Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Stuck on Stupid

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Stuck on Stupid - No One Seems to Know Much

Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. That would be these people from the University of London, and in the September 11 issue of The Guardian (UK), Zizek has some interesting thoughts on the 9/11 anniversary.

The idea is rather startling. It's that five years on we're still stuck on the big lesson we learned when the Berlin Wall fell. All this talk about how 9/11 changed everything is silly. Those who claim that, to justify whatever they wish to do - to change the rules for just about anything - don't realize they're stuck on something that just isn't so any longer.

The core of the argument is here -

    What, then, is the historical meaning of 9/11? Twelve years earlier, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall fell. The collapse of communism was perceived as the collapse of political utopias. Today, we live in a post-utopian period of pragmatic administration, since we have learned the hard lesson of how noble political utopias can end in totalitarian terror. But this collapse of utopias was followed by 10 years of the big utopia of global capitalist liberal democracy. November 9 thus announced the "happy 90s", the Francis Fukuyama dream of the "end of history", the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search was over, that the advent of a global, liberal community was around the corner, that the obstacles to this Hollywood happy ending are merely local pockets of resistance where the leaders have not yet grasped that their time is over.

    September 11 is the symbol of the end of this utopia, a return to real history. A new era is here with new walls everywhere, between Israel and Palestine, around the EU, on the US-Mexico and Spain-Morocco borders. It is an era with new forms of apartheid and legalized torture. As President Bush said after September 11, America is in a state of war. But the problem is that the US is not in a state of war. For the large majority, daily life goes on and war remains the business of state agencies. The distinction between the state of war and peace is blurred. We are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency.

    When Bush celebrated the thirst for freedom in post-communist countries as a "fire in the minds of men", the unintended irony was that he used a phrase from Dostoevsky's The Possessed, where it designates the ruthless activity of radical anarchists who burned a village: "The fire is in the minds of men, not on the roofs of houses." What Bush didn't grasp is that on September 11, five years ago, New Yorkers saw and smelled the smoke from this fire.

So it seems we're stuck on this idea of "the big utopia of global capitalist liberal democracy" - what the Republicans say was Ronald Reagan's gift to the world. Our system works, and it's the best, and everyone should adopt it. The attacks five years ago were a resounding "no" to that, but are being used, actually, to say we should all think real hard about the lessons of November 9, 1989, in spite of the dead of 2001 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Things have changed since 1989, dramatically, but that seems too hard to grasp. So who are the reactionaries here, clinging to what may no longer be significant, saying "no, no, no" to what's really going on?

But it is a given these days - an axiom, like in mathematics but here accepted as true as the base of working out any geopolitical proof - that our system works, and it's the best, and everyone should adopt it. You cannot find a political in the United States, from the far left to the far right, who does not build his or her position on this "indisputable" given. All else that follows is detail - notes on the best way to follow up on what was demonstrated decisively in 1989 - no matter what happened five years ago.

Looking at things a new way, when events warrant reconsideration, is not something anyone likes to do. Who has time to question the really basic assumptions? And who thinks about such things at all?

These high-level and abstract sorts of things just elicit yawns, or derision. Where we're going, what we do, and who leads us, doesn't concern most people. They don't make decisions on who they will vote for, or whether they will vote at all, in that realm. And smart politician know that.

 That's why you see things like this - In a Pivotal Year, GOP Plans to Get Personal - Millions to Go to Digging Up Dirt on Democrats - "The National Republican Congressional Committee, which this year dispatched a half-dozen operatives to comb through tax, court and other records looking for damaging information on Democratic candidates, plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads."

People respond to the juicy stuff the opposition digs up. It works. It's not "deep thinking," but it will do just fine.

Reacting to that news item, Bill Montgomery says this -

    I think it was P.T. Barnum who said that nobody ever went broke underestimating (or in Shrub's case, misunderestimating) the intelligence of the American people. That's not entirely fair: Americans can be very smart, even brilliant, about some things, particularly if those things involve gadgets and especially if those gadgets can be used to make money or kill people. We're a positivist wet dream - the most relentlessly practical people since the Romans. But our culture and economic incentives all tend to channel our intellectual energies away from subjects that have no immediate utilitarian value. And for most Americans, most of the time, that means away from politics and current affairs, which only rarely have any direct impact on or relevance to our daily lives.

