Friday, April 29, 2005

9/11 Revisited

I've been doing some reading of books relating to 9/11, which I can now review briefly for readers of our blog. (You're probably weary of seeing my last book review post up for so long anyway...and since most of our regular contributors are out of commission right now, it'll have to be me to change that!)

The first book is Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties (New York, 2004). Despite the sensational title, this book is really a fairly mainstream summary of U.S. involvement in the Middle East since the 1970s, with extra focus on the Bush and Saud families. (Unger was one of Michael Moore's big sources for making Fahrenheit 9/11.) This book is about far more than just the Bush & Saud families, is really a first-rate summary of what we know about U.S. involvement in the making of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, among other things. I think it would be good citizenship reading for anyone in the U.S., regardless of political stance. Unger seems very scrupulous with his sources and is reluctant to make big leaps or speculations without hard evidence. Fact-challenged right-wingers (such as those who still believe Iraq had WMD, etc.) would probably view this book as way out there, but in reality it is pretty mainstream in that it sticks to what we can know with reasonable certainty.

The second book, on the other hand, is something else altogether. David Ray Griffin's The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions (2005) follows up on his earlier book, The New Pearl Harbor, which argued that the Bush Administration may have been complicit in the 9/11 attacks or possibly even helped carry them out. Griffin does a good job of pointing out the flaws in the official 9/11 commission, and I must admit that I agree with his view (and the evidence he presents for it) that the Commission systematically failed to substantively or seriously address any of the allegations made by "conspiracy theorists." (Griffin himself rejects the label "conspiracy theorist", rightly arguing that the mainstream view also requires a belief in a conspiracy solely among a certain small group of Al-Qaeda operatives.) But where does this leave us? I must confess that I find myself torn between the mainstream view and Griffin's view. Probably the truth is somewhere in between...the series of events that transpired on 9/11 is, as Griffin argues, not convincingly explained by the conventional account. (Read the book for more evidence on this...) On the other hand, Griffin's alternative explanation also has some holes, such as the problem of collusion by so many U.S. governmental agents who must have known that something strange was going on. In all likelihood, something is being covered up, but what and how much is hard to say. We are dealing with a basic problem of citizen knowledge here. Anyone who has seen power up close knows that the official story told to the public about anything is almost always covering up some embarrassing (or possibly criminal) truths. But how can we figure out what is really going on? I, for one, choose to side with Griffin in his call for being open minded to alternative explanations, even if we grant them a low degree of probability at the start. The certainty with which many people reject even considering such alternatives flies in the face of critical inquiry in a democratic society. The 9/11 Commission was hardly equipped or inclined to really deal with the substantive issues lurking under the surface. The Bush Administration's collusion with 9/11, in my view, was probably a lot more passive and negligent than active and plotting, but the doubts of many Americans will never be put to rest without addressing the discrepancies and evidence for alternatives head on and honestly. (Note: I should also add that Griffin is a seminary professor, who from all firsthand accounts I've heard is a nice, sincere, and thoughtful person, not some kind of raving lunatic who lives in a fortified compound plotting against the government...)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Moral Battle Worth Fighting: Reflections on Juliet Schor's Latest Book

I just finished reading Juliet Schor's latest book, Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Like Schor's previous works, including The Overworked American and The Overspent American, Born To Buy is a readable and thought provoking look at recent changes in American culture and life. In this case, the moral clarion call is especially compelling.

Schor basically argues that the consumer culture shaped by commercial advertising has degraded the lives of children, leading to serious declines in quality of life and making parenting more difficult. She looks at television advertising, commercial penetration into schools and other public spaces, and the "new intrusive research"--much of it drawing on ethnographic methods--prying into the inner worlds of children to figure out how to get them to buy more stuff.

I think this is a good example of an issue that can bring together concerned Christians (and others) across the lines of political ideology. We all recoil against the commercialization of childhood. Materialism and the pursuit of wealth are corroding our society, and this is especially heartbreaking when we can see it happening to children. We need to make it easier for parents to be good parents by saying "no": keeping advertising out of schools (especially Chris Whittle's demonic Channel One!), banning television ads to children, etc.

One of the more interesting points made by Schor through her survey data was that even in middle-class, suburban settings, parental attempts to resist their children's entreaties to have more stuff only resulted in increasing child-parent tensions and disaffection, not in changing outcomes much in the end. (Although getting rid of television sets seems to be more promising!) So, yes, parental responsibility has something to do with it, but we must as a society take some community responsibility for protecting children against advertisers intruding into their lives so much and shaping their preferences for bad food, violent toys, and other harmful things they are manipulated into coveting.

An interesting angle that Schor doesn't address is the global context of all this, which has at least two different aspects. First of all, many people around the world, including children, are being sold on the idea that American-style consumer goods will bring them happiness, which is in contradiction to studies that link life fulfillment and happiness not with wanting more stuff, but with having less materialistic attitudes. Second, all this harmful materialistic consumption is a huge part of the environmental resource problems the world is facing nowadays. Those of us in the U.S. cannot continue to consume so much and expect the rest of the world to consume less, yet we were promoting these very destructive attitudes with a vengeance to our children. Isn't it time for us to join a moral battle worth fighting, for our society's children? (And for the world as a whole?)