Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy New World

Even with a pending Mass Transit Authority strike and the very real probability I’d bounce, yet another, check in some wasted attempt to “pay the rent,” my thoughts were on other things. I found myself sandwiched between the tale end of a horrible hangover resulting from two nights of partying at the office, a holiday party in Brooklyn, and back to El Barrio for a nightcap. And still, ahead of me, the necessary two weeks of always boring, often depressing, and—most importantly—time consuming, grand jury duty. Nevertheless, these things seemed insignificant when placed alongside two of the more astounding and audacious arguments unfolding in Washington DC during these final despicable days of this sordid year, 2005.
Fortunately, I’ve found the time to write down my reasons to why The United States is on St. Nick’s “naughty” list. Happy New Year, you unhappy New World.

Norvus Ordo Seclurum: Morally Permitted to do Terrible Things?
By Nicholas Allanach

I.
Charles Krauthammer recently suggested in The Weekly Standard we should “work together to codify rules of interrogation” and be “honest about doing terrible things.” Rightfully so, anything less would only continue blindfolding our eyes to the appalling standards the U.S. government, military, and intelligence agencies have utilized to achieve and sustain an imperial agenda. Krauthammer is—in some respects—correct, it’s time to be honest about things we would just as soon prefer lie about. After all, despite President Bush’s claim “We do not torture”, it’s no secret –we do. Certainly, we will never wish to designate such deplorable and unsavory techniques as our finest of qualities, but we must admit, when justifying such techniques we (however inadvertently) take part in them as well. Thus, if we seek to remove violently tyrannical regimes from the world, we can only hope to do so by renouncing the, apparent, logic of such acts ourselves.
Regrettably, when even entertaining the “to torture, or, not to torture” debate, our rhetoric inevitably taints the very qualities and values we, purport to protect from this very type of “evil”. A recent issue of The Nation, “Conspiracy to Torture”, goes so far to warn, “Our democratic institutions are vulnerable to erosion.” Krauthammer seems to be aware of this danger, when writing, “there is no denying how corrupting [torture] can be to the individuals and society that practice it”; however, Krauthammer’s rationalization of these viscous techniques only illustrate what “standard” he is not only willing to tolerate, but set.
Certainly, Senator John McCain’s recently proposed (and thankfully, approved) amendment to standardize interrogation techniques to, subsequently, ban “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment” of detainees has done much to provoke the recent torture buzz. And, it would be comforting to say this is only a recent, uncommon, and regrettable discussion; but as we already well know, the “to torture, or, not to torture” impasse is, in fact, something our society has been struggling with for quite some time. After all, lest-we-forget the twelfth century when Henry II created a criminal justice system in England, which placed a suspect of a crime through a Trial by Ordeal? Admittedly, Trial by Ordeal was only used in situations when there was not enough evidence, or witnesses, for a case to properly accuse a suspect. Trial by Ordeal consisted of binding the accused with rope and then tossing them into the water. If the subject drown, this would indicate the water (which the locals believed to be “pure”) had accepted the subject making him/her innocent. However, if the accused remained afloat, they were then subjected to the vengeful will of their peers who, usually, sought to torture the now “guilty”.
Although western society no longer uses such barbaric and primitive techniques to enforce the law, it would be presumptuous to assert this same society is without its own share of ignorant beliefs. In fact, such arbitrary ideas have only grown more sterilized and precise in their execution and are evident throughout the gambit of rationalized “coercive interrogation techniques” used to (arguably) protect us from “evil.” Now, instead of drowning our “witches” we “waterboard” them instead. Three cheers for progress!
Fortunately, healthy debate and more civil forms of understanding also remain a vital part of society; thus, our comprehension of torture has much to do with how we legitimize executing it. Societies have often believed some admittedly foolish and violent things (i.e. human sacrifice, Trail by Ordeal, Iraq’s WMD program, etc.). Thankfully, these regrettable beliefs are inevitably tossed onto the scrap heap of history so society can properly replace them with more effective and less crude techniques. Sure, call me an idealist, but I confidently put torture on this same list alongside history’s gravest mistakes.
Whatever society frames torture as being justified, also willingly takes part in an ideological exercise that believes it is better to rule through force and coercion, than by example and a logical conviction of its own values. Furthermore, such rationalization of this brutality only exemplifies the lies we must tell ourselves in lip service to domination. For instance, how is the U.S. version of torture any more justified to a proverbial “greater good”? In The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Zizek writes, “Ideology is at work especially in the apparently innocent reference to pure utility.” Thus, when torture is rationalized as a “useful” mode of preventing terrorist attacks it becomes—like “collateral damage”—another accepted tool we (however reluctantly) resolve to use in the horrible project of creating larger wars and more viscous modes of domination. And all of this will still be proudly carried out under the ideological edifice of “for the greater good.”
