Yes, there was a revealing moment at last night’s Democratic National Convention. No, it wasn’t President Obama’s soaring speech, or Joe Biden’s heartfelt appeal, or Tim Kaine’s “believe me” lampoon of Donald Trump. All these were scripted.
It was the anti-war protesters who spoke out against drone assassinations and war while former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke.
Good for them. This democratic convention has been at pains to please the military. Last night, Panetta called the U.S. military our greatest national treasure. Obama repeated his claim that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force since Cain slew Abel. Tim Kaine opened his remarks by mentioning the Marines and shouting Semper Fi.
The Democrats are the new Republicans: they’re going “all in” on military boosterism and ra-ra patriotism.
Which is why the anti-war protest was so refreshing. End the wars — end the killing — what’s wrong with these protesters for expressing such crazy sentiments at a Democratic political rally? (An aside: my favorite sign read “Fauxmocracy.”)
The DNC response was swift. Apparently, they cut the lights to the section where the main body of protesters sat (the Oregon delegation), but the protesters simply pulled out their Smart phones for light. Panetta, of course, ignored them, carrying on with his prepared speech that vilified Trump for his remarks about Vladimir Putin and hacking. (Pretty dumb by The Donald, but the man is an empty barrel, an Archie Bunker who loves to make lots of noise.)
Most interesting of all was media response. I was watching MSNBC (I think) when a commentator attacked the anti-war protesters for undercutting Panetta’s speech against Trump. Yes, it was the protesters who were TOTALLY in the wrong! How dare they chant “no more war” at a former CIA Director and secretary of war? How dare they challenge an olympian like Panetta while he’s on the stage? How dare they organize and exercise their first amendment rights?
Expect more unbounded praise of the U.S. military tonight by Hillary Clinton. Expect more talk of war. Just don’t expect any honest talk about the cost of America’s wars or any vows about ending them in our lifetimes.
I had begun an article on why Donald Trump can still win when I saw an article by Michael Moore on the same subject. I’m going to post Moore’s article below, and by way of introduction, here’s the gist of what I was going to say:
Trump has advertised himself as the “law and order” candidate, the new sheriff in town, the one who’s going to kick ass and save us all, from the very day he takes the oath of office. It sounds absurd. Laughable. But I’ve seen this script play out before, and the “absurd” won.
I lived in rural Pennsylvania for nine years in a conservative area that went gaga over Sarah Palin’s visit in 2008 (she drew roughly 20 times as many people as Joe Biden). The local election for mayor pitted a moderate Republican, cozy with the establishment (let’s call him “Hillary”) versus a candidate who had a billboard featuring his image and boasting to local criminals that “On Day One, You’re Done,” a candidate who was an outspoken outsider (let’s call him “Trump”).
Guess who won? “Trump” won. People got out and voted for “Trump” because they were tired of establishment politics and broken promises; they wanted the “law and order” guy. Incredibly, the new mayor actually wore a bullet-proof coat when he was sworn in, allegedly because people had made threats against him (his wife, who stood next to him during the mayoral ceremony, had no such protection).
The people voted for the tough-talking “Trump.” The guy who hung gun profiles with bullet holes in the window of his garage. The guy who talked about the past and restoration (not reformation, and certainly not revolution). And that’s what (enough) people wanted. A reactionary. A man in the saddle, a new sheriff, no matter how implausible it sounded. This is the dynamic the real Trump is tapping today.
I’ve lived outside the liberal bubble. I’ve spent 20 years in the military and nine years in rural PA, in flyover country, a place where limousine liberals would never come to, let alone get out of the car. And based upon my many years of bubble-free life, I tell you the real Trump can win.
Now, I’d like to call on Michael Moore to tell you the same thing.
Five Reasons Why Trump Will Win
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I gave it to you straight last summer when I told you that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. And now I have even more awful, depressing news for you: Donald J. Trump is going to win in November. This wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full time sociopath is going to be our next president. President Trump. Go ahead and say the words, ‘cause you’ll be saying them for the next four years: “PRESIDENT TRUMP.”
Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now.
I can see what you’re doing right now. You’re shaking your head wildly – “No, Mike, this won’t happen!” Unfortunately, you are living in a bubble that comes with an adjoining echo chamber where you and your friends are convinced the American people are not going to elect an idiot for president. You alternate between being appalled at him and laughing at him because of his latest crazy comment or his embarrassingly narcissistic stance on everything because everything is about him. And then you listen to Hillary and you behold our very first female president, someone the world respects, someone who is whip-smart and cares about kids, who will continue the Obama legacy because that is what the American people clearly want! Yes! Four more years of this!
