Make-Believe America

A flight of fancy

W.J. Astore

We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?

Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:

* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.

* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.

* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.

* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.

* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.

* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.

* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.

* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.

* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.

* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.

* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.

* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.

* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.

* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.

* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.

* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.

Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?

Yet Another Wartime President

Enjoy America’s De-escalatory Bombs!

W.J. Astore

Who was the last U.S. president with a reputation for peace?

By bombing Syria this week, Joe Biden has become yet another “wartime” president. Apparently Iranian-backed militias from Iraq operating inside Syria were the intended target of the bombs. Perhaps as many as 22 “militants” were killed in these attacks. Using language that would make Big Brother blush, the Biden administration claimed the attacks aimed “to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”

I’ve heard of precision bombing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of de-escalatory bombing. Naturally, Congress wasn’t consulted.

Along with this provocative and needless act of aggression, the Biden administration is currently weighing its options in Afghanistan. Three options seem to be on the table: withdrawing all U.S. troops and ending the war; prolonging the war indefinitely; and continued “negotiations” with modest increases of those troops. The last option is considered the sober sensible one by Beltway sages. Complete withdrawal after twenty years of turmoil and death is predictably seen as too risky, whereas a wholehearted commitment to generational war in Afghanistan, a la General Petraeus, is seen as politically unpopular, even if the end result of the sober sensible option is exactly that: more war fought in the (false) name of (eventual) peace.

So, under Joe Biden, we have bombing for de-escalation and more war for peace. Again, Biden deserves praise when he promised that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

Raise the Minimum Wage!

Amen, brother! (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

Remarkably, the federal minimum wage still sits at $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been raised since 2009. As a reminder, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were riding high from 2009 to 2016 and they never saw fit to fight hard enough to raise that paltry sum. That’s why Bernie Sanders was so appealing in 2015 when he challenged Hillary Clinton and advocated for a $15.00 minimum wage. People may forget that Hillary initially equivocated, proposing only a $12.00 minimum wage. Ah, the generosity and compassion of Hillary. No boundaries except for $12.00 an hour.

Allegedly, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are now for the $15.00 sum, but of course it would be phased in over several years since the peasants must be reminded of their place. It’s possible that the Covid relief plan currently in the works will finally set the country on a firm if slow path to $15.00. Even so, consider a full-time employee working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. If she makes $15.00 an hour, her pay before taxes would max out at $30,000.00 a year, hardly a munificent sum. Consider that she’d have to work full-time for 22 years to make as much money as Hillary Clinton made in three short speeches to the financial and banking sectors. I’m with her (for the money)!

My father knew the score. As a factory worker, he had to fight for a dime pay raise, a story he recounted in his journal. Here’s an excerpt:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Gilson for a pay raise [at the factory] and he was refused.  Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group.  In our group he got ten men to approach Harry G. for a raise.  But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry.  Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise.  I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise.  Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?”  So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise.  So Harry said, “How much?”  and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise.  So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel.  We agreed.  So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler [water fountain] and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises.  Well, Willie, Harry Gilson and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires.  No other truer saying than, “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

And then my father added this pearl of wisdom: From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Lee Camp knows the score as well as he calls for real redistribution of wealth in this humorous article. My dad would like this guy.

I know, we can’t say “class warfare” in America, comrade. But maybe that’s because, as the billionaire Warren Buffett put it, the richest among us are so clearly winning.

Corporate Democrats and Limousine Liberals

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along a story from The Intercept about a spoiled corporate Democrat running for the Senate in Wisconsin. The article’s title reads like satire but it’s all-too-telling of our American moment: Son of Wall Street Mogul Running for Wisconsin Senate Seat Was Pleasantly Surprised Milwaukee Is a Normal City: “What most surprised me,” said Alex Lasry, “is the fact that Milwaukee has all the same things as any city,” citing bars, restaurants, and an art scene.

Who knew Milwaukee was so sophisticated. Even an “art scene”! Alex Lasry sure has his finger on the pulse of the people. We need more Senators like him, moneyed and smug and elitist — and ignorant too. He’s perfect.

Some more details about the career arc of Alex Lasry, which is short and not bending toward justice:

Though he doesn’t note it in his bio, Lasry began as an intern at Goldman Sachs during college, while Lasry’s father was a major Goldman Sachs client. Marc Lasry was a bundler for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, gathering $500,000 for his reelection, and he led a Wall Street effort to restore relations with the White House after the president mildly criticized the financial sector. His son then scored an internship in the White House in the Office of Public Engagement, run by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was one of the White House’s key links to the CEO class. The White House gig was his first job out of college, and he rose through the ranks of the office. From there, he returned to Goldman Sachs as an analyst in their government affairs department.

