Saturday, September 12, 2015

News in Depth: ISIS, the Crash of 2008, Kim Davis and "The Higher Law"

For where I'm coming from here:
            My first college term paper, sort of, was an exercise in a writing course where the assignment was to find a historical event from the week of one's birth, research it, and write about it. Having been born in 1943 — a year with a lot more history than is healthy — I had many options but chose to write on the Battle of Stalingrad, arguable the decisive battle of World War II and in any event one of the crucial battles in world history.
                        Some of my research was reading a military history book or two of the many on the subject, but what I spent most of my time on was reading the contemporary coverage in The New York Times, especially the official daily Communiqués from the Germans and from the Russians, and comparing (and contrasting) the Communiqués with what I was reading from the academic historians.
                        Somewhat surprisingly, especially given that— SPOILER ALERT! — the Russians eventually won the battle, the Russian communiqués generally included more lies than those of the Germans.
            I grew up during the Cold War, and could say with Bob Dylan, "I’ve learned to hate Russians / All through my whole life" and was propagandized on how the Ruskies couldn't talk without resorting to propaganda. Well, yeah, yeah, and so forth. But: But my grandparents fled the Russian Empire back when there was an emperor, one who proudly called himself "Autocrat of all the Russias," and I had some personal reasons to distrust Russians. Plus, crucially, I had also grown up on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and its detailed analysis — from a Left perspective — of how lying was built into Stalinism and had become a tradition in the new Russian Empire.
            So a couple weeks back I was surprised to find myself flipping to channel 216 on the TV in the exercise room of my condo complex to watch RT the Russian TV network for a fix of hard news. I wasn't the only one of the gym regulars, either: we no longer got Al Jazeera, and BBC America only had a couple hours of news a day during gym hours — so that left the Ruskies.
            More exactly, it left the Ruskies given how repetitive and shallow CNN and MSNBC have become — and how Fox remains what it was in the classic analysis and mea culpa of Bart Simpson: "Then I had this crazy dream that my family were all just cartoon characters and that our success led to some crazy propaganda network called Fox News."

Which is the rant on where I'm coming from, leading into a fairly brief, epitomizing rant on a few places where CNN, MSNBC, et al. can go to replace some of their incessant repetition and add a depth to their coverage. This comes from me, an amateur at best in the journalism biz, and on the basis of listening to just one pretty respectable NPR news-panel/call-in show covering a week in (perhaps significantly) early September 2015.

            * A listener called in to the show to mention the Colin Powell interview on Meet the Press for 6 September, where he came out in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. It was an important interview, not for its immediate political effects — which a panelist noted were minimal, given where the Republican Party is nowadays — but more for a major figure like Colin Powell's introducing into the debate on ISIS the double-m phrase: "Mass Movement." ISIS spearheads a mass movement in its militant phase, the phase featuring fanatics who embrace self-sacrifice (and don't much mind killing other people). We need news shows explaining and applying Eric Hoffer's 1951 analysis of The True Believer for the history of such movements through World War II and note how very closely some key elements of the situation today parallel those that saw the rise of the early Christian Church and Islam, and, perhaps more so, given advances in communications technology, the parallels with the Wars of Religion growing out of the Protestant Reformation and lasting through much of the 17th c., where the printing press was crucial. In a sense, ISIS is, as President Obama said, the "JV team," and al-Qaeda Little League — compared to the full-fledged mass movement likely to succeed ISIS, if they can find a charismatic leader to inflame the faithful.
                        Osama bin Laden may or may not have read Hoffer when he concluded that what was needed to reinvigorate Islam was an attack by the Great Satan of America. The neocons in the Bush administration undoubtedly forgot their Hoffer and similar arguments when they responded to the attacks of 11 Sept. 2001 by giving bin Laden exactly what he wanted. But they did what they did, and this awakened not just the Arab Spring but the forces of sectarianism, tribalism, nationalism, and fanaticism that can consolidate into opposing mass movements that can shake the world as much as those of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (in Protestant terms) in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Hitler and Stalin et al. in the 20th.

            * A second story of the week was the decision of the US Department of Justice to go after big-time finance criminals, and a member of the news-panel noted that many of the disastrous financial moves leading up to The Great Recession of 2008 were legal. That is the story, people! That is the scandal! That is a more important issue than putting into jail a few bad actors on Wall Street and, in terms of its effects of most people's lives a hell of a more important story than finding parts of crashed airplanes. (I know it's perverse and paranoid to do so, but I sometimes wonder if CNN staff are tempted to shoot down the occasional aircraft on what for them is a slow newsweek. But I digress.) The bad actions of a compliant US Congress that allowed the Crash of 2008 and invite another one — that is the story that needs development over several weeks or months or as long as it takes to drum some basic ideas into the heads of at least the portion of the public that watch and listen to news.

            * On a lighter note, relatively speaking, there was the latest round of US Kulturkampfe ("cultural struggles") as evidenced in the story of the jailing and releasing of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and then, with equal opportunity, to any couples.
                        When the dust settles, "Higher Law" appeals need to be taken seriously and argued about. In a portion of the Book of Deuteronomy that contains a lot of oppressive rules and some really bad ideas (Ki Teitzei), there is the commandment, "You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him" (23.15-16). The Code of Hammurabi and its successors long before and long after Deuteronomy "decreed death as the penalty for sheltering a fugitive slave" (RSV 244 n.); and the laws of the American colonies and the United States required returning fugitive slaves until 1864. There would be much to be said in praise of local officials and Federal Marshals refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 — or clerks refusing to cooperate with the Nazi Nuremburg Laws on racial purity; and "Higher Law" arguments can be useful. We need some in-depth conversations there long after we've forgotten who Kim Davis might be.
                        We also need to discuss why adult Americans would need permission of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to get married, and we need some lawyers competent in simple English to explain on TV and in other media that the State doesn't get involved in marriage directly — or not so much any more — but in contracts for setting up a special kind of household. And then we can slog on to the legal privileging of those households that center on a married couple. Back when "Be fruitful and multiply" made a lot of sense as a commandment to human beings, such privileges also made sense, as part of a strategy to use marriage to encourage fertile heterosexual mating where it was likely to produce children who'd be raised in a stable family unit. The times they have a-changed, and our debates on the environment and resources have to turn to issues of population ... which leads us back to what sort of households the State should be encouraging to handle responsible reproduction and child rearing — and providing an effective home for people.
                        Gays should be pissed to hell that now that only with gay marriage US society might get around to discussing the privileging of marriage and how we'll define marriage — but, sorry, guys and gals and Other: inter-racial marriage wasn't enough to get the conversation going, but gay marriage is sufficiently controversial, a "sexy" enough news story, to do so.

                        So with this larger issue, too: Come on, US media, the chum is in the water and Kim Davis gave you had a nice feeding frenzy on sex, religion, and politics. "Life is uncertain; so eat desert first" — and it's time for your figurative veggies and protein and to get to more profound issues of the individual's obligations to the State in matters of faith and morals and crasser question of "Who gets what — Who profits, who pays?" in terms of marriage and households and taxes.

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