Duct Tape, Diplo-Buffoonery, and a New Hope

Tuesday, 18 February 2003

Several bizarre stories have hit the front pages during the past few days, stories that in more sane times would probably have been dismissed as fiction. James Thurber could easily have written the first story, which revolves around a government proclamation that suggested that the public, to ensure its safety from chemical and biological weapons, should buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. Turn off the orange alert light for a moment and think about that: protect yourself with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Now I'm a big believer in the wonders of duct tape--I have a couple of rolls in my car and several more around the house at all times. I was a boy scout, and I believe in being prepared. However, when it comes to protection from weapons of mass destruction, I just don't think duct tape will cut it. Suppose I shut myself and my family in an inner room, sealing it with duct tape and plastic. If the room isn't airtight, the airborne baddies will get in and we'll all die. On the other hand, if the room is airtight, we'll all suffocate. Some protection! I can imagine the ending to Thurber's story going something like this:

. . . Soon everybody in the country had bought a dozen rolls of duct tape and half a dozen plastic sheets, and they crouched expectantly in front of their televisions waiting for their leaders to send them to their makeshift plastic bomb shelters. In the meantime, those gathered in the Oval Office roared with laughter. "See how easy it is to manipulate people when you make them paranoid?" the psychological consultant said. "They'll believe the most ridiculous things. Imagine people thinking that duct tape and plastic would protect them in a real biochemical attack!" "Now that we've demonstrated the effectiveness of the system," said the president, "let's get the people to do something we really want them to do, like give us permission to conquer the world!" Jeb turned to Dick and said, "I guess it's time to sell all that stock I bought in duct tape futures and reinvest the money in oil."

The next two stories fall under the heading of diplo-buffoonery, a word I've concocted because you can't call the administration's dealings with our allies diplomacy (since the administration has no dealings with our enemies, no diplomacy seems to be taking place anywhere). While Colin Powell has been working hard to put together a coalition to back an attack on Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle have been undermining his efforts by bad-mouthing allies who disagree with us. Germany, France, Belgium, and others who think that declaring war on Iraq at this time would be counterproductive (or downright wrong) are dismissed as "old Europe," or they're lumped together with Libya and Cuba as those who refuse to play a role in attacking or rebuilding Iraq , or they're characterized as "no longer our ally." Smaller or poorer countries trying desperately to get into NATO are bullied into proclaiming their support of the U.S. positions, while their citizens oppose the war at a rate of 70%, 80%, 90%, or more. To say that this manner of dealing with our allies is shortsighted is an understatement. Bush's campaign promise to conduct foreign affairs with more humility has been turned on its head. Maybe Bush thought that "humility" meant "humiliation"? We've already seen the repercussions of name-calling against North Korea--their withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a rekindled nuclear development program. What will be the results of calling some of our allies names and bullying or bribing others? Whatever the long-term consequences of the administration's current approach to foreign policy turn out to be, we can be sure that U.S. leadership (read hegemony) in the world won't be one of them. Hey, wait a minute--maybe Rumsfeld, Perle, and company are really progressives in disguise!

While most of the administration is busy thinking of ways to insult friend and foe alike, the administration's erstwhile dove, Colin Powell, is trying desperately to come up with reasons for attacking Iraq. "Saddam's buying metal tubes consistent with building the centrifuges necessary for building a nuclear bomb!" he says. "Nope," says Muhammed el Baradai, "they're not the right kind of tubes, and we've known that for months." "Oh," says Powell, "well, he has trucks moving things from one site to another before the inspectors arrive." "Actually," says Hans Blix, "the movement of trucks isn't really surprising, since trucks are used to deliver supplies, not just take things away; there's no evidence to support your claim." "But what about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda? Osama bin Laden wants all Muslims to attack the U.S. and its allies (what few there are). Doesn't that prove something?" "Yes, it proves that bin Laden likes the U.S. even less than he likes Saddam Hussein, and that's saying something!" "But what about Tony Blair's impressive dossier documenting Iraq's deceptions and WMD development?" "You mean the paper that was cribbed from a twelve-year-old U.S. Master's thesis? I don't think so." Powell is succeeding in uniting the world on the issue of Iraq. Just look at the millions of anti-war protesters who marched in cities all over the world (except, of course, in New York City, largest and grandest city in that bastion of freedom, the U.S.A., where people weren't allowed to march). If those marches don't show unity of opinion, I don't know what would. The fact that the unified opinion is just the opposite of what the administration wants is unfortunate for them, but maybe they'll learn that the world wants the U.S. to use its superpower status to be a super-ally, not a super-bully.

In the midst of these stories that generated emotions in me ranging from amusement to bewilderment, I've seen a glimmer of hope for the future, arising from an unlikely source. Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore did not invent the Internet ;-). Rather, the Internet began its life as a U.S. Defense Department project. Later it was made available to institutions of higher education so that researchers could share data and communicate with one another. Finally it went public and became famous for spam, sleaze, and capitalistic ventures of all sorts. However, despite dire predictions to the contrary, it is also beginning to demonstrate its potential as the great equalizer. While the major news outlets are controlled by a small number of media conglomerates whose primary focus is entertainment (i.e., making money), not journalism, the Internet provides a place where seekers can get information that was not generated by those with financial clout. The Internet has the potential to be the voice of the people, and yesterday, when Dennis Kucinich announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, that potential was realized, at least in small part. It turns out that a Web site, www.draftkucinich.com, was created several weeks ago with the purpose of getting ordinary citizens to encourage Kucinich, D-OH, to run for president as a progressive Democrat. I was one who sent him an e-mail, along with thousands of others. Whether or not he goes on to get the nomination, it is important to have someone like Kucinich in the race, because he voices the concerns of the progressive community in ways that some of his opponents do not (Howard Dean excepted). Now there's talk that other progressives, such as Carol Moseley-Braun, might enter the race as well. I'm sure that many considerations other than the Web site influenced Kucinich's decision to enter the race, but I think that the outpouring of support from thousands of voters interested in peace, economic justice, and preserving the environment made an impact on him, and none of that would have been possible apart from the Internet.

Another example of the ability of the Internet to reach people with a message is the hordes of people around the world who marched for peace on February 15 and 16. Major media outlets--especially in the U.S.--gave scant coverage to preparations for the marches and rallies, but people let each other know through e-mail and Web sites, and millions turned out, often in bitter cold, to protest the bombing of Iraq and support peaceful efforts to resolve the situation. The commondreams.org Web site bills itself as "A Website that could shake the world," and for the first time, I'm beginning to believe that sites like commondreams.org, draftkucinich.com, and maybe even progressivetheology.org, can make a significant difference in the world.

Of course, the Internet itself is not the true source of hope; it is only a tool that can be used to promote a hopeful future. Jürgen Moltmann, in his Theology of Hope, reminds us that true hope lies with God, and with those who would act on his behalf in this world.

The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God which is coming to man and the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of the reconciliation of the world with God and his future. . . . As a result of this hope in God's future, this present world becomes free in believing eyes from all attempts at self-redemption or self-production through labour, and it becomes open for loving, ministering self-expenditure in the interests of a humanizing of conditions and in the interests of the realization of justice in the light of the coming justice of God. [pp. 337-338]
Still, as the psalmists and the theologians remind us, God is often hidden, and in a dark world, glimmers of hope, wherever they may be found, should be valued and nurtured. Today's prophets may be more likely to speak online than in a press conference.

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