On his new show at The Real News, Chris Hedges recently spoke with Cornel West on the state of America. It’s not easy listening, nor should it be. Brother Chris and Brother Cornel didn’t mince words as they deplored the commodification of American life, the militarism of American society, and the imperialism of the U.S. empire. Here’s the link to their interview:
I jotted down key phrases as I listened to both men. Phrases like spiritual decadence, bootlickers for war, mass incarceration, self-glorification and self-indulgence, the Neo-fascism of Trump followers versus the Neo-liberalism of Democrats, and that the American empire has no moral authority, given its “vicious atrocities” in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Brother Cornel was especially strong on the seductive dangers of nationalism, the grotesque wealth inequality here at home, and a U.S. political system deeply compromised by legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Reality is defined by a corporatized state in which profit maximization is pursued at any cost, including impending ecological catastrophe, where education is reduced to indoctrination, vocations are reduced to professions, and callings reduced to careers.
Sure, it’s grim stuff, but the truth is often grim. Nor are these two men irredeemably grim. Both spoke of the need to be faithful unto death, to resist the paralysis that comes from despair. Both are fighters and truth-tellers; both are men of faith and men of action; both are humanistic. And both are most assuredly worth listening to.
Brother Cornel’s message is ultimately one of love. Of joy-sharing. Of thinking for yourself. Of becoming a force for good and beauty and justice in the world. Of empowering others through an expansive and inclusive humanism. His is the perfect message for this Easter season, a season of rebirth and hope, of salvation through sacrifice and love.
We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?
Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:
* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.
* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.
* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.
* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.
* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.
* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.
* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.
* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.
* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.
* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.
* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.
* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.
* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.
* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.
* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.
* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.
Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?
Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.
I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.
This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:
Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.
Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.
These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?
The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”
I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:
Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive. A traitor.
To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there. Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment.”
There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?
But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.
This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses? Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit? Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists? Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science? Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans? Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders? Lushes or teetotalers? Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?
The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on. Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers? Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.” A devoted family man with one very successful marriage. The Donald? Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president. And I’m not talking skin color.
A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism. What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in. Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along? My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?
As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.” Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”
I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment. I first saw it in a bicycle repair book. The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”
Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America. We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world. Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.
That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice. That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants. What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other. We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.
Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way. There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable. That they meant something. We need to get back to those times.
My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings. You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB. Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.
What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations. Think of the USA. We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on. Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others. How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?
Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military. We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700. We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.” To what end? Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements. The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.
This is not an argument for isolationism. The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist. With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
No – not isolationism. Rather a policy of MYOB. Don’t intervene when it’s not our business. And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military. Why? Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.
The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense. It’s not an international charity. Even military aid is somewhat questionable. And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.
As a good friend of mine put it:
I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age. The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient. We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind. The rest can pound sand (no pun intended). Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.
My friend then added the following caveat:
The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can. That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines. Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.
That’s an excellent question. Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers. Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa. Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia. And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.
Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military. The USA itself will never return to isolationism. What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.
We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs. Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.
As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.” The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting. Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.
For the United States today, something similar is true. Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war. Our military leaders have bought into it as well. The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies. One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan. The next it’s Al Qaeda. The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS. Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past. One thing is constant: war.
Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace. For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time. I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.” Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.
Why the “forever war”? In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives. The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us. In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.
War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset. When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them. Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action. Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.
Andrew Bacevich has written a whip-smart article at TomDispatch.com on this November’s choice for the presidency. Here are a few excerpts:
Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists. Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.
Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats? True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons. Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.
Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability. She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York. She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state. “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.
She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information. Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism. That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental. Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby? Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.
Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump. Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security. Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly. Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.
Not much of a “choice,” right? Donald Trump is a loose cannon, with no apparent rangefinder, whereas Hillary Clinton is a “fire-at-will” cannon, with a known record of pounding a select list of targets. Trump doesn’t know what a nuclear triad is and asks why the U.S. has so many nuclear weapons while not using them (good question, actually, but I don’t think The Donald wants to follow this to the logical conclusion that we should eliminate our nuclear arsenal). Clinton is hopelessly compromised on Israel and so many other issues and is a card-carrying member of American exceptionalism and neo-conservative military adventurism.
Here’s another telling excerpt from Bacevich:
When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton — even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.
The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional. She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events. On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries. These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.
A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity. Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.
Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness….
So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots? Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no. Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story.
The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference. It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight. Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — as Clinton will assuredly do — may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups. Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)
In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation. To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them — Ivanka as national security adviser? — is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person. Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration.
In short, if you want more endless foreign wars and the abridgment of rights here at home in the name of “security,” vote for Hillary. If you want “rogue” actions based on knee-jerk sentiments and biases backed by inexperience and a stunning ignorance of even the most basic world facts, vote for Trump.
Quite a “choice,” right?
Be sure to read the rest of Bacevich’s article here.
The United States is addicted to war — and to war-spending. That’s the message of Bill Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes:
The more that’s spent on “defense”… the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used. As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting.
It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however. The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret. Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.
Having served in the military and DoD for twenty years and having read about it for twenty more, none of this surprises me.
Here’s the thing: In the Pentagon and the wider military, there’s absolutely no incentive to save money. Indeed, the incentive is to spend as much as possible, because that is the best way to increase next year’s budgetary allotment. The military is filled with “Type A” officers whose job it is to spend, spend, spend, while fighting sister services for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie. The more money you get for your program and service, the more likely you’ll get pats on the back, a medal or two, and a glowing promotion recommendation.
Next, Members of Congress. Their incentive is also to spend — to bring home the pork to their districts. And the most lucrative source of pork is “defense” spending, which has the added benefit of being easily spun as “patriotic” and in “support” of the troops.
Finally, the President. His incentive is also to spend. That’s the best way to avoid being charged as being “weak” on defense. It’s also about the only leverage the US has left in foreign policy. Just look at President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam. The headlines have focused on the US ending its 50-year arms embargo with Vietnam, as if that’s a wonderful thing for Americans and the Vietnamese. As Peter Van Buren noted, normalizing relations with Vietnam by selling them lethal weapons is truly an exercise in cynicism by a declining American empire.
Whether it’s the Pentagon, the Congress, or the president, the whole defense wars and weapons complex is structured to spend the maximum amount of money possible while engorging and enlarging itself. Small wonder it’s never passed an audit!
Making matters worse is how the Pentagon uses various shady practices (e.g. secret budgets) to hamstrung reformers seeking to corral the system’s excesses. After detailing the Byzantine complexity of the budgetary process, Hartung concludes that:
If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.
Put succinctly, the US National Security State may be losing its overseas wars, yet losing equates to winning when it comes to increased budgetary authority abetted by a Congress that prefers enablement to oversight. And as any military officer knows, authority without responsibility is a recipe for serious abuse.
Back in January 2010, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com on the possibility of “a very American coup” occurring in conjunction with the presidential election of 2016. I make no claims to prescience: for example, the “great recession” I predicted didn’t come to pass, and there are as yet very few protesters in the streets, and no concerted movement rallying disaffected troops that I’m aware of. Nevertheless, I think there’s validity to some of my predictions in this article, and I encourage your comments in the section below on the path our country is treading as we head into 2016.
Here is the article, unchanged from when I wrote it nearly six years ago.
The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.
It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror. As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.
Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces. Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention. Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.
Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy. Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize. Their motto: take America back.
Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes. Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations. Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50. Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance. Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.
Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal. A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.
Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action. Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore. As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns? Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.
A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators. Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold. It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.
Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige. They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms. Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?
A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed. His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top. The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory. Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I GermanFreikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them. A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.
It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act
Yes, it can happen here. In some ways, it’s already happening. But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped? Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:
1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets. The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan. We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer. It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war. It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.
2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint. It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe.
3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely onretired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars. If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture. Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films? And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda. Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.
4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.
5. Let’s toughen up. Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights. Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.
6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort. It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.
7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously. They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading. Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.
8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home. The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.
9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged. Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side. Forget about God blessing America. If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.
10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible. Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution. Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble. The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state. Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”
That’s my top 10 things we need to do. It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own. But have faith. Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times:
“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s. Pathetic!
“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”
A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded. A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.
Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline. Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.
If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?
Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario. No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority. Why not? Because he won’t have to.
As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.
At the New York Times, Robert Draper had a fascinating article last month on how Republican candidates for president are positioning themselves on foreign policy. Rand Paul excepted, all of the Republican candidates are calling for a more “aggressive” U.S. foreign policy, one that promises more military interventions and higher military spending. The goal is apparently to show more muscle than President Obama, who has been “weak,” according to these same Republicans.
The language here fascinates me. Again and again in Draper’s article, you see references to “a more muscular foreign policy.” Showcasing muscles appears to be a favorite trope of Republican advisers, as is the need to be more “aggressive” overseas (Obama, of course, is viewed as being passive and timid). Republicans according to Draper favor the “aggressive promotion of American values” (whatever those are), an aggression that will somehow avoid recklessness (good luck with that). So, ISIS will be aggressively “destroyed,” even as the Middle East is stabilized by infusing it with “American values” (freedom? democracy? human rights?) promulgated by (as near as I can tell) American military muscle.
To cite just one example, consider this political ad featuring Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in his Air Force reserve uniform, highlighting his promise to “destroy” ISIS.
A muscular and aggressive foreign policy to destroy America’s enemies: If that excites you, vote Republican. But consider the cost of this love affair with muscles and aggression. And then ask yourself: Are they not the real “American values”?
All this talk of bulging military muscles and coldly calculated aggression: the ideal candidate for gung ho Republicans is not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. It’s an American Vladimir Putin.