Overweening Generalist

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Neomedievalism as Metaphor, and a Plethora of Our Discontents

For anyone who's paying attention, Obama's conducting of the "global war on terror" seems Pentagon-run, and coterminous with the Bush-Cheney years of utter barbarity and horror. The war in Afghanistan, if it already seemed endless to you (it certainly does me), in truth, will be going on at least another ten years, no matter what happy-talk you hear in the mainstream electronic media or the corporate newspapers. The Obama Administration? Forget it. Here are some of the moves Obama's made that make him no different from the Neoconservatives that got us into this mess:

  • Patriot Act extended: no reforms have been made from the Bush/Cheney era
  • Warrantless wiretapping? Obama just signed an extension for five more years
  • increased secrecy, repression and restriction of releases from Gitmo, let alone that it hasn't been shut down
  • a new scheme for indefinite detention on Unistat soil
  • a new theory of Presidential assassination powers, even of Unistat citizens
  • Miranda rules diluted
I could go on and on, but I'll tell you the truth: I'm weak of heart when it comes to such things, and I just get depressed. Why do you think the OG usually writes about seemingly everything but this shit?

"The voice of history of often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery." - Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

You may have heard that Unistat is getting out of Afghanistan at the end of next year. Last month the Pentagon's top lawyer said we should see the Afghan war as "finite" but clearly, that was for the consumption of dupes and starry-eyed wishers. There's every reason to believe Unistat will be in Afghanistan for 10 more years, possibly forever. We are not "exiting" at the end of 2014. If you believe that, I know a Nigerian Prince who has some money he wants to share with you. The devil is in the semantics of the thing. And O! what semantics. You want semantics? I'll give you semantics.

"This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile." - George W. Bush, on 9/16/01, to the press, South Lawn of the White House

                                                        Hedley Bull

Medievalism/Neomedievalism and Neoconservatism
In 1977, British political theorist Hedley Bull published The Anarchical Society: A Study of World Order in Politics. Considered a "realist" thinker in International Relations, Bull was concerned with the rise of non-state and post-state actors in a field of thought that was governed by Cold War nation and state-based approaches. Bull's book has since become a classic in the field, and apparently every textbook in foreign relations now includes sections on neomedievalism.

Here's some of what Hedley Bull was onto in 1977. He had the foresight to see non-state and post-state actors on the world scene as playing a big enough role that we must begin to think in new ways. But first: who or what are "non-state actors"? Some would be: international terrorists, corporations and their own paramilitary squads, drug cartels, NGOs, and, even though he didn't mention them - because they didn't exist then, but he probably would have included them - computer hackers.

Some alternative paths, or solutions for world order with the rise of non-state actors, for Bull:

  • world government 
  • "solidarity of states" (probably a strengthening of the UN)
  • a disarmed world
  • ideological homogeneity among existing states
  • a modern medieval model
There are other alternative paths; I have only skimmed Bull and have been greatly aided in this intellectual area by texts that comment on Bull, the best being a slim title, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, by Bruce Holsinger a prof. of English (specializing in the medieval era) and Music at the U. of Virginia. Holsinger points out that Bull devoted a scant few pages to  a neomedieval path to a new world order, but it looks like the NeoCons took that section of the book very seriously indeed...or so I infer from reading Holsinger reading Bull...

                                              Bruce Holsinger, defending the good 
                                             name of Medieval Studies, defending well

Holsinger, whose field of Medieval Studies covers roughly the 5th-15th centuries, includes the rise of Islam, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, Charlemagne, Mohammed, the Koran, courtly love, the Book of Kells, the English kings Shakespeare would immortalize in plays such as Richard III  and Henry IV, Marco Polo, Petrarch, St. Francis of Assisi, the Aztec Empire, Dante, Chaucer, feudalism, the Jin dynasty, Hildegard of Bingen, and Genghis Khan; Holsinger objects to the appropriation and semantic use of "medieval" by the post-9/11 Unistat political regimes. In one place he admits it's now so pervasive that the word "medieval" may not recover from its new meaning, but that his Medieval Studies colleague, Carolyn Dinshaw of NYU, tongue in cheek, proposed starting a group Concerned Medievalists For Peace, in the wake of 9/11.

The Holsinger book is - to me - the most interesting work on the deeper political workings of the Pentagon, neoconservatives, and the utter disasters of Unistat foreign policy since I read Nicholas Xenos's slim book, Cloaked In Virtue, on the cult of neocons that emanated with Leo Strauss, and how he taught a secret inner "true" reading of philosophers like Hobbes, to his initiates. The great irony, since I became aware of the Neo Cons (after Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind came out), was that Strauss was one of the many great Jewish intellectuals imported from Europe during the rise of Hitler.

