(This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue Newtopia)
1. One Nation Under Jesus
The Associated Press, June 27, 2002 – President Bush today called a federal appeals court ruling that challenged the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance “out of step with the traditions and history of America” and promised to appoint judges who affirm God’s role in the public square.
“America is a nation … that values our relationship with an Almighty,” Bush told reporters as he began a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit of world industrial powers. “The declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t violate rights. As a matter of fact, it’s a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence.”
The president said the country needs “common sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench,” he said.
I didn’t see the point in adding one more page of thoughts about whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance was Constitutional. The issue seems beat to death, and the responses were quite predictable: Conservatives slammed the decision, Liberals lauded it. Tell us something we don’t know. But what still amazes me, and the topic of my inaugural Newtopia column, is that I have yet to read one piece of backlash against the wholly inappropriate and asinine statements made by Bush the day the ruling was announced:
“America is a nation … that values our relationship with an Almighty. The declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t violate rights. As a matter of fact, it’s a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence.”
Excuse me? This, of all the moronic things Bush has said since he seized office, has to categorically take the cake. Please, allow me to explain.
I openly acknowledge that the majority of Americans are Christian, that our country was founded by renegade Christians escaping the Church of England, and that the Freemasons, a deeply conservative and religious organization of which the Bushes are high-ranking members, have had more than their rightful share of influence in determining the path America has taken over the last 226 years. That being said, let us not forget that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Now, this may not mean anything to people like the Bushes or Conservatives or Christians, who will try and tell you that this so-called “freedom of religion” was really about not having some King or ruling body legally impose a national denomination on us, as was the case in England in the 1700’s, and that in truth all along this was about Christians having the right to organize and worship as they please. Well, I’m sorry folks, but that isn’t written down anywhere, and smacks of the same logic that Pro-Slavery politicians used when they claimed that what they really meant by “all men are created equal” was all white, land-owning men. If that’s what you intended, you should have put that in there somewhere when you had the chance. It’s a bit late now, don’t you think?
More important than that is the idea that what America stands for is true freedom, which is what the Bush Administration keeps claiming is our rationale for bombing other countries into submission and forcing global policy despite widespread opposition and redress from our so-called allies. If that is the case, Governor Bush, then freedom of religion is not only about being able to worship any God you choose but also the freedom not to worship a God, like many including myself cherish. In addition to that, the First Amendment provides for the alleged separation of Church and State. Now again people like Bush will try and explain that what they really meant was not that Religion should be absent from Government but that it shouldn’t be the government, as in there should be secular government in order to avoid a commercial conflict of interest with the Church. That being said, they will tell you we are still “one nation under God”, and you are not a true American if you do not worship God. Communists don’t worship God, good law abiding American citizens do.
I find nothing more offensive and against the spirit of America than this belief.
For whatever reason, Christians seem to think they have the right to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, that they have the God-given right to impose their beliefs on us, because in their minds the world is divided into two categories of people: Saved, and Unsaved. You either “know the Lord” or you are “living in Sin”. I have a third possibility: “Mass Delusion”.
I don’t care if people want to subscribe to some ancient, paranoid apocalyptic religion that tries, in all manners, to govern and regulate our behavior and beliefs through shame, hate, and fear, all the while claiming to come under the guise of peace and love. Well, in response, and at the end of my patience with them, I turn to the words of George Carlin, who condensed the Ten Commandments down to three logical directives:
1) Whenever possible be faithful and honest to the provider of thy nookie
2) Try not to kill anybody, unless of course they believe in another invisible almighty power than you do.
3) Keep they Religion to thyself!
