Patriotizing the Arts – Patronizing the Audience

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The National Anthem and flags are everywhere in America

Richard Sahn

Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up.  It seemed so incongruous.  My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood.  I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so.  The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.

Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.”  Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins.  Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn.  But are they not patronizing to the audience?  W.J. Astore

I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.

But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself.  I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity.   Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.

So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:

  1. One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
  2. Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
  3. Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
  4. The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
  5. Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
  6. Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival.  Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).

Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.

Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Music is real in a way that nations are not.

Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.

Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.

American Fascism: No Longer Misleading

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Pastors pray with Trump in Nevada, October 2016 (Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP)

W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I wrote an article to suggest “American fascism” was a misleading concept.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism: 

“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

Here we are, in 2018, and the idea of American fascism no longer seems as misleading as it did to me in 2013.  For his followers, Donald Trump is a messiah-like dictator.  There’s even a movie making the rounds (“The Trump Prophecy“) about how Trump’s election in 2016 was an act of God.  Meanwhile, the American justice system is increasingly partisan, increasingly captive to the political right, even as it remains favorably predisposed to the powerful.  Our votes are increasingly suppressed: polling stations are closed in minority neighborhoods; onerous voter ID laws work to restrict voting by the “wrong” kind of people; early voting is being curtailed; voting rolls are being purged; and gerrymandering is widespread.  All of these steps are designed to protect one party in particular: the Republican.

To return to Paxton’s definition in the light of 2018:  Trump ran on a platform of American decline.  He sees himself and his followers as victims; nationalist militarism is growing in popularity; democratic liberties are being eroded (whoever thought children would be separated from parents at the border and put into what are effectively concentration camps?).

Ethical and legal restraints still exist on the worst of this behavior, but for how long?

Fascism, Norman Mailer wrote, is “a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”  Nowadays we call these lies “fake news” or “alternative facts.”  Whatever you call them, they feed what Mailer called “an insidious, insipid sickness” in society that “demands a violent far-reaching purgative.”

That’s where all of Trump’s lies may be leading us: to violent purges internally and violent surges externally.  It’s a grim vision, one that no longer seems as far-fetched to me as it did in 2013.

Thursday Thoughts

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He wrote me beautiful letters — then we fell in love!

W.J. Astore

Here are a few random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.

1. I’m still reeling from Donald Trump confessing how he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Imagine if Barack Obama had gushed about falling in love with a communist dictator? Fox News and the Republicans would have crucified him.

2. Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. But imagine if he’d been black. Would he have survived sexual assault allegations from three white women?  Or imagine if he’d been a woman and boasted of liking beer, lots of beer, while losing self-control before the Senate judiciary committee.  A female Kavanaugh would have been dismissed as hysterical and unsuited for the pressures of the court, methinks.  In sum, a certain type of privilege still exists for certain types of white males.

3. Last night, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians. Trump’s tactics on this issue have run the gamut from denying he colluded, to saying it’s not illegal to collude, to charging his opponent with the (apparent) crime of colluding.  This is not to say I believe Trump colluded with the Russians (though his constant denials make me think he’s got a lot to hide).  While we wait for the Mueller investigation to conclude, it’s worth recalling that candidate Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s server to find her missing emails. Perhaps this was merely a snide remark by an unhinged candidate, but why were Trump campaign staffers meeting with Russians? To help speed adoption of Russian kids by Americans?

But here’s a key point: Trump didn’t win because of Russian “collusion.” He won because Hillary ran a poor campaign. The collusion story (assuming there’s something to it) is a minor issue compared to the real damage Trump does every day as president, e.g. dismissing the perils of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”

4. At TomDispatch.com, Juan Cole has a fine piece on Islamophobia and how it’s promoted by the Trump administration. It has at least three components.  The first is resentment stemming from 9/11, which embarrassed the Republicans since it happened on their watch.  The second is religion, that old crusading spirit of evangelicals and conservative Catholics.  The third is entitlement/resentment.  You know the saying: Who put America’s oil under the desert sands of the Middle East?  America’s leaders, and so many of their countrymen, believe all that oil should be theirs.

5. There’s an argument that Trump is no worse than other politicians like Obama or the Clintons. Indeed, that in some way his mendacity is refreshing: that he’s torn the mask off American exceptionalism, revealing all the hypocrisy, all the duplicity, all the crimes against humanity, that other politicians work to keep hidden.

It’s tempting to say “they all do it.” But Trump’s dishonesty is constant. He lies just to stay in shape. And his lies are calculated to sow discord — to divide. Divide and rule is his strategy. Reaping profit for himself is his goal.  He’s always been a con man, but now the entire country, indeed the entire world, is his mark.

