February 29, 2008

It's Back!


Story here. More at WikiLeaks itself.

It won't stop the bastards, but at least we'll have more of an idea about what they're up to. Maybe a few of them will have the decency to be embarrassed.


Leak everything! Drown us in leaks!

Our Saint of Buckley: Derided, Defiled and Condemned

In the land of nightmare and fantasy that passes for the United States today, a nation which is unquestionably the highest note in the song sung by the many universes, facts and history have been banished altogether. In other circumstances, I might have waited until next week before adding a few words to the breathless, interminable hymns of praise offered to the memory of Our Saint of Buckley, but lately of this vale of tears and now pretentiously and piously preaching to the angels, as he yachts among the stars. Since the actual significance of Buckley's life and work has been obliterated by the acid of yet another eructation (ha!) of our maudlin, sickeningly sentimental, intellectually vacant "national discourse" -- alas! lamentable, woeful phrase! -- I assume that good manners have similarly been destroyed. On these grounds, I proceed.

I was prompted to offer a few thoughts on this subject after I happily read the remarks of one Mr. Gore Vidal. Mr. Vidal -- who is surely no saint, a salaciously glorious fact for which we daily thank the non-existent gods -- had the temerity to scribble some nasty words in our national hymnal, The New York Times. The Times offers a brief history of Our Saint of Buckley's teevee show, "Firing Line." Various important people tell us that Our Saint of Buckley was "classy," "charming" and "kind." He was a goddamned saint, Our Saint of Buckley.

In the midst of this celebration of the well-lived life -- and let me tell you, when you're the son of a multimillionaire and enjoy forever after a life of privilege, power and wealth known only to the ruling class, you do indeed live well -- Mr. Vidal rudely utters That Which Must Never Be Spoken, that is to say, the truth:
"I was never on his show," Gore Vidal, with whom Mr. Buckley had a famous feud, said on Thursday. "I don’t like fascism much."

He added: "I was one of the first people he asked. And, of course, I refused to be on it. And, of course, he lied about it afterward."
I had never understood why Vidal preceded earlier references to Our Saint of Buckley with "crypto." I am very glad to see it gone.

Our Saint of Buckley devoted his life to ensuring that the limitless benefits and privileges conferred by membership in the ruling class would never be diminished in the slightest degree; wherever and whenever possible, he worked to ensure that those benefits and privileges would be increased. One example will suffice, since it is an example of unbreached, unforgivable evil. A few years ago, Brad DeLong reprinted a National Review editorial, dated August 24, 1957. At the time of DeLong's entry, National Review was happily wandering down the misty paths of memory on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, yet it unaccountably failed to note earlier articles of this particular kind. Here are the major points:
The central question that emerges -- and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal -- is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -- the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own.

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.


The South confronts one grave moral challenge. It must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.
This is as pure an expression of evil in thought and action (actual and implied) as can be imagined. Some people attempt to minimize these vicious utterances, noting that Buckley later modified his views. It is suggested that Buckley was horrified by the murderous violence used by "the White community" to maintain its "cultural superiority," and so he partially recanted. This rather badly reverses causality: it is because of views like those expressed in the National Review editorial that "the White community" believed it had the right -- and even the duty -- to resort to violence. Note the critical language: "sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence." The editorial does not repudiate violence; it does not state that violence of this kind is unequivocally wrong. It asks only a question relating to tactics, and to the crudest sort of utilitarian balancing, devoid of all moral considerations: Is violence "worth the terrible price"? In other words: Will violence work?

If violence engaged in by "the White community" had worked, Buckley would have had no principled objection whatsoever. He would have celebrated the victory of "civilization." That is what this editorial says, and what it means. Buckley altered his views only because the tide of history was clearly against him, and against his preferences. If he wished to maintain his privileged status, he needed to change, but only so much as was absolutely required. It was a small price for him to pay; anything to make certain those yachting vacations would continue uninterrupted. I further note that the disgusting racism so proudly proclaimed in the 1957 editorial continues at National Review today, with all the talk from Mark Steyn and many others about the "demographic catastrophe" that awaits the Western world -- that is, the affluent, privileged, white, male world -- because Arab Muslims are propagating in numbers that supposedly threaten Western "superiority" and dominance. See Chris Floyd on the odious Steyn and other criminals of like mind.

On the general subject of Our Saint of Buckley and various earlier doings (and video!) involving the deliciously sinful Vidal, see also, this (in view of the commentary about Buckley, I overlook the undeserved and deeply unjust sniping at Vidal, but just barely and only for the moment), which concludes:
The National Review still exists, Goldwater Republicans are still enjoying the fruits of their eventual success, and the conservative movement as a whole has seized upon the culture wars with such fervor that a high-falutin' fancy-talkin' New York college boy like Buckley would never, ever achieve such prominence in the movement he nurtured, should he come around today. Because he'd obviously be a big stupid quee-ah.

So fuck him for foisting upon us this anti-intellectual bullshit mess of a nation we've become, but we're glad that his followers helped destroy the intellectual heart of his ideology.

Buckley is survived by his hip satirical novelist son Christopher, his pale imitation of its former self magazine, and George Will's wardrobe and middle initial.
And some of you think I'm mean.

Read the News, Lose Your Mind

The New York Times, February 28, 2008:
President Bush was asked whether he agreed with Senator Barack Obama that the United States would be better off if the president were willing to hold direct talks with leaders of countries like Iran and Cuba.

Republicans, and some Democrats, have harshly criticized Mr. Obama for his original suggestion that he would be willing to sit down with people like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in order to explore important differences. Mr. Obama has since clarified his stance, saying he would do so only if adequate preparations were made for such talks.

Though the president has generally shied away from commenting directly on the presidential campaign, he launched immediately into a vigorous criticism of Mr. Obama's idea.

"Embracing a tyrant?" he asked, seeming worked up at the idea. "It'll send the wrong message. It'll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners, it'll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity."
The Washington Post, February 28, 2008:
More than one in 100 adult Americans is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year, in addition to more than $5 billion spent by the federal government, according to a report released today.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women age 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.
Add these further facts, from a study conducted only a few years ago:
In anticipation of Congressional consideration of revisions to federal sentencing policy, the following analysis provides an overview of the current federal prison population and sentencing trends of recent years. Overall, this analysis demonstrates that the federal prison population has reached record levels, that a high proportion of prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, and that racial disparities in sentencing and the proportion of lower-level drug offenders are increasing.


Overall, nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of federal prisoners are serving time for a non-violent offense and have no history of violence.
You see, in the liberty-loving United States of America, your body does not belong to you. Surrender your delusion that you are an autonomous being, free to choose what to ingest for sustenance or entertainment. It is of no moment that you do not violate anyone else's rights. What matters is that you recognize your body belongs to the state. If you fail to follow the state's edicts as to how you must treat your body, off to prison you will go. All of this is trebly true if you are such a miserable being as to have failed to be born into the privileged class -- that is to say, if you are not affluent, white and male. (With regard to distinct but related issues, women obviously are also such miserable beings.)

We must note one further fact of immense significance. As I discussed in several essays from a few years ago, the prison system in the United States represents nothing less than the institutionalization of brutality and torture on a vast scale. (See "'They Don't Represent America'? Not Quite, Mr. President," "The Real Scandal," and the other essays listed here under the heading, "About Prison Abuse and Torture in the U.S., and in Iraq.") That system embodies the depravity and degradation of extreme cruelty to a degree that is close to ungraspable, and it corrupts everyone who works in it, as it corrupts our nation. When is the last time you heard the horrors of the U.S. prison system -- including not only the non-crimes for which hundreds of thousands are incarcerated, but the cruelties that are inflicted on them when they are unjustly imprisoned -- debated seriously and at length by our major politicians, including the leading candidates for president? That's right: you can't remember, because it doesn't happen.