You need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real. Trying to soothe yourself with the facts – “77% of the electorate are women, people of color, young adults under 35 and Trump can’t win a majority of any of them!” – or logic – “people aren’t going to vote for a buffoon or against their own best interests!” – is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from trauma. Like when you hear a loud noise on the street and you think, “oh, a tire just blew out,” or, “wow, who’s playing with firecrackers?” because you don’t want to think you just heard someone being shot with a gun. It’s the same reason why all the initial news and eyewitness reports on 9/11 said “a small plane accidentally flew into the World Trade Center.” We want to – we need to – hope for the best because, frankly, life is already a shit show and it’s hard enough struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. We can’t handle much more bad news. So our mental state goes to default when something scary is actually, truly happening. The first people plowed down by the truck in Nice spent their final moments on earth waving at the driver whom they thought had simply lost control of his truck, trying to tell him that he jumped the curb: “Watch out!,” they shouted. “There are people on the sidewalk!”
Well, folks, this isn’t an accident. It is happening. And if you believe Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump with facts and smarts and logic, then you obviously missed the past year of 56 primaries and caucuses where 16 Republican candidates tried that and every kitchen sink they could throw at Trump and nothing could stop his juggernaut. As of today, as things stand now, I believe this is going to happen – and in order to deal with it, I need you first to acknowledge it, and then maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of the mess we’re in.
Don’t get me wrong. I have great hope for the country I live in. Things are better. The left has won the cultural wars. Gays and lesbians can get married. A majority of Americans now take the liberal position on just about every polling question posed to them: Equal pay for women – check. Abortion should be legal – check. Stronger environmental laws – check. More gun control – check. Legalize marijuana – check. A huge shift has taken place – just ask the socialist who won 22 states this year. And there is no doubt in my mind that if people could vote from their couch at home on their X-box or PlayStation, Hillary would win in a landslide.
But that is not how it works in America. People have to leave the house and get in line to vote. And if they live in poor, Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, they not only have a longer line to wait in, everything is being done to literally stop them from casting a ballot. So in most elections it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. And therein lies the problem for November – who is going to have the most motivated, most inspired voters show up to vote? You know the answer to this question. Who’s the candidate with the most rabid supporters? Whose crazed fans are going to be up at 5 AM on Election Day, kicking ass all day long, all the way until the last polling place has closed, making sure every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Bob and Joe and Billy Bob and Billy Joe and Billy Bob Joe) has cast his ballot? That’s right. That’s the high level of danger we’re in. And don’t fool yourself — no amount of compelling Hillary TV ads, or out-facting him in the debates or Libertarians siphoning votes away from Trump is going to stop his mojo.
Here are the 5 reasons Trump is going to win:
Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit.
I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states – but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). In the Michigan primary in March, more Michiganders came out to vote for the Republicans (1.32 million) that the Democrats (1.19 million). Trump is ahead of Hillary in the latest polls in Pennsylvania and tied with her in Ohio. Tied? How can the race be this close after everything Trump has said and done? Well maybe it’s because he’s said (correctly) that the Clintons’ support of NAFTA helped to destroy the industrial states of the Upper Midwest. Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. When Trump stood in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, he threatened the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States. It was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan, and when he tossed in his threat to Apple that he would force them to stop making their iPhones in China and build them here in America, well, hearts swooned and Trump walked away with a big victory that should have gone to the governor next-door, John Kasich.
From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. Elmer Gantry shows up looking like Boris Johnson and just says whatever shit he can make up to convince the masses that this is their chance! To stick to ALL of them, all who wrecked their American Dream! And now The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you! SEND A MESSAGE! TRUMP IS YOUR MESSENGER!
And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.
The Last Stand of the Angry White Man.
Our male-dominated, 240-year run of the USA is coming to an end. A woman is about to take over! How did this happen?! On our watch! There were warning signs, but we ignored them. Nixon, the gender traitor, imposing Title IX on us, the rule that said girls in school should get an equal chance at playing sports. Then they let them fly commercial jets. Before we knew it, Beyoncé stormed on the field at this year’s Super Bowl (our game!) with an army of Black Women, fists raised, declaring that our domination was hereby terminated! Oh, the humanity!
