Thursday, September 08, 2011

Repairing The Damage From September 11, 2001

For reasons to be made clear later, I am writing now in lieu of Sunday's 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

The moments from that day will be remembered by everyone who was aware. The unreality of it. The horror. The anger and sorrow. The flood of stories, many of which turned out to be false - a car bomb in DC, what happened on Flight 93, the streams of people running for their lives from the collapsing buildings in lower Manhattan - seemed to bring us back, again and again, to those fateful moments captured forever as the giant passenger jets, turned in to loaded missiles, approached the World Trade Center.

It was commonplace, after the stunned, silent searching for reasons, to hear "everything changed on 9/11". I didn't want that to be the case. No one did. The last thing most people want is to have their lives, particularly their national lives, defined by a violent attack. Yet, ten years on and we define ourselves, for better and worse - largely for worse - by the events of that horrible day.

There has been little in the years since to celebrate. Two regional wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - with smaller conflicts in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia seem to be never ending. A large swath of one of the major political parties seems determined to keep the fear brought about by the events of that day ever before us, reminding us of our vulnerability. As Newt Gingrich said last night in the Republican Presidential debate, there are folks out there who want to kill us.

'Twas ever thus. Which, for some reason, we never really admitted. Collapsing buildings, smoldering wreckage, the silence broken only by the beeping of buried cell phones whose owners would never answer them - this reality seemed to cover over the memory of half a century of Cold War in which the United States and the Soviet Union held the world nuclear hostage because each one feared the other "wanted to kill us".

There are always those who want to kill someone. The Indians and Pakistanis. The Israelis and various of their Arab and Persian and Turkish neighbors. The Protestant and Catholic Irish. White Americans and Black Americans. Intraspecies slaughter is a specialty of homo sapiens, and we kid ourselves too easily we have outgrown it. People who froth at the mouth over the barbaric practices of all those dangerous Muslims out there are blind to our own history, covered in blood, reeking of the mass grave our own history provides as a pedestal from which to look down on others. Forgive me if I refuse to listen to the preachments of bigots and fear-mongers who do not notice the trail of tears we in the west have left behind our religious and political and imperial wars. Few societies have less concern for the life of other human beings than the Euro/American west.

Over the past decade, one moment stands out for me as a single ray of light. In June, 2002, Lisa was ordained an Elder under the old rules of the United Methodist Church. The man who offered the benediction to the service said, among other things, that the only thing in human history that really changed everything was the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I felt like cheering. That was what we needed to hear. That was the message of hope, the word of truth, the promise of true victory over the forces of evil and death that seem, still, to swamp us.

There are abundant resources available to those who no longer wish to live in the shadow of those collapsed towers. Even The Washington Post, not known in recent years for its stellar opinion writing, offers up something worth mentioning from resident pseudo-liberal columnist E. J. Dionne:
After we honor the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we need to leave the day behind. As a nation we have looked back for too long. We learned lessons from the attacks, but so many of them were wrong. The last decade was a detour that left our nation weaker, more divided and less certain of itself.
Al Jazeera on-line has a series of articles that are well worth reading and contemplating. Even if one does not agree with all of it, there is much wisdom in these essays.

Cliff Schecter:
Like many Americans, I find myself having followed a long and winding road over the last decade, ending up in places I truly never expected, only in recent years coming to terms with what I saw that day. Of course, for many people, the economic crash was like a second attack.

But it is where my country has gone over this past decade that is truly unfathomable. It’s important to remember as the 10-year anniversary approaches that we may have lost our way - but buried beneath many wrong turns is a national character that has been redeemed in the past.

Joseph Nye:
To the extent that the trillion or more dollars of unfunded war costs contributed to the budget deficit that plagues the US today, Bin Laden was able to damage American hard power. And the real price of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs: for most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its centre of gravity toward Asia, the US was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.

A key lesson of 9/11 is that hard military power is essential in countering terrorism by the likes of Bin Laden, but that the soft power of ideas and legitimacy is essential for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom Al Qaeda would like to recruit. A “smart power” strategy does not ignore the tools of soft power.

Robert Jensen:
[I]t's tempting to argue that we should refrain from political debate on the 9/11 anniversary to honour those who died and to respect those who lost loved ones. I would be willing to do that if the cheerleaders for the US empire would refrain from using the day to justify the wars of aggression that followed 9/11. But given the events of the past decade, there is no way to take the politics out of the anniversary.

