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REFLECTIONS ON THE ORIGINS AND MEANING OF AMERICA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY

Why no on should be surprised when America behaves as an international bully

 

John Chuckman

If you relish myths and enjoy superstition, then the flatulent speeches of America’s Independence Day, July 4, were just the thing for you. No religion on earth has more to offer along these lines than America celebrating itself.

Some, believing the speeches but curious, ask how did a nation founded on supposedly the highest principles by high-minded men manage to become an ugly imperial power pushing aside international law and the interests of others? The answer is simple: the principles and high-mindedness are the same stuff as the loaves and the fishes.

The incomparable Doctor Johnson had it right when he called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels and scoffed at what he called the “drivers of negroes” yelping about liberty.

Few Americans even understand that Johnson’s first reference was to their sacred Founding Fathers (aka Patriots). I have seen a well known American columnist who attributed the pronouncement to Ben Franklin, a man who was otherwise admirable but nevertheless dabbled a few times in slave trading himself.

Johnson especially had in mind history’s supreme hypocrite, Jefferson, with his second reference. Again, few Americans know that Jefferson kept his better than two hundred slaves to his dying day. I know a well educated American who sincerely believed Jefferson had freed his slaves. Such is the power of the myths of the American Civic Religion.

Jefferson was incapable of supporting himself, living the life of a prince and being a ridiculous spendthrift who died bankrupt and still owing money to others, the man of honor being a trifle less than honorable in paying back the money he often borrowed. When a new silk frock or set of shoes with silver buckles was to be had, Jefferson never hesitated to buy them rather than pay his debts.

The date we now celebrate, July 4, is based on the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence, but in fact the date is incorrect, the document was approved on July 2.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the declaration, but it was edited by the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin, and later was heavily amended by the Continental Congress. Jefferson suffered great humiliation of his pride and anger at the editing and changes.

Despite the document’s stirring opening words, if you actually read the whole thing, you will be highly disappointed.

The bulk of it has a whining tone in piling on complaint after complaint against the Crown. Some would say the whining set a standard for the next quarter millennium of American society.

In Jefferson’s draft it went on and on about Britain’s slave trade. The ‘slave trade’ business was particularly hypocritical, trying to sound elevated while in fact reflecting something else altogether. At the time there was a surplus of human flesh in Virginia, and prices were soft.

The cause of the Revolution is also interesting and never emphasized in American texts. Britain’s imposition of the Quebec Act created a firestorm of anti-Catholicism in the colonies. They were afraid of being ruled from a Catholic colony.

The speech and writing of American colonists of the time was filled with exactly the kind of ugly language one associates with extremist Ulstermen in recent years.

This combined with the sense of safety engendered from Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War)and the unwillingness to pay taxes to help pay for that victory caused the colonial revolt.

Few Americans know it, but it was the practice for many, many decades to burn the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day along the Eastern Seaboard. Anti-Catholicism was quite virulent for a very long time.

The first phase of the revolt in and around Boston was actually something of a popular revolution, responding to Britain’s blockading the harbor and quartering troops in Boston.

The colonial aristocrats were having none of that, and they appointed Washington commander over the heads of the Boston Militias who volunteered and actually elected their officers.

Washington, who had always wanted to be a British regular commander but never received the commission, imposed his will ferociously. He started flogging and hanging.

In his letters home, the men who actually started the revolution are described as filth and scum. He was a very arrogant aristocrat.

The American Revolution has been described by a European as home-grown aristocrats replacing foreign-born ones. It is an apt description.

Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and many other of the Fathers had no faith in democracy. About one percent of early Virginia could vote. The president was not elected by people but by elites in the Electoral College. The Senate, which even today is the power in the legislature, was appointed well into the 20th century.

The Supreme Court originally never dared interpret the Bill of Rights as determining what states should do. It sat on paper like an advertising brochure with no force. At one time, Jefferson seriously raised the specter of secession, half a century before the Civil War, over even the possibility of the Bill of Rights being interpreted by a national court and enforced.

The Founding Fathers saw popular voting as endangering property ownership. Democracy was viewed by most the same way Washington viewed the “scum” who started the Revolution around Boston. It took about two hundred years of gradual changes for America to become anything that seriously could be called democratic. Even now, what sensible person would call it anything but a rough work still in progress.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that early America was ruled by a portion of the population no larger than what is represented today by the Chinese Communist Party as a portion of that country’s population.

Yet today we see little sign of patience or understanding in American arrogance about how quickly other states should become democratic. And we see in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo, and in the CIA’s International Torture Gulag that the principles and attitudes of the Bill of Rights still haven’t completely been embraced by America.

Contrary to all the posturing amongst the Patriots – who few were a minority at the time – about tyranny, the historical facts indicate that Britain on the whole actually had offered good government to its North American Colonies.

Everyone who visited the Colonies from Europe noted the exceptional health of residents.

They also noticed what seemed an extraordinary degree of freedom enjoyed by colonists. It was said to be amongst the freest place in the known world, likely owing in good part to its distance from the Mother Country. A favorite way to wealth was smuggling, especially with the Caribbean. John Hancock made his fortune that way.

Ben Franklin once wrote a little memo, having noted the health of Americans and their birth rates, predicting the future overtaking of Britain by America, an idea not at all common at the time.

Indeed, it was only the relative health and freedom which made the idea of separation at all realistic. Britain was, of course, at the time viewed much the way, with the same awe of power, people view America today. These well-known facts of essentially good government in the Colonies made the Declaration of Independence list of grievances sound exaggerated and melodramatic to outsiders even at the time.

The combination of the Quebec Act, anti-Catholicism, dislike of taxes, plus the desire to move West and plunder more Indian lands were the absolute causes of the Revolution.

Britain tried to recognize the rights of the aboriginals and had forbidden any movement west by the Colonies.

But people in the colonies were land-mad, all hoping to make a fortune staking out claims they would sell to later settlers. The map of Massachusetts, for example, showed the colony stretching like a band across the continent to the Pacific. Britain did not agree.

George Washington made a lot of money doing this very thing, more than any other enterprise of his except for marrying Martha Custis, the richest widow in the colonies.

The tax issue is interesting.

The French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) heavily benefited the Colonists by removing the threat of France in the West. Once the war was over, many colonists took the attitude that Britain could not take the benefits back, and they refused to pay the taxes largely imposed to pay the war’s considerable cost.

And Americans have hated taxes since.

By the way, in the end, without the huge assistance of France, the Colonies would not have won the war. France played an important role in the two decisive victories, Saratoga and Yorktown. At Saratoga they had smuggled in the weapons the Americans used. At Yorktown, the final battle, the French were completely responsible for the victory and for even committing to the battle. Washington had wanted instead to attack New York – which would have been a disaster – but the French generals then assisting recognized a unique opportunity at Yorktown.

After the war, the United States never paid the huge French loans back. Some gratitude. Also the United States renounced the legitimate debts many citizens owed to British factors (merchant/shippers) for no good reason at all except not wanting to pay.

It was all a much less glorious beginning than you would ever know from the drum-beating, baton-twirling, sequined costumes, and noise today. And if you really want to understand why America has become the very thing it claimed it was fighting in 1776, then you only need a little solid history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IRAQ, ISIS, AND INTERVENTION: JUST WHAT IS GOING ON?

 

John Chuckman

As so often is the case in foreign affairs, we will never know with precision what is happening in Iraq. The governments involved have reasons to disguise what they are doing, and a number of governments are indeed at work there. The press doesn’t spend the resources needed to discover the facts, thus saving government considerable embarrassment and themselves a good deal of work.  But, if you look carefully, there are enough bits of information scattered around to gain an adequate picture of events, just as you might detect what people had been eating from the crumbs and splashes left on a dinner table.

From columnists and editorials, you can find almost any explanation of events in Iraq you care to find, all of them together yielding precisely a huge muddle. My favorite example of confusion is the story which made its way around about the way the United States and Iran were coming together to stop ISIS, each of them having their own reasons for doing so. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Iran, indeed, cares deeply about stopping ISIS. The United States makes a good deal of noise – what else can it do when pictures are published, intended to inflame public opinion, of prisoners being violently murdered? – but it does nothing of substance because it does not want to do anything.

The less-than 300 troops America sent to Iraq are only for embassy protection, not fighting, the monster embassy the United States forced on occupied Iraq being a private city of spies and communication and resources, totally out of proportion to a country the size of Iraq – if you will, a Middle East branch plant for CIA headquarters in Virginia. Now the United States talks of sending 300 advisers to Iraq’s army. Advisers? Since when does the United States send advisers to a besieged area where it has vital interests? So, too, the matter of air support: Prime Minister al-Maliki is reported to have asked for air support, and the United States is reported to have responded that it will be sent if he resigns. That is a very odd response for a government supposedly having common cause with Iran.

Yes, ships with planes have been sent to the region, but I think they may well be used in a different fashion than how the press speculates.

ISIS (aka ISIL) is often called a powerful and frightening force, but that is almost laughably inaccurate. All estimates of its manpower range from 7 to 15,000 – that is not a lot of soldiers by any standard and no larger than some American street gangs. The Iraq military, in the last numbers I saw, had approaching 300,000 on active service and more than half-a-million reserves. You can find pictures on the Internet of ISIS forces on the move, a rag-tag bunch with small arms riding around in Japanese pick-up trucks. They would be scary for any individual or village, but they wouldn’t stand a chance against even a single division of a modern army. Iraq’s government has many hundreds of armored combat vehicles, including more than 200 heavy tanks, a mix of American M1A1s and Russian T-72s, and several billion dollars’ worth of other high-end military equipment.

So why does Maliki seek American help? The Maliki government is not popular in Iraq, as proves the case so often with governments set up by the United States after its colonial wars. It has all the faults found throughout the Middle East of cronyism, nepotism, etc.  And in a country with great divides of ethnicity and religion – Arabs, Kurds and Sunni, Shia – plus still other regional divides – oil-producing, agricultural, plains and mountains, urban and rural – any central government is bound to suffer unpopularity. Democracy has no history here, so popularity is not necessarily even a relevant criterion. But Maliki also is not popular with his original benefactor, the United States, almost certainly a far more relevant fact.

On the other hand, the Maliki government has become quite well disposed towards Iran, far more so than the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel like. Some earlier observers of America’s handiwork in Iraq said that the ultimate beneficiary might just prove to be Iran. Israel, in one of the more informative statements made about the situation, said that Iran was far more a threat to the region than ISIS. Maliki’s government forms an important link in an arc of Shiite power through the region from Iran through Syria (Assad is Shia) to Hezbollah in Lebanon (also Shia). The Shia are viewed by many in the Muslim world, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, much the way Protestants in the 17th century were viewed by the Catholic Church, as a minority which has broken old traditions, cultural patterns, and loyalties. All of the great reformers of Protestantism were viewed by the Catholic Church as heretics, and as many Protestants as possible were disposed of in bloody persecutions like the Holy Inquisition or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It is actually  the politics and attitudes of the Shia, rather than this or that minor difference in theology, which makes them unwelcome to the folks running Saudi Arabia, much as was the case with the Reformation and Rome, the rulers of Saudi Arabia being in general about as genuinely religious as many of the old hedonistic popes in Rome.

Some observers, early in the American occupation, predicted that Iraq would crumble into three rump states, and to some extent their expectations have proved perceptive. It is not clear that America would have been entirely averse to that development since it would have eliminated a state which might one day again possess the strength to oppose Israel. Saddam Hussein held Iraq together through ruthlessness towards any who were opposed or questioned his central authority, but he did represent more than a simple bloody dictator. He was also building something of a modern secular society with public institutions serving welfare needs, more rights for women, and the advance of education and science – in many ways, his Iraq was the most advanced state in the Arab world, and undoubtedly the growing middle class his policies helped create would have brought democracy one day after his death. The American invasion smashed all of that, leaving little of which to be proud and three regions pulling in different directions. To the degree Maliki has again tried to impose a will on the situation, he naturally has not been popular. And his efforts to work with Iran, a natural and powerful regional ally for him to turn, have made him loathed in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

ISIS, whatever the exact paths from its origins, represents just one more of the rag-tag groups that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, working under the close eye of the United States, introduced into Syria to topple Assad in an engineered civil war. We have many reports of ISIS members with British or American passports. The past Benghazi, Libya fiasco, never explained by Washington, was part of these efforts, the murdered American ambassador running a black operation to collect weapons and radical fighters to ship to Turkey for insertion into Syria when he was caught in what intelligence agencies call “blowback,” a group of those with whom he was dealing turning on him, viewing an available American ambassador as perhaps a more worthy target than Assad. ISIS has expanded its horizons to include Iraq, and it has been encouraged and assisted to do so by the Saudis.

Why do jihadist types hate Assad enough to go there risking their lives? Apart from the natural attractions for some young men of adventure, war, and escape from rules, it is because Assad, like Hussein, actually represents some progressive, modern developments in a large Arab state. He has at his disposal fewer resources, not being a major oil producer like Hussein’s Iraq, but, within the limits imposed on him, Syria exhibits secular tendencies and some openness to modern trends. The great irony of the region is that the very states with which Israel keeps the best relations are absolute ones doing all they can to dampen social progress, places like Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

ISIS is a perfect mechanism for two American goals, the first being to assist in the disposal of Maliki, something which would make Israel very happy because it would cut the Iran connection. Second, ISIS can be used as an excuse for American air attacks into Syria, perhaps even the insertion of limited ground forces there. Assad and the Syrian army have foiled the elaborate secret effort to topple him, and a great opportunity, from America’s point of view, stands to be lost if some additional effort is not made. ISIS being chased into Syria by American jets and Special Forces may just be an opportunity not to be missed: attacks on Syrian forces staged as hot pursuit of repulsive ISIS fanatics. And the fanatics, having served their purpose from America’s point of view, will be slaughtered too. Of course, none of this has anything to do with the welfare of the Syrian people who have endured countless horrors as though their country were a dump site for the toxic wastes of some great corporation.

ISIS has been given waves of publicity for its ferocity and barbarism, but as with all such publicity, we must make allowances for inflated claims. We do have reports that in villages where residents ran from ISIS, they are returning and being treated decently. Would anyone return to place occupied by a wild band of cutthroats? If such a force shows up at a town or village where there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Maliki government, it is not hard to see how the locals might run, but how do we explain reports of those who ran away being welcomed back?

The key factor as to whether Maliki can stop ISIS is the loyalty of the army as well as local populations, and that is not certain at all. It is extremely likely that strategic payments to soldiers and others are being made to secure results like those of the early ISIS victories, the funds coming from Saudi Arabia. Soldiers running and leaving behind modern tanks when confronted with a mob in Japanese pick-ups are not credible otherwise. Remember, Iraq is a place where pallet-loads of freshly-printed United States’ hundred dollar bills disappeared in countless payments and bribes to silence various groups active in the violent wake of America’s so-called victory. It is the way the place has worked for a decade of corrupt American influence.

A high Israeli official was quoted recently saying it was Iran’s influence that is most dangerous in the region, not that of ISIS. Of course, that should tell us a great deal. In this part of the world, Israel’s views count for far more than those of all the other countries put together, at least, so far as the United States’ government is concerned, the ridiculous lopsidedness in that reflecting the best Congress campaign funding can buy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GENOCIDE, GREAT WARS, AND OTHER HUMAN DEPRAVITY

 

John Chuckman

The word genocide, coined in 1944 in an effort to describe what the Nazis called “the final solution” and what today we call the Holocaust, attempted to distinguish the crime of killing people of a certain identity in such great numbers that you tried eliminating them as a group. Earlier in that century, there had been the mass murder of Armenians by the Turks, an event Hitler once cynically reminded associates was not even remembered only a few decades later.

Some would include in the category the terrible starvation induced in Ukraine by Soviet agricultural policies and ineptitude, an event which indeed killed millions, or the ruthless policies of Mao’s China which caused many millions of peasants to starve. But these events, utterly nightmarish as they were, begin to lose the legitimate sense of genocide. Although we cannot rightly call these genocides, they remain depravity on a colossal scale, but I am not sure the distinction is one with great meaning, and certainly not for any of the victims. After all, when nations go to war, the job defined for each soldier is to kill as many of the people from another land as possible. Our great wars now typically kill vast numbers, and it is just a fact of history that since the 19th century we have moved from killing mainly other soldiers to killing mainly civilians.

I think it likely there were many genocides through early human history because humans are little more than chimps with large brains, and we know through long-term studies that chimps are quite murderous, making regular expeditions to slaughter neighboring tribes of their own kind. One of the theories for the extinction of the Neanderthals is that they were murdered off by our kind some thirty thousand years ago. Recorded human history, not counting archeological digs, goes back less than three thousand years of homo sapiens’ half million years or so, and even much of that small fraction of our history is poorly recorded by modern standards of scholarship, but we have so many dark legends which almost certainly point to horribly brutal unrecorded events: ghouls, vampires, monsters, cannibals, human sacrifice, and tales of savage hordes. The Old Testament, thought to have been written largely from 1000 to 600 BCE, itself is rich with tales of mass murder and killing determined by identity, rather disturbingly for a book embraced by so many as God’s own word.

There really are few limits to human depravity. The word genocide hadn’t been invented yet, but think of Columbus or the Conquistadors wiping out entire native populations regarded as savage. Or think of the centuries of Christianity in Europe in which countless people were garroted or burned at the stake over some turn of phrase in the liturgy. The Crusades over centuries killed whole populations owing solely to their religion, with Popes in Rome having been among their biggest organizers and supporters. The Hundred Years’ War, mid-14th to mid-15th centuries devastated Europe. In the 20th Century, Europe thought little of entering a conflict which would kill 20 million over which branch of the same royal family would dominate the continent. Having settled nothing by that carnage, much the same forces about twenty years later engaged in an even greater conflict which would destroy more than 50 million people.

If words mean anything, you might think genocide is a word that would never be carelessly used, but it is, and quite regularly. Indeed, few words today are more abused than genocide. When relatively small groups of people are killed (“small” in the scheme of things – after all, we are discussing mass killings) in places of interest to the West (i.e., Serbia) where war or civil war is underway, the killings are frequently characterized as genocide by our politicians and their faithful echoes in the press, trying to squeeze out every last possible bit of dread and horror from audiences. There was a large effort in the early part of the last decade to sell the conflict at Darfur as genocide, but I suspect it actually closely resembled primitive wars from the early times of human history.

When a million or so people are killed in places of little interest to the West (i.e., Rwanda), it is ignored in all but words, the sensational stories used to sell newspapers and books and juice-up television’s talking-head shows after the fact.

Genocides do periodically still occur, but when has any powerful nation like the United States, or international organization like NATO, stood in the way of genocide in the post-war period? Has the United States or NATO ever opposed genocide other than with cheap words? In these matters, the United States’ government’s declarations so often resemble press releases from, say, the Vatican with ineffectual and wheezing platitudes about some horribly bloody war. It is the United States which holds political and economic sway over international organizations like the United Nations and NATO, and it is the United States which has the military power to do something when events require it.

We have had several unmistakable genocides in the last fifty years, and, regrettably, not once did America lift a finger to help. Indeed, the United States actually played a role in establishing or extending the circumstances for a couple of these ghastly events, but you’d never know that when American politicians rise to huff and puff about what is happening in a place far away or in a place not necessarily far away but whose government is intensely disliked. And, of course, you’d never know it from the pages of the mainline press, without doing more detective work than most people are willing to do.

We had what everyone agrees was genocide in Rwanda with around a million people killed simply for their tribal identity, with further destructive aftershocks in neighboring states for some while after. The United States’ government, immediately well aware of what was happening there, simply refused to allow the word to be used in its internal communications, and the cowardly Bill Clinton avoided the rhetoric he employed on Serbia, a place where mass murder came in at literally one percent the rate of Rwanda.

We had genocide in Cambodia with perhaps a million and a half killed, and it actually was precipitated by America’s de-stabilizing of the once peaceful, but neutral, country with secret bombings and invasions during its Captain Ahab-like madness over “victory” in Vietnam. Neutrality, where America wants something, as it did in Vietnam, is simply not an option. When tough little Vietnam, despite the massive horrors it had just suffered at America’s hands, stepped in to do something about what was happening on its border, the United States’ government stood back and bellowed, “See, we told you, there’s the domino theory at work! We did have a reason to fight in Vietnam after all.”

We had a true genocide in Indonesia with the fall of Sukarno in 1965. Half a million people, vaguely identified as communists, had their throats slashed by machetes and their bodies dumped into rivers: it was said that the rivers ran red for a time. Not only did the United States’ government do nothing to halt the rampage, officials at the State Department busied themselves with phones late into the night, transmitting lists of persons suitable for the new government’s attention, the word “communist” then possessing for America’s government about the same power to dehumanize a victim as “heretic” did for The Holy Inquisition a few centuries earlier.

I would argue, too, that America’s slaughter in Vietnam was a genuine genocide, the greatest of the post-war period, but even if you do not grant the word genocide in this case, it remains still the greatest mass murder since World War II. About three million were killed, mostly civilians, often in horrible fashion as with napalm, for no reason other than their embracing the wrong economic system and rejecting the artificial rump state America tried to impose. Hundreds of thousands more were crippled and poisoned, and a beautiful land was left strewn with land mines and noxious pools of Agent Orange to keep killing for decades more.

So when an American President speaks to stir his audience with ghost-written words from his teleprompter machine about some new outrage somewhere, trying to cast someone else in the role of demonic villain, we had better always be careful about taking him at his word. And it is a good practice to judge the words, weighing them against the United States’ own abysmal record over the last half century.

It is one of the gravest of contemporary truths that the greatest modern historical sufferers of genocide, the Jewish people, should be found now treating millions of others in brutal and degrading fashion, something now continued for more than half a century. Israel hasn’t killed millions, but it has killed tens of thousands in its wars and suppressions and their aftermath, including necessarily thousands of children in Middle Eastern populations heavily skewed to youth, and it holds millions in a seemingly perpetual state of hopelessness and degradation and without any rights, a situation America’s government effectively has ignored, failing to use its power for good yet again.

It is a natural human tendency to try forgetting our terrifying experiences, and nature does seem to have constructed us with varying abilities to do so, being if you will an extension of “sleep that knits the ravelled sleeve of care.” But human perversity is intent on remembering many of our horrors, always citing the provably false slogan about those who forget history being condemned to relive it. Of course, such forced (and cleaned-up) memories have other purposes, as for example keeping each generation of young men ready to grab a gun at the beat of the drums. I feel this keenly every time poppies come up for sale again, much as I sympathize with the old men selling them and much as I’m aware of what occurred in Flanders Fields. It is time to stop sentimentalizing an event too ugly to accurately remember: the stench of the battlefields of 1914-8 and the endless screams of mangled men dying slowly in the mud and the rats eating corpses – these are things no one in their right mind wants to remember, and remembering anything else really isn’t remembering at all.

As for the idea of “Never again!” when it comes to human depravity, it is best to remember that the words are just a slogan – as we’ve conclusively proved over fifty years – and, like all slogans, it is selectively applied to sell something.

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Postscript:

Recently we saw some glamorous celebrities, as we have before from time to time, at a large, well-publicized gathering decrying the use of rape in war, and, after a moment’s curiosity as to whether they continued afterward over cocktails and nibbles, all I could do was wonder what it was they hoped to do and what audience they thought they were addressing? Armies have always raped, it is one more of the many ugly facts of war we keep out of school books and remembrance ceremonies. War is, quite simply, the end of the rule of law for a time, and because that is a set of circumstances especially attractive to the population of sociopaths and violence-prone people we have always among us, an inordinate number of men who enjoy killing and raping always will be attracted to war. Yes, armies have codes and courts martial, and I’m sure rape is technically illegal in any modern army, but those codes are mainly established for public consumption, being rarely enforced. When you are engaged in bloody war, there is almost no motivation for leaders to pause events for trials. Knowing that, soldiers so inclined will always feel free to rape. Even in peace, we see from the statistics in the contemporary United States’ military, rape is quite a problem right on bases and ships. How much more so in war? Why not decry the mass murder we call war in the first place? If there were no wars, there could be no mass rapes. Doing anything less seems a form of cowardice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNDERSTANDING ISRAEL’S CORROSIVE INFLUENCE ON WESTERN DEMOCRACY

John Chuckman

 

Something troubling is quietly underway in the Western world, that portion of the world’s governments who style themselves as liberal democracies and free societies. Through a number of avenues, people’s assumptions about the role of government are being undermined as their governments evolve towards a pattern established in the United States. No, I do not mean in building a neo-Roman marble repository of sacred founding writ and adopting three wrangling branches of government with empty slogans about freedom and justice for all. I do mean in the way governments, however elected and organized, regard their responsibilities towards their citizens and the world community.

Of course, the United States in many matters often prods, cajoles, or threatens other states to follow where it leads, such as with votes at the U. N. or whether a country should send at least token forces for one of America’s colonial wars to lend appearances of international effort. Despite America’s poor economy and declining relative future prospects, it still has many resources for pushing others, much like the profligate grandson of a magnate whose once great family fortune is in decline but still large. Still, a good deal of what is happening results from new forces which only reinforce America’s imperial tendencies.

People in the West often elect governments who turn around to do things voters did not want done, and they realize they being lied to by their governments and corporate press, but they pretty much feel helpless to remedy the situation. London saw the largest peace march in history just before Tony Blair secretly threw in his lot with the criminals who hit Iraq with the equivalent in deaths and destruction of a thermonuclear bomb on a large city. Special interests increasingly dominate the interests of government because they increasingly pay its campaign costs and extend other important favors. Citizens in many places feel the meaning of casting a ballot has been diminished as they watch their governments ignore extreme injustice, hear their governments make demands and threats over matters which do not warrant threats, see themselves become ensnared in wars and violence they never wanted, and generally feel their governments are concerned with matters of little concern to them. That, if it needs to be said, is not what democracy is about. And where do we see governments making reforms to remedy the situation threatening democracy? Almost nowhere.

It might at first seem an odd thing to write – considering the influence Israel exerts in the Western world (what other country of 7 million is in the press virtually each day?) and all the favorable press it receives (every major newspaper and broadcaster having several writers or commentators who see their duty as influencing public opinion on Israel’s behalf, and The New York Times submits all stories about Israel to Israeli censors before publishing) – but Israel is an inherently unstable state. No matter how much money is poured into it for arms and force-fed economic development, it cannot be otherwise. Its population is hostile to the people with whom it is surrounded and intermixed, living something of a fantasy which shares in equal parts ancient myths and superstitions and white-picket-fence notions of community with no neighbors who do not resemble each other. Its founding stories also have a fairy tale quality, heroic with a mythical division of good and evil, always ignoring the violence and brutality which cannot be forgotten so easily by its victims and the manipulation of imperial powers which defrauded others as surely as any phony mining stock promotion. Its official views and the very language in which they are expressed are artificial constructs which do not accurately describe what they name, words like “militant” or “terrorist” or “existential.” Its official policy towards neighbors and the people it displaced has been one of unrelenting hostility. Its leaders in business and government almost all securely hold dual passports, hedging their bets. Its average citizens face a hard time in an economy shaped, not for opportunity and economic freedom, but for war and the policing of millions of captives and unwelcome residents. None of this is indefinitely sustainable, and modern Israel is a highly artificial construct, one neither suited to its regional environment nor amenable to all the powerful trends shaping the modern world: globalization, free movement of peoples, multiculturalism in immigration, and genuine democratic principles, not the oxymoron of democracy for one group only.

It is the many desperate efforts to work against these hard realities, almost like someone screaming against a storm, which have unleashed the forces now at work on the Western world. Israel, as just one example, against the best judgment of many statesmen, was permitted and even assisted to become a nuclear power. The thinking being that only with such weapons can Israel feel secure and be ready to defend Jews abroad from a new Gotterdammerung. The truth is, as is the case with all nuclear weapons, Israel’s arsenal is virtually unusable, except, that is, as a powerful tool for blackmail. Israel has blackmailed the United States several times, the latest instance being over Iran’s nuclear program, a program which every reliable intelligence source agrees is not aimed at producing weapons. More than one Israeli source has suggested that low-yield nuclear weapons are the best way of destroying Iran’s technology, buried deeply underground, a suggestive whisper in American ears to do what Israel wants, or else.

Analysis suggests that what Israel truly wants is the suppression of Iran as a burgeoning regional power so that Israel can continue to perform the powerful and lucrative role as the United States’ surrogate in Western Asia along with its always-held-quiet, numerous dealings with that other great bastion of democracy and human rights, Saudi Arabia.

There have been many unanticipated, and extremely unpleasant, results from just this one matter of Israel’s nuclear weapons. Take Israel’s relationship with the former South African government and that country’s own drive decades ago to achieve status as a nuclear power. We do not know all the details, but we know from now-published documents that Israel once offered literally to sell nuclear warheads and compatible missiles to apartheid South Africa. We know further that South Africa did achieve its goal, there having been a rush, secret program to remove its weapons when the apartheid government fell, Britain’s late weapons expert, Dr. Kelly, possibly having been murdered for the detailed information he possessed on the disposition of South Africa’s fissile material. We know further that there was a nuclear device tested at sea, likely a joint Israeli-South African test, its unmistakable flash having been recorded by an American satellite. Just this one aspect of Israel’s behavior worked directly against the aims and wishes of many in the West, supporting both apartheid and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Further, in order to accomplish these things, large efforts had to be made at deception and secret dealing with a number of governments whose intelligence services would certainly have come across trails of evidence. Those are rather weighty matters for governments to decide without the knowledge of voters.

Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons acts both as a threat and a stimulus to other states in the region to obtain their own. Iraq tried to do so and was stopped, twice. Finally, America used, as a pretext for a bloody invasion which killed at least half a million, Iraq’s nuclear weapons when it was clear to all experts by that time that Iraq no longer had any working facilities for producing them. It violently swept Iraq off the region’s chess board to please Israel, much as today Israel wants it to do with Iran. Countries which have seriously considered, or once actually started, working towards nuclear weapons in the region include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, and in all cases their motives involved, at least in part, Israel’s arsenal. The United States today is in the midst of a massive, years-long campaign to cleanse the Middle East of what its rulers regard as undesirable elements. What determined these undesirable elements? The chief characteristic was whether they respect the general foreign policy aims of the United States, including, importantly, the concept of Israel as favored son of the United States in the region with all the privileges and powers accorded that status.

Certainly the selection had nothing to do with whether the countries were democracies, and certainly it had nothing to do with whether the countries recognized and respected human rights, John Kerry’s pandering or Hillary Clinton’s histrionics to the contrary. America pays no attention to such niceties when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and many other places of strategic interest to it, including Israel. The values given lip service in the American Constitution and at Fourth of July picnics have as much to do with foreign policy as they do with the muffled screams from Guantanamo and the rest of the CIA’s torture gulag or the horrific invasion of Iraq and the systematic, large-scale use of extrajudicial killing.

There is elaborate machinery which has grown up around the relationship between America and Israel since 1948, when President Truman made the fateful decision, reportedly against his own best private judgement, to quickly recognize the government of Israel and extend to it the then-immense prestige of the United States in the immediate postwar period. That machinery – its chief features being highly-organized and well-funded special interest campaign financing, assays of every elected or appointed American official for his or her friendliness to Israel as with regular junkets for new Congressmen, and the most intimate and regular access by both lobbyists and Israeli officials to the highest officials in Washington – is now part of the political landscape of the United States, taken for granted as though it were the most natural thing in the world. But it is not natural, and, over the long term, it is not even in keeping with the interests of the United States.

Being enmeshed in that decision-distorting machinery, rather than simply demanding Israel return to the Green Line and support a reasonable settlement, is what ultimately produced 9/11, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, systematic extrajudicial killing, the consignment of tens of millions of people to tyranny, including the people of Egypt and Palestine, the dirty business of the engineered civil war inflicted upon Syria, and swallowing America’s national pride many times as with the Israeli attack on an American spy ship, Israel’s seizure of neighboring land, and Israel’s incessant espionage on its greatest benefactor. And some of these avoidable disasters had further internal effects in rationalizing the establishment of many elements of an American police state.

The nature of this relationship itself demonstrates something about the unstable nature of Israel. America has many allies and friends who do not behave in these ways because it is simply not necessary, but Israel is constantly reaching, trying to improve or enhance or consolidate its situation, trying to seek some greater advantage. It assumes in its external affairs what appears a completely amoral, results-at-any-cost approach, from stealing farms and homes and water to stealing secrets, playing a long series of dirty tricks on the world along the way, as it did at Entebbe or in the Six Day War or in helping South Africa or in releasing horrible malware like Stuxnet or in abusing the passports of other nations to carry out ugly assassinations – all secure in the knowledge that the world’s most influential nation is captive to the machinery, unable to criticise or punish. The trouble is that such acts endlessly generate new hostilities every place they touch. It cannot be otherwise, yet Israel and its apologists speak only in terms of rising anti-Semitism to shut critics up, a practice which generates still more hostilities since most people don’t like being called names and the act of doing so only increases awareness of the many dishonesties employed to keep Israel afloat.

The nature of the American-relationship machinery has proved so successful in shaping policy towards Israel that it has been replicated in other Western countries. Only recently, we read the words of a former Australian Prime Minister warning his people of the machinery there now influencing government unduly. In Canada, traditionally one of the fairest-minded of nations towards the Middle East, our current, extremist prime minister (an unfortunate democratic deficit in Canada making it possible to win a majority government with 39% of the vote) has trashed Canada’s traditional and respected position and worked steadily towards establishing the same backroom-influence machinery. So now we experience such bizarre events as a federal Minister suddenly, much like Saul struck along the road to Damascus, blurting out some sentence about Israel, unrelated to anything else he was saying or being asked by reporters present. Our 39% Prime Minister himself has assumed the exalted role of Canada’s Don Quixote in the fight against Anti-Semitism, despite the fact that genuine anti-Semitism almost does not exist in our tolerant country. But prominent apologists for Israel have in the past complained of Canada’s balanced policies not favoring Israel enough, and our Don Quixote has ridden to their rescue. Of course, along the way, his party will enjoy a new source of campaign funding, adding yet a new burden to Canada’s existing democratic deficit.

No one I think entirely planned from the beginning this set of outcomes. It really has been a matter of innumerable adjustments, accommodations, and opportunistic maneuvers which no one might have predicted in 1948, those days which were, at one and the same time, joyful for many Jews staring back into the utter darkness of the Holocaust and tragic to a people having nothing to do with those murderous events, who were stripped of property and rights and dignity, a situation which has only become worse since what they quite understandably call Nakba. But the corrosion of democracy in Western governments afraid of ever saying no to Israel and too willing to add to party political coffers in exchange for favorable words and acts is real and palpable, and it is going to do nothing but become worse. The situation is best characterized as a race for the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TWILIGHT ZONE OF AMERICAN POLITICAL LIFE WHERE ALMOST EVERY WORD OF NEWS ISN’T WHAT IT SEEMS

 

John Chuckman

 

I think a description of the political space in which we live as a kind of twilight reality is not an exaggeration. Not only is a great deal of the news about the world we read and hear manipulated and even manufactured, but a great deal of genuine news is simply missing. People often do not know what is happening in the world, although they generally believe they do know after reading their newspapers or listening to news broadcasts. People receive the lulling sounds or words of most of this kind of news almost unconsciously just as they do to the strains of piped-in “elevator music” in stores and offices.

There are several reasons why this is so. The consolidation of news media creates huge corporate industries whose interests are no different to those of other huge corporate industries. The ownership and control of these industries is not in the hands of people interested in finding out about things and helping others to understand: they are in the hands of people with political connections and goals. At the government level, those in power over the great agencies of the military and security also are not motivated by helping others to understand; indeed, they often are very much interested in hiding what they do.

With a large, complex, and powerful state like the United States these motivations become overwhelming in importance. The more the establishment’s national ambitions become interference in, and manipulation of, the world’s affairs – in effect, controlling the global environment in which it lives – the more it finds itself mired in acts and policies which cannot stand the light of day. Secrecy becomes a paramount goal of government, and all corporate news organizations – understanding their dependency upon government agencies for leaks and information to make them look good, for permissions and licences which allow them to survive and grow, and for advertising revenue from other great corporations involved with government – understand implicitly the permissible limits of investigation and news. And when they do forget, they are promptly reminded. Some of these giants – CNN and Fox News come to mind – make little pretence of genuine news or investigation, existing almost entirely as outlets for points of view, attitudes, and the odd tantalizing morsel of disinformation. They keep an audience because they offer what is best understood as either infotainment or soft propaganda which is expertly tuned to listeners’ and readers’ assumptions and preconceived ideas.

Size matters in all enterprises, economies of scale contributing to build powerful corporations with global influence. Size also matters to create what economists call “barriers to entry” in any industry, something which plays a major role in the evolution of many industries over time from fairly competitive ones to quasi-monopolistic ones. It is virtually impossible for a newcomer to enter an industry evolved to this latter state, including the news industry. It would be about as difficult to enter the American news industry as it would be to enter its soda pop, car manufacturing, household products, or hamburger restaurant industries. It is always possible to start a small niche, or boutique, operation, but it literally is not possible to compete with oligopolistic giants. So, necessarily, American news is under the control of a very few people, extremely wealthy people, who attend the same cocktail parties as senior people in government agencies and other great corporations.

The more powerful the great military-security-policing agencies in a society become, the more independent of public approval and scrutiny they grow. This is unavoidable without a sustained popular demand for public accountability and reasonable transparency, but such popular movements are difficult to start and even harder to maintain, and they are pretty much absent in America. Every once in a while we do get a movement in America popping up like spring dandelions on the lawn, almost always of the “back to basics” type, the Tea Party being the most recent manifestation, financed by some wealthy persons with their own goals and serving to titillate people for a short while that the dark monstrosity in Washington can be made to go away, but, as with the Tea Party, they always dry up and blow away.

The politicians who ostensibly oversee dark matters in special committees do not want public credit for what they approve. And I believe a point is reached, as it has been reached in the United States, where a great deal of the planning and decision-making in dirty affairs is left entirely in the hands of the great security agencies themselves, politicians not being in a position to interfere even if they wanted to do so. The sheer volume and complexity of such operations argues for this view, and the truth is most people and most politicians are comfortable with inertia.

