In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.

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Out Of Bounds

In the most recent Republican debate Donald “the Trumpet” had the audacity to speak the truth and the Republican loyalists collectively pilloried him. It matters not that he has been telling blatant lies throughout his campaign, as long as the lies are within the boundaries of accepted Republican dogma. It matters not that the trumpet insisted that the Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers were attacked (a lie) or that Mexican immigrants are all rapists (another lie). What matters is that he had the audacity to insist that the Iraq war was a mistake and that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. That was true but, more to the point, it was not acceptable to Republicans because George W. Bush was president at the time and he is regarded as the man who “made our country safe from terrorism” despite the fact that the Twin Towers were attacked during his presidency and all report indicate that he had been warned that an attack was immanent. The following slice from an interesting story on the internet spells out the essentials:

I won’t even hazard a guess as to whether this double-sided exchange helped or hurt Trump. Watching it on television you’d think Republicans watching hated everything he had to say. But the reality is that the in-studio audience was hand-picked by the state party, and seemingly stuffed with Bush supporters.

But if it did go badly for Trump what’s fascinating is that it went badly in exactly the kind of way you would have expected Trump’s campaign to go south months ago.

He went way outside the boundaries of the kind of things Republican Party politicians normally say, and in response Republican Party politicians (and their backers in the state party) piled-on to diss him. A political party, after all, is a coalition of like-minded people. When you step outside their zone of comfort and say things they wouldn’t say, they team up to crush you.

What’s important here is not that the Trumpet actually said something that happened to be true (which is remarkable in itself) but that the  Republican fraternity determined that these sorts of remarks are heresy, even blasphemy. You can say anything you want, no matter how absurd or untrue as long as you don’t bash one of us — in this case the Shrub who was supposedly in control when the Towers were attacked and later ordered the invasion of Iraq for bogus reasons. It really is about Party Loyalty and not about the Truth or about the Common Good.

And now that Judge Scalia has passed on the Republicans have clustered about and are determined to block any nomination that the president puts forward. Why? Not because he might suggest the wrong person for the job, but because he’s a Democrat and whoever he chooses is unacceptable a priori. This is called “poisoning the wells,” and it is an example of faulty logic, a logical fallacy in fact. But logic doesn’t matter to politicians these days any more than the truth matters. What matters is circling the wagons and making sure that those on your team are of one mind — even if that mind is closed and terribly small.

Dialogue About Drones

A. You know, I’m sick and tired of how bleeding heart liberals complain about the drone program. After all, we are at war with al-Qaeda — a war they declared when they flew planes into the Twin Towers. Basically, they asked for it and if we can save American lives by killing off the leaders of al-Qaeda so much the better.

B. I don’t know. We really aren’t at war with al-Qaeda, which isn’t a country after all; it’s a religious group. But religious fanatics certainly did fly planes into the Twin Towers and killed something like 3000 innocent people. In retaliation we have killed an estimated 4500 according to recent reports.  But as Jimmy Carter said, “Instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” We need to think about this. I’m not sure it’s right to send the drones into crowded population centers.

A. What’s “right” got to do with it? It’s a question of getting them before they get us.

B. I read somewhere the odds of anyone in this country actually getting killed by another terrorist strike is about the same as the odds of winning the lottery. I’m not sure we have grounds for attacking people, especially since there are so many unknowns.

A. What do you mean “unknowns”?

B. Well, are we sure that only al-Qaeda leaders are getting killed? (Could there really be 4500 of them?) Isn’t it possible that the information that leads to the strikes is faulty? People do make mistakes, after all. And remember these are the same people giving us information now who failed to see the attacks coming in Benghazi, not to mention the Twin Towers.

A. Well, I have confidence in people the President and the military rely on. They wouldn’t order a drone strike against someone unless they were sure it was a viable target.

