Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Forbidden Truth

Barack Obama has felt the need to apologize for saying lives have been wasted in Iraq. His backing off teaches that no politician dares to tell the whole truth about the horror the United States has created in Iraq. And if in a moment of unscripted spontaneity the truth should slip out, it has to be run away from as quickly as possible.

Our political culture has become diseased.

Of course lives have been wasted in Iraq. Thousands of people have been killed, and their deaths have served no positive end whatsoever. If that's not the worst form of waste I'd like someone to tell me what the word means.

The hunger for romantic sentimentalism overwhelms the sense to do and say what's right. The desire to proclaim that the young Americans slaughtered in Iraq have been defending their country is irresistible for many. The problem is, it's not true. They haven't been defending their country. Instead they were caught up in a process created by ignorant egomaniacs. That's what killed them. That's why they died.

I would feel much greater respect for Senator Obama if he had the resolution to stand behind his statement instead of immediately turning tail. Only if political leaders summon the courage to express what has actually happened will we have a chance to prevent future senseless killing.


Bad People

I realize there have been many mean people in the history of the world, men and women indifferent to the welfare or the suffering of others. But I wonder if there actually have been people as wicked as the characters depicted on the Fox melodrama 24. These people are so mean it boggles the mind.

We have learned lately that the hero's father is about as bad as any person can be. He murdered his other son, Jack Bauer's brother, who was himself so vicious he sold Jack into torture and imprisonment in China and said later to one of his henchmen that they should simply have killed him. The father has now kidnapped his own grandson and threatened to do him in him if his daughter-in-law doesn't follow orders. And he set up a booby trapped house designed to kill Jack and probably his daughter-in-law also.  There's little doubt he is just as cruel and ruthless as the nominal chief villain, Fayed, a Middle Eastern terrorist who is trying to set off five atomic bombs in the United States and thinks nothing of taking an electric drill and driving the bit all the way through a man's shoulder.

We can say this is all just silliness, and in a way it is. But it projects into the public mind the thought not only that such people exist -- which, perhaps, they do -- but also that they constitute a norm. We are left with the impression that the things that happen on 24 are the ordinary business of humanity, just men and women going about being who they are.

If this is the case, the professed ideals of Western Democracy and the efforts of men like Jefferson and Lincoln are simply ridiculous. That, in fact, is the argument of another set of villains on the show, a cabal within the government that is trying to assassinate the president so they can institute fascist controls throughout society. And they view themselves as patriots -- which given the definition that "patriot" has come to have lately may also be true.

I confess I don't know for sure what humanity is or whether there is any such thing as human nature. But I suspect that if people get it in their heads that they have to be cruel, vicious, and deceitful in order to protect themselves against those who are even more cruel, vicious and deceitful, we're likely to find ourselves in a spiral that can go nowhere else but into the netherworld.


Identity

Rebecca Felton, the first woman ever to serve in the Senate of the United States, became fairly well known for saying, in defense of mob action in her area of the country, "If it takes lynching to protect a woman's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week." I'll bet that doesn't get into many women's histories of America.

Walter Benn Michaels, in his unorthodox treatise, The Trouble With Diversity, quotes Ms. Felton as part of his criticism of identity politics.  We have become so obsessed with worrying about people's genealogical identity we forget about what they actually did and said. Everybody has to be seen as a representative of something rather than as an individual mind responding to events as seems intelligent and appropriate. And most public figures are rated in terms of the identities assigned to them, or that they assign to themselves.

A characteristic of America that has struck observers from at least as early as the administration of Andrew Jackson is that though there's a great deal of talk about individualism here, not many people dare actually to be individuals. Our inability to divorce ourselves from some socially constructed identity or other has even become the subject of satirical humor, as in the old Saturday Night Live skit about the gay communist gun club.

Michaels argues that concentration on identity pride, identity liberation, identity struggle against oppression is nowadays mainly a smoke screen to cover up the most serious cause of injustice in the country, the inequality in economic well-being. Though his thesis at first glance is a bit startling, if you give it your attention, it begins to make a lot of sense. It's not that various forms of identity prejudice don't any longer function in America. They do. But if a person has adequate economic resources they don't hurt him very much. The problem for a poor black man is not that he's black but that he has no money. And even if we managed to counter every element of bigotry against black people, the poor black man would still be poor.

