Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Zarqawi Paradox

The killing of Al-Zarqawi is the best news war apologists have had for some time. Probably since Saddam was fished out of the spider hole. Whether his death provides the crucial, or even a crucial element in eliminating the strife and chaos in Iraq and thus paving the way for a stable, Democratic state will obviously be a matter of waiting and seeing.

But while previously dispirited war backers woke up rejoicing this morning, the elimination of Zarqawi is, beyond its unknown implications for Iraq, a mixed bag for those on the right dedicated to pumping up the elusive but omniscient and ubiquitous "global war on terror".

While it gives them something to celebrate, and more importantly, a candlestick with which to beat their imagined enemies, a victory in Iraq or anywhere regarding the war on terror implies that something like a total victory should be in sight, or at the least, can be imaged and desired.

But for the budding pseudo-fascists of the right, the "war on terror", like it's Cold War predecessor, isn't supposed to end. In fact, it would be highly desirable that, for right-wing domestic militants, the war on terror never end. This is because the presence of war, particularly an external one, is critical for allowing the right to wage the war it really is committed to, the war against the domestic and internal enemies of its imagination.

In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton writes:

Enemies were central to the anxieties that helped inflame the fascist imagination. Fascists saw enemies within the nation as well as outside...internal enemies grew luxuriantly in number and variety in the mental landscape as the ideal of the homogenous national state made difference more suspect.

Liberals, Democrats, immigrants, and ultimately citizens of any stripe that appear insuffiently dedicated to the American pseudo-fascist cause which the domestic war on terror militants hold so dear are the enemy.

But this war on domestic enemies requires at least the appearance of an external enemy capable of inflicting great harm on the homeland or on the nation's international aims as imagined by the war fetishists.

The capture or death of a prominent external enemy, while initially inspirational and for a time a useful rhetorical tool against its enemies, shortly becomes a liability if it is assumed that the military victory "over there" is expected to reduce or eliminate the external war that is essential for the pseudo-fascist's domestic war campaign.

And the external war is needed, not just because an external enemy, no matter how remote, may conceivably represent a physical danger to the homeland, but more importantly because, as Chris Hedges has written, war gives us meaning. And out of that meaning flows the domestic militant's sense of values, namely the defense and promotion of the militantly righteous nation state.

And while both the domestic and external wars are obstensibly conducted for and defended on the basis of an abstract sense of moral absolutism, in reality, the proponents of perpetual war--as the war on terrorism is hoped to be by at least some of its most ardent apologists--share only one primal value, as Paxton notes,

...the success of chosen peoples in a Darwinian struggle for primacy. The community comes before humankind in fascist values, and respecting individual rights or due process gave way to serving the destiny of the Volk or razza.

One need only call to mind the endless stream of threats and demands from right-wing spokesman that the media be inprisoned for reporting government activity, that essentially any form of opposition to the administration constitutes treason (especially in what we are continually told is a "state of war"), that undocumented workers coming across the border from Mexico constitute an invasion, and the morally relativistic defenses of military actions in Haditha (and before that Abu Graib) to recognize the moral blindness adhered to by certain partisans of the "war on terror" and the nation's ruling regime.

Morally relativism and dependence on an ever dangerous and omniscient external enemy are the essential ingredients needed (among others) to feed the modern manifestation of fascism. Consequently, the elimination of external enemies, especially highly prominent ones, however over-stated, may ultimately reduce the power domestic supporters of authoritarianism seek.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Better Learn Them Some English

The President Says:

OMAHA, Neb. - New arrivals to this country must adopt American values and learn English, President Bush said Wednesday, pushing anew for his proposal to overhaul immigration rules.

Yeah. Don't ya just wish today's immigrants assimilated and spoke our language, English, like immigrants did in the good old days? You know, like they did in 1860?

Many German immigrants were Protestant, and many lived in the country. They seemed willing to listen to the Republicans, who devoted great energy to wooing German voters. Franklin (County, PA) Republicans put in the field local speakers who spoke German, and Republican Congressman Edward McPherson requested lists of German men he might write for their support.

In their efforts to reach the Germans, the Republicans benefited enormously from the efforts of Carl Schurz, a famous writer and speaker...Schurz spoke in the afternoon in English, but that evening he was to 'speak in German, his native language, to the citizens of Chambersburg who can understand him. The german portion of our population , who do not fully comprehend the objects of Republicanism, are particularly invited to listen to this great expounder of our political faith; himself a german by birth'...Soon after his appearance a German Republican club formed in Franklin.

from Edward L. Ayers, 2003, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, page 79

Can you imagine the demonic head-spinning that would result if there was such a thing as a Mexican Democratic club?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma"

Sometimes a liberal blog will link to a selected item from a conservative blogger's post, highlighting the conservative blogger's apparent agreement with liberal thinking on something, or in contrast, highlighting the conservative blogger's outrageousness, and when you click the hyper-link you end up in a post that is either less liberal friendly or less outrageous than advertised (no doubt conservative bloggers do the same).

