We’re Mad As Hell — And Fighting Each Other

Peter Finch in “Network”

W.J. Astore

In the movie “Network” from 1976, a TV news anchor played by Peter Finch builds a mass following by promising to kill himself on the air while declaring that “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”  The network execs are all too happy to encourage him – as long as his outrage is good for ratings and doesn’t threaten the system.  But when Finch starts to step on corporate agendas, he has the riot act read to him by Ned Beatty, who explains “There is no America.  There is no democracy” and that “The world is a college of corporations.”  A visibly shaken Finch realizes he’s in over his head.

I’ve always liked that catchphrase from the movie, for we the people should be as mad as hell, and we should refuse to take it.  We should act.  But what’s interesting is how our anger is redirected before we can act.    

We’re not supposed to be mad at the oligarchs – that “college of corporations” – who own it all and who push all the buttons. No — our anger is supposed to be tribal. We’re supposed to hate Republicans, or Democrats, or anti-vaxxers, or Trump supporters, or someone — someone ultimately like us, without much power. The anger is ginned up to encourage us to punch down while keeping us disunited.

Being mad can be good if the anger is channeled against the exploiters; it’s not good when it’s exploited by the powerful to keep us divided and weak.

America’s two-party system is designed to deflect anger away from the moneyed interests and toward each other.  What we need is a new political party that truly represents the people rather than the oligarchs.  Neither major party, Republican or Democrat, seems reformable.  Both are captured by moneyed interests.  After all, if money is speech, who can yell louder: you and me, or Lockheed Martin and Amazon? Even the “anti-establishment” voices in either major party have largely been neutralized. Or they get sicced on the enemy of the day, whether it’s evil woke Democrats or evil unwoke Trumpers.

Hence nothing really changes … and that’s the point.

America needs an anti-imperial party, a “Come home, America” party, a party that puts domestic needs first as it works to downsize the military and dismantle the empire.  Yet, in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 and the Two Minutes’ Hate, Americans are always kept hating some putative enemy.  Russia!  Radical Islamic Terror!  China!  Immigrants at the gate!  Maybe even an enemy within.  We’re kept divided, distracted — and downtrodden

If we continue to be at war with each other while punching down, we’ll never turn righteous anger against the right people.  We’ll never effect meaningful change.

It’s said that power never concedes anything without a demand.  Why do we demand so much from the powerless and so little from the powerful?  Isn’t it high time we reversed that?

Time for a Real Peace Dividend

W.J. Astore

On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.

Here is the Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTc7Qj4AXWU&t=59s

In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.

Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.

Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.

Never Forget — What?

W.J. Astore

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has come and gone. The theme I often heard was “never forget.” Never forget what, exactly? That we were attacked? All of us of a certain age remember 9/11. We remember where we were when we first heard the news. We remember the shock, the confusion, the sense of loss. We really don’t need to be reminded to “never forget.”

A similar phrase is “always remember.” Like “never forget,” it’s remarkably labile, much like Obama’s slogans of “hope” and “change.” And that’s the point. It’s vague while being emotive. It plays on our emotions without encouraging us to think.

So, let’s think critically for a moment. What should we “never forget”? We should never forget the victims, of course. The heroes. The first responders who gave their lives. And, by the way, why is Congress always so reluctant to provide health care to those first responders who worked so tirelessly in the dangerously unhealthy rubble of the Twin Towers? Let’s not forget them in their moments of need.

But what else shouldn’t we forget and “always remember”? I think we should remember the colossal failure of the Bush/Cheney administration to act on intelligence that indicated Al Qaeda was determined to strike in the U.S. We should remember the chaos generated by those attacks, and how our government responded so slowly, and with a measure of panic. And we should remember how quickly men like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld deflected any blame and took no responsibility for what can only be described as a massive defeat.

Also, it’s important to recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, yet America’s leaders chose to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after announcing a global war on terror. In short, they used 9/11 as a pretext to embark on wars that they wanted to fight, wars of choice that proved disastrous, and for which they’ve largely evaded responsibility.

As a military historian, I’m also taken aback by our leaders choosing to rebrand 9/11 as “Patriot Day.” When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, America’s leaders didn’t rebrand that day as an occasion for patriotism. They recognized it was a date of infamy and declared war on the attacker.

