Saturday, June 23, 2012

Immoral Threats To Social Order

The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks]. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen. - Jerry Falwell, September 13, 2001
A great nation, a diverse, pluralistic, multi-ethnic land bustling with commerce, tolerant of minority religions - as long as they recognized the practical, political reality of the majority practices - was nevertheless horrified by what they learned were the very real threats posed by one small group:
I am told that, moved by some foloish urge, they consecrate and worship the head of a donkey, that most abject of all animals. This is a cult worthy of of the customs from which it sprang! Others say that they reverence the genitals of the presiding priest himself, and adore them as though they were their father's. . . . As for the initiation of new members, the details are as disgusting as they are well known. A child, covered in dough to deceive the unwary, is set before the wold-be novice. The novice stabs the child to death with invisible blows; indeed he himself, deceived by the coating dough, think his stabs harmless. Then - it's horrible! - they hungrily drink the child's blood, and compete with one another as they divide the limbs. Through this victim they are bound together; and the fact that they all share the knowledge of the crime pledges them all to silence. Such holy rites are more disgraceful than sacrilege. It is well known, too, what happens at their feasts. . . . On the feast-day they foregather with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of either sex and all ages. When the company is all aglow from feasting, and impure lust has been set afire by drunkennness, pieces of meat are thrown to a dog fastened to a lamp. The dog springs forward, beyond the length of its chain. The light, which would have been a betraying witness, is overturned and goes out. Now, in the ark, so favourable to shameless behaviour, they twine the bonds of unnameable passion, as chance decides. And so all alike are incestuous, if not always in deed at least by complicity; for everything that is performed by one of them corresponds to the wishes of them all. . . . Precisely the secrecy of this evil religion proves that all these things, or practically all, are true.
Yeah, those early Christians in and around Rome certainly were horrible, weren't they. The preceding quote, printed on the first page of Norman Cohn's classic study Europe's Inner Demons, comes from second century Latin Christian apologist Minucius Felix, putting in to the mouth of a pagan popular understanding of the practices of Christians. If nothing else, church tomorrow is most definitely going to feel a bit . . . boring, maybe? A bt further, Cohn writes:
In most societies, therefore, to say that a group practices incest, worships genitals, kills and east children, amounts to saying that it is an incarnation of the anti-human. Such a group is absolutely outside humanity; and its relationship to mankind as a whole can only be one of implacable enmity. And that is in fact how the Christians were seen in the Graeco-Roman world in the second century. That the Christian god was supposed to be worshipped in the form of a donkey points in the same direction. The explanation lies in the absolute incompatibility of primitive Christianity with the religion of the Roman state. Roman religion had always been less a matter of personal devotion than a a national cult. Ever since the days of the Republic the gods of Rome had been regarded as, collectively, its guardians - indeed, they were religious embodiments of the supernatural power and holiness which were felt to be indwelling in the Roman community. . . . [A]ny slackness in observance would bring disaster upon the whole community. Innovations could be made, and were made over the centuries, without affecting this basic attitude . . .
Under the Empire, the Roman gods were intimately associated with the imperial mission. They came to be seen as guardians of the peace and order that the Empire brought, guarantors that the Empire would never pass away. And in addition, the emperor himself was deified. . . .
The emperor and the traditional gods together upheld the Empire, and reverence for them created and sustained a unified Graeco-Roman world. It was a world from which, by the very nature of their religion, Christian excluded themselves.
Pliny the Younger called Christianity "an immoderate and perverse superstition"; Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian said the Roman authorities and people believed "the Christians are the cause of every public catastrophe, every disaster that hits the populace. If the Tiber floods or the Nile fails to, if there is a drought or an earthquake, a famine or a plague, the cries go up at one: 'Throw the Christian to the lions!'"