If we go back about fifty years we have a complex and fascinating example of these forces and tendencies at work, and we can only be sure that matters have gone a great deal further since that time with the immense swelling of security budgets, open contempt for privacy and rights, and the dramatic advance of technological capabilities. On the matter of technology from the citizens’ point of view, the blithe pop notion of “social media,” so often talked up in the press as now working against concentrated power, ignores that “social media” too are just great corporations intimately linked to government. They not only send the security agencies a detailed flow of information about their subscribers, but they are all engineered to be switched off when government desires it. The Internet in general has provided an outlet for critical views, but the total exposure to the public is small in the scheme of things – a few channels, as it were, in a multi-trillion channel universe – and can mostly be ignored by authorities, and, in any event, the Internet is evolving quickly into something else far more dominated by commercial interests. The Golden Age of the Internet, so far as ideas are concerned, may well soon be over.  To return to our example, if we go back to America’s many attempts to topple or assassinate the leader of Cuba in the early 1960s, we have perhaps our best understood example of elaborate dark operations, unaccountable officials, murder, mayhem, and an utterly compliant press – all freely continuing for years. Although histories of the Kennedy presidency contain more than one version of some details of America’s vast, long-lasting terrorist plot, still, much of it is understood, at least better than is the case for many such matters.

John Kennedy may not have been quite the idealist some sentimentally view him today, but he was more thoughtful, independent, and tough-minded than many American Presidents of the 20th century. He learned nearly immediately after becoming President that the previous Eisenhower government had established a vast operation to eliminate Castro and his government. It was a terror operation whose size and complexity and resources made the later mountain redoubt of Osama bin Laden resemble a Boy Scout camp. Despite its size, this was an operation unknown to the press and public at the time, although there is an anecdote that The New York Times tripped over the plot and, in traditional Times’ fashion, suppressed it at the CIA’s request. The plans took many routes, including, as we learned later from the Church Committee in 1975 (an examination of some intelligence practices in the wake of the Watergate scandal), CIA representatives going to the bizarre lengths of approaching senior Mafia figures to discuss commissioning them for Castro’s assassination.

Kennedy came under great pressure from the CIA to approve the project for invading Cuba, a difficult position in which to put a young, inexperienced President. He decided to support the plan with important provisos. The Bay of Pigs invasion, by a CIA-trained, supplied, and paid private army of Cuban refugees, was directed by CIA personnel and supported by a huge propaganda apparatus, including a radio station, in Florida. There were also CIA assassination teams prepared to enter Cuba and kill certain people once the refugees were established. Many elements of the plan and the people running it had been involved in 1954 with the successful overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala. But Cuba was not Guatemala, and their plans proved a colossal and embarrassing failure which served only to increase Castro’s heroic, legendary stature in Cuba, a classic result of poorly-conceived black operations called “blowback” in the security establishment, and the reverberations of these events continued for more than a decade, claiming many lives and careers.

Following the failed invasion, CIA leaders, much resembling some “old boys” at an expensive men’s club where outsiders are resented, blamed the President for his scepticism and failure to extend what they regarded as adequate support, especially in the form of disguised American air support for the invading forces. The new President himself was furious at having been pressured into the fiasco at the start of his term. The truth is that the CIA’s plan was almost laughable, including the key assumption that great numbers of ordinary Cubans would rise against Castro, an extremely popular leader, once the invasion force appeared. It was a delusional sand castle built on a foundation of blind hatred for anything to do with communism, especially for a man as charismatic as Castro. The blindness extended to the CIA’s having selected a poor geographical location for forces to land.

It was all a tremendous example of the arrogance of power, secret men with unlimited resources making secret plans that reflected little reality. Kennedy fired some top CIA officials, including Director Allen Dulles, and is said to have privately sworn to tear the CIA apart. We can only imagine the self-righteous fury of the CIA’s Cold Warrior Mujahedeen at the time, their words, when recorded here or there, resembling tent preachers speaking about casting out devils. Kennedy, however, did not tear the CIA apart. Realistically, that would have been impossible with the men at the CIA knowing better than anyone how to capitalize on an attempt – blackmail, threats, ugly frat-boy jokes, and criminal activity being everyday tools they used. To be labelled “soft on communism” in the early 1960s was the political Mark of Beast, Richard Nixon having built an entire political career on it, and Kennedy’s personal life was subject to then-unpalatable revelations of extensive marital infidelity. So Kennedy continued to work with the CIA on a series of sabotage operations against Cuba and attempts on Castro’s life. Indeed, it is said that Kennedy put his brother, Robert, a sufficiently tough and ruthless man by all accounts, in charge of the plans, making senior CIA personnel answerable to the young Attorney General, itself the kind of act which would not endear him to the CIA’s old boys.

The secret matters around Cuba dominated events for years, again almost without any hard public information, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis which President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev peacefully settled, a settlement importantly including an American pledge not to invade Cuba again. Ultimately this writer is convinced that it was events around Cuba that led directly to the assassination of John Kennedy, much evidence suggesting a false trail to Cuba being planted before the fateful day in Dallas, the very kind of trail that could be used by the Cold Warrior Mujahedeen to justify an invasion after all. With everything from a faked visit to Mexico City by someone posing as Lee Harvey Oswald (the poor man working in New Orleans as a paid FBI informer at the time – likely a low level part of a Kennedy-initiated FBI program to track and suppress the worst anti-Cuba excesses of the refugees and their handlers in keeping with the spirit of the Missile Crisis settlement – totally unaware he was being set up by those he fell in with), the one-man creation of a Fair Play to Cuba chapter in New Orleans, handing out Fair Play pamphlets (some of which were stamped with the address of an ex-senior FBI anti-communist fanatic, Guy Bannister, who ran a mysterious front operation in New Orleans with some very unsavory associates) at places including near a naval facility, the night visit to Sylvia Odio, daughter of a noted Cuban political figure, by a group of unidentified men who referred to a Leon Oswald, and many other such carefully placed little piles of breadcrumbs.

Kennedy offended his Pentagon Joint Chiefs by not letting them immediately bomb and invade Cuba when offensive missiles were discovered there by U-2 photography, and of course anything of that nature offending the Pentagon offended also the CIA and those dependent upon it.  With his pledge not to invade Cuba again, Kennedy offended the violent Cuban refugee community, people who were armed to the teeth by the CIA and had killed and crippled opponents in Florida as well as in Cuba. And through the entire sequence of events from the Bay of Pigs to the Missile Crisis, Kennedy consistently offended the Cold Warrior Mujahedeen at the CIA. He added to that offence with acts like establishing secret backchannel communications with Khrushchev and preliminary efforts to establish the same communications with Castro. Such efforts were most unlikely to remain secret from the CIA when they involved such a high level and weighty matters. Remember, hatreds in the United States around Cuba remained so intense in the intelligence and refugee communities that as late as 1976, a CIA operative named Luis Posada Carriles planted two bombs on Cubana Airlines Flight 455, killing all 78 people aboard, and he was protected by the American government.

The effect on the general public of accurate knowledge about dark matters in the rare instances when they become known can be glimpsed here or there. One of the best examples is the disappearance from politics, including credible presidential ambitions, of a seemingly attractive Vietnam veteran holding the Medal of Honor, former-Senator Bob Kerrey. When the public learned of a secret operation called Project Phoenix and later learned that Kerrey earned his medal through such work, his political career simply dissolved. Project Phoenix was a dark operation in Vietnam in which American Special Forces crept out, night after night, to assassinate villagers the CIA identified as targets. It is estimated that twenty thousand innocent villagers had their throats slashed in the night by Americans creeping into their homes. It would be hard to conceive of a more cowardly and grisly form of war, but it went on for a long time in complete secrecy. The operation burst upon public awareness only after a titanic internal struggle at the CIA over the authenticity of a Soviet defector named Yuri Nosenko ended with the dismissal of James Angleton in 1974, the paranoid Chief of CIA Counterintelligence (a man, incidentally, who unquestionably had special knowledge of the Kennedy assassination) by new CIA Director William Colby. Colby also revealed the Phoenix program for reasons not well understood and stated he had run it. (A retired Colby later had a mysterious fatal boating accident near his home.)

People who want to discredit critics and sceptics of government today often use the term “conspiracy theorist,” almost as though there were ipso facto no such things as conspiracy or dishonesty in government. It is of course intended as a pejorative description. But the entire history of affairs around Cuba puts the lie to those using the term, and we know from many bits of information that Cuba is only one example of scores of genuine conspiracies.

Those with some history will know that secrecy and dishonesty have long served the interests of power. Why doesn’t the United States claim credit for overthrowing the democratic government of Guatemala, the democratic government of Iran which unleashed the filthy work of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, afterward, or the democratic government of Chile and the fifteen thousand or so state murders that followed? Why doesn’t it claim credit for the State Department’s teletyping lists of desired victims to a new government of Indonesia, after the fall of Sukarno in 1965, as its savage followers conducted a genocidal slaughter of suspected communists which saw half a million people thrown into rivers with their throats slashed? Why did it hide acts like the machine-gunning of hundreds of fleeing Korean civilians, including women and children, at the early stages of the Korean War? Or the hideous murder by suffocation in sealed trucks of about three thousand Taleban prisoners in the early stages of the Afghanistan War undertaken by one of America’s key Afghan allies shortly after Donald Rumsfeld publicly said they should be killed or walled away forever? Why doesn’t Israel just tell people it terrorized Palestinians, killing and raping, in 1948 to make as many as possible flee their homes? Or that it machine-gunned masses of Egyptian prisoners of war in the Sinai in a war that it engineered only for conquering more of Palestine?

Could it be that there are acts of which governments are ashamed? That there is reason to be ashamed of acts which they nevertheless continue to repeat? It does seem that government values its reputation enough to avoid taking credit for its ugliest acts. The terrible dilemma is that in a supposedly democratic state, these horrible acts are committed without either the knowledge or consent of the people and despite the fact that the results affect the public’s welfare and often international reputation. Now at just what point could the consent of the people in a democratic state be more important than committing organized murder on their behalf? I cannot imagine any. Yet that is a point at which states like America feel free to act, covering up what they do with masses of secrecy and lies.

Why would anyone deny the existence of conspiracies by America’s government? Regrettably, the only reason that some government behavior becomes known is the existence of whistleblowers. But how does government treat whistleblowers? Just ask Mordechai Vanunu or Daniel Ellsberg or Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning or Edward Snowden – truly brave and ethically-motivated individuals, treated like criminals by their governments.

Pervasive secrecy and truly democratic government are simply incompatible, and I think it fair to say that where we see monumental levels of secrecy, as we do in the United States with billions of classified documents and hundreds of past controversies dimly understood, it provides prima facie proof of a society tarted-up to resemble democracy but having few if any of the required internal organs functioning. A culture of secrecy and violence is the culture of a police state, full stop.

Right now we have partial information about some recent American, or American-sponsored, terrorist programs. One such is the induced “civil war” in Syria which receives arms and assistance via Turkey, the same route used to inject a rag-tag army of extremists into Syria and to allow them to retreat periodically in escaping Syria’s army. The extremists even used some of the deadly nerve gas, Sarin, to kill masses of civilians in hopes of pushing the United States openly into the conflict, making the rebels surely the kind of people no sane person wants running a country. And who supplied them with Sarin, a manufactured substance available from only a few sources?  A related dark program occurred in Benghazi, Libya, where an American ambassador was killed in another instance of blowback: he had been running an operation to collect from Libya and export to Syria weapons and thugs when some the thugs turned and attacked him instead. Yet another dark operation has been the destabilization of Ukraine through a huge secret flow of money to right wing forces who shot hundreds of innocent people down on the streets of Kiev to instill general fear and terror to support a coup.

Now, you will not read one word from an American official acknowledging any of this grotesque behavior. Indeed, John Kerry has the unenviable job of publically lying about it, puffing and pontificating and self-righteously proclaiming America’s revulsion over others behaving like that. And in all this storm of murder and dishonesty, you will only find American journalism, that noble guardian of the public’s right to know, keeping its readers and listeners in complete ignorance.

This is how it is possible in what is often regarded a free and democratic state, the national government commits itself to murder and mayhem, using its people’s resources without informing them and without their consent, all the while vigorously lying to them. Can you really have democracy that way? I don’t think so. The power and resources that are in the hands of America’s great secret agencies are greater than those enjoyed by many of the world’s dictators. And the distortions of the American press surely are in keeping with the practices of places where the press is never regarded as free. Many Americans know that at the local town or city level, they do have democratic institutions and attitudes, a fact which reassures them against criticisms of their national system, but then so does China today, and no one calls China a democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

A STRANGE, SOULLESS MAN AND HIS UTTERLY FAILED PRESIDENCY

 

John Chuckman

 

How vividly I remember the photos of Obama in Berlin during his campaign in 2008: streets literally flooded with people keen to get a glimpse of a promising young politician, expressing for us all how exhausted the world was with the most ignorant and contemptible man ever to have been a president. Reporters said a quarter of million turned out to see a man who was a junior senator and had no claim yet to being a world figure. It was intoxicating to think this bright, attractive figure might replace the murderous buffoon, George Bush, and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, a man who might comfortably have served any of the 20th century’s great bloody dictators.

A few years later, in 2013, an estimated 4 to 6 thousand showed up for a major speech by then-President Obama, and one is surprised even that many showed, but then there is always a set of people who just want to be able to say they saw a celebrity. After all there are inexplicable people who travel to places associated with genuine monsters, notorious murderers and torturers, and have snapshots of themselves taken standing in front as though they were at the Grand Canyon or Disneyworld.

In 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, excited at seeing Bush replaced with a promising man, just as the earlier crowd in Berlin, awarded President Obama its Peace Prize after he had been in office for less than year and had achieved nothing of substance towards peace or any other worthy goal. But the Peace Prize often is awarded in hopes of influencing and encouraging a leader rather than in recognition of genuine achievement.

In Obama’s case, the hopes and encouragement fell stillborn and lifeless, and he has proved himself one of the least worthy recipients, keeping historical company with killers like Kissinger or Begin, winners whose awards also were based on futile hopes and encouragement. Obama’s distinctions in the sphere of peace include abandoning the Palestinians to their tormenters, abandoning the Egyptians to a new tyranny, pitching the people of Syria into a bloody civil war, never speaking out about the suppression of people in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Yemen, pitching the people of Ukraine into chaos, establishing a new hi-tech death-squad approach to the extrajudicial killing of people, not standing up to Israel over its unwarranted threats of war against Iran, and force-feeding the military-intelligence establishment so that it resembles a gigantic waddling Pâté de foie gras goose.

He has done nothing for his own people, signing not one worthy piece of legislation to better the lives of less fortunate Americans. His only major domestic legislation is a costly, almost unworkable compromise on health care that will enrich insurance companies in the only Western nation not having a form of national health insurance. He will also leave his country with an almost incomprehensible debt, a debt America’s people are not asked to pay down through taxes and other appropriate fiscal and budgetary measures, ultimately leaving all the world’s holders of dollars to be cheated through the dollar’s future decline, a scam that beggars the size of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid operation or the Nigerian industry in e-mail invitations to share in vast wealth just by providing your bank account. It is irresponsibility on a colossal scale, all of the gains from the scam having served American interests from investment bankers to the military and military contractors. Obama’s force-fed military will have all its stuffing supplied involuntarily by non-Americans who have no interest in what he has done. In truth, America doesn’t have a single honest dollar to spend on anything.

The sense of dignity Obama displayed in the early days is gone too, simply evaporated, although I am open to the suggestion that my judgment is affected by grim disappointment in his non-achievement and display of what I can only regard as a form of moral cowardice, not different in quality to that displayed by George Bush. He made some noises early on about closing America’s torture gulag, about ending its pointless wars, about pushing Israel into a decent settlement for millions of Palestinian captives, about new starts in general, but it has all blown away like so much dust on the wind. Now we have a man who almost never utters an inspiring or even meaningful word, never takes a risk to do anything worthwhile, and actually looks quite ineffectual at times. Imagine, the first black President of the United States at the funeral of a world-figure like Nelson Mandela, sitting next to his wife and flirting with the blond prime minister of Denmark, taking “selfies” during the service? It was contemptible behavior. It wasn’t the silly flirting that mattered: it was the complete lack of a statesman’s demeanor, communicating to millions of eyes the sense of a small man behaving like a hormonal teenager on a solemn international occasion.

I remember, too, another picture of Obama, taken in Hawaii where he had gone to visit during his campaign a gravely ill Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother who had raised him. The picture showed him walking profile in sandals, and the image immediately gave the impression of a self-confident, independent-minded man which I quite relished. But all sense of that image of Obama is gone, save the almost surrealistic right wing descriptions of him as a communist, a view whose origins it is difficult to imagine, although his wearing sandals a few times might qualify in the Palinesque world of American right wing politics.

Of course the American institution most accurately described as communistic is its massive military-security-police apparatus, a monstrosity whose scale and scope make the old East German Stasi seem almost quaintly amateur, although aspects of it would immediately bring a smile of recognition to the lips of retired Stasi agents: matters such as the soliciting of general public informers, the blackmailing or bribing of others to serve as informers inside groups and organizations, the interception of virtually all messages, or the scrutiny of what people are reading at the library and on-line. This all predates Obama, and he has done nothing but ardently support its growth. But I guess you just cannot do enough for these ghastly institutions to avoid being called a communist by people who share Sarah Palin’s intellectual gene pool.

During Obama’s first election campaign, there was a mindless controversy over his not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. That is the kind of seemingly insignificant detail which sets the “you can never have enough patriotism” mob to a fever pitch, bellowing voices about freedom from intolerant men with bellies sagging ponderously over their belts, comparable in intensity to prayer vigils over embryos or “support the troops” parades in small towns (who cares that they’ve invaded some unfortunate land no one ever heard of and are busy killing civilians?). Remember Jonathon Edwards, that syrupy-voiced wealthy tort lawyer running for Vice President in 2004, offering a homily in one of his speeches where he suggested American families should gather together each morning to discuss the blessings of America over their bowls of Coco Puffs? Presumably Papa Bear would lead the service before he and Mommy Bear and all the Baby Bears rushed off in gas-guzzling trucks and four-by-fours through a landscape of sprawl to their corporate cubicles and private schools.  And Edwards was regarded – ugh, foul word that it is considered in America – as a liberal.

How refreshing I thought Obama at the time of this nonsense over whether someone else’s patriotism was being adequately displayed, again a self-confident, independent-minded man who did not see the need to follow the herd of American politicians who resemble nothing so much as members of the old Soviet Politburo with red star pins on their lapels. He didn’t need to parade the obvious fact of an American running for office in America. He didn’t need to display what has become an American fetish, a voodoo charm, the totem of a secular religion, and, at the same time, a symbol, for a great many of the world’s people, of arrogant power and almost endless bloodshed. Of course, today Obama is never seen without a ridiculous flag pin. He probably has a drawer full of them in a bureau of his bedroom, a Secret Service man being solemnly tasked to keep it stocked and to drop a few (respectfully, mind you) into his pocket as back-ups for any trip. It must be the last thing Obama’s butler at the White House does each morning, too, making sure a pin is on the suit to be worn that day, the correct lapel, leveled properly, and polished. How very inspiring, like a Rotarian executive preparing for a club luncheon.

We perhaps can never know what has motivated Obama’s behavior as President. Certainly the memoirs of retired Presidents rarely enlighten us on anything of importance. Is he, as some in his own party have suggested, simply not up to the job? Of course, when they say that, they are not using the same criteria this writer does. In America, even the supposed left is never far from mounting a horse and charging up San Juan Hill. Is he merely responding to the fact of the awesome power of America’s unelected government? Is he satisfied to give them their way, enjoy the 8-year ride, and retire with full pension and benefits, avoiding that haunting nightmare of the last President who seriously challenged just a few of the establishment’s assumption, John Kennedy, in the streets of Dallas?

 

 

 

A NEW COLD WAR? OR JUST AMERICA’S NEED FOR A VILLAIN?

 

John Chuckman

We read a lot about a new Cold War, and I think there is truth in the words. Obama’s so-called “pivot” towards Asia is clearly directed at China’s emergence as a great power, at the notion of containing China, to use the very word, coined by the American State Department’s George F. Kennan and used for many years to characterize America’s policy towards the Soviet Union.

Obama’s talk of a “pivot” is extremely revealing. How does a former sandal-wearing lecturer in Constitutional Law come up with such language? It is unmistakably the language of America’s military-security establishment, that group of men glittering with brass buttons, rhodium-plated bits, and cascades of ribbons who, along with stern, close-cropped men in Armani suits, smelling of expensive cologne, periodically sit around a boat-sized polished walnut table with the President. The language, I think, reveals the real balance of power at the table, once again suggesting that it is not an elected official who sets American policy abroad.

So too America’s aggressive efforts to destabilize Russia’s neighbors and friends – Ukraine, Syria – as well as the expansion of NATO, an organization which rightly should have died a natural death following the end of the Soviet era. There’s the placement of anti-missile missiles in Europe, both on land and on ships stationed off some coasts, American officials always unconvincingly claiming that these are intended for Iran. But Iran remains for the foreseeable future no threat to the United States or its interests, nor has it ever set becoming so as a national goal. Russia, however, is the one country on earth capable of obliterating America, China’s intercontinental missile forces being relatively small in number and not yet capable of reaching considerable parts of America. It would, of course, be a great strategic advantage to have enough anti-missile missiles positioned to neutralize Russia’s strategic rocket forces.

Now, in general, anti-missile missiles are a poor defence against thermonuclear warheads hurtling down on their targets at thousands of miles an hour. Even a lucky hit could prove disastrous for those below if the conventional-explosive triggers of a thermonuclear warhead generate an airburst in the encounter.  More than one expert has said that genuine protection against ballistic missiles – meaning consistent, close-to-certain encounters with warheads – is virtually impossible, given the physics of the situation and given the many ingenious ways of fooling anti-missile missiles – decoy dummy warheads, radar chaff, maneuverable warheads, stealth technologies, electro-magnetic countermeasures, greater numbers of warheads, and, I am sure, many other technical measures. But long-range missiles are highly vulnerable in the early part of their flight as they struggle mightily to gain speed. They are also very large targets early in their flight compared to the last stage when a fairly compact warhead has cast off its massive, exhausted rocket stages. Even the thin metal skins enclosing a ballistic missile’s sophisticated fuel and engine systems are vulnerable, it having been said with some truth that an ICBM could be crippled by a bow and arrow at liftoff if you could only be in a position to aim at it.

Russia of course cannot sit still watching America’s efforts, and there are many counter-measures, including a large siting of unstoppable short-range ballistic missiles to neutralize the anti-missile missiles in and around Europe. So too the placement of short-range ballistic missiles in special ships off America’s coasts or on the territory of friends and allies or even in orbit. The possibilities are many. The point here is to suggest how terribly destabilizing America’s efforts are. In seeking a special advantage, the United States is pushing the world towards greater instability and insecurity.

Just think of the track record of the powerful men around those tables with the President: Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – disasters all, unless you count success in large numbers of people killed and mangled.

America’s Frankenstein military and security apparatus puts it in the permanent position of predator. This is so for many reasons, but chiefly the sheer fact that massive military forces tend over time to behave that way and tend to be expected to behave that way by establishment interests controlling them. A war like World War I is credited by analytical historians with having been caused in part by the massive standing armies of 1914. The well-known attitude of a number of America’s founding fathers against standing armies reflected the same understanding.

The recent warning by a former Australian Prime Minister that his country should review its treaties and military base agreements with the United States out of concern for getting dragged into a war with China he believes the United States is leaning towards was eye-opening, to say the least. When I wrote a book some years back about the rise of China, one of my great concerns was the United States pushing for war before China became too powerful a rival. Few people understand that that is exactly what the United States did to Japan as it emerged as a new power on the world scene, Japan never having had any intention of attacking the United States until, after years of punitive American laws and policies and harassment, it decided it had no choice but to disable America’s Pacific Fleet.

Induced wars are a common enough gimmick in history, Israel’s Six Day War having been a classic dark operation with Israel planning to gain, as it did, all of Palestine and even a bit more without giving the appearance of being the aggressor, indeed with maintaining a superficially plausible appearance of heroic resistance to large external forces. But the calculations had been made, and Israel’s generals knew the odds were strongly with them, given their superior weapons, tight advanced planning, and especially given the predictably uncoordinated nature of Arab nations’ responses. It became Israel’s secret policy to provoke its Arab neighbors with a number of extremely high-handed acts while preparing to strike. To this day, a lot of people believe the myth of modern David being attacked by Goliath in 1967. Israeli planning even included an American spy ship sent to the region being deliberately attacked to blind Washington to General Dayan’s turning his armor to head north, after murdering masses of Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai to expedite the turnaround.

America’s history for far more than a century exhibits wave after wave of aggression passed off as fighting imagined enemy aggression – the Mexican War (to seize as much of Mexican territory as possible), the Spanish American War (to seize Cuba and other possessions of a declining Spain), the Vietnam War (to keep a foothold on the opposite shore of the Pacific, regarded by some as “an American lake”), right down to the needless invasion of Iraq (to sweep Israel’s most implacable opponent from the game board). America seems always to require some kind of enemy, some dark opponent regarded as thwarting America’s delusional idea of itself much as the comic book hero, Superman, who was said to stand for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

 

 

 

 

THE SICKLY SMELL OF LIES AND DEATH

 

John Chuckman

 

Only the other day, Benjamin Netanyahu earned a small note of immortality when he said the peace talks were ended by the new arrangements between the Palestine Authority and Hamas: Netanyahu’s announcement bundled a record number of lies into one mouthful of words.  There, of course, never was anything properly called peace talks with Israel. There has been only a long series of closed-door personal, and security-scrambled telephonic, exchanges with America’s superbly ineffectual John Kerry, exchanges in which the Palestinians played virtually no role and in which Mr. Netanyahu had absolutely no interest, Netanyahu always setting an impossible set of conditions as prerequisites to anything happening precisely because he does not want anything to happen, while undoubtedly periodically raging with one of his mind-numbing harangues which are impossible to answer rationally for the simple reason they are not rational.

Netanyahu’s announcement is larded with layers of lies much like layers of rock in stratigraphic formations. Perhaps the chief of these being that Hamas – that democratically elected party led by middle-class professionals whose only concerns have been to obtain a fair deal for Palestinians and to provide clean government after the long-term corruption of Fatah – is a dreadful terrorist organization. Of course, you do have to say something along those lines to excuse your warring on civilians, blockading their needs (starting with a viciously-calculated minimal calorie allowance per person), cutting off services, piracy on the high seas, denying fishing rights, kidnapping and murdering politicians, and constant menaces. You wouldn’t do all that to people just trying to run a democratic, clean government, now would you? You might if you viewed the Palestinians in Gaza as a nightmare (a past Israeli prime minister’s actual word), as a source of constant fear, resembling fears in the Old South of revolt in the slave quarters some dark night, something which caused uneasy sleep for plantation families with pistols and knives tucked under their pillows.

Israel, despite the meaningless outpourings and rages of Netanyahu, is not looking for clean government and it certainly isn’t looking for democracy in any of its neighbors’ arrangements. Israel loved thirty years of corrupt and completely undemocratic government in Egypt, and it is Israel’s silent influence with the United States that has returned Egypt’s eighty million people, after one year of democratic government, to tyranny and openly corrupt arrangements. Israel also likes the absolute government of Saudi Arabia because it makes many secret deals with the Saudi princes, eager themselves to suppress democratic tendencies in the region. Saudi Arabia, with its Islamic fundamentalism, once was viewed as an implacable enemy of Israel, but the less-than-idealistic gritty interests of both states have nicely, quietly meshed in recent years with the fabulously wealthy aristocracy of Saudi Arabia viewing democracy and clean government through the same lens as the Middle East’s Crusader garrison state.

Israel is not even looking for peace, peace as any thoughtful, disinterested person in the world would define it. I believe Netanyahu has given new ferocity to an old strategy towards what every past leader of Israel regarded as the problem of the Palestinians, and that involves the goal either of making them so miserable that they will leave en masse or become so compliant they will agree to arrangements which assure their perpetual isolation, inferiority, and servitude. Either or any combination of those two outcomes is what Netanyahu understands as peace. I don’t see any other way of interpreting years of appallingly abusive behavior and law-breaking and injustice on a scale affecting millions. And there is no other way to interpret the American government’s tolerance for the abuse and law-breaking and injustice beyond its secretly sharing the same hopes as Israel’s malevolent leaders, being sick and tired of having to hear about and deal with a grotesque situation involving a few million people in a world where it tries to direct the destinies of billions.

Israel’s limited dealings with the Palestinian Authority – a kind of quasi-government formed out of the Oslo Accords of 1993 for the purpose of managing basic local services and negotiating with Israel – are themselves built on lies. The existing head of that quasi-government, Mahmoud Abbas, was last elected to serve as president until 2009, but with the connivance of the United States and Israel he regularly extends his term, never receiving the least recrimination for doing so, another demonstration of Israel’s love for democracy and clean government. His democratic credentials are further enhanced by the fact that he “governs” only in the West Bank – at least in those portions not yet seized by Israel – having been driven out of Gaza. Yet he is the only one of the Palestinians even admitted to symbolic membership in the “peace talks.” The reason for this is simple: up until very recently, Abbas has been a passive figure who offers Israel no open challenge to the huge injustices of the status quo, very much in contrast to the late Yasser Arafat, who is believed by many to have been assassinated by Israel after an extended period of abuse and threats including the shelling of his house and denying his even attending religious services. Netanyahu, by the way, is on record as having vigorously denounced as unworkable the now pretty much failed Oslo Accords, a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Analyzing “the peace talks,” discovering their rotten construction and the dishonest motives of those involved, yields unpleasant surprises much like those from stumbling accidentally upon a rotten timber and seeing a myriad of critters scrambling and flying off in all directions. John Kerry carries on his charade in the Middle East while at the same time lying about Russian news sources and threatening a red line for Russia to make it pay dearly for its “transgressions” in Ukraine. And there is still the hypocritical pretence about the induced horrors of Syria for which Mr. Kerry along with his boss bear direct responsibility.

Russia Today, the newspaper Kerry recently publicly criticized, can have nothing to its shame to compare with The New York Times which one day published images supposedly proving Russian soldiers were active in Eastern Ukraine and shortly after retracted when the lie was hurled in its face. The same New York Times, it was revealed, passes its reportage on Israel through Israeli censors before publication, providing a standard of journalistic integrity it would be hard to match. What Kerry and Company are actually upset about is Russia’s new, sophisticated use of the press and broadcasting. Gone are the not-believable voices of the Soviet era, words by apparatchiks featuring such colorful expressions as “running dogs.” Instead we find thoughtful reportage and analysis reaching out to people in the West, correcting misrepresentations imposed by their own leaders through outlets like The New York Times and America’s major networks. America’s Cold War era monopoly on “credible press” is gone (in fact, it never was that credible, only seeming so by contrast to the old Soviet efforts). With the monopoly’s disappearance, America’s unrestricted ability to “get a story out there,” as someone from the CIA might say, also has suffered, and Mr. Kerry clearly isn’t happy about the fact.

As for Kerry’s comments about red lines and making Russia pay, it would be difficult to come up with a poorer example of diplomacy from America’s supposed chief of diplomacy. Of course, the last time we heard the expression “red line” concerned the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s government, something that never happened, but the American official words about a red line served as a kind of segue to the actual, totally-immoral use of such chemicals by some of the fanatics America secretly supports. And just a short while before that use of “red line,” we had the world’s most predictable liar talking about red lines for Iran, a country he threatened and continues to threaten but which has never threatened him.

Kerry’s public face on the situation in Ukraine is just as rankly dishonest as his “peace talks” in the Middle East and his words about Syria. The fact is that Ukrainian groups America has supported secretly for years with almost unlimited amounts of CIA-infiltrated money overthrew an elected government, and they did so before previously-agreed arrangements for new elections which were intended to appease the divided factions in Ukraine. Part of the way these groups seized power was through the dirty work of right-wing thugs, who, among other acts, served as snipers shooting many hundreds of people dead in the streets of Kiev. Now, we see this self-proclaimed government receiving visits by America’s CIA Director and Vice President for unexplained reasons. Was there ever a less honest effort at pretending democratic forces are at work in a crisis? Please, Mr. Kerry, who is it that you think you are convincing of anything, beyond your own dishonesty and remarkably limited diplomatic skills?

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SECOND MYSTERY AROUND MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT MH370

John Chuckman

 

A second mystery around the disappearance of Flight MH370 has largely gone unnoticed: why hasn’t the United States been in the forefront of providing information about it? The implications of this question are massive.

America has a fleet of the most sophisticated spy satellites, called “keyhole” satellites, covering the earth’s surface daily with imaging systems comparable to those of the Hubble Space Telescope, but instead of data from any of these, we read of data from China and France. One can understand that the CIA does not want others to understand fully the capabilities of its satellites, but surely the lives of more than two hundred people are cause for some information, however indirectly supplied.

Then again, the American military has some of most sophisticated radars on earth, and there is, without a doubt, an installation of the highest capability at the secret base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. How could there not be? But we have read of no data from them, only from others less capable of telling us what happened.

Could it be that the United States shot down Flight MH370, either accidentally or deliberately, and now wants to keep it secret? The possibility of recovery of the full wreckage, even if its location were found, from 4 miles under the sea amongst underwater mountains is extremely remote at best, so the United States can remain confident that physical evidence will never emerge.

There would be nothing unprecedented in such an act: on at least 3 occasions, regrettably, America’s military has shot down civilian airliners, only admitting eventually to the one they could not hide. They are also indirectly responsible for a fourth.

Iran Air Flight 655 was stupidly shot down in 1988 by the USS Vincennes in Iranian waters during the Iraq-Iran War, not only killing 290 people including 66 children, but there was a long period afterwards in which the U.S. admitted no wrong-doing, offered no apology, and no compensation to its victims (only 8 years later was a quiet settlement made).

It was a quite vicious set of circumstances and the injustice of it led unquestionably to the motive for bombing Pan Am Flight 103, killing 259 people and 11 on the ground, later the same year by people still unknown.

TWA Flight 800 over the East Coast of the United States was certainly the victim of a shipboard American anti-aircraft missile accidentally released. The evidence included radar tracks and eye witnesses. But the U.S., instead of admitting its horrible error and compensating victims, conducted a long and almost farcical investigation headed up by the same FBI that gave us the farcical investigation into the Kennedy assassination.

Last, the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11, United Flight 93, of “Let’s roll” pop legend, which crashed over Pennsylvania was almost certainly shot down by an air-to-air missile from a fighter plane. A plane was seen by witnesses, the distribution of the wreckage tends to support a shoot-down, and just the sheer impossibility of America’s hundreds of billions of dollars in air defences staying asleep at the switch for a fourth event the same day argue powerfully for an attack.

I have no idea what event (a rogue pilot, a hijacker?) led to Flight MH370 turning off its communications, changing course, and flying low, but I do know that the event could not have gone unnoticed by America’s military-intelligence eyes and ears, especially when its new course showed any possibility of Diego Garcia as a destination, a place which is top secret and from which America forcibly removed the locals when it leased it from Britain.

It will likely remain one more “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union, an expression now entirely suitable to a great many of the activities of the United States.

 

 

Footnote: Since writing this piece, I recalled two other airliners destroyed owing directly or indirectly to American actions.

The first was Cubana Airlines Flight 455 which was destroyed in 1976 by two bombs over the Caribbean, killing all its 78 people. This was the work of a CIA operative named Luis Posada Carriles, part of a huge American terror operation carried on for years against Cuba.

The second old instance was Korean Airlines Flight 007, which in 1983 was downed by a Soviet fighter, killing 269 people, near Russia’s Sakhalin Island. The plane was off course, but it was no accident, being part of an American intelligence operation to test Soviet radars and defences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HURTLING INTO DARKNESS: AMERICA’S GREAT LEAP TOWARDS GLOBAL TYRANNY

John Chuckman

 

The darkness to which I refer is something largely unanticipated in political studies and even in science fiction, a field which definitely enters this discussion, as readers will see. There have been many examples of national tyrannies and even stories of global autocracies, but the Hitler-Stalin-Mussolini type of tyranny is an antiquated model for advanced states despite its applying still to many third-world places. A unique set of circumstances now works towards a dystopian future in advanced states with no need for jackboots or brutal faces on posters.

Ironically, one of the key forces which brought Europe and North America over a few centuries to the kind of liberal democracies we know today is capable of delivering a new and unprecedented form of tyranny. That force is the body of interests of a nation’s middle class – the group of capable, ambitious, and rising people who were called a few centuries back by Europe’s landed old aristocracy “the new men.”

By “middle class,” I certainly do not mean what the average American Congressman encourages, in boiler-plate speeches, the average American to believe: that every family with steady work is middle class, all other classes having been eliminated from the American political lexicon. No, I mean the people of significant means – and, although not wealthy, of considerable talent and education – who hold as a group an important set of interests in society through their holdings and valued services. It was the gradual growth of this class of people over centuries of economic growth in Western societies that eventually made the position of monarchs and later aristocracies untenable: the middle class’s interests could no longer be represented by the old orders while their importance to burgeoning economies had become indispensable. They provided the indispensable force for what we now think of as democracy in their countless demands that their interests be represented.

But there is evidence, in America especially, that something altogether new is emerging in human affairs. The real middle class, at least a critical mass of it, has been folded into the interest of the modern elites, the relatively small number of people who own a great portion of all wealth just as they did in the 17th century, wealth today being generated by great global enterprises rather than the ownership of vast national estates. Great enterprises cannot be operated without much of the cream of the middle class: they serve in computer technology, finance, engineering, skilled management, the military officer class, and in intelligence. Their futures, interests, and prejudices have become locked-in with the interests of America’s corporate-military-intelligence establishment. They are indispensable to the establishment’s success, and they are accordingly rewarded in ways which bind their interests – health care, pension-type benefits, privileges, working conditions, opportunities for promotion, etc.

This marriage of interests between elites and the talented middle class effectively removes many of the best educated and most skilled people from being political opponents or becoming critics of the establishments for which they work. At the same time, America’s middle class in general – its small store owners, small factory owners, modest bankers, and even many professionals – has been under attack from economic competition in a globalized world for many years and has little to look forward to but more of the same. America’s legendary working class “middle class” – that brief postwar miracle of auto and steel workers and others who through unionized, unskilled labor earned long vacations, handsome pensions, home ownership, cars, and even small boats – has been battered beyond recognition, every year for decades seeing its real income fall and long-term having absolutely no prospects.

Despite the rise of a society much steeped in the illusions of advertising and marketing, most Americans likely still assume in their day-to-day affairs that their neighbors and business contacts do pretty much what they say they are doing, that while there may be an exaggeration or white lie here or there, most matters proceed according to understanding, laws, and ordinary civility. By and large for the present, they are still pretty much justified in their assumptions.

But when it comes to the level of the national government, and especially in matters of international affairs, these ordinary truths simply cease to hold, almost as though you had moved from the visible, work-a-day world to the quantum strangeness of the subatomic. Likely, it has always been the case to some degree, but the evidence mounts that we have entered a startling new reality, one which shares almost nothing with traditional civil society. America’s national government has become inured to lying and cheating the people whom it ostensibly serves, lying as consistently and thoroughly as would be the case with an occupying foreign power trying to keep a captive population pacified. Americans were lied to about Vietnam, lied to about Cambodia, lied to about the Gulf War, lied to about the invasion of Afghanistan, lied to about the invasion of Iraq, and lied to about a host of policies and interventions.

But we have reached a new level in these matters, a level where the extent of the misrepresentation almost severs the social contract between those governed and their government. America’s neo-con faction has had its agenda adopted over the last few decades, that of freely and happily using America’s great military and economic power to crush those abroad who disagree with America’s arbitrary pronouncements, creating a long crusade intended to re-order the affairs of others with no apologies to them and no honest explanation to America’s own people who pay the taxes and provide the lives of soldiers. While the neo-cons are a passing phenomenon, much as the Middle-eastern garrison state with which they are ferociously associated, the values and lessons they have successfully imparted will remain part of America’s ruling consciousness, serving yet other interests. A tool once successfully used is rarely abandoned.

Not only is there a quantitative difference now, there is a new qualitative difference. After the holocaust of Vietnam (3 million dead Vietnamese justify the term), the United States military realized that it could no longer depend upon citizen-soldiers in its colonial wars. It also realized that that it could no longer tolerate even a moderately free press nosing around its battlegrounds, thus was born the idea of an imbedded press in a professional army. Of course, in the intervening years, America’s press itself changed, becoming an intensely concentrated corporate industry whose editorial policies are invariably in lock-step over colonial wars and interventions and coups, almost as though it were an unofficial department of government. In addition, this corporatized press has abandoned traditional responsibilities of explaining even modestly world affairs, reportage resources having been slashed by merged corporate interests as well as by new economic pressures on advertising revenue, the result of changing technologies.

There is only one lens in America’s mainline journalistic kit, and that is one that filters everything through corporate American views, an automatic and invariable bias found in every image taken or written outside America’s borders. Now, some will say in response that a few newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post are exceptions here, but they couldn’t be more wrong. When a journalistic institution gains a reputation for thoroughness and detail in some of its operations, it becomes all the more able to powerfully leverage its reputation in matters which concern the establishment. If you examine the record of these newspapers for some decades, you will find absolutely without exception, their close support for every dirty war and intervention, as you will find their close support for the brutal, criminal behaviors of favored American satrapies like Israel. In a number of cases, CIA plants have worked directly for these papers as disinformation pipelines, but in all cases, reportage and editorial reflect nothing beyond what the publicity offices of the Pentagon and CIA would write themselves. It actually is a sign of how distorted American perceptions are that these papers are in any way regarded as independent, disinterested, or demonstrating consistent journalistic integrity.

The American political system at the national level makes these practices practicable. No one is genuinely responsible for anything in an open and direct fashion, secrecy is as much the norm in America as it is in any authoritarian government you care to mention, and money is the only governing principle in American politics. Openness or transparency simply does not exist, as one might expect it would, transparency being one of the hallmarks of responsible and democratic government. Without transparency, there can be no accounting for anything, and it is the sine qua non of democracy that politicians and officials be genuinely accountable to the electorate. Lastly, the things which tend to remain secret from the people today are far more likely to be pervasive, world-changing developments, far more so than in the past given powerful emerging technologies and the great concentration of power in American society. They are, in short, the very things citizens of a democracy should know about but don’t.

It has long been the case that dishonesty and secrecy have marked America’s foreign policy, as it invariably does with great imperial powers. After all, when Theodore Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and others decided in private to arrange a nasty little war with the declining Spanish Empire, one to become known as the Spanish-American War, they were hardly being honest with Americans. “Remember the Maine” was a cheap, dishonest slogan while America’s brutal behavior in Cuba and the Philippines (the first place waterboarding is known to have been used by Americans) were raw truths. So it has been time after time, so that the national government has learned that dishonesty and secrecy are successful and virtually never questioned.

During the long Cold War, America’s government became inured to these practices with its dozens of interventions and coups and long wars of terror like that waged against Cuba from Florida and New Orleans, a terror operation whose extent made bin Laden’s later mountain training place resemble a boy scout camp. Now, at least two new developments have now influenced these practices, with a third just beginning to make itself felt.  One, America, under the influence of the insider group called neo-cons, has pretty much given up pretence in its aggressive foreign policies: it has come to believe that it is able and entitled to arrange the world according to its arbitrary desires. Two, under the pretext of a war on terror, the United States government has transferred the hubris and arrogance of its foreign affairs into domestic government, no one having voted for a Stasi-like secret surveillance state, one moreover where even local authorities are endowed with armored cars, drones, and abusive powers. Three, technology is genuinely revolutionizing the nature of war, putting immense new power into the hands of elites – power which, unlike the hydrogen bomb, can actually be used readily – and nowhere is this occurring at a more rapid pace than in the United States.

The approaching reality is America’s being able to kill, highly accurately, on a large scale without using thermo-nuclear weapons and almost without using armies. With no need to recruit and support vast armies of soldiers, no need for mess halls and sanitation, no need for px’s and pensions, costs can be slashed, and there is even less need to explain what you are doing or to account for your decisions, and secrecy is promoted even more perfectly.

Today, we see the American government sending killer drones to multiple parts of the world, having already killed several thousand innocent people, with absolutely no accounting of victims or purpose, beyond flannel-mouthed stuff about getting bad guys. But even more dramatic killing machines requiring no soldiers are well along in development. A robot soldier, something resembling Dr. Who’s dreaded delaks with machine guns, already exists, with various advanced models under development equipped with every form of artificial recognition and various means of killing. Eventually, such robots will be delivered to places America wishes to secure, unfortunately without any care for the mistakes and horrors they may inflict on civilians, but America’s establishment does not care about that now as people from Fallujah or Hanoi could readily testify. A hypersonic robot plane or missile, able one day to deliver conventional explosives with precision to almost any spot on earth within an hour or two of launch is well along. Intelligent torpedoes and underwater drones are also well along. Robot tanks and ships are being developed. America’s mysterious space-plane vehicle, resembling a scale-model space shuttle, just having been tested with 500 days in orbit without any crew, has many potential uses for killing and control from space, including the launch of missiles from a position above any target, putting the reach of a fleet of them within minutes of any target on earth, a kind of early prototype Death Star if you will. We also have the advent of extremely powerful new lasers and electric rail-guns, both of which can be completely computerized in their operation. Advances in software, especially in areas like facial and voice-recognition, will enable completely automated targeting of victims almost at the press of a button.

One day, victims may well include troublesome Americans, not just unwanted foreigners. After all, the components for slipping into such a practice are virtually in place, and we know there are no qualms on the part of many of the people leading America today. In a secrecy state, people disappearing would rarely be noticed and never explained. The NSA’s unblinking surveillance on all American citizens would provide targeting information on demand.

We are not quite there yet, but in the close future, less than twenty years, the United States will operate under a military system not unlike the automated, radar-operated machine-gun towers Israel uses to pen in the people of Gaza, only it will do so on a planetary scale. Such immense power in the hands of a relatively few people anywhere and always would be a threat, but in the hands of America’s corporate-military-intelligence elites, people who already are not held accountable for what they do and feel virtually no need to explain, it is a looming threat to the peace, decency, and political integrity of the entire world.

I have no idea how the relentless march towards this brave new world can be stopped. Indeed, I am almost sure that it cannot. Americans in general no longer have anything which could be termed control over the acts of their government, and their role in elections is nothing more than a formal choice between two establishment-loyal candidates heading two parties that differ on virtually no vital matter. George Bush’s time in office proved something profound generally not recognized in the press: America does not now need a president beyond the Constitutional formalities of signing documents and making speeches. Bush was an utterly incompetent fool, but America’s national government never skipped a beat during his eight years, never skipped a beat, that is, in matters important to the establishment, which of course excludes matters like a disaster in New Orleans, concern for the welfare of the American people having long ago faded away as one for the national government.

After all, when you have lied to and manipulated a people for a very long time, how can a growing contempt for them be avoided? It cannot, in much the way a heartless conman fools an old widow into giving up her life savings. Besides, the more government focuses on the kind of matters America’s government focuses on, running for office and government service almost certainly increasingly attracts and rewards narcissists and sociopaths and repels those with broader public interests. The lack of concern and empathy becomes a self-regulated mechanism.

Barack Obama’s tenure has only demonstrated the point made by George Bush further. He has signed off on many new ways of killing people, many secret and disturbing policies, continued to wage Bush’s pointless wars, supported anti-democratic forces taking power in a number of place, including importantly Ukraine and Egypt, reinforced anti-democratic forces in many places like Bahrain, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and not lifted a finger over Israel’s decades-long suppression of democracy and fundamental rights for millions. Obama’s only claim even to helping his own people is a pathetic, costly, unworkable health-care program in which the establishment has absolutely no interest.

The argument that there is an underlying concern for humanity and for rights in the American government couldn’t be more wrong, even though those are themes in the blubbering speeches of a George Bush, a Barrack Obama, a Hillary Clinton, or a John Kerry. America’s deeds abroad are without exception now to control, whether through wars and coups and assassinations or through the cajoling and threats that go on behind the scenes at every single vote by any international body, such as the United Nations.

I do not believe the citizens of the United States any longer possess the capacity to avoid these dark prospects. They are being swept along by forces they mostly do not understand, and most are unwilling to give up on the comfortable almost-religious myths of enforceable Constitutional rights and a benevolent national government.  The world’s hope of avoiding global tyranny now lies in the rapid advance of nations such as China, Russia, India, and Brazil to counterbalance America. Europe, an obvious possible candidate to oppose America’s more dangerous and obtuse efforts, appears in recent decades to have fallen completely under America’s direction in so many areas where it once showed independence, an increasing number having been bribed or seduced or threatened to join NATO and unwilling to use the limited international agencies we have, such as the United Nations, to oppose America’s disturbing tendencies.

 

VLADIMIR PUTIN, THE WORLD’S LAST TRUE STATESMAN

John Chuckman

Everywhere you look in the West, you find political pygmies rather than statesmen. In France, we see a pathetic man whose own people intensely dislike him, François Hollande, attempt to speak as though he were something other than a dry, pompous school teacher-like purveyor of American views. Almost forgotten are the strong, independent voices of a de Gaulle or a Chirac. In Britain, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is a wishy-washy man of little integrity and less ability, again a purveyor of American views, and I’m sure he goes to sleep every night fantasizing about the last Prime Minister who faithfully served American interests, Tony Blair, being showered with gold, resembling something from the Arabian Nights, every year since his retirement. The United States is represented by a man of not one achievement, unless you count instituting an industrial-scale system of extrajudicial killing, sending missiles against women and children and mere suspects, a man who serves the American military-intelligence complex as doggedly as George Bush, surely the most ignorant and cowardly man ever to be called President. Germany has a leader of considerable ability in Angela Merkel, but, as few people understand, Germany acts only under the most onerous secret agreements imposed by America after World War II, its independence still heavily constrained nearly three-quarters of a century later.

No, Putin stands out, for his independence of mind, keen intelligence, ability to make decisions, and his readiness to act in proportion to the threat of a situation. In Syria he blunted America’s effort to bomb its government into submission, a la Libya. In Ukraine, he has acted appropriately and without excess, quietly taking steps to secure a region whose population includes a majority of Russians and where Russia has a major naval base and longstanding interests and relationships. The bellowing we hear from the United States about “Russia is committing a breach of international law,” or “You just don’t invade a country on phony pretext in order to assert your interest!” should amuse the world rather than arouse it. These words come from the folks who slaughtered 3 million Vietnamese, precipitated the deaths of more than a million Cambodians through de-stabilizing secret invasions, killed a million Iraqis, killed tens of thousands in Afghanistan, invaded Grenada, invaded Haiti, invaded Panama, overturned democratic governments in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala, fought a years-long secret terror war against Cuba, supported the 1965 genocide in Indonesia with lists of names of communist suspects for killing after the fall of Sukarno, and today finds itself murdering strangers by the thousands in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It tolerates brutal suppression in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places. The establishment in Washington, publically lecturing Russia despite its own blood-soaked record, apparently has utter contempt for the public’s intelligence, viewing them much as 1984’s Inner Party viewed Proles.

Going back to that Russian naval base on the Black Sea, I am reminded of Guantanamo, Cuba. In case Americans forget, Guantanamo is Cuban territory. Decades ago, America’s long-term lease – extracted after the Spanish-American War, another American-engineered war used to grab desirable territory – ran out, and the government of Cuba asked that the territory be returned. America refused and still it keeps this military base against the wishes of the Cuban government, having used it over the last decade for its infamous torture camp for people captured after 9/11 and proved guilty of nothing.

To hear Obama and the droning, tiresome John Kerry talk, you’d think Putin had recklessly hurled the world into danger. Of course, what their strained rhetoric really is telling us is that, just after a round of champagne toasts and patting themselves on the back over the presumed success of having secretly de-stabilized Ukraine for Western interests, they are seriously annoyed by Putin acting swiftly and decisively to secure an insecure situation. Most people don’t like being shown up in public, but when you get to the level of a Kerry or an Obama, being shown up in public is plainly infuriating. And, of course, it makes so much sense to be cutting off avenues of discussion, such as Russia’s G-8 meeting, talking of “going to the hilt” as Kerry has foolishly done, and threatening serious reprisals if Russia fails to do as Washington wishes

The “revolution” in Ukraine is the product of years of effort by the CIA to exploit weaknesses there and gain a major foothold on Russia’s border. Whether you like the man’s views or not, Viktor Yanukovich, a democratically-elected president was ousted, and some extremely unpleasant people have re-entered the national spotlight, including Yulia Tymoshenko – a founder of the right wing outfit, The Fatherland Party, once one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine, someone who had charges of bribery and embezzlement swirling about her and her husband, and someone who served 3 years in prison for abuse of office. Tymoshenko’s public image, with heavy (bleached) blond braids wrapped around her head as a crown, reminds me of nothing so much as 1930s images of Germanic womanhood promoted by the Nazis in books and films. And then there’s Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the All Ukrainian Union Svoboda Party, an unapologetically fascist organization. There are still other extreme right wing groups at work too, including The Right Sector Party, again a genuinely fascist organization. There is, and has long been, a strong streak of fascism in Ukraine. Ukraine, much as Baltic states such as Latvia, was at the forefront of supporting Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and violence against Jews, the infamous massacre at Babi Yar having been committed in part by Ukrainian police. Ukraine provided the infamous Galicia Division to serve as a unit of the Waffen-SS.

During “the revolution” right wingers provided most of the street thugs and snipers, and there is considerable evidence that they continue some of their violence against peaceful protesters. Already, many unpleasant legislative acts are being considered by those now running Ukraine, including a law offering a penalty of ten years in prison for dual-nationality Ukrainians who insist on holding Russian passports. One of the first acts of the new government was to repeal a law allowing minorities to conduct business and education in their own languages. The coup has thrown the country into serious economic uncertainty, leaving it unable to pay many sizeable debts. “We’ll regain our status as a nuclear power and that’ll change the conversation. Ukraine has all the technological means needed to create a nuclear arsenal – which would take us about three to six months,” threatened Svoboda Party MP, Mikhail Golovko.  Can you just imagine the reaction in Washington were such activities underway in Mexico or Canada? An invasion in force with no pause for diplomatic niceties would be swift.

It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that Putin’s prompt and low-key action stands in sharp contrast to the shrill, hypocritical voices coming from Washington and being echoed in Paris and London. We all know that Washington’s readiness to threaten or bomb those who disagree with it is exceeded only by the monstrousness of its hypocrisy when speaking about law or rights or democratic values. It is perfectly represented by that genuine American Gothic, Senator John McCain, a fossilized, corrupt old reprobate who flies off here and there, sticking his nose into other people’s countries, trying to stoke up the fires of war in every difficult place he thinks an American advantage is to be had, a much diminished version of what he once did in Vietnam where he flew jets to bomb civilians.

We cannot know what Ukraine is going to experience given America’s support of extremists and cutthroats to overturn an elected government, a situation somewhat resembling what was intended for Syria through support of extremists and terrorists there, including the supply even of small quantities of Sarin gas used to produce atrocities inviting American intervention. The Syrian effort has collapsed into a hellish situation for which the United States takes no responsibility. So too the situation in Libya, another American-manufactured disaster, but I am confident in the ability of Mr. Putin to outplay the current crop of uninspired politicians in the West at geopolitical chess, especially where Russia’s vital interests are at stake, and we should all wish him well to prevent anything like Syria or Libya being repeated in Ukraine.

The fact is that we will have a better world where there are independent actors able enough to thwart a world bully from kicking sand into everyone’s eyes, an activity which appears now to have become a favorite American pastime. How is a world dictator-nation any less contemptible and dangerous than a country dictator-leader? It’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UNDERSTANDING MODERN ISRAEL: WHY IT IS DRIVING THE WORLD TOWARDS MADNESS

John Chuckman

Nothing that Israel does in its affairs would be of quite such great concern to the world were it not for the fact that Israel drags along, willy-nilly, the world’s greatest power, much like some impressive-looking but feeble-willed, dazed parent stumbling along behind a screaming toddler demanding yet another goody. The threat of serious wars has grown exponentially in recent decades precisely owing to this fact, and not just wars but wars reflecting neither justice nor principle, the aggressive reordering of other people’s affairs by sweeping them into the pit of hell. The so-called war on terror is just part of the fallout of millions of the world’s powerless and abused watching helplessly and without hope the embarrassing public spectacle.

The terrible bloody war in Iraq was almost exclusively for Israel’s benefit. The Syrian “civil war” is a deliberately-engineered conflict for Israel’s benefit. The coup in Egypt, wiping away the sacrifice of thousands of Egyptians in a revolution for democracy and restoring a junta, again reflects Israel’s interests in the region. The constant threats and needless hardships imposed upon Iran, a country which has no modern history of aggression and which every intelligence service knows has not been working towards nuclear weapons, reflects yet the same interest. Indeed, so determined is the government of Israel to keep this huge country pinned down that it pulled out all stops in using its immense congressional influence trying to embarrass the President and prevent a sensible international agreement with Iran. And, more ominously, Netanyahu has threatened countless times to attack Iran, knowing full well that the United States would be forced to come to his assistance when Iran struck back, as it would have every right to do.

But it is not just constant wars and threats of wars, the liberal use of extreme force against the interests of others, which make modern Israel perhaps the greatest threat to peace on the planet. The effects of America’s unprecedented and inappropriate relationship with Israel have corroded badly the values and meaning of American society. America’s democratic government, always rather fragile at best, is literally becoming hollowed out. Today America copies a great deal of the ugly garrison state practices of Israel: aggressive and intrusive intelligence, anti-democratic laws, police and security being given close to a free hand in attacking human rights, secret prisons, and even extrajudicial killing on a large scale. The President speaks of governing by “presidential order” rather than by legislation, the intelligence establishment ignores the Constitution and the courts, the “homeland” security establishment heavily arms itself against public disorder, and even military men make the odd public reference to military government in an emergency. Where is the Constitution with its crucial Bill of Rights in all this? Cut in scraps lying on the floor like snippets from a film-editor’s work.

Of course, so far as rights go, Israel never had, nor can it ever have a Bill of Rights, given its peculiar organization and the practices of its garrison-state establishment. Imitating Israel’s practices and adopting its views remove any state automatically from the whole trend of western society since the Enlightenment. Israel’s leaders may speak all they wish about “the Middle East’s only democracy,” but the words are as insincere as television advertising claims for a new mouthwash. Can you have democracy for only one carefully-defined group? Can you have democracy without the restraints of a Bill of Rights upon an abusive majority? Can you have democracy which holds millions in perpetual isolation and subjects them to countless abuses? Can you have democracy where you prefer dealing with juntas and kingdoms to democratic governments in neighboring states? Can you have democracy which constantly threatens war on those who do not threaten it? Can you have democracy which conducts witch-hunts on a grand scale, just re-naming the witches as terrorists? Can you have democracy which interferes in the internal affairs of other democratic states? And, in the end, can you have democracy founded on the Orwellian principle that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal”?

The truth always and everywhere has been that a society heavily burdened by the military cannot be a truly free and democratic society. An armed camp like Israel has its values and future far more determined by the sheer weight of its military-intelligence-security establishment than by any elections or slogans about democracy, and this same unpleasant truth applies increasingly to America.

The effect of Israel upon the United States in some ways resembles the effect in space of a black hole with its immensely powerful gravity pulling matter towards the certain destruction of its event horizon.

It has become common for criticism of Israel to be conflated with anti-Semitism. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, an ungracious man at the best of times, has been himself guilty of doing so. It is, of course, simple name-calling, certainly not the kind of thing we expect from a prime minister, but even more, it is a bully’s technique used to intimidate people who disagree.

The practice of calling critics names is closely related to the endlessly-repeated argument of Israeli governments that settlement negotiations must start with the Palestinians accepting that “Israel is the country of the Jewish people.” On first hearing, that might seem plausible, but a moment’s reflection shows its dangerous nature and calculated dishonesty. It is not up to people outside a country to characterize the country’s nature or make-up, and no one has ever expected that in any case, until now in the case of Israel.

Negotiations are, by definition, between parties who have different views, not between parties who have agreed in advance, nor are they between parties where one has been served an ultimatum by the other. But straining the sense of things even more in this case, the subject of negotiations is really not supposed to be Israel’s definition but Palestine’s. Is Israel saying that the Palestinians must grant permission or authority for Israel’s idea of itself? No, of course not, so some other purpose is implicit in this bizarre demand.

How would one define a country like Canada or the United States, countries of immense variety of ethnic, national, and religious origin, under Israel’s idea? You could not. Of course, they are understood by everyone as the countries of Canadians and Americans. And just so, Israel is the country of Israelis, and nothing more, with the large majority of the world’s Jews in fact living elsewhere. Moreover, what is called Israel today was the home of other people for an exceedingly long time, longer than the history of most of the world’s modern states, and those people have not disappeared.

So, Israel’s position is that you do not negotiate with people who refuse to parrot your definition of yourself. That is, it seems fair to say, a pretty unusual approach to negotiations. Imagine Americans refusing to negotiate with the Russians during the Cold War unless the Russian negotiators first formally recognized America as “the land of the free and home of the brave.” That demand, I’m sure we can all agree, would have yielded stony silence, and just so Israel’s demand. You surely make such demands only where you do not want negotiations. Israel, for public relations reasons, always maintains an appearance of being ready to negotiate for peace, but the truth is that negotiations happen only when its benefactor-in-chief periodically decides that they should. There is no evidence beyond words that Israel wants to do so on its own initiative. Indeed, all hard evidence points in another direction.

Israel is chewing away ceaselessly in numberless small bites at what is left of Palestine, reducing it to a set of meaningless, unconnected islands in a sea of armed hostility called Israel. When Israeli officials speak ponderously of “facts on the ground,” that is what they really mean. In the end, Israel intends to solve the problems with its neighbors completely on its own terms. There already is little need, in the minds of Israel’s leaders, to negotiate anything, and there will be less with each passing year. Gaza, surrounded by fences, radar-operated gun towers, tanks, its society riddled with spies, its people having no ability to go anywhere without application, permission, interrogation, and search is the model, although Gaza, through the accident of 1948 events is a bigger concentration of people than would be the ideal, Israel’s terror campaign having created an undesirably large huddle of refugees rather causing them all to flee the territory.

Apart from the absurdity of declaring the exact definition others must employ for Israel, using the kind of national definition upon which Israel’s leaders insist first requires that you define Jewish people. Why would anyone want to open that conversation? The Nazis had difficulty even defining what it was that they hated so much when they implemented their dreadful laws against Jews. Reading the details of how the Nazis determined Jewishness should be instructive for anyone suggesting this approach. Israel, too, has failed to come up with a rigorous definition, despite its need for one under the policy of all the world’s Jews being able to claim Israeli citizenship and assistance in settling.

The religion of Judaism certainly cannot enter your definition because close to half of Israelis identify as non-believers, and even Israeli politicians recognize the problems of theocratic states since they constantly disparage those that do exist in the Muslim world. But this reality does not stop Israeli politicians who lobby American Christian fundamentalists for support from encouraging the conflation of modern Israel with biblical Israel and of worldly Israelis having a good time in Tel Aviv night clubs with the thundering prophets of the Old Testament. Nor does it stop them from passing many pieces of legislation which have the oppressive character of a theocratic state in order to please Israel’s extremist minority parties always required to produce a majority government.

Since only about a third of the world’s people identifying as Jews live in Israel, Israel cannot even claim some exclusive relationship. Its only real connection with the diaspora is that it promises they may all claim Israeli citizenship if they wish. It is hard to imagine what Israel would do were even a large fraction of the diaspora suddenly to act on the promise, showing up on the door step, as it were, suitcases in hand. But Israel knows that will not happen. Life is too good for Jews in dozens of places to exchange it for life in Israel.

So far as a definition based on ethnicity, the task becomes more difficult, as well as unacceptable to the liberal mind since categorizing people by ethnicity has a terrible historical record, is innately unfair, and is always inaccurate. Trying to define Jews by national origin is a non-starter because Israel accepts people it identifies as Jews from any country. Realistically, since Israel ceased to exist nearly two thousand years ago, no person can be a Jew owing to national origin, any more than someone can be a Trojan or a Phoenician today.

Two thousand years make about a hundred generations, and no one can accurately trace his or her family tree that far back, anywhere. Even if you were somehow magically able to identify a certain ancestor of the desired ethnic origin a hundred generations ago, there would be only the most infinitesimal trace left in the mix of your genes after centuries of marriages, migrations, wars, and plagues. To use the name of that nano-bit of hereditary identity to characterize the whole person and the country in which he or she lives does seem to beggar logic.

We know that most people have a quite mixed background if you go back just a few generations, and under the hypothesis of “out of Africa,” if you could go far enough back, you would trace a common origin for all people on the planet (much, as it happens, in the Adam and Eve myth). So, how far back do you go in anyone’s ethnic background in trying to label him or her? Going all the way back means there are no labels possible. So, just where do you stop to get the label you want? At which point in an inconceivably complex history of migrations and disasters and the rise and fall of states do we select just the “right” origin? Religion – and any matter influenced by religion – does tend to be peculiarly selective in these things, as we see from the stuck-in-the nineteenth-century dress of Mennonite Christians or ultra-Orthodox Jews (why not an earlier century, we might ask?) or the Middle Ages’ dress-occasion costumes of Catholic Bishops.

It is a futile and foolish exercise to start, and that is true even if “out of Africa” eventually were proved inaccurate as we may discover several geographic sources of origin. It then would still come down to common ancestries for huge groups of people who do not now regard themselves as related.

Shifting the definition of Israel from the “home of Israelis” to the “home of Jews” has many serious implications the general public may not appreciate. Today in Israel, being a passport-carrying citizen does not mean that you are equal in treatment and privileges by your government to other citizens. Israeli citizens who are also identified as Jews – and documents of every kind in Israel unpleasantly identify your “ethnic” identity over and above your citizenship – enjoy a special class of citizenship not attainable by others. Now, Israel is free to do this in its internal affairs, but it is not reasonable to expect others to formally ratify it, and it is not reasonable to expect that many of the world’s people to approve such a prejudiced and divisive practice. It is pretty easy to guess the fate of more than one million non-Jewish Israeli citizens if the Palestinians were to accept Israel’s definition.

The last way to categorize Jews, and one that plays a role in Israel, is by cultural identity. But what is a culture devoid of the context of religion and ethnicity and national origin, surely the richest ingredients in any cultural stew? Almost nothing, except possibly a language. Hebrew has been artificially imposed as the main language of Israel, despite the reality of Arabic’s total dominance in the region, despite the fact that many immigrants and settlers in Israel can speak little Hebrew, despite the fact that this more-or-less dead language was only kept alive because of its role in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and despite the fact that Hebrew is a useless language in the world’s commerce and affairs, much as Welsh or Navaho would be. Are an almost-dead language and a couple of holiday celebrations to determine Jewishness and the entitlement to be an Israeli? If so, it is a pretty feeble thing over which to fight.

I think the truth is, and there is a good deal of evidence to support this, that Israeli leaders are motivated by an (unproved) sense of Jewish ethnicity, or perhaps more accurately, the wish to create an ethnicity which does not now exist. That too does seem a feeble thing to fight over, as well as being in the end a hopeless pursuit. Israel is a state formed by migration, recent migration, and migrants always and everywhere bring their former customs, language, and habits with them, and the larger each group is in relation to the country they join, the more it will deeply influence the place’s future culture and identity. Parts of the United States are now more Spanish-speaking than English, and such changes are underway all over the world. Parts of Toronto or Vancouver have as a first language Cantonese. The relatively huge numbers of recent Russian migrants to Israel, for example, remain to a great extent Russians who happen to have moved to Israel. The many Americans who have served in prominent positions are clearly identifiable as Americans who happen to have moved to Israel.

The dilemma is unavoidable: either Israel is a state for Israelis, or it is a state for a self-defined group, the mysterious nature of the group’s self-definition not subject to scientific scrutiny. If someone for any reason wants to call himself a Jew in many places, it makes no difference to anyone else, but in Israel to be a full citizen you cannot just choose to be a Jew. The fathers of the Zionist movement were in many cases intellectually-gifted men, but they were, after all, intense ideologues, truly fanatical men in a number of cases, and they were seeking a solution for problems they experienced in European society, a solution, as it turns out, as unrealistic in nature as the religious fantasy of a better afterlife which has comforted various unhappy groups through history. The solution they fixed upon also is one that comes loaded with intractable new problems. And those intractable problems, regrettably, are now becoming the entire world’s problems.

Israeli leaders have long wanted to rid their country of its non-Jewish population. The late Ariel Sharon wanted to overthrow the government of Jordan and turn the place over to the Palestinians who would all migrate there with Yasser Arafat. It was just one of many hare-brained schemes proposed over modern Israel’s brief history. A prominent Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, offered the notion of a massive moving artillery barrage to chase the Palestinians across the Jordan River. Moshe Dayan spoke of making the Palestinians miserable enough to want to leave. A number of prominent Jews have advocated killing the families of Palestinians found guilty of terrorism, and Israel has practiced destroying their family homes. Clearly, with such ideas, we see Israelis begin to slip into the mental framework of the very people who inflicted horror upon the Jews in the 1940s, and when you observe that kind of thing, it should be an early warning that what you are doing is dangerous and not well thought-out.

Why do people get such desperate ideas? Because the basic assumptions of their enterprise were faulty from the start and have driven them to pernicious and unwanted results with the apparent need for still more faulty corrective measures, an endless vicious cycle. The foundation of modern Israel involved a series of manipulations and back-door deals with European colonial powers entering their decline. They often involved favors exchanged, but in no case did they reflect law or sound logic. And in all cases, the foundational ideas had more of emotion in them than intellect. Then came the Holocaust, and a United States – which hadn’t lifted a finger to save Europe’s Jews when Hitler made it possible to do so, the first Nazi policy having been mass emigration – decided to play the good guy by fixing crushing penalties on still another group of people, one who had nothing to with the suffering of Jews.

This pose of America as big brother to Israel was certainly not just a reflection of guilt and regret, it reflected a new political reality that emerged about the time of Harry Truman’s re-election campaign. A well-organized lobby for Israel in the United States began offering campaign financing and press support for friendly candidates as well as the opposite for those not so friendly. Truman was inundated by lobbyists for the quick recognition of Israel, and while his own first instincts were against doing so, he yielded to the lobbyists, facing as he was, a tough, uncertain re-election campaign.

And the pattern of lobbying behavior has only grown in size and sophistication over time. At the same time, American national elections have become the most money-drenched political exercises on earth with the Supreme Court declaring money to be free speech and billions spent regularly just for a slate of candidates.

The idea of a pure state for just one people – however defined, as by religion, ethnic background, or cultural identity – is ultimately unworkable, however much you may be able to force it for a time, and Israel works immensely hard in trying to force it through countless unfair laws and the constant hot breath of secret police forces and the military. The concept, importantly, violates all of the progress in democratic and human values established since the Enlightenment, and, on a strictly pragmatic basis, it stands in defiance of the inexorable workings of a globalized world. Even the European nations once seemingly so well identified by populations with centuries of common history, as the English or the Germans, are now facing unavoidable changes in the structure of their populations. They are all in the process of becoming more like Canada or the United States, nations formed by many diverse streams of migrants. You cannot hold your finger in the dike or shout at the raging sea to stop, yet that kind of activity truly is implicit in Israel’s concept of itself.

Insistence on a narrowly-defined citizenship in a place shared with millions of others means of course Israel can never have a Bill or Charter of Rights, and the truth is that without a Bill of Rights no state can claim to be a true democracy. Just having periodic elections does not define a democratic state because a majority of any description may impose its prejudices and even tyranny on a minority at any time, as we have seen in South Africa or the American Confederacy or indeed in modern Israel. The very idea of a democracy for only one group of people – again, however defined – is a contradiction in terms. Bills and Charters of Rights are about protecting minorities, but Israel does not want the minorities it has, and it certainly has no will to protect them, seizing their property periodically and subjecting them to gross abuses.

Without some degree of true democracy, a society cannot have democratic values, that important sense of values which becomes part of the fabric of a society over time. Israel feels it cannot afford to embrace and respect democratic values owing to its security situation: it doesn’t say this, but it is implicit in Israel’s behavior. Thus we see contradictions like Israel happily doing business with governments along the lines of the Saudi royal family or Egypt’s thirty-year president, Mubarak. Israel has expressed contempt for genuinely democratic movements, again like those in Egypt. It would rather deal with an unelected, accommodating hanger-on to power like Mahmoud Abbas rather than recognize the democratic aspirations of Palestinians so clearly demonstrated with Hamas.

Israel’s habit of declaring every party or organization which represents some barrier or inconvenience to its long-term desire to ethnically-cleanse most of Palestine and annex the territory as “terrorist” is akin to Christians of long ago declaring certain different or odd people to be witches, worthy only of killing, as by burning at the stake (It is also akin to Israel’s habitual name-calling of critics). Thus Hamas, which is by all available evidence more dedicated to democratic principles than the government of Israel, is a witch to be dealt with as witches should be. Thus Hezbollah, a freedom fighting organization owing its very birth to Israel’s long and bloody occupation of part of Lebanon and one which has never invaded Israel, is another witch.

But they are not witches: they are parties representing legitimate interests and aspirations in the region. People with democratic values would recognize this and treat them accordingly.

From the point of view of many, the re-creation of Israel was a mistake simply because it created more problems than it solved and added to the world’s stock of misery and injustice, to say nothing of instability. Much as was the case with the Soviet Union, Israel almost certainly will not survive in its present form. There are too many faulty assumptions and too much flawed logic in its make-up for it to be viable in the long term, but its dissolution will be a natural process, again much as was the case with the Soviet Union, not the violent act of invaders or enemies. In the meantime, Israel’s intense ferocity towards all who question its behavior and toward all of its neighbors, when combined with its unnatural relationship with the United States, will prove a growing threat to the world’s peace and stability. And as Israelis themselves begin to realize the genuine paradoxes and terrible conundrums their enterprise has created, we are likely to see even increased ferocity and irrational behavior, as so often happens when dreamers see their dreams failing.

Israel’s leaders have in recent years been little more than a series of meglo-maniacs determined to play the role of a mini-world power and dictate the fates of those for a thousand miles around, all while proving incapable of solving even their own society’s most fundamental problems, which are numerous and pressing.

Only the United States has the power and authority to restrain Israel and to insist on Israel’s obeying the laws of nations and respecting its neighbors, but since politics in the United States is now hopelessly mired in money and lobbies for the foreseeable future, and since America has voluntarily joined the delusional war on terror, adopting many of Israel’s ugliest practices, it seems impossible that America can summon the strength needed for genuine leadership. It will remain the hopeless lumbering giant of a parent being yanked around by a screaming child. With the gradual recognition that the national dream is becoming a nightmare, and as the more reasonable people leave Israel for a better life in other places, the intensity and desperation of the screaming child will only increase. The next couple of decades are going to be dangerous times indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE REAL LESSONS FROM THE DEATH OF NELSON MANDELA

John Chuckman

The press has echoed for days with admiration for Nelson Mandela and his genuinely heroic fight against the apartheid government of South Africa. There have been many recollections of the brutal quality of that government, all perhaps carrying an unstated sense of how could people live that way?

As I listened on the radio, I couldn’t help thinking of the common human frailty which sees us caught up in gasping over and memorializing what is past while ignoring much the same thing that is present, as on what is called Remembrance or Armistice Day, we’ve recalled for the best part of a century the terrifying experiences of a war which was to end all war, while yet marching on to even more brutal and murderous conflicts. This seems contrary to logic, and it certainly works against the interest of institutionalizing and making permanent what it is that we praise, but it remains a conflicting duality of thought we find almost universally established. After all, it is so much safer and easier to praise heroism once the threat it struggled against has faded into history. And, sad to say, but history does tend to support the idea of most people behaving like cowards while they sing the praises of heroism.

We have no less an authority than Nelson Mandela himself, in an opinion shared by the equally admirable Bishop Tutu, that the terrible system of oppression against which they struggled in South Africa is very much alive and flourishing in still another place today. That place is, of course, Israel and its occupied territories.

