Saturday, April 30, 2011

Up From Truly Stupid

Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.
Adm. Mike Mullen, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, June, 2010
We are in the midst of a national discussion on the whole question of our national debt, what our fiscal posture should be, and how to prioritize spending in the face of growing strains caused not least by the on-going economic stagnation inhibiting economic growth and keeping revenues low. There are various budget proposals of a more or less serious and mendacious nature, with the plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) being the most prominent. The House of Representatives endorsed the plan in a partisan vote, and with House members back in their districts, the plan and those who voted in support of it are being hit pretty hard. This isn't surprising, really. Just as Pres. Obama's policy agenda was the focus of so much constituent angst and anger over the past couple years, so now that the Republicans have control of the legislative agenda, their proposals are large, easy targets.

All the same, the level of discussion, while rising ever so slightly, has been abysmal. There seems to be little coherence to much of the discussion, made even more ridiculous by the adamant opposition of the Republican Party to countenance any serious talk of tax increases. Paul Krugman's simple, clear, and destructive breakdown of the effects of Ryan's proposal is part of the much larger backlash against the kind of policy nonsense Republicans continue to support.

What's needed is not a "plan" that decimates any part of the tattered remnants of the social safety net. Instead, our entire fiscal structure needs to be looked at, as a whole, with the guiding questions being: Who are we as a people? What kind of country do we wish to have? Answering these questions should set our budgetary and fiscal priorities all the time; now, more than ever, we need, in a way, to rip it up and start again.

In this regard, "A National Strategic Narrative" offers itself as a helpful guide for starting, and guiding, such a discussion. As I wrote earlier, Mr. Y sets the whole question of national security within the whole broad context of our domestic and foreign policy, defining security in far broader (and, historically, more accurate) terms than simple physical, national protection from military attack. Indeed, the authors seem to follow on Adm. Mullen's comment, the epigram to this post, that our current fiscal and long-term situation poses a far graver national security threat than any other. To that end, while short on specifics, they envision a set of policy priorities, including defense, that are reset along an axis and against a horizon that sees the United States far less reliant on military defense alone. Indeed, as security is dependent upon economic and fiscal health as big ships and bombs, they call for what they term a National Prosperity and Security Act that would set our national security policy firmly within a larger policy framework of relative fiscal probity and sanity, as well as understanding our military stance as far more flexible than it currently is.

Reading through Mr. Y, I sense a certain reluctance to make some things clear that, if stated (let alone implemented) would drastically alter the entire fiscal and economic outlook we face. First and foremost, ending our military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. The maintenance of nearly 50,000 American troops in Iraq is hardly a "withdrawal"; the force is too small to face any possible large-scale military contingency, and large enough to be a constant irritant to Islamic militants across the regions (in particular in a time of political turmoil all over the Muslim world). In Afghanistan, we have over 100,000 troops whose mission, it seems, is to sit there and respond to attacks from various forces, most of whom manage to cross back to Pakistan. Responding by using military RCVs is having a horrible effect on Pakistan in any number of ways, creating an atmosphere diametrically opposed to any perceived interest. Mission creep in Libya continues, and the President's assurance that we won't send American ground forces is hardly reassuring.

Ending these missions and deployments as quickly as feasible would certainly end certain fiscal and budgetary strains, as well as ease political tensions at home. It would also create an opportunity to have a far more serious, far less dangerous discussion on the structure of our military moving forward. While Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already set out a proposal for cutting $78 billion from the Defense budget, much of the savings would come in the form of future savings, from a draw-down of forces after the 2015 end-date of American deployment in Afghanistan. Other cuts Gates proposed, including the F-35 joint strike fighter, would be, relatively speaking, far smaller.

What is needed, however, as Mr. Y makes clear, is an entire revisioning of our military within a far larger understanding of security. Do we need a 400-ship Navy? Do we need a large strategic bomber force? Do we need a large force of nuclear missile submarines? Part of the reason our defense budget is so large - we spend more on defense than the combination of the next fourteen largest militaries on the planet combined - has been the tradition, outlined in the previous post, of defining American interests and projecting our interests pretty much anywhere on the globe. There was a certain logic to this in 1950. Today, it seems almost absurd, and in tight fiscal times, far less defensible.

None of this is to suggest we should "gut" the US military. Our defense costs would shrink quite a bit, however, if we defined our interests differently, and saw our needs, therefore, within a far different frame of reference.

