Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas

From the Writers' Almanac:

It's the birthday of expatriate writer and literary confidant Alica B. Toklas — the partner of Gertrude Stein—born in San Francisco (1877). In 1907, she went to Paris and there she met Stein, whom Toklas described as wearing "a large, round coral brooch, and when she talked &$8230; I thought her voice came from her brooch. It was unlike any other else's voice — a deep, full velvety contralto's, like two voices." She immediately thought Stein was a genius.

The two became lovers and on a trip to Tuscany a few years later, Stein proposed to Toklas. They returned to Paris and moved into 27 rue de Fleurus, dislodging from the apartment Stein's older brother. The place became a social center for various artists and young writers, and Toklas regularly prepared elaborate meals for Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, and Fitzgerald. She later included some of her recipes and stories in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), in which she wrote, "In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice."

Stein proposed that Toklas write an autobiography and suggested that it be called "My Life with the Great" or "My Twenty-Five Years with Gertrude Stein." But instead, Stein herself wrote the book she called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). In the book, Stein writes in the voice of Alice:

"I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Prince of War" - a review

Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, Asheville: Brave Ulysses Books, 2007

“Billy Graham represents a basic kind of patriotism in this country – an unquestioning, obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the President. Billy was always uncritical, unchallenging, unquestioning.” --- Bill Moyers

“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B and C. Just who do they think they are? --- Barry Goldwater

A power-hungry moral coward. A vicious racist and Jew-baiter. A man with an almost uncanny ability to always be on the wrong side of history. A craven climber and groveller at the feet of power. An “unabashed nationalist and advocate for American empire.” If Cecil Bothwell is right – and he marshals a lot of evidence in support of his thesis – then “America’s most beloved pastor” is all these things, and more. Bothwell gives us the opportunity to see the other side of Billy Graham, the man who was seventh on a recent Gallup poll’s list of the most admired people of the 20th century. Graham is a man with a history, a man who must be called to account. Bothwell lays out his bill of particulars with subtlety and skill.


The first leitmotif in Graham’s life story is his obsessive scrounging after power. From the very beginning, he has sought access to the corridors of power with an almost touching desperation. Graham was the first evangelist to conduct a religious service on the steps of the Capitol building, and the first to conduct a full-blown crusade inside the walls of the Pentagon. But Graham has always known that the real center of power in America was the White House, and has proven to be a “constant suppliant seeking presidential attention.” The more intelligent and responsible presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Carter) kept Graham at arm’s length, while other, lesser men utilized Graham for whatever they could gain from the association.

Truman apparently despised Graham from the get-go, describing him to a close friend as “one of those counterfeits I was telling you about,” the sort of man who is only interested in “getting his name in the paper.” But in a bit of pure luck, Graham suddenly found himself being groomed as the darling of the Hearst media empire, which built up the persona of the “simple preacher” and turned him loose to rage against godless Communism to crowds of up to 350,000 rapt believers. Graham was becoming an influential player in the toxic politics of 1950s America – and he was learning to love it.

Graham’s increasingly high profile brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, eventually “becoming one of his most loyal and enduring allies.” Documents reveal that Graham was eager to out-do McCarthy in his rabid commitment to exposing “the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge between the wings of the American eagle.” As McCarthy ratcheted up the rhetoric with his demand that suspected Communists be stripped of their Fifth Amendment protections, Graham was right there with him, proclaiming, “Let’s do it!” Never one to hitch his wagon to a single star, Graham was simultaneously voicing his strident support for “the red-scare tactics of Senator Lyndon Johnson and a young congressman named Richard Milhouse Nixon.” Give the man credit: he had a knack for spotting talent early on and currying favor with the people who would run the country for the rest of the century, and beyond.

While Graham’s most infamous association was of course with Nixon, he nevertheless racked up a pretty good track record with subsequent tenants at the White House. It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s canny instincts that he wanted nothing to do with the man and kept him out of the White House during his term, but most of Carter’s successors warmly embraced Graham and his values. He wooed Reagan and George H.W. Bush with great success. He had somewhat less success with Bill Clinton, but he was there to give solace to Hillary Clinton (whose religious associations in Washington were uniformly “conservative and fundamentalist”) during the Lewinsky scandal.


I was continually amazed at Graham’s ability to insinuate himself into the centers of power, given some of his more unsavory views. For if Bothwell is to be believed, Graham is a life-long racist and the worst sort of bigot. It is tempting to fall back on the old, old alibi and say that Graham was a “product of his environment.” As a very young many, Graham fell under the influence of “holy roller Mordecai Ham,” a man notorious as “one of his era’s most gaudy and livid anti-Semites,” a man who fulminated against “apostate Jewry and the wicked Jews who killed Jesus.” While it was not unusual for a youngster coming of age in the Jim Crow south to be bombarded with this sort of vicious rhetoric, it is notable that Graham never shook off these baleful influences. We would hear echoes of Mordecai Ham’s rants in Graham’s infamous “off the record” conversation in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon.

This conversation, which was captured on one of the legendary White House tapes, was not the momentary lapse or attempt to curry favor, as the Graham apologists attempted to claim. On the contrary, the conversation lasted an hour and a half, had rarely strayed from the denunciation of the Jews, and had sometimes been led by Graham. “The Bible says there are Satanic Jews, and that’s where our problem arises,” Graham pontificates at one point, to mumbled agreement by Nixon. Amazingly, twenty additional minutes of this conversation had been redacted before being released to the Watergate committee. What could possibly have been in those redacted twenty minutes that was worse than what wound up being released? Many years later, when the tape was released to public shock and dismay, Graham would do what he has always done when confronted with evidence of his own failings: he would claim that his clear, unambiguous words simply did not reflect his actual views. Inevitably, whenever Graham used this alibi, the big implication remained discreetly unspoken: Graham was either a liar or a moral coward.

Another aspect of Graham’s history is his unequivocal record of racism. Like many from the South (and not a few from the North), Graham inherited a significant bigotry against African-Americans. When a friend suggested to the young Graham that they stop off and get a haircut at a “colored barbershop” where a haircut could be gotten cheap, Graham declared, “Long as there’s a white barbershop in Charlotte, I’ll never have my hair cut at a nigger barbershop! Never!” Many people inherit this sort of vicious thinking, and many people eventually grow up to shed such primitive, mean-spirited attitudes. I kept looking for some point in Graham’s history where he had grown beyond this sort of thinking, but I kept coming up empty handed. The public record demonstrates that Graham was always on the wrong side on the racial issue. Always.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to portray Graham as being on the “progressive” side of the civil rights struggle that began in earnest in the 1950s. In fact, as Bothwell documents at length, this “progressive” history has been manufactured out of whole cloth. This is a man who, as late as the 1960s, was holding “separate but equal” crusades for black audiences. Graham would claim, “It wasn’t his decision but that of the organization.” And whenever segregationists would slam him for showing even an inkling of a progressive idea, he would immediately backpedal, claiming he was only there to preach the Bible, not to “enter into any local issues.” While the whole world was watching the battle for human rights in Selma, Graham was vacationing on the beach in Hawaii. Indeed, Graham was notable by his absence from every decisive moment in the civil rights struggle. When M.L. King was gunned down, Graham pointedly failed to attend the funeral, an event attended by over 200,000 people. On those rare occasions when Graham would even acknowledge that something called “the civil rights struggle” was taking place, he would limit his pronouncements to cautioning others to “put on the brakes a bit,” opining that “only when Christ comes again will all the little white children of Abraham walk hand in hand with little black children.” He seemed genuinely puzzled by the unwillingness of black Americans to wait for the Second Coming to claim their rights as human beings.

