Addendum to Aren’t Religion and Politics both to Blame for the War on Terror

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald sharing my piece in one of his recent columns, I’ve received a lot of thoughtful insight, critiques, and opinions from a variety of readers, concerning my analysis of the “Terrorism Debate” that he, Murtaza Hussain, Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan have been engaged in of late. One recurring criticism however has kind of bothered me and I wanted to explicitly address it here.

Setting aside the fact that I expressly covered the issue of free expression, and the significance that lies in being able to openly discuss, debate, challenge, criticize and even ridicule every manner of political, philosophical, ideological, and religious thought, I have been told by a number of commentators that:

Bad ideas should be able to be criticized without reverting to labels of racism or Islamophobia.

I couldn’t agree more. But there are two assumptions to be made here.

1.) These readers obviously did not read the entirety of my piece, and at some point decided to abandon the effort, choosing instead to assume the remainder.

2.) They are also confusing my analysis with the origin of this debate, pertaining to the labeling of Sam Harris and other “New Atheists” as racist Islamophobes who clearly have an axe to grind with Islam.

On this first point I argue in my piece that Greenwald and company don’t often tackle the issue of free expression when it comes to Middle Eastern countries and fundamentalist Islam. Religion, like all man-made constructs, should not be immune to debate, criticism and ridicule. In short, the right to worship and express ideas of a religious tenor- no matter how infantile they are- is sacrosanct. The ideas and the philosophies themselves are not.

For example not long ago Richard Dawkins ridiculed journalist Mehdi Hasan’s belief in the literal possibility of the Prophet ascending to heaven on a winged horse. Hasan essentially stated that, as a Muslim, he believes in the possibility of miracles. Dawkins’ argument was that because Hasan admitted to this belief, his journalistic credibility should suffer. The inevitable spin from this exchange cast Dawkins as a bigot and Islamophobe, because in the view of the offended, Dawkins was stating that practicing Muslims can’t make good journalists. In reality, Dawkins was saying that while people have the right to belief and freedom of expression, they do not have the right to keep their beliefs and expressions from being criticized.

Knowing that Hasan believes literally in certain miracles is good for his readership, because it gives them a window into his psyche. No writer is without bias and discerning their belief system is central to understanding the lens with which they see the world. Some of Hasan’s readers might be more skeptical now, when reading certain pieces of his, not because being a Muslim makes him incapable of being a good journalist, but because they might find his credulity insightful to understanding the perspectives he argues in his other work. Dawkins would invariably express similar reservations if a Christian writer admitted to him that he believed in the literal virgin birth. He wasn’t picking on Islam; he was chastising ridiculous ideas that should be criticized.

When Glenn Greenwald ridiculed President Obama for his speech on counter-terrorism, cautioning the reader to treat the president’s lofty rhetoric cynically, he wasn’t suggesting that we do so because Glenn has an aversion to Democrats and thinks they are incapable of being good presidents. He’s implying that we temper our enthusiasm because rarely has Obama’s rhetoric been matched by action. Translation: “This guy has said a lot of great things in the past, but because he has rarely followed them up with action, he hasn’t earned the right to be taken seriously.”

What’s the difference in these two criticisms? I’d argue there isn’t one. Except that one has to do with religion. True, politics can often lead to inflammatory debates. But religion is unique in the level of respect it innately demands for no reason whatsoever. We are a species that irrationally defends all stripes of preposterous claims and ideas, but when it comes to the subject of faith, we defend most zealously that which we know least about. We don’t know if God exists, yet in spite of this we insist on emotionally responding to those who challenge religious belief because we’ve come to revere and respect religion on the basis of what it is, instead of on the substance and merits of what it does, what it claims, and what it can prove. No one would ever allow someone with the platform of Hasan to get away with a dubious/controversial political statement, without questioning his rationale. Why should a similar comment that is religious in nature be any different? I think Greenwald abstains from taking on this double standard, which is wrong, because he’d never allow a politician- or a journalist covering politics- to get away with political statements he knows to be incredible.

On the second point, people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are indispensable precisely because of the way they deconstruct religious belief and its use of unsubstantiated claims to silence voices and actions of dissent. An ineffable sky deity dictates that women aren’t entitled to an education, that homosexuals aren’t equal to heterosexuals, that we should teach our children in science class that we were “intelligently designed”, that winged horses, virgin births, and resurrections from death are real things, and that eternal rewards are reserved for those who strap bombs to their body and kill innocent people along with themselves. These are bad ideas that should be confronted and rebuked, and doing so should not lead to accusations of racism or Islamophobia.

However when someone like Richard Dawkins admits that he’s never read the Quran, that should also be met with ridicule because he has succeeded in discrediting himself rather unwittingly. Can he still have an opinion of Islam? Absolutely. But should those who listen to him perhaps take him less seriously on the subject now that they know he’s never read the book? I would say yes, for precisely the same reasons that he was arguing against the credibility of Hasan.

On the issue of racism and Islamophobia, I’ll simply state that I chose to abstain from addressing those claims in my piece because quite frankly I find the argument irrelevant. Perhaps my atheism makes me biased, but I’m not convinced that these men are racists simply because they stridently criticize an ideology. Islam is not a race after all. (Although I will concede that in our modern Western parlance, Islam has become synonomous with “brown and black people from the Middle East.”) I certainly don’t agree with the arguments Harris has made regarding profiling, or his claims that we are explicitly at war with Islam, but the purpose of my piece was not to engage that debate, but to analyze the combination of elements that are driving the perpetual “War on Terror”. I find the religious and political elements to be, as I said in my piece, co-conspirators in a larger geopolitical game which is far more relevant than an argument over whether or not certain members of the intelligentsia are racist or not. That verdict is for others to decide.

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Aren’t Religion and Politics Both to Blame for War on Terror?

Glenn Greenwald, Murtaza Hussain, Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and others have been debating, rather vehemently recently, the subject of terrorism. The primary rift between them is whether or not the violent acts of Muslim extremists are motivated by religion or politics. In my opinion both are integral and it’s dishonest to pretend differently.

Greenwald and Hussain are of the opinion that- as stated almost universally by each suspected terrorist from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon– Western foreign policy, with its brutal occupations, bombings, drone campaigns, and propping up of oppressive dictators, is actively creating more, not less, of the very thing the “War on Terror” is designed to extirpate: the threat terrorism. Their argument is that it is naive to believe that Western actions do not play a significant role in the blowback we experience in the form of terrorist attacks on Western soil. For them, the simple logic of cause and effect is our guide: If you indiscriminately target citizens and support regimes that kill innocent people in other countries, for the sake of national interests, all while citing “freedom and democracy” as justification for being there, you should not be surprised if retaliation is sought. Greenwald and company do not justify that retaliation, as some of their critics have wrongly asserted. They are merely underlining a rational set of reasons for “why they hate us”, in an effort to counter the “they hate us for our freedoms” narrative that is often force-fed to Western citizens by their governments.