As you read the news, I suggest you replace major definitions as required, and invert most of the basic terms. (I recall that certain novels treat this idea in some detail.) For "liberation," substitute "enslavement" and "exploitation." For "crime," substitute "personal behavior demonized by the privileged class to maintain control." For "free market economy," substitute "military - industrial - congressional complex" and "prison - industrial - congressional complex." After all, what is the purpose of having a massive and growing prison infrastructure if you fail to have sufficient numbers of prisoners?

The news may be more tolerable if accompanied by the use of illicit drugs. It may even become understandable. And if you should be arrested and thrown into a torture camp for five or ten years or more, that is no reason to despair -- for slavery is freedom.

We must advance with the times. Your conceptions of liberty and peace are pathetically outmoded. You must adapt. It doesn't matter if you choose to adapt or not. We'll call your transformation "voluntary" in any case.

Life is much simpler this way. Yes, we still call it "life." Amusing, is it not?

February 24, 2008

Flecks of Light, Points of Understanding, and the Gift of Sight: All Things Are Connected

Sunday in the Park with George, the work by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine about the painter Georges Seurat, occupies a very special place for me. Its concerns are certain of those that have been the focus of much of my own thinking, as well as of my work, for many years (when I was an actor in my twenties, for example, and writing now): the process of creation, the loneliness and obsession that are inevitably attendant upon that task, seeking for understanding and connection, and those blessed moments when we see something new, perhaps something that had never been imagined before -- until we imagined it.

Contemplation and analysis of such matters can become overintellectualized to the point of emotional atrophy. Such complaints are often leveled at Sondheim (usually unjustly, in my view), but I have greatly treasured Sunday in the Park for many years. More than a few moments in that show target my deepest emotions with high precision and reduce me to tears; I have wept for several minutes at the conclusions of both acts, even after watching the show many times. Witnessing the final realization of the creator's vision after a great struggle -- and in the case of notable achievement, it is always a struggle -- is almost certain to elicit a deep response from me. In discussions with others, I have learned I am far from alone in having these reactions. Unfortunately, I have never seen Sunday in the Park in the theater. But I have watched the performance of the original 1984 production, with the wondrous Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, on DVD, as you can.

Certain of these issues are mentioned in the New York Times review of a new production that has just opened. Ben Brantley describes it as a "glorious revival," and one original aspect of this latest incarnation sounds truly marvelous: "this production uses 21st-century technology to convey the vision of a 19th-century Pointillist to truly enchanting effect."

Brantley later explains this in more detail:
While the 1984 production used three-dimensional cut-outs to replicate Seurat's paintings, this one appears to draw those works — literally — into existence.

This approach allows the audience to envision the world as the George of the first act sees it, with landscapes and people, projected on scrims and small canvases, that alter as he sketches them on the island of La Grande Jatte, the scene of his most famous painting.


The look of the show feels like thought made visible, just as Mr. Sondheim's ravishing score, performed with gleaming delicacy by a five-member ensemble, seems made of painterly flecks of light and color.
Brantley then briefly explores these issues a bit more:
As a portrait of the artist as an embattled and rejected man "Sunday" has been read as a sort of apologia pro vita sua by Mr. Sondheim. Like his Seurat, Mr. Sondheim has been criticized for being chillingly cerebral and remote, for having, as the show's lyrics put it, "no life in his art."

No one could level such objections at this "Sunday," which celebrates both the bountiful chaos of life and the forms used to make sense of it. The musical's two Georges — the Seurat of the first act and his descendant of the second act, an American sculptor in the booming 1980s — keep telling themselves to connect.

This means not only connecting the dots, as it were, that turn disparate sensations into art. It also means building the bridges that, however briefly, allow someone else to see as you do.
And this is Brantley's conclusion, which explains part of my own reaction noted above:
That the second act ends as the first does, in a ravishing epiphany of artistic harmony, now feels more than ever like a loving benediction, bestowed by the show's creators on its audiences. Every member of those audiences, whether consciously or not, is struggling for such harmony in dealing with the mess of daily reality. How generous of this production — and it is the generosity of all great art — that it allows you, for a breathless few moments, to achieve that exquisite, elusive balance.
In crucial respects, this reminds me of a central theme in my essay several years ago about the supreme artistry of Maria Callas. In that piece, I excerpted Peter Conrad's wonderful discussion of Callas's art, and his description of Callas's "unsparing integrity." I then wrote:
This kind of "unsparing integrity" exacts a terrible toll. Yet when such demands are met, and Callas met them so often that the feat can only stagger us in its magnitude, the result is greatness of a kind we encounter only on very rare occasions in our lives -- and then, only if fortune favors us.

Callas was fully aware she was attempting a totality of musicianship, expressivity, acting and communication that can only be achieved at great cost. She transformed her body, precisely so that the physical embodiment would not betray the ideal. How could she portray a courtesan dying of consumption (in Traviata) or a fragile, virginal young girl (in La Sonnambula) if she were obese? She couldn't, so the weight was banished by an act of willpower. She had different rules for the purposes that engaged her, rules that were not ours: "Don't talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules." As Conrad explains above, those rules were applied most unforgivingly to herself.

Callas's art, and the manner in which the artistic demands she made of herself affected her life, often put me in mind of part of Victor Hugo's credo. Hugo, a magnificent writer whose work is sorely neglected today, wrote the following in 1827, in the preface to his play, Cromwell. That preface became the rallying cry of the Romantic movement in literature. But what Hugo said encompassed much more than literary matters -- it represented an entire perspective on human life and achievement, and a way of viewing the world and man's place in it:
[T]he modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected.
For Callas, art at its peak had to express both darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime: for her, too, "all things are connected."
On an impossibly smaller scale, some of these themes can be found in my writing. Before going on, I emphasize that it should not have to be said that it would never occur to me to compare my own work to that of a genius such as Callas, or to that of Alice Miller, whose heroic and pioneering work has inspired many of my articles (both past and upcoming). Such notions would be foolishly arrogant, and remarkably stupid. Here I am concerned only with what I see as an overall similarity in viewpoint -- or, as I said in characterizing the Hugo excerpt, a "perspective on human life and achievement, and a way of viewing the world and man's place in it..."

Hugo speaks of the interconnectedness of our experience, and Callas's artistry offers a series of embodiments of that idea, in portrayals of astonishing subtlety, complexity and emotional power. In the 1970s, I attended several of the master classes that Callas gave at the Juilliard School; many world-famous artists and musicians regularly went to them. We all knew this was an event of a kind we might never see again. I was lucky enough to be present at the class when a miracle occurred. Those classes offered many such moments, as do Callas's recordings. But there was one miracle in particular that no one in the audience that evening will ever forget, and it has already passed into legend.

Callas was working with a baritone on Rigoletto's great aria, "Cortigiani." Early in her career, Callas had performed the role of Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, and she made a marvelous recording of the opera. At this moment in the opera, Rigoletto's daughter has been abducted by the Duke's courtiers, and Rigoletto is desperately pleading for her release. The first part of the aria expresses Rigoletto's immense rage, and his denunciation of the men who took Gilda to deliver her to the Duke for his personal enjoyment. The dramatic genius of this scene lies in Victor Hugo's imagination, for it is his play (Le Roi S'Amuse) that the opera is based on. In his unending efforts to curry favor with the Duke he serves, Rigoletto has himself victimized many innocent people, those whom the Duke wished to destroy or from whom the Duke sought pleasures of various kinds. Now Rigoletto himself becomes the victim of cruelty identical to the kind he has inflicted on others numerous times. Because Rigoletto's daughter is the single pure and uncorrupted treasure of his life, the twist carries incommunicable pain. (It is the courtiers themselves, many of whom Rigoletto has mocked and derided and to whom Rigoletto has brought great misery, who abducted his daughter for revenge, believing Gilda to be his mistress. It is only in this scene that the courtiers learn she is his daughter.)