I am willing to concede your existence as your right under our Constitution. Are you willing to provide the same allowances for us “sinners”? I think not. To turn around and openly, publicly and with great hostility persecute those of us who have the intelligence or open-mindedness to see through all that hokum and hogwash and realize there is no great puppet-master pulling the strings isn’t exactly freedom of religion now is it? All of us have a right to believe what we choose to believe. You claim we are either saved or heathen, we claim the following to explain our argument against God, which is quite simple, and ancient as well, I might add:
-Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
-Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
-Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
-Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
–Epicurus (ca. 341-270 B.C.E.), Greek philosopher , another heathen
Again, all we atheists and agnostics were trying to say with the whole Pledge thing is that we resent being labeled “one nation under god”. We are just simply “one nation”. I wouldn’t even say we are “indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”, because it is quite obvious this country is split right down the middle, and I won’t even go into how Liberty and Justice vary depending on your race and social class. And another thing, we are not “Communists” just because we don’t believe in God. Communism, as espoused by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, called for the elimination of Religion altogether, as they considered it the “opiate of the masses” and used only for control. I don’t think religion should be eliminated, I think spirituality is an inherent part of all human beings and needs to be nurtured, and I think people have the right to worship who or whatever they please in pursuit of their own individual spirituality. But to claim there is an “Almighty”, and to claim that this “Almighty” gave us our rights is beyond preposterous, it is downright insanity, from a logical point of view, something religious adherents know little about. And what is even worse than that is the fact that the leader of the current most powerful nation in the world is a backward thinking, superstitious, evangelical who acts to the exclusion of the rest of us, and has the key to the bombs. Is this the kind of person we want controlling our destiny? I hate to say it, but with the power Bush wields, he is the real Almighty, as he can destroy the entire earth in fifteen minutes.
That Bush and other Conservatives threatened the Judge in the Pledge case, and vowed to replace any dissenting judges with those in line with their views, goes against everything this country and its allegedly free and just legal system stands for, regardless of the verdict. What about the sanctity of our Judicial system, a system set up so that no one ruler or group could impose a specific agenda? If anything, that is more grounds for Impeachment than getting a hummer in the Oval Office. Suborning Sectarian interests, and undermining and out rightly dismissing the Constitution by exerting unjustified Executive privilege are far greater affronts to the so-called American Way and our allegedly balanced system of government.
How much more are we going to take from this guy? If even All-American Tom Cruise states publicly that he will raise his children outside this country because “America has become a nightmare”, what more will it take to convince John Q. Public that these people currently in power are the real poison choking the life out of whatever spirit of freedom and democracy was left in America? If this cabal is left unimpeded by whatever shreds of governmental redress we still have, it won’t be long before Big Brother Jesus is watching every move we make, every breath we take, every claim we stake, and of course, every life we take in the name of God.
Remember.we live in The United States of America, not the Holy American Empire.
2. Information is Power
Can We Change The Future If We Can See Both Ways?
“The movie turns out to be eerily prescient, using the term “pre-crime” to describe stopping crimes before they happen; how could Spielberg have known the government would be using the same term this summer? In his film, inspired by but much expanded from a short story by Philip K. Dick, Tom Cruise is John Anderton, chief of the Department of Pre-Crime in the District of Columbia, where there has not been a murder in six years. Soon, it appears, there will be a murder–committed by Anderton himself.
The year is 2054. Futuristic skyscrapers coexist with the famous Washington monuments and houses from the 19th century. Some of the details: a computer interface that floats in mid-air, manipulated by Cruise with the gestures of a symphony conductor; advertisements that crawl up the sides of walls and address you personally; cars that whisk around town on magnetic cushions; robotic “spiders” that can search a building in minutes by performing a retinal scan on everyone in it. Anderton presides over an operation controlling three “Pre-Cogs,” precognitive humans who drift in a flotation tank, their brain waves tapped by computers. They’re able to pick up thoughts of premeditated murders and warn the cops, who swoop down and arrest the would-be perpetrators before the killings can take place.
Because this is Washington, any government operation that is high-profile and successful inspires jealousy. Anderton’s superior, bureau director Burgess (Max von Sydow) takes pride in him, and shields him from bureaucrats like Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), from the Justice Department. As the pre-crime strategy prepares to go national, Witwer seems to have doubts about its wisdom–or he is only jealous of its success?”
I remember it was almost nine years ago that I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, a movie set in the last week of 1999, climaxing on New Year’s Eve. 1999 was only five years away at that point, but the future vision she and former husband/producer James Cameron crafted was one of senseless violence, stimulus, and decay. The streets were lined with fire, and technology was the new narcotic. People were “jacking in”, using a kind of walkman-for-the-brain to experience other people’s lives that were recorded using the same instrument. For example, the film opens with three guys who knock off a bar with shotguns. One is wearing the devise and records the entire experience, including, after a rooftop chase by the cops, the plunge to his death off a six story building, which hits the unsuspecting “viewer” like the first time you see the shark in Jaws, except now you can feel it biting you in half. But death, or “snuff’, isn’t the only thing you can experience. You can be a man or woman, whomever you wanted, as long as a human could do it. Depending on who recorded the experience, you could be anyone.
Thus, the world was full of people strung out on “playback”, reliving the same experiences over and over. It was a nasty time. And layer on that a plot centered on a Pynchon-esque red herring conspiracy that turns out to be nothing more than a random act of violence. Post-modern existentialism at its best.
