Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Creeping Terror

Generally regarded as one of the worst sci-fi/horror movies ever made (and a favorite among Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans), this title keeps coming to mind as I survey the vast array of presidential candidates from both “major” parties. There is a certain inevitability (that word again!) about it all, as if the populace is helpless in the face of an unknown entity that threatens to annihilate everything in its path – that is, in fact, already annihilating everything in its path in terms of logic and reason. On the one side we have the Hillary juggernaut, amply funded by the very people she pretends to oppose in favor of “regular folks”... and Bernie Sanders, an unrepentant socialist, who at least has some things to say worth listening to regarding the system and its deformed offspring. And on the other side, we have the Republicans, who have quaffed deeply of neocon Kool-Aid (Rand Paul having taken at least an occasional sip) and who promise to, on their first day in office, bomb Iran back to the Jazz Age if not earlier, all on account of Iran's bad taste in holding on to those American hostages for – what intriguing number was it? -- 444 days. (I guess if you multiplied by 1.5 you'd get 666, which is enough to put the Evangelicals into an even greater tizzy than they are chronically in.) Lost in the shuffle are the libertarians and paleocons, who have not given up the fight but who must be feeling the pangs of despair more and more often. (They want to “take the country back” -- but for whom? Most people don't want it back.)

And then, just to spice things up a bit, we have the Republicans squealing like stuck pigs over the Iran “deal” (which I think may be reasonably prudent, given the alternatives) -- and stony silence from those Democrats who grew up with the notion that Israel is the be-all and end-all of liberalism. (I remember that, in my ultra-liberal college, the stated goal of nearly everyone after graduation was to either move to New York City or “goworkonakibbutz” -- that latter being invariably said that way, as if it was all one word.) And in the meantime, Obama is, at long last, channeling himself as the young, radical community organizer he once was, finally setting a few captives – i.e. prisoners – free... better late than never, I say, but why wait so long? And then we have the marijuana legalization, or semi-legalization, issue, which to mainstream Republicans is the equivalent of opening the gates of the asylum and letting all the crazies out... committed as they are to the belief that marijuana is the greatest threat of all time to Western Civilization. (Well, OK, maybe second to communism, but nowadays it's the greatest, since communism is now on life support in most places outside of college and university campuses.)

Hillary promises to fix all of this, to be sure – but she can't talk too loud because the White House is occupied by a member of her party... unjustly, of course, because she should, by rights, have been nominated in 2008 and, by now, be the undisputed Dowager Empress and Suzerain of the Known Universe and Regions Yet to be Discovered. I've said it before, but it bears repeating – it's going to be interesting to see what happens when she takes office in January 2017 and gets what I call “the talk” that lets every new president know who's really in charge. Does she rebel? Go public? Nah – she'll be a good and faithful servant of the Regime, as ever, albeit with a bit of token grumbling and foot-dragging. And yes, I know she was “co-president” for 8 long years, but that's still not the same thing as being commander-in-chief. (“First ladies” don't get sufficient credit for their unofficial roles – I admit it. The only thing that saved Bill Clinton's administration from even greater notoriety was that Hillary was always willing to take the reins on those occasions when Bill was missing in action, which was – let's admit – quite a bit of the time.)

But that's all down the road. We still have 18 months to watch the antics of Obama & Co., and – to give credit where credit is due – he's acting like anything but a lame duck. And I have to confess – hold on to your hats! -- I actually like him better than at least half of his predecessors, i.e. the ones I remember, starting with Ike. Of course he's a pure politician – I mean, who talks about the Republican candidates in East Africa? Can those people even find the U.S. on a map? I doubt it – but at least he's showing some spirit. He's turning gray – who wouldn't? -- but is still slim and trim. And he doesn't act the least bit defeated by circumstances – a bit frustrated at times, and you can see that every time he does that closed-mouth, lip-puffing thing – and, I suspect, his post-presidential career will probably be interesting... more interesting, certainly, than that of Silent George. (It's been said that Carter was our worst president, but is our best former president – hard to prove for certain, but it's an interesting point.) (And as for Bill Clinton... well, where's the Rat Pack when we really need them? Scooby-dooby-do and all that.) (Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey, Peter, and Bill – talk about a dream team!)

