And The Militarism That Gives Such Men a Platform
I’ve largely stayed out of the ludicrously empassioned debate raging through social media on the Michael Moore American Sniper debate. Frankly, I have no money on this horse race. I am a fan of Michael Moore’s documentaries, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions. Likewise, I appreciate the depth and dramatic turns that are an integral part of Clint Eastwood’s movie making. I’ve not seen American Sniper yet. Whereas I understand Moore’s possition with regard to his uncle and the source of his feelings on snipers in general, I’m not sure that referring to these soldiers as cowards is an effective way to extend the debate.
That being said, everything a person says does not have to be predicated on extending the debate. If nothing else, I can appreciate the universalism by which Michael Moore is basing his evaluation. Imagine, if you will, our feelings about a foreign sniper in the United States who boasts about killing a confirmed 160 Americans. Let’s say this soldier claimed that every person he killed, including men, women and children, were all armed and a threat to his fellow soldiers. Would that change our opinion of him? Of course, we would never identify such a person as a “soldier,” let alone “hero”. This person would, without debate, be referred to as a terrorist. His boasting would be attributed to blood lust rather than patriotism. Certainly, Clint Eastwood would not make him the hero in one of his movies.
In this context, it’s hard to understand the idol worship and mindless adulation of Chris Kyle. Once the narrative is turned around, it is hard to justify hero worship in the context of war and warriors. After all, one considered a war hero on one side is, almost by default, a war criminal on the other. So it could be said of Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper in American History. Consequently, debate on this matter, Kyle’s status as a hero, can only be circular, endless and fruitless.
I have, however, become interested in how the nature of the debate speaks on The United States’ self destructive love affair with militarism. So I’ve read a great deal, of late, on The American Sniper, both the man and the fictional depiction created by Eastwood (and it would be well if we remember that his movie is a fiction, not a biography). From what I’ve read, I can say that I don’t believe Chris Kyle was a coward. In fact, he was most likely sincere about his patriotism and dedication to his country.
He was, however, a sociopath.
I don’t say this lightly, and if I’m misreading something I will be happy to rescind everything that I’m saying here. What strikes me, however, is Kyle’s clear lack of affect over the fact that he killed over 160 people. In one passage from his self promoting memoir he describes killing a teenage boy and watching as his mother rips her clothes and wails over her son’s corpse. He expresses nothing more than contempt for people whom he labels savages, by which he means all Iraqis, not just the insurgents.
I’m not a veteran. I’ve never been in combat. I have, however, spoken with many combat veterans over the years. All of them, without exception, have been reticent about discussing the lives lost by their actions. Even when those actions are justified by the psychopathic norms of war, and the soldier acted to save himself or others. Those who have killed often carry the grief with them for the rest of their lives. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man…” as one of Clint Eastward’s more thoughtful characters once said.
Yet here is Chris Kyle, with pride, vanity, boasting of over 160 kills to his name. He wrote a book about it, and Clint Eastwood created a fictionalized and, from what I hear, glorified account of his exploits. This is, to my experience, outside of the normal response. On the part of Chris Kyle, it is indicative of a disturbing disconnect between himself and the enormity of his actions, even if each of those killings were justifiable according to the rules of war. The latter caveat is so far outside of the realm of probability as to be laughable if the subject matter weren’t so macabre. Name a single professional in any field who makes over 160 attempts at any task without error. One hundred and sixty perfect kills would make Kyle not only the most successful sniper in history, but quite possibly the most successful single person in history. A successful harbinger of death, without a glint of remorse. The perfect killing machine…By his own account. Yet based on Kyle’s not so honest accounts of later exploits, like knocking out Jesse Ventura, or controlling looters in New Orleans, etc, is hard to thoroughly believe the complete validity of his memoir. This is yet another indicator of sociopathy.
The question then becomes, was Kyle a sociopath before becoming a Navy Seal, or after?
If before, then he was a useful sociopath, one with an authoritarian personality, willing to kill “the savages” for his country without remorse. In this case we might be lucky that he found his outlet in the psychopathy of state militarism. He most certainly should not have been entrusted with deadly skills. The argument could be made, that this particular form of sociopathy was an invaluable tool in the cauldron of combat. After all, how many lives did he save if one of the women he blew away really was holding a grenade intent on killing American soldiers? And I would posit that Chris Kyle did, indeed, save American lives.
This level of debate, however, precludes the question, ‘why were American soldiers in a foreign nation, one that was no threat to the US, to begin with? Instead, we are stuck debating a grotesque and racist calculus of American blood weighed against Iraqi lives. An assessment of Kyle’s heroism should not be divorced from the criminal context of the Iraq War, or from war itself.
From what I’ve read, Eastwood does just that in this film. If true, then American Sniper is a profound under achievement for a master story teller.
The second option for the above question is that Kyle became a sociopath as a result of his combat training and/or experience. Regardless of the dominant paradigm about man’s inherently warlike nature, human beings, under normal circumstances, are not prone to violence, let alone the mass slaughter of war. If humans were warlike, those in power would not have to lie and create outrageous myths and incentives to convince us to fight. A normal human being will become violent under certain desperate circumstances, usually premised in fear. This desperation may take the form of an abstract existentialist threat such as “terrorism” or the mushroom cloud. That’s why every war conjured by the powerful involves the invention of some threat arising from the flames–an uncompromising evil that can only be met with force. Kyle’s stories suggest that such a frame was how he saw Iraqis and Moslems in general.
Human beings are also more prone to violence when such acts are condoned by some transcendent value, a cause higher than oneself. Again, this is characteristic of all wars going back to ancient times. Kyle understood his mission in terms of patriotism, God and family. It’s delusional. But how else can one justify looking through a scope and gunning someone down in her own back yard if not in terms of some higher calling of which we are only servants.
Finally, people are more prone to violence if they believe that the object of their anger is not human. Wartime propaganda always presents the enemy as some form of subhuman, a beast. Kyle demonstrates this mindset by referencing Iraqis as savages. These were not human beings falling by his hand, but blood thisty animals living only to kill Americans. And, let’s face it, when confronting an ever present fear of attack, IED, women and chilgren with grenades, there’s plenty of real life experience confirming this bias. That one is a soldier in someone else’s land is nothing more than academic when real people are trying to kill you and your friends. ultimately, whether my cause is just or not, my goal is to get home to my loved ones. Regardless of context, from my point of view those who might kill me–those savages–really are monsters.
All of the characteristics noted above are integral to war as a human activity. They are also characteristic of sociopathy. War is a sociopathic endeavor from the start, requiring a sociopathic response to survive let alone adequately interpret and adjust to life in a war zone. Now imagine a man like Chris Kyle, who at least 160 times was a witness to his own sociopathic response to psychotic environs, magnified close-up through his sniper’s lens. How does one deal with that, righteous or not, without some kind of dissociation from reality? Without surrender to the very souless hell that has become an igrained part of life? That process might have been a story more worthy of Eastwood than the militarist propagana that American Sniper is reported to be.
Look. The point of this post is not to smear Chris Kyle’s name. Whatever his story, he did the deadly job that he was trained to do. He served his country in the self sacrificing way that we have all been socialized to know as right, that fighting and killing and sacrificing our health and sanity and even or lives for our country is a noble cause. My goal is to raise questions about the assumptions underlying the sociopathy of state militarism and violence. That underlying assumption which defines slaughter and assassination in the name of one’s country is glorious and heroic and those who most effectively slaughter and assassinate are glorified as heroes.
Chris Kyle may have been guilty of using this paradigm for self promotion–Hell, successful marketing is almost as American as militarism–but he didn’t invent the rules of the game. He simply played his part. At best, Chris Kyle’s lack of affect and empathy for the other was used by the state as an effective weapon. No more marketable quality than that exists in a militaristic state. The same form of heartless sociopathy is expected of us, the citizens who silently stand back while our government kills in our name. At worst, Kyle was turned into a sociopath, another victim of state violence, hushed and silenced by a blind, fawning hero worship. Instead of adulation, however, Kyle should be understood as the damaged individual he was. Instead of seeing Kyle as some heroic decoration used to shroud a meaningless, criminal war in false glory in preparation for the next, we should see in his lack of affect and empathy, and his bloody record, the kind of inhuman travesty that war really is. That we become so invested in the myth of the military hero suggests that Kyle was not alone in this particular form of psychosis.
“Who do you protect!”
Heard from the crowd being attacked by militarized police, “No one is attacking you all. You are not in danger in any way. We are in danger from you.”
Isn’t the police motto “to serve and protect?” I guess we should be more specific with whom is being served and protected.
It was bad enough the first time
Back in 2001, I was actively involved in the peace movement. This was, of course, a losing proposition. Our nation had been violently awakened from our delusions of insularity from an otherwise unsafe and uncertain world. Our people were killed, our buildings were burning, and the taste of blood was rising in our throats. We would have justice…and justice meant blood. Those of us who believed that ‘blood for blood’ was not the answer were in the minority and relegated to social and, more importantly, media obscurity.
In 2003, however, the focus of our cause became even more acute. The Bush Administration bloodlust was not satisfied with bombing peasant villages in Afghanistan. There was only one target that could sate this bloody appetite, Saddam Hussein. Bush, Cheney and their loyal, or in the case of Colin Powell, cowed, minions were beating the drums for war against Iraq. This was not a surprise. Among the first things Bush did upon taking office in 2001 was a bombing mission over Iraq. That the President held an especial grudge against Hussein for allegedly trying to “kill my dad,” was common knowledge among those of us who were paying attention. We just didn’t really know the lengths through which the administration would go to open a second front in the so-called war on terror and institute a second combat theater in Iraq. We didn’t realize until 2002 when the tempo increased and became an incessant reminder of possible nightmares the likes of which would make 9/11 look mild. All administration speeches at that time conjured the hellish image of the mushroom cloud.
It was during this time that I started to participate in protests and public education campaings against war. In this area, I often found myself working with a local branch of the Roman Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi.¹ We struggled against the persistent claims that Saddam Hussein had an active Weapons of Mass Destruction program with which he could directly threaten America, or pose an even greater threat by giving such lethal weapons to his ally, Osama bin Laden. Our argument was that Iraq’s WMD program was not reason, in and of itself to go to war with a nation that had not actually attacked us, nor threatened to attack us, despite having been victimized by the United States in the early 90’s (for the record, my first forays into the peace movement was in protesting the First Gulf War). This was especially true considering the fact that the United States helped Saddam build this WMD program back when he was using it to kill Iranians (gee, I wonder why they don’t like us!). After seven years of inspections and dedicated destruction of Iraq’s WMD arsenal, and eleven years of brutal economic sanctions, it was unlikely that Hussein posed an uncontainable threat to the United States. We also knew that the mostly secular Hussein and his Baathists were no friends of bin Laden and al Qaeda regardless of what the Administration was saying.
Strange as it might seem it was a simpler time. We knew that the President and most of his staff were lying—we were still holding out misplaced hope for Colin Powell as the voice of reason in this far right cabinet, but this hope was misguided. The whole administration was lying to perpetuate this war. With history as a guide, this was no surprise. After all, we were well versed in the “Remember the Maine” lies that brought us into the Spanish American War, or the Gulf of Tonkin lies that escalated the slaughter that was Vietnam and the Indo-Chinese Wars. That Bush would distort the facts to drum up support for an unnecessary war that he really, really wanted, was not unprecedented.
Events revealed, however, that the Bush Administration lies were of a qualitatively different caliber from the original templates going back to the Rio Grande/Nueces River conflict. We always assumed that Hussein did, in fact, have some small WMD program hidden away, or at least some active remnants of the original program. The traditional media strategy was to take some potentially threatening fact and twist it out of proportion until war was justified. After all, the Maine really did explode and there really was an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. The lie was legitimized in the distortions of some underlying reality. That was not the case with the Bush war claims. These turned out to be of a different variety.
I saw the veil fall when I was reading a report from Amnesty International about a virus that was spreading uncontrolled through Iraq. This virus was spread by sand fleas that had mostly been eradicated until the First Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions. Because of the sanctions Iraq was not allowed the pesticides and the associated chemicals used to keep the sand fleas in check. This was a poignant report to me because the cover photo was of a small boy racked with pain from the virus. The boy was of the same age as and looked very much like my own son. I remember thinking, ‘My God! These people are not even a threat to their own sand fleas. How can they be a threat to the United States?’
Shortly after that, all of the phony Bush claims fell apart to anyone who was paying attention, to anyone who wasn’t motivated by fear of some fabled mushroom cloud. Information came quickly. There was a rumor that an ambassador to Nigeria was calling the lie on Bush claims that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from West Africa. The aluminum tubes were certainly not for nuclear centrifuges. The mainstream press was gearing up for war, and the consequent ad space such an adventure sells, but even still, there was enough information there to cast doubt on the administration’s claims.
Most critically for me, however, were interviews conducted with actual weapons inspectors who had been in Iraq that I read, if memory serves, in The Nation. These inspectors were clear and unanimous. There was no WMD program in Iraq, and there were no active WMDs available to Saddam Hussein. Then Hans Blix returned with his report to the United Nations. “How much, if any, is left of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and related proscribed items and programmes? So far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed.” Blix did suggest that there were weapons that were not accounted for. Later, in the documentary, Uncovered, The Truth About the Iraq War, I learned that the missing chemical and biological agents not accounted for were irrelevant. The experts explained that the shelf life of such materials were short, no more than two years under the best conditions—conditions that did not exist in Iraq after the First Gulf War. After a few years, the inspectors saw little reason to hunt down material that was no longer weapons grade.
The United States invaded Iraq…for no reason. Almost five thousand American soldiers were killed. Countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. Hundreds of thousands of bodies and minds were torn asunder to satisfy the Bush Administration’s bloodlust. Instead of roses thrown at our soldier’s feet and a nursery for democracy as promised by administration officials, US presence was hated, the resulting Iraqi government scorned, and sectarian violence spread. Now the region is a hot bed of instability requiring permanent American presence, weapons, money and blood to combat. This was the nation that we created. Not a crucible for democracy, but destructive, chaotic wildfire burning out of control.
Before the war, the military estimated that it would take around 400,000 US soldiers to stabilize Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Bush Administration scoffed at this estimate. It appears, in hindsight, that this estimate was correct. Is the United States willing to keep almost half a million soldiers stationed in the Iraqi sand in perpetuity? If not, are we willing to deal with the consequences, psychotic scourges like ISIS and whoever succeeds them in the coming years, spreading hate and violence and stacking up the bodies of the innocent. We can thank the Bush Administration and their lies for this conundrum.
So, naturally, the answer that we get from the right is—more lies. If the verdict of history is against you, change the history rather than learn from the verdict.
Recently, there has been a pathetic attempt on the part of the right wing media to bring these warmongering lies back to life. The focus of this renewed attempt to rebuild the shattered remains of the Bush Administration’s legitimacy is an article by the New York Times, “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons.” The article documents the illnesses suffered by American soldiers after happening upon long discarded and long forgotten chemical weapons canisters and warheads. “American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.”
These were weapons that were operational and weapons grade back when Saddam Hussein was our guy, before Poppy Bush’s war, long before the Axis of Evil. The New York Times has uncovered a government cover-up, but has not breathed new life into the WMD controversy. Everyone knows that Hussein had WMD in the eighties. He had none in the 90’s. Period. Yet this article is being used as the rational for re-establishing the lies that led us to war in Iraq. Chemical weapons made our soldiers sick. Obviously, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It’s in the New York Times. Case closed. Bush was right.
No. The article is very clear in stating, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” These warheads and canisters pre-dated the First Gulf War and the sanctions program, a time in which it was understood that these weapons existed. About the chemicals weapons to which our soldiers were exposed, the New York Times states, “All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all.”
In fact, these warheads proved that Hussein did not have an active WMD program. To suggest otherwise is an willing lie. The article notes that attempts by the government to cover up the discovery of these weapons put soldiers at risk and resulted in their being denied medical care, medals and recognition. That is the current controversy. The journalist who broke the story, C. J. Chivers, states that “participants in the chemical weapons discovery” claim that the government covered up the story because the aged nature of these weapons were further proof of U.S. intelligence failures regarding the rational for war. Chivers also points out that five out of six incidents in which American soldiers were injured, “the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.” Yet another reason to keep this story on the down-low for ten years.
