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Lies In The Service of Armageddon September 9, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
1 comment so far

John McCain’s campaign has emphasized two themes thus far: McCain’s experience as a POW as an all purpose palliative for any doubts we might have about his fitness for office; and a crusade to go to Washington and root out excess government spending, although he refuses to say what spending programs he will cut.

 

These themes are supplemented by transparent, intentional lies about Governor Palin‘s record, wholesale reversals on policy positions that has at least the appearance of dishonesty, and misrepresentations of Obama’s positions, that would make Machiavelli blush.

 

The lack of substance in their campaign is stunning. But in fact this strategy sends precisely the message that has served Republicans well over the past half century and has them slightly ahead in the polls.

 

If there is one theme that dominates contemporary conservative ideology, it is that the United States is engaged in a momentous battle against evil. We are threatened from without—a few years ago it was the communists, now it is radical Islam. And we are threatened from within by profligate desires that are out of control—hence the values debates, culture wars, diatribes against liberalism, “abortion as the new Holocaust”, etc.

 

This battle against evil is remarkable because it assumes that any threat is a form of radical evil—so pervasive, incorrigible, and perverse that the “carrots” of bargaining, inducements, and the search for common ground cannot root it out. Only the “stick” of military power abroad and authoritarian regulation at home will keep the Satanic menace at bay. This belief that we are in a war against radical evil explains conservatism’s “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” foreign policy, their desire for perpetual war, indifference to diplomacy, draconian security and surveillance measures, “lock ‘em up”-and-throw away-the-key” anti-crime measures, and the relentless opposition to any practice, activity, or policy that hints at moral permissiveness or avoids disciplining unruly desires. No matter whether the issue is immigration, drug policy, welfare or sexual morality, disciplining desires is the aim of conservative policy. (And the competition of the free market is the greatest cudgel of all in this orgy of retribution.)

 

Of course, conservative campaigns only occasionally mention this war against evil lest its hair-raising,over-reaching be exposed. But, it is so deeply embedded in the DNA of American politics that a little publicity about a border dispute in the Caucasus or vague references to foreign influence or questions about patriotism trigger the desired response in the electorate—a perceived need for leaders who can win the battle.

 

This battle against evil requires leaders of a certain sort. They must have an iron will that will not succumb to the temptations of compromise and appeasement. And they must be willing to do anything to defeat evil since it is so pervasive and deeply rooted that only extreme measures can succeed. After all, what are a few lies and misrepresentations when civilization itself is at stake?

 

The message that they  are sufficiently tough and unprincipled to carry out this battle is the message that McCain/Palin send. (And it is no accident that Palin has ties to the Christian dominionist movement.) The hair-trigger temper, the bald-face lies, the aggressive in-your-face demeanor, and most of all, the strength of will required to survive as a prisoner of war are all key elements of the message that they have the right stuff to slay the evil doers. 

 

This is why the Republican campaign is about identity rather than issues, policies, or facts. It is not about solving problems—it is about defining oneself as standing up to evil, being on the side of the angels in opposition to liberalism, which in coddling the poor, the unsuccessful, and the deviant allegedly encourages that weakness of will that lets evil in through the back door.

 

It seems that the American public is not yet tired of this narrative.

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What Was That! September 5, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
11 comments

The short answer: It was the Republican National Convention.

 

The longer answer:

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a Republican who almost always votes with George W. Bush as an agent of change.

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a Senator with an entirely conventional and predictable voting record, who has been in Washington for 26 years, as an outsider bent on reform.

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a war-monger as a peace-maker.

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a failed pilot with an entirely ordinary will to survive as some sort of war hero/saint whose mere presence will vanquish threats to the American way of life.

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a fire-breathing conservative nutjob as a “soccer mom” and feminista besieged by a sexist liberal media

 

It was a convention that tried to sell a neophyte governor, 18 months ago a mayor of a village, as someone with vast foreign policy acumen.

 

It was a convention that tried to sell the selection of a vicious, ignorant yahoo, unvetted and unknown, to be a candidate for Vice President—so lacking in her grasp of the issues that she must be hidden from the media lest she step on her scripted talking points—as a responsible decision that puts the country first.

 

We now are a few votes away from having a war-monger with a bad temper and a cretin who buys all of the delusions of the religious right as leaders of the free-world—this after eight years of evidence that delusional war-mongers make really bad Presidents.

