do ‘get it’; but it also ain’t but a thang, so only small-souled, no-life lumps would oppose it, just to be ‘hateful’ and to deny yet more rights to yet more oppressed and deprived victims. Now if it’s that ‘big’, then it should really be looked at – and perhaps a tire or two kicked and a test-drive would be in order. And if it’s ‘small’, then given all the distraction and expenditure of public attention, especially in Our present troubled times, shouldn’t it be asked as it was in World War Two: is this trip necessary?

She goes on to suggest that one reason that religious folks are making such a fuss is “that as Christianity has lost its hegemony in an increasingly religiously pluralistic society, Christian conservatives have staked their shrinking claims on changing personal ethics”. In other words, it’s a last ditch effort on the part of “conservatives” (defined polemically, it would seem) to keep some influence for themselves, and they’re doing it by interfering in what is essentially a matter of ‘personal morality’. But you don’t need the sanction of the state to live out a personal morality; you can do that on your own – as long as you’re not harming others.

But if you want the sanction of the state – of the ‘res publica’ – in a democracy, then you’re putting yourself out there for questioning by the ‘public’ from whose state you seek authority. That’s how democracy works.

But that “pluralist” is also a flag here. The deepest problem with “pluralism” in its current American version is that in its efforts to ‘loosen things up’ and ‘make room’ for a more ‘sensitive’ and ‘liberated’ lifestyle, it has actually removed the entire Vertical and Meta (Greek for ‘beyond’, or ‘Beyond’ with a capital B) dimensions from Our conception of the Life-Space, reducing Us all to a Flatness. At sea, to remove the keel and the mast (vertical agents of essential stability) means that you are reduced to one-dimension, the horizontal, for your stability and your mobility. And that’s a very dangerous situation to be in; a ship dismasted and without a keel is liable to be rolled around by the waves until it is tipped over or swamped.

Of course, all elements of Verticality had to be removed from American culture so as to remove the danger of any ‘new’ agenda being ‘judged’ by such authority as ‘tradition’, ‘common sense’, ‘morality’, or ‘Reason’ or – the biggie – by its conformity or lack of conformity to the nature of Being itself.

It wasn't 'sold' or 'spun' as a strategic move in a revolutionary power-play. It was brought in as being part of the grand old American tradition of lively change - like Jefferson and Jackson and a whole bunch of other famous folks (not Dead White Males for the purposes of this exercise, curiously) said was good. The valuable historian Gary Nash, known as a 'progressive' historian because he tells the story from the little-people's point of view, observed that 'stabilty' in historical narative usually favors the status-quo and those already in power. He's right, and some shake-up, some controlled 'instability' is a vital and necessary element in a democratic politics. But that is hell-and-gone from losing control, introducing sooo much instability, and then trying to cover yourself by saying that any instability is good, all instabilty is good - no matter how much of it - just by its very nature. And that's a recipe for catastrophe. Stability and instability are neither good nor bad of themselves; it's in how they are blended and balanced. And if the controlling balance is lost, then what you have on your hands is not a 'liberating' instability but a runaway loss of control and also of Shape - not only will the 'officers' lose control, but the craft will come apart. And then nobody wins. And everybody loses.

Nor is it at all any less dangerous for individuals, to lose all sense of Verticality within themselves or any sense of Beyond. To lose a sense of Verticality – the ability to judge yourself by what you might be or should be – is to become mired in whatever level of undeveloped potentials and skills you presently have, ‘free’ from the goad of motivation to improve or excel. To lose a sense of a Beyond means that any effort to comprehend more fully the awe-someness and awe-fullness of this life that we humans share is to suddenly realize that you are terribly and hugely and deeply ‘alone’, too small to master such vastness and too weak to defend yourself or extend yourself.

Unless, of course, you rely on the ‘government’, the one ‘big’ power that may be ‘on your side’ and can – you desperately have to presume – tame ‘life’ for you, on your behalf.

This ‘pluralism’ project, whatever its strengths and advantages, has a verrrry profound downside, for individuals and for society and for culture. If there is nothing worth sacrificing for, nothing so anchored in the Beyond that your efforts will participate in consolation and reward, will respond adequately to your love and to your fear, then you are not going to be able to develop into a human being capable of ‘blue water ops’ as the Navy likes to say. We shall become, in Edgar Lee Masters’ fine image from ‘Spoon River Anthology’: a society of “ships longing for the sea and yet afraid”. It’s a terrible epitaph for a baffled and unspent life, and a lethal disease to infect a democracy, especially one such as Ours where the Constitution’s machinery requires and presumes the grounding of its moving parts in the solid, conscientious, confident, careful deliberateness of The People.

But the youthful impatience of the Sixties combined with the revolutionary impatience of the Seventies to demean all that. Are We the better for that? Are We better off now?

I am not looking to evoke some gauzy, hazy nostalgic glow of a perfect time in America. But We have always been on a path, pursuing an ideal, that was proven to mitigate the worst excesses of tyranny and oligarchy and of populism and majoritarianism – not a guarantee of perfection, but then this is Earth Delta, not Earth Prime (which is a niftier way of saying that this is a world mired in its own imperfections and its own self-betrayals, a vale of tears, shot through with – oy – original sinfulness). And while ‘original sinfulness’ may be a ‘religious’ term, the human reality to which it refers – the consistent incompleteness of individual and communal fulfillment of the best potential – is an all too real characteristic, noticed as clearly by ‘pagan’ philosophers and millennia of acute human beings, and not only in the Western tradition.

To think that by barring the ‘religious term’ one has thereby eradicated the reality that the term was developed to describe … is not very impressive display of careful thinking at all. And you don’t have to have a degree in philosophy or theology to sense that viscerally, deep inside. And in consequence, it would be right to be afraid, perhaps very afraid, at the Flattening of American life and culture. The philosophical and theological Flattening that is now embedded in the dominant strains of “progressive” thinking is lethal to Us individually and communally. Any ‘progress’ that is made will only be on the Horizontal plane, and will thus be build on sand – or, more specifically – on the power of the federal government, the default ‘god’ and the default ‘religion’ – willy or nilly – of the ‘progressive’ life.

To purchase ‘progress’ at the price of such Flattening would be greatly inadvisable even for a ‘pagan and tribal’ culture; for a democracy whose roots, historically, are in a religiously-expressed experience of the Vertical and the Beyond (Judeo-Christian, Native American, Eastern), imparting Shape in the very act of imposing Boundaries, is monstrous regression. Civilization has purchased such progress as it has made with far too much blood and suffering and failed lives and hopes to regress to a Horizontal Flatness that must include a profound Emptiness.

In asserting this, I am not disregarding the Prophets or the acute perceptions (not so his conclusions) of Marx and many others, nor the insights of Darwin, Freud, and others (not so their conclusions). Nor do I lack sympathy for the often-estimable Gore Vidal’s aversion to ‘sky-godders’, since the religious impulse, like all other human impulses, is subject to the awe-full force of that force of deforming moral ‘gravity’ characterized as Original Sinfulness.

Nor am I seeking to manipulatively imply that the critiques by theology 'in a feminist key' are without merit nor their proposals irrelevant or groundless. Elshtain and Glendon, Nussbaum as a philosopher (except in her infatuation with Rawls) … are only the tip of a hugely valuable corpus. Nor am I discounting what Hunt describes as “queer” scholarship. There are very valuable contributions here.

But any ‘liberation’ that ‘frees’ from Shape, especially from a demonstrably consistent and ‘true’ or True human nature is a chimera. You might as well fracture the keel of a ship in order to give it more ‘flexibility’ or fracture the hull of an airliner to make it more ‘maneuverable’ and less ‘rigid’ … it’s moral, philosophical, ethical, social, cultural, and political insanity. It flies in the face of a demonstrated consistency, of a reality, that cannot be wished or Theorized away, or simply derided as an ‘essentialism’ that isn’t at all essential.

Some things are essential to the very reality of being ‘human’, and some things may even be ‘out there’, beyond and Beyond, that are best not ignored, lest We not only slip though Our own fingers, but invite the more primitive and ‘lower’ capacities, those ancient dark incompletenesses and imperfections, back to the fore – and that would constitute a monstrous regression, setting humans back millennia as a community, as a civilization and as a species.

Surely, that’s not the note to go out on. Surely that’s not the ‘gift’ that the citizens of this age wish to bequeath to the generations to follow.

Hunt, remarkably for a self-described theologian, asserts that “religions traffic in illusions”. That’s a hardly adequate description of the visions and ideals – however incomplete – by which religion has always sought to give form to the abiding human Sense that there is a Vertical in the human and a Beyond that exists … well, beyond the appearances of this plane of existence, this dimension of being. With theology like this, who needs materialists who claim to reduce all being to matter that can be seen or quantified?

And as far as “scholarship” goes, I would say that any “scholar” who is more interested in the advocated ‘ends’ than in the studiously researched and contemplated ‘means’ of the intellectual calling is doing nobody a lasting service. The afore-mentioned Professor Rawls cobbled together a mélange of assertions, far too unsubstantiated and shrewdly tailored, that provided in the very early Seventies the simulacrum of a ‘philosophy’ that justified and provided a cover for any Shapelessness or de-Shaping that any of the nascent Identities could wish for, especially as they sought to indoctrinate students or intimidate half-willing pols and judges.

And in the process, Rawls built-in a compliment to those intellectuals who ‘got’ him, indicating that they were – wait for it – a vanguard elite who, being the sole possessors of the ‘true’ state of things, were justified in dictating – especially with the help of judges who possessed the power of imposition – the ‘just’ way of ordering American society with no further ado. And that, most certainly, was a gambit that dragged Us back to Leninism’s method and the Flatness and Emptiness from which humanity spent millennia seeking, with no small success, to escape.

All this has happened in Our time. And is with Us still.

So in this season when American culture makes the time for thoughts of renewal and rebirth, and since – by curious coincidence – a lot of folks won’t need to be spending so much time in the malls, We could do a lot worse than rededicating Ourselves to the great task that remains before Us, as citizens but also as human beings, as members of a community but also as individuals.

Our task is not to recreate a past, but to build on it and – yes – improve upon the gifts that the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of millennia of human beings have provided.

Of all the debts We now owe, that debt – to those past and those yet to come – is the greatest. And so Shaped, We can give more useful care to what is owed among Ourselves, and to all nations and all peoples.

It shouldn’t be boring, this holiday season. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.


It comes to me as well that this does not represent an either-or situation: that 'liberal' or 'progressive' 'reform' is either a) a redress of rights or b) a fracturing of the airframe. But this either-or posing of the question, so immature a thought-process, is precisely where We went off the tracks in public and private deliberation some decades ago. Suppose that some 'reform' was both a 'redress of rights' and a fracturing of the hull (for the purposes of clarity let's not consider here what happens when a whole bunch of 'reforms' might result in a whole bunch of interacting 'fractures').

What do you do then?

Common sense and prudent procedure would require a careful cost-benefit analysis of the 'reform', looking not only at the best-case benefits that it might provide but the worst-case consequences of its fracturing effects. But this is precisely what 'Political Correctness' was designed to prevent; not only did the Identities and the Advocacies pick up the Pentagon's baaaad habit of exaggerating the potential benefits and minimizing the possible (or - worse - probable) downsides of a proposal, but PC ensured that any public discussion of the downside would be pre-empted by being 'demonized': i.e. if you even think about not doing this, then you too are a (fill-in-the-blank).

Some might recall this in the '70s deinsitutionalization craze, when pie-eyed liberationists joined with eager-to-strut medical and psychological types to convince cash-strapped state legislators that the folks in state mental institutions would do just fine on the outside, and that to keep them locked up was primitve and barbaric - and then We got 'the homeless'.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


I have from time to time talked about Victimism and ‘Victims’ as an ‘Identity’, a particular, identifiable ‘group’ whose ‘voice’ must be heard and demands acceded to, and as an Identity so defined, then metastasized to a Level III or IV ‘Advocacy’ the well-arranged purpose of which is not to ‘inform’ or ‘persuade’ public debate but rather to manhandle public opinion in order to ram through changes in law or jurisprudence with no debate. Identities passed the Norman Rockwell ‘speaking out’ phase a long time ago; blew through it, actually, on their way to major agitprop assault operations.

Actually, Victimism is a sort of second-tier Identity. All ‘Identities’ started out, almost by definition, as ‘victims’ since each of them had to have an initiating and ‘defining’ grievance, an ‘oppression’ which – cast like a well-waxed (and sharp-edged) board upon the cresting wave of the ‘civil rights model’ - required immediate public recognition and redress … and that redress was due ‘yesterday’, since the ‘oppression’ was a violation of ‘rights’ that had been going on for centuries or even millennia.

But in the beginning, all those decades ago when We had half-a-million troops on the backlot that could be sent to Vietnam and hundreds of naval vessels to supply and support them, one was whatever one’s Identity was, and a victim only by the working of that Identity’s particular oppression.

Then in the Reagan years the very act of being ‘victimized’ became a free-standing Identity of its own. Since a Venusian ‘sensitivity’ had already replaced a Mars-besotted male ‘insensitivity’ – of the kind so often displayed by such violent lumps as factory-workers and union-members – then to declare oneself a ‘victim’ – and it would hardly be sensitive to inquire further – was pretty much like putting a flashing light and siren on your personal minivan and heading downtown to see what would happen, joined by others who discovered themselves in the same situation.

I particularly recall when all of this struck me: in 2001, Year One of the Beginning of the End (though maybe I’m being too hard on the Bushling, given what he was left by the Clinton neolib and Reagan neocon administrations), We finally got around to executing Timothy McVeigh, in June of that year.

Few, I hope, need prompting as to the execrable terrorist act he perpetrated at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma in the spring of 1995. The gravest penalty that the justice system could apply was certainly merited for that action. And may God have mercy on his soul and the souls of all whose lives he took.

But the shocker was to listen to the assembled crowds the night of his execution. And to compare it with his own demeanor. Here among the crowd were displayed a seriously rattling set of emotions: vindictiveness, revenge, an almost frenzied glee in the presence of Death (whose presence or proximity no wise adult human being should ever take lightly). The intensity of such violent – perhaps primitive – emotions was so great that it overshadowed the unpleasant sensation of seeing adults comport themselves in public, especially when the histrionic quality that microphones and cameras always seem to engender is factored into the mix. It struck me that if a significant number of the citizenry were operating on this level, or were capable of letting themselves descend to this level, and not only in this instance of McVeigh but as a matter of habit or reflex, then democratic politics were in far greater danger than I had previously imagined.

McVeigh, on the other hand, displayed a self-possession and even insight into his situation (and impending condition) that – contrasted with the crowds – constituted a profoundly disturbing dissonance. He quoted the poem about being ‘Captain of my soul’ and ‘Master of my fate’ (I’m going on brute memory here.)

It struck me that in almost any other circumstance such an aspiration to the high road of self-mastery would be taken, especially in one so young, as particularly encouraging, especially in light of the beating ‘maturity’ and ‘character’ had been given in the previous decades, not only by the deconstructionists and the Second-Wave Feminists, but also by Our own homegrown ‘philosopher’, John Rawls, who ‘philosophized’ that there is utterly no way of saying that one approach to life is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another and that folks not only shouldn’t be ‘judgmental’ because it wasn’t ‘nice’ but that indeed there was utterly no basis in reality for making such distinctions or ‘judgment’, which was really just another form of ‘discrimination’ (and everybody knew what sort of person did that). A person who counted blades of grass as a life project was ‘equal’, therefore, to a person who developed a cure for an ancient and deadly disease. Thus Rawls. (And perhaps working with blades of grass will soon be the daily occupation of more than a few of Us, due in no small part to the ‘conceptual framework’ Professor Rawls sought – not without success – to have imposed upon Us.)

But as the time moved toward the actual execution McVeigh’s stance seemed to enrage the vast majority of those present for the occasion.

It’s possible, of course, that his was simply an ‘act’ calculated to spit one last time in the eye and on the loss of the bereaved. But even if it was – and there is no way to know for certain – then it would say an awful lot about a person who could hold up such pretense in the face of immediately impending death. And if on the other hand he actually meant it, and that the consolation he derived from his philosophy (or – who’s to say? – faith – or some illumination, revelation even, that draws near or is sent to those who are aware of the approach of their own death) … well then, there were things going on in him and among Us that should give any sober adult serious cause for extended contemplation.

But either this possibility did not occur to the crowds or – if it did on some dim and deep level – it enraged them and goaded them to frenzy all the more.

At which point no student of human affairs could avoid the intimations of things-medieval in the crowd that bode darkly for the remarkable, if incomplete, achievements that ground Our culture and Our civilization (though huffily pooh-poohed as ‘founderism’ by far too many among Our current ‘elites’). “O brave new world” indeed, “to have such people in it”.

Needless to say, there was much cheering – lurid in the klieg lights – when the agents of the state carried out the execution. I couldn’t help but thinking that it certainly makes the government’s work easier, when its agents are cheered on in the dealing of death. It cost the Nazis a small fortune to keep their own executioners liquored up sufficiently to shoot folks, at least until agents were found who could work the machinery of the gas chambers and the ovens with a focused technical skill and loyalty to the mission, un-distracted by the presence of ‘the human’.

And hadn’t McVeigh himself been trained in advanced-level military methods of dispensing death?

In the roil of interacting forces and realities, wreathed in the smokes of superheated passions, sharp and clear boundaries were starting to become hard to discern.

No doubt many were agitated that McVeigh was not following the ‘script’: pure evil is unmasked by pure good, true justice is imposed, and the last task of evil is to acknowledge itself (and thus acknowledge the goodness of its captors). The Puritans expected no less a responsible discharge of the role from those whom their judges placed in the stocks or on the gallows; during the Inquisition the prelates fondly hoped for the same so as to edify and encourage the onlookers in their rededication to leading a ‘good’ life (Rawls would say that nobody - or anybody - could say what a ‘good’ life is). Indeed, the citizenry came to these things expecting some sort of ‘living sermon’ that would evoke an emotional wallop far more powerfully than any run-of-the-mill Sunday preaching might do, although it was also fun just to get together with other folks and hoot and howl at the death of somebody else, somebody who – as far as could be determined – deserved it.

Back in the day, it was accepted that ‘God’ would agree with the court’s verdict and with the public opprobrium, and would obligingly keep up the pressure when, after so brief a moment, the soul of the now-executed passed beyond all human jurisdiction and ken. Though not even the Church presumed to guarantee just how God would handle things once the soul was in His immediate jurisdiction; a well-grounded official humility not retained by Protestants, especially in this Chosen Country, who saw themselves as deputized by and speaking for The Divinity, Whose wisdom and righteousness they so completely mirrored as to be pretty much the ‘mouth of God’ themselves. Thus the Protestants.

Although, in secular America, as it has more fully become, there is also the probability that among those who don’t really accept that there is a ‘god’, or even a ‘beyond’, the rage could be sparked by the fact that they were not getting the ‘bang’ for which they had spent so many bucks. A bawling, groveling prisoner is certainly more emotionally satisfying and his very abasement advertises vividly the authority and moral stature of the system that is killing him. Roland Freisler, marquis judge of the Party Court in Berlin back in that day, went so far as to loudly insult and berate those brought before him, in the fond hope of reducing them to a blubbering mass or – if not – to get in some loud verbal whacks for the Propaganda Ministry cameras just so that the Party kept ‘control of the narrative’; the worst thing would be for a prisoner to display any traces of a stronger character or a confidence derived from a source far beyond the Party’s reach – although, in that unlikely instance, the film reels and tapes could always be ‘lost’ afterwards. In any event, the conviction of the accused was guaranteed, for Freisler boasted that his court deployed ‘the law at war’, and followed up that military insight with a military efficiency that surpassed anything the Wehrmacht could achieve in the empty wastes of the desert or the snows of the Russian steppe. ‘War’ is a lot easier when you control all the players and your mind is unshakably made-up, unwavering and ‘certain’.

By coincidence the film ‘Doubt’ is now in release and being reviewed. It has to do with a priest bethumped by a nun who is ‘just certain’ that he must be an abuser, although there is no evidence. For her, suspicion is all the evidence required. In this, whether she knows it or not, she is supported by Professor Doctor Freud, who was quite certain that ‘sex’ is the ultimate ground and reality of human motivation, when all pretense of ideals or virtue is smashed-through. His present views, alas, are beyond Us.

More to the immediate point, the government has now brought ‘victims’ to Guantanamo – that top-secret, national-security base where the ‘worst of the worst’ (a characterization that up until a few years ago had been reserved by the Pentagon for those whom its justice-system had sent to the military lock-up at Fort Leavenworth) are penned, pending the workings of ‘the law at war’. (‘Chaos in the 9/11 courtroom’, here ).

I have written before about the possibility that ‘victims’, whose cause in the beginning a couple of decades ago seemed to be coming from ‘the left’ – a ‘liberal’ concern for ‘sensitivity’ – appear to have become the cats-paws of the government, providing a handy, media-friendly, people-friendly cover for the government to expand its police power in ways that it could never have done merely by asserting its own will and purported authority outright.

Now the government – perhaps out of desperation – has opted to make its game-plan more obvious, revealing that it would very much like to be seen as merely the agent of ‘helping’, doing what it can to bring ‘closure’ to those oppressed – and quite naturally so – by ‘grief’. A sort of militarization-as-therapy, you might say.

If such a ‘narrative’ is successfully spun and controlled, then a President Obama might indeed be forced to continue the Guantanamo trials lest he risk being seen as ‘insensitive’, which is from the feministical point of view as lethal a charge as is the appearance of being ‘weak’ from the nationalist-macho point of view. (Our politics is truly debauched if these are the only two ‘views’ from which We can choose.) It’s a shrewd move in the unsleeping card-game that the military has always played in regard to the workings of its justice system, the one that Bush merely expanded – clumsily and recklessly, but that’s Our George – into fields far more exposed to the bright light of Klieg, but also of Truth.

Not all of the families (and upon their dead and Ours be much peace) are pleased. But members of the group (‘September 11 Families Denounce Guantanamo Trials’, here) asserted their ‘pride’ at “the rights the defendants were afforded”. The dark implication, so integral to ‘victim-justice’, is that a defendant is guilty anyway, so anything done on his behalf is something generous, and you can rightly be ‘proud’ of yourself and the system that has snagged him. “This is a very appropriate, fair venue” said one, whose status as one of the bereaved far outshines any PR flak – in uniform, male or female – that the Pentagon could deploy in front of the mikes and cameras. Another, a mother whose son died on that day seven years ago, unsurprisingly characterizes the defendants as “dreadful” and refers to “their miserable lives”, although – again – We really don’t know.

On its good days – if they haven’t completely passed – that was exactly what a genuine Western-civilization type of trial would be expected to determine, even though only “as through a glass darkly”. But such delays and distractions – especially if the snagged were determined to be innocent – are gall and wormwood to the law-at-war and to revolutionary justice in general, and ‘victim-justice’, sadly and very disconcertingly, has much in common with both of those types of justice.

But it is an unhappy coincidence – and perhaps more than that, God not being of a certainty dead – that on the same day that the Guantanamo statements were made, a Senate committee – sacrally ‘bipartisan’, and with John McCain’s name at the top – issued a report that “former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials are directly responsible for abuses of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.” The report goes on to note interrogation practices that We had once thought Ourselves to have evolved far beyond.

Which does not provide grounds for ‘denying’ or ‘minimizing’ grief and loss, but does suggest that perhaps a mind so overshadowed by a grieving heart – that particular and extraordinary sensibility – is not best relied upon to conduct the careful workings of justice, especially when such monstrous realities as death or even life-imprisonment are loose on the table.

There is, many would still admit, a God, after all; and even for those who don’t so believe, who wants to contribute more darkness to the world by stampeding toward so grave a consequence as a life ended or permanently imprisoned, which might also entail a mistaken determination? In this matter, We and Our judges would be exercising the prudent caution of the bomb-defusing expert, not the witless slackness of the morally unconcerned.

So it seems to me that commentators who recently have been trying to sidle toward truth without upsetting anybody, who justify Our hugely improvident reaction to 9/11 by purring that We were all just overcome by emotions generated by that day’s events, aren’t quite grasping the whole truth. We – or far too many of Us – were already operating on that level well before 9/11. ‘Victim-justice’ and its accompanying public ‘narrative’ and ‘script’ guided far too much of Our public consciousness long before that fateful day.

But fateful it indeed was. Having become used to relying on passion, and to letting Ourselves operate from and even dwell in, the darker passions, as the basis of Our public and Our common sensibility, We offered no effective resistance as the Bushist imperium surfed those waves of passion, dragging Us all into a war in the East from which this generation shall never recover, and for which future generations will hold Us all responsible, here and around the world.

Actions have consequences. So do passions. Is that news?

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Monday, December 08, 2008


In a small Massachusetts town recently, an 8 year-old boy died when he was allowed to operate a powerful machine-gun at a gun-club shoot; his father, a doctor, had brought him to the fair for the express purpose of letting him ‘shoot’. The town police chief, who helped organize the affair and took a portion of the proceeds, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. (The dead boy’s father, reflecting the tactical realities of ‘sensitivity’ nowadays, will not be charged since he “is already being punished and will be punished” in dealing with the loss “for the rest of his life”, quoth the District Attorney.) (See here.)

The Chief, a hale and beefy gent with a smile in his photograph, is wearing his uniform. On his shoulders he wears the three-star rank insignia of a Lieutenant-General, the rank Patton held when he led his Third Army into the heart of Europe. The Chief commands a department comprised – beside himself – of one full-time and one part-time officer. The full-time officer, in addition to his duties as the main component of the field force, is now also discharging the command responsibilities of Chief for the present.

There was a time when small-town police chiefs were distinguished simply by the word ‘Chief’ inscribed on their gold badge, and probably got the new car when one was ordered (although I seem to recall one Texas sheriff, an oil man by trade, who had 52 Cadillac patrol cars, one for each week of the year – but that was in another Texas and another America long ago and far away).

The militarization of local police has now entrenched itself in small-towns, where automatic weapons and Homeland Security-grant combat equipment and even armored vehicles are considered a badge of ‘professionalism’. Cops are now ‘troops’ and Chiefs are field-commanders, and walk a whole lot taller with some stars on their shoulders (available in silver or gold or black field-camo, coat or collar-sized, metal or hardened plastic, in sets of one-through-five stars, at police supply stores or websites, or – in case of emergency – the nearest army-surplus store, just down the aisle from old Wehrmacht or Soviet helmets). The military maxim, alas, is that the officer makes the uniform, and not the other way around – but then that’s not so often the case in the military any longer either.

It may seem odd that a job which requires a complex and deep skill-set administering law enforcement for a citizenry simultaneously reliant on civic order, imperfect to greater or lesser extent, and in all cases constitutionally-protected, gauges its professional success by how well it mimics an organization designed in essence for the successful application of massive lethal force quickly and efficiently.

But it’s a lot more exciting going the military route. And it’s very ‘American’ – as evidenced by recent national experience in Mesopotamia, presided over by the very top levels of the National Command Authority and cheer-led by both flavors of the national political Party.

And perhaps it will buy Us a little time – the control objectives of the National Security State will find room to fulfill themselves in foreign fields. But that can’t last. Sooner or later, and abetted by the equally controlling objectives of the National Nanny State, they shall recoil back upon Us here, a ricochet flood.

The Constitution was specifically and masterfully designed as something of a flood-control wall or series of gates to prevent all that from happening, but that system’s been so compromised after decades of assault from Left and Right that it may not hold, especially if The People aren’t up to maintaining it.

But there’s another and even more disturbing twist to this story. Commenting upon the situation, the general counsel for the state’s association of police chiefs – an attorney, it must be presumed – delivered himself of the following opinion: “The criminal statutes are for criminals who intend to hurt someone else … no one can believe the chief intended to hurt anybody …”.

In case you thought that the Scooter-Libby defense was an infection limited to inside the Beltway - no. In the Beltway version, if you do it for ‘national security’ or ‘for the children’, then even if the act is specifically listed as a crime in the criminal statutes … it ain’t. And of course, the late and former President Nixon put it out there without even the courtesy of a blush.

The local version is that if you do it for good clean fun, then even if the act is specifically listed as a crime in the criminal statutes, it ain’t.

Or, more fundamentally, the philosophy that is ‘the criminal law is only for criminals, not for non-criminals’. The idea that ‘criminal’ is defined precisely by someone breaking the criminal law … seems to have gotten lost, or is no longer ‘operative’. Instead, We can see here the tracings of the old European ‘class’ approach to things: ‘criminal law is for the criminal class, and if one is not a member of that class, then by definition one cannot be a criminal’ – and especially if one is a police agent.

How this ‘class’ approach insinuated itself into American law and thought in this regard is worth some thought. Surely, one avenue of corrosion is the ‘class’ approach to ‘crime’. There was a time when ‘class’ meant ‘wealth’, and engendered in this country a not un-healthy wariness on the part of the non-rich for the unsleeping self-indulgent machinations of the rich. It was quite an engine of a robust politics, and rather clearly and deeply grounded in the abiding reality that those who ‘have’ will not only try to keep things that way, but will always try to ‘have more’, usually at the expense of those who ‘have not’.

But then the class called ‘the rich’ (and all the power their money could buy, rent, command, or seduce) gave way to ‘men’ as a class, and ‘men’ then morphed into all manner of oppression – usually having to do with sex – and ‘men’ as a class (grudgingly modified later on to ‘abusers’ and ‘sex offenders’) became the focus of attention, while the class of ‘the rich’ was pretty much excluded from public scrutiny, an opportunity upon which the rich instantly capitalized, as is their way.

So now a spin-off of all that is that a criminal is no longer defined as somebody who breaks the criminal law and/or is convicted of same, but is rather a class of person … and how far does one have to ‘think’ down that road before dark and primitive woods be reached?

Apparently, just as an oppressed minority cannot itself ‘oppress’ – by definition – so too a police agent cannot be a ‘criminal’, even if s/he breaks the criminal law.

Oh, that doesn’t sound good.

It was probably not a good thing for the police to be ‘valorized’ as they were as early as the later Vietnam-war era (along with ‘hardhats’, the guys who counter-demonstrated against ‘hippies and war-protesters’ while on the clock for building stuff, and who – I am certain – would have taken to the streets with great rage and destruction had the government brought all the construction engineers back from Nam and put them to more useful work building roads and repairing bridges).

While the Republicans – and in this aspect of it I agree – raised police valorization to the level of iconic status as a ‘culture war’ tactic, there is a certain social-psychological logic to it: in the face of the non-order (if I may) espoused by the hippies and that second, ‘Northern’ phase of civil-rights agitation, and in a more fundamental but less clear way by the war-protesters, folks swung toward the up-holders of order. Funny how the repulsive red-neck ‘lawmen’ of the South seen in ‘50s newsreels, and the urban police who as late as the 1930s and even early-‘40s were seen as something between kept-goons and violent political hacks, were valorized – but many of them after WW2 and Korea were veterans and the suburban ethos allowed a certain ‘gemutlichkeit’ to policing.

And McGarrett and Kojak and so many of the large and small-screen seemed to be stand-up folks up against some real nasty characters. And then many of them became women, and of course they were good by Hollywood scriptural definition.

Anyhoo, ‘valorization’ – while it feels good in the short run – is probably not good for any group. Insulation from scrutiny and a certain skeptical eye tends to lead toward various unhealthy flora starting to bloom under the rocks and in the dark places. And they can spread like kudzu. It may well be required of a constitutional citizenry that they “call no one good” as a matter of course.

I say this not as a ‘political ‘statement but simply as a reflection of the fact of human weakness and of the human propensity to do less-than-ideal things; something once captured nicely in the Kathlik phrase ‘original sin’ (and the Catholic Church surely got a bit tangled in its own undergrowth as a consequence of being too-easily ‘valorized’ – though not the Church alone).

And ‘valorization’ itself has spread like kudzu now. All sorts of persons holding power or office, who should be respected but kept-an-eye-upon, were taken off the leash and allowed to pursue their inclinations. The results have not worked necessarily to Our advantage, in the gentle phrase of the late Hirohito, last Emperor of an aggressive, militarized Empire that invited upon itself a blowback nicely captured in the German “Gotterdammerung”. (Indeed, I am writing this, I notice, on Sunday, December 7th, when, once upon a time, the very act that buoyed up that Empire’s spirits as the most glorious mission it ever accomplished, actually set in train such events as would erase its pretensions utterly. Such is the way of things, for those who might think or unthinkingly assume that the deep ‘things’ of History are easily leashed and harnessed to convenience, enrichment, or pleasure.)

It is no disrespect when holding power or office in a constitutional republic, to be kept-an-eye-upon. It should actually be a consolation, knowing that one is working in the service of a citizenry worthy of the title People.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008


Lisa Pease writes about “Obama’s Risky Team of Rivals” on the ConsortiumNews site (here).

Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted historian, recently opined that Lincoln himself had appointed a Cabinet loaded with gentlemen who thought they either could do his job better or should have had his job. Not a prahblum, implies Goodwin; it will give Obama a chance to shine.

Shrewd and strategically so, that message of Goodwin’s. It implies that Obama is in the same league as Lincoln, while simultaneously greasing the skids (successfully, We now know) for Hilary to get into the Cabinet.

As far as Obama being another Lincoln, I can only intone From Goodwin’s lips to God’s ear. And at this point, it’s hard to know whether he is simply being deeply shrewd in making do with incorporating numerous fixed and immovable objects into his plan, much as the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, or whether he is simply buckling to the now impossibly entrenched Beltway ‘consensus’ which postulates a single Party – for all practical purposes – with one ‘wing’ being in office and the other not far away.

And even if he’s being deeply shrewd in his selection-strategy, it would then remain to be seen whether, having brought all these wildebeests into the center ring, he can actually make them sit down or stand up at his command. And using the whip is now considered ‘insensitive’.

I’ve said that he faces a challenge as great as Lincoln faced in 1861, aggravated by the fact that the problem isn’t as clear as ‘secession’ was back then.

But Goodwin’s note strikes me as false, and so obviously so that it makes me wonder. Lincoln faced no Beltway bureaucracy; back then it really could be a mano-a-mano between Lincoln and this or that Cabinet member. If Lincoln outplayed Seward or stared him down, then ‘State’ would do what Lincoln and the now-chastened Seward wanted. Ditto Stanton and the War Department or Gideon Welles (much more cooperative anyway) and the Navy Department.

Not so now. Even if Obama manages to outplay or stare-down a particular Cabinet Secretary, there are now layers of bureaucracy beneath that gentleperson, where all but the most direct application of Presidential power and presence, sustained at high heat like a blowtorch, will be needed to prevent the Presidential vision from being broken up into manageable bits and quietly chewed into oblivion or twisted and deformed until it’s unrecognizable to its erstwhile ‘master’.

And nowadays, all of his Cabinet will have spent their professional – you should pardon the expression – lives going along to get along, taking their swag and shutting up, breaking or allowing to be broken whatever ‘eggs’ necessary to make the consensus omelette served 24-7 and 365 at the Beltway Buffet.

I wonder, really, if We aren’t seeing a prime example of the corruption of the public intellectuals. I envision Goodwin being chatted up by her sistern – male and female – to the effect that she has to do something to help ‘our’ Hilary stay at the Table. And that whatever the ‘fit’ or the outcome of any particular Hilary performance, the ‘symbolic’ value alone will be worth it. We’ve seen this gambit played recently in the promotion of that female Army general in the striped pants and the sensible shoes.

Rummaging around in the notes of her recent productions, Goodwin dutifully blurbs the Lincoln ‘story’.

And the media, many of whom might not be able to pick the 16th President out of a lineup, let alone any of his Cabinet members, distribute such ‘historical wisdom’ far and wide. And afterwards they all go to a dinner party in Georgetown and klatsch volubly about a golden future. Selah.

But Pease actually might have missed what I think is the most significant element in her story. Obama need not imagine a John Wilkes Booth towards the end of his ‘great work’. JFK, RFK, and MLK all got ‘ahead of’ the Beltway in that ominous decades of the Sixties, and all met with ‘unfortunate accidents’, as the Mob would say.

In a way, Obama has – theoretically, at least – opened himself up to such an unhappy possibility. Surrounding him and for several layers beneath him in the line of succession, are solid Beltway regulars, starting with the former Senator von Banken und Kreditkard. Should ‘change’ start to actually manifest itself in such a way as to upset the numerous official and under-the-table Beltway Macher then … it’s enough to give even a serious drinker pause.

He is now in an Augean Stable where the monsters who made the monstrous piles of poisonous poo are still in their stalls, horns and hooves sharp and – the wonders of the human species! – all ‘breathing-together’ (Latin: ‘conspiro’) and thoroughly in agreement as to how the Stable should be run.

I wonder if perhaps that was part of the reason Carter let his own Party – led by the Master Bull Tip O’Neill – run roughshod all over his administration and its initiatives. Has every Democratic President since JFK pulled his punches, always with a wary eye to who out there in the expensive smoky haze beyond the ropes, or even right there in the ring with him, would be quietly calculating the odds … ?

If so , We have been a banana republic for a lot longer than is usually thought.

And as the citizenry declines further and faster into a short-order, short-memoried peasantry, We are headed even further back down along that jungle road from which, in 1787, We emerged, borne on the shoulders of giants.

No wonder they’re assigning the Army for domestic duties. Sooner or later folks are going to figure out just how long and well they’ve been diddled, or there will be an ‘accident’, and the ruling claques will need more protection and muscle than your local SWAT team can provide. Of course, it will all be done in the name of ‘national security and order’ (Ja!) and, de rigeur these days, ‘for the children’. Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary herself – ‘bellipotentes virgines’ all – have demonstrated themselves quite capable of that; breaking eggs morning after morning in those kitchens for so long prepared them for high office, whether wearing an apron, a dress, or – watch for it – striped pants.

In that regard, I can’t do better than quote Michael Rowe, who in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ (‘New Regimes’, November 21 issue, p. 23) describes the French Army’s ‘success’ against the Communards after the failure of the Uprising in Paris: “the massive reprisals against the Parisian insurgents carried out by the army, which now employed its primitive machine guns to far greater effect against the columns of chained prisoners than it had done against the Prussians a few months earlier.” The machine guns are a lot less primitive now. It remains to be seen whether the guns’ wielders will prove as primitive. They will have recently come back from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yes, the challenge facing Obama is as great as that which faced Lincoln. The President-elect will need all the help We can give him. While We still can.

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