Sunday, March 29, 2009

People of the lie

People of the Lie is a book by the late Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck. How ironic it is that the Christian psychotherapist Gagdad Bob and his crew of howler monkeys are exemplars of what he talks about -- people who lie to themselves to mask evil, in this case, the political evil of unlimited government torture. My efforts to get them to face the facts and to acknowledge the inconsistencies in their own belief systems were met with a ridiculous slew of personal insults, culminating in labeling me as "palpably satanic" or just plain "a bad man". Oh well, I don't know what I was expecting -- spirited debate? A respectful exchange of views? In my dreams.

According to Peck, an evil person:
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto others... scapegoating behavior
  • ...
  • Is unable to think from other people's viewpoints.
  • displays intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury
I have no idea if these people are at all evil in their personal lives, but when it comes to political flaming the mapping to Peck's model is clear enough. Projection? Check, all sins of the world are attributable to "leftism" or Islam. Unable to think from other's viewpoints? Check. Intolerance to criticism? Double check. There's a telling tendency to divide the world into "good people" and "bad people". Good people can do no wrong and thus are fully justified in anything they do to bad people; pointing out the flaws of the good people's arguments automatically makes me one of the bad people.

My favorite lie was commenter Van's attempt to claim that waterboarding wasn't torture by describing it as "pouring water on them", as if it was a shower or something. This is obviously a well-practiced justification. It's not original to Van, but a meme that has been circulating on the right for a few years. The right is an echo-chamber of lies.

Speaking of torture, a couple of recent items that are worth noting: The torture of Abu Zubaydah, which came up in the dialog, turns out to have revealed nothing of value and it appears that he was not very highly placed in al-Qaeda in the first place:
Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.
Hm, turns out this was revealed as early as 2006, but that didn't stop Bush from using Zubaydah's worthless intelligence as justification for further use of torture.

And a Spanish Court (same judge, Baltasar Garzón, who brought charges against Pinochet a few years back) is contemplating issuing arrest warrants for a set of high-level Bush administration officials, including John Yoo, Doug Feith, and David Addington (who by reputation seems to have been one of the main sources of abuse of power in the Bush administration) . Good. It turns out the US has prosecuted foreign officials for torture, so the precedents are in place.

I don't suppose any of that will change any opinions over at One Cosmos. Those folks have too much at stake to ever acknowlege that there might be some evil on their side of the fence they've erected in their minds. That would require not just a political change of heart but a revolution in their metaphysical picture of the world, and no such revolution is forthcoming. "And you never ask questions / When God's on your side." I admit to being a little disappointed; I thought these people had a spark of intelligence (or something) that is generally missing from the right.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

His Satanic Majesty's Request

This might be the highlight of my blogging career: getting called "palpably satanic" by a pinhead at One Cosmos.

Although if I am one of the Devil's sockpuppets, you'd think I'd have more readers. At least I'm in good company.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Real conservatism and rent control

I am not sure why I spend time reading and attempting to argue with wingnuts. It seems to fulfill some probably-embarrassing psychological need. But one of my less embarrassing excuses for spending time that way is that it occasionally spurs me to original thought. Here is one such instance (original context here).

It occured to me that rent control, a classic target of right-wing ire, is actually a policy that should be embraced by true conservatives, if there were any. Why? Well, the idea behind rent control is that people and communities have some structure, value, and rights that are not captured by the free market. The usual situation that rent control is designed to remediate is where a community of low-income renters forms. People live there for possibly generations, building up community ties. Then the wealthy trendies move in next door, real estate prices rise, and the low-income people are forced from their homes, their community scattered.

So rent control may be viewed as an attempt to conserve the social capital of a community from the ravages of the free market.

The larger point of course is that unregulated markets are the least conservative thing imaginable. This is not an original point of course -- Marx and Engels made it quite memorably:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” ... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Marx and Engels are of course no conservatives, but they are pointing out that capitalism is an uparalleled anti-conservative force. Rent control is designed to preserve social relationships that are not "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic", but are quite real and constitute a significant good. It's an attempt to graft some non-market rights into an otherwise unregulated market.

