Statues like flags are ridiculous things. They sprout out of a fevered dream of history and with just a little time they grow stale. Their fields of red no longer resonant as blood, their extended bronze arms point aimlessly to a slice of serene blue. As symbols, once they lose their initial value to prop up a cause or venerate a person for some godforsaken battle, they become light with irony, ripe for mocking.
The occasional historian or amateur student of the past will point out this or that detail, but to the passing crowd, they are chunks of bronze baking under a summer sun, with funny names and sometimes overly earnest faces. Our state capital hosts a perfect satire of George Washington. In battle regalia, he sits astride his steed, right arm directing our attention dramatically toward the un-seeable James. Ah, how spectacularly serious he is! How earnest the conjurer of clay who put it all together, high on the pedestal, to symbolize his unattainable stature. The two words follow, statue, stature. A clever lawyer who once gazed from the nearby General Assembly Building used Washington’s horse’s prancing derriere to make a more substantial point. We are always looking up someone else’s ass. That’s what statues do, too.
Everyday tourists stop and snap Instagrams of George to pass along on Facebook, proof of their travels to the exotic realm of our Southern capital. There’s a kind of buffoonery in all this activity, but a little history making as well. For the thoughtless recipients, a short summary text will suggest how they should be understood. For the serious students, an overwhelming urge to correct and revise, shouting out details that change subtly the way this thing, this metal, this clothe should be viewed. So, though funny, it’s instructive, too. The value isn’t in the thing, itself, but the conversation that we might have.
I have now read at least three dozen articles on ‘the meaning’ of the Confederate flag. No doubt, the same earnest discussion will whirl around the statues of the generals who decided to cast their lots with the slave owners and plantation looters nearly two centuries ago. Their greatest feat, of course, had nothing to do with the war they provoked by refusing to rely on slave labor; but in the mind bending ways they changed the history of their defeat. Huzzah! Could Mad Men or Madison Avenue have galvanized a more brilliant campaign? You may thank the ladies of the Daughters of the Confederacy for these efforts, and various Confederate leaning charities. For the only worse thing than going down in ignominious defeat, economically as well as militarily, is to be told that the reasons for which you fought– a man’s honor, or your ‘way of life’, or your sense of privilege and entitlement– is a groundless lie, supported by nothing but the vapors of a fevered imagination. Or worse, to be told that you are a black person, or a poor person’s equal. Alas, to be no better than all those others you sought to define yourself against, and earnestly subjugated with violence when necessary, or with cajoling when not. It’s a wistful feeling too, this loss….Had it not been for the calamity of the war, you might have continued your subjugation of blacks (and poor whites too, when we get down to it) in your highly refined manner until the end of time.
Yes, that loss was unforgivable, and, of course, the Ladies of the South would not have it! Heaven forfend! So they formed their clubs and got right to work. They organized burials of Confederate soldiers, established and cared for permanent Confederate cemeteries, organized commemorative ceremonies, and sponsored impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition. The Daughters of the Confederacy were “strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.” By World War I, the United Daughters of the Confederacy grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women. The Weekly Sift does a nice job describing the ideological gist of the so-called Lost Cause narrative these groups promoted:
“Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.”
“But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind [hat tip, Margaret Mitchell!], a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.”
That revisionist and deeply patronizing view of the reconstruction period is now named the Dunning School after its primary proponent, William Dunning. According to Adam Faircloth, Dunning and his ilk, “All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence [read KKK] to oust the Republicans from state power.”
Eric Foner highlights the duplicity in this view, and some of the havoc it allowed:
“The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction. It was a justification for the white South resisting outside efforts in changing race relations because of the worry of having another Reconstruction.”
“All of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped to freeze the minds of the white South in resistance to any change whatsoever. And it was only after the Civil Rights revolution swept away the racist underpinnings of that old view—i.e., that black people are incapable of taking part in American democracy—that you could get a new view of Reconstruction widely accepted. For a long time it was an intellectual straitjacket for much of the white South, and historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system in this country.”
To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you could watch the 1915 silent movie, The Birth of a Nation, which evokes white hooded Klansmen as heroic knights, saving white Southern womanhood. Birth of a Nation, by the way, was the most popular film of all time until that ultimate paean to the Lost Cause, Gone With the Wind broke its records.
“It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”, said President Woodrow Wilson, cheering a private screening of Birth of a Nation. Robert Wormser does a nice job detailing the effect this massive propaganda victory had for the Lost Cause advocates:
“The film swept the nation. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston and Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). Gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. Thomas Dixon reveled in its triumph. “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
I must confess I do not know if Dylann Roof ever watched Birth of a Nation, but his rhetoric sounds frighteningly similar to Dixon’s and I do know he worried greatly over the fate of Southern white womanhood whom he feared would be defenseless against rape if he didn’t single-handedly kill as many black people as he could. “You have to go.” This weird trope from deep in the bowels of the Jim Crowe South has been a fixture of rightwing paranoia since the days of slave patrols. It’s also nearly the exact opposite of reality for a period when white men appropriated black women at opportune times for whatever their needs might be. Speaking clinically, one suspects there’s not a little transference going on here. If you’re surprised at this, you haven’t been paying attention. The entire Lost Cause story line is based on the idea that the white majority has been unjustly injured by outside agitators who do not understand the loving dynamic of their superiority. The patronizingly glib sound you hear is the echo of Strom Thurmond filibustering with his last breath any attempt to integrate—make equal—the white and black people of his state, even as he fathered an illegitimate child with his black mistress. Is he far from Dylan Roof? Perhaps only in his choice of weapon, the ballot, rather than the bullet. Indeed, Roof reportedly spent a good bit of his internet time perusing The Council of Conservative Citizens whose website Roof cited as a source for his radicalization. The CCC, as it is lovingly known, echoes nicely it’s more famous, if violent, precursor, the KKK. The CCC has also helped deeply conservative candidates across the South, including our very own former Republican Governor, George Allen, who also liked to tout the Confederate Flag.
Here’s a bit of what went down in that church in Charleston last Sunday….While Dylann Roof stood up and pulled a gun from a fanny pack, aiming it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. Roof responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” When he expressed his intention to shoot everyone, Sanders dove in front of Jackson and was shot first. The suspect then shot the other victims, all the while shouting racial epithets. He also reportedly said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” He reloaded his gun five times.
This is intentional. So are the monuments to the Lost Cause that litter our avenues. So are the flags that decorate our license plates and top our trailer parks. So is the money that flows from white supremacists groups to our politicians. So are the delusional screeds that inspire our Dylan Roofs. To channel William Faulkner, the past isn’t dead, the past isn’t even past. If you’re going to talk about statues and flags, pay attention to who is promoting their presence. The false history offered by these people is an old phenomenon that’s as fresh as last week.
This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems. I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.
I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.
The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference. This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.
Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem? Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom. You understand?”
I nodded my head.
“Okay.” That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.
Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?
My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.
“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”
“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”
Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.
By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.
Do you want to be a welfare queen?
I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.
By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets. Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’ shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.
My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.
“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”
“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?
“Are you a communista?”
Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.
“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”
I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”
“They stole everything!”
“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”
“So you are a communista!”
“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”
“It’s the same.”
“No, they’re really different.”
And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union. In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”
“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.
That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe. Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.
The majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy. We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago. His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.
