“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

dirty-harry
Worthy of being cherished?

W.J. Astore

The U.S. Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights is the foundation of our democracy.  If you had to pick a right to celebrate, perhaps even to cherish, which would it be?  There are so many important ones, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, our right to privacy (the fourth amendment), and so on. There are other amendments that righted old wrongs, including prohibitions against slavery and the granting of the vote to Blacks and women.

Yet which right/amendment is the best known in U.S. politics today?  The second amendment, or the right to bear arms, which Mike Pence referred to yesterday when he noted, “people who cherish the Second Amendment have a very clear choice in this election.”

Uneducated Voters

OK, I’ve owned guns and enjoy shooting, but I hardly “cherish” my right to spend thousands of dollars on lots of guns.  I have friends who hunt and friends who collect guns and I wouldn’t deny them their rights to do both, but again why is this the one right that deserves to be singled out as worthy of being “cherished” in a democracy?

I know: the NRA and its followers claim that an armed citizenry is the best guarantor of all the other rights, a position that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Believe me, your personal collection of guns is not going to stop a trained military using tanks and artillery and all the other heavy weaponry of war. And no: this is not an argument for you to have the right to purchase your very own M-1 Abrams tank!

Look: No political candidate plans to take away anyone’s guns. Nevertheless, the NRA and Trump/Pence persist in scaring gun owners while encouraging a “cherishing” attitude toward guns.  And here’s the telling part: Even as the gun cherishers bloviate about the extreme importance of gun rights, they virtually ignore all the other rights that do need protecting in America, especially our rights to speech, assembly, and privacy.

Stop fixating on guns, America, and start cherishing what really matters: your rights as a citizen to have a real say in politics and the running of this country. Those are the rights that truly need protecting.

 

 

Twelve Questions for this Fall’s Presidential Election

johnson
Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party

W.J. Astore

Here are twelve questions for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, followed by quick answers about where they stand, based on what they’ve done as well as what I’ve heard them say in various speeches and debates.  To avoid any confusion with her husband, I refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary.”

Which candidate is going to:

  1. End America’s wars?

Hillary will continue them.  Trump has questioned whether they’re worth it.  Advantage Trump.

  1. Tackle global warming?

Hillary believes in science.  Trump apparently doesn’t, though he’s taken steps to safeguard his properties against climate change.  Advantage Hillary.

  1. Reverse Citizen’s United and get corporate money out of politics?

Hillary has said she’ll do something; Trump hasn’t.  But Hillary is dependent on corporate financing.  A wash.

  1. Work to reduce the growing gap between the richest 1% and everyone else?

Hillary talks about fairness, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.  Trump wants to restore American jobs through tariffs and trade wars.  Whether either candidate really cares about the working classes is debatable.  A wash.

  1. Rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, ensuring safe roads, bridges, and water supplies?

Both candidates talk a good game.  The problem is: Where is the money coming from?  Trump’s tax breaks that favor the rich may literally bankrupt America; Hillary’s war and social spending will absorb most federal funding.  A wash.

  1. Reject trade deals that hurt American workers?

Hillary was for the TPP before she was against it.  She and Bill were also for NAFTA.  Trump talks about helping workers even as his companies shift jobs overseas to save money.  A wash.

  1. Pursue a domestic political agenda that doesn’t vilify minorities and the vulnerable?

Hillary is far better than Trump at promoting a message of inclusion.  Advantage Hillary.

  1. Respect the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers, i.e. reject the “Unitary Executive” model?

Neither candidate promises to rein in executive authority.  Both are power-hungry and secretive.  A wash.

  1. Rein in the burgeoning national security state and its lockdown mentality?

Trump is seemingly more skeptical about military spending and is less encumbered by neocon conventions.  Yet he stokes fear of the outsider, which feeds the lockdown mentality that plagues America.  Hillary boasts of strengthening national security and cultivates hawkish elements while rejecting any cuts to war spending.  A wash.

  1. Work for quality public education?

Neither candidate has spoken a lot about public education.  But Trump has joked that he likes the under-educated since they’re many of his most ardent supporters.  Stupid is as stupid does.  Advantage Hillary.

  1. Reduce the prison-industrial complex?

Hillary’s husband’s policies are partly responsible for the complex, though now she says she wants to reduce America’s reliance on prisons, which target minorities disproportionately.  I haven’t heard Trump articulate a clear vision on this, except to vow “on day one” that he’d restore law and order to America.  Slim advantage to Hillary.

  1. Respect the environment, e.g. end fracking?

Hillary promoted fracking while she led the State Department.  Trump simply promotes business and making money.  I don’t see either as having any deep-rooted respect for nature.  A wash.

Score Card: Score 1 for Trump, 4 for Hillary.  And 7 for candidate “Wash.”

Stein
Jill Stein in Philly

What if Green Party candidate Jill Stein were included?  She might edge Trump and Hillary on all of these questions.  I think Bernie Sanders would score 11 out of 12.  His one failing during the primary was his reluctance to say he’d rein in the national security state.  What a shame Bernie is out, especially since he was beaten neither fairly nor squarely.