It is frustrating, to say the least, to be having a "national discussion" of economic and fiscal priorities that is almost wholly divorced from any reasonable and realistic assessment of the challenges and risks we currently face. Mr. Y's proposal for a security narrative, among its many other virtues, offers an opportunity to change the entire nature of such a discussion.

If only any one were paying attention to it.

What A Difference Half A Century Makes

While the anonymous authors of "A National Strategic Narrative" seem to invoke George Kennan's famous "X" article with their "Mr. Y" appellation, a more attentive reader will find much closer parallels with a far different document - National Security Council Memorandum 68 (NSC 68), signed in to law by Pres. Harry Truman in 1951 as a highly classified Executive Order. Reading through NSC 68 - and it isn't easy; unlike Mr. Y, the piece is long and detailed, rather than sketchy and general - I was struck, in particular, by the perceived strategic posture of the United States on the eve of the Korean War.
In the broadest terms, the ability to perform these tasks requires a build-up of military strength by the United States and its allies to a point at which the combined strength will be superior for at least these tasks, both initially and throughout a war, to the forces that can be brought to bear by the Soviet Union and its satellites. In specific terms, it is not essential to match item for item with the Soviet Union, but to provide an adequate defense against air attack on the United States and Canada and an adequate defense against air and surface attack on the United Kingdom and Western Europe, Alaska, the Western Pacific, Africa, and the Near and Middle East, and on the long lines of communication to these areas. Furthermore, it is mandatory that in building up our strength, we enlarge upon our technical superiority by an accelerated exploitation of the scientific potential of the United States and our allies.
Compared to the perceived strategic posture presented by Mr. Y, this paragraph can be summed up by saying the US needs to be everywhere all the time in force.

A quick analysis of the relevant fiscal outlays and GNP proportions reveals what seems, at first blush, a stark, and threatening, contrast:
The program will be costly, but it is relevant to recall the disproportion between the potential capabilities of the Soviet and non-Soviet worlds (cf. Chapters V and VI). The Soviet Union is currently devoting about 40 percent of available resources (gross national product plus reparations, equal in 1949 to about $65 billion) to military expenditures (14 percent) and to investment (26 percent), much of which is in war-supporting industries. In an emergency the Soviet Union could increase the allocation of resources to these purposes to about 50 percent, or by one-fourth.

The United States is currently devoting about 22 percent of its gross national product ($255 billion in 1949) to military expenditures (6 percent), foreign assistance (2 percent), and investment (14 percent), little of which is in war-supporting industries. (As was pointed out in Chapter V, the "fighting value" obtained per dollar of expenditure by the Soviet Union considerably exceeds that obtained by the United States, primarily because of the extremely low military and civilian living standards in the Soviet Union.) In an emergency the United States could devote upward of 50 percent of its gross national product to these purposes (as it did during the last war), an increase of several times present expenditures for direct and indirect military purposes and foreign assistance.
In 1950, Pres. Truman had proposed a military budget of $13 billion. The authors of NSC 68 foresaw the outline of a policy calling for an increase to $50 billion, a nearly four-fold increase. In his memoirs, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, while recognizing that at the time he was writing the document was still classified, covered in broad outline the internal debates as well as the public discussion that followed the submission of the memo, and his own personal and professional opinion that, while a radical shift in national priorities, it was also necessary.

There could be little more stark contrast between the two strategic visions than the fiscal, investment, and even foreign policy assumptions guiding these two documents. From Mr. Y, in contrast to the committee that drafted NSC 68:
Rather than focusing all our attention on specific threats, risks, nations, or organizations, as we have in the past, let us evaluate the trends that will shape tomorrow's strategic ecology, and seek opportunities to credibly influence these to our advantage. Among the trends that are already shaping a "new normal" in our strategic environment are the decline of rural economies, joblessness, the dramatic increase in urbanization, an increasing demand for energy, migration of populations and shifting demographics, the rise of gray and black markets, the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism, the effects of global climate change, the spread of pandemics and lack of access to adequate health services, and an increasing dependency on cyber networks.
The closest the authors come to a mention of the boogey man of "Islamic terrorism" is citing "the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism". While I would hardly argue that the list is either exhaustive or orderly, that the authors manage to notice economic and social factors before they get to "extremism" (please note, they don't actually say "terrorism", let alone "terror") is telling. The authors recognize that terrorism in whatever form is merely the expression of extreme rage across a broad spectrum of ideologies, knowing no home, respecting no persons. Considering the abundance of domestic terror in the US stemming from anti-abortion and racist groups, one would think this obvious point need not be made.

In any event, against this background, rather than discuss specific fiscal, budgetary, or other outlays in any comparative fashion - precisely because the authors see the strategic challenges facing the US in coming decades coming far less from traditional actors - they do, nevertheless, talk about what our investment priorities should be. The difference with NSC 68 could not be more arresting.
As Americans we have access to a vast array of resources. Perhaps the most important first step we can take, as part of a National Strategy, is to identify which of these resources are renewable and sustainable, and which are finite and diminishing. Whtout doubt, our greatest resourse is America's young people, who will shape and execute the vision needed to take this nation forward into an uncertain future. . . . We must embrace the reality that with opportunity comes challenge, and that retooling our competitiveness requires a commitment and investment in the future.

Inherent in our children is the innovation, drive, and imagination that have made, and will continue to make, this country great. By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans - the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow - we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, the, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America's youth.

Our second investment priority is ensuring the nation's sustainable security - on our own soil and wherever Americans and their interests take them. As has been stated already, American view security in the broader context of freedom and peace of mind. Rather than focusing primarily on defense, the security we seek can only be sustained through a whole of nation approach to our domestic and foreign policies. This requires a different approach to problem solving than we have pursued previously and a hard look at the distribution of our national treasure, For too long, we have underutilized sectors of our government and our citizenry writ large, focusing intensely on defense and protectionism rather than on development and diplomacy.
There are no numbers in Mr. Y, and while this does present some weaknesses to the argument, it also points out a major distinction between the overall strategic picture today in contrast to that of 1950. Then, the threat was, in a sense, traditional. Today, we face a completely different set of challenges, calling for completely rethinking the way we "do" national security.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Reality Of Adults Versus The Fantasies Of Children

I originally thought a rough overview of "Mr. Y"'s "A National Security Narrative" would be possible. After a few reads-through, however, I cannot possibly do it justice without taking time to linger over various points. I am not suggesting I agree with every detail, or even some of it. Rather, I think a piece of this seriousness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence at the very least deserves to be treated with some respect.

The very first page, indeed, is presented so well, it deserves a few moments to consider what Mr. Y has written. As a summary of the position offered, they write:
The primary approach this Strategic Narrative advocates to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement (sic) of interdependencies (sic) and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems - all bounded by our national values.
This single sentence is a challenge to the view offered by the National Security and Defense strategy of the Bush years.
For an official document of the U.S. government (in accordance with the Goldwater - Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986), the Bush National Security Strategy of 2002 is disturbingly insubstantial, ideological, and, at times, disingenuous. All together, it betrays a remarkably casual attitude toward matters of grave concern to Americans and many people around the globe.


Prototypically, a national security strategy is a place to spell out national interests, threats to those interests, and the organization and allocation of national resources to pursue and defend those interests. In neorealist international relations theory nation states are seen a "amoral" units which are expected to pursue their national interests internationally. National cultural values are seen as subordinate components of national interests. What is outstanding in the new national strategy is the notion that American values stand outside of American national interests and that this quality is a distinctive American virtue.

How do these values stand outside American national interests? In the Preface President Bush puts it this way: "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society..." and represent a "single sustainable model for national success." Later the document says: "...this path is not America's alone. It is open to all." (p. 1) This is an invitation open to all who will follow the path laid out by the United States! It pays no heed to the reality that other states will have different interests. By giving little consideration to the national interests of other states the Bush administration risks being ineffective in the pursuit of U.S. national interests.


To the extent that the Bush strategists are attracted to a culture of friendship among select nations their approach seems immature at best. In practice they seem loathe to identify with others or to equate their interests with international interests, while at the same time they explicitly call on their friends to adopt U.S. security interests as their own. These characteristics remind me of the behavior of children in their earliest friendships. At an older age they are characteristics of the phony friendships of a bully.
This criticism, leveled at the release of the 2002 National Security Strategy, sums up far better than I could, the most disturbing legacy of the Bush years, far beyond the failed economy and death and destruction of our wars of choice (which Obama seems eager to continue, despite his campaign promises to the contrary). At the heart of too much discussion of national security strategy is this whole idea that there can be no challenge to American preeminence and power. Any such challenge is not just competition, but a direct challenge to the interests and security of the United States.

