Sunday, July 25, 2004

New, improved Enlightenment!

You're advocating a policy of inaction on the basis of cultural equivalency? According to the "Prime Directive" we shouldn't interfere in the Middle East? Just sit on our hands and do nothing? Am I missing something?

Actually, what I’m saying is a tad more subtle.

And, yeah, you're missing something.

The far Left reacted against messianic American triumphalism by demonizing America; the far Right holds on to the America-is-God’s-hand on earth position. The truth is in the pragmatic middle: Not everything America does is right by definition – but the possibility of doing something wrong doesn’t remove the responsibility of doing what’s right. We need to intelligently figure that out, then do it.

Some response against terrorism was certainly the right thing to do. We’re facing a legitimate threat, and it’s only logical that we’d have to deal with it, granted the way the world has been changing. Like it or not, we're rapidly turning the planet into the Third Mall from the Sun. To the rest of the planet, America is the obvious face of an emerging global marketplace that trumps absolutist ideologies. America’s the threat, if you’re one of the absolutists being pushed to the sidelines.

I.e.: We're doing what's right from our perspective. They are too. The reason they think we're a threat to them is because we are.

So, the "Islamists," having realized that we’re a direct threat to their once-and-future theocratic rule, have decided to destroy us before we destroy them. They bloody well want to take over the world and think (with the unshakable conviction the West once had) that God is on their side when they kill people, and that in fact God told them to do it. Starting with us.

So yeah, uh. We gotta do something about this shit.


What we do and how we do it is another thing. That boils down to the cold equations of strategy and tactics. It’s legitimate ground for reasoned public debate.
Reasoned my ass.

In the current political climate, American debate is muddied by (A) Right-wing team players who defend any action Bush takes because Bush takes it. (B) Right-wing ideologues who think any criticism of presidential policy is unpatriotic. (C) Left wing ideologues who replace the article of faith that America is absolutely good with the article of faith that it’s absolutely evil. (D) the fact that – in the face of A, B, and C – the Vulcan logic of pragmatic discussion just ain’t sexy. And the partisans just ain’t listening.

To complicate matters, there’s the external audience listening to our internal debates. Here’s what they hear …

The extreme right-winger scorns the extreme left and its demonization of America. Many rightthinkers still hold to the notion that America can do no wrong – Wounded Knee, Dresden, all the shit we’ve pulled in central America, killing Allende – hey, fuck the world, we’re America. But many who come to this conclusion would never say “Fuck the world” because they come to the conclusion religiously. They’re fundamentalists, mostly Christian, who see America as God’s hand. But the shock jocks don't have that problem. They're openly calling for carpet-bombing and nukes. Kill 'em all, let God sort it out. Hey it worked in WWII.

Openly or not, this faction thinks they're ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. And they want a war with Islam. They want total war.

Which means they hold a fundamental impatience, if not contempt, for public policymakers who proclaim, “This is not a war against Islam.” They despise the relativism and moral relativity of it all. The hypocrisy of America’s public face. They burn to take that mask off and say, “Yes, you fucking heathens, as a matter of fact we ARE trying to destroy your way of life. You’ve got your jihad, we’ve got our crusade. This IS a war against Islam.”

Shining righteousness aside, it’s tactical idiocy. The underlying far-right assumption (giving hardons to redmeat rightwing radio listeners everywhere) is that the most vicious of head-sawing terrorists are not aberrations from the “Religion of Peace,” but the purist expression of it. I.e.: this faction is CONCEDING THE POINT that Osama and Co. are the legitimate representatives of Islam.

Of course you can make a case for this, if you go back to the original texts. But Christians can make a case for gouging out their own eyes and cutting off their hands when they’re tempted and Jews can make a case for stoning witches and adulterers to death – or any number of bizarre things. We don’t, generally, because most of us apply sweet reason to the sacred texts. I.e.: aside from the odd tent meeting or militia in Montana, we’re all products of the Enlightenment.

Today’s hip, rationalist pragmatist wants to extend the Enlightenment to Islam.
But, in his heart of hearts, the reactionary rightwinger isn’t comfortable with the Enlightenment in America.