Regrettably, the arguments, implications, and potential amendments the torture debate has inspired could cause irreparable damage to our civic ideals. In fact, Senator McCain’s proposal is most certainly, a crucial step, but could be a moot point. For instance, what happens behind closed doors is bound to occur anyway. No matter what law one passes –war is (to say the least) messy. Nevertheless—starry eyed pacifism aside—those advocating the benefits of torture do present the semblance of a convincing argument. Thus, torture unfortunately holds a rather attractive logic underneath its despicable veneer. Nevertheless, as we should well know from the aforementioned historical mistakes, we’re often wrong about some really fucked up things. Thus, if we are, as Krauthammer indicates, “morally permitted to do terrible things.” Then perhaps it’s time for us to consider what it is about our “morals” that permit us to justify them? Or, if we’re to agree with Sam Harris’s argument in The End of Faith, that “Violence is often an ethical necessity.” Then perhaps, we should also ask what constitutes such ethics?
Ironically, the moral and ethical argument Krauthammer and Harris present in their advocacy for torture is to actually “protect” human life. Again we turn to the paradox, how much should we abuse individual human rights for the protection of a greater number of human lives? The heavily contested torture argument revolves around Alan Dershowitz’s paradigmatic scenario of a “ticking time-bomb terrorist.” Accordingly, we must imagine a terrorist has planted a bomb in a city. Fortunately, we have in our custody another terrorist (conveniently) involved in the same plot. Do we torture our captive in hopes of gaining information to prevent the attack? Or do we interrogate, without violence, so as not to damage our civilized “moral vanity”? Of course, how can we ever demarcate what is or is not interrogation without violence? After all, some would even go so far as to say the words on this page are a form of violence. Thus, more pragmatically, should we be relieved to know “interrogators would be constrained to use the least inhumane treatment necessary, relative to the magnitude and imminence of the evil being prevented”? (Italics mine.) I should hope not. After all, how can we prevent an “evil” that we have no proof will even occur?
Such logic (using the term lightly), like many tools of combat in the “War on Terror”, does far more harm than good, and does so because it is primarily based on speculation. The slim chance of a “ticking time-bomb” situation happening is not enough to rationally legalize the use of torture, which will—in its own respects—create as much terror as any attack. I know. I know. That’s what “we thought before.” And, of course, the always reliable, “Have we learned nothing from 9/11?” Shut up! This tired vengeful prattle does nothing to make the world a more peaceful, educated, or better place. Instead, it only continues to make things infinitely worse. We must find new ways to resolve our current impasse. One sure way to do so is by renouncing torture and violence as a justified means of acquiring power. Violence begets violence; we only lie to ourselves when claiming it ever came from out of “a clear blue sky.” Admittedly, this will be difficult; fortunately, one of the few things Bush is right about is our country’s “lack of intelligence.” It is my hope we can begin to take steps to rectify this problem.
Despite my obvious hope for peace, I do not support total pacifism; especially, when there is proof of a threat or worthy cause to fight for. However, what I will never support is violence executed on the basis of pure speculation. None of us should tolerate the excuse, “stuff happens in war.” As we continue to learn everyday this disastrous and deceitful conflict in Iraq fumbles on, war is costly and should only be executed when absolutely necessary. Of course, one could just as easily take the same argument with torture. Admittedly, where should we draw the line? We can’t. The important thing to realize when playing this dangerous game is that no line will ever be good enough. In many respects, the “to torture, or, not to torture” debate exemplifies the horrible false logic of the “War on Terror”: no one side is ever the right side to be on. We cannot completely reject torture, nor can we ever fully justify it. It’s unfortunate we should even have to consider setting such standards; however, we must cease fooling ourselves –not everything we do is in service to a “greater good.” In fact, we’re a violently brutal nation that, regrettably, destroys its best ideals of peace, freedom, and democracy every time we use force to assure a false sense of security. We must reaffirm our ideals, lead by our example, and never sink to the level of the tyrants our country claims to be so set against.
I realize I’m idealistic, by I still believe America is a nation of idealism. Futility, hopelessness, and apathy are not this nation’s qualities. We are visionaries and my hope is that we will somehow find a way to see past the deplorable violence being foolishly executed in our nation’s name. All war is torture. The series of “black sites” set up to do The White House’s dirty work is only a pathetic and deceitful attempt to hide the malignant shadow of our nation’s character. This is where the real problem originates, not in the laws or bans that justify torture, but in how the American character rationalizes this behavior as okay. Perhaps, our very idea of a “national identity” is already so misconstrued with false morals and spiteful ethics that it is already too late to change anything for the better? I’d like to think otherwise.
Krauthammer admits, “torture is not a reliable tool.” Of course, he then goes on to defend this “is very different from saying it is never useful.[In fact,] the monstrous thing about torture is that sometimes it does work.” However, if we are to succumb to this rational, our country must also prepare to admit that “sometimes” child abuse, police brutality, and lying “works” as well. Or, it can instead bravely defend non-violent techniques that also work, such as diplomacy, trade, education, technology, and an honest attempt to acknowledge the interconnected reality of every human being on this planet.
As we well know, war in the twenty-first century is, without rules. The lines demarcating enemy from non-combatant have been obliterated. The most effective way to attack an enemy is by spilling the blood of unsuspecting civilians. If one side (“the enemy”) seeks to win by breaking all the rules, how can the other side (which considers itself the “solution”) hope to ever counter such a fiercely unrelenting violence if it chooses to begin breaking its own rules as well? By justifying this absence of a proper standard, the enemy has already won.

