Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Further Discussion

In my last post one of my readers. Ivan Hentschel, objected to my conflation of empathy and Christian love when I wrote:

The word empathy has the same problem as does “Christian love.” Both words have touchy feely quality that evoke images of a maiden clad in a diaphanous white gown skipping through La-La Land with a beatific smile on her face. In truth both require a decent into the deepest pit of Hell coupled with a willingness to love every low-life son-of-a-bitch one finds down there even though one’s knee-jerk reaction is to tear their freaking throats out. Both empathy and Christian love are mindsets, which is why people rarely understand their meaning, and that is what makes them problematic as rallying cries.

To which Ivan replied:

Empathy is a useful capacity of human beings. “Christian love” is not.

To which I responded:

Actually, they’re one in the same, which is why neither is rarely found in organized religion.

To which Ivan said:

I must disagree. To be in empathy (to “feel with”) demonstrates some human compassion and energy sharing. “Christian (or any other brand of religious) love” is self-serving [My God is better than your God] and gratuitous. And it usually requires monetary contributions, whereas empathy does not.

And “organized religion” is probably no longer religion, but probably a financial, real estate and political movement. Just like corporations and political organizations, they have no capacity for empathy.

In short, empathizers, unlike sympathizers, do not manipulate for personal gain. Or at least they shouldn’t. If they do, they are merely charlatans.

I found Ivan’s comments so interesting I decided to kick them out of the comments section and devote a separate post to them.

In his last comment, Ivan has sunk his teeth into a half-truth…well, maybe a five/eighths truth or more. Yes, it is true that Christianity, like too many other organized religions “is probably no longer a religion, but rather a “financial and political movement.” He forgot to mention that Christianity’s overemphasis on “personal salvation” contributes much to its loss of empathy because all too often this” personal salvation becomes something to be fearfully protected by shutting out the outside world less it corrupt the purity of one’s faith. This is where you find too many Christians who only read Christian newspapers or listen only to Christian radio stations. Though, in truth, the majority of Christians pop into church at most once-a –week and doze through the sermon before rushing out for a week’s worth of secular activities.

However, there are a handful of us--a slim majority, a splinter group—for whom the emphasis of our faith in on the Tao of Jesus. In other words, we could care less about Jesus’ divinity, or whether he really rose from the dead on the third day, or whether God sent him forth to be a sacrificial lamb to atone for Adam’s original sin, or any of the other theological claptrap that surrounds his being.

The message he gave us was to develop a love (a mindset, not an emotion) for all of God’s creation, regardless of how it relates to us. This, and this alone, must be the essence of our faith. Anything less than that reduces the faith to a “corporate and political organization.”

For those who want to return America to her Christian roots, I am tempted to say let us do so. As Kurt Vonnegut has suggested, instead of posting the Ten Commandments in our public buildings, let us post the Beatitudes form the Sermon on the Mount. In his teachings Jesus reduced the Ten Commandments to two: Love God and love you neighbor. Then he proceeded to expand the definition of neighbor to include our enemies and those who hate us. This included the injunction to turn the other cheek, though the Religious Right is convinced that passage was translated incorrectly and that it should read, “Turn the other’s cheek with a fistful of knuckles.”

Were we truly a Christian nation, the first thing we would do is sell the Pentagon to a private developer who would turn it into the world’s greatest indoor shopping mall. (It has everything—name recognition, parking…) Because for a Christian, all acts of violence against another are evil. True, there are times, in rare circumstances, when this evil becomes a necessity as in the case of self-defense. These are exceptions that should neither be glorified nor honored. There is no such thing as a just war or a good war. Both are oxymorons that serve as thin rationalizations to justify our occasional and collective need to slaughter large number of our fellow beings in an orgy of self destruction.

Admittedly, Christian love is a tricky and difficult proposition fraught with potential danger. In the wrong hands it can become downright toxic as in, “Such is my love for your soul that I am burning you at the stake so your soul may rise heavenward on a column of greasy smoke to be embraced by our Heavenly Father.”

Practicing Christian love is a lot like pissing into a hurricane. Most of our output ends up in our laps. But occasionally a drop hits ground, and that makes is all worthwhile.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Numbing Narratives

“Narrative” is one of those buzz words that bounces around the Progressive blogosphere. It is usually uttered wishfully as in, “Progressives need to develop a coherent narrative on (fill in the blank).” Tragically, the wish for a narrative rarely produces one as Progressives continue to play fallback in the face of a strong and powerful narrative from the Right, which is why you rarely hear the Right speaking of the need for a narrative.

