Days of Intellectual Decline?

Matthew Phillips, writing over at Mondoweiss, says something very interesting about the nature of ideas and intellectuals in America in a piece examining comments made by Congressman Anthony Weiner on Israel at New York University. I’m not going to deal with the substance of Weiner’s comments, but rather this:

Consider the prominent American Zionists of the past century, those who were tasked with explaining their understanding of Israel to fellow Jews. From men as different in orientation as Louis Brandeis to Arthur Hertzberg, these men—whatever one might think of their views—were often deeply learned, approached Zionism seriously, and were informed in their understanding of Israel by some very broad, liberal values. Who are their most visible heirs today? Democrats like Anthony Weiner, Joe Lieberman and Alan Dershowitz? All three are not merely dishonest but dishonest in an easily demonstrable and clumsy way. More that, none, I would venture, are sincerely interested in Zionism, or concerned with the fate of the Israeli people—in fact, their careerism shines through everything they say; they have clearly played up their Zionist leanings for the sake of their constituents or their reputation. Of course, times have changed, and as Israel’s behavior in the world has gotten cruder its more sophisticated backers are perhaps no longer up to the task. But it really does not bode well for Israel that, as the Baird-Wiener “debate” further revealed, the historically important task of protecting Israel’s image in the U.S. has now fallen almost exclusively into the hands of careless and vulgar propagandists.

I do not know if popular ideas were always vulgar. I do know that intellectuals rarely influenced the world directly, but were “translated” for popular consumption by newspaper editors, commentators, and radio broadcasters — things that tend not to survive well. Books and essays by theologians and philosophers do. For example, while Sayyed Qutb did concoct many of the ideas that have been taken up by Islamist Revolutionaries, it would be inaccurate to state that Qutb is behind Revolutionary Islam, since his ideas were mashed together with others by many preachers (who put their own spin on Qutb, or who even made his ideas their own) and writers and editors. So, I have no idea whether the Zionism of Brandeis and Hertzberg were “popularized” by the careless and the vulgar.

Yet Phillips notes something interesting. There is a significant lack of intellectual rigor and thoughtfulness in American politics today. And there has been for some time. On the outer edges there is some, but what intellectual rigor there is on the left and right seems not to percolate to the center, where the right remains dominated by ignorance, fear and outrage, and the left by a tawdry spirituality and sentimentality for “justice” and “equality.” Politics has always been emotional, and there has always been a role for the polemicist, but it is as if all that political activity has become these days is identity politics and self-righteous assertions of virtue (“Yes We Can!” and “Change We Can Believe In!”). I’m not even sure I see real, live operative ideas anywhere anymore. All that seems to remain is the vulgar. And the violence of the state.

What I don’t know right now is how true that’s always been.

What Exactly is Aggression, Anyway?

Mitt Romney, the Republican former Massachusetts governor who pioneered the ridiculous notion of forcing people to buy health insurance as a way to solve the health care situation, recently spoke about the need for the next president to have “CEO experience” (getting government bailouts and rigging markets?) and whining about a “militarily aggressive China.”

Militarily aggressive China. His words, not mine.

A question for Mr. Romney — how many countries has China invaded, attacked, occupied, bombed, threatened and stationed over the last 10 years? Or 20 years? Or even 30 years? How many fingers do you need to tally that count? How many countries has the United States done the above to over the same periods of time? What understanding of the word “aggression” is Romney using? Or do I even want to know?

More (Mostly) Meaningless Words

I did not watch the State of the Union Address. I don’t recall how long I’ve been boycotting these — I think since the Bush Jong Il regime, when I no longer had to watch them as a part of my job — but it’s been a while. Barack Obama is merely the latest president who’s pronouncements I’ve tried hard to ignore.

I want to say they’re meaningless, presidential speeches, but I don’t quite think that. Bush Jong Il’s second inaugural was a majesterial declaration by the Bush regime that the United States seeks to liberate others by dominating them, a Bush take on Wilsonianism that really isn’t that different from Woodrow Wilson’s (given his racism). Presidential words mean a lot, but at the same time, they don’t mean very much. If you listened to Bush’s speeches on Israel and Palestine, for example, he sounded incredibly progressive — he used the word Palestine to describe a place and a nation, not just a people (I’m not sure any previous president had ever done so). But his words were completely disconnected from what his regime was actually accomplishing.

Obama is a particularly beguiling speaker, mostly because he speaks so easily and so well of hope and faith — a secular faith in America that at the same is laced heavily with religious and eschatological language. I’ve also come to the conclusion that Obama’s language is, more often than not, meaningless, largely because the disconnect from what he says and how he actually governs is so vast. Greater than it was under Bush or even Clinton. I think Obama may even be beguiled by his words because I’m not really he really knows what he means past the wonderful sounding words. In this, I am with Jacob Bronsthner when he wrote recently in the Christian Science Monitor:

[S]ince his inauguration, Obama’s methodological political theory has proved thin and sometimes incoherent. He will never support tax cuts for the rich, until he will. He criticizes Bush’s expansive view of presidential war powers, then adopts it. The list goes on.

It’s not that he breaks his policy promises more than other politicians. It’s not that he seeks compromise – a virtue. It’s not even that his policies are wrongheaded. It’s the fact that when he compromises, when he reaches policy conclusions, there’s no sense that it derives from anything other than ad hoc balancing.

There is no well of enduring principle upon which he seems to draw. Even if he’s a pragmatist, eschewing universal principles in favor of context-specific values and concerns, we still don’t know what those temporal values and concerns are, or why he believes in them. So far he’s the piecemeal president.

Bronsthner is convinced — and I think he’s right — that Obama doesn’t seem to really believe in anything. In fact, I’m fairly certain the point of his speeches (and Bush’s before him) are to make partisan supporters feel good about themselves. (Chris Hedges writes about this kind of in his latest essay.) “We are on the right side of good and truth and beauty and history,” supporters can say to themselves. And that is about all the words he speaks are worth.

Yet not all of Obama’s words are meaningless. As worthless as the Cairo speech was in actually producing any real “change” in how America did things in the Middle East, in April of 2007, Obama spoke before the Chicago Foreign Policy Council and outlined what would become his approach to foreign policy, talking about using the “full arsenal” of American power (and ingenuity) to confront “aggression” and maintain American military superiority. (I’ve just reread it, and for the most part, it is a speech Bush could have given.) This showed that Obama was not a peace candidate in any meaningful way, not willing to consider the possibility that the United States might be an ordinary nation, and I think that speech meant something. Those were not empty words, any more than Bush’s ersatz-Trotskyite missive in January 2005 was empty of meaning too.

Not all of the State of the Union was meaningless, as Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation notes:

He didn’t exactly trumpet American “exceptionalism,” and he didn’t proclaim America’s mission to remake the world, in so many words, but he inserted into his speech an odd phrase: “No one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Without saying so, he portrayed the United States, therefore, as the world’s lone superpower, an errant vision that reinforces the view of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that America has some vague responsibility for the rest of the world. “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he proclaimed. Really? Nowhere in his speech did Obama reflect on the necessary, humbling vision of the United States as a declining world power whose future depends on its reaching a series of accommodations with at least five or six other rising powers and regions.

But why else should expect different? In this, there is meaning. Obama’s world is still an America-centered, America-led, America-managed world for the benefit of America (again, dominating others in order to liberate them — more good progressive governance) so that more people can live in the abundance and freedom that America. And that is empire, the empire Obama remains committed to maintaining. Plain and simple.

Attention to Detail

What’s wrong with this picture of Pentagon spokesguy Geoff Morrell?

