Incestuous Amplification

The wisdom from political commentators last night seemed to be that Rumsfeld would be given a reprieve in spite of the election results. The history of the Bush regime shows heel digging as a common response to critique. But maybe the decider has just had enough this time. He admitted to reporters today that he lied when asked about Rumie last week because it was the only way to get them to go onto the next question in pre-election week. No one has made much of this admission – it seems that it is suddenly acceptable for the president to lie to reporters when it is politically expedient.

The rules of the political-media game used to be that you could obfiscate and avoid but never lie. But Bush seems quite happy to admit to this lie and expects everyone to understand its necessity.

Lying in politics takes different forms it is not often presented as blatantly as this. One of its forms is what John Stauber calls “incestuous amplification” – the repetition and reinforcement of political spin by a tight cadre of players. WMD is the prime example. But a lot of the talk during Rumsfeld’s resignation today is similar, even people like McCain who have had huge disagreements with him over war strategy felt the need to compliment him.

Rumsfeld himself, of course, praised the President:

“The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war– the first war of the 21st century. ” Rumsfeld said. “it is not well-known, It was not well-understood. It is complex for people to comprehend, and I know with certainty that over time the contributions you’ve made will be recorded by history”

The first draft of such history is already being written and as we all know is no where near as complimentary. I am currently reading Woodward’s State of Denial and “dysfunctional” – the word that everyone is using – does not even cover the half of it. Rumsfeld comes across as a deeply neurotic control freak and George – I go with my gut – Bush as something like the Moousketeer-in-chief.

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Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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Ocean Walk

 

thiroulsea

The ocean is never familiar. After months of walking the same stretch of beach there is still only awe. Sometimes when the ocean is rough it seems angry but tonight there was more playfulness in the swell than ferocity.

It was good to finally leave the cave of code.

Not New York

tsq_040_030

I have been thinking a lot about the “apocalytpic cities” section of my thesis. Initial thoughts are to focus on New York, but the whole idea of the multimodal mythic cluster means that New York is every city and every city is New York. Well, that is to say that New York is London, LA, Berlin, Shanghai, Hong Kong and various other nameless apocalyptic cities.

Just been searching out reviews of Children of Men a new adaptation of the P.D. James novel. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón(Y’Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Azkaban) it is set in a beautifully dystopic London cityscape. The film is set in a world where New York has been destroyed by an atomic bomb some years earlier so in a sense London becomes the haunted double of the destroyed city.

children-of-men

A number of the reviews criticise – as reviewers love to do – “gaps in the logic” of the film, but given Cuaron’s other films and the bits that I have seen on the trailer I suspect the film has a compelling visual logic – a spatially imagined logic that is played out in the filmic recreation of “London”. A futuristic story is by definition one that will have gaps: the gaps of what has not yet been. The imagined city in such films is the fragile container of such aporia.

Just started today must try to see over the weekend.

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A China moment?

0214_bush_460x276_1Stanley Fish says that it’s time for Bush to go to China.

I don’t mean that literally, but metaphorically. It’s time for George Bush to do what Richard Nixon did – perform an act whose effectiveness is a function of the fact that he is the last man anyone would have expected to do it. What would that act be? It won’t be – and shouldn’t be – agreeing to a face-to-face, one-on-one debate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, if only because when you accept the other guy’s invitation you cede him the initiative and the position of leadership, and we all know that George Bush will never willingly do that. No, it has to be something that a) makes clear that he is the one in charge, and b) is so surprising and (apparently) out of character that its very announcement alters the geopolitical landscape and disarms criticism in advance.

Fish’s idea is that Bush should announce a personal fact finding mission to the Middle East. An intriguing idea but I am not so sure it’s a China moment or would have the far reaching effects – symbolic or actual – that Fish proposes it might. What’s interesting are the comments at NYT.com. Here’s a typical comment:

Dear Mr. Fish: Indeed, the Grand Tour is an excellent idea (It is also clear you were enjoying yourself, tongue-in-cheek-or-otherwise, while you were composing this piece.) Here’s why it won’t happen: 1) George Bush does not expose himself to criticism; 2) George Bush does not expose himself to possible harm (Vietnam); 3) Mostly, George Bush does not do anything anyone else thought of first, unless that person’s last name is Cheney or Rove. You last name is Fish. Nice try anyway.

Both Fish and the commenter think they know who Bush is and how he thinks. They want him to act outside the square, jump out of his box because they are convinced they know exactly what box he’s in at the moment.