Because he’s anti-democratic, because he’s a divider, because he loves dictators while mocking people weaker than him, for these and many other reasons, Trump is worse.  Trump is making cruelty normal, even admirable (at least to his followers).  He’s not so much ripping a mask off America as he is reveling in his own nastiness while encouraging likeminded people in America and around the world to join him.

Trump: Making the world nastier again.

Brett Kavanaugh Should Withdraw

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The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.

W.J. Astore

For the good of the country, Brett Kavanaugh should withdraw his name as a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court justices are public servants.  They need to appear as unbiased and objective as possible.  Their reputations should be as unsullied as possible.  They should not be known for partisanship.  Their public temperament should be sober, serious, and balanced, while making room for empathy and compassion and humility.

Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation, fairly or unfairly, is now sullied.  A quick and limited FBI investigation will not remove the taint surrounding his name.  Based upon last Thursday’s hearing and his own testimony, Kavanaugh stood revealed as a hyper-partisan associated with a particular brand of hard-right conservatism.  Instead of sober and balanced, he came across as belligerent, angry, self-righteous, and self-pitying.  He evaded questions as he demanded answers of senators questioning him.  When he did deign to answer, his responses were often unconvincing.

Put bluntly, Kavanaugh failed to display the demeanor Americans expect of any judge, let alone a judge with a lifetime appointment to America’s highest court.

Judge Kavanaugh says he’s a fighter who will never quit.  Yet there comes a time to withdraw from a fight when that withdrawal is for the greater good of the country.

An oft-quoted line from the “Star Trek” movies is Spock’s explanation of why he sacrifices his life to save the ship.  The needs of the many, Spock says, outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.  Spock’s rule applies here.  Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court will further divide this country along partisan and gender lines.  It will be interpreted as a slap in the face to sufferers of sexual assault.  It will cause many more Americans to lose faith in the Supreme Court — this at a time when Americans already express little faith in Congress, and highly polarized opinions of the president.

The Supreme Court’s reputation is more important than any one man.  The needs of the country outweigh the needs of the few who vociferously support him, or the one.

For the reputation of the court, and for the unity of our country, Kavanaugh should withdraw.

Update (10/2/18): There appear to be only four “swing” senators: Collins, Flake, Manchin, and Murkowski.  All the other senators are reportedly voting along party lines.  I’ve been sending notes to these four “swing” senators to vote “no” on Kavanaugh.  Here is the note I sent to them this morning:

Dear Senator XXX: Why vote for Brett Kavanaugh?

It’s a serious question. A vote for him will divide the country further. It will reduce our country’s faith in the Supreme Court as a fair-minded and non-partisan institution. It will be interpreted by many as a slap in the face to women, and especially to women brave enough to come forward to share their horrific stories of sexual assault.

Why this flawed man, and no other? As a retired military officer who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 (though I voted for Reagan in 1984), it makes no sense to me. Unless it’s all about “winning” for the Republican party, but even that makes little sense to me. Country, after all, comes before party. I learned that as a military officer.

Put country first. Please vote “no.”

Of Brutal Binaries and Scale-tipping

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Forget binaries.  Who’s tipping the scale?

W.J. Astore

Citing the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in particular, Andrew Sullivan claims that America is a land of brutal binaries.  On the surface, his idea appears sound.  Scratch the surface, however, and the idea breaks down.  The problem is that “brutal binaries” sell. They grab attention. They serve to mobilize.  They excite the base, the partisans, people who love to bicker.

But the notion that every issue is reducible to a binary, a 0/1, on/off, win/lose, is most often simplistic and misleading. Perhaps we should think not of computer binaries but of scales.  Entities with power put a finger (or more) on the scale to tip things in their direction. Even as they do this, they claim the scale is equally balanced for all or even tipped against them.  In short, we need to think not about either/or or on/off binaries, but about who has the power – and what they’re willing to say and do to keep and extend it.

Again, my point is to avoid binary computer-speak. The notion I’m 100% right, you’re 100% wrong.  Those who describe debates as “binary” leave no possibility for change or compromise. They see only unbridgeable divides. This is a satisfying notion to the powerful, for they don’t want change. They want to keep the status quo because it profits them. They’re happy to see Americans bickering and fighting and shouting — even as they quietly reap the profits.

So I despair of America’s so-called binary debates. They divide us, distract us, and make us angry. We shake our heads in despair, thinking there’s no way to reach “them,” the other side in the “binary” argument. The truth is different.  Polling data suggests Americans are far more in agreement than we are in disagreement (consider wide support for a higher federal minimum wage and for universal health care), but all we hear about is the divisiveness. Again, this serves the powerful. They’re happy to see us fighting over the scraps as they feast on the choice cuts.

