Monday, January 21, 2008

The Slow Death of Satire Continues

The Great Debaters is also excellent because it educates its audience on the word “denigrate.” The word comes from the Latin words “de+nigrare,” meaning “to make black.” Washington’s character makes the case that the word we use to mean “disparage” or “defame” also means “to blacken” and that it has racist undertones.

I have used the word denigrate without knowing its origin or its ability to offend. I have also used other words unintentionally that were equally insensitive. Mulatto, a word that is sometimes used to describe a person with both black and white ancestry, comes from the Spanish word mulato, meaning “a young mule.” Papago, the name given by the Spanish to an Indian nation in Arizona, means “bean eaters.” Unfortunately, there are probably other words that I still use that are unintentionally insulting to someone.

The words we use have the power to inflame and incite or to heal and uplift. This holds true for debaters, screenwriters, television writers and all the rest of us. The lesson in denigrate is that it is important to choose our words well, and that it is unfortunate that even when we do so we may still accidentally offend. Resolved (as they say in The Great Debaters): Sticks and stones can break your bones and words can be MORE hurtful.

More

Unearthed by Steve Sailer in a recommended article here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Brush with Grayness

Passing into a government building resembles passing out of one mode of existence into another. The very act of gaining entrance into one of these citadels of authority is fraught with dread, anxiety and alienation. This is a normal response to the lifting of the veil from one's irrelevance and powerlessness before the State. It is the inverse of an impression (sometimes obliviously expressed by the newly elected when freshly immersed in the well of power) of those employed by the same, when taking in architectural government grandiosity: a novel, intoxicated thrill. This comes from finding oneself on the other side of the power equation. None of us are immune to either impulse; they are the same yearning, reacting to diametrically opposed contexts.

Just getting to the door is often a will-weakening ordeal, as these buildings seem to be purposely made inaccessible (even before 9/11 security concerns resulted in consequences filtering down through the massive superstructure of the empire, becoming manifest in the most banal and lowly reaches of the homeland). They are often difficult to access from the street and even in the center of the city seem remote from the very public they exist to serve. This is merely one of the lesser ways that government's service to the citizen becomes the citizen's subjection to the government.

The inaccessibility of the government power emplacement (to which the citizen is more often than not summoned), if not by design no less works to render the citizen a bit more compliant--or resentful. And in our time what has the portal by which we physically engage our government become? The metal detector. A crude undiscriminating dullard of a machine, sometimes accompanied by its more intrusive, leering partner, the x-ray device.

Submitting to the unthinking arbitrament of a machine is the ultimate act of dehumanization. The already humiliating effects of the search, the presumption of guilt to be disproved, is magnified, imposed not by another person but by the absence of humanity, by a machine with an insect sort of logic.

The metal detector itself, with its inability to reason, unable to give any quarter to the harmless batch of keys (or the quarter, for that matter), or the occasional belt buckle that requires disrobing of the now penitent citizen pleading entrance through that peculiar square plastic gate, holding his pants up like a beggar dressed in rags; this is nothing in comparison to the people who man it. The callow cruelty of the government building security officer is a solemn testament to how cheaply we will sell our humanity. The machine only seems to relish humiliating you, and clearly can't make it a point of pride or a source of amusement. The officers of the gate are no less unsentimental and unreasoning, while at the same time bringing the human elements of stupidity, cruelty and malice to a transaction already humiliatingly unequal. At their posts they become like mere apparitions of human beings, no longer bound by fear or fraternity, tasked with adopting a posture of unremitting suspicion and guile.

Those predisposed to cruelty thrive in this environment, and through emulation their advancement induces greater cruelty in all within it. Cruelty itself becomes selected for and magnified within the walls of such places and is carried out into the wider world like a virus in the host bodies of the government's minions.

Such encounters, increasingly common, are still brief and contained, individually of little significance, but they are not without significance, and the cumulative effect of these ever-multiplying requirements is still unknown. It alters us without our assent, or knowledge. The change is diffused across the population, altering society and changing the People. None of this is within our control, or even within our ability to comprehend.

Technology and modernity mean a world forever new. It means one's society differs greatly from that of his father's, and the society of his children will differ in ways unknown. It means one is born into one world and leaves another. There is a characteristic look of bewilderment that sometimes comes upon us; the modern mask of marvelment. Whereas throughout history humanity's experience has been of only slow, barely perceptible progress punctuated by periods of revolution that usually brought more noise than real change in the daily life of the individual, we exist in a continual, unending revolution--not of ideas or values, but of technology and commerce; it is not a revolution of a population or a faction with designs, but the aggregated energy of self-interest. No purpose; no design. It is under no one's control; yet the same game of wile and cunning will promote some to power and condemn most to insignificance. Same as it ever was.

Humanity's progress once seemed destined for a more libertarian future, and perhaps it is, but the lesson of our time is that there is no guarantee of this, no reason to make this assumption. Invasive technology and multiplying media unduly empower not only of the government, but any powerful entity, and the masses as well, to crush the individual. The surveillance state may in fact be the inevitable result of indifferent technology blithely destroying the private realm. But above all, technology, for all of its wonder and because of its irresistable nature, has thus far been as much a friend of government and corporate power as it has been a tool for resistance to them. And they already operate at a distinct advantage. I do not lament technology, but humanity, as always.

