Sunday, September 11, 2011

In the Shadow of the Shibboleth

Once again, 9/11 has rolled around and the media is overflowing with stories of horror and heroism. They publish analyses of the event, analyses of the aftermath, analyses of the war on terrorism and spectacular reruns of buildings collapsing in gargantuan clouds of smoke. Already in the run-up to the anniversary the New York Times ran a front page picture captioned “APOCALYPSE”. Nine Eleven has become a shibboleth.

A shibboleth is an arbitrary, and often insignificant, quality, fact or circumstance which is used to draw a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The fact -- in this case an event -- is endowed with a sacrosanct status and soon becomes a taboo because its divisive force can only be maintained through unquestioning horror buttressed by emotions of fear and pity. Once so endowed, the shibboleth becomes its own self-sustaining psychologic -- a sort of perpetual emotion machine; a monstrous idol before whom all mutely bow.

The Tar Baby was (and in many ways remains) America’s fundamental shibboleth. The taboo quality was, of course, blackness, against which Bre’r Rabbit became hopelessly and helplessly stuck the more he tried to analyze and deal with the situation.

Let us hazard to put an end to the nonsense.

The lesson to be analyzed out of 9/11 was as plain as day for anyone to see, even on Apocalypse + Two. All that was needed was to listen to what the Administration was actually saying.

As soon as he was released from whatever bunker he had fled to, President Bush announced a War on Terrorism. Wherever they were, whoever they were, them terrorists would be hunted down and brought to justice. But the Administration went further, also promising to "go after terrorism and get it by its branch and root."

In so saying, the Administration blurred the distinction between the specific and the general, between reaction and preemption, between punishing culprits and crusading against an abstraction. Bush's declaration of war against an invisible danger at once created its own necessity and gave birth to a vicious paradox that just as necessarily confused 'them' and 'us'.

Whoever they are.” The entire difficulty with the phenomenon of terrorism is that it is not conducted by official or state agents but is carried out by anonymous actors at random. The proposed action -- in this case a 'war' -- immediately embroils us in three levels of 'known unknowns': a non-present, unspecified harm by an uncertain actor. The object which we declare to be our enemy is simply a “potential” -- something that could, but has not actualized.

Fighting an unknown enemy is not the same thing as chasing after an unknown suspect. From the outset, the Administration confused the two, so that the chase after bin Laden illustrated the fundamental fault involved in creating the hybrid of a 'suspect enemy'.

Within hours of the Twin Tower collapse and even before the identities of the hijackers were known, U.S. officials began fingering Osama bin Laden as a possible or potential suspect based on a so-called “list of candidates.” Within a day, he became a “likely” suspect and a day later got elevated to "a" [sic] “prime” suspect -- none of which said more than that he was a probable, possible culprit.

The Administration's redundant blabber betrayed that the Government had nothing more than the usual scuttlebutt of links, leads, associations and activities "consistent" with an hypothesis of guilt. In the criminal context, such so-called 'soft evidence' will eventually coalesce around the hard facts of a crime that has happened. But everyone and anyone is a 'possible suspect'. How is it possible to 'root out' unknown suspects of terrorism that might happen? As we noted at the time,

“What the Government will have to presume is that everyone is at least a potential terrorist. In the most fundamental sense that is a presumption which is entirely antithetical to the concept of civil friendship, i.e., societas." (Woodchip Gazette, 010915)

The spectacular shibboleth of 9/11 gave rise to a massive self perpetuating contradiction. The enemy against whom we distinguished ourselves was in ourselves.

In 2008 then CIA chief, Mike McConnell, told Congress that “the enemy” had developed the capacity to “blend in” such that anyone one of us could be one of them. If it took McConnell seven years to figure out that terrorists tend to “blend in” he is the stupidest man on the planet.

In fact, the Administration understood perfectly well from the start that 'prime suspects' tend to 'hide out' within the general population. McConnell was just spooking a terrorized Congress into another round of liberty concessions.

But the spooking works because a cry of danger always creates its own apparent necessity. A danger is simply the possibility of a harmful event. Because a potential can always potentially be present, the declaration that the potential exists cannot be refuted. It is impossible to prove that what could exist in actuality doesn't exist in potentiality. As a result, we become trapped by what is, at bottom, an imaginary evil.