Because the price you pay for it is a division between public and private morality. It’s a muddy, artificial division at best – but it allows our society to function. Religious Americans, to a certain degree, get to express their political will in the public arena, but they’re held in check by what they see as arbitrary interpretations of the constitution. So we’re endlessly in the shit with wrangles like abortion, gay marriage and Can-the-no-neck-high-school-quarter-back-pray-over-the-dumbass-football. A mess, yeah, OK.

But the alternative is some version of somebody standing up like Moses and saying, “Behold, sinners. Here is God’s law and you don’t get to vote on it!” No work on the Sabbath (Sunday), no drinking, no evolution in the public schools. I.e.: Christian Shaira. And maybe you're right ... and maybe not.

The basic assumption of the Enlightenment is that just because you think God’s talked to you in your head or sacred book, that means absolutely squat to me. You’ve still got to debate it, make a case, sell me on it. The argument of authority doesn’t play in the public square.

So, God (or various competing versions of God) become part of the marketplace – a DVD of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” over here, some porno over there – you choose. This drives fundamentalist types nuts. (It drove me nuts when I was a fundamentalist type.) But it’s the best alternative to, say, a global version of the 30 Years War.

Internally, we’re not entirely sold on the Enlightenment. The far Right’s ag’in it for religious reasons. The far Left claims to be all about openness and dialogue, but I they’re as dogmatic as the other side — only their religion is a romantic, Manichaean struggle between the carnivorous Babylon Amerika (a hideous, giant Uncle Sam eating little 3rd world babies) and righteous, oppressed brownskin people everywhere. The center holds, but just barely.

And, in all this internal yapping, we forgot that the Islamists are listening in on us.

Externally, the American Right is telling the Islamists, “We want a holy war,” while the Left is telling them “You’re right. America is evil. You should destroy us,” and the center’s pragmatic message just too damn complicated to sum up in a pithy phrase.
What the center’s trying to sell the Muslim world is Enlightenment.

But the Enlightenment is an unsexy, complex, hard sell.

It’s no crusade, no war against Islam, no, no, no. We’re not trying to destroy their religion. But we do want to put the DVD of Mohammed on one aisle, with porno right next door. We are reducing the absolute authority of their religion to a private opinion with no legal teeth. We’re undercutting Shai’ra. We’re saying Allah can be the private law-giver in their heads – but reason must be the law of the state. We’re saying people have the right to debate, to pick and choose from the Koran, to publish “The Satanic Verses” and not get shot, to drink, to convert to Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, anything. So, if they take our advice, Mullahs change from religious authorities to religious advisors. You obey if you feel like obeying. And women can drive, hold jobs and look you in the eye.

I.e: Let’s see who still wants to be a Muslim fundamentalist once we take the sword away from everybody’s collective throat.

The sword is mostly gone in the West. Nobody here gets burned for heresy or jailed for scorning the Sabbath. There are still Christians – and other sorts of believers – because some people choose to believe without coercion. Ah, freedom. It sounds like a beautiful thing, when you put it like that …

What you don’t want to mention to the external audience is that the price of all this is “Piss Christ” – or “Piss Mohammed.” The dirty secret we need to hide is there's a reason for America's religious peace and pluralistic tolerance. Aside from a minority, most of us don't take religion that seriously. That's what Enlightenment means. But we shouldn't put it on the label.

The Enlightenment is a tough sell – a sell with maybe a tad of bullshit in it. (As Jake Blues once said, “It’s not lies, it’s bullshit.”)

If the alternative is open holy war or cultural suicide, a little bullshit’s fine with me.

This is not to say you can’t vote your conscience

Without a prior assumption of infallibility, America needs to intelligently consider what’s right, then act. I.e.: pride goeth before a fall. If you're humble, you know a fall is possible. You stand a better chance of avoiding it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Clash of what civilizations?

Where we’re at

There’s really nothing to worry about. If you look at history, it’s like one big roller coaster. There are ups and downs, good times and bad times, but everything averages out and, in the long run, everything’s fine. Of course this doesn’t mean shit if you’re actually on the roller coaster going down, down, down. So forget what I said. Worry.

Anyway, here’s where we’re at.

At this moment in time. Boom. In life. Ba-da-boom. In history. Badabing.

Why the Arabs hate us.

Why lefties and righties hate each other.

The summa philosophica of all and everything and them some.

I got big plans here.

And if the following rant seems a tad disjointed, don’t worry. It all comes together in eventually, at which point I stop talking.