But what I have always wondered is whether we somehow avoided that particular vision of 1999 LA merely by conceiving of it years before.
To my recollection, everything was pretty well locked down on New Years Eve 1999 across the globe. Everything was clean, shiny, neon, and televised. It was nothing like they envisioned in the film. It wasn’t mayhem in the streets. It was more like watching a fireworks display while listening to the 1812 Overture. So by that logic, did we also avoid the totalitarian society of decay featured in 1984 or Brave New World because we didn’t like what we saw then, so we took steps to avoid it?
With Minority Report, Spielberg was able to host a group he called the “Futurists” for a weekend Think Tank on what the world will most likely be like in 2054. These “Futurists” represented the best in the fields of architecture and urban planning, computer technology, security, law and law enforcement, sociology, transportation, agriculture and environment, etc., and are privy to information the general public never sees. Their collective vision is so real, so possible, that it leaves everyone who sees the film quite a bit unnerved. We must also acknowledge it gives Spielberg remarkable power.
The three most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed on film were done by Spielberg, one in Schindler’s List (women’s shower scene at the death camp) and two in Saving Private Ryan (D-Day invasion, a young GI screaming for his mother as his guts lay next to him in a pile on the sand; the agonizing scene of the GI and German fighting hand to hand, and the GI who says “stop, stop” seconds before the German slowly pushes the blade of a bayonet through him). And that power, to capture all the essence and all the horror of human atrocity in a frame, has made this man’s sensibilities very much our moral compass. In Minority Report, Spielberg finds himself back in the future (after really freaking us out with A.I.) with a big, red flashing light. Minority Report offers the same intensity, because you truly believe this is what’s coming.
The future is overpopulated and dirty. Crime is so prevalent the US has become a police state. Up until that point in the film, it’s standard-issue sci-fi- futuristic fantasy. What separates this project is the succulent detail. Citizens pass through their daily lives like a serious of constant checkpoints, mandatory retinal scans to board public transportation or enter a building, during fugitive searches (this being done by creepy little spider bots that crawl up your leg and stare at you). The cops have sonic stun guns that shoot pulses of focused and intensified low frequency sound waves with the effect of a firehose. They have “sick sticks”, stun guns that instantly make the subject projectile vomit, thus totally debilitating them and making them easy to subdue Oh, and they have jet packs too. Real George Jetson, Boba Fett, Shazam jet packs. Law Enforcement is so powerful, so tactical and methodical, that they never miss when they strike. And they strike fast, in large numbers, and are gone instantly. People are terrified, and Spielberg hammers down the fear and invasive potential by showing a mother and two young daughters playing as the spider bots come pouring under the door, and the girls gape paralytically in terror while their mother begs them to remain absolutely still. Normal daily life is a totally different concept.
And this is in the cities, where stability and order prevail. There is a socioeconomic mixture much like major urban centers today. But the rest of the country, the poor, live in the crime and decay infested “Sprawl”, the new ghetto that occurred when the suburbs finally devoured all the rural land across the country, creating an endless mass of development, punctuated by massive cities every few hundred miles.
And speaking to our nature today, we learn in the future our need for mindless entertainment and pleasure only worsens when our society turns into complete stimulus junkies. Everywhere we go we are assailed by holographic, 3D advertisements that call us by name (after scanning our retinas). They follow you through malls, and each store you pass by or decide to enter, there is a holographic sales person addressing you by name, reminding you of your most recent purchase. When you watch this, you can’t imagine how people can stand it without going nuts. And that’s another carefully tailored point Spielberg unravels on us. We won’t mind in fifty years, because in fifty more years we will have been conditioned to function naturally with that level of stimulus. Imagine how much faster things are now than fifty years ago. And these types of things grow exponentially, so we are looking at being exposed to marketing on the order of ten to twenty time worse than now.
And there is major vice as well. Virtual Reality clubs where you get a private room and a private jack and get to do or be anything you want to. And the drugs apparently got much better too, because all those other drugs are gone and have been replaced by Neuroin, a vaporous mix of pure Seratonin and Dopamine you take by hitting a devise that closely resembles an asthma inhaler, and on which a substantial segment of the population is strung out. These Neuroin addicts have the future’s version of the crack baby, which turn out to be the ones that have the pre-cognitive power to see the future, and who eventually end up eliminating murder.
