Monday Musings About America

warrior
It’s an odd thing to see a pagan warrior of ancient Greece used as a symbol of Christianity, but what matters here is the idea Christianity is synonymous with warrior violence

W.J. Astore

It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars.  With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch.  Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.

It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is).  Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History.  Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor.  But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.

Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy.  Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system.  So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.

Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful.  A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin.  An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia.  I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely.  But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.

In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:

[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.

Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.”  Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.  Is this progress?

Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.”  Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more.  It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.

I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it.  For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex.  Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable.  The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending.  The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.

There are complicated forces at work here.  Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved.  But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA.  War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong.  (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)

I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:

On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.

My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue.  We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.).  In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence.  Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.

Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles.  For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus.  Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about.  Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.

For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic.  Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?

That’s enough musing for one Monday morning.  Readers, what say you?

Refighting the Cold War

superman
I thought the USA already won?

W.J. Astore

Within the U.S. “defense” establishment there’s an eagerness to refight the Cold War with Russia and China, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com.  The “long war” on terror, although still festering, is not enough to justify enormous defense budgets and traditional weapon systems like aircraft carriers, bomber and fighter jets, and tanks and artillery.  But hyping the Russian and Chinese threats, as Defense Secretary James Mattis is doing, is a proven method of ensuring future military growth along well-trodden avenues.

Hence an article at Fox News that I saw this morning.  Its title: “Here’s why Russia would lose a second Cold War — and would be unwise to start one.”  The article happily predicts the demise of Russia if that country dares to challenge the U.S. in a Cold War-like binge of military spending.  Bring it on, Russia and China, our defense hawks are effectively saying.  But recall what happened when George W. Bush said “Bring it on” in the context of the Iraq insurgency.

Our military leaders envision Russian and Chinese threats that directly challenge America’s conventional and nuclear supremacy.  They then hype these alleged threats in the toughest war of all: budgetary battles at the Pentagon and in Congress.  The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more planes, the Army wants more soldiers and more weapons — and all of these are more easily justified when you face “peer” enemies instead of guerrillas and terrorists whose heaviest weapons are usually RPGs and IEDs.

Yet Russia and China aren’t stupid.  Why should they challenge the U.S. in hyper-expensive areas like aircraft-carrier-building or ultra-modern “stealth” bombers when they can easily assert influence in unconventional and asymmetric ways?  The Russians, for example, have proven adept at exploiting social media to exacerbate political divisions within the U.S., and the Chinese too are quite skilled at cyberwar.  More than anything, however, the Chinese can exploit their financial and economic clout, their growing dominance of manufacturing and trade, as the U.S. continues to hollow itself out financially in a race for conventional and nuclear dominance in which its main rival is its own distorted reflection.

In essence, then, America’s “new” National Defense Strategy under Trump is a return to the Reagan era, circa 1980, with its much-hyped military buildup.   Yet again the U.S. is investing in military hardware, but China and Russia are investing more in software, so to speak.  It makes me think of the days of IBM versus Bill Gates. Bill Gates’ genius was recognizing the future was in the software, the operating systems, not in the hardware as IBM believed.

But the U.S. is being led by hardware guys.  A hardware guy all the way, Donald Trump is all about bigger missiles and massive bombs. Indeed, later this year he wants a parade of military hardware down Pennsylvania Avenue.  It’s as if we’re living in 1975 — time to review the troops, comrade general.

Who knew the triumphant “new world order” of 1991 would become a quarter-century later a sad and tragic quest by the USA to refight the very Cold War we claimed back then to have won?  Isn’t it easy to envision Trump boasting like an old-style Soviet leader of how, under his “very stable genius” leadership, “America is turning out missiles like sausages”?