The very reason that government is necessary means that its benignity is not possible; the cruel force upon which government must be predicated, a consequence of nature, cannot be concealed or mitigated but through layers of restriction, dull and sense-deadening at their best, murderous at their worst.
But the threat of violence is there, always, implied but overwhelming, the most terrifying and all-encompassing sort of violence, state violence, the sort that, sufficiently provoked, can not merely kill a man but ruin him, with impoverishment, enslavement, scandal; the destruction of his very name and humanity it holds in reserve and uses with ease.

I don't pretend it can be any other way. One can just as easily argue that we've accomplished an astounding compromise with our violent nature, and the gray face of government is the dam behind which that dark force is contained. This compromise is more fragile than we know; we always forget. But our duty to humanity, to ourselves, is to remain keenly aware of these effects, to mitigate them as much as the preservation of order allows, to imagine the realization of something more. To be vigilant in pursuing the dream of liberty. To plot our escape.

(In a wholly unrelated side note, I will be absent from posting for a period of 2 to 3 years, with possible time off for--never mind)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Has-Beens, Take Me Away!

It's a familiar and cynical cliche that the masses "crave a strong leader." This commonplace endures because it is so often demonstrably true. The priesthood of today's prevailing order, mainstream media punditry, occasionally demonstrates this with the unintentional comedy of paeans extolling, say, the masculine vigor of a particular favored politician (think of of Chris Matthews' serial man-crushes), revealing a desire, even, or especially, among this parasitical elite for a stern leader as impatient as they are with limits on authority.
In our mature democracy the mandarins and their flatterers sometimes betray a longing for the uncomplicated efficacy of dictatorial rule more readily than the people, whom they often see as the problem for which a unifying despot is the answer. There is even a distinctly modern American, pop-celebrity "liberal" version, envisioning a benign leader who will unite us in defiance of our most elemental divisions by sheer power of personality or demographic circumstance; their acolytes sometimes use the familiar totalitarian method of deifying and sentimentalizing the chosen by the use of the familiar forename (such as Hillary, but not Barak, which doesn't carry the musical open-ended vowel structure of Obama or the soft consonant ending of, say, Saddam). Andrew Sullivan's boundless faith in the transcendent power of Barak Obama's racially blended visage is one genre of the art; Chris Matthews' more subliminal homoeroticism another.

This natural enemy of republican government didn't escape the attention of the founding fathers, and many of those arguing for the necessity of an "energetic" chief executive (themselves not entirely immune) reassured us that the office created by the Constitution was not and would not become the overbearing, imperial presidency we have made of it. No doubt among their expectations was that legislators' jealousy of their own power would naturally create resistance to executive overreach, rescuing us from a precarious dependence on mere ethical discipline. Alas.

The co-equal division of powers was to be our guarantee against the vanity of a despotic executive. The two party system, which would seem to support this, has somehow managed to erode it. Political partisanship hasn't ensured a vigorous minority opposition, but, remarkably, has created a supine legislature that is the inferior part of a disastrously unitary government.

Congress has abnegated all authority over war, first by passing an open authorization for the president to invade at will a nation halfway around the world and powerless to threaten us, then by surrendering the power of the purse and funding the ensuing imperial occupation at each turn--long after its pretext was revealed as deliberately falsified. Any consequences for that crime have been thwarted, through this perverse state of comity between executive and legislature.
The power we've vested in the presidency compounds itself; one party wields this power while the other covets it. The spectacle of the Democratic majority in Congress powerless to oppose an unpopular war is a direct result of their presidential aspirations. Through it all a distinct faction and particular worldview at odds with the valid interests of the nation have carried the day with remarkable efficiency. Corrupt though it may be, our government cannot be said to be either divided or lacking in vigor. The divisions are between popular and elite will, between the law and government action, between legitimate, morally defensible interest and current foreign policy.

Of the two defining initiatives of the Bush administration, the war and immigration reform, the government has from start to finish showed a unity that authoritarian regimes acting in camera sometimes struggle to achieve. Most remarkably perhaps is that on both of these issues, this united government acts in defiance of popular will. In the case of the war a bizarre pattern of official subterfuge giving way to exposure and failure giving way yet again to another subterfuge has unfolded (false pretext gains public support for war; pretext is exposed and the war goes badly, turning the public against the war; consequences of the failure of the war become the pretext for remaining in the war; the "surge" and attendant ethnic cleansing create a plausible success, quieting public opposition; no one notices or cares that this success bears no relation to the original purposes given for the war); this absurdity renders us as a people complicit through a lack of diligence in the criminal behavior of our government. Nonetheless, in each phase the people have either been misled or defied.