Mr. Y, on the other hand, simply removes any such thoughts from how we understand national security strategy moving forward in the 21st century.
America's national strategy in the second half of the last century was anchored in the belief that our global environment is a closed system to be controlled by mankind - through technology, power, and determination - to achieve security and prosperity. From that perspective, anything that challenged our national interests was perceived as a threat or a risk to be managed. For forty years our nation prospered and was kept secure through a strategy of containment [emphasis in original]. That strategy relied on control, deterrence, and the conviction that given the choice, people the world over share our vision for a better tomorrow. America emerged from the Twentieth Century as the most powerful nation on earth. But we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy. The new century brought with it a reminder that the world, in fact, is a complex, open system - constantly changing. And change brings with it uncertainty. What we really failed to recognize, is that in uncertainty and change, there is opportunity and hope. . . . [emphasis added]

We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies [sic]. To grow we must accept that competitors are not necessarily adversaries, and that a winner does not demand a loser.[emphases in original] We must regain our credibility as a leader among peers, a beacon of hope, rather than an island fortress. It is only by balancing our interests with our principles that we can truly hope to sustain our growth as a nation and to restore our credibility as a world leader.
This is a direct challenge to the view offered during the Bush years that national security rested on a combination of moral and military force, the iron fist in the steel glove. By granting to reality the status of something to be taken seriously, Mr. Y has done policy planners a huge favor. Even if we can quibble over important matters, including whether or not deterrence was, indeed, our national security strategy during the Cold War; to what extent deterrence, as it emerged in the mid-1960's as a wholly nuclear doctrine with the acronym MAD (after flirting with, first, massive retaliation and then flexible response, which foresaw the use of American nuclear weapons in certain contingencies), was a sensible policy given the size and destructive power as well as fragility of the balance between the US and USSR (as well as mental acuity of national leaders on both sides). By making what should be the banal point that the world is a complicated place, and the US is "a" world leader rather than "the" world leader (the difference in article here is almost revolutionary), Mr. Y is offering up as context the simple fact that we are no longer "the superpower".

That's a marvelous place to start any discussion of national security strategy.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Telling A New Story I

If we lived in a more sane land, with a media less obsessed with birth certificates and phony budget plans, the release of a radically new view of American national security policy (.pdf document) would be the source of much discussion, argument, and debate. Alas, since our current moment seems dominated by nonsense - the President is too smart to be President! - the silence around this astounding offer of a vision for moving forward on national security strategy is deafening.

The article is introduced with a brief outline and summary by Anne-Marie Slaughter, identified as Bert G. Kerstetter University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, who also serves, or has served, as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department since the beginning of the Obama Administration. The summary is succinct, and important in and for itself. Slaughter's context-setting - the authors are identified only as "Mr. Y", as opposed to George Kennan's "X" - makes clear their intention to move past the floundering sterility of the past two decades, in which a post-Cold War United States continued to act as if it were 1947.

There are some points with which I disagree with Ms. Slaughter's framing. She writes the following:
The authors argue that Kennan's strategy of containment was designed for a closed system, in which we assumed that we could control events through deterrence, defense, and dominance of the international system. The 21st century is an open system, in which unpredictable external events/phenomena are constantly disturbing and disrupting the system. In this world control is impossible; the best we can do is to build credible influence - the ability to shape and guide global trends in the direction that serves our values and interests (prosperity and security) within an interdependent strategic ecosystem. In other words, the Us.S. should stop trying to dominate and direct global events. The best we can do is to build our capital so that we can influence events as they arise.
The time when the US dominated events was actually quite short. By the time southeast Asia began to rile with anti-colonial violence, in the 1950's, with a sheen of communist rhetoric, such control should have been understood as gone. Instead, we reacted - as one of Kennan's more important critics, Henry Kissinger, noted was a major flaw in containment; it created conditions wherein the US reacted to an ever-shifting set of conditions, rather than taking the diplomatic initiative - within the already distorted lenses of a militarized containment policy (Kennan always insisted his view was that containment should be a political diplomatic project, rather than military).

In the decades since Vietnam, the number of "unpredictable external events" has skyrocketed. From the rise of OPEC to the stirrings of Islamic radicalism to the growing power of China and India, we have found ourselves facing missed chances and shifting demands upon our energy and resources for which containment was not designed. Any move away from keeping the Soviet threat not just our major but sole national security focus made these events unintelligible, leaving us forming ad hoc responses that, in the end, have left us far more vulnerable than might otherwise have been the case. In many ways, a strategy that grants both the "open" system and that events are going to occur that are unexpected is less a novel approach than granting to an existing reality the status of something we need to recognize.

