CURRENT EVENTS SOUND-OFF
[The following section will be put to occasional use, for expressing my views about certain news stories. Its purpose will not in any way be to methodically follow or document what is happening in today's world, but rather, to use specific news stories and developments as springboards for small pieces of analysis or commentary. - JRS]
NOVEMBER 17, 2003: ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA. On November 17, 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austrian-born bodybuilder and movie star, was sworn in as the new governor of California, elected in the wake of the previous governor’s recall. This astonishing event can only make one wonder what is happening to American democracy? What were Mr. Schwarzenegger’s qualifications to assume this demanding political post, which will impact the lives of millions of people in highly significant social, legal, and economic ways? It seems that his main qualifications were "recognizability" (he was already famous and well-known), and the powerful tough-guy image projected by such movies as Conan the Barbarian, and The Terminator, which endowed him with an aura of superhuman power and strength, and seemed to cast him as a "man of action" who could be counted on to "get the job done", no matter how hard. The election of Schwarzenegger, even apart from the harm which some of his specific policies may produce, is highly disturbing for several reasons: (1) It shows that many voters were basing their choice for governor not upon the qualifications of the candidate, or substantive policy positions, but upon an image (in this case, an image of power and virility which they may have identified with, and sought to psychologically fuse with, as a compensation for the fundamental sense of worthlessness and powerlessness with which our civilization has afflicted its citizens). Voting for Arnold became a way of becoming Arnold, of grafting his movie persona’s strength, competence and fury onto miserable and powerless lives, and rising above the sense of impotence which pervades our daily existence. By voting for Arnold, the emasculated could recover their manhood, and the helpless could acquire an invincible defender, an all-powerful shield. (2) At the same time, the election showcases an alarming development in American society, that the line between fantasy and reality is beginning to disintegrate. For Arnold S. is not Conan or the Terminator, he is just a man who has spent his life cultivating his body and starring in action movies: not the best credentials for directing the affairs of a huge and complex state. This is a man who had NO genuine credentials to be elected, only an IMAGE, which was a product of FANTASY. If reality had held more power than fantasy, Arnold S. would never have been elected - not in a million years. But, in California, in the gubernatorial election of 2003, reality was left behind, in the dust. Fantasy prevailed. Voters seemed to want to escape from reality, to run away from it with Arnold and become co-stars in a new movie, just like the ones he starred in, beyond the irritating constraints of reality. When a society’s feet leave the ground in such a way, disaster cannot be far away. For choices and decisions no longer correspond to reality, but to an internal, disconnected landscape which does not necessarily match the contours of the world in which we live. A kind of collective schizophrenia, a mass state of delusion, can result, poisoning a nation’s mind; and actions of great and destructive power may begin to be launched against phantoms, spirits, and ghosts, who may be nothing more than the creations of one's own mind. Sad to say, when mirages are bombed, real people are hurt. It does not bode well when the most powerful nation in the world proves so capable of succumbing to fantasy... (3) Besides this, Arnold’s statements professing an admiration for Hitler - disturbing statements, even when given the benefit of their full context - seemed to do him little damage. A majority voted for him anyway, which leads one to wonder about the underlying consciousness, awareness, and/or moral attitudes of significant segments of our electorate. Although it is possible that many believed the story had been invented by his enemies, and was nothing more than a dirty political trick concocted to try to sink him, the statements were real and documented, and it seems that they should have made some dent in his political juggernaut as it rolled towards its resounding electoral victory. Nothing of the kind happened. Is there some sympathy for Hitler, and the anger, control, and repression which he represented, bubbling in the hearts and minds of more people than we know? Or just a basic ignorance and indifference regarding the true meaning of Hitler? Whatever the case, the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the position of Governor of California must be observed with the gravest concern, as a possible sign of things to come, if more enlightened views and visions are not able to soon take root in our country. A nation seduced by its own anger, and fantasies of unlimited power...
December 7, 2003: "TOUGH NEW TACTICS IN IRAQ." On Dec. 7, 2003, The New York Times published an article entitled "Tough New Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns" (by Dexter Filkins). Writes Filkins: "As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire. In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in. The Americans embarked on their get -tough strategy in early November [due to the growing deadliness of the guerilla war]. The response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories. So far, the approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win over." The article further quotes one Iraqi resident of a town subjected to this kind of control as saying, "I see no difference between us and the Palestinians. We didn't expect anything like this after Saddam fell." The article emphasizes, yet again (as I have tried to point out in my other writings about the war in Iraq) how difficult it will be to bring peace to Iraq - something which our leaders foolishly dismissed when they first decided to entangle us in this war that most of the world opposed. To "win the peace" in Iraq, the trust, sympathy, and support of the vast majority of the Iraqi people must be won, and military tactics which undermine the rapport and emotional connection needed to bring this about are, ultimately, counterproductive, increasing rather than diminishing the need for continued force. Military tactics, pursued with no care for the negative cultural and political impact they may have, will never be effective in the long-run (unless the extreme option of a high-tech genocidal/colonial police state is envisioned for the entire Middle East - something far from the democratic ideals which the US is officially committed to in Iraq). Add to these draconian military tactics the corruption and profiteering of many US business enterprises involved in the "reconstruction of Iraq" (see Nov. 3, Newsweek, as summarized in "More on Iraq"/"News Stories"), and one has a formula for totally alienating the Iraqi populace, and perpetuating violence and resistance far into the future.
December 13, 2003: SADDAM HUSSEIN CAPTURED BY U.S. FORCES. Saddam Hussein was captured in a raid by US forces, who were finally able to close in on his hideaway in Iraq. Although the capture represents a major triumph for US forces, the euphoria and sense of accomplishment resulting from the capture are probably inflated, at least in terms of what the capture means to the future of the war that is currently taking place in Iraq. Saddam, himself, is unlikely to have played a crucial, hands-on role in the organization and direction of resistance to the US occupation, once his regime was toppled, since he was in hiding and on the run. It is more likely that various subordinates of his are actually involved in the direction of the war, and that their "command structure" is somewhat decentralized, meaning that there is not only "one head to chop off" in order to destroy the leadership of the resistance. Furthermore, there seem to be different groups involved in the resistance, not only remnants of Saddam's old government: internal Iraqi forces with differing aims and beliefs, and external forces infiltrating Iraq from the outside. As long as the US military presence is resented by large numbers of Iraqis - and until a new Iraqi government is formed which is capable of exuding an aura of legitimacy - the end of the war will not be able to be brought about by the mere killing or capture of "enemy leaders", for new leaders will emerge to take the place of fallen ones. Put another way: as long as the wound remains open, blood will continue to flow from it. Peace can be won only on the deepest level of people's hearts and perceptions, far below the superficial level of temporary military success. [And the same thought should be applied towards Osama Bin Laden, whose death, when it occurs, will not end al-Qaida, only provide new terrorist leaders with a compelling martyr-ghost to inspire their troops.]