II.
In an attempt to legitimize its oppressive security strategy, The White House aggressively defended its decision to allow the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation the unwarranted ability to secretly monitor the phone calls and Internet behavior of suspected “threats” in the President’s “War on Terror.” Unfortunately, we have now learned many of these supposed “threats” are American citizens. Obviously, it is too late to discuss why we’d meekly stand by and allow fear the capacity to create such a hyper-vigilant-security-state that has the ability to ultimately destroy the very democratic principles our government purports to represent. After all, we know why it happened: on Sept. 14th 2001, Congress authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” Unfortunately, we don’t know why the President and his Administration felt this authorization also granted them the ability to illegally tap and monitor U.S. citizens. Obviously, it is time for Congress to rectify this gross misinterpretation and strip the President of his, apparent, authorization of domestic eavesdropping.
Clearly, the resolution of Sept. 14th 2001 makes no mention of unwarranted surveillance activity. Undoubtedly, such unchecked power is not only “dictatorial” but also theocratic. Ironically, under the leadership of the Bush Administration, our country has become the same type of fascist state it claims to have “removed” from Iraq. Furthermore, the line separating megalomania from Bush’s faith and conviction in the existence of an all-knowing-all-seeing God is not only thin, but now, non-existent. It seems obvious, Bush (and those who think like him, i.e. Saddam Hussein) can only seek to actualize the fantasy of an all-seeing God by actually attempting to become it.
Unfortunately, it seems difficult to stop the administration from such deplorable techniques. The legal loophole of this situation is, as John Roberts told viewers of CBS Evening News, “No citizen can come forth with charges against the N.S.A., unless that citizen can also provide proof the N.S.A. has monitored their phone.” This will, obviously, be difficult. Of course, is proof really necessary? After all, The White House repeatedly admits to, not only practicing this type of reprehensible behavior, but also arrogantly assures us it plans to “continue to do so.” Bush does not think, he knows that he is above the law.
Obviously, there is perhaps no greater political challenge today than trying to win the “War against Terror” without also eradicating the very democratic principles we claim to represent. Many on the “right” claim “liberal ideas”—such as those often expressed in this column—are “only complaints” and “do not offer any constructive solutions to the world’s many problems.” I resent and reject such classifications, and know I can just as easily label the “right” “dictatorial megalomaniacs”, and I will; especially, when they prove they are such by practicing this type of behavior. However, in an attempt to also break free from partisan fighting, I promulgate my own reasons to why I believe the idea of “total security” is not only a no win situation, but an ideological illusion fueled by fear and will ultimately destroy everything that makes our country so great.
The total security proposition is not a solution it is an illusion. The very system that pretends to protect us will inevitably cause our very undoing. Put it this way, what other options are there then three? Option #1.) Let us suppose coercive interrogation techniques, wiretapping, propaganda planting, occupation of foreign territory, etc. is no more. With all of our, apparent, defenses “down” the U.S. becomes vulnerable to the “enemy” to rise up and destroy us. Option #2.) The total Security State is established, the government regulates all thoughts, transactions, and communications; finally, we are safe, but without freedom. Option #3.) We regulate and define the boundaries of coercive interrogation, spying, and surveillance; unfortunately, the risk of something happening is always an antagonistic possibility. We never know if we should do more, or less, to protect us. None of these options is conducive to democracy and it is no wonder we are seeing our flag unfurl from the very seams that once made it so strong.
To assure the public domestic wiretapping is necessary, the President once again uses his “smoking gun” worst case scenario to justify his dictatorial decisions. Bush claims, “A two minute phone conversation…could lead directly to the loss of a thousand lives.” I must, Mr. President, how will we ever know when to listen in on the right conversation? As with the “coercive interrogation” logic, there is none, it is based purely on speculation. The only thing we can be sure of is that this President and his Administration continue to destroy the very freedom that makes our nation great.
Hopefully, these findings will be a blessing in disguise. After all, the President may be on holiday vacation for now, but there will be no stopping the loud and unrelenting demands from the press and public that will seek to hold him accountable for his erroneous and deceitful behavior to the American people.
By the way Mr. President, I hope you’re listening in on my phone, because if you do this is what I will be telling people my wish is for the New Year.
“I hope my great nation’s New Year’s resolution is to finally rise up and demand it is time to impeach this lying bastard and all of his crooked cronies from The White House for good. You do not represent America Mr. President you are, however, its antithesis.”
See you in the New Year, New World! The fight continues.

