January 30, 2007
Thus far, one might be correct in accusing me of basically recapitulating the arguments of Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras, Nick Cohen et. al. But I wouldn’t be so humble as to accept the insinuation that these ideas therefore are not my own, or that I have not come by them honestly or through my own self-directed pursuits and sleepless nights. Rhetorically, my language might sometimes even echo their words in near unison. Frankly, I don’t have the patience to sift through the flurry of thoughts I have about these subjects and try to decipher which ones my brain synthesized and which ones it was merely recalling. I hope I do not take too much for granted when I expect that these gentlemen would understand that solidarity, not plagiarism is my aim here. And, speaking of which, I would like to make a stab at brevity and offer only a link and a short commentary for this post…
Despite my debt to the above scholars, it is a voice such as that of <a href=”http://www.workersliberty.org/node/577″>Barham Salih</a> that animates me. It is a voice like this that makes me choke on the myriad, rancid arguments offered by the peaceniks. Instead of arguing with me, or with any of us, I am just curious as to whether the many dedicated anti-war activists would be willing to defend their passionate pacifism to him. It’s easy to chop down the FOX News propagandists and it’s easy to mangle the arguments of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld. It’s apparently easy to applaud when Michael Moore paints Iraq as a once peaceful, secular neverland. But is it really so easy to enjoy your safe, narcissistic moral purity in spite of–and in contradiction with–the impassioned pleas that were coming from the Regional Government of Kurdistan in 2003?
I have seen, as most of us have, the pictures of those jubilant people Dr. Salih speaks about. At one time, I also dismissed those images as propaganda. Supposedly, the fury of the current “insurgency” is proof that such claims were false. But read carefully the bit about needing us to stick with them after the fall of Saddam. Why would they need us if they didn’t also know that there would be elements in the aftermath that would require ongoing support from some big guns? What we underestimated was only the degree to which fascism had infected the minds of certain fanatics. As with any infection, it must be completely, not partially healed, otherwise it will only spread and eventually kill its host. Why is this not a simple equation for the champions of peace and human rights to work out?
In the 1930’s, people of the left came from around the world to fight in solidarity with those who suffered at the hands of fascism. In our new mellenium, people of the left hinder their comrades’ attempts at revolution by organizing demonstrations that might have been scripted by fascists themselves.
January 30, 2007
In my recent posts, it was never quite accurate or fair for me to refer categorically to “the left” and to “liberals” as a unified whole with clear agendas and uniform positions. After all, I don’t consider myself to be a conservative or a neoconservative or any of that. I’ve always staked my efforts and sympathies with the left. But since I live in one of the most liberal cities in the world, have worked for the “model” third party democrats, etc., and came to feel like my liberal values weren’t getting their due, I did begin to feel like everybody who called themselves a liberal, a democrat, a leftist, or a progressive had to be part of the large group that had taken up with bullies, idiots and fascists. It’s time for a mea culpa.
Apparently, all along, I wasn’t alone, which means that the crowd of pro-fascist jerks wasn’t as big as I once thought. I wasn’t the only one feeling alienated or feeling confused as to why my attempts at debate with my colleagues in the field were being snuffed. Even beyond this continent, people were dealing with a left who wanted you to shut up or ship out… unless, of course, you could come to the job bushy-tailed, with a bag of anti-American slogans and half-baked theories about the imperialism of informatization. Some of those folks, seeing the dire need of a new statement of intent, have got together and published a document called the Euston Manifesto. It shows that there is a contingent of democratically minded folks who understand what’s wrong with terrorism and what’s right with the Enlightenment and all that jazz about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. They prove that you can call for reforming the WTO, IMF and World Bank without cheering for fundamentalism. It’s heads over hearts, its real analysis, and it’s a genuine vision. I’m all for it.
