Bokonon, Thoreau, and Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld

It seems obvious that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld is a step in the right direction, toward the reinstatement of the rule of law as the governing principle for society in the United States.

Whether the decision will make any difference in practice is of course another question. The MBA President has run the federal government much the way Bill Gates has run Microsoft: ruthlessly, illegally, and successfully, if by success you mean high profit margins for the investors.

Kickbacks and Cronyism

The Bush family system is built on kickbacks and cronyism. Baseball, oil, savings and loans, the US Treasury: they loot what they can find. It’s a little like a Roman patron and the farmers who depended on his road to get their products to market: the titular head of the organization both commands and takes commands from his followers, whose necessities become his own.

The biggest necessity of the Bush clientes is generally fresh floods of cash, preferably the kind that isn’t being strictly accounted for. But the most important clientes, the oil folks, are also in constant need of new supplies. Both requirements are fulfilled by conflict in the Middle East. And surprise! Both Presidents Bush pursued such wars with the single-minded vigor of war criminals, ignoring opportunities for negotiations while claiming to go the last mile for peace, coercing smaller countries into joining the US “coalition”, and using the secrecy of national security to hide their murderous deeds.

With Hamdan, though, the Supreme Court seems to have ruled against the unitary executive: the President does not have unchecked power to do whatever he wishes in prosecuting his war profiteering. He is only Commander in Chief during wartime; and even then he must obey the law. Echoing Justice O’Connor’s line in a previous Guantánamo case, Justice Breyer wrote, “The Court’s conclusion ultimately rests upon a single ground: Congress has not issued the Executive a ‘blank check’”.

What Would Bill Gates Do?

When Microsoft is convicted of illegal business practices, it normally announces the next day that it intends to a build a new product, which will revolutionize computing. Upon examination the new product turns out to be exactly like the old, including the part that made the whole thing illegal. The Softies then begin to sell the new product, in direct violation of the court’s ruling. The government takes them to court, and eventually wins an injunction; often, the judge takes the time to write a special rebuke to the company and its lawyers for willfully ignoring the law.

But elections can alter the picture, and in any case money is always changing hands behind the scenes. Soon a new attorney general or a new prosecutor comes along, and suddenly the government no longer feels it has a case. Or, if a judgement has already been handed down, the government decides not to enforce the penalties in exchange for a promise of improved behavior. Which is always violated.

The unitary executive theory, employed by a master, allows criminals and scofflaws to avoid any punishment other than the court case itself, which by now appears to be something of a minor sport for the lawyers, techno-liars, and marketing folks who produce the Microsoft cases.

A Hobbesian World

Bush and Edgar Cheney have not failed to imitate the master with regard to attitude. However, they may have failed to consider a critical difference between the master’s situation and their own.

American business people seem to enjoy modeling the world as a jungle in which they are animals, struggling each against each to feed themselves and their dependents. Inside a company, there is often some sense of group endeavor, but competition for scarce resources is rarely far from anyone’s mind, whether the resources are internal funding or the customer’s dollar.

In fact, Americans in general like to see themselves as under attack. (Presumably this is because they have so little experience with the real thing.) The Left Behind-style Christians in particular conceive of themselves in relation to the oppression they feel they suffer, though from the outside the only visible oppression is their inability to force others to behave as they would like.

It’s a Hobbesian world—and then again it’s not. Americans have long understood Bertrand Russell’s point:

The injustice, the cruelty, and the misery that exist in the modern world are an inheritance from the past, and their ultimate source is economic, since life-and-death competition for the means of subsistence was in former days inevitable. It is not inevitable in our age. With our present industrial technique we can, if we choose, provide a tolerable subsistence for everybody.

One of the aspects of the new nation that most impressed Tocqueville was the ease and frequency with which Americans formed groups. In Europe as in America, corporations were rare, and governments had significant influence over their actions. To a monarch, any effective group constituted a challenge and was monitored as such. But in the young United States, Tocqueville saw people forming groups at the drop of a hat, for purposes serious and otherwise.

