Archive | January, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism (revised)

31 Jan

 (Note: What follows is a revised text of my post on the film published a few days ago; further reflection, feedback, and exposure to other points of view led me to feel that, given the sensitivity of the topic, I could do somewhat better in setting forth my assessments; I thank those readers who contributed comments, and apologize for this ‘new’ post that is mainly an ‘old’ one.)

            ZD30 is the film narrative that tells the dramatic story of the special forces operation that on May 2, 2011 located and killed Osama Bin Laden in a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad. It is directed by the prominent director, Kathryn Bigelow, who had won big Hollywood awards (2009 Oscar for best movie and  best director) for her brilliant film, Hurt Locker, focused on the work of a bomb squad in Iraq, and its impact on the lives of the American soldiers taking part. She knows her craft, and ZD30 is captivates an audience due to its screenplay, virtuoso acting, taut plot, vividly contoured characters, insight into the mentality of CIA operatives and their bosses, and the evidently realistic portrayal of grisly torture scenes. These filmic virtues have been displaced by a raging controversy as to whether ZD30 endorses torture as a valued and effective tool against extremist enemies of the United States and conveys the message that torture was instrumental in the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

 

            Certainly President Obama claimed and received much credit in the United States for executing this mission, and it has received very little critical scrutiny. It is hard to calculate the impact of this strike that killed Bin Laden on the 2012 election, but it many believe it made a crucial difference, at least psychologically, and particularly in relation to the outcome in swing states and with respect to the last minute decisions reached by independent voters. Such a success against Al Qaeda was registered as a major victory despite the absence of evidence that Bin Laden has been playing any significant role in Al Qaeda activities during recent years, including that of their so-called affiliates, in such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and Mali, and he was so removed from the scene of the conflict that there was serious speculation that he had died or was incapacitated long before 2011. As it did with the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government fans the flames of suspicion by refusing to disclose the evidence relied upon to identify that the person killed at the compound in Abbottabad was indeed Bin Laden and by the related refusal even to allow journalists or others to see the body before it was unceremoniously dumped at sea (although after administering Muslim burial rituals and obtaining a quiet approval from the Saudi government, his birthplace).

 

            The deeper questions, of course, are the conduct of such a military mission without the permission, or even the knowledge, of the territorial sovereign; indeed there were American military units standing by in case Pakistan found out while the operation was underway and used its own military capabilities to abort it. Also, was it legally and morally appropriate to kill Osama Bin Laden despite his being unarmed when confronted in the compound and at that point in the raid there was no resistance? It would seem clear that it would not be acceptable to the U.S. Government for other governments to carry out such an extra-judicial killing to eliminate an enemy leader living in a distant country. Would not many governments have a comparable security argument if faced with real or imagined overseas enemies? Arguably, the immensity of the 9/11 crimes and the grandiosity of Osama Bin Laden’s self-declared war against ‘the crusader’ forces of the West set him apart to some extent. Bigelow makes this connection by opening the film with a blank screen while engaging the audience with voice recordings of frightened persons trapped in the Trade Center buildings on that fateful day, presumably conditioning us to be indulgent toward responses on ‘the dark side’ that were somehow commensurate with the immensity of the crime attributed to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

 

            Yet, it would still seem that the particulars of this Operation Neptune Spear (the US Government code name) are ventures that only the United States, and possibly Israel, would undertake, and that their unabashed victory claim, is a notorious instance of American Exceptionalism, namely, an assertion that the United States can do what others must not dare to do, and can even provide for itself a legal rationale with the arrogant label ‘not for use by others,’ as has been the implicit message of the American debate, such as it is, about the legality of attack drones. With a posture of post-colonial insensitivity the United States is currently openly discussing ‘establishing’ a sixth military base for drone aircraft in Africa (Morocco, Senegal, Bukino Faso, Uganda, Djibouti, and now Niger) as if such a decision could be made solely in Washington without regard for the precedent being set or the regional attitudes toward the reassertion of a Western military presence. On formal level these African governments have given their formal consent to what might be called ‘drone colonialism,’ but can such moves be reconciled with political independence and genuine self-determination?

 

            The discussion generated by the movie is misleadingly framed as a kind of quarrel between those who insist on ‘political correctness’ when it comes to torture and militarism and those who champion freedom of speech and the amoral conscience of the artist. Matt Taibbi ends an otherwise stellar, provocative review in Rolling Stone of ZD30 with what he must regard as an ironic closing line that speculates on how Dick Cheney would respond, as if that clinches the anti-Bigelow arguments: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Bigelow doesn’t do much to unmuddy the waters by declaring herself to be “a lifelong pacifist’ and then in the same LA Times op/ed (Jan. 15, 2013) ending with what sounds to me like a ringing statement of approval of what the film depicts, including its torture sequences. In Bigelow’s words, “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

 

            Besides being quite a stark departure from pacifism this observation contradicts her earlier dismissal of moral criticism: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. It fit was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” Such a posture is adopted by ZD30 at its outset with the moviegoer informed, “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” These words can only be understood asa filmmaker’s insistence that what is about to be seen is ‘reality’ and not ‘a reality show.’

 

            In fact, Maya, the lead CIA operative whose quiet heroism consisted of an obsessive dedication to the search for Bin Laden, is portrayed as a new kind of governmental superhero who shuts down emotions in the line of duty until the mission is successfully completed. Such feminization of macho character traits is a feature of the film that has received searing commentary from Zilah Eisenstein in Al Jazeera English (21 January 2013). Bigelow’s gift for self-contradiction is unmatched: she celebrates Maya’s achievement, who is finally allowed to cry only at the end on her flight home, reminded by the crew that she must be important to have a military plane all to herself, while claiming that the demanding work of protecting the security of the country is being done by ‘ordinary Americans.’ Maybe Bigelow’s Hindu gift as an artist to live in comfortable proximity to stark contradiction!

 

            In the abstract, there can be no quibble with such a blending of antagonist sentiments, but this does not imply a suspension of moral and political judgment. Let’s suppose that Picasso had coupled the unveiling of his Guernica with a statement of glowing praise for what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pilots had accomplished by their attack on a Spanish village in 1937, and went on to insist that the bombing of a defenseless village was a display of courage and patriotic resolve by these bombers who risked everything in the defense of Franco’s Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War! By Bigelow’s double insistence on being both an amoral filmmaker that depict ‘reality’ and an American patriot who loves her country, she evidently wants to please everyone, but ends up satisfying almost no one, least of all someone trying to decipher her true beliefs about the real meaning of the film. Silence would have served her better.

 

            Despite purporting to be non-committal, seeking only to tell the true story of the struggle to catch Bin Laden, the film comes down quite strongly in support of those who have long contended that torture works. On the one side the movie better than any other film I have seen, makes the undertaking of torture a distasteful enterprise in the extreme that sullies the torturer along with the victim (although the film suppresses any recognition of this blowback).  At the same time ZD30 normalizes torture as part of the daily routine of anti-terrorist warfare, and it scandalizes the torturers in the manner of Abu Ghraib, by merging brutality toward those who are helpless with humiliation that disgusts: forcing the Muslim victim to expose his genitals in the presence of females and leading the prisoners around with a dog collar and leash in the manner given global notoriety by Lynndie England in an Iraq prison.

 

            Anyone who sees ZD30 will at least no longer be able to take refuge behind the euphemisms of the Bush Era that denied ‘torture’ ever took place as torture is contrary to government policy and American values. During the earlier period the authorized practice of torture was called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ a pattern then falsely alleged to be fully consistent with international humanitarian law. Of course, Obama’s refusal to look back to assess whether accountability should be imposed for such crimes while declaring his pledge to act in accord with international law is another one of those convenient contradictions that Bigelow throws in our direction.

 

            The film handles well the intense bureaucratic pressures on CIA field operatives from higher up to find some ‘actionable intelligence’ and making reliance on torture part of the job description. ZD30 also conveys the atmosphere within government, or at least the CIA, as one that takes it for granted that torture elicits reliable and valuable intelligence. There is no strong countervailing pressures evident except an oblique appreciation that after Bush the new man in the White House, namely Obama, has officially repudiated torture, and is unwilling to sweep the issue under the rug of mystification by calling torture enhanced interrogation techniques. There is a derisive implication in the movie that to the extent the governmental wind is blowing in a slightly different direction in Washington the ongoing global work of imperial America will grow more difficult. There is no suggestion in ZD30 or in other contexts that Obama seeks to dismantle the American overseas empire or even to revise the role of military power in the grand strategy of the first country in history to invest in the enormous capabilities needed to become and remain a ‘global state,’ that is a state whose sovereignty is non-territorial is scope, extending to the global commons (oceans, space) and overriding the sovereign of ‘normal’ states whose claims of sovereignty extend no further than their territorial boundaries.

 

            The question of torture has been much discussed in the United States over the course of the last decade. It is usually defended by invoking an extreme situation, saving a city from a ‘ticking bomb’ or to locate someone about to massacre a school full of children, implying that torture will only be used when confronted by situations of exceptional and imminent danger. But the practice of torture becomes much more generalized once the red line of prohibition is crossed. As soon as exceptions are made, as always in dealing with violent crime and politics, there is the possibility, however remote that torture might yield access to information that could avert human disaster. Yet the taint of torture is not removable, and spreads; for this reason, only an unconditional prohibition, as written into international human rights law and reinforced by rigorous accountability mechanisms, is worthy of our moral, and political, respect. To reclaim this high moral ground should be the shared goal of any anti-torture campaign worthy of support.

 

            For me more disturbing even than the indirect whitewashing of torture is the nationalization of worldview that pervades the film (as well as the media and the political culture, given populist credibility by such TV serials as 24 and Homeland). There is no sense whatsoever that those who are killed or tortured might be innocent or have had major long unheeded grievances or that the American response to 9/11 was killing and wounding many more thousands than had been killed by Al Qaeda, a set of responses in which whole societies were torn asunder for little or no gain in American security, in effect, massive forms of collective punishment, fueled by national orgies of fear and calls for vengeance. There is a monumental insensitivity in this country to the sovereign rights of other states, most obviously Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The American military and the intelligence world are professionally oriented toward maximizing operational effectiveness, but it is less understandable that the country’s political leaders remain oblivious to the rights and wellbeing of others in a world that is increasingly globalized. Implicitly, in the film and in American statecraft the lives of others are simply stage props on the geopolitical stage of political violence where the grand narrative of global statehood is being narrated.

 

            In this primary sense, objectively considered, the killing of Bin Laden seems little more than a costly and risky venture in vengeance that glorifies a militarist conception of security that can only bring massive doses of grief to societies around the world, and does great harm to the many young Americans being asked to put their mental and physical health in mortal jeopardy for very questionable purposes that are only marginally related to the defense and security of the country. The historically high suicide, crime, and social dislocation among war veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan should be heeded as a scream from the depths of the political culture rather than be treated as an awkward embarrassment that should not even factored into discussions of the costs of war. Such screams were briefly heard in the aftermath of Vietnam (derided by the leadership as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’), but soon ignored as the dirty work of managing an empire went forward. What ZD30 does, without malice but in the obedient spirit of complicity, is to glorify this dirty work.

Zero Dark Thirty & American Exceptionalism

29 Jan

Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) & American Exceptionalism

 

            ZD30 is the film narrative that tells the dramatic story of the special forces operation that on May 2, 2011 located and killed Osama Bin Laden in a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which is not far from Islamabad. It is directed by the prominent director, Kathryn Bigelow, who had won big Hollywood awards for her brilliant 2008 film, Hurt Locker, about the impact of combat experience in Iraq on the American soldiers taking part. She knows her craft, and ZD30 is captivates an audience due to its screenplay, virtuoso acting, taut plot, vividly contoured characters, insight into the mentality of CIA operatives and their bosses, and the evidently realistic portrayal of grisly torture scenes. These filmic virtues have been displaced by a raging controversy as to whether ZD30 endorses torture as a valued and effective tool against extremist enemies of the United States and seems to imply that torture was instrumental in the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

 

            Certainly President Obama claimed and received much credit in the United States for executing this mission, and it has received very little critical scrutiny. It is hard to calculate the impact of this strike that killed Bin Laden on the 2012 election, but it many believe it made a crucial difference, at least psychologically, and particularly in relation to the outcome in swing states and with respect to the last minute decisions reached by independent voters. Such a success against Al Qaeda was registered as a major victory despite the absence of evidence that Bin Laden has been playing any significant role in Al Qaeda activities during recent years, including that of their so-called affiliates, in such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and Mali, and he was so removed from the scene of the conflict that there was serious speculation that he had died or was incapacitated long before 2011. As it did with the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government fans the flames of suspicion by refusing to disclose the evidence relied upon to identify that the person killed at the compound in Abbottabad was indeed Bin Laden and by the related refusal even to allow journalists or others to see the body before it was unceremoniously dumped at sea (although after administering Muslim burial rituals and obtaining a quiet approval from the Saudi government, his birthplace).

 

            The deeper questions, of course, are the conduct of such a military mission without the permission, or even the knowledge, of the territorial sovereign; indeed there were American military units standing by in case Pakistan found out while the operation was underway and used its own military capabilities to abort it. Also, was it legally and morally appropriate to kill Osama Bin Laden despite his being unarmed when confronted in the compound and at that point in the raid there was no resistance? It would seem clear that it would not be acceptable to the U.S. Government for other governments to carry out such an extra-judicial killing to eliminate an enemy leader living in a distant country. Would not many governments have a comparable security argument if faced with real or imagined overseas enemies? Arguably, the immensity of the 9/11 crimes and the grandiosity of Osama Bin Laden’s self-declared war against ‘the crusader’ forces of the West set him apart to some extent.

 

            Yet, it would still seem that the particulars of this Operation Neptune Spear (the US Government code name) are ventures that only the United States, and possibly Israel, would undertake, and that their unabashed victory claim, is a notorious instance of American Exceptionalism, namely, an assertion that the United States can do what others must not dare to do, and can even provide for itself a legal rationale with the arrogant label ‘not for use by others,’ as has been the implicit message of the American debate, such as it is, about the legality of attack drones. With a posture of post-colonial insensitivity the United States is currently openly discussing ‘establishing’ a military base for drone aircraft in Africa as if such a decision could be made solely in Washington without regard for the precedent being set or the regional attitudes toward the reassertion of a Western military presence.

 

            The discussion generated by the movie is misleadingly framed as a kind of quarrel between those who insist on ‘political correctness’ when it comes to torture and militarism and those who champion freedom of speech and the amoral conscience of the artist. Matt Taibbi ends an otherwise stellar, provocative review in Rolling Stone of ZD30 with what he must regard as an ironic closing line that speculates on how Dick Cheney would respond, as if that clinches the anti-Bigelow arguments: “Isn’t it just a crazy coincidence that he’s probably going to love it?” Bigelow doesn’t do much to unmuddy the waters by declaring herself to be “a lifelong pacifist’ and then in the same LA Times op/ed (Jan. 15, 2013) ending with what sounds to me like a ringing statement of approval of what the film depicts, including its torture sequences. In Bigelow’s words, “Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” Besides being quite a stark departure from pacifism this observation contradicts her earlier dismissal of moral criticism: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. It fit was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

 

            In the abstract, there can be no quibble with such sentiments, but let’s suppose that Picasso had coupled the unveiling of his Guernica with a glowing commentary that praised what Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pilots had accomplished by their attack on a Spanish village, insisting that the bombing of a defenseless village showed courage and resolve of the pilots who risked all in the defense of Franco’s Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War! By her insistence on being both an amoral filmmaker and an American patriot she attempts to please everyone, but ends up satisfying no one, least of all someone trying to decipher her true beliefs about such a course of behavior.

 

            Despite purporting to be non-committal, seeking only to tell the true story of the struggle to catch Bin Laden, the film does come down quite strongly in support of those who have long contended that torture works. On the one side the movie better than any other film I have seen, makes the undertaking of torture a distasteful enterprise in the extreme that sullies the torturer along with the victim (although the film suppresses any recognition of this blowback).  At the same time ZD30 normalizes torture as part of the routine of anti-terrorist warfare, and it scandalizes the torturers in the manner of Abu Ghraib, by merging brutality toward those who are helpless with humiliation that disgusts: forcing the Muslim victim to expose his genitals in the presence of females and leading the prisoners around with a dog leash in the manner given global notoriety by Lynndie England in an Iraq prison. Anyone who sees ZD30 will at least no longer be able to take refuge behind the euphemisms of the Bush Era that denied ‘torture’ ever took place, acknowledging only what it called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ practices falsely alleged to be fully consistent with international humanitarian law.

 

            The film handles well the intense bureaucratic pressures on CIA operatives from higher up to find some ‘actionable intelligence’ and making reliance on torture part of the job description. ZD30 also conveys the atmosphere within government, or at least the CIA, as one that takes it for granted that torture elicits reliable and valuable intelligence. There is no strong countervailing pressures evident except the vague appreciation that after Bush the new man in the White House, namely Obama, genuinely dislikes torture, and is unwilling to sweep the issue under the rug of mystification by calling torture enhanced interrogation techniques. There is a derisive implication in the movie that to the extent the governmental wind is blowing in a slightly different direction in Washington the ongoing global work of imperial America will grow more difficult. There is no suggestion in ZD30 or in other contexts that Obama seeks to dismantle the American overseas empire or even to revise the role of military force in the grand strategy of the country.

 

            The question of torture has been much discussed over the course of the last decade. It is usually defended by invoking an extreme situation, saving a city from a ‘ticking bomb’ or to locate someone about to massacre a school full of children, implying that torture will only be used when confronted by situations of exceptional and imminent danger. But the practice of torture become much more generalized once exceptions are made, as always in dealing with violent crime and politics, there is the possibility, however remote that access to information could avoid a disaster. Yet the taint of torture is not removable, and spreads; for this reason, only an unconditional prohibition, as written into international human rights law, is worthy of our moral, and political, respect.

 

            For me more disturbing even than the indirect whitewashing of torture is the nationalization of worldview that pervades the film (as well as the media and the political culture). There is no sense whatsoever that those who are killed or tortured might be innocent or have had unheeded grievances or that the American response to 9/11 was killing and wounding many more thousands than had been killed by Al Qaeda, a set of responses in which whole societies being torn asunder for little or no gain in American security, in effect, massive forms of collective punishment. There is a monumental insensitivity to the sovereign rights of other states, most obviously Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The American military is understandably focused on operational effectiveness , while it is less understandable that its political leaders remain oblivious to the rights and wellbeing of others. Implicitly, in the film and in American statecraft the lives of others are simply stage props on the geopolitical stage of political violence. In this sense, objectively considered, the killing of Bin Laden seems little more than a costly and risky venture in vengeance that glorifies a militarist conception of security that can only bring massive doses of grief to societies around the world, and does great harm to the many young Americans being asked to put their mental and physical health in mortal jeopardy for very questionable purposes that are only marginally related to the defense and security of the country. The historically high suicide, crime, and social dislocation among war veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan should be heeded as a scream from the depths of the political culture rather than be treated as an awkward embarrassment that should not even factored into discussions of the costs of war.

The Second Anniversary of Tahrir Square Rising

25 Jan

 

 

            The rising in Tahrir Square two years ago electrified the world and achieved the impossible: forcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the harsh and corrupt dictator of Egypt for the prior 30 years. What inspired the world was the spontaneous spirit of unity, a movement guided by exhilarating visions of democracy and freedom and hope, generating a new kind of populism that dispensed with ideology and leaders, a sense that the people of Egypt had acted creatively and bravely to recover their country from the clutches of neoliberal predators and their domestic collaborators. Even the armed forces had seemed mainly to welcome these developments, partly because of their own fears that Mubarak harbored dynastic dreams. Although the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia preceded Tahrir Square, it was the developments in Egypt that made it plausible back in 2011 to speak about and to dream of the ‘Arab Spring.’

 

            A year later in 2012 there was still some afterglow from the drama of Tahrir Square, but there were also growing signs of disunity. It was becoming clear that Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Salafis, enjoyed the benefits of grassroots organizing and support, which translated into electoral dominance. It was also evident that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that was providing governmental authority was not clearly committed to the values and practices of constitutional democracy and human rights. For many Egyptians, SCAF was becoming a threat of new structure of governance describable as ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak.’ Labor unions, minorities, and special interest groups were all seeking to put forward their grievances. There was a growing concern in some economic sectors that the new situation was unable to revive confidence and trust, creating a kind of backlash, ‘nothing has changed,’ and ‘we are worse off than when the Mubarak regime was in power.’ At least, before the rising of 2011, tourists came, and shop owners in the cities flourished. After one year, the excitement had died down, and there were severe worries about political leadership, human rights, and economic revival, and many of those that had been in the front lines of the challenge to Mubarak were no longer politically active and visible, or were now confronting the Morsi government.