To a certain extent, this could be said for this TAPPED extraction from, and hyper-link to, this John Derbyshire book review of fellow NRO'er Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.

For example, Garance Franke-Ruta doesn't mention that Derbyshire believes, like Ponnuru, that Roe v. Wade is or was "jurisprudentially preposterous", that this conclusion is "indisputable" and that because the Constitution doesn't say the word "abortion", it's regulation should be "a matter for the states", despite the fact that the Constitution doesn't say anything specific about a lot of things, for example, the right to privacy, but do to other Amendments included in the Bill of Rights, this right has been recognized as superceding the ability of tyrannical majorities from invading.

Nonetheless, the Derbyshire paragraphs that Franke-Ruta does include are, indeed, "shocking":

I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime's misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and -- I do not doubt it -- sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach! -- one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

This is wild, bold ripping from a fellow traveler in the conservative empire. I wish Democrats would talk like this, instead of acting as if any comment on abortion, gay rights, or religion is tantamount to walking on egg-shells. Derbyshire's smackdown on Ponnuru's party of death thesis and counter-attack against the right's culture of privacy invading, liberty reducing, ambiguity ignoring mania is refreshing.

Nonetheless, Franke-Ruta's depiction of Derbyshire's broadside is in some ways understated. For example, right out of the starting gate Derbyshire doesn't hesitate to slap the cult designation on the right to life (RTL) movement:

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing--the Fuhrerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside--among whom, obviously, I count myself--it seems to some degree (depending on the observer's temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty. My own ratings of RTL on those three degrees are 2, 6, and 4 out of a possible ten each.

The second of those ratings would have been lower before the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus "Nobel Prize nominees," emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for "life," dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of "Terri" as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.

On the other hand, the first of those ratings would have been a couple of ticks higher before I read Party of Death. Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult--cause, movement, whatever--could hope for; so much so that (just to complete the set) the third of my ratings went up by a corresponding amount after setting down his book. With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land. A general reduction of our liberties would indeed follow, since RTL is, in its essence, an authoritarian movement, whose ultimate desire is to boss the rest of us around.

Then, highlighting the event that might soon, if it hasn't already, serve as the marker of the right-wing's self destructive over-reach, it's point of no return, the high water mark of the Republican Revolution, Derbyshire let's fly a glorious ripping of the media circus that was the Terri Schiavo case:

Part Two opens with a discussion of euthanasia, with several references to the Schiavo case. To Ponnuru's credit, even he seems a little embarrassed by the freak show that surrounded Mrs. Schiavo's last days, and he spares us most of the details (which are anyway thoroughly covered, from both sides, in at least five recent books). Not that his embarrassment prevents the author from engaging in a dense flurry of those rhetorical sleights of hand I noted earlier. He tells us, to take one example from many, that Michael Schiavo won a $1.1 million settlement in a negligence suit against his wife's doctors, without also telling us that Mrs. Schiavo's parents fought like cats to get their hands on their daughter's estate; or that Mr. Schiavo offered (in writing, in documents deposited with officers of the court) to sign over that estate--which was anyway much diminished by legal bills--to a registered charity if his in-laws would withdraw their lawsuits; or for that matter that Mr. Schiavo was a well-paid working professional well able to support himself, while his in-laws were chronically broke, at least until the big RTL foundations showed up with checkbooks a-flapping. And of course Ponnuru does not mention the few seconds of misleading videotape, carefully selected from over four hours' worth, released (in violation of a court order!) by the in-laws to the media, and endlessly replayed on sensationalist TV news programs.

In fact, Ponnuru has nothing to say at all about the monstrous character assassination, carried out by utterly unscrupulous RTL propagandists, of a decent man who coped humanely and well with a terrible life calamity. Well, not quite nothing: "It cannot be denied that pro-lifers were guilty of some excesses," Ponnuru murmurs. Some excesses? I would say. Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik, circa 1960, offering a grudging admission that Stalin and his cronies might, just once or twice, have been a tad over-zealous in dealing with class enemies. Perhaps I should add here that after reading three (Schiavo, Schindler, and Eisenberg) of the above-mentioned five-or-so books, I came away more convinced than ever that Michael Schiavo is a good man criminally traduced by brutal, unprincipled RTL fanatics, from whose number, on the evidence of this chapter, Ponnuru cannot with certainty be excluded.