January 30, 2007
Respect is a pretty big deal and has been, it seems, throughout human history. You respect your elders, respect religion, respect your fellow man, respect everybody’s opinion, etc. But what is respect exactly? Dictionary definitions turn up words like ‘deference’ and ‘obedience.’ Etymology turns up a Latinate root, ‘respectus’ which is the act of looking back or regarding (in each case, a certain distance is implied). I think in the previous examples, the appropriate synonym might be consideration, which implies both careful thought and esteem. Careful thought, I think most will agree, is virtuous. What about esteem? To esteem is to ascribe value relative to another thing (continuing to follow the dictionary paper trail). Value (as in we value opinions, we value religions, etc.) goes back to another Latin term, and I think it’s as far back as we need go: it means to be strong. So ‘respect,’ at bottom, is about giving deference to something or proclaiming its strength or relative worth. In each case, superiority is at least implicit. Herein lies the non-contradiction between today’s rhetoric of respect and the rhetoric, popular not so long ago of superiority. As with so many things, respect is only a softened version of superiority. When they aren’t required to think about it, people act as ‘respect’ been cleansed of it’s superlative qualities. Has it though?
I’m mainly concerned with this because I think it’s interesting to think of the way respect has changed over time and across culture. I think that the way that respect is ascribed pro bono nowadays without adequate justification is problematic. Do races and ethnicities deserve respect? Do religions deserve respect? Or do peoples and ideas, in our modern era, have to account for things like their value or legitimacy by way of merit and sound argument? Does a race exist? Plenty of people would say that it does not. Even if it did, what good does it do to offer deference or a tip of the hat to a group of people simply because they have certain physical qualities? Sounds suspiciously contradictory in terms of what we know to be the problem with the notion of race–precisely that it assumes that, because certain people have certain physical characteristics, they are better or worse than another person. People, we decided some time ago, only receive instant respect due to their being one of us humans–beyond that, all other forms of respect are merit based. Or, that’s what I thought…
I could even go one further and take up with the bigger picture, more Gaia oriented view of things–that we are all the same stuff, the universe as a whole. Respecting others and plants and animals and soil and water is like self-respect. It’s like your finger respecting your elbow. It’s a no-brainer. I’m treading dangerously close to hippie territory here, but just because I disapprove of the new-age, pseudo intellectual, wack-job spirituality that many hippies ascribe to doesn’t mean that this isn’t all just another version of Carl Sagan’s point in ‘Cosmos.’ That we are all just hydrogen atoms, given enough time to evolve. Everything. Couch this in a less flaky context (and hopefully a snazzier aesthetic) and it is a truth worth contemplating. This doesn’t mean we have to treat an ant as if its a 3 year old child–respect doesn’t equal preservation (another phenomenon of this universe is that it’s basically a crowd of organisms consuming one another–that is, for better or for worse the natural order). But, of course, some things should be preserved. Some things won’t survive. If I’m forced to choose, the child survives, the ant does not. Again, a no-brainer, but amazingly enough, these distinctions are still not apparent to many people. Judgment is currently out of fashion–but only in a sense. The ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ camp generally employs this adage in order to facilitate the espousal of their own brand of judgment. It is a disingenuous disarming ploy (much like the one often used when religious folks argue with atheists. Daniel Dennett described this as playing tennis with people who want to serve with the net down while you return with the net up.)
But once we’ve established that humans and nature deserve respect due to our sameness, when do we start entering into the world of judgment and when do we acknowledge our uniqueness and divisions? Basic scientific truths don’t necessarily convert to every manner of relativism. And a broader understanding of the vast spectrum of human traits, capacities, ideas and practices doesn’t vanquish the pursuit of ethics and need for judgment calls altogether. Saying so is a fundamental logical fallacy, since saying so is itself a judgment call. Scientific truths and broader understandings should inform our judgment calls. Which means that we can say that race does not exist and therefore no Caucasian, Arab, Jew, Innuit, or any other “race” deserves respect on the basis of their race. Nor does culture get a pass, simply because it belongs to somebody. Some cultures have been bloodthirsty and have instilled terrible characteristics in people. Some still do. Saying so shouldn’t be a crime. It also doesn’t mean they should be eliminated or put in ghettos, Pogroms and refugee camps. Doesn’t mean it’s time to dig the mass graves or prepare the gas chambers or keep them economically in a box. It’s time to make folks duke it out in the great battle of ideas. Let them validate themselves. Let them show by their merits if they deserve respect or if they don’t. The same goes for religions. Let them do it in an atmosphere of discussion, argument, and compromise whenever and wherever possible. And, when certain people make that impossible due to their hunger for power and bloodshed, let them hear from the rest of us loudly and clearly that their sabotage will not work and will not be tolerated. And if it’s a fight they demand, a fight they shall have. A short one, preferably.
