Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.

Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.

For me, statues and monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?

As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.

If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.

What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.

Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.

If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.

What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.

For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.

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Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)

If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?

That Google Diversity Memo

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W.J. Astore

What does “diversity” mean in the workplace as well as American society?  Are women at a disadvantage in technical fields and, if so, is this due primarily to biology or gender or sociological/cultural factors?  These questions have grabbed headlines lately due to a memo written by James Damore, a young software specialist at Google.  Damore’s memo, which you can read here, accused Google of creating and sustaining an ideological echo chamber that favored liberal/left-leaning ideas to the detriment of conservative viewpoints.  He further suggested that biological differences are a key reason for the under-representation of women in technical career fields, and that diversity efforts are too focused on surface differences like sex and skin color.  The memo led to his firing, after which Damore became a martyr of sorts within conservative circles.

In his memo, Damore is careful to say he respects diversity, that he recognizes gender and racial discrimination, and that he’s committed to fostering discussion.  Rather than summarize his memo, I’d like to make a few comments on it and the general subject, drawn from my experience as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and my time as a professor teaching lessons on gender and technology.

But first I’d like to recall my time in engineering school in the early 1980s. It was a mostly male environment. “Woman” was a term thrown about as a tepid form of insult. (I recall one male student telling another who lagged, “Hurry up, woman.”) Female students, I sensed, had to “prove” themselves more, or at least to explain why they wanted to be engineers (male students had nothing to explain, since engineering was supposedly “natural” to them).  To be a female engineering student was to be in the minority, and since almost all of the professors were male, role models for younger women were scarce.

In my experience in the military, I worked with female coders, engineers, and managers. All were well qualified, and indeed as an officer managing a project, I couldn’t have cared less about gender. I recall an effort at the MITRE Corporation to recruit and mentor female engineers by female managers, which made perfect sense to me.

Based on my experience, it was easier for men to be promoted in technical jobs simply because there were more male mentors around. I also think women in tech had and have it tougher (in part) because their roles were and are more constrained/restricted by society’s expectations. Put simply, in American society it’s easier for a man to be almost anything than for a woman to be almost anything. Society “tells” women what is appropriate for their gender far more than it dictates to men.

That said, let’s tackle “diversity,” a term that in American discourse is overloaded with baggage.  For some on the right, it’s equated with “reverse discrimination” against (mainly White) men.  For some on the left, it’s equated with gender, skin color, and similar biological as well as ethnic/physical differences.  For me, diversity ideally should focus on abilities, points of view, talent, creativity, and the like.  As an engineer or manager, I’d like a diverse team, with a range of talents and skills and viewpoints, able to work creatively to solve problems.  That should be the goal.

James Damore, in writing his memo, didn’t help himself by suggesting women are more neurotic and anxious than men (which echoes the old “hysteria” argument that women are biologically less stable and flightier than men).  If you start citing studies on neuroses and anxiety that are allegedly prevalent more in women than men, you must be aware of prior uses of hysteria and similar ideas to mark women as unstable and unreliable when compared to allegedly unhysterical men.

(An aside: I suppose I could construct an argument suggesting that men are too violent to be hired because statistics show they’re much more likely than women to commit a mass shooting in the workplace. Sorry, guys. It’s not discrimination — it’s “biology.” You have too much testosterone-driven anger to be reliable.)

Damore’s memo, I think, suffers from his own sense of outrage: the writer is fed up with Google diversity policies, which perhaps make him (and many others) feel like he needs to apologize for being male. This has led him to focus on alleged biological differences as the driver for his memo.

I do agree, however, with his point that too often diversity efforts are simplistic.  So many differences interact and combine to make us who we are as humans.  What about class differences, for example?  If a tech team consists entirely of college-educated members of the upper-middle class, and all American, and all in their twenties and thirties, is it diverse even if it’s 50-50 male/female?  Which qualities do we privilege in a push for diversity?  Gender?  Race?  Class?  Nationality?  Age?  (As an aside, it’s not easy for older engineers to get jobs; they’re often assumed to be both overqualified and out-of-touch.)

Damore could also pay more attention to history.  He suggests, for example, that women as women seek promotions and higher pay less often than men.  They don’t “lean in” as much as they should.  But it’s hardly that simple.  It used to be (and still is?) that men were promoted and paid more not necessarily because they “leaned in,” i.e. were more macho and demanding, but because it was assumed a man was the breadwinner for a family. Whereas if a woman worked at the same job, it was often assumed she wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

That is, it wasn’t that women were simply too “weak” (biology/psychology) to demand a raise; they didn’t ask because they knew they wouldn’t get it. Or, if they did ask, they weren’t too surprised when a man got it instead. It wasn’t always due to a conspiratorial old boys’ club (though those existed), but rather the societal/cultural bias that a man, as head of a family, needed the extra money more. Also, bosses tend to promote underlings like themselves. Men in charge tend to promote younger men who are mirror images, especially if the latter play their cards right (are properly deferential, let their boss win at golf, and so on).

When we look at why women are under-represented in technical fields, biology is arguably the least important factor to consider.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and gender factors all weigh heavily on efforts to increase women’s participation.  In short, Damore’s memo is perhaps most valuable not at pointing a way forward, but in revealing the persistence of certain attitudes and biases that still need to be addressed in the drive for a fair and equitable society.

The Blinding Power of Nationalism

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W.J. Astore

One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions.  Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality.  They associated criticism with lack of patriotism.  Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.

Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better.  The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation.  Nationalism, in a word.

George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…

Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism.  The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”  The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”  Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”

Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix.  To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…

The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.

Contrast the nationalist to the patriot.  A patriot thrives on thought.  She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion.  True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder.  As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state.  Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell.  “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one.  Let’s not go down it.

(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)

Preventing Doomsday

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I well recall walking in and out of this tunnel.  (You could take a bus too.)

W.J. Astore

It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).

Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.

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Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:

Duck and Cover, America!

Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”?  If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”

Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.”  General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily.  It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.

One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages.  And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”

I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay?  What does security really mean?  With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it?  (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.)  Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry?  With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?

President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe.  The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.

Call it a passive-aggressive policy.  We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most.  The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad.  In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.

Returning to Cheyenne Mountain

Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life.  In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached.  Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.

Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office.  That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration.  Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry.  And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.

In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure.  In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.”  Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades.  Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.

Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose.  And I have one.  Let’s bring our collective fears there, America.  Let’s bury them under all that granite.  Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light.  For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way.  Nor should we lock ourselves down for life.  It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.

Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

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W.J. Astore

Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society.  In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace.  The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind.  Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.

Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple).  Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.

Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable.  But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity.  But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.

Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing.  Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.

The point is not to blame technology.  The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.

National Insecurity

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What are the real threats that Americans face daily?

Tom EngelhardtTomDispatch.com.

If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington’s still-growing cult of “national security” would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that “the American public would ‘never leave the house’ if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats.”

That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state’s goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety.  Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: “terrorism.”  And as commonly used, that term doesn’t even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined.  Let’s start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped.  That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call “national security” seem a poor investment indeed.

To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I’m thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I’m not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia).  Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I’m certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you’d never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)

It’s true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that’s unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It’s become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.

In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn’t always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn’t even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it’s worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who’s visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom

Be sure to read the entire post, “A Psychedelic Spin on National Security,” by Ira Chernus, at TomDispatch.com.  Ah, to have a “summer of love” again!

Are We the New “Evil Empire”?

russian bear
A common depiction of Russia as a hyper-aggressive bear.  But what is the United States?

W.J. Astore

In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR.  You can read the entire article here.  What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.

Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.

The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.

All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.

When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

 5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.

As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

Gary, Indiana. Lotzman/Flickr photo

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.

Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

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