We Americans have wrapped ourselves around the dichotomy between the individualist ethic and the pioneer spirit of community as fully as the dichotomy between democracy and capitalism. But in neither case have we really synthesized the two halves; we’ve just ignored the problem and turned on the TV.

With Us or Against Us

It’s often observed in this fifth unelected year that the country seems more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Some fear this means the permanent, or should I say enduring, victory of Rovian politics, requiring a conversion of all serious players to similar methods; but if history is any guide, things will start to change just about the time they look set in stone. I think that moment might turn out to be the 2004 election.

The with-us-or-against-us approach is designed to intimidate the wavering into joining a coalition of the scared. As Russell observed, if you don’t have a sound logical basis for your argument, you tend to argue on emotion; thus the emotion in your argument is a pretty good measure of your lack of rational conviction.

Without rational conviction we’re herd animals; this sort of argument works far more often than reason would dictate. Rather than soberly evaluating the danger, we scamper like deer to the perceived safety of the nearest large group, hoping to trade liberty for security.

The End of Divide and Conquer?

Divide and conquer has worked for millennia, and I doubt if the strategy’s played out. But we live in an era, as Russell pointed out, where our morality is based on competition while our technique requires coöperation, a conflict we need to rectify soon. Competition for scarce resources has been a constant theme throughout human history, but with present-day technologies we can choose to end that competition—if we can find a way to overcome our greed and our need to dominate.

Politicians are always talking about working together to get things done, especially when they’re about to bring up a wedge issue. But talk of bipartisanship is often an attempt to make disagreement look partisan rather than principled. Politicians of all stripes use this trick, but its inherent dishonesty makes it more useful today to the Republicans. That party’s current scams—gay marriage, flag burning, school prayer, and so on—are classic examples: laws and Constitutional amendments to restrict liberty, proposed with the confidance that the legislation will fail.

For some, debating proposals that have little chance of passage is a legitimate use of the full House and Senate.

“Passing bills isn’t the end-all and be-all of Congress,” said Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “There’s also some value in debating these issues and using Congress to air out issues that are important to the American people.”

When the majority party is ridiculed for this blatant grandstanding while important issues are ignored (the TV’s on!), the Republicans plead that the Democrats do it too.

Republicans point out that Democrats are not above bringing up proposals just for political gain. They note that Democrats have insisted on bringing up a proposal to raise the minimum wage, which has failed for nine years.

This subterfuge and inaction is provoked by the common recognition of a public desire for comity and effectiveness in government. Poll after poll shows people wanting less political combat and more problem-solving. But election after election people vote on their emotional reactions to irrelevant statements, devised by marketers working for the fiercest fighters. Polls also show that people want politicians to stand up for what they believe. Yet they elect obvious power-trippers like Frist, DeLay, Lieberman, and Hillary.

What’s Up With That?

I suggest that we’re caught between paradigms. The old one no longer fits our view of the facts; but the new one was designed by the same rapacious parts of society who exploited the structure of the previous one.

The dichotomy we confront is quite old, as Curtis White describes in his wonderful article The Spirit of Disobedience in the April, 2006, issue of Harper’s. He supplies a number of names for the dichotomy, such as

  • Enlightenment versus Christian values, often considered the two poles of American world-views
  • The coast and the hinterlands, as Van Wyck Brooks named the divisions in early postcolonial America
  • The humanists and the evangelicals, as the contemporaries of Erasmus were described by Jacques Barzun
  • Reason and revelation, or as William Blake called them, Ratio and Religion

Plato might say logos and mythos; Jung would understand the duality, and direct us toward a resolution.

The Older Paradigm

Large parts of American society are strongly wedded to the philosophies and religions of their ancestors. Staged with modern show-business technique and marketed with the latest in psychological tools, American religion is variegated but deeply felt.

A belief in miracles, in a deity who controls the outcome of every event, in a literal devil awaiting those who fail in this life, is said by polls to be the majority opinion in the US, beliefs that many Europeans left behind after the human devilry of a pair of world wars.

An ABC news poll, done in February 2004, found that approximately 60% of Americans believe that the Genesis creation account, Noah’s ark and a global flood, and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea are “literally true.”