January 24, 2004: IRAQ ILLICIT ARMS GONE BEFORE WAR, INSPECTOR STATES. According to The New York Times, David Kay, the chief US weapons inspector in Iraq, charged with verifying the existence of the "weapons of mass destruction" which Iraq was alleged to possess before the US invasion, and which were used as the principal justification for that invasion, has concluded that Iraq did NOT, in fact, have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons at the time the war was launched; nor had it developed a nuclear weapons program. Mr. Kay, who based his conclusions upon months of painstaking work attempting to track down these weapons and account for them, believes that the Iraqi government DID possess illicit arms at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but that these were subsequently destroyed, due to political pressure from abroad. Mr. Kay's findings are highly damaging to the credibility of President George Bush and his administration, which insisted that it had overwhelming evidence that well-developed programs and arsenals of illegal weapons existed in Iraq in March 2003, when it launched its "preemptive" invasion of that country. It is becoming harder and harder for greater and greater numbers of observers to avoid the conclusion that the case for war against Iraq was built up by tools of manipulation and deceit, based on hype and outright lies, and that the real motive behind the invasion may well have had to do with increasing US control over Middle-Eastern oil supplies - precisely as the war's most "cynical" critics warned from the outset. The possibility that a war has been fought and is being fought - that people are killing and dying, and that flames of anti-American hatred and resentment are intensifying throughout the region - all because of a false pretext, a manufactured threat, and a misrepresented reality, is nearly too painful to contemplate. And yet, contemplate it we must - while there is still time.
May 2004: ABUSE OF IRAQI PRISONERS: THE SHAME HEARD ROUND THE WORLD. In late April 2004, a series of photos documenting abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war by US prison guards in Iraq surfaced, shocking the world, and further soiling the image of our nation in the eyes of others. There, blatantly displayed for all to see, was undeniable evidence of yet another betrayal of the moral standards which we proclaim to the rest of the world, and by which we judge others. The photos came from Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison, a former symbol of Saddam's cruel regime, which we came to topple behind the twin justifications of self-defense (to eliminate his "weapons of mass destruction") and moral righteousness (to liberate Iraqis from a terrible tyrant and his "torture chambers" and "rape rooms"). Now our pretense of righteousness seems harder than ever to maintain; and our motives must, therefore, to the world, seem more self-serving than ever. Among some of the photos released: a female American soldier holding a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash; the same soldier grinning and giving the thumbs-up sign beside a row of naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners; naked Iraqi prisoners made to sit on top of each other; and a hooded Iraqi prisoner made to stand on a stool, and told that if he fell off he would be electrocuted. These photos accompany wider allegations (some backed by additional photos) of prisoners forced to engage in sexual acts with each other; prisoners raped; prisoners beaten; prisoners threatened with execution; prisoners pushed and held underwater, and threatened with drowning. Now, it seems, the Bush administration, as part of a "damage control" campaign, is seeking to pin the blame on a small number of delinquent guards, and to essentially write off these incidences of abuse as aberrations, and to restore its good name by punishing a few choice scapegoats. However, several of the accused soldiers have stated that they were directed by intelligence officers to "soften up" the prisoners, so that they would be more vulnerable in subsequent interrogations. Humiliating the prisoners, breaking their pride, exhausting them and draining them of emotional resources, frightening them into thinking they were about to be killed, were all ways of "softening" them up, making them more likely to cooperate with American intelligence officers during the interrogation process. The photos seem to have been taken for the purpose of showing to Iraqi prisoners - to either frighten those not yet initiated into the abuse (look what's in store for you if you don't cooperate), or to use as blackmail (cooperate with us, or we will see that these humiliating pictures of you - for example, seeming to be engaged in sexual acts with other men, which would be perceived as a terrible disgrace in mainstream Muslim culture - are seen by your family and friends). While it is normal for the accused to attempt to pass the blame on to their superiors, and to say "we were only following orders", the story of these soldiers is indirectly supported by concerns which the International Committee of the Red Cross had expressed long before the story broke (in January 2004, for example). At that time, the ICRC had complained of widespread human rights abuses against prisoners at both Guantanamo Bay (terrorist suspects) and Abu Ghraib. According to the operational director of that Committee, "We are dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts." Certainly, there may be times when ethical and pragmatic concerns conflict, and when the moral aspirations of a nation and its instinct (and right) to survive must find some middle ground that is not entirely satisfactory to either. For example, if the nuclear destruction of an American city were imminent, and torture might be able to elicit the information from a captive which could deter that attack, it would be very hard to refrain from, or justify refraining from, torturing that captive at that moment. However, when a nation invades another nation on false pretense (as it now seems), and many facets of self-interest rear their ugly heads (corruption, cronyism, and profiteering in business, for example); when it then applies torture and abuse on a wide scale, against common footsoldiers of that war, in violation of its own stated principles of moral conduct and in violation of well-recognized international conventions for the treatment of prisoners - when its own actions begin to sound alarmingly similar to the actions of those it once condemned, on the basis of such actions (Cuba, the Soviet Union with its gulags, and North Korea, for example) - then it seems we are no longer dealing with a "tragic necessity", but with a blatant act of hypocrisy and a betrayal of our raison d'etre. We are just another soulless state, another animal. I write these words because I want this country back. I want "America" to mean something more than "the biggest beast." I cannot bury the shame, because feeling it is the only way to bring this country back from the darkness which is beginning to engulf it...
JULY 12, 2004: SINGERS OF SUDAN STUDY WAR NO MORE. My source for this piece is an article which appeared in The New York Times, written by Marc Lacey. For some time, a bitter war has been raging between Arab militiamen and black African dwellers in a region known as the Darfur, which is located in western Sudan along the border with Chad. A rebellion launched by some black Africans, complaining of their marginalized status in the Sudan, has served as a pretext for the government and Arab militias to launch a fierce war of suppression, which has fanned the flames of long-standing ethnic conflict in the region, and underscores the fierce nature of competition for land and other resources in the Darfur. The article focuses on the role of the hakamah - traditional Sudanese singers - in inciting and sustaining the violence. The hakamah - mainly elderly women, respected as "wise women who have special insight into the world" - arise most often through a long period of training, learning traditional songs and dances, and eventually honing their ability to compose poetry appropriate to contemporary situations which impact their tribe. They may sing of bravery, praising men for their courage, or of generosity, raising a man in the eyes of his people - or, on the contrary, shame members of their community with biting words that expose cowardice or greed. As Lacey writes, "Hakamah are more than poets and singers. They are community judges, of sorts, admired and feared by those who join them around the straw mat." While Ashwag Elnour, of the Peace Studies Center of the University of Nyala, is quoted as saying: "They are very respected. People listen to their songs and follow what they say." Throughout the war, the hakamah had taken their traditional role for times of crisis, spurring on the Arab militia fighters with songs of war, urging them to fight with strength and valor against their enemies. Elnour and others at the Peace Center, realizing the power of the hakamah over their people, developed the unique idea of trying to bring peace to the region by going directly to the singers, and seeking to convince them, through workshops, to promote a deeper and more pacific spirit among their people - to sing new songs pointing out the suffering of war, and the value of peace, for both sides, rather than to continue fanning the flames of anger and violence, and creating aspirations of heroism and admiration which are dependent upon death. The article ends with some positive movement, as several important hakamah understood the message of the peacemakers, and began to reshape their words to influence their people in favor of peace. - Besides its importance as a document of a fierce contemporary conflict, with special insight into cultural aspects of the region not generally known beyond Africa, itself, the article serves as a potent reminder of the sometimes powerful effect of art on life and death, and war and peace. Our world is full of many whose art - be it song, story, film, or "video game" - helps to perpetuate painful, cruel, and violent behaviors. Without advocating that art be turned into a mere tool of political agendas, or declawed and sterilized to avoid all risk of misaffecting the real world, I think this article ought to turn all artists’ eyes inwards, to question what they are doing and what they have done, and to place clearly before their conscience the idea that people come before art; and that art which is not, after all its wounds, on the side of life and love, is in no way beautiful or redeeming: it is just one more bullet, one more drop of poison…
Creative Safehouse Articles Contents
November 2004: US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, 2004. Republican incumbent George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry on Nov. 2 (the Day of the Dead) to retain the presidency of the United States.
