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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

How Fascism takes power

Certain analogies, we now know, have become too controversial to make. When Senator Durbin stated that reports of American abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere might remind a listener of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, an outcry forced him to apologize. The "Hitler card" has been played against so many political figures of different hues that it has become a caricature. For all that, however, the history of Fascism and National Socialism does, sadly, provide some important parallels to what is happening in Iraq today, and what may happen elsewhere in the Middle East. They need to be explored.

The bloody riots following the destruction of a Shi'ite mosque late last week emphasized that Iraq has fallen into a state not dissimilar to Germany in 1932. Then, Socialist, Communist and Nazi militias roamed the streets, fighting one another, frequently to the death (but usually with much less dangerous weapons than the Iraqis are using today, and, if memory serves, with significantly fewer casualties.) Germany was not occupied by a foreign power but its people were suffering extreme economic distress--as many Iraqis seem to be--and its government had been ruling by emergency decree since 1930, when the first big Nazi and Communist election victories had made it impossible to form a stable parliamentary government. Two more elections in late 1932 first increased, but then checked, the growth of the Nazis, leaving them well short of a Parliamentary majority even though they had become the largest party. Then, in January 1933, the aged President, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, agreed to appoint Hitler as Chancellor in a coalition between the Nazis and the conservative German National Peoples' Party. Majority opinion did not believe, however, that this would lead to Nazi party control of Germany.

The Reichstag fire on February 27th gave the Nazis a unique opportunity. Recent scholarship tends to agree that one unstable anarchist, a Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe, set the fire without help, but Hitler immediately blamed the Communists and used it to declare a new state of emergency. He also took advantage of a previous coup d'etat in Prussia, the federal state that included more than half the country's population. One of his predecessors, Franz von Papen, had already managed to take over authority from the legal leftist government, and Hitler now appointed Hermann Goering as Prussian Prime Minister. Goering took a critical step: he deputized the entire Nazi SA, the Storm Troopers, to enforce the emergency decrees, round up Communists and other enemies, and send them to new concentration camps. Meanwhile, he busily went to work purging professional Republican officials from the Prussian police. A month later, a new election--carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation--gave the Nazi-Conservative coalition a majority in the Reichstag and allowed Hitler to secure an Enabling Act putting the Parliament effectively out of business. At the same time, a new Minister of the Interior extended the deputized role of the SA all through Germany. Within another six months the opposition had been completely terrorized.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and press reports suggest that the American push for democracy in Iraq has unwittingly had a similar result. An American-sponsored purge eliminated all Ba'ath party members from the security forces in 2003. Initial elections led to the formation of a Shi'ite dominated government and Shi'ite control of the critical interior ministry. It is now very clear, as the New York Times reported yesterday, that that ministry has essentially incorporated Shi'ite militias into its police forces during the last year. Acting under legal cover, those forces have arrested, tortured and killed Sunni opponents. They led the retaliation for the Samarra bombing last week, and Sunni leaders are calling for the right to form their own self-defense militias (as have the Kurds, whose militias are the law in the Kurdish region) in response.

This new crisis erupted in what was apparently a last-ditch American attempt to move Iraqi politics in a different direction. The formation of the new government, apparently, has been delayed because the American authorities in Baghdad--who are well aware of what has happened--are desperately trying to keep the religious Shi'ites from dominating the Interior and Defense ministries in the future. (Elsewhere interior ministries also played key roles in Communist takeovers after 1945, most notably in Czechoslovakia in early 1948.) In particular they have apparently hoped that Iyad Allawi, the relatively secular, CIA-connected Shi'ite who was our first choice as Prime Minister but whose party did very poorly in the last elections, might still play a key role. But statements to this effect by Ambassador Khalizad and British foreign secretary Jack Straw drew an angry rejoinder from Prime Minister Al-Jaffari, and now, Shi'ite leaders are blaming those statements for the attack on the Samara mosque. (While that accusation seems ridiculous, it will, alas, remain politically potent.)