Regarding the other grand initiative of this administration and its allies on both sides of the aisle, immigration reform, the concerted efforts at disinformation haven't been so dramatic and criminal but merely standard political faire; the media needs no prompting to comply with it and regards the issue with a sort of willful and sentimental ignorance that dismisses majority opinion as callow bigotry. Rather there has been a combination of rhetorical evasion and outright defiance, only checked by the sort of public outcry and resistance that happens once in a generation. The public has been broadly opposed from the start to immigration reform as the political parties, the government, and their lobbyist overlords envision it. Despite a campaign of dissembling and browbeating nearly as energetic and concerted as that which brought us the war, the more informed and engaged the public becomes regarding the issue, the more steadfast is their opposition. And still, one gets the feeling that the government will prevail ultimately through some combination of subterfuge and incrementalism, and that they will do it with the sort of vengeance characteristic of a privileged elite angered at being denied and embarrassed.

The common feature through all of this has been a remarkable level of unity among the two political parties, lobbyists and private interests, notwithstanding the belated and stillborn Democratic opposition to the war that was the public's paltry payout for returning them to power. "Bipartisanship", that hoary cliche lamented by politicians whenever they lack political cover or imagination, has never been more in evidence, never more disastrous to the health of the nation.

Remarkably, viewing this wreckage, a group of mostly retired politicians has decided that the problem is a lack of cooperation within the government, demanding their erstwhile colleagues present them with their plan to forge a "government of national unity", and threatening a to challenge them for power if they don't with their very own Augustus consecrated with the holiest validation of our time, massive wealth: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

One might conclude from Bloomberg's putsch that he opposes the policies of President Bush. He does not, and has been one of the war's most enthusiastic supporters. This isn't merely political opportunism or post 9/11 hysteria that might presage a coversion to realism, either. The Mayor has been among the more vociferous supporters of a foreign policy that views Israel's security as inseparable from America's (see Glenn Greenwald for a summary of the Mayor's fervor), and it is by the pathway of staunch support for Israel and its attendant charges of anti-Semitism and speech suppression that the neocons and their agenda will transition into the next administration, like a parasite in a host body, maintaining a Middle East policy centered on a pointless state of cold war with Iran and Syria, regardless of how the Iraq war and its public perception proceed.

On the issue of immigration Bloomberg is characteristically dismissive of public opposition, once angrily stating that the only problem with the system is that it doesn't supply enough cheap, unskilled labor for New York's businesses. His enthusiasm for illegal immigration does not still his natural authoritarian tendencies however: the Mayor does support the institution of "a DNA or fingerprint database to track and verify all legal U.S. workers." Any possible erosions of liberty ensuing from immigration enforcement do not trouble the Mayor, while any actual control of immigration does, suggesting he merely approves of the widening surveillance state in general.

Revealed in the enthusiasm of supposed statesmen for such a figure is a system that rewards cowardice and complicity, punishing courage and independence. Pushing for "unity" under a strong leader is making deliberate, and a redoubling of, that process. This revealed defect in our political system (as opposed to the system of government it tramples) already causes power to flow upward and into the executive office; if the current President is any indication, the increase in power may be inversely proportionate to the character of the individual occupying the office. The intellectual and moral inadequacy of President Bush, thus empowered, has been disastrous. The Bloomberg campaign suggests that our elites do not see the power of the Presidency as a problem that needs any remedy other than the installation of a more capable sovereign.

Watching this last gasp of a group flailing against the irrelevance of their impending dotage I'm reminded of nothing so much as the the old guard of the Soviet Union dying off; first an infirm Brezhnev passing, then Yuri Andropov's brief turn, giving way to an exhausted Constantin Chernyenko (who barely made it through the eulogy he gave at the funeral of his predecessor) making it no farther, and ending finally with communism's unwitting gravedigger, Mikhail Gorbachev, taking up his spade. Are we auditioning Gorbachevs?

What the elite laments is not divided government, but a government limited in its powers. In effect, they lament democracy. It's a remarkable thing, but apparently the longer one serves in a republic the more he comes to disdain it.
The complete lack of interest in the recent fictional thread combined with the ongoing death spiral in readership (at what point does decency require we pull the plug?) is not lost on Untethered's editorial staff. Therefore, in one final attempt to revive this thing from its catatonia, I hereby announce a new direction. From now on I will stick to straightforward blogging, in the form of literal commentary about issues of broad interest, taking definitive stands alternating between a loose, jocular style and grand, sweeping pronouncements. You can look forward to loads of linking, and much dissection of original material published elsewhere. Polemics like you've never seen before. Also, I'm actively seeking a group of bloggers who will admit me into their linkage circle-jerk; Bob said of Jim's post about my mention of Joe's remarks regarding Bob's... I'm even thinking about going with the lower case i as a personal pronoun. Baby steps.
So, to inaugurate our new path, here's a post about the Iowa caucus. It is, however, written in invisible typeface, similar to that ink that is only visible on paper after you highlight it with a catalyst. To view it you will need to swab your computer screen with a blend of equal parts egg whites, cranberry juice, and urine from a cat in middle to late estrous cycle. Enjoy:























There. That wasn't so hard. Excuse me, I think I'm going to be ill.