Saturday, July 30, 2005

Insanity on Both Sides of the Abortion Debate - Examples

It is an unfortunate state of affairs that the abortion debate has effectively obscured the actual nature of the problems faced by women and their families in this country and divided those with the willingness and ability to assist them into competing factions which have achieved little but a massively unproductive culture war. This failure must be attributed directly to the corrupting influence of the religious right over the so-called "pro-life" movement (perhaps it would be better referred to as "abortion rights reform,") which disdains practical solutions in favor of religiously-enforced ideology. If the impetus for the reform of abortion rights had come instead from a coalition of secular and religious progressives determined to address the abortion problem by improving the lives of women, then a solution might already be in place and the futility of the past twenty-five years could have been avoided. Witness the perverse obstinacy of the right-wing pro-life movement in action:

1. Focus on the Family opposes a possible breakthrough in the prevention of transmission of the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer, because it might lead to promiscuity.

2. Tom Delay says that an "embryo is a person," citing the examples of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed. If Tom Delay really believes this, then he should be horrified at the fact that thousands of embryos ("persons") all over America are being imprisoned in freezers! My God, they must be freed at once! Free the embryos to love and laugh as children should! Perhaps a celebrity benefit concert could be planned in support of this cause.

3. Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, vetoes a bill which would require all hospital emergency rooms in the state to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. First of all, I'm baffled and offended that any hospital emergency room doesn't already offer emergency contraception to rape victims, which speaks volumes about the depths of uncivility, the willful irrationality, of ideological conservatives. I mean, whether you disapprove of emergency contraception or not, we are talking about *rape victims.* Secondly, Romney's stated reason for the veto, the same reason offered by pro-life groups for their whole-scale opposition to emergency contraception, is that in some cases, the medication may work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. In the minds of the pro-life movement, this constitutes an abortion - the equivalent of the cold-blooded murder of an infant. Let's take a moment to ponder this little piece of logic. Even if it is true that EC sometimes works in this way (and this is still unknown), is this really an abortion? Almost any physician would agree that until a fertilized egg has implanted in the womb, *a woman is not pregant.* The failure to implant of a fertilized egg is not a miscarriage, and the deliberate prevention of its implantation is not an abortion. The reductionist reasoning of the pro-life movement on points such as these simply boggles the mind. Such an argument claims that the primary goal of the medical team in this situation is to *protect the fertilized egg.* The goal of saving this egg from destruction vastly outweighs any other consideration: the physical and mental health of the rape victim, the pain and violence she may experience as the result of a pregnancy - not to mention, the awful situation that she and her fetus may be confronted with when she learns she is pregnant and has an abortion! In other words, we are supposed to believe that the goal of reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies by the thousands, including those resulting from rape, should be set aside for the sake of possibly saving a few unimplanted eggs, many of which will be later destroyed through abortion? This is willful insanity of the most pernicious kind.

These examples demonstrate that as long as the abortion rights reform movement is controlled by ideological right wing conservatives, no progress towards a solution will be made. Instead women and their families will continue to be punished and the problem of abortion will continue unabated.

Insanity On Both Sides of the Abortion Rights Debate - Precis

To summarize my recent argument about abortion rights which I posted to this site, the subjectivity of the fetus insofar as it may be inferred through scientific demonstration should always remain the focus of any discussion of abortion rights, not because such a (theoretical) subjectivity is more important than that of a pregnant woman but because so much more is at stake, i.e., its very survival. This simple rule would probably lead to some restrictions on abortion rights, i.e. to the conclusion that abortion on demand is not a fundamental right or condition of being respected as fully human. In my investigation I found, however, that the subjectivity of any fetus cannot be abstracted from that of the pregnant woman who through her expectations and intentions for its future functions as its "co-creator." In other words there may be circumstances in which through her own discernment and with the assistance of wise counsel a pregnant woman determines that to function in such a capacity on behalf of a fetus would cause considerable violence to herself, so much so that terminating the pregnancy at an early stage (a stage in which the subjectivity of the fetus apart from her intentions for it has barely begun to form) may be justified. Unanimously accepted examples of such a circumstance include pregancies resulting from rape or incest, yet the same principle could apply to other circumstances commonly faced by pregnant women. Opponents of abortion rights must accept that women who wish to terminate their pregnancies are not homicidal or mentally disturbed and that the abortion decision can be a rational one. Thus pregnant women should be given maximal responsibility for determining the course of their pregnancy, with the understanding that such responsibility is not one-sided and that abortion rights are by no means absolute. One conclusion to this approach is that blanket criminalizations of abortion are probably the least effective way to deal with the abortion problem because they simply exclude women from their own pregnancies - an impossible and dehumanizing state of affairs. A much more effective approach would deal with the root causes of abortion, i.e. unplanned pregnancies. In other words, any solution to the abortion problem must be focused on the rights and needs of women and their families, i.e., expanding access to contraception, reducing poverty, making child care available and affordable, funding job training programs in rural and urban areas. The fact that the so-called right to life movement unceasingly opposes all of these things will be the subject of the next post.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Freedom of the Press Dies By Its Own Hand