All of this is still another reason why the United States and that pesky little Enlightenment still matter, no matter what the radical left says. The paper says “the general welfare.” And that thing about “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?” Our posterity we now know depends on the posterity of others. And if it is not the intended purpose of certain government activities abroad today, it should be. I’ve heard about Iraqi democracy not being “real democracy.” Ok. Maybe it isn’t. I for one have no authority to speak on the matter (though I do know at least that this disparity is overstated by the antiwar movement). But allowing for the democratic creation of several states hostile to civilization and hostile to certain methods of diplomacy and engagement hardly sounds like general welfare. And yes, yes, I know that those words refer to our nation, not to others. But are we to make no judgment calls at all? Are we to respect everybody’s way of doing things? It does seem that, prior to the postmoderns hijacking of the Enlightenment (they call it a “critique”), when a willingness to make judgments combined with the notion of general welfare and human dignity, something worthwhile sprang up–something that rejected old ways of inherited respect, whether they were racial, cultural, tribal or religious. Unless you were claiming to deserve respect for being part of “creation,” you had to earn it, prove it, argue for it. Walk the walk, as they say.
There is a reason we have the very legitimate conversations we have in college classrooms about how America isn’t the meritocracy or the democracy it proclaims to be–we have a taste of what those things might look like. It’s true that America isn’t perfectly democratic, the wealth remains in the hands of few who make decisions for many, etc., etc. But those moneyed people know that it’s best to be as silent as possible about exercising such power. It has become taboo and that fact is worth noticing. Nobody is supposed to think that their religion or their “race” gets special treatment. Interesting that it’s the left who always make the case that those things should be treated differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Keep saying it. I’m as aware (and as sympathetic) as anybody of the notion “life chances” and of the historical perpetuation of the haves and the have-nots. But I’m also familiar with the contradiction in the rhetoric that proclaims sameness while demanding special treatment and some kind of ennobling. Doesn’t mean I’m for or against affirmative action, just means I see the contradiction. In this case, I am only tempted to suggest that one might be forced to choose between two choices that have both good and bad consequences. Eliminate entitlement and sectarianism or eliminate systemic poverty and historically inherited oppression. Is there a better choice here? I wouldn’t claim to know.
The world needs a lot more of a lot of things, but I’m not sure if respect, as an end in itself, is one of them. It’s almost as popular here as it is in the ‘Islamic world.’ People love to get respect. Well, sure–people enjoy superiority and being worshipped and applauded. But it is worth suggesting that perhaps people aren’t as inclined to misuse that which they have been made to work for, argue for, reason out and, as a result, understand. I’m sure this will be interpreted by some as a conservative diatribe. Not hardly–I am only advocating that the claims of both sides be subjected to a good deal of scrutiny. Where the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric, it should be forced to do so. So when Republicans talk about hard work as it equates to success, they should have to answer (a good answer–not the bullshit they usually try to pass off) to the very real question of systemic discrimination. And when liberals speak of respect and the glory of difference, they should have to own up to that fact that they are advocating a mere inversion of the existing problem.
January 30, 2007
Occasionally, for better of for worse, religion gets an overhaul. The Protestant Reformation might be considered the point at which the break with premodern conceptions of religion began in Europe. One’s relationship with the divine became a matter of personal belief, not merely a matter of ritual and decorum. The importance of earthly institutions was de-emphasized and the imperative of one’s personal, true belief came into view. Often times we forget this significant break and we assume that 12th century Christians were like us. But for the majority of its “golden years,” monotheism thrived on the ignorance and illiteracy of it’s adherents. It enjoyed a cozy relationship with all manner of tyrants and scoundrels, kings and sultans alike. This wasn’t because the rabbis, mullahs and priests had already discovered Darwin’s Dangerous Idea or because they knew, like the anti-capitalist philosophers of the 19th century would later point out, that religion is a powerful tool of control. They still believed that the watch needed a watchmaker. Even David Hume in the 1700’s conceded that he had no better explanation for the question “From whence?” The scholarly religious classes weren’t some heathen cabal, conniving to keep the people stupid and weak. There was no Grand Inquisitor Syndrome sweeping through Europe and the Middle East. The fellows at St. Catherine’s didn’t formulate celibacy as a means to absolute control. They really believed that sexual energies should be redirected into praise and service. They came from an era where supernatural explanations prevailed over scientific ones, because the natural sciences weren’t as well developed as the prevailing way of explaining complex phenomena: superstition. That various tenets of faith would turn out to be remarkably effective means of mind control was certainly welcome, but incidental nonetheless.