It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.
The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it is already grown up. It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes. He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class. But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”
So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win. We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?
Let’s Begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,”
… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
And that’s another reason why I left old
St Patrick’s day might be a good time to reflect on the economics of austerity in the midst of plenty that the Irish had to endure. Neoliberals who advocate ‘austerity’ measures while poor countries teeter on the brink of economic collapse might pay a bit of attention, too. The so-called Irish “famine” has a few useful lessons for everyone nowadays. First, although a potato blight is commonly blamed for the Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, it might be more accurate to blame an economic system that demanded payment–and food exports– from the Irish peasantry even as their own subsistence crop was rotting on the vine.
Thomas Gallagher points out that during the first winter of the Irish potato famine, as many as 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet profit hungry landlords forced exports to markets abroad.
Like latter-day American Republicans, the Whig administration in England, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, believed that the market would provide the food needed and refused to intervene against these food exports to England. To top it off, the Whig administration then halted the previous government’s food and relief efforts, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.
According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product”, considerably less than what they provided to slave owners in the West Indies. Irish Nationalists John Mitchell famously wrote, “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Mitchel was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years in the then Irish prison colony of Bermuda. The English policy of exporting food from Ireland while the Irish died of starvation by the thousands continued until 1852 with the engineer of this policy, Charles Trevelyan describing the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil.” The social evil Trevelyan is referencing is Ireland’s overpopulation. The Famine, he affirmed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected [the ‘cure’ was reducing Ireland’s overpopulation]. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”
But, alas, in the end, just under a million people died while around 2 million Irish were forced to emigrate, as Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University had sadly predicted. At the time, Nassau wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”
The River of Lethe was a mythical river the dead were required to drink from so that they would no longer remember their past lives on Earth. Sometimes it was also known as the river of oblivion and its purpose was to allow us to enter the domain of the dead without desire for our previous lives and without regrets. From a cultural perspective we might say our current news cycles and movies offer the same benefits.
Here’s an example: how many of us watching the largest grossing war movie in U.S. history, American Sniper, missed the conflating of Iraq with Al Qaeda and 9/11? Director Clint Eastwood had no problem compressing time and leaping directly from 9/11 to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), eliminating years of history in a single scene. This handy amnesic device allowed U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper in the movie) to announce his unvarnished conviction that he is protecting US soldiers and fighting Islamic evil by shooting Iraqis defending their country against our occupation. Since no mention is made that we were, in fact, an occupying force, there is no ethical dilemma—and frankly no real drama. The story Eastwood tells is a convenient fairy tale, but it hardly touches on the realities during our invasion of Iraq for the Iraqis, or the Americans, for that matter.
Neither is any mention made of the actual cause celebre for the war, those curiously disappearing WMD, but as with the inconvenience of labeling our troops as occupiers, rather than liberators, so too with this omission. No WMD found, no problem. We’ll draw a line straight from airplanes flying into the trade center towers to an American sniper taking out an Iraqi kid and the intervening years of protests to prevent the war, the millions around the world who marched against the reckless adventure won’t even get a historical footnote—much less a short scene in the movie, which, given Americans memory and lackluster appetite for historical accuracy may be the only history lesson they receive.
There are more complex historical problems should we have the patience to learn them. How many folks know, for example, that Saddam Hussein worked for the CIA in 1959, when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim? Or for that matter how many realize that on November 1, 1983, the secretary of state, George Shultz, was passed intelligence reports of “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” by Iraq and that despite this, 25 days later, Ronald Reagan signed a secret order instructing the administration to do “whatever was necessary and legal” to prevent Iraq losing the war to Iran. In December of that same year, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld was hired by President Reagan to serve as a Middle East troubleshooter. Mr. Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and passed on the US willingness to help his regime by whatever means necessary, even if that meant turning a blind eye toward the use of chemical weapons against Iran. The US was also willing to restore full diplomatic relations. A few decades later, we used the threat of those same chemical weapons to invade Iraq and fracture the country along underlying sectarian lines like a frag grenade. All of which, by the way, was predictable and was predicted by Middle Eastern scholars like Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, whose opinions were actively ignored. To this day, it’s doubtful if the leading luminaries of that invasion (Bush and Cheney, et. al.) understand the distinction between Sunni and Shiite and the circle of hell they unleashed with their arbitrary invasion. Certainly, they make no amends for the useless carnage of either Americans or Iraqis, or the billions wasted in destroying that nation on the pretense of fearing Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, which, a few decades earlier, we were happy to ignore.
Now, a decade in the future of these events, Eastwood offers us a breathtaking look at the war through the eyes of a sniper employed by the Empire’s army without apologies or reference to our long history in that region. And naturally, Americans being Americans with little or no interest in their own history or their place in the world are enthralled by this new wounded hero project. It’s an infantile cycle that is surprisingly resilient through our successful and less successful adventures at home and abroad. We saw the same pattern in ‘remembering’ our role in Vietnam. It turns out there is a simple formula for resolving conflicts that leaves millions dead and wastes billions in treasure: focus on us, not them. Agree that the war is primarily an American tragedy. As Christian Appy puts it in referring to our so-called Vietnam syndrome in a recent Nation article, “Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves. […] the war had been disastrous mainly because it had weakened an American sense of pride and patriotism.”
“…our own veterans were the greatest victims of the war and their wounds were largely a consequence of their shabby treatment by antiwar protesters upon returning from the battle zone to an unwelcoming home front. Indeed, it became an article of faith that the most shameful aspect of the Vietnam War was the nation’s failure to embrace and honor its returning soldiers.”
Thus, those who worked so hard to prevent and stop the war become the focal point of blame for its failure.
Hannah Arendt once wrote that the totalitarian government always starts by colonizing the individual’s imagination. In her book on Eichmann, she notes that Eichmann had done evil not because he had a sadistic will to do so, nor because he had been deeply infected by the bacillus of anti-Semitism, but because he failed to think through what he was doing. His thoughtlessness, his lack of imagination allowed the Nazis to carry out their murderous tasks. The phrase she coined to describe this was the ‘banality of evil’. It encompasses two things really: that evil itself can be found in the most mundane and daily tasks of our lives, that it isn’t necessarily represented solely in the black mask of Saddam Hussein or the stink of his torture chambers, or in the sights of Chris Kyle’s rifle. The other notion is that evil can be passive as well as active, that it isn’t limited to the actions of Nazi generals and can include political hacks as well as bureaucratic functionaries, in other words, evil can be systemic; it can flow out of career climbing and intellectual sloth as much as malevolence and action. In Arendt’s view, when a country or nation commits a horrendous crime, we are all on notice; all of us are in the driver’s seat to a certain degree.
This makes living consciously in the postmodern age quite the challenge and makes the desire to drink deeply of our culture’s river of Lethe all the more tempting. After all, if the Vietnam war was a mistake, if the Iraq war was a mistake, if we were invaders and not liberators, if our soldiers were reviled and not embraced by the Iraqis or Vietnamese, doesn’t that make us essentially colonialists and occupiers? This is a painful recognition. Most of us prefer not to deal with it, though each of us bear some responsibility, too. Movies like The Deer Hunter show the physical and psychological wounds suffered by Americans because of the war, leaving out the horrific casualty count in Vietnam or the genocide later perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge that would never have happened without our massive bombing campaigns. American Sniper focuses on the wounded American hero as well, but it also rewrites history which helps to justify our actions. We can suggest, like Chris Kyle, that it was necessary, that we were just doing our jobs, protecting our ‘homeland’, securing our borders, keeping our neighborhoods safe and retaliating for 9/11. None of this is true, of course. But the point of the movie isn’t about getting at the truth, it’s about assuaging our feelings, helping us ‘get over’ Iraq, like we ‘got over’ Vietnam.