But Rigoletto's unbearable anguish is communicated through the drama, and through Verdi's music. Rigoletto's violent condemnation of the courtiers has no effect at all. The courtiers regard him with amused contempt and disdain, just as Rigoletto had regarded his own victims, including these same courtiers. Rigoletto realizes that he will have to beg to save his daughter. The moment of transition to the slower, more lyrical section of the aria occurs with the words, "Ebbene, piango" -- "Then, I will weep..."

Callas spent several minutes with the baritone on just those two words, building on her earlier comments about Rigoletto's psychology and his now violent emotions. She spoke of Rigoletto's hatred for the courtiers, of his frenzied fear about what has happened to his daughter, of his growing realization that the only hope for his daughter lies in his self-abasement before men he despises -- and his decision to beg, coupled with his hatred for the people who force him to do so. And Callas added one further, critical element: Rigoletto hates himself, for begging people for whom he has only contempt, for his past actions, for his understanding of the cruelty he has inflicted on others, an understanding gained at a terrible price, for the role he has played in creating a court society in which such cruelties are commonplace. He is consumed not only with loathing of that society and the others who inhabit it, but with self-loathing.

Callas explained all this, and then the miracle happened. In a voice that was almost completely destroyed and which now only existed in shreds, but which remained unique and immediately recognizable, she sang that phrase: "Ebbene, piango..." And every emotion that Callas had identified was in those two words; all of them and more were expressed in those few seconds. To this day, and having listened to numerous performances of this aria, I have never heard any baritone approach what Callas accomplished in that brief moment.

I gasped, as did many others in the audience. You could hear the gasps throughout the auditorium. I thought, as I know several hundred other people simultaneously thought: "Of course! Why didn't I ever imagine that before? Why didn't I understand that was the way it should be done, the way it must be done? Yes: I see." This is the same issue identified in the Times review of Sunday in the Park with George: making connections "that, however briefly, allow someone else to see as you do." With her unsurpassed artistic imagination and her great interpretative gifts, and with a voice now left in tatters, Callas allowed us to see what she saw. She shared the miracle with us, and gave us the gift of sight. Callas's art is an unending series of such miracles.

All acts of creation seek similar ends, whether the acts are of interpretative creation, of writing or musical composition, or of many other kinds. In the first instance, the artist or writer seeks to make his own vision real. His first audience is himself. For many creators, and certainly in the case of a supreme artist such as Maria Callas, that first audience is the most demanding. There are rare moments when such an artist will contemplate her creation and say: "Yes. That's ... right. I achieved almost exactly what I sought. I caught it." In certain respects, that is the greatest reward of all.

A few artists will paint or write and then put their creations under lock and key, never seeking and sometimes intentionally preventing anyone else from viewing them. But most artists and creators seek to offer their works to the world in some manner. We live with others, and some of our most meaningful moments arise in communication with other people. We form friendships and romantic relationships with those who make us feel especially well understood, and we hope to offer the same inestimable value to those we care for and love. We all are familiar with those moments of perfect understanding, when we know to a certainty that another person sees exactly what we see and views it in the same way. We value such moments beyond measure.

As I discussed in the earlier essay, and as was true for Victor Hugo, all things were connected for Callas. The particular color and weight of her voice, which she intentionally varied from role to role to suit her voice to the particular character, every musical inflection and emphasis, each choice in phrasing, the expression given to every word, the character's overall temperament as well as the very particularized dramatic truth of each moment, the composer's musical style and period, her physical gestures and the ways in which she held her body and moved in performance -- all of these elements were analyzed separately, and then combined into one indivisible whole. Each part was intricately woven into every other; when she performed, you were aware only of the totality of the musical and dramatic truth.

We are blessed to have a recorded document of Callas in a staged performance of Act II of Tosca. You can see all of what I have described in that miracle. The voice is in serious decline; only a year later, Callas would give her final performances in staged opera. Despite all the technical vocal problems and deficiencies, the miracle remains. You may need to make certain mental adjustments when you watch it. The performance is scaled for a large theater, not the camera. It may strike you as overdone at certain moments. But imagine sitting in a theater with a few thousand people, and alter your perspective accordingly. (I note that the direction and camera work for Tosca are adequate, but not much more. And why, including at some key dramatic moments, the director is not focused only on Callas's face shall forever remain a great mystery, and an aesthetic crime for which the director deserves severe punishment.)

One especially striking aspect of that performance is its seemingly complete spontaneity; moreover, Callas's performance is remarkable for its realism, which is additionally notable since Tosca is, after all, nineteenth-century melodrama. It is truly as if Tosca feels a wide range of emotions, including the most violent emotions, in this particular situation for the first time. It is as if all of it is happening at that very moment. Yet we know that Callas was meticulous in the preparation of every aspect of her performances; every movement was planned with great care. This was true not only because of the demands of Callas's artistic standards. Her eyesight was very poor, and she was sometimes close to blind on stage, particularly under the glare of stage lighting. So movements were occasionally measured in counted steps; she had to know exactly where she was going, and how many steps were required to get there. (Interestingly, for his legendary performance in My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison prepared in part almost exactly the same way, but not because of failing eyes. He spent hours alone in the theater, measuring precisely how many steps to take on certain lines in some of the songs. In effect, he choreographed a significant part of his role. In Callas's case, I note that even with this kind of preparation, she was open to improvisation, particularly with a colleague as gifted as Tito Gobbi in Tosca. Often, unplanned reactions and movements were incorporated into the staging when they were particularly effective.)

I hope you will watch Act II of Tosca in its entirety, and more than once. And watch the last eight or ten minutes of that act very carefully, beginning just before Scarpia's death. You see Tosca desperately searching Scarpia's room to find the safe conduct that will permit her and her lover to leave Rome, until she realizes with horror that it is clutched in the hand of Scarpia, the man she killed just moments before. You see Tosca desperately looking around the room to make certain she leaves no personal trace behind, and you hear her desperate, pathetic gasps and whimpers of terror at what she has done and what may yet happen to her, and as she observes the required religious rites for the dead man. If you do not believe that all of this is happening for the first time at that very moment, you are not watching the same performance I am. The same is true of Callas's performance throughout Act II, and in all of Tosca. (I know that, because I saw her last performance in the role at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on March 25, 1965. I stood in line for two days and two nights to get that ticket, and I would do it again tomorrow.) It is only a great artist who can prepare every aspect and every moment of a performance in minute and exquisite detail, and then erase all evidence of that preparation and leave the audience with only a superb re-creation of life being lived in every second, seemingly more real than life itself. Careful reading of press accounts of Callas's career establishes that Callas realized this miracle in almost all of her performances, in all her roles; her recordings prove the claim many times over. The vocal quality alone might vary, sometimes wildly in the last years; the musical and artistic imagination, commitment and vividness never did.

In my work, I write what I do in the first instance obviously because I view the subjects that I address in detail as of crucial importance. After many years of exploration, and investigation and consideration of numerous perspectives, the themes and ideas I now advance are those I think are true and that have unusual explanatory power. I note that I do not view these ideas as the final word on the relevant subjects, or anything close to the final word (which I further do not think is possible in that sense). I have learned the folly of such pronouncements through often painful experience. And those who have read me for several years, or who have looked through the archives, will see that many aspects of my thinking have altered and gone through various modifications over time. The changes I suggest in how we think and interact are those I believe are especially critical, if our culture and our world are to alter in ways that are more conducive to human happiness and fulfillment.

In somewhat the same way as described above -- and again, here I speak broadly only of the general issue involved and not at all about the nature or scale of the achievement, if any -- I view all of my writing as connected. The sanctity of an individual life is always my most fundamental concern. I frequently write about the immorality and criminality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, just as I write about the immorality and unforgivable nature of an attack on Iran in the present circumstances. With regard to an attack on Iran, the crucial nature of personal responsibility greatly concerns me, as do the specific means by which we could take action to avert such a catastrophe (which will remain entirely possible with a new Democratic administration, if it does not occur before Bush leaves office). I write about foreign policy (and developments within the U.S. of great significance) because of the supreme value of a single human life: these are the same issue for me, viewed from different perspectives.

