Monday, July 14, 2014

World War II: Not so Good After All





One of the results of becoming politically conscious is you come to realize 95 percent of what you were taught in history class is simply not true. Columbus did not actually discover America; Abraham Lincoln's allegedly singular role in "ending slavery" is considerably overblown; the Founding Fathers were largely uninterested in democracy; and World War II was hardly the "good war."

Of course, this last one presupposes that any war can be considered "good," "great" or otherwise just. Certainly, there may be times in human history when a nation must resort to military force to defend itself from an invading country that cannot be reasoned with or appeased.

But once you start labeling certain wars with superlative adjectives (World War I & II, The Civil War, The Revolutionary War), it creates a false concept that some forms of mass slaughter are, ultimately, acceptable. The so-called "bad" wars, meanwhile (Vietnam, the Iraq War, Granada, Haiti, Cuba, the Spanish-American War, to name just a few), were not, we are told, so much "wrong" or "immoral" in terms of their justifications. ("We meant well...") These wars were fought for the "right reasons," the wars' architects assure us. They were just poorly executed.

World War II, more so than any other major military conflict, has taken on mythic status in American culture. Acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Flags of Our Fathers along with realistic (and disturbingly popular) video games like Call of Duty have further reinforced WWII's celebrated status.

Bruce Russett, professor of political science at Yale, sums up the war's unassailable status. "Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology," he writes.

Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a "good war," one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. 

Case in point is the Brick Store Museum in my hometown of Kennebunk. The museum's featured exhibit of the summer is called "Vitamin V: How Food Fought the Second World War." In addition to the exhibit itself, local singer/songwriter, Monica Grabin performed a set of shows at the museum featuring folk songs from the two respective world wars.

Grabin--a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who boasts on her website of having Democratic Maine State Rep. Emily Cain join her on-stage to sing a song last year--regularly performs these sorts of "historical" folk shows. While there is certainly no debating Grabin's talent and musical prowess, her musical history lessons are not altogether different from your high school teacher's. Hers is more a sort of "pop" history, not unlike what one might find on The History Channel. She reinforces all the commonly believed myths surrounding WWI and II, while leaving the very notion of the moral legitimacy of these wars as less than an afterthought.

"But wasn't World War II fought for all the right reasons?" you ask. "Weren't we fighting to save democracy from fascism? Besides, wasn't Hitler just innately evil?"

Certainly, I am not suggesting the U.S. should have remained passive while hundreds of thousands of innocents were sent to death camps. And, while I am not a fan of labeling any human being as necessarily "evil"--or for that matter, especially "good"--there is no denying Hitler and the Nazis' acts were indisputably heinous.

That said, it is no great breach of morality--and certainly not a form of "anti-Semitism" as some may reactively suggest--to question the motives behind U.S. involvement in the so-called "good war."

Indeed, it is difficult to make the case America was fighting for any sort of moral high-ground in WWII (i.e. to "save the Jews") when it deliberately kept half of its own citizens--African Americans--segregated, cut-off from mainstream white society, and otherwise politically, economically, and socially disempowered.

As historian Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States, "...blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different" (p. 409).

Ironically, black Americans who did enlist to fight overseas found themselves fully segregated from the white soldiers throughout their training and deployment. And this is to say nothing of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans at home.

Hmmm... I wonder how many songs Grabin sang about these racist double-standards?

The fact is, in 1939 while Hitler was rapidly conquering parts of Europe,  Americans were in no rush to enter a second world war. Not only had the devastating economic impacts of the Great Depression generated a strong sense of isolationism among Americans. But they also created a widespread--and conveniently ignored in high school history textbooks--feeling that capitalism had utterly failed.

While Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped stave off this attitude, American involvement in WWII was the real clincher. It was, to put it bluntly, a war to save capitalism. Saving the Jews, protecting democracy, defeating fascism--all of these concerns were secondary to maintaining Western capitalism and ensuring the United States' global supremacy.

As Leon Trotsky observed at the dawn of WWII:

The present war--the second imperialist war--is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interest.... The United States must "organize" the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American Imperialism.

Indeed, after the war, only two nations emerged as the indisputable super-powers of the globe: The United States and the Soviet Union. Less than 50 years later, the latter country ceased to exist, leaving America as the world's sole military and corporate empire.

The post-war era also marked a profound change in America's very identity, as the country shifted from a production-based economy, to one centered on consumption. Public relations pioneers, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann utilized Sigmund Freud's controversial theories of psychoanalysis to manipulate public opinion, creating false needs and desires that could only be appeased through material consumption, and otherwise "manufacture consent," to use Lippmann's term. The very role of the individual dramatically changed during this time from one of citizen to consumer.

Indeed, one could argue all the various crises that currently plague our democracy--the dominating role of the corporate state; the legal pretense of corporations as "people"; the corroding influence of money in politics; the death of the liberal class and with it, the Democratic Party; the rise of the military-industrial-complex; the overconsumption that is ravaging the planet; the climate crisis, etc--were set in motion during the post-WWII years.

And here I thought we won the war. Seems more like a victory for the corporate state than the American people, if you ask me.