Sullivan and company would disagree about Western militaries indiscriminately targeting civilians. They would suggest that this is where the fundamental distinction between “us and them” lies. We do not purposefully seek to kill innocent civilians when we attack. They do. I’m not convinced this is entirely true. I think both sides are guilty of this motivation. The difference of opinion here is where the ambiguity of the word terrorism is most apparent.

Greenwald finds the word “terrorism” devoid of meaning, stating that it has been euphemistically hijacked and is never applied consistently. He believes that the use of the word is entirely dependent on who the violent actor is. If it’s a Muslim person or entity, and is directed toward the West, the violence is unquestionably labeled terrorism. If the act is committed by a Western nation or entity, different standards within the media and intelligentsia apply. Therefore the violence perpetuated by the West is rarely dealt with honestly. Any attempt at drawing a parallel, or merely questioning if certain Western aggression should be called terror, invites the harshest hyperbolic condemnation from critics, causing genuine efforts to engage the substance of the debate to flounder. This lack of consistency renders the word, in Greenwald’s opinion, meaningless.

His critics seem to disagree. In their view the distinction between what the West has done, and what radical Islam strives to do, is clear. The Fundamental difference, in someone like Sullivan’s mind, is intent. If this is true, then aren’t we guilty of a biased postulation that “our” intent is always noble, and “theirs” is not? Are we even capable of judging this impartially? And doesn’t it betray a certain nationalistic hubris to argue in this way? If the intent is to coerce a populace by means of fear, in order to achieve a political end, it’s hard to look upon Western interventionism honestly and find every instance innocent of that intention. Since I largely agree with Greenwald on this point, I’m not going to penetrate further as I’m more concerned with areas that I think both sides aren’t treating with total veracity.

Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and several other critics, conversely believe that US and Western involvement in the Middle East is not the primary cause of attacks on Western soil. Events like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon, according to them, aren’t as much political as they are religious in nature. Global jihad and the annihilation of the infidel, is the only object on the mind of Islamic extremists that continue to attack the West.

It is their contention that Islam poses a unique threat in the world because currently, it is the only faith that unabashedly incites its followers to violence. They acknowledge the fact that radical Islam is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but they reject the notion that it is just a fringe movement. They believe that it is not relegated to the periphery, but is instead very much a central doctrine that at present inspires far too many people (and governments) to not only look upon the infidel as a perpetual enemy, but also fellow Muslims and countrymen who adhere to subtle nuances of the faith. The sectarian violence that is currently destroying countries like Iraq and Syria are prime examples of the inflexibility of Islam, and thus, entire swaths of Muslims who share a common nationality are being killed for what Freud once called “The Narcissism of the Small Difference.” For Harris and Sullivan, it is the way fanatical interpretations of any faith seem to justify anything, including violence against innocents, which makes radical Islam especially pernicious.

In spite of the validity of their arguments, I can’t help but detect a willful dishonesty on both sides of this argument in certain places.

How can studious political observers like Harris and Sullivan not think that what Western nations have done, and continue to do, throughout the Middle East, has no bearing on the motivations and actions of those who retaliate? Do they hear captured terrorism suspects when they state that they sought revenge on the West for its sustained occupation of Muslim countries, and think they are being disingenuous? That they are choosing to artfully beguile us into believing that this isn’t about religion? Are we supposed to hear those confessions and forget about them, choosing only to focus on the fact that the attackers scream “Allahu Akbar” as they kill?

I’m equally confused by Harris and Sullivan’s willingness, at times, to overlook the circular nature of this conflict. Whether or not you think US intervention is a force for good, it is shortsighted not to see how our presence in the Middle East creates powerful tools for the recruitment of future radicals. Whether it be sanctions or bombings that kill thousands of Iraqis, indiscriminate drone attacks known as “signature strikes” in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the constant support we grant to some of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the region (including what is arguably the most fundamentalist of all the Islamic governments, Saudi Arabia), the unwaveringly unilateral support for Israel, or the indefinite detention of Muslims in spite of being cleared for release in places like Guantanamo, these realities are known and used to create and solidify anti-Western sentimentality. You cannot possibly expect for Muslims to learn of these policies, accept them insouciantly, and believe that Western “liberators” have their best interests at heart. This is not a defense or justification for the violence that is committed because of the way the aforementioned realities are exploited. But consider the inverse. How would you expect the US and its allies to react if similar practices were directed towards them?

We know exactly how we would react. The way the US exploited the travesty of 9/11 to justify an egregious attack on a nation that had nothing to do with it, was edifying. Furthermore, the US continued to propagandistically exploit the ensuing fear that followed 9/11, as a way to treat human beings- some of whom we call fellow citizens- as second class citizens. Could you imagine what we’d do if we faced the kind of sustained attacks that Middle Easterners are accustomed to? This is not to say that Islamic extremists don’t exploit potential adherents in much the same way. They most certainly do. Hence the circular nature of this “war”.

It’s strange when someone like Sullivan attempts to cite events like our invasion of Iraq, the support for Afghan radicals against the Soviets, and the financial aid we’ve given to regimes like Egypt, as proof of our benevolence in the region. This is once again his way of trying to define intent. The irony of course is that if you look at Afghanistan in the 1980’s, when we armed warlords and radicals with weapons and money in order to kill Russians, the US chose radical Islam over allowing Communism to gain a major foothold in the region. (This was when Communism, not radical Islam, posed the great existential threat to our nation. This is when the same modern day propaganda being used to inspire fear against Islam, was directed against all things Communist. Exchange radical Islam for Communism in any of the writings of the most ardent supporters for perpetual war at that time, and notice the similarity in language; the constancy of the peril we live under; the perverse evil of the imminent threat we must always be prepared to fight. The fact is radical Islam was seen as the lesser of two evils back then; a necessary risk in order to defeat a larger and more ubiquitous threat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the roles have reversed.)

Closer examination of our involvement in the Middle East reveals that we have invariably supported some of the most brutal Islamic fundamentalist regimes in the region, selling many of them arms that they use against their own people who are struggling for democracy. Does Sullivan actually think we care about these citizens? Does he think we are concerned about their civil rights? About their freedom of expression? We shouldn’t pretend our intentions are anything but self-serving. They always have been. Is Islam- in that part of the world- failing to embrace plurality and modernity? Yes. But it seems that millions of Middle Easterners, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, want something different, as the last two years have indicated with the varying success of the Arab Spring.

The question is this: Do the people in these nations suffer more because of the effect that Islamic radicalism has on their governments, or because Western interventionism- with its long history of colonialist imperialism- has installed puppet regimes that care more about profits and power, than they do about governing their people? And are the two ideas- in concert- not equal conspirators in a larger geopolitical game?

The last issue I take with Sullivan and Harris’ side of this argument is the notion that 9/11 is somehow when this conflict began; that we in America were neutral businessmen in the Middle East, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, Islam attacked us. This reeks of historical revisionism. And that history goes both ways. This war is an ancient one, and has been a self-generating conflict for centuries. (At the heart of the conflict was, and maybe still is, religion on both sides. The religiosity from the West has been used- as Greenwald has stated- rather conspicuously in myriad speeches by Western military and government leaders. In not so subtle language they have stressed that this is an ideological war; that it is the duty of all Christians to combat this enemy, and that the wars in the Middle East have as much to do with religious conviction, as they do anything else.)

Greenwald’s larger point is that Western “interventionism” precedes 9/11; that 9/11 was the manifestation of decades of Western injustice in the Middle East, which in turn caused the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating the rationale for subsequent terrorist plots against Western entities ever since. 9/11 was not the beginning of this conflict; it was the continuation of it. Just as the attacks on the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the USS Cole were before it. The war, on both sides, is perpetual by design.

Regardless if you believe “we” are just, and “they” are not, you cannot possibly be acquainted with the realities of this conflict and think that what the West has done in that part of the world, for a very long time, is in no way part of why so many hate us there. Refusal to accept this indicates a blind nationalistic fervor that is just as corruptible as any religion, and is often led by the same irrationality and shunning of evidence that accompanies religious faith.

***

Any cursory examination of the history of Islam reveals that it isn’t an innately evil force or faith. The Quran, much like the Bible before it, suffers from the duality of its message. It bears the mark of the world it was written for. Like other institutions and faiths, it also possesses a rich cultural history that can claim significant discoveries in science, mathematics, poetry, music, art, and literature. But Islam has not experienced a lasting Reformation. It has not endured a period equivalent to what is now known as the Enlightenment in the West, in which free thought and most importantly doubt, was granted free expression. There exists still, horrid discrimination against atheism and other ideas that are antithetical to Islamic fundamentalism, and often times one takes his or her life into their hands if they are courageous enough to dissent. The right to openly deny and question, that which Islam says is absolute, is foreign to many Muslims living in the Middle East.

Christianity used to be this way until it endured a series of gradual changes that forced the religion to evolve. That’s not my way of saying that Christianity is superior to Islam. I’m simply stating that if we use history as our guide, the various movements that softened the ultra-conservatism of Christianity were a positive for millions of human beings, if not immediately, then certainly over time. Similar changes have not occurred on the same scale in Islam. True we shouldn’t expect Islam to follow the same course that Christianity has. There are innumerable external factors that play into this, many of which involve the history of colonialism. But in theory at least, as I’m sure Harris and Sullivan would agree, an introduction of liberalism is badly needed in Middle Eastern Islamic nations. And by this, I’m not implying that this liberalism should come from the West.

I agree with Harris when he asks if a play like the “Book of Mormon” could expect the same peaceful reaction if it were written about Islam? Could such a satire transpire? Would anyone risk undertaking it? These are valid questions. One has to believe that right now, the answer is no. Greenwald, who is as fierce an advocate of the unequivocal necessity for free speech as we currently have in political commentary, knows this better than anyone: that no idea, philosophy, political ideology, or religion, should be exempt from scrutiny, debate, criticism, or ridicule. Islam struggles with this concept internally, let alone with anyone outside the faith, and on questions of expression and the freedom to examine the realities of the religion, it is failing to engage itself thoughtfully and compassionately. (If we’re being honest, US foreign policy is failing in the exact same way.)

This is not to say that all Muslims think this way. There are far too many examples of Muslim scholars, writers, politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders condemning terrorism and espousing freedom of expression, to think this is true. And to insinuate that over a billion people believe free expression should be stifled, or that Islam is at its most authentic when it’s violent, is a gross misrepresentation of the faith. But there is a very real extremist element within that poses a threat- most commonly to other Muslims- and makes the need for self-criticism all the more difficult, but necessary, in 2013.

The question is why? What is it about Islam that makes the extremist element prone to violence on such consistently large scales? And is it really “more dangerous than other faiths”, or is that Western propaganda manipulating our perceptions? Are we not wrong to implicate Islam as a whole? Isn’t it prejudicial to assume that all Muslims think and believe in this way? One might say that Western foreign policy is to blame for why radicalized Islam is so violent. But it’s also Muslims, not Westerners, who suffer most. Is this the result of some inherent evil of the faith? Or is the religiosity merely a front for the political divide that is at the heart of so much Muslim on Muslim violence? I’d never suggest that there isn’t a political underbelly to suicide bombings, but without the credulity of the believer, and his/her unwavering faith in an eternal reward, the entire practice is neutered. Religion has the monopoly on this kind of thinking, and it always has. But unlike some in this argument, I’d include nationalism in that religious-like description. I think it too demands blind faith to the point that it can inspire people to behave irrationally in certain situations; maybe not for divine rewards, but for the mythology of their nation’s “exceptionalism” in the world.

Where we in the West are most often failed, in terms of our perception of Islam, is how it is treated by the media. We very rarely get to hear from moderate Islamic voices in the wake of terrorist attacks, and the primacy of religious extremism is always promoted- often before it’s definitively known if the suspect is even Muslim- and very little to no focus is placed on the political motives that these terrorists proclaim. The vilification of Islam as a whole is undertaken with relative ease for these precise reasons, and the media circumvents every opportunity to critically debate Western interventionism. It simply doesn’t fit the pervasive narrative that our government promotes. Western media obsequiously ignores the political side of this issue, at the government’s bidding, like the good stenographers that they are.

But, there are valid points to be made when talking about fundamentalist governments like Saudi Arabia, and its efforts to thwart free expression and education; the right to talk openly about the good and the bad of any ideology; the right to satirize and have a sense of humor about religion; the right to compare and contrast; the right to ask for evidence when an institution that makes large claims for itself demands that it is the source of truth; the right to challenge the superstitious, by asserting that life in the here and now is far more entitled to respect than any religious interpretation of the hereafter. This is what made the Reformation- and ultimately the Enlightenment- indispensable in the Western world; the freedom to question government and religious institutions, without fear of being deprived of one’s life or liberty.

