Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars

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My family’s old wringer-washer.  Look closely: as a kid, I stuck an American flag just above the “Maytag” label.

W.J. Astore

Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century.  The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico.  Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy.  Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps.  What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)?  Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?

I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer.  Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West.  A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls.  Weapons?  Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions.  But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion.  Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.

And wars?  However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost.  Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future).  Today, America’s wars never end.  Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.

The point is this: Walls were not us.  Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances.  Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.”  All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.

The Unmaking of American Idealism

As a teenager, I embraced American idealism.  The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.  It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is.  It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.

Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents).  Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against.  Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed.  Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.

But that was then, and this is now.  Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old.  Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.

Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war.  Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind.  I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.

But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture.  Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.”  These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe.  Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.

Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course.  But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it).  In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him.  Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life).  Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.

That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military.  Why?  Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.

That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever.  Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same.  It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.

Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars

There are two war parties in the U.S. today.  We call them Republicans and Democrats.  When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same.  Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more.  Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage.  Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.

In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media.  Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus.  (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November.  This is no surprise.  Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And we dare call this a democracy?

Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it.  Want to restore American liberty?  Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents).  Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere.  And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere.  How did we come to forget this lesson?

If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.

Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

taking a knee
Colin Kaepernick (#7) takes a knee

M. Davout

A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem.  Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.

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Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852

At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”

Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.”  Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”

Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”

While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.

Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty.  He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.

Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing.  His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.

M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.

Noise, Noise, Noise!

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Words can be explosive too

W.J. Astore

People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”

Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?

When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer).  Now there are often three people in the booth, with another one (or even two) on the sidelines. They all need to speak, of course, so baseball on TV has become a constant contest of endless chatter featuring mindless statistics.  There’s so much chatter that it’s difficult to hear the crack of a bat or the sound of a fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt.  Then there are the stadiums that feature lots of rock music, sound effects (like smashing glass for a foul ball), horns and pyrotechnics that go off when a player hits a home run, and all those video boards that order the fans to “Make Some Noise!”.

I know — I sound like an old fuddy-duddy again — sort of like the Grinch who stole Christmas because he was tired of all the noise, noise, noise of the Whos in Whoville.  And if the Grinch was bothered by Christmas festivities, just think of how he’d react to July 4th, America’s most pyrotechnic holiday. Prepare for bombs bursting in air, jets screaming overhead, and loud music everywhere.

Just so you know, I’ve been known to pump up the volume on my favorite songs; I’ve thrilled to fireworks exploding in the sky; I’ve watched my share of air shows; I’ve even been at the very front of rock concerts as “security” (I fondly recall a Warren Zevon concert at which I had to arrange the return of a leather coat loaned by a fan to Zevon, who donned it on stage to the delight of the fan).

But you might say those noise events were matters of personal choice.  Lately, noise in America seems pervasive, ubiquitous, almost unavoidable.  And noise isn’t simply about volume: it’s about persistence.  It’s about invasiveness.  Think of people who chatter away on Smart phones even as they’re out for a quiet walk along the beach or in the woods. How can you hear the waves or the birds if you’re screaming into a phone? Bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard are not about emergencies or even pressing matters; it’s more like, “Guess where I am?  I’m at the beach/concert/top of the mountain!”  Followed by selfies and postings and more calls or texts.

With all these forms of noise, it’s difficult to be in the moment.  It’s even difficult to find a moment.  Also, even in quiet times, people feel pressured to fill the silence with, well, something.  So unaccustomed to quiet are they that they reach for their Smart phones (perhaps to play a noisy video game), or they turn on the TV, or they chatter away even when they have nothing to say. Must avoid “uncomfortable” silences, so we’ve been told.

Part of this is cultural.  Today’s Americans are not about reflection; we’re about action. We’re not thinkers; we’re doers.  If I rest I rust is our motto.  Together with, Don’t just stand there — do something!  Preferably, something loud, splashy, noisy.