More recently, Alex Lasry helped lead the effort to bring the Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee in 2020 as finance chair of the city’s host committee. Lasry was also in the news this month for getting his Covid-19 vaccine, though the state’s 69-year-old governor had yet to get his.

Vitally important people like Lasry, who’s 33 years old, obviously need the Covid vaccine and pronto. I’m 57 and my wife and I joke that our scheduled date for the Covid vaccine is the 12th of never. But, heck, who are we?

It’s sure nice to see the Democratic Party so focused on “everyday” people, as Hillary Clinton called them. There are few people more down to earth, more relatable, than Goldman Sachs royalty or those like Hillary who take their money.

And the Democrats wonder why so many Americans saw and continue to see a clown like Trump as a viable alternative. One thing you can say for Trump: as much as he lies, there is an honesty to him. He’s a rich blowhard who’s out for himself and he doesn’t care who knows it. Limousine liberals are more circumspect, or more hypocritical if we’re being blunt, which makes Trump’s naked greed seem strangely refreshing.

Finally, maybe America should be more honest with itself and just elect Senator Goldman Sachs, Senator Raytheon, Senator Walmart, Senator Lockheed Martin, Senator Monsanto, and so on. Then again, why should the puppeteers come out from behind the curtain when the senatorial puppets they control are dancing so prettily and obediently?

Addendum: Of course, examples of GOP senatorial hypocrisy are legion; consider this article by David Sirota. Ready for a third party, anyone?

The Marsh in Snow

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I got out on the marsh during the snow. The landscape was much changed from the previous photos!

New snow planet
This part of the marsh made me think of a nasty trench in the lowlands during World War I
There’s an austerity or bleakness to this photo
At home, a coating of white makes everything look fresh and new
Another month until spring!

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

The Marsh in Winter

W.J. Astore

I live near a salt marsh, and yesterday saw sunny skies and relatively dry air for these parts. Thus it was high time for a walk and a few photos:

Out on the marsh during low tide. I love a place where I can see the horizon

People hunt out on the marsh. In this case, these Canadian geese had only to worry about a bad profile in my photo:

Soon after taking this, they took to the air

Even in February, there are hints of greener days ahead:

There’s something magical about a spot like this, especially in the dead of winter

Some trees are portals to new places, if you dare:

Speak friend and enter

Open wild spaces: we need them now more than ever

Breathe deep!

Hope you enjoyed these “bracing views”!

If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

Score! Bobby Orr! One of my bedroom wall posters

W.J. Astore

I’m a big sports fan. I grew up in the Boston area and loved my local teams. When I was a kid, I had two big posters of Bobby Orr, the famed defenseman of the Boston Bruins, on my wall. I had a Boston Red Sox uniform. When I threw a baseball around, I imagined I was Luis Tiant, the mercurial and entertaining pitcher for the Red Sox, or Dwight Evans, the team’s rocket-armed right fielder. I collected baseball cards and studied the stats on the back for hours on end.

But I was also a kid who kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was ten years old yet I was attracted to war and its nitty-gritty details as much as I was to the sporting world. Who knows why. Temperament, I suppose. As I grew older, I built lots of military models and read more and more books about the military even as I kept an interest in sports (more as a fan than a participant, since my talent level was modest at best).

This was on my mind this AM as I read a detailed article on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose stellar career was cut short by injuries. The article focused on whether Pedroia deserved election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.* Highly detailed, well written, and showing an estimable command of statistics, the article impressed me even as it got me to thinking. What if Americans examined wars like they studied sports? What if Afghanistan was covered with the same detail as the forthcoming NFL draft? What if there was a channel like ESPN devoted to wars 24/7 rather than to sports? And what if the reporting was objective and honest?

You can’t fool a sophisticated sports fan with a bunch of home-team boosterism that’s disconnected from the facts on the ground (or on the baseball diamond, the football field, the ice hockey rink, etc.). Why are so many people so easily fooled about the need to continue the Afghan War, which is now in its 20th year and where the U.S.-led coalition is losing more than ever?

If the Afghan War were a U.S. sports team, it would be a team that spent more money than any other team even as it lost more games, cycling through a new losing coach every year and an unmemorable cast of players that changed each season. Despite the hiring of much-hyped “coaches” like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, despite promises of pennant-winning “surges” by team presidents like Barack Obama, our imaginary Afghan War sports team was and remains a cellar dweller, forever mired in last place.