    All this helps create the sea of political ignorance and apathy on which Rovian admirals (and their less competent Democratic opponents) launch their attack vessels, armed with sales techniques borrowed from the advertising industry and the social psychology departments of the major research universities.

It's not at all about thinking about things but more a crude sort of marketing, as in this, which was allegedly written by an anonymous Madison Avenue executive -

    Understand that you are dealing with a target audience that doesn't care enough, or simply refuses to devote the time to learn the real facts regarding the real issues. Instead, their perception has BECOME the facts!

    Do not try to change this reality. Work with it. The perception you create IS the reality! Take heart! If they perceive something despite obvious evidence to the contrary, you will be able to make them perceive any number of things!

That sounds like a line from an early sixties Hollywood comedy about the advertising industry - something Rock Hudson or Tony Randall would say (with Doris Day in the background looking shocked). Maybe it is. But it is disturbingly close to something that has been quoted in these pages any number of times, that an anonymous White House official, before the 2004 elections telling Ron Suskind this -

    We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. While you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.

Yep, these guys create their own reality, to which Montgomery says this -

    There are many things you can call that point of view and the style of politics it supports. Democracy isn't one of them. If perception really is everything, and managing mass perceptions is the be-all and end-all of the political process, then Spengler was right - what we call "democracy" is really just a disguise for plutocracy.

    Or worse. If all that matters is the science of perceptual manipulation, then the technicians pushing the media buttons can make the machine work for anybody - capitalists, Christian theocrats, little green men from Mars. It doesn't matter what ideological brand of soap you're selling, as long as you control the means of mass communication.

    But if perception management actually was all that mattered - if the Rovians really could "create their own reality" - they wouldn't be gearing up for the biggest negative campaign in the history of off-year congressional elections. They wouldn't have to, since media consumers would be cheerfully confident that the war in Iraq is being won, that the Cheney tax cuts are delivering prosperity for all, and that the GOP is a model of modern public administration.

So folks really are paying attention? They're certainly not reading Spengler's The Decline of the West. No one does.

Montgomery argues the Republicans are going negative - using ninety percent of their media budget - because reality still actually matters -

    Voters are influenced not just by the chaotic scenes from Iraq they see on TV or the steady drip of US casualties they read about in the obituary sections of their local newspapers, but also by their own finances, their job prospects, the price of gas, the value of their homes, etc. These perceptions aren't so easy to manipulate with propaganda trickery - unlike claims of "victory" in an invisible war against terrorism or 30-second spots about the personal or political foibles of a little-known Democratic congressional candidate.

    What's worse (from a Rovian point of view), the American people may still be capable of learning from reality, despite their distaste for anything that smells like a political debate.

The evidence of that is from the recent Pew Research polling, with results like this, on our current approach to the world - threaten the pesky, then go for regime change, with invasion and occupation and setting up a government we want -

    An increasing number of Americans see nonmilitary approaches - such as decreasing US dependence on Middle East oil and avoiding involvement with the problems of other countries - as effective in this regard. Fully two-thirds (67%) say that decreasing America's dependence on oil from the Middle East is a very important step in preventing terrorism - the highest percentage for any option tested.

Not war? What this - pragmatism? Montgomery calls it "a pretty impressive outbreak of popular common sense?" And it's so dangerous the administration is doing all that Hitler and "Islamofascist" stuff. Common sense is the enemy too.

So it's showdown time -

    The Rovian propaganda-based reality versus the rest of the world's reality-based reality, with the voters as the judges and the corporate media elites as the referees-on-the-take. The last few rounds should be bloody, and most likely downright vicious, in the Mike Tyson, bite-off-your-opponent's-ear sense of the word.

    Personally, I tend to believe it will take a rather massive eruption of reality - and probably a catastrophic one - to produce fundamental political change in America, of the kind that might allow a progressive left-wing movement to smash the Rovian machine, break the political stranglehold of private wealth and bring the corporations, including the corporate media, back under some kind of check and balance.

    Call me a wild-eyed radical, but I'm hoping for a 1932, or at least a 1980 in reverse, not a 1994 in reverse - although we all could certainly do without a repeat of the Great Depression or the stagflationary '70s.

    We're obviously not looking at a realignment election yet. We're probably not even close (although I wouldn't put money on that proposition.) But it's getting hard to see how an economic and/or foreign policy train wreck can be avoided, one that will eventually force large numbers of voters to fundamentally reassess their existing political loyalties.