One might suggest, in Graham’s defense, “that was then, this is now.” Sadly, he does not appear to have grown over the years. As late as 1991, Graham was a member of the whites-only Biltmore Country Club. When called on this by local activists, Graham’s spokesman trotted out the old standby: Graham “didn’t have time to involve himself in local issues.” And in 1993, Graham publicly asked the rhetorical question, “Is AIDS a judgment of God?” His answer: “I could not say for sure, but I think so.” Needless to say, Graham’s remarks brought down a torrent of outrage, in the face of which Graham promptly did what he always did: “I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement.” He “almost” went back and clarified the statement. Almost. Graham’s entire life, it would seem, is one long chain of moments of truth in which he “almost” did the right thing.


As an "elder statesman" whose mental and rhetorical powers are rapidly fading, Graham did not play his usual role as panderer to the powerful in the George W. Bush administration. While one should be grateful for this small mercy, Graham’s son Franklin delivered the inaugural sermon at Bush’s 2000 inauguration, and went on to become a close Bush confidant. And so the torch was passed, and so the disease was propagated. Billy Graham’s uniquely intolerant form of fundamentalist rhetoric, centered on the twin messages of fear and hate, continue to worm their way deep into the fabric of American discourse. It is to Bothwell’s enormous credit that he forces the reader to confront Billy Graham raw, unfiltered, as he really is. To the droves of Graham apologists and “clarifiers,” Bothwell offers a simple challenge: “Perhaps we should pay heed to what Graham has actually said.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Quote of the Week

"The trouble with nostalgia is that you tend to remember what you liked and forget what you didn't. It's not just that the answers of the past aren't up to the job today -- it's that the system that produced them was corrupt."

John Edwards

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Immanuel Kant

It's the birthday of philosopher Immanuel Kant, born in Königsberg, Germany, in 1724. He wrote hugely influential treatises, including Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Judgment (1790). He never traveled more than 100 miles from his home city and held to a strict daily routine. It has been said that the people of Königsberg set their watches by his daily afternoon walks.

As I've gotten older, I find myself becoming less of an ethical relativist and more of a neo-Kantian. Like Kant, I think that we have certain "categorical imperatives," unconditional moral obligations that are not subject to negotiation. However, I believe that our moral obligations are towards each other, as opposed to Kant, who insisted on manufacturing these silly, content-free categorical imperatives (e.g., "do not lie").

my Katrina play accepted for performance at NCCU

I submitted my Katrina play, "Bottom of the Ninth," to North Carolina Central University (an historically black college in Durham) many many months ago for a contest call they put out for plays that deal with issues of race and class in 21st-century America. The Katrina play was a perfect fit, so I tossed it over
the transom and promptly forgot about it. So this morning I'm going through my mail, and there's one of my self-addressed stamped envelopes that I stuff into all my submissions so I can get the inevitable rejection note. I get 2-4 of these a week containing rejections from various submissions I have circulating around. So I open it and it starts "Thank you for submitting your play, 'Bottom of the Ninth,' to NCCU Theatre Department's New Theatre Project." OK, a rejection, I stuff it in my pocket and make coffee. Sipping my coffee, I read on: "We are happy to inform you that your script was selected for a staged reading. Production dates will be Nov 7-9. Each performance will be followed by a discussion between the playwright and the audience. We are excited about staging your play, and look forward to seeing you at the staged readings and the post-performance discussions."

Well, stick me in a dress and call me 'Susan'! It goes without saying that I immediately painted my ass blue and ran naked around the woods out back.
No, seriously. Neighbors called the cops and everything. Went out as an APB: "Reports of a doughy bald guy with a blue ass running naked in the woods,
One-Adam-Twelve respond, over."

I am stunned and delighted. Any day that I'm alive and in possession of my faculties is a good day, but this makes today a very good day.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jessica Lynch: Simulacrum

Originally published in Peace Review 2007. Given that more and more people are beginning to recognize the extent to which the media and the government manufacture the news -- indeed, the extent to which they are constantly manufacturing history itself -- I thought it would be worth dusting it off and putting it up here on the blog.

"You'd have to be really fucking dumb to get lost on that road."
- unnamed Florida National Guardsman on duty in Iraq, expressing astonishment that Pfc. Jennifer Lynch and her team got lost and taken prisoner

PFC Jessica Lynch came home to a small town in West Virginia that was bursting at the seams with flags, bunting, and the inevitable yellow ribbons. The local residents who lined the town’s main street to wave on Jessica’s triumphal parade were outnumbered by the media, who were in a virtual swoon over the absolute perfection of this slice of pure, uncut Americana.

Speaking to the crowd after her hometown victory parade, Lynch said she was "thankful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital." A very class act, a very beau geste – and quite possibly her last utterance as a real, live human being.

What the media gave us on television was not the homecoming of a banged-up soldier. Rather, it was the latest episode in a national spectacle, manufactured by the U.S. government, deployed by a compliant media, and devoured by the public with the same slack-jawed credulity with which they tended to suck up the latest story line in professional wrestling.

Lynch’s story was the story of a terrified young soldier in a bad situation. It was the story of an Iraqi hospital, and the staff that did what they could with what they had to care for the wounded supply clerk. It was the story of how to generate a pure simulacrum, a perfect copy of an original that never existed. It was the story of how a person becomes a small node in the simulation. How very convenient, then, that “she basically has amnesia and has mentally blocked out the horrible things we strongly believe she went through."

“What we have witnessed is the greatest work of art there has ever been!”
Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking of the events of 9/11

The attacks of September 11, 2001, will prove to be as significant in America as the events of Algeria or May ’68 were in France. A generation of American discourse and action will have to be filtered and strained through the funhouse prism of 9/11. The attacks have succeeded, as Baudrillard noted, in turning America into a vengeful police state hell-bent on a project to dominate the world through sheer brute force. To be precise, through the spectacle of sheer brute force. Because it is critically important to understand that what one is dealing with in America now is precisely the visual spectacle. Reality has not been devalued; it has simply been rendered irrelevant.

A new, hard truth has been missed – possibly ignored, possibly deliberately – by both the American public and the American media. Quite simply, the administration of George W. Bush is the first in American history to use manufactured propaganda and spectacle as the sole means of communication. I believe that to think of it in terms of “deception” is to dangerously miss the point. The Bush administration is, quite simply, unmatched experts of the world of simulation, masters of supplanting the “merely real” with the wholesale deployment of the manufactured hyperreal spectacle.

