Saturday, December 29, 2007

Article on Steve Gilliard

I noticed that NYT Magazine had a brief retrospective article on Steve Gilliard who died this past June at age 42. As I noted at the time:
Up until last year his blog was one of my regular reads. A bit partisan Democrat for my tastes, and over the last few years I've had less and less use for partisan Democrat bloggers. That said, the guy wrote with a great deal of candor and could be quite entertaining in that "jeez, did he really say that" sort of way. Of course, his unique style and voice will be missed here and as I can imagine a fairly sizable swath of blogtopia.
His blog was also a useful starting point for those wanting to learn the intellectual underpinnings of colonial racism and the eugenics movement. His 37-part series on colonial warfare (from around the end of 2004) itself was quite extensive and well-written.

Since my one of my own interests is on eugenics, its history, its psychology, and its present-day revival (primarily among movement conservatives), I thought I should point out a few of Steve's posts that were quite useful:

Marching with the suit and tie Klan (August 2006)

Pat Buchanan let's his brown shirt fly (August 2006)

The GOP: Fighting for America's racial past (April 2006)

I wouldn't want to be you on Monday (March 2006)

Supping with racists (March 2006)

It wasn't racist, really (October 2005)

The three piece suited Klan (September 2005)

Small penis=genius (August 2005)

Why I'm a racist by Andrew Sullivan (August 2005)

The Bell Curve oozes back
(August 2005)

Blacks and animals (August 2005)

What is old is new again (April 2005)

Code Words (April 2005)

Speak like a conservative (January 2005)

Horny Hitler Youth (December 2004)

So Mr. Kerry, what do we do about the negroes? (October 2004)

Some of the above are more historic, some more topical regarding electoral politics, but in the process one can note a narrative taking shape that shows today's "conservative" movement's roots in all their glory.

America's Taliban Strikes Again

New Pravda does a poor job of covering it, as Corrente duly notes.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Now for some light entertainment

Ever wonder what this (mostly) sorry lot of presidential contenders looked like as young adults? Well, neither did I, but somehow I ended up looking anyway (curse you, Memeorandum!). The winner has to be Sam Brownback who back in the 1970s looked like he could be part of the Brady Bunch cast.

Unchristian Taxation

Interesting article: Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies
At a time when some voters are asking how the religious views of candidates will shape their policies, a professor’s discovery of how little tax the biggest landowners in her state paid to finance the government has prompted some other legal scholars to scour religious texts to explore the moral basis of tax and spending policies.

The professor, Susan Pace Hamill, is an expert at tax avoidance for small businesses and teaches at the University of Alabama Law School. She also holds a degree in divinity from a conservative evangelical seminary, where her master’s thesis explored how Alabama’s tax-and-spend policies comport with the Bible.

Professor Hamill says that since Judeo-Christian ethics “is the moral compass chosen by most Americans” it is vital that these policies be compared with the texts on which they are based. Another professor says she is the first to address this head on, inspiring work by others.

Her findings, embraced by some believers and denounced by others, has also stirred research everywhere from Arizona State to New York University into the connection between religious teachings and government fiscal practices.

Her latest effort is a book, “As Certain as Death” (Carolina Academic Press, 2007), that seeks to document how the 50 states, in contravention of her view of biblical injunctions, do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa.

In lectures and papers, Professor Hamill has expanded on her theme, drawing objections from some critics who say that the religious obligation to care for the poor is a matter of personal morality, not public policy.

Professor Hamill asserted that 18 states seriously violate biblical principles in the way they tax and spend. She calls Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas “the sinful six” because they require the poor to pay a much larger share of their income than the rich while doing little to help the poor improve their lot.

The worst violator, in her view, is her own state of Alabama, which taxes its poor more than twice as heavily as its rich, while holding a tight rein on education spending.

The poorest fifth of Alabama families, with incomes under $13,000, pay state and local taxes that take almost 11 cents out of each dollar. The richest 1 percent, who make $229,000 or more, pay less than 4 cents out of each dollar they earn, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, an advocacy group whose numbers are generally considered trustworthy even by many of its opponents.

Professor Hamill said what first drew her to the issue of fiscal policy and biblical principles was learning that Alabama timber companies, which own more than two-thirds of the land in the state, pay an annual property tax of only about 75 cents an acre.

