Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Thinking About Culture, Nationalism, War, Empire, Rhetoric and Media

(Just some quotes and resources that are helping me think through some themes... )

What is Culture?

(published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion: 64(4), Winter, 1996)
Americans live in a culture that is as religious as any that exists. In this article we contend that nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States, and perhaps in many other countries. Structurally speaking, nationalism mirrors sectarian belief systems such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others that are more conventionally labeled as religious. It happens that nationalism also satisfies many traditional definitions of religion, but citizens of nation-states have religious reasons for denying it. We argue that both sectarian and national religions organize killing energy by committing devotees to sacrifice themselves to the group. We also explore the ritual role of media in propagating national religion. Media are not the most important ritual vehicles for nationalism, but they matter. Though based in empirical observation, our claims are theoretical in nature. Their value lies in re-thinking certain empirical phenomena in relation to notions of nationalism and religion in the contemporary world. Although our examples come mostly from the United States and its majority sectarian faith, and although generalization is risky, the principles we describe are broadly applicable to other enduring groups, defined as groups for which members are willing to give their lives.

Later published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press as Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag

Excerpt from the book:

In the religiously plural society of the United States sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill, for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, rev. ed. London: Verso Books, 1991.

Excerpts from Introduction:

Theorists of nationalism have often been perplexed, not to say irritated, by these three paradoxes: (1) The objective modernity of nations to the historian's eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists. (2) The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept -in the modern world everyone can, should, will 'have' a nationality, as he or she 'has' a gender-vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, 'Greek' nationality is sui generis. (3) The 'political' power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence. In other words, unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers...

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion... In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet. It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith's ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

From the Reading Guide to the book:

In the introduction to his searing portrait of war, Chris Hedges writes, "I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments." Hedges has seen war, and its effect upon those who wage it, at close range. And in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he brings fifteen years of experience reporting from the front lines to bear on the very nature of war itself, its causes and consequences, and the physical, emotional, and moral devastation it leaves in its wake.

Hedges argues that war is both a deadly addiction—a drug that offers an unmatchable intoxication, the thrill of being released from the moral strictures of everyday life—and a unifying force that provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-sacrifice that can wash away life's trivial concerns. But the meaningfulness of combat, Hedges suggests, depends upon the myth of war. In reality, no matter what grand cause it is supposed to support, war is simply the basest form of aggression: "organized murder." Once war begins, the moral universe collapses and every manner of atrocity can be justified in the eyes of those who wage it, because the cause is just, the enemy is inhuman, and only war can restore balance to the world. Hedges reveals the hollowness of such thinking and makes an impassioned plea for humility, love, and compassion as the human race's only hope for survival. Only when a nation can accept its share of blame and see its enemy with compassion rather than hatred can war be averted and true peace prevail.

Combining a great erudition of the literature of war—from Homer to Shakespeare to Viktor Frankl—with an unflinching focus on the particular and terrifying reality of combat, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a sobering book whose relevance could not be more pointed.

Excerpt from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:
Once we sign on for war's crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.

The eruption of conflict instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation. War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.

George Orwell in "1984" wrote of the necessity of constant wars against the Other to forge a false unity among the proles: "War had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.... The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil."

Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. Never mind the murder and repression done in our name by bloody surrogates from the Shah of Iran to the Congolese dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who received from Washington well over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid during the three decades of his rule. And European states--especially France--gave Mobutu even more as he bled dry one of the richest countries in Africa. We define ourselves. All other definitions do not count.

War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

Video presentation by Chris Hedges on the Themes of the book

Citizens of the Empire by Robert Jensen

After an antiwar talk in which I sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy, a student asked me, "Don't you find it hard to live being so cynical?" When I responded that I thought my comments were critical but not cynical, he asked, "But how can being so critical not make you cynical?"

The student was equating any critique of injustice produced by institutions and systems of power with cynicism about people. His question made me realize how easy is cynicism and how difficult is sustained critique in this culture, which shouldn't surprise us. People with power are perfectly happy for the population to be cynical, because that tends to paralyze people and leads to passivity. Those same powerful people also do their best to derail critique -- the process of working to understand the nature of things around us and offering judgments about them -- because that tends to energize people and leads to resistance. Understanding the difference between critique and cynicism -- and the difference between hope and optimism -- is crucial to the future of any struggle against injustice.

At this moment in history, those struggles must not only be about trying to win changes in policies but also about the reinvigoration of public life -- a call for participation, for politics, for radical citizenship in reactionary times. Radical and reactionary in this sense are not used to describe specific political positions, left versus right, but instead describe an approach not just to politics, narrowly defined, but to the central questions of what it means to be a human being in connection with others. The world we live in is reactionary because it is trying to squeeze those important human dimensions out of us in the political sphere and constrict the range of discussion so much that politics does seem to many to be useless. To resist that one must be radical, be political and be radical in public politically.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Problems of Dostoyesky’s Poetics. ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1984.

