The Weekend Review
Osama the "Quiet Lad," Guantanamo's Koran Torturers, the Truth About Torture Lovers,
Propaganda's U.S. Victory, the News Media's Demise, the Greenspan Bubble, Protestantism's Fall,
Willie Nelson, John Stuart Mill and Masturbation
Candide's Notebooks/December 10-11, 2005
Steve Coll won a Pulitzer for “Ghost Wars,” his 700-page history of the CIA, Osama and Afghanistan, but his latest 4,800 words are more of a curiosity-shop item on Osama than revealing reporting. The most interesting nugget is that Osama visited the United States in 1978 with his wife. His young son had a cosmetic medical problem that needed tending. Coll doesn’t say where they went, only that they were stared at in an airport lounge, because of what Osama’s wife wore, and that Osama joked about it later. He also went to London when he was 10 and on a big-game safari in East Africa as a teenager. The son who was taken to the United States for treatment now runs an advertising and PR firm in Jedda, the New York of Saudi Arabia, called “Fame Advertising” (also a PR firm in Australia, but one not connected to the bin Laden son’s firm.) Other silly revelations: Osama “drove a white Chrysler and a gray Mercedes, often very fast,” as a young man. He played soccer and was encouraged to play forward, to take advantage of his height and head balls into the net. His half brothers attended school in Lebanon, but he did not (as has been alleged), nor did he party and disco there (though Coll offers no evidence disproving that he didn’t: it’s pretty much a truism that if you're Saudi, rich and outwardly religious, you use Beirut for its parties, booze and prostitutes).
The article has a sense of gravity that doesn’t hold up. Osama, an only child of a couple that divorced soon after his birth, attended Jedda’s most exclusive private school where British and Irish teachers taught him, along with faculty members culled from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One of his teachers, an Irishman, goes so far as to use the cliché quote about ax murderers, remembering Osama as “a nice fellow and a good student. There were no problems with him. … He was a quiet lad.” [our italics]. Fine. But then Steve Coll decides to push the seriousness with seriously speculative significance. Osama attended an afterschool Islamic studies session with a Syrian teacher who had his students play soccer and learn the Koran by heart, then learn stories about Islam, some of them pretty violent. The implication is that Osama was terribly influenced by religious extremists. But how are these religio-extremist sessions different from untold numbers of afterschool and Sunday Bible sessions held by ministers or extremists right here in the United States? A fellow-student tells Coll that he remembers the afterschool teacher mesmerizing the group with one story in particular, about a young pious boy whose father wouldn’t let him be a Muslim, so the boy took his father’s gun and shot him, and “Lord be praised—Islam was released in that home,” Coll quotes the former student quoting the teacher as saying. How that story is different from, say, Abraham readying to kill his son to prove his faith to God, go figure. (None of this is meant to justify Osama in less indicting terms than reality’s, but to point out the emptiness at the core of Coll’s article). If we’re to draw any sort of conclusions from Osama’s pretty unremarkable youth, the facts reported in this piece don’t help, except to feed into false assumptions and possibly some prejudices merely by dint of creating the impression that Osama was involved in weird, extremist behaviors in his youth. But he wasn’t involved in anything more remarkable than too many young rich and religiously bred, or self-bred, Americans.
One irresistible quote from an Osama fellow-student: “We used to leave our valuables with Osama, because he never cheated. He was sober, serious. He didn’t cheat or copy from others, but he didn’t hide his paper, either, if others wanted to look over his shoulder.” How considerate. And always remember: He was a quiet lad.