“Narrative” is word that signifies nothing. Rather, it is the product of a causal fallacy, i.e. the assumption that a “narrative” can shape or change reality. Ira Chernus in a thought-provoking article on Progressive Patriotism argues that, “[I]t is entirely possible to transform the meaning of patriotism in just about any way we like.” Here, Chernus bumps into the flaw that has hobbled Progressives since they turned their backs on the working class in the sixties: that all we need do to change a narrative is to change its language and the world will fall into step behind it. This line of thought assumes that culture is a machine, a static noun, and all we need do is change a battery or tighten a screw and it will dance to our tune. The truth is that culture is an ever changing verb that is constantly shifting beneath our feet even as we dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” in our carefully crafted narratives. It is this very fetish with top-down narratives that gave rise to the politically correct language that is anathema to the working class.

Chernus argues for a patriotic Progressive narrative grounded in empathy. Empathy is an empty abstraction whose soft vowels and consonants dull the senses while its meaning remains vague. What we should be striving for is a “decent” society. Here is a word that has a bite to it. The word implies not only the building of a decent society, but the treating of all segments of society with decency, regardless of our feelings towards them. Don’t forget that five simple words, “Have you no decency, sir?” brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The word empathy has the same problem as does “Christian love.” Both words have a touchy-feely quality that evokes images of a maiden clad in a diaphanous white gown skipping through La-Lad Land with a beatific smile on her face. In truth, both require a descent into the deepest pit of Hell coupled with a willingness to love every low-life son of a bitch one finds down there even though one’s knee-jerk reaction is to tear their freaking throats out. Both empathy and Christian love are mindsets, which is why people rarely understand their meaning, and that is what makes them problematic as rallying cries.

Also, to create this Progressive patriotic narrative would be to impose another top-down ideology that would be likely to fall on deaf ears. The success of the Left in Latin America is due to their ability to tap into an indigenous populism. Progressives could learn much from the Tea Party when it comes to welding an indigenous populism to an ideology instead of attacking it, which only increases its appeal. The success of the Right is that instead of obsessing on top-down narratives, it has tapped into the fears and frustrations of the working class to create a bottom-up narrative that is highly effective. Speaking of the Left, Jean Baudrillard argues that, “[B]y investing in the moral order, it [the Left] can only watch the repressed political energy crystallize elsewhere and against it. And the Left can only feed evil by embodying the reign of virtue, which is also the greatest hypocrisy.”

What is repressed in Progressive narratives is political passion, and the bottom line is that politics demands passion. Without this passion politics becomes so much political pablum that induces apathy instead of action. Progressives will never mount a successful movement until their every utterance sends the Rightwing noise machine into spasms of apoplectic rage.

There is a rallying cry that would resonate with the electorate, and that would be a loud and passionate argument that three running sores are befouling Liberty’s face—Wall Street, the Beltway and the Pentagon, and that by the Pentagon we don’t mean the troops who are doing the heavy lifting, but the policy wonks and generals who have put them in harm’s way by sending them out to fight unnecessary wars. And we must fight to staunch those sores and to return to the one value all Americans both share and strive for, an unblemished liberty.

The Right has been able to conflate liberty and security in the mistaken belief that liberty is only possible in an atmosphere completely devoid of danger and risk. The truth is that security is only achieved when liberty is sacrificed on security’s altar. Liberty requires courage, the willingness to accept that life involves an element of risk and that security is only possible within the precincts of a police state that would turn America into a gated community. Anyone willing to surrender their liberty to be protected from the “terrorists” would do well to don a flame retardant suit and a crash helmet before getting behind the wheel because the probability of being wacked in an automobile accident is far greater than being wacked in a terrorist attack.

A decent society is grounded on four moral absolutes; do not kill; do not steal; do not lie and do not exploit. Obviously, corporatism and decency are mutually exclusive. For what is fouling democracy’s waters in the twenty-first century is not capitalism but corporatism. Capitalism was a product of owners who exploited their workers. Capitalism has morphed into a corporatism in which employees who think they are owners exploit the workers. Capitalist owners walked the factory floor; corporatist employees are sequestered in glass towers which makes it easier for them to ramp up their exploitation of their workers.

Our wars are corporate wars, waged to expand markets and secure natural resources. Corporatism’s attempt to equate itself with freedom is bogus. It offers freedom only to those at the apex of the pyramid, a freedom that is bought at the expense of the pyramid’s base. This is the peg upon which Progressives could hang liberty’s lantern. We must be willing to demonize corporatism , especially the finance corporatism that has raped pension funds, turned people out of their homes and shipped jobs overseas.

Such demonizing requires passion. We’ve got to be pissed off and we’ve got to be willing to piss the public off. We must be willing to listen to the impassioned member of the Tea Party and to respond to their fears and frustrations and to construct not a platform out of them but a raging bond fire. This does not mean we join forces with the Tea Party. Rather, this means we steal their thunder with an even louder rallying cry that would tap into the indigenous populism that is part of the American tradition. And we won’t do this by trying to create bland, reasonable narrative. It’s time to start handing out pitchforks and torches.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Keynes and Consumption

All of a sudden, John Maynard Keynes has returned to the A-list. Exiled at the beginning of the Reagan administration, he is once again in vogue as the policies of Reagan and his successors have ended in an economic meltdown.

Keynes made his name during the Great Depression when he knocked Says law off its pedestal. Says law stated that supply and demand would always balance out in the long run. 1929 put the lie to that.

Instead, Keynes put forth a theory of aggregate demand in which he argued that demand evolves from the interaction of consumption, investment and government spending. In short, he believed that if consumption drops because of an economic downturn, then it was necessary to increase government spending, which would put money in the consumer’s pocket, which, in turn, would be used to buy goods, and this would stimulate the economy. (Of course, this implied that government spending be reduced in good times, something out leaders ignored during the Cold War.)

The only problem I have with Keynes theory is that it was developed when mass consumption was in its adolescence.

It is difficult to date exactly when the age of mass consumption began since several factors contributed to it. There was the sudden flooding of the consumer market with large quantities of mass produced goods that were affordable. Some argue that mass consumption really took off in the 1890s with the growth of corporate bureaucracies and the increased pay for white collar workers.

If we accept 1890 as an arbitrary start date, then Keynes formulated his theory when mass consumption was a little over forty years old. At this time, there was still room for growth in the consumer market. Many homes were without indoor plumbing or electricity. Coal or wood still heated houses and cooked the food. Clothes were washed by hand; fields were plowed by a team of mules; hot water had to be heated on the stove.

Now we fast forward to today when consumption is seventy percent of our GDP, and one could argue that much of this consumption has been superfluous since most of our basic needs were met in the go-go days of the fifties and sixties. In addition to that, this superfluous consumption has been floated on a sea of consumer debt.

How do you stimulate spending in a saturated consumer market? Whatever money is funneled into the consumer’s pocket will most likely go to pay down consumer debt. We have been floating on a consumer bubble, and it has popped. It is unlikely it will be re-inflated.

Like Icarus, our economy flew too close to the sun and has come crashing back to earth. There are no more wings to be had.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


What a wonderful age we live in. Never have the fields been so fertile for nurturing the forces of folly. Madness is the norm, idiocy is genius. And the reason can be summed up in two words: global nihilism.

In a world where life is no longer worth living, only the 30-second spot has meaning. Beauty, truth and justice no longer reside with the Gods, but with the roll-on deodorant. In a world without norms, deviance rules. Policy becomes a homicidal maniac turned loose to terrorize the village. Life is reduced to a cipher, numbers in the debit column crossed out to enhance the bottom line. Meaning is reduced to a shallow theological formula leaving only the grand farce of power for power’s sake.

So the policy wonks sing their songs, shrill motets broken and off-key, toxic notes like a heavy fog blinding and choking. And within the crippled cadence of the melody runs the grim denial that the first sign of a civilization’s decay appears when it touches the apogee. It is as it slides over the apogee and begins its descent that it becomes dangerously murderous.

Nihilism and decay are the twin goddesses that are lifting our leaders on high. The dankness of nihilism and the stridency of decay feed their power, for both tolerate all idiocy. They bath our leaders in a holy light whose glare blinds the masses and turn their danse macabre into a gay gavotte. They dance and duck and turn, twist and evade to the smooth song of press releases and denial. They dump a turd here and a turd there, slowly building a bulwark that hides and protects them from the forces of meaning.

They are the Zen masters of bullshit and the gods salute them. .

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

History Repeats

They say Gen. David Petraeus is a consummate politician, which is another way of saying he knows what to kiss and what not to kiss. There is nothing new in this. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us an early prototype of Petraeus in the character of Prince Boris Drubetskoy, the son of an impoverished noblewoman, Princess Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy who schemes to wangle her son an appointment to the Guards of Smenovsky. There, as a sub-lieutenant, he makes a discovery and one wonders if Petraeus, as a green second-lieutenant didn’t make the same one:

He {Boris} had completely assimilated that unwritten code which had so pleased him at Olmutz, that code in virtue of which a lieutenant may stand infinitely higher than a general, and all that is needed for success in the service is not effort, not work, not gallantry, not perseverance, but simply the art of getting on with those who have the bestowal of promotion, and he often marveled at the rapidity of his own progress, and that others failed to grasp the secret of it. His whole manner of life, all his relations with his old friends, all his plans for the future were completely transformed in consequence of this discovery.

