Lessons from Hitler

W.J. Astore

Purely by chance this morning, I came across old notes I took from historian John Lukacs’ study of Adolf Hitler.  Lukacs said that Hitler’s genius “lay in his understanding of human weaknesses,” for which he had the nose of a vulture.  Lukacs further identified him as a populist who used propaganda pragmatically.  He knew what people wanted to hear, and not only the common people at his rallies, but prominent leaders whose illusions he recognized and exploited.

For example, Hitler wasn’t religious, but he presented himself as pro-Christian as a contrast to the atheism of his German communist opponents.  He claimed to support families and moral order, what we today term “family values.”  Hitler knew people were frustrated with the Weimar Republic, an experiment in parliamentary democracy in Germany after World War I; Lukacs uses the words “schismatic” and “chaotic” and “weak” to describe Hitler’s critique of democracy.

Hitler’s response was to appeal to nationalism (I’m a nationalist, he might have said) and a revival of Germany as a “spiritual community” in which class differences wouldn’t matter.  Persecution among the right sort of Germans was to be avoided; instead, “good” (read: Aryan) Germans were to come together against racial and political enemies.  Hitler’s goal, Lukacs said, was to achieve a tyranny not simply through violence but through a political majority, and he was incredibly successful at it.

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Interestingly, Lukacs points out that Hitler convinced the Nazis in 1926 (when the Nazis were still very much a fringe party ostensibly for the working classes) to vote in favor of the restitution of property to German princes.  In short, Hitler appeased powerful conservative elements within German society, Weimar Germany’s version of today’s 1%.  He gained power legally as Chancellor early in 1933 by persuading Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, that “The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly.”  To an avowed monarchist like Hindenburg, it was worth the risk of appointing Hitler and empowering the Nazis so that the communist “mobs” could be put in their place.

Virtually everyone underestimated Hitler and the ruthlessness of his drive to power.  He was often dismissed as crude, vulgar, harsh.  As lacking class.  Yet he knew his audience and he knew how to get his way in a deeply divided Germany.

Food for thought as Americans prepare to go to the polls.

Update (11/6/18): I’ve been re-reading Lukacs; two points I came across yesterday after writing this article:

  1. Hitler said hate was a real strength of the Nazi party.  We have learned to hate our political rivals, Hitler said, and that hatred makes us strong.  In reading this, I thought of Trump and his efforts to demonize Democrats as a “mob” that wants to allow “invaders” (rapists, murderers) from Central America into the country.  Also, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the media as “the enemy of the people.”
  2. Even as Hitler was throwing communists and other rivals into concentration camps by the tens of thousands in 1933-34, he was lying about the growing threat to Germany coming from the left.  Hitler knew the power of lies, the bigger the better, and used them to eliminate his rivals in the name of keeping Germany safe (“homeland security,” we might say).

Patriotizing the Arts – Patronizing the Audience

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The National Anthem and flags are everywhere in America

Richard Sahn

Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up.  It seemed so incongruous.  My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood.  I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so.  The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.

Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.”  Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins.  Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn.  But are they not patronizing to the audience?  W.J. Astore

I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.

But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself.  I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity.   Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.

So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:

  1. One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
  2. Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
  3. Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
  4. The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
  5. Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
  6. Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival.  Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.

But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).

Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.

Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.  Music is real in a way that nations are not.

Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.

Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.

The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

The Disastrous Italian War Against Austria-Hungary (1915-18), the Rise of Fascism, and Trump’s Victory in 2016

W.J. Astore

My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I.  In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:

My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him.  He was highly agitated.  A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.

His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army.  He was a forward observer for an artillery unit.  He was severely gassed on the Austrian front.  He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.

Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army.  My mother used to call him El Sargento.

Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War [1911-12] and four years in World War 1.  He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year.  I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item.  He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.

So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas.  My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)

War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.

A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson.  My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:

The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing.  The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind.  The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians.  Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan.  (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.)  If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.  

With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:

Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering.  Many POWs died as a result.  Unbelievable.

So much for the alleged glories of war.  Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States.  It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.

In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar?  Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered  a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past.  Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.

Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war.  Rather, both men were against losing wars.  Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again.  Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action.  No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.

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Did Trump win because he had the nerve to highlight the “mutilated victory” nature of America’s wars?  (Note that the caption here, from the Krinera/Shen study and the Zaid Jilani article, is unclear.  The intent is to show that higher casualty rates favored Trump, and, if rates had been lower, Hillary Clinton may have won instead.)

Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq.  He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016.  As the study notes (also see the illustration above):

“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”

Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first!  America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.

The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper?  Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?

We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II.  Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?

Time will tell.

The Blinding Power of Nationalism

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W.J. Astore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

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W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.