Greenwald would probably argue that perhaps the vociferation of extremist elements in this debate is a direct consequence of Western aggression and occupation. As I stated above, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Western involvement in the Middle East has empowered Islamic radicals both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s also plausible to argue that many Western leaders believe in a Christian mission to “tame the savage barbarian” and that aggression is the only way to do so. But isn’t it true that moderate Islam must be more vocal and active throughout the Middle East; that it needs to combat the domineering perception permeating the non-Muslim world that Islam is inherently violent, by first accepting the fact that at present, extremists control the global platform; and that elements of Islam have a problem with modernity, free expression, education, women, freethinkers, and homosexuals? Shouldn’t moderate Islam acknowledge that no idea or institution is beyond reproach and demand that it be the clamoring voice in this discussion?

The West, on the other hand, cannot expect to assuage the threat of terror by using terror. That circular logic has only succeeded in aiding Islamic extremists in gaining support, even from those that don’t condone the ideology. In all of the back and forth between Harris, Sullivan, Hussain, and Greenwald, the question that never gets asked is, what is the US and her allies doing in that part of the world? Why are we really there? The short answer is “national interests”, which is just a euphemism for oil. But the larger issue is more complex, and it is in that complexity that the West must also be honest about what its motivations are and how it can expect perpetual war if it doesn’t change its policies or leave the region. To discern this one needs only to attempt to see from the eyes of the occupied. We once knew that feeling well in this country, just a few centuries ago. Today we’re convinced of our unparalleled amity and of our sincere desire to bring democracy to the world. As many Middle Easterners have stated, the reality on the ground doesn’t jibe with these assertions.

This problem is as old as recorded human history: the struggle for freedom, power, religious liberty, empire, self-governance, expression and equality are constants in our world. Until all of these issues (and the discrepancies within) are dealt with honestly, any hope at constructively addressing radical Islam and Western occupation is futile. I think both sides do a disservice to their positions- and the debate at large- when they refuse to recognize the validity of their opponents’ stronger points. All of these issues play a role in the dilemma of Western and Middle Eastern violence, religiosity, politics, equality, and sovereignty and it’s naïve to suggest otherwise.

In answer to several comments made about this piece, I offer an addendum that can be found here: https://roundersandrogues.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/addendum-to-arent-religion-and-politics-both-to-blame-for-the-war-on-terror/

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Obama’s Hubris: The Drone “Rule Book”

Over the weekend the New York Times reported that President Obama- feeling slightly ambiguous about the election’s outcome- decided that it was imperative that his administration define more clearly, the legal process behind drone strikes, out of a supposed fear that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party could inherit the program.  The underlying theme of the story is that Obama has/had reservations on how poorly defined the opaque program is, and that parameters need to be installed in order to ensure that the appropriate levels of checks and balances are in place.  The implication being, that Republicans would certainly abuse the power to assassinate perceived terrorist threats if left unbridled, while Democrats are innately more responsible at handling the program as is.

The irony of this “concern”, is that Obama has already used this power, and the secrecy it’s wrapped in, to assassinate three American citizens, without trial or open commentary on the matter.  When pressed, they even leaked that the primary American citizen who was targeted, Anwar al-Awlaki, had his constitutional right of due process “satisfied” behind closed doors, conducted by a biased panel of Presidential advisors.  It’s hard to imagine a more egregious abuse of this power.  Yet the illusion of responsibility abounds.

Setting aside the hubris that it takes to issue such a statement- one that obviously was approved to be leaked by the administration- there are a few issues that should be mentioned.

First, it appears that Obama is quite aware of the scrutiny he’s faced regarding drones.  He’s also cognizant of the fact that his administration, claiming to be the most transparent ever, has done much to protect the secrecy of this program- under the premise of national security- which has stifled constructive public discourse.  We know his team has exaggerated- and in some cases completely fabricated– the number of civilian deaths in drone strikes, while also conveniently re-defining the word “militant” to mean “all military-age males in the vicinity of a strike, unless proven otherwise posthumously.”  One gets the impression, that perhaps Obama wanted to clean up something that could negatively impact the legacy of his presidency.

Second, it’s interesting to examine the parallel between religious faith, with the faith of partisans in their political leaders.  Both cases require and encourage, the suspension of reality by way of ignoring evidence and reason.  If a Republican president had used the “Global War on Terror” excuse, to kill American citizens without due process, and continued to indiscriminately bomb Muslim countries with a method known as “Signature Strikes”- which essentially examines behavioral patterns of potential “targets” and kills them without actually knowing their identities- most of the Democrats now supporting Obama, would be outraged.  If Democrats discovered that a Republican president had been bombing funerals and rescuers, in order to assassinate targets they believed were in attendance, they would invariably label such a practice immoral.  They might even go so far as to call that president, a war criminal.  But Obama leads their party;  he’s a former constitutional attorney;  he’s erudite and reads Thomas Aquinas;  he ran on the lofty rhetoric of hope and change, and wants to move the country forward;  he believes in transparency and the judicial process.  It doesn’t matter what he does; that’s irrelevant.  All that matters is what he tells us.

It doesn’t matter that he continues to allow warrantless wiretapping, and protects the NSA at every turn as it continues to collect and store billions of domestic communications every day.  It doesn’t matter that he has continued to indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, that he believes is a threat to national security.  It doesn’t matter if those he indefinitely detains, are never actually given a trial.  Nor does it matter if there is ever any evidence proving the imminent threat that Obama says exists.  It doesn’t matter if Obama says he believes in whistle-blowers, even as he prosecutes more of them than all other presidential administrations combined. And it certainly doesn’t matter if he claims that no country would tolerate missiles being rained down upon them, while supporting the Israeli occupation of Gaza, and continuing to rain down missiles of our own, on the populations of countries we aren’t at war with.  It doesn’t matter, because no matter what evidence is produced, Democrats believe that Obama has good intentions, which far outweigh the actions of his policies.

Most of all, the faith one exudes in Obama rests upon the simple fact that he is our President, and that if he is assassinating people, it’s because those people without question were trying to do harm to the United States.  No evidence is needed.  No need to uphold the innocent until proven guilty mantra that we esteem and espouse in most criminal situations.  No need to provide any actual proof, that the “militant” in question is guilty of what our government says they are.  Even if the penalty for that accusation is death, and even if that death results in “collateral” damage- such as the deaths of innocent children.  No evidence is needed, even if the “militant” in question is an American citizen.  That is the very definition of faith, and it’s so extreme that it blinds us from acknowledging just how severe this assumption of power has become.

The audacity of the assumption that a Republican president would need “clear standards and procedures”, is embodied by what that statement implies:  That Obama feels the program he’s been running is indeed operating without “clear standards and procedures”, but that he believes he should be trusted with that lack of accountability.  Romney, in his view, could not be.  No clearer example for what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said, “In questions of power…let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution”, can be provided.  And yet this religious-like faith in Obama’s inherent goodness and right intent- despite the evidence to the contrary- persists.  Is it just partisan nationalism?  Could it be a continuation of the lesser of two evils rationale?  Or is it the unfounded belief that “we” are trustworthy, and “they” are not?