All this is to say that we humans seem to express a need to find those outside what is considered normal, acceptable personal conduct, and aim our rage and fear in their direction, without evidence, without thought, and without remorse. We Christians, once upon a time, were imagined to practice immoral lifestyles that were a direct threat to social peace and order. We Christians were known - not just believed but known - to practice infanticide, cannibalism, and sexual abandon. For these crimes, thousands were tortured and murdered in the name of restoring the moral order. Like Jerry Falwell, many Roman authorities thought the Christians needed to die because they obviously brought about Divine wrath.

No lesson here, I suppose, beyond the obvious.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Back To The Streets

Tomorrow is Friday.  When five o'clock comes around and you begin your weekend, remember that people died for that.

When you look in the break room and see the poster that lists your rights and the minimum wage, remember that people died for that.

When you look around and see no children working next to you, remember people died for that.

When you start to bitch about ridiculous safety regulations, remember people died for that.

When you bitch and moan about unions, those organizations that promote laziness and overpaying, that are racist and sexist and have limited vision, remember people died because they supported them.

I have mentioned that my maternal grandfather was a socialist.  One of my mother's earliest memories is being taken canvassing with her father for Norman Thomas for President.  That would have been 1928, right before her fourth birthday.  I should also mention that he was a union activist.  He went out on strike when strikers were beaten.  He tried to get people to join the machinist union when that meant he might end up in prison.  He harbored people on the run from the police and corporate goon squads, shuttling them along to other safe houses.

In 1929, like most industrial workers, my grandfather lost his job.  He found it nearly impossible to find regular work in the years before the PWA, WPA, and CCC because he was blackballed.  He was blackballed because he believed in the right of industrial workers to form unions.  He spent a large chunk on the 1930's shifting his family from place to place, using aliases, and not filing change-of-address forms and using false names in the phone book to stay a step ahead of creditors.

By the 1950's, he was head of the political action committee for the CIO for the state of Ohio.  When the AFL and CIO merged, his position became even more prominent; he shook hands with a young JFK after Kennedy gave a keynote address to a national AFL-CIO convention in DC in the late 1950's.  My grandfather told Kennedy he, Kennedy, would win Ohio because my grandfather would get members to the polls to vote for him.

I got to thinking about this, and much more, after I heard the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in favor of free-riders.  Even if you aren't a union member, you benefit from union activity, from legislation unions support, from the work and sacrifice so many hundreds and thousands before have made not only to rein in corporate excess, but ensure safe working conditions, at reasonable hours, at a fair pay rate.  People who oppose unions are free to do so, but if they do so without realizing how much of our vaunted economic success in the 20th century was built on the graves of union activists from the previous fifty years, then you just might want to check out some of our labor history.

It's a rough time for organized labor, perhaps the roughest since Reagan disbanded PATCO in 1981.  I'm guessing that despite the tough talk and promises of action from existing union organizations, we really need to start all over again.  We need to get back to basics and fight, industry by industry, business by business, factory and supercenter by factory and supercenter, for worker's rights.  We need to remind people what it is union membership, union organization, and all the work and struggle and strikes and labor riots, have brought us.

I think it's time to hit the streets.  Not in the fantasy of a massive national work stoppage.  Just go back to the way unions and management and corporations used to do things. The workers in the streets, the factory thugs breaking heads, the police wading in with batons.  Because they did all that we have weekends and limited work hours and safe working conditions and the minimum wage and no child labor.

I think labor needs to hit the streets again, to remind people what's at stake.

Lower Education

It is an article of liberal ideology that, given a choice between two sets of propositions, people will accept the propositions rooted in a bundle of methodologies and traditions that adhere to liberal principles - skepticism concerning authority; a trust that evidence, when provided the proper context, speaks for itself; a preference and priority for reasonableness in discourse as opposed to boldness, for measured, tentative, contingent conclusions rather than bald assertions that are both sweeping and final.  The reality is quite different, however.  There are always those who believe all sorts of things for which no evidence exists, and seek in the wider world evidences that will bolster those beliefs.

A case in point is the persistent belief among many on the right that higher education is not about providing a set of intellectual tools and skills for living in and understanding the world.  Rather, they insist, our colleges and universities are vast propaganda outfits, ideologically rigid, committed to a set of principles that are antithetical to our best traditions.  For evidence, they point out that some of those who teach and publish are opposed to various principles others hold sacred, whether they are religious, social, or political.  Ignoring the repeated demonstrations that higher education is about thinking, those who insist higher education is tainted beyond repair insist there are alternative narratives that are just as legitimate that run counter to those we receive from professors and intellectuals.  Whether about evolution, or God, or American history, there are cottage industries out there dedicated to creating counter-narratives to the dominant constructs.

At Religion Dispatches, historian Paul Harvey reviews a book dedicated to "debunking" some claims made by a man named David Barton.  Barton seems to see it as his mission to recast our understanding of Thomas Jefferson, his views on religion, race, and the relationship between the state and the churches and its citizens.  Throughout the review, Harvey makes it clear that, while Throckmorton and  Coulter (no relation!) have done a thorough, admirable job taking apart Barton's numerous assertions, he wonders if it is worthwhile.  Precisely because, as Harvey makes clear, Barton and those who buy his books and attend his lectures and write glowing things about him on blogs are not the least interested in history or intellectual integrity or any of those things people in higher education consider as central to their vocations, what possible good does "debunking" do?

As the recent contretemps at the University of Virginia make clear, intellectual freedom just isn't something people outside our colleges and universities either understand or value.  Convinced our educational institutions can and should be governed in much the same way as businesses, they are quite willing to destroy our best such places to prove their point.  So, too, do people like Barton mock real historical inquiry, not in pursuit of understanding as a good in and for itself, but rather aping what they believe to be the actions of their ideological opponents.  Convinced as they are that behind the paeans to the life of the mind lie some hideous, anti-American agenda, they feel absolutely not compunction pursuing their own counter-agenda, all the while doing violence to things like facts and reality and understanding.

I used to think it was possible, even necessary, to engage such folks as Barton at their weakest point: their writings.  I used to think it necessary to make clear how many people present erroneous material as fact; how many peddlers of intellectual snake oil are out there, preying on a people swamped with information, looking for answers that make sense.  Now, I couldn't care less.  Let Barton spread his fertilizer; the folks who eat it up aren't going to listen to people who present arguments against him.  I suppose there are those who feel it necessary to point out the many errors of fact and interpretation in Barton's works.  I just don't think it's a job that everyone who encounters such nonsense should do.

If we're going to move forward as a people, we need to recognize that not everyone is going to come along for the ride.  They are going to kick and stamp their feet; they are going to demand to be treated the way people who do actual intellectual work are treated; they are going to insist that they will hold their breath until they pass out unless people pay attention to them.  Let them.  Part of moving forward includes moving the conversation forward.  Stopping every time someone says something stupid would mean the whole process grinds to a halt.

Our intellectual life is part of what makes us great.  Getting in to heated "debates" with people like Barton, or making clear why the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia are on a path to destroy a once great institution  takes up valuable energy.  The folks who follow Barton won't listen; UVa will collapse under its new leadership, and what of it?  Responsibility includes recognizing that some people, alas, will never learn.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thoughts On America Series Recap

It was sparked by reading Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.  It was fed by disgust at the smallness of the vision of our elected leaders.  It was watered by anger that no one seems willing to say what needs to be said: We are a people for whom every challenge is an opportunity.  Even with no guarantees, we have always been a people who moved forward, hoping against hope that the future in ten, or fifty, or a hundred years would prove our faith.