The star of the show, George W. Bush, replaces the real world with a sort of “sketch”, a simplistic visual suggestion, drawn with a palette of loud, primary colors. He eliminates complexity and disperses ambiguity. Both the press and the people love him for this. But he would be a bumbling, ineffectual fool were it not for his team of experts in the art of the simulation.

These are no lucky amateurs. The White House communications staff is packed with people from network television background, people with ready-for-prime-time expertise in lighting, camera angles, story line, and the importance of backdrops. They understand, in short, the concept of deploying the spectacle. One pundit commented, “They know how to build a set”, which is very much to the point. The entire war, and the entire world, is their theatre, the symbolism without the content, a pure simulacrum.

The “war” on terror, as manufactured and deployed by the Bush team, bears the same relation to the “merely real” war as a pornographic video does to “merely real” sex. But – and this is the key point – the Bush wars generate high quality porno.

“They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff.”
- PFC Jessica Lynch

The terrorists on 9/11 produced what is, in fact, arguably the most stunning visual spectacle in recent centuries. It would not be enough for America to respond only in the realm of the real. As Baudrillard pointed out, “A symbolic challenge” was thrown down and accepted by America, but this war could not be fought in the realm of the real. It could only be fought inside the simulation. It is only winnable in the realm of the hyperreal.

The thing that strikes the outside observer is the manic, giddy, self-consciously “heartfelt” nature of the American simulation. Everyone behaves as if the cameras are always rolling. In June 2003, we read an apparently unironic news story about a regiment of US armored troops psyching themselves up for a strike against Iraqi defenders by blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers. We have here a truly telling example of the self-referential, recursive nature of a war that manufactures itself out of a deep well of uniquely American mythic images. It is necessary to give the Bush team credit: they are the first administration to consciously, exuberantly, and completely cut loose the mooring lines between their propaganda and the real world. No longer needing to create any ties, however tenuous, to anything in the real world, their simulation is free to manufacture itself out of pure mythos and faerie dust. In Baudrillard’s formulation, “the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum---not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” If the simulation no longer needs to close the loop by referring back to the merely real, then the simulation can be used to manufacture anything – including meaning itself.

A story was told in the wake of 9/11 about a young man who watched the towers start to fall down from his Manhattan rooftop. As they were in mid-collapse, he left the roof to go inside to turn on his TV, hoping it would make him "understand." The public finally gets the message: the spectacle is what makes sense; the mere reality of the towers collapsing outside the young man’s window is simply a datum; it needs to be fed whole into the simulation in order for it to mean anything.

This manufactured meaning is constantly feeding into the manufacturing apparatus. The America that never was, the America of John Ford westerns and Frank Capra’s heartwarming slices of Americana, are a bottomless well of meaning from which the raw material of the simulacra can be drawn. Think, for instance, of all those homespun articles and pictures of George W. Bush “at home on the ranch” in Crawford, TX. The simulacrum stars Bush as just another sun-hardened ranch hand, comfortable and happy on the family spread but called to reluctant duty in the “big city” to save America from Evildoers. The only thing wrong with this picture is that it’s completely manufactured. The Crawford ranch is nothing more than an elaborate stage-set. Built in 2000, it serves the purpose for which it had been constructed by serving as a quintessentially American backdrop for Bush’s 2000 election bid. Most of the time, the “ranch” sits there, empty, like a set awaiting the arrival of the cast. Indeed, the town of Crawford was itself essentially manufactured as a backdrop for the Bush presidency. Before 2000, only about 400 people lived in the town. The Crawford Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture wasn’t even formed until after the “ranch” was finished. The people in the town are extras in an infrequent but recurring set piece: “The President escapes the burdens of his War On Terror by relaxing briefly at the family ranch.”

At a speech promoting his economic plan, White House communications staff experts even went so far as to ask people in the crowd behind Bush to take off their ties, so they would look more like ordinary working stiffs who would purportedly benefit from the Bush tax cut. These high-powered businessmen (and they were, overwhelmingly, men – white men, to be precise) also understood their roles as “extras” in a “scene”, and they were happy to play along.

One can trot out episode after episode, presenting them all with an increasing sense of predictable monotony. One has seen every one of these spectacles before. In the movies. On TV. The stagecraft is evocative, surprisingly subtle, but not so subtle that even the least among the audience won’t recognize the (mythic) original in the simulacrum.

Such a glorious spectacle required a top-down, damn-the-costs commitment from the Bush team to provide nothing but high-quality porno for the proles. The designers who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which CENTCOM General “Tommy” Franks gave his daily explanation of the current state of the world also built sets for Disney, MSNBC, and “Good Morning America”.

Given such expertly executed spectacle, and given the American public’s essentially pubescent love affair with war as such, it is to be expected that it would be in war where the Bush spectacle would find its most willing spectators.
And nowhere is this stagecraft more artfully deployed than on that ultimate stage set.

In Afghanistan, one saw images of Special Forces troops on horseback with unmanned drones flying cover overhead. Those of us who still read will find the imagery evocative of Dune. Others will think of the Star Wars battle on the ice world. The hyperreal is big enough to encapsulate all contradictions and render them beautiful. Still, Afghanistan was somehow unsatisfying as a spectacle. It lacked scale and epic sweep, it did not resonate deeply enough. It was not until Iraq that the manufacturers of the simulation found a story line worthy of deploying their spectacle on a massive scale.

"The U.S. government wasn't alone in their actions. They were co-conspirators with the media ..."
Larry Flynt

For a speech delivered at Mount Rushmore, Bush’s media staff positioned the platform so that the cameras caught Bush in profile, his face perfectly aligned with the four presidents carved in stone. Perfectly aligned. One can almost hear the words of poor mad Colonel Kurtz: “ …and I thought to myself, My God! The genius of that!” This is why the media and the public love this guy. The spectacle provides endless reams of usable footage. The spectacle keeps a lot of talking heads employed. As far as the media is concerned, Bush’s simulation is simply great for business.

The new, explicit partnership between the government and the media has evolved very quickly, and has had surprisingly few startup glitches. Listening to the “embedded” reporting during the Iraq war, one could not help but be struck by the fact that the reporters sounded like soldiers, not reporters. They constantly used “we” when referring to the military unit in which they were embedded. These reporters had jumped on the team, and their bosses – and their viewing public – were completely OK with that. A post-war analysis of output generated by the “embeds” showed that 90% of their reporting was either positive or neutral.

From the government’s point of view, this ability to control the single most important aspect of their spectacle was a win of enormous magnitude (one wonders if the anonymous Pentagon bureaucrat who cooked up the “embedding” idea got a medal, or a promotion). Control of the downstream feed from the complicit media to the supine public was imperative if the parameters of the simulation were to be prevented from spinning out of control in some random, disastrous fashion.

The major vector for random disruption of the seamless hyperreality of the spectacle was those media outlets that were not on board, that were not on the team, that were not 101% committed to The Big Win. “Degrading” this steady drip-drip-drip bleeding of reality into the simulation became a full-time obsession for the American government. This obsession quickly expanded from known-hostile media (al-Jazeera is, in its own way, every bit as biased as Fox News) and soon took as its target any media that were not on the same page as the government. According to retired US Army Col. Sam Gardiner, “we will even go after friends if they are against what we are doing or want to do.”

Almost as soon as the shooting started, American proconsul L. Paul Bremer began to try and lock down the Iraqi media, along with any foreign media on the ground in Iraq. It is to the undying credit of these reporters that they, unlike the American media, resisted this pressure to get on board – often successfully. The inane claim that negative reporting would give “aid and comfort to the enemy” may have worked on the American press (who needed damned little convincing, in any case), but it was wasted on members of the Iraqi, Middle Eastern, and European press, the majority of whom saw enough of the reality on the ground to find the whole concept of “the enemy” highly problematic, at best.

America’s vaunted “free press” shamed itself in the period from 9/11 to the present. They saw the incredible potential, the visual goldmine, the opportunity to “win share” – all they had to do in return was to report what they were told to report, and not ask any questions. This the American media did, with breathtaking enthusiasm and without exception.

“A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains, but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.”
Michel Foucault

I was eating my lunch in the break room during the war in Iraq. A co-worker, watching the big-screen TV in the corner, called over: “Coalition forces have crossed the Euphrates.” I responded, puzzled: “You mean American forces?”
He looked at me sadly and shook his head. It was obvious that I was beyond hope. To this otherwise intelligent man, the fiction of a “Coalition” was more real than the reality that the Iraq War was a US operation (with a smattering of Brits). The hyperreal is always more real, because it is more familiar. It is referential, pointing to items in America’s visual mythos in a way that the random mess of “real war” could not possibly approach.

Since 9/11, the American public has traded crusty skepticism for credulous ingestion of whatever spectacle the government deploys at any given moment – not because they particularly believe it, but because, like professional wrestling, it’s just a lot more fun if you play along.

The great and terrible beauty of the bloody shirt of 9/11 has inspired most Americans to line up in front of the tube to soak up the spectacle. In his speech to Congress shortly after 9/11, Bush announced that it was his plan to wage a war of ideas. This has not happened. He is ill equipped to wage a war of ideas.
However, it is naïve to think this was ever about ideas. Bush’s one, overarching genius is his ability to use American symbolism, the elements of the American mythos, to give Americans an alibi. If the greatest country on Earth is engaged in a battle to the death with Pure Evil, then all constraints are lifted. Anything is permitted.

In a country where 46% of the citizens are self-described ‘evangelicals’, the dizzying array of American freedoms – and the consequences of those freedoms – is often horrifying to many Americans. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and Mapplethorpe, on and on and on. They look at American society, at America’s ‘freedoms’, and they hate what they see. These Americans have more in common with their purported enemy than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in post-9/11 America. But it is a secret that all but a few of the most extreme Americans must hide, even from themselves. The beauty of the simulation – complete, coherent, inspiring, heartwarming, glorious – is that it stupefies, it helps Americans to forget. Better to think about the spectacle of “our American heroes at war” than to wallow in the contingent and doubt-provoking realm of the real.

Which lures us, not surprisingly, back to where we began, to that exciting and archetypal American war drama, the stirring tale of The Lady Rambo, the episode known as “Saving Private Lynch”. We owe it to ourselves to give this tale a close look. The process by which this spectacle was manufactured and deployed has much to teach us.

“I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart in Palestine, West Virginia. I joined the Army to get out of my home town.”
PFC Jessica Lynch

The reporters covering the Coalition Media Center in Qatar were rousted out of their beds in the wee hours of April 2, 2003. General Vincent Brooks had an exciting story to tell:

"Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a US Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq," Brooks told the sleepy reporters. He paused, as if waiting for something. As if on cue, one of the extras in the scene (in the person of CNN correspondent Tom Mintier) chimed in helpfully: “ We understand that there is video taken by a combat camera team. Can you show us that video?"

Perfectly staged, perfectly executed. Within hours, news organizations across America were running with the story of a "daring raid" in "hostile territory." The Los Angeles Times report informed their rapt readers that the Special Forces rescuers endured a "blaze of gunfire" at the hospital. The New York Times' first story was somewhat more sedate, but by the time it unveiled its second report on the story, they were reporting that "the rescue team took fire from buildings within the compound, but the troops fired back and quickly made their way into the hospital." The perfectly manufactured, gritty, green-lit footage of Lynch being rushed out of the hospital and onto a waiting chopper was played over and over again, with the mindless repetitiveness of a porno loop. It would quickly become one of the major defining images of the war – which was precisely the point.

By the second day of the deployment, all the major news outlets were reporting that the Virginia supply clerk had fought fiercely against her captors, citing anonymous government sources who were saying that Lynch "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers" after Iraqi soldiers ambushed her supply convoy, "firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." The story soon was getting endless “News Alert” television and radio play. On NBC, Forrest Sawyer reported that "Lynch continued firing at Iraqi troops even after she was wounded," while Robin Roberts on ABC's Good Morning America announced that Lynch "fought fiercely," "shooting several Iraqis" and "emptying her weapon before being stabbed and finally taken prisoner."

One must give credit to the foreign press (most especially the European and British media) for maintaining a sane degree of distance and skepticism about the substance of this story. It soon became apparent to any viewer or reader not living in America that the reports of Lynch’s capture and the “daring rescue” had no basis in reality. She did not fire her weapon, and she was neither shot nor stabbed. Most significantly, news outlets such as the BBC and Associated Press took the trouble to actually visit the hospital from which Lynch was “rescued” to find out the reality on the ground. Iraqi doctors at the hospital reported that Iraqi soldiers had fled the scene days before the “rescue”, and hospital personnel had in fact tried to return Lynch to American lines more than once, only to be turned back. It was "like a Hollywood film," Dr. Harith al-Houssona, a physician at the hospital, told the BBC on May 18. "They shout, 'Go, go, go!', with guns and blanks...and the sound of explosions. They make a show...action moves like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan...with jumping and shouting, breaking the door." He probably did not realize the significance of his insight: “they make a show.”

Jessica Lynch, a blue-collar West Virginian who joined the Army because she could not get a job at her local Wal-Mart, got a Bronze medal, a book deal, and a made-for-TV movie because she got knocked out. She never fired her weapon. She never dived into the midst of a horde of Elite Republican Guards, screaming a wild Amazonian battle cry. She never threw herself against a gang of Fedayeen Evildoers, a Bowie knife clenched in her teeth and a live grenade in each hand. What really happened was this: she rolled her vehicle, and got knocked out.

Of course, we understand by now that “what really happened” totally misses the point. Itwas obvious to the media that this glorious simulation was selling like crack. Fox News, which threw off even the merest pretense of objectivity during the war, was pulling bigger market share by far than any other station. When ABC attempted to go back over the ground and do some objective reporting based on how the “rescue” looked to Iraqi hospital staff, they got hundreds of called complaining that ABC was “undercutting the military.”