It’s almost as if 9/11 has become a date of victimhood for the U.S. An old Air Force buddy of mine put it well recently in a message to me:

“It felt like it wasn’t about remembrance as much as just wallowing in self-pity. Interesting you bring up Pearl Harbor. Back then we went off and fought a 4-year war, beat our enemy, and helped them rebuild. For 9/11, we went off and fought a 20-year war, came home with our tails between our legs, and left our enemy more empowered. A celebration of victimhood, but not of honor.”

I like my friend’s appeal to honor. It’s an old-fashioned word that you hear rarely in America’s offices and corridors of power. Where is the honor in turning the 9/11 calamity into some kind of celebration of victimhood and patriotism?

As a historian, of course I want 9/11 to be remembered. But let’s not allow propaganda and cheap sentiment to shape our memories. And let’s “never forget” the failures of our leaders both before and after that date of infamy.

America, Land of Death

W.J. Astore

Checking today’s headlines at CNN was a grim affair. First, gun violence:

Ten mass shootings happened across the nation this weekend, leaving at least seven people dead and more than 40 injured. It was the latest in a streak of violent weekends in America. The weekend before this, there were also 10 mass shootings that left 12 people dead across seven states. (CNN defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.) This weekend’s violence included shootings at several parties and celebrations, including in California, Indiana and Colorado. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 293 mass shootings in 2021 so far.

After death by gun, we have death by vehicles on America’s roads:

38,680: That’s how many people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the prior year.

And of course the Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 600,000 in the United States (one study suggests the true Covid death toll is over 900,000), with the Trump administration having rejected any responsibility for its botched response to the pandemic. Most Trump supporters seem content with the notion that, well, at least Trump tried to do, well, something, like blaming the Chinese for “Kung Flu.” Sadly, Trump’s “gifts” of bluster and boasting and bragging and bombast just had no effect on a deadly virus.

At this site, I often marvel at how Americans have so little knowledge of or interest in America’s wars overseas and the deaths and suffering they produce. But the hard truth is that we also tend to ignore mass death here in the USA, whether from guns or motor vehicles or lack of affordable health care. Indeed, I’ve seen estimates to suggest that perhaps half of America’s deaths from Covid could have been prevented if our country had a national health care system. But we’d rather die from kleptocratic capitalism (in the name of freedom) than live with democratic socialism.

I don’t think America has a death wish — but we sure could use a lot more emphasis on life and living. Readers, what say you?

Remarkably, despite how busy he’s been, the Grim Reaper has time to answer questions at a Florida beach (as played by Daniel Uhlfelder)

Never Again War

W.J. Astore

In the early 1990s, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting friends in a newly unified Berlin, where we were introduced to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Kollwitz lost a beloved son, Peter, in World War I and turned against war in her art. We visited the museum dedicated to her work, which reflected the causes that moved her. She was for people, for workers, for equity, for equality, for mothers and fathers and their children, and she was very much against war.

Here’s one of her powerful images with the theme of No More War:

“Never again war” was a common sentiment across the world in 1924, in the aftermath of the death and devastation of World War I. Yet that sentiment didn’t last, and in the chaos of the Great Depression the Nazis soon gained power and then ruthlessly acted to consolidate it. So much for “never again war.”

The Neue Wache: here Kollwitz has a sculpture of mother and her dead son, based on the Christian imagery of Mary cradling Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Why do we crucify so many of our young via endless war?

Kollwitz was haunted by the death of her son, Peter, in World War I. The burden of pain she carried is captured in this moving and powerful sculpture. There is no glory here. Only grief and suffering and love of the most painful kind.

It’s well worth watching this brief and moving ceremony:

For far too many, war is something like a game, as shown in this telling image of Napoleon playing chess against the Russian Winter (Andreas Paul Weber). So many of us are only pawns in the “game” of war. Where is the glory here, emperor?

Kollwitz knew the pain and loss of war, and she knew how to share that pain and loss with the world. If you should find yourself in Berlin, I urge you to visit her museum and also to visit the Neue Wache memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.

Here’s a link to the Käthe Kollwitz museum in Berlin: https://www.kaethe-kollwitz.berlin/en/

The Grieving Parents (Memorial to Peter Kollwitz, killed in World War I), Vladslo German war cemetery, Belgium

When Mother Earth Dies, We All Die

W.J. Astore

Back in March, Tom Engelhardt had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com on the wounding of planet Earth. He also made mention of the Covid-19 pandemic. And as I read his piece, I thought of Mother Earth suffering from a human-made pandemic. A virus of humans. A human-made flu of fevers (heat waves and fires), chills (freezes in the South), coughs (turbulent weather), thirst (droughts out West), and pain (nearly everywhere).