From beginning to end:

Part I: In A Minor Key

Part II: The American Soul

Part III: The Great Divide

Part IV: How Firm A Foundation

Part V: "An Acme Of Things Accomplished"

Part VI: We Don't Need Another Hero

Part VII: Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Part VIII: "There Is No Life Without Satisfaction"

I began all this with little plan or forethought.  My wife and I spent a good deal of time talking about some of the thoughts I'd expressed here and suggested I flesh out some of the things about which we'd spoken.  Beyond stating what I believed to be the central problem that has yet to be spoken with any clarity, I really had no idea where I wanted to go.  In picking up Whitman, I found a guide not only on how to state the problem with clarity; I also saw the seeds of a possible offered solution.  Stripping Whitman of his pantheism, it is easy enough to read him in a modern idiom, to hear his deep love for and faith in the country which he had absorbed.  Even if you don't like the stuff I wrote here, I would urge any and all to find a copy of Leaves of Grass - since it's in the public domain, you can find it complete on the Internet - and read it.

My hope is, if I've done nothing else, I've made clear not only my deep love for the American people, but my abiding hope that we might yet find our voice and hands and feet once again.  We may need an elected official to challenge us; we are never, really, in need of a leader.

"There Is No Life Without Satisfaction"

The United States still has formidable strengths. Its economy will eventually recover. Its military has a global presence and a technological edge that no other country can yet match. But America will never again experience the global dominance it enjoyed in the 17 years between the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and the financial crisis of 2008. Those days are over. - Gideon Rachman, "Think Again: American Decline; This Time It's For Real", Foreign Policy,  January/February, 2011
 Is America's role as a global leader over, given inevitable decline at home? Americans are running up a $1.6 trillion budget deficit this year. The use of food stamps and unemployment benefits remains at record levels. In the last two years, unemployment rarely has dipped below 9 percent. The housing market is moribund. Gasoline is at a nationwide average of $4 a gallon. Our aggregate debt exceeds $14 trillion, up $5 trillion alone since 2009. Medicare and Social Security will soon be insolvent at the current rates of disbursement. States like California, Illinois, Michigan, and New York are almost insolvent.
These depressing indicators—coupled with the rise of a confident 1 billion person India and China—have convinced the Obama administration that America is neither ‘exceptional’ nor able to assert its accustomed preeminent leadership. Decline, not American ascendance, is the administration’s buzzword, a pathology shared with the imploding welfare state of the European Union that can no longer afford the redistribution of wealth to its Mediterranean members. - Victor Davis Hanson, "America In Decline?", Defining Ideas, June 16, 2011
I shall go with the rest,
We cannot be stopped at a given point . . . . that is no satisfaction;
To show us a good thing or a few good things for a space of time - that is no satisfaction;
We must have the indestructible breed of the best, regardless of time.
If otherwise, all these things came but to ashes of dung;
If maggots and rats ended us, then suspicion and treachery and death.
 - Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
 It is the silent question we dare not whisper too loudly or often: Is America in decline?  Are we, like all the great nations and Empires of the past, sliding down ensuing days, destined not only no longer to be a superpower, but perhaps to surrender that vague but persistent hope that our time is only a prelude to better times ahead?  Does the current economic crisis, its stubbornness, its world-wide impact, mean more than just another slump that shall, as these things do, end?  Might it be it presages the end of was called, with a sense both of boosterism and not undo hauteur, The American Century?

We are a people besieged by cares and fears.  We cannot ignore the reality of bad times.  We wonder if there will be an end.  We hear battling reassurances, conflicting remedies are offered, contradictory signs are held aloft either that we might be crawling up from where we have been or we may yet fall even further in to the pit.  Some say the solutions are easy yet not one is doing them.  Others say the solutions are difficult and require sacrifices.  Still others insist the system is rigged, and therefore must collapse.  Then, of course, we are told if we only allow things to remain as they are, repress the urge to tinker, things will get better because they do.

In all this, no one consoles us they, too, have gazed in to the abyss.  No one has told us that things, indeed, are bad; that things might well grow worse; that some of what we are experiencing lies within our ability to control while some does not.  There have been no voices that have consoled those so broken they have surrendered.

Most of all, there has not been a single speech that challenged us, telling us that even in the midst of tough times and tough choices, we may yet move forward as long as we are clear toward what we wish to move.  The platitudinous appeals to "American exceptionalism", the ridiculous reassurances without the demand not for sacrifice but for work and effort and a common striving toward a specific goal: these are the pabulum served to us by callow, terrified politicians of all parties, so frightened of the reality in which we find ourselves, they cannot give us the one things we might need.

The sad fact that things are bad.  The sad fact that there is no "answer" or "solution".  The promise that all of us, together, can make our way out of the thickets and brambles of economic desuetude* only if we do so together.  The promise that, no matter how hard it may be, we can do it precisely because it is difficult.  More than any program or policy or ideology, what the American people need is a reminder that our greatness doesn't lie in wealth or commercial cunning or military power or diplomatic finesse.  We need to remember it is just we, the people, who make America; for precisely this reason, we are a great people.  In all our differences lie our strength.  In our continental span, we find our neighbors.

We have forgotten the singular lesson of Whitman's vision of America: That we are is enough.  Who we are is a glimmer of the divine.  In what is thought of as the banal and everyday lie the source of our greatness.  For all our faults and failings, for all our crimes and misdemeanors, for all that will still plague us once these times are a distant memory, we Americans have forgotten that we, together in all our marvelous diversity and difference, are already great and powerful.  We can, indeed, rise to the challenge of the times, not at all in need of someone to lead us there.  All we need is the reassurance that what has always been the case is still the case.

*I've always wanted to use that word.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

[T]he United States is not merely dominant; it assumes imperial responsibilities and reaps the benefits that derive from them.  It is imperial in the sense that it enforces its own idea of world order in America's interest.  It presumes the right to lay down the rules of trade, commerce, security, and political legitimacy.  It assumes the burdens of global maintenance in areas that derive from the Spanish, Ottoman, British, French, Russian, and Soviet empires.  It rewards or punishes countries on the basis of their willingness to create open markets, support American military policies, and establish democratic governments.  In Iraq, the United States has erased long-standing national laws that restrict foreign investment, showing little regard for international laws that restrict the powers of occupiers.  Waging an offensive war to change the government and economic system of a sovereign country is obviously an imperial enterprise.  Doing it to consolidate one's hegemonic position and change the political culture of a sprawling, explosive multinational region halfway around the globe requires imperial ambition of a very high order. - Gary Dorrien, Imperial Designs, p.224
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''  - Ron Suskind, "Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush", New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004
Debate and discussion over whether or not the United States is an Imperial power; the extent of its Imperial reach; the ability of the United States to impose its will in a variety of areas; these have been a staple of discussions on US foreign policy for decades.  Even in the teeth of the past decade's wars, the matter of the American Imperium is a source of controversy.  With the continued assertion of American military power in southwest Asia, the creation of an African Command and the introduction of American troops in to several countries in central Africa, and on-going military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration continues, by and large, a series of military-based foreign policies begun under his predecessor.

When we talk about the fears of American decline, at least in areas related to foreign policy, very often the discussion centers around the ability of the United States to create conditions through a combination of economic, diplomatic, and military power that are in accord with our national interests.  While all nation-states attempt to do this, only the United States currently has the ability to do so on a global scale.  A decade of war, however, with diminishing popular support, as well as strained fiscal circumstances has created a situation in which the US, unrivaled globally as a military power, finds itself increasingly strained to exert a credible threat.  This isn't through lack either of will or potential power; rather, a series of policy choices over previous decades, combined with an unwillingness on the part of policy-makers to present to the public the actual political, social, and monetary costs have all reached a breaking point for the expression and extension of US diplomatic and military power.