(Aside from the fact he looks like a plastic Dan Rather puppet?) 
The Pentagon is NOT in Washington. I know, this is a tawdry bit of detail to focus on, but it really toasts my poptarts. The Pentagon is actually in Arlington, Virginia. I’m not sure why the folks who run the place insist on placing the five-sided asylum in DC, save maybe that it will confuse too many people if the sign behind Morrell said, “THE PENTAGON – Arlington, Virginia.” Perhaps it is designed to show we have a united, unified government, in one place sitting atop one people policing and securing one world. Who knows.
It wouldn’t be THAT hard to actually put the Pentagon in DC. Because that’s where it ought to be. The best — and easiest — way to deal with the lack of voting representation DC residents have in Congress would be to give most of the District of Columbia to Maryland (either give it to the counties surrounding or make it two small city-counties, Georgetown and Anacostia) with the core of the district — I think everything south of K St., west of the Anacostia River and east of Rock creek — to be retained by the Feds as the capital district. Everyone residing within these bounds would then be listed as a Maryland resident for purposes of voting and representation. 
Then expand the district back across the Potomac to include the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, the Navy Annex, Ft. Myer, and Crystal City south to include National Airport. Everyone “residing” there would be considered a Virginia resident for purposes of representation. (DC residents would vote in federal elections but not state or local ones.) I wouldn’t even bother having this rump city run by an elected council, but rather by a joint congressional committee with some appointed non-Congress members to help. Maybe appoint a high commissioner to oversee day-to-day activities or something.

How To Justify Mass Murder

Idealism is one way. Most everyone who hears JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” only hear the nonsensical idealism of the early 1960s. Service to the state as service to others. No one seems to hear that “what you can do for your country” quickly came to mean get drafted and fight in Vietnam. (Which was service to the state, right?)

Another, I think, is to provide bread to those who might otherwise oppose the mass murder. I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment:

I’m not entirely sure what goes on with progressives/liberals, whether it’s really THAT easy to buy them off with social welfare or what, but they really don’t seem to care about the wars when they are waged by Democrats (and this was not true in the late 1960s; opposition to the Vietnam War by the left is probably what sunk Hubert Humphrey). They really don’t. I guess it’s okay for Americans to kill, maim, torture, bomb and invade so long as all of that state violence is done by progressives for good progressive reasons. So long as gays can do it too and a dollop of health care is provided. 
Not, of course, to those bombed.

On Violence, Language and Public Responsibility

Civility. It is what we are all supposed to be in the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, last weekend. Because “uncivil” language in our overheated partisan political environment was alleged — or suspected, or merely felt — to contribute, in some way, to shooter Jared Loughner’s motives when he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (and 17 others), killing six people. I’ve already received Jim Wallis’ “Peace and Civility Pledge” (yes, I somehow got myself on the Sojourner’s e-mail list):

Part of building a better society is relating to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil. It is out of that work that we recommit ourselves to being peacemakers in our country. It is on that Covenant that we have based this new Pledge.
As the county sheriff in charge of the criminal scene in Tucson said on Saturday, this must be an occasion for national “soul searching.” In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask: “How am I responsible?”

I have also had many qualms about the nature of political language in the United States, particularly that of Republicans, which rhetorically creates a world in which the values of conservative, middle-class Americans (and the people who hold those values) are threatened and besieged from all around, a world in which only violence can redeem those values and the holders of those values. This has been their language for a long, long time, both in and out of power. It is a language with logical consequences. In power, it prompts fairly merciless state violence; out of power, it whips up and maintains unreasonable fears of those who have state power, and creates a rhetorical logic in which — because so much is at stake — that at some point the opposition must not be allowed to gain or continue its hold on power because that political opposition is the existential threat. The GOP’s leadership have walked this line pretty carefully — cultivating this violence rhetorically as a way of mobilizing and maintaining the base, and yet not cultivating so intently as to actually organize it and then kick it into action. It may be that people can live on that edge for years, even decades, without actually organizing to murder their neighbors. We’re going to see. 

(I’m picking on the GOP because since the 1970s, it has been much more attached to the language of overt violence than have the Democrats.)

