Time to Change America

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There’s only one Spaceship Earth

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that the coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine America.  Please read the entire article at TomDispatch; what follows is an extended excerpt.  Thanks!

This should be a time for a genuinely new approach, one fit for a world of rising disruption and disaster, one that would define a new, more democratic, less bellicose America. To that end, here are seven suggestions, focusing — since I’m a retired military officer — mainly on the U.S. military, a subject that continues to preoccupy me, especially since, at present, that military and the rest of the national security state swallow up roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending:

1. If ever there was a time to reduce our massive and wasteful military spending, this is it. There was never, for example, any sense in investing up to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernize” America’s nuclear arsenal. (Why are new weapons needed to exterminate humanity when the “old” ones still work just fine?) Hundreds of stealth fighters and bombers — it’s estimated that Lockheed Martin’s disappointing F-35 jet fighter alone will cost $1.5 trillion over its life span — do nothing to secure us from pandemics, the devastating effects of climate change, or other all-too-pressing threats. Such weaponry only emboldens a militaristic and chauvinistic foreign policy that will facilitate yet more wars and blowback problems of every sort. And speaking of wars, isn’t it finally time to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? More than $6 trillion has already been wasted on those wars and, in this time of global peril, even more is being wasted on this country’s forever conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (Roughly $4 billion a month continues to be spent on Afghanistan alone, despite all the talk about “peace” there.)

2. Along with ending profligate weapons programs and quagmire wars, isn’t it time for the U.S. to begin dramatically reducing its military “footprint” on this planet? Roughly 800 U.S. military bases circle the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion at a yearly cost somewhere north of $100 billion. Cutting such numbers in half over the next decade would be a more than achievable goal. Permanently cutting provocative “war games” in South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere would be no less sensible. Are North Korea and Russia truly deterred by such dramatic displays of destructive military might?

3. Come to think of it, why does the U.S. need the immediate military capacity to fight two major foreign wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon continues to insist we do and plan for, in the name of “defending” our country? Here’s a radical proposal: if you add 70,000 Special Operations forces to 186,000 Marine Corps personnel, the U.S. already possesses a potent quick-strike force of roughly 250,000 troops. Now, add in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. What you have is more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security. All other Army divisions could be reduced to cadres, expandable only if our borders are directly threatened by war. Similarly, restructure the Air Force and Navy to de-emphasize the present “global strike” vision of those services, while getting rid of Donald Trump’s newest service, the Space Force, and the absurdist idea of taking war into low earth orbit. Doesn’t America already have enough war here on this small planet of ours?

4. Bring back the draft, just not for military purposes. Make it part of a national service program for improving America. It’s time for a new Civilian Conservation Corps focused on fostering a Green New Deal. It’s time for a new Works Progress Administration to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reinvigorate our culture, as that organization did in the Great Depression years. It’s time to engage young people in service to this country. Tackling COVID-19 or future pandemics would be far easier if there were quickly trained medical aides who could help free doctors and nurses to focus on the more difficult cases. Tackling climate change will likely require more young men and women fighting forest fires on the west coast, as my dad did while in the CCC — and in a climate-changing world there will be no shortage of other necessary projects to save our planet. Isn’t it time America’s youth answered a call to service? Better yet, isn’t it time we offered them the opportunity to truly put America, rather than themselves, first?

5. And speaking of “America First,” that eternal Trumpian catch-phrase, isn’t it time for all Americans to recognize that global pandemics and climate change make a mockery of walls and go-it-alone nationalism, not to speak of politics that divide, distract, and keep so many down? President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only Americans can truly hurt America, but there’s a corollary to that: only Americans can truly save America — by uniting, focusing on our common problems, and uplifting one another. To do so, it’s vitally necessary to put an end to fear-mongering (and warmongering). As President Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address in the depths of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear inhibits our ability to think clearly, to cooperate fully, to change things radically as a community.

