Saturday, June 26, 2004

Where’s Waldo?

The Gods have smiled on me by staging a series of really stupid miracles as if they were determined to teach me an important lesson about synchronicity. Back in the 60’s, for example, I had a night of truly obsessive dreams, all of which involved the unlikely theme of tuna spaghetti sauce. Like golf dreams in which you never actually get to tee off, like sex dreams in which you actually never get to get off, the tuna spaghetti sauce dream was intensely frustrating. Though I courteously informed everybody I didn’t know the recipe for the dish, indeed, had never actually heard of such a thing, people of all kinds kept insisting that I cook it for them. One and after another and then in choruses, women, men, children, talking animals, cartoon characters on television shows, midgets with Munchkin voices, even rows and rows of newborn babies in the hospital all chanted: “Tuna spaghetti sauce! Tuna spaghetti sauce!” And I tried to make what they wanted but either I couldn’t get the stove to light or there wasn’t any pasta or there wasn’t any tuna, always something. I think I must have spent half a sweaty Connecticut summer night tossing and turning as I moaned to myself “Tuna spaghetti sauce! Tuna spaghetti sauce!” I woke up several times during the night, but it didn’t help. No sooner had I got back in bed and fallen asleep than a new variation of the Tuna spaghetti sauce dream would begin. As you’d imagine, when morning finally came, I was relieved to hear the clock radio come on. Relieved that is, until I heard the unmistakable nasal tones of Myra Waldo, New York radio personality and food expert, announcing “Today’s recipe: tuna spaghetti sauce!”

Now I suppose that someone with a more spiritual turn of mind than my own would find some meaning in this episode as I might have myself had the subject matter been less trivial. I’ve never had a similar experience involving the death of a loved one or some other event emotionally significant enough to turn a quirky coincidence into a portent. I do continue to experience equally screwy conjunctures, however. The other day when I was trying to think of an especially odd incident in the Bible to exemplify all the things in scripture that nobody remembers, I considered the story in First Samuel of how God inflicted the Philistines with a plague of hemorrhoids for capturing the Ark of the Covenant. In order to appease Yahweh, the Philistines not only returned the Ark but also sent with it an offering of five golden hemorrhoids and five golden mice. I didn’t use this bit, settling instead on the tale of Ehud and Eglon King of Moab as my example, but I certainly had in mind a day later when I more or less accidentally caught a few minutes from a television interview of Ashley Judd. She was talking to Conan O’Brien about her role in the new movie about Cole Porter. They were talking about somebody’s jewelry and I was suddenly struck with a premonition that she had actually encountered a copy of one of the golden hemorrhoids. Of course that’s exactly what happened. I guess there really is a God.

The well understood arithmetic of coincidence guarantees that this sort of thing will not be especially rare, especially for someone like me who, as I am fond of saying, lives as a kind of intellectual oyster or barnacle that filters an immense stream of information through my brain every day. If I got it into my head to be superstitious, I could be very superstitious indeed. Besides, no doubt as a further consequence of an off-brand nervous system that’s been out of warrantee a very long time, I’ve had a host of uncanny experiences that a more enterprising type could have made into a career as a retail mystic. I used to sleep walk and on one memorable occasion woke up with muddy feet and dressed only in the jacket of a tuxedo. I’ve had repeated and memorable hypnagogic visions and even a couple of ecstasies and long ago learned how to throw myself into a passable imitation of a shamanic trance, though I’ve never been moved to send back a post card from the Land of the Dead. The net effect of all these interior adventures, like the prophetic dream of tuna spaghetti sauce, has been to make me highly skeptical of the value of mysticism itself. Extreme psychological states and uncanny coincidences are like exclamation marks. No matter how much they impress you, they owe whatever meaning they have to the words that precede them.
Principalities and Powers

I admit that Bush exercises a certain fascination, rather like something alarming and mysterious you find sticking to the bottom of your shoe; and, certainly, the American system gives him staggering official power and very real actual power. Political combinations aside, he still commands the loyalty of the dull normals, an enormous voting block. All that said—and these are not insignificant considerations—Bush just isn’t the problem. Evicting him from office may be an indispensable step towards restoring a decent state of affairs, but it is not a sufficient step and it makes a very great difference how he is removed and by whom. That’s why I have very mixed feelings about recent evidence that the CIA is working to unseat Bush.

One can hardly blame the professional spooks for despising an administration that has used them so badly and in so many ways. But it goes beyond making Tenet the in-house fall guy for every disaster or even the cynical and, indeed, criminal outing of Valerie Plane, now in the late cover-up stage. The CIA, in common with many other career defense and intelligence people like Richard Clarke, see the Bush doctrine as potentially fatal to their own much subtler approach to dominating the world. Almost everybody’s an imperialist at this point. The issue is whether the empire should be managed with a certain amount of tact and an awareness of the very real limits of American power or whether we can afford to rub the world’s nose in our endlessly advertised righteousness.

There are plenty of signs that CIA people are busy undermining the administration. Retired intelligence people have been furiously criticizing our unilateral foreign policy, and an active CIA man, writing as Anonymous, will shortly publish a ferocious attack on Bush that predicts that Bin Laden will make a point of undertaking a showy terrorist attack in the United States before the election in order to get his favorite candidate a second term—nothing could have furthered the cause of Islamic radicalism so much as the invasion of Iraq. The appearance of Imperial Hubris is especially significant since active intelligent agents have to get company permission before publishing. It would have been very easy for the CIA to have delayed the book beyond the election if they wished. They didn’t.

We do not know what other actions CIA people are undertaking. They are, after all, accustomed to operating clandestinely. In the first three years of the administration, very little embarrassing paper surfaced about the Bush administration. I suspect the increasing appearance of secret documents and memos over the last six months or so owes something to the activities of disgruntled insiders. Bush is not quite the Lone Ranger in his own administration, but he is having some serious What-You-Mean-We-White-Man moments. Of course the CIA is not the only power group with an ax to grind. I’m sure that plenty of generals would like to get even with Rumsfeld for his highhandedness and micromanagement. The administration should keep an eye on those folks—high-ranking officers are far more intelligent and vastly better trained than the average political hack—and the heads of the various commands are used to exercising independent power.

Military and intelligence groups have long exercised extra-constitutional power in the United States. Democratic presidents, in particular, haven’t been able to rely on the loyalty of the cops, spies, and generals for a very long time; and if some renegade admiral torpedoes a Republican at some point, I guess turn about is fair play. The net effect of the process, however, is to continue the erosion of responsible government in the country. Most of the time, I believe liberal empire is the best available short-term outcome, but it worries me that a Kerry administration is going to have to kiss a lot of rings to achieve even that.

Monday, June 21, 2004

What Caesar Rendered Unto

Recent surveys show that a majority of Americans claim to believe in the literal truth of such Bible stories as the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and the parting of the Red Sea. Although American piety doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the Golden Oldies—who remembers what happened when Ehud stabbed Eglon?—the poll does show an increase in belief. In the most recent studies I’ve seen, however, church attendance and other indexes of religious behavior continue to decline. For most Americans, religion is adherence to a form of words rather than the practice of a form of life, which is a bit of a comfort to us infidels. The government recently argued before the Supreme Court that the “Under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutionally permissible because nobody took it seriously anyway. To judge by what people do, as opposed to what they say, affirming the existence of the Almighty to a pollster is similarly lacking in existential force. However.

A real, as opposed to notional, religious revival is not impossible granted the pathological state of our public discourse and the extremism and irrationality of our political leaders. One should remember that all the great historical religions achieved political and cultural domination through political coercion. Universal religions are systems of compulsion. Before the Conversion of Constantine, Christians were a considerable minority but no more than that. Islam was always an affair of the sword, and even Buddhism only spread widely with the help of the Mauryan emperors. The Church Fathers were well aware that it was Roman imperial power that made their success possible. From their point of view the Empire was a work of providence, part of what they called the preparation for the gospel.

It’s hard to imagine a real theocracy in America, of course; but the right obviously does not believe in the separation of church and state—according to one of the planks in the platform of the Texas Republican Party, the United States should define itself overtly as a Christian country. Professions of traditional belief are already a de facto requirement for high political office in these parts. Free thinkers like Jefferson couldn’t pass the test and the Spinozistic Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have much of a chance either. Much rightwing support for religion is completely cynical—neoconservatives from Leo Strauss on down regard popular faith as a useful fraud—but people like Bush appear to be completely sincere. We don’t know what may happen now that an authentic bigot has the bomb.