The differences between an American foreign policy rooted in democratic accountability and one rooted in the preferences of elites geared toward supporting corporate interests is best exemplified by the idea of what became known as the "Grand Area", the integration of western Europe and the United States in to an economic and political unit.  Noam Chomsky explains:
One obvious documentary source is the series of memoranda of the War and Peace Studies Project o the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) during [World War II].  Participants included top government planners and a fair sample of the "foreign policy elite," with close links to government, major corporations, and private foundations.  These memoranda deal with the "requirement[s] of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestioned power," foremost among them being "the rapid fulfillment of a program of complete re-armament" (1940).  In the early years of the war it was assumed that part of the world might be controlled by Germany.  Therefore, the major task was to develop "an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States within the non-German world," including plans "to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States and the Western Hemisphere." (the concern for the "prosperity of the Western Hemisphere" is adequately revealed by United States policies, say, in Central America and the Caribbean, before and since; this opposition to imperial prerogatives that constrain U.S. capital and access to resources is often adduced by scholarship as evidence that U.S. foreign policy is guided by "anti-imperialist" commitment.).  These areas, which are to serve the prosperity of the United States, include the Western Hemisphere, the British Empire, and the Far East, described as a natural integrated economic unity in the geopolitical analysis of the planners. . . .
The U.S.-led non-German bloc was entitled the "Grand Area" in the CFR discussions.  Actually, a U.S.-dominated Grand area was only a second-best alternative.  It was explained in June 1941 that "the Grand Area is not regarded by the Group as more desirable than a world economy, nor as an entirely satisfactory substitute."  The Grand Area was seen as a nucleus or model that could be extended, optimally, to a global economy.  It was soon recognized that with the coming defeat of Nazi Germany, at least Western Europe could be integrated into the Grand Area.  Participants in the CFR discussions recognized that "the British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear and . . . the United States may have to take its place."  One stated frankly that the United State "must cultivate a mental view towar world settlement after this war which will able us to impose our own terms, amounting perhaps to a a pax-Americana."  Another argued that the concept of United States security interests bust be enlarged to incorporate areas "strategically necessary for world control."  It is a pervasive theme that international trade and investment are closely related to the economic health of the United States, as is access to the resources of the Grand Area, which must be so organized as to guarantee the health and structure of the American economic, its internal structure unmodified. (Toward a New Cold War, pp. 96-97)
While there continue to be disagreements as to the extent to which the positions expressed in these documents found expression in post-WWII American foreign policy, there is little doubt about two things:

1) As a practical matter,  the first quarter-century after the end of the Second World War saw the United States replace the British Empire as the primary hegemon in a variety of places, including the Middle East, Greece and Turkey; it sought to uphold French imperialism in French Indo-China and Algeria, at one point completely funding French military efforts in southeast Asia; dictate, to a large degree, acceptable limits on domestic political activity in a variety of supposed sovereign states, from Central America through France and Italy, to China, Indonesia, and the former states of French Indo-China.

2) Even as the "facts on the ground", to quote Henry Kissinger, changed in ensuing years and decades, restricting both the freedom of action as well as the realistic application of American military and other power to support American economic interests, the US continued to act as if such constraints could be overcome through the application of some combination of economic, diplomatic, and limited military pressure.

It is often suggested Chomsky's sketch of an elitist, corporate-friendly foreign policy, constructed largely outside any constraints from public input or objection is a perfect case of "conspiracy-mongering."  On the contrary, considering the wealth of documentation, it is, rather, nothing more or less than a description of the way large institutions, both public and private, seek to craft policies that are in interests of these institutions.  The impetus to do so without popular input reached crisis levels during the later years of the American war in Vietnam, when popular protest and lack of support created what continues to be called "the Vietnam syndrome."  Again, Chomsky:
By the early 1970's it was apparent that the quarter-century of American hegemony had come to an end, though the United States remained the world's most powerful state . .  . .
The recognition of the limits of American power led to the acceptance of detente by Nixon and Kissinger.  As always, this policy adjustment is conventionally described with reference to the superpower enemy but involved the other dimensions of foreign policy discussed earlier as well.  With regard to the Third World, the Nixon Doctrine sought to enlist surrogate states to preserve stability and order regionally, notably Iran and Israel in the Middle East. . . .  Detente as well was a move towards coordinated global management: China was to be incorporate within the Western system, in a sharp reversal of policy responding to Chinese initiatives, and the Soviet Union was to be a junior partner, more or less in accordance with Stalin's concept, a policy that is held to have failed on the grounds that the Soviet Union insisted upon equality.
The domestic dimension was also relevant to the move toward detente.  Not only was the United States then limited in its capacity for intervention, but more seriously, the "Vietnam syndrome" and the "crisis of democracy" had eroded the base of domestic support for intervention.  And the ritual invocation of the Soviet drive for world domination had temporarily lost its efficacy.  The efforts of the following decade to overcome this problem  . . . [include] the Human Rights Crusade, which is taken to have been a domestic success at least: "Thanks to Presidents Ford and Carter, the task of restoring our image of ourselves as good and decent people had been accomplished before the 1980 campaign," not an easy task, given the level of understanding of U.S. policy - which has little to do with "ourselves as good and decent people" except in the fantasies that perceive foreign policy as growing out aof a pluralist consensus - that had been attained by much of the general population by the early 1970's. (Ibid., pp. 29-30) 
The conflict between elite policy preference and popular domestic discord led to a decade and more in which the exertion of American military power abroad was highly constrained, although certainly not unknown.  Each time the military acted, however, there was the general agreement that the engagements should be swift, cheap, and effective.  The rapid retreat of the United States Marine Corps after a bombing at a barracks during the early-80's occupation of Lebanon is testimony to the ongoing unwillingness of elites to face popular anger.  Thus it was that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld overruled his uniformed commanders on the size of the force for the Iraqi invasion; for the composition of the troops; for the logistics for supplying such an invasion; for applying the costs for such a massive military campaign to the annual Congressional budget system.  Indeed, the refusal of any President since Franklin Roosevelt to apply to Congress for a declaration of war before deploying American troops abroad is testimony enough to the power the US public has; were elites not fearful of popular refusal to support military action, what else explains the refusal to follow the Constitution on this matter?

The wariness of elites to come clean to the American people on the potential and actual costs of military action; a refusal to have an open, frank discussion of the expansion of American military activity; the obvious strains upon military personnel and equipment; the economic, monetary, and fiscal strains our overextended military commitments place upon a country whose elected leaders continue to refuse to govern as a nation at war, even while they act as a nation at war: All these and more demonstrate the enormous distance between elite consensus, regardless of party, and popular discontent with the management and continuation of our current, on-going military engagements.

This doesn't mean the situation is hopeless.  On the contrary, precisely because our continued pretensions to world dominance overtax our resources (unless, of course, there is a dramatic reversal of domestic policies to reflect that the US continues to be at war, such as wage-and-price controls, restrictions upon corporate and manufactures to ensure they prioritize military and support construction, or even the introduction if not of universal military service, then expanding the incentives for enlisting in the US military to create a larger pool of potential volunteers), we find ourselves in the odd position of popular discontent, expressed in any number of ways, forcing the hand of policy-makers despite their preferences.  The on-going chariness American war-planners evince in offering realistic assessments of the costs of military action already demonstrates the enormous constraints under which policy makers labor; it may yet be possible to reign in even further American adventurism without, as current nonsensical discourse has it, reverting to isolationism.

With China and India and Brazil emerging as potential world powers; with the effective control of resources less and less within the political - not to say private economic - control of the United States, we may yet see ourselves with an opportunity to admit our Imperial failings, and, like our British cousins sixty years ago, surrender global governance while remaining an important, powerful actor within a broader framework that sees the US working in concert with the European Union, India, and other large, emerging states to constrain terrorist violence, expand markets for legitimate corporate activity, as well as create structures for the regulation both of transnational capital and investment and upholding broad support for a minimal set of worker's rights.