Friday, December 09, 2005

"Aeon Flux" Sucked!


By Nicholas Allanach

Sexy and sleek Charlize Theron flipping, flying, and swinging across a large screen in black spandex was a good enough reason as any to see the newest tough-chick-flick from director Karyn Kusama. Regrettably, eye candy alone doesn’t make for a satisfying night at the movies (unless you’re Paul Ruebens, a.k.a Pee Wee Herman). In fact, the only scenes worth viewing were those in which Theron was either suspended from a ceiling, clinging to a wall, or posing and pouting in that oh-so fashionable (and actually practical) attire. In fact, the film would have been better (or at least tolerable) if there was more high-flying eroticism and less bland talking heads and horrible acting.

Based on the MTV Liquid Television cartoon of the same name, “Aeon Flux” takes place in the future after 99% of the world’s population has been killed off from a virus. The remaining 1% lives in the heavily fortified LaCorbussier-esque city of Bregna. And—as seems to be the case with many dystopias—Bregna is just as boring and monochrome as other future landscapes. In fact, sci-fi fans will note many similarities with (another bad idea for a film, but certainly a cult classic) “Zardoz”. Much of the failures of the film (and I can assure you there are many) are a result of its inability to successfully communicate the same dry delivery and black humor that made the cartoon so funny. Somehow, the human actors in the film are less life-like and believable than the cartoons their based on (except for of course Theron, she’s breathtaking). The acting is so deadpan I often felt like I was watching some soap opera or strange episode of Twin Peaks from the future.