The great heroism of a man such as Ehren Watada must be noted, and Watada helps us to understand the absolute necessity of saying No when one is ordered to perform a monstrous and evil act, such as torture or the murder of an individual who has never threatened you. The heroic actions of high school students who oppose our government's occupation of Iraq deserve to be heralded, and young people such as these, who teach us how to be adults, must be supported. These subjects matter to me because I view nothing as more sacred than an innocent person's life, and I am always searching for those individuals who act to protect that irreplaceable value. In the same way, I discuss the crucial need to resist evil and to break the rules, especially when those rules are purposely designed to stifle thought, vitality, truth, and even life itself. Another issue is closely related to that last: the necessity of considering when and how to withdraw one's support from a regime that is perpetrating evil.

Maria Callas's achievements are described in detail in some of my essays because her particular vision and her unending, passionate dedication to it constitute one of my most precious lodestars. It is a model that guides my own, minor efforts, it is a goal toward which I hesitantly dare to aspire, it provides the spiritual sustenance that fuels my own struggles. I write about Maria Callas because this is the only tribute I can offer her, and because doing so makes me profoundly happy.

Each of these subjects, and the others I write about, and every issue within those subjects raises its own problems and questions, and all of them must be analyzed separately. But finally, they all interact and they all inform each other: they all connect. That, at any rate, is the goal toward which I strive.

One aspect of creating in this manner is always exhilarating and more exciting than almost anything else I know, even when it scares you to death. The conclusion of one work is forever the beginning of another; the work once again begins anew. At the end of Sunday in the Park, the George of the 1980s reads from Dot's notebook of a century before, the notebook Dot used to learn how to read and write and in which she recorded her thoughts about Seurat. As George reads Dot's words, we hear at the play's conclusion:
White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite.

So many ... possibilities.
And so we conclude for now, and turn to another blank page.

So many possibilities...and perhaps, just perhaps, we will see something new.

February 21, 2008

Says It All


I wrote one of my first major essays on Guantanamo almost three years ago, in May 2005: "Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power." In that essay, I said:
[T]hat, in brief, is why Guantanamo is so crucial to the Bush's administration's goals in its war, a war that will be never-ending if it has its way: Guantanamo symbolizes the Bush administration's desire for omnipotent power -- for the administration to be able to do whatever it wants, with no oversight or interference by anyone, including the federal judiciary and including those restraints imposed by the Constitution itself.

In this manner, especially when coupled with the great danger represented by the Padilla case, the Bush administration seeks to place itself beyond all restraint derived from any source, and to make itself all-powerful. If it is successful, that will definitively and absolutely spell the end of liberty in America -- and the rest is only a matter of time, and of details. In this sense, it is entirely appropriate that Guantanamo is located where another omnipotent dictator already holds sway.
The conclusion of that piece stated:
Whether Bush and his enablers will admit it or not, in fact the policies they seek to implement would make the United States itself into one gigantic Guantanamo: where any one of us can be detained indefinitely merely upon the word or desire of one person, with no charges ever filed against us, and where we can be abused or tortured, and perhaps even murdered, at will. And no one and nothing would be able to stop or even question them. That's the future they want so desperately -- and I suggest that you always keep it in mind and never, ever forget it.
What was horrifying then, remains horrifying today.

With the passage of the Military Commissions Act, the destruction of liberty -- and the "legitimization" of torture -- is complete: "'Thus the World Was Lost'." As I have argued, with many facts to support the argument, the Democrats will not repeal that Act; repeal is very rarely mentioned by anyone now.

They will not repeal it. And still, many people will vote for Democrats in the deluded and self-deluded belief that they will.

Pathetic for them. Tragic for all of us.

Principles of Knowledge

I was feeling lousy, so I went to bed to rest for a few hours, with a couple of the cats for company. I tossed and turned, and finally turned on the radio. It happened to be tuned to Sean Hannity's program, so I listened for a while. I needed to be punished. While I generally prefer that someone else take care of such matters, that can't always be arranged, to my considerable regret. We must occasionally make do with what is closer to hand. (Careful now...)

Most of Hannity's discussion (with Bob Bennett, among others) was about the outrage of the NY Times' outrageously outrageous smearing of McCain. La di da. When Bennett had departed the scene, Hannity took some calls. One caller announced that he had been a liberal ALL.HIS.LIFE., but that he was just about ready to "turn." More specifically, he was about to turn to Hannity's brand of conservatism, as well as to McCain, because McCain had been outrageously smeared by the outrageously outrageous NY Times. (This appears to be an especially popular category of caller for both conservative and liberal radio shows -- the conservatives who are going to vote Democratic for the very first time in their lives regularly call the liberal shows, and guys like Hannity's caller dependably chime in at critical moments in the development of storylines such as the outrageously outrageous attack on McCain. Is this a job I can do at home? Is there money in it?)

The former liberal but almost newly-minted conservative had a few other reasons for finally identifying the Life Source that has been carefully husbanded by the conservatives, lo these sad, dreary years. (Hasn't Bush been president recently? Weren't the Republicans in charge of Congress until just a year or so ago? The memories fade so quickly.) The baby conservative was obviously a quick study and nailed the major points. "The Democrats are undermining our troops while we're at war!" "All this negative talk about the United States is making me sick! The United States is the greatest country that ever was, ever, anywhere, anytime, ever! Ever!!!"

After a few minutes of this, which unaccountably did not put me to sleep to my complete and utter bafflement, the caller said -- and I quote exactly, for who could forget such notable words, expressing a matter of immense complexity with astonishing simplicity:
And let me tell you something about the greatest country that ever was, anywhere, anytime, ever, ever, the United States of America! This is a democracy! And I'm of Greek descent, so I know something about democracy!!
Thus does our understanding of epistemology increase, and become ever more precise.

I have a new rule, which I consider in the nature of an absolute: In presidential election years, it is never too early for a drink.

Another Left-Right Convergence

[Update: Julian Sanchez on Lessig's possible run.]

This is intriguing: Lawrence Lessig has formed an exploratory committee to run, as a Democrat, for the Congressional seat vacated as the result of Tom Lantos's death.

What is additionally intriguing is that Lessig is attracting interest from conservatives, as noted by Mark Hemingway at The Corner. I've greatly admired Lessig's work on intellectual property matters, and Hemingway correctly identifies the heart of the matter: "Lessig has long argued (and rightly, I think) that how the U.S. law treats these issues is stifling innovation and it's a major problem that stems from the undue influence of both big government and big business." Right on!

Hemingway concludes:
Obviously, Lessig is a brilliant scholar who's unusually engaged and forward-thinking on a number of vital issues that are currently getting short shrift in Washington. That doesn't necessarily translate into skill as an effective politician, but his decison to run is a very interesting development that bears watching.
As I said, intriguing.

See? Short! And not the teensiest bit depressing! I can change. It's change you can believe in! Send me money!

(Some emailers complain that I insulted and impugned at least parts of my audience in various ways, here. Forfend, ye mighty gods! I thought it was understood and assumed that everyone who actually reads me is a superlative human being, possessed of frighteningly discerning intellect and unsurpassed, heart-stoppingly beautiful physique, with a moral character that is ungraspable in its perfection. Like me! :>))

In future, I obviously must refrain from identifying the ultimate meaning of certain acts that a few of my readers might choose to engage in ... say ... hmm ... ah ... well ... still voting for Democrats out of some general belief that they represent "the lesser evil." Just, you know, to pick an example out of the blue, blue sky. So whatever you do, don't read this! Or this! I said don't read them! And for God's sake, don't follow the links or look through the archives!

Now, come on. If you aren't going to listen to me, you really shouldn't complain. But if you're still reading, you're still, always, superlative!)

February 20, 2008

Give 'Em What They Want

Here's what most of you are used to, and what you appear to prefer. Since arguments, reasons, history and similar kinds of crap bore you, I've eliminated them. I'm learning!

This is terrible shit.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Heh.

Say what?

Racist wanker!

