Wednesday, January 31, 2007

If We're Going to Create a Reality, Let's Create One that Doesn't Suck!

Much has been made of a quote from a senior Bush administration official, publicized in an article by Ron Suskind in October 0f 2004:

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while
you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again,
creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things
will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to
just study what we do.
No doubt--them's strong words.

One's first reaction is that of seeing someone at a party make a complete ass of themselves. Such words are of the common stock spoken by every tragic, doomed, soon-to-be-universally-excoriated power figure in history and literature since the dawn of time. The speaker in this instance is obviously an educated person, and ought to know this. If he had the sense god gave geese, he'd keep his perverse, megalomaniacal ideas secreted in the recesses of his diseased mind.

But this is not my point.

Rather, I'm interested to know: Hey, how's the old reality mill working? If I had MY own reality creatin' machine, I'd be sitting pretty right now, so the Bush folks must be living large, right? The answer depends on exactly what kind of reality you think the administration is trying to create--and that's not a simple matter because they only have one reality creating machine, and different elements within the administration are always arguing over who gets to drive it. On one hand, you've had the googoo-eyed idealists like Perle, Kristol, Feith et al, and the simplistic, spoiled, frat-boy bully wing--the Dear Leader himself. Those guys have tried to crank out such realities as democracy in Iraq, a watershed defeat of terrorism, and a permanently ascendant republican party.

We know how that's going. Nice job guys. Take the rest of your elected term off, why dontcha?

But there's another element in the administration--the evil geniuses. And they've been taking the keys to the reality machine out of the President's underwear drawer at night and turning out some scary product. Consider some of the realities they've been peddling:
  • The terrorists want to destroy us
  • Diplomacy doesn't work
  • The UN is weak and irrelevant
  • The executive has rightful powers that exceed those generally acknowledged in the last, oh, 200-odd years

You'll notice, these aren't goals, like "democracy in Iraq." They are assumptions about how the world works. And in each case, the evil geniuses have been very successful at converting these beliefs self-fulfilling prophesies. "The terrorists" have traditionally hated us indirectly for our policies, but administration rhetoric that casts the Muslim world as evil certainly encourages them to hate us just for us. (Who wouldn't? We're a dick!) And diplomacy DOES work, unless... unless you poison every relationship with belligerence and arrogance until diplomacy really does cease to be an option. The UN can be as weak or strong as the US wants it to be. Who has thoughts on which is in our interest... Anyone?... Anyone?... John Bolton?

And how about that accretion of dictatorial power to the executive? When all's said and done, public consensus about the legitimate authority of the executive will not be as extreme as the administration would like. But the administration's technique of low balling the value of the constitution and haggling relentlessly over every point of negotiation is likely to be very effective in practice. In the end, we'll probably feel like we didn't give it to them quite as cheap as they wanted, but we'll end up selling our rights far more cheaply than we ever intended.

Astonishingly, the people who create such realities actually believe they are true patriots. The arrogance that makes self-examination impossible, and the absence of any real compassion and humility in their shrunken, atrophied hearts, has left them with no foundation upon which to build beyond fear and cynicism (unconscious products of despair). And so they seek power and wealth alone as a bulwark against the rage and violence to come, rage and violence that they themselves have been instrumental in nurturing. Rage and violence that will legitimize their worldview and serve as a basis for them to build even more wealth and power.

Ironic? Undoubtedly. Pathetic? Yes. Sad? Well, it certainly would be if they weren't fucking everything up so royally for the 99.99999999% of us who won't be eating canapes with Dick Cheney in his bunker when the apocalypse comes.

You know, I may be a starry-eyed idealist myself, but I can't help wondering--if we can create our own reality, maybe we should try to create one that DOESN'T SUCK! Here is an off-the-cuff, unprioritized sampling of some of my ideas for this crazy, non-sucking reality. Maybe you have ideas too?

  • Absent an immediate and acute threat to our persons and/or treasure, diplomacy is preferable to unilateral military action. It may not satisfy our thirst for vengeance and black-and-white outcomes that can be labeled "victory," but it tends to work out much better for our persons. And our treasure.
  • Our children's children can't vote. It's our moral duty to defend their interests.
  • Material problems demand rigorous, rational solutions. Wishing won't make it so. If you stand out in the rain, you can say it's not raining, but you will get wet and uncomfortable.
  • If the market economy is to lead to a sustainable lifestyle, prices must reflect the actual costs of the products we use.
  • Government is not good or bad--it is better or worse. Disdain for government does not produce good government. Let's be shrewd, detailed and calculating about how we structure our policies.
  • Democracy is fragile and imperfect, but we're all stumped for a better idea. It only works if the electorate is composed of thoughtful, independent, and highly critical thinkers. Our schools and media must nurture these traits.

I'm not trying to suggest that we wake up and re-evaluate our short-sighted, self-centered appallingly materialistic ways... I'm only sayin'

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Explorers and Pioneers

The American political landscape is becoming a lot more fluid than it's been in a long time, largely as a reaction to George Bush's graceless attempt to grab the country by the short hairs and drag it to the right. One of the interesting dynamics that is come out of the resulting tension is a debate about the relative merits of centrism--Save us Hilary!--and more radical agendas (national health care, global action on the environment) that have been permitted to re-enter the policy discussion, albeit still seated in a section marked "lunatic fringe."

I have no use for centrism. Pure centrism is what you want when you think the bus is headed in the right direction, but the ride is just too bumpy. I happen to think we need a significant change of travel plans. That means picking up the whole dang bucket--center, left and right--and repositioning it. So I've been thinking about the role of progressive elements within the mainstream, and outside it, in the effort to move the center.

We can think of the mainstream as consisting of those opinions and behaviors that are shared in common by a lot of people. If you plotted those on a graph, you'd end up with the famous bell curve produced by scientific studies. The bulk of data points fall in what self-validates itself as the moderate middle. The bell slopes to the sides where fewer and fewer people hold more extreme opinions. Just under the lip of the bell on the left shelters the fragile but undaunted Dennis Kucinich. And at the right lip of the bell--at the boundary where the bell ends and the void once populated by the likes of Hitler and Stalin begins--we find the aptly named Dick Cheney in his bunker stroking a cat with an eye patch and plotting the destruction of the universe.

But there are people out beyond the fringes of the bell curve with much of value to offer. In scientific terms, their beliefs are "out of range data points." In a lab experiment, these anomalous results are usually attributed to mistakes in methodology, contaminated equipment, or some indeterminate craziness. Ironically, radical opinions about public policy are often considered to stem from the same causes. Regardless, all scientists agree about what to do with out of range data points: throw them away. Thus people who express out of range opinions are called cranks or crackpots, and they and their thoughts are either dismissed or ridiculed.

But they have an indispensable role to play in the process that will change what it is acceptable for people in the mainstream to say and think. Along with less-radical but like minded folks who operate from inside the bell-curve, they can move the center.

Those who stake out extreme, out of range opinions--say, early advocates of alternative energy, or more extreme, someone like Noam Chomsky who argues (absurdly) that god may not actively desire US domination of the planet. These people are like explorers who go beyond existing frontiers. Only time will tell what they've found. Lands flowing with milk and honey? Nevada? But there is no question that the only way to get a mass of people to go to anyplace unknown is for a few brave/stupid souls to go there first and scout it out.

Consider the advantages of playing the explorer role in public debate. You get to say whatever you want, and (you think that) people think you're cool. You're a maverick, like James Dean (or more likely Fonzie). You don't have to waste your time trying to shepherd a big unruly group of people on the trail with you, cuz you're alone. You can sleep well at night because you're bringing people something valuable. And patchouli-scented sophomore college girls will make an offering of their bodies after the lecture. In support of the cause, or course.

On the con side, well, people think you're an idiot, a creep, a crackpot, unrealistic, impractical, and incapable of getting along with others. You're outside the bell curve and, frankly, the weather is frequently shitty out there. And let's not forget--you're off in the wilderness and your ability to influence events back in society, or even maintain your personal hygiene, is seriously impaired.

But let us leave our intrepid, rain soaked explorer for the time, and return to civilization. What's life like for those who would like to lead people in the same direction that the explorer has gone, but have no intention of going without bringing at least the fringe of the bell curve with them? These are the pioneers, the wagon train leaders, possessed of bravery of a different sort. In this group you will find the politicians--politics is after all the art of the possible--as well as the commentators and the most practical of bloggers. They have determined that influencing events is the greatest goal, and that the ends largely will justify the means.

The pros? People may still call you an idiot, but there will be plenty of others that will tell you you're brilliant. You will not be the only one that thinks you're cool. You might actually get to change something for the better and get to spend the rest of your life telling awed audiences how you did it. You will get invited to parties. You could get a paycheck! It will be hard work, but it will be worth it, and you can say that you fought the good fight.

But it's not all fresh young male pages, accolades and appearances on the Colbert Report for our pioneer leaders. All your bold and brilliant ideas will have to be well-larded and sweetened to have a rat's-ass-chance-in-hell of being palatable to the unwashed upon whose good graces (and votes) you rely. And that means--maybe you should sit down before I say this--that you will have to be... a hypocrite. The only other option is to partake of the Kool-Aid. Not so much as to result in complete zombification, but enough to create the gentle buzz of oblivion. But physician's warning: Kool-Aid dosage is notoriously hard to calibrate, and accidental overdoses are common. And finally--yes it is warm and dry under the bell curve, and there is an open bar--but there will be LOTS of irritating people in there with you. For instance Shawn Hannity and the aforementioned dick, Dick Cheney.

But it takes both explorers and pioneers to make change happen. The explorers to shout from the distance "Hey! I'm here! The weather's great and the surf's up!" And the pioneers to cajole and convince and get them dogies movin'. I have the luxury of being out in the wilderness politically, calling for an end to advertising in media and socialized medecine (and a personal fairy too! I want a personal fairy!) I'd much rather risk derision and hippie girls than share a roof with Sean Hannity. But I don't blame the Feingolds and the Boxers of this world for playing along. In a professional situation, you don't really have much choice. Either you get results, with whatever compromises, or you're out on your ass. Meanwhile, the explorers have the luxury of talking like a nutjob, calling for an end to advertising in media and socialized medecine.

Everybody who wants to promote change would wish for some leverage to make it happen. A smart pioneer takes up a position far enough toward the periphery of the mainstream that when he jams a crowbar under AG Mengenzalez' fat ass and steps on the back of the bar, he'll impart sufficient force to flip the torturing toady clear through the ceiling. The one thing you DON'T want is to get into a polite negotiation with him--"Hey Alberto, I was thinking we could use golden retrievers instead of German Shepherds?" No, you want to give him the full Patrick Leahy: "You knew damn well he'd be tortured! And that goes against everything this country stands for!" (The cameras had stopped before we heard Leahy's final word: "Douchebag!")

But our explorer is way too far away to have any real leverage at all. What's the old quote, "Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world?" Well, that's fine in theory, but whoever said that obviously hadn't spent much time digging ditches. A lever isn't going to do jack for our explorer--except break.

Of course, everybody inside the bell curve knows this. They don't care much about the explorers. Mostly they avoid validating them by even acknowledging them. Corporate advertisers insure that the explorers aren't heard from in the media. But the forces of darkness are not so sanguine about their opponents under the bell curve, for they are a more immediate threat. There are two strategies employed against the pioneers. The first is to wait for them to accidentally get too close to the edge of the bell curve--"If you don't go to college, you go to Iraq"--and then give them a push and thrust them out into crackpot land. The other strategy--more common--is to pull them in closer to the center of the bell curve, entangle them in nuance and negotiation. This reduces the pioneer's leverage, while at the same time legitimizing the bad guys' position.

Case in point: the SOTU address. The evil leader extends a blood-soaked hand and speaks lying words of compromise. Energy independence! Health care for all! The Democrats smile and clap. Suddenly it's all so... so... collegial. And the tigers are rendered toothless.

Drawing their enemies closer--this is what Bush tried to do with freshman Senator Webb at a recent White House even when the President inquired after the Senator's son, a marine in Iraq. Webb was having none of it, and stiff-armed the Dear Leader, causing His Irrelevancy, commentator George Will to engage in a public display of apoplexy at the incivility of it all.

Cry me a river, George.

The monsters that run this country are (please, god?) overplaying their hand. And now--have you noticed?--some of those crackpots out in the wilderness don't seeming so crazy anymore. The wagon train leaders should be rounding up the wagons and calling for everyone to mount up. The bell curve hasn't been this pliable in a long time, and now's the time to push.

This isn't the time for conciliation. If the president extends a hand, we should all take a cue from Senator Webb:

"Mr. President, fuck off."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union? Umm, Not So Good.

The SOTU address is happening now. I'm not watching.

I can't bear to listen. Can't stand to see all those people selectively applauding each bit of politically calculated horseshit that comes out of our President's lying mouth. Clapping a little more for this statement. A little less for that one. Any reaction that can be measured in such nuanced degrees is, in the end, enabling, even validating. Democrats (and Republicans) ought to be turning their backs, shouting him down, walking out. Anything less sends a message: that reasonable people could have a reasonable debate about this administration's conduct, that there is room for negotiation and compromise.

That everything's fine.

That smiling man has trampled on the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. Anything less than saying so to his face is a lie on a par with his own.

I'm gonna barf. Again.

"Bush to Seek Cutback in Gas Consumption" is the headline of an AP article previewing tonight's SOTU address. Sweet Jesus. How is it that a man who has been the oil industry's biggest protector, who has worked to remove every incentive and pressure upon carmakers to build energy efficient vehicles, who has done nothing to move towards energy independence for this country, who has disembowel 30 years of environmental protection legislation faster than an underpaid illegal worker at an unregulated meat packing plant can gut a pig, who has installed corporate shills instead of public interest advocates in virtually every government post related to energy or the environment... How can THIS MAN have the BALLS to try to make political hay by positioning himself as an advocate of conservation!?

Black is white! Up is down! Waterboarding is not torture!

If the damage he's caused and continues to cause wasn't so real, so pervasive, so potentially apocalyptic, I might tip my hat to him. Damn, but he's got cojones!

How stupid does he think Americans are? Or better, how stupid are Americans? (And please don't answer that. I don't think I want to know...)

This man will say ANYTHING! I know I seem awfully obsessed with morality, 'specially for someone who can't bear the whiff of religion, but how can you deal with someone like this? Someone who cannot feel shame, who cannot be critical of themselves. Character is, in the end, the only real collateral we bring to our dealings with others. And if you put every ounce of character this man has into a paper bag, it would float away into the sky.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Wow. Bill Moyers rocks.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

America Pants'ed in Principle

America, it is said, is a nation of principles.

For most of our history, we've held up our high-faluttin' ideals, like a sagging pair of flannel boxer shorts, as evidence of our moral superiority. I'm talking about secular humanism, all men being created equal, rag-to-riches opportunity, patiently waiting your turn in line at the bakery. Do you think people wait their turn in those other countries?

But there's a new breeze blowin' my friends, and America is getting pants'ed. Big time.

Because we've also always had an extreme case of pragmatism, yang to our idealism's yin. And one could argue that we mostly (only?) adhere to those ideals that bring practical benefits. And if that's true, then troubles a-brewin', because the technology has dissolved so many of the tethers that connect our ideals to the practical.

But let's back up for a second. There has always been--and always will be--tension between altruism and selfishness. Do we wait our turn in line because it's the kind thing to do? Because we get off on the smug, superior feeling that results? Or because we don't want to get punched in the nose? Generally, it's not worth arguing about. Some people--usually self-described "artists"--act like dicks just to prove their motives are pure. But the rest of us are reasonably well behaved, and who cares if it's only because we want to avoid the censure of the other people in the store. There's only one baguette left, and I was next. Thank you very much, and have a nice day.

But what if all the material and societal checks were to disappear? What if we could misbehave and not get caught, arraigned, humiliated, fined, punched, and despised by our neighbors and attractive people of the opposite sex? Chew on that for a minute... Tough going, huh? Yes--unfettered personal desire is the beef jerky of cultural trends. And it's what's for dinner America, so you might as well pull up a chair and tuck in.

Because technology--Damn you, technology!--is changing everything. And not necessarily for the better.

I'll offer two examples to get things started. Then I bet everyone can put their thinking caps on and come up with plenty of others.

Let's take music publishing and print publishing, morality tales that start from the same place, but have different endings. Both fall under the auspices of intellectual property and copyright law. The laws primarily protect the abstract elements of such products--the ideas contained therein. That's why a recording artist can go to court and argue that someone else used a few measures of a tune they wrote.

But in practice, these laws are only as enforceable as the leverage provided by the physical medium of publishing will allow. That is why the stories of music and books have diverged. Back in the day, recorded music was wed to its physical avatar, a black disc called a "record." Only factories could make records, and that enabled music publishers to ensure that everybody had to pony up to get their hands on their product. Sure, you could tape your favorite records and give the tape to your friends, but the tape sounded like crap and it was a pain to do. So-- back to the debate about altruism vs. selfishness--what were we paying for when we bought the record? The abstract content or sound and the feeling it produced? Or to avoid the inconvenience unfulfilling results of getting a tape of that same music some other way?

Back then, it was a pointless question. There was no good practical way to circumvent the law, to ignore the principle. So we behaved.

But now, music has escaped its bonds, and it roams free and wild on the digital savannah. It is weightless, bodiless, and reproduces infinitely without degrading.

Books meanwhile, remain safely protected by the obstacles to digitizing their content and the value of their physical medium. Anyone with a computer and easily available software can rip a CD in five minutes, but scanning a book would take forever, and--the panting enthusiasms of goo-goo eyed technophiles aside--there are no affordable and satisfying devices around for reading that digitized text that can compete black text on white paper pages.

Another example: let's consider the wiretapping conducted by the kleptocratic dictatorship that presently afflicts this country. Why was the administration for so long adamant that the program operate outside of the purview of the courts? Most speculation in the media attributes the policy to sheer thirst for power. But those who grasp how such a program must function know there's another piece to the puzzle.

Undoubtedly, the national spook agencies, with the modestly coerced assistance of private carriers, are sweeping up vast, undifferentiated reams of voice and electronic communications and then using computers to crunch the data. They are looking for suspicious words, phrases, routings, or addressees. ("Terrorist"? "Bomb?" "Democrat?"). Of course they would be slow to request warrants for such activity, because judges might ask questions about the program's conduct, and that conduct clearly contravenes the constitutional constraints on unreasonable searches, at least as that has been interpreted to date by the courts. To date, it has always been understood that there must be a basis for suspicion regarding a specific individual before surveillance can be authorized. But now the government wiretaps everybody and just promises--scouts' honor!--to ignore all calls but those from terrorists.

Which brings me back to the central point. What exactly changed in the last few decades? Are we rethinking our attachment to the principle that reasonable suspicion must precede surveillance? Not really. What's going on is we're confronting (or refusing to confront) the fact that the policies of 50 years ago were driven more by the practical than by the principle. Fifty years ago, there was no email. Most correspondence was typed or handwritten. The phone system was analog. And even if there had been some way to collect all that data, there was no possible way to sort and filter it.

Those were simpler times.

But these thoughts are not intended as a paean to the good old days. What I'm trying to point out is that if we are going to preserve in this digital age what we have considered to be some of our unalienable liberties, we are going to have to start letting our principles drive our practice in ways they have not in the past. And I don't want to be a downer, but Americans don't even pay lip service to morality and "principle" unless they're guaranteed a good old fashioned rapturin' in return. And even then…

But I'm only sayin'.