Archive for the ‘AMERICA’ Tag

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: SOME HARD FACTS ABOUT TERROR   2 comments

 

 

SOME HARD FACTS ABOUT TERROR

John Chuckman

 

We are having an outbreak of reports in the Canadian press about “home grown” terrorists, “radicalized” young men of Muslim faith traveling out of the country to participate in extremist groups abroad, a relatively insignificant phenomenon which has received inordinate publicity. In any event, if you give the matter some thought, you realize that this “news” is a kind of empty publicity, noise about something as old and familiar as human life itself, although it has been bestowed with a new name intended to frighten us into supporting measures outside the framework of a society of laws.

The truth is that young men, at least a certain portion of them, have always traveled abroad to join causes and wars. It’s about as ordinary a phenomenon as playing team sports or joining clubs. In many cases, we end up praising them for their bravery and idealism, as was certainly the case with the many thousands of Europeans, Americans, and Canadians who traveled to Spain in the 1930s to volunteer in the civil war against General Franco. In other cases, we condemn and imprison them and sometimes even execute them as part of the losing side, as America has been doing in its rampage through the Middle East.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of new, independent nations from the British Empire drew thousands of young men to Africa to fight as mercenaries or volunteers. Apartheid South Africa used to run classified ads in newspapers abroad to attract young men in its battle against the African National Congress. Young Jewish men in the past went to Israel to join the IDF out of some sense of brotherhood, and they do so still. The French Foreign Legion gained almost mythical status as a place for young men to leave things behind, embracing an undefined sense of purpose and brotherhood. Young European adventurers, often young noblemen with hopes of gaining glory, sailed across the Atlantic in the 1770s to volunteer in the American colonies’ revolt against the British Empire, far more of them than Washington’s meagre army could use.

Magnetic leaders like Napoleon or Castro or Nasser attracted countless volunteers from abroad in their heyday. Our history books don’t dwell on the fact but large numbers of young men from many countries volunteered for Hitler’s invading legions. The phenomenon does not depend on the high or noble nature of the cause, although the luster and publicity around grand causes undoubtedly attracts a still wider range of young men.

Young men often just want to escape from every-day, humdrum life, a boring marriage, a nothing job, or, as in the case of the Foreign Legion, to leave a criminal or failed past behind in hopes of high adventure, a new identity, and a fresh start in life. The genuine nature of a cause often matters little because young men’s fantasies convert grubby deeds into mythic stuff at least for a time. Young men in the Foreign Legion were actually fighting for a brutal imperialism in North Africa. Volunteers to the IDF only assist in the oppression of an abused people, not in the protection of the Jewish people. Those who joined Napoleon thought they were spreading liberté, égalité et fraternité across a mummified old-order Europe, but they were helping one of history’s great bloody soldier-conquerors glorify himself and do what it was he lusted after doing.

Mental illness also intrudes into terrorist matters, all things unusual or different being grist for the big dumb mill of the press. In Canada, during the wave of empty chatter about “home-grown terrorists,” there were two isolated incidents of murder in different parts of the country, one of a policeman and one of a reservist in the military. Immediately the press began a completely uninformative and patience-exhausting round of speculation about the dark nature of the perpetrators, complete with interviews of various self-proclaimed “terrorism experts,” men, as it generally turns out, who run security firms and are out drumming up business. In both cases, we finally learned through the fog of misinformation generated by the press, that the young dead men were deeply mentally disturbed, their acts having no more political significance than the crazed men set on suicide who first kill their wives or children or the boys who periodically show up heavily armed at school, shooting their way through classmates.

And of course, it is almost invariably males who do these things, our prisons containing about ten men for every woman. The violence we see in professional football, hockey, or boxing being almost an exclusive male domain. Woman rarely commit murder, males being responsible for almost all of it, with young males being responsible for an extraordinarily disproportionate share.

Aside from the psychotic and deeply depressed, there is a certain segment of young men in every society who are simply attracted to opportunities for legal killing, rape, and mayhem – this being the truly ugly side of every war and conflict that we never mention in our sentimental world-war memorial services or high school textbooks. These men are variously termed sociopaths or psychopaths, and they appear to exist naturally in some proportion in any population. They enjoy killing, inflicting pain, and the sense of supreme power over the lives of others, and they are incapable of sympathy for their victims or remorse for their acts. They only fear being caught, and war provides a wonderful legal playground for them.

The bloodiest, most brutal and pointless war of the last half century, America’s grotesque slaughter in Vietnam, attracted thousands of volunteers from other countries to join in the gruesome fun – acts which included everything from raping girls and then shooting them to throwing men out of helicopters. Even then-peaceful Canada, whose prime minister, Lester Pearson, bravely turned down Lyndon Johnson’s bullying demands to send troops (charmer that Johnson was, he is said to have grabbed our Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader by the lapels during a meeting and pushed him against a wall), saw hundreds of adventure-seeking young men, on their own, join the American holocaust, which would see three million horribly slaughtered, countless wounded, and an ancient agricultural land overwhelmed with America’s landmines, cluster bombs, and poisons.

Today we call people terrorists as easily as we more accurately might have called them reckless or mad. The word terrorist has been given an almost frightening, superstitious connotation much resembling the word witch in the seventeenth century when any poor old soul who suffered from a mental illness like schizophrenia might be burnt alive for her mumblings and delusions. Today, the same people we once burnt would be sent to a homeless shelter or a psychiatric hospital. Another aspect of the word terrorist is related to what Stalin used to say when he expected his officials to launch a new purge to keep the country terrorized into submission. The Vozhd would say something about “wreckers” or “wreckers of the revolution” and his minions would busy themselves demonstrating alacrity in finding large numbers to consign to prison or death. All of our press and government spokespeople now use terrorist with those two meanings, and to the extent that they do, we should recognize the foolishness of their speech and its danger to a free society.

Of course, anyone who commits violent crime needs dealing with, and we do have laws covering every form of violent crime and what is judged the degree of culpability. But creating a special class or type of crime, somehow understood to be different in nature from other crimes, and thereby requiring extraordinary measures of espionage and policing and imprisonment and standards of evidence, is a shabby, dishonest, and cowardly political act. It is a political act in exactly the sense best explained by George Orwell.

The template for this kind of state activity comes directly from Israel. It long ago succeeded in changing the outside perception of events since 1948 from that of a relatively powerless people having their homes and lands taken with great brutality. Everyone knows instinctively that people treated in that fashion have every right in international law and custom to fight their oppressors. We call them at various times and circumstances freedom fighters, guerillas, resistance fighters, or irregulars. But in this case, they were transformed into terrorists who seek only to destroy law-abiding, democratic Israel – unspeakably evil beings intent on attacking the imported Ozzie-and-Harriet peacefulness of white-picket fence neighborhoods constructed on other people’s property. It truly is a case of the world turned on its head.

It does make things so much easier when you shoot someone or bulldoze their home or send them to prison indefinitely with no trial and subject to torture, if you first have demonized them, much as in the case of witches or wreckers, with terrorist being this generation’s choice demonizing word. And when Israel kills some people whose identity as “terrorists” might be seen as very doubtful, the victims magically become militants, a Newspeak word which strives to make the killing of anyone from boys to grandfathers palatable, our shabby press in the West having adopted the word in its reportage without so much as blinking an eye, much less asking a question. This has been Israel’s day-in, day-out pattern of government for decades, but now it has managed to export to the United States the same pattern of behavior. The United States, after all, is a nation given to Captain Ahab-like obsessions, as it has demonstrated many times in its history, Muslims now having displaced the Communists it pursued with relentless fury for decades at home and abroad. And when the United States embraces a new obsession, its dependants in Europe, Canada, Australia, and other places are bullied into embracing it too. America has many avenues for pressuring the acceptance and recognition of its latest craze or special interest or dark operation and to quiet the criticism which would naturally flow from those who disagree and think for themselves.

Were America not enthralled with this voodoo about terror, Europe and others would quickly fall away, and Israel’s ugly behavior would be left in a glaring spotlight, much as South Africa’s once was.

