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Teeming Links – August 30, 2013

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Today’s opening word is actually double: two opening words. The first is from John Michael Greer, writing with his typically casual and powerful lucidity. The second is from international studies expert Charles Hill, who writes with equal power. They’re lengthy, so please feel free to skip on down to the list of links. But I think you’ll find something interesting if you first read these excerpts, and ruminate on them, and see if you can spot a deep connection between them.

First, from Mr. Greer:

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm . . . and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

. . . The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

. . . [T]he fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

— John Michael Greer, “Terms of Surrender,” The Archdruid Report, August 28, 2013

Second, from Dr. Hill:

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior.

. . . There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.

To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.

— Charles Hill, “On Decadence,” The American Interest, September/October 2013

If you made a Venn Diagram out of Hill’s and Greer’s respective ruminations, and if you meditated for a while on the shared middle ground between them, you might find something that would insightfully illuminate a lot of the material below.

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Is America Addicted to War? (Foreign Policy, April 2011)
This exploration of “the top 5 reasons why we keep getting into foolish fights,” written by Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt in response to the United States’ military intervention in Libya’s civil war, is obviously and pointedly relevant to what’s going on right now with the Syria situation. “Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats (The Guardian)
“Convinced national security is for ever at risk, western governments mimic the fanaticism they claim to despise.”

The Leveraged Buyout of America (The Web of Debt Blog)
“Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?”

Academy Fight Song (The Baffler)
This may be the most exhaustive, devastating, damning, dystopian, and dead-on essay-length critique of higher education in America that I’ve ever read. “Virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators. . . . What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.”

Why Teach English? (Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker)
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. . . . No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department — texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.”

The Humanities Studies Debate (On Point with Tom Ashbrook)
A well-mounted, hour-long NPR radio debate. “Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning — philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts. Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy? Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight. To study, as Socrates said, ‘the way one should live.’ Critics say: ‘Crunch some numbers. Get a job.’

Paper Versus Pixel (Nicholas Carr for Nautilus)
“On the occasion of the inaugural Nautilus Quarterly, we asked Nicholas Carr to survey the prospects for a print publication. Here he shows why asking if digital publications will supplant printed ones is the wrong question. ‘We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper’ [says Carr]. ‘They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.'”

Japan Opens ‘Fasting Camps’ To Wean Kids Off Of Excessive Internet Usage (International Business Times)
“A government study found that up to 15 percent of Japanese students spend as much as five hours online everyday and even more time on the internet on weekends. As a result, the Tokyo government’s education ministry will introduce ‘web fasting camps’ to help young people disconnect from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held devices.”

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose (Bloomberg)
“It is a fundamental biological phenomenon. A single cell ‘decides’ (for lack of a better word) to strike off on its own. Mutation by mutation, it evolves — like a monster in the ecosystem of your body. Cancer is an occupying force with a will of its own. . . . What from the body’s point of view are dangerous mutations are, for the tumor, advantageous adaptations. . . . Susan Sontag called cancer ‘a demonic pregnancy,’ ‘a fetus with its own will.’ That is more than an arresting metaphor.”

New Exhibit Explains Why We’ve Been Fascinated By Witches For More Than 500 Years (The Huffington Post)
“A new exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, aptly titled exhibition, ‘Witches & Wicked Bodies,’ is paying homage to art’s heated affair with witches. The show dives into darker depictions of witches hidden in prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and more, shedding light on attitudes perpetuated by everyone from Francisco de Goya to Paula Rego.”

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research (Prehistoric Shamanism)
“By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did. . . . The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human.”

William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics (Mysterious Universe)
“Through comics, films and television, ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets.”

America’s post 9/11 surveillance state: Orwell mets Kafka in the Long Emergency

Here in the midst of the still-building storm and scandal over the revelations about PRISM — referring (in case you’ve recently been living under a rock or sunk in a coma) to “the system the NSA uses to gain access to the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services” — journalist and social media specialist Jared Keller offers these sobering and, to my mind, utterly necessary reflections on the equally troubling revelation that many Americans are deeply complacent about the whole thing:

Despite days of headlines about the American surveillance state and government invasions of privacy (and a huge spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon), Americans seem to have accepted the scope and reach of the post-9/11 surveillance state into their lives as necessary.

. . . Why are Americans so comfortable with the surveillance state? It’s likely that this acceptance goes hand-in-hand with an acceptance of the reality of modern terrorism.

. . . The threat of terror in our cities, immediately after 9/11, was paralyzing. Now, despite the horror of the bombings in Boston and the attacks that have been thwarted by counterterrorism efforts in the years since 9/11 (like Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to detonate explosives on the New York subway), terrorism seems to have become more accepted as a modern geopolitical phenomenon, a fixture in the background of our daily lives.

. . . . [I]f terrorism and the resulting surveillance state have become accepted features of American public life (which, according to the latest polls, they have), then the apparatus the government deploys to adjudicate and prosecute our war on terror should become normalized in our existing legal regime. The Patriot Act and National Emergencies Acts that provide the legal basis for the modern surveillance state were supposed to be temporary “emergencies,” but with their continued re-authorization by Presidents Bush and Obama, they have become the norm.

— Jared Keller, “Why Don’t Americans Seems to Care about Government Surveillance?Pacific Standard, June 12, 2013

Keller goes on to point out the really deep impact of these things on our collective circumstance here in the U.S.A.:

We are lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception. Margot Kaminski, executive director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, puts it nicely in The Atlantic: “Foreign intelligence is the exception that has swallowed the Fourth Amendment whole.” This, I think, is the most significant impact of Snowden’s leak: not necessarily to expose wrongdoing in the legal sense (since the sweeping dragnet of Prism and the NSA’s monitoring of Verizon’s phone records are technically legal) but to take the abstract legal concepts outlined under our emergency constitution and translate them into a political reality in the minds of the American populace.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” Snowden told The Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The Pew/Washington Post poll may indicate that people are comfortable with swapping liberty for security, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with an unaccountable, totally opaque, Kafka-esque security apparatus that falls in the legal gray area of our ongoing state of exception.

By way of context, I ask you to recall what our old Teeming Brain friend James Howard Kunstler said, and said very loudly, in his best-selling book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which was published way back in the prehistoric mists of 2005. Writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and witnessing the craziness all around him, Kunstler prophesied thus:

It has been very hard for Americans — lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring — to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency. . . . [W]e are entering a historical period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship.

Or actually that particular passage comes from a 2005 article by Kunstler in Rolling Stone, likewise titled “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler’s main focus in that article and his book was not terrorism or surveillance but the seismic shaking of industrial civilization’s foundations by the dawning of the age of scarcity for cheap and easy fossil fuels (a development that isn’t belied but confirmed by all of the recent talk about the “new oil bonanza,” which is the result of massive investments in the kind of galactically complex and far out alternative oil extraction maneuvers that were formerly inconceivable because they were unnecessary). But his “Long Emergency” characterization still clearly encompassed terrorism and the growth of a massive surveillance state in America and elsewhere to complement the massive geopolitical conflicts and at-home unpleasantness stemming from oil-fueled imperial ambitions.

Again, Kunstler said those things eight years ago. And he was hardly alone. In other words, it’s as our transformation here in America into an Orwellian and Kafka-esque surveillance state where the all-consuming desire to snoop and fully crucify the notion of privacy is driven by the reality of our “lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception” — it’s as if this transformation is unfolding according to a well-foreseen plan. Just like, say, the financial and economic collapse of 2008, which was foreseen by Kunstler and others but pshawed by the talking heads who were supposed to represent authoritative and trustworthy mainstream wisdom. These authorities, we were told, offered a bulwark of sanity and sensibleness against the kooks who said the entire economy of not just America but Europe and elsewhere was all a big, crazy, scary, evanescent hallucination that was primed to pop like a soap bubble.

But pop it did. And living in the Long Emergency we are. All bets are still off, just as they were several years ago when the meaning of common sense shifted to something we’re still trying to figure out. Only now we’re doing it while being tracked, recorded, and analyzed every step of the way.

Collapse and awakening: Thoughts on the American apocalypse

“When we get past the chaos, the horror, and the paradoxical hope of all that’s unfolding, what we’re talking about and living through is apocalyptic collapse as a spiritual path.”

Last Thursday I noted that we were then living through a week of apocalypse here in America. The very next day saw the first-ever police (and military) lockdown of an entire U.S. city in the service of a massive manhunt for a single (so we’re told) suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. This prompted the Associated Press to produce its own article about the sense of collective calamity that had engulfed us:

Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies: Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with heavily armed police and piercing sirens. Amid the chaos came an emotional Senate gun control vote that inflamed American divisions and evoked memories of the Newtown massacre. And through it all, torrential rain pushed the Mississippi River toward flood levels.

. . . America was rocked this week, in rare and frightening ways. We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out.

. . . In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends. “There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

. . . “Is this week feeling a little apocalyptic to anyone else?” tweeted Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the blog. “Boston. Poison. Explosions. Floods. Tomorrow, locusts.”

— Jesse Washington, “Across America, a Week of Chaos, Horror — and Hope,” ABC News (AP), April 20, 2013

And so now we’re living with the open — and troubling — question of what the Boston phenomenon in particular may mean for life going forward: Read the rest of this entry

Doom from Above: When the End Arrives, Will Anyone See It Coming?

The Extinction Papers – Chapter Three


So few humans look to the sky these days, engrossed as they are with the glowing box on the wall, the interconnected device held in their hand, and the cracks in the pavement in front of them as they count each step to the grave. Add to this the contemporary obsession with navel gazing, and the vista above doesn’t stand a chance. Downward the eyes are cast. Ever downward, searching for salvation

But I still look up, because that’s where the mysteries still exist, and that’s where the end will come.

Armageddon will come from above as we scuttle like ants in a Petri dish. This has always been a part of human lore, but we seem to have forgotten, as our vision becomes more nearsighted and internalized.  In version of The End preached by the modern, literalist Christian tradition, the returning Jesus will descend from the clouds during the Rapture and take up all the properly saved believers, leaving the rest to the Tribulation slaughter under the hideous reign of the Antichrist.  In the cosmic horror writing of Lovecraft and other devoted Mythosists, the Outer Gods might someday decide to pass blindly through our neighborhood, bulldozing our reality and raining down destruction born in a reality not our own and certainly over our heads. The cinema has filled seats with flickering tales of duplicitous aliens who arrive on earth to suck the planet dry. Asteroids and meteorites pose a constant threat to both the continued existence of our species and the quality of American filmmaking. Solar flares could one day decide to burn our watery marble to an orbiting cinder. Once again and over and over, death comes from the stars, or even from our star, and even from those places closer to home yet still firmly elevated. Read the rest of this entry

War, torture, and the failure of the American experiment

Once again, an online conversation has elicited enough words from me that I’ve realized they would make for a good blog post. A word of warning, though: I’m afraid it reads like a sermon or lecture. And a rambling one at that. Or worse, it may read like a one-sided conversation — which indeed it is. So caveat lector (let the reader beware).

The topic is the U.S. Senate’s passage last Thursday of the detainee interrogation bill that President Bush had been pushing. In the words of an AP wire piece, “The bill would create military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It also would prohibit some of the worst abuses of detainees like mutilation and rape, but grant the president leeway to decide which other interrogation techniques are permissible.” On the positive side — at least as I see it — the bill “would prohibit war crimes and define such atrocities as rape and torture,” but on the negative side it “otherwise would allow the president to interpret the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets standards for the treatment of war prisoners.” In other words, it allows the President to flout international laws, as the AP piece specifically explains: “The legislation . . . says the president can ‘interpret the meaning and application’ of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts. ” It also strips away certain standard rights from prisoners who are being held on suspicion of terrorism, including the right to habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge the lawfulness of their imprisonment.

Over at the trusty Shocklines message board, which, if you’re not using it, I can recommend to you as a haven for civilized, intelligent discourse on all sorts of topics beyond the board’s primary association with horror entertainment, someone started a discussion thread about the Senate’s passage of the bill. The thread rapidly grew to gargantuan proportions, with a great many people weighing in with all sorts of views and opinions, some conservative, some liberal, some approving of the content and/or general intent of the bill, others disapproving strongly.

Among many other interesting tangents and angles, one thing that grabbed my attention was the assertion that the U.S. government should simply be allowed to do “whatever it has to do” in order to deal with terrorists and terrorism, including resorting to the “aggressive interrogation methods” — i.e., the use of torture — made possible by the bill in question. This view was stated and supported by more than one participant in the conversation.

It is a view that I simply cannot endorse, for the simple reason that its adoption would ultimately destroy anything of value that America still represents. If we in the U.S. truly give in to the mentality and morality represented by the “whatever we have to do” position, then we may as well go ahead and drop the facade of being a nation founded on principles. The United States was the first nation in history to be founded consciously, rationally, and intentionally upon a set of philosophical, ethical, political, and economic principles, as opposed to just growing up from the soil, as it were, of ethnic loyalties, tribal wars, and the like. Yes, of course, in actual execution the founding of the nation involved all sorts of gritty real-world realities and eventualities that departed from this principled stance. But still, the principles themselves stood front and center for the first time ever, anywhere, on planet earth, and were drawn from the 18th century Enlightenment tradition, which itself emerged out of Renaissance-style humanism, which itself represented a rebirth of classical Roman and, especially, Greek humanism. These principles were central to the whole “American experiment,” as it came to be called, which was nothing more nor less than an attempt to found a nation and a people based not upon inherited membership or identity in a group, but upon rational adherence to an agreed-upon code, a set of rational truths, a philosophy and a worldview. Central to this philosophy were the ideas that all humans are possessed of innate dignity; that government should serve its citizens and not vice versa; that people, both collectively and individually, are and should be treated as ends in themselves instead of means (an idea picked up from Kant); that adherence to reason places all people on an equal footing, regardless of social or ethnic origin; and so on.

If we ever depart definitively from this basis in principles, then we’re finished. And to say that we should just do “whatever is necessary” in a given situation constitutes that very act of abandonment. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s come to sound like a whiny liberal hobby horse, but that doesn’t make it any less true: If we let our enemies goad us into becoming the monstrous entity they say we are, then they’ve definitively won, regardless of any other outcomes.

I think one of the most potent speeches in recent history comes not from a real-world political leader but from Denzel Washington’s character in The Siege, when he argues passionately with Bruce Willis’s character to try and convince him not to torture an Arab prisoner. By that point in the movie’s storyline, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the U.S., inspired by the U.S.’ capture of a popular sheikh and terrorist leader, has aroused a general panic. The U.S. government has begun rounding up Middle Eastern people and placing them in detention camps. A certain prisoner is thought to possess information that might help lead to the capture of other terrorist leaders. And Washington, standing right there in the room with the man about to be tortured, says to Willis, “Come on General! You’ve lost men, I’ve lost men, but you can’t do this! What if they don’t even want the sheikh? Have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit. Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for, is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”

Of course, the standard response that can be invoked to counter this type of thinking is obvious: “Okay, then what are we supposed to do if we’re not allowed to use any means necessary to extract vital information from prisoners?” I must admit that I have no specific answers to this. I’m not sure anybody does, and there’s the rub. But I will reiterate my personal opinion, which may seem hopelessly unhelpful and naive, that if we can’t find a better way to go about it than to emulate the very actions we have historically condemned our enemies for — and not just enemies of us, but of liberal humanism and democratic ideals in general — then we really ought to drop all pretense of still being the same nation we set out to be, and just admit that the American experiment has failed.

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Upon reading the argument that I’m advancing here, several participants in the above-described online conversation gave what I consider to be the single most bothersome response that it’s possible to give. One of them in particular stated it with especial blatancy, which I now pass on to you in a paraphrase: “Who cares about principles and standards? Certainly not America’s enemies! They don’t give a flying fuck about our principles and standards, so it’s counterproductive for us to get hung up on them when we’re dealing with such people.”

