Biden-Trump, The Final Debate

No inspiration, no vision

W.J. Astore

I didn’t fall asleep easily last night.

Neither candidate, Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, inspires confidence, and their final debate performance highlighted their flaws.

First, Donald Trump. He remains the narcissist-in-chief, in which everything is about him except when it reflects poorly on him, in which case scapegoats are found. Trump talks about Covid-19 deaths always in the abstract, except when he talks about himself getting the virus. Then he boasts about his quick recovery and how he’s now immune to it. Trump is always the best at everything. He’s the best president that Black people have ever had, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. He’s the least racist man in America. The usual BS.

Muted microphones kept Trump’s worst impulses in check. You could see him wanting to butt in, to interrupt, and then he would check himself. It’s rather amazing that the only way America could have the semblance of a debate was through muted microphones and repeated warnings from the moderator.

What strikes me still is Trump’s laziness and lack of discipline. He really should dominate Biden quite easily. When Trump focused on Biden’s record, when he called him out for not doing anything of note in his eight years of being Obama’s VP, when he attacked him as another promise-breaking politician, Trump scored points. But Trump couldn’t focus his attack. He kept returning to Hunter Biden and the kind of Washington in-fighting that turns most people off.

For an America in despair, Trump simply promised more jobs, cheaper gas, and higher Wall Street profits. There was no vision, no hope, and most certainly no solace offered by this president. There’s no poetry to Trump, and only martial music. Even in militarist America, the Trump drumbeat is growing tiresome.

Turning to Joe Biden, he had a good night for Joe Biden. Good as in he remained vertical and mostly on target throughout the debate. Biden was strongest when he addressed the American people directly: when he showed empathy and talked about the pain and despair Americans are feeling. I did catch Biden looking at his watch once, but I’ll cut him some slack because I wanted the debate to be over as well. Overall, I don’t think Biden’s performance in this debate moved the needle in this election.

With regards to national security, naturally there were no questions about ending our wars, or reducing the Pentagon budget, or downsizing nuclear arsenals, or anything like that. “National security” focused on alleged Russian and Iranian interference in our elections and the small nuclear arsenal of North Korea. Of course, the best people at mucking up our elections aren’t Russian or Iranian, they’re American. From gerrymandering to voter intimidation to closed polling sites and lengthy lines in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Americans need no help from foreigners to interfere with our “democracy.”

For a country in despair, a country suffering from a pandemic and from a loss in confidence, neither candidate offered a clear vision for a better tomorrow. Perhaps it simply doesn’t exist in their minds. They are both remarkably limited and flawed men. One is almost certainly a sociopath in which all human relations are transactional, the other is a muddled functionary who’s been wrong more often than he’s been right.

More than microphones were muted in this final debate. Fresh thinking was muted. Inspiration was muted. Generosity was muted. And, dare I use the word, grace was muted.

Small wonder I had trouble sleeping.

Censorship and America’s Culture of Treachery

Joe and Hunter Biden in 2010

T.J. Osteen.  Introduction by W.J. Astore

Treachery and politics fit like hand-in-glove in today’s America.  Donald Trump is now calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in the next two weeks. Along with blanket support of corporations, big finance, the military-industrial complex, and other privileged elites, the Republican and Democratic parties share a predilection for treachery.  But is such treachery more common today among liberal elites than conservative ones?  Such is the provocative question raised by Tom Osteen in this essay, his first for Bracing Views.  W.J. Astore

T.J. Osteen on Treachery in America

The recent Biden corruption bombshells are not surprising. That Hunter is alleged to have peddled influence on behalf of Burisma, a Ukrainian company, in return for a no-show “job” that paid $50,000 a month, implicating his father, who was then America’s vice president, is disturbing on its face, but it has also served up collateral damage, putting on full display the alarming problem of censorship by the media.

Censorship by the media has increased dramatically in recent years, whether it be by Facebook, Twitter, or the mainstream media. In this case, Twitter and Facebook initially worked to limit the Biden corruption story; other mainstream outlets ignored it or dismissed it as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This is more than censorship: it is election interference — in a word, cheating. Other examples arrive daily, including (even more recently than the Biden fiasco) Amazon’s rejection of the Who Killed Michael Brown documentary. Per the Wall Street Journal, this was because the documentary did not fit the dominant narrative of White police officers killing young Black men because of systemic racism.