That’s a small peek into the mind of the Endangered White Male. There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the “Feminazi,”the thing that as Trump says, “bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds,” has conquered us — and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we’re supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it’ll be eight years of the gays in the White House! Then the transgenders! You can see where this is going. By then animals will have been granted human rights and a fuckin’ hamster is going to be running the country. This has to stop!
The Hillary Problem.
Can we speak honestly, just among ourselves? And before we do, let me state, I actually like Hillary – a lot – and I think she has been given a bad rap she doesn’t deserve. But her vote for the Iraq War made me promise her that I would never vote for her again. To date, I haven’t broken that promise. For the sake of preventing a proto-fascist from becoming our commander-in-chief, I’m breaking that promise. I sadly believe Clinton will find a way to get us in some kind of military action. She’s a hawk, to the right of Obama. But Trump’s psycho finger will be on The Button, and that is that. Done and done.
Let’s face it: Our biggest problem here isn’t Trump – it’s Hillary. She is hugely unpopular — nearly 70% of all voters think she is untrustworthy and dishonest. She represents the old way of politics, not really believing in anything other than what can get you elected. That’s why she fights against gays getting married one moment, and the next she’s officiating a gay marriage. Young women are among her biggest detractors, which has to hurt considering it’s the sacrifices and the battles that Hillary and other women of her generation endured so that this younger generation would never have to be told by the Barbara Bushes of the world that they should just shut up and go bake some cookies. But the kids don’t like her, and not a day goes by that a millennial doesn’t tell me they aren’t voting for her. No Democrat, and certainly no independent, is waking up on November 8th excited to run out and vote for Hillary the way they did the day Obama became president or when Bernie was on the primary ballot. The enthusiasm just isn’t there. And because this election is going to come down to just one thing — who drags the most people out of the house and gets them to the polls — Trump right now is in the catbird seat.
The Depressed Sanders Vote.
Stop fretting about Bernie’s supporters not voting for Clinton – we’re voting for Clinton! The polls already show that more Sanders voters will vote for Hillary this year than the number of Hillary primary voters in ’08 who then voted for Obama. This is not the problem. The fire alarm that should be going off is that while the average Bernie backer will drag him/herself to the polls that day to somewhat reluctantly vote for Hillary, it will be what’s called a “depressed vote” – meaning the voter doesn’t bring five people to vote with her. He doesn’t volunteer 10 hours in the month leading up to the election. She never talks in an excited voice when asked why she’s voting for Hillary. A depressed voter. Because, when you’re young, you have zero tolerance for phonies and BS. Returning to the Clinton/Bush era for them is like suddenly having to pay for music, or using MySpace or carrying around one of those big-ass portable phones. They’re not going to vote for Trump; some will vote third party, but many will just stay home. Hillary Clinton is going to have to do something to give them a reason to support her — and picking a moderate, bland-o, middle of the road old white guy as her running mate is not the kind of edgy move that tells millenials that their vote is important to Hillary. Having two women on the ticket – that was an exciting idea. But then Hillary got scared and has decided to play it safe. This is just one example of how she is killing the youth vote.
The Jesse Ventura Effect.
Finally, do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth. It’s one of the few places left in society where there are no security cameras, no listening devices, no spouses, no kids, no boss, no cops, there’s not even a friggin’ time limit. You can take as long as you need in there and no one can make you do anything. You can push the button and vote a straight party line, or you can write in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There are no rules. And because of that, and the anger that so many have toward a broken political system, millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart and make mommy and daddy mad. And in the same way like when you’re standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and your mind wonders for a moment what would that feel like to go over that thing, a lot of people are going to love being in the position of puppetmaster and plunking down for Trump just to see what that might look like. Remember back in the ‘90s when the people of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as their governor? They didn’t do this because they’re stupid or thought that Jesse Ventura was some sort of statesman or political intellectual. They did so just because they could. Minnesota is one of the smartest states in the country. It is also filled with people who have a dark sense of humor — and voting for Ventura was their version of a good practical joke on a sick political system. This is going to happen again with Trump.
Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.
(Next week I will post my thoughts on Trump’s Achilles Heel and how I think he can be beat.)
Hillary Clinton has selected her vice president and it’s Tim Kaine from Virginia. Kaine is known as steady, Catholic, in favor of “free” (corporate) trade agreements like the TPP, a man with foreign policy experience, and also a man with the right pedigree (Harvard-educated lawyer). Being from Virginia, naturally he’s considered to bring “balance” to the ticket.
But what about all those progressive passions that Bernie Sanders mobilized? What about tapping that movement? What about a candidate like Elizabeth Warren? By choosing Kaine, Hillary is saying, Forget all that, Democrats. I’m in charge here, and they’ll be no tomfoolery about progressive issues like health care or education or bank reform. They’ll be no reform of a “rigged system” because we are the rigged system and we like it that way, thank you very much.
Hillary is banking that progressives have nowhere else to go, so to speak. They’re not going to vote for Trump. Sure, a few might go Green or Libertarian. But most will stay with her, Hillary believes, as the best and only chance to keep Trump at bay. And perhaps she’s right.
An interesting statement from a puff piece at the New York Times: “He’s a company man,” said Dan Allen, who was an adviser to George Allen (no relation), the Republican Mr. Kaine beat in 2012 to win his Senate seat. “He was in Mark Warner’s footsteps as lieutenant governor, then he was in the footsteps of Obama. From a Clinton standpoint, this is a guy who’s shown a pattern of, he’s more than willing to be a follower in the footsteps of whomever is the leader.”
That makes perfect sense. Hillary wouldn’t want a VP who would eclipse her. Elizabeth Warren would have. Plus Warren is tough-minded, a fighter, an independent thinker. Hillary’s number one priority has always been herself and keeping those beneath her loyal and subservient. Seems like Kaine fits the bill.
In the aftermath of the Tim Kaine choice, if anyone out there still believes in a “progressive” Hillary, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn, some great vacation land in the swamps of Florida …
A few weeks ago, I was stuck at a dealership, my car awaiting service. In the waiting room, The Today Show was blasting out, featuring a performance by a well-known pop star. Choreographed and repetitive, her performance was substance- and content-free, a repetition of words that were mostly unclear to me, set to a machine gun-like beat echoed by gyrating dancers on stage.
And I thought to myself: this is much like America’s wars, or at least how they’re packaged and presented to the American people.
America’s wars have been choreographed. Obligatory cheers for “our” troops. Plenty of flags and songs to “bless” America. Lots of video footage of gyrating jets putting “bombs on target.” Meanwhile, the overall meaning is unclear. Vague promises are made of “progress,” but signs of the same are difficult to decipher.
War has become the background music to our lives. A sobering fact: If you’re a high school student in America, you can’t remember a time when America has been at peace. Your country has always been at war – and so it always will be, for it’s impossible to win a war on terror, because war is terror.
But back to TheToday Show. I watched it in the 1970s. Back then it featured serious news along with lighter “fluff” pieces like movie reviews (I fondly recall Gene Shalit). Now it’s dominated by entertainment and celebrities, infotainment driven by the pursuit of ratings. In other words, it’s much like our war coverage, which features celebrity generals and various forms of fluff, driven largely by “ratings,” i.e. keeping the people happy — and happily ignorant – about the realities of war.
I remember talking to an Army battalion commander about some of the realities he and his men faced in Iraq. Back in the Surge days, he mentioned a “churn rate” of 50% in U.S. infantry units: troops either didn’t want to reenlist, or they went into privatized militaries and doubled or tripled their pay. He mentioned repetitive overseas deployments that contributed to stress, domestic violence, divorce, and broken families. He himself was not at home for eight out of twelve Christmases.
In the field, his troops faced 12-16 hour days of drudgery. He referred to the Surge as “mental ditch-digging,” the fatigue that came with humping gear in the desert (or the cities) of Iraq with little to show for it. Such work, often frustrating, occasionally deadly, placed enormous strain on young troops, many of whom had been in high school not that long ago.
Nothing about this is exceptional – it’s just war. Demanding. Tough. Ugly. The kind of war that isn’t featured on American “news” shows, driven as they are by ratings and infotainment.
Of course, a real shooting war is far worse than simply long hours and repetitive duty. That’s why an Army major used to remind me, “Any day in the Army you’re not being shot at is a good day.” But our media prefers to put a happy face on war.
America’s latest wars are never-ending. A reason for this, not acknowledged enough, is the way they’re being packaged, sanitized, and sold to the American public as infotainment. As a performance that’s meant to be cheered briefly and just as quickly forgotten, like that pop star and her gyrating dancers on TheToday Show.
It’s Trump coronation week. My wife and I were out with friends last night, sitting in a bar, watching a muted screen that featured Melania Trump giving her (plagiarized?) speech at the convention. A muted screen was perfect to focus on what really matters at this convention – the optics. The screen behind Melania was a fetching color of patriotic red. Shots of the audience showed a mostly clean-cut crowd of predominantly White people, politely applauding, sprinkled with occasional shouts (which happily I couldn’t hear).