The division within Germany in 1932-33 was political, as Nazis, Communists and Socialists put forth different visions of the countries' future. The division in Iraq is ethnic, religious, and largely territorial, and may therefore break up the country. But both, it seems, have gone too far to be papered over by political consensus. The Nazis won their victory in 1933 by using the instruments of legal power to terrorize their opposition with the help of their paramilitary forces. Shi'ites in Iraq seem to be doing the same.

Faced with this disastrous turn of events, the American media and the American government seem to be looking for the bright side. "Muslim Clerics Call for an End to Iraq Rioting," the Times headlined yesterday, but the story under the headline quoted various Shi'ite clerics as blaming Sunni political leaders and Ambassador Khalizad himself--whom one of them specifically identified as a Sunni Muslim--for the troubles! The President, meanwhile, remarked that we were likely to see a lot more "political bargaining" in Iraq, the kind of thing "that doesn't happen under dictatorships." Peter Rodman, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security affairs, declared that "we" do not believe "extremists" will succeed in fomenting a civil war. Condolezza Rice, meanwhile, returned home from a trip to the Middle East during which frightened Arab leaders warned that Shi'ite-Sunni violence could easily spread through more of the region as well. Rice again tried to blame Al-Queda operative Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi for the threat of civil war, although she later had to back away from that statement and acknowledge that some native Iraqis were at fault as well. The Administration is determined to stay the course, but even some conservative allies like William Buckley are jumping ship. Continuing sectarian violence in Iraq might easily convince most Americans that it is time to leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

P.S.--film recommendation

Yesterday I went to Cambridge, Mass. and saw the French thriller Caché. It turned out to be not only a compelling thriller but a very disturbing parable of relations between the West and the Arab world. I highly recommend it. See today's main post, below.

Looking for Reality

Several months ago, following the recommendation of a relatively non-political friend, I read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins. I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the author wrote in a cloak-and-dagger style, and his account, for instance, of his recruitment by a mysterious and beautiful woman to work in the field of international business consulting was somewhat difficult to swallow. I also would have enjoyed more economic data of the kind that the author frequently referred to, but did not give. His suggestion, too, that General Omar Torrijos, the Panamanian President who died in a plane crash in the early 1980s, had been assassinated because he planned to let a Chinese company manage or rebuild the Panama Canal has gotten no support from my friends who are familiar with Latin American politics. But the basic economic model which he described seemed quite convincing. American corporations, led by the construction giants like Bechtel and Halliburton that have employed so many leading members of the foreign policy establishment, encourage Third World countries to undertake huge infrastructure projects financed by loans. The corporations reap substantial profits, and default on the loans puts these countries in the hands of the IMF (which has also come under attack from another, far more academic book, Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and its Discontents. Meanwhile, networks develop among the multinationals and local third world leaders.

The most significant part of the book, however, concerned the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. In the early 1970s, Perkins wrote, the first great oil price spike started a flow of billions of dollars into the region, and a complicated system designed to recycle it grew up to protect U.S. interests. The recycling seems to have taken three main forms: purchases of American securities, contracts for infrastructure projects, and purchases of selected American arms. One key player in this process, the Shah of Iran, fell from power in 1979, and another, Saddam Hussein, emerged as an enemy of American interests and more or less disqualified himself from further participation in the game in 1990-1. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, however, have continued to play their parts--with some significant exceptions.

What occurred to me after reading Perkins and several other books was that our problems in the Middle East today relate to the fate of those hundreds of billions of petrodollars. The fall of the Shah showed we could not depend on the survival of overtly pro-western governments. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait showed that we could not depend on him to use his military establishment (most of which had been provided by the Soviet Union) in ways of which we approved, such as a war against fundamentalist Iran. And after 9/11, we had to face the unpleasant truth that the Saudi government had done little or nothing to prevent a good many millions from falling into the hands of Al Queda--although another new book, James Risen's State of War, shows how hard it was to move the American government away from denial on that point. In short, all those billions of dollars have not converted the Middle East to our values--if anything they have apparently done the opposite.

Being more or less obsessed with historical data all my life, I have instinctively fought against the idea that the reliability or significance of data could be evaluated based upon who came up with it. Knaves, fools, and even paranoid conspiracy theorists can, and often do, uncover important facts or suggest important ideas. I do not know exactly how truthful Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is, but I do believe I learned some important things from it, most of them of a general rather than specific nature. One can also observe, all over Latin America, a political rebellion against the multinational economic arrangements that the author described, most recently in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and now, Bolivia.