The evil is imaginary not because an instance of it may not have happened but because a danger is no more than a potential evil which might and, thus, can be imagined to happen. The awful spectacle of towers collapsing in flame and smoke was a true picture of an evil that had taken place. It was also the image of an evil that could again take place. The smoldering ruins became the conjunction between "hunt down" culprits and "root out" terrorism.

Transfixed by the spectacle, our consciousness was suspended between horrified pity for the desperate victims jumping to their deaths and equally horrified fear that such a thing might happen again, perhaps even to us, ourselves. In this way the shibboleth of 9/11 fed off our own natural sentiments of sympathy and selfishness, so that the smouldering ruins became the visible symbol of Bush's bi-polar crusade to "smoke em out."

It is in this way as well that shibboleths induce collective madness. For the fight against an imagined, potential or hypothetical harm - in turn creates a reaction without an actual object. The fight becomes the exercise of a means without any actual and present purpose.

This is not to say that terrorism, like disease or like crime, does not exist. But it is to point out that the term “terrorism” is a general abstraction which covers all possible variants and instances. While it may be reasonable to take some precautions against a foreseeable harm, the wisdom of doing so depends on the specificity of the adverse potential, the probability of its occurrence and the impact of the precautionary measures on the people to be protected. Fighting potential terrorism wherever it may hide and however it may strike destroys the very thing one intends to save.

Doctors do not prescribe drugs for conditions which might exist undetected; and, despite destructive rhetoric from stupid and insipid politicians, we do not, in fact, “wage war on crime.” Society prosecutes specific instances of crimes that have taken place. The Bill of Rights places limits on searches and seizures and confessions precisely because not to do so results in society terrorizing itself under color of law.

And yet it was upon such a Crusade of Self-Destruction that Chief Beelzebub beckoned us when, from the pulpit at National Cathedral, he exhorted the Country “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

To retaliate against the actual perpetrators of specific attacks is one thing but to seek to rid the world of “evil” is in fact a sin. Christianity rejects the Manichean division of the world into forces of good and forces of evil precisely because to create the distinction necessarily endows an absence of good with a force mere emptiness would not otherwise have. We can respond to specific wants or injuries as conscience leads us, but to crusade against “evil” anywhere “righting the world’s wrongs” becomes its own catastrophe.

No doubt the Administration was impaling the country on an ambiguity which could be understood as equating the fighting of evil with the hunting down of culprits. But listening carefully to the way officials were talking over the course of three days, it was evident that the Government had in mind -- and confused -- two distinct objectives.

Politically speaking, Bush embarked us on an active war against variable and interchangeable suspect enemies anywhere coupled with an ongoing surveillance everywhere which assumes everyone's potential guilt unless and until actual innocence is proved. And it is worth noting that every time a person is asked to show identification or to pass through a scanner he is being required to prove his innocence. A nation that sees potential enemies everywhere is a psychotic danger to the world. A country that suspects itself has succumbed to political cancer.

This, then, is the sum and substance of the War on Terrorism and of everything that has ensued from the “apocalyptic” Twin Tower collapse.

There was, in fact, nothing “apocalyptic” about it. In the historical scheme of things the events of 9/11 do not hold a candle to the firestorms of Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima or to many other natural or man-made catastrophes. In all such grim and murderous events, victims meet horrible deaths and survivors bear devastating griefs. But while such misfortunes merit a decent respect, they do not become, by the mere fact of their existence, social or historical turning points.

What the events of 9/11 provided was a rivetting pyrotechnic spectacle which held us in a state of horrified suspended judgement neutralized by the twin prongs of pity and fear.

That! is what They! do” came the shout and with all the histrionic hysterics it could muster the Country ran into the chasm. Ten years on and we are still there; sagaciously, sentimentally, lacrimosely, obsessively tracing our steps and picking our wounds, “reliving the horror” and “taking stock of what it means for us”.

But the remembrances and analyses are merely shadows of the shibboleth, and do not seriously question its validity. The official and respectable opinion never questions whether we should be “at war” at all. Not at all. Evil did it; Evil must be punished! Again and again and again...