It was clear to the American media that the American public wanted the simulation, not the reality. The spectacle “meant” more (in every sense of the word) to the American public than did the mere reality. The American press, with its highly attuned nose, quickly sensed which way the wind was blowing and enthusiastically adjusted their reporting.

Jessica Lynch as simulacrum “works”, for everyone in the loop. The media is consciously complicit in the deployment of the government-manufactured simulation. The American public is complicit in the unthinking consumption of the simulation. No one is innocent.

Jessica Lynch has been seized and extradited to a place outside of the world. Jessica Lynch is a Rorschach test of what Americans want to believe about war, and about themselves. She is an empty vessel upon which Americans can project their own fantasies, whether they be flag-waving patriotic, pro-war, anti-war, feminist, anti-feminist, anything. She is a protean simulacrum, many copies, none of them referring back to any original. How much more interesting, how much more useful, they all find Jessica Lynch the simulacrum compared to the dirt-poor supply clerk who couldn’t get a job at the local Wal-Mart.

“It no longer matters in America whether something is true or false. The population has been conditioned to accept anything: sentimental stories, lies, atomic bomb threats.”
John MacArthur, Harper’s Magazine

As I sit here hammering away on my keyboard, a television talking head comforts America, explaining that despite the gassy plume of black smoke rising from the latest truck bomb site, things are going just fine in Iraq. Despite the endless violence, he assures the American public that “the show” will go on. He reveals more than he knows. It is, indeed, a show. And it will, indeed, go on. Life is so much more enjoyable and so much more meaningful when the simulation is playing on the TV.

A colleague asked me a question yesterday: “Do you really believe that Bush, Cheney, Powell, and all them would actually lie so much and so often to the American people?” One is unable to simply answer, “Yes”. They are not lying, they are manufacturing the hyperreal. "The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation." Baudrillard is probably sitting in his flat in Paris nodding his head as he watches the realization of his insight from Amerique, that in America “there are no lies, there is only simulation.”

The “war on terror” is not a war in any conventional sense, armies clashing in combat, cities falling, refugees on the road. It is really about the mining of a rich mythos in order to manufacture public opinion. The war is not about defending civilization, it is about engineering attitudes and manufacturing consent. Even more: it is about manufacturing discourse, manufacturing the permissible way of speaking about the simulation. We see the manufacturing of neologisms that reflect a degree of subtlety and direction that cannot fail to impress.

To pick one example among the many sweet treats in this manufactured discourse, let’s pluck the word “degrade”. One constantly heard that “Coalition forces are degrading the Republican Guard divisions.” This discourse of the new simulation lacks the vocabulary to do proper justice to a trench on the side of a road leading towards Baghdad, stacked high with unburied, stinking bodies. Body parts, to be precise. “Degrading their capability” is how one translates that into the language that is spoken inside the simulation.

An anonymous Army officer on the ground (no doubt in an unguarded moment) gave us a small, succinct Rosetta Stone for mapping discourse from the simulation into words that are meaningful in the real world:

“It’s slaughter. It’s murder. It’s clubbing baby harp seals.”

By one estimate, over 10,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the war in Iraq. Yet we never got to see those stacks of body parts, sweltering in that ditch. They existed in the real world, but never bled through to into the simulacrum. Where did all those burned, stinking bodies go? And perhaps even more important: what did all those bodies mean?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quote of the Week

Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.

- William Jennings Bryan

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sam Beckett

I do some playwriting, and Sam is someone that every playwright must come to terms with, one way or another. I'm a NetFlix subscriber, and I highly-recommend their 4-DVD set, "Beckett on Film." An Irish national film project set out to create filmed versions of every Beckett play, from the very small, peculiar pieces, to the ineffable masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. A few notes on Beckett's masterwork:

1. It's GOD-ot, not god-OH. People assume that because it was originally written in French, the name of the always-on-the-way figure must be pronounced with a French accent. Beckett made it clear in an interview that the accent is on the first syllable. I find myself thinking of him as a sort of divine Marx brother: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and God-o.

2. Waiting for Godot is funny. You need to see it performed, especially the filmed version I just finished watching, to understand how incredibly funny it is.

3. Even a crusty old polemicist like me cannot help but feel a frisson of existential terror at the grim despair in Pozzo's words, late in the second act:
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of the playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett born in a rich suburb of Dublin called Foxrock (1906). He was an assistant to James Joyce in Paris and then got involved in the French Resistance during World War II. He wanted badly to be a novelist, but he was blocked, and so he decided to try writing a play. As an exercise, he made it as simple as possible: It would be a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a man named Godot, who never arrives. He finished it in just a few months, faster than he'd ever finished anything he'd ever written. And that was Waiting for Godot (1952). It was first produced in 1952 and became an international sensation.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

On this date in 1633

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Inquisition for supporting the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. He had angered Pope Urban VIII with a book about his views. The case was referred to the Inquisition, and in 1633 Galileo was brought to Rome to undergo his trial. His book was officially banned by the Church, and Galileo was sentenced to an unlimited period of house arrest in his home in Florence. He gradually went blind and died in 1642.

In 1835, Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was finally taken off the Vatican's list of banned books. But it wasn't until 1992 that the Catholic Church formally admitted that Galileo was right.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Quote of the Week

I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The chief purpose of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Jack London

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Piety and Politics" -- a review

Barry Lynn is angry. Furious, in fact. And the object of the man’s fury is the politicized, evangelical religious fanaticism that has seized control of America’s moral discourse. As a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Lynn is an unlikely figure to be standing in the front ranks against the tide of militant Christianity that threatens the United States. Unlikely or not, Lynn seems to be hitting the right keys and pressing the right buttons: he has incurred the wrath of right-wingers like Jerry Falwell and Patrick Buchanan, and Lynn has the distinction of having once been described by Pat Robertson as “lower than a child molester.” If one can be known by one’s enemies, then I like the guy already.

Lynn does not waste any time, wading right into the middle of the battle almost from the first page. He takes an almost boyish delight in going toe-to-toe with the Religious Right on some of their favorite obsessions: public education, religious symbols, the church in politics, censorship and sexual politics. Lynn believes that the Religious Right has it all wrong, that their Bible-based worldview is an unacceptable basis for approaching the question of how America should be run. He demands that American politicians stop their pandering attempts to use the Bible to justify their actions and instead put their faith in the document that they are all sworn to defend: the U.S. Constitution. But Lynn is no wide-eyed naïf; he knows the history of his country, and he understand how tenuous the separation of Church and State is, especially now.

“When, in the history of the world, has a union of church and state ever been a good thing?” With these words, Lynn attempts to reason with the fundamentalists, posing a question that they are unwilling to consider and ill equipped to answer. Unlike the Religious Right, Lynn knows the true history of his country, and is able to describe religion’s long struggle to usurp America’s secular system of government. Those Americans who believe that the current spasm of fundamentalism is something new, or even exceptional, will perhaps take comfort from Lynn’s insightful analysis of the history of a fanaticism that has always been embedded in the fabric of American culture, and his explanation of how America has (so far) survived the ill effects of this fanaticism.

Quite simply, there was never a time when some form of struggle between secularism and fanaticism was not taking place. We must remember that the first colonists in New England came to the New World seeking religious freedom because their fanatical brand of religiosity was too radical for the Europe of the time. Mind you, we are talking about a Europe riddled with religious wars, a Europe where witches were burned along side heretics who dared to claim the Earth was not the center of the universe. And yet America’s “Puritan forefathers” were too radical to be tolerated in that environment. If we keep this thought at hand, we have no problem understanding the eruptions of bizarre religiosity that litter American history with almost monotonous regularity.

In the 19th century, “tensions over religion in public school rode so high ... that in 1844 a riot erupted after rumors circulated that schools were going to remove Protestant religious exercises.” An organization called the National Reform Association (the Moral Majority of its time) engaged in a protracted campaign to have an amendment to the Constitution declare that America was “a Christian nation,” and propagandized at the local level to write into law the idea that commerce and revelry should be curtailed on “The Lord’s Day” (an idea that continues to enjoy wide support throughout many areas of the U. S. to this day).

Very little changed in the 20th century, except that the Religious Right became more sophisticated and clever as they struggled to infect the Constitution with the virus of religiosity. Lynn reminds us that the seemingly immutable slogans “one nation, under God” and “In God We Trust” are relatively recent innovations, driven by the decision in the 1950s to recruit God “in the battle against juvenile delinquency and communism.” The propaganda campaign to portray secularism as “some amoral, libertine perspective on life” also gained enormous traction in the second half of the 20th century, and not just among those who were obvious fringe cases. One cannot help but think of Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign, making the truly alarming claim in his stump speech that “faith is necessary for good behavior.”

Lynn oscillates between sadness and ill-concealed amusement when he discusses the fact that, in the United States, “secularism is mandated by the government, but religion still pervades the culture with a strong and vibrant voice. In much of Europe, there is no government mandate of secularism, but the cultures are effectively secular.” This is no exaggeration: I have driven through much of Europe, from the Spanish border to Bavaria, and it is only in Italy that one sees even a faint echo of the old religious madness. For the most part, the old churches of Europe, from the grand cathedrals to the most humble village church, are now nothing more than museums. As Lynn observes, the churches of Europe “lack for only one thing: congregants.”

Lynn seems to recognize, at least implicitly, that America’s tribal and atavistic religiosity will never wither away the way it did in Europe. There is something unique about the tightening grip that religion has on America, something toxic and not a little bit mad. Yet even within this historical context, Lynn is forced to admit, “I’ve never seen the situation this bad.” The disease of religious fanaticism has mutated, growing ever more dangerous as it turns the tools of modernity against modernity itself in a struggle to undermine America’s secular foundations.

Lynn has no illusions about the nature and ambitions of America’s new crop of fundamentalists. “I’ve studies the tactics of these groups for more than thirty years. I know what they want. They want to run your life, mine, and everyone else’s as much as they possibly can.” While these Christian zealots always portray themselves as oppressed and marginalized, “members of the clergy walk the halls of Congress ... pressing their views and often being warmly received. You see them in the senators’ dining room. I’ve been there myself.” These influential members of the clergy – effectively, lobbyists for the Christian fundamentalist worldview – have admirable persistence and remarkable message discipline. Everything wrong in this country, without exception, can be laid at the feet of the godless and dubious plot by secularists and their lackeys to promulgate the separation of Church and State. Whether it is rampant immorality, plunging SAT scores, the epidemic of unwed motherhood, gay marriage, or the scourge of drugs in our urban ghettoes, all of it is the fault of the separation of Church and State. If only America could go back to those halcyon days when religion was the basis of every aspect of American life, all would be well.

This is a seductive message, perhaps because of its simplicity, perhaps because it appeals to the seemingly universal yearning for a Golden Age that never was. America’s Golden Age was brought to ruin when “that mean old Supreme Court, prodded by an atheist, intervened and threw prayer out” of the public schools. Within this context, an “activist judge” is “simply a judge who writes an opinion the Religious Right doesn’t like.” As a proudly “God-centered” Bush administration loaded the American judicial system with judges who held the “correct views,” the leaders of the fundamentalist movement, never noted for their timidity, shook off the last of their inhibitions and began to speak more openly about their grand vision of what a God-besotted American future would look like. Lynn cleverly allows fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to reveal themselves – and betray themselves – with their own words. They really do make it almost too easy for Lynn to mock them and then dispose of them.

We are dealing, after all, with men who genuinely believe that “God punishes communities that displease him with hurricanes, floods, and meteors; who assert that demons control major U.S. cities and who think Harry Potter books lure children into practicing witchcraft.” As he offers us up a seemingly endless smorgasbord of choice tidbits from the mouthpieces of the Religious Right, Lynn gives us a feel for the deeply strange beliefs of America’s fundamentalists, an archaic, tribal view of the world that would seem more at home being articulated by some shaman crouched around a Neolithic campfire, or by a priest standing atop an Aztec sacrificial pyramid. The fact that this deeply uncivilized way of understanding the world finds millions of adherents in the world’s sole remaining superpower should do more than give us pause – it should scare the hell out of us.

What Lynn gives us along with his analysis of the thinking of the Religious Right is a deep and disturbing sense of how radically opposed to America’s freedoms these people really are. They want to control what all citizens do, and they are perfectly willing to enlist the government, the courts and law-enforcement if that is what it takes to rid themselves of the burden of a freedom that they are unwilling to embrace. Lynn, to his credit, continues to believe that the American people are too smart to stand for this, and that most Americans want a government that is free of religious dicta. Those of us who share his deep concern for the influence of the Religious Right in American life can only hope that he is right. I for one do not share his optimism.

Lynn tells us that “a get-along philosophy ... will increasingly prove disastrous” and that we will end up “whistling past the graveyard of our Bill of Rights and religious freedom if we take that road.” Yet, having said this, Lynn continues to preach restraint and an insistence on “sweet reason” as the best approach for dealing with the predations of the fundamentalists. Relating an anecdote about a televised confrontation with a member of the Religious Right, Lynn recalls that the host told him off-camera, “your side isn’t as passionate as his side.” Therein lies an enormous problem, and therein lies the reason that in America today, the Religious Right marches on, rampant though not (yet) completely triumphant. The forces of common sense and reason continue to lose ground to the forces of religious bigotry and intolerance. And in a country where every candidate for public office feels compelled to outdo the others with ever more over-the-top proclamations of personal religiosity, the problem is not going to go away when a new tenant moves into the White House.

While Lynn remains a strong proponent of a rational, even-handed approach, one occasionally gets an exciting sense of the rhetorical power that Lynn must deploy when he is in the pulpit and the spirit moves him. I found myself wishing for more of the sort of fire that Lynn displays when he shouts – and though they are only words on the page, I had no problem imaging him shouting them -- “I am weary of their gay bashing. I am weary of their crude attacks on nonbelievers. I am weary of their constant effort to sneak their bogus “creation science” into our schools. I am weary of their meddling in the most intimate areas of our private lives. I am weary of their attempts to politicize houses of worship. I am weary of all that they do.”

Preach on, Reverend.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Quote of the Week

"I am not a number -- I am a free man!!!"

Number 6

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mister Bush's Sermon

1. Clermont on the Potomac

On November 27, 1095, at a religious council held in Clermont, Pope Urban II delivered
what is perhaps the most famous sermon ever composed. He informed the assembled
faithful that he had “come into these parts with a divine admonition for you”. Urban’s
listeners, who probably expected a mundane, workaday bit of preaching, instead found
their faces burning with holy shame as their Pope cried out, “O what a disgrace if such a
despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the
faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious in the name of Christ!” Urban was calling
Christendom to strike out at the “despised and base race” known as the Muslims, and
strike them down in the name of a vengeful and broad-shouldered God. Europe thrilled to
Urban’s depiction of it as the very sword-arm of Christ, and it promptly marched off en
masse to commence the long-lived folly we now call “The Crusades”.

This sort of militant Christian religiosity is viewed nowadays by most developed Western
nations as a quaint though bloody aspect of a long-ago period of de facto religious
insanity in Europe and the Middle East. I say “most” because there is one glaring
exception: the United States, where precisely this sort of militant Christian religiosity is
resurgent, rampant, and (as the American President assures us) “on the march”. The American “War President” is totally engaged as a constant, zealous cheerleader for this sense of a unique Christian mission. Mister Bush’s “war on terror” has been and will continue to be a war by a militantly Christian country against a predominantly Muslim part of the world, led by a President who genuinely believes he was called by God to this one great task.

Bush’s militant Christian zeal, and his deployment of the discourse of a distinctly American sermonizing in the service of war, simply confirms the worst suspicions of the rest of the world that America is indeed fighting a “Crusade” against Islam. Any European leader who spoke to his people in the language used by Bush would be sent packing to the sound of gales of laughter, but Europe adopts a condescending attitude towards Bush’s new Crusade at its peril. Bush’s followers may sound like classic religious loonies – indeed, as we shall see, many of them are – but they are also (for the moment) at the steering wheel of the world’s last remaining superpower. As such, they are very dangerous indeed, and it is worth the time to try to decipher the strangely hypnotic cadences that Bush uses to lift up his faithful to fight the great Crusade.

We need to understand that George W. Bush is not a President. He is a preacher. He is only at home when he is delivering a sermon. Outside the familiar ground of the fundamentalist tent, Bush is testy, impatient, insecure, uncomfortable inside his own skin. But when he has worked himself up to the sort of pure, testifying eloquence thatevokes a form of religious mania created and purified on dusty American back roadsby sun-maddened itinerant preachers, the naked outpouring of devotion and affirmation from his congregation is a darkly terrifying thing to see. Bush the preacher knows something that his audience also knows, something that America
alone in the world knows: Evil is real. The End Times are coming. The Devil is real, and
waits for the unwary at every moonlit country crossroads. And America, alone among all the nations of the Earth, is called by God to accomplish the thing that has never been accomplished in the whole long, sad history of religion: “to rid the world of evil."

We need to explore the history, the structure, and the passion of Mister Bush’s long and continuing sermon, if for no other reason than to conjure ways to blunt its dangerous
influence in the world.

2. “God Speaks Through Me”

One can savor the irony of the famously messianic chest-thumping of the atheist President Lincoln and of the vicious white supremacist President Wilson, but we must understand that there has always been a strain of what I have chosen to call “sermonic discourse” in the war rhetoric of AmericanPresidents.

For instance, in his address to the American Congress at the beginning of 1942, Franklin
Roosevelt stated unequivocally that “victory for us means victory for religion. And they
[the enemy] could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living
room for both Hitler and God.” Roosevelt ends this amazing and little-known sermon using words that sound all too familiar today: “We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.”

One can easily trot out example after example of this sort of sermonic discourse in the history of the United States. It is really not surprising, given that those settlers who first “tamed” the “New World” consisted of small sects (today we would call them “cults”) composed of people whose religious peculiarities were considered too radical and dangerous to be allowed to remain in Europe (no small feat, given the general religious madness infesting Europe at the time). But -- and this cannot be emphasized too strongly -- all of these sermonizing Presidents (with the possible exception of Wilson) understood that their rhetoric was rhetoric, which gave them the saving grace of a sense of proportion and distance. George W. Bush is another species of President. When Bush preaches, he is completely sincere. This is a man who delights in telling people that, were it not for the saving power of Christ, he would be sitting at a bar somewhere in Texas instead of running the world.As head of the most overtly Fundamentalist administration in memory, Bush is utterly convinced that “God speaks through me.”

George Bush’s single rhetorical gift consists in conveying this sincerity to large numbers of Americans. He does this, not through a single “call-to-arms” sermon, as Urban did at
Clermont, but rather by refining and amplifying the uniquely American sermonic
discourse, by using the cadences and imagery of the Baptist pulpit so that his every
speech becomes yet another passage in one long sermon, a sermon with the power to

3. “Let he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

One must be wary of conflating sincerity with transparency when unpacking the content
of the Bush sermon. Bush is utterly sincere and utterly obscure in his meaning – unless
you are one of the faithful. It is impossible to ever take a single word of the Bush sermon
at face value. All of Bush’s speeches are sermons, and all of his sermons are parables. One can never understand Bush’s power over the faithful unless one learns the “code” he uses to give a wink and a nod to his fellow believers.

All due credit for crafting the ongoing discourse of the Bush sermon must be given to
Michael Gerson, Bush’s one-time chief speechwriter. Gerson, the man who gave us
the unforgettable phrase “Axis of Evil”, is a typical product of the American Midwest. He
is also a theology graduate, and as such is capable of manufacturing
the perfect Christian allusion to complement Bush’s often inarticulate passion. But
we must never mistake the servant for the master. Bush dictates the content, Bush dictates
the underlying message, and Bush is the master of the code. Let us take a look at a few
examples of how the code is deployed.

In one of his annual “State of the Union” messages, Bush spoke of the “wonder-working
powers” of the “goodness and idealism and faith of the American people”. For a non-
American (or even a non-religious American, of which there are still a few), this
would seem like an odd, “quaint” sort of phrase for America’s highest elected
official to use. But a member of the Fundamentalist faithful would immediately recognize
the phrase as coming from the gruesomely-named hymn, “There is Power In The Blood”.
In the next “State of the Union” speech, Bush deployed vivid imagery that
contained words and echoes guaranteed to resonate with Fundamentalists. When
he spoke of his belief that “History has called America and our allies to action”, he knew
that his followers, hearing the potent word “call”, would immediately make the necessary
substitution in their minds and hear “God” instead of “History”. He sent the same
message in a speech to the Association of Religious Broadcasters when he stated that “we
must also remember our calling as a blessed nation to make the world better … and
confound the designs of evil men.” Continuing, Bush claimed that “Freedom is not
America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity. Therefore, the nation which
embodies freedom should bear this gift to every human being in the whole world.”