It is the force of these considerations in part which leads so many to question the true nature of what happened on 9/11, for that set of events was pivotal in having American public opinion embrace extraordinary, anti-democratic, and anti-human rights measures. I do not subscribe to the (not-uncommon) conspiracy notion that the American government was complicit in 9/11, using it as a kind of Nazi Reichstag Fire to ignite the mindless war on terror and a crusade through the Middle East to overturn governments unfriendly to Israel. I do very much believe though that the full story of that event has never been told, and, as always, that can only mean highly embarrassing or compromising facts are being suppressed. The immense body of confidential information in Washington on all matters of state – literally tens of billions of documents – would largely disappear if it weren’t for considerations of embarrassment and compromise, the need for genuine government secrecy being much rarer than many assume.

A free society does not recognize crimes deemed in some way to be different or more heinous or extraordinary: it maintains and enforces sensible, well-reasoned laws which apply equally to all. It does not create criminal laws which reflect political pressure or special interests. The United States, now on a new hunt for a great white whale, has virtually re-created East Germany’s dreaded Stasi, only in a much more sophisticated and far-reaching form. It meshes with the all-pervasive secret state police apparatus Israel has constructed in the Middle East with infinite care since 1948. Now, over all our lives there is something, not answerable to any electorate, working to dissimulate, to intimidate, and to generate fear as nothing of which the Soviet Union was remotely capable. It influences all of our laws and customs, even attempting to shape the way we speak and think.

 

Posted October 27, 2014 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: TRYING TO IMAGINE HELL   Leave a comment

 

TRYING TO IMAGINE HELL

John Chuckman

 

Christians have always had it wrong. Hell is not a place loaded with terrifyingly dramatic scenes and flaming Hollywood special effects. That not only seems improbable, it actually is rather unimaginative.

Hell must be a place where all the people you would hate spending five minutes with become your intimate neighbors for eternity. It would be filled with people who never had an interesting thought, who never cared about the beauties of the universe, who only ever grasped for more, and people who spewed hate and ignorance their entire lives.

Of course, it contains figures like Hitler, and the Fuhrer’s closest associates sit gathered around to feel the mind-deadening, unremitting pain of hearing his views repeated in late evening monologues forever. Henry Kissinger will sit at Hitler’s feet, forced eternally to just listen, learning from the master as it were. One also finds the banalities and droning platitudes of George Bush. Imagine an eternal replay of his barely-literate mumbling, often stumbling over his own tongue while reciting his contributions to democracy and the goodness of America. Tony Blair will smirk, count his blood money, and display the smug stupidity of his smarmy smile forever. Madeleine Albright sits holding broken children’s bodies in her arms, an impious parody of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

But the halls of hell must also resonate with the sounds of lesser dark figures: the chirping vapidity of Sarah Palin pleading for campaign contributions over a bleeding moose carcass; the cowardly John McCain alternating between the black-faced rage of a world-class spoiled brat and his pose as the boyish hero who was shot down while bombing civilians in Hanoi; Bill Clinton’s syrupy Arkansas slop about integrity; Jonathon Edwards reciting his sugar-plum visions of America a million, million times; Newt Gingrich posed in a perpetual tableau telling his wife dying of cancer that he’s divorcing her for a hot babe; J.Edgar Hoover, cross-dressed as he was wont to do in his off-hours, shares an eternal loveseat embrace with his beloved Clyde Toland.

Folks who spent their entire lives grasping desperately for the substance of others fill the halls of hell with their moral emptiness, grasping still where there’s nothing left to grasp. There are puffed-up philanthropists sitting eternally on corporate thrones in castle-like headquarters, one pretending to humility in turtleneck sweaters, offering dollops of tax-free interest earnings from their foundation-intact fortunes to humble petitioners. Phony pitchmen of every description spend eternity repeating and refining their insincere friendliness. You hear the words “folks” and “my friends” echoing frequently. An eternity of unwanted telephone calls, unwanted mail offers, and e-mail spam awaits everyone in hell.

The phony pitchmen of American think-tanks will be generously represented, still posing as genuine academics while regurgitating their paid propaganda eternally, much resembling actors in white lab coats pretending to be scientists in television headache commercials. Indeed, when you think about it, Americans seem very likely to fill a disproportionate space in hell.

The Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, Franklin Grahams, and Jimmy Swaggarts thump their Bibles, sputter, gush theatrical tears, drop to their knees, and beg for money endlessly – all done to a background accompaniment of Tammy Faye Baker warbling hymns in a voice resembling a cat in heat at midnight in the backyard. Imagine, ten quadrillion years of that, and then in the words of the wonderful old hymn, “with no less time…than when we first began.”

I suspect Hell actually looks a great deal like the world in which we live. It just excludes all the things that give us any hope and beauty and truth in life.

 

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: IRAQ, ISIS, AND INTERVENTION: JUST WHAT IS GOING ON?   2 comments

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.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: A NEW COLD WAR? OR JUST AMERICA’S NEED FOR A VILLAIN?   Leave a comment

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.”

 

 

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY: FRAGMENT OF AN UNFINISHED BOOK BY JOHN CHUCKMAN — PART ONE   Leave a comment

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

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: SPINELESSNESS AS FOREIGN POLICY   Leave a comment

SPINELESSNESS AS FOREIGN POLICY

John Chuckman

Mr. Bush’s speech on a Palestinian state must surely rank as one of the most pathetic utterances ever given by an American president under the exalted rubric of policy.

As foreign policy, I am perplexed to think of its having an equal in American history.

As a statement of principle, it ranks with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dredd Scott decision concerning slavery. It contains no principle, other than respect for the rights of those with power to hold others virtually as property.

Purely as a speech, it suggests Mr. Nixon’s remarks about his dog Checkers and Pat’s cloth coat, emotional ramblings to obscure hard (and, as it later proved, true) accusations of hidden political slush-funds. In Mr. Bush’s case, the hard truth is that his stewardship over America’s responsibilities in the Middle East has been disastrous.

It’s been about a third of a century since the 1967 war and its aftermath of Israel’s seizing land and assuming the self-appointed right to determine the future living conditions of the land’s residents. Now, some say that because Arabs started that war, Israel is under no obligation to return the property it always coveted anyway.

But the best scholars do not agree that the Arabs alone started that war. There is evidence of Israel’s having deliberately manipulated the situation towards achieving that end, knowing full well that it could not only easily withstand the expected assault but handsomely profit from victory.

Mr. Sharon is just one of a long series of Israeli leaders who have wanted to annex the West Bank minus its “undesirable” Palestinian population. This hasn’t been a secret, it’s just not featured in Israel’s speeches, professions, and press releases addressed at the outside world and especially those directed at American audiences.

Yes, indeed, conquerors are often under no obligation to return what they’ve conquered. But is this the relationship, that of conqueror vis-à-vis the conquered, that Israel wishes to have with its neighbors in perpetuity? One does associate the traditions of modern Judaism with larger, more decent, and more humane views than that.

I will not enter the debate over United Nations Resolution 242. Its meaning is abundantly clear. Israel is supposed to leave the territories. Only Israeli hard-liners and their unblinking American defenders seem to interpret it as meaning something else. In effect, Israel behaves as though it had been granted an indefinite League of Nations’ mandate over these lands, ruling them as a de facto empire. And in continuing to ignore existing resolutions of the United Nations, Israel threatens that important institution with the same kind of contempt that caused the death of its predecessor.

It is helpful to bear in mind that the Bush administration includes in its constituency the kind of Americans who refused to pay United Nations dues, who insisted as a compromise (with America’s population representing about 4% of the world’s) on institutional reforms pleasing to themselves, who pay for billboards advocating America’s withdrawal from the United Nations, and some who consider it a proud boast never to have set foot outside the United States.

Nor will I enter the debate over what Mr. Barak offered the Palestinians at Camp David. Again, it is perfectly clear to most what the offer amounted to, something that may more accurately be described as a kind of Yucca Mountain safe depository for undesirable human beings, complete with armed resident watchers in fortress redoubts, rather than anything resembling a state.

In almost every aspect of American foreign policy, Mr. Bush, a man who during his campaign for office actually bragged about never reading the international section of the newspaper, has set back the clock many years.