B. Perhaps, but then there are the innocent people who have been killed.

A. Well, sure. But that’s because the terrorists hide among the civilians: someone is bound to get killed by mistake.

B. And you’re OK with that? The U.N. thinks this country might be guilty of war crimes and have started an investigation. Here, read this from the Manchester Guardian where it quotes Ben Emmerson a U.N. special rapporteur who says that “The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.
“The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US.  …” If I read that right, this means that people looking at this country are beginning to regard the U.S. as the bully on the block.

A. Oh gimme a break! Nobody pays any attention to the U.N. any more. It’s just a group of motor mouths who sit around and beat their gums but never get anything done. Anyway, I would rather be the bully on the block than the kid everyone picks on. I am willing to accept the so-called “mistakes” if it means that the ones who are planning to attack this country can no longer pose a threat.

B. The question is do they really pose a threat? Or are we becoming paranoid and living in fear of something that is unlikely to happen? Couldn’t we just beef up security and use the CIA and other such groups to just collect information about possible attacks — and then prepare to defend against those actual attacks, and not just some imaginary ones?

A. The attacks on the Twin Towers weren’t imaginary.

B. True, but that was one attack and we are killing innocent people on the supposition that there will be future attacks, which may just be a fiction in the minds of military brass who love to play with their new toys and aren’t known for their restraint and humanitarian concerns. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on our guard. But we are killing people because we are told they might attack us. Anyway, an attack on this country would be very complicated, given our distance from the Middle East and the cost of mounting it.

A. That’s pure speculation. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Anyway, I hope you and Jimmy Carter are happy in your make-believe world where everything is peaches and cream. I prefer it here in the real world where you try to be prepared for the bad things that happen.

B. It’s not clear whose world is “make-believe”: mine where people try to do the right thing or yours where you spend your life hiding under a desk worrying about an attack that almost certainly will never come.

A. Ahhh nuts! I’ve had enough of this. I’m going out to buy another Power Ball ticket.

Who Cares?

I have blogged about the drone kills before, though the posts have not been overly popular. I don’t think people like to think about these anti-terrorist tactics that may strike some as in themselves terroristic. This is especially so since mistakes have been made in the past and a number of innocent lives, estimated at the end of last year to be around 145, have been lost in those attacks. And it has been revealed recently that even the targeting of American citizens anywhere in the world (except the United States) has been approved — if they are suspected of terrorist tendencies. At what point do we balk?

A poll recently revealed that 77% of the Democrats polled approve of the drone kills. That number astounded me, and it makes me wonder if that many Democrats would approve of the flights if they were ordered by a Republican president. It doesn’t seem to me that any citizen should simply approve of what his or her President does simply because they happen to be of the same political party. If something is wrong, it is wrong no matter who orders it.

But, speaking of wrong, in a recent speech  in his home state of South Carolina covered by Yahoo News, Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be bragging as he had the following interesting remark to make about these drone attacks:

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

Graham’s dismissive aside about the innocent lives that have been taken is extremely offensive. And I hesitate to point out the fact that the same intelligence community that is providing information about who are and who are not “very senior members of Al-Qaeda” failed to provide adequate information to this government about the attacks on the Twin Towers or the more recent terrorist attacks on the American Embassy in Benghazi. So we don’t really know how many innocent lives have been lost in these strikes.

But what is especially disturbing about Graham’s remarks is his claim that we are at war. We are not at war, though we have coined the phrase “war on terror” to hide our shame. Indeed, we are the best protected nation in the world with 300,000 troops stationed overseas and oceans on either side of this continent. But even if we were in a war declared as such by this Congress, we should hesitate to approve of tactics that are known to have “residual effects,” as they say, in taking the lives of innocent people.

How would we feel about this if these drone attacks were ordered by, say, Iran, and they targeted the Secretary of Defense (or Senator Graham for that matter) and they happened to “take out” several dozen innocent American lives at the same time? I dare say there would be outrage and cries for retaliation — as well there should be. What we would not want done to ourselves we should not want done to others.There is simply no way these attacks can be defended on ethical grounds.

But if you are keeping score, “they” killed 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; we have now apparently killed 4,700 of them. We’re ahead. How sickening.