Perhaps the most telling line in the NYT story comes when the author admits that since Obama’s re-election, the “matter may have lost some urgency.”  This reaffirms my point.  Obama and his followers don’t feel that they require “clear standards and procedures.”  They believe that they can be trusted with vague and broad definitions of who constitutes a target, where that strike can occur, and what the legal consequences of such a strike might be.  They, and they alone, are responsible enough to determine when the loss of innocent life is worth the risk.  They are even bold enough to suggest that they can kill three American citizens, including a sixteen year old boy, and have the temerity to keep the citizenry in the dark.  Obama says, “trust me”.  The public doesn’t need to know how this process works.  It can rest assured, that it’s in good hands.  Sounds eerily like the faith argument we often hear from religious zealots.  And like that argument, evidence and reason are ignored every time.

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Three’s A Crowd

We need third-party inclusion in this country.  We need an alternative perspective that is coming from outside the existing two-party corporate paradigm.  We need a party that is unfettered to lobbyists and special interest groups, and looks to act in the interest of the people.  We need a political voice that is at once dissident and unifying.   We need a party that would challenge the normative policies and indoctrinated orthodoxies that pervade our political discourse.  I don’t know if that party exists at present, but I’d very much like the ones that do to have the opportunity to be heard.  The Presidential debates would be the ideal platform for that hearing, but these variant perspectives are being excluded, based on the criteria of a partial organization called the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD), that is biased, partisan, and inequitable.

Take a candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein.  She will be on the ballot in 38 states on November 7th, which constitutes 85% of the potential ballots throughout the country.  A number that in theory, could win her enough votes to assume the Presidency.  The aforementioned CPD has designated certain criteria that a candidate must meet, in order to qualify for debate participation.  One of the main requirements is that the candidate must reach at least 15% in the polls in order to be included in the debate.  If one examines that number historically, they’ll find that it excludes all third-party candidates for the last 100 years.

What’s important to remember here is that the CPD is not the government.  It is not an authority that has an inherent right to construct and consequentially constrict, the debates in the exclusive manner in which it has.  It is a “non-profit” corporation that accepts donations from major corporate sponsors, many of whom have extremely vested interests in D.C. and would prefer to keep the debates narrow.  The CPD shapes the debates by having both candidates, and their parties, agree to what can and cannot be addressed, the manner in how issues are covered, what kind of format the debates will utilize, what kind of questions and follow ups are permitted, how lenient/stringent the moderator may be, all the way down to having the two candidates agree that they will not participate in any other discussions resembling a debate, in any other medium, under any other organization.  In other words, the CDP has completely monopolized one of the most crucial elements of the electoral process.  The idea being to create less lucidity and more control.

The far simpler (and democratic) way of determining who should be included in the debates, is by simply asking the American people who they’d like to hear from.  My suspicion is that hearing more perspectives and not less, would probably be quite popular, which is precisely why it’s not done.  Not to mention the obvious detriment (for the CDP and their constituents) that comes with having an adversarial candidate/party on stage to challenge the mainstream orthodoxies and dogmas that could illuminate just how similar the Republicans and Democrats are on a majority of the issues.  What’s accomplished by the CDP restricting these debates, is an exclusion of dissident interjection and an assurance of obfuscation.  Limiting the discourse pleases their corporate sponsors, as well as the political parties that wish to highlight minimal differences in a way that creates the illusion of some vast divide.  A third party candidate might actually prove these differences to be mythological.  In short, it’s about control, power, and a perpetuation of the status quo.

My argument- whether a third party candidate appeals to you or not- is that the system being represented here is not at all democratic.  The aforementioned Green Party candidate Jill Stein, was arrested outside of the second Presidential debate for “disorderly conduct”.  She was protesting her exclusion from the debate.  The conduct deemed disorderly, was the civil disobedient act of sitting in the walkway that led to the debate hall, which they were being prevented by policemen from traversing.

We live in the proclaimed bastion of democratic ideals, and we love to nationalistically claim that this is what makes America great.  That this is what makes us free.  And yet here is a candidate that will be on 85% of the ballots in November, being arrested for wanting to participate and be heard.  You may or may not like Stein’s politics.  You may not even know she exists, or that she is running for president.  But anyone that believes in free and transparent elections, and that the voices of potential candidates should not be silenced or suppressed- not matter what their politics may be- should be appalled at this mockery we call an election.

I cannot, in good conscience, vote for Romney or Obama.  Nothing significant is going to change with either of them in office.  As a matter of fact I’d go so far as to contend that no real change will occur as long as Democrats and Republicans, in their present form, continue to be elected.  Especially not if they continue to refuse to work together.  If I could quantify the conscious act of a no vote, in a way that would register my dissatisfaction with our system, then that’s what I’d do.  I do not recognize the legitimacy of our political process.  Since there is no way to distinguish between apathy and conscious abstention, I will vote for a third-party on November 7th.  At the very least, it’s a way to quantify my denunciation of the two main political conglomerates, and the corrupt system within which they maneuver.

Ultimately this won’t matter.  I’ll vote for a third-party, as will roughly 1 million other people, and the system will prevail.  The populace will succumb to the illusion of choice yet again, and we’ll be right back here in four years discussing how meaningless, corrupt, and nonsensical the two-party system is, and how dysfunctional the government continues to be.  Either way, it should be self-evident to us that as long as legitimate third-parties are blocked from participating in essential election events, there is no reason to trust that this commission cares about informing the American voter, or that the mainstream candidates are interested in anything more than getting and staying elected.

 

 

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My Last Drink: An Ode to Bourbon

My last drink was a delicious small batch bourbon called Jefferson’s, enjoyed with just a cube or two of ice.  This drink- not to be confused with the Jefferson’s Presidential that I’ve written about before that is, by all accounts, the nectar of ineffable sky deities- is light, spicy, and flavorful, and is much more affordable than its Presidential counterpart.  Jefferson’s is perfect for a day when you feel like altering your consciousness without the guilt of a rapidly disappearing bottle.

My Saturday night culminated with Jefferson’s in hand, enjoying the efforts, via television, of my favorite college football team, along with my father, mother, and wife.  I should say that the word “enjoying” is a bit understated.  Perhaps the more accurate depiction would be one of two perfectly sane adult males, screaming with wild hysteria at an inanimate object, as if our elated and sometimes querulous commentary was somehow influencing the outcome of a game being played over a hundred miles away.

