America: Land of Extremes

superman
He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

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.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.

The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

US_Flag_Backlit

W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

Rulers’ Ideas Rule

Beware the bearded one!
Beware the bearded one!

W.J. Astore

I can’t remember where exactly, but I stumbled across this apothegm of Karl Marx:

“In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.”

Striving for even more brevity, I truncated it to rulers’ ideas rule.

Contrarians of the world should unite to identify and challenge these ruling ideas. When they serve only the needs of the powerful, we should be prepared to mark them as dangerous and most likely as undemocratic. And we should work to change them.

What are some of today’s ruling ideas? I challenge you to come up with some. But on this Friday morning, here are ten that I see as ruling our lives:

1. That capitalism is the only economic system that works, and that rampant consumption is necessary to keep the economy growing.

2. Related to (1) is the idea that GDP and similar economic measures are the best measure of America’s strength.

3. That “success” in life is measured by money and titles and possessions.

4. Related to (3) is the idea that education that doesn’t end in a lucrative career is largely worthless.

5. That poor people and other disadvantaged groups are the way they are because they refuse to work.

6. That it’s absolutely necessary to spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, wars, homeland security, intelligence agencies, and nuclear weapons, all of which are justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”

7. That privatization is the way to improve everything, including public services like education, the prison system, and health care.

8. That corporate spending in elections is the equivalent to freedom of speech for individuals and is therefore protected by our Constitution as our nation’s founders intended.

9. That there’s no such thing as class warfare in the United States.

10. Related to (5), that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic background, and so on. Thus those who “fail” do so because of their own failings, not because the system is rigged against them.

That’s my non-rigorous, somewhat off-the-cuff rendering of rulers’ ideas. Please add your ideas in the comments section. Contrarians of the world unite!