I’m a white man. (No one knows what it’s like to be a white man.) In 2004, that’s a pretty weird thing. (Behind blue eyes.) Lots of weird shit you keep to yourself: this psychic baggage tends to bounce you around from one side (self-flagellating lefty) to the other (rightwinger holding the ain’t-it-awful whiphand).
The weird shit – and I’m talking some really deep, weird shit that almost nobody admits – well here it is.

When I was a little white kid, I just sorta assumed that whiteness and righteousness were one and the same thing. Hey, I was raised in a racist society. It's not my fucking fault.

The map of the world and history that I had in my mind depicted a wave of white people advancing out over the world into the savage lands of darkness. The legend on the map said: White = good. Brown/black/yellow=bad. White people were the bringers of the light, of the good. And of course the evil bad black dark naughty natives fought back, just couldn’t stand the light we were bringing.

Go to: Clip of frustrated black natives in oooga-booga masks impotently throwing spears against shining steel hull of hydrofoil in ‘Jonny Quest.’

The point of white superiority was fuzzy in my head. Jesus was in there somewhere. But as I grew up and turned into a protogeek technonerd, the superiority I imagined was mainly the superiority of reason vs superstition. On the one hand, National Geographic dudes in masks and grass skirts smearing mud on themselves. On the other, the lightbulb, the steam engine, penicillin. Don’t listen to that witchdoctor – I can cast out these ‘demons’ with one small pill! And, for that matter, the machine gun. The great god Logic created superior technology, we win.

Dig deeper into my head, below Jesus, below Mr. Wizard, and you’d find some genuine racism, a legacy of my Southern heritage and my loudly opinionated, Foghorn Leghorn of a racist father. But I rejected that fairly early. Not logical, not scientific. (I’m more evolved than you, Dad!)

It wasn’t a question of white people having better genes. It was a question of teaching the rest of the world to do it the white man’s way.

I was a smart little shit, of course. I thought about things. I questioned things. But I accepted the white man’s burden shit whole hog. America is good. White people are good. I’m right. I’m part of a superior wave. We’re the good guys. It was a narrative I just accepted. A triumphalist narrative. Something I took pride in.

In my head I saw Columbus, DeSoto, Cortez and all the various explorers and conquerors as these great guys doing great things. Of course I believed in manifest destiny. In my mind I wish America had pushed into Canada, into Mexico and beyond, why the fuck not? When I thought about the Indian wars, it never occurred to me that the white people were anything but the good guys. We brought light and order. The evil red savages scalped white men and violated white women and got what was coming to them. The cavalry’s coming! Jesus on a white horse.

Overseas, I identified with the Brits in their pith helmets. All that Kipling stuff. Michael Kane in “Zulu,” Mr. Magoo as Gunga Din, bastards putting General Gordon’s head on a pike in “Khartoum,” the sun never sets. Loved that stuff.
The point, here, is that I had an absolutely unquestioned sense in my head that I was one of the good guys, that my side was absolutely right and the other side absolutely wrong. Europe in general, America in particular. On the side of God, history, science, logic, the future.

I had a great imagination as a kid. Organized the neighborhood kids into these vast dramas in my backyard. Played out stories in my head before I went to sleep. Intricate, pulpy stuff whether in my head or backyard. Space operas, mostly, but sometimes my mind drifted to WWII, westerns, and British colonial wars.
In these reveries I killed Indians and wogs by the thousands. Wiped em out. No fucking prisoners. A nine year old mass murderer in my head.

Which made me one of million and millions, of course. I might’ve had a better sense of drama and accuracy than the average snotnosed kid. But it was not my dream, none of this was unique to me.

But the weird thing is, I still remember what it’s like to feel like I’m absolutely right and absolutely justified in killing the bad guys. I still remember what it’s like to be part of an advanced wave of tough, righteous, logical, more highly evolved people destined to take over the world. Shining alabaster cities in the end. Cities on the moon, in space. The final frontier, undimmed by human tears. You gonna argue with that?

In the 60s, I became part of a wave of sensitive, smart white kids who started to feel guilty about all this shit. Too young to be part of the scene on the streets, but still affected. Like this miasma of guilt washing down in front of your eyes. A film. Creeping cognitive dissonance.