The Reformation wasn’t without it’s problems though, since it only replaced one religious ruling class with another and opened up the space for many more sectarian schisms to take root. In Britain, Catholics lost their foothold in the political sphere and found themselves oppressed by the new kids on the block. In 1605, a group of British Catholics decided to recapture their political superiority by attempting to explode the Houses of Parliament. Now audiences worldwide are learning of the Gunpowder Treason as if the plot had been engineered by Mikhail Bakunin himself (Bakunin, for those who don’t know, was a seminal anarchist thinker and an intellectual rival of Karl Marx). In order for this metaphorical respinning of Fawkes’ character to work, however, one must turn a blind eye to the fact that he was a conservative militant whose political motives were hardly inseparable from his religious ideology. Reviewers and viewers alike have proclaimed the subversiveness of ‘V for Vendetta.’ According to them, this film is radical and inspiring; a wake-up call for desperate times. The film should serve as a wake up call, but not in the way it hopes to be. ‘V’ purports to be a leftist tribute to revolutionary values, but the fact that audiences have uncritically taken its story to heart, well, let’s just say we’ve caught them Red-handed…
The twentieth century in the Middle East can be thought of as a time of reformation: social, political, religious, you name it.
Unfortunately, secular initiatives like those pursued by the PLO in Palestine or the Khalq Party in Afghanistan proved unsuccessful. There were all kinds of reasons for these failures. The Palestinian Liberation Organization became corrupt and self-interested. The Khalqi were essentially juvenile Marxists who expected Afghan tribal culture to be as enraptured with Marxist theory and rhetoric as they had been. After too many failures, certain Muslims decided that it was time to return to the better days–a time when Islam was the law of the land. From this rotting heap of failed reform, groups such as the Taliban militia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda were born. But, like the Protestants in England, Muslim militants have found that the weight of firepower and a standing army is not at their disposal. So they choose to attack symbolic targets, such as the World Trade Center. And worse, in the absence of hard artillery they choose to attack soft targets like children, non-combatants and fellow Muslims.
I can’t quite see the valiance in counter-reformationist terror. Nor do I see why I should respect militants that pursue a by-any-means-necessary campaign with an eye to reinstating the ways of a more pious past. I do not find any subversive character in a film that takes such a figure as its ideological figurehead. But what if we think of ‘V’ as a sort of subconscious cartoon confession from the spirit that calls itself liberal today. Maybe they’re telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they do indeed stand in solidarity with terrorists and against the forces that fight against religious fundamentalism. Maybe they’re telling us that they have only read the term “Orwellian” in Z Magazine and that they have not ever properly read Orwell himself. Maybe they’re telling us that they prefer aestheticized politics ready-made for consumption much more than they care for the tedious, unglamorous work of actual political activity. Perhaps they truly would like to have their history lessons narrated to them by the creators of ‘The Matrix.’ And maybe they do consider a film glorifying a 400 year old Catholic plot to be educational in the ways of political radicalism as opposed to, I don’t know, say watching a documentary tracing the history and motives of Islamism. After all, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad–they’re all the same, right? Warriors in the crusade against globalization! (Somebody should take a poll of those viewers who have been so moved by ‘V’ and find out how many of them fall into the demographic of the 52% of Americans that didn’t vote in the last election. Once such a number has been established, I’d like to know then, how many of them have cited the election results as reason for the “evil” of the Bush administration as if they were powerless to have made any difference in the face of such overbearing daemonia. All this is conjecture and fantasy, but the results would be interesting)
Now consider what would have happened if the filmmakers had chosen to remain faithful to Alan Moore’s graphic novel. I don’t claim to have read the thing, but it is my understanding that, rather than glorifying the actions of ‘V’ as revitalizing and revolutionary, Moore left the character and his actions morally ambiguous. According to him, the reader/viewer should be asking themselves hard questions about the use of violence in the name of revolution. Unfortunately, that’s a question none of the viewers of this film had to ask. It was answered for them, by those who adapted the screenplay and by those who swathed the film’s “hero” in an unambiguous cloak of piety. Kudos to Mr. Moore for condemning the film as “imbecilic.” And, for all the dumb nonsense this film poured into the brains of potential future allies in the ongoing fight against religious terror, I take consolation in the fact that my experience on 9/11 might be reproduced for some of them. At least they might have the comfort of knowing that, in a moment of naive idealistic ignorance, they cheered for a comic book hero, not for real casualties and real killers. Maybe some of them will realize the danger of lazy, uninformed radicalism. Maybe fewer will make the Khalqi mistake. Maybe even a few of them will end up on the good side of this fight.