Captain James Yee is a 1990 West Point graduate. Raised Lutheran in a third-generation Chinese American family from suburban New Jersey, he converted to Islam in a Newark mosque three months after West Point, for the “simplicity” of Islam’s creed. He was assigned to a Patriot missile crew in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, where his faith deepened as he witnessed the “diversity” of Islam in three visits to Mecca. Three years later he enrolled at Abu Noor University in Damascus for four years, returning home with a Palestinian woman from Damascus for a wife. "His story up to this point,” writes Lelyveld (who was executive editor of the New York Times from 1994 to 2000), “before it turns really dark, has strong interest as a narrative of one American's quest in the mall of religions, faiths, and cults that this country becomes for so many of its denizens. One would like to see what a novelist with a taste for American tales of improbable self-invention and cultural mutation, T.C. Boyle, perhaps, would do with it. To tell the rest of Captain Yee's story would require Joseph Conrad.”
In 2002 Yee was assigned to Guantanamo as a Muslim chaplain for the prisoners, the fourth such chaplain assigned there in less than a year. He witnessed much of the torture and abuse heaped on detainees, tales that have dribbled out in pieces but never been told systematically. Ten months later, on his return to Jacksonville for a visit, Yee was arrested on charges of “mutiny, aiding the enemy, and espionage, on any of which prosecutors could have demanded the death penalty.” Some liberals like Sen. Charles Schumer and bands of conservatives and Christian bloggers “would seize on his arrest as evidence that radical Islamicists had taken control of the recruitment of Muslim chaplains into our armed forces. They offered no evidence bearing on his recruitment back into the army, however; by his own telling, Yee was first approached by a Muslim African-American, an ex-marine, at a Ramadan banquet at that hotbed of Islamic ferment, that notorious madrasa, the Pentagon.”
And, of course, the charges were all bogus. They were dropped a month after Yee’s arrest, though he was held in solitary confinement and in the abject condition of an enemy combatant for 76 days. He’s written a book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (with Aimee Molloy, Public Affairs), recounting his story. The book puts to rest any doubt that Guantanamo inmates are being tortured. They are. Physically, psychologically, ferociously. But the book’s most shocking revelation is its up-ending of that cliché conservative commentators and politicians love to repeat—the one about every inmate having his own Koran as proof of America’s respect for their dignity. (As Charles Krauthammer writes in the Weekly Standard (see below) in a perfect illustration of that disinforming cliché, “We give them three meals a day, superior medical care, and provision to pray five times a day. Our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Korans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners.”
OK. Without even going into that incendiary phrase slipped in there (“the document that inspires their barbarism”), how do “we” provide them with that “document”? Yee describes it in detail. Inmates aren’t “provided” with Korans. They’re forced to have a Koran. Many inmates have refused to have one in their cell because of the purposeful abuse their guards inflict on the book. But guards wouldn’t have it any other way: “A detainee who refused to accept a Koran in his cell,” Lelyveld writes, “would be subject to what was known as "a forced cell extraction" by an IRF (for "initial response force")—six to eight MPs in riot protection gear (plastic masks, chest protectors, shin guards, shields) who would burst in on a cell to subdue a problem detainee in what was commonly known as an IRFing. Here is Yee's description of these stampedes: “After they suited up, they formed a huddle and chanted in unison.... Then they rushed the block, one behind the other.... The sound of their heavy boots hammered down the steel corridor and their chants ricocheted off the tin ceiling.... The IRF team stopped at the detainee's cell.... The team leader in front drenched the prisoner with pepper spray and then opened the cell door. The others charged in and rushed the detainee.... The point was to get him to the ground as quickly as possible, with whatever means necessary.... When it was over, there was a certain excitement in the air. The guards were pumped.... They high-fived each other and slammed their chests together, like professional basketball players...an odd victory celebration for eight men who took down one prisoner.” Once "extracted," the recalcitrant prisoner was placed in isolation in an MSU (for "maximum security unit") until he was ready to accept a Koran. What are we to make of this struggle in which alleged Islamic "terrorists" refuse to accept Korans from their insistent captors until they've been pounded into submission? And how, the chaplain rightly asks, was it "good for the mission?"
Compared to that, Yee’s experiences pale for being more isolated, more symbolic, than Guantanamo’s continuing demolition of human rights and American principle. He was a victim of it, but just one. The others remain. Yee’s case collapsed, but a vindictive Pentagon could always slam him for the pornography it found on his laptop, and a charge of adultery, which it did. There hasn’t been a Muslim chaplain assigned to Guantanamo since he left. “Nor has any detainee been convicted of anything, by a military commission or anyone else.” What was that about “our scrupulousness,” Charles Krauthammer?
This is the article that has given every intellectual sadist and me-generation jingoist reason to cheer and wave Standard-issue Krauthammer in proverbial bleeding hearts’ faces even as it rests on premises, assumptions and reasoning as craven as that seemingly throw-away line cited in the previous summary—where Krauthammer refers to the Koran as “the document that inspires [Guantanamo detainees’] barbarism.” There’s the assumption about the Koran itself, which is, of course, demonstrably false, but there’s also the more serious guilty-until-proven-innocent assumption about the detainees, even though not one of them has been found guilty of anything yet, and many are being parceled out to their “home” countries. Krauthammer’s entire article is constructed of similarly febrile fabric.
Its central point is that Congress should not forbid torture in all cases, as the McCain Senate bill proposes, because in some cases torture is necessary. Krauthammer puts up the hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario: You have someone in custody who may know where and when a bomb is going to explode. It’s your moral duty, Krauthammer says, to do everything possible up to and including torture, to get the information out of him. In his words: “Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb. That is why the McCain amendment, which by mandating "torture never" refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of any moral calculus, cannot be right. There must be exceptions. The real argument should be over what constitutes a legitimate exception.”
First, it’s no hypothetical that there hasn’t been a single case involving such a ticking bomb scenario. Even in cases involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama’s right-hand man and architect of the 9/11 attacks, who’s been tortured in US custody and held in one of its secret “black sites” (locations Krauthammer is positively gleeful about), there’s yet to be a single “capture” or successful preventive operation. “They” are not telling us about them? “National security secrecy”? Bullocks. They have nothing to tell. They can’t contain themselves when they think they have something. They’re spastic as headless chickens when they claim to have a “get,” as in the (bogus) arrest of Capt. James Yee at Gantanamo (see above). But they’re secretive when they have actual evidence of murderous plots they’ve prevented? Get real. The incarcerations have produced nothing. Torture isn’t going to produce something out of nothing.
But to get to the heart of the matter: If, in that hypothetical, there was a ticking bomb scenario, no one in his right mind would stop at anything from getting the information out of a captive, including through torture. But those situations are outside of the norm. They are by definition extraordinary, as are the actions they require. There is no moral calculus here. There is immediate responsibility. They don’t preclude laws forbidding torture. They only make the case for those laws even stronger: The extraordinary should never be the standard on which to base a law, otherwise there’d have to be exceptions to every amendment in the Bill of Rights, and the exceptions would then be used, or rather abused, by unscrupulous men, and the point of having these laws in the first place would be lost. Krauthammer is arguing for an “exception” as a means of opening the door to no-fault ambiguity, to legalizing the slippery slope and inject it into law. McCain is arguing for law first, even though he’d be first in line to torture whoever may have information about a bomb planted below K Street (“you do what you have to do,” McCain says, “but you take responsibility for it.”) Krauthammer thinks that exception by McCain crumbles the McCain law. It doesn’t. It makes its very point, trumping hypothesis with reality.
Put it another way: We don’t make exceptions to prison laws and rules “just in case” there’s an extraordinary event (an earthquake, a tsunami, a terrorist attack) that requires the prison to be evacuated, that may even require some of the inmates, maybe all of them, to be freed if that’s what it takes to ensure that authorities’ resources are entirely focused on saving as many lives as possible in the wider community. There are no exceptions in law that say: prisoners are to be kept behind bars except in the event of… The laws are simply stated and expected to be followed. When the extraordinary events happen, no law is going to stand in the way either of common sense or, in some cases, of abuse. But that’s no justification for drilling exceptions into the law. Krauthammer’s argument is for just such exceptions, but with a larger motive. He wants to legitimize the barbaric and leave it in the hands of our vaunted “authorities” to decide when it may be applied. There’s no last resort here. There’s hubris run amok.
If there are still any doubts about the CIA and the Pentagon manufacturing cases for war, coaching shabby dissidents into “witnesses,” buying reporters and planting information in the world’s press, James Bamford’s piece in the December 1 Rolling Stone puts them to rest. “The Man Who Sold the War” is disheartening not for its facts, which in a normally democratic society would have triggered congressional inquiries and calls for a few scalps, but for the degree to which this sort of state-sponsored propaganda is now an accepted and expensive part of U.S. government operations, encouraged by the president, unquestioned by Congress, and hardly ever touched on by the press, mainstream or otherwise. Sure we’re all focused these last few days on the Pentagon’s planting of a few pro-American stories and buying up a few reporters in Iraq. But that story is itself being spinned by the Pentagon to its advantage: Let the world focus on a few isolated instances, let the Pentagon take a minor spanking, and let everyone remain blind and deaf to the much larger war of disinformation, deception, manipulation and outright lies that go on as a matter of U.S. policy (as exemplified, for instance, by the Pentagon’s 74-page “Information Operations Roadmap”). The policy is not only abetted by the media’s silence. It is sometimes encouraged by the media’s participation. Cue Judith Miller et. al. (She’s the most visible of the bunch, but by no means the only one.)
Bamford’s piece focuses on John Rendon of The Rendon Group, a “strategic communications” consulting form hired by the CIA in 1990 then by the Pentagon after 1996 to invent a narrative that would justify pro-American regime change where necessary, and apparently by any means necessary. Remember those cheering crowds of Kuwaitis waving American flags immediately after their “liberation” in 1991? Staged. Rendon Productions. “Did you ever wonder,” Rendon is quoted in the article as saying, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American -- and, for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” That was Rendon’s job. It was also his job to put a positive spin on a world “liberating” Kuwait while Kuwait’s ruling elite was “living it up in nightclubs in Cairo as Americans were dying in Kuwaiti sand.” His firm made off with about $100 million in CIA contracts in the five years following the first Gulf war, Bamford reports. The money has kept rolling in since, through the Pentagon--$50 million to $100 million between 2000 and 2004.
Remember the Iraqi National Congress headed by that convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi and held up by the Bush administration as the legitimate heir to Saddam’s regime? A Rendon invention, created and coached by the group, along with Chalabi, to seem like a politically viable “congress” when it is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of actors and scripts fed the media and the public. Judith Miller’s path intersects often enough with that of the Rendon Group, making it entirely possible that she was one of the journalists on its payroll—like Paul Moran, the Australian “journalist” who helped spread Rendon’s message through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (Moran was killed by a suicice bomber while filming at a Kurdish roadblock in the early days of the Iraq war.) Rendon insists he only deals in “timely, truthful and accurate information,” but how do you define truthful when he also describes himself as “an information warrior and a perception manager,” when he says that “[f]or us it’s a question of patriotism. It’s not a question of politics, and that’s an important distinction… If brave men are going to be put in harm’s way, they deserve support.” But what if the fake stories you’re peddling helped put them in harm’s way? And how can information be truthful if it has an agenda, if information is premised on massaging perceptions rather than putting forth the most credible truths?
Speaking of lying with an agenda: The CIA in 2001 administered a polygraph test to an Iraqi dissident called Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a 43-year-old who claimed to know everything about Saddam’s WMD program and was determined to bring him down. He failed the test. Fabrications, the CIA concluded, very much like the stories told by another Iraqi dissident known as Curveball, that one in the custody of the German intelligence service. “But just because the story wasn’t true didn’t mean it couldn’t be put to good use,” Bamford reports. Al-Hadeiri became part of the Rendon Group’s PR offensive as it did its mercenary job, on the Pentagon’s behalf, of “selling the world a war.” It worked to excess. “Never before in history,” Bamford writes, “had such an extensive secret network been established to shape the entire world’s perception of a war. ‘It was not just bad intelligence—it was an orchestrated effort,’ says Sam Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College. ‘It began before the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict distortions.’”
