RACE COURSE: The Ancor of Race

July 22, 2014

The recurrent U.S. story—dominant, habitual, profoundly functional—is a tale of democracy and freedom, uplift and forward motion, perpetual improvement and never-ending progress. It echoes in our consciousness until it achieves the exalted status of a truth beyond doubt, a plain American fact: “America is the greatest country on earth”; “Land of the free, home of the brave”; “God bless America.” To wonder about or interrogate any of this is like questioning whether down might be up, or white black. No sensible person dare ask.

But every crack we encounter in that domineering story becomes a little earthquake in our heads: Scottsboro, crack, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, crack, Greensboro, crack, Birmingham, crack, Selma, crack, Fred Hampton, crack, Trayvon Martin, crack, mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement and school closings—crack, crack, crack.

Start at the beginning, when the Puritans provided one of the most durable symbols of the “American experiment,” a symbol that is as resilient and resonant today as it ever was: America was to be a city on the hill—our exalted place, chosen by God—whose inhabitants, the chosen people, would engage in an errand into the wilderness, their task to shine their countenance upon the darkened world and thereby to enlighten it. There were some twenty million indigenous peoples already here, according to the most recent scholarship; 90 percent would be exterminated. The project of a blessed people bearing civilization and progress and truth offers a ready justification for anything—conquest, theft, and mayhem, ultimately mass murder: We come in peace, we are messengers of God, we embody the greater good. Opposition is nothing but the Devil’s handiwork.

Beyond political calculation and opportunism, military advantage and strategic aims, imperial dreams and desires, this foundational symbol goes some way toward explaining many U.S. misadventures, including the unconditional military support the US offers Israel today. That nation, too, was built by a determined band of people who suffered and survived, arose phoenix-like to discover “a land without people,” they claimed, “for a people without land.” They, too, were a chosen people, a lighter-skinned European people claiming the leadership, who “made the desert bloom,” and they planted their plucky little democracy in the midst of hostile and threatening and notably darker-skinned neighbors. Perpetual but righteous war would become the necessary order of the day for the forces of goodness. And so it is, in settler Israel as in the settler US.

Before the improbable and treacherous migration to North America, people in Europe thought of themselves as English or Irish, Dutch or German, Italian or Greek. As soon as these exiles and pilgrims landed in a “new world”—a land populated by a complex network of indigenous tribes and civilizations soon to be massacred and driven onto reservations, a land soon enough abounding with captured Africans, and, as it conquered a continent, Mexicans and then Chinese indentured servants—every European became white. Made-in-America. Race achieved and exploited this singular success: the creation of whiteness as a union of disparate peoples, classes, backgrounds, and histories. Oddly, whiteness is the most dehumanizing of all categories, always expressed as a negative—not Black, not colored. It has no content of its own; it surely has no science; it’s always experienced as a negation.

When the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, over a century and a half after the first Africans arrived in chains in Jamestown, the abolition of the slave trade was named as one of the goals for the new nation. But when the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution after the Revolutionary War, instead of abolition, they wrote slavery into law. The Declaration of Independence, which dissolved the legal and political ties to Great Britain, is stamped with white supremacist thinking, but it’s the Constitution of the United States, in Article I, Section 2—the infamous “3/5 Clause”—that embeds white supremacy in its heart, accommodates the new nation to slavery, and sets in motion all the politically layered and social and economic privileges and disadvantages still flourishing:
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania provided a voice of dissent:
“Upon what principle are slaves computed? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The admission of slaves into the House when fairly explained comes to this: the inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity leads away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with horror so nefarious a practice.”

In Article I Section 9, Congress is prohibited from abolishing the international slave trade until 1808; in Article IV, Section 2, the various states are prohibited from emancipating fugitive slaves; in Article I, Section 8, Congress can call up militias to suppress insurrections, including slave uprisings. On and on: commerce, taxation, representation, unamendable clauses. Slavery and its antecedents—a large and easily identifiable underclass—had several alluring advantages from the ruling class point of view: the suppression of wages and the ruin of a possible
laboring-class unity.