There’s a tragicomic YouTube that Adam Koresh has put together in which he interviews American moviegoers after they’ve attended American Sniper. They are all universally overwhelmed, teary eyed, or just silent and thoughtful.
“He’s a real hero,” one of moviegoers opines.
Koresh doesn’t let him get away with this simple formulation, though. What do you mean by ‘hero’? he asks.
The moviegoer suggests that he’s a hero because he’s willing to go to such great lengths to protect his fellow soldiers, and by extension, his homeland.
But, Koresh asks, seemingly baffled, weren’t the Iraqis also protecting their homeland?
The questioning, a classic Socratic technique, is applied again and again, frustrating the moviegoers’ simple assertions and forcing them to think, if for just a few seconds, about what they’ve actually watched, about the unspoken narratives they have unwittingly accepted as true.
Koresh is relentless. One woman gets so discombobulated that she insists that she will support our soldiers no matter what they do. Even if the war is unjustified, even if we are invaders, even if the Iraqis defending their homeland have a right to do so, she’ll still defend our soldiers and their mission.
Because they are our troops and I will always support them, regardless.
One suspects this woman’s reaction could be applied to quite a few of our citizens. I’m sure many good Germans at a certain ignominious points in their history held the same blind loyalty. American Sniper just makes it easier for us to be good Germans, eliding history, giving us a cause and effect that does not exists in order to present a more seemly version of reality in which the people we kill are incontestably bad; and our own motives in the Iraqi disaster are incontestably pure.
In Felix Cornelius’ Bumper Sticker Culture, he notes that during war, one way to jettison our moral precepts against murder is to no longer imagine your enemy as a fellow human. That’s one reason Hannah Arendt writes that in order to work, totalitarianism colonizes the imagination. War, too, is a kind of totalitarianism, as is the militarism that makes war possible, no matter how short-lived. It abstracts humans from their concrete presence, and replaces them with ideological representations and abstractions: words like ‘enemies’ or ‘evil’. In this context it’s not curious at all that the Pentagon has probably the worst record for using concrete language of any bureaucratic institution on earth. Abstraction and ideologies pour water into the river of Lethe. They help us to forget the human face, the quite simple human needs that drive most people. They let us kill another human in the name of an idea.
A friend of mine recently sent me a link that applied Jungian analysis to the September 11 attacks. One of the insights, perhaps not even that remarkable, is that during war, or the ‘release of aggression’, the feeling of justification is important and individual moral judgments tend to be swept aside to be replaced by group standards. Control then becomes external rather than internal; what is good or bad is decided by the group or the leader, not the individual. In short, the imagination is colonized. “We see this mechanism in all forms of political violence, witch-hunts, and the persecution of minorities and heretics. In a country such as the USA with powerful communications and media, there is a tendency for the cultural psyche to strongly affect individual attitudes.”
In a totalitarian society, one of the tricks is to keep control always situated on the leader or the group and specifically out of the hands of the individual. That’s what Orwell brilliantly portrayed with his description of group ‘hates’ in 1984–an externalized enemy –nebulous, un-locatable and ‘evil’ becomes the focus for all psychic energy and also, conveniently, is the source of most of the problems in their society. The focused hatred also allows for a pleasant comparison with Big Brother, for if the enemy is all evil, then Big Brother is all good. In a frightening way, this closely parallels another set of psychological behaviors that occurs in a war where each party tends to see itself as right and good and the other as all bad. Negative components of the self are typically projected onto the other side–these negative components are sometimes referred to as ‘shadow’ components based on Jung’s idea of the shadow or essentially the underside to our personalities: those disavowed or socially disapproved behaviors we are all capable of but do not do–these grow more powerful the more we deny their existence. When we project them onto others we actually give them a portion of our power. What’s always surprised me is how huge Bush managed to make a relatively inconsequential man–Osama Bin Laden. With the pursuit of Saddam Hussein, it’s as though our nation had projected all its negative, disavowed behaviors onto the face of one man, an ex-CIA thug with a fondness for fuchsia, apparently.
Our enemy du jour is ISIS. ISIS or the Islamic State is an outgrowth from our failed adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan, known principally in the West for its unseemly habit of beheading its enemies, a practice our longtime ally, Saudi Arabia, still happily employs. It is also ruthless, wealthy and growing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but ISIS in many ways shares attributes with our own endeavors. It is media savvy (at least in terms of their constituency), more than willing to sacrifice civilians in their various causes and concerned with making money while they make war.
The fact that ISIS is an outgrowth of AQI that would never have existed if we had not invaded Iraq does not seem to be understood. Here’s a short primer: AQI was a direct response to the invasion of Iraq and the disbanding of the Ba’athist leadership—military and otherwise– under Saddam consisting mostly of Sunnis. Maliki, a Shi’a or Shiite was appointed leader of Iraq, a move that dramatically heightened sectarian tensions and led to the civil war that ravaged Iraq along Sunni/Shiite lines. Ex-Baathist took up arms against both the US occupation and Maliki leadership of Iraq. AQI morphed into ISIS that now wishes to proclaim an Islamic caliphate across a large swath of the Middle East and portions of the Balkan states and Spain.
The details of this morphing are instructive. CBS News recently traced the formation of ISIS back to a U.S. military prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, one of the largest, and one of the toughest, American prisons in Iraq. As the civil war/insurgency raged across the country, Bucca’s numbers swelled. And according to a CBS News investigation, at least 12 of the top leaders of ISIS served time at Camp Bucca, including the man who would become the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
U.S. officials who worked at Bucca told CBS that they were concerned that prisoners were becoming radicalized. The prison has been described as “a pressure cooker for extremism.”
“An unexpected and powerful alliance was formed between the Islamic extremists and the Ba’athists loyal to Saddam Hussein, who were angry at losing power.” It was a marriage of convenience.
“You put them together and you get a mixing of organized military discipline with highly motivated, highly active ideological fervor, and the result is what we have today,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who spent time in Iraq and who know works with the Soufan group.
“I mean, there were other circumstances, but the toxic brew of Bucca started this recipe.”
“I think it’s undeniable that one of the main causes of ISIS’s explosive growth after 2010 was Bucca. It’s where they met, it’s where they planned.”
“Everybody could see what was happening but nobody could do anything about it,” Skinner said.
In fact, western publications are speculating that ISIS is so efficient militarily precisely because they are led by ex-Ba’athist officers.
But ISIS is different from AQI in one important sense. It has captured ground and held it, and already claimed a de facto caliphate reaching from Syria to Iraq. Graeme Wood, writing in the Atlantic about ISIS notes that what was once best described as an insurgent fighting force might now be more accurately described as an army. “Within the region, around 56 million people must navigate between the armies of the rival militias, warlords and national armies that are barely distinguishable from one another.” They may not be overjoyed with the resulting sharia law under ISIS, but they can at least enjoy some stability.
