Battlestar Galactica at the UN

So say we all: BSG rocks the UN...."The UN is more than a building with fantastic curtains" - Whoopi Goldberg.

So say we all: BSG rocks the UN...."The UN is more than a building with fantastic curtains" - Whoopi Goldberg.

I am just catching up on this one thanks to a post at The Seemless Web (a great blog on law and popular culture I’ve just discovered), but a few weeks ago the UN hosted a forum to celebrate the finale of Battlestar Galactica. Apparently the seats of the general assembly were decked out with name plates for the 12 colonies of Kobol! As Marc Bernardin at PopWatch cutely reports : “Sci Fi turned the United Nations into the Quorum of Twelve. Which may be the third coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” But it’s not as crazy as it sounds, Bernardin continues:

While the idea of the UN hosting a retrospective on Battlestar Galactica might sound a little odd, as the night went on it started to make perfect sense. From the very beginning, BSG has dealt with moral issues — what it means to be human, the rule of law vs. the military might, the arguable merits of armed insurgency — issues which find themselves on the UN’s docket almost every day. As Robert Orr, the Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning put it, “You’ve got people thinking about issues that we try and get people thinking about every day.”….

When one of the UN’s representatives talked about how part of their mandate was to safeguard the human rights of everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and station, Olmos got a little heated. “You never should’ve invited me here,” he said, before blasting the UN for continuing to use race as a term of separation, of division among peoples. His voice rose, steadily, as if years of social activism was coming to a head on this night. Then, directing his attention to the high schoolers [300 in the audience]: “Adults will never be able to stop using the word ‘race’ as a cultural determinant….There is only one race: the human race. SO SAY WE ALL!”

I swear to you, everyone in that chamber shouted it right back at him. Because the Admiral asked us to.

And Mary McDonnell leaned over and gently wiped a tear from Olmos’ cheek.

The continuing politics of torture

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

In his latest New York Review of Books article Mark Danner makes the key point: “When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing.” Which is not to say that he believes that torture is still occurring but that the politics of torture is still at the heart of US politics and the ongoing construction of the symbolic war on terror:

Torture, as the former vice-president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland. For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president, as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this. For if torture really was a necessary evil in what Mr. Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of “keeping the country safe,” then it follows that its abolition at the hands of the Obama administration will put the country once more at risk. It was Barack Obama, after all, who on his first full day as president issued a series of historic executive orders that closed the “black site” secret prisons and halted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been practiced there, and that provided that the offshore prison at Guantánamo would be closed within a year.

In moving instantly to do these things Obama identified himself as the “anti-torture president” no less than George W. Bush had become the “torture president”—as the former vice-president, a deeply unpopular politician who has seized the role of a kind of dark spokesman for the national id, was quick to point out.

In an interview about the release of the ICRC report on torture, which Danner and the NYRB have made available for the first time, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, whose book Journey to the Dark Side documented many of the stories in the report, makes a similar point to Danner. The Obama administration cannot get away with a neutral position:

It seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as “witch hunts” and said we’re not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they’re going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they’re trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They’ve come out critical, they’ve said “we’re fixing this, it was wrong,” and they have started to fix it — I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they’re trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don’t think that’s going to work because they’re going to have a choice here. They’re at a fork in the road, where either they’re going to open things up, or they’re going to have to cover things up. There’s not a real neutral position to be there. And that’s what I think they’re beginning to realize.

Both Mayer and Danner make the same point that Cheney’s recent posturing about torture is pragmatic politics setting up a potential blame game if another attack occurs on Obama’s watch. As Danner puts it:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling. …Cheney’s politics of fear—and the vice-president is unique only in his willingness to enunciate the matter so aggressively—is drawn from the past but built for the future, a possibly post-apocalyptic future, when Americans, gazing at the ruins left by another attack on their country, will wonder what could have been done but wasn’t. It relies on a carefully constructed narrative of what was done during the last half-dozen years, of all the disasters that could have happened but did not, and why they did not, and it makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

Danner points out that there are others in the same administration, with access to the same reports, that dispute Cheney’s view:

We know a great deal about the Bush administration’s policy of torture but we need to know more. We need to know, from an investigation that will study all the evidence, classified at however high a level of secrecy, and that will speak to the nation with a credible bipartisan voice, whether the use of torture really did produce information that, in the words of the former vice-president, was “absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US.” We already have substantial reason to doubt these claims, for example the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who, as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell, had access to intelligence of the highest classification:

“It has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

TIME.com on the NIE

TIME.com: Why the Fight Over the NIE Report May Be a Wash:

Mark M. Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, in Arlington, Va., supervised the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates from 2002 to 2005, when he was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Lowenthal tells TIME that such estimate always allow people “to pick and choose to find whatever you want.”

“The Administration is smartly pointing out that there has not been another major attack in five years,” Lowenthal said. “You can argue whether that’s an accurate portrayal of how much progress we’ve made. But it’s more likely to resonate with people than something in the sixth paragraph of an NIE.”

The President’s friends and advisers say that his most critical mission is to leave his successors the tools to fight and win a multigenerational war on terror. If the trends described by the report materialize, that fight may be at least as harrowing for them as it has been for him.

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The Greatest Story Ever Sold – By Frank Rich – Books – Review – New York Times

In a review of NYT Columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Never Told, writer and now Bard professor Ian Buruma sums up some of the general problems with current journalism – not startlingly original but neatly expressed:

THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling (over WMD and Bush-critical jounrnalsim): the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bêtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.

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The work of mourning and September 11

Began reading a very thoughtful article by Adi Drori-Avraham on September 11 this passage in particular struck me:

The photographic image, with its indexical power, its unflinching persistence to freeze time, to capture, to arrest, defies any attempt to deny or forget. As an authentic representation of events, the image not only testifies that an event really happened but also guarantees that it never ceases to happen. ‘When the picture is painful’, writes Ronald Barthes inCamera Lucida, ‘nothing in it can transform grief into mourning’ (1993, p. 90).

I was surprised over the last week, watching a number of the 9/11 5 year anniversary TV specials, how potent those endlessly repeated images remain. Because of this research I am in the zone of the event all the time so I was a little shocked when my reaction to the towers falling was so visceral. You know exactly what’s coming, that crumbling fall is animated for mere seconds but I still found it awesome and terrible. Continuously transforming and continuously untransformed.

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OpinionJournal – Jack Bauer Insurance

Can CIA agents be sued for protecting America with too much vigor?:

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

What would Jack Bauer do? If he worked at the CIA in real life today, the anti-terror hero of Fox’s “24” would apparently be buying insurance in case the ACLU or John Kerry decided to sue or subpoena him for protecting America with too much vigor.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that more CIA counterterrorism officers are signing up for private insurance that would pay for civil judgments and legal costs if they are sued or charged with a crime. These are the agents who interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and other jihadis, using what President Bush last week called methods that were legal but “tough.” Those methods succeeded in breaking these men into divulging information that led to the arrest of other al Qaeda bigs, and to the foiling of plots that could have killed thousands.

“ ‘There are a lot of people who think that subpoenas could be coming’ from Congress after the November elections or from federal prosecutors if Democrats capture the White House in 2008,” wrote the Post, quoting a retired intelligence officer close to the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which conducted the interrogations. This is not paranoia. We reported yesterday how Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, is blocking Bush nominees simply for having been mentioned in passing in emails about Guantanamo. Some of us also remember the infamous Frank Church hearings of the 1970s that pilloried the CIA and weakened it for decades.

Though the government pays the premiums for this kind of insurance, it is a sorry spectacle that these agents must now fear partisan retribution for having done precisely what the country asked them to do. The story is one more reason Congress should follow through on Mr. Bush’s request to put its stamp of approval on such interrogations, including ex post facto immunity for these CIA officers.

Intelligence is the front line of this anti-jihadi conflict, and the danger from the current political second-guessing is that CIA officers will go back to the FBI’s law enforcement mentality of reading terrorists their Miranda rights that failed the country leading up to 9/11. The country needs Jack Bauer insurance, too.

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Dark Knight Returns

Batman begins today and all the reviews have been glowing. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times hones in on the characterisation in a way that mirrors much of the discussion on the human/superhero duality that was explored at last weekend’s conference:

What Mr. Nolan gets, and gets better than any other previous director, is that without Bruce Wayne, Batman is just a rich wacko with illusions of grandeur and a terrific pair of support hose. Without his suave alter ego, this weird bat man is a superhero without humanity, an avenger without a conscience, an id without a superego. Which is why, working from his and David S. Goyer’s very fine screenplay, Mr. Nolan more or less begins at the beginning, taking Batman back to his original trauma and the death of his parents. With narrative economy and tangible feeling, he stages that terrible, defining moment when young Master Wayne watched a criminal shoot his parents to death in a Gotham City alley, thereby setting into motion his long, strange journey into the self.

This notion of the “strange journey into the self” ties in with much of my new thinking about my thesis which I am now conceiving as about the “remediation” of both apocalypse and self. This is not merely the traditional story line of self discovery of inner strength in moments of crisis. New modes of fragmented or plurivocal selfhood – the nomadic self – are archetypally appropriate for the apocalyptic moment. This self is always in danger of fragmentation but survives in a dance with apocalyptic forces which are always potent but always di(a)verted.

Images of the papal passion

Similar to the images of Terri Schiavo, the circulation of images of Pope John Paul, who has been described as “increasingly frail” for years now, are stimulating a range of mythic possibilities from conspiratorial narratives of the propped-up puppet to sanctifying stories of the ecstatic martyr. This extraordinary set of images from his appearance at the easter ceremonies was published in the Telegraph.

Weast28-1

Interestingly for a story so focused on the visual it begins: “The Pope struggled hard to find his voice to address pilgrims assembled in Rome yesterday for the traditional Easter Mass.” This pope, who has used his papacy as a bully-pulpit, now finally reduced to silence still some how turns this very silence into a perverse vocalisation of courage.

Is he yawning? Is he in pain? Is he angry and out of control? It appears from the report that in the final frame he is not hitting himself in frustration but merely making the sign of the cross. But what are we seeing here? Through the eyes of the faithful there is another story:

“Oh no!” said Maria Romero, from Peru, as the Pope’s aide took away the microphone. “The poor man can’t speak,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

However it is not just the eyes of the faithful who are constructing these images in this way. According to the Telegraph report, Italian state television called yesterday’s appearance the “most moving and poignant of his pontificate”. We are we embroiled here not just in the pope’s private passion play but in an on going story of western culture that is reified and retold by a range of institutions: journalistic, medical, political and religious.

These images of the distressed pope are not really new we can take other images from much earlier in his pontificate in which his devotional posture creates an other worldly sense of ecstatic martyred pain. This is very clear in an image from the PBS series on “the millennial pope” where his prayerfully contorted faith is propped against his ceremonial cross.

Faithimg1

These images are stock images of our christian culture but it is fascinating to see them played out in such a widely diverse and mediated way.

Cataclysm and moral sentiment

Excellent reflection from Susan Neiman in the NYT Magazine on the response to the Tsunami. Neiman begins by comparing our reaction to that of Europeans in the 18th century to the earthquake and Tsunami that destroyed Lisbon 250 years ago.

But Enlightenment thinkers took broader perspectives. Though many denied the existence of a personal Creator, most believed in the wonder of Creation, which was beginning to seem intelligible. Lisbon was no worse than London or Paris. Why smash the one and spare the others? Shattered babies were inert reproaches, not only to anyone wanting to call this world the best of all possible worlds, but to anyone wanting to make sense of it at all. Lisbon rubbed people’s noses in meaninglessness, and a savvier Enlightenment emerged. No longer did nature reflect moral order. The Lisbon earthquake left a breach between humankind and its planet that has been with us ever since. Nature and reason are different in kind, and any meeting they have will be accidental. This is one idea that makes us modern.

Or so we like to think. Reactions to the recent tsunami make me wonder. Everybody who has seen it describes the wrecked expanse as a war zone. (In 1755, there were no weapons of mass destruction; only a natural catastrophe could create that much disaster in such a short time.) True, the numbers of people committed to the Enlightenment seem to get smaller by the day. They face growing competition from fundamentalist Christians who view every disaster as a harbinger of the apocalypse and from radical Islamists who find any flood that washes the beaches clean of half-nude tourists to be divine. But even modernist observers are searching for sense. Some see it as nature’s revenge for the way we have ignored her fragile balance. The tourists are not at fault for being half-naked, but for being rapacious. According to some environmentalists, cheap beachside construction, built to satisfy Europeans’ search for exotic spots in which to spend their long vacations, wrecked the coastal forests and coral reefs that might have broken the tsunami…..

But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused, and we should remember Lisbon’s major lesson: if there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there. Contrary to cliche, no major Enlightenment thinker thought progress was inevitable. The picture of the future was often dark. Kant’s evidence of our progress was minimalist: not the French Revolution, whose outcome was uncertain, but the hopefulness observers felt when thinking of it — that was sign enough that we had made progress and might make some more. The signs coming out of the tsunami are better than that. Suddenly observers across the globe, in the face of the relief efforts, express sentiments they would very recently have been ashamed to reveal.

Conspiracy and the apocalyptic

My current reading has largely been in search of some explanatory theories that can drive my overall understanding of the apocalyptic.

Three theoretical constructs that may prove useful come from studies of conspiracy theory.

Improvisational Millenialism. Michael Barkun (2003) points out that many contemporary millennial or apocalyptic movements do not fit the standard typology of religious or secular. Today’s movements instead may draw from Revelation, Nostradamus, New Age and right wing politics.

The appeal of these collages lies in their claim to provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world. The variety of their elements implies that the belief system can explain a comparably wide range of phenomena, from spiritual to the scientific and the political. The combinations also suggest that apparent contradictions can be resolved, and that an underlying unity transcends outward differences. (2003:19)

Barkun also points out that such a belief system can only flourish if two preconditions are met: the availability of a wide range of potential material and sufficiently weakened authority structures.

Stigmatized Knowledge Claims. Barkun’s other contribution is the notion that an essential source for such improvisational belief systems is a what he calls “stigmatised knowledge claims” (2003:26). This category includes rejected (ancient wisdoms), superseded (astrology) rejected (ufos) and most importantly suppressed knowledge. The key to understanding this is that often stigmatisation is taken as “evidence” for truth. This relates to what Barkun calls the “cultic milieu:” “a world of persons, organisations, social interactions and channels of communications that makes the cultic milieu a genuine subculture rather than a mere intellectual or religious phenomenon.” (2003:25). Often stigmatised knowledge comes with its own pseudo-scientific explanatory and supposedly empirical framework.

Agency panic. Timothy Melley in his investigation of conspiracy and paranoia comes up with the term “agency panic” to explain “a broad cultural phenomenon, a pervasive set of anxieties about the way technologies, social organisations and communication systems may have reduced human autonomy and uniqueness.”

The culture of paranoia and conspiracy may be understood as a result of liberal individualism’s continuing popularity despite its inability to account from social regulation. Agency panic dramatizes precisely this paradox. It begins in a discovery of social controls that cannot be reconciled with the liberal view of individuals as wholly autonomous and rational entities. For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama or panic. (2004:14)

Melley goes onto point out that this works itself out in a conflict between a sociological and a psychological orientation.

What is striking about such accounts is the way their vision of the social order, and specifically of a dense communicative network, generates a rhetoric of lost individuality and autonomy. It is as if the perspective required by sociological description so diminishes individuals that they seem incapable of social influence. The result is often anxiety or dread. (2000:31)

Liberal Christians Challenge ‘Values Vote’

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll commissioned by a group of Liberal Christians which challenges the notion that "values" equal abortion and same-sex marriage.

Battling the notion that "values voters" swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation’s most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism" and 31 percent said it was "poverty and economic justice." Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage….

The nationwide telephone poll of 10,689 voters was conducted by Zogby International for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats. It had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage

The poll found that 42 percent of voters cited the war in Iraq as the "moral issue" that most influenced their choice of candidates, while 13 percent cited abortion and 9 percent same-sex marriage. Asked to name the greatest threat to marriage, 31 percent said "infidelity," 25 percent cited "rising financial burdens" and 22 percent named same-sex marriage

Acting as spokesperson for the group Jim Wallis called for a "conversation" about abortion:

"One of the things a few of us are talking about is a reassessment of how the Democrats deal with an issue like abortion — could there be a more moderate ground, where even if they retained their pro-choice stance, they talked about uniting pro-choice people together to actually do something about the abortion rate?" said Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners.

If the Democratic Party were to "welcome pro-life Democrats, Catholics and evangelicals and have a serious conversation with them" about ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, facilitate adoptions and improve conditions for low-income women, it would "work wonders"
among centrist evangelicals and Catholics, Wallis said.

This notion of a "conversation" and the adoption of non-confrontational, non-judgemental constructive ways of engaging the "left" and the "right" is gaining currency in many commentaries on the net (check Barlow and Mumamusings). It is an obvious strategy and Wallis’ suggestion that it begin somewhere in the middle is a good one. But this startegy of localised conversations must also move firmly into the public arena and the public agenda. So much of our conversation today is mediated by the divisive frames produced by the media. If the grassroots conversations are to flourish then we must begin to move the media rhetoric that stresses the religious right’s all encompassing power.

This "power" is rhetorically created by the media, currenlty in awe of the success of the "Rove strategy," but it is also confirmed by the rigid boisterism of the myth of the Apocalypse of Empire which inflects the language, action and beliefs of the religious right.

The emergence of vibrant organised groups on the left, like MoveOn and Wallis’ liberal christian coalition, is one of the signs of hope to emerge from this election. Through a smart combination of grass roots and broader public sphere activism they have begun the slow incremental process of transforming the public terms in which politics, values and spirituality are conceived. Although their tactics need to avoid the "all or nothing" aspects of the Apocalypse of Resistance this is the alternate myth that in a sense guides their work.

Unfortunately if this does become a collision of two completely apocalyptic world views dialogue becomes impossible.

Wallis and other speakers noted the diversity of christian voting blocks. This is one step towards breaking through the binary opposition between the hard right and hard left that is currently set up as "common sense".

They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including "progressive evangelicals," "resurgent mainline Protestants" and "socially conservative African Americans," that could be attracted by biblically based "prophetic" appeals to make peace, fight poverty and spread social justice.

This kind of conversation and public activism from the left is also needed in Australia as the abortion debate seems to be taking on increasingly fractious terms here. At least there is a sense that the conversation has begun in America and their are leaders like Wallis attempting to bring people together, in Australia the broad church of the left is still very much in the wilderness.

Cold War Presidential narratives

Two articles in the latest edition of Foreign Policy make essentially the same point: in spite of the rhetoric of the post-September 11 brave new world, the Bush administration is essentially driven by a cold war agenda and more importantly, cold war strategy. This is obviously a point that has been made before but it is made well in these articles. Firstly editor Moisés Naím:

Disappointments in Iraq also dealt a blow to a worldview that, for all its references to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an epochal event, still hearkens back to the Cold War. Consider the two primary responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Instead of concentrating all energies and resources to fight the strange, stealthy, and stateless network that perpetrated the attacks, the United States launched military assaults against two nation-states. First, it rightly attacked Afghanistan, a country whose government had been the subject of a friendly takeover by such networks. The second was Iraq, a country with a standing army and a dictator evocative of the Cold War era. Iraq offered a target more suited to the mindset of U.S. leaders and military capabilities than the more complicated terrorist networks operating inside powerful states, including the United States itself.

In other words, facing the prospect of waging a new kind of war against a new kind of opponent, the Bush administration chose instead to fight a familiar enemy whose face and address it knew. Yet U.S. troops quickly found themselves fighting not enemy soldiers but what Pentagon lawyers now call “unlawful combatants”—fighters with nationalities as fuzzy as they are irrelevant to determining their leaders, their chains of command, their loyalty, and their lethal willingness to die for their cause.

So much for the certitudes and heroic assumptions about how the United States should deal with the world, as outlined in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice may have claimed that “September 11 clarified the threats you face in the post-Cold War era.” But while September 11 might have clarified post-Cold War threats, revelations about high-level decision making regarding the war on Iraq suggest that the Cold War instincts that shaped U.S. national security strategy survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let’s now hope that they find their final resting place under the rubble of Iraq.

In a much longer piece Melvyn P. Leffler argues that “as controversial as George W. Bush’s policies have been, they are not as radical a departure from his predecessors as both critics and supporters proclaim. Instead, the real weaknesses of the president’s foreign policy lie in its contradictions.” He looks at Bush “innovations” such as preemption and argues that “the preemptive and unilateral use of U.S. military power was widely perceived as necessary prior to Bush’s election, even by those possessing internationalist inclinations. What Bush did after September 11 was translate an option into a national doctrine.”

Leffler’s argument is slightly different to Naim’s although their conclusions are the same. He argues that post September 11 Bush and co moved from a realist model of foreign policy that was about competitive peer states to a rhetorically driven model that ultimately fell back on cold war strategy.

In times of crisis, U.S. political leaders have long asserted values and ideals to evoke public support for the mobilization of power. But this shift in language was more than mere rhetoric. The terrorist attacks against New York and Washington transformed the Bush administration’s sense of danger and impelled offensive strategies. Prior to September 11, the neocons in the administration paid scant attention to terrorism. The emphasis was on preventing the rise of peer competitors, such as China or a resurgent Russia, that could one day challenge U.S. dominance. And though the Bush team plotted regime change in Iraq, they had not committed to a full-scale invasion and nation-building project. September 11 “produced an acute sense of our vulnerability,” said Rice. “The coalition did not act in Iraq,” explained Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light—through the prism of our experience on 9/11.” Having failed to foresee and prevent a terrorist attack prior to September 11, the administration’s threshold for risk was dramatically lowered, its temptation to use force considerably heightened.

This conflation of both cold war rhetoric and strategy in response to present dangers is seen, Leffler believes, in the rhetorical production of Bush as Reagan’s heir:

Bush and his advisors love to identify themselves with Reagan. Bush, like Reagan, says Rumsfeld, “has not shied from calling evil by its name….” Nor has he been shy about “declaring his intention to defeat its latest incarnation—terrorism.” Moral clarity and military power, Bush believes, emboldened Reagan and enabled him to wrest the initiative from the Kremlin, liberate Eastern Europe, and win the Cold War.

However Leffler, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and a specialist in cold war history, sees this equation differently. He notes that in spite of media and neo-con hype most scholars do not agree that Reagan’s arms buildup and rhetorical pronouncements brought victory in the Cold War.

In fact, the most thoughtful accounts of Reagan’s diplomacy stress that what really mattered was his surprising ability to change course, envision a world without nuclear arms, and deal realistically with a new Soviet leader. And most accounts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s diplomacy suggest that he was motivated by a desire to reform Communism, reshape Soviet society, and revive its economy, rather than intimidated by U.S. military power. Gorbachev was inspired not by U.S. democratic capitalism but by European social democracy, not by the self-referential ideological fervor of U.S. neoconservatives, but by the careful, thoughtful, tedious work of human rights activists and other nongovernmental organizations.

Bush and his advisors seek to construct a narrative about the end of the Cold War that exalts moral clarity and glorifies the utility of military power. Moral clarity doubtless helps a democratic, pluralistic society like the United States reconcile its differences and conduct policy. Military power, properly configured and effectively deployed, chastens and deters adversaries. But this mindset can lead to arrogance and abuse of power. To be effective, moral clarity and military power must be harnessed to a careful calculation of interest and a shrewd understanding of the adversary. Only when ends are reconciled with means can moral clarity and military power add up to a winning strategy.

In terms of my project what is interesting about all this is the constant interaction between:

- cold war rhetoric
- war on terror rhetoric
- narratives of Bush as leader
- narratives of Reagan as leader

Although these articles do not mention it explicitly the religious/apocalyptic underpinnings of these narratives are critical to their production. But I find it interesting to look at it, as these writers do, purely in political terms for a change. I am beginning to identify three interlocking yet distinct narratives which need tracing:

- the political apocalypse
- the religious apocalypse
- the popular culture apocalypse

These narratives leak into each other constantly but are none the less uniquely identifiable. The political apocalypse of Paul Wolfowitz is different from the religious apocalypse of Jerry Falwell and they are both different from the pop culture apocalypses of X-files fans and Kennedy assassination aficionados. Part of my project is to identify both the unique elements of each of these variations and then to also analyse their interactions as a “meta myth”.

This comes back to my notion of myth as a set of interconnected narrative nodes.

Typology of Revelation

Finished off a first close reading of Revelation this weekend. I wanted to get a feel for it before I go off and look at the commentaries. First impressions:

Sense of Time

The prologue clear states that “the Time is close” (1:3) an assertion that bookends the narrative and is repeated again in the final chapter: “Do not keep the prophecies in this book a secret because the time is close” (22:10).

This sense of time related to the things that are to “take place” is also contrasted against an eternal sense of time: “I am the Alpha and Omega says the Lord God, who is, who was and who is to come”(1:8). Again this assertion is bookended by the final chapter: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13)

Catastrophe and Victory

This dialectic sense of time: the things impending meets the things impending is matched by a similar dialectic throughout of prophecies of catastrophe and doom matched by prophecies of victory.

Endurance

The book is in a sense a prison hallucination and thus has the marks of both brutalisation and escapist fantasy.

The author introduces himself: “I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom and all you endure, I was on Patmos (a prison island) for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus”(1:9)

This notion of endurance is a key motif and is matched by the promise of ultimate victory.

Empire

The language of an empire at war that builds alliances, colanises, invades and destroys is key to the symbolic structure of the book

The city

Babylon and Jerusalem represent key geographies of sin and innocence in both cases the materiality of these places is a key aspect of the representation of the gathering of the “evil” and the gathering of the “holy”. These symbolic cities must be recognised as two models of governance or civility and as two communal or peer authority structures.

Other key themes

Repent/resist
Justice of God’s retribution
deceit/idolatry as key sins

The dialectic catastrophe/victory structure of the vision, the call to resistance and endurance and the call to reject the demands of empire makes for a radical message but this same radical core can also obviously induce a sense of overly righteous fatality.

Defining the apocalyptic

Anastasia asked in a recent comment whether I have a definition of the apocalyptic.

Well I suppose the answer is yes and no. Essential to my approach is the notion of myth as a broad, living, fluid cluster of ideas and emotional colors. So to “define” the apocalyptic myth is to tie it down in a way that is counter-intuitive. What I am working toward is a “typology” that points towards how this cluster of ideas and emotional colors is currently being expressed. In my proposal I write in part:

Berger (2000:388) has argued that the twentieth century has been “thoroughly marked, perhaps even defined by, apocalyptic impulses, fears representations and events.” He outlines four principle areas of post war apocalyptic representation: “The first is nuclear war, the second is the Holocaust, the third is the apocalypses of liberation (feminist, African American, postcolonial) and the fourth is what is loosely called ‘postmodernity’.” (390). To these could be added a fifth significant area: the ecological crisis (Buell 2003).

For Berger and for other theorists of the apocalypse, these events are not merely catastrophic they are in some way revelatory. In nuclear narratives “accident and telos are intertwined” (390). For many writers and artists the holocaust “has come to occupy a central place in late twentieth century European and American moral consciousness…[it] is portrayed as the revelatory, traumatic, apocalyptic fulcrum of the twentieth century” (391); and much postmodern fiction is driven by “some revelatory catastrophe whose traumatic force reshapes all that preceded it and all that follows” (392).

This notions that the apocalyptic includes “impulses, fears representations and events” and involves both catastrophe and revelation are key to the way I am currently trying to understand the apocalyptic.

In my article on “The Apocalypse of George Bush” I note three aspects of Bush’s religious rhetoric, which I argue highlight an underlying apocalyptic worldview and link them to three themes in Revelation.

Firstly and most obviously Bush has defined the current “war on terrorism” as a battle between “good” and “evil”.Secondly he believes we are living in unprecedented times that call for fundamentally new responses. Thirdly he believes he has been chosen by God to lead.

These three themes, which can be traced across many of Bush’s public statements, find symbolic resonance in key themes of the biblical book of Revelation. It narrates the calling of prophets and leaders, a cataclysmic battle between the good “Lamb” and the evil “beast” and the saving of a remnant after a time of cataclysm and tribulation. Much of this symbolic battle is expressed in sociopolitical language of empires at war.

One of my initial tasks for the thesis is to further develop this typology of the apocalypse. One of the starting points will definitely be a close reading of Revelation as the source book for much of our contemporary Western view of the apocalyptic.

However one idea that has been occurring to me lately is that the overarching topic for my thesis is perhaps not the apocalyptic so much as the eschatalogical. Although other elements of end times philosophy/theology – such as the utopic – is inherent in any consideration of the apocalyptic perhaps I need to foreground some of this through a broader general interpretive framework.

When prophecy fails

Interesting discussion over at Crooked Timber on apocalyptic christianity and the response to failed prophecy. John Quiggin got the ball rolling with this question:

Revelations-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation?

There are a number of sub questions in this:

What happens when prophecy fails?
How does the meaning making system of apocalyptic belief work?
What is the relationship between belief and empirical evidence?

I think the first thing to understand is that “apocalyptic Christianity” is much more than a belief in specific apocalyptic events. As I noted in my post yesterday it also includes what Cynthia Burack has called a “politics of desert”. It is a resistance theology that constantly constructs and reconstructs oppositions, that comes from a place of such certainty that the “signs of the times” become a fluid collage that reinforce that central resistance identity.

Some of the posts in response to John mention When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. Festinger proposed that adherents basically redouble their efforts when prophecies fail as a way of resolving their experience of cognitive dissonance. Post-Festinger scholarship has tended to agree with Festinger’s conclusion that adherents work hard in a post-failure moment but most scholars disagree with his specific conclusions about how this works.

In Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone has gathered fourteen articles that dialogue with Festinger’s conclusions. For a strange but interesting review of this collection go here. (Haven’t read this but have it on order from Amazon)

In his article on failed prophecy in the Lubavitch movement Simon Dein gives a good summary of some of the arguments in this literature. His reference to Melton ( Melton, J. G. 1985. Spiritualization and reaffirmation: What really happens when prophecy fails. American Studies 26(2):82.) supports my contention that apocalyptic belief cannot be limited to the predictive, but must be seen as a more general belief system:

Melton (1985) points out a number of problems with the thesis…[one] problem involves Festinger’s assertion that millennial groups are organized around the prediction of prospective events. This is seen by Melton as a one-dimensional view of millenarianism which neglects the presence of a complex cosmology. Indeed, prediction often springs from a broad context of belief and disconfirmation provides a “test” which generally strengthens a group. Third, the problem was noted of the researcher’s standard for logic not necessarily being consistent with the internal definitions of the group studied.

John Quiggin’s post also had a reference to Hall Lindsay as an example of apocalyptic christianity. As Stephen O’Leary has shown in Arguing the Apocalypse, the fascinating thing about Lindsay is that although his work is littered with prophetic readings of current events he avoids any major predictions of end events. Instead he produces a dispersed apocalypse that calls for a continuing sense of readiness.

O’Leary shows that between his first book The Late Great Planet Earth and his 80s sequel Countdown to Armageddon Lindsey updated his theology to show a role for America and “a ray of hope” that led to the more activist new right politics of the eighties. This is epitomised by Jerry Falwell’s telling comment that Christians are called “to occupy until he comes.” This is a phase he still uses today. In a September 2004 interview: Falwell: Evangelicals ‘Energized’ for Bush he sets his beliefs out very clearly:

NM: We hear a lot these days that many Christians believe that, based on current events, perhaps Christ’s second coming is near. What do you tell people who ask you about that?

JF: Well, Scripture is clear on that. No man knows the day or hour of His second coming.

It is my feeling, and has been for the 52 years I’ve been a Christian, that we’re to live every day as though the Lord were returning today…but we’re to plan and work as though we had another 100 years, with the next generation in mind.

The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord’s return – and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there’s nothing we can do about them. That isn’t true. We’re told to occupy until He comes. We’re told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And we’re given clear instructions about raising our children up in the nurture and admonition of Christ.

Falwell’s theology reflects the fundamental change in premillenial beliefs from the widely believed but failed predictive prophecies of William Miller in the 1840s, which led to what is known as “the great disappointment“, to the current “dispensational premillenialists” of today that believe we are in the end times but won’t hazard a guess at the day or the hour.

Falwell’s beliefs seem to show a gradual merging of elements of the premillenial and the postmillenial belief systems but that’s another story for another posting….

(For a reasonably good but abbreviated precis of O’Leary on the Millerites and Hall Lindsey go here)

Apocalypse and myth

This is a great quote from Lois Parkinson Zamora’s, Writing the Apocalypse that I found while reading Mike Broderick’s excellent essay “The Rupture of Rapture: Recent Film Narratives of Apocalypse”:

Revelation is … as much about the capacity of language to conceal as to reveal… The apocalyptist’s strategies of concealment attest to the sanctified status conceded to the narrative by both author and audience. The tendency to make texts obscure when an elevated degree of truth is desired is familiar in religious ceremonial language, oracular and poetic utterance, specialized academic and professional discourse. In such contexts as these, the perceived significance of the text may grow as the text’s accessible language meaning is suppressed, as translation or interpretation is required. As the coded images and numerical patterns of apocalyptic narration proliferate, so too does the weight of their significance for those who are initiated into their secrets. Apocalypse thus presents not only a model of historical desire but also of linguistic desire: The apocalyptist’s language strains to embody his fiction of historical fulfilment.

This immediately made me think of Barthes on myth and the concealing/revealing dynamic that he ascribes to myth as a genre. But also reminded me of an article that I have just read by Cynthia Burack: “Getting what ‘we’ deserve: Terrorism, Tolerance, Sexuality and the Christian Right” (New Political Science 25/3 September 2003). Burack argues that the Christian right skilfully use parallel discourses, one aimed at the public and one aimed at the faithful. This is particularly the case when they are discussing contentious issues such as sexuality. Writing about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson’s assertions post 9/11 that gays, feminists and abortionists were to blame, Burack puts it this way:

The fact that Falwell’s and Robertson’s claims about the linkage between terrorism and tolerance of sinfulness are intended for an audience of born again, Bible-believing Christians and not for others does not diminish their political significance. Christian Right leaders actively strive to have their political beliefs misidentified by the broad public. Unfortunately, mainstream media and political commentators often collude in this strategy by delivering news reports of new Christian Right religious issues that are “superficial and lacking in context”. Commentators both fail to trace the precedents of controversial comments and overlook the multiple modes of address favoured by Christian Right leaders. (p.332-3)

Taken together these ideas provide some theoretical and practical hints on the “why study apocalypse?” question that keeps lurking at the gate of this thesis.

And another quote from Zamora:

Apocalypse is historicized myth, a myth about history. It is both synchronic and diachronic, mediating and resolving the conflicting claims of real historical anguish and the imaginative transcendence of that anguish.

Apocalypse and Empire

Another great article and setr of links from The Revealer. This time about metaphors of Empire in political and religious rhetoric. I have been thinking that Empire has to be a key part of my apocalyptic typology.

What does a list of dropped clichés like this mean, besides that “The Fall (Decay, Decline) of the Roman Empire” has joined “Orwellian” and “apocalyptic” in the ranks of grossly overused political and cultural metaphors? Maybe just that we have a proclivity for drastic analogies. Or a general cultural discomfort — uneasy about the news, undecided about the government, suffering from a post-binge, guilty conscience. Or maybe it’s an indication that, several years after the question was raised — Are we an empire? — and answered — Yes. — we’re coming to a consensus about what kind of empire we are. And, to our increasingly unhappy suspicion, we don’t seem to be what apologists like Niall Ferguson, British author of Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire, promised us we were — that is, the good kind.

Apocalyptic Humour: Antichrist a nice guy

From Weekly World News:

“The Antichrist’s rise to power is nothing to fear,” declares Bible scholar Jon Hornsworth of Atlanta.

“He will be a unifying figure whose sound policies revitalize the global economy and put an end to international conflict.”

Most people familiar with End Times prophecies in the Book of Revelation assume the Antichrist will be an evil dictator.

But that’s dead wrong, the expert says.

“Nowhere in the Bible is the word ‘evil’ used to describe the Antichrist,” Hornsworth notes.

“For that matter, ‘Antichrist’ isn’t in there either — the Bible calls him the Beast.

That suggests a being like the one in the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast — fearsome and misunderstood, but ultimately turning out to have a heart of gold.

Other headlines include:

“Jesus Sandal found in Central Park”

“Blindness causes masturbation”

“November Elections canceled”