The Case of Brett Kavanaugh

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W.J. Astore

President Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of sexual assault as a teenager.  Of course, I have no idea if Kavanaugh is guilty of this charge, and I doubt if such a charge could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.  Kavanaugh’s accuser (her name is Christine Blasey Ford) says he was “stumbling drunk” when he assaulted her; Kavanaugh denies the accusation.  Indeed, he claims he wasn’t even at the party when the alleged assault occurred.

Supporters of Kavanaugh are already dismissive of the accuser and disparage her motives for coming forward (consider this mocking and reprehensible post by Donald Trump Jr.).  Naturally, those who are opposed to Kavanaugh are motivated by their animosity against him to believe the accuser even before she’s testified.  So it goes in hyper-partisan America.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday, September 24th; both Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify.  I imagine both will seem credible.  And people watching will probably see what they already believe.

I’m opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination, but I was opposed before this assault accusation was revealed.  My opposition is idiosyncratic.  To me, Kavanaugh comes across as a toady to men in power.  He praised Trump for the allegedly exhaustive process that led to his nomination.  He’s led a life of insularity and privilege, from expensive private prep schools to the Ivy League (Yale and Yale Law School) to the usual clerkships and appointments.  Strong political partisanship in favor of Republicans has characterized much of his career in the law.  From his Wiki biography:

As an attorney working for Ken Starr, Kavanaugh played a lead role in drafting the Starr Report, which urged the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Kavanaugh led the investigation into the suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster. After the 2000 U.S. presidential election (in which Kavanaugh worked for the George W. Bush campaign in the Florida recount), Kavanaugh joined the administration as White House Staff Secretary and was a central figure in its efforts to identify and confirm judicial nominees.

His hyper-partisanship and especially his toadying before Trump make him unsuitable as a Supreme Court justice.  Indeed, Trump seems to have selected him over other conservative candidates because Kavanaugh believes a sitting president can’t or shouldn’t be indicted, a stance that’s quite attractive to Trump, who prefers spineless yes-men.

We need Supreme Court justices who uphold the law without being deferential to the powerful.  We further need justices with more than a measure of compassion for the weak.  From all I’ve read and seen, Kavanaugh won’t be that kind of justice, so I’m opposed to his nomination.

Next Monday’s hearing, and Kavanaugh’s ultimate fate, will likely further divide America along political and gender lines.  Once again, sadly, the Trump administration has found fresh ways to divide rather than to unite us.

Update (9/19): The Monday hearing is in jeopardy as Kavanaugh’s accuser calls for an FBI investigation.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s supporters have come up with a strategy to defuse the sexual assault charge, as reported in the New York Times today:

Mr. Trump’s advisers and Judge Kavanaugh’s allies appeared to be settling on a strategy of defending him by suggesting that this must be a case of mistaken identity. Under the emerging strategy, Judge Kavanaugh’s defenders would accept that Dr. Blasey was in fact assaulted but would insist that it must have been by someone other than Judge Kavanaugh because he denied it.

The approach reflects the shifting reality of the #MeToo movement when it has become politically perilous to directly attack the credibility of women who come forward to tell their stories. By suggesting that perhaps there was confusion after more than 30 years, White House allies said that they could offer wavering Republicans whose votes are critical for his confirmation another explanation for the he-said-she-said conflict without tearing down Dr. Blasey.

You might call this the “It wasn’t me” strategy.

War is a Racket

I was watching the Bill Maher Show this past weekend on HBO. Generally considered a liberal and a free-thinker, Maher argued that U.S. military forces had to stay in Afghanistan to prevent a resurgence of terrorism. He and his guests seem to have forgotten U.S. military testimony that roughly 20 terrorist groups are currently present in Afghanistan; indeed, that the presence of American troops has attracted more terrorist activity, even as the Taliban has increased its control and the drug trade has vastly expanded. How is long-term failure over 17 years an argument for an even longer “enduring presence” by U.S. troops? How long should those troops stay — forever?

General Smedley Butler knew the score. Five years ago, I wrote this post citing his confession about how war is a racket, driven by the profit motive, exploited by the powerful, even as the grunts and the native people of foreign lands pay the price.

As Butler said, if we want to end war, we must get the profit motive out of it. Also, as he implied here, if the rich and privileged want to control foreign lands, it’s they who should be thrusting the bayonet into the enemy (and risking having it thrust in to them).

Bracing Views

The business of wars and weapons sales is booming, with the United States leading the pack as the world’s foremost “merchant of death,” as Michael Klare notes in this article on the global arms trade for TomDispatch.com.

But why should we be surprised?  War has always been a racket.  And if you don’t believe me that forever war is forever profitable – for some, I recommend that you read War Is A Racket (1935), a classic polemic written by U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler.  Twice awarded the Medal of Honor, Major General Butler turned against military adventurism in the 1930s as he saw how his efforts and those of his men were exploited by elites to expand corporate wealth and power, even as they exempted themselves from the hardships and dangers of combat.

Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler.  Photo by author. Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler. Photo by author.

As Butler put…

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Dueling Bumper Stickers

A little more than five years ago, I wrote this article on dueling bumper stickers. These stickers showcased the divide within America — and also the way we seek to advertise our views (and antagonize others?) by plastering such stickers on our vehicles and in other public spaces. Recently, I’ve seen a sticker that announces “God, Guns, & Guts Made America Great,” which I suppose is an “in your face” message meant to irritate liberals. Readers, what stickers have you seen recently, and what do they tell us about America? Is it too late to “coexist”?

Bracing Views

Coexist_by_Chima1B52SuperiorFirepower

I occasionally travel from north central Pennsylvania, a mostly rural, generally conservative, area to Amherst, Massachusetts, home of generally liberal colleges like Amherst and Smith.  It’s an adventure in dueling bumper stickers.

In Amherst, I’m told to “coexist” with my neighbors, to “enlighten up,” to seek “peace.”  I’m told to go organic and to support my local farmers.  Perhaps my favorite Amherst bumper sticker was the one that told me, “I’m already against the next war.”

Just today in Pennsylvania, I was taught different lessons by different stickers.  I was told to seek “peace thru superior firepower.”  I was encouraged to join the NRA (National Rifle Association, of course) and to “stand and fight.”  I was reminded that “All gave some — some gave all,” with the image of a soldier kneeling next to the grave of a comrade in arms.  “Don’t tread on me,” the slogan of tea partiers…

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Facecrime!

plaidshirtguy

W.J. Astore

We’re truly living in Orwellian times.  A 17-year-old high school student, now known as #plaidshirtguy due to his choice of wardrobe, was removed from a Trump rally in Montana because of the faces he was making as Trump spoke.  You can read all about here, and watch an interview with him at CNN.

Not surprisingly, people who stand behind Trump are selected ahead of time and told to clap and cheer.  This young man did that, but he also chose to look quizzical, skeptical, and bemused at times.  This is not allowed!  A Trump staffer eventually intervened to remove him from the audience due to his “face crime.”  To make matters worse, he was then held by the Secret Service for ten minutes, after which he was asked to leave the event.

Leave the event?  For making skeptical and quizzical facial expressions?

You may recall from George Orwell’s “1984” that “Facecrime” existed.  Anyone making skeptical or otherwise unacceptable faces when the Party announced bogus victories, production figures, and so forth opened himself or herself up to serious punishment.

Thanks to plaid shirt guy, we now know that facecrime has come to America.  Just remember, fellow citizens, always to smile and cheer in the presence of Our Dear Leader.  Unless you want to be detained and sent away — perhaps next time to the cornfield.

*From my copy of “1984”: “In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense.  There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.” (From the end of Chapter 5.)

Monday Military Musings

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Pentagon spending keeps rolling along …

W.J. Astore

I get “Air & Space Power Journal” electronically.  You might call it a professional journal for Air Force personnel.  The latest articles had these titles:

Character into Action: How Officers Demonstrate Strengths with Transformational Leadership

Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

Preparing for Multidomain Warfare: Lessons from Space/Cyber Operations

An Ethical Decision-Making Tool for Offensive Cyberspace Operation

There’s something about military writing that loves pretentious jargon.  Not just leadership, but “transformational” leadership.  Combat or war must be “multidomain.”  Battle or battlefield isn’t enough: we must now talk of “battlespace.”  My automatic spell-check is having conniptions over these three words.

Instead of resorting to pretentious jargon in titles, why not go for the simple and direct?  Here are my suggested titles for the articles above:

* How to Lead.

*Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in Battle.

*Lessons from Space/Cyber Warfare.

*Applying Ethics to Cyber Warfare.

(Here I think “warfare” is more honest than “operations.”)

One tiny reason the U.S. military continues to struggle in its various “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars, is the pretentiousness of its writing.

As the military drowns in words, it’s also drowning in money, though it’s already thinking about what will happen when the cash is curtailed.  A good friend of mine sent me an article with the title, “Pentagon, Defense Industry Brace for Expected Dip in Future Funding.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Without congressional action, the decrease in defense funding would be dramatic. The base Department of Defense budget would drop to $549 billion in FY 2020 and $564 billion in FY 2021, according to a July 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service. The FY 2019 defense budget, recently signed into law, set spending at $717 billion.

The defense industry knows what a looming congressional budget fight could do to the Pentagon’s current high levels of spending. Executives are preparing Wall Street analysts for what likely lays ahead: Congress reducing the cash flow to the Pentagon and what that will mean to corporate bottom lines.

Yes — we must defend those “corporate bottom lines”!

Defense contractors have to be prudent and prepare for the future.  That said, a decline in defense spending should be good news to the American taxpayer.  Old-school Republicans, who used to fight for smaller government and lower deficits, should also be pleased at the prospect of lower spending.

Except it doesn’t work that way anymore. Few if any Members of Congress of either party want to see a decline in spending.  And of course defense contractors want to keep the money flowing — as President Eisenhower famously warned us about in his military-industrial-Congressional complex speech of 1961.

The rest of the world could declare “peace forever” tomorrow and Ike’s complex would still roll along.  The U.S. economy is now linked (forever?) to inflated spending on weapons and war.

Inflated war/weapons spending and inflated prose about “transformational multidomain battlespace” what-have-yous.  All that’s missing in our military are the victories.

The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

Putting Labor back in Labor Day Weekend

WPR: Marches & Pickets

W.J. Astore

Labor Day weekend is a reminder there’s no labor party in U.S. politics.  Instead, we have two pro-business parties: the Republicans and the Republicans-lite, otherwise known as the Democrats.  Both are coerced if not controlled by corporations through campaign finance “contributions” (bribes) and lobbyists (plus the promise of high-paying jobs should your local member of Congress lose an election or wish to transition to a much higher paying job as a lobbyist/influence peddler).  With money now defined as speech, thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of “speech” happening in Congress that has nothing to do with the concerns of workers.

Nevertheless, a myth exists within the mainstream media that “socialist” progressive politicians are coming this fall to take your money and to give it to the undeserving poor (and especially to “illegal” immigrants, who aren’t even citizens!).  First of all, the so-called Democratic Socialists are not advocating nationalization of industry; they’re basically New Deal Democrats in the tradition of FDR.  Just like Republicans, they believe in capitalism and the “free” market; they just want to sand down some of the rougher edges of exploitation.  Consider, for example, Bernie Sanders’s efforts to get a living wage for Disney employees.  Disney has finally promised to pay workers $15.00 an hour (phased in over the next few years), even as the corporation makes record profits and the CEO stands to earn hundreds of millions.  Second, you’ll notice the bulk of the Trumpian tax breaks aren’t going to the workers and middle class: it’s the richest Americans (and corporations) that benefit the most from these cuts.  Some of that money is supposed to “trickle down” to workers, but most of it doesn’t.  (Funding stock buy-backs, not pay raises, is especially popular among corporations.)

My father knew the score.  As a factory worker, he lived the reality of labor exploitation, and fought his own humble battle for decent wages.  I’ve shared this lesson before, but it bears repeating, especially since it’s Labor Day weekend.

My Dad’s Story

(My dad was attempting to get a dime pay raise at the local factory.  This was about the year 1950.)

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise 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 C. 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 and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan 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.”

My dad was no political radical.  He later became a firefighter and served for more than 30 years before retiring.  It’s precisely because my dad wasn’t a political firebrand that his words resonate so powerfully: “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind.  Isn’t it high time we put Labor back in Labor Day weekend?