As I watched the spectacle, I turned to my friend, another historian. We both waxed nostalgic for political conventions that featured real news rather than manufactured drama. For example, I vividly recall the Republican Convention of 1980, when it seemed for a fleeting moment former President Gerald R. Ford was joining Ronald Reagan on a “unity” ticket. (It was not to be, which is sad. Such a ticket may have saved us from the rise of the Bushes.) Nowadays, barring a major gaffe (plagiarism again?) or perhaps a violent protest, nothing much of consequence happens at these conventions.
Of course, readers of this blog know that I reject Trump, and all his works, and all his empty promises. But that doesn’t mean I won’t give the devil his due. Trump is a deceiver, a con man par excellence, and many Americans are desperate to believe the con.
An example from my local paper. A reader wrote: “Without Trump’s help, we’re all going down,” following that with “We are on the Titanic, and it is going down. Hillary is snug in a lifeboat. The rest of us are in steerage. I don’t care what his hair looks like; we need to be rescued.”
What can one say to that? As I recall, once it struck the iceberg, the Titanic was a doomed ship. Putting Trump at the helm would only help it to slip under the waves faster, perhaps a mercy for those fated to die, but certainly no salvation for ship, crew, and passengers. But if it sped up the Titanic movie and Leonardo DiCaprio’s death scene, that at least would have been a cinematic mercy.
In all seriousness, this reader’s letter moved me. Not for its logic, but for its desperation. Yes, for many people these are desperate times in America. They know the ship of state is sinking. They know they’re stuck in steerage. And they know they’re fated to suffer the consequences, even as Hillary Clinton and crew have ready escapes.
But, and it’s a big “but,” America: Putting a con man at the helm of a foundering ship is not exactly the wisest course of action.
There are alternatives to Captain Trump and Lifeboat Hillary. Seek them out. Get involved. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character found his way out of steerage. Yes, a bit of Hollywood fantasy, but remember the Unsinkable Molly Brown? She was real.
Give me the generosity of Molly Brown over the narcissism of Trump any day — or any year.
(Dedicated to Paul and Mo, my friends at the bar.)
We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch. It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.
Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow. Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected. This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.
Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs. We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat. Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them. And then there are the workers who lack sick leave. They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money. How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?
And then there’s the contagion of violence and war. America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended. They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries. In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.
In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).
Finally, let’s not forget global warming. The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t. Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming. Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.
In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age. It’s a grim prospect.
The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities? Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?
In Nice, France, 84 people were killed by a maniac who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day (French Independence Day). The driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a French-Tunisian with a criminal record but with no known terrorist links.
Much remains unknown about this attack. Was the driver acting alone? Was he “radicalized,” killing for a political/religious purpose? Was he working with a terrorist sect, or perhaps he sympathized with one? We should be careful not to jump to conclusions.
I want to make one rather obvious point: It’s easy to politicize such horrendous attacks. It’s easy to say things like: “It’s all the fault of radical Islam! The West is at war with radical Islam! Muslim immigrants are to blame!” And so on. Before reaching any conclusions, let’s gather all the evidence.
There’s a natural tendency to resort to the rhetoric of warfare here. Politicians are especially prone to this. And if you don’t agree with them, they dismiss you as naive or delusional — or worse.
The problem with warfare rhetoric is that it answers questions before they’re even asked. It imposes solutions before you even fully understand the problem. For example, if it’s a “war,” the inevitable solution is more militarization. More surveillance. More police. More weapons. Perhaps more military strikes as well.
But what if more military strikes actually aggravate the problem? What if more police, more surveillance, more raids combine to abridge the freedoms that France fought for, the very freedoms which the French celebrate each year on Bastille Day?
Liberty, equality, and fraternity are noble goals. They need always to be nourished and protected, not just from terrorists and other criminals, but from those in authority who may overreact in the name of protecting the people.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I focus on the “alien” nature of U.S. military interventions. Here are some excerpts from my article:
The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.
Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?
In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.
Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!
In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.
Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”
Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.
Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”
Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.
One of the more disturbing aspects of American militarism today has been the elevation of generals to the pantheon of heroes. Since 9/11, one U.S. general has excelled all others in hype: David Petraeus, the “Surge” savior of Iraq.
Today, Nick Turse has an outstanding article at TomDispatch.com on Petraeus and his charmed career. Despite his very public marital infidelity, and despite leaking highly classified secrets to his mistress, Petraeus has emerged from scandal as if reborn.