Why the increase in censorship? Because it is a symptom of something even more ominous. Rather than splitting hairs over the definition of censorship, or what Freedom of Speech means, let’s look at the root cause: the new Culture of Treachery in America.

American culture has evolved from honor-based to dignity-based, and more recently to victim-based. Some quick background on those concepts, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Honour cultures, often called honour-shame cultures are cultures like that of the American West or Europe in the era when dueling was common. In such cultures, honour is paramount and when it is infringed upon the offended party retaliates directly.”

“A dignity culture, according to Campbell and Manning, has moral values and behavioral norms that promote the value of every human life, encouraging achievement in its children while teaching that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’”

“According to Campbell and Manning, victim-based culture engenders ‘competitive victimhood,’ incentivizing even privileged people to claim that they are the victims of, for example, reverse discrimination.  According to Claire Lehmann, Manning and Campbell’s culture of victimhood sees moral worth as largely defined by skin color and membership in a fixed identity group.”

Just like the rapid news cycle that we now live with, we are already starting to move into a new cultural phase: the American culture of treachery is upon us. The culture of treachery promulgates a “succeed at all costs” mentality and celebrates the destruction of perceived enemies through power. Traditional values have no place in a culture of treachery. Likewise for liberty and justice. The only value is power: the ability to impose one’s will on another, by any means necessary.

Censorship is just one of the many aspects of a culture of treachery. Others include intolerance, deception, manipulation, and hate. The evidence is all around us now, whether it be “cancel culture” or the Russia hoax embraced by the Democrats in their failed attempt to overturn a presidential election.

So where is the source of the treachery in our society? Often the media focuses on Donald Trump and his circle, but we need look no further than who is doing the censoring. Big Tech, the mainstream media, academia, and Hollywood.

But why? These groups have several things in common. They all lean left, they all deal in power, and they all believe they have the answers. So here is the rub: Treachery arises here because liberals are just as likely to act unethically than conservatives to gain or preserve power. When presented with the opportunity to modify a search algorithm or filter information, a liberal (again in general) will do it just as readily as – or even more eagerly than – a conservative.

A so-called liberal value set makes it acceptable to manipulate search results, indoctrinate young minds toward personal political views, cancel those who have different views, or spin news stories while ignoring the truth. Far too often, it is Fox News and other conservative outlets that are condemned for malfeasance and malpractice when it’s liberal sites and power centers that are the true masters of manipulation.

So it comes down to values. Censorship is cheating. Cheating is treachery. Treachery has become as much a “value” of the Left as it is of the Right, and indeed more so as election day approaches.

The coming election and the divide in our country is not solely about policy and differing points of view. At its core, it is about whether we are going to become a Culture of Treachery or whether we are not. Culture comes from the heart. Only an across-the-board rejection of treachery will allow us to enter a productive new era of American culture and restore America to something approaching greatness.

Tom Osteen is a career technology executive and former military officer.  He holds degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Southern California.  An avid surfer, Tom also writes/speaks on Leading with Honor and Honor in the Workplace.

Monday Musings, October Surprise Edition

My vote for 2020 is in …

W.J. Astore

The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.

My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)

Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.

When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.

Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?

What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?

I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.

Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.

There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!

Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.

Struggling to Vote in Trump Land

Long lines for early voting in Georgia. A few voters waited up to ten hours to cast a ballot

M. Davout

Whenever I teach Introduction to American Government, a course for freshman, I give a lecture on the notorious Bush v. Gore 2000 presidential election and use the Florida recount story to teach a basic lesson about U.S. politics: elections are not an exact science because vote totals in any given election are always only approximations. In the period leading up to the 2000 fiasco, in typical nationwide elections upwards of a million votes were tossed as uncountable for various reasons.

The reasons for the imprecision of election tallies are several but the three that I highlight to my students are: (1) the wide variation across jurisdictions in the kind, quality and age of voting technology and in the reliable application of procedures and standards (as evidenced in 2000 in the faulty punch hole devices in South Florida that resulted in many thousands of uncounted ballots); (2) the amateur status of poll workers (an hour or two of “training” qualified me to serve at a polling station during my graduate school days); and (3) the partisanship of election officials (as notoriously exemplified in 2018 by Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s contested “oversight” of the close election that resulted in his election as Georgia governor). Since 2000, many states adopted computerized voting systems in what turned out to be the false expectation that precision in voting tallies could be achieved through digitization.

