George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom. Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons. You can limit how and what they think. You can, in a major way, control the future. Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.
Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com. They make no apologies and take no prisoners. They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth. The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).
Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House. They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.
The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.
I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.
Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place. Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.
In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):
I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.
One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.
In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.
Americans are being taught powerful lessons when they watch TV and go to the movies. Place your faith in superheroes, (mostly) men of action, those who operate outside the boundaries of rules and laws, whether natural or human. Defer to the police and their amazing investigative powers (witness all those CSI shows). Trust the military and revel in their dedication and their clever technologies. Mister, we could use a show like “All in the Family” again.
On HBO this week, Bill Maher had a compelling segment on the proliferation of superhero shows and movies, including a takedown of Donald Trump as “Orange Sphincter.” The takedown was warranted in the sense that Trump often boasts he is the only man capable of doing something, like reforming health care or solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bringing back great manufacturing jobs to America (apparently by selling $110 billion in weaponry to the Saudis). Cop shows have been around forever, of course, but they’ve experienced a revival in these times of homegrown terrorism and Homeland Security, even as violent crime itself is mostly on the decline.
Finally, glitzy military shows are hitting their stride this season (no shows critical of the military, even comedies such as MASH, are allowed). As the New York Times recently noted:
One of the most pressing questions for TV executives after President Trump’s election: How would the occupant of the White House affect what showed up on the air? One trend that has emerged is the rise of shows with military themes. NBC is betting big on a drama called “The Brave,” which is getting the coveted 10 p.m. time slot after “The Voice” on Mondays. The show will center on a group of undercover military specialists. The CW will introduce a drama this fall called “Valor,” about a group of highly trained helicopter pilots. They will go on missions and apparently get mixed up in messy intraunit romances. CBS will debut a drama called “SEAL Team.” Executives at the network feel this show has the best chance of being a hit. It stars David Boreanaz, who had leading roles in “Angel” and “Bones.”
Just what we need: More military shows featuring SEALs and helicopter pilots and covert operatives, killing various bad guys in the name of democracy and righteousness.
Popular culture holds a mirror up to society, reflecting how we see ourselves. But it’s more than that: It also shapes how we think. It suggests what is possible and what isn’t. By showcasing superheroes and cops and troops, it drives home the idea that these are the people and constructs with agency in our society. The little people, ordinary Americans like you and me, are demoted in such constructs as bystanders, as supernumeraries. Our main role is to acquiesce, to cheer the “heroes” as they go about their business.
I know that TV and movie executives typically play it safe. They’d say they’re giving the people what they want in the name of making money. They’d say it’s not their job to challenge the powerful in the name of the powerless. The people want superheroes and heroic cops and heroic troops, so that’s what we’ll give them. And because that’s what we can easily sell to corporations as advertising time.
But, again, it’s more complicated than that. The networks themselves are owned by corporations, some of which also own military contractors. Movies about superheroes and the military often lean heavily on the Pentagon for hardware and advice. Again, it’s not that TV and movies are distorted reflections of society (though they are that). They also establish boundaries. To use fancy academic talk, they are hegemonic. They empower one reality while diminishing or denying the possibility of other realities.
Any chance we’ll be seeing lots of blockbuster movies and high-budget TV series about peacemakers, whistle blowers, dissidents, activists, and other crusaders for justice and equity? How about a movie featuring “Disarmament Man” as a hero: he eliminates weapons of mass destruction! Starting in the USA! Or a TV show featuring a bad-ass Mother Nature: she administers stern discipline to corporate polluters and frackers, while teaching her children the perils of global warming. Or a “justice league” of pissed-off Native Americans, who band together to evict all the illegal immigrants to their lands over the last 500 years.
Readers, what movie or TV series would you most like to see? Have some fun in the comments section, and thanks.
Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President. According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Obstruction of justice? Impeachable offense? That’s debatable. But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.
It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here. What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff. Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired. Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.
Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge. He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.” He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.
I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality. My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them. If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.
Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business. Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump. Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.
Will Trump survive his first term? As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future. One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.
1. Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch.com describes 24 stories/questions that are being ignored or neglected by the mainstream media as they obsess about Donald Trump. I’d like to add #25 to his list, as follows: Why is everything in America classified? The constant appeal to classification, to secrecy, prevents the discussion of vitally important military and security matters in public. Is the real target of all this secrecy our rivals and enemies, or is it the American people?
Related to my #25, of course, is the persecution of “whistleblowers” for allegedly violating secrecy. Under the Obama administration, people were accused of sedition and treason when their real “crime” was trying to keep the American people informed about what their government is really doing.
In short, when did the USA become the former Soviet Union, with its own NKVD/KGB and a state-controlled media that essentially promulgates and enforces the dictates of the powerful?
2. Afghanistan is a mess. According to this morning’s SITREP at FP: Foreign Policy, “Defense and intelligence officials are warning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it ever gets better, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and tens of billions invested in building and funding the faltering Afghan security forces.”
“’The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,’ Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing Thursday. The Pentagon is looking to add another 3,000 troops to the effort there in the coming months, pushing American advisors closer to the front lines to work directly with Afghan forces in the fight.”
After sixteen years of American/Coalition efforts, the Taliban is resurgent, yet the only strategy U.S. generals can offer is more troops and more money to train Afghan security forces that are mostly unreliable and often non-existent. Why can’t the U.S. military admit defeat and leave?
Consider a sports analogy. Last week, the Yankees-Cubs played an 18-inning game, eventually won by the Yankees. Game over. Imagine if the Cubs had said, “OK — We lost. But we want to keep playing. Maybe another 18 innings. Maybe forever. We just want to keep playing until we can claim, falsely even, that we’ve won.” We’d label the Cubs as crazy. As poor sports. As deluded.
But this is what America is in Afghanistan. We’ve lost in extra innings but we still want to keep playing — forever, it seems.
Daniel Ellsberg nailed it back in 2009. The U.S. is a foreign power in Afghanistan engaged in a bloody stalemate that cannot be won. Yet America persists, in part because U.S. presidents kowtow to military “judgment” and the idea that to withdraw from Afghanistan is to appear weak and unmanly.
3. Speaking of issues of manliness, Donald Trump (among others) likes to use the phrase “taking the gloves off” to refer to hyper-aggressive military actions. When did bare-knuckle brawling become a smart way to fight? Actually, it’s a great way to break your hand. Boxing is dangerous enough while wearing gloves, yet our Washington “fighters” are ready to get down and dirty by doffing their gloves. As I’ve written before, far too many Americans (and people in general) have died in the name of big-boy pants and similar machismo nonsense.
4. At TomDispatch.com, Army Major Danny Sjursen succinctly summarizes the U.S. military’s strategy in one word: More. As Sjursen puts it in his article:
Predictions are always a dicey matter, but recent history suggests that we can expect military escalation, which already seems to be underway in at least three of those countries. More, after all, remains the option of choice for America’s generals almost 70 years after MacArthur went head to head with his president over Korea.
What then is to be expected when it comes to the conflict with ISIS in Iraq, the complex, multi-faceted Syrian civil war, and America’s longest war of all, in Afghanistan? All signs point to more of the same. Open up a newspaper or check out a relevant website and you’ll find, for example, that U.S. Afghan commander General John Nicholson wants a new mini-surge of American troops dispatched into that country, while the U.S. commander in the fight against ISIS, General Stephen Townsend, may require yet more ground troops to “win” in Iraq and Syria.
More is the mantra of America’s generals. It’s how they measure their influence as well as their success. In this, they remind me of the gangster Johnny Rocco in the movie “Key Largo.” When Humphrey Bogart asks Rocco what he wants, Rocco pauses, after which Bogart has the answer that Rocco seizes upon: More. Will he ever get enough? Rocco answers: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won’t.
Even though Trump has promised a major hike in military spending for 2018, the Pentagon is already clamoring for more. Like Johnny Rocco, America’s generals and admirals can never get enough.
5. Finally, a dire lesson from history. When strong men seek to take over a government, they first seek to seize or neutralize the military and police forces of their country. It’s a time-tested formula. Consider Trump’s early actions. From his hiring of generals and his promises of scores of billions more for the Pentagon as well as to his hiring of good buddy Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and his firing of James Comey at the FBI, Trump is well on his way to winning over and controlling the agencies of violence and enforcement in the U.S.
Sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious. The firing of FBI Director James Comey is not about his job performance and especially his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails. It’s all about Donald J. Trump.
While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.
The bolded phrase is remarkable. Trump is at pains to suggest that Comey is not investigating him, yet the FBI is indeed looking into Russian influence in the 2016 election, including ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Whether you believe the whole Russian influence dispute is a made-up scandal, a red herring, so to speak, the fact is that Trump sees it as a major threat to his prerogatives and power. That’s why he’s at pains to state bluntly that Comey is not investigating him. Comey, Trump says, told him three times — three times! — he’s not under investigation.
The president doth protest too much. If you think Comey is unable to lead effectively, fire him for that reason. You don’t need to include a self-aggrandizing statement of how blameless or innocent you are in the ongoing Russian investigation.
Trump’s firing of Comey, moreover, displays his petulance, his impetuousness, and indeed his nervousness about the trajectory of his presidency.
As the CEO of a family business, Trump is used to firing people who don’t kowtow to him. Running a nation, however, is not like running a family business. Right?
Will Trump prevail? Time will tell. One thing is certain: American democracy — what’s left of it — suffered another body blow yesterday.
Joe Bageant was a remarkable writer, the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus” as well as “Rainbow Pie.” A self-confessed “redneck,” he worked his way into the middle class as an editor, but he never forgot his roots in Appalachia and the subsistence farming of his Scots-Irish family. Bageant had a brutally honest and unadorned way of speaking and writing, and also a great affection and deep respect for traditional communal values in America.
The other day, I was reading an old essay Bageant wrote, “Live from Planet Norte” (June 2010), long before Donald Trump was even remotely considered to be presidential material. As usual, Joe nailed it:
[I]n the process of building our own gilded rat-cage, we have proven that old saw about democracy eventually leading to mediocrity to be true. Especially if you keep dumbing down all the rats. After all, Dan Quayle, Donald Trump and George W. Bush hold advanced degrees from top universities in law, finance and business.
The head rats, our “leaders” (if it is even possible to lead anybody anywhere inside a cage), have proven to be as mediocre and clueless as anyone else. Which is sort of proof we are a democracy, if we want to look at it that way. While it is a myth that virtually anybody can grow up to be president, we have demonstrated that nitwits have more than a fighting chance. During my 40 years writing media ass-wipe for the public, I have interviewed many of “the best of my generation,” and, believe me, most of them were not much.
Naturally, they believe they are far superior by virtue of having made it to an elevated point in the gilded cage, closer to the feed, water and sex. Because they believe it, and the media–sycophants waiting for quotes–echoes their belief, discussing their every brain fart, we tend to believe it, too. Nothing shakes our belief, not even staring directly into the face of a congenital liar and nitwit like Sarah Palin, or a careening set of brainless balls like Donald Trump or a retarded jackal like George W. Bush.
Americans are unable to explain why such people “rise to the top” in our country. We just accept that they do, and assume that America’s process of natural selection – the survival of the wealthiest – is at work. These people are rich; therefore, they should run the country. God said so. It’s a uniquely American principal of governance, which in itself, makes the case for our stupidity.
Donald Trump is best at selling a certain image of himself: the self-made billionaire, the savvy deal-maker, the populist patriot who sides with the little guy. But Joe Bageant had him pegged: a careening set of brainless balls is maybe the best, and certainly the most colorful, descriptor I’ve come across for Trump.
Bageant’s larger question is clear: How did Americans come to value such nitwits, halfwits, and dimwits? Just because they have money? Just because they have a veneer of “success” about them, when this “success” is evidenced by nothing more than money or fame and the sly charm of grifters?
Americans, who worship at the altar of success as measured by the almighty dollar, are kneeling to pray before the empty suits of men like Donald Trump. Bageant knew better than to join that mindless cult; so should we all.
Seven years ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on American kleptocracy. At the time, it seemed a bit of a stretch. Sure, America was (and is) plutocratic. But kleptocratic? Like a third-world dictatorship in which family members of the ruler enrich themselves while being appointed to government offices for which they’re eminently unqualified? Surely not! But here we are, in 2017, with Trump as president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner seemingly running everything and with daughter Ivanka the “First Daughter” and pseudo-First Lady. I didn’t see that one coming.
Anyway, here’s my original article, unedited, from 2010.
How Fears of Socialism and Fascism Hide Naked Theft
By William J. Astore
Kleptocracy — now, there’s a word I was taught to associate with corrupt and exploitative governments that steal ruthlessly and relentlessly from the people. It’s a word, in fact, that’s usually applied to flawed or failed governments in Africa, Latin America, or the nether regions of Asia. Such governments are typically led by autocratic strong men who shower themselves and their cronies with all the fruits of extracted wealth, whether stolen from the people or squeezed from their country’s natural resources. It’s not a word you’re likely to see associated with a mature republic like the United States led by disinterested public servants and regulated by more-or-less transparent principles and processes.
In fact, when Americans today wish to critique or condemn their government, the typical epithets used are “socialism” or “fascism.” When my conservative friends are upset, they send me emails with links to material about “ObamaCare” and the like. These generally warn of a future socialist takeover of the private realm by an intrusive, power-hungry government. When my progressive friends are upset, they send me emails with links pointing to an incipient fascist takeover of our public and private realms, led by that same intrusive, power-hungry government (and, I admit it, I’m hardly innocent when it comes to such “what if” scenarios).
What if, however, instead of looking at where our government might be headed, we took a closer look at where we are — at the power-brokers who run or influence our government, at those who are profiting and prospering from it? These are, after all, the “winners” in our American world in terms of the power they wield and the wealth they acquire. And shouldn’t we be looking as well at those Americans who are losing — their jobs, their money, their homes, their healthcare, their access to a better way of life — and asking why?
If we were to take an honest look at America’s blasted landscape of “losers” and the far shinier, spiffier world of “winners,” we’d have to admit that it wasn’t signs of onrushing socialism or fascism that stood out, but of staggeringly self-aggrandizing greed and theft right in the here and now. We’d notice our public coffers being emptied to benefit major corporations and financial institutions working in close alliance with, and passing on remarkable sums of money to, the representatives of “the people.” We’d see, in a word, kleptocracy on a scale to dazzle. We would suddenly see an almost magical disappearing act being performed, largely without comment, right before our eyes.
Of Red Herrings and Missing Pallets of Money
Think of socialism and fascism as the red herrings of this moment or, if you’re an old time movie fan, as Hitchcockian MacGuffins — in other words, riveting distractions. Conservatives and tea partiers fear invasive government regulation and excessive taxation, while railing against government takeovers — even as corporate lobbyists write our public healthcare bills to favor private interests. Similarly, progressives rail against an emergent proto-fascist corps of private guns-for-hire, warrantless wiretapping, and the potential government-approved assassination of U.S. citizens, all sanctioned by a perpetual, and apparently open-ended, state of war.
Yet, if this is socialism, why are private health insurers the government’s go-to guys for healthcare coverage? If this is fascism, why haven’t the secret police rounded up tea partiers and progressive critics as well and sent them to the lager or the gulag?
Consider this: America is not now, nor has it often been, a hotbed of political radicalism. We have no substantial socialist or workers’ party. (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the corporate-friendly “Democrat” party here.) We have no substantial fascist party. (Unless you’re deluded, please don’t count the cartoonish “tea partiers” here; these predominantly white, graying, and fairly affluent Americans seem most worried that the jackbooted thugs will be coming for them.)
What drives America today is, in fact, business — just as was true in the days of Calvin Coolidge. But it’s not the fair-minded “free enterprise” system touted in those freshly revised Texas guidelines for American history textbooks; rather, it’s a rigged system of crony capitalism that increasingly ends in what, if we were looking at some other country, we would recognize as an unabashed kleptocracy.
Recall, if you care to, those pallets stacked with hundreds of millions of dollars that the Bush administration sent to Iraq and which, Houdini-like, simply disappeared. Think of the ever-rising cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in excess of a trillion dollars, and just whose pockets are full, thanks to them.
If you want to know the true state of our government and where it’s heading, follow the money (if you can) and remain vigilant: our kleptocratic Houdinis are hard at work, seeking to make yet more money vanish from your pockets — and reappear in theirs.
From Each According to His Gullibility — To Each According to His Greed
Never has the old adage my father used to repeat to me — “the rich get richer and the poor poorer” — seemed fresher or truer. If you want confirmation of just where we are today, for instance, consider this passage from a recent piece by Tony Judt:
In 2005, 21.2 percent of U.S. national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners. Contrast 1968, when the CEO of General Motors took home, in pay and benefits, about sixty-six times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee. Indeed, the wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population: 120 million people.
Wealth concentration is only one aspect of our increasingly kleptocratic system. War profiteering by corporations (however well disguised as heartfelt support for our heroic warfighters) is another. Meanwhile, retired senior military officers typically line up to cash in on the kleptocratic equivalent of welfare, peddling their “expertise” in return for impressive corporate and Pentagon payouts that supplement their six-figure pensions. Even that putative champion of the Carhartt-wearing common folk, Sarah Palin, pocketed a cool $12 million last year without putting the slightest dent in her populist bona fides.
Based on such stories, now legion, perhaps we should rewrite George Orwell’s famous tagline from Animal Farm as: All animals are equal, but a few are so much more equal than others.
And who are those “more equal” citizens? Certainly, major corporations, which now enjoy a kind of political citizenship and the largesse of a federal government eager to rescue them from their financial mistakes, especially when they’re judged “too big to fail.” In raiding the U.S. Treasury, big banks and investment firms, shamelessly ready to jack up executive pay and bonuses even after accepting billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, arguably outgun militarized multinationals in the conquest of the public realm and the extraction of our wealth for their benefit.
Such kleptocratic outfits are, of course, abetted by thousands of lobbyists and by politicians who thrive off corporate campaign contributions. Indeed, many of our more prominent public servants have proved expert at spinning through the revolving door into the private sector. Even ex-politicians who prefer to be seen as sympathetic to the little guy like former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt eagerly cash in.
I’m Shocked, Shocked, to Find Profiteering Going on Here
An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.” This mindset marks the decline of our polity. A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.
Is it any surprise then that, in seeking to export our form of government to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve produced not two model democracies, but two emerging kleptocracies, fueled respectively by oil and opium?
When we confront corruption in Iraq or Afghanistan, are we not like the police chief in the classic movie Casablanca who is shocked, shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings?
Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority?
Shouldn’t we be flattered? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Isn’t it?