The Palestinians now are pretty much expected to start over, from the beginning, as though the past third of a century had not happened. And they have pretty well been told by America’s first court-appointed president what leader they should not elect.

Someone has nicely summed up Bush’s conditions in saying the Palestinians must become Sweden before being given any consideration by his administration. Further, even after becoming Sweden, what they can expect is what Mr. Sharon is prepared to grant, which, judging by any standards conditioned on reality, will be precisely nothing.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: DISTURBING THE PLANET AND BLAMING THE MESS ON OTHERS   Leave a comment

DISTURBING THE PLANET AND BLAMING THE MESS ON OTHERS

John Chuckman

I received a letter from a reader recently asking me what it is about America that I hated so much. Since its tone was polite, I replied at length. I don’t hate anything – ‘hate’ is an awfully strong word – but there are things I find disturbing about America, and, as it happens, these are things many others also find disturbing.

There’s certainly no need for my services in the 24-hour-a-day orgy of noisy, self-praise that pours from television, radio, magazines, movies, sporting events, and even sermons in the home of brave. This non-stop, drum-beating, national revival meeting has become the background noise of everyday American life, so much so that many are not aware that there is anything unusual about it.

There is a wonderful scene in “The Gulag Archipelago.” After a speech by Stalin, the audience applauds and applauds and cannot stop applauding. Everyone waits for his or her neighbors to stop before stopping, only the neighbors also do not stop. The applause threatens to continue forever. Why? Because NKVD men prowl the aisles, looking for anyone who stops applauding.

Without making any outlandish, inappropriate comparisons between Bush’s America and Stalin’s Russia, there is still a very uncomfortable parallel between that frightening historical scene and recent events in the US, especially the State of the Union address.

Even though the President said nothing demonstrating statesmanship or imagination or even compassion, everyone applauded and applauded and kept applauding. Some media commentators actually compared his feeble recitation of platitudes with the thrilling cadence and brilliant words of Franklin Roosevelt at a time of true darkness. Several well-known television news personalities felt called upon to make odd, jingoistic personal statements as though they felt the need to prove their patriotic bona fides.

What a big fat disappointment America is today. An affluent, noisy, moral netherworld. A place where fundamentalist pitchmen in blow-dried coifs and Pan-Cake makeup plead to fill the moral void, but only add to the noise.

A place where jingoism and mediocrity are lavishly praised. A people bristling with demands about their rights and redress of grievances, but with no thought about their responsibilities. A people who brag of being freer than any other people without knowing anything about other people.

An insatiably-consuming engine of a country whose national dream has been reduced to consuming more of everything without a care for anyone else on the planet. A people without grace who always blame others for what goes wrong.

Americans, roughly 4% of the planet by numbers, gulp down more than half the world’s illegal drugs, but in all the strident speeches and in all the poorly-conceived foreign policy measures, it is always the fault of Mexico or Colombia or Vietnam or Panama or the French Connection or someone else out there. Anyone, that is, but the people who keep gulping and snorting the stuff down, and all the shady American officials who are so clearly necessary to keep the merchandise widely available.

One of history’s great moments of insufferable posturing came with the creation of annual “report cards” on how well various nations were doing at controlling drugs, as though these other countries were unreliable children being assessed by their wise Auntie America, the same wise Auntie zonked out on a million pounds of chemicals at any given moment.

America has a long history of vote tampering and rigged elections in many local jurisdictions. It is widely understood that vote tampering, especially in Chicago, gave John Kennedy a victory he did not win in the 1960 election. Biographer Robert Caro has revealed how Lyndon Johnson’s political career in Texas had the way smoothed by vote fraud. And now, two and a quarter centuries after the great republic’s founding, she still cannot run a clean election for president.

On top of fraud and unwillingness to spend enough to assure proper ballots, America clings to the most corrupt method possible to finance election campaigns, defining private money as free speech. The more of it, the better. One would almost think that all the billions in bribes paid out by the CIA over the decades to corrupt other governments had influenced thinking about how things should be done at home.