But, sadly, there’s no vaccine for Mother Earth. All we humans can do is relieve the symptoms by changing our behavior.  Mother Earth is already infected with us; now we need to leave her alone, let her rest, allow her to recover. But we don’t.  We keep stressing her with our actions (and inaction on climate change) and making her symptoms worse.

The only problem: When Mother Earth dies, we all die.

We’re on the fast track to dystopia, which puts me to mind of a recent Splinterlands trilogy written by John Feffer. His latest and last volume is called Songlands, which he writes about here at TomDispatch.com. For a dystopic trilogy, I found it strangely uplifting, for Feffer still sees hope in humans who are willing to sacrifice to save our planet. I urge you to check it out.

It’s amazing to me that ultra-rich billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are saluted for their “investment” in space exploration, as if we humans are going to save ourselves by building stations on the moon or Mars. If Bezos and Musk truly wanted to give back to humanity, they’d be focusing on reducing consumption here on Earth while fighting for preservation and conservation. But their space trips are really ego trips, and their fuel has always been money.

Here’s hoping humanity rejects the “final frontier” nonsense of Bezos and Musk and turns its attention to what really matters: the health and welfare of this wonderful yet fragile world of ours.

For if we refuse to honor Mother Earth, it may be the last sin we humans commit.

Diversity and Inclusion!

Hooray for diversity, the 1980s version

W.J. Astore

I got a circular from a university today boasting of their efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion. Good things for sure. Such circulars and brochures are all the rage. They typically feature lots of people of color and a few inspiring stories of grads who’ve beaten the demographic odds in their particular field. Sometimes it’s made obvious the grads are also part of the LGBTQ community, a double dip into political correctness. And I truly dislike that PC term.

Again, these efforts are commendable and necessary, but the self-promotional tenor of these marketing brochures gives me pause. They remind me of those old Benetton ads that assiduously promoted diversity as a way of moving product. It’s a fine thing to be diverse, inclusive, tolerant, and so on, but can we just do it and shut up about it?

Even the Army is getting into the act, promoting recruits who come from non-traditional families (two mothers, for example). America is so great that even our warriors are woke, which is truly upsetting to people like Senator Ted Cruz, who prefers old-fashioned tough-guy Russians in the ranks. Cruz fears our military is “emasculated,” but if I recall, he couldn’t handle a few cold days in Texas and bugged out to Cancun before he was called out for his hypocrisy. Please, Ted, bring your manliness back to us!

Having served in the military for twenty years, I met and served with plenty of “diverse” people, to use today’s terminology. I had a white guy evangelical boss and a Black woman colonel boss. I had plenty of colleagues who were Black and brown. I can’t say if they were LGBTQ since I served in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” era, but I really don’t think I would have cared. I have male friends who live with their husband and female friends who live with their wife. The first time you see it (at least for this Catholic white boy), you’re a bit surprised just because of the novelty, then you get over it because love is love and who really cares anyway? We’ve got bigger fish to fry in America.

To repeat myself, I’m all for diversity and inclusion. Let’s do it. But can we also truly focus on health care for all, a living wage for all, a healthy environment for all? Can we stop our disastrous wars and stop building new nuclear weapons while destroying the ones we have?

Because I don’t feel better when America’s allegedly more diverse and inclusive military keeps having to fight the same old dumb wars overseas, where, sadly and with bitter irony, they kill a lot of people with Black and brown faces and with backgrounds that would register as “diverse” and “inclusive” and therefore worthy of being promoted and celebrated by those same glossy university brochures I receive.

Readers, what do you think?

More Thoughts (5/23/21)

To state the obvious, there’s nothing new about the push for diversity and inclusion. Reading a tribute to JFK from 1964, I saw this: “This is a time when we are struggling to guarantee that persons of all classes, creeds, and races may move into positions of economic and political leadership…”

Nowadays, class isn’t often mentioned, but race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on are. BIPOC, Black, Indigenous, people of color, is a common acronym. So too is LGBTQ.

Diversity and inclusion shows up in many places. Consider the first three “Dirty Harry” movies from the 1970s. Harry’s first partner was a Mexican-American. His second partner was Black. His third partner was a woman promoted by a quota system driven by diversity concerns. Harry comes to respect all these partners because they’re good, not because of BIPOC or gender.

Of course, we have a long way to go to be truly diverse and inclusive. But, and here’s the rub, if we see more women at work but they still make only 80% (or less) than men make for the same job, that’s not right. And it’s not solved simply by hiring more women.

And if “Black faces in high places” promote the same policies as the same old white establishment, is there truly progress here in policy? In fairness for people in the lower classes, i.e. for workers of all colors and orientations living paycheck to paycheck?

Biden has been touted as having a diverse cabinet, but when it comes to policies that would truly help the working classes, how diverse is it, really? For example, Biden has already essentially abandoned promises to support a $15 minimum wage and a public option for health care. Higher wages and cheaper health care would be a boon to BIPOC, LGBTQ, indeed everyone on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The only problem is that corporations may see lower profits, including health insurance and drug companies. And guess who received lots of money from these corporations and companies? Joe Biden and his “diverse” cabinet.

I wonder why they won’t help diverse members of the working classes when they say they’re so committed to diversity?

The Depressing Reality of America’s Political Scene

W.J. Astore

America’s Democratic Party, as it stands today, is essentially a pro-business and pro-war party. On the political spectrum, it’s a center-right party, roughly equivalent to the Republican Party of the 1970s but probably more conservative. Joe Biden, for example, is against Medicare for All, and he’s abandoned all talk of a single-payer option. He’s refused to fight for a $15 federal minimum wage. He’s most likely extending the war in Afghanistan well past the troop pullout date of May 1st as negotiated by the Trump administration. He’s keeping military spending high and is pursuing a hardline foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and China.

America’s Republican Party has become the party of Trump. It’s unapologetically far-right, evangelical, anti-immigrant, and openly contemptuous of Democratic calls for “diversity.” Like the Democratic Party, it’s militaristic, pro-business, and pro-war, but is even more in favor of blank checks for Wall Street and the major banks and corporations. Its strategy for future victories focuses on suppression of minority voters through various laws and restrictions (voter ID laws, closing polling places, restricting mail-in and early voting, and so on). The Republican Party’s version of “cancel culture” is canceling as much of the vote by minorities as it can.

You’ll notice what’s missing: any major political party that’s center-left or left; any party that has any allegiance to workers, i.e. most of America. There are new parties being created, like the People’s Party, that promise to fill a gaping hole on the left, but it may take decades before a new party can seriously challenge America’s two main parties.

What’s truly depressing is that the mainstream media, along with the Republicans, sell and support a narrative that the Democrats are radical leftists. That such a laughably false narrative is embraced by America’s talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major networks highlights their complicity in ensuring the triumph of business and war imperatives in America.

What this means for elections in 2022 and 2024 was brought home to me by Richard Dougherty’s book, “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall” published in 1973.  Dougherty nailed it back then when he talked about the baneful influence of the Republican Party as led by Richard Nixon and its reaction to attempts at real reform by George McGovern.  Here’s an excerpt:

“McGovern saw something new emerging in American politics and saw that it was ugly and frightening not only because of its burglars and saboteurs, its insensitivity to the delicate mechanisms of freedom, but for its profound deceptions of a troubled people which, if successful, would reduce and debase them as a people.  Nixon offered no improvement in the life of the people but only empty and ersatz satisfactions to their angers and bewilderments.  It cost the rich Nixonian oligarchs nothing, yet it gratified the lumpenbourgeoisie to tell the poor to go out and get jobs, the black children to stay off the buses, the young draft evaders to stay out of the country, to make noises about permissive judges rather than hire more policeman.

Let ‘em eat revenge.

That was the gimmick.  Was not this sleaziness, this moral midgetry, this menace to the American character, proper stuff for a presidential candidate [like McGovern] to raise as an issue?” (246-7)

If only …

I thought this passage captured what we’re likely to see in the next four years: more sleaziness, more deceptions, more divisiveness, even as the plight of ordinary Americans worsens.

But it’s worse now than in 1973 because the oligarchs now own both parties, the Democratic as well as the Republican.

The challenge for us all is to look past the sleaze, the deceptions, the divisiveness and to focus on bettering the plight of ordinary Americans.  To free ourselves from the oligarchs and the narrative control they exercise via the major media networks.  To recapture the reformist spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s as embodied by a leader like George McGovern.

Much hinges on whether America can do this.