Finally, even if one concedes that World War II was "inevitable," that war with the Nazis was simply "unavoidable," nothing Hitler's armies did justified what was arguably the conflict's most egregious war crime: The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All historical evidence suggests the U.S. would have easily defeated Japan without the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Japan was on the verge of surrendering before the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945. And the U.S. was well aware of Japan's impending surrender since they had, by that time, cracked their communication codes.

No, America's use of the first nuclear weapon was less about defeating Japan than about demonstrating military supremacy to the world--to the Russians, especially. As a result, some 100,000 Japanese were horribly killed. Thousands more slowly died from radiation poisoning.

We study history in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that they may not be repeated in the future. But how are we to truly learn from the past when so much of what we think we know about it amounts to propaganda, distortion, and outright lies?

More importantly, we need to move beyond this childish concept that some wars are "good,"--even "noble" or "desirable." War is always a choice. Often the choice to go to war is not made by the American people themselves, but by a small, zealous cabal of corporatists fighting for profits, interests and motivations that have no impact on the rest of us. But war is a choice, nonetheless. And it is rarely a wise one.

"War is by definition," said Zinn during a speech titled "Three Holy Wars," "the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends which are uncertain.... The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain."



Monday, July 7, 2014

Capitalism and its Liberal Apologists



French economist, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 satirical novel, Main Street, uses the characters of Vida and Carol to illustrate the difference between liberals and radicals. Lewis, a socialist and fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of Industrialization, wrote the novel as a scathing send-up of conservative small-town America.

Carol Kennicott, the novel's rebellious, free-spirited protagonist, moves with her more conventionally-minded husband from the city to the rural country town of Gopher Prairie, a fictional town modeled after Lewis's own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Much of the novel's loosely-structured plot focuses on Carol's inept, at times perhaps naive, attempts to influence the uncultured, smug conservatism of Gopher Prairie with her progressive, feminist beliefs.

Ironically, Carol finds the greatest impediment to her efforts to "modernize" the town come, not from its conservative, middle-class residents, but from comfortable, unimaginative liberals like Vida. Vida criticizes Carol for trying to "work outside" the system with "foreign ideas."

The narrator explains:

Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that things could be excitingly altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was...a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of "constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done.

This, according to Lewis, is what separates liberals from radicals. Liberals--as currently embodied by the Democratic Party--prefer to tinker around the edges, while leaving the overarching structures of society (capitalism, corporate power, wealth inequality, class-struggle, etc.) intact.

Indeed, throughout history, it has always been the socialists, anarchists, communists, labor activists, anti-war protesters, radicals and revolutionaries, that have brought about fundamental democratic change in America.

Liberals in power merely adopt, co-opt, and water-down these ideas. Then they implement the second-rate versions and claim all the credit. (See: The Affordable Care Act as substitute for universal health care.) Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, unemployment, the five-day, 40-hour work week, child labor laws, free public education--all of these hallmarks of modern democratic society were born from the radical ranks of the Left. It was only through fierce, bloody, violent struggle that any of them were ever adopted by the power elite.

A popular bumper-sticker, erroneously attributing the development of earned-income benefits to Democrats, has it backwards. It should read: "Got Social Security? Thank a Socialist."

As the late Peter Camejo, Ralph Nader's 2004 vice presidential running-mate observes in the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man,

Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, rights of the labor party... Never [did] any of these major proposals come out of the two parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who led those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of these two parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuses...

Which brings me to capitalism's latest liberal apologist, Thomas Piketty.

Piketty's bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a rarity in the publishing industry. A tome of economic theory, replete with intricately designed graphs, and nearly 100 pages of footnotes, it is, suffice to say, not the sort of book Americans are typically clamoring to read--especially in the summertime. Yet the book has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list.

Clearly, the book's success illustrates Americans' increasing impatience with the sour economy, their lack of faith in so-called "free-market" economics--perhaps even in the institution of capitalism itself. To wit, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of young Americans ages 18-29 have a much more favorable view of socialism than older respondents.

Yet the title of Piketty's book--a seeming nod to Karl Marx's similarly lengthy 1867 treatise, Capital or Das Kapital in its original German--presents a bit of false advertising. Not only does Piketty's book have precious little in common with its titular forebear (the book actually has nothing to do with the nature and social role of capital; its primary focus is income inequality), Piketty himself claims to have never read Marx's work.

Here is the takeaway: Piketty takes 577 pages to arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to the claims of both conservatives and liberals, "free-market" capitalism does not evenly spread the wealth around. There is no "trickle-down" effect where the massive wealth of the exalted "job creators" magically flows down to the middle and working classes.

But this is hardly news to most of us on the Left. In fact, I think it is safe to assume anyone who is reading this blog long ago arrived at the same conclusion. Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman have been saying more or less the same thing for the last decade or more.

And therein lies the difference between Marx, Piketty, and the aforementioned economists. Marx's writings were driven by an urge to fundamentally change society by abolishing capitalism in favor of a more equitable system--Communism, specifically. Piketty, on the other hand, merely wants to "fix" capitalism's unequal distribution--to make it "work for everyone," so to speak.

Yet, as Marx correctly observes in Capital, capitalism's unequal distribution of wealth is not something that can be fixed. It is not a flaw in the system. It is, rather, the inevitable result of an inherently exploitative, unequal system that favors the wealthy owner-class over the working-class.

"The philosophers of our time have merely interpreted the world," Marx wrote. "The goal, however, is to change it."

This is not to say there is no value in Piketty's Capital. The writing is fairly straightforward and accessible, and he deserves credit for his persuasive research. But throughout the book Piketty remains the stereotypical "objective" academic, going to pains to give equal weight to "both sides" of the income inequality debate.

This bogus concept that professors and journalists should not have their own beliefs and opinions on what they write about is the great disease of both professions. It has rendered the universities and the press incapable of taking moral stands, of pointing out society's ills, and giving voice to the disenfranchised. Howard Zinn was correct: You cannot be neutral on a moving train.

We cannot afford to tinker around the edges of the corporate state. We need a complete system overhaul. And liberal reformists will not help us achieve it.


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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Corporate Welfare State Revisited





In early 2013, I wrote a piece titled "Welcome to the Corporate Welfare State," which generated considerable reader response. It remains the most-viewed post on this blog to date, with close to 250 views.

In the post I pointed out that corporate welfare--in the form of bailouts, subsidies, handouts, loopholes, tax-breaks and Tax Increment Financing (TIFs)--far outpaces traditional or individual welfare.

(Contrary to Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage's recent statements, Social Security is not welfare. It is an earned-income benefit that workers pay into throughout their working-lives.)

For instance, in 2012 alone the government spent $205 billion on corporate subsidies according to the Cato Institute. Compare that to the roughly $59 billion spent on individual welfare programs annually. In the words of U.S. Uncut co-founder, Carl Gibson, this means taxpayers spent "six times more on giving free money to companies making record profits than we did to making sure the people who were laid off by these corporations can still feed their families" ("Cut Corporate Welfare, Not the Safety Net," Huffington Post, 01/07/13).

He adds, the $205 billion in "corporate goodies" was "okay with [House] Speaker [John] Boehner, but $60 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief apparently wasn't."

Yet this disparity is almost never highlighted in media discussions of welfare.

Instead, most media "debates" on welfare remain myopically focused on individual welfare recipients (whom Ronald Reagan once callously dubbed "Welfare Queens"), typically thought of as single mothers, immigrants or people of color--even though actual welfare statistics dispel this stereotype. Statistically, black and white Americans take advantage of welfare benefits at nearly comparable rates.

Then again, most of our news comes from networks owned by the very corporations living high on the government teet (tax-dodger G.E.-NBC, for instance). So it makes sense they would not want to shine too much light on just how much they are costing American taxpayers.

Case in point is a recent front page story in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram highlighting a recent poll on Mainers' views on welfare ("In Maine, a stark divide in attitudes about welfare," 6/23/2014).

The poll results are, frankly, nothing especially surprising or even newsworthy.

Conservative voters believe welfare "does more harm than good," and recipients "do not need the assistance and are taking advantage of the system." (The latter claim constitutes a wholly unsubstantiated accusation, which the story offers zero evidence to support.) Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be more supportive of welfare programs.

Overall, 46 percent of respondents claim welfare does "more harm than good," with a close 43 percent asserting the reverse.

Predictably, the nearly 1,700-word story by PPH staff writer Steve Mistler makes no mention of corporate welfare. The subject was not included in any of UNH's polling questions.

When I called UNH Survey Center director Andrew Smith to inquire why questions on corporate welfare were left out, he gave the telephonic equivalent of a shrug.

"It's not the kind of thing most voters think exists or see," he said.

But this logic is completely circular:

Voters are not knowledgeable about corporate welfare because the mainstream media--where the majority of Americans get their information about the world--rarely ever report on it. Reporters and editors, in turn, claim they do not cover the issue because their readers and viewers do not express concern over it. But how can they express concern over something they know nothing about...?

This is the same baseless excuse the corporate press use to exclude third-party candidates from their election coverage. There is a term for this deliberately selective sort of news coverage which intentionally leaves out major aspects of a story: Agenda-setting.

So, when are these behemoth corporations going to start working for a living? When will they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Most of them do not pay taxes as it is.

Thirty Fortune 500 companies routinely avoid paying any federal income taxes according to a 2011 report by the group Citizens for Tax Justice. Of the companies scrutinized, 280 paid "only about half" their obligatory amount at the current 35 percent tax rate. These corporate tax-dodgers include Proctor & Gamble, DuPont, Verizon Wireless, Wells Fargo, General Electric, and weapons-manufacturer Honeywell International.

Additionally, it is impossible to talk about corporate welfare without bringing up the minimum wage, as the two issues go hand-in-hand. In essence, we as taxpayers are paying low-wage workers at Walmart, McDonald's, and Starbucks because their employers are too cheap to.

A recent study by the University of California Berkeley finds U.S. taxpayers dole out nearly $7 billion a year to fund the public assistance programs utilized by the majority of fast-food workers, most of whom subside on $8.94 an hour or less. The fast-food industry--which accounts for 44 percent of job growth since the Great Recession--is a multibillion dollar industry, with McDonald's alone boasting profits of $1.5 billion last year.

This is yet another form of corporate welfare. Fast-food franchises intentionally keep worker wages low while they reap the profits. This is not "free-market" capitalism in any way, shape or form. It is socialism for the rich.

Furthermore, these pervasive instances of corporate welfare completely undermine Friedmanites' utopian vision of an unregulated economy free of any government "distortions." Corporate welfare is the ultimate distortion. As Naomi Klein makes clear in her seminal 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, such a completely unfettered capitalist economy has never existed in any human society on its own. Free-market ideologues and Chicago School disciples have always had to install such an economy by violent force and repression (a la Pinochet's military coup of Chile in 1973).

Turns out Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" is not so invisible after all.

Let's just call these perpetual attacks on welfare and the social safety net what they really are: a war against the poor.

Both Republicans and Democrats have their sights on privatizing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The great irony--and one of the chief reasons neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have been successful with privatization efforts--is these so-called "entitlement" programs are actually extremely popular with Americans of all political persuasions. Conservatives may rant and rave against welfare programs in polls like the PPH's, falsely believing they are to blame for our country's fiscal woes. But when it comes to their personal Social Security checks or Medicare benefits, they suddenly change their tune. (Funny how that works out, isn't it?)

Frankly, I think polls like this one do more to reinforce the bogus narrative there is a supposedly irreconcilable ideological divide between congressional Democrats and Republicans. But if papers like the PPH insist on conducting these surveys, let's at least present both sides of the debate--you know, "objectivity" and all of that.

"Freeloading large corporations have taken too much for too long," writes Ralph Nader ("President Obama--Get Tough on Corporate Welfare," Huffington Post, 02/12/13).

He is right. Let's make corporate handouts an integral part of welfare discussions. Goldman Sachs, G.M., Bank of America and others are the true "Welfare Queens,"--not the single mother working three part-time low-wage jobs just so she can (barely) get by.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraq War Redux



I stood outside the town hall in my hometown of Kennebunk on Friday holding a hastily scrawled sign that read, "DON'T ATTACK IRAQ (AGAIN)!" I stood there for about an hour.

I did this in response to President Barack Obama's announcement last week he will send some 300 "military advisers" to squelch the ever worsening violence in Iraq. This action may be followed by drone strikes.

I honestly expected more of an angry response than I received. As it is, only one person yelled at me as he drove by.

"We need to be there!" he shouted at me. There are a lot of things this country needs: Universal health care, jobs, free college education, forgiveness of student debt, a robust clean-energy program, democracy, etc. Another Middle Eastern war is not one of them.

Two passerby actually praised me. One middle-aged man assured me as he jogged by, "I'm with you in spirit!" whatever that means. I have never heard of protesting wars "in spirit" only, but, thanks... I guess.

And Kennebunk police chief, Robert MacKenzie (the town hall is across from the police station) approached me, read my sign, and walked away. Had he given me any trouble, I was fully prepared to present him with my "permit": A pocket-sized version of the U.S. Constitution.

Most people, however, simply drove by. A few, stopped at the adjacent traffic light, read my sign then quickly and uncomfortably looked away. I suppose if my sign had said something like, "Justice for Mary Tanner!" or "Death to Cancer!" I would have received more support.

War, of course, is itself a cancer upon the human race, though we tend not to think of it in such terms. It is, as George McGovern said about the Vietnam War, "[A] moral and political disaster--a terrible cancer eating away at the soul of our nation."

I am not so naive as to think my lone protest, ignored, as it mostly was in my yuppie, Bush-worshiping town, will have any discernible impact on the president's plans for resuming military conflict in Iraq--let alone halt those plans. This was merely my means of registering my dissent. I remain unwavering in my belief--contrary to the defeatist excuses of most liberals--that any form of dissent, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, matters.

"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty," wrote Henry David Thoreau. "The obedient must be slaves."

Resuming military conflict in Iraq is a horrendous mistake. Most Americans, I believe, realize that.

It is the corporate news media--over a decade after their complicity in launching the Iraq War--that still needs convincing, however.

Indeed, in the last week the corporate networks have faithfully, and without irony or shame, trotted out the very same people--Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Bill O' Reilly, Bill Kristol--that lied and deceived the public about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to sell us the last Iraq debacle. One would think these people have lost any iota of credibility they may have once possessed on foreign policy matters.

As FAIR's (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) Peter Hart observes in a recent blog post, "It's obviously quite revealing that these people are invited onto television at all--further proof... that there is no accountability for being so wrong in so many important ways" ("'Drawn Back into War' in Iraq," 6/18/2014).

Have we learned nothing?

George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq left well over 100,000 Iraqis killed, thousands more injured, the country destroyed, and opened massive, perhaps irreparable rifts between Iraqi factions--most notably the Sunnis and the Shiites which, contrary to popular perception, have not always been at each other's throats as they have been in recent years.

We left Iraq shattered. And now our proverbial chickens have come home to roost.

Arguments over whether Iraq would have been "better off with Saddam Hussein" in power are hypocritically hollow. Our collective historical amnesia--if not outright ignorance--makes us forget who allowed Hussein to come to power in the first place: The United States. Any WMD Hussein may have once possessed were those we sold to him during the Iraq-Iran war.

Hussein's replacement, the U.S.-installed, Nouri al-Maliki has proven just as morally degenerate. We merely replaced one dictator with another. Then we shamelessly and patronizingly chastise the citizens of Iraq for the turmoil we caused. I guess they simply did not want democracy enough, we shrug.

"They who have put out the people's eyes," John Milton famously wrote, "reproach them for their blindness."

And can we please end this pervasive myth that unmanned predator drones are somehow "safer," more "precise" killing machines?

Maine's U.S. Senator Angus King deserves a share of the blame for spreading this nonsense. Last year he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough drones are "a lot more civilized" compared to 19th century methods of warfare. Except I can think of something even more civilized than drones: Not going to war in the first place.

"I think it's actually a more humane weapon," said King, "because it can be targeted to specific enemies and specific people."

Here is how "precise" drones are: The U.S. military counts every "military-aged male" within the vicinity of a drone strike to be an "enemy combatant," whether or not they actually are. This rationale, as revealed in a 2012 New York Times expose ("Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will," 5/29/2012), is based on the assumption that any civilian who happens to be within the general proximity of a known al-Qaeda operative is "probably up to no good."

In other words, if you are an American reporter covering the conflict in, say Syria or Pakistan, and you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as the U.S.. government is concerned, you are an "enemy combatant." That is how "accurate" drone strikes are.

We cannot squelch sectarian violence by bombing the hell out of people. Our renewed military presence in Iraq will only further inflame hostilities, anti-U.S. sentiments, and cause more innocents to die. It is the arrogance of imperialism that makes America believe it is the exalted, self-appointed policeman of the globe. Al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq until our 2003 invasion.

The Iraq War was the costliest, bloodiest, most morally reprehensible foreign policy blunder in my lifetime. I opposed it then--I oppose it now. It was a war of choice based on lies and deception. To date, none of the war's architects have faced criminal accountability for their crimes against humanity. These contemptible charlatans--most of whom have never served in combat themselves--should not be on television urging us to go to war again. They should be in prison.

I refuse to sit back and passively watch my government repeat the crimes of the recent past. I have learned and experienced too much in the last ten years to remain silent.

If that means standing alone, so be it.




Monday, June 9, 2014

Reclaiming Feminism


Nadya Tolokonnikova of Russian feminist punk-rock band, Pussy Riot.

Last month, Forbes magazine issued its annual list of the "100 Most Powerful Women." Prominent female power-brokers and "buzzworthy" women-of-the-moment like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (she's #1) round-out the top-20.

All of the women featured are government officials, CEOs or celebrities. (Hence their qualification as "most powerful," I suppose.) There are no working-class women featured. Those who are CEOs represent some of the largest, most insidious corporations in the world including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, and criminally negligent General Motors.

Of those from the United States, a mere seven are African American. Only one woman, Lady Gaga, is under the age of 30. (Queen Elizabeth II is the oldest, at 88.) Most are Baby-Boomer-aged or older.

The deliberate exclusion of prominent female figures like Jill Stein, Kshama Sawant, Naomi Klein or members of Pussy Riot leads me to believe Forbes's editors do not consider these women "powerful" enough for their exclusive millionaires club. Perhaps they were overlooked because, even collectively, they do not possess Beyonce's (#17) estimated net worth of $350 million.

Take a good look, young girls of America.

These A-lister elites are, according to Forbes and the rest of the corporate media, the women you should emulate. Yes, you too can join the ranks of Michelle Obama and Nancy Pelosi, so long as you work hard, get an MBA from a prestigious university, and "lean in" to use Sheryl Sandberg's phrase. (Marrying a rich guy doesn't hurt, either. I mean, it worked for Maine's U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, right?)

These women are also notable for something else: They have effectively killed feminism. At the very least, they have dramatically scaled-back, compromised, and redefined its goals.

Feminism as it currently exists is little more than an appeal to the corporate state for inclusion. Millionaires like Sandberg and GM CEO Mary Barra, by co-opting the language and spirit of feminism, claim to speak for all women. They disingenuously insist they can relate to the plight of the average working-class woman. And, through books like Sandberg's self-help bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, they claim to offer women the "advice," and "skills" necessary to "have it all."

For the corporate media, books like Lean In and the ascension of a few privileged women like Sandberg in the corporate office, reinforce its perpetual narrative that we now live in a "post-feminist" society. This, incidentally, is not much different from the narrative that we now occupy a "post-racial" society, as evidenced in the election of Barack Obama. If only either concept were true.

Elizabeth Schulte in an article for the Socialist Worker calls this a sort of "trickle-down feminism" ("Trickle- Down Feminism?", 03/20/2013). The media drumbeat over our supposed "post-feminist" era, she explains, "rarely address the concerns of the vast majority of women who are a part of the working class."

Schulte writes:

They [the media] measure the success of women at large by the success stories of a few corporate executives or political officials at the top--and argue that these examples of "having it all" will eventually trickle down to all women.
The inevitable focus of these [post-feminist] articles and books is what women can do personally to succeed. (Italics hers.)

By highlighting a few isolated success stories and subtly berating others for not following suit, the media, according to Schulte, "ignore the institutional gender inequality that is at the heart of U.S. society."

As a result, young women are beginning to confuse this pseudo-corporate brand of feminism with the real thing.

They chant they are "ready for Hillary," as if the probable presidential candidate is any sort of champion of women's rights. They continue to invest their energy into a Democratic Party that views empty appeals to "feminism" as an easy way to increase its own ranks locally and nationally. (See the women's political-training seminar, Emerge Maine. Admission price: $800.)

And they retreat into agonizingly academic discourses on the concept of gender, using arcane poststructuralist terms like "cisgender."

Meanwhile, in the world outside of the Ivory Tower, 11 states have passed laws severely restricting access to abortion. The words "terrorist" or "terrorism" are never applied to the zealous anti-choice mercenaries who blow-up abortion clinics or kill abortion providers, despite the fact these violent individuals represent more of a real threat to U.S. security than al-Qaeda.

Likewise, women still receive less pay than men--77 cents to every dollar--for the exact same work. Earlier this year, Maine's Senator Angus King joined Senate Republicans in shooting down a bill that would have addressed this inexplicable pay disparity. Upon returning home from these gyp-jobs, many women are faced with a mountain of unpaid "domestic labor," the majority of which still disproportionately falls on them.

This is where the limits of identity politics manifest themselves.

Certainly, if we are to create a truly egalitarian social democracy, gender equality must be an integral part of it. But, as with other identity-driven equal-rights struggles, the narrow, often personal focus of feminism prevents it from creating a framework for broad, systemic change. Instead the Horatio (Horatia...?) Alger stories of a few privileged ceiling-smashers become the default model of expectation for all.

Yet identity politics has become the raison d'etre of the left. Rather than fighting poverty, militarism or for a broader sense of social justice, progressives dabble in the boutique activism of multiculturalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of identity politics. As a result, the left has become splintered, atomized, and largely ineffective.    

"Women have discovered that they cannot rely on men's chivalry to give them justice," wrote Helen Keller in 1916. Keller--who was far more radical than your history teacher led you to believe--was an early crusader in the fight for women's suffrage in the early part of the 20th century. While Keller was universally praised for her strength in overcoming her physical disabilities, her outspoken socialist, feminist, and anti-war views were met with cold reception, and bitter denouncement.

Indeed, many of the early feminists like Keller saw a direct, inextricable link between the goals of feminism and socialism. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for example was a labor activist, IWW leader, and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Flynn wrote in her autobiography Rebel Girl:

A domestic life and possibly a large family had no attraction for me... I wanted to speak and write, to travel, to meet people, to see places, to organize for the I.W.W. I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for this...
We in the left need to rediscover this language. We need to realize that overthrowing the corporate state, and promoting the equality of women are not mutually exclusive goals. They are one and the same.

But we cannot accomplish this so long as economic elites like Sandberg, Winfrey and Barra are held up as "feminist" proponents. Let's all of us--women and men--reclaim feminism for the masses. Then we can show corporate publications like Forbes what real power looks like.

 



Monday, June 2, 2014

Death of the Fourth Estate



CBS' Bob Schieffer hobnobs with actress Claire Danes at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Real journalists do not enjoy--nor do they seek--this sort of access to power and celebrity.

The vacuous shell that has become of American journalism was on full display last week during NBC's savagely hostile interview with Edward Snowden. Indeed, Brian Williams's attempted takedown of the former National Security Agency (N.S.A.) contractor-turned-whistleblower proved an embarrassing backfire given Snowden's calm, thoughtful, reasoned responses to his host's vacuous, uninspired questions.

At one point during the interview, Williams held up what he called a "burner" cell phone--or a temporary, disposable phone typically used by drug dealers (and, apparently, NBC reporters...) which is meant to be promptly discarded after use so as to avoid detection--and asked Snowden what specific information the N.S.A. could obtain from it.

Snowden did not miss a beat. "Well, that's got to be the most expensive 'burner' I've ever seen," he said of Williams's high-end smartphone.

This brief segment, incidentally, was the only part of the interview that focused on the actual details of the N.S.A. surveillance programs Snowden went to such heroic lengths to reveal to the American public. The majority of the piece centered exclusively on Edward Snowden himself--his early life, his politics, his exact title at the N.S.A., and other biographical details. In fact, NBC's much hyped, exclusive interview is titled, "Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden,"--not say, "Inside the U.S. Surveillance State."

This tactic of focusing almost entirely on the character of the whistleblower, the activist, or the reporter--be it Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, or Glenn Greenwald--has become the media's default approach to dealing with whistleblowers. The goal is always the same: Shoot the messenger, ignore the message. Ergo, Assange, we are told, is an "anti-social egomaniac,"; Manning, a sexually confused youth; and Greenwald an "activist journalist," (as if any other kind exists) whose reporting is driven by his political agenda rather than facts.

The point is to discredit the source of pertinent government crimes or abuses of power. Call them disloyal, unpatriotic, or accuse them of enabling "the enemy." And, even if this personal smear campaign fails, the corporate media have still succeeded in shifting the discussion away from the actual content of the crimes, themselves. From the media's perspective, it is a win-win strategy. And Williams's interview deviated little from the playbook.

Williams wastes no time with his accusatory questioning. In fact, he kicks the interview off not with a question, but a declarative statement: "A lot of people would say you have badly damaged your country."

He follows this up with a slight variation on the previous statement, quoting former N.S.A. Director Keith Alexander who claims Snowden has done "significant and irreversible damage to the nation...." Williams makes no mention of the fact that Alexander lied outright to a congressional committee concerning the N.S.A.'s illegal spying last fall.

Could it be that G.E.-owned NBC--one of the world's largest weapons manufacturers and, as such, a major proponent for the Iraq war--is just as "agenda-driven" as Greenwald?

"Journalism," wrote George Orwell, "is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations."

Brian Williams is no journalist--not in the traditional sense of the word. Neither is Scott Pelley, Katie Couric, Bill O' Reilly, David Gregory, Charlie Rose or Rachel Maddow. They are, at best, celebrities. At worst, they are facilitators of corporate propaganda.

Williams, for instance, makes $13 million a year hosting NBC's Nightly News. His net worth is placed at $40 million. This sort of money is unheard of for actual reporters like Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh or Jeremy Scahill.

Furthermore, Williams has repeatedly appeared on popular TV shows like 30 Rock playing himself or a parody thereof. While this sort of sitcom moonlighting shows Williams is not afraid to poke fun at himself, it nonetheless begs the question: is he a journalist or an entertainer? (Williams's daughter, Allison Williams, stars on HBO's Girls so it must run in the family.)

Williams was ranked the second "most trusted" TV news reporter in America in a 2009 Time magazine readers poll. The Comedy Central satirist, Jon Stewart was number one. While some media scholars objected to Stewart's inclusion in the poll among "serious" reporters, it makes perfect sense, really. The only difference between Stewart and the "Establishment" reporters he routinely sends up, is he openly acknowledges everything on his show is a joke.

Six corporations currently determine all of the news we read and watch: Disney (ABC), Newscorp (Fox News/Wall Street Journal), CBS Corporation (CBS), General Electric (NBC/Comcast), Time Warner (CNN/HBO/Time Magazine) and Viacom. Not only does this sort of mega-merger consolidation significantly decrease the number and diversity of voices in the mainstream news, it is the antithesis of a free and independent press.

"[J]ournalists are not in control of the instruments they play," writes Bill Moyers, in the introduction to his excellent essay collection Moyers on Democracy (Anchor Books, 2008)


As conglomerates swallow up newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and networks, and profit rather than product becomes the focus of corporate effort, news organizations... are folded into entertainment divisions. The "news hole" in the print media shrinks to make room for advertisements, and stories needed by informed citizens working together are pulled in favor of the latest celebrity scandals because the media moguls have decided that uncovering the inner workings of public and private power is boring and will drive viewers and readers away to greener pastures of pabulum. Good reporters and editors confront walls of resistance in trying to place serious and informative reports over which they have long labored. Media owners who should be sounding the trumpets of alarm on the battlements of democracy instead blow popular ditties through tin horns, undercutting the basis for their existence and their First Amendment rights (p. 5-6).

Real journalism--the kind television entertainers like Williams know nothing about--rarely makes reporters rich. Real investigative reporting is tedious, time consuming, and often expensive. It requires a fierce loyalty to the truth, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be. Truth is not to be confused with the corporate media's professed journalistic "objectivity." Truth is rarely nestled comfortably between the "right" and "left" or two similar opposing viewpoints. Truth, in the words of the late Molly Ivins, "has the oddest habit of being way the hell off on one side or the other."

Without a free and independent press--one that speaks truth to power, is fiercely critical of authority, and remains steadfastly committed to truth and journalistic integrity--democracy is not possible. We are reduced to captive, ignorant prisoners in Plato's metaphorical cave, entertained by the shadows on the walls.

Yet we are living in an era of unprecedented crackdown on journalists and an attempt to criminalize, through draconian laws like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the very work they do. The Obama administration has overseen more prosecutions of government whistleblowers than any other administration in history. President Obama has invoked the 1917 Espionage Act twice as many times as all previous presidents combined.

This has created a chilling effect among government insiders and sources. As a result, according to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "Investigative reporting has come to a standstill."

Independent muckraking journalism has played an integral role in American history. From Ida Tarbell's expose on John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th century; to Upton Sinclair's inside look at the unsanitary, inhumane working conditions in the Chicago meat factories chronicled in The Jungle; to I.F. Stone and Edward R. Murrow's takedown of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s; and Seymour Hersh's horrific revelations of the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War and, years later, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq.

"It is the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is," writes Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman in her book, Breaking the Sound Barrier (Haymarket Books, 2009), "to seek out news and people who are ignored..."

She continues:

What is typically presented as news analysis is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all (p. 1).
So do not labor long over NBC's recent corporate assault on democracy. It is, in the end, so much bread and circuses for a dying empire.

You can watch Brian Williams's entire interview with Edward Snowden below.



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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Fog of War



Memorial Day musings on the culture of war and empire

Is there any American holiday more blatantly militaristic than Memorial Day?

Whether or not we are capable of admitting it, the entire long weekend is a celebration of war and empire. At the very least, one is unlikely to see any serious critique or challenge to either institution in one's various Memorial Day travels.

Of course, this is not how most Americans perceive the various parades and patriotic observances that mark the day's events. These parades are meant, we are told, to honor the soldiers who died "fighting for our freedom." While this refrain is no doubt comforting to the families of service members who have died, its legitimacy warrants some closer examination.

Have the long, bloody, unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan really made us appreciably "freer" as citizens? Do our daily drone strikes of Syria, Yemen and Somalia truly enhance and strengthen our democracy? Indeed, if these wars are fought to maintain our freedom, then why have we lost so many of them--our right to privacy, to peaceful dissent, to habeas corpus to name just a few--since 9/11?

By that measure, these wars seem to be failing. Yet even allegedly "anti-war" liberals unblinkingly swallow this infantile rhetoric--the more eagerly so when the presiding Warmonger-in-Chief is a Democrat.

Our young men and women did certainly fight and die for something, but it was not freedom. They died for empire, Wall Street, global U.S. hegemony, and corporate profits. They gave their lives so Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), General Electric, and Raytheon could get richer while towns across America continue to close schools, slash budgets and reduce assistance to the poor. (Because, you know, "we're broke.")

"They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country," Ernest Hemingway wrote in his 1935 Esquire article, "Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter." "But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason."

Politicians cynically use Memorial Day to pledge their unwavering support and commitment to The Troops. Those returning soldiers who continue to read from the nationalistic script of war-as-necessary-for-freedom may even be trotted out to speak on the Sunday news shows about their "heroic" experiences in fighting overseas.

But any other time of year we cannot turn out backs on these young men and women--kids, really--fast enough.

Those that survive the horrors of war return physically and psychologically maimed. The majority of U.S. soldiers come from poor or working-class families. For many of them, the military is the only career option. A disproportionate number of military enlistees come from Maine, particularly the northern, more economically-deprived part of the state. Suffice to say, you typically do not see the wealthy, the privileged or the college-educated shipping off to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Upon returning from war, soldiers often find it impossible to re-acclimate themselves to civilian life, and struggle to find those wonderful jobs the military disingenuously promises them. After dutifully fulfilling their "patriotic" role in defending empire, they are promptly discarded like so much human cattle.

"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder," observed Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs in denouncing World War I.
...And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars. The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives. 

Hence the importance of a national, highly subsidized military in any capitalist society. As the "CrimethInc." authors explain in their self-published book, Work: Capitalism, Economics & Resistance (2011), "The military is by far the most socialized sector of the US economy. Without the employment opportunities it offers the poor and restless, many of them might seek their fortune in another army" (p. 128, Italics theirs).

But this all goes well beyond the simplistic, nationalistic cant of the average Memorial Day parade. To the extent that Americans reflect on issues of war and peace at all (most of them spend the three-day weekend at the beach or grilling E. coli-tainted meat from Hannaford), the shallow rhetoric rarely transcends beyond, "thanking" the troops for their "service."

War has become our new religion. While membership in traditional religious faiths continues to decrease, Americans remain intimately connected through the language, rituals, and iconography of, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, "all things military."

And I am not merely referring to jingoistic conservatives, here. Allegedly anti-war liberals have, under Barack Obama's presidency, proven themselves just as hawkish.

Case in point, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker praised the assassination of Osama bin Laden as one of Obama's chief first-term accomplishments. ("Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!" vice president Joe Biden exclaimed triumphantly.) Liberal convention-goers greeted this exaltation with jubilant cheers and banal chants of "USA!, USA!"

(For the record, it is perfectly legitimate to fervently despise an individual's criminal actions, and still refuse to rejoice at that person's death. Life is frequently full of such ambiguous complexity, despite our media and politicians' desperate attempts to reduce everything to simplistic, "us-vs.-them" sloganeering. I, for one, would have preferred to see bin Laden arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his crime against humanity.)

This type of behavior is typical of those infected with the childish, barbaric mentality of war. The language of war--like the iconography of advertising--replaces rational, complex thought with simplistic symbolism and irrational emotional appeals. Or, in the moronic words of NRA spokesman, Wayne LaPierre in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, "The only thing that stops a bad-guy with a gun is a good-guy with a gun." Such an infantile worldview is far more pervasive than most of us care to realize. It is a direct product of a culture steeped in the language of war.

As with any religion, those who offer even the most mild criticism of its doctrines or prophets, those who speak outside the narrow parameters of what is deemed "acceptable discourse," are banished and treated as unpatriotic pariahs.

This is precisely what happened to historian Howard Zinn, author of the bestselling, A People's History of the United States, when he too dared to question the priorities of Memorial Day in an op-ed column in the Boston Globe on June 2, 1976. Zinn, who was a regular Globe columnist at the time, in a piece titled, "Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?" had the audacity to observe the holiday should be a day "for putting flowers on graves and planting trees."

"Also," he added, "for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren."

Dear lord. Planting trees is one thing, but "destroying weapons of death"...? And Zinn calls himself an American...?

This was, predictably, the last editorial Zinn wrote for the Globe. He was fired shortly thereafter. Remind me again what George Orwell said about truth-telling becoming a revolutionary act in a time of "universal deceit."

Here's the takeaway: Let's make Memorial Day obsolete by no longer sending our service men and women to war. This is not a call for "weakness," or "surrender." It is a call for a renewed sense of humanity. War does not make us safer or freer. It does nothing to enhance our democracy. Quite the reverse--it erodes it. It makes us less safe--more vulnerable to retaliatory "blowback." As anti-war author Gino Strada urges, we must go beyond helping the victims of war to abolishing war itself.

And if we are serious about abolishing the institution of war then it is essential we understand the intimate connection between the forces that send us to war--the so-called military-industrial-complex--and capitalism.

Again, the words of the late Howard Zinn are instructive. In a chapter entitled "War is the Enemy," in his essay-collection, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (City Lights, 2007) he writes:

My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race (p. 196).