Monday, September 16, 2013

The Warmonger Song-And-Dance Routine

Or, Meditations on a Military Empire

I do not believe the claims Syria possesses chemical weapons for a minute. Anyone who does clearly learned nothing from this nation's last major military conflict.

And so here we go again with Washington's favorite warmonger song-and-dance routine. Another Middle Eastern country has weapons of mass destruction--err...excuse me, "chemical weapons" and so, in the United States' self-appointed role as Supreme Law Enforcer of the Globe, we must forcibly disarm them. Damn any innocent civilians killed in the process.

Didn't President Obama get the memo? Conventional war sold as propaganda to a skeptical public is so 2003. These days, we just assassinate the evil-doers (and their children) via unmanned predator drones with no public debate whatsoever. Can't we just send a drone after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and be done with it?

Of all the ink spilled in the decade since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sent the country to war in Iraq based on lies and fabricated intelligence, I still think Michael Moore's succinct assessment best cuts to the heart of why their deception was so successful:

"I blame the New York Times more for the Iraq war than Bush," he wrote in a 2010 article for The Daily Beast ("Liberals Sold the Iraq War," 09/15/2010).

He writes,
I expected Bush and Cheney to try and get away with what they did. But the Times--and the rest of the press--was supposed to STOP  them by doing their job: Be a relentless watchdog of government and business--and then inform the public so we can take action. (Bold and italics his.)

Moore's understanding of the role of a free, independent press is much the same as I learned studying journalism in college. Alas, like so many academic theories those concerning the Fourth Estate remain thoroughly detached from reality.

The fact is we do not have a free or independent press in this country. And when your broadcast news network is owned by the world's third-largest weapons manufacturer (NBC-General Electric in this case), that network has an inherent interest in promoting the war and the views of Establishment warmongers.

Since the launch of the Iraq war, many media outlets and op-ed writers who were so gung-ho for the invasion have engaged in (or, at least, offered the pretense of engaging in) various degrees of self-reflection concerning their collective failure in their watchdog role. Yet, once again, we have those same outlets and reporters swallowing the Obama administration's fuzzy rationales for striking Syria.

To that end, NYT columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof assails critics of a military intervention ("The Right Questions on Syria," 09/05/2013):

"...[W]hat do you propose other than that we wag our fingers as a government uses chemical weapons on its own people? So far, we've tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn't worked very well."

We have...? Oh, so Israel's week-long bombing of Syria earlier this year was an instance of "peaceful acquiescence." Here I misunderstood it to be an act of, you know...war.

Kristof, like so many proponents of a Syrian strike, grossly oversimplifies the debate as consisting of two polar extremes: Using military force to "punish" Assad, or doing absolutely nothing. He writes, " is being 'pro-peace' in this case much different in effect from being 'pro-Assad' and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?" Such an attitude further perpetuates the American logic that the only truly effective means of pursuing peace throughout the globe (often from dictators the U.S. put in power in the first place) is through military force.

Kristof, in a stunning bit of self-serving historical revisionism, casts himself as a critic of the

Nicholas D. Kristof
Iraq war. "A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war," he writes.

That's funny, because during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, Kristof wrote this:

"President Bush has convinced me there is no philosophical reason we should not overthrow the Iraqi government, given that Iraqis themselves would be better off, along with the rest of the world" ("Wimps on Iraq," 08/27/2002).

Two years later, Kristof, in typical NY Times' double-speak, chastised Moore's documentary film, Fahrenheit 9/11 for "calling Bush a liar," while conceding, in the same column, "Of course, Mr. Bush did stretch the truth." Then again, Kristof was likely following The Times' cardinal rule, as explained by reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, "You can't just say the president is lying."

Contrary to conventional thinking, liberals are just as hawkish as Republicans when it comes to matters of war and peace. In particular, liberals routinely fall in line for the logic of so-called "humanitarian intervention," which was how Bill Clinton presented his bombing of Serbia in 1999 and, more recently, the Saddam-Hussein-is-as-bad-as-Hitler rhetoric for the war in Iraq.

Yet, in both the media and public opinion, Democrats are still held up as eternal champions of peace and diplomacy. All those "anti-war" liberals who were so convinced Obama was the "lesser evil" during last year's presidential election seem oblivious to the fact that both the gargantuan Pentagon budget and our military presence throughout the globe have increased under Obama. In fact, the president's proposed FY 2014 military-spending budget is the largest request since World War II. But he gets the Nobel Peace Prize, and not a true humanitarian like Chelsea Manning.

Yet all is not lost.

As of this writing, Obama's plans for a coordinated air-strike over Syria have, at least temporarily, been stalled. Russia's recent deal is one reason for this. Assad's agreement to disclose his (again, alleged) chemical weapons is another. (Recall that Saddam Hussein, even when faced with the prospect of war with the United States, continued to falsely insist he possessed weapons of mass destruction.)

But the real reason Obama's war is, at least for the moment, a no-go is not likely to be mentioned on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, or The PBS News Hour. It is because the American people do not want it.

Public opinion remains vastly opposed to military intervention in Syria. A recent CBS/New York Times poll finds 61 percent of Americans--Democrats, Republicans and Independents--oppose the strike. That is a ratio of six in ten opposed to military action. A late August Reuters/Ipsos poll, reported on in The Washington Post finds only 9 percent of Americans support an attack on Syria ("New Poll: Syria intervention even less popular than Congress," 08/26/2013).

The American people have spoken on the prospect of another Middle Eastern war. And by wide margins they have rejected it. Americans are finally saying "No!" to war. And, to his credit, President Obama, unlike members of his predecessor's administration, seems to be listening.

As it is, there are serious doubts surrounding the claims Syria even has chemical weapons at all. According to a recent story by Hannah Allam and Mark Seibel for McClatchy ("To some, U.S. case for Syrian gas attack, strike has too many holes," 09/02/2013), the Obama administration's case for war is "riddled with inconsistencies" and "hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence." The reporters note, correctly, "After the false weapons claims preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the threshold for evidence to support intervention is exceedingly high."

Whether the allegations are true or not, Obama's failure on Syria is a victory for those of us on the anti-war left. And, whether or not the television news pundits are willing to admit it, right now we are winning.  


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Welcome to the Servant Economy

I recently started a part-time job at Staples. It is hardly glamorous work. I spend most of the day waiting on prissy, condescending customers who routinely drop $100- $400 on ink cartridges and fancy paper. Most of them pay with credit cards issued by Bank of America, TD Bank, Wells Fargo and other noxious "too big to fail" banks. I get $8.25 an hour.

Did I mention I have a Master's degree...? Welcome to the servant economy.

For a retail chain known for its catchy promotional slogan, "That was easy!" it is actually absurdly difficult to get a job at Staples. I had to come in for two (yes, two) interviews before I was offered a job. The store's lengthy online application, like so many applications these days, redundantly asks applicants to regurgitate the same personal information over and over, in addition to attaching a resume, a cover letter, and the names of three references.

I have worked in retail before, but the biggest difference with Staples is the incessant product-pushing. As a Sales Associate, I am expected to constantly hawk Staples' Customer Rewards Program, coupons and sales items, and, especially, product warranties.

As readers are likely aware, product warranties--or "extended service plans" as Staples calls them--are almost always a rip-off. They are solely designed to earn the store extra money--a fact candidly acknowledged in one of the training videos. By way of example, I purchased a "lifetime warranty" with my 2006 Toyota Corolla which I have never used--mostly due to the fact Toyota's vehicles are already reliable, quality cars to begin with. That additional money for the warranty was essentially a bonus for the Prime Toyota dealer that sold me the car.

My "training" lasted two days. On the first day, I "shadowed" another cashier on the front-end, who essentially gave me a crash-course in every aspect of the job. The second training day consisted of eight hours of watching poorly produced instructional videos in a small, secluded room. Each video was followed by a quiz which must be passed before advancing to the next one. I found the quiz on preventing money laundering especially tricky, though oddly educational.

The lack of any actual, manager-oriented training does not surprise me. Employers have virtually given up on training new workers. Their excuse is they will invest all that time and effort into training a new employee, only for her to promptly defect to a better-paying position at a competitor company. In my case, this reasoning is absurd. I am already overqualified for the job to begin with. No amount of cashier training--which I already had anyway--is going to change that. As a result, you basically learn most aspects of the job on the job, which, in a retail environment, means for the first few weeks my line had lots of angry, impatient customers because I was constantly calling the manager for help.

Of course, there is an obvious solution to the difficulty in retaining new hires: Pay them a decent wage. As Wharton School professor, Peter Cappelli wrote in The New York Times last summer ("If There's a Gap, Blame it on the Employer," 08/03/2012):

Have you [employers] tried raising wages? If you could get what you want by paying more, the problem is just that you are cheap. The fact that I cannot find the car I want at the price I want to pay does not constitute a car shortage, yet a large number of employers claiming they face a skills shortage admit that the problem is getting candidates to accept their wage rates.

Then there was the obligatory anti-union video.

This fine piece of propaganda--devoid, incidentally, of one shred of factual evidence--is remarkably similar to anti-union training videos for Home Depot and Target. (Staples, like Target, also touts its "Open Door Policy" in place of a union.)

All three videos go out of their way to paint labor unions as some antiquated, sinister force bent on deceiving workers and undermining their "sovereignty." My favorite part was when the actors disingenuously note the steep decline in union membership in recent decades--most of which is due to massive union-busting campaigns by the corporate retail sector.

The employee-actors go to considerable length to insist Staples' employees have frequently "turned down" union membership. Yet, in the month I have now worked at Staples I have not once been approached by a union representative. I imagine the same goes for my co-workers. How can you "turn down" an opportunity you are never presented with?

In addition to my cashiering duties, I am also responsible for shelf-stocking, processing returned or damaged items, taking out the garbage, and cleaning the front-end and bathrooms. At times I feel like a glorified janitor. When I come home, my back is stiff from standing and lifting things all day.

Staples currently ranks #122 on the Fortune 500 list (topping Kohl's, Nike and Kimberly-Clark, but behind Halliburton, Time Warner and McDonald's). This year, the company had revenues of $24.7 billion. One would think, with that kind of money, they could afford to pay their workers more than a mere dollar above the federal minimum wage.

While I still do not regret my education (unlike most Americans, I do not believe the singular goal of college should be career advancement), it is hard not to resent my situation. I think back at all those teachers throughout high school who constantly assured me and my classmates we could do or be "anything you want," so long as we "work hard," and "apply yourself."

Looking back on it, I feel stupid for naively believing such horseshit in the first place. My generation has been sold-out to a voracious, oligarchic corporate state that responds exclusively to the whims of Wall Street and the corporate sector while leaving poor and working-class citizens to fend for themselves. And if we do not radically shift course soon, we will all be working dead-end jobs like mine.

George Carlin was right: "It's called the American Dream, 'cause you have to be asleep to believe in it."

Dear American public: Please continue buying cheap crap you do not need from corporate big-box chains. Your restless consumerism is currently paying my bills. Thank you.

In the event Staples fires me for posting this blog, I may finally have the time to write that book I have been dreaming of for years... In the meantime, feel free to make a donation--via the button on the right--to keep Guerrilla Press going. Any amount is greatly appreciated and, I think, a worthy investment.