There’s a lot written about and a lot of evidence to support the incurious, man on a mission, black and white Bush – so much so the very idea of a China moment seems pretty preposterous. But more fundamental then any character flaws that we may or may not be able to identify is Bush’s sense of history. Bush and Nixon have very different notions of their own relationship to the world and to history. Nixon for all his flaws fundamentally saw himself as a statesman that’s what made China possible. Nixon prepared his whole life for that China moment, he not only wanted to be president, he wanted to be a historically significant President. He spent the last twenty years of his life ensuring that legacy. Bush is an accidental president. I suspect he would not have run again had he lost in 2000.

Nixon had both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda that had evolved and matured over time. He was an archetypal politician who for all his paranoia and self-aggrandizement knew – from bitter experience – that politics, real politics occurred over time. Bush has not set out to achieve anything because he believes he has been given a mission.

Bush believes – and in some senses he is right – that he has had his China moment. For Bush the transformation came early on: grabbing the megaphone in the rubble of ground zero, addressing the memorial at the National Cathedral and addressing the joint session of Congress in the weeks after 9/1, Bush unexpectedly declared himself to be a real leader – a war president. The puppet from Texas began to take hold of the strings. Sure his speeches were being written for him but what was new was a deeply personal sesne of mission that animated those speeches like never before.

Bob Woodward has been rightly criticised for giving Bush a free ride in Bush at War and Plan of Attack but what emerges clearly is Bush’s own conception of who he was and how he reacted and Bush believes himself to be a man called and transformed.

According to Woodward’s book, in the lead up to the joint session speech Bush had been insistent that it include a strong sense of his personal dedication to this new moment in American history. He hammered Mike Gerson and his coms team for a set of words that matched how he said he felt:

“I will not forget this wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

Gerson waited anxiously for a call from his boss following the speech. When the call came, according to Woodward, they both remember what the President said:

“I have never felt more comfortable in my life.”

After he made that declaration, the Presidency of George W. Bush jumped outside its box. Bush grabbed at the power of the “war time president” he quickly declared himself to be. Bush believes quite resolutely he has already been to China. Bush maybe worried about the short term prospects of his party in the mid-terms but I don’t think he worries about his role in history.

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Condi the true believer

President Bush Returns To White House
Media Matters has a great analysis of the Katie and Condi show that aired recently on US 60 Minutes. The interview was pure Couric and pure 60 Minutes and represents what is best and worst about both those brands. Couric sits with that intense look that somehow manages to convey admiration and slight approbation at the same time but doesn’t convey the import of either emotion. She asks how you ask the Secretary of State out on a date (Rice: “I’m not going to go there”) and uses a quote from her daughter “Who made us the boss of them” as a question about American intervention in the Middle East. There are moments when she pulls Rice up: “But that’s not the question…” but she basically gives her a free ride and doesn’t challenge her on any substantive point. Significantly for Couric who’s move to CBS was wrapped up in the rhetoric of wanting to do serious journalism she never comes back at Rice or argues a a single question based on research.

But the show does what it sets out to do brilliantly, it produces a powerful piece of television which appears to grant the viewer unique and intimate access to the most powerful women in America. And just as the segment title proclaims, Rice is a “True Believer”. This is the myth of Rice that we see played out again and again. The girl who rose from Bombingham and emerged with determination and ambition. The loyalist who selflessly serves her president. The woman of conviction who wants to change the world. This is summed up in a little set piece Rice delivers early in the interview:

“I probably have at one level, a better understanding, or perhaps, let me say a more personal understanding of what the dark side of human beings can look like. I remember very well in 1963 when Birmingham was so violent. When it acquired the name ”Bomb-ingham. That even with my wonderfully protective family, you had to wonder why are they doing this to us? And on the other hand, I have a great faith in the ability of people to triumph over the dark side of human beings.“

She also uses her experience growing up in the pre-civil rights south to great effect to counter criticisms of the Bush administration’s push to ”spread democracy“ in the Middle East:

”And so when I look around the world and I hear people say, ‘Well, you know, they’re just not ready for democracy,’ it really does resonate. I hear echoes of, well, you know, blacks are kind of childlike. They really can’t handle the vote. Or they really can’t take care of themselves. It really does roil me. It makes me so angry because I think there are those echoes of what people once thought about black Americans.“

Many profiles of Rice draw comparisons between her and the President: sport, faith, fitness and steely conviction. As Nicholas Leeman once wrote: ”When you hear Rice speaking, that is what Bush would sound like if he was as articulate as she was.“

 

Rice and Bush are an intermingled myth she is always by his side, always whispering in his ear. Of all his advisers Rice is the one that is most visibly by the side of the decider. There has been speculation about the extent or power of her actual influence at different points but her most powerful role of being the other Bush – the same but different – has not changed. It can’t change without fundamentally altering the whole script: she’s a true believer.

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The work of mourning and September 11

Began reading a very thoughtful article by Adi Drori-Avraham on September 11 this passage in particular struck me:

The photographic image, with its indexical power, its unflinching persistence to freeze time, to capture, to arrest, defies any attempt to deny or forget. As an authentic representation of events, the image not only testifies that an event really happened but also guarantees that it never ceases to happen. ‘When the picture is painful’, writes Ronald Barthes inCamera Lucida, ‘nothing in it can transform grief into mourning’ (1993, p. 90).

I was surprised over the last week, watching a number of the 9/11 5 year anniversary TV specials, how potent those endlessly repeated images remain. Because of this research I am in the zone of the event all the time so I was a little shocked when my reaction to the towers falling was so visceral. You know exactly what’s coming, that crumbling fall is animated for mere seconds but I still found it awesome and terrible. Continuously transforming and continuously untransformed.

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Retraumatisation

A disturbing but beautifully crafted narrative from the Guardian about Katrina survivors:

Katrina’s winds died a year ago, but they left deep scars. You see them in wrecked streets. You see them in destroyed forests. You see them in tiny white mobile homes that now dot the Deep South. You see them most, perhaps, in people’s fearful expressions when a hard rain begins to fall from an angry summer sky.

Dr Becky Turner sees them in the play of children. Her big blue bus pulls up outside schools on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and pupils walk in to use toys and paints. It sounds like fun. But what Turner and her colleagues see each day, drawn in crayon, is far from harmless. Turner uses play to tease out the children’s storm stories, and help them talk about the horrors.

And the horrors do come. Many of the children of Hurricane Katrina lost relatives. Some saw them die. All of them are still living with the hurricane. And it is about to get worse. Turner’s mobile mental-health unit is preparing for a flood of new cases as the anniversary approaches. ‘It will be like a retraumatisation,’ Turner says in a weary voice. ‘The storm just goes on and on.’

So it does. Katrina hit on 29 August 2005 and, a year later, life on the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is still a nightmare. Rebuilding scarcely seems to have begun. Gaunt ruins stretch for miles through a disaster area the size of Britain. All over America, from Houston to New York, hundreds of thousands of evacuees have been torn from their homes. Many expect never to return.

Bodies are still being found – this month a victim’s skeleton was unearthed in New Orleans – yet Katrina is now an ignored tragedy. The hurricane slammed one of the poorest areas of the country. It had no respect for colour, creed or wealth, but its victims tended to be black and poor. For a while it pointed a spotlight on issues of race and poverty, but America quickly returned to other matters. Katrina asked fundamental questions about American society. It prompted a nation and a White House to pledge itself to meet the challenge. But after a year, Katrina is a test that America is failing. The storm’s victims are still living in limbo as the rest of the country has moved on. They are the forgotten. This is their story.

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More on Bush and Katrina

With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.

The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:

During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.

He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.

However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.

When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.

Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:

There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.

The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.

Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.

It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.

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Back with Bush in New Orlean’s

I am back after taking six months leave of absence from this project currently focusing on getting together a stronger structure for my thesis.

In the news everything circles around the same issues. With the first anniversary of Katrina and the fifth anniversary of September 11 both approaching there are a growing body of comment pieces which from my perspective seek to make sense of the myth of President Geroge W Bush. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Mark Silva catalogues the series of powerful image moments that constructed the overall image of a removed president as Katrina made landfall:

At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer’s guitar for photographers.

The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.

When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation’s most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.

This image of a detached president, inappropriately upbeat seems to have had a major impact on his standing as a leader. But it also clustered with a range of other misadventures and missteps. Silva continues:

The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush’s handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.

“The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House’s ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.”

The elephant in the hurricane was of course the issues of race and poverty. Something that overtime even Bush seemed to understand. Two weeks after Katrina he made a significant speech that linked race and poverty and made a commitment to developing minority owned businesses and increasing homeownership. But New Orleans is still waiting.

“He said he was going to talk about race and poverty,” said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. “When did that happen? It’s back to business as usual.”

The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.

But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.

Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners–and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.

“This is a unique opportunity in American life,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. “When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would.”

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