The political left lashed out at the Administration of George W. Bush when he shredded the Constitution, but applaud in lockstep when Barack Obama does it. Glenn Greenwald comments:
Indeed: is there even a single liberal pundit, blogger or commentator who would have defended George Bush and Dick Cheney if they (rather than Obama) had been secretly targeting American citizens for execution without due process, or slaughtering children, rescuers and funeral attendees with drones, or continuing indefinite detention even a full decade after 9/11? Please. How any of these people can even look in the mirror, behold the oozing, limitless intellectual dishonesty, and not want to smash what they see is truly mystifying to me.
One of the very first non-FISA posts I ever wrote that received substantial attention was this one from January, 2006, entitled “Do Bush Followers have an Ideology”? It examined the way in which the Bush-supporting Right was more like an “authoritarian cult” rather than a political movement because its adherents had no real, fixed political beliefs; instead, I argued, their only animating “principle” was loyalty to their leader, and they would support anything he did no matter how at odds it was with their prior ostensible beliefs. That post was linked to and praised by dozens and dozens of liberal blogs: can you believe what authoritarian followers these conservatives are?, they scoffed in unison.
At Truthout, Retired Republican House and Senate staffer Mike Lofgren indicates that he is seeing so much toxic warmongering aimed at Iran these days that it makes George W. Bush look like a pacifist:
For most of my three-decade career handling national security budgets in Congress, Iran was two or three years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The idea of an Islamic bomb exerts a peculiar fascination on American political culture and shines a searchlight on how the gross dysfunctionality of American politics emerges synergistically from the individual dysfunctions of its component parts: the military-industrial complex; oil addiction; the power of foreign-based lobbies; the apocalyptic fixation on the holy land by millions of fundamentalist Americans; US elected officials’ neurotic need to show toughness, especially in an election year. The rational calculus of nuclear deterrence, which had guided US policy during the cold war, and which the US government still applies to plainly despotic and bellicose nuclear states like North Korea, has gone out the window with respect to Iran. . . . Whether it is sources in Tel Aviv, sources in Washington, or both, that are feeding Iran stories to the US news media is unclear. Whoever they may be, they are playing much of the press – The Washington Post and CBS News are standout examples – like a Stradivarius. In Pentagon-speak, this is known as “prepping the psychological battlefield.”
From Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers discusses our contentious culture with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
Here is my summary of the excellent conversation, in which Haidt offers a roadmap for those of us weary from years of unproductive cultural clashes:
Groupish tribalism is generally good because it ramps up cooperation among those in the ingroup while animosity toward outsiders is usually minimal. But tribalism evolved for purposes of “war,” so that when a certain intensity is reached, “a switch is flipped, the other side is evil. They are not just our opponents. They are evil. And once you think they are evil, the ends justify the means and you can break laws and you can do anything because it is in service of fighting evil.” (min 4:30). Haidt argues that though “morality” often makes us do things we think of as good, it also makes us do things we think of as bad. In the end, we are all born to be hypocrites. Our minds didn’t evolve simply to allow to know the truth. In social settings, our minds are not designed to really let us know who did what to whom. “They are finely tuned navigational machines to work through a complicated social network in which you’ve got to maintain your alliances and reputation. And as Machiavelli told us long ago, it matters far more what people think of you than what the reality is. And we are experts at manipulating our self-presentation; we are so good at it that we believe the nonsense we say to other people.”
When someone from another country does something impressive, Americans are well-trained to be threatened. We are teaming with ressentiment. Here’s an example from the July 18, 2011 edition of Time Magazine. Notice the photo on the right. It is an image of a brand new extremely long bridge, the longest sea bridge in the entire world. It is more than 26 miles long. It’s extremely impressive. It is something that reminds me that the Chinese people have excelled in many ways.
But notice the text under the photo. Especially notice the line: “The Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is yet another Chinese nose thumbing.”
Where does this writer get the idea that the Chinese have built the world’s longest bridge to make the United States look bad? I hear this attitude all the time, exemplified by statements like this: “America is the world’s greatest country.” Despite the fact, of course, that there is much room for improvement in modern day United States.
Many of these comments I hear uttered by Americans are aimed at the Chinese; for many Americans, anything impressive done by Chinese people is a threat to America. More disturbing, I fear that this ressentiment of outsiders builds into paranoia about outsiders and fuels the “need” for exhorbitant and irresponsible warmongering by the United States. I remember that in the months prior to 9/11, there was intense building hostility aimed at the Chinese. Then we got distracted by the Middle East. It seems that Americans intensely need an enemy, and that if they don’t actually have one, they invent one. That is a destructive technique most of our politicians use to maintain power and obeisance of the governed.
I’d recommend that Americans, especially those involved with the American media industry, work harder to keep their ressentiment in check. Time should have reacted to this amazing bridge by saying something like: “That’s amazing engineering and construction! Well done, Chinese people.” I’m afraid, though, that this attitude of being happy for the successes of others has become thoroughly un-American.
I didn’t write anything for yesterday’s commemoration. Many others, most far better suited to memorializing the day, said a great deal. My paltry mutterings would add little to what is, really, a personal day for most of us. Like all the big anniversary events, the “where were you when” aspect makes it personal and maybe that’s the most important part, I don’t know.
Instead it occurred to me to say something about the element of the disaster that puzzles most of us, even while most of us exhibit the very trait that disturbs us deeply in this context. One of the most common questions asked at the time and still today is in the top 10 is: how could those men do that?
Meaning, of course, how could they abandon what we consider personal conscience and common humanity to perpetrate horrible destruction at the cost of their own lives.
The simple answer is also the most complex: they were following a leader.
I’m going to string together what may seem unrelated observations now to make a larger point and I will try to corral it all together by the end to bring it to that point.
Firstly, with regards to the military, there are clear-cut lines of obligation set forth, the chief one being a soldier’s oath to defend the constitution. There is a code of conduct consistent with that and we have seen many instances where an officer has elected to disobey orders he or she deems illegal or immoral. There is a tradition of assuming that not only does a soldier have a right to act upon conscience, but that there is an institutional duty to back that right up. The purpose of making the oath one to the constitution (rather than to, say, the president or even to congress) first is to take the personal loyalty issue out of the equation.
To underline this a bit more, a bit of history. The German army prior to WWII was similarly obligated to the state. German soldiers gave an oath to protect Germany and obey its laws. Hitler changed that, making it an oath to him, personally, the Fuhrer. (He left in place a rule explicitly obligating the German soldier to disobey illegal or immoral orders.)
Unfortunately, human nature is not so geared that people find it particularly easy to dedicate themselves to an abstract without there also being a person representing it. (We see this often in small ways, especially politically, when someone who has been advocating what is on its own a good idea suddenly comes under a cloud of suspicion. Not only do people remove their support of that person but the idea is tainted as well. People have difficulty separating out the idea from the person. The reverse is less common, that a bad idea taints a popular leader.) Dedicating yourself to supporting the constitution sounds simple in a civics class, but in real life people tend to follow people. (Consider the case of Ollie North, whose dedication to Reagan trumped his legal responsibility to uphold the constitution and its legally binding requirement that he obey congress.)
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I’m all for remembering, but only as long as remembering is emotionally healthy and oriented to an optimistic future.
About 15 years ago, I met a young man in a civil war museum in Virginia. Unprovoked, he stated that he was angry at “the North” because the North had defeated the South–and his great great great [great?] grandfather had “fought bravely for the South. He was visibly angry as he told me these things. It was pathetic to see someone so consumed and defined the American Civil War. His way of remembering had trapped him in an endless cycle of anger.
In an article in Harper’s Magazine (August 2011) titled “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance,” David Rieff has expressed concern that many Americans are “remembering” 9/11 in accordance with the official George W. Bush explanation from 2001: We were attacked “because the terrorists hate our freedoms–our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” This form of “remembrance” has no room for any possibility that the attack was provoked, even in part, in response to the constant meddling in the Middle East by the United States, going back at least as far as 1953’s “
China has already sent two unmanned lunar probes to the moon, and China has bold plans to send several astronauts to the moon by 2017. While those Chinese astronauts are on the moon, they plan to mine helium 3, an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion. We can assume that when Chinese astronauts step onto the moon, video cameras will be bringing beautiful images back to the world, which will then applaud China’s great technological achievement, to America’s begrudging dismay.
Thus, China is about to a space exploring nation in a dramatic and visible way. This is exactly what American needs. Why? China’s highly visible lunar program comes at a time when American is dramatically cutting its space ambitions (including the Shuttle program). America is being subjected to systematic campaigns disparaging science, much of it driven by religious leaders, corporate disinformation and government attempts to manipulate data. At the same time, anti-science religion is thriving in many American classrooms.
The United States is essentially a warmongering nation; we lurch from war to war. Americans apparently need an enemy to make sense of things. For us to get our heads back into science and math, we apparently need a math and science “enemy,” someone to intellectually challenge our standing as a technologically “advanced” nation.
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In the New York Times, Jonathan Haidt has invoked group selection theory to explain why so many people outwardly celebrated the death of Osama Bin Laden. To understand why the reaction was natural and predictable rather than primal and boorish, Haidt pointed out that we are more than “selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves.” We often do function like this, but we, unique among primates (and akin to bees and ants) simultaneously function intensely at a second higher level.
This [higher level] competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.
Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state. We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees.
As Emile Durkheim pointed out, humans don’t merely act on narrowly focused selfishness; rather, they are subject to emotions that “dissolve the petty, small-minded self. They make people feel that they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves.” Human beings can be knitted together through a benign “collective effervescence” that goes by the name of “patriotism,” which Haidt distinguishes from “nationalism,”
[T]he view that one’s own country is superior to other countries and should therefore be dominant. Nationalism is generally found to be correlated with racism and with hostility toward other countries, but patriotism by itself is not.”