 

Shame and dread are the only possible responses.

 

George Orwell famously described the ability of totalitarian power to convince people that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”. We saw that ability on display this week.

 

A few years ago when Bush was at the height of his power, and fashioning his own version of the Imperial Presidency, it was fashionable in some districts of the blogosphere to warn that American fascism was at the end of this road. After witnessing the goings-on in St. Paul, Minnesota this week, it is evident we are still heading down that road.

Body Snatchers, Then and Now September 5, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
2 comments

I watched The Invasion (2007) the other night. Since I like both previous Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (1956, 1978), for various reasons, I was curious to see the updated version. And it came through with a female lead, 21st century special effects, enough bio-speech to make it sound plausible—not bad. But what I really liked was the place it took in what is now the triad of Body Snatcher visions, and the thread it carried through from the previous two films: For those of you who are clueless, rent the two older movies, and “compare and contrast” them: The original from 1956, in glorious B&W, believes we humans might win the battle (the film is usually interpreted as a metaphor for the fight against Communism).  The 1978 version, in cynical post-Vietnam color, is more pessimistic—the political climate has changed, and fears of conformity and big business are stirring. And the 2007 version has its moments of doubt whether winning is such a good thing after all.

Here is the basic plot for all three movies: Aliens are trying to take over the planet, one human at a time. They need our bodies to move around, so they take them over while we sleep, and we wake up being “somebody else.” A husband doesn’t recognize his wife anymore, a mother doesn’t recognize her daughter, a dog barks furiously at her master: they look the same, but there’s “something wrong.” These alien beings are without emotion. And the terrified relatives and colleagues will try to seek help from the incredulous and incompetent authorities, until they, too, are overwhelmed in their sleep, and become the enemy. The still unchanged humans can fool the increasing hordes of unemotional aliens by not displaying any joy, fear, surprise, anger, and so forth—walk and act like a robot, and you may delay your capture, but you will probably not prevent it.

You’ll probably recognize the “logic vs. emotion” storyline from numerous sci-fi stories over the past 75+ years (the Star Trek universe included), all the way back to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (Morluks and Eloids), and it’s usually a nice dichotomy for a movie, well suited for 1-2 hours of entertainment. A little thin for further philosophical discussions, because logic vs. emotion isn’t a B&W issue, but it’s a good metaphor for the start of a discussion. Are we fundamentally a rational or an emotional species? Should we emphasize our reason, or our emotional qualities? The Body Snatcher movies, all three of them, are not in doubt: the superbly humanizing quality is our capacity for emotions. What makes this timely and interesting is that this emphasis on the humanizing quality of emotions has been the conclusion of neurobiologists within the last few years. This, again, is of course oversimplified, especially when we pull the field of ethics into the mix: Just because an act feels hard to do, and will cause pain to others, doesn’t necessarily mean it is always the morally wrong thing to do. Long debate, and we’ve touched on it before, on several occasions. But what I want to get to is the contribution by the 2007 version, The Invasion, maybe more so than the two previous versions: the aliens in the human bodies insist that they are creating a better world than the humans were capable of: With no emotions there will be no wars, no violence, no enmity, no depression, and no jealousy. We will have the peace and harmony we all dream about! And when (spoiler alert!) an antidote is found, and humans revert to their old, violent ways, we are told, by one of the characters in the film, that “We are human again—for better or for worse.” This is a version of the story that matches its decade (just like the other two did). It seems as if the Body Snatching theme needs a new filmic expression every other decade or so, reflecting our changing fears and sensibilities, and the latest one (in a nicely dialectic pendulum swing) is less cynical than #2, but perhaps a little bit wiser (once you look past the endless chase scenes):  Look what “being human” has brought upon us, it asks—would we not, perhaps, be better off all around, being a little less “human,” and more rational? An interesting idea to throw into the mix, considering that (1) neurobiologists are now telling us that, indeed, we “feel, therefore we are,” (2) the film features emotional humans whom we identify with, and (3) philosophers have told us for the past 25 centuries that the ultimate humanizing quality is reason. So how badly do we want world peace? Harmony at home? No strife, no fighting, no conflicts? Would we be willing to give up our most humanizing qualities of empathy, joy and love, if we could avoid the inevitable emotional flip side leading to antagonism, depression, conflicts, and war? The film says no, but it doesn’t do it lightly. Now, for Hollywood, that’s interesting. Makes you feel a little bit like you’re back in the day of Robert Ardrey. A better question would be, why should we assume that we have to give up on our emotional legacy with all its baggage in order to maintain a rational composure? And who says that reason can’t be passionate?

Metaphysical Awareness Month September 4, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
4 comments

Readers of Philosophy on the Mesa should hereby be advised that September is Metaphysical Awareness Month.

How are you spending MAM? For suggestions on how one might celebrate check out Brian Leiter’s blog.

As for me, I’m not sure what Metaphysical Awareness Month is. But if you’re thinking about getting physical with someone, and then you talk yourself out of it–I think you are in the right spirit.

Since that doesn’t sound like much fun, I think I will skip it.

Moreover, I think there is good evidence that “Metaphysical Awareness Week” is not a rigid designator.

Metaphysical Awareness Month, once sponsored by Healing Light Learning, and now evidently up for grabs. Wanna sponsor it? “

Not One of Us! September 1, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
2 comments

It is obvious that as a nation we confront enormous problems—economic threats, global security threats, and environmental threats seem to pile up like bodies in a John Woo flick. It is equally obvious that John McCain has no idea how to deal with these threats (that is not some version of a bad idea that has already failed.) In today’s polls, Obama is showing signs of pulling away, and McCain’s choice for VP may be self-destructing before our eyes. But McCain is still in the game with approximately 40% of the electorate supporting him. What is the source of his appeal?

 

Some commentators claim that Obama hasn’t made his case effectively or that voters don’t know him yet. But he has been a public figure for 12 years, a national political figure for 4 years, and center stage for 19 months in one of the most scrutinized campaigns in history. He has published two books detailing his autobiography, has been the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, and recently presided over a national convention in which 38 million viewers watched his acceptance speech. His website and speeches are chock full of innovative policy proposals to address the full scope of issues we confront as a nation. What more do we need to know?

 

The reason why this is, and might remain, a close election is that this election (and recent American politics in general) is really not about policies or problem solving—it is about competing identities. Identity politics is the new normal.

 

Obviously, the Democratic primary race involved lots of identity politics, since both Hillary and Obama represent new identities competing seriously for the presidency. But the unity displayed at the Democratic Convention revealed how successfully both campaigns have risen above racial or gender identities as a basis for political choice. And truth be told, their campaigns were never just about identity politics—lots of men supported Hillary, lots of whites and women supported Obama, and, contrary to much speculation, Obama is doing fine among Jews, women, working class voters, Hispanics, etc.

 

Ironically, it is the Republicans that have deployed identity politics with a vengeance. John McCain’s first general election ad concluded: “the American president Americans have been waiting for.” This awkward yet telling phrase was obviously designed to draw a contrast with Obama who is alleged to be “foreign” and “anti-American.” McCain’s signature slogan “country first” is designed to resonate with McCain’s charge that Obama would “rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”; and the ridiculous “Celebrity” ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton screams “he’s not one of us!”

 

Now we have the newly minted Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin, manifestly unqualified for the position, who was apparently chosen because evangelicals and soccer moms are supposed to see her as “just like us”.

 

The labels “liberal” and “conservative” no longer refer to competing views on how to manage the economy or foreign policy so much as they refer to competing ways of defining who one is that are expressed in our political choices. There are lots of interesting philosophical questions about the nature of these political identities and the moral identities that operate behind them, which I will be commenting on occasionally.

 

But the political consequences could be perilous for Democrats, unless the gift that is Sarah Palin keeps on giving. Democrats would prefer not to play in this sandbox. They would prefer debates about policy, problem-solving, and governance. Republicans since at least 1988 (remember the Willie Horton ad) have long recognized the power of identity politics. Democrats need to look up from their position papers long enough to join in the slicing and dicing.

 

Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC was brilliant on many levels. But there was one promise that he may live to regret. In parrying McCain’s attacks on his character, Obama said “What I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes.” Why not? McCain has always been a shameless political opportunist. Since most of us don’t think of ourselves as unprincipled poseurs, McCain is clearly not one of us.

 

If McCain gets a bounce in the polls from his convention, Obama will have to make that  clear, although McCain may need no help from anyone in exposing himself as a fraud.

 

Update: Should there be any doubt about Republican commitment to identity politics, here is McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis on the subject:

This election is not about issues,” said Davis. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.