The sad part is none of this had to happen. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. As Noam Chomsky put it, the relationships between the religions at that time were “like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile. For a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.”
Historically, Saudi Arabia’s peculiarly strict version of Islam, Wahhabi Salafism is what lies underneath Al Qaeda and ISIS ideology: a kind of fundamental Islam on steroids. Think of the Christian Identity movement or the Dominionist who still cling to a belief in the ‘end times.’ How did this cult-like tribal strain of Islam become so powerful? Oil money, and enthusiastic Western support. Britain, before the US, had typically preferred radical Islamism to secular nationalism. Better a radicalized version of Islam that approaches fascism than a self-determining nationalist state—much easier to control and you don’t have to worry about the unseemly socialist occasionally getting elected—like Mossadegh in Iran, Nasser in Egypt or Qasim in Iraq—many of whom were disposed by Western agents, either through revolution or assassination. And when the US took over, it essentially took the same stand that Britain had. Now Saudi Arabia is the most radical Islamic state in the world. It makes Iran look like a tolerant, modern country by comparison, and, of course, the secular parts of the Arab Middle East even more so. The brand of Islam it subscribes to, Salafism also, not incidentally, zealously proselytizes. Saudi Arabia uses its huge oil resources to promulgate strict Islamic doctrines throughout the region as well, establishing schools, mosques, clerics, all over the place, from Pakistan to North Africa. ISIS also provides such services as it expands its geographic hold imposing their harsh version of Islam on the areas they conquer.
One other thing. Like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, ISIS followers believe fervently in the “end times.” They believe that their activities will help bring the end times on, and they are quite eager to embrace their oblivion for the better glory of their god.
In his Atlantic piece, Graeme Wood wonders what the appeal of such a cult-like religion might be. In answer he stumbles upon George Orwell’s famous observation about fascism:
Fascism is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
Nor, Wood adds, should we underestimate Islamic State’s appeal. “That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model.”
The River of Lethe is for the dead. For the living, to remember correctly, to see actions in their historical context isn’t just a minor convenience to be jettisoned when the story line requires something simple and familiar, especially when dealing with religious fanatics. After all, the Chris Kyle solution, bombs and bullets, will only reinforce their vision of divinely ordained mission. Malala Yousafzai, who famously survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban had this suggestion for dealing with ISIS and radical fundamentalism in general:
“The best way to fight terrorism is to invest in education. Instead of guns, send books.”
Malala was nearly murdered because she decided to receive an education in Afghanistan. Perhaps that’s not as “heroic” as Chris Kyle’s blind loyalty to a military whose motivations and raison d’etre he barely understands, but it’s considerably more effective in the long run. Certainly, ISIS would like nothing better than to fully engage the West in their determined lemming run toward the end of time. But their strength lies precisely in their ability to appeal to Muslims around the world who see in their struggle something pure and consonant with their faith. Should we give them such an advantage? After all, the Ba’athist officer corps that gives ISIS its tactical edge might be less inclined to march off into oblivion if they had a home and an Iraqi leader that didn’t promise to exterminate them. This was how we easily invaded Iraq in the first place, by essentially bribing Saddam’s officer corps. Our mistake was later to disband them without any hope for jobs or positions in our neoliberal’s version of Iraq, essentially guaranteeing an insurgency that has mutated into civil war and destroyed Iraq and torn apart the larger Middle East in less than a decade.
Just as important, Malala’s advice is good for the West as well. The first step in changing a course that has gone disastrously wrong is learning how we got there.
There’s a great scene in Scott Frank’s Dead Again that summarizes all that can be said about addiction. Andy Garcia, playing a newspaper reporter, winds up in a rest home, crippled by cancer of the larynx. Kenneth Branagh gives Garcia a cigarette and then looks on in horror as Garcia takes a satisfied drag—through his tracheotomy hole. That’s the way addiction works. Faced with our drug of choice or death, we’ll take the drug of choice. The ever transgressive William Burroughs made a great point about heroin dealers that could easily apply to our energy industry. “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer; he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”
Our energy industry has decided not to change its drug of choice, merely to degrade and simplify the client. Last week, the US Senate passed a bill supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline, which if built, according to 350.org founder, would be “game over for the Earth.” That may be a touch hyperbolic, or it may not. The vast majority of scientists think it’s a bad bet. Certainly it’s no better for the Earth than a junkie looking for another collapsed vein to shoot up smack.
2014 was the hottest year on record. All 10 of the hottest years on record have come after 1998. In 2014, several regions in the world smashed their heat records. California hit record-high temperatures. It’s now in the middle of the worst drought in history. Australia hit unprecedented high temperatures in January — and the continent’s so hot this year, that people are already frying eggs on sidewalks. Literally.
What about the storms for 2014? Snowmaggedon– that record level snow fall from Lake Erie? Strange, but sadly predictable as a result of global climate warming. Hotter temperatures cause higher moisture retention in the atmosphere and thus more precipitation—more storms. Parts of Brazil were struck by floods and landslides following record rainfall. The very warm surface waters in the Pacific Northwest during November fueled Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall anywhere in the world, which killed more than 5,700 people in the Philippines. And it’s not like these events are hidden or in some dim, chiaroscuro past. This is real time, with the American Senate voting to allow pipeline access happening on the same day California suffers through its worst drought in history and Australia fries eggs on sidewalks.
The Keystone pipeline vote was not a strictly partisan endeavor, by the way. Nine Democrats saw fit to join the pack. It’s like the loser kid from the suburbs who wants to be hip and promises to only shoot up once. We all know how that ends. Our very own Mr. Business Everyman, Mark Warner decided to enable the destruction of the planet so that he might preserve his good name as Virginia’s preeminent Wall Street lickspittle. The rest of the nine were fairly predictable votes. All centrist wannabes, with Bob Casey of Pennsylvania sticking out principally because his vote aligns him with an industry that has done so much to turn Pennsylvania’s water into a dual use commodity: part drinking water, part lighter fluid.
Speaking of Pennsylvania…apparently not one to be left out of this enormously bad idea, Virginia politicians have embraced the idea of an Atlantic pipeline that would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields to North Carolina and Hampton Roads. The usual suspects, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy have joined forces to make this next environmental catastrophe a real possibility for areas slicing through the west and center of our state. Residents of Nelson and Augusta County have been fighting this battle and are losing steadily in the current General Assembly session because Virginia politicians, like their national doppelgangers, will have their next fix.
According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, Dominion has begun the process of enforcing a 2004 Property Access statute that guarantees gas transmission companies access to private property — even without a landowner’s permission. The owners say the law is unconstitutional; that it wrongly allows an invasion of private property by a private corporation invoking the authority of the state.
Dominion is bringing a lawsuit to enforce the 2004 statute against landowners in Augusta and in Nelson County, with lawsuits filed already against property owners who have refused access to their land. But six landowners in Nelson have struck back with two lawsuits pending in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of the law. A federal judge in Harrisonburg will consider Dominion’s motions to dismiss the suits in separate hearings in February, but the bigger battle lies ahead as the partnership behind the pipeline seeks a federal certificate of need that would allow it to traverse the area in question, including the federally owned George Washington National Park.