No matter what past abuse by the former apartheid government the newsmen and commentators may mention, there is an equal, or in some cases an even greater, one not mentioned for Israel. For the Soweto and Sharpeville Massacres, we have Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the several invasions of Southern Lebanon, the toll of these measured in thousands killed and thousands more injured. For the many people, like Mandela, arrested for opposing oppression and left to rot in prison, we have tens of thousands of illegal arrests by Israel of people also left to rot in prison and often tortured there. For the secret murders which South African security forces routinely carried out in the manner of the Argentine Junta’s “disappearing” people, we have scores of assassinations of Palestinian leaders, including not so very long ago Yasser Arafat. For the Bantustans South Africa created to pen up millions of blacks, depriving them of access to most of the country, we have Israel’s Wall, an armored fortress which snakes through the homes and farms of countless people without regard for their welfare or rights and the utter isolation of Gaza’s one-and-a-half million behind razor-wire fences with radar-controlled machine-gun towers set at intervals and warships blocking the coast. For South Africa’s two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities, we have Israel’s two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities plus the perpetual consignment of millions to a life of occupation with no defined citizenship or rights.

And what actually brought down the oppressive South African regime? Not really the bravery of the Mandelas and Tutus directly, but the outside world’s gradually turning against that government’s excesses and bringing the force of embargo and economic penalties. The United States was a late-comer to the process – after all, it highly valued the anti-Communist stance of the apartheid government in the Cold War, given its strategic position on the Cape. But once the United States was turned by its own people to join the boycott, apartheid’s days became numbered. And, happily, the end came with remarkable peacefulness.

I have often said that only pressure from the United States will correct the terrible abuses of Israel, but the United States shows few signs yet of exercising that potentially decisive power for good. It is, first, in the midst of another massive equivalent of the Cold War, its so-called War on Terror. In this War, Israel plays the role South Africa once played in the Cold War as occupier of a key strategic point. Israel also makes every effort to have Americans and others see its brutalities as part of a shared battle, a fight against terror, even though its struggles more closely resemble those of the late South African government, a war against the rights and dignity of millions of people with whom they do not want to live. And many Americans still do not understand, being given every encouragement in their press not to understand, that the War on Terror is blowback from Israel’s oppression.

Israel has another advantage it exercises to the fullest. American elections have become utterly corrupted by special interests and money, so much so that American democracy is, at best, described as on life support. This is the work of Americans themselves, but Israel has cleverly devised an expert and systematic way to exploit the corruption. Its lobby rewards with campaign funds and good publicity those who support Israel’s interests, and it punishes those who do not. Newly-elected officials are given the clearest set of guidelines for what is expected of them with initial paid trips to Israel for every new Congressman and regular consultation thereafter concerning issues on which they are to vote.

I have to believe that ultimately the basic human impulse for fairness – something we find remarkably in many people in many lands no matter what kind of government they may live under – will prevail, but I have no hope that can happen soon. In the meantime, maybe we can learn a little bit about our tendency to sing praises with our eyes closed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS: WHAT TORONTO’S ROB FORD FIASCO IS ABOUT AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM IT

John Chuckman

For most of its history Toronto was a quiet and law-abiding place, up until a couple of decades ago bearing the nick-name, Toronto the Good, a name which actually had a double meaning, the second one being dull. And the city was rather dull, but it was also safe and decent, a place of quiet neighborhoods and corner green-grocers. In the 1960s, street cleaners carried the motto, Keep Toronto Clean and Tidy. Its mayors ranged from dull and honest to earnest and green. Toronto has grown greatly since that time and has gone from having a largely British-Scottish population to a cosmopolitan one with a great diversity of national origins, but it remains a relatively peaceful and quiet place which rarely intrudes on the world’s headlines.

So how did it end up making news around the world with a mayor whose behavior is insulting, laughable, embarrassing, and, in a number of cases, illegal? I think the answer is to be found in the behavior of his predecessor, David Miller, a man fixated by all things superficial and yuppie-fluffy.

Miller ignored real problems in the city for two terms while he went for Don Quixote charges like his long campaign to kill the city’s island airport, an attractive and useful facility on the waterfront, but one to which some waterfront condo owners objected. Basic urban housekeeping suffered badly, from pot holes in the streets and a crumbling downtown expressway to a growing cancerous and destructive bureaucracy in everything the city does (e.g., if you repair parts of your home near a tree on your property, you will be charged two thousand dollars or better to protect the tree with a temporary wooden structure), all while raising taxes annually by substantial amounts and never tiring of saying how Toronto’s people valued services and didn’t mind paying for them. Toronto is traditionally a city of homes (apartment buildings only starting to appear in numbers in the late 1960s), and many of its homes are extremely modest row- or semi-detached houses from a century or more ago belonging to people of modest means. Miller ignored them, and Ford came along to an unhappy electorate and promised, with a burst of pseudo-populism, to do things differently. Well, they had no idea how differently he meant.

Rob Ford is simply “Montezuma’s revenge” for two terms of David Miller. As it turned out, Ford not only had a closet bulging with skeletons, he truly did not understand much about cities. Several newspaper reports tried warning voters about Ford’s past: his 1999 arrest for drunk driving in Florida or his being led away by police in handcuffs after a 911 call from his wife five years ago or his charge of assault at a hockey game when he was younger. But the facts no more registered with many voters than early revelations in the United States about George Bush’s scandalous life before politics, and besides the opposition in the mayoral election tried rallying around a man whom many regarded as an abject failure in provincial politics. Ford’s claim to merit, parroted almost daily by his brother Doug, has been saving taxpayers money, but that claim has proved as phony as so much else about Ford, advocating, as he does, a money-wasting (but vote-getting) subway to a lower-density former suburb instead of a sensible LRT, something that will cost more than a billion unnecessary dollars.

Rob Ford’s public behavior reminds me somewhat of the literary character, Father Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a man who would do the most absurd and embarrassing things and then act as though nothing of the kind ever happened. It is a trait which in Rob Ford superficially resembles lying but surely reveals something deeper, for the original acts themselves are often tasteless and there are many witnesses to them, yet there appears to be absolutely no sense of shame felt.

We learn now there is no straightforward way to remove a mayor in Toronto, no mechanism such as recall ever having been anticipated as being needed in Toronto the Good. Rob Ford has appeared drunk in public several times with slobber or drink or perspiration wetting his shirt front. He has made rude suggestions to women. He gave the finger to an old lady who called him out about his texting while driving. He tried to pass the open door of a streetcar and when the driver rebuked him, Ford reported the driver for leaving his seat to the head of Toronto transit. Ford was photographed reading papers while at the wheel on a busy highway. He always rejected suggestions that he have a full-time driver. He disappeared from city hall for long periods of time day after day with no explanations. He used city staff on some of his personal charitable work. He used city letter head to solicit funds for his football charity. He sometimes used a friend, a man twice convicted of violent acts and since arrested for drug dealing, as a driver, and he wrote letters of recommendation for this character, again on city letterhead.

The cracks really started to show when a mysterious man approached reporters of the city’s largest newspaper and tried selling a video from a cellphone. The video appeared to show the mayor smoking a crack pipe in the company of some shady men, one of whom was later murdered. It is also reported to have Ford using nasty language towards some groups. The newspaper did not buy the video, and the mayor called the newspaper’s careful (and as it proved, accurate) reportage of events “ridiculous,” one of his favorite glibly-mumbled words, and many were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though a still from the video was published of the mayor with the shady characters, but the mayor insisted he posed for hundreds of pictures with people he didn’t know. The mayor upped the ante on the video by telling reporters he could not comment on something that does not exist (use of that word causing many to fear that he may have obtained or destroyed it). The city’s other major newspaper, not to be outdone, ran a well-researched story on the mayor’s confidant, political ally and brother, Doug Ford and his other brother, Randy. It told of their days in the 1980s working as dealers selling hashish, and included the tale of a man who was kidnapped, driven off, and held in isolation for not paying a drug bill. This, as usual, was met with “ridiculous” and “lies.” Suddenly, some unknown person gave another video of the mayor in unknown circumstances to a newspaper. It shows him in a drunken rant, flailing his arms, shouting obscenities, and threatening to kill some unknown person.

Since that time we learn the police conducted an extensive surveillance on the mayor owing to his association with known criminal types. They also conducted a large drug raid in the neighborhood where Ford seems to have been photographed in the first video, a place said to be a known crack house. Bit by bit, the press has managed to get the court to release some of the records relating to these events as being in the public interest, and it has just been one bombshell after another. Night pictures of the mayor at a gas station going to the washroom while his questionable friend uses an open passenger-side door to place a package in the mayor’s parked car, the fact that the “non-existent” video was discovered by police in the raid and that his friend has been charged with extortion, confirmation of the general nature of that video, phone records showing the mayor calling his shady friend about 250 times, the fact that there is still another video of some kind yet unknown, long texts of police interrogations of people who worked in the mayor’s office containing testimony about drunkenness, drugs, possible prostitutes, and more.

One suspects that the extortion charge relates to secret efforts to obtain the video with the great flurry of phone calls, all during public denials of the video’s existence. One can imagine the police offering a plea bargain to the mayor’s friend in return for testimony against the mayor, but that is only speculation.

Suggestions have been made over and over by allies and opponents that Ford take a leave of absence to seek treatment or quit, but they are all stubbornly ignored and the mayor says he enjoys his job (an assertion which raises the question of which aspects of the job he means). One can almost picture a children’s book about Robby the Runaway Bulldozer continuing to smash things with a smile on his chubby, perspiring face despite efforts by every worker on the construction site to jump aboard and apply the brakes.

But the city’s councillors are so ashamed of his latest behavior, they’ve begun stripping him of authorities by overwhelming majority votes, the intention being to leave him as mayor in name only so that he either quits in frustration or lives out the remaining ten months of his term without smashing anything more. The determination for this approach came after Robby suddenly appeared at city hall before television cameras and uttered some utterly filthy words, the kind you generally only hear at a drunken table of puking college freshmen.

A short time later Ford reappeared to apologize, and I don’t know what number of his “sincere, sincere apologies” this one was simply because everyone in the city has lost count. This one proved less an apology than another bizarre stunt when he dragged his wife with him before the cameras, a woman who is virtually unknown, having avoided public light much as the late Nikita Khrushchev’s wife used to do. Robby didn’t literally drag her of course, but if you watch the video of his bizarre statement, you will see what I mean: Mrs. Ford does not stand by his side, turned to look up at him speaking the way American politicians well-trained prop-wives are so often seen doing during campaigns, hanging on every banality uttered as though listening at the feet of Jesus. No, Mrs. Ford takes several distinct steps away from him, and she stands, face towards the audience, looking what I can only call grim. But she doesn’t just stand there looking grim, she rolls her eyes up once and turns them down several times, rubs her ring finger nervously, and gives out several almost-audible deep breathes in the fashion most people might use to silently express exasperation or fear.

It was a performance by the pair of them such as I have never seen in politics. So why did he insist on exposing this private woman? Well, it was completely in keeping with his own apology for having said words earlier on camera along the lines of “I never said to [a woman] I want to eat her pussy because I have plenty to eat at home.” First he told us how shattered he was over the last six months since the death of his father, and then how upset he was that court-released police transcripts told of a former associate of his who thought the mayor had a sex worker with him on one occasion.

The transcript includes a lot of other stuff by other former associates, including drunk-diving, taking OxyContin and doing lines of cocaine, sending employees out to buy him flasks of vodka which he drank when driving, but it was the one about the supposed sex-worker that seems to have sent Robby into a ballistic trajectory. No, she wasn’t a sex-worker, said Robby, but a friend, and he was very upset over that description. By a logic which eludes me, this all got blurred into a supposed attack on him as a husband and father. Presumably, that logic was the key to his bringing his wife with him to exhale and look down and rub her finger several feet away as he explained his reasons for using grotesque obscenity on camera shortly earlier.

He left the podium after this statement and proceeded down the hall with his wife in tow, much resembling Robby the Bulldozer pushing aside newsmen gasping and gawking, one radio commentator saying he’d never seen anything like it.

There was one thing clearly explained by this performance, and that was that Ford was not just the drunken buffoon and regular liar so many now took him for but a man with genuine and serious problems, seemingly a mental disorder of some kind. So which came first, in chicken-and-egg fashion, the mental problems as a result of excessive drink and drugs or the drink and drugs being used as an effort at self-medication for a mental problem? The answer is, of course, we don’t know, and I doubt Rob Ford does either, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: he is a totally unfit person for any office.

The delightful coda to all this was a series of announcements by various organizations who let Ford know they did not want to be associated with him. The Toronto Argonauts football team, whose jersey he had worn earlier to root for them in a playoff game, let it be known he could not attend the game in his official capacity. Best of all was the organizers of the city’s Santa Claus Parade asking the mayor not to attend in his traditional capacity, walking in the parade and handing out lollipops.

Rob Ford’s political career is all but over, but it will take some time before the door to city hall can be closed on his back. His lawyer is making sounds about an injunction to stop city council from meeting to vote on more stripping of authorities, and Ford has threatened to sue everyone, including the people who were quoted in court-released documents being interrogated by police (who generally hold people responsible for the truthfulness of statements). While the likelihood of success in such acts seems extremely low, Ford is a rich man (his late father having built a company which has kept the Ford brothers going in comfortable style), as well as a stubborn one and an angry one.

I do have a couple of fears. One is that his true believers, and he still has some, will promote a stab-in-the-back myth. That will be divisive and poisonous in a city politics which has not traditionally been so, indeed a city politics which does not even have political parties, but that is precisely what happens when any politician chooses to abuse truth and transparency and ignore responsibility. My other fear is that the next government of the city will not learn from the Robby the Runaway Bulldozer experience and, feeling they are leaving a brief, bad nightmare behind, go ahead in the Mayor Miller fashion of focusing on the superficial and grandiose. That way likely lies more madness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A VAST WASTELAND OF EFFORT SPENT: AMERICA’S RAMPAGE THROUGH THE MIDDLE EAST

John Chuckman

I read that six thousand people have been killed by sectarian violence so far this year in Iraq, surely a good rough measure of what America’s invasion achieved there. In Afghanistan, America’s chosen man publically disagrees with America’s ideas of what withdrawal means, how many occupying American forces should remain, and the role the Taleban should play. Killing remains a daily occurrence, including regular instances of American special forces murdering civilians, drugs flow freely through the country and out to the world, and most women still wear the burka. Libya is reduced to rag tag bands engaged in fighting like rival gangs of bandits. Syria writhes in agony as the victim of an artificially-induced civil war with even the use of nerve gas on civilians by America’s proxy fighters winked at and lied about.

Such are just the continuing aftershocks of America’s violent, senseless campaign on the Middle East and the Muslim world.

The screams of the hundreds of thousands of initial victims of cluster bombs, Hellfire rockets, depleted uranium explosions, and white phosphorus were what Condi Rice once described as “the birth cries of a new Middle East,” likely just before she set off on another shopping spree to New York for more cute new shoes. You might say Condi and her psychopathic associates assumed the God-like perspective in their work, as the people being devastated were regarded with the importance of ants being squashed by gleeful children in a playground.

Ideas of “nation building” around all the slaughter and destruction are now almost forgotten in the press where they were once earnestly discussed like big government social programs of the 1960s. It is hard to know whether those ideas were ever taken seriously in Washington by the platoons of Pentagon consultants over expense account lunches or whether they were never intended as more than glib slogans and talking points for politicians’ convenience, banners with nice words to cover piles of bleeding bodies. No clear-thinking person ever took the idea seriously, but as we know there is not a great deal of clear thinking in times of war, nor is there much of it at any time among American politicians.

The notion that you can change the basic culture and social structure of a nation of tens of millions over a foreseeable time span is laughable. Culture, including the unpleasant parts contained by any of them, is a complex of habits, beliefs, relationships, and prejudices formed over an immensely long period in the workings of a people’s economy. Just as language and religious traditions cannot be greatly altered or undone quickly, so too all the other aspects of a culture. It is simply nonsense to believe otherwise. The efforts, over much of a century, by Russia’s Communists to change an ancient culture, including its church and national customs, should serve to intimidate glib references to nation-building.

The single most important part of any serious effort to change a place and its ways of doing things is the steady advance of its economy. It is the fluidity of a nation undergoing long-term economic growth that gradually washes away old and inefficient and fearful customs, changing everything from the nature of marriage and the way families work to the kind of clothes people wear and food they eat. After all, America’s backwaters still enjoyed family picnics at public lynchings as late as Franklin Roosevelt’s day, and it was largely the cumulative effects of economies restructured over decades with increasing opportunities and movement of people and ideas that brought those ghastly practices to a close.

Even changing minor aspects of an entire society, as we’ve seen many times in our own, is a long effort. Smoking is the clearest example of this, it having taken over half a century, despite medical understanding of its hazards, to move us from smoking being a stylish part of every Hollywood film to cigarettes being hidden behind the counters at corner stores.

And this is all the more true when you employ force, as the United States does habitually. People do not react well to aggression, and it is not the way to change anything which it may be desirable to change. On even so basic a level as raising children, our laws and courts and schools have evolved to rule out physical force. And despite decades of the war on drugs with its seemingly endless march of folly – armed raids, mass arrests, seizures, and imprisonment plus tens of billions spent – we have made no perceptible progress on what all of us recognize as a gigantic medical and social problem.

But when the force you employ includes B-52s, F-16s, and private armies of hired cutthroats, it is a certainty you will change little beyond the death rate.

The United States government now has been swept by a new enthusiasm in the application of violence. It is a new interpretation of the concept of airpower. In places like Libya, America embraced the almost benign-sounding concept of a “no-fly zone” to bomb and shoot the crap out of a national army fighting rebels. It developed the concept over the decade after the first Gulf War where it enforced a no-fly zone that was actually an active program of attacking any Iraqi installation or suppressing any movement it wanted while an embargo continued to inflict terrible suffering on the children of Iraq. Another version of the concept was used in the invasion of Afghanistan. The United States bombed the country with everything it had, including B-52s doing carpet-bombing, while most of the fighting done on the ground was done by other Afghans, the tribes of the Northern Alliance serving as American stand-ins.

The new approach has several advantages. It sends fewer coffins back home so that political opposition to the killing abroad never grows as it did in the Vietnam holocaust. It’s likely cheaper, too, than sending in and supplying large numbers of troops. After all, I read somewhere that just the air-conditioning bill for American troops in Iraq ran into many billions of dollars. And it maintains a kind of polite charade about not really invading a place.

Over the same period, another form of airpower came into its own, drones used as platforms for Hellfire missiles targeted by remote control. The Israelis, always leaders in the work and technology of murder, used a version of this method in what they blithely call “targeted killings,” a long series of acts known to most of the world by the terms “extrajudicial killing” or “disappearing people” or “political assassination.” Al Capone might have called it simply “rubbing guys out.” Well, whatever you choose to call it, the United States is in the business in a serious way now, having murdered people in Somalia, Bahrain, Pakistan, Yemen, and perhaps other places we don’t yet know about.  It has killed several thousand this way, many of them innocent bystanders and all of them people charged with no crime and given no due process.

Of course, Israel’s long string of murders have achieved little beyond making still more enemies and dragging in the gutter any claim it may once have had to ethical reputation or worthy purpose. And just so with America’s valiant effort by buzz-cut thugs sitting in crisply-pressed uniforms at computer screens playing murderous computer games with real people in the explosions.

As for diplomacy and reason and rule of law, these are practices almost forgotten by America in the Middle East, as it mimics Israel’s reprehensible behavior towards the people of the occupied territories and neighboring states. And all democratic values have been laid aside or bulldozed over in Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other places as Israel’s special interests are put before the democratic and human rights of many, many millions of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW AMERICA LEARNED TO PLAY GOD

The Aftermath of 9/11: America’s Second Great Transformation and the Emergence of a Brave New World

 

John Chuckman

I call America’s pattern of behavior since 9/11 a “great transformation” because it involves revolutionary changes for the country and, unavoidably, the entire world. In its internal affairs, America has effectively weakened the protections of the Bill of Rights and instituted many of the practices of police states – all under the insidious rationale of “protection from terrorists,” a subject heading which incapacitates the courts and serves to draw a great dark cloak over matters vital to all. Secrecy, always a favorite tool of cowardly politicians, now has assumed an enormous, central position in America. Spying, both on your own people and on those abroad, has become pervasive.

America has increased spending on military and intelligence to levels dangerously high both for the stability of the world and the future integrity of its own society. These resource-wasting establishments also will entangle any state in all sorts of costly unanticipated difficulties over time. Foreign policy has shifted to adopt the once-laughable, malevolent fantasies of the Neocons as official America policy, including an unapologetic and unprincipled use of America’s military strength around the world and a savage effort to remake the entire Middle East to its own liking, ignoring the region’s acute problems and treating the hopes of tens of millions for better lives as so much collateral damage from a bombing run.

These massive changes add to a social and governing structure which already had grown far away from the people, a structure which in many ways resembles that of pre-revolutionary, 18th century France, a state ruled by and for a class of landed aristocrats, a class of church aristocrats, and a ruling family and its armies. In contemporary America, the great hierarchies are the Pentagon, a web of sixteen intelligence agencies, and the great corporations with their immensely wealthy owners.

America’s first great transformation was the Civil War, a war which was not about slavery as is commonly believed and generally taught in public schools but about the division of powers between states and the federal government, affecting the very economic and political structure of the nation. The United States under the original Constitution was a very different place than we have come to know it. The Civil War reduced authorities of the states, demolished many formidable internal barriers to trade and to federal political power, and elevated the federal government from a mere debating forum between states into a powerful central authority. The Civil War transformed, too, the United States into a world-class industrial nation and military power which would in coming decades embark on new colonial wars and adventures. The Civil War made possible the growth of mighty national industries and the coming Age of Robber Barons and was a necessary precursor to the changes now underway.

For a good deal of time, America grew a healthy middle class, and for a brief golden era even industrial workers in America prospered remarkably. Political rights and freedoms tended to expand with that growth. But real per capita income of middle to lower-middle class Americans has dropped for many years now, a result in great part of globalization and new competitors coming up in the world. That has been a major impetus for social change as American middle class families attempt to hold their positions with incomes from two careers and lower costs in a seemingly infinite sprawl of cheap hinterland suburbs. And for years now, the American establishment has made the keenest political issue of taxes, but an issue only in the sense of by just how much to lower them, most particularly those affecting the wealthy.

To some extent a fortress-like mentality had taken hold of the middle class for years as they saw themselves on their way to work passing parts of rotting cities – doors always locked on their tank-like SUVs and vans – struggling to raise their position in the world by fending off taxes as much as possible, and, even, in a growing number of instances, living in “gated communities” out of fear of crime spreading from rotted cities. I think that kind of prevailing mentality helps greatly for accepting America’s new, more oppressive measures.

One might think the United States would have learned from the country it now copies closely: Israel has had a paralyzing web of secret police, border restrictions, secret prisons, and a massive military establishment for 65 years, yet it has never enjoyed genuine peace and lives in a chilling, unpleasant relationship with all of its neighbors. The average Israeli too does not enjoy a great life in an economically-inefficient society (whose interests, moreover, are heavily tilted towards those of its privileged groups), and then there’s that “great mob of Arabs out there” regarded in much the same way America regards its poor blacks. And were it not for immense subsidies and special favors keeping Israel afloat, that security state likely would collapse under the weight of its economic inefficiency. When any state puts absolute security above everything else, much of what it achieves is not worth having. Stalin perhaps provides history’s bleakest, most extreme example of running an absolute security state.

Of course, security, as understood by what Stalin called “wreckers of the revolution” and what Israel and the United States call “terrorism,” is not the complete reason for secret prisons and building walls and networks and police forces and spy systems. Those with great power and wealth and special interests have always had an instinctive impulse to control their environment, including the other people who inhabit it. Vast guarded estates and fences and bodyguards and summary justice for those trespassing have always been features of life for the great and powerful, and the same impulses exist for powerful organizations within a state, especially militarized states. Close control over behavior unacceptable to an establishment – including behavior that is merely different or dissident or embarrassing or slightly shady or emotionally off-balance or politically threatening – is at the heart of the matter. A gigantic network has been created in the United States which will detect, track, and file away information on these behaviors in perpetuity. The potential for blackmail and intimidation of political opponents or NGO leaders or writers or the press is enormous. While this may not be the case at first, over time, can you think of any apparatus that has gone unused by those with power, any apparatus which has not been abused? We should not forget that as recently as the 1960s, the FBI was actively trying to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide with anonymous letters threatening to reveal secret recordings. America is, after all, a country that has used atomic weapons, twice, and both times on civilian targets.

America is now also doing something no other country is in a position to do: it is exploiting the dollar’s privileged position as the world’s reserve currency to pay for much of its gigantic waste through massive future devaluation of an asset held by millions around the world. Unconscionable? Arrogant? Bullying? Those words I think are fairly applied to the changes. It may be no consolation for those being steamrolled by America that its behavior is unavoidably weakening its position in the world, but that is a fact. The bullying will prevail for a time, but it does speed the day when world leadership shifts to new hands, not necessarily to any single country like China but possibly to a consortium of rapidly-growing large states – India, Russia, Brazil, and China – with interests of their own.

It is no wonder that the conspiracy-oriented regard 9/11 as some kind of black operation used to shift the direction of the country towards a brave new world. The only conspiracy I see in the events around 9/11, though, are the American government’s refusal to explain to its own people what happened while exploiting events to its benefit, doing things it likely long has wanted to do. It is covering up both the incompetence and destructiveness of the operations of its own intelligence and military establishments as well as the deadly stupidity of some of its foreign policies, policies which seem fixed in amber through the tireless work of special interests. Dishonesty now has become a hallmark of American government. Those with power feel no obligation to explain to the people they nominally serve what happened in almost any event of genuine importance, and a long-term practice has only become more intense and pervasive.

America’s press, still sometimes is heard patting itself on the back as the “fourth estate” protecting peoples’ interests and handing out meaningless journalism awards to itself, actually works as a silent partner with government, never once investigating the genuinely important stuff. A merged, corporate press has no interest in investigating a corporate government, indeed it depends on government agencies for the leaks and interviews and data access which make it appear as though it is investigating and reporting day-in, day-out. It often provides the security agencies with cover for their overseas operations, it frequently has hired them, sometimes unwittingly, onto its staff, and it provides an outlet for the agencies’ disinformation, again sometimes unwittingly. And of course the corporate advertising which sustains the press puts the scrutiny of many corporate matters out of bounds, including many cozy and anti-democratic relationships with government and its major agencies.

Just as there is a natural cycle in the life of great industries – the scores of early American car manufacturers are now reduced to a few functioning as an oligopoly, an historical pattern repeated in industry after industry  – there appears to be a life cycle for a government organized like that of the United States. The duopoly which runs the American government consists of two parties which differ in almost no particulars except some social issues, but even that difference is rather a sham because the American government no longer has any interest in social issues. It is concerned overwhelmingly with representing and furthering the interests of the nation’s three great power centers of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Social issues now are soap-box stuff for street-corner politicians and members of NGOs.

But in any case, all players in this political duopoly, no matter to which office they may be elected, know they can never challenge the immense authority and virtual omnipresence of America’s military, intelligence, corporate hierarchies and special interests like the Israel Lobby, powerful anti-democratic institutions which literally shape the space America’s politicians must inhabit.

Americans today quite simply could not vote in an informed manner if they wanted to do so (and many are not interested in voting at all, as we shall see): they are completely in the dark as to what happens inside their government, both its operations within the country and in international affairs. No one knows the full extent of spending on intelligence, nor do they know what dark programs are underway. No one knows the full extent of spending on the military, nor do they know to what questionable tasks it is being put around the world. No one knows the immense extent and complexity of lobbying and special interests in the American government. And of course no one is privy to the planning and operations of the great corporations, nor do they know anything of the dealings and financing arrangements between those corporations (or the wealthy individuals who own and run them) and the people’s supposed representatives, who all must spend a substantial part of their time just raising money for the next election (the average American Senator is said to spend two-thirds of his or her time doing just that).

Americans’ votes in elections have become to a remarkable extent meaningless, although an elaborate political stage play keeps the appearance of meaning and keeps those interested in politics involved and entertained. Almost certainly as a result of sensing how little their votes count, Americans often simply do not vote and do so in increasing numbers. The further down the political totem pole you go from the presidential elections which generate the most noise owing to the obscene amounts of money spent on marketing and advertising, the greater is this truth. Maybe 60% vote for president, a minority vote in other national elections, and a tiny fraction vote in state and local elections.

For those who cherish rights and values won since the Enlightenment, it is a disheartening prospect we face. A nasty bully, armed to the teeth and endowed with a profound sense of entitlement and scant regard for the other 95% of humanity, casts a long shadow over the entire planet. Not so terrifying a figure as a Stalin or a Hitler, he is frightening enough, and his insincere words about rights and values and fairness fool many as he proceeds to do just as he pleases, including killing any individual on the planet he decides in secret to be an opponent. It is indeed a brave new world, not Shakespeare’s and something far grimmer than Huxley’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOHN CHUCKMAN

 

Some Israelis are fond of comparing Israel’s displacement of Palestinians to the historical experience of North Americans in displacing indigenous people, but the comparison is inaccurate on almost every level. First, comparing events of two hundred years ago and today is misleading: norms of human rights and ethics and law have changed tremendously in that time. Besides, people all over the world see and read of such injustices today, something not possible at an earlier time.

Second, the indigenous people of, for example, Canada consist of roughly one million out of a national population of 35 million, whereas Palestinians have reached slightly more than half the population of Israel-Palestine which is about eleven million. The scale and relative size of any event are important, as we are reminded time and again concerning the Holocaust

Third, the original indigenous North American people lived in a non-intensive economy of hunting and gathering and early agriculture, activities not compatible by their very nature with European settlement and development in a given region. But the Palestinians often are shopkeepers and farmers and tradesmen and professionals, activities fully compatible with the European development Israel represents.

Fourth, and most importantly, all of North America’s indigenous people are full citizens of their countries with rights to move and to work anywhere and the right to vote in elections and the freedom to marry anyone or claim any benefit owing to a citizen, whereas Israel holds the best part of five million Palestinians (Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem) in a seemingly perpetual state of having no rights and no citizenship. A Jewish Israeli cannot even marry a Palestinian Israeli without serious consequences. The million or so Palestinians who are Israeli citizens – owing to the accidents of war in 1948 and certainly not to Israel’s embrace of diversity – are only technically so, having passports but having many restrictions and constant suspicions placed upon them. More than a few influential Israelis have spoken to the idea of driving them entirely out of the country at some point.

If, as Israel always insists as a pre-condition for peace talks, Israel were to be formally recognized by Palestinians as “the Jewish state,” what happens to the million or so Palestinians who are now (nominally) Israeli citizens?

Israel long has been concerned with the relative rates of growth of Jewish and non-Jewish populations in Israel proper and in the occupied territories. The populations are now roughly equal for the first time, and from now on the Jewish population likely will diminish as a fraction of the whole. These relative growth rates reflect the advanced European and American status of many Ashkenazi Jews, the people who largely run and own Israel. Advanced people today in all Western countries do not replace their populations. That is why even stable old European states are experiencing social difficulties with large in-migrations.

Significant in-migration always changes a country. Even a country such as Britain which we are used to thinking of in a well-defined set of characteristics is undergoing change, but the truth is our thinking about the character of a place like Britain is illusory. Britain over a longer time horizon was Celtic, Roman, Germanic, and Norman French with bits of others such as Vikings thrown in – all these going into the make-up of what we call the British people, what we think of as represented by, say, Winston Churchill with derby, umbrella, cigar, and distinctive accent, but, of course, Sir Winston also was half American (his mother).

Ethnic purity of any sort is a nonsense, and one hesitates even to use the phrase after the lunacies of the Nazis. Oddly, early in the Third Reich, the Nazis had considerable difficulty agreeing on what defined a Jew for purposes of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws. After years of preaching hatred against Jews during their rise to power, you might think the Nazis clearly understood exactly what the object of all that hatred was, but that proved not to be the case. Under the compromise reached between various factions of the party, “three-quarter Jews,” those with three Jewish grandparents, were considered Jews. “Half-Jews,” those with two Jewish grandparents and two “Aryan” grandparents, were considered Jews only if they practiced the faith. “Quarter Jews” were considered as non-Jews. Attempting to rationalize the irrational always leads to absurd, not to say dangerous, results.

And yet, in a bitter paradox, Israel perpetuates a version of this thinking. A conception of just who is a Jew is necessary because all those regarded as Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and to receive generous assistance in settling there. But as with any such conception, it suffers disagreements and adjustments over time, a recent one involving whether to recognize certain African groups holding to ancient variations of Jewish belief. Moreover, inside Israel there are great disagreements about rules set by one group of Jews, the ultra-orthodox, governing important parts of the lives of other groups of Jews.

As for today’s population shifts, the larger a country’s population, the more easily it absorbs in-migrants with minimal disturbance, but countries the size of Denmark or even Holland have experienced serious disturbances given the generosity of their past acceptance of refugees. And just so Israel, whose small population has struggled with huge in-migrations of Russians and others in recent decades. Many older Israelis have been irritated by them, and many of the Russians irritated at what they find in Israel. Smaller groups of in-migrant Jews and of refugees, ones with dark skins, have aroused some very ugly scenes recently in Israel, especially among the ultra-orthodox, scenes not altogether different to those of Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Alabama.

The Arab population in Israel-Palestine grows along the rates of third-world populations which have not experienced full demographic transition, something demographers have identified as an historic event in all advanced countries, a one-time population adjustment from the ancient human pattern of high birth and death rates to a modern one of low rates for both. High birth rates yield a young and growing population in any land where high death rates once claimed the lives of many children and kept population growth suppressed, but vaccines and improvements in diet and hygiene have lowered traditional infant mortality in many parts of the world. In advanced countries, the pattern has been for birth rates to fall once lower death rates are seen as the new reality, yielding slow to non-existent or even declining population growth. This last part of demographic transition requires a degree of prosperity to be achieved, something which Israel’s occupation makes impossible for Palestinians.

Countries with modern, non-replacement levels of fertility must rely on in-migration to grow and, in many cases, just to keep their populations where they are. All of advanced Europe and the United States and Canada are in this situation. A declining population has many implications, from shortages of key skills and talents to a decreased pool for soldiers and an outright decline in a country’s economic output. All advanced nations today maintain their populations through immigration.

Israel has been built almost wholly through immigration. Because Israel defines itself in such limiting terms as a state for only one group of people, with that group being a tiny fraction of world population (about 15 million out of 7 billion), Israel faces likely an insurmountable problem obtaining required future migrants. Its last source of substantial population growth was from Russia, and there are no more large pools of Jewish population left in the world willing to trade their situation for that of Israel. Jews now living comfortably in Europe and North America are certainly willing to visit Israel and perhaps donate and perhaps even do a business deal, but most are not willing to pack up and move there.

And why should they? Life is good in Europe and much of North America. In modern Israel there are endless tensions and arguments and difficulties, and immigrants face everything from national service requirements (for men and women) to punishing taxes and high costs of living and, in more than a few cases, intense prejudices. It is not surprising that recent World Bank data show significant net out-migration for Israel over the last 5 years, something new in the country’s brief history.

Why does Israel hang on to the occupied territories, the source of great stress and conflict, with their Arab population approaching 5 million? The answer, to a great extent, is found in a concept called Greater Israel. Greater Israel is supposed to reflect information from the Old Testament about the extent of biblical Israel. It includes the West Bank and Gaza, a slice of Syria, much of Lebanon, and other bits, all depending on which of several definitions you accept, there being no maps in biblical literature and words having been used with far less precision than we accept today. And there is something almost silly and chimerical about taking so literally ancient writings which include people being swallowed by a whale or turned into a pillar of salt. Whether chimerical or not, It is easy to see how dangerous the concept is today.

Many astute observers believe Israel’s 1967 War was deliberately engineered to seize much of the territory required for Greater Israel. At the time, France and the United States, while promising security for Israel, warned it not to use the war to increase its territory, but Israel did use the war that way. One of the explanations for Israel’s intense attack on the USS Liberty, a well-marked spy ship about which Israel had been informed in advance, was to silence America’s minute-to-minute information as Israel hurriedly turned its armored forces from Egypt towards the north and murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war to expedite the operation. Israel’s own behavior since 1967 certainly supports the idea of conquest as the war’s goal.

One suspects many Israeli leaders secretly believe in Greater Israel, with a number of them having spoken about it. It is important to know that the ultra-orthodox – whose parties are required for either major party’s forming a government – are the fiercest and most unapologetic believers in Greater Israel. For them “the promised land” must be as promised thirty centuries or so ago. Of course, believers in Greater Israel are not typically heard to explain what would happen to millions of Palestinian residents, other than such flip notions of their all moving to Jordan where they supposedly belong. What we see in Israel’s regular building of new settlements in the occupied territories does, for all the world, resemble a policy of slow-motion ethnic-cleansing towards creating Greater Israel. It certainly is a policy extremely hostile to any hopes of peace and stability.

How can you be so hostile and yet say that you search for peace? You cannot, at least in the real world. So how does any realistic person interpret Israel’s continued stealing of other people’s homes and farms? Israel calls these periodic thefts “facts on the ground” towards negotiation, but that ambiguous expression much resembles Israel’s public pledge never to be the first in the region to employ nuclear weapons, yet we all know that Israel does indeed have nuclear weapons while no one else does (most recent estimate is 80 nuclear warheads and a stockpile of fissile material adequate to better than double the number). While many Israelis rail against liberals who criticize such things, the simple fact is that the very definition of liberal-minded makes it impossible to accept them.

No place can sustain a sense of crisis indefinitely, something Israel has done since its founding, and the continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Syria’s Golan Heights only add greatly to that sense of crisis. The costs in material terms and in psychological ones are high. Indeed, it is an unnatural thing for any state to sustain itself as a garrison state, a garrison state being a fortified place where service in the armed forces, various secret services, and a large bureaucracy concerned with such matters, provides an unhealthily large part of the national economy. Such institutions consume great amounts of wealth and produce little beyond basic security, and any nation with an inordinately large set of such institutions is at a comparative disadvantage to other nations not so burdened.