January 30, 2007
I’m tired of hearing that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In August of 2001, I believed that statement wholeheartedly. At any given time, you could catch me quoting Proudhon or Kropotkin, proclaiming that ‘Government is Violence.” Maybe nobody remembers now, but the middle of that September was to mark the largest protest against the IMF/World Bank since the fiery streets of Seattle. The city of Washington had dedicated millions to extra security–the demonstrations were expected to be huge. I had my gas mask and I was ready to go. In fact, I couldn’t wait. I hoped for upheaval and uproar. I might, that week, have walked with the anarchist black brigades, were it not for some other “freedom” fighters’ well-conceived plan to make lower Manhattan live up to its moniker. I woke up early enough to see the first plane hit the World Trade Center and I thought, “The Evil Empire’s finally got its comeuppance.” I thought it was a victory for our side. I thought it was the beginning of the revolution. I even thought they were part of the whole anti-globalization movement. They had hit at the heart of it all, the symbol of U.S. economic hegemony. I thought it was brilliant–a military strike, Baudrillard-style. I thought the workers inside were casualties of a war they had been unwittingly waging against the poor of the world, from Nigeria to Palestine. Too bad, I thought, these are the consequences of sustained exploitation.
September 11th was significant for me because I will never stop being ashamed of those feelings, but it isn’t shame ill-spent. By September 13th, I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about terrorism anymore. I hold this moment close in my memory because it reminds me of how cozy the recent current of leftist sentiments are with the forces of nihilism. The fact is, some people fight for freedom and some people fight to repress it. When Al-Qaeda wishes fire and damnation on us, it isn’t because they feel indignant about the lack of rights and liberties in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is precisely the opposite–they believe our way of life is evil in the eyes of God. They believe that the freedom to think and act as one chooses is, in fact, wrong because it does not comply with (their reading of) the Qu’ran. According to them (and, interestingly enough, contrary to the Qu’ran) there should be compulsion in religion. The religious texts can be difficult to interpret and can sometimes seem contradictory. What I do know is that some Muslims read the Qu’ran and find a loving God and others find a bigot and a tyrant. It is the latter that jihadists fight on behalf of, which makes them something far different from a freedom fighter.
There is another lesson to learn, though, not just the one about the err of equating terrorism with some Underdog Justice League. The trend of militant Islamic conservatism is not the result of lack of modernizing forces in the Middle East–it is a response to precisely those forces. It was a response both to the advance of more authentic imperial encroachments and to the spectre of Soviet-style communism (if you care to separate the two). In Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the effort to reclaim a Muslim identity was a way of resisting the British and French influence in the region. Later, as the Soviet Union began expanding both territorially and ideologically into the Middle East, the recuperation of an Islamic identity was a reaction to the failures of godless tyrannies (which, to be honest, looked as much like a religion as any religion). So we have both the ‘West’ and the Left to blame, sort of…
…there still remains the fact that these people really do believe what they say. More tolerant Muslims would like to claim that terrorists are the pawns for politicians who use Islam to persuade young illiterate men to die for their power games. Does this negate their belief? I don’t think it does. I might respond that religion has served this purpose more often than not, no matter what name God took (although saying so wouldn’t be novel, since Mikhail Bakunin wrote ‘God & the State’ in the 1800’s).
