Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bush Admin Loses Its Weak Claim to Moral Clarity

Everyone who has been paying even the remotest attention to the events of the last seven years can say without a shadow of a doubt that this Administration is one of the worst--if not the very worst--in human history. Whether it's allowing the destruction of an entire American city, turning heavy surpluses into record deficits, the hollowing out of the nation's middle class, violating and shredding the U.S. Constitution in a way that would make Richard Nixon shudder, or failing to catch the world's #1 mass murderer and terrorist-in-chief, the points on a possible list of Administration failures of judgment and morality is astounding.

Arguably worse than all of them, of course, was the criminal, irresponsible and immoral move to attack and occupy Iraq at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and the desecration of America's image abroad.

Throughout all of this, however, the Bush Administration's one single line of rhetorical defense for its actions has been an appeal to a childish, simplistic view of moral clarity. Why more tax cuts for the rich? Because the people should keep their money, not government. Why torture and shred the Constitution? Gotta do what it takes to defend the American people. Why stay in Iraq? Gotta defeat the terrorists. It's the bumper-sticker party writ large: there's good, and there's evil--and America's on the side of good.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Republican arguments for attacking Iran. We must attack Iran, we are told, because they are developing nuclear weapons and their President has made threatening statements toward Israel. And what do we constantly hear is one of the biggest proofs that Iranian President Ahmadinejad is an evil nut who must be attacked? That he is a holocaust denier. What sort of evil man would ever deny the fact of the Jewist Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis?

The America of the Bush Administration does not stand for such things. The America of the Bush Administration does not condone mass murdering terrorists and holocaust deniers. The America of the Bush Administration does not negotiate with evil regimes responsible for barbarous acts of cruelty (though we do little to stop the violence in Darfur or in Burma). The America of the Bush Administration knows black from white, white from black (especially in New Orleans, apparently). The Bush Administration, we are told, has the moral clarity necessary to condemn evil wherever it is (don't look into any mirrors, boys!).

Until, of course, it becomes inconvenient. This week the Democratic House Committee Foreign Affairs passed a resolution condemning as "genocide" the 1915 exportation and massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish authorities. In response, Turkey has recalled its ambassador and made condemnations of its own. In spite of Turkey's protestations, there can be no doubt that the actions of the Ottoman Empire were deliberate, cruel and directed squarely at the Armenian people; living as I do near a community of Armenians, it is difficult to express and the anger and anguish still strongly felt by this proud people about what they view as insufficient attention and admission of wrongdoing given to one of the worst genocides in human history. In fact, 22 other countries have already expressed the view that the Armenian Massacre was indeed a genocide The Bush Administration's stance?

The measure passed on Wednesday despite extraordinary last-minute efforts by Bush Administration officials, including the President himself, to have it shelved out of concern that it could hurt relations with a key NATO ally and affect U.S. troops in Iraq.

And why would the Bush Administration be so desperate to placate Turkey?

Seventy percent of American air cargo and a third of the fuel the U.S. uses in neighboring Iraq passes through the its air base in Incirlik in southern Turkey. Prior to the bill's passage, Turkish politicians had warned of possible retaliation by blocking the use of Incirlik...It comes as Washington tries to persuade Turkey not to launch a military operation into north Iraq to pursue separatist Kurdish guerrillas who are based there and who have been staging increasingly violent attacks in southeast Turkey. The U.S. is opposed to any such move, fearful that it could disrupt Kurdish-controlled north Iraq, the only relatively stable area in the country.

But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under huge public pressure after several deadly attacks by Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast that have killed 30 people in under two weeks. Members of Turkey's parliament are due to vote on allowing a cross-border military incursion next week, and the military machine is already preparing. "After the U.S. House vote, the Turkish public is going to think tit for tat," says Birand. "This is going to strengthen the nationalists, including the position of those people who want us to invade north Iraq."

Honestly, it is not for me to decide what is the right thing to do in this situation. From an emotional standpoint that takes justice and history into account, my heart goes out to the Armenian people and demands a recognition of the immense suffering to which they were subjected by a government and by a world that largely refuses to acknowledge it. From a rational standpoint, it is stupid realpolitik to be upsetting Turkey at the moment and potentially causing untold suffering today--especially over an issue that is over 90 years old and concerns a government that no longer functionally exists.

It is, in short, a gray moral area, fraught with the sort of complexity and difficulty so often overlooked and repudiated by the Bush Administration.

And yet, the Administration has explicitly chosen the realpolitik of attempting to salvage an impossible occupation of Iraq, over the moral clarity of condemning the very real genocide of 1.5 million people.

No matter what happens from here or what the right course of action is, one thing is absolutely certain: we should never have to hear again from outraged Republicans about Ahmadinejad's populist denials of the Holocaust, since they themselves refuse to acknowledge holocausts when it is politically convenient to them. We should never have to hear again from George Bush about the necessity to confront murderous regimes. Democrats should never again be tagged as moral sissies afraid to call an evil spade a spade, while Republicans stand up for human rights and against genocide regardless of the consequences.

Because the Bush Administration's last flimsy grasp on the issue of moral clarity has just disappeared.

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Progressive: the OTHER Third Way

Among the many prevailing bits of tragically misguided conventional wisdom is the idea that the word "progressive" can be used interchangeably with the word "liberal". Pundits use the words as synonyms, while pollsters like John Zogby use a measurement scale of political stances where the position farthest to the left is "progressive/very liberal". Even many on our side have a great deal of difficulty attempting to define the difference.

Most of the time, "progressive" is seen as the positive, new framing of the word "liberal", which is supposed to have been artificially stripped of its positive connotations by conservative ideologues. The best example of this view was seen in Hillary Clinton's response at the Democratic Youtube debate.

This particular view of things may to comforting to those of us on the left: it allows us to avoid painful divisions within our own party and movement, and it gives us a powerful word we can use both to rally our friends and attack our enemies.

The problem is that progressives very different from liberals--and we will never truly capture the hearts and minds of the American voter until we make the separation clear. Until we demonstrate this difference to the American public, we will always be just one major fear-inducing attack or catastrophe away from a terrified return to authoritarian impulses. It gets a little in-depth from here, but please bear with me: it's worth it.

While the battle between left and right has been going on since the beginning of civilization, the conflict between Liberalism and Conservatism as we have come to understand them in Western society today really begins with the Renaissance and the Humanist break from the strict hierarchies of feudalism and the Church, and comes full bloom with the Age of Enlightenment.

While the subject is obviously far too complex to adequately distill into a blog post, the essential battle lines between Liberalism and Conservativism traditionally rested on a conflict about fundamental human nature: from the theological conservatives of the Middle Ages to the Burkeian conservatives of the modern era, traditional Conservatism rests on a belief that mankind is basically evil--and that established authoritarian traditions are the only thing keeping human society from falling into chaos and sin. Traditional Liberalism, on the other hand, rests on the premise that human nature is essentially good--and therefore that given equal opportunities and a lack of inequalities that give rise to conflict, mankind can achieve a future devoid of tyranny, war and suffering. Conservatives, therefore, are traditionally wary of change and apt to view government as a tool essential to the preservation of order, while Liberals traditionally embrace change while putting a premium on individual liberty.

Obviously, this traditional order has been turned on its head: today, in spite of convincing arguments to the contrary, libertarians align themselves with "conservatives" and "neoconservatives" who make radical alterations (i.e., shredding) to the Constitution, while attempting to make radical alterations to the world map with the use of American troops. Meanwhile, "Liberals" find themselves in the uncomfortable position of appealing to the tradition of checks and balances while being more cautious about the posssibility of making rapid changes for the promotion of human liberty abroad, while "neoliberals" interested in "free markets" align themselves (in a most confusing turn of events) with "neoconservatives".

When "neoliberal" and "neoconservative" mean much the same thing, you know it is time for a reconception of the political divide, and a re-evaluation of what we mean by "left" and "right" in this country. kid oakland's fantastic diary on October 7th presents an excellent overview of this thesis--an argument I have also made less eloquently in various fits and starts.

Both Conservatism and Liberalism traditionally understood are at points of nearly disastrous crisis. For Conservatives, the decline of belief in organized religions, the abnegation of longstanding traditions and the extraordinary pace of societal change are terrifying. More terrifying, however, is that fact that society seems to be humming along fine without the need for culture-preserving authoritarian controls: if a multicultural, multiracial, polyglottal, areligious, semi-socialist society can function without adverse consequences, the entire premise of Conservatism is shot. Canada and Western Europe prove the failure of Conservatism every single day, causing great gnashing of teeth and extraordianry antipathy.

For Liberals, on the other hand, the 20th Century served to disprove any notion of the essential goodness of human nature, of the promise of Marxist thinking, or of the ability to transcend war, inequality and suffering. Nietzschian humanism helped give rise to Hitler; Marxism helped lead to the greatest atrocities in human history; and the great Aquarian revolution of the 1960's couldn't even keep that very same baby boom generation from voting in droves for Ronald Reagan.

What we are left with today in the 21st century is a situation nearly unparalleled in human history: on the one hand, the world is more diverse, globalized and uprooted from its traditions than ever before--leading to undeniable progress and prosperity. On the other hand, human beings have been shown capable of a massive selfishness, cruelty and destruction to one another and to our environments that not even our conservative ancestors could have imagined possible.

This is where Progressivism comes in. Progressivism is a new third way that is based not in liberal or conservative ideology but in the pragmatism of reality. Progressivism makes no pretense about the essentially selfish nature of the human condition--but also makes no pretense that cultural bigotry or authoritarian strictures will make any improvement upon it. Progressivism understands that the only way to improve conditions for ourselves and our environment is to look at what works for the common good and what doesn't--regardless of ideology or tradition.

Progressives appeal to the system of checks and balances and to the protections of the Constitution because they are the best way to maximize liberty while protecting us from the selfish interests of the powerful.

Progressives shy away from unprovoked military action overseas because we understand the reality of blowback and difficulty of imposing one culture on another through military force. We do not, however, oppose military action when truly necessary to defend ourselves, or because we are anti-war in general: after all, there really are some very bad people out there who do want to do us harm.

Progressives fear the power of corporations more than that of governments because governments can ostensibly work for the common good when an effective watchdog media is in place, while corporations will only ever work for the bottom line.

Progressives are content to let the free market do its thing when the market is truly free and the consumer is best served--but we are also quick to intercede when the markets are manipulated or cornered, and the consumer is being abused.

Progressives want to do something about the climate crisis if for no other reason than because the cost of inaction will be far greater, on a pragmatic basis, than the cost of action.

Progressives understand that while no one race or people are superior to any other, fundamentalism of any stripe or creed is always dangerous and must be opposed at every turn.


In short, a Progressive uses a pragmatic approach to solving the world's problems, one step at a time and without regard to ideology, with an eye toward the common good. A Progressive is not a starry-eyed liberal who believes in the essential goodness of human nature, or that all wars can be avoided through better diplomacy, or that all cultures and creeds are created equal.

Progressivism is, in short, a real new way forward that upends traditional divisions between the left and right, liberals and conservatives.

And if we make that distinction clear, we can establish ourselves as the vision of optimism and clarity that will lead in the 21st Century. If we fail to do so, we will be painted as pie-in-the-sky idealists unfit to lead the nation in times of peril when liberalism is once again shown to be an inadequate theory for solving the problems of the human condition.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

You MUST see this film

It has taken some time, but Hollywood is finally taking the gloves off and punching hard at the administration with unveiled force. Buoyed by artists, actors and producers passionately committed to promoting a serious political message of desperate straits and a need for public activism, this newfound courage has resulted in at least one film that deserves highest praise both for artistry of cinema, depth of emotion, and complexity of message. The film to which I refer is called Lions for Lambs, and will be distributed for general audience on November 9th and stars Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford (who directs as well). To use a trite but appliacable cliche, if you see only one non-documentary film this year, make it be this one--you won't be disappointed.

It is interesting to see the evolution Hollywood has taken over the last couple of years. Whereas before we were treated to thinly veiled allegorical and not-so-allegorical critiques of Republican ideology and American foreign policy in films such as V for Vendetta, Syriana, Children of Men, or even Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith, it seems that this fall we are starting to see an explosion of films that are explicitly targeted at and based in current events. In addition to Lions for Lambs, there is also the upcoming Rendition, a film starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep about NSA wiretapping, harsh interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition; In the Valley of Elah starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron, which looks at the psychological impact of the war on soldiers returning home; and The Kingdom currently in theaters and starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, which explores the complications of American foreign policy in Saudi Arabia and beyond. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts--both at the box office and in the general culture.

Not having seen The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah or Rendition as of yet, I cannot speak for their merits. I can, however, speak for Lions for Lambs. I was invited to see the film at a small private screening at MGM's tower in Century City: the producers are showing the film to select members of the political establishment, as well as the traditional and new media. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles at Slate had been invited to see the film but couldn't make it--and after our BlogTalkRadio debate a couple of weeks ago he decided to refer the invitation to me.

I'm glad I was invited, and it is clear why the producers are showing people this film in advance with great confidence. Lions for Lambs is an extroardinary film that deals unflinchingly with our current political predicament, covering nearly every aspect of societal failure and distributing blame across the board in a plea to the American public to get out of their fantasy-land doldrums and get involved in the political process. The film follows three threads: Robert Redford as a UCLA political science professor attempting to motivate a privileged, apathetic but brilliant student; two young soldiers surrounded by enemy forces in a botched "new strategy" mission in Afghanistan; and Tom Cruise as an ambitious, talented, warmongering Republican Senator giving Meryl Streep's seasoned political reporter exclusive access for a story on the "new strategy."

It is a testament to the beauty and complexity of the film (and the subtle, incisive quality of the performances) that no one comes away looking good from this film, and yet no one comes away as a blackhearted villain, either. Tom Cruise's Republican Senator is perhaps the most despicable character in the film--and yet, he comes across less as venal and corrupt than he does arrogant and wilfully ignorant of history in his desperation to find a solution to the intractable foreign policy problem he and his Party helped create. Robert Redford's professor is perhaps the most likeable, and yet the consequences of his influence have mixed results, and we are left to wonder whether he himself might not be capable of doing much more to make a difference. The film provides no easy answers, or even easy targets; while there are a few important public policy points that I would quibble with (removing forces from Afghanistan is painted as equivalent to removing them from Iraq for some strange reason, and invading Iraq was painted more as a product of post-9/11 hysteria than as the direct result of neoconservative malice aforethought), the overall effect remains complex, powerful and mostly on target.

The painful lesson of the film is that the greatest evils are those that we do just in the name of getting by and going along: the apathy of students who fear a lifetime of debt and figure that their lives will be unaffected by whether they attempt to make a difference or not; the near irrelevance of educators ensconced in their institutions; the corporate media hierarchy serving up entertainment rather than news because it helps feed the bottom line; the reporters themselves unable or unwilling to report real stories for fear of their jobs; the soldiers and generals simply acting on the orders of civilian politicians not qualified to be ordering them; and the politicians trying to get re-elected while supposedly making the best of a botched situation.

The film's title is taken from a quote relayed by Redford's character and attributed to a German commander from World War I, stating that the British soldiers were like lions, but that their bravery was wasted by British commanders who were like lambs. The reference was, of course, to the American servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan whose heroism is being wasted by cowardly and incompetent civilian "leadership" here at home--and betrayed by the apathy and cowardice of the American population at large, and by the Democratic political opposition (though the film only barely touches upon the last point). The parallel is strikingly apt, and the call to action, while late at this point entering the fall of 2007, could not come at a better time as we prepare for the Iraq Supplemental fight in January of 2008.

It is a rare thing for a fictional film to achieve the heights of complexity and clarion call to action of a progressive documentary--but this one gets the job done in a way that I believe will be palatable to the average American in both Red and Blue areas. The drama, editing and riveting performances are the sugar that may help the medicine of activist change go down a little easier for the general public. Every little bit helps when it comes to affecting public opinion and driving change: I encourage everyone to see this movie when it comes out in November, and to tell all your non-political friends to see it as well.

If you're interested, the trailer for the film can also be found here.

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