When during the Bush Administration a national security strategy was developed that insisted the US continue to be the dominant global superpower well in to the 21st century, few people that I can recall called such an announcement nonsensical, practically impossible, and a recipe for fiscal and economic disaster. Now, however, we have a reasoned, articulate proposal for a national security strategy that recognizes the reality we have faced for close to four decades, offering a role for the US that is sustainable, realistic, and in tune with our deepest values.

Tomorrow, an appraisal of Mr. Y.

An Interesting Specimen

The reviews are in. Benjamin Wallace-Wells' profile of Paul Krugman is boffo stuff. Why it has been so well received is captured best by the Salon view of the article.
Maybe it's the paradoxical tone of Wallace-Wells' eloquently articulated elegy for liberalism -- Krugman's got a lot going for him, after all -- Nobel Prize, prominent public intellectual bully pulpit, hugely trafficked blog -- but somehow Wallace-Wells uses the profile to tell a story of defeat: of Obama's failure to deliver true progressive change, and Krugman's failure to get Washington to listen to his liberal "purism."
As I read the article, however, I was struck less by this than by the cliche sketch of Krugman, ever the academic, his mind filled with numbers and books filled with graphs, not engaging human beings in the real world. Some snippets:
Paul Krugman is a lonely man. That he is comfortable in his solitude, that he emphasizes its virtues, that his intelligence gives it a poetic gloss, none of this diminishes the poignancy of his isolation. Krugman grew up an only child and is deeply self-conscious. He will list his shortcomings as though he’d been preparing for the chance: “Loner. Ordinarily shy. Shy with individuals.” He is married but has no children nor—rare for a Nobelist—many protégés. When I asked him if there were any friends of his I could talk to in order to understand him better, he hesitated, then said, “That’s going to be hard.” One colleague at Princeton, where Krugman has taught since 2000, says the economist will avert his eyes when circumstance places the two of them alone in an elevator, his nose stuck in the corner, so as to avoid conversation.

Krugman is short and has a very round, very full belly; he is both generally agreeable and chronically rushed, and this gives him a myopic, distracted air. When he talks about himself, his ideas always arise only from his scholarship, as if once, long ago, he had erected a wall between his immersion in the world and his study of it. At Yale, he says, he formed no impression of the aspiring New York bankers and Washington lawyers who were his peers. Later, though he traveled frequently to Japan and met often with government ministers in the years when the country slipped into its lost decade, he says those meetings did nothing to shape his analysis. He has wondered often about why Larry Summers chose to support a smaller stimulus, but though he and Summers spoke every month or two when Summers was in the White House, Krugman never asked him. “He’s not oblivious to human nature; he will have conversations about this person or that and their motivations,” Wells says. “But he does keep it separate.”

A few years ago, Krugman, having decided that he was going to be writing about politics and so he should know more about it, did a very Krugman thing. He didn’t talk to people who worked in Washington. Instead, he started to read the political-science literature. Krugman had never understood the press coverage of politics, which seemed to emphasize its most irrelevant aspects. Why dwell on a presidential candidate’s psychology when the trends in unemployment would tell you who would win an election? But viewed through the prism of political science, politics began to seem much more familiar to him. There was a mathematics to it—you could assemble data, draw correlations, understand what was essential and what was noise. The underlying shape of politics came sweeping into view: If you arranged members of Congress from left to right based on how they voted on welfare-state issues—Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance—it turned out that this left-to-right axis could predict every other vote: On Iraq expenditures, on abortion, whatever. “When you realize the fundamental divide in U.S. politics is just this one-­dimensional thing, and that is how you feel about the welfare state,” Krugman says, “that changes things.”
It seems to me that Krugman is far less interested in himself, either as a person (let alone a personality), and far more interested in whether or not the information he provides is factual, and his ideological framing honest. Unlike Wallace-Wells' description of Rush Limbaugh as "authentic", which is a pose, a fake personality, Krugman's transparency, preferring readers take in the information, says much about the approach to politics that has reigned for the past generation.

The anecdote concerning the differences between Larry Summers and Krugman when they worked together in the Reagan Administration is key, I think. Summers was a consensus builder, working to bring together people around positions that seemed workable. Krugman, on the other hand, was far less interested in being a player. He was, and continues to be, far more interested in being right. That, more so than whether or not he makes eye-contact with a colleague in an elevator, is far more telling of who Krugman is and what he does.

