Saturday, September 27, 2008

Opposite Day

I tuned in last night to the first presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain, televised from Oxford, Mississippi. I was stopped in my tracks before it even began by the announcement of the Moderator (Jim Lehrer) that the audience had agreed not to respond to anything either candidate said – there would be no applause, catcalls, etc. And indeed for the small part of the debate I could bear to listen to, the audience might as well have been church-goers - that auditorium at the University of Mississippi was as quiet as a tomb.

This incident forcibly brought home to me the fact that for Americans, politics is a religion and religion is a politics. I was reminded of a game my children and I used to play when they were small, called “Opposite Day.” The rules of this game are easy – just say the opposite of what you mean. For example, “I hate you” really means the reverse. The funny thing about this game is that it actually gets harder and harder to play; lies and insincerity actually demand more energy to sustain than candor and truthfulness, and after a while one runs out of things to say. It becomes surprisingly difficult to keep finding something new to lie about.

To call the highly scripted-for-television exchanges between the two senators a “debate” is an Opposite-Day joke, just as it seems a stretch to call the dead silence of the audience anything remotely resembling attendance at a political event. Are there other examples of Opposite Day in America? Mr. Obama claims to want to run a campaign for transformation, but he appoints one of the most enduring Washington insiders as his running mate (Mr. Biden).

Mr. McCain’s Opposite Day coup de main with Ms. Palin is actually more complicated. The Opposite-Day significance here is the manipulation and exchange between Public and Private. For Sarah Palin, motherhood and Family Values are a political stance, elevated to humorless display and dogmatism at every opportunity. The fact that she is the governor of Alaska is merely incidental; the fact that she governs Alaska like a family is also incidental; the fact that she is virtually incoherent on public, social and historical issues (see her interview with Katie Couric on “foreign policy”) is also incidental. Nothing of these things actually matter, you see. What matters is that she is a Mom, and Mommyness now merits public office.

That Mr. Obama is black and Sarah Palin is female have put the Opposite-Day metaphor right at the center of American political life. In this case the “opposites” do actually express an authentic reality. But the authentic reality has little to do with politics and governance. The candidates are virtually indistinguishable in their views and they are likewise equally irrelevant because there no longer exists any meaningful framework in which to gauge the exercise of political power. That framework, the correspondence between language and reality, has been blasted out from beneath both candidates. The real holders of power are the financiers in an economy that no longer has anything to do with production. The news media also wields real influence because it has become indistinguishable from propaganda and the shaping of cultural narrative.

No wonder Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad are continually demonized as Public Enemies One and Two. They say what they think. That is their crime; that is why they are relentlessly belittled; that is why the Opposite-Day West has been reduced to a caricature of Caligula. It is told that this insane Roman emperor rode his horse “Incitatus” into the Roman Senate, perhaps as a way of expressing his contempt for it. All that the Western “leaders” can do today is incite. They cannot rule, and above all, they cannot create.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

America's Hadron Collider Eats the World

Given the trajectory of human history, the nature of mankind, the discovery of oil, etc., something like America was inevitable - that is, the unleashing of an avalanche of prodigious appetite and destruction, along with a few precious and genuine ideals regarding human life and its purposes. Alas, the gems seem to have been devoured in the Mighty Moloch which has been building over the past few decades with the embrace of the American government and Wall Street. Not that the government didn't embrace the rich before. Only back then the embrace was more like a legal marriage -- the government's embrace at least attempted to make an honest woman out of sleazy finance. But the financial dealings of the past couple of decades resemble nothing so much as concubinage or maybe, to invert the metaphor, "gay marriage" - that is, something made-up, counterfeit and infertile.

Any decent person feels these past few days a kind of sickening dread in the pit of the stomach at the silly and degrading spectacle of American politics and finance. This nation is quite literally drowning in lies, and if not lies then pretence and if not pretence then self-deception. It seems that candidate McCain has "suspended his campaign" due to the "financial crisis" -- an indication, if one needed it, that even the pretence of politics has been abandoned. Quite evidently the Masters of the Nation feel no further need to disguise their coup d'etat. Barack Obama does not appear to be despicable and vicious in the way that McCain and Palin do, but he does not carry the conviction of political transformation that he preaches. How could he? The totalizing, totalitarian tendency of central government and finance carries all before it, a one-party state that pretends to offer choices. In today's climate it is all but impossible for anyone working in the center of that rising flood to act in a manner appropriate to adulthood, to give thought and consideration to what is happening - even to think before speaking. How can a
nation sustain itself when its polity is based upon endless flattery, reckless aggrandizement and the abandonment of of any notion of the need for truth?

Here is Herbert Butterfield, writing in what seems to be a better age - 1950:

"A civilization may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes or criminals but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of men generally considered very nice people...If all men had only what we consider a reasonable degree of cupidity, politics would still be driven into dialectical jams-- into predicaments and dilemmas which the intellect has never mastered." (From "The Universal Element of Cupidity," from his book Christianity and History.)

The nation is not a community, and it is fractured - whether mortally I don't know. One of these severe deep fissures, carefully tended by the masters of destruction, is the fissure between the pro-life and anti-war movements. How carefully, how surely, it has been seen that these two movements will never join, never connect! The saddest result of all these doings is the destruction of Christianity itself -- for of all the death-agents loosed upon the American landscape, the so-called "Christians" have become among the most loathsome. The last time Christianity shone in America was during the black civil rights movement of the 1960's - and there was, of course, quite a bit of false glitter in that shine. But what it did was to teach the disinherited white Christian evangelicals a lesson about going into politics - a lesson by which they were able, later, to be harnessed by the neoconservatives. The way had been prepared before - perhaps as long ago as the Kennedy Assassination. That moment marked the beginning of the penetration of a new morality or ethic, a kind of calculated lunge from saturnine depths. Even Kennedy, the victim of it, unconsciously expressed this new ethic in a casual comment I recall that he once made - "Don't get mad, get even." That saying epitomizes the contempt powerful people feel for those who have honor and expose themselves by expressing righteous anger. On the contrary, the power-brokers like to remain invulnerable, working behind the scenes where they can manipulate people and events. Manipulation, calculation, revenge - these qualities are essentially and inherently opposed to Christian ethics - although, of course, many "Christians" practice them. But actually to espouse them, to find in them the recipe for worldly wisdom, to tout and promote them -- this is the character of the people who have been working the levers of American government and finance for half a century. Modern evangelicals had no idea of the real risks to which they were subjecting themselves, their nation and their religion, when they opened their arms to embrace the cause of power over truth.