Tricksters

Toxic Language Alert for Campaign 2020: Confounding Populism with Demagoguery

Note:  This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at a rally at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 7 March 2019. (Credit: Matt A. Johnson)

In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,”  noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.”  One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.

As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery. (more…)

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Ghostly Metaphor: War at a Bargain

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Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.

Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)

Our Political Whirlwind

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Photo credit: Daphne Zaras.

The whirlwind of today’s politics is exhausting and demoralizing.  I am emotionally drained by the relentless storm of acrimony and dismayed by its destructive force.  What is there left to say in the face of all of this?  Many of us share a sense of anomie.  Political talk is unmoored to democratic values.

The swirl of political communication is frenetic.  We read distractedly in this digital age, observes Joe Moran.  We skim; we don’t read anything that’s too long.  We ingest information rapidly; we write and read urgently; we harvest quick bursts of words and images.  “Perhaps,” Moran suggests, “we should slow down.”  (more…)

Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]

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Democratic Counterpoint

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Detail from “Government.” Mural by Elihu Vedder. 1896. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.

To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.

The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless.  (more…)

A Cloud of Imperial Hubris

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.

A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.

We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall.  (more…)

Bogart and the Sierra Madre

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Treasure of Sierra Madre (film) – 1948 Movie still. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Excerpt from The Gospel of Scarface, Chapter 1, “Shakespearean Villains”)

In The Big Sleep (1946) we see in Bogart’s face, in Bogart’s actions, the performer always thinking, which translates into the detective thinking all the time, insistent on dissipating the shroud of mystery that confronts him. Bogart’s best performances reveal an abstraction, a state of mind and feeling made manifest by a created, if limited pattern of movement and sound.

The destruction of this thinking mind, the loss of control of this detective, the descent into the emotional and psychological chaos of the gangster and the outlaw—who now becomes a full-fledged monster—is what Bogart achieves in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). (more…)

Our Undemocratic War Machine

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Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)

A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.

A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.

A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”

Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace.  “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.”  (more…)

Crossing of the Rio Grande

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“Coronado sets out for the north” by Frederic Remington, oil painting, circa 1890-1900. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Donald Trump is hollering that “caravans of immigrants” are headed for the US border. He threatens to suspend both DACA and NAFTA in retaliation.

We know our president does not know very much, and does not care to know. But just so we remember who we are and where we came from, I offer the following from my Stories of the Conquest of the Kingdom of New Mexico. The passage is written with apologies to Ray Bradbury and his much admired The Martian Chronicles.) (more…)

Two-Minute War

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Capt. Anthony Deiss, a public affairs officer with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Dakota Army National Guard, visits with Richard Engel, NBC news correspondent, 7 July 2010, at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Sgt. Rebecca Linder, U.S. Army)

I have been watching network news regularly over the past year, since Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I am not a big fan of network news. I default to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian for more complete coverage. But the evening television news, given its entertainment format, is a way of keeping up with popularized versions of daily events.

It is easy to be ensnared and stupefied by the evening news melodrama. While watching the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on March 15, I was suddenly alerted by my internal propaganda detector to a two-minute story about a previously secret skirmish in Syria between US special forces and Russian mercenaries. The incident had occurred a month earlier, on February 7, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS forces recently had been driven off. Americans directly engaged Russians in combat for the first time in 50 years. The US officer in charge, Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, was concerned that the battle could lead to real war with Russia. (more…)