Now, my interlocutors pointed out that no conservative is in favor of rent control, which a Google search reveals to be pretty much true. What does that mean? It suggests that conservatism is not in fact an ideology devoted to preserving existing modes of life from the ravages of change, but is more like what Phil Agre says, an ideology devoted to preserving the power of the powerful. Some traditions, apparently, are more worth saving than others. This is not a surprise. In fact Agre makes pretty much the same point I'm trying to make:
And although conservatism has historically claimed to conserve institutions, history makes clear that conservatism is only interested in conserving particular kinds of institutions: the institutions that reinforce conservative power. Conservatism rarely tries to conserve institutions such as Social Security and welfare that decrease the common people's dependency on the aristocracy and the social authorities that serve it. To the contrary, they represent those institutions in various twisted ways as dangerous to to the social order generally or to their beneficiaries in particular.
Or to put it simply, "free-market conservative" is an oxymoron.

So I wonder if there has ever been an actual populist conservatism? Perhaps the Luddites. Unions are also conservative in this sense -- an attempt to put the brakes on the "creative destruction" of capitalism, to (in Buckley's phrase) stand athwart history yelling "stop".

So, while I find myself with some conservative impulses which are appropriate to my advancing age, I am completely un-sympathetic to the conservative movement, which only seeks to conserve privilege, and has done a shitty job of that. I might like to conserve the America of the early sixties that I grew up with, an America that was reasonably prosperous, equitable, and hopeful, but it's gone forever. What we have now is a doomed fauxconomy with a corrupt and incompetent ruling class of plutocrats. Only hail-Mary radicalism can save us now and our political leadership does not seem willing or able to be radical enough.

Note: I am not necessarily in favor of rent control, which usually seems to create as many problems as it solves. The anarchists from last week (and Marx) would laugh at it as a half-measure anyway, since it doesn't do anything about basic property relations. The Wikipedia article on rent control is pretty good.

Here's some more disgust at conservative hypocrisy from a former conservative.

Friday, March 20, 2009

When the ship comes in

Every so often a Dylan song gets stuck in me and won't leave. A few weeks ago it was "Dear Landlord", today it's this:

Maybe it's that Pesach is coming up, or maybe it's the sense that the American public may be reaching a breaking point, or just residual anarchism from last weekend, or maybe even seeing the Watchmen movie (which made ample use of Dylan, but left out one of the key elements of the original graphic novel, an intercalated pirate comic called "Tales of the Black Freighter" in reference to the same Brecht/Weill song that inspired the above).
Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Alternative Procedures

Trying to get the bad taste of wingnuts out of my mouth, I dropped in at the Anarchist Bookfair, a yearly gathering of left-wing extremists in San Francisco that always feels to me like it's trying to make the worst stereotypes of the right come true. A few years ago Ward Churchill was there. I feel out of place and try to pretend I'm not a capitalist sellout. What the hell in anarchism to me, these days? I have a family and a house and I want a society that works, that is capable of acting sanely, that is capable of solving the many small and large collective action problems that modern industrial civilization requires. Sad to say, I don't much like the state but where's your alternative? I can't see hierarchy-free collectives that operate by consensus as capable of scaling up much past groups of 20 or so people.

Anarchism seems like an excusable folly in the young, but not the old. Nevertheless the most appealing thing about this gathering is the old-timers, people who've been doing this for fifty years and have conncetions back to the original Wobblies or Sacco and Vanzetti. There's something about being connected to an tiny, obscure, yet vibrant thread of history. I can't abide the young punk anarchists for the most part, but the geezers I like. I bought a copy of The Match, an anarchist journal that has been publishing since 1969 and still looks like it's pasted up by hand like old underground newspaper (ah yes, it says "No computers are ever used in this production" -- guess I won't be linking to their website, but they are in Wikipedia). Much to my non-surprise, anarchists seem to spend a good deal of effort arguing with each other -- the guy who publishes The Match, for instance, has no truck with the sort of anarchists who disrupted the WTO in Seattle.

So it's an exercise in fake nostalgia for me, not a serious political movement that I'm going to support. Yet on the same day Mark Danner has a piece in the NYT and a longer version in the NYRB detailing some new torture revelations that have come to light. Essentially, the Bush administration allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to interview some of its detainees in order to produce:
The result is a document -- labeled "confidential" and clearly intended only for the eyes of those senior American officials to whom the CIA's Mr. Rizzo would show it -- ”that tells a certain kind of story, a narrative of what happened at "the black sites" and a detailed description, by those on whom they were practiced, of what the President of the United States described to Americans as an "alternative set of procedures." It is a document for its time, literally "impossible to put down," from its opening page:”

1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....

-- to its stark and unmistakable conclusion:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Such unflinching clarity, from the body legally charged with overseeing compliance with the Geneva Conventions in which the terms "torture" and "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" are accorded a strictly defined legal meaning, ”couldn't be more significant, or indeed more welcome after years in which the President of the United States relied on the power of his office either to redefine or to obfuscate what are relatively simple words.
So, this is what states do. Sadly, the transition to a new and presumably more enlightened administration is not going to solve the problem. Anyone for anarchy?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

New #1 favorite wingnut: Gagdad Bob

Finally, I present my new favorite right-wing lunatic. My criteria for this coveted spot is someone who hates everything I stand for, but isn't a complete moron, and has something reasonably fresh to say. Not too easy to find. Mencius Moldbug has occupied that slot for awhile, but he's gotten rather repetitive. So the new dude is "Gagdad Bob", a logorrheic devotee of Tarot and James Joyce, apparently some kind of psychotherapist(!) who projects projection, among other nifty mental feats:
It is the unrepentant spiritual terrorism of the left that frightens us.... Progressivism is the expression of thanatos the "death instinct." It is perverse, sadistic, and authoritarian. Which is why, of course, they project these things into conservatives.
To which this is the only proper response.

Before descending into the abyss of antagonism, let me mention the stuff on his blog that I sort of like: the larger portion of it is devoted to a kind of whacked-out metaphysical speculation, for which he has invented his own system of metaphors, symbols, and puns. This is the sort of thing, like continental philosophy, that I can sometimes enjoy, because despite it being foreign to my own way of thinking it almost makes sense; I enjoy the mental exercise of trying to understand what the hell it's all about. And there are occasional resonances with my own fumbling attempts at spiritual thinking, even though I'm coming at it from a very different starting point.

So half the contents of his blog is this somewhat amusing foray into amateur theocomedy, and the rest is hate-filled rants against people like me -- "the psycho-spiritual left". Some examples:

Here he spews rabid, mostly groundless fulminations against Obama:
You will see the false love -- the hate -- behind the Obama phenomenon should he lose the election, for in every denizen of Blue Meanies, police are making plans for violence. In fact, they are also planning for violence should he prevail. But that violence is only a prelude to the violence to come.
If there's been an apology or retraction for this failed prediction, I've missed it. Of course there has been threats of violence since the election, but it's all from the lunatic right.
Back to the Emperor. Among other things, the Emperor is the symbol of divine authority on earth. He is not a replacement of divine authority, but its horizontal prolongation. And along these lines, perhaps the most important point is that, as UF writes, "God governs the world by authority, and not by force. If this were not so, there would be neither freedom nor law in the world."

This automatically excludes Obama from being a legitimate ruler, in that the left is all about governing by force. He will not "lure" you toward the good by his intrinsic authority, but compel you to "share" and "spread around" the fruits of your labor with his purely earthly power. And that's all it is. His profound lack of understanding of Christian doctrine is too well documented to discuss here.
I like that bit about how "the left is all about governing by force". Uh-huh, and the right is all about governing by -- what exactly? pure love? This is nothing more than another attempt to delegitimize Obama's election on no grounds whatsoever, an effort which permeates the wingnutosphere. Obama by definition can't be legitimate, can't have any authentic spiritual power, because he lacks understanding of Christian doctrine. (I wonder where the idea that "spreading wealth around" is un-Christian -- seems to me Jesus was quite in favor of it, ie in Matthew 25:34-43 and many other passages. But no doubt my understanding of Christian doctrine is even more deficient than Obama's).

And specious explanations of politics:
As we just witnessed with President Bush, a leader who fails to resonate in this unconscious manner simply will not be perceived as effective, no matter how competent he is. From even before day one of his presidency, Bush was unable to use language in such a way as to bind up the anxiety and hatred of liberals. First, just as it is difficult for the non-evil to understand the evil, it's also difficult (at least without training) for the non-crazy to truly understand the crazy. On top of that, Bush never appreciated the level of liberal bitterness and resentment over Al Gore's unsuccessful attempt to exploit the judicial system to steal the presidency to which liberals were entitled.
Yes, Bush's failure was an inability to communicate, so his effectiveness and competence was not appreciated. There is actually someone on the planet who believes this! And please note that this alleged psychologist is perfectly willing to diagnose the liberal half of the country as crazy. Here's another half-baked psychological diagnoses of "the left":
leftism is by definition a perpetual rebellion against these principles -- against the Real. Thus, it is de facto the maninfestation of a spiritual illness, often rooted in a psychological one.
His hatred of the left is paired with an equally virulent hatred of materialism and science:
Here again, this is why the materialist can neither know reality nor love, since he does not recognize the absolute reality of subjects. Rather, the subject is simply a side effect of matter, and matter is obviously "one," which is an inverted doctrine of spiritual oneness. This material oneness is the false unity that inspires the left. It is why "what's yours is mine," and why Obama's conscience (such as it is) is untroubled by taking what belongs to you and and Joe and "spreading it around." Yes, Obama loves us. But like nature, he loves us ruthlessly.
Another major element is anti-Darwinism supported by age-old bad arguments, laced with of half-digested trendy notions like catastrophe theory and autpoesis:
Let's not kid ourselves. We really only have two choices. Either this cosmos is in fact grand -- not to mention, beautiful, awesome, sacred and numinous -- or our genes, for reasons we cannot know, randomly mutated in such a way that we imagine that such entirely chimerical things as grandeur and beauty exist...Obviously, on any strict Darwinian view, "beauty" cannot objectively exist.
And FTW, how Obama is...the Antichrist! Well, no, Bob is not that literal-minded a religious whackjob, so he's going to cutesy it up when he accuses Obama of being in league with Satan:
First of all, let's get this out of the way at the outset. Are we calling Obama the antichrist?

Yes, of course.

No, wait -- let's not engage in ad obomanem. Let's just say an embodiment of the antichristic principle. Please, let's discuss this in terms of abstract cosmic principles, without getting personal. No need to demonize someone just because he's an instrument of satan. Besides, he's just the vehicle, not the driver. The surfer, not the wave.

Now, what do we mean by "antichrist?" I would say that, as Christ is Word-made-flesh, the realm of the antichristic would analogously represent the "lower principle" made flesh -- the instantiation, as it were, of the energies of the Fall.
I'm trying to figure out the horrid fascination this site exerts on's not like the normal wingnuts, who for the most part are just hateful cretins. This guy is a smart, funny, occasionally insightful, hateful non-cretin. That's not a combination you see everyday. We share some likes (Joyce, Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and dislikes (Deepak Chopra, Bill Maher). In some respects he's the worst kind of douchebag: the kind who doesn't realize he's a douchebag, but instead believes he has some kind of privileged line to the almighty (actually, it's not so surprising that he's a psychotherapist). Yet I kind of like his stuff. I may have to order his book.

The Internet was invented for me to get access to this kind of weirdo.