Friday, April 13, 2007

Lewis Lapham's "Gag Rule" and remembering the glories of yesteryear

Lewis Lapham has some good observations in his book Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy (2004) on the post-9/11 plague of deferring to Presidential authority which has left us with the abuses of the PATRIOT ACT, the Iraq War, torture in the Bush Gulag, and much else.

Unfortunately, especially in the last two of the four chapter/essays, he drifts off into vague descriptions that seem thought-provoking at first glance but don't provide an particular insights. For instance:

Certainly it is futile to expect anything more of the world than it has the capacity to produce, and probably it is pointless to deplore the failures and shortcomings of people trying to get by as best they know how. What can anybody ask of authority except that it make a credible show of itself? Civil magistrates, as well as corporation presidents, need as much help as they can get, and if they shore themselves up with whatever pomps and hypocrisies come easily to hand, why begrudge them their traffic in propaganda? If the fabric of authority is torn by revolution, then another tapestry made of the same poor stuff must, of necessity, replace it.

Even so, and then possibly in only very small amounts, the truth is precious. People who tell themselves too many lies ("When I am elected . . . ," "When your grandmother dies . . . ," "When my wife gives me a divorce . . .") commit a form of suicide. So do governments that encourage their citizens to stupefy themselves with drugs, luxury, superstition, and a steady supply of digitally enhanced pornography. The Old Man of the Mountains made his followers smoke hashish in order to convert them into assassins.
It's pretty. But what does it really tell us? The writing sounds good. It's just that much of it reads like something a character in a Walker Percy novel might muse on for several pages at a stretch. I'ts enjoyable, but a lot of it falls somewhere between journalistic reporting and political analysis without actually doing too mucy of either.

The first two chapters are more interesting. For instance, he talks about how the Cheney-Bush administration relies on fear as a tool of governance. Not a unique insight, but one imoportant enough to be repeated by many people in many different ways:

President Bush likes to tell his military and civilian audiences that, as Americans, "we refuse to live in fear," and of all lies told by the government's faith healers and gun salesmen, I know of none so cowardly. Where else does the Bush administration ask the American people to live except in fear? On what other grounds does it justify its destruction of the nation's civil liberties? Ever since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, no week has passed in which the government has failed to issue warnings of a sequel. Sometimes it's the director of the FBI, sometimes the attorney general or an unnamed source in the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security, but always it's the same message: Suspect your neighbor and watch the sky, buy duct tape, avoid the Washington Monument, hide the children. Let too many citizens begin to ask impertinent questions about the shambles of the federal budget or the disappearance of a forest in Montana, and the government sends another law-enforcement officer to a microphone with a story about a missing tube of plutonium or a newly discovered nerve gas.
He recounts some earlier periods of batty foreign policy, like hte Spanish-American War, and over-the-top paranoia, like McCarthyism.

He does give a good if brief account of the press dysfunction around the Iraq War. For instance, remember this routine?

Attorney General John Ashcroft meanwhile was touring the country to count the blessings of the USA PATRIOT Act, recently strengthened with the definition of the newly minted crime of "domestic terrorism" as "any action that endangers human life or is a violation of any federal or state law." A transgression so broadly defined allows for so many interpretations, many of them fanciful and most of them abusive, that the Justice Department was attaching the label of terrorism to its investigations of drug traffickers, money launderers, and child pornographers. The antidemocratic premise of the legislation had provoked complaints across the whole of the political spectrum—from senators both liberaland conservative, from members of the National Rifle Association as well as members of the American Civil Liberties Union. The shows of unruliness offended the attorney general. Undertaking [in 2003] to defend the purposes of the PATRIOT Act, he scheduled appearances in sixteen states deemed important to the president's winning the election of 2004. His message was invariably one of impending doom — the continuing bloodshed in the streets of Baghdad indicative of terrorists lurking under the Brooklyn Bridge, driving bomb-laden trucks north to Boston, south to Tallahassee; if America was to be kept safe from further harm, then the laws must become more vigilant, not less. People who said otherwise were feeble minded and disloyal, "soft on terrorism," ignoring the lesson of September 11.
These hordes of terrorists must still be roaming the streets of the United States, because Ashcroft sure didn't find many of them to prosecute.

And who can forget those glory days of Mission Accomplished?

The corporate managers of the Bush administration lack the concision of the Attic style, but they didn't find it hard to appreciate the ancient moral of the tale. The high-tech gladiatorial show in the Iraqi colosseum had served as a test market not only for the Pentagon's new and exciting inventory of weapons but also for the premise of American military empire — established the necessary precedent, set the proper tone, opened the road to the grandeur that was Rome. Heartened by the message delivered to the voters in the next American presidential election as well as to America's enemies both east and west of Suez, various staff officers attached to the White House, its supporting neoconservative ihink tanks, and the Pentagon expressed varying degrees of satisfaction. Secretary of State Colin Powell threatened Syria, telling a press conference that Syria would have to change its ways, but, no, there was "no war plan right now." Vice President Dick Cheney admonished Germany and France, indicating that neither country could expect oil or construction contracts from a new jurisdiction in Iraq, saying that "perhaps time will help in terms of improving their outlook." ...

Thus spake the Zarathustras of the Bush administration contemplating the ruin of what was onCe the World Trade Center. Let any nation anywhere on earth even begin to think of challenging the American supremacy (military, cultural, socioeconomic), and America reserves the right to strangle the impudence at birth — to bomb the peasants or the palace, block the flows of oil or bank credit, change the linen in the information ministries and the hotels. The motion carried without undue objection on the part of the American public or the American news media. Told that the truth didn't matter, that motive was irrelevant, and that the Bush administration was free to do as it pleased, the heirs and assigns of what was once a democratic republic greeted the announcement with an audible and respectful silence.
It wasn't that long ago, was it? The American empire of liberty was going to bomb, shoot and torture the backward barbarians of the Middle East into becoming good American-style democrats, with a few tens of billions tossed to Halliburton and other Republican Party cronies along the way.

"Those were the days/Oh, yes, those were the days..."

And now those days are gone with the wind, we might say.

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