What red-blooded American sports fan would tolerate more of the same from such a loser team? What fan would keep cheering for such a team? What fan would say, “let’s stay the course,” even as more and more losses piled up?

Consider this article from yesterday’s New York Times:

*****

The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink

The Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centers, including the capital of Kandahar Province, as the Biden administration weighs whether to withdraw or to stay.

*****

What should Team Biden do? “To stay” is to stay on the same losing course we’ve been on for 20 years. “To withdraw” is a new course that has the virtue of ending the bleeding (at least for the U.S.). Which action would you choose?

Any sports fan worth his or her salt would know the answer here. Call withdrawal a “rebuilding” year and most sports fans would accept it. It’s a far better choice than staying and losing with the same old tactics and cast of characters.

Just about every American sports fan has heard the saying: Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. Well, we’re not winning in Afghanistan and we never will. So the only smart thing left to do is to leave.

*Pedroia gets my vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s not simply about stats. Pedey was a winner, a leader, a gutsy overachiever who played the game the right way. Rookie of the year, MVP, World Series winner, he gave it his all on every play. Sometimes, the so-called intangibles matter.

Brief Reflections on Trump, War, and Militarism

Trump’s motto: In generals I trust. It didn’t work out so well for him. Or the country.

W.J. Astore

As the Senate prepares to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, I thought it would be a good time for a quick look at his legacy on war and militarism. Trump’s fans like to say he started no new wars. But he was hardly a man of peace, and his legacy on war and militarism is almost entirely negative. Here, in no particular order, are my quick thoughts on this subject:

  1. He boosted military spending and weapons sales. Trump basically bought off the military-industrial-congressional complex by throwing scores of billions of dollars its way while selling weapons around the world. It’s an old formula for U.S. presidents and it worked.
  2. He boosted a militant nationalism vis-a-vis rivals and even traditional allies. Trump was no friend to Russia and aggravated relations with China. Relations with NATO allies were also aggravated as he pressured them to spend more on weapons and wars.
  3. He boosted militarism at home and specifically with police forces. Trump supported and encouraged violent police crackdowns of BLM activists. He called for the deployment of active duty military in the streets of Washington, DC. He even called for a massive military parade (which never happened).
  4. He boosted overseas bombing and drone strikes. Recall the use of MOAB in Afghanistan, or Trump’s missile strike against Syria, and increased bombing in Afghanistan.
  5. He boosted tensions with Iran nearly to the breaking point. Trump’s drone strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was an act of war; harsh economic sanctions and withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear treaty with Iran also heightened tensions.
  6. He boosted the chances of nuclear war in the future. Trump was a fan of nuclear weapons; he seems to think of them simply as bigger, mightier bombs. His pursuit of “smaller” tactical nuclear warheads and their deployment on Trident-class nuclear submarines increase the possibility of nuclear war in the future.
  7. He boosted economic sanctions against Venezuela while pursuing a coup. Trump knows Venezuela has vast oil reserves. Why not overthrow their government and take their oil? That was Trump’s policy, more or less. (It doesn’t appear to have changed under Joe Biden.)
  8. Creation of a Space Force. Yet another military competitor for U.S. taxpayer dollars, even as space itself becomes another sphere for the U.S. military to “dominate.”
  9. Failure to end wars that he promised to end. Trump was talked out of ending the war in Afghanistan by generals like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. Ending such wars was a promise Trump foolishly abandoned.
  10. Reliance on Generals as wise men. Trump, overall a weak and vainglorious man, surrounded himself with generals like Mattis, McMaster, John Kelly, and (briefly) Michael Flynn. Thus he got narrow-minded war-mongering advice.
  11. Seeing the world as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and debasing the art of diplomacy. Putting Mike Pompeo in charge of the State Department was a new low in the pursuit of peace through diplomacy.
  12. Aiding genocide in Yemen while kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia: Trump was a willing participant to genocide in Yemen while pursuing a “peace” plan with Israel that was totally one-sided vis-a-vis the status and rights of Palestinians.

Off the top of my head, that’s my top twelve of Trump’s legacies in this arena. What do you think, readers? Can you think of others? And will any of this really change under Joe Biden?

America, Land of Discontent

W.J. Astore

Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.

I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.

This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:

Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.

Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.

These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?

The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”

I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything.  Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied.  If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous.  You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive.  A traitor.

To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there.  Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs.  Now it’s contentment.”

There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?

But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.