Thursday, February 28, 2008

Radio Notes

This week on About Face our Topic is "Artists in a Time of War". The idea comes from Howard Zinn's collection of essays under that title. Zinn believes that artists can transcend the conventional thought to point out truths but he also notes that they often serve the conventional thought as well. My co-host, Dennis, and I will offer up our ideas about art and war. We've both been to war and we've both done things arguably resembling art so we'll have plenty to say. I am inviting any others who have thoughts on the matter to listen and call in. The topic could easily be presented as role of the blogger in times of war but then we'd have to ask if we transcend anything? About Face will stream at this Saturday from 5:00 to 6:00 pm Eastern (2:00 to 3:00 pm Pacific) time.

An About Face First is that we actually have a schedule for the entire month of March. Usually we maybe get a couple weeks ahead but never an entire month. Next week we'll address the militarization of American society and the following week will be devoted to Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan that will be taking place in Washington, DC. On March 24 Howard Zinn will be our guest and we can ask him about artists, war and militarized societies.

Also on line (and maybe even on air by now) is GI Voice Radio, a community radio station broadcasting to the Fort Lewis and McChord Air Base just north of Olympia. This is a project of local IVAW members with help from regional activists. The format is a mix of music and alternative information that will assist service members and their families to making honorable choices the many difficult decisions they face. You can listen here or check out the website here.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Measuring Patriotism

At last, Americans can carefully calibrate their devotion to their country. No more wondering. No more guess work. Barack Obama’s conservative critics offer a convenient checklist of patriotic criteria to ensure uniform allegiance to nation and state. I call it the Complete Conservative Criteria of Patriotism (CCCP for short). Needless to say, I could hardly wait to jump right in and verify my patriotism. Turns out that I don’t fit well into the CCCP.

Flag Pin.
I find the whole idea of a flag lapel pin trivial: America as a giant fraternal organization. It’s a hollow gesture in a nation awash in American flags that are almost meaningless in their ubiquity. The only flag that catches my attention these days is on a coffin. Richard Nixon was the first president I recall seeing with a flag pin. He may not have been the first but he is certainly symbolic of the misappropriation of a national symbol for political purposes. For me, then, the flag lapel pin will never rise above its questionable beginnings. Good on you, Obama, for insisting that people judge you on your ideas and actions rather than the trinkets you display. BTW, John Prine nailed that kind of silliness long ago.

Unquestioned National Pride. No unquestioned pride for me. First of all, pride is a sin, one of the seven deadly ones, if I recall my grade school catechism correctly. Second, no human institution should ever be beyond question. The sin comes in elevating oneself above others. That does not mean I do not take pride in my accomplishments but that pride is specific and is based on some relatively objective measure of achievement; it’s in no way universal or constant. I hold my country to the same standard and will state in no uncertain terms that, unlike Cindy McCain (the conservative embodiment of patriotism), I am not always proud of America. I know too much history to not understand that America has not always lived up to its lofty ideals. I am proud that I am associated with a community (America) that has accomplished much and contributed to the world, but that pride is tempered by America’s, at times grievous, failures. (EEK! He said “failure” and “America” in the same sentence!! spinning...around!)

National Anthem. I stand for the national anthem. It’s a gesture of respect for the ideals I find in the nation’s founding principles even if the lyrics are mainly about not being overrun during the night and set to a virtually un-singable drinking melody . I don’t put my hand over my heart. I don’t recall that gesture being part of the patriotic ceremonies of my youth (mostly high school football games). Ever since the Army, though, it’s probably a reflection of my antipathy to saluting anything as a matter of ritual. I would prefer “America the Beautiful” as a national anthem. Just sayin’.

Pledging Allegiance. I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, not the flag. Maybe that’s what the flag represents but it’s also been used to represent enough dubious causes (racism, imperialism, genocide, economic exploitation) that I cannot ever look at my nation’s flag and not see the bad along with the good. If I am called to join others in pledging allegiance to the flag, I pledge allegiance to “one nation with liberty and justice for all.” It’s never a rote gesture because it always makes me think about why I cannot simply say the requisite words.

The Bottom Line.
To determine my overall Patriotism Quotient (PQ), I quantified the CCCP by allocating four points one. Cindy McCain would no doubt earn a perfect score of 16. I fared less well. I earned no points on either of the first two criteria and maybe two points on the last two for at least going through the motions publiclly. But maybe I shouldn’t get any points because I question both the national anthem and the pledge and would not rule out refusing either gesture if I thought the a public refusal were appropriate.

My PQ indicates that I do not love my country. I’m not sure what it means to love your country, if that love precludes an informed, realistic evaluation of my country’s past and present. I am painfully aware of America’s failures (Ohmigod! He said “America” and “failure again”! Swoon.) Yet I don’t hate America nor do I blame America first for all the world’s ills. America is as noble a community, as noble in its founding ideals as any on earth. Nor do I want to see America fail. In fact, I very much want America to succeed, which to me means offering the liberty and opportunity to all citizens that the founding fathers believed were the inherent right of white male property owners in 1776. Success also means contributing to the spread of that liberty and opportunity to other nations and peoples. Not by conquest and force but rather by the power of our ideas and mutual understanding of competing interests and national cultures.

I guess I can’t run for president now.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Everything Is Fucked Up (Long Version)

[The original is at Mockingbird's Medley. The following is what happens when snark turns to thought.]

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said yesterday: "We are willing to resume the human rights dialogue. We are willing to have exchanges and discussions on human rights with the United States and other countries on the basis of mutual respect, equality and non-interference."

Human rights and mutual respect are more properly a matter between a government and its people. That's the whole point of the Social Contract. Until China--all societies, actually--learn this lesson human rights are not fully recognized.

America's role is to remind other nations of respect for fundamental human rights. By word and deed. America can do the word part. The United States adopted one of the first great declarations of human rights in the world. Not only did the Declaration of Independence clearly state the nature of human rights and liberty, it also described how those rights would be secured. However, fitfully and incompletely America has lived up to her early ideals, those ideas remain among the most noble in political thought and philosophy.

Deeds don't work as well for the US. Our 100 years center stage in the world has been typically colonial and imperialistic but America managed to keep a pretty good reputation in the world by bailing out Europe in WWII and counterbalancing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These days, that reputation is pretty damn spent.

But the words are still there and they still mean something to me. I recommend them to China and other nations as a very good start toward human rights and liberty. Actually, most nations have adopted the very similar UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is the 20th century statement of 18th century ideals. The challenge is to make these ideals real for all societies in a way that they understand and accept.

Here I am, sounding Messianic, offering some Universal Truth for the world. But I'm merely repeating what I understand to be the best of Western Enlightenment thought, which I believe does speak a universal truth in its definition of human rights. It's one of Western Civilization's better accomplishments. What I write here and speak elsewhere declares my goals. After that, I am very, very willing to look at any ideas that ethically advance those goals.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Parsing the Platitudes

After earlier opposing a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, both the leading Democratic candidates have been forced to become ever more specific on the campaign trail, in response to voters who want the United States to pull back from Iraq as soon as possible. Clinton's reversal on the question of the timetable has been particularly dramatic. She now says that she would get "nearly all" U.S. troops out of the country by the end of 2009; Obama says he would get all "combat troops" out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

A four month difference? Not much at all compared to John McCain's 100 year plus war.

But then I see the quotes, the wiggle room and loopholes. I like the "all" part of Clinton's statement; the "nearly" part troubles me, though. If Obama were to acknowledge that all US forces in Iraq are for all intents and purposes " in combat" (even the Green Zone REMFs and pogues), his statement works even better. Since most American troops in Iraq are not classified as combat specialties, Obama leaves the option for a big residual force.

At first read the quote suggests that each candidate is moving significantly toward withdrawing US forces from Iraq. On second read, all I see are words.

And speaking of words, I read that Clinton criticized Obama for advocating normal relations with Cuba. I wondered why seeking normal relations with another nation is bad. Doesn't normal connote an acceptable and beneficial relationship? Why would we not want to establish that relationship with every nation on this planet? Does Clinton's statement mean that she favors abnormal relations as a matter of policy or does she have criteria for deciding? I know that normalizing relations between hostile nations is not easily accomplished but I can't for any reason see wanting to continue hostile relationships with any nation and not actively seeking ways to change that relationship.

I just think building and cooperating beats destroying. I'm weird like that.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Loving Politics. Hating Campaigns.

I’ve been a political junkie since I was a teenager. In high school and college I considered running for office later in life. My youthful ambitions came to naught for a variety of reasons but I entered adulthood with a strong belief in a public society that offered opportunity to all. I never lost my abiding interest in how and why communities make decisions. Central to that interest is ideas and results and what those results mean to the larger society. That to me is the heart of politics. I can debate ideas, plans and expectations with someone who holds different economic and social beliefs. I can use that discussion to look for ways that differing ideas can come together in the interest of the community. That’s politics and that’s why I am fascinated with it. Hell, it even offers me hope that human beings can live together cooperatively in prosperity and harmony. No doubt about it, I am an eternal romantic..

All this comes to mind as I listen to Clinton and Obama attack each other’s records and experience. I don’t hear an exchange of ideas or attempts to look for common ground–you know, building on their 95% similarity in policy and record, the fact that they are near clones of each other. All I hear is the five percent “difference” that is somehow supposed to mean something to me. Bullshit! That does not speak to me of ideas and solutions; it speaks of scheming, calculated, tactical decision that look only to the moment. That’s a campaign. It offers me nothing. Just like CheneyBush’s and soon-to-be-John McCain’s fearmongering and war offer nothing.

Yet I cannot ignore it since it is the politics of this nation and for that reason, it is important. The events of this year WILL affect me and my world. So here I am again, attracted to a process that is at the same time repelling and distressing. On the other hand, I am not living in an African nation plagued by warlords, tribal violence and desperate hunger. (Just finished reading Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma, fiction set in the eternal civil war of Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone told by a 10 year old child soldier. I know enough of the events depicted to know the novel’s setting is true. Such knowledge is always good for a real perspective.)

Still I am living without much hope or expectation for the future of a nation and a world that is the only one I will ever know. No doubt that’s why Obama is doing so well; hope is a big theme in his campaign and a nation will always move toward hope, real or not. I am less impressed with Obama’s hope than most. I’ve seen enough politicians and campaigns to know that possibilities are severely limited in the American political system. I know, too, that the few possibilities that do exist are at best slight variations on the existing policy, that any successful candidate from the American mainstream will govern in the interests of the few. Democrats may offer some crumbs for the masses but the system works in favor of monied and corporate interests. Not much hope there.

The real loser in all this is Hillary Clinton. She is sounding more and more petty and mean in her attacks, which severely diminish her in stature. She would do much better to be emphasizing her own policies and hopes rather than tearing down Obama, by simply stating how and why she thinks his characterizations are incorrect. She can do that without attacking him. Clinton’s campaign failed a crucial test–they were caught entirely off guard by Obama’s success and really had no Plan B. What they’ve come up with on the run has been formulaic and counterproductive. That doesn’t surprise me; the Clinton campaign is riddled with traditional Democratic operatives–the ones tha always seem to either lose to or compromise with the Republicans–and simply expected to cruise on to the nomination by not making mistakes. They gambled on money, Clinton’s inevitability and big primaries with no reserve. Now they are scrambling to catch up. What I hear from Clinton is frustration and fear that the prize really is slipping away. I’m not sure anything will salvage the Clinton campaign, certainly not scorched earth negative ads that offer fodder for the Republicans.

Obama had nothing to loose by running this year. He had organizing skills and the opportunity to look for different strategies that offered the possibility of disrupting Clinton’s smooth trajectory to the nomination. Even if ultimately unsuccessful, Obama would have gained valuable experience and exposure. And if successful, well, that would be good too. Isn’t it?

I’ve pretty much come down to rooting for Obama, even as I see little or no substantive difference between him and Clinton. I respect them both and look forward to Hillary Clinton becoming my generation’s Ted Kennedy, a long-serving liberal senator. Maybe she can do Ted one better by developing the leadership and legislative skills to ensure that no Congress is ever rolled by a president the way CheneyBush has done in the past seven years. In the meantime, I look forward to Obama smoking John McCain in the general election. (Hey! If I’m going to fantasize, the fantasy will be one I enjoy.)

And remember. I’m a romantic. I hope Obama and Clinton will rise to the occasion.

Keep in mind, however, that I am still an undecided delegate and share a vote, sort of, at the county convention. I am pretty sure I would reflect the wishes of the actual delegate but I do still want to hear answers to my call for a demilitarized American society not under corporate control.

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