Walling off bad news
By Michael Hopping
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 10, 2007, 00:47

In an August 3 memo, Samantha Power, an advisor to Barack Obama�s presidential campaign, defends Obama�s recent promise to change US policy about talking to adversaries.

Given the results of not talking directly to Syria about Lebanon and terrorism, not talking with Iran about nuclear weapons, and delaying talks with North Korea until Kim had accumulated enough nuclear material to arm six to eight atomic bombs, Power is unimpressed with the accepted wisdom in Washington. She concludes, �By any measure, not talking has not worked.�

Regrettably, she�s mistaken. Within rational frames of reference, her evidence is hard to dispute. But the United States has declared its independence from rational constraints. Power forgets that the relevance of evidence depends on whether it confirms the national worldview, a view that casts the world as a mirror for the US. It�s a narcissism echoing the personal vision that Qin Shi Huang, self-styled First Emperor of China, imposed during his reign (247-221 BCE).

Qin Shi Huang unified China for the first time and built a precursor of the Great Wall. Today he is best remembered for the life-sized underground terracotta army guarding his vast mausoleum. These feats only hint at the extent of the First Emperor�s program. He also burned books and buried scholars alive, seemingly with the intention of walling China off, not only from invaders, but also from ideological contamination and perhaps even death. In an essay, �The Wall and the Books,� Jorge Luis Borges writes of him, � . . . perhaps the Emperor and his sages believed that immortality was intrinsic and that corruption could not penetrate a closed sphere.� Borges speculates that, in the Emperor�s mind, history began with him. To paraphrase Cicero on the consequences of a perspective innocent of history, Qin Shi Huang�s world was the world of a child, a fantastically powerful and power-mad child.

The Emperor�s brutal attempt to create a paradise in his own image backfired. Fearing assassination, he became secretive and had to remain on the move. Rather than curry popular favor by moderating harsh policies, Qin Shi Huang clamped down harder. Anticipating eventual success in bending China to his will, he sought the elixir of life, once dispatching a small army to bring him a supply from the mountain where the immortals were said to live. In an ironic twist, the Emperor supposedly died from the toxic effects of the mercury pills his alchemists administered to ensure eternal life. The Qin Dynasty disintegrated shortly thereafter.

Pure illusions

Like Qin Shi Huang, the United States defends its vision with all necessary force and buries contrary evidence. Like the Emperor, we Americans can partake in the luxury of believing that we�re winning right up until we lose, sometimes longer. We always seem taken by surprise, whether in Iraq, Vietnam, or the trenches of rebellion against free-market capitalism. That�s the beauty and curse of a childish world.

Maintenance of a childish world order depends first on omnipotence. A happy child rules unchallenged. An adversary who refuses to first bend the knee has not acknowledged his subservience and so must not be tolerated. Who can say whether State Department officials still actually believe, or expect us to believe, that the United States doesn�t negotiate with countries or groups on the national shit list. More likely, the shopworn assertion of dominance is accepted in the way an indulgent parent accepts the word of a hungover daughter that Eau d�Wine Cooler is a new brand of cologne.

In a moment of weakness, it turns out that the US did negotiate with North Korea to address the nuclear issue. And yes, we�re arming Sunnis in al-Anbar province, hoping they�ll go after al Qaeda rather than coalition troops. Seymour Hersh reports that we�ve aided Sunni jihadists in Lebanon as well. The weapons are supposed to be used against Hezbollah. But one possible recipient group, Fatah al-Islam, decided to challenge the Lebanese Army instead. See? This is why the US doesn�t negotiate with evil. Evil cheats.

A childish world doesn�t admit ambiguity either. Evil has to stay outside. Walling it off is one answer. The US penchant for walling off bad news is nowhere more literally realized than in the proposed Great Wall of Wire along the US-Mexico border. This despite the poor track record of physical barriers erected to control mass human movements. The effectiveness of Qin Shi Huang�s wall hardly outlasted him. The Maginot Line and Berlin Wall fared no better. Until the dynamics impelling illegal immigration change, any US-Mexico border fence must also fail. At present, businesses north of the border require cheap labor to maximize profits. Workers south of the line, made desperate in part by US dumping of agricultural products, are willing to risk death to come north and earn money to support impoverished families.

The grand compromise immigration bill before Congress this year proposed tough enforcement. However, by virtue of guest worker programs and other side doors, one thing was not compromised: the flow of cheap labor. The failure of the bill has the same effect. Corporate globalization proceeds unobstructed while nativist posses vent our collective frustration and arm themselves against the establishment of Aztlan in the Southwest. It seems not to have occurred to xenophobes that geographic borders no longer demarcate the First and Third Worlds. Information conduits, rather than roads, connect First World corporate enclaves and exclusive residential communities. In Qin Shi Huang�s China, the barbarians at the gates were nomadic Mongolian tribesmen. Tomorrow, you may spot one in the bathroom mirror. Some Brave New First Worlders will hate it for you but hey, business is business. If you have a problem with that, it�s not their problem. �Bob, would you please show this gentleman out?�

A similar mental gymnastic preserves the righteous self-regard of Christians who insist on abstinence-only sex education. Abstinence-only may not reduce teen pregnancy or the incidence of STDs, but that doesn�t matter. It supports the Manichean worldview and glorifies God by insisting that His word on sex be the only one taught. Awards of foreign aid should also comply with abstinence-only principles. These programs discharge a Christian�s duty to impart the Word on sex. After that, responsibility shifts to the sinner. The sufferings of the iniquitous confirm God�s justice. Believers can, in good conscience, ignore their cries.

At least we Americans don�t burn books like Qin Shi Huang. Corporate media consolidation, along with advances in technology and marketing, has rendered that odious chore unnecessary. The mainstream outlets do a fine job of information control. They decontextualize bitter pills of reality that can�t be ignored and feed them to us wrapped in celebrity bread and circuses. It�s a more pleasant experience for all concerned.

I�ve got my ignorance; where�s my bliss?

Such advances notwithstanding, the domineering tactics required to perpetuate childish illusions of well-being vis-�-vis the external world still provoke resistance. The danger that preemptive action may convert a hypothetical threat into a self-fulfilling prophesy is also ever present. Exceptional or not, people and nations are apt to get jumpy when defensive countermeasures increase rather than reduce the supply of enemies.

But digital technology offers a means to avoid the positive feedback dilemma. Even better, ordinary people can now aspire to a personalized version of childish nirvana. Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio shows the way with his comment on technology�s usurpation of Nature:

�The living environment, old nature, is replaced by a manufactured milieu, an engineered host -- synthetic nature. In a real sense, we are off planet, dwelling on a lunar surface of stone, cement, asphalt, glass, steel and plastics, engulfed in the atmosphere of electromagnetic vibrations -- the soothing lullaby of the machine.�

If image triumphs over Nature, why not banish the injustices of �old nature� from our personal space? We can configure our video walls and windows to display confirming images. On a societal level, mass abandonment of the commonweal amounts to cultural dementia, but that�s out there. Besides, digital self-reflection is both more effective and humane than the First Emperor�s blood and guts illusion system. A wired consumer can avoid the latest antics of a celebutante without having to bury her. She won�t even raise a fuss.

Come to think of it, those who rankle at kowtowing to the United States might want to take a note. We�d rather shoot enemies than talk to them, but we don�t have a rule against accepting tribute. If you gift us with enough culturally appropriate video games, we may get so happy zapping digital bad guys that we can�t be bothered with you.

Michael Hopping lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His novel, "Meet Me In Paradise," will be published in September. Reach him at

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