    I still believe (call it an article of faith) that a majority of the voters will eventually figure out they've been had - sold not just a bill of goods but a counterfeit reality, one that is crumbling in front of their eyes. When that happens, they're going to be enraged, in a way that makes this year's discontent look like the passing tantrum of a grumpy two-year old. We can only pray they'll be angry at the right people.

That last warning is important. The Disney-ABC 9/11 movie seems to have a clear subtext - sure, 9/11 was awful, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a god-awful mess now, but that's all because of Bill Clinton. When that's the official position of one of the largest media organizations in the world, and a major television network, and soon ABC News itself no doubt - based on evidence they, frankly, just made up on the spot - then all bets are off. Heck, everyone knows it's all the fault of someone else - John Lennon. That miniseries is no doubt in production in Burbank right now.

Turning away from what's just "not reality" doesn't necessarily mean you turn to anything else more real. People are funny that way.

And the spin goes on to work on all sorts of realities. See Andrew Sullivan in the Times of London here on that speech Bush gave the week before, saying he was pulling the bad guys from our secret overseas prisons and think they should be tried in a special kind of court where they cannot defend themselves or hear the evidence against them (the Bush speech was covered in these pages here). The president also said we learned a lot from these bad guys because we sort of maybe tortured it out of them. So he wants the odd trails approved by congress, and the "techniques" used on these guys approved too.

Sullivan -

    Without describing them, Bush's speech essentially said that without these interrogation techniques thousands of Americans would have been murdered, and so they have to be retained as options by the CIA. Wouldn't this violate the Geneva conventions and American law, as the Supreme Court found? Under any rational interpretation, yes. But Bush has asserted that these techniques are not "torture" as he defines it and if Congress goes along with this, such techniques become legal with the president's signature.

    The push for passage in the months before the election is intense. Last Thursday Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate, even threatened to bypass a committee of three resistant, constitutionalist Republican senators (John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham) to get the measure to the Senate floor and force the Democrats to "side with the terrorists".

    The rationale is clear. In the week of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 the president wants to change the debate from Iraq, from Iran, from the past and position himself once again as the indispensable protector. It's territory he knows and feels secure on: goading the opposition as appeasers and terror lovers.

    But Bush had one more ace to play. Here's the critical quote from the speech: "We're now approaching the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks - and the families of those murdered that day have waited patiently for justice. They should have to wait no longer. So I'm announcing today that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and 11 other terrorists in CIA custody have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay As soon as Congress acts to authorize the military commissions I have proposed, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans can face justice."

    So any congressional resistance to Bush's war crimes and military tribunal bill will be depicted as delaying justice for the perpetrators of 9/11. The choice in the November elections will be described as being between breaching the Geneva conventions or backing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    It is, of course, a phony choice. In reality the detention policies pursued by Bush have made prosecution of many of the 9/11 perpetrators much more difficult.

    Evidence procured by torture cannot be permitted in a trial without destroying centuries of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. Moreover, most American military lawyers believe the long-established procedures under the code of military justice are far preferable to the kangaroo courts devised by Bush.

    As for the torture techniques, the army deputy chief of staff for intelligence testified last week that "no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that". Who are we to believe? The president or the army? It's also clear Bush's policy is a PR disaster. The trial of monsters like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed could be a great propaganda weapon for the West. But only if the trials are seen to be fair and open and in line with Anglo-American justice. If the trials violate the Geneva conventions then the PR victory goes to Al-Qaeda.

    Surely the president knows this. The most generous interpretation is that he believes that torture has worked in getting intelligence from suspected terrorists; and that interrogation techniques perfected by Stalin's secret police are not violations of the Geneva conventions. He may simply have persuaded himself that he hasn't authorized what he has plainly authorized. I'm not sure what level of psychological denial this amounts to; but it is unnerving in a president of the most powerful country on earth.

    The more realistic interpretation is more depressing. It is that Bush knows exactly what he's doing, believes torture works, wants to cement it in law and simultaneously wants to declare the US is still in compliance with Geneva. Squaring this circle requires that his semantic distinction between "coercive interrogation techniques" and "torture" will become conventional wisdom.

    For good measure, he must also see this as a political gamble. He has seen the polls - and they are grim for the Republicans. The only way to turn this around is a striking initiative - and returning to the prosecution of the 9/11 criminals is about as good as it gets.

    The stakes are high. If the Democrats gain the House or Senate in November, congressional investigations into the torture policy could begin, and no one knows where that might lead. So Bush's war crimes bill is designed to do two things: recast the campaign as one in which only the Republicans are serious about terrorism, and pass legislation that can retroactively protect Bush officials from any future war crime prosecutions.

    In the next two months the president is fighting for what remains of his political life. This much we now know: he is not going down without a struggle.

Ah, but will reality win?

Then there's this -

    Next week, I'm informed via troubled White House sources, will see the full unveiling of Karl Rove's fall election strategy. He's intending to line up 9/11 families to accuse McCain, Warner and Graham of delaying justice for the perpetrators of that atrocity, because they want to uphold the ancient judicial traditions of the US military and abide by the Constitution. He will use the families as an argument for legalizing torture, setting up kangaroo courts for military prisoners, and giving war crime impunity for his own aides and cronies. This is his "Hail Mary" move for November; it's brutally exploitative of 9/11; it's pure partisanship; and it's designed to enable an untrammeled executive. Decent Republicans, Independents and Democrats must do all they can to expose and resist this latest descent into political thuggery. If you need proof that this administration's first priority is not a humane and effective counter-terror strategy, but a brutal, exploitative path to retaining power at any price, you just got it.

That's Sullivan too. He must hate America. And he's afraid of clever marketing.

And there's this from Sunday, September 10 -

    Vice President Cheney said today that the ongoing national debate over the war in Iraq is emboldening adversaries to believe they can undermine the resolve of the American people to complete the U.S. mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "They can't beat us in a stand-up fight, they never have, but they're absolutely convinced they can break our will [and that] the American people don't have the stomach for the fight, " Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press.

    The vice president said US allies in Afghanistan and Iraq "have doubts" America will finish the job there. "And those doubts are encouraged, obviously, when they see the kind of debate that we've had in the United States," Cheney said. "Suggestions, for example, that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq simply feed into that whole notion, validates the strategy of the terrorists."

Enough of talking about reality and trying, in fits and starts, to use common sense. People just need to shut the hell up. What the government does is not open for discussion. We cannot afford that sort of thing any longer.

And people know nothing, it seems.

But people have a way of figuring things out, one way or another, as in this, an open letter to George W. Bush from Bill Clinton's penis -

    Well, George, I gotta say - even though I only have one eye, I should have seen this coming. I mean, I'd heard in various executive washrooms that you and your people harbored a massive grudge against me for being so irresistible, but to invade a sovereign nation, empty America's coffers, destroy the United States' reputation in the world, and make this planet much less safe because you wanted to show that yours is, at least metaphorically, bigger, wider, more powerful? That's just sick, man. What the hell is wrong with you? Tell me, when you were a kid, did that wire monkey that passes for your mama point at you "down there" and laugh because you were even less endowed than your sister, Doro? Did all those hours with your childhood imaginary friend blasting all those defenseless frogs to smithereens anesthetize you to the CIA torture rooms you reluctantly admitted really do exist? See, I want to understand why you spend so much time trying to prove your manhood to your dad and anyone marginally more popular than you are.

    And now because your little Iraq adventure failed to make you BMOC in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter), I hear that some of your right-wing, Bible-humping fans have scripted a "docudrama" blaming my boy for letting 9/11 happen, despite the fact that according to every Gregorian calendar I'm aware of, September 11, 2001 was officially on your watch. The HELL? It's Bill's fault that you didn't sit up and take notice when Harriet Miers handed you that Aug. 6 PDB because you were too busy trying to peer down her Dress Barn "cowboy style" blouse? I know, it was her smoky, kohl-lined eyes that distracted you from capturing Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora when you had the chance? Jeez, man, it's always anyone else's fault but yours, eh? Oh, and by the way, I hear this "docudrama" is so loosely based on the official 9/11 Commission Report that it might as well have been plagiarized from "Mildred Pierce." Whatever you're holding over Gloved Mouse, Inc. and its subsidiaries to guarantee they air this potentially libelous piece of revisionist crap must be something tasty, indeed.

    Face it, George: you're already going down in history as the worst President this country's ever had. You really need to get a grip on something other than that fun-sized roll of Life Savers in your pocket.

    Your nemesis, Li'l Bill

It's a true about what's happened as anything else. Figuring out what's really going on isn't that very hard.

[Stuck on Stupid]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik

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