Right wing claims that Bush was right after all based on the revelation that U.S. soldiers were made ill by decrepit remnants of chemical weapons is nothing more than a desperate attempt to reclaim political legitimacy. The Iraq War is a dark spot on the history of conservatism and on those liberals, like Hillary Clinton, who were fool enough to buy their balderdash. It’s predictable that modern conservatism, an institution famous for perfecting the art of re-writing history would take this opportunity to do the same. However, we cannot let it happen—especially with the Iraq war.
Back in 2003, shortly before the fateful invasion, I often declared during debates and education sessions that I had enough information to know that there were no WMD in Iraq. At the very least, the intelligence was inadequate. If I, a high school teacher in South Florida, knew that the intelligence was insufficient to justify war, the President of the United States must know as well. They did know. They distorted the intelligence that they did have. They ignored intelligence that they did not like, and created intelligence where it didn’t exist. They lied.
The right wingers who are using the New York Times article to push their claims also know the truth. They know the story does not vindicate the Bush Administration. It’s clearly stated. Yet they continue to perpetuate the lie. The nature of this lies is exactly the same as the original false claims that led us to war. We cannot afford to allow history to be distorted like this. That period in which the American people were deliberately and cynically led into a meaningless war should not be subject to further right wing distortion. The Iraq war is a lesson in blind obedience, in allowing fear to trump reason and in trusting those in power in making decisions of national and global consequence, on life and death, without debate. The lies leading us into a quagmire in the Middle East from which we have yet to extract ourselves are a prime reason why President Obama, who has proven that he is no pacifist, hesitates to involve our nation in yet another war in the region. That’s a good thing. We in the peace movement were clearly and unambiguously right about the Iraq War and had, for the first time, organized a global protest before the war even began. We cannot afford to lose the lessons gained from this experience to militarists insistent upon dropping their biggest transgression down the memory hole.
As it stands, when those in power start beating the drums for war, we in the peace movement can point to Iraq and say, “remember!” The power elite hate that we can do that.
- I was not a member of Pax Christi, nor am I a Catholic. At that time, our interests converged. It was a pleasure working with such fine people.
The United States has to be willing to take responsibility for the harm that it has done to these children!
The appalling behavior of many Americans in the face of our current refugee crisis betrays a profound ignorance of our role in creating the very conditions from which children are desperate to escape, as well as a shameful and disgusting lack of empathy and humanity. Perhaps ignorance is the progenitor of this lack of empathy. Hopefully the inhuman, hateful rapture that so many of our American neighbors have revealed to the world is not an innate failing on our part. If so, then we must address this ignorance. It’s important to develop a sense of social and historical perspective, because apparently, the fact that so many of these refugees are children simply does not matter to the heartless and camera ready elements of our society.
As is true for any problem, the first order of business is to correctly define its nature. First and foremost we must refer to these children for what they are—refugees. This is not a bureaucratic bungle of illegal immigrants for which we are not prepared. These are people trying to escape political and economic tyranny. They are running for their lives. According to Human Rights Watch, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the point of origin for many of these children, are failed states. Citizens in these countries face inhuman levels of violence, exploitation, poverty and desperation. Between the gangs and drug cartels and the oppressive, corrupt governments, and crushing poverty these three nations are among the world’s most violent, most impoverished and least viable.
So what does this have to do with us? As many of my friends on the right say, “it is not our responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. If they want a decent country to live in, they should make one for themselves.” Of course, implicit in these statements is, “we don’t want their kind in our country messing things up for us.” Regardless, the history of these societies is clear to anyone willing to look. Most of the problems facing Central Americans are our doing. The United States has a long history of interfering with the development of our weaker neighbors. Yet, for the most part, Americans are oblivious to the historical context.
The mid-nineteenth century is identified by American History textbooks as a period of “Westward Expansion.” For Americans living during this time, however, the goal was not so specific. Americans weren’t interested in merely going west. They wanted to expand…everywhere! Canada? Got to have it! Mexico? Take it all! Cuba? You know it! Even Central America? Oh yeah! Around the time that the US acquisition of half of Mexico infused adrenalin into American notions of Manifest Destiny, the United States was competing with Britain for access to the valuable crossing zones in Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama. California Gold made these transit routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific even more valuable, prompting Cornelius Vanderbilt to contract with the Nicaraguan government what became known as the Accessory Transit Company carrying hopeful gold prospectors on their way to being busted in California across a treacherous stretch of winding river and jungle trails. Once on the Pacific Coast, passenger ships would carry them the rest of the way. That’s where the real money was during the gold rush.
The fertile lands closer to the equator were also a temptation to southern plantation owners desperate to expand from their increasingly less productive fields. The famous filibuster William Walker met his tragic fate when he and a mercenary army of American southerners briefly seized control of Nicaragua and legalized slavery. To protect his valuable transit routes, Vanderbilt funded a counter strike resulting in Walker’s execution. Though this epic drama was the last for the Accessory Transit Company, it was not the last corporate sponsored tragedy for Nicaragua. Vanderbilt soon abandoned his routes in exchange for hefty stipends from competing transit companies in Panama, but American companies never lost their lustful eye for Central American resources.
Vanderbilt’s wasn’t the only American footprint in the region. American businesses remained interested in the vast possibilities of Central America. The door to the region was thrust open after the Spanish American War made it clear that the United States was an empire, an empire founded on the principles of global business. In 1899 United Fruit Company started to organize in Guatemala. In 1903, President Roosevelt used a shaky interpretation of the United States’ neutrality agreement on the Isthmus of Panama to acquire the Canal Zone. In 1909 the United States sent troops into Nicaragua, where they remained for most of the next twenty-four years. In 1924, the United States sent troops into Honduras. This period of US military and financial interventions in Central America were part of what is known as the Banana Wars and were initiated solely to protect US business interests. US corporations thrived on weak, corrupt governments installed by the US military. In 1935, General Smedley Butler, the most decorated soldier in US history up to that time, described his real mission in the invaluable book War is a Racket:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903.
US interventions in Central American affairs stepped up to a new level during the Cold War. Anything that smacked of socialism, by which was meant attempts to empower the poor, would not be allowed in the Western Hemisphere. In 1954, when Guatemalan President Jacabo Arbenz Guzman dared attempt to redistribute unused, foreign owned lands to Guatemalans he raised the ire of those foreign owners. Namely, his rather reasonable policies infuriated the United Fruit Company. Turns out that one of United Fruit’s board members, Allan Dulles, was also the director of the CIA. His brother, John Foster, was the US Secretary of State. Bad news for Arbenz. He was overthrown by a CIA sponsored coup. Imagine that!
When the US military pulled out of Nicaragua in 1933 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “Good Neighbor” Policy, this Central American country came under the rule Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Like a good neighbor, the United States supported Somoza as he executed the popular Augusto Sandino and consolidated his brutal power while allowing US corporations to strip Nicaragua’s resources. When the left wing Sandinista movement overthrew the Somoza Dynasty over forty years later the United States continued to support the right wing Contras. The Contras were the remnants of Somoza’s criminal National Guard and had taken refuge in Honduras. The Reagan Administration illegally funneled millions of dollars in military aid to the Contras, feeding a lengthy, blood and unnecessary civil war. Because this funding was illegal under the Boland Amendment, the Reagan Administration had to find innovative ways to find and launder the money. Their most famous scheme was selling arms to Iran, a known terrorist state, and then funneling the money to the Contras. Another money making strategy was selling drugs. Colonel Oliver North was not only a leading architect of the Iran-Contra Scandal in the late eighties, but was also one of the world’s foremost drug dealers. His network stretched from Colombia, through Panamanian General Noriega into the back-alleys of Crip and Blood turf in Los Angeles and other American cities. This CIA run drug cartel played a significant role in the crack epidemic that ravaged urban communities in the eighties.
In fact, there wasn’t a right wing, despotic dictator in Central America whom the United States did not like so long as he was dedicated to exterminating left leaning political movements. When it became clear that the Sandinista movement was spreading into El Salvador, President’s Carter and Reagan stepped up military support for the brutal, right wing military Junta. This support included training death squads. Many of the officers in these deaths squads received their training the notorious School of the Americas. The School of the Americas, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, trained counter-insurgents in the most heinous tactics and sent them off to conduct war crimes against civilians in the interests of the United States and its corporations. In El Salvador, graduates of this house of horrors were responsible for the massacre of over 900 people in El Mozote, the assassination of the heroic Archbishop Óscar Romero and four nuns among others, all for the sake of preventing another Sandinista movement such as had come to power in Nicaragua. Among the School of Americas alumni is Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala.
A full description of US atrocities in the Central America would much too extensive and macabre for the purposes of this post. There’s a great deal of in depth historical research for those who want to know more. Such does not have to be reproduced here. The point is that Central America does not exist in isolation from US influence, and hasn’t for a very long time. For about a century, American “diplomacy” in that region has been traumatic and socially destabilizing. In fact, it has been criminal; again, that case can be effectively made elsewhere. This history is an effective retort to conservative whining about taking responsible for refugees when their condition is not our fault. Indeed, by any measure of fairness, the plight of these children is our fault.
Nor is it a valid claim that we are not responsible for the trespasses of our forebears. Unfortunately, the military and economic exploitation continues. Corporate dominance remains the underlying factor in US bullying and butchery. This time, instead of the communist scapegoat, we justify massive corporate militarization under the premise of a war on drugs. Scratch the surface just a little bit and the corporate influence is clear. As with the influence of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the nineteenth century and United Fruit in the mid twentieth, corporate theft of the region’s resources continues.
In the early eighties, President Reagan announced a program called the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The CBI was set up to provide financial aid and favorable trade status to those nations on the Caribbean that initiated free market reforms and resisted “communist” elements within their borders. Communist elements were, by definition, social programs and movements to benefit the poor including, but not limited to, labor unions.
The success of CBI, which means the increase of corporate access and profits, and the example of NAFTA as a boon to multinationals, has inspired an expansion of so-called “free market” reforms in Central America called CAFTA. Again, attention must be paid to the discourse. Free markets are those in which corporations are free, but not people. For one example, subsidized US agricultural products are dumped freely into Central American, which is not allowed to subsidize its own agriculture because that would be a violation of free market principles. Small farmers in Central America are thus driven from their land, forced to sell, often at gun point, to US agro-businesses. These lands are then dedicated to mono-cultural crops that fetch high profits on the global market without regard to the needs of starving people right next door. The fastest growing agricultural market in most Central American countries is Palm Oil. Meanwhile, the cost of food rises.
Displaced farmers must then migrate into the open arms of other corporate actors, most notably in the garment industry. The consequent glut of poor, desperate labor, in the face of state sanctioned violence against labor unions, means corporations have access to a virtual slave market. “According to an AFL-CIO report in 2008 that investigated maquiladoras in Guatemala, there is widespread sexual violence against women workers, common use of child labor, various forms of anti-union intimidation and violence, blacklists and mass firings, and a general failure to comply with basic labor codes established by the International Labor Organization. Other organizations have pointed to similar trends in maquildoras in other participating Central American nations.”
According to Global Exchange a garment worker, usually a young woman enduring unsafe conditions and every form of exploitation, earns about sixty cents an hour making NBA jerseys. That amounts to about twenty-five cents per jersey. Sixty cents an hour places her income at about thirty percent of the poverty line. NBA jerseys can sell in the US for as much as $140. In the meantime, any effort to alleviate poverty through social means is a violation of global banking and trade agreements. The argument that this is about market forces is bogus. A wage that would lift these workers out of poverty would add no more than $1.50 to the cost of each shirt. Would someone be less inclined to purchase a $140 jersey if the price went up to $141.50? This is about power and exploitation.
The global corporate structure existing in Central America can only be described as economic warfare. That in itself should constitute a valid push factor justifying refugee status for the thousands of children crossing the border. However, this economic warfare exists in conjunction with very real warfare. In the US, we call this the War on Drugs. Central Americans, understand it for what it is—an extension of the economic warfare and corporate imperialism that it is.
Americans are simply unwilling to “say no to drugs” and constitute almost two thirds of the global drug trade. Regardless, American policy, ostensibly to curb the availability of drugs, is military interdiction. Military solutions are the policy of choice in the United States largely because of the size and influence of our military industrial complex. Death and destruction is good business. For instance, the $1.3 billion spent by the Pentagon to provide only electronic equipment to US soldiers in Honduras was more than seven times the Honduran military budget. Now this might prove an economic benefit to Central America if over three quarters of that money wasn’t actually going to American owned firms.
It also helps that the war on drugs is an effective pretext for attacking those who were previously defined as “communist.” In other words, the war on drugs is the excuse for assassinating advocates for labor, land and social reform. In 2010, President Obama created the Central America Regional Security Initiative, perpetuating the war on drugs with money, equipment and training. Unfortunately, most of the police being trained and supplied actually work for the cartels. Indeed, one is left to wonder just how many of those involved in the Central American drug cartels are erstwhile buddies of Oliver North. Meanwhile, corporations often hire their own private armies to defend and serve their interests and investments. Ultimately, the combined forces of corrupt police, US trained military and private security forces are directed at activists and farmers and often collude with the drug cartels for the sake of multi-national business interests.
“Corporations employ large private-security forces that work in close collaboration with the military and the police. In Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, Mayan communities report that the Chabil Utzaj sugarcane corporation—owned by the Pellas Development Group of Nicaragua—enlists armed gangs linked to drug trafficking to attack them. These are the same armed groups that threatened and assaulted communities in the 1980s, also over land rights disputes; this represents the resurgence of the business- and government-backed death squads of the 1980s, which killed and disappeared thousands.”
The “free market” imposed on Central America for the last hundred years has crippled farmers and workers. Citizens destroyed by the legitimate market are understandably and ironically drawn to the illicit market, working for the cartels as the only chance for an economic stake. What difference does it make to the displaced farmer or the victim of the maquila? He was already the target of a corrupt state. Perhaps the growing power of the cartels can provide some security.
This perfect storm of variables, a militarized interdiction against drugs for which demand remains constant, results in increased value for this illicit commodity. As any economist will point out, increased value justifies increased investment and increased risk, bringing greater profits and encouraging more aggressive, violent practices among the competing cartels. It also brings many and varied opportunities to the corporate class. After all, where there’s money, there’s an investment opportunity. The war on drugs has created in Central America a very real war zone. What’s worse is that this is a war zone in which the civilian population isn’t just collateral damage, but often the target in a US/corporate agenda. Every war creates refugees. This multifaceted, multi-layered, impossibly complex economic war is no exception.
When desperate children risk their lives to cross a ridiculously militarized border, they should be embraced by any civilized people on the other side of that line. When those on the other side of that line are in fact the cause and benefactors of their desperation the responsibility to do right by them is nothing short of a moral imperative. Ignorance of the US role in Central American instability is a normal aspect of US culture. This ignorance, however, does not justify the moral failings of willfully turning our backs on children, let alone heaping abuse and insult upon them as they are transported through town. We should be ashamed of our ignorance, yes. We should be ashamed of the crimes being perpetrated in our name, of course. However, the shame that is our historical legacy should we deny universally understood empathy and charity toward children in pain is a disgrace beyond humanity. Such a sour legacy should consign our culture to historical ignominy.
Americans Should be Ashamed of Our Response to Refugee Children!
My position on this issue could never be clearer or simpler to explain, so this blog post will be among my shortest:
Any nation or culture that feels threatened by, or turns its back on, children does not deserve to exist!
The hate-filled bigotry of these flag waving xenophobes are an embarrassment to our nation and a fecal smear on every value that we stand for!
For some actual information and direction on this very important issue, I recommend the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Americans are rejecting science, and putting themselves…and everyone else…in peril
Every semester I lead my Introduction to Sociology students through the following scenario:
Uncle Phil is sitting at home watching television, a wonder of technological advancement, and eating a microwave meal. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his chest that travels down his left arm. Uncle Phil remembers watching a medical show one time that taught him how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. He quickly formulates the hypothesis that he is, in fact, having a heart attack, and runs over to his computer so he can Google the symptoms. Sure enough, the most likely cause of his symptoms is a heart attack. If nothing else, it’s better safe than sorry. Phil remembers reading an article in the science section of his newspaper that taking aspirin might help him. He takes an aspirin while he dials 911 on his cell phone. The technological marvel transmits his signal to the nearest tower and almost immediately puts him in touch with responders, who use similar computer technology to alert the EMS. Trained paramedics, using GPS services, arrive at Phil’s house shortly after he falls unconscious. They rush into the house and use the most sophisticated technologies and scientifically proven techniques to stabilize Uncle Phil’s condition and get him to the hospital. At the hospital, Uncle Phil is subjected to even more sophisticated scientific gadgets and scientifically trained professionals. They rush him into the ER.