The comic moral of the Tar Baby fiasco is: Just let go! The tragic moral of the story is that Br’er Rabbit can’t.

We have met the enemy and we is stuck.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Friday, September 9, 2011

Obama’s Trojan Horse

In Thursday night’s Address to Congress and the Nation [1], President Obama seized the podium and, in echoes of Reagan to Gorbachev, repeatedly defied Congress to “pass this bill.” Congress is more likely to tear it down.

Obama used the occasion, first off, to appear aggressively in command. Congress is in disrepute and what better time to kick it when it is down? But Obama’s “in your faceness” betrayed his political weakness. From a truly powerful man, a wink or a nod is more than sufficient. Chanting demands is for the streets.

On the merits, Obama used the occasion to reclaim his tattered “progressive” mantle. One’s initial reaction could only be, Why didn’t he speak this way on behalf of a public option for medical care? The question contains the answer; but in order for it to reveal itself one has to first ask, What is progressivism ?

The essential idea of progressivism, by whatever of many names it might be called, is that the parts of the whole each and all operate for the sake of the whole. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it states a very different premise from saying that the parts of the whole each operate for their own benefit, or from saying that the parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves.

Americans have confused the three formulations and as a result the “progressive” or “liberal” or “union” movement in the country is itself in tatters. Contrast Teddy Roosevelt with Obama.

Defining the principles of the American Progressive Movement in Osawatomie Kansas, in August 1910, Roosevelt announced that “the New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” “Equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable... the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.” [2]

This formulation went beyond “levelling the playing field” or insuring that the competitive game was clean and fair. While progressivism included laws against “unfair” competition and “unsafe” profit-making as well as provisions for some redistribution of wealth, it went beyond the mere softening of hard-knock capitalism. Its fundamental tenet was that all components of society were answerable to the good of the common wealth.

In his address to Congress, there were moments when Obama sounded almost Rooseveltian. “Yes, we are rugged individualists” whose self-reliant drive built the world’s greatest economy, he said; “but there’s always been another thread running throughout our history -- a belief that we’re all connected... that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. ... No single individual built America on their own. We built it together.”

But Obama’s fine print told a more nuanced story. The immediate goal of the Jobs Act, he said, was “to provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled” by putting money into consumers’ pockets. The long term goal was to “mak[e] America more competitive.” The difficulty with this goal is that, from a progressive point of view, it is incomplete. It omitted the at least co-equal goal of making America more fair and socially secure for its citizens. Obama's goal-formulation subtly equated “America” with “business” -- an equation worthy of Calvin Coolidge.

The equivalency occurred more than once throughout his delivery. At the beginning of his speech Obama alluded to an America “where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while.” And further, “On all of our efforts to strengthen competitiveness, we need to look for ways to work side by side with America’s businesses.”

Such statements were a clear retreat from the concept of business as a “servant” of the commonwealth. They returned instead to the idea that parts of the whole should cooperate among themselves. The goal was simply to get the existing machinery moving again. The paradigm Obama announced was that of government helping business while business kept labor peace with decent salaries and benefits. This was little different than, “For God’s sake! Keep the peasants placid!”

Perhaps we are quibbling over semantics? After all, “why roam the world looking for better bread than is made from wheat?” Obama is certainly not a socialist. Whatever he does, it is clear he aims to do it with and through business. And, at a strictly functional level, progressivism has always engineered things with and through business, regardless of how it formulated its overall political concept or purpose.

However, the deceit of a Trojan Horse is that it looks like a horse and may function as a horse while it contains a secret, different and destructive purpose inside.

Obama tipped his hand midway through the speech when he stated that his proposed Jobs Act would be fully “paid for” through “a more ambitious deficit plan ... that will not only cover the cost of this jobs bill, but stabilize our debt in the long run. This approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.”

The use of the word “more” was like a Greek toe sticking out from the hoof of the Trojan Horse. Was the Jobs Act really a “deficit plan” ? If the Jobs Act is paid for through an overall deficit plan, it becomes a component of that plan as much a closing loopholes, revising tax rates or anything else.