At no point in this movie was I at all concerned about the outcome (except for it to come quickly). In fact, before the movie even begins the audience (unless there complete rubes) should already foresee the conclusion –Aeon is an assassin and will inevitably destroy the dreadfully boring social order that has been established by geneticists/fascist leader, Trevor Goodchild (who could have been really cool, but was terribly portrayed). The only thing interesting about this bland social order is that it is maintained through DNA cloning (sorry to give away any secrets of the film, but trust me, you’d be better off to just rent the DVD and skip all scenes without Charlize in an action sequence). The old man who is the keeper and organizer of the DNA wears an extremely ridiculous outfit and hovers over Bregna in a strange Zeppelin-like machine that, supposedly, stores the entire cities’ DNA code in a super computer.

“We’re all copies!” exclaims Aeon when discovering the reason for her odd flashbacks and unexplained desire to “complete her mission”, which is to destroy the simulated reality of Bregna so as to allow the real and chaotic world of the jungle surrounding its periphery inside. In this respect, “Aeon Flux” did make for an interesting compliment to a book I’m now reading by Jean Baudrillard called “The Intelligence of Evil: or The Lucidity Pact”, in which Baudrillard proposes “something resists all our efforts to confine the world to a sequence of causes and effects.” In other words, the propensity to devise a cold and calculated “utopia” in which all is predicted inevitably produces an equally significant need to circumvent this same order. Unfortunately, Aeon is also part of the control she seeks to destroy; in that even her drive to obliterate the idea of Bregna has already been planned out by the strange man in the Zeppelin (once again, another direct relation to “Zardoz”).

Anyway, I’m stretching it. Of course, this is all just in an attempt to find something worthy about a film that could have been cool. I can assure you, it wasn't. Don’t waste your time going to see it. After all, despite the appeal of Charlize Theron in a tight fitting outfit, nothing can justify how our society can feel so indifferent about a crappy film that cost the same amount of cash it would take to feed a starving village for a year.

Friday, December 02, 2005

War and Religion: When Myth Goes Too Far

By Nicholas Allanach

Despite the numerous (and heavily contested) reasons for the American led war in Iraq, some—specifically Evangelical Christians—believe they “know the undisputed purpose” for this reprehensible conflict. Unfortunately, as always with belief, there is little room for reason; thus, what many Christians regard as the “true basis” for the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is based primarily on fear, speculation, and illusion. (Of course, how are the religious right’s justifications any different from those touted by the Bush administration?) But seriously, such harmful and destructive rhetoric from Evangelicals not only defies logic by espousing an all-encompassing apocalyptic scenario, but also weaves a self-aggrandized “end time” myth to explain away the (admittedly sparse, yet justifiable) reasons for the war (i.e. democracy and independence for the people of Iraq). This mode of thinking (assuming one can even call it such) is absurd, highly irrational, and—most importantly—capable of provoking greater and more intense acts of violence.

Religious fundamentalists hell-bent on Armageddon should be exposed, interrogated, and opposed. Their vitriolic oratory is malicious, dangerous, and shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone (especially a Christian) who considers themselves reasonable and sincere individuals. If we continue to entertain, or even tolerate such outlandish views, it will only be a matter of time before our world is truly brought “to an end.” However, such a finale may look nothing like the gory wet dreams of Evangelicals; this world will have no “savior”, but will, instead, be reduced to a horrific landscape of utter ignorance, perpetual violence, and compounded tribulations that have no hope of resolution. At this time, only the fundamentalists who brought this world into being will be to blame.

Admittedly, there has always been your standard “end is nigh” wackos, but now the real danger of this belief is due to not only the way it associates American hegemony with apocalyptic prophecy but from the manner in which it locates legitimacy from it as well. Much of this argument can be attributed to the method by which the Bush Administration deceitfully packaged the war in Iraq as somehow connected to 9/11 and the vague and broad concept of “evil.” By associating America with all that is “good” we subsequently rationalize all those against it as “evil”. Without a doubt, Islamo-fascists and BinLadenists are just as erratic in their theology as Christian fundamentalists; thus, the American administration should have devised a way to move beyond, instead of bolstering, the same empty rhetoric from those it purports to rally against. Consequently, this could be one reason why President Bush is having such a difficult time selling his “Strategy for Victory in Iraq”; after all, everyone now knows this war is less concerned with our “national interests” as it is about instilling Bush’s (and the Evangelicals who put him in power) own form of approved ideological interests.

Some, such as American fundamentalist preacher Michael Evans (author of “Beyond Iraq: The Next Move”) and pastor John Hagee, have taken Bush’s “good vs. evil” hyperbole a step further. In Evan’s book he discusses a blueprint for American domination blessed in the semblance of a global holy war. Evans likens Islam with the forces of the “Anti-Christ” and goes so far as to claim “Islam is a malevolent manifestation of a religion conceived in the pit of hell.” He argues America—being the self-appointed agent of Christ—should have no reservations about invading oil-rich Arab lands. Evans has also advocated terrorism as being an inevitable result of Islam. Of course by pitting Christianity against Islam, Evans seems to be reaffirming the racist myth of a civilizing mission of white America.

Such fantastic associations are obviously harmful and bigoted; moreover, groups preaching Christ alongside Pax Americana, see the U.S.-led imperialist war as a divine mandate that will usher in the “second coming of Christ” and subsequent “end of the world.” In this respect, many religious fanatics are determined to “stay the course” along with President Bush; unfortunately, the rest of the civilized world must be dragged down along with them into this black hole. I am not a religious scholar, nor have I spent years of my life studying the Old and New Testaments; however, I have read the Bible and the Koran and am well aware of the wonderful and deplorably foolish things both books communicate to its ardent believers. Nevertheless, I am adequately versed in current Christian notions of “the end times.”

Much of the “proof” men like Michael Evans and John Hagee purport to have had “revealed” to them come from their own racists and jingoistic ideals; for instance, Evans associates Christianity and America as “truth” and “good” whereas Islam is seen as a “Satanic force.” Accordingly, both men welcome the American invasion of Iraq and implore the United States to expand the theatre of war by invading other, primarily Muslim, countries. Presumably, after Iraq (i.e. Babylon) is destroyed, Christ will have his “second coming” in Jerusalem and establish his global empire, ushering in the “end of the world” or “Armageddon.”

The development of this “New World Order” and subsequent “Day of Judgment” is, in my opinion, an overzealous defense mechanism that ignorant people must, regrettably, use to explain away the admittedly complex and disconcerting realities of this globalized world. Just as death is an uncertainty and something we cannot control; so isn’t, in many respects, the various and complex forces of international affairs. It would be nice to say suicide bombers are “agents of Satan”, or that starving children are merely “signs of an impending apocalypse.” But in reality, this is not the case. Unfortunately, when we begin to explain away such complexities with religious myth we enter into a dangerous game that may just actualize the horrible outcomes we fear. After all, Christians do not see the “end of the world” as a bad thing; in fact, their entire system of belief relies on this narrative so as to be true; thus, if Christians can have something to do with achieving this goal that they believe in, it will only bring them closer to god.

To be fair, there are many Christians who are against the war. For instance a group of Christian clergy recently drafted up the following statement: “We believe that U.S. war against Iraq is unjust and immoral…we appeal to all Christians...to refuse their consent to this war. We call them to nonviolent resistance, rejecting actions that violate moral law.” Unfortunately, such good intentioned Christians are being silenced by the ignominious fantasy spouting out of the “gnashing teeth” of their fanatic brethren.

Unlike John Kerry, who claimed “My religious beliefs are my personal business.” President Bush, on the other hand, blatantly claims “God wanted me to be President.” Such a man is highly dangerous because, like Adolph Hitler, he believes his actions are guided by god and are, thus, predetermined. Such a fatalistic world view makes Bush, like many Republicans, “morally complacent” since they are so obsessed with the end of the world they fail to enjoy life now, or help others in an effort to improve society. Moreover, like these many evangelical fundamentalists, Bush believes in the apocalypse and could conceivably play a significant role in making it happen. And all just to prove the reality of his foolish and weak-minded beliefs. Most regrettably, Bush actually has the power and tools at his disposal to do just that.

One thing the evangelicals are ironically correct in asserting is that we are living in dangerous times. I only hope the end will be of fundamentalism itself and not the world such individuals wish to destroy.