6. To cite Yoda, the Jedi master, we must unlearn what we have learned. For example, America’s real heroes shouldn’t be “warriors” who kill or sports stars who throw footballs and dunk basketballs. We’re witnessing our true heroes in action right now: our doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, together with our first responders, and those workers who stay in grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like and continue to serve us all despite the danger of contracting the coronavirus from customers. They are all selflessly resisting a threat too many of us either didn’t foresee or refused to treat seriously, most notably, of course, President Donald Trump: a pandemic that transcends borders and boundaries. But can Americans transcend the increasingly harsh and divisive borders and boundaries of our own minds? Can we come to work selflessly to save and improve the lives of others? Can we become, in a sense, lovers of humanity?

7. Finally, we must extend our love to encompass nature, our planet. For if we keep treating our lands, our waters, and our skies like a set of trash cans and garbage bins, our children and their children will inherit far harder times than the present moment, hard as it may be.

What these seven suggestions really amount to is rejecting a militarized mindset of aggression and a corporate mindset of exploitation for one that sees humanity and this planet more holistically. Isn’t it time to regain that vision of the earth we shared collectively during the Apollo moon missions: a fragile blue sanctuary floating in the velvety darkness of space, an irreplaceable home to be cared for and respected since there’s no other place for us to go?

In the USA, Life Is Incredibly Cheap

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America’s counterfactual leader, hands posed like pistols, telling it like it isn’t

W.J. Astore

The coronavirus has made one thing clear: life is incredibly cheap in the USA.  Or so it seems to our leaders, who are desperate to put America back to work by Easter in two weeks’ time, irrespective of the death toll that would result.  It’s all about getting back to “normal,” keeping the wheels of capitalism rolling along, and the profits rolling in for corporate America.

Capitalism is America’s true national religion, and money is our god.  Our leaders make decisions consistent with that belief system.  And, as Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic activist for the poor, said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Worth citing here is Caitlin Johnstone, who in a recent article noted how America’s response to COVID-19 illustrates the pathologies of market-driven capitalism and the politicians who so willingly serve it:

The corporate cronyism of America’s political system has been highlighted with a massive kleptocratic multitrillion-dollar corporate bailout of which actual Americans are only receiving a tiny fraction. Instead of putting that money toward paying people a living wage to stay home during a global pandemic, the overwhelming majority of the money is going to corporations while actual human beings receive a paltry $1,200 (which they won’t even be getting until May at the earliest) at a time of record-smashing unemployment.

America’s capitalism worship has been highlighted with Wall Street Journal headline “Dow Soars More Than 11% In Biggest One-Day Jump Since 1933” running at the exact same time as “Record Rise in Unemployment Claims Halts Historic Run of Job Growth — More than 3 million workers file for jobless benefits as coronavirus hits the economy“. Stocks are booming, Amazon is surging, and mountains of wealth are being transferred to sprawling megacorporations, while actual human beings are terrified of what the future holds.

Nice to know a few are profiting while so many worry, suffer, and die.  But should we be that surprised by how callous America’s leaders are?

I recall reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book on U.S. planning for nuclear war.  Sixty years ago, U.S. leaders were prepared to kill 600 million people (that’s not a typo) in their efforts to “win” the Cold War.  As I wrote about in December 2017:

U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Daniel Ellsberg noted, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.

Notoriously, General William Westmoreland once mused that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.  Life is plentiful.  Life is cheap in the Orient.”  That philosophy helped to justify massive killing of the Vietnamese people (perhaps as many as three million) in a futile quest to “win” the Vietnam War.

Thinking about Westmoreland’s musing in light of our government’s response to COVID-19, as well as past plans for “winning” a nuclear war and prevailing in Vietnam by killing everything that moved, one wonders about which value system truly esteems life.  It sure doesn’t seem to be the “Western” model as espoused by our leaders.

Bonus Lesson: In its daily send out, the New York Times had this article today: FACT CHECK: “Trump’s Baseless Claim That a Recession Would Be Deadlier Than the Coronavirus,” by LINDA QIU.  The opposite is more likely to be true, according to research and experts.

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

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Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Update (3/26): If America reopens by Easter with crowded churches and the like, prepare for lots of dead people, as this article and graph show (courtesy of the New York Times):

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Social distancing for 14 days leads to 128 million total infections in the USA by October (curve on left).  Social distancing for two months leads to 14 million total infections (curve on right).  Trump appears to prefer the curve on the left in the name of boosting our economy.  Which result would you choose as the leader of America?

Quick Thoughts on the Coronavirus Crisis

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W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans are laid off or lose their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, they often also lose their employer-provided health care.  You think maybe it’s finally time for Medicare For All?

Americans will have to rely increasingly on credit cards, which charge usurious interest rates of 25% or higher, even as the Fed has lowered the prime rate nearly to zero for banks.  Any chance that banks and credit card companies will dramatically lower their rates to help Americans in this time of crisis?

Speaking of credit card companies and high interest rates, guess who their greatest friend was in the U.S. Senate.  Yes, Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware, where laws favor banks and credit card companies.

Speaking of Joe Biden, guess who’s been virtually invisible during the coronavirus crisis.  His handlers apparently think Joe isn’t ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been raising millions for charity and promoting sensible ideas that are later adopted by the Trump administration.

The DNC, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer don’t know what to think or do until their corporate masters provide guidance or give them permission.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the Republicans are filling the vacuum, even as they push legislation that supports their pet ideas and programs (restrictions on immigration, further attacks on public education, and the like).

Party-line Democrats want payments to Americans to be means-tested.  Yet help to corporations is never means-tested.  What gives?  In the spirit of trickle-down economics, expect a few drops of assistance to the poor and buckets-full of support for the rich.

Huge crises don’t always produce good leaders.  The Great Depression exposed Herbert Hoover and his small-minded thinking.  COVID-19 is exposing Trump for what he is: ignorant, lazy, incurious, incapable of empathy, petulant, and vain.  Meanwhile, as an alternative, the DNC puts forward Joe Biden, a corporate tool in his late seventies showing signs of confusion and cognitive decline.  Sadly, it’s not true that strong leaders arise to meet the moment — not in this White House, not in this corrupt political system.

Americans have been told for decades “You can have it all.”  To have “No Fear.”  To take selfies of ourselves and revel in our own individualism.  Even after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our leaders told us to go shopping and visit Disney, to consume and party.  Now we’re being encouraged to come together, to help one another, to be unselfish, to live a life that’s not self-centered.  But in many cases it’s too late.  People aren’t listening.  They’ve been told forever to focus on themselves and their own self-actualization.  And you just don’t flip a propaganda/conditioning switch that easily.

That said, I salute our doctors, nurses, other medical personnel, and first responders.  I salute everyone working at supermarkets and hardware stores and the like, serving us all despite the risks.  I meet my neighbors on walks and I admire the spirit of friendliness and our collective willingness to help one another.  We’re going to need this spirit to get through the weeks and months ahead.

“Keep calm and wash your hands” is a sign I saw at my local bank.  It’s not the worst advice.  Be safe out there.

Update (3/23): To no surprise, a deeply corrupt and compromised political system is responding to this crisis in a deeply corrupt and compromised way.  Truly, this is a national emergency. And what is Congress doing to help ordinary people? Virtually nothing. The Senate’s “relief” package is relief for the rich and corporations and industries.

In this immense crisis, we are seeing the sheer awfulness of the religion of American capitalism.

As Trump has dithered and Biden has remained invisible, Bernie Sanders has led the charge, raising millions for charity and fighting for workers.  Why can’t people see this?

 

Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

As America confronts the coronavirus, we are hamstrung because of previous efforts to keep us divided, distracted, and downtrodden. Politics in America is poison. Our president is much more comfortable leading divisive rallies than he is comforting the American people. People are further distracted by a president seeking to blame the virus on China rather than recognizing it as a threat we all share in common as human beings. Even the idea of helping people by sending them checks may be “means-tested,” with poorer people receiving less or even no money.

We need new leadership (Trump and Biden aren’t the answer, even as figureheads). We need a new national ethos — call it common wealth for common health. We need a system that places people first, not corporations. We need a government that isn’t bought and paid for and that is responsive to our needs.

It’s time for fundamental change, because COVID-19 won’t be the last big challenge we face. There are more to come.

Bracing Views

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W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by…

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The Dream Democratic Ticket for 2020

Almost a year ago, I predicted the “dream” Democratic ticket of Biden-Harris. Old white guy, younger black woman, both corporatists, both essentially moderate Republicans (as Obama admitted he was), what could be better for the DNC and its enablers and string-pullers?