How this will turn out will be decided in the courts. If the certificate of need is granted by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it will make the project that much more difficult to stop. But, one method of slowing it down, as the Nelson County folks are discovering, is to stop the surveys. Another is for citizens with relevant property to just say no, though that is more difficult. In Virginia, even if a homeowner still refuses to consent to the pipeline being built on their land, Dominion could obtain a land easement using a court order. Under the Natural Gas Act of 1938, pipeline infrastructure qualifies as “public use” under eminent domain. Therefore private companies can seize private land for their own profit with the assumption that it will benefit the public. Recently this notion got a boost in the General Assembly with a bill that achieved near unanimity in passing the House—HB1475. Dominion introduced HB1475 thanks to the diligent efforts of Delegate Lee Ware who lives in Powhatan and has received a little over half of his campaign funds from…Dominion Power. HB1475 declares gas pipelines and associated infrastructure to be de facto, “in the public interest” which is key to invoking eminent domain. HB1475 does a couple of other bad things. It passes the costs of building their infrastructure onto the client (Virginia citizen) and it stipulates that the SCC keep its nose out of any related rate increases. This bill passed on a 95-2 vote in the House. A companion Senate Bill SB1163 does much the same thing, stating, “it is in the public interest to authorize and encourage the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in the Commonwealth and to promote the use of natural gas as an integral component of a diversified portfolio of energy resources…” SB1163 was introduced by Senator Richard Saslaw whose top donor is…Dominion Power. He has received just less than a quarter of a million dollars from Dominion over the course of his career.
But it’s not like Delegate Ware or Senator Saslaw are special in this regard; nearly every member of the General Assembly of Virginia has had money handed to them by Dominion Power. In a recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, Jeff Shapiro points out that “The company [Dominion Power] has steered more than $800,000 to delegates and senators in the last fundraising cycle and $18 million to charities in the 12 states in which it does business. This allows Dominion to win — even when it loses.”
Shapiro then offers a little background on the power behemoth: “Dominion is run by Tom Farrell. His brother-in-law, Richard Cullen, leads the company’s law firm, McGuireWoods. It’s where McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, worked. And don’t forget: Farrell’s son, Peter, is a Republican delegate from Henrico County. The 2004 property-access bill was written by Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mark Warner”…who, we might add, most recently voted for the XL Keystone Pipeline as a US Senator and who favors the Atlantic pipeline. According to Shapiro, “His former consigliere, Bob Blue, is head of Dominion’s Virginia Power subsidiary.”
So there you have the political line up–not pretty. In fact, opposition at this point might even seem quixotic, if the stakes weren’t so high.
Should it become a reality, the Atlantic pipeline will cross through unstable karst topography, which is prone to sinkholes. This significantly increases the likelihood of the pipeline collapsing which would lead to the release of dangerous chemicals into the groundwater and explosive vapors ending up in homes, schools and business. The threat of pipeline explosions is very real — exemplified by an explosion in Appomattox Virginia in 2008 which injured five people and damaged 100 homes, and another that occurred this year in Kentucky, which sent two people to the hospital and destroyed two homes. Because living in range of a pipeline is both a threat to property and life, property rates will decrease and home insurance rates will increase. That’s probably one big reason the folks in Augusta and Nelson counties are fighting this so hard. How this is in the public interest according to the General Assembly’s vote should be a matter of some serious contention.
What’s worse in the long view is that the installation of natural gas infrastructure locks Virginia into an energy reliance that has no place in our future energy economy. That’s part of what leads to “game over for the Earth.” The construction of the Atlantic Pipeline, like the Keystone Pipeline, removes incentive for the necessary development and investment in renewable energy that would move us off fossil fuels, entirely. Natural gas is not an alternative to renewables, it’s more of the same, or worse. Like coal, it’s a finite fossil fuel that — while emitting less CO2 than coal — creates far more methane byproduct, which is about twenty times more potent. Methane leakage can contaminate groundwater supply. And fracking — the method by which natural gas is commonly extracted, especially in Pennsylvania — is a disaster for the environment. Unless, of course, you like ancillary earthquakes and burning water.
At the same time it pushes the Atlantic pipeline, Dominion is using the EPA’s climate action, the Clean Power Plan, as their excuse for jacking up rates without SCC oversight. Dominion is telling legislators that the costs of the EPA’s climate plan will be very high, but that Dominion is willing to absorb those costs if the legislators will just freeze their base rates and block the State Corporation Commission from reviewing them. We can thank Senator Frank Wagner and SB1349 for this travesty should it be signed into law. This bill would prohibit review of Dominion Power overcharges by the State Corporation Commission and would allow the company to keep those overcharges that in the past have been refunded to customers. Yes, Dominion Power is a top donor to Senator Frank Wagner’s campaign chest, as well.
Dominion is on track to score $280 million in excess profits for this past year alone. Yet our politicians –both Democrat and Republican- seem incapable of responding in some type of coherent fashion. On the conservative side, they could work to preserve private property rights. On the progressive side, they might try not to destroy the Earth. At this point, either of these seem like laudable goals. This isn’t just a right/left issue, after all. This is a who-has-the-power-issue, and it doesn’t appear to be the people or their representatives but rather a faceless energy conglomerate addicted to a dangerous product it refuses to kick.
To channel William Burroughs again:
“We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures, and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident, inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push….After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say ‘I want to see the manager.’”
But there doesn’t appear to be one.
“A prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.”–Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” — cry of Ferguson protesters.
My curmudgeon friend and I were at our usual Friday evening hang out, grousing over a Guinness and whiskey on the state of the world which, truth to tell, is the only way to grouse. My curmudgeon friend is a political oddball, loathing Republicans and Democrats in about equal measure, and not too keen on progressives, either.
He lit a cigarette and stared at the overhead television.
“Look at them!”
I looked. Images of a Ferguson police car smoldering in the wake of last week’s riot appeared. He took a sip of whiskey.
“The police or the protestors?” I asked.
“The protestors! What do they hope to accomplish, burning down their own block?”
I’d been hearing the same question posed with different variations since Monday evening.
“Maybe accomplish isn’t the right word,” I said. “I was digging around the Bureau of Justice Statistics site the other day and found some remarkable stats on U.S. attorney indictments. Get this, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in just 11 of them. Way less than 1%. What does that mean? It means Wilson’s non-indictment is as rare as an albino chipmunk. Except in one instance. Cops.”
“Right. Cops, police. Cases involving police shootings are an exception to the general indictment rule. We don’t have a riot problem, we have a cop problem. Riots are a symptom of the disease, which is a justice system that does not apply the rule of law equally.”
The curmudgeon looked at me skeptically, again, “That’s a pretty damn sweeping statement. A little evidence, please?”
“Sure. Like I said, I’ve been researching…So a Houston Chronicle investigation found that police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Again, less than one percent. Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson after an exhaustive study found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings. The long and short of it is this: cops get away with murder. Routinely. They get away with the use of excessive force, many times with zero repercussions. There are examples of police using SWAT teams for home searches that end up killing babies, accidentally. Anyone indicted? Nope. Anyone lose their jobs? Nope. Anyone get a reprimand or change the way they handle routine searches? Nope. That’s just one example, but there are hundreds. Last week, police shot a kid named Tamir Rice for the crime of holding a toy gun. They shot him within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene, then refused to give him first aid. Remember John Crawford, shot to death in a Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun, too? No indictment there, either. In many of these situations they don’t just suffer less under the rule of law; they avoid the rule of law, entirely. So it’s not a riot problem, it’s a cop problem, aggravated by racial discrepancies. Situations like Ferguson are anomalous not because a cop managed to kill another innocent or use force indiscriminately, but because the national media started paying attention…. And even with the glaring spotlight on this case nothing happened. That’s why you have rioting, my friend, because the law to which you pay such careful deference simply has not applied and apparently will not be applied when a cop is in the docket. So the rioters have learned the lesson prosecuting attorney Robert Mccullough has taught them: ‘the rule of law does not apply.’”
“Yeah,” said my friend, “but they’re still burning down their own block.” He swigged back his whiskey and rested his shot glass down on the bar.
“Now let me ask you a question. What could the rioters possibly hope to accomplish with this activity? Don’t they know how this works? Their violence sweeps the headline while the underlying problems get buried.”
“True, but it’s not like ‘the protestors’ are all that unified. There’s real tension between the rioters who are breaking and burning things and the rest. Looters are simply opportunistic thieves, taking advantage of the chaos. Consider the timing of the announcement: 9 p.m., with no advance notice to peace activists who wanted to control the crowd. It was practically designed to kick off riots, and then looting. And, of course, the undirected chaos offers a wonderful smoke screen for the media discussion that should have been about police violence, unaccountability in blue, and the militarization of our civilian forces. Instead, we’re talking about the irrationality of rioting, but not why an unarmed black man was shot to death in broad daylight and left to lie in the sun for four hours. Nor why no one was charged, or indicted. You know what? I’d say the Ferguson Police Department is very happy about these riots. I’d say, they got exactly what they wanted.”
Curmudgeon had no reply, so I took a swallow of whiskey and added, “But believe it or not, I’m optimistic.”
He looked at me like I’d dropped in from Mars, “For godsakes, why?”
“Because this will not end with a couple of burnt out store fronts. On Thanksgiving Day, protestors in New York City stopped the Thanksgiving Day parade. Demonstrators boycotting Black Friday staged a Mass Die-In at the St. Louis Galleria. Now officials say the mall is closed indefinitely. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson. People know what those names mean now. The change won’t come overnight, but you’ll see it. Police patrols required to wear body cameras. New regulations on the use of deadly force. But most importantly, one day they’ll figure out that independent commissions or an agency needs to be set up to investigate police shootings and excessive use of force. They’ve already passed laws requiring this in Wisconsin. They need to do it across the nation. Why are police departments still in the business of investigating themselves, after all? Someday there might be sufficient levels of trust so that no weapons will be needed. Police in Great Britain used to rarely carry firearms, and they still prefer policing by respect and consent rather than at the point of a gun. Imagine that! Cops walking a beat, like any other citizen. No Darth Vader armor, no hip hugging side arm, ready to drop a belligerent citizen unbowed enough to disobey. You know what that would be like for the average citizen who has to deal with these guys? That would be like freedom.”
“Hmmph”, said the curmudgeon. He finished off his whiskey and squinted at the television, which now featured a peroxide blonde breathlessly intoning on the weather, “They tell me that’s what America is all about.”
“What we strive for, or say we do… And when it doesn’t happen, and the system doesn’t work, the street makes itself known. It’s like what Martin Luther King said: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ Riots are one way of being known, but there are other ways, and I bet we’ll be hearing more of them soon.”
Well, the 2014 midterms have come and gone and I don’t think you need me to tell you that radical Conservatives did very well in elections across the country. Here in Virginia, a Republican fixer and former Enron lobbyist almost won election to the United States Senate. It was a bad night alright and it presages a hard two years to come in this country.
As Progressives, we’ve been here before and we’ve fought back and we’ve won before and we will do that again. In 2011 we formed the Alliance for Progressive Values here in Richmond because our values were under attack. Four years later that hasn’t changed. The difference is that now we have a base to work from that we didn’t have before. We have been standing up to the radical agenda of the Tea Party and the modern Corporate/Conservative movement since then and we’re not going away. We have been very busy and we have a lot to show for it. For a group so small and working with so little funding, we sure do get around:
We’ve fought at the local level here in Richmond to bring more transparency to city government and to halt the needless, financially reckless and historically insensitive development of the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.
We’ve spoken out strongly about the incompetence and corruption that keeps our city and its citizens from achieving the kind of progress it’s capable of.
And we’ve brought educational events, films and our monthly Salons to a Progressive community that has often felt isolated and forgotten. We have not forgotten you!
At the state level, we have marched and organized and lobbied and testified against some of the worst the Conservatives have had to offer, from uranium mining, nuclear expansion and further tax breaks for energy monopolies, to offshore oil drilling, dangerous natural gas pipelines and fracking. Help us do more!
We’ve fought against attacks on women’s reproductive health and we’ve shamed the ignorant and deceitful claims about birth control and abortion spread at the General Assembly and the Board of Health. Help us do more!
We have worked against the continuing threat of voter suppression and to educate the most vulnerable citizens about their rights under the new laws. Help us do more!
APV has stood strong in support of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and we proudly celebrated the coming of marriage equality to Virginia with them. This year once again we will bring legislation to the General Assembly to end the medically useless and psychologically dangerous practice of Conversion Therapy on LGBTQ minors. Help us do more!
APV has spoken out in favor of sensible gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, laws that would also prevent Virginia from becoming an illegal transit point for guns going to other states. Help us do more!
APV and our allies are fighting to change the laws in Virginia governing the use of marijuana, both in regard to decriminalization and medical use. Help us do more!
Federally we’ve successfully lobbied to raise the fines and jail time for those who take minors to illegal animal fights. This was a significant win that took several years to accomplish and we can be proud of it. Help us do more!
We’ve done a lot and we’ve done it on a shoestring budget with a an all-volunteer staff. As they say, we punch way above our weight class. But perhaps the best thing we’ve done is to create a framework for Progressives to stand up and take action here in Virginia, outside of a political party or candidate.
Many of you have been a part of this adventure and I am writing in the aftermath of the midterms and with a hard General Assembly session ahead of us to ask that you stand with us again.
This is our fall membership drive. Our membership rolls are open and old members are invited to rejoin and new members are invited to become a part of our Alliance. We have a lot of work to do and more hands make the job easier. Please consider becoming or renewing your membership or just donating to APV to help us with our work. I have seen what a small group of people can do when working together, and with your help we can do more. We’re up against lots of money, long odds and passionately wrong people who won’t go away or change their minds anytime soon… now is the time to stand up and fight back.
Join us and let the world know who you stand with.
President, Alliance for Progressive Values
Find out more about membership here:
Poor Governor Bob McDonnell! He is appealing his recent conviction of public corruption on grounds that his corruption was not nearly public enough. In the long list of questions people ask themselves after such disastrous, life changing events, (and an 11 count conviction on public corruption is nothing if not life changing) probably the most poignant is “what if?”
What if McDonnell had only paid Chef Tom Schneider properly instead of telling him to “take it out in trade?” Or what if ex-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had not decided to prosecute Schneider (presumably in an effort to silence him) on grounds of stealing state property—property he allegedly was told to take by Maureen McDonnell? Then maybe Chef Tom would not have spilled the beans about McDonnell’s happy dance with Star Scientific’s Johnnie Williams to anyone who would listen. Or, put another way, what if McDonnell had not treated his help like second class citizenry? Why, he might still be waltzing around with Rolexes flashing, popping Anatabloc and taking midnight runs in Ferraris. It’s not like anyone else would have said anything.