It’s really an odd phenomenon.  Not that it’s unique;  I’m aware that similar displays of emotion are exhibited throughout America on Saturdays and Sundays during football season.  From pacific domiciles to crepuscular bars, observers of sports are irrationally zealous, and no better examples can be found than my father and I.  We are, under normal circumstances, docile creatures- who usually prefer insouciance to unbridled enthusiasm- but on game days we are transformed into something different altogether, the result of which is a temporary loss of mental acuity;  so much so that my wife has asked on a myriad of occasions, just who in the hell I am?

I often think of our poor cats in these moments of delirium.  The way they must interpret the sounds and behaviour coming from a being whose company they normally enjoy, is one that would be akin to a 1st century human’s impression of an airplane in flight.  The only remedy for them, it seems, is distance and caution, mixed with the occasional peering from around corners to see what strange ritual we primates are partaking in next.

Perhaps to an outsider who lacked the necessary context, the vision of my mother and wife casually making conversation at our living room table, while two hulking males flail about and give each other periodical chest bumps, would make the paradoxical scene all the more confusing.  This pageant of inebriated celebration no longer moves our wives in any way.  It simply is to them.  Like gravity or the inevitably of a zombie apocalypse, some things are quite simply a part of nature.  I must give them credit for understanding what all women invariably come to grasp: that men, generally speaking, never grow up.

A perfect example would be earlier that day, when my mother wanted to devour the shopping district in downtown Charleston.  Knowing full well that my father and I loathe shopping (so much so that I’ve even been known to have allergic reactions to the experience) she politely told us to fuck off, (my words not hers) and successfully manipulated the situation in a way that afforded us the opportunity to drink, while she shopped.  Her dexterity was genius.  Never has a shopping experience been more enjoyable.  Or successful I might add.  Each block that my mother shopped, my father and I would imbibe.  Bloody Mary’s followed beers as one scene evolved into the next.  We discussed politics and the debates, the merits of hard liquor compared to beer, and counted the seemingly ubiquitous number of tattooed individuals inhabiting the tenebrous establishments that entertained us.

Full disclosure, my father and I aren’t prejudiced against people who ink.  We were merely contrasting the differing taverns by observing the striking majority of tattoos in one, compared to the others.  A harmless superficial musing that I assume many who frequent city pubs come to notice in one form or another.  It certainly isn’t something that would cause us to shy away in the future.  Quite the contrary actually.  The Bloody Mary’s were excellent.

The point is my mother- since my wife had to work- wanted to enjoy an unrestricted shopping excursion without two men leering at her from outside each shop, wondering how much longer they had to endure the agony.  She, playing to the child-like need we men have of being distracted, manipulated us brilliantly, knowing that we couldn’t possibly object to alcohol and football.  Thus no one impeded her progress and delight.  The more we drank, the happier we were to oblige her indulgences.

And this is how it goes with all weekends that include life’s simple pleasures;  the satisfaction that comes with family, football, food, and drink.  As I’ve said countless times, brevity and discretion are not strengths I possess, and bourbon seems to bring out the, shall I say, conversationalist within.  I’ve learned that I come by this trait honestly.  The usual emollience that liquor induces in some, often has the opposite effect on me.  Not that I become impetuous.  It just seems to invigorate me. (A novel concession I know.  And admittedly relative to those enduring the vigor.)  Something like Jefferson’s fuels the desire for debate and storytelling (to the chagrin of my wife) suffered by those I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by.  Sometimes that energy is spent passionately screaming at a television.  Other times it causes me to languidly slip into the abundantly puerile sense of humor I seem to possess.  And yet on other occasions still, it can be the fire that loosens my mind just enough, so that poignant discussions and arguments about an array of subjects that interest me, and those around me, filter through the haze of drivel that my brain usually produces.  I was fortunate enough this past weekend to encounter all of these “side-effects” of a good bourbon.  Jefferson’s is just that.  But perhaps I was even luckier to be amongst people who embrace my inanity because they genuinely love me, and I them.  Either way it isn’t the alcohol that matters most, but the experience.  Nothing is better than laughter.  And laugh is something I never fail to do, when I’m with those I care for most.

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Terrorism Is A Meaningless Word

The word terrorism is meaningless.  It has an official definition, but the way in which it is used today, obscures what it’s meant to convey.  Nothing underscores this better than how the U.S. government utilizes the term.  The latest proof?  The Obama administration’s willingness to remove the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or “MeK” from our designated list of terrorist organizations.  For decades we’ve been selective in who we call terrorists.  It seems the term is relative to the interests being served.  If a group of individuals organize an attack on the U.S., then they are undoubtedly terrorists.  If we fund a similar group of individuals, who carry out coups, assassinate leaders that aren’t pro-American, or kill large swaths of foreigners, then they’re called freedom fighters.  Do you see how easy that is?

But isn’t terrorism a concept that can’t be manufactured in this way?  The definition is the following:

Terrorism:  the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

If we’re honest about this definition, and about the actions of our state, then we are just as responsible for terrorism around the world, if not more so, than any other nation.  Both directly and indirectly, we engage in activities that other countries would not hesitate to call terrorism.  It’s only our nationalistic hubris, and the propaganda machine that is our media, that keep us from acknowledging this.

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Who are the MeK?  Amongst other things they are a cult-like organization of Iranian dissidents that claim their primary objective is the removal of the current regime in Iran.  President Clinton placed the MeK on our designated terrorist list in 1997, primarily because of the murder of six American’s in Iran in the 1970’s, and since that time members of the MeK’s political arm have endeavored to remove themselves from this list, offering lavish gifts to those that might take up their cause.  Lately, the organization insists that it has abandoned all violent practices, and has taken to strictly political forms of protest and action.  But this doesn’t jive with Seymour Hersh’s story wrote in April, that reveals how members of the MeK have been receiving training at a secret U.S. facility in Nevada, on matters of sabotage, espionage, assassination, explosives, etc.  To claim that violence is no longer a part of their agenda, would be wildly disingenuous.

There have been multifarious attempts to link the MeK to the assassinations of various Iranian nuclear scientists over the last several years.  Myriad individuals and governments believe that the MeK, supported by Israeli and U.S. intelligence, arms, training, and money, have been assassinating Iranian civilian scientists working on nuclear their nation’s nuclear program, with the stated intent of utilizing nuclear energy.  (A form of energy the international community has granted Iran the legal right to pursue.)  The assumption is that Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon.  I use the word assumption here, because it’s not clear that they are developing nuclear arms.  In fact, the intelligence communities in both Israel and the U.S., keep insisting that there is no concrete evidence of this.  The fact is, at this time, false pretenses and half-truths are being manufactured by warmongering government officials, and regurgitated by subservient media stenographers, in an effort to breed an atmosphere of fear by dictating a narrative that suits their interests;  a narrative that would create the public consent necessary, to support military aggression against Iran.

