Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel did more than anyone to bring about the fall of Communist power in Czechoslovakia in 1989. He called the Communist Eastern European dictatorships of the 1970s post-totalitarian, quite different from the straightforward totalitarianism of Stalin. His understanding helped in his own day. Judge for yourself whether it says anything about our own time and place. Consider the following from The Power of the Powerless:

This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it. Anything beyond this, that is to say, anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself. And in this respect it is correct: every instance of such transgression is a genuine denial of the system. It can be said, therefore, that the inner aim of the post-totalitarian system is not mere preservation of power in the hands of a ruling clique, as appears to be the case at first sight. Rather, the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system. No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual's desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.

Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.

Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

And yet having had such understanding and having written these things, Havel supported the American invasion of Iraq, in spirit just like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - except that the Americans in Iraq destroyed far more and killed a whole lot more innocent people, by anyone's count, than the Soviet Union did in Czechoslovakia. "The expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed . . . military occupation becomes fraternal assistance."

His enemy that locked him up, Communist Party General Secretary Gustav Husak, was the shill for Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, and Havel became a shill for American invasion, slaughter, and domination of Iraq - which was far more murderous and brutal that either the Soviet invaders or their puppet government - with Havel's hearty approval.

Now that should make any of us tremble for how easily corrupted the best of us can be - whoever the best may be. And maybe that's not me or you!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Learning from the nations

The Bible contains many prophecies concerning various nations, mostly against them, but what for? Why do we need to know about Moab or even Tyre, unless we are rulers ourselves?

They're an example to guide us in our own affairs. When we see the pride of Moab, or the cleverness and money-grubbing of Tyre, we can take warning for ourselves from how things end up for these nations.

Not only the Bible, but the events that pass over modern states are most instructive. For instance, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi sneered at the rebels in Benghazi and promised to slaughter them, calling them rats. This did frighten people. But unfortunately for him, his father, and his brothers and sister, it provided plausible reasons for NATO to come into the picture and destroy the regime. Muammar is dead, and Saif is in custody. If he hadn't been such a conceited smart-mouth and threatened to kill a lot of people, the Gaddafi regime might have survived.

It's a lot the same in Syria. When things heated up in Deraa in March, Bashar al-Assad was still not in serious trouble. His regime actually had some solid popular support, unlike Ben Ali, Mubarak, or even Gaddafi. Assad even had a good personal relationship with his Turkish neighbor, Tayyip Recep Erdogan. If he had gotten ahead of popular opinion by repudiating his security forces and promptly granting far-reaching reforms, he would most likely be in good shape today.

What made me think more about these lately is two recent scraps with school districts. One noodled around all year and totally failed the kid. When we proposed a remedy, they gave us the one-finger salute and took refuge in trying to paste a mentally retarded tag on the kid in order to build themselves an alibi for having screwed everything up last year. By brazenly trying to ruin the kid's future just to cover their butts with his hide, they obliged Mama Bear to protect Baby Bear. Then, as though their brazen cynicism were a light thing, they followed the advice of their attorney to answer impudently in the manner of Rehoboam, denying everything like the adulterous woman of the Proverbs that eats and wipes her mouth and says, "I've done no wrong!" Then they filed against the parent for a due process hearing, at which point we brought the matter to the world in flyers we distributed at the high school for a couple of days before mediation. So we settled up and all is well now, but they could have saved six months and a lot of money by being reasonable in the first place. Arrogance and cruelty proved expensive, and got them nothing. Indeed, their legal maneuvers were precisely what enabled us to defeat them.

Another district we're working with had a minor problem, easy to fix, which they chose to handle by sending a threatening and insulting email to the parent in order to scare her into signing an IEP she was not comfortable with, and they followed up with a frivolous complaint to Child Protective Services (CPS). That didn't get the parent to heel and roll over as the district intended, because being Mama Bear, she too had to step up and defend her Baby Bear. She brought us into it, and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has now accepted her retaliation complaint. CPS is not happy to be used in this cynical fashion by school districts, who they say pull this stunt all the time. So, having found the complaint unfounded, they advised the parent to pursue the OCR complaint. Disability Rights Learning Center also wants to take up the matter, because they too are fed up with school districts using bogus CPS complaints to retaliate against parents and their kids.

Both of these districts could have learned something from the experiences of the Libyan and Syrian dictatorships, if they had been paying attention. And the moral of the story is, so can I, and so can you.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Muslims and Christians, Ravens and Cats

We went for lunch to plan our way for 3 kids and a school district that's jerking them around. Very nice Pakistani food. Besides the meal, some was sent away with us, since that is the custom.

That is in fact profoundly wise, very much how God does things. We have communion in the faith, because food sacramentally makes relationship. Understanding this, Paul wrote not even to eat with certain people, while agreeing with Jesus that eating with sinners in the world is fine. And the way it's the custom in Pakistan to send food along with you when you leave, God sends his word along with us, so that in that way his presence lingers. The meal sort of doesn't end. We're reminded as we keep eating it at home.

They being Muslims, we talked about a few theological matters, on which being so much alike, Christians and Muslims have a lot to say each other. Islam came from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so the ritual observances and liturgical calendar are very familiar to anyone acquainted at all with Eastern churches.

Just as Christians have our Christoids, whose understanding of spiritual warfare is bombing and invading people, who want uppity women to learn their place, and who feel obliged to dominate the state and society to do God a favor, Islam appears to be plagued with a nearly identical class of Muslimoids. Indeed, the principal Muslim-hating denomination in these parts seems to favor Muslim architecture when building their own mosques - uh, church buildings. We really should have no problem understanding one another.

When, as Muslims teach, Jesus returns to destroy the Antichrist (ad-Dajjal) and judge the world, none of us will be proud of how we had the right position on something. In fact, we all will be amazed at how foolish we all were, how truly all of us knew nothing at all. Why not save time and just stipulate it today before we get to God's court? Even today, when God shows up, we come away amazed at how, as Paul wrote, we know nothing as we should.

It is written that God feeds the young ravens when they cry. When our cats cry, if I blow them off for some other little silly purpose, I can feel God looking at me, and not with approval. God hears the cry of those cats - as well he should, I suppose, since both are really good at it.

Maybe God has taught them how to pray. If God hears ravens and cats, who never show the slightest interest in formulating the right positions on the oneness of God, the Trinity, or a variety of other questions that Christians and Muslims are often sure we need to understand correctly and with precision, maybe that's not as essential as we think it is. Maybe it's stuff like, "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" - by finding out how to walk with God so that these become possible - just as the Bible says. "If your Father listens to ravens and to your cats, maybe he will listen to you, too, O man of little faith. "