Banality Creep

Bradley Manning, If You See Something, Say Something ... Unless It's U.S. War Crimes

The thing to know about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is Sir Thomas Gresham’s principle that bad money drives out the good. So long as the government continues to prosecute a secret war beyond the principles on which this country was founded, people of conscience will continue to come forward with these kinds of revelations. We cannot drill into young people the American mythos and require new recruits into government service to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic without planting the seeds of the very dissidents we now simultaneous seek to suppress. At some point the government will figure out how to screen out people of conscience, after which time our secret wars abroad and the surveillance state will be administered by scoundrels and unthinking bureaucrats. That power corrupts is as true of institutions as it is of individuals. Bad money drives out the good.

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Inflation on the Gold Standard

Oh, hey, look, the U.S. post war gold bullion standard did not prevent inflation. It just meant that gold and the currency inflated together at the fixed rate. In fact, it was in part the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s that forced the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971.

"Inflation's Stubborn Resistance," Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970

Inflation’s Stubborn Resistance,” Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970, pp. 102-112.

Via Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), p. 65.

Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?

What makes the recent comments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy regarding homosexuality, as well as Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert regarding the Aurora shootings particularly galling is just how close they are to the sentiments of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Consider: here is Mr. Cathy’s remark:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

And here is Rep. Gohmert’s assessment of the mass shooting in Aurora:

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country and … what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.

You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? … where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.

In Rep. Gohmert’s mind, mass shootings aren’t chance, or human actuated events, but specific, willful, malicious omissions on the part of God.

How else are we to interpret this than as saying that God will indiscriminately strike down your fellows should a nation defy his will? And how is this anything other than the unavoidable opposite of the notion that God takes favor on those who obey him? But insidiously, how far is it from statements such as these to Pastor Phelps’s “Thank God for IEDs”?

For the remainder of this argument I defer to a thousand years of disputation over the incompatable triad.

World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton

The holiday from history ends and the war on terrorism begins with the spectacle of September 11th. The Bush administration decided to make dueling spectacles of the war on terrorism when it opened the war on Iraq with “shock and awe”. The logical conclusion of the first major arc of the war on terrorism would have been the spectacle of Osama bin Laden’s bloodied corpse, but President Obama decided to deny the world that spectacle. That bookend to the war on terrorism would remain unconceptualized in the spectacle (Barack Obama is “the first Jewish president“).

What we got instead of the image of the death of Osama bin Laden was the image of the death of Osama bin Laden reflected on the face of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden, Situation Room, the White House, 1 May 2011

Secretary Clinton has tried to fob this image off, saying, “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”

Is this the Clintonian reflex, or Obama’s postmodern commitment to non-representation and non-meaning? Or maybe it was a yawn?

She should own this moment: it’s one of the most amazing and iconic images to come out of the war on terrorism. And she is turning the office of Secretary of State into the U.S.’s emotional barometer.

Today, when Libyan rebels managed to locate and kill Muammar Gaddafi, one of the first vectors of this story was when, while preparing for a series of pool interviews in Kabul, Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton was handed a BlackBerry with the news. Again, no image of the event, but the event reflected in Hillary Clinton’s reaction.

Hillary Clinton reacts to news of Muammar Gaddafi's capture, Kabul, Afghanistan, 20 October 2011

It’s like world history meets Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Wikipedia | YouTube).

Also of note, that baby bump just over Secretary Clinton’s right shoulder is Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, wife of Anthony Weiner.

The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.

Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?