Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This is a very exciting time for our country.

Once upon a time a very rigorous thinker, alarmed at trends within his culture, set out to make a differnce by writing books. Fortunately for him books were still a good way to make an impact in wider society. His major works, 1984 and Animal Farm did make a difference. Millions of people have read them and perhaps as many as tens of thousands have taken their warnings to heart.

Unfortunately, books are not what they once were in the great cultural debates. It seems likely that Our Hero, George Orwell's writings, were in the end too dated and too British to prevent the emergence of dangerously totalitarian trends in the
United States.

Up until the Bush II years, I thought that Brave New World was far more relevant to our contemporary doldrums of democracy. Certainly it remains as relevant as it ever was. There has never before been a society as saturated by the anaesthetizing vicarious pathos of popular drama as ours is today. And as changes in culture have become more drastic, uncertainty in the wider existential environment has increased. People seem to always relate to their society and culture for existential cues and anchors. Who am I to question whether this is right or wrong. It is the way it is.

As these turbulent changes increase in their frequency and magnitude, however, there are born several complementary urges within the polis of culture. Huxley wrote in Brave New World about the urge to escape and immerse oneself in diversions. I know that, for example, I have become much more a sports fan in the past several years than I was as a younger man. I have watched democracy crumble and my fellow citizens endorse the new order in various ways, and it has been comforting for me to have some drama in which the resolution was not of such great consequence. Plus, sometimes in sports my team would win.

There is another cultural movement, however. The one that Orwell wrote about. For a long time I thought it far less applicable in modern times. Not because of any great progress in the tapestry of our culture, but just because the "soft fascism" of celebrity worship and popular branding were so successful that the more draconian methods were being rendered unnecessary.

Then, of course, following the great corporate putsch of vertical integration and neo-liberal economics, there came the demogogic onslaught of the late Clinton years. The consolidation of power had begun in earnest. The inclination towards dominance was in full flower, but there was still no need for these other methods. After 9/11 it was not about need, but rather about opportunity and inclination.

What can be said of this authoritarian type of political dominance? First and foremost is a reaction against an "other," who is "causing" these disruptions. If there is no convenient other outside of the body politic (the Hun, the Jap, Osama/Saddam Hussein), then otherness will be projected internally on some subculture or opposition political party or even a personality type or psychological trope.

Hyper-masculinity is usually promoted as a virtue, espcially in western (Apollonian?) cultures. We recently had the cultural experience wherein the intellectual allowance of nuance was openly ridiculed. Disgust and a queasy form of amusment mingled in the awareness of my fellow "liberal elitists" as we whispered in horrified tones of atavism and its perils. Loudly, many pondered leaving the
United States for Canada or Western Europe, where the virtues of civilization are not so casually discarded.

Another common tendency in this authoritarian expression of the play for dominance is one that Orwell expressed so well that we now call it after him. The idea of internally contradictiry language and constellations of ideas was also expressed by an American author, Joseph Heller, who wrote interestingly not of a hypothetical country in an abstract timescape, but rather of his experiences in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His insights are also enshrined in our language, of course, as we call Catch-22's after the book he wrote. In either case we can clearly see the dominance oriented ego work to overcome rationally expressed objections by denying the validity of the rational framework itself.

The dominance oriented ego is then unfettered by common sense in its exercise of Force. This is because common sense is dependent upon language and language (again in the Apollonian west especially) is most often overdependent upon development of rationality. Poets, preachers and other charismatic leaders, of course, are imprisoned or simply shot.

The Bush II administration, in all its Orwellian glory, has proffered us a new form of this internal contradictoriness. Today, this use of intentionally irreconcilable pardigms has been extended to the philosophical arena. For example, the GOP rose to power claiming a mandate for "states' rights" but quickly acted to impose federal authority over medical marijuana and assisted suicide laws. Some of this is mere hypocrisy, or in the case of states' rights, synecdoche for racism. It is a widespread and pesistent trait, however. The idea that there is a "strict constructivist" core of legal philosophy driving the current administration sounds good when explained: as the Constitution is written!! However, there is no doubt that even the more authoritarian and aristocratic of the framers of the Constitution would argue vociferously against the ability of the Executive to usurp the power of the Legislature and Judiciary regarding torture and spying, and they would likewise be horrified at the all but endoresement of a State Religion.

This form of argument, utilising a philosophical context for one basis of action and then acting clearly against that philosophy, short circuits the ability of any opposition politics that does not come from a well founded philosophy. In a day such as ours, when the dangers of hypocrisy have been irrelevant to the well being and comfort of most citizens for multiple generations, there is almost no cultural traction available to those who would argue against such brazen plays for dominance. What can be done is to call out these bastards for lying, call them out for having despotic aspirations, call them out for corruption and sleaze. In short, what must be done is to speak plainly.

I wrote previously about the tensions involved in challenging the underlying premises of a culture (to wit, why Hillarycare was more politically difficult than engaging in torture). There is a reason that the Democrats have had a much easier time challenging Repuglican corruption than they have challenging their despotic aspirations. To challenge the existence of corruption reinforces the idea that corruption in business and politics is the exception rather than the rule. To challenge the despotic tendencies of the juggernaut that is Bush II/Rove/Cheney calls into question the will to power that is the underlying premise of modern business practice.


This is a time when the existence of philosophical distinctions of great import is much closer to the surface than usual. Hypocrisy is categorically dangerous because it is always oriented towards freeing the will to power. In order to challenge hypocrisy, a politician would have to implicitly challenge the lying about social and economic reality that frames debates like international movements of labor. They would be challenging the pervasive disparity in CEO pay to the well being of median wage citizens. It is, in short, very difficult to do.

But because of the in-your-face egregiousness of the Bush II administration, this is a time when the dangers of hypocrisy have been exposed. The surrounding cultural context is well developed enough that an aspiring politician could sieze this opportunity and draw critical connections within the popular awareness. Not between hypocrisy and the surrounding culture of corporate dominace, that would still be political suicide. Rather, the foul smell of incipient despotism that emanates so powerfully from Dick Cheney and Karl Rove can be named and repudiated. Likewise the disengenuous obliviousness of modern Repuglican politicians who act as if social reality had no practical reality or consequences can be called for what it is. These simple, forceful acts of language could form the basis for a new examination of what we, as a culture, are all about.

It is very unlikely, however, that this will happen. Democrats are rarely bold, and never brave in the face of criticism from within the ranks of their own party establishment. If they disregard this opportunity, however, we will face a time when the premises of our culture are redefined to categorically include the right of power to act unilaterally.

Since this cannot happen in a vacuum there would be significant social and political turbulence. Do not relish in this thought. Whatever the outcome of this upheaval, it would not play out quickly, nor would any outcome recognizable as victory be very likely for anyone.

Update: According to Defensetech, agents of the type asked to do this spying are upset (via Josh Marshall). One of the problems we would face as a country if things do continue to go bad, is that there will be considerable fallout within the intel and defense communities. More than there already has been. Also in that post, apparently Sen. Rockefeller has been taking the extreme nature of the White House's policies very seriously. If he sent and kept hand-written copies of his letter protesting the program it's because he did not want to use his computer. Also, Digby has been working hard to demonstrate why the White House must've wanted to go beyond the reach of the courts in the first place.

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