(short article, not by Xenos: "Leo Strauss's Philosophy of Deception")

"History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of ideas." - Etienne Gilson

What Holsinger does is show how the rhetoric of "medievalism" has been applied by NeoCons to get us into this mess. The infamous "torture memos," for instance. I've read some maddening things on how the lawyers inside Bush's White House twisted semantics in order to override the Geneva Convention III (the POW issue) to redefine prisoners of war as "enemy combatants" which overrides Geneva, all International Law, and even human rights. Obama has gone along with this.

                                            Glenn Greenwald: if you want to know more 
                                            about the truth - as I see it - of Unistat foreign
                                            and domestic policy: read him!

Because the terrorists were stateless, or from "failed states" they aren't recognized under law. They are separated from us not only by religion and region, but by time: they are medieval. Therefore, modern ideas about law don't apply to them. Let us write the laws for them.

Holsinger goes on to show, in remarkable detail for such a short book, how the semantics of "medieval" has been used to circumvent...any semblance of sanity or humanity. In the name of "security."

What a terrific little book Holsinger has written. I just have one basic difference with him. On pp.15-16, Holsinger writes that Plato's Gorgias has "one of the great critiques of the rhetoric of anti-intellectualism in the Western tradition [...] In the words of Socrates to Gorgias, a professional rhetor, 'the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the people that he has more knowledge than those who know."

This has always been true and always will be true. It's up to the citizens (or post- or non-state actor) to educate themselves so rhetors (in this case, anyone from the Unistat State Dept) will not believe them, and seek better ways to live on the planet with "medieval" people. I'm impressed with Holsinger, but I don't believe he knows "the truth." And I don't believe Socrates or Plato knew "the truth," either. I think Gorgias was pointing out something that Plato didn't like (and I would guess, Socrates didn't like it either, but what about his schtick: The classic "I don't know anything; I'm just askin' you" routine?) and preferred to not think was "the truth": that no one has a privileged fulcrum point from which to see The Truth, with no occlusions having to do with historical accident, class interest, personal interest, psychological disposition, etc.

(These "medieval" people are people who happened to use a money-transfer scheme - hawala - that eluded all of our ultra-sophisticated computer-tracking efforts, because they knew about our computer systems. Yea: they're "medieval." They used cell phones and shredders and FAX machines. They just want us OUT OF THEIR PART OF THE WORLD. Is that so difficult to understand? Also they're pissed we support Israel so one-sidedly; they despise us, not for "our freedoms" - you have to be a total imbecile to believe that! - but because we propped up vicious tyrannies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Also they know we backed Iraq in the seven year Iran-Iraq war, that the CIA got rid of Iran's democratically-elected Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the brutal Shah and trained his secret police-killers, SAVAK. I could go on. They hate us for our policies. Some of these medieval people subscribe to a strain of radicalism that led to 9/11. But by no means all. All of this is "the truth" as I see it.)

Meanwhile, Unistat grows more and more medieval, in debt, the Robocop to the world, having lost its moral standing in the rest of the "free world," and seems intent on carrying out a neomedievalist foreign  (and, in some ways, domestic) policy that looks more and more like the Catholic Church trying to run the globe, circa 500-1450. And thus we drift ever closer to catastrophe.

Glenn Greenwald, from a week or so ago, in The Guardian. Germane to this rant.
Wolfowitz Doctrine
Late 2010 interview with the co-author of The Death of Neoconservatism
Five Ways Obama is Just Like George W. Bush
Monopolizing War: It's what we do best
Americans Are The Most Spied-On People In World History (Even the East Germans under the Stasi!)


Anonymous said...

Zizek, one of my favorite fuzzy headed marxist radicals has a lot to say about those who have been basicly eliminated from the system. It is quite a large number including some who have been around for millenia, the Rom come to mind. Strange how the lack of status leads to a separate set of laws based on the presumption of subhumanity with no debate and this frees society to indulge in savagery that would make a tiger blush.

Don't feel bad about not wanting to endlessly write about what is wrong, few scholars are comfortable with a world in serious trouble. When the education system was dumbed down it didn't take long for the so-called elites to fall into the traps set by people like Strauss. He like Kissinger was warped by the tide of anti-semitism, and spent his life trying to pass the pain on the rest of humanity. The hacker community of today is in a similar situation, the draconian, extralegal machinations against them used by the State are going to cause a backlash that will topple a few more governments. Making enemies out of smart people is one of the dumbest things anyone can do.

If things don't start to move in a different direction, we may get to see UniStat facing a Nuremberg Tribunal in which our bureaucracy gets hung for crimes against humanity. Since we set the precedent against the Germans we will have no reason to complain. They had laws which made everything they did legal, it certainly didn't make anything they did right.

michael said...

Every now and then I have to VENT on this stuff; I could write 3 articles a day on similar aspects of this Friendly Fascism (see underrated book by Bertram Gross from around 1990), but no one's paying me, and besides, I don't attain any sort of catharsis when I write on this subject. I only feel worse from having to confront "all that" for 75 minutes, in a concentrated fashion.

And if I were a "scholar" maybe someone would pay me to write...

Thanks for reminding me to catch up on my Zizek.

The Obama Admin has gone through machinations to make sure the NeoCon war criminals of the previous admin wouldn't be prosecuted, and that's because - I believe - the Pentagon is running foreign policy no matter what letter comes after the Prez's name. Obama will continue in the same (former) war crimes ways. They DO believe in medievalism.

The NeoCons were hell-bent on torture, finding a way to make it legal (everything Hitler did was legal, too), and Colin Powell wasn't in the loop. He sent a memo, saying, Hey you guys are wrong: we can't torture. The UN has recognized Afghanistan and most of these other states as actual states. You can't argue they're non-state actors. But Bybee and Yoo and Feith and Cheney and Wolfowitz probably just looked at his memo and laffed, and came up with a contorted rationale for torture.

It's probably similar to the underlying legalization of Obama having his own private Kill List for drone strikes. I mean: it would HAVE TO, right? All sorts of military, former intelligence and other "experts" have been arguing vociferously that the drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are making things WORSE for future terrorist strikes in the West, but that doesn't get much play.

Thanks for dropping in and making cogent remarks.

I stewed all day that day, reading about Aaron Swartz, and came up with this instead, trying to keep the lid on the mounting anger I felt. But you're right: it seems like they've taken a baseball bat to the Info Wants to be as Free as Possible hacker society's hornet's nest. Let's see what comes of it.

-A Rom in some sense

Bobby Campbell said...

I actually find that political dissent hits me on a much deeper level when it gets presented as part of a general evaluation of processes.

I find it kinda problematic when activism becomes a business model/preconceived narrative.

"I am the Defense Early Warning Radar System
I see nothing but bombs"

I'll still read and respect Greenwald, but I already know his next expose is about how he sees bombs. (INFO=SURPRISE)

But he's right of course! There are bombs! And it's important to know that, but that ain't all there is, and it's also important to know that.

How to fight friendly fascism?


Taking moral high ground seems ineffectual.

Executive policy maybe often dictated by an ammoral cost/benefit analysis. (ends justifying means) Objections should refute on similar operational basis.

"To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

If synergetic systemic formulations function effectively they will achieve success, if they achieve success they will get utilized, if they get utilized they will upgrade the system.


michael said...

After reading your comments, Bobby, I kept thinking of what has always seemed like a basic problem among political activists in the electronic-drenched media age: how much drama do people need in order to become politically active? Can we overdo it? Yes. How do we know, though?

For example, I see Glenn Greenwald as being a lot like a younger Chomsky: Hey! You SAID x, y, and z, and yet look: you seem to have done not-x, not-y, and not-z...and why are you doing Q, Z and L?

It's an old rhetoric, used by energetic and courageous intellectuals (Greenwald's got a law degree, right?): the Culture of Critical Discourse.

I see the "of course it's bombs tomorrow from this guy" in the shrill conspiracy types, like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones.

I don't know how to effectively formulate a synergetic systemic thing. My intuition keeps telling me Aldous Huxley, Robert Anton Wilson, and many others were right: we need to raise our own consciousnesses...which seems about as easy as the bootstrapping synergetic system formulation, although this may yet work. Maybe?

The existing model of buying a lot of stuff does not seem to work; we are not happy in our reigning True Religion in Unistat: Consumerism.

I agree that taking the moral high ground seems not all that effective. However, if we speak with passion, with some variant of "truth to power," I think we have some moral idea - morality being defined here as thinking that our actions will have consequences - that's floating around in the background.

And I'm not sure we can escape at least a partial articulation of our own values about how people ought to be treated, living on this planet, revolving around its Type-G star, when we engage in the varieties of social activism (or non-activism, which in itself may function as a type of statement and spur, depending a lot, it seems, on that elusive thing called "style").

RAW's line about how we are very complex but poorly wired robots has been haunting me lately.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

There is a particularly good Glenn Greenwald column just up about Aaron Swartz:


Bobby Campbell said...

I'll admit I still have a lot to learn!

PQ said...

Great post, great discussion.

I've had notes for a similarly tinted blog post sitting around for a while now (mainly saying: Greenwald! Read him!) but this sums it all up perfectly.

michael said...

@ Bobby: that goes double for me.

@ Tom: I read your blog on Swartz and couldn't respond; I found it too maddening and depressing. I've now read close to 40 articles on him. I'm still learning. I feel so humbled by what the kid was able to accomplish. This story really makes me sick, and I haven't felt this combo of feelings since Peter McWilliams died, and those circumstances.

@PQ: I'll dissent from the use of "perfectly" and urge you to write your version, as I really do want to read what you have to say here. Seriously! Pleeeze?