Of the first five U.S. presidents, four owned slaves and, overall, twelve presidents owned slaves, eight while in office. Hundreds of senators, congressmen, and judges—highly esteemed men, some of them revolutionaries—owned slaves. George Washington, father of the nation, owned slaves, freed his personal servant upon his death, and said of slavery in 1786: “I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of [slavery]. But when slaves who are happy and content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave them … it introduces more evils than it can cure.”

James Madison, the fourth president, owned slaves his entire life, but freed them in his will. In 1819 he said: “A general emancipation of slaves ought to be” gradual, equitable and satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned, and “consistent with the existing and durable prejudices of the nation… To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or allotted to a White population.”

John Tyler, tenth president, owned slaves and said, “[God] works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.”

Zachary Taylor owned more than a hundred slaves, and declared in 1847: “So far as slavery is concerned, we of the South must throw ourselves on the Constitution and defend our rights under it to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.” Taylor later served as a lawmaker in the Confederate government.

Historian John Hope Franklin observed that “racial segregation, discrimination, and degradation are no unanticipated accidents in the nation’s history. They stem logically and directly from the legacy that the founding fathers bestowed upon contemporary America.”

Whenever we hear about the Founding Fathers and their “original intent,” let’s remember just what kind of fathers we’re talking about, and wonder a bit about the purity of their intent. They were human, of course, filled with contradictions—isn’t everyone?—and apologists point out that they lived in their own time, not in ours. True. But even and especially in their own time, values and standards were contested, as they always are—there was Cinque as well as Jefferson, Wilborn as well as Washington, Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Toussaint L’Overture and Nat Turner as well as Zach Taylor.

And in that contested space the Founding Fathers were fundamentally, to a man, unapologetic and open white supremacists. At the end of the Civil War, this young country again had an opportunity to confront the legacy of white supremacy and set things right. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner proposed to seize slaveholders’ lands and divide them among the former slaves, offering what was to become the iconic and legendary “forty acres and a mule” as reparations for generations of slavery and exploitation and oppression, and to give the newly freed people an economic foothold in the future. The failure to follow through on this potentially powerful gesture allowed the resurgence of the brutal system of white supremacy in new but also lethal forms. The slave economy, a consistent and efficient exploitation of labor, was always more than a simple labor arrangement—it was the first thoroughly race-based system ever invented, and now, at the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, it is possible to see that despite significant modifications and hard-fought transformations, it has defined every aspect of US history, from the development of capitalism, to the odd federalist political system with its disproportionate Southern power, to our daily interactions.

Race anchored slavery. It intended to dehumanize Africans and it failed; it never meant to dehumanize white people, but indeed it has. We live in the world slavery created. So in fact the US was conceived as a white supremacist nation, and the American idea and experience was, from the very start, shot through with the assumption of white superiority. The consequences of this for African Americans are too familiar. Both the corrosive and advantageous implications for whites remain only lightly examined and largely misunderstood. While white supremacy has always been resisted and contested—primarily by its victims—it has never been upended, never massively rejected, and never defeated. It changes form and shape from time to time, it is shot through with contradictions and even exceptions, but back it comes, again and again, living within and among us right up to today. In other words, white supremacy has proven itself an astonishingly enduring social and cultural system, and the US, in spite of its happy rhetoric, remains fundamentally dedicated to structures, institutions, and ideologies that construct and enforce white domination.


Art and Public Space

July 15, 2014

What does it mean to be human today, trudging into the 21st Century?
How can we act ethically in our hurried and bewildering world?
How did we get here, and where do we want to go?
Is there a Public Space? In fact, is there a Public?
What is our diagram of the known world, and how might things be otherwise?
What kind of society do we want to inhabit?
Who do we want to be as people? As a public?
The notable erosion of “the public” in US life has taken place in multiple ways. In language, the demonization of public escalated in the Reagan years and continues until this moment: public welfare, public health, public workers (remember the air traffic controllers?), public benefits, public parks, roads and bridges, public space, public schools. Are criminal courts open to the public when the family members are seated and patrolled behind bullet-proof plexi-glass and attempting to listen through the squawk and screech of voices transmitted by microphone?
In a more complex domain, the content of public representation is seized by corporate/military powers, to be observed by the public: the World Trade Center momument, the ubiquitous military men on horses across town centers, the tiny open spaces in front of skyscrapers or inside giant corporate lobbies with commissioned sculptures and enormous canvases.
Yet all is in contention as well. The lively public participants not only adopted and adore the Maya Linn Vietnam Memorial or the sculptures in Millenium Park, they embellish them daily and make the art their own.
Across the land, the valorization of the Confederacy vies with the stench of the slave market. As in the occupied land of Palestine/Israel, so too in the settler land of the US: street-signs, uprisings, and art in contention become markers of excavated history: Wounded Knee, Montgomery, John Brown Lives!, immigrant rights marches, Watts, the Ludlow Massacre, Occupy, Haymarket and Seneca Falls. Sometimes humor, wildly embraced by diverse publics: the Chicago cows, for example, or the Yes Men and Guerilla Girls. Rarely an artist and community in harmony: Theaster Gates, the Living Theater, Howling Wolf, Miriam Mkeba, Tom Morello, Diego Rivera.
What can we become?
What gives meaning to our lives?
What time is it on the clock of the world?
Plunging into the wreckage we see all around us, swimming as hard as we’re able toward a distant and indistinct shore with courage and hope and love, overcoming difficulties and re-imagining life’s possibilities along the way—this is the spirit these questions might unleash. Of course we all dwell within a tiny crack of light suspended between two infinities of darkness, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle our brief moment in the sun flies past and is gone. Still, we might choose to grasp this moment with all our might, to squeeze it as hard as we’re able, to hang on for dear life as we swirl headlong into the vortex.
That’s often easier to say than to do. When we feel ourselves shackled, bound, and gagged or when we are badly beaten down, struggling simply to survive, living with dust in our mouths, the horizons of our hope are immediately lowered, sometimes fatally, and asking questions like these can seem idle and silly. What kind of world do we want to inhabit? When no alternatives are apparent or available, action becomes pointless. We all live immersed in what is, the world as such; imagining a landscape different from what’s immediately before us requires a combination of somethings: seeds, surely, desire, yes, necessity and desperation at times, a vision of possibility at other times, and occasionally just the willful enthusiasm to dance out on a limb.
Imagination, then, is indispensable. More process than product, more “stance” than “thing,” engaging the imagination involves the dynamic work of mapping the world as it really is, and then purposely stepping outside and leaning toward a world that could or should be, but is not yet. People may have accepted their lot-in-life as inevitable for decades, generations, even centuries, but when fresh and startling winds begin to blow and revolution is in the air, when a lovelier life heaves unexpectedly into view and a possible world becomes vaguely and then acutely visible, at that moment the status quo becomes shockingly unendurable. We reject the fixed and the stable, then, and begin to reach for alternatives. The imagination blows up.
Every human being is endowed with the powerful and unique capacity to imagine—each an artist of her or his own life. Imagination “ignites the slow fuse of possibility” for Emily Dickinson, and for Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Liberation and enlightenment are linked to the imagination.
The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1950’s and later Poet Laureate of Illinois begins her “Dedication to Picasso,” an homage to the great man and the huge sculpture that he gave to the city, with a question: “Does man love art?”
Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”
The voyages art demands lie at the very heart of our humanness: journeys in search of new solutions to old problems, explorations of spirit spaces and emotional landscapes, trips into the hidden meanings and elaborate schemes we construct to make our lives understandable and endurable, flights hooked on metaphor and analogy, wobbly rambles away from the cold reality of the world we inhabit—the world as such—toward a possible world standing just beyond the next horizon. These are the voyages that foreground the capacities and features that mark us as creatures of the imaginary, uniquely human beings: invention, aspiration, self-consciousness, projection, desire, ingenuity, moral reflection and ethical action, courage and compassion and commitment—all of these and more are the vital harvests of our imaginations. And our imaginations are encouraged, nourished, and fired with art.
But it’s also true—art hurts. The capacity to see the world as if it could be otherwise creates yearning and liberates desire—we are freed (or condemned) to run riot. Art—necessarily subversive, unruly, and disruptive—challenges the status quo simply by opening us up to consider the alternatives; suddenly the taken-for-granted and the given world become choices and no longer habits or warrants or life (death) sentences.
“Art is not chaste,” said Pablo Picasso. “Those ill-prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste it is not art.” He is distinguishing pretty decorations and castles-in-the-clouds from the grit and grind, rough and tumble of art. He simultaneously reminds us that the aesthetic is the opposite of the anesthetic: anesthesia is a drug that puts folks to sleep, while aesthetics is a treatment with the potential to wake us up and propel us out of bed again and again. It takes some courage to make or face strong art, life-saving art, or art that tells the unvarnished truth: the Beat Poet Diane DiPrima said, “I have just realized that the stakes are myself; I have no other ransom money.”
We are, in spite of the existential feel of things and our own natural narcissism, finite beings plunging through an infinite space and gazing toward an expanding heaven. We are in the middle of the muddle, and at the end of nothing—the unseen, the hidden, the mysterious, the invisible, the indefinite, the unfamiliar and the unknown, the unheard of and the forgotten are vast, while our various records of the known world are limited, paltry, and, if history can act as something of a guide here, mostly palaces-in-the-sky. Learning to question, to interrogate, to experiment, to wonder and to wander, to construct and create—this is where art lives, and it is the sturdiest foundation upon which to build lives of participation and purpose for free people.
In 1897, after months of illness and suicidal despair, the tormented French painter Paul Gauguin produced a sprawling panorama on a huge piece of jute sacking, an image of unfathomable figures amid scenery that might have been the twisted groves of a tropical island or a marvelously wild Garden of Eden; worshippers and gods; cats, birds, a quiet goat; a great idol with a peaceful expression and uplifted hands; a central figure plucking fruit; a depiction of Eve not as a voluptuous innocent like some other women in Gauguin’s gallery but as a shrunken hag with an intense eye.
Gauguin scrawled the title of the work in bold on top of the image; translated into English it reads: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
These questions, horrifying for Gauguin, are potentially useful for us.
How do we see ourselves and our problems/challenges/potentials? How can we connect our personal and spiritual seeking with the practical search for a better world for all? How can we live with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is while the other foot stretches toward a world that could be but is not yet? How can we transform ourselves to be worthy of the profound social transformations we desire and need? And how can we build within ourselves the thoughtfulness, compassion, and courage to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair?
1300 words


Free Minds/Free People

July 14, 2014

Bernardine and I met up with our old pal Jeff Jones, jumped in the car and headed off to the Oregon Country Fair outside Eugene where we’d been asked to speak about the political moment we were living through—Occupy your Imagination; Free Minds/Free People. It was a Blues Brothers road trip—we were on a mission from God.
The Fair was an insurgency from the 60’s transformed and institutionalized in a mere half century. New Age meets the New Millennium as capitalism consumes the counter-culture. Where tie-dye and incense, pipes and rolling papers, long hair and funny hats, as well as bubbling pots of free brown rice and red beans and tofu/vegetable stew had been a few of the markers of the rebellion, all of it was now de rigueur and for sale in every corner. Where the battle with the cops and the health authorities over the right to crash in a tangle of unruly humanity overnight on the land had been pitched in the early years, the original hippies were now the gray heads who owned the land and issued the permits. A rainbow of wristbands demarcated where folks could wander, and the most prized were the gold ones—which the three of us were miraculously granted—allowing fair-goers access everywhere as well as the extraordinary privilege of staying after-hours when things really got going. One of my favorite moments was sitting with the old-timers one night after the Fair had been officially closed and the grounds swept of the riff-raff, listening to the stories of how folks snuck into the Fair and evaded the sweeps in the sweet long ago of their glorious youth—when they were the riff-raff.
The Fair stretched over acres, from field to forest and from river to green rolling hill, and every inch was occupied by lovely people doing wondrous things: puppeteers and magicians, singers and chanters, crafts people and cooks—everyone together making a joyful noise. A defining characteristic of the Fair was the ease with which babies and toddlers and children of all ages expressed a sense of comfort and fun.
There were dozens of booths where we could get Ken Kesey’s famous home-made ice cream or Dave’s Killer Bread or Juanita’s Dynamite Tortillas, and dozens more stages simultaneously hosting bands and presentations and speeches and sales pitches—we stopped at one to hear Swami Beyondananda do a beautiful stand-up riff on contemporary politics in the smooth but annoyingly superior voice reserved for yoga masters: “People say there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats,” he began. “But that can’t be so—the Republicans bend over backwards like this for Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Finance…Observe…And the Democrats…bend over frontwards.”
It was a dazzling and magical place to be, old people evoking images of Fairs gone by, young people etching their own stories through experiencing the Fair anew, babies in backpacks and toddlers in tow pointing toward Fairs yet to come. I settled in with a joint in order to experience the Fair in full.
We were hanging out late with a bunch of old friends from SDS and Weather, including Robert, the older brother of our comrade CW who had split with us after the terrible townhouse explosion, gone underground on his own, never surrendered, and died anonymously and on the run. His closest friends and family quietly and properly memorialized CW, and then transported his ashes to Cuba and scattered them on the monument to Che Guevara, a fitting resting place for all time. Robert had told me long ago and several times that my depiction of CW in Fugitive Days, while understandable from my perspective and experience, was not his story or the whole story. Robert was a smart and generous person, and we’d talked about it and come to understand one another.
As we relaxed into the gathering dusk, high on the Fair, CW’s nephew came over before his rock n’ roll band took the stage. He’d heard our talk earlier and was happy to say hello now. We chatted awhile—smart and sweet guy—and as the band was finishing their set-up he said to me: “I understood what you wrote about my uncle, and I could certainly see your point, but I want you to know something: you only knew him for a moment and you could only capture him in a snapshot. He lived a long time after that and he was generous and kind, crazy and fun, thoughtful and open. He encouraged everyone to be smarter and better, and he remained true to your shared vision of a better world. People try to pin a label on him, but, hell, people try to nail you guys to a board all the time—just like you, he was more than you imagined.”
We embraced for a long moment and I felt a vital circle close. Then he turned and mounted the stage.


The Myth of Military Might

July 13, 2014

A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.


War and Peace

July 12, 2014

A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.


The Culture of War Unleashed

July 10, 2014

War culture is everywhere: at athletic events where everyone is expected to sing ritualistic patriotic songs at the start and once again at half time or the seventh inning stretch, and where uniformed and armed people march with flags onto the field of play; at airports and train stations where uniformed military people are given a designated waiting area and priority boarding; in our schools where military recruiters have free reign; in our language, where war metaphors hang heavy over all aspects of life from sports and commerce to local politics and social policy, and where the word “service” has morphed quietly into a seemingly acceptable short-hand for time in the uniformed military.
War culture combined with an ascendant and triumphant individualism has led to the passage across the land of legislation that contains a bizarre contradiction: on the one hand “stand your ground” laws that allow anyone to shoot a person who seems threatening, and on the other hand “open-carry” laws that allow folks to carry their guns openly wherever and whenever they please. It’s a matter of time before a posse of open-carriers walks into a mall or a restaurant and meets a stand-your-ground crew—let the fireworks begin!
Domestic debates about private gun ownership and gun control are dominated by Second Amendment myth-makers who insist that there’s no common or collective possibility of public safety, and that it’s each person’s individual right and responsibility to defend life and property and personal well-being with lethal force. The National Rifle Association urges everyone to arm up, noting that the best defense against “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.” I propose that the NRA introduce legislation offering a $1000 stipend in order to purchase guns for any American citizen or resident living below the poverty line—there are many good guys among the poor, and I’ve always gotten a kick out of the words scrawled across the Night Watchman’s guitar: Arm the Homeless! Hell yes!
For those who prefer gun control, we might offer this alternative to arming everyone: Disarm everyone, starting with the dangerous and out of control US military, move on the deadly domestic police forces, and then the rest of us. Guns for everyone, or no guns for anyone.
I cringe with the constant and insistent reference to (and self-referencing of) the president as the Commander-in-Chief. The continual mention of that single aspect is a contemporary thing, and fully in keeping with the militarization of the public space.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the operational line of command was set as running from the President to the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander. Before 2002 combatant commanders were referred as “commanders-in-chief;” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that the use of “commander-in-chief” should be especially reserved to refer to the president alone. Now we are reminded at all times and at every turn in keeping with our warrior status that our president is primarily our Supreme Commander, like the imperatores of Rome, sitting on the throne of empire and commanding its violent legions.
The military detail handled personally by presidents in wartime has, of course, varied dramatically. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and day-to-day operations, while Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush paid practically no attention whatsoever. Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in Korea, and to fire Douglas MacArthur. And Barack Obama personally picks out targets for drone strikes every week.
As a little blue-sky exercise, what if any bit of the war culture were transformed into a peace and love culture: the Super Bowl opening with thousands of local school kids rushing through the stands distributing their poetry, and then everyone singing “This Land is Your Land” or “We Shall Overcome;” an airlines or bus terminal clerk saying, “We want to invite any teachers or nurses in the gate area to board first, and we thank you for your service.”
Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven together in such a way that members of the culture can communicate and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common-sense of American violence unleashed.
The US spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The US has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken-for-granted, occasionally visible and on full display, and always lurking in the shadows.
I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful and so I never saw the film nor can I remember the title—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, and saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace” just before blasting them to smithereens. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but after a while the classic challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of another come into play: Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?
This is precisely the situation the US finds itself in all over the world: We come in peace…we always come in peace. But for the youth in the streets of Cairo or Tunis facing US arms in the hands of American-financed dictators, or the women servicing the US military bases stretching across their landscapes, or the farmers and workers all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose repressive police forces and militias are trained and supplied by US aid, or people anywhere who find themselves in the sights of an American-made rocket or a US drone, what are you going to believe? Your own lying eyes?
In our stuttering mechanical recorded message we announce to ourselves and to everyone else that we are a peaceful people, our intentions always righteous and just. It’s comforting, and it’s a deeply held self-description, so compelling that it rises quickly to the status of common sense, requiring no investigation, no fact-checking, no external validation whatsoever. All right-thinking people believe it; everyone simply knows that it’s true.


The Big Brain of the Right on American Exceptionalism

July 9, 2014

David Brooks, the moderate “human face” of the plutocrats and its dangerous fang faction within the Repulsican Party, trumpeted the need for “a national greatness agenda” in his New York Times column and managed to evoke a grotesquely mangled and romanticized image of the Black Freedom Movement of 50 years ago in an attempt to rally people to a left/right social movement of all the politically disaffected built around the goal of broad revitalization: “Like the civil rights movement, this movement will ask Americans to live up to their best selves.” And our “best selves” is easily summed up by DB: “Love of country.” Yes simple patriotism will, in Brooks’ cosmology, allow Americans to see that sacrificing Social Security benefits “at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan,” or giving up pensions as an investment in “America’s future greatness,” represent the sensible unifying path forward.
Most Americans (and the whole world besides) think that the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been and continue to be catastrophic. The vast majority of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (not the “insurgents” or the Taliban or the “jihadists”) have overwhelmingly opposed the US military presence in their respective lands practically from the start. Any ethical person would tell the government to end its senseless wars for a start, bring those Marines and soldiers home now, and spend those squandered billions on education, health, and the common good.
But Brooks sees the hand writing on the wall: US power is in deep crisis, and the American empire is coming to an end; his solution is to mobilize a nationalistic movement and shred any expectation of a common commitment to human welfare: line-up, re-load, and march. Or as he puts it, his social movement will have one simple and unapologetic goal: “preserving American pre-eminence.” He asserts that “American ‘supremacy’ is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.” To Brooks the US Century must continue and the echoes of Rome and London and Berlin and Tokyo—pick your century, pick your conqueror—are unmistakable. The world will be a far, far better place if everyone will accept the obvious fact that the US makes a great ruler and that it should simply be allowed to run the whole show forever.
People around the world can’t possibly agree with Brooks’ assessment, and most never will no matter what the cost. Most people think the US (less than 5% of the world’s population, but gobbling up vast resources and acting as if it’s some sort of entitled aristocracy or super-majority) has some noble traditions and hopeful rhetoric but it is also a misguided and menacing cowboy, the largest mercenary force ever created, benighted and armed and dangerous, and more than a little out-of-control.
The problem here, as always, is whether ordinary people can be counted on to support the long war, pay the price, avert their eyes, become participants or accomplices in conquest and occupation and war without end. Brooks and his patrons in power and privilege are worrying about the pesky and unpredictable home front (That’s us, folks!!!) and he’s calling on us to close our eyes to injustice everywhere and build nothing less than a patriotic/nationalist popular movement to resist “national humiliation, diminished power in the world, drastic cuts and spreading pain.”
American Exceptionalism inflamed, structural racism ascending, American supremacy triumphant. America uber alles and of course war after endless war. Here lies the deadly dictate from the big brain of the “reasonable” right.


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