And the Evil Empire. How Evil are we? Battle tactics on the other side are predicated upon the assumption that American troops will actually be trying to reduce civilian death tolls, not raise them. Can anybody find a more crucial difference between coalition and jihadist forces? I find it difficult to trust reporters and policy analysts, since everybody’s data seems to fit their politics, not the other way ’round. I choose to remain skeptical about what’s “really going on” over there unless I am speaking, as I have had occasion to do, with people who have been there. All I can say is that the people I have spoken to know that times are tough, that things might look more stable right now had we not gone forward. But the key word there is “look” more stable. We thought Brent Scowcroft was right when he told us that the Middle East was the most peaceful it had been in decades. Meanwhile, poverty reigned, we supported and funded terrorists and dictators–in short, we dug the trenches that became the cesspools. Cleaning them up is not going to be easy, but we, more than anybody, owe them a bit of cleanup.
And the cleanup shouldn’t have to look Western or Islamic. This binary is a false one. The fact is, that the Western Tradition owes its survival to Islamic culture. The separation of the two is a mistake. This “Western Tradition” did not hop from Greece to Rome to Spain to England to the Americas. No, it stopped off, for quite a long time, in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine. There, a culture flourished standing on the shoulders of the Romans and Byzantines that offered as rich an intellectual tradition as any. The influence of the Ottoman Empire on the so-called “Western Tradition” cannot be underestimated, from the zero to algebra to philosophy. Western thought owed it’s lifeblood to Greek philosophy, the records of which were preserved by the Islamic Ottomans, not by Europeans, who destroyed the texts in a Christian fervor. This is the story of a larger history. Our notions of modernity, all of these ideals about the freedom of (or from) religion, about self-determination and the evil of abject slavery, the glories of creativity, and those universal human rights–they do not exclude the Middle East, no matter how many Wahabbis would like to convince the people in the region that it does. Midnight Oil sang about the Aborgines, “it belongs to them, let’s give it back.” But do you give it back in the condition you took it? What if it has accrued interest–don’t you owe them a little of that as well? The impoverished populations in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve to have their legacy back, with interest, even if liars and killers have convinced them that there is some kind of divine vision that excludes all those modern values. They deserve an opportunity to hear the true story of great human progress where they are an integral part of it–not some fabrication of a hateful medievalist scoundrel. Making that known and acceptable is key to bringing down the curtain between “us” and “them”–even better, it is key to the realization that no such distinction exists. Tribalism and sectarianism won’t do, whether here or over there. This includes apologies for terrorism and nihilism in support of your local, radical team.
I’m sure I’ll be accused of supporting a new, improved version of Churchill’s “Empire on the Cheap.” Which is interesting to me since I feel that this conflict, with its tumultuous character, could actually be the beginning of undoing that policy. I’m quite aware of the degree to which United States business interests have been the beneficiaries of this war. But that doesn’t mean that I have to subscribe to the binary that proclaims that if the United States isn’t in this for absolutely selfless reasons, they must be in it for absolutely selfish reasons. There may be, as there almost always is, a more complicated way of portraying the scenario. I have heard repeatedly the claim that if the U.S. invaded every country and removed every dictator, we would have been at work long ago. The fact is, I agree. But this comes from the same lips that accuse the Bush administration of talking too tough with too many dictators. There is a consistency to this policy and it is one quite different from the days when the actions of Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon and the mullahs in Iran were only pursued softly and diplomatically through increasingly ineffectual institutions–when we didn’t rock the boat too much as long as we could come out on top. Now, we’ve rocked the boat, at risk of the lives of our soldiers so that a new order might take hold. And now the left chastises the action because rocking the boat is costing lives. Best to have left the wound (that we helped create) to fester, according to them. I can’t get behind that kind of criticism. It costs nothing, save for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Palestinians. It lets the “radicals” keep their hands clean. They can Bike Against Bush or whatever the nonsense-of-the-day might be and call it compassion. They can keep saying, as Bill Maher joked last weekend, that re-confirming Saddam in Iraq is looking like a “viable option.”
