Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Day in History

On this day 46 years ago, nobody believed a President could be assassinated in America. Political and racial feelings were high in some parts of the country, right wing fringe rhetoric was a little violent, but nothing that seemed significant--for example there wasn't a former Christian fundamentalist leader charging that elements of the right were "trawling for assassins," nor was there a brisk business in t-shirts and bumper stickers applying a particular Bible verse to the President: "Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow." A situation taken seriously enough that several manufacturers stopped selling this merchandise.

The Daily Nightmare Babble

When they say history repeats itself, they usually mean not in a good way. There is this tendency--a law some say-- which I have never quite understood but which I acknowledge may well be true, to turn into the opposite. Enemies turn into each other, partly for the good, but also absorbing the evil they once fought against. Or as William Irwin Thompson has it, we become what we hate.

Are our painful centuries of two steps forward, one step back progress, coming to an end? Are we seeing the last dangerous spasm of a dying order, or are we entering a Dark Age? And quickly, right now?

The U.S. has a history of religious and racial intolerance, hatred, mob violence, willful ignorance in high places. Are we doomed to repeat it? Is it because we are ignorant of it, too far in time from the last major eruptions to remember in our bones and skin, what a terrible world they make?

On and after 9/11/2001, this country responded with cohesive strength and with fear, and our leaders chose to cultivate the fear. After manipulating themselves into power in 2001, their Rabid Right is now threatening to try to seize power by force. Do they really mean it? At a certain point it doesn't matter: they can create a firestorm they can't control. It's already feeding on itself.

It's hard to know how strong it really is. The kids at Kos have diverted themselves from attacking each other and even from highlighting Republican hijinks and simple (if Big) lies, to note in a remarkable series of recommended diaries the incidences of anti-Semitism and racism, of threats of violence against the President, of armed insurrection. But they are prone to their own firestorms.

Yet---since the Attorney-General announced a public trial for the alleged main perpetrator of the 9-11 massacres, one would expect this would be greeted with pride in the strength of the American judicial system and rule of law. But instead Rabid Right leaders call for summary execution without trial, and super-patriot O'Reilly shouts "I don't care about the Constitution."

Place these in context of the increasingly extreme and violent Big Lies and it seems clear that the Rabid Right is becoming what it beholds: their own example of Nazi Germany.

Last week, also on Kos, the writer who calls herself Plutonium Page wrote about the surviving navigator of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb exploded on a city, on Hiroshima. It was about an obscure newspaper article from New Mexico, which quoted Dutch van Kirk as being alarmed about today's casual public attitudes toward nuclear weapons. "You know, you get all these people that go around saying things like, with Iraq, 'We ought to go and nuke those bastards,' said Van Kirk, a spry 88. "They don't know what they're talking about. They have no idea what a nuclear bomb is."

I thought and felt the same way when all that talk was happening about the Bush plan to nuke the suspected nuclear sites in Iran, and I wrote extensively here and elsewhere about what a nuclear bomb is. Plutonium Page's article got many responses, mostly from readers old enough to remember the thermonuclear threats of the 50s and 60s, the renewed fears of nuclear war in the 80s. Those younger, or with inattentive memories, have less substance to grasp, and so the realities of nuclear weapons--even as far as we knew of them--can't combat the glib assumption that they're just blips on the video screen.

I mention it now because I wonder if part of the problem is that the reality of Nazi Germany, of Fascism in Europe and all that it did and represented, is also too remote in history now. People have no idea of what the reality is of a government brought to power by violence, which rules by fear and fiat. A government that really doesn't care about the Constitution, or trials, or rights.

But we do have artifacts of memory still existing in our main repository of meaning: popular culture. Just as the references to nuclear war that remain most vivid are movies and novels of the Cold War period, there are popular culture artifacts of the late 40s and early 50s especially--before the Red Menace took complete hold of the national soul, and in too many respects we became what we hated--and it's there: the way of life that we fought World War II to ensure. After all, that's basically how those in my generation absorbed the weight of the war that ended just before we were born.

It's there in something as otherwise silly as the first George Reeves appearance as Superman, in a low budget movie which later was folded into the first year of the series. The aliens from under the earth, the Mole Men, were pretty pathetic looking. But Superman's first act was to defend them against mob violence. He stopped one human (American) mob by shouting that they're acting like storm troopers.

Stormtroopers, the Holocaust, were fresh in the national mind. Though embattled, there was a strong strain in popular culture through the 60s that defended truth (as opposed to verifiable lies), justice (defendants had rights) and the American Way. The horror of torture in World War II and Korea led to the U.S. not torturing as an essential element of the national idenity. Our democracy was about ballots, not bullets, and our free press existed to convey and test the information we needed to know in order to come to agreement on how to proceed on our common destiny.

But it seems no generation of youth is ever ready for the reality of war, no matter how many war movies they see or video games they play. It may be that some of those fomenting chaos now are doing so intentionally out of some deluded faith that this is God's will. No doubt others aren't really thinking ahead, they're just inflating the rhetoric to get attention, to get ratings and political power and wealth. But how many others are being swept along for the ride?

It seems alarmist to even consider that armed insurrection could succeed, but the thrust of the Rabid Right rhetoric is aimed at destroying President Obama's ability to govern, and the dog whistle is sounding for some deranged assassin to do what they would swiftly condemn, but what they are overtly encouraging. In either or both cases, the aim is chaos, and then anything is possible.

There's been so much barely veiled rhetoric--to the extent that a former Christian Right leader charges that former compatriots are "trawling for assassins"--that I wonder if the trauma of JFK's assassination is itself too remote in history to resonate. JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King (the most prominent of the murdered black leaders) were all assassinated within a five year span, but the impact of an assassination attempt on this President could well be like all three at once, just for starters.

We are so smitten with the speed and power of our electronic communications that we haven't yet faced the reality it is creating: many sources, none trustworthy, certainly not for everyone. There is so much more noise than signal that we may not notice this until it all stops, until we really need to know what's going on, and we're helpless. It all fosters a disregard for truth that is in itself frightening, and it is already leading to an incredible credulity: people believe things just because their chosen media outlet or authority figure says so. But the noise is deafening, and swamps attention to meaning, or to what the past can still tell us.

Not that I'm a good example. I haven't yet learned from the past not to waste several hours babbling here for no good reason. And these days, the hours gone forever weigh more heavily. But I have babbled on, and there seems to be less point in deleting than posting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Polarizing Express

There's plenty to worry about in the tendencies and policies of the Obama administration, and in a sane country in a sane time, debating them sanely would be a good idea. But the most glaring apparent problem is that we haven't gotten beyond the ideological polarization of the Reagan through Clinton through Bush years. In fact, it's become so extreme that is seems headed for some kind of apocalypse, before age and race demographics take firmer control. Sanity is the casualty.

Still, even in this toxic atmosphere where dealing with reality is a dream, the realities remain. The upcoming fateful Afghanistan decisions. Iran and its nuclear fixations. Policies on leftover Bush atrocities--trials, torture, rendition, secrets. But the most pressing "domestic" issues are funnelling again into one: the economy.

There's a lot of anger everywhere about the financial sector, which is spilling over into anger about efforts like the Recovery Act to deal with employment and the real economy. At the moment, Congress and the media are responding to the anger. They just don't seem to have any ideas on what to actually do.

The Obama administration, like most administrations that take governing seriously, is caught in the middle. Reigning in Wall Street, getting help to Main Street, are taking a lot of time and wearing out everyone's patience.

But the problems are complicated and I find myself so confused that I am equally persuaded by two diametrically opposed columns in the New York Times today, one by Paul Krugman, the other by David Brooks.

I usually find myself agreeing with Krugman, and hardly ever with Brooks. Yet even those these columns take opposite sides on the effectiveness of Treasury Secretary Geithner, I see ways in which they both are correct. It's possible that the Obama team was dealt some really bad cards by the Bushies and Wall Street, and they've done the best they could. The second Great Depression was avoided, and for the vast majority life goes on. Yet what the Obama team did and is doing may not be enough, or it may have not really been what was really needed--just what was possible to avert the worst.

The road ahead looks at least as complex and confusing. Unemployment rates in the nation and in individual states (like California) are higher than in recent memory. Business experts say unemployment nationally is likely to hang around 10% for another year. And though there are signs of stronger economic activity and a slowing of job losses, the social fabric--as well as many lives--may not be able to take much more of this strain.

Can unused TARP money be devoted to job creation and targeted to Main Street? Will the pressure to relieve the deficit and the GOPer-whipped up antigovernment sentiment prevent the kind of aggressive job creation efforts that Krugman and others believe is necessary?

Then there's the healthcare bill, which is itself a healthy job creation and anti-deficit measure, a necessity for future economic health. If it goes down, the immediate future is bleak. If it passes, then the atmosphere may change, or at least we'll get more clarity on where the public mood actually is.

Update: Apropos the Recovery Act, an article in the Saturday NY Times claims that a consensus of economists agrees that it is working: "The legislation, a variety of economists say, is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would. Mr. Obama’s promise to “save or create” about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created, especially among states and cities using their money to avoid cutting teachers, police officers and other workers."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On "Hero-Worship"

Then-Senator Obama poses in front of the Superman museum in Illinois, conveniently illustrating the post below, in which I respond to the "charge" of hero worship.
I'm taking a little flak here for writing too much and too enthusiastically about Barack Obama, most of the comment being good-natured so far. I mentioned the North Coast blogger who links here not with this site's actual name but as an Obama blog. Now "cousin Lemuel" (old joke, between two old jokers) has broadened the charge in a comment, referring to my "propensity for hero worship of charismatic personalities." Could it be he's still sore because I backed Bobby Kennedy over Gene McCarthy?

On the more general charge, I'll say this: I've never been successfully accused of being an optimist, nor do I have a record of being uncritical (I do dispute "cynical" however). But I have shown evidence of preferring pop culture heroes and phenomena that represent the light over the dark, hope over despair, the commitment to good over the bad boys: from Superman to Spiderman and Harry Potter; Star Trek and Doctor Who over those s/f stories that are predictably described as "gritty." I even chose the Beatles over the Stones.

Whatever this says about me, here's what I say about context. The dark, the apocalyptic, the "gritty" are said to better represent reality and human nature. But it's not just half-empty or half-fullness in how you view this.

A century of Darwinism made the Social Darwinist analysis of ingrained, genetically programmed selfishness and cruelty in the struggle for survival into dogma, so dog eat dog capitalism, the rich preying on the poor and the sectarian violence serving the greed of those who make weapons for profit etc. have become enshrined as unalterable Human Nature.

This conveniently supports the rationale and lifestyles of militarists (and their video games), capitalists (who pay good lecture fees for intellectuals supporting this view) as well as TV and film writers who can't come up with a plot that doesn't depend on violence and the same old motives of jealousy, greed and revenge.

But now that even evolutionists are admitting that humans and other animals are also cooperative, caring, empathetic, compassionate, altruistic and yes, heroic creatures, human nature has room for all of this. Human behavior and the culture that supports it become matters of emphasis, of the value placed upon behaviors. But even those disposed to good may need models, and a sense of possibility. Heroes can personify those possibilities.

As for the function of charismatic figures in real life, particularly in politics, they can be powerful forces for bad or for good. But they are powerful, they do get things done. Here in the U.S., we had a series of Democratic Party candidates who would have made decent to very good Presidents, but they weren't, because they couldn't get elected. Barack Obama had the charisma, if you want to call it that, to inspire people to action.

Bobby Kennedy had two advantages over Gene McCarthy: he could have been elected, and he could have been a transformative President.

In Barack Obama (as in JFK and RFK), I value what I perceive as a complex intelligence, which includes complex feelings and a consciousness monitoring it all. I trust him and his judgment accordingly. But I don't worship him. I don't think he's infallible. And neither does he. That's partly why I have confidence in him.

Let me put it another way. I have long been interested in the insights of Eastern religions, but I had enough of priesthoods in my childhood, and my suspicion of gurus and their true believers probably stopped me from finding even a teacher. But I admire the Dalai Lama, partly because he doesn't believe in gurus either. He doesn't believe he's always right. Yet he has strong views and commitments, strong abilities to communicate, and--something else I value highly in RFK and Obama--a great sense of humor, including a saving sense of irony.

But here's the main point: we're up against a terribly crucial moment in human history. Humanity sliding into self-destruction and a long Dark Age is a very live possibility. Things in the U.S. are particularly dangerous. What happens in the next decade may tell the tale for America and quite possibly the world for centuries to come.

At least at the moment, the President of the United States is in many ways the psychological king of the world. Everyone projects onto the President their hopes and fears, and especially what they won't face about themselves. I've seen this with every President but of course it is more obvious to me when the President is one I voted for. I saw it clearly with Bill Clinton, who I kept called the President of Projection.

Though uncharismatic leaders can do just about as much damage, charisma in a leader can be dangerous. I was more than immune to Reagan's charisma but apparently he had it, and there wasn't another politician alive who could counter it. We got through that decade only by the charisma of writers and (for some of us) musicians. The critiques of the age came in songs by Joni Mitchell, Sting, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, etc. They inspired us to hang on, by giving form and voice to our intuitions and observations.

But all charisma is not created equal. Barack Obama is a positive role model and a force for good in so many ways. We're going to need every ounce of his charisma, his ability to speak and inspire, the personal power to make and effect positive change and to hold off the gathering forces of evil.

He's the best hope going and I'm sticking with him until convinced otherwise. And because I trust his judgment I'm going to give him every opportunity to explain and convince me he's right, or at least that he's made the best possible choice.

I choose to emphasize the good he does, though some expect him to never disappoint them, to do everything they want immediately. Who is being unrealistic then?

I am not going to attack him and try to weaken him, as some on the left are now doing, because he isn't measuring up to their preconceptions of what he should be doing on some particular issue that's important to them. He isn't Bush. I don't see that weakening him is ultimately a positive.

Is that hero worship? I don't think so. I may look for the good and underestimate the bad, but I am not deluded and I gave up worship a long time ago. A couple of other dangers in hero worship are passivity and narcissism. I'm not passive, at least beyond my own fatalism, laziness and personal self-delusions. I believe that people find direction and hope by identifying to some degree with heroes and role models. Sure, I see the danger of such identification becoming psychotic, especially in this celebrity-crazed culture, but let's not throw out the planet with the bathwater.

We follow the leader who is leading in the direction we believe in, and in whom we have confidence. We follow what in a hero defines for us what we value, what we want to be, where we want to go, who we are committed to being. For those defined by their fears there is Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and a host of others, mostly to the right, but also left and center. For those defined by their hopes, there are lots of quiet heroes, lots of role models past and present, but mostly, there's Obama. Or maybe I should say the Obamas, because women (among others) are inspired by Michelle, and children (among others) are inspired by Sasha and Malia.

It's all a matter of emphasis. I'm for tipping the delicate balance towards equality, compassion, empathy, freedom, "truth, justice and the American Way." Technical adjustments may be necessary to get there, but we need more than technicians. There are powerful forces in opposition that are inside us as well as arrayed in the shared world. This looks like a job for the Superman inside. Out there, too, we need all the heroics we can get.