 

            On this second anniversary the situation has definitely deteriorated. Tahrir Square and other city centers around the country are increasingly sites of struggle between the governing Islamic Brotherhood and discontented liberal, secular, and minority forces. On this day of anniversary early reports indicate that there were clashes in many cities throughout the country, which resulted in at least one death and 186 reported injuries. Mohammed Morsi has pleaded for unity, but his leadership has been widely perceived by his adversaries as pushing the country in the direction of Islamism, which is serving as the ideological vehicle for the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood.  There is also a growing atmosphere of polarization in which it has become express policy that for the anti-Morsi opposition nothing less than the removal of Morsi from the presidency of Egypt will quiet their opposition. There are also a variety of hostile claims that the proposed new Egyptian Constitution embodies a deal with the armed forces, which jeopardizes democracy by ensuring SCAF’s economic private sector interests and gives it wide ranging powers to interfere in the political life of the country without even providing mechanisms to guard accountability to the constitution.

 

            Not all Egyptians buy into the politics of polarization. There are a few, too few, who stand above the fray, pointing to the exaggerations on both the Morsi and the opposition side. Their contention is that Morsi is implementing a generally inclusive constitutional scheme under difficult economic circumstances and that the secularists have reason for concern about Islamic influence and ambitions, but not for seeking to produce chaos in the country by challenging after the fact outcomes of democratic elections. The damage done by this polarization is to strengthen extremists on both sides, and to render problematic prospects for either humane governance or economic recovery.  Unfortunately, the intensification of polarization in recent months is approaching a point of no return, which inevitably casts a dark cloud over the future of Egypt.

 

            There are some younger activists who are more hopeful, partly because they are looking away from Tahrir Square, and find encouraging a variety of local developments throughout the country. These developments take the form of labor and environmental activism, the organization of local markets, and a lowering of expectations with respect to the central government in Cairo. In effect, this perspective sees a trend toward the invention of democratization-from-below that is working toward a just and fair society outside the conventional framings of political parties and elections. Such populism in one sense keeps the flame of Tahrir Square burning, but not on the square itself, which has been taken over by secular/Islamist ugly encounters.

 

            At this point in Egypt’s evolution, there are plenty of reasons for concern, but also for patience. It may be that the opposition forces will tire of confrontation and that the governing authorities will moderate their policies in ways that credibly heed the promise of inclusivity. Let us hope that some of these reasons for worry will no longer be present a year hence when the third anniversary of the 2011 rising will be celebrated. It is already clear that this rising did not produce a ‘revolution,’ but it is not yet evident whether what is emerging in Egypt can be welcomed as fundamental ‘reform’ of state/society, civilian/military, and public sector/private sector relations, a program of reform that protects and promotes human rights, including economic, social, and cultural, as well as political and civil rights. For now, it is best for people of good will to withhold judgment, and wish the people of Egypt success in their ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, dignity, and substantive democracy (that is, rights and justice, as well as the procedures of elections and institutions). 

On Syria: What to Do in 2013

19 Jan

 

            I took part last week in an illuminating conference on Syria sponsored by the new Center of Middle East Studies that is part of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. A video of the keynote panel featuring Michael Inatieff, Ken Roth, and Rafif Jouejeti can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95Ku-7SgzKg. This Center has been recently established, and operates under the excellent leadership of Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, who previously together edited the best collection of readings on the Green Revolution in Iran published under the title THE PEOPLE RELOADED: THE GREEN MOVEMENT AND THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAN’S FUTURE ( a valuable resource not only on the Green Movement itself, but in relation to movement politics in a setting of oppressive governance; obtain the book: http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-people-reloaded/).

 

            The conference brought together a mixture of Syrian specialists, Syrian activists, and several of us with a more general concern about conflict in the region, as well as with human rights and as participants in the heated debates of recent years about the virtues and vices of ‘humanitarian intervention’, what is now being called ‘Responsibility to Protect’ of ‘R2P’ in UN circles and among liberals. I came to the gathering with a rather strong disposition to present myself as a confirmed R2P skeptic, regarding it as a cynical geopolitical euphemism for what Noam Chomsky labeled as ‘military humanism’ in the context of the controversial NATO Kosovo War of 1999. Ever since the Vietnam War I have viewed all Western claims to use force in the post-colonial non-West with suspicion. I support presumptions in favor of non-intervention and self-determination, both fundamental norms of international law. But I left the conference dissatisfied with my position that nothing more could or should be done at the international level to help end the violence in Syria or to assist the struggle of the Syrian people. I became convinced that human solidarity with the ordeal of the Syrian people was being deeply compromised by the advocacy of passivity in the face of the criminality of the Damascus government, although what to do that is genuinely helpful remains extremely difficult to discern.

 

            In the immediate background of the debate on Syrian policy are the bad memories of stealth diplomacy used by the United States and several European partners in March 2011 to gain UN Security Council backing for the establishment of a No Fly Zone to protect the beleaguered and endangered population of the Libyan city of Benghazi. What ensued from the outset of the UN authorized mission in Libya was a blatant disregard of the limited mandate to protect the population of a city from a threatened massacre. In its place, the NATO undertaking embarked on a concerted regime-changing NATO mission that ended with the unseemly execution of the Libyan dictator. What NATO purported to do was not only oblivious to Libya’s sovereignty, it was unmistakably a deliberate and dramatic extension of the authorized mission that understandably infuriated the autocrats in Moscow. A case could certainly have been made that in order to protect the Libyan people it was necessary to rid the country of the Qaddafi regime, but such an argument was never developed in the Security Council debate, and would never have been accepted. Against such a background, the wide gap between what was approved by the UN Security Council vote and what was done in breach of the mandate was perceived as a betrayal of trust in the setting of the Security Council, particularly by those five governments opposed to issuing a broader writ for the intervention, governments that had been deceptively induced to abstain on the ground that the UN authorization of force was limited to a single one-off protective, emergency mission.

 

            Global diplomacy being what it is and was, there should be no surprise, and certainly no condescending self-righteous lectures delivered by Western diplomats, in reaction to the rejectionist postures adopted by Russia and China throughout the Syrian crisis. Of course, two wrongs hardly ever make a right, and do not here. NATO’s flagrant abuse of the UN mandate for Libya should certainly not be redressed at the expense of the Syrian people. In this respect, it is lamentable that those who shape policy in Moscow and Beijing are displaying indifference to the severity of massive crimes of humanity, principally perpetrated by the Assad government, as well as to the catastrophic national and regional effects of a continuing large-scale civil war in Syria. The unfolding Syrian tragedy, already resulting in more than 60,000 confirmed deaths, one million refugees, as many as 3 million internally displaced, a raging famine and daily hardships and hazards for most of the population, and widespread urban devastation, seems almost certain to continue in coming months. There exists even a distinct possibility of an intensification of violence as a deciding battle for control of Damascus gets underway in a major way.  Minimally responsible behavior by every leading governments at the UN would under such circumstances entail at the very least a shared and credible willingness to forego geopolitical posturing, and exert all possible pressure to bring the violence to an end.

 

            Some suggest that an effect of this geopolitical gridlock at the UN is causing many Syrians to sacrifice their lives and put the very existence of their country in jeopardy.  This kind of ‘compensation’ for NATO’s ultra virus behavior in Libya is morally unacceptable and politically imprudent. At the same time it is hardly reasonable to assume that the UN could have ended the Syrian strife in an appropriate way if the Security Council had been able to speak with one voice. It both overestimates the capabilities of the UN and under appreciates the complexity of the Syrian struggle. Under these circumstances it is also diversionary to offload the frustrations associated with not being able to do anything effective to help the rebel forces win quickly or to impose a ceasefire and political process on the stubborn insistence by Russia and China that a solution for Syria must not be based on throwing Assad under the bus.

 

            The Syrian conflict seems best interpreted as a matter of life or death not only for the ruling regime, but for the entire Alawite community (estimated to be 12% of the Syrian population of about 23 million), along with their support among Syria’s other large minorities (Christian 10%, Druze 3%), and a sizable chunk of the urban business world that fears more what is likely to follow Assad than Assad himself. Given these conditions there is little reason to assume that a unified posture among the permanent members of the Security Council would at any stage in the violent months have had any realistic prospect of bringing the Syrian parties to drop their weapons and agree to risk a compromise. The origins of the crossover from militant anti-regime demonstrations to armed insurgency is most convincingly traced back to the use of live ammunition by the governing authorities and the armed forces against demonstrators in the city of Daraa from March 15, 2012 onwards, resulting in several deaths. Many in the streets of Daraa were arrested, with confirmed reports of torture and summary execution, and from this point forward there has been no credible turning away from violence by either side. Kofi Annan, who resigned as Special Envoy for the UN/Arab League

In late January 2013 indicated his displeasure with both external actors, criticizing Washington for its insistence that any political transition in Syria must be preceded by the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, a precondition that seems predicated on an insurgent victory rather than working for a negotiated solution.  

           

            Without greater diplomatic pressure from both geopolitical proxies, the war in Syria is likely to go on and one with disastrous results. There has never been a serious willingness to solve the problems of Syria by an American-led attack in the style of Iraq 2003. For one thing, an effective intervention and occupation in a country the size of Syria, especially if both sides have significant levels of support as they continue to have, would be costly in lives and resources, uncertain in its overall effects on the internal balance of forces, and involve an international commitment that might last more than a decade. Especially in light of Western experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Washington nor Europe, has the political will to undertake such an open ended mission, especially when the perceived strategic interests are ambiguous and the political outcome is in doubt. Besides, 9/11 has receded in relevance, although still insufficiently, and the Obama foreign policy, while being far too militaristic, is much less so than during the presidency of George W. Bush.

           

            Another approach would be to press harder for an insurgent victory by tightening sanctions on Syria or combining a weapons embargo on the regime with the supply of weapons to the opposition. This also seems difficult to pull off, and highly unlikely to bring about a positive outcome even if feasible. It is difficult to manage such an orchestration of the conflict in a manner that is effective, especially when there are strong proxy supporters on each side. Furthermore, despite much external political encouragement, especially by Turkey, the anti-Assad forces have been unable to generate any kind of leadership that is widely acknowledged either internally or externally, nor has the opposition been able to project a shared vision of a post-Assad Syria. The opposition is clearly split between secular and Islamist orientations, and this heightens the sense of not knowing what to expect what is being called ‘the day after.’ We have no reliable way of knowing whether escalating assistance to the rebels would be effective, and if so, what sort of governing process would emerge in Syria, and to what extent it would be abusive toward those who directly and indirectly sided with the government during the struggle.

 

            Under such circumstances seeking a ceasefire and negotiations between the parties still seems like the most sensible alternative among an array of bad options. This kind of emphasis has guided the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League Special Envoys, first Kofi Annan, and now Lakhdar Brahimi, but so far producing only disillusionment. Neither side seems ready to abandon the battlefield, partly because of enmity and distrust, and partly because it still is unwilling to settle for anything less than victory. For diplomacy to have any chance of success would appear require both sides to entertain seriously the belief that a further continuation of the struggle is more threatening than ending it. Such a point has not been reached, and is not in sight.

 

           Despite the logic behind these failed efforts, to continue to pin hopes on this passive diplomacy under UN auspices seems problematic.  It grants the governing Assad regime time and space to continue to use means at its disposal to destroy its internal enemy, relying on high technology weaponry and indiscriminate tactics on a vast scale that are killing and terrifying far more civilians than combatants. Bombarding residential neighborhoods in Syrian cities with modern aircraft and artillery makes the survival of the regime appear far more significant for the rulers than is any commitment to the security and wellbeing of the Syrian people and even the survival of the country as a viable whole. It is deeply delegitimizing, and is generating a growing chorus of demands for indicting the Assad leadership for international crimes even while the civil war rages on. This criminal behavior expresses such an acute collective alienation on the part of the Damascus leadership as to forfeit the normal rights enjoyed by a territorial sovereign. These normal rights include the option of using force in accord with international humanitarian law to suppress an internal uprising or insurgency, but such rights do not extend to the commission of genocidal crimes of the sort attributable to the Assad regime in recent months. Although it must be admitted that the picture is complicated by the realization that not all of the criminal wrongdoing is on the regime side, yet the great preponderance is. The rebel forces, to be sure, are guilty of several disturbing atrocities. This is sad and unfortunate, as well as politically confusing so far as taking sides is concerned.  Overall, it adds to the victimization of the people of Syria that is reaching catastrophic proportions because it makes more difficult the mobilization of international support for concerted action.

 

           

            Essentially, the world shamelessly watches the Syrian debacle in stunned silence, but it is fair to ask what could be done that is not being done? So far no credible pro-active international scenario has emerged. There are sensible suggestions for establishing local ceasefires in the considerable areas in the countryside under the control of rebel forces, for supplying food and medical supplies to the population by means of protected ‘humanitarian corridors,’ and for taking steps to improve the woeful lot of Syrian refugees currently facing inadequate accommodations and unacceptable hardships in Lebanon and Jordan. Such steps should be taken, but are unlikely to hasten or alter outcome of the conflict. Can more be done?

