Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Former Fire

May the American gods bless Ron Silver. Still writing with the fire of 2002.

Now it is not our parents but certain politicians and media pundits who are trying to convince us that fighting (yes, I do mean fighting, not cajoling, negotiating, persuading or understanding) the folks who are pointing that gun at our heads telling us that they are going to kill us, then behead us and mutilate and drag our bodies through the streets and blow up our cities, would be futile and counter-productive. If I misunderstand their position and misrepresent their way forward I would very much like to hear how they might confront the “problem.” A clearer definition of the “problem” might be useful as well. Who exactly wishes us and our civilization harm? I’d appreciate a bit more specifics other than through “diplomacy” and the “international community.” Personally, I think it’s prudent to take the enemy at their word. Particularly when they have a mountain of evidence backing up their threat. Then do something about it.

What I would not do is to minimize the threat and construct an alternate universe that lives by the rules we value. In Lee Harris’ book Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (Free Press, 2004) Mr Harris makes the point that we live “In a civilization with an intellectual culture that is reluctant to take the idea of an external enemy seriously; its enemies, though have no such qualms… we are caught in the midst of a conflict between those for whom the category of the enemy is essential to their ways of organizing all human experience and those who have banished even the idea of the enemy from both public discourse and even their most innermost thoughts.”

I agree with all that. But I've given up on saying it. Most people never really wanted to hear it. The political leadership mostly never wanted to say it. So better to play it as it lies and try to edge the game toward a good outcome, right? I don't know. Silver's piece is really a thorough one, and he hits on some points particularly well. The necessary role of propaganda, for instance. Which makes me remember we've had none of it. No posters that say, "What have you done for Iraq?" Or 9/11 pictures and the slogan "Another failure is not an option." A more honest slogan for the times would be "The Marines are at war; America is at the mall."

This bit, too, I suppose needs to be repeated:

In [Paul] Krugman’s reading of history, our president has damaged our democracy more than the Alien and Sedition Acts during John Adams’ tenure; more than the suspension of habeas corpus during Lincoln’s, more than Eugene Debs (a leader of the labor movement who opposed Woodrow Wilson as the Socialist Party candidate in the 1912 presidential election) going to jail, under the Espionage Act, to serve a 10-year sentence for making an anti-war speech during the Woodrow Wilson years. The Espionage Act was passed at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who feared any widespread dissent in time of war, thinking that it constituted a real threat to an American victory.

And more than Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court during peacetime and the subsequent internment of Japanese-American citizens, as well as Nixon’s use of the government to punish his personal enemies. The genius of our governance is that we have self-correctional ways of coming to terms with government excesses and have an electorate that is vigilant in making sure rights are not abrogated. This has always been and will remain a tension in our polity, along with liberty and equality and pre-Civil War amendments and post-Civil War amendments. Most First Amendment “rights” were developed during the last century, not at our founding. So-called “privacy” rights are the battleground now.

I used to write that way. But those who know it need no reminding, and those who need to hear it never do. Doesn't matter how well you speak if your audience has its fingers in its ears.

The piece overall left me with a sinking feeling, that so much clarity has run out like spilled milk since our era began. Those truths are all in eclipse now.

Still, I got a grin out of one line: "Parents-the root of all fear mongering. Philip Larkin lives." The best part is, he didn't even elaborate on it. Just that wink to the poetry-lovers. Here, I'll let you in on the secret.