“The Bible commands that the law promote justice because human beings are not good enough to promote justice individually on their own,” she said. “To assume that voluntary charity will raise enough revenues to meet this standard is to deny the sin of greed.”

Richard Teather, who teaches tax at Bournemouth University in Britain and has written on the moral dimensions of tax evasion, said that governments have publicly raised the issue of morals and taxes.

“The tax authorities say you have a moral duty to pay your taxes, but you cannot look at that in isolation,” Mr. Teather said. “Over here in Britain we have a lot of tax breaks for the very wealthy, which are not generally available to most people, and quite high level taxes for the middle and upper-middle classes, so this doesn’t look like a moral system.”

Professor Hamill, by her reading of the New Testament, concludes that at least a mildly progressive tax system is required so that the rich make some sacrifice for the poor. She cites the statement by Jesus that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required, and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

[snip]

Professor Hamill said her research found that just one state, Minnesota, came within reach of the principles she identified, because its tax system is only slightly regressive and it spends heavily on helping the poor, especially through public education.
Via Southern Beale & Avedon. Somehow I get the feeling that Oklahoma wouldn't fare too well either. Anyhoo, yet another example of how the so-called Religious Right seems to have a much different reading of the Bible than probably many of the rest of us.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Speaking of our Glorious Homeland Security

Passengers, remember to be cheerful and obedient. It's the American Way.

Education in the Glorious Homeland

Somehow, this USA Today story portrays an attempt at secondary education that looks more like an update of the indoctrination practiced by a certain European dictatorship of the 1930s.

Not to worry: the kiddos will learn all sorts of useful skills that will prepare them for a myriad of careers in which they will be required to aim guns at untermenschen from Hummers plowing through crowded streets at breakneck speed, operate prisons and torture chambers, and take advantage of the expanded opportunities made available in the surveillance industry. Ah, such a bright future.

Bhutto Assassinated

There are plenty of stories available - the one from CNN is about as good as any of them. I don't know much about the political landscape in Pakistan to offer much commentary beyond noting that first, this is not good news by any remote stretch of the imagination; and second, that a sad reality is that those who rise to leadership against the status quo tend to become more at risk as they become perceived as more of a threat.

Plenty of coverage and commentary is available: Juan Cole, TPM muckraker, and The Newshoggers would make excellent starting points.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Busting Myths

Juan Cole bust ten myths about Iraq.

A site worth checking out

Photographer Sebastião Salgado has two series of photos up at his website - Migrations: Humanity in Transition; and The Majority World. The images are stunning to say the least, conveying a great deal about the human condition in much of the planet that cannot be easily captured by words.

Hat tip to Fourth World Eye.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Banality of Evil Revisited: The Normalization of the "War on Terror"

Interesting post by Richard over at American Leftist:
2007 will soon come to a close. We are over 6 years removed from 9/11, and over 4 and 1/2 years removed from the invasion of Iraq. 9/11 initiated the "War on Terror", the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the seizure of purported terror suspects around the world, their rendition to other countries where they can be more readily subjected to torture and their indefinite incarceration at facilities around the world under dehumanizing conditions. Hundreds of thousands, if not over a million people have died as these measures have been arbitrarily implemented.

After participating in numerous protests against the anticipated invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, and then, engaging in civil disobedience after it was launched, I expressed my great fear to my friends: the occupation would become normalized, that is to say, that it would be incorporated into the background mosaic of our lives by the government and the media. The public would come to see it as an immutable part of their existence, akin to paying taxes and sitting in cramped seats on airplanes. In retrospect, I should have expanded the focus of my concern to the "war on terror" in its entirety.

Despite everything that has happenend, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, the forced feeding of hunger striking detainees at Gitmo and airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan that kill large numbers of civilians, there is no reason to believe there is any political prospect of ending the "war on terror". Just the notion of curtailing its excesses is out of the question. It has been incorporated into the background noise of our lives. The surge in Iraq, we are assured, is a success, even Harry Reid, in his own circumspect way, says so.

How did this happen? One is tempted to say that it was inevitable, given the postmodern state of contemporary politics and social life, the alienation of people from any belief that they can organize as a class, a coalition or an amorphous political movement to insist upon radical change, and perhaps, it was. Even so, we should not hesitate to indict those responsible for it.

Edward S. Herman sez:
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. The late Herman Kahn spent a lifetime making nuclear war palatable (On Thermonuclear War, Thinking About the Unthinkable), and this strangelovian phoney got very good press. ~

In an excellent article entitled "Normalizing the unthinkable," in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of March 1984, Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was "normalized" for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: "[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed." Peattie focused on the parallel between routinization in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the "unthinkable" is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. "Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone."

Peattie noted that the head of MlT's main military research lab in the 1960s argued that "their concern was development, not use, of technology." Just as in the death camps, in weapons labs and production facilities, resources are allocated on the basis of effective participation in the larger system, workers derive support from interactions with others in the mutual effort, and complicity is obscured by the routineness of the work, interdependence, and distance from the results.

Peattie also pointed out how, given the unparalleled disaster that would follow nuclear war, "resort is made to rendering the system playfully, via models and games." There is also a vocabulary developed to help render the unthinkable palatable: "incidents," "vulnerability indexes," "weapons impacts," and "resource availability." She doesn't mention it, but our old friend "collateral damage," used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, came out of the nukespeak tradition.
The concept of "banality of evil" of course comes from Hannah Arendt's writings - originally appearing in her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bethania Assy notes in an essay on Arendt's term "banality of evil" that the key appears to be a lack of thinking, a noticeable shallowness - not just at an individual level but at a societal level. The sorts of evils that we can attribute to the Nazi Holocaust, to the bombings and sanctions against Iraq, the torture and extraordinary renditions, etc. are ones in which are treated with a sort of shallowness. They are normal, merely part of the background. One doesn't think much about them, but rather just accepts them and moves on to the next reality TV show. A point that shows up in Assy's summary as well as in Arendt's writings, is the potential that in reflectively thinking about what is going on, one might then question one's support for the status quo:
How, then, does the faculty of thinking work in order to avoid evil? First of all, according to Arendt, the moral and ethic standards based on habits and customs have shown that they can just be changed by a new set of rules of behavior dictated by the current society.In Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship, Arendt emphasizes: "It was as though morality, at the very moment of its collapse within an old, highly civilized nation, stood revealed in its original meaning, as a set of mores, of customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with no more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of a whole people." (28) Thenceforth, Arendt claims the bridge between morality and the faculty of thinking. In this same article quoted above she asks how is was possible that few persons resisted the moral collapse and had not adhered to the regime, despite any coercion. Arendt herself answers: "The answer to the ...question is relatively simple. The nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience but, ... because their conscience did not function in this, as were, automatic way, ... they asked themselves to what an extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be charged for the better, but because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves." (29) (emphasis added)

Arendt clearly attributes to the faculty of thinking the presupposition for this kind of judging extremely necessary in times of moral collapse, that is to say, "when the chips are down." Arendt argues: "The presupposition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but merely the habit of living together explicitly with oneself, that is, of being engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking." (30) (emphasis added)

Another clip of Arendt (also from Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship) courtesy of Arthur Silber:
In our context, all that matters is the insight that no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others. What you have here is the notion of an equality which accounts for a "leader" who is never more than primus inter pares, the first among his peers. Those who seem to obey him actually support him and his enterprise; without such "obedience" he would be helpless, whereas in the nursery or under conditions of slavery -- the two spheres in which the notion of obedience made sense and from which it was then transposed into political matters -- it is the child or the slave who becomes helpless if he refuses to "cooperate." Even in a strictly bureaucratic organization, with its fixed hierarchical order, it would make much more sense to look upon the functioning of the "cogs" and wheels in terms of overall support for a common enterprise than in our usual terms of obedience to superiors. If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution, as becomes glaringly obvious in the case of revolutionaries and rebels who disobey because they have withdrawn this tacit consent.

In these terms, the nonparticipators in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of "responsibility" where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act "irresponsibly" and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance -- for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience -- which are being discovered in our century. The reason, however, that we can hold these new criminals, who never committed a crime out of their own initiative, nevertheless responsible for what they did is that there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. The only domain where the word could possibly apply to adults who are not slaves is the domain of religion, in which people say that they obey the word or the command of God because the relationship between God and man can rightly be seen in terms similar to the relation between adult and child.

Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, "Why did you obey?" but "Why did you support?" This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere "words" have over the minds of men who, first of all, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word "obedience" from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.
One can also find similar lines of thinking in Gene Sharp's three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Yes, the powers that be have a great deal at their disposal - a well-funded propaganda machine, a vast military, most of the instruments of a police state already in place, and global economic hegemony (for the time being). For many of us, it seems to have been that way from the cradle to the grave. What we need to remind ourselves is that no matter how brutal the dictatorship, no matter how powerful it may appear on the surface, its legitimacy ultimately rests on perception. I as one individual cannot "bring down the system." Nor does, as Richard points out, is there much of an organized opposition at the present. I can withdraw my support, if as I reflect, I come to realize that I simply cannot sleep at night by continued support of the status quo. Gene Sharp of course lays out numerous tools at one's disposal if one wishes to nonviolently resist evil - many of which are so easy that just about anyone could do them. Even a quiet withdrawal of support is better than continued support of a broken system. For some that might mean refusal to pay taxes. For others it may mean refusal to participate in electoral politics. Still others might refuse to participate in the consumerism that is so rampant - and which merely distracts us from what is going on. Whatever action it may be, what one is saying in deeds, if not in words is that the current system is not legitimate, that there is nothing inherent in the system to make it legit to begin with. Or to quote Auguste Comte:
"every social power [is] constituted by a corresponding assent...of various individual wills, resolved to concur in a common action, of which this power is the first organ, and then the regulator. Thus authority is derived from concurrence, and not concurrence from authority...so that no great power can arise otherwise than from the strongly prevalent disposition of the society in which it exists..."
Don't expect some powerful person to come charging in at the last minute to save you from yourselves. You had that power all along. That, my friends, is the dirty little secret your ruling class would rather you not know.

Christmas not so merry in Iraq

Found via Ten Percent:

What has the ‘Christian’ George Bush and his fundamentalist infiltrated military given Iraqis this Christmas-

  • Acute malnutrition among young children here has nearly doubled since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003, according to UNICEF and other aid agencies.
  • no one is sure how many children have been killed or maimed since the war began.
  • Dr. Lynne Jones, a child psychiatrist with the International Medical Corps has worked with children scarred by wars in Bosnia, Africa, and Iraq, says though the war is producing a generation of deeply scarred young people, there is a lack of professional help available.
  • Save the Children, another aid organization, closed its operations earlier this year after 15 years in the country. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society has been forced to suspend a program for children suffering from war trauma because of lack of funding.
  • Of the 2,000 adults interviewed in the Association of Iraqi Psychologists study, which surveyed people in all 18 Iraqi provinces, 92 percent said they feared being killed in an explosion. Some 60 percent of those interviewed said the level of violence had caused them to have panic attacks, which prevented them from going out because they feared they would be the next victims.
This is what has been done in your names.

A favorite quote from last Christmas

Quotable: Archie Shepp

"Love is fundamental to art. I can't go to work with hate in my heart. I go to work with love in my heart. But love can express itself in bitterness and rage. That's only an aspect of love."

That's from the liner notes of Live in San Francisco. Some food for thought for the Holidays.

A friendly reminder - or not,

depending of course on one's perspective. A couple items for your consideration, given that some issues seem perpetual. First, Black Agenda Report's Lee Cokorinos has an article up on The Racist Roots of the Anti-Immigration Movement.

We've touched on nativist racism before, looking of course at its history. Needless to say, even though spreaders of hate have been quite busy these past few years (see, When the extreme becomes mainstream - immigration edition; and David Neiwert's Eliminationism in America: Apendix and scroll down to sections D and E for a few exemplars), we can trace modern nativism back to two strains, as Cokorinos notes: cultural supremacy (think of good old "manifest destiny") and eugenics. Of course even a cursory look at the roots would take you even further back to the first European and English contacts with the indigenous peoples of the Americas (documented for example by David Stannard's book American Holocaust) and Africa (see for example social psychologist James Jones' book Prejudice and Racism), respectively. Basically the short version of a very long story is that with a possible few exceptions, today's anti-immigrant rhetoric and action is essentially racist in nature in much the same fashion as the Know Nothings' anti-Irish rhetoric and action during the 1850s.

Second up, speaking of the ghosts of Manifest Destiny past coming back to haunt us, check out this article by Brenda Norrell found over at The NarcoSphere (Terrorism reigns in America):
THE GATE, TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION (Arizona) -- While Homeland Security announced the forced occupation and takeover of Lipan Apache lands in Texas for the border wall yesterday, I was at the Arizona border once again being bullied by the US Border Patrol.
All along the border, Homeland Security's Border Patrol is intimidating and harassing the people who have lived here all their lives.
The Tohono O'odham have lived here since time immemorial. Now their land has been seized and taken over by the Border Patrol, the contractor Boeing and the invading National Guardsmen, for construction of the border wall. The graves of O'odham ancestors have been dug up, according to the traditional O'odham.
All along the border, young people are intimidated and harassed constantly. Tailgating police, excessive force and Nazi-style prosecutors push young people into rage and jails.
[snip]
In Texas, Margo Tamez, Lipan Apache/Jumano Apache, called for immediate support Thursday, Dec. 6, when Homeland Security announced the occupation of lands where Apache land title holders are refusing to sign NSA waivers for the border wall.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the United States will seize private lands in south Texas for the border wall, using the law of eminent domain. Tamez said, "We need your help on our continuing efforts to protect and keep safe the elders of our struggle against U.S. tyranny."
Chertoff announced plans to force occupation of South Texas families who refuse to allow the government access to their lands.
Tamez said, "'Refusers' such as the Lipan Apache Land Grant Women Defense, led by my mother, Dr. Eloisa Garcia Tamez (Lipan Apache, Basque-Apache), in the rancheria of El Calaboz, have frustrated the NSA, Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers officials for over two years, and increasingly in the last two months.
"Using tactics such as public announcements over the news service, used as intimidation and as psychological warfare--NSA/Chertoff exploits the press to prepare the nation to invade South Texas--and indigenous peoples--who are being 'architected as the perpetual enemies of the United States.' This is an old story of genocidal tactics and militarization.
"This scenario played out before, in 19th century, in 20th century. And now the 21st, my mother, the 'child of lightning ceremony', is fighting for the vestiges of our traditional lands.
"My mother, and the ancestors of 'the place where the Lipan pray', have been critical to our land-based struggle, and they are leaders in an Apache struggle in the Mexico-US International Boundary region. Our elder voices direct us in a huge role that Apache people will play in standing up against tyranny of the settler society. We cannot do this without the support and the solidarity of our indigenous sisters and brothers who are also at the forefront of the 21st century battles for our rights as indigenous people with ancient footprints on this land.
"My mother, at this stage of our community-based struggle, indicates that she is prepared to receive national and international support for our small community on the peripheries of U.S. empire. She wrote a comment on the page of this newsstory out of Houston, Texas.
"Today we are submitting our comments to the Environmental Impact Statement authorities, and parallel to that we are submitting an in depth case study of our histories under U.S., Mexican, Spanish, Vatican and corporate domination to the International Indian Treaty Council shadow report to be submitted to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination in December," Tamez said.
Big Bad Government typically plays the "war on terra" and "national security" cards in justifying the seizure of others' land. As an aside, we find the same thing going on - minus the racism - in the US Army's ongoing effort to seize much of Southeastern Colorado (see my periodic references to the current Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site expansion). One striking consequence of today's nativism is that it once more is trampling over what is left of indigenous cultures along the border in the name of building this century's Great Wall - a wall that is intended to blockade displaced farmers and factory workers who have felt first-hand the wrath of NAFTA and who are facing the very real likelihood of starvation (their own and their families). Not that the nativists among us care particularly.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Now, what was I saying about there always being alternatives?

There are plenty of them, if you merely look around. Cynthia McKinney recently made official here intentions to run for the Green Party presidential nomination:

Her campaign site is here. Hopefully the site will continue to be fleshed out. Heck, the Green Party itself is in need of some new faces and fresh perspectives, and McKinney offers precisely that. I've admired her work in Congress, noting on several occasions over the past few years that she was one of only a handful of Democrats who actually showed some backbone, some integrity.

Again, here's a presidential hopeful well worthy of consideration. I'm unlikely to do endorsements on this blog, but I'd probably come closer to doing so with McKinney than with just anyone else.

There are disconnects and then there are disconnects

Apparently, there's a huge disconnect between the Democrat party's core supporters (also known as "the base") and what the Democrats' party leaders want in a candidate. Granted, a fair proportion of these same polled individuals will probably still show up at the polls in November to cast a vote for one of the more "electable" candidates under the aegis of "lesser of two evils." I can't help but continue to ask: how long can an organization - any organization - consistently ignore and even insult its base of support and expect to survive? If one thinks the answer is "indefinitely" I'd submit that one is sadly mistaken.