Rather than shouting at each other, Americans need to work together in good faith.  Forget the false binaries, America.  The world is rarely a 0/1, I win/you lose, black/white place.  Even when the scales are tipped, as they so often are, there is common ground.  We’ve found it before – we will again.

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?

Why Do Americans Admire the Military So Much?

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Admiration — or adulation?  An over-the-top “salute” to the troops in a marketing campaign for camouflage baseball caps

W.J. Astore

A reader recently posed a simple question: If the U.S. military hasn’t won a war decisively since 1945, why do Americans continue to place so much faith in it and its leaders?  I’ve tackled this issue before, but it got me to thinking again about the roots of military admiration — and adulation — within our society.

Here are a few reasons I came up with:

1. Although the U.S. military lost in Vietnam, stalemated in Korea, and got bogged down in seemingly endless wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t won victories in battles, such as Desert Storm in 1991 or the beginning of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.  Its defeats were not primarily the fault of the troops but of poor leadership at the top (both military and government).  In other words, when Americans say they admire and trust the military, what they mean, perhaps, is they appreciate the spirit of service and sacrifice of the troops, while reserving judgment on presidents and generals.

2. Let’s not forget victory in the Cold War.  The fall of the “Iron Curtain,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Warsaw Pact — these were momentous events for the West.

3. The U.S. military may not win wars, but it does accomplish good things, e.g. rescue work, disaster relief, humanitarian missions.  Critics often neglect these non-hostile missions.

4.  Pro-military propaganda.  There are many, many, examples of this, e.g. President Reagan and the myth of the noble cause in Vietnam, or presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump consistently praising the military as the finest fighting force in all of history.  This is supported by Hollywood and TV.  Think of all the movies and television shows that depict the military and war as ennobling and exciting and energizing.

5. The military-industrial complex and its power to control the narrative.  The national security state has become a fourth branch of government with enormous influence and power in society.  The mainstream media, for example, is dominated by pro-military talking heads, most of whom are retired colonels or generals.

6. Guilt.  The U.S. military is “all volunteer.”  The vast majority of Americans not only choose not to serve — they choose not to pay much attention.  And I think many have some guilt for this, which they assuage with “support our troops” bumper stickers and other easy gestures of conformity.

7.  Exposure to the military may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it’s not emotional.  Indeed, when they think of the military, Americans may think of a son or daughter who serves, or granddad who served, or maybe that nice boy or girl down the street in uniform.  They know nothing of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, war crimes, and so on.

8.  For many Americans, the military is a point of pride.  A symbol of strength but also a symbol of service and sacrifice.

My point is not to praise the military — it gets plenty of praise already, indeed, way too much praise, so much so that admiration becomes adulation.  My intent here is rather to explicate some of the reasons why Americans continue to place so much confidence in the military, even when the results are disastrous.

One more thought: We live in a “selfie” society, a me-first culture.  Whatever the military is, it’s not typically me-first.  So when people say they respect or trust the military, perhaps they’re thinking of an organization that values teamwork — that puts the many before the few.  In an America marked by divisiveness, it’s an ideal that resonates still.

Readers, what do you think?

Postscript: In my list above, I should have highlighted more strongly the role of lying by the military and government (think of the initial lies/reports about Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, for example).  I’m currently reading Sy Hersh’s new book, “Reporter.”  Hersh’s accounts of systematic lying by the military and government during the Vietnam War are sober reminders to Americans.  Yes, our government and military will often lie to us, sometimes for the most mundane reasons, but often to avoid accountability and to maintain control over the narrative.

When we think of the American press corps in the Vietnam War, names like Hersh and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan come to mind, hardboiled reporters who sought the truth, no matter how shattering it proved to be.  But these men, and reporters like Izzy Stone, were truly exceptional.  Most reporters were more or less willing to repeat government and military explanations verbatim and without pushback.  Hersh cites Arthur Sylvester, who served as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s senior press aide, as describing the Pentagon press corps as “shabby” and gullible.  “Cover stories [lies],” Sylvester wrote, “go down smooth as cream [and for six years], when I thought they would cause a frightful gargle” among reporters.

So, even as the Pentagon fooled many reporters and most Americans about progress in and prospects of the war, they didn’t fool the North Vietnamese themselves, who decisively won the war.  “There was no learning curve among the men in the Pentagon running the war,” Hersh concludes (p. 62).  Perhaps all these men really learned was how to lie better in the future — and how to shift blame from themselves to the usual suspects (hippies, leftists, commies, anti-war protesters, and so on).

Update (8/6/18): For more on U.S. lies and self-deception, see “The American Sea of Deception” by Paul Street at Truthdig.com.