And the “anything else” which Obama has been “advocating for months” since he released his budget Fact Sheet in April 2011 includes cutbacks to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. April's budget fact sheet acknowledged,

“The President does not believe that Social Security is in crisis nor is a driver of our near-term deficit problems.” [3]
Nevertheless, the deficit reduction plan called for reduced pay-outs to medical service providers and for "adjustments" to Social Security cost-of-living increases.

In in his July 16th Weekly Address, Obama again elaborated on his concept of "shared sacrifice" stating,

“If we’re going to ask seniors, or students, or middle-class Americans to sacrifice, then we have to ask corporations and the wealthiest Americans to share in that sacrifice.” [4]
In other words, Obama's budget and deficit plans have always demanded that the poorest weakest elements of society "share" in the burden of reducing a deficit they in no way caused.

Last night, Obama all but stuck out a full foot when he acknowledged later on in his speech that the Jobs Act cum Deficit Plan would be paid for “by making modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid...” Why “like”? Are there other health programs that are significant? What other programs are “like” Medicare?

Anyone can compare Obama’s address last night with his April 2011 Deficit Plan. The bottom line is that the address was chock full of quotes and cribs from the Deficit Plan; and the core essence of that plan is to stimulate business while reducing the long term deficit.

However since the deficit was indisputably caused [5] by war spending and lower tax rates for the “corporate class” and since Obama proposes merely fringe adjustments to either, the difference has to be taken out of the hide of the old, the poor and infirm. That is nothing a true progressive would propose. Once again, Teddy Roosevelt,

“I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective - a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion.”

In contrast, President Obama has never proposed a genuinely progressive tax reform. Allowing tax give-aways to expire and closing "evasion" routes here and there does not reduce the grotesque income disparity which exists in the country. A key element of progressive thought has always been the belief that there can be no equal justice and no equal opportunity without equality of condition.

But that is not Obama's framework. In his view, America is a business dynamo and everything else is geared into making that dynamo spin. The reason he did not sound like a progressive in the Spring of 2009, is that he had no intention of substituting even an optional national health service in place of channelling funds into the "health dynamo" of for-profit drug and insurance, companies.

Polls show that the American people demand higher tax rates on those that own and control the economy. They demand an end to foreign wars and no cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare.

Those who enthusiastically voted for Obama hoping for a change did not sufficiently scrutinize his “puff talk”. Obama’s mephistofelian rhetoric is very good at insinuating an impression of what it is not. Last night’s was a stellar performance.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011

Linked References

[1] office/2011/09/08/address-president-joint-session-congress


[3] office/2011/04/13/fact-sheet-presidents-framework-shared prosperity-and-shared-fiscal-resp

[4] press%20office/2011/07/16/weekly-address-unique opportunity%20secure-our-fiscal-future



Friday, September 2, 2011

Flighting for Freedom

Yvonne is a cow. On May 24th she escaped en route to slaughter. Since then she has eluded the full force of the German Waldmacht and has remained on the lamb (oooooooh) despite the latest and bestest in cow-capturing technology: helicopters, heat-seeking cameras infra-red sensors and human bush-beaters wired into their cell phones. On August 30th, Yvonne was captured.

But not without an heroic fight, struggling ferociously to the last despite being stunned by two tranquilizer shots and being beset by a small swarm of humans with the Dread Opposable Thumb.

To give credit where credit is due, the Germans long ago abandonned the idea of shooting Yvonne and dragging her carcass to the chop shop (oooooooooh). Hunters were warned off while her would be-captors tried instead to coax her out of hiding with a handsome bull. No dice. The authorities were more or less resigned to letting Yvonne romp in the wild while they tried to figure something out. Now that Yvonne has been captured, she will be taken to a bovine rescue farm in Bavaria where her sister, Waltraud, and son, Friesi, await her. Although it appears that Bull Stud was a one time offer, it all ended well enough.

But as we contemplated the picture of Yvonne's heroic resistance, we thought back to Greek and Rennaisance sculptures of captured slaves and of Africans running through the forest of the South the sound of baying coon-hounds in the distance. Why, we wondered, should it be thought unusual that any sentient creature will flight for his freedom; what debasement of soul allows us to think that beating the spirit out of living things is natural and pastoral?

©Woodchipgazette, 2011
photo courtesy Der Spiegel ©