At the end of his piece Bamford quotes Rendon speaking glowingly of the policy of embedding reporters with the military. It helps control the story, although not entirely enough. Too many news organizations got ahead of the Pentagon’s spin machine. “We lost control of the context,” Rendon warned. “That has to be fixed for the next war.”
Massing, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, has been the conscience of the generally unconscionable American press during the Bush imperium. In these two long pieces he chronicles much of what has already been reported, in bits and pieces, but not analyzed whole. “The End of News” is a retracing of the decline of news in the face of disinforming opinion-mongering by the vast right-wing mobocracy of television and talk radio, and now its equivalent in the blogosphere. But who has aided the rise of the mob? The media’s own institutional demands for profits over all else, the demands are causing newsrooms everywhere to slash and burn through their staffs to meet Wall Street’s rapacity. Circulation keeps falling. Yet, as Massing writes: "It is a striking paradox, however, that newspapers, for all their problems, remain huge moneymakers. In 2004, the industry's average profit margin was 20.5 percent. Some papers routinely earn in excess of 30 percent. By comparison, the average profit margin for the Fortune 500 in 2004 was about 6 percent. If the Los Angeles Times were allowed to operate at a 10 to 15 percent margin, John Carroll told me earlier this year, "it would be a juggernaut."” In such a climate, it’s easy to replace substance with insubstantial, but sensational, opinion-mongering. Cue the netherheads of the right and why, in the words of an ex-CNN assignment editor, “ America is facing the greatest exodus of informed citizenship in its history.”
“The Press: The Enemy Within” focuses on “the structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful, the overt and irresponsible “reliance on ‘access,’ an excessive striving for ‘balance,’ an uncritical fascination with celebrities,” the “increasing isolation of much of the profession from disadvantaged Americans and the difficulties they face,” and a political climate of“pressures [that] too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.” Massing’s analysis of the ruinous habit of giving “equal time” to certain subjects is especially notable. He quotes a Los Angeles Times investigative reporter who showed how Republicans rigged Missouri precincts in the 2004 election to keep blacks away from the booths, something the GOP did effectively in other states as well in 2000, as the Justice Department later documented. Republicans charged Democrats with similar offenses. Clearly, however, the Times reporter’s investigation showed that the Democrats’ rigging was a laughing stock affair compared with the GOP’s. In the final story that ran in the paper, the editors reduced the reporter’s work to a set of allegations and counter-allegations, eliminating entirely the thrust of the story: That the GOP was systematically (and, according to the reporter’s work, demonstrably) rigging voting precincts in its favor. The reporter, Ken Silverstein, wrote his editors a memo: “I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. ‘Balanced’ is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.” But that’s the media regime we’re living under.
Massing is equally pointed in his critique of big media’s perspective on major domestic issues such as poverty, labor and business: In every case, it’s a top-down approach. No longer do we see labor issues reported from workers’ perspective. It’s almost always management’s perspective, with the labor side associated with a whiff of irritants the reader is meant to hold at arms’ length. Poverty? Forget it. Even the New York Times hasn’t filled its poverty beat’s position in five years, ever since Jason DeParle left it to write a book. Meanwhile the likes of Time magazine lavish attention on special issues like “The Time 100” saluting the 100 most influential people in the world “because of the amount of advertising it generates. “Because Time's parent company, Time Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there's little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.” It gets worse in the coverage of foreign affairs, which has become less than a stringer’s operation even for the major news organizations, letting such things as “the dark side of Kurdish activities in Iraq” or atrocities committed by American troops in the field slide by on a flying carpet of reader-and Bush administration-friendly myths. None of those mealy mouthed media tactics is better illustrated by the press’ continued blind eye to civilian casualties inflicted by the American occupation, or its habit (as at the New York Times) of publishing “official military claims about dead insurgents without any independent confirmation.” Several Arab eyewitnesses may speak of civilian casualties in any given incident, but if the U.S. military doesn’t acknowledge them, nor will the American press. What Massing doesn’t say is in play here: not just laziness and self-censorship, but convenient, rank racism. Believe Arab eyewitnesses over the U.S. military? Forget it, goes the unspoken rule in American reporters’ playbook. “Of all the internal problems confronting the press,” Massing concludes, “the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.”
- “The Amazing Bubble-Man: Alan Greenspan’s Inflated Legacy,” by Peter Hartcher. The American Interest, Winter 2005.
Leave it to foreigners (and almost extraterrestrials: Hartcher is Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor) to see through America’s saints and cult heroes. Greenspan retires on January 31 after nearly 19 years as head of the Federal Reserve. He’s been spending the last few months ambling down a gangplank of beatification. “Mr. Greenspan is widely rated by investors as the greatest central banker ever,” The Economist wrote, “a living seminar on economic policy” said Artur Davis, the Alabama Democrat,” he’s “a handsome man,” according to the strange Steve Pearce, the New Mexico Republican.
Peter Hartcher doesn’t buy it. Greenspan could have been the greatest ever. But he failed by giving in to political pressures instead of riding on his instinct. He knew the economy was headed for a crash in 1996. That was the year of his “irrational exuberance” speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He delivered it after talks with his Fed colleagues, who also worried about a major bubble in the making. By then the stock market was already overvalued, reaching 120 percent of GDP against an average of 55 percent since 1925. (“At its zenith in March 2000, the market hit a level equal to a whopping 183 percent of U.S. national economic production,” Hartcher writes.) So Greenspan sent a warning to the world’s markets. The Fed would puncture the bubble.
The day after his speech at the Institute, markets tumbled all over the place. But politicians reacted, too, badgering Greenspan from all sides. And Greenspan retreated. He “had set out on a course of what he judged to be wise policy, but then had allowed himself to be cowed by political pressure. […] Having abandoned his efforts to contain the bubble, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve now became the bubble’s most important accomplice. He did not take a middle course,” and the man “who was supposed to be the guardian of economic stability and financial prudence became the charismatic leader of a manic cult.” The crash did happen, of course, costing the economy losses of $7 trillion , double the amount of money spent to fight World War II (in current dollars). And what did Greenspan do? To “help the economy recover from one bubble, Greenspan created another” (the ongoing housing bubble) while the federal government “used the national budget to stimulate the economy. It cut taxes and spent money it didn’t have.” (And continues doing so.) Greatest banker ever? “Instead of fulfilling his mandate in the face of opposition,” Hartcher writes, Greenspan “hid himself in the orthodoxy of the day, and in the madness of the crowd.” One last, telling detail: Greenspan won the 2001 Enron Award for Public Service.
- “The Protestant Deformation,” by James Kurth; The American Interest, Winter 2005. (The article is only abstracted here.)
In a reprise from an article of the same title he wrote in 1998, Kurth extends his theory of Protestant “declension” to the last five years. He argues that “the Protestantism that shapes American foreign policy today is a distinctive heresy of the original religion—not the Protestant Reformation but the Protestant Deformation.” He surveys Protestantism’s reflection through American policy over most of the country’s history. The history lesson is absorbing. The application of the theory to more recent years a bit less so: one expects a more solid pay-off than that “Evangelicals supported the Bush democratization project because it was a Bush project,” or that those Evangelicals who “take their Bible seriously know that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and that to see America as this light is a form of idolatry and heresy.” It’s not a stretch to assume that the Evangelicals Kurth is referring to do take their Bible seriously. So the question Kurth raises, rather than answers, is this: Where are those who see idolatry and heresy in America’s “democratization” campaigns? If they exist, they’re not so visible as to make them a relevant factor either on the political scene or in the context of the “Protestant declension.”
His larger point seems to be that a pseudo-Protestantism has taken hold in America. Based on a rejection of hierarchy and community that was once grounded in the Protestantism of the Reformation, this pseudo-religion has moved away from matters of grace and salvation to matters of “salvation by works” and a “Unitarian transformation” that turned God into a deistic, nameless “Supreme Being,” looking out for Number One (the USA) but virtually as a partner in “the American Creed” of human rights and individualism. “The ideology of individualism,” Kurth writes rather provocatively, “reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy. […] It is, in essence, a sort of totalitarianism of the self,” where “the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy. Individualism—with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions and customs—represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion.” In this domain of “the imperial self,” where God has been displaced, “we no longer say ‘in God we trust’ and really mean it; we trust in ourselves and ask God, if he exists, to say ‘amen.’”
The idea is more provocative than its reflection in the world we’re living in. Once Kurth extends his ideas to the last few years, they don’t quite stick—not in an environment where God, or at least an image of God, has been finagled into a stand-in for supreme authority above the law and the Constitution. The direction and danger of the last few years is precisely that of faith-based foreign policy directed, allegedly, by God’s will rather than the Constitution’s, by God’s law as the president selectively (and messianically) interprets it rather than by the laws of men. This is not a totalitarianism of the self, an imperialism of the self—not unless Kurth means that the United States now personifies that self in its foreign policy, and projects its imperialism, its totalitarian view of its own individual will and desire, on the rest of the world. If that was the end point of his argument, it doesn’t look as if he reached it, though that’s the end point that makes the most sense given the context and trajectory he traced.
Finally, something that really matters. The editor of Texas Monthly interviews Willie Nelson, our greatest living singer and songwriter, and finds out that Willie was once a phone operator in his hometown of Abbott, Texas (“I tapped every phone in town”), that he believes in some sort of higher power (“There’s somebody smarter than I am out there, and I’m not picky about who it is”), that there couldn’t have been a Willie without a Texas (a slightly frightening thought), that he started writing songs when he was about five years old with a Stella guitar from Sears, that he’s been a disc jockey and a vacuum salesman, that he hosts a show on XM Radio channel 171 every Wednesday called Willie Wednesday, that he plays chess, that the man who gave us “Whiskey River” doesn’t like beer, and that he’s tired of Republicans and Democrats (though he campaigned for Dennis Kucinich in the last go) so he’s campaigning for Kinky “why the hell not” Friedman for Texas governor. “I like what he says about himself" Willie says of Friedman. “He says, “I might not be worth a damn, but I’m better than what you got.” I’m a farmer and a rancher, and I want to see agriculture do well. I haven’t seen any help from either Democrats or Republicans on that front. There’s plenty of blame all over the place.” And George Bush? “You don’t cut George Bush any slack because he’s from Texas?,” Evan Smith asks him. “Hell no," Willie andwers. "Being from somewhere doesn’t give you any rights. I don’t have anything at all against the president personally. In fact, I understand he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s said a couple of nice things about me. I’ve got nothing derogatory to say about him, but I do think he’s getting a lot of real bad advice. The people around him who whisper in his ear all the time? They’re not his friends.”
- “Desiring by Myself,” by Adam Phillips, Raritan, Summer 2005.
Any essay that superimposes a quote by John Stuart Mill with a line about masturbation’s guilts hypes up curiosity’s desires. Unfortunately, the Mill quote (“Poetry is feeling, confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude”) is the best part. The rest is a bit of a scramble between academic hyperspeak and psycho-theorizing of stale Freudian vintage that leaves one desiring other joys: “We do most of our desiring by ourselves, and we learned how to desire, we discovered what desiring was for us, when we were on our own. As Anna Freud once said…” “And what indeed could be more mine and not mine than my own desire, and the so-called object of that desire?” “From Freud’s vantage, the private sphere retreats under pressure until it is called the other scene; and it requires a new form of privacy, called psychoanalysis.” But when even Woody Allen has given up the couch after all these years, maybe it’s time the academy does, too.