We have gotten past presidential elections only approximately right and we can expect this upcoming one to be no more than approximately right. And given the unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots, state and county switches to mail-in balloting systems during this pandemic, slow-downs in mail delivery engineered by Trump’s postmaster general, and Trump’s unrelenting campaign to de-legitimize absentee and mail-in ballots, the likelihood is that the tally of uncounted ballots will be higher than ever this November. As a longtime absentee ballot voter, my recent experience with both the local election board and local mail delivery service does not give me confidence.

I mailed my absentee ballot request for the November 3 election in mid-August and was still waiting for a ballot in late September. I emailed the local election board and was told that they couldn’t find my paper ballot request (curiously, my wife’s request, which had been dropped off in a separate envelope with mine, was processed). I was instructed to file another request, this time electronically, which I immediately did. Notified by email that my absentee ballot was mailed October 1, I am still waiting for its arrival two weeks later. Meanwhile, I did receive an absentee ballot by mail but it was my neighbor’s and this botched delivery only increased my unease.        

When I think of the many voters across the country who might encounter similar problems and have less time and energy than I have to follow up on undelivered or delayed absentee ballots, I begin to wonder if the imprecision of November’s tallies will be on such a scale as to change the outcome. And, if not change it, then leave it open to dispute, a dispute to be settled by a Supreme Court with justices who are increasingly conservative and in three cases beholden to the man who nominated them.  It’s what Trump is counting on for “victory.”

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the Deep South.

The Failure of Our “Free” Press

For all the talk of a “free” press that has the guts to tackle the powerful, the truth is our press is mainly a for-profit operation that is largely owned by the powerful. We get a lapdog press instead of a watchdog; we certainly don’t get an attack dog. I wrote about this in January of 2012; what I didn’t foresee is how that press would facilitate the rise of a petty demagogue like Donald Trump, mainly because he’s good for ratings and serves the needs of the powerful, but also because so many Americans have lost faith in the media, so much so that they buy the lies of a con man and serial liar like Trump. In short, if you’re tired of the corporate-friendly lies at CNN, why not turn to the entertaining conspiracy theories and lies of a manipulator like Trump?

If America truly had a watchdog press that protected the people, a serial liar like Trump should never have gained such a powerful purchase on our national narrative. Even now, as Trump continues to endanger our national health during a pandemic, the press largely treats him as a “normal” president.

The Failure of Our “Free” Press

01/13/2012

W,J. Astore

Do we have a truly free press, one that is willing to challenge the powerful and to serve the people?

A recent editorial by Arthur S. Brisbane at the New York Times suggests that our press is more lapdog than watchdog.

A truly free press needs guts. It needs to be willing to say, “I accuse.” Yet as Glenn Greenwald points out, our mainstream media today willingly acts as “stenographers” to the high and mighty, as if established elites need more support and more privileges.

The other day I ran across a passage in Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms that has much to say about freedom of the press as well as the perils of source anonymity. In full it reads:

“Freedom of the press is to the machinery of the state what the safety-valve is to the steam engine: every discontent is by means of it immediately relieved in words—indeed, unless this discontent is very considerable, it exhausts itself in this way. If, however, it is very considerable, it is as well to know of it in time, so as to redress it. — On the other hand, however, freedom of the press must be regarded as a permit to sell poison: poison of the mind and poison of the heart. For what cannot be put into the heads of the ignorant and credulous masses? — especially if you hold before them the prospect of gain and advantages. And of what misdeeds is man not capable once something has been put into his head? I very much fear, therefore, that the dangers of press freedom outweigh its usefulness, especially where there are legal remedies available for all grievances. In any event, however, freedom of the press should be conditional upon the strictest prohibition of any kind of anonymity.”

That last statement is the kicker. The media’s stenographer-types market the “poison” of the elites, whether governmental or corporate, and they often do so under the cover of source anonymity. As a result, the “credulous” masses have no way to track the poisoners, and few avenues to find an antidote.

Schopenhauer’s statement also condemns our press for its failure to serve as a “safety-valve” for democracy. Indeed, because our mainstream press is so sycophantic, it fails in its democratic duty to relieve the people’s discontent, notably in its failure to empower the people to redress the abuses of power by established elites.

When our “free” press agonizes over whether it should challenge the “facts” of societal elites, is it any wonder why so many people have lost faith in it?

Hence the rise of the various “occupy” movements. They know that the mainstream press is in thrall to power and is therefore compromised, thus they’re seeking a new path to redress their grievances — and new antidotes to the poison spread by the powerful to intoxicate the minds and hearts of the powerless.

Our press, as Schopenhauer notes, has much power to spread poison, but it also has the ability to serve as an antidote to the poison spread by others.

The ideal of freedom of the press, so crucial to democracy, is upheld only when its practitioners willingly challenge the so-called “facts” of the powerful.

Give us a watchdog press willing to bite the hand that feeds it, not a lapdog that snaps up all the little treats fed to it by its masters.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Patriotic History Is An Oxymoron

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle Trump’s call for “patriotic” U.S. history. If normal history is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” think of Trump’s history as all good and with none of the bad and ugly. It would make for a boring movie, and for boring history as well. Of course, this argument over “patriotic” history is yet another front in Trump’s Kulturkamp, or culture war, in America.

Yet isn’t ironic that Trump, who says he seeks to celebrate America’s greatness, ran in 2016 as a declinist candidate? “Make America Great Again” was his motto: the again suggesting an America that had to be put right, which apparently Trump has done, since his 2020 motto is “Keep America Great.”

A lot of historians will be spilling much ink in the coming decades on Trump and his administration. I have a feeling most of it will not be judged as “patriotic” by Trump’s standard.

Nuking History (from TomDispatch)

There goes our history

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly “patriotic” education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page — the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that — and neither is any country’s history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Read the rest of my article for TomDispatch here.

The Biden-Trump Debate: The Agony Booth

W.J. Astore

In the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” Captain Kirk and a few other crewmembers find themselves in a parallel universe on a more barbaric ship. On this imperial version of the Enterprise, disobedient or otherwise malperforming crew are punished, tortured really, in an “agony booth.” And that’s exactly how I felt last night watching the Biden-Trump debate. What did I do wrong to be put in this agony booth? Fortunately, I was able to escape after 75 minutes. The “full-duration” just may have killed me.

I watched the debate with my wife (agony loves company), and she had some of the best lines of the night. Here’s a sampling:

  • Great, two old white guys again. It’s blinking Biden versus bully-boy Trump.
  • Trump’s just a horrible, badgering bully.
  • Biden’s already muddled and is mixing up his numbers.
  • Trump never smiles, never laughs. Mean people suck.
  • Trump is steamrolling over everything.

Really, the less said about this “debate,” the better. It was insult after insult, interruption after interruption, most of the insults and interruption coming from Trump. His followers, I assume, enjoy his bully-boy tactics, but they left me cold and made the “debate” unwatchable.

As usual, Trump played some of his greatest hits. Covid-19 is “the China plague” and is “China’s fault.” A vaccine is “weeks away” (with no mention of how many weeks. Five? Fifteen? Fifty?). He’s going to make insulin for diabetics as cheap and available as water. Even that he was the one who brought back Big Ten college football.

Speaking of football, Trump earned many penalties in this debate. Taunting. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Delay of game. Unnecessary roughness. The list goes on. Next time, instead of a debate moderator, I suggest a team of NFL referees with whistles and plenty of penalty flags.

Media spokespeople and candidate spin rooms are most concerned about which candidate “won” or “lost” the debate. My sense is that Trump, in dominating the debate — what a nasty man he is — “won.” And who lost? Anyone who was expecting a real debate.

Welcome to the agony booth that is politics in America.

There I am, in the Agony Booth (actually, it’s Ensign Chekov)

The Pick Is In: Amy Coney Barrett

W.J. Astore

As expected, President Trump has selected Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. Intellectually, she’s qualified. But any candidate supported strongly by Trump’s evangelical base is suspect. The reason is simple: evangelicals wouldn’t support her if they weren’t confident of her opposition to Roe v. Wade. And Trump has indeed gone on the record as predicting she will be instrumental in overturning it.

Amy Coney Barrett, it’s fair to say, is a conservative Catholic. I can relate to her because into my early 20s I was a church-going Catholic. (I even carried a Catholic study bible to church.) Following the lead of the church, I thought abortion was wrong, and I tended to have a holier-than-thou attitude about it. Except in cases of rape or incest or the life of the mother, I saw no reason to publicly fund abortions. If I recall correctly, I accepted the church’s teaching that life begins at the moment of conception.