Is China Winning? It’s Our Own Fault

W.J. Astore

At his first presidential press conference yesterday, Joe Biden had this to say on China: “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Sorry, Joe, it’s happening and it’s partly your fault.

Here’s a symbol for you. I have an American flag t-shirt. It’s made by a company called “True Grit” (John Wayne!) and the label says “Authentic California.” But was the shirt made in California? Ha ha! It was “Made in China.”

My t-shirt label says it all

Why is China ascending while the USA descends? Here are five reasons:

  1. America’s wasteful war on terror has cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion with nothing to show for it.
  2. Politicians like Obama/Biden prefer to bailout Wall Street and the banks rather than ordinary Americans. For example, the bailout of Wall Street in 2008 was a trillion-dollar mess, Matt Taibbi notes.
  3. The Covid Bailout passed by the Trump administration in 2020 (the CARES Act) funneled $2.3 trillion mainly to the banks and corporate America, with a surge option of $4 trillion for big business, notes Matt Taibbi.
  4. Bad trade deals like NAFTA, advanced by Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, ensured that American jobs would go overseas to countries like China having much lower labor costs.
  5. Tax cuts for the richest Americans under the Trump administration starve the government of funds, ensuring little investment in the homeland even as the rich get richer.

Now, imagine if this money had been invested in America. We’re talking $10-12 trillion for infrastructure, essentials like roads, bridges, dams, high-speed rail, renewable energy, better schools, and so on. Imagine how much more advanced and healthy America could be if our priorities changed.

Our government has been captured by the special interests, specifically corporations, banks, and the military-industrial complex. It’s socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the poor. The plutocrats, kleptocrats, and militarists are cashing in even as America hollows out.

What we need is a true Marshall Plan — for America. A reinvestment in ourselves. What this means is an end to forever wars, major cuts in military spending, higher taxes on the plutocrats and corporations, and a focus on putting Americans back to work and with a living wage. A green new deal could and should be one aspect of this.

We need to show some “true grit” again, America; not grit that’s “Made in China.”

Racism’s Loud Echoes in America

W.J. Astore

What is your best guess at when the following passage was written?

Under a leadership of charlatans and bullies this great Republic clumped about among the nations like a lout, feared by most, respected by none. Nor were things much better at home where a thinly disguised racism was in the saddle, the people’s worst instincts were appealed to, and the noble sentiments of patriotism were reduced to the cliche of the bigot’s bumper sticker.

A sensible guess would be roughly 2018, focusing on the Trump administration. But it was published in 1973 by Richard Dougherty in “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall.” Dougherty, of course, was writing about the Nixon administration and its infamous Southern strategy.

Well, as my wife immediately noticed, things are worse today, since many Republicans have abandoned any pretense to thin disguises when it comes to racism. Two stories caught my eye this weekend. The first was Stacey Abrams’ angry and accurate denunciation of Republican voter suppression efforts as “Jim Crow in a suit.” As a friend put it, “the vote suppressors in Georgia are at work even now trying to block their [Black churches] ‘souls to the polls’ tradition.” The second was Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s statement that he wasn’t afraid of largely white pro-Trump rioters in the U.S. Capitol in January since they “love this country,” but he would, he confessed, had feared them if they had been BLM (Black Lives Matter) protesters. Johnson bizarrely added that the pro-Trump protesters “truly respect law enforcement” and “would never do anything to break a law.” Assuming Johnson isn’t completely mad, he’s obviously pandering to the Trumpian base as he’s up for reelection in 2022. Or perhaps he’s a mad panderer.

Senator Ron Johnson (NBC News)

Again, America is allegedly a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to increase the number of people who vote. We shouldn’t be passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote, specifically minority voters. Such laws are not only sordid and cowardly, they’re un-American.

About Senator Johnson: Strangely, I find his brazen bigotry to be useful. Useful in reminding us that America has far to go before we put racism behind us. Politicians used to use dog whistles, so to speak, to make racist appeals to like-minded haters. Now they simply say the quiet part out loud, not caring who hears it, because they figure they can get away with it. They think it’s a winning tactic. We have to prove them wrong. Racism, whether blatantly obvious or thinly disguised, must be rejected by all Americans.

To return to the quotation from Dougherty: How many nations around the world respect America for its ideals and actions, and how many pretend to respect us because they fear our bullying and loutish actions? Honest answers to this question should disturb us. Division at home and fear abroad is a recipe for neither domestic tranquility nor international comity.

We can do better, America.