Yet with a record like this, the State Department never stops passing public judgement on the inadequacies of democracy in other places. The State Department’s views on democracy, about as deserving of serious consideration as the last Congress’s idea of why you impeach an elected president, reduce to the same tacky business as the drug report cards: it’s always someone else who’s wrong. Even worse, the sermons on democracy and rights frequently are used as wedges for trade concessions. It just doesn’t get more hypocritical than that.

Having mentioned the CIA’s bribery over the decades, its interference in the internal affairs of so many countries, I recall the reaction of American legislators a few years ago when it was thought possible, though never proved, that Chinese money had been funneled into an American election. Heavens, how dare they do an underhanded thing like that! Sully an American election! The same legislators never considered that they themselves, in tolerating a corrupt system of election finance, were responsible for such activity’s even being possible.

Consider Mr. Bush’s lurid fantasy about an “axis of evil.” One almost wants to ask whether the choice of words reflects long-term deleterious effects of the cocaine he reportedly used when he was sowing oats instead of bombs. The fact is that much of the world’s terror is a direct response to American foreign policy that reflects daydreams and wishes in Georgia and Iowa rather than actual conditions abroad.

The CIA’s three billion-dollar fraternity prank with other people’s lives during the 1980s in Afghanistan was great fun while it lasted, and there was no concern about Osama and the boys until they decided that the U.S. was just as unwelcome as the U.S.S.R.

But it must be someone else’s fault, so we’ll topple the entire national structure of Afghanistan, destroy much of its infrastructure, kill thousands of innocent people, hold thousands more as illegal prisoners, and maybe go on to attack other places that never heard of Osama bin Laden just in case they’re thinking about anything underhanded.

A former American diplomat has revealed how hundreds of visas were rubber-stamped for Afghan fighters. How else was it possible for 19 suspicious people to enter the U.S., some working away for months, with no attention paid by those immense, highly intrusive agencies, the CIA, FBI, and NSA, whose snooping costs tens of billions of dollars every year? Every phone call, fax, and e-mail in America, and a lot of other places, is vetted daily by these agencies’ batteries of super-computers.

After the attack on the World Trade Center, there were many American news stories about two of these nineteen people who possibly entered the U.S. by way of Canada – stories that proved utterly false as it turned out. But huge pressures were, and still are being, put on the Canadian government over this concern. America simply blames someone else rather than cleaning up its own house.

A few years ago, the world’s richest country suddenly decided to stop paying U. N. dues, ignoring its long-standing treaty obligations. With an arrogant wave of the hand, it dismissed its responsibilities and blamed the U. N. for waste and bureaucracy. The “waste and bureaucracy” stuff came from American legislators who spent years investigating an insignificant, sour real estate deal and put on a colossal, lunatic, government-stopping, impeachment-as-passion play spectacle. The same folks now prepare to squander tens of billions on useless new defense schemes and on measures to curtail American freedoms. But the U. N. has to lobby and wheedle in hopes of receiving its meager portion.

American technical experts analyzing data from a Chinese thermonuclear test some years ago were stunned to realize that the blast had a radiation “signature” similar to that of America’s most advanced warhead. Espionage was immediately suspected, and the long, painful ordeal of Wen Ho Lee, an American scientist born in Taiwan, began. While investigation was reasonable, it was not reasonable to target Wen Ho Lee. His career was ruined even though not a shred of clear evidence was ever produced. The more rational conclusion that the Chinese, a clever and resourceful people, had managed the feat themselves stood little chance when someone from “there” was there to blame.

The case of the Cuban boy Elian provided what may be the most remarkable example of this kind of obtuse and arrogant behavior. An ill-considered policy of granting automatic refugee status to all Cubans who made it in flimsy boats to American shores, part of an incessant campaign of hatred against Castro, lured the boy’s mother to her death, as it had lured many others. The boy still had a loving father, other family, and friends, but they just happened to live in the wrong country. So an already-injured child was put through months of hell in Miami, a hostage to ideology as surely as American diplomats in Iran, his father, family, and home repeatedly ridiculed and insulted, and it was all someone else’s fault, Castro’s in this case.

I closed by telling my reader that I never object to letters that disagree with me, only to those that are rude or insistent or obscene. And, I have to say, America does generate an awful lot of those.