My problem was conflating my personal religious beliefs, guided by Catholic dogma, with politics and public policy. Put bluntly, I was mixing religion with politics, as if my religion had all the right answers for all Americans. But I got over it. I met more people of different religions, traveled, read a lot, got my master’s and doctorate (focusing on relations between science and religion in historical terms), and realized my personal religious beliefs should neither intrude nor interfere with the rights and privileges and beliefs of my fellow citizens.

Amy Coney Barrett will doubtless say all the right things at her Senate confirmation hearing. She’ll affirm that her religious beliefs won’t determine or even shape her decisions on the law; she won’t say how she’ll rule on Roe v. Wade, but she’ll affirm that she respects judicial precedent; she’ll affirm she’s a believer in judicial restraint; in brief, she knows the drill at these hearings.

But all this won’t be the full truth. She’s not the dream pick of evangelicals because she’s unbiased and disinterested. They know from her record (and her personal life) she’s a critic of Roe v. Wade. They also know she can be counted on to rule in favor of moneyed interests. For example, if she votes against Obamacare, as her record indicates she will, the richest Americans will see a financial windfall (they will effectively get a substantial tax cut). She can be counted on to deliver for the richest among us as well as for evangelicals and conservative Catholics, else she wouldn’t have been picked to begin with.

Two more items of interest. The conservative Catholic organization she belongs to is rather retrograde, to put it mildly, in arguing for a nuclear family of heterosexuals with the man as the “head” of the family. Homosexuality is seen as aberrational and sinful, which is how I saw it when I was carrying my Catholic study bible around. Again, all the evangelicals who support Barrett know exactly where she stands here. Finally, while being pro-life, she is also a strong supporter of gun rights and the Second Amendment.

So there you have it. Amy Coney Barrett is much like I was when I was in my early 20s. Back then I thought I had a lot of life’s answers right there in my holiest of books, and I was unafraid to suggest that public policy should be informed, if not determined, by my personal religious beliefs. But I grew up. Trump’s evangelical friends are counting on the fact that Barrett remains what she’s always been: a conservative Catholic loyalist whose religious views will very much inform how she rules from the bench.

So, goodbye to Roe v. Wade. Goodbye to Obamacare and health care for millions. Hello to a land in which corporations as “citizens” will have even more power than before. A 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court will say this is justice — until the rest of us say otherwise.

Bring Back National Service

Dad in Oregon
My dad (2nd from left) in Oregon with some of the “fellows,” c.1937

With fires raging in California and Oregon, and with unemployment rates high, I recalled the experiences of my dad, which I wrote about twelve years ago for TomDispatch.com.  My dad served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mainly fighting forest fires in Oregon.  The CCC was one of those alphabet soup agencies created by FDR’s administration to put people back to work while paying them a meaningful wage.  You might call it “democratic socialism,” but I prefer to call it common sense and applaud its spirit of service to country.

We need to revive national service while deemphasizing its military aspects.  There are all sorts of honorable services one can render to one’s fellow citizens, as my father’s example shows from the 1930s, an era that now seems almost biblical in its remoteness from today’s concerns.

Hey, Government! How About Calling on Us?
Reviving National Service in a Big Way
By William J. Astore

Lately, our news has focused on tropical depressions maturing into monster hurricanes that leave devastation in their wake — and I’m not just talking about Gustav and Ike. Today, we face a perfect storm of financial devastation, notable for the enormity of the greed that generated it and the somnolent response of our government in helping Americans left devastated in its wake.

As unemployment rates soar to their highest level in five years and home construction sinks to its lowest level in 17 years, all our federal government seems able to do is buy up to $700 billion in “distressed” mortgage-related assets, bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (at a cost of roughly $200 billion) or “loan” $85 billion to liquidate insurance giant AIG. If you’re Merrill Lynch, you get a hearing; if you’re just plain Marilyn Lynch of Topeka, what you get is a recession, a looming depression, and a federal tax bill for the fat-cat bail-outs.

But, amazingly enough, ordinary Americans generally don’t want bail-outs, nor do they want handouts. What they normally want is honorable work, decent wages, and a government willing to wake up and help them contribute to a national restoration.

How America Was Once Rebuilt

Before surging ahead, however, let’s look back. Seventy-five years ago, our country faced an even deeper depression. Millions of men had neither jobs, nor job prospects. Families were struggling to put food on the table. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps, soon widely known as the CCC.

From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

Of course, I’m hardly alone in suggesting the importance of national service. Last year, in Time Magazine, for example, Richard Stengel called for a revival of national service and urged the formation of a “Green Corps,” analogous to the CCC, and dedicated to the rejuvenation of our national infrastructure.

To mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, John McCain and Barack Obama recently spoke in glowing terms of national service at a forum hosted by Columbia University. Both men expressed support for increased governmental spending, with McCain promising that, as president, he would sign into law the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” which would, among other things, triple the size of the AmeriCorps. (Of course, McCain had just come from a Republican convention that had again and again mocked Obama’s time as a “community organizer” and, even at Columbia, he expressed a preference for faith-based organizations and the private sector over service programs run by the government.) Obama has made national service a pillar of his campaign, promising to spend $3.5 billion annually to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, while also doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

It all sounds impressive. But is it? Compared to the roughly $900 billion being spent in FY2009 on national defense, homeland security, intelligence, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $3.5 billion seems like chump change, not a major investment in national service or in Americans. When you consider the problems facing American workers and our country, both McCain and Obama are remarkable in their timidity. Now is surely not the time to tinker with the controls on a ship of state that’s listing dangerously to starboard.

Do I overstate? Here are just two data points. Last month our national unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, a five-year high. This year alone, we’ve shed more than 600,000 jobs in eight months. If you include the so-called marginally attached jobless, 11 million Americans are currently out of work, which adds up to a real unemployment rate of 7.1%. Now, that doesn’t begin to compare to the unemployment rate during the Great Depression which, at times, exceeded 20%. In absolute terms, however, 11 million unemployed American workers represent an enormous waste of human potential.

How can we get people off the jobless rolls, while offering them useful tasks that will help support families, while building character, community, and country?

Here’s where our federal government really should step in, just as it did in 1933. For we face an enormous national challenge today which goes largely unaddressed: shoring up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The prestigious American Society of Civil Engineers did a survey of, and a report card on, the state of the American infrastructure. Our country’s backbone earned a dismal “D,” barely above a failing (and fatal) grade. The Society estimates that we need to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure maintenance and improvements over the next five years or face ever more collapsing bridges and bursting dams. It’s a staggering sum, until you realize that we’re already approaching a trillion dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.

No less pressing than a trillion-dollar investment in our nation’s physical health is a commensurate investment in the emotional and civic well-being of our country — not just the drop-in-the-bucket amounts both Obama and McCain are talking about, but something commensurate with the task ahead of us. As our president dithers, even refusing to use the “R” word of recession, The Wall Street Journal quotes Mark Gertler, a New York University economist, simply stating this is “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The best and fairest way to head off that crisis is not simply to spend untold scores of billions of taxpayer dollars rescuing (or even liquidating) recklessly speculative outfits that gave no thought to ordinary workers while they were living large. Rather, our government should invest scores of billions in empowering the ordinary American worker, particularly those who have suffered the most from the economic ravages of our financial hurricane.

Just as in 1933, a call today to serve our country and strengthen its infrastructure would serve to reenergize a shared sense of commitment to America. Such service would touch millions of Americans in powerful ways that can’t be fully predicted in advance, just as it touched my father as a young man.

What “Ordinary” Americans Are Capable Of

My father was a self-confessed “regular guy,” and his CCC service was typical. He was a “woodsman-falling,” a somewhat droll job title perhaps, but one that concealed considerable danger. In the fall of 1936, he fought the Bandon forest fire in Oregon, a huge conflagration that burned 100,000 acres and killed a dozen people. To corral and contain that fire, he and the other “fellows” in his company worked on the fire lines for five straight weeks. At one point, my father worked 22 hours straight, in part because the fire raged so fiercely and so close to him that he was too scared to sleep (as he admitted to me long after).

My father was 19 when he fought that fire. Previously, he had been a newspaper boy and had after the tenth grade quit high school to support the family. Still, nothing marked him as a man who would risk his own life to save the lives of others, but his country gave him an opportunity to serve and prove himself, and he did.

Before joining the CCC, my father had been a city boy, but in the Oregon woods he discovered a new world of great wonder. It enriched his life, just as his recollections of it enrich my own:

“Thunder and lightning are very dangerous in the forest. Well, one stormy night a Forest Ranger smoke chaser got a call from the fire tower. They spotted a small night fire; getting the location the Ranger took me and another CCC boy to check it out. After walking about a mile in the woods we spotted the fire. It had burned a circle of fire at least 100 yards in diameter from the impact of the lightning bolt.

“You never saw anything so beautiful. The trees were all lit in fire; the fire on the ground was lit up in hot coals. Also fiery embers were falling off the trees. Some of the trees were dried dead snags. It looked like the New York skyline lit up at night. The Ranger radioed back for a fire crew. Meanwhile the three of us started to contain the fire with a fire trail.

“Later, we got caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains. We stretched a tarpaulin to protect ourselves from the downpours. You could see the storm clouds, with thunder and lightning flashing, approaching and passing over us. Then the torrents of rain. It would stop and clear with stars shining. And sure enough it must have repeated the sequence at least five times. What a night.”

Jump ahead to 2008 and picture a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Do you see a self-centered slacker, someone too preoccupied exercising his thumbs on video games, or advertising himself on MySpace and Facebook, to do much of anything to help anyone other than himself?

Sure, there are a few of these. Aren’t there always? But many more young Americans already serve or volunteer in some capacity. Even our imaginary slacker may just need an opportunity — and a little push — to prove his mettle. We’ll never know unless our leaders put our money where, at present, only their mouths are.

Remaking National Service — And Our Country

Today, when most people think of national service, they think of military service. As a retired military officer, I’m hardly one to discount the importance of such service, but we need to extend the notion of service beyond the military, beyond national defense, to embrace all dimensions of civic life. Imagine if such service was as much the norm as in the 1930s, rather than the exception, and imagine if our government was no longer seen as the problem, but the progenitor of opportunity and solutions?

Some will say it can no longer be done. Much like Rudy Giuliani, they’ll poke fun at the whole idea of service, and paint the government as dangerously corrupt, or wasteful, or even as the enemy of the people — perhaps because they’re part of that same government.

How sad. We don’t need jaded “insiders” or callow “outsiders” in Washington; what we need are doers and dreamers. We need leaders with faith both in the people — the common worker with uncommon spirit — and the government to inspire and get things done.

The unselfish idealism, work ethic, and public service of the CCC could be tapped again, if only our government remembers that our greatest national resource is not exhaustible commodities like oil or natural gas, but the inexhaustible spirit and generosity of the American worker.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.

Copyright 2008 William Astore

The USA as a Fourth World Country

Trump, striding to protect precious property

W.J. Astore

1+3=4. It’s a simple equation that says much about the American moment, suggests Tom Engelhardt today at TomDispatch.com. Think about it. America remains a first world country with its unmatched military might, its powerful corporate and financial sectors, and the quality of life available to the affluent and well-connected. But for most other Americans? The country increasingly seems 3rd world, with crumbling infrastructure, low wages, lack of good jobs, lack of health care coverage for the less fortunate, and so on.

Perhaps that’s why Trump gets away with tweets about thug-ridden streets (that he connects to the Black Lives Matter movement). People may not see these thugs, but they sense something is wrong out there, and someone may indeed be coming for them, very shortly, perhaps to evict or foreclose on them.

There is a unique ideology to our fourth world country. Our two main parties, the Democrats and Republicans, agree that to invest in society is socialism, but to “invest” in weaponry and wars is the height of prudence and sanity. I know: a few Democrats like Bernie Sanders and AOC make noises, more or less sincere, about helping workers and investing in people, but they are shunted aside by the corporate Democrats whose main job it is to keep “socialists” like Bernie out of power. It’s the one thing they’re good at, led as they are by those icons of charisma and homespun goodness, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to rant about American carnage, doing his level best to create it where it doesn’t yet exist. “Law&Order” is his new cry, usually shouted in all caps, even as he himself leads an administration that’s lawless and disordered. Roughly one-third of likely voters find him attractive as a tough-guy leader, the plutocrat populist, so mark this down as another weird feature of fourth worldness.

Fourth worldness: to invest in people is socialism and wrong; to invest in wars and weaponry is not militarism and is right. To elect a (democratic) socialist like Bernie Sanders would be un-American, but to reelect a sociopathic plutocrat posing as a populist is about keeping America great.

That’s America! You can’t love it “as is,” unless you’re crazy, and you can’t leave it ’cause we’re all Covid pariahs to the rest of the world.

So maybe, just maybe, we should change it?