But no. That’s not really his style. There’s a sense of aggressive entitlement that seems to have swamped McDonnell’s moral compass and caused him to assume a business as usual attitude toward a long list of indiscretions. Now, he must lie awake, sweating the days until his sentencing hearing, hoping they don’t send him packing to the big house for the foreseeable future, wondering “what if?”
But he just might get lucky. There are a few people, on both the left and the right, who think that putting Bob and Maureen in jail for a lengthy period of time is not ideal. Their arguments go something like this: Bob McDonnell, for all his venality, is not a violent criminal. It will cost the state nearly $ 40,000 a year to lock him up. And Virginia is in a budget shortfall anyhow, what’s the point? I tend to sympathize with this view, all schadenfreude aside, but there’s a part of me that still hesitates. What kind of example does that set, after all? Shouldn’t a religious family values conservative be held to account for soiling the good name of Virginia’s governorship and destroying his family in the process? If we let the Governor skip out on 11 counts of public corruption, what does this say to the rest of us? Especially, to the kid from Gilpin Court who is looking at ten years for trying to sell an ounce of weed?
So I was thinking about a suitable punishment the other day and really enjoying myself while imagining all the possible scenarios. Should we go all medieval and chain Bob up in stocks in Capitol Square, let him spend his days there as a counter example to public corruption? That was a pleasant thought, but then I realized we’d still have to feed him and potentially house him to some degree, at least during the winter months.
What was needed, I felt certain, was some way we could make an example of Bob without having to finance his life. If only we could do that, and at the same time make a political point that might help others. I was driving by a McDonald’s when it hit me. Maybe the name of the place clicked, or maybe it was just seeing the despondent look in the attendant’s eyes….
She had done nothing wrong, you see. She had likely spent the better part of her life in dead-end jobs, worked her way through high school, maybe even worked her way through college, but our economy is such that all she could find was this lowly service industry job. And, of course, adding insult to injury, this lowly service industry job hardly pays a living wage because minimum wage has been flat for the last decade thanks primarily to Republican politicians. And Bob is nothing if not a politician who believes in the beauty of the free market and hates the idea of government standard minimum wage laws that might actually make a livable wage possible…that’s when I knew.
I could just see him there. ‘Bob McDonnell’ embossed on a little golden name tag, hair still perfectly coiffed, “Would you like fries with that?”
So, please, don’t send Bob McDonnell to prison to live in country club, white-collar criminal comfort. We should let him get a real taste of hustling a menial job until he pays back his debt to society or, at minimum, the money he owes for his lawyer fees. My guess is that will be a few Happy Meals down the road.
This may also serve as an excellent reminder to treat everyone you meet with respect—even if they happen to be a service industry worker or a chef for the Governor’s mansion. After all, they might just be an ex-Governor, or someone who can do a Governor in.
And finally, maybe Republicans will start advocating a raise in the minimum wage if they know that they, too, might end up hustling fries like their one time front man? It’s worth a shot.
In some ways, we’re brilliant. Take the Republican party, for example. Their representatives have declared that climate change isn’t real, evolution isn’t proven, rape isn’t a problem, birth control isn’t necessary, and guns are great. And they still keep getting elected. Not that political parties need to be immersed in the latest science, but to claim as Bobby Jindal recently did that he has no opinion on evolution because he’s not a biological evolutionist makes you wonder if he has an opinion on gravity, having never studied Newton. Or for that matter, what’s his opinion on the speed of light?
Alas, we are enveloped in waves of such sophistries. For politicians to parrot a climate denier’s implausible assumptions or some Missouri popinjay’s insistence that rape isn’t real, is to insist on the kind of ignorance that must be actively sought after, applauded, advanced. In fact, this kind of ignorance must be so cleverly calculated that it can compel workers to vote against their own interest, over and over, like what happened recently in Tennessee when Volkswagen allowed its workers to vote for union membership and they voted it down while holding placards produced by Americans for Prosperity, an Orwellian named front group designed to bust unions, among other things. Funded by the Koch brothers, natch.
The media enables the sideshow, of course. Talking heads like George F. Will lend a patina of Edwardian styled class to what is at best an intellectual Happy Meal. This despite actual journalism going on in the same paper (the Washington Post) pointedly refuting George Will’s erroneous claims:
“The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.”
Thank you Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan of the Washington Post, for pointing out the obvious, but gratitude aside, what kind of editorial hack would allow a columnist to essentially make up facts, or, at minimum, distort interpretation such that the column says the exact opposite of what the science is trying to convey? Fred Hiatt, at the Washington Post, for one. The Wall Street Journal editorial page for another. Then of course, Fox News. But even the so-called liberal media usually gets the frame wrong for science disputes. When Republicans say there is no such thing as climate change, and Democrats reply that climate change is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which is a kind of truth, but Gravity is real and so is climate change. Why not point that out? Maybe, as a followup question, someone could ask Republicans what their feelings are on black holes and whether or not the Earth revolves around the sun?
Last weekend, well over 310,000 climate activists descended on NYC out of pure frustration with this phenomena (estimates range from 310,000 to over 500,000). For years now, as the science community has essentially screamed that climate change is real, is happening, is dangerous and will cause untold millions to suffer and cost untold billions, our conservative politicians essentially said, “Meh” or “I can’t hear you.” Or they presented disingenuous arguments like Republican congressmen Rep. Steve Stockman from Texas who claimed sea level rise will not be an issue because when ice melts in a glass of water it does not overflow, failing to realize that much of the ice on the planet is on land and would run into the ocean. Jon Stewart spent a bit of time at Comedy Central schooling him (after asking repeatedly, “are you fucking kidding me?”), which might be funny, only Stockman happens to sit on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee for the US House of Representatives; and, as such, guides our national agenda. This is rather like putting a six-year-old intellect in charge of our national science priorities. I say this with apologies to six-year-olds everywhere.
Not all Republican climate deniers are too stupid to breathe, however. Those with a glimmer of intelligence fall back on various dodges and rationales provided by lobbyists from energy companies and PR firms whose roots were formed deep in other, older protracted public relations battles around tobacco and cigarettes. The Royal Society conducted a survey that found ExxonMobil had given $2.9 million dollars to such American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change,” 39 of which “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence”. In 2006, the Royal Society issued a demand that ExxonMobil withdraw funding for climate change denial. The institution was ignored. Between 1989 and 2002 the Global Climate Coalition, a group of mainly United States businesses, used aggressive lobbying and public relations tactics to oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight the Kyoto Protocol. The New York Times reported that “even as the coalition worked to sway opinion [towards skepticism], its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.” The lobbyists, of course, remained undeterred—their job wasn’t science, after all, it was persuasion. And they were good at their jobs.
Thanks to such work, politicians have reversed their positions and moved away from supporting efforts to push for renewables and other ways to lessen our carbon footprint. Consider this: the 2012 Republican nomination battle saw Romney, Gingrich, and Pawlenty all disavow their past support for climate science and climate protection. In one debate, Pawlenty was challenged on his climate change efforts as head of the National Governors Association and governor of Minnesota, and he replied: “It was a mistake, and I’m sorry … You’re going to have a few clunkers on your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. … I made a mistake.” As Newt Gingrich took heat for a TV ad in which he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat together and spoke on behalf of climate action, he repeatedly declared it was “the dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years.” Mitt Romney, who prioritized climate change action as governor of Massachusetts, used his speech accepting the Republican nomination to take a dig at President Obama’s concern over climate change, then repeated the line on Meet the Press, insisting: “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”
Scientists came to a decisive view on the dangers of global warming in the 1980s, the Reagan era, when faith in the power of unfettered markets surged and it was harder than ever to make the case for collective action, market regulation and a strong role for the state. But tough national and international regulations is exactly what the crisis requires. Conservatives fought this not only because it aligned them with wealthy corporations whose deep pockets enabled their candidacies, but because it also aligned with their general principle that less government was always better.
Worse, though, in the world of the conservative ideologue, there’s a growing conviction that an environmental scientist is a potential 5th columnist. They call this the ‘watermelon’ theory on the environmental movement, green on the outside, red on the inside, because any effort toward stronger regulations is socialist, apparently. Does your organically cleaned washroom breed Bolsheviks? This is delusional, to be sure, but delusional world views have real world consequences. Galileo was sentenced to house-arrest and died a broken man in 1642. Shortly before he died, imprisoned and exhausted, Galileo denied what he knew to be true and finally agreed with the Catholic church: okay, whatever, the Sun revolves around the Earth. No oceans failed or worlds boiled into oblivion because of his capitulation, which, of course, will be the consequences of denying that anthropocentric global warming is real.
By the way, the Catholic church did not admit that they had made a mistake on that little matter of the Earth revolving around the Sun until 1992.
This just in: citizens of Gaza have tweeted advice to citizens of Ferguson, Missouri on how to deal with tear gas. The tweets included such sage advice as…
Don’t Keep much distance from the Police, if you’re close to them they can’t tear Gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine
Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when tear gassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!
And one tweeter, Mariam Barghouti noted…
It feels so weird using my experience from #Palestine and Israeli oppression to give advice to #Ferguson. Much love and solidarity!
Indeed, it is weird, but when you consider that former Police Chief Tim Fitch studied Counter-Terrorism in Israel with the Israeli Defense Forces in April 2011, and that the weapons and tactics deployed in Ferguson in the last few days closely match weapons used in military occupations from Iraq to Afghanistan to Gaza, than it’s not so much weird as inevitable. In fact, many US veterans of those conflicts are tweeting that Ferguson police are ‘better armed’ than the initial invading troops for Operation Desert Storm.
To put this in context, Ferguson is a small town that spans just six square miles. It has a population of 21,203 people, and one ZIP code. Ferguson has about 40 robberies per year, a couple of homicides, almost no arson cases and a crime rate only a bit higher than the national average. Nevertheless, last night, Wednesday, August 13, some 70 SWAT officers showed up to ‘quell’ the unrest surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen killed by a Ferguson police officer. They arrived in full body armor with machine guns atop mine proofed personnel carriers trained on the crowds. Now, even I, unschooled in the most rudimentary of police work would know that this is not how you pacify a crowd or win hearts and minds. The opposite would seem to be the case: this is how you escalate a situation. Naturally, chaos ensued. An alderman was arrested, Washington Post and Huffington Post journalists were arrested. The Al Jazeera news team was harassed and tear gassed and after they fled, the police decided to ‘confiscate’ their equipment. Local citizens had to contend with rubber bullets and rounds of wooden pellets that “aren’t as lethal as live rounds”….always good to hear.
According the Riverfront Times, tear gas was so ubiquitous that reporters said they could not go from the police station on one side of the town to their cars on the other because of tear gas en route. Officers reportedly marched down streets ordering protesters to leave as they fired tear gas into the backyards and homes of individuals who stood on their own property with their hands up.
That a small town police force might be incompetent is not especially surprising—I always think of Barney Fife on these occasions. A periphrastic buffoon, Fife, played by the inimitable Don Knotts on the Andy Griffith show delivered a comic version of a small town police deputy so enthralled by the gadgetry of law enforcement that to give him live ammunition was to risk accidental death and mayhem. The sheriff of Mayberry wisely never allowed him to carry a loaded weapon. Like Fife, the police of Ferguson appear to be knuckle heads—they blew the situation in their hometown by over reacting. This morning the Governor of Missouri stepped in and said that the Ferguson police force would no longer be in charge of protecting Ferguson—which will come as some relief to those who have been ‘protected’ thus far. What is surprising, or sad, or just plain weird, is that we should be giving a small town police force enough military equipment to lay siege to their own township and a half dozen municipalities, besides. It’s like giving Barney Fife a bazooka, with sufficient live ammunition to level Detroit.
Unfortunately Ferguson is part of a nationwide trend where local police forces are supplied with surplus military equipment, a process that started back in the 90s when the ‘war on drugs’ was in its prime, and escalated dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. Now up to 4.3 billion dollars worth of military equipment is in the hands of our indomitable Barney Fifes. Among the gear transferred: tanks, aircraft, and machine guns, as well as 181 grenade launchers, for all those times when cops just have to launch a grenade at someone. And since they have all this equipment, our Barneys feel obligated to use it, too, otherwise, of course, all that deadly goodness is just going to waste. So now, fully outfitted ‘SWAT’ teams equipped with canons and grenade launchers and AR-15s and armored personnel carriers carry out such mundane tasks as serving warrants to skin flint husbands skipping out on alimony payments and so forth. Which might not be so bad, except when you’re walking around with half a million dollars worth of equipment whose sole function is to kill something, sometimes bad things occur.
For example, this April, a SWAT team badly burned a toddler when they dropped a flash grenade into his crib while searching for a relative they thought might be carrying drugs. And in 2010, a SWAT team shot and killed a 7-year-old girl when they accidentally raided the wrong house. Even when innocent humans don’t die, it’s common for police in these raids to shoot pet dogs on sight. So despite the millions of dollars of equipment, we are not getting any safer. On the contrary, an ACLU report released this summer – examining just 800 incidents of the estimated 45,000 annual Swat team deployments in America– found the opposite: seven people were killed and dozens were injured– and 61% of people impacted by drug-case Swat raids were minorities.
Kara Dansky, the chief author of the ACLU report, said that “the unnecessary use of paramilitary policing tactics tends to escalate the risk of violence to both civilians and officers.” But there is no central tracking system of the military equipment going out to local police departments – just as there is no oversight on how the equipment is used, or any reporting requirements other than hitting drug-enforcement numbers that bring in more cash—to pay for more weapons, of course.
To add to the mix, since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for “terrorism prevention.” The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. According to the ACLU, police training material encourages departments to “build the right mind-set in your troops” in order to thwart “terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren.” According to a Mother Jones report, it is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.
There’s been almost no public debate on police militarization: it was part of our overreaction to 9/11 which has whittled away our civil liberties, started two unnecessary wars overseas, while transforming our own neighborhoods into war zones. In many ways, our reaction to those attacks have done more to destroy ‘our way of life’ than any destructive fantasy Osama bin Laden might have dreamed. The result? Well, I’d say, imagine Mayberry RFD with Barney Fife in charge, but you don’t have to imagine– just watch what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri.