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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

 

WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

John Chuckman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: OF WAR, ISLAM, AND ISRAEL   3 comments

OF WAR, ISLAM, AND ISRAEL

John Chuckman

War between Islam and the nations of the West? There have been a good many careless words printed and broadcast in America touching on this simplistic idea. And an American president who lacks the most superficial knowledge of the world or its history offers no reassurance, as he lurches from one misstatement to another, that this idea is not being incorporated into national policy.

The concept of Islam as an intrinsically violent, anti-progressive opponent in the modern world is both ignorant and dangerous. The new prominence of this idea in America provides a good measure of the distorted information that exists in our political environment. It’s almost as though the bloody, parochial views of Ariel Sharon on the nature of Palestinians had been exalted to a world view, worthy of every statesman’s consideration.

How easily we forget that the history of organized Christianity provides almost certainly the bloodiest tale in all of human history.

The Crusades, that dark saga of Christianity written in blood and terror, continued sporadically over hundreds of years. They served little other purpose than gathering wealth through spoils and sacking cities and easing the periodic domestic political difficulties of the papacy and major princes of Europe.

We hear of the treatment of women under Islam in certain places, not remembering that Christian women were left locked in iron chastity belts for years while their husbands raped their way across the Near East. And the character of Saladin, hard warrior that he was, shines nobly in history compared to the moral shabbiness of Richard Lionheart.

Europe wove a remarkable tapestry of horrors in the name of Christianity from the beginning of the modern era. There was the Holy Inquisition, the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War, the St Bartholomew Massacre, Cromwell’s slaughter in Ireland, the enslavement and widespread extermination of native peoples in the Americas, the Eighty Years’ War in Holland, the expulsion of the Huguenots from France, the pogroms, the burning of witches, and numberless other horrific events right down to The Holocaust itself, which was largely the work of people who considered themselves, as did the slave drivers of America’s South, to be Christians.

Over and above the conflicts motivated by religion, European and American history, a history dominated by people calling themselves Christian, runs with rivers, lakes, and whole seas of blood. Just a sampling includes the Hundred Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War, the slave trade, the French Revolution, the Vendée, the Napoleonic Wars, the Trail of Tears, the Opium War, African slavery in the American South, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the massacre in the Belgium Congo, the Crimean War, lynchings, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.

How anyone with this heritage can describe Islam as notably bloodthirsty plainly tells us that immense ignorance is at work here.

What limited knowledge I have of Islam is enough to know that there is no history, despite bloody characters like Tamerlane, to overtop Europe’s excesses, and, in some cases, there has been generosity of spirit exceeding that shown by Christians.

The Moorish kings of Spain tended to follow the same tolerant attitude towards religion that the classical Romans had done. The Romans allowed any religion to flourish, often officially adopting the gods of a conquered people, so long as the religion represented no political threat to Rome’s authority.

People today point to a well-publicized excess like the Taliban’s destruction of ancient statues, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that the religiously-insane Puritans, direct ancestors of America’s Christian fundamentalists, ran through the beautiful, ancient cathedrals of England after the Reformation, smashing stained glass, desecrating ancient tombs, destroying priceless manuscripts, and smashing sculptures.

A remarkably tolerant society flourished under the Moors in Spain for hundreds of years. Jews, Christians, and Muslims were tolerated, and the talented served the state in many high capacities regardless of religion. Learning advanced, trade flourished.

During the centuries of the Jewish Diaspora, the Arab people of the Holy Land looked after the holy places and largely treated Jewish visitors with hospitality and respect. There was none of the bitter hatred we see today. All this changed at the birth of modern Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from places they had inhabited for centuries.

No reasonable, decent-minded person can deny that the manner of Israel’s rebirth did a great injustice to the Palestinians. And the great powers, first Britain and then the United States, had entirely selfish motives in seeing this done. Under the original UN proposal for Israel, there were to be two roughly-equal states carved out of Palestine, and the city of Jerusalem was to have an international status. More than half a century later, what we have is an Israel that covers three-quarters of Palestine and militarily occupies the rest.

