Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seventy Years Ago Today ...

.. the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats went down into the hollow hills to rest with his ancestors.

Can anyone read those last two ineffable lines from his most famous poem without getting a cold chill? I've never been able to. Hell, I'm reading them right this second and they're totally freaking me out.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, January 26, 2009

I thought maybe it was just me and Jon Stewart

Jon and I were in agreement that the "inaugural poem" was a pedestrian, mundane bit of instantly-forgettable fluff, suitable for lulling small children (and not a few adults) to sleep, but not good for much else. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that Jon and I aren't alone.

... it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a cliché ("Each day we go about our business"), before going on to tell the nation "I know there's something better down the road"; and pose the knotty question, "What if the mightiest word is ‘love'?"; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp." The poem's argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou's, Williams's, and even Robert Frost's inauguration poems already proved: that the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd ...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Duty Now For The Future

Decades ago – long before I became gray and respectable – I was a big fan of the punk rock band Devo. I found myself remembering their second album just now; specifically, the title of the album: “Duty Now For The Future.” Today, that phrase seems to carry an unexpected weight; it seems pregnant with meaning and promise.

As I write these words, President Obama has just finished his inaugural address. It was an address for the ages, and yet one that was desperately needed at this particular time in our history. It pointed the way forward with resonant themes from a simpler and more honest time. The themes of duty, sacrifice, responsibility, obligation, and service.

To which I can only respond: it’s about time. Long past time, in fact. Long past time for Americans across the entire political spectrum (as well as those who consider themselves apolitical) to embody these ideas -- ideas that have recently been misappropriated by the hard-right fringe of the body politic and used as blunt instruments of political demagoguery.

It’s a funny thing about America: almost no one talked about duties anymore. All we hear from Americans is the endless din about “rights.” The idea that our rights can exist in a social vacuum, without a corresponding set of duties, is a toxic idea that is poisoning America. We have come to believe that we are nothing more than individuals, and that as such all we need concern ourselves with is rights, and never with obligations.

Let’s talk about obligations for a change, and about duties. A philosophy that proclaims the idea that rights do not have their basis in duty and obligation must inevitably result in a sick, narcissistic citizenry, a citizenry from whom the endless, birds-nest cheeps of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” has reached deafening volume. It is time for less talk about our rights as citizens, and more talk about our duties as citizens.

Obama is not calling America to service because such service is "needed” in any practical sense. He is calling for service, and sacrifice, and a sense of obligation because these are the rhetorical clarion calls by which one inculcates a sense of shared duties and national solidarity, without which no healthy, committed society can be built or surv

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Adieu, George

Goodbye, George. It’s time for you to go. Long past time, to be blunt. The low, shameful years during which you strutted and fretted upon the world stage, full of sound and fury but signifying less than nothing, are finally over. And what an eight years they have been! They were certainly the most eventful period in my lifetime -- and I’m old enough to remember the Nixon era. It feels strange now, at the end, to be so completely indifferent to you and anything you might have left to say or do. All I can manage now is a sense of weary resignation at the prospect of cleaning up the mess you’ve left behind. You’ve left us so much to be angry about, if we only had the energy to be angry.

Terrorism? You’re 0-1 on the terrorism front, George. Much as you’d like us to believe that you magically appeared on the scene on 9/12/01 and took charge, the simple fact is that the attacks of 9/11 took place eight months into your watch. You “own” them, George – and you own the consequences.

Your self-described role as “war president,” a role you embraced with such juvenile abandon? You’re 0-2 there. Iraq, that monument to ego and hubris, remains a question mark; my personal sense is that, within a couple of years after we complete our withdrawal, the locals will go back to slaughtering each other with the same gusto with which they’ve slaughtered each other for 1500 years. As for Afghanistan, the good war, the war that a majority of Americans – including me – believe we needed to fight, things there are going very badly indeed. Your hand-picked puppet, Ahmid Kharzai, has been reduced to nothing more than the de facto mayor of Kabul, and an independent analysis recently concluded that the Taliban have managed to put “a stranglehold around Kabul.” Afghanistan cannot end well, and history will blame your pointless sideshow in Iraq for the loss.