We should take time on 9/11 to remember the nearly 3,000 victims who died that day. But as responsible citizens, we also should face a harsh reality: While the terrorism of fanatical individuals and groups is a serious threat, much greater damage has been done by our nation-state caught up in its own fanatical notions of imperial greatness.

Tarak Barkawi:
Epoch-defining dates like 1989 or 9/11 invoke various imagined histories and geographies. But too often the dates with which we order world politics are curiously Eurocentric. It is European exploration, the French revolution, a Congress in Vienna, and German invasions, for example, which mark out the globe's historical eras: 1492, 1789, 1815, 1914, 1939.

We are thus singularly unable to grasp the global histories and social relations that delivered us to 9/11. Within the conventional terms of analysis of international relations, it is almost impossible to see the great social, political and economic struggles between the global North and South that have driven modern world politics. European imperialism and the prodigious efforts to incorporate ever more peoples and places, ever more domains of life, into the capitalist world system lie at the origins of these global histories.

Joseph Stiglitz:
Ironically, the wars have undermined the United States’ (and the world’s) security, again in ways that Bin Laden could not have imagined. An unpopular war would have made military recruitment difficult in any circumstances. But, as Bush tried to deceive the US about the wars’ costs, he underfunded the troops, refusing even basic expenditures - say, for armoured and mine-resistant vehicles needed to protect American lives, or for adequate health care for returning veterans. A US court recently ruled that veterans’ rights have been violated. (Remarkably, the Obama administration claims that veterans’ right to appeal to the courts should be restricted!)

Military overreach has predictably led to nervousness about using military power, and others’ knowledge of this threatens to weaken US security as well. But the United States’ real strength, more than its military and economic power, is its “soft power,” its moral authority. And this, too, was weakened: as the US violated basic human rights like habeas corpus and the right not to be tortured, its longstanding commitment to international law was called into question.

There are several others, all deserving an audience and further discussion. As we remember the events of that day, let us insist the victims did not die so that we would destroy ourselves through mindlessness. Let us honor those who cannot be here by starting the difficult task of repairing the damage done to our world not only by the terrorists on that fateful day, but by an America blinded by rage and fear in the decade since. They, and we, deserve nothing less.

A week from the day I am writing this, on September 15, my father turns 90 years old. My family is getting together, opening the doors of our lives to friends, former students, colleagues, and anyone else who may want to stop by and wish him well. Lisa and the girls and I are leaving tonight for an overnight drive so that we can be there. We are returning on Sunday so the girls only miss one day of school. So, talk amongst yourselves, check out other stuff I've written, be excellent to one another, always be civil and on-topic, and most of all - no ad homs! Whoever uses them is stupid, and ugly.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Various Musical Stuff

Over the weekend, I was checking out some stuff by The Meters, The Neville Brothers, mostly because I love it, and I stumbled across a song I have not heard in twenty years.

This bit of over-produced fluff has a certain something. That "something" is Ivan, another of the Neville's. What I was happy to find, and am happy to report, is Ivan has left this horrid LA-studio, Don-Henley-Wannabe sound behind.

While I was reading some stuff on-line Monday, I had iTunes playing. Their "Genius" app, part of a marketing gimmick, "recommends" songs similar to whatever you might be listening to. At one point, it recommended a song by a band whose name I knew, but about whom I knew nothing - Opeth. For those like me, I checked them out. A Swedish death metal outfit they have, over the years, morphed in to something melodic and progressive. Lead singer Michael Akerfeld, whom I have heard on other projects, has largely left deaths' grunt far behind. They are still dark, their videos creepy without being over the top, but I might have to set aside my personal refusal to purchase death metal because . . . well, give 'em a listen.

And now, for something completely different . . . I hope.

Undecided - James LaBrie
Love Street - The Doors
When Alpha and Omega Collide - Sieges Even
I Don't Miss You - Van Den Plas
Let My Love Open The Door - Pete Townshend
Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie (Live Acoustic) - The Grateful Dead
The Ballad of Villacamba - Bill Bruford with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez
Strange World - Spock's Beard
Overture, Cosi Fan Tutte - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Dazed and Confused - Led Zeppelin

"Something" by George Harrison has been called the best love song ever written during the rock era. I am sympathetic to this view, and the original is, quite simply, just about a textbook example of "perfection" when it comes to arrangement, production values, and keeping the balance between the beauty of the melody and letting the musicians stretch just enough to keep from getting bored. Like every other song the Beatles have done, it has been covered to death, but I discovered a version that has many of the same qualities, exemplifies the style of the musician doing the cover without burying the original beneath layers of alternate readings. Ladies and gentlemen - Isaac Hayes.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Crooked Timber Of Isaiah Berlin

I find it more than bit amusing that John Quiggin has been posting at Crooked Timber for quite a while and only recently turned to the collection of essays under the same title and came away troubled by some of what he read.

I encountered Berlin's work the spring just before I married/graduated from seminary. Had I read it earlier, I might well have been able to have a more thoughtful conversation with it. As it happened, I read it - along with a few other works, like Rorty's Collected Papers; one of the first edited collections of the writings of Herder in English; and another of Berlin's favorite sources, the little-known Italian writer Giambattista Vico - at a time when my life was, needless to say, in a bit of an uproar. Trying to think through, in a critical way, all this new information, these alternative ways of seeing the world became a bit too much.

Which is not to say any of these works are devoid of positive content. On the contrary, even when Berlin is being snippy about Edmund Burke, or Rorty is insisting that we should live as if the things he claims to be the case are the case, heralding an age of lowered expectations but resigned acceptance which we can call happiness, there are things that need to be considered even as alarm bells are going off and red lights are flashing.

There is much to commend Berlin's view of a liberal pluralism as at least as descriptively accurate as a kind of philosophical realism that still hangs on to an undefined yet persistent idea of "human nature", to which our politics should be responsive. His largeness of moral vision - accepting difference, even incommensurability, as not denoting either some kind of ontological primitivism or moral viciousness - serves at the very least this function: It can keep us from believing, for even a moment, that we and we alone have stumbled upon the final theory, and are therefore obliged to impose it upon the world. Unlike Rorty's pessismistic, small-scale anti-realism - which is little more than acquiescence to an intolerable status quo because, well, things have always sucked, we just don't have the perspective to understand this, so suck it up and deal - Berlin at least have the virtue of understanding that human beings do, indeed, stake their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor for things and that this, too, is a positive moral stance.

At the end of the day, however, I am left with the feeling that Berlin got much more wrong than just Kant's intention in the line about crooked timber and humanity. Emerging from the corpse-strewn 20th century, it is too easy to surrender any commitment for which we should be willing to sacrifice because far too many human beings were sacrificed on the altars of various political and social ideas. Berlin is correct to write that the kind of liberal pluralism he advocates doesn't inspire people to do much; that is his intention. It is, in the end, a surrender to bare facts, without any sense that the other side of this same coin - about which he writes, but with far less passion - includes a willingness to sacrifice for certain social and political ends without ever pretending one has stumbled upon The One True Answer. One must face the reality that all answers are partial; one must also be willing to invest oneself because they are one's own answers to the on-going question, "How are we to live a fully human life, in a society that grants to all full access to the resources to achieve the same ends?"

Like far too many, including successive generations of the American ruling class, Berlin learned the wrong lesson from the midden heaps strewn across our recent history. One can mourn the dead, the uselessness of their loss, yet still believe and be willing to work and even fight for a world that is far better than what we have now. It is not at all "utopian" in the kind of derogatory way Berlin uses the word to believe that like-minded fellow human beings can and should be willing to work together, sacrifice together, to forward their vision of a better life for all. To acknowledge difference, and the full humanity of social and political visions far different, even antithetical to one's own, without insisting with equal vigor on the necessity to struggle against those one finds wanting in some moral way indeed does not inspire heroism. It inspires nothing more than a kind of dread acquiescence.

One can see the virtues of Berlin's exploration of the real human possibilities in other ways of living. One must also acknowledge not only how he, as George Scialabba wrote so well, made a "saw" of Kant's quip, but surrenders our very human birthright to make our world better than it is. In the face of giant steps backwards we in the west have made in recent decades, we should be seeking ways to struggle against a tide that will surely swamp us, a tide far more dangerous in its potential than any adherence to creed or vision that might inspire such a struggle. Our world deserves nothing less.

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