June 30, 2007

A Nation of Lepers, Criminals and Parasites

Peter Quinn has written a valuable essay, which fills in some further details concerning the themes I've developed in recent posts about the immigration debate. As I have said, that debate is most notable for its virtually complete ignorance of history, its paranoia (which I'm beginning to view as something of an apparently prized American sport), and its blatant, unapologetic racism. (A few of you perhaps thought the most vehement opposition to the proposed immigration bill wasn't racist in origin? Think again.)

Here are a few excerpts from Quinn's piece:
The debate [over immigration] has waxed and waned over the last two centuries. What hasn't changed is the temptation to substitute shrillness for commonsense and depict the most recent newcomers as lepers, terrorists and parasites whose very presence subverts our economy and threatens our democracy.

In the beginning, anyone with the stamina to get here was welcome to stay. For the most part, foreigners were courted and encouraged to come. The young nation counted on their skills, ambition and numbers to sustain westward expansion and help fuel the growth of industry. The shrill notes, however, weren't long in coming. By the 1830s, a growing influx of German and Irish Catholics led prominent Americans like Lyman Beecher and Samuel F.B. Morse to warn of a plot to bring the United States under the sway of the pope.

Soon afterwards, the arrival of a massive wave of Irish Catholics in flight from a devastating famine in their homeland put immigration at the center of American politics. In the single decade from 1845 to 1855, Irish-Catholic immigration approached that of all groups over the previous seventy years. Native Americans -- a term the descendants of previous arrivees from the British Isles expropriated to themselves --maintained that Irish poverty was a function of Irish character. The immigrants were painted as disease-bearing, superstition-ridden and violence-prone, and the demand was made for imposing severe restrictions on the granting of citizenship.

In an 1855 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Gov. Henry J. Gardner went back to classical history to find a comparison. The scale of Irish immigration resembled, the governor said, the "horde of foreign barbarians" that had overthrown the Roman Empire.


By the turn of the 20th century...a flood of Italians, Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews had once again revivified nativist fears and set in motion a virulent anti-immigrant reaction. An elite cadre of eugenicists, supported by wealthy philanthropists, argued that the racial "germ plasm" of these groups was riddled with hereditary tendencies to feeblemindedness, criminality and pauperism. The subsequent revival of the Klu Klux Klan as a mass movement whose influence extended outside the South testified to the depth and breadth of anti-immigrant sentiment.

In the wake of World War I, the passage of the 18th Amendment, a constitutional change that prohibited the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, had as a prime target the cultural and social habits of wine/whisky/beer-drinking immigrants. A few years later, in 1924, with the support of eugenicists and Klansmen alike, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively cut arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe by 80 percent, a limitation that stayed in place through World War II and the Holocaust.
On the relationship between prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, see Part VIII of my "Dominion Over the World" series: "Unwelcome History: Religion, the Progressives, Empire and the Drug War."

And with regard to the quotas on European immigrants, very significantly including Jews, see: "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor -- But Not Too Many Jews, and Not Too Many Iraqis."

Considering that the United States is made up of "others" and those descended from "others," it is remarkable how much we hate the "other" targeted for vilification at any particular moment in history. We don't hate only those "others" who come here: we hate the "others" who remain there, wherever "there" might be. We hated the Mexicans, then the Filipinos (see here, too), then the Germans (during World War One, mind you), then the "gooks" (see the second half of that essay, about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam), and now we hate an intentionally indistinguishable mass of Arabs and Muslims, which ends up reducing to those "others" who usually turn out to be, in the words of Stan Goff, "brown and poor." Very significantly, they also are almost always completely powerless compared to our unparalleled military strength.

And we always, always, always hate Black Americans -- those Americans who originally had been over there until we brought them here by brute and brutal force, and then made them serve us as slaves by the unceasing use of further vile and lethal force.

It begins to appear that we hate no one nearly so much as we loathe ourselves. No people who genuinely held themselves in anything approaching decent regard and who possessed even a minimal sense of healthy self-worth would be capable of such continuing, unrelieved hatred directed at a succession of "others" over such a long period of time.

At the conclusion of his article, Quinn wonders "whether we will learn from the past or repeat it." On this, as on every other issue of consequence, the evidence compels but one conclusion: we resolutely refuse to learn a single damned thing from the past -- especially since we are almost entirely ignorant of our own past, as well as everyone else's -- and we will repeat it an endless number of times, with all its grisly, bloody details fully intact.

A Regime of Blood, Wounds and Fire

[UPDATE: Although the Sharon Olds letter below was posted to my opera discussion list as if it were "new" news, it turns out that this happened in 2005, at which time The Nation published Olds' message to Laura Bush. This fact doesn't change a single substantive point in any manner (including my own remarks) -- except to underscore that these horrors have continued for an additional futile and gruesome two years, as they will continue for at least several more -- but I mention it for the sake of accuracy and completeness.]

An intriguing discussion on my opera list might be of more general interest. (The entire thread is the first one here, "A Letter Forwarded by Marilyn Horne.") It began with this very powerful message:
Sharon Olds, Poet, Declines White House Invitation

The power of poetry

In a culture like ours, one sometimes forgets the power of a poet's words...

Here is an open letter from the poet Sharon Olds to Laura Bush declining the invitation to read and speak at the [National Book Festival] in Washington, DC.

Feel free to forward it along if you feel more people may want to read it.

Sharon Olds is one of most widely read and critically acclaimed poets living in America today. Read to the end of the letter to experience her restrained, chilling eloquence.
Dear Mrs. Bush,

I am writing to let you know why I am not able to accept your kind invitation to give a presentation at the National Book Festival on September 24, or to attend your dinner at the Library of Congress or the breakfast at the White House.

In one way, it's a very appealing invitation. The idea of speaking at a festival attended by 85,000 people is inspiring! The possibility of finding new readers is exciting for a poet in personal terms, and in terms of the desire that poetry serve its constituents -- all of us who need the pleasure, and the inner and outer news, it delivers. And the concept of a community of readers and writers has long been dear to my heart.

As a professor of creative writing in the graduate school of a major university, I have had the chance to be a part of some magnificent outreach writing workshops in which our students have become teachers. Over the years, they have taught in a variety of settings: a women's prison, several New York City public high schools, an oncology ward for children. Our initial program, at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely physically challenged, has been running now for twenty years, creating along the way lasting friendships between young MFA candidates and their students -- long-term residents at the hospital who, in their humor, courage and wisdom, become our teachers.

When you have witnessed someone non-speaking and almost non-moving spell out, with a toe, on a big plastic alphabet chart, letter by letter, his new poem, you have experienced, close up, the passion and essentialness of writing.

When you have held up a small cardboard alphabet card for a writer who is completely non-speaking and non-moving (except for the eyes), and pointed first to the A, then the B, then C, then D, until you get to the first letter of the first word of the first line of the poem she has been composing in her head all week, and she lifts her eyes when that letter is touched to say yes, you feel with a fresh immediacy the human drive for creation, self-expression, accuracy, honesty and wit -- and the importance of writing, which celebrates the value of each person's unique story and song.

So the prospect of a festival of books seemed wonderful to me. I thought of the opportunity to talk about how to start up an outreach program. I thought of the chance to sell some books, sign some books and meet some of the citizens of Washington, DC. I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country -- with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain -- did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism -- the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.


This exchange was forwarded to the original sender by the famed American opera singer, Marilyn Horne, who had also turned down a similar invitation some time ago, as follows:
Brava! I did not write a letter when I was asked a few yrs. ago to sing for the Christmas Tree lighting at the White House. I refused, but did not go public about it. I just could not be seen as supporting this regime. It was the first term, too.......

The majority of the responses on the opera list were very positive. However, in yet another demonstration that there is no refuge from the more general dynamics at play in our culture, one response went as follows:
Blah, blah, blah. More worthless blather from the liberal hate mongers of the world. Grow up and realize that you are being asked to do something for your country and not by a particular political administration. If everyone who held any sort of political view followed this sort of lead where would artists and art be? All would be involved in a boycott of one thing or another.