Monologism at its extreme denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach…another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness. No response is expected from it that could change everything in the world of my consciousness. Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other's response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any decisive force. Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality. Monologue pretends to be the ultimate word. It closes down the represented world and represented persons. (Bakhtin: 292-93)

The dialogic nature of consciousness. The dialogic nature of human life itself. The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open- ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium. (Bakhtin: 293)

Winning Modern Wars by General Wesley Clark

The truth is, the war with Iraq began in early January 1991-with the congressional resolution authorizing President George H. W. Bush to use military force to liberate Kuwait-and the war hasn't ended yet.

Take Them At Their Words by Bruce J. Miller

"The cost of the war will be small. We can afford the war, and we'll put it behind us."
—Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, New York Times, 3/9/03

"The loss of innocent life is a tragedy for anyone involved in it, but the numbers are really very low."
— Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Chicago Tribune, 8/17/03

"And there is, I am certain, among the Iraqi people a respect for the care and the precision that went into their bombing campaign. It was not a long air campaign. It didn't last for weeks. And there was minimal collateral damage -- unintended damage."
— Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld,, 4/9/03

"If we don't know for sure they're going to do something, or not, we need to make sure that we prevent anything they may be planning, whether or not we know or don't know about it."
— FBI agent quoted by Nicholas von Hoffman, New York Observer, 11/3/03

"And I said on my program, if the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush administration again."
— Bill O'Reilly, "Good Morning America," ABC, 3/18/03

"The president of the United States is not a fact-checker."
— A "senior administration official," discussing George W. Bush's use of faulty intelligence in the State of the Union address, Los Angeles Times, 7/29/03

"I don't understand how poor people think."
— George W. Bush, New York Times, 8/26/03

"We're poor people."
— Newt Gingrich, describing his wife and himself, Denver Post, 12/29/95

"When I see someone who is making anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000 a year, that's middle class."
— Rep. Fred Heineman, R-N.C., Washington Post, 10/29/96

"I thought [Jesus Christ] was a free enterpriser ... He was a carpenter's son and I thought he was doing well. He was able to change water into wine; now that to me is the classic definition of a guy in the entrepreneurial spirit."
— Gov. Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., responding to a reporter who asked him if Jesus was a socialist, Madison (Wis.) Capital Times, 7/10/96

"God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
— Ann Coulter, "Hannity & Colmes," Fox News, 6/20/01

- David Berman, Teacher (January 22, 2004; New York, NY)
"What is the difference between an adult and a child, or a good government and a poor government? The ability to think in the long term. Thinking short term: we topple Saddam now, while creating generations of enemies for the future; we act unilaterally now, weakening the alliances that ensure a peaceful future; we fail to provide regular health care now, guaranteeing emergency room visits in the future; we run up deficits now, which will be a huge burden for the future; we do standardized testing now, instead of investing in schools and teachers for the future; we support energy company profits now, rather than protecting clean air and old growth forests for the future...In every way, the Bush policies are about making an impression now at the expense of the future. To defeat Bush, this must be made clear to all the adults who, because they have children, have some reason to care about the future."

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear by Wendell Berry

What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.

The Problem of the Media by Robert McChesney

The corporate domination of both the media system and the policy-making process that establishes and sustains it causes serious problems for a functioning democracy and a healthy culture. Media are not the only factor in explaining the woeful state of our democracy, but they are a key factor. It is difficult to imagine much headway being made on the crucial social issues that face our nation given how poorly they are covered by the current U.S. media system. The democratic solution to this problem is to increase informed public participation in media policy making. The corporate media powers-that-be and their political surrogates oppose this prospect because they know that when the public understands that the media system is the result of explicit public policies and not natural law, the public will probably demand reforms.

The corporate-insider hegemony over media policy debates, and the lack of public participation, are encouraged and protected ideologically by eight myths surrounding media in the United States. … The first myth is that media do not matter that much—that they merely reflect reality, rather than shape it. In fact, media are asocial force in their own right, and not just a reflection of other forces. These are complex relationships, often difficult to disentangle, because media are so interwoven into the fabric of our lives. It is noteworthy that the argument that media have little or no social effect became prominent precisely as commercial interests locked up their control over media industries in the mid-twentieth century. Proponents of this argument would like us to overlook the fact that media sell billions of dollars worth of advertising on the belief that they, indeed, have tremendous influence.

…the second myth—that the corporate, commercial media system is “natural,” the intent of the Founders, and the logical outgrowth of democracy. In fact, the vision of a free press held during the first few generations of the republic was diametrically opposed to the contemporary idea that a free press means letting media owners do whatever they can to maximize profit. The early republic provided lavish subsidies to support a diverse range of media the market would never have supported; these press policies were sometimes generated by widespread public debate. The notion that letting media owners maximize profit would necessarily generate a free press came much later, when powerful media owners with a decided self-interest propagated that view. Those of us who argue for informed policy making, for enlightened and proactive policies to enhance a vibrant free press, do not stand outside the historical tradition of freedom of the press in the United States. We are the tradition.