 

            I would further recommend a broad policy of support for civil society activists within Syria and outside who are dedicated to a democratic inclusive governing process that affirms human rights for all, and promises constitutional arrangements that will privilege no one ethnic or religious identity and will give priority to the protection of minorities. There are encouraging efforts underway by networks of Syrian activists, working mainly from Washington and Istanbul, to project such a vision as a program in the form of a Freedom Charter that aspires to establish a common platform for a future beneficial for all of Syria’s people. The odds of success for this endeavor of politics from below seem remote at present for these activist undertakings, but they deserve our support and confidence. As often is the case when normal politics are paralyzed, the only solution for a tragic encounter appears to be utopian until it somehow materializes and becomes history. This dynamic was illustrated by the benign unraveling of South African apartheid in the early 1990s against all odds, and in opposition to a consensus among experts that expected emancipation of the victims of apartheid to come, if at all, only through success in a long and bloody war.

 

            Another initiative that could be taken, with great positive potential, but against the grain of current of Western, especially American, geopolitics, would be to take the Iran war option off the table.  Such a step would almost certainly have major tension-reducing effects in relation to regional diplomacy, and would be a desirable initiative to take quite independent of the Syrian conflict. The best way to do this would be to join with other governments in the region, including Iran, to sponsor a comprehensive security framework for the Middle East that features a nuclear weapons free zone, with an insistence that Israel join in the process. Of course, for the United States to advocate such moves would be to shake the foundations of its unconditional endorsement of whatever Israel favors and does, and yet it would seem over time even to be of greater benefit to Israeli security than an engagement in a permanent struggle to maintain Israeli military dominance in the region while denying the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people. If American leaders could finally bring themselves to serve the national interest of the United States by acting as if the peace and security of Israel can only be achieved if the rights of the Palestinian people under international law are finally realized it would have many likely positive effects for the Middle East and beyond.  As matters now stand, the dismal situation in the region is underscored by the degree to which such prudent proposals remain in the domain of the unthinkable, and are kept outside the disciplined boundaries of ‘responsible debate.’

 

            If the imagination of the political is limited to the ‘art of the possible’ then constructive responses to the Syrian tragedy seem all but foreclosed.  Only what appears to be currently implausible has any prospect of providing the Syrian people and their nation with a hopeful future, and we need the moral fortitude to engage with what we believe is right even if we cannot demonstrate that it will prevail in the end.

Overdosing on ‘Breaking Bad’ (modified and revised)

19 Jan

Unknown(A Message to Readers: under the influence of further viewing, some conversation, comments, and reflections, I am re-posting a post devoted to the TV drama series, ‘Breaking Bad‘; this line of interpretation is based on viewing the first three (of five) seasons of the show. As it changes course frequently, it is likely that the two final years might alter my understanding of the series and its overall cultural and political significance. Is it a mirror of who we mostly are or a warning of who we are becoming or one more look at the dark side, and how it casts its shadows over the bright side of the American reality? I find that the debate on gun control in which the most assumptions of the NRA true believers are unquestioned gives a disturbing clue as to how these questions might be honestly answered. How many suggestions have you heard that suggest that ‘the right to bear arms’ is wildly out of date, and that if we love our children, grandchildren, and country we would propose some radical measures to restore ‘homeland security.’ Since 9/11 how many more citizens and innocent persons around the world have been killed by legally acquired guns in America than by Al Qaeda operatives? We are victimizing our own society by acquiescing in what can only be understood as a ultra-toxic form of auto-terrorism. If this is overheated rhetoric on my part, I would like to know why.)

 

            It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until two weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series ‘Breaking Bad.’ Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that ‘Breaking Bad’ was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, earning praise by leading media critics as ‘the greatest television drama of all time’ (according to the Megacritic website, ‘Breaking Bad’ is the highest rated cable show ever, gaining a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an ‘instant expert,’ a role not more tasteful than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will myself to several random impressions with a goal of stimulating others to set me straight.

 

            At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a ‘Breaking Bad’ junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering,  ‘what is the source of this fascination?’ ‘is ‘Breaking Bad’ tell us some dark things about ourselves, our inner reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?’ Whatever else, ‘Breaking Bad’ as a tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American, it could not be set elsewhere. On the most superficial level, the writing, acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is impressive if measured by the industry metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints. Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create enough links to earlier segments to sustain a flow from week to week and create at the end of each episode sufficient suspense and curiosity about what will happen next to tune in on the following weak. This TV series in many ways incorporates the dramatic strengths of both the most spellbinding soap operas as well as the sweep of successful panoramic moviemaking. Each episode has its own director and is written by one or more of the team of nine writers. Somehow despite this shared responsibility ‘Breaking Bad’ comes across as a coherent, unified work that rarely disappoints. There is only one episode that seems negatively memorable in which the whole dramatic action consists of the pursuit of a hapless house fly that eludes capture, and is viewed by the expert on such matters as a dire threat to the purity of the crystal meth being produced in an underground elaborate lab.

 

            There is no doubt that the series creator, writer and director of some of the most riveting episodes in the series, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to ‘Breaking Bad’ with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, ‘The X-Files’), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils, pleasures, and temper tantrums of Walter (Walt) White, the hero-villain’s life accumulate. In the process Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming all of a sudden a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating and safeguarding drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to bigger drug cartels.

 

            Actually, Walt doesn’t exactly switch careers. He embarks on an elaborate double life, continuing to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as employment, which he never abandons, and although distracted by the challenges of his drug life maintains an abiding concern for his students and exhibits talents as a teacher who knows his subject and how to convey it to young students. Eventually the strains of his secret life finally do take their toll, and Walt is forced by school administrators to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show. There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality crystal meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat operators south of the border. Although recourse to violence is characteristic of every major male character in ‘Breaking Bad’, the violence associated with the roles of the Hispanic characters in the series are by far the most sadistic, sustained, and extreme, and they are all given rather one-dimensional identities that leaves no room for sympathy or emotional complexity. A partial exception is the Aftican-American looking, but apparently Latino master dealer, Gustavo (‘Gus’) Fring, who is presented as the most sinister of all drug operatives, but possessing social skills that enable his to have a respectable public persona that embraces the material satisfaction of success in the market. We can only critically wonder why the darkest evil is reserved exclusively for ‘outsiders’ in America, the targets of a resurgent racism that is gospel for the rapidly expanding survivalist, anti-government militias active around the country and allied with such unsavory groups as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and extremist religious cults.