Spielberg and author Phillip K. Dick have created this generation’s 1984 or Brave New World.. Spielberg is a billionaire, a business tycoon, a laudable artist, and public persona, and that translates into his having access to inconceivable amounts of precious information. His access to the Futurists, his ability to get them to willingly, and with purpose, empty their secrets into the cinematic Think Tank, is all the evidence we need. Does that mean now that Spielberg has the power to change the future? If we can pretty much bank on these things happening if things proceed as is, can we avoid them? Or worse, did we just give the wrong people a whole bunch of new ideas? I for one would not like to get zapped with a puke stick, and I wonder about the type of individual who would invent such a thing. But then again, it also makes perfectly logical sense, from the point of view of Law Enforcement. And that’s the point, and that’s who quite clearly is calling the shots in 2054.
It’s one of those scenes that you can’t shake out of your head for weeks.
I am willing to bet that just by the mere fact that Minority Report was made, we have avoided that particular vision of the future. We have already recoiled from the things about it that we did not like, and we will now in some manner always be vigilant against them. You can take solace in knowing that it is possible, maybe even probable to change the future. Again, I mention how we avoided the fate of 1984 or Brave New World.
The central theme of the plot is that “pre-determination”, the ability to know the future, is inherently impossible, because free will always exists and we can always chose to take the other path. But when you consider the depth of information upon which the Futurists base their predictions, you wonder if we can prevent anything. Or if we would even heed the warnings.
It’s this sort of chicken and egging that will drive you totally insane. What’s crazier? Consider this. If that kind of power is possible, should it be regulated? Can it be regulated. Should someone, just by virtue of wealth, be able to manipulate the course to the future? Should a group of people? And isn’t this just another version of what has always happened between haves and have-nots? Wealth equals information equals power? It’s a whole new version of the God-complex.
On a final note, you should know that it gets worse before it ever gets better. The murder rate by 2048 is in the tens of millions a year, hence the need for the brutal police state that exists. If it were up to me, I’d try to avoid letting us get to the point where we have a need for something like Pre-Cognitive crime, a society that is so bad it is staring face to face with it’s imminent extinction.
What we should do is thank Mr. Spielberg for footing the bill and providing us with this blueprint. We need to get to work on the revisions. I have this feeling that if he could get away with saying it, he’d wonder how much bigger a clue he needed to leave in order for us to finally get it.
3. The Sneeches of The Middle East
What happens when both sides are wrong?
JERUSALEM (CNN) — As Israel coped with internal debate and international criticism a day after it killed a top Hamas commander and 14 others in Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he doesn’t support “the results of the attack,” which killed nine children. As he did immediately following the attack, Peres on Wednesday expressed regret that the attack on Salah Shehade killed civilians, especially the children.
“I don’t support and nobody supports the results of the attack,” said Peres. “All of us are terribly sorry for the loss of life of civilian people, and particularly children.”
“A mistake is a mistake, and I cannot explain mistakes.”
Yesterday morning I was instant-messaged by a friend in the Middle East, a young Muslim medical student and moderator of the World Skyscraper Forum, who had witnessed the air strikes in Gaza and was in a furor. It occurred to me he was reaching out to his loose-cannon American political writer friend for some form of validation for his rage, while concurrently my best friend from high school, a Jewish filmmaker, was on the phone seeking the same for Israel. I thought it was just another day in the Middle East, until I flipped on the telly to check out what they were so enraged about this time.
The first image I saw as the picture came into view was of a dead baby being dragged out of the rubble of a bombed-out building. It was paralyzing. Everyone on the scene and in the streets, and in the halls of the dueling governments, seemed to have that frenzied, vacant expression of total exasperation and shock, and I don’t know what or why finally pushed it over the edge, but it dawned on me for the first time that the situation has crossed over into the uncontrollable realm of the absurd. At this point, the conflict in the Middle East has disintegrated into complete and total chaos, and I no longer care who is right or wrong or who has what argument or what claim or anything. At this point, both Israel and Palestine are guilty of such horrendous, unspeakable atrocities towards each other, that I personally feel both have lost the right to claim anything. Both are wrong, and like my mother used to say, when children can’t play nice they need to be separated.
This is not about people, it’s about everything else but the people. All these treaties and peace talks and arguing and finger pointing and haggling and niggling is nothing but empty political posturing. Meanwhile innocent people die. Why? Because these two races want to kill each other, because they have dehumanized each side so far that they are no longer people to each other, no longer mothers and sons, but wild animals crossing into lawless frontier settlements in search of food. These two peoples represent the extreme of what humans can do to each other in the name of hatred and fear, inspired by ancient, superstitious doctrines on both sides that encourage this hatred and fear and prevent them from viewing each other as human.