Here at home, however, an extraordinary change in the power of corporate America has occurred during the last forty years or so with respect to the nation's press. The rise of the press as we know it in the first half of the twentieth century coincided with a great wave of concern about concentrated economic power, and economic muckraking was a staple of reporting from the time of the anti-trust movement through the New Deal. Large sections of the public in those days readily blamed corporate America and Wall Street for a wide variety of evils, including agricultural poverty, the disappearance of small business, American entry into the First World War, and even the eclipse of a supposedly independent American character. And although much of the press remained pro-business, the appeal of such stories was far too great to resist. Editors and publishers showed plenty of hypocrisy over this--a theme of the great film Citizen Kane, which I watched again the other night--but they ran the stories.

One of the more astonishing developments of my middle age has been the influence of my own generation upon American newspapers. Having begun in the 1960s as opponents not only of corporate power but of capitalism itself, most (but not all) of my contemporaries in the media have become almost completely unabashed corporate apologists. No major newspaper has mounted a serious attack on the consequences of globalization, the gradual eradication of the American labor movement, or even the Republican policy of tax cuts at the expense of balancing the budget. Almost alone within major media outlets, Paul Krugman continually hammers at these issues. And thus, it is not particularly surprising that a very long article on Perkins and his book by Landon Thomas, Jr., on the front page of the Sunday New York Times business section, attempts to assure his readers that they do not need to be disturbed by Perkins' book--as well as other exposes of current Wall Street practices--because Perkins is simply a hopeless conspiracy theorist and, he implies, a fabricator--even though the basic facts of Perkins' corporate life have indeed been confirmed by his employers.

This tactic, alas, also plays a big role in Republican propaganda campaigns. If Howard Dean, Michael Moore, or various unidentified "bloggers" (perhaps someday yours truly can make the grade!) say something, we can all giggle and conclude that it must be false. Of course, such an approach does draw on reality. For forty years the American left has harbored a lot of lunatic conspiracy theorists and many are still plying their trade today (the two most recent books on the Kennedy assassination both, I am sorry to say, fall within that rubric), but that does not mean that there is nothing to object about in America's imperial foreign policy, the behavior of corporate elites, or the connections between the two.

As I write, the President of Harvard, Larry Summers, is teetering on the brink of dismissal after having at long last maneuvered the popular Dean that he originally selected in 2002, William Kirby, out of office. For about two years I and a number of my classmates from the turbulent year 1969--none of whom, significantly, work in corporate America--have been campaigning against another aspect of Summers' Administration--his defense of the bonuses paid to the money managers of Harvard's endowment, bonuses which have reached $30 million for each of two managers for one year, and which are based on performance benchmarks which some other professionals regard as ridiculously easy to beat. President Summers, who as an economist and former Secretary of the Treasury has shown no second thoughts about the direction of our economy, has refused to reply directly to any of several letters we have sent him, although at our 44th reunion he informed us that he felt we were deeply misguided and explained that this is what top-level talent costs. We have recently been encouraged that the man responsible for Yale's endowment, David Swensen, who comes from a family of academics and works for a paltry $1.1 million a year, has courageously criticized his Harvard counterparts. But we have been almost unanimously criticized by our classmates in the financial community who see nothing wrong with such compensation, and the business press has usually treated us very condescendingly, when it has mentioned our campaign at all.

Speaking for myself, we have only been suggesting, as so much of western history seems to me to prove, that untrammeled greed is not, in fact, a social good, and that we need ethical standards and, in other realms, a democratic political process to moderate the excesses of capitalism. That, really, was the point of the New Deal. History suggests, indeed, that there is no reason at all to doubt the essentials of the picture John Perkins painted in his book, and as I have suggested, our relations with the Third World, especially in the Middle East, have a great deal to do with the money which we have poured into it in exchange for cheap energy. Our last Gilded Age eventually self-destructed both because of its own excesses and because of the Great Depression. (Curiously enough, while during the 1930s it became generally accepted that too much concentration of wealth had caused the Depression, that idea has now died out among economists.) It seems that only similar catastrophes may now force us to rethink some of these basic issues.

We live, indeed, in a highly politicized culture, and conspiracy theories are rampant on both sides. The major media outlets, meanwhile, seem to be trying to console themselves by writing off anything that partisans on either side say, although because they have not founded a way to counter the information warfare of the Administration, they inevitably have favored it significantly. They also seem eager not to replay the role of the Washington Post in 1972-4. During the last couple of weeks information has surfaced strongly suggesting that Vice President Cheney was behind the whole campaign to intimidate the CIA by leaking Valerie Plume's name, but major papers have buried those stories on the inside pages while wasting a lot of space on a hunting accident. None of this, however, should excuse our media from the task of trying to uncover, and report, genuine facts--even if disreputable, erratic or controversial figures have been the first to come up with them.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is the publishing phenomenon of the century so far, having now spent nearly three years on the hardcover best-seller list in an age when nearly no book takes more than a year to get to paperback. Last weekend I took the book on tape on my ski trip, heard most of it by the time I got back (northern Vermont is five hours away from my home), and got the book out of my small local library (which owns five copies) to finish it. The appeal of the book raises interesting questions precisely because it will never rank a historical or literary masterpiece. Indeed, in addition to its historical mistakes (on which more below), it contains a couple of howlers that testify, once again, to the collapse of the editorial process in major publishing houses. One would think, for instance, that some one would have known that a British knight named Leigh Teabing would never be referred to as “Sir Teabing” by anyone (“Sir Leigh” is correct), or that Kent is an English county, not a “suburb.” As a thriller it is mediocre, written in clear and simple English but with a plot that rivals the most extreme tales of Robert Ludlum or the early John Grisham. (To judge from our popular literature, we live today in a world of eternally heightened adrenalin and extreme paranoia, since no mystery, apparently, can hold the public interest without a new dead body every fifty pages or so, and nearly every hero has to prevail against the combined forces of the world’s police departments and intelligence services.) The plot turns on a number of clever mathematical and linguistic puzzles, which are not too difficult for an attentive reader to solve, at times, before the characters do. The book’s appeal must have something to do with its subject matter, and indeed, it does, I think, touch on fundamental cultural issues which are likely to take a back seat as the world shakes itself into a new shape during the next couple of decades.

As most of you probably know, the book centers around a quest for the Holy Grail, which it recasts as a cache of documents presenting an alternative version of Christianity, one much closer to pagan religions. According to its hero, a Harvard professor, they center on the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the fate of their descendants. True Christianity, like many ancient religions, emphasized the “sacred feminine,” the female as the source of all life, and featured sexual and fertility rituals which were purged from the Church after Constantine’s conversion in 325 C.E. Both the Old and New Testament (to say nothing of the Koran) demonize women, of course, by making Eve the source of original sin and enshrining a patriarchal god of wrath, vengeance, and (on his good days at least), mercy. This, the author argues at one point, has unleashed the chronic violence and cruelty of western culture, as well as our enduring shame about sex—certainly a critical issue in the United States, in particular, over the last forty years.

The bad news about the book has emerged in a number of commentaries both in the United States and in France. First of all, much of its theory, reportedly, was borrowed from an earlier book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, which sold briskly twenty years ago. Secondly, its other premise—the existence of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which has supposedly watched over the Grail for 1500 years or so and whose Grand Masters included Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, and Victor Hugo—is apparently entirely bogus, the 60-year old invention of a French Fascist. (For details see an article in Salon by Laura Miller, at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/12/29/da_vinci_code/ . ) The hero, Robert Langdon, argues at one point that every religious creed is a metaphor, and so is his book. That, however, is the key to its genuine interest.

The battle between the three great monotheistic religions on the one hand, and more nature-based, erotic and artistic creeds on the other, is one of the great themes of western civilization, and a number of different authors have attacked this issue from many different perspectives. The most recent and thorough treatment of the subject is Sexual Personae by my contemporary Camille Paglia, which argues that Judeo-Christianity never triumphed over paganism, that male achievements (which would certainly include the political and military realms, as well as the artistic and scientific) grow out of a flight from femininity, and that a struggle between gender identities lies at the heart of most of the greatest western literature and art. As both she and Brown point out, the conflict is very strong within Christianity itself, which had to adopt numerous pagan holidays (led, of course, by Christmas), which (except in militant Protestant forms) disregarded the Old Testament prohibition against the worship of graven images, and which in its Catholic form gave woman a prominent, if somewhat equivocal, place. (Henry Adams in Mont St.-Michel et Chartres suggested that Protestantism might best be understood as an attack on the figure and significance of the Virgin Mary, who in Medieval Catholicism had provided the mercy which God so seldom showed.) Paglia still embraces the sexual revolt of the 1960s and 1970s as another periodic return to Paganism, but more recently she has lamented the rise of yet another wave of Puritanism, led, ironically, by feminists who resent their eternal power over men. How much of that revolution will survive the next twenty years is now a serious question here in the United States, where militant Protestantism is again on the rise, HBO now shows lovers in bed wearing their underwear, and abstinence education is the preferred sex education policy of the Republican majority.

The broader question of the impact of sexual Puritanism on politics is harder to tackle, but at least one great western thinker has done so. I personally feel it is more than a coincidence that the three great western monotheistic religions have managed to spread their influence over most of the globe, frequently by conquest. (Judaism, to be sure, has been a very minor player in this process over the last two thousand years in comparison to Christianity and Islam, but the Old Testament shows that conquest certainly was part of its original tradition as well.) Certainly in the United States and Britain, at least, sex seems to be driven underground during periods of great national struggle, only to emerge with a vengeance 20 or 30 years after a great war has ended, most notably in the 1960s. But one of the more remarkable treatments of this issue lies at the heart of Orwell’s classic 1984, even though this aspect of the book was generally ignored when it came out and has never received the attention that it deserved.

Winston Smith in 1984 lives in a totalitarian world where thoughts are rigorously controlled and sex is rigidly curtailed. As O’Brien explains to him during his interrogation, the Party’s scientists are even at work on the abolition of the orgasm. Winston’s own awakening is a gift from Julia, who seduces him not primarily, as she explains, because she loves him, but because she loves sex. That, Winston realizes during their very first encounter (surely one of the more striking cases of first-date sex in western literature), is the force which may some day tear the party to pieces—not rational deduction or the addition of two and two to make four, but raw, animal lust. “When you’re making love,” Julia herself comments, “you’re using up energy, and afterwards, you don’t give a damn for anything.” And the party, she adds, can’t stand for you to feel that way. Orwell had learned about this before he had reached the age of 10, at his boarding school, where miserable living conditions and terrifying lectures about sex had helped prepare the British male elite for the rigors of the Empire. The contrary impulse must have been powerful within him, since he himself had actually never lived through a period of frank sexual freedom. In my opinion, Julia is every bit as much the hero of 1984 as Winston, even though she, too, apparently, was terrorized into submission during interrogation by the exploitation of her childhood fears.

Interestingly enough, the fanciful Priory of Sion keeps its creed alive with the help of its own rituals, including actual sex performed before a gathering of believers. (These rituals, Brown also notes, were reproduced in the Stanley Kubrick movie Eyes Wide Shut as well, although I have not checked to see if they figure in the Artur Schnitzler story on which the movie was based.) Sex on film has been perhaps the closest western culture has come to anything like that, but it is rarely celebratory, and now it seems to be diminishing again. The idea that sex, even if more freely available, must be private, may indeed by the ultimate trump with which repressive religion keeps us focused on career, conquest, intellectual pursuits, sports, cleanliness, and everything else which distracts us from our hormonal impulses. Columbus and his men actually discovered Caribbean societies whose inhabitants seemed to have few interests other than eating and love-making, but those societies, we know now, were doomed.

In a terrible irony, the resurgent power of religion may actually strip the film version of The Da Vinci Code of one of its major themes. The idea of Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene and the children that they begat may, reportedly, be drastically toned down or even dropped from the film altogether. The battle goes on and may remain, ultimately, unequal. Whatever else it is or is not, the book The Da Vinci Code is a blow for eroticism in an increasingly puritanical world, and thus, many might say, a small step for man- and womankind.