I'm thankful for Derbshire's recognizing that the bizarre and paradoxical "culture of life" crowd was prepared to sacrifice Michael Schiavo on the nearest alter of burnt offerings, willing to bring death to promote "life". I'm glad someone is finally pointing out the bullying incongruence of the RTL's agenda. And he didn't even mention how RTL's want to end abortion while also outlawing contraception.

As I suggested to Barbara O'Brien, guest posting at Glenn Greenwald's pad, the conservative movement practices an extreme but highly recognizable and decipherable form of psychological projection:

Seems like a classic case of projection to me.

Conservatives celebrate death but accuse of liberals of being the party of death.

Conservatives proclaim a dedication to small government and express contempt for liberal do-gooders but paradoxically defend a power-grabbing presidency and complain that the culture is too crude.

Conservatives complain that Christianity is given short thrift in the "public square" and that liberals are out to destroy it, but by their words and actions, don't appear to even be aware of their religion's basic tenets, spirit and Biblical foundation.

I might have added how peculiar it is to be lectured about the depravity and crudeness of our culture and our supposed moral relativism by a crowd that would allow Ann Coulter to represent them and that as far as I can see practices a form of moral relativism itself in that the only morals it appears to willing to defend, and the only actions it appears willing to justify are those used in the service of advancing a narrow version of America's self-interest.

A few glances at right-wing responses to Abu Graib and the latest reports from Haditha should be enough to demonstrate that the right, or at least a sizable class of it, has no morals whatsoever. The only morals it holds dear are those associated with its fantasies of American exceptionalism and world dominion.

Moreover, the "war-right" and the RTL crowds are not only fellow travelers in the bitter, alternative universe that is American conservativism, they are often and usually the exact same people.

The result is a weird mix of anachronistic, selectively chosen, biblically-based moralizing with an unhealthy dose of fascist privacy invading and nationalist tendencies, all of which serves to produce as Derbyshire notes, A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma, ready to sacrifice individual rights for those of an embryo while celebrating the deaths of people like Rachel Corrie and David Rosenbaum, not to mention willing and eager for others to make Iraq a desolate, wasteland of broken lives and burned bodies so that their country might achieve its glorious destiny.

Our Religion

So, Ann Coulter has a new book out today, entitled, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (no link). According to the full-page color ad I was subjected to in today's NYT, Godless contends that liberalism has its own churches (government schools); it's own commandments (thou shalt not punish the perp); it's own holy writ (Roe v. Wade); and it's own creation myth (Darwinism).

OK. Maybe so.

But if liberalism is a religion, at least it's one that doesn't burn people at the stake. Sounds like progress to me.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Warner and Feingold

C-Span's Road to the Whitehouse showcased Russ Feingold and Mark Warner speaking in NH to that state's Democratic Convention on Saturday.

The short version: I thought Warner was very, very impressive.

Neither speaker mentioned immigration, and neither referred explicitly to gay marriage or abortion. While both speeches managed to hit some similar themes, such as the failure of President Bush to unite the country with a call to shared sacrifice after 9-11, the speeches were remarkably different from one another, a distinction particularly telling given that the Warner speech appeared to immediately succeed Feingold's in order at the convention (although maybe this was a C-Span effect, appearing to make the speeches appear consecutively).

Feingold covered most of the outrage issues: No Child Left Behind; the Iraq War; the abuses of the Patriot Act; the NSA wiretaps and the Constitutional disregards more broadly; the demolition of FEMA and the Katrina debacle; the failure of Senate Democrats to lead on healthcare; a call for redeploying troops in Iraq. His remarks about the Iraq war, his call to redeploy the troops, and a bold statement for universal health insurance got the most cheers. Not a bad speech by any means, but it seemed to lack something. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what.

Then came Warner. He started off with his personal background, college, law degree, tour of duty with the NDC, and then a turn towards an entrepreneurial career that started off poorly before finding success in the car telephone business and then his election as Governor of Virginia. It was a short introduction and life summary that had similarities to that told by John Edwards, but it sounded less syrapy and Warner's transition from up-bringing to public service focused more on his gratefulness for his opportunity to fullfill The American Dream than on Edwards' fight on behalf of the downtrodden.

