Friday, August 11, 2006

Keelhauling the Swift Boat, and Faith Revisited

Click the graphic on the left and watch five minutes of gut-busting sanity from the diamonds of the media, Stewart and Colbert. Then try the one on the right for Colbert on what's "really mainstream."

A note on the fallout of the stirring Lamont victory in CT (take a moment to pat yourselves on the back, you Huskies!). As Alterman points out, Lieberman's choice of faith over reality is inciting a final tsunami of polarization. I hope Mr. Lamont and his razor-sharp campaign manager, Jim Dean (Howard's brother), are prepared; because they are facing a campaign of Swift-Boating, mud-slinging, manipulation of the media, and flat-out lying—in other words, the usual program of Rovespeak—such as they have never before witnessed, let alone experienced. It would help if we're there for them: keep your eye on the MSM and especially the talking points coming out of the Rove machine, and let the editor of your local paper and anyone else know about it whenever you smell shit. Because you will—a lot of it.

Next, a moment's expansion on yesterday's piece, particularly its agonizing image. If you're a parent like me, then I don't have to explain my reaction: you've probably felt the same despair, shed the same tears, collapsed into the same black bitterness, whenever you've seen any of these images of Dads or Moms holding dead children, all because of the depredations of mighty politicians and the decadent belief-systems that fuel their psychotic aggression.

There is no greater dread, no blacker horror to a parent. As a psychotherapist, I teach that fear can and must be conquered uniquely in each individual life. I know it can be done, because I have felt it myself, witnessed it in others, and then written a book devoted to the journey of overcoming fear.

But the loss of my child is the one I still quail before. There is always learning to be done, further growth to be experienced. That, of course, doesn't mean that we look for trouble or tragedy; it means that we prepare ourselves for it, within the farthest depths of the psyche. It can be done, all in the normal course of an ordinary life. But, it must be added, some dragons are slain more easily than others.

In any event, I hope you were indeed moved by that image yesterday—moved enough to take some sort of action. The astonishing thing about all this to me is that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and so many of the people in Congress (currently on yet another vacation, bless their lazy and ignorant souls) are indeed parents. How could they not react to images such as these and work together for an end to the killing of babies?

Well, we have to do it for them. You can start here.


Now today we welcome a new scribe to the Daily Rev stable, a young man named S.R. Algernon. He has a riposte to my piece from last week on faith.

"Not in our Faith, but in Ourselves" by S. R. Algernon

It has become commonplace from a Western perspective to characterize belligerent actions on the part of Muslims in the Middle East as the product of fanaticism, extremism and, when it comes down to it, Faith. While faith undoubtedly plays a role, this is a curiously one-sided attribution. Leaders in Israel and the United States use religious and cultural rhetoric to win support for their military endeavors (Bush's Crusade and the 'never again' mantra of embattled Judaism come most readily to mind), I have yet to hear a pundit argue that either the IDF or the U.S. would forsake military force as a way to secure their interest, or even refrain from targeting populated civilian areas, if only they did not believe in God so much. Not so when the combatants are Muslims. The implication is clear: the Judeo-Christian recourse to brutality is reasonable, while Muslim violence is not.

We are to believe that the Muslim belligerents hate more deeply or value life less than their counterparts due to their "extremist" faith. We see the actions of a suicide bomber as signs of hatred, both of self and other, because he is willing to destroy himself and total strangers. This is fair enough, but why then are we so psychologically ready to excuse, even ennoble, the willingness of a bomber pilot who risks his own life to destroy a city block where civilians undoubtedly live? Is it because the bomber's death is certain in one case and only probable in the other? No, because our veneration of the bomber pilot increases with the danger of the mission. Is it because the suicide bomber deliberately targets civilians? No. Americans are willing to overlook the bombing of Hiroshima and the leveling of Fallujah. Is it because the suicide bomber wears no uniform, or acts on behalf of no recognized army? This is doubtful, since Americans use proxies and mercenaries, and no one would defend a suicide bomber if he dutifully wore an army uniform beforehand. Is it because the suicide bomber has faith and the bomber pilot does not? Do Americans only support atheist troops? When it comes down to it, the sacrifices made and the damage wrought by suicide bombers are readily acceptable when done by U.S. and Israeli soldiers in the name of the greater good.