My prediction is coming true, not because I’m a great prognosticator, but because the fix was already in when I wrote. The DNC has made it plain: they select the candidates, not the people. So much for democracy in America.

So as we face a global pandemic, a calamity we haven’t faced since the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, our main choices for leadership are Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Both, in their own way, befuddled figureheads.

Sadly, I just heard Tulsi Gabbard has suspended her campaign. Bernie Sanders is likely to follow soon. Progressive voices have once again been silenced by the DNC.

It’s time for new political parties in America. We need a party that actually represents the interests of workers. A party that embraces the agenda advanced by leaders like Bernie Sanders.

By coincidence, the song “Everybody plays the fool” just came on my radio. The song adds, “Sometimes.” Isn’t it time we stopped playing the fool?

Bracing Views

Slate Clockwise from left: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren.  Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sergio Flores/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images.

W.J. Astore

Now that Joe Biden is officially in the race, the dream Democratic ticket has emerged: Biden and Kamala Harris.

By “dream,” I don’t mean the Progressive dream.  I don’t mean the dream of working-class voters who are hurting.  I don’t mean the dream of Americans who are tired of never-ending wars that enfeeble our economy (and kill lots of people, mainly foreigners).  Those “dream” candidates are true Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.  A Sanders/Gabbard ticket would truly shake things up, which is why it’s not going to happen, as much as I’d like to see it.

No — the corporate-loving DNC wants to preserve the status quo, wants to feed…

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Bernie and Biden: The Debate

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Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in 2019

W.J. Astore

In last night’s debate, Joe Biden ran away from his own record.  Suddenly, Biden is against fracking.  He’s for Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  He’s against subsidies for fossil fuels.  He’s for a $15 minimum wage.  He’s against Super PACs and for public funding of elections.  He’s never tried to cut social security.  Just about the only progressive policy he remains against is Medicare for All, which he says is simply too expensive to countenance.

Biden also wanted to drive the narrative by saying he was picking a woman as vice president and a black female as the next justice to the Supreme Court (Anita Hill, perhaps?).  I’m not sure why Biden thought a female VP-candidate was such a big deal; Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and of course Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016.  Months ago, I foresaw Biden/Kamala Harris as the DNC dream ticket.  Older white guy, younger black woman, perfect!  Except that they’re both establishment tools whose views are safely unprogressive.

Joe Biden was so eager to claim he agreed with Bernie Sanders that my wife quipped, “He’s a #MeToo candidate!”  Along with his new “me too” tactic, Biden also likes to say, “I’m the guy,” as in “I’m the guy who supported gay marriage publicly” or “I’m the guy who engineered the Paris Climate Accords.”  To Biden, being present at or near the creation of something means that he created it.

Biden’s new strategy was obvious; it was essentially the same one Hillary adopted in 2016 to neutralize Bernie.  FAKE LEFT, RUN RIGHT.

Biden is now faking that he’s sensitive to progressive concerns.  But like Hillary he’ll run to the right if he wins the nomination.  And, like Hillary, he’ll lose to Trump.

Of course, much of the debate focused on the coronavirus and the government’s response to it, and both men said reasonable things.  Watching as much of the CNN post-debate coverage I could stomach (not much), all the “journalists” on the panel saluted Joe Biden for his fine performance.  Indeed, there wasn’t a single progressive on the panel.  No one took Bernie’s side.

Naturally, there was no discussion in this debate of America’s wars or its colossal military budget.  The military-industrial complex went unnoticed and unchallenged.  Indeed, Biden suggested that the military is somehow going to ride to the rescue by erecting tent cities during the coronavirus crisis.

Biden kept mentioning all the time he’d spent in the White House Situation Room, so much so that “Situation Room Biden” could be his new handle.  All talk of Biden’s “gaffes,” i.e. signs of cognitive decline, was banished, but of course CNN reminded its viewers that Bernie had recently suffered a mild heart attack.  Biden, naturally, asserted he had a clean bill of health.

And so it went.  Overall, by running away from his own record and lying consistently through his blindingly white teeth, Joe Biden probably fooled enough people to vote for him while handing the Democratic establishment the victory they crave most of all: keeping the progressive base powerless and firmly in its place.