There now. I expect to have 30,000 visitors a day by the end of the week. That's half a day's blogging right there!

What a disappointing lot you are. This is the first piece I genuinely enjoyed writing in about six months. Almost no one noticed it. I received one -- one -- email that discussed it in terms that are meaningful to me. (Thanks, A.P.) That was also the only email I received about it. Put aside whether you think it's successful or not. I myself think certain aspects of it are well done; others could certainly be improved. A few more revisions, perhaps after setting it aside for several days, would have helped. But that's not blogging as most of you conceive it; that might come dangerously close to...gasp, writing! Can't have any of that shit. (On the other hand, perhaps that article is nothing more than shit, unworthy of comment of any kind. In which case, ignore what follows.)

What is deeply sad about most of you is that when something isn't identical to what you're accustomed to and to what everyone else does (at least in general form, if not in perspective), you have no idea what to think of it -- because everyone else hasn't already agreed what your opinion should be. (An earlier post that was somewhat "different" was greeted with a similar yawn. I also received a total of one email about that piece.) Blogging as you think of it could be neatly fit within a tiny, airless box. Watching all of you slowly suffocate is very sad. Even worse, it's boring.

I would have discussed these issues in terms of certain of the underlying factors involved in my series on tribalism, along with many other examples of related phenomena. I have a huge number of notes for that series, and I estimate that the series would extend through at least ten or fifteen essays. Oh, dear. It would be long. Many of you would probably find parts of it depressing. A fair number of you write blog entries or, which is even kinder, send me emails telling me how much you dislike that kind of shit.

No more shit for you!

More to the point, and much more seriously for me: as regular readers know, I survive on next to nothing financially. Blogging, and occasionally blogging that veers uncomfortably close to something a bit more ambitious, is all I can do. But the writing I try to do is time-consuming and sometimes difficult, made more difficult by the fact that I experience varying degrees of physical discomfort and pain almost all the time. If I could afford minimally decent health care, some of that might be alleviated. But I can't; the donations I receive permit me to survive on the most basic level, and nothing more. I'm grateful for that, since the alternative is worse -- although on certain days, I would consider the alternative a relief. But here's the thing: I regularly have to beg for donations simply so that I can pay next month's rent, and so that the cats and I can continue to eat. That time is here again. Very awkward, since I've just been out of commission for quite a while, but the first of the month comes around whether I can get out of bed or not.

Insert more pathetic begging here.

If I receive enough so that my very minimal expenses are covered for the next few months, I'll start the tribalism series. (If there is anyone out there nutty enough to want to give me a whole bunch of money, by which I mean anything more than a couple of hundred dollars, many thanks for your extraordinary generosity and your nuttiness, but please contact me before doing so. For various reasons that I can't detail here, large one-time donations create certain problems for me at this point.) I find it close to impossible to become immersed in a very complicated longer term project when I'm constantly overcome by anxiety about the possibility of eviction and similar unpleasant events.

Writing articles like this one or this one is comparatively easy for me now, since I've done this for several years. It's still work, but it's work I'm very familiar with. The tribalism series, and posts like the little piece the other day, are different in kind. They require a gestation period and preparation, which vary depending on the nature of the material. Given the complexity of the tribalism series, that gestation period has gone on for a few years. (The recent post took shape in my mind over about a week.) The tribalism series will consist of almost exclusively new material for me (except for some aspects of the introductory installments), and a number of identifications and connections that I've never discussed before. Under other circumstances, I'd demand a sizable advance before I wrote it, an advance of the kind associated with -- dare I say it? -- a book. Since idiots and hacks regularly get books published these days, I don't see why I shouldn't, particularly since that series might offer an original thought or two. But I won't do that, both because I doubt anyone would be interested in making such an offer -- and also because of my very undependable health. Since my work is regularly interrupted by my being unable to function at all, I couldn't in good conscience commit myself to a long-term project when I might not be able to finish it, especially when such a project would require intensive work on an almost daily basis.

However, if I have enough to get by for the next few months, I'll do my very best to post semi-regularly, say, three to four essays per week, including at least one in the tribalism series. As for whether many people will be interested in that series...well, based on the reaction to my past writing, I honestly doubt that they will. I suppose I could change that if, like certain successful bloggers, I ended every other essay by insisting that, despite everything, you must still support and vote for more and better Democrats! Yeah, that's the ticket. And I'd do it, except for the fact that I consider that to be unadulterated, often deeply dishonest shit.

In the meantime, here's some more blogging for you:

This is important! Much more important than crap like this.

This is deep! Obama represents "a fecund balance." I am in awe.

On the other hand...Indeed.

And now my blogging for today is done! I think I'll do this again tomorrow.

February 18, 2008

The Tale That Might Be Told

Perhaps they will recount the tale many years from now. Perhaps an old man or woman will tell the grandchildren the story once more, as they try to speed the descent of peaceful rest. It's one of the children's favorite stories.

Decades earlier, the two major political parties in the United States had torn themselves apart in what turned out to be the last presidential campaign. The nominee of one party was determined fairly early, but he was viewed as unacceptable by a very vocal segment of that party. Many individuals tried to reconcile the disputing groups, but such efforts only made the problems worse. By the time of the fall election, the disagreements had deepened beyond repair. Everyone was very bitter and angry. Many people threatened not to vote for president at all.

The struggle for the other party's nomination went on for months. There were fights about technicalities, about which rules should be followed and which should be disregarded or revised; supporters of the two major candidates traded criticisms, smears and finally vicious rumors. When the party's nominee was finally selected, everyone was disgusted. Everyone agreed that the nomination wasn't worth a damn. Many people threatened not to vote for president at all.

When election day finally arrived, no one knew what to expect. The answer quickly became clear. Voter turnout was the lowest it had ever been in memory. Almost no one went to the polls. When all the results were finally counted, a total of slightly less than five million votes had been cast for president. Very few votes were cast for other offices. One candidate for president had clearly won, although the popular vote totals for the two major nominees were within 10,000 votes of each other. With less than a 10,000 vote margin, and with a total of only about two and a half million votes, what was such a victory worth?

Could any individual claim to represent an entire nation of over 300 million people in such circumstances? There was no victory speech. Commentators struggled to find something to say about what it all meant, but no one listened to them any longer. No one knew what would happen.

People went to work. They enjoyed time with their families and friends. Nothing fell apart. Life went on.

Finally, January 20th came. Because they didn't know what else to do, the political class had made the usual preparations for the inauguration of a new president. Almost no other Americans even noticed the date. In the cold winter air, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stood on the platform, surrounded by the usual dignitaries. The few people who wandered by on the street, on their way to work or perhaps to a movie, thought all those people in their fine clothes probably didn't have any better way to spend their time, which seemed terribly sad.

The Chief Justice and the others on the platform waited for more than an hour past the appointed time. No one appeared to be sworn in as president. One or two cameras carried the day's events to the nation and to the world, although not many people watched. They were busy with other activities. Finally, the Chief Justice put the Bible down -- he had dutifully held it all that time -- and he turned to one of the cameras. He attempted an unconvincing little smile and said, disbelief and bafflement in his tone, "Well, I guess that's it. You're on your own."

People went to work. They enjoyed time with their families and friends. Nothing fell apart.

Over the next few months, people slowly realized how their lives had changed. No new bills would be enacted; there was no president to sign them. The federal government wouldn't be involved in more and more areas of their lives, and the government's enforcement mechanisms were gradually falling apart. People understood they would be left alone now. They began to make other arrangements. They formed new communities, most of them fairly small. Many local farms sprang up. The communities traded with each other, and eventually people figured out new ways to get most of the things they needed and wanted.

Another change happened later. A lot of Americans were stationed all around the world on various military missions -- in more than 130 countries, in fact. But since there was no president and no bills were being enacted, none of them were being paid any longer, and no new supplies arrived. Slowly, all these people abandoned their military jobs. Some of them settled in the countries where they were stationed and made lives for themselves there; others returned to their families and friends in the United States.

Life went on. In the following years, people all around the world saw that no calamities or disasters occurred because the United States had ceased to exist as it once did -- except that more and more people seemed to be happy. To be sure, many aspects of Americans' lives were very different, but everyone liked those differences. People ate well, better than they had in years; people received excellent medical care, many for the first time; people still had fun, more than they had for a long time. People actually knew their neighbors and many of the members of their communities now.

As people throughout the world watched all this, the same changes began to occur in other countries as their elections took place. Almost no one voted. There were no new national leaders, and the national governments slowly dissolved.

Life went on. People were content, and their lives were full. There were conflicts from time to time, but only on a very small scale. They were quickly contained. Most of the time, the world was at peace. People had seen death and suffering on a terrible scale, through endless agonizing years. They wanted something new. Finally, they had it.

The story is done. The grandparent looks down, and smiles. The children sleep peacefully now.

February 16, 2008

Are You Dead Yet?

This is absurd. As the Democrats themselves have helpfully pointed out (and a state of affairs which is fully agreeable to them, for they have worked toward this end over many decades), the U.S. government has been empowered for years to spy on whomever it wants, whenever it wants. A great deal of the time, no warrant is required at all; on many occasions, a warrant will automatically be granted after surveillance has begun. In almost all cases, with only a handful of exceptions, a warrant is guaranteed. (Check out these numbers, if you haven't already.)

But because Congress hasn't given Bush exactly the new bill that he demands, certain interested parties are having hysterics. Unsurprisingly, The Corner is, once again, Vapors Central. Lopez offers Bush's radio address on the subject today: "At this moment, somewhere in the world, terrorists are planning a new attack on America." Even though Bush already has the power to spy on anyone, anywhere, because he doesn't have the new bill he insists upon, no one will be able to stop it -- and you're going to die!

Andy McCarthy notes Mitch McConnell's remarks:"What we do — or in this case, don’t do — has consequences for our national security. At midnight, the country will be more at risk than it is today. And that risk will increase each day we don't have a solution to this problem."

As I have noted before, McCarthy is enamored of rotten, fourth-rate melodrama parading as foreign policy. From "Unreasoning Hysteria as the Default Position: Joan Crawford Does Foreign Policy," this is the essence of the McCarthy-Crawford position paper on national security:
You're all trying to destroy me! You're all against me, you bastards! You broke my heart, and now you want to kill me! But I won't let you, do you hear me? I won't let you! I'm going to live, damn you, I'm going to LIVE!
As one of my high school teachers used to say, when confronted with a hopelessly out of control class: "People. Please. Please, people."

You're embarrassing yourselves. Stop it.

On a related note, and a point I had wanted to include in "No One Is Safe: The Ruling Class Unleashed": Don't you assume that all your emails, telephone calls, etc. are monitored in various ways? I have for at least four years. During conversations with close friends, we'll sometimes say, only half-jokingly: "Hi, Alberto (then), Mikey (now)! How are you? Whatcha been up to?" I'll sometimes include similar notes in emails.

It's not that I think the government is keeping tabs on me in particular. I'm not that arrogant. I'm sure I'm of no importance to the government whatsoever, being a minor blogger with a small readership and all. That's not the point. As I explained in "No One Is Safe," and as I'll be discussing further in upcoming articles, it's not that the government is actually spying on me, or you, or anyone else; it's that the government can spy on any of us, if it wants to -- if it decides to cause us trouble for any reason, or for no reason, or if it decides to make an example of us.

As I wrote in "No One Is Safe":
Even with the destruction of liberty in the United States, the great majority of us may manage to live out our lives without being pursued by the government. But many of us will severely limit our choices; we will seek to avoid trouble, we will keep our heads lowered. We won't do anything to draw attention to ourselves. We know that it is unlikely that the government will target us -- but we know that it can and that, if it does, we may have no chance at all. We don't have to be tasered ourselves: we see the government tasering a few people, every now and then, and we know that if we aren't careful, it could happen to us. I can't recall where I read it, but several weeks ago, I saw a mention of the fact that the East German Stasi actually spied on "only" about one in ten people. But it was impossible to know who that one person was. If it wasn't you today, it might be you next week, or next month, or next year. When an authoritarian government accumulates sufficient power, it need only deploy it occasionally and strategically: fear does the rest.
Confronted with this reality -- and make no mistake, in principle this is our reality today, even if it has yet to manifest itself fully -- each of us will make a very personal decision as to how to deal with it.

I recognize that the government may be listening to and reading anything and everything I say or write. My reaction is, very simply, to change nothing in my behavior, except perhaps occasionally to be more provocative than I would be otherwise. In brief, I am happy to give the government my extended middle finger -- all the time, every day.

It's most enjoyable. I recommend it to you.

February 14, 2008

Oh, Good!

I like this:
Many of the superdelegates who could well decide the Democratic presidential nominee have already been plied with campaign contributions by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a new study shows.

"While it would be unseemly for the candidates to hand out thousands of dollars to primary voters, or to the delegates pledged to represent the will of those voters, elected officials serving as superdelegates have received about $890,000 from Obama and Clinton in the form of campaign contributions over the last three years," the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reported today.


Obama's political action committee has doled out more than $694,000 to superdelegates since 2005, the study found, and of the 81 who had announced their support for Obama, 34 had received donations totaling $228,000.

Clinton's political action committee has distributed about $195,000 to superdelegates, and only 13 of the 109 who had announced for her have received money, totaling about $95,000.
The more detailed article offers this passage:
[T]he Center for Responsive Politics has found that campaign contributions have been a generally reliable predictor of whose side a superdelegate will take. In cases where superdelegates had received contributions from both Clinton and Obama, all seven elected officials who received more money from Clinton have committed to her. Thirty-four of the 43 superdelegates who received more money from Obama, or 79 percent, are backing him. In every case the Center found in which superdelegates received money from one candidate but not the other, the superdelegate is backing the candidate who gave them money.
But everyone says it's not not not because of the money! No one will defend traditional American values today. No wonder everything is such a mess.

Can we just eliminate the oh-so-tedious campaigning now? Let's celebrate doing it the tried-and-true All-American way: buy the nomination. And then buy the election! I heartily approve.

I will have a consideration of the significant dangers I see in Obama's candidacy, but it's taking somewhat longer to prepare than I had thought. Look for it in the next week.

But meanwhile...$694,000 from Obama to superdelegates. Hope! Change! And if not, cold hard cash.

I can be bought. In case anyone cares.

P.S. But I am not cheap. Not by a long shot. Corrupt maybe, but not cheap. That's because I believe in America! Obviously, even Obama doesn't think we should change everything.

And They Want You to Eat It, Too

Just yesterday, I mentioned (again) the fundamental problem with FISA -- the problem that almost no one will seriously address:
I must immediately interject that to discuss these issues with regard to FISA is ludicrous in a much deeper sense. As Jonathan Turley explains here, FISA itself is a secret court whose very purpose is to circumvent the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The FISA court is no protection against illegitimate government intrusion at all. But as Turley notes, that we are fighting over whether to grant the executive branch and FISA still more untrammeled authority to disregard constitutional rights is a measure of how far we have already marched toward tyranny. And look at this chart to see just how compliant the FISA court is.
The following is too, too funny, albeit in a sort of sadistic-masochistic-truly crappy horror film (with numerous body parts and lots of blood and guts splattered across a huge screen every 30 seconds) kind of way. Atrios approvingly offers a letter from Silvestre Reyes, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Reyes is outraged -- outraged, I tell you! -- that Bush would suggest "that the country will be vulnerable to terrorist attack unless Congress immediately enacts legislation giving [Bush] broader powers to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans' communications and provides legal immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in the Administration's warrantless surveillance program." To arms, brave Democrats and online progressives!

In his letter, Reyes writes:
Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) has authority to conduct surveillance in at least three different ways, all of which provide strong capability to monitor the communications of possible terrorists.

First, NSA can use its authority under Executive Order 12333 to conduct surveillance abroad of any known or suspected terrorist. There is no requirement for a warrant. There is no requirement for probable cause. Most of NSA's collection occurs under this authority.

Second, NSA can use its authority under the Protect America Act, enacted last August, to conduct surveillance here in the U.S of any foreign target. This authority does not "expire" on Saturday, as you have stated. Under the PAA, orders authorizing surveillance may last for one year - until at least August 2008. These orders may cover every terrorist group without limitation. If a new member of the group is identified, or if a new phone number or email address is identified, the NSA may add it to the existing orders, and surveillance can begin immediately. We will not "go dark."

Third, in the remote possibility that a new terrorist organization emerges that we have never previously identified, the NSA could use existing authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor those communications. Since its establishment nearly 30 years ago, the FISA Court has approved nearly every application for a warrant from the Department of Justice. In an emergency, NSA or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may begin surveillance immediately, and a FISA Court order does not have to be obtained for three days. The former head of FISA operations for the Department of Justice has testified publicly that emergency authorization may be granted in a matter of minutes.

As you know, the 1978 FISA law, which has been modernized and updated numerous times since 9/11, was instrumental in disrupting the terrorist plot in Germany last summer. Those who say that FISA is outdated do not understand the strength of this important tool.

If our nation is left vulnerable in the coming months, it will not be because we don't have enough domestic spying powers.
"...it will not be because we don't have enough domestic spying powers." Funny, innit?

Given the powers that Reyes so helpfully describes, his letter can be translated as follows:
We can already spy on everyone. Everyone! Got that, you schmucks? And we don't even need a warrant a lot of the time! Every once in a while, we kinda think we should get a warrant. No reason for that actually. But it looks better, you know? Keeps the stupidly annoying civil liberties crowd happy. But those idiots at the FISA court will give us one nearly every time! [See here again.] And since FISA is a secret court, none of those peons (otherwise known as "citizens") will ever know a damned thing about what's actually going on anyway. It's good to be an Empire!
When you add to this what our government certainly does beyond what Reyes describes (c'mon, we're big girls and boys here, aren't we?) -- and which we know absolutely nothing about and will never know anything about -- the government's power to spy on all of us is complete.

Why, I simply don't know what to say. Oh, wait. Yes, I do: No One Is Safe: The Ruling Class Unleashed.

As I discussed yesterday, I'm not aware that any progressive has suggested that the FISA regime should be eliminated completely. Now the reasons are clearer. As Atrios's approving post setting forth Reyes' letter makes obvious: It is absolutely fine with the Democrats and with the progressive online community that the government has these fully comprehensive -- indeed, omnipotent -- spying powers.

It's fine with them. Ponder the fact. Ponder my argument that both parties have long desired and worked toward the complete, unchallengeable establishment of an authoritarian-corporatist state. If we have both a Democratic president and Congress next year, you will never hear another word about this subject -- except possibly for calls to expand the government's powers still more. I can't imagine exactly how they could be further expanded, but I'm certain the Democrats will find a way -- just as the Republicans do at every opportunity. (Similarly, you will rarely hear from the Democrats or progressives now or in the future about the InfraGard program, which was so helpfully begun under the Clinton Administration.)

Once again, I'm at a loss for words.

Oh, hell. No, I'm not. But I must correct part of what I said in that earlier post. It's not just that a lot of you will eat shit until the day you die. A lot of you enthusiastically manufacture new shit daily -- and you ceaselessly encourage others to eat it, as you gulp it down yourselves.

I would say that many of you should have more respect for yourselves, and for your readers as well. But I doubt such an appeal would be understood, much less seriously considered.

History teaches us that people will swallow anything, even disgusting, nauseating, vomit-inducing shit. The twentieth century was an almost nonstop train of horrors. As unendingly horrifying as it was, we learned absolutely nothing from it. We're determined to repeat it all again.

Eat well, my friends -- and my foes. There's a lot of shit coming your way.

And some of you -- far, far too many of you -- will love every mouthful.

February 13, 2008

No One Is Safe: The Ruling Class Unleashed

My title announces that, "No one is safe." That's true -- but it has been true for many decades. A certain kind of political partisan will insist that our current disasters all (or largely) date from the installation of the Bush regime following the election of 2000. Such a view is profoundly mistaken, and frequently proceeds from less than honest motives. To the extent one believes that the current crisis arose in significant part in less than a decade, one confesses an astonishing ignorance of history, together with a complete inability to understand political and cultural developments over time. The view that the Bush regime is the source of (most) evil is superficial and trivial; often, with regard to those who are politically knowledgeable and politically active, it is morally suspect, and frequently morally deplorable.

The United States has thus far been spared foreign conquest or natural calamity on a massive scale. In the absence of such factors, our government has followed its own inexorable and logical path. The direction is and has always been toward the accumulation of more state power, more control over increasing aspects of all Americans' lives, and the destruction of Americans' ability to be left alone. Protection of the inalienable right to be left alone was once the purpose of our government. It has not been for more than a century.

In June 2004, I wrote an essay entitled, "The Waiting Game." (For the record, I note that an excerpt in that article from a still earlier post, written in the summer of 2003, contains certain formulations that I find very troubling now. Although the major points of that earlier excerpt remain valid in my view, I would not write certain passages in at all the same terms today.) "The Waiting Game" detailed the proliferation of regulations and controls that circumscribe our lives now. I used South Dakota as an example: "Because South Dakota is one of seven states with no state income tax, you might think South Dakota's regulatory structure would be somewhat smaller and less intrusive than that of many other states. You would be wrong. Here is a list of the government programs in South Dakota -- and I set it forth in full so you can appreciate the scope and depth of what this one state government controls..."

I still find that list astonishing. When I researched that essay, I considered using a list from another state -- but the lists of government programs in most states are much, much longer than South Dakota's. They were so long that it was impossible to reproduce them in the manner I did. After setting out that list, I wrote:
I suggest you read the list very carefully, and note the unavoidable conclusion: you can't do anything -- you can't work, and you can't do anything for "fun" -- without interacting with the government, directly or indirectly. You must ask "permission" from the government before doing anything at all.


[Y]ou can't do one damned thing without getting permission from the government. If you go ahead and do it anyway, you're breaking the law. In this manner, the endless proliferation of government regulations and laws makes criminals of us all. I very much doubt that you can go for a year, and perhaps not even a month or a day, without breaking some law, somewhere. Laws cover everything, without exception. Read that list of government programs again. Everything.

Of course, we did not arrive at this point overnight. Here is where the frog being boiled to death in water that is slowly warmed comes in: all these regulations accumulated over a period of many years and many decades. And with each new regulation, people think: "Well, that's not so bad. I can live with that." They fail to step back at any point to take in the overall picture -- and to realize what they have lost. And what they have lost is liberty -- and the right to be left alone.
The fact that every aspect of our lives is regulated, directed and controlled has a further result, one of the most dangerous of all: If someone in government decides to go after you, he has an endless array of weapons from which to choose. Even if you emerge from the battle with your life largely intact, anyone in government who wishes to do so can turn your life into hell for years on end, even for decades. It may all begin with some pathetic bureaucrat in a cramped, stifling cubicle. Perhaps someone cut him off in traffic that morning; perhaps he had a fight at home the night before. Perhaps he's just a rotten human being. He happens to come across your name on some document, and he thinks: "I know: I'll go after him. That could be fun." And your life is destroyed.

A still further result is of immense significance. Even with the destruction of liberty in the United States, the great majority of us may manage to live out our lives without being pursued by the government. But many of us will severely limit our choices; we will seek to avoid trouble, we will keep our heads lowered. We won't do anything to draw attention to ourselves. We know that it is unlikely that the government will target us -- but we know that it can and that, if it does, we may have no chance at all. We don't have to be tasered ourselves: we see the government tasering a few people, every now and then, and we know that if we aren't careful, it could happen to us. I can't recall where I read it, but several weeks ago, I saw a mention of the fact that the East German Stasi actually spied on "only" about one in ten people. But it was impossible to know who that one person was. If it wasn't you today, it might be you next week, or next month, or next year. When an authoritarian government accumulates sufficient power, it need only deploy it occasionally and strategically: fear does the rest.

This is where we are now: no one is safe. If most Americans aren't yet aware of it, they will be in the years to come. And this brings us to the latest FISA developments. Before discussing those developments, I want to repeat the most fundamental point about FISA in general. Not surprisingly, this is the point that almost no one mentions. In "Blinded by the Story," I wrote:
I must immediately interject that to discuss these issues with regard to FISA is ludicrous in a much deeper sense. As Jonathan Turley explains here, FISA itself is a secret court whose very purpose is to circumvent the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The FISA court is no protection against illegitimate government intrusion at all. But as Turley notes, that we are fighting over whether to grant the executive branch and FISA still more untrammeled authority to disregard constitutional rights is a measure of how far we have already marched toward tyranny. And look at this chart to see just how compliant the FISA court is.
If you genuinely want to "reform" FISA, here's a suggestion: abolish it altogether. Go back to the Fourth Amendment and the procedures it requires. Period. Oh, I know: that's far too radical for most of you. It's not "practical." With enough people like you, we'd still be part of the British Commonwealth.

The basic facts of the latest Senate actions are bad enough:
After more than a year of wrangling, the Senate handed the White House a major victory on Tuesday by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants.

One by one, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government’s surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve legislation that the White House had been pushing for months. Mr. Bush hailed the vote and urged the House to move quickly in following the Senate’s lead.
In typically shortsighted and superficial fashion, the progressive blogosphere focused most of its energies on the question of retroactive immunity. (Has one progressive blogger ever called for FISA's abolition? Not to my knowledge. I'd be delighted to be surprised on that point.) This was a pitifully thin thread to hold up one's hopes. From "It's Called the Ruling Class Because It Rules":
Chris Dodd is attempting to stop, or at least slow down, this monstrous attack on truth, justice and (insert laugh track) the American way. Good for him. That the protection of fundamental principles of fairness -- to say nothing of some of the foundations of the original conception of American government -- should depend on such parliamentary strategems reflects only how frayed the imitation of a democratic republic that serves as the U.S. government has become. It is now so delicate that the entire edifice could be collapsed overnight. One more significant terrorist attack will certainly do it.

And, dear reader, let me ask you this. Do you honestly believe -- honestly, take a few moments to consider the matter in the privacy of your own mind, and we promise not to ask you to give the game away publicly -- that even if Dodd manages to stop this bill, the telecoms will ever suffer a penalty of any significance for what they have done? The telecoms and their full partner, the federal government, will avail themselves of endless evidentiary challenges and obstacles, they will delay any outcome through years of appeals, and they will dilute, postpone and otherwise render any judgment close to meaningless via numerous other routes. And what about the criminals who designed and ordered the surveillance in the first place? What about impeachment of at least one of the numerous criminals in this administration? If you're serious at all about "accountability," justice and similar notions -- all of which today have been ground into dust by the rampaging leviathan state -- impeachment proceedings would begin tomorrow. Oh, but that's "off the table." Of course. Thus does the ruling class protect itself.
Dodd fought to some extent (and more than anyone else), but not nearly hard enough. At every step, his actions were hemmed in by deals and "understandings" with those who controlled the legislative agenda -- and he agreed to all of it. I may have missed it, but I don't recall seeing an actual filibuster -- you know, the kind where someone gets up and says, "I'm going to stand here and read every goddamned phone book from every goddamned city and state in the goddamned country before I'll let you pass this bill!" And while he reads every goddamned phone book, perhaps public outrage grows as more Americans begin to understand what exactly is at stake: the last tattered shreds of liberty and privacy.

They have been very rare in American history, but there have been such heroes. Once, there was Thomas B. Reed, who had become Speaker of the House in 1889. Reed was unalterably opposed to the decision to embark on Empire in the 1890s, and he stood in lonely opposition to the Spanish-American War fever and propaganda, and to the unspeakable occupation of the Philippines. He fought as long as he could (the first excerpt is from Barbara Tuchman):
Reed's whole life was in Congress, in politics, in the exercise of representative government, with the qualification that for him it had to be exercised toward an end that he believed in. His party and his country were now bent on a course for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. To mention expansion to him, said a journalist, was like "touching a match" and brought forth "sulphurous language." The tide had turned against him; he could not turn it back and would not go with it.

Like his country, he had come to a time of choice.


To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him. It would be to continue as spokesman of the party of Lincoln, which had been his home for so long and which had now chosen, in another way than Lincoln meant, to "meanly lose the last best hope of earth." To his longtime friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, "I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing." For him the purpose and savor of life in the political arena had departed. He had discovered mankind's tragedy: that it can draw the blueprints of goodness but it cannot live up to them.
In 1899, he let it be announced that he would retire from the House. He gave no public explanation, except to say in a letter to his constituents, "Office as a ribbon to stick in your coat is worth no-one's consideration." When reporters cornered him one day and insisted that the public wanted to hear from him, he said: "The public! I have no interest in the public."

America no longer wanted what Thomas B. Reed had to offer. Consider what we lost over a hundred years ago -- and grieve for your country.
Once, two decades after Reed left Congress, Robert La Follette was vilified for his unwavering courage in opposing the U.S. entrance into World War I, and for his profound opposition to the entire Wilson war program. He came very close to being expelled from the Senate as a traitor. But he never backed down:
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
There is not a single individual in our national life today who even begins to approach this kind of courage. Given the performance of our ruling class, and given the nearly complete indifference of the American public to slaughter abroad and the destruction of liberty at home -- many Americans may not approve of either, but what do they do about it? Nothing -- one would have to conclude that we do not deserve to be saved, even if we could be.

As I have noted before, the Bush administration has altered one part of our situation, but it is not an aspect that concerns most people. That aspect is simply this: what had been hidden and kept under wraps before is now made explicit, and even boasted about. Our politicians felt the need to hide our government's crimes in earlier years. Now the evil walks in full daylight -- and no one does anything to stop it, not anything that matters.

The third paragraph of the NY Times story hints at this:
The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president’s wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.
A few politicians may condemn torture now and then, but no one is seriously talking about repeal of the Military Commissions Act. Since that Act establishes the basic framework of a dictatorship and legitimizes torture as an official method of United States policy, the battle for liberty and the minimal requirements of a civilized society is over, without the battle even being seriously engaged. The American Revolutionaries would be proud.

The Democrats may condemn the Iraq invasion and occupation as the worst "blunder" in our history, but they will not condemn it as the war crime it is. And they keep paying for it. They are not murderers themselves, but every member of Congress who votes to pay for this continuing obscenity is an accomplice to murder and genocide.

I have expressed the more general point in these terms:
The Bush administration has announced to the world, and to all Americans, that this is what the United States now stands for: a vicious determination to dominate the world, criminal, genocidal wars of aggression, torture, and an increasingly brutal and brutalizing authoritarian state at home. That is what we stand for.

And who says otherwise? The Democrats could -- and the most forceful means of doing so, the only method that is appropriate to this historic moment, the method that is absolutely required if we are to turn away from this catastrophic, murderous course, is impeachment. That is the one method the Democrats will categorically, absolutely not utilize -- because the Democrats are a crucial, inextricable part of the identical authoritarian-corporatist system that has led us to these horrors. They have all worked toward this end over many decades, Democrats and Republicans alike, and now the horrors manifest themselves explicitly, without apology, even with the sickening boastfulness of the mass murderer who is proud of what he has done, and who vehemently believes he is right.

So the dare goes unanswered. These horrors are what the United States now stands for.
This is where we are now. This is what we stand for.

Evil walks the land. We all remain inside, heads bowed, minds narrowed, spirits shriveled, afraid to protest, afraid to do much of anything at all. No one is safe. Fear rules us.

We will not stop it.