But precisely because the GOP has never kicked the violence into action, those bursts of violence that have happened seem to be the result of single, unstable individuals. (Or tiny groups of unstable people.) It appears that Loughner (and I don’t know him) falls into this category, a lone individual suffering from some kind of mental disorder, very likely schizophrenia. Attempts by observers rummaging through his booklist or his Youtube postings to root his violence either in the ideology of the left or right, and thus blame the other for violence and incivility, is widely off the mark, as Laura Miller noted on on Monday:

The sole ideological thread running through Loughner’s list is an inchoate anti-authoritarianism. It’s likely that what attracted him to “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto” was less the political thinking in either book than their aura of the forbidden, the sensation that he was defying the adults around him by daring to read either one. The rest of his favorites — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Brave New World,” “Animal Farm” and “Fahrenheit 451” — depict deceitful and oppressive regimes committed to squelching individual initiative and thought.

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.
This is the world that gave us [Lee Harvey] Oswald and [Arthur] Bremer [who shot George Wallace in 1972]. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”
This is politics, yes, but it is not normal, reasonable, emotional politics. It is a politics unattached to reality, one that revels in the magical. I’ve listened to such rantings on the shortwave before (I actually find them entertaining, when I get them in short bursts). I’m not entirely sure how much a more civil political discourse in the United States would prevent crazies from acting out — that’s a little like asking how much rain didn’t fall last night. It’s a hypothetical question also ungrounded in the real world. We live in a world of violent language that mostly does not prompt violent action.

But I have two concerns that I expect will not be addressed by Wallis’ (or anyone else’s) civility pledge.

The first is the violence of the state itself. In effect, we are being told we must have a “civil discourse” about politics, which is the process we engage in to control the state, which is defined as that entity which has a lawful monopoly on violence. Those agents of state power, and their apologists, tell us who are subject to state power that we must be civil and eschew violence, but the state doesn’t have to. It can still threaten, accuse, investigate, imprison, marginalize, bomb, destroy and annihilate, both in word and deed, as official policy or as something its apologists aspire to. It’s agents can still use violence with impunity. How long, I wonder, until the next congresscrittur or pundit demands Julian Assange’s rendition to the Black Hole of Guantano, or supports Bradley Manning’s continuing abuse at the hands of the state, or continued bombing of Yemen and Pakistan (or elsewhere, violence that results in the very real injury and deaths of very real human beings), or an attack upon Iran? Will that be seen as uncivil? Why do I doubt it?

The truth is the state wishes to maintain its monopoly not just on violence, but the language of violence, and those who parry and thrust to control that violence must not themselves EVER use the language of violence in their struggle. State violence is sacred, and it is only to be used against enemies of the state.

This leads me to a second point. In principle, I have no problem with the notion of a public responsibility for language. Words do have consequences, in that they create an interpretive reality by which the world is understood and that understanding is acted upon. It is reasonable (though it may not necessarily be correct) that language steeped in violence and fear will tend those who accept that “interpretive reality” toward violence responses. It may also be that human beings are quite capable of living with quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for long stretches of time, and will only act upon fear and anger when actively prompted and organized.

But pledges like Wallis’ seem disingenuous to me. More to the point, they seem like a power play, a way to dictate the terms of the debate, to gain advantage. What, exactly, is uncivil? How do we agree what is uncivil? We already know that “enemies of the state” — at least those residing outside the boundaries of the state — don’t merit any civility from agents of the state and their supporters. What about opponents of the state (and not merely partisan opponents of whoever governs) at home? I have no doubt that Wallis and his ilk would like to marginalize anti-state and anti-government speech, to relegate it to the land of uncivil. And those who speak such language to the land of enemies who can be legitimate targets of state violence. 

Civility pledges, then, are — like most efforts to rewrite rules — a pure power grab. A way to privilege one speaker at the expense of another by thoroughly marginalizing language, ideas and those who speak them.