July 4th is a great holiday, but along with the fireworks and noise, perhaps we should celebrate the reflective thinkers of America, people like Thomas Jefferson who put the words to the noise of the American revolution in the Declaration of Independence. The quiet sound of a quill pen dipping in ink and scratching across parchment made a very big noise indeed in U.S. and World history.

Trump Fourth of July

This weekend, it wouldn’t hurt to put down or turn off the mowers, blowers, fireworks, Smart phones, TVs, and all the rest of our noisemakers and listen to the birds and waves while reading a few passages from that Declaration of Independence.  For the right words can be explosive too.

The Media Is the Message, and the Message Is One of Fear

The Replicant Roy Batty knows the score
The Replicant Roy Batty knew the score

W.J. Astore

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind,” Jim Morrison said, and this is certainly true in America.  Consider the lead stories over the July 4th weekend.  The first was the threat of terror attacks against America.  We were told that law enforcement officials were “in no mood for a national party” — that the threat of an ISIS-inspired terror attack was real.  That no attack occurred is of no consequence.  Fear was stoked, and that’s what matters.  Prepare for the next terror reminder on the anniversary of 9/11, if not sooner.

The second story was shark attacks off the Carolina coast.  Unusual, yes, but hardly a threat to America or to the vast majority of its people, even those who chose to go swimming in the ocean.  “Shark surge!”  “Fear at the beach!”  “High alert!”  These were common expressions in the media.

Of course, Americans were much more likely to be hurt in fireworks accidents than by terrorists or sharks, but the sensational always takes precedence over the mundane in our media.  Indeed, if the goal was to safeguard ordinary Americans, we should have been told to stay off the roads this past weekend, but of course that would hurt tourism and the economy, so you weren’t about to hear that advice coming from America’s talking heads.

It seems nearly impossible to remember that one of FDR’s Four Freedoms was the freedom from fear.  FDR knew the paralyzing and stultifying effects of fear, the way it erodes individual autonomy, the way it can be made to serve the powerful. Frank Herbert in Dune captured a powerful truth when he wrote that “Fear is the mind-killer.”  The movie Blade Runner echoes the sentiment, with the Replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) explaining that to live in fear is to be a slave.

A media that spreads fear facilitates a government of wolves.  Or, put slightly differently by the great Edward R. Murrow, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

There’s a definite method to the media madness, America.

Why We Celebrate July 4th

Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom.  Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author
Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom. Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author

We celebrate July 4th with a lot of hoopla.  Flag-waving parades.  Backyard barbecues with beer and laughter.  Fireworks.  Good times.

We celebrate the creation of a new country, a new ideal, in 1776.  It was a country that rejected hereditary aristocracies, that called for equal rights for (most) men, that endeavored to create a new and better order for the ages.

Naturally, in an effort this ambitious, involving so many men with differing ideas and ideals, the end result was flawed.  Native Americans were ruthlessly killed or shunted aside.  Slavery remained the original sin of the young republic, a stain partially erased by the Civil War but one whose legacy still dims the brightness of America’s lamp of liberty.

Today the USA remains decidedly imperfect.  That is why we must continue to strive to form a more perfect union, one which protects the rights of the weak against the depredations of the strong.  In this sense the revolution is never over.

As we reflect on the meaning of July 4th, our day of independence, we should recognize that independence is not a day simply to be celebrated.  Rather, it is a legacy that others have fought and died for, one we must continue to earn — and one we must continue to cherish and protect.

Just as the founders of this country fought against the tyrants of the 18th century, we must be on guard against the tyrants of the 21st century.  They may not be kings named George sending their mercenaries to quarter among and fight against us.  Today’s tyrants–today’s power-seekers and liberty-limiters–may even claim to be super-patriots who are protecting us from harm, even as they work to limit our rights while feasting on the plenty that still defines America.

But we know better.  We know what is best about America.  And on July 4th, we celebrate it.

America’s thirst for freedom — may it never be quenched.  May it always endure.

W.J. Astore