Therein lies the difference - the greater good. It is rational to defend America and Israel from terrorists, even if lives must be lost, because we value the security of America and the nation of Israel. We did not value the security of Japanese home islands during WWII or the security of Iraq under Saddam's regime, just as we do not value dreams for a Caliphate stretching from Spain to India or of a Palestine free of Israeli troops. To kill or to lay down our lives for these things makes no sense to us, so we look for irrational explanations, and that in turn leads us to faith, to psychosis, to hatred. No doubt Muslim civilians think the same of us when American missiles find their way into their homes. If we are really to understand one another, we cannot hide behind faith, either to excuse our own transgressions or to demonize the enemy.

This brings us back to the central point: is faith really the problem, and if so, what is the solution? Let's first consider what faith does. Faith allows us to continue on a course of action despite the reality of hardship and the possibility of failure. American leaders had faith that the Iraqis would lay roses at their feet. So too might suicide bombers have faith that, somehow, the deaths they cause would somehow vanquish their enemies. Yet, faith can just as easily lead a person to stand between a penniless family and a Thousand Year Reich, or to give his last dime to someone who needs it more, or to open her door to a hitchhiker on an icy, windy night. Faith magnifies and glorifies our actions, but aside from truly delusional individuals, it does not command us.

So why, then do people put faith in violence? One simple, if unpalatable, answer is that sometimes it works. Despite the homilies about violence begetting violence, history abounds of leaders who had won generations of prosperity for their people through the vicious subjugation of neighbors and rivals. We are dishonest with ourselves if we imagine that the standard of living that Americans enjoyed for the past half century could have come about without the coercive trade networks set up by the colonial European powers and the evisceration and marginalization of civilizations in Africa and North America. Can we then blame Arabs (and Israelis) for thinking that they can bomb their way to peace?

The flip side of faith in victory is faith as refuge for defeat. In the wake of 9/11, Americans put faith in their leaders not because objective evidence revealed them to be suddenly more competent than they had been the day before, but because they had no better options. The Israelis, to judge by their rhetoric, are convinced that they must pummel the Arabs into submission because they believe that negotiation will not bring them peace on terms they will accept. Hizbollah and Hamas know full well that Israel will not deal with them, so they stick to the arsenals that have kept them alive. For either side to give up their aspiration of winning the upper hand and to believe anything good can come from treating each other as equals would require - dare I say it - an act of faith.

To solve the Middle East crisis, then, we must not eradicate faith. Instead, we must make non-violence something that people can put faith in. The events of the past five years have mocked and belittled peace at every turn. The U.S. scorned the U.N. as irrelevant precisely because it will not rush to military action. The violent are free to behead activists, level towns, destroy ambulances. The leader of a democratic Lebanon begs the world to defend his country and receives a pat on the head for his efforts. How foolish he was to imagine that the sovereignty of a fledgling democracy and the lives of innocent civilians are worth defending, even with mere words, when people more powerful than he have statements to make and wrongs to avenge.

If the international community is not willing or able to ensure that the needs of civilians and the sovereignty of peaceful governments outweigh the alleged right of belligerent nations to project power through shows of force, then citizens will arm themselves and the next generation of leaders will learn that security comes not through wisdom or compromise but through the application of terror, shock and awe. I believe that the current climate of violence shall pass. Jews, Muslims and Christians worshipped safely in the Hold Land once, and they will do so again. Humanity will find a system that works one day, and like a child that has ridden a two-wheeler for the first time, the world will look back on its desperate flailings with embarrassment and relief.

I have no reason to believe this, of course. We have the power to destroy ourselves in countless ways, if our faltering climate does not beat us to it. I cling to the potential of humanity, even as it disappoints me, because the vision of what we are capable of stays with me. In spite of everything, I have not yet lost faith.

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