I’m not insinuating that a nuclear Iran is an ideal scenario in the Middle East.  (Although, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a majority of the Arab world believes a nuclear Iran would actually create more stability in the region, and not detract from it.  Why?  Because it would make Israel, backed by the U.S., less of an aggressor and hegemonic bully.  Most people in that part of the world believe the primary threats to stability are Israel and the U.S.  A cynical counter-argument would be noting the obvious slant this statement, and any corresponding data would reflect, given the obvious distaste much of the Middle East harbors for us and our Jewish friends.  But my response to that would be that while there is obvious racial and religious tension in that part of the world, action continues to speak loudest, and Israel has a license to do what it likes, because the entire world knows we have their back.)  What I am suggesting is that it is unwise to promote war without conclusive evidence for that which we claim to be going to war for.  Right now, there is no such clarity.

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We claim to deplore terrorism.  We have instigated a global war, literally without borders, against it;  a perpetual conflict that shows no sign of abating.  Yet we unabashedly create a blatant double standard by doing things like, removing the MeK from our terrorist list.  They have repeatedly used violence against civilian populations to achieve their ends, and there is much evidence that they continue to do so today.

So what’s the difference between then and now?  Why were they once unflinchingly labeled terrorists, but suddenly looked at as a friend?  It’s because now, the focus of their terror, fits our agenda.  Today they are an asset against Iran.  We can utilize their talents and fanaticism to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, which makes them a necessary ally.  But perception is a concern.  In order for the message to be construed correctly, removing the MeK from the terror list was essential.

It’s just that easy you might ask?  It certainly is.  And it isn’t uncommon.  The most famous example in recent history is Saddam Hussein.  We repeatedly added and removed him from the terror list during his reign in Iraq.  When he was fighting against the Iranians- after our puppet Iranian dictator that we placed at the helm was ousted- we supplied him with money, weapons, and aid, and called him an ally.  When his war with Iran ended, and he decided he no longer wanted American oil companies having access to Iraqi oil, he was deemed an enemy, and consequently placed back on the terrorist list.  It was at that time too, that we suddenly became appalled at how brutal he was to his own people, including the killing of tens of thousands of his own Kurdish population.  (Side note: he had been killing those people for years, even when he was our “friend”.)

How did the MeK come to be removed from the terror list?  Money is the short answer.  The MeK’s political arm began lobbying to ex-government officials, pleading their case and appealing to a common goal of regime change in Iran.  Being well-funded, the MeK offered lucrative speaking fees to a plethora of ex-government officials- including Democrats Howard Dean, Ed Rendall, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, and Lee Hamilton, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Fran Townsend, Tom Ridge, and Andrew Card-all of whom began a vociferous campaign to clear the MeK’s name, and establish them as an ally in the fight against global terrorism.  If these advocates had been ordinary citizens, they would have been arrested and accused of providing material support to terrorists.  But because there is a legal double standard in this country- one for those who have power, and one for those that do not- these public officials were not only not investigated, but they further enriched themselves in the process.

(As Glenn Greenwald notes, the influence of the MeK has extensively breached our media as well. He says:

Money has also been paid to journalists such as The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page. Townsend is a CNN contributor and Rendell is an MSNBC contributor, yet those MEK payments are rarely, if ever, disclosed by those media outlets when featuring those contributors (indeed, Townsend can go on CNN to opine on Iran, even urging that its alleged conduct be viewed as “an act for war”, with no disclosure whatsoever during the segment of her MEK payments).)

Consider the case of someone like Jubair Ahmad, a 24-year-old legal resident from Pakistan, that lives in Virginia.  Ahmad, last September, took to the internet to express, via his Constitutionally protected right of free speech, the disgust he felt regarding US foreign policy as it relates to the killing of innocent Muslims.  He was then accused of providing material support to a terrorist group known as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, or (LeT).  What he did was the following:

He produced and uploaded a 5-minute video to YouTube featuring photographs of U.S. abuses in Abu Ghraib, video of armored trucks exploding after being hit by IEDs, prayer messages about ‘jihad’ from LeT’s leader, and – according to the FBI’s Affidavit – ‘a number of terrorist logos.’ That, in turn, led the FBI agent who signed the affidavit to assert that ‘based on [his] training and experience, it is evident that the video … is designed as propaganda to develop support for LeT and to recruit jihadists to LeT.’ The FBI also claims Ahmad spoke with the son of an LeT leader about the contents of the video and had attended an LeT camp when he was a teenager in Pakistan. For the act of uploading that single YouTube video (and for denying that he did so when asked by the FBI agents who came to his home to interrogate him), he faces 23 years in prison.

(This of course, is where the argument regarding the limitations of speech comes into play.  Should speech advocating violence, be Constitutionally protected?  That’s the question.  I believe this speech should be permitted.  If it’s not, then we would need to reevaluate much of what our founders said in their day, particularly someone as incendiary as Thomas Paine.  We’d also have to take a hard look at those that, throughout our history, have called for violence and war preemptively.  If a Muslim American, expressing that other Muslims should take up arms against the US, is not protected speech, then how can we protect any of the daily pundits that take to cable news shows and clamor on about preemptively bombing Iran?  If one is protected, the other must be.  It cannot suffer bias based upon the subgroup the advocate in question represents and supports.)

And so on one side you have situations like a Pakistani man in New York sentenced to almost six years in prison for the crime of including a Hezbollah news channel in a cable TV package he offered to viewers in Brooklyn, while, on the other side you have someone like former US Homeland Security Chief, Tom Ridge, earning exorbitant fees for speaking on behalf of a group that up until this week was acknowledged as a terrorist organization.  Two separate legal systems for two distinct groups of people.  Which one applies depends on one’s interpretation of terrorism, what the phrase “material support” actually means, and who the target being terrorized happens to be.

If we want to make an argument for the MeK being a necessary ally, then we should have that right.  But we should offer full disclosure into what we get when we promote their agenda and sing their praises.  We should also perpetuate no double standard in terms of what material support means.  If these government officials and journalists are getting paid on behalf of a designated terrorist group, then that qualifies under the very broad judgment of the law, as material support.  It’s also a contradiction in basic terms considering how rampant our condemnation of terrorism is in this country.  To have such high-profile opponents of international terrorism take to the podium to clear a terrorist organization’s name, is in and of itself, a bizarre twist of fate and in my opinion, a deceitful paradox drenched in dichotomized self-interest.

This is why terrorism is a useless term and is completely devoid of meaning.  It simply cannot be treated fairly in our present dialogue.  If it could, then we’d be taught that we aren’t exempt from committing acts of terror.  Examples include, Chile in ’73; Guatemala in ’54; Nicaragua in the 80’s; Haiti and the Dominican Republic; Iraq in the early 90’s; Iran in ’53; Cambodia in the 70’s; Drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the Cuban blockade that still exists today; Iranian economic sanctions today; support for the Israeli blockade of Palestine; any number of the dictators we support in the Middle East, including Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain; the backing of Saddam Hussein in the 80’s; and the list goes on and on.  If we could honestly admit to ourselves, and to the world, that these events, and many more like them, constitute terrorism, and are no different from events like 9/11, the bombing of the USS Cole, the Marine barracks in Lebanon, etc., perhaps then we can engage in a discussion where what we say is taken seriously.  Perhaps then we can participate in a conversation where we discern how to unify and expunge terrorism all together.  Before that can happen, we have to be able to acknowledge terrorism for what it is.  There is no middle ground in determining what is, and is not, terrorism.  There is only interpretation and the manipulation of one’s agenda, for the benefit of one’s own national consciousness.  Anything short of accepting this is dishonest, delusional, and counterproductive. 

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Bohemia in Charleston

Bohemia is a necessary ingredient to the sanity of any city.  It has always existed, on the fringe of every society, as a counterbalance to the all too prevalent plague of corporate plasticity.  It’s an oasis;  an escape from the dreary real world burdens of 9-5 volunteered slavery, and the menacing routine of the mundane.  Charleston, SC is not immune to this truth.  An impromptu excursion into its “art” district, where rent is cheap and youth abounds, informs us how alive and well the Bohemian underground continues to be.  There are, like all atomized segments of the population, times of great creative output.  Mysteriously this output is complimented by an acknowledging class of small business owners, that understand the symbiosis between creativity and venues that willingly provide platforms for self-expression.  When this combination is concurrently recognized by both the artist and the entrepreneur, a scene takes form.  A recent stroll through downtown Charleston, reacquainted me with the intangible feeling that Bohemia has always romantically attempted to uphold;  an unbridled quest to find meaning in an otherwise concrete jungle of discordant personalities that fall victim to the squalid stench of touristic activity and boring commonality.

It’s strange to me that you can walk a city street a thousand times, and never notice the glaring imperfections staring you in the face.  It’s actually quite common.   As innocuous as these failings are, it’s a shame to allow the subtleties to go unobserved.  A historic example:

In 1886 Charleston endured a violent earthquake, and while I was aware of certain architectural enhancements adorning the facade of many older homes, acting as badges of honor and testaments to age, I’ve often walked right past a number of perceptible scars that tell the frightening story of mother nature’s dispassionate and impartial wrath, and how it devastated much of Charleston that day.  These are the interesting enlightenments that sometimes occur when one traverses their city with an engaged eye.  A city I’ve perambulated countless times, passing right by history’s wake without taking the time to notice, or fully inquire, into what a certain blemish might reflect.

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There has always been a Bohemian element integrated amongst the more highbrow Charlestonians.  It exists on the periphery, acting in many ways as a regenerating force.  The Holy City has been a haven of sorts, for rogue artists and intellectuals that have taken advantage of Charleston’s more liberal inclinations.  Strolling through it’s many side streets, I’m overwhelmed with a sense detached nostalgia; an ineffable yearning to somehow peer into this place, 100 years ago, and a 100 years before that.  It’s a painful feeling, like being unable to relive a certain unique moment from my own life.  The past, is prologue.  But even so, I long to walk amongst my city’s ancient inhabitants, experiencing the culture as it evolved from generation to generation.  Impossible?  Certainly.  But, since I’m musing poetic I might as well include my own tragic fantasy, destined to lead me down the path of a Parisian midnight, born too late or too early;  at once lost and found.

It’s easy to take for granted the reasons why cities become what they are today.  It’s impossible to fully understand a place, without taking the time to learn its history.  Charleston, is riddled with duality.

For example, one must reconcile the egregious institution of slavery, and its economic justifications, with Charleston’s tolerance of religion.  It’s difficult to imagine a city, known as the “Ellis Island of African Americans”, that protected and encouraged the religious liberty of a variety of cultures and peoples that were not of Anglican descent.  The cognitive dissonance is palpable.  Out of this dichotomized reality grew a tension between freedom and economic prosperity.  Admittedly that struggle proved superficial.  The prosperous always won, and those that genuinely took issue, knew the institution to be too powerful.  It would take a Civil War, and a President’s reluctant mandate, to unfetter the innocent souls that had been thrust into this cold new world without their consent.  The affects sadly, continue to linger.

These differing elements, and the struggle that was born from them, create Bohemia.  They cause individuals to consciously choose between mainstream convention and truth, and if one’s voice cannot be heard in the traditional mediums, the act of self-expression- and an acceptance of disparate cultures and philosophies- becomes a prerequisite for stepping outside institutional convention.  In its own way this tension creates revolution;  even if by revolution, what is meant is the courage to live one’s life alternatively.

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The elegance of Charleston lies in the unrefined charm of its downtown.  The wealthier city blocks combine latent European influences with Caribbean pastels that color latitudinally postured homes, symbolic in their dualistic reminder of Charleston’s affluence and blunt colonialism.  Just as it always has, pockets of Bohemia flirt with high fashion districts, while bars and restaurants litter every nook.  It’s a necessary good, that a portion of any city remains free from chain restaurants, bankers, generic stores, and developers.  There must be an organic and creative space, teetering on the verge of unkempt seediness, where one is safe to express himself;  drink his fill;  sample food made with heart;  and experience elements of the counter-culture.  A city must have neighborhoods like this, where danger mixes with adrenaline, and soul comes before the dollar.  Character…character is what these alcoves of Bohemia possess.  They serve as a retreat from the misguided illusion of normalcy, and often remind us what life could be, if we cared less about things deemed “normal.”

And why not?  Why shouldn’t there be a controversial element that caters to ruffians and sleep deprived cavaliers seeking ladies of little inhibition;  vintage book stores owned by bibliophiles;  musicians and artists that aspire to inspire;  drunkards and addicts, poets and philosophers, searching for kindred spirits and a place to call home;  religious and political dissidents who argue, circularly, while striving to understand?  Why shouldn’t there be a cross section of debauchery, intellect, intoxication, and sex?  Why shouldn’t narrow streets, back gardens, small parks, and iron gates, give way to an incongruous continuity of vice and virtue, affirmed by the notion that ideas and creativity carry weight, and mean more than the profits that may ensue?  Why can’t there be a place where good is sometimes ugly, and where meaning is paramount to frivolity?  Shouldn’t these miscreants and their terribly necessary concepts, have a place to go?  A place to call home?  Charleston is such a place, and I hope it always will be.

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