As Marx once said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Dead Cow Policy

Barack Obama has lifted to the highest aesthetic level a tradition that has made our country what it is today: Our talent for mistaking a contingent and transitory reality for an eternal truth. We’re like the farmer who keeps milking the cow long after its dead. When a decayed teat slimes off in his hand, he calls it progress.

Take, for example, the Cold War. When World War II ended, the Soviet Union and we were the only two military powers still standing. Our military and industrial leaders looked across the ocean and instead of seeing Josef Stalin they saw a cash cow. I mean, why waste all that military equipment, why send all those scientists back to academia where they would only make trouble, why force prosperous defense industries to cut back? Let the good times roll!

During the war, we had made an exciting discovery. Paranoia is great for crowd control. That great statesman, Arthur Vandenberg nailed it when he told Truman the key to governance in the new world order was to, “scare the hell out of the American people.” Thus, paranoia became part and parcel of the American character. If we weren’t scared of Commies, we were scared of germs and body odor. It was great: everybody conformed; everybody kept their mouths shut.

Obama is clinging to that Cold War mentality even though it’s as irrelevant as a dead cow’s teat. He continues to make it sing; only now the song is in Pashtun instead of Russian. He’s outdoing the Cold Warriors of old. Every time they tried to mess with our civil liberties, the public raised hell. Look at how he continues to trample on them with nary a peep out of the people. The reason is simple: The people who raised the most hell back then were the people who remembered what life was like in a democratic republic. They are dying out. The only thing the Boomers have ever known is the presence of a constant threat. Their greatest fear is a freedom that tolerates diversity. This is the source of their silence.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blobular Momentum

With the passage of time, the dynamic of a newly ascendant power congeals into a bureaucratic blob that is as opaque as it is impersonal, with a momentum unrelated to either reality or the world outside its viscous mass. Within this mass, leaders morph into supervisors sucked along by its unstoppable momentum. In the blind eyes of the blob, the citizen is dead, replaced by the disinterested bystander.

Cut off one part of the blob and it reappears elsewhere on the blob. Cancel one program, and another slides in to replace it. The blob neither thinks nor feels, but moves with a nihilistic impetus powered by ego, greed and stupidity. The complexity of its rules and regulations increase in direct portion to the number of people available for their implementation and the speed with which printing presses can spit out pages for its multiple manuals.

Its growth has been exponential since the firewall separating private and public bureaucracies fell. There is no longer any distinction between a private bureaucrat and a public one because the blob has absorbed both.

Those who would reform ithe blob are helpless before it, for it responds only to infusions of liquidity. What was once corruptions is now funding; what was once freedom is now policies of control and stability; what was once democracy is now statutes; debate became marketing; the stimulations of reading is replced by the numbing down of dancing images on multiple screens.

Those who rise to the top of this blob are the socially maladjusted who mistake their crippled egos for the public will, or, even worst, the blob’s destiny.

Brutality and oppression come easily to the blob. In its eyes, nothing is living because numbers and labels have sucked the life out of existence. If nothing lives, nothing can die, and the corpses that pile up become so much clutter to dispose of so the land their blood soaked can be developed. They are names to be crossed off a register or a list, numbers to be placed in a dead file.

Those who stand atop the blob cling to the delusive belief that they control it. Ahead of them, they see a lighthouse firmly grounded on an immovable rock, guiding them towards the utopian world that is their birthright. What they fail to understand is that the lighthouse is a chimera that moves as the blob shifts directions under its own momentum giving them the illusion that utopia is still within their reach.

Life in the land of the blob is one of ennui and diversion, feeble attempts to find passing stimuli is the grey twilight that is neither darkness nor light. Bright lights, toys and noise divert and direct attention away from the world that is dying around them.

The blob makes possible our leaders’ madness because it does not car how insane they are, for they are but a passing speck on its surface, a mild irritant that will soon shrivel and fall off, only to be replaced by another irritant.

But while our leaders ride the blob, they are convinced of their exceptionalism as they keep their eyes firmly fixed on the lighthouse before them and continue to believe that it is fixed and unmovable.