Let’s turn to the economy, George. The consequences of particular brand of laissez-faire, buccaneer Capitalism has forced the pundits and economists to keep reaching farther and farther back in American history to find comparisons. In some cases, they’ve had to reach all the way back to those halcyon days of Herbert Hoover to find equivalent levels of damage to our economic structure inflicted by the man in the White House. Think of it, George: for centuries to come, historians will mention your name in the same breath as Herbert Hoover.

And looming over all of it, possibly the greatest obscenity of your entire time with us, is the disaster known as “Katrina.” What made it a disaster was your sad, laughable (non) response to the crisis; if there was ever a moment when the phrase “crime of omission” had meaning, it was in August 2005.

It’s an odd thing, George: if one were of a paranoid mindset, one might wonder: do you actually hate America? It’s a question that really does need to be asked, so complete and all-encompassing has been the damage you have inflicted on America in your relatively brief time at the helm.

As you strut off into the sunset in your trademark plenty-tough kippy-ki-yay cowboy fashion, grinning that inane, pointless grin of yours, many millions of us who were foolish enough to open the door and let you in back in 2000 struggle to find a way to forgive ourselves for playing a part, however small, in all the damage that you have inflicted on our country and on our world.

Your hour upon the stage is over, George. Finally, and forever – go!

R.I.P. Number Six

Veteran actor Patrick McGoohan died today at the age of 80. I will
always remember him for that one brilliant season of his life,
that "Citizen Kane" moment when he created, from sheer talent, drive,
and force of will, the most disturbing and thoughtful TV series
ever: "The Prisoner." The first time the series was broadcast here in
the US, I sat riveted for every episode. In the closing minutes
of the last episode, I had to tear myself away and run to the
bathroom, and so did not get to see the final, shattering revelation
in which we discover the answer to the question that haunts the opening credits
of every episode: "Who is Number 1?" (my mother saw it, but
she refused to tell me -- she just smirked and winked). Many years
later, when the series re-ran, I caught it and this time made sure
not to miss the end of the last episode. Once I realized what I had just
seen, I thought to myself: "Of course. Who else could Number 1 have

In honor of McGoohan?s masterwork, I resurrected an essay I wrote back
in early 2003; it's the first sustained piece I wrote after coming
back to writing after a (30-year) "hiatus" from writing.



Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated

with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:

‘Where am I?’

‘In The Village.’

‘What do you want?’


‘Who are you?’

‘I am Number Two.’

‘Who is Number One?’

‘You are Number Six.’

‘I am not a number! I am a free man!!’

In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a

nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can

leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable

to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim

to want ‘information’.

The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the

ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their

individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme.

Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged, betrayed.

In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen,

is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible

infrastructure, under the supervision – but not the control -- of Number Two,

whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned.

Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his

mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number

One, and above all to escape.

Or so we are led to believe.

In each episode, Number Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one

side wins, and sometimes the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long.

The battle, seemingly endless and epic to those of us who are old enough to

have watched the series every week when it was first on TV, actually only went

on for 17 episodes. There is a continuing controversy about what ‘order’ the

episodes ‘should’ be viewed in (the production sequence is known not to match

the original UK broadcast sequence, for instance), and most viewers were

disoriented by the non-linear and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The

Prisoner was full of bizarre and memorable features – the fairytale Village,

canopied penny-farthing bicycle, piped blazers and striped capes, golf umbrellas

and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.

The series makes the viewer work – which, for many of us, is a large part of its

enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to

compare with it.

Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner from soup to nuts, as a follow-on to his

immensely popular spy show ‘Danger Man’ (release in the US as ‘Secret Agent’).

To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The

Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond

and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to

the small screen.

The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held?

Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number

One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity

changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in

subsequent episodes without explanation).

Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-

gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a

postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and

‘Prisoner-based fiction’ offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning

(think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the

complaint, ‘Catch a grip, it’s only a TV program’, many contemporary thinkers

(Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must

be taken seriously.

Television As Text

It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described

at the time as a ‘puzzling failure’, mutate into something so complex? How did it

take on such a life of its own?

In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The

Prisoner as a ‘text’.

As arguably the most ‘literary’ of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be –

indeed, must be – confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a

given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of

mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than

the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains

strata of significance that the series’ creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never

imagined – and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was

written into it.

One of the more fruitful ‘reads’ of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical

Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The

Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is

something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village

attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel

that Number Six must be somehow complicit – that Number Six is, in some

obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and


Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing

‘power’, the principles of which are defined in Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and

evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable.

Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he

may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed

in a Village-wide scale.

Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village,

there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very

first episode (‘Arrival’), he stumbles across the Village old people’s home, a clear

signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here ‘for the duration’.

The Village is sort of like Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces.

Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode – without success.

He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with

just ‘6’ on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as

the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors,

only to discover that Number Two – who he met upon his arrival -- has been

replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without

explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone’s part).

Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft

show in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, Number Six presents his work called ‘Escape’. It

wins first prize. He seems to escape in ‘Many Happy Returns’, making his way

back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He

spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village.

Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The

Village. Our protagonist isn’t going anywhere, it would seem.


A second major subtext of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels

with the subtext of escape) is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is

excluded from the discourse of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual

deviant? Perhaps all of the above, and more. Number Six clearly and

persistently poses a threat, and that threat is ‘not so much the crime committed

(at least in isolation) but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual

and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions

in this as an apparatus of knowledge.’ Like the rebellious chess Rook in

‘Checkmate’, Number Six exhibits the ‘cult of the individual’, which simply cannot

be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not – or can not – let him

leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a

‘rebel’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘Unmutual’ (the most heinous crime of all). ‘The

suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the

object of suspicion and be completely innocent.’

The most striking characteristic of Number Six’s ordeal is that it seems primarily

intended to simply regulate his body. They don’t particularly want him to believe

anything; they simply want to contain his body. Their claims that ‘we want

information’ ring hollow; they really don’t make any credible efforts to obtain any

information. There are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses

that the interrogator’s heart really isn’t in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of

normalcy. Repeatedly, and with bitter gusto. Why don’t they kill him? Or at least,

put his body under some more draconian form of control?

His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a

premonition of this in ‘Checkmate’ when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies

his empathic ‘sixth sense’ on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from

warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces

Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight

based, on some level, in fact?

Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The

dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, ‘to the victor go the

spoils.’ Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power.

Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though

imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the

knowledge – ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.

The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is

voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is

unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to

do so would invalidate his power.

Number Six realizes what none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize:

that surveillance is a two way street. This is explored throughout the series by

means of the constant salutation ‘Be Seeing You’, which courtesy prescribes as

the thing to say when taking one’s leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb

and forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a

camera, perhaps?), and toss off one’s hand in a salute while chirping ‘Be Seeing

You’ with manufactured congeniality.

Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips.

When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns ‘Be Seeing You’

into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I’m watching

you, as well. And biding my time.

I Am Number Two

Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic

apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet

Number Two’s primary function is that of an observer, and the constant,

obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a

function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during an


The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared

towards forcing Number Six to ‘make his honorable amends’. Yet there is

something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number

Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in

computer terms, ‘interrupt-driven’; he awaits detailed work direction from Number

One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the

interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of ‘supervisors,

perpetually supervised’. Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master,

Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. ‘The investigation, the exercise of

common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more

subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical


It is important to keep in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, ‘was also a

laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter

behavior, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and

monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to

their crimes and characters, and to seek the most effective ones.’

Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various ‘science

experiments’ inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to

notice that, as the series ‘evolves’, Number Six seems almost in cahoots with

Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own


Fall Out

This possible complicity becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be

on the look-out for it. The episode ‘Living in Harmony’ deploys a key element,

one carefully hidden in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The

episode opens with a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene.

Riding out of town, the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called

‘Harmony’. He tries several escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town

judge wants him to be the new Sheriff – but the man refuses. This theme

resonates through the series – the powers that be in the Village want Number Six

to do something, something involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number

Six refuses, avoids. His efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic.

Things continue to slip into … what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-

Freudian thing? In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we see Foucault’s proposition that the

prison structure can be deployed in all aspects of modernity when we see

Number Two morph into Number Six’s father, then his teacher, coach, employer,

judge, officer, and prison guard. Number Six plays the parts of the son, student,

athlete, employee, accused, soldier, and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay

of power relationships, Number Two drops dead at Number Six’s feet. ‘The rule

was that if the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess, the magistrate was forced

to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.’

A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.

‘What do you desire?’

‘Number One.’

‘I’ll take you.’

As ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.

You Are Number Six

The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to

unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has

come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.

As ‘Fall Out’ begins, we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who

gives a long speech to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are

‘gathered together in a state of democratic crisis’ and that ‘Number Six has

survived the ultimate test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.’

This speech is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one

in mind of Number Two’s advice in ‘Dance of the Dead’: ‘if you insist on living in

a dream, you may be taken for mad.’ Indeed.

Number Six is given traveler’s checks, his passport, and the keys to his London

flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by

their inane chanting of ‘I, I, I’ (or could it perhaps be ‘Eye, Eye, Eye’?).

Things happen quickly now.

Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a

room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the

‘Number One’.

Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask.

Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. (‘I’ve made

a monkey out of you’, perhaps?)

Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own

face. His own laughing face.

So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true

nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to

our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how ‘all-seeing’ The Village’s

Panopticon really is.

We are now in a position to deploy an alternative – and more productive – read

of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question ‘Who is

Number One?’ the response

‘You are Number Six’

is really

‘You are, Number Six.’

The prisoner and the jailer are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire

internal landscape as ‘The Village’ is what we arrive at after all of our

protagonist’s struggles and heroics. As the Village saying goes, ‘Questions are a

burden to others. Answers, a prison for oneself.’ Finding the answer to his

screamed question, ‘Who is Number One???’ reveals a prison inescapable.

In a construct where every person is constantly and completely surveilled,

Number Six’s parting words – ‘Be seeing you!’ – can be fully understood as both

a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.

The Prisoner is ‘an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the

novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the

internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.’

The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner’s little life

is rounded by a sleep.

So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?

Appendix: Episode Guide With Original Air Dates

1. Arrival (10/1/1967)
2. The Chimes Of Big Ben (10/8/1967)
3. A B And C (10/15/1967)
4. Free For All (10/22/1967)
5. The Schizoid Man (10/29/1967)
6. The General (11/5/1967)
7. Many Happy Returns (11/12/1967)
8. Dance Of The Dead (11/26/1967)
9. Checkmate (12/3/1967)
10. Hammer Into Anvil (12/10/1967)
11. It's Your Funeral (12/17/1967)
12. A Change Of Mind (12/31/1967)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (1/7/1968)
14. Living In Harmony (1/14/1968)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (1/21/1968)
16. Once Upon A Time (1/28/1968)
17. Fall Out (2/4/1968)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Irish "pattern days"

Everybody thinks that my ancestors the Irish are, along with the Italians and the Spanish, the most Catholic people in Europe. I'm starting to wonder. I've been researching a lot lately (the whole "getting in touch with one's ancient roots" thing), and last night I had a moment of Zen reading this article about the oddly-named "pattern days." First time I heard of them, I thought "oh you whacky, Jesus-smitten Micks, any excuse to worship some 3rd-rate Saint." Then I read this and discovered that "pattern" was a slur of "patrun," which was a slur of "patron," as in patron "saint" of a particular place. Those places turned out to be the same wells, lakes, and high places (especially giant burial mounds, the "hollow hills" of folklore) that the people visited and celebrated in the pre-Christian days. And it hit me like a revelation: oh, you clever Irish bastards! You subverted Mother Church and held onto your old traditions, while simultaneously avoiding nasty things like The Inquisition! A wink and a nod to the local cleric (who probably joined in the celebrations, since he was usually a local boy) and the archbishop back in Dublin is none the wiser. Brilliant!

The description of a "pattern day" festival from the early 1800s really brings home the joyous, community feel, and gives some vague sense of what wonderful things the original festivals must have been back in the day.

cf also the intriguing and suspicious "Order of Bridget" in Kildaire who kept "Saint" Brigit's sacred fire burning for centuries. What kind of freaking Christian Saint has sacred fires in her honor?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Vicar removes "horrifying" crucifix from outside of church

Apparently the fairly graphic representation of the agonies of The Cross
were "upsetting the children" and was, in their words, a "put-off." Now, I'll admit I've been away from Mother Church for awhile, but as a good Irish Catholic boy, I seem to recall being told over and over again that the unimaginable agonies of Jesus on The Cross were the point of Christianity; his agonies and suffering were what redeemed humanity. Silly little bake-sale Christians; when they say things like "we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross," we realize that they've lost any reverence for -- hell, any understanding of -- the broken, tortured body that for 2000 years was the central truth of their faith.

A statue of the crucifixion has been taken down from its perch on a church in Sussex because it was scaring local children and deterring worshippers, a vicar admitted today.
Souter, formerly a cell biologist, said: "The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.

"It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off.

"We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The New Leviathan

On 9/11, America was shocked to discover that there was an outside world with many, many people in it who quite simply hated America’s guts – and this discovery scared the hell out of America. If the last several years are an indication of what America’s future holds – and I believe they are – then 9/11 will haunt and infest American cultural life for many years to come. Everything that Americans think, write, do and believe will be refracted through this enormous funhouse lens. This event, which contained so much potential to inspire serious-minded reflection and subtle analysis, instead inspired America to do what it does best: unleash its power.

Michel Foucault wrote of:

A power that presented rules and obligations as personal bonds, a breach of which constituted an offense and called for vengeance; of a power for which disobedience was an act of hostility, the first sign of rebellion .. of a power that had to demonstrate not only why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies ... of a power that was recharged in the ritual display of its reality as ‘superpower.’

America’s favorite ritual display is war, something that seems to have an almost addictive power over Americans. America spends as much on war as the rest of the world combined. This is beyond any sane concept of “security”; this is the behavior of a junkie.

I do not describe this behavior as “addiction” lightly. As writer Chris Hedges pointed out (at a college commencement address at which he was shouted down by an auditorium full of fresh-faced, patriotic young Americans), “the seduction of war is so insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true – it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” This is why America – a country full of people who are so un-alike in so many ways – embraces this addictive new chapter in its love affair with war, the “Global War on Terror.” Because as soon as that warm, patriotic glow of togetherness starts to dim (as it appears it is now doing with the “Iraq front in the war on terror”), a new battle in this war without end is served up: pure, uncut, expensive as hell but cheap at twice the price, ready to be mainlined by an eager nation.

America does not view its decades-long string of foreign-policy disasters (most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) as failures of diplomacy and policy. War replaces diplomacy and defines policy. War is the point: so easy, so unambiguous, so damned glamorous compared to the mundane tedium of building consensus and displaying moral leadership.

But what is this frantic, almost compulsive resort to the military option as the default response really in aid of?

I recently found myself re-reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, and I was struck by how easily one can map Hobbes’ mythical authoritarian/submissive society to America in the 21st century. Hobbes believed that a society’s function was to accrue more and more power, to strive constantly to seize the upper hand, all in aid of defending a passive and cowering populace from a world full of evil enemies. Hobbes argued that humans are always willing to accept submission to a strong and domineering leadership in exchange for protection from evildoers. Protection from fear itself, in effect. The citizens of Leviathan were so riddled with fear and doubt that they surrendered their freedom with breathtaking eagerness. America’s default attitude since 9/11 can best be summed up by Derrida’s wonderful phrase: “manic triumphalism.” However, this is mere posturing, intended to cover a deep core of dread. Underneath all the testosterone-laden, Hoo-Rah bravado, America in the 21st century is the new Leviathan, in which the citizens cower like whipped dogs.

Still, the unabashed willingness with which Americans surrendered their freedoms must give us pause. Because at the end of the day, that is the fundamental question: why did so many Americans toss off the burden of freedom with such eagerness? I would like to propose at least a partial answer. America is a country where 90% of the people describe themselves as “religious” and 46% describe themselves as “evangelical.” Eighty-six percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83% believe in a real, literal Virgin Birth. Over 40% of Americans believe the world will end in an actual battle of Armageddon, and a stunning 45% believe in a real, anthropomorphic Devil. To the majority of Americans, those who live and die within such a belief system, America’s vaunted “freedom” – and, more importantly, the consequences of that freedom – is, quite simply, horrifying. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and “Piss Jesus” and Mapplethorpe’s photos of men with bullwhips jammed up their asses, on and on and on. They look at America’s free society, they look at the things that this free society permits to happen and they hate what they see. They absolutely hate modern America, and they believe that surrendering their freedom is a very small price to pay in order to make it stop. These Americans have more in common with Muslim fundamentalists than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in 21st century America. America will have another Bush some day, because it is what so many Americans want and need.