Thursday, November 29, 2007

“If only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.”

— Charles Marsh, “God and Country,” The Boston Globe, July 8, 2007

Marsh prefaces his article by quoting a line from the old Dylan song: “If God is on our side, He’ll stop the next war…” Studs Terkel interviewed Dylan (Zimmerman) in 1963. He was asked about another song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and in response he explained that he wasn’t “talking about that hard rain meaning atomic rain,” but instead that “it seems to me like the bomb is a god in some sort of way,… and people will worship it actually. You have to be nice to it, you know. You have to be careful what you say about it. People work on it, they go six days a week and work on it, you have people designing it, you know, it’s a whole new show. … I don’t believe they’re bad people.

“…What’s gonna happen, there’s got to be an explosion of some kind. The hard rain that’s gonna fall. In the last verse when I say, ‘When the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies, you know, all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers. All you have to do is think for a minute. They’re trying to take people’s brains away. Which maybe has been done already. I have to think it’s been done. All the lies I consider poison.” (Quoted in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott [New York: Wenner, 2006], pp. 7, 8)

Poisonous pieties and self-righteous platitudes, to boot.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sir, I beg your pardon,” said the sandy-haired young man. “There is nothing here. You don’t seem to understand. The Middle East, all of this, this is nothing.” He gestured around the new living room and toward the window, where we could see a half-finished house, obscured in the fading winter light by a haze of blowing sand.

“The Middle East,” he said, firmly taking another crescent, “is just a corridor, a pass-through for great powers. Always has been. Throughout history. Even more now.”

“But the Golden Age,” I protested. “The Arabian Nights.”

“That was centuries ago.” The young man laughed disdainfully. “Do you see any magnificent palaces in Baghdad today?” …

Mr. Kirtikar set down his biscuit-filled plate. “Ah, Sami,” he said to the sandy-haired young man. “You’re not being fair to our guests. We are all here, my dear Sami, most probably, is that you do not see a long-range future for yourself here in Baghdad.”

“Why?” asked Bob. “Is it politics? Religious discrimination against Christians? East-West tensions? The Arab-Israeli conflict?” Bob came out with it. The company looked slightly embarrassed. Mrs. Kirtikar offered more tea. There were more cardamom crescents and also large round thick cookies with whole almonds pressed into their centers.

Sami nodded. He had apparently decided to take this strange American seriously. “All of those things,” he replied. “Yes. I would like to go to America. Maybe you could give me a list of places where there are scholarships available? Because,” he rushed on, “well, in addition to all of those things you mentioned you must remember that this is a poor area, a poor country. Without resources such as you are accustomed to taking for granted.” He laughed, bitterly, I thought. “Nomads. The desert. Living off of goats’ milk. You have surely heard of all that, even in rich America.”

“But what about oil?” Bob asked. “You have plenty of that.”

Mr. Kirtikar sniffed. “The British take most of it. Iraq gets only a small share. But you see the British made a great investment and they are the ones who brought the technology that made it possible for Iraq to exploit their oil. So they deserve the largest share.”

Was he serious? I stared at him. He was, and he was not finished talking. “And the Arab-Israeli conflict, that is not such a problem. It will pass with time.”

— Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, The Arab World: Personal Encounters, ch. 14, “Baghdad and Al-Nahra, Iraq” (1956) [New York: Anchor Books, 1985], pp. 334, 335

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Onion editorial cartoon (29 October 2007).

Saturday, November 10, 2007

As the popular saying goes, “In times of universal deceit, truth-telling becomes a revolutionary act.”* Indeed, I discovered a bit of this myself when for this week’s issue of my campus paper, The Wooster Voice, in an editorial I made the following off-hand observations: (1) the president — our president and leader of the free world — likely has several of the defining characteristics of sociopathy, (2) has presided over a murderous and criminal reign, (3) impeachment is a moderate, in fact conservative and, most importantly, the right constitutional remedy, and (4) given the above facts it is shocking enough that the firing squad (or gallows) option goes unmentioned.

I wrote this in full recognition that many will take these statements to be extreme, even awful and deplorable. So I will be completely clear in what I am saying; a fault of the article, in retrospect a glaring one, is its lack of clarity which may make people jump to the wrong conclusions. First, another colorless and uncontroversial fact: our leaders have committed, repeatedly and remorselessly, crimes against peace and war crimes (though not crimes against humanity, in my opinion, although others may disagree) for which the defendants at Nuremberg were hanged — including waterboarding, a political science professor and study advisor at my college, was quick to add. Expecting an outcome, based upon the logic of crime and punishment, is not the same as desiring it. The aggressive war against Iraq hatched in Washington is obviously far from the scale of Nazi criminality — not suggesting that. But let’s have some honesty and consistency in our moral judgments. Otherwise, ethical standards have no meaning and ought to be discarded.

Here I am going to quote from the record of the Trial of the Century. As Norman Birkett, alternate judge for the United Kingdom, declared on September 30, 1946: “To initiate a war of aggression, … is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (proceedings of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, vol. 22, p. 426, via the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School). Or as United States prosecutor Robert Jackson said on November 21, 1945, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well” (quoted in “Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression,” Office of the United States Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality [Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946], vol. 1, ch. 5, “Opening Statement for the United States,” via Avalon Project).

Anyway, earlier today I watched Robert Redford’s excellent and stunning film Lions for Lambs. “Rome is burning.” Reminded me of a song that went, “How do we sleep when our beds are burning?” Or “Room on Fire,” by The Strokes, in which Julian Casablancas wails, “The room is on fire/and she’s fixing her hair!” But I digress.

*Of course, this is attributed to Orwell, although it is not precisely sourced and actually comes up in many different variations.

NOTE (Nov. 11): Common-sensical commentator Frank Rich hit the nail on the head today.

“So what if America’s chief law enforcement official won’t say that waterboarding is illegal? A state of emergency is a state of emergency. ... Constitutional corners were cut in Washington in impressive synchronicity with General Musharraf’s crackdown in Islamabad. ... In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.

“This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.

“... Take the Musharraf assault on human-rights lawyers. Our president would not be so unsubtle as to jail them en masse. But earlier this year a senior Pentagon official, since departed, threatened America’s major white-shoe law firms by implying that corporate clients should fire any firm whose partners volunteer to defend detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere. For its part, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department did not round up independent-minded United States attorneys and toss them in prison. It merely purged them without cause to serve Karl Rove’s political agenda.

“Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score: Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that ‘there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.’

“To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.”

As Garret Keizer wrote in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine: “It is one thing to endure abuses and to carry on in spite of them. It is quite another thing to carry on to the point of abetting the abuse. We need to move the discussion of our nation’s health to the emergency room. We need to tell the doctors of the body politic that the treatment isn’t working—and that until it changes radically for the better, neither are we.”

Monday, November 05, 2007

CYNICAL THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If Musharraf had our electoral system, he wouldn’t have to worry about an independent judiciary — or mass, popular demonstrations in city streets. (Ouch.)