The great tragedy of the recent presidential election in the United States was the loss of the crucial moral opportunity to reject the errors of the 2001-2004 administration: to collectively disavow a path which has left the rest of the world indignant and distrustful of our motives, and which does no credit to our sense of justice and integrity. Deep spiritual experience does not necessarily ally itself to superficial political struggles; but neither can it utterly ignore such powerful vehicles for benefiting or harming humankind. In the present case, there was an urgent need for the American people to send a message to the world - a message of compassion, fallibility, and moral determination, infused with survival skills, yet not crippled by them. (According to paleontologists, the once formidable saber-toothed tiger was finally doomed by the overgrowth of its front teeth, which interfered with its ability to bite. In the same way, brute force without tact and political peripheral vision works against itself, by creating enemies faster than it can destroy them.) The reelection of a tarnished regime, with its mistakes already on clear display on the world stage, has brought our national prestige to a record low, and made the work of future leaders more difficult than ever.
On the bright side, nearly half of the nation voted against the incumbent, meaning that a powerful base for change continues to exist. It is imperative that this half works ceaselessly to manifest its potential; and that it seeks ways to effect change on a deeper level than yet achieved; for otherwise, whatever victories it wins may prove to be only transitory: mere interludes before new descents into darkness.
May better days lie ahead for our nation, and the world. May all those whose lives are at risk be spared.
May 2005: "THE DOWNING STREET MEMO." In response to a question posed by an acquaintance, I would like to add the following belated report: the "Downing Street Memo" refers to the notes taken at a top-secret meeting of key officials of the British government, in reference to the possibility of going to war with Iraq. (There have actually been several "Downing Street memos" which are relevant to the strategizing that took place before the US/UK invasion of Iraq.) The meeting in question took place on July 23, 2002, and is especially important because of the light it sheds on the Bush administration’s agenda regarding Saddam Hussein and regime change. The memo, which was leaked to the press in May 2005, helps to verify the suspicion of many opponents of the war: that President Bush’s stated justification for launching the invasion, which was to neutralize the danger of Saddam’s "massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction", was largely built upon fabricated evidence designed to manipulate the American public rather than to convey the truth; and that his real motive for invading Iraq, a motive which preexisted the terrorist strike of 9/11, was to institute "regime change" in Iraq, in violation of international law, in order to further perceived US geopolitical interests. According to a British official who had just returned from talks with the US government, "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy… It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less that that of Libya, North Korea or Iran…" The Downing Street Memo is a concrete, high-level confirmation of the mindset of those who planned the war: a "smoking gun" which points to the cynicism of those who decided to treat their people as puppets, rather than as citizens worthy of respect and dignified participation in shaping the future of their own land. Democracy ceases to be democracy when the people are denied the basic knowledge that they need to act wisely; guided by misinformation, democracy becomes tyranny in disguise. Lies are the means by which a corrupt government overthrows the essence of freedom, while taking refuge within its form, and for that reason ought to be intolerable to any spirited and freedom-loving people. The Downing Street Memo is an inadvertent exposé of a faithless act of political manipulation which may have changed the course of history.
December 2005: DOMESTIC SPYING. On December 16, 2005, The New York Times came out with an important article exposing a widespread program of warrantless domestic spying on American citizens being carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA), supposedly as part of the war on terrorism. The issues regarding surveillance of the populace in a democratic society during times of terrorism are complicated, to be sure. Our society must be protected against the possibility of catastrophic harm, and yet, it must also seek to preserve, as much as possible, the individual freedoms which it cherishes and for which it has given its blood on various occasions. In times of peril, the political institutions of the land and the citizens from which they come, and who they are intended to serve, are expected to seek a balance between public safety and individual liberty. In order to achieve and safeguard that balance, effective laws enabling effective acts of self-defense are needed, laws which are, however, to be clearly defined, specifically applicable to the emergency at hand, and able to be reviewed by more than one branch of government in order to prevent excessive powers from becoming overly concentrated in the hands of any one man, or group. This is consistent with the philosophy which influenced the founding fathers of our land, who believed that "power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely." The domestic spying crisis reported by the Times has shaken many citizens to the core for a variety of reasons. There is, first, the inherent fear of being spied upon, which produces not only a sense of personal violation, but also, in cases, intense anxiety concerning who exactly is learning what about one’s private life, and how the information gained by them will be used. Although the government may say that no one who has done nothing wrong need fear, who is to say the government can be trusted, especially in this day and age when it has been caught making repeated lies, and when it has demonstrated an alarming tendency to overreact due to insecurity, and to sometimes classify as "threats" actions of sheer innocence? And even if the government were trustworthy now, who is to say that it will be in the future? What if, one day, a government unashamed to repress its own people in order to illegitimately consolidate its power, were to get its hands on a vast pool of intimately detailed knowledge about its citizens? Why create and perfect, now, overpowering mechanisms of potential repression that could fall into the wrong hands? As the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) writes in one of its documents: "Government eavesdropping on Americans is an extremely serious matter; the ability to intrude on the private realm is a tremendous power that can be used to monitor, embarrass, control, disgrace, or ruin an individual." Government spying, no matter how well-intentioned, conjures up nightmares of 1984, police states, and Gestapos kicking down the door, and for this reason needs to be justified (to be concretely relevant to an emergency situation), and to be supervised, which translates into being overseen by external forces not directly involved with the alleged intelligence operation. Those who monitor must be monitored. As the ACLU writes: "Because it is so invasive, the technology of wiretapping has been subject to carefully crafted statutory controls almost since it was invented." In the case of the domestic spying reported by The New York Times, these controls appear to have been violated by the President and the NSA, which leads to a second huge concern: the preservation of our political system, which depends upon the limitation of the human ambitions of the men who govern us, by laws. Oppression, which may be generated by egotism, or by fear (which sees danger everywhere and therefore needs to subject the world to extreme forms of control), may be held at bay by institutions which people believe in and are willing to defend. When a President, in order to spy on his own people, bypasses the Congress and the courts to overstep laws which were crafted with the security needs of the nation in mind, a serious breach of trust has been committed, and a serious challenge to the political system of the United Sates has been made.
The charge made against the President by civil liberties groups is that the NSA, with his approval, has begun to utilize its massive spy capabilities to gather information about large numbers of US citizens without securing warrants from FISA courts - special courts created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which allow the government to forego some of the demands of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution (which protects US citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures"), in the case of information-gathering operations being carried out against suspected agents of foreign lands. In order to place a wiretap in a case of this nature, a warrant from a FISA court is needed (but can be obtained 72 hours after the wiretap has been placed). However, it seems that the government has been placing wiretaps and utilizing far more sophisticated mechanisms of electronic surveillance, which are also covered by the law, without obtaining FISA court warrants, and that the scope of its spying activities has far exceeded what can be justified on the grounds of combating terrorism and agents of hostile enemy powers. President Bush, caught red-handed, has now claimed Constitutional authority for the spying program, based upon his "inherent powers" as "Commander-in-Chief" in a time of conflict, and also based upon a post-9/11 Congressional resolution authorizing him to use force in order to protect America from terrorism. However, as the ACLU writes, reminding readers that the Congress has also passed laws protecting American citizens from unapproved domestic spying: "[The authorization of force resolution] contains no language changing, overriding or repealing any laws passed by Congress. Congress does not repeal legislation through hints and innuendoes, and the Authorization to Use Military Force does not authorize the president to violate the law against surveillance without a warrant any more than it authorizes him to carry out an armed robbery or seize control of Citibank in order to pay for operations against terrorists." Members of the FISA courts have also complained that frequently, when warrants have been sought, false or misleading information has been provided to them by the government in order to secure their approval.