As Turse notes with telling humor, the retired general is more in demand than ever, so busy making money and giving advice to the high and mighty that he has no time to talk to (critical) journalists. Shepherded in style from event to event, looked up to as a sage on nearly every topic facing America today, Petraeus has somehow maintained a Messiah-like aura despite his past sins.
And I truly mean Messiah-like. Turse cites a story about Petraeus that I’d never heard that casts a whole new celestial light on Petraeus and his hype machine. Visiting a wounded soldier in the hospital, a soldier apparently in an irreversible coma, Petraeus reportedly awakened this man by shouting “Currihee,” a Cherokee word and unit battle cry that became famous after HBO’s popular “Band of Brothers” series.
And what immediately popped into my head? Lazarus, come forth!
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ awakened the dead Lazarus. Petraeus awakened a comatose soldier. Petraeus is not just a genius general — He’s the freakin’ Messiah!
America’s continued embrace of Petraeus says much about the American moment. Despite the fact that his “surges,” whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, were not miracles but rather, in their lack of staying power, essentially mistakes, Petraeus is still celebrated as warrior, sage, even saint (despite that obvious scarlet letter).
Is it possible that “saint” Petraeus might be “born again” to become a serious presidential contender in 2020? Heck, if thrice-married Donald Trump can break all the rules of civility to win his party’s nomination, why not the “honorable” Petraeus?
I’m not a prophet, but I’ll issue a warning anyway: Beware of false messiahs in 2020, especially those who wore general’s stars with miracle stories following in their wake.
People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”
Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?
When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer). Now there are often three people in the booth, with another one (or even two) on the sidelines. They all need to speak, of course, so baseball on TV has become a constant contest of endless chatter featuring mindless statistics. There’s so much chatter that it’s difficult to hear the crack of a bat or the sound of a fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt. Then there are the stadiums that feature lots of rock music, sound effects (like smashing glass for a foul ball), horns and pyrotechnics that go off when a player hits a home run, and all those video boards that order the fans to “Make Some Noise!”.
I know — I sound like an old fuddy-duddy again — sort of like the Grinch who stole Christmas because he was tired of all the noise, noise, noise of the Whos in Whoville. And if the Grinch was bothered by Christmas festivities, just think of how he’d react to July 4th, America’s most pyrotechnic holiday. Prepare for bombs bursting in air, jets screaming overhead, and loud music everywhere.
Just so you know, I’ve been known to pump up the volume on my favorite songs; I’ve thrilled to fireworks exploding in the sky; I’ve watched my share of air shows; I’ve even been at the very front of rock concerts as “security” (I fondly recall a Warren Zevon concert at which I had to arrange the return of a leather coat loaned by a fan to Zevon, who donned it on stage to the delight of the fan).
But you might say those noise events were matters of personal choice. Lately, noise in America seems pervasive, ubiquitous, almost unavoidable. And noise isn’t simply about volume: it’s about persistence. It’s about invasiveness. Think of people who chatter away on Smart phones even as they’re out for a quiet walk along the beach or in the woods. How can you hear the waves or the birds if you’re screaming into a phone? Bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard are not about emergencies or even pressing matters; it’s more like, “Guess where I am? I’m at the beach/concert/top of the mountain!” Followed by selfies and postings and more calls or texts.
With all these forms of noise, it’s difficult to be in the moment. It’s even difficult to find a moment. Also, even in quiet times, people feel pressured to fill the silence with, well, something. So unaccustomed to quiet are they that they reach for their Smart phones (perhaps to play a noisy video game), or they turn on the TV, or they chatter away even when they have nothing to say. Must avoid “uncomfortable” silences, so we’ve been told.
Part of this is cultural. Today’s Americans are not about reflection; we’re about action. We’re not thinkers; we’re doers. If I rest I rust is our motto. Together with, Don’t just stand there — do something! Preferably, something loud, splashy, noisy.
July 4th is a great holiday, but along with the fireworks and noise, perhaps we should celebrate the reflective thinkers of America, people like Thomas Jefferson who put the words to the noise of the American revolution in the Declaration of Independence. The quiet sound of a quill pen dipping in ink and scratching across parchment made a very big noise indeed in U.S. and World history.
This weekend, it wouldn’t hurt to put down or turn off the mowers, blowers, fireworks, Smart phones, TVs, and all the rest of our noisemakers and listen to the birds and waves while reading a few passages from that Declaration of Independence. For the right words can be explosive too.