Fool’s Errand

"The Fool," Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit:  Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

“The Fool,” Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit: Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

Andrew Bacevich, historian of American militarism and empire, has declared the U.S. war against the Islamic State a fool’s errand. His argument is captured in the title of his Washington Post opinion piece, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war.”

The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.

Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment.  (more…)

Ambrose Bierce on the Meaning of War

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

Ambrose Bierce—Indiana youth, Civil War soldier, and newspaper writer—did not much like people. His infantry years were perhaps the highlight of his life, even though he killed men in battle and was, himself, shot in the head.

Bierce took a rather bitter view of human affairs. His two sons preceded him in death, one committing suicide and another dying from complications of alcoholism. He divorced his wife, suffered from asthma, and finally disappeared at age 71, supposedly into the chaos of the Mexican revolution, where maybe he joined up with Pancho Villa and perhaps wrote to a friend that he expected to be “stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags,” which “beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.” (more…)

Day of the People (Día de la Raza)

Salvador Dalí, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959, oil on canvas, 410 x 284 cm, St. Petersburg, Florida: Salvador Dalí Museum.

Salvador Dalí, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, 1959, oil on canvas, 410 x 284 cm, St. Petersburg, Florida: Salvador Dalí Museum.

My grandmother was a retired 1st grade schoolteacher who lived in a large cement house with my uncle (my mother’s brother) in the barrio of Los Pinos in Havana. She had come to Cuba with her family as an adolescent from Barcelona, and was already a widow when I was born. Every day when I returned home from school I would receive a supplementary education from her. (more…)

Founding Mothers

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrea, 1750.

Weary of the litany of yet another clownish politician invoking the Founding Fathers of the country without acknowledging Founding Mothers, I wrote down the following list of exceptional women who should be given no less credit for the formation of the soul and character of the nation.

The list parts from two premises: 1) following Mark Twain, the belief that political institutions are only a small part of the life of a country; and 2) that unless you are the goddess Athena, sprung motherless from Zeus’ brow, all human beings and activities can trace their origins back not only to fathers, but also mothers.

Borges once said that all lists immediately compel the memory of names and things that are left out of the list. He implied that the true purpose of lists is precisely to highlight the names of people and things that have been left out. In that spirit, and with no conviction of being complete or exclusive, the following personal minimal list is offered: (more…)

American Underdog

Underdog. (Credit: Randomnessu / Wikimedia Commons)

Underdog. (Credit: Randomnessu / Wikimedia Commons)

The archetypal myth of the underdog is not always so explicit as David slaying Goliath or so blatant as Rocky Balboa defeating Soviet boxer Ivan Drago on Christmas Day in Moscow. Sometimes the myth is veiled but equally compelling.

Walter Pincus’ recent report in the Washington Post on the “Islamic State’s Bloody Message Machine” is a case in point. The story in paraphrase goes like this: (more…)

FOX Gets It

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.  (Credit:  FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

Fox News, is an American basic cable and satellite news television channel that is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. (Credit: FOX News Channel / Wikimedia Commons)

My nephew made a good point the other day when he asked, tongue in cheek, “Who would watch FOX if they didn’t constantly make it sound like the sky is falling?” I had been mocking the network’s cynical claim to render the news “fair and balanced.”

FOX’s motto is an affront to many of my political ilk. Embedding rightwing talking points into its “hard news” reporting is commonplace. Likewise, introducing a discussion of immigration policy with a Rush Limbaugh rant, conducting a rhetorical war on Obamacare with one-sided coverage and newsroom graphics such as “HEALTH CARE LAW INCLUDES 20 NEW OR INCREASED TAXES ON AMERICAN FAMILIES OR SMALL BUSINESSES,” or featuring former Reagan aide K T McFarland to discuss White House “excuses” for Benghazi—all of this is business as usual (Eric Wemple, “Fox News All Day: Hard and Conservative).

Bill O’Reilly, host of FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, knows the motto well. By his own account, he is “the fairest guy on the planet.” Mitt Romney knows that FOX News viewers are “true believers.” And nearly half the people in a 2011 poll (including 77% of the Republicans surveyed) believe FOX News is “fair and balanced.”

An academic colleague of mine vowed to watch FOX News only. I feared for his soul. A year later he was still sane and seemingly not possessed. (more…)

Through Heavy Lenses

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour).  (Credit:  NBC Television)

Photo of Jonathan Winters performing one of his routines on the television program NBC Comedy Hour (formerly known as the Colgate Comedy Hour). (Credit: NBC Television)

My colleague, the maestro Jeff Thomson—an astounding painter and scene designer—is fond of re-enacting an old comic skit by the great Jonathan Winters. Winters plays an army general who is giving a speech for his troops before going into battle:

“I wanted to be with you, but they need me here. However, I will be observing through heavy lenses.”

Like Winters’ general, we are fond of using other people—sometimes foreign, but local to the theater of war—to fight our wars. We arm them, provide them with a meagre subsistence, praise them with idealistic rhetoric, and send them into battle while we watch—judgmentally—through heavy lenses. This cynical strategy usually ends up badly for the combatants. (more…)

Whack-a-Mole

President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.  (Harrywad / Wikimedia Commons)

President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. (Harrywad / Wikimedia Commons)

The senator who opposed the Iraq War is now—as President—engaging in an Iraq War. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is authorizing air strikes in the Middle East. The candidate who lost a presidential race because he opposed, as a young veteran, the Vietnam War is now—as Secretary of State—organizing allies for a war campaign in Syria. The senator who opposed George Bush’s policy of torturing enemy combatants, and who made a mark in his presidential race by singing bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran, is gleeful at last that his advice has been heeded, and that we are bombing someone.

For once again, another barbarous Devil has appeared in the Middle East; yet again, another heinous adversary threatens “American Interests” (read “American Money”) and “National Security” (read “American Power”). The land is plagued by a Hydra Monster; no sooner does the U.S. cut off one head, another one grows in its place. (more…)

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Democratic Tension

Democratic encounters are laden with tension. They expose us to disagreements rooted in different experiences and orientations. Yet, to seek consensus (typically defined as general agreement, shared judgment, or solidarity of sentiment and opinion) as an escape from tension is an act of exclusion that diminishes the democratic self.

Democracy without the tension of dissent is anemic and unsustainable. To stay healthy, a democratic society must engage differing opinions. Yes, it is difficult to listen to those with whom we disagree, and we should try harder, but the burden of being heard falls mostly on those who speak from a minority perspective. That’s just how political power operates. It is not self-checking.

The dissonant voice of otherness disturbs the prevailing order. It creates tension. It challenges the limits of the collective self. It disturbs habits of thought. It disrupts the geography of the mind. (more…)

Reviving Democracy

"The Argument" by Austin  Wright (DavidKF1949 / Wikimedia Commons).

“The Argument” by Austin Wright (DavidKF1949 / Wikimedia Commons).

There is a strand of U.S. political culture that distrusts democracy, considers it malignant, and wishes to keep it safely contained. Yet, Americans also celebrate democracy, fight wars to defend it, and even hope to spread it throughout the world. In the first instance, democracy is a disease, which its critics hope to quarantine. In the second instance, democracy is diseased when the people lose their capacity to exercise it.

When Robert Reich says, “American Democracy Is Diseased” (August 20, 2014), he means the people have lost their power of collective self-rule. “Most Americans feel powerless, and assume the political game is fixed,” he observes. Only 13% currently approve of the work of Congress, which is supposedly the people’s branch of government. Over 40% didn’t even vote in the last presidential election. People don’t think their opinion matters in today’s political climate, and they are right. Reich reports that a forthcoming study in Perspectives on Politics (“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”) by Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) confirms the perception of the public’s powerlessness. Economic elites, business groups, and mass-based interest groups influence public policy. The preferences of average citizens, the study concludes, “have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” (more…)