So much packed into so few pages

I've been trying to catch up on some reading - a nasty sinus infection has kept me awake to a much greater degree than usual - and just finished up Michael Parenti's The Culture Struggle. Next time I find myself discussing cross-cultural psychological issues with anyone, I'll definitely be drawing from this text. At only 130-something pages, it shouldn't be that much of a burden to read in one sitting.

The book itself covers a wide array of topics from defining culture to dealing with racism, cultural relativism, and individualism. The two chapters that deal with what Parenti calls hyper-individualism were what I was reading last night. What's funny is that Parenti's narrative reminds me of a number of conversations that I and some friends would have during the mid to late 1980s when the whole New Age vibe was arguably at its peak.

For those needing a quick refresher, the New Age movement was a sort of grab bag of diverse and divergent religions and philosophies filtered through the sensibilities of some New Left activists and hippies - think largely of upper middle class and affluent young adults who seemed to view themselves as the center of the universe. The New Agers, in large part, are indigenous to a particular set of socio-economic strata in American culture and particularly those cultural experiences unique to the Baby Boom generation.

The central theme that I noticed in any New Age literature that I would have read at the time as well as anyone who happened to be heavily influenced by this particular perspective was the extremity to which the individual and especially his/her subjective experience were held to be the primary reality. In fact this subjectivity was so all-encompassing, that nothing else need exist (as Parenti notes, est founder Werner Erhard once stated that "reality is make-believe."). At bare minimum, one's subjective experience was divorced from any sort of social, economic, or political context and is given equal weight to any others' personal experiences. One danger I came to recognize rather quickly from such an approach was that one could be led down a path of non-activism, as social problems were viewed as ephemeral next to achieving anything from higher self-esteem to some form of personal "awareness." One could also easily be led down the path of victim blame to the extent that numerous New Agers seemed to believe that individuals "chose" such circumstances as their parents, disabilities, economic hardships, rapes & molestations, ad nauseum. A friend of mine at the time who was really into all this actually said something almost exactly to that effect once during a conversation. I was quite taken aback. From such a vantage point one can imagine a political ideology that excuses or minimizes gross human rights violations as merely the result of bad karma. Those babies who have been starved or bombed into oblivion in Iraq since the early 1980s are at fault for their circumstances - they should have chosen different parents. Screw the world, just change yourself - feel better about yourself.

Concurrent with that particular vibe was the whole "greed is good" mentality that began to take hold during the go-go 1980s and then metastasized during the Clinton and Bush II eras. Books, tapes and seminars during that period in bookstores' New Age and Self-Help sections often concentrated on getting rich - all you needed was the right aura or something like that. Those of us who don't have lots of "stuff" are simply lacking enlightenment and self awareness. Buy more crystals, meditate, think about all that "stuff" you want to buy and it can be yours too. Horatio Alger didn't die - he just became reincarnated. If you believe in that, I happen to have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn that I'll gladly auction off on Ebay, I'll even throw in a second Brooklyn Bridge free of charge - just in time for Christmas.

Anyhoo, as I was reading Parenti's book, these shards of memory pierced my consciousness. I begin to wonder just how much has really changed in the intervening two decades. Hyper-individualism is still quite characteristic of the US - each of us is viewed as our own little island, our experiences decontextualized from our surroundings. Similarly, we are still largely trained to decontextualize others' actions from their surrounding circumstances. Greed is still good - especially when couched in spiritual terms. So it goes. And yet those surrounding circumstances and the consequences of unabashed greed do periodically impinge upon the most solipsistic among us. No matter how hard one may wish it, for example, the price of your house will not rise if the subprime lending fiasco has caused the housing bubble to burst in your particular region. Those crystals will not absolve you of supporting politicians who have pursued policies that are starving people in Mexico, Guatamala, and elsewhere so that you can fill your Hummer with biofuel nor can you simply write off the compañeros as unenlightened souls who are "choosing" to be forced off their land by free trade agreements that allow large corporate enterprises to flood their markets with imported produce. Having high self-esteem will not stop one from eventually dealing with the consequences of living in a post-peak oil era.

So it goes. What starts as a bit of a review turns into a rant, albeit a rant that manages to stay pretty well-connected to Parenti's book.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A harbinger

Click the picture for a full-sized image. Read the article here.