The interesting fact is that many MoveOn.org sorts do, in fact, believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was part of the anti-globalization movement, even if they pay lip service to the idea that taking thousands of lives is unacceptable. Many of them–you can tell from their tone–sympathize more with jihadists than with coalition troops. They will expend more conversational effort admonishing the terrorists’ use of violence than they will acknowledging that our troops are, for once, fighting against the sort of forces that seek to repress freedom. That this change is not welcome by those who trumpet liberal values is, to me, a sign of very strange times, indeed.
January 30, 2007
History is a matter of drawing imaginary lines. One epoch ends or begins because enough people agree that boundaries give character to a period of time. History condenses countless stories into one single story. It sometimes draws lines in the sand where there are none–or, rather, the writer of history does these things. The writing is always up for debate and the authors are countless. Usually the most comfortable story wins, sometimes at the expense of the truest one. But having said that, I have suggested that there is a True Story; and here is where the blasphemy begins…
I never saw myself as a historian, but if we are the custodians of our own memories, and if memory is the bedrock of identity, then anybody with a personality is a historian. Everyone is guilty of confabulation. Brains rearrange and rewrite memories in order to conform to the present moment. They manufacture a continuity that isn’t actually there. But making the present moment mesh with the past–finding any reliable connection to the truth–is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. I take the position that the truest story and the best story are nearly always one in the same (art notwithstanding). History isn’t psychoanalysis. Psychoanlaysts think that confabulation is an important form of truth but I’m not so sure. The world is not a fantasy and, by the same token, subjectivity is not the only kind of reality. There is a world outside…lots of people have forgotten. Before something becomes a memory, it is light, sound and matter. And all material is the work of hydrogen atoms that have been given enough time to experiment with different combinations. Once something becomes a memory, it is still only a matter of molecules. People resist this–it’s humbling and frighteningly objective. But a world of glorified subjectivity is narcissism at its finest.
I called my last set of writings “Confessions of a Narcissist.” The joys and pains of a specific kind of adolescence are chronicled there. I should retitle it “Learning to Crawl.” Opening a weblog is a conceit of sorts and I understand. But if I’m allowed, I”ll categorize my vanity as little more than an expression of the “will” to survive. For the most part, you can have damn good time as a mammal on this rock but it’s getting dangerous out there. People who live by 4,000 year old mythologies control present-day weapons on both sides of Istanbul. Superstition is running scared, usually with a bomb on it’s back. It lives in our legislatures and households. It sends it’s advice to the corpses in Africa. It sends literary theorists to political debates. We live in a golden age of fascism where even the revolutionaries and radicals are sympathizers. I have been in their ranks and I left them behind for a reason. For Reason, I could even say. But in the classrooms and in the street protests, the People of the Book run the show. The fact that it’s another book hardly makes a difference. The Book is never Good enough. I never signed on for a life of professional apostasy but, as it turns out, turning your back on certain things is preferable to toleration and integration.
A world of glorified fantasy is death waiting to descend. Rock and roll has thus far been about fantasy and narcissism. If I have any shameless conceit, it is to be one of many assassins…putting an end to the Age of the Demons. The end credits are rolling and the heathens need new hymns. I know I do. That’s what Blacklist is for.
Everybody who makes an argument or sings a song knows to anticipate the argument of the naysayer. Why bother with all this? Politics and philosophy, they say, have no place in rock and roll (unless certain very esteemed music critics have dubbed your mode of presentation to be just subtle or clever enough.) But was there a time when the best rock music wasn’t political in some sense? Fashion and dancing can be substantive weapons but who’s fighting with them?
I’ve even grown less fond of those soundtracks for the collegiate literati; the post-punk politicians never got an ear. They saw fear and energy, heartache and exuberance, danger and darkness and that somehow equaled “pretention” as opposed to “authenticity.” None of this is new and the same flowers are wilting. This is about joining in and turning the volume back up…so far up that it blasts the fashionistas out of their droll slumber. And if it isn’t “clever” or “subtle” enough, that could be because I’d have authenticity mistaken for pretention by fools any day. Condensing that fear and energy into an ironic bit of melody so that it no longer quakes–that’s well practiced these days and it’s not what we do.
I write this mostly as an extension of the recordings. Actually, each is an expansion and reflection of the other. So, let the credits roll on. Somewhwere in the middle, as always, the end becomes the new beginning. Imaginary lines, maybe. But these are mine…