Just grow up and start acting like adults.
In response to that comment (and one or two similar ones), I sent a reply of my own:
[Another lister] wrote:
Grow up and realize that you are being asked to do something for your country and not by a particular political administration. If everyone who held any sort of political view followed this sort of lead where would artists and art be?
"Where would artists and art be," indeed. In another message, [another lister] already mentioned part of the response that had occurred to me: Verdi and his passionate devotion to Italian unification. I seem to recall that influenced his work on more than one occasion, just as Verdi's more general political-ethical concerns hold great sway in a work such as "Don Carlos." It appears this is now to be regarded as a tragedy beyond measure: "where would artists and art be?" Without much of Verdi, if we were to follow [the other lister's] prescription. That, however, is *not* a tragedy. The basis for these calculations is not readily apparent to me, which is undoubtedly my own failing. I also recall that, on more than one occasion, Verdi's refusal to compromise his political convictions caused him some serious professional problems.

Another obvious response to [this lister's] comments might be Beethoven's "Fidelio." Oh, my. "Where would artists and art be?" Without "Fidelio." We are all terribly burdened by this regrettable combination of art and politics. There are many further examples, which I'm certain other listers can fill in at their leisure.

I do enjoy the appeal to "your country," as opposed to "a particular political administration." It might be noted as a preliminary matter that, in certain contexts, "a particular political administration" in effect *is* "the country." Two further responses on this issue. One is embodied by certain behavior of a noted soprano of the last century. For her, aiding the party in question was of no more significance than "joining a union." Well, she had been "asked to do something for [her] country," after all, and she did have a career to think about. It is neither hers nor ours to reason why in too much detail. See this essay for a lengthier discussion of my own evaluation of these regrettable actions (which evaluation is not necessarily what you might anticipate in its particulars).

As to the more general connections between art, politics and many other aspects of life, I will leave that point to a man who expressed those connections gloriously and passionately [an excerpt originally offered in this article]. In the Preface to "Cromwell," Victor Hugo wrote:
"[T]he modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected."
"All things are connected." In certain respects, I think that appreciating and understanding the many applications of this idea may be the most important principle of all. It is when we seek to *disconnect* -- from each other, and from the culture in which we live, including the politics of our time -- that trouble always follows. Sometimes, that trouble is terrible beyond contemplation.



P.S. I think Sharon Olds' letter is eloquent, infinitely moving, and unusually powerful. In a word: magnificent. I sincerely thank [the original poster] for sending it to the list.

June 26, 2007

Will No One Rid Me of This Meddlesome Man?*

[*Becket, 1964]

When last we visited Joshua Muravchik in November of 2006, we came to understand how wildly comedic advanced dementia could be. We learned that the neoconservatives are depised only because they are so beautiful and approach as close to perfection as is possible to imperfect Man. Their ideas are good and true, and universal in their applicability. Oh, the neoconservatives may have made a few mistakes, but such is life. And perhaps most importantly, we must:


Muravchik was particularly insistent on that last point:


More than half a year later, as the immoral and criminal occupation of Iraq worsens by the hour, and as things fall apart throughout the Middle East -- in largest part as the direct result of the infernal meddling by the United States, a course of action which has never ceased since World War II -- one might think Muravchik would feel a bit chastened. Perhaps he might even entertain a few second thoughts -- only very gingerly and with extraordinary reluctance, to be sure, but perhaps, just perhaps, he might consider questioning the previously unchallenged and unchallengeable axioms which have supported his worldview.

You might think all of that. You would, of course, be wrong. We have long resided in Backwards World, where failure necessitates that one cling to precisely those policy prescriptions that have resulted in disaster with ever greater ferocity. The greater the failure, the more stubbornly one must refuse to reexamine even the smallest particle of the tiniest notion of the most minuscule principle that has brought one closer to the most dangerous precipice of all. Even that is not enough: one must significantly enlarge the scope of one's actions -- precisely those actions that have already resulted in widespread calamity, and the murder of over half a million innocent human beings.

In Backwards World, none of this is our fault or our responsibility in even a microscopic degree. This is a longstanding principle of neoconservative thought. Almost four years ago, in analyzing Irving Kristol's tendentious and profoundly dishonest retelling of the history of American foreign policy, I wrote:
Kristol's intellectual legerdemain accomplishes one objective, and it is a significant one: it absolves us of all responsibility for our past decisions in the foreign policy sphere. In effect, Kristol's analysis entirely negates the element of moral judgment when it comes to issues of war and peace, at least so far as the conduct of the United States is concerned. Wars, endless bombing raids, huge troop deployments, massive domestic taxation, a military draft (during the long period we had one), endless foreign entanglements, and large-scale death -- it's all just "bad luck." It just happened. It's not enough that Kristol engages in intellectual suicide before our eyes: he also wishes to prevent anyone else from engaging in critical analysis of historical events, in an attempt to ascertain if there just might be any lessons to be learned from such a study. And Kristol thus hopes that this intellectual paralysis will continue in the present, and into the future. Why, we can't question the means or methods by which we are now fighting the war on terror. It just happened. It's just our "bad luck." Whatever we do now or in the future, there are no judgments to be made about any of it.
Most importantly for the proponents of this worldview, we never have any responsibility for whatever might happen. It doesn't matter that we launched a criminal war of aggression against a nation that represented no serious threat, or that we have illegitimately occupied that nation for more than four years. It doesn't matter that we ceaselessly threaten to attack Iran, despite the fact that no reason in morality, strategy, or even common sense would justify it -- or that millions of people might die. None of it matters, for -- just as Cho Seung-Hui maintained -- "they" made us do it, whatever "it" might be.

(It must be noted that, although they try to be somewhat subtler about these detestable dynamics and their meaning, the Democrats drink deeply at this same trough of moral iniquity. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both advocate a militantly aggressive interventionism, and they make frequent threatening noises in Iran's direction. And Hillary Clinton also refuses all national -- and not insignificantly, personal -- responsibility for the catastrophe in Iraq: "[Our troops] gave the Iraqi people a chance for elections and to have a government. It is the Iraqis who have failed to take advantage of that opportunity." We have been failed by "our little brown brothers," still one more time. Our burdens are immeasurable.]

Muravchik has learned his lessons well. Note the subhead of his article from yesterday: "Iran is making a mistake that may lead the Middle East into broader conflict." Why, there aren't somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 U.S. troops sitting right next door to Iran, and one or more of our national leaders don't issue almost daily threats to attack Iran on the basis of a possible danger at some indeterminate point in an imagined future.

Always remember the primary principle: Nothing is ever our fault. They made us do it.

I could spend all day refuting the numerous dishonesties in Muravchik's summary of recent events in the Middle East. It's futile, and it's beside the point. This is the point:
The apparent meaning of all of this pointless provocation and bullying is that the axis of radicals--Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah--is feeling its oats. In part its aim is to intimidate the rest of us, in part it is merely enjoying flexing its muscles. It believes that its side has defeated America in Iraq, and Israel in Gaza and Lebanon. Mr. Ahmadinejad recently claimed that the West has already begun to "surrender," and he gloated that "final victory ... is near." It is this bravado that bodes war.

A large portion of modern wars erupted because aggressive tyrannies believed that their democratic opponents were soft and weak. Often democracies have fed such beliefs by their own flaccid behavior. Hitler's contempt for America, stoked by the policy of appeasement, is a familiar story. But there are many others. North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Korea lay beyond our "defense perimeter." Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after our ambassador assured him that America does not intervene in quarrels among Arabs. Imperial Germany launched World War I, encouraged by Great Britain's open reluctance to get involved. Nasser brought on the 1967 Six Day War, thinking that he could extort some concessions from Israel by rattling his sword.

Democracies, it is now well established, do not go to war with each other. But they often get into wars with non-democracies. Overwhelmingly the non-democracy starts the war; nonetheless, in the vast majority of cases, it is the democratic side that wins. In other words, dictators consistently underestimate the strength of democracies, and democracies provoke war through their love of peace, which the dictators mistake for weakness.
I could write many posts about the inaccuracies and distortions in these three paragraphs alone. Very soon, I will have much more about the origins of World War I. Almost everyone across the political spectrum appears to have fully internalized the mythological propaganda about The Great War.

For the moment, let's examine that last paragraph. I note that Muravchik is alleged to be "a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute." No, I'm not kidding.

"Democracies, it is now well established, do not go to war with each other."

This is either colossal stupidity, monumental ignorance, or an outright lie. As I did on an earlier occasion, I will turn this over to Jim Bovard:
Faith in this "democratic peace" doctrine has revived in recent decades. President Reagan declared that "the surest guarantee we have of peace is national freedom and democratic government." Clinton also embraced the doctrine and used it to sanctify his foreign policy time and again. As Thomas Carothers noted, "Clinton officials stock almost every general foreign policy speech with the argument that promoting democracy abroad advances U.S. interests because democracies tend not to go to war with each other, not to produce large numbers of refugees, not to engage in terrorism, to make better economic partners, and so on."

But no president has been half as liberal with invoking the doctrine as George W. Bush. . . .

The only way that history supports this doctrine is to exclude all the cases of wars between democracies. This theory can survive only as long as people look at history in a way that is so contorted that it makes the typical political campaign speech look honest. Some of the advocates of the "democratic peace" doctrine are slippery regarding categories, as if the fact that a nation starts a war proves that it is not a democracy.

There are plenty of cases to dismiss the democratic peace imperative. . . .

Britain's Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the brutal crushing by one democratic government of another democratic government, as well as pioneering concentration camps and other methods of suppression that would become far more widespread in the twentieth century.

The First World War was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that time. Schwartz and Kiner noted, "Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a war for democracy against 'Prussian dictatorship,' but that was propaganda. Germany had civil rights, an elected parliament, competing parties, universal male suffrage, and an unparalleled system of social democracy." Germany was far more democratic than either the British or French empires.
And Muravchik writes: "[D]emocracies provoke war through their love of peace..."

Of course. Nothing says "peace" like wars of aggression. I'm hardly referring only to the Iraq invasion and occupation. Bovard again:
Another key to the myth of "democratic peace" is to disregard the long record of democracies attacking nondemocracies. Bush, defending U.S. military action in Iraq, declared, "Free societies are peaceful nations. What we're doing for the long term, we're promoting freedom." However, since World War II, the United States either attacked or invaded the following nations:

Korea 1950-53
Lebanon 1958
Vietnam 1961-73
Laos 1964-73
Dominican Republic 1965-66
Cambodia 1969-70
Lebanon 1982-84
Grenada 1983
Libya 1986
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991-2005
Somalia 1992-94
Croatia 1994
Haiti 1994
Bosnia 1995
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999
Afghanistan 2001-2005

Johns Hopkins University professor John Harper noted, "America's imperial career does little to support the view that the United States, by virtue of its democratic norms and institutions, is inclined to solve international disputes pacifically and to promote democracy abroad."
In that earlier entry, I added:
Bovard's book was published in 2005, so the entries for Iraq and Afghanistan should now read "1991-2007" and "2001-2007," respectively.

Stunning, isn't it? Yes, sir, we sure are some peace-loving, democratic folks. Just the other day, I wrote: "They hate us because we won't leave them the hell alone, and because we won't stop killing them." I suspect some readers may think me guilty of overstatement on this subject. The facts would indicate otherwise.
Ever mindful of the benevolent overseers who might peer upon my scribblings in their determination to root out Evil wherever it may appear, I should emphasize that, unlike Henry II whose remark I appropriated for my title, I surely do not wish to encourage anyone to commit even the merest hint of violence upon the person of Muravchik. That would be entirely wrong, and it is completely unnecessary.

Flat Ass, Alabama, is my town of choice at the moment, when it is advisable to pry especially dangerous pundit-"scholar"-propagandists from their very comfortable sinecures. I suggest that Muravchik be relocated to Flat Ass posthaste, and installed as the Fourth Assistant to the Director of Sanitation and Removal. He will be personally responsible for collecting and disposing of excrement in all its endless varieties.

It is always important, just as it is only minimally decent, that people be made to feel comfortable, and placed in a situation with which they have a demonstrated and extensive familiarity.

[My only income at present is from donations in connection with my writing. I am filled with immense gratitude, and a not inconsiderable sense of wonder, for the incredible generosity of so many readers who help to keep me going. So if you enjoyed this essay and find my writing in general of some value, I would be very thankful if you considered making a donation in any amount. For various unpleasant reasons, I'm having a donation drive right now. More details will be found here.

Many thanks to all of you for your kind consideration.]

June 25, 2007

Cosmic Dualism, and the Religious Style of Thought (I): Preliminary Thoughts About an Interesting Conversation

In the course of discussing certain related matters yesterday, I mentioned that I wanted to analyze in some detail a particular approach to political analysis that I only recently began to understand much more fully than I had before. Very fortuitously, an unusually interesting discussion involving Chris Floyd, Glenn Greenwald and Paul Curtis has just unfolded, and their debate touches on the themes that concern me at several points. Chris's first entry about this will be found here, and his second article is here. His posts contain links to the related entries from the other participants.

The starting point for these posts was Greenwald's new book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. Chris notes that he hasn't read that book yet (its official publication date is tomorrow), and I haven't either. For this reason, Chris adds that, to the extent his comments concerned the book's contents, those comments obviously are only "provisional." In what follows, I am not specifically addressing Greenwald's book at all, since I obviously cannot. But having issued that disclaimer, I will say that when I first saw the book's subtitle -- "How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency" -- I thought: "Now, that's an exceptionally strange issue to focus on with regard to this subject." I thought that, and I still think it, for many reasons, some of which are indicated in what follows (although not in this first installment). Clearly, I will not know to what precise extent, if any, my concerns can be applied to the book itself until I read it. But please keep in mind that this discussion is directed at what I view as preliminary or foundational issues -- that is, those issues that underlie any concern with a "Good vs. Evil Mentality," among other things.

There are any number of provocative points raised in the course of Chris's discussion, so I strongly recommend you read the entries linked above and the other posts indicated by Chris. What I am about to address are, as I indicated, a series of underlying issues, concerning the most basic ways in which various peoples and cultures view humankind, the world and the universe. As I hope will become clear, I think we can meaningfully assess any opposed pair such as "Good vs. Evil" only when we understand that this is but one example out of countless manifestations of a more fundamental philosophic stance.

So let's plunge in. Because it is critical to much of what follows, here are several paragraphs from Chris which began the debate:
I haven't read the book -- which is not out yet -- but have read the excerpts, and Glenn's own pieces about it, and some of the comments by other writers on the book. For example, Glenn quotes this analysis by Paul Curtis:
Right-wing Manicheanism has taken over the national debate on security matters, operating as a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. We've become familiar with the notion of framing in political discourse: well, this is the meta-frame. It quashes every attempt by liberals and moderates to raise rational points and does tremendous damage to constitutional liberties, the national interest, and global well-being. . . .

Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing. Conservatives have often gained the advantage in American public discourse because they build and re-enforce these meta-frames with great care; for liberals to bring reason back to the debate we'll need to do a considerable amount of foundational work of our own. This means, in the present case, repeatedly making the argument that Manicheanism is foolish and destructive, that we cannot afford to make policy according to a worldview defined by a simpleminded division of Good v. Evil.
Something here seems slightly off-kilter to me. For example, when has a strict Manicheanism not "taken over the national debate on security matters"? The "simpleminded division of Good v. Evil" reigned in all-triumphant glory throughout the decades of the Cold War, as anyone who was there for all or most of it can readily attest.
I need to stop here -- and, with apologies for creating possibly greater confusion, I have to deal with what I regard as a still more preliminary matter. The following point is not the primary subject I want to discuss, but I think it's important to clear up this confusion.

About Curtis's remarks, Chris says says that "[s]omething here seems slightly off-kilter to me," by which Chris means the supposedly radically new emphasis on "Manicheanism," specifically as applied to "the national debate on security matters." But there is something else that seems off-kilter to me -- and it is Curtis's reference to " a literally totalitarian thought system, in that it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic. " I find this extraordinarily confusing, and very imprecise. I offer the following observations only because I find this subject of considerable interest, as I hope you will, and despite the fact that it isn't the major subject I want to address.

What is a "totalitarian thought system," and what on earth is "a literally totalitarian thought system"? Precision is important here, especially since this is close to the starting point of this discussion (and, I imagine, many others as well). We refer to closed systems of thought, but not to "totalitarian" ones. "Closed" in this sense is most commonly used in two distinct ways. One is more formal, usually employed to designate the work of one particular person. For example, we refer to "Aristotelianism" or "Kantianism" to refer to the philosophic systems identified and developed by those particular men. We might refer to much further work developed by others which is in the "Aristotelian tradition" or as belonging to the "Aristotelian school," but that only means that later writings are consonant with the principles identified by Aristotle himself. The later work fits within that system, and it does not conflict with or contradict the earlier writings. But if we refer to "Aristotelianism" in this manner, we usually mean a closed system, restricted to Aristotle's work alone.

The other meaning of a "closed" system of thought is along the lines Curtis indicates: "it subsumes all discourse into its own unanswerable internal logic." But this is true of any system of thought, if indeed it is a system. It's true of Aristotelianism, of Kantianism, certainly of every fundamentalist variety of the different religions, and it's true of every religion, fundamentalist or not, to the extent it is a "system" of thought. That's what "system" means: that certain premises are, in effect, treated as axioms (whether they are in fact philosophic axioms or not), and that all the evidence and arguments adduced are used in support of those premises, which premises are regarded as unalterable and unquestionable. You can see this dynamic in a very crude form in Sam Brownback's discussion of his beliefs about evolution and God, which I recently discussed here.

Now, you may regard Brownback's arguments, such as they are, as utterly absurd and nonsensical (which I certainly hope you will, especially after reading my dissection of his views). But my point here is that Brownback is also offering a "closed system" of belief. He begins with certain premises that he regards as absolute:
The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man's essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
And Brownback's insistence on this "fundamental truth that must be safeguarded" leads him to this epistemological standard:
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
This is the prototype of a certain kind of closed system or, as I said in the earlier essay: "This is primacy of the story, offered in very clear fashion and without apology." What I meant is that Brownback assumes certain conclusions he insists upon as his premises -- and he then will admit only those facts and that evidence into the discussion that are consonant with those conclusions. Any facts and evidence that will not "fit" are marginalized, undercut, or ignored altogether.

Let me add one important clarification. Note I said that Brownback's belief system represents a "certain kind" of closed system. To designate a system as "closed" does not by itself indicate whether it's right or wrong: it may be entirely right or entirely wrong, or it might be partially right and partially wrong. "Closed" by itself does not indicate a cognitive evaluation of the system's content, which is a different matter entirely. The reason Brownback's gyrations are so ludicrous is that his premises, which are also in part his conclusions, are completely wrong. As a direct consequence, he must deliberately stick his fingers in his ears and shout: "I can't hear you!," whenever he comes across a fact which calls his premises into question. Since he is so completely wrong, this happens all the time, which is why he sounds so remarkably stupid.

When we say a system of thought is "open," we most commonly mean that the system identifies certain broad principles (among other elements which may or may not be present in the system), and that many additional implications and much additional knowledge can be built upon those principles. It will all "fit" together, without internal contradictions or inconsistencies. So, for example, we can use Aristotelianism (or Kantianism, or Christianity, or...) in the sense of either a closed or open system, depending on the context and our meaning. If we talk about Aristotelianism as a "closed system," we mean only those principles and applications identified by Aristotle himself. If we refer to it as an "open system," we are usually referring to the broader principles Aristotle identified, as well as to all the further work that relies upon and is consonant with those principles.

What does it add to say that a system of thought is "totalitarian," or "literally" totalitarian? Nothing that I can see. As discussed above, "totalitarian" in the sense that Curtis uses it could be applied to any system of thought, if indeed it is a system. I would submit that to use "totalitarian" in this manner is simply wrong. "Totalitarian" properly refers to a particular form of political-cultural-social organization. It does not refer to thought per se, whether we refer to a system of thought or not. Moreover, I don't even see that it makes much sense. Totalitarianism involves the prohibition of everything that challenges official, "approved" thought and practice -- not the figurative prohibition, but, as Curtis would have it, the literal prohibition. No system of thought by itself can do this, no matter how rigid, how constricted, or how wrong it might be; only the power of the State can. Indeed, Greenwald's project in his book (and other writings), Curtis's own comments, and the writings of many others (including me) demonstrate the truth of this observation: that project is devoted to challenging and uprooting the system of thought in question. If the system of thought were "literally totalitarian," Greenwald's own project would be impossible. (As a further point along the same lines, consider this sentence from Curtis: "Because it is a totalitarian framework of logic, the only way to defeat it is to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise, as Greenwald is doing." But again, the same is true of a challenge to any system of thought, and even of a challenge to any deeply held beliefs. The only way to "defeat" or challenge it is "to attack it at its foundations, to root out its very premise..." If one wants to challenge Aristotelianism, or Kantianism, or Christianity, one must do the same thing. To employ "totalitarian" in this context adds nothing of substance, and creates many possible confusions.)

This may seem a small point to spend so much time and space on, but I don't think it is. And it's important for another reason. Many critics of the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy (an approach which is hardly limited to Bush and unfortunately not even to conservatives, as the Clinton administration had a deeply regrettable tendency to do this repeatedly in the 1990s) properly and very strongly criticize the eagerness of those who favor aggressive interventionism to characterize their latest target as "another Hitler," or a danger on the order of the "Nazi threat." In recent years, this has always been profoundly untrue, and incredibly dangerous. If we seek to uproot these erroneous and deeply damaging methods of thought and analysis, it behooves us not to engage in the same kinds of errors. I have written numerous essays decrying the Bush administration with regard to an endless number of issues -- but to accuse them of advancing "a literally totalitarian thought system" is several bridges too far.

As I indicated above, totalitarianism properly refers to a specific kind of political organization, one which encompasses every aspect of a nation's life. To underscore these points and to present them with much more eloquence, I turn to perhaps the twentieth century's preeminent expert on these questions, Hannah Arendt. The following is from what I regard as one of Arendt's most important essays, "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship," which appears in Responsibility and Judgment. I will soon be offering further excerpts from this essay in connection with complex issues of moral judgment.

This is a fairly lengthy passage, but I find it hard to offer shorter excerpts from Arendt. She is endlessly provocative and fascinating, and I think this particular passage is well worth your time (as is the complete essay, and the entire book). Please note that, among other points, Arendt is extremely careful to distinguish between dictatorship and totalitarianism, which are not at all the same thing.

Arendt writes:
Totalitarian forms of government and dictatorship in the usual sense are not the same, and most of what I have to say applies to totalitarianism. Dictatorship in the old Roman sense of the word was devised and has remained an emergency measure of constitutional, lawful government, strictly limited in time and power; we still know it well enough as the state of emergency or of martial law proclaimed in disaster areas or in time of war. We furthermore know modern dictatorships as new forms of government, where either the military seize power, abolish civilian government, and deprive the citizens of their political rights and liberties, or where one party seizes the state apparatus at the expense of all other parties and hence of all organized political opposition. Both types spell the end of political freedom, but private life and nonpolitical activity are not necessarily touched. It is true that these regimes usually persecute political opponents with great ruthlessness and they certainly are very far from being constitutional forms of government in the sense we have come to understand them -- no constitutional government is possible without provisions being made for the rights of an opposition -- but they are not criminal in the common sense of the word either. If they commit crimes these are directed against outspoken foes of the regime in power. But the crimes of totalitarian governments concerned people who were "innocent" even from the viewpoint of the party in power. It was for this reason of common criminality that most countries signed an agreement after the war not to bestow the status of political refugee upon those culprits who escaped from Nazi Germany.

Moreover, total domination reaches out into all, not only the political, spheres of life. Totalitarian society, as distinguished from totalitarian government, is indeed monolithic; all public manifestations, cultural, artistic, or learned, and all organizations, welfare and social services, even sports and entertainment, are "coordinated." There is no office and indeed no job of any public significance, from advertising agencies to the judiciary, from play-acting to sports journalism, from primary and secondary schooling to the universities and learned societies, in which an unequivocal acceptance of the ruling principles is not demanded. Whoever participates in public life at all, regardless of party membership or membership in the elite formations of the regime, is implicated in one way or another in the deeds of the regime as a whole. What the courts demand in all these postwar trials is that the defendants should not have participated in crimes legalized by that government, and this nonparticipation taken as a legal standard for right and wrong poses considerable problems precisely with respect to the question of responsibility. For the simple truth of the matter is that only those who withdrew from public life altogether, who refused political responsibility of any sort, could avoid becoming implicated in crimes, that is, could avoid legal and moral responsibility.
Especially in light of the events of the twentieth century, totalitarianism is a concept freighted with enormous political, legal and moral significance. I think we must exercise extraordinary care in its use. It is not helpful to employ it in contexts where it is not logically necessitated or justified, and such uses can lead to significant confusions.

In the next installment, I will turn to the subject that most concerns me about this recent debate.

[My only income at present is from donations in connection with my writing. I am filled with immense gratitude, and a not inconsiderable sense of wonder, for the incredible generosity of so many readers who help to keep me going. So if you enjoyed this essay and find my writing in general of some value, I would be very thankful if you considered making a donation in any amount. For various unpleasant reasons, I'm having a donation drive right now. More details will be found here.

Many thanks to all of you for your kind consideration.]

Trouble Right Here in River City

I can only conclude that I must have angered the gods. Other than the fact that I don't believe in them, I can't imagine how. This has been a horrible year so far, and it's not getting much better. The death of my landlady, Trudy, who was also a friend, followed by the death of my sister (both occurring only a very short time after diagnosis), followed by a series of illnesses of my own (on top of my generally poor and worsening health), blahblahblah. All a bit much.

And now. Well. Amazon still hasn't deposited the $403.89 into my bank account. It would appear that they can't figure out exactly what happened to this transfer, whether it occurred at all and if it did, where it went, etc., etc. I begin to wonder if I will ever see that money. If you made a donation in the week or two prior to May 6 (when the transfer was supposedly initiated), I don't know what to say -- other than that I'm terribly sorry. I've done everything I can think of on my own, including getting the Better Business Bureau involved. (The BBB's involvement hasn't helped at all, I regret to note.) I would ask for the kind pro bono assistance of some lawyer out there, but I doubt even that would help. I think it's fairly likely the money will turn up eventually, but who knows when.

On top of that, on Saturday I got a bill from the new property management company for my apartment building. They claim I owe them $360 for part of my February rent that wasn't paid. I know they're wrong, but I strongly doubt I'll be able to convince them on that point. I also know how it happened. The whole story is long and complicated. The short version is this: for various reasons, I paid Trudy $400 in cash during the second week of December. I had learned to always get receipts for cash payments from Trudy and her husband -- but Ed wasn't around when I made that payment, and Trudy was dying. Getting a receipt wasn't a high priority at that particular moment. As things turned out, $360 of that $400 was supposed to be credited to my February rent. After Trudy's death in early January, the young man who was the on-site manager for a couple of months told me he would make sure my account was properly credited. He had seen the envelope with the $400 in cash in it, so he knew I had made that payment. I assumed everything was fine -- especially since I hadn't heard a word about it. Until now.

But that young man who knew of the payment is long gone. Obviously, the credit was never properly recorded. I'll probably never be able to straighten it out now. I'll certainly try, but I'm not hopeful. The Amazon transfer would cover the amount the management company claims I owe, but...well, there you go.

And in a week, July rent is due. And I'm down to my last couple of hundred dollars.

Trouble, with a capital T. So once again, I'm reduced to begging. Long humiliating version here. Short version here. I'm sorry my writing has been so sporadic over the last ten days or so, but I've felt very rotten physically, especially last week. Thankfully, I'm better now -- and the posts yesterday indicate that I'm beginning to get my stride back. I'm in the midst of a number of essays -- about a certain approach to political analysis that involves a number of complex issues, about the numerous mythologies of war (including an extended discussion concerning the very dangerous ideas in Saving Private Ryan, which I watched again this past weekend in preparation for those essays and which is even worse than I had remembered), five or six further installments of the "Dominion Over the World" series, and much else. One or two articles will be posted later today.

I would have preferred to wait until later in the week to ask for donations, and until after I had posted more new pieces. But my anxiety overcame me, so I decided to post this now. And depending on how this goes, I may have to devote the latter part of this week to selling a bunch of books and CDs. As always, I am tremendously grateful to all of you who have been so wonderfully generous about helping to keep me going. Words cannot convey my thanks sufficiently. And I trust I will be able to provide you with a lot of hopefully interesting and provocative work in the next couple of months. I haven't restored the Amazon donation link for obvious reasons, but the PayPal link is still there in the upper right.

My anxiety seems to have transferred itself to one of my cats, my beloved Cyrano. Actually, he's just having an unusually nasty hairball problem. (Hey, it's not my fault! I give him Petromalt regularly, which he loves. :>) But I suppose I could brush him more...) He's already thrown up five times this morning, very messily each time. All in all, another wonderful day in the neighborhood.

My deep thanks again to all of you who are so remarkably kind.

June 24, 2007

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor -- But Not Too Many Jews, and Not Too Many Iraqis

As a followup to my recent article, "The Triumph of Racism," and as a further reminder that the immigration debate today merely revisits ground that the United States has frequently trod before, we should note one of the most shameful and despicable episodes in recent history.

In an article from 1991, Jacob Hornberger writes:
[P]rosperity for the poor was not the real significance of our ancestors' policy of freedom of immigration. The true significance is a much more profound one. For the first time in history, oppressed and persecuted people everywhere had hope — hope that if they were able to escape the tyranny under which they suffered, there was a place which would accept them. America was a beacon — a beacon of liberty which shone through the darkness of oppression, persecution, and tyranny throughout the world — a beacon which lit the hearts of millions who knew that if they could just escape, there was a nation, albeit faraway, to which they could flee.


We must never forget that citizens are responsible for wrongdoing by their own government — even when they consciously choose to ignore it. The best-known example in recent times of conscious disregard of wrongdoing by one's own government involved the German people in the 1930s — when Hitler embarked on his policy of extermination of the Jews. Most Americans believe that under same or similar circumstances, the people of this nation would act differently. Unfortunately, they are wrong. Because what Americans have never been taught in their public schools is that the American government, as well as other Western governments (including Britain, Canada, and most of Latin America), through their control of immigration, sealed all avenues of Jewish escape from the Holocaust.

The sordid facts and details are set forth in two books: While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy by Arthur D. Morse, first published in 1967, and The Holocaust Conspiracy: An International Policy of Genocide by William R. Perl, published in 1989. Morse was executive producer of "CBS Reports" and the winner of numerous broadcasting awards. Perl served as a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Intelligence Service, worked in the Prosecution Branch of the War Crimes trials, and later taught at George Washington University.

An American cannot read these two books without total revulsion at the reaction of his own government to Hitler's policies against the Jews. Both authors detail the methods by which American politicians and bureaucrats, while maintaining an appearance of great humanitarianism, used immigration policies to prevent Germany's Jews from escaping to the United States. Morse writes:

"In 1938 the Nazis burned every synagogue in the nation, shattered the windows of every Jewish establishment, hauled twenty-five thousand innocent people to concentration camps, and forced the Jews to pay 1,000,000,000 marks for the damage.

"Five days later, at a White House press conference, a reporter asked the President 'Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?'

"'This is not in contemplation,' replied the President. 'We have the quota system.'

"The United States not only insisted upon its immigration law throughout the Nazi era, but administered it with severity and callousness. In spite of unprecedented circumstances, the law was constricted so that even its narrow quotas were not met. The lamp remained lifted beside the golden door, but the flame had been extinguished and the door was padlocked."

And Perl writes:

"Anti-Semitism ... was certainly a part of the anti-immigration mood of the country, but it was not the sole cause. This was 1938, the U.S. was still on the fringes of the 1929 depression and fear that newcomers would take away jobs needed from those already in the country was genuine. The fact that newcomers mean also increased consumption, that many of them, as they actually did, created new jobs rather than occupy existing ones was not considered....

"President Roosevelt was first of all a politician, and a shrewd and ruthless one at that. He was not going to imperil his fragile coalition for moral or humanitarian reasons. He was not ready to put it to a test over an issue that he knew, was loaded with emotion among supporters as well as opponents and which was in summary not popular at all. He was at that time preparing to run for an unprecedented third term of the presidency, and any rocking of the boat was out of the question.... Yet, it was necessary to keep up the image of a great liberal and humanitarian."
I offer two observations about these issues, one concerning general political theory, and one with regard to much narrower, strategic considerations.

In my earlier related piece, I offered some excerpts from an article by Sheldon Richman. I'm certain that many readers were puzzled and possibly very taken aback by this paragraph of Richman's in particular:
But ["illegal" immigrants] came into our country without permission, conservative talker Tucker Carlson and his ilk say incessantly. Without whose permission? The whole population of the United States? The federal government? Why the assumption that either of those aggregates can have the right to give or withhold permission for someone to relocate here? This is a country, not a country club, and rights are natural not national. If someone wants to come here and can do so without trespassing on private property, that's his right and his own business.
As my previous essay indicated, this view that "permission" is required for an immigrant to come to the United States is hardly limited to conservatives; most liberals believe it, too.