Farhad Manjoo of Salon recently wrote two controversial articles in which he argued that the New York Times' jailed reporter Judy Miller is a true martyr of the First Amendment who should be defended as such by liberals, even if her actions are rightly judged to be morally despicable. Like a neo-Nazi whose right to march any liberal must uphold, Miller should be protected by the principles espoused by the First Amendment even if she sought to exploit them for the most craven purposes. The very future of a free press, Manjoo warned, is at stake. Manjoo is right about that last part but nothing else and not for the reasons he cites.

The Judy Miller/Robert Novak saga may really signal the incalculable loss that Manjoo says it does, but if so the long American experiment with a free and independent media has died with a whimper and not with a bang. The sad fact is that the free media has been dying a slow and disgraceful death for a long time. Independent media outlets have been starved and marginalized, while the mainstream media has been swallowed alive by the same multi-national corporations who set the nation's political agenda. Journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy have simply disappeared in the race to compete with the ludicrously partisan infotainment of Fox News and the right-wing echo chambers. Lurid, sensationalist, over-sexed, paranoid, jingoistic, the once-free press has merged seamlessly into the newly formed capitalist media-state, an entity new to this planet.

If Manjoo really wants to pinpoint the day the free press died in America he should pick one from the winter of 2002-2003, when for the first time in my knowledge the American media fully aided and abetted a massively illegal and deceptive act by the United States government, a conspiracy the likes of which this country has never seen before. It was during that winter that U.N. weapons inspectors announced dutifully that they were finding no evidence of WMD, that Saddam Hussein's government submitted a report of many thousands of pages on the subject of its destruction of the weapons it was accused of having, that European and global media argued vociferously that WMD no longer existed in Iraq, that the State Department and CIA made last ditch efforts to prevent the invasion from taking place, that the mad Stalinist state of North Korea repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, that millions and millions of protesters from every country in the world took to the streets in protest, that governments such as Mexico and Turkey took brave stands against the coming invasion, that weapons inspectors begged the United States for as little as three more weeks to complete their work, and that U.S. warships moved 150,000 troops into the Persian Gulf in preparation for the attack and the Pentagon built a state of the art sound stage in Qatar from whence to direct media operations. During this time the American media, en masse, simply reported to the American people what the Bush administration told it to report, in some cases verbatim. None of the bizarre lapses in logic or evidence on the part of the administration, such as why if the government knew the location of the banned weapons they did not inform the inspectors so that they could destroy them, was ever raised in a prominent way by a mainstream publication anywhere in this country.

In the months and years following, there has been much talk of hindsight, whether from the rueful media who wish they had reported the truth or the intelligence community which allowed its own findings to be distorted by the White House or Senate Democrats who preferred to aid in the conspiracy rather than be voted out of office as anti-war liberals. Yet for anyone who remained rational during that winter despite the enormous pressure not to, no hindsight is necessary. If American soldiers had actually found WMD in Iraq I along with many millions of others would have been taken by surprise.

Under these conditions the abuses of Miller and Novak come as no surprise. To the contrary, they are really inevitable. They simply state formally what has been known informally for a long time now. The media no longer reports what is true. It reports what it is told to report by the ruling party whose interests it exists to serve. The media is no longer a mediator between the complex and conflicting powers of the public and private sectors, but rather an instrument of propaganda, of official state control. So when powerful forces in the government sought ways to discredit a political opponent, it was no surprise that they would turn to their allies in the media, neo-con moles operating under the guise of the old class of independent reporters.

To return to my original argument, I am sorry to inform Manjoo that protecting the freedom of the press is impossible if there is no free press to protect. The First Amendment simply does not apply and cannot apply to the media as it is presently constituted. It is as antiquated as the parchment on which it's written. Thus, the decision to send Judith Miller to jail stands as the just and moral decision. This is a sad day, just as sad as Manjoo says it is. A venerable and noble experiment has come to an ignominious end. But the press has nobody to blame but itself.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Conservative Revolution

Like many progressives I have an addiction to the right-wing media. I watched the entire Republican National Convention, from start to finish, turning redder than Zell Miller at every blatant prevarication and ad hominem attack. I love to read neo-con moles like Charles Krauthammer and William Safire, and Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal never fails to amaze. The right-wing media is more titillating than any pornography - the aesthetic genre to which it bears the closest resemblance. It is a thrilling glimpse into a world of pure cupidity, wholly devoid of ethics, grounded in no reality other than that which the writer artfully selects to set the mood. Today's right-wing journalists are our greatest fantasists, and their tales of an embattled Americana fighting homosexuals and terrorists for its moral purity never fail to please. Surely last year's biggest conservative blockbuster, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a toxic sludge of anti-Semitic slurs, superstition, narcissism, paranoia and homophobic (and homerotic) sadism, more than proves the point. Today's conservatives would like us to believe that 9/11 marked the start of a genuinely new era in human relations - of a new civilization, even, one not mired in Aristotelian virtue ethics or in the Biblical principles of just restraint but rather characterized by a pure, and purifying rage which is somehow beyond good and evil. Under these new conditions force is liberated from its ethical restraints and restored to its true place as the only genuinely effective mode of human action. Every official statement of the Bush Administration and every slogan of its supporters and enablers echoes this philosophy. What Bush really means to overturn is the *rule of law itself,* i.e. every conceivable check on the deployment of unmitigated and unrelenting power. In Bush's ideal world, the aggrieved person will simply have no recourse. There will be no mediating authority, no objective forum in which to weigh the merits of a claim of the powerless against the more powerful. Thus the "post 9/11" world is, by the logic of Bush's new antinomianism, post-legal, and by that I mean the tradition of mediation and restrained retribution which goes back to Hammurabi's code. That's the scale of Bush's madness. That's the revolution that Bush believes he has been called to begin.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Recent Film Viewing

Girl From Monday is a wicked parody of the Bush Administration and the possible future that corporate America intends for us. Hal Hartley is right that it is high time for science fiction writers to begin to imagine capitalist dystopias such as the one he depicts here. After all this future doesn't seem implausible given the Bush Administration's ultimate generational goal of privatizing all of the major public programs we now take for granted - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, etc. It is really the very idea of public space which the Bush Administration feels threatened by, as if democracy itself is a relic of the Cold War which now must yield to the invincible future of the market-state. The notion of privatizing the body itself, i.e. rendering one's own body merely another commodity to be invested in, bought and sold on the market, is not so far from what the market fundamentalists hope to achieve. After all, capitalism always requires new markets, and if that logic continues unchecked, eventually there will be no space that is not commercialized - even your own dreams.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Olsen Twins: Sign of the Apocalypse

Anyone struggling to understand this era we are living through must come to grips with the phenomenon of the Olsen Twins. I have known of the Olsen Twins ever since their "debut" on Full House back in the late '80's, when they collectively played the role of the Tanner baby "Michelle." Through the course of the show Michelle grew from a baby into an annoying, plastic troll-like toddler who would repeat the phrases taught to her by neurotic Danny, goofy Uncle Joey, and urban cowboy Uncle Jesse like a trained parrot. Then Full House was canceled and it seemed that the Olsen Twins (their separate identities not yet publicly disclosed) would disappear forever. Strangely, however, like a cancer which survives the death of its host, the Olsen Twins survived, and not only survived but became the sovereigns of a mighty empire of pre-teen product endorsement, fashion, and straight to video releases, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The answer to how this came about is surely one of the great mysteries of our time. First of all, there is no particular reason I can see that "Full House" would have catapulted anyone to lasting fame and fortune. Bob Saget had a good run hosting "America's Funniest Home Videos," Dave Gouliet did a similar show, and John Stamos married Rebecca Romaine and does stuff on Broadway. (As for DJ and Stephanie, I have no idea.) Then what about the role of "Michelle" was so compelling that the Olsen Twins went on to net untold millions? There's no parallel that I can think of. Second of all, ponder the fact that the role of "Michelle" is to this date the Olsen Twins' only "real" role, in either television or movies. You might be tempted to think of them as actresses, but they aren't. They are more like real life dolls. They've never appeared in anything separately, and they always play the same character, which is simply the character they play in real life. The next time you see Mary Kate or Ashley being cast in a role which requires either one to actually act, i.e. to play a part, will be the first time. Thirdly, there is to my knowledge no difference between them, which is why one of them always has to dye her hair a different color. I don't mean physical difference, I mean that they both play the same character, in their productions and in the reality show which is their life. They literally share the exact same identity. In fact their pure interchangeability is part of their appeal. Having been almost literally born on television, they have simply adopted the world as their set. They have no experience of private life. Rather, their entire lives are an infomercial, an endless loop of reality TV highlights. The mind-boggling, billion dollar 10 year contract extension they signed a few years ago was simply an agreement to continue broadcasting their lives through various corporate outlets. Thus the Olsen Twins represent some kind of weird stage of ultra-capitalism which we can only hope is not a prophecy. Their very identity is a brand-name - their lives are "brought to you by" and "sponsored by" the products they endorse. They have literally sold their souls to the highest bidder. The fact that a perverted entity such as the Olsen Twins can come into existence and be supported by this society is an indication of how bizarrely non-human our priorities have become. Their fame and fortune is not in spite of their complete vacuity, but because of it! Their real job (and once you understand it you can see why it is so highly valued by this economy) is to mirror back to Americans a pacified, completely non-threatening image of the corporations which are currently terrorizing the globe. The Olsen Twins are icons of globalization. They are nothing more or less than a fantasy of American imperial ambition, the soft sell that reaches the shores of distant lands just before the bombs begin to fall.