Uncle Phil’s family is contacted and they rush to the hospital. When the scientifically trained doctor enters into the waiting room and assures them that Uncle Phil survived and is going to be just fine. As long as he takes his scientifically designed medication and follows a scientifically proven diet and exercise regimen he should make a full recovery.
What’s the first thing Phil’s family says?
The answer is, of course, “Thank God!”
Even if one is not inclined to rule out the role of divine intervention, shouldn’t science at least get second billing or an honorable mention?
Here in the United States we face a unique relationship with science and technology. In one sense, we take for granted and, to a certain extent consider mundane, the incredible technological advances of the last thirty years. At the same time, we are enthralled and awed by the changes that may take place in the next thirty. Culturally, however, Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with science. We love the idea of a scientifically sophisticated society, but when that science bangs up against our cherished beliefs, then too often science is rejected.
Part of this phenomenon, I think, has to do with the nature of belief in the United States, and the misapplication of “theory” as a synonym. Often in discussions with Global Warming deniers the argument breaks into a diatribe of how my own “belief” in Global Warming does not supersede beliefs in denial. The same holds true with the hundred and fifty year old debate on evolution. Many people in the United States equate the concepts of “belief” and “theory.” They are lacking a basic understanding of what a theory is, and thus, they are unqualified to make judgments about scientific matters. And people are dying as a result. Nothing less than the future of civilization hangs in the balance of educating Americans about the nature of science.
When confronted with a claim about my “belief” in Global Warming or Evolution or what have you, I try to clarify a distinction. I do not belief in Global Warming, or in Evolution, or in Gravity or Germ Theory for that matter. I accept the validity of these theories because they have been tested and have demonstrated utility and reliability. In other words, they satisfy the requirements of a valid theory. In the event that another theory comes along that demonstrates greater validity and reliability, I will not hesitate to embrace it. That is a key difference between belief and theory.
I teach my college students that a theory must possess two key characteristics. First, it must explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed. Evolution through sexual selection, for instance, effectively explains the process of speciation. In this matter, it is important to understand that a theory can only explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed and should not be held to account for failing to explain other related phenomena. Darwinian Evolution, for instance, does not explain the origin of life itself. That is the domain of other theories. Nor should the useful debate of the nuances inherent in theory necessarily constitute a weakness. A good example of this is the debate between steadu state and punctuated equilibrium schools of evolutionary thought. That there is a debate on the nuances of evolution does not mean that there is a debate about the validity of Darwinian Evolution itself.
Secondly, theories must be useful in formulating testable hypotheses and consistently predicting the outcomes of research or experimentation based on these hypotheses. A counter-example that I offer is Intelligent Design “Theory.” What hypotheses can be formed? What outcomes can be predicted based on Intelligent Design? Without knowing the whims of the Intelligent Designer the concept has no scientific utility. It is not a theory and should not be given equal time as a theory in science classrooms.
Therein is the central misunderstanding. Americans have an almost postmodern understanding that belief in religion, or belief in capitalism, or belief in patriotism is of the equivalent quality as a “belief” in science. That science is a discipline of proof is irrelevant. Acknowledging the validity of Global Warming is qualitatively the same as the belief of Denialism. Accepting the truth of the evolution of species is just as much a matter of faith as is the belief in the Biblical account of Genesis. This false equivalence is embraced and fed by the equal time movement claiming that students should have equal exposure to theory and faith in the classroom.
One of the things we know about the contest between belief and evidence is that when one’s belief is contradicted by a preponderance of the evidence, our human tendency is to deny the evidence. We will find or invent reasons that reinforce our pre-conceived notions. It’s almost as if our beliefs are addictive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first coordinated attacks against science, unrelated to religion, was the PR strategy to defend the tobacco industry. Perhaps there is a reason why Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the people is among his most famous quotes.
With what I call the Tobacco PR Wars as precedent, companies hire firms that specialize in seeding enough doubt and enough false evidence to allow those steeped in their beliefs to enhance their confirmation bias. Yes, I smoke two packs a day, but the lady down the road used to smoke three packs a day and she lived to be ninety-two years old. These professional cons use the nuances of science and play against the probabilities and uncertainties of all research models and experiments to make their case. They hold up the natural limitations of all theoretical explanations as proof that the target theory is clearly false. Hey, the northeast has experienced some cold springs, so Global Warming is a lie. Scientists used computer generated numbers in their models. They are clearly fudging the data to make themselves look right. Those who want to continue smoking, or refuse to invest tax money into alternative energy, or love their SUVs, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack, grasp this “evidence” to confirm that they are right after all. Those stuck up scientists don’t know what they are talking about—until Uncle Phil has a heart attack.
This is despite scientists’ track record. In the seventies scientists warned that the rain falling from the sky was contaminated with sulfuric acid. They recommended restrictions on sulfur emissions. Such policies were put into place and the acid rain problem went away. In the eighties scientists theorized that CFCs were causing life threatening ozone depletion at the poles. CFCs were restricted and the ozone holes have started to close. But they simply must be wrong about global warming because it snowed somewhere in April.
The consequences of this ignorance aren’t just inconvenient. They are deadly. The anti-vaccine movement is case in point. Most parents take want to protect their children. When they hear horror stories about children experiencing all kinds of problems and are told that vaccines are the cause, parents must choose between the scientist and the natural repugnance of watching a needle enter their child’s arm with a toxin that may hurt them. Parents who are convinced that those scientists don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s a conspiracy to make money on the vaccines feel justified in denying their children vaccines shots. This is especially true of parents who are part of social movements that emphasize so called “natural” healing as a central belief. Consequently, preventable diseases like Whooping Cough (Pertussis) are making a comeback. But why not? After all, my belief in the dangers of vaccines is no less valid than your belief in science.
When it comes to global warming, the consequences of ignorance is nothing short of catastrophic. The bottom line is that civilization itself hangs in the balance. That’s a little much to handle. Most of us would love to believe that our world is perpetual and that our grandchildren will inherit the same opportunities that have always existed. This is a central belief system in the United States. It plays into our faith in the American dream, our belief in capitalism as the best means of economic and cultural advancement, and our belief that God is watching over us and will take care of us so long as we are faithful. Human Caused Global Warming is a challenge to all of these belief systems. Not to mention, the means by which we must deal with this problem are far more daunting and invasive than putting up with CFC free hair spray. It’s much easier and more comforting to believe that the scientists are wrong. They must be!
And let’s not let the scientists themselves off the hook. There are examples of scientists selling their souls to profit. We look at examples of over-medication, genetically modifying food for the patent protections or to withstand greater quantities of pesticide. The science system, in the US especially, is one in which even well intentioned scientists have to play to the market to get their research funded. Many scientists will draw huge salaries to work for pharmaceutical and oil companies. It was scientists who designed cigarettes that allow for greater absorption, and consequently, increased addictiveness, of the product. Famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi referred to the development of the atomic bomb as “superb physics.”
In the case of vaccines, scientists haven’t been very clear in communicating that there is risk associated with this product. Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, others will react poorly to vaccines. To my knowledge, there isn’t a significant “anti-penicillin” movement. Perhaps for good reasons, scientists have downplayed the few risks of vaccines because they are far outweighed by the benefits. But then the papers report on a child who became sick after getting his vaccination. Why are the scientists being so secretive? Doubt is sowed, and that becomes the fuel for ridiculous movements such as the Anti-Vaxxers. That’s all it takes.
Science simply must find ways to educate the public on scientific process, not just science trivia. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is incredible, but how have scientists made these fascinating discoveries? Why should we trust that what Professor Tyson says is true? What are the checks that exist in the scientific enterprise that ensures the best possible explanations? What happens when scientists like Einstein are wrong, or when new theories are developed to explain the cosmos? Why should we care about evolutionary theory? What is the truth about vaccines? What is the role of probability in scientific understanding, and why is this not a weakness that challenges the validity of theory? The discoveries of science are fascinating. Most Americans are aware of these discoveries…they just don’t necessarily trust them. We need to know why we should. We also need to be educated in the fine balance between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.
After all, scientists cannot afford, nor should they be expected to pay for, their own PR movement. There’s only so much that Bill Nye the Science Guy can do. Those of us who love science and believe in the value of science for the endeavor of human progress must provide, for free, that education and PR. We are against the greatest systematized effort of public doubt in human history. Billions of dollars have been invested into keeping us ignorant. There is no counter other than knowledge.
And: The Rained Out Revolution
I can’t help but ask myself, what if Occupy protestors in 2010 showed up with AR-15s?
On one hand, being armed may have given law enforcement pause before they use paramilitary tactics to take down the Occupy encampments all over the country.
On the other hand, Occupy was protesting economic injustice, a topic of interest to a majority of the population (albeit not really 99%) and a system of injustice in which the current elite have a multi-trillion dollar vested interest in preserving. Contrast this to the Militia/BLM protestors who simply want to steal from and defile the commons…which is really of no interest to the corporate elite (try riding an ATV through one of the Koch Brothers’ estates and see what happens). To protect their interests, would the elite have called in the military and assaulted Occupy with Apache helicopters rather than swinging batons, tear gas and rubber bullets?
This of course leads me to ponder the reaction of the right wing in the face of an armed Occupy Movement. They seethed with anger over so-called “hippies” pitching tents in public spaces. It’s hard to believe the right would have stepped up and defended these hippies’ 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. After all, commies and anarchists don’t have the same rights as good Christian ‘muricans.
I really don’t have an answer to these questions, I’m afraid. I’d like to think the former option would have been the case, but I fear that I’m wrong…and I really shouldn’t fear that I’m wrong.
For my part, I’m glad Occupy was organized as a peaceful protest. The conspicuous presence of guns would have completely discredited the movement.
In related news, did you hear about the right wing revolution that didn’t happen yesterday? Right wing protesters organized a colossal protest against the government. The protest was announced as Operation American Spring, ironically named after the Arab Spring that swept North African and the Middle East. The expected outcomes were to be similar. 10 million-30 million real Americans right wing activists were to descend upon the nation’s capitol, set up camp (occupy) and remain until their demands were met. Their demands included the resignation of President Obama and the Congress.
Well anyway, it turns out that they fell a little short of the ten million person goal. Only a few dozen protestors showed up. Now, to be fair, it was a pretty icky day on Friday so…you know…how do you conduct a revolution in the rain? I mean tyranny must be overthrown, but it’s not worth getting soggy over.
Look, it’s really easy to scoff at these folks, but since the armed standoff in Nevada I’m inclined to take their delusional behavior more seriously. The presence of guns increases the probability that someone is going to get shot.
In earlier pieces I’ve described the right wing as being insulated into closed reference groups. With the existence of conservative radio, television and on-line media there is neither reason nor incentive for those on the right to experience anything but information that reaffirms the truth of their beliefs. Yes, this can also be said of the left, but the messaging of the right is qualitatively different from anything one will experience in left media. Right wing institutions have not only created an insular eco-system, but they’ve also reified an almost co-dependent paradigm that defines the knowledge produced by these organizations as the only source of truth. Only FoxNoise is fair and balanced. Only conservative sources are honest. Anything that contradicts Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity is liberal propaganda not to be trusted. It doesn’t matter the source; ninety-eight percent of climate scientists know that the Earth is warming and that human actions are largely responsible, but that’s a grand conspiracy on the part of enviro-socialists who want to overthrow capitalism.
So these protestors know, they just know, that everyone hates President Obama and the dictatorship he has installed. They know, just know, that they have lost their rights as Americans and they must fight and die (but stay dry doing it) if they are to get their freedoms back. If they just announce the revolution, then millions of people will heed the call to arms and take back our country from this Muslim usurper.
When it doesn’t happen…well…it rained that day. And there’s nothing anyone can say, there is no data that anyone can produce, that will change their minds.
Delusional people who act publicly on their delusions may be funny—and I’ll admit that I had a fair chuckle at the title “Tens of People Descend Upon the Capitol To Drive the Obama Administration Out of Office.” However, delusional people with guns who act on their delusions are potentially dangerous. We really need to keep an eye on this.
Or the Plutocracy Worm Hole
I’ve had very limited time to blog. This one will be short and sweet…but telling.
According to billionaire Tom Perkins…you know, the guy who compared critics of economic inequality to Nazi’s, his proposal is that only those who pay taxes should be allowed to vote. Of course, this is consistent with our founding fathers’ vision that franchised only property owners, so no big deal. Yet Perkins one-ups the aristocratic hubris of our founders. He said during a talk “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes.”
Of course, this should come as no surprise. It’s not even the first time this idea was proposed. But let’s really examine the reasonable consequences of such a proposal. Let’s say that the Perkins Plan were enacted into law. Presumably, he is referring to income taxes, as it would be well-nigh impossible to track all of the money paid in sales tax, property tax, licensing, etc. There would be virtually no reason in the world for anyone in the bottom 90% of income earners to bother to vote since the top ten percent receives over forty percent of the income. In that top ten percent, the overwhelming majority of income gains are within the top one percent of income earners, and the disparities increase among the top .1 percent and top .01 percent (which includes Perkins). So the super-rich would dominate the vote.
We already know what happens when the wealthy dominate the political process. They pay less in taxes. Therein lays the paradox. Once the super-rich have complete control over the government by controlling the majority vote, despite their minority status, they will, of course, vote to eliminate their tax burdens. This should, however, disenfranchise them.
It should, but it won’t. They would have long since disassembled democracy by then.
The bottom line is that the wealthy, especially the super-wealthy, are no longer even pretending to value democracy and human dignity. They have made it clear, over and over again, that they believe they are the only people on the planet who matter. The rest of us are nothing more than unwashed serfs who deserve nothing more than to serve at the whims of the wealthy and accept whatever scraps the give us.
iExperience is lacking in — Touch
First, I think it’s great that open mic poetry still exists.
This recital is especially poignant. I can’t wait for the day when our technology advances to the point where it can make us human again.
Why we are complicit in the domestic spying scandal
The most noteworthy observation that I have about the great brouhaha over Glen Greenwald’s expose of US domestic spying in The Guardian is how absolutely shocked everybody seems. The press and the social media act as if this is some sudden revelation. We had no idea this was going on. How could we possibly have known?
Frankly, if you didn’t know, then you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been paying attention to the news for at least eleven years, and you are certainly no student of history or sociology. After all, governments spy on their citizens. This is no secret. And 9/11 was the ultimate excuse for legitimizing and expanding this practice beyond anything that even J. Edgar Hoover could have imagined. There is nothing shocking or surprising at all.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be outraged by this trespass against our privacy, but part of that anger must be reserved for ourselves. We should have been outraged upon passage of The Patriot Act, which took place out in the open in front of all of us. If we had been paying attention when the final constructs were put in place to create what is in a very real sense an Intelligence-Industrial Complex (IIC), then it would be much easier to do something about it now. Instead, we were cowed by fear and Big Brotherly assurance that the government would take care of us. We never bothered to ask about the costs this false sense of security requires. As it stands, we are facing an entrenched, institutionalized system of domestic spying, which we literally buy into every time we sign up for cell phone service or internet access, or “like” this post on Facebook or purchase Stone is not Forever
and The Revelation of Herman Smiley on-line. (Hey, a guy has to make a living!)
Clearly, we weren’t paying attention when Senator Russ Feingold took a lonely stand against the Patriot Act. In 2001, Feingold made the following statement for the public record for everyone who cared to see:
“Under this new provision all business records can be compelled, including those containing sensitive personal information like medical records from hospitals or doctors, or educational records, or records of what books someone has taken out of the library. This is an enormous expansion of authority, under a law that provides only minimal judicial supervision.”
Hmmm. I wonder what he was thinking. Too bad Senator Feingold was one of the victims of the Tea Party uprising in 2010, or he would still be in office. He did respond to the Greenwald piece, quoted in the Huffington Post, “In 2001, I first voted against the Patriot Act because much of it was simply an FBI wish list that included provisions allowing our government to go on fishing expeditions that collect information on virtually anyone.” In other words, “I hate to say I told you so, but…” He wasn’t alone.
In 2008, James Bamford’s brilliant book, The Shadow Factory revealed with shocking detail the depth of the collusion between US intelligence agencies, specifically the NSA, and the telecommunications industry in spying on American citizens. Though Greenwald’s original piece focused on Verizon (who happens to be my cell phone provider), Bamford pointed out, “By the fall of 2001, Hayden [then director of the National Security Agency (NSA)] succeeded in gaining the secret cooperation of nearly all of the nation’s telecommunications giants for his warrantless eavesdropping program. Within a year, engineers were busy installing highly secret, heavily locked rooms in key AT&T switches…From then on the data—including both address information and content—would flow through PacketScopes directly to the NSA.” PacketScope is an NSA computer system that pulls information from the relay stations. Remember, this was in the fall of 2001, so though 9/11 provided a pretext, the actual technology did not just appear when the Twin Towers fell. It was in the works for quite some time.
Another facet of The Shadow Factory betrays Feingold’s concern that businesses such as the telecommunications industry is being “compelled” to cooperate with the government. In fact, according to Bamford’s research, the relationship between US intelligence and the private sector is much more chummy than that. The intelligence sector contracts for services, purchases products, contracts for high tech systems like the infamous Trailblazer program when cheaper, more effective, in-house products like Thinthread are available. Telecoms even charge fees for wiretapping, a service used by the private sector and by government agencies at the local, state and potentially the federal level. The relationship between the intelligence sector and the private sector that supports it is far from coercive.
In fact, it’s a patronage relationship. In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act which, among other things, legislated immunity from prosecution for any private company participating in domestic spying (not the exact words of the legislation, but the very real context). Furthermore, this immunity was made retroactive to September 11, 2001. This act was meant to sunset in 2012, but guess what, it was reauthorized by Congress quite publicly. According to Bamford, “The new law [FISA Amendments Act 2008] provides what amounts to legal immunity to the telecoms, weakens the authority of the FISA court, and gives freer range to NSA in targeting suspected terrorists abroard.”
So, what is this FISA, thing? Well, that requires a bit of a history lesson.
Well, in case you thought that domestic spying was some new innovation masterminded by George W. Bush and his secret sidekick Barack Obama, it turns out that the United States has a much longer history in spying on citizens. It is not a specific construct of the so called “post 9/11 era” as many commentators are suggesting. Investment in intelligence goes all the way back to President Washington, but the real evolution of American intelligence took place in the twentieth century with the foundation of the Bureau of Investigation (Later the Federal Bureau of Investigation). The Bureau was involved in extensive domestic surveillance against those considered to be enemies of the state, namely socialists, communists, anarchists and other radicals. The power of the FBI expanded dramatically during the half century tenure of the notorious J. Edgar Hoover, whose abuses of power are legendary.
The next great expansion of American Intelligence came in 1947 when President Truman signed the National Security Act. This crucial law established the legal and bureaucratic framework for the modern intelligence community. This was the law that created the National Security Council (NSC), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Truman later added The National Security Agency, so central to today’s story, in a secret memo shortly before he left office. As written, the National Security Act of 1947 specifically prohibited these agencies from engaging in domestic intelligence for fear that such power would be abused. This fear existed because, well, this power had already been abused most dramatically with the Palmer Raids of the 1920’s and the Espionage Act of World War I.
There was good reason to be afraid of abuse. In the 1970’s a domestic spying scandal erupted over a program called COINTELPRO. This secret program was revealed by a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church. The Church Report exposed the efforts of the intelligence community, most notably the FBI in using surveillance, infiltration, burglary and intimidation against such enemies of the state as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP among others. According to the report, “…our investigation has established that the targets of intelligence activity have ranged far beyond persons who could properly be characterized as enemies of freedom and have extended to a wide array of citizens engaging in lawful activity.” This revelation, and the ensuing scandal led to the passage of, among other laws, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 1978 (FISA).
FISA requires intelligence agencies to seek a warrant from a special, secret court before it could engage in electronic surveillance. As it turned out, the FISA court was hardly ever a protection of Constitutional rights. It was largely a rubber stamp process. Much of which is largely irrelevant here since the Supreme Court has ruled that your e-mails, once sent through a server or third party, are not subject to expectations of privacy and, therefore, a warrant is not required. In fact, much of this information is proprietary of the company providing the service. As property, it can be sold, even to the government.
This collaboration between the private sector and the government intelligence community is nothing new. It is embodied in former President George H. W. Bush. Bush was a successful businessman, though a somewhat less successful politician. His access to politics led to a UN ambassadorship and an appointment special envoy to China. Later, he was made Director of Central Intelligence. The connections between Bush’s business interests, political experience and intelligence service were overlapping rather than linear. This is true for the intelligence sector as a whole. The Central Intelligence Agency has a long history of recruiting from the same pool as major corporations seeking high level executives, namely the Ivy League (Bush was a Yale man). A stint in the intelligence sector looks really good on the resume.
In 1956, as the intelligence sector was just getting started, sociologist C. Wright Mills published his most influential work, The Power Elite. In this book, Mills offers a detailed description of the American Power Elite, who they are and how they stay at the top. According to Mills, the power elite is comprised of the leaders of major corporations, high level officials of the executive branch and the brass stars of the Pentagon. These three institutions reinforce and support each other. Presidential cabinets are often comprised of industry executives. Military contracts go to top corporations. Major corporations provide financial support to presidential candidates and their allies in Congress. White House and Pentagon officials often enjoy their retirements by serving on corporate boards or being paid as consultants. President H. W. Bush, for example, spent much of his post presidential years as an advisor to the Carlyle Group. Even President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, expressed his concern over the growing power of what he referred to as the Military-Industrial Complex.
Mills recognized that the overlapping interests of what he referred to as the corporate rich, the chief executives and the warlords, their mutuality in perpetuating their interests and the interchange of individual actors between these institutional sectors as constituting a unified elite. I think if Mills were to re-write his master work today he would include the intelligence sector in his analysis. At the time of his research the intelligence sector had just begun its ascendancy, though Mills does mention the NSC with an admonition on government secrecy.
This mutuality is evident between the telecom companies and government. According to opensecrets.org, Verizon (the focus of Greenwald’s piece) provided over $4 million in campaign contributions. Over a quarter of a million dollars went to President Obama’s campaign coffers, but almost $150 thousand went to Mitt Romney (just in case). Verizon spent $15 million lobbying and of 123 lobbyists working for the company, 98 had previously held positions in the federal government. The telecommunications industry as a whole spent over $50 million lobbying and over 71% of their lobbyists had government experience.
In return for their investment, (and make no mistakes, this is investment, not political speech) telecommunications companies received over $30 billion in tax subsidies alone. This constitutes over 13% of all tax subsidies. That’s just telecommunications. This does not include software or IT or any other ancillary services that the intelligence sector might need. This does not include the potential billions in government contracts that may be doled out, much of which comes from a top secret budget.
The symbiotic nature between the intelligence sector and the private sector constitutes what could be considered a “complex.” In an uncomfortable play on words, such symbiosis makes confronting this system even more complex than railing against the bare injustice of knowing that your personal information is not so private.
It does not help, however, to feign shock and ignorance over a program that came at us from out in the open. This is exactly the system that we signed on to when we were told to be afraid of the communists in the fifties. The abuses of this system are exactly the abuses we admonished in the seventies. So long as we let the government run unchecked in order to protect us from the terrorist boogeymen, then we have only ourselves to blame when that power is abused. We watched the government pass the Patriot Act and said nothing. We watched the government pass the FISA Amendments and said nothing. We’ve already given our tacit approval.
Bush and Obama may have played the scoundrel, but we have been willing victims. If anything, the lesson is ours to learn.
PS: Project Censored has a great database on related stories that we really should have been paying attention to. Click Here
Well, here’s a brief answer.
I’m actually working on a different blog post, but I’ve heard this question quite a bit, lately. I mostly overhear it in conversations between people who do not know I can hear them. However, people who know that I’m a sociologist, including many students, have approached me directly and asked what is happening with the world today.
The answer[s] are not simple, and I don’t really have time to elaborate. Nor am I so arrogant as to believe that I have “the answers.”
There are, however, some things that I and other sociologists know. First, and foremost, the simplistic answers, encouraging equally simplistic solutions, are largely wrong. Violent video games, television shows and horror films are not to blame. Our kids are not becoming increasingly violent. The availability of guns may have some comparative regional consequences, but are not the cause of our current social pathology.
If that is, in fact, what it is. In 2012, we as a society were witness to a stunning and heartbreaking seven mass shootings. This is a thirty year record. It certainly seems, based on this evidence, that our society has a nihilistic trend. But determining the state of society based on the number of mass shootings is questionable logic. A maximum of seven mass shootings out of a population of over three-hundred million people is statistically not much different than the many years in which there were only one mass shooting. As is evidenced by the graph at left, the last thirty years have seen spikes and peaks of mass murders and their associated troughs.
While researching the incidence and trend of mass shootings, and hoping that someone had done the math for me so that I wouldn’t have to, I stumbled upon a blog in which the author did the math so that I wouldn’t have to. Rutgers grad student Aatish Bhatia and his marvelously geeky blog, Empirical Zeal ran the numbers against a Poison Curve suggesting that the distribution of mass shootings is largely random.
Hmmm. Sociologists are not entirely comfortable with random. We do suggest that there are often so many variables that events seem random. There are influences that can be understood and can inform how we interact in our society. So when we look at phenomena such as mass shootings, we look for commonalities. So what can mass shootings tell us about the state of our society as a whole?
Researchers have identified mental illness as a component part of mass shootings. Indeed, this is a good point, but mental illness is a combination social construct and social disease. What aspects of society contribute to mental illness? We know that mental illness, from a sociological context, is influenced by social pathologies associated with social change and the integration of the members into society. Related to integration, a sociologist might identify as common among mass shooters are social isolation, an extremist zeal for transcendent ideologies and, ultimately, suicide. These often go hand in hand.
The question above is, however, “what is happening to the world?” The answer could very well be nothing, at least on the individual level. Bombings, terrorist attacks, mass shootings; these are all very rare occurrences in the United States (though fairly common in other nations) and could simply be the result of random or random-like variables. For instance, what was the difference between the year 2012 and the year 1999, a year with one fewer mass shootings? In what ways were 1993, 2007 and 2009 similar? Or how is it that in four of the last thirty years there were no mass shootings? Economic conditions do not seem to explain it; cultural variables haven’t changed that much. Violent video games? Hollywood movies? Lead pollution?
Despite almost endless media coverage, as well as the intense level of tragedy associated with such extreme events, it’s difficult to glean anything useful, sociologically. However, there is something to be said about how we interpret these events.
Let’s face it, we know that there is something wrong with our society, and we have a visceral certainty that events like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon Bombing are, in some small way, related. This may say more about us than about the perpetrators of tragedy. It’s a disturbing testament that, in some dark way, we have certain sympathies (not to be confused with empathy) for those who commit such atrocities. In them, we see individuals who are isolated from the larger society, or in sociological speak, lacking appropriate integration. Perhaps they have suffered a loss, been laid off, like Andrew Engeldinger. In Columbine, Klebold and Harris were socially isolated by exclusive peers. Kipland Kinkel, a year before Columbine had been expelled before he went on his killing spree.
When we look into the lives of these individuals we see severe mental illness, indeed, but also the refuse of social exclusion. Despite the fact that almost none of us will pursue such a deadly response to our own social exclusion, we nonetheless experience it.
The role of social institutions is to integrate people into the larger society, and yet what is left of these social mechanisms? The family unit has been invaded by the demands of the marketplace in which parents are coerced into being producers for fear of losing their jobs without regard to the needs of their children. The costs of keeping a family rise while wages stagnate and benefits wither. The primary stressor on marriages is money, and ours is a nation in which the market has failed almost half of us. Media has become the role model that many parents simply don’t have time or energy to be.
Our schools? Well, if you want to create a dysfunctional society, simply create the current American educational system. Cultivating students has been replaced by the goal of raising test scores. Kids are convinced that their schools and teachers have turned their backs on them as they perform an endless regimen of meaningless tests. To guarantee that teachers and students cooperate in what they know to be balderdash politicians make sure to use threats and coercion. Students will fail and never go to college…unless they do well on a test. Teachers will lose their jobs if their students don’t do well on the tests. Education has become an institution of fear rather than one of nurturing character and knowledge.
As for our government, forget it. Congress has an approval rating of 9%, just slightly better than Fidel Castro. The nation understands that ours is not a government that represents us unless our yachts are larger than fifty feet long. We don’t need much data to confirm this. All we need is to read the newspaper. Our government has abandoned most of us who are not too big to fail.
The market is clearly not working for us and is mostly a destructive influence in our lives as our wages are depressed and our costs increase. The market can take what it wants—our homes, our time, our livelihoods, our lives—and there’s no way to get anything substantial in return. Americans go to work every day knowing that they are nothing more to their employers than a figure on a spreadsheet. At any moment their jobs can be deleted with no more sentiment than one has for clearing a cell on an Exel sheet. Job security, loyalty and investment are gone as are any delusions on the part of working Americans.
We don’t even dare get sick because our health system will leave us choosing between everything we’ve ever worked for…or our lives. Those tasked with caring for those in need have abandoned medicine and nurturance and even health in their drive for higher profits. Our very health is subject to commodity status.
Even our religions are suspect. More of us are leaving mainstream religions and are becoming unaffiliated, or choosing to affiliate with smaller, less traditional beliefs.
Great swaths of our culture and society have lost their legitimacy. During this time, we have swallowed an exclusive version of individualism positing that we are on our own. More and more it seems that that is true, be it through self-fulfilling prophecy or social contingency. Human beings are not good at being on our own. Isolation and lack of integration are destructive to the human soul. It has certainly been destructive to these specific human beings holding the guns, and most destructive to their victims. It’s also destructive to us, and we know it. Yet we fear that we can do nothing about it. To what extent does hopelessness drive the likes of Adam Lanza to commit horrors?
When a society fails to integrate its members, individuals become easy prey to those who do offer meaning, a place, no matter how distorted. It appears that this is what happened to at least one of the alleged Boston Marathon Bombers. Unable to integrate in the larger American society, Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned to religious fundamentalism and radical nationalism to give his life meaning. This may also be true for Wade Michael Page and his embrace of fascism before he opened fire on a Sikh Temple, or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, or even Timothy McVeigh. Weak social integration leaves the field open for extremist visionaries.
In 1897, Emil Durkheim wrote his seminal work, Suicide in which he demonstrated that anomic social change and lack of integration has devastating impacts on people. Indeed, suicide is a common component of many mass shootings. Suicide is also becoming more common in the nation as a whole. This is especially true for some of our least effectively integrated members, our combat veterans. Suicide is a powerful indicator of the health of a society. It is clear that something is terribly awry in ours.
We know that there is something wrong with our society. We’ve all been abandoned to greater or lesser extents. That some of us have resorted to horrific violence has inspired most of us to ask not what is wrong with them, but what is wrong with our society. This is an appropriate question.
When tragedy strikes our own children, we collectively mourn. The world would be a better place if we did the same for the children of others.
Figure 1: Pakistani Children Keeping Vigil for the Sandy Hook Victims Click image for the source
In my novel, The Revelation of Herman Smiley the title character is tasked with remembering what much of humanity has forgotten in our seven thousand year odyssey of civilization. For fear of spoiling the ending, I will reveal that this lost memory is, “It’s all about the children.” Herman Smiley feels like a fool for taking so long to remember something so simple and so glaringly obvious. Well he should. And so should we as we go about our lives wasting incalculable resources in wealth, time and emotion on meaningless paradigms of success, growth, status and so called “work ethic.” We, all of us, including at times this author, often lose the most basic and primal truth of human (and many other species’) existence to the rote and ritual regimens of everyday life.
Tragically, moments like the horrific Sandy Hook massacre jolt us back into stark reality. We’ve forgotten the children. We grieve for the fallen, for the bereaved parents and loved ones. However, a part of us retains a certain remorse for our own forgetfulness when it comes to the children. As a result we spend some time holding our own even tighter, being more attentive, more appreciative of the beauty and promise that we recognize as childhood. People die all over the world to war, famine, crime and sickness. These deaths are all mini-tragedies. When it’s children, however, we understand viscerally that there’s a qualitative difference in the pathos. We know that more than a life has been lost, but also a promise a dream for our own future.
When President Obama eulogized the deaths of the Sandy Hook victims he recognized this basic truth. “This is our first task caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.” He offered an understanding and empathy not just as a national leader at a time of profound sorrow, but as a feeling man and as a devoted father. “There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.”
More importantly, President Obama recognized the necessary, communitarian roots requisite of constructing a healthy childworld. “And we know we can’t do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together
” We all share responsibility for the children of our community, city, nation
world! It’s all about the children. All of the children.
