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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Darkening

I'm not much for Nostradamussing and I don't think that our current political troubles are symptomatic of a looming apocalypse - at least not in a biblical sense- but I will say this: never since before the Enlightenment has reason and rationality been less respected in Western society than it is now.


Because it has been replaced. Oh logic had a good run I suppose. But its day has come. There's a new kid in town. His name? Opinion. Sheer, unflustered opinon - the young gun, unbothered by stodgy old reason.

Opinon is brash, its manly, its exciting. Moreover it packs the emotional punch of belief. Why choose a cold, dry idea over an opinion - which is essentially an idea supported by the dramatic power of emotion? Through this inherent drama, this power of persuasion, opinion casts itself, implicitly, as loud truth, or at least as a sexy alternative, and increasingly, we accept this. We've reached the point where a factual statement can be made and an emotional reply or difference of opinion is considered an acceptable rebuttal. This mounting social emphasis on the value of opinion and essentially emotional arguments is a danger to the truth. Of course facts too can be twisted, something that straying from reason only exacerbates, and when even facts become polluted and fluid, reality and people's opinions of reality become alarmingly indiscernable... Truth still exists, to be sure. It's there somewhere. But without a compass we're at a loss to find it.

We can see the influence of this rational dimming in all of our media, which has steadily become flashier at the expense of hard news and objective reporting. We see it in the deepening cleavage of heavily made-up news anchors and in the spinning, multicolored logos that flash frentetically across the screen to annouce each 'action report' or 'info thunderbolt' or whatever buzzterm has been assigned to the segment.

As a result of the corporatization of the media (indeed the vast majority of the American media is now controlled by five or six supercorporations ) it becomes about what sells. Truth might be the steak but you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. This is the great irony of privatization: while one would expect that private control of the news would free it from government influence and any poltical muddling of the facts, it in fact makes it a tacit complier to those in power by making it less concerned with the truth. Most news organizations simply take the news (that is poltical news) as it is handed to them by the administration, each adding the particular spin promoted by their ownership, and none offering a truly critical analysis of the information.

There is a great deal of talk about the importance of media objectivity when in fact the responsibility of the media is not to be objective, but to be critical. This does not call for the hyperbolic and politically motivated ravings of the usual talking heads, just as the term 'objectivity' does not call for the impotent and mindless information-conveyor-belt we so often see. What it means is an active analysis of information, with reports supplemented by independent sources. Indeed there is nothing independent about our news outlets, which either effectively censor themselves, as mentioned above, or are directly censored in their coverage of important issues such as Iraq. We are told that releasing such sensitive information would be a national security risk. Well, national ignorance is also a national security risk. Secrecy and discretion are all well and good in fighting a dirty war, but the widening gap between what the public knows and what those in power know is a grave threat to the integrity of our democracy, especially in a potentially eternal war like the loftily-named War on Terrorism (a title that, just like the "P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act", is a lingual masterpiece of Goebellian proportions).

There can be no democracy without an informed public because political accountability disappears in a fog of half-truths and outright concealment. Repeat: there can be no democracy without an informed public. In short, our media has failed us, and our appetite for hyperbole as media consumers has had very much to do with that failure. But hey, that's just an opinon.

Friday, January 13, 2006

An Interview With Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University. He is a noted historian, activist and political analyst. Among numerous other books, plays and commentaries he is the author of A People's History of the United States. For more information visit: , Wikipedia

After seeing a performance of Mr. Zinn's play Marx in Soho, Stefan, of Cultureblog, was able to ask him a few questions.

CB: For the past fifty years, you have witnessed and analyzed many significant shifts in the character of the United States. What have been the biggest changes in America's political and popular culture over the past half-century and how have they affected the rest of the world?

HZ: I think the most important changes have been the new conciousness of the race question, the new conciousness of the issue of sexual equality and a critical division in the thinking of Americans about the nation's place in the world.

CB: I once heard Molly Ivins speak and she made the remark that "To say you're not interested in politics is to say: 'I'm not interested in my own life'." And yet, outside of certain activist groups, this apathy is palpable both in voting statistics and in daily conversation. Am I just hanging out with the wrong people or is political malaise among Americans a growing reality? And if so, what might be the cause?

HZ: What is called "apathy" is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness on the part of the ordinary citizen, a feeling of impotence in the face of enormous power. It's not that people are apathetic; they do care about what is going on, but don't know what to do about it, so they do nothing, and appear to be indifferent.

CB: On a similar note, it seems as though 'hard news' has all but disappeared from our media. With the rise of what some are calling 'infotainment' our understanding of world affairs is becoming about as clear as a Dadaist mosaic. The lines between reality television and televison of reality are blurring as we continue to wage a war between commercial breaks. How does this manner of distortion affect the ability of our democracy to function and what can be done about it?

HZ: Democracy depends on citizens being informed, and since our media, especially television (which is the most important source of news for most Americans)reports mostly what the people in power do, and repeats what the people in power say, the public is badly informed, and it means we cannot really say we have a functioning democracy.

Coming Soon!

Stay tuned for an interview with Howard Zinn...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Ends Justify the 'Mean'...and Everything Else

Bill O'Reilly of Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" was on Letterman two nights ago. I usually don't watch Letterman, A)Because he's basically Conan O'Brian's comparatively boring Uncle, and B) Because he reminds me of a disturbed bartender who probably clips suspenders to his underpants.

This evening, however, in a brief spurt of channel-surfing, I ran across the unusual sight and paused to take it all in.

The topic of conversation between Dave and Bill was one that's been common in recent months and, apparently, remains unexhausted. Namely, the bi-partisanly manhandled warmother, Cindy Sheehan.

Whenever men like Bill discuss Cindy Sheehan, they quickly mumble the obligatory "ohnoonecandenyherlossandshecertainlyhastherighttosaywhatevershewants" lead-in before launching into what they really believe -namely the opposite. Someone like Cindy Sheehan, directly affected by the conflict in Iraq, has the right to her opinions, as long as those opinions are not too radical (translation: anti-war), or too loud (translation: audible).

After all, she has been know to say outrageous things such as:
"We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled. The president has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached."

How outrageous!

She has also made the villainous statement that: "The people that are being killed in Iraq are not terrorists."

This being the central conceit of the war in Iraq, the Right began gnashing it's teeth immediately. When Mrs Sheehan referred to the insurgents as "freedom fighters" while being interviewed by CBS reporter Mark Knoller, they began to get bitey. Because the quote is so often bastardized, it is reproduced below:

"You know that the president says Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, don't you believe that?" asked Mark Knoller of CBS, surrounded by a host of other reporters.

"No, because it's not true," Sheehan replied. "You know Iraq was no threat to the United States of America until we invaded. I mean they're not even a threat to the United States of America. Iraq was not involved in 9-11, Iraq was not a terrorist state. But now that we have decimated the country, the borders are open, freedom fighters from other countries are going in, and they [American troops] have created more terrorism by going to an Islamic country, devastating the country and killing innocent people in that country. The terrorism is growing and people who never thought of being car bombers or suicide bombers are now doing it because they want the United States of America out of their country."

These Iraqi 'terrorists', as Bill maintained to Dave with characteristic bluster, kill women/children/innocents! How could anyone call them freedom fighters? Well let's ignore for a moment that Mrs. Sheehan was in fact talking about border-crossing fighters and not Iraqis and let's ignore also that many of them are indeed fighting to free Iraq of the American occupation. First of all, I don't know what he meant by that. What women and children? Does he mean the "collateral damage" incurred by insurgent bomb-attacks on American forces? Sounds reminiscint of our invasion and current occupation. Just like us, they have an enemy and are willing to incur civilian casualties to strike at that enemy.

But putting hypocrisy (very briefly) aside, let's examine the given that is the implicit foundation of nearly everything the Right says about Iraq. Namely, that all of America's declared enemies are terrorists. But wait - these aren't the people responsible for 9/11 are they? There weren't any Iraqi highjackers on those infamous planes. Bill seems confused.

But of course all those angry, brown people in the Middle East are basically the same aren't they? Thanks to people like Bill, the psychological sleight of hand that our government performed so deftly after 9/11, went as smoothly as could be. At least 14 of the hijackers were Saudi, but they were organized by the Taliban right? So bombing Afgahnistan made sense didn't it? Surely while killing all those women and children with our genius-bombs we would hit a terrorist or two.

People were recovering from shock in the United States. Our daily sense of security had been badly rattled. We needed a purpose. We needed an enemy. And quickly came the answer, yodelled out over the suburbs like the clarion call of a swiss goatherd - OOOOOOOOOOOOOOSaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAMMMMMMMAAAAaaaaAAAAAA! Osama! Fine. It seemed clear that this man had a very direct hand in the deaths of close to 3,000 Americans. He was going down, and rightly so. This fact seemed like enough to justify our hammering of Afghanistan. But where was he? We searched high and low. Smoked out every cave. Still - nosama. Public opinion began to rumble.

Then came the trick - the sly translation that Bill and his fair and balanced friends helped make so smooth. Afghanistan = Iraq, Osama = Saddam. Did you catch that? It happened so quickly. But why not? Patato, Patato. They were all terrorists...weren't they?

In a vague but real way, we bought this lie.

Swiftly, steadily - all the 9/11 momentum, the fury and the blame was transferred. Cleverly redirected to a completely unrelated issue. Americans were still feeling unsafe. "Saddam..." chanted our leaders, repeating the mantra with increasing fervor. "Saddam...Saddam...Saddam.." Invade Iraq. Remove Saddam. That, we were told, would make us safe.

Where were the brave at that moment? Who was asking the one vital question? Namely - WHY??? Huh!? Iraq? Where did that even come from? What did Iraq have to do with our safety? The answer is of course, nothing. Then came the WMD fiasco, which I won't slog through here, but which was above all, what lead us to war. It was not bringing Iraq democracy, nor liberating its people that concerned us. Although trumped up recently, these issues were footnotes in the governments original justifications. What scared up American support almost exclusively were those simple, frightening words: Weapons of Mass Destruction. The evil Osamadam monster (that our government had created) was stockpiling weapons to destory us - we HAD to act. Of course now that we're comfortably ensconsed in a war our president readily admits that we invaded under false pretenses.

Well that's swell.

But as folks like Bill O'Reilly tell us, it no longer matters what happened in the past. In fact, anyone who continues to dig up the past is hurting America. What matters now is a focus on the present and the future. Makes sense right?

For the republicans it certainly does. Being dismissive of past realities as unhelpful and accusing war-critics of "dwelling" has proven itself an effective strategy. Similarly, the guise of being practical and future-focused goes great lengths to conceal a tactical unwillingness to admit past mistakes that could be learned from. Why focus on old errors when you can blunder into new ones?

And so it goes. The Right learned its lesson during Vietnam; it learned that protest can change public opinion and end a war. Therefore, whenever someone like Mrs. Sheehan surfaces and speaks her mind she will be called a nut, will be decried and insulted; smear tactics that are, of course, intended to force the Left to cut its ties with her, to muddle her usefulness as a political weapon. The Bill O'Reillys will continue to smear and distort, paralyzing real debate and laming healthy democratic progress, and while they're doing this, people on both sides will continue to die.

(From and

U.S./Coalition soldiers dead: 2,388 Wounded: 16,185
Iraqis civilians/police dead: 27,736 - 31,263 Wounded: Unknown

As I finish writing this, I'm listening to ABC in the background. "Another five soldiers killed in Iraq..." drones the calmly serious voice of the anchor, " a roadside bomb." Like millions of other Americans watching the news, I wonder what else is on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Myth of Patriotism

“Patriotism” is a word bandied about so casually that one would assume its meaning to be clear. That, however, is not the case. Who are the people who most loudly proclaim themselves to be patriots? Who hitch overlarge flags to their trucks and obscure their bumpers with "God Bless America" stickers? Who are these "patriots"?

Well, on the whole they are poorly traveled. In fact, they have often never left the country. Yet despite having no frame of reference, they bravely declare their native land the best in all the world.

What, then, is patriotism? An opinion based on a carefully nurtured ignorance of international affairs? It would seem so. Countless citizens of nations across the globe are fiercely committed to the idea that their country is matchless. It is subjectivity incarnate. Conversely, well-traveled individuals, those whose familiarity with a diversity of cultures has lent them a degree of perspective, tend to reject the very idea of patriotism as laughable.

But perhaps I'm being unjust. Perhaps it's not about comparing ones country with another. Perhaps patriotism is simply a benign and innocent swelling of pride, not a statement of superiority, but one of objective self-admiration.*

Having determined that these individuals are proud we must ask the question: What are they so proud of?

Are they proud of American cars? American food? American dirt? These questions are absurd, but appropriately matched to a concept of still greater absurdity. It is more likely that they are proud of the ideals we claim to stand for, but of which there are few shining examples. That said, if you can’t identify concrete aspects of a country that fill you with pride, you must love the country in and of itself. Unfortunately, the idea that you can love a nation itself is a trick of language. In the end you profess to love your country because you love yourself. As George Bernard Shaw once said: "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." Could anything be closer to the truth?

Furthermore, it should be clear to us by now that nationalistic feelings of this sort are artificially generated, and have long been political tools of the ruling elite, used to drum up popular support for economic/political ventures (i.e. war) and to merge unaffiliated groups of people with dissimilar interests into politically useful chunks.

In the end patriotism, or nationalism as it is more aptly termed, is a psychological condition (one might say disorder) resulting from this very political manipulation, a mental chain binding our sense of identity and well being to arbitrary national borders.

How do politicians succeed in duping the populace to such a great extent? They succeed because they are preaching to the choir. The romantic idea that you are a part of your country and it is a part of you has permeated the culture to the point where it is all but inextricable from the ranks of our most cherished assumptions. The central given is that we're all in the same boat and that boat is shaped like the United States; the idea that what's good for America will benefit all Americans and what’s detrimental will harm them. In truth this very conceit is flawed.

We are a nation defined by chasmal class divisions, where some are more equal than others and only wealth can make you free. We are not all in the same boat. Some relax on super-yachts while others sweat in proverbial dinghies. It is the poor who drown in the waves of economic fluctuation, and the poor who die at war defending the very lie that we’ve all been fed since childhood - namely that we're all in this together, all equal, all children of the same loving motherland.

Rise and shine America. Wipe those fifty stars out of your eyes and tear that ridiculous flag off your car. It's not the world you think.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

cherry poppin' post

It's much anticipated, awkward, inevitable, unforgettable. It's the first post. The deflowering of a blog. The sullying of a new slice of previously virginal webspace.

There it is. Let's not spoil the moment with embellishment.