The portrait that emerges in Wallace-Wells article is, with its mixture of cliche and almost disdainful piquancy at Krugman's audacity to believe that he might well be intelligent, portrays the Princeton Nobel laureate as some odd species of insect - a deeply thoughtful, intellectual individual who is also passionate that our politics no longer be one long exercise in public mendacity. There is an odd combination of arch disdain and anti-intellectualism at work in this profile I find deeply troubling. That someone who is intelligent, passionate, learned, might actually have a better grasp of what is going on than colleagues with similar backgrounds who work in the corridors of power is something Wallace-Wells simply refuses to grant. After all, Paul Krugman can draw a graph really well. That is odd, isn't it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nattering Nabobs Or Chicago Billy Clubs?

Rick Perlstein's Mother Jones piece on lying in politics is exceptionally good. It echoes certain themes from Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, in particular what Alterman calls "playing the refs", going after the media itself in order to intimidate it. This tactic, which usually doesn't work in legitimate sports, is something one sees in professional wrestling - "sports entertainment" - all the time.

In a remarkable overview of the decline and fall of the United States in the post-WWII era, British journalist Godfrey Hodgson spends quite a bit of time talking about Agnew's "nattering nabobs" speech, and the larger picture of the news media in the late-1960's to early 1970's, and has an awful lot to say about the way the editorial positions of the three networks in particular shifted after 1968. Hodgson makes it clear, in his America In Our Time, that the pivot wasn't Agnew's speech. It was the Democratic National Convention of 1968.

After reviewing the events in Chicago, including the police attacking and even seeming to target the media, Hodgson cites an important fact and quotes a column by Joseph Kraft to show that, even before Nixon was elected, the theme of a liberal media was already taking shape. First, in the immediate aftermath of the Democratic Convention, the major news outlets expressed shock and rage at the behavior of the Chicago police department. Yet, even then, no less than Walter Cronkite conducted an interview that Hodgson notes showed the revered CBS anchor "obsequious" before the bully-boss of our Second City. It seems the actions of the Chicago police were a bit less unpopular than many people thought. From pp. 373-374:
The Chicago convention, in fact, was traumatic for the media. Not only the reporters, for once, but a good proportion of the publishers and executives and editors, too, had seen what happened. The instant reaction, angry condemnation of the police, was from the heart. But then came the disorienting experience of discovering that, in this reaction, they were in a minority. They felt proud of the courageous way they had done their job: and, to their amazement, thousands of abusive letters poured in from their readers and viewers, denouncing the way they had done that job and commending their enemies. "We got thousands of call," Bill Small, Washington bureau chief of CBS remember, "from people saying they didn't believe their eyes, accusing us of hiring cops to beat up kids. That produced a profound impression." . . .

Abruptly, the mood in the media changed from righteous indignation to self-doubt, apology and even penitence. Less than three weeks after the convention the Washington Post was half-apologizing for police brutality with the remarkable argument that "of course" policemen must be expected to be annoyed by the sight of men in beards!
Even before that, however, within a week of the convention, Joseph Kraft wrote a column that, in many ways, set forth the themes we continue to live with to this day in any discussion of the media, themes Vice President Agnew was to sound with fake righteous fury in just a couple years.
Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans - in Middle America. And the result shows up not merely in occasional epidosed such as the Chicago violence but more importnatly in the systematic bias towards young people, minority groups, and the kind of presidential candidates who appeal to them.

To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the white middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovators.

The most important organs of press and television are, beyond much doubt, dominated by the outlook of the upper-income white. . . .

In the circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.
Hodgson then goes on to note the shifting editorial emphasis on the Vietnam War, away from on-the-ground combat reporting to stories about integrating South Vietnamese forces in to the war. Coverage of anti-war demonstrations dwindled; the huge Moratorium March in 1971, the single largest anti-war demonstration of the period, received barely any notice at all by the major dailies, weeklies, or nightly news shows. In order to atone for their sins, brought down roughly by the Chicago police and rhetorically by Spiro Agnew, the media - a much smaller and far more elite thing then than now - changed.

We are living with the tattered remnants of a mainstream media, beaten up by Chicago cops and brow-beaten by a criminal Vice President, too scared to ask some important questions, to point out that repeated misstatements are in fact lies, and that much of the rhetoric on the right is so far off the charts it should be ignored. No one seems to want to point out the horrid noblesse oblige of Kraft's idea that, somehow, there is this Middle America out there that the media just aren't a part of, yet need to get to know - like some weird anthropological field study - in order to do their job. FOXNews is predicated on this picture of reality. So, too, I'm afraid, are some liberals, like Rachel Maddow and even, at times, Bob Somerby, whose media criticisms I largely agree with, yet who accepts without premise the notion that Americans are too dumb to understand when they are being had.

Having said all this, it is nice to read a historian who understands this isn't a problem that began with birthers, or the anti-Clinton brigades in the 1990's, but stretches back to the very beginnings of Republican political dominance. Like so much else in our political life, it seems to have started when Mayor Daley cheered on his cops when they took off their badges and charged the masses.

Northern Sounds

The Band. Buffalo Springfield. Joni Mitchell. The Guess Who. Gordon Lightfoot. Bachman Turner Overdrive. Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush. Rush. Loverboy. Triumph. April Wine. Saga. Sebastian Bach of Skid Row. Bryan Adams. Shania Twain. Barenaked Ladies. James Labrie of Dream Theater. These and many more musicians and singers and performers have one thing in common. Canada.

When Rush broke through the American AOR market in 1980, there was a brief moment when other Canadian bands seemed hot. Triumph managed an AOR hit that sounded an awful lot like Journey. April Wine tried ripping off King Crimson, then scored their one AOR hit with an early power ballad. All the same, it seemed possible that other Canadian bands could break through, like Saga. Unfortunately, bad timing and bad management killed Saga's chances of making it in the US.

Canada continues to forge its unique path, and we are continually blessed by the sounds from up north. Thank you, land of lacrosse.

And now, from a little closer to home . . .

Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath
Bright Size Life (Live) - Pat Metheny Trio
Transition - Lunatic Soul
Oboe Concerto in C, Movement 3, Allegretto - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Castle Hall - Ayreon
Forty Six & 2 - Tool
I Don't Wanna Know (Live) - Indigo Girls
Clear Blue Eyes - Amos Lee
Idiot Wind - Bob Dylan
Blue Light - David Gilmour

No Canadians, alas. So, here's one more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shaking In Their Boots

Sometime around a decade or so ago, a pastor in a small midwest town held a community-wide meeting on a grave threat to our children. It wasn't the discovery that there were sexual predators living nearby. It wasn't a scourge of drinking or huffing or smoking dope or even heroin. It wasn't a teacher who took advantage of his position or authority to abuse children in his care.

It was the Harry Potter books.

I wish I was kidding. Even writing this makes me feel stupider. The flier announcing the meeting - which I did not attend because I was afraid all the dumb would infect me - noted the books "celebrated" witchcraft, and even posed the threat of releasing "magic" upon the world. Again, I wish I was kidding.

Part of me wishes I could have taken the person who was holding this meeting by the hand and, very gently and kindly, informed this person that there are no such things as witches. Magic, either, for that matter. Oh, there are folks who call themselves witches, I suppose. There are also people who call themselves the spawn of experiments between humans and aliens. Those latter we refer to mental health professionals.

In all seriousness, there are real dangers in the attitude expressed here. Not only the ridiculous idea that a set of marvelous books are part of some secret agenda by witches and wizards to have their evil ways accepted as normal, with a concomitant explosion of the use of magic. No, the real danger here is the message such an attitude sends - be afraid of everything.

I have often felt the same way about the whole nonsensical creation/evolution non-debate. Ours is a marvelous, strange world, full of oddities and questions that force themselves upon us. Science is a marvelous tool for answering certain questions. That the world is intelligible is itself a mystery that many people have found a source of wonder. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection, in its contemporary, modified form (as distinct from Darwinism; Darwin has no idea of biochemistry, of genes or DNA, as the mechanism of mutation and change) is a wonderful, simple scientific theory, for which abundant evidence abounds across time and species.

The doctrine of creation, on the other hand, has nothing at all to say about these matters. It concerns itself with the God who is the author of the Universe, and the fact that there is something rather than nothing tells us who God is, and that this God is a God who does not will be alone. That God is love, according to 1 John is shown by the simple reality that the Universe, and all that is in it, all its wonders and terrors, exists at all, and continues to exist.

There are millions of well-meaning, sincere believers who find even the idea of evolution a dire threat not only to the existence of the Christian faith, but to Christian social morality as well. That is like arguing that the theory of heat exchange in chemistry, or the inverse square law of gravity is a threat to the American way of life. The one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Furthermore, are all these sincere, well-meaning believers so afraid of an idea they fully and honestly believe to be misguided that it poses a mortal threat to the faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Really?