What about the Libertarians?  I have limited exposure to Gary Johnson, William Weld, and their party, but here’s a quick cut and paste job from CNN:

“First, libertarianism is more than just an economic ideology. It’s a social one. And many Libertarian social positions — an openness to immigration, an embrace of equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, a hostility toward the war on drugs and American militarism abroad, and support for women’s reproductive rights — are arguably more progressive than the average Democrat. Libertarians were supporting marriage equality and marijuana legalization, for instance, long before any mainstream politician — Clinton included — would touch those issues.”

“Second, even on strictly economic issues, Libertarians have a lot to say that should appeal to those on the left. Libertarians have long been sharply critical, for instance, of the ways regulations such as occupational licensing requirements are used to protect the economically powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized. They’ve fought against subsidies, bailouts, and other forms of “crony capitalism” that benefit the few at the expense of the masses. And — contrary to popular perception — Libertarians have often argued in favor of a well-designed social safety net to protect those who fail to benefit from the economic dynamism of a free economy.”

A quick look at my 12 questions coupled with interviews I’ve seen with Gary Johnson suggest that he’d easily score higher than Hillary and Trump but lower than Stein and Sanders.

Here’s the deep irony for America: The most interesting candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, are the ones marginalized by the system.  They are not allowed to debate.  They are judged “not ready for prime time.”  And the weakest candidates, the most deeply compromised, Hillary and The Donald, are the ones who are given the lion’s share of attention and respectability.  They are celebrated.  They are prime time.

Only in America.

This November’s “Choice” for President

DEM 2016 Clinton
So many flags, but where’s the fresh thinking? (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

Andrew Bacevich has written a whip-smart article at TomDispatch.com on this November’s choice for the presidency.  Here are a few excerpts:

Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists.  Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.

Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats?  True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons.  Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.

Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability.  She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York.  She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.

She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information.  Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism.  That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental.  Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby?  Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.

Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump.  Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security.  Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly.  Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.

Not much of a “choice,” right?  Donald Trump is a loose cannon, with no apparent rangefinder, whereas Hillary Clinton is a “fire-at-will” cannon, with a known record of pounding a select list of targets.  Trump doesn’t know what a nuclear triad is and asks why the U.S. has so many nuclear weapons while not using them (good question, actually, but I don’t think The Donald wants to follow this to the logical conclusion that we should eliminate our nuclear arsenal).  Clinton is hopelessly compromised on Israel and so many other issues and is a card-carrying member of American exceptionalism and neo-conservative military adventurism.

Here’s another telling excerpt from Bacevich:

When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton — even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.

The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional.  She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events.  On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries.  These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.

A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity.  Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.

Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness….  

So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots?  Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no.  Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story. 

The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference.  It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight.  Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — as Clinton will assuredly do — may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups.  Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)

In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation.  To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them — Ivanka as national security adviser? — is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person.  Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration. 

In short, if you want more endless foreign wars and the abridgment of rights here at home in the name of “security,” vote for Hillary.  If you want “rogue” actions based on knee-jerk sentiments and biases backed by inexperience and a stunning ignorance of even the most basic world facts, vote for Trump.

Quite a “choice,” right?

Be sure to read the rest of Bacevich’s article here.

Too Many Troops Have Died in the Name of Big Boy Pants

Mike Murry’s recent comment reminded me of this article that I wrote about three years ago. Macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems for the U.S. What is it with this obsession for “hardness” and “toughness” and “big boy” pants? Isn’t it a defining trait of a bully to whack people around precisely because he’s insecure and wants to compensate for that by feeling “big” through violence against the vulnerable? Just look at Trump and his bullying behavior. He attacks those he perceives as vulnerable (Mexicans, Muslims, women, and so on), even as he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.

It’s obvious that many men in America see masculinity under assault, or they fear their own loss of manliness, hence those calls for “big boy” pants, and hence all those sports metaphors applied to war.

Time to put away the “big boy” pants, America. Instead, how about engaging in mature, intelligent, thinking and reflection, followed by action that ends our unwinnable wars and our national obsession with violence and weapons?

Bracing Views

Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants

W.J. Astore

Jeremy Scahill is a reporter for whom the word “intrepid” may have been invented. He’s been remarkably bold in covering the creation of private mercenary forces in the United States (as documented in his bestseller, Blackwater) as well as America’s “turn to the dark side” after 9/11/2001, which led to “wars of choice” in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with interventions in Somalia, Yemen, and across the world in the name of combating terrorism. Indeed, the subtitle of Scahill’s new book is “The World Is A Battlefield.” And since there’s always a terrorist organization at large somewhere in the world, we are ensured of a forever war, a grim prospect on this Veterans Day.

I’ve written an extended review of Scahill’s Dirty Wars at Michigan War Studies Review, edited by the incomparable Jim Holoka.  An aspect…

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State of (Military) Failure

turse

Tom Engelhardt

Reposted from TomDispatch.com and used by permission.

Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure.  After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban’s Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their “withdrawal” halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.

Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State.  With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria.  And if you haven’t been counting, that’s three wars gone wrong.

Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq.  Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there.  Toss in as well Washington’s never-ending drone war in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing.  In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.

It’s not as if Washington doesn’t know this. It’s quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What’s strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed!

Be sure to read Nick Turse on how U.S. military efforts in Africa show more regress than progress.

The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

W.J. Astore

Two weeks ago, I did an interview with TheoFantastique on the military in science fiction. I’d like to thank John Morehead, the site’s creator, for inviting me to answer a few questions on a subject near and dear to my heart.

TheoFantastique: Bill, thanks for making a little time to respond to a few questions related to the subject matter of your article. What are some general observations you have made about the shift in science fiction film depictions of the American military from the post-World War II period to the present?

3175_8dayearth_lgBill Astore: Thanks for inviting me, John. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films of that era were generally critical of the establishment, including sci-fi films. I fondly recall Planet of the Apes with its anti-nuclear message. Also Soylent Green with its warning about over-population, but even more dire was the way in which the authorities hid from the people the true nature of their new food source. Think also of Capricorn One, hardly a great film, but one which exposed a government conspiracy at the heart of the first manned mission to Mars. And Silent Running with Bruce Dern. The basic message was how humans were destroying planet earth, often due to nuclear war or environmental destruction, or both. Finally, Logan’s Run was a favorite of mine, but again the message was how the government of that world hid from the people the true nature of life outside of the bubble.

I remember seeing Alien in the theater and being blown away by the alien “birth” scene. But again the theme of that film was you can’t trust the authorities, who wanted the “alien” at any cost, i.e. the crew was expendable. Think of Outland as well with Sean Connery: yet more corruption among the establishment, this time involving drugs and production quotas in space mining. Here the workers were expendable.

I know I’m digressing from your question, but my general point is this: Sci-Fi films (and stories) are generally questioning (or questing, perhaps). They are usually not pro-military or pro-authority. Put differently, for every Starship Troopers there’s a Bill the Galactic Hero as a counterweight.

Think of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The military is completely ineffectual in that film. Worse: the military contributes to the problem. Similarly, in the 1950s lots of films were made about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation. The military usually didn’t emerge in a favorable light in those films, if I recall correctly.

I think this began to change with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars could be read as apolitical (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), even if that wasn’t George Lucas’s intent. In Close Encounters, a terrific film that I saw in the theater, the authorities actually know what they’re doing. They greet the alien mothership peacefully, and communicate with music and light instead of guns and nukes. Again, I don’t think Spielberg was making a pro-authority or pro-military film, but I believe he didn’t want to make a political film, a film like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7ef4082d1After these two films, Hollywood embraced space operas and feel-good movies. There were exceptions, of course. One of my favorite movies is Starman with Jeff Bridges. Again, the authorities only want the alien for the powers he brings with him. Think too of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the way in which his life is corrupted by human excess. Doesn’t he get addicted to television?

The movie that really changed it all was Independence Day, a perfect film in the aftermath of Desert Storm (the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait). Here, of course, the militaries of various countries come together to defeat the aliens, led by an American president who climbs into the cockpit to lead the charge himself. This proved so popular that it’s no surprise George W. Bush tried to replicate the scene in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier, followed by his “Mission Accomplished” victory speech).

TheoFantastique: What represents much of the portrayal of the U.S. and its military, and what does this say back to us by way of reflection on American militarism around the world?

Bill Astore: I think many, if not most, Americans now want to see the U.S. military portrayed in a positive light in films. Since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, Americans have been told to “support our troops.” After 9/11, ordinary Americans were taught and told we live in a dangerous world filled with “alien” terrorists, and that we had to submit to authority to combat and defeat those “aliens.”

area51-independence-day-attackSome recent sci-fi films, I believe, have come to celebrate the military, its weaponry, and its can-do spirit of “warriors.” They’ve played it safe, in other words. In some cases, film makers may have curried favor with the Pentagon as a way of securing military cooperation in filming. For example, to secure access to bases, to advanced technologies such as the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and so on. It makes their films “sexier” to have such access.

I’m sure some would say, So what? What’s wrong with a summer blockbuster that portrays military action in a favorable light? To that I’d say: reel war is nothing like real war. The best science fiction films — or the memorable ones — inspire us to dream of bettering ourselves as individuals and as a species. And I think the best films still seek to challenge us to be more noble, more benevolent, more compassionate.

TheoFantastique:
How do you feel as a retired Air Force officer about current science fiction’s perspective on the U.S. military?

Bill Astore:
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad that films are not universally anti-military. On the other hand, I’m upset that many films tend to glorify battle and war. War often looks very sexy and exciting in today’s crop of sci-fi action flicks. We need to remember that war is bloody awful, and that lasers and light sabers would not make it any less awful.

Check out TheoFantastisque, a meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture.