A Fine Democracy
Reflections on Rogue State America, The Occupation, U.S. Political Culture, and "Election Madness"
WHAT A FINE DEMOCRACY THIS IS
Recent developments should give pause to those who believe in the capacity of American political culture to temper the
What became of it all? George W. Bush has made arrangements to codify the U.S. Armed Forces’ permanent presence in that criminally occupied country. The mass-murderous invasion of
The Republican nominee is the presidential candidate who has most strongly supported the occupation. It is the arch-militarist John McCain, who looks forward to
The supposedly “antiwar” Democratic front-runner Barack Obama voted to fund the invasion unconditionally in 2005 and 2006. He has never called for simply and flatly turning off the Congressional war funding spigot. He lent his powerful support to pro-invasion Democrats (including the neoconservative post-Democrat Joe Lieberman) against anti-invasion Democrats during the 2006 Congressional primaries. He cannot commit to removing all
Neither Obama nor any of the Democratic presidential candidates other than the officially marginalized (and now departed) Dennis Kucinich and an ancient Alaskan apparition named Mike Gravel (who may or may not still be on primary ballots) can seriously acknowledge the criminal, imperialist, anti-democratic, racist, and oil-driven nature of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
The great peacenik Obama refuses to take a first (possibly nuclear) strike on
And Obama proclaims his “progressive” concern that the bungled occupation will undo the American peoples’ resolve to seize “the American moment” and “make the world over” by putting American “boots on [other nations’] ground” in “situations beyond self-defense” (Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007) Obama is followed by war-on/of- terror hawk Hillary Clinton, who along with John Edwards (the number three Democratic presidential contender prior to resigning before the February 5th “Super Tuesday” primary) joined the minority of Congressional Democrats who supported George W. Bush’s request for Congressional authorization to attack Iraq under circumstances of his own choosing. After leaving the Senate in 2005, Edwards apologized for his invasion vote, something
Clearly the most militarist and interventionist of the Democratic presidential contenders, she has attacked Obama for “naively” advocating direct diplomacy with
The only substantively antiwar presidential candidates in the 2008 election have been Ron Paul (a right-wing extremist on critical areas of domestic social policy), Kucinich (progressive on domestic as well as foreign policy) and Gravel. All of them have been rapidly and efficiently liquidated (electorally speaking) by the big money and corporate media powers who rule
The legal and moral ramifications of this terrible and rapidly forgotten episode would have been widely discussed if the
For what it’s worth, the genuinely antiwar Kucinich was featured in exactly 1 of 1,742 presidential campaign stories analyzed in rigorous monitoring of divergent candidate exposure rates in "mainstream" (dominant) media coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) between January 1st and May 31st of 2007. This and other terrible findings are recounted in an October JEP study bearing a telling title: “The Hidden Primary.”
Having quickly dispatched the most elect-able and comparatively “antiwar” of their big three presidential candidates (Edwards), the Democrats and (more to the point) their big money election investors are determined to run either a corporate-imperial centrist with an even-money chance of winning the White House (Obama) or a corporate-imperial centrist likely to lose (Clinton). The first contender may be somewhat less awful than the second on foreign policy. The second seems less bad on domestic policy. Both could be expected to sustain the
The only truly antiwar candidates have barely registered in the primaries, reflecting to no small extent the refusal of concentrated media to cover them to any reasonable extent or in decently respectful fashion.
The messianic-militarist Republicans have decided to go forward with their strongest and most consistent Iraq War Hawk, John McCain, who happens to be their most elect-able candidate. He might actually win the general election.
All of this has occurred in an ostensibly “democratic” nation where the majority has long claimed to oppose the
DOMINANT MEDIA SOLD “THE SURGE”
Part of the explanation is that the White House and its dominant media enablers have succeeded in selling the notion that “the Surge” (Bush’s
“PREVAILING DEMOCRATIC DOCTRINE IS NOT ALL THAT DIFFERENT”
The Democratic Party has also complied with Cheney-Bush’s occupation-preserving wishes. This has been seen in their unwillingness and inability to acknowledge the obviously criminal, imperialist, and significantly though not exclusively oil-driven nature of the invasion (1)and in their palpable fear of being charged with “losing
“The crucial problem is that most Democrats seem to be calling for withdrawal or ‘redeployment’ not because the war is wrong, but merely because it is failing. By framing the war as lost because of mismanagement, poor planning, or being bogged down in a civil war, Democrats cede the argument that the war itself was a ‘noble cause.’ But if the war is right, if as Bush maintains it is necessary to prevent horrendous consequences, then the public will predictably blame those consequences on the ‘defeatists’ who made America ‘cut and run.’”
“What’s necessary to evade this trap is to define the war itself - rather than just the fact that
Indeed. But the chances of the Democrats admitting what Brecher and Smith know to be true – that the invasion is illegal and immoral – are slim to none “prevailing Democratic [foreign policy] doctrine is not all that different” from that of the Republicans. “Although they now cast themselves as alternatives to President Bush,” political scientist Tony Smith noted in a candid Washington Post commentary last March, “the fact is that prevailing Democratic doctrine is not that different from the Bush-Cheney doctrine.” Smith’s analysis merits lengthy quotation:
“Many Democrats, including senators who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, embraced the idea of muscular foreign policy based on American global supremacy and the presumed right to intervene to promote democracy or to defend key U.S. interests long before 9/11, and they have not changed course since. Even those who have shifted against the war have avoided doctrinal questions.” “…without a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine, with its confidence in
“… these [Democratic] neoliberals are nearly indistinguishable from the better-known neoconservatives...Sources for many of the critical elements of the Bush doctrine can be found in the emergence of neoliberal thought during the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. In think tanks, universities and government offices, left-leaning intellectuals, many close to the Democratic Party, formulated concepts to bring to fruition the age-old dream of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ These [Democratic] neolibs advocated the global expansion of ‘market democracy.’ They presented empirical, theoretical, even philosophical arguments to support the idea of the
Tony Smith’s candid analysis seems born out by leading Democratic politicians’ and elected officials’ behavior since, as well as before, the congressional elections of 2006. Iraq-Vietnam analogies should not be overdrawn, but can anyone say “Richard Millhouse Obama?”
THE LATEST RECURRENT CRISIS OF CAPITALISM
Well before the final campaign stretch to the critical
Besides displacing the
“COLORED LIGHTS CAN HYPNOTIZE”: PEOPLE WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER GETTING SUCKED INTO “ELECTION MADNESS”
The Democratic Party deserves radical scorn for sharing critical foreign policy ground with the likes of Cheney-Bush, Mad Bomber McCain, Robert Kagan (a leading Iraq invasion proponent and a top McCain advisor)and (the new New York Times columnist) William Kristol. But it should be remembered that, as the Left political scientist Adolph Reed noted in The Progressive last November, “elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to. It’s a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them.”
There’s far too little thunder on the Democrats’ antiwar left. There’s no considerable and significant rank and file movement to hold the bipartisan governing class’s feet to the fire on matters of war, peace, and empire. There are a number of externally reasons for that weakness, reminding us that people might “make history” but “do not do so under circumstances of their own choosing” (Marx). Still, part of the problem is the excessive willingness of too many ostensibly peace-and justice-oriented “progressives” to be childishly seduced by the false antiwar promises of ruling class politicians like Edwards, Clinton and, above all, that lithe, smooth-talking seducer Obama, who has done more than any other candidate to deceptively wrap his presidential campaign in the flag and spirit of the antiwar movement. Even if America’s newest liberal sensation and would-be savior were to fail in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination (there is still an outside chance that Hillary can make a comeback) and/or the presidency, the Obama phenomenon has already contributed strongly to the preservation of the Iraq occupation. It has functioned as a brightly shining, Left-lessening lightning rod. It has sucked up antiwar hopes and dreams and energies and confused and mesmerized the progressive peace base. This is hardly to absolve Hillary and Edwards for doing at least some of the the same thing in less spectacular and (thanks to their 2002 votes) credible ways.
At the University of Iowa last December, imperial Obama filled a Big Ten sports arena with thousands of screaming students who roared when he told them he’d been – guess what? -“against the Iraq war from the beginning.” The local campus antiwar group would be happy to get one 500th of those students to turn out in protest against a scheduled March 9th University of Iowa speaking engagement for the grinning war criminal Karl Rove - a leading architect of the Bush administration’s strategy to sell the war. Rove is being paid $40,000 by the University of Iowa Lecture Committee, which calls this price “a bargain.” For "more than 30 years," the committee claimed in its original Web site advertisement of Rove’s talk, "the [UI] Lecture Committee has brought some of the world's great thinkers to the UI campus.” In Iowa City and across the nation, progressives and potential progressives of all ages seem paralyzed by a dangerous democracy-disabling dose of savior worship and by the childish idea that one can meaningfully “change America” (and hence the world) by choosing one among a pathetically narrow, corporate- and empire-vetted roster of presidential candidates during a two-minute trip into a voting both once every 1,460 days.
They would do well to take a history lesson from Howard Zinn, who recently wrote the following in an excellent article titled “Election Madness”:
“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.” “...I'm not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.” “I'm talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”
“But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.” “ Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.” “…Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.” “They offer no radical change from the status quo.” “They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.” “They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.” “ None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism” (4).
“WE ARE SO GOOD”: THE LIVING DEATH GRIP OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
But there’s something deeper and darker going on as well. Beneath the more immediate perfidies of NBC-GE-CNN-ABC-CBS-FOX-Cheney-Bush-Hillary-Obama-Council on Foreign Relations and the rest of the “power elite” and its many loyal coordinator allies and agents, we have the underlying cult of the U.S. military and the continuing disease of “American exceptionalism.” For numerous reasons relating to the structurally imposed nothingness of the imperial “homeland’s” moral, intellectual and political culture, ordinary Americans have a very difficult time trying to wrap their minds around serious moral criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
Having witnessed, learned about, and often enough experienced U.S. imperial aggression and oppression over many decades (in the case of Latin America more than a century), the majority of the world’s politically and morally cognizant populace knows to distrust deceivers like Obama when he says that the United States is “the last, best hope on Earth.” They’ve been on the wrong end of “noble” America’s imperial guns, policies, and "hope" for far too long to believe such nonsense as that.
They are also naturally much more free than Americans to learn and understand without shame that the U.S. is an open plutocracy where concentrated wealth trumps social justice on a regular basis.
For these and other reasons, they often feel understandable contempt upon learning that U.S. elites say things like this: “the United States is good...We try to do our best everywhere” (Madeline Albright, 1999) and this: “When I came into office, I was determined that our country would go into the 21st century still the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity” (Bill Clinton, 1996)
“Right,” they can say, “tell it, for example, to the people of Iraq,” whose country has been “plunged,” in Tom Engelhardt’s words, “into an unimaginable charnel house state” by the U.S. – in the name of “freedom.” As Engelhardt recently noted (5):
“Whether civilian dead between the invasion of 2003 and mid-2006 (before the worst year of civil-war level violence even hit) was in the range of 600,000 as a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet reported, or 150,000 as a recent World Health Organization study suggests, whether two million or 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, whether 1.1 million or more than two million have been displaced internally, whether electricity blackouts and water shortages have marginally increased or decreased, whether the country's health-care system is beyond resuscitation or could still be revived, whether Iraqi oil production has nearly crept back to the low point of the Saddam Hussein-era or not, whether fields of opium poppies are, for the first time, spreading across the country's agricultural lands or still relatively localized, Iraq is a continuing disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory.” Thanks to Unclke Sam, the "lastm best hope on earth."
There are many other examples, going back a very long way, of course. A good place to begin remembering or learning them is William Blum’s highly readable compendium of imperial horror – Rogue State America: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common Courage, 2005). Among my own modest efforts at chronicling past and living U.S. racist and imperial violence (two of my publications on that topic have garnered me death threats from American evangelical militarists), let me especially recommend the following one, penned before the horrors of America’s crimes against Iraq came into anything like full view: “American Racist Atrocity Denial 101, 1776-2004,” Black Commentator (March 18, 2004), available online at www.blackcommentator.com/82/82_think_street.html. Most Americans have not been permitted to develop their critical and moral faculties to the point where they know or care all that much about the awesome extent of “their” nation’s ongoing record of imperial violence and criminality. When confronted (no matter how politely) with evidence of this record, many Americans find it too morally and ideologically counter-intuitive to process. The dark record of U.S. foreign policy presented by such able and fearless historians as Blum,
Good Americans’ faith in the United States’ essential global benevolence and the related extremely high popularity of the U.S. military (see Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War ) are so great and so deeply reinforced by official government and media propaganda/ disinformation that I have repeatedly encountered Americans who can only formulate opposition to the Iraq occupation on the grounds that “we shouldn’t be giving our soldiers and money to help the Iraqis when those ungrateful people don’t even want our assistance.” The notion that our racist and petro-imperialist war of aggression and colonial conquest has been launched and sustained to “help the Iraqi people” – those miserable ingrates! – is shockingly widespread in the U.S.
Part of this terrible reality is about systematic indoctrination and propaganda. Another part is about simple human reluctance to admit that one’s country is guilty of deadly and immoral violence on a monumental scale. Who wants to think that one’s tax dollars, allegiances, and more (including in some cases one's own child’s life or limb and/or sanity and/or eyesight and/or hearing) have been given to help the world's only superpower assault masses of innocent global others - and to enrich privileged elites at home, including the leading investors behind such lovely proponents and agents of “forward global U.S. force projection” (also known as “defense”) as LockheedMartin, Raytheon, GE, Boeing, Henry Crown Investments (a leading Obama election investor), Halliburton, and Blackwater? It is so much easier and preferable to believe that Uncle Sam is a wise and kindly old man who wants and advances nothing but the best for the people at home and abroad.
“The level of culture that can be attained in the United States,” Chomsky noted in 1966, “is a matter of life and death for large masses of suffering humanity.”
Sadly, it remains an all-too open question whether imperial America’s criminal propensities can be significantly tempered from within. We “fringe” Americans who reject our ruling class’s claim to own the world will continue to swim against the tides of national narcissism and imperial militarism as best we can. But the world beyond America’s borders should stay on guard. It should not be hypnotized by the colored lights being so spectacularly and deceptively flashed by the corporate crafters of our latest “quadrennial [presidential] election extravaganza” (Chomsky’s phrase). Whatever the party identification or race or gender or ethno-cultural nomenclature of its next titular head, the wounded military-imperial beast and its bloody proclivities will continue to menace external populations for some time more to come. The time can be reduced if more Americans remember and act upon Zinn’s powerful admonition: substantive progressive change only occurs when popular activism becomes too “dangerous [for elites] to ignore” beneath and beyond the narrow-spectrum, corporate-crafted elections that are periodically staged to put a pretty dress of democracy on the unpleasant reality of imperial plutocracty.
Paul Street (email@example.com) is a writer and activist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005. Street is currently writing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.
1. Please see my article, “Largely About Oil,” Z Magazine (January 2008): 38-42.
2. See Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America (1988); David Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial Downsizing (1996); and Jess Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (2006)
3. See Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992)
4. Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008). Another reflection to consult is a flat-out brilliant essay by the Los Angeles-based writer Juan Santos. By Santos’ account:
“It should be more than clear by now that Barack Obama will not save us….The point is to see him in context, within the limits of the system, the matrix, the cultural and political environment in which he arose and in which he operates. It’s not that Barack Obama, per se, is worthless, it’s that none of the dreams in us that he speaks to so deeply in us can be fulfilled under the system of oppression he is an expression of and that his candidacy concentrates in visible form.”
“There is nothing wrong at all in the hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem lies in what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation — a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and needs in the first place. That’s what Obama represents.”
“The Bush regime was and remains an expression of a conscious plan by the far right — to crush everything that came to life in the upheavals of the cultural revolutions of the 60s era. They meant, as they consciously expressed it, to counter the counter culture, the culture of hope, and offer a new “hope” of a “purpose driven life” in the context of the old traditions of oppression. …The regime of Bush the Lesser was the pinnacle of this effort; he carried the agenda as far as it could go, before it began to fracture and collapse under the weight of its own madness … Literally, in terms of time in office, and as a sweeping reactionary social agenda, the Bush regime is coming to an end. With its end, inevitably, comes a wave of hope and euphoria.”
“This is the wave Obama is riding, the ocean of energy he is trying to steer into an acceptance of the same old deal, the same old wars, the same old systemic racism, packaged as if it were something new. This wave of energy is not something he’s inspired, it’s something he’s riding and that he is uniquely qualified to channel toward his own ends — which are not our ends.”
See Juan Santos, “Barack Obama and the ‘End of Racism,’” Dissident Voice, February 13, 2008. 5. Tom Engelhardt, “The Corpse on the Gurney: the Success Mantra in Iraq,” Antiwar.com, January 18, 2008, read at www. antiwar.com/engelhardt/ ?articleid=12229.