Yet somehow, the burden of appropriate behavior, in a fuzzily-defined “peace process” leading to some fuzzily-defined Palestinian state at some undefined date, is always placed upon the Palestinians. They are supposed to live patiently, exhibiting the peacefulness of model citizens in Dorothy’s Kansas, while under a humiliating occupation in order just to earn the privilege of talking to Israel about the situation.

I often wonder how Americans, with their Second-Amendment rights and hundreds of millions of guns, would behave under such circumstances. Would they patiently wait decade after decade, watching “settlers” fresh from other places build on what was their land? watching bulldozers flatten their orchards? watching their people harassed and often demeaned at checkpoints as they simply travel from one point to another near their homes? not being able to so much as build a road or a sewer without the almost impossible-to-get permission of the occupying authorities? being told that only their patient behavior can earn them the right to talk with those who control their lives?

Looking at the situation in that hypothetical light may offer a better appreciation for what the Palestinians have endured with considerable patience.

The simple fact is that it has been the clear policy of Israeli governments over the last half century to avoid, at all costs, the creation of a Palestinian state. Every effort at delay, every quibble over definitions, every tactical shift that could possibly be made has been made, many times over, in an effort to buy time, hoping that time alone will somehow make the problem of the Palestinians go away.

This policy may have changed, ever-so-slightly, under Mr. Barak from one of preventing the creation of a Palestinian state to one of preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state, but that is not the same thing as “the great opportunity missed” that has been dramatized, over and over again, in America’s press. And even this slight change in policy remains unacceptable to many conservatives in Israel.

And when the Palestinians, morally exhausted by endless waiting that yields no change, resist the occupation they are under with the limited, desperate means they possess, they are regarded as unstable lunatics who don’t love their children. A number of apologists for Israel’s worst excesses have repeated this theme, an extension of a remark attributed to the late Golda Meir about peace coming “when the Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate us.” The actual quote from Ms. Meir that is most applicable here is one she made to the Sunday Times of June 15, 1969, “They [the Palestinians] did not exist.”

We are repeatedly told that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it is defending itself against malevolent forces. This vaguely-defined image of enlightenment versus darkness appeals to Americans. But democracy has never been a guarantee of fairness or decency. It is only a means of selecting a government.

Under any democracy, a bare majority of people with an ugly prejudice can tyrannize over others almost in perpetuity. Indeed, this very experience is a large part of the history of the United States, even with its much-vaunted Bill of Rights. But Israel has no Bill of Rights, and what’s more important for actual day-to-day fairness and decency, the very will to act in a fair manner appears to be absent. What else can one say where assassination, torture, and improper arrest have been management tools of government for decades?

Israel’s politics are highly polarized, undoubtedly far worse than those of the United States, and the balance of power needed to form any parliamentary coalition is always in the hands of far-out religious parties. The interests of these people are anything but informed by enlightenment values and democracy, holding to views and ideas, as they do, that predate the existence of democracy or human rights. It is not an exaggeration to say that killing the Philistines or tearing down the walls of Jericho are regarded as current events by a good many of these fundamentalist party members. A number of their leaders have, time and again, described Palestinians as “vermin.”

The extreme conservatives receive many special privileges in Israel that distort the entire political mechanism. For example, their rabbis decide the rules governing who is accepted as a Jew or what are acceptable religious, and religiously-approved social, practices. The students in the fundamentalist religious schools traditionally have been exempt from the army. In effect, they are exempt from the violent results of the very policies they advocate.

These parties generally believe in a greater Israel, that is, an Israel that includes what little is left of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, minus its current undesirable inhabitants. It has been the view of Israeli government after Israeli government over the last half century to consider Jordan as the Palestinian’s proper home. Thus, when Israeli governments talked of peace, it meant something entirely different than what Palestinians meant.

And when, finally, an offer for a Palestinian state was made by Mr. Barak at Camp David – an offer that, by all reports, was made quite angrily and contemptuously to Mr. Arafat – under any honest, rational analysis, it reduced to one for a giant holding facility for people not wanted in Israel. How surprising that Mr. Arafat left in anger when after days of being subjected to good-cop/bad-cop treatment by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Barak, this was the end result. Surely, this was an immensely-frustrating disappointment to the Palestinians after years of effort and compromise to achieve and implement the Oslo Accords.