Note that this was not the case in nineteenth-century America, as Hornberger discusses. Americans could travel anywhere without passports "or other evidence of governmental consent," and foreigners could come to the United States as they chose, for the government was prohibited "from interfering with the right of people everywhere to come to the United States to live and work." I also note that the idea that anyone in this country needed to ask "permission" from the government to engage in virtually any activity (assuming that it did not violate anyone else's fundamental rights) is directly antithetical to the original conception of the United States. (and as I documented in a recent installment of the "Dominion Over the World" series, for much of our history Americans could freely purchase almost every drug whose purchase and use is now criminalized.)

Yet today, in just over 200 years, we have moved toward the opposite end of the scale: now, almost everyone of every political persuasion thinks it is proper and necessary for us to ask "permission" of the government to do anything at all. I don't exaggerate: see "The Waiting Game," where I examine in very painful detail the extent to which government has intruded into every kind of human activity, and into every sphere of our lives.

There are numerous, often complex reasons for this shift, and I'll be discussing many of them in future essays. But one of the most fundamental explanations has to do with one's basic conception of the world, and of human action. I touched on it in my essay, "Writing from the Scaffold," which dealt in large part with one of the intellectual forefathers of today's authoritarian movements (particularly of the conservative variety). I excerpted Isaiah Berlin's discussion of Joseph de Maistre, from a collection of Berlin's essays, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. This is the critical passage:
In a sense, then, Maistre is a kind of precursor and early preacher of Fascism, and that is what makes him so interesting.


Men may be divided into those who are in favour of life and those who are against it. Among those who are against it there are sensitive and wise and penetrating people who are too offended and discouraged by the shapelessness of spontaneity, by the lack of order among human beings who wish to live their own lives, not in obedience to any common pattern. Among such was Maistre. On the whole he has no positive doctrine, and if he has to choose between liberty and death he rejects liberty.
I have intended to discuss these observations from Berlin and their many ramifications for a long time, and I definitely will finally get to all of that fairly soon. In fact, I had Berlin's analysis of Maistre in mind for the second or third installment of a series I began over a year ago, "Systems of Obedience: The State, Culture and Ideology." For complicated reasons that are now largely irrelevant, I abandoned that series in the form I had first conceived it -- but I did not abandon the ideas and themes I had wanted to discuss. I couldn't, for the simple reason that they are central to many of the more particular subjects that arise almost daily. So, for example, the Maistre discussion became a standalone essay, one which arose because of an ongoing theme in the writing of David Brooks (and many of today's other conservatives).

But one critical point is this: although today's authoritarian conservatives reveal the primary underlying belief in an especially crude form, that same belief is now shared in different variations by virtually everyone. As I phrased it in "Writing from the Scaffold," that conviction is: "the belief that man's nature requires that he obediently submit to authority." Conservatives believe that man must submit to "God's will"; with their fervent embrace of "big government conservatism" (including an aggressively interventionist foreign policy, see Irving Kristol for the literally bloody details: "In Service of the New Fascism"), many conservatives also believe that man must submit to the State (which must endeavor to reflect "God's will," as the conservatives interpret it). Liberals typically leave God out of the equation (well, maybe not) -- but they believe just as or even more strongly that man must submit to the State. Hence, the endless calls for greater government involvement in the economic sphere, the demands for national and global "planning," proposals for incomprehensibly and indecipherably complex regulation of any and every area of human activity, and all the rest.

The theme is always the same: man must submit to authority. They are all the people described by Berlin, who are "too offended and discouraged by the shapelessness of spontaneity, by the lack of order among human beings who wish to live their own lives, not in obedience to any common pattern." Many people will argue that the world is now "too complex" to rely on spontaneity in this manner, and they will contend that such spontaneity will lead only to chaos and destruction. It is not immediately apparent why this must be so. Note that I said it is not obvious why this must be so -- that is, there is no proof of which I am aware that suggests man's inherent nature is such that it necessarily will lead to chaos if left unconstrained. (I also am not aware that such a proof would even be possible, given the immense amount that remains to be discovered and understood about human physiology, psychology, etc.) It may be the case that man has frequently (or even almost always) acted in destructive and self-destructive ways -- but that is far from a proof that man's nature itself must lead to those results. And, as an indication of just one explanation of man's apparently unending tendency toward violence and cruelty and his "need" to submit to authority, you might consult my many essays based on Alice Miller's work -- and in particular, "When the Demons Come," and "When Life and Happiness Are Not Enough." If the causes of the dynamics that Miller describes were significantly altered, much else would also change. Among other things, the degree of compassion and empathy of which people were capable would be dramatically increased, and that shift would lead to behavior of a kind that is tragically rare in today's world.

In addition, those who insist that the State is necessary to prevent catastrophe run up against historical evidence that represents an insurmountable problem: in the modern era, it is precisely the existence of the State that has made catastrophe possible on a scale never before seen in all of history. The twentieth century saw destruction and death on a monumental scale and of a kind that would not have been possible in the absence of States. Given the early years of this century, we may be looking at another hundred years of the same or even worse, assuming we even manage to survive it. With regard to this issue, the State is the problem, not the solution. Moreover, the advocates of obedience to the State seek to avoid a critical fact that I highlight regularly: that the State has and will always be captured by certain privileged groups and sectors of society. Yes, our rulers will tell us -- as all rulers always tell their subjects -- that they represent "the people" and "the people's will." But as I discussed in "The Elites Who Rule Us," it is often not true at all. The most common pattern is that the elites use the apparatus of the State to advance the particular program desired by the elites themselves, and by those interests they look upon favorably -- and they use "the people" to pay for it, financially and in every other way, and often with their blood and their lives.

All of that is dauntingly complicated. I'll return to these issues in more detail soon.

The narrower issue that I want to discuss arises out of this horrifying paragraph, concerning the immigration quotas employed by the United States in the 1930s:
President Roosevelt was first of all a politician, and a shrewd and ruthless one at that. He was not going to imperil his fragile coalition for moral or humanitarian reasons. He was not ready to put it to a test over an issue that he knew, was loaded with emotion among supporters as well as opponents and which was in summary not popular at all. He was at that time preparing to run for an unprecedented third term of the presidency, and any rocking of the boat was out of the question.... Yet, it was necessary to keep up the image of a great liberal and humanitarian.
The very heated battles between liberals and conservatives today are notable for their ferocity, although they are far from unique historically. And even though the liberals and conservatives unceasingly try to convince the general populace that there are differences between them of the gravest significance, it is striking how rarely that is true. I am documenting how almost the entire governing class agrees on the goal of American world hegemony, with everything that implies about an aggressively militant and interventionist foreign policy, in "Dominion Over the World." Today's conservatives and liberals both invoke the great wisdom of an increasingly omnipotent State; they differ only about particular, much narrower goals -- but they do not disagree about the fact that you will be made to comply with whatever their program might be. I would say that "spontaneity" of the kind Berlin references will soon be confined to your home -- but given the proliferation of health and safety regulations as well as any number of other proposed laws (all of which are justified as being "for our own good"), I am not safe in maintaining even that much. Genuine spontaneity is the enemy of authority, and of obedience; it is the greatest enemy of the State. When the State is powerful enough, almost all spontaneity and authenticity in human life is banished.

The liberals and conservatives are alike in another way. Just as the conservatives heap largely undeserved praise on a figure like Ronald Reagan, so the liberals do the same with regard to people like Wilson and Roosevelt. (Almost everybody does it in connection with Churchill.) I recently discussed some aspects of Wilson's record here, and see a much earlier essay about Wilson's complete disregard for civil liberties. And the mythology about FDR is just as overpowering -- and just as inaccurate -- as that surrounding Reagan.

As just one example, many of you reading this might believe that FDR and the New Deal helped to ease the widespread deprivation brought on by the Great Depression, and also helped to bring it to an end. In fact, the exact opposite is true. I recommend you read this entire article by Robert Higgs. Here are a few excerpts:
[H]istorians and the general public alike rank Franklin D. Roosevelt among the greatest of American presidents. Roosevelt, it is said repeatedly, restored hope to the American people when they had fallen into despair because of the seemingly endless depression, and his policies "saved capitalism" by mitigating its intrinsic cruelties and inequalities.