I remember how fucking disturbing it was when the notion first entered my head that the cowboys weren’t the good guys. “Cheyenne Moon” bugged the shit out of me. Then “Little Big Man.” Remember the first time I read about the trail of tears and started putting two and two together. We’re the bad guys. We’re the invaders. No. Can’t be. Yeah? Why not?

America is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

WWII proved it. We kicked Hitler’s ass. Satan himself, in human form.
In my head, in millions of heads, the pattern of American war was: America = superman. A damsel in distress cries “Help! Help!” (France going, “Aidez moi!”) and we fly in, kick the supervillain’s ass, and fly away.

But there we are, stuck in Vietnam, and it’s not playing out according to the script. We are supposed to be helping them but we’re killing them. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. (You #10, Superman! Fly the fuck away I stick kryptonite up your fucking ass!) Superman, pissed off at the ingratitude, flies into My Lai and fries a bunch of peasants, women and kids included, with his heat ray vision. No, no, no, no. Not supposed to work out that way.

And the leftists are screaming we’re the super villains. We’re the bad guys. All these crappy mimeographed newsletters with crude cartoons of American octopus encircling the globe. All saying, in one form or another, we’re not saving their ass. It’s all about colonialism, controlling the resources, blahblahblah.
Massive cognitive dissonance.

My mind is split, my school (this bizarre school for the gifted, long story) is split, my generation, the country, the whole freaking world.

The contradiction causes some folks to snap, to totally flipflop. Can’t deal with America not being totally good, Amerika has to be totally evil, QED. At New College kids hanging Vietcong flags out their dorm windows. Vietcong noble freedom fighters. Can’t deal with the fact that they’re motherfuckers, we’re motherfuckers, all God’s chillun motherfuckers. I don’t snap. Not for awhile at any rate.

I don’t become a raving SDS type leftist.

I don’t put my hands over my ears and say “Lalala! America’s great! Nothing’s wrong!” and become a right wing reactionary.

To stay sane, I do what millions of others do.

I take a page from Hayakawa and another page from “Star Trek.”

Hayakawa: The problem is semantic. It’s all in your head. Wars are fought over mental fictions, such as the fiction that my side is absolutely right and yours is absolutely wrong.

I.e.: I don’t have to choose between America the beautiful and Amerika the bestial. It’s all illusion anyway. Forget sides. Sides don’t exist. Just detach from the emotional crap and do what’s pragmatic …

Forget sides …

Which feeds right into …

The Star Trek paradigm: Everybody lives together in one big Federation. Nobody says: “My culture is superior.” The prime directive is: “Don’t interfere.”

Because if EVERYBODY thought like that, there wouldn’t be any war.

Right, right, right.

The deep, core problem is that the actions of bullies and the actions of those with absolute moral conviction seem like EXACTLY THE SAME THING. How do you separate ethics from territory and dominance? A dark interpretation would be that ethics are a diguise and a snarling struggle between top dogs and underdogs is all there is.

I’d like not to think that.

What made it possible for the Spanish to march into the New World and say “This is our freaking land,” kill the Indians, take their gold, rape, burn and all that crazy kinda Spanish conquistador kinda thing, was their sense of absolutely rightness.
Looking back at the white man’s bloodshed, a lot of us figured the way to make sure that doesn’t happen again is to throw the notion of our own unquestioned superiority and goodness out the window – our God-given right to march out into the world and take shit because we can.

This is probably true, but it’s predicated on the notion that everybody else thinks that way too.

In other words, you can’t have a Federation if the Klingons are saying, “You take all our stuff and now you want universal tolerance and galactic peace? Fuck you!”

What makes this more than an abstract question is the fact that the West colonized the middle east, arranged sweetheart deals to control its oil, has based its society’s energy system almost entirely on oil, has supported and occasionally gone to war to prop up various purulent fatass plutocrats in various mideast countries to keep the oil flow going, and these mideast plutocrats have kept the mobs in their respective countries in line by buying off religious nuts to distract the mobs with pie-in-the-sky stories and tales of how Amerika and the Jews have stolen their destinies, but the religious nuts have decided THEY want to be the plutocrats and are now blowing shit up, not only in their respective countries, but over here.

The Marxist equation that it’s all about stuff doesn’t explain everything. It’s also about pride. Lunatic, wounded, bitter pride, perhaps. But pride.

But we are now looking at an enemy with an absolute sense of its own rightness. This allows them to fly planes into buildings, saw people’s heads off, you name it.
A dangerous freaking enemy.

The most dangerous enemy there is.

If we don’t all kill ourselves, the world will probably come to resemble the empires of the 19th century. Instead of top-down empires ruled by elites by certain races in certain countries, it’ll be a distributed empire ruled by elites of various races, nationalities and religions. The UN will function as a coordinating body sending out shocktroops from America, China, Russia, occasionally Bulgaria or some other wannabe, but mostly America, to suppress wars and keep trade flowing. No Brits in pith helmets, but the result will be the same. Trade is the important thing.

It’s not utopia, not distopia, and better than oblivion.

Trade is the gluon of this morally neutral continuum. Trade trumps culture. Meaning: you can’t impose your religion, tell women to put veils on their faces, keep people from drinking, eating meat, working on the Sabbath, whatever. You can do it if it’s your choice. But trade’s just another commodity to sell.

And so God (or various ideas of God) compete in the marketplace with sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Certain religious types can’t stand this. Identify this shit with Sodom and Gommorrah. Certain religious elites can’t stand this, because it means they are not in control.

Ultimately, what the current struggle boils down to is an attempt by religious elites in the middle east to preempt the emerging system before it makes them irrelevant.

So how do you deal with this enemy?

What the Right wants to do is return to a state of absolute moral conviction. Rewind the clocks in our minds to a time when men wore hats, teens didn’t screw and take drugs, and white guys could bomb Dresden or Hiroshima and not lose any sleep about it.

The horror is, they’ve got a point. You’re fighting a guy with an absolute sense of his own rightness, you wanna be wishy-washy and waffling?

But what kind of “right” are we talking about?

Is it the “Star Trek” right where every culture respects every other culture?
Or the old school kinda right that allows you to drop firebombs on Dresden or, for that matter, pile Muslim prisoners in gay human pyramids?

Like it or not, we’re in a cultural war.

On the far left, there are people like Michael Moore who are still acting out the old Pavlovian flipflop when the shock of learning that America wasn’t all good led them to think that it was all evil.

In the pragmatic middle, there are people like me who figure a multinational world ruled by global elites is better than “Mad Max” or oblivion and to hell with it. Let’s all accept the inevitable and stop fighting.

In other words, the strategy I’d advocate is: Convince the Muslims that the new world order ain’t no threat to their way of life (even if that’s a lie), co-opt them, find some way to create a paradigm of middle eastern democracy, a stable middle class, upward mobility, and a motive for not kicking over the chessboard.
To be fair, strictly speaking, that’s what GWB seems to be trying to do – though he’s doing a pisspoor job of doing it and selling it.

What the far right wants is an open declaration of culture war. Yes, this is a war against Islam. We’re right and you’re wrong. Accept Jesus or die. Or accept America or die. Same thing, right?

Fuck Wounded Knee, fuck Dresden, fuck the hippies.

America is right.

In the short run, that’s exactly the kind of attitude you need to have if you’re in a war. Much better than those fuzzy one-worlder notions. Get your mind on a wartime footing. But it’s also the attitude that makes you go out and pick a fight.
Anything less than a sense of America’s absolute righteousness and triumphalism drives the far right crazy. But there’s a difference between loving America and saying everything America does is always right at all times because America does it. There’s a difference between a pragmatist who says “it wouldn’t be right if America did this” and the far leftist who says America is always wrong.

It’s in our interest to have a global economy at peace. America will dominate with its ideas and energy. It’s not in our interest to say fuck the world, we want to be the top dog. We can’t take over the world and if we did, we wouldn’t be America anymore.

Practically speaking, “America rules” or “Yes this is a crusade” is a pisspoor selling point in the Middle East.

It’s EXACTLY what the enemy wants us to say. They want clear ideological dividing lines. They want a crusade vs. jihad. An enemy that stands up and says “Yeah, I’m your fucking enemy! I’ve come to destroy your way of life!” as opposed to – however ludicrous and hypocritical – a self-defined friend who says he’s invaded your country to help you.

There it is.

PS: I had my doubts at the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Now I’m pretty fucking sure it was a bad idea. (See? The evil crusaders are attacking us. Sign up today!)