Mr. Bush’s War on Terror, a mindless crusade against disagreeable Islamic governments, has had the terrible effect of casting the bloody-minded Mr. Sharon in the role of partner against the forces of terror and darkness. He has received a new mantle of legitimacy for continued destruction and delay, for continued injustice against those too powerless to effectively oppose him.

As Israel’s leaders well know, the Palestinian population is growing rapidly. Rapid population growth is the general case for poor people throughout the world. Israel’s highly organized and costly efforts to support Jewish immigration reflect awareness of this fact. But a combination of large birth rates on one side and heavy immigration on the other is a certain formula for disaster in the long term. The region’s basic resources, especially water, will sustain only a limited population.

A large population, outsizing its resources, almost certainly is the major underlying reason for the immense slaughters and numberless coups and civil wars of Western Africa in recent years, a region whose population growth has been high but whose usable resources are limited. And the history of civilization tells us that vast changes and movements of population have been far more decisive in human affairs than atomic weapons.

So it appears that not only in the short term, but over some much longer time horizon, Israel and the Palestinians are on a deadly collision course.

There is hope. Modern societies have all experienced a phenomenon called demographic transition. This term simply means that, faced with a reduced death rate, people’s normal response is a reduced birth rate, yielding a net result of slow, or even negative, population growth. Couples prefer to have only two or three children who are almost certain to survive instead of six or more, at least half of whom die before growing up. This is the reason why modern countries depend entirely on migration for growth, or to avoid actual decline, in population.

Israel, populated largely by people from Europe and North America and being a fairly prosperous society, follows the pattern of advanced nations. The West Bank and Gaza, with some of the world’s highest birth rates, do not. Now, the only way to trigger demographic transition is through healthful measures like adequate diet, good public sanitation, and basic health care, especially measures for infant care. These things done, nature takes a predictable path and people stop having large families.

But these are not measures that can be accomplished quickly, and the need to get on with them should add some sense of urgency to ending the occupation and helping the Palestinians achieve a state with some degree of prosperity.

By now, it should be clear that life in Israel for the foreseeable future cannot be quite the same as life in Dorothy’s Kansas no matter who leads the government. No one has been more ruthless or bloody-minded than Mr. Sharon, and he has only succeeded in making every problem worse.

Yet life in Israel similar to Dorothy’s Kansas – that is, a life as though you were not surrounded by people seething over injustice and occupation and steeped in poverty – is a condition that Mr. Sharon insists on as a precondition even for talking about peace. Somehow, Mr. Arafat, with a wave of his hand, is to make all the violence disappear. This is not only unrealistic, it is almost certainly dishonest.

Israel herself, in any of the places she has occupied, and despite having one of the best equipped armies in the world, has never been able to do that very thing. All those years in Lebanon, and the violence continued at some level for the entire time. Indeed, a new enemy, Hizballah, rose in response to Israel’s activities. It is simply a fact that there has always been some level of violence in any place occupied by Israel. How is Mr. Arafat, with his limited resources and in the face of many desperate factions, supposed to be able to accomplish what the Israeli army and secret services cannot?

And were he to try running the kind of quasi-police state one assumes Israel favors, with regular mass arrests of suspects, how long would he remain in power?

Moreover, Mr. Sharon treats Mr. Arafat with utter contempt, dismissing him as insignificant, and has destroyed many of the means and symbols of his authority. How can a leader, treated as contemptible, exercise authority? For all his faults, and he has a number of them, Mr. Arafat has demonstrated through many compromises related to the Oslo Accords that he is a man who sincerely desires peace and a constructive relationship with Israel.