Apart from the immense cost of occupation, Israel’s army is showing increasing signs of unhappiness and demoralization with its role in the occupied territories. Adding to the general malaise expressed by hundreds of soldiers and veterans, the recent government commitment to subject the ultra-orthodox to military service for the first time is sure not to prove a happy experience. It is the ultra-orthodox parties who have most driven the ferocity of Israel’s position with its neighbors. These are the people who every once in a while run out and seize Palestinian land, building shacks on it and calling it a settlement, or who chop down ancient olive groves so that the Palestinians who own them cannot make a living. And these are the people who absolutely will not live with others who are different, including even many other Jews. Their men will not ride with women on a bus, and there is a long history of attacks on people living near or passing through their neighborhoods, as the defacing of non-orthodox temples, the physical assaults on outsiders in the streets, and such extreme acts as burning down the homes of women regarded as loose, sometimes with the occupants inside. When their young men and women have to wear uniforms and do duties in the occupied territories and at borders – and note women as well as men are drafted into the army – they are going to be very unhappy, but if the government fails in its intentions, there will be continuing unrest in the larger part of Israel, many of whom regard the ultra-orthodox as an embarrassment and a national problem.

Israel hopes with such measures as drafting the young ultra-orthodox to better integrate them into society, but this seems a hopeless idea. Can you integrate old-order Mennonites into society at large? To even attempt to do so is to destroy the foundation of their beliefs, much like America’s futile attempts to alter behaviors of fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan.

Since the beginning there have been internal conflicts in Israel between the ultra-orthodox and others. Many outsiders are not aware of the extent of the secular, indeed worldly, nature of a great part of Israel’s population. A very large part of Israel’s population is secular, estimated at well more than 40% while the orthodox and ultra-orthodox are about 20%. Yet many social rules legislated in Israel are to please the ultra-orthodox – after all, they do hold the balance of power in Israeli elections – and since a great part of Israel’s population is not observant in religion, regarding its Jewish identity as cultural, most Israelis live under legislation with which they are uncomfortable, but it is difficult to imagine how these differences and irritations can ever be rectified. Indeed, within Israel’s Jewish population, the only people with larger-than-average birth rates are the ultra-orthodox. Much as with Mennonites or old-fashioned Mormons, the ultra-orthodox eschew many of the benefits of modern society and live to some extent as though it were still the 19th century, including 19th century rates of fertility.

It is also demoralizing for a good part of the population to realize that their country is in much the same business as past discredited societies such as apartheid South Africa. How else can it be, given the occupied territories and Israel’s notion of itself as the Jewish state? It is also demoralizing to read overwhelming expressions of disapproval in the world’s press and to see the reactions of others when travelling on an Israeli passport. Indeed, the Israeli government has gone to the desperate extreme of paying thousands of students to counter criticisms of Israel on internet commentary and social sites around the world.

The elite class of Israel consists largely of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and North America. Recent historical research and DNA testing do tend to support an old but unproven idea, once subject to the accusation of anti-Semitism, that their origin is not the ancient Hebrew people but a 7th to 9th century people from the Caucasus called the Khazars, converts to Judaism. And, to add more irony to the situation, historical research (and some DNA testing) supports the idea that today’s Palestinians are in part descendants of the Hebrews. There is no record from Rome of its having expelled the population when it conquered the region, nor would such an act be characteristic of Rome in its many conquests. Whatever the final truth of the matter, these ideas, now taken seriously by some world-class scientists and scholars, can only add to the unease and discomfort of modern Israelis.

Israel, since its founding, has been the most subsidized state in the world, maybe even in the history of the world. Israel’s economy for that reason cannot be sensibly compared to anything. It receives about $500 per year per Jewish citizen from the United States, and it has done so for decades. But that is only the beginning. There are periodic loan guarantees of tens of billions. There is constant access at the highest level for this nation with the population of Ecuador, something no other country, even a far more important one, has.

It has a plum free-trade agreement – indeed, without exporting its subsidized crops Israel’s agriculture would disappear – a costly gift to Israel because it has no tangible benefits for Americans. The opportunity cost of the water Israel squanders on tomatoes and clementines to export is unbelievably high because it is the cost of desalination-plant water. It thus sends subsidized produce to the United States under free trade, produce the United States doesn’t even need.

Israel receives billions worth of intelligence and defense cooperation every year from the United States, something few other countries receive. The billion and a half dollars a year going to Egypt is a bribe paid on Israel’s behalf by Americans since the Camp David Agreements. Israel receives heavily below-cost natural gas from Egypt, the result of U.S. pressure. Everyone knows this is scandalous, and the U.S. offered to pay a subsidy if Egypt raised the price. Israel also receives billions from the Jewish communities of America and Europe, and it receives important business intelligence and connections.

The great privilege granted to American Israelis to be recognized as dual citizens, a status of which the United States in general disapproves, means they move back and forth regularly, all the while sharing business and other intelligence. Israel’s farms and cities and water supply were all taken with absolutely no payment or reparations from other people, that being the biggest subsidy ever received, the very substance of the nation. Israel has received tens of billions in reparations from Germany – wholly appropriate in view of the past – but still a subsidy, and today Germany still subsidizes things like submarine construction. The list is even longer than this, but I think the point is clear: Israel is, in no meaningful sense, an independent national economy. It is in truth a gigantic international welfare case.

Israel, despite the subsidies, does not offer a good living for a great many of its citizens. Huge demonstrations – much hidden in the Western press – revealed great discontent in a country where the costs of basics like home ownership are intimidating. And it is hard to see how it can be otherwise in a very small, economically-inefficient country with military and security costs like no other.

Subsidies do not continue forever, and many of the sources of Israel’s subsidies must eventually tire of its never honestly trying to create meaningful peace. Many Jews in America, while continuing to support Israel, increasingly are irritated and embarrassed by its counter-productive policies and often outrageous acts. How long can they be depended upon?

Israelis like to complain of Western liberals and their views of the country, but they fail to remember who their historic allies and enemies were. Today’s “friends of Israel” represented by the likes of Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or America’s religious right were the very types who exuded anti-Semitism and admired Nazis a bit more than half a century ago. How secure are such attachments?

The Holocaust generation will completely disappear soon, taking with it a great deal of the intense fear and guilt which powered Israel’s creation. The efforts of ideologue Zionists for decades would never have made Israel a reality. It took the immensity of the Holocaust, influencing both Jews and nations like the United States – which could have accepted refugees before the Final Solution, but flatly refused, sending boatloads back to Germany – to create modern Israel. The United States position on Israel has always been riddled with hypocrisy, imposing a terrible burden on Palestinians for something which was neither their fault nor anything they could have prevented and giving huge aid to Israel instead of helping with compensation for Palestinians rendered refugees in their own land.

The virtual industry we have seen in building museums and publishing books dedicated to the Holocaust largely goes against normal human nature: people have a built-in capacity to forget great pain and turn to the stuff of living. Saying that does not mean that the Holocaust will be forgotten, only that it will assume its place in history with so many other terrible events and great upheavals, events and upheavals which are hard historical facts, not ever-present sources of pain and fear. But the Holocaust as a continued rationalization for the injustice and abuse we see in Israel-Palestine is losing its force both inside and outside Israel.

No democratic state can thrive under the long continued presence of a large military and intelligence establishment, the United States being the world’s premier example of this truth. For its size, Israel’s military-intelligence establishment is quite huge. Such institutions simply do not operate under democratic rules, and they do not promote democratic values within society. Quite the opposite, through their training of cohorts of young people, their secret demands on politicians, and secretive operations, they erode democratic values and respect for human rights. That fact combined with Israel’s continued occupation and abuse of millions and the fundamental fact that Israel’s idea of democracy begins with one group making all decisions do mean that Israel’s democracy is a rather poor one.

Moreover, it is an historical fact that democracies, not protected by a Bill or Charter of Rights, will everywhere and always abuse minorities. Power, however granted, is power, and there is nothing magical about democratically-granted power which protects any group or party differing in its views. Yet, by its very nature, Israel can never have a Charter of Rights, and therefore Israel can never be a proper democracy.

Last, Israel plays a decisive role in keeping in place the very dictatorships and monarchs around it that its politicians regularly decry in speeches aimed at American audiences. Why was the Egyptian Revolution, for example, completely turned around so that eighty million people are back to living under a junta? Why was a clean democratic election with Hamas, a party which represented genuine reform from Fatah, treated as a terrorist event, leading to elected officials being arrested wholesale and their leader openly threatened with assassination, a bloody invasion of what is essentially a giant refugee camp, piracy on the high seas, and a years-long punishing blockade? Israel does not want, and will not allow, democracy in any meaningful sense to emerge amongst its neighbors. And the fundamental reason for this is that Israel knows the popular will of virtually all of its neighbors is not friendly to Israel’s most selfish interests. So does that mean that all of Israel’s neighbors are doomed to tyrannies or monarchs in perpetuity? I think it does, so long as Israel is the kind of state that it is.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, one extremely wealthy American supporter of Israel supplied Newt Gingrich with the best part of $20 million towards Gingrich’s ambition of becoming the Republican candidate. Even in America’s money-drenched political system, such generous support does not come free. The price in this case was Gingrich’s periodically announcing in speeches that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian,” an echo of Golda Meir’s years-ago, dismally dishonest claim. Do Jews in Israel or America really enjoy hearing such paid-for nonsense from American politicians? More than anything, Gingrich resembled a pet monkey on a chain dancing for his supper. Such performances only demonstrate desperation by Israel’s apologists, a kind of frenzied wish-fulfillment to make a tremendous real problem disappear, and I’m sure many are embarrassed or disturbed by them.

Many of Israel’s Ashkenazi people hold dual citizenships, America and other countries having made an exemption to their traditional opposition to dual citizenships. While it might have been an adventure or a special opportunity to live in Israel or an expression of religious or cultural attachment, it is very likely many of them increasingly will take advantage of their situation to return to the lands of their birth. There is a better life for almost any class of people to be had in Europe or North America than in Israel. Better economies, greater opportunities, higher standards of living, no military draft for children, no daily scenes of abuse, no need to rationalize or apologize about your citizenship, no intense, unresolvable internal conflicts, and no sense of being surrounded with hostility.

No matter how many ultimately leave, large numbers of Jews will continue to live in the Middle East, but a purely Jewish state is no more sustainable in the long run than was the Soviet Union with its built-in anti-economic assumptions generating perpetual economic weakness. So, too, a state based on fear, which is in part what Israel is today. Fear does not sustain and ultimately cannot be sustained in any population. Stalin’s Soviet Union operated on fear for a considerable amount of time, but in the end even the dedicated communists desperately wanted to end fear. The many Jews who do remain will have to accommodate the realities of the region. They will come to accept Albert Einstein’s idea of Zionism: Jews living in the Middle East without the apparatus of a special state and a large army and living with respect for their neighbors. Perhaps, what will ultimately emerge is a single nation living in genuine peace. At least we can hope.

 

 

 

 

 

John Chuckman

Of course, the cozy popular myth of America’s Founding Fathers as an earnest, civic-minded group gathered in an ornate hall, writing with quill pens, reading from leather-bound tomes, and offering heroic speeches in classical poses – all resembling Greek philosophers in wigs and spectacles and frock coats – was always that, a myth. They were in more than a few cases narrow, acquisitive men, ambitious for their personal interests which were considerable, and even the more philosophic types among them were well-read but largely unoriginal men who cribbed ideas and concepts and even whole phrases from European Enlightenment writers and British parliamentary traditions.

And much of what they wrote and agreed upon involved what would prove mistaken ideas, with a lack of foresight into what the almost unchangeable concrete their words would shape. Americans today often are not aware that the word “democracy” for many of the Founders was an unpleasant one, carrying just about the same connotations that “communist” would a century and a half later. Men of the world of privilege and comparative wealth – Washington, Morris, and many others – were having nothing to do with ideas which rendered unimportant men important. That is why the country was styled as a “republic” – that most undefined term in the political lexicon, which then meant only the absence of a king with decisions made by a tight group of propertied elites.

False as they are, the very fact that there are such pleasant myths does tell us something about past popular ideals informing their creation. Now, how would any future Americans manage to weave attractive myths about a president who sits in the Oval Office signing authorizations for teams of young buzz-cut psychopaths in secret locked rooms to guide killing machines against mere suspects and innocent bystanders, often adopting the tactics of America’s lunatic anti-abortion assassins, sending a second hellish missile into the crowd of neighbors who come to the assistance of the victims of the first?

How would they weave attractive myths around the CIA’s International Torture Gulag, including that hellhole, Guantanamo, where kidnapped, legally-innocent people are imprisoned and tortured and given absolutely no rights or ethical treatment under international laws and conventions?

During the Revolutionary War, the battles were between armies, and captured soldiers were frequently granted their freedom upon their paroles, pledges of not returning to the fight. Spies were thought poorly of and often hung. Torture was uncommon and certainly not embraced as policy.

What myths can be written of two wars involving the deaths of a million or so people, the creation of millions of refugees, and the needless destruction of huge amounts of other peoples’ property, and all to achieve nothing but a change of government? Or about massive armed forces and secret security agencies which squander hundreds of billions in resources year after year, spreading their dark influence to all corners of the globe, and offering an insurmountable obstacle to America’s own citizens who might imagine they ever can rise against a government grown tyrannous? After all, polls in America show that its Congress is held in contempt by the overwhelming majority of its people, with percentages of disapproval rivaling those held for communism or Satanic rituals.

There are no myths about today’s Congressional figures. Everyone understands they are often to be found bellowing in ornate halls about points most Americans couldn’t care less about. Everyone understands that they are ready to go anywhere and say almost anything for large enough campaign contributions. That they take off on junkets paid for by groups hoping to influence votes and put faces to the exercise of future influence, trips commonly involving a foreign power trying to shape American policy. That their work is often steeped in secrecy from the voters, secrecy not governed by genuine national security concerns but by the often shameful nature of their work. That a good deal of the legislation and rules they create repress their own people’s interests and favor only special interests.

That their government regularly suppresses inconvenient truths and labels those who raise questions as foolishly addicted to conspiracy or even as treacherous. What are just a few of the events which have been treated in this fashion? The assassination of a President. The accidental or deliberate downing of at least three civilian aircraft by America’s military in recent years – an Iranian airliner, TWA Flight 800 on the East Coast, and the fourth plane of the 9/11 plot over Pennsylvania. The CIA’s past cooperation and engagement with the American Mafia during its anti-Castro terror campaign. The CIA’s use of drug trafficking to raise off-the-books income. The military’s assassination of American prisoners of war cooperating with their Vietnamese captors. Obfuscating Israel’s deliberate attack on an American intelligence-gathering ship during its engineered 1967 War. The huge death toll of locals, civilian and military, in America’s grisly imperial wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. 9/11.

I do not believe in 9/11 insider plots, but I know there has been strenuous official effort to disguise that event’s full nature. The motives? One suspects a great deal of embarrassment at demonstrated incompetence has been at work. Blowback from CIA operations in the Middle East seems more than likely. The documented involvement of Mossad in following and recording the plotters inside the United States leaves disturbing unanswered questions. One also knows that America’s establishment discovered in the wake of 9/11 the perfect opportunity for doing a great many nasty things it had always wanted to do anyway. You might say the terrorists did the military-industrial-intelligence complex a big favor. Anti-democratic measures involving surveillance, privacy in communications, secret prisons, torture, and effective suspension of some of the Constitution are all parts of the new American reality.

The FBI can record what you borrow from the public library. The NSA captures your every phone call, text message, and e-mail. The TSA can strip search you for taking an inter-city bus. Drones are being used for surveillance, and the TSA actually has a program of agents traveling along some highways ready to stop those regarded as suspicious. Portable units for seeing through clothes and baggage, similar to those used at airports, are to tour urban streets in vans randomly. Agencies of the government, much in the style of the former Stasi, encourage reports from citizens about suspicious behavior. Now, you can just imagine what might be called “suspicious” in a society which has always had a tendency towards witch-hunts and fears of such harmless things as Harry Potter books or the charming old Procter and Gambel symbol on soapboxes.

America has become in many ways a police state, albeit one where a kind of decency veil is left draped over the crude government machinery. How can a place which has elections and many of the trappings of a free society be a police state? Well, it can because power, however conferred, can be, and will be, abused. And the majority in any democratic government can impose terrible burdens on the minority. That’s how the American Confederacy worked, how apartheid South Africa worked, and that’s how Israel works today. Prevention of those inevitable abuses is the entire reason for a Bill of Rights, but if you suspend or weaken its protections, anything becomes possible.

American police forces have long enjoyed a reputation for brutal and criminal behavior – using illegal-gains seizure laws for profit, beating up suspects, conducting unnecessary military-style raids on homes, killing people sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses – having earned international recognition from organizations such as Amnesty International. The reasons for this are complex but include the military model of organization adopted by American policing, the common practice of hiring ex-soldiers as police, the phenomenon of uncontrolled urban sprawl creating new towns whose tiny police forces have poor practices and training, and, in many jurisdictions, a long and rich history of police corruption. Now, those often poor-quality American police have unprecedented discretion and powers of abuse.

Further, according to the words of one high-ranking general a few years back, the American military is prepared to impose martial law in the event of another great act of terror. Certainly that is an encouraging and uplifting thought considering all the blunders and waste and murder and rape the American military has inflicted upon countries from Vietnam to Iraq.

Where it is possible, power prefers to know about and even to control what is going on at the most humble level of its society, and the greater the power, the more irresistible the drive to know and control. It is essential to appreciate that whether you are talking about the military or huge corporations or the security apparatus, you are not talking about institutions which are democratic in nature. Quite the opposite, these institutions are run along much the same lines as all traditional forms of undemocratic government, from monarchs to dictators. Leadership and goals and methods are not subject to a vote and orders given are only to be obeyed, and there is no reason to believe that any of these institutions cherishes or promotes democratic values or principles of human rights. Of course, corporations, in order to attract talent, must publicly present a friendly face towards those principles, but that necessary charade reflects their future behavior about as much as campaign promises reflect future acts of an American politician.

Those at the top of all powerful and hierarchical institutions inevitably come to believe that they know better than most people, and those with any hope of gaining top positions must adopt the same view. For centuries we saw the great landed gentry and church patriarchs of pre-democratic societies regard themselves as inherently different from the population. It is no different with the psychology of people who enjoy their wealth and influence through positions in these great modern, un-democratic institutions. The larger and more pervasive these institutions become in society – and they have become truly bloated in America – the more will their narcissistic, privileged views prevail. Also, it is axiomatic that where great power exists, it never goes unused. Large standing armies are the proximate cause of many of history’s wars. And just so, the power of corporations to expand through illegality of every description, this being the source of the many controversies about failing to pay taxes in countries where they operate or the widespread practice of bribery in landing large contracts with national governments.

So far as security services go (the United States, at last count, having sixteen different ones), they may well be the worst of all these modern, massive anti-democratic institutions. Their lines of responsibility to government are often weak, and citizens in general are often regarded as things with which to experiment or play. Their leaders and agents are freely permitted to perjure themselves in courts. The organizations possess vast budgets with little need to account for the spending. They can even create their own funds through everything from drug and weapons trading to counterfeiting currency, all of it not accounted for and subject to no proper authority. And their entire work is secret, whether that work involves legitimate national security or not. The nature of their work breeds a secret-fraternity mindset of superiority and cynicism. They start wars and coups, including against democratic governments sometimes, they pay off rising politicians even in allied countries, they use money and disinformation to manipulate elections even in friendly governments, and of course they kill people and leaders they seriously disapprove of. Now, does any thinking person believe that they simply forget these mindsets and practices when it comes to what they regard as serious problems in their own country?

The record of arrogance and abuse by security organizations, such as CIA or the FBI, is long and costly, filled with errors in judgment, abuse of power, incompetence, and immense dishonesty. Owing to the black magic of classified secrecy, much of the record involves projects about which we will never know, but even what we do know about is distressing enough. And I’m not sure that it can be any other way so long as you have Big Intelligence. Apart from Big Intelligence’s own propensity towards criminal or psychopathic behavior, one of the great ironies of Big Intelligence is that it will always agree to bend, to provide whatever suppressions and fabrications are requested by political leaders working towards the aims of the other great anti-democratic institutions, the military and the corporations. This became blindingly clear in the invasion of Iraq and, even before that, in the first Gulf War.

America’s political system, honed and shaped over many decades, fits comfortably with these institutions. National elections are dominated by a two-party duopoly (being kept that way through countless institutional barriers deliberately created to maintain the status quo) , both these parties are dominated by huge flows of campaign contributions (contributions which form what economists call an effective barrier to entry against any third party seriously being able to compete), both parties embrace much the same policies except for some social issues of little interest to the establishment, and election campaigns are reduced to nothing more than gigantic advertising and marketing operations no different in nature to campaigns for two national brands of fast food or pop. It takes an extremely long time for a candidate to rise and be tested before being trusted with the huge amounts of money invested in an important campaign, and by that time he or she is a well-read book with no surprising chapters.

If for any reason this political filtering system fails, and someone slips through to an important office without having spent enough time to make them perfectly predictable, there still remains little chance of serious change on any important matter. The military-industrial-intelligence complex provides a molded space into which any newcomer absolutely must fit. Just imagine the immense pressures exerted by the mere presence of senior Pentagon brass gathered around a long polished oak table or a table surrounded by top corporate figures representing hundreds of billions in sales or representatives or a major lobbying group (and multi-million dollar financing source for the party). We see the recent example of popular hopes being crushed after the election of Obama, a man everyone on the planet hoped to see mend some of the ravages of George Bush and Dick Cheney. But the man who once sometimes wore sandals and bravely avoided a superfluous and rather silly flag pin on his lapel quickly was made to feel the crushing weight of institutional power, and he bent to every demand made on him, becoming indistinguishable from Bush. Of course, the last president who genuinely did challenge at least some of the great institutional powers, even to a modest extent, died in an ambush in Dallas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POOR PEOPLE OF EGYPT

John Chuckman

How is it that the people of Egypt, after a successful revolution against the repressive 30-year government of President Mubarak, a revolution involving the hopes and fears of millions and a substantial loss of life, have ended up almost precisely where they started?

After Mubarak’s fall, there were many comments from prominent citizens of one of Egypt’s neighbors, the one styling itself “the Middle East’s only democracy,” expressing great concern over the end of decades of brutal dictatorial rule for eighty million neighbors. The comments, from many prominent Israelis, were disturbing in tone and certainly did not welcome the idea of an expansion of democracy in the region.

But the revolution continued, with some starts and stops, and Egyptians voted in their first free election. By all accounts, it was a cleaner election than many in that other great defender of democracy, the United States, but democracy as Winston Churchill famously said is “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and the majority went to a religious-affiliated party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which had been persecuted and suppressed for years by Mubarak, an activity which endeared him to democracy-loving Israeli governments.

Now, that name, Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly sounds ominous to many in a post-9/11 world, a world where fears and disinformation about Muslims have become a daily, unavoidable part of the news in much of the Western world. But the truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood was not radical, and in many respects the religious note in Egyptian politics was not altogether different from that of a long history of Christian-affiliated parties in Western Europe or Latin America, such as the Christian Democrats.

Indeed, Egypt’s good democratic neighbor itself has been ruled in many aspects of its national life by ultra-orthodox religious parties needed to make a governing coalition in its heavily-splintered political system. And these Israeli fundamentalist parties do not reflect anything like the mild religious traditions of Europe’s Christian Democrats. These Israeli parties are composed of people who believe in theocratic rule, in the superiority of one group over others, in the unique truth of one set of ancient writing, in ancient views of women’s rights, and in legalizing many practices violating principles of the Enlightenment. As political analysts know, small parties can exert inordinate leverage on a society where they absolutely are required to form a government, that leverage necessarily seeming quite undemocratic to most citizens living under its shadow.

Well, Egypt’s new government did do some things that strict secularists such as myself do not like to see, its new constitution being chief among them. No liberal-minded person wants to live under a constitution giving special place to one religious group over another, but then that is nothing unusual in the world, and it is especially the case for emerging countries with many years of political experimenting in democratic institutions ahead of them.

So Egyptians unhappy with Morsi’s brief time in government started demonstrating against him. In doing so, they unwittingly weakened the foundations of a fragile set of democratic institutions and played into the hands of those who wanted the military coup we have now witnessed, with members of an elected government under arrest and many hundreds of people on both sides, for and against the Morsi government, killed in the streets, and a distressing return to where Egypt was about three years ago.

The truth is that the road to a fully-functioning democracy is always a very long one. The United States from its founding took a couple of hundred years to achieve even the semblance of democracy we see today. America started – despite the high-sounding words of its constitution – as a place where the people did not elect the president (the elites of the electoral college did), where the Senate was appointed (not changed until the 20th century), where a massive industry in human slavery legally flourished, where no women or blacks or even most men (those without specified amounts of property) could vote, and where the Bill of Rights served as a mere advertising slogan because its list of rights could not be enforced by a Supreme Court owing strict allegiance to the concept of states’ rights. The common sentimental view of early America is just that, sentimental.

The journey toward free and fair democratic government must be started somewhere, and Morsi’s government was perhaps as promising a start as is possible in a country mired in poverty and lacking democratic institutions as Egypt is, but the re-establishment of a junta is no start at all.

So, who are the people who wanted the coup and why did they want it?

To answer this we must go back to some of the acts of the Morsi government and see just who was extremely unhappy about them. One was a new general policy towards the hostages Israel holds in Gaza, by which I mean the million and a half people who also elected a new government some years back, the Hamas Party, in clean elections. There is no use repeating the fairy tale about Hamas being a terrorist organization: it most certainly is not, although through Israel’s manipulation of the severe weaknesses in America’s political structure (the acceptance of political donations in any amount as free speech, the acceptance of virtually unlimited lobbying, and the duopoly party system allowing one to be played against the other) Israel did succeed in having white declared to be red.

Morsi’s new general policy, offensive to Israel but I’m sure acceptable to most Egyptians, was not one of throwing open the border with Gaza – that would have resulted in air strikes and dire threats by Israel – but it was one of easing up on the past harshness Mubarak maintained to please Israel and the United States, and Mubarak and his military were keen to keep them pleased because the United States pays a huge annual bribe to Egypt to keep just such matters under control.

Now we have the Egyptian military returning to harsh measures: I read, for example, that they were flooding the tunnels which have served as vital supply lines for the imprisoned people of Gaza. Before its overthrow, Mubarak’s government was looking to build a kind of underground Berlin Wall along the entire border with Gaza made of special steel supplied by the United States. Perhaps now the military will take the wall-project up again, surely bringing satisfied smiles to the lips of Israel’s brutal government. You know just on the face of it that there is something very odd and unnatural in Egypt’s behaving this way towards people with whom most Egyptians sympathize for the benefit of another people with whom they do not sympathize.

I think the single most important act leading to the coup likely was Morsi’s meeting with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, a much-hated man in Israel. The meeting in fact was a perfectly natural and normal thing for these two countries to do, given their mutual interests and an ancient history of associations. They are both predominantly Muslim and both are large countries, on the order of 70-80 million people. But I know the meeting must have sent Mr. Netanyahu into a sputtering dark fury and almost certainly had him reaching for the phone to Obama within minutes.

Does Netanyahu have a special phone to the Oval Office, a version of the ‘hot line” established between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s to help avoid a disastrous nuclear misunderstanding?

One suspects so because of what surely must be the volume of calls made from one of the world’s smallest countries to one of its largest, regularly asking for things – everything from increases in American aid or access to new technologies and weapons systems or seeking support for Israeli companies trying to land a contract or asking yet again that a damaging spy like Jonathon Pollard be freed or setting new demands in foreign policy towards this or that country fallen under Mr. Netanyahu’s wrath. And we have Obama’s own words when he was caught briefly with an open microphone while talking privately with President Sarkozy of France. Raising the eyebrows of reporters, Sarkozy remarked that Netanyahu was a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Obama agreed that you couldn’t trust anything Netanyahu said, and added further that Sarkozy was lucky in his dealings with Netanyahu: imagine having to speak with him every day the way Obama had to?

Every day? A call from the leader of 1/1,000 of the earth’s population every day? No wonder they keep such things secret.

When the demonstrations by Egyptians disenchanted with Morsi began, they provided the perfect opportunity and cover for a coup. Israel undoubtedly pushed the United States – after all, Obama had intervened to support the original revolution, something not pleasing to Netanyahu and only adding to his stock of reasons for often expressing contempt of the President, and now Morsi was carrying on in “I told you so” ways. The United States in turn undoubtedly let the Egyptian military know it would not object to the overthrow of Morsi (and it hasn’t objected, has it?), reminding the generals of what was at stake here – namely, about a billion and a half in annual bribes for keeping the government of Israel from complaining.

One suspects the CIA was active in stoking the fires of discontented Egyptians, handing out money and promises and encouragement to make the crowds larger and more aggressive. After all, that is just what the CIA does when it isn’t directly overthrowing someone’s government or assassinating someone’s leader or planting false stories in the press or secretly bribing government officials in dozens of countries deemed to be “ours.”

I heard one of CBC Radio’s lesser journalistic lights speak of such a close election as the one in Egypt leaving so many people there feeling the government didn’t represent them. She apparently was unaware that Canada’s Stephen Harper is deemed a majority parliamentary government with about 39% of the vote. Or that many American presidential elections end with margins as close as that in Egypt, Kennedy having been elected by a small fraction of one percent of the popular vote. George Bush received about a half million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, a victorious minority made possible by America’s antiquated constitution with its anti-democratic electoral college, a result which has been repeated a number of times in American history.

But Americans and Canadians do not go into the streets to overturn the results, nor would we say anything encouraging or positive if they did. If the existing rules are followed in an election, we accept the result, and that kind of stability is absolutely crucial to maintaining any form of democracy. Yet it is somehow acceptable for our press to take that view when the topic is government in the Middle East, and a struggling new democratic government at that.

After all, there has been a steady stream of prejudiced words and carefully selected facts about Islam and the Middle East in the mainline press since 9/11. And ever since that event, much as the five Israeli Mossad agents, disguised as workers for a moving company, who were reported photographing the strikes on the twin towers from the top of their truck while dancing and high-fiving before their arrest and deportation, apologists for Israel have steadily encouraged the notion of Islamic and Arabic irrationality to excuse Israel’s bloody excesses. The notion has become a handy tool to grab whenever there are other events viewed unfavorably by Israel, as in the case of the Egyptian election and some of the democratic government’s acts.

The political future for the poor people of Egypt is not bright. Their prospects for democratic government and all the social changes that it entails over time are indeed collateral damage of Israel’s endless bristling and America’s Israeli-like sense of exceptionalism and belief that it has the right to play God with the lives of tens of millions of others to satisfy troubles in its own domestic politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICA’S RIDICULOUS POSITION ON SYRIA

John Chuckman

I read that an American Senator, Bob Menendez, wanted “to vomit” when he was supplied with a copy of Vladimir Putin’s New York Times’ op-ed piece about Syria.

Well, I’m sure it wasn’t just a matter of Sen. Menendez’s delicate stomach: there have been many times in the past I wanted to vomit over something in The New York Times.

It is, after all, an impossibly pretentious, often-dishonest publication faithfully serving America’s military-industrial-intelligence complex, one which never fails to support America’s countless wars, insurgencies, dirty tricks, and coups – all this while publicly flattering itself as a rigorous source of journalism and even a newspaper “of record.” Many regard The Times as simply the most worn-out key of that thunderous public-relations instrument an ex-Agency official once called his “mighty Wurlitzer.” Only in the antediluvian political atmosphere of America could The Times manage to have something of a reputation for being “liberal.”

Mr. Menendez, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, holds a powerful position, one he has used in lockstep with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to promote illegal war. Like them he blubbers about rights and democracy and ethics while planning death and destruction to people who have done nothing against the United States except disagreeing with it and being hated by that greatest single outside determinant of American foreign policy, Israel.

Sen. Menendez’s personal anecdote actually provides a perfect miniature replica of the entire operation of America’s foreign affairs. American officials never fail to invoke words about democracy or human rights when addressing their next piece of dirty work or effort to pressure another people into doing what America wants.

So naturally the Senator might be a bit upset over Putin’s upstaging the top officials of the United States and proving himself the superior statesman and rational politician in every detail.

First, every honest, well-read person, not trying to promote American special interests, knows there is no proof that Assad used chemical weapons. Absolutely none. Even as I write, an Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, reports that the UN inspection team could find no evidence of chemical weapons used in the place cited by Syria’s rebel army.

A video which made the rounds among American allies and which purported to show the attack has been declared a fake by the UN. Russia’s secret services also declared it a fake.

The only other bit of “evidence” worth mentioning is a supposed recording of Syrian officials provided to American officials by Mossad. Yes, that’s Mossad, the very people who pride themselves on deception and who have a long track record of expertly using it, even in several cases successfully against the United States.

You do not kill thousands of people and destroy a country’s infrastructure citing rubbish like that.

Again, as I write this, a former British Ambassador, Craig John Murray, states that the United States has been deceived by Mossad with its purported recording and that Britain’s super-sensitive listening post in Cyprus, vastly superior to Israel’s listening assets, had picked up no such information.

Germany, based on its secret service operations, also has publicly stated that Assad did not use chemical weapons.

And, of course, after all America’s huffing and blowing and threatening in recent months, Assad and his senior associates would have to have been genuinely mad to use them, but there is no sign of madness. Assad remains a calm and thoughtful person whose voice is largely silenced in the West by his having been declared arbitrarily not an acceptable head of state.

Second, there is significant proof that ugly elements of the rebellion – the substantial al Qaeda-like components who hate Assad for his tolerance towards all religions in Syria – did indeed use limited amounts on more than one occasion, hoping, undoubtedly to create a provocation for American entry. The UN has said so and so have other agencies.

We have incidents, reported reliably, of rebel elements receiving small canisters of chemical weapons, likely from Saudi agents working on behalf of American policy. We also have an incident of a canister caught by authorities moving across the Turkish border in the hands of rebel fighters, the Turkish border having been used extensively since the beginning of the rebellion as a way to inject weapons and lunatic fighters into Syria and as a refuge for rebels when corned by Syria’s army. Even the American military confirms this last event.

Third, we absolutely know that Israel has a stockpile of this horrible stuff, Sarin, but not a word is said about it. This stockpile has been confirmed by CIA sources recently. Even before CIA sources, we knew of Israel’s chemical weapons from the 1992 crash of an El Al cargo plane in Amsterdam, a plane whose illegal cargo proved to be precursor chemicals for such weapons.

Now, if you were regarded as an enemy by Israel, the most ruthless country in the Mideast when simply measured by the number of times it has attacked its neighbors, wouldn’t you want weapons to counteract theirs? And, of course, to counteract not just Israel’s chemical weapons but secret nuclear ones? So it is hardly a terrible thing for Assad’s military to posses them.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States is in no position to draw lines or make public judgments about the behavior of anyone with regard to such weapons.

It stands as likely the greatest user of various chemical weapons over the last four or five decades. Napalm and Agent Orange were used on a colossal scale in Vietnam, a true holocaust in which the United States killed about three million people. The residue from millions of pounds of Agent Orange still causes horribly mangled babies to be born in Vietnam, and the United States has never lifted a finger to clean the mess or treat its victims.

In the terrible Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the United States supplied Iraq – the clear aggressor in the war – with the materials for chemical weapons which eventually killed many thousands of Iranian soldiers.

In the illegal invasion of Iraq – where the United States killed upwards of half a million people and created millions of refugees – it employed white phosphorus (a good substitute for napalm), flame-throwers, depleted-uranium (cancer-inducing) ammunition, and hideous child-crippling cluster bombs. The children of Iraq today suffer a plague of cancer caused by breathing tons of vaporized depleted-uranium the United States dumped there.
In the unnecessary invasion of Afghanistan, the United States used massive carpet bombing to support the thugs of the Northern Alliance, who happened to be old enemies of the Taleban, though often being equally horrible in behavior. This was one of the first instances of the strategy America employed in Libya and wants to employ in Syria: local rebels on the ground, supplied with money and intelligence and weapons, are supported by high-tech hell from the air, yielding the needed results with minimum American casualties.

Thousands of Taleban prisoners of war were “disappeared’ by members of the Northern Alliance by sealing them in trucks, driving them out to the desert to suffocate, and then dumping their bodies in mass graves – all this while American soldiers looked on and picked their noses.

Nothing which has happened in recent years so horrifyingly recalls the work of Hitler’s Einsatzkommandos using mobile killing-trucks before the death camps were built, yet there can be no question that senior American commanders and the White House were aware of these events.

And of course, the only nation on earth ever to actually use atomic weapons – twice, and both times on civilian, non-military targets – is the United States, a country which also seriously planned to use them in Cold War pre-emptive strikes against Russia and China and later in Vietnam.

The voice of the United States today is shrill with hypocrisy and dishonesty and self-interest when it is heard condemning Syria, or anyone else, for using unacceptable weapons. Where was that voice when its ally, Israel, committed atrocities, as it did in Lebanon and in Gaza and on the high seas against unarmed humanitarians or when it steals the land of defenceless occupied people? Indeed, the white phosphorus and cluster bombs Israel used in some of Israel’s attacks were supplied by the United States, as were the planes and artillery used to deliver them.

And this brings us to the real cause of the rebellion in Syria. Israel would like Assad gone and Syria reduced to a broken state the way Iraq was reduced. It does not want to do this directly because Syria is a serious military opponent and not easy prey, and Israel’s doing so would arouse new waves of anger in the Mideast and new difficulties for the United States.

So the United States has had a long-term program of creating a kind of cordon sanitaire around Israel, breaking all of its potential opponents for many hundreds of miles around, but doing so always under contrived circumstances of supporting peoples’ revolts or removing dictators. It surreptitiously supplies large amounts of money and useful intelligence to the genuinely disaffected peoples of various states, encouraging them to revolt, indicating air and other support once things are underway. This is reminiscent of the dirty work of Henry Kissinger carried out with Iraq’s Kurdish population in 1975, promising them anything if they revolted but failing to deliver and leaving them to face a massive slaughter by Saddam Hussein’s troops.

Today’s is a complex black operation using a bizarre collection of intermediaries and helpers. Events in Benghazi, Libya, never explained in the United States, were certainly one little corner of this with the CIA operating there to collect weapons and jihadist types for secret entry into Syria through Turkey.

Saudi Arabia too plays a large role, surprising as that may seem to some given that Israel is a major beneficiary. Saudi Arabia’s ruling family plays the anti-Israel card just enough to keep its own fundamentalist Wahhabi population from revolting. But in truth, the wealthy Saudi elites have always had more in common with American and Israeli elites than with popular leaders in the Mideast.

Those Saudi elites were rendered extremely vulnerable to American pressures during 9/11. George Bush, always a good friend and beneficiary of Saudi largess, secretly rounded up a number of them who were in the United States (at places like Las Vegas casinos) and shipped them back to Saudi Arabia for their safety. As it proved, the greatest number of perpetrators of 9/11 were Saudi extremists, and it was discovered, though not publicly announced, that bin Laden’s movement regularly received bribes from the royal family to keep his operations out of Saudi Arabia. Thus the royal family financed bin Laden. All this made the Saudis extremely nervous and willing to be of more conspicuous future assistance in the Mideast.

And so they are, supplying money and weapons through various routes to the rebels. There is also a report of the Saudis releasing more than twelve hundred violent prisoners in return for their training and going to Syria to fight as jihadist volunteers.

American officials know all these things while they stand and blubber about democratic rebels and “red lines” and other fairy stories. They want to bomb Syria because the recent success of Assad’s army has begun to endanger the huge effort to have him overthrown. Just as their planes and missiles tipped the scales in Libya with a phony zero-fly zone, they want to repeat that success in Syria.

Now, Putin appears to have upset the plan with admirable statesmanship, and Sen. Menendez will just have to console himself with Pepto-Bismol.

But then the Russians have always been great chess players.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
An exploration of the meaning of democracy and its state in America

John Chuckman

PREFACE AND INTRODUCTION TO THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the first volume of his famous book, Democracy in America, he noted that the single greatest novelty he observed on his travels was what he called “equality of conditions.” A great deal of his analysis of American society in the Age of Jackson hinges on that observation, but as any informed journalist or economist or observer of the human condition today will know, America now features a great and growing inequality of conditions.

Does this change mean that the democracy de Tocqueville observed is disappearing? This is just one of a number of questions we explore.

De Tocqueville, an aristocrat from an old French family, had observed that there was a general movement in Europe towards the decline of aristocratic power and wealth and the increase of middle-class power and wealth, a kind of “levelling” as he called it. He characterized the phenomenon as an “irresistible revolution.”

After his travels in America, he was convinced that this irresistible revolution had gone further there than anywhere else and wished to explain why this should be so and wished to provide guidance for those shaping the future of France.

What de Tocqueville was accurately observing in Europe were the social and political dimensions of what today we know as economic development, although he did not have the language. Today, we know that steady strong economic growth induces change in every aspect of society, political, social, and all its institutions. It is the story of the modern era, measured roughly from the late middle ages, to see changing technology driving the economy towards growth which, in turn, drives increasing social, political, cultural, and institutional changes.

From the late middle ages into the twentieth century, we see once-powerful monarchs gradually become constitutional figureheads while parliaments and assemblies and congresses of elected officials gradually assume political authority. These changes happened at varying rates in different countries now regarded as democratic, and they took on a character reflecting the history and customs of each country, but the overall trend across nations was the same. De Tocqueville saw this, and we see it today in a place as previously exotic to democracy as China.

The key driving force at work in these centuries of change – something de Tocqueville, at best, only vaguely understood – is gradual growth in the size and wealth of the middle class under conditions of continuous economic growth.

The structure of most early societies resembles a pyramid, with a supreme ruler at the top supported just below by aristocrats and priests and the great bulk of people spread along the bottom. In such a society, there is almost no change in status possible, always excepting a natural genius born at the bottom who comes to be recognized for a special skill valued by those at the top. In such a society, most boys end up doing just what their fathers did, most girls end up doing just what their mothers did, and there is limited opportunity to gain education, in part because there is limited opportunity even to use an education.

But starting in the late Middle Ages, something remarkable started to happen in Europe: the rate of change in applied science, ways and techniques for doing practical things, began to change noticeably. The harnessing of water and wind, the control of waterways and construction of canals, the building of new roads, the breeding of superior horses, and a thousand other changes accumulated in their impact to yield a rate of economic growth not previously known. Modest industries began to emerge, trade at greater distances picked up, and that great driver of economic growth, specialization of tasks, began its rise to dominance in society. We are all used to hearing of the Industrial Revolution, but that event did not, as it were, spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. Going back to Henry VIII’s time, and even before, the foundations were being laid with developments like improved plows, improved wheels and axles, ocean-worthy ships, and the enclosure of agricultural property previously treated as commons shared (inefficiently in economic terms) by all peasants during the Middle Ages.

As growth continued and even increased, it created previously-unimagined opportunities to work, to trade, and to make things for others. Those who were successful at these many tasks became what we now call the middle class, and the classic extreme pyramidal shape of early society began to fatten around the middle while the base narrowed. As a larger and larger group of people became well-off through expanding trade and industry, it came to have little reason to trust that a monarch or even, at a somewhat later stage, a group of aristocrats was capable of protecting and promoting its increasingly complex interests. Indeed, in many cases, the traditional aristocrats, whose wealth derived from the ownership of land, were uneducated people, quite ignorant of how business or trade worked.

With the rise of new wealth, gradually, the value of education began to grow along with the specialization of skills. These new men (for they pretty much were only men in the early modern period) proved not only useful to monarchs and aristocrats as advisors and experts but were skilled in gaining political power over time. The changing realities of wealth made them increasingly necessary to the state for everything from loans for trading voyages to supplying large quantities of new goods like guns or preserved food or textiles. Eventually, even many of the lands which had constituted the wealth of aristocrats over many earlier centuries and almost the sole source of wealth in early society began to change hands. Prejudice concerning the worthiness of birth gave way to recognition of the worth of knowing how to do things, especially things which generated new wealth. Respect for titles slowly gave way to respect for money and know-how.

De Tocqueville’s key explanation for the fact that the “irresistible revolution” had gone further in America than in other countries had to do with the nature of the early settlers. Many of them were puritans, what Americans call Pilgrim Fathers, a people who in their religion had democratic beliefs such as all men being equal before God and the rejection of hierarchies in the church. The puritans fled England and some other European countries because they were greatly disliked for good reasons, Americans always putting the events into terms of seeking religious freedom from persecution, and de Tocqueville has no argument with that. However, we now know that the early puritans were often extremely nasty and intrusive and even destructive. Scholars of the Tudor period give us a picture of puritans running through the ancient (formerly Catholic) cathedrals, smashing statues, slashing paintings, and destroying priceless manuscripts. Some puritan groups actually made a point of attending the services of other Christian groups just to make noise and disturb them. So it is quite understandable that they were disliked without talking about anyone trying to suppress their religious freedom.

De Tocqueville does not discuss any of the puritans’ negative history, but he says the puritans brought with them to the New World a good deal of know-how. And, indeed, they did: puritans were often tradesmen and businessmen, a key part of their religious beliefs including the idea that material success was a sign of God’s blessing. So de Tocqueville sees a young, energetic, and entrepreneurial people, all imbued with notions of equality before God, giving America its great start. De Tocqueville believed strongly that a people always bears the marks of their origin, and he was himself a religious man who was glad to be able to attribute America’s democratic success, in part, to “the spirit of religion”.

Except for the “spirit of religion,” a far less clear concept to my mind than de Tocqueville assumed it is, he was right. There was a role for puritan ideas of equality in influencing society’s political orientation. But it is interesting that often groups who seek a freedom for themselves end up later trying to deny it to others, and that was very much the case with the puritans and religious freedom. They were not tolerant, and many of their spiritual and genetic descendants today in the United States are among its least tolerant of its citizens. They are the people who insist on injecting religion into public life, despite Jefferson’s one unqualified great human-rights achievement of establishing religious freedom in Virginia, something in which the sceptic, for so he was, made agreements with the groups who felt oppressed by matters like the established church to which all previously had to pay taxes. Here is another interesting question about American society: whether freedom of religion can remain intact with the constant encroachments made by religious people everywhere from Washington lobbying groups to taking control of local school boards.

How does democracy work in America? That seems a simple enough question to ask, yet a great many people outside of the United States either do not know the answer or understand it in only the sketchiest fashion, and a surprisingly large number of Americans themselves do not know, for the workings of America’s government are complicated, and at times downright puzzling, despite the country’s elegantly simple founding document, the Constitution. The Constitution, it should be noted, explicitly calls the new nation a republic, rather than a democracy, many of the Founding Fathers having a poor idea of democracy – including such notable figures as Washington, Hamilton, and Morris – but few Americans in general speech today would describe their country as other than a democracy, and the Sunday School lessons regularly bestowed upon the world by the State Department never fail to take credit for being a democracy. We shall have more to say on these matters.

Today, a great part of the world is directly affected by the workings of American government through trade and security and financial issues, and no major American policy or legislation may fairly be said to be America’s private interests: that fact is simply the unavoidable result of having become the center of a global empire with treaties and agreements and trade almost everywhere and a currency used as the world’s reserve currency. Yet in this matter there is great confusion among ordinary Americans who like to believe it is no one else’s business what America does.

You cannot have it both ways – be at the center of the affairs of others while demanding that your own national political affairs are no one’s business outside of America – without implicitly advocating a form of aristocracy in which American voters, a tiny percent of the world’s population, decides internal matters in democratic fashion and external matters as a privileged aristocracy. Yet it is common today to find this peculiar combination of views in America.

It is similar to the thinking we’ve seen working in recent years with horrible places like Guantanamo and the rest of the CIA’s international torture gulag scattered over a number of obscure locations in the world. Somehow many Americans accept that the principles of their founding documents and best laws simply stop having any applicability or even meaning just over the American border, making it acceptable to do in a place like Guantanamo what you would not do inside the United States. It represents a rather odd set of principles whose limits are defined strictly by the extent of the jurisdiction of domestic courts. It is of course highly convenient when you are interested in doing some very unpleasant things.

But the inconsistencies in this thinking do not end there. In recent decades, it has become more common for the American government to apply American laws and the authority of American courts to those who are neither citizens nor residents of America. This went to the extreme of attacking a small country, Panama, whose leader, President Noreiga, had displeased the United States in order to arrest him and try him in an American court on American charges.

These inconsistent modes of thinking and acting demonstrate that democratic values do not consistently govern American instincts. If being a democracy means that citizens and their government always put democratic values first, I think it fair to say America has not arrived.

There is a massive industry in Washington consisting of consultants and lobbyists hired at sensational salaries by both foreign interests and Americans themselves simply to reach the appropriate officials with the right words on any given issue. That fact is perhaps the best evidence of how ungainly and swollen American government has become despite the almost pastoral simplicity of its founding.

But this book is not a guide to the mechanics of American government, something which would be a rather dry reading for most readers. Besides, when we ask the question of how something complex works, we usually mean more than having a book of diagrams or organizational charts, we want to grasp a sense of what happens when the machine or organization is running. We want to understand the nature of American democracy and its effects upon American society, and we want to understand the nature of democratic values as they are understood in America and the state of those values in the society.

For some, it will seem odd to ask whether America is a democracy, as that term is commonly understood and as we shall define it, but it is nevertheless a valid question, because America’s founding documents deliberately use the term republic, a concept which today means very little except that you do not have a monarchy. After all, even the Soviets styled themselves as belonging to republics. Many of America’s Founding Fathers – that late-18th century group in frock coats regarded almost in reverence by many Americans – did not believe in democracy and, indeed, regarded the concept rather the way some today might regard Islamic fundamentalism or communism as something alien and dangerous, dangerous especially to the interests of property. And if indeed, as most people assume, America is a democracy, then just what kind of democracy is it?

When Colin Powell was tilting at the United Nations over support for the illegal and unwarranted invasion of Iraq, acting as the friendly face of an administration much of the world viewed as hostile, uninformed, and arrogant, he responded to France’s Dominique de Villepin’s witty reference to France as an old country – “old Europe” having been used by the Bush government as a pejorative to belittle European opposition to invasion – Powell answered back that he represented the world’s oldest democracy.

Powell, despite the positive reaction of the diplomatic audience to his riposte, was wrong. America, by no stretch of the imagination, started as a democracy, and as far as republics go, quite a number pre-date the United States, including the Dutch and Venetian Republics. De Tocqueville’s use of the word democracy comes in a special context, including both his perspective as an aristocrat and the new momentum of expanding the franchise during the Age of Andrew Jackson, the time of de Tocqueville’s travels.

This work is an effort to analyze some of the strengths and weaknesses of American political society as they have evolved since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous volumes of 1835 and 1840, and to offer an assessment of the contemporary meaning of American democratic society. It is also an effort to present a lively, and even entertaining, picture of what democracy means today in America. The author’s perspective and approach to democracy in America are different in many ways to those of de Tocqueville. First, the author is an American by birth, having spent both his formative years in the United States as well as a much later extended period plus a good deal of travel, in total nearly half his life, and I suspect there are nuances and meanings of American political society which only someone who has spent many years there may catch and appreciate. Yet, having lived outside the United States for the other more-than-half of his life and having adopted Canada as his home, the author also sees aspects of America with an outsider’s eye, as de Tocqueville did.

Perspective is everything, as we know from the various witnesses in a criminal trial or from the recollections of friends and associates of a dead notable person whose biography is being written. There is also the principle of modern science that some phenomena cannot be completely observed: given one measurement or observation of a sub-atomic particle, other contemporary ones become impossible. I think there is a sense of this principle which applies in human affairs. There is always some incompleteness or ambiguity in human affairs, something which I believe has not been widely enough recognized. This is why there are always alternative explanations possible in history and biography. To understand an important historical character, it is always necessary to read several biographies, but that understanding will still have inherent ambiguities and uncertainties. No less is true of entire societies.

De Toqueville travelled and wrote at the time of Andrew Jackson’s America, a time when the word democracy had become more common than it was at the founding. Of course, Jacksonian Democracy was itself not all that democratic since the majority of the population still could not vote, and important parts of government were not subject to direct election, including the Senate (originally appointed by state governments and made subject to election only in 1913), by far the most powerful branch of the legislature, but even the Presidency itself was subject not to popular votes but those of the Electoral College.

De Tocqueville, saw the young American society with the eyes of a curious and educated European aristocrat, one coming from a country which had experienced revolution, the ascent of an emperor, the restoration of monarchy, and another revolution which overthrew the restored monarchy. He called what he saw in America “democracy,” and indeed wrote of America’s “universal suffrage,” the property requirements for male voters in place since the beginning having been abandoned to a considerable extent (something actually not complete until a couple of decades after de Tocqueville’s travels), earlier religious requirements in some states having been dropped, and despite his being aware that women and slaves and some others could not vote.

Jackson himself favored the franchise covering all white adult men and abolishing the Electoral College, but Jackson also embraced Manifest Destiny, America’s quasi-religious slogan for continent-absorbing imperialism, the patronage or spoils system in government appointments, the arbitrary removal of American Indians from their homes and settled farms in the East to the Western wilderness, and the importance of the executive relative to Congress – not a set of principles we think of today as especially democratic in nature. But democracy, like anything else, must grow and establish itself by steps.

Interestingly, de Toqueville was from an old aristocratic family, and he viewed America with the eyes of a man who intensely disliked France’s July Monarchy which had been established in 1830, a government which essentially represented the rise of the middle class over the aristocrats. That in itself, as any student of the development of democracy in the modern era knows, is one of the basic steps towards democratic government, the growing interests of the middle class, as an economy advances, being far too large and demanding to be adequately represented by aristocrats of an Ancien Régime.

America today, apart from whatever else it may be, is clearly the center of a vast empire. Yet history provides us with no example of a truly democratic state being an empire, and the contradictions and challenges involved in such a situation seem apparent. Great Britain at the height of her influence in the Victorian period certainly had some democratic institutions, but it was hardly a democratic state when you consider the limits on the franchise and the inadequate, still-corrupt structure of parliamentary representation. There are truly great questions and issues around the idea of trying to be at one and the same time Augustan Rome and the inheritors of those who shook off British imperial power in the 18th century.

The author has made no attempt to produce a purely journalistic or academic effort. Footnotes, as in Page Smith’s great multi-volume history of America, are not used. Entertaining anecdotes have their place. Humor and satire are included because the author believes that subtle truths sometimes come out of laughter which cannot always be captured by reportage or analysis. Absurdity is, unfortunately, a part of the human condition, and one observes it in many forms in various societies. America, despite her advanced status in the world, has at least her share of absurdities and, for reasons to be discussed, likely somewhat more than her share. There is no danger readers will fail to distinguish observations and analysis from poking fun, and hopefully, too, they will enjoy the variety in ways of examining the subject. .

Frequently, false and even laughable claims are made for democracy, largely by politicians and generally without defining what it is that they praise. Defining democracy is no easy task, but, still, making great thumping claims for a poorly understood concept is helpful to no one except those in the business of advertising, marketing, or propaganda. When the State Department or the White House embroider statements about international affairs with bromides about democracy, we have every reason to become alert about what it is they actually are trying to say. That use of the word democracy is invariably dishonest and narrowly self-serving, intended to robe in nobility the basest drives and interests.

HOW AN ARISTOCRACY ARISES AND IS MAINTAINED IN AN OSTENSIBLY DEMOCRATIC STATE

De Tocqueville observed that the closest to an aristocracy in America was its lawyers, but he was observing America in something of a golden age, a rather innocent time when people worked hard to improve their worth yet great wealth was relatively unknown. Even in his day, lawyers were disproportionately represented in Congress – today it is sometimes facetiously said that having a law degree is virtually a union card required for working in Congress – and, of course, lawyers were the pool out of which judicial appointments were made. But becoming a lawyer today in America is not a great achievement, there being a huge number of law schools turning out a huge number of lawyers. Day and night, for it is even possible to get an American law degree in night school, and, for all I know, on the Internet. Many of these lawyers do not make a very good living because there are so many of them and so many of them are mediocre talents. So while a law degree today retains advantages it had in de Tocqueville’s day, it hardly marks, in and of itself, entry into an American aristocracy.

De Tocqueville did not believe that anything closer to the European model of aristocracy could emerge under the conditions he saw in America, believing that restrictions on primogeniture and inheritance, some of the mechanisms creating a recurring tendency towards what he called equality in society, would assure something of a middling class of people in America, what we might call Jefferson’s much-idealized class of sturdy yeomen.

In his second book, de Tocqueville does briefly mention the notion of an aristocracy of wealth emerging in America, but he does not develop the idea. It now is clear that, just as once aristocracy grew out of the ownership of land, the primary source of wealth for the Middle Ages, so in a modern democratic state, aristocracy emerges from the newer forms of wealth generated by trade and manufacturing. America’s experience proves that aristocracy and democratic forms of government are not incompatible, that there are forms and practices which can evolve to accommodate this seemingly incongruous situation. I would only make this stipulation: that in the case of something approaching a true democracy, this might not be the case, but America’s government is democratic only in limited aspects, a reality we will examine more closely later.

I believe there is a connection in this to what is commonly observed over time in any modern economy. Early in the life of an industry or enterprise – whether retail drug stores or automobile manufacturing – we often see genuinely competitive circumstances, not the perfect competition of economic theory, but something with enough of its characteristics to be compatible with the theory. Just as recently as the 1950s, there was a drug store on just about every second corner along a neighbourhood’s commercial streets, and many of these were small personal businesses. Going back a little earlier, to the 1930s and 1940s, there was a large number of manufacturers of cars, too, but both of these markets have evolved over the years into what economists call imperfect competition, where only a few large providers of the product or service dominate. And this tendency in markets is actually the typical pattern in a society like America’s: after an early stage of fairly vigorous competitiveness in a new business or industry, a much less competitive market structure emerges. It is a pattern seen in everything from soda pop manufacturers to newspapers.

The people running small drug stores in the 1950s undoubtedly made a fair living and were respectable members of their communities, but the people today owning large corporate drug chains, or large blocks of their stocks if they are public companies, are wealthy people and may even not be associated with a particular community. That phenomenon marks a very great change in the structure of a society over time and over many businesses and industries. The politics and political activities of wealthy people cannot be compared to those of ordinary working people or small businessmen, their very scale representing a change in nature. The inevitable growth in the scale of enterprises – something at work even in such tradition-bound, family-shaped work as farming or fishing – leads to the growth of an aristocracy within even a democratic state, although each citizen retains a single vote.

Other mechanisms are at work too. All laws concerned with restrictions on inheritance and inheritance tax are subject to change over time with the ever-changing face of business and politics. Only recently, Americans saw the Bush government strike down the inheritance tax, and no great waves of protest accompanied the fact, the measure being presented to the public in emotion-loaded and dishonest terms as preserving family farms. The inheritance of huge fortunes or vast on-going enterprises is an essential aspect of aristocracy.

De Tocqueville’s America was well on its way to accumulating truly great fortunes based on the success of new businesses. His “level” or “equal” society was dissolving perhaps at a rate not easily observed in the length of time he travelled. Half a century after his book, during the last part of the 19th century, came the era of the great “Robber Barons,” men whose industrial enterprises had reached immense size and worldwide influence: men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others. Their vast fortunes were based in the previously unprecedented scale of their operations and from the decline of competition in important industries. A little while later, into the early 20th century, more great fortunes rose through the invention and mass production of new products and processes: the work of people like Ford, Edison, DuPont, or Watson. Needless to say, that trend has continued, even accelerated, and today unbelievably large fortunes are generated by computer-related and other high-tech companies which enjoy near or complete monopoly situations over some years, not just in America but indeed often the world.

The families controlling these great fortunes – whether involved with privately-owned companies or important blocks of stock in public companies – are in every respect aristocracies just as were the earls, barons, and marquises of 14th century Europe despite the fact that some of them enjoy wearing blue jeans or tee shirts. I was at an oil industry conference once years ago and was handed a business card from a representative of the U.S. State Department. I was struck by the family name on the card, Pabst-Wurlitzer, presumably a hybrid of the Pabst Beer fortune and the Wurlitzer Organ fortune. Thus, in the late 20th century, we see the names from mass-produced products in America – from Heinz Ketchup to Hershey’s Chocolate – taking on the same kind of psychological weight and presence as the names of earlier noble families, Norfolk or Westminster, names reflecting ownership of places.

America’s modern aristocracy cannot literally own electoral districts or numbers of voters the way earls once owned the peasants on their land or later controlled certain parliamentary constituencies called pocket boroughs. But America has managed to develop a sophisticated system over time which serves the interests of the aristocrats in a democratic society. One of America’s genuinely original contributions to the modern business world is in marketing and advertising, and the principles of marketing and advertising are indispensable parts of modern elections, especially for national office. Except in rare and special circumstances, you cannot run for national office without a great deal of money, money for advertising, marketing, consultants, and travel. That money simply does not come from the average citizen, and although efforts are made periodically to mount special appeals to the public for “grassroots support,” those efforts themselves are costly and time-consuming, and they still leave the need for large donations which come from America’s aristocracy. Indeed, campaign fund-raising is itself a recognized specialty, a form of expertise, in America, one which involves contacts and access to those able to make substantial contributions.

The Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly ruled that money is a form of free speech in politics, and there is no time in the foreseeable future one can expect fundamental change in this view. The success of money in politics much resembles the success of money in advertising consumer products, with a political duopoly sharing the market for votes just as a food duopoly shares the market for hamburgers or soda pop. Money cannot guarantee you will win in every case, but, on average over numbers of elections, it very much is decisive. The arts of skilful marketing and advertising assure that. A clever message repeated over and over produces votes exactly the way a good ad campaign moves product off shelves, and in modern elections the politician’s message often no more represents his true capabilities than an ad fairly represents the claims of an over-the-counter remedy. Indeed, the public has very much been conditioned to expect politicians often will not do what they said they would do when running for office.

Money – often cynically called the mother’s milk of politics in America – greatly increases the chances of being elected, and, once elected, the giving of money assures donors access to those in office. In a large country like the modern United States, it is virtually impossible for most people ever to meet the president or most other high office holders. In most large states, it is virtually impossible to meet even your senator, there being, for example, in California more than sixteen million people for each of two senators. This was not the case historically in the United States. There was a time that it was at least conceivable for anyone to meet a senator or even a president. The presidents indeed once held levees at which the general public could come to the White House, look around, and shake hands. The effects of scale over time have changed the entire nature of the relationship between those who govern and the governed. So, the access which comes with large donations of money truly has become something approaching exclusive, a situation which again parallels the that of old aristocracies vis-à-vis the king or one of his highest officials.

Senators in contemporary America also possess many of the characteristics of aristocracy. There are only a small number of them, the cost of obtaining the office effectively closes access to most, they are not elected in any proportion to population, and they enjoy great power and privilege. Senators approve every important appointment made and treaty signed by a president: simply by the tardiness of their application they may make a president look feeble. They must also approve every piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, sometimes called “the people’s house” because it is elected in proportion with population. With the odd exception, especially from smaller states, when you see pictures of American Senators, the images are genuinely patrician in nature. And with good reason because the occupants are either wealthy and influential people or they are dedicated to serving wealthy and influential people, Senate seats do not have a high turnover rate, some of them serving as personal possessions for decades, and the inheritance of seats from father to son is not uncommon.

But the aristocratic nature of the American Senate is not understood just by those facts. The business of the Senate is conducted by committees, and the chairmen of the major committees are extremely powerful people, controlling the flow of legislation and even the discussion of legislation to a considerable extent. The chairmanships are based on seniority in the majority party, and accumulating seniority means some very cosy relationships with powerful families and industries in a district so that the flow of money is large and dependable. Of course, as in life in general, longevity tends to generate conservative principles. Further, we have the privilege of any senator or group of senators to filibuster a bill: they may speak indefinitely to block the passage of legislation. Filibusters may be overcome by a vote of cloture, but this requires three-fifths of senators, sixty senators in today’s senate, a number often extremely difficult to obtain. Thus, legislation in the senate, when there is any opposition to it, requires not just a majority but a supermajority.

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND RELIGION

You might think from the speeches of American politicians at gatherings such as Fourth of July picnics that they confuse democracy with an exalted religious state, one in which presumably there can be no sin or error. Representatives of the American State Department frequently speak in similar terms, although theirs is a more diplomatically subdued tone, as they announce the annual list of short-comings of the world’s other governments, apparently having been delegated by a higher power the task of separating the world’s democratic wheat from its chaff.

The humorous suggestion of an association between American democracy and religion is more apt than it may seem at first gloss: the entire collection of the nation’s political rituals and practices has been called the American Civic Religion, and not without good reason. There is a rather remarkable conflation in America of the expected norms of national political expression with those of Christian fundamentalism.

This comes despite the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were not religious men as we usually understand the description. The most eminent founders were men of their time, which in the intellectual capitals of Europe was characterized by the Enlightenment. A couple of centuries of pointless, bloody religious wars and persecutions finally had produced a generation of thinkers about society and government in England and France for whom religious questions were no longer a chief concern and, in some cases, no concern at all. Many of these thinkers were Deists and some were Atheists, and just so the main group of America’s Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Morris, and a number of others included.

Yet, to this day in America, the myth persists that America was founded as a “Christian” nation, or at least a nation “under God.” The very fact that this is possible, in the face of contrary historical fact, points to another association between religion and democracy in America.

THE AMERICAN CIVIC RELIGION

The expression America’s Civic Religion does not refer to simple, natural expressions of patriotism such as the occasional singing of the anthem or to celebrations around the anniversary of the country’s founding but to what are deliberate and seemingly needless personal public displays and declarations. Some of the displays are not personal but made in groups under considerable social pressure and even sometimes legislation.

The seemingly irresistible urge many Americans exhibit for public announcements of their patriotism and political views parallels closely what happens at fundamentalist revival meetings where believers in the congregation are expected to rise one by one during part of the service to give statements, an act typically called witnessing or giving testimony. When Christian fundamentalists do this, they are generally speaking to their own in the congregation, rather than to non-believing outsiders.

As part of America’s secular political religion, we have flags as lapel pins, not unusual for citizens of many countries when travelling abroad, but in America they are worn at home, and they literally are required of every national politician who does not want his patriotism promptly questioned. For some reason President Obama started his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination without the daily ritual of a flag pin on the lapel, but a storm of rather irrational arguments soon brought him around.

This wearing of flag pins and other patriotic trinkets while walking the streets of your own town does have some unpleasant past associations. One recalls historical practices such as wearing the tricolor cockade during the French Revolution, a practice which, likely more often than not, had more to do with self-preservation than patriotic fervor. Of course, there is always a war-paint aspect to the wearing of such emblems, and it is an interesting and revealing aspect of America’s democratic society that few Americans would publicly question why war paint should be needed in day-to-day life.

But flag pins are not enough of the dear old Stars and Stripes. Every time a speech is made during a campaign, you might have noticed, it is against a backdrop of a gigantic flag hoisted to the wall, something big enough to cover a large portion of a football field and likely requiring a crane to put up and take down, or at least against a whole row of more normal-sized flags on poles with eagle tops and usually gold fringe, stretching across the stage like soldiers on parade. So lots of flag behind and a flag pin on the lapel are the minimum requirements for every tired puff-piece speech from every high school gym or auditorium from one coast to the other. Surely, there can be no confusion in audiences about the nationality or loyalty of the speakers that requires identification of their nationality, but giving a speech in America without these props would be treated exactly like a priest showing up at mass without vestments and chalice.

THE THREAD OF PARANOIA

But actually there is some confusion over loyalty, and that is part of the explanation for the constant display. There is a genuine thread of paranoid fear in America, likely part of the genetic legacy of Puritan ancestors, which requires assurance and more assurance and over-assurance. Evidence for this is found in many aspects of American life. America has displayed from its origins the need for a demon or enemy, the name of the enemy changing periodically but always pretty much being imbued with the same threatening qualities. It is for this reason, I believe Moby Dick the great early American book, far more so than Huckleberry Finn: the image of Captain Ahab chasing the white whale across the world’s oceans encapsulates a profound truth about America.

In recent years, the enemy has been Islam, all its exoticism and mystery portrayed in earlier Hollywood movies having been transformed into dark things and evil plots. Before that, but actually never really fading away, there was Communism as a world-wide conspiracy of the godless. Merging with that was an earlier paranoid strain focused on Asians. America’s native people certainly had their period of being treated as the fearful other. Previous to America’s Revolution and for some time later, there were waves of paralyzing fear over the possibility of slave revolts. The American Revolution itself came about in large part because many colonists viewed Britain’s mere administrative act of putting them under the Quebec Act as a dire threat from Papism.

In grade schools, there is mandated daily pledging of the flag – this in addition to singing the anthem – the pledge being literally an oath taken in public, something which should be abhorrent to all who respect privacy of beliefs or regard the taking of public oaths as inappropriate. The pledge is given by placing the right hand over the heart, much as a witness in court raises his right hand to swear to the truth of his testimony. The practice, which has the important effect of making each person’s full participation easily observed by the others in the group, does represent some moderation over the one which preceded it, for up to America’s entry into World War II, the standard etiquette was the right hand, arm straight, raised at an angle towards the flag, a virtual duplicate of the Nazi salute.

The pledge does not have a long history. Coming into use at the end of the 19th century, de Toqueville would never have observed it, but it is no coincidence that that timing corresponds to America’s emergence as an imperial power in the world. A series of wars and fights and acquisitions belong to the period, including the forcible acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, both in 1898. Interestingly, the original pledge was written by a Baptist minister.

The same hand-over-heart salute also applies to any passing of the American flag or playing of the national anthem, as when, accompanied by the flag, patriotic marching bands pass.

Patriotic marching bands are an American obsession. You might almost compare them to activities like soccer in other countries. Virtually every high school, college, and university in every small or large town is able to field at least one marching band playing bad music in uniforms resembling those favored by the armies of banana republics. The national total of patriotic signs of the cross – if we may so refer to the placing of right hands on hearts – made in America each year thus is likely beyond counting.

Patriotic bands often come accompanied by baton-twirling girls strutting in sequined or satiny outfits with boots, short skirts, and underpants in patriotic colors – the full band experience being a loud blend of showbiz and cheesecake.

Armed “color guards” accompany the flag at even the most humble get-together such as a booze-up for veterans at the American Legion Hall. The rifles carried by the color guard often are decorated – plated with chrome with shiny black stocks and perhaps white leather straps – giving them a visual appeal somewhere between props in a Busby Berkeley number and the shiny vessels raised and lowered by a priest during mass.

There are prescribed rituals around what should be the simple act of raising or lowering an American flag: these are laid out in pamphlets for the general public and in military manuals. I once watched the flag being lowered at the Annapolis Naval Academy where the ceremony reminded me of nothing so much as figures on an antique town-hall clockwork going through a sequence of jerky movements with the striking of the hour.

The flag is not to be left exposed to the dark, so just before sunset is the designated time for the lowering ritual. Why would it matter if a flag were left flying at night? Here superstition clearly plays a role. It is permitted under spotlights, a staging which possibly suggests Francis Scott Key’s vision of it on the battlements under “the rockets’ red glare.” It is all quite melodramatic, but then so are most religious ceremonies.

There is even a prescribed ritual for folding the flag when it is taken down or removing it from the top of a casket at a burial: it is to be folded in a sequence which result in a fat triangular bundle called a “cocked hat” in memory of the military headgear of officers in the late eighteenth century, and with only the blue and the stars showing on the outside. Why an eighteenth century hat? Who knows, but clearly there is the same obsessive, ritualistic quality we find in the prescribed movements of a priest during mass.

You cannot just throw away an old flag either: there are rules for destroying a flag once it has been damaged or has become faded or even has merely touched the ground. It is to be reverently handled by the acolyte who either cuts the blue union from the body of the flag, leaving it safe for disposal then as mere cloth, or the entire flag is respectfully burnt, presumably as though it were a departed loved one being cremated.

Of course, America is a big, brawling, and often extremely messy country, and it includes many who neglect the fine points of some of these official practices, but it is not shady used car dealers, motorcycle gangs, or urban street youth who set the nation’s official tone and rules.

There is a rather scholastic practice common among conservative and militia types of carrying in one’s wallet a folded copy of the American Constitution, leaving the practitioner in a position to settle arguments about rights on the spot. former Congressman Tom DeLay, charged with some very doubtful practices in amassing a fortune in campaign contributions, was a prominent wallet-carrier, always ready to pull it out and start quoting.

There are a good many more testimonials of faith, but I think my favourite is the interminable series of debates in Congress during the last half of the twentieth century on passing an amendment to the Constitution allowing Congress to outlaw desecration of the flag, a so-called flag-burning amendment. The House of Representatives actually several times passed such an amendment, and the Senate came very close to doing so, but in any case long periods of time were spent arguing and posing before cameras over what is surely a trivial issue.

For those unfamiliar, the entire process required to amend the American Constitution is so complex and demanding that only the most deadly serious or politically-charged topics ever are considered. Of course, the catch in the case of flag-burning always is the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. A flag is just a piece of dyed cloth and disposing of it or burning it for some show or protest should be close to indistinguishable from the way you treat an old suit of clothes. But try telling that to a red-blooded patriot, and you could wind up with some extensive bruises for your trouble. How is it that a bit of dyed cloth gets magically transmuted? You might well ask a priest the same question about the wafer and wine.

That whole set of American political behaviors closely mimics religion in its many rituals and in its commandments. What’s more, America’s Civic Religion has its own Holy Writ in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, its own Twelve Apostles in the Founding Fathers, its panoply of saints from Betsy Ross to General MacArthur, and even its own Judas Iscariot in Benedict Arnold. No wonder many Americans get confused about its being a Christian nation.

AMERICA AS A YOUNG COUNTRY

One argument often heard from more thoughtful Americans trying to explain the seemingly overabundant expressions of patriotism is that the country is a very young one, still uncertain of itself, still awkward in many of its practices. Also, the idea is advanced that the melodramatic expressions are over-reactions to sensitivity around identity. This may have once been the case, but more than two and a quarter centuries after the Revolution seems a bit long to support the argument, at least without raising new issues around a very slow rate of maturing in American society.

There definitely was a time in the 19th century when Americans were self-conscious and ambivalent and over-protective around their identity. A number of American writers went to live in Europe to escape what they regarded as a parochial and rather artistically limiting society. At the same time, other American writers engaged in stubborn efforts to exalt American attitudes and ways in the world’s eyes. During the 19th century a number of important European visitors to American made some fairly tough observations on the state of the society. Apart from the famous, published observations of, for example, Dickens, there were many observations on such day-to-day matters as the practice of chewing tobacco and spitting so common in America that every public building had dozens of spittoons and stained carpets.

THE ATTRACTION OF AUTHORITARIANISM IN AMERICA

Yet another argument, one with a good deal of merit, is that put forward by Conor Cruise O’Brien that America’s excessive patriotic expression serves as a kind of defense against other tendencies in the society which would work against democracy. O’Brien stresses that the one important purpose that all the noise serves, the only welcome and beneficial one for the world at large, is in helping suppress a tendency, easily observable and consistently present through America’s history, towards strong men, often military types, a lack of patience with liberal milksops, and a recurring attraction to authoritarian measures and swift justice and heavy punishment – a tendency, in a word, towards fascism.

That shouldn’t surprise. Deference to authority is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion, whether the authority is understood as the literal words of the Bible or the words of a charismatic religious leader. Characteristic too is the urge for a certain kind of uniformity in human behavior: fundamentalist Christians believe that all people equally require salvation through Jesus and that those who have found that salvation will ever after conduct their lives within certain well-defined rules and standards. Authority and a drive for social uniformity are also, without doubt, fascism’s key characteristics.

The tendency towards fascism in America was observed by the great American journalist, William L. Shirer, around the time of his reporting on Nazi Germany, “Perhaps America will one day go fascist democratically, by popular vote.” Or there is novelist Sinclair Lewis’s line about fascism coming to America draped in the flag and carrying a cross. Influential historical figures like Henry Ford or Frederick Taylor or Charles Linbergh displayed powerful attractions in that direction: Hitler kept Ford’s photo on the wall near his desk in the Chancery and Stalin admired and tried to copy Taylor’s scientific management. This thread in America goes back to John Adams and the Alien and Sedition laws – under which journalists could be, and were, imprisoned for saying the wrong thing – and to the excesses of Thomas Jefferson who one moment could sound like a saintly spokesman for a free society and the next remarkably like an advocate for the opposite. Indeed, Jefferson didn’t just sound that way, he acted that way a number of times in his political career, including his assistance to Napoleon in attempting to put down Haiti’s slave revolt and his imposition, complete with spies and harsh enforcement, of an embargo against trade with Britain which destroyed huge sectors of the New England economy. As well, there was his admiration for the excesses of the French Revolution and all his talk about having to spill blood every twenty years or so for freedom.