I'm not sure how right Michaels is in asserting that over-concentration on identity problems siphons off the energy we should be devoting to working against poverty. But I have become convinced it's an argument deserving of careful examination.


The Odor of Words

I was glad to hear Chris Matthews last night on Hardball, criticize President Bush for using the term "homeland." It has, says Matthews, a vaguely eastern European flavor. It's not the way Americans talk. The actual problem with "homeland," of course, is not that it's eastern European but that it's redolent of fascism. It is by rallying people to the defense of the homeland that any major fascist campaign gets underway.

The thought of "homeland security" ought to give any genuine supporter of freedom the creeps. If we want to defend something, what's wrong with the Constitution of the United States?

"Homeland," as far as its connotations go, falls into the same category as "heartland."  That smarmy term began to pervade the media after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which was incessantly proclaimed to be in the heartland. Presumably, if someone had blown up a building and killed as many people in Portland, Maine it wouldn't have counted as much because that wouldn't have constituted a strike at the heartland.  The use of the term raises for all of us who don't live in the "heartland" the question of where do live. What part of the American body are we? Is New England the headland or the tail-land or what?

Terms like these, which are designed to do nothing but stir up thoughtless emotion, are brought into being to empower demagogues. If someone wants to manipulate the people, and stop them from critically examining their government's actions, his first step will always be to create mindless sentimentalism. When you've got people slobbering about their own supposed grandeur that's exactly the time to say, let's go kill somebody.

I wish we could start a campaign to eject from public office anyone who uses either "homeland" or "heartland."  That at least would send a message to politicians that if they're going to manipulate us they've got to find devices more subtle than either of these squalid terms.


A Debt to Be Honored

The news yesterday from the State Department that seven thousand Iraqis will be accepted into the United States this year reminds us that we are building up a tremendous debt to certain members of the Iraqi public. We have asked them to risk their lives in order to help us and regardless of what their motives were, we need to repay them with as much safety as we can deliver. And in the future, when we finally end the occupation, their only safety will be to get out of the country.

Anybody who worked for the U.S. military forces will face almost certain retribution when the U.S. military goes home. You can argue about the rightness of what they did, but that won't matter a whit once we're gone. They'll be seen as Quislings, and the Iraqis have shown time and again they're not gentle with people they think have betrayed them.

We have spent hundreds of billions to invade and conquer their country. It would be the ultimate in national dishonor to abandon them because seeing to their well-being would cost too much.


A Real Threat

I have thought for some time that the development we most ought to fear in the United States is that al-Qaida might stop being disorganized and get smart. And now a news report from Ireland tells us that has a chance of happening. The Web site Ireland OnLine reports that a terror group linked to al-Qaida is calling for their compatriots to concentrate on disrupting the oil flow to the United States.

The group based in Saudi Arabia says that reducing the supply of oil to the America would be the most effective way to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East.

If al-Qaida stopped trying to kill people and uniformly worked to blow up oil lines, it could send the world into chaos. Not only that, it would win a lot of sympathy. Many and perhaps most parts of the world would enjoy seeing the globe's biggest energy glutton forced to stop stuffing itself.

I don't suppose that degree of discipline is yet possible for the groups radically and violently opposed to the United States. But, if they ever did achieve genuine unity, we would be in for dramatic times.


Who are We?

When George Will and other right-wing pundits remind us that we are in the fifth year of a booming economic expansion and, therefore, that we ought to be pleased with our policies, you'll notice they never bother to say who the "we" are. Are "we" the additional number who have slipped into poverty during this glorious period? Are we the people who have lost our jobs and can't find another making even half as much as we made before? Are we those for whom increasing property taxes coupled with flat incomes mean we are finding it harder and harder to stay in the homes we have lived in for years?

"Hey!" proclaim Will and his brethren, "we're all Americans and if America is doing well we ought all to be happy."

This is the flimflam of national identity politics that tells me my true well-being is enhanced if some bond trader on Wall Street last year made seventy million dollars so that now "our" average income (that is, his and mine) is a whopping $35,030,000. We are astoundingly well off, aren't we?

The trouble is, ridiculous as this proposition may be, millions of people in the United States not only accept it, they glorify in it. This could be the greatest mass delusion in all human history. And until more of us break free of it, we will not move towards more rational politics. Approximately half the American population has bought into the definition of national well-being that benefits only about five percent of the population -- and not even them if their long-range health is taken into account.

The principal defense mechanism for this fatuous notion of who "we" are is emotion-charged abstraction. The plutocrats will say that trying to rectify the problem of a wildly unequal distribution of income is a "left-wing" idea. Then, we're all supposed to shudder and turn away in disgust. I don't care whether it's left-wing, or right-wing, or up-wing, or down-wing, it's an idea that needs to be taken more seriously than it has been over the past few decades. If the ratio of the top incomes to the average income continues to grow as maniacally as it has over the past decade we will shortly lose the country we thought we had, and that we said we cherished. Even President Bush seemed to have a glimmering of this when he spoke recently on Wall Street. Obviously, America doesn't have to have income equality to be what we have said we want it to be.  But it does need a decent life for all its citizens, and that we are moving farther away from every day.


Pay Gap

A couple years ago H. Lee Scott, Jr., the CEO of Wal-Mart made $8,434 per hour. The average Wal-Mart employee made $9.68. The average employee of a Wal-Mart subcontractor in Bangladesh made $0.17. So Mr. Scott made 871 times as much as his typical employee and 49,612 times as much as men on whom his enterprise depends.

These are figures every man, woman, and child in the United States should have clearly in mind because they will have a heavy influence on his or her future.

Let's leave morality aside, as indeed we must, because if we try to assess the moral implications of these numbers our heads will explode. Let's just look at the practicalities. Though Mr. Scott may believe he's worth 49,612 times as much as the guy in Bangladesh, and though George Bush, and George Will, and Bill O'Reilly may agree with him, it's unlikely the guy in Bangladesh will share that belief. It's also unlikely that people who know the guy, or who like him, or who are members of his family will either.

I would guess that if you were to ask the average Wal-Mart employee whether Mr. Scott were worth 871 times as much as he or she is, you would also encounter some doubt. But we can leave the Wal-Mart employees out of this little tale because though they might grumble a bit, over the long run they're not likely to be the source of as much anger as the people in Bangladesh and similar parts of the world are.

That anger will be increasingly directed at you and me. It doesn't matter how many soldiers George Bush, or some George Bush clone dredged up by the stupidity of the American people, sends all around the world. They are not going to be able to suppress that anger.

Right now the guy in Bangladesh has very little power, so we don't feel the results of his anger in any unmistakable way, though the vast amounts the U.S. government is spending to keep him in check are straining our treasury. But over time, his power along with his knowledge will grow. As it does, acts will flow from his anger that probably won't be agreeable to most of us, here in the land of freedom and opportunity (that is, for outfits like Wal-Mart and men like Mr. Scott).

It we had a more intelligent political system we might begin to dilute that anger somewhat. But at the moment, there's little sign it's on the way.


Our Money's Worth

There now seems to be near unanimity of opinion that the United States lacks the military capacity to launch an attack on Iran. That's the reason people are not as worried about President Bush's saber-rattling as they would be otherwise. Andrea Mitchell made that point this morning on the Chris Matthews Show and the other panelists nodded approvingly.

Ms. Mitchell is undoubtedly right. The truth is there's somewhat less worry in the country because she is. But I have heard no one speak to the major implication of these opinions.

The American people have made astounding expenditures to buy military force, more than all the other leading nations put together. But it doesn't seem to have got us what we think we want, global dominance. We do have, of course, great destructive power but it's largely impotent in producing positive results. That being the case, might we say that over the past several decades we have made one of the most foolish purchases ever?

We seem unable to grasp that as time passes conditions change. Military force is no longer what it was in the early 20th century. The reasons for the change are complex, and explaining them would require a full scale history. But it's fairly obvious that when minority elements in a small, weak, poor country like Iraq can tie down and grind up the capacity of the world's leading military behemoth, the time has come to rethink what military force is good for.

We're doing little of that rethinking. Meanwhile, our roads and bridges crumble, our medical research is cut back, our university system becomes more and more inequitable and imposes huge debts on the population, our trade balance runs out of control, the dollar plunges in value, and the public debt reaches dizzying heights.

Why are we spending our public money as we do? Is there any rational philosophy for it?

Clearly, we cannot turn to the current national leadership for an answer. So perhaps it's time for a different sort of leadership, one that bases itself more on rational analysis and less on militaristic balderdash.



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Harvard Square Commentary, February 19, 2007