This view of Roosevelt and the New Deal amounts to a myth compounded of ideological predisposition and historical misunderstanding. In a 1936 book called The Menace of Roosevelt and His Policies, Howard E. Kershner came closer to the truth when he wrote that Roosevelt
took charge of our government when it was comparatively simple, and for the most part confined to the essential functions of government, and transformed it into a highly complex, bungling agency for throttling business and bedeviling the private lives of free people. It is no exaggeration to say that he took the government when it was a small racket and made a large racket out of it.

With its bewildering, incoherent mass of new expenditures, taxes, subsidies, regulations, and direct government participation in productive activities, the New Deal created so much confusion, fear, uncertainty, and hostility among businessmen and investors that private investment, and hence overall private economic activity, never recovered enough to restore the high levels of production and employment enjoyed in the 1920s.

In the face of the interventionist onslaught, the American economy between 1930 and 1940 failed to add anything to its capital stock: net private investment for that eleven-year period totaled minus $3.1 billion. Without capital accumulation, no economy can grow. Between 1929 and 1939 the economy sacrificed an entire decade of normal economic growth, which would have increased the national income 30 to 40 percent.


In this madness, the New Dealers had a method. Despite its economic illogic and incoherence, the New Deal served as a massive vote-buying scheme. Coming into power at a time of widespread destitution, high unemployment, and business failures, the Roosevelt administration recognized that the president and his Democratic allies in Congress could appropriate unprecedented sums of money and channel them into the hands of recipients who would respond by giving political support to their benefactors. As John T. Flynn said of FDR, "it was always easy to interest him in a plan which would confer some special benefit upon some special class in the population in exchange for their votes," and eventually "no political boss could compete with him in any county in America in the distribution of money and jobs."


[Roosevelt] was an exceptionally resourceful political opportunist who harnessed the extraordinary potential for personal and party aggrandizement inherent in a uniquely troubled and turbulent period of American history. By wheeling and dealing, by taxing and spending, by ranting against "economic royalists" and posturing as the friend of the common man, he got himself elected time after time. But for all his undeniable political prowess, he prolonged the depression and fastened on the country a bloated, intrusive government that has been trampling on the people’s liberties ever since.
Go ahead, read the whole article. But I warn you: there isn't any Santa Claus, either. And see a post from earlier today for a brief discussion of Roosevelt's assault on civil liberties.

No wonder so many of today's liberals and progressives admire FDR so much, not only with regard to his vast expansion of the welfare-warfare state, but in connection with his political strategy. With respect to the issue noted by Perl, they are exactly the same, as are the national Democrats. Their eyes are on the election of 2008, and everything is calculated with that in mind. The contemptible hypocrisy is the same, too.

The Congressional Democrats could end the Iraq occupation within months by cutting off all further funding (remember the filibuster?) -- but they will not. Lying and pretending that Iraq remains solely the Republicans' responsibility may help them politically, so they let the slaughter continue. Never mind the numerous and intentionally uncounted murders that occur every hour of every day in our monstrous, ongoing war crime. They can't "imperil" that "fragile coalition for moral or humanitarian reasons"! They have to elect Democrats!

The Congressional Democrats could at least try to prevent a U.S. attack on Iran -- but they will not. Don't want to rock the boat! Don't want to stick their necks out! That might lead to problems in 2008. Besides, the leading national Democrats appear to lust for an attack on Iran just as much or even more than Bush and Cheney do. So let's continue toward possible nuclear war, and Armageddon. Hey, just think how big the Democrats' majorities might be in 2009! And they'll have the White House, too! Well, they can govern whatever might be left of the United States -- and try to control events in whatever might be left of the world.

To return to the narrower subject of this post -- the vile, discriminatory quotas for immigrants that we have used so horribly in the past and that we now use again -- please remember the following critical facts. We launched a criminal war of aggression against Iraq, a nation that was no serious threat to us -- and that honest, basically knowledgeable observers knew was no serious threat in the winter and spring of 2002-2003. Every day since the U.S. invasion began represents another monstrous war crime, in an endless series of war crimes. Those crimes will continue for years into the future. We have murdered well over half a million innocent Iraqis, who would be alive today but for our actions. We have irrevocably maimed and injured many hundreds of thousands more Iraqis.

The United States government chose to do all of this. No legitimate reason of self-defense necessitated these actions; in fact, if we had genuinely been concerned about lessening whatever terrorist threat might actually exist, we would have acted in radically different ways. In addition to all the other unforgivable, incomprehensibly awful consequences of our actions, we have created a refugee crisis of monumental proportions. Keep in mind these figures provided by Dahr Jamail:
Let's start with the numbers, inadequate as they are. The latest UN figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan (increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14%); at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and -- these figures are the trickiest of all -- over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.

These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end estimates.
And then consider this:
The Bush administration is to increase the official quota of Iraqi refugees who will be allowed to settle in the United States from 500 to 7,000 over the next year, in a response to the growing refugee crisis in Iraq.

The move follows repeated criticism of the US by humanitarian groups for failing to help more than 3 million Iraqis displaced from their homes since the conflict began.

So far the United States has allowed only 463 Iraq refugees into the country since the war began nearly four years ago.


The 7,000 would be resettled from nations outside Iraq where they have fled. The US proposal also includes plans to offer special treatment for Iraqis still in their country whose cooperation with the US government puts them at risk from sectarian reprisal.
Gee, a whole 7,000 people a year, plus "special treatment" for a few others. Aren't we just the most marvelously generous nation the world has ever seen.

To describe this as profoundly sickening does not even begin to capture the degree of immorality involved. If we continue to act in this manner, it will soon be impossible for us to sink any lower in the annals of barbarism. That is one goal an unprovoked attack on Iran would accomplish: it would forever brand us as belonging among the worst pariah nations in history.

We may arrive there very, very soon.

Posts to Afflict the Comfortable Tribalists (I): Both Parties Destroy Civil Liberties

Thus begins a series of posts, perhaps five or six over the next several days (including the republishing of some earlier essays of mine). These entries may well upset those readers who identify themselves as liberals or progressives. What can I say? If you continue to visit here regularly, and I hope you do, I'm afraid you'll have to get used to it.

My purpose in this series is not to provoke or upset a certain category of visitors for no reason. I have a compelling and unavoidable reason: this background is absolutely necessary for my upcoming series on tribalism in contemporary politics. Among other issues, I will be analyzing the causes and consequences of such tribalism, including the destruction in very large part of a principled approach to political-cultural analysis. It is impossible for me to make certain larger arguments in a meaningful way without the necessary factual and historic foundation. In certain crucial ways, those arguments will not be new: a critical part of the most general thesis is one of the primary themes of my "Dominion Over the World" series -- specifically, the unbroken continuity of U.S. foreign policy for slightly over a hundred years, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. (On this topic, see these parts of that series in particular: "The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony," and "Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas.")

As I argue at length in that series, and with much supporting evidence, Bush is not any kind of exception to the long-standing policy of aggressive American interventionism abroad. To the contrary, he captures perfectly the essence of what our policy has been for a very long time. He is notable only for the brazenness and crudity of his approach: he has dispensed with the soft, rounded edges (including the hypocritical appeals to our "humanitarianism" and "good intentions"), which were always only a disguise hiding the actual nature of our actions, and revealed the brutal, cruel, misshapen club that is America's overwhelming military power, wielded with terrifying force against a series of nations and governments that never seriously threatened us.

As I put it in Part VI of the "Dominion" series:
In earlier parts of this series, I have explained how the Bush administration's foreign policy represents a continuation of the broad contours of our stance toward the world beyond our shores for more than a century. It similarly continues the policy embraced by all Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. As Christopher Layne describes it, that policy's goal is to establish an Open Door world, a world that is "open" to both economic and ideological expansion by the United States. The Open Door doctrine considers such expansion a necessary component of national security; see the earlier essay for details. It is certainly true that the current administration is uniquely dangerous in certain ways. But in large part, and this is the absolutely crucial point, that is only because it has been and continues to be ruthlessly determined to cash in on the unavoidable implications of the policies pursued by those who have gone before.

