Trump’s Priorities For Action

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Jacinda Ardern with the queen

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand.  It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”

* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.

* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.

* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.

* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.

* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.

I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?

What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some.  That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families.  That they address poverty.  And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).

What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump?  What are his priorities for national well-being?  Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:

1. Enriching himself and his family.

2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.

3. Getting reelected.

4. More golf.

5. Screwing anyone who resists him.

What about issues like “build the wall”?  I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base.  What about ending access to abortion?  Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base.  What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges?  Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.

My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians.  (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.)  Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.

Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.

I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate.  The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders.  Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.

Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

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Look at Bush at his “ranch.”  Look at that belt buckle!  And you dare claim masculinity is in decline?

W.J. Astore

Is the American male dead?  I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.

An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.

Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America.  Now there’s a man!  He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis.  He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters.  He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy.  Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination.  If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.

Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing.  Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female.  (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.)  Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.

Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America.  Why does it persist, then?  Because it’s yet another way to divide us.  Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas.  In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.

But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness.  Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them.  Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump.  It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.

In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways.  Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector).  It’s warrior-and empire-friendly.  And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.

What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways.  We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems.  Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.

America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars.  America is already carrying a big stick.  It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.

Wikileaks and America’s Boorish, In Your Face, Diplomacy

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With the recent arrest of Julian Assange in London with the goal of extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges, I thought I’d revive this article that I wrote back in 2010.  Assange and Chelsea Manning helped to reveal war crimes by the U.S. as well as a pattern of boorish, imperious, “in your face” behavior by its officials and diplomats.

George W. Bush claimed that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms — but maybe they simply hate us for our behavior?  If we ride roughshod over the “little people,” they might just remember — and bite back.

Anyway, the main sin of Assange and Manning was embarrassing the powerful while shedding light on their behavior.  And the powerful know how to hang on to a grudge…

Written in 2010:

Boorish, “in your face” behavior is everywhere. Most of the time, I’m able to avoid it, or walk away from it.  Nevertheless, afoot in America is an astonishing sense of imperious entitlement. People are told they can have it all – heck, that they deserve it all – and to hell with anyone who raises an objection. Rugged individualism is not enough; roughshod individualism is the new American ethos.

Now, what has this to say about WikiLeaks? Take a close look at many of the State Department cables and tell me how you would feel to be on the receiving end of roughshod American imperiousness. So what if we kidnap the wrong German citizen and torture him? Not only do we have no need to apologize: We’ll even bully the German government into silence. And we can bully Spain too, if need be, to inhibit Spanish attempts to prosecute Americans for torture or murder. Need more information about the United Nations and its diplomats? Let’s not only spy on them in traditional ways, but let’s steal their passwords, their biometric data: Heck, let’s even take DNA samples from them. If they complain, too bad: They shouldn’t have taken a drink from the cup we offered them. And the list goes on: We’ll even strike secret deals with Britain to hide our cluster bombs.

In these memos, it never seems to be America’s fault. Being a loud and boorish and imperious American means never having contritely to say you’re sorry.

Are we oblivious? Do we just don’t care? Neither question will matter if the resentments we breed overseas find their way to America’s homeland.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com.

Big Walls, Fruitless Wars, and Fortress America

W.J. Astore

At one time, not too long ago, a great symbol of America was the Statue of Liberty.  She lit her torch to guide immigrants yearning to breathe free.  America saw itself as the land of liberty, the land of opportunity, open to (nearly) all, even to the most humble and most desperate.

And there was, I think, some truth to these symbols and myths.  My father’s parents, immigrants from Italy, came to America prior to World War I.  My mother’s ancestors came earlier, of English and Swedish ancestry, also seeking the promise of America.  Sure, the streets weren’t paved with gold; sure, my parents ended up working in a factory for low wages, but that’s also where they met, and eventually my dad did earn a civil service job as a firefighter that lifted my family into the lower end of the middle class.

Unless you’re Native American, we’re all recent immigrants to America, some of us forcefully brought here against our will, most notably African slaves.  Despite all the harsh realities of U.S. history, such as periodic bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, the inhumanity of slavery, murderous labor strife, and so forth, America nevertheless had an ideal, however imperfectly realized, of openness.  Of newness, freshness, inclusiveness.

But that ideal, in decline, I believe, since the 1950s and the creation of the permanent war state, is now dead.  America today is the land of walls and wars, a land of “Keep Out” signs.  A fortress mindset prevails today, a lockdown mentality, justified in the name of safety and security, to keep “them” out.  You know: the undesirables of the moment.  Mexicans.  Muslims.  “Foreigners.”  Maybe, in the future, you.

All this is on my mind as I’m reading Greg Grandin’s insightful new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Grandin traces the idea of frontiers in America and more generally the idea of limits.  I was struck again while reading his book of Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism: his talk of there being no limits in America, his rejection of border walls, even his encouragement of immigrant labor and visas, calculated though such positions were (i.e. winning more of the Hispanic vote in key states like Texas).

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Forget about “It’s morning again in America,” a slogan under Reagan.  Under Trump, it’s crime, it’s gangs, it’s drugs, it’s bad hombres pouring over the border, bringing death and mayhem to America.  Only walls and weapons can stop them.  I was struck by a reference Grandin makes at the end of his book to Trump saying that barbed wire “can be a beautiful sight” when it’s used on America’s southern border to keep out asylum seekers from Central America.  I remember spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties being sung about as beautiful in my youth, but not barbed wire or Trump’s big “beautiful” wall.

When did it all go wrong?  Grandin provocatively connects America’s failing wars and fading empire to its fortress- and prison-favoring mentality today.  You might call it the real closing of the American mind.  And perhaps the shuttering of our hearts as well as our minds.  Grandin doesn’t mince words about America today: “But it’s hard to think of a period in the nation’s history,” he writes, “when venality and disillusionment have been so sovereign, when so many of the country’s haves have nothing to offer but disdain for the have-nots.”

I’ve just begun to plumb the meanings of Grandin’s book, which is another way of saying its lessons run deep.  In this America that I live in today, a land in which big walls are celebrated to keep the huddled masses out, a land constantly and needlessly at war around the globe, a land defined more and more by a fortress mentality rather than one that favors liberty, I find myself increasingly estranged, even lost.

Blackface and White Nationalism

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Northam’s college yearbook page (1984).  Northam claims he’s not the pictured in the blackface/KKK photo, but that he did wear blackface on another occasion to emulate Michael Jackson

“It’s complicated” is one description of race relations in America.  The current controversy in Virginia involving Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this.  As a college student, Northam claims he donned blackface as an homage to Michael Jackson, even as Jackson, tragically, was beginning to alter his own physical appearance via painful surgical procedures, apparently to appear more “white.”

Why do white people don blackface?  When they do, is it always racist?  Take the case of Prince Harry, who as a young man wore a Nazi Swastika to a costume party.  Most people assumed he was simply trying to shock, and that he’d made a poor choice, not that he was a neo-Nazi bent on reviving the Third Reich.  In Northam’s yearbook page from 35 years ago, were the young men donning blackface and wearing KKK hoods simply (and dumbly) trying to shock?  Were they engaged in transgressive behavior to elicit groans as well as laughs?  Or were they white supremacists and racists, actualizing white privilege, privilege that is always present, even when not acknowledged, in American culture and society?

When you combine images of whites in blackface with other whites in KKK hoods, the message is clear.  Racial oppression, a murderous record, is being referenced, in a way that trivializes past horrors.  Governor Northam claims he didn’t appear in the blackface/KKK photo shown on his yearbook page, but he also apparently never complained about it nor did he express regret after the fact.

What are we to make of all this?  My friend M. Davout, who teaches political science in the American South, asks us to think about the wider historical context of blackface performers in the United States, including its role in the assimilation of immigrant groups into a racialized American identity. W.J. Astore

Blackface and White Nationalism

What a Virginia Governor’s Problem Reveals about American Identity

M. Davout

The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo displaying a person in blackface alongside a person in a KKK hood and a college yearbook entry referring to him as “coonman” has been mostly reduced to the question whether decades-old racist expressions disqualify him from continuing to occupy his current office.  To the extent the issue remains framed in this narrow way, an opportunity is missed to understand the nature and durability of racist expression in U.S. society.  By uncritically accepting the conventional association of blackface with racist animus, we overlook how racist hostility is twinned with racial attraction in the very definition of what it means to be an American.

In his thought-provoking work, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin raised a central question: What accounts for the long and pervasive career of blackface in American entertainment?  Consider the minstrel shows of the Jacksonian era, the Tin Pan Alley songs and vaudeville skits of the late 19th century, followed by the silent film era that featured DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through the introduction of synchronized sound in Hollywood movies starting with The Jazz Singer (1927).

Rogin’s key to answering that question is his recognition of the important role of outsider groups such as the Irish Catholics of the mid-19th century and immigrant Jews of the late-19th and early-20th centuries as purveyors and consumers of blackface entertainment.

Singling out the vaudeville performer Al Jolson’s role as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer as the immigrant son (“Jackie Rabinowitz”) who transcends his Jewish roots to become an American success story via blackface performance (his blacked-up rendition of “My Mammy!” to an audience, including his adoring mother, concludes the film), Rogin suggests how blackface entertainment performed the American dream of upward mobility by making immigrant ambition acceptable to nativists.

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Al Jolson in blackface for “The Jazz Singer”

It was not unusual for past blackface entertainers to see their performances as manifesting a sympathetic bond with African-Americans—after all, Jewish immigrants from Russia knew what it meant to be treated as pariahs and were arguably as much a target of the newly resurgent 1920s KKK as were African-Americans.  In this regard, Northam’s admission, in one of his earliest public responses to the controversy, that he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for a medical school dancing contest may have been an effort, however ineffective, to evoke cross-racial sympathy and distance himself from blackface images more transparently driven by racist aversion as was arguably the case in the medical school yearbook photo (which Northam now claims is not of himself).

Of course, both then and now, however much the performer sympathizes with the group he is masquerading as, the effect of blackface performance is to help win acceptance for the performer (and his group) at the cost of keeping African-Americans at the bottom, unassimilable.

Irish and Jewish blackface performers signaled the transformation of despised and racialized European immigrant groups into true (i.e., white) Americans. In arguing that Al Jolson’s character “washes himself white by painting himself black,” Rogin points to how “whiteness” was (and, to an extent, remains) a powerful component of what it means to be an American.

Maybe “white nationalism” is not a fringe idea, after all, but a central part of what it means to be American and explains a significant part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his white working-class base: he refuses to hide or repress or ignore the racialized origins of American identity.

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

A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

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America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

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.