The third myth is that debates concerning media policy in the United States have accurately reflected the range of public opinion and public interests. … important policy making has been and still is to the creation of the U.S. media system, … By the late twentieth century, media policy making was the private playground of a handful of powerful corporate lobbies and trade associations. The public knew next to nothing about the crucial debates over policies that would set the terms for the media system and it played almost no role whatsoever in their development. … the basis for understanding why the resultant media system is so deeply flawed: it is set up to serve the needs of a relative handful of profit- seeking corporations and wealthy investors. In that sense our media system is a success because it does that very well. But lost in the shuffle are the requirements of a democratic and self-governing people.

The fourth myth is that commercial media unquestionably provide the highest quality journalism possible—the caliber of journalism a democracy necessitates for informed self-government. This is a curious myth because on the surface the notion of subjecting journalism to commercial principles is a nonstarter. What sort of integrity can the news have if it can be bought and sold like . . . advertising? The inherent problem with commercial journalism is a major reason that professionalism in journalism emerged a century ago. Yet built within the journalists’ professional code are significant flaws that limit its usefulness. Those flaws, combined with media owners’ pressures on journalism to generate maximum profit, offer a recipe for disaster. …

The fifth myth is that the news media in the United States today have a “left-wing” bias. This is a peculiar myth, of recent vintage in the United States, and not prevalent in very many other nations. … the reason for its prevalence has little to do with the intellectual strength of the arguments and a great deal to do with the right-wing political muscle behind them, including conservative power within the mainstream media. What this myth does, more than anything else, is reinforce and accentuate the core problems with commercial journalism. Right-wing media bashing and commercial journalism, rather than being antagonistic, constitute a marriage made in heaven.

The sixth myth is that the commercial media, due to the competitive pressure for profit, “give the people what they want”—so the only policy option is to unleash the market. Government policies that interfere with the market substitute the prerogatives of a bureaucrat, no matter how well informed or intended, with the will of the people as expressed in the market. Government actions therefore are antidemocratic and should be kept to a minimum, largely to protect private property rights. If there is a problem with the media, it is not due to the system or the policies that put the system in place but to “the people” who demand the content that the commercial media firms obediently provide. This may well be the most important myth of all, partly because it contains an element of truth. At a certain level it seems like it must be true; after all, why wouldn’t profit- seeking firms try to satisfy the market? But upon close inspection, the argument has a number of flaws. … Not only does the market not necessarily give us what we want, but it also gives us plenty of what we do not want. In particular, the commercial media system has generated a hyper-commercial carpet bombing of our culture that is decidedly unwelcome by much of the population.

The seventh myth is that technologies determine the nature of media. This is a long-standing position and it, too, contains a small element of truth; the nature of media technologies does indeed have distinct effects upon the nature of the media system and its content. … The Internet, we are told, will set us free. All we have to do is let the technology work its magic. Long-standing and lucrative commercial media industries, such as network commercial television and the music recording industry, appear to be in the process of a radical transformation, if not an elimination, by these new technologies. Indeed, to a casual observer, these technologies are so extraordinary as to render public policies unimportant. But nothing of the kind is true. These satellite and the Internet technologies themselves are the direct result of policies and subsidies. How they are going to be developed is not predetermined. It has everything to do with explicit policies, and commercial pressures wrought by those policies. Indeed, powerful commercial interests use this myth to prevent the public from pursuing alternative policies.
Finally, there is the myth that no alternative to the status quo will improve matters. No matter how many flaws are present, the status quo offers the best of all possible media worlds. In shorthand, the options are usually presented as one of corporate control versus one of government control. Jefferson or Stalin. This framing is dubious; societies can and do have mixed systems all the time. Even a “market” system is based on layers of explicit government policies and laws that make it possible. The point of this claim is patently ideological— to retard the growing awareness among citizens that they can create a media system superior to the one that currently serves the needs of a handful of media corporations. In fact … there are rich traditions in media policy making from which citizens may draw guidance. The logic of my argument is that a democratic media system—or a democratic solution to the problem of the media, as I put it—would necessitate a large, well-funded, structurally pluralistic, and diverse nonprofit and noncommercial media sector, as well as a more competitive and decentralized commercial sector. Where economics preclude competitive commercial markets, there must be transparent regulation in the public interest. The reforms I envision should be content neutral and viewpoint neutral. This does not mean they would generate bland content, but rather that the reforms would not favor a specific viewpoint over others. We need to think creatively, not be imprisoned by the myth that there can be no alternative to the status quo but the gulag. The exact contours of such a media system must be determined by informed and widespread public debate. Without that, media reform and a democratic media system are unthinkable.

Unless all eight of these myths are subjected to critical analysis, the prospects for energizing popular participation in media policy making are remote. That most of these myths are accepted as revealed truth in mainstream political culture helps explain why so many groups that have a stake in media policy debates and should be active in them—for example, environmentalists, civil rights activists, labor unions, working journalists—have generally not engaged in the fight.

No comments: