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Tag Archives: THE ENLIGHTENMENT

 

THE ILLUSION OF RIGHTS

John Chuckman

 

In truth, there is no such thing as a right.

The last three centuries or so of European history developed the concept and fixed it in our minds as something real and many modern states have enumerated lists of rights, but, in the limit, the concept of rights has no force behind it.

Words on paper mean nothing when those with real power in your society decide that the words are only that, words. Judges have no power to direct where the society’s power is unwilling to cooperate.

Apart from what has happened at various times in a number of European countries, the ability simply to switch off rights has been demonstrated many times in America’s history, and there can be little doubt that dimming down and gradually switching off rights now has become a central activity in American society.

Nothing so effectively trumps rights as government claims of emergency situations, such as civil war and now the so-called war on terror. For the foreseeable future, rights in Western countries are going to increasingly be limited or ignored, if not even proscribed.

This is certainly the case in the United States where construction of a national security state is well underway, the template being that of Israel, a state which despite a stage show of democracy is quite literally more of a security state than the former East Germany, more both because technologies now are vastly more effective and penetrating than anything the Stasi had and because the proportion of military and security services in society is far greater in Israel than it was in a supposed absolute state.

Establishing such a vast state apparatus anywhere is never without consequences for human freedom and rights, although Israel has never pretended to establish defined rights, it being an impossible task to do so for a “democracy” where only one kind of person is welcome and where millions are literally held against their wills and where the state apparatus feels free to seize anyone’s property at any moment.

So it is a very ominous model towards which America is working. The work has proceeded gradually since 9/11, so that there is no sudden panic in such a large general population, but it proceeds inexorably, with new steps announced periodically limiting this or that activity. Of course, it just so happens that the project serves the establishment’s own power interests, effectively securing continued and increased authority.

The events used to excuse the project and make it acceptable, those of so-called international terror, were themselves natural outcomes, reactions to the establishment’s abuse of authority in a long series of attacks and wars to reshape the Middle East and its endless tolerance of an intolerable human situation in Israel. The establishment’s behavior created international terror.

In the end, the unpleasant truth is that only might makes right, and sentiments and fine words count for very little. We truly have made small progress since the days when a French nobleman’s coach could run down a peasant in the roadway without consequences. We are still ruled by wealth, and the security services, servants of wealth, gain added and unaccountable powers almost daily.

After all, that is how America governs much of the rest of the planet today, isn’t it? Why should home be any different?

HOW AMERICA LEARNED TO PLAY GOD

The Aftermath of 9/11: America’s Second Great Transformation and the Emergence of a Brave New World

John Chuckman

I call America’s pattern of behavior since 9/11 a “great transformation” because it involves revolutionary changes for the country and, unavoidably, the entire world. In its internal affairs, America has effectively weakened the protections of the Bill of Rights and instituted many of the practices of police states – all under the insidious rationale of “protection from terrorists,” a subject heading which incapacitates the courts and serves to draw a great dark cloak over matters vital to all. Secrecy, always a favorite tool of cowardly politicians, now has assumed an enormous, central position in America. Spying, both on your own people and on those abroad, has become pervasive.

America has increased spending on military and intelligence to levels dangerously high both for the stability of the world and the future integrity of its own society. These resource-wasting establishments also will entangle any state in all sorts of costly unanticipated difficulties over time. Foreign policy has shifted to adopt the once-laughable, malevolent fantasies of the Neocons as official America policy, including an unapologetic and unprincipled use of America’s military strength around the world and a savage effort to remake the entire Middle East to its own liking, ignoring the region’s acute problems and treating the hopes of tens of millions for better lives as so much collateral damage from a bombing run.

These massive changes add to a social and governing structure which already had grown far away from the people, a structure which in many ways resembles that of pre-revolutionary, 18th century France, a state ruled by and for a class of landed aristocrats, a class of church aristocrats, and a ruling family and its armies. In contemporary America, the great hierarchies are the Pentagon, a web of sixteen intelligence agencies, and the great corporations with their immensely wealthy owners.

America’s first great transformation was the Civil War, a war which was not about slavery as is commonly believed and generally taught in public schools but about the division of powers between states and the federal government, affecting the very economic and political structure of the nation. The United States under the original Constitution was a very different place than we have come to know it. The Civil War reduced authorities of the states, demolished many formidable internal barriers to trade and to federal political power, and elevated the federal government from a mere debating forum between states into a powerful central authority. The Civil War transformed, too, the United States into a world-class industrial nation and military power which would in coming decades embark on new colonial wars and adventures. The Civil War made possible the growth of mighty national industries and the coming Age of Robber Barons and was a necessary precursor to the changes now underway.

For a good deal of time, America grew a healthy middle class, and for a brief golden era even industrial workers in America prospered remarkably. Political rights and freedoms tended to expand with that growth. But real per capita income of middle to lower-middle class Americans has dropped for many years now, a result in great part of globalization and new competitors coming up in the world. That has been a major impetus for social change as American middle class families attempt to hold their positions with incomes from two careers and lower costs in a seemingly infinite sprawl of cheap hinterland suburbs. And for years now, the American establishment has made the keenest political issue of taxes, but an issue only in the sense of by just how much to lower them, most particularly those affecting the wealthy.

To some extent a fortress-like mentality had taken hold of the middle class for years as they saw themselves on their way to work passing parts of rotting cities – doors always locked on their tank-like SUVs and vans – struggling to raise their position in the world by fending off taxes as much as possible, and, even, in a growing number of instances, living in “gated communities” out of fear of crime spreading from rotted cities. I think that kind of prevailing mentality helps greatly for accepting America’s new, more oppressive measures.

One might think the United States would have learned from the country it now copies closely: Israel has had a paralyzing web of secret police, border restrictions, secret prisons, and a massive military establishment for 65 years, yet it has never enjoyed genuine peace and lives in a chilling, unpleasant relationship with all of its neighbors. The average Israeli too does not enjoy a great life in an economically-inefficient society (whose interests, moreover, are heavily tilted towards those of its privileged groups), and then there’s that “great mob of Arabs out there” regarded in much the same way America regards its poor blacks. And were it not for immense subsidies and special favors keeping Israel afloat, that security state likely would collapse under the weight of its economic inefficiency. When any state puts absolute security above everything else, much of what it achieves is not worth having. Stalin perhaps provides history’s bleakest, most extreme example of running an absolute security state.

Of course, security, as understood by what Stalin called “wreckers of the revolution” and what Israel and the United States call “terrorism,” is not the complete reason for secret prisons and building walls and networks and police forces and spy systems. Those with great power and wealth and special interests have always had an instinctive impulse to control their environment, including the other people who inhabit it. Vast guarded estates and fences and bodyguards and summary justice for those trespassing have always been features of life for the great and powerful, and the same impulses exist for powerful organizations within a state, especially militarized states. Close control over behavior unacceptable to an establishment – including behavior that is merely different or dissident or embarrassing or slightly shady or emotionally off-balance or politically threatening – is at the heart of the matter. A gigantic network has been created in the United States which will detect, track, and file away information on these behaviors in perpetuity. The potential for blackmail and intimidation of political opponents or NGO leaders or writers or the press is enormous. While this may not be the case at first, over time, can you think of any apparatus that has gone unused by those with power, any apparatus which has not been abused? We should not forget that as recently as the 1960s, the FBI was actively trying to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide with anonymous letters threatening to reveal secret recordings. America is, after all, a country that has used atomic weapons, twice, and both times on civilian targets.

America is now also doing something no other country is in a position to do: it is exploiting the dollar’s privileged position as the world’s reserve currency to pay for much of its gigantic waste through massive future devaluation of an asset held by millions around the world. Unconscionable? Arrogant? Bullying? Those words I think are fairly applied to the changes. It may be no consolation for those being steamrolled by America that its behavior is unavoidably weakening its position in the world, but that is a fact. The bullying will prevail for a time, but it does speed the day when world leadership shifts to new hands, not necessarily to any single country like China but possibly to a consortium of rapidly-growing large states – India, Russia, Brazil, and China – with interests of their own.

It is no wonder that the conspiracy-oriented regard 9/11 as some kind of black operation used to shift the direction of the country towards a brave new world. The only conspiracy I see in the events around 9/11, though, are the American government’s refusal to explain to its own people what happened while exploiting events to its benefit, doing things it likely long has wanted to do. It is covering up both the incompetence and destructiveness of the operations of its own intelligence and military establishments as well as the deadly stupidity of some of its foreign policies, policies which seem fixed in amber through the tireless work of special interests. Dishonesty now has become a hallmark of American government. Those with power feel no obligation to explain to the people they nominally serve what happened in almost any event of genuine importance, and a long-term practice has only become more intense and pervasive.

America’s press, still sometimes is heard patting itself on the back as the “fourth estate” protecting peoples’ interests and handing out meaningless journalism awards to itself, actually works as a silent partner with government, never once investigating the genuinely important stuff. A merged, corporate press has no interest in investigating a corporate government, indeed it depends on government agencies for the leaks and interviews and data access which make it appear as though it is investigating and reporting day-in, day-out. It often provides the security agencies with cover for their overseas operations, it frequently has hired them, sometimes unwittingly, onto its staff, and it provides an outlet for the agencies’ disinformation, again sometimes unwittingly. And of course the corporate advertising which sustains the press puts the scrutiny of many corporate matters out of bounds, including many cozy and anti-democratic relationships with government and its major agencies.

Just as there is a natural cycle in the life of great industries – the scores of early American car manufacturers are now reduced to a few functioning as an oligopoly, an historical pattern repeated in industry after industry  – there appears to be a life cycle for a government organized like that of the United States. The duopoly which runs the American government consists of two parties which differ in almost no particulars except some social issues, but even that difference is rather a sham because the American government no longer has any interest in social issues. It is concerned overwhelmingly with representing and furthering the interests of the nation’s three great power centers of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Social issues now are soap-box stuff for street-corner politicians and members of NGOs.

But in any case, all players in this political duopoly, no matter to which office they may be elected, know they can never challenge the immense authority and virtual omnipresence of America’s military, intelligence, corporate hierarchies and special interests like the Israel Lobby, powerful anti-democratic institutions which literally shape the space America’s politicians must inhabit.

Americans today quite simply could not vote in an informed manner if they wanted to do so (and many are not interested in voting at all, as we shall see): they are completely in the dark as to what happens inside their government, both its operations within the country and in international affairs. No one knows the full extent of spending on intelligence, nor do they know what dark programs are underway. No one knows the full extent of spending on the military, nor do they know to what questionable tasks it is being put around the world. No one knows the immense extent and complexity of lobbying and special interests in the American government. And of course no one is privy to the planning and operations of the great corporations, nor do they know anything of the dealings and financing arrangements between those corporations (or the wealthy individuals who own and run them) and the people’s supposed representatives, who all must spend a substantial part of their time just raising money for the next election (the average American Senator is said to spend two-thirds of his or her time doing just that).

Americans’ votes in elections have become to a remarkable extent meaningless, although an elaborate political stage play keeps the appearance of meaning and keeps those interested in politics involved and entertained. Almost certainly as a result of sensing how little their votes count, Americans often simply do not vote and do so in increasing numbers. The further down the political totem pole you go from the presidential elections which generate the most noise owing to the obscene amounts of money spent on marketing and advertising, the greater is this truth. Maybe 60% vote for president, a minority vote in other national elections, and a tiny fraction vote in state and local elections.

For those who cherish rights and values won since the Enlightenment, it is a disheartening prospect we face. A nasty bully, armed to the teeth and endowed with a profound sense of entitlement and scant regard for the other 95% of humanity, casts a long shadow over the entire planet. Not so terrifying a figure as a Stalin or a Hitler, he is frightening enough, and his insincere words about rights and values and fairness fool many as he proceeds to do just as he pleases, including killing any individual on the planet he decides in secret to be an opponent. It is indeed a brave new world, not Shakespeare’s and something far grimmer than Huxley’s.

ASHCROFT, AMERICAN HISTORY, AND SPEAKING IN TONGUES

John Chuckman

John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States, recently repeated an old chestnut about America being a Christian nation whose Founders were Christian gentlemen.

The claim is common among the country’s fundamentalist Christians, but it is so ignorant of actual history one wonders whether it should not be taken as another serious indictment of American public education. Some readers may not be aware that Mr. Ashcroft’s background includes familiarity with such arcane subjects as speaking in tongues. As for Mr Bush, who touched the same theme in China, perhaps no comment on his grasp of history is required.

The late eighteenth century, following on the Enlightenment and waves of reaction to the violent excesses of the Reformation and Counter-reformation over the previous two centuries, was perhaps the lowest point for Christian influence ever. Virtually all educated people in Europe were deists and many were open skeptics.

America was not free of this influence despite its many Puritan immigrants. Indeed, many of the best educated citizens at this time were educated in Europe. And the small number of good libraries owned by educated people often contained the works of Enlightenment authors. Virtually all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and even some of the words of the Constitution derive from these European sources. It is due precisely to the unique qualities of the period that we owe America’s early
embrace of religious tolerance. The immigrant Puritans had displayed no religious tolerance , and in fact were some of the worst fanatics from Europe.

Washington was a deist. He was a member of the Masons, a then
comparatively-new, secretive fraternal organization widely regarded as unfriendly to traditional Christianity and reflecting European secular attitudes. He did attend church regularly, but this was done with the aristocratic notion that it set an example for the lower classes, Washington being very much a planter-aristocrat (he used to refer to the independent-minded Yankee recruits in the Revolution, who had had the practice of electing their officers before he was appointed as commander, as “a dirty
and nasty people.”). This was a time when there was an established church in
Virginia, and it functioned as an important quasi-political organization.

Washington always used deistic terms like Great Providence. His writings, other than one brief note as a very young man, do not speak of Jesus, and he died, knowing he was dying, without ever calling for prayer, Bible, or minister. There is a story given by some of his best biographers shedding light on his church-going. He apparently never kneeled for prayer nor would he take communion. When one parson brought this to his attention after the service, Washington gave him the icy stare for which this aloof, emotionally-cold man was famous and never returned to that church.

Thomas Jefferson was accused publicly of being an atheist. More than any other Founder, Jefferson was under the spell of European (and particularly, French) thought. His writings, and references to him by friends, certainly make him sound like a private skeptic. He belonged to no church. He explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus, viewing him as a great teacher of human values. At best he was a deist referring in his private writings to God as “our god.”

Jefferson who, despite high-sounding words, was something of a hypocrite on many aspects of civil liberties, and particularly on slavery, was at his best on the need for religious liberty. Despite his free-thinking reputation, he formed alliances with groups like the Baptists, who deeply resented paying taxes to the established church in Virginia, and won a long battle for a statute of religious liberty.

Thomas Paine, whose stirring words in Common Sense contributed greatly to the Revolution, was often accused of atheism because of his religious writing, but deism is closer to the truth. His later writing done in Europe, The Age of Reason, was regarded as scandalous by establishment-types. France, during the Terror under Ropespierre, turned to a new kind of state religion. This, the very brave Paine, living in Paris, also rejected, writing,

“I do not believe in the creed professed… by the Roman church,
by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the protestant
church, nor any church that I know of. My own mind is my own
church.”

The great Dr. Franklin, who incidentally lived about a quarter of his life on diplomatic missions in Europe and who as a very young man had run away from a home where rigid religious principles were imposed, was a typical deist of the period. He was an active member of the first Masonic temple in America. His attitudes were so amicable to French intellectuals and society, he was embraced, as no other American has ever been, as a national figure in that country.

Alexander Hamilton, undoubtedly the most intellectually gifted of the Founders other than Franklin, paid lip service to religion, but he was known during the Revolution as a rake. Later, his distinguished career in Washington’s cabinet was marred by a great sexual scandal. Generally, Hamilton used religion to promote his political aims, ignoring it whenever it was convenient. In this respect, perhaps he qualifies as a thoroughly modern American version of a Christian.

Gouveneur Morris, who wrote the draft of the Constitution we all recognize from the notes of others, was an extremely worldly and aristocratic man. He was also one of Washington’s most trusted confidants. He was perhaps the most rakish, womanizing diplomat America ever sent to Europe, sharing at one point a mistress with Talleyrand, the most amoral ex-cleric who ever practiced statecraft. In general, Europeans were astonished that a man so worldly and so arrogantly patrician in temperament represented the young republic for a period in France.

Abraham Lincoln, while not a Founder, is the most beloved of American presidents. Lincoln’s closest friend and most interesting biographer, Herndon , said flatly that Lincoln was a religious skeptic. This has always so upset America’s establishment historians that Herndon has been accused of writing a distorted book, a rather ridiculous charge in view of a close friendship with his subject and twenty years spent collecting materials.

Lincoln never attended church, and when he refers to God in speeches during the Civil War, it is always with words acceptable to secular, educated people who regarded the King James Bible as an important cultural and literary document apart from any claims for its sacredness. There is reason to believe that as the bloody war continued, Lincoln, who suffered from severe depressions, turned to the Bible for consolation, especially to the story of the struggle of the Hebrews. Lincoln was also an extremely astute politician who used every means at his command in the great battle with secession, and his references to the Almighty may well have been part of
his psychological artillery. He certainly did not invoke the name of Jesus.

Patrick Henry, who incidentally opposed ratification of the Constitution, was a Christian, but he was once described by Jefferson as “an emotional volcano with little guiding intelligence.”