And then we have the military, and I don't think they've quite adjusted to the idea of perpetual war as yet. I mean, war is good business – it's good for “manpower” allocations, budgets, etc., but there's always this lingering feeling that a war is something that one must win, not simply engage in with no goals or exit criteria. Military people are trained to win – to keep their eyes on the prize. “Mission accomplished” doesn't mean having started a campaign; it means having successfully completed it. And yet they see that our military engagements drag on endlessly... and they start to suspect (correctly) that this is intentional. After all, the right people are making enormous amounts of money from it all, and the last thing they want is for peace to break out. Every president, or presidential candidate, wants to be a “war president”, besides which Congress has completely given over its war powers to the executive branch, at the behest of the “defense” industries. War is the health of the state, as has been said – but what was not said, in so many words, was that perpetual war is even better than intermittent war. And the best way to guarantee that a war will be endless is to assign no criteria by which to end it. “Oh, not over yet? Guess we have to stay.” Aiding this newfound mind-set is the ingenious notion of fighting not a nation, or a group of nations, but an abstraction – namely “terror”.  How do you kow when you've defeated "terror"?  You don't, because you can't -- it's impossible.  How does one defeat a feeling -- an emotion?  And yet that's what we're committed to do, and the military has to feel the absurdity from time to time, if only as something lurking in the shadows.  

So the military is stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. They want to be useful, but every assignment is fraught with futility – it has an aura of doom. If anyone in the Pentagon were old enough to remember that there is a difference between “defense” and war in pursuit of empire, it would be one thing – but no one does, and if you brought it up you'd be dismissed as some kind of nut. The military mind-set is that anything they do is “defense” by definition, even though they call themselves “warriors” much more often than “defenders”. In this sense, their instincts are actually superior to their ideas. They know, on some deep level, what it is to fight for something of value – but can't explain to themselves or to anyone else why all of their battles seem to have no purpose that makes any sense. Their willingness to follow orders – essential in times of real war waged by a lawful government – thus winds up clashing with the reality, which is very likely, as I've said before, why PTSD is so common in our time.

But to get back to the election season, which has become as perpetual as war -- the point is that presidents come and go, but history marches on – as often in spite of them as because of anything they allegedly did or didn't do. And this actually provides a ray of hope, if “hope” is the word. The last president with any real power, in my opinion, was LBJ – the last tyrant. Everyone since has been an organization man, ruled by polls, committees, and devious underlings. And, of course, by the bureaucracy, which has all the momentum, and all the brains, of a slow-moving mud slide. And I don't know, quite honestly, which came first – the obsolescence of the presidency or the emergence of the corporate state; I suspect it was a kind of creeping symbiosis. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say – and when the White House contains a vacuum something else will come along to take its place. Of course, no president wants to think of himself (“him” still applies at this point) as a mere figurehead or face in a suit occupying a ceremonial office; they are all obsessed with that thing called “legacy”, and it almost doesn't matter whether it's good or bad; the main thing is that there is one. They all want to have a “presidential library” somewhere out in the boonies that no one ever bothers to visit. It's kind of pathetic, really – but it's about all we have to offer any more. The real legacy – for any of them – is the corporate takeover of the government – you know, that thing that Ike warned us about, even though it had, arguably, already been going on for quite a while – dating back to at least the Civil War. One can blame this partly on the flawed structure of our system, but I think the bulk of the blame goes to plain old human nature. What did Nietzsche say was the primary motivator of the human species? Sex, a la Freud? Money, a la Marx? No – the will to power. Pure, raw power over the lives of one's fellow man. It's been said that New York is a money town, and D.C. is a power town – not that the two aren't fungible to some extent, but the emphasis is accurate. People go to D.C. because of the magnetic, Svengali-like attraction of power... and if they also wind up rich, well, that's a fringe benefit. There are better places to acquire fast money than D.C., if that's what you want (just ask Trump).

But then we have to consider that all of this seductive power is, by and large, illusory. It only lasts as long as one is in office, after which you become a slightly glorified nobody. And they all know this, or should – but it doesn't matter. A day in the sun is all they ask, and it seems to be enough – no one ever expresses regrets down the road. (This could be about cognitive dissonance too, of course.)

And yes, it's tempting to just sit back and let history take its course – sit under one's vine and fig tree and pronounce curses on all their parties. And that might reflect a healthy sense of priorities, but it might also reflect despair. “Heading for the hills”, either literally or figuratively, is a perfectly understandable reaction to current events, and I blame no one who does it. My personal preference is to hang around and be a “nattering nabob of negativism”, as Spiro Agnew famously said, even though there is a fine line, at times, between constructive criticism and just plain griping. Even conspiracy theories may be subsumed under the heading of “history” -- i.e. this is the way things are and have always been, and, as far as we know, will always be. Politics is the art of doing, on occasion, the right things for the wrong reasons, or – more often – the wrong things for the wrong reasons. A wise man or philosopher among politicians comes along once in a lifetime – one thinks of Daniel Moynihan, for example – but they are quickly shouted down by the rabble and by the mass (well-named) media. The average politician is no better than his constituents – and worse in some ways. And yet he or she has the ability to attract attention and loyalty – at least for a season, after which they wind up on the same ash heap of history as their ideas and failed programs.

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