Friday, July 28, 2006

Foxy Fox

Another television season is upon us without anyone having yet unmasked the hidden agenda behind the cynical humor broadcast by the Fox television network.

Fox shows such as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "Arrested Development" and "Malcolm in the Middle" have in common an over-the-top humor that skewers everything and is, frankly, quite funny. You might think that good satire is the salve that American democracy needs -- but in this instance you'd be wrong.

Behind Fox's media farrago of dysfunctional families, venal politicians, hypocritical hypermoralists and even corporate greed, lies a very unfunny message right out of Dante's Inferno: you can't believe in anything and your generous heart will only be broken if you strive for better, so abandon all hope.

Bart Simpson's celebration of slackerdom, diabolical infant Stewie in "Family Guy," "Malcolm's" sadistic mother and figuratively castrated father, and Ken Lay-esque corporate defrauder George Bluth in "Arrested Development" all paint the world in the color of deep despair.

Yet Fox, whose commentator Tony Snow was tapped to be George W. Bush's press secretary this year, is an odd bearer for a message of despondency. No one who examines the facts can walk away unconvinced that, starting from its inception as a brainchild of Reagan political operative Roger Ailes, Fox Cable News and its affiliates were conceived to operate as a propaganda beam.

Bush and Fox share a fondness for the most flowery of family values, misty eyed hand-on-heart flag waving and Christian evangelicalism's waggingest moral finger.

So if this is the neocons' broadcasting megaphone, you'd think, this is not your father's Republican Party. Not quite: it's your grandfather's or great-grandfather's GOP. Let's recall that the America conservatives want to conserve is that of 1906 or 1806 -- not 2006.

Indeed, having failed for generations to win in the open marketplace of ideas, conservatives have seized upon a new formula to complement their fear mongering: ridicule everything until nobody cares. Then right-wing operatives can hack democracy to pieces without opposition.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Grateful Nation

Few things fix the mind on the here and the hereafter -- and the way human beings consign others to ford the pass between them -- than a funeral with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery, such as one I had the occasion to attend this week.

In almost every respect, the occasion was uncommon. The family party was small. The wound caused by the nearly year-old death was almost healed. The death itself had come peacefully in the deceased's bed at home. The veteran was a female naval intelligence officer during World War II.

More than a funeral, it was an inhumation. There was no bathos, nor rage at the loss of a loved one at the hands of a negligent, selfish president waging a criminally stupid war in the Persian Gulf. World War II was indisputably the last "good war."

Instead, there was an astounding display of quiet dignity on the part of the U.S. Navy. A marching band, what looked to my civilian eye as a battallion of sailors, a horse-drawn caisson with a casket draped in the stars and stripes, a color guard.

I was reminded of Kennedy's funeral. My older son thought it was someone else's cortege, not his grandmother's. Perhaps Rumsfeld's (I only wish!). It was beautiful.

The band played "Come, Holy Ghost." Then we processed to the burial site to the sounds of the Navy hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." We stopped. Six sailors held a flag over the cremains. The Navy chaplain led us in prayer. We stood.

A line of about six sailors formed, raised their rifles and fired a three-rifle volley. The practice has its origins in an ancient war custom of bringing all fighting to a halt to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight.

Finally, the six escorting sailors folded the flag to the sounds of "America, the Beautiful." A sailor handed it to the military chaplain, who then presented it to the next of kin with the following words, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Chief of Naval Operations and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your mother's service to this Country in World War II."

Then came the bugler's "Taps."

"Taps" was composed by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in 1862. It became known as "Taps" because it was often tapped out on a drum, whenever a bugler was unavailable, and was widely used by both Northern and Southern armies.

Restless thoughts followed me in the hush and quiet that ensued that sweltering day.

A part of me had been rebelling, fighting within me to scream out the rage of thousands of mothers at the inhumanity of war. I came of age at a time in which such displays in the face of the military were common, as the government was waging another useless carnage, in Vietnam. Yet the effect of the military's psychological operation on me had been uncanny.

Still a vaguely agnostic Christian, I had prayed with feeling and been moved at "Taps." My rebellious feelings had felt undignified in the face of young boys who might be called upon to die, no matter how cruelly meaningless the conflict.

It's a clever thing to have these ceremonies, one family by one family, out of sight from the glaring eye of the press. I had been challenged at the gate due to my press badge; I was there as an individual, not a reporter, so I hid it thereafter. But I then realized this is a part of war the military wishes to hide.

No recruiter would want young men to see what their mothers might face. No dissembling president using pointless war to dole out billions to cronies would want the public to know at what human expense.

In a sense, all military funerals are efforts to assuage the guilt and responsibility of military and political leaders for having taken someone from a family and returned that person dead. It's the least a grateful nation can do. All such funerals are a human response in the face of a shameful reality; they are cathartic ceremonies and a public confession that we are a murderous species.

How much more grateful all of us might be if war's casualties were much rarer, the occasions far nobler!

Such, at least, was true in the case of the military service rendered by this one Second World War Navy lieutenant I went to mourn, one whose intelligence analyses undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives and millions of others from the scourge of the Axis powers. Full military honors, in this instance, were a fitting coda to a life's struggle, well fought.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

World War IV?

News this week from and about the Middle East ranges from the worrisome to the ridiculous, all leading to the question: are we headed for World War IV?

When was World War III, you ask? That was that long, intermittently hot and cold war between the USA and the USSR, with fronts in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, the horn of Africa, Angola, Nicaragua, etc., the war we once thought would never end ... or would end in a mushroom cloud.

We may still get a mushroom cloud, but it won't be deployed from a superpower's silo (unless Dubya does it ... all bets are off on that). Most likely it will be a "dirty bomb" set off by a Muslim zealot ... or an atomic bomb in the nuclear arsenal that Israel is said to possess.

But that comes a bit later than now. That's what Israel could do, in desperation, when Washington and Jerusalem finally succeed at uniting all the Arab nations and, with the grand jihad on, the Arabs are at the gates. That day is no longer very far away, but right now we're still at the beginning of a conflict.

This one, it seems to me, is very similar to the beginning of World War I in the late summer of 1914. For about a month or so barely a day passed without one European country declaring war on another. These days, instead of war declarations we have the fireworks of car bombs, home-made missiles, and aircraft and artillery counterattacks.

But then, does any Arab nation have the bomb under wraps? Then what?

In World War I, Europe fought from trenches and in relentlessly insane advances of mere meters until 8.5 million lives had been expended, 21 million had been wounded and an added 7 million went missing in action.

Twenty years after the end of the war to end all wars, the world went into another paroxism of murder and we, humanity, managed to kill, over nearly 6 years, an estimated 65 million people -- that's about 30,000 people killed every day.

About 40 million were killed in wars between 1945 and 2000, including World War III. And that's a picnic compared to the coming war, since death tolls per atomic bomb are counted in megadeaths (equal to 1,000,000 deaths).

So I'm beginning to think that the term "terrorist" has been misapplied altogether. The odd bomber here and there, even the Sept. 11 suicide attackers, haven't been really all that terrifying.

All they did was wreck a couple of the world's ugliest buildings (and, yes, more lamentably kill about 2,000 people), or in several foreign cities wreck a couple of trains (and, more lamentably again, kill several hundred people). But if you weren't there, or if you don't believe everything on television or radio, their impact was not all that significant.

In the grand scheme of things, these events were tiny. For example, most people in Afghanistan, where the Sept. 11 attacks were planned and directed, had no idea about the planes crashing into -- "What's that you say? Buildings a hundred storeys tall? Nice fairy tale, ha, ha ha." -- the World Trade Center.

So, the main effect of these "terrorists" has been annoyances about the truly stupid things done in the name of security, such as checking everybody's shoes after the one real shoe-bomber sailed through checkpoints even though he was a known suspect.

The real terrorists, I would contend, are sitting in the Oval Office and the Israeli prime minister's office. They're the ones launching World War IV with insane warring that will, as sure as the cows eventually come home, goose some lunatic to start using an A-bomb to show his is bigger than the other guy's.