The mothers of the Palestinians and the mothers of the Israelis have not sat down and cried together over their dead children. The people haven’t talked to each other as equal peoples, they have only looked at each other as adversaries. Until they look at each other as people, and both acknowledge that both have the right to exist, then there is no hope for now. And it doesn’t look like that will ever happen.
As incredibly simplistic as this sounds, what the world needs right now is Dr. Seuss. I learned more about people and life from him than all other things combined, particularly the one book that has stood out in my head for over 30 years, The Sneetches.
This wonderful story about tolerance and accepting others’ differences focuses on a race of beings entirely similar except for one tiny cosmetic difference, some have stars on their bellies. Of course, the Star-belly Sneetches think they are simply the flower of creation, that they are far superior to the Plain-Belly Sneetches. As a result, they leave the Plain-belly Sneetches out of everything and try to shun and cordon them off into their own little corner of the village. Until Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with his marvelous machine and the Plain-belly Sneetches start paying to get ‘stars upon thars’ to fit in with their fellows better. Eventually, by no longer being able to tell who had stars and who didn’t, or whether stars were a good thing or a bad thing (because every Sneetch by this time had a star put on their bellies and then removed from their bellies a thousand times over), everyone learns the folly of discrimination. But, of course, not before making a total mess of things.
Before you laugh and call the idea naïve, ask yourself, well, what have we got to loose? When nothing is working, try the unconsidered. Try the third option. Try something, anything, but don’t let things go on as is. What the Sneetches eventually discovered was what they had in common with each other, Plains and Stars alike. This very well might be the solution: Common Ground.
There is one place I know of where all of these issues are placed in relative balance and perspective, and people from all over the world are able to interact successfully within a common bond, and that is the aforementioned World Skyscraper Forum. Here we gather, ironically, to discuss these symbols of mankind’s collective ingenuity, something we have all contributed to since the ancient races started building up into the sky to try and reach their gods. Why is it successful? Maybe because for some of us the Skyscraper has taken on a quasi-holy significance after 9/11, or that despite 9/11 we must fervently defend what these structures and monuments mean to the world and to mankind as a whole. Or maybe it’s just because we are looking for a way to connect with each other. True, there are always arguments and heated words, but still we can have an open discussion about almost anything between a Drum Major in South Carolina, a engineer in Kuala Lumpur, an Air Force pilot in Texas, a Russian student, a office worker in Shanghai, a medical student in the Middle East, a high school student in Milwaukee, a graphic designer in San Francisco, a musician in Frankfurt, and a cranky-ass writer in Chicago. No one gets out of line, and if they do, they get checked back quickly. People practice acceptance of each other, and hate is not permitted.
I attribute this to the fact that all these people have a name and a face, but not a label. It is the labels we hate, but put us together and we forget the label until we are reminded that we must hate the label. At least in the Forum, a Jew and a Muslim can converse without blowing up each other’s children. And in a sense, the writings in the various religious books bear little difference to the postings on the WSF. Each person writes down something based upon their beliefs, and sometimes they attack each other because of it. I should know, I’m probably the worst with the way I torment the Christians. But, you see, it is just talk. As we grow to know each other as people, we find it’s stupid for good people, with so much in common, to fight over the differences and hate each other just because we don’t hold the same beliefs. In fact, in many ways, I have learned more about the beliefs of those I oppose from the WSF than I have from the media or anything I have read. These are real people, and whether I object to their lifestyle or they object to mine, ultimately we learn from each other, take what we can use, and leave the rest.
So, the question is, for a brighter future, how do we make all the enemies of the world see that they are all Sneetches? We know that it is inherent in the human condition for people to fear the unknown and unfamiliar, and that fear slowly cooks to become hatred. Perhaps if we talked about what we have in common, rather than what is so different about us, and what this group needs and that group needs, perhaps we’d finally claw our way out of denial and face the fact that we are rolling ourselves towards imminent extinction on all fronts and must unite to save our collective asses. No, we all can’t obviously can’t talk about skyscrapers as a end to war, but what about the children or the Earth that they need to inhabit? Aren’t they and their families and our continued existence on this planet more important than nations and religions? Pretty soon a few hundred acres of land by the Mediterranean won’t amount to a hill of beans when there is no one left to inhabit it.
From simplicity and naiveté sometimes springs the third option.
Newtopia founder and editor emeritus CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System.