To put it another way, and this is the issue that mere Democratic partisans adamantly refuse to acknowledge: Bush would not have been possible but for the Democrats who had preceded him. The historical record of the past century establishes beyond all question that the Open Door world is one sought just as eagerly by Democrats as by Republicans; in many cases, Democrats have been notably more zealous about this aim, as are many contemporary Democrats. As the inconceivable dangers of wider war, including possible nuclear exchanges, loom over us all, petty partisanship and party loyalty as the primary concern are morally distasteful at a minimum, and occasionally abhorrent in their worst manifestations, intellectually irresponsible, and immensely dangerous. Such an approach does nothing to decrease the continuing calamities that confront us, but only worsens them.
William Pfaff, whom I quote in that article, expresses the same point this way:
[L]ittle sign exists of a challenge in American foreign policy debates to the principles and assumptions of an international interventionism motivated by belief in a special national mission. The country might find itself with a new administration in 2009 which provides a less abrasive and more courteous version of the American pursuit of world hegemony, but one still condemned by the inherent impossibility of success.

The intellectual and material commitments made during the past half-century of American military, bureaucratic, and intellectual investment in global interventionism will be hard to reverse. The Washington political class remains largely convinced that the United States supplies the essential structure of international security, and that a withdrawal of American forces from their expanding network of overseas military bases, or disengagement from present American interventions into the affairs of many dozens of countries, would destabilize the international system and produce unacceptable consequences for American security. Why this should be so is rarely explained.
But there is much more to the similarities between the two nominally "opposed" political parties than the fact that, in each and every fundamental, they share the identical determination to ensure American hegemony across the entire world. For this first installment, I turn to Anthony Gregory and his article titled, "Will the Democrats Save Our Civil Liberties?" I urge you to read the article in its entirety; here are some key excerpts:
Many commentators have called the Democratic victory in the November elections a referendum on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. They have also noted that the voting public is concerned by the attacks on civil liberties so loyally defended by nearly all the Republican lawmakers in fighting the war on terror. The Democrats, presumably, now have a mandate to reverse current trends in domestic as well as foreign anti-terror policy.

There is little reason for optimism that the Democrats will follow through on this supposed mandate, and deliver us from the evil of the growing police state of warrantless searches, indefinite detentions, sweeping surveillance, and other attacks on civil liberties.

For one thing, Democrats have supported the worst of Bush's policies. Only one Democrat in the Senate, Russ Feingold, opposed the Patriot Act when it was first proposed. Just this year, Democratic members of the House overwhelmingly, and Democratic Senators unanimously, approved the Defense Authorization Act for 2007, which contains frightening modifications of the Insurrection Act and new exceptions to Posse Comitatus, empowering the president to summon the National Guard, without gubernatorial authority, and to enforce martial law during "emergencies" ranging from natural disasters to health crises. More than 25 percent of Senate Democrats even voted for the Military Commissions Act, marking the first time since the Civil War that the federal government suspended Habeas Corpus.


Power corrupts, and Democrats in power have long shown a willingness to shred the Bill of Rights.

Woodrow Wilson arrested hundreds of antiwar Americans, including a presidential candidate, for protesting the draft; deported anarchists to Communist Russia; and imprisoned a movie producer for depicting the British as an American enemy in his film about the American Revolution. (Under the 1918 Sedition Act, it was a federal crime to criticize a U.S. ally, which Britain was.) Franklin Roosevelt oversaw an Office of Censorship, made plans to detain hundreds of peaceful political enemies, imprisoned war opponents, and interned 110,000 innocent Japanese Americans. Lyndon Johnson had the FBI spy on reporters and used the FBI and CIA to wiretap, monitor, and infiltrate the campaign of his presidential rival, Barry Goldwater.

But we don't need to go back so far to indict the Democrats on civil liberties issues. Under Bill Clinton, the police state grew perhaps as much as it feasibly could during a relative time of peace. According to the ACLU, Clinton expanded stealth surveillance of the citizenry far beyond anything seen under any prior administration. Clinton sought to allow the feds to peek at everyone's bank account, have a key to all private encryption and e-mail, and censor the Internet. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton signed the draconian Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, expanding the authority of secret courts, unleashing the FBI to investigate First Amendment–protected activities, and allowing the INS to deport American citizens.


If the Democrats want to win points as better guardians of American liberty than the Republicans, they can begin by abolishing huge portions of the war on terror infrastructure—the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the new presidential powers over martial law. They should then challenge Bush on the principle of the unitary executive, block funding for warrantless military surveillance of the population, and strip away the Justice Department and military's power to indefinitely detain people without due process.

The Democrats, however, have had about as shameful a record on all this as the Republicans, even when they were the opposition party. Now that they have a better seat at the table of power, who thinks they'll do anything to curb the police state they helped so much to build?
I recently reread an essay of mine from October 2006, "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children." The central theme of that essay concerns the unspeakable cruelties perpetrated against defenseless children, including corporal punishment, which is still horrifyingly common in public schools. But there is another aspect of that essay that is more intriguingly presented than I had remembered:
Many people believe that there is a final, "revealed" truth. Although we most commonly encounter this idea in religious discussions, there is an equally significant secularized version of this notion. I have discussed one particular secular variation in my essays about the "Idea of Progress." Because this notion undergirds the interventionist foreign policy that is embraced by politicians at all points in our political spectrum, it is of especially critical importance. But the crucial point is this: what is viewed as revealed, final truth is largely the result of the political and cultural realities of a particular time. As those realities shift, so too does the "truth." The evolution of accepted, "approved" Christian doctrine demonstrates this kind of shift very clearly, as [Elaine] Pagels analyzes in detail, but it has occurred and continues to occur with many other ideas, as well.
I will be returning to this theme very soon, when I discuss a certain approach to political analysis that I've only recently come to understand much more fully than I had before.

But with regard to this series of posts designed to afflict political tribalists, this paragraph from the earlier article is worth repeating:
I have recounted the Democrats' complete failure to fight the Bush administration on any issue that matters; I will not repeat that litany of shame and cowardice here. But let us try to be clear about the political stakes here. There are only two overriding reasons to install Democratic majorities in the House and Senate: to undo the unspeakable horror of the Military Commissions Act, and to prevent (if possible) the coming attack on Iran. Even if they had majorities in both houses, I consider it impossible that the Democrats would do either. (See this NYT article for a discussion of how unforgivably modest the Democrats' aims are most likely to be. And if you want to see how the Democrats are likely to act with regard to Iran, especially given the overriding concern with the 2008 elections, read this truly terrifying article about what a Hillary Clinton could very easily do: "The tragedy that followed Hillary Clinton's bombing of Iran in 2009." And not one prominent Democrat disagrees with the foreign policy views that would lead Clinton to launch World War III.)
In fact, as I noted earlier today, the Democrats appear determined to do everything in their power to make an attack on Iran inevitable -- just as they are fully committed to an occupation of Iraq that will last for decades. (As David Swanson observed about Hillary Clinton's appearance at the Take Back America confab: "Clinton never mentioned the point Ted Koppel reported last week and Bill Richardson raised here yesterday -- that she intends to have the occupation of Iraq still going at the end of her second term, should she be elected." But as I've repeatedly observed, this is exactly what the governing class intended and wanted from the beginning.)

The Democrats talk -- but only every once in a while -- about restoring habeas corpus rights. But they have yet to do a single damned thing, even though they've controlled Congress for almost half a year. And in all the talk about restoring habeas corpus -- which I myself have argued at length is the foundation of all our liberties -- everyone seems to have forgotten that the Military Commissions Act also approves and legally codifies the official government use of torture. Does no one care about this any longer? Perhaps it's simply that when your leading candidate for president similarly approves the State's utilization of inhumane, sadistic cruelty, it's better simply to ignore the issue altogether. So much for principles, so much for integrity, so much for civilization. Well done, Democrats!

If one actually gives a damn about habeas corpus and the monstrous inhumanity of torture, the Military Commissions Act must be repealed. This is not a complicated point. The Democrats don't care. They have provided no reason whatsoever to think they would change this, even if they had huge majorities in both the House and Senate. And the exceedingly dangerous exceptions to Posse Comitatus -- which I discussed in "Living Under the Guillotine's Blade" -- appear to have fallen off everyone's radar.

As I've remarked before, my comments on the eve of last fall's election now seem positively mild, given the record compiled by the Democratic Congress thus far. And all of my predictions have come true. With only a handful of honorable individual exceptions, this entire government is an abomination.