 

            There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, secrecy, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully misleading. What gives White his fascinating edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realization that his family will be destitute after his death. Beyond this there is exhibited a rare dramatic tension between the loveable and hateful sides of his character, which is further heightened by unpredictable mood swings and sudden eruptions of repressed violence. Walt conveys by brilliantly expressive facial expressions and adept mastery of body language a sense of deep torment that is at odds with his endearing qualities normalcy when he displays the other side of his personality that allows him to be a tender and sensitive father, husband, and friend. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known on the local meth scene by the moniker, ‘Heisenberg,’ a cute play on the idea of ‘indeterminacy,’ (just who is White is tantalizingly elusive; and trope that is literalized when a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines and visual sequences tat draw connections between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially invoking Whitman’s celebrated poem, ‘Song of Myself.’ Names are clearly given some forethought by the series creator: it cannot be accidental that Walt is ‘White’ while Gus looks ‘black,’ possibly a color coded grading system for degrees of evil, mildly reminiscent of the circles of Hell in Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

 

            To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (convincingly played by Aaron Paul). Jesse is an almost likeable young punk who takes many hard knocks, and has a kind of magnetic purity displayed as a result of his commitments to romantic love, kindness to animals, genuine empathy with young children victimized by their innocent involvement in the drug trade or their proximity to maelstroms of pure violence, and by his own childhood victimization at the hands of hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, periodically wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape one and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent and addicted to overcome his the interrelated entrapments of use and dealing. Jess is unlike Walt in many ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins. Despite these differences, Walt and Jesse need one another, save each other’s lives, and are one of those memorable examples of ‘an odd couple’ that is forever inscribed in our consciousness.

 

            Throughout ‘Breaking Bad’ there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity in Irish, and presumably Catholic. It is almost a joking commentary on anti-Semitism that Saul would want to ‘pass’ as a Jew to foster an image of being the sort of lawyer who knows how to twist the law in whatever direction will help his shady clientele.

 

            The lies at the heart of Saul law practice is multiply signaled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the U.S. Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more ‘honorable’ lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance. Implicit in ‘Breaking Bad’ is an indictment of the cultural ethos of capitalism, and its tendencies to commodify every aspect of life except family relations and intimate love, and even then there is tautness between doing well and doing good. There is an ironic note added here in the sub-text in which Hank Schrader, a kind of loser character who works as a middle level enforcer for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), loses his cool, brutally beats Jesse, is demoted and discredited, but helped to pay his medical bills by drug money given to his wife, Marie, and eventually rehabilitated. There is an important coded message here: everything interacts. There is no true separation between criminality and legality, and perhaps, never has been. Are we learning about human nature, the specifics of America, the degeneracy of 21st century modernity?

 

            “Breaking Bad’ also making a damning commentary on the failures of urban development in America. The city scenes amount to a sequence of snapshots of the ugliness and tastelessness of the society, the wasteland that developers and city planners have inflicted on society, signposts directing the citizenry toward alienation and escape. This aesthetic indictment also extends to the middle class home furnishings and decorations that are ever-present in the series as exhibits of cultural decline. Only the natural splendor of the desert and the museum housing the masterpieces of Georgia O’Keefe are put before us as contrasts to this general condition of ugliness and banality.   

 

            The TV series also takes a hard look taken at the hypocrisies that commingle with family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime, allegedly by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all that he cares about is his family, and this provides him with a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of ‘cooking’ high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide for most people living in 21st century America.

 

            The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the former is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Another note of irony is that those most driven to success on the Wall Streets of the country often use coke to calm down. Of course, ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, ‘Breaking Bad’ has a vivid relevance to the entire social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option that encourages breaking good!

 

            Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contain unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically expressed by completely irrational and frightening out-of-control moments that he often apologizes for on the next day, and are counterpoised against ultra-rational mini-lectures on what line of action is wisest to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomizing what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) when for no apparent reason, Walt diabolically pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr., to get disastrously drunk on tequila. He then gets furious when Hank, his DEA brother in law, Hank Schrader, in a good natured way interferes to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing further self-inflicted damage to Walt. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats his son with loving kindness.

 

            In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The policeman explains that Walt’s car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt becomes wildly defiant, disobeys orders to stay in his car, yelling insults and obscenities at the officer, uncontrollably shouting he has ‘rights’ that are being denied. After being warned more than once, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. The police like the drug enforcers seem to have no instruments of control other than when obedience to the norms fails, to have recourse to the excesses of violence. Hank, his DEA brother in law, comes to his rescue, intercedes to obtain Walt’s immediate release from prison. Once again the law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the corrupting play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologizes in a tone of solemnity, insisting that he was acting out of character, including vague intimations that his medical condition may have been indirectly responsible.

 

            There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Gus, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers, two child foot soldiers for neighborhood drug dealing. In various episodes either Walt and his wife or Walt and Jesse are placed at the center of the action. Skyler is the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes deeper and deeper into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character, and soon shifting from abhorrence about Walt’s meth money to a pragmatic use of such funds for the sake of family values, paying the medical bills of Hank. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr., who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name ‘Flynn’ to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr., when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.

 

            As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, ‘Breaking Bad’ holds our attention mainly by taking us on a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters that envelops the viewers in the unfolding drama. The series brilliantly holds our attention, and doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode– bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality, but these are made to seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the socially proper world of law, police, and business. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomized. Why? In some ways I believe that ‘Breaking Bad’ is itself a symptom of what it decries. It ‘entertains’ us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less seems assumed not to engage sufficiently the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, for gun extremists by itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making ‘Breaking Bad’ at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits and prestige of the show’s deserved critical success.  

 

            In the end, the question posed for me by ‘Breaking Bad’ is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its various achievements of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African-American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behavior, especially in relations with the non-Western world.

 

            I find myself now for the first time contemplating the adoption of an  ‘expatriate consciousness.’ I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair on my part, a giving up on the future of the country after eight decades of hope and struggle. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99% in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly ‘liberal’ leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorizing distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our ‘security.’ It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is ‘the lesser of evils,’ allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to confront any of the deeper challenges confronting the country. Each side refused to take the presumed political risks of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalization, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of ‘the long war’ with its global battlefield unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realize that I am transforming ‘Breaking Bad’ into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter? The autonomy of the viewer is as valid as the intentions of the creator!

 

            Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think ‘Breaking Bad,’ whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in ‘Blue Velvet.’ This Lynch movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, celebrations of militarism, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that ‘Breaking Bad’ works fantastically well as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.

Overdosing on ‘Breaking Bad’

14 Jan

 

            It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until two weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series ‘Breaking Bad.’ Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that ‘Breaking Bad’ was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, receiving praised by leading media critics as ‘the greatest television drama of all time’ (according to the Megacritic website, ‘Breaking Bad’ is the highest rated cable show ever, earning a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an ‘instant expert,’ a role not less tasteless than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will limit myself to a few random impressions with the goal of stimulating others to set me straight.

 

            At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a ‘Breaking Bad’ junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering,  ‘what is the source of this fascination?’ ‘what is ‘Breaking Bad’ telling us about ourselves, our reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?’ Whatever else, ‘Breaking Bad’ is tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American, it could not be set elsewhere. On the most superficial level, there is no doubt that the writing, the acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is quite masterful if measured by the metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints. Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create links to earlier segments and create suspense and curiosity about what will happen next. The result is a strange hybrid of soap opera and panoramic moviemaking.