The gentleman quoting these statistics for the BBC is, as a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, proud of this partial but meaningful success. But such views have a strongly negative effect on the body politic. They lead to fuzzy thinking of all types—historical, diplomatic, military, educational, social, what have you. Whether it’s the First Lady scheduling arms-summit meetings for the President based on astrological forecasts, or the President believing that God told him to kill a hundred thousand Iraqis and take their oil: living in a dream world often makes you crazy or destructive in consensus reality.

Beware of those who hear the voice of God, for they are dangerous and unstable. And beware of those who follow such people, for they are easily fooled and readily incited.

It’s often said that science and religion can be comfortable together, but to my mind that’s only true of deistic religion. Science gets along great with Buddhism, say, but not so famously with religions or sects that make claims about history, geography, medical science, and so on, areas in which religion’s most valuable contributions are symbolic rather than literal.

The Newer Paradigm

Large parts of American society might be said to have adopted a scientific, or at least a technological, outlook on the world, leading to questions about our human capacity to change and control it. “Go forth and subdue nature” is an imperative Americans have taken to heart for a long time, if only in their dreams.

Superficially this scientific view seems more sophisticated. Paradoxically, though, a reverence for technology often hides a yearning for the miraculous, a wish to abdicate control. Those who in another age might have been comfortable with handing their consciences over to the church hierarchy for safekeeping could easily transfer that trust to the scientific community. The incentive for doing so is obvious: science gets results in this world.

There’s a serious problem with this newer paradigm, though: the lack of what might be called a spiritual aspect, some connection from the world of logic and experiment back to the human element, and to the realm of the ultimate. Science is a powerful tool but a poor governor. It tells us what we can do, not what we should do. And what’s possible is often done for that reason alone, whether it’s climbing Mt. Everest or creating the atomic bomb.

Science, like religion, works on its own terms. Applying the scientific method to every aspect of life recalls the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post, even though that’s not where he lost them, because that’s where the light is. This is Gödel’s incompleteness theorem: every logical system can form questions that it cannot answer.

Toward a new myth

What we need, Joseph Campbell said, is a new myth. Myths are supposed to help us understand how we fit into the world. But the older paradigm leaves us helpless in the here and now, believing in a better world to come, while the newer one leaves us without a sense of purpose or a rule to live by.

The fatal weakness of both paradigms is the willingness to leave things up to the experts: the abdication of responsibility, the resulting feeling of helplessness, and the illusions fueled by that frustration.

In The Spirit of Disobedience, Curtis White identifies a third way. He traces a thread beginning with William Blake and continuing through Romanticism in Europe and Emerson, Thoreau, and friends in America. This world view looks to what Blake termed the Imagination, and the Transcendentalists called, well, transcendance, as the synthesis that incorporates the basic dichotomy.

What the Imagination seeks is an opportunity. It seeks a moment when the dry bone of the real is just for a moment “out of joint,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, so that it can assert its difference. In the fraudulent Manichaeanism of Reason and Revelation, each the light to the other’s dark, each more like the other than it knows, the Imagination seeks to be a decisive rupture.

Left brain and right brain, Ratio and Religion, logos and mythos, yang and yin: the basic dichotomy has many manifestations. Some things are constant across those manifestations; for instance, you’re not meant to decide between yang and yin, you’re meant to integrate them. The goal is not to choose the proper side, but to transcend the manifestation of two and realize the underlying unity of all.

Thoreau’s Way

White likes the approach of Henry David Thoreau, a Concord Transcendentalist and in some ways the most radical of them. Convinced that the country in which he lived was engaged in activities (especially slavery and war against Mexico) that he could not countenance, he felt it necessary to disengage himself from the country. So he filed a statement with his town clerk: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.”

White calls this gesture a first moment of disobedience, the equivalent of today’s protest signs reading “Not in my name”. Thoreau’s lavish gesture of disengagement is ultimately about morality, about taking personal responsibility for all of one’s actions. But unless we’re ready to go back to the land, that doesn’t seem practical for most of us. I like my laptop and my public transportation and my restaurants; I don’t want to have to make everything myself.

There is a line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men that begins to capture my sense of what is necessary to confront our culture of duty and legality: “What is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.”

Still, I grok Thoreau on the meaning of money:

It is the money-form, as Marx called it, that has captured and distorted a more human notion of time. Time, for Homo economicus, is not “the stream I go a-fishing in.” It is a medium of exchange. We trade our time for money. Our houses themselves become, in time, mere potential for exchange, or accumulated “equity,” as our bankers tell us. The true cost of a thing, Thoreau shrewdly observes, condensing hundreds of pages of Marxist analysis to an epigram, is “the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Money does not fool Thoreau. Money always wears the face of the boss. It represents the loss of freedom and ultimately the loss of self. One is not human in the unequal world of work for exchange. One is compost in the making.

Henry David Thoreau’s idea of disobedience is not only about an antisocial unruliness; it is also the expression of a desire for the spiritual.

A Joe Jackson Moment

Believe me you’ll find out
that everything’s rotten
from bottom to top through and through
All gold is just glitter
all gains are ill-gotten
But now what the hell do we do…

(— Rant and Rave, Joe Jackson)

Although I’m not ready to move to Walden Pond and abandon the fascinations of modern life, I agree with Thoreau and White that a desire for the spiritual must be a part of any synthesis that hopes to encompass our fundamental dichotomy.

Those who think of themselves as purely rational beings may discount religious feeling because so many religious organizations are corrupt. I think this is a mistake. The human psyche seems to need a connection to the ultimate, a feeling of meaning, a story. If that’s just “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”, then a family story or a community will do. As Robert de Ropp says in his enlightenment-bestowing book The Master Game, what people need is a game worth playing.

Kurt Vonnegut, as usual, boiled the myth down to its essentials in the First Book of Bokonon:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

Universe 2.0

We need a new model of the social universe, one that both connects us to the universal and works in this world, that helps us figure out what to do and helps us do it. We need a model that’s inclusive, that brings everyone along for the wonderful future humanity has in store if we can focus our energies with skill.

We need spirituality, but we cannot let our spiritual views keep us from accepting verifiable facts. We need logic and science, but we do not need to make everything we can imagine. We can’t discard either side; we need a synthesis.

Both sides also share a weakness: the tendency to leave everything to the experts, avoiding personal responsibility for changing the world. Which is understandable; after all, it’s a pretty big job, and it may not even be obvious where to start.

Change is Stability

As with most large projects, the strategy of modularization provides a handle on the task. You break down the problem into a set of smaller problems, and keep doing that until you find problems you can solve. Then you start solving them one at a time. A brute-force approach, but it works.

Few of us have the opportunity to solve world-size problems. It’s often difficult even to solve the problems of an individual, since so much of life is struggling with circumstance. The only realm we really control is the inner.

So it seems logical to start there, and of course many philosophical and religious traditions tell us the same thing: to work on making the world better, we must get better. We must become aware of ourselves and our contradictions, our inner dichotomies, and either accept ourselves or change the parts we don’t like. We must begin, in other words, with an inner synthesis, the process Jung called individuation.

Choice is Life

The result of such an inner synthesis is what scares people away from it: an awareness of each choice we make. We normally have so many decisions made for us by social systems, computers, experts, and events that awareness of all of them can be overwhelming. Or at least it seems beforehand that it will be. But once we’ve reached a level of harmony with respect to our inner dichotomies, we find our capacities and interests so enlarged that the problem of choice no longer seems overwhelming, but liberating.

In fact, we find that it’s not the devil but ourselves that’s in the details. By focusing our consciousness on what’s outside rather than what’s inside, we allow ourselves to put energy into improving the world. Improvement happens in small steps, but it does happen; do something for someone, and watch the ripple effects as the joy you created spreads through the world.

There are no situations in which our freedom of choice is absolute. There are no situations in which we have no freedom of choice. Life is difficult and confusing. Inwardly, we all wish for a simple world, a coherent system, a rule to apply.

Okay, here’s the rule: all rules fail. Live by that one.

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