I can only respond to this with a hearty, “Huh?” I mean, okay, so our enemies don’t share our standards. But what the hell does that matter? The people for whom it’s important that our standards matter is us. If your principles and standards fly out the window as soon as the provocation or opportunity arises — such as, especially, when you find yourself obliged to confont and deal with people who don’t share your standards and may even be hostile to them — then you’re nobody. Or rather, you’re letting the other side define who you are, when in fact it’s those abandoned principles that ought to be doing the defining.

And this is most emphatically not just pie-in-the-sky bullshit. It’s the basic, foundational understanding that underlies and precedes all moral behavior, and all truly civilized behavior in general, in the real world of real people, guns, and wars. You must be the thing you value and the ideal you represent, most especially when you find yourself engaged in a conflict with those who oppose and challenge that ideal. Otherwise you’re just acting as an animal, propagating the jungle law of might-makes-right. And when the conflict is over, if you’ve won, you’ve lost, because what you supposedly stood for has been shredded, and you’ve become your enemy, and you deserve to be destroyed just like they did. In gradeschool terms, if you treat other people the way you don’t like to be treated, then you’re no better than they are.

If you’ll forgive me for pursuing something of a tangent, regarding the U.S. response to 9/11, which legitimately factors into any discussion like the present one, on Friday, September 29th, there was a really pertinent and fascinating interview on NPR with historian Niall Ferguson. The NPR Website summarizes it this way: “Historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, The War of the World, examines a century of history and finds that the West is well on the way to being eclipsed by Asia. Ferguson tells Steve Inskeep that it’s a destiny that was set a long time ago.” In the course of the interview, Ferguson explained that the current and future failure of the Iraq invasion was predictable based on past experiences in which an outside force tried to spread democracy too quickly to ethnically diverse areas that did not possess a native tradition of civil peace and the rule of law. He worked this into his overall thesis of his book, which presents a rereading of the 20th century’s overall historical arc. In contrast to the traditional view of the 20th century as the “American” century, Ferguson says the decline of America and the West as the major world power began in the first decade of the century with the nascent collapse of the Western empires in Asia and the rise of various eastern nations, most especially Japan, with China close behind, to positions of economic and political importance. He thinks the growing debacle in the Middle East is another front where this trend is making itself known.

Not incidentally, this ties in precisely with Morris Berman’s thesis in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, wherein Berman argues that America is pretty much finished, that our decline on the world stage is not only inevitable but is currently in progress. He reminds us that the British Empire had feet of clay by the turn of the 20th century, which “was really when the rot set in” (cf. an interview posted at his blog). But it took several decades for this reality to become apparent to everybody, including the British themselves. To quote Berman at length:

“The appearance of England in 1902 — after all, Queen Victoria was still alive — was the sun never sets on the British Empire. This was the great power. Down to something like 1950, that was still the image of England. Then an interesting thing happened — the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower was very angry with England, France and Israel, and he threatened to cause the pound to be devalued if England didn’t back off. They knew they had to do it. At that moment, the cultural lag caught up to reality. At that moment there was an international shift. Everybody understood what some people understood in 1910 and 1920 and 1930: that England was no longer a serious player. We are no longer a serious player. It’s just that there are very few people now who recognize it. There has to be something that’s equivalent to Suez. There was some hint of that when Rumsfeld went over to Germany and said to Joschka Fischer, who was then the foreign minister, you’ve got to join us and we’re going to defeat Iraq, and he said, ‘I’m not convinced of any of this.’ That Germany would say to the United States that you’re full of crap, there was already a hint that something had shifted, but it didn’t have the international force of something like Suez. But Suez is in our future. There is no doubt in my mind about that. There will come a time when there will be an incident, and it will be understood that the United States has eaten itself alive and doesn’t have the clout to respond. After that, it will slowly drift in the direction that England has drifted today. People will pay lip service to its grandeur and its history and all that, but a poodle is not a tiger.”