Transubstantiation with Debt to Catherine Pickstock

Part of my interest as a theologian is in the recovery of religious teachings and texts as resources for dealing with contemporary problems. These teachings for me are to secularism what three dimensions are to two. I wrote this under the conscious influence of one of my favorite theologians, Catherine Pickstock.

Following the thought that Christianity and all of biblical religion was acutely conscious of the kinds of problems posed by secularism (for them, paganism) and sought to address and surpass them (meaning that Christianity is far more intellectually advanced than secularism), the whole transubstantiation debate in the 11th century can be seen as a response to the 11th century version of empiricism. What makes the elements become the body and blood of christ? Transubstantiation exposes two things about empiricism: 1) its dogmatism and 2) its idealism. Empiricism asks us to believe in either of two ideal worlds, one, the world of pure sense perception (light waves striking our nerve endings) or two, the world of foundational particles (if something could be broken down far enough, that would be its ultimate reality.) In either case it argues that the world which we actually live in is not really real, it’s only an illusion. Because of this, philosophy and scientific knowledge (verifiable truth) will always be idealistic, never really about how people actually experience the world. We will always have to go through life with a dual consciousness, knowing that for all intents and purposes we have to live a lie in order to go on living. This is what David Hume meant when he said that sometimes we have to withdraw from philosophy and play billiards. No one has ever lived in the world that Hume said was the only true reality. What transubstantiation does then is to say that this is really bread. And it is really bread because reality – the created world – is a gift from God. It doesn’t depend on an effort of our will to pretend or imagine that this is the case. We can trust that our perception of reality is real (albeit incomplete, imperfect, only one perspective) because God gives it as the substance of human relations. God is fully present in the most common, the most simple, and the most unifying experience of human life: an ordinary meal. That's a symbol that goes a long, long ways. It encompasses labor and politics and economics and friendship and nourishment and sensory and sensual experience. It is the essence of civilization. So at the Last Supper one might take Jesus to be saying this is just another meal between old friends, all the more blessed because of it.

Philosophical Investigation into Abortion Rights

This is the conclusion to an essay I wrote for my Intro. to Philosophy classes at Quincy College but then chickened out and never used. The surprising thing about it for me is that although I have always been "pro-life" (through many different political and religious incarnations), my final conclusion was very nearly "pro-choice," at least under some fairly common circumstances and with some restrictions.

...Finally, there is a class of arguments about abortion which depend on the concept of the future. One of the primary difficulties with talking about abortion is that any talk, for instance, of the subjectivity of the fetus cannot simply be limited to the subjectivity that the fetus may presently possess, but must be expanded to include the subjectivity which it can be expected to possess if it is born and continues to live. The difficulty is in talking about the future at all. How is this even possible, when the future does not yet exist? I would submit that there are two extremes to avoid. The first is that which would argue for a purely mental or subjective future. By this definition, even to conceive of a future existence is in some sense to cause it to exist. Some radical opponents of abortion rights argue that a fertilized egg, even before it is implanted, is already a person. Others would outlaw abortion even in cases when it can be proved that the pregnancy will result in the death of the woman. One response to these arguments is that there is no good reason to stop simply at the fertilization of the egg. One could just as easily argue that a "person" already exists from the moment of copulation, or even the moment when the future parents first meet. It is an absurdly deterministic argument. (I am reminded of Billy Crystal’s line in the movie City Slickers: "If the women you date get any younger pretty soon you’ll be dating sperm.") I submit that the concept of "the future" only has meaning as an extrapolation of present material reality. This is not to say that the future is purely material, only to point out that it is absurd to imagine a future with no organic basis in the present. The second extreme is the argument that the future is an abstraction which has no bearing on the choices made by persons living in the present. For instance, few would argue that a parent who loses a one month old infant has only lost the infant as it was in its present state (i.e., that the loss of the infant is equivalent to the loss of a relationship which has only lasted for one month.) Rather, the sense of loss stems from the loss of everything they could have reasonably expected or hoped the infant would become. It is the complete loss of its potential. Thus the difficulty with talking about abortion is analogous to the difficulty of talking about responsibility towards future generations. Some philosophers have argued that the most rational course of action for the present generation would be to consume all of the earth’s resources, arguing that there is no empirical evidence of "the future." Most reasonable people, however, have some sense of an obligation to future generations even though these persons are not yet actual. Most philosophers would agree that responsibility towards the future is one of the foundations of modern ethics.
Consider the example of a typical pregnant woman who intends to complete her pregnancy. In addition to making the usual preparations, she pre-enrolls the fetus in her employer’s day care program. Of course it is not the fetus she enrolls. She is not enrolling the fetus either objectively [its material body] or subjectively [the person it presently is by way of the experiences it has in the womb.] Rather she has enrolled a "future person" whose basis in reality (i.e., future reality) depends entirely on her intention to provide it a future. One could argue that through the process of preparing for its birth, she is constructing a personhood which otherwise would not exist. This includes selecting a name, buying baby clothes, adjusting her living arrangements, etc. Even actions such as avoiding physical labor, abstaining from alcohol, and playing soothing music all can be seen as being actually directed towards the future event of the person rather than the fetus as it is at present.
This argument can help to explain a puzzling aspect of abortion: how it is even possible, not in the physical sense but mentally and emotionally. Arguments against abortion rights depend largely on proving that abortion of some fetuses is the termination of a human person, potentially equivalent to the termination of non-fetuses. Yet most women who have abortions are not emotionally or mentally disturbed and would never consider terminating any non-fetus. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that women who have abortions dissociate from the consequences of their actions in the same way that otherwise rational and moral leaders of nations dissociate from the consequences of waging war. The second is that women considering abortion have a different understanding of their fetuses than do those who oppose abortion rights. If pregnant women regard their fetuses as the organic basis of a future person, whose future depends entirely on their intention to create it, then it is only by that intention that one can speak of the personhood of the fetus, and without that intention that future person does not and cannot exist. If this is the case then women who are considering having an abortion are attempting to discover whether they have this intention, i.e., whether within their own subjectivity also exists the subjectivity of the fetus as future person. This would explain equally how rational and moral women are capable of considering having an abortion as well as why this decision is so difficult. This also explains why there is a consensus even among most opponents of abortion rights as to the morality of abortion in certain exceptional circumstances such as a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. From either a purely objective perspective or the perspective of objectively inferred subjectivity, the fetuses of such women are no different (at least not necessarily) than any other fetuses and would seem to merit the same protection. Even opponents of abortion rights instinctively recognize, however, that it would be almost impossible for a woman who became pregnant through such circumstances to intend such a future person, and that to make such a demand of her would be highly immoral and would constitute a form of violence. One could ask on the basis of this whether other futures, though not as extreme, could be seen as violent in a similar way.
This argument would seem to lead in the direction of favoring abortion rights, with some possible restrictions (for instance, the necessity of counseling to assist women in the process of discernment.) There are several possible responses which I will briefly rehearse. The objectivist might claim that the process of pregnancy is for the most part objective. If left unhindered, the fetus will physically mature regardless of the woman’s attitude towards it. Again, however, this encounters the materialist counter-argument that the physical process of gestation is not sufficiently constitutive of personhood and that an entity must meet other criteria to be considered a person. Perhaps using the argument of objectively inferred subjectivity one could still claim that there is a portion of the fetus’ subjectivity which is independent of the woman’s intention towards it. For instance, it has experiences she does not have and on the basis of those experiences might have its own sense of a future (both a future as a fetus, for as long as it remains in the womb, and a future beyond the womb.) One could also object to the logic that the pregnant woman’s intention to either create or not create a future person somehow already exists in an innate sense which she must discover. Opponents of abortion rights might argue that though she may not intend a future for her fetus, she is capable of it in most circumstances.
The issue of abortion rights is so complex because it involves political action on both on objective and a subjective level. This has led to considerable confusion and little progress towards a resolution of the issue as the opposing parties have more often then not been talking past each other. I ask you to take the issue seriously, to try and challenge whatever pre-conceptions or ideologies you have in place and to give the topic the careful and philosophical analysis it deserves.

Whether Art Can Ever Be Ethical

There are many people who would be gravely, dangerously ill if not for their ability to express their suffering in art. This is really the great mystery of art. It is a testimony of suffering. It is the most awful suffering expressed in the most sublime beauty. The fact that an artist can take the worst thing they have ever lived through or could imagine living through – genocide, assault, natural disaster – and actually think it through, imagine the response of an audience, even attempt to profit from it, brings the morality of art squarely into question. Is art exploitation? What is being exploited? Something like the deposit of human experience. Perhaps it is only being developed? What is the difference? For instance, when Elie Wiesel wrote "Night," did he take into consideration such details as the kind of audience the book would be marketed to, or adapting certain events to make them of greater interest to the reader, or what the cover would look like? It may seem absurd but was Wiesel "exploiting" the Holocaust? What I mean is that any artist must answer this question for him or herself. This is the same reason why religions are always being accused of hypocrisy. How can anyone "profit" from God, and how can any religion succeed without doing so? Is this just the relentless logic of capitalism? There is another paradox at work, which might be called the "loser paradox." For instance, when I read a certain type of confessional novel which invites me to feel that the author through this text understands my failures, the spell will only work as long as I forget that this author is by my definition already a success. After all, Nick Hornby is a famous, successful author, not a failure at all! How is it that anyone who suffers is ever even coherent enough to actually go through the steps necessary to make that suffering known, i.e. to create art about it? One would think that art, which is a tremendous accomplishment, can't ever be fully commensurate with the suffering it depicts. My original point was that art is very important for the emotional stability of some people who would otherwise literally be unstable and dangerous. I mean it. Art saves lives. That is why it is such an important practice. At his or her best, the artist is a relentless exploiter of every situation, every opportunity to develop and express the creative impulse which is their only reason for living.

On the Death of Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida probably had as great an impact on my generation as any other philosopher, so much so that to be confused by Derrida is probably the uniting experience of every English major under the age of 40. Recently in a moment of clarity I revisited some of his insights and felt like I was understanding the sage of the left bank for the first time. I believe that the essence of Derrida's philosophy is that life and language are a continual surprise to all parties: speaker and hearer, writer and reader. Nobody will ever have the last word, and we should thank God for that, because it is in God's wake that language, the life-blood of humanity, may truly flourish. Writing, like life, is permeated by unmet expectations, imperfections, surprises, and unfinished endings, little deaths all. Although Derrida never carried out the political implications of his work, it is easy to translate his work into a call for the revival of public discourse. If Derrida is right then no command and no order can be fully authorized because no voice is fully authoritative. Any interrogation can itself be interrogated. The supposedly seamless walls of the totalitarian state (and that includes the "invisible state" of capitalism) must crack from the pressure of language which continually sows the seeds of revolution. That is the power of difference, and it must always have the victory in the end.

Subliminal Messages from the Bush Administration

As I try to put a little of my personal and political philosophy into this blog, it will probably become apparent that I tend to use the Bush Administration as a foil for everything that I take to be going wrong with America and the world. I'm trying to avoid taking that to an extreme, as America's problems run much deeper than the Bush administration and won't expire when it does, but I do find it a useful metaphor. I wrote this in response to a Boston Globe column.

When President Bush first began to rally the nation around him and set out his agenda after 9/11, his message lacked one conspicuous component: any call to shared sacrifice or civic duty on the part of ordinary Americans. Instead, Bush’s most memorable civic challenge to Americans was to head to the mall or to Disney Land, the better to deny the terrorists their goal of sabotaging the American economy. This is a particularly surprising omission given the historical importance of such efforts and Bush’s repeated comparisons of the war on terror with WWII.
Bush’s recent rhetoric, however, has shown evidence that the principle of shared sacrifice is not entirely foreign to his vocabulary after all. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, for instance, he commended the sacrifice of soldiers killed in Iraq and their families. Bush has certainly not been reluctant to ask Americans to make this kind of sacrifice. More subtle was the call to economic sacrifice. In his speech, Bush somberly acknowledged that these have not been the best of times for most Americans. Yet, he reminded Americans that perilous times demand a greater degree of trust in government. This is no time, he cautioned, to question policies which can easily be resolved after the war on terror is won. Having access to health care or meaningful work hardly matters if the terrorists are allowed to prevail. Nor was terrorism the only threat cited as dire evidence of the need for sacrifice. The present state of culture and morality as well was said to necessitate stricter than usual loyalty to the ruling party. Taken together, this overwhelming image of an embattled Americana bracing itself against both bloodthirsty terrorists and legally wedded same-sex couples puts the call to shared sacrifice in a whole new light. It is Americans who are being asked to sacrifice on behalf of Bush. They are being asked to sacrifice their doubts, their liberties, their futures, and their lives. This call was the true theme of the convention, which was nothing more than a concerted effort to quash a populist revolt. Bush is asking Americans to pay a high price for a morally pure, secure America. He is demanding the sacrifice of democracy itself.

I Heart Boston with the Heart Crossed Out

I live in Boston, yet paradoxically I hate Boston. This naturally might prompt two questions: Why do I hate it? And why I do still live here? In answer to the second question, you don't always leave the place you hate, even if you should. In answer to the first question, I submit the following juvenile screed:

You Might Be From Boston If...

Your ancestors were driven from their homes for good reason.
Your great-great-grandfather was a Calvinist, your great-grandfather was a Roman Catholic, your grandfather was Jewish, your father was Methodist and you’re an asshole.
You thought Robin Williams’ dad was the good guy in Good Will Hunting.
You once waited 86 years for your team to win the World Series only to get killed in the ensuing riot.
Your accent sends chills down the collective spine of the English-speaking world.
You still think that taking 20 years to build a 15 billion dollar tunnel underneath a major metropolitan area was a pretty damn good idea.
You once saw Whitey Bulger at Finagle a Bagel and asked him how your uncle, his cousin’s brother, was doing.
You claim blue blood status as the direct descendant of one of Ted Kennedy’s secretaries.
You still remember where you were the day that Larry Bird had bone spur surgery.
You regret trying to spear that black guy with the flagpole back in ’78.
You don’t believe drunk driving is against the law as long as you’re from Southie.
You can walk two miles to work without ever being out of sight of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
You would root for all the demons of hell if they were playing the Yankees.
You once visited the South Side of Chicago and were surprised at how warm and friendly everyone seemed.
You might consider being gay just one time for Tom Brady, like if all the women in the world got killed or something.
You consider yourself educated because you once passed out in Harvard Yard.
You once clothes-lined an old, deaf, retarded grandma while trying to board the T.
You consider Filenes Basement one of the finest department stores in the country.
Your idea of fiscal responsibility is to cut down on your kick-backs this year.
You had your brain frozen so you could be resurrected in a thousand years along with Ted Williams.

Memories of the 2004 Presidential Campaign

I don't know whether John Kerry appreciated the war room which I ran for him last summer out of my laptop, but run one I did. Sometimes I still find myself rehearsing the speeches I wish he would have given, just like the way that I re-imagine all of the new Star Wars movies after I see them. I also sometimes imagine what Bush would sound like if he said what he really believed. This was one of my favorite examples from that genre.

George W. Bush's 2004 Acceptance Speech at the RNC:

Mr. Chairman, delegates, fellow citizens: I am honored by your support, and I accept your nomination for President of the United States.

What an extraordinary time these past four years have been. We passed the No Child Left Behind Act, and America’s schools are now the best-funded and best-performing schools in the world. Test scores and graduation rates have risen dramatically. American children are getting the education they deserve. My opponent, on the other hand, opposed the No Child Left Behind Act, because he said that some children should be left behind.

We passed tax relief which brought income to those Americans who needed it the most: the working poor. Because of this, poverty rates are falling across the country. My opponent, on the other hand, opposed this tax relief because he said that poor people deserve to stay poor, and are too dumb to manage their own money. Well, you and I know better than that.

Although we inherited a massive recession and budget deficit from my predecessor Bill Clinton, we have managed to transform these unfavorable conditions into an engine for economic growth and job opportunity, all while reducing the deficit. My opponent, on the other hand, favors increasing the deficit because he says that we can always borrow more later to keep up.

And of course, who could forget that terrible day of September 11th, 2001. When I heard the news that terrorists had attacked the country, I immediately flew to New York City. Although I was too late to stop the planes from crashing, I ran into the World Trade Center while it was burning and rescued as many as I could before the towers collapsed. Leaving those towers was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. On September 11th, my opponent was sipping wine and eating cheese with a little fork at his villa in France. When he heard the news about the attacks, he laughed and said that the vulgar Americans got what they deserved.

Then we invaded Afghanistan. Within days, we had caught the terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden, ousted the Taliban, and established a new democracy. Bin Laden, now awaiting trial in the Hague, led us to the rest of al-Qaeda, and that network has been effectively shut down. In the meantime, my opponent appeared in a video smoking a cigar with Osama bin Laden and denouncing the United States. He and his running mate are now serving as bin Laden’s defense team for his upcoming trial.

But we didn’t stop there. We decided to invade Iraq as well because Saddam Hussein was a desperate tyrant who was threatening the United States with nuclear weapons. We tried to solve the conflict peacefully but Saddam wouldn’t let the weapons inspectors into his country, and he cut off some of their heads. After toppling his regime, we found massive stockpiles of weapons, including a giant laser which Saddam had been planning to launch to the moon. My opponent, siding with the French, said the laser was for peaceful purposes and that only love could save Saddam.

You may have heard about what my opponent and I did during the Vietnam war 35 years ago. When I heard about the war, I rushed to enlist myself in the National Guard because I wanted to be on the first lines of defense in case of a sneak attack on this country. When the communists attacked from the Mexican border, I led the victorious effort to save the city of Houston. My opponent, on the other hand, fought on the side of the Viet Cong, then bragged about it afterwards. When he came home, he traveled around in a stinky old bus with Jane Fonda, denouncing Americans as fat capitalist pigs who deserved nuclear annihilation by the Soviets. He even cheered for the Russians in the 1972 Olympics when they cheated their way to the gold medal.

Finally, if I am re-elected, I will ensure that traditional values remain at the forefront of our political system. My opponent, on the other hand, has said that he supports gay marriage because he wants to be the first President to marry his own running mate. He has promised that he and John Edwards will marry in the Oval Office at the first available opportunity, and that he will wear the bridal gown.

My fellow Americans, the choice in this election is clear. Will you choose the genuine American hero, the man who has led you with courage and conviction throughout this difficult time towards a more promising future, or the enemy of this country, avowed homosexual and atheist, connoisseur of French wine, and friend of terrorists? I ask for your support, and may God continue to bless America.

The Road Ahead As I See It

It is my belief that Americans are presently living through an era of such complete and total cultural malaise that there is no chance it will be forgotten any time soon. No, like the 1970's, the first decade of the 21st century has been so unbearably rotten so far that the very memory of it will send a chill through the souls of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This country doesn't need a new political establishment, a great musician, writer, or visual artist so much as it needs an exorcism. I am talking about a spiritual and cultural dry-rot which is eating away at the foundations of democracy in America. I truly believe that and I will go into more detail about it later. For now, what foul putrefaction would be sucked out of our souls if an exorcist were to show up and start cleaning house? Consider the following:

Paris Hilton would shrivel up and die like the Wicked Witch of the West in a bubblebath.

Dick Cheney would be magically transported back to Cody, Wyoming where he would resume the life he was always meant to live.

Condoleeza Rice and George W. Bush would run away together, leaving Laura the freedom to finally find a man who will stay up past eight o'clock.

The Bush Twins would meld themselves back into the Olsen Twins from whence they emerged and get jobs telemarketing in Crawford.

Simon Cowell would find his mouth sewn shut like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, unable to ever utter another word.

Janet Jackson's boob would pop back into its bustiere, setting off a reverse chain of events which would culminate in Howard Dean becoming President.

In other words, whose idea was all this - the last five years, I mean. Who put these people in charge of the rest of us? Is there an American alive who really feels comfortable being represented internationally by such luminaries as George W. Bush, Paris Hilton, and Fantasia? I'm not trying to complain so much as trying to point that there is a fundamental lunacy at work here -- which reminds me of that quote by Howard Zinn, "All of the wrong people are out of prison, and all of the wrong people are in prison. All of the wrong people are in power, and all of the wrong people are out of power." I'm also not bashing America. At its best there is a brilliance to the American way of life which is simply the genius of the human spirit unleashed. That's why there is something so wrong with capitalism gone awry - a system which promotes the worst and suppresses the best, a reverse meritocracy in which nearly everyone works to support the excesses of the few who do not, a dismal commemoration of mediocrity, banality, sentimentality, and endless cliches.

I also do not think that there are many who would disagree with this assessment - which makes it doubly odd that the present state of affairs has continued even for as long as it has. The problem is powerlessness and that is difficult to reverse. My hunch is that we Americans lost our mojo after 9/11 and that most of us are only vaguely aware that something has gone wrong and have no idea how to fix it. I don't really have a solution either. I tend to think in political terms and thus I believe that a new political establishment would go a long ways towards reversing the damage. But there has been too much damage done to think that things are just going to get better in 2008. Americans are in for a long, hard-fought struggle against our worst impulses, our least inspired excesses, our worst fears about ourselves. That struggle is this generation's responsibility. It's not exactly defeating fascism or surviving the Great Depression, but if we can give our children something better than what passes for American public life in 2005 - reality TV, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and health insurance, an authoritarian regime run by a foolish head of state - then we will have succeeded.