We need to step back and take a long look at this problematic word, “freedom”. Note
how often Bush uses the word “freedom” in his sermon, and how often it seems to stand
out as so “odd,” both in the context in which he uses it and against the realities of the Bush
project. I have come to the conclusion that, when speaking of “freedom”, Bush is
employing the time-honored preacher’s tool known as the parable. When you hear a Bush
sermon, do a little thought experiment: every time he says “freedom”, mentally substitute
the word “Christianity.” I have been going back over many of the components of
Bush’s long sermon, and the substitution works so precisely that I am forced to
conclude that this is no accident, that he is sending a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the
faithful. Let us try substituting the word “Christian” in place of “free” and “freedom” and
see what happens.

"Christianity is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity.”

I believe that God wants everybody to be Christian.

Here is a longer example. Note that even in this extended passage, the substitution maps


"Christianity is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here
on Earth. The progress of Christianity is a powerful trend. Yet, we also know that
Christianity, if not defended, can be lost. The success of Christianity is not determined by
some dialectic of history. By definition, the success of Christianity rests upon the choices
and the courage of Christian peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice.”

See, one can treat this as an entertaining intellectual parlor game – but a game with dark, sad consequences.

For those who naively believed that Bush was not sincere, and that he would drop the sermonic discourse in his second term, his 2004 inaugural address must have been a chilling wakeup call. If you have never read a transcript of this address, I invite you to do so. In this short address, he used the code word “freedom” 27 times (and the word “free” an additional 8 times). Many who lacked the ears to hear the parable embedded in this sermon puzzled over this constant drumbeat of the word “freedom”.

Once one understands what the word “freedom” actually means to Bush and his
followers, the speech is terrifying. Italy’s newspaper La Republica summed it up by
saying, “there is a sense of a man who considers the whole world as his own parish.” I
personally felt a cold chill when Bush proclaimed to American that “we have a calling from beyond the stars to spread freedom across the world.” In trying to shake
this disturbing invocation from my mind, I joked “well this proves it -- he’s getting his
marching orders from alien space invaders from beyond the stars!” None of my friends
laughed. Come to think of it, neither did I.

4. “Like Joan of Arc, You Must Be Brave”

If my suspicion is true, and Bush is sending “coded sermons” to American
Christian Fundamentalists, one would assume that every major denomination would be delighted to discover that one of their own holds the highest post in the land. In fact, Bush’s relationship with the major denominations is problematic at best. When I watch how Bush conducts himself in regard to the American religious establishment, I am reminded of the great lyrics by Lene Lovich: “Like Joan of Arc, you must be brave, and listen to your heart.” Like Joan, Bush is constantly being picked up and carried forward by voices in his head – voices that he believes come from God Himself. There is no trace of irony or symbolism in his manner when Bush tells another head of state, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” Imagine then the impact that this hardwired direct connection to The Almighty has on those religionists who naively believe that Bush is “one of them”.

Amazingly, given his billing as “America’s most religious President”, Bush is the first
president not to have met with the leadership of any of the mainstream religious
organizations. The Rev. Fritz Ritsch, writing in the Washington Post,
complained, "The president apparently believes that he can talk about theology from the
bully pulpit without talking to theologians.” The sense of anger and spite at having been
cut out of their traditional (and very lucrative) role as intermediary between the
Sovereign and his God is palpable among American religious leaders. This was felt
most keenly during the mad charge towards war in Iraq. In the weeks before the war
began, a ranking member of the Council of Methodist Bishops sulked publicly over the
fact that his organization had spent several months in a fruitless attempt to obtain an
interview with Bush, himself a Methodist (at least, on paper). "The President has not
been willing to hear the voice of his own church." That lovely old Biblical phrase, “stiff-
necked”, seems appropriate here. Bush, quite simply, does not need the religious hierarchy to fulfill his mission. He has his God. And he has his People.

5. Alibi

If George Bush’s sermon did not resonate with a significant portion of the American
people, his high-bandwidth line to The Lord and his apocalyptic discourse
would be of no more interest to us than the rants of some lunatic wandering the streets of
any major city in the world, proclaiming the reality of Evil and the imminent end of this
tired and dissolute old world. Unfortunately, the Bush sermon does resonate across large
stretches of America, and one is forced to confront the question: why?

First, though by no means most importantly, Bush is just like them. He’s a redeemed
sinner, he has seen the light, he has felt his heart moved and changed by a personal
encounter with Jesus Christ. Like so many Americans, he is convinced that he would
have nothing and would be nothing without his unshakeable faith in The Lord.

This view of the world echoes powerfully in the anachronistic backwater of George
Bush’s America. In contrast to the developed Western world, where religion is
withering away due to lack of interest, more than 90 percent of the American people
believe in a real, personal God. Eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles, with 40
percent of them stating that they had personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. Half
the population of America attends church on a weekly basis, and 53 percent say religion
is a “very important” part of their lives. Amazingly, 43 percent of the American people
believe in the Devil, with horns and a tail. With Bush in the White House, the
nation’s capitol is now the heart of this Christian darkness. A few months ago, I was driving up the highway to give a presentation at a philosophical conference in Washington, DC. As I got closer and closer to Washington, tuning in to a series of fundamentalist rants that showed up and then faded away on my radio dial, I had the eerie sensation – for just a moment -- that I was Marlow, coming up the Congo River to the place where Kurtz squatted, waiting.

Bush sermonizes with a finely crafted combination of soothing and inspiring praise
alternating with deep and unequivocal condemnation. America good. Evildoers bad
America battles Pure Evil, so any action America takes in that holy crusade is by
Good. Bush hypnotically repeats the same phrases and cadences of love of
Country and love of God like the invocation of a powerful spell:

"We are the most peaceful country on earth.”

"Americans are a resolute people, who have risen to every test of our time. America is a
strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without
conquest, and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers."

"This nation fights reluctantly....We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes
peace must be defended. Adversity has revealed the character of our country, to the
world, and to ourselves."

These elements of the Bush sermon are delivered with the utter conviction of passages
from Scripture. They are never questioned because they are beyond
question. The sermon tells the American people every sweet-sounding thing they want to
believe about themselves – and they love him for it. His most fervent supporters
often sound like disciples rather than supporters. At any of his rallies (stage-
managed to the nth degree and always packed with an audience of loyalists), one gets the
real sense that these Americans believe they are in the presence of their savior (or
Savior). Bush has been told by God to lead this Crusade to rid the entire world of Evil.

He takes this charge from The Lord very seriously. The American people embrace his
certitude and, infused with their own equal measure of certitude, they line up to march off
behind him. Bush tells them that “t
his crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a
while”, and that’s just fine with his followers. They’ve never felt so alive, so vital, so sure
of America’s place in the world, and of their own place in America. The American
people understand that, in the words that Urban used at Clermont, “there remains still an
important work for you to do”. Bush’s sermonic discourse, which resonates on such a deep level with the American people, echoes Urban’s call so many centuries ago: “Now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.”