On that score, Dubya makes me very scared.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dead Faith of the Living

The argument developing in the Anglican Communion over the election, as head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, of a woman bishop who has blessed gay civil unions brings to mind a phrase of the late historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan.

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living," Pelikan told an interviewer with the U.S. News & World Report in 1989. "Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition."

In his Jesus through the Centuries, Pelikan insistently reminds the reader just how much of what is attributed to Jesus is really in the eye of beholders throughout history. This is something that the author of the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History and Development of Doctrine should know well.

The Jesus of the gospels shows absolutely no interest whatsoever in the moral status of homosexuality, same sex orientation and so on. The absence of direct teaching from Jesus on sexual behavior was so patently obvious that it continued in the teaching of those who lived and accompanied Jesus while he walked this earth.

It's not until at least 30 years after Jesus' execution that we have the very first imprecation against homosexuality (and almost every form of sexuality outside marriage). This comes from a man who first persecuted Christians, then changed his mind and became, to be anachronistic about it, more papist than the pope; I'm referring, of course, to the apostle Paul, a man who never actually met Jesus in the flesh, the way you and I might have.

Paul felt he had to introduce a farrago of maledictions upon a wide range of sexual behavior, although he admits to a "thorn" in his own flesh, the nature of which could very well be precisely the activity he deplores. No greater temperance leader than a former drunk.

But never mind Paul. What was Jesus concerned with?

Take Jesus' "basileia theou," a Greek phrase commonly translated as 'Kingdom of God," which I think is more aptly rendered as the "reign of God." In what could easily be described as Jesus "constitution" of the new realm, the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11; Luke 6:20-26), he exalts the poor, the meek, the mourning and those who hunger for justice; he reviles those who are rich, who are satisfied, who are laughing, who are blessed by men.

In brief, Jesus up-ends every known social order in history, including many that churches and clerics have blessed from their questionable perch as spokesmen for God.

In the remainder of the discourse surrounding the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not once -- not a single time -- dwell on the subject of homosexuality, and never on the subject of the appropriate sex of priests.

Indeed, Jesus has no kind words for priests at all. The one time he portrays one, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest is in too great a hurry to get on with his priestly business to care for someone who lies wounded at the side of the road. Throughout the gospel narrative priests show nothing but hostility toward Jesus.

Oddly enough, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has insisted that the message of the General Convention that elected her is that "we're more interested in feeding hungry people and relieving suffering than we are in arguing about what gender someone is or what sexual orientation someone has."

Jefferts Schori was referring to the adoption, at the Cincinnati, Ohio, convention held in June, of a new initiative, called ONE Episcopalian, which seeks to rally Episcopalians -- one by one -- to the cause of ending extreme poverty in the world. It's not a bad idea, considering the average influence and wealth of Episcopalians, who include the father of the current U.S. president.

Each Episcopalian who joins the advocacy campaign will pledge that "We believe that in the best American tradition of helping others help themselves, now is the time to join with other countries in a historic pact for compassion and justice to help the poorest people of the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty."

The campaign will advocate fair trade, debt relief, fighting corruption and directing additional resources for basic needs education, health, clean water, food, and care for orphans in the poorest countries -- and a pledge to assure one additional percentage point of the U.S. budget to this purpose.

That's a lot more like what the Jesus in the gospels was talking about.

(Telling trivia quiz: What percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product (or gross national income) do you think goes to foreign aid? Click here for an answer. A good article on the myths about foreign aid is found here.)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Why the Bush Regime is Un-American

The second Supreme Court declaration that even people kidnapped to a U.S.-run offshore dungeon have a right to due process draws a clear line separating the regime of George W. Bush from the form of government envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.

Ever since Bush invaded Iraq without provocation in 2003, I have been resisting the comparison to a certain German leader who invaded Poland 66 years ago citing pretexts as flimsy. The pressure to avoid, for the sake of appearing reasonable, an examination of similarities between Bush and Adolf Hitler (along with other fellow right-wingers) is no longer worth withstanding, Godwin's rule be damned.

"As an online discussion grows longer," wrote Mike Godwin in 1990, "the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

Yes, and in this instance, the parallels are no longer casual or merely skin deep:

-- Hitler failed to win the majority of the votes cast in 1933 but simply seized power by judicial fiat. Much the same thing happened with Bush and the elections of 2000 (some say 2004 was a repeat).

-- Hitler concocted a series of flimsy claims concerning Polish hostility, including a border incident (now known to have been faked), to justify invading in 1939. Bush rejected all doubts and concerns regarding the intelligence used to justify invading Iraq; all of it has proven completely and absolutely false.

-- Hitler used an alleged Communist plot behind the torching of the Reichstag (German parliament) as the excuse to sign a decree declaring a state of emergency and suspending constitutional rights; subsequently the Third Reich went beyond the bounds of even its own law in detaining and spying on its citizens. Bush used Sept. 11 as the excuse to suppress civil liberties through the Patriot Act; unsatisfied with several legal mechanisms to take emergency action, the Bush regime launched a vast secret telecommunications and banking operation to spy on citizens.

-- In the parliament, Nazis regularly disrupted proceedings until they got whatever measure they wanted approved. In Congress, Republican majorities in committees have routinely approved outlines of legislation, rather than actual bills, and then filled in whatever language they wanted, running roughshod over the opposition.

-- The Hitler regime persecuted homosexuals. The Bush regime has demonized homosexuals for rhetorical purposes.

-- In 1943 Hitler banned abortion. The Bush regime has impaired access to abortion and claims to wish to ban abortion.

-- Hitler managed to get Mussolini, Franco and later regimes in Hungary and Romania to pursue opponents, some deemed dangerous. The Bush regime has contracted with countries to jail and torture alleged "terrorists" without trial or due process.

-- Nazis gathered in Nuremburg to chant in unison "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" in a display of mindless fanaticism; Republicans put on a similar display when they gathered in New York to chant "USA! USA! USA!"

These and other possible parallels are meaningful so long as you allow for cultural and contextual differences. As Mark Twain cannily put it, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Beyond these parallels lies my core point: Hitler, Bush, Franco, Mussolini, Cromwell, Bossuet, Primo de Rivera, Peron, Louis XIV and many others of their ilk have in common a basic disdain for the citizenry and a fundamental opposition to democratic processes.

"L'etat c'est moi" (I am the State) was the spirit of Louis XIV, which is echoed in the pseudo-legal explanations of authoritarian ideologue Alberto Gonzales, U.S. attorney general, in defense of torture and spying on citizens. So long as an act is authorized by the hyperpowerful chief executive in the White House, the Bush regime has repeatedly claimed, it is lawful and constitutional and needs neither congressional approval nor judicial review.

This is the political theory of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, bishop and writer of the 17th century, who drew up the classic defense of the absolute monarch and the divine right of kings. Save for Bossuet's religious impulse, a straight line runs from Bossuet to José Antonio Primo de Rivera ("the best fate of ballot boxes is to be smashed"), the ideologue of Spanish Falangism and ideological kin to Mussolini and Hitler.

Bossuet's thinking also is echoed in views that will sound more culturally familiar to Americans, those of Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell. A dissenter from Presbyterianism, Cromwell believed in providentialism, the idea that God actively directs history through the actions of "chosen people" whom God "provides" to serve divine purposes.

Cromwell thought he was one such person during the English Civil Wars; Bush has given every indication that he thinks himself a latter-day Cromwell.

Indeed, at the core of all its arguments, the Bush regime contends that the democratic experiment launched by Jefferson and his peers was a noble idea that should be pursued at some tranquil time in the future, but that it fails to keep us safe in what the regime terms a present emergency. It's the old Vietnam era saw about destroying the vllage to save it.

A Cromwellian, divinely inspired leader-in-crisis, however, is not what the Constitution envisions in its Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Americans forget that last clause, "to the people," which signifies that the sovereign of the United States is not the man in the White House, not Congress, not the Supreme Court, not even all three together. They are mere hirelings, as are their counterparts in the states.

In the USA, "we the people" rule ourselves.