 

            There is no doubt that the series creator, producer, and director, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to ‘Breaking Bad’ with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, ‘The X-Files’), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils and pleasures of Walter (Walt) White, hero-villian’s life accumulate. In the process Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to some big drug cartels. Actually, a layering takes place as Walt continues to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as a job, that he never gives up on, showing an abiding concern for his students and exhibiting his talents as a teacher, although the strains of his secret life finally take its toll, and he is forced to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show. There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat cartels south of the border .

 

            There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully superficial. What gives White an edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realization that his family will be destitute after his death. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known in the trade by the moniker, ‘Heisenberg,’ a cute play on the idea of ‘indeterminacy,’ (just who is White is tantalizingly elusive; and a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines drawn between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially relating to his celebrated poem, ‘Song of Myself.’

 

            To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (brilliantly played by Aaron Paul), an almost likeable young punk who takes some hard knocks, and has a kind of innocence that is displayed by kindness to animals, empathy with a young child caught up in a violent family situation, and by his own victimization resulting from hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape one and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent to avoid the maelstrom of use and dealing. Jess is unlike Walt in all ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins.

 

            Throughout ‘Breaking Bad’ there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity in Irish. The lie at the heart of his law practice is multiply signaled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the U.S. Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more ‘honorable’ lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance. 

 

            The series also a hard look taken at the fakery surrounding family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all that he cares about is his family, and this gives him a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of ‘cooking’ high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide. The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the latter is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Of course, ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, ‘Breaking Bad’ occupies the whole social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option to encourage breaking good!

 

            Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contains unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically punctuated with completely irrational outbursts that he laments after the fact, as well as by highly rational discourses on what line of action to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomizing what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) Walt pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr., to get disastrously drunk on tequila for no obvious reason, and gets furious when his Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) brother in law, Hank Schrader, interferes in an effort to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing any further damage. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats with loving kindness. In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The police man steps from his car and explain that the car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt remains defiant, disobeys orders to stay in the car, yelling insults at the officer shouting he has ‘rights.’ After being warned, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. He is soon released when Hank, his DEA relative, intercedes, and again law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologizes, insisting that he was acting out of character, and makes vague intimations that his medical condition may have been the explanation.

 

            There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers. Walt and his wife are the primary pair, with Skyler the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr., who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name ‘Flynn’ to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr., when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.

 

            As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, ‘Breaking Bad’ holds our attention mainly by sharing a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters. The series doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode, bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality, but they seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the proper world of law and police. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomized. Why? In some ways I believe that ‘Breaking Bad’ is itself a symptom of what it decries. It ‘entertains’ us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less is assumed not to engage the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making ‘Breaking Bad’ at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits of the show’s great success.   

 

            In the end, the question posed for me by ‘Breaking Bad’ is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its moments of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African-American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behavior, especially in relations with the non-Western world. I find myself now for the first time tempted to adopt an  ‘expatriate consciousness.’ I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair, a giving up on the future of the country. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99% in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly ‘liberal’ leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorizing distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our ‘security.’ It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is ‘the lesser of evils,’ allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to act responsibly. Each side refused to take the risk of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalization, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of ‘the long war’ with its global battlefield that was unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realize that I am transforming ‘Breaking Bad’ into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter?

 

            Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think ‘Breaking Bad,’ whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in ‘Blue Velvet.’ This movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that ‘Breaking Bad’ works fantastically as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.

Seeing Light: The Blogger’s Delight

7 Jan

 

 

            While reflecting on my prior blog lamenting the challenges of sustaining civility amid tumult and controversy, I came to appreciate my own partial captivity in realms of darkness. The negativities I tried to discuss are the shadow land of my blog experience, which is more essentially lived in the sunshine of new and renewed friendship, solidarity, mutuality, and the new emotional and spiritual resonances of our era, what I would call, in the absence of greater precision, the emergence of ‘digital love.’

 

            What becomes possible, although there is no doubt that it produces its share of blood, sweat, and tears, are invisible communities of commitment to a better future for humanity, all of it. Such communities keep candles of hope flickering during an historical period of thickening darkness when even the will to species survival seems to be in doubt. Why else would the world choose to live with nuclear weapons? Why else would political leaders turn their backs on the alarming scientific consensus as to the growing hazards and harms associated with climate change? Why else would the 1% be allowed to indulge super-luxuries while more than a billion struggle daily with the ordeals of poverty?

 

            It is in this spirit that I write from an aspiring identity as ‘citizen pilgrim,’ not content with the way the world is organized or the way rewards and punishments are distributed, seeking of a better world as a bequest to the future. It is not sufficient to be a ‘world citizen,’ which to be sure takes an step away from the privileging of identities of nation, race, religion, and gender, an implied acknowledgements of the primacy of ‘the global interest’ and ‘the human interest,’ but still tied either to present security structures built around territorial claims or tied to some project of political unification that succumbs to the seductively misleading promises of  ‘world government.’

In contrast, the citizen pilgrim is more concerned with time than space, favoring the profound readjustments that would be needed if the human species is ever in the future to fulfill its spiritual potential as well as satisfy its material needs and take the sort of prudential steps necessary to stave off civilizational catastrophe.

 

            It is a grand thing to be dedicated to such a vision of impossible possibilities, the sole foundation of hope in our time that is not built on illusion. Yet such grandiosity is irresponsible unless coupled with a willingness to take present suffering seriously. It is this ethical imperative of the immediate and existential that has led me to do what I can to challenge oppression and side with the weak, marginal, and most vulnerable in their struggles for emancipation, rights, and justice. While all of us are entrapped in the downward spiral of world order, many are denied the minimal decencies of life on earth, while others are allowed to flourish, either benevolently through their works and prayers, or dishonorably by stealth and by making the most of systemic corruption.

 

            I have strayed from my original intention, which was to make amends for my lack of graciousness so evident in my tiresome complaints about the torments of blogging. I wanted mostly to thank all those whose warm words of encouragement and support have given me the confidence and stamina to persist during these two years, and more than confidence, feelings of gratification that in some small way enclaves of truth telling are being constructed in cyberspace while the rulers are sleeping, building sanctuaries for those of us who seek refuge from a corporatized media that plays with our minds to induce the wrong fears while stimulating our most destructive consumerist appetites.  Without doubt it is this experience of digital love, new to this century, that is allowing the light to get through even on the darkest of days!

 

            It is my belief that there are many flickering candles throughout the world that partake of the special energies of place, culture, and memory, expressive of an array of distinctive identities unconsciously conjoined by mainly unrealized and unappreciated affinities. I would like to believe that we are participants in the founding of a new world religion that dispenses with institutions, dogma, and metaphysics, affirming a semi-conscious network of spiritually resonant citizen pilgrims aroused to action by urgent end-time challenges.  Perhaps, just perhaps, ‘hope against hope’ (Nadezhda Mandelstam) is not yet an outmoded indulgence!