I think this relates directly to what I’ve been talking about here, because all of the dominoes are lining up for America to be exposed badly in our own Suez Crisis, which is probably underway right now in the form of the Iraq disaster and its various political effects and offshoots. And a large part of the recognition that may occur globally — correction, that is occurring and has already occurred to a great many people, and not only abroad but also here at home — is not just that America is politically and economically a paper tiger, but also that we no longer stand for anything like the America of historical myth and Jeffersonian philosophy. That, I think, is and will continue to be at least as important as the more empirical issues of political and economic decline. I think we may have already defeated ourselves, morally speaking — forget about our being overcome by a force from without — and that the current flap over the torture of prisoners is just one example this. That there can even be a debate about it pretty much proves the point. Many influential people want to frame the issue by saying that the U.S. has always tortured prisoners in time of war, and that now we’re just hypersensitive about it because more people are aware of it, probably due to the machinations of a liberal-biased media that hates America. Get over it, this viewpoint counsels us. Sometimes it’s necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts. Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it, for reasons outlined above.

For the sake of clarity, I probably should add that I don’t oppose the use of force. There are indeed just wars. In the present case, I agree wholeheartedly that if we’re dealing with enemies who can’t be reasoned with, then we should forego the reasoning and simply convince them by more physically direct means that they’re fucking with the wrong people. On the other hand, we really need to avoid falling prey to the common delusion that history began on 9/11/01. We’ve manipulated and exploited the Middle East and its people quite egregiously in the name of oil and open markets. So it’s a muddled distribution of blame all around.

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Astute followers of my argument may have noted that I seem to be contradicting myself, since I’m saying in one breath that I don’t buy the claim that sometimes it’s “necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts,” but then in the next breath I aver that some wars are just, and that force is sometimes needed. A participant in the Shocklines conversation picked up on this and asked me not only what I think about the present issue of torture, but also about such massively violent acts as America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II. Did this, he asked, have the effect I’ve been describing here?  Did it degrade us to the level of our enemies?  My answer is that I’m afraid it is indeed a hairsplitting distinction I’m making, with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

The dicey moral dividing line I’m talking about (or attempting to, with much clumsiness probably built in) is found in, for example, the fact that the Geneva Conventions don’t condemn war per se but they do prohibit torture of prisoners, and they define and condemn war crimes. Similarly, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” but the document itself doesn’t go so far as to condemn war outright.

In my view, war is justified in self defense, and all violence of any kind is justified solely in response to aggression. I’ve never been able to avoid feeling ambiguous about some of the huger real-life events and issues, such as the use of atomic weapons against Japan in WWII. Doubtlessly, Truman’s decision saved many thousands of lives in the long run — or more accurately, tens or hundreds of thousands — but then it also led to the by-now almost proverbial observation that while quite a few nations have gone on to acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. has heretofore been the only one crazy enough to actually use them. In the end, yes, I do have to condone Truman’s decision, based simply on the utilitarian, John Stuart Mill-influenced doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number.

But there are some acts that I think cannot be justified under any circumstances, and torture falls among them. Some acts are so very personal, and so very intimate and immediate in their violation of the individual human subject, that they are dehumanizing in the most powerful and literal sense of the word. And this dehumanization applies not only the victim but to the perpetrator as well. It is precisely the sanctity of the individual that lies at the heart of classical American idealism. If America departs from this, it has truly lost its soul.

Having said all that, I return to the recognition of the difficulties inherent in what I’m saying. I do recognize that yes, obviously, there’s a bizarrity of proportion in my position, since I can sit here and type, “I approve of the use of atomic weapons that killed hundreds of thousands,” and then type two seconds later that I disapprove of the torture of one person who possesses information that might help to save a great number of people. I’m not completely comfortable with it, either, but I also can’t deny my own reasoning process with regard to principled action as laid out above. I do take comfort in knowing that I’m pretty much aligned with both the U.N. and the Geneva Conventions, which also harbor this type of contradiction implicitly within their respective ideological worlds.

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There’s surely more to say, and indeed, more was said in the original conversation that elicited all these thoughts from me. But the gist of it all is apparent above. I certainly don’t claim to possess the final word on the matter. I just happen to run this particular blog, and so I’ll use it to present my own thoughts on things. One thing’s for certain, though: It’s a disconcerting and difficult time to be alive and awake as a citizen of the U.S. and a passenger of spaceship earth.

Jihad vs. McWorld: The trouble with radical Islam

To begin with, a proviso: I probably don’t know what I’m talking about here. I’m certainly not a political scientist. I may not even qualify as a reasonably informed citizen. But anyway…

A little over a week ago, back on September 10th, the online arm of The Guardian published a long essay by Martin Amis titled “The Age of Horrorism,” about the rise of radical Islam and what Amis views as the West’s pathetically inadequate response to it. As the abstract at the start of the article puts it, “On the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, one of Britain’s most celebrated and original writers analyses — and abhors — the rise of extreme Islamism. In a penetrating and wide-ranging essay he offers a trenchant critique of the grotesque creed and questions the West’s faltering response to this eruption of evil.” The essay is a fascinating read, and one which I heartily recommend. But only if you’re prepared to be bothered.

What’s really troubling and fascinating me at the moment is Amis’s explanation and analysis of the way the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb attended American universities in the 1940s and 1950s and then returned to his home country, where he laid the foundation for radical Islam’s guiding anti-Western ideology. I don’t mean I’m troubled by the way Amis presents Qutb’s story. I mean I’m troubled by the story itself. Qutb’s status as the intellectual father of Islamic extremism is hardly a secret in the West. Many of us Westerners have already learned of it through various means, such as an in-depth NPR story that appeared three years ago. I myself have brushed past Qutb’s story a time or two in my journeys through media culture. But I learned more about it from Amis’s essay that I had previously known, and it really got me to thinking.

In particular, I’m troubled by the fact that Qutb’s famous cultural criticisms of America and the West illustrate one of the great difficulties facing anybody who tries to confront radical Islam, namely, that many of these criticisms are built around a valid core insight. Inspired by Qutb’s voluminous writings, radical Islamists harp on America’s relative soullessness, its insanely idiotic pop culture, its overall cultural shallowness, its general degradation and decline under the influence of capitalism, celebrity worship, egoism, and the like. In so doing, they are singling out some of the very same things that many of our best homegrown culture critics — e.g., Daniel Boorstin, Neil Postman, Allan Bloom, Theodore Roszak, James Howard Kunstler, Morris Berman, Benjamin Barber, Lewis Mumford, C.S. Lewis — have gone on about for decades. Certainly, the Islamists take their criticisms to sometimes comical (or tragic) extremes. Their views are shot through with a virulent misogyny and what seems a positively pathological fear or hatred of sex and the human body. Equally as important, they frequently misread, misrepresent, or flat out misunderstand American history, as Amis trenchantly points out. But even so, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that in their moral horror at what the West has become under the economic, political, and military leadership of America, the Islamists are nursing a fundamentally sound grievance.

The dangers that stem from this are severe. In such a situation, it’s all too easy for many people to condemn or dismiss valid criticisms of America and the West because such criticisms sound suspiciously like something a radical Islamist would say. Allowed to run to its full extreme, this suppression of self-reflection would almost certainly lead us into culture death in the form of a dystopian society like the ones described in Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. On the other hand, it’s also possible to focus too much on the little bit that the Islamists have gotten right, and to let this arouse sympathy for them, and thus to lose sight of the fact that many of them really are hellbent on destroying and/or forcefully converting the West, and that they really do represent a danger so grave as to border on the apocalyptic. The likely outcome of this second approach is equally easy to forecast.

Amidst this confusion and difficulty, I continue to think that Benjamin Barber’s characterization of the clash of civilizations as Jihad vs. McWorld, i.e., tribalism vs. globalism, is the single most helpful expression and analysis of where we now stand, since it presents a forceful criticism of both sides of the conflict, and explains how both tendencies are hostile toward authentic democratic civilization. The opening paragraphs of his famous 1992 essay for The Atlantic summarize the matter perfectly, and seem positively prophetic in light of events that have unfolded over the past decade:

“Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures — both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe — a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food — with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.

….”The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad’s centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld’s centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic.”