Mr. Sharon’s entire adult life has been dedicated to killing. I do believe there is more blood on his hands than any terrorist you care to name. Mr. Sharon first made a name for himself with the Qibya massacre in 1953, when a force under his command blew up forty-five houses and killed sixty-nine people, most of them women and children. Nearly thirty years later, in 1982, he was still at it when Lebanese militia forces under his control murdered and dumped into mass graves, using Israeli-supplied bulldozers, between two- and three-thousand civilians in the refugee camps called Sabra and Shatila. Mr. Sharon was responsible for the disastrous invasion of Lebanon which saw hundreds of civilians killed by Israel’s shelling of Beirut and precipitated a bloody civil war in which thousands more died.

Mr. Sharon’s policies of assassination and bombing have succeeded only in multiplying the suicide bombings beyond anything in recent memory. It is almost impossible to imagine this man as capable of making a meaningful gesture towards peace. Yes, of course he wants peace, peace on his terms, a cheap peace without giving anything, but by definition that is not peace for the Palestinians.

We always hear about what is required of the Palestinians for peace, but a genuine peace requires some extraordinary things on Israel’s part. First, she must at some point accept a Palestinian state. This condition is a necessary one, but it is far from sufficient, for she must be prepared to generously assist this state towards achieving some prosperity, reducing the causes of both run-away population growth and the dreary hopelessness that causes people to strap bombs to their bodies.

Most difficult of all, it is hard to see how Israel can avoid some level of violence during a period of Palestinian nation-building. This is something no ordinary state would consciously embrace, but then Israel is no ordinary state. The norms of Dorothy’s Kansas simply do not apply. The hatreds generated by a half century of aggressive policies are not going to just melt away, but if there is enough genuine, demonstrated goodwill, it does seem likely that such violence would be minimal. It is a unappetizing risk that almost certainly needs to be taken, for no one is going to run a police state on Israel’s behalf in the West Bank.

Considering the immense difficulty of these things and political barriers that exist against them in Israel, it does not seem likely that peace is coming any time soon. The prospect seems rather for low-grade, perpetual war, paralleling that Mr. Bush so relishes speaking of. For someone of Mr. Sharon’s turn of mind, this may be a wholly acceptable alternative.

Posted May 26, 2009 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: SOME LONG-TERM IMPLICATIONS OF THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN   Leave a comment

SOME LONG-TERM IMPLICATIONS OF THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

High-Tech Puritanism’s Future

JOHN CHUCKMAN

How did carpet-bombing Afghan villages and conducting air strikes against Taliban prisoners represent the actions of a free people, of a great democracy? The forces of darkness required an immediate, crushing response rather than any mere effort at securing justice through diplomacy and existing international institutions.

However disturbing to some, the answer does accurately reflect important American attitudes about the War in Afghanistan. The success of the war, as measured by the fairly rapid change in that country’s government and quite apart from what will almost certainly prove a failure to end terrorism, may well usher in a dangerous and bizarre era of international relations.

Since the collapse of the Cold War, America has addressed the world with a new emphasis on democracy and human rights. We enjoy official pronouncements on these precious concepts at fairly regular intervals, although they are often used in ways that resemble chamber-of-commerce boosterism, trade-concession negotiations, or just plain advertising and leave one’s hunger for worthy principles in international affairs satisfied only by the taste of flat beer or stale bread.

Apart from the statements’ too-often self-serving nature, and apart from their considerable selectivity and inaccuracy, they generally contain an implicit assumption that democracy is always and everywhere good. But this is far from being true. Democracy is subject to the same arbitrary and unjust measures as every other form of government, requiring only the shared prejudices, hatreds, or selfishness of a bare majority to inflict pain on others.

The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution exists precisely to protect people from the tyranny of a majority. But even a Bill of Rights often does not protect against injustice, for such tyrannies have existed through much of American history. Those held in slavery for most of America’s first century were held in a revised form of servitude for a second century precisely by the tyranny of a majority of voters. And the proverbial tyrant-sheriff or judge in backwater rural America or crooked machine-politician in larger cities has inflicted injustice on countless Americans, including stealing their votes and corrupting their courts, despite the high-sounding principles of the Bill of Rights.

Rights must be interpreted by courts, and members of any court generally reflect the attitudes and will of those in the majority or at least of that portion of the population that exercises effective power (which at America’s founding was tiny). The times that courts go beyond this fairly pedestrian role are rare and are invariably followed by accusations of having exceeded their authority. And, of course, even bringing issues to court implies the means to do so.

Apartheid South Africa was a democracy for whites that held a majority population of blacks in a form of perpetual bondage. Israel follows almost the same pattern except that the group held in bondage is a minority. But America only spoke out about South Africa’s practices in the last few years of its existence when tremendous international and private-citizen pressure had already been brought to bear. And America has yet to say anything about Israel’s practices.

America’s penchant to criticize, selectively, other forms of government and social arrangements together with new efforts to apply American laws abroad (examples here include: penalties under Helms-Burton against third-party business with Cuba; the abuse of American anti-dumping laws to change previously-negotiated terms of international trade agreements; frequent efforts to extradite citizens of other countries to face American courts; programs to control what farmers in other countries grow; the opening of FBI offices abroad; and, most recently, intense pressures on other countries to change their visa and refugee laws to be more consistent with America’s fairly harsh regime) signal a fervent, new burst of enthusiasm for shaping the world to America’s liking.

The world would almost certainly welcome the sincere application to American foreign policy of liberal principles. I mean, of course, the ringing 18th century meaning of liberal, not the degraded, pejorative that America’s right-wing establishment has worked so hard for decades to make of that word. (The widespread effort to debase the meaning of this fine word by our many commentators and politicians who promote attitude rather than analysis is itself evidence of insincerity concerning principles).

But America’s interventions in the world are shaped by a witch’s brew of self-righteousness, simplistic answers, and the same kind of narrow self-interests that have characterized the interventions of all former great powers. The world’s first (at least superficially) democratic great power, despite the official pronouncements about rights and freedoms, still does not match its interventions to broad principles that most of the world’s peoples would embrace.

An important and overlooked explanation for inconsistent words and actions is the nation’s legacy of Puritanism. This legacy generates the zeal about changing the world to our own liking while ascribing the actions to the very mind of God, at least as revealed through the Holy Writ of our Founding Fathers – Americans often having some difficulty distinguishing between the two.

We are taught in elementary school that the “Pilgrim Fathers” and other extreme, fundamentalist Christian groups came to our shores seeking religious liberty. The textbooks neglect to explain what truly nasty people the various Puritan groups of the 16th and 17th centuries were.

They were despised across much of Europe not so much for their private beliefs but for their intolerance of others’ beliefs and their vicious public behavior. Truly violent pamphlets and sermons about the beliefs of others were standard Puritan fare – most of their contents would meet the most stringent modern standard of hate-speech. Some Puritan groups went well beyond ranting to their own people. They crashed into the church services of other denominations to deliver vitriolic attacks on what was being preached.

And it was Puritan groups in England who, after the Reformation, raged through the beautiful old cathedrals, hacking up statues, destroying historic tombs, and burning priceless works of art that they regarded as idols – actions no different in any detail from recent ones by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

These furious, unpleasant people, dizzy with paranoid feelings of religious persecution, streamed onto the shores of America, hoping to create their own version of society. It was not their intention to permit religious liberty or any other liberty at odds with their harsh dogmas of predestination and damnation of all those not elected by God. It took worldly, late 18th-century skeptics like Jefferson making political alliances with the many schisms that irascible Puritan personalities created to bring the beginnings of what we understand as religious liberty to America.

Patterns of thought and behavior among America’s contemporary conservatives still strongly resemble those of Puritans from three centuries ago. Perhaps the most persistent, and for our theme the most relevant, is the inability to see gradations or subtleties in controversial situations.

You are either right or wrong, saved or damned. There is no middle ground. Note in this regard President Bush’s graceful, memorable words to the world about being either with America or with the terrorists. Thirty years before, during the War in Vietnam, one heard repeatedly, “Love it or leave it,” an ugly expression that has reappeared a few times even in the far less stressful domestic atmosphere of the War in Afghanistan.

So many American minds instinctively follow this pattern of thinking, one suspects it’s in the gene pool. During the insane episode of keeping a little boy away from his father and his country on the basis of ideology, a perceptive Australian wrote in a Sydney paper that he was grateful Australia got the convicts instead of the Puritans.

Americans are convinced they are the modern version of “God’s chosen people.” This identification with the struggles and fortunes of the Old Testament Hebrews was a strong Puritan characteristic. With Americans’ good fortune in growing up on a continent whose vast resources and space and favorable climate have nurtured health and prosperity as well as attracted ambitious and talented people from all over the world, who can fully blame them? A land of milk and honey, if ever there was one.

But much as the successful 17th-century Puritan businessmen typically did, many Americans regard their success as a visible sign of God’s favor. Favor, not blessing, is an important distinction. One is humbled and grateful by blessings, but hubris (or, its rough, earthy equivalent, chutzpah) and arrogance tend to be the less attractive results of believing oneself favored.

While historical events tend more to develop than erupt – eruptions, if you will, reflecting local pressures built up from years of the glacially-paced movements of history’s tectonic plates – the first massive eruption of American Puritanism on world affairs – there were earlier, lesser ones and a history of domestic ones – came with the closing days of World War ll.

Following the titanic, destructive failure of Nazi Germany’s crusade against Bolshevism (a fundamental part of Nazi ideology), America effectively took on the same burden with the Cold War. There was more of a direct connection here than is often realized, since not only German scientists were grabbed up in large numbers for military research but many political and industrial figures, with unmistakable Nazi pasts, were eagerly recruited and assisted after the war by the CIA and its predecessor agency.

This struggle was regarded by America’s establishment as a life-and-death one, much as Hitler’s Germany regarded it. Few Americans today realize how deadly serious it was. The “blacklisting” in Hollywood, featured on film and television as the tragedy of the era, was almost a trivial aspect of the struggle.

Warning the Soviets of America’s willingness to be ruthless was one of the important considerations in the decision to use atomic bombs on civilians in Japan. During the early Fifties, our government seriously planned a pre-emptive atomic strike on the Soviet Union. The full story here remains unknown, but perhaps only the revulsion of allies who learned of this prevented its taking place. (Revulsion at American attitudes and plans may have played a role in motivating some of the many extremely-damaging Soviet spies in Britain at this time).

It is an interesting observation that while classical economists and astute students of history always understood that Soviet-style communism must eventually collapse of its own structural weakness, much like a massive, badly-engineered building on a weak foundation, this knowledge seems not to have influenced American policy during the Cold War. Delenda est Carthago became a terrible, palpable presence in American society. Communism must be defeated because it was godless and failed to recognize the elect nature of America’s way of doing things.

The high-water mark in America’s impulse to wage holy war against the benighted adherents of communism and free their people to buy Coca-Cola and receive the Good Word was undoubtedly the war in Vietnam. While defeat in Vietnam proved a disaster not quite on a scale of Germany’s Götterdämmerung in Russia, it was a humiliating and destructive experience.

I often ask myself what America learned from the Vietnam War. Yes, we now have professional soldiers rather than conscripts. Yes, every congressman has added “boys in harm’s way” to his or her kit-bag of Rotary-Club phrases.

But in a more fundamental sense, I don’t think America learned a great deal. Most of the horror of Vietnam was inflicted on Vietnamese ten thousand miles away, a people who suffered death on a scale only Russians or Jews could appreciate with the equivalent of about fifteen million deaths when scaled to the size of America’s population. While the Vietnamese suffered a virtual holocaust in rejecting the wishes of the favored people, many Americans still believe they are the ones who suffered a massive tragedy, surely an extraordinary example of Puritan-tinged thinking.

If you compare America’s less than 60 thousand deaths – about a year and a half’s fatalities on America’s highways spread over ten years of war – to Vietnam’s loss of 3 to 4 million, you realize that the conflict marked a turning point in methods of war and the use of military technology. Our government’s efforts to limit unpopular American casualties – this was, after all, the youth generation of the Sixties intended according to all the advertising and pop magazine articles only to enjoy itself and never think of dying – meant a new reliance on air power and technology. The carpet in the carpet-bombing was in the homes of Vietnamese peasants.

