Sunday, May 1, 2005

Fearful Yahoos High And Low

Once in a while [but not as often as I should] I spend a good chunk of time away from the "news". This weekend I've been doing that, in order to "reflect" ... and to get some other things taken care of [a.k.a. "blog-sitting"] ... and, especially on Saturday, I often found myself thinking of the "miraculous" day 30 years ago when the war in Vietnam finally ended. What a day! What a mess! What a bitter conclusion! What a sad delusion!

It occurred to me that, as bad as we thought that war was, and as bad as we knew its domestic toll was going to turn out to be, and as bad as we all had to suspect its toll on southeast Asia was going to turn out to be... Even with all that, if you had told me back in the summer of Philadelphia Freedom and Love Will Keep Us Together that just 30 years later we'd be talking about even one tenth of what we're talking about now, I would have kicked you out! Not violently, you understand, but ... I never would have believed you!!

Further mental wanderings led to musing about how easy it can be to believe we're right, even when we have no idea, as opposed to how difficult it can be to admit we're wrong, even when we haven't a clue. How easy it is to kick somebody out because you don't believe something that you actually have no idea whether it's true or false. And I'm not talking about right vs left here; nor about anybody in particular; I'm talking about humanity in general: how easy it is to stop wondering about the things we don't know, how simple it is to assume we know everything that matters and that there's nothing else to learn or to worry about. We all do it, to a certain degree. I mean: How often do you look yourself in the mirror and ask the most basic questions? Questions like: "Is everything we believed yesterday ... true?"

After pondering that for a while, in the usual way that my thoughts have of meandering when I'm tired, I found myself thinking about Mark Crispin Miller, thinking that I should know more about him, and that probably my readers should know more about him too ... and then I found myself reading [for the first time] his excellent [though not exactly "recent"] piece, "Brain Drain", to which I heartily direct your attention and from which I will quote here eventually.

But ... in order to set that up ... I want to quote an even earlier piece from Mark Crispin Miller, an excerpt from "The Bush Dyslexicon" published at AlterNet under the title: What You See Is What You Get.
[T]here is very little place for "substance" – or, indeed, for any rational discourse – on TV for formal, political and economic reasons. As the networks have developed it, the medium is far too speedy, loud, disjunctive and sensational to permit a complex sentence (much less an idea). The heavy pressure of the advertisers, furthermore, forbids the airing of whatever issues might be either too depressing or too complicated for the venue's crucial atmosphere of lite festivity – a non-stop pseudo-carnival that never can slow down, or else someone might lose money.

Into this tightly regulated riot of commercial propaganda every politician has to fit his/her own propaganda "message" – and, if s/he's lucky, also has to fit him or herself, looking "nice" enough (with just the right amount of Self-Effacing Humor) and sounding "clear" enough (without alarming anyone) to keep from standing out as "stiff," "robotic," "wooden" or in any other way ridiculous. With such smooth integration all "political" success has everything to do image – which, by and large, leaves out telling truth, or making sense.

Thus Bush belongs in the culture of TV. He fits in, not despite his open calculation and the utter superficiality of his (overt) concerns, but because of them. Such defects don't disturb the pundits of today, most of whom – whatever medium they work in – cannot even see what's wrong with Bush, so steeped are they themselves in TV's trivial worldview. Our President's most calculating predecessors weren't so lucky, their over-concentration on mere spin arousing strong objections back in those less TV-saturated days.
Miller was talking about the 2000 campaign but what he says rings true today as well. He got a ton of flak for it, and some of the flak was very revealing. This passage sets the stage for "Brain Drain":
Once I started to promote the book, I learned that Bush's psychopathic traits exert a strong appeal to his most zealous fans, many of whom took full advantage of the first-strike capabilities of cyber-space to let me know their thoughts. For example, I received this e-mail in mid-August -- just after W's big speech on stem cell research -- with "THE BUSH DYSLEXICON" written in the subject line:
Mark ...
I just finished your above-named book (borrowed it, wouldn't buy it) and it confirms my suspicion that you are a typical left-wing jerkoff !!! Did you happen to catch Bush's speech last night ... he really put it up your left-wing asshole ... asshole!
Fred Fittin
To call that message "anti-intellectual" would be a comic understatement. Since it's unlikely that he read the book, or knows anybody who would have a copy, Fred could not be said so much to hate it as to have despised the very thought of it. Any act of critical intelligence, any reasoned effort to see through the mask of power, enrages types like Fred.
Later, once he's sufficiently "wound-up", Miller writes:
Those hooked on such propaganda have been well-trained by its authors to scream into the nearest telephone, or pound out a threatening e-mail, at the slightest hint of what they might perceive as "liberal bias" by the corporate media. [...] Such repressive tactics, we should note, are anti-intellectual in the deepest and most frightening sense -- i.e., opposed to any rational attempt to jolt the public out of acquiescence. It is that livid quietism on the right, that militant and gleeful anti-rational animus, which marks this latest surge of anti-intellectualism -- an attitude not necessarily the same as mere old-fashioned anti-academic feeling. Of course, the anti-intellectual attacks do often come in anti-academic garb -- as in one Amazon "review" complaining of Bugliosi's putative embrace by both "the media and leftist academics," or in another that assails The Bush Dyslexicon for dissing "someone with a Harvard Business School degree who has solid common sense values and is not the least bit interested in the liberal academic establishment's opinions." Although they often coincide, however, it is the animus against the active mind itself that really drives such vigilantes, and not a simple class-based beef against the snooty professoriate (the types that, as our president has put it, snack on "Brie and cheese").

This much is clear from the incurable selective blindness of the anti-intellectuals, who can perceive the hated caste of academic privilege only insofar as it includes "the left." [...] At times the need to reinterpret Bush the drunken Eli as a dedicated populist has led to some absurd inventions. On Amazon, one troubled critic of my book asserted that "Bush was an excellent student at Yale, but many of his tests were graded down at his request to keep him as 'one of the people.'" ("This is never acknowledged by Miller," he observed correctly.) For the most part, however, the attackers don't resort to fabrication, but are content fanatically to tune out any aspect of reality that contradicts their vision of "the liberal academic establishment." In their eyes, Condoleezza Rice is not an arrogant and fuzzy-minded prof, nor is Paul Wolfowitz, despite their full commitment to the crackpot scheme of "national missile defense." Likewise, for all the bloodshed and destruction caused by his simplistic notions, the anti-intellectuals would never think to damn the pompous Henry Kissinger as a "misguided" academic, any more than they would damn, in retrospect, the cohort of distinguished Ivy Leaguers who propelled us into Vietnam.

For reasons too complex for us to hazard here, the anti-intellectuals are finally on the side of power at its most unforgiving and voracious. And so they give a pass to those professors who are at the service of such power, while jeering anyone -- inside or outside the Academy -- who thinks to raise a fuss about how wrong it is. For them, this isn't something to discuss, because discussion is itself suspicious, even dangerous -- the sport of jerk-offs and Prevaricators. Thus there is no point in arguing with them -- and yet no wisdom in attempting to ignore them. And such is true not only of the Bush regime's most unrestrained supporters, but of the Bush regime itself -- a fact that now requires a lot of careful thought, and something more.

And yet it's just such thinking that has all but disappeared since 9/11 -- as it always disappears in time of war. In bringing down the World Trade Center (a mile from where I sit right now) and ravaging the Pentagon, the terrorists not only murdered thousands, and left tens of thousands more bereft, and devastated lower Manhattan, and sparked the wreckage of the local and the national economy. Through that spectacular atrocity, the killers also managed, at one blow, to knock the brains clean out of countless good Americans. Although those citizens had started out that day with all their wits intact, by dinnertime they sounded way much like Fred -- a terroristic consequence a lot less hideous, surely, than what happened in the air and on the ground, and yet even more destructive in the long run. For while we can and will no doubt rebuild beyond the shattered lives and property, the prospects aren't as upbeat for our frail democracy, which cannot function if too many people think like Bill O'Reilly and his fans.

The swift migration of (let's call it) Fred's position from the cyber-fringes into the great neo-liberal mainstream is apparent in all sorts of weird new attitudes among the educated. Where Bush's lifelong callowness and dimness had been obvious, and his incoherence a cause for endless easy ridicule, he is now reverently applauded for his eloquence ("Churchillian"), the rare "nimbleness" of his communications to the public, and, according to The New York Times, his "gravitas" -- although his off-the-cuff remarks are just as adolescent, repetitious, empty and illogical as ever. (Go and read them if you don't believe me.) Where Bush/Cheney's rule was widely recognized, except among Republicans, as having been arranged not democratically but through grand theft and fraud, his presidency is now deemed a blessing to us all -- and not just by his fellow partisans, but by the Democrats, who all but thank God for the placement of his foot on their collective neck. And where our prior wars had met with just and patriotic skepticism, the hard-won civic legacy of Vietnam, this latest, and in fact most perilous, of our Third World adventures meets with mere assent -- edgy resignation if not frank applause -- and, all too often, with a nasty allergy to all the rational and necessary questions: e.g., How will all this bombing keep us safe from further terrorist attacks? Won't it only make them even likelier? Why should merely cracking down on terrorism help to stop it, when that method hasn't worked in any other country? Why are we so hated in the Muslim world? What did our government do there to bring this horror home to all those innocent Americans? And why don't we learn anything, from our free press, about the gross ineptitude of our state agencies? about what's really happening in Afghanistan? about the pertinence of Central Asia's huge reserves of oil and natural gas? about the links between the Bush and the bin Laden families?

Ask such questions now, and, while you probably won't get the answers that you're looking for, you're likely to learn something quite important from the current climate -- that terror serves to sabotage democracy, by making thought itself seem like a crime against the state. Ask those questions, and you will surely be accused of siding with the enemy -- just the sort of answer that Al Qaeda's goons would also give you, if you asked them certain tactless questions. Outside of your armchair, then, there really is no place for intellectuals to hide, in this new world of terrorists both foreign and domestic, and fearful yahoos high and low.
Wow! I used to think I could write!!

And now, my friends, I must bid you farewell. Congratulations if you've stayed the course. What a meandering stream of semi-consciousness it's been! I hope in some way you may have found it fruitful.

But now ... how can I tie together all these disparate themes, from Vietnam to Fearful Yahoos? And how can I counteract the brutalizing memories of those two horrible songs? Nothing personal against Elton John, nor The Captain and Tennille, you understand, but ... It might be a good idea to close with another song, something perhaps a bit more "thematic"...

This one's been running through my brain quite a lot lately. It's by Peter Hammill.

The Old School Tie

Oh the bright young men in their tight-buttoned suits:
the light beams out from capped smiles to the shines on their lick-spittle books.
Oh these sharp young sparks with their fresh rosettes -
yeh, the artful way that they promise the earth to all suffragettes.
What they won't promise we don't know yet.
They say they're build - and shaping society
but we know they're just saving for their own
safe home in politics.
Anything goes: look at them run.

Come from every side, noses Pinocchio clean;
lock in synchromesh, oil the wheels and the gears of the party machine
and the final goal is a cabinet seat...
in the trappings of power, the presumption to speak for the man in the street.
Once they move in, they're in for good;
yeh, once they get that bed made
it's a safe home in politics.
Jobs for the boys: look at them run.

There's just one thing none of us should forget:
a political man is just in it for the power
and the smell of sucess.
Sure, some start out as idealists -
pretty soon they all cop for ideal careers
and a safe home in politics,
a cushy job in politics;
look at them run.

The politicians fight it out on the conning tower
but they all agree not to rock the boat..
A safe home in politics
It's built on your vote.