The point of this post is not to show that the Harry Potter books are wonderful Christian literature. Rather, it is to point out examples of folks who claim the name "Christian" who seem to have little regard for the strength of the God in whom they claim faith. Of all the thing we need concern ourselves over as Christian parents, the Harry Potter books just don't make the cut. If some folks prefer not to allow their children read these books, well, that's OK. Making a public argument, however, that these books pose a public danger to the faith, not least because of the possibility that children might start trying to learn magic, well, that's another thing entirely.

I realize this may sound like a silly example, but the fact remains our society abounds with silly examples of people who perceive all sorts of mortal threats to the faith. Music. Movies. Television shows. Books. Science. Political and social ideologies. Somehow, a faith that has existed for two-thousand years across Empires and in the midst of chaos, spanning the globe in the languages of the world to bring the One Word of salvation may not survive the onslaught from American popular culture.

Either we live as people of the resurrection, or we don't. We need to stop looking for boogeymen and dark forces around every corner, and live as those who are not afraid, but who will mount up with wings as eagles, who will run and not be weary. If we do this, we can appreciate the marvelous story of Harry, Ron, and Hermione for what it is. We can marvel at the beauty and mystery of God's creation, and that we have been granted the ability to figure out all sorts of things about it, including how it came to be filled with such a marvelous array of strange and wonderful and occasionally dangerous creatures.

We do not have to be afraid anymore. One would think this would be the clearest thing to get out of Easter, the most wonderful thing to be granted by the Spirit, the strength and faith no longer to be afraid.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

He Is Risen . . . Sorta . . .

The past couple days I've been pushing my own meditations on the death of Jesus as far as I have felt comfortable, given textual and theological constraints. Today, we find ourselves as that moment, most impossible to believe or even consider possible, that this same dead Jesus is alive. Churches around the world are chanting, "Christ has risen! He is risen, indeed!"

I don't think most churches really believe it, though.

If they did, we wouldn't be facing all the crises we face. If we really believed that Jesus rose from the dead, we wouldn't worry about whether or not there was prayer in public schools. If we really believed that Jesus lives forever, enthroned next to the Father, reigning with him and the Holy Spirit, we wouldn't hear people who call themselves Christian claiming that this same God was being pushed out of our society and culture. If we really believed that we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and are, in the words of St. Paul, a new creation, we wouldn't claim that the sole reason for all this nonsense was so that we could go to heaven when we die.

I don't think most churches really believe in the resurrection any more. The churches are scared, worried, concerned. Some people who call themselves Christian think we need to force people who don't think or believe like they do to mouth empty phrases to a god in whom they place no trust. Some Christians think that the real test of faith isn't accepting the embrace of the crucified and risen Jesus, but ensuring that every fetus makes it to term. Some Christians insist that we need to show our love to some people by telling them they are outside the bounds of God's grace because they love differently than other people.

I don't think anyone who really believes that they will meet Jesus in the sky when they die really believes in the resurrection. I, for one, would want nothing to do with a God who went to all this trouble, said all those neat things and did all those marvelous deeds, died that horrible death only to make sure that a bunch of rich white folk didn't have to continue to mingle with undesirables on some cloud or other in some spiritual afterlife. Such a god isn't worth my time.

Either we start to live as people who understand, at least provisionally, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead inaugurates the new creation, or we don't. If we don't, no one is going to force them. All the same, I would much prefer if such people wouldn't call themselves Christian, go around talking about God as if they really understood what they were saying, and getting people to give them money. Either we start to live and work in the faith the New Creation has already begun, that everything we thought was right and true is now over and done with, or we admit we really don't believe all that resurrection nonsense, and go about telling everyone how wrong their lives are.

I am quite tired of weak, cowardly, pusillanimous false Christians who don't really believe in the resurrection. If we believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, what in the world, quite literally, are we afraid of? Declining numbers and giving? That some people might point out all the bad stuff folks in the past have done in the name of God? That some people might laugh at such nonsense? Are we children?

I am quite tired of churches more worried about relevance than they are about resurrection. If God wanted us to be popular, we wouldn't have been told that we are going to be persecuted, tortured and killed for professing the God of the risen Christ. If God wanted us to be successful, there wouldn't be all this talk of prison and being despised. If God wanted us to be rational, reasonable folks, we wouldn't need to be reminded, as St. Paul did, that what we preach is foolishness to the wise.

Today we recall the singular event of Jesus rising from the dead. All that has ever been, or will ever be is now changed. We who confess faith in the risen crucified one had better start living out Charles Wesley's words, "Ours the cross, the grace, the skies," or admit we don't believe it, don't want any part of it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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