Warner then covered his single-term as VA Governor (by law, the Governor of Virginia cannot succeed himself), highlighting his approach and successes with taxes, the state budget, education, and technological advancement, specifically the expansion of broadband across the state. Warner closed his Virginia Story with what he said was the highlight of his term in office: bringing software computer jobs to one of the state's backwaters, Lebanon, VA, via a program his state created to help communities hold on to their future resources--their educated children.

From there Warner launched into an analysis of the state of the union, with a particular focus on ensuring the nation's competitiveness in a rapidly changing global economy. This was Warner's unifying theme, what we in the pundit world and political community think of as the Vision Thing. Warner sounds like a man who's beginning to put things together. When he talked about education, he talked about the liabilities of the country's schools falling behind in regards to math and science. The competitive risk inherent in falling math and science know-how helped smooth his transition to the discussion of "wedge issues". Warner called for greater R&D funding, the advancement of stem-cell research, and a bold criticism of those disputing the theory of evolution. The latter was a particularly emphatic line that surprised me, given Warner's reputation as a centrist known for reaching out to rural voters in Virginia. Furthermore, when Warner referred to Americans without health insurance, he did so mostly from a national well-being and competitiveness posture, as opposed to the more moralistic, economically redistributive norms of most candidates now and in the past. This seems like a better appeal to me, one that aims to arouse the country's national concerns and not limit the debate to arguments about dividing and reshuffling the economic pie.

On foreign policy, Warner recognized the differences of opinion on Iraq but stressed the fact that while the Iraq war was not originally about preventing Iranian expansion and containing Al Qaeda, both of those challenges were the result of the Iraq invasion, hinting that simply redeploying the troops wouldn't be a cure-all. Warner also critiqued the current administration for "dividing our friends and unifying our enemies." Expect to hear that line more and more in the days ahead.

Warner got some digs in at the president, but his speech was noted mostly for its forward looking, non-ideological approach. He contrasted Democrats with Republicans by contending that Democrats were the party that were always looking a few years ahead, and were thus best able to lead the country into the future.

Most of what Warner had to say I had heard him say before, or had seen printed somewhere, but it was woven together in a unifying rhetoric that I hadn't recognized before. Both his tone, style and substance were very effective I thought. More than any other candidate I've heard so far, Warner is constructing a visionary campaign. While this is important for Warner's own prospects and the party's in '08, Warner's framework on national competitiveness and facing the challenges of the future, both domestic and internation, were a subtle but strong contrast to that put forward by Republicans and could thus provide an important blueprint for Democrats to follow beyond Warner regardless of his candidacy's outcome.

A few remaining, random thoughts:

Warner's speech and outlining vision bears some similarities to The Common Good debate that circulated among lefty bloggers in April (although Warner did not use that term explicitly). I shared some reservations about that philosophy here. Despite what I think are the philosophy's limitations, in it's Warner rendition, it could be useful for correcting what most political observers think is the Democrat's achilles heal: it's lack of a bold, unifying, national agenda. As I pointed out in the beginning, Warner didn't speak on immigration or mention gay marriage or abortion, issues that will continue to be hot-button ones in the months ahead, so how he approaches the conflicts embedded in those issues will go a long way to influencing his prospective candicacy.

Another thing Warner emphasized was that in Virginia he worked with members of both parties to address the state's problems and was ready to pursue good policy recommendations regardless of whether they came from those with a D or an R besides their names. Now, it should be pointed out that many governors have said this (including the current president) and that in Virginia, Warner had little choice but to make common ground with the Republicans that ran the state legislature. What was different is that Warner said this at a Democratic State Party Convention, where such bipartisanship might be downplayed. I have a hard time envisioning any Republican candidate appearing at a state GOP convention and emphasizing his outreach to the other party. What this suggests to me is that (1) Republicans are much more ideological and partisan than Democrats; (2) that Republican Partisanship stems from either (a) its self-confidence that, occupying the majority, it doesn't need to expand its coalition or reach beyond its conservative identifying partisans and groups to unify the country or (b) it's arrogance that it doesn't need or want Democratic input. We've probably seen, in the form of conference bills and other processes, how the Republicans feel about expanding their appeal and unifying the country.

At the same time, Warner made clear his interest in electing Democrats in NH and across the country. And for those of us worried about Warner's Democratic commitment, his work on behalf of the party's candidates along with his aggressive slapdown of the anti-science forces in the Republican Party are a promising harbinger of positive things to come.

On a side note, and one that may pertain to the 2008 Democratic ticket, another state's Democrat seems to be reaping the rewards of an opposition party beginning to crack-up over its cultural "wedge" issues. Maybe the much feared culture war and warriors are beginning to commit suicide. Warner's approach to wedge issues could bear similar fruit.