WHAT IS DEMOCRACY AND DOES AMERICA HAVE IT?

Of course, democracy is just a set of rules for organizing ourselves into a society of laws, and there are many variations possible in those rules, and even the best sets of rules, carefully considered as to their fairness, may have some unpleasant consequences. But most democratic governments do not regularly scrutinize their rules in order to improve them, and this may be truest of all in the case of the United States, because it has treated as hallowed rules and institutions which were long ago obsolete from a democratic point of view: these include the Electoral College for presidential elections, the cloture rules for the Senate, the very make-up of the Senate in not reflecting population, the way campaigns are financed, and quite a number of equally important matters.

Most democratic governments are organized with sets of rules which are haphazard collections from the past, accumulations of the accidents of history, and most certainly, even rules designed originally with the intention of entrenching privilege and bias.

I use the term democratic government quite deliberately to distinguish the many hybrid forms which may even have less in them of democracy than of other forms of government. Democracy itself, at least at this stage of human development, is always an ideal which remains an ideal in not being too closely defined. In general, we understand by that ideal a set of rules whereby every citizen has the franchise and exercises it to direct the actions of government, or at least the weighty actions of government. The more complications there are in the rules and the more links to go through in order to legislate, the more remote we are from democracy.

Of course, when American politicians speak about democracy, it is not democracy in general whose praises are sung but America’s particular brand. And that is not an unimportant point since America’s system of government, while having many democratic aspects, is, even in the twenty-first century, a considerable way from anything we could fairly call democracy. Early Americans rarely used the word democracy, instead almost always emphasizing the country’s identity as a republic. Now, a republic is little more than a government without a monarch, one represented by some person or persons elected by a group granted the franchise, however small and exclusive that group might be. There were a number of republics before the United States, including the Venetian and the Netherlands, and a republic need not be at all democratic. If only a small and privileged group holds the franchise, then a republic may be no more democratic than a constitutional, or limited, monarchy. Strictly speaking, at the time of America’s founding, the British monarch had lost so much power to Parliament through several centuries of progressive change and civil war and revolution, that Britain was every bit as democratic as the United States. It may even be not far from a monarchy with few constitutional limits, for a small group of privileged people selecting a leader is not so different to a kingdom with a group of powerful lords who may uphold or topple him.

Democracy may be viewed as a special kind of limit in human political society, the kind we find in the mathematics of differential calculus, something we may approach ever more closely but actually never reach. In that sense democracy is always an approximation, but some approximations are close and some are wildly off.

The world’s major democratic governments appear theoretically organized as Burkean democracies, wherein voters periodically choose representatives who are then to exercise judgment over issues during the time they hold office, having the time and resources to gain expertise as they proceed. In the eighteenth century, when parliaments first were exercising great independent strength, political parties as we know them had not taken hold. The individual member mattered, and parliamentary business often resembled a series of temporary alliances, but the gradual emergence of major entrenched parties, both in parliaments and congresses, has changed all that. We also have, during the twentieth century, the emergence in parliaments of a party’s leader demanding close to complete obedience by members in voting and legislation.

Thus prime ministers have emerged as extremely powerful figures, able to behave quite closely to dictatorial figures in foreign or domestic affairs, at least until such time as their party members revolt. The President in American-style government is a comparatively weak figure in domestic affairs because he does not lead the legislature. However because the Constitution made the President Commander-in-Chief, he has a huge authority in military matters.

This naming of the president as commander-in-chief surely represents one of the serious defects of the Constitution. The Founders believed they had a proper balance and division of power in giving only Congress the power to declare war while making the president commander. But that has proved very faulty in the 20th century. Most of America’s wars since the end of World War II, and there have been many, never involved a declaration of war. It’s almost as though the concept of a declaration of war has become outdated, a relic of the 18th century. But the President’s power as commander-in-chief is no relic. That has become immensely important with a gigantic standing armed forces, something most of the Founding Fathers could not have imagined and by which they would likely be horrified. After America’s ghastly debacle in Vietnam, new laws were passed limiting the president’s unilateral powers over the armed forces, but these just slow things up a bit and are no barrier to a determined president, as George Bush demonstrated with the completely illegal invasion of Iraq.

Today, few elected officials anywhere exercise the tough-minded, independent judgment of an Edmund Burke: the day-to-day practice certainly includes checking the political winds in one’s constituency before charting a course on an issue. But more important still are the political winds of the member’s party leadership, for parties dominate most political activity, leaving room only rarely for a member to depart out of consideration for local constituency sensibilities.

Already in that rough sketch we can see how far from democracy we are.

Some countries allow or mandate referendums – either binding or non-binding – for certain limited matters, such referendums, especially binding ones, being as close as we get to the ideal of democracy. While referendums have been used by state governments in the United States, they are not a practice of the national government.

THE WORST FORM OF GOVERNMENT

Winston Churchill gave us one of the definitive comments on democratic government when he said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.

Churchill’s observation is far more than a witty quip, for it certainly identifies one of the fundamental limits of democracy, a tough and seemingly insoluble conundrum. Democracy, as Churchill understood it, is often inefficient, messy, and laggard in dealing with great problems, at least as viewed from the perspective of a person with critical intelligence, brusque personality, and impatience for action – the very kind of man Churchill was. For certainly, a man of Churchill’s exceptional gifts often is able to see an important problem, at least in those areas upon which his interests are focused, before others and often capable of proposing an appropriate solution.

But there have been even more gifted men in history, men who enjoyed power without the constraints of democratic institutions, whose interests focused on matters which brought untold horror to millions – Napoleon readily comes to mind.

Churchill certainly had a claim to authority on the subject of democracy, being an historian of distinction and having served as a genuinely inspiring symbol for the hopes of democratic society during the greatest war in human history.

Yet, as is perhaps not so widely known, Churchill was more than a little doubtful about the most basic component of democracy, the average voter. He was actually savagely cynical on the subject, having once remarked that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Of course, further testifying to the ambiguity of Churchill on democracy, we have the fact that at the same time he served as a great symbol to free societies warring against tyrants, he was devoted to the continuation of the British Empire, a devotion which influenced his political behaviour during and after the war.

THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY

In their complexity and ambiguity, Churchill’s views perhaps provide the perfect starting point in discussing the limits of democracy, although Churchill was not unique in these views among Western statesmen of his time. One finds similar themes in the thoughts and behaviors of Franklin Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle. Roosevelt stood against the enslavement of others by fascist dictators, yet he was a happy builder of American empire and a politician who did not interfere in some very dark corners of his own society where it might cause problems with his majority. De Gaulle, much like Churchill, was an admirer of empire, so long as it was French.

Empire and democracy are certainly mutually exclusive concepts if by democracy you include all the actors in the story, and not just those in the “mother country.” But many people do not seem to make this distinction. Americans today, many of them, have little problem regarding the nation’s interventions abroad as legitimate because America itself has democratic government, even though those two concepts surely are non sequiturs.

Americans see their origins as a great revolt against British imperial tyranny, and the British establishment of the 18th century saw their Parliament’s rule in the American colonies as appropriate and even beneficent.

The data on colonial American life expectancy, births, and health of population plus the notable comments of some observers from abroad tend to support the historical British view. Many visitors from abroad commented on the relative freedom of the colonies, the lack of war, the freedom from conscription, and the energetic qualities of the local people. Some insightful people rated the pre-revolutionary colonies as the best known place on earth when all factors were considered.

So why was there an American Revolution, perhaps more accurately named an American Revolt because the colonies were simply throwing off rule from abroad rather than entering into any kind of radical departure in the way society was organized? There were a number of republics before America, and Britain herself was well along the path towards more democratic government despite being a monarchy. Newly-independent America certainly was no more democratic than Great Britain, and many of the thoughts and concepts of government attributed to the “Founding Fathers” were not original, indeed most of them originated earlier with British thinkers and the French philosophes.

Nor was America in any meaningful sense more free after the Revolution. It was free of the sensible Crown rules which had tried to prevent rampaging expansion and exploitation over the Indian territories west of the colonies as in the Ohio Valley, or perhaps that is an overstatement since the colonists regularly had broken those rules seeking quick fortunes, George Washington chief amongst them with his land speculation. America was free of British rules governing imports and tariffs, but then many colonists had studiously ignored those rules, men like John Hancock having made fortunes in smuggling, a major colonial industry. America was freed from the wild, paranoid fears about the Pope taking over which Britain’s institution of the Quebec Act had engendered, a major cause of the rebellion, or perhaps that is even going too far since anti-popery remained a fierce attitude in the colonies, with effigies of the pope

 

 

LIMITS TO DEMOCRACY: THE CIA AND KINDRED INSTITUTIONS

Apart from the obvious anti-democratic business of empires or spheres of influence maintained by military force, it is a notable that in all modern democratic societies large parts of the state and its private institutions are organized along lines virtually the opposite to democracy: they are organized along authoritarian lines.

This is remarkably so in the case of the United States. The Pentagon, the C.I.A., thirteen other intelligence agencies at last count, and various national police forces. We might also include major defense contractors working on top secret projects. All these institutions are not only secretive, they are organized on lines of authority little different to those in 16th century societies. Democracy, in any form has no role in these institutions, except presumably to direct their activities at a high level.

It is easy to say that because the national government directing these powerful institutions is itself democratic that the institutions serve democratic principles, but something’s being easy to say does not make it true. Power is power, however granted, and these institutions are centers of great power, and they are not, nor can they reasonably be expected to be, effectively scrutinized and directed by people serving the interests of democracy.

In many cases, perhaps most, such institutions actually enjoy great influence over the democratic government supposedly directing them. Hoover’s FBI springs immediately to mind. Naturally enough with these secretive institutions we never know very much concerning details of their activities, yet there are others instances which have come to light. The CIA’s misleading of a new and inexperienced President John Kennedy about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion was certainly an example.

The oversight committees of Congress must almost by definition be highly ineffective with regard to these complex and secretive institutions. Busy politicians can hardly be expected to keep up with vast resources and cleverness and ruthlessness of major intelligence figures. These powerful agencies include those who can print perfect duplicate currency, manufacture perfect false passports, and generate recordings or photos which are pure fantasy. Any congressman or senator on a committee who did manage to penetrate to some inappropriate truths would hardly be in a position to use the information in any way.

To whom would he turn with his information? Committee chairmen are invariably long-term, often ancient, politicians who, much like the heads of many government regulatory agencies, are closely bonded to the interests of the institution they oversee. To publicly suggest problems with such agencies would open any politician to ridicule, embarrassment, and even reprisals from people who have great resources at their disposal. We recall former CIA Director Richard Helms saying in testimony once that despite being under oath he regarded it as his responsibility not to tell the truth if it revealed secrets.

And, remember, a common activity of the CIA is subsidizing politicians and parties abroad to assure their election prospects against opponents, and who can reasonably doubt that that same nefarious activity may be used against selected American politicians? Of course, there is the infamous case in Britain of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement in the 1970s. There is substantial reason to believe it was the result of MI6 breaking into Wilson’s office and obtaining some embarrassing documents and recordings.

Besides, as we shall see, the national government itself often acts along undemocratic, and even anti-democratic, lines, so that effective oversight is not only exceedingly difficult, it often does not exist by choice. If you accept the idea, which I happen to believe is impossible to refute convincingly, that these great institutions effectively become a kind of government within a government – an ongoing establishment of careerists with sensitive and powerful jobs and great resources at their command – then we come to a very important set of limits in American democracy or in any democracy so organized.

State secrets are just one aspect of this government within a government, and state secrets, I believe, far more often than not, are classified only because they are embarrassing or compromising to an agency which has blundered or done something generally regarded as unacceptable or even criminal, not because they represent genuine threats to national security. We have, again considering the highly secretive nature of these agencies, a number of the most obvious failures by them in recent history: the assassination of an American president despite known threats; the failure to see the coming collapse of the Soviet Union, an epochal event of the twentieth century; the highly successful and complex attack of 9/11; and a number of terribly damaging spies. None of these events have been explained to the satisfaction of clear-thinking people, they remain surrounded with a deliberately generated fog of nonsense. Who can doubt that countless smaller events are classified only for what they reveal of incompetence, waste, or criminality?

Yet the citizens of every democracy tolerate the ongoing existence of great dark areas in their knowledge labelled as secret. It has been shown, many times, in the United States and other places where the practice of secrets is especially far-ranging, that when some of them finally come to be known decades later, the claim of their importance to national security is often laughable. Indeed, often the reverse is the case: national security in the truest sense is hurt by secrets which do not need to be secret.

Just in my lifetime, there have been examples of the last phenomenon. You do not have to be what is called a conspiracy theorist – sometimes a warranted label for the paranoid extremes of every human society, but too often a way of demonizing those who have honest questions and true observations about great events – to accept that assertion.

Indeed, the mushroom-like growth in size and variety of national security agencies in the United States since WWII is breathtaking. The CIA, for example, was signed into existence by President Truman in the belief that future executive decisions needed the support of sound, unbiased information about the world. It started as a fairly modest enterprise but in a matter of decades was consuming tens of billions of dollars. Since the events of 9/11 when the CIA’s annual budget had been estimated at around 30 billion dollars – the actual numbers are always secret – the size of the CIA’s budget has undoubtedly undergone a massive inflation, as have those of its many sister agencies.

Even during Truman’s term, already there were signs of trouble with the CIA. Truman expressed great concern over the operations side of the CIA versus its purely information-gathering side. Reasons for that concern have only multiplied over the years. Already by Kennedy’s time, CIA was running huge enterprises in secret, such as its anti-Castro operations. At that time, the CIA’s operations in the Southern United States for recruiting, training, arming, and organizing violent anti-Castro activities could be characterized as a gigantic terrorist enterprise, a company of thousands of workers with a budget of millions of dollars, dwarfing what we know of the pathetic little camp of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.

That vast, secret enterprise engaged in many attempted assassinations, invasion, intimidation of American opposition, spying on Americans, the downing of at least one Cuban airliner, shooting-up Russian ships in Cuban ports, planting bombs in Cuban hotels, and gun-running. If that list of activities doesn’t constitute terror on a grand scale, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

The full story of that time undoubtedly has never been told, but the Church Senate Committee of the 1970s uncovered enough rodent trails to shake the confidence of many in the agency’s integrity. High-ranking CIA employees effectively recruited and worked with elements of the American Mafia towards the goal of assassinating Castro and accomplishing other highly unethical ends. And there was a great deal of confusion, which remains today, over the degree of the president’s knowledge and control of those events.

Following Church’s limited revelations, new efforts were made to reassert control over, and limit, the operations side of the CIA, but it wasn’t long before enthusiasts of operations were given their way under Reagan. Today, following 9/11, operations appear to have a greater role than ever. Where once, for some brief years after the Church Committee, assassination was explicitly forbidden, today we have regular assassinations by missiles fired from computer-controlled drones on the other side of the planet. Dozens of them, people tracked and killed by machines with no charges, no trial, and no evidence, just a technician sitting somewhere in a locked room guiding a death-dealing machine to its human targets. As a matter of fact, many others are routinely killed – neighbors and relatives – each time one of these technicians plays his deadly computer game.

Is it rational to expect that an organization with virtually bottomless resources, one staffed with large numbers of people whose entire careers are dedicated to lying, cheating, and even murder, will behave as an obedient servant when it sees political or social events inside the country moving in directions it regards as unfavourable to its interests? Of course not, and while the tales of such behaviour are likely among the most closely guarded secrets, we do have hard examples adequate to demonstrate the point, a point whose intuitive truth should be clear enough.

LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Abraham Lincoln reassured Americans about the nature of democratic government in America with his pleasant saying that you can fool some people all the time, and all people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It was classic Lincoln as homespun political philosopher.

Lincoln, regrettably, has been proved wrong on all counts. First, to direct or alter the course of elections, it is only necessary to fool all the people part of the time or indeed to fool a good portion all of the time, and we have many instances of both these situations having occurred in American history. The massive private financing of national elections in America is at its heart a mechanism to gain office and the spoils of office by misinforming voters.

Many of America’s “founding fathers” did not trust democracy, and the basis of their mistrust was the belief that citizens of substance had the only stake in society that warranted their receiving the franchise. Equally, they held the belief that a wider franchise offered the opportunity for the mob with no serious stake in society to vote to deprive those who had a stake of their wealth.

The protection against democracy of granting only a small fraction of white males the franchise – those meeting criteria of wealth – was buttressed by a series of Constitutional structures to make strong barriers against democracy. First, the Constitution creating the barriers was itself made excruciatingly difficult to alter. Then the Senate was made an appointed, rather than elected, body, the Senate being the part of the legislature with the great power of approving all presidential appointments and treaties while exercising a veto on acts of the House of Representatives. Further, the direct election of the president was given to a small, privileged group called the Electoral College: the votes of even the limited population who had the franchise being overridden by the still smaller, still more privileged group appointed to the College.

After two centuries of change and evolution in the Constitution, its mechanism of interpretation, and the extension of the franchise, the fears of the founders remain effectively threaded into the fabric of American society. Perhaps the main way – but not the only way, as we shall see later – those fears work today is through the system of campaign financing. In general, those who are best financed will win, but in a duopoly party system, even the party which is less well financed still clearly represents the interests of the people giving all that money.

And it is a great deal of money indeed. It is estimated that an American Senator must spend on average about two-thirds of his or her time chasing campaign funds. A Senate seat in a major state requires on the order of fifteen million dollars for each election. But the amounts just keep growing. Hillary Clinton spent an almost unbelievable $36 million in 2006 for her New York Senate seat, with the total spent by both candidates being $41 million. Races in Pennsylvania and Missouri saw amounts of $38 million and $28 million spent for one seat each. No one but the most dreamy-eyed sentimentalist believes that those amounts are donated through a sense of civic duty or public spirit. If nothing else, substantial contributions buy access, so that political access is rationed in America, as is the case for so many other things, from healthcare to education or legal representation, largely by money.

By Lincoln’s day, the original narrow limits on the franchise had broadened, but nothing which genuinely qualified as democracy had yet emerged, the Senate being still appointed and the President still being elected by a small and elite political group and a minority of voters even being qualified to vote. Lincoln, naturally enough, accepted many of the assumptions and attitudes of his day, including limits on democracy. His words, for example, on extending the franchise to freed slaves were quite guarded and conservative: perhaps, he said, it could be extended to a few of the most intelligent.

Yet I’m pretty sure Lincoln would have dumbfounded by a single national election in which a billion dollars is spent, and spent largely on advertising, polling, marketing research, spokespeople, and artificially-staged rallies. I feel confident that the thoughtful man who debated weighty matters with hand-written words would be horrified by American elections with debates which are nothing more than joint press conferences, featuring candidates sporting blow-dried hair, capped perfect teeth, and pancake make-up, supported by budgets for vacuous advertising in the hundreds of millions of dollars, teams of political flaks paid to pleasantly lie and insincerely praise, and a cast of carefully rehearsed candidates who never actually answer a question and indeed rarely ever touch a genuine issue.

And Lincoln was certainly not the innocent, intelligent rustic he is often regarded or portrayed. He was a tough, self-made man who went from squalor in a dirt-floor cabin to a handsome, well furnished, two-floor home built to his family’s needs. He was shrewd, anything but naïve, sceptical about many human beliefs, and a man who took less than two years of formal education and made himself a successful corporate lawyer, representing an important company like the Illinois Central.

Of course, what Lincoln truly represents in American history is the hard man who finally welded together a United States that would become a world industrial power, a United States whose regionalism, with institutions such as slavery constantly reinforcing regionalism, could often barely function as a single government. To do this, Lincoln had to ride over the principle of self-determination and launch a great and bloody war. To this day, it is not at all clear that he was justified since an independent Confederacy would certainly have been forced both by social pressures and economic needs to end slavery on its own in a few decades, as happened in many other jurisdictions.

LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY: EISENHOWER AND THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

With the rise of what Dwight Eisenhower aptly called the military-industrial complex, we have an increasingly common situation in which all, or virtually all, the people are being fooled all of the time, at least in some vital areas of knowledge. Indeed, I think Jerome Weisner, former President of M.I.T., put it well when he extended Eisenhower’s warning, “It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the United States from becoming a totally military culture.”

The military by its very nature represents the very opposite of democracy: it is hierarchal and authoritarian, its job is control through killing and destruction, and it is always secretive. The rise in the size and influence of great authoritarian institutions like the intelligence establishment at the center of power in the United States parallels the rise in size and importance of the military, which serves the international imperial role demanded of it. huge permanent secret-service establishments, vast subsidized military contractors, and a large permanent military class exist precisely to serve those interests and grow as they grow.

If knowledge is power – a dictum as true as when it first was uttered and one, surely, with a special application to democracy – how can we ignore the backward-flowing power of ultra-secretive agencies over voters who must often cast ballots in blindness or, increasingly, armed with deliberate misinformation?

Just one example of the pernicious effects of ultra-secretiveness upon democratic society, of the scores one could cite, would be American elections leading up to, and during, the Vietnam War. The highly calculated and secretive nature of the American government’s efforts in Vietnam was largely unknown to American voters, starting with elaborate efforts to support continued French colonialism in Indochina during the early 1950s.

One of America’s popular attitudes early in the 20th century was against imperial power. The fact that many ordinary Americans had no sympathy with European imperialism was exploited time and time again by an American establishment keen on its own imperial destiny, most notably the complete assumption of Britain’s role in the world after World War II. The same line had previously been used towards Spain in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War.

So how was it that Americans during the 1950s supported governments which vigorously supported a renewed French imperialism? For the most part, they simply did not know, and that secret activity was to further and further embroil the U.S. into affairs in that part of the world, leading almost inevitably, when all factors are taken into account, to the Vietnam War, that gigantic and pointless waste of life and resources.

When the cause of French imperialism in Indochina was lost, Washington’s establishment worked diligently towards establishing and supporting a rump state of South Vietnam, a place which never possessed any more democratic bona fides than the Communist North: it served as an American imperial foothold in Asia at a time of the rise of communist China.

There was the almost ridiculous casus belli called the Gulf of Tonkin incident – its most generous explanation being a sailor hearing his own ship’s propellers and convincing himself he heard a torpedo – was exploded by an establishment eager for war into an excuse to launch a great army to the other side of the world.

Later, there were the secret bombings and incursions of Cambodia, an activity directly responsible for the fall of a neutral government and the coming of “the killing fields.”

Through all of that, Americans voted largely in blindness over events which would demand many to give up their lives, destroy millions of others in a great holocaust, and consume countless resources, eventually causing the serious depreciation of the currency. And, as if all that were not enough, the war almost ripped American society in two.

I think it fair to say that those are about as high as the stakes could be in elections, yet Americans voted through most of those events with no accurate understanding.

America’s great authoritarian institutions provide continuity in policy, as well as expertise, but their very size, relative independence, access to secrets, virtually limitless resources, and totem-like association with patriotism in a country where patriotism is a round-the-clock exercise not a little like fundamentalists professing Christ give them an inordinate degree of power and authority.

Some readers will at first regard that as an exaggerated claim, but if they will consider just some of the real-world examples of which we are aware, there undoubtedly being many of which we are not, they will likely convince themselves.

After all, what are the main day-in, day-out tasks of the “operations side” of intelligence agencies? In all major countries, they include disrupting other governments or organizations whose views or policies are unwelcome, influencing the rise of selected leaders in many countries, influencing the outcomes of elections, and, in the extreme, limit, overthrowing governments and assassinating leaders.

Even in a “nice,” largely congenial country like Canada, we see such things from what are essentially authoritarian agencies: our fabled RCMP – subject of countless pleasant myths from “always getting their man” to Dudley Do-Right or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon – a few years back, directly interfered in a national election with the announcement that it was investigating certain matters touching one of the political parties. Nothing came of it, but the well-timed public announcement had its effect, much like a well disguised road-side bomb in Afghanistan.

The RCMP had a not well understood role in the days of extremism in Quebec, being caught red-handed in some kind of minor agent provocateur act involving burning a building. Again in the wake of 9/11, the RCMP appears to have been instrumental in America’s disgraceful treatment of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian of Syrian origin whom American authorities deliberately deported to Syria for a long bout of torture after his plane merely made a stop-over in the United States.

One of Britain’s intelligence services, MI5, almost certainly played a role in discrediting Prime Minister Harold Wilson during his second time in office during the 1970s. MI5 had many materials to manipulate: Wilson was generally regarded as a highly intelligent and crafty man, which indeed he was, but one dedicated to changing many aspects of British society in a progressive direction.

Wilson also had been secretly accused by a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, in 1963 of being a KGB spy. It was the kind of accusation, unsubstantiated to this day, that was a gift to political opponents during the Cold War. The then-influential James Angleton of the C.I.A., among others, accepted the accusation as true and undoubtedly worked towards pressuring British intelligence to act, British intelligence then being highly vulnerable to pressure after the highly successful exploits of the Cambridge circle of spies. Wilson resignation in 1976 surprised the world, and it most likely reflected inappropriate activities by MI5 putting pressure on him.

The creepy, quiet little political terror imposed on America for decades by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while the subject of several excellent books, remains unappreciated by the average American. Hoover used his privileged position to spy on anyone who had political power, any public figure who either threatened his hold on power or represented values he personally deemed un-American, or indeed to influence the outcomes of elections.

Members of Congress for decades lived in genuine fear of his secret files on their private lives – both real and imagined. Hoover only had to make the most indirect and glancing reference in a private talk to achieve remarkable changes in a politician’s public stance. Hoover unquestionably effectively blackmailed several American presidents – notoriously including John Kennedy – presidents who on paper controlled his appointment. He typically ignored the various Attorneys General, cabinet officials, appointed as his direct bosses.

With the CIA having participated in many coups d’etat abroad – and importantly, coups including a number against democratically elected governments, as those in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile – who is naïve enough to believe to believe that that agency never touches the internal affairs of the United States? I don’t mean violent activity like coups, but the CIA has a huge repertoire of techniques and games that it can play. The CIA regularly works in other countries to influence elections by putting favored figures on secret pensions, by working to discredit politicians not favored, by subsidizing organizations or parties, and by creating with its boundless resources propaganda and disinformation of every description.

Who can trace a secret verbal suggestion from an agency official to an important reporter or editor which serves to give life to a noxious story? And who knows how many reporters or editors are actually closet agency personnel? Only fairly recently we had the notorious case of Judith Miller working at the much-vaunted New York Times, effectively helping to discredit those who worked against the invasion of Iraq.

During the Kennedy years, the CIA was so deeply involved in anti-Cuban activity, it ran a giant, secret terrorist operation with camps in places like Florida which made Osama bin Laden’s redoubt in the mountains of Afghanistan resemble a boy scout camp. Thousands were trained, millions spent, warehouses of weapons and explosives supplied, assassinations and terrorists acts planned – all on American soil, all paid for by American taxpayers.

Yes, that ghastly operation was approved by the highest levels of the American government, but who can possibly maintain tight control on such vast and secret operations and resources? Clearly, the American government then could not, because mysteries around those times were still being revealed more than a decade later by the Church Senate Committee, and the mystery around Kennedy’s assassination remains a mystery to this day.

When you have a two-party system, it is unavoidable that you have what economists call bundling applying to politics. A vote for a candidate or party represents a vote for a bundle of policies and views. Most voters have one or a few policies for which they care deeply, and they accordingly vote on that basis. But that means that on many, or even most, other policies the voter’s views are not represented.

The effect of bundling in voting is that a national government may often speak with democratic legitimacy while in fact saying things which do not represent a majority of voters’ views. On minor issues, this essentially undemocratic result may not be regarded by most people as a difficult result, but on important issues, this result can be highly disturbing.

Of course, what is important to American voters at any given time will itself reflect the impact of other democracy-distorting influences, including most notably the great impact of campaign contributions upon the size and reach of every candidate’s advertising and the impact of what is stressed day by day in the corporate media where most busy people obtain their sense of what is happening in the world.

These two influences are immensely important.

Where once in America, the press was somewhat competitive, today there can be no doubt that it is concentrated into relatively few hands, and this change towards great concentration is characteristic of the world’s press. Economists know that industries which often begin as fairly competitive – at least roughly approximating the theoretical concept of perfect competition which underlies all generalized predictions of the role of competitors in markets – over time tend to become imperfectly competitive or even quasi-monopolies.

This pattern has occurred in many industries from car manufacturing to candy-bar companies. There are a number of reasons for this common phenomenon, but it is closely related to the concentration of capital in the functioning of a business; huge plants for huge markets and huge distribution and marketing systems create advantages of economies of scale which gradually render smaller competitors impotent. The high capital costs of entering such an industry act effectively as what economists call barriers to entry against new competitors.

The effects of this process have been underway for decades in the press and broadcasting. Who could hope to compete with the cost structure of one of the world-scale “media” companies in any given market? Indeed, once this stage of concentration is reached in any industry, we have not only the natural barrier to entry of capital costs but others which come into play.

Such a large company can do many things to hurt upstart competition, including dropping the rates of its local advertising – effectively subsidizing them with revenue from other markets – long enough to drive its small, far less flexible competitor out of business. It may also use advertising and marketing promotions, which it again is able effectively to subsidize from other operations, to help drive upstart companies out of business.

Clearly, the editorial judgements and views of gigantic national, and even international, corporations – themselves, we must remember, being anything but democratic institutions – are not likely to take an open and liberal (in the best sense of the word) view of issues, even in the rare case where they do not have close ties with a party. Moreover, what we increasingly find in such companies is a centralized direction of editorial material and news policy. In one large Canadian media company, editorials for its various local papers are actually largely the product of corporate headquarters, much the way the mix of ingredients in a Big Mac anywhere in the world are determined in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Such concentrated situations in a market do not last indefinitely, but they last long enough to serve defined interests extremely well for a considerable time. What Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the death of old industries displaced inevitably by new ones, comes into play, although not necessarily over any short time horizon.

What really is behind creative destruction is the constant flow of changing technology, and when the technology for doing something changes significantly, the costs of doing it also change. When you change the technology enough, you actually change the nature of the market itself. The automobile displaced horses and wagons, but it did more than displace them: the market for automobiles is different and more complicated than was the historical one for horses and wagons.

Personal computers and the Internet clearly today are eroding the revenues of traditional newspapers – in such historically lucrative areas as classified advertising – while enjoying the much lower costs of electronic production and distribution. However, it is not at all clear that the new set of great changes underway are going to result in a more democratic press. Too many things are happening at the same time to safely predict the outcome, but there ultimately be the same pattern of development in Internet communication of information as has happened in the printed or broadcast versions.

The contemporary trend only more deeply entrenches A. J. Liebling’s clever aphorism about freedom of the press being guaranteed only to those who own one.

Bias however is not new to the press: it has always been part of the fabric of newspapers going back to the beginnings of the American Republic. Each political party has its “own” newspapers, that is papers which favor the party’s views or policies, which may even be owned by people influential in the party.

Early on in America, parties showed little shame in controlling newspapers on their behalf. Indeed, the newspapers they controlled showed little shame in their often vicious and name-calling attacks on political opponents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, hired a couple of pretty unscrupulous fellows, Philip Freneau and James Callender to write attacks on the Federalist administration. Incidentally, Jefferson, no slouch himself at unscrupulous behaviour, had no qualms in his role of Secretary of State at putting Freneau on the government payroll as a translator while his important function was as attack dog of the Washington government under which Jefferson himself served.

Churchill’s second remark is an extension of the first, but it is also something more: it brings us face-to-face with the age-old problem of who is qualified to vote in a democracy. For example, one of the oldest and most powerful objections to allowing large parts of a population vote is the question of how an uneducated electorate can vote about issues it does not understand?

All countries which are today democratic in one degree or another started down the historical path of development in the modern era from forms of authoritarian government with monarchs and great lords beginning to share some authority with members of the rising business class. The new wealth of businessmen, so different in nature to the wealth of an ancient landed aristocracy, was the ticket for a seat at the table where decisions of state were made. It was a long and drawn out process with more than a few instances of old landed aristocrats objecting to sharing any power or privileges with upstarts.

Gradually, the new men of substance, assumed greater and greater powers within government, and the mechanism for putting them there – the franchise for electing them to whatever parliament or congress had emerged in each country – also spread to a larger and larger pool of people. Quite simply, democracy derives from the emergence of a middle class, and the larger that middle class becomes – hence the importance of strong economic growth – the more widely is the franchise granted and the larger becomes the pool of people eligible to participate in government.

A large and growing middle class has many interests which cannot possibly be served by a king and great lords or, for that matter, any other form of authoritarian government over the long term. Some of these interests will not even be understood by authoritarian figures of an old regime, such as needs for laws governing business and trade or for special economic policies. The middle class, too, as it grows, assumes a greater and greater portion of the total wealth in a country, and, today no less than in the past, wealth always is accompanied with privileges and power. After all, the basis for the authority of kings and great lords of the past was the land which they had inherited and owned, the land being understood earlier as the only real source of wealth, so much so that those who owned the land often owned the people who worked it too.

The modern era – that is, roughly the time since the beginnings of the Renaissance – has seen this process repeated many times in many places, with variations in its pattern which reflect local conditions, wars, economic setbacks, and the degree of strength of the local old order. It may be taken as the general rule for the birth of democracy, and special claims to bringing democracy to the world, from whole cloth as it were, a not uncommon notion in the United States even among educated people – may be treated for what they are, chauvinistic claims to being something special apart from the experience of others.

At various stages of the evolution of modern democracies, there were powerful arguments by privileged groups against sharing the franchise with people in general, the arguments focusing at one time or another on the lack of education, the lack of a real stake in society (i.e. property), inherent inferiority (the American South right into the 1960s), religious preferences distorting votes (an idea which lingered still in the United States in 1960, and one that had played a major role in the onset of the American Revolution, or more accurately, revolt against British authority and the hated Quebec Act), or indeed a combination of such factors as with the resistance against granting the franchise to women well into the 20th century.

Relatively few Americans appreciate that this was just as much the case in America as, say, in the United Kingdom. The early government of the United States called itself a republic, to distinguish itself from a kingdom, but the distinction was largely one without a meaning. Only a very small group of Americans could vote in the early republic. An estimate for the eligible voters of Virginia, for example, puts them at one percent of the population.

Except in the words used, the early American reality was little different to the reality in George III’s Britain. One European writer aptly characterized the American Revolution as an event which replaced a group of foreign-born aristocrats by local ones. Indeed, in modern China, the membership of the Communist party, the only people whose votes really do mean something, is roughly that same percent of the total population as those with the franchise in Virginia after the Revolution. Most of America’s chief founders not only were not democrats, they disliked the word “democracy” in very much the same way prominent American politicians regarded the word “communist” in 1955, indeed a repugnance in the latter case which remains to this day in subdued fashion.

I shall return later to that aspect of democracy in America. For now, we’ll continue with general limits to democracy.

THE ROLE OF HONESTY IN A DEMOCRACY

One does not usually think immediately of honesty playing a role in democratic government, but it does indeed play a great role. The most elementary example of its importance is in vote fraud, the honesty in counting the votes. People associate vote fraud with third-world countries or totalitarian regimes, but the practice has played an important role in American political history and continues to do so today.

When I was a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, it was widely accepted that the Democratic machine controlling city politics used vote fraud. There were regular newspaper stories and personal tales about names from cemeteries being registered as voters, of ballot counters with pieces of lead stuck under fingernails to invalidate ballots by surreptitiously placing an extra mark on them, and about party men accompanying voters into early voting machines to “help” them vote. In general, there was a sense of humorous acceptance instead of anger at an attack on the very legitimacy of an election.

These practices and others were certainly not exclusive to Chicago politics. By all accounts, they have been common in many parts of the country for a long time: other big-city machines run much as the Chicago one plus many rural places where influential landowners or the owner of the only local industry or corrupt officials went unchallenged in much the same way as the patron or godfather went unchallenged by peasants in a third-world place. Every now and then, a new critical biography or history brings to light specific instances. We know, for example, Lyndon Johnson’s first win for Congress in Texas was owing to vote fraud by the local machine. The case of Kennedy’s victory in 1960 is well known, the Democratic machines in Chicago and Texas delivering the required votes in a close election. Vote fraud in Florida played a role in Bush’s victory in 2000, and vote fraud in Florida and Ohio played a role in his 2004 victory.

Vote fraud takes many forms. In Florida, one form it took was the closing of polling places while long lines of voters still had not cast a ballot. In a number of states, vote fraud included deliberately misinforming voters about registration or location of a poll.
The very fact that most Americans are not outraged by such tales tells us a good deal about the state of democratic political culture in the United States.

One of the fundamental problems with election honesty in the United States is that the administration of elections, including the elections for federal offices, is a local responsibility. Of course, the opportunity and incentive to cheat are greatest at precisely the local level where fewer critical eyes are involved and where local attitudes determine election ethics. Local administration of elections also explains why there is no uniformity across the country in the nature of ballots, the rules for registration, and the way polling places are run. Ballots include everything from paper ballots requiring the traditional “x” to voting machines with switches to the infamous stiff paper forms, used in Florida in 2000, that require punching out perforated circles called “chads” next to the names. Apart from dishonest registration and counting, ballots in all forms can be manipulated to some extent just by the way candidates are identified and ordered. Today there is increasing use of computer voting by touch screen, but the systems used have been shown to be subject to manipulation, and in any case, the need for valid registration can still be gamed.

The immense number of barriers to entry, created over many decades, by the two major parties in their respective comfortable fiefdoms. These barriers work to keep American politics running as a duopoly, making it very difficult for new parties to break into the political market, as it were. But they also serve in many cases locally as unfair weights against the opposing major party. There are a great many of these, but one example will serve to highlight

I don’t want to catalogue all the possible ways of cheating at an election, just to make clear that there are many, and with every advance in the technology of voting, new methods of fraud will be devised.