These violations fuel the fears of those who dread the possibility of a runaway Executive Branch, misusing (and embellishing) a crisis in order to justify a power grab which could leave American democracy in ruins. The amazingly impressive capabilities of ECHELON do much to deepen the sense of anxiety. ECHELON is a system of covert communications-monitoring first developed and deployed in the 1960s as part of the Cold War, and subsequently expanded and improved to reflect the latest advances in technology. It is a cooperative system based upon the efforts of the US, the United Kingdom, and several other allied nations, and apparently operates with the knowledge and cooperation of various major telecommunications companies. Affiliated intercept stations posted throughout the member nations "capture" vast amounts of communications signals, including telephone calls, cell phone calls, satellite transmissions, faxes, and e-mails, and feed these signals into an enormous battery of computers managed by the NSA, which are programmed to sort through the signals on the basis of "voice recognition" and keywords (words in the NSA "dictionary" which are used to "flag" suspicious communications). Flagged communications are recorded, transcribed, and sent to analysts who may file them and/or contact personnel in a position to act upon the information that has been acquired. Apparently, large swaths of the American public are having their communications routinely swept up by ECHELON, and are either currently being investigated, or have ended up as names in files, on the basis of "keywords" which have triggered the alarms of the national security computers. This does not mean that any action will be taken against innocent civilians by the government, but it does mean that a terrible new invasion of privacy has been launched, and that the war against terrorism has provided the government with the means to cast a wider spy net than any yet envisioned by the civil libertarians who have sought to restrain it, and to limit its surveillance activities to genuine, or even plausible, suspects.
The Orwellian distress created by the thought of ECHELON accessing our every spoken and written thought is compounded, of course, by provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act (which was essentially renewed in 2006), which greatly enhanced the government’s powers to spy on us. The Patriot Act, for example, has facilitated the ability of the government to acquire personal information about us from third parties. It can require libraries to inform it of what books we have taken out, on-line bookstores to provide it with a list of our most recent purchases, and doctors to provide it with copies of our medical records. Whereas the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states that government searches of citizens can only be initiated if there is "probable cause" that the citizen in question is in violation of a law, and that there is a chance that the proposed search can obtain evidence of that violation (a court must concur with this opinion), under the Patriot Act the government can acquire personal information from third parties without successfully arguing "probable cause." It merely has to state that the information is needed for an investigation related to terrorism, or a foreign intelligence operation. Furthermore, when the government obtains information in this way from a third party, the third party can be required to remain silent about the request: that is to say, it cannot inform the investigated individual that he is being investigated. Another Patriot Act provision which has people on edge is the legalization of secret searches, which enables government agents to search a person’s home while he is away without notifying him, and even to confiscate some of his property in his absence. The purpose of these secret searches is to investigate terror suspects without letting them know that they are being investigated (which could trigger them to flee); but, by the same token, inappropriately-investigated citizens could have their privacy grossly violated and never know, and thereby lose their right to challenge the abuse. Critics of these Patriot Act measures also point out that some forms of surveillance allowed under this legislation (which was basically "fear legislation" produced in the wake of 9/11), drastically conflict with the First Amendment rights of citizens, especially the right to free speech, by cramping their ability to communicate with others because of the fear of being spied on and misrepresented as a terrorist, or terrorist-sympathizer. Is it safe to read the Koran? To buy a book about Bin Laden? To mention "terrorism" in an e-mail? To engage one’s mind actively with the issues of the day, to seek knowledge, understanding, and growth through contact with challenging aspects of the world, as opposed to ignorance through avoidance?
Many feel that the growing sense "Big Brother" looking over our shoulders which ECHELON, warrantless NSA spying, and the Patriot Act have imparted to our times is like a cold wind blowing over our souls, intimidating our minds, driving us towards the refuge of apathy and disengagement, or else towards an almost unbearable anxiety born from the fear that our curiosity and intellectual independence will turn us into victims, make us stand out from the compliant mass of the nondescript who have never triggered the alarms of a complex simple computer, or the frightened men who stand behind it. Will we one day be swept up in a net of paranoia because we did not kill our mind, because we did not let our leaders think for us? Will the great infrastructure of knowing we are different, which is being built today, one day be utilized to send us to concentration camps, to purge a society cowed into mindlessness of anything that can outthink it? Powerful images and archetypes haunt our collective memory of being spied upon. The one who looked in the window was always the one who killed us. Can we lay down our fear, expose our throats to the ones who say they love us; is our trepidation paranoia, or is it foresight?
During the 1960s and 70s, countless well-meaning activist and alternative groups were infiltrated and spied upon by the government: groups immersed in such diverse struggles as civil rights, environmental protection, the peace movement, human rights, and solidarity (for example, with the people of South Africa against apartheid). As a result of this wave of illegal spying, the government responded to citizens’ concern with legislation meant to prevent a recurrence of the same. But now it seems that terrorism has undone all the good work done, and that the spying has become more omnipresent than ever. None of us want to see the terrorists strike again and hurt our brothers and sisters. All of us are willing to make sacrifices to protect them. But how far do we go? And who do we allow to stand at the helm of the ship of our response: a man who represents us, or one who uses us? A man who values us, or a man who fears us? A man who will fight for liberty, or a man who mouths the word "liberty" while he fights for himself? A President or a King?
Only men of legend can be counted on to rule justly, from the inside, without laws binding upon them to shape their governance. And only in fairy tale lands can people neglect their rights and retain them. Even in times of danger, we must demand that our government abide by the laws that were created to define it and to humanize it. When a river rises above its banks, there is a flood. When a government exceeds its legal authority, there is a transgression, and a crisis. We cannot allow our government to be overthrown by our leaders. Awareness is the beginning of self-defense. Let us defend the blessings of the political system that is our legacy by not closing our eyes to the disdain which some of our highest figures have for it.
For more information, I recommend the following two documents (prepared by the ACLU):
"Surveillance under the US Patriot Act": http://www.aclu.org/safefree/general/17326res20030403.html
NSA Spying: http://www.aclu.org/privacy/spying/23279res20051229.html
APRIL 2006: THE DEADLY MORAL GAME OF INFILTRATING A TERRORIST ORGANIZATION. In the April 2006 Atlantic Monthly, a preview of Matthew Teague’s new book, Double Blind, appeared. It deals with the efforts of British intelligence to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and to destroy it from within. First off, the IRA remains an emotional topic for Irish nationalists and political romantics, who dislike the idea of having an organization which many felt defended the rights of the repressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and fought to bring closure to centuries of British domination of the Irish, dismissed as mere "terrorists." The truth is, the political context of the IRA’s genesis and continued operation in modern times, is complex, and not easily reduced to black and white. By the same token, it is also true that the IRA has alienated many by sometimes carrying out ruthless attacks against innocent civilians - attacks, such as bombings in public places, that surely comprise acts of terrorism - as well as by developing certain "mafia-like" tendencies which disappoint those who remain committed to high political ideals. Besides this, there is the question of whether violence, itself, was ever truly justified in the environment in which it was launched, or if political struggle could have persevered through peaceful means, in spite of the clear setbacks it received in the 1960s and 1970s, and thereby spared many on both sides. Whatever the case, Teague’s article refers to the IRA as terrorists, and focuses on an entirely different issue: the question of how far a government (in this case Great Britain) may go in order to defeat terrorists.
Although the IRA cannot, technically, be regarded as defeated, it is currently in a quiescent period, while peaceful political groups such as the Sinn Fein seek progress in the North of Ireland without arms. Teague presents the IRA’s current state of quiescence, brought about by a confluence of improving political options for the discontented and serious military damage inflicted by the British, as an IRA "defeat" (the cover of the Atlantic Monthly goes so far as to claim that the IRA has been "toppled"). In all events, it is fair to say that the IRA was, indeed, badly diminished as a result of the intelligence operations described in Teague’s book. Teague’s account dwells mainly on two Irishmen who were recruited by the British to infiltrate and spy on the IRA from the inside, "Kevin Fulton", a veteran of the British army’s Royal Irish Rangers turned special operations expert, and "Scap", an IRA sniper, first, and then an interrogator for the "Nutting Squad", the internal security detachment of the IRA which specializes in exposing and executing traitors.
To uncover infiltration, the IRA, as most clandestine revolutionary organizations, relied on methods of internal surveillance and performance assessment, testing its recruits in the field and only gradually, on the basis of performance, allowing them to rise up through the ranks (to acquire more information and potential to damage the organization). In theory, by the time an IRA fighter got into a position capable of inflicting serious harm upon his fellows, his loyalty should have been proven beyond a doubt, while all spies should have been weeded out. Perhaps most foolproof of all tests that a recruit was subjected to was the test of combat, in which he was placed in a position to kill an enemy - either a member of the Northern Irish defense force or Protestant paramilitaries, or a British soldier, or some related (and sometimes civilian) target. It was assumed that, faced with this "ultimate test", a spy would falter, somehow fail, openly sabotage the operation, or run. So trusted was this method of ascertaining loyalty, in fact, that it had long been practiced by many guerrilla and terrorist organizations. In The Battle of Algiers, for example, an Algerian revolutionary of the late 1950s is depicted as being given the task of shooting a French policeman as a way of proving his sincerity and commitment to the cause, before being accepted by the rebels.
Well aware of this behavior, counterguerrilla and antiterrorist experts realized that to infiltrate clandestine organizations at the highest possible level, it might be necessary to instruct their agents to go ahead, and kill on behalf of those organizations. Only in this way could these agents gain the credibility needed to advance from the information-scarce lower echelons of the organizations which they had infiltrated, to the higher-ranking positions which were intelligence goldmines. In the case of Fulton, he rose slowly in the IRA ranks through a series of minor tests, until finally becoming a full-fledged member of a top-notch explosives team responsible for building bombs used against a variety of military and civilian targets. At times, he passed on information to his handlers in British intelligence that allowed the attacks to be thwarted, but in many other instances, the attacks were allowed to proceed, in order to maintain Fulton’s credibility with the IRA and prevent them from becoming suspicious of their stellar bomb-maker. In the process, the British knowingly and willingly sacrificed "their own." As they sought to assuage their conscience for, essentially, killing British and allies of the British by promoting Fulton’s work in order to facilitate his infiltration of the IRA, they reminded themselves, and him, that it was all "for the greater good." By killing a hundred of their own, they might, in the long run, save a thousand. Each "terrorist success", which they were participating in through Fulton, was actually bringing them closer to being able to dismantle the organization, by working Fulton higher up, closer to the heartbeat at the top. In 1993, following this philosophy of "for the greater good", Fulton’s British handlers actually participated in helping Fulton to upgrade IRA bomb-making technology. Previously utilizing wires to set off bombs and rockets, the IRA had just got into photo-sensor triggers which could be activated by flashes of light, and actually be detonated by cameras. Fulton’s handlers arranged an underground arms deal in New York, at which Fulton acquired infrared flash technology that improved the reliability of the system, leading to what is today known as the infrared photo-sensor bomb. Not only did the IRA put the new technology to good use, killing more British and Northern Irish security personnel and civilians in the process; the bomb type was so successful that it quickly spread to other parts of the world, and is today being utilized by Iraqui insurgents against British and American troops. To defeat terrorism, the British army was actually participating in terrorism, and increasing the capabilities of the terrorists!
Teague’s story reaches a fascinating climax when Fulton is finally suspected of being a spy by the IRA, when one of his big operations gets preempted by the British, who seem to have a little too much knowledge about it. He then ends up in the hands of Scap, and is forced to undergo an exhausting process of interrogation. The irony is that Scap, who is also a British spy, can show his fellow spy no quarter, or he, too, will be a suspect. In fact, it seems as though some members of British intelligence had made up their mind to sacrifice Fulton at this point, in order to enhance Scap’s credibility and to further his penetration of the IRA. At the last moment, some morally tormented British agent got through to Fulton, and advised him not to show for his final scheduled interrogation with Scap.
Teague’s story is not flattering for the IRA, which comes off as hardcore, without the romantic aura expected and demanded by many Irish nationalists. It may not be the ideal work for understanding the complexity of the IRA, with its deep historical heritage, its valor and its hope, as well as its thuggishness and unpardonable acts of ruthlessness. What Teagues’ story excels at is portraying the haziness of the line between terrorist and counterterrorist in today’s world, the moral ambiguity that pervades the field of battle and threatens to turn winner and loser into equal partners of savagery. For me, the danger that alarms most, is the mental preparation which these spies and agents undergo in order to be able to do harm to their own people, in the name of a "greater good." What if these attitudes and excuses which small numbers of spies and intelligence operatives today persuade themselves to accept, in order to kill their fellow citizens and participate in terrorist operations, should be inculcated into larger numbers of people, or even infect the armed forces and political establishment as a whole? There lies a formula for unmitigated disaster: for the repression and persecution of nations and peoples by their own leaders and their own brothers. There lies the psychological framework within which the concentration camps and gas chambers of tomorrow might be constructed. Once "small sins" lose their impact, and the "greater good" becomes the dominant moral point of reference, the certainty of the heart, which knows wrong in its core, is swept away by the trickster’s hand; mathematics only confuses the obvious, and pardons unspeakable crimes with irrefutable logic.
Although safety from terrorism is rapidly becoming one of the priorities of modern-day life, the hardcore intelligence techniques depicted by Teague - dependent upon the spies who protect us killing enough of us to win the trust of the terrorist organizations they are infiltrating - can only make us wonder how our minds and souls are evolving in the face of the crisis, and whether we can ultimately survive the terrible danger of who we are becoming.
(Some also point out that the level of intimacy between terrorist and government, which are now becoming interlaced in increasingly close bonds of intelligence and counterintelligence, is creating the danger that external terrorist organizations may one day be taken over from the inside and wielded by the government, either to strike against its own foes, or to generate the "Pearl Harbor Effect" or "Burning of the Reichstag Effect", as a prelude to manipulating the public and promoting its own agenda. Sad to say, this seemingly "paranoid" concern cannot, in the light of recent history, be absolutely dismissed.)
In the morning, in the mirror, I saw a man who was free.
In the afternoon, in the mirror, I saw my enemy.
In the night time, in the mirror, I could not tell if I was him or he was me.
Next morning, there was no mirror, and I could not see.
It is well to imagine our death, in order to live...
June 2006: DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ. That’s an adage that we all know, but sometimes fail to put into practice. This past month I’ve been peripherally involved in a news event which has been covered by the major local newspapers and TV networks, and I’ve been absolutely amazed by the treatment it’s received, especially in the widely-circulated tabloids. Inaccurate information, allegations, rumors and fantasies all mixed together and passed off as news! For some employees of the media, it seems, "fairness, accuracy, and truth" are not the primary goals of reporting. Instead, reality is used as a kind of fodder for a hybrid product that is part-real-world, and part-fiction, meant to sell newspapers. Don’t let what really happened get in the way! Atop a chassis of reality, embellishments and innuendoes which play with people’s lives are built; excitement requires scandal and disgrace. Conceived of in this way, the news is merely a form of entertainment based on hyperbole and sensationalism; who cares if the reputation of good people is mowed down, the war to titillate sometimes requires casualties. If the people are oppressed with boredom, construct a thrill, if they need to vent, give them someone to hate. Yellow journalism has started wars, changed the world map, broken individuals. Don’t take it so hard. Why shouldn’t your friends go down for the common good? Bad news reporting is like a tapeworm lurking in the intestines of the First Amendment. No one wants to throw out the baby with the bath water. But maybe - just maybe - we should remind ourselves, the next time we hold a newspaper in our hands, that just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s true. At the same time as we honor and value the many courageous and dedicated journalists who seek to bring the world to us everyday as part of their commitment to democracy, which can only truly function with knowledge, we must recognize the fact that there are also many infiltrators hidden within this proud profession - mere sellers of newspapers, frustrated novelists who need an idea down the block to get them started, callous opportunists and drivers of agendas, hammer wielders who will smash people’s good names for pleasure and a penny. Until it happens to you, maybe you won’t believe that you shouldn’t believe. But take it from one who knows: the news isn’t always the news. Don’t make up your mind prematurely. Don’t give your heart to a headline.
November 2006: THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT: THOUGHTS ON A CONTROVERSIAL MOVIE. Recently a movie featuring the faked assassination of President George Bush came out: The Death of a President, directed by Gabriel Range. Naturally enough, it triggered a huge wave of bipartisan condemnation, earning descriptions of "despicable", "in bad taste", "sensationalistic", "opportunistic", "exploitative" and "inflammatory." Critics objected for many reasons, some explicitly enunciated and some left unsaid. For some, a movie portraying the assassination of a still-living president could put ideas into people’s heads, and actually create a real danger for the president; for others, there was a kind of superstitious dread regarding the staged presentation of the crime - subconscious fear of the power of a magic ritual, and the power of visualization to shape reality; while, for others, it was simply insensitive to fictionally "kill" a still-living person: a form of disrespect and emotional callousness. On the other hand, other critics called the movie a "thought-provoking" exploration of the political unknown, an exercise of the imagination, and study of the consequences of an unrealized act. Interested to get to the bottom of the controversy, and not let others make up my mind for me, I decided to check out the movie in person. What I came up with was the following:
The movie was an attempt to explore the potential consequences of the assassination of the president by means of speculation, presented in the form of a documentary.
The movie was actually more of a rehash of the consequences of 9/11 than it was a genuinely new exploration of an alternative reality. Various post-9/11 themes, such as the use of the "assassination" to emotionally fuel a conservative foreign policy agenda, promote new security measures curtailing our democratic rights, and target Muslim minorities as scapegoats, were all replayed. The film actually constructed its imaginary future by regurgitating the past; in this sense, it was little more than a historical "remix."
The movie was really not a Bush-bashing movie, or mere outlet for fantasized aggression against the president, as some critics have depicted it. In the beginning, in fact, as the "docu-drama" relied heavily on fictional Bush supporters (friends, political assistants, and security personnel) to build its story, the president was presented in a favorable light (as he was seen through their loving eyes); while the demonstrators who protested his arrival in Chicago (the imaginary venue of his assassination), were portrayed as angry and unruly. Although security personnel repeatedly stated that the majority of the demonstrators were peaceful, and exercising their democratic right to dissent, the film endowed them with an anarchistic aura, and suggested that some very dangerous radicals had infiltrated the protest movement and were using it as a base from which to launch their actions against the president. As demonstrators and police clashed in the movie, the few scenes of "police brutality" that were shown were pretty much absorbed and neutralized by the frenzy and rage of the demonstrating mob, which mitigated them. The first part of the movie was in no way anti-Bush.
The actual assassination of the president was, as I understand it, faked with the latest cinematic techniques, involving computer-generated imagery, which pasted Bush’s face onto an actor who reacted to the imaginary bullets. The chaos of the moment, replete with panic and swirling camera footage, helped to conceal whatever technical rough spots may have remained in the fake assassination. Later, in the movie, footage of VP Dick Cheney, now elevated to the role of the president, speaking at President Bush’s funeral, was engineered, and rendered quite believable.
As time went on, the movie finally began to acquire a critical orientation towards Bush, through its increasing involvement with the plight of a US military family which had lost a son in Iraq. Although the movie was pretty balanced in terms of presenting different political sides to the events depicted, the fact that the movie ended on this note (its parting impression), could be seen to leave it, when all was said and done, in the anti-Bush camp.
I found the movie interesting and worth seeing, neither as dreadful and pointless as the critics made it out to be, nor as original and enlightening as its advocates declared. I did find the fictional murder of a still-living person, whether a president or man on the street, as rude and in poor taste, and would have preferred the full use of fictional characters, which could have served the material just as well, but doubtless with less hoopla and controversy AKA ticket sales. (Even so, the movie didn’t have a very long run, here, in New York. Movie theaters seemed to dread it, almost as though they might be investigated as terrorists for showing it, and when I went, two weeks after opening, there was only a small, offbeat crowd to take it in.)
What I found really significant about the movie, however, was the way in which a fake reality could be constructed by computer imagery and photography, and made to appear real. All of us know that the world is filled with lies. For many years, the documentary, truth-telling power of the visual image - "a picture is worth a thousand words" - "seeing is believing" - has backed us up in our desire to separate fact from fiction, and to cut through the mire of excuses, misrepresentations and fabrications which have frequently insulated us from what is really happening in the world beyond our world. True, sometimes the visual image, through the very nature of its power, elevates what it captures to the pinnacle of our perception, making us prisoners of the small portion of reality that it has managed to find, to the detriment of achieving a more balanced picture. Nonetheless, we have almost always, before, been able to count on the veracity of what we have been able to see "with our own eyes." In this way, the footage of the captive Viet Cong fighter shot point-blank in the head by a pistol-wielding South Vietnamese officer (our ally), and the footage of the naked Vietnamese girl-child fleeing from a US napalm strike on her village, broke through to us, in the 1960s, with the truth of the "other side", the "untold side" of the Vietnam War, a side that we were missing and that we needed to know in order to truly understand what we had gotten ourselves into. In this way, the incredible story of Nazi Germany’s "Final Solution" proved itself to us, through the stunning footage of liberated concentration camp prisoners, and to this day, makes the Holocaust-deniers seem like nothing more than deluded fools and partisans of genocide.
But now, the question comes: what happens once we have achieved the ability to film and photograph things that have not really happened? To insert real people who we know and recognize into the midst of constructed realities, and to invest them with virtues or vices that are not really theirs? What happens once we can convincingly simulate acts of terrorism, create footage of invasions or torture, make leaders give the speeches we want them to give, document threats that were never made, invent promises that were never given? Powerful new Orwellian technologies for mass-manipulation are taking shape in front of our very eyes, admirable for their cleverness, yet dreadful for their potential to overcome the last defenses of our objectivity. And just as much as the danger of turning us into pawns of fantasies designed to socially engineer us, we ought to fear the danger that this advancing technology might some day so incite our skepticism as to make it impossible to believe, or else easy to dismiss, what we do see with our own eyes. Already, there are large numbers of people throughout the world - not to mention those who claim that 9/11 was carried out by US intelligence operatives in order to create a new Pearl Harbor - who believe that 9/11 never actually happened - that the collapse of the Twin Towers was faked by "Hollywood special effects", so that the US government could use it as an excuse to launch a "Christian crusade against Islam." Well, though those skeptics may not believe me, I can tell them for sure that those towers, which I loved so well, are there no more, and that for several years I have been able to look down into the giant hole where they once stood. The point is, if even now some people are able to doubt the irrefutable tales told by the visual image, how much more easily will people be able to deflect those tales in the future, as the technology of faking reality advances to new heights? A fantasy world created by a manufactured reality - or a fantasy world sustained by the belief that all reality inconvenient to accommodate is manufactured - both are the stuff of disaster, the seed of Injustice, Dictatorship, and Armageddon.
For me, this was the true value of The Death of a President: a warning to us all about the future of perception, and the coming struggles which our contact with reality is likely to undergo.
November 2006: DEMOCRATS WIN THE HOUSE AND SENATE. This is big political news, here, in America. After four years of riding the patriotism, fear and hurt produced by 9/11 to launch and sustain the war on terrorism, and the war in Iraq, the Republican political domination of our country has been temporarily broken. The administration has been shaken by the growing quagmire of Iraq, a war that seems unwinnable and which is morally frustrating. It has been discredited by a growing sense that it has lied to the American people (dragging us into the war in Iraq based on deliberate misrepresentations, exaggerations, and tactics of manipulation); by a growing sense of discomfort produced by apparent acts of hypocrisy and violations of our self-image as a fair and moral people (recurring stories from Guantanamo, the scandal of Abu Ghraib, CIA renditions in Europe, US-sponsored torture, and self-enrichment by Halliburton and other contractors beneath the cynical veneer of patriotism, while American troops are under-supplied and mis-deployed); by a sense that our political system is being taken over by an unconstitutional power grab which threatens the survival of our democracy (illegal domestic spying, and the illegal bypassing of legal bodies and procedures by the executive branch in its quest for complete freedom of action); and by a sense that the health, education, and economic well-being of the American people has been placed on the political back-burner by men who are rich, comfortable, and obsessed with foreign adventures that our squandering our national resources and our goodwill. Though everyone remains concerned about terrorism, there is growing concern that the invasion of Iraq has actually made our country more unsafe (by providing Islamic terrorists with greatly-expanded possibilities for recruitment, due to the negative image generated by our involvement there, which virtually the entire Muslim world sees as an act of aggression aimed at controlling Middle Eastern politics and oil); and also due to the destabilization of Iraq, which has now become porous to the infiltration of terrorists from around the world, and due to the overextension of the US military, whose objectives are now split between Iraq and the international war on terrorism. It may also be stated that the expenditure of American political capital in what is widely viewed as an illegitimate intervention in Iraq has stimulated other countries, aware that the US is spread too thin to effectively intervene or preempt their actions, to increase their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons for self-defense (if you are going to be invaded on account of WMDs you do not possess, you might as well have them). These weapons will not only increase the number of nuclear players in the world, and correspondingly increase the risk that "something may go wrong" (the more crowded a room becomes, the more likely it is that somebody will step on somebody else’s foot), but also may, indeed, find their way into terrorists’ hands if they are not carefully supervised and controlled. The question of nuclear proliferation is a crucial one, but unfortunately, the international structures which might have found ways of working it out through some form of control linked to credible security guarantees and economic aid packages granted to the non-nuclear nations of the world, has been undermined and virtually shattered by the USA’s refusal to act within the constraints of the international system. The dream of international order has been overrun by jungle growth, and few in the world see anything more than the law of the jungle, now. The great debacle of this administration has been to mistake the limits of international law, and its vision of an ordered globe, with complete uselessness. What was weak was not a myth; working within its weakness, vast amounts of energy could be saved on the way to achieving important goals, a fair price to pay in exchange for some of the frustrations and obstructions inevitable in remaining bound by such a system. By ditching it, however, the environment of legitimacy and support which bolsters actions, in the same way that favorable air currents sustain a bird’s flight and allow him to glide for miles rather than beat his wings against the wind to the point of exhaustion, was forsaken. What was a myth was the convenience of "going it alone." And now, the first ecstasies of not being restrained have given way to the reality of trying to fly into the wind of a world that does not trust us anymore.
Although all these major issues had a play in the 2006 elections, the country still remained pretty strongly divided, each side clinging to its almost visceral dislike of the politics of the other. For diehard conservative Republicans, the Democrats were weak on terror (wanted to undermine our safety by standing by "liberal civil liberty crap"), unpatriotic (questioning our role in Iraq), immoral (backing the rights of gays and lesbians, and supporting abortion), and against working families (their social programs would be funded by taxes that would hurt working families). For Democrats, the Republicans were liars and hypocrites, who had got the country involved in a painful and costly war on false pretense, and were sowing the seeds of future terrorism through their overaggressive actions; they were threatening freedom in our own country and abusing people outside of it (and minorities inside of it); they were appealing to close-mindedness and hate to get votes; and they were enemies of the social spending needed to help working families and the poor to make a go of it, scaring conservative elements of the working class with fairy tales about monster-Democrats who would send taxes sky high, at the same time as they (the Republicans) continued providing huge tax breaks for the rich (which left a significant tax burden sitting on the backs of the rest of the country). Of course, there was a middle ground between these two poles. Nonetheless, the Red State - Blue State divide of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections was still strong. There was a lot of passion in the voting booths.
In this historical moment, every little thing that could be done for one’s party carried a great weight. As both the elections of 2000 and 2004 showed - both won by small margins that carried key states (Florida 2000, Ohio 2004) - it was crucial to get out the vote, and to not discount a single voter. For the Democrats, there was a lot to learn from the highly effective Republican political machine, and a relatively new progressive political presence on the Internet, moveon.org, played an important technical role in helping to translate growing discontent with the Bush administration into actual votes. To do so, moveon.org studied and then implemented Republican tactics of "microtargeting" and "pre-election absentee balloting" in order to "turn out the Democratic vote." In both cases, recruiting volunteers (via e-mails) and setting up large-scale phone-banking operations was employed, utilizing the volunteers to call up Democrats and remind them (encourage them) to vote. In the case of "microtargeting", old "get-out-the-vote" patterns of focusing calls on districts and areas known to be rich in the members of one’s party were widened, and many calls were now also made into districts dominated by the opposing party, in which large numbers of one’s own supporters could nonetheless be found, via more precise databases, and "fished out." "Microtargeting" greatly expanded the number of supporters who could be reached and urged to vote by phone calls. Regarding "pre-election absentee balloting", this was a technique which encouraged some voters to vote well in advance of the elections via absentee ballots. This allowed the party in question to lock up important votes long before the election actually took place, so that they would have more resources to devote to those who had not yet voted in the days and hours immediately before the elections. Besides incorporating these tactics, pioneered by the Republicans, into their progressive agenda, moveon.org also conducted highly effective fundraising via the Internet, and sponsored many important ads throughout the nation in the days before the elections. While conservative critics lambasted the organization for its activities, moveon.org saw itself as doing nothing more than "catching up" with the Republican political machine, and pitting activist and citizen’s-network power against the efforts of "big money", and conservative thought-shaping operations (such as right-wing talk radio, etc.) Moveon.org dedicated itself, in the 2006 elections, to not allowing the rising discontent in the nation to be offset by superior Republican vote-getting techniques; and, in fact, its goal was brilliantly accomplished. Whereas it can certainly not take all the credit for the victory, its impact was also far from negligible.
Given the fact that the Democrats have now won control of the House and also, though less decisively, of the Senate, the question may be asked: what does this mean for America? Time will tell. At first glance, however, there is hope that the political system will be able to slow down the pace of the Bush administration’s mistakes and overreaches; that some of the lost balance that is supposed to exist between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch (crucial to maintaining the viability of our democracy and the robustness of our collective thought), will be restored; and that some movement back in the direction of the international community and moral credibility will be made. However, it cannot be denied that an awful international mess has been made by this administration, and it will not be easy to extricate ourselves from the situations and dilemmas in which we have been so unwisely immersed. No one is going to look good getting out of this, and the struggles and frustrations of trying to find a way out are as likely to tarnish the Democrats as the Republicans, and may have an effect in the presidential elections of 2006, in which each side will now be able to blame the other for obstructing and sabotaging its efforts. It must also be remembered that the Democrats are not necessarily a dependable counterbalance to the Republicans (think of how many went along with the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq). They are easily manipulated by what they perceive to be public opinion, and are likely to commit political blunders and acts of moral negligence in order to protect their image in the crucible of patriotism. Should new acts of terrorism occur in the days and months to come, they cannot truly be relied on to stand against the further erosion of our civil liberties, especially with their eyes on the prize of the 2008 presidential elections. In those elections (and the primaries that precede them), I have a terrible dread that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, and that the nation, not yet socially ready for a woman president, and with large parts of it trained for years to think of Mrs. Clinton as some kind of she-devil, will then vote for the Republicans in spite of their atrocious record, and perpetuate the catastrophic rule of men who do not know how to coexist with he rest of the world. However, at this point, this is just a fear, not a prediction.
In all events, I continue to say, at every opportunity, that the back and forth struggle of the two parties are but swings of a pendulum, whose motion is intensifying and possibly leading to things worse than we can imagine; that, while we fight to support the "better party" and to "limit the damage" by means of it, and while we wage the critical battle to maintain the political space necessary for achieving true change, we must remind ourselves that we are operating within a limited time frame, and redouble our efforts to achieve that true change, before it is too late.
November 2008: OBAMA WINS US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS. November 4, 2008, was a historic day in the history of the United States of America. It was historic, not because a black man attained the office of President, but because the best man for the job won in spite of being black. What was perceived to be an insurmountable barrier of racism, penetrating insidiously into the very soul of our culture, was finally overcome to the extent that the obvious superiority of one candidate over another was not invalidated by it; in this case, quality vanquished prejudice.
I must admit that when the Democratic primaries first got underway, I was deathly afraid. It was evident to me that our country was in desperate need of a "regime change" of our own: that eight years of self-destructive Republican rule which had embroiled us in an unnecessary war, undermined us economically, isolated us politically, multiplied our enemies around the world, and debased us morally with manipulation, lies, corruption, and behavior absolutely inconsistent with our founding principles, pillaging both our coffers and our trust, must at last be brought to an end. I had, as the primaries got underway, no glorious agenda, no magnificent hope for America, only a frantic primal instinct that we must change direction before it was too late, fight to preserve the very minimum: our basic liberties, our democratic system, our common sense, our standing in the world, based upon a proper understanding of the nature of power (which wastes itself when it is over-expressed). I had no interest in engaging any social/cultural frontier in this election, in breaking any new ground, and grew despondent to see the Democratic Party’s two major contenders emerge as a woman and a black man, neither one of whom, I thought, due to the prejudices of our history, could defeat a "white Christian male", our standard November fare, in a national election. I would have been happy to see Al Gore, or some other high-profile white male, take up the party flag, and lead the Democrats forward in an electoral battle fought on conventional terms, where the increasing disintegration of American prestige and power in the face of eight years of atrocious mismanagement by the Republicans ought to "give us a chance." Why risk it all in the name of gender or ethnicity; in the name of advancing our social frontiers? (Here is not the place to rehash my political/cultural views. Ultimately, I do not believe either major party can remake America as it needs to be remade without first being bolstered by a massive cultural movement which will make the new politics possible. The point is, in this election, my goals were limited to stepping on the brakes of the slide towards debilitation, and its inevitable byproduct, which is authoritarianism. Thus, I preferred to "go with the flow" of our social history, rather than to buck it.)
However, it soon became clear, our candidate was going to be either Hillary Clinton, a white woman, or Barack Obama, a black man. (Funny thing is, Obama, being the result of a mixed-race marriage, is genetically as much a white man as he is a black man. That subtext carries, with it, a bit more of our social history: our country feels so strongly about race that a man who is 50% black, and sometimes even less, is automatically categorized as black, and - as though he were "tainted" or "impure" - pushed over to the side of the "subaltern race.")
Like many others who favored the Democrats in the general election, I was disturbed by the ferocity of the battle between Hillary and Obama, which I thought might leave so many welts and bruises in our camp that we would end up facing the Republican candidate, war-hero John McCain, divided and in disarray. Fortunately, after a remarkably tough and, admittedly, thrilling primary campaign, Obama finally succeeded in nailing down the win, without being totally wrecked. Then, thanks to the unequivocal backing of his former Clinton rivals which reunited the party; thanks to his own growing stature based upon his cool, poised, and articulate persona which did not flinch under tremendous pressure; and thanks to the adverse effect, upon the Republicans, of John McCain’s over-the-top negative campaigning, John McCain’s disastrous choice of the woefully unprepared Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the economic meltdown on Wall Street which happened on the Republicans’ watch, Obama went on to beat the odds, to astonish the skeptics, and to write a new chapter in American history. From a past of slavery and racism, Jim Crow and lynchings, police dogs and water cannons, jails and firebombs, a black man was finally offered the keys to the White House. Not because he was black, but because he deserved it. What many had thought would never happen, happened. What I thought might one day happen, but not yet, arrived much sooner than expected.
I congratulate President-Elect Obama, and America. In this way, we are better than I thought. (Although I am sure, as many of you agree, that racism is far from dead in our country – in fact, it is very much alive and well – the magnificence of our collective gesture still deserves recognition.)
This having been said, words of caution are needed, even as rightful celebration occurs.
First, Barack Obama has been catapulted into the heavens of this political moment, because he shines, he has passion and eloquence and welcome intelligence after years of "government for dummies"; and he is able to instill hope in us, to stir dormant ideals, and rouse our desire to return to the high ground we feel we have lost; he reinvigorates our expectations for justice and fairness in an age which we all recognize has become increasingly deceptive, hypocritical, indifferent and corrupt. He glows in an age which has ceased to give off light. For all of us, he is an offering of redemption. Our trip to the polls, this year, was an act of self-purification and repentance, a moral cleansing, a secular effort to be "born again." Like a wife-beating, miserable drunk, we have finally found God: Obama is not that God, but our means to reach Him.
Truly, we are immersed in a magical moment. And yet, palpable and substantive though our emotional ecstasy may be, within the glorious vapor, what lasting realities lie waiting to be brought forth to transform the world?
Regarding this, I tell myself:
This leads me back to my central idea, which is that a society such as ours can only go so far as the people are able and willing to go; is only as flexible as its people’s minds, as courageous as its people’s hearts, as visionary as its people’s imagination, and as strong as its people’s will. No grand idealist can change the world without a people equal to his vision. To actually change America to the extent that it needs to be changed, in order to preserve what is best in it and to "save it" (and the world), a trip to the polls will not suffice; we could go to the voting booth and pull the lever for Jesus Christ, but not being capable of following him, he could not save as us. For the work that really needs to be done to get done, a new people must be created from the raw material, promising but unprepared, which we encounter in this country; a people capable of marching with their "great leader", not merely electing him. To accomplish this, a massive and determined social/cultural movement will be needed, one capable of expanding our political and economic options until, at last, we are able to stretch ourselves to the true tasks of tomorrow.
In the meantime, as that work remains to be done, Obama is a vast improvement over what we have had. I count on him to hold down the fort, and to lay down some important foundations for the future to come.
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