The future is the place where the United States will make good its promise.  This future need not be one where the United States is the sole superpower; working cooperatively with other states toward achieving a whole series of goals in common interest from damage from global warming through the imposition of international law by ratifying the treaty for the International Criminal Court to creating a framework for managing global economic activity are surely things that many in the US would find as worthy of our efforts, productive for all, without the enormous waste and loss of our ongoing, largely unpopular wars.  We should be clear that this alternative is one that does not diminish either the potential for political conflict, either here or abroad; rather it is one that offers opportunities to act in the larger world without any imperial designs as dictated by elites.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

We Don't Need Another Hero

The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination. - Joseph Cambell
The general similitude of individuals which renders any one of them, taken separately, an improper subject of poetry, allows poets to include them all in the same imagery, and to take a general survey of the people itself. Democratic nations have a clearer perception than any other of their own aspect; and an aspect so imposing is admirably fitted to the delineation of the ideal. - Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. III, p.115
 The true hero of the democratic poet is the nation of which he is a member, or the whole race of man to which the nation belongs. The mettlesome, proud, turbulent, brave, self-asserting young Achilles, lover of women and lover of comrades of Whitman's epic, can be no other than the American people; his Ulysses, the prudent, the 'cute, the battler with the forces of nature, the traveller in sea-like prairie, desolate swamp, and dense forest is brother Jonathan. But if the American nation is his hero, let it be observed that it is the American nation as the supposed leader of the human race, as the supposed possessor in ideas, in type of character, and in tendency if not in actual achievement, of all that is most powerful and promising for the progress of mankind. - Edward Dowden, "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman," The Westminster Review, 1871
As we work up our courage to admit our fears, it can become a distraction, or a desire, or even a need, to seek out a One who, relieving us of the burdens of being strong, might yet lead us out of our confusion.  This One may be, like the goat of the ancient Hebrew people, the one sent out to the wilderness to die the death the people should die for their sins.  The One may be the Jesus of some small-minded Christians, who celebrate the image of the warrior Christ, double-edged sword in his mouth, ready to cast in to the put those who would deny Him his true power.  The One may be a warrior of Allah, willing to kill and die for the sake of the Prophet, ignoring the Prophet's demand for mercy, or Allah's title as All-Merciful.

That One could be a sharp business leader who assures us commercial competence is the path to greatness.  The One might be a seasoned public servant, who offers us experience and cunning, as well as knowing whose skeletons lie just beneath the surface, ensuring us easy malleability in those who might oppose a way out.  The One could very well be a new face and voice, one who insists if we only grant power and authority, then all sorts of good things will rain down on us.

In our life as a nation, we have, at various times, heeded these voices that connive to steal the one thing that is ours - the power we all have as Americans to decide for ourselves who we are, and how we are to be.  Whether the charlatans and thieves wear clerical robes, or a power suit, the reality becomes clear enough as we find ourselves still lost, still wandering, still afraid.  When we've succeeded, though, it has always been because we as a people chose to move forward together.

Never without conflict, of course.  Political conflict is as natural and real as breathing.  Those who think it possible to govern without the lively give-and-take of political conflict don't understand the biggest blessing of being America.  We should never sacrifice our fellow Americans, though, on the altar of some political principle, no matter how deeply held.  Like Whitman, we need to see in the beauty and power and strength of all of us - men and women, ethnicity and race, religion and creed - the source of what will make America great.  What unites us as Americans isn't adherence to a religious faith or ethnic ties or some "natural" gender types.  What unites us is our differences, and our refusal to surrender our differences for the sake of convenience, efficiency, or the false peace imposed by One who might insist our silence is a sign of our consent.

We do not need a savior.  We do not need a Leader, chosen from among us, to feed us our fears as some diet of endurance.  We, ourselves, are all we have ever needed to guarantee our future.  We must celebrate the reality of all our differences, without ever succumbing to the temptation to hand to One what belongs to all of us.  Heroes are not a democratic being; in all of us, affirming who we are together without surrendering who we each are, lies the only real source of power and strength and hope.  We need not fear if we remember we are strong enough, and intelligent enough, and canny enough, and cunning enough, and beautiful enough to do what needs to be done.  There is no law or rule that constrains the potential we all have to make America what it can be.

When we remember that, those who rule in our name for their own benefit have always trembled.

Virtual Tin Cup

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