Economists call this a substitution of one factor of production (physical capital) for another (labor) in the production function (in this case, destruction abroad).

This substitution has continued down to the present at an increasing pace. Indeed, the recent, much-criticized proposals of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (I don’t know why, but I am always tempted to call him von Rumsfeld) really amount to an acceleration of the process. More technology, less soldiers mean more precision, less domestic political risk from deaths in conflicts, and, just as in any other industry, more efficiency (“bang for the buck” as the Pentagon so quaintly puts it).

Of course, taken too far, quite apart from possible specialized military implications, this substitution threatens to undermine America’s popular support for the military. “Joining up” with its advanced training opportunities, large benefits towards post-secondary education, and even tolerance for enlisted families and non-uniform life outside daily duties provides an important economic and social option for many young Americans, most of whom, naturally enough, never expect to see combat. For a couple of million people, the armed forces today offer one of the few equivalents of what a secure union job with plenty of benefits in a sound corporation was fifty years ago.

The greatest danger of the Vietnam War to America was that the nation showed genuine signs of beginning to crack apart, just as it actually had done a century before in the Civil War. Changes made in the nature of American interventions since that time reflect more an avoidance of this kind of internal divisiveness than a fundamentally different way of regarding the rest of the human race. They reflect also the unexpected collapse of Lucifer’s evil empire. We now have only the vicious scrambling of lesser demon-princes on which to focus our fury.

However, an increasingly technology-intensive armed forces comes to the rescue for hunting out these lesser varmints. Not only are our chosen enemies generally smaller and weaker, but our ability to reach out with fairly little risk to American lives is vastly improved.

While the Pentagon has not achieved the precision-capability that its spokesmen and supporters almost salivate describing, it has nevertheless come a very long way to delivering overwhelming destruction on selected targets with very little risk to its own pilots or troops, at least in the kinds of places it has been called upon to attack – that is, countries with small economies such as Iraq or Serbia and places still immured in the culture of earlier centuries, such as Afghanistan.

Over the long term, big investments in technology do pay off, as the last ten years of general American prosperity prove, and the military is no different in this regard.

But the ability to kill without being killed reflects a potentially destabilizing influence in world affairs. One of the few universally-true dictums ever uttered is Lord Acton on power.

Immense power in the hands of a people who neither know nor care about the world except as it reflects their own attitudes is inherently dangerous, but this is something Americans have already experienced in the post-war period. Even then, as in Vietnam, the results were often grim.

Given the ability to kill without being killed and with no other power great enough to offer counterbalancing influence, a new, bizarre version of Pax Americana is the prospect for decades ahead – at least until a united Europe, a developed China, and a reinvigorated Russia and Japan can offer effective alternate voices. (As for the influence of Puritanism within American society, only time plus lots of immigration seem likely to have effect).

And I believe this comes with its own built-in tendency towards instability, as people across the globe resent and resist the changes and adjustments expected by America, not only in the sphere of economics through developments in globalized free trade, but in the political and social spheres at an intensity rarely known before, except by unfortunate neighbors in the Caribbean Basin.

America’s inclination to ignore international institutions and to declare people or states as criminals whenever they seriously oppose its demands combined with its ability to punish with impunity unavoidably will increase resentments and bring relations to the boil over much of the world time and time again. New forms of terrorism, or what the dear old CIA has always euphemized as “dirty tricks” where it was doing the terrorizing to promote American interests, seem virtually certain. But wasn’t that what the war in Afghanistan was supposed to end?

Listen carefully to Mr. Bush’s words about a long, complicated war. I don’t think the words advisors have put into his mouth are just about Afghanistan or even about anything so specific as extending the action to Iraq. In effect, I think he’s talking about the kind of perpetual low-grade state of war that was part of Orwell’s vision for 1984. Only it’s not going to be Big Brother that prosecutes it, but the Puritan forces of America’s New Model Army.