Like most who listened to the President’s lofty words, I was moved. Yet it was difficult to synchronize his statements in Connecticut with his actual policies. How can Obama’s sincere remorse for the little lives lost in Sandy Hook, and all over the country, flow so effortlessly from the same man responsible for the deaths of children unfortunate enough to find themselves at the receiving end of a drone strike. According to Robert Greenwald, and the activist organization War Costs
62 children have been killed by drone strikes during Obama’s presidency, the equivalent of three Sandy Hook massacres. Since the drone program began under George W. Bush, 178 children, almost nine Sandy Hooks, have been confirmed killed.
Yet drone attacks are only one avenue through which scores of Sandy Hook massacres are taking place in our name. U.S. wars and combat operations all over the world result in the senseless slaughter of children. For over a decade, the United States has overseen the deaths of children in Afghanistan. Military policy in Afghanistan under Obama condones the targeting of children who show “potential hostile intent.” The Administration also defines all “fighting age” males as potential combatants unless it can be demonstrated otherwise. How “fighting age” can be determined, especially from the air, is not clearly stated.
Indeed, many of the forces we are fighting do not hesitate to use children for military purposes. The Taliban is known to use children to help support its soldiers in attacking American positions. Also, what constitutes fighting age in the United States is not the norm throughout the world. Regardless, we must understand that these are nations in which the United States was not invited. We invaded not because it was the only policy, but because we can. For the United States, history’s most powerful military culture, invasion is the easy choice, never the only choice. We often justify invasion using the omnibus rationalization known as the war on terror, but terror cannot be defeated by drone strikes and cluster bombs. So the war on terror is a false pretense as clearly betrayed In the case of Iraq, in which almost four thousand children were confirmed killed as a result of combat operations and related violence. At least two hundred Sandy Hooks.
Besides, the tragedy of child soldiers is, when convenient, embraced or even ignored by the Obama Administration. The Administration continues to provide aid and training to nations known to use child soldiers. This is happening despite the fact that such funding is a clear violation of the Child Soldier Prevention Act; a law once co-sponsored by a certain Senator Obama.
Let’s not forget that President Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Add on top of that the more complicated calculus of child death and suffering resulting from American policies. How many children are currently dying in Iran as a result of US led sanctions against that country? It’s impossible to say for sure, but if we look at the devastating Iraqi Sanctions put into place in 1991, we can get a good idea. As many as half a million child deaths can be attributed to that policy.
Then there is the blind eye that is shielded from ruinous trade policies and corporate exploitation that leads to the suffering and death of children from the coltan mines in West Africa to child labor mills and sweatshops throughout the developing world. The deaths of children under the American flag are, in essence, the equivalent of countless Sandy Hooks every year
in our name.
Whenever such tragedies in which children are the target occur we are hard put to define the cause. Is the murderer mad, suffering from some unfortunate mental illness? Perhaps he is a psychopath, a sadist or sociopath. It could be that he is just plain evil, unworthy of even the hint of a more sympathetic understanding. In most cases, we never really know for sure.
Yet how may we describe political policies, carried out in our name, which results in even worse deadly consequences?
If we really care about children
If we really care about children.
On Anger and Foreign Policy
We are all appalled at the brutal attack on a US embassy in Benghazi last week. Senseless killing cannot be condoned by civilized people regardless of the circumstances, be it an IED attack by an extremist terrorist group or a drone attack by a world power. Those who value human life must always censure violence.
Yet violence will almost certainly happen. Though the majority of us, Christian or Muslim, American or Libyan, abhor bloodshed, there are those who do not share our values and are not moved by our pleas. For whatever reason, desperation, greed, power-hunger, a senses of rage however righteous, some people turn to the easiest, most cowardly means of expressing their angerviolence.
When this happens, it is incumbent upon those of us dedicated to peace and to reason to resist the compulsion to lash out with our anger. Yes, it is natural to be angry in the face of injustice and death. However, what we do with that anger is a matter of choice. The manifestation of our choices reveals the content of our character and our dedication to virtue.
There are many among us now who would justify bringing the weight of American power against Libya for the crime perpetrated in Benghazi. After all, this was a city that was saved from certain genocide by NATO forces. Indeed, we should remember this in the face of those who would perpetrate their own genocide in response to the death of Christopher Stevens and others working in the US embassy. After all, this is not a simple instance of “us against them” of “we rescued them from despotism and they repay us by killing our people.” The “we’s” and the “they’s” are not so clear cut. Like all matters of sociology and history, the truth is a complex matrix of interlocking and interacting phenomena that muddy and roil the clarity of our angst.
I responded to a friend of mine who had stated, “if it was up to me that place [Libya] would be dust by now,” by linking photographs of Libyans apologizing for the crimes committed in their name (click the link in the picture above). My friend defended his position
by suggesting that those in the pictures represented the minority opinion in Libya. He knew, just knew that the Libyan people as a whole hate us. After all, there are “thousands” in the street protesting the United States. To be honest, I didn’t know if he was right or not. So I looked for data to confirm or to refute his claim. It didn’t take long to find. I was shocked to learn that Gallup conducted a poll in Libya just last month that revealed, “Record high support for US leadership.” According to the website, “U.S. support for the Libyan revolution may have generated an almost unprecedented level of goodwill toward the U.S. In 2012, 54% of Libyans approve of U.S. leadership — among the highest approval Gallup has ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region, outside of Israel.”
That being said, there is a long and complex history between the United States and other western cultures, and Libya and Islamic cultures. There are those who oppose American leadership who, for defensible reasons, fear that US support for the revolution is nothing more than a cynical attempt to secure its own hegemony. Some in Libya benefited from the Gadhafi dictatorship and are sorry to see their erstwhile tyrant gone. Others are in pursuit of their own cynical ends.
We cannot discount the myriad interests of perhaps hundreds of groups within Libya that are now suddenly thrust into a competitive power vacuum. As much as we would like to understand Libya in terms of a stable political and cultural entity, such is not an accurate description of this country. Libya, as a society, has been shattered and destabilized by revolution. Revolutions, even against brutal dictators, more often than not, lead to social destabilization and all of the privations that go with it. In such an environment, social groups vie for power and status, incorporating the disempowered and consolidating position within the cultural power structure. There are those who would use animosity, distrust and discontent with regard to the United States and to the west to cultivate their power. For such groups, violence is nothing more than a means to an end. It demonstrates that they have the guile to strike against the most powerful force in the world, so follow them and they will lead you to greatness.
And in Libya, these groups are armed. In the face of the attack on the US embassy, Gallup had completed another poll showing that Libyan’s overwhelmingly see the militias and armed factions within the country as dangerous. An incredible ninety-five percent of Libyans want the militias disarmed (surely the NRA would disapprove). The citizens of Libya recognize the precarious nature of their position. Armed and lawless militias can only serve to make an unstable situation more chaotic (again, surely the NRA would disapprove).
Libya is a shattered society as a result of its revolution. Indeed, the fall of Gadhafi is a crucial first step to establishing a more just and free society in Libya and the rest of the world, but it’s not the only step. Unfortunately, the purveyors of violence and anger and hatred will have their day in Libya as they always have in every uncertain age before law and order can be established by the people. As aptly expressed by Benjamin Barber of The Guardian, “In truth, this tragic murder of a diplomat who was a friend of the Libyan revolution was not a[sic] just a confounding aberration in a “city we helped save from destruction” (in Clinton’s words). Rather it is evidence of ongoing chaos that has afflicted Libya since the welcome overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime. And a symptom of just how long and perilous the path is from a revolution that decapitates a dictator to a stable democracy in which the rule of law is systematically enforced.”
Hopefully, the death of Ambassador Stevens is the last such tragedy in this shaken region. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t. However, it is not up to us, in our anger and our grief, to compound this tragedy with violent retribution. If the United States supports the revolution for the sake of freedom, justice and democracy (admittedly, a difficult speculation to justify considering our past), then we must be so dedicated that we cannot be swayed by our own anger, however righteous that anger may be. Ultimately, the establishment of a just and free society in Libya will be realized by the Libyan peopleperhaps the same Libyan people who have taken to the streets in a show of remorse. It’s likely that the Libyan version of freedom and democracy will not look like our own. We may not understand it, approve of it or even like it. If, however, we are truly committed to democracy, we must have a longer perspective. Indeed, we may have to be prepared to grieve before we can celebrate.
Pam Warhurst gave a rousing lecture on the experiences of her hometown in re-imagining their common space. This isn't just about increasing food yields, which would be impressive enough. This is about re-imagining the commons and building a community around food.
In an age where the commons is being gobbled up by the unfree market, this really is a radical concept. Capitalism assumes that there is no such thing as "the commons." The best way, according to the capitalist ethic, to order our communities is to open all resources to commodification. Maintaining and perpetuating the commons is a waste of time and money. The free market is believed to be the most efficient way to maximize our resources and our efforts. This is balderdash.
When a community ethic evolves, organically, around an ethic of the commons, a healthy and equitable lifestyle can be cultivated.
Don’t believe the balderdash about how hard the super-rich work!
Mitt Romney, by his own admission, had nothing to do with his company, Bain Capital, from 1999-2002. During that time he was organizing the Olympics in Salt Lake City. However, according to a report in the Boston Globe, Mitt Romney remained the sole shareholder, the chairman of the board, CEO and president during that time. Wow! Talk about a hardworking man! Here’s a guy who retired and yet still continued held his titles and ownership and organized the Olympics at the same time. Pretty impressive.
Not really. It is just another indicator about how hard the super-rich really don’t work. Despite some sneering on the left, it is entirely possible that Romney held all of those titles, making gobs of money, and had absolutely nothing to do with the actual functioning of Bain Capital. It’s even possible that keeping his name on the SEC paperwork was, as he himself stated, a business thing that helped Bain Capital maintain the perception of value. In this case, it was the Romney name that had value, not any real extrinsic value that was added by the labors of Mitt Romney the person.
As Gordon Gekko explained to Gus, his young protégé in the movie Wall Street, “I create nothing. I own.” Ownership requires no special effort on the part of the owner quite on a par with those who really do create things of value. In Romney’s case, it’s very likely that the actual work involved in all of his fancy titles was delegated to others, who further delegated to people who actually did work. Romney, himself, was inconsequential (remember, I’m not insulting Romney. He has stated publicly that he had nothing to do with the decision making at Bain Capital. He did no work) and yet was paid $100,000 a year.
When you take a look at what Bain Capital, and other private equity firms, actually do, you see very little actual work at the top. In essence, private equity firms purchase businesses, arguably the hard work of someone else, attract investors to put their possibly hard earned money into resurrecting that business
perhaps. They then improve the value of that company by cutting costs, which means laying off workers and cancelling pension plans, the costs of which are then taken up by taxpayers. Then, through financial sleight of hand that is the product of a government corrupted by corporate influence, they use the business as collateral for a loan, which they largely use to pay off the original investors while deducting the interest as a business expense, making the company look more profitable than it really is. Then they sell the business, taking twenty percent off the top. This income is considered capital gains, taxable at only fifteen percent. Sometimes, this process results in a legitimately resurrected business. Other times, the business collapses. Regardless of outcome, the private equity firm still grabs up its twenty percent.
The actual work is done by clerks and cubicle dwellers shuffling papers in formulaic ways and transferring funds between accounts. These workers, those who actually do the work of the private equity firm, are paid wages and salaries for which they are taxed significantly more than fifteen percent.
Gordon Gekko explained that “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth
one third of that comes from hard work.” That was in 1987, when the finance sector was on its way to accounting for six percent of America’s GDP. Today, the finance sector accounts for over eight percent of GDP and thirty percent of all corporate profits. This is the major vector by which the rich become super-rich. Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) accounts for over a third of the Fortune 400 list of America’s top companies and is the fastest growing sector of this august list.
We are expected to believe that this growth is the consequence of hard work and risk taking. In fact, it is the result of people who buy and sell America’s greatest commoditydebt.
As American wages stagnated for thirty years, the demand for a higher standard of living like that enjoyed by previous generations of Americans remained unchanged. However, previous generations experienced increases in their pay which fueled their standard of living. The last generation had no such advantage. So the demand for credit increased. This demand was fueled by the financial sector extending debt for the sake of acquiring the American dream through easier mortgages and credit cards. One might think that extending credit in such a way is bad business, but when debt itself becomes a commodity, the same rules apply as with any other commodity.
As the willingness of banks to extend credit fell, securities companies came along to buy up that debt. Banks, with more money on hand from the securities companies extended more credit. The securities companies then repackaged the debt into derivatives, the most risky becoming the most profitable, thus increasing the demand for more debt. The onus of this debt was in mortgages. As available credit increased the demand for houses, the value of home increased, convincing homeowners to reinvest in their homes with second mortgages, which increased the demand for debt.
Soon, however, the market is saturated as anyone with an inkling of financial responsibility held as much debt as they dared hold. What then? Well, the so called hard working men (largely men) at the top had a solution. Extend more credit to people who were slightly less responsible. After all, we need that debt to purchase, repackage and sell. Eventually we were looking at sub-prime mortgages aimed at less informed prospective home-buyers who were sold a bill of goods, so to speak by brokers who convinced them that they could refinance at lower interest as their home gained value. Brokers were actually given higher commissions to sign people up for sub-prime mortgages. After all, such mortgages could be repackaged into higher yield derivatives for which the hard working financiers were willing to pay top dollar. Ultimately, this largesse included the infamous NINJA (No Income, No Job) loans. We needed more debt to keep this house of cards standing long after any responsible or hardworking businessman would have said, “enough!”
As dealing in debt became more risking, companies like AIG offered Credit Default Options (CDOs) as insurance against the possibility of default on debt that was now repackaged, cut up, resorted and spread out among the financial giants. Riskier debt deals became grist to offer more CDOs, which also encouraged companies dealing in such instruments to over-leverage. After all, what was the likelihood of all of that debt collapsing? As the possibility increased, companies played a corporate financial version of hot potato, bundling their debt packages and passing them on, hoping against hope to maximize their gains before the whole system, which they knew to be unstable, collapsed.
This was not particularly hard work. It involved honeycombs of cubicle dwellers to push buttons and shift paperwork from one place to another while those who oversaw the process reaped the rewards. Indeed, overseeing such a process could be done while lounging on a beach in Fiji, sipping an umbrella drink, and tapping on a lap-top computer similar to the one I’m using now. The work of the CEO involved more nuanced schemes for repackaging debt and making the company appear to be profitable against the certainty of calamity. They did this not by working hard to set their company finance aright, but by transferring debt to subsidiaries and taking out loans and floating them for the sake of doctoring the books for the sake of the company’s investors. In the meantime, many invested in hedges against the success of their own business.
Nor was this work particularly risky. At the very top, there never was any fear that the certain collapse of the system would result in real losses. The one percent knew that the public would ultimately pay the costs of elite profligacy. We had a forty year record of doing just that. And we did.
Yet the corporate elite would like us to believe that they are where they are because of hard work and their willingness to take risks. It had nothing to do with perpetuating destructive financial schemes that required nothing more than paying someone to input data into a keyboard and paying others to lobby for less oversight on said keyboard tappers. These practices resulted in true hard working Americans losing their jobs, wages, benefits and businesses in the face of financial rape.
The Romneys of the world don’t work hard. Not compared to people like small businessmen, carpenters, mechanics, nurses, teachers, social workers, factory workers, small farmers, pickers, etc. The latter group can make the claim that what they have is the result of hard work (and yes, public investment), but not the Romneys. What the Romneys have is the consequence of utilizing status to scheme ever more lucrative means of distributing the wealth of the nation into their own bank accountsaccounts often hidden in Switzerland or the Caymans. People who “create nothing” but “own” everything, know nothing about hard work.
NOTE: The link for the graph in Figure 1 is Here
A Complex Position
I was caught in a difficult paradox for many years. This paradox was, I believe, an intentional and ingenious discursive formation concocted during the first Persian Gulf War. It was the paradox of supporting our troops while opposing war. Exactly how could I, as a peace advocate and activist, claim that I support our soldiers while at the same time oppose their actions? How did I resolve this seeming contradiction? I’m afraid I’ve never had a particularly good answer. I may not have one still.
I felt compelled to address this paradox, however, after reading an article from Truthout. The author, Camillo Mac Bica, suggested that, from his perspective as a former marine with combat experience, being thanked for his service is “inappropriate.” Among his many reasons for this conclusion was, “it reminds me that many of those who feel the need to offer thanks were apathetic about – or even supportive of – the war, while they refused to participate themselves or did little or nothing to end it.”
Reading this article reminded me of Howard Zinn’s famous essay, The Greatest Generation, written for The Progressive Magazine in 2001. Zinn was responding to Tom Brokaw’s claim that those who fought World War II were, by virtue of their service, the Greatest Generation. In the essay, Zinn gave his own nominations for that honor, none of which supported the aims of war.
That these authors, Zinn and Bica, were combat veterans lends legitimacy to their claims. Their battlefield experiences tempered their peace activism. They were there. They knew what it was like. They earned the right to their position.
Folks like myself, or recently Chris Hayes, must tread more lightly on the subject of war. We’ve not born the burden of combat. It is incumbent upon us to qualify our anti-war positions with a sincere exultation of the troops who serve. This qualification complicates, one might even say “negates,” the anti-war/pro-peace position. When I rail against bombings, civilian casualties, even massacres such as Haditha, or other human rights violations such as those of Abu Ghraib, these events are conducted by our troops, the very soldiers I’m expected to laud as heroes. Yet how can I not stand against any perpetration of inhumanity?
I experienced this paradigm for the first time during protests and anti-war forums in which I participated during the First Gulf War. President H. W. Bush itched to be a wartime president, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq provided the opportunity. Bush in the late eighties and early nineties, however, still faced what was known as the Vietnam Syndrome, the unwillingness of Americans during the post-Vietnam Era to commit to a formal war. President Reagan before him, according to the book Drift, by Rachel Maddow, tried desperately to engage a war in Nicaragua, but met resistance in Congress due to this national “syndrome.”
President Bush, on the other hand, developed a brilliant propaganda machine justifying his war. Saddam Hussein was the contemporary equivalent to Hitler, and Kuwait was falsely presented as an ill-fated democracy and the victim of Iraqi atrocities. The Bush propaganda machine was well greased. In July of 1990 Saddam Hussein was assured by the US Ambassador, April Glaspie, that the United States had “no opinion” with regard to Iraq’s “border dispute with Kuwait.” She claimed that Secretary of State James Baker affirmed this “no opinion” policy. Thus, the door was open for the invasion of Kuwait. This story was hardly elaborated by the press. The Pentagon reported that Iraqi forces were amassed at the Saudi border, presenting an imminent threat to US interests. The St. Petersburg Times uncovered that this was a lie. General Colin Powell himself later confirmed this report, yet this duplicity never became the national scandal that it should have been. After all, the United States was at war, and one should never question a war-time president.
The propaganda machine insisted on “support your troops.” You don’t have to support the war, for that is your right, but you must support your troops. Any attempt to highlight the above-mentioned lies, or to point out that the Iraqi military at that time was largely supplied by US weapons, or to deny the merits of the nature of war itself, might destroy the resolve of our soldiers in the field. Protesting was equated with stories of Vietnam protestors spitting on returning veterans. Supporting the troops meant keeping one’s mouth shut regardless of legitimate arguments against US military intervention in Iraq.
It was a spectacularly successful discursive arrangement. There was relatively little protest against the Persian Gulf War. The protests that I took part in were often shouted down by “patriots” and presented by the media as disloyal. That being said, the prospect of protest was still a motivating factor for the Bush Administration. The fear of growing peace protests predicated a policy of a quick, well-defined war. Under the military leadership of General Colin Powell, the war ended within seven months. Once the Iraqi military was pushed from Kuwait, the Bush Administration declared victory and started the parades. A significant protest movement had no time momentum. Consequently, the Vietnam Syndrome was over.
The great American dissident, Noam Chomsky, once said, “…the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support Our Troops’ is that they don’t mean anything […] that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.” And we weren’t allowed in any real way to debate the merits of war on a national stage.
This orthodoxy remains, even after our disastrous military experiences of the last decade. Indeed, the insinuations of the propaganda machine are even more insidious. After 9/11, and the consequent fear and doubt instilled by the attack, our leadership engaged in medieval definitions of good vs. evil, with-us-or-against-us, rhetoric feeding on and reinforcing a state of national paranoia. Fear is the default paradigm of tyranny. Fearful subjects are not thinking subjects, are not independent subjects. Fearful subjects hate and are willing to abandon their own interests to the fulfillment of their hate.
According to the new machinations, the only thing protecting us from evil and securing our liberties is our troops. To suggest otherwise, or to suggest that there might be other factors involved, is not only un-American, but it is aid and comfort to the terrorists. Because of this, we must support our troops at all cost lest our very freedoms be lost to terrorism.
On March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew were flying over My Lai hamlet in Vietnam. There they witnessed US soldiers of Charlie Company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, slaughtering unarmed peasants. Thompson intervened in the massacre, even to the point of ordering his crew to fire on Charlie Company if necessary. He saved over fifteen Vietnamese that day.¹
How does the juxtaposition of Calley’s and Thompson’s stories as soldiers complicate the “support the troops” paradigm? On one hand we have Lt. Calley’s actions. Certainly, Calley is far from a hero, but sociologically his actions cannot be isolated from the insane realities in which he and Charlie Company acted. On the ground, they suffered casualties from a virtually invisible enemy. They lived in constant fear and stress from combat. Charlie Company developed cohesion within a matrix of the inhuman complexities of war. Under any other circumstances, Calley and the soldiers of Charlie Company would have been our neighbors, perhaps not heroes, but certainly not villains. Many of the same constructs that shaped the lives and influenced the actions of Charlie Company, however, also shaped WO. Thompson and his crew. Yet Charlie Company committed atrocities, while Thompson’s crew demonstrated profound valor. It’s impossible to understand the subtle variables at play that manifest such different outcomes. Yet, it is impossible to explore such stories when the only acceptable avenue is “support your troops.”
This is further complicated by the stories of Haditha, or Corporal Bradley Manning or any of a number of Medal of Honor winners? Are they all worthy of support? The same support? What do we mean by support? Should “support” imply blanket approval of Calley and Thompson? Do we support all of the troops by default under the assumption that all soldiers are potential Thompsons, only to withdraw our support from the inevitable Calleys who arise from any combat experience?
How do we demonstrate that support? Is it “support” to sit back silently while our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives are put in harm’s way for a cause that we don’t believe in; or worse, for a cause that we know to be a lie? This is, of course, what our elite establishment means by the phrase. On the other hand, might those of us in the peace movement make the claim that true support for our troops means honoring them enough to ensure that their lives are only put on the line when it is absolutely necessary?
“Support our troops” is, as expressed by Chomsky, a meaningless phrase with horribly meaningful consequences. Refrain from dissent is not “supporting the troops” any more than is silently allowing our troops to die or to kill for a lie. Of course we support “the troops”, our friends and family, even if we disdain the work for which they are tasked. We support the troops as we support any man or woman who endeavors to uphold their humanity in the face of inhuman conditions. At the same time, we abhor the conditions that task their humanity. There is no contradiction. Also, there is no contradiction in abhorring the atrocities committed by those who lose hold of their humanity while at the same time holding out our hands to those same people in order help them regain their human consciousness.
Our feelings regarding war and those who serve are impossibly complex. Any attempt to simplify the discourse is a limitation on our ability to comprehend the reality of what is being done in our name. In short, it is the perpetuation of a lie. That is the point of propaganda. The best propaganda minimizes the complexity of the human drama and packages it in such a way that the intricacies become invisible, imponderable. That way, we no longer have to think. All we have to do is blindly support the whims of the elite
to our own destruction.
¹For his efforts, Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, the citation for this medal included a lie about saving a girl in the midst of “crossfire,” thus falsely insinuating that the victims of Mai Ly were armed. Because of this lie, Thompson threw his medal away.
In a Global Marketplace, why pay taxes when you can use a nation’s resources for free?
In 1993 a young Eduardo Saverin was brought to the United States because, in Miami, the tax supported police force and justice department would keep him safe from being kidnapped and held for ransom.
When Eduardo grew up, enjoying the fruits of taxpayer funded infrastructure, rooting for taxpayer subsidized sports teams, this talented young man went to Harvard University. Despite being a private institution, Harvard received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal government.
There he met Mark Zuckerberg. Together, these friends developed a business plan that made use of the internet, a technology developed at taxpayer expense, and associated software, also subsidized by taxpayers. This plan sold advertising space on a social networking cite transmitted to user’s computers, another taxpayer subsidized technology, via taxpayer subsidized communication lines.
This business idea was so successful that it recently went public on the stock market, an institution kept afloat when taxpayers spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the corrupt finance industry after they wrecked the world economy.
However, shortly this company when public, from which Saverin was expected to make billions of dollars, he gave up his American citizenship
in order to avoid paying taxes on the resulting income. After all, if he was forced to pay a whole 15% on the $4 billion he was estimated to make from Facebook’s IPO, that would only leave him with a measly $3.4 billion. And who can live on that?
A true American success story.
The Long Life and Career of Reagan’s Welfare Queen
A colleague of mine, responsible for selling items at my high school, explained to me that some students try to con her out of her wares. They will use such gimmicks as claiming that they already paid, but did not receive the item, or maintaining that their parents or another party purchased the item and they are there to pick it up for them.
She was not clear about just how many students attempted this, but she was adamant about the nature of the problem. “It’s all of those kids who have spent their lives getting handouts. They think they are entitled to getting everything for free.” She leaned in close to me and astutely pointed out that “they can afford two hundred dollar cell-phones, though.”
She must have been especially astute, as I’m not sure how she knew that the students who were trying to get free stuff, in fact, received welfare at all, let alone all of their lives. Did she really keep track of the cell phones of such students? If so, how did she know that the students, themselves, or the parents, purchased the two hundred dollar phones? Perhaps, the phones were gifts, or provided by other family members? In other words, where did she get the data from which she drew the conclusion that those students who tried to con her were the children of welfare abusers?
Of course, she had no such data. What she had was a meme, a basic explanatory idea that has spread through American culture and often is taken as unquestionably true. The meme is not true. It is nothing more than an incarnation of Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queen,” presumably based on the story of a real welfare recipient who ingeniously ripped off the taxpayers to the tune of $150,000 a year. The welfare queen, however, is more a model than an actual person. She is a woman of color, often black, but increasingly Hispanic. She has multiple kids. She drives to the welfare office in her Cadillac to pick up her entitlement check.¹ She has been living like this all her life and has little incentive to work.
Reagan gave his famous “welfare queen” speech in 1976. A study published in 1979 by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed the so-called Welfare Queen was largely a myth. Welfare was not the easy route to the high life, as state disbursements were still below poverty level. Hardly an incentive to remain idle. Most welfare recipients in the 1979 study (USDHHS Aid to Families with Dependent Children: A Chartbook) had been receiving benefits for less than two years and almost seventy percent had been on the rolls for less than three years. The lifetime welfare recipient was a rarity. Welfare recipients had only about two children. They were not pumping out the babies to increase their check, as the additional welfare income was insufficient for covering the costs of added children.
As for creating a cycle of dependence and a loss of incentive to work, research around that time was clear. There was no difference in the work ethic between poor people and middle class people. Even during the 70’s and 80’s, most poor families had a history of work, and were often cast into poverty as a result of job loss, disability or desertion of a spouse.
Were there people who abused the welfare system? Of course. An intrepid enough scammer can game or rig any system created by man. Perhaps there were some who may have deserved the title of Welfare Queen, though at the time most poor families were male headed, but they were a significant minority. Less than .5% of welfare cases were referred for fraud prosecution. The study was not clear as to how many of the defendants were found to be guilty.
In 1996 the Welfare Queen took a significant hit in her ability to milk the taxpayer and spend her life on the dole. Since 1996 states have been committed to reducing their caseloads, often without regard to economic contingency such as, oh, a collapse of the global economy. The poor were expected to find jobs even if there were no jobs to find. In Florida, the maximum allowable time receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is forty-eight months, at which point the family is no longer eligible, regardless of work status. Currently, 92% of welfare recipients in Florida have been on the rolls for two years or less.
In four years the Welfare Queen can look forward to receiving a whopping $303 a month to satisfy her lavish lifestyle. How will she ever spend all of that money? Of course, she can always drive her Cadillac to the welfare office. If it’s a 1995 Cadillac. In the state of Florida vehicle assets can be worth no more than $8,500.
Yes, Mike, but you are forgetting that there is no limit for children. The Welfare Queen simply pops out the kids every time her eligibility is up and she gets to extend her time on the dole. Well, perhaps someone should tell her that, because the average welfare household in Florida, as well as in the has less than two children and less than three household members.
Memes, or what we sociologists like to call Social Constructs, often take on a life of their own. Ronald Reagan’s construction of the Welfare Queen has been shaping our understanding of the poor in America for the last thirty-seven years, and we thought she was unemployed. Unfortunately, the constructed meme was based on a faulty premise
a lie. When we accept, without question, a flawed or distorted meme, that construct shapes our perceptions of the world. In the case of my colleague, her acceptance of the Welfare Queen myth, whether she knew it or not, had a reflexive impact on her own understanding of reality. The construct influenced her into accepting as fact a distortion of reality that reinforced the original construct.
Too often, such constructions become the premise for policy that has negative implications for real people.
¹ Indeed, the “driving the Cadillac to the welfare office” meme has taken on a life of its own. Many people whom I’ve spoken to claimed to have seen this phenomenon themselves.
On Learning from Tragedy
If we are to gain anything positive from the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin it must be not only in the re-evaluation of the infamous Stand Your Ground laws (SYGs) that are spreading throughout the country, but rather in an assessment of law in general. The Trayvon Martin case highlights the inherent flaw in this and many other popular laws.
The nexus of this flaw is the assumption that in all criminal interactions there is a clear good-guy (victim) and a clear bad-guy (victimizer). The victim is righteous in his actions, while the victimizer is intent on villainy. Those who wrote, sponsored and voted for the Stand Your Ground law in Florida were intent on leveling the obvious injustice in requiring the good-guy to run away from the bad-guy. Clint Eastwood never ran. John Wayne never ran. If I’m in my home, watching television, when suddenly the door bursts open and a thief/murderer/rapist enters, I should be within my rights to shoot him without question.
It’s easy, especially by virtue of American culture, to embrace such an idea. However, human interaction is rarely ever that clear and the roles taken on by people are, more often than not, not so dichotomous as the victim/victimizer roles seen on television. Human interaction is wrought with complexity, emotion, pre-conceived notions, personal history, biological imperatives, socialization, cultural lensing, faith and a myriad other variables. The sinner oft justifies his iniquity, and the villain is never evil in her own eyes.
Such was the case with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It’s likely that the victim/victimizer roles in this interaction were hopelessly confused. It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired between these two actors, but let’s assume that neither Trayvon nor Zimmerman are evil.
Zimmerman is described as a self-appointed neighborhood watch. Apparently, his neighborhood was subject to break-ins and theft, so Zimmerman took it upon himself to help. In any other context we might define this behavior as community oriented, even altruistic. He wanted to be a police officer, revealing a protective “instinct” if you will. Perhaps there are more selfish motives, an overblow sense of authority and the pursuit of status. Indeed, it is likely that Zimmerman held culturally reinforced ideals of manhood.
He sees Trayvon, an unfamiliar face, walking through the neighborhood. And let’s not pander and mince our words. He saw an unfamiliar black face in the neighborhood. Trayvon was a young black man who did not belong. Perhaps Zimmerman is not a racist, but the society in which he was socialized is racist. We cannot separate paradigms of race from our understanding of events.
Regardless, Zimmerman assumes that Trayvon is up to no good and calls the police. He knows, however, that the police will not respond in time. Trayvon is getting away. Maybe there is history of slow response time among the police. So, Zimmerman takes it upon himself to follow Trayvon and ensure that he is caught, guarantee that justice is done. From his perspective he is being a responsible neighbor, citizen and man.
Trayvon had his own perspective, however. This is often neglected in reporting this story, mostly because Trayvon is incapable of offering his perspective. Trayvon is a young man imbued with societal paradigms of manhood, right and race. He notices that an unknown man is following him. Interestingly, by virtue of the Stand Your Ground law, Trayvon was in his rights to stand his ground in the face of threat. How might this story have been different if Trayvon had a gun and used the Stand Your Ground law to justify shooting Zimmerman? Can we say that Trayvon had less of a right to stand his ground than Zimmerman?
Here’s where the details are lost to public knowledge, at least for now. We do not know the transaction between the two principles. It is not, however, a stretch to assume that a confrontation ensued. Trayvon’s girlfriend stated that he asked Zimmerman, “why are you following me?” Not an unreasonable question. Both men were hyped up on adrenaline, perhaps unwilling to back down. Zimmerman believed he had every right to protect his neighborhood; Trayvon was convinced that he had a right to walk down the street unmolested. Matters escalate. Perhaps they push each other, grab at each other. It’s dark. Each man is alone against a possible assailant. One man has a gun. The gun comes out. Anger. A shot. Tragedy.
Who is the good-guy? Who is the bad-guy? What are the parameters of the law in this case? Who had the right to stand his ground? How does the presence of a gun change the calculus of rights? The law was not drafted with such a complex interaction in mind. Yet most violent interactions align closer to this more complex story than to the storied victim/victimizer interaction. This story is that of two people acting within a matrix of decisions, actions and reactions that ended tragically.
Effective laws must take the complexity of human interaction into account. If they do not then the application of such laws can only compound tragic episodes.
How the so called work ethic is used against workers
I consider myself very fortunate. I love my job. As frustrating as the bureaucratic and political aspects of teach are I find what I do meaningful and fulfilling. I truly believe that there is no nobler profession than passing on knowledge to the next generation. Teaching is the one profession that makes all others possible. It is a rewarding profession beyond the fact that, as compared to other professionals with similar levels of education, I make considerably less money. On the other hand, I get to be a history geek for a living! How cool is that?
Of course, there are benefits that compensate for the low monetary remuneration. I get holidays, Christmas and spring vacations as well as summers off. Though I often work more than the standard eight hours, and put in time on weekends as well as my vacations, this time is largely discretionary and self-directed. This allows me to pursue other interest such as learning how to play the guitar, writing this blog, etc. I also have access to somewhat reasonable health insurance, and a pension that may actually exist when I retire.
The working conditions aren’t bad, either. Yes, the AC in my classroom is not particularly reliable, but it’s not like I’m digging ditches in the hot Florida sun all day.
Of course, I have dug ditches in the hot Florida sun. I have done many different jobs as I worked toward my current position. Over the years, I, like many Americans, have learned the real value of work. The bottom line is that much work is not very rewarding. I’ve cleaned many toilets in my time. Never once did I ever step back from that shiny commode and think, ‘wow! What a fulfilling experience. I’m so glad that I have polished this porcelain for posterity!’
That’s why I bristle when I hear hypocrites among the political and pundit class talking down to the poor, the low wage and other victims of our corporatocracy, and deign to preach about the intrinsic value of work. I become especially agitated when, in the very same speech, they advocate policies that reduce the real extrinsic value of the labor done by working people. People who make obnoxious amounts of money doing nothing more constructive than spewing political pabulum, calling teenagers sluts for daring to speak their minds, laying people off, or making over a million dollars as
an historian(?) for a securities company should have nothing to say about the value of real work. If they ever knew the value of work, they have long since forgotten.¹
Conservatives pander to the presumption that there is something intrinsically valuable about work in general. People should accept any job just by virtue of the merits of having employment. The problem with the poor is not the decrepit condition of the American job market, the low wages, benefits that are out of reach for most wageworkers, unfair labor practices and unsafe/unhealthy work conditions. The problem with the poor is that they just don’t understand the value of work. They lack a work ethic. If they would just take any job offered at any pay and be happy with that they would magically learn the value of work and be cured of the psychological disease that is the unwillingness to prosper. Therefore, the best thing to do, according to Gingrich at least, is take poor children out of class and impress them into labor, thus devaluing the hard work of custodians.
There’s an underlying theme, here. Those who are poor are so because they do not accept legitimate American values of work ethic and thrift. They are, therefore, morally responsible for their own poverty. Taking money from hard working Americans, especially wealthy Americans,² to subsidize these moral reprobates constitutes a theft from those who are exemplars of this value. Businesspeople and investors, as those who create jobs are, by this presumption, the very paragons of virtue itself.
Businesspeople and investors, especially the most successful among this group, understand the truth. The construct of the intrinsic value of work is, mostly, a lie. They know this and act on this. Perpetuating the myth of work as an ethic, however, vouches them certain advantages when playing on the job market.
Work is an exchange of resources in return for labor. It is nothing more than that. That particular work may have intrinsic meaning to particular people is is not a universal quality of work itself. After all, though I find my work intrinsically valuable, I am unwilling to work for free or for wages inadequate for lifting me out of poverty.
The corporate elite know this. As far as they are concerned, labor is nothing more than a cost of business, lines on a budget. They think nothing about the intrinsic value of work or the ethic of their employees when they lay off thousands of hard working employees to increase their stock value. There are no moral qualms to downsizing, right sizing and off-shoring. The corporate elite do not admire the resolute work ethic of those who, in off-shore factories, toil long hours under adverse conditions. They admire only the cost benefits of exploitable labor.
That the corporate elite can stigmatize the poor as having no “values” and, therefore, valueless, is a significant advantage to the employer class. People must be convinced to work not for remuneration, but for the sake of working in and of itself. We see this in the great psychological consequences of long-term unemployment. To emphasize the moral value of work, rather than the remunerative value of work, is to the disadvantage of the worker.
One who understands the exchange value of work might be inclined to demand higher wages, more benefits and better working conditions. They might feel legitimized in pursuing collective action in unions and syndicates to increase the extrinsic value of their labor. They might rail against the reality that any working person should be impoverished. In the last twenty years between thirty and forty percent of poor people had jobs or a history of working. Those who understand the value or work as an exchange will resent the fact that wages stagnate while productivity and profits increase.
When it comes to the value of work, American workers are the most valuable in the world. We work longer, harder and receive less in return than any other workers in the industrialized world. Isn’t it time that we demand fair remuneration for our true value?
¹I don’t know the work histories of the Republican candidates. Their biographies usually detail their professional experiences, not whether or not they worked their way through college delivering pizzas or cleaning bathrooms at Publix. I’m sure I could dig this information up, but frankly, I have better things to do. All I can say is if they have had these real work experiences, they certainly haven’t learned anything from them.
²That those who are wealthy are so because they work harder than those who are not wealthy is an issue for another post.
Let’s call it what it is!
What would you call an action perpetuated by one group of people on another group of people that resulted in the deaths of almost 900,000 people? What would you say if you knew that this action was almost exclusively one sided, with one side baring almost all of the casualties while the other side profits enormously?
Would you be inclined to call such an atrocity among the most violent and bloody acts of warfare in the annals of history?
Kondo, et al (graph at left), published in the British Medical Journal, using the Gini Coefficient, an established measure of inequality, concluded that this is exactly what is happening in the United States. They describe a heinous crime of unspeakable proportions expressly and conspicuously ignored by the corporate media. The Gini Coefficient is a measure of economic inequalitythe higher the number, the more unequal the society. The researchers used the Gini Coefficient to analyze the mortality rates between the United States and more equal nations like Denmark and against the average Gini Coefficient. According to their analysis, almost nine hundred thousand more Americans die every year than would have died had the United States comparable levels of inequality with other industrialized nations.
This mortality breaks down to class inequality. Those Americans with the highest income tend to live longer than those with the lowest income. Low income Americans are more likely to live in close proximity to pollutants, unsafe and unclean housing, crowded conditions. They are more likely to participate in unsafe and unhealthy jobs, killing around fifty thousand working Americans every year due to occupational injuries and related illnesses. Low income Americans are also more likely to have less access to health care and the most up to date methods of medical treatment, causing the deaths of around forty-five thousand. Low income Americans are less likely to use preventive health services, including pre-natal health care. Those at the bottom of the income ladder are also lacking in pertinent educational resources conducive to longer life and are, therefore, more likely to practice unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle choices.
Central to this discrepancy in mortality, however, is the how income inequality kills babies. Infant mortality rates in unequal societies is higher than in more equal societies, for many of the same reasons outlined above. The United States, arguably the wealthiest nation in history, leads the industrialized world in dead babies.
One out of every three deaths in the United States can be attributed to the fact that huge concentrations of wealth are in the vaults of the top 1% of households. In fact, according the Paul Krugman, we can break that top 1% down into the top 1/10%. That top 1/10-1% is doing fabulously well. There is not recession for the economic elite. They have the best of everything, including the prospects for a long and healthy life, and the probability that their children will survive into adulthood.
In essence, the top echelons of society are literally enriching themselves at the expense of the very lives of those at the bottom. This is intentional, not merely a contingency of social organization. The economic elite actively promote, pressure and coerce our representatives into exacting policies that benefit them at the expense of the lower classes. In some cases, the elite literally write the very legislation that they lobby our so-called representatives to pass. Any effort to promote the general welfare by legislating for clean environments, adequate housing, universal health care, better education, healthier and safer work conditions, a living wage, union representation, jobs programs, maternity/paternity leave, or any of a vast number of rights and privileges enjoyed by working people throughout the industrialized world is derailed by corporate lap dogs in our state and federal legislatures.
Meanwhile, poor and working people are expected to tighten their belts by the very elite that are prospering like never before. Those who are literally losing their lives as a consequence of economic inequality are being asked by the benefactors of this de facto purge to make due with less. After all, times are tough. People can’t expect to have the same quality schools and health care and housing and jobs during an economic recession
unless they’re among the economic elite, that is. They simply have to make due with less. We can’t afford the largesse that the poor and working class have grown accustomed to over the years. Never mind the fact that this system is literally killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Any suggestion that maybe the wealthy could make due with a little less is scorned by an aghast corporate class. What? We should be bribing encouraging the job creators to produce more jobs, not tax them more. When it’s pointed out that the so called job creators are deriving unprecedented profit from the lowest tax rates in generations but are still not creating jobs the response is, ‘well, obviously taxes are just too high.’ They lobby against even the slightest effort to increase revenue at their expense while proselytizing the virtues of austerityausterity that they, themselves, refuse to accept.
The calculus is simple. If the wealth are asked to give a little more, they remain fabulously wealthy and will be forced to do without
nothing. The poor, however, will die.
They know this, because they are aware of the research, that austerity policies literally kill people of the lower class. They don’t care. If the corporate elite have to create a pile of bodies to further stuff their already bloated accounts, they do not hesitate. What’s the value of a human life if that human life happens to be poor anyway. The poor and the working class are disposable, barely even human in the eyes of the corporate class. So these people actively engage in ensuring and enforcing austerity that literally kills the poor and working class while enriching themselves.
Explain how this complicity in death can be anything other than warfare? Make no mistake. The class war is very real. It is a war with identifiable casualties and deaths, including countless babies. This war is promulgated by one class against another without consequence…so far.
The greatest weapon that the elite class has against us is ignorance. Even the slightest suggestion that the US is among the worst exemplars of class warfare in the Western World is derided as engaging in “class warfare,” by the punditocracy that serves the corporate elite. Of course it is. It also happens to be true. This war has been going on for generations. It’s time for those of us who are losing to fight back. The first step is to recognize it and identify it for what it is
cold blooded, premeditated, violent warfare.
Images from Occupy Fort Myers Rally, October 15, 20011
Yesterday was a great day for me and for participant democracy all over the world. The Occupy movement spread worldwide as common people everywhere shouted in the face of power, informing the top tier, the top 1% (and the minions thereof) that we know that we are being exploited. We stated informed the world that we are not going to stand by idly any more. While the global elite bask in the rewards that they reap from immoral labor practices, from the destruction of environments, from endless wars and manufactured crises, from perpetual economic catastrophes, from blackmailing taxpayers into propping them up because they are supposedly too big to fail, common people are opening their eyes grift and graft that is the lifeblood of the 1%. From New York to San Francisco, Tokyo to Sydney and yes, even little Fort Myers, this movement is catching steam like nothing seen before.
“This is bigger than anything I was in in the sixties ” one man at the Fort Myers demonstrated said to his friend as we made our way around the downtown area shouting “This is what democracy looks like.”
This is what democracy looks like, at least from my little microcosm of the Occupy movement. According to the News-Press, five hundred citizens from a very conservative corner of the country showed up to protest. I would estimate that it was at least twice that many, but the reader can be the judge.
We started out at Centennial Park. We arrived to a throbbing welcome of drums. It made me wish that I had brought my own. As can be seen from the pictures, this was an eclectic gathering. Every age group from infant to elderly participated. It was a largely white crowd, but not exclusively so. Were there “hippies?” There may have been a few, but the right wing, FoxNoise stereotype of the unwashed hippy looking for a handout does not apply, and never has.
A play and parody of the Tea Party.
Contrary to the imbecile ravings of FoxNoise and the right wing punditocracy, the Occupy movement is not asking for government handouts. We are asking for government representation. An overarching theme at this march is the collusion of government and the economic elite, for which “Wall Street” is the short hand. In this, the 99ers offer a much more sophisticated critique of government than anything the Tea Party has come up with. Instead of the “government bad” mantra of the Norquist Right, occupiers recognize the problem to be collusion between corporations and government. “They got bailed out We got sold out,” was the rejoinder. It’s not about big government. It’s about a government that is responsive to the needs of the people.
I would offer that none of the people at the rally were “lazy hippies.” Perhaps if the Rushites actually showed up at these rallies they would see the truth. Of course, it’s doubtful that they would report the truth, but at least they would see it. Ahhh. Never mind!
We marched under the US 41 overpass. Here, a man in American Legion regalia heckled us. “You’ll be sorry!” He shouted. “This is what we fought against in Germany!” Well, there it was, the requisite Nazi reference. We can’t really call it a protest if someone doesn’t call us Nazis. In this case, we got it over with right off the bat. In fact, I have to admire the gentleman’s courage. He was alone, facing a line of hundreds, speaking his mind. That is also what democracy looks like. In fact, there were very few critics speaking out along our march. Most of the response we received from passersby was supportive, beeping horns with thumbs up out the window. I only heard one person lean his head out of the car and yell, “Freaks!” while he was driving. I wouldn’t put that in the same category of courage as our American Legion friend, but again, this is what democracy looks like.
Five hundred my um yeah, it was more than five hundred.
Corporate greed and monopoly, unemployment, unresponsive government, economic inequality, critiques of trickle-down economics, anti-war sentiment, end the Federal Reserve, tax reform. These are just a few of the messages presented in this march. The mainstream media and the pundit class criticize the 99ers by suggesting that there’s no coherent message, that there’s no one thing that we are focused on. This is a false criticism, a rhetorical slight. All of the above are symptomatic of unchecked excesses of corporate power, the imbalance between the representation of the elite and voice of the people. It is a single message for anyone who has the wherewithal to examine the issues, a wherewithal that the corporate media is lacks. Sorry pundit class, the message of the 99ers cannot be boiled down to a single-sentence sound bite. I guess your viewers will actually have to analyze the issues. We’re not trying to sell advertising space; we are speaking to the ages.
Interestingly, one thing that I couldn’t help but notice was the expressed conviction that those who didn’t understand the Occupy movement were brainwashed by the corporate media. Of course, this is the very same critique made by the Tea Party and the right wing, only they use the terms “liberal media” or the Palinesque “lamestream media.” If nothing else, this demonstrates a consensus that there is something awry with American media.
Nobody wants to do away with corporations. (all right, maybe some want to do away with corporations, but not all of us) We want corporations to stop corrupting our government.
Wow! Poignant. Almost a Foucaultian critique.
Our first stop was the Bank of America building. If there is a company that is emblematic of corporate excess, it is Bank of America.
This dog was off the leash and walked with us the entire way. I’m not sure who the owner is, but what a good dog. I think he was hoping to take a bite out of bankster.
So much for the America hating hippy stereotype.
This was a huge gathering, but very organized. We made room for drivers who were just trying to go their own way, often stopping our march to let them pass. Some of us at the head of the line even picked up a fallen table at one restaurant before the line of marchers reached that point. On one hand, it was a helpful thing to do, on the other hand, we did not want the Occupy movement to be accused of “knocking over tables at a local restaurant.”
Our next stop was the Wells Fargo central bank.
This gentleman’s t-shirt caught my eye. It’s a picture of Bush W stating “I screwed you all. But thanks for blaming the black guy.” Poignant. A reminder of this crisis’ origins as well as a racial critique. To what extent does race play in blaming Obama for an economic collapse that happened before his administration?
Past the Federal Building.
Notice the critique of big government. Liberalism is not about a big government that takes care of everyone, as the right-wing punditocracy would have you believe. Liberalism is about a government responsive to the people. There were two masked gentlemen on this march. The other wore a shirt labeled “socialist.” According to the right wing, one person identifying as a socialist means that everyone was a socialist. Of course that’s ridiculous. Everyone, however, did have their say. Oh, and socialists are against big government as well. Critics of socialism often know nothing of this philosophy.
The police presence was very light and very professional. Yes, in New York and other places there are plenty of examples of bad police behavior. I’m sure there are also examples of bad behavior among the Occupiers. Where there are enough people involved, there’s going to be bad behavior. We must remember, however, that these police officers are also part of the 99% (so to speak. I’m not statistically comfortable with the 99% designation). These officers followed us the entire way, conversed warmly with some of us, but otherwise maintained their distance and their professionalism. Kudos.
Indeed, US Senators are the most highly inflated commodity in the world thanks to Citizens United.
And this is my nomination for the best sign at the rally. This pretty much sums up the state of political debate for the last four years.
Overall, this moment was a wonderful and refreshing exercise in democracy. Who knows where this is going, but if hope has been in short supply since the end of the great anti-war movements of the Bush Administration, hope is renewed today. I had the pleasure of seeing two of my high school students on the march, supporting the cause, smiling and having fun. Maybe these students can tell their friends that participating in democracy is not the kind of onerous, boring task as presented in the classroom, but rather a fulfilling adventure. Having fun. This is the advice of the late, great Howard Zinn. Protest should be fun.
Another friend of mine, an immigrant from the former Soviet Bloc, told me, “I feel so energized now. For so long I was feeling so depressed. I kept asking, ‘why aren’t we in the streets?'” Well, we are now in the streets. Let’s stay there. Democracy is of the streets. Democracy is a movement of the people, not a function of government. This is what democracy looks like!
Despite conservative rhetoric of “freedom” and “fiscal responsibility” the truth is that the right has always been a staunch defender of elite interests at the expense of the common man
Before you start reading this post, please, I implore you, don’t take my word for anything that I’m about to say. This Journal is not meant to be an ideological stump for or against any particular party. My admonishment of “conservatism” should not be construed as an attack on Republicans or support for Democrats. It is a critique of a political philosophy that emerged to challenge the Enlightenment liberalism that spread through Europe in the 18th century and evolved in the 19th century. I’m not saying anything radical or contentious. Go into the history on your own and challenge the ideas presented in this or any other post.
Conservatism as a philosophy exists for one reason and one reason only
to protect the interests of the elite class in any given society. Of course, this is not the manifest testament of conservatives themselves. Nowhere in the conservative literature, not on a single brochure, will you read “The purpose of conservatism is to perpetuate elite interests.” Rather, this is a latent function of what might otherwise be considered sensible, enlightened, even “liberal” philosophy. But make no mistake, conservatism is successful among the elite in our society not because of some sense of noblesse oblige but because it is instrumental in maintaining power over others.
Central to conservatism is a nuanced view of freedom that sounds enlightened and sensible, but upon examination sets the majority of a population up for exploitation without recourse. According to conservatives freedom is a legal construct through which the individual is free from undo government coercion. Yes. This sounds good. Who wants to be subject to government coercion? So any contradiction of this philosophy is immediately attacked as a defense of tyranny.
To the conservative, the Enlightenment principle of the individual as a rational actor is a fundamental assumption. Without the aforementioned legal constraints the individual is free to pursue his own interests. His success or failure hinges only on his personal aptitude and commitment. The individual is free to pursue his interests without regard to the exploitation of others because the underlying assumption is that all individuals are free to not be exploited. Therefore, if one is exploited, it is by virtue of her own consent and acceptance.
So if someone rises to the top of the social hierarchy it is because they are successful in their endeavors to do so. He rises through the ranks of the existing institutions and achieves his personal level of aptitude. The existence of successful people, the wealthy, the powerful, proves that success is possible if only one works hard enough. So there is nothing wrong with existing institutions. In fact, the existing institutions are the natural result of aggregate individual success. For the conservative it’s important to define success within the traditional framework. For this reason, conservatism often serves as a defense of the traditional institutions and values, regardless of the nature of those values.
Challenging traditional institutions and values is challenging the very stability of society itself. So stability is the final core attribute of the conservative mindset. During the French Revolution conservatism defended the inequitable Estate System and the position of the king as a divine ruler premised on the instability that was being created by radical, liberal elements at the head of the revolution. In fairness, the Reign of Terror lent substance to the conservative argument that the rabble was incapable of ruling itself.
Most of this sounds pretty reasonable. In fact, there are aspects of the conservative definition of freedom and individualism that most liberals can appreciate. But absent from the conservative discourse is a concept of the legitimacy of power. That’s where conservatism and liberalism really depart. According to the conservative philosophy those who are in power deserve to be in power (unless they are liberals, in which case they are usurpers or conspiracists). Their ability to exploit others is a benefit of their superior acumen. The common individual is responsible for ensuring that he is not exploited. There is no responsibility of the state, no legitimacy of government in interfering with the power of one man to exploit another man as this is simply the product of the interaction between autonomous individuals. The exploited is so because he is incapable of being the exploiter. Nothing more.
That’s where you see the cold heart of conservatism. Freedom is the freedom to exploit those who are exploitable. Individualism justifies this exploitation as a central tenant of the capable ruling the incapable, those on top deserving their position due to their individual superiority. Existing institutions and traditional values are not to be challenged because those who are at the top of the social hierarchy are there because of their ability to maneuver within the existing institutional and traditional order. A challenge to that order is a challenge to the foundations of the social elite. Stability means accepting your social position because you are just not good enough to have the same rights as the elite.
Any problems that might exist within the society are, according to the conservative, not a matter of injustice, power discrepancies or wealth inequalities. Instead, existing social problems are the natural consequences of straying from traditional values and power alignments (in other words, liberalism). It is, therefore, incumbent upon the citizen to go back to a presumed golden age when all was as it should be and the traditional values were respected. Of course, this requires the construction of a nuanced mythology. In the United States this mythology is manifest in the idolatry of the Founding Fathers and the elevation of the Constitution as a sacred text rather than a legal parchment and claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
It makes sense, then, that conservatism would be embraced by the power elite. Conservatism is the apologist philosophy for elite excess. In every nation, and every culture elite groups perpetuate their self-interest by asserting that those elements and structures of the society that serve the ruling class are right and natural, even God given. In Soviet Russia the conservatives were the members of the Communist Party insisting that theirs was the only path to a truly Marxian society (a path which Marx himself would have abhorred). In Iran the conservatives are fundamentalist Shi’a Muslims who claim to be ruling in the traditions of Muhammad. In the United States and much of the western world the conservatives are the free-market elitists who insist that the long discredited “invisible hand” is all that is needed for prosperity to flow. Only in the United States the conservatives add a hint of Christian fundamentalism and John Wayne style individualism to their discursive formations.
Indeed, the concept of the free market is instructive of how conservatism evolves as the composition and desires of the power elite changes. Originally, free market economics was a centerpiece of radical liberalism. Think about it. At the time, economic and political power was vested in the landed elite and in the king who stood at the apex of the mercantilist pyramid. All economic functions served to empower the nation. And those investments served to enrich the noble class. But changes were taking place in the European market that was vesting a growing amount of economic power into the hands of common people. The Black Death devastated the population, increasing the value of individual labor and liberating serfs from the land. At the same time labor shortages required investment in technologies that could compensate for the dearth of man-power. These merchants accumulated capital, which they invested in other ventures including vast resources that were becoming available in the New World, like cane sugar, tobacco and, yes, beaver pelts. Thus, within the Third Estate, was a growing class of wealthy commoners who could compete with the anemic nobility socialized to rest on their inherited laurels.
This tertiary class became invested in the development of market forces rather than mercantilist forces. They became invested in divesting the power of the king and the nobility in shaping the economy to the merchant mastery of supply and demand. Enlightenment ideas of freedom, rights and rationality spread throughout Europe. The rising merchant class had access to these unorthodox ideas as they had disposable income through which to educate their children and to acquire knowledge through the second of the great information revolutions, the invention of the printing press. They developed a concept of capitalism that justified and defined the actions of the common people. Imagine a radical, liberating philosophy that took the power of the economy out of the hands of the noble class and vested it in the hands of individual human beings who were rationally pursuing their economic interests for maximum wages to purchase the highest quality goods for the lowest possible price. This radical liberalism was elaborated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations and it was a powerful force in the world.
Indeed, it was one of the driving forces of the French Revolution and subsequent revolutions throughout the nineteenth century. Governments became liberalized during this time, empowering parliaments and legislators over kings and nobles. Nations rose and found themselves competing with each other for market share. Capitalism and the capitalist class became irrepressible social variables. The conservatives of the time, having established the failed Congress of Vienna to ensure the end of liberalism and protect the royal establishment, railed against the dangerous capitalist class. But they could not deny the vast accumulation of wealth and power that was the reward for industrialization. By the time the nineteenth century ended, capitalism was the driving force of the nation state and the primary mechanism for personal and class enrichment. As the capitalist class grabbed the reins of power the free market was embraced by conservatives
and abandoned by liberals.
It didn’t take long for liberals to realize that their assumptions about the power of liberated markets were wrong. They discovered that there was nothing inherent in the old nobility that made them exploitative and no innate goodness to the erstwhile common merchants that made them magnanimous to the plight of working men. There was little difference between the royal courts and the corporate boardrooms. The problem wasn’t who was in power. The problem was power itself. Consequently the same injustices perpetuated by the Estate System of old were reproduced under the fat feet of the Robber Barons and the new class system. Modern liberalism was born, as was modern conservatism.
Liberals recognized the growing injustices and inequalities of the new capitalist class, yet did not all speak in the same voice. Socialists railed against economic inequality and injustice and attempted to inspire mass movements and unions to impel government to act on behalf of the suffering masses. If government was representative of the people then it should represent all of the people, including working people. Communists declared war against the class system itself, understanding that government was subservient to class interests. Progress lay in the creation of a class consciousness that could rise up against and destroy the capitalist class. Anarchists abandoned the very concept of class and government, believing that individuals should govern themselves at the community level. Populists emerged from the agricultural centers decrying the land grabs of the big cartels and the inelasticity of the gold standard. Progressives emerged as a moderating voice, enlisting government to level the playing field between the working man and the wealthy elite.
Each of these movements, among many others, represented a challenge to the capitalist status quoa challenge to elite interests. It was the corporate elite and their middle management minions who benefited from laissez-faire policies that allowed them to exploit workers, including children, despoil the ecology, lie about their products and steal from the nation. The last thing they needed was for the rabble to be roused against this fruitful schema of trusts, monopolies and conglomerates. Every position taken by conservatives can be understood through this frame of perpetuating elite interests, specifically capitalist elite interests.
Look at child labor. Progressives pursued the end of this travesty, claiming that children should be in school or on the playground, not bent, broken and mutilated in the factories. The conservative response was one of outrage; after all, child labor was and remains a significant part of the capitalist-industrialist program. Children are easy to exploit, being powerless in most societies; they are small, which makes them easy to intimidate and to fit into small places. Best of all, if a child gets ground up in the mechanisms, or crushed in the mines, they don’t do as much damage to the machines and are fairly easy to replace. The nineteenth century capitalists loved child laborers. Then there were those progressives suggesting that this practice was abhorrent.
Of course, conservatives couched their defense of this indefensible practice in populist terms. After all, if children were forced to go to school rather than to the factories, their families would be denied that income. Sending poor children to school was bad for poor people. When one time reformer turned conservative John Edward Taylor wrote, “though child labor is evil, it is better than starvation,” he was reflecting the pseudo-populist refrain of protecting the poor without giving mention to the evil of the very existence of poverty in a society awash with wealth. These arguments continue today with regard to efforts to reform the global economy. One website, which I have lost the reference to, concluded, “in some cultures child labor is the difference between true hunger and abject poverty.” No consideration was given to the legitimacy of such extreme poverty in the same world where multi-billionaires squander untold fortunes on rare car collections and fine porcelain.
And this is the genius of the conservative paradigm, the ability of its claims-makers to convince common, working people to support programs that are opposed to their own best interests. They do this by appealing to common themes and traditional values that instill a sense of stability to the majority of the population. The fact is that if most people face the prospect of giving up their rights or their stability, they will often surrender their rights. This is a perfect truism for conservatives as stability, pursuit of the status quo, most often serves the interests of the elite groups. Conservatives are safe to frame their arguments in religious terms, in defense of family and a vaunted work ethic that sustains profits but does not generate fair wages. They present themselves as the voice of the “people” while liberals are disconnected elitists who are trying to take the working man’s hard earned money and give it to some deadbeat on welfare. And to be honest, liberals often set themselves up for this critique.
Yet if you look at the history of conservatism over the last hundred or hundred and fifty years or so you will find that in almost every case it was the right that was on the wrong side of history. Slavery? Conservatives fought vehemently to protect the peculiar institution for the sake of the poor blacks who would never be able to take care of themselves if they were free. Labor rights? Conservatives detailed how paying workers a fair wage and ensuring safe and healthy working conditions would mean putting millions of people out of work, relegating them to poverty? Housing? If builders had to build quality buildings every time there wouldn’t be enough housing for people? Food safety? The market will regulate food safety, after all, consumers wouldn’t buy a product that wasn’t safe. Women voting? Women are too busy taking care of their children and husbands to pay attention to politics, which they are too emotional and unreasonable to understand anyway. Universal male suffrage? Really? Do you want the unwashed masses deciding who is going to be your senator or even president? Obviously the propertied class has more at stake when it comes to voting. Social Security? We can’t be expected to pay people not to work. Civil Rights? “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Desegregated Schools? You can’t force poor black children to sit in schools where white students will hate them. War? Yes. “Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb Iran!”
I could go on, but the point is clear. In every single instance we see that the positions of conservatives served the wealthy elite, from Southern plantation owners to Northern industrialists. The common man was to remain desperate and poor to provide low wages for the wealthy industrialist. Racism was perpetuated to ensure that exploited white workers and exploited black workers didn’t figure out that they were being exploited in the same way by the same people and had the same interests. The races had to be set against each other; their children could not be allowed to see the other’s humanity. Woman and non-propertied men could not be vested with political power because they might use it in ways that would not profit the capitalist class. We must squeeze as much labor as we can from the working man and avoid any responsibility for taking care of anyone. Once a worker is of no value to the corporation, she is of no value.
The very same arguments continue today. Currently, the few unions that are left are the only institutions capable of challenging corporations at the political level. So unions must be destroyed. Unions are vilified and union labor is depicted as being spoiled, entrenched and overpaid. Schools are spending too much time teaching critical thinking skills to poor people. We can’t have poor people thinking critically, so we will change the curriculum to ensure that American students are incapable of anything but filling in bubble sheets. Meanwhile, the children of the elite are sent to private schools where the same levels of “accountability” and high stakes testing do not exist. Free trade is good for the American worker. When jobs move to other countries commodities are cheaper
so there, commodities are cheaper. Everyone wins! Social Security is insolvent so instead of raising the payroll ceiling we should make working people work more years before they can retire. After all, life spans have increased (mostly for wealthy people). We are living in tough times. The working American is going to have to sacrifice and tighten his belt, but we can’t expect corporations to do the same because they are the ones who provide the jobs. What? They are not providing jobs? Well that means we need to cut their taxes more. Public sector employees need to give up their benefits and pay and collective bargaining. We expect them to work harder, because we want the best education system, police force, etc. in the world, but we are not going to pay them because that would require raising taxes. Women must be forced to have babies, because more workers, especially poor workers, mean lower wages. So no birth control and no abortions. If you don’t want to have a baby, don’t have sex. Gay marriage? We just don’t like gay people. They can’t have children, so they are of no value to the corporate bottom line
except as potential consumers. They don’t have to get married to buy stuff. Science is only useful if it confirms the dominant class hierarchy. Thus global warming is the greatest myth perpetuated on the public. Darwinism is only true when it comes to explaining why poor people are poor and rich people are rich, otherwise it’s bunk. Stem cell research is killing future exploitable laborers. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, the humanities, are all liberal conspiracy movements. Economics is cool so long as it’s free market economics. Paul Krugman doesn’t know what he’s talking about!
Conservatives have always been and continue to be on the wrong side of history. They will always be on the wrong side of history because history is the chronicle of man’s ongoing struggle for knowledge and freedom. Both variables are threatening to the established powers, and are therefore the antithesis of the conservative cause. They may talk a good game about freedom and the American way. They may wrap themselves in the flag and carry a cross over their shoulders, but theirs is not the way of freedom, but oppression. For confirmation just look at how they are responding to the growing, worldwide movement to overthrow authoritarian dictators. There’s nothing the conservative fears more than an aroused public demanding respect.