In general, when there is a very large gap in the popularity of two national candidates, vote fraud doesn’t play a role, but most modern Presidential elections tend to be fairly close, in which case, vote fraud can be decisive. With both major parties having absorbed the lesson of “moving to the center” as an election strategy, close elections are likely to be the rule in future.

Another kind of dishonesty is that involved in just getting a candidate’s name on the ballot. America’s neat division into Republican and Democrat is not quite the natural thing it is sometimes made to seem in the popular press, and here again the local administration of elections plays still another role. There is an immense variety of what economists call “barriers to entry” across the fifty states, all carefully crafted over time by local politicians wishing to maintain either their own advantageous position or at least securing the duopoly of power enjoyed by the two parties. The requirements for every state are different, some more complicated than others.

Getting a third party on all the ballots for a national election is a complicated and expensive thing to achieve even for an extremely rich man like Ross Perot who ran as a third-party candidate. The fact that is so again provides insight into the spirit of the democratic political culture in America.

There are other kinds of dishonesty which play an important role in American elections. Since the Supreme Court decided that corporations are not to be limited in their giving, the expense of elections has nowhere to go but up. The mid-term Congressional election just finished at this writing was the most expensive in history. In this way too, an effective barrier to entry is created. Just as very large corporations spending huge amounts on advertising make it close to impossible for new competitors to emerge, so this lavish spending by two parties serves the same purpose in the political sphere.

Of course, the vast spending has many more implications than serving as a barrier to entry. Large contributions buy access, and candidates are reduced to what should be embarrassing activities in seeking large contributions. Bill Clinton set a new level of crassness in seeking contributors by selling things like a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

First, I would cite the ever-increasing role of advertising and marketing. American elections today are run pretty much exactly the way two companies manage the sales of soda pop or hamburgers. A great deal of money is spent on market research – polls, focus groups, etc – so that the “message” of a campaign can be fine-tuned.

There is the role of promises being made during election which are not kept. This practice has become so common that it is the subject of cynical humor, but not all instances of it are the same. Some promises are made carelessly before a candidate appreciates from the perspective of office how difficult or impossible the promise is. In this case, the broken promise is usually credited to inexperience. Another form of

an increasing serious problem with politicians who want to grab voters’ attention and voters who have limited time to inform themselves and question issues and positions.

A DOUBLE PARADOX: A PRESIDENT WHO DOESN’T MATTER AND ELECTIONS PUTTING THE UNELECTED INTO POWER – A TROUBLING DEVELOPMENT IN AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

George Bush’s term as president taught us one remarkable new lesson: that the president, if ignorant enough, lacking in energy, and open to manipulation from powerful people behind him, actually does not matter a very great deal. Few astute observers can doubt that Bush served mainly as a kind of figurehead while the direction of policy was largely determined by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few others. He wasn’t in any way forced to be a figurehead: it was the nature of his personality and character that he chose to run understanding his inadequacies after a lifetime of stumbling performance and comfortable with the idea he could go to bed each night at nine o’clock. In effect, America had an unelected government.

You could argue that Cheney was elected, but that would be a purely technical argument because candidates for the virtually meaningless office of vice-president are picked by politicians, bundled with the candidate with whom people actually are concerned, serve with little sense of answering to the electorate, have no defined duties in the Constitution beyond breaking ties in the Senate, and if unsatisfactory may be jettisoned with no recourse to the people for the next election.

Sarah Palin is even a more extreme case of the same thing. The woman is plainly stupid, having demonstrated it dozens of times. Of course, there is no law against stupid or ignorant people running for office, but most people surely have an innate belief that people of no skill or talent will never reach high office. You could say that the nuclear “button” – not really a button but a device which always accompanies the president – is almost a public symbol of faith in this belief.

Of course, money plays just a huge role in Palin’s promotion, as it does in all American politics now, America approaching in many ways something pretty close to a plutocracy.
All Palin has done, since quitting her fairly humble job as governor of a state with about the population of greater Cleveland half-way through its term, is collect millions of dollars for cheerleading, waving her arms and shouting words that never go beyond clichés, slogans, and the odd ghost-written joke. You might dismiss her as the comic relief on the political rubber-chicken circuit, but the phenomenon truly is more serious than that: she is being guided from behind the scenes into being another even more grotesque Bush-like presidential candidate.

Had she an ounce of sense, she’d know she is completely unqualified for high office, but she is as ambitious and egotistical as she is stupid, a dangerous combination indeed.

For the powers that be – the big-money and establishment people behind her – her kind of candidate, gullible and easily manipulated while keeping the public stirred up with empty slogans and dumb rhetoric, is desirable.

Bush was her forerunner, a remarkably mediocre man who let the Cheneys and Rumsfelds actually run things without being elected.

It is a dangerous new development in an American society whose democratic credentials are badly worn.

The world’s only hope is that this woman is so overwhelmingly stupid she will not succeed beyond collecting millions from a minority of people who have more money than they know what to do with.

JOHN CHUCKMAN

A note to readers: Normally, I post my book reviews only on another site of mine, Chuckman’s Miscellanea of Words, but because of the nature of this book and its being the 48th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, I am also posting on this site.

The blurb inside this book tells us that Joan Mellen is a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, and sadly that fact confirms my darkest fears about American education, because Ms. Mellen, as amply demonstrated by significant portions of this book, often cannot write a literate paragraph. It is appalling how many badly written pages are in this volume.

Why did I continue to read it? I am a great admirer of the late Jim Garrison, who incidentally was a pretty fine writer, and being aware of the hatchet-job books done on his efforts in the Kennedy assassination, I wanted to read something of a defense. Ms. Mellen’s book is one of the few, so I persevered through her muddy paragraphs in hopes of reaching a bit of clear water and learning something.

Well, it does get somewhat better through the middle of the book, and there are some interesting points and details raised here.

I very much believe that Jim Garrison stumbled upon something big in New Orleans, something very big, part of the conspiracy to kill John Kennedy, a conspiracy carefully ignored by the Warren Commission and later by The House Select Committee.

Garrison was a very intelligent and able man, but no individual, no matter how bright and brave and dedicated, could have completely withstood the assaults of a Washington establishment determined to smear and mislead and destroy him. The imbalance of forces was terrifying, and the efforts likely shortened Garrison’s life. This book does document some of that in its better-written portions.

I never shared Garrison’s belief that the CIA as an organization killed Kennedy, although it just could not be clearer to people who’ve read enough on the subject that the CIA always worked to manipulate and distort evidence in this matter. Indeed, it continues to do so to this day.

For Jim Garrison, fighting all the dirt and abuse, it would naturally seem that they were covering their own responsibility. I believe rather that they have been covering what would have been explosive information in the 1960s: that their private army of Cuban terrorists killed the President, aided more than likely by the direct or indirect help of the CIA handlers responsible for arming, training, and paying that gang of cutthroats in their long efforts at mayhem and murder in Cuba and in Florida.

People today almost cannot imagine the fetid political atmosphere in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s. It was poisonous, so much so that in many other places people were deeply concerned that the United States would do some terrible things. That view was part of what informed spies the Britain’s Cambridge Circle. The United States in that era seriously considered a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and later on China and it thought nothing of invading a country like Cuba or of overthrowing even democratically-elected governments like those in Guatemala and Iran.

Discrediting the CIA in any way at that time, much as it was deserved, was regarded almost as treason, and that was why the CIA lied and cheated its way through every effort at genuine investigation. The CIA was up to its armpits in collusion with mobsters and thugs of every description to achieve the overthrow of Castro, and when its secret army of Cuban fanatics killed the President, with or without the assistance of their professional CIA handlers, it simply could not be revealed. Truth be known, I feel confident many of the CIA’s career men were glad when he died, believing he did not possess the blind faith they embraced.

The FBI too was glad. Hoover hated the Kennedys beyond describing. And with CIA backing and other political backing, it felt safe to cover and even destroy evidence in its almost laughable race to find poor Oswald guilty, and it was very convenient to portray Oswald as a “Commie nut” since the lifelong passion of Hoover was to lynch as many Communists as he could, even while he was friends with American gangsters.

For some while after the assassination, the CIA tried – through articles and books by its assets in American publishing – to blame Castro for the assassination, but that pathetic story pretty much withered away, Castro being far too clever to have hired someone like Oswald or to have given America’s establishment the excuse it wanted to cover an invasion.

It is well known in intelligence operations that you not only prepare a primary fall-back story – the Castro story – but a secondary one should that fail to gain traction, and that second one is blaming the mafia. The inept Robert Blakey, largely responsible for the feeble efforts of the House Select Committee investigation, put that idea forward. So too did others in a series of contrived books.

It is still around today, with new proponents surfacing periodically. What the story ignores is the virtual impossibility of getting the various mafia clans – the mafia not being a single organization but a group of loosely cooperating families – to agree on so extreme an act, putting all their billions in assets at risk and giving law enforcement the perfect excuse to shut them down completely.

Again, in Bertrand Russell’s profound question, “If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?” So we pretty much know ipso facto that Oswald cannot have been the lone killer, and that’s apart from his lack of motive and talent and an almost complete lack of sound evidence.

So what is the CIA hiding? Its own embarrassment and incompetence and criminal behavior with terrorist groups like the Cuban refugees, as well as the extreme danger to a free society of having such a well-financed organization with almost no responsibility to anyone.

JOHN CHUCKMAN

A note to readers: Normally, I post my book reviews only on another site of mine, Chuckman’s Miscellanea of Words, but because of the nature of this book and its being the 48th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, I am also posting on this site.

This is a modest book both in its aims and in its physical size, but it is a book which makes a genuine contribution to understanding the Kennedy assassination, and it is the best thing I have read on the subject in some years.

The central finding of the Warren Commission was that Oswald was Kennedy’s assassin. So while Mr. Ernest’s aims seem modest, calling into question Oswald’s movements in the wake of the shooting, they work powerfully against that central finding.

Here is a self-published book written by a man who originally had not even planned to write a book, and it contains genuinely new and significant evidence.

You will find here no unproved theories against the officially accepted explanation, nor will you find phony efforts to protect the official story. Books of both those types have been published in abundance for decades, indeed to the point where I long ago sickened of reading them.

Mr. Ernest documents his long-term, off-and-on again efforts to satisfy his own curiosity concerning the assassination and, particularly, to locate a significant witness the Warren Commission went out of its way to minimize, slight, and ignore, Ms. Victoria Adams. Ms. Adams worked in an office on the fourth-floor of the Texas Book Depository in November, 1963. From a remarkable vantage point, she and some fellow workers watched Kennedy’s motorcade enter the Plaza and approach the fatal area. Then they heard noises like fireworks and saw the president’s car begin to rush away.

As a side note here, just the fact that a group of people, only about 40 or 50 feet above the motorcade, could gather and open a window to look down on it tells us a great deal about the terribly poor security arrangements made that day by all police and protective agencies.

Ms. Adams and a co-worker suspected something was wrong and quickly sought the stairs to the ground floor – the same stairs Oswald is supposed to have taken immediately after the shots, indeed the only full-height set of stairs in a building whose elevator at the time did not operate. Her seemingly insignificant act proved to have many serious implications.

Ms. Adams saw no one on the stairs. She heard no one, even though the creaky and echoing nature of the stairs and stair well meant that you always heard other steps on them, no matter how many floors away. She was accompanied by one of her co-workers, Sandra Styles, who could thus certainly corroborate or contradict any of Victoria Adams’ testimony, yet Ms. Styles was never interviewed by any of the agencies investigating. The FBI made no attempt to re-stage and time the path of these women, as they did for a number of other people.

The author, after finally finding Ms. Adams, gaining her trust (often a requirement with significant Kennedy-assassination witnesses who have been badgered and even intimidated in the past) and having her tell her brief story in fine detail, succeeded also in finding her former co-worker, Ms. Styles, who, indeed, corroborates Ms. Adams perfectly. She also provides a detail of just what was happening in the Plaza when they decided to go down, providing an amazingly accurate time marker for their descent’s start.

Ms. Adam’s own words – recorded e-mail exchanges – tell any perceptive reader that she was (she died a few years ago) an intelligent and perceptive observer, the very kind of witness any attorney or prosecutor likes to put on the stand.

The author also discovers a transmittal letter at the National Archives that has Dorothy Garner, office manager of the same text-book publishing company for which the two women worked, seeing Roy Truly and Officer Marion Baker arrive on the fourth floor after Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles left, an important fact because these two had previously stopped on the second floor where Officer Baker had a brief confrontation with a relaxed Lee Oswald in the cafeteria as they raced up from the ground floor to inspect the building.

Ms. Adams not only saw no one on the stairs, but when she and her friend briefly went outside, she did see Jack Ruby, a man she did not know until she saw the television pictures later of him shooting Oswald.

Many of the more unhelpful and even crazed books on this subject I sometimes think likely come under the auspices of the very agencies who have worked so hard to promote the official story: lunatic books help discredit all critics of the official story. When I say lunatic books I mean books along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or JFK and the Unspeakable.

Worthless books which seem to serve the opposite side include Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which offers the pretence of tough-minded analysis, or Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is just a giant prosecutor’s brief supporting another prosecutor’s brief, or Edward Jay Epstein’s Legend and Counterplot, both efforts to confirm the main conclusions of the Warren Commission after the author’s having gained some credibility with his Inquest, a book which supports limited and late criticism of the Commission.

For people coming to the assassination for the first time, Mr. Ernest provides a few nice little summaries of fact, the most important being J. Edgar Hoover’s virtually immediate acceptance of Oswald’s guilt, his then having prepared within weeks a report setting out the flimsy case. Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of the Warren Commission made the publication of his report inappropriate, but that report provided the structure on which the commission report was built, the commission itself never doing any genuine investigation of its own. Indeed, since the entire Warren Report was created in a few months, there is a prima facie argument for its complete inadequacy to so demanding a task.

Readers who wish to know more after reading Mr. Ernest’s book cannot do better than the books of Joachim Joesten, the finest and certainly the sharpest of all early critics, and Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy, which although dated remains the best single book ever written on the subject. Interestingly, both these authors came from Europe. The Warren Commission Report itself offers a valuable comparison for these and any other books on the subject.
My only serious criticism of Barry Ernest’s book is that he failed to provide an index, an important omission. However, except for that fault, I recommend this book virtually without qualification to all people curious about the greatest unsolved crime of its time.

I take this opportunity to remind readers of Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, still never answered: “If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?”

Further, I remind them that if a matter so important as the assassination of an American president in the mid- 20th century could be handled in so careless and dishonest a way by government agencies, why would anyone expect something more with other sensitive issues and what are the limits of government’s lying? That is why the assassination of 48 years ago remains a timely matter.

A Note to Readers: I am re-posting this article in view of the coming forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. It remains an accurate critique of many key aspects of that event and was repeated in many publications around the world. You may also enjoy another later piece, “Lincoln was Wrong: The Ease of Fooling Most of the People Most of the Time,” at http://chuckmanwords.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/lincoln-was-wrong-the-ease-of-fooling-most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time/</

November 12, 2003

FORTY YEARS OF LIES

“If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?”
Bertrand Russell

John Chuckman

Bertrand Russell’s penetrating question, one of sixteen he asked at the time of the Warren Commission Report, remains unanswered after forty years. That should trouble Americans, but then again there are many things around national secrecy today that should trouble Americans.

The most timely lesson to be taken from the fortieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination concerns secrecy and the meaning of democracy in the world’s most powerful nation. Perhaps no event better demonstrates the existence of two governments in the United States, the one people elect and another, often far more influential, as capable of imposing false history about large events as the fabled Ministry of Truth.

Since the time of the Warren Commission we have had the investigation of the House Select Committee and, in the last decade, the release of truckloads of previously-secret documents.
These documents were suppressed originally in the name of national security, but the fact is, despite their release, much of their content is heavily blacked out, and dedicated researchers know many documents remain unreleased, particularly documents from the CIA and military intelligence. Would any reasonable person conclude anything other than that those documents are likely the most informative and sensational?

Was it ever reasonable to believe that material of that nature would be included in document releases? Just a few years ago, records of some of the CIA’s early Cold War activities, due for mandated release, were suddenly said to have “disappeared,” and that declaration was pretty much the end of the story for a press regularly puffing itself as the fourth estate of American society. You do not have to believe in wild plots to recognize here the key to the Warren Commission’s shabby job of investigation. As it was, several members of the Commission expressed private doubts about the main finding of Oswald as lone assassin.

There is a sense in these matters of being treated as a child sent to his or her room for not eating the spinach served. This is not so different to the way the American government treats its citizens about Cuba: it restricts them from spending money there so they cannot freely go and judge for themselves what is and isn’t.

As it happens, the two things, Cuba and the assassination, are intimately related. Almost no one who studies the assassination critically can help but conclude it had a great deal to do with Cuba. No, I don’t mean the pathetic story about Castro being somehow responsible. That idea is an insult to intelligence.

No matter what opinions you may hold of Castro, he is too clever and was in those days certainly too dedicated to the purpose of helping his people, according to his lights, ever to take such a chance. Even the slightest evidence pointing to Castro would have given the American establishment, fuming over communism like Puritan Fathers confronting what they regarded as demon possession, the excuse for an invasion.

There never has been credible evidence in that direction. Yet, there has been a number of fraudulent pieces of evidence, particularly the testimony of unsavory characters, claims so threadbare they have come and gone after failing to catch any hold, remaining as forgotten as last year’s fizzled advertising campaign for some laundry detergent.

The notion that Castro had anything to do with the assassination is like an old corpse that’s been floating around, slowly decomposing, periodically releasing gases for decades. And it is still doing so, Gus Russo’s Live by the Sword of not many years ago being one of the most detailed efforts to tart-up the corpse and make it presentable for showing.

Any superficial plausibility to the notion of Castro as assassin derives from the poisonous atmosphere maintained towards him as official American policy. Researchers in science know that bias on a researcher’s part, not scrupulously checked by an experiment’s protocols, can seriously influence the outcome of an otherwise rigorous statistical study. How much more so in studies of history on subjects loaded with ideology and politics?

When you consider with what flimsy, and even utterly false, evidence the United States has invaded Iraq, it is remarkable that an invasion of Cuba did not proceed forty years ago. But in some ways the U.S. was less certain of itself then, it had a formidable opponent in the Soviet Union, and there was an agreement with the Soviets concerning Cuba’s integrity negotiated to end the Cuban missile crisis, an agreement which deeply offended the small army of Cuban exiles, CIA men, and low-life hangers-on who enjoyed steady employment, lots of perquisites, and violent fun terrorizing Cuba.

Considering America’s current crusade over the evils of terrorism, you’d have to conclude from the existence of that well-financed, murderous mob in the early 1960s that there was a rather different view of terror then. Perhaps there is good terror and bad terror, depending on just who does the wrecking and killing?

If you were a serious, aspiring assassin, associated with Castro and living in the United States during the early 1960s, you would not advertise your sympathies months in advance as Oswald did. You would not call any attention to yourself. It is hard for many today to have an adequate feel for the period, a time when declaring yourself sympathetic to Castro or communism could earn you a beating in the street, quite apart from making you the target of intense FBI interest. Oswald was physically assaulted for his (stagy) pro-Castro efforts in New Orleans, and he did receive a lengthy visit from the FBI while held briefly in jail, but this was not new interest from the agency since he was already well known to them.

Whatever else you may think of Castro, he is one of the cleverest and most able politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. He survived invasion, endless acts of terror and sabotage from the CIA and Cuban exiles, and numerous attempts at assassination, and he still retains a good deal of loyal support in Cuba. A man of this extraordinary talent does not use someone like Oswald to assassinate an American president. And if Castro had made such a mistake, he quickly would have corrected the error when Oswald made a (deliberate) fool of himself, over and over, in New Orleans well before the assassination, his actions there looking remarkably like the kind of provocateur-stuff a security service might use to elicit responses and identify the sympathies of others.

Oswald’s (purported) visit to Mexico and clownish behavior in New Orleans laid the groundwork for the myth of Castro’s involvement, and that almost certainly was one of the purposes of the activity, laying the groundwork for an invasion of Cuba. The motive for the assassination is likely found there. It is just silly to believe Castro risked handing the U.S. government a new “Remember the Maine.”

In recent years, we’ve had Patrick Kennedy say he believes Castro was responsible, but his views on this matter are more like built-in reflexes than informed judgment. Besides broadcasting a tone agreeable to America’s political establishment, his statement comes steeped in de’ Medici-like conviction that Castro’s success stained the honor of his ferociously ambitious family. Cross that family’s path, and you earn a lifetime grudge. That’s the way the family fortune’s founder always behaved.

Robert Kennedy hated Castro (just as he hated other powerful competitors including Lyndon Johnson), and he took personal oversight of efforts to assassinate him. Robert also hated certain elements of the Mafia, who, after supporting his brother with money and influence in the election, felt betrayed by Robert’s legal actions against them. The killing of Castro would have made all these people much happier, Havana having been one of the Mafia’s gold mines before Castro. Interestingly enough, it appears that the FBI, under pressure from Robert, was at the same time making efforts to crackdown on the excesses of the Cuban refugees. Their excesses , including insane acts like shooting up Russian ships and killing Russian sailors in Cuban ports, threatened relations with the Soviet Union.

One of the centers of the FBI’s crackdown effort was New Orleans, and that is where it appears clearest that Oswald worked for them. His defector background made him a logical candidate for provocative activities like handing out leaflets about Castro. At the same time he was offering his services as an ex-Marine to at least one of the refugee groups.

Oswald almost certainly had a minor role in American intelligence, an assumption that explains many mysterious episodes in his life. We know the Warren Commission discussed this in closed session. We also know Texas authorities believed they had discovered such a connection. And we know the FBI in Dallas destroyed important evidence.

If you’re looking for Cuban assassins, why not some of those nasty refugee militia groups, armed to the teeth by the CIA and trained to terrorize Castro’s government? They also terrorized their critics in Florida. The extensive preparations necessary for assassinating the President might have raised little suspicion from the CIA or FBI at a time when these groups, subsidized and protected by the CIA, were carrying out all kinds of violent, lunatic acts. There are strong parallels here with the suicide-bombers of 9/11, who undoubtedly eluded suspicion because the CIA had been regularly bringing into the country many shady characters from the Middle East to train for its dark purposes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Cuban extremists in Florida were furious over the Bay of Pigs and felt betrayed by Kennedy’s terms for settling the missile crisis. You couldn’t find a better explanation for the CIA’s unhelpful behavior over the years since. Imagine the impact on the CIA, already badly damaged by the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s great anger over it, of news that some of its subsidized anti-Castro thugs had killed the President?

I don’t say that is what happened, only that there is at least one conjecture with far more force and substance than the official one. Assassination-theorizing is not one of my hobbies, but I have contempt for the official explanation, and it seems rather naive to believe that the American security establishment would have been satisfied with the insipid conclusions of the Warren Commission.

Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that the vast resources of American security and justice employed at the time – that is, those not concerned with kicking up dust into the public’s eyes – were not able to identify the assassins and their purpose. Documents covering a surreptitious, parallel investigation almost certainly exist because what we know includes suggestions of two investigations intersecting at times. Perhaps, the best example of this is around the autopsy (discussed below).

Kicking-up dust around the assassination is an activity that continues intermittently to this day. In a piece a few years ago in the Washington Post about new Moscow documents on the assassination, a reporter wrote, “Oswald…defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and renounced his American citizenship.”

Oswald never renounced his citizenship, although he made a public show of wanting to do so. This was one of many theater-of-the-absurd scenes in the Oswald saga. We now know that on one of his visits to the American embassy in Moscow, Oswald was taken to an area reserved for sensitive matters, not the kind of business he was there to conduct.

The Soviets let him stay, never granting him citizenship, always treating him as an extraordinary outsider under constant scrutiny.

The Washington Post reporter also wrote, “Historians have expressed hope that the documents could shed light on whether Oswald schemed to kill Kennedy when he lived in the Soviet Union….” That begs the genuine question of whether Oswald killed Kennedy and kicks-up more dust. No historian of critical ability could think that way. The Soviets went out of their way at the time of the assassination to reassure the U.S. government that they had no connection with it. Any credible evidence they could produce, we may be absolutely sure, was produced. The stakes were immensely high.

The testimony of many Soviet citizens who knew Oswald agreed that he was a man temperamentally incapable of killing anyone. An exception was his (estranged) wife, Marina, who found herself, after the assassination, a Soviet citizen in a hostile country, able to speak little English, the mother of two young children with absolutely no resources, and hostage to American agents who could determine her destiny.

Even so accomplished and discerning a journalist as Daniel Schorr has assisted in kicking-up dust, writing some years ago at the release of more than a thousand boxes of memos and investigative reports from the national archives that there wasn’t much there. Somehow, Schorr had managed to digest and summarize that monstrous amount of information in a very short time. Then again, in view of all the blacked-out information, maybe Schorr’s assertion owed less to incredible skills at reading and digesting information than to serene confidence in the methods of the establishment.

Schorr went from the merely silly to the ridiculous with his assertion, “There remains no serious reason to question the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the death of the president was the work of Oswald alone.” How re-assuring, but, if you think about that for a moment, it is the equivalent of saying what never was proved has not now been disproved, so we’ll regard it as proved – absurd, yet characteristic of so many things written about the assassination.

Schorr went on to praise Gerald Posner’s new book, Case Closed, as “remov[ing] any lingering doubt.” We’ll come back to Posner’s book, but Schorr also saw fit to trot out the then obligatory disparaging reference to Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Why would a piece of popular entertainment be mentioned in the same context as genuine historical documents? Only to associate the movie with Schorr’s claim that the documents had little to say.

Every handsomely-paid columnist and pop news-celebrity in America stretched to find new words of contempt for the Stone movie, miraculously, many of them well before its release. The wide-scale, simultaneous attack was astonishing. You had to wonder whether they had a source sending them film scraps from the editing room or purloined pages from the script. When Stone’s movie did appear – proving highly unsatisfactory, almost silly, in its explanation of the assassination – you had to wonder what all the fuss had been about.

I was never an admirer of President Kennedy – still, the most important, unsolved murder of the 20th century, apart from the lessons it offers, is a fascinating mystery for those who’ve studied it.

The President’s head movement at the impact of the fatal shot, clearly backward on the Zapruder film, a fact lamely rationalized by the Warren Commission, is not the only evidence for shots from the front. In the famous picture of Mrs. Kennedy reaching over the back of the car, she was, by her own testimony, reaching for a piece of the President’s skull. Equally striking is the testimony of a police outrider, to the rear of the President’s car, that he was struck forcefully with blood and brain tissue.

The doctors who worked to save the President at Parkland Hospital in Dallas said that the major visible damage to the President was a gaping wound near the rear of the skull, the kind of wound that typically reflects the exit of a bullet with the shock wave generated by its passing through layers of human tissue. We’ve all seen a plate glass window struck by a B-B where a tiny entrance puncture results in a large funnel-shaped chunk of cracked or missing glass on the opposite side.

The President’s head wound, as described in Dallas, is not present in published autopsy photographs. Instead, there is a pencil-thin entrance-type wound in an unknown scalp. Although the Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, who climbed aboard the President’s car after the shots, testified to seeing a large chunk of skull in the car and looking into the right rear of the President’s head, seeing part of his brain gone, the autopsy photos show no such thing.

The wound at the front of the President’s neck, just above his necktie, which was nicked by the bullet, was regarded by those first treating him in Dallas as an entrance wound since it had the form of a small puncture before a tracheotomy was done. But the throat wound in the published autopsy photos is large and messy.

The nature of the pathologists forcefully raises Russell’s question. Why would you need military pathologists, people who must follow orders? Ones especially that were not very experienced in gunshot wounds, far less so than hospital pathologists in any large, violent American city? Why conduct the autopsy at a military hospital in Washington rather than a civilian one in Dallas? Why have the pathologists work with a room full of Pentagon brass looking on? The President’s body was seized at gunpoint by federal agents at the hospital in Dallas where the law required autopsy of a murder victim. Why these suspicious actions and so many more, if the assassination, as the Warren Commission and its defenders hold, reduces to murder by one man for unknown motives?

The autopsy, as published, was neither complete nor careful, rendering its findings of little forensic value. There is some evidence, including testimony of a morgue worker and references contained in an FBI memo, pointing to autopsy work, particularly work to the President’s head, done elsewhere before receipt of the body for the official autopsy, but no new documents expand on this. We do learn the relatively trivial fact that the expensive bronze casket, known to have been damaged at some point in bringing it to Bethesda, was disposed of by sinking in the ocean, but the morgue worker said the bronze casket arriving with Mrs. Kennedy was empty and that the body, separately delivered in a shipping casket, displayed obvious signs of work done to it. The FBI memo, written by two agents at the “earlier stages” of the official autopsy, states that the unwrapped body displayed “surgery of the head area.” The same FBI agents also signed a receipt for a mysterious “missile removed” by one pathologist.

The official autopsy avoided some standard procedures. For example, the path of the so-called magic bullet through the President’s neck was not sectioned. A mysterious back wound, whose placement varies dramatically from the hole in the President’s jacket (a fact officially explained by an improbable bunching-up of the jacket), was probed but no entrance into the body cavity found. The preserved brain – what there was of it, and with its telltale scattering of metal fragments – later went missing. One of the pathologists admitted to burning his original draft before writing the report we now see.

The Warren Commission did no independent investigation (it did not even examine the autopsy photos and x-rays), adopting instead the FBI as its investigative arm at a time when the FBI had many serious matters to explain. The FBI had failed to have Oswald’s name on its Watch List even though they were completely familiar with him, seeing him at intervals for unexplained reasons. His name even had appeared earlier in an odd internal FBI advisory memo signed by Director Hoover. The FBI also had failed to act appropriately on an explicit threat from a known source recorded well before Kennedy went to Dallas. And the agency destroyed crucial evidence.

With a lack of independent investigation and the absence of all proper court procedures including the cross-examination of witnesses, the Warren Report is nothing more than a prosecutor’s brief, and a sloppy one at that, with a finding of guilt in the absence of any judge or jury. The only time the skimpy evidence against Oswald was considered in a proper court setting, a mock trial by the American Bar Association in 1992, the jury was hung, 7 to 5.

Oswald’s background is extraordinary. By the standards of the 1950s and early 1960s, aspects of his life simply make no sense if viewed from the official perspective. Here was a Marine, enlisted at 17, who mysteriously started learning Russian, receiving communist literature through the mail, and speaking openly to other Marines about communism – none of which in the least affected his posting or standing.

He became a defector to the Soviet Union, one who reportedly threatened to give the Soviets information about operations of the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. Some even assert he did provide such information, making it possible for a Soviet missile to down Gary Power’s U-2 plane just before the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit. Unlikely as that is, for Oswald would certainly have been treated harshly on his return to the United States were it true, he did know some important facts about the U-2′s capabilities, because this Russian-studying, communist literature-reading Marine was posted at a secret U-2 base in Japan as a radar operator before his defection.

At a time when witch-hunting for communists was a fresh memory and still a career path for some American politicians, Oswald returned to the U.S. with a Russian wife, one whose uncle was a lieutenant colonel in the MVD, the Ministry of the Interior, but the CIA and other security agencies supposedly took little interest in him. Oswald’s source of income in the U.S. at critical times remains a mystery. A mystery, too, surrounds the connections of this young man of humble means to some well-heeled, anti-Soviet Russian speakers in Dallas after his return from the Soviet Union. His later ability to get a passport for travel to Mexico in just 24 hours – with a personal history that must have ranked as one of the most bizarre in the United States – is attributed to “clerical error.”

Oswald, so far as we know, was a patriotic individual when he joined the Marines. There is no evidence that he was ever actually a communist or member of any extremist organization. In fact, there is striking evidence suggesting he did work supporting the opposite interest after his return to the United States. Thus the address on some of the “Fair Play for Cuba” pamphlets he distributed in New Orleans was the office of Guy Bannister, a former senior FBI agent and violent anti-communist, still well-connected to the agency.

Oswald’s connections with the FBI have never been satisfactorily examined. There are many circumstances suggesting his being a paid informant for the FBI, especially during his time in New Orleans. A letter Oswald wrote to a Dallas agent just before the assassination was deliberately and recklessly destroyed by order of the office’s senior agent immediately after the assassination with no reasonable explanation.

One way or another, all the major police or intelligence agencies were compromised during the assassination or its investigation. The Secret Service performed abysmally, in both planning the motorcade and responding to gun fire. Some of the agents on duty had actually been out late drinking the night before, as it happens at a bar belonging to an associate of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s own assassin. The performance of the Dallas police suggests terrible corruption. The FBI failed in vital respects before and after the assassination. The CIA failed to cooperate on many, many details of the investigation. These facts understandably encourage the more farfetched assassination theories.

The CIA has never released its most important information on Oswald, importantly including documentation of his supposed activities in Mexico City at the Cuban and Russian embassies where every visitor was routinely photographed and identified by the CIA. We may speculate what a thorough vetting of CIA files would show: likely that Oswald was a low-grade intelligence agent during his stint in the Soviet Union, perhaps working for military intelligence to collect information on day-to-day living conditions and attitudes there, one of several men sent for the purpose at that time; that he was trained at an American military school in basic Russian and encouraged to build a quickie communist identity by subscribing to literature and talking foolishly before defecting. We would also likely find that he was serving American security, probably the FBI, during the months before Dallas in the murky world of CIA/FBI/Cuban refugee/Mafia anti-Castro activities; and that in the course of that anti-Castro work, he was sucked without realizing it into an elaborate assassination plot, offering the plotters, with his odd background, a tailor-made patsy. The CIA assessment of Oswald would likely show, just as testimony from his time in the Soviet Union shows, that Oswald was not capable psychologically of acting as an assassin, lone or otherwise.

The case against Oswald is a flimsy tissue. It includes a poor autopsy of the victim offering no reliable evidence; a rifle whose ownership is not established; a rifle never definitively proved to have actually killed the President; a claim that jacketed bullets were used, a type of ammunition that could not possibly cause the kind of wounds to which many testify; the accused’s record of mediocre marksmanship in the Marines; a parafin test which showed no residue on his cheek despite his supposedly firing three shots from a bolt-action rifle; a single palm print claimed to have been obtained from the rifle after earlier failed attempts; gimmicky, suggestive photographs of Oswald with a rifle declared montages by several experts; a completely unacceptable evidence chain for the shell casings from the site of Officer Tippit’s shooting, those submitted as evidence being almost certainly not those found at the scene; a bizarre history for the bullets supposed to have killed Tippet; an illogical weighting of witnesses who told different stories about Tippit’s shooting; plus many other strange and contradictory details.

Moreover, Oswald had no motive, having expressed admiration for Kennedy. And Oswald was promptly assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, a man associated with the murky world of anti-Castro violence, someone whose past included gun-running to Cuba and enforcer-violence in Chicago.

There is a kind of cheap industry in publishing assassination books, most of which are superficial or silly. This fact makes it easy to attack credible efforts to question the official story, but in this respect the subject is no different from others. Just look at the shelves of superficial or trashy books on psychology, business management, or self-help available in bookstores.

Russell’s question echoes again and again down the decades as adjustments are made to the official story. Employing techniques one expects to be used for covering up long-term intelligence interests, various points raised by early independent researchers like Joachim Joesten or Mark Lane, have been conceded here or there along the way without altering the central finding. This is an effective method: concede details and appear open to new facts while always forcefully returning to the main point.

A significant writer along these lines is Edward Epstein, an author whose other writing suggests intelligence connections. His first book on the assassination, Inquest, conceded numerous flaws in the Warren Report. Epstein went on in subsequent books, Counterplot and Legend to attack at length – and for the critical reader, quite unconvincingly – ideas of conspiracy, Oswald’s intelligence connections, and his innocence.

The Report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1979, was the grandest effort of this type. The Committee was used for selective leaks and plants, as for example the publication of some bootlegged autopsy photos, which ended by raising only more questions. Leads often were not followed-up, greatly frustrating some of the able investigators employed. The Committee squandered the last opportunity to pursue an independent, well-financed investigation – last, in the sense of never again being able to overcome the inertia against assembling the needed resources and authorities and in the sense that with passing time evidence deteriorates, memories fade, and witnesses die. Despite the Committee’s attention-getting conclusion from technical analysis of an old Dictabelt recording that a shot probably was fired from the front, it also concluded that the shot missed, a truly bizarre finding that welds hints of conspiracy to yet another assertion that Oswald was the only killer.

Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, 1993, was another of these. You couldn’t help noticing this lamentable book being widely reviewed and praised. Why would that be? Because, without producing any new evidence and despite a number of errors, it freshly re-packaged the main speculations of the Warren Report, but no repackaging of the Report’s jumble of partial facts, guesses, and accusations can strengthen its conclusions. You can’t build a sound house with large sections of the foundation missing.

Priscilla Johnson’s Marina and Lee,1980 , was another kind of book, one of several resembling the kind of quickie books churned out to discredit Anita Hill in the Judge Clarence Thomas confirmation. Ms. Johnson managed to interview Oswald in Russia – I wonder what connections might have made that possible? – and later used that fact to gain access to Oswald’s widow, Marina. Impressing many who had heard her as a distracted and confused person, Marina was a woman who had been subjected to immense, frightening pressure from the FBI and other security services after the assassination. The book is an almost unreadable hatchet-job on Oswald’s character, effectively diminishing the image that comes through many photographs and anecdotes of a rather naïve, brash, sometimes rude but not unlikable young man caught up in events he incompletely understood.

The official story of the assassination remains pretty much unchanged from just a few days after events of forty years ago: one man with an almost broken-down rifle, no expertise, no resources, and no motive killed the President, and he was himself killed by a man with the darkest background simply out of sympathy for the President’s wife. Those with no vested interest and critical faculties intact can never accept such a fable explaining the brutal work of a well-planned conspiracy.

Now, the really horrifying possibility is that the security agencies never discovered the assassins despite vast efforts. That means officials hold tenaciously to the Oswald story to cover national nakedness. The FBI has a long and shabby record of blunders and going after the wrong people, and when you think of the CIA’s many failures assessing the capabilities and approaching demise of the Soviet Union, the many failures in Vietnam, and its miserable failure around 9/11, that is not a farfetched possibility. The answer to Russell’s question then becomes